Friday, July 30, 2010

Losing interest in an inclusive God

There has been a lively discussion on the pretty good lutheran blog about a topic I first encountered in seminary over 25 years ago: inclusive God language. The conversation has been in response to a post reporting concern that the use of inclusive language is on the decline. A group sponsored by the National Council of Churches is meeting in Chicago in August to discuss ways of addressing the problem.

Despite the passage of a quarter-century, the ideas expressed in this conversation have been about the same as those I heard in my seminary student days. I think the perception is correct, however: after years of general acceptance, the use of gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language for God is on the wane. In many mainline churches, God is gradually becoming male once again.

About half-way through the responses (it seems they are now coming to an end), I posted a feeble attempt to put the topic in a different perspective. It landed with a thud. There hasn’t been one response to it. It was, as they say, “off topic” and so it wasn’t heard.

Basically what I tried to say is that the inclusive language debate is now largely irrelevant and that explains why people are reverting back to traditional male terminology for God. The question the church has been struggling with is whether God can be re-interpreted and re-imagined for the contemporary world. There have been many attempts to do this over the past several decades but the reality is they have all failed. Unwilling and unable to abandon God altogether, the church is gradually reverting back to the only God it knows: the God of the Bible, the God of the creeds—God almighty, God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth.

The attempts to expand our imagery of God, including the use of feminine and gender-neutral language, have only made us aware what a problem God has become for us. To say “God the Father” makes us think of the God of the Bible and of liturgical tradition. To say “God our Mother” only leaves us confused: who or what are we talking about? It succeeds in pulling God into the present but only to make us uncomfortably aware of God’s impossibility or irrationality. Who, what or where is this God in 2010?

The inclusive language debate has, unfortunately, always been an attempt at an easy out. It takes a legitimate concern for gender inclusiveness and attempts to paste it over the unsolvable conundrum of God in the modern world. The biblical writers knew God had no gender but for cultural and theological reasons chose to use male terminology in describing God. (The occasional feminine exceptions were reminders of the inadequacy of any gender-based concepts of God.) The problem today is not the failure of gender-specific language in talking of God but whether any contemporary language or imagery can make sense of God.

Inclusive God language doesn’t solve our God problem but only makes us more aware of it. Using the traditional language of the Bible and the creeds enables us to ignore the problem, and keeps the church rolling along, just a little bit longer. It recognizes that this is what most of the people want who are still left in the pews and that most of the people who are gone don't really care.

Ending the divorce: reconciling religion and art (Sunday Reflections for August 1, 2010)

Lascaux cave painting
Religion and art seem to have existed side-by-side right from their pre-historic beginnings. Perhaps the most famous example is the Lascaux cave paintings in France, estimated to be 17,000 years old. Scholars agree that the paintings (of animals, humans, and abstract designs) are not mere decoration but probably relate to rituals conducted in the caves. Similar works can be found throughout the world.

Much of what we know about ancient religion is based on the art works left behind. Prior to written languages, or where few religious texts have survived, historians often have only ritual artifacts and temple decoration to reconstruct what religion was for our ancestors. Moving forward we continue to find artists’ talents used through the centuries by the world’s religions, sometimes almost exclusively.

The history of Christianity is no exception. Religious artwork from the church’s earliest beginnings can be found in Roman catacombs, including pictures of Jesus and the disciples and of rituals like baptism and the Eucharist. For over a thousand years, paintings, icons, statues, tapestries, and stained glass were all used in worship and in the education of a predominantly illiterate population.

All these in conjunction with architecture created spaces, not unlike the Lascaux caves, which facilitated Christian religious experience. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the medieval cathedral existed to give people an experience of God and heaven in the here and now—as the liturgy says, “A foretaste of the feast to come.” Passing through their doors, one stepped into another world.

Beauvais Cathedral
All this changed dramatically with the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and the upheaval of the Reformation. At this time, of course, artistic talent exploded and initially the church was a great beneficiary—think Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. It wasn’t long, however, before artists’ relationship with the church began to sour.

