Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Identity and Acceptance

Sometime around 1985, if I remember correctly, in the middle of my seminary tutelage, I had a conversation with a fellow student that has stuck with me over the years.  I include the date so that the reader will know just how long this topic has been on my mind, not to mention how long we’ve been discussing it publicly.

I cannot remember how the subject of sexuality came up.  We were in the middle of a peer review of a paper, a student discussion led by a faculty member.  I was the one in the hot seat that day.  I had not written about sexuality, so I don’t remember how or why the subject arose.  But I do remember this comment from my fellow student, an out lesbian (which I knew before this moment).  She said to me, “If you don’t accept my sexuality, you don’t accept me.”

I have heard or read this claim dozens of times since that day.  As I said last week, I hate writing about sexuality because it is so personal, so painful, especially right now.  I feel a growing alarm about statements I hear and read, so, once again, I feel I must say something.  And I want to analyze this claim, that if I do not “accept” (I use scare quotes for a reason, which will become evident in a moment) someone’s sexuality, then I don’t “accept” her or him.

First, let’s recognize the statement for what it is – a truth claim.  In other words, this person was not, at that moment anyway, describing her experience or simply offering her take on the matter.  She was making a claim that had direct bearing on my view.  More pointedly, her opinion was a judgment of my opinion, pure and simple.

Now, let me tell you why I’m alarmed.  In the current popular hostilities, “not accepting” seems increasingly to mean “hate.”  The if-then logic goes like this: if I don’t accept your sexuality, then I hate you.  This is a huge and dangerous jump – for everyone.  And there is a similarly ominous corollary claim: if you hold a “traditional” view of sexuality and marriage, even if you don’t engage in hate speech or do anything actively to oppose gays and lesbians, etc., you still are guilty of helping to maintain a threatening heterosexist system tantamount to the Anti-semitism of Nazi Germany.  And we all know how that ended.  Peter Gomes makes this very claim in his book, The Good Book.

There are a number of angles to take on this most difficult of conversations and I’m going to try to offer some coherent thought, without being able to take the space to go step by step on everything I’m thinking.  (This blog is already much longer than I prefer.)  Let me also readily acknowledge that I could be wrong.  But here is my first point: I can be wrong in my thinking about your understanding of yourself, your identity, and your behavior (in one class of behaviors – sexual), but being wrong in my opinion about how you understand and present yourself is not the same as my lack of esteem and love for you.  They are two different sets of thoughts.  I can still like you very much, affirm your right to live as you please and disagree with your understanding of yourself.  I may just be wrong about you while still esteeming you.  So, it seems to me at the start, that claiming that my being wrong is the same as hating you is a plain non sequitur.  And a dangerous one because it breeds suspicion and fear.  There is an irony at work here that I would love to comment on, but I’ll have to leave it at that.

Now back to my fellow-student’s claim.  Let’s think of “identity” and “sexuality” as two circles.  In her comment, she seems to be saying, without actually stating it this way, that the circle of who she is and the circle of her sexuality are the same.  There is an exact proportional identity.  In some sense, it seems, “identity” and “sexuality” completely co-inhere.  The implication follows that there is therefore no conceptual room for me to think about my fellow student in any other way.  And if I do, it must be because I am motivated by something sinister and morally wrong – an irrational fear (homophobia) or something like it.

I think the position I just sketched is an extremely difficult one to sustain and support.  There is far more to a person than sexuality.  (At the least we ought to be able to have a respectful discussion about this point!)  We all know people who do not want to be limited in their identity in this way.  They own their sexuality without problem, but they are also competent professionals and colleagues, neighbors joining us for cookouts and sports fans and musicians and a host of other qualities that make them who they are.  They want to live in freedom and dignity, but they don’t want to make an issue of their sexuality.

