Saturday, December 26, 2009

Be afraid. Be very afraid... (Updated)

…when Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner says there is nothing to be afraid of. NPR’s Michelle Norris interviewed him recently and questioned him about two things: 1) the prospects of a “double dip” or a second recessionary downturn, and 2) whether it’s really a good idea to be urging banks to be lending aggressively given the recent problems with bad loans and defaults.

Geithner says everything is wonderful: "We are not going to have a second wave of financial crisis." And when Norris asks, "So it's ok for [banks] to take risks right now?" Geithner responds, "Absolutely." Norris is understandably skeptical about all of this. Mike Shedlock obviously doesn’t buy it: "The arrogance and ignorance of Geithner are both appalling."

Be ready folks: 2010—to paraphrase Bette Davis/”Margo”—is going to be a “bumpy” year (and don’t be surprised by a major swoon on Wall Street). I hope to be posting more about this soon.

(Here's an earlier related post: Double Dip.)

Update: In an interview with ABC News today, Paul Krugman expressed his belief there is a "reasonably high chance" the economy will contract again in 2010. "I'm really worried about the second half [of the year]."

Friday, December 18, 2009

The ancient language of story (Sunday Reflections for December 20, 2009)

This time of year the various educational networks (History Channel, PBS, National Geographic) often show programs dealing with “what really happened” when Jesus was born. These types of shows have been popular for the last twenty years or so because it’s now almost universally recognized that the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth need some explaining. They can’t be taken at face value.

Here are a few of the more obvious issues. While there are four gospels only two of them, Matthew and Luke, tell what we would call “Christmas stories.” Mark, the earliest gospel, says nothing at all about Jesus’ birth. Both Jesus and John the Baptist appear as adults right off the bat. John, the last gospel written, follows Mark’s example. It does, however, begin with its famous prologue, a theological and even poetic reflection on Jesus’ coming into the world (“In the beginning was the word . . . “).

Chronologically, Matthew and Luke were written between Mark and John at about the same time, though in different places and for different communities. When comparing their stories of Jesus’ birth, what becomes most noticeable is that they have almost nothing in common with each other. Here are just a few examples.

In Luke, Mary gets the news of Jesus’ impending birth from an angel, while in Matthew it’s Joseph that is told. In Luke, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem. In Matthew, they live in Bethlehem and later move to Nazareth. Luke has a fairly long section about the actual birth, focusing on the angelic announcement to the shepherds. Matthew, however, simply reports the event (no shepherds) but then tells of a visit by foreign astrologers “led by a star, “ with the implication it may have occurred as much as two years after Jesus’ birth. The bottom line is that, while involving the same three primary characters and set in the same location, these are two very different stories.

Then there are the parts of the stories that raise eyebrows. Not all of these involve the miraculous. Historians agree, for instance, that the census as Luke reports it is preposterous. Ordering everyone to their ancestral home to be counted would accomplish nothing except total chaos. Imperial “head counts” did happen but not like that. For Luke this is obviously a “plot device.”

In the miracle department, there is Matthew’s howler of the moving star. Stars, of course, don’t move, not as Matthew implies. Very likely the natural phenomenon in mind here is a comet. It does “appear” for a relatively short time (weeks) and gradually changes position in the night sky until it’s no longer visible. The notion that such an object could be “followed” to a particular town is fantastic. Again, we have a plot devise for moving characters in a story.

Then, of course, there is the most controversial part of the story, the virgin birth. Matthew and Luke are the only ones that mention this (including Paul, who wrote earlier than the gospels and says almost nothing biographically about Jesus’ life). The Isaiah passage Matthew quotes to explain this event is now recognized as a mistranslation of a Hebrew word which actually means “young woman” (the gospel writers all seemed to use the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint).

Jesus’ “virgin birth” is a good example, however, for understanding part of what the gospel writers are up to. The literature of the ancient world was filled with stories of virgin births. They were not everyday occurrences, however, but always involved special people like great heroes and rulers. Ancient people knew virgins didn’t give birth except in stories.

When Matthew and Luke announce that Mary is a virgin, this would have been an immediate signal to their readers and listeners of what kind of person this Jesus is going to be. These writers probably thought this was important to include because in most other respects Jesus is remarkably ordinary: not royalty, not a victorious general, but an itinerant peasant preacher. Especially for gentiles unfamiliar with Jewish tradition, this detail would have provided a bridge into a literary world they understood very well. In an empire of multiple nationalities and cultures, stories were a universal language.

Our obsession with the “fantastic” aspects of these stories—whether they occurred and how they could have occurred—would have puzzled ancient people. For them this would have been missing the forest for the trees. The purpose of stories was to convey cultural (which always included religious) values, meaning and traditions. They shaped people’s identity, made sense of the world in which they lived, and guided them in their choices and decisions. Stories rarely, if ever, were about telling “what happened” in our modern historical sense. Frankly, ancient people just didn’t care.

Matthew’s and Luke’s Christmas stories, like much of the Bible, invite us into a special world. It is not the world in which we live, yet that was also true for these stories' original ancient hearers. In the daily lives of people of the Roman world, virgins did not give birth, angels did not appear, stars did not move, animals did not speak, a loaf of bread did not feed thousands. Ancient people did hear about such things in stories though. They listened carefully and pondered, like Mary, what these things might mean.

Today our scientific knowledge can confuse us when we try to apply it to everything, thinking it’s the only lens through which to see the world and our lives. The Bible’s stories ask us to put our scientific rationality on hold for a moment, but not because science is wrong. Rather these stories speak to us in a different language, opening our ears and eyes to a different world, to a different kind of truth and value. They use extraordinary events to help us see the love of God hidden in the ordinariness of our daily lives.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Misery Synod has its problems too

Looking for other things, I came across this story. Apparently there have been rumors that one or both LCMS seminaries are going to be put up for sale! This post from a seminary students' blog has an "official" statement refuting the rumors, signed by everybody and his cousin, including LCMS President Gerald Kieschnick. When it takes NINE people to knock down a rumor you can't help but think of Shakespeare: Me thinks he (they) doth protest too much. Not surprisingly, Missouri is having its own financial problems and the seminaries are part of that equation. There is also a brewing squabble over a proposed churchwide restructuring plan. Looks like a lot of people are getting practice rearranging the Titanic's deck chairs.

We need to talk

In his recent online “town hall meeting,” ELCA Bishop Hanson repeated a plea he has been making since the churchwide assembly last August (CWA09). He has been asking those upset with the decision to liberalize the church’s stance on homosexuality and gay clergy to remain with the denomination and “be in conversation” with the rest of the church. In short: “Please don’t leave. Let’s talk.”

While Hanson’s invitation is gracious and understandable, I wonder what he thinks there is to talk about. In the last few months I have occasionally checked in with some of the conservative Lutheran websites and blogs. Frankly, what I hear in such places is nearly a foreign language.

