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“In God We Trust” — But Which One?

It’s printed right there, on U.S. currency: “In God We Trust.” Is that true? If so, which god would that be? The one worshiped by the Sikhs who were gunned down in Wisconsin? The one worshiped at First Baptist Church of Oak Creek, just down the street from where the Sikhs were killed? Are these one and the same “God”?

In 1956, the 84th Congress of the United States passed legislation, signed by President Eisenhower, that changed the official motto of this country from e pluribus unum (“out of the many, one”) to “In God We Trust.”

This is a rich vein of material to mine for theologians, but everyone in the U.S. needs to pay attention to this, whether citizen, green-card holder, atheist, conservative Christian, cultural Jew, observant Muslim, and so many more. Much depends on how people understand this motto, and not just for internecine religious debates, but for crafting social policy, engaging with our political process, navigating cultural differences, and nurturing interpersonal relationships – everything, in other words.

I care about this for at least two interrelated reasons: 1) how to promote critical and constructive theological thinking in Christian communities about what we mean by “God”; and 2) how conceptions of “God” shape our common life in an increasingly diverse nation like the United States.

These are huge concerns, and a single blog post can’t possibly address them adequately. Here I want to make just one point and expand on it later in future posts.

Here’s the point: The God who is everywhere in general tends to be nowhere in particular.

I know that sounds woefully abstract, so let me back up a bit. That point began to gestate when I was young and saw, for the first time, Cecil B. DeMille’s wildly extravagant film The Ten Commandments. The burning bush, the pillar of flame, the boiling mountaintop – of all these rather campy film effects awakened my desire to find God somewhere and not just vaguely everywhere.

I grew up in a religious tradition (Evangelical Christian) that stressed what I like to call the “OmniGod” – this is the Creator God who is omnipresent (everywhere), omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omnibenevolent (all loving). I was taught this from a very early age. God was, one might say, ambient to the culture of my youth, something like the fluoride added to the water supply by the government – unseen, tasteless, but helpful in the long run.

Eventually, I found that “always-everywhere” but “nowhere-in-particular” deity rather unsatisfying, and also a bit ironic. The conservative Christianity of my youth likewise stressed the incarnation of that God in a particular person, Jesus of Nazareth.

I take that emphasis on incarnation as a clarion call to pay attention to the concrete and the particular as much as if not more than the general and the abstract. This matters in a religiously and culturally diverse nation like the United States, and for at least two reasons.

The Risk of Religious Monopoly
The God who is generally everywhere but nowhere in particular can tempt a religious community to claim exclusive access to the God in whom everyone should place one’s trust. This can lead to the particular, and therefore limited understanding of one religious tradition monopolizing all the other others. A religious monopoly invites hubris rather than humility; it invites hierarchical control rather than shared inquiry; and it invites spiritual practice that is more akin to a museum exhibition than a living tradition. A religious monopoly can also quickly spill over into a cultural monopoly, as the latest wave of anti-immigration energy in the U.S. suggests.

The Risk of Homogenous Communities
If God is generally everywhere but nowhere in particular, then diversity becomes a big problem to solve rather than a huge gift to embrace. Differences of opinion must be silenced and subsumed under one broad banner; divergent approaches are treated as threats to uniformity; faith communities become isolated silos or religious versions of a gated community.

If God really is generally present everywhere, then God will show up in all sorts of particular places we might not expect, in traditions that our not our own, and always, as the Hebrew prophet Isaiah declared, ready to do a “new thing” (Is. 43:19; 65:17).

As a Christian, I find in Jesus Christ the patterns, rhythms, sensibilities, and insights that I believe I should seek wherever and whenever I’m looking for God, whether I find God in “Christian” settings or not.  And when I do believe I’ve found something of God in non-Christian settings and people, that insight could well revise what I think about Jesus.

A religious monopoly afraid of diversity, by contrast, sits perilously poised on the brink of idolatry. Stamping a religious declaration on money suggests the same thing about a nation.

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Soul Sickness and Domestic Terror

I can’t get the words of an old African-American spiritual out of my head:

“There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.”

Those words came to me yesterday morning as I read about the mosque in Joplin, Missouri that had been burned to the ground overnight, apparently because of arson. This is the same mosque that was damaged by an arsonist earlier this summer (on the Fourth of July, no less).

That old spiritual keeps coming back to me as we learn more about the terrorizing of worshiping Sikhs outside of Milwaukee over the weekend, just two weeks after Batman movie-goers were gunned down in a Colorado theater.

It’s time we recognize all of these as just the latest symptoms of a serious societal sickness in the United States. Whether this sickness is treatable or proves to be fatal to the soul of this nation will depend in large measure on our collective willingness to diagnose it and to speak truthfully about its consequences.

Whatever we might learn about the perpetrators of these acts of violence will matter less than whether we can address what truly ails us as a society. Whoever is elected President this November needs to stand up in January during the State of the Union Address and be perfectly frank: “The state of our union is not good.” And here are just two of the reasons he could cite.

Money Buys Truth
What would you do with $6 billion? Corporations and lobbying groups will spend at least that much buying this year’s presidential election. But the real cost is truth-telling.

Politicians won’t speak the truth for fear of losing corporate money and most people don’t even want to hear the truth because it would mean changing the way we live. Most of us don’t want to hear about where our computers are made, how our food is raised, what petrocarbons do to the environment, who foots the bill for legislation, and why white supremacy still shapes nearly every one of our cultural institutions.

