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[Chalice] The Bear in the Closet [Chalice]

Presented February 11, 2007, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

To begin this talk I want you to think back to that time when you were a child yourself or when you were raising your own young children. For some of you this might be quite a while ago and for others it might have happened quite recently. The child upstairs in the bedroom is sleeping or trying to fall asleep. Perhaps the child has had a nightmare, or perhaps as the child lay there in bed trying to fall asleep he has heard strange, inexplicable noises. The child begins to be filled with anxiety and fear. There must be something ferocious making those noises. The child cries out in fear and the parent comes upstairs to find out what is the matter and the child explains that there is a bear in the closet. The parent says "there's no bear in the closet," but the scared child remains unconvinced and still scared. So the parent bravely opens the closet door and sticks her head in and then shows the child that there's nothing to fear, you see because as you can see there is no bear in the closet.

I hope recounting this incident that may or may not have ever happened to you brings back pleasant memories or at least a pleasant sensation. It is an experience that brings pleasure and reassurance in many different ways. It's so comforting to be the child and to have your fears taken away and to be reassured, to feel especially protected and safe. And surely it must be a great feeling to be the parent and to bring a feeling of safety and security to your beloved little ones, to know that you have been able to reassure them and enable them to peacefully fall back to sleep.

I think this whole bear in the closet business is a great experience, a great experience for kids and a great experience for parents. I hate to say it, but I want to bring out its negative side by talking about how it relates to both religion and to politics. Last semester in Romania I taught a course on Religion and Politics in America, and I think this experience of being afraid and wanting to be comforted has a lot to do with religion and politics in American today.

Of all the great critics and opponents of religion, it was Freud who talked most about religion and the concept of God serving to calm our fears and anxieties and allow us to fall back to sleep. According to Freud, humans give themselves a God in the image of a kindly Father who takes care of us and protects us. The universe around us seems like a very random and a very scary and dangerous place, but religion and the Father God comes along to tell us we will be all right and there is really nothing to be afraid of, that there is no bear in the closet. Human, says Freud, created this fatherly God in their childishness, when they didn't understand things like floods and earthquakes scientifically. Humans needed a fatherly, protecting God to appear to tell us that we will be ok. Out of our childish need to be comforted and protected, says Freud, God appears.

You'd have to be a great critic, maybe even a hater of religion to agree with Freud that all religion and the very concept of God arises out of human's need to feel safe and secure. I certainly would not want to insult every religious person's and every religious tradition's view of God by saying that they all derive from that childish need to have a parent God come along and say to us that there is nothing to fear, that there is no bear in the closet. I have too much respect for too many religious people and too many religious intellectuals and religious traditions to say something like that. I would never have located my own intellectual life as a religious scholar within the context of a Franciscan college if I agreed with Freud so completely.

Still, one of the really troubling things to me about religion and it has always been troubling to me is that in many cases Freud has a real point. There are people who do have this view of God, God as a loving, caring, protecting Father who takes care of them. Somehow many people are able to sustain inside themselves a reassuring and calming spirituality that somehow convinces them that they will be taken care of. Some people manage to believe that despite the fact that the world might be going to hell in handbasket, Jews are being slaughtered by the millions, or thousands of people starve to death in Darfur, dozens of people get blown up in Iraq every day-but still they will be especially protected. Nothing bad will happen to them because their Father God has reassured them that they will be taken care of, that there is nothing to be scared of, that for them there is no bear in the closet.

I have always wondered how people and especially people who are raised as Christians end up with this type of comforting and we might say childish religion. This consoling, God will take care of me religion is not very Biblical. Bad things happen to good people in the Hebrew Bible all the time, and the last thing Jesus would ever tell people who take up their cross and follow Him is that everything will be ok for them. After all, looked what happened to him, and he said several times that things wouldn't be easy for anyone who followed after him.

For us in this church, I don't think the fatherly God who assures and protects us and tells us we will be ok, that there is no bear in the closet for us, I don't think this God would be believed in by us or even have much appeal. We might agree with Freud that this type of religion and this version of God are rooted in a childish fear and a childish need to be protected. We reach out to other versions of God and other types of religion we might consider more mature. We open ourselves to the much more challenging God of the Hebrew Prophets, a God who far from saying we are ok, we are safe, we are protected, asks us in a very challenging way what we have done for those who aren't ok and safe and protected? This is not a God who helps us fall asleep in safety and security but who wakes us up and reveals to us that we are sleeping in false safety and security.

In this church we do reach out and open ourselves to this challenging God of the Jewish scriptures, and to other views of God as well. We rethink the static nature of God with Whitehead and Process Theology, we think beyond the maleness of God with feminist thought, we think beyond the apolitical or the kingly concept of God with liberation theology. We open ourselves to concepts of God that comes to us from other traditions, Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, nature or earth based.