I posted earlier about a north suburban Chicago congregation newsletter column by ELCA Pastor Terry Breum. His list of beliefs which he feels are challenged today in the ELCA was stunning. If I met him I would be tempted to ask, “What rock have you been living under?” His credo seemed a bit conservative even for the LCMS but would make most any fundamentalist happy. It’s hard to imagine how he and I are pastors in the same denomination.

Pastor Breum may be an extreme example, but the conversations I have seen on other web sites reveal a deep and wide chasm within the ELCA. Bishop Hanson and other ELCA leaders following his line are wrong in believing this is simply or even primarily about acceptance of homosexuality and gay clergy. What the actions of CWA09 did was to reveal fundamental differences over theology and mission within the ELCA.

Bishop Hanson has expressed concern that this dispute is diverting ELCA energy and resources from its mission. The assumption here is that mission is something which unites us but that’s wishful thinking. Take this simple example: Is it our mission to save sinners from hell? It is for Pastor Breum but it certainly isn’t for me. According to Pastor Bruem, universalism (“taught in many seminaries” he says as an aside) is one of the ELCA’s many heretical defects. Are he and I really in agreement on the church’s mission? I can’t imagine how we could be.

What then is our “mission” in starting new congregations? Suppose some young protégé of Pastor Breum, fired up for mission, wants to be a mission developer. Would I want such a person starting a new ELCA congregation or my congregation’s mission support paying for such a project? Heavens no. Would he want a protégé of mine starting a new ELCA congregation? I seriously doubt that would be the case either.

As I wrote before, what is disingenuous about the protests of Pastor Breum and others is the implication that all this heresy appeared just recently. Where have they been? While homosexuality was perhaps just becoming a public conversation topic, when I was in seminary over twenty-five years ago all these “heretical” topics were openly discussed and often affirmed by both professors and students. And many of the texts we read on these topics had been around for some time.

Unfortunately the opportunity for conversation is probably long past. Theological divisions within the ELCA are not new; they’ve been there from the start. For whatever reason, the desire to unite American Lutheranism (or come as close as possible) led to an unspoken agreement to avoid divisive topics and “accent the positive” of what presumably united everyone. Much of that unity was expressed in jargon that was sufficiently vague (like “mission”) so people could interpret it however they wanted to. Had those conversations taken place, they almost certainly would have delayed an already stumbling merger process and may well have stopped it altogether.

To some extent, the practice of avoiding divisive theological issues had been that of the ELCA’s predecessor churches as well. Did it work because those churches were more ethnically homogenous or because they were smaller? Or have the times changed? This is certainly a more polarized period, politically and ideologically. I suspect all these are factors and no doubt there are others. In any case, the notion of respecting each other’s “bound conscience” and agreeing to disagree doesn’t seem to have much of a future.

Recently, the ELCA’s two former presiding bishops, Herb Chilstrom and H. George Anderson, issued a joint appeal to rally moral and financial support for the embattled denomination. They both see their earlier hard work bringing about the ELCA in danger. They’re convinced the ELCA is worth saving and has important work to do:

Our troubled world needs the Good News of the Gospel and all that flows from it. Our differences must not divide us at a time like this. We are absolutely certain that we can continue to live together and serve as one family in the ELCA.

Sincere and well meaning, theirs are nonetheless voices of an older generation and a time in the church’s life that is rapidly passing. The gospel which they see uniting the church is actually the very subject of its division. A conversation among representative leaders about the meaning of that “good news” would be very interesting indeed but would likely also lead to the realization that the ELCA stopped being “one family” some time ago (if it ever was).

In the present instance, one side sees the good news to be a spiritual healing of our community division over differing sexual orientations and a welcome to those formally ostracized. Another sees the good news as a message of forgiveness for sinful behavior and the availability of a charism enabling sinners to resist the temptation at the heart of their disordered personality. Trying bringing that together in an evangelism brochure!

There will be need for conversation but not between the antagonists in the ELCA’s current squabble. That train’s left the station and it’s not coming back. By this time next year, however, the dust will have settled and there should be a fairly clear picture of the ELCA’s composition going forward. It is this remnant that needs to talk to each other and develop a coherent and meaningful message and mission for the church.

It’s obvious from the dramatic cultural changes happening today that the nature of the church is going to be very different in the years to come. Because of the ELCA’s theological “diversity,” its attempts to respond thus far have been little more than flailing. Those remaining in the future ELCA, however, should have sufficient common ground for a real and productive conversation about what is the “good news” for 21st century America. Then from there a conversation can begin about what the church ought to be doing to make that gospel known.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bishop Hanson's in the hall




I finally got to watch Bishop Hanson’s online “town hall meeting” (I was on the road last Sunday when it was aired). I hesitated whether to write anything about it at all. One reason I am is Hanson’s closing statement that he intends to do this again. I really hope he doesn’t.

It was a strange hour. First, it was yet another attempt by the church to look like it’s in the big leagues, only to fall embarrassingly short. The setting in the recently vacated Augsburg Fortress retail space appeared as makeshift as it obviously was. Carlos Pena role as “the questioner” was artificial and inappropriate. I’m sorry but I couldn’t help thinking that his dentures were loose—wrong person for the wrong job.

With his audience on three sides and Pena popping up with questions from behind him, Hanson looked like a whirling Dervish trying to figure out where to look. Hanson and Pena’s sound levels were significantly different so, listening with earphones, I had to keep raising and lowering the volume as they each spoke. The live audience apparently was all from the Chicago area (I recognized about half of them) so could hardly be said to be representative of the ELCA. I don’t know how they or the questions submitted online were selected.

Hanson was weirdly energized, like he had had too much caffeine. He seemed to be enjoying himself but also seemed to be trying to look like he was enjoying himself. The whole question and answer exchange came off as staged. Hanson launched into his response to each question almost instantly, as if he knew the questions in advance and already had his answers planned. I don’t think he did and it probably was just a result of his “adrenaline rush.” As a result, though, he didn’t appear to think or reflect at all before he spoke so his immediate talking sometimes seemed to be just words. Not surprisingly, he was prone to ramble.

As I listened to Hanson’s responses I had much the same reaction as I had to his video message a few weeks ago. Obviously a primary goal of this media push is to try to counter the negative talk following this summer’s churchwide assembly (CWA09) and to refocus attention on positive aspects of the church’s ministry. Unlike his previous message, the questions forced Hanson to deal more directly with the ELCA’s problems. Nonetheless, he continued his “happy talk,” though it was no more convincing this time than it was before.

Actually, many of his responses were disingenuous or wildly unrealistic, and the continuous effort to put a positive spin on the ELCA’s problems sometimes was just silly. He described the recent staff cuts as “cutting to the marrow of the bone the priorities of this church.” In the next breath, however, he insisted they did not diminish the church’s commitment to racial justice or ethnic ministries (the specific subject of the question) or that the church was changing its priorities.

I couldn’t help but think of [ELCA executive for administration] Wyvetta Bullock’s refreshingly frank statement after the staff cuts were announced: “We will being doing less with less.” Hanson’s inconsistent bemoaning of the ELCA cuts and insistence that everything will go on as before diminishes his credibility and hardly makes him appear serious about dealing with this crisis.

