Chapter 5: Parish Setting

Congregation: Stories and Structures
by James F. Hopewell

Chapter 5: Parish Setting

The building that was constructed by the church community that I helped to start is small but walled with windows that permit those inside to gaze out in all directions. Because the structure sits on the top of a hill, we could arrange our worship furniture to face virtually any point on a distant horizon.

Now imagine the horizon of Northrop Frye’s great circle of Western literature. Orient the genres of literature according to the cardinal points of a compass. To the east, with its promise of dawn after a dark night, envision works of comedy. Comedy, like the eastern horizon, manifests the regular return of light and renewal. Move around the circle through romantic comedies and comic romances until reaching the south and its pure romantic interpretations. In the bright sun and sharp shadows of a southern exposure, romance pits innocent good against obvious evil in high noon adventure. Then arrange the tragic romances and romantic tragedies on the arc between south and west. The pure tragedies meet the setting western sun. There in the inevitable decline of light occur interpretations that follow life to its certain obliteration. Put the ironies in the northern night and cold. What gives life in the ironic north is not cosmic certainty but a sense of common unheroic humanity.

Surrounding the congregational house is what Frye portrays as a total quest myth that circles from romantic adventure through tragic despair and ironic darkness into a comic dawn, there to begin the whole round again. Any single work of literature is a recognizable bit of the gigantic circle of human interpretation. No human being sees the whole. Each instead is oriented, by a story, toward some direction within the total horizon.

Congregations adopt a similar orientation. Were any of them to be situated in our windowed church building surrounded by the total horizon of the Western world’s literary interpretation, they would arrange themselves to face a particular point on the circle. Different congregations would face different ways.

I first became aware of the structure of the narratives that express world view several years before the discovery of my cancer, when I began during my sabbatical year to study congregations systematically. Part of my activity in the two churches I studied was to interview as many members as possible to determine what themes each group employed to organize the world. Almost immediately I found I had to discard several firmly held assumptions about the nature of parish world view. This chapter may help other students of the congregation to avoid my mistakes and to dig deeper into a field whose intricacy extends well beyond even the lines of inquiry and interpretation I finally adopted.

After only a few conversations it was evident that a catechetical approach -- one in which I would ask what an informant understood about some credal tenet such as the Trinity or salvation -- did not plumb the richness of that member’s perception of life. It was not that Christian beliefs were superficial aspects of the person’s world view. The problem rather lay in the way my questions were posed. When I would ask respondents to describe some theological topic in their working picture of reality, I translated their ongoing portrayal of life into abstract categories. Not only was abstraction a different operation from the narrative manner by which they usually interpreted their existence, it was also a game that I, their theologically trained interviewer, was by reputation better equipped to play than they. They usually answered questions about the nature of God and redemption in an embarrassed, defensive, or ingratiating way. When I decided to study congregations, I had imagined an idealized field scene in which native informants would satiate the anthropologist with information about the local religion. That never happened in my interviews. In a local church, members participate in religion more readily than they explain it.

I had to find an approach other than the catechetical one to encourage conversation about beliefs. What worked best, it developed, were sessions in which members recalled a crisis in their own lives and went on to tell what they suspected was happening "behind" the event. When members would talk about a death or a trying family circumstance, for example, they would often augment the account with other stories that, like the ones in my hospital room, interpreted the crisis by introducing other metaphors.

Most of the remainder of this chapter categorizes these interpretations, and the next chapter details the guided interviews and other methods I used to examine the setting of parish story. But before moving into these matters, I must confess the other mistaken assumption I had made about the nature of world view.

I did not adequately anticipate the complexity of the views that church members hold. I had once thought that I could employ a bipolar scale in characterizing belief, one that assumed that the views of persons might be located at some position between orthodoxy (or conservatism) and modernism (or liberalism). But those simple two-pole distinctions were not much help in my analysis of interviews of members. I needed four basic categories to differentiate the range of beliefs expressed in the interviews. Although one type, which I call canonic, did express a kind of conservative standpoint, and although another, which I call empiric, conveyed the outlook of many liberals, those two categories did not exhaust the interpretive options that members employed in their stories. I also found orientations that I came to call the gnostic and the charismatic categories. The four categories can be differentiated in the following manner:

Canonic Reliance upon an authoritative interpretation of a world pattern, often considered God’s revealed word or will, by which one identifies one’s essential life. The integrity of the pattern requires that followers reject any gnosis of union with the pattern but instead subordinate their selfhood to it. Characteris-tics of the canonic orientation are similar to those of Frye’s tragic genre.

Gnostic Reliance upon an intuited process of a world that develops from dissipation toward unity. The ultimate integrity of the world requires the deepening consciousness of those involved in its systemic outworking and their rejection of alienating canonic structures. Characteristics of the gnostic orientation are similar to those of Frye’s comic genre.

