Global Change: More Thoughts

Labor Day Week End – 3 September 2017

A few readers have asked me to briefly expand on my “Silk Road” and global change thoughts from last week. You can call today’s essay something for post Labor Day reflection……I am an historical theologian, not a political scientist. Nevertheless, I do try to stay alert to the ever changing world around us, because that is our Reality — the only place where we encounter God, the Spirit of Christ, and our ongoing Christian challenge. 

A New Silk Road?

What I found fascinating in Peter Frankopan’s book was: (1) his survey of past civilizations and the trade routes that brought them to power, and (2) his projections about a new global trade route and the contemporary shift in economic and political power from the West to the East.

Asian and other non-European countries are indeed ascending to central places in the global order and are refashioning its structure. A key development here is China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR). It is unprecedented in its size and scope. China’s OBOR project promises investments of around $1 trillion, covering countries that account for 60 percent of the world’s population and one-third of global GDP. This dramatic change occurs at a time when Western global leadership is stymied by ineffective political and international leadership on both sides of the Atlantic.

OBOR, today, increases Beijing’s influence in states all along major trade routes, from East Asia, through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia, then the Middle East and on to Africa and Europe. It means, indeed, a galactic shift for international trade and global political influence.

Beijing is calling this 21st century initiative “Silk Road.” The project’s geography brings up thoughts of a grandiose past when European powers were not dominant and the New World was yet to be colonized. The Silk Road imagery portrays an interlinked Eurasian landmass that, frankly, does not include the United States.

My observations are not anti-American but realistic. We need to reflect about who we are and where we are going as we look deeper into the significance of this major global shift. How do we live on this globe in peaceful collaboration with differing understandings of nationalism and strong political ideologies? How do we promote and support human identity and human rights? How do we collaborate in safeguarding the environment as we confront increasingly dramatic and destructive climate change?

As our world changes, there are urgent ethical issues that we cannot ignore. There are major religious trends, as well, that cannot be ignored.

Five religions trends projected by the Pew Research Center pin point for me major global religious change and influence.

(1) Muslims today are the world’s fastest growing religious group because they have high fertility rates and the world’s youngest population.

(2) The share of the world’s population that is Christian is expected to remain steady (at about 31%), but the regional distribution of Christians is forecast to change significantly: 38% living in Subsaharan Africa by 2050, an increase from the 24% who lived there in 2010. The percentage of the world’s Christians living in Europe – which fell from 66% in 1910 to 26% in 2010 – will continue to decline, to roughly 16% in 2050.

(3) In the United States, Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population in 2010 to two-thirds in 2050, with corresponding rises of religious “nones” as well as Muslims, Hindus and others. At mid-century, Judaism will no longer be the largest non-Christian religion in the US. Muslims are projected to be more numerous than people who identify as religiously Jewish.

(4) Indonesia is currently home to the world’s largest Muslim population, but that is expected to change. By 2050, the Pew Center projects India to be the country with the largest number of Muslims – more than 310 million – even though Hindus will continue to make up a solid majority of India’s population (77%), while Muslims remain a minority (18%). Indonesia will have the third-largest number of Muslims, with Pakistan ranking second.

(5) The farther into the future we look, the more uncertainty exists, which is why the Pew projections stop at 2050. But if they are extended into the second half of this century, the projections forecast Muslims and Christians to be roughly equal in number around 2070, with Muslims the slightly larger group after that year.


Who Am I? Where Am I Going? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?

25 August 2017

I suggest that most of our contemporary issues, concerns, and problems — involving religion, gender, race, patriotism, and politics — focus on personal and group identity in a changing world. The great constant of course is change, and our changing world is changing ever more rapidly. 

My entire life I have been an “American” a citizen of the USA. My paternal ancestors arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682. I am proud of that. My American identity, however, has changed and evolved over the years, just as the world identity of the United States has changed over the years…. My entire life I have been a Christian, of the Roman Catholic variety. My Catholic identity over more than seventy years has changed tremendously. Yes I am a critical Catholic but I still identify with the Roman Catholic tradition, as that tradition continues to change and evolve. (And I try to give it a little push from time to time.)  

Perhaps the real constant in my life is the realization that I am on a life journey, along a road that sustains me and keeps me going with occasional wonderful surprises; but there are bumps and unhappy twists in the road as well. Change. A fact of life. 

Yesterday I finished reading a fascinating book about our changing world: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan. While one could perhaps question a couple interpretations here and there, the historic panorama that Frankopan depicts is magnificent and provocative in every good way.  Peter Frankopan is a senior researcher in Oxford and director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research.  

While for many of us the traditional historic view has been that Western civilization descended from the Romans, who were in turn heirs to the Greeks, who, in some historic accounts, were heirs to the Egyptians, Peter Frankopan argues that the Persian Empire was the center point for the rise of humanity. A fascinating perspective, which he presents very persuasively.  He begins his 636 paged analysis in Mesopotamia in the sixth century BCE. He then guides the reader through cycles of human creation, destruction, and re-creation right up to our contemporary twenty-first century global transformations. The element that continually stared out at me was how, over millennia, people have turned other people into international slave-trade commodities. Packaging people for the big sale. Or slaughtering them when they were of no practical use. 

Frankopan points to periods of wisdom, insight, and discovery. Unfortunately — and far too often — to periods as well of savage brutality executed in the name of God, country, and the world’s great religions. Christians, by the way, have not always been paragons of virtue. 

In the book’s final chapter, titled “The New Silk Road,” we find Frankopan’s predictions for tomorrow:  “The age of the West is at a crossroads if not at an end….The world is changing around us….networks and connections are quietly becoming knitted together across the spine of Asia; or rather they are being restored. The Silk Roads are rising again.” The world’s center of gravity is shifting East and away from Europe and the United States. Back to the East with all the economic, political, and religious implications arising from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, etc.; and China of course.  I am not fearful but solidly realistic. They may have some contemporary importance; but today’s really big issues are far greater than Trump tweets or tantrums in the White House. Another galactic shift is well underway. 

So where does one find identity and security in our tremendously changing global environment? Probably where we always did: in a lived sense of personal dignity and worth reaffirmed by those whom we love and who love us. I offer no pious or romantic platitudes. We need other people to be a real person …. and they need us.

We are all time travelers, but occasionally we forget THAT part of our reality. In a delightful discussion with a group of university students last week, all of a sudden it hit me. My experiences and dreams in the 1950s and 1960s helped to shape my identity. In fact, however, the 1950s and 1960s, today, make about as much sense to these bright young women and men as the stories of the ancient Greeks and their search for the Golden Fleece. We either live in the present or we die in the past. God bless my students. May they live long with critical reflection, insight, and inner contentment. 

Change is a fact of human life. The challenge is clear. If we are incapable of respecting and loving those around us here today, we are doomed to end our lives in desperation and violent destruction. This is our contemporary truth message (with nothing “alt” about it). It rings true down the street, across the country, and around the globe. 

Our perspectives do change over time, if we are alert time travelers. My theological understanding of reality, for instance, has changed tremendously. Terms like “supernatural” and “metaphysical” are no longer part of my vocabulary. Reality is a unified whole, with many dimensions. Space, time, and spiritual dimensions …and probably many more! And far more exciting than a magnificent solar eclipse.  

God is not “up there” or “out there.” God, “divinity,” “the sacred,” “the holy” is as close to us as the air in our lungs and the poundings in our hearts. God-with-us is the greatest source of security for time travelers. We need to listen, think, and explore a bit more. We are not alone. 

A final reflection about living in sometimes turbulent times, whether in Charlottesville, Barcelona, or the shopping mall across town: Time travelers will have a more contented and a more optimistic journey when they keep their eyes open, their minds receptive and alert, and – like people packing suitcases for a big journey – when they only only carry with them the values and attitudes that sustain and support human life. The rest should be discarded as unneeded and unhealthy baggage. 

Safe travels. 

From “Knownothings” to “Knowsomethings”

August 18, 2017

This week end, we are flooded with post Charlottesville commentary. I will keep my own reflection brief and to the point.

It is much easier to remove old statues and Confederate monuments than it is to remove blindness, barrel vision, and just plain ignorance about history and current realities.  

Keeping in mind the warning of Jesus of Nazareth in Matthew 7:5 that we need to take the planks out of our own eyes and then remove the specks from our brother’s or sister’s eyes, we do need to help the “knownothings” become “knowsomethings.” It is our Christian duty. 

By the “knownothings,” I mean contemporary ignorant people; although many of them do of course resonate with the “Know Nothing Party” during the late 1840s and the early 1850s. (Nineteenth century Know Nothing Party members strongly opposed immigrants and especially Roman Catholics.) 

As I reflect on today’s “knownothings,” I think about people who ignore or don’t react to what’s happening around them. The words of the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) come immediately to mind. Niemöllers words are engraved on a monument in the recently desecrated (for the second time this summer) New England Holocaust Memorial In Boston, Massachusetts. 

          First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

          Because I was not a Socialist.

          Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

          Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

          Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

          Because I was not a Jew.

          Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

My most serious concern about contemporary “knownothings,” however, is their prominently proclaimed ignorance about Christianity. They mourn the loss of “white Christian America.” We should mourn their distortion of Christian belief. Charlottesville is a Christian wake-up call. 

White supremacists are not authentic Christians. There is nothing Christian about racism. As Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, tweeted:“When it comes to racism, there is only one side: to stand against it.”

A final thought about foreigners, racism, and Jesus of Nazareth: Our familiar images of Jesus come from the Byzantine era, from the 4th Century onwards. Contemporary scholars agree that the historical Jesus was probably dark-skinned. Probably had shorter hair than traditionally depicted and a well trimmed beard. He spoke a “foreign” Middle Eastern language: Aramaic. And of course, Jesus was a Jew.  

Jesus, who descended from Judah, was a man of his own time and place. He did not resemble a white Anglo-Saxon American. Most importantly, the parable of the Good Samaritan, told by Jesus in Luke 10:25–37, has particular importance for all of us in these post Charlottesville days. 
— Jack

The American College of Louvain

August 5, 2017

Dear Another Voice Friends, 

Starting Sunday morning, August 6th, and continuing until August 13th I am coordinating an alumni reunion and theological conference for over fifty alumni and friends from my alma mater in Louvain (Leuven) Belgium. I will return to Another Voice on the week end of August 19/20. 

I am a proud non-ordained alumnus of The American College of Louvain and the Catholic University of Leuven. They truly opened my eyes and changed my life in very good ways. My father, who passed away in 1996, often said over the years “Jack was never the same after Louvain!” He was correct of course….

The American College of Louvain was founded in Leuven (then internationally known as “Louvain”) Belgium on March 19th 1857, under the leadership of Bishop Martin J. Spalding, Bishop of Louisville, Kentucky and Bishop Peter Paul Lefevere, Bishop of Detroit. Up until June 2011, when the U.S. bishops closed it as a seminary, The American College had operated under the auspices of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as one of two U.S. seminaries in Europe: The American College of Louvain and the younger Pontifical North American College in Rome. Today in its 160th year, The American College, owned and operated by the Catholic University of Leuven, is a wonderfully renovated residence for more than a hundred men and women pursuing university studies in a variety of disciplines. It is a delightfully energetic place and I am so very proud to say I am an alumnus. 

A bit of historical background: At the mid-point of the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church in North America was facing two major needs: finding priests to minister to a rapidly growing Catholic immigrant population, coming to its shores from Europe, and the formation of U.S. priests to minister in North America. The bishops of the United States looked, in large part, to Europe for their priests, since they had few seminaries of their own and very few native-born priests. The American College in Leuven was established by the bishops of the United States, therefore, with the dual purpose of training young European men to serve as missionary priests in North America and to train and educate young American seminarians in the philosophical and theological traditions of Louvain. 

Louvain has long been well known for its stress on the “historical-critical method” in theology. Historical criticism, also known as the historical-critical method or higher criticism, investigates the origins and meanings of ancient texts in order to understand what a text meant back then and what it means today. It applies to texts from the Bible but also doctrinal statements over the centuries, because the meanings of words, modes of thought, and literary styles change and evolve over the years. 

At the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Louvain theologians, working with Belgian bishops like Cardinal Suenens, had a major role in the drafting of what would become ground-breaking documents like Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes, reflecting a modern and developmental self-understanding for the Roman Catholic Church. 

Today The American College’s alumni minister in parishes, some are diocesan bishops, and many hold professorships at colleges and universities across the United States and around the world. Their areas of academic expertise are what they specialized in at Louvain: historical theology, moral theology, biblical theology, and church law. My own area is historical theology. 

As an older alumnus of The American College (Class of 1969) and a former professor and member of the faculty, I share, with our alumni, an immense sense of gratitude and appreciation for the professors, staff members, and students who have maintained and passed on “the spirit of Louvain.”

In ways and forms still evolving, I understand and greatly appreciate the words of Father David Russell, a student from Louisville, Kentucky — and the very first American student at the College.  

Shortly after his arrival in 1858, David wrote enthusiastically about The American College to his bishop: “The zeal of its supporters is invincible.” 
Kind regards, Jack


The Prophetic Call

Sunday —  July 30, 2017

In every age, religious people and religious institutions need prophets. A prophet is not primarily someone who predicts what will happen tomorrow, but a courageous observer who says what’s going wrong today. 

In our contemporary world, we certainly need our prophets: in traditional religion and in the American civil religion I touched on last week….

The prophet observes (phase one) what is really going on in society, with a kind of clear and objective vision: avoiding the fantasies and falsifications of narrow-vision special interest people and groups: even if they have high positions in the cathedral across town or the presidential house on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In phase two, the prophet moves into critical thinking: asking whether or not religious believers and spokespersons are truly living according to the faith experience that should be the source and sustainer of the particular religious tradition. A big caveat here of course is that it is much easier to critique someone else’s religious behavior than one’s own. I can, for instance, easily critique the immoral behavior of Islamic terrorists and clearly point out how they are behaving contrary to what is taught in the Quran. 

Phase two requires clear thinking based on correct information. It doesn’t happen over night and certainly not in a fit of emotional frenzy or frustration (like the actions of the peeved gun-owner, who takes the law into his or her own hands and shoots to kill).

The problem with phase two is that one can become highly skilled at passing judgment without ever accomplishing anything. It is so easy to be a critic and to get abundant “likes” on Facebook, or to chuckle and applaud the latest Borowitz Report. But then?

Phase three takes conviction and stamina, what we call real guts. Without phase three however our talk (to paraphrase William Shakespeare) can easily become a lot of sound and furry but signify nothing.

In phase three, people take action. In many ways people today need to take action.

When Christian religious leaders, for instance, create qualitative classes of people, they are acting on their own narrow prejudices not the Gospel of Christ. The Roman Catholic bishop of Springfield, Illinois has instructed priests in his diocese to deny communion, the last rites, and funerals to people in same-sex marriages; nor can they be buried in a Catholic cemetery. If one is going the make qualitative classes of Catholics and sanction them, even after death, I would ask the bishop what about all those “good Catholics” who are wife-beaters, child-molesters, cruel employers, political monsters, and financial crooks? What about ecclesiastical bureaucrats who bamboozle people with pious nonsense?

I don’t care to get into a political debate right now, but one can ask how genuinely American a political leader is who rejects the U.S. foundational teachings of the Declaration of Independence that all people are created equal. I question as well the Christianity of a political leader who promotes and wallows in narcissism, greed, pride, wrath, and lust as though they were the primary Christian virtues.

Healthy Christianity promotes and strengthens a basic sense of inter-personal relatedness, trust, and responsibility. Healthy Christianity promotes and honors human dignity. It empowers people without overpowering them. It promotes charity — not fear — as the key Christian virtue. All actions that denigrate people because of their religious, ethnic or racial origins, gender, and sexual orientation are not just humanly demeaning. They are contrary to the Gospel of Christ.

Observe, judge, and ACT: these are the keys to effective prophetic behavior. Can we not become more prophetic religious people? How can we encourage people to move from critical speaking to effective and constructive action? Can we not turn our churches into prophetic training centers? Who are today’s prophets? How can we promote and sustain them? As we read in Corinthians (1 Cor. 14:29) “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.”

….And a very final thought. This from Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:
“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

Kind regards — Jack

American Civil Religion

21 July 2017

The painting above is by John James Barralet, an Irish artist who spent the final years of his career in the United States. The painting is often called the “Apotheosis of George Washington,” i.e. Washington’s divinization. The first version of the painting appeared in 1802, three years after Washington’s death. It shows President Washington, as America’s first civil religion saint, being taken up into heaven by an angel and Father Time. Another “Apotheosis of Washington,” painted right after the Civil War, by Constantino Brumidi in 1865, is found in the eye of the US Capitol Rotunda. It depicts President Washington rising to the heavens in glory, flanked by female figures representing Liberty and Victory.

Some have argued, and still do, that Christianity is the national American faith. Others that Christianity, the Deism of the founding fathers, and other religious traditions in the United States have long inspired Americans in a rather generalized religion of the American Way of Life.  

My observation this week is that there is indeed an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America, alongside of and clearly differentiated from the established religious traditions. The words and acts of the founding fathers and our first few presidents shaped the form and tone of American civil religion as it has been maintained ever since.  

American civil religion is a deeply felt and strongly patriotic universal religion of the nation. It does not compete with established religions but exists alongside them and is supported by them. It is all part of the American way of religion. People growing up outside the United States, like my European friends, cannot understand it, because they have had very different experiences of religion. I am not being arrogant, but there is something unique about the American experience. 

Originating in the work of Jean Jacques Rousseau, with echoes in Alexis de Tocqueville, the civil religion concept made its first major impact on the social scientific study of religion in America with the publication of an essay titled “Civil Religion in America,” written in 1967 by sociologist of religion Robert Bellah (1927-2013). “While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith,” Bellah observed,” few have realized that there actually exists alongside the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” (One of my delights some years ago was a series of informal conversations and lunch with Bellah when he visited our university.) Civil religion is unique in American culture because it does not claim an identifiable social group but the entire society itself; or as British writer G. K. Chesterton once observed: The United States is “a nation with the soul of a church.”  

All religions have certain common features:  

(1) A god or a transcendent principle. 

(2) Sacred objects and symbols that support and unite people in their beliefs.

(3) Holy days and rituals that unite people and link them with the transcendent.

(4) Religious leaders like priests or ministers.

(5) Sacred places and shrines.

(6) Saints or heroic sacred people.

(7) Sacred writings.

American civil religion has these common features:

(1) A belief in Divine Providence that looks over America. “God bless America.”  

(2) Holy objects like the American flag and the dollar bill. And a belief in America itself as an object of religious devotion.

(3) American holy days like the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, etc.

(4) In many ways, the U.S. president – who becomes president with his hand on the Bible — functions as a kind of national high priest. FDR clearly functioned this way with his New Deal program and fireside chats.

(5) Sacred Places like the Lincoln Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery where the “martyrs” are buried, Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, etc.

(6) Sacred People like Saints George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. We commemorate them with calendar feast days each year. (I don’t think there will be a Saint Donald Trump but one never knows.)

(7) Our sacred documents are of course the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. It is not surprising that the National Archives building resembles a basilica and the nation’s sacred scriptures are displayed in an altar-type protective reliquary

Up until the Civil War (1861 – 1865), American civil religion focused, above all, on the American Revolution. It was the final act of the Exodus from the old world across the sea. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were considered new sacred scriptures; and Washington was the divinely appointed new Moses who led his people out of the old world tyranny.  

