"A spiritual leader who has too many illusions is useless. One who has lost their illusions about humanity and retains their illusions about themself is insufferable. Let the process of disillusionment continue until the self is included. At that point, of course, only religion can save from the enervation of despair. But it is at that point that true religion is born."
This quote comes from Reinhold Neibuhr's Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, which I've never actually read. This was included on a Facebook discussion group, and I wanted to track it down because I've been thinking about it lately.
(The language in the quote is awkward because someone attempted to make it inclusive.)
I recently had the term "disillusionment" clarified and interpreted in a new way for me. It was actually in Richard Hamm's book Recreating the Church that I read it. When I used to think of the term, I thought of someone who has become so worn down by disappointment; by the constant defeat of failed expectation. In a sense, that is true and one who becomes disillusioned can certainly end up in that place within themselves.
However, the way both Neibuhr and Hamm define disillusionment is simply the removal of illusion, of fantasy, of expectations that are not failed but false. True enough, failure may be one of the fastest and easiest ways to having one's illusions ripped to shreds; it can tell us so much about where we truly are with relationships, with our knowledge, with ourselves. Expectations give way to reality...we become disillusioned.
The positive way to view disillusionment, according to both Hamm and Neibuhr, is in the sense that we have a better idea of how some aspect of the world truly works. By becoming disillusioned, we gain a more accurate perspective. We realize that government, or the church, or a friend, or a spouse, or technology isn't the perfect answer to all our problems after all; that they each have their flaws. And when we lose such illusions, we can begin to work within the true boundaries of the capabilities and existence of each.
I lost illusions about the church way earlier than anyone really should, though I suspect that many people have become disillusioned about the church around the same age. Perhaps it happens in a much different manner than it did for me, but if the kids I've guided through confirmation are any indication, there's plenty of disillusionment to go around.
There was a period early on in my beginning full-time ministry where a lot of disillusionment happened. As it turns out, some in the church may be excited about guitars in worship, but not everyone is. And some may be passionate about mission projects, but not all. And some may be excited about revisiting long-held assumptions about the Bible, but not everyone is. And not everyone gets hung up on minutiae, but some do. This is the mixed bag of ministry, and my disillusionment has lately come in the form of realizing how much of a mixed bag it really is.
Probably one of the biggest moments of disillusionment that I'm still dealing with and reacting to happened a few years ago right before a wedding (yeah...who knew a wedding would provide a moment of disillusionment for me?). It was a pretty small affair, perhaps 20 guests or so, with two children from previous marriages serving as best man and maid of honor.
The two kids, actually in their early to mid-20s, arrived while everything was still being set up. The two of them, along with her boyfriend, stood in the narthex for a while, and I overheard one remark about how long it'd been since he'd been in a church. Another seemed to agree, and they had a chuckle together. It was during this exchange that I could feel three pairs of eyes on me, the representative of some part of their past they hadn't found meaningful and hadn't been given good reason to revisit. Part of what I felt at that moment was probably simple paranoia, but I also had a realization about how irrelevant and goofy many my age believe the church to be.
At that moment, I lost an illusion about what others do and don't find meaningful and worthwhile regarding the church. I think it also contributed to my wedding disillusionment, because for me it provided a glimpse into how seriously people, especially "unchurched," take the ceremony.
Over the years, of course, there's been plenty of self-disillusionment as well. Neibuhr mentions above that "One who has lost their illusions about humanity and retains their illusions about themself is insufferable." I hope that I haven't been insufferable, and I wonder whether I've lost enough illusions about myself. In fact, at times I wonder if I've lost too many illusions about myself to be of any use. If I'd retained some illusions, I'd be deluded rather than disillusioned, so in some ways I'm still trying to discover what living with myself means in my new reality.
That wedding provided some disillusionment about my self-image vs. how others see me, and these types of things bring assorted questions:
How capable am I of leading a congregational to a more missional way of thinking?
What skills do I need to use or learn to get people excited about [pick something]?
I'm much more family-oriented now. What's that mean for ministry in general?
Am I really that great of a preacher, or caregiver, or teacher, or change agent, or husband, or father? What needs improvement in any of these areas?
How much does my chosen vocation become a perceived roadblock for others?
Questions like these come as a result of my learning something about my true limitations, or at least the limitations of my immediate context.
As I become more disillusioned, I find at times that I need to work harder to energize myself for the new world that I've just discovered. The facade falls away, and I am left to wonder what happens next. I exclaim, "O brave new world," and ask whether I say it with excitement or frustration or dread.
And yet I embark into that new world, more disillusioned, because I must.