Alternate Christianity 


SUNDAY, MARCH 26TH, FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT 

I guess one should not be surprised, in an age of alternate facts and alternate truth, that alternate Christianity exists as well. Reminiscent of the days of medieval Christendom, today’s alternate Christianity tries to link patriotism, politics, and governmental power and call it the Gospel. 

Televangelist Pat Robertson, whose pulpit is The 700 Club, the flagship of the Christian Broadcasting Network, is a strong advocate of alternate Christianity. In February he declared, not so surprisingly, that Donald Trump is God’s anointed leader and that those who criticize him are really operating against God and God’s plan for America. He even described Trump’s critics as Satanic. Franklin Graham, the son of the world-famous Baptist minister Billy Graham, echoes Robertson when he says it was “the hand of God,” rather than Russian hackers, that put Donald Trump in the White House. 

White evangelicals voted overwhelmingly in support of Mr. trump, ignoring of course the candidate’s widespread rejection of traditional Christian values, like honesty, compassion, and sexual self-restraint. They have alternate beliefs about American history, the Constitution, economics, science, climate change, and of course issues of gender and human sexuality.  

These evangelicals find alternate Christianity attractive because of their desire for a strong, even quasi-dictatorial leader who promises to keep feminists, multiculturalists, secularists and “progressives” in their place. Alternate Christians are ethnic and tribal. They are nostalgic about a 1950s America; and they worry about the demise of white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism in the United States. They believe the president’s assertions that, under him, (white) Christians will once again have power. They enthusiastically support his right-hand man on the National Security Council, Steve Bannon, who has called for a coalition of Christian traditionalists to wage a holy war against Islam. 

Bannon is a strange fellow and a traditionalist Roman Catholic, who is convinced Pope Francis is a dangerously misguided, heterodox, pro-Islamic, and alarmingly socialist pontiff. In a 2014 conference at the Vatican, Bannon warned: “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict…..We are in an outright war against jihadists, Islam, and Islamic fascism.” He also condemned “the immense secularization of the West” and an increasing secularism among millennials. (The Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, by the way, have praised the president for appointing Bannon to top positions in his administration. Makes sense. Steve Bannon is a hardened racist and a white supremacist sympathizer.) 

Today’s alternate Christianity is no small thing. It is worrisome; and supporters of alternate Christianity should not be quickly dismissed. In some ways they are quite pious. Their piety however resonates poorly with authentic Christian faith. It echoes better with an exaggerated American civil religion: a rather sectarian form of conservative white American patriotism. Evangelical alternate Christians resonated strongly with the new president, when he proclaimed January 20th, the day of his inauguration, a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion.” President Trump is the alternate Christian savior. And how strange it is that so many evangelicals continue to support him, even when that requires their looking the other way, when confronting his hypocrisy. 

Patriotic devotion or patriotic adoration? In Christian theology worshipping that which is not God is called idolatry. History shows of course that idolatry can be quite an impressive form of devotion. History shows as well that idolaters usually end up condemning and killing those who call into question their “god.” 

Mr Trump identifies himself as a Presbyterian. He says he will make Christianity great again. Frankly, I think he and his faithful followers identify more with Norman Vincent Peale, one of Trump’s former friends, than Jesus of Nazareth. That’s our contemporary American challenge. Just as we need to carefully sift alternate facts and alternate truths, we need to sift and point out the false beliefs of alternate Christianity.  

Norman Vincent Peale was immensely popular in past WWII America, especially because of his 1952 book The Power of Positive  Thinking. Peale’s message misrepresented Christianity, offering a self-centered personal happiness approach to life: more love yourself than love your neighbor. He was more influenced by Christian Science and his own fascination with psychiatry than by the message of the Gospels. Christianity in Peale’s preaching was a set of self-stroking success-oriented beliefs: more energetic narcissism than altruism. “There is a real magic in enthusiasm,” Peale once said.”It spells the difference between mediocrity and accomplishment.” Trump’s followers, wearing their make-America-great caps, have adopted this strategy and applied it to the country, ignoring racism, poverty, and “the losers.” Their gospel is looking out for number one.  

I can understand why Donald Trump considered Peale his friend and mentor. (Peale also presided at Trump’s 1977 wedding to Ivana Trump in the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan.) What Trump admired in Peale, who died on the day before Christmas in 1993, was Peale’s religion of success and personal fulfillment. The people who flocked to Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church were, like Trump’s parents, wealthy and success-driven CEOs who thought very positively about themselves. When Donald Trump looks at the world, he needs to see himself on center stage. “When I think I’m right,” he once said on 60 Minutes, “nothing bothers me.” And on another occasion, “Show me someone without an ego, and I’ll show you a loser.” 

And so here we are, three weeks from Easter. Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t quite fit the alternate Christian model. He was not self-centered. He did think positively about other people. He did not categorize some people as “losers.” He raised up the downtrodden. He ate with publicans and sinners. Those whom society shunned, Jesus touched and healed. The Bible that Jesus read, believed, and preached, the Hebrew Bible, bears strong witness to the same principles. The God of Israel condemned those who “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” (Amos 2:7) 

Alternate facts are fiction. Alternate truth is falsehood. Alternate Christianity is a fiction, a convenient fantasy, and a very dangerous falsehood.  

Teacher,” he asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40) 


Jack 

jadleuven@gmail.com

Retreat, Escape, or Face the Challenge 


18 March 2017

Three recent books are energizing conservative-minded Roman Catholics and other Christians these days. The theme in all three is the end of Christian America. One of my traditionalist friends called them to my attention, hoping to lure me away from my “dangerous liberal thinking.”

I guess a variety of viewpoints has always been with us; and I really do respect other opinions. I do not agree with the authors of these three books, however, because they propose solutions to some genuine American problems that are either unhelpfully narrow-minded or simply utopian fantasies.

On the other hand, out of fairness to my friend who brought them to my attention, I guess one could indeed use these books for a very healthy and effective discussion about what it means to be a truly contemporary Christian…..as well as a contemporary American, deeply concerned about religion, values, and morality in today’s USA.

I begin with Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World by Charles J. Chaput, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia.

Archbishop Chaput offers a strongly negative critique of contemporary U.S. society. I suspect many readers who page through his book will shake their heads in agreement, as they read his lamentations that the United States has now been conquered by a secularist, pleasure-seeking, self-absorbed worldview that leaves little place for Jesus or traditional morality. Telltale signs of America’s “post-Christian” decadence, according to the Archbishop, are divorce, contraception, abortion, materialism, an invasive Obama-generated government, and gay marriage.

Considering my own religious tradition that has long valued the voice of the People of God, and thinking about the city where the Declaration of Independence was drafted, the first red light about this book started flashing for me, when I saw Philadelphia’s Archbishop asserting that “Democracy tends to unmoor society from the idea of permanent truths.” An alternative fact?

Archbishop Chaput has Native American roots but, very frankly, political and ecclesiastical barrel vision. He says the U.S. press is much too hostile toward President Trump; and he praises Mr. Trump and his administration for their pro-life concerns. (It seems clear to me that the Trump administration’s pro-life concerns terminate once a fetus becomes a self-breathing human being in need of nurture, shelter, and education… but then I don’t want to be overly political.) Philadelphia’s Archbishop is critical of Pope Francis as well. Here he shares the concerns of the American Cardinal Raymond Burke. They both suspect Francis is not being faithful to Catholic orthodoxy and fear he is spreading doctrinal confusion in the church. Chaput, for sure, has no confusion. He has instructed pastoral ministers in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to NOT allow communion for divorced and remarried or cohabiting couples (unless they can demonstrate that they are not having sex!); and he believes children of same-sex couples should not be allowed to attend Catholic schools. Very pro-life? When it comes to contraception, the Archbishop believes the widespread use of contraceptives has now subverted the purpose of human sexuality and has led to conjugal infidelity and a general lowering of morality. He is concerned as well about an exaggerated feminism which, he says, has actively contributed to women’s dehumanization.

The good old days. Archbishop Chaput has often said he longs for the 1950s. He would like to retreat to a (highly romanticized) time when everything was clear. Men and women were clear about their identities. Sex was for procreation. The church was clear about its teachings and Catholics were obedient to clearly demonstrated church authority. I suspect the Archbishop is indeed a stranger in his own strangely perceived environment.

A second Catholic author is sounding the trumpet for his own kind of strong retreat from today’s American malaise. A professor at Providence College, Anthony Esolen is widely promoting his book Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. In Esolen’s eyes, the United States is a cultural nightmare. I resonate with his concern about a commitment to truth; and I fear with him that America’s most powerful institutions—including the government—are becoming mass producers of deceit. I understand as well what he means when he says “Sometimes entire civilizations do decay and die, and the people who point that out are correct.” I do not agree, however, with his assessment of our contemporary United States. The situation is hardly as dark and decadent as he would have us believe.