The questions from the Chicago audience were mostly softballs, or they at least were tolerant of Hanson’s softball answers. Everyone nodded, chuckled and smiled. Several of the submitted questions were more pointed, however, mostly dealing with the sexuality social statement and revised gay clergy policy adopted by CWA09. In response to these, Hanson’s mantra was to urge all sides to remain together in conversation. Yet, apart from the August assembly itself, he cited no examples where this was happening and, as he returned to this theme repeatedly during the hour, it became harder to imagine how it would occur.

Holding the ELCA together is obviously a primary concern for Hanson, but he didn’t make a very convincing case for it. While he insisted the ELCA will be “diminished” by the loss of opponents of the assembly action he seemed unable to articulate why this would be a bad thing. Frankly, it was reminiscent of the vague explanations given for forming the ELCA in the first place. It seems we’re still trying to sell “bigger is better.”

The “big tent” ecclesiology Hanson espoused just isn’t convincing or even imaginable. Responding to someone opposed to the new ministry policy, Hanson insisted the questioner loved the Bible just as he did. But do they love it in the same way? As I listened to his description of the “evangelical Lutheran” way of reading the Bible I knew there would be listeners squirming, or worse. His approach is one I’m comfortable with but I know it drives conservatives crazy.

Hanson tried to use various historical examples to support his notion that differing viewpoints can coexist in the same church but none of them worked. He cited the presence of Jewish and gentile Christians in the early church, yet history shows that the Jewish wing became the increasingly sectarian Ebionites which eventually faded away. Hanson quotes Paul’s “many parts, one body” theology but Paul was referring to different gifts and abilities, not differing opinions and beliefs. Using a more contemporary example, Hanson gave the example of differing Christian attitudes toward war. Yet where do significant pro-military versus pacifist factions exist together, except perhaps in Roman Catholicism?

The biggest challenge the ELCA faces, according to Hanson, is for the distraction over sexuality to result in loss of focus on mission. Can the two be so easily separated though? He welcomed a questioner’s report of people returning to church after the assembly actions and urged opponents to see the possibility of people coming to Christ this way. But how could they cheer such news if they think this is the result of a delusion?

For the first time I heard Hanson identify what I think is the crux of the church’s division over homosexuality. An online questioner asked how the church could endorse something the Bible clearly condemns. His wordy and circuitous answer finally got around to saying that the modern understanding of homosexuality is not in the Bible. Hanson couldn’t bring himself to complete the thought, however, to simply say and therefore the Bible is wrong.

As with Hanson’s open letter last month, I was left wondering who the intended audience was for this event. I can’t imagine that opponents of the sexuality decisions were persuaded by anything Hanson said. To me it seems that this is about creating the meme about those who are or will be leaving the ELCA: “We reached out to them but they wouldn’t talk. What more could we do?” Rather than simply acknowledging there is a sincere difference of opinion, for which there is no institutional compromise, conservatives will be labeled as stubborn and unreasonable. I’m sure this will go well.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Price of war, price of peace (Sunday Reflections for December 13, 2009)

After three months of deliberation, President Obama announced in a speech to the nation his new Afpak policy (as the White House called it). We know what a powerful orator the president can be but this was far from his best effort. Most everyone recognized, however, that this wasn’t because he was off his game but because he just didn’t have very good material to work with.

Afghanistan has befuddled nearly every foreign invader or empire that tried to dominate it. It’s hard to believe the US will be the exception. Afghanistan is not a threat to the United State nor has it ever been. It’s a small, undeveloped and unorganized country half-way around the world. Yet its rugged terrain and previous irresponsible Taliban government made it an ideal base of operations for terrorists who could and did attack us.

We invaded Afghanistan eight years ago and, using mostly local militias, overthrew the Taliban and chased Al Qaeda to the Pakistan border, where they disappeared into the mountains. Then we became distracted by the war with Iraq. In the years since the Taliban have regrouped and regained territory and popular support, aided by the inept and corrupt Karzai government which replaced them.

The threat from Al Qaeda, however, is unclear. US officials estimate their numbers in Afghanistan at only about a hundred. There likely are more in Pakistan and places like Somalia and Yemen. Always shadowy and amorphous, it is not known if any real centralized planning or coordination is going on. Whatever remains of the Osama bin Laden core in the Afpak border regions seems primarily involved in training recruits who then scatter around the world.

Will this latest “surge” work? No one knows. It’s not even clear what that means. Many say the real battle is in Pakistan, which needs to be fought by Pakistanis and which our involvement is making more difficult. Others say that fighting Al Qaeda is not something that can be done with “boots on the ground” anyway but is much more about intelligence, “special ops” and aiding the countries where they are located. In many ways, Al Qaeda more resembles something like the Mafia than a fighting force and police may be more affective in containing them than the military.

Perhaps Obama’s goal is to make a forceful enough pushback to enable some kind of negotiated deal with the Taliban. Many US and NATO experts, both civilian and military, say that ultimately the Taliban have to be brought into the Afghan government. Perhaps all this is about dealing Western allies a stronger hand so they can negotiate from strength. The Taliban can be brought into the government with their agreement not to give shelter to Al Qaeda.

At which point, we can get out. Perhaps the most believable part of Obama’s speech was that he identified the elephant in the room: the US cannot afford this war. What has been glaringly absent since 9/11 has been any call for national sacrifice. We have been waging war on the national credit card, with taxes cut rather than raised. Despite obvious and even scandalous strains on military personnel, there has not been even a discussion of instituting a draft.

Obama’s real dilemma is not military but political. While he would be excoriated for “cutting and running” if he simply pulled out of Afghanistan, Obama knows there is no support to pay for the scale of war and rebuilding the experts say is necessary to guarantee success there. So he is gambling that a limited effort will produce enough results to enable the US to get itself out of this mess in short order.

Since 9/11 it’s obvious that we live in a world very different from what we knew in the last half of the 20th century. We are still learning what that world is like and how to live in it. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the US made a 20th century response to the terrorist attacks that began the new century—a response that has been enormously costly but has produced few of the results we wanted or expected. After 9/11 certainly some retaliation on Al Qaeda was inevitable. In the new world of asymmetrical war, however, “sending in the Marines” is often not going to be appropriate and likely to make things worse.

People around the world are experiencing tumultuous cultural and economic change. Frustration and anger has overflowed in many places but not in all. India is growing rapidly and still has vast economic disparities. It also has the third largest Muslim population in the world yet both internal violence and exported violence are rare. We need to learn from places like India how nations in transition can keep their people from becoming so frustrated or afraid that they feel they have no alternative but to resort to violence or support violence.

As a global economic power we also have to learn how to act in ways that respect other cultures and benefit all levels of society. We have often supported oppressive elites who are detested by the rest of the population. Teddy Roosevelt famously said the US should “speak softly but carry a big stick.” We have the “big stick” but we’ve forgotten the “speak softly” part.

