Thursday, October 28, 2010

The first thing we do, let's kill all the churches (Sunday Reflections for October 31, 2010)

(My Sunday Reflections post a few weeks ago on the latest round of ELCA cutbacks generated a lot of blog hits and quite a few comments. A few of those raised the obvious question, “Well then, what’s the church supposed to do?” Neither in that post or previously have I provided many constructive suggestions. Mostly I have just reported on the problems and how what the ELCA and other churches are doing isn’t working.

The question is a fair one. However, to use a medical analogy, the patient isn’t going to accept the treatment if she doesn’t believe she’s really sick. I believe the church has been, and still is, in this situation. The various “fixes” that have been tried over the past few decades have almost always fallen into the category of “If it doesn’t work, do more of it.” In other words, most still believe the church is fundamentally okay but it just needs to do what it does better. The result—to use the quote from my earlier post—has been lots of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

So I’ll cut to the chase and state my conclusion: religion as we have known it is dead—or dying and soon to be dead. Now I am well aware of the signs of life that still remain. Most of those, however, are in parts of the world just now entering the modern industrial world. Where modernism has taken hold, religion’s trajectory has been steadily downward for decades or even centuries.

Religion has not disappeared but it is now simply a personal option, a life-style choice. Some people still “enjoy” religion but it’s the way others enjoy music, art, reading, gardening, sports, fitness, and so on. In the past religion was part of the fabric of society; so much so that some ancient languages (like biblical Hebrew) didn’t even have words for “religion,” since it was inseparable from the culture. Today religion is just one among many cultural components, all jostling for people’s attention. This cultural “comedown” is why traditional fundamentalist religions are in such a panic. Remembering their glorious past, they are desperately trying to reassert their power and generally being pains-in-the-neck.

The problem for moderate religions, including mainline Christianity, is that basically, we get it. We know what’s happened but we don’t know what to do about it. We know that religion of the past is just that: past, over, done. Yet we also have this gut feeling that there is something of value that needs to be kept alive, that is of value at least to us, even if we can’t quite put our finger on it. That, I think, is what churches like the ELCA are trying to reach for but we’ve been going about it very poorly. We’re like the trapeze artist who just can’t let go of the rope because we’re not convinced another one will be there to grab on to.

A new Lutheran magazine came out at the same time as the ELCA’s latest turmoil and it included Bishop Hanson’s monthly back-page column (which now inexplicably is behind a subscriber's paywall. Can the Lutheran find anymore ways to shoot itself in the foot?) When I first read it I admit I thought it was another mish-mash of theological jargon, using nice-sounding words but saying little. Re-reading it I changed my opinion. I think it actually spills Christianity’s theological beans, though I don’t know if that’s what Bishop Hanson intended.

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that Christianity really contains the seeds of its own destruction—intentionally so. Historically I think there has always been a minority that understood this but who were oppressed if they started talking about it too loudly. It is a tension that has existed in Christianity from the start, planted by Jesus himself. Perhaps the best symbol of it is the story of his overturning the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. This one we know as the founder of the world’s greatest religion was actually prophesying the end of religion.

Hanson’s essay is titled “Our gospel must be Jesus.” Briefly he describes the many competing, false “gospels” in the world, both secular and religious, with their strenuous requirements for success and salvation. Hanson then uses a series of quotations from Paul (someone else who got it) to describe Jesus’ gospel—of freedom.

This gospel is the healing of all separation and alienation It reveals the fruitlessness of all hoop-jumping and rule-keeping. It gives the assurance of every person’s inherent importance and worth. Hanson summarizes this saying: “The good news we proclaim and believe is that Jesus would rather die than be in the sin-accounting business.” Exactly—and to me this is another way of saying, “Jesus would rather die than be in the religion business.”