I do not agree with Esolen that our public schools are failures beyond repair and must be replaced by private schools. Nor do I agree with him that most of our universities have become complete failures. In fact, I find it more than disconcerting that the handful of universities, he holds up as stellar examples for our emulation, are rigidly fundamentalist and lean far to the right politically.

Somewhat like Archbishop Chaput, Anthony Esolen would like to return to the good old days of Western Civilization, to a time before the sexual revolution when, as he emphasizes, people truly understood what sex was about and “men were men and women were women.”  Yes I do understand what some call the glory days of Western Civilization. I speak Latin and Greek, and I know and appreciate the philosophical, literary, and artistic traditions in our cultural DNA. I do not however want to return to some kind of late medieval world view with its exaggerated patriarchy, misogyny, religious narrow mindedness, and its great ignorance about psychology and ongoing human development and understanding.

Now to the third book my friend recommended to bring me back to the straight and narrow: The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher. In his life (he is 50 years old) he has already had quite a personal religious journey. He began life as a Methodist. Later became a Roman Catholic. He dropped out of the Catholic Church because of the sexual abuse scandal. Curiously he says that sexual abuse is not due to pedophilia but rather to a network of gay priests which he calls the Lavender Mafia. I think he is wrong here on both counts. Pedophilia does not spring from homosexuality and the Lavender Mafia is pure fantasy. After being a Roman Catholic, Dreher next joined Eastern Orthodoxy.

Journalist Dreher has strong conservative credentials. He is a former publications director for the John Templeton Foundation and currently senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative. His view of contemporary America is totally apocalyptic. In his own words, he describes it this way: “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America. This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it.”

The solution for believers? The only way to escape apocalyptic destruction, according to Dreher, is for Christians to drop out of American society and create and live in their own subgroups like Benedictine monks. Not everyone of course can run off to a monastery. (I would suggest as well that Dreher has a misconception about Benedictine monastic spirituality and mission.)

My major concern, however, at the end the of this week’s reflection, is that the author of the Benedict Option misunderstands the Incarnation and what Jesus was all about. Jesus did not run away from his contemporary socio-cultural environment. He plunged in. Jesus ate with publicans and sinners. He understood the signs of the times. He lived in a Rome dominated society much more troubling and far more inhumane than contemporary America.

What Jesus did, of course, is now our contemporary Christian challenge.
Jack

My contact information:  Email: jadleuven@gmail.com

Jesus, Christianity, and Other World Religions


9 March 2017

A couple days ago, a friend asked me when I began my theological questioning. I remember the event that really triggered it….

I was in fourth grade in St. Mary’s Elementary School in Paw Paw, Michigan. It was a Monday morning. The local Catholic priest, a rigid but friendly fellow, had come for his weekly classroom visit. He started by asking everyone who had not been to Mass that Sunday to stand up. (Fortunately, that Sunday I had gone to Mass and was saved the embarrassment of standing there in my shame.) He then launched into a tirade against Protestantism as “a false religion.” My Dad was Protestant. I raised my hand, stood up, and challenged our Catholic pastor. With a bit of youthful bravado, I asked him how there could be anything “false” about my Dad. I said that he was a Christian, a good man, read the Bible, and said his prayers. That evening, I told my Dad what had happened. He very calmly said “I am sure Father is a good man. He’s just a terribly ignorant and narrow-minded priest.” 

We learn. We grow. Theological understandings change over time.  

My reflection about Jesus, Christianity, and other world religions comes as a reaction to the recent vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, bomb threats (now close to a hundred) against Jewish community centers, anti-Islam violence, and the destructive burning of mosques by crusading Christians. I find it particularly repugnant when Christian leaders like Franklin Graham call Islam a “very evil and wicked religion.” 

In Roman Catholic theological reflection, especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), we not only understand that Protestants and all Christians belong to the Body of Christ; but in our respect for and appreciation for other world religions, there has been a tremendous development as well. Two books that have helped me refine my own thinking are: Jesus Symbol of God (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999) by Roger Haight, S.J., and Theologies of Religion (also Orbis Books, 2002) by Paul Knitter. 

Theological understanding changes over time. My own thinking is moving beyond three more or less rigid viewpoints about the relation of other religious traditions to Christianity: pluralism, exclusivism, and inclusivism. 