Perhaps today what we need more than anything is a new level of maturity on our part. Our conflict now is not with someone nearly our equal, like the former Soviet Union. Rather we are more like the oldest sibling who has to tolerate the misbehavior of younger brothers and sisters, including a few kicks in the shin. We can’t just hall off and smack them as much as we may want to. While the meaning is broader than this, I think it is not inappropriate to remember Jesus’ admonition that when someone strikes you on the cheek you should turn the other to them, as well. Restraint, while not always appropriate, can sometimes produce surprising results because it so surprising and unexpected.

Therapists often ask clients stuck in self-defeating behavior, “And how’s that working for you?” With regard to our role and behavior in the world, as a nation we also need to have some reality checks. We need to put as much effort into learning methods of peace as we do methods of war. We need to persuade our adversaries—and ourselves--that we all have more to gain from cooperating than fighting. War is a waste, something those who fight them know best of all:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron. (Dwight Eisenhower, 1953)

Update: Several recent columns in the New York Times raised serious questions and doubts about the Obama strategy and are well worth reading:

Frank Rich "Obama's Logic Is No Match for Afghanistan"
Roger Cohen "Afghanistan on Main Street"
Thomas Friedman "This I Believe" and "May It All Come True"

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Hard work (Sunday Reflections for December 6, 2009)

The words had my Lutheran sensibilities quaking. I was listening to a CBC radio interview of world religions scholar and author, Karen Armstrong. “No, no that’s all wrong,” my Lutheran consciousness was telling me. “Religion,” Armstrong had emphatically declared, “is hard work.” “But salvation is a free gift of God’s grace,” the theological voice protested. Yet as I listened to Armstrong I understood what she was saying and, what’s more, I knew she was right.

Armstrong is traveling around the world discussing her new book, The Case for God (I’m still working through it). As a young adult, she abandoned the Catholic faith which had led her to become a nun. Later as a journalist, Armstrong came to a new appreciation of religion. She became acutely aware, however, that religious conflict was poisoning its value in the world. As a result, she has been on a crusade to reassert the priority of religious practice over religious doctrine and beliefs.

Since the scientific revolution four hundred years ago, the world’s religions have become preoccupied with the truth of their words and ideas. This was done, in large part, to “compete” with the new claims to truth being made by science. In this competition, religion has basically fallen on its face. Worse, it has led to increasing conflict within and between religions, usually revolving around disagreements over whose “words” were right.

The intellectualizing of religion is a relatively new and disastrous turn. Armstrong’s goal is to re-center religion on its practice, rather than on its theological ideas. She believes this has, in fact, been the essence of religion through the centuries, around the world. By doing so, Armstrong hopes the world’s religions can regain a toleration and even appreciation for one another that characterized humanity’s earlier history. They will also rediscover their true purpose and find new ways to be of value to people in the 21st century.

Her recently launched Charter for Compassion is bringing religious leaders and adherents together in a commitment to the Golden Rule as a unifying ethos for all humanity. It is, Armstrong believes, the fundamental core of religious life: challenging people and teaching people how to live in harmony with their neighbor. That is the context of Armstrong’s assertion, “Religion is hard work.”

Would Luther have agreed with her? On some level I think he would. The Reformation, for all the words spilled in carrying it out, was nonetheless primarily about religious practice, about how the Christian life was lived on Sunday mornings as well as the rest of the week. It occurred at the dawn of the scientific age, however, and, as Armstrong says, evolved in response to it. As the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment, Lutheran theologians in particular just couldn’t stop talking, arguing and writing about all this. Bookshelves groaned under the load.

In the 17th century, there was an inevitable backlash against this “dead orthodoxy” (as it was called). Tired and bored with the unending stream of theological oratory (churches seemed more like lecture halls than places of worship), people began searching for religious experience—they wanted to feel something. Thus began the movement known as Pietism and, as when someone suddenly grabs the steering wheel, the church veered from one misdirection to another.

In the years since, these essentially have been the two options people have had to choose from: churches offering either an intellectualized Christianity or a “feel good” Christianity. You could either have your brain fed or your emotions. For a growing number of people, however, an awkward question began to be asked: Does any of this feed my life? The steady exodus of people out of churches in the developed world over the past two centuries is pretty good evidence that it doesn’t.

Are we “saved by grace apart from good works?” The failure of medieval Christianity was that it had become obsessed with one thing: getting to heaven. It nearly drove Luther crazy, saved only by his discovery of Paul’s teaching of justification by faith. Where Luther went wrong was in not realizing that the problem was not just the Roman Catholic Church’s answer but it was the question itself.

Christianity as a means of achieving immortality is a stunningly reductionist view of Jesus’ message (and of Paul, for that matter. Most New Testament scholars today think this was a relatively minor theme for both of them). Rather, Jesus seems to have had essentially the same concern as the prophets that preceded him: religiosity serving as a cover for injustice and a substitute for genuine spirituality. Hence, he embraced and taught the centuries-old core of the Jewish Torah: love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself.

In doing so, Jesus taught something else: Religion is hard work. Why? Because to love God and neighbor we have to turn our attention off of ourselves—one of the hardest thing for any of us to do. I think that the place where Christianity has most seriously gone off track is in its assumption that God is as obsessed with us as we are with ourselves. It has been often said that humans create God in their own image. It’s not a surprise then that we imagine a God who is watching and thinking about us all the time, just like we do.

According to Armstrong, religious practice the world over is about “dethroning ourselves,” wrestling our egos off center stage and out of the spotlight of our consciousness. Jesus, of course, teaches this repeatedly: lose your life in order to find it, don’t worry about tomorrow, if someone wants your coat give then them your shirt as well, take up your cross and follow me. It is, Armstrong and Jesus both say, a life-long journey and commitment.

Armstrong also says we talk too much about God. God is not an intellectual concept we are going to figure out. In fact, theologians past and present have said God does not “exist,” not in the way that anything in the world we experience exists. Rather, we experience the love and transcendence of God when we forget ourselves and reach beyond ourselves, in moments of silence, reflection and artistic expression; and in acts of charity and self-giving.

The truth of Luther’s and Paul’s (and the Bible’s) grace is simply that God is not some “thing” we have to worry about. God is not Santa Clause, “making a list and checking it twice.” In the mystery of our existence, God is instead both our companion and our destination. God is “our rock and our salvation,” our strength and inspiration for the hard work of religion, which is at the same time, and nothing less than, this joyous gift of our life’s journey.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Running out of jobs? (2 updates)

(Perhaps it’s time to step away from the ELCA’s problems and look at problems that are of more consequence.)

A concern being raised by many economists is the potential for a “jobless recovery” from the current recession. In this scenario, economic activity begins to pick up but unemployment remains stubbornly high. One person in particular, however, has focused on this and raised serious concerns that this could be a long-term and even worsening development.

