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….

Easter 2017

Happy Easter to my Another Voice readers. 

“Christianity is precisely a liberation from every rigid legal and religious system. This is asserted with such categorical force by St Paul, that we cease to be Christians the moment our religion becomes slavery to “the Law” rather than a free personal adherence by loving faith, to the risen and living Christ.….Let us not darken the joy of Christ’s victory by remaining in captivity and in darkness, but let us declare his power, by living as free men and women who have been called by him out of darkness into his admirable light.” — Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968)


Spring in Leuven

For Palm Sunday and Holy Week: Reflections from T.S. Eliot

7 April 2017

From “Ash Wednesday”:

“…Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still

Even among these rocks,

Our peace in His will

And even among these rocks

Sister, mother

And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,

Suffer me not to be separated……And let my cry come unto Thee.”

From “Journey of the Magi”:

“…All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

I should be glad of another death.”



My very best wishes for the Easter season.

I will be away from my computer for a few days and expect to return at the end of April.

Homespun Truth

Fifth Sunday of Lent 2 April 2017

          On both sides of the Atlantic it appears that an increasing number of people are obsessed with proclaiming their own homespun “truth.” The phenomenon is often rooted in ignorance and proclaimed with a kind of self-righteous arrogance. It can also be a convenient deception, as we see in contemporary political discourse. Perhaps the Declaration of Independence will soon be re-written from “we hold these truths to be self-evident” to “we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true.” 

          An acquaintance, who should know better, told me a few days ago that the sun revolves around the earth. I asked him if he had any other medieval beliefs and he told me, with a bit of dismissive annoyance, that he had “found Jesus” and now doubted “a lot of that modern science stuff.” I did some checking and discovered that about 79% of Americans believe the earth revolves around the sun; and 18% say it is obvious that the sun revolves around the earth. In Germany, 74% believe the earth goes around the sun; but in Great Britain, only 67% believe that. (Perhaps that helps explain Brexit?)  

          When it comes to theology, the early medieval mentality seems to still attract many followers, who adamantly refuse to accept “a lot of that modern science stuff.” Just about 42 % of contemporary Americans believe that God created human beings, in their present form, less than 10,000 years ago. They believe as well that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. I know I look like an old fossil, but I told one of my fundamentalist friends that, based on fossil remains, the current scientific consensus places the origin of dinosaurs between 231 and 243 million years ago and that the dinosaurs became extinct 66 million years ago. He said “that nonsense is not science but the work of the devil.”   

          What is the basis for our truth statements? How do we verify? Is personal opinion becoming more reliable than factual verification?  

          Last semester, when discussing the U.S. Civil War (the “War Between the States” if you are from the South) I told my university students that all the churches – even Roman Catholic – in the North supported the Union and all the same churches in the South supported the Confederacy. Even Pope Pius IX encouraged and supported the Confederacy. I asked my students how God could have actively supported both the Union and the Confederate causes. Two young men from the USA said it was simply a matter of personal opinion and that Union and Confederate opinions should have been and should still be respected. “So God battled against God?” I asked. They replied that I had a right to express my opinion……I then jumped to the Shoah and the Nazi extermination of Jews. “Was that right or wrong” I asked, “or a matter of opinion,” One student, who told the class her grandparents were Jewish, said she had serious thoughts about the whole thing today. She said perhaps, if she had lived back then she would have seen things differently and supported the Nazis. The fellow sitting next to her shouted out that the whole Nazi thing was a hoax and Jews were not gassed in Nazi concentration camps. I said that I have been to Auschwitz. He replied that Auschwitz looks very realistic, like a Hollywood film creation;  but that Nazi Germany’s Final Solution was aimed only at deporting Jews not exterminating them. 

          More homespun truth…..Contemporary examples are abundant. Many Christian leaders in my tradition, for instance, still view sexuality as simply a matter of genital activity geared to procreation and consider contraception immoral and gay people innately disordered. 

          Sometimes I fear we are quickly moving from people being uninformed and misinformed to being proudly and aggressively wrong. What we see is not just a rejection of existing knowledge. It is a rejection of historical-critical rationality. Knowledge is becoming a do-it-self creation. If it feels good, it must be right.  

          These days it is not Islamic fundamentalism that I fear but a growing obsession with self-fabricated truth. It is sometimes self-created and affirmed because if feels good. It is also being mass produced by people adept at developing attractive arguments and using their skills to mislead and exploit fearful and gullible people. 

What do we do? 

          We need to become actively engaged in educational reform. We need to evaluate, and reform where appropriate, the curricula in public and private schools. Some principles to guide curricular planning and evaluartion:

(1) Science is neither diabolic nor the enemy. Good science and healthy faith do not contradict each other. When apparent contradictions appear, these are red flags indicating the presence of either poor science or shaky religion.  

(2) Currently accepted facts – the substance of contemporary knowledge — are based on empirical evidence and deductive reasoning not personal opinion. 

(3) Historical-critical thinking is neither “critical” nor negative. Perhaps a more accurate term we should use is evaluative thinking. We examine and evaluate various statements and viewpoints in terms of factual reality: when statements were made, what they were based on, what kinds of language were used, etc. Dinosaurs were long, long gone from our earthly scene, more than ten thousand years ago. This is not theory but fact. The biblical account of Adam and Eve, right from the beginning of the narration, was biblical mythology and not historic fact. Biblical mythology, properly understood, communicates important religious truths 

(4) We ought to be greatly concerned about the survival of the humanities, now being unfunded and pushed to the side. The humanities insure and safeguard how we process and document the human experience. We desperately need literature, art, music, and history to truly be human and to understand who we are as human beings.  

(5) Most importantly, we need the humanities to experience and relate to the sacred….the very essence of humanity and reality…the Divine. God has not abandoned us but far too many people have lost touch with artistic, musical, and symbolic avenues to the Divine. Education is more than AbCs, math, and athletics.

(6) At all levels in the educational process, we need to maintain a global awareness and stress global responsibilities. This touches on climate change of course; but I am thinking right now about a global reality that is minimally stressed in the news, hardly discussed in political circles, and has not even been the subject of a presidential tweet: famine in Africa which is an appalling failure of the world system. Today in Ethiopia and its neighbors in East Africa 16 million people are on the brink of starvation and desperately in need of food, water, and medical treatment.   

The danger of homespun truth is that it easily mutates into a deadly virus that destroys the heart and soul of humanity. Fact-based knowledge, critical thinking skills, historical awareness, and anchors in art, music, and literature are essential elements in maintaining a humane and humanizing life and culture. Otherwise we risk becoming thoughtlessly-muted but violently xenophobic……….and narcissistic anthropological aberrations. 



Alternate Christianity 


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)