With the Civil War, new themes of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enter American civil religion. They are symbolized in the life and death of President Abraham Lincoln; and, at the end of the Civil War, in a series of national, civil religion, Holy Week events: Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865 — Palm Sunday. When he was shot on Good Friday, April, 14, President Lincoln shed his blood for his country. Lincoln died on Saturday and so, on the following day — Easter 1865, “Reconstruction” resurrection began under President Andrew Johnson.  

A few years before his own death, the American poet, Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977), understood the civil religion impact of Lincoln and offered this reflection: “The Gettysburg Address is a symbolic and sacramental act. In his words, Lincoln symbolically died, just as the Union soldiers really died – and as he himself was soon really to die. By his words, he gave the field of battle a symbolic significance that it has lacked. For us and our country, he left Jefferson’s ideals of freedom and equality joined to the Christian sacrificial act of death and rebirth. I believe this is the meaning that goes beyond sect or religion and beyond peace and war, and is now part of our lives as a challenge, obstacle, and hope.” 

Following the Civil War, the great number of war dead required the establishment of several national cemeteries. Of these, Gettysburg National Cemetery, which Lincoln’s famous address served to dedicate, has been overshadowed only by the Arlington National Cemetery, begun on the Robert E. Lee estate across the river from Washington. 

Memorial Day grew out of the Civil War. Memorial Day integrates people and local communities into a national observance, just as Thanksgiving Day, which was institutionalized as an annual national holiday under the presidency of Lincoln, serves to integrate families into an American civil religion celebration of unity and gratitude for the blessings of Divine Providence.    

As I mentioned last week, post WWII America was fertile ground for American civil religion; and President Dwight David Eisenhower its strong advocate. With the support of people like the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale and the Rev. Billy Graham, Eisenhower presided over a vigorous assertion of the place of religion in public life. Even when, as he said, he didn’t care what the religion was. He established the annual “presidential” prayer breakfast, and the presidential practice of ending speeches with “may God bless America.” With Eisenhower’s support, Congress inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance and placed “In God We Trust” on all currency. Few Americans opposed such steps. Protestants and Catholics were happy, and Jewish Americans felt they could live with Eisenhower’s vague public religiosity.  

A very popular civil religion spin-off at this time was the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale and his “Positive Thinking” religio-psychiatry.  Peale, who died in 1993, was probably the most famous clergyman in the United States in the 1940s and early 1950s. When Donald Trump was a child, the Trump family regularly attended Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Years later, Peale presided over Trump’s first marriage to Ivana in 1977. It was Norman Vincent Peale, by the way, who taught Donald Trump to promote and worship himself. 

Since the early nineteenth century, American civil religion has been predominantly activist, moralistic, and social rather than contemplative or theological. American civil religion has never been anticlerical or militantly secular. It has consistently borrowed from set religious traditions in such a way that the average American has seen no conflict between the two. In this way, civil religion, with no opposition from the churches, has been able to construct powerful symbols of national solidarity and to activate deep levels of personal engagement for the attainment of national goals. I am not opposed per se to private schools; but one really must also acknowledge here the contribution of public schools as shapers of civil religion values. They should not disappear.  

Sustaining the whole panorama of American civil religion are key biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But how should people understand these themes today? Do they correctly understand them? Even Robert Bellah observed years ago that “civil religion has not always been invoked in favor of worthy causes.” Today we see it being used in a rather fanatic fundamentalist way to justify racism, police brutality, homophobia, misogyny, and xenophobia. And there will always be people like Pat Robertson, who said this week on the 700 Club: “You can’t trust those liberal colleges to educate your kids. You send your son to a liberal college and he’ll come back as a transgender, who believes satanic lies like evolution and global warming.” The wax nose of civil religion? 

Next week, my final reflection on the themes of religion, faith, and civil religion …..and the challenges ahead. Yes, where do we go from here? 

Kind regards to all. 



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!


Christianity, Nationalism, and Mother Russia

27 May 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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