Martin Ford is a Silicon Valley software entrepreneur who has been studying and writing about technology produced automation and increased efficiency. The loss of manufacturing jobs is a well-known development of recent decades. Ford says this is already spreading into so-called knowledge industry employment and the process is certain to accelerate. The scenario he envisions is one of ever-growing “structural unemployment,” i.e. people indefinitely unemployed or grossly under-employed.

His blog has a lot of material and it is being picked up by others in the economics community. I’ll leave it to you to read more there (or in his new book) if you’re interested. Obviously if Ford is being prescient then dramatic changes and enormous challenges lie ahead.

Or are they actually already here? Unemployment figures are notoriously difficult to gather or interpret. It is widely accepted that many people that are under-employed or who have stopped looking for work are missed by these statistical reports. Many urban areas have large pockets of persistent double-digit unemployment and many people who haven’t worked in years. This reality is also common in many small towns and rural areas.

The social problems of such places have befuddled us for years: crime, gangs, drug abuse, mental illness, broken families, chronic illness, dysfunctional schools. One interpretation of this may not be as simplistic as it appears: people with nothing to do get into trouble. Ford is raising the alarm that this is a reality that, not only is not going away, but is actually growing.

What would happen if a society is developing in which an ever growing number of people are economically superfluous? If you have ever been unemployed you know how devastating it can be to your self-esteem. It doesn’t bring out your better self. Hollywood’s dystopian futures typically involve alien invasions, natural disasters, or horrendous wars. The future Ford is envisioning and warning about is much more mundane but equally disturbing: a world of millions of people with nothing to do.

Update: Elizabeth Warren is a Harvard law professor and chair of the congressional banking oversight panel. Her column today on Huffington Post presents a stark picture of the current state of the shrinking middle class. Notice in particular the chart showing the divergence, beginning in the 1970s, of growth in productivity and growth in hourly wages. This is one symptom of the situation Ford is describing: Why is wage growth not matching growth in worker productivity?

Update 2: Prior to yesterday's Washington job summit, economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich raised his concerns about the difficulty the recovery will have producing jobs in sufficient quantity and quality. Money quote:

But here's the real worry. The basic assumption that jobs will eventually return when the economy recovers is probably wrong. Some jobs will come back, of course. But the reality that no one wants to talk about is a structural change in the economy that's been going on for years but which the Great Recession has dramatically accelerated. 

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Synodical confusion in Iowa

Last spring when I first read the convoluted ministry proposals of the ELCA’s sexuality task force, one item in particular raised an eyebrow. This was the notion that synods could exercise their “bound conscience” and be free to “act according to their convictions” with regard to ordaining and calling noncelibate gay clergy. I thought at the time, “This looks like an accident waiting to happen.” Well, there’s a sound of crunching metal coming from Iowa.

The Northeastern Iowa Synod Council recently adopted resolutions rejecting both the sexuality social statement and revised ministry policies adopted at last August’s churchwide assembly (CWA09). A lengthy online discussion of this at prettygoodlutherans.com is filled with “what ifs,” “what abouts” and “yeah buts.” These Lutheran Hawkeyes have opened an ecclesial Pandora’s Box which could well get worse before it gets better. Someone in the ELCA's leadership should have seen this coming.

In contrast with their clearly defined theological views, the 16th century Lutheran reformers were surprisingly ambivalent when it came to the church’s organization. After all the shouting, maybe they just ran out of energy to give the subject much attention. In contrast, Calvin and the Presbyterians virtually made an Eleventh Commandment out of Paul’s admonition, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” The Church of England basically kept the Roman Catholic structure already in place while severing, of course, any loyalty to the pope.

Lutherans, in contrast, really have no indigenous polity (church organizational structure). As they organized their new churches, Luther’s followers knew they wanted to avoid a hierarchy with oppressive authority. The details for making that a reality were a little vague, however. There would be some kind of regional administrators (sometimes called bishops) but congregations would retain their independence. Congregations would have pastors but leadership would be shared with councils or boards of lay leaders. Some have seen this as a hodge-podge of the more defined systems of Lutheranism's Protestant cousins, sometimes dubbed episcopopresbygationalism.

Organized in 1987, the ELCA continues this fine, muddled tradition. The evolution of Lutheran organization in this country has as much or more to do with improving transportation and communication technology, and the growing dominance of industrial corporatism, as it does with reflection on the nature of the church. As church “business” has grown in quantity and complexity so too has the bureaucracy needed to administer it. Cloisters and arches have given way to cubicles and dropped ceilings.

The term synod, which the ELCA uses for its geographic sub-units, comes from a Greek word meaning “council” or “assembly.” Up until recently this was how Lutherans used it, as well. Early in my ministry, pastors still talked about “going to synod” meaning the annual meeting of regional pastors and congregational lay representatives. Over time, the role of “president” of this meeting became a paying job, which then needed an office and support staff and assistants. Some Lutheran bodies began referring to the region which met at these synods also as “synods,” i.e. synod meant both the meeting and the territory of the congregations which attended a particular synod.

This usage was adopted by the ELCA from the LCA, its largest predecessor body. By backing into this usage, however, no one has ever sat down to figure out just what a synod really is. The clearest evidence of this is the ELCA’s own constitution. It goes on for pages (Chapter 10) defining the geographic boundaries of the synods, details extensive responsibilities for them, but never defines what a synod is. Once you realize that, then the description of the various tasks synods are supposed to carry out becomes a little weird. Just who or what is supposed to be doing these things? Is it the synod bishop, synod office, synod council, synod assembly, synod pastors, synod congregations? What is the “synod” in front of all those words?

Consider this opening statement (10.2): “Each congregation . . . shall establish a relationship with the synod in whose territory it is located.” How would a congregation do that? Just what is it that a congregation is supposed to be relating to? What (if anything) does this mean? In fact, if you look very closely at many of the constitutional statements about synods they basically become tautologies.

For example, this is the over-arching purpose of synods as defined in the ELCA Constitution (10.21): “Each synod, in partnership with the churchwide organization, shall bear primary responsibility for the oversight of the life and mission of this church in its territory.” To have any meaning, one has to conclude that the synod is something different than “this church in its territory.” Otherwise you’ve just said, “The synod shall have responsibility for itself.” So again one asks who or what is this synod that’s shouldering this responsibility?

The action of the NE Iowa Synod Council is, as a result, confusing to say the least. Are the council members really speaking for anyone beside themselves? They seem to recognize the ambiguity of the situation. The bold-sounding resolution is suddenly damped down when it “recommends” that the synod candidacy committee and synod “office of bishop” abide by the previous ordination standards. Presumably they could say “No.”

Which brings us back to the task force proposal adopted by CWA09. Can a synod have “a bound conscience?” Can a synod have a conscience at all? How would we know what it is? It is the bishop’s, the synod council’s, the synod assembly’s, all the synod congregation’s? Is a synod really a separate entity at all in the ELCA system? Isn’t a synod just an administrative convenience, like a corporate sales district—a piece of a puzzle which could have been cut up completely differently, in more or fewer pieces, in an infinite number of shapes and sizes?

