On standardization

What follows is an old letter, written over 10 years ago. In many ways, as with much of my earlier writing, it is painful to read. There is too much euphuism, arrogance and perhaps combativeness (vices I’m not sure I’ll ever fully eradicate, especially when the former and latter are things I rather enjoy). I decided to leave it unedited, down to the embarrassing misuse of the phrase raison d’etat. I’m too old to be ashamed of my work now, and there is much good in this piece despite the posturing.

At the time I was a candidate for ordination in the Episcopal church. I was already ordained by an independent Congregational church, but that was not officially recognized by the diocese. The process began with not a little excitement and ended with a great deal of frustration. I found myself coming up against old adversaries: authority; a defensive, at times condescending, parochialism; caricature; and an unwillingness to listen. I have been keenly sensitive to these ever since childhood, whether in institutions or relationships. (In fact, I just ended a relationship in which I would often find myself coming up against these qualities. This is not to say I don’t have an even greater list of problems, I certainly do. Rather that these are ones to which I’m particularly adverse in others. There are times I can rise above my frustration and handle them well, and others in which I simply get frustrated and walk away, as is the case below.)

Once I got past the initial annoyance of my style, I found myself really appreciating the key ideas. They are ones that still move me today. While not properly an argument against standardization, it explores some of the main reasons I oppose it. There is always as much danger in a closed system as there is benefit, if not more. The attempt to standardize, reduce, simplify, constrain and close off the depths of reality will always make me sad for those who cling to it.

To the Bishop and Commission on Ministry in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts

A Request to Withdraw my Name from Consideration for Postulancy

Erik M. Panikian
14 May 2006

One of the first texts I read when I entered into full-time ministry was John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood. That was back in 1992, and since then I have returned to it countless times, amazed at the awesomeness with which he saw the responsibility of a pastor. In explaining why Jesus, after the resurrection, asked Peter three times if he loved him, he writes, “For He did not at that time wish to show how much Peter loved Him, but how much He Himself loved His own Church, and He desired to teach Peter and all of us that we also should bestow much zeal upon the same.” In fact, it was John’s great love for the church that led him to trick his friend Basil into being ordained while he slipped away, for he felt himself unworthy of so great a responsibility. In On the Priesthood he explains and defends his decision, hoping to at least help his best friend understand his motives, if not win him over. In the same spirit, though for quite different reasons, I wish to submit my prayerful reflections regarding my decision to voluntarily withdraw my name from consideration for postulancy in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts.

What follows is a raison d’etat for this decision. Harold Bloom writes that to quarrel on behalf of aesthetic value is always a blunder, and I imagine the same holds true for the call to ministry. My hope, instead, is that committing my thoughts into writing will be helpful for both myself and the Commission.  The major drawback is that what follows is perhaps too involved and lengthy.  The gain in clarity may become a loss in terms of the demand put upon the reader’s patience and time.  But in a world of sloganeering, sound bytes and arguments that generate more heat than light, I ask for the reader’s indulgence in the hope of a more fruitful outcome.

I—Of Standardized Tests and Speculative Psychology

I must begin by admitting I found myself surprised by the weight given to the psychological evaluations.  No sooner had the forms been filled out than I was unsuspectingly caught up in an attempt to explain and give context to their answers—specifically, to the interpretations given to these answers. However, it became clear that the more I tried to correct what was, to me, an inaccurate and unhelpful reading of myself, the more entrenched my interlocutors became in their conclusions. As a result, I have no interest in revisiting the specific questions and answers any further. To do so would be to validate precisely what I take objection to: the nature of the instruments and their profoundly and irredeemably subjective interpretations.  To enter into a conversation of “they mean this, they mean that” is to accept them as legitimate tools and topics for discussion.  It is, to me, no different than sitting down over a Rorschach test and trying to interpret my responses to a series of ink blots, then drawing unsupportable (thus by definition irrefutable) conclusions about who I am from them.  That is always the fascinating thing about such psychologizing—since the analysis of the expert cannot be defended by anything apart from the theory on which it’s based (be that Freud, Jung, Maslow, Erikson or their coterie) neither can it be disputed.  (Yet in science a hypothesis that cannot be verified cannot be disproved either, making it without use.)  The very pronouncement itself secures its infallibility.  To disagree with it (as I tried to do with painstaking clarity and precision during the sessions) is simply to prove that one, in fact, not only suffers from the disorder in question, but is in denial about it, making his case all the worse!  The all-too-confident doctor of the psyche categorizes, classifies and explains a person, reducing him or her to an entry in the DSM-IV, and no fact is allowed to stand in his or her way.  The subject ceases to be a person and becomes a problem to be solved, a personality to be corrected, an aberration to be pressed back into its proper mould.  

In one of his last letters Bonhoeffer wrote of what he calls “the secularized offshoots of Christian theology, the existentialist philosophers and the psychotherapists who demonstrate to secure, contented, happy mankind that it is really unhappy and desperate, and merely unwilling to realize that it is in severe straits it knows nothing at all about, from which only they can rescue it.  Wherever there is health, strength, security, simplicity, they spy luscious fruit to gnaw at or to lay their pernicious eggs in.  They make it their object first of all to drive men to inward despair, and then it is all theirs.”  Much of the reason why I chose not to go on and do graduate work in psychology (to the dismay of my professors, as it was a field I excelled in as an undergraduate) was because so much of it was like listening to an astrologer try to convince you he is an astronomer.  Would that a modern day Kant would arise among the psychologists to call them to account the way he did to speculative philosophy: “The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space.  It was thus that Plato left the world of the sense, as setting too narrow limits to the understanding, and ventured out beyond it on the wings of the ideas, in the empty space of the pure understanding.  He did not observe that with all this efforts he made no advance—meeting no resistance that might, as it were, serve as a support upon which he could take a stand, to which he could apply his powers, and so set his understanding in motion.  It is, indeed, the common fate of human reason to complete its speculative structures as speedily as may be, and only afterwards to enquire whether the foundations are reliable.”  The sad thing about so much of the practice of psychology is that, once one is on the couch, he or she is not allowed to question it at this most critical point—its foundations.  When the therapist asked me if I had any questions about the process and I (gently, with deference to her position and with all politeness) raised this concern I was told, “That’s not up for discussion.  The instruments and theories are accurate and not debatable.”  It’s ironic how easily psychology, a child of the Enlightenment, can so blithely reject the very principle of free reason without which it would have never come into being.

But one does not even need to strike at the base to see the silliness in question.  The instruments themselves are replete with ridiculous questions like, “On a scale of 1 to 5, would you rather drive a truck or tend a garden.”  Even in my most sympathetic moods I cannot think of a way to make this sound serious.  And yet such irrelevant questions are more the norm than not (and if anyone doubts this all he has to do is read through the MMPI, Meyers-Briggs, or a host of similar batteries).  From such dubious queries the analyst paints a picture of the respondent’s personality, and determines what lines of work would be best for him or her.  Bar graphs and pie charts (would that I were making this up) are produced, with standard deviations laid out in all their splendor.  From scantron sheets, Likert scales and #2 pencils comes a portrait, a distillation of one’s true nature, an objective representation and unearthing of one’s true desires and secret drives.  What one actually thinks, feels, hopes, perceives, what those who know the person best over the course of many years, what those who work alongside this person observe, what people who are ministered to by this person know to be true—all this is set aside in one fluid motion.  It is counted as nothing before the all-knowing eye of Psychology.  The instruments cannot lie, and her prophets are without guile.  

Amy Tan, in her essay “Mother Tongue”, reflecting on the narrowness of such artificial constructions, writes, “Math is precise; there is only one correct answer.  Whereas, for me at least, the answers on English tests were always a judgment call, a matter of opinion and personal experience.  Those tests were constructed around items like fill-in-the-blank sentence completion, such as ’Even though Tom was______, Mary thought he was________.’  And the correct answer always seemed to be the most bland combinations of thoughts, for example, ‘Even though Tom was shy, Mary thought he was charming,’ with the grammatical structure ‘even though’ limiting the correct answer to some sort of semantic opposites, so you wouldn’t get answers like, ’Even though Tom was foolish, Mary though he was ridiculous.’  Well, according to my mother, there were very few limitations as to what Tom could have been and what Mary might have thought of him.  So I never did well on tests like that.”  Her insights are, to me, brilliant.  The problem with such questions is their inherent bias, the way in which by their very phrasing and structure they limit the kinds of answers one can give, dictating the shape and color of all possible responses.  In so doing they skew and distort the results beyond repair, forcing the subject into a predetermined range.  They feign freedom (“Here’s a scale! Digits from 1 to 5! Such great variety, you’re free to choose the number that best describes how you feel!”) until a troublemaker comes along and starts poking things with a stick (“Why only 5 increments?  What do these numbers mean?  Can feelings be quantified using primary integers?  What about the infinite numbers that lie in between, before and after the scale?  Why is there no zero?  Why can’t I choose more than one number, or a range, an unreal number, a recursive series, or none at all?  What if I feel the best answer is both/and, or neither/nor, or a color, or a sound?”)  But such questions are not allowed, and in the meantime, like Tan, I am destined to never do well on tests like that.  Instead I find myself closer to Sylvia Plath’s character Esther Greenwood when she challenges Buddy’s analysis of her: 
“Remember how you asked me where I like to live best, the country or the city?”
“And you said…”
“And I said I wanted to live in the country and in the city both?”
Buddy nodded.
“And you,” I continued with a sudden force, “laughed and said I had the perfect setup of a true neurotic and that that question came from some questionnaire you’d had in psychology class that week?…Well, what’s so neurotic about that?”
“Nothing,” Buddy said in a pale, still voice.
“Neurotic, ha!…If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell.  I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”

II—Of Self-improvement and Sanctification

Does all this mean I wish evil upon psychologists or think them useless?  Emphatically, no.  For some people they may be just what the doctor ordered.  What I take exception to is the logic that takes what may be good for some people and mandates it for others.  More to the issue, am I against self-improvement?  Not at all!  We all have strengths and weaknesses, and it is worthwhile to understand and make attempts at improving the latter.  The question is not whether I make an honest assessment of myself, for I agree with Paul: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” (Rom. 12:3)  Rather it is how this is done.  For me, personal and spiritual growth happens in the daily life of the community of faith and family.  God speaks through scripture, prayer, experience, and the advice of colleagues and companions.  “Iron sharpens iron and one person sharpens the wits of another.” (Prov. 27:17) In looking back we are able to see the wonderful ways God has brought us further along than where we were before, and simultaneously we see how very far we have yet to go.  The greatest saints were all too aware of how far short they fell in countless ways, which is one of the things that made them so great.  I do not agree with those who hold exclusively to the early medieval model of a spiritual adept who has risen above his peers and now trains others in the mysteries he has attained.  This is precisely what a guru is in Hinduism, and is certainly one model in Christianity, but not the exclusive one.  My spiritual path lies closer to Luther and Calvin, who rejected this model in favor of a more egalitarian and communal one, since the medieval model is necessarily elitist, restricted to those of a monastic bent.  However, I do not demean or despise the monastic model.  In fact, I admire it and thank God for those to whom it ministers.  I only wish those who embrace it could return the good will and appreciate those of us to whom God ministers in other ways.  Instead, what usually happens is a kind of spiritual self-aggrandizement, a looking down at those who are not part of that tradition.  A picture (or worse, a self-portrait) is painted of what a pastor should look like, as if God works only or best through people of such-and-such a constitution, temperament and personality.  Then someone like me comes along who (as seen through these lenses) is an enigma.  Clearly God works powerfully through this person, but he does not look like us.  We must fix him, so he can really be a minister in the proper sense, for God calls people who fall into these categories of the Meyers-Briggs.  I am convinced that with such thinking the church would have never seen the likes of some of its greatest pastors, for they would have never made the psychoanalytic cut.  I am passionate about growing spiritually, have been as long as I have been a Christian, and would like to think I have come a long way over the last 16 years.  I simply object to those who would assume that I do not simply because I am not they.  This occurs with equal frequency among both conservatives and liberals, for we are ever trying to remake everyone around us in our own image. Nietzsche, albeit in typically caustic fashion, though no less true for its sharpness, sees this as a kind of madness: “Let us finally consider how naïve it is altogether to say: ‘Man ought to be such and such!’ Reality shows us an enchanting wealth of types, the abundance of a lavish play and change of forms—and some wretched loafer of a moralist comments: ‘No! Man ought to be different.’ He even knows what man should be like…he paints himself on the wall and comments, ‘Ecce homo!’ [behold the man!]” Thus do we turn the doctrine of the imago dei into the imago hominis, and sanctification into idolatry. In seeking to cultivate Christ in the other we all too often, however inadvertently, end up seeking to cultivate ourselves in them.

III—Of Complementary Versus Contradictory Qualities

Both the Bishop and Fr. Len have wisely asked what God may be trying to tell me through all this, and with careful reflection and prayer I have come to an answer.  He is telling me to hold fast to my calling, to take my ordination as seriously as ever, to keep faithful in the ministry, to continue to pour myself wholeheartedly to those who have been entrusted to my care, to proclaim the Word, care for the weak and oppose the proud and foolish.  I take Paul’s words to Timothy to heart: “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.  Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress.  Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.”  This I have done and continue to do, with the personality God has called to do these things.  I am gentle with the weak, firm with the arrogant, thoughtful with those who are reflective, simple with those who are not, accepting of those who do not fit in, reserving judgment where others would be quick to condemn, firm in my convictions but open to change, inviting of other opinions and debate, willing to admit when I am wrong, eager to be surrounded by those with gifts different from and greater than mine, angry with those who take advantage of and abuse others, peaceful and at rest when enjoying the blessings of life like my family, music, friends and books.  

A case in point—while earlier I mentioned that I would not engage in a discussion of specifics, I will momentarily go back on that in the interest of an example. It would seem that, according to the measures in question, I am more assertive, independent, and allegedly angry than the typical candidate. With the first two I have no qualm, but to the third I take exception. To it I would reply, a) anger is not necessarily bad, it is an appropriate emotion in the face of injustice in its many forms in a fallen world; b) it is relative—it will seem greater to one who is dovelike (whether superficially or sincerely) than to one who is belligerent.  I think it is safe to say I am neither, which would put me in the happy middle; c) it is nuanced—there are very few things I get truly angry about, the rest has only a symbolic or linguistic similarity at best.  To fault someone for using expressions like “steamrollered” or “crushed” in describing a defeat (as was done to me during my evaluations) is as silly as assuming that a man who uses the words “charming,” “marvelous,” or “that little tartlet!” is gay; d) to experience and express it is neither pathological or inappropriate to those in ministry.  Where Paul threatened to bring a whip Jesus actually did, and Paul went so far as to wish those of the circumcision group would go all the way and finish the job!   Naturally, having done nothing of the sort myself, the worst I have done is gotten into debates with people over the years who make it their business to bully others in the church.  As a leader who is responsible for the ones being beaten about the head and shoulders by these people I have no problem standing in the gap between them and their victims.  Granted, there is an art to this and I have learned many things the hard way over the years, but the general principle remains.  What is sad to me in all this, however, is how it would appear that some people (in this case the analysts) latch onto this one phenomenon, as if it is indicative of something deeper and more insidious, instead of seeing it at face value, and as a healthy quality at that.  In ministry I have never raised my voice in a debate, lost my temper, or said anything I regret.  (In fact, I rarely do that in any context.)  I am neither a docile Francis of Assisi nor a flame-throwing John Knox, but somewhere in between, and if God could use both of them for the work of his kingdom it is incomprehensible how anyone could say he cannot use a person like me as is.  (In fact, I would readily defer to 15 years of a track record that says otherwise.)  But the soldiers of standardization do not agree, and so pen a report that recommends, in effect, that the candidate must first change who he is, then he may proceed to see if he can be so used by God.  It is striking to me that so little emphasis is put on my theology, views on scripture, philosophy of ministry or experience.  It is curious to think that had I simply lied on the exams and given the answers I knew they were looking for—“tend a garden,” “enjoy long walks on the beach,” “hold hands while praying”—I could conceivably be further along in the process.  Instead I find myself having to stop for a) being me, b) being honest about being me and c) having a third party misconstrue what it means to be me.

When Paul’s status as a minister of the gospel was disputed by those in Corinth he made an ingenious move: he simply pointed to those to whom he had ministered as proof enough of his calling. “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.” (2 Cor. 3:1–4) When I look at the lives of the people I have been blessed to touch over the years, both youth and adults, I share Paul’s confidence. And this not in a provisional, “well God did the best he could through you and despite you, but you could be much better if you would only change,” but with a sense of wonder that God uses any of us at all.

IV—Of Discernment

What does all this mean, and where will it lead? Perhaps it is the case that, like Paul being prevented by the Spirit from going to Asia, I am being prevented from serving as a priest in this diocese. In the meantime, however, I am honored and thrilled to serve as a layman working with the youth, both at Nativity and in the wider area. Amanda, the children and I love being in this diocese, and are so blessed to be part of the family at Nativity. I have the privilege of working with two great servants of God in Fr. Len and Fr. Mike, and a wonderful staff of both adult and senior high leaders. I am most impressed with the leadership of Bishop Gordon, given the incredible weight he bears for the welfare of the churches under his care. He is exactly what I would imagine a bishop to be, and everyone I know in the diocese feels profoundly grateful to God to have him as our servus servorum dei. For the first time in years I find that I am in a place where I can both serve and worship, a blessing not to be taken for granted.

I will continue to serve with all my heart and energy, and will continually support the leadership of both my church and diocese. With this apologia my hope is that the reader will gain insight into my thoughts and actions. I am not expecting to convince or convert anyone to my views, only to show that what I do is neither impulsive nor resentful. In a matter of this magnitude I want to be sure to act not from petulance, but principle. May we be “filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that we may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as we bear fruit in every good work and as we grow in the knowledge of God.” (Colossians 1:9–10)

Respectfully,

Erik M. Panikian
Church of the Nativity

2 thoughts on “On standardization

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