The most extreme case was the iconoclasm of the Calvinist Reformation. In Switzerland, Britain and elsewhere, worship purists ransacked churches breaking stained glass windows and statuary. (Lutherans generally avoided such fanaticism). The bigger problem, however, was that artists were experiencing church patronage as a straightjacket. After focusing for centuries almost entirely on religious subjects, artists’ new abilities to render things much more realistically (as with the development of perspective) suddenly made them aware of a world teeming with fascinating subjects for their work.

This was part of the Renaissance and Enlightenment earthquake in how people viewed the world and experienced life. For most medieval people life was indeed a “veil of tears.” People endured life as a series of travails, usually mercifully short. Most people’s focus was on the promised after-life which would surely be better than this one.

From the 15th century on, however, merchants, artists, scientists, philosophers and others began finding this life to be much more rewarding and interesting. Artists’ fascination with the real world put them out-of-step with the church, which wanted people to pay more attention to the next world. And the church’s concern was well-placed, for the modern era was characterized by a relentless shift of people’s attention away from theology and piety to the matters of everyday living.

Brueghel "Peasant Dance"
Instead of simply being the stage for human foibles and suffering, the world became a place of fascination and even beauty and artists led the way in opening people’s eyes to this new reality. Or rather, they re-opened people’s eyes to an old truth and reality. For one of the things we are learning from the study of ancient and pre-historic religion, as well as that of indigenous peoples, is that for them the world in which they lived was not “the enemy.”

Most religions, in fact, have understood the world to be a source of great blessing; a gift from the gods. Such an attitude actually can be found easily in the Bible, especially in the creation story of Genesis 1. In the chaos of the crumbling Roman Empire and the church’s lust for power, Christianity gradually suppressed people’s valuation of the world and of their own daily lives, with countless unfortunate consequences.

I was made aware again of art’s ability to help me see the world around me during my recent stay in Santa Fe NM and as I strolled through its many galleries. I’ve written previously about those galleries being spiritual spaces. Due to the nearly perfect weather on this visit, I was especially able to experience how art can make us aware of the world that is so easy to take for granted and ignore. Landscapes and reproductions of natural phenomena do this but so do abstract art works.

Often off-putting in a city gallery or museum, the natural inspiration for many abstract art pieces become more obvious in the brilliant and spare high-desert environment of northern New Mexico. More importantly, their shapes, colors, and “feel” lead you to re-examine and appreciate things you’ve taken for granted. On several occasions I was stopped by a natural image—a cloud, plant, rock formation—realizing I had “seen” it previously in a piece of art. I also realized that experiencing the art’s shapes or whirl of colors had prepared my mind’s eye to see this aspect of the world, which in the past I would likely have missed or ignored.

Georgia O'Keefe in New Mexico
Centuries of other-worldliness have left the church and art far apart. Not coincidentally it has also left the church largely irrelevant to the lives of most people. Popular culture has become the place where people turn to help make sense of their lives and of the world: art, books, plays, music, movies, and TV.

In recent times, the church has struggled to recreate its role as the place people come to find meaning for their lives here-and-now. It’s been hard letting go of all that by-and-by stuff and it’s been hard finding a real connecting point with people. By recently experiencing art and artists more directly, I have been struck by how much they communicate in what is still thought of as religious or spiritual language and symbols. Their concern is with values, beauty, order, meaning, transcendence, and with what diminishes or hurts those things. In a conversation this week with an artist who was hanging her work in my local Starbucks, she told me “I try to convey in my work peace and harmony.” Buddha or Jesus could have said the same.

The divorce between religion and art, in Western culture at least, has gone on far too long and is unnatural. It’s time for a reconciliation and for a recognition of the common purpose they share. Art sometimes struggles to connect with a popular audience who often lack a context in which to understand and appreciate its work. The church struggles to reconnect with people’s everyday world and lives. Art and religion could both benefit from renewing their ancient alliance. It seems like a match made—not in heaven—but right here on earth.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

From the fantasy and make-believe department

Continuing the theme of the previous post, below is the link to a GREAT piece on the unreality of the TBTF ("too big to fail") banks. It's a long article but all you need to do is skim it to get the gist of the story. One of the key points here is the role the big accounting firms are playing in enabling the smoke and mirrors act these banks are playing. Bottom line: they are still in bad shape with Citigroup in particular basically a basket case.

Of course, the big story is the cooperation of the US Treasury and Federal Reserve in hiding the true financial state of these institutions. They are participating in this deception on the assumption that with enough time the banks can pull out of their nose dive and fly straight again. There are many who doubt that "time" is ever going to solve their problems, however. Further, the fact that so many federal officials are former employees of these banks makes their motivations highly suspect. At the least, it certainly calls into question their ability to be objective about such matters. Employees of these institutions are taught to believe their banks are essential to the economic health of the country and that attitude almost certainly remains to some degree after they move on to other endeavors.

The bottom line is that federal tax dollars and economic policy are being used to keep them afloat and deceive the public about their true state. Is it, in fact, for the benefit of the country or is it to benefit the employees and stock holders of these banks? The disturbing truth is that it is not at all clear that federal officials, on up to and including the president, are capable of giving an objective answer to that question.

Watch Banks Pull Rabbits Out of Hats, Ably Assisted by Their Auditors

(The post begins with a clip I fondly remember from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show--enjoy!)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Botox economics

I’m not doing much posting during my vacation break in Santa Fe NM. I’ve also cut way back on my web surfing but I came across an exceptional two-part guest post on Naked Capitalism. It’s titled “Botox Economics” and describes how government economic policy throughout the developed world has been covering over the enormous problems of these nations’ economies. The US, of course, is the leader in this endeavor but by no means alone.

What is especially good about this article is that it provides a great summary of the primary causes of the financial collapse and subsequent “Great Recession.” It really is a primer on the current economic mess and how we got into it. A piece like this demonstrates again what an awful job our primary news outlets have been doing actually telling people what is going on. It's hard to know if it's just incompetence or willful deception (perhaps on the belief that people really don't want to know). The story is not pretty and its implications are grim but it's not that hard to understand. In any case, hiding it from people will certainly not make it go away.

The main message of these posts is that the problems that caused the collapse are still present. Basically governments have been trying to nurse things along by taking on the bad debt of the mega-banks and other industries to give them time to recover. It is not at all certain, however, that time is going to solve this. We may instead just be postponing the real day of financial reckoning. Note also that little has been done to take on the bad debt of consumers. Their economic survival seems to have a low priority in the various national treasury departments and finance ministries.

I’ve also included the link to a piece from Huffington Post which looks at why Tim Geithner is opposed to Elizabeth Warren being the head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. No one questions her qualifications—and that’s the problem. Treasury and Federal Reserve officials are scared she will be too good and take her job too seriously. Specifically, Geithner is afraid she will pull back the curtain on what the government has done to protect the banks from the consequences of their own recklessness. Most importantly, she will likely curtail the banks’ ability to gouge their customers with new fees in their attempt at generating profits to pay for all those losses still lurking on their books. It’s a prime example of the policies described in the Botox articles.

Botox Economics: Part 1

Botox Economics: Part 2

The Real Reason Geithner Is Afraid of Elizabeth Warren

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

More than just a hole in the ground (Sunday Reflections for July 11, 2010)

For the past five year geologists in Ethiopia have been excitedly watching something almost no one has previously observed. The earth is cracking open. At the moment this crack isn’t huge but it’s certainly more than a scratch. It’s about 40 miles long and 25 feet wide and is located in the Afar region, a part of the famous Great Rift Valley.

The crack opened up when the Mt. Dabbahu volcano erupted in September, 2005. Scientists studying these events have concluded that this crack is the beginning of a process that will eventually force Somalia and southern Ethiopia out into the Indian Ocean. In other words, the Horn of Africa will eventually break off and drift away. This breakaway will begin when, as the result of other volcanic eruptions and/or earthquakes, this crack eventually reaches the ocean, which is not all that far away.

The breach will provide quite a show. There is molten lava at various points along the bottom of the crack and huge clouds of steam will billow up violently when ocean water reaches it. Also, much of the surrounding area is already below sea level so much more than just the crack will be filled. Eventually it will create a new sea not unlike the Red Sea separating African Egypt from the Sinai and Asia. While this may not occur for a few million years, some significant flooding could occur quite a bit earlier. As scientists often say, the exact timing of these things is hard to predict.