A project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center recently noted that the 2012 presidential campaign is on track to be the most deception-laden of all. An NPR story from a few months ago suggests that fiercely partisan divisions aren’t going away any time soon. This means in part that what we really need right now likely won’t happen: grown-up conversations about gun violence and racism.

Untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
I remember vividly where I was when the twin towers fell. Even today, I tend to look up with a twinge of anxiety when I hear a low-flying plane in the San Francisco Bay Area. That is surely mild compared to the post-trauma symptoms of New Yorkers.

While I’m a big fan of “retail therapy,” I hardly think that keeping New York’s Fifth Avenue shops open for business after the 9/11 attacks suffices to address the trauma of terror.

The virulent anti-immigration rhetoric over the last ten years bears witness to our collective post-traumatic stress disorder. All “foreigners” are suspect, especially if they don’t speak English, or have dark skin, and even more especially if they wear turbans. (Read this excellent commentary about guns, white men, and madness.)

(Wade Page, the shooter in Wisconsin, sported a 9/11 tattoo and had been tracked for years by the Southern Poverty Law Center for his involvement in white supremacist groups.)

This could be an occasion to address not only post-9/11 trauma but the longer traumatic legacy of African slavery and economic stratification. Something has gone terribly awry when white people among the working poor are unable to make common cause with African-Americans among the working poor – this is the classic “wedge” that politicians have learned to exploit with corporate money.

People are traumatized. People are fearful and anxious. Way too many people can’t put food on their tables. These hard realities are mapped to race, to color, to language, to culture, and, sadly, to turbans. We must find a way to talk about this.

So how might we begin to diagnose even these two symptoms? Christian traditions (among others) have a word for it: sin.

Self-styled liberal Christians shy away from this, but I think it’s time to name it. I don’t mean the rightly caricatured “Santa Claus God” who checks his list to see who’s been naughty or nice. I mean instead how both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Testament treat “sin” as anything that prevents the full flourishing of life and relationships, which the Creator intended for all.

Back in the 19th century a religious philosopher/theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, described the human condition as a “sickness unto death.” This sickness results from the self’s turning inward on itself instead of outward, in relation. This, Kierkegaard said, leads to a spiral of despair, and surely today we are on that brink.

Some indigenous peoples in North America referred to the same thing as “soul sickness.” That’s how they made sense of their encounter with Europeans, whose obsession with private property and their inability to share what they had with others perplexed them. The Chippewa had a cure for this soul sickness: organizing your community for the sake of the common good.

Treating the tragedies in Aurora, Oak Creek, and Joplin as isolated incidents of potentially mentally unstable individuals only perpetuates our denial. We need to name our collective illness before we can find healing.

Surely faith communities can help facilitate those conversations, and not merely for naming what ails us. Surely leaders from all of our religious traditions could stand together, put aside doctrinal bickering, and bear witness to solidarity, and thus to a vision of hope, of the possibility of healing, and of a way to live together differently. Surely now is the time.

There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole;
there is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.

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Divine Erotics: God-Talk, Part 3

“Wham, bam, thank you ma’am” is an appalling approach to sexual intimacy (it even borders on the violent). It’s just as bad in religion and theology.

The “quickie” means so much more than it used to. Now everything is quick – news, ideas, meet-ups, meals, research, home-repair, shopping. The Internet seems to thrive on “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” energy – not always, but it’s time to name it where we see it.

I read recently about young adults having social media sex hook-ups. Some of them (rather wistfully, I might add) wondered what it might be like to have an extended conversation with their sex partners but decided to save that for their thirties. Many of these same denizens of Web culture have no desire at all for religion; they already “know” what that’s all about. Neighborhoods, stores, community centers – I wonder whether 18-year olds realize fully that these originally meant physical spaces.

I don’t believe the Internet somehow “caused” all this. I remember a moment back in the late 1980s, when I was a parish priest in the Chicago area. A parishioner, who came to the early service on Sundays, complained to me about how long the sermon was (12 minutes) and how tedious the prayers were (10 minutes). He actually said, “I just want the cookie” (referring to the Eucharistic sacrament).

I confess to indulging in a moment of questionable pastoral sensitivity when I replied, “Gee, Bob, why don’t you donate some money and we’ll build a drive-through. I can just toss the cookie in your mouth as you drive by on your way to the golf course.”

Not a high-water mark in my priestly vocation.

All of this raises some profound questions for me in this third of a three-part series on Christian theology – what it’s about and how to do it.

I mean questions like: Don’t we want to inhabit a space somewhere? Do we want to cultivate a relationship or just “have” one? Do we now think of religion, spirituality, relationships, communities, sex, fun, and pleasure all in the same way? Have they all been flattened to whatever works right now?

We see a brief image, a quick video clip, opening sentences of an essay, a book cover, a billboard or light-post sign – what do we glean from these? Usually impressions, maybe germs of an idea, some hints at substance, hors d’oeuvres promising a meal, if we’re lucky. So where do we go and what do we do with snippets?

To be clear, I’m excited and inspired by social media and all the new technological ways of connecting with others (I blogged about that here). The potential is there and we’ve only just begun figuring it out. And yet I worry.

In a visually-saturated, multi-media culture, I worry that the time-worn approach to spiritual wisdom is now devoid of time, let alone space. The Internet has exacerbated a decades-long trend of collapsing the time-space continuum – no one has any time and there are no more spaces.

Theology is not about information and data. Theology is not a hook-up. Theology takes time and it takes space. Theology relies on sustained attention to texts and practices, formation in ways of thinking and living, arduous engagements with contrary opinions and glorious synchronicities. Christian theology is about bodies and being in relationship with bodies, and that takes, well, time and space.

