Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Don’t Make Me Make that Choice

With everything in me, I don’t want to write this post.  But given the Chik-Fil-A controversy and, more broadly, the constant attention to same-sex-related topics in the news, on Facebook, and basically everywhere I turn in daily life, I feel I must.  Fair warning: there is more heat in this post than I’d like.  And my words won’t be as “worked out” as I’d like.  But I am pleading for a little bit of sanity and charity.  So I’m sticking my neck out and my nose in.

To try to keep the aim of my post in focus, let me lay down a couple of qualifications.  Right now, my attention is on the so-called progressive anger at Chik-Fil-A and at the unwise, unguarded and foolish statements of people like Rahm Emanuel.  I want anyone who might wonder about my intentions, however, to understand that I’m not any happier with the way the conservative culture warriors go at this issue, either.  When First Baptist Church, Dallas, puts “Gay is not OK” on the sign out in front of their building, they are contributing to the problem rather than the solution.  They made a political statement, not a pastoral one.  It was a slogan, a sound bite.  I’m not saying that people at First Baptist are horrible, awful people.  They are my brothers and sisters in Christ.  I’m just trying to say that putting a slogan on a church sign on such a sensitive topic is a foolish and clumsy and potentially (at the very least) cruel way of operating.

But as I said, I’m more concerned at this moment with the either-or thinking that attends the Chik-Fil-A controversy.  Apparently, we -the public – have two options.  We can either get on board with full, unqualified approval of same-sex activity, including and especially gay marriage or we can be smoked out into the bright light of day as the bigots and haters that we evidently are.

Are these my only options?  Really?  Don’t make me make that choice.

Please don’t set up the false dichotomy, the “either-or” of unreserved approval or unqualified condemnation.  These are not the only two choices.

The truth is, most of us don’t know exactly what we think about same sex attraction, sexual identity, same sex marriage and any other of the numerous related topics.  We have opinions, yes, but we’re not 100% sure of our opinions.  Most people just want to get along, be good neighbors.  Most people don’t want anyone to suffer.  We want people to lead good and productive lives.  Gay, bi-, trans-, straight, whoever.   We can’t stand slurs, sick jokes, or bullying.  Whatever we think about moral questions and policy matters, we want peaceful relations and fairness for all.  Our hearts are torn.  We have opinions and we know those opinions in some ways “go against” people we love.

If you call yourself a progressive and you simply cannot possibly understand why anyone like a Dan Cathy (or me) might think the way he does, then instead of calling for his head, listen.  You may think you have science and rationality on your side.  And you may.  You may think that you understand civil and human rights better than the rest of us.  And you may.  But you also may not. You may not know everything there is to know about sexuality.  Or morality.  Or how to think about them.  You might actually learn something by listening to your opponents.  (I know, conservatives need to do the same thing.  But stay on point here for a minute.)  It’s time for a little epistemic humility from the progressives – the noisy ones, at least.

I deplore and repudiate hatred toward anyone.  But I also do not believe that the only compassionate conclusion regarding same sex activity is unqualified approval.  That very thought puts me at ideological odds with people whom I love deeply, closely.  But don’t you dare say that I’m homophobic, or that I’m guilty of bad motive, or that I’m just not well-informed enough.

Do not patronize, demonize or politicize.  Don’t make me make a dangerous and false choice between two phoney options.  Don’t make me make that choice.  I won’t do it.

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August 3, 2012 Posted by | General, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | 2 Comments

And Now, for My Own Bigotry

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus told his disciples (Mt. 19:24).  This comment came on the heels of his conversation with the rich young man who turned away sorrowfully, deciding he could not follow Jesus on Jesus’ terms.

There is a lot more going on in this story than the usual morality tale we get about wealth and the Christian life.  First, the disciples were shocked, perhaps because they associated wealth with divine blessing (as some of the Proverbs suggest) and here Jesus is turning that belief on its head: wealth is a burden, a temptation, maybe a curse, not necessarily a sign of divine favor.

So, in a strange mental reversal, this saying of Jesus actually prompts me to recognize my bigotry about the wealthy.  As I mentioned in the previous post, I am worried about how we United Methodists  talk and think almost entirely in categories. Not just us United Methodists, of course, have this problem, but this is a family squabble I’m trying to have.  I complained that categories tell us not much about each other.  Now it’s time for me to admit my own use of categories.

