The Geology of Relationship

This past Sunday’s homily took me back to second year at Western – and my ensuing love affair with (to understate it) that most esoteric of topics, plate tectonics. Then, as now, students were in need of ancillary classes (aka ‘bird courses’) to flesh out their schedule and to complete requirements for graduation. The task, of course, was to find a class or two that required little (read, ‘no’) work, little (read, ‘as little as possible’) attendance, and certainly no additional reading – essentially padding one’s transcript and leaving room for ‘applying’ oneself to the more important issues (whatever they might be!). Little did I know that Geophysics 21 would provide me with perhaps the most interesting eight months of academics I would encounter in my rather protracted career in same – and the most enduring metaphor for relationship I have yet to unearth (as it were).

To expand slightly on Lorne’s imagery, the globe’s surface is not the static, predictable shell that we would hope. It’s a dynamic, shifting, decidedly mobile, and unpredictable collection of ‘plates’ rather more like a suit of armour than an immobile crust encasing our planet. These float over (and under) each other – and occasionally getting ‘stuck’ on each other, to the extent that they grind and grate, one against the other (starting to sound like relationship), eventually freeing themselves – often with catastrophic results – to carry on their journey. In the geophysical world, it’s called an earthquake; in the realm of relationship, it’s called a fight or a riot or . . . a war.

Nicola and I were fortunate enough to take in a performance of Palmer Park last weekend at the Studio Theatre. Our fourth play in eight nights, it had to be good to keep our attention. (Fortunately we’d seen Cabaret when we were better rested because, well . . . it didn’t!) As some of you may know, Park explores the failed efforts of four, racially mixed couples to cultivate ‘sustainable integration’ in a well-to-do, inner city neighbourhood in late 1960’s Detroit, immediately following the race riots in that city. As compelling as the acting and writing of this piece may have been, its lens was a little too close to the action, singling out race as the ‘active ingredient’. Rather like blaming San Franciscans for being the cause of their earthquakes.

The production frames itself as a ‘requiem’, lamenting the short-term failure of such attempts – and making its shop-worn pleas to deal with prejudice. In fact, what the play illustrates most clearly (evidently without intending it) is the result of juxtaposing two very powerful forces, in extremely close proximity, and moving in opposite directions: be these forces of race, or class (as was more centrally the case in this production), or religion. Again what is most eloquently (and I fear, accidentally) portrayed is the precariousness of living on a ‘fault line’; and the arrogance that we may, by force of will or good intention, ‘overcome’ these natural elements.

Back to those pesky plates! As with our global geology, an essential problem in a relationship that has begun to feel adversarial and/or oppositional is not that we are standing toe to toe, locked in an impasse – although it certainly feels that way when we are in strong disagreement with someone or -ones. But rather that our natural movement, our right to ‘flow’ in the direction we have chosen has been not so much blocked but ‘lodged’, stuck on someone else’s bias or belief system or need set. To the principles it all feels the same: stuck or nose to nose, what’s the difference?

As it turns out, a lot. As long as the confrontation is framed as a standoff or gridlock, nothing changes. The only ‘solution’ is what is commonly referred to as a win-lose – one having to give way, to capitulate so the other can have his, her, or their way. Lovely prescription for resentment. And that old saw, compromise, doesn’t really leave a much better taste. Turns out people are, in every sense of the words, creatures of habit; the only thing that feels OK is to be allowed to continue with their personal flow and anything short of same is, well, a compromise. The tendency in these situations then is to foster ‘black and white’, ‘all or none’, ‘my way or the highway’ solutions. In the case of one’s affiliation with a church that translates too often into an ‘in or out’ decision.

A central theme of Lorne’s homily was that of cultivating our relationship with God – and the impediments (‘mountains’) that may subvert or block this connection from growing or perhaps even forming at all. Framed slightly differently, I expect many of us (if I may presume) are ‘stuck’ on some aspects of formal expressions of faith, commitment; even relevance and credibility. Flipping through the BCP in a ‘reflective’ (read, distracted) moment, I stumbled on the XXXIX Articles of Religion nestled quietly between the Original Prefaces and the Creed of St. Athanasius (not a household name as far as I know); page 698, if interested. I began to scan these frankly rigid, arcane, and polarized ‘declarations of belief’ and realized, with something of a start, that I don’t really believe (nor can I even remotely come close to accepting) many, if any of these ‘position statements’.

So what’s a body to do? Increasingly, I fear, the answer, simplistic, maybe impulsive, always without nuance or consideration, is to leave the building. Sounds a lot like moving out of the neighbourhood when that first black (or white or yellow) family moves in. Perhaps it’s time to take a lesson from something a wee bit older than organized religion: again, those persistent plates – here since the dawn of time (literally) and somehow continuing to coexist, reshaping the topography of our earth, relentless, patient, enduring. Reframing the concern – accept and recite, or be gone – as one of restoring ‘freedom of movement’ within a congregation then becomes a task of addressing the particular belief structures of (despite the fact that we’re all Anglicans) a quite heterogeneous population of parishioners; accommodating the diversity that spans the gamut from conservative literalist to metaphoric liberal. A tall order to be sure. But one that invites the restoration of ‘flow’ – in whatever direction that may take the individual, within the greater context of a church, a world.

David Howard

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