This past spring The Contemplative Society website (http://www.contemplative.org/) posted 12 summary statements about the future of church I gleaned from a Lenten Series I attended, accompanied by a response from Cynthia Bourgeault. With Cynthia’s encouragement, I am reposting the original paragraph, followed by her response, and my response to Cynthia. We hope this may generate some conversation. Cynthia will check in and respond to comments if she feels inspired.

8. In order for us to cooperate with the work of God’s Spirit, we must loosen our grip. If the church wants to move forward in the current environment, we can allow no place for stultifying rigid hierarchy or oppressive control. Clergy must learn to let go. We need to relax our structures, allow for fluidity, flexibility, openness, and diversity.

Cynthia: “Loosen our grip” sounds right—this is, in fact, the heart of Jesus’ revolutionary kenotic teaching.

But are you talking here about style or content? When you recommend that “Clergy must learn to let go,” are you talking about a way of hanging onto structures and dogma, or the structures and dogma themselves? Does “fluidity, openness, and diversity” mean in your book to relax the Nicene creed as the benchmark of Christian belief, to say it’s okay to believe that Jesus was just a wise teacher, not a unique manifestation of the very being of God, to say that the resurrection never really happened, to allow each parish to ordain their own spiritual leadership and develop their own liturgies?

Where do you draw the line in “letting go?” “Stultifying, rigid hierarchy” and “oppressive control” is really a straw man tactic, end-running the question of whether there is a need for hierarchy and control at all, and if so, who makes the call.

There is actually a core perceptual issue underlying this conundrum, a conundrum that cannot be spotted theologically but only phenomenologically ( from what Ken Wilber would call “right quadrant” or objective perspectives). And that is this: the greatest spiritual teachers in all traditions—Jesus included among them—have told us that we need to loosen our grip on “identification” as the means of establishing our identities. “Identification” means to attach your mind to an idea, an ethnicity, a religion, a story of yourself, any kind of descriptor, as a way of establishing and defending your identity. It is a tendency built right into the hardwiring of the mind itself, and most of us simply can’t conceive of how we’d have either “identity” or “motivation” without it.

But this was exactly Jesus’ complaint about the Pharisees: not that they were “rigid, stultifying, or controlling” ( after all, they were the political liberals of their time!), but that they thought they “owned” the story: they knew who they were, they knew what was right and wrong, they knew how the story was supposed to turn out. They were, in Jesus’ way of looking at things, “rich.”

As the church now hovers at the cusp of two ages, we are caught in an anguishing and virtually invisible double-bind. Identification is our spiritual and practical modus vivendi. We call ourselves “people of the Story,” “people of the Book.” We think it’s perfectly normal to establish our faith by a set of identifiers—i.e., propositional statements—such as the Nicene Creed—which establish our ownership of the story and our field of expectations. Closer to home, identification with our denomination, or our local parish church, is a main strategy for membership building, generating enthusiasm, and stewardship (it’s virtually the whole program of evangelism). What we don’t want to see is that the fundamental reason we can’t “loosen our grip” is that we have used tightening our grip as our primary strategy of Christian “identity formation,” and we fear that letting go of identification means plunging ourselves into chaos, apathy, and “anything goes.” How can we simultaneously let go and hang on?

What we also can’t see—at our usual level of consciousness— is that this is simply the hall of mirrors of the mind.

The great mystics and masters have pointed consistently to another way of doing business, another way of orienting our consciousness and receiving our identity: not from eternal principles or the fixed recitation of a story or a set of beliefs (even cherished and “good” ones), but from the dynamic and flowing stream of compassionate Presence itself. A few quotes here: from Jesus (Luke 12:32): “Do not be afraid, little flock; it is my Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom”; from William Blake: “He who binds unto himself a joy doth the winged life destroy”; from the contemporary spiritual psychologist Gerald May: “As attachment [identification] ceases to be your motivation, your actions become reflections of compassion absolute.” God does not go away when we loosen our grip on identification as the means of establishing our identity and motivation; rather, these things fall “like dew from above” into the willing heart.

But to receive identity without identification is a higher spiritual/energetic capacity than can be sustained by the mind alone. It requires mind and heart, working together, to undergird a whole new level of spiritual perceptivity. Again, this is at the core of the Jesus teaching. To get there is possible—in fact, it’s the point of his whole teaching. But it requires spiritual practice, not dogma.

In short, my fear is that we will keep right on straw-manning and plea bargaining, looking at “things” it’s okay to “loosen our grip on,” or confusing inclusive and laid back style with a real change in game plan, until we spot the real problem of identification itself and begin to stabilize within ourselves and our church “the mind of Christ” which is capable of letting go of even our most cherished sacred cows—not because the cows are bad, but because the clinging to them is bad; it “doth the winged life destroy.”

Christopher: “Where do you draw the line in ‘letting go’”? “Who makes the call?” These are great questions, easily asked, not so easily answered.

Where is the line between the unhealthy attachment of identification and the legitimate preserving of a “benchmark of Christian belief”?

For my father the remarriage of divorced persons and the ordination of women to the priesthood fell into the “benchmark of Christian belief” category. For him these were non-negotiables. In his mind they were integrally related to the “content” of his faith. Those who were agitating for change he viewed as committed to a “style” that was willing to sell out the Gospel in the interests of cultural conformity. For my father “putting on the mind of Christ,” demanded that he hold fast to the truth once and for all received and passed down through the sacred traditions of the church. This was no straw-man; it was integral to his vision of the Gospel.

Today, the battle lines are forming around the inclusion of the unbaptized at the Lord’s Table.

Those who would exclude the unbaptized from the Eucharist view the invitation to Communion as integrally related to initiation into the fellowship of faith through baptism. To offer Eucharist without baptism is to contradict the content of both sacraments and render them invalid. They would reject any suggestion that their conviction is rooted in their identification with any “cherished sacred cows.”

People who desire to offer an open, unconditional welcome for all people to participate fully at the Lord’s Table, view this invitation as a fundamental expression of the content of the Gospel. For them it is not merely a question of “style,” but of embodying “the mind of Christ,” in an authentic way in our age.

So, you tell me. Who has failed to spot “the real problem of identification itself “? And who has begun to stabilize within themselves and their community “the mind of Christ”?