As I mentioned, I grew up poor and, try as I might, I feel a little unsteady and self-conscious around wealthy people.  I feel that dirt under my fingernails feeling, like maybe one of “them” is looking at me as if I don’t belong, as if I’m not quite as good as…  If I don’t watch my soul, that feeling of unease can turn to resentment.  I’m ashamed of it.

Resentment is a feeling people seem to have in abundance these days.  Just think about how we talk about “the 1%.”  As if somehow they have money that really belongs to us; as if they have stolen it from us.

Therefore, to complicate things, let’s go for a little cyber ride.  A Wall Street Journal blog from June 2011 tells us that we have a record number of millionaires (based on net worth) in the USA (http://blogs.wsj.com/wealth/2011/06/22/u-s-has-record-number-of-millionaires).  Hah!  Just as we suspected.  More telling, in 2011, the number of billionaires was on the rise, as well.

But then, a year later we have this article from CNN, reporting that the net value of millionaires has been declining (http://money.cnn.com/2012/06/01/news/economy/american-millionaires/index.htm).  Likewise, this year (2012) the number of actual millionaires has declined in the USA (http://moneyland.time.com/2012/06/05/number-of-millionaires-in-u-s-decreases-but-spikes-worldwide).  Worldwide the rich are getting richer.  But not that many and even among the wealthy, some are losing.

For starters, then, I must keep in mind that not all that many people inhabit the category “wealthy.”  Closer to home, I have to admit that the comfortable household income my wife and I now enjoy – though numerically far distant from the millionaire category – puts me materially much closer to “wealthy” than I’d ever like to admit.  I therefore have absolutely no right somehow to make “the wealthy” culpable in a way that I am not.  How do you spell s-c-a-p-e-g-o-a-t?

Now, anyone with a net worth of million dollars or more obviously has many more options than most people, so we don’t have to worry too much about them.  Again, my point is not at all to justify getting rich.  I’m trying to think about how my lumping people into a category – “the rich” – does no one any good.  Hence, these articles loosen up my prejudice…a little.

Now, let’s move somewhat toward the other end of things.  Consider this article from Time, “Do We Need $75,000 to be Happy?”  (Meaning $75,00 for a yearly income.)  (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2019628,00.html).  According to this story, $75,000 buys a degree of well being that we associate with happiness.  Once a person gets to the $75,000 threshold, that feeling of financial stress dissipates and a sense of stability and well being ensues.  It does not mean that people falling below this amount are sad.  It just means that what we call “happiness” has a quantitative reference point.

That’s quite a gap – between a net worth of a million and making $75,000 a year.  It turns out, piling up mountains of money does not add to one’s happiness.

So, in a way that I think we do not often consider, Jesus tells us much more about being wealthy in this parable than typically we notice.  The non-wealthy should not resent the wealthy.  And the wealthy should pay attention to what wealth might do to them.

I’m as close to being a bigot when it comes to the way I think about the wealthy as when I think about anything.  And perhaps strangely, it is this very saying of Jesus that helps me to notice this my flaw.

June 12, 2012 Posted by | General, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Retching Has to Do with Moral Vision

(Warning: this blog contains graphic material not suitable for weak stomachs.)

Since when did watching people vomit become funny?

I admit, I do not watch these TV shows, so maybe it was just a coincidence. Last week, I watched my first episode of “Campus PD” on one of the cable channels. I have known about the show for some time, but since I work with college students, I frankly could not bring myself to watch it. Last week I worked up the courage. A couple of days later, I happened on “Tosh.0” (I think is the name).

Of course, with “Campus PD,” the viewers were regaled by a constant barrage of drunk college kids. In one scene, two young men are sitting, completely stupefied, on the curb (kerb, if you are an Anglophile) outside a hotel. Both of them have vomit between their feet.

A couple of days later, I just happened to be passing by “Tosh.0” as I channel surfaced and witnessed another scene involving someone puking. This time it was a guy in the buddy position of a hang glider. Apparently, he wasn’t taking too well to the ride. The host, Mr. Tosh, played and replayed the emetic episode, clearly enjoying the man’s discomfort and the awkwardness of the moment. Do his viewers really enjoy this fare?

