Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

What Greensburg Teaches Me

In this virtual world that is the Internet, physical location often seems increasingly irrelevant.  Today, however, on this day after Thanksgiving, 2011, my physical location is significant.  It offers a poignant context for my thoughts.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop, Green Bean Coffee Company, in Greensburg, Kansas. It’s at the corner of Main Street and Federal Highway 54 (http://www.notyourmommascoffee.com/).

Greensburg was all but completely destroyed by a massive tornado in May, 2007.  The entire business district was leveled.  Every tree was completely denuded, with only trunks and major branches still standing.  About 2/3 to 3/4 of the entire town of roughly 1200 people blew away.  Among the buildings destroyed was the United Methodist Church.

About a month after the tornado, I had the awesome (and I do mean awesome, literally) privilege and challenge of preaching on the site where the church building was.  We met in a tent, on a corner of the property, using hymnbooks salvaged from the wreckage.  There were about 50 people there, as I now recall it.  Many of the church members were living elsewhere, since nearly everyone’s home had been destroyed, so the congregation was some diminished from what they generally knew.

What would I have to say to people who had lost all their material possessions?  One of the amazing facts about the tornado’s destructiveness is that so few people were injured and only one or two (again, going on faulty memory) died.  Any death is tragic, but given the magnitude of this tornado, it’s truly a wonder that not more perished.  Still, these dear folk were devastated.

Yes, so, what would I have to say that might be of help?  I didn’t have to worry.  What I said was largely irrelevant.  The people gathered in that tent were so thankful just to be together,  just to have community intact though buildings were gone; thankful that so few had lost their lives; thankful that God’s presence was and is ever near and especially so now as they worked on cleaning up and rebuilding.  I will never forget listening to them pray that day.

Now, four years later, I am, for just a moment, back in Greensburg.  I haven’t been here, I think, since moving to Texas and I am amazed at the changes.  There is a new hospital, a new complex of school buildings, a new downtown (it looks like what suburban folk might think of as a smallish shopping area in their neighborhood), and lots of new houses.  One still sees plenty of empty lots and naked foundations left over from the storm.  I know this town has suffered many difficulties in rebuilding, including being scammed by dishonest “builders.”  I cannot imagine all the challenges they have faced and I am confident there are more to come.

But here I am, in a town that is rebuilding.  I cry fairly easily, anyway, and when I pulled into town, I started.  It is inspiring.

By the way, here’s a photo of the United Methodist Church that now stands on the same spot as before.

And now for what Greensburg teaches me.  I am deeply troubled by the gap between the biblical vision of the Christian life and the reality many of us (most?) experience.  I have recently published on this matter and I have much more to attempt. ( If you’re interested, go to (https://wipfandstock.com/store/Aiming_at_Maturity_The_Goal_of_the_Christian_Life).  I feel a parallel concern about church-related higher education, our UM colleges and universities.  I love the academy.  I love the church.  But I have some bones to pick and I’ve started picking them.  Stay tuned.

Today, though, sitting in Greensburg, KS, I ponder what this town teaches.  It does not matter how big the challenge is.  God’s grace is sufficient.  We can rebuild.  And we can rebuild better than what we were and had.  (Greensburg has received national attention because of its commitment to environmentally sustainable construction.)  We can change.

Yes, we can change.  And the world – at least those parts of it where we live and work – will be better for our trying.

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November 25, 2011 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Ministry, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Tragic Failure in Higher Education

I recently had an encounter with a student who expressed irritation with “judgmental Christians” who tell people they are going to hell.  This attitude is  common on college campuses.  Therefore, our brief conversation nicely illustrates how we are largely failing to grow thoughtful, self-aware  young adults.  To use academic speak: we are not teaching students how to think critically, even though we talk about critical thinking all the time.  Dirty little secret: “thinking critically” often turns out to mean demonstrating agreement with the professor on tests and in papers.  Students figure this one out quickly.

I know that colleges and universities all have professors who don’t fit what I just said.  They are careful, compassionate, pedagogues.  But let’s not miss the forest for the trees.