So, you see, I think I really can disagree with someone’s claim on (what look to me like) good logical grounds and I can still love that person very much.  In fact, I do.  When discussing other topics, this is obvious and we all know it.  Whether I love someone or not has little to do with how I evaluate a statement that person makes.  Why, then, do we seem unable to apply this same logic to our discussions about sexuality?

Now I come to the meaning of the word “accept” used above.  Remember, the claim I’m working with here is that if I don’t accept someone’s sexuality, I don’t accept that person.  It seems to me that “accept” in this statement actually means that I must morally affirm and agree with that person’s sexual self-understanding.  Or, to say it this way, it appears that”sexuality” and “identity” mean the same thing.  Part of the difficulty with this claim is that it trades on an understanding of “accept” that, so far as I can tell, we do not use in any other situation.  The truth is, we very commonly accept one another without agreeing with one another on all manner of other issues. If sexuality is that different, such that we must dramatically alter how we use language around it, then someone needs to help me understand what makes sexuality that different.

You might object that I’m not taking account of bias or subjective feelings, etc.  Of course I am.  I’m fully aware of my biases and I know that language has power and talking about “logic” has its own power dimension, as if appealing to “logic” somehow makes my thoughts more important and impact-ful.  Yes, language has power, but one of the reasons it has power is because it helps us talk about what we believe to be true and real.  Again, I wish people saw the irony, but apparently we don’t.

You’ll notice that, even though I am a Christian, I have not mentioned the Bible once.  Part of my agonizing over the raw public animosity is how much time we waste arguing back and forth about what the Bible does or does not say.  It is a legitimate concern to search the scriptures, but there are quite a few other questions besides just what the Bible says that we Christians need to engage if we really want to have a serious, respectful and substantive discussion.  Can we please stop using the Bible as a tool in the culture wars?

So, I come back to my major concern: the either-or logic that demands either full approval or hateful rejection and possible violence.  Let me say it again: I could be wrong in my thinking about sexuality.  Off and on since 1985, I’ve been reading, thinking, praying, listening and talking.  And I still am.  I have two books on my desk right now, written and edited by serious scholars, gay men in long-term relationships.  One is a historical study and the other deals with theoretical questions about sexual identity.  (By the way, so far I’ve read much more in these books about “desire” than I have about “identity.”  Even among those who fully support gay marriage and easily affirm same-sex activity, the term “identity” is apparently a challenge to understand.)  But even if I’m wrong – even if I just “don’t get it,” it is still a dangerous, destructive jump to conclude that I therefore must hate gay people.

Finally, not one thing I’ve written in this blog actually says anything about what I think about sexuality per se.  I know that you can scour through my comments and read between the lines and draw your own conclusions.  But be very careful when you do.  You might be wrong.  My sole purpose in this post has been to focus on one of the problems I think I see in how we talk about the issue.  That’s it.

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August 10, 2012 Posted by | Bible, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | 24 Comments

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.

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

The Clumsiness of Categories

Today, I worry about  sounding downright ungenerous and small-souled.  Even more, I worry because the topic I’m about to join cuts a little too close to the bone for me personally.  I’m going to try to use parts of my life experience as a means of illustrating a problem in our church (United Methodist) that looms ever larger.  Doing so touches a nerve.

Having attended two annual conferences, as well as following tweets, blogs and news pieces on General Conference, I have noticed how much we talk about people by reference to the categories they fit – or don’t.  My category: a 57 year old, well-educated, white male, who enjoys a comfortable income.  White, male, 50s, middle class.  Privileged.  Too many of my type still holding power.

Race, gender, age: these are the categories of reference most often put to use in our opinion-making about how things go in the church.  (Notice how they come from social science and not from theology or the language of the church.  But that thought will have to wait for another time.)

I have long understood the subtleties of race bias even when overt racism has curtailed some.  I remember a former colleague – African-American woman, a professional in higher education with a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university – once telling me how she had been shadowed in the local iteration of a national discount store.  She had been working in the yard and was in her grubbies and looking a little scruffy.  African-American, a little dirty (it was a sweaty summer day) and voila, you just might be a shoplifter.  So an employee, pretending to be a shopper, hangs around and watches you.    When I think of her experience, I remember why we need to continue to pay attention to race.

Likewise with the category of age.  I work with university students.  I love talking to them, listening to them, hanging out with them, mentoring them, teaching them.  I am an advocate for young people in the church.  But I’m starting to worry and even, I admit, feel a little resentful.  During these recent conference sessions near and far, I have heard both old and young make repeated reference to how we don’t listen to young people, it’s time to listen to young people, it’s time for some of us old folk to get out of the way and make room for young people.  Older people are hogging the power and clogging the church’s vitality with worn-out, dull, irrelevant ideas and concerns.

I want to make clear, my problem is not with young people.  In fact, I have made my own criticisms of how we treat young people in the church.  The problem lies not with young people or old people.  The problem lies in the way we think and talk – in categories!  In the heat of trying to get things done and make things better, we United Methodists lapse into “category-think,” a version of “group-think.”

And so, by way of personal illustration, I want to show why I worry about over-using categories, why I don’t like categories so much.  Here is what the categories don’t tell you about me.

I’m well-educated and live comfortably now, but I grew up poor.  Not destitute poor, just always tight, going-without, worried-about-money poor.  We always had plenty to eat, but partly that depended on good church folks “pounding” the preacher (my dad), or a local farmer butchering a steer or hog and sharing some meat with us.  I also always had decent, clean clothes to wear, but from the bargain rack.  We didn’t buy if it wasn’t on sale.  No shame in that, but, as a kid, I lived with that constant feeling of financial tightness.  And of not being able to do what others were doing.  Of being different.  I know how it feels to be different.

After chasing one job after another, my father finally said yes to a call to preach that he had felt for a long time.  At age 50 and with only a high school diploma, he entered (then) Methodist pastoral ministry.  His first year in this role (1962), he made $2,700.  For the whole year.  The church provided housing, of course, so $2,700 could stretch a little further, but not much.  Median household income at that time approached $6,000.  According to 1962 standards, we lived right at the poverty level.

I also grew up a transient.  Back then, Dad would go off to annual conference in September (after the school year started) and we would not know till he came home whether we were moving or staying.  I remember the announcement, “We’re moving,” and in a matter of a couple of weeks, we’d be packed up and gone to the new appointment.  We moved 4 times in 4 years during the middle school phase of my childhood.  The longest I ever lived in one place – before going off to college – was 3 years.  I went to two high schools.  I was always “the new kid” where new kids stood out.  And I knew we’d be leaving soon.

Was my life as transient as some of the field workers picking cotton in Texas or vegetables on truck farms in Colorado?  Of course not.  But it was more like their life than you could ever imagine if you look at me only through the category I now fit.  And that’s the problem with categories.  Categories hide people.

I thus have two strong and offsetting opinions about the categories we use over-much in the United Methodist Church.  I am very sympathetic to people who find themselves disadvantaged, on the margins.  I have some sense of what it’s like to be in that condition.  But on the other hand, I feel more resentment than I’d like to admit when people stick me in a category and make easy, breezy generalizations about me.  And I’ve heard a few over the years.  (I once was called a “pretty little white boy” by a seminary classmate.)  They distort and hide as much as they reveal.

Some of the big troubles we are now facing in the United Methodist Church stem precisely from thinking too much in categories.  They work well when we are generalizing and they are far too clumsy when we need to pay attention to on-the-ground circumstances.  When we use them wrongly, we are like a surgeon wearing boxing gloves while trying to perform a delicate operation.

Categories tell us something we need to know, but, honestly, they don’t tell us much.  Especially in the church, we should be very careful how we use them.

June 7, 2012 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, emerging adults, Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Should GC Delegates Have to Demonstrate Theological Qualifications Beforehand?

People who seek to become naturalized citizens of the United States must pass a test to qualify for the privilege of reciting the citizenship oath.  And it’s an oral test (see http://www.uscis.gov).  No guessing on multiple choice questions.

Still worrying about the fallout from the 2012 United Methodist General Conference: what if potential delegates had to pass a test to qualify for election?  Has someone already thought of this?  One answer might be, “Yes, preparation for church membership and/or ordination should qualify a person.”  Oh, would that it were so!

A quick narrative detour: years ago I was invited to collaborate with another pastor on a “What United Methodists Believe” class in our local congregation.  We expected a handful of people and we agreed to go for 4 weeks.  We had more than 50 people (a right good number for our community) and we extended the 4 weeks to 6 in order to accommodate people’s questions and interest.  We had a lively time.

At the end of the study a dear sister in Christ approached me and said (I quote), “I’ve been a Methodist for more than 50 years and I didn’t know any of this stuff.”

She was a member in good standing.  She could have been elected a delegate to GC.  How many delegates go with lots of experience in the UM system but little to no awareness of our theological tradition?  Shouldn’t we be at least  somewhat unsettled by this state of affairs?

I can imagine two questions raised in protest:

1.  Just what is “United Methodist” theology?  Good question.  Could we start with the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith and have people study “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task?” (Book of Discipline)?  And could we finally make somebody show us how to use the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral?”

But I digress…

2. Could we not just as well say that there are “United Methodist” theologies?  Of course, but simply asserting the fact does not move us toward resolving any of the issues rending our ecclesial fabric.

If General Conference – as the only body that speaks officially for the entire denomination – is going to function properly, should we not demand that people who serve as delegates be at least minimally theologically qualified to do so?  Notice how the pragmatic (a well-functioning General Conference) is affected by seemingly unrelated academic content.  Notice the link between doing and thinking.  Much thinking goes on before and at General Conference.  But are enough people able to think with the the necessary theological tools in order to fulfill their obligations as delegates?

We don’t have to draw “theology” here too narrowly.  Some people worry that when others – in other words, academics like me – start making references to theology, hair-splitting obfuscations follow that lead to more division rather than less.  But honestly, could we be any more divided than we are short of actually dividing?

Maybe it’s time to try theology!   I have to wonder if we could not avoid some of the problems bedeviling us if delegates had an adequate knowledge of the implications of their decisions relative to basic Christian and United Methodist beliefs.

So I entertain what likely seems to many United Methodists a ridiculous question: Shouldn’t we make our delegates pass a basic theology test in order to qualify?  If you think it preposterous, I refer you back to the narrative detour.

May 16, 2012 Posted by | Doctrine/Theology, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

General Conference (Slightly Proleptic) Postmortem

I’m not a fan of punditry, even of the ecclesial kind, but I guess I’ll set aside scruples and weigh in on the United Methodist General Conference as it presses toward the finish.  One question once again stands out: just how badly divided are we?  I think, pretty badly.

A Facebook friend posted the proposed Disciplinary amendment by Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter on our deep differences over homosexuality.  It was thoughtful, irenic, well-worded.  It holds to the church’s traditional stance on the matter.  I agree with its sentiment and I wish it had passed.

But I also read the reason for voting it down, that we don’t acknowledge our divisions on other issues, so we shouldn’t on this one.  That’s true.  We don’t.  But what if we did?  What would we actually have to face about our beloved denomination, if sprinkled all through our Book of Discipline we actually saw the numbers that represent our divided mind?

Let’s try a little thought experiment. What if every General Conference vote that changes the wording of the Book of Discipline also had to include (in the BofD) the split?  You know, 55% yea and 45% nay, etc.?  In other words, what if we actually had to see, in our Book of Discipline, how often and on which issues we get close to splitting 50-50?