I’ve seen similar things on “Jackass.” Please remember, I do not watch any of these shows. In each case, I happened upon them as I was passing on to somewhere else in Cable World. I thus conclude that, if I see this much vomiting on television in such brief moments, they must be happening quite a bit. And somebody must think it’s funny.

Some of us who work in the university have been reading a book, lately: Getting Wasted, by sociologist and college professor Thomas Vander Venn. In describing the various kinds of motives and means of social support that college students give one another while engaging in binge drinking, he reflected on how students describe even being hung over together as “fun” or “a good time.” He also mentioned one study in which neophyte pot smokers had to learn how to enjoy the sensation of being high, then alluded to the same pedagogical principle at work among college drinkers.

In other words, the “fun” associated with being drunk or high is in some significant ways, a learned behavior. You can learn that vomiting and passing out is actually fun. Hm.

Most importantly, what we’re not noticing is the implicit moral community associated with such fun. In interviews with Vander Venn, students explained repeatedly that having fun and good times is supremely important, worth the risks and consequences of blackouts and alcohol poisoning. They actually experience a kind of community, through the “drunk support” (his term) and consequence management associated with college party scenes.

Here’s the moral dimension: Students who believe this kind of behavior is “fun” and “good times,” are committed to what they perceive as a good – the pleasure, sociability and feeling of community that goes with the party scene. It goes with what Robert Bellah and other scholars have described as “expressivist individualism:” that “being myself,” no matter what anyone thinks and “following my own dreams” and “doing what feels right to me” are paramount. In fact, I have heard this sentiment from students. They actually say that they “do not care” what other people think. Of course, they do care, but they have been taught (subtlely, of course) to think that they shouldn’t care. Notice the ought in “shouldn’t.”

Another way to notice the moral vision of this behavior: how often do we talk with students about peer pressure? What is peer pressure, but moral pressure? “It’s fun. Come on! Don’t be a loser!” We need to notice the moral tone, perverse as it seems.

So, students believe that cutting loose, having fun, getting wasted, is a good. It is one that they fight to keep. They believe in the freedom associated with partying. They are in college. It is “their time.” Again, notice the moral vision.

If you’d like to look at this matter in some detail, see Christian Smith, et. al., Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford University Press, 2011), especially the chapter, “Intoxication‘s Fake Feeling of Happiness.” It’s pretty sobering stuff.

November 8, 2011 Posted by | emerging adults, General, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hail, Oscar!

I just watched Oscar Pistorius run a 46.33 400 meter race at the Prefontaine Classic.  If you don’t follow the sport of track and field (and not many people do), these numbers probably mean nothing to you, but it is truly astounding. 

The world record for the men’s 400 meter race is, I think, 43.18, still held by Michael Johnson.  It is has stood for several years.  Pistorious’ time is a full 3 seconds slower.  And in the race I just watched him run, he finished dead last.  But he was only about a second off the winning time.

So, why am I going on and on about Oscar Pistorius?  He is a double amputee running against world-class athletes who have all their parts.  Pistorius (obviously) runs with prosthetic devices, high-tech, specially designed “feet.”  The technology is impressive, of course, but still, to run with the world’s fastest without the same feeling (through the feet) that other world-class athletes have is nothing short of mind-boggling. 

Ironically, some worry that his specially-designed “feet” give him an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners.  I never was a great athlete, but I did compete in high school and I have some sense about what it feels like to run races.  While other racers are “feeling” the track through their feet, Pistorius “feels” the track somewhere near his knees.  Imagine running as hard as you can without feeling your feet.  Even with high-tech running devices, imagine trying to run fast without feeling the timing of “pushing off” with the balls of your feet and your toes.     

Perhaps even more impressive was the humility and grace with which he spoke to the interviewer after the race.  He said repeated how blessed he felt and how grateful he was to be given the opportunity to compete on this stage.  He admitted that, as he made the first turn of the 400 meters, rather than concentrating on his race he found himself thinking how blessed he was to be racing against the world’s best.    It was simply amazing. 

In the paralympic world, Pistorius is a triple world champion in the 100, 200 and 400 meters.  In fact, according to Wikipedia, he holds the world record in each race (you should read the article and see the resistance he has received to running against able-bodied runners, which makes his gracious attitude even more impressive).  But on any field, he is a stupendous athlete. 