Which is why Hanson fumbles at the end of his essay. He wants this to lead to a stirring call for revival in the church. He can’t pull it off, though, for a simple reason: It doesn’t lead there and he knows it. Instead we get this:

When we proclaim this gospel with clarity, courage and conviction, the Spirit will be at work, bringing us to faith, freeing us and calling us so mission will flow from it into the various contexts of our lives and throughout the world.

Why not say this instead?

When we truly hear and believe this good news of affirmation and freedom, we will go out and live our lives with passion and joy, using our talents and opportunities to the fullest, with love and compassion.

The bottom line, though, is that whether you use Hanson’s statement or mine, it’s hard to see how either leads to joining a church, attending worship services, and serving on the property committee.

Hanson quotes Paul from Galatians in what may be the most revolutionary statement in all religion: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” The irony of our time is that the modern secular world gets this, but the church still doesn’t. It wants to take back the most important thing the gospel offers. Realizing its implications, the church keeps sputtering “Yes but…!” in a desperate attempt at self-preservation. It’s not working. More and more people do get it. Our freedom also means freedom from religion.

So, should the church just shut its doors and hang out the For Sale sign? That certainly is happening, but I’m not sure it’s the only option. True to its heritage, however, for it to go on the church must die to be reborn. It must give up what it was for it to become something new and genuinely life-giving. The question is how long it will be before the patient is ready to take that medicine.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Controlled descent (Sunday Reflections for October 24, 2010)

National midterm elections are less than two weeks away. Typically less than half of those eligible cast ballots in such elections and that is likely to be true this time, as well. Not voting can reflect satisfaction with the way things are, frustration with the system, or disinterest. Polls report an unusually higher number of likely voters who are angry. Not surprisingly incumbent Democrats are especially anxious and the party may lose control of one or both houses of Congress.

The distressed state of the economy is the dominant campaign topic. Unlike previous disagreements over wars or social issues, however, there is no clear “for or against” divide. The result has been a muddled election campaign with a lot more emotion expressed than clear ideas. The economy is a mess; it doesn’t seem to be getting much better; so somebody needs to do something—but what?

Not surprisingly the party in power gets the blame for such problems. The likely gain in Republican congressional seats will not set a clear alternative direction, however. Instead, it will likely result in more Washington muddle for the next two years, which in some people’s minds is a good thing. They may be right, but I doubt it.

As a country we are in new territory, and while we don’t really like where we are at, neither do we know of another place to go. We certainly don’t have anyone confidently saying, “Follow me. I know the way out of here.” In fact, the real problem is that we don’t know where we are. We’ve run off the map.

Many view the modern study of history as beginning with Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was published in England, in multiple volumes, during the time of the American Revolution. Gibbon’s work reflected the Enlightenment’s fascination with the classical origins of Western culture. Its focus on the end of Rome’s empire was also a cautionary tale. With unrest and revolution in the air, there was considerable interest in learning how great nations can also go greatly wrong.

That interest has continued and been the topic of many subsequent books and college courses. One of the more obvious conclusions of such studies is that no empire lasts forever. Another conclusion, however, is that empires and great nations do not all end or decline the same way. There is considerable difference, for example, between ancient and modern empires.

The ancient world was characterized by a succession of dominating, long-lasting empires, like Egypt, Persia, Greece, and, of course, Rome. The modern world, on the other hand, has seen countless competing empires come and go relatively quickly. Some have fallen suddenly and often violently. Others, however, have come to an end more gradually and orderly, often transitioning into new, smaller entities. Nazi Germany is a spectacular example of the former while Great Britain demonstrated the possibility of the latter.

Not surprisingly, there has been much speculation on whether the United States has begun its decline. One of the first and still best scholarly examinations of this was historian Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), which covered the period from 1500 onward. If there is one word that explains the decline of the powers Kennedy looks at, it is “overstretch.” Ultimately, the dominating power of all of these nations ended because their (mostly) military endeavors eventually outran their resources.