What’s amazing to me is that our understanding of such events has really developed in my lifetime. The ideas of continental drift and plate tectonics were first proposed in the early 20th century but it wasn’t until the 1960s that solid evidence was found to demonstrate conclusively how the process worked. Any child looking at a globe can see how similar are the shapes of the coasts of western Africa and eastern South America, for example. Now we know why: they once were a single land mass that split apart millions of years ago.

The crack growing in Ethiopia is evidence that these ancient geological processes are still happening. Indeed, every earthquake and volcanic eruption is part of the continuous drifting and shifting, rising and sinking of the earth’s surface. And like it or not, we get to go along for the ride.

It’s probably an unavoidable consequence of being self-conscious creatures that we are often also so self-centered. While we may say of someone, “He thinks the universe revolves around him,” that’s pretty much how the whole human species has thought of itself. It’s all about us, isn’t it?

The earth’s cracking in Ethiopia is part of a process that has been going on for billions of years. It began long before human beings appeared on the scene and it will continue to go on whether we are around to observe it or not. In other words, to events and natural processes like these we don’t matter a whit. So as far as our planetary home is concerned: No, it isn’t all about us.

In the early 1600s, Galileo got himself in hot water with the church for a different scientific idea but one which had the same implication. Galileo declared that, based on his observations with his newly invented telescope, the earth was not the center of the universe. The heavenly bodies did not revolve around the earth, as had been assumed, but instead revolved around the sun. Suddenly the earth (and its inhabitants) went from (literally) being the center of the universe to just one of the planetary followers, a mere suburb to the heavenly community’s true city-center, the sun.

The church’s chief theologians did not like this news at all. They claimed the issue was that Galileo’s theory conflicted with what were actually irrelevant Bible passages, like the story of Joshua stopping the sun at the battle of Jericho. In fact what distressed them was something else entirely, even if they didn’t yet fully understand it themselves. What Galileo’s discovery did was to suddenly and dramatically change our understanding of the universe and of our place in it. It was as if humanity suddenly lost top billing in the show and became one of the extras.

And this sense has only grown in subsequent centuries as new discoveries about the world and the universe have piled one upon another. We now know we are one species among millions, which evolved and arrived relatively recently in earth’s history. We live on a moderate sized planet, in an average solar system among millions of others, in one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. We know the universe existed for billions of years before us and will continue on for billions of more years after our planet is incinerated when our sun goes into red giant hyper-drive. What a come down!

Yet this is shocking new self-awareness is no reason for depression, disabling low self-esteem, or fear and hysteria like that of Galileo’s persecutors. We are still amazing creatures, as the Psalms say repeatedly—“wonderfully made”—and as science itself continues to affirm. But the reality check science is giving us certainly should fill us with a new sense of humility and responsibility.

The ongoing oil well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is due entirely to human foolishness, arrogance, and selfishness. The consequences could be catastrophic, for humans as well as for untold plant and animal species. Yet as scientists have pointed out, even if now or in the future humanity did something so spectacularly stupid and awful that it wiped itself out, life on planet earth would go on—without us.

A crack has formed in the earth—just as has happened many times before. A chunk of Africa will eventually break off and become an island—just as has happened before. What’s new this time, however, is that conscious thinking creatures called human beings are present to observe it and think about it. Both of them—the crack and its human observers—are amazing things. Yet they are only amazing together.

The crack is amazing because we say it is—otherwise it’s just a crack. And we are amazing creatures but only because we have the capacity to observe this amazing world, learn from it, value it, and live in harmony with it. But if we fail to do those things, we will be just another species like the countless others that come and gone, leaving the world waiting a little longer for someone to “till the garden and keep it” and genuinely appreciate what an amazing place it is.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Jefferson, Luther and Liberty (Sunday Reflections for July 4, 2010)

This July 4th we celebrate the 234th anniversary of the adoption by the Continental Congress of the Declaration of Independence. The document was largely written by Virginia plantation owner Thomas Jefferson, with some revision by a congressional editing committee. It begins by giving the philosophical and political principles supporting this action and then recites a long list of specific instances of oppression and injustice by Great Britain which make the break necessary.