But as we do this, as we in this church reach out to concepts of God we find more meaningful, challenging, believable, relevant, even more mature, there are those in the church who would say that whatever religious tradition we immerse ourselves in and whatever concept of God we reach out to-however intellectually sophisticated it is-we are still acting like little children when we do so, seeking comfort and relief from that scary feeling that there's a bear in the closet.

One of the most important things that was said in this church in the years in the decade I have been associated it with it was said by one of our young people to his dad. He said: "they don't believe in God in this church." Well, we reach out in a spiritual search for notions of God we can believe in, we can take seriously, we can respect. And as we do as a community we know that some of us have given up the ghost of God entirely. Some believe with Freud that all religion and all concepts of God are really just humans being children and wanting some parental God to show up and say soothingly that there is no bear in the closet. And that too is a perspective we respect even if we don't agree with it. And in this community we refuse to let even that most basic of theological differences come between us. Such basic differences would defy what passes for most people for the very definition of church. But in this church we refuse to let those differences get in the way of our friendship and community and conversation. This is one of the most important things we all have to explain to the children who grow up in this church.

But now I would like to move on to talking about what the bear in the closet experience has to do with our current political situation. You might think that since I have been living in Romania I have been able to escape the burdens of the present situation but that has not been the case at all. It wasn't just the fact that I had the European version of CNN in my apartment in Timisoara. No, it is more than that. There is no escaping the burdens of the present situation. You wake up every day and you have to face the reality of how many of our young soldiers gave their lives today in this mess for what? And how many Iraqis were killed today in Baghdad, in Mosul, in Kirkuk? How did we get here to this preset time with all its burdens? Sometimes it feels like we fell asleep and woke up in 1968, with the burdens of being in the middle of a senseless war far away, where so many people are dying every day. It's 1968 except for the fact that those who tried to oppose the war in 1968 tried to convince the country to end a war that was started for a clear reason, to stop the spread of communism. Now we are in the middle of a war trying to stop a war that started for what? The weapons of mass destruction that Sadam Hussein had? They weren't there. To wipe out Islamic terrorism and Al Queda in Iraq? It wasn't there either before the war, but it is now. The burden of the present time is not only how can we stop this war now, but why could we not stop if from happening in the first place?

I know many of us read Molly Ivins regularly and feel the burdens of the present time are even heavier since her death. How well she expressed the burden of the present time when she wrote in her last column: "Anyone who wants to talk knowledgeably about our Iraq misadventure should read Rajiv Chandraeskaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone. It's like reading a horror novel. You just want to put your face down and moan: How could we have let this happen? How could we have been so stupid?"

With all due respect to Molly Ivins, I think the burdens of the present time and the fact that we are in 1968 again have less to do with stupidity and more to do with the bear in the closet. Now that September 11th is several years in the past, is it possible to see that past with critical eyes and say that many people in our country were really shocked and frightened by September 11 and that they wanted a leader who would comfort us and reassure us and tell us that he would protect us and take care of us? We wanted to believe that our leader was doing a good job of protecting us. We wanted restored our sense of safety and security, and that depended on us believing our leader was doing a good job of protecting us and keeping us safe from all the bears in the closet. And if he said that Sadam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction were the greatest danger facing us, then we should do what he says. He should know what the greatest dangers were. During the buildup to the Iraq War, Brittney Spears said: "I think we should just trust the president and do what he says. He should know." Didn't she express the feelings of a lot of us after September 11th? Was what got us into this mess really a lack of intelligence? Does it take that much intelligence to say: Well, if the problem is weapons of mass destruction, why don't we just wait and see if the UN weapons inspectors find those weapons? Or, do you really have evidence that Sadam Hussein was tied to Al Quaeda. Or "what do you mean, Mr. Bush, when you say we shouldn't distinguish between Sadam Hussein and Osama bin Laden? When this war began, so the poll say, more than 60% of our countrymen believed Iraq attacked us on September 11th. Are Americans that stupid that they couldn't read the paper and the reports and know that none of the people who attacked us on that day were Iraqis? I am afraid something more basic and more elemental psychologically was at play in us at the time than stupidity or intelligence. What was at play was that response to fear that leads us like children to put our heads under the covers and hope that our father will come along and say we will be ok, that he will take care of us, that he will deal with the bear in the closet. That fear of the bear in the closet and that desire for safety and security explains a lot, I think, about how we let this happen, about how we got here.

©2007 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rob. 2007. The Bear in the Closet, /talks/20070211.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

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