Okay, theology is off-putting. Let’s call it something else, like “God-relation,” and whatever that means requires sustained attention in a community of accountability that breathes together and reads and serves and nurtures wisdom together. Just like any significant human relationship that isn’t a quickie in an alley. (Quickie aside: I’m not judging particular sexual practices. I’m calling for more thought, especially as it relates to God.)

So I’m tugging at the oars of the boat I hope we Christians inhabit. What I think we’re aiming for is something like a theologically informed spiritual practice for the sake of social change. This won’t happen in November, or even in 2016. Forget election cycles. We have serious work to do on a deep, romantic relationship with the One who created us.

I’ve been suggesting in this blog series some ways to think about that. The recap of the series looks like this:

  1. Humbly guard against idolatry (God-Talk, Part 1)
  2. Follow the creeds as a compass without a map (God-talk, Part 2)
  3. Treat theology as words about a love affair (God-talk, Part 3 of 3)

Adopting these three postures certainly will not heal all the divisions among “liberals” and “conservatives” (and likely won’t heal any of them). But they could well give us something to talk about a bit more productively.

If we’re going to use labels and categories at all any more, I might follow the lead provided by Tripp Hudgins, a colleague at the Graduate Theological Union who has a great blog. He has suggested calling a liberal/conservative mash-up approach “postmodern preservatives.” I love that, though Tripp may well disagree with my approach. But here’s why I like his moniker.

It’s high time to jettison the “start-from-scratch-by-following-the-lead-of-culture” caricature of self-styled liberals. It’s equally high time to reject the stereotype of self-styled conservatives who only say “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”

“Postmodern preservatives” instead treat the Bible seriously but not just by quoting it and abstracting it from contemporary concerns. They likewise take seriously both cultural and scientific advances but not without drawing from the wisdom of historical traditions.

I actually don’t think this represents something entirely new. I believe “postmodern preservatives” would offer a profoundly constructive corrective to what I consider to be the colossal blunders of modern Western Christianity. And they would do so by insisting that both history and contemporary culture offer vital insights to nurturing humanity’s love affair with God – and God’s passionate desire for us.

I’ll offer more on this in future posts. But for now, can all of us Christians at least agree that we’re trying, as best we can, to respond to the romantic, erotic, loving invitation of the One who created us? We can’t do that with a quickie. It’s going to take time. Let’s make this marriage last.

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Creedal Magnetism: God-Talk, Part 2

We can do anything we want with this planet since Jesus is coming back soon.
Round up gay people in a corral and let them starve to death.
People without health insurance deserve what they get.

Are those “Christian” statements? Why or why not? Each of them was made in various forms and more than once by a self-professed Christian. How do we discern what qualifies as “Christian”? Do we discern it based on what we say or by what we do or both? What if what we say doesn’t match very well or at all with what we do?

I still have a magnet that mom put on the refrigerator in my childhood house. It reads, “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.” I didn’t quite get it when I was young; it annoyed me as a teenager; and I still have it. I believe that magnet is deeply theological.

I take that magnet message as a clarion call for Christians to prioritize how they live in the world as the basis for evangelism rather than how well we parse our doctrines. These days, I don’t see any point in trying to persuade people to believe in God or to follow Jesus through rational argument. That ship sailed a long time ago.

Creating communities of radical hospitality and compassionate service is the best evangelistic magnet at our disposal – and not because doing so might fill our pews but because it’s the right thing to do and God has called us to do it.

Conversely, the worse thing we can do is exactly what too many Christians have done for too long: make intellectual assent to doctrine the gatekeeper for belonging. While some people may be argued into belief, most people are loved into it. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another… By this everyone will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

As promised, I really am going to write something here about creedal Christianity. I truly am socially “liberal” because of my “conservative” theology. For the latter, I rely on the creedal history of the Christian Church. But my mother’s magnet reminds me that how we live is the best witness to what any of us want to say.

So why then bother with creedal statements at all? Let’s just throw great parties with great food!

Why? Because after two people have fallen in love with each other, they eventually need to talk about their relationship. Because after spending time in the regional park with my dog, I want to talk with someone about the plants, the terrain, and the climate. Because after organizing a neighborhood watch group, I want to talk with my neighbors and find out who they are, what they care about, and how I might be a better neighbor.

The creedal history of Christianity is of course complex and vexing. But I do believe our ancestors in the faith still have something to say to us today about God, Jesus, the Spirit, and what in the world we think we’re all doing. The following are just some of the ways that I continue to experiment with how to think about, treat, and address the classic creeds of Christian faith.

An Impromptu Tag-Football Game at the Family Reunion
There’s no official football field, so the family members take a cooler, a beer bottle, a diaper bag, and a sweatshirt to mark the four corners of the playing area. Someone brought a ball, people are divvied up into teams, and the fun begins. Someone keeps score, but no one really cares who wins. The diaper bag might get kicked out of alignment once or twice, someone might howl at this, but it’s all in good fun. Creeds provide the parameters of the playing field on which we think and talk about God among family members.

An Improvisational Stage Play
Theatrical actors pay careful attention to the stage cues of a director, both in scripted plays and in improvisational moments. Quite remarkably, the most scripted of plays can be performed in various ways depending on the director. Likewise, an improvisational performance relies heavily on directorial assistance. Creeds provide a loose script for faithful actors, and variances in the performances can prompt profound insights. No one performance is exactly like any other. Creeds are cues, not scripts, but they are important.

