Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

The Rev. George M. Docherty died this past Thanksgiving Day at the very impressive age of 97. Unless you’re even older than I am, you probably don’t remember the good reverend or the sermon he preached to his congregation at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. on February 7th, 1954. In his homily, Pastor Docherty, a native of Scotland, mused on the lack of any reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance. He admitted that he hadn’t even known of the pledge’s existence until his 7 year old son recited it for him. Docherty was stunned when he first heard it. “I came from Scotland, where we said ‘God save our gracious queen,’ ‘God save our gracious king.’ Here was the Pledge of Allegiance, and God wasn’t in it at all,” he recalled in an interview in 2004.

The minister’s topic that particular Sunday was hardly coincidental. He knew that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was to attend services that day. One can only assume that Docherty was a powerful preacher as the very next day a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives to add the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. President Eisenhower signed it into law that same year.

Despite the assumption of many that the pledge dates back to the founding fathers,
the original Pledge of Allegiance was the work of another cleric, Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and socialist who penned the pledge in 1892 for a children’s magazine celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America.

The addition of the divine blessing to our nation disturbed a great many citizens who felt the phrase violated the intentions of the First Amendment. Equally disturbing for many others was the assumption that the phrase posits: There is one God and, presumably, America abides under this one God’s benevolence.

Such an assumption is highly problematic to anyone with even a passing understanding of the development of religions. Even putting aside the monotheistic implication, an implication that precludes patriotic polytheists like American Hindus and others, the idea that U.S. policies and actions somehow reflect divine intent is troubling to the extreme. Our recent military forays and the continuing discrimination in domestic matters provides vivid evidence for many of us that this is a God we would choose not to be under at all.

A growing number of American citizens are feeling less and less aligned with traditional religious expressions. The problems inherent in assuming an omnipresent, omnipotent and benevolent deity manifest themselves in a myriad of ways from personal tragedies to very public horrors. Many spiritually sensitive people find the traditional image of an anthropomorphic heavenly being severely limiting and have turned to other theological models. To assume that the people of this one nation have one understanding of God is naïve at best and contrary to all evidence. As a parish pastor for thirty years, I can assure you that even in one small mountain congregation the range of understanding of God and godly actions is vast.
In the same week of The Reverend Docherty’s demise, a group of atheists filed suit against the State of Kentucky’s Department of Homeland Security for formally announcing that the security of that state "cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon almighty God.” Indeed, the official state position that offers offence to the atheists also includes a verse from the Bible: "Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain." (Psalm 127) The atheists are not only concerned with what they consider the abuse of the First Amendment but also the very possible presumption that those assigned to protect Kentuckians’ safekeeping might shirk their duties off on a God who, the atheists point out, hasn’t been particularly consistent of late in the security department.
There are many who continue to believe that America’s Constitution assumes but one theological perspective. But of course there is no mention of God anywhere in that treasured document. The writers were abundantly clear in their intention to forbid any attempt on the part of this new government to intrude on the religious beliefs, or lack of beliefs, of its citizenry.
So, rest in peace, dear reverend, even though you disturbed the peace of many.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

It was my naïveté, I suppose, that had me somewhat shocked when one of my counselees told me of her company’s policy regarding employment termination. It seems this particular institution had no use for a two-week resignation notice. The moment you reported to your supervisor you were resigning, you had exactly fifteen minutes to clear out your desk, turn in your keys and be escorted out the door by a security officer.

The company’s rationale was centered on the principle that once you had committed to employment elsewhere both your usefulness and productivity dramatically decreased, hence the speedy and undistinguished departure.

The lack of goodbyes and best wishes seemed a harsh penalty to me for an assumedly faithful employee with years of valued service but lately I’ve begun to see the wisdom in such matters.

Now saddled as we are with a lame duck administration headed by what history will surely judge as the lamest of ducks, it seems not just foolhardy but downright dangerous to be forced to endure more than two months of interregnum between the changing of the guard. Why, many of us are wondering, must we wallow in this governmental barrenness of inactivity when America, indeed all the world, is eager to move on?

Clearly, President-elect Obama is doing his best to get the governmental gears in motion in order to be at full-speed by January 20th but it just seems silly he has to wait so long for the presidential red light to turn green. To employ a very undemocratic but quite realistic image, we commoners are crying out: “The king is dead! Long live the king!” Let’s get on with it.

Amazingly, some elections still haven’t been resolved. There are two senate races yet to be determined along with threats to overturn the results of any number of propositions that did pass and shouldn’t or didn’t and should.

It all depends on your perspective, of course. While social conservatives are no doubt cheering their anti-gay victories in several states, others who are appalled by what they see as unjust and immoral legislation are gathering forces to overturn the majority’s mandate. All of this raises some interesting issues.

For instance, in Arkansas a strong majority there decided that gay couples and other non-traditional co-habitants could not be foster care-givers or adopt children. This in a state where only 25% of the children needing foster care have homes available to them. Fortunately, this foolishness may soon be rectified in the courts. Just this past week a Florida court decided that a similar law on the books in that state was unconstitutional.

In California, the now infamous Proposition 8 continues to rile the sizable minority who think it untenable for the state to deny marriage to gay couples. The fall-out over this election has been dramatic with several prominent folk losing their jobs over their support. The Mormon Church particularly is taking a big hit with demonstrations at various temples and calls for boycotts against Mormon-run enterprises.

Here the question revolves around the sometimes tenuous and often unclear relationship in America between church and state. Opponents of Proposition 8 are incensed that a religious organization would so heavily finance a political movement seeking to perpetuate their own religious views. Why, they wonder, must a worldview, clearly shaped by theology, be thrust upon all citizenry? Let Mormons forbid their own members from entering into gay marriage just as they have similar injunctions against the leadership roles of women and, until quite recently, of African-Americans. But why must they force their religious biases on others? One suspects and certainly hopes this matter will eventually be settled in a courtroom and not in a church.

Among the correspondence I’ve received over the last couple of weeks came comments from one gentleman who stated: “To try to undo the votes of us who feel as I do is not right.” Many of us would be in sympathy with such a seemingly democratic sentiment. Unless that sentiment meant you were denied your own constitutional rights. Not too many years ago, a majority of voters were incensed when civil rights legislation began to be instituted by the government in direct contradiction to their majority view. Nevertheless the government deemed it unconstitutional to treat African-Americans and others as less than full citizens.

Decrying activist-judges who go against the will of the majority has been popular among those who claim “To try to undo the votes of us who feel as I do is not right.” But when majority opinion precludes a minority’s civil rights, it is the Constitution which takes precedence. Thank (your divinity of choice) for that.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

How do you win an election and still feel like you have lost?

There are lots of ways, of course. We’ve had one experience of it over the last eight years as a man who promised his party he’d be both compassionate and conservative ignored the needs of the poor and dispossessed all the while increasing governmental involvement in our lives and running up a multi-trillion dollar national debt.

This time, even while we celebrated the election of Senator Obama, our elation was tempered by the realization that America’s gay and lesbian citizens are, once again, subjected to state-sanctioned prejudice and discrimination.

Of the four anti-gay state ballot initiatives that passed, California’s absurd addition to its constitution appears the most vile and vindictive. Overturning the California State Supreme Court’s ruling giving gay and lesbian couples the same marital rights as other citizens was a singularly sinister act financed primarily by a few religious organizations including evangelical Christians, Roman Catholics (particularly via The Knights of Columbus) and the Mormons.

The Mormon Church, with a rather unique understanding of marriage all its own, poured millions of dollars into the California initiative outraging the millions of Californians who believe that “freedom and justice for all” means exactly that.

With a marital survival rate of around 50% among evangelical Christians, (no different than the national average for heterosexuals), one can’t help but wonder why folks who claim to focus on their families feel entitled to force their own unsuccessful version of marriage on the rest of us.