Charismatic Reliance upon evidence of a transcendent spirit personally encountered. The integrity of providence in the world requires that empirical presumptions of an ordered world be disregarded and supernatural irregularities instead be witnessed. Characteristics of the charismatic orientation are similar to those of Frye’s romantic genre.1

Empiric Reliance upon data objectively verifiable through one’s own five senses. The integrity of one’s own person requires realism about the way things demonstrably work and the rejection of the supernatural. Characteristics of the empiric orientation are similar to those of Frye’s ironic genre.

Further themes and concepts that characterize each category are listed in the table on pages 70-71. Before we delve into these, it is important to ponder how the orientations were employed in actual discourse.

I found from the beginning that, though one of the categories might best describe an informant’s interpretation, that person was actually engaged in a more complex negotiation that used two or three of the types in different ways. The stories I heard were constructed in the manner that structural analysts of literature propose. Students of narrative semiotics, those who investigate the internal logic of a passage of literature, often use a "semiotic square" to describe a story’s relation to a series of four opposing propositions. They find that a text gains its meaning by rejecting one of the propositions, accepting its opposite and implicating a third assertion. I have not engaged in such studies and my four categories are not the deep structures that semioticians find in literature, but common assumptions about narrative structure probably prompt both their observations and mine.2 In any case, a square of opposition gives dimension to the kinds of negotiation that people undertake among the four world view categories (see Figure B).

When persons are encouraged to address critical situations, they respond in narratives that tell of a complex negotiation among several categories of world view. The setting of their own story often gains its force of argument from an opposite position that is rejected, and is supplemented by reference to attributes of still a third standpoint. The negotiation once again shows how dependent personal belief is upon the larger imaginative process of humanity. One’s singular position expresses and requires the total struggle of humanity for meaning. It simply does not stand alone or outside, in judgment of the whole. One finds in any person’s world view, as does Frye in a single poem, the full range of human imagination. Using the actual words of church members recorded during my sabbatical year and after, the four categories as negotiations for world view are illustrated below.

The Gnostic Negotiation

A newspaper editor explains his ambivalent feeling about his church:

I was raised a very strict Methodist; never even thought to rebel against its ways. Only when I was in college did I learn to think, and I started to ask questions. . . . It used to bother me that I was thinking for myself, and I then totally rejected organized religion.... Today I just don’t feel that I have to go to church. I suppose I take part as much as I do because of [my wife].

Having opposed his strict canonic upbringing, the editor’s story moves toward gnostic unity:

Anyway, in looking for something for me, I became friends with [another editor] who was a major force in the Methodist church but also a strong believer in reincarnation.... Two or three other friends would end up going to her house in the evenings. So I am not a gung-ho Methodist; I have my own beliefs which [my pastor] understands. My religion makes me at peace with myself. Its strength is that it answers all my questions; it gives the reasons and answers for being here. By understanding karma I understand the laws of cause and effect.

He recounts his consciousness of a world in which stress is resolved:

Late at night -- I am a night person -- I get into . . . my mind, blocking out everything else, doing deep thinking. No vision, only a mind voice. And life makes sense. Everybody has that power. There is a lot about it we don’t know, but on three or four occasions I almost reached the force itself.... We are going toward perfection, to join God. Actual union with God is the ultimate goal. It is to be perfect.

At another point in our interview the editor drew secondary support from a more charismatic argument about spiritual entities different from the gnostic flow toward unity.

After I really got into meditation, I made contact with my "contact" who showed me what my past two lives were. The contact gives me signs from God.

Such a secondary alliance with a neighboring category exists in many accounts of world view struggle. Attention shall be drawn to it in the statements that follow, though my primary purpose is to describe the four types in themselves.

Reality in the gnostic negotiation is ultimately dependable. Narratives that relate a gnostic outlook usually begin with a depiction of estrangement but end with the integration of all that was once alienated. The critical point in the story is, of course, the reception of gnosis, the inner knowing, which confers an awareness of the way things really are. In the end the cosmos not only proves true to the reality revealed in consciousness but finally itself becomes that consciousness.

The gnostic journey begins in bafflement and first looks for ultimate meaning in the wrong places. This, said one person, is the source of fear: "At the time my dad was ready to die, he was almost totally paralyzed, but he had this terror-stricken expression. He knew that he was about to die, but I couldn’t figure out why he was afraid. I was already into reincarnation at that time and said to myself, ‘Why should he be afraid?"’ In this instance the gnosis that freed the respondent from the terror of death was his knowledge that the body, whether personal or cosmic, has an inner nature that cycles its way through time and death toward the blissful pleroma of all that is.

For many, the gnosis is nothing as exotic as reincarnation; it may be, rather, a sense of abiding power. Listen to a city church member committed to supporting the rights of the poor:

God made a very logical, ordered world, and I don’t believe it to be as hostile as some think. We are just beginning to see beyond the hurt, into the power and strength of the nonphysical, into our minds. This is what God intended, that we fulfill the potential of our minds.