Open Source Software
Those of a certain age will remember that “software” meant ordering a product from a company that arrived in the mail on a disc. Load it to your hard-drive and it will do what I was designed to do. Open source software by contrast provides basic coding for doing something, but the end user can change the code and adapt it for particular needs. There are limits to what can be done to open source software, but they are vastly different from discs. Creeds suggest theological programming directions and functions, but both pathways and outcomes are in the hands of end users.

My Grandmother’s Recipe Cards
In her own handwriting, my maternal grandmother made recipe notes like “use some butter around the size of an egg or so,” or “stir until it looks like the color of our backyard field in September” or “toss in some salt; stir; taste it; add some more if you like.” This stands in stark contrast to the narrative and instructions one finds in Cook’s Illustrated. Creeds provide general directions, hints at how to proceed, and room to toss in one’s own flavor. I am profoundly grateful for grandma’s recipe cards for that reason, just as I am for Christian creeds.

In the end, what we think and say about God matters. It matters just like what we think and say about the people we love matters; and what we think and say about the environment matters; and what we think and say about our communities matters. All of this matters not because someone will judge us when we get it “wrong” or reward us because we are “correct.” It matters because we want to enrich and deepen our relationships.

I believe the most magnetic, attractive aspect of the universe is God – and it’s reflected in a loving embrace, a brook in the park, a moment of solidarity in the neighborhood. If Christians don’t live this magnetism, there’s no point in evangelism.

Be attractive. Then let’s talk.

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American Idols: God-Talk, Part 1

There are some things for which we do not give awards but which Americans tend to idolize nonetheless. Today I’m thinking especially of individual liberty in relation to the supposed constitutional right to have weapons, as well as the murkier right to private property. (Gird your loins for this take on such Constitutional matters.)

We’re not likely to hear a conversation about liberty as a form of idolatry in our courts of law, but it’s high time to have that conversation in our churches. Is it really okay for humans to do whatever they want? Do we really want to codify that idea? Is there nothing that Christian faith and theology can offer to these questions?

As promised, this is the first of a three-part blog series on theological ideas and why they matter. And they matter not least for the people who were killed or injured in Aurora, Colorado today and for the many species that are, even now as I write this, going extinct on this planet.

St. Augustine of Hippo (North Africa)

I begin with this fourth-century quote from St. Augustine: “If you understand something, it’s not God.”

I take Augustine to be urging two things at once: to adopt a profound humility in our theological reasoning and to avoid idolatry at all costs. (Whether he himself managed to do this is beside the point.)

Individual liberty (a modern, western, Enlightenment concept) might seem a bit out of place in a cautionary tale about humility and idols. But I believe liberty might well stand as a cypher for western modernity’s presenting sin: putting the human in the place of God. This has been happening slowly but surely for about three centuries now, at least.

The many benefits of the Enlightenment’s stress on individual autonomy and human rights notwithstanding, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” come with a significant theological and, I would argue, social cost. Concerning the former: forgetting that Christian theological traditions have never understood freedom to be synonymous with the absence of constraint (spiritual freedom is always for the sake of doing something in particular not anything at all). Concerning the latter: elevating individual freedom over the common good (individual thriving is never an end in itself but something to contribute to the greater good). I believe both are illustrations of Augustine’s cautionary note about humility and idolatry.

Consider first the unrelenting, grotesquely well-funded, and usually vitriolic rhetoric of the National Rifle Association. For them, apparently, any gun-control legislation whatsoever is a pernicious infringement on the right to “keep and bear arms” guaranteed by the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

We are facing yet again another moment when U.S. citizens ponder the role of guns in our common life. I think it’s important to note that violent crime has actually been decreasing steadily in the U.S. over the last few years, but mass killings have seen an increase. I’m not so sure that tighter gun control laws would have prevented what happened in Aurora today. But I don’t think that’s the point.

I think the point is the stress on individual liberty, that the individual reigns supreme in all matters of social and economic policy. I believe that is a form of idolatry, of replacing God with the human. Christians should say so, regardless of the policy implications.

Consider, second, that every single oil well, gas drilling operation, and fracking enterprise relies on a murky notion of the right to private property. (In those cases, property owned by corporations, but apparently the U.S. Supreme Court believes corporations to be individuals. But don’t single out the Supremes on this. I’m always amazed that the U.N. General Assembly’s “Declaration of Universal Human Rights” in 1948 included “private property” as one of those rights, in Article 17).

Here individual liberty comes home to roost in some vexing ways. Can you do anything you please with the property you own? No, but the constraints are wildly loose, and just try arguing any constraints at all in some parts of the U.S. and be prepared to talk to a shotgun (see the first consideration above).

The very notion that human beings have a “right” to “own” property and do with it mostly as they please flies in the face of a very traditional Jewish and Christian concept: stewardship. I’m well aware of the critiques of the biblical notion of stewardship over creation derived from Genesis. That said, are the problems with the concept of stewardship more difficult to deal with than the free-range property rights of corporations and, yes, individuals?

“Stewardship” means that what one stewards is not one’s own property. It is entrusted to that person or community for the one who does “own” it — or in this case, the One who created it. Sadly, most Christians seem to talk about stewardship only in relation to fundraising, and the planet is in peril because of it.

I return often to a wonderful 2009 book by a sociologist, James William Gibson: A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature. I believe his thesis can be reduced to this: environmental change won’t happen unless and until we cultivate a re-enchantment with nature. And we are faced with severe obstacles in that task on nearly every front, not least is the modern western view of “nature” as simply a “grid of private property” (page 72). Just imagine flying over the U.S. from San Francisco to New York. What would you see out the window of that plane? Mostly property lines – state, corporate, and individual. Where is the Creator of all this?

There are of course many other forms of American idolatry – the flag, the institution of marriage, free-market capitalism, home ownership, and the Super Bowl, to name just a few. And of course, theology itself can easily become an idol, and Augustine was particularly keen to guard against that.

I’ll make suggestions in response to all that in the next two blog posts in this series, including how we might think about creedal statements in Christian history and also how the “erotic” is indispensable to “traditional” and “classic” Christianity. So stay tuned.

For now, as a beginning, I’ll offer this: Extolling the virtues of individual liberty belongs on a slippery slope toward idolatry, to replacing God with the individual human. I think that’s where any discussion of theological ideas – liberal, conservative, progressive, traditional, radical, or reactionary – needs to begin. Are we trying to deal with an encounter with the living God, the Creator of all, or an idol?

As the holy month of Ramadan begins, perhaps our Muslim sisters and brothers say it best:

“There is no God but God (lā ʾilāha ʾillà l-Lāh).”

That claim could, quite literally and practically and thankfully, change the world.

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Saving the Planet One Dogmatic Doctrine at a Time

Ideas matter. They matter all the time, but especially in times of peril – social, political, and ecological peril. We live in such perilous times today.

These days, ideas matter in direct proportion to every degree of elevation in the planet’s mean temperature (the double entendre here is useful). All of us need to take action now for this planet, this “fragile earth, our island home.” But we won’t get very far without sustained and careful thinking and deliberation. Ideas matter.

I don’t mean that ideas matter in isolation from action. That binary distinction is more than a cliché; it’s as furry with mold as the old blue cheese I recently found in my refrigerator. No one does hardly anything without thinking, even when some forms of thinking have become a habit. Ideas matter.

Consider just two recent examples of the clarion call for thinking carefully and deliberately together about our world. The first comes from Bill McKibben, a leading environmental advocate and writer. His latest piece in Rolling Stone is one of the more sobering assessments I’ve read about our global climate change crisis. McKibben himself describes the piece as among the most important he has ever written.

The second comes from someone I don’t know on a website I only recently found. Alan Goldstein describes in concise and compelling ways the current economic and social crisis our planet now faces. I find his analysis on target but his proposed solution weak.

Both of these pieces illustrate my point: ideas matter. Among the ideas that matter are religious ones generally, and theological ones in particular. Just read the daily newspaper. Religious ideas are fueling war, conflict, economic policies, social configurations, ecological positions…the list goes on and on. So how curious that neither McKibben nor Goldstein offers even a single word about religion!

How human beings think about God (or not) in relation to ourselves, to other humans, and to other animals has a profound impact on how we live (even if our practice doesn’t always match our theory perfectly or even closely). So how then do we think about God? And how do we deliberate together about our thinking? And how do we put our thinking into action and how does our action reshape our thinking?

I care about these questions as a human being, as a Christian, as a priest in the Episcopal Church, and as a theologian. I’m grateful for the responses in various venues to my recent blog post that suggest that others care about this, too.

So I decided to assemble a series of blog posts to describe how I approach theological ideas and the difference they make in how Christians live. That’s a ridiculously huge topic, so these are more like conversation starters.

I’ll begin with this: There is no grand solution for our planetary problems. There is no universal, all-encompassing strategy for human thriving. We all seek in vain for the pill, the method, the text, the location, the practice, the rite, the community, the guru, the geography, the school that will cure what ails us.

I’m glad there is no such thing or place or person or community that can do that. Because what we have instead are shards of beauty, slices of the piercingly poignant, the strands of awe dangling in the breezes of forests, the pimples of delight on the chin of lovers, the absurd glory of dead pets, and the stains of thumb-marks on pages turned in cherished texts.

We take all of this into our wildly graceful moments of human relationship, into our fumbling attempts at creating transcendent communities, and our visceral responses to weather reports.

All of this is the stuff of religion and theology. But few would guess it from reading media reports about denominational gatherings. If Christian theology can’t go back to the campfire where we all sit together and tell stories and shape communities of action and practice, then we are doomed.

But I don’t believe that. I believe religion generally and Christian theology in particular can help turn the tide toward flourishing – what God has intended all along. My next posts here in this blog will offer suggestions about how Christian communities might make ideas matter. Stay tuned. And please add your voice – without it, we’ll be stuck, mired, buried in a culture that denigrates ideas.

Don’t let that happen. Ideas matter.

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Brazen Women, Cross-Dressers, and Canine Caskets

That’s one way to summarize the recently concluded 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, and apparently the preferred way for no less an American institution as the Wall Street Journal.

Religion can make people a bit crazy. But what exactly is in the New York City water supply that would lead a WSJ writer to describe General Convention as a spectacle of “sheer ostentation” loaded with a “carnival atmosphere”?

Was WSJ’s Mr. Akasie writing under the influence of martinis (a fault of my own, which I freely admit) when he described the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church “brazenly” carrying her staff of office? Brazenly, really? Or perhaps it was a martini or two later that led him to describe Bishop Jefferts Schori as “secretive and authoritarian” during her “reign” thus far. (Anyone who knows her – as I do – finds that ludicrous in the extreme.)

Granted, name-calling is actually quite effective – but in grade school. Presumably we leave behind such childish behavior in adulthood, and if not in our personal lives, then certainly in our professional lives and most certainly if we’re reporting news or even commenting on it in the pages of what was once a prestigious newspaper.

The WSJ was not alone in its bizarre spin on the business of the Church in Indianapolis. Bloggers are of course free-range anyway, but some online sites have come to be trusted locales for thoughtful reflection and reporting. Belief.net used to be one of those trusted sites. Alas, that train left the station some time ago.

