Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Moral Desensitization and the Church: Comfortably Numb

Sitting at a traffic light the other day, waiting for a left turn signal, I became acutely aware of the sound of my car's turn flasher relay, "Click, click, click, click..." After 120,000 miles in this vehicle, one would think that only an unusual sound would trigger my conditioned mind to pay increased attention. This is the principle behind alarm bells and sirens: they are unexpected, and they are designed to trigger a alertness response. Unfortunately, not all persons respond to all alarms (witness recent studies showing that children will sleep through the sound of most smoke detectors), but if enough people respond appropriately to an alarm, then some lives can be saved.

The problem with alarms and sirens is not just that some people do not respond, but that many more people become desensitized to the sound with the result that the alarm is often ignored and people perish.

Desensitization is defined as,
"(1) in psychology, a form of behaviour therapy in which an anxiety-provoking stimulus is repeatedly paired with a relaxation response, either in the imagination or in real life (the latter known as in vivo desensitization) in order to eventually eliminate the anxiety response and replace it with the relaxation response. In systematic desensitization a hierarchy of increasingly anxiety-provoking stimuli is established and each stimulus is paired with the relaxation response in turn, beginning with the least feared and working towards the most feared. Also known as reciprocal inhibition therapy; (2) in medical practice, treatment of a hypersensitive response to an allergen, by deliberate exposure to a very small, and then a gradually increasing, dose;
(3) with reference to repeated dose of a drug, a progressive decline in its effect."
Dictionary of Sport and Exercise Science and Medicine by Churchill Livingstone © 2008 Elsevier Limited. All rights reserved. (
Desensitization can be intentional/conscious, or non-intentional/subconscious. When it comes to the changes in attitudes in the Episcopal church towards homosexuality, I tend to suspect that both intentional and non-intentional desensitization have played roles in the shift from seeing homosexual behavior as contrary to the Church's teachings to seeing such behaviors as a blessing to the Church. This shift has taken place in spite of the alarms raised by voices within and without the Episcopal church.

The desensitization process in the church occurs each time a modern day Henny Penny gets intentionally hit on the head with bombshells such as non-celibate gay bishops, or the authorization of same sex blessings (intentional desensitization) and Henny  reacts by crying, "The Denomination is Falling!" and the foxy-woxy bishop snaps her neck (radical intentional desensitization) and this stimulus is paired with the seminary Dean saying reassuringly, "Don't believe everything you hear" or "All is well" (the relaxation response).

One interesting finding of recent research into alarms and warnings is that children are more likely to awaken to an alarm that uses the voice of a parent than to the sound of an obnoxious electronic tone (link to "Pediatrics" Journal article).

Over the next few weeks, I will be working my way through Isaiah, and I have to be especially careful to not become desensitized to the repeated warnings of the prophet (the voice of alarm from God?). Sixty-six chapters of Isaiah can do that to a person, and I for one have been known to fall asleep while wading through Isaiah. My attention was raised to the dangers of nodding off into reassured bliss by the stern warnings I saw this week before and after reading the familiar and comforting,
"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.
The Lord sent a word into Jacob, and it hath lighted upon Israel."
Isaiah 9:6-7
This is set immediately after such words as,
"For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood; but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire." Isaiah 9:5
And a few verses following the promise of the appearance of the Prince of Peace we hear,
"For the people turneth not unto him that smiteth them, neither do they seek the Lord of hosts.
Therefore the Lord will cut off from Israel head and tail, branch and rush, in one day.
The ancient and honourable, he is the head; and the prophet that teacheth lies, he is the tail.
For the leaders of this people cause them to err; and they that are led of them are destroyed.
Therefore the Lord shall have no joy in their young men, neither shall have mercy on their fatherless and widows: for every one is an hypocrite and an evildoer, and every mouth speaketh folly. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.
For wickedness burneth as the fire: it shall devour the briers and thorns, and shall kindle in the thickets of the forest, and they shall mount up like the lifting up of smoke.
Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts is the land darkened, and the people shall be as the fuel of the fire: no man shall spare his brother.
And he shall snatch on the right hand, and be hungry; and he shall eat on the left hand, and they shall not be satisfied: they shall eat every man the flesh of his own arm:"
Isaiah 9:13-20
I hope I don't get desensitized to Isaiah this time around. The consequences of ignoring the alarms he raises are far too great.

The results of the desensitization of the Episcopal church to the immorality of the spirit of the age as evidenced by church closures, departing dioceses, and declining membership should be warning enough for us to stay alert, to shout the alarm, and to use the Father's voice to rouse the sleeping children (who by this point of time in the Episcopal church are most probably resting peacefully amongst the "comfortably numb").

"There is no pain you are receding
A distant ship's smoke on the horizon
You are only coming through in waves
Your lips move
But I can't hear what you're saying

When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye

I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
I... Have become comfortably numb"

Pink Floyd "Comfortably Numb" 1979, "The Wall" (link to

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