Even more discouraging was the apparent support for the measure among African-American Christians. The Black Church’s literal understanding of the Bible, shared with most white evangelicals, compelled them, I suppose, into disregarding loving relationships that fail to fit into their limited worldview. Since the statistics in the African-American communities regarding out-of-wedlock births and absent fathers is so glaringly inconsonant with the “traditional” understanding of marriage, the only conclusion I can reach is one found in repugnant religious demagoguery. Religious leaders demanded obedience and, this time, they got it.

Thinking of religious leaders’ shameful demands…the Catholic bishops, shepherd staffs at the ready, met this week in Baltimore to try and figure out how better to control their sheep. With the overwhelming defeat of Amendment 48 here in Colorado and similar proposals elsewhere, the bishops found themselves licking their wounds as they came to grips with their diminishing power among their people. In the waning days of the presidential campaign, several bishops, appalled by the possibility of a pro-choice president, came perilously close to publicly endorsing the Republican candidate. Other bishops were nearly apoplectic over Vice-President-elect Joe Biden’s and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s shared conviction that one can be a practicing Catholic without practicing all of the mandates of Catholicism. Statistics show that most Catholics will side with Pope Benedict when it comes down to the creeds but they’re hanging with Joe and Nancy when it comes to their lives.

Perhaps this concerted religious effort to deny the civil rights of a certain segment of the population was more of a last gasp of decreasing demagogic power than a fresh breath for Christian conservatives. Over and over again, history has shown that these hold-outs in the battles for social progress ultimately lose the war. The abolition of slavery, suffrage for women, voting rights for all Americans and so much more continue to show the inevitability of the defeat of personal bigotry and institutional bias. It is easy for some of us to remember the dramatic spike of violent acts perpetrated against brave African-Americans in those final years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Fire hoses, snapping dogs, shouted insults, beatings and worse made the headlines as the racists tried to stem the tide of progress with their desperate acts that we now see were really bigotry’s own death rattles.

May it soon be so in California, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida and anywhere else intolerance has temporarily triumphed.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

Forgive me.

After thirty some years in the religion biz, it is terribly difficult to turn off the theo-meter when observing current events. After all, here we are in one of the most crucial contests of the modern era, rife with partisan passions and contentious candidates and all the while rich with theological import and religious revelation. It is impossible for we who have been raised up in all things religious not to provide some kind of commentary on these momentous days that have millions of Americans spending their nights glued to the television screens obsessed with who will emerge victorious.

I write, of course, of the World Series. What other national event could evoke such spiritual self-examination as these seven-at-most games in October?

We should begin with the team names, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Philadelphia Phillies. Tampa Bay used to be called the Devil Rays but after much polling of the Florida populace, it was determined that such nomenclature offended the anti-Satan crowd. This focus group, comprised primarily, one can assume, of spiritually sensitive types, was particularly put-off by a baseball team that seemed to celebrate its association with that most unsavory of deities. Perhaps they were envious of other baseball teams who had already claimed God-affiliation with such namesakes as the Padres or the even more heavenly inclined Angels. Religious tradition and biblical scholarship would indicate such pandering to the Supreme Being as having little effect on the outcome of a mere baseball game but the remarkable ascent of the newly christened Rays from cellar to championship in one short season does give one pause to ponder the theological ramifications.

Philadelphia’s team moniker has an even more illustrious religious legacy with its etymological roots in the Greek word philia which is best translated as “friendship”. It is, one must admit, a particularly odd description for a team famous for mixing it up with their fists over the slightest provocation. A high and tight philia-pitched fastball does seem like something of an oxymoron.

It may be additionally helpful to examine the omnipresent ritual baseball practice of expectoration. This strange and somewhat repellant rite has intrigued scholars ever since Abner Doubleday reportedly first hocked a loogie out in left field. Only a few minutes spent watching scenes from this year’s World Series will well acquaint the viewer with this bizarre act that has nearly every participant incessantly spewing streams of spit. Every television close-up, it seems, includes one more true believer discharging the contents of his mouth in what can only be described as a disgusting display of cultic devotion. After years of observation and, somewhat daringly, occasional participation, I have come to a theological dead-end in my hope of determining both the origin and the reason for this odd ritual. I can only presume it has something to do with a latent need to excoriate guilt-inducing memories of adolescent deviance by ridding one’s corporeal entity of the sputum of a sinful past…but that is only an educated guess based primarily on instruction I received in Mrs. Larstad’s Third Grade Sunday School class.

Like many of its religious counterparts, baseball can be an exceedingly boring proposition to the uninitiated. Mystery surrounds both experiences. Priestly gestures and charismatic exaltations are no more confusing to the religious neophyte than the strange sign signaling of a third-base coach. My wife never fails to crack-up when they show a close-up of some sixty year old guy pointing first to his nose then pulling his ear, touching his belt, patting his hair and putting a finger into his left eye in ritual gestures that are as mystifying as a meeting of Free Masons to the Presbyterians. Indeed, one can’t help but deliberate for a moment on the odd baseball practice of having the manager and coaches dress in similar garb as the players. One suspects it may have an egalitarian function with anti-clerical overtones but it does look funny to see some guy with a beer gut the size of Indiana traipsing out to the mound in the uniform of a Little Leaguer. This may be ritually unique to baseball. I can’t ever remember a football coach wearing shoulder pads on the sideline or a basketball coach in baggy shorts. But we are a nation that prides itself on religious diversity so we must honor practices that many of us might find slightly odd or outright loony.

Finally, we need to contemplate the theological consequences inherent in a player’s gesture of gratitude usually displayed by pointing skyward with one or both hands while crossing home plate. Setting aside the obvious cosmological confusion that has God residing somewhere west of Pluto, the insinuation that a divine hand came into play is deeply problematic. What with monumental new problems popping up everywhere from Baghdad to Darfur to Kabul and beyond, it seems more than a little egocentric to assume the outcome of a child’s game would be of even passing interest to The Creator. (Of course, this theological tenet might be severely tested had the Dodgers not eliminated the Cubs from the spiritual equation.) Such a primitive theology does put me in mind of the preacher at Focus on the Family who had his conservative Christian flock praying for “rain of biblical proportions” during Senator Obama’s outdoor acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. The fact that the skies remained clear that night, compounded with the Hurricane Gustav-induced delay of the Republican Convention a week later, does leave one wondering if God may play favorites.

But that’s a column for another day…maybe when something important is happening in politics.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

Holy Moses!

If you want a theological analysis of the current financial crisis you’ll have to go back to the beginning…and I mean the very beginning with Mr. Adam and his lovely wife Eve.

Whether you understand the goings on in the Garden of Eden as historical fact or ancient mythology really doesn’t matter because either way the message is the same: When it comes right down to it, we humans are a pretty selfish lot.

Even the unreligious probably know the story…There they are, the very first man and his very first mate with everything they could ever need to live happily ever after. They begin their pleasurable if daunting task of procreating the rest of the planet when they decide that having their every need satisfied isn’t enough. So they pick that famous fruit and the rest is…well, if not history then a pretty good way of explaining why we humans always seem to want more than we already have.

Some folk call it Original Sin. Others temper the religious language by pointing toward what they perceive as our inherent imperfection. Books from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” have pursued this troubling theme and, over and over again, found the truth in its problematic proposal: When left to our own devices, we inevitably get downright devious.

So it does seem rather curious that the caretakers of our nation’s economic policies, particularly those who often claim their allegiance to a conservative form of Christianity, were so clueless about their abrogating responsibility. As the restraints and restrictions on financial institutions fell by the wayside in recent years, as CEOs and Hedge Fund Managers pocketed astronomical personal assets, as the head of the SEC buried his own head in the sand and the members of Congress continued to turn their well-fattened cheeks, it’s no wonder, most theologians would say, we’ve wound up in the mess we are in. Instead of just swearing an oath on the Bible, maybe our publicly pious religious representatives should begin to read it.

