Friday, November 03, 2006

The best, and most painful, thing that could happen (updated)

Updates below.

Well, the biggest news on the political-religious front this weekend is the Ted Haggard story. There are aspects of both the familiar and the surreal to this. There is nothing new to finding out once again that the clergy most in the public eye are just as hypocritical and sinful as the rest of us. How thoroughly biblical. Of course the word that Haggard had made a carefully parsed confession came out almost simultaneously with news that his accuser had failed a very public polygraph test. We seem to be skipping tragedy and moving straight to farce.

I have little taste for the kind of politically connected megachurch that Haggard has developed, and there is little doubt that he and I would find little to agree about politically. It would be easy to (in John Scalzi's words) bake up and enjoy a big schadenfreude pie over this. But my reaction is this has to be the most painful time in Ted Haggard's life (not to speak of the devastating effect this must be having on his family) but it could be the best thing that could happen to him.

I love few books more than Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation. It is not an easy book to describe -- a series of meditations on "the ordinary fulfillment of the Christian life of grace" concentrating on the internal life of the person who genuinely seeks God in contemplation. Considering "Things in their Identity", Merton says that each created thing gives glory to God by being fully itself in its unique identity -- the more something is truly itself, the more it is like God and the more it gives Him glory. This is particularly true for us:

For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.

Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied.

With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them. If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it.
We are born wearing a mask, according to Merton, a false self that is the person that we want ourselves to be. This is the mask we want others to see, built up out of our own desires, which will become a mask that prevents us from seeing ourself as we really are. Breaking through this mask
is a labor that requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears. It demands close attention to reality at every moment, and great fidelity to God as He reveals Himself, obscurely, in the mystery of each new situation. We do not know clearly beforehand what the result of this work will be.
Jeff Sharlet at The Revealer has reposted his 2005 Harper's article on Haggard and New Life Church, with some comments on this story. What stands out to me this evening is the tale of how New Life was built up from a small group meeting in a basement with lawn chairs to an epitome of the "seeker driven" megachurch. This was a time of relentless promotion, with Ted Haggard leading the charge. This kind of consumer Christianity revolves around giving people what they think they need, to salve their fears, using the techniques of modern marketing and customer service: uberpastor as brand. With themselves as their own product, having a carefully crafted public image that must always be in good repair, the danger of confusing that image with one's true and imperfect self is tremendous.

Well, ready or not, Ted Haggard's public image is now in pieces around his feet like an expensive vase dropped onto concrete. He now has a completely free choice -- he can embrace his "false self", to retreat even further from reality and try to find some way to patch over the damage he has done to himself. Or he can, perhaps for the first time, seek that mystery of his own identity hidden in the love and mercy of God. Seizing that opportunity could the best thing that ever happened to him.

Update: A clarification.

Reading over what I wrote above, I managed to leave something important unclear. In saying that it is Ted Haggard's choice now to seek his own true self, as opposed to his public image, I am not primarily taling about his sexuality, or how he expresses it. Whether he should or should not "come out" as a gay or bisexual person may not be the issue -- merely adjusting one's public or private sexual self-description could be irrelevant here. Moving quickly from one stereotyped public image to another, be it tearfully penitent or sexually liberated, is simply a way of avoiding the issue. All you are doing is switching masks, with the hope that you are not visible during the process, especially to yourself. It isn't a matter of finding a better mask that is a better fit for what the world knows about you -- it is trying to get past using a mask at all.

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