If anyone needs any further evidence for Belief.net’s demise, the recent screed by its “senior editor” about General Convention should suffice. There we learn that the pioneering action of Convention to include gender identity and gender expression in the church’s non-discrimination canons amounts to an endorsement of “cross-dressing clergy.” (Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up.)

If nothing else, the Wall Street Journal and Belief.net make The Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon look reasonable and mainstream by comparison. I wrote just recently about Fr. Harmon’s description of the Convention as “unbiblical, unchristian, unanglican, and unseemly.” (I will try to resist wondering whether Fr. Harmon paid these other writers to look foolish…)

So, yes, religion can make people temporarily insane. I get it. But here’s what I believe is the real take-away from all this absurd reporting on General Convention: religious patriarchy is shuddering in its last gasps.

I’ve written on this before (here) and it’s not going away. So here are just two more reasons why all of us who care about the gloriously peculiar faith of Christians need to focus our attention on male privilege, and then I’ll add a final Pauline note. (Oh, and don’t miss this great piece from the Bishop of Arizona about similar topics.)

1. Men Aren’t Brazen (Even When They Are)

So when’s the last time you heard the Archbishop of Canterbury described as “brazen”? I might be out of touch with language on the street, but I have never, ever heard the kind of description of a male bishop that Mr. Asakie used to describe the Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori:

Bishop Jefferts Schori is known for brazenly carrying a metropolitan cross during church processions. With its double horizontal bars, the metropolitan cross is a liturgical accouterment that’s typically reserved for Old World bishops. And her reign as presiding bishop has been characterized by actions more akin to a potentate than a clergywoman watching over a flock.

Where in the world does anyone begin to parse that bizarre paragraph? I would of course love to know what it means to carry a cross “brazenly.” Did this man pass high school English? More to the point: Women are “brazen”; men never are, even when they do exactly the same things.

Still more: why the gratuitous description of our Presiding Bishop’s tenure as a “reign”? That word might well have appeared in stories about the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope or occasionally other male bishops, but not very often.

The Presiding Bishop leaving General Convention (thanks, Susan Russell). Note: no “brazen” staff in hand.

God forbid that women reign over anything.

2.  Men in Dresses Kill Puppies

Ludicrous? Yes. Nonsensical? Yup. But that’s what we get when we combine the Wall Street Journal with Belief.net. Mr. Asakie took great pains to include the resolutions concerning liturgical rites for companion animals in his article (apparently just the attention to non-human animals is enough to spark ridicule, and that speaks volumes).

Meanwhile, on Belief.net, Rob Kerby finds news from General Convention “stunning” and for mostly the same gendered reasons:

The headlines coming out of the Episcopal Church’s annual U.S. convention are stunning — endorsement of cross-dressing clergy, blessing same-sex marriage, the sale of their headquarters since they can’t afford to maintain it.

A friend of mine on Facebook said it all (and I paraphrase a bit): “Men who dress like mothers and insist on being called ‘Father’ are objecting to transgender inclusion?” Well, indeed. But that’s not all. Please do not miss that property management and finances are linked in a single paragraph to gender issues: women can’t deal with money. (Oh, I am so glad my mother is not reading this…)

Look, if a supposedly “senior editor” at belief.net equates transgender concerns with “cross-dressing,” we have some issues to discuss, not least would be how men treat all those who don’t “dress” like creatures worthy of care, respect, and dignity – like non-human animals.

The link between misogyny and animal abuse deserves its own blog post, and I’ll do that soon. For now, suffice it to say that the denigration of women and the facile dismissal of the rites for companion animals belong to an important constellation of issues around male privilege.

3. St. Paul Screwed Things Up – Thank God

Don’t even try to create a coherent theology from Paul’s New Testament letters. I think it’s much more fruitful to notice where Paul gets carried away, where he waxes eloquent and crazy. Where he just can’t contain himself because of the wildness of the Gospel and pushes all the known boundaries, his own included. There are many examples of this in his letters. I have Galatians 3:28 in mind right now.

I know that’s overused. It’s critiqued, parsed, sliced and diced to within an inch of its life. But let us try to listen again to Paul’s exuberance: “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.”

Just try putting yourself back in first century Palestine, a Roman province, and consider the implications of what Paul wrote. He upended, overturned, dismantled, and dissolved all the basic social and religious distinctions shaping his society.

Whatever that biblical passage might mean for us today (and there are so many things!), surely it’s time to rethink how much energy and time and money is spent on maintaining gender role distinctions – okay, let’s be honest: male privilege. That would actually be a rather modest reading of Paul’s letter, but let’s just start there.

Those of us in Christ would no longer describe women as “brazen” when they do the same thing as men. We would no longer describe gender difference with terms that men use to belittle women. We would no longer abuse non-human animals as if they were women. Actually, we wouldn’t abuse anything at all.

I think that might count as progress. And if Christians actually lived this peculiar faith, journalists might be less willing to look so terribly foolish.

Oh, and lives might be saved, too…

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“Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something…”

I sat transfixed by my Twitter feed for the last two days. Trust me: that’s unusual. I was watching two historic votes unfold at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, where I really longed to be, but couldn’t.

Both votes concerned the same resolution: whether to approve the provisional use of a liturgical rite to bless the lifelong covenants of same-sex couples. It passed in both houses of the convention by wide margins and I was glad to see it happening “live” on my computer. (Here’s the report on that vote.)

I was grateful for that Twitter feed for another reason: I could see how those opposed to this resolution were responding. Their responses were not surprising, but they did remind me of the old English Victorian ditty about weddings, “something old, something new…”

The objections seemed to orbit around a deep concern that this resolution represented a “new” theology of marriage (even though the approved materials were not about marriage per se, nor is the approved liturgical rite a “wedding”; the materials were instead concerned with the “blessing of a lifelong covenant”).

One longtime objector to the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Episcopal Church, a priest and a theologian, described this historic moment as “unbiblical, unchristian, unanglican, and unseemly.” Needless to say, I believe this moment is instead Biblical, Christian, Anglican, and not only seemly but holy. (Read his brief statement here.)

Testimony offered during General Convention 2012

I feel privileged to belong to a church where these divergent opinions are aired, debated, prayed over, and voted on. No one is compelled to agree with the final decision. All are welcome to stay. Indeed, LGBT people have stayed for many decades, even when their institutional church home appeared committed to excluding them.

A diverse Christian body (as St. Paul noted in at least two of his letters) is a healthy Christian body. And I believe we learn the best from those with whom we disagree. I’m grateful for the objections to Resolution A049 (which approved the same-sex blessing materials) because they have further honed my own theological thinking.

Here I’ll share just a few of many insights those objections have prompted, some of them old, some of them new…. (Full disclosure: I had the great privilege of contributing to those materials approved by the convention, so I write here as someone with a good bit of knowledge about the theological rationale.)

Something Old
One objector was very clear: this resolution will change the Christian theology of marriage. Really? Which theology is that? Choose one from among, oh, a dozen in Christian history so we can know what’s changing. Perhaps it’s St. Paul’s version (who believed that marriage was mostly a distraction from the more important work of ministry); or maybe it was Tertullian’s (who believed that Christian marriage was a counter-cultural critique of Rome’s patriarchal household); or maybe it was St. Augustine’s (who thought sex was a rather distasteful aspect of marriage and much preferred friendship). One might also want to mention the 13th century ecclesial statutes about how priests ought to treat their concubines…

There’s some good stuff and bad stuff in the Christian history of marriage theologies. Which will we choose and why? The materials approved at General Convention tried to present some good stuff for all of us to consider.

Something New
Biblical and historical material about committed, intimate relationships is remarkably varied. Those of us who labored over the materials for General Convention were committed to bringing those varied historical traditions to bear on an ostensibly “new” cultural situation: the loving, fruitful, and committed relationships of lesbian and gay couples.

This commitment is actually both new and old. Just ask African Americans about the history of marriage during slavery, or anti-miscegenation laws (forbidding “mixed-race marriages” which weren’t overturned until a 1967 Supreme Court decision). Or just ask women about the history of being treated legally as property by their husbands (that’s more modern than most people would care to realize).

The genius of Anglican Christianity resides in part in its ability to adjust and adapt to shifting cultural patterns while doing so with deep theological commitments. Asking the English reformers of the 16th century about all this would be wildly illuminating.

“New” is not synonymous with “bad” nor is it a cypher for “better.” We need deep and sustained theological reflection about change, and I believe the materials approved at General Convention provide the tools to do precisely that (and I can’t wait for their published form later this year so that we can start using all of this great stuff!).

Something Borrowed
Those of us who worked over the last 2.5 years to craft the materials for this General Convention were deeply committed to Scripture and Tradition. Like any other matter of concern for Christians, this is a challenge. How do we reflect theologically about new things in relation to old things?

We do so by borrowing from the spiritual inspiration of our ancestors. In this case, we did that by turning to the rich symbols and spiritually textured images of “covenant” in the biblical witness and historical traditions. The covenant God made with Noah, the covenant God made with Abraham, the covenant God made with the people of Israel, the covenant God made in Christ.

God calls of us to reflect that grace of these covenantal moments in the relationships we form and nurture. Marriage can do that, so can a monastic vow, so can ordination, so can deep friendships, and so can the lifelong committed relationships of same-sex couples.

Yes, I realize that I have used a wedding ditty to organize my reflections here. While General Convention did not approve a “wedding” liturgy for provisional use, its approval of a blessing liturgy signals a vitally important conversation Christians in all denominations need to engage: Why do we Christians want to bless relationships in church? Why does this matter?

So here I’ll return to that ditty and note this: the task groups who created these materials rooted their work above all in the gracious covenant God made with humanity in Jesus Christ. That covenant is made visible in the sacrament of baptism, which evokes the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, the very source of our common life as Christians.

Hey! There it is! We can find the last bit of that Victorian wedding ditty in the waters of baptism…

“….something blue.”

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Apocalypse Kind-of-Now: A Brown Green Season?

Ecological “issues” are an annoying interruption of the stuff that matters now. I don’t really believe that, but my blog posts would suggest otherwise.

I had a plan. Write about the war on women’s bodies in Lent and write about ecology in Easter – the new creation, totally tied to women’s bodies and gender. Lovely plan, but current events intervened.

And that is precisely the problem.

I totally support full marriage equality for all couples; the end to poverty and racism; full agency for women in decisions about their bodies. So why does the very framework that makes any of those possible in any way get such short shrift? I mean the planetary environment upon which each of relies for every breath.

Here’s the thing: “Apocalypse” is nigh; if not “now,” then soon, within my lifetime (if I’m lucky enough to live another 30 years). Hyperbole? Not really. Read just this one among many accounts of what we’re facing right now (here’s the lede of that story, which you shouldn’t read if you are prone to insomnia because of fretting: “The Earth is within decades of reaching an irreversible tipping point that could result in ‘planetary collapse’, scientists warned yesterday.”) Read yet another alarming account here.

