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….. 


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!