Once again, this year my Christmas reflection is T.S. Eliot’s poem Journey of the Magi. Eliot retells the story of the Magi who travelled to Palestine to visit the newborn Jesus according to the Gospel of Matthew. This narrative, told from the point of view of one of the magi, expresses themes of alienation and feelings of powerlessness in a world that has changed. Many would resonate with that today. For all of us, however, the message of Christmas is a sign and an assurance of hope. We need to remind each other about that from time to time…..
Many kind regards and every good wish for Christmas 2016. May 2017 be a year of grace for all.
The Journey Of The Magi
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
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,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
17 December 2016
Intense and often hateful polarization in politics and religion are a result of changing values within major segments of our population. As people reaffirm their identity, the assertion of opposing beliefs and values threatens people and creates anxieties. How one responds is crucial.
Some forms of political and religious polarization have always been with us, of course, and probably will always be with us. When polarization and accompanying violence reach a dangerous high point, however, the warning lights begin to flash.
Historically, our survival as individuals and as groups within U.S. society has been based on shared values sustained by government, churches, schools, and the media. When there is no longer a socio-cultural common vision and fake news and fiction are promoted as truth, polarization becomes life-threatening. That of course is what’s happening today. The packaging of information has become more important than the content. The best-selling news story more important than the most truthful. Honesty becomes what people want to buy not what is truly honest.
Within less than an hour, for instance, a hateful Twitter comment or an unfounded Facebook remark can get promoted as reality; and life becomes intensely unpleasant and often mortally dangerous for the people mentioned in the posting. Opposing groups dominate and attempt to vanquish the other. Mr. Trump is an example. The people he despises the most are not America’s traditional “enemies” but the American men and women who disagree with him
This post is not about Donald Trump, per se, but his conflicted election has underlined the new predicament in which we find ourselves. Some observers fear the situation is life-threatening. Are we becoming a house divided against itself? Will America explode?
We have inherited transforming ideas from the cultural revolution of the 1960s, key among these: the Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution, the drive for women’s equality, the questioning of institutional religion, and the whole question of hard-nosed militarism as a solution for contemporary international problems.
In our contemporary American socio-cultural growth and change, we see as well increased hatred and violent social intolerance within segments of American society. They have gone hand in hand with a weakening of what we call social morality, our social glue, that is an essential part of civility and shared civil life.
Social morality directs, guides, and restrains individual and group behavior. In day-to-day conduct, social morality is normally more important than the law. Generally speaking, law prescribes minimalist standards of conduct. A person can act legally and still not act ethically or civilly or politely. That’s where we are. It has been front page news.
Today, we observe almost routine ethical scandals in American political and corporate life. We witness increased hatred for blacks, gays, Mexicans, Muslims, and assorted immigrants. Ironic of course for a country of immigrants. We see a lack of civility in public places, denigrating language from political and religious leaders, and increasingly violent public confrontations. Donald Trump is, in fact, example, symbol, and instigator. He is not the grand inquisitor but the great self-centered authoritarian leader whose authoritarian followers, more comfortable in their 1950s fantasy life than in our contemporary changing society, trust and follow him blindly. A very unAmerican situation.
So we have the big contemporary dilemma in American life: How do we reconstruct a viable social morality that will unite us in our diversity? A social morality that stresses that all are created equal. A social morality that stimulates and promotes tolerance, dialogue, and collaboration. A social morality that will promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.
I remain the long-term optimist. It can and will happen. I believe Millennial Americans have a key role to play here in constructing a viable new social morality. (It is a deadly risk for churches to ignore the Millennials.)
In constructing a new social morality, we need the close and consistent engagement of families (in the great variety of family forms), schools, businesses, and churches.
And they all need to affirm a set of eleven core American values:
(1) Patriotism that sees the USA as a collaborating country in an interdependent world.
(2) Self-confidence rooted in the belief that every American has self-worth.
(3) Individualism for self and for the other.
(4) Belief in hard work and productivity that enhances human life.
(5) Religious beliefs that should critique a country but not control it.
(6) Child-centeredness that pushes right to life beyond simply arguing about abortion.
(7) Community and charity seen as essential exercises in civil life and responsibility.
(8) Pragmatism and compromise as we walk down the same road.
(9) Acceptance of the diversity of ethnic and cultural and religious backgrounds, and our ability your respect and live with each other.
(10) Cooperation with other countries as the authentic way to make America great.
(11) Hunger for common ground.
I close with the prayer of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Reflection for the Third Sunday of Advent
Posted on 9 December 2016
The first reading from the Hebrew Scriptures this week end reminds us:
Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Those thoughts are in the back of my head as I read news stories about the new Vatican document, The Gift of the Priestly Vocation, issued on Wednesday, December 7th and signed by Pope Francis. Most surprising in this new document is not just that it reaffirms celibacy for priests but that it reiterates the narrow teaching of a document issued in 2005 by the Congregation for Catholic Education. That Vatican directive had been issued in response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis; and it was seen by many as way to (unfairly) blame sex abuse on gay priests.
I quote from The Gift of the Priestly Vocation:
“The Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture’. Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women.”
When I first read about this most recent document, signed by the pope, my thoughts went back immediately to his famous July 22, 2013 airplane interview, when he said: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis spoke to reporters in Italian but used the English word “gay.”
What does this latest Vatican document mean? I really don’t know. Will it force more gay men to lie about their sexual orientation if they want to be ordained? Will it encourage more Catholic institutions to fire gay and lesbian employees? Will it encourage more priests to simply move on? Commenting about this document in the National Catholic Reporter (8 December 2016), the Jesuit journalist Thomas Reese observed: “I sometimes think that it would be good for the church if 1,000 priests came out of the closet on the same Sunday and simply said, ‘We’re here!’ I don’t think the church is ready for that yet, but someday it should be.”
Like many of you, I know more than a few very fine Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and Protestant ordained ministers and seminarians who are gay. Over many years I have helped educate a great many gay seminarians, most of whom were healthy and well-balanced men of faith and Christian zeal. Thinking about these men, I never thought about “don’t ask, don’t tell.” My concern has always been “does it really make a difference?”
One of my homophobic friends said not so long ago: “I thank Almighty God that Jesus was not gay.” With a chuckle, and wanting to edge him on a bit, I replied “I guess we really don’t know. The historical Jesus did seem to have a thing about the ‘beloved’ young fellow John.” We will never know. It is all hypothetical. To me it makes no difference.
One thing we do know about Jesus of Nazareth, of course, is that he was not a white, male, supremacist. These Trumpian racist days, I find that important to emphasize.
Once upon a time, Roman Catholic bishops sang in unison. Today one hears a variety of tunes, not always harmonious. Theological polarization from the papacy to Philadelphia is the new thing. All in all, I suspect it may be more a sign of life than a reason for anxiety.
This week’s reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent begins where our independence began, in Philadelphia, the city of fraternal love. In new guidelines issued by Archbishop Charles Chaput, Catholics in Philadelphia, who are divorced and civilly remarried, will be allowed to receive Holy Communion, ONLY if they abstain from sexual relations and live like “brother and sister.” Fraternal love?
In his guidelines, the Archbishop of Philadelphia also asks his priests to help Catholics who are attracted to people of the same sex but “find chastity very difficult” by encouraging them to seek penance more frequently. And of course, people living in a same-sex marriage cannot receive Holy Communion, because they are living in serious sin.
The Philadelphia guidelines are Archbishop Chaput’s response to Pope Francis’ appeal to bishops, in his apostolic exhortation on family love Amoris Laetitia that they be more understanding of divorced and remarried Catholics as well as people in same-sex relationships. Amoris Laetitia called on bishops to show greater mercy and flexibility to bring Catholics back to the church. I don’t think brothers and sisters will be running back to the Catholic Church in Philadelphia.
They might, however, out West, where we hear a different episcopal sound.
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, by way of a follow-up to a diocesan synod held in October, has asked his priests to encourage Catholics, who are divorced and remarried, to consider whether “God is calling them to return to the Eucharist.” McElroy has instructed his pastors to post notices in parish bulletins, inviting divorced and remarried Catholics to “utilize the internal forum of conscience” in making their decisions whether they should receive Holy Communion. The decision is theirs, the bishop stressed.
Back on the East coast, in the Archdiocese of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, has praised the pro-life stance of the President-elect Donald Trump and said he hopes the new administration will correct eight years of abuses by the Obama administration. “Sadly,” Cardinal Dolan stressed, “the Obama administration has been an ally to abortion advocates in advancing oppressive policies. It imposed the so-called HHS mandate forcing even religious organizations to cover contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs in their health insurance plans.”
Cardinal Dolan did not comment about Donald Trump’s (pro-life?) rhetoric about immigrants and refugees. His new cardinal neighbor, Joseph Tobin, however, has been more than outspoken. Tobin, the new Cardinal Archbishop of Newark — as the crow flies, only about 9 miles from Dolan in New York City — warns that the church will have four difficult years ahead if it insists on providing a welcome to immigrants and refugees during a Donald Trump presidential administration. Tobin stressed that anyone who wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out migrants — as President-elect Trump has proposed — is “not Christian.”
Another newly-named U.S. Cardinal, Kevin J. Farrell, believes U.S. bishops, working together, should have discussed pastoral guidelines for implementing Pope Francis’s exhortation Amoris Laetitia, before individual bishops, like Archbishop Chaput, began issuing guidelines for their own dioceses. Farrell, the former Bishop of Dallas, has just been appointed prefect of the new Vatican Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life. About Philadelphia’s Chaput, Farrell is very clear: “I don’t share the view of what Archbishop Chaput did, no…. I think there are all kinds of different circumstances and situations that we have to look at – each case as it is presented to us.”
Some fascinating contemporary episcopal rhetoric, is echoing from Australia as well. Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane says it is time for a Catholic re-thinking of some traditional Catholic terms if the church is going to have any relevance and credibility today. Terms he specifically mentioned are: the “indissolubility” of marriage; the “intrinsically disordered” nature of homosexual acts; calling divorce and civil remarriage “adultery;” and the old maxim of “love the sinner but hate the sin.”
One final bit of contemporary Roman Catholic drama. The senior Vatican lawyer, Archbishop Pio Vito Pinto, who leads the Vatican’s appeal court, says that by calling into question Pope Francis’ faithfulness to Catholic doctrine, four cardinals (see last week’s blog), among them the U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, have caused a “grave scandal” in the Catholic Church and should be demoted and forced to surrender their red hats.
Cardinal Burke, who already has had to surrender his Vatican job, and has no desire to hand in his crimson hat and cape, responded by launching a crusade of prayer on December 1st, called “Operation Storm Heaven,” praying: “That bishops and priests will have the courage to teach the Truth and defend the Faith against all her enemies both within the Church and outside the Church.”
I close with a citation from the Australian Archbishop Coleridge, who stressed that being pastoral means getting “in touch with the facts of human experience.”
“It means,” says Coleridge, “that we, like God, abandon the world of abstraction to engage the real lives of real people…. This will mean a new kind of listening to the truth of people’s experience. From a new listening, will come a new language that people can understand because it’s in touch with their lives. That’s what it means to be a truly pastoral Church.”
In the Advent Wreath Prayer for the First Week of Advent, we asked Christ to come to our aid. This week, we ask him to move us to action.
Regardless where we are on planet Earth these days, we are witnessing a major shift in human history. Perhaps we no longer have either the language or the imagination to deeply describe and interpret what’s happening. Perhaps we have grown so accustomed to inflated rhetoric and public relations packaging of people and events that we have lost our perspective on the human drama that is reshaping our lives. People are fearful and anxious about losing their identity: national identities, religious identities, sex and gender identities, racial and ethnic identities.
A person’s identity was once based on a common language, a common religious tradition, and ancestral, social, cultural, or national experiences. Today, in a world of tremendous human migrations across all the ancient boarders and cyber communications networks that share not just information but human hopes and frustrations, identities are changing, whether people are comfortable or not about the new realities. Perhaps our identity is based on something far deeper? Maybe we need a new perspective on identity?
Some fearful people are working hard to reassert their old, often prejudicial, identities. In the United States, and across Europe, we see the last gasps of white male supremacy in all its ugliness, hatred, and violence. In the United States, we see as well a level of socio-cultural polarization that is higher than at the time of the nineteenth century Civil War (or the “War of Northern Aggression” if you are from the South).
In my Roman Catholic religious tradition, Pope Francis has just named seventeen new cardinals and warned about a “virus of polarization and animosity” that has seeped into the church. Symbolically and significantly, four semi-retired cardinals (Carlo Caffarra, former archbishop of Bologna; the American, Raymond Burke, former head of the Vatican supreme high court; Walter Brandmüller, former president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences; and Joachim Meisner, former Archbishop of Cologne) have now publicly questioned the pope’s most recent teachings on family life. They fear Francis has now strayed from orthodoxy and is creating disturbing confusion in the church.
Confusion in the church? Well it is there of course. I am not certain Francis created it….As I survey the results of the most recent presidential election, I see reports that millions of Catholics — like Cardinal Raymond Burke — helped elect a candidate who has shown contempt for values at the heart of our Christian morality: compassion, forgiveness, humility, and fidelity. His campaign rhetoric ran completely contrary to core values stressed in Catholic social teaching: solidarity, the preferential option for the poor, the common good, stewardship of the planet, and the dignity of every person. The president-elect has demonstrated a constant denigration of society’s so-called “losers.” In the Gospels, however, we see Jesus of Nazareth going out of his way to help just such marginalized people.
In this November’s presidential election, Roman Catholics made up 23% of the electorate; and 52% of them voted for Donald Trump. Catholic confusion indeed. Ironically, some of the strongest Catholic denunciations of candidate Trump came from ultra-conservative U.S. Catholics, like George Weigel and Robert P. George, who found Trump “manifestly unfit to be president of the United States.” Did any American Catholic bishop have the courage to publicly speak out, like the Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore, who denounced Trump as a “walking affront to the Gospels”?
I suggest we need a new perspective about contemporary life and we need to change our conversation. Seeing people in the old categories just don’t work anymore: liberal vs conservative, Republican vs Democrat, traditional Catholic vs Vatican II Catholic, and of course Protestant evangelical vs progressive Christian.
In the United States, Millennials now outnumber the baby-boomers. They, like all of us, have their shortcomings; but I enjoy my teaching and collaboration with Millennials. In so many ways, they are the future taking shape right now: the most ethnically and racially diverse generation yet. They are also more open to change than older generations. They support LGBT people and their concerns. They are electronically tuned-in and interconnected. Unlike fear-struck racial and ethnic supremacists, they experience socio-cultural change as part of our contemporary reality and not a threat to their identity. They are much more concerned about the human values of truthfulness, integrity, honesty, respect for the other, and human outreach based on dialogue, compassion, and personal encounter.
A couple days ago, I had my last university seminar session for this semester. Our theme has been “Religion, Fundamentalism, and Socio-cultural Change.” The twenty participants in my class are bright and energetic young men and women: our future leaders. While answering a question about the presidential election, I mentioned that just over 50% of American Catholics voted for Trump. I chucked and said “so is the U.S. Catholic glass half empty or half full?” A young lady raised her hand. “Professor,” she said, “I think the Catholic glass is cracked and needs some major rebuilding.” Millennial wisdom.
With a new perspective on reality, we change the conversation. My primary concerns today are not whether a person is conservative or liberal, a Republican or a Democrat, or (it is not my style!) a nineteenth century Catholic like Cardinal Burke.
The conversation I would have with Christian religious leaders and “Christian” political leaders today is this: To what degree do the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth reverberate in your hearts? That is what our conversation should be about. To what degree does the Gospel guide your decision making: celebrating divine love to the extent that people genuinely care for others, support, and yes even forgive one another. This conversation undercuts racism, the denigration of “losers,” the unhealthy lifestyles of self-centered and self-seeking bullies, xenophobia, homophobia, and all human phobias. Genuine Christianity celebrates the life of the Holy Spirit to the extent that a healthy and healing spirit pervades the individual and collective lives of people who try to genuinely follow the way of Jesus.
If the life and message of Jesus do not animate and guide their lives, people who proudly wear the Christian label, whether “conservative” or “progressive,” are meaningless propagandists and phonies.
Today we light the first Advent candle, remembering the Prophet Isaiah’s words:
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” Isaiah 9:2
On November 19th, fifty-three years ago, in preparation for Thanksgiving, which would be on November 28th, President John F. Kennedy ceremonially pardoned a turkey in the White House Rose Garden. Just three days later, he would be assassinated. JFK had been scheduled to give an address at the Trade Mart in Dallas that fateful November 22nd. Here are some excerpts from that address, which have a contemporary socio-cultural significance in politics as well as religion:
In a world of complex and continuing problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations, America’s leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem.
There will always be dissident voices heard in the land, expressing opposition without alternatives, finding fault but never favor, perceiving gloom on every side and seeking influence without responsibility. Those voices are inevitable
We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will “talk sense to the American people.” But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense. And the notion that this Nation is headed for defeat through deficit, or that strength is but a matter of slogans, is nothing but just plain nonsense….. Above all, words alone are not enough. The United States is a peaceful nation. And where our strength and determination are clear, our words need merely to convey conviction, not belligerence
. Happy Thanksgiving! We have so much for which we can be truly grateful.
This past March, I wrote about authoritarianism as an addiction. Today I see it more as the seduction of fearful people so afraid of a changing world that they lose their ability to think objectively, wallow in feelings of powerlessness; and surrender their brains and muscles to authoritarian charlatans. The seduction is widespread, around around the globe, in civil society and in religious institutions.
This week I am repeating elements of my earlier reflection, because I find it particularly appropriate this November, and as we look ahead to events in January.
Yes authoritarianism is hardly a new phenomenon. We saw it earlier in repressive political regimes in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, and the Croatian ustasha movement.
Researchers still debate the causes of authoritarianism. The public and institutional behavior of authoritarian leaders and their followers, however, is rather clear-cut.
Authoritarianism is very seductive; and, just like drug dealers and their “clients,” authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers promote authoritarian addiction. It happens when followers stop thinking for themselves and submit to the emotional rhetoric of narcissistic authoritarian leaders.
Authoritarian followers are highly submissive to authoritarian leaders and aggressively insist that everyone should behave as dictated by the authority. They are fearful about a changing world and a changing society which they neither understand nor want to understand. They would rather turn the clock back to some imagined golden era. In fact, no golden era was ever that golden; and, in any case, no one can reverse the calendar. The days, for instance, of white male supremacy in the United States are over and gone. White people will soon become the new minority group.
Authoritarian followers don’t question. They obey happily; and they happily denigrate and dismiss people who disagree with them. People seduced by authoritarianism are attracted to strong leaders, who, in often theatrical style, appeal to their feelings of fear and anxiety. They respond aggressively toward “outsides,” be they gays, Mexicans, Muslims, or political refugees. People unknown and different become the enemy.
Authoritarianism becomes even more sinister, when authoritarian leaders begin to proclaim their message in the name of Christianity, and some Christians begin to proclaim authoritarian leaders as protectors of Christian morality.
How authoritarian seduction works:
(1) In their efforts to re-shape society in their own image and likeness, authoritarian leaders feel empowered and compelled to isolate, humiliate, and irradiate those people who are seen as a threat to their existence.
(2) If an authoritarian leader has a narcissistic personality disorder, which is often the case, he or she may come across as conceited, boastful, or pretentious. That leader belittles people who are seen as inferior and problematic.
(3) Authoritarian followers need to conform and belong to their barrel-vision-group. Loyalty to their group ranks among their highest virtues.
(4) All authoritarians go through life with sloppy thinking; and they are slaves to a ferocious dogmatism that blinds them to evidence and logic. As Adolf Hitler reportedly said, “What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.”
There is nothing Christ-like about authoritarian leaders; and there is no Christian virtue in being an authoritarian follower.
In the end, people will grow out of an authoritarian seduction; but not until they begin to feel and to realize that they have been used and abused by phony manipulators of fabricated truths, by people who played games with their hopes and took advantage of their anxieties.
I am optimistic that people will eventually wise up. This process, however, may very well be slow and long.
We need to support one another….. Winter has just begun.
Some quick reflections. I am on the USA road. Back with a longer reflection after the US presidential elections.
Our conference about millennial believers was excellent. I strongly recommend our presenter Todd Salzman from Creighton.
Here is an interesting and very worthwhile book that charts the data on US teenagers. Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out Of, and Gone from the Church by Christian Smith. He asks:
“What happens in the religious and spiritual lives of American Catholic teenagers when they grow up, graduate from high school, and start leaving home to launch their own new adult lives? What is the shape of the religious and spiritual lives of American Catholic 18-to 23-year-olds?”
His reply applies not only to teenagers nor just to Catholics I suspect: “Catholic emerging adults do not use their Catholic faith as a key resource for arriving at any counter-cultural religious, social, or ethical commitments.”
I have always been interested in politics and come from a politically active family. This year, however, I have seen and heard more than enough about Donald and Hilary. I am politically tired and frustrated. I am also keenly aware that regardless who wins the key to the White House, the battles will not be finished when we wake up on November 9th. The civil/uncivil conflict may have just begun.
Today, in secular society and in the church, fierce polarization is our “realpolitik.” It threatens to disempower us and tear us apart in a long-lasting way. This past month (by way of a small personal example) because of my political and theological positions, I have been “unfriended” on Facebook by people who have been (I thought) my real friends for more than twenty-five years. Painful. Disappointing. Unnecessary.
In the United States — but across the globe as well — we are in an historic and major socio-cultural transition: cultural change everywhere with various violent eruptions. It impacts religion and political stability. It shapes our sense of personal and group identity. It spreads fears about security and our sense of security. It demands, frankly, that we start working together to chart a new course – a new direction — for church and civil society.
Charting a new direction and changing the conversation means moving beyond self-centered “my group” expediency to an other-centered engagement that promotes a more genuine Christian community and a safe and healthy society for all citizens: what we used to call “the common good.” It means looking at life and talking about life in new ways.
Last week I read the Robert P. Jones book The End of White Christian America. Are we experiencing the “end of white Christian America”? Probably. Should we be anxious about this? I don’t see why. It is not the end of Christianity. It is not the end of America. It is reality. Now how do we talk about it?
Americans in the United States are more racially and ethnically diverse than in the past. They will be even more diverse in the coming decades. By 2055, the U.S. WILL NOT have one single racial or ethnic majority, and “white people” will be a minority group. It may come as a surprise to some observers; but Asia has already replaced Latin America (including Mexico) as the biggest source of new immigrants to the United States.
One of my correspondents wrote recently that “gays are destroying American society and thanks to them family life is disintegrating.” Well that is one way of looking and speaking. What, however, would gay people say about American society today? How would they speak about family life? If we can shift our conversation from quick condemnation to dialogical comprehension, we might also become a bit more understanding and supportive of men and women living and struggling in a variety of family situations.
The American family is changing. In the United States, today, there are nearly 13.6 million single parents raising over 21 million children. Single fathers are far less common than single mothers, constituting 16% of single-parent families. The number of American adults who have never been married is now at an historic high. Two-parent households are on the decline. Divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation are on the rise. So, what is our appropriate response? We can shake our heads or we can be supportive of people living in changing times. It is a called ministry and outreach. Healthy social movements and positive social evolution are launched and maintained by compassion, support, and collaboration. Christianity is there to pick people up not push them down and ignore their plight. The historic Jesus understood this. He did not condemn the woman at the well, the woman about to be stoned to death, nor the good Samaritan.
Charles Chaput, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia, gave a speech at the University of Notre Dame on Wednesday. He said that many prominent Catholics (he had the Democratic vice presidential candidate in mind) are so weak in their faith that it would be better if they just left the Catholic Church. He said he would prefer a smaller church of holy people, anchored in traditional orthodoxy. With Chaput’s approach, I fear, Catholics will continue their exit; and the Catholic Church will indeed become smaller. I am not convinced it will necessarily become holier. We could change the conversation however. Sit down with people who are leaving or have already left the church: not to pass judgment on them but to listen to their stories: their experiences, their expectations, and their disappointments.
Another important element in changing our conversation must be inter-religious dialogue. As we chart a new course, we need to start building bridges with Islam. In our churches, we can and should have Muslim/Christian discussion groups and adult education programs. Why not have an adult ed. presentation on “Understanding the Qur’an: Islam’s Holy Book.”
Projections about our world, over the next four decades, suggest that while Christianity will remain the largest religion, Islam will probably grow faster than any other major religion. By 2050, the number of Muslims in our world will nearly equal the number of Christians. Muslims are not Christians, but they are sons and daughters of the same God; and they are indeed our brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic tradition. It is time we get to know and respect each other. It is not enough simply to change our conversation about them. We need to change our conversation with them.
The Millennials, young adults born after 1980, are the new generation to watch. They have already surpassed Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) as the largest U.S. generation. In many ways, they differ significantly from their elders. They are the most racially diverse generation in American history: 43% of Millennial adults are non-white, the highest share of any generation. They are much less interested in institutional religion and very supportive of LGBT issues and same-sex marriage.
A colleague suggested recently that we need to do a “better job of educating the Millennials.” I am all for good education, and my friend may have a point. Charting a new course and changing the conversation, however, means first that WE must start LISTENING to the Millennials. We need to hear and learn from them about their life realities, their experience of church, their hopes, their frustrations, and expectations for tomorrow.
I am not a misogynist. I do want to see women exercising every type of ordained ministry. I suggest however that we need to change our conversation about “women deacons” and “women priests.” Changing the conversation means that we consider the more basic questions about the meaning of ordained ministry. How should we understand Christian ministry today? What is the specific nature of ordained ministry today? What should it be? What structures and institutional roles and behaviors are appropriate for contemporary Christians? What is a proper – appropriately Christian – understanding of power and authority in the church? Is it not possible that the “ordained” have more than once misunderstood and misused their “power and authority”? I suggest that in many ways we need to chart a new course for ordained ministry. A new course will necessarily involve new parochial and ministerial structures. I can imagine for example that a parish could have a ministry supervisor (pastor) who would not necessarily have to be ordained. Within the parish there could be a great number of ordained ministers (women, men, married, single, gay and straight): ministering in schools, hospitals, youth groups, neighborhood and home visitations, college campuses, etc.
Well enough thoughts for today. I read in the very latest (October 19th) Pew Research bulletin that only 13% of Americans have a great deal of confidence that religious leaders act in the best interest of the public. We do need to change our conversation and chart a new course: away from polarization.
(Next week end I will be participating in a conference on the Millennials. I will offer some reflections on that after the week end.)