Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saying good bye to the Santa Claus God

On Christmas Day, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd offered an essay by a Catholic priest and friend as a reflection on the recent shootings in Connecticut and New York. By his own admission, Father Kevin O’Neil is unable to answer the column title’s question: "Why, God?" Rather, he identifies times of suffering and loss as unique opportunities for family, friends, and even strangers to reach out in compassion. It is in this way that God's love enters the world and brings consolation and healing to those in need. Two paragraphs summarize his viewpoint:

I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don’t expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.....

A contemporary theologian has described mercy as “entering into the chaos of another.” Christmas is really a celebration of the mercy of God who entered the chaos of our world in the person of Jesus, mercy incarnate. I have never found it easy to be with people who suffer, to enter into the chaos of others. Yet, every time I have done so, it has been a gift to me, better than the wrapped and ribboned packages. I am pulled out of myself to be love’s presence to someone else, even as they are love’s presence to me. 

This column hit a popular chord (for several days it was at the top of the The Time's most emailed list). Father O’Neil is a good writer and deep thinker. Most importantly, his thought is strongly influenced by the everyday lives of the people he encounters in his pastoral ministry. He doesn’t assume he brings the answers or “truth” to people and their problems. He enters into a dialog with them, listening as well as speaking, allowing himself to be influenced by their thoughts and experiences as much as he might hope to give them guidance.

The result, as he says, is that his beliefs have changed. What struck me is that the direction of that change is much the same as what I described in my last post. The message of Christmas, and the meaning of Jesus, is that God now lives here on earth. Divine mercy and healing is experienced in our acts of compassion for each other.

What is important to notice, however, is that this God is very different from the one found in most of the Bible, orthodox theology, and popular piety. This God is not a celestial superhero who swoops in to rescue people in need. He does not appear in the nick of time like the cavalry in vintage Westerns. This God isn’t Santa Clause, checking his list to see who has been naughty or nice, bringing toys to good girls and boys. This God does not “answer prayer,” does not reward or punish, does not intervene from “outside” into either the natural world of storms and disease or into human affairs like war or mass shootings. This God is not a being out there at all.

While contrary to most of the biblical tradition, such thinking about God is not without precedent. Certainly this traditional God is seriously questioned if not denied in the Hebrew Bible wisdom books of Job and Ecclesiastes. The traditional understanding of “God-out-there” is also challenged many times in Jesus’ words and actions and in Paul’s writings about the indwelling Spirit.

After ancient times, the mystical traditions of the biblical religions have often emphasized more a God that permeates the world and humanity than one that resides in heaven. Recently this has been expressed in an alternative formulation (popularized by the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah), “God is a verb.” At which point, for clarity’s sake, perhaps we should use the term “god” as it no longer refers to a noun, let alone a proper name. (Though an argument could be made to continue capitalization to retain the connection with our ancient heritage.)

That, at least, seems to be the direction religion and spirituality is moving. It is not part of any organized campaign but rather is, I think, a spontaneous reaction to human needs for transcendence and our growing acceptance and appreciation of the modern understanding of the world and the universe.

Resistance to such an understanding of G/god within the traditional biblical religions is still strong but also weakening. Father O’Neil’s essay has been well received. I scrolled through the comments looking in vain for criticism of his theology. On the other hand, many positive statements came from non-Christians and self-described atheists.

Churches, liberal and conservative, have clung to a self-image as mediators and purveyors of divine mercy, miraculous aid, salvation. Today, however, fewer and fewer people expect such divine intervention in their or the world’s problems because they have reasonably concluded it simply doesn’t exist. The cavalry isn’t coming. It’s up to us and always has been.

How do we cope in the midst of turmoil or disaster? How do we resist the temptations of selfishness and forces of evil? How do we suffer loss and face the prospect of our inevitable demise? We have wrestled with such questions, individually and collectively, since the beginning of civilization. Perhaps the most important function of religion has been to provide a forum for such questions and a community in which to put flesh to our answers.

That need remains as real as ever. Religion’s challenge is to cut its dependence on a Santa Claus God. Instead, it must re-imagine the divine experience as that of humans rising to their highest calling to bind up one another’s wounds. Encouraging and enabling such compassion ought to be welcomed today by the world’s religions as their highest calling.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Dreaming of a PG Christmas

The December 7 issue of Harper’s has a delightfully quirky essay about Handel’s Messiah. In it, the author describes attending a Christmas Eve mass in Dublin (where this Messiah was born), during which excerpts from the oratorio are performed. In his homily, the priest assures the congregation that Jesus was a real person living in a real time. Caesar ruled much of the world and ordered the census that got Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in order to increase tax revenue. Some things never change.

Countless sermons this Christmas will emphasize or assume the historical accuracy of most or all of the elements of the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth. This might be expected in fundamentalist and evangelical churches but in more liberal mainline churches there will be little difference. What is remarkable is that many of these preachers will know and even agree with modern scholarship that the Bible’s stories of Jesus’ birth are largely, if not entirely, fiction. (And the Lukan census story is one that has been long recognized as a preposterous howler.)