When the task force proposal came out, somewhere (ELCA Secretary’s office?) a red flag should have gone up. The term “synod” should have been removed from any reference to dissent from the new ministry standards. The ELCA is not made up of its synods (ala the United States and it states). Constitutionally, the ELCA creates the synods as a means of carrying out its wider-church ministry. If it chose to do so, it could completely rearrange the synods, reorganize or rename them, or abolish them altogether.

Unfortunately, the ELCA constitution does not recognize this in all its parts or apply this logic consistently. The NE Iowa Synod Council’s resolutions are a loud call for this matter to be clarified, and soon. The ELCA has enough on its plate without having a constitutional crisis to resolve on top of everything else. A synod cannot have a conscience, bound or otherwise. When it comes to ELCA synods, there's less here than meets the eye.

Another voice (Sunday Reflections for November 29, 2009)

Distress continues over the actions of last August’s ELCA churchwide assembly. In the midst of reports of the ELCA’s financial problems and churches leaving the denomination (the number still looks small), thanks to Susan Hogan at prettygoodlutherans.com I found this column by Rev. Lynne Silva-Breen. She is an ELCA pastor now working as a family therapist in Burnsville, MN. I thought her explanation of the ELCA’s policy change on gay clergy to be remarkably gracious and her explanation of how Lutherans use the Bible to be especially clear and insightful.

God’s greater, graceful purpose for the world

In my last column in early September, I began to reflect on the news from this summer’s national assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Amidst the discussions on the central work of the church – to share the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ with others and to put that good news into practice - the delegates took up some important internal business about who can become an ordained church pastor. I wrote last time that issues of leadership are not new for the church; such debates have stirred anxiety since the first century.

Our recent leadership anxieties have centered on gay and lesbian clergy in partnered, monogamous relationships. (The ELCA has ordained celibate homosexual clergy for some years.) For the first time in all the years of difficult public argument on the issue, the governing body of the largest Lutheran church in the country voted that married or partnered and monogamous gay and lesbian people may become pastors of its church. By slow, deliberate, and prayerful debate, and by the narrowest of margins, the vote established the new practice for the ELCA. Meetings are being held even now to revise the current process so these men and women may serve congregations who wish to call them.

My hope in this column is to state as simply and as clearly as I can why I think this decision was made, and how it fits, from my point of view, with an evangelical Lutheran way of understanding the Christian faith.

Here are my two central points: firstly, that Lutherans revere the Bible as the inspired, not inerrant, Word of God; and that secondly, we understand that God’s kingdom of grace and justice is present in the world, and we strive to discern it and join with it.

Martin Luther, the Roman Catholic monk who led the religious revolution called the Reformation in 16th century Europe, was a biblical scholar. Lutherans take the Bible so seriously, we study it with our whole mind and heart. Generations of historical, literary, and linguistic scholarship shows our Bible to be a small library of documents, written over centuries of time, by many different authors with varying points of view. We read these 66 books with reverence, knowing that the authors in prayer and power of the Holy Spirit wrote them for the instruction and inspiration of their listeners and readers.

Viewing the Bible as inspired yet not perfect in any human way, many believe that the few passages in the Bible regarding homosexuality reflect older cultural and religious understandings that most current science, culture and experience challenges. In the same way that the Bible condones the selling of slaves and the stoning of adulterers, many have come to believe that those viewpoints are not divine law to us. Instead, most Lutherans read scripture not for word-for-word instruction, but to see, believe and understand the central and timeless purposes of God. And woven throughout all the words and stories, poems and history of the Bible is the message of God’s grace toward the world, and God’s continuous call to us to participate in this grace.

This is why I think the majority of Lutherans at that meeting voted to extend the clergy roster to partnered gay/lesbian clergy. They voted not from an inerrant view of scripture, but from a larger biblical confidence in God’s grace. The God we see alive in Jesus loves every person, everywhere, especially the poor, powerless and outcast. It was for all that God suffered in crucifixion. We who try to follow God in faith are called to loving relationships with God and one another, and to take that passion for the powerless into daily life. Gay and lesbian people are among those who have been cast out, abused, hated and murdered for their sexual orientation. Those who voted “yes” this summer thought it was time to open the leadership circle to those gay and lesbian people who have been blessed with faithful partners and who feel called to serve the church.

Just as it was once unthinkable that women should be pastors in our church, it has been unthinkable until now that partnered gay and lesbian people could be called by God to serve. The vote this summer, I believe, was a vote of risk: that by including these men and women, we would be on the side of God’s greater, graceful purpose for the world.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Re-cutting the seminary pie

I had a conversation with one of the recently laid off ELCA churchwide staff members. As we discussed the downsizing happening all over the church, I mentioned one of my pet peeves: the ELCA’s eight seminaries. “They just can’t do it,” this person said, referring to the need to somehow consolidate these institutions. Ultimately, we agreed, it’s going to be the rules of the marketplace that change things. Or as I put, eventually some of them just aren’t going to be able to write checks anymore.

I have been involved in different ways with several congregational mergers and consolidations. None of them were easy; some of them were a mess. After thinking they were the answer to declining memberships, synods and bishops have backed off from encouraging them. Some time ago the Alban Institute reported its findings that after merging two congregations, the size of the new congregation will not be A+B but usually only A, where A is the size of the larger congregation. In other words, in the transition you should plan on losing the equivalent of the smaller of the two congregations. My experience would affirm that.

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill is famous for his adage, “All politics is local.” I think something similar could be said about religion. Local congregations get people’s loyalties. Local congregations have personalities and histories. Local congregations have egos—sometimes big ones. As a result congregations don’t die or merge with other congregations very easily or well.

Seminaries it seems are not any different. I went to the most “blended” Lutheran seminary: LSTC in Chicago. When I was a student there were still a fair number of faculty members from the predecessor schools. One way to identify them was where they ate lunch in the cafeteria. There was the Augustana table, the Maywood table, etc. Institutional memories are long and persistent.

It seems unlikely than any of the ELCA’s seminaries are going to voluntarily put themselves out of business. Yet that is what needs to happen, whether through merger or closure. The shrinking ELCA simply doesn’t need all of them and can’t support them. There needs to be fewer teachers, fewer deans, fewer support staff, fewer buildings, fewer light and heat bills.

The problem is that in the ELCA’s decentralized polity virtually all of its constituent institutions are functionally independent: congregations, camps, colleges, medical facilities, social service agencies, and seminaries. They all may have the name Lutheran in their titles, and even claim a specific connection with the ELCA, yet by-and-large they are all free to pretty much do whatever they please.

For most of these, that organizational independence is backed up by financial independence. Seminaries, however, receive significant subsidies from synods and the ELCA. They may be unwilling to consolidate but that doesn’t mean the church has to subsidize their inefficiency.

Talking about the ELCA’s latest budget cuts in his recent open letter, Bishop Hansen specifically said aid to seminary education was unaffected. Why not? If belt tightening is necessary, there’s no reason why seminaries should be exempted. If the pie has shrunk, rather than cut smaller slices why not cut fewer slices?