His talent is obvious, certainly, but his character, his courage, his persistence challenges me.  Oh, how it challenges me.

June 4, 2011 Posted by | General, Pop Culture | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Risk of Change

After spending the morning in the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery (a terrific visual display and a wealth of information), we loaded the bus for Philadelphia, Mississippi.  On the way we watched a movie, “Murder in Mississippi,” telling the story of three slain civil rights workers in 1964: James Chaney, Micky Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, killed by Klan members.  Chaney was an African American man from Meridian, MS and the other two were white college students from New York.  These men were helping black people register to vote.

One of the key scenes in the movie takes place at Mt. Zion Methodist (now United Methodist) Church, an African American congregation east of Philadelphia and up a winding country road.  James Chaney knew the area well and had been often to the church to encourage members to risk attempting to register and they agreed.  They then were targeted by Klan members.  One night, as some church members attended a finance meeting, the Klan set up an ambush and several members were beaten.  The mother and brother of Ms. Jewell, whom we met at the church, were beaten severely. Forty plus years later, her eyes still well with tears as she tells the story.  Many of us did, too.

Before Ms. Jewell spoke, we met the Honorable James Young, Mayor of Philadelphia, the city’s first African American mayor.  He had many interesting things to share, but in response to my question about the racial mix of the city (56% white and 42% African American, with a sizable percentage of Native American [Choctaw] as well), it became clear that he had won the election because he carried two of the three predominantly white-populated election districts.  Big change.

Mayor Young made very clear that he intends to be and is everybody’s mayor, white, black, Native American or otherwise.  He serves all people.  He also made clear, however, the challenges involved.  In response to one student’s question about trying to help people of his race, he asked in return (the student is African American), “If you own a company and 75% of the employees you hire are African American, are you helping your people?”  And the question tagging along, but not spoken: would doing so be right or wrong?  That’s a tough question.

Much of the talk at this gathering was about how Philadelphia is changing.  To make changes, people have to make prior assessments of current conditions.  How much has actually changed?  How does one tell?  What still needs to be done?  What criteria will we use to decide?   It requires careful interpretation, which has its own risks.  President Obama as Candidate Obama, for example, had to make strategic decisions about to what degree would he permit race to play a role in his campaign.  Not that he would raise the issue (imagine the risk), but he had to know that people would ask him about it, and how he responded would be telling.

God bless the folk in Philadelphia.  A citizens group of all races in the county have been working for years to bring the perpetrators of the murders in 1964 to justice.  And they have been successful, even though it has taken a long, long time.  They fully admit that they still have work to do, but they want us to know about the good will of the majority of the citizenry.  We’re listening.

March 11, 2010 Posted by | General, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Huffington, Robertson and Haiti

I’m alternating between scratching my head and gnashing my teeth.  The Huffington Post has taken issue with Pat Robertson’s comment on Haiti’s alleged pact with the Devil and I received the chance to subscribe to a “Pat Robertson Doesn’t Speak for Me” group on Facebook.

Scratching my head: why does Ariana Huffington care what Pat Robertson says?  If she wants to minimize his impact, she should ignore him, not plaster his quotes all over her blog.  What he said came during an airing of the 700 Club, so he was talking to his viewers, who, for most the part, I’m sure, completely agree with his world view.  He made a sweeping historical/theological statement: that Haiti, seeking independence from the French in the late 1700s made a pact with the Devil.  It certainly raises my historian’s caution – you know, putting two and two together and getting five, drawing inferences that don’t follow from the evidence, that sort of thing.  But the hysteria from the Huffington Post, et. al., I don’t get either.

There was no judgment in Robertson’s voice or demeanor about Haiti.  According to the CBN web site, their ministry is actively engaged in earthquake relief in that devastated land.  I don’t know if Huffington actually checked (I doubt it), but if one takes a few minutes to look, then Robertson’s quote seems a lot more like an understandable (even if historically questionable) comment made from within Robertson’s Pentecostal/Charismatic theology.

Gnashing my teeth: responding to Huffington’s charge, the CBN website puts a spin on Robertson’s comments that fudges what he actually said.  I wish Pat Robertson would “man up” and stick to his guns.  Christians need to have the courage of their convictions and if he really believes that Haiti is under some sort of demonic spell, then he should say so without apology or qualification.  And he especially shouldn’t give a second’s thought to what Ariana Huffington and her ilk thinks.

Irony: I heard Jack Cafferty on CNN talk about how poor Haiti has been destroyed by corruption and inept government. Upon examination, how much practical difference is there between “corruption” and “demonic influence?”

Christians cannot and should not operate in a box.  We live in this world and we need to engage fully in its doings.  I’m enough of a “methocostal” myself that the notion of demonic influence is not beyond the pale for me.  Talk of demonic activity has been completely distorted by entertainment media – people hear “demon” and they think green, projectile vomit, contorted faces and levitating furniture, but most versions of the demonic are much more mundane.  I think often of Paul’s comment in 2 Cor. 10, about “tearing down strongholds and taking every thought captive to Christ.”  How often does the demonic work at the level of mere thinking and we don’t even notice?

But while Christians should have opinions based on their theological/faith perspectives – as Robertson does – we should be wise and wily in how we communicate them.  Public comments by public Christian figures should never be made just for the home crowd.  Still, though I’m a little queasy about Robertson’s analysis, Huffington is the real bigot, not Robertson.

January 26, 2010 Posted by | General | , , , , | 6 Comments

Epistemic Humility and the Force of Ideas

Off and on (mostly on, I suppose), I think about the clash of ideas that takes place between people when talking about religion.  In “educated” (I use this word advisedly) middle class America, there is an informal moral principle at work that, I think, confuses the courage of one’s convictions (and the associated truth claims) with a wrong use of power.

Some years ago (2001), Baker Academic published a collection of essays by leading evangelical scholars called No Other Gods Before Me? It’s edited by John Stackhouse.  I recommend the book.  It is an illustration of epistemic humility while maintaining a clear commitment to standard (broadly-understood) evangelical commitments to the Christian faith.  One need not agree with everything in the book to appreciate the care and thoughtfulness of the authors and to be challenged by their ideas.  Epistemic humility.

Christians of all stripes (especially Christian college and seminary professors who don’t recognize that they’re doing it) make the mistake of confusing the force of an idea with coercive tactics in arguments.  Coercive tactics sometimes fly under the flag of “informal fallacies” in logic.  When I think I can undermine your idea by making a reference to something about you personally – the charge of “homophobe” is a classic example on a very contentious topic – it’s called an informal fallacy (ad hominem attack), but it is also a power move.  Another one is “fundamentalist” (or “liberal”).  We think we can dismiss someone’s idea simply by naming some aspect of their character that we think takes away the force of their ideas.  If I’m a “conservative” and you’re a “liberal,” then I don’t have to take your ideas seriously because you’re “liberal.”  This move is a power move, not just a “bias.”

How Christians use power when they are making their claims is of fundamental importance.  In so many evangelistic appeals, we are misusing power (and abusing trust) when we manipulate people’s feelings in order to get them to sign a card.  In politics, campaign rhetoric is based on appeals to emotion (another logical fallacy), manipulating hearers’ feeling by playing (primarily) on fear.

OK, so I’ve named the easy parts.  What about when an idea that I hold as fundamentally true, say, that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh and the Savior of the world, is considered exclusionary (here’s the power) by someone who doesn’t believe that idea?  If I insist that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father, what about people who don’t agree?  They recognize the force of the idea , which, if they persist in their prior commitment (i.e. don’t change their minds to match my claim about Jesus), leaves them out of the blessing that I associate with my belief about Jesus.  They feel understandably left out and they also think that we have demeaned their views regarding salvation (or whatever term they would use to describe spiritual wholeness).

It seems to me that my being epistemically humble means that I am authentically willing to hear their criticisms of my view and to be open to having my idea shaped by their criticisms.  But it most certainly does not mean that I have give up a priori on my idea about Jesus, which is what happens sometimes when people confuse truth claims with power moves.  Too much dialogue between people of differing religions assumes this starting point.  It basically asks Christians (at least the ones who think this way) to drop their beliefs about Jesus in order to enter “properly” into dialogue.  This is a power play of another sort and it illustrates the difficulty.  Ideas have force and we can’t avoid it.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that Christians in America, at least, are going to have to work up much more social courage than we often have, if we’re going to live effectively in a society that doesn’t recognize the difference between the force of ideas and the manipulation of feelings.  And that I write this blog on Epiphany seems quite relevant…

January 6, 2010 Posted by | General, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

If Only We Recognized the Prince of Peace

I’ve heard the story.  I’ve read the story.  And I just watched the story on the History Channel while I was mortifying my flesh on the treadmill.  The Christmas Truce of 1914 is truly a historical wonder, but not for conventional interpretation.

For context, a quick re-telling: On the Western Front, five months into World War I, British and German soldiers made enemies through no act of their own, found themselves staring across No Man’s Land at each other on Christmas Eve.  Across that void, the British heard Germans singing, “Stille nacht, heilige nacht…” and some of them began to sing back, “Silent night, holy night…”

Peace broke out.  Enemies met in that space between the trenches and exchanged food, chocolate, trinkets, buttons and other bits of memoriabilia.  There was a small Christmas tree.  They even had a soccer match.  It must have been an absolutely miraculous moment.

The Christmas Truce so took hold that the British officers actually had a pretty hard time getting their troops back into a more bellicose posture.  According to the History Channel telling, it took a British officer essentially murdering a defenseless German soldier to jump-start the war.  Four long years of horrific bloodshed ensued.

Historians on the program opined that the “reason” such a moment could take place was because the combatants could – in the Christmas moment – recognize their common “humanity.”  The narrator even used the word “fellowship” in describing how quickly and well these men bonded with each other.

Completely lacking was the historians’ recognition of the common faith of the British and German soldiers.  What an astonishing blind spot!  Recognizing the “humanity” in someone else does nothing to explain this moment and, worse, it positively ignores the obvious.  These British and German combatants, in hearing the songs of Christmas, recognized their common Lord.  Something bigger than France, Britain or Germany was revealed, if only for a moment – the governance of the Prince of Peace.

Now let’s play the historian’s game and think about counterfactuals – the “what might have happened” had event B taken place rather than event A.  So, in my little scenario, let’s say that the troops – recognizing the implication of Christians killing other Christians – on both sides had refused to carry on with the war.  What if they had realized that both  British and German followers of Jesus had something in common that transcends national status?  What if the moment had been permitted to develop (the History Channel program played out just this possibility that perhaps the war might have been permitted to stop right then), which might have dramatically foreshortened what became a long and bloody war?

A Christmas Truce of 1914 that led to peace would have prevented the humiliation of Germany in the Treaty of Versailles…and Hitler would not have happened.  There would not have been the smoldering resentment in Germany that fed his demonic vision.  The German economy would not have been shattered.  The political situation would have been different.  No Hitler, no World War II.  Imagine a history without either World War I or II.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 is a historical marvel.  We ought to scour history for other such moments.  They show us the Prince of Peace ruling.  If only we recognized him. Come, Lord Jesus.

December 23, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, General, Religion | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Affirm People, Acknowledge Diversity

Working on a college campus puts one in the position of hearing lots of talk about diversity: racial diversity, national and ethnic diversity, cultural diversity, religious diversity, gender diversity.  These are among the standard referents for folk in higher education.

In a chapter on the importance of student affairs programs for developing college students’ spirituality, Jennifer Capeheart-Meninghall writes, “Programs and services that offer activities that affirm diversity (emphasis added), establish and hold students accountable for conduct, celebrate campus traditions, and join various constitutencies together will help build community,” (Spirituality in Higher Education, p. 35).  For all the value and importance of her aim at building community and developing spirituality (an aim I completely support), I’m stuck on the difficult notion of affirming diversity.  Who sets the criteria to determine that diversity has been affirmed?

As much as I appreciate the sentiment, I think it is ultimately misdirected.  I think what we should affirm is people.  People are diverse.  Because we are diverse racially, ethnically, socio-economically, culturally, and so on, we should affirm people as they demonstrate a wide range of characteristics and qualities.  We affirm people and, in doing so, acknowledge that we’re different, diverse.

Some people might consider my point nothing more than pious cant, a clever-sounding rhetorical sleight-of-hand.  (Some may find it completely obvious and not clever at all!)  In the current climate, am I just one more white, male, middle-class traditional/conservative complaining about losing power?  I don’t think so.  I hope not.

Maybe I’m splitting hairs.  Maybe “affirm” and “acknowledge” mean the same.  A quick check of the dictionary suggests the contrary.  To affirm something is to state it positively, to validate it or legitimate it and, furthermore, to “express dedication” (Webster’s 9th New Collegiate Dictionary) to whatever is being affirmed.  To acknowledge is to recognize, to own up to (Ibid).

Because all people are created in God’s image, we value them.  We value their characteristics, cultural and otherwise.  We affirm them.  We recognize that we come from a wide range of nations, backgrounds, worldviews and religious commitments.  We accept our diversity, but we value people and we commit ourselves to living together in peace.

Why does my distinction matter?  Well, in my little mind, it seems to be a step in the right direction of disentangling us from some of the political animosities that infect Christians.  It’s too easy to come up with the grocery list of qualities that “proves” one “affirms diversity.”  (By the way, how diverse is the group making that list?)  Then people can make preemptive judgments: if you don’t accept the list, you don’t accept diversity and you’re disqualified from the conversation.  If, on the other hand, we affirm people while acknowledging diversity, then we don’t prematurely disqualify.  We listen with compassion and generosity – and take their ideas seriously.

“Diversity,” sadly, is a politically loaded term.  It shouldn’t be.  We are a nation of diverse peoples.  That’s an uncontroversial fact.  What we value is people, who always bring with them their cultural, ethnic, and other (diverse) qualities.  We don’t ignore diversity.  We acknowledge it; accept it.  But we affirm people.

September 23, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, General, Higher and Theological Education | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

John Wesley, Earthquakes and God’s Providence

Reading John Wesley’s Sermon (actually, it’s Charles’, I recently learned) , “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes,” reminds me again of how societies’ assumptions can change.  The title alone strikes today’s reader as quaint, to say the least.  An earthquake is a completely natural disaster.  How does one “cure” earthquakes, unless some sort of controllable natural cause can be identified?

But, of course, with Wesley, it’s always about God, so our interest is theological and it raises the question of God’s action in the world.  Wesley’s sermon clearly indicates that God directly causes the earthquakes for the sake of judgment: a holy God uses natural disasters to judge and awaken wayward peoples.

The sermon to which I refer was published in 1750, in response to an earthquake that the English themselves had felt.  Wesley is capitalizing on this moment with an evangelistic appeal.  And here is where the rub begins.

As I read, I was struck by how people today (in America) would likely respond.  They probably would be quite offended with Wesley’s tone and claims.  How could a loving God do such a thing?

So, we face two conflicting worldviews.  Wesley’s view, shared by many of his day, was of a holy, just, God who is Governor and Judge of the world.  God has every right to use all means available to bring about God’s holy purposes.  “Our lives are in God’s hands,” and God can do as he sees fit.

By contrast, listening to folks today, even “conservative evangelical” Christians, God sounds more like an Attentive Helper, waiting to do our bidding.  I may be overstating some, but how much?

Reading a sermon like this one (or any of Wesley’s, to tell the truth) provokes questions.  Virtually all Christians would agree that God can do things like cause earthquakes, but we likely would conclude that God does not directly cause them.  God’s loving nature does not will such evil on people.  God uses other, more gentle means.  Natural disasters like earthquakes are an inevitable part of the kind of world God created, but not directly relatable to human sin nor to God’s direct action.

Question #1, then, has to do with how God uses power.  The harshness of Wesley’s view may trouble us, but so should the God-as-Attentive-Helper view.  Practically speaking, it holds that God always uses power for our benefit according to  (here is the kicker) how we understand “benefit.”  In this view, we expect God always to avert disaster on our behalf.  And if not, we have every right to be angry with God for not coming to our aid.

Two standard options arise to get God off this hook.  We can conclude that God is not powerful enough to prevent such disasters.  Or we can conclude that God isn’t good in the way we think God ought to be.  God’s power can be used – from our vantage point – capriciously.  Thousands of innocent victims can die in a natural disaster and God doesn’t seem to care.

Two bad choices, it seems.  Either we have a God who is able and willing to interact with us in real life, or we have a God who is either only remotely connected or is unable to prevent horrible circumstances from happening.

What do you think?  I know that we would prefer God to act according to our feelings and desires, but God is independent of our preferences.   In this light, what do you think?

June 19, 2009 Posted by | Doctrine/Theology, General, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments