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.