Kennedy does not say there was necessarily anything these countries could have done to prevent this outcome. Indeed, he says, it is simply not given for any nation to dominate the world indefinitely. Awareness of that truth, and awareness of how decline happens, implies that nations can have some say in preparing for and managing their inevitable yielding of the world power stage to another.

The current recession has revealed that we are in a state of denial about our future. The recently burst housing bubble was the result of government economic policies trying to compensate for decades of flat household income growth with cheap and easy credit. In fact, this was only the latest of a series of such bubbles, each one trying to create wealth via investment schemes rather than with actual economic growth. The result each time is that a few savvy folks make out like bandits while far more lose their shirts.

As a consequence, the disparity in income and wealth has been growing alarmingly. Not since the 1920s has such a small percentage of the population controlled such a large portion of the nation’s wealth. The rich are also doing a remarkable job of hiding this fact. A recent survey showed that American’s have no clue just how rich the rich really are—and how relatively poor they are as a result.

Voter anger is not surprising given these circumstances. Unfortunately, politicians are all too ready to exploit that anger for their own purposes by directing it at manufactured bogeymen. This only makes the problems worse, however, and plays right into the hands of those able to exploit those problems for their own benefit.

We need to face the fact that the United States’ political and economic place in the world is changing. The global dominance it has experience since the end of World War II is ending, as it inevitably had to. Just as Europe and Japan rebuilt themselves after that war, so now many formerly poor and often exploited countries are joining the modern global economy.

Our slice of the global economic pie is shrinking but only because the pie itself is getting bigger. It’s essential we understand this difference between perception and reality. Thus far, though, we haven’t been doing a very good job with that. Trying to hold back this tide will only result in disaster, as we have seen. Instead, we need to learn how to ride with it.

We need to rediscover who we are as a people and recommit ourselves to our historic values: preservation of personal freedom and opportunity combined with care and support for those in need. We need to channel our anger, not into hatred or vengeance, but into a resolve to right what is wrong. We need set a new course that reflects our changed circumstances, that will lead us all together to a better tomorrow.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Time to get disorganized (Sunday Reflections for October 17, 2010)

Wind from the Sea--Andrew Wyeth, 1947
And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind. (Acts 2)

As expected, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson revealed last Monday the outline of the ELCA’s new churchwide structure. The plan was approved by the ELCA Church Council at a meeting the prior week held via conference call. The new structure purports to be simpler and is certainly smaller. Sixty-five staff members will be let go, most working at the Chicago headquarters on Higgins Road. This is about 20% of the ELCA staff and comes after a ten percent reduction last November.

The reorganization is the consequence of a dramatic falloff in churchwide revenue. According to the ELCA news release:

"In 2008 after adjusting for inflation, the value of mission support income had declined by half since the founding of this church in 1988," Hanson wrote to the council. "From 2008 to 2011, estimated churchwide mission support dropped from $65.3 million to $48 million." The work of the design team is based on an estimated range of $45 million to $48 million in annual mission support income for the next three years, Hanson said.

The last statement indicates ELCA leadership believes the income drop has hit bottom but doesn’t say why they believe this. I don’t see any reason to believe this is the case, which means another round of cutbacks will be coming soon. This can only add to the sense of embattlement and malaise in the churchwide office.

One Lutheran blogger described the reorganization plan as “more of the same, only on a smaller scale” and that’s the way it looks to me, as well. Perhaps that is all that can be expected as this point. The new scheme was put together pretty quickly with the overriding objective being to cut spending. I think this needs to be seen as a stop-gap that has bought some time because this is going to have to be revisited, and soon.

“The same but smaller” just isn’t going to cut it because the church really has entered a whole new situation. This was true even at the time the ELCA was formed, though it wasn’t recognized sufficiently at the time. And it is why the ELCA has essentially failed—and this needs to be frankly admitted. It’s time to go back to the drawing board and start over.