The seminaries’ inclination toward self-preservation is understandable but it’s time for the church they serve to provide a reality check. How about this memo: “We have eight seminaries but we are now only going to support four. Figure it out.”

Follow up: In the comments, a press release is mentioned about a recent joint meeting of the boards of three ELCA seminaries: LSTC, Trinity and Wartburg. You can read it here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

ELCA's theological fail

The repeated judgment of those upset by the ELCA’s decision to permit noncelibate gay clergy is that the church has rejected the teaching of the Bible. For Lutherans taught the principle of sola scriptura at their father’s knee this is, of course, the worst possible theological infraction. 

As I listen to the endless loop of biblical arguments and counter-arguments, I keep asking myself if the past century and more of biblical studies really happened. The conversation has such an antique feel, including the responses of those supporting the August assembly’s actions. It could have happened two or three centuries ago. It shouldn’t be happening now.

Somehow, the most important question has been missed in all of this wrangling. What does the Bible say about homosexuality? Answer: Nothing. Not a word. Why? Because the concepts of homosexuality and sexual orientation did not exist until the 19th century. Writing centuries earlier, the Bible’s authors knew nothing about them and so could say nothing about them.

In this, of course, homosexuality is like countless other scientific and academic concepts and discoveries which came into being in the modern era. For this reason the Bible has nothing to say about infectious disease, mental illness, democracy, gravity, genetics, electricity, free market capitalism, plate tectonics, relativity, climate change, cellular biology, labor unions, organic chemistry, and on and on and on.

The proponents of gay clergy have attempted to fight the battle on their opponents’ field—always a bad tactic. Well meaning scholars have taken apart the various Bible passages which seem to condemn same-sex relations, showing that they actually referred to specific situations involving abusive and exploitive relationships. Their analysis is very likely accurate—but no one cares. Supporters didn’t come to their beliefs because of such analysis and opponents are never persuaded by it. That’s not how they read the Bible and their eyes glaze over.

What has never been decided is WHAT ARE WE ARGUING ABOUT? Is this a theological and biblical issue or is it a scientific question? In the Bible, when someone begins behaving erratically or collapses on the ground in a fit it is assumed that they are possessed by an evil spirit. In the Middle Ages, when a community experienced a plague outbreak authorities looked for a moral cause: God's rejection of the king, the townspeople’s sinfulness, blasphemous acts by local Jews or gypsies, and so forth.

We know now that the analysis of these situations was wrong, not because people misread the Bible but because they lacked any understanding of mental illness or organic and infectious disease. In fact, the Bible had nothing to say to say about them. And this should have been the first question asked by the ELCA sexuality task force or any other group studying this issue: not WHAT does the Bible say about homosexuality but DOES the Bible say anything about homosexuality?

The historical critical study of the Bible was championed by 19th century European Lutherans and widely adopted by American Lutheran seminaries and colleges after World War II. It was, of course, the cause of the 1970s split in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the departure of most of the faculty of its premier seminary. Knowing this I have been stunned by some of the things I have heard coming out of the mouths of clergy opposing the new ELCA policies. Where did they go to school? What did they hear in their Bible classes? What did they learn about modern church history?

The answer is the sad story of mainline Christianity and its unwillingness to grapple with awkward and difficult theological questions about the Bible. What thousands of pastors did with their biblical training is…forget it. Confronted by the naive biblical realism and literalism of many of their (often most vocal) parishioners, they quickly learned to keep their own beliefs to themselves, preaching and teaching “around” such questions often with amazing creativity and dexterity. Others who were never completely persuaded by their professors in the first place, found it easy to revert to their own previous literalism. It has to be admitted that one of the appeals of fundamentalism is that it’s so much easier to have a Bible that is the definitive authority on what God thinks about every issue or problem.

Just as in secular universities, it’s a well-known paradox (and embarrassment) how little the various departments of most seminaries have to do with each other. As a result, it’s hardly a surprise that new pastors would have trouble creating an integrated and consistent message given how little coordination there is between the Bible, theology and homiletics faculties of most seminaries. In some cases, they’re barely on speaking terms.

It’s a common observation that the discoveries of the past two centuries of biblical scholarship have had little penetration in the average congregation. The reality, in fact, is much worse. Modern biblical scholarship has had little penetration in most clergy and most seminaries, even in mainline churches.

Instead, even the church’s theological authorities compartmentalize their minds. They “know” the fictional and mythical nature of the Bible but keep this from having any real impact on the rest of their beliefs or behaviors. What can’t be accepted or recognized is that modernity and the corresponding transformation of how we understand the Bible has also transformed the authority and mission of the church.

Mainline churches have resisted embracing the discoveries and conclusions of critical biblical and theological studies out of fear of losing disgruntled and disillusioned members to more conservative churches (current example: the Book of Faith Initiative). The ELCA’s train wreck over gay clergy, however, shows that trying to live in two different worlds has its own problems. Our bifurcated theology is serving only to pull us apart. The church today is like the cartoon character riding two horses which are about to go around opposite sides of the same tree. It’s time to pick one horse and let go of the other. Otherwise we’re just going to end up lying in the dust feeling really sore. 

Follow up: I have blogged several time before about the problem of the use of the Bible in the ELCA and the Book of Faith Initiative. The last two posts include an exchange with BOFI's director, Luther seminary professor Diane Jacobson.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The bishop tries happy talk

Where does the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) stand today? We stand together in God's grace, but we are not standing still. We proclaim Jesus Christ and are fully engaged in this mission by actively caring for the world that God loves. God's mission is serious work that calls for serious commitment. We bring all that we are -- especially our rich diversity, our shared tradition and even our disagreements -- in service of God's mission.
(“An Open Letter to ELCA Members” from Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, November 20, 2009)

The ELCA today released a letter from Bishop Mark Hanson, along with an accompanying video (its content was similar but not identical to the letter). Take a look at the opening paragraph above. Reading it reminds me of that refrigerator magnet toy which allows you to arrange words into profound poetry or nonsensical gibberish, however you feel moved. The words and grammar make sense but together the paragraph says—nothing. It imitates the kind of political and bureaucratic verbiage we see and hear all the time, only a small dose of which is necessary to put us to sleep.

Obviously the release of the letter and video is an attempt to balance the “negative energy” surrounding last week’s mass layoffs at the ELCA churchwide office, stories of withheld mission support and departing congregations, and the CORE announcement that it would be forming a new Lutheran denomination. All of that, however, is barely acknowledged in the letter itself.

As so often happens with institutions in trouble, the assumption is made that the real problem is public perception. All we have to do is manage the news cycle. We’ll drown out the bad news by shouting good news even louder. Unfortunately in the church such PR campaigns are too obvious and serve only to deplete energy rather than build it up. In this regard the video is even worse than the letter, since meaningless words are combined with the Bishop’s robotic happy talk.