She states her opposition to the canonic and charismatic sides:

I have problems with born-again Christians. The things they feel to be interventions, the product of prayer, are, in fact, the work of the mind. God is there; he is active, but I am not sure doing what -- certainly not changing rules. God may be the original creator but the undefined, imperishable power may also be God: the stuff that flows between human beings.... Yes, if you would press it, God is the world.... Whatever is God in us continues. When our bodies die, then the unknown creative forces within us go on being.... I don’t understand the worry about what’s going to happen to us.

She speaks of how such a comforting idea impels her to work among the urban poor:

We’re making the world a more equal place. Our equality with God requires this. Our community best happens when we live in conjunction with each other.

Many quite different scenarios support the movement toward cosmic unity. Over 20 percent of Americans, half of them churchgoers, today practice the gnosis of astrology as a method of self-realization. 3 And smaller numbers seek, or are influenced by, experiences of clairvoyance, telepathy, precognition, and other extrasensory perceptions that provide clues to their views of the personal as well as the cosmic mind.4

A more pervasive form of gnosis today is the "possibility thinking" of Robert Schuller. Possibility thinking and its predecessor, positive thinking, set the world aright and promise a complete, harmonious life. Schuller’s television program is a tireless reiteration of the comic story of life that begins in frustration and discord but through enlightenment ends in beautiful harmony. The Crystal Cathedral, with its fountains and flowers, catches -- as other major religious television programs holding different world views do not -- the awareness that the world and its inhabitants are good and that in such recognition the world moves toward wholesome fulfillment.

As it moves from illusion through gnosis, the story line of the gnostic negotiation ends in a final order and solution to life.

I am not going to jump in and say "No" if asked whether or not I am actually God. I have a feeling of God’s presence in us. It’s more a feeling of a power than of a person.... There are so many joys of life that I cannot believe that life is basically a chaos. I experience all the problems of the city and I can understand grim lives, but the world is essentially a good place. God is the comfort to people, all that is beautiful. Although I find it hard to come to terms with there being a heaven or hell, I know the spirit doesn’t die. I could almost buy the Hindu idea that we become part of the One.

The passages cited in this section are also characterized by their positive, optimistic tone, a tone less familiar to readers who frequent congregations with certain other orientations. Both gnostic and charismatic narrative can be distinguished from the other categories by what scientists call spontaneity. Its opposite is entropy. (Some scientists now find evidence for both forces in the universe.5) Gnostic and charismatic approaches assume the spontaneous inner energy of the known world, whether in the cosmos itself (the gnostic view), or by active spirit, as the charismatic view has it. At my bedside, the comic and romantic tales were stories of the cure to be found in the spontaneity of faithful life.

Most church members and physicists, however, think the world is moving toward entropy, its static equilibrium. Denying an inner energy in life, the tragic and ironic stories told about my cancer spoke instead of decline into the dissolution of death. Only a minority in mainline churches sustain a sense of the world’s spontaneity required to continue gnostic or charismatic negotiations of the world. But still the arguments of those categories are present, since the other positions, more common at least in the main line, are formed in relation and opposition to them.

The Charismatic Negotiation

A teacher:

You really have to believe, to have faith. There really is a higher being to whom we can go when there is nowhere else to turn. He spearheads things; he turns things around in my life.

That estimation of Spirit spontaneously active in the world is based upon personal experience.

I have had a vision of Christ. It was like a ray of light in my living room, and it came at a point of great desperation. I had been told that I had a malignancy, and that life would be short, no more than five years. For many hours I talked to God, in the darkness of my room, and then a great big light came to me. I heard a voice that said, "Life will be different." And as fast as the problem came it went, like a great big miracle dream. Three weeks later no trace of the cancer could be found. The vision of Christ was just like a glow, and it came right into the corner of my living room.

Heroically the self in the charismatic negotiation works out a romantic, not a comic, story. The setting for the charismatic narrative is a more frightening and thrilling place than the gnostic world. The calm serenity of gnostic process disappears. The world instead gives paradoxical signals: souls are eternally damned in it, yet God does not fail those who trust in him. In a charismatic world, the source of integrity is not an evolving cosmos but the constancy of God. The world in which the charismatic lives is fundamentally equivocal and dangerous, challenging the believer to seek its blessings amid the peril of evil forces and events. God’s steady providence, however, accompanies the self who launches out toward God in an exciting, romantic adventure. Though like the gnostics their goal is a happy ending, charismatics distinguish their sense of empowerment by God’s Spirit from a gnostic trance in which the self gains mystic union with God. Charismatics maintain a persistent dualism of spirit and body.6 God surely enters and transforms the body, but does not merge with it.

What differentiates the charismatic and canonic approaches to the world from gnostic and empiric negotiations is their sense of transcendence. Both God and the human soul are ultimately distinct from the world. In contrast, the gnostic and empiric understandings find God and self ultimately embedded in the experienced world, finally indistinguishable from its nature. Figure C shows this two-way division, and the division between entropy and spontaneity, explored above, that crosscuts it.