The group forming the ELCA in the 1980s was called the Commission for a New Lutheran Church (CNLC). Much emphasis was placed at the time on the goal being to create a genuinely new denomination. In hindsight we can now see the result really wasn’t nearly new enough. As a student I attended a conference at my seminary about the potential merger. I remember one presenter (I think it was Bob Benne) wondering aloud whether this would actually renew American Lutheranism or whether it would simply be a case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or of the last two dinosaurs mating. The current reorganization certainly is deck chair arranging, after having tossed some of them over the side.

So what’s next? As I’ve written many times before, it is incredibly difficult for people within an organization to imagine it becoming something genuinely different. The secular, contemporary example I often cite is General Motors. GM has been doing what it’s been doing, the way it’s been doing it, for so long that it’s been nearly impossible for it to adjust to the dramatic changes sweeping the automotive world. The end result, of course, was bankruptcy.

The church, especially at its higher bureaucratic levels, is much the same. Yet change it must. Recently the ELCA appointed (yet another) task force to study itself, called LIFT (Living into the Future Together). LIFT member and lay youth minister, Erik Ullestad, wrote this in response to the ELCA restructuring:

Much of the conversation and research on the LIFT Task Force has pointed to something painfully radical: The mark of a vibrant organization in a post-modern, open-source world is not a large national expression headquartered in a high-rise building, but instead consists of strong, healthy local expressions that network together for mission and ministry.

Perhaps the best symbolic statement the ELCA could make that it is going to be something radically different would be to hang a big “For Sale” sign on its Higgins Road office tower (of course, good luck with that in this real estate market). I think it’s now apparent that the goal of the ELCA was to achieve the pinnacle of denominational organization, just as the denominational model was dying. What better symbol of that was there than to have a tall, shiny, big city office building?

I don’t know what the future holds for American Lutheranism or American Christianity. I have ideas, some of which I have shared and will share more, and others have ideas, but what most everybody agrees on is that religion in America and around the world is changing radically. What the ELCA needs to do is certainly not to fight that, for that is sure to end in disaster. Neither can it ignore that reality or simply react as it gets clobbered by one blow after another, which is what it has mostly been doing.

The challenge for the ELCA is to reform itself to so it can ride with these changes, adjust to them and, when and where possible, take advantage of them and perhaps even influence them. As Ullestad’s quote indicates, this is likely not going to happen at the top but in the responses of the multiple, inter-dependent parts of the church: congregations, colleges and seminaries, social service organizations, ad hoc associations, etc.

All of this seems to argue for a radical decentralizing of the church. There needs to be some creative chaos right now. We need to let things get out of (our) control. This, of course, is the bureaucrat’s worst nightmare: “We can’t let them do that!” Nor will it please anyone concerned about Lutheran quality control. Yet the truth is that such control and administration is already breaking down, especially at the congregational level. Instead of resisting it, now is the time to encourage it.

There is, of course, a long history of creative disorder in the church, supported by considerable biblical tradition. Indeed you could make the case it’s the way God most often gets things done. At least that seems to be what Jesus is telling one of the Bible’s many control freaks, Nicodemus: “The wind/Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” It’s time to open the windows and let the winds blow in.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Looking for direction on Higgins Road: A follow-up

The ELCA News Service has put out a news release about the churchwide reorganization just approved by the ELCA Church Council. It gives an overview of the consolidation of what was previously 16 “units” into three, though not many specifics. The bottom line is that 65 staff members will be let go, out of a total of 358, most of them at the Chicago headquarters. Questionably the reorganization assumes no further fall-off in contributions. Why it is assumed the church income drop has hit bottom is not explained. This fits, though, with an overall picture of a church that is still not grappling with the harsh new realities of denominational life.

In one quote Bishop Hanson says, "This new design positions the churchwide organization to make a vital and vibrant contribution to the ministries of this church and the work of partners throughout the world.” Again, there seems to be an unwillingness or inability to recognize that the role of “the churchwide organization” and denominations generally must change and has changed fundamentally. Churchwide support is now half what is was when the ELCA was formed yet the impression being given is that this is just a bit of tightening and fine-tuning. Rather than a pro-active vision this seems like yet another short-sighted reaction to blows that will just keep on coming.

Postscript: And how can you not see the cover of the October Lutheran magazine epitomizing the ELCA’s current near total confusion. Jack Benny? What percentage of the population would even recognize his picture?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Looking for direction on Higgins Road (Sunday Reflections for October 10, 2010)

Change continues to be the dominant reality for the ELCA’s national organization. The Conference of Bishops met this past week to hear of a major reorganization of the ELCA’s churchwide operation. These changes have been necessitated by a continuing and dramatic fall-off in contributions to the synods and national church.

The details haven’t been announced yet but everyone knows major staff cuts are inevitable at the Chicago headquarters on Higgins Road. There have been lay-offs before but they have involved shrinking existing offices and departments. This time there will be a real reorganization. The national church will be different with, of course, some months of inevitable chaos and confusion bringing it about.

Last year, when a ten percent budget cut and corresponding lay-offs were announced, two ELCA leaders presented them very differently. Mark Hanson, the Presiding Bishop, lamented the cutbacks but insisted they would not materially affect the ELCA’s ministry. The church’s mission and commitments would remain. However, Pastor Wyvetta Bullock, ELCA executive for administration, in detailing the reductions admitted frankly, “We will be doing less with less.” Now, apparently, the ELCA will be doing even less, with even less.

These are tough times for the ELCA. The atmosphere in the Higgins Road office tower is understandably grim. The staff has known for weeks that major layoffs were coming but specifics weren’t to be announced until now. As church employees they are not covered by unemployment insurance. Those let go will probably get a small severance package which, in this economy, will run out well before they find new jobs.

I have yet to hear an explanation for why the church provides less of a social safety net than secular society. This issue is at the heart of another church employee mess, the cancellation of an Augsburg Fortress’ pension plan. Plan members have sued the ELCA Publishing House for fraud because it claimed exemption from the federal pension insurance program, ERISA.

The problem is that the ELCA has tried to have it both ways with Augsburg Fortress. Its sole purpose is to meet the ELCA’s publishing needs, is run by an ELCA elected board, and operates as a church organization for legal purposes, such as exemption from ERISA. Yet the ELCA also has claimed that AF is an independent organization, meaning the church has no financial obligation to it or its employees. This may be legally accurate (we’ll see what the courts think) but ethically it stinks and everyone knows it. No one in ELCA leadership can talk about it now that it’s in litigation, but it is just adding to the ELCA’s sense of confusion and deterioration.

I suppose it’s understandable, then, that Bishop Hanson seems to have assumed the role of denominational cheerleader. Most people give him a lot of credit for his dispassionate and even-handed management of last year’s churchwide assembly and the multi-year process leading to the approval of gay clergy. The dust is settling, it’s fairly clear what congregations have left or are leaving over this (significant but certainly less than 10%), so he wants to rally the troops to move ahead.

The ELCA news service published a summary of Hanson’s report at the start of the bishop’s meeting last weekend:

• It is time for the church to move forward and get over being “timid” about mission and ministry.

• "I've been pondering that a lot. Have we become a timid church?" Hanson asked the ELCA leaders. A sign of a timid church is one that describes itself by what it has lost and what it lacks, he said. Such a church is one that tries to hold onto the past and preserve what was, Hanson said.

• A church that defines itself by controversies and partisan divisions "will become a weary and timid church," Hanson said.… The presiding bishop also said he is "deeply concerned" that leaders preach with a sense of confidence.

• Hanson said he continues to have confidence in the two priorities for the churchwide organization: accompanying congregations as growing centers of evangelical mission, and building capacity for evangelical witness in the world to alleviate poverty, and work for justice and peace.

• He reflected on his experiences at recent gatherings [of teens and youth and campus ministry leaders]. "In those gatherings, I saw evidence of the stirring up of leaders in this church that gives me a sense of confidence and courage," he said.