Following this past November’s electoral debacle, Republican Louisiana governor Bobby Jindahl said his party needed to stop being the “party of stupid.” Unfortunately few church leaders have had similar awakenings. At Christmas services across denominational lines, Christianity will continue to behave like the religion of stupid.

Christianity in the United States, following by about a century the experience of our European cousins, is now in full retreat. Recently, the Sunday New York Times has been documenting this development. An op-ed piece by a prominent Evangelical pastor acknowledged that the ascendance of their version of Christianity has now plateaued if not reversed. Mainline churches have accepted this reality for a couple decades, at least. Another story highlighted growth of the “nones”—those who have no religious affiliation, especially common among people under 40, and who provided a significant vote for President Obama. With few exceptions, churches and denominations are rapidly becoming older and smaller. Congregations by the thousands have closed their doors. Finally, the feature article of the latest book review section was an essay on the disappearance of themes of faith from contemporary literature.

In the years since critical biblical scholarship became accepted in mainline seminaries, future pastors have been given a confusing message. While it is important you learn this, they’ve been told, keep it mostly to yourself. It’s too difficult for most people in the pews to understand and they will just become upset—and you might lose your job. As a result lots of preaching is grounded more in ideas and images pastors obtained during Sunday school than seminary.

The result is that theologically moderate and liberal churches have become increasingly dull, irrelevant, and yes, stupid. While global culture changes at an accelerating pace, the church has essentially shelved the tools that would enable it to engage this dynamic world. It tells itself it is being counter-cultural and prophetic yet most people now experience it as timid and often more than a little odd.

In reality, critical biblical scholarship and theology have never been genuinely welcomed because church leaders always suspected that doing so would lead to much more upheaval than they wanted. And they’re right. But that upheaval is what the church needs if it is going to play a serious role in the life of the emerging world of ubiquitous technology and a global culture.

The truth is that the conceptual foundation of ancient biblical religion has dissolved away. It is simply impossible to live and function as an aware modern person and have coherent, logical thoughts about the biblical God, heaven, hell, angels, and the after-life. This is why systematic theology has ceased to exist in mainline churches: there is nothing intelligible left to be said about these previously bedrock subjects.

The last prominent systematic theologian was the German-American Paul Tillich. He came to the conclusion that Christianity’s essential concepts could now only be understood as metaphors, correlated with ideas and categories of the modern secular world. 1965, the year of Tillich’s death in Chicago, could well be considered the end date of Christianity’s serious intellectual engagement with the world. The popular recognition of this came the following year with TIME magazine’s landmark cover story on the “death of God” theologians. For orthodox Christianity, the game was up. It was all over but the shouting.

Horrified at the conclusions of liberal theology, leaders of mainline churches have tried to do damage control ever since. Yet their efforts have only served to further drive home the point: the God of the ancient world can have no serious place in the modern world. Which raises the question: why have they bothered? Why all the fuss? What is it about this God that they have so desperately wanted to hang on to?

Critical biblical scholars agree on the great difficulty of creating a genuine biography of Jesus’ adult life. The stories of his birth and childhood meanwhile are almost universally viewed as creations of the early church. Yet this Christmas preachers in mainline churches will treat willy-nilly various points of the birth narratives as real events involving real people. If confronted with this inconsistency, they will stammer various explanations: it’s what people expect, it allows people to interpret the story literally or metaphorically as they choose, it really can’t be preached any other way, or it’s just easier.

The last answer is the most honest. For to acknowledge the church’s traditions about Jesus’ birth as fiction, inevitably leads to a recasting of the meaning of his whole life. The story of a wise and compassionate rabbi from Nazareth is very different from the story of the Lord and Savior of the world miraculously born to a virgin in the City of David. If nothing else the modern world has learned that the coming of a “lord and savior” is rarely, if ever, good news. Historically such claimants simply became the next oppressors, with more than a few doing so in the names of God and Christ.

Ironically the long-recognized “message” of Christmas is entirely compatible with modern theology: “God” is no longer in heaven but has “come to earth” and now is manifest in the sacrificial love of human beings for each other. And such themes often appear in homilies at Christmas and throughout the year. But modern listeners find it more and more difficult to get past the accompanying baroque narratives, images, and doctrines to find a message with relevance and meaning.

People often say “Christmas is for children” as a way to keep adult behavior in this season in perspective, and in check. Churches also have increasingly adopted this attitude. That's fine, except that it has often meant treating everyone as children. There are adults in the room. Adults can enjoy Santa and his reindeer without entering a child's fantasy world. To do otherwise would be a kind of craziness. In the same way stories of angels, wise men, and virgin births can be appreciated while recognizing their fabulous origins.

In our natural development we give up “childish ways,” however tempting as it may be to hang on to them. The church, however, has been channeling its inner Peter Pan and giving in to that temptation far too long. It’s time for the church to grow up so that it can help others grow up. Only then can it be a genuine catalyst of maturity, pushing back darkness and ignorance, and helping people fulfill their potential by becoming fully alive, aware, and compassionate human beings.