Christianity and the American Self-Image


July 15, 2017

This week’s reflection is part one of a two part reflection about Christianity and the formation of the American self-image. For many years the area of religion and values in American society has been my area of research and teaching. I remain a critical-thinking, patriotic American. I remain as well a critical-thinking Christian believer. 

The uniqueness of the American (US) experience is rooted in the self-image and world-image of the 17th century English colonialists who understood themselves as SENT BY GOD. Those early Americans saw themselves in terms of Jewish/Christian imagery. They were the NEW ISRAEL going to a NEW PROMISED LAND and they understood themselves as SPECIALLY CHOSEN BY GOD. 

We see this understanding in “A Model of Christian Charity,” the 1630 sermon given by Puritan leader John Winthrop, on board the ship Arbella en route to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with him for this work, we have taken out a commission…. Now the only way to avoid shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God…….The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us as his own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies: when he shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations: ‘the Lord make it like that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill: The eyes of all people are upon us….” 

So the American self-image stressed being: the new chosen people, a superior people, led by Divine Providence, self-made people, with a messianic mission to humankind to convert the world. 

For the newly developing Americans, the old world was a sinister and dangerous place: the old world of monarchs and popes was corrupt. The only hope for humankind was in a new world and a new age. We see this belief displayed on the one dollar bill: “In God we trust;” God blesses the American undertaking, “ANNUIT COEPTIS;” and America is a NEW CREATION “NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM.”  

For Americans “new” has always been better than old. The throw-away culture: out with the old and in with the better-working and better-looking NEW. They established New York, New Orleans, New Buffalo, etc. We have new states like New Jersey, New Hampshire, and New Mexico. 

Our ancestral Americans saw the world as the great stage for an ongoing battle battle between good and evil. They understood the struggle between good and evil as a struggle between God and Satan…..Contemporary political debate has followed the same pattern. The country is best unified when we have a devil to oppose, whether it is Adolf Hitler, Nikita Khrushchev, or Osama bin Laden. American national unity reaches its peak in times of crisis: World War II, the height of the Cold War, and the early days of the War on Terrorism. When the outside threat passes, however, they can turn on each other with racist and police brutality. The American irony. Who is the enemy? 

Right from the beginning Americans had to confront real and imagined enemies. They feared a wilderness they did not known, a climate that could destroy them, Indian conspiracies, slave revolts, famine, “popery,” witchcraft, and werewolves. Clearly identifying the “enemy” brought cohesion and a uniform identity. 

In the historical development of their identity and mission, Americans have had a succession of OUTSIDE enemies: Kings, Roman Catholics, “Indians,” “Barbarian” Germans, North Vietnamese, Islamic terrorists. Fear has been an underlying element in all of these interactions. I have often thought FDR’s words could be applied across the whole panorama of US history: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” 

Curiously, when we look at US history, African Americans were denigrated, taken for granted, and often conveniently overlooked in considerations about US identity. Were they people? I am still shocked when I read my four-times-back great grandfather’s last will and testament. He owned a plantation in Virginia and died n 1790. He listed the property and items that should go to his children. He asked the children to care for their mother. Then he listed the number and kinds of animals in the barn. At the end of the will, after the farm animals, he lists his slaves…. 

Of course, Americans are not per se bad. Americans have always struggled, however, with two elements of their character and can find a justification for each in Biblical imagery…… 

FIRST there is a positive humanitarian orientation to seek justice, do good, build a better world (as we see in the words of the Prophet MICAH). Here we can point to various humanitarian programs throughout the world, involvement to save Europe in two world wars, creation of the United Nations, etc. 

A less positive side of the American character, on the other hand, is found in a kind of self-righteousness and self-importance that arrogantly dismisses the rest of the world, due to an exaggerated sense of being a superior, CHOSEN PEOPLE. In our history, we have had: manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine, various times of isolationism, extreme xenophobia, and the policies like those advocated by the currant presidential administration. 

Although the situation is now changing, Christianity has been greatly valued by Americans, because it has reinforced the sense of being a special people in a special land and it has served as the social glue that holds the country together. It is a point for discussion but I think much of the emphasis on Christianity has been more about RELIGION and NATIONALISM than FAITH. At the time of US engagement in WWI, the popular evangelist Billy Sunday (1862-1935) said, “Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms, and hell and traitors are synonymous.” Those words still echo in parts of the country today.  

There is a uniquely American kind of focus on religion. The 18th century observer of American culture, Alexis de Toqueville, summed it up this way: “As for what we generally understand as faiths, such as customs, ancient traditions, the strength of memories, up to the present I don’t see a trace of them….The religious state of this people is perhaps the most curious thing to examine here. Go into the churches, you will hear morality preached, but of dogma not a word. What is most important for America is not that all citizens profess the true religion —- but that they should profess religion.” 

President Eisenhower echoed de Toqueville, when he observed in the 1950s “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on deep religious belief and I don’t care what it is…..” And, at about the same time, the American sociologist Will Herbert (1901-1977) wrote: “The typical American has developed a remarkable capacity for being serious about religion without taking religion seriously.” “Americans” he stressed ”believe in religion in a way that perhaps no other people do.”  

Bear with me. This is an ongoing reflection. Next week some observations about American civil religion. Then my thoughts about what I see as major contemporary trends in American religion and culture. 

 

 

 

 

Religion’s Wax Nose


July 10, 2017

Joseph Coppens (1896-1981), eminent Belgian scripture scholar, was one of my favorite professors in the 1960s at the University of Louvain (Leuven). One of his warnings to us young students, as we began our biblical studies, was “Sacred Scripture has a wax nose: you can twist and shape it to fit your own agenda and your own prejudices.” 

What Professor Coppens said about Sacred Scripture can be said as well about RELIGION. It has a wax nose and can be adjusted to be either wonderfully healthy and humane or inhumanely cruel and denigrating. 

We see clear examples of inhumane religion in daily news updates: fanatic Muslims who butcher people to honor God. We see it as well in American fanatic white supremacist Christians, who proclaim and practice cruel racism, denigrating misogyny, and violent xenophobic behavior as Christian virtues.  

Last week, a friend of mine, a respected local lawyer, said that all the world’s problems are due to religion. I said “OK but then….we all know that all lawyers are crooks.” He got a bit agitated and said “we’ll wait minute……”  

Indeed. Let’s pause to reflect. We need more interpretation and more distinctions………

Until my last breath I will be forever grateful for what my Christian religion has done for me and millions of other people: helping me discover the Divine in Reality; educating me from childhood to post-doctoral research and teaching. Giving me employment for my professional life. I was never wealthy but enjoyed my work and found it life-giving.  Religion for me has been a blessing.

Unhealthy religion? Of course it exists. In my own Christian tradition, I have encountered crafty monsters in fancy robes, who used their religious authority (and still use it) to abuse children and adults and desecrate the Gospel they claim to promote.  Their focus is not ministry TO people but manipulative power OVER people to advance their own careers. Pardon the expression, but they are ecclesiastical bastards.

A major misconception about religion is that Religion is Faith. 

Our FAITH experience is the encounter with the DIVINE: Our encounter with God, the Sacred, the Other, the Great Spirit, Allah, etc.  We experience this but then struggle go put it into words….

These days I resonate more and more with the words of the RCC theologian Karl Rahner (1904-1984): “I must confess to you in all honesty that for me God is and has always been absolute mystery. I do not understand what God is; no one can. We have intimations, and inklings. We make faltering attempts to put mystery into words. But there is no word for it, no sentence for it.”  

What has always excited me is THEOLOGY, which is a deeply reflective interpretation of the FAITH experience – always in development because we grow in our understanding; and words and thought categories change over time. (One of my own theological frustrations today is how we can still continue to use an archaic Nicene Creed, written in the language and philosophy of the fourth century.) 

Back to religion……. 

RELIGION (any religion) is an institutionalized theology: Theology is Faith seeking understanding.  

Religion is an attempt to systematize an interpretation of the experience of the Divine: religion is a system of beliefs and practices that helps people understand and live with the Divine. Religion therefore gives people: rituals, ritual places, ritual leaders, sacred books, sacred places, sacred days and seasons, codes of morality, and creedal statements. Religion provides helpful aids – MEANS – that point people to the Divine. That’s good and proper. It is not Faith. It points us to the faith experience…if it is healthy religion. 

All religions, however, go through a life cycle. In every age people need to understand this….. All religions go through a four-stage cycle:  

1) They begin with the charismatic foundational stage, e.g. the primitive Christian community. Here people have such a vivid lived awareness of the Faith experience that they have little need for institutional structure and rely on do-it-self and charismatic ways of praying, speaking, and celebrating.  

(2) Then when people begin to ask “how do we safeguard what we have and how do we pass this on to the next generation?” we enter stage two. This is the stage of institutionalization: important things are written down (e.g. writing the Gospels), set ways of praying are established (official sacramental rituals and gestures are established), properly authorized leaders are established (e.g. ordination is created to be a kind of quality control mechanism to make certain that the Christian leaders are competent and reliable).  

(3) But….Eventually the institution becomes so much the focus of people’s attention that it ceases to be a means and path to the Divine and instead it becomes the OBJECT of religious devotion. This is the stage of idolatry. The church institution, or certain institutional leaders or certain religious objects, teachings or regulations become IDOLS. People get so involved in just religious veneration, or the use of religious power and influence fur their own goals,  that they miss or distort the Divine.  Unhealthy religion.

Religion, for example, becomes a form of exaggerated nationalism. We see this in Russia, with the Russian Orthodox Church’s affection for President Putin; but we also see in the USA. I saw it this summer in Croatia. Roman Catholicism is very important for supporting Croation nationalism; but hardly anyone goes to church. This kind of distorted religion is a very contemporary problem, all around the world.

(4) The only solution in stage four is REFORMATION : an attempt to regain the vision, the focus on the Divine, and the vigor and creative enthusiasm of stage two.  
Reformation can and will happen……So let the reform begin….. 

Jack 

Resuming Another Voice


July 4, 2017

Some welcomed days of Reflection and good old R&R are behind me. For me the Fourth of July has always signaled the start of a new season. Growing up on a fruit farm in SW Michigan, many a July 4th was spent picking cherries…..and then we watched the fireworks at night. Happy memories.

Perhaps it just happens, as people reach a certain age. This summer for the first time in my life I began to feel like an old man. In my 75th year, I look at things very differently. I think I have a clearer sense of what is really important in life and what things are simply foolish and nonsensical. You see a lot of that in the evening news…..Is it wisdom or just the fact that one realizes one is still living, as a younger world expands and comes to life around you? This past year I said goodbye to a lot of friends: high school and college classmates, and most painfully to some of my former students, such bright and wonderfully talented men and women.

I am neither depressed nor pessimistic; but probably more of a hardened realist. On more than one occasion this past month I found myself saying: look around you, think about what you should be doing, then get busy and do it!

One of my more memorable conversations in the past weeks was with a young fellow, who wanted to speak with me “about God.” He sat across the table from me and started his “conversation” with a series of short exclamations: “I am not agnostic.” “I am not an atheist.” “I don’t believe in the old God up there.” “God is not a person.” “There is a lot of mythology in religions.” “I think God is somehow at the center of reality — our world and who we are.” “Now what do you think about that?”

I was amazed. I told him I thought he was a very reflective and perceptive young man and that I could resonate with what he had shared with me. We talked for a long time…. I know his father and at some point the conversation will and must continue.

Actually, without mentioning the word, we were talking about spirituality.

Spirituality is not something added on top of our Christian life. Spirituality is our way of life – in LIVED awareness of the Divine Presence. Spirituality is rooted in the realization that FAITH is a personal relationship with the Divine. My young questioner, in his own way, has experienced a taste of the Divine. I am happy for him and encourage him to keep asking questions….

Our mission as Christians is to call people to awareness: to tune in to their spirituality, to open their minds and hearts to God’s presence in their lives and the world around them.

“Do you not know,” Paul asked the community in Corinth “that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (See 1 Corinthians 3:9-16)

Christian spirituality is about confronting the religious and secularization shifts in contemporary life and responding with, yes, “another voice.” Many people in our churches, and many people who have walked out of our churches, and many young people, long to hear good news. They need people willing to travel with them, search and reflect with them. That is our contemporary Christian challenge: To stand in awe with them, as together we explore REALITY.

The depth value of Christian spirituality lies precisely in the encounter it creates between Faith, the Gospel, theology and belief, and the extensive and expanding terrains of human development, human needs, and the search for the meaning of life.

It can be very exciting……I look forward to continuing the journey with you.

To all of my USA compatriots: Happy Fourth of July! 

May we all rejoice in our commitment to fundamental human equality, and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all!


Jack

Christianity, Nationalism, and Mother Russia


27 May 2017

A couple weeks ago, the Pew Research Center published a major report about 18 countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The big trends are strong and clear. 

Most people in just about all Orthodox-majority countries (Moldova, Greece, Armenia, Georgia, Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Belarus, Russia) are in agreement that: (1) Orthodoxy is the essential protector of individual and national identity, even when only about 10% regularly attend religious services; (2) a strong Russia is necessary to balance the influence of the West; (3) Russia has an obligation to protect Orthodox Christians; and (4) the most important Orthodox religious leader in the world today, even for Greek Orthodox Christians, is the Patriarch of Moscow. 

Even in Belarus and Moldova, where most Orthodox Christians are not ethnic Russians, loyalty to the Patriarch of Moscow remains strongly important. 

What we see is the resuscitation of Mother Russia. No wonder the media shows President Putin attending church.

What we observe as well in countries with a majority of Roman Catholics (Poland, Croatia, Lithuania, and Hungary) is that Roman Catholicism is greatly valued as the giver of  identity. It is what enables people to be “truly Polish,” “truly Croatian,” etc. 

Unlike most Central and Eastern European countries, regular church attendance in Poland is about 45%. Here one sees the enduring influence of Pope John Paul II and a form of Roman Catholicism reminiscent of pre-Communist days. In Croatia, as well, one sees a strong pre-Communist and triumphant institutional Catholicism. The wealthiest owner of expensive real estate in Zagreb, for instance, is the Roman Catholic Church. Unlike Poland, however, church attendance in Croatia is far below 10% and ignorance of basic Roman Catholic beliefs is widespread. Here belonging is far more important than believing. 

Curiously, the Czech Republic does not share the above trends. It is one of the most secular countries in Europe. Nearly three-quarters of Czech adults (72%) describe their religion as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” 

When it comes to a kind of values clarification process among Orthodox and Roman Catholics in Central and Eastern Europe, three attitudinal trends stand out: (1) a woman’s place is in the home, having children, and being obedient to her husband; (2) there is less support for the new economic systems in comparison with the former Communist-era planned economies and growing sentiments that democracy may not be the best form of government; and (3) homosexuality is a sinful aberration. 

About 85% of adults in Russia (even young adults) say homosexuality is morally wrong. In Catholic Croatia, opposition to homosexuality remains strong; but in Catholic Poland only 48% consider homosexuality morally wrong. 

This is a very brief overview. There are indeed some fascinating values trends in post-Communist Europe. More about this in a future reflection. (This is of course the Memorial Day week end.) 

Having done my own on site research in Eastern Europe for several years, I tend to agree with an observation in the May 17th issue of the Economist: “Across ex-Communist Europe, religion is robust and patriotic, but sometimes skin-deep.”  Religion is not always about Faith….and that is true of course on both sides of the Atlantic. 

++++

As I indicated last week, I will be away from Another Voice until the Fourth of July. The old fellow needs some R&R and a chance to work on a bigger writing project. More about that when it is completed. Many kind regards. – Jack

Bridges Not Walls


20 May 2017

As news reports about him and his close associates continue to flood the media, Donald Trump begins his first major foreign-diplomacy trip. Regardless how his trip goes, people wonder if he will still be president a few weeks from now.

I really don’t know how much longer Donald Trump will occupy the White House. I leave that kind of speculation to others.…..I do, however, have a big concern about what occupies much of contemporary America: POLARIZATION.

American polarization — extreme, sharp, and often bitter — is more extreme today than during the nineteenth century Civil War. Whether Trump remains president or not, polarization, I fear, will continue to threaten American identity and existence.

Like many of you, I suspect, I lived through the heated debates, demonstrations, and civil unrest of the 1960s and 1970s. I vividly remember the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. What’s happening today, however, is more serious and more sinister than the unsettling events of the ‘60s and ‘70s, because it is more widespread and more deeply rooted. People are retreating behind strongly defended walls constructed on racism, ignorance, fundamentalism, and narcissistic economics. These polarization walls, stretching across the country, are far more threatening than any real or imagined wall between Mexico and the USA.

Republicans and Democrats, today, are more ideologically divided than at any point in the past twenty years; and American society is being pulled apart by strong ideological divisions along educational, generational, and religious lines. The issues are hardly limited to politics or battles between Fox News and NBC. Contemporary Christians are more divided by “fundamentalists” and “new earth creationists” battling “progressives” than they are by Catholics who can’t get along with Protestants or vice versa.

And all across the country, civility appears to be a lost virtue; and it is being replaced by proud partisan nastiness and demeaning rhetoric. “Unfriending” on Facebook is the new fad; and tweeting is a sure way to screw and destroy school classmates, annoying business associates, or the guy down the street, who just married his buddy.

The roots of our contemporary polarization are in our changing U.S. population, with its rapidly growing racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. Some people cannot deal with reality as a developing life story. I don’t agree with them, but I can understand the anxieties of white supremacists. Thanks to large-scale immigration from Latin America and Asia, since the 1960s, as well as higher fertility rates among non-whites, the racial and ethnic makeup of the United States has undergone a major transformation. Non-whites now comprise a major share of the overall population; and non-Latino whites will make up less than half of the country’s population by 2044, if not before.

Today, for the first time in U.S. History, there are more students of color than white students in American public schools. White supremacist rhetoric is not going to change this reality.

The other part of the demographic trend that accelerates polarization in the United States is that African Americans and Latinos continue to experience significantly worse health conditions, poorer educational and job opportunities, inferior housing, higher unemployment, and lower incomes than white Americans. They also encounter more hostility and prejudice in their interactions with public officials and police officers.

The big questions confronting Americans today — the really big values clarification questions —- are not whether or not Donald Trump will be leaving the White House; but whether or not Americans have the will and understanding to build a more inclusive, and less deeply segregated country. In many parts of the country —urban, rural, and suburban—the status quo will have to radically change.

Americans will have to become bridge builders in a big way.

Building walls is easy, compared to building bridges. Building bridges (in a polarized society) is hard work: One pillar is built on “my” vision and values. The other pillar is built on “their” vision and values. The roadway connecting the two pillars, however, can only be built with OUR shared vision and values.

The process of bridge-building begins, first of all, with family sharing based on mutual love and respect. It then moves on to neighborhood conversations and dialogue and learning-discoveries in schools, social groups, and churches.

To build solid and long-lasting bridges, we need to establish channels for dialogue and we need to insure that our religious, educational, and civic institutions promote multi-cultural knowledge and understanding.

To build solid and long-lasting bridges, we need to practice genuine humility and to acknowledge that we may not have all the answers for today’s problems, that our vision, whether “progressive” or “fundamentalist,” may indeed be a very limited kind of barrel vision. No one has all the truth locked up in his or her own doctrinal formulation. We need to share visions and concerns and construct together.

Ultimately, we need to translate our new vision-gained-from-humility-and-respectful-dialogue into concrete and achievable mutual goals and actions.

With good bridges, we can walk together, live together, and flourish. If all we do is build more self-protective walls, we will lock ourselves in our own prisons, cut ourselves off from human water, light, and air; and we will die.

……

Next week, some reflections about Christianity in Eastern Europe. Then, as I did last summer, I will escape, until July, to work on a new book and get some R&R with my wonderful wife of forty-seven years.

Values Clarification


12 May 2017

My teaching career began in 1969. In those early years as a high school religion teacher, in Battle Creek, Michigan, and a philosophy instructor at the local community college, I put a big stress on “values clarification.” In many ways I guess I still do. I have to thank my own high school and university teachers, who encouraged me to ask “why?” about my beliefs, principles, and behavior.

“Values clarification” is something we greatly need today: for individuals, for groups, and for institutions and their institutional leaders. 

Some fundamental questions arise in values clarification exercises: What are a person’s basic beliefs, principles, and attitudes? What are they are based on? Are they good and healthy values? How does one know? If these are one’s values, is one’s behavior consistent with them? If institutions or institutional leaders do not have good values, is values education and transformation possible? Is it enough to inform the emperor that he has no clothes? Or maybe one needs a new emperor who has better sense?  

Today in church, business, and politics we could use some deeply probing values clarification exercises: holding up mirrors and helping people take a good look at their values, helping them evaluate the quality of their values; and for institutional leaders – whether ceos, bishops, or politicians – helping them examine whether or not their behavior is consistent with the institution’s stated principles and values. A citizen values clarification review board? 

Quite often, of course, the people who must courageously hold up the mirrors are the people who buy the products, the church members who gather for week end services, or the citizens who cast their votes. Quite often they see very clearly what is going on.  

It is difficult, for instance, to reconcile continued public lying, promoting racist stereotypes, mocking people with disabilities, and denigrating women and bragging about grabbing their genitalia with any sense of healthy Christian virtue. When 81 percent of white evangelicals and born-again Christians express their support for a man who does these kinds of things, one has to question the authenticity of their “Christian” belief; but it takes courage to say these kinds of things.  

In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, by way of example, many Catholics supported the candidate who was elected, because of his firmly-stated anti-abortion position. They agreed with Fr. Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, who endorsed the candidate and encouraged his faithful followers to do the same. This week in Boston, former president Obama was given the Profile in Courage Award, but the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts strongly criticized Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley for attending the award ceremony. Cardinal O’Malley is the former chairman of the Pro-Life Activities Committee of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League, said that O’Malley’s presence demonstrated an “appalling betrayal of the pro-life movement,” because Obama is “the most pro-abortion president” in U.S. history. Really? Well I think this is a good case study for some serious values clarification discussion about abortion and pro-life policies. Is the current occupant of the White House such a strong pro-life advocate? I simply ask the question. 

For the sake of values clarification while reflecting on the “pro-life” policies and actions of both U.S. presidents, I think the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ “Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities” deserves serious consideration. Therein we read:  
To focus on the evil of deliberate killing in abortion and euthanasia is not to ignore the many other urgent conditions that demean human dignity and threaten human rights. Opposing abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care….We pray that Catholics will be advocates for the weak and the marginalized in all these areas….the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community. 

While sharing my thoughts about values clarification with a good friend, he asked what I meant by “public morality.” A good question. Public morality is based on commonly agreed upon values that keep us from killing each other and maintain the common good of all citizens by protecting and guaranteeing, as we read in the Declaration of Independence, that all people are created equal and have absolute rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

In any values clarification exercise about public morality in the United Sates, one has to begin with fundamental values stated in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights, and of course the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which the United States has endorsed since 1948. In these public morality foundational documents, one finds ample material for a very serious values clarification exercise about current U.S. domestic policy and foreign actions. (Is it surprising that libertarian billionaires, and friends of the current D.C. administration, Charles and David Koch are no now calling for and say they will fund a constitutional convention to re-write the U.S. Constitution?) 

In all programs for promoting healthy moral behavior, values clarification is a first step in a three-stage course of action.The first step is to make clear and objective observations about what is being said and done. Stage two calls for serious reflection about an appropriate course of action about what is being said and done…. In stage three, people strategize and then go into action to achieve the necessary goals.  

Values clarification is our challenge and our responsibility. In our country right now, the clock is ticking….. 

Not Knowing: Agnotology, a Deadly Contemporary Virus


6 May 2017


 

Agnotology comes from two neoclassical Greek words: agnosis for ignorance or “not knowing” and ontologia “ontology” which deals with the nature of being. Agnotology is the study of willful human action to spread ignorance, confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or to win support for a cause. Agnotology is an old phenomenon but very much a contemporary virus. We see it in politics, religion, and business.

As an historian I would not say that history repeats itself; but rather that people do not learn from history, until it is often too late or just about too late.

Institutions and institutional leaders often promote ignorance as a way of exercising power over people or as a way of protecting the power of authoritarian leaders. Yes we can look at the White House for current examples. We can also look at other contemporary political leaders in places like Turkey, North Korea, and Russia. Maybe France? (I write this on the day before the final French presidential election.) I can think of university officials concealing professorial sexual abuse because top professors bring money and prestige to the university. And of course, I have seen it up close in the actions of some bishops and cardinals, who protect or conceal child abusive ordained ministers to maintain their own power base. The argument: to protect the good name of the church.  

When people abandon or reconfigure facts, agnotology rules life. As Yale University professor, Timothy Synder, wrote in his most recent little book On Tyranny: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no none can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” 

Down the slippery slope to deadly agnotology: 

(1) People begin to succumb to the disease when they renounce the difference between what they want to hear and what is really the case. “Conservatives” do it; but “liberals and progressives” do it as well. Progressives too can be arrogant narcissists, who adjust the truth, to promote their own power-base.

(2) We need to be aware of the seductive character of leaders who promote ignorance through an endless repetition of certain phrases that cloud and conceal reality or turn individual people into dangerous stereotypes. Continual refrains of anti-abortion rhetoric cloud and conceal the reality of anti-abortion politicians who are certainly not pro-life in any way. Some of the most vocal anti-gay ecclesiastics and politicians, by way of another example, are in fact very active closet gays.

(3) When people begin to base their big decisions on feelings more than reason, the disease has begun to metastasize. Feelings can be positive or negative but cannot replace the importance of critical reflection and rational argumentation. Shortly after Obama’s first presidential election, a fellow in Southern Michigan put up a big sign on his property (I saw it.): “We used to hang niggers and now we put them in the White House.” Today that fellow rejoices that we finally have: “a good WHITE man in the WHITE House.”

(4) The Romanian-French playwright, Eugène Ionesco, watched one friend after another slip into fascism in the 1930s. He described the phenomenon in his 1959 play “Rhinoceros.” Ionesco wrote: “University professors, students, intellectuals were turning Nazi, becoming Iron Guards, one after the other. At the beginning, certainly they were not Nazis. About fifteen of us would get together to talk and to try to find arguments opposing theirs. It was not easy….From time to time, one of our friends said ‘I don’t agree with them, to be sure, but on certain points, nevertheless, I must admit, for example, the Jews…’ etc. And this was a symptom. Three weeks later, this person would become a Nazi. He was caught in the mechanism, he accepted everything, he became a rhinoceros.”

(5) Infectious symptoms are when influential people begin to despise the accepted truths of daily existence; when clever slogans appeal to fearful feelings and resonate in popular rhetoric like a new religion; and when convenient myths replace facts, history, and critical journalism.

And Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)

Faith, Belief, and Contemporary Culture


28 April 2017
Many years ago, one of my wife’s uncles approached me during a family reunion. He said he needed to draw on my expertise. He then pulled from his pocket a small reddish stone and said: “what do you make of this?” I looked at it and said: “very colorful.” He frowned and said: “but what is your interpretation?” I told him I had no idea about it. Very disappointed, he grumbled something and then said: “they told me your field of expertise was geology.” I chuckled and said: “not GEology but THEology.”

The best definition of THEOLOGY is still that of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109): Fides quarens intellectum – Faith seeking understanding. When people do theology, they reflect in depth about their Faith experiences and Reality: experiences of being touched by God, even for people for whom the word “God” may be problematic. I remember the words of Dag Hammarskjöld in his book Markings: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.” 

When we do theology we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words and rituals that are products of our culture. In fact, all our concepts and experiential interpretations are shaped and influenced to a great extent by the culture and the language out of which they emerge. 

In every age, theologians must strive to better articulate the human experience of the Divine for contemporary believers.  

I shared the story of the stone-in-hand uncle-in-law with an adult discussion group, which I moderate. One lady in the group, a retired professor of sociology at our university, then asked: “ok…but in these days of alt-truth, how do we distinguish healthy and unhealthy theological developments?”  

A very good question, because some theology does indeed appear unhealthy, more like a cold old stone. 

Good theology should speak to contemporary people in contemporary language. It should help them discover the signs of Divine presence in human life and promote a morality of interpersonal respect, compassion, and solidarity: Jesus taught and lived the truth that love of God cannot exist without love of neighbor. 

I suggest five points for evaluating theology…….regardless whether it comes from episcopal lips, from the local church pulpit, or from the keyboard of an old theologian. 

1. The aim of theology cannot be a kind of nostalgic retreat to recover a lost mode of being in the world. Some Roman Catholic cardinals and bishops are trying to do this right now, as they suggest that Pope Francis may be a heretic. Other Christian leaders in support of “marriage and family life” want to restrict women and basically return them to a kind of patriarchal servitude. We really cannot turn-back the clock. We should not even try. To become a religious child again would mean to abandon the adult capacity to think and make one’s own judgments based on critical reflection and developmental human understanding. The current upsurge of populist fundamentalism – with its appeal for “the good old days” — is not just annoyingly offensive; but is dangerously subversive and destructive. 

2. Theological thinking today needs to feel and experience the “call” of the Sacred (the Faith experience) by interpreting and thereby re-creating the meaning and power of religious language. A few years ago, I began this blog to encourage people to think and speak with “another voice.” The truly healthy contemporary theological thinker must have one foot anchored in the present and the other in the tradition of the past: maintaining a dynamic tension between contemporary religious consciousness and historical critical consciousness.  

3. When we do theology – when we reflect in depth about our Faith experiences – we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words and rituals that are products of our culture; but we also look for the resonance and dialogue with tradition: with the theological expressions of earlier cultures. I often tell people in my lectures that I am not a far-out progressive liberal but a Christian traditionalist…..(Don’t laugh….) 

4. Authentic and life-giving theology can never be self-serving narcissism: only the expression of individual, subjective experience. Theology is the result of deep reflection about my Faith experience AND your Faith experience AND the Faith experience of the community of Faith: today as well as yesterday. Yesterday’s theology becomes a heritage, a tradition that finds expression in historical doctrine, scripture, symbol, ritual and patterns of conduct. 

5. Theology therefore relies on culture but can never become locked within a particular culture. It cannot, for example, venerate just European or North American culture. All cultures perceive reality through their own particular lenses; and these lenses are shaped and adjusted by shared human events and great movements in human history. When a theology becomes so locked within a particular culture that it is hardly distinguishable from it, we are on the road to idolatry: when the words, symbols and rituals of a particular culture no longer communicate and connect people to the depth of the human experience but become objects of worship in themselves.   