One of the conclusions it would seem easy to draw from the morass on both Wall and Main streets is that an unfettered free-market economy may work in theory but when put into practice we all wind up somewhere east of Eden. The ancients obviously knew it. We moderns are quickly coming to realize it as well.

One of the purposes of government is to protect society at large from the shenanigans of the few. Enacting reasonable restrictions that seek to prevent the calamity of self-indulgence now taking place in our country and around the world is a responsibility that has been, if you’ll pardon me, sinfully ignored by our leadership.

The lessons of history have been obviously lost on those authorities who bear the responsibility of oversight. The evidence passed down over the eons has been passed over by leaders who should have known better. Great civilizations have often fallen not from conquerors outside the gates but corruption inside its walls.

So what now? Again we can turn to the wisdom of the past for guidance into the future. One ancient and sacred book admits that “God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and unjust.” In other words, “Life ain’t fair.” and that truism is made even more painful as we watch so many of the perpetrators of this latest financial fiasco go unpunished. Perhaps this passage that points to the innate injustices of our common existence will temper our outrage but I hope not. I would rather it fuel our commitment to recognize reality, and begin to shape a society where such infuriating indulgences are seen for what they are, and regulations are put into place to protect us from the ever recurring truth first “discovered” in the Garden of Eden.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

The young man had come to see me for a variety of issues but the conversation had swung to his confusion and dismay over his standing in our community. After several years of advocating for the disenfranchised of our small Iowa city, years spent working for fair and adequate housing for the poor, equal educational treatment for minorities and more, he had come under attack from several powerful and politically well-connected residents. He was disconcerted by the nature of the attacks, which weren’t directed so much at the causes he was fighting for but rather against him personally. There was a sadness about him as he faced this political reality for the first time. “It’s the meanness I can’t understand,” he told me, tears filling his eyes. I moved to the mountains shortly after this disturbing conversation and I lost touch with the young man. I wonder from time to time what became of him, if he continued in his low-paying, often ill-regarded, line of work as a community organizer.

For me, the low point of a rapidly deteriorating presidential campaign came when that assumedly paragon of Republican values, Rudy Giuliani, in his long-winded and self-congratulating speech at the G.O.P.’s National Convention, gave us a smarmy, deprecating, smile immediately after mentioning Barack Obama’s years as a community organizer. The crowd apparently ate it up as they cheered in orgiastic pleasure over Rudy’s disparaging of what is, for many of us, an immensely admirable and noble profession. It was difficult to understand the vehemence exhibited by seemingly everyone in the arena that night as they joined in the ridicule. One could only suppose that folks satisfied with the status quo, folks who have continued to flourish financially even as their nation’s economy slipped further and further into the abyss, folks who find the present course of our international policies well-conceived and successfully enacted, would happily participate in that chorus of derision. Even as their presidential candidate seeks to identify and understand the problems of a constituency struggling to catch a break, the laughing hordes of Republicans spoke volumes of indifference and downright contempt toward that very same constituency.

In thirty plus years as a pastor I found the work of many community organizers to be the most effective vehicles for real social change. While living in these mountains, I have marveled at the effectiveness of community organizers to establish a food bank that served the needs of hundreds if not thousands of seasonal employees struggling to make do while our tourists make whoopee. I have watched with pride as members of my congregation along with many others organized their community into providing homes throughout these mountains through Habitat for Humanity and other exceedingly worthwhile endeavors. Community organizers have created a Community Care Clinic staffed by doctors, nurses and other medical personnel to try and meet the needs of the many who are so ill-served by this nation’s pitiful Health Care system. Community organizers, some paid, others not, have managed to motivate our population in a plethora of positive ways from supporting our schools to recycling our wastes. Why, I wondered last week while watching Rudy’s speech, would such efforts be so ridiculed by so many?

I suppose unprincipled politicians will continue to promise what they know they can’t deliver while community organizers will just as surely continue to do the real work of delivering on the promises inherent in America’s foundational principles. It is the nature of politics that those in power seek to preserve their position. Who can blame them? But when that preservation comes at the expense of thousands and thousands of hard-working, often under-paid and disrespected, true agents of change, the powerful should be more than blamed, they should be ashamed.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

Much of the buzz around Saddleback Church’s conversation with the two presidential candidates last Saturday night is centered on the apparent consensus that the clear winner was neither Barack Obama nor John McCain but the moderator, Pastor Rick Warren. Warren has been the recipient of many tributes these days for his adept handling of what could have been a highly charged situation. Instead, according to most observers, the candidates were offered ample time to offer potentially sensitive and subtle responses to often complex queries. Warren won further accolades for his eschewing the oft-used shock techniques employed by too many TV journalists today. His reasoned and thoughtful approach to this upcoming and vital national decision was a model that many, evidently, wish to emulate.

Rick Warren is the enormously popular Evangelical Christian author of The Purpose Driven Life and other self-help books. He is also, as noted, the pastor of the mega-sized Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, California. Recently he has been garnering further attention for his unorthodox advocacy of Evangelical Christian concerns beyond the traditional anti-abortion and anti-gay obsessions of most of conservative Christianity. Warren has been increasingly committed to addressing the vastly complex problems of the AIDS epidemic, world hunger and the crushing poverty endured by millions here in America and around the world. If he isn’t careful he just may have some of us believing that the religious right isn’t always wrong.

Still, Evangelical Christianity has a long way to go to make up for some of the insidious behavior of its more public adherents. This past year’s revelations of some Evangelical Christians’ un-Christ-like deportment within the Justice Department has left many of us wondering what Christ they are following. When our former Attorney General’s top aide, Monica Goodling, a graduate of TV Evangelist Pat Robertson’s law school (!) decided to vet civil-service applicants by way of a conservative Christian agenda and then compound the deception by lying to Congress about her unlawful activities, Evangelical Christianity sustains one more piece of incriminating evidence that those on the Christian right seem to care little about the ethical teachings of Jesus.

And we all remember our current president’s designation of that same Jesus as his favorite philosopher during his first presidential campaign. One suspects Jesus must have moved far down the list as GWB employed the tools of deception, dishonesty and double-dealing during his tenure as commander in chief.

The bullying tactics of Evangelical Christians at such supposedly secular institutions as the United States Air Force Academy are well-documented and deeply disturbing. When a cadet’s chances of advancement are dependent on a particular religious practice, all citizens should be concerned about the very real threat to cherished constitutional freedoms.

Even granting that some of these folk are well-intentioned in their proselytizing, such activities can seriously threaten the inviolate separation of church and state. Out of Beijing this week comes the story of Kisik Lee, the U.S. Olympic archery coach whose evangelicalism has got the U.S. Olympic Committee more than a little concerned. Lee, a South Korean native, expects his team to be more than just proficient archers; he aims his arrows at their souls as well. As an Evangelical Christian, Lee leads many of his charges in Bible study and prayers as part of the team’s training. All well and good as long as he can remain objective about the talent of those not choosing to study and pray with him. The evidence of Evangelicals in power would indicate that such is often not the case.

Many of us who claim an affinity to the teachings of Jesus are hoping that Pastor Warren continues to manifest his unusual approach to his Evangelical faith. His willingness to challenge conventional insular Christian thinking with a theology based on compassion and service rather than intimidation and deceit is encouraging to be sure but we all know what happened to someone else who tried that same approach two thousand years ago.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

Over three decades spent in the ritual business gives me a certain perspective on the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics. The spectacular show revealed much of what is good about ritual and some of what is very, very bad.

I expect others about my age (rapidly moving toward ancient) were put in mind of another massive display of synchronized true believers while watching the proceedings a week ago Friday. Film clips of Hitler’s pompous pageantry at Nuremberg kept passing through my head as I watched a sometimes eerily similar show from China. From 1933-1938, the Nazis would put on a parade of monumental proportions both to jack up the German locals and intimidate the rest of us with their jack-booted troops. Watching the Chinese soldiers goose-stepping as they raised both their own flag and the Olympic flag didn’t do much to dispel my sense of ominous similarities.

Of course there was much to raise our collective altruistic spirit as well. Who can object when children representing the plethora of ethnicities indigenous to China strolled into the arena dressed in their own tribal garb? And when little 9 year old Lin Miaoke confidently stood all alone and sang “Ode to the Motherland,” whose heart-strings weren’t plucked even a little? The fact that little Lin wasn’t really singing at all but only doing a nice job of faking it while another, better tuned, tyke actually sang the number can be dismissed, I suppose, to the vagaries of show business but I think it’s a little more ruthless than that. Apparently, Lin wasn’t even aware that her microphone had been turned off during her mute performance. It seems she was sacrificed before the gods of “national interest” according to Chen Qigang, the general music designer of the opening ceremonies. Mr. Qigang rationalized the deception: “The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feelings and expression.” This is the very, very bad part.

When ritual is employed to deceive rather than inspire it crosses a fine line that I find particularly troubling even if I can’t actually decide where it is drawn. But when, for instance, I see religious leaders parade into their sanctuaries dressed-up as royal figures complete with regal robes and bejeweled crowns, I sense a crossing. I certainly understand the social value of honoring our dignitaries but one can’t help but wonder if the message offered is considerably more sinister than that. Kings and queens demand unquestioning allegiance. The dubious and the doubting are seen as traitors in such a milieu.

Our secular rituals can be equally disingenuous. The upcoming Democratic National Convention in Denver has gone to extensive lengths to make sure the rituals that take place inside the Pepsi Center and at Invesco Field produce a picture of harmony and concord. To that end, the local authorities are making sure all disharmonious dissenters are kept far away from the proceedings. The little boy who announced that the king had no clothes wouldn’t stand a chance with the Democrats.

Bad ritual can also take place with the best of intentions but the worst of executions. With apologies to Henny Youngman, “Take our national anthem…please!” Surely our over-used “Star-Spangled Banner” is one of the more unsingable patriotic pieces of music around. With all the beautiful tributes to our national heritage and culture available why do we continue to use this disagreeable description of a rather minor battle outside of Baltimore? With a little deft editing, “America the Beautiful”, for instance, would be a giant musical leap forward and a reminder of how good ritual can offer inspiration instead of indifference, beauty rather than boredom.

No question in my mind that when those 2000+ drummers began pounding on their illuminated barrels last Friday night, most of us responded with both awe and amazement. The dramatic display of synchronicity kept over a billion people riveted to their TV screens which, not coincidentally, provided a nice diversion for the Chinese authorities to pick up any trouble-making dissidents on the streets who might disrupt the ritual taking place inside.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

Poor Richard’s reminder that “A penny saved is a penny earned.” must have millions of mortgage-stretched borrowers nodding their heads in sad agreement these days. And whoever decided “Honesty is the best policy,” somehow never considered political campaigns. Speaking of campaigning, the ancient Chinese curse, “May your every wish come true” seems particularly sinister in this heightened time of political promise-making.

Recent events have put me in mind of another worthy aphorism, this one from that paragon of philosophical wisdom, Groucho Marx, who paradoxically announced, “I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member.” I suspect that is small comfort to golfer Randy Brown who was just expelled from the Phoenix Country Club for “multiple violations of club etiquette.” The multiples mainly included his commenting to the press that his club’s policy of excluding women from its well-appointed restaurant was a vestige from the dark ages. And with that rather reasonable and woefully obvious declaration, Mr. Brown got the boot.

Like most of you, I can’t imagine who would even want to eat with such dubious duffers as these but when you read that the golfing women are relegated to a tacky little room with nothing but a hot plate to heat up their hot dogs, it turns this act of cheesy chauvinism into an unconscionable, if not unconstitutional, display of despicable discrimination. Even as law suits are filed and investigations pursued, I suppose most of the boys will go on about their post-duffing business at the plushy bar and grill but I can’t help but hope that others will join Mr. Brown in joining Mr. Marx.

As far as I know the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, isn’t on the rolls of the Phoenix Country Club but he certainly is a part of another good old boy club called The Anglican Communion. Last week, Williams collected his Anglican bishop brothers, along with a few consecrated sisters, at the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference. This gathering of Anglican leaders is intended to be held in a spirit of unity and mutual admiration. But, as another proverb sadly foretells, the best of intentions got off to a hellacious start when nearly a third of the invited church leaders decided to decline the Archbishop’s request. Their declination was based on the most religious of reasons, of course, with the pious priests deciding that any conference of clerics that included either women or gays could not be willed by God. So in good Christian fashion and with enormous historical precedent, the not to be sullied saints announced the formation of a new faction dedicated to keeping the faith pure. Employing the rather unwieldy acronym GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference) the new crusade marched forth. Their first action was to make sure everyone understood that they were only acting with the best of biblical intentions. The fact that these intentions were intended to exclude from leadership 50% of the world’s population who happen to be women and the 10%, women or men, who happen to be homosexual, was, of course, understood as simply following God’s good order. That God’s good order also has included acts of genocide (Joshua 11) and bizarre science (Again with Joshua…this time Chapter 10) seems not to have troubled this devoted assembly of true believers.

Woody Allen’s oft-invoked insight, “If Jesus returned today he wouldn’t stop throwing up” seems particularly appropriate when pondering the sanctimonious pronouncements of religious bigots. Whether its forcing women to shroud themselves from head to foot or secretly erecting a stained-glass ceiling, be it brazen acts of clerical bullying or self-righteous religious schisms, discrimination in the name of any God should be seen for what it is…decidedly un-godly.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

It was time for my semi-annual lunch with my friend who is poles apart from me politically but whose wartime service as a Marine in Vietnam gives him far more conservative credence than the chicken-hawks who parlayed their incompetence into the quagmire of Iraq and continue to squander any vestige of our nation’s goodwill.

Every six months or so, we get together with our wives for a catch-up on children and grandchildren, personal ailment inventories and other various and sundry semi-retirement matters. It doesn’t take long, once the ladies start passing their photos back and forth, for the two of us to go back and forth on other matters.

“I’m turning into one of those cranky old curmudgeons,” my long-time friend began,

“I’m becoming the cynic I never wanted to be.” I could tell he had been listening to Rush Limbaugh again so I reminded him that the first item on the anti-curmudgeon inventory was to turn talk-radio off. It’s nothing but a training ground for conspiracy theorists and right-wing-nuts who too often confuse partisanship with patriotism and believe the Bill of Rights was penned only for people like them.

Nevertheless, as I soon realized, it was easy to be sympathetic to his concern as there is much fodder for cynicism about these days. This week, for instance, we could read of the Chinese government’s successful scheme to pay off grieving parents in order that they may stop complaining about the catastrophic collapse of hundreds of school buildings in the recent and ruinous earthquake in Sichuan Province. As the Beijing Olympics draws ever closer, the Beijing government is understandably concerned about any negative publicity and is rallying its considerable force to silence criticism from that front or any other. One certainly assumes the Olympic Organizing Committee is equally eager for a tranquil two weeks of athletic competition that avoids political controversy. But at what price? Surely paying off the parents of dead six and seven year olds seems mighty high indeed.