Important digression: I adore my ten-year-old godson (oh, God, could he just say ten forever? No…not good. But he rocks my world right now). Okay, my point: Will he be able to live on this planet 30 years from now? Probably, but not likely in the same comfortable way that I am living on it now. That breaks my heart.

But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that my adorable godson is not the only reason why any of us should care about the environment, and passionately, with urgency. So why should we?

In some Christian circles (very similar to the one in which I grew up), there is no reason. We actually don’t have to care. The theological logic goes basically like this: God created a good world; humans screwed it up; God sent Jesus (oh, after that Israel interlude, of course) to save us; those who believe all this will go to heaven, a literally disembodied, unearthly place where we don’t have to fret about things like nuclear power plants, plastic choking our oceans, massive extinction events, or potable water.

I’m really not making this up. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians of a certain type truly believe that Earth is disposable; God will create a new one.

Let me be clear: I have no desire to set up an “us versus them” scenario here in which us good liberal Christians save the planet while those fundamentalists destroy it. That would be easier to write about, frankly. More accurately, there are some Evangelical Christians who are far more passionate about the environment than many of the liberal, “progressive” Christians I know.

Now that’s peculiar. And I take a great deal of hope from it. Decades ago Lynn White, Jr., wrote a devastating essay about religion and its deleterious effects on the environment (read about it here, and yes this is a Wikipedia link). Taking his critique seriously means that we need compelling religious and theological reasons why priority #1 right now is the planet itself. Thankfully, those reasons are ready-to-hand. (Check out this, and this, and this.)

But we do have a problem: current events will always interrupt us. The latest sound bite, the latest outrage about women’s bodies, LGBT people, the economy, war….all of these will always interrupt what we need to do and say right now about where we live, right now.

I don’t have any solutions to the problem of compelling interruptions. I issue only a plea: Let us please figure out how this long “green season” in the Church year after Pentecost can inspire all of us finally to do something about a planet that is dying, right now – our planet, this “fragile earth, our island home” (The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 370).

Come on. Let’s figure this out – for my beloved godson, your grandchild, your niece, your neighbor, the puppies your dog is about to have, the litter of cougar cubs that will be born this year, the salmon spawning in our rivers, just take your pick  – let’s figure this out for all of us, for all of them, for all.

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Just Say Yes

It sounds so easy and so good. Indeed, so much seemed to hinge on what Nancy Reagan advised during the 1980s: Just Say No. She meant of course to say No to drugs.

Okay, sure. That’s good advice. But if all we ever do is say No, we are a sorry species.

One of my best friends ever (T. Michael Dempsey, a theater and philosophy and theology guru) helped me to see some years ago now that the best and most important thing human beings can do is to say “Yes.”

Mike is a genius in many respects, not least in his ability to teach improvisational theater. Among the many exercises he facilitates with his students is the “Yes Game.” This is disarmingly simple and profound. In this game, people take turns suggesting some activity that the whole group can do, like running around the room, or rolling around on the floor, or hopping on one foot while chanting “bacon, bacon, bacon.” It doesn’t matter what it is, when someone suggests something to do, everyone says, “Yes!” And then we all do it.

I cannot describe the profound effect this “simple” game can have. To say Yes to life, to people, to love, to opportunity, to risk, to relationship, to relaxation…to God. This is what we are made for.

Tomorrow on the Christian calendar is Trinity Sunday. Many Churches will be hearing from an ancient Hebrew prophet in their worship services. It will be a portion from Isaiah, the one in which the prophet has an astounding vision of God’s presence and glory (see chapter 6).

In the midst of that praise-filled vision, the divine voice speaks: “Who will go for us, and whom shall we send?”

It’s important to note here that Isaiah’s society at the time was in something of a mess. Isaiah’s account of this moment is signaled rather precisely in the first verse of that chapter, “In the year that King Uzziah died….”

His society was unraveling, in other words. And someone had to do something. Someone had to speak some hard truths. Something had to change. (Sound familiar?)

Caught up in that astounding moment of divine worship that Isaiah describes, when the divine voice speaks and seeks someone – anyone – to make a difference, Isaiah doesn’t hesitate: “Send me!

Isaiah said yes. And that’s all that matters. Whatever comes next, whatever details need to be worked out, whatever plan needs to be negotiated and executed – all of that can come later, and indeed God provides all that stuff, as Isaiah later learned. The most important thing is that Isaiah said “Yes!”

I love Trinity Sunday and I am happily a Trinitarian Christian. That doesn’t mean that I “understand” the Trinity or that I think all other views of the divine life are somehow “wrong.” It means for me what I think it must have meant for Isaiah: the God who is above all things is also in all things; the God who is transcendent also dwells among us; the God who cannot be captured in doctrines nevertheless speaks: “Who will go for us?”

The time is now for all of us to say “Send me!” And I truly believe that worship can help each of us say that kind of Yes, just as it helped Isaiah.

That might be the most peculiar thing of all about Christian faith and life today: worship matters. In an age when “spirituality” trumps “religion,” I believe there is still much to be said for the religious rites of worship. Both Jewish and Christian ancestors attest to the life-changing, world-transforming character of worship. Praising God with others can actually change the world. I believe this. I’ve seen it. And I want to find ever new ways to say “Yes!” to it.

Let us therefore worship the unfathomable mystery of God tomorrow, and may our worship help us to say Yes to the divine call. Our world is in desperate need. Now is not the time to say No. Now is the time to say Yes to that Mystery no one can comprehend but which calls to each of us nonetheless: Will you go? Will you do it? Will you change the world?

May our worship inspire us anew to say YES!