Walk with me, for a moment, through the conversation.  After telling me how bothered the student was by those judgmental Christians, I replied (trying to prompt thought), “So, you have an opinion about other people having an opinion.  What makes your opinion superior?”

I don’t want to get sidetracked on the theology of this question.  I know that thoughtful people disagree about people’s eternal destinies.  And I am not one who thinks going around telling people they’re going to hell represents a good Christian witness.  Rather, I want to look at the logical problem this student has.

It became clear to me that the student could not recognize that her opinion was not self-evidently true.  Merely making the assertion seemed sufficient to settle the matter.  Again, I don’t have a problem with the view.  I have a problem with the student’s inability to articulate reasons for thinking it superior to the one she was criticizing.

Why?  Not because she is intellectually slow (in fact, she is quite intelligent), but because most of us have lost the ability to have a truly open dialogue.  She assumed some moral high ground without having to think about whether this assumption is defendable.  She has learned – surreptitiously – that telling people they’re going to hell is wrong and offensive.  She learned this, most likely, not through careful thinking, but through rhetorical power plays from people she admires and respects.   They are her teachers, whether they hold the title or not.  (And we should remember what the book of James says about teachers.  See 3:1.)

In higher education, we are supposed to be in the business of helping students learn to think well.  This is not all we’re supposed to do, but certainly it is one of our main jobs.  We are to help students become self-aware and reflective about how they develop their opinions, where they get their ideas and how they support them.  We are to give them the intellectual tools to evaluate well their own thinking.  Then they’ll be able to fairly evaluate others’.

But we do not teach them.  Maybe we don’t have time.  Maybe we don’t care.  Good dialogue requires real tolerance and respect, not the mere mouthing of these words.  For all our talk about tolerance (which I support wholeheartedly), I see precious little of it on college campuses.  It’s more like we’ve declared a truce.  We don’t, in fact, tolerate each other, we just co-exist in the same general space.  We may call this arrangement “tolerance,” but it is a sham tolerance.  We tacitly make a deal not to talk to each other about controversial things.  Instead, we divide into self-selected groups and talk only to those who already agree with us.

So, nobody has to think critically, not even the professors.

To the extent that what I have said is true, to that extent we are failing to educate young people.   God forgive us.

November 14, 2011 Posted by | emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education | , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

New Job, New Challenges

Among the requisite qualities for my new job as SMU Chaplain, I find these three: (1) passionate commitment to Christ, (2) strong United Methodist identity and (3) openness to people of other faiths.  The third point is particularly important because of the number of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other students.  I am eagerly looking forward to getting acquainted with them, but I am also aware of the tension in the aforementioned job requirements.

One might reasonably ask, “How can you be passionately committed to Christ and be open to other faith expressions?”  Part of the way one would answer that question depends on how one defines “open.”

Some religious beliefs have universal implications, meaning that if I believe ‘A,’ then by believing ‘A’ I cannot coherently believe ‘B.’  I think the belief in God as Trinity and the Incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus of Nazareth fit this logic, which prevents me from believing certain other beliefs about God and Jesus.

Drawing these conclusions, how, then, do I “be open” to other faith expressions?  When we lived in the Chicago area during graduate school days, our next door neighbors to one side were Chinese Buddhists and our neighbors on the other were Jewish.  They were our friends.  Period.  Did we talk about Jesus?  Yes.  Did we manipulate conversations and twist and turn them in order to “witness”  about Jesus?  Absolutely not.  You don’t treat friends that way.

Part of faithful Christian witness is the appropriate use of power inherent in relationshps.  We are both powerful and vulnerable in real relationshps.  We can uplift or harm others and they can do the same.  In addition to my beliefs about Jesus, I have other beliefs (that come from Jesus), about how to treat people.

In the sermon, “On Living Without God,” Mr. Wesley has the following to say (Warning: it’s a long quote in 18th century idiom):  “Let it now be observed that I…have no authority from the word of God ‘to judge those that are without [i.e. outside Christianity];’ nor do I conceive that any man living has a right to sentence all the heathen and Mahometan world to damnation.  It is far better to leave them to Him that made them, and who is ‘the Father of the spirits of all flesh;’ who is the God of the Heathens as well as the Christians, and who hateth nothing that He hath made.”