At the time, American colonists were much more interested in the Declaration’s lengthy list of grievances. Historically, however, it has been the relatively short preamble which people remember and has been repeated in various forms in comparable documents of countries around the world. The Declaration’s heart is in its second paragraph and its words can still send a chill through citizens and despots alike.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

These ideas had been developing for a century in the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, but it was Jefferson and his fellow Congressional revolutionaries who for the first time applied them so directly to society and politics. In doing so, they overturned millennia of beliefs and assumptions about the nature of government and its power. “Governments . . . derive[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Thus, the central principle of modern democracy was stated in black-and-white: government is not imposed upon people but rather comes from them and its legitimacy is dependent on their consent. And when a government acts contrary to the people’s wishes, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” No crown would ever feel secure on a sovereign’s head again.

The origin of these democratic ideals can be traced back to the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation two centuries prior. Both movements championed the ability and the right of individuals to make their own judgments about truth and value. Renaissance artists and scientists learned to trust and value their own unique observations of the world, rather than defer to the beliefs and traditions of the past. Luther and the reformers championed the authority of the individual conscience to decide what was right in matters of theology and personal piety.

Whether apocryphal or not, the statement attributed to Luther at his confrontation with church and imperial authorities at Worms captures this new sentiment, championing the individual against established power and tradition: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” A different account of Luther’s speech also draws attention to this new force in the world, the individual human conscience: "Unless I am convinced by the testimonies of the Holy Scriptures or evident reason . . . I am bound by the Scriptures adduced by me, and my conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God, and I am neither able nor willing to recant, since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience.”

What’s more, Luther got away with it, with the aid of German nobility. The era of domineering and unchallengeable authority was coming to an end. The rights and power of individuals were suddenly on the rise. Luther translated the Bible into German (beginning a new church promotion of literacy) so that persons could judge for themselves what the truth was.

In both religion and politics, the centuries since these dramatic events have shown that putting democratic principles into practice is a difficult and often messy affair. Luther was confused and depressed when other Protestants used their individual reasoning to come to significantly different theological conclusions than his, causing the Reformation to split into multiple factions (a trait of Protestantism to this day). And he angrily recoiled at the German peasant rebellion his ideas inspired, refusing to recognize the obvious political implications of his own thinking and behavior.

After declaring the country's independence, Congress quickly discovered the challenge of fighting a war as a democracy. Was there any place for authority within democracy? Or, as Gen. Washington was experiencing, was democratic government always to be a “herding cats” exercise in frustration? After the disappointing experiment with the Articles of Confederation, the United States ultimately settled on the difficult political balance of federalism. As created by the Constitution of 1787, the governing process would occur in an ever changing dynamic of the rights and powers of individuals and of state and federal governments.

In the two centuries since, this political dynamic has been constantly stressed and strained, sometimes nearly to the breaking point. In addition to exorcising the evil of slavery, the horrendous Civil War showed the country how high a price it would pay to save itself and paradoxically gave it a new self-confidence. It has had to draw on that awareness many times since. Far too often, it would seem, we have relearned the truth of Winston Churchill’s famous judgment that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Ultimately, democracy’s strength is the truth expounded by Luther and which he found in the ancient writings of Paul. In his letter to the Galatians (in a text just recently in the lectionary) Paul declares, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Every person is created free but we are tempted again and again to give up that freedom: for an apple, for thirty pieces of silver, for success, security, material pleasures, or happiness. But ultimately none of these are worth the price of our freedom, our birth-right and our dignity as human beings and as children God.

Confronting the trials and anxieties of our own time, the history of freedom reminds us both of its benefits and of its necessary cost: our willingness to exercise that freedom for our own benefit as well as to secure it for society. Like a human organ, it only remains healthy through vigorous use. Liberty isn’t simply a ticket to be punched but a way of life requiring commitment and a willingness to preserve it, whatever the cost. We enjoy our freedom today because people before us, like Luther and the members of the Continental Congress, were willing to pay that cost, whatever it might be.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.