I don’t know what such cheerleading is supposed to accomplish. The limited distribution of these pieces means they go primarily to people well aware of the denomination’s difficulties. For these folks many of the items of good news Hanson highlights ironically only raise more questions:
  • Why is a Florida congregation planning regional mission strategy rather than the ELCA or synod? (If they can do it, what do we need churchwide structures for?)
  • Why are we starting more ministries in poor minority communities when so many previous multicultural mission starts are struggling or closing?
  • The ELCA will “raise up leaders” by supporting its seminaries but won’t acknowledge the financial crisis of many current pastors, that it simply can’t sustain eight independent seminaries, or that it is not at all clear that the full-time pastor with an expensive graduate education is a model that will work in the future.
“Honesty is the best policy” we were told as children. It works even better with adults. The ELCA has serious problems and its membership is mature enough to handle a serious discussion of them. They don’t need to be cheered up. They just need the truth. (I think that's in the Bible somewhere.)

Follow up: blogger and religion journalist Susan Hogan has similar concerns: Bishop Hanson, ELCA need new PR

God be in my genes (Sunday Reflections for November 22, 2009)

“God be in my head” is a late-medieval poem and popular contemporary choral text. If the recent conclusions of some anthropologists and other scientists are accurate, it might be appropriate to update it with a new line, “God be in my genes.”

An article in last Sunday’s New York Times, “The Evolution of the God Gene,” highlighted the results of studies looking into the question of whether we have an inherited disposition toward religion and belief in God. NYT science reporter Nicholas Wade is the author of a new book, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures.He says in the article:

[R]esearch is pointing to a new perspective on religion, one that seeks to explain why religious behavior has occurred in societies at every stage of development and in every region of the world. Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection. It is universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.

Such an idea is controversial for several reasons. First, it assumes that natural selection can favor traits beneficial to a group and not just an individual. Rejected for a long time (though suggested by Darwin himself), the idea has recently begun to be viewed more favorably.

In a completely different context, I recently heard a group-benefiting explanation for ADD. While ADD is a problem for individuals (especially in modern society), this theory hypothesizes that clans or tribes would benefit from having a small number of people with a hyper-awareness of the surrounding environment. That way, when everyone was sitting around the campfire telling stories, it would be good if at least one person wasn’t paying attention so he or she could hear that lion in the bush getting ready to pounce on them.

Similarly, anthropologists are recognizing how religious behavior could have been favorable for our ancestors, both pre-historic and more recent. In various ways, religion served to create group cohesion, promoting cooperation and self-sacrifice. It also gave a mystical and sacred quality to people’s primary activities, first as hunter-gatherers and later in the cycles of agricultural production. It also supported and gave structure to life’s stages: birth, adolescence, marriage, death.

Wade notes that ironically both militant atheists and ardent believers will probably be uncomfortable with the idea that religion has evolved. Many atheists don’t believe religion can be of any value and believers don’t like the idea that religion exists because it’s “useful”—they prefer to believe it exists because it’s “true.”

But Wade doesn’t think either group needs to feel threatened. Rather, he believes this could provide a place for the two sides to meet. One can accept the social value of religion and our inherited “knack” for it without having to accept the truth of any particular religion. We all have an inherited ability to acquire language, for example, but whether that’s English, French or Swahili is based on our individual circumstances. Our religious preference could work the same.

I also wonder if these studies don’t give us some clues about why contemporary religion is floundering, especially in modern Western societies. For centuries and generations, religion served as a “glue” that bound people together in communities and gave their collective lives meaning and structure. This was experienced primarily through ritual activities and shared stories.

In modern times, however, religion has become more about theological ideas and doctrines believed by each person individually. We champion freedom of religion so that you can have your beliefs and I can have mine. Our beliefs, we say, are our private business. Following the Reformation, people with similar beliefs banded together in churches and denominations. Yet the glue of those beliefs is just what seems to be failing. Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic—how many know or care anymore what sets each of them apart?

We know that previous religious activities included things like feasts, stories ritually re-enacted, and dancing. Today we see that many of these have been transformed into secular events. Crowd behavior at rock concerts and football games has a lot of similarity with ancient religious rituals and festivals.

We will soon gather for Thanksgiving, a curious blend of both secular and religious tradition in which everyone can participate regardless of religious affiliation or beliefs. Christmas, on the other hand, is in a bit of a tug-of-war. Some want to be like Thanksgiving: a holiday for all. Others want to “put Christ back in Christmas” and limit it to believing Christians. I’m not sure Macy’s would be very happy with that—or Santa, or Bob Cratchit.

Religion based on doctrines and on what people think doesn’t seem to be doing very well. It just isn’t very—useful. Clearly, though, we aren’t reverting back to the times of hunter-gatherers or primitive agriculture. Returning to ancient religious forms wouldn’t work either.

But what if it is true that religion meets a deep-seated need for us, both individually and socially? Our hyper-individualism often leaves us isolated and anxious. Yet neither are we satisfied by the meaningless groupings of employment, government bureaucracy, or marketing demographics. How could religion genuinely connect us with our neighbor and give us a collective sense of purpose and meaning? I don’t have an answer to that but it does seem like it might be the right direction to look.

The world’s religions all agree that God is both immanent and transcendent—God is somehow both “here” and “everywhere” at the same time. Perhaps a new way to understand that is to recognize that God is, indeed, in our genes. In which case, finding a religious form for experiencing God appropriate to our time may well be right in front of us after all.

God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"The ELCA has left us"? Not exactly (continued)

Congregations now pulling out of the ELCA or threatening to do so are, of course, blaming their disgruntlement over the approval of gay clergy at the churchwide assembly this past August. Yet, the church newsletter quote from Pastor Terry Breum is evidence that this is only part of the story.

Breum cites a long list of biblical, theological, ethical and even political issues about which he finds LCMC much more compatible with his views (and he assumes those of his congregation) than he does the ELCA. From this statement, acceptance of homosexuality is just one, and not necessarily the most important, issue over which Breum feels the need to find a new denominational home. This continues a theme pushed earlier this summer by Carl Braaten and others lamenting the ELCA’s having become just another “liberal Protestant” denomination. He, too, had a long list of complaints. Acceptance of gay clergy and partnerships would be just one more step down this path to ecclesiastical ruin.

What should be obvious is that whatever split is coming has been long in the making. It is the result a fundamental divide within the ELCA that has finally reached the surface and can no longer be ignored. Many who disagreed with the decision in August will nonetheless remain in the ELCA. They can agree to disagree. For others, however, this is the last straw on a heaping stack of theological complaints.

It’s this group that needs to go. Their continuing presence serves only to irritate themselves and everyone else. And while ELCA leaders can’t publicly say, “Here’s your hat—what’s your hurry?” they can also drop the facile lament that any loss of congregations is a body blow to the denomination. This is a divide that is not going to be resolved within the lifetime of any of those involved. Trying to patch it won’t work and will only divert our time and energy from more important endeavors.

The accident has happened. There’s nothing to see here. Let's just move along.