My translation: It’s God’s job to judge, not mine (thank God!).  God made all people, so we can leave the sorting out of people’s eternal destinies to God.  Since God made all people, God loves all people. Furthermore, Jesus commands us to love our neighbors.  Hopefullly, I embody the love of Jesus for all to see.  When I am given the opportunity to talk about my faith in Christ, I will do so with clarity, passion and gentleness.

In other words, I am not a pluralist.  I’m not interested in “blending” or matching doctrines from diverse religions for the sake of peace.  This approach demeans the integrity of all religions.  As a passionately committed believer in the Triune God, then, I am eager to undertake my responsibility to welcome people of other faiths, to make sure they have all appropriate means to exercise that faith as they see fit and to learn from them as God continues to work, however mysteriously,  in us all.

There is much more to say on this matter, I know.  I’ll keep thinking about how I should say it.

June 12, 2009 Posted by | Doctrine/Theology, General, Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Everybody Has to Be Someplace, Or Why I Don’t Buy the Interfaith Perspective

Are Christians with an “exclusivist” view (a term used for the idea that Jesus is the only way to salvation) incapable of interfaith dialogue? I heard exactly this claim a few days ago at a conference of college professors and administrators and I’ve been stuck on it ever since.

The same man who made this claim also said that one needs an “interfaith perspective” to be able to engage in such dialogue. I pressed him, saying that he is simply privileging another opinion about religion over the exclusivist position, so he is actually making the same move as the exclusivists. He qualified: the “interfaith perspective” is a not a position but a “conversation tool” (his phrase) requiring openness of all parties to having their minds changed by the others’ viewpoints.

What we have here, folks, is an artful dodge. I am not saying anything about the man’s motive. I don’t know him. I am talking about the line of conversation itself, which has been repeated countless times in such settings. The interfaith perspective is popular on college campuses. It is profoundly misleading, though it sounds compellingly true to our culture of knee-jerk relativists.

First, even though the man said that the interfaith perspective is not a position but a conversation tool, he continued to use the word “perspective.” Doesn’t it imply a position, an opinion? If I have a perspective about something, then I have an opinion, no?

If I have an opinion, then I think my opinion is right. I privilege it over other opinions which I find, in some way, deficient. My opponent criticized exclusivism, ergo he likes his interfaith dialogue position better than exclusivism.

Lying behind the ostensible generosity of the interfaith perspective is the basic pluralist claim: no one religion is adequate to encompass legitimate, saving (to use a Christian word) forms of spirituality. Every major world religion is both right and wrong. If I’m convinced by the pluralist view, then I have two options: (1) I can try to live in a constant state of suspended belief. I can try to stay on a spirituality quest without ever identifying with one religion. (This position sounds familiarly American and Baby-Boomerish.) (2) I can settle for some kind of lowest common denominator “faith” – a set of attitudes (like loving one’s neighbor) that basically all the world religions affirm. In spite of how it seems, there is an identifiable theological position at work even here.

Thus, each of these two positions still say something about God, even if it’s a negative (i.e. we cannot really know God as God is). Now, if one prefers this opinion over the claim that Jesus fully reveals God, then preferring one over the other is the same as believing one is superior to the other, hence my contention that my opponent was actually doing the same thing for which he criticized exclusivists.

For people who have given sustained, careful thought to these questions, the notion that true dialogue requires a degree of open-mindedness that risks conversion is impossible. There is nothing new under the sun. If I have studied carefully and with humility, then I have come to some careful conclusions that elicit confidence in me about those conclusions. I cannot pretend as if I do not believe what I believe.

Thus, the “interfaith perspective” as I heard it last week, anyway, is incoherent. Everybody has to be someplace. My opponent has an interfaith perspective. I, on the other hand, believe in Jesus as the full revelation of God. This disagreement is the honest starting place for dialogue.

March 16, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, General, Higher and Theological Education, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments