Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 16
March 27, 2007

I am sure that Richard Mau, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, is a kind and compassionate man. I also understand that he has a reputation as an enlightened evangelical with an ecumenical spirit and oratorical skill. I have no reason to doubt any of this but I believe his theology is intellectually bankrupt.

I come to this conclusion after one late-night listening to Mau’s comments on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” radio call-in show. You can listen to his remarks right now: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9041745 . Perhaps you will come to another conclusion but I found his responses to host Neal Conan’s questions, as well as those of some listeners, revelatory of the strange convoluted exegesis that evangelicals often employ.

“As a Christian who takes the Bible seriously…” Mau prefaces his remarks and then goes on to claim that his view should be honored and not dismissed as the ranting of a homophobe. Yet he sidesteps criticism that his reliance on the Bible for his position is neither coherent nor consistent. Why, one wonders, does he not keep a kosher diet or demand that women remain silent in church or support the continuation of slavery…all of which receive emphasis in the Bible.

I suspect that Mau is justifiably fearful of the slippery slope that exists for those who are willing to consider the voluminous and very credible research available on the formation of the Bible. Once one begins to muse over the possibility that particular scriptural passages might reflect more of the tenor of the times than the actual desires of the divine, one confronts a radically different approach to the Bible. Mau, and others like him, are afraid of the ultimate destination of such thinking. And so they should. Simply by reflecting, as he does on this show, on the pain that his position causes to homosexuals, Mau begins the process of realizing that the compassionate life modeled by Jesus supersedes even scripture. This is a very dangerous position for an evangelical Christian to ponder and so, at least on this show, Mau relies on the biblical bromides that substitute for intellectual insight among conservative Christianity.

As I listened to the show, I grew more and more irritated with Mau’s intellectual dishonesty. His protestations of compassion rang hollow next to his unwillingness to confront the incongruities in his exegesis. One questioner wondered if such faulty thinking should even be given a voice any longer. The caller cited the fact that misogyny and racism were no longer considered worthy positions of public debate. Why, he asked, is homophobia? Although both the host and the guests quickly dismissed the caller’s question, it bears some consideration. Considerable time and energy have been wasted in certain school systems, for instance, on the ludicrous biblical interpretations that seek to pass as science. Is it not time to do the same with this kind of intellectual inconsistency that passes as Christian pastoral care?

I have a hunch that Mr. Mau is very much aware of the tenuous nature of his reasoning but I also suspect that he is concerned where a more consistent pattern of thought might take him. As president of a prestigious evangelical seminary, Mau knows full well the political ramifications of a more honest position. Sadly, it appears, he would rather risk his intellectual reputation than his institutional support. Choosing a fraudulent line of reasoning, Mau has indicated his willingness to choose the clamoring crowd over the compassionate Christ.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 15
March 20, 2007

One of the first things that strike you about the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. is just how impractical it is. The immense gothic structure has terrible sight lines, lousy acoustics and an ambient temperature just above freezing. From where I sat last Friday night (along with three thousand other soon to be peace-marchers) the only way I could see what was going on in the chancel was by watching one of the half-dozen flat screen TVs that hung incongruently from the immense columns that stretched sentinel-like down the nave.

There was, however, and most curiously, something very comforting about such architectural foolishness. Some of it came from knowing that this same ecclesiastical design has been used for centuries to house the hopes of millions.

I remember attending mass at the magnificent cathedral in Chartre, outside of Paris, many years ago and, even though I understood little of what was being said, I felt an enormous connection with the countless pilgrims from the past who once stood where I was then standing. I often curse the burdens of tradition but there are times, many times if the truth be told, when I realize its blessings.

Comfort was drawn, as well, as I tried to focus on a cathedral ceiling that seemed to reach beyond my focal plane. Cavernous structures cannot hope to achieve affirmation in these ecologically sensitive times and yet that vast and admittedly wasted space sent my spirit soaring. The immense emptiness welcomed my imagination, inviting me into a world of wonder. Such architectural excessiveness, I realized again, pits my occasionally prudent, even prissy, piety against the extravagance of grace.

The new cathedrals, mega-churches is how they’re now named, eschew waste by building theatres of comfort with acres of convenient parking. Sanctuaries are replaced with auditoriums whose slanted floors guarantee a good seat to all. Digital sound and graphics provide the needed accoutrements and narthexes are no longer employeded since processions are passé. Certainly there is drama but it comes with the hyperkinetic excess that too often accompanies insipid substance. The audience, it is assumed, leaves contented, pleased with the program.

And the programs are usually very well ordered. We don’t much care for chaos, we Christians. A nice, cohesive plan is what we find motivating…simple answers to profound questions, when questions are even allowed. Christianity, it seems, has forgotten the beginning tenet of its sacred story: Out of chaos comes creation.

The cathedral’s construction was, of course, carefully considered and realized but, given the tenor of these times, it seems a confusing creation. It offers little of what the world of Christianity seems to want these days. Clear answers and definitive doctrine seem less attainable in the magnificent mystery of this strange and foolish space.

And this cathedral, with its obvious lack of concern for congregational comfort, exudes a different, even disturbing, sense of being. Seen from above, the cathedral declares its intention. It is built as a cruciform and this architectural cross proclaims a distinctive understanding of discipleship. It bespeaks of calling rather than comfort.

And yet, there I sat, last Friday night, comforted by that uncomfortable space. It is a paradox, I know. But what, on this strange journey of faith, is not?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 14
March 13, 2007

At a now famous meeting in Texas with Protestant pastors, John Kennedy vowed that his Catholic faith would not unduly affect his decision-making as a president. His diminishment of his religious affiliation helped convince not just the clergy in attendance but the majority of American voters as well.

Similar concerns are being voiced regarding current presidential candidates. I’ve learned more of Mormonism in the past few weeks, thanks to Mitt Romney’s candidacy and the popular press, than I ever learned in seminary. I’ve been educated as to Hillary’s teenage commitment to her youth group, McCain’s attendance at church, Obama’s concern over his out-spoken pastor and the official Catholic view of Giuliani’s multiple marriages. Presidential religion is in the news again and the world is growing restless, restless and worried.

And who can blame us? After six years of an Evangelical Christian president who wore his faith on his sleeve, many folk are looking for a candidate who will keep his or hers under wraps. But as pleasant as that possibility at first appears, it is ultimately antithetical to Progressive Christianity and strikes at the very heart of our faith.

When society turns to the religious and growls, "Mind your own business", every Progressive Christian should sit up and take heed. What is our business? If we believe that the church's only business is a kind of private piety reserved for intimate family discussions or Sunday morning worship then we have no understanding of what it means to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. To be a Progressive Christian is to commit our life to the teachings of Jesus. This is unequivocal. There is no compromise. To be a Progressive Christian is to put our commitment to the compassionate life above everything else.

My point is that our Christian faith must shape all that we do or it is not Christian. It is Christian only if it makes Christ and his life and teachings paramount. This is what it means to be a Progressive Christian. We are shaped by the teachings of Jesus and we are called to take those teachings everywhere we go . . .into our homes, to our work, to the world.

The opportunities are everywhere. Are we embarrassed to stand up for the oppressed when someone tells a racist joke at a party? Do we not want to make a scene when confronted with snide and sexist remarks? Do we continue to allow our children's lives to be filled with violence and pornographic images from TV because we don't want to cause a commotion? Do the millions of hungry in this world and the thousandsof homeless in this country not merit our attention as followers of the one who was born homeless and poor and died the same?

As a Progressive Christian, I find the concern with a “too religious” candidate confusing. What better way to understand a person’s deepest desires and ultimate concerns than for he or she to talk of their faith? Welcome the discussion! Invite the dialogue! Let’s find out what these candidates really believe. In the process, maybe we will discover our own true faith as well.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 13
March 5, 2007

Our Evangelical President must have been more than a little surprised this past week when he heard Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez call Jesus “a guiding light” for his self-styled socialist revolution. After all, not too many years ago Mr. Bush boldly claimed that same Jesus as his “favorite philosopher”. With apologies to The Bard…“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Georgeio, than are dreamt of in your philosophies.”

How could two so different politicians claim the same inspiration for their opposing religious and political views? The best answer, I believe, can come out of Progressive Christianity and its understanding of two decidedly different approaches to understanding Jesus.

The first approach is often described as the “Pre-Easter Jesus”. It is centered on the life and teachings of Jesus as described in the synoptic gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke and elucidated by a growing number of scholars who along with Biblical study have immersed themselves in the disciplines of anthropology, archaeology, and other social and physical sciences.

The second approach, the “Post-Easter Christ”, finds paramount meaning not in the life and teachings of Jesus but in his death and resurrection. St. Paul, rather than the gospel writers, is the primary source for this view. His letters in the Christian Bible offer virtually no information on the life of Jesus and very little regarding Jesus’ teachings. Instead, Paul focuses his attention on the development of a mythos that has Jesus acting as an agent of atonement for the sins of humanity who is revealed as divine at his resurrection. It is this understanding that captures the imagination of the emerging Christian movement in Paul’s time and remains the primary focus of orthodox Christianity.

In essence, one understanding deals with the teachings of Jesus and the other with teachings about Jesus.

Neither understanding necessarily precludes the other but the differing emphases can help clarify the Bush/Chavez conundrum. Where President Chavez discovers inspiration in the Pre-Easter Jesus’ radical approach to social problems: abandonment of the class system, elevation of the poor, uncompromising criticism of the rich and powerful, President Bush finds similar inspiration in the Post-Easter Christ whose claimants propose an ideology of religious imperialism that is less concerned with issues of social injustice and more with matters of eternity. Again, these positions are not clearly oppositional but do offer insight as to the wide disparity of understanding among those who claim to be Christian.

Another contemporary example of this dissimilarity was as recent as last night’s Discovery TV program on “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” The contention that newly discovered ossuaries once contained the bones of Jesus and his family, including a wife and child, has made headlines of late and caused considerable consternation among some Christians. One can understand the cause of concern for folk committed to a Post-Easter Christ, a savior who rose bodily from the grave and ascended into the heavens. The discovery of evidence that would indicate a more mundane existence as well as a very ordinary death could make for theological trouble for these believers. The most credible reports indicate little supporting scientific evidence for the program’s claim but one can be assured that other similar hypotheses will be explored… especially when one considers the enormous popularity of Dan Brown’s “ The DaVinci Code” which posited a similar intriguing albeit heretical proposition.

For those of us who find ourselves drawn to the Pre-Easter Jesus, such theological ruminations hold a certain intellectual interest but not much spiritual significance. We find meaning and purpose for our lives under the tutelage and model of Jesus’ life. His mythological ascendancy is understandable to be sure but ultimately irrelevant for our own spiritual journeys. We also recognize that such a confession is disconcerting for some Christians who have yet to comprehend the distinctly different ways of understanding Jesus.

As for Presidents Bush and Chavez…I can’t say I’m all that impressed with how either gentleman has appropriated either the teachings of Jesus or the teachings about Jesus.