The charismatic story begins with discomfort about conventionality. Routine, domestic life is judged inadequate, and the self yearns for a more immediate, direct experience of God’s power. "I wanted Jesus to be my Lord and not just my Savior," recounted one charismatic, noting characteristically that the redemption that all Christians can claim was only a first step in the "walk" of the faithful.

Salvation is wonderful, but there was just something missing. I wanted very earnestly to do God’s will. I wanted to glorify him. I realized that there was a deeper depth where I could get into the Lord. I hungered and thirsted for this.

Oral Roberts, whose television programs typify the romantic world view, paraphrases Eliza Doolittle to express the disdain with which the charismatic approach views conventional Christianity:

Words, words, words, we’re sick of words. We’ve heard your theologies. We’ve listened to your sermons. Will you please now give us a demonstration. We want to see. Show us.7

Leaving behind daily routine, the self ventures into an uncertain world. As romantic hero, the self enters what Frye calls "the stage of the perilous journey."8 There it tarries, like the disciples in Jerusalem, awaiting the Spirit’s power. Audaciously the self lifts both its sense of personal importance and also its expectation of God’s invading grace. Evil is encountered, even demons themselves:

With the removal of the Bible and prayer from our schools and homes, the Devil has gained much strength in our land. Many people are being oppressed and possessed by demon forces all over the USA. I believe there is a definite connection between demons and the spreading of such drugs as LSD, speed, amphetamines, etc. There is also a connection [among] the crime wave , violence, homosexuality, long hair on males and demon activity. . . . The main reason for the present day move of the Holy Spirit is to restore the body of Christ to the supernatural power of its early days so as to raise up a standard against the flood of the enemy. 9

For many, the evil occurs in an affliction of the personal or family body. Dissatisfied with, or distrustful of, conventional therapy, the charismatic seeks evidence of Pentecostal power.

God rewards the search; the romantic adventure ends in the triumph of God’s love. The hero becomes the home of God’s Spirit. Evil is vanquished (7 percent of all Americans report that they have healed by faith10 ) but, even more important, the floodgates of God’s blessing are thrown open wide to those who venture beyond religious convention. In a second baptism the indwelling Spirit brings gifts, fruits, and miracles. The person directly experiences what one recipient called "the liquid love" of God poured through her, profoundly altering her sense of life and the sacred.

Glossolalia also mark the charismatic sense of a divinity that indwells yet nevertheless distinguishes itself by the act of language. Oral Roberts tells the story of tongues:

The Holy Spirit is down here inside, and down inside is the desire of our hearts which is often bottled up . . . which is often formless and seemingly void. There it is inside. We are bottled up with our emotions, our frustrations, the goals that we desire that seem to be impossible. We have this deep earnest desire to communicate with God and we try it with our minds, with our understanding, and sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But when we go down deep into the inner man, the Holy Spirit and our spirit join together, creating a new language ability, a new power of communication with God, and we speak directly with God.11

The romantic story culminates in the exaltation of the hero.12 In the charismatic world view, the self is similarly honored, not by comic ekstasis but by the romantic enthousiasmos of indwelling spirit.13 An airline pilot’s wife tells her story:

I really knew all about Jesus for years but really didn’t know him. Carried him around in my pocket, and go from crisis to crisis and only then pull him out. But I began to realize that he didn’t want to be in my pocket but wanted to be lord of my life. He really is concerned about what I was going to cook and how I was cleaning the bathroom. God was concerned with everything in my life, and he was trying to tell me this, and finally I began to listen.... Then I was filled with his spirit. The spirit was down in there all these years but was not then to control me. It was given me at age twelve, but I did not let it become active in my life. . . . As we activate and use the Holy Spirit in our lives . . . we gain power and love and joy and peace.... There is more out there and we want more.

As must now be evident, the charismatic orientation may be cloaked in the style of those groups which call themselves charismatic or Pentecostal, but it is important to note that the charismatic negotiation is primarily a structure and as such may give form to the world views of persons and groups that do not adopt any of the features or practices of what is conventionally called charismatic religion. Indeed, the charismatic outlook need not be dramatic at all. Here is a more cautious story but one that nevertheless hews to the romantic line of a charismatic world view:

As dyed-in-the-wool Episcopalians, only a few years ago both of us would have found writing about Christ’s effect on our lives a bit ridiculous.... Life was full, but it was also remarkably empty.... The Lord saw fit to put a local evangelical department store manager squarely into our lives. In his office the manager asked Lew, "Have you ever asked Christ into your heart and life?" . . . Life has not been the same since. No thunder clapped. No lightning flashed.... But little by little, day by day, imperceptibly, without conscious effort on our part, our lives began to change, not always better in the short run, but definitely different and unquestionably better in the long run.... We truly met Christ for the first time at Cursillo. We met him in the chapel, in the music, in the people, in the unutterable that poured out of every door.... Once you’ve seen Christ, you’ll never be the same again. Oh, you’ll still be fat . . . gray . . . short. You’ll still swear (but you’ll hear it), you’ll still sin (but you’ll suffer), but now you’ll seek and search and struggle and strive for more glimpses of Him. Your spiritual world will become a vacuum sucking up anything and everything that looks as though it might be your salvation. 14

The Canonic Negotiation

A businesswoman:

When my husband died on Christmas Day in an automobile accident, leaving me with two small children, I just knew that I could get through with God. All of a sudden the world just crashed around me: everything inside was gone, but we knew we could get through. There was God’s plan. I had a feeling that things were going to be all right. I knew real suffering but not despair. I had no vision or speaking from God. Just a plan that I knew was there.

Like tragedy, the canonic negotiation asserts the inevitable decline of the self. The charismatic story portrays an escape from the conventionality of life; the canonic story claims instead the certainty of life’s pattern. Born in sin, one is capable of no career but failure, no other end but death. Only by realizing the certainty of one’s fault and by submitting to the total sovereignty of the God who controls life does one resolve the decline. And even that resolution is postponed until after death, in the next world.

In this negotiation, the controlling canon provides integrity, functioning here as dependably as does God’s providence in the charismatic negotiation and the harmonious cosmos for gnostics. For canonic Protestants the inviolable canon is God’s word, the Holy Scripture. The Bible in their canonic eyes is completely reliable and authoritative. Roman Catholics who are canonic may find a similar integrity in the church’s traditional teaching authority. In the charismatic outlook, God’s pattern is tested by the spirit within oneself,15 but for the canonic, the canon is the final decree. "Whether the context is Greek, Christian or undefined," says Northrop Frye, "tragedy seems to lead up to an epiphany of law, of that which is and must be."16 The canonic Christian beholds a world fated for catastrophe, fulfilling the pattern laid down in Holy Scriptures and ancient teachings.

Although the canonic narrative develops along a tragic course, its beginning may give no forecast of catastrophic outcome. The self initially glorifies itself, thinking erroneously that it is autonomous, perhaps divine. Its hubris, or arrogance, seduces the self to claim its own freedom and goodness. The error of that claim is, however, quickly exposed in both great tragedies like Macbeth and canonic musings like that of a Southern Baptist:

What I have noticed in different pastors and preachers is that some preach a sermon and read Scripture and it doesn’t sound like the gospel. What I need and what I like is to have Scripture really read and have it interpreted from the pulpit. That is, that such-and-such is sin, and the Bible says so. I don’t hear that often from the pulpit these days. I need somebody to convict me, not just say, "Janet, you’re free and a good girl...." I have an unfulfilled feeling. I could be a better person if someone would present to me the right way and teach me how to live.

One is not free and good. One is lost and sinful, and one’s story develops the costly consequences of one’s depraved nature. If the self remains disobedient, refusing to recognize the sovereignty of God, then life continues to deteriorate and ends in hell. If, however, one repents and accepts the lordship of Christ, one takes on a different yoke, of suffering love and obedience.

As Jerry Falwell maintains in his tragic television productions (which stand in opposition to the comic presentations of Robert Schuller), society slips toward its destruction. The moral fiber of the nation is decaying; families, schools, cities, and entertainment are close to disaster. Only by a massive mission can this nation be saved. Churches must become obedient, "Bible-centered, Bible-believing, Bible-teaching churches."

"The Christian is characterized," says a local pastor, "by humility and willingness to serve in whatever capacity or place Christ has given him." Narrative movement in the canonic world view thus directly contradicts the gnostic, its polar opposite. The canonic story traces a self that declines tragically from a state misunderstood as apotheosis to total subordination, while the gnostic story elevates the self from a state misunderstood as bondage to union with God.

Accepting the cross and its mortification is, in the canonic view, a joyful and often exciting event, supremely important to life and happiness after life ends. That joy is based, however, in the knowledge that the self is submissive to God’s will and is following God’s plan. "Until people," reports a pastor,

begin to discover God’s plan for their lives and how much he has to offer them, they will miss most of the lasting joy and sense of fulfillment that God desires to give them, not to mention the power and grace to meet the unexpected and tragic of life.

Ultimate happiness is deferred to an afterlife "on the other side" of present existence. "Home" has a different connotation for canonics than for charismatics. In the charismatic world view, the Holy Spirit makes its home within the present body. In canonic understanding, the "blessed home" is "beyond this land of woe, where trials never come, nor tears of sorrow flow." The pattern for life in the present land is that of Christ, who was willing to take the cross and, in the words of the famous evangelistic hymn, willing to suffer all of life’s misery:

Willing to go to Calvary,

Laying his glory aside,

Willing to hang there on the tree;

Willing to bear the agony,

Willing to die for you and me,

Jesus the crucified.17

In canonic pattern, Christ lays aside his prior glory and accepts the tragedy of life. A canonic follower of Christ in a nursing home makes sense of her own story by that model:

Yes, I don’t mind being here. You know, the Bible tells us we’re going to have suffering and pain. So I don’t bother about worrying what’s happening to me. I think it’s a blessing just to be around. I believe that my affliction was given to me so that doctors can learn more about this rare disease.... I never married. Devoted my life to my family. But I’m not sorry. When I die I’ll go to heaven to be with the Lord and my family.

Sin and its consequences rule the person, making it imperative to achieve personal faith in Jesus Christ as savior from that sin and also a commitment to Christ as Lord. The canonic story in its personal mode begins in hubris and its deadly effects. To avoid the hell of one’s own sin one surrenders to Christ, dying to self, to be born again, as today 48 percent of all American Protestants report they have been.18 The rebirth that comes from conversion, however, is not an antinomian release from duty but an entry into a new life controlled by the canon. "So much of our life has been out of control," reflects an older Baptist:

Our oldest son was brain damaged. He is still with us, and we have to live our life a day at a time.... He is thirty-five and we never know whether he’ll have a high or a low. A very pathetic thing. He is not retarded. He realizes his limits but he has never accepted them. I relate to Job through the experience of my son. I also like to take Proverbs, beginning on the first day of the month, and move through its thirty-one chapters simultaneously with the month’s days. Some point in that chapter will strike me right between the eyes.... You’ve got to get involved in the Bible. Find your place in God’s word.

The Empiric Negotiation

A social worker:

I don’t know what I believe, and I am resentful of people who claim they understand what’s going on. There is certainly a life force of incredible variety and color and function, all interrelated, but I can’t say it’s going anywhere. What I can’t get are those people who feel the actual presence of God. My father felt this, and I did not dare doubt it when I was young. Now I understand that a lot of faithful people like myself doubt. But I never felt God’s presence. I actually feel he is unfair. I get mad at God a lot; I can’t understand the misery here at the housing project. They deserve better. I have to share what I have with them. If I’ve got it, I’ve got to share it. It’s a sin not to. Religion is made by man to help man.

Although empirical observations of the world can be reduced to scientific propositions, their form in community discourse is narrational. A story as emotionally compelling as the romances and tragedies of other world views can be told in the ironic vein of the empiric view. The story may begin with some example of numinosity and then show counterevidence of its absurdity. An affirmation of ordinary human worth provides the conclusion. The setting of the empiric story shows an often anomalous world in which signs of the sacred are belied by their link to folly and injustice. It is by repudiating situations in which spirit power is said to dwell miraculously that true human stature emerges. In contradicting sacred explanations, one finds within human community itself the true mystery of life.

Truth emerges in empirical observation, not in revelation. The world is perceived through the senses, and by means of the senses the world’s regularity is demonstrated. The charismatic world view romantically draws one away from the conventionality of life into the contention of the sacred and the profane. The empiric sense of reality moves ironically in the opposite direction, away from assertions about divine presences and powers and toward the scientific understanding of the world’s regularity. The integrity that other negotiations discover in cosmic wholeness, or in God’s providence, or in canonic Scripture, is suspect in an empiric understanding. Here alleged processes and evidences of spirit are investigated and subjected to rational scrutiny. Mystic wisdom and miracles must be tested. Holy Scripture cannot be accepted as revealed truth but must be analyzed as historical data. For the empiric, the locus of integrity is within human society itself. Only in rational observation of reality, observation that others through their own senses can replicate, can reliable indication of the nature of the world be found. And only as human society frees itself from a thralldom to concepts, leaders, and structures that draw on supernatural assumptions can that integrity manifest itself in honesty, justice, and equality.

No television preacher of national renown orients his or her program from a strictly empiric viewpoint. Coming closest to that outlook is probably someone like Walter Cronkite, who, with good heart and human fellowship, displayed the world’s anomalies -- starving children, wars, and crimes -- and then concluded his show with ironic summary: "That’s the way it is."

In local churches the empiric negotiation appears in a mitigated manner that Wade Clark Roof characterizes as "cosmopolitan religion."19 Thoroughgoing empirics tend to avoid organized religion altogether, but many whose outlook is dominated by this orientation are in fact faithful church members. As Roof points out, their religion affirms: (a) the centrality of ethical principles in their meaning systems; (b) a parsimony of beliefs, few attributions of numinosity; (c) breadth of perspective; (d) piety defined as a personal search for meaning; and (e) license to doubt.

An empiric story rejects examples of supposedly superior piety and proposes instead a reasonable loyalty to God and fellow human beings.

No, God does not speak to me. I discussed this with [my husband] recently. His niece and nephew were here a week ago, about twenty-two years old, but they behaved like silly teenagers. They spent two days praying to the Lord about buying a car. Now when Bob and I sit down and give some thought to something -- maybe that’s how God speaks to us. He must be guiding us, but I don’t know. But God doesn’t worry about what you put on every morning.

Contradicting a charismatic understanding of spontaneous divinity within the person, the empiric self opposes those who behave as if they were "holier than thou" and is anxious to deny any special sanctity conveyed in his or her person. "The main lesson," reports a woman troubled about religious hypocrisy,

is learning how to be honest with myself, that I didn’t think I was something that I wasn’t. I am disappointed when I don’t get that honesty back from another person. I am not fooled. I try not to bear false witness, even though you can really take swipes at people. One person I know is very active in church, but she has a razor-sharp tongue. She delights in taking swipes at people for no reason.

An empiric person finds, having purged the self of spiritual presumption, how much one has in common with other persons, none now superior or subordinate, and all deserving love.

I think we got to keep up with people. We got to know about the world and what’s going on. We have to help people live in this world. Can’t just talk about what Jesus did a long time ago. We have to know the facts about here and now and apply the teachings of Jesus to these.

Empirically oriented literature, says Frye, "takes for granted a world which is full of anomalies, injustices, follies and crimes, and yet is permanent and undisplaceable. Its principle is that everyone who wishes to keep his balance must learn first of all to keep his eyes open and his mouth shut."20

Congregational World View

A differentiation among the world views of various congregations such as I have laid out here is not widely employed. Most observers of the parish would readily acknowledge a bipolar categorization of congregations that distinguishes liberal parishes from conservative ones, and some differentiate parishes according to three interpretations (such as literal, antiliteral, and symbolic)21 of Christian doctrine. But few advocate a more complex typology, and thus my quadripolar analysis of parish world view is unusual.

In fact, the capacity of a contemporary congregation to sustain any unified, sharply defined world view has been more frequently questioned than confirmed in recent studies of church life. To many observers, the outlooks and expectations of mainline congregations evince a bland uniformity indistinguishable from that of their surrounding society. In their investigation of churches in a Midwestern county, for example, W. Widick Schroeder and Victor Obenhaus describe as a major finding the absence in each of "informing cognitive structures."22 Jeffrey Hadden has held that "Christians join together in a common experience of faith when in reality there is no shared consensus regarding the nature of that faith."23 "It can be safely said," states Thomas Luckmann, "that within Protestantism doctrinal differences are virtually irrelevant for members of the major denominations."24 And the suburban church proved for Gibson Winter to be a middle-class enclave possessing little capacity for coherent belief distinct from that of the society that holds it captive.25

Investigators who cite the amorphous nature of parish beliefs base their findings on responses that parishioners give to lists of credal statements (e.g., "Jesus is the Son of God," with scaled responses ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree"). They find that members of a parish, especially one with liberal leanings, show little uniformity in their replies. One member may prize an orthodox interpretation of faith; the next may hold a looser interpretation. My own investigation does not center on responses to credal assertions, because I find that members build their world views from many more materials than Christian doctrine. As I reported earlier, I found it almost useless to ask direct, "Do you believe in . . . ?" questions in the manner of Gallup. People are too ready to assent to anything that sounds worthy and to deny anything that might possibly be perceived as silly or disloyal. And the symbols employed in such questions themselves dampen thought. Symbols have great stopping power for the nontheologian. In effect they "say it all," do not encourage reflection, and instead command mute allegiance.

I therefore framed my questions around what Peter Berger calls the "marginal situations of human existence [which] reveal the innate precariousness of all social worlds."26 My intention was to encourage respondents to ponder various crises so that I might understand their interpretation of them. The consideration of death, the uncanny, life crises, and nonsense should evoke a concept of world order, a world view that accounts for them.

What I found in Corinth (the name I have given elsewhere to the town whose two principal churches -- Baptist and Methodist -- I spent my sabbatical year studying) is that most of the stories I heard in a particular congregation were similar in genre. Their settings, in other words, were the same. In the Methodist church, most of the stories were empiric, though many were also shaded by a strong canonic tinge. Least often heard were tales that countered the predominant empiric view, that is, charismatic ones. By contrast, in the Baptist church a canonic view predominated, leaning somewhat toward the empiric. Again, any echoes of the gnostic view -- the structural opposite of the canonic position -- were difficult to identify in members’ accounts of crises.

In the next chapter, further ramifications of and conclusions about congregational world view will emerge. For the moment, I want simply to report that my research in Corinth and studies since strongly suggest that even mainline congregations -- the type most observers have had most difficulty distinguishing from one another -- do maintain distinctive world views. In Corinth the manner in which one congregation framed its understanding of reality differed consistently from the outlook of the other. Such differences were denied by the participants in these parishes who, if they countenanced distinctions at all, would confine them to matters of practice (worship patterns, frequency of Scripture reading, baptism) and not faith. The majority of members of each church, nevertheless, gave different meanings to similar events and crises, and each group treated evidence of evil or the numinous or nonsense in a distinctive manner. From this I conclude that world views reflect and give a focus to group experience, providing a map within which words and actions make sense. The setting of a congregation is the order by which its gossip, sermons, strategies, and fights -- the household idiom -- gain their reasonableness. What is expressed in daily intercourse about the nature of the world is idiomatic, responsive to a particular pattern of language, expressing a particular setting for narrative. Tales in a local church tend to travel in packs: one good story evokes another, one member’s account of an illness, for example, is usually reciprocated in kind. In comradeship and commiseration members top each other’s stories, building up the world setting that they together inhabit.


1. ED. NOTE: See pp. 78-79, where the author explains, as he did in oral presentations of this material, that his use of the term "charismatic" refers to a general orientation to the Spirit, not to the specific religious groups called "charismatics." He also frequently noted that "gnostic," as he used the term, referred to a general orientation, not to specific historical groups or their teachings.

2. Similar to the traditional square of opposition used in formal logic, the semiotic square is used in Algirdas J. Greimas, Du sens: Essais sémiotiques (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1970), 136-50, and by the Entrevernes Group, Signs and Parables: Semiotics and Gospel Texts (Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1978). The square points two semantic axes of contradictories, permitting operations among four elementary units of signification distinguished as contraries. An inference of opposition marks the relation between semes on either pole of one axis, with implication for the other two poles in the square. Analysts of semiotics would not designate, as I do, the axes by four specific poles. Brian Wicker, The Story shaped World: Fiction and Metaphysics: Some Variations on a Theme (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1975), designates the axes but not the poles; so do Lévi-Strauss and Roman Jakobson in the analysis of discourse. In all instances, however, utterance gains its significance from the tension marked by the axes; and the pattern of rejection of one pole in a unit of signification accompanied by an assertion of relation between two others, used by the semioticians, is similar to the narrative expression of setting found in a local church.

3. Gallup Opinion Index, Religion in America: Report No. 145 (Princeton: American Institute of Public Opinion, 1978).

4. Morton Kelsey, The Christian and the Supernatural (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976).

5. Ilya Prigogine, From Being to Becoming: Time and Complexity in the Physical Sciences (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman & Co., 1980).

6. Ronald A. Knox, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961), 581. Knox distinguishes the gnostic and charismatic approaches as two distinct types of enthusiasm. A similar distinction obtains in Quincy Howe, Reincarnation for the Christian (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), 58.

7. Oral Roberts, The Holy Spirit Now (Tulsa: Oral Roberts Associates, 1976), 44.

,8. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 187.

9. Ken Sumrall, What’s Your Question? (Monroeville, Pa.: Whitaker Books, 1969), 33.

10. Gallup Opinion Index, Religion in America: Report No. 145, 52.

11. Roberts, The Holy Spirit Now, 63.

12. Frye, Anatomy, 187.

13. The charismatic experience is a "sensation of surrender to an immersion in a larger reality: an experience perceived as self-fulfillment and enhancement of individuality rather than the loss of it" (Luther P. Gerlach and Virginia H. Hine, People, Power, Change: Movements of Social Transformation [Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1970], 124).

14. Dee Feuerstein and Lew Feuerstein, "No Thunder, But Life Changed After Accepting Christ," The Episcopalian 147 (1982): 13.

15. Richard Quebedeaux, The New Charismatics: The Origins, Development, and Significance of Neo-Pentecostalism (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1975), 111.

16. Frye, Anatomy, 207.

17. Floyd W. Hawkins, "From His Celestial Abode Jesus Came," in Triumphant Service Songs (Chicago: Rodeheaver Co., 1934), no. 16.

18. Gallup Opinion Index, Religion in America: Report No. 145, 43.

19. Wade Clark Roof, Community and Commitment, 182ff.

20. Frye, Anatomy, 226.

21. Sociological analyses of beliefs occasionally use a tripolar model of world view. The LAM scale (Liberal, Antiliberal, and Mythological) is demonstrated in Richard A. Hunt, "Mythological-Symbolic Religious Commitment: The LAM Scales,"Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 11 (1972): 42 52. Andrew M. Greeley, "Comment on Hunt’s’Mythological-Symbolic Religious Commitment: The LAM Scales,"’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 11 (1972): 287-92, proposes a fourth nonliteral but transcendent category for the scales but argues only for its legitimacy as an autonomous position, not, as I do, for its role in completing a quadripolar approach to world view.

22. W. Widick Schroeder and Victor Obenhaus, Religion in American Culture: Unity and Diversity in a Midwestern County (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), 94.

23. Jeffrey K. Hadden, The Gathering Storm in the Churches: The Widening Gap Between Clergy and Laymen (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday 8: Co., 1969), 34.

24. Thomas Luckmann, The Invisible Religion (New York: Macmillan Co., 1967), 34.

25. Gibson Winter, The Suburban Captivity of the Churches, 82- 104.

26. Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy, 24.