Sunday afternoon, in the living room of the Keener household, following an excellent home-cooked meal. Blue Poorman and Dr. Sage Wiseman are the guests of honor. Able Dilettante, Moxie and Lucent Keener, Effete Sloughheart are all present, listening to Dr. Wiseman, whom they invited to deliver an impromptu lecture from her recent research. Rue and Bane are outside playing hard, thankfully distracted from the horror of Joy Brighterday being shot … for awhile, anyway. Dr. Wiseman, meanwhile, is explaining the centering of one’s life, world-life views (or perspectives), and the important implications of both.
“Every life is centered upon something, some one, some group or community, an ideology or so forth, et cetera, et cetera. The one who is theocentric centers her life around “God,” and her understanding of this divine being will make an unmistakable mark in every area of her life. The deist is hardly every truly theocentric precisely because he believes only in the Creator God who wound up the clock, so to speak, then sat back to watch it tick away without really having anything intimately, personally to do with creation, much less humanity. Why, then, should he center his life around this God? In fact, it would be virtually impossible; he actually knows very little – too little – to formulate anything of a cohesive, comprehensive world-life view.”
“No, the theocentric individual assumes a priori that she has knowledge, usually revelatory knowledge, of the God who is both transcendent and imminent, both mysterium tremendum and yet knowable. This being the case, then, she will center every aspect of her life upon the Deity and, more specifically, what she knows of the will of the Deity, that is, the overarching divine will for creation and specifically humanity. If there is something more directly personal, then of course, she will attend to that even more assiduously.” She took another sip of her tea and gently placed the cup back on the coaster to her side.
“The person who is egocentric is, naturally, the high priest in his own temple, so to speak. He is the god whom he worships, and his life is necessarily pragmatically patterned according to what best serves his needs and desires, with very little regard for others. This is the self-serving man, who can very well believe in God. It most certainly is not a given that the egocentric man is atheist, although he practically lives like one. No, there are none too few claimants to Christianity (and other religions) who are egocentric… They simply attempt to bend the will of God to suit their own purposes, and here we have, I believe, hints of very ancient and rudimentary magic and/or animism – that is, the belief that through some enacted means one can actually manipulate the numinous, the dæmonic, the prototype of God, really.”
“The alteracentric person is essentially the same as the egocentric person, except she centers her life around (most often) the egocentric person. After this, everything falls into place with her life being lived in and through and for this other individual in all of his self-aggrandizing ways. You often find this alteracentrism within cults, or near-cultic groups, such as Ebenezer Independent Fundamentalist Bible Church. Quite obviously, Fen Sloughheart is egocentric, but true as well is the sad fact that at least a solid core within the congregation is alteracentric; they center their lives upon and around his life.” To this statement Effete nodded quite vigorously, though she remained silent. Actually, she felt a bit out of her league, but she was enjoying the time anyway.
“Consequently, his ideology becomes their ideology. His theology becomes their theology. His ethic becomes their ethic. His valuations and priorities become theirs as well. They have an entire world-life view, whether they realize it or not; it just happens to flow out from this one man and his life, his world-life perspective. Now, of course, the egocentric man can be dangerous, to say the least, but I submit that the alteracentric group, or community, can be and in potentiality, if not probability as well, will be more dangerous.”
“I say this for two reasons: First, as the old adage goes, there is strength in numbers, and by this I simply mean sheer strength. Secondly, there is more fuel for the fire of devotion in larger numbers, too. An illustration of what I’m talking about would be two or three coals burning together as opposed to, say, three dozen. The two or three will emanate less heat while they do burn, and they will burn out sooner than the three dozen, which will certainly put off a great deal more heat for considerably longer. You see, the alteracentric, cultic-types are virtually an already ignited army just waiting for some battle to fight … and this is dangerous and very frightening.” Now both Able and Moxie nodded in agreement, with Able adding his own verbal affirmation.
“Now, of course, it might be charged that the Christocentric life is just another form of alteracentrism, but this is a gross misunderstanding of religion in general and the Christian faith specifically. Yes, of course, Christocentrism means centering one’s life upon and around Christ Jesus, yet this Christ is believed by followers to be fully divine and fully human, and yet much more. You see, the Christ is not only believed to be divine redeemer, but also truth incarnate and the way of genuine life, which all entails an holistic perspective of life and the world. In other words, Christ Jesus is in himself the icon of an entirely unique world-life view; thus, we make the very important distinction between being alteracentric and Christocentric.”
“Furthermore, being Christocentric has the potential societal advantage of being other-serving yet without being alteracentric, as the two greatest commandments taught by Jesus of Nazareth were: Love the Lord God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. One might well be consumed by God, but the God of the Christ is enlivening and liberating, and that stands at the heart of the Christian faith. When this is understood, truly appreciated, and consistently followed – with the necessary help of God, of course – then we are blessed with the likes of St. Polycarp, Sts. Angela and Gianna, the Venerable Bede, St. Francis of Assisi, Amy Carmichael, Martin Luther King and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. This is hardly ever, if ever, the outgrowth of cultic alteracentrism.”
“This leads to another observation of mine, to wit: Those who are truly Christocentric seem far more willing to sacrifice for both God and others … selflessly sacrifice. Those who are cultic-alteracentric are also willing to sacrifice, but they sacrifice very directionally for the sole benefit of the one whom they idolize and follow; hardly ever for the good of their neighbor, their kindred in the human family. This they do, as well, for their ultimate benefit – hopefully, they pray – for the approbation of their master-shepherd. And this points to yet another fundamental difference: The Shepherd the Christian purports to follow is the Great Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. He was the first to make the ultimate sacrifice for them; their sacrifice is, then, made in the vein of holy and loving reciprocation. The master-shepherd of the cult, like Fen Sloughheart, has hardly ever, if ever, made any sacrifice whatsoever for his flock.”
“This brings to mind a profound observation made by Thomas Merton,” Blue Poorman offered. “He rightly said, ‘The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.’ I believe this is really the ideological starting point of the whole of the Christian faith – that is, our primary dependence upon the divine, and our interdependence within the human family and too, within the whole of the created order. In the Christian paradigm, this is founded upon God, sustained by God, and redeemed by God, with whom we are invited to have an intimate, personal, everlasting communion, both as individuals as well as community … community that is in its very constitution intimate, personal communion with one another.”
“Well stated, Mr. Poorman,” Dr. Wiseman responded enthusiastically with a broad and beautiful smile. “Very well stated, indeed! Thank you.”
“You’re quite welcome,” Blue sounded somewhat embarrassed. “But may I ask you a question, Dr. Wiseman?”
“Certainly, I’m enjoying our off the cuff discussion, although I’ve dominated our time thus far. Anyway, it’s not often I have the privilege of sitting down in a relaxing home environment with so many sharp intellects to carry on a really good, substantive conversation just because we all enjoy it. This is rather refreshing!”
“Thank you; I’m sure everyone will agree that we’re all enjoying this, too.” And as if on queue everyone else responded with their “yeses” and “certainly are,” nodding their heads as well. “Anyway, if egocentricity is possible – and, of course, it has and does occur – within Christianity, and alteracentrism as well, then would it not also be possible for altruism to occur within the alteracentric cult, such as Ebenezer Bible Church. More to the point, perhaps, is it not possible that some number of alteracentric individuals are capable of being genuinely self-sacrificial, thoroughly believing they are not only helping and/or pleasing their master-shepherd, but also helping the community to which they belong? And so this question does not somehow seem rather pointless, I ask because it seems to me that if this is true, and I believe it is, then it makes it that much more difficult to convince and, shall I use the word, convert one to an altogether healthier perspective and way of life. After all, acts of altruism on behalf of one’s dearly loved community are very powerful.”
“Another very astute observation,” Sage happily replied. She could sense that the conversation was beginning to really stimulate everyone. “But like I said, I really have dominated too much of our time, so I’d like someone else to answer, if they would. Lucent?”
“Oh, absolutely, I agree with Blue. There is no doubt in my mind that people in cultic communities, like Ebenezer, can and do act in at least a pseudo-altruistic manner. In other words, they sincerely believe they are not only serving their master-shepherd, as we’ve being referring to Fen Sloughheart, but that they are also somehow serving the greater good of their community, and perhaps even the larger community around them. This sort of narrative has played out again and again throughout history. There have been Christians who firmly believed they were acting virtuously, righteously, for the glory of God and the good of Mother Church, all the while committing some of the most heinous acts imaginable. Likewise, there are individuals in legalistic, fundamentalist churches who are generally warm and compassionate, and do actually strive to live and altruistic life and, thus, act from out of that genuine intention.”
“The real difference is, I believe,” Lucent continued, “in the standard by which our actions are measured. For the egocentric man, his actions are measured by the standard of self-gratification and, maybe, glory. For the vaguely theocentric individual, her actions are likely measured against an indistinct standard of goodness emanating from her god, however conceived. For the alteracentric man, his actions will be measured against the standard established by the other, in this case the master-shepherd, Fen Sloughheart, who tangentially connects his standard with that of so-called ‘biblical Christianity.’”
“But now for the genuine Christian, the standard is like a three-fold chord comprised of holy tradition, the sacred scriptures, and consensual faith. These three intertwine and bind together to form an unbreakable chord of comparison, if I may put it as such. So … some one may thoroughly, genuinely believe he is acting altruistically and completely for the glory of God and the good of the Church, the universal Body of Christ; however, if he acts in violation of this three-stranded chord, then it really doesn’t matter what he sincerely believes. He is not acting in accordance with ‘that faith once and for all delivered unto the saints,’ to quote St. Jude.”
“So far as convincing and converting the alteracentric individual, who is so completely sunken into the cultic community that revolves around the master-shepherd, it certainly is daunting. And most assuredly one reason it is so difficult is, as Blue said, because the systematically indoctrinated, genuine believer-follower so deeply feels as if he is walking in the way of righteousness and holiness, and as a consequence, that his actions are pleasing to the master-shepherd and also beneficial to his much beloved community. And according to the standard of measurement in that alteracentric cult-church, he is quite right. To convince and convert him, one would have to effectively replace his standard of measurement.”
“And the only realistic appeal that can be made to these people,” Able jumped in, “is an appeal to the ‘three-strand chord’ of Christianity, as Lucent has termed it, and this is precisely the standard they fully believe they already possess. Point in fact, they believe they are the only ones who really do have and abide by this standard … so their whole effort in life, or a good bit of it, is attempting to convert folks to the pristine pure and simple truth of the Bible … by ‘accepting Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior,’ as they say, of course. But in reality, their chord is one strand, the Bible strand, uniquely crafted by one Fen Sloughheart, so that even the Bible strand is an anemic shadow of holy Scripture in all of its rich and wild and beautiful fullness.”
“Wow! Very good and…” Sage started to reply, but there was a knock at the door.