The president of Sudan, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, following his indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes of genocide, made a whirlwind tour of the ravaged Darfur region promising the beleaguered residents all kinds of wonderful rewards for keeping their mouths shut. After allowing government supported militias to rape, pillage and burn with impunity, al-Bashir apparently is ready to let bygones be bygones. Russia and China certainly share the same sentiment and suggest that any criminal action against Sudan’s exalted ruler would only obstruct the fragile and ongoing peace process. The two super powers, both of whom have a vested interest in Sudan’s status quo, don’t seem particularly concerned about obstructing justice, however.

In the same category of ends coldly justifying means, Senator Joe Lieberman, ex-Democrat and current best friend of John McCain, continues to cozy up to TV Evangelist John Hagee whose recent remarks concerning Roman Catholics and Homosexuals had McCain vociferously vetoing Hagee’s endorsement of him. Independent Joe, however, continues to be buddy-buddy with this big time bigot primarily because they both share a common commitment to shoring up security in Israel at any cost. Politics, we all know, makes for strange bedfellows but surely Lieberman is aware that the Evangelical Christian Hagee believes in a strong Israel only because of his bizarre conviction that Jesus needs such a political stronghold in order to come back to earth and either convert the Jews to Christianity or condemn them for all eternity. Such contemptuous cooperation offers ever more evidence for my friend’s cynical slide.

Of course, there is more. Even as the Bush Administration stumbles through its final few months, a number of highly revealing and deeply disturbing accounts of White House operations from White House insiders have hit the bookstores and fed the blogs. Neither of us old friends are particularly naïve but we both marveled over the political malfeasance of this administration. The deceptive rationales, the woeful ignorance and the downright lies of Bush and Co. have come perilously close to turning the virtue of public service into a bastion of private corruption…ever more reasons to join my friend on the path to curmudgeonism.

As lunch continued, and as I was drawn dangerously close to cynical cronyism by these acts of evidence and more, the topic, thankfully, turned to lighter matters. Movies we’ve seen, books we are reading. My friend is a history buff whose course to curmudgeon land is occasionally interrupted, he admitted, by the inspired and inspiring folk who’ve gone before. We reminded one another of other times in our collective history when the citizenry were equally disheartened. By dessert, we buoyed each other up with familiar stories of founding fathers and others who rose above the temptation of their times for sliding into cynicism and instead forged a nation and shaped a world that allowed two old friends, curmudgeons or not, the freedom to enjoy a feisty semi-annual lunch.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

July 10, 2008

Just when you think the religious can’t get more ridiculous you come up against a news report like this week’s on the Church of England’s turmoil over ordaining female priests as female bishops. While the rest of the world has been vigorously engaged in breaking down the walls of sexism and reaping the generous rewards of women rising through the ranks to successfully lead some of the world’s largest institutions, these English Christians get themselves into a paternalistic tizzy. Surely even bishops can find a better use of their time.

So you decide all religions should be tossed out with the bath water but then you listen to a segment on the radio this same week where two homeless men tell of life on the streets. “We would starve,” they say, “if it weren’t for the churches.” And you realize that charity trumps stupidity every time and religion should survive for at least another day.

Just when you think the financial news can’t get any bleaker, the market takes another triple digit dive dragging your net worth along with it. News like this makes it all the harder to understand how a few hundred dollars from the government is going to spur the economy back to life.

So you decide we’re only weeks away from 1929 and its time to find a tall building to jump off of but then you discover that even the news can be fun to watch when it’s broadcast over a brand new big screen TV purchased with an economic stimulus check from a business that needs business to keep its employees working so they can purchase TVs and more from this and other businesses. And you realize that Congress may not be filled with crazies after all.

Just when you think our president can’t push the needle any higher on the incredulity meter, you read of how on June 25, President Bush met with Philippines President Arroyo in the Oval Office and told her (and the rest of us): First, I want to tell you how proud I am to be the President of a nation that -- in which there's a lot of Philippine-Americans. They love America and they love their heritage. And I reminded the President that I am reminded of the great talent of the -- of our Philippine-Americans when I eat dinner at the White House.” Kitchen work is a noble profession so why did his comment come off as so unsavory? Maybe because it joins a list of equally ill-thought pronouncements like:

"Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB-GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country." And, "You work three jobs? ... Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that." (to a divorced mother of three!.)

So you decide our nation really is deserving of the ridicule and scorn being heaped upon it over the last 7 ½ years but then you have a conversation with your vacationing son-in-law who is currently serving as a liaison to Darfur from the U. S. Embassy in Khartoum and you are reminded of our president’s continuing commitment to Africa, channeling significant amounts of aid to battle some of the endemic issues that have plagued the continent for so long. The U.S. continues to be the leading international donor to the Darfur region with $750 million this year alone. And you realize that even presidential bumblers don’t blunder all the time.

And just when you think the environment is racing to you know where in the proverbial hand basket filled with everything from killer smog in Beijing to dead trees in the Rockies, you find out the Bureau of Land Management puts a two-year moratorium on solar power construction on public lands.

So you decide the inmates really are in charge of the asylum but then you take a hike around hidden mountain lake, strolling by fields of columbine more vast than you can ever remember and a waterfall that cascades from far above…and you realize that there is still bountiful beauty in creation and new life rising out of the forest floor. And then you get home to find out the moratorium has been lifted. Joy!

And hope…coming from some new perspectives.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

July 7, 2008

Readers of this column are well aware of my fascination for rear-ends…on cars, of course. I am endlessly entertained by what folk deign to place upon the back bumpers of their automobiles. Everything from one’s political preferences to a favorite clothing line is un-embarrassingly announced while idling at an intersection or racing by on the interstate.

Although I’ve yet to declare my allegiances so publicly, I certainly honor those who do and have absolutely no quarrel with placing one’s electoral choice or religious predilection out there for all to see. I do get uneasy, however, when the state offers to help pay for it.

In this case, the state is South Carolina whose legislative leadership has proposed an automobile license plate decorated with a cross and a stained-glass window that declares “I Believe” directly above the obviously Christian symbols. It can be had for any South Carolinian who is willing to both fork over the dough and denigrate the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Despite what some may assume, being a resident of a Bible-belt state doesn’t excuse you from the foundational principles of these United States. The Bill of Rights puts careful concern into that famous wall of separation that not only prohibits a state-sanctioned religion but allows Americans a religious freedom many of the world’s citizens are denied.

The argument proffered by those believing South Carolinians seeks to deflect the constitutional concerns by claiming that the state already provides advertising space for a plethora of other prejudices. A quick look at the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles web page may surprise you with its variety of possibilities for going public. Like NASCAR or nurses? The SCDMV can provide you with a plate that will announce your allegiance. The same service is offered to Shriners, the Special Olympics and square dancers, as well. And all of it is well and, maybe even, good but not when it comes to advocating a particular religious preference. Such public proselytizing is not only best left to private concerns but constitutionally forbidden by our government for our government…even if that government is filled from top to bottom with Bible-banging believers.

Just past July 4th is a good time to celebrate the wisdom of our founding fathers whose clear intentions were to prevent the religious restrictions perpetrated by past overseers and establish a nation where every citizen would be free to believe or not. The very suggestion that a state provide special benefits to believers should be anathema to all Americans.

Perhaps even more persuasive than our Constitution would be the reminder that proclaiming one’s religious preference from the back of a Buick may offer frequent opportunities for a kind of reverse evangelism. After all, getting cut off by a speedster sporting a Christian cross could cause a potential convert to reconsider the possibility. I often tell of the time a clergy friend of mine lost his cool while driving through town and in a fit of pique pointed his middle finger at an offending driver. It was only when the woman in the next car’s chin dropped down to her dash that my friend remembered he was still wearing his clerical collar.

So if not for our cherished nation’s integrity then for our own slightly tarnished dignities, surely we can all agree that it is best to keep religious sentiment out of our statehouses and onto our sleeves, even when it means the fish floating on your Ford runs the risk of ruining your religious reputation.

The Practicing Progressive


July 6, 2008

Unitarian Fellowship, Frisco, Colorado

I want you to know right off how difficult it was to come up with a sermon subject for this evening. As some of my former parishioners would tell you, much of my homiletic career was centered on sermons that were often provocative, sometimes scandalous and on occasion downright heretical. But it is reasonably easy to shock Lutherans. We are, by nature, a rather shockable people. We like our religion neat and orderly. We believe that any hymn written after the 16th century should be introduced very slowly and with great caution into the worship service. Lutherans, as any listener to Garrison Keillor can tell you, are not inclined to the inflammatory when it comes to theological proclamations. When Martin Luther stood up to the Pope back in 1517 he pretty much shot the Lutheran wad for the rest of us. There really hasn’t been much in the way of Protestant protesting among us ever since. So you can see how easy it was to spend thirty years or so using my sermons to raise some Scandinavian eyebrows and drop more than a few German chins.

With Unitarians, however, the task is far more daunting. I mean, how does a preacher used to causing an uproar among the unchanging believers call forth similar outrage among folk we Lutherans believe are ever-changing unbelievers? What can I possibly say in my sermon that could cause Unitarians to imitate their distant Lutheran cousins by simultaneously clenching their teeth and puckering their butts?

Being a member of a religious tradition that tends to congregate in the chilling confines of the upper Midwest and finds mixing with middle of the road Methodists a significant challenge, I entered into this arrangement with, as I say, more than a little trepidation. It was St. Paul who reminded Christians in general and Lutherans quite specifically that we are all called to be fools for Christ. So foolishly, I set forth on my sermon preparation.

I began by carefully studying the Unitarian Universalist principles which, for a Lutheran used to seeing the 10 Commandments grimly engraved on many a sanctuary wall, turned out to be more on the order of 7 rather pleasant suggestions: We covenant to affirm and promote:

• The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

• Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

• Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth;

• A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

• The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process;

• The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;

• Respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.

Come on. You gotta give me something! There’s nothing about sin here! Nothing about judging the quick and the dead. There’s no hell. No fire. No damnation. And you call yourself a religion?!

So with some reluctance, I came to the conclusion that nothing I could say today would shock you much, nothing I could posit would bring about the kind of apoplectic congregational angst that is so encouraging to a preacher like me, nothing I could do to engender those pleasant days of yesteryear when cries of heresy rang out among the faithful and calls for the removal of my collar if not my head convinced me I was on the right theological track. Gee, I really miss that.

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to pretend that all these smiling, all accepting, genuinely inclusive, stalwartly liberal, endlessly optimistic Unitarian faces are really only hiding dark Scandinavian souls who struggle daily with great existential battles between good and evil and worry unendingly about whether one can accept each and every tenet of the Nicene Creed. In other words, I’m going to preach a good old fashioned, stomach churning, migraine inducing, why can’t he be more like our last pastor who we really liked, Lutheran sermon. I’m entitling it: A Case For Christian Atheism.

As most of you know, little of traditional Christianity is based on the life and teachings of Jesus. One of the reasons for this, of course, is that we have precious little of Jesus’ authentic teachings and even what we do have has been roundly ignored for much of Christianity’s first 2000 years. Christianity, as most people understand it, is formed not around the teachings of Jesus but rather the teachings about Jesus. These teachings about Jesus began long before Matthew, Mark, Luke or John put quill to papyrus and even before Paul, the earliest and most prolific of New Testament writers began sending out his theologically driven epistles. It began with stories, stories told not via instant messaging or over the internet but one person, one story at a time and as the story went from one person to the next it was changed, altered, embellished perhaps, maybe even mingled with other familiar stories going around the neighborhood. One of the great theological insights regarding this phenomenon comes from those masters of religious inquiry, Monty Python. In their brilliant movie “The Life of Brian” the Jesus figure is lecturing to the crowd what appears to be the sermon on the mount. In any case, someone on the periphery thinks he hears one thing when we all know he should have heard another. “What’s he saying?’ “Shhh. Blessed are the cheesemakers?” “Blessed are the cheesemakers!” and on it is passed in a brilliant example of the imperfections of oral tradition.

Funny as it is, this is a reasonably accurate description of the problem that has faced Christians for two thousand years. What exactly did Jesus say? Some of you, I am sure, have heard of The Jesus Seminar, an often ridiculed but extremely dedicated group of scholars who have sought to determine the authentic words of Jesus found in the Bible. What they came up with was precious little that could be assuredly ascribed to Jesus but it was, to my mind, a brilliant critique and enormously helpful guide to those of us fascinated with the idea that we might actually peel away two millennia of often convoluted doctrine and catch a glimpse, perhaps only a very small glimpse, of the actual teachings of Jesus.

Such an enterprise, precarious as it may be, has been enormously inspirational to me and thousands of others who have found in the life and teachings of Jesus a model and guide for living what many of us call the abundant life.

This life of abundance has as its foundation the unconventional wisdom of Jesus who proclaimed a philosophy that is antithetical to most of the world’s. I mean, after all, “Blessed are the poor”? Blessed are the meek”? “Blessed are the peacemakers”? And yet what many have discovered is if you take this unconventional way of thinking and apply it to your life and the lives of those around you, something wonderful emerges. Jesus called it The Kingdom of Heaven. Some may call it enlightenment or self-awareness. Many of us call it The Abundant Life.

Now what is so curious about this metaphysical phenomenon is that it is fully accessible without an attending theology. That is, one can employ these assumedly authentic teachings of Jesus into one’s life, experience The Abundant Life or The Kingdom of Heaven, without actually believing in God. Indeed, given the often bizarre beliefs that have been formulated in the name of Christianity, it just may be easier to be a devoted disciple of Jesus if you don’t believe in God.

Isn’t that curious? Now I don’t for one moment think that Jesus didn’t believe in God. In his time and situation, it made all the sense in the world to accept the existence of a theistic being who ruled the universe with both a compassionate heart and an iron fist and who, not so incidentally, had a special place in the cosmic scheme of things for Jesus’ own people, the Jews. Everyone back then had a god or, more often, a plethora of gods to turn to when things got a little rough down below. But, of course, then came Copernicus and then came Galileo and then came Newton, and Darwin and Freud and Einstein and quantum physics and string theory and Sputnik and on and on and on. The world underwent enormous changes, some advantageous some not, but evolve we did, all, it seems but our religions. To this very day, many religions cling desperately to language, metaphors and symbols that speak to a different age, a different time, a different way of understanding reality. Yes, of course, Jesus believed in God but whether he did or not does not undermine the enormous wisdom found in his teachings. Again, I say, it just may be easier, given the current state of conventional religious teachings, to be a devoted disciple of Jesus without believing in God.

This case for a kind of Christian atheism gains strength when we consider the manner in which we develop our images of God. When my friend and mentor Bishop Jack Spong was at Lord of the Mountains a few years back he offered this little bit of theological insight from the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes who said, “If horses had gods, all gods would look like horses.” So the Lutheran God looks a little like a combination between Ingmar Bergman and Garrison Keillor…dark and gloomy most of the time but once a week you can count on a few good laughs. The Jewish God is pretty concerned with geography and the Muslim God likewise but with a decidedly different destination. The Presbyterian god likes most things in good order and the Catholic god speaks in a deep and very male voice. The Unitarian god seems to love everyone without exception while the American god spends a good deal of time blessing, well, America. All kinds of horses with all kinds of horse-like gods.

Christian Atheism recognizes this reality of a self-designed and self-designated divinity and suggests that it might be best to leave that often confusing component completely out of our spiritual lives. Christian atheism finds in the life and teachings of Jesus more than enough provision for a rich and meaningful life, an abundant life centered in a pre-Easter Jesus, the Jesus of history, a Jesus without the doctrine, without the distortion of creeds and archaic confessions of faith. Creeds and confessions that were created out of the best intentions but nevertheless no longer needed in a post-modern world that has long since left literalistic interpretations and archaic myth-making far behind. Christian atheism announces, haltingly, hesitatingly to be sure, but sincerely and honestly that the time has come to simply leave God in all her manifestations behind and center our faith in the figure of Jesus, admittedly little known but known enough to pin our hopes and dedicate our lives to following in his footsteps.

It is both curious and illuminating to note, by the way, that in three of the four gospels, Jesus puts very little emphasis on belief systems. He spends a rather insignificant amount of time urging his listeners to accept particular theological concepts or doctrinal descriptions. What he does spend the majority of his time doing is living out a life of compassion, of justice, of radical hospitality…and what he says, time after time, is NOT believe in me but, rather, follow me. Follow me! Don’t worry about whether you believe in this or don’t believe in that. Don’t worry whether you were born a cursed Samaritan or a denigrated woman. Don’t worry if you are despised by your neighbors or decorated by the state. Just follow me. And in so doing you will discover what I have discovered. You will enter into the kingdom of heaven that is all around you. You will experience the abundant life.

Amazingly, this emphasis on doing rather than believing has been dismissed by Christian hierarchy as nothing less than heresy. For most of the past two thousand years, Christians have been told that the only thing that really mattered was that you believe particular doctrines, accepted certain theological descriptions, that you be born-again or dipped three times in water. But the emerging evidence of Biblical scholarship suggests that is precisely not what Jesus was teaching. Follow me, Jesus says over and over again in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Believe in me…is left, almost solely, to the Jesus found in the gospel of John, the latest and most doctrinal of the four gospels and, not so incidentally, the gospel most favored by conservative Christians.

Speaking of conservative Christians…in recent years, an emerging movement seems to be taking root in evangelical Christianity. A growing number of the faithful, particularly among the young and educated, are beginning to put an emphasis on some decidedly non-traditional conservative concerns…like the environment, like a fair and equitable health care system, like a government that seeks for peace rather than war. Now this is a very exciting development because, I believe, whether these non-traditional evangelicals realize it or not, such thinking will move them ever closer to Christian Atheism. By that I mean the more closely you follow Jesus the less you will need doctrines about God and the less you need doctrines about God the less you need God. Rick Warren, the enormously successful evangelical pastor who built up a church of tens of thousands and has sold millions upon millions of books centered on purpose driven lives is beginning to understand this principal whether he knows it or not. In the past few years, Warren has turned his incredible talents to serving those in need. He has rallied thousands, maybe millions, of evangelical Christians to turn away from their navels and look out to a world suffering from hunger, poverty, war, AIDS and so much more. In a matter of days, he raised millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers for Rwandan relief. When asked about this change, he confessed that he now realized that he had spent far too much time building up his church and far too little caring for the world. At a Baptist convention three years ago, Warren announced the need for a second reformation that would be about “deeds not creeds.” Talk about a slippery slope. Welcome Pastor Warren to the New Reformation. Welcome Pastor Warren to a conversation that some of us have been having for a very long time. Welcome Pastor Warren to the possibility of Christian Atheism.

On one of my sabbaticals, I spent the summer serving an Anglican parish in London and studying the history and theology of the Anglican tradition. Now The Church of England is a very curious institution indeed. It can be the most rigidly traditionalist force in all of English society and, at the same time, produce some of the most radical theological thinkers of this or any other day. One such radical is an Anglican priest and Cambridge don by the name of Donald Cupitt. Cupitt is a kind of living archetype of the paradox that lives within the Church of England for The Reverend Mr. Cupitt, an Anglican priest may I remind you, is also a practicing atheist. He is a priest, I dare say, of the New Reformation, of a movement that is drawn deeply and profoundly into the teachings of Jesus but has little interest in or commitment to the traditional teachings about Jesus. Cupitt has written extensively on his unique spiritual journey. In the preface of, what I believe to be, his most helpful book: “Taking Leave of God”, Cupitt explains his choice of title by quoting the great medieval Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, writing on spiritual maturity: Man’s last and highest parting occurs when, for God’s sake, man takes leave of God.” It is that parting movement that seems, at least to me, the logical and inevitable destination of all those who choose, like Dr. Cupitt and a growing number of others, to be committed to following the teachings of Jesus rather than believing the teachings about Jesus. This is both the start and the very heart of Christian Atheism.

Now I certainly understand there is nothing new in this proposal. It has been proffered for more than two thousand years and condemned as heretical for the same amount of time. But every so often, it seems to me, it is good to bring this little heresy back out into the open where others can see it, maybe try it on for awhile and see how it feels and, perhaps, to discover as I have, that within the teachings of Jesus there is a depth and richness to life that supersedes detailed doctrinal descriptions about Jesus. It is a life of meaning and purpose, of hope and value, of compassion and justice. It is a life, built on a heresy to be sure but a heresy that seems to me, at least, a pretty good fit.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Practicing Progressive


I didn’t know I could believe that!

Such sentiments were often shared with me during my twenty-five year tenure as a parish pastor. Sometimes they came with a burst of enthusiasm in the midst of a Bible study or following a sermon, other times it was whispered in the privacy of my office, but always it was with a sense of incredulity from one more befuddled believer. Hadn’t they always been taught their religious tradition was certainly the best, if not the only, way to God? Hadn’t they always been taught that to diverge from the official teachings of the faith was to jeopardize the very eternal destination of their soul? Their amazement often centered on why such new and liberating religious insights had been, apparently, kept from them.

Sometimes this new wisdom came as we examined the similarities in ancient religious practices that revealed the universal nature of the religious quest. Or perhaps the discovery of the bevy of Biblical authors raised questions as to whether our own holy book was as divinely authoritative as we had once thought. But, over and over again, these faithful folk, reared in the church and educated in the faith, wondered if such new and exciting insights were officially permissible.

Now a systematic study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life makes clear, whether it is permissible or not, these often eagerly formed religious opinions are held by a growing number of believers. According to Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum, the study reveals a significant trend: "Even though the country is highly religious, in terms of the importance of religion in their lives, the regularity of church attendance, etc., most Americans are, in fact, not dogmatic about their faith. They're very open. In terms of various paths to heaven, and even in terms of interpreting the teachings of their own faith, the majority tell us that there's not just one right way to do that.''

Information like this can make many a religious authority more than a little nervous. After all, most religions have a vested interest in making sure their adherents aren’t thinking about jumping the ecclesiastical ship. Considering that a previous Pew study revealed that more than 25% of respondents had left the religion of their childhood for another religion or no religion at all, it is no wonder this new study is being met with a decided lack of enthusiasm by some. The largest Protestant denomination in America, the Southern Baptists, still claims "there is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord." and Roman Catholicism continues to assert its primacy both within and without Christianity. But judging from this latest survey, there appears to be a growing gap between what is pronounced from the pulpit and what’s believed in the pews.

The survey provided additional evidence that religion, particularly conservative, evangelical Christianity, is…dare it be said?...evolving. There is a growing movement within this branch of the Christian tree that has younger adherents less concerned with the traditional emphasis on personal piety or social restrictions. These often well-educated and upwardly mobile evangelicals find caring for the environment and seeking adequate health-care for all just as spiritually important as following the Ten Commandments.

In a dramatic display of this changing direction, one of the most influential evangelicals, Rick Warren of “Purpose Driven Life” fame, has been rallying like-minded believers to engage in some very non-traditional evangelical enterprises. His program to alleviate hunger, teach literacy and slow the spread of AIDS in Rwanda has raised more than a few eyebrows in evangelical circles. According to Francis Fitzgerald in this week’s New Yorker magazine, “At an international Baptist convention…(Warren) called for “a second Reformation,” one that would be about “deeds not creeds.”

When evangelical Christians make actions more important than beliefs, you can bet there is something new in the works (pun very much intended). This may be disconcerting talk for denominational leaders but it is surely a hopeful sign for the two-thirds of us who, according to the study, believe that “Many religions can lead to eternal life” and “There is more than one way to interpret the teachings of my religion.”

The Pew Forum study reveals what many of us have known for a very long time. There is considerably more tolerance of religious diversity among the faithful than from the leaders of their faiths.

That you can believe.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

June 5, 2008

Barack and Michelle are church shopping.

The straw that sent them looking came via Father Michael Phleger’s recent pyrotechnic preaching display at Trinity United Church of Christ, the Obama’s now former church home. Phleger, a Roman Catholic priest and social activist, parodied Hillary Clinton during his homily causing the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee to tender his resignation in the congregation that has been his church home for twenty years.

I don’t suspect either of the Obamas will have a lot of time in the coming few months to visit many congregations in their search for a new permanent place of worship, so I thought it might be helpful if I offered a few suggestions and help pare down the plethora of congregational options that stretch out before them. Having spent a good part of my life in congregations both large and small, both as leader and leadered, I have a pretty good idea of what to look for and what to assiduously avoid.

First, I sure hope the potentially presidential couple hasn’t become too wary of aligning themselves with another provocative preacher. No question that their former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, occasionally stretched both credulity and credibility with his preaching but Wright’s passion for social justice and his commitment to his community were bound to make many folk mighty uncomfortable. It would be a great mistake, though, for the Obamas to limit their search for a congregational home to one whose pastor is unwilling to provoke the powers that be. In nearly all the religious traditions I’m familiar with, the religious leaders were expected to speak out against perceived injustices against the poor and oppressed. It is certainly not uncommon for the biblical prophets to rail against the secular authorities for their lack of compassion and justice. Wright’s damning of America, shocking as it was to many, was completely in character with his religion’s ancient traditions. It was only when religion began to assume power within secular society that preachers began to temper their provocative pronouncements. The reason Billy Graham kept getting re-invited to the White House had more to do with his silence over racial injustice and immoral wars and less to do with his oratorical skills or Baptist theology.

Second, although every church sign in America proclaims: “All are welcome!” precious few folk really are. I hope the Obamas look for a church that celebrates diversity rather than fears it. In the Christian tradition, Jesus is honored for associating with his society’s outcasts and rejects, so it is more than a little ironic that most of his current collaborators do precisely the opposite. Nearly every major religious organization puts restrictions on who is really welcome and who is really not. The scandal of many churches refusing to honor homosexual and lesbian relationships flies in the face of the life and teachings of Jesus. That women are still relegated to second-class status within Christianity defies both 21st century realities and the 1st century intentions of a rabbi from Nazareth.

Third, there is an old saying around churches that should serve as a guide for the Obamas’ search: “Our mission is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” A congregation on the south side of Chicago or the Katrina-ravaged bottomland of New Orleans may very appropriately spend much of its time offering solace and sanctuary to its members but a congregation within walking distance of the White House had better be spending its time stirring up a pot or two. I sure hope the Obamas have the courage to attend a church that isn’t afraid to make its members squirm on an occasional Sunday.

(There is a great story about an encounter between the late pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, Bill Coffin, and then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. They happened to be attending the same soiree and Coffin cornered Kissinger to tell him in no uncertain terms his displeasure with the war in Vietnam and demanding that the Nixon administration bring the troops home. Finally, Kissinger had had enough and interrupted the preacher by retorting, “OK. How would you get the boys out of Vietnam?” Whereupon Coffin replied by quoting the prophet Amos, “"Mr. Kissinger, my job is to proclaim that 'justice must roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.' Your job is to work out the details of the irrigation system!")

Finally, I would hope the Obamas would remember what it was that attracted them to Trinity United Church of Christ in the first place. From all accounts, that congregation has been instrumental in assisting thousands of people in the Chicago area and beyond in nurturing their spirituality while compelling their humanitarian actions, two elements that would serve any president well…and all the rest of us, for that matter.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Practicing Progressive


Our understanding of God is always from the ground up.

Another way of putting it is that our descriptions of God can only be just that, our descriptions, not God’s. There is a bumper sticker going around that declares: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” The problem with such a pious-sounding declaration is, of course, that God didn’t say anything. We said it for God. Unless you believe, as some folk certainly do, that the Bible dropped down from some celestial kingdom and fell into our laps perfectly translated into the King James English, one must consider the possibility that the book so much of the world reveres is the product of people not too different than you…good folk and not so good folk who sought to describe their understanding of the divine with images and metaphors that made sense in their world.

A friend of mine once said, “If horses had gods, all gods would look like horses.” Our gods are shaped by our worldviews. For instance, if our worldview is that men rule the roost then God will, more than likely, be a man. So what happens when our worldview changes as it most certainly has in the two thousand years since the Bible was completed?

This is where many religions find themselves these days. We can see evidence of this in a myriad of ways. Fundamentalist Muslims who see the modern world as evil, who demand ancient dress codes or entice youngsters to suicidal missions with the promise of eternal rewards are convinced that this is the only way of being a Muslim. Or Christians who make similar demands with ludicrous claims on science and sinister designs on the political process. Conversely, there is a growing movement within Judaism that has many faithful Jews wishing to separate their religion from unquestioned support of Israel. Decades of military conflict and mayhem have convinced them that any claim that God has promised a particular piece of real estate to one particular people is false.

One of the great problems with the presumption that God wrote or dictated a particular body of writings is that there is very little room for open discussion. Such an understanding makes any contextual criticism very difficult indeed. This is, of course, how fundamentalists of any persuasion, understand their holy book: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

While traveling in Morocco a few years back, we took a cab from the harbor in Tangiers to the railway station. Along the way, our daughter, who, praise be to Allah, speaks Arabic fluently, was engaged in an animated discussion with the cab driver. They were, in Moroccan tradition, loudly proclaiming whatever it was they were discussing. We sat in the back seat without a clue as to what was going on. Finally, the driver threw up his hands (a particularly dangerous thing to do in Moroccan traffic) and then patted our daughter on the shoulder and murmured something, offering her a big smile. When we arrived at the train station, we asked her what had transpired. She told us that the driver wanted to know how she could speak Arabic and what she was doing in Morocco. He also wanted to know if she was Muslim. When informed that she was definitely not, the driver pontificated for awhile longer on the benefits of his faith and then, as we saw, patted her on the shoulder and said, “All in good time, my child, all in good time.”

I assume he was being genuinely kind. I assume he really does believe that ultimately all people will come under the Islamic tent, not with fear and trembling but genuinely acknowledging the wisdom of this particular revelation.

On the other hand, I worry that he, like so many Christians I know over here, can’t accept that there are multiple pathways of truth. Why must I become a Muslim or why must he become a Christian? Surely there are other ways of experiencing divine presence than one particular religion.

Until we recognize the inherent destructiveness in our old models of belief that declare our way as supreme and our God as the best, we will continue to engage in the kind of violent foolishness that has brought the world to its currently precarious place.

The way to prevent such instability, it seems to me, is to constantly remind ourselves that the finger we use to point to God is not God, that the lens we look through on our search for the divine, is not the divine. We are working from the ground up using the tools at our disposal to try and express the wonder and mystery of the universe just as our ancestors have done from the beginning of time. “If horses had gods, all gods would look like horses.” The volatile state of much of our world is a vivid reminder of the danger of forgetting this important truth.