• Hanson concluded his report by asking leaders not to lose confidence "in the gifts of the Spirit and what it means to live out the faith."

So, timidity is out and confidence is in. If only it were that simple. Actually, as I wrote to a colleague, I don’t think the problem is timidity as it is confusion. The Bishop wants the church to more forward, but which way is that? Unfortunately it is so easy in the church to get lost in rhetoric, speaking without actually communicating. Above Hanson describes the church’s priorities as “accompanying” and “building capacity.” Huh? Paul says somewhere that an army can’t move forward if the trumpeter’s sound is uncertain. I think we’ve found an example.

I don’t mean to dump on Bishop Hanson personally. He is a good man who has done very well in an impossible job. Rather I cite him because his words and actions reflect the state of the ELCA and church denominations generally. While recent controversies have given the ELCA a jolt, the downward trends have been in place for a long time, and not just for Lutherans.

Unfortunately Hanson and most church leaders are too close to the problems to get real perspective—and perhaps also don’t want to see what’s there. An ELCA staff member posted on Facebook a quote from the management guru Peter Drucker: "Every organization has to prepare for the abandonment of everything it does." Perhaps the question the folks on Higgins Road and in our synod offices need to ask is, “What would happen, and who would notice, if we didn’t exist anymore?” It’s a question being asked in lots of places today, all around the world, and many are startled to find the answer is, “Not much and not many.”

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Going down?

And while stock prices (and gold, but more on that in a minute) are going up, the value of other things are going down. Inflation has been virtually nonexistent this year. Prices for most retail items have held steady or even fallen. The most publicized price drop, of course, has been real estate, which is what started the cascade of financial dominoes over three years ago. Yet even after all that time prices do not yet seem to have hit bottom, with recent forecasts being for another 10-20% drop still to come.

Recently, however, a more disturbing drop has been occurring and that has been in curency exchange rates. Last year President Obama said the country would export its way out of the recession. The only problem with this strategy is that all the other stumbling developed economies are also trying to export their way to recovery. If everyone is exporting, where are all these products going to? Mars?

The result has been a competition to see who can lower the value of their currency the furthest and the fastest. Since these countries all have more or less the same costs and levels of efficiency, the only way to make their products cheaper, and therefore attractive to foreign buyers, is by making their currencies cheaper. This bizarre competition has been dubbed the “race to the bottom.”

This isn’t just an academic exercise, however—it has real consequences, most of them bad. If pursued long enough it really does mean those dollars we have (or Yen or Euros or Pounds) really do lose value. So how can everyone’s currencies lose value at the same time? Good question. It does sound impossible since we usually thing of a currency’s value relative to other currencies. If they’re all dropping they should actually stay relatively the same.

Yes—and no. Currencies are also valued for what they buy (obviously) and it is possible that they could all start buying less of certain things. Like gold, or oil, or a number of other commodities which have been going up in price recently. The meaning and ultimate value of gold is a topic of endless debate. Its practical uses are pretty small yet its supply is remarkably constant—and also small. Thus, it remains popular as a kind of economic insurance: you can’t do much with it yet it is always in some degree of demand. Many are interpreting gold’s recent fairly dramatic run-up in price as a sign that people are trying to get away from national currencies. In other words, it’s a vote of “No confidence” in the whole global economic system.

Sound complicated? You have no idea—no one does. And this is what makes our current situation so scary. We really are in uncharted waters. Could currency values start tumbling in a free-fall? Perhaps. The central banks have pumped trillions of dollars (or their equivalent) into the world’s economy over the past two years with virtually no result. Where has all that money gone? If that money suddenly started getting pulled out of the corporate mattresses and cookie jars where it’s hiding, inflation could go through the roof. Yet we want them to spend some of it to get the economy moving again—that’s why it’s been given out.

The gaping hole in what I’ve said here is that there has been no mention of the “BRICs”: the developing powerhouse economies of Brazil, India, and of course China. China’s economy is huge but in some ways still very primitive. Yet it has already been making economic waves around the world. How it fits into the rest of this economic puzzle is anyone’s guess. It’s very new at this mega-economics stuff and could make some horrendous mistakes. Or not.

In any case, the simplistic talk of whether we are in a recovery yet or not is so beside the point as to be laughable—laughable except for the fact that we’re talking about the economic well-being of hundreds of millions of people. The only thing that’s certain is that we have a long road ahead of us.

Going up?

(I haven't had an economics post in awhile so here's a brief comment on recent developments. Frankly, it's a bit depressing to do this very often.)

The stock markets roared ahead today and the DOW is within spitting distance of 11,000. The MSM chorus is singing in harmony: surely this is another sign of “the recovery.” But waiting for the recovery is increasingly like waiting for Godot.

Why did the market go up today? Because it can. The media can always find some news story as an explanation. Ignore them—no one knows why the market does what it does, not even the traders.

Here are a few facts. Since the crash two years ago, there has been a steady outflow of investors from the market and trading volume has dropped accordingly. If there was an inclination to reverse this, the bizarre “flash crash” last May (when the DOW dropped 1000 points in minutes) reaffirmed the suspicions of an out-of-control market. More than a few investment advisers have advocated putting a big “Danger! Keep Out!” sign on Wall Street.

Because they like the black-and-whiteness of numbers, the media want to hang on to the notion of the DOW as a barometer of the nation’s economic health. If that was ever true, today there is no evidence for such a correlation. Nonetheless, even supposedly sober news outlets like NPR and PBS breathlessly led their news summaries with reports of the DOW’s jump today.

Stock markets are likely gaining for one simple reason: money, and the anticipation of money. The one real economic news story today was the announcement that the Bank of Japan would be buying lots of public and private bonds and just about any other kind of financial paper it can get a hold of. This is what the Federal Reserve did for over a year after the crash and is likely to resume doing late this year. Oh, and the European Central Bank as well as the Bank of England have been doing it too. All this is their way of trying to pump money into their economies.

The reason for this is the same in each place. Interest rates are the way central banks normally regulate money supply and try to adjust the economic thermostats of their respective countries. The problem is that interest rates have dropped to zero. The national banks literally can’t give money away. Or as in the US, private banks will take it but they’re just squirreling it away because their own financial state is so precarious and because businesses aren’t borrowing since they can’t find anything to spend it on.

Bankers, however, do have a lifestyle to maintain so they have to make money someplace. One place they are willing to put some of that free money is the stock market. In this instance, Wall Street is really not much different than The Strip in Las Vegas. The banks are playing craps with the Fed’s free money and that activity is pushing up stock prices, even though there is little or no economic reason for the markets to be going up. Is the Fed upset by this? Not really because there is some hope that rising stocks will stimulate economic activity (note: the opposite of the way people assume it works) and besides, nothing else seems to be working.

Could it work that way? Because if it does, then those rising prices are anticipating economic growth and if you don’t get in now you’ll have missed the action. At least, that’s the kind of talk you’ll hear on MSNBC or from your broker. Right now the chances of this happening seem to be somewhere between slim and none.

The nation’s economic problems—or the world’s economic problems, for that matter—are not going to be solved on Wall Street. The economic hole we are in was years, if not decades, in the making. Wall Street doesn’t have enough shovels to dig us out. Besides which, the bankers' and brokers' sole interest is in digging themselves out of the hole. Once they’ve done that, they’ll rip the shovel they let you borrow out of your hands so fast, it’ll leave splinters.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Don't know much 'bout religion (Sunday Reflections for October 3, 2010)

This week the media have given quite a bit of attention to the release of a Pew Trust survey on the religious knowledge of Americans. The results were not what one many would expect—hence the media scrutiny.