Pluralism. Pluralism is generally the position that all world religions are true and equally valid. Well, I remain a Christian and an historical theologian. We all live and grow where we have been planted. The essential structure of the Christian faith in God is that it is mediated by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus remains uniquely the center of Christian faith insofar as it is he who was and is the medium and focus of a Christian’s faith in God. I would suggest that the validity or truth of Christian beliefs is displayed by a thoughtful examination that shows its reasonability and credibility within common human experience. 

Exclusivism. Exclusivism is the theological position that maintains the absolute necessity of faith in Christ. Exclusivists insist that there is no salvation in non-Christian religions. This position, today, is most often identified with conservative evangelical Christians. The main objection to exclusivism is that it contradicts the message of the New Testament. Jesus announced God’s salvation for all. When we read the New Testament, we see absolutely no indications that the God proclaimed by Jesus was interested in saving just a distinct minority of human beings. 

Inclusivism. While exclusivism is clearly a minority theological position today, the same is not true of the inclusive view that Jesus causes the salvation of all. In one form or another this has been the dominant theology of mainline churches for some time. Inclusivism maintains that God is present in non-Christian religions but only through Christ. This viewpoint gave rise to the concept of the “anonymous Christian” by which God saves through Christ, even when the believer knows nothing about Christ or Christianity. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner popularized this “anonymous Christian” understanding. 

I am not ready to be burned at the stake but would suggest, however, that a close and careful reading of the texts indicates that the witness of the New Testament runs in a direction quite contrary to inclusivism. Theologians like Roger Haight and contemporary biblical scholars are strong in their assertion that Jesus did not preach himself but the Reign of God.  

The message of Jesus is theocentric: God saves and God is love. Jesus is the great symbol and reality of the proclamation of God’s salvation. A theocentric perspective on Jesus – where I am today — enables Christians to be fully committed to Jesus Christ and fully open to other religions. I remember very well the words of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. It was issued on October 28, 1965, shortly after my arrival as a younger man and a theology student in Louvain. 

“In our time,” the document stressed, “when day by day humankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the church examines more closely its relationship to non-Christian religions. In the church’s task of promoting unity and love among all men and women, indeed among all nations, it considers above all, in this declaration, what people have in common and what draws them to fellowship. One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal: God. God’s providence, God’s manifestations of goodness, God’s saving design extended to all people.” [My inclusive language translation.] 

Yes of course, Jesus is the center of Christian faith insofar as it is he who was and is the focus of a Christian’s faith in God. The God of Christians, however, (and here we do have what for many believers amounts to a paradigm shift) cannot be conceived by Christians as just some kind of local or tribal God, who exists only for themselves. Christians can indeed regard other world faiths as true, in the sense that they too are mediations of God’s salvation.  

Considering the world’s religions, I suggest we have to work together in what the Roman Catholic theologian, Paul Knitter, has called a kind of “unitive pluralism.” We need to move beyond a simple tolerance for other religions and develop a positive appreciation for what they have to offer…. Moving from tolerance to collaboration. From collaboration to genuine appreciation. From appreciation to learning from the other. 

Global understanding, anchored in inter-religious dialogue and collaboration, is essential for everyone’s life and future. Our goal does not have to be the reduction of all faiths into one. We do need to look for commonalities, different expressions and understandings of the Sacred, and a base for common ethical responsibilities in a turbulent and anxious world. And yes, all participants in the conversation must remain humbly open to the challenges of mutual criticism and correction. No faith tradition has all the answers. We are all learning believers.  

Inter-religious dialogue is not just something that is a nice thing to do. It is appropriate and absolutely essential for our survival in a world of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multinational interdependence. We cannot survive by “going it alone,” even if we think we are great. 

I conclude with another citation from the Declaration on Non-Christian Religions: 

“People expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of all men and women: What is the human person? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment, and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?” 

Yes. We are all on this journey together. Our enemies are not Jews and Muslims but arrogant self-righteousness, ignorance, and xenophobic paranoia…… 

Jack

Dr. J. A. Dick

Geldenaaksebaan 85

3001 Heverlee BELGIUM

Email: jadleuven@gmail.com

 

2017 Blog Appeal


Dear Friends,

I am very appreciative that so many people responded to my original 2017 blog fund appeal. Since people have been asking, to date I have reached 75% of my goal. This is simply a final update. I promise to continue thinking and writing.

Warmest regards to all

Jack
Dr. J.A. Dick

Geldenaaksebaan 85A

3001 Heverlee

Belgium
jadleuven@gmail.com

Ash Wednesday Jottings


1 March 2017

Next week, my promised reflection on Jesus and world religions. Today some brief reflections about the first week of March and the first week of Lent, inspired by signs of the times. 

As my calendar shifted to March, thoughts of an earlier March popped into my head. I was ten years old……I remember the day well: 5 March 1953. It was a Thursday (Ash Wednesday that year fell on 18 February) and my Dad had gathered the family around the radio in our living room. He said “something historic is happening.” Then Walter Winchell came on the radio and announced that Joseph Stalin had died.  

It seems so long ago. No. I am not slipping into an old guy nostalgia trip. My concerns today are more contemporary, but today’s current events seem to resonate so much with events back then.  

Although I suspect a couple of my readers may not agree, my brief thoughts today are truly Christian theological, not partisan party political. 

Stalin, who once upon a time studied to be an Orthodox priest, maneuvered himself into becoming head of the Soviet Union, following Lenin’s death in 1924. He consolidated his power by manipulating information, passing laws against what he called terrorist organizations, and exploiting his own inflated personality cult. He insisted that he should be remembered for “the extraordinary modesty characteristic of truly great people.” Stalin of course was one of the 20th century’s most ruthless dictators.

What I especially remember about Stalin is how he branded his opponents “enemies of the people,” and subjected them to interrogation, deportation, and even death. Commenting about “enemies of the people,” Mitchell A. Orenstein, University of Pennsylvania professor of Russian and East European Studies, observed: “In essence, it was a label that meant death. It meant you were subhuman and entirely expendable.” 

Stalin succeeded because he was good at authoritarian seduction: emotionally-charged bully-talk, with very little rational or honest content. He was a self-centered, write-your-own-rules dictator. He got away with it in grand style. 

Strangely, authoritarian followers are loyal and easily submissive to such authoritarian leaders, insisting that everyone behave as dictated by the authoritarian. They are fearful about a changing world and a changing society, which they either don’t understand or do not want to understand. They are attracted to strong leaders, who appeal to their feelings of fear and anxiety. They respond aggressively toward “outsiders.” They scapegoat foreigners and people from other cultural or religious traditions. Blind faith is substituted for critical reason. A leader’s feckless racism and compulsive lying are seen not as moral failures but as signs of strength. The unknown and the different become the enemy. Authoritarianism becomes even more sinister, when authoritarian leaders begin to proclaim their message in the name of Christianity.  

Authoritarianism is not a Christian virtue. Jesus was not an authoritarian leader. He was neither boastful nor pretentious, and hardly a self-stroking narcissist. Jesus neither controlled nor directed his followers to isolate, segregate, humiliate, or persecute. In the New Testament, Jesus’ authority is not power OVER people but EMPOWERING people: motivating and empowering them to serve, to minister, and to spread the Goodnews. Jesus invites and empowers us today. He challenges us to think, to speak, and to act courageously.  

Authentic Christianity promotes solidarity and hope, not fear. Genuine Christians consider helpless refugees their brothers and sisters in need, not enemies. Followers of Christ do not set one group of people against another; nor do they promote a distorted view of patriotism that proclaims one country’s greatness is best established by demeaning other people. 

In Lent we have 40 days to take stock of ourselves. And to take stock of the world in which we live. On Ash Wednesday, we are charged to repent and believe in the Gospel. Believing in the Gospel means as well living the Gospel. May we encourage each other to stand strong, think clearly, and act resolutely. We live in very challenging times. 




For spiritual reading between now and Easter, why not a systematic re-reading the Gospels? I suggest starting with Mark. If you are looking for a handy guide for reading the Gospels I can suggest another book by Steve Mueller, who wrote the book on Revelation,  “So What’s the Good News? ” (Faith Alive Books). He writes with clarity and pastoral realism; and again, he is a knowledgeable and trustworthy scriptural guide. Gather a group of friends.His book would be perfect for your own Bible study group: sharing today to shape tomorrow!


If you are looking for something more comprehensive, I suggest: “Introduction to the New Testament” by Raymond F. Collins (Doubleday). Ray’s book is excellent. He offers a clearly written and very fine introduction to New Testament scholarship–its history, methodology, and findings. 

As always, I appreciate your observations and support. My contact info:  Dr. J. A. Dick — Geldenaaksebaan 85A, 3001 Heverlee, Belgium  


Email: jadleuven@gmail.com