Springtime Reflections for Church Renewal



April 20, 2017
Reform-minded people need to change their conversation about church reform. Otherwise they end up either talking to themselves or simply repeating what everyone else has been saying for the past ten years. Changing the conversation means looking at church life in new ways and developing new strategies and patterns for church life today and tomorrow. It means thinking creatively and asking challenging and deeper questions….

Some proposals for refection: 
(1)   Look less at the church as institution and more as a community of faith. What is happening within your own community of faith? What are the life-issues that really concern your family and friends? Where do you find your support? How can you motivate and help the men and women in your community to truly minister to each other? What is keeping us from experimenting with new forms of parish and parish life? Perhaps a parish should be a collection of many smaller communities of faith? Household churches in which the heads of the households – men and women — preside over informal Eucharistic liturgies, as in the Apostolic era?

(2)   Look deeper than the shortage of ordained ministers and ordained women ministers. Let’s look at the meaning of ministry itself. Let’s look at and examine the very idea of ORDAINED ministry. Jesus did not ordain anyone. Let’s scratch our heads about new forms of ministry and break out of the old patterns and paradigms. Why not have ordained graduate students helping out in university parishes? Ordaining men and women for five year terms? Perhaps a parish should have many part-time ordained ministers who have “regular” jobs? And how about dropping the word “priest”? “Minister” has better resonance with the Gospel. Should we close all seminaries and agree that they are not the best structures for the formation and education of ordained ministers?

(3)   And why not elect diocesan bishop overseers for limited terms of ministry? Why not five year terms, which could be renewed for just another five-year term? Another thought, do bishops have to be the top person in a diocese? Why not give ecclesiastical authority to a diocesan leadership team? I could see a team of at least three people: a diocesan administrator, who could be a man or woman and not necessarily ordained; a diocesan director of pastoral formation, who could be a man or woman and not necessarily ordained; and a bishop (man of woman) who would serve as spiritual director and sacramental coordinator for the diocese. Shared decision-making and a great way to dismantle the clerical old boys club.

(4)   Catholic and Christian. Healthy Catholicism is rooted in healthy Christianity. So what does it really mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ today? This raises questions of belief. What do we really know about the historical Jesus? He was not white, for sure. Jesus was most likely dark brown and sun-tanned. What about all of those rather saccharin and androgynous images of Jesus that really distort who he was and what he was all about? Was his biological father the Holy Spirit or the man we call
Joseph? Isn’t the “virgin birth” more about saying he was a very special person than analyzing the biology of his conception? What if Jesus was gay or a married fellow with children? Would that make a difference for you? Would that destroy his meaning for Christian believers? Why? Was JesusGod? Early Jewish Christians, including St. Paul, would have never said that. Or was Jesus the revelation of God’s graciousness and love, as well as the revelation of authentic humanity? Jesus is “Lord,” the “Christ,” “Son of Humanity,” and “Son of God.” All of our language tries to point to his uniqueness……..

(5)   Ecumenical discussions. What are the real differences between church groups in Christianity today? Are there any good reasons why we cannot simply start worshiping together? Are we not locked in medieval theological categories about “them” and “us”? Are structural church distinctions based on Protestantism and Roman Catholicism still significant differences in belief? Isn’t Jesus Christ, for example, just as truly “present” in Episcopalian Eucharist as he is in Roman Catholic Eucharist? Are Lutherans and Presbyterians cut off from him in their worship services? What today is the uniqueness of Roman Catholicism? Perhaps the goal of ecumenical collaboration today should be respecting a variety of traditions and at the same time enhancing the Christian life of all believers and not creating a mega-church institution? Why not turn places, like the Vatican, into United Nations heritage sites? Tourist revenue could be used to fight world poverty. Church palaces could be turned into schools and hospitals or residences for political refugees.

(6)    Seven sacraments. We now know of course that the seven sacraments were created by the church not the historical Jesus. What then is the meaning of “sacrament” today? Who controls sacramental forms? Does it make sense to argue about who can “validly” administer certain sacraments? When I got married, I was told, based on Catholic sacramental understandings, that my wife and I as baptized believers “conferred the sacrament” on each other and the priest was simply an official
witness. OK, what about baptized gays and lesbians who get married? Isn’t their marriage then just as “sacramental” as mine? What about “lay” pastoral ministers in hospitals and homes for the elderly. They are often the key Christian ministers in these people’s lives. Why can’t they “anoint” the sick and dying? Maybe they should just start doing it? Isn’t Christian ministry about prayer and  compassion and comforting the sick?

These are just a few thought-starters…… Creative and critical reflection is not a dangerous activity and it can be a source of life….