What if we voted on doctrinal standards?  What if we went down each statement in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith and asked delegates to say “yea” or “nay?”  Now, before we get trapped in cautions about metaphorical readings, etc., let’s keep in mind that those doctrinal statements are meant to be taken as actual propositions.  (I know that we cannot dispense with metaphor, nor do I want to.  Let’s just try the thought experiment.)

How about Article 2, which reads in part, “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s [sic] nature…”  Yea?  Nay?

Some of us might want to update the language of this claim, but, again, let’s focus on the main question: do we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus?  What would a vote of General Conference delegates reveal?  And why does it matter?

My point here is not to go on a doctrinal witch hunt.  My point is to imagine just how divided we actually are.

Years ago – and I mean, like 20 – in the midst of the same controversy roiling us now, about ten of us UM clergy got together – all members of the same annual conference (remember the covenant?) to see if we could find any doctrinal statements that we could all agree on.  We intentionally made the group diverse.  After a couple of hours debate, we found near complete disagreement except on one slim point.  We could all say yes to the belief that something happened on the first Easter morning.  But we could not affirm as a group the proposition found in Article 2.  To be sure, some of us in the group did affirm it.  But some didn’t.  In other words, we were not “of the same mind.”

We could not find agreement on any other topic we discussed.

I believe this sort of disagreement has very practical implications.  Our theological convictions show us what we care about.  If we don’t care about at least some of the same things, we have no core, doctrinally or missionally, that holds us together.

I think this is what General Conference teaches us every four years.

May 4, 2012 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Cost of Failing to Think

A news item about Shorter University, a Baptist school associated with the Georgia Baptist Convention, has given me another opportunity to worry about the way we talk to one another about contentious matters.  The school apparently has made a policy that all employees will sign and adhere to a personal lifestyle statement, thereby creating another barrage of online commentary.  (See http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/12/01.)

I’ll leave the facts of the case aside to focus on the comments that illustrate my concern.  To get right to it, the most heated criticism depends on a moral tradition that stands outside the one it is criticizing.  (This problem Alisdair MacIntyre has described in his book, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.)  Taking the policy at face value, for the moment, Shorter University is seeking to apply a set of practices faithful to their view of Christian discipleship.  Some of the most critical comments seem oblivious to this intention.  In the name of a certain view of individual freedom that Shorter U. has offended, some commenters offer censure and condemnation.

I am not bothered by competing moral visions.  They exhibit the simple fact of human diversity.  I am worried, rather, by the lack of  self-awareness associated with the inability to have a serious, productive conversation.  That ignorance inevitably leads to some form of ad hominem attack on any person or group that would deign disagree.

This problem has become appallingly prominent in the blogosphere, ironically, as often as not among those of us who consider ourselves well-educated.  I’m distressed, for example, at the snippy, censorious, presumptuous, comments regularly posted on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s pages.  To overstate the problem only slightly: too often one finds there an assertion followed by a counter-assertion, followed in turn by a more pointed counter to the counter and the slight hint of the opponent’s ignorance or bad motive. And on it goes.

We thus live in a society in which, in far too many venues, ad hominems supersede respectful, even if pointed, debate, even while we continue to talk about tolerance and respect.  What are we to do if the rising generation as a whole (again, acknowledging the hopeful, if comparatively rare, counterexamples) cannot tell the difference between serious debate and rhetorical violence?  This is a critical moral, educational question.

Which brings me back to the work of higher education.  I have blogged recently about how we use the term “critical thinking,” while largely failing to help students recognize and practice it.  Parker Palmer calls us out: “In my judgment, one of the saddest and most self-contradictory features of academic culture is the way it tends to run away from criticism.  Academic culture celebrates ‘critical thinking’…but is sometimes dominated by orthodoxy as profoundly as any church I know,” (Palmer and Zajonc, The Heart of Higher Education, 23).  In another place he calls this view “pedagogical fundamentalism.”

The “orthodoxy” to which he refers has become so self-evident to many in higher education that dissidents are sometimes looked at as if they had come from another planet.  As one who readily identifies with theological and moral beliefs considered orthodox or traditional or (sometimes) conservative, I find this scenario (sometimes) humorously ironic.

However we describe ourselves on any ideological spectrum, we need to care about this problem.  Our lack of awareness about how we argue runs the risk of pulling the house down around us.

December 2, 2011 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , | 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

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Perhaps I too easily take to heart the coffee cup “de-motivator” I have about blogging: “Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few.”  As a delinquent blogger, this saying makes me laugh.  But it also makes me hesitate.

That’s not the only reason I’ve been silent on this blog.  When I don’t know my own mind on some topic about which I feel deep importance, I hunker down for awhile, feeling that I have nothing to say.  This is the case with a topic that has become high profile on college campuses – the interest in spirituality.

Many people who work with college students (especially on the Student Affairs side) know about the extensive research from the Higher Education Research at UCLA (to name only one source) on this subject.  Even though students fiercely protect their prerogatives, they are not the free-thinking skeptics people often associate with higher education.  In fact, they are very interested in questions that we have come to associate with spirituality or faith.  If you pay attention to the literature that has become mainstream, however, students are not all that interested in getting boxed in by “organized religion.”

It’s no wonder.  We’ve been teaching young people to think this way about religion and spirituality for at least a generation.  No time for a long foray into history, but consider: thirty years ago Paul Vitz did a study of the references to religion in elementary school social science textbooks.  He concluded that, given how these references were handled, students would easily conclude that religious practice is either something that “primitive” people do in other parts of the world or (for this country, especially) it is something people did in the past.  Here, insert the Puritans.  You know how they fare in popular sentiment.

Add in the public-private constitutional divide long-established in our society.  Religion is “private,” something that people are free to do with their associates without government interference.  But religious faith must stay in the private realm, which allows it to deal with personal values of all sorts, but does not allow people to be part of public debates (even though religion is always very much in the news).  There are important questions involved, here, but the big thing is that we don’t want anyone “imposing” some brand of religion on us.  The result has been that another vision has been “imposed.”  And it’s not a neutral one.

So, in a thousand subtle ways we have taught kids – long before they get to college – that religion is not all that important except for personal values and, furthermore, it may actually be rather dangerous (especially conservative evangelical versions of Christianity).  Churches have gone along with this process.  Here I refer to the “moralistic therapeutic deism” discerned by Christian Smith and others among teenagers and emerging adults.  Religion is for the purpose of helping people be nice and feel good about themselves.

Yet people hunger for transcendence, for contact with the Lifeforce or whatever word you’d like to use if you want to avoid using God.  If religion is more or less ruled out of bounds, what do you have left?  Spirituality.  And it will inevitably look and sound like how people talk in the literature.  Spirituality is about contact with the transcendent, and authenticity, and compassion, and expansiveness and…

I’m not surprised that the social scientists asking college students what they think about spirituality and religion are discovering the “spiritual not religious” response.  We pretty much taught them to think this way.

August 1, 2011 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Should Church-Related Schools Be Concerned?

A recent Christian Century article raises a pressing topic for church-related higher education.  Manhattan College, a Catholic school in New York, has become the center for a controversial decision by the National Labor Relations Board.  The presenting issue has to do with whether part-time faculty can unionize (a very important matter), but, in the explanation of the ruling the NLRB has forced the question of what identifies a church-related college.  As the Century article says in the first paragraph: “The [NLRB] isn’t convinced that the Catholic school is actually Catholic.”

The school apparently had used the argument of religious liberty as a way of defending their wish to avoid permitting part-time faculty to unionize.  But in the ruling, the Board argued that “federal oversight would not compromise the school’s religious freedom because its ‘stated purpose does not involve the propagation of a religious faith, teachers are not required to adhere to or promote religious tenets, [and] a religious order does not exercise control over hiring, firing, or day-to-day operations.'”

By this definition, Southern Methodist University, where I work as Chaplain, would also not qualify as a school with a religious mission.  Yet, I just gave a talk here on campus that emphasized the very point that this regional NLRB’s definition seems not to allow: the importance of integrating faith with the academic mission, while protecting academic freedom and individual prerogative to express a particular faith, or to forego expression of any particular religious tradition.

So, we face at least two challenges.  First, if the Century article’s description is accurate, then the NLRB has used a far too narrow definition of what a religiously-affiliated school must do to “prove” that it is in fact religiously-affiliated.  There is much more to the vision of a faith-driven and high-quality college education than “propagation of the faith” and requiring professors to adhere to said faith (these criteria were in their definition).  A school like SMU can be actively engaged in realizing a vision of our academic mission on the basis of the robust practice of the Christian faith (since SMU is connected to a Protestant Christian denomination) that nonetheless does not set up control conditions like the ones the NLRB is demanding.

The second challenge is how to come up with a definition that works well for all considered.  More importantly, who gets to participate in such a definition?  Must a government agency do this work without any input from religious groups?  Of course not. Agreed, the principle of separation of church and state must be upheld, but to what degree and in what manner?  Who is responsible (therefore has authority) to monitor the definitional boundaries here?

A slightly more than one page article in a magazine obviously has limitations with regard to exploring such difficult questions.  Still, I do not see anyone questioning the assumptions about how a word (or a school) is defined and identified.  It’s time to question these assumptions.

March 18, 2011 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Prophetic Reminder from a Christmas Past

Well, I have taken quite a vacation from blogging, but for good reason, I hope.  I’ve been working on a book manuscript and have submitted a proposal to a publisher.  I’m waiting to hear.  But I’ve been thinking about this blog and feeling ready to climb back into the saddle.  Nearly at the same time, Pastor Robert Jefress, of First Baptist Church, Dallas, hands me something to think about.  Perfect!

You may have seen Dr. Jefress on CNN this morning, answering questions about the controversial web site that lets people grouse about businesses saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”   The charge of cowardly political correctness lies behind this internet effort as well as the call for people to proclaim their faith openly.

Which made me think of a journal entry of John Wesley’s that I read just a couple of days ago.  What was Mr. Wesley doing on Christmas Day, 1777?  I’ll let him tell us: “Thursday, 25.  I buried the remains of Mr. Bespham, many years master of a man-of-war.  From the time he receive d the truth in love, he was a pattern to all that believe.  HIs faith was full of mercy and good fruits; his works shall praise him in the gates.”

That’s it.   A burial.  Whatever else Mr. Wesley might have written in his private diary about this day, he mentions in the Journal only this one act, drawing attention to the legacy of a man who died full of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

This little historical snapshot reminds us of how modern our Christmas traditions are, therefore how odd some of our concerns are about how people celebrate Christmas.  Though bits and snatches of modern traditions can be traced to more ancient times, most of what passes for Christmas celebrations these days are American traditions, most of which got started in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Remembering this point humbles and chastens our opinions about what should happen surrounding the day.  And it’s especially good to remember that deeply committed Christians who are our forbears essentially did not observe December 25 at all.  They were too busy burying people and doing other necessary things.

Without wanting to sound crabby or cynical or Grinchy or Scoogy, whether we say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” seems ridiculously, embarassingly superficial as a way of witnessing to our faith in the Incarnation.  Even our overtly religious expressions of Christmas these days are too laden with the wrong emphases.  Which is why I can’t get too worked up about the stuff to which Pastor Jefress has drawn attention.

I do not want to set up some sort of false dichotomy with my fussing about Pastor Jefress’ concern over political correctness.  Still, I’d rather have words spoken over my grave like Mr. Wesley said of Mr. Bespham, rather than that I “kept the faith” by setting up some web site that lets people gripe about whatever it is that they think other people are doing wrong with this time of the year.

December 9, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , | 4 Comments