On Empathy and Exclusivity
I couldn’t help but be curious when I saw the title of Vancouver Sun spirituality and ethics columnist Douglas Todd’s latest article come through my reader this afternoon: “Embattled Clergy Could Use Christmas Empathy.” Not being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I read on to discover why I might be the appropriate destination for someone’s Christmas empathy.
The article begins thus:
Take a few moments this December to feel some empathy for the clergy of British Columbia as they work their way through Hanukkah, Christmas and the Muslim new year of Muharram. Clergy have a particularly tough job in the rugged Pacific Northwest, where the spiritual supermarket is remarkably open and loyalty to religious institutions is among the weakest in North America.
Todd goes on:
In this challenging context, B.C. clergy often have to be extremely gifted or charismatic to build even a small amount of loyalty to their spiritual “brand.”
The Pacific Northwest, which includes Washington and Oregon, is famous throughout the continent for often leaving clergy defeated and broken.
Sounds pretty ominous.
So what might account for the Pacific Northwest being a graveyard for institutional religion and those who seek to keep it alive? Why might those of us who toil here be worthy of your empathy? Well at least part of the answer likely has to with the fact that we’re selling (or at least perceived to be selling) what many consider to be an outdated and unfashionable product: exclusivity. According to Todd, “it is becoming increasingly hard for clergy to ask adherents to be ‘exclusive’ about their religion.”
We are asking “enlightened,” postmodern, twenty-first century Pacific Northwesterners to believe that there is a truth that stands over the bewildering array of options that dot the spiritual landscape. We are asking them to consider that all roads might not lead to the same destination; that “whatever floats your boat” might not be the proper approach to take when it comes to weighing our options on matters of ultimate importance. These are not exactly popular ideas.
It’s not all bad news, though. Ours is not the first region or the first historical period to be faced with the challenge of syncretism. Or individualism. Or confusion. And spiritual hunger certainly still abounds, even in the Pacific Northwest. I see this firsthand. Indeed, Todd notes that ours are “religiously fertile times, offering up many creative possibilities.” “The challenge,” according to Todd, “is for clergy to survive them.”
Survival is good, but it seems to me a fairly modest goal. Far better to stand tall, and stake one’s claim—to confidently and respectfully articulate the truth and hope of the gospel. If history tells us anything it is that many of the views that seem fashionable or plausible at this or that cultural moment have a habit of passing. The Christian message has outlasted many challenges, after all. If it is what we claim it to be—the true story of the world (including the Pacific Northwest) and our place in it—it will outlast this one as well.