A survey sample of over 3400 people was asked 32 questions about Christianity and other major religions. What was startling was that the religious group that scored the best was: None of the above. That’s right, atheists and agnostics knew more about religion than people who claimed to actually follow a religion. The groups that scored the next best were Jews and Mormons.

Among the zingers: More than half of Protestant responders did not know that Martin Luther began the Reformation. Nearly half of Roman Catholics did not know their church teaches that the Eucharistic bread and wine become the real body and blood of Christ, rather than just symbolizing it. There was also confusion about the political status of religion. While nearly 90% knew that public schools teachers are constitutionally prohibited from leading classroom prayer, only a quarter knew that teachers are allowed “to read from the Bible as an example of literature.”

Of course, this is not the first time that the ignorance of religious people has been exposed. As I wrote last week, Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism after a depressing tour of German parishes:

Mercy! Good God! what manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach….

Luther wasn’t one to mince words. More recently evangelical church leaders have reacted with alarm to awareness that many of their members are ignorant of the basics of Christian beliefs. This is dismaying to them especially because they put such high value on right theology and doctrine.

Yet Luther’s experience nearly 500 years ago gives us a clue that knowledge about religion—even one’s own—is not valued all that highly by average folks. Theologians and religious academics inevitably evaluate religions for what they believe and teach. Most religious people, however, value religions for their practices, values, traditions, community, and sense of identity.

As a freshly minted pastor, I too was initially horrified at how little church members knew about the Bible or the basics of Christian theology, let alone Lutheran teaching. That horror has greatly diminished over the years. And it’s not that I have simply become resigned to this state of affairs. Rather, my understanding of the place of religion in people’s lives and in the world has changed.

It’s been realized for quite awhile, for example, that theologians don’t initiate inter-religious dialog and cooperation. Average religious followers do that. Theologians come in much later to put their seals of approval on what has already been going on. Religious leaders, in a classic case of running to get ahead of the parade, come up with the fancy theological language and formal documents to bless what people have been doing on their own for some time. The reason, of course, is that average people aren’t blinded by doctrine and theology. They simply recognize the common humanity of people they live and work with, who happen to follow a different religious tradition.

It’s also no secret that in the modern world much traditional religious doctrine and belief has taken it on the chin. Science has simply made unbelievable most of the ancient and medieval presuppositions religion has been built upon. This has certainly explained some of the decline of religion in Western countries but many have been surprised that religion has hung on as well as it has.

Here again the fallacy may be in the assumption that value of religion for most people is in its beliefs. Over the years I have found the beliefs of many church members to be all over the map. Many are aware that science has knocked out most of the legs of religion’s theological stool. They just don’t care. For some it’s out of a defensive stubbornness but I think for just as many it’s because theology and doctrine isn’t why they’re involved with religion in the first place.

One person not surprised by the Pew survey results is Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists. He told The New York Times, “I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

Ouch. Yet there is some truth to what Silverman says. Put most religions under a microscope and you do find a lot of nonsensical beliefs and some pretty abhorrent behavior. Yet you would also miss something because getting up real close isn’t always the best way to see—you know: that whole forest and trees thing.

But frankly, that may be the mistake religion itself is making. As we all know, there is a lot of distress and hand wringing about the decline of religion, and especially Christianity, in modern Western society. In fact, we should probably be amazed it’s still around at all. That it is should tell us something about what religion’s true value: it isn’t in its doctrines or teachings. Religion is much more than what its books and teachers say it believes.

For that reason, the Pew results make sense. The people most aware of religious teachings are those most put-off by them. The ignorance of such things by many people claiming a religious identity isn’t surprising because that isn’t what’s important to them. The problem, however, is that those are often the things most important to the people trying to save or revive religion: theologians, bishops, preachers, and frankly the religious fanatics. If religion is to be saved, it may need to be taken away from the religious professionals and given to the ignorant amateurs who actually may know and understand it much better.