Paralyzed by Desire

I try, on the whole, to avoid the political in these blog posts — though, certainly, it must be acknowledged that an integrated person would seek to align one’s spiritual commitments with one’s politics.  At the risk of moving in more of a political direction than I usually do in this space, however, I must admit that I was intrigued by what the Governor of New Jersey said in a speech at the Republican National Convention.  He was famously quoted as recommending that his party choose “respect over love.”   Reading a bit more of what he said, what he was talking about was his belief that politicians these days have a greater desire to be loved than to do the right thing, to be popular rather than to make the tough decisions.  At one point, he said that politicians are “paralyzed by the desire to be loved.”

I can certainly sign on to the idea that doing what is popular rather than what is right is problematic.  But while Governor Christie equates the terms “popularity” and “loved”, from a spiritual perspective those are rather different things.  While I might not wish our politicians to govern according to their desire to be popular, I wish fervently that they would govern according to the principle of love.  The difference, of course, is that they should not be concerned about being loved by their constituents but rather they should be concerned with doing on behalf of others that which love demands.

Americans have a tendency of thinking about love as an emotional state.  We want to feel love for others and, most of all, we want to feel love from others.  There is nothing wrong with that, per se, though our desire to feel love can become distorted and result in a kind of egocentricity that needs constantly to be fed (this, I think, is what the Governor was talking about).  Within the biblical tradition, however, and in the Judeo-Christian tradition generally, love is seldom an emotional state.  Rather, it is a call to a certain sort of action.  When Jesus emphasized the teaching from the Hebrew Bible about the imperative to “love your neighbor as yourself,” he was not suggesting that we feel all squashy inside about those living next door.  Rather, he was calling us to act with the best interests of our neighbor at heart.  In other words, to act out of love for another.

The teaching was not radical in Jesus’ time — it had already been a part of the Hebrew tradition.  What was radical was the way Jesus defined who the neighbor was, which he did famously in the parable of the good samaritan.  In that story, Jesus made clear that the neighbor was the person in need, whether s/he was a part of your particular tribe or not.   The demands of love did not simply require you to act in the best interests of “your people”, but in the best interests of those most in need.

It has, I think, become abundantly clear that this spiritual principle has become virtually absent from much of today’s political discourse.  It has perhaps never been more clear the degree to which the institutions of our government are incapable of responding to those among us who are most in need and, indeed, are not particularly interested in doing so.  And yet, so many of our politicians imagine that we are somehow a Christian nation whose government embodies  Christian values.  Christ would, I think, be very disappointed with our social choices – choices that cause the most vulnerable among us to be even further exposed as the gap between wealthy and poor grows ever larger, and as the nation’s wealth becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

So, I find that I agree with Governor Christie:  our political system has become paralyzed by the desire of politicians to remain popular enough to be re-elected rather than make the hard choices.  But if they ever do get around to making those hard choices, love needs to be their guiding principle:  the kind of love embodied in the teaching of Jesus, and in so many of our religious traditions, that demands that what is best for all of us is what is best for those among us who have the greatest need.


The Bible as Game Show

I was surprised to notice an ad recently on television for a new game show centered on the Bible called the American Bible Challenge.  I must admit that I don’t know that much about it, but this much is clear:  it is meant to be a show that tests contestants’ knowledge of the Bible.

I’m not very happy about it, to be honest.  Not because I think knowing the Bible is a bad thing:  it’s not, especially if one regards the Bible as a sacred text.  What I find dismaying about it is that it is another example of the Western world’s assumption that if you have a command of facts then you must know something.  In certain areas of human endeavor, this is probably indeed true.  For example, knowing the fact that 2+2 is 4 is a useful thing – and there’s not much more to it than that.  But for the last century and a half or so, Americans and other Westerners have worked hard to make the Bible equivalent to a mathematics text book.  And in doing so, we have increasingly ceased to look at the Bible as a collection of inspirational texts whose stories reveal wisdom about God, creation, and humanity that is able to introduce us to a deeper and more authentic relationship with God, creation, ourselves and one another.  Instead, we have exchanged this more ancient view of sacred text for a modernist one, and tended to see the Bible as a sort of God textbook from which we derive facts which, once learned and accepted, somehow assure our salvation.

This shift in the way the Bible is viewed is what accounts for the manufactured war between science and religion.   Those who insist on the Bible-as-textbook read the creation stories in Genesis and, taking them as factual, assert that scientific findings about and descriptions of creation must, therefore, be wrong because they do not agree with the Bible.   This sets up religion and science as competing bodies of knowledge, requiring faithful people who subscribe to this point of view to choose one over the other.

But there is no need for science and religion to clash.  For truly they are not competing bodies of knowledge but complementary ones.  The creation stories in Genesis, for example, are not meant to be factual accounts of how the world came to be (the people who wrote them never intended them to be!).  Rather, they are stories that are intended to transmit wisdom about this creation in which we find ourselves and its and our connection to a sacred source whom we call God.  The central assertion of the Genesis stories – that we are because God is – provides a foundation on which to articulate the spiritual connection between ourselves and our world.  Science, for its part, describes how creation was formed, the “mechanisms” that made our existence possible.  These are not competing claims – they are simply different sides of the same coin (and, you can’t have a coin without two sides).

There is a desperate need in Christianity today to step away from Bible-as-textbook and recover the more ancient understanding of the Bible-as-wisdom.   Because ultimately, no matter how powerful the Bible-as-textbook Christians seem to be right now, continuing down this road that places science and religion at odds will ultimately end with religion being seen as an absurdity.  And, indeed, in the hands of many Christians today, the faith has become exactly that:  an absurd caricature meant to protect people’s prejudices and ignorances rather than a tradition of wisdom that has the power to open people to an authentic experience of God that transforms our prejudices and ignorances.

While I have to admit that the American Bible Challenge game show offends me a bit because it makes a text that I regard as sacred into a source of entertainment (can anyone imagine the Saudi Arabian Quran Challenge?), I am far more concerned with the way in which this gameshow reenforces the perception that the Bible is a book of facts to be mastered rather than a tradition of wisdom meant to lead us beyond the text into encounter with the sacred.

I guess it’s just another step along the path of dumbing-down everything in America.

A Blessing Prayer

Our lives are so full of words and opinions, that sometimes we forget what we can learn through listening deeply.  And this blog is quite full of my words and opinions — and sometimes I feel the need to share someone else’s.  This is one of those weeks, and so I share this prayer by Macrina Wiederkehr:  words that for me, at least, call us into a deep, listening silence:

Rise early
when morning darkness
still enwraps the trees.
Walk into the dark forest
with only your attentive heart.
Gaze toward the east,
take a breath, and wait.

After a short while you will see God
carrying a lantern through the forest,
bits of light bobbing up and down,
in and out,  higher and higher,
the light climbs, spilling over
into the spaces between the leaves
and on into the world
beyond the forest.

Then the beautiful darkness
hands you over to the light.
It slips away reverently
into the bark of the tree trunks,
into the black earth,
into all those other countries
that wait for its return.

Lift your face to the daystar now.
Experience the coming of the dawn.
Bathed in morning light, pray
that the lantern of your life
move gently this day
into all those places
where light is needed.

Triumph of Ignorance

This past Sunday’s violence at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin that took seven lives and shattered the peace of an entire community was a crime of ignorance.  While authorities seem not yet to have discerned the gunman’s motive, many have wondered if he mistook the Sikhs for Muslims – a religion which, tragically, has become synonymous with terrorism in the minds of far too many Americans.  But even if he was not confused about who the Sikhs were (their tradition emerged from Hinduism, not Islam), it is clear that he was connected to the white supremacy movement whose adherents perpetuate the ignorance that white (and usually Protestant) people are somehow inherently superior to everyone else.  Whatever the man’s motives, he seems to have given himself over to an ignorant ideology and worldview.  And on Sunday, in Wisconsin, ignorance won the moment, and people lost their lives.

This past weekend saw another triumph of ignorance, this time in Joplin, Missouri, where a mosque (which had been the target of an unknown arsonist earlier in July who started a fire that damaged the building) was burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances.  It is expected that the investigation will reveal that the destruction was indeed the result of a deliberately set fire.  There has been a lot of controversy about the building of mosques in America recently, as various groups (including some religious leaders and politicians) have sought to somehow prevent their construction in some places.  Attempts to prevent the building of mosques, like attempts to destroy those already constructed, are a function of ignorance.  Ever since 9/11, Americans have had a tendency to equate Islam with terrorism, despite the fact that those within Islam who believe terrorism is a legitimate tool are a very small minority of Muslims, the vast majority of whom believe that terrorism is wrong and contrary to their religion.  But this important detail goes unnoticed by far too many whose cultivated ignorance of Islam and other religions different from their own (like Sikhism) leads them to speak and act in ways that are hurtful, destructive, and even deadly.

The cultivation of ignorance has become something of a cottage industry in this country.  It was reported this week that Louisiana’s new school voucher program, designed to allow parents access to public funds to send their children to private schools, will permit parents to send their children to “Christian schools” among other private options.  These “Christian” institutions, it was reported, are teaching some rather odd things:  that dinosaurs and humans occupied the earth at the same time; that most slave owners in the pre-Civil War era treated their slaves well; that the Ku Klux Klan had a positive and reforming effect on American society; that algebra and other abstract math is unnecessary and somehow contrary to the law of God; and that  biblical “science” regarding the age of the universe and other matters is to be embraced over “secular” science.  Louisiana’s voucher program effectively comes to the aid of a significant movement among the religious right that encourages parents to avoid public schools and to choose an alternative “Christian school” that will make sure their children stay Christian – apparently by shielding them from a great deal of modern learning.  The movement is basically one that intentionally cultivates ignorance of the world as it is in favor of a worldview shaped by a literal reading of the Bible.  Of course, it should be noted that the vouchers can also be used at religious schools whose curriculums are more rigorous and not hostile to modern science.  Though, it might also be noted that several Louisiana lawmakers objected to the fact that the vouchers can also be used at Islamic schools.

Increasingly, Americans live in a world tinged with ignorance.  Politicians from both sides of the aisle regularly make statements (usually about one another) that are simply untrue, and yet are disseminated widely.  The media, it seems, considers it their responsibility to broadcast to the world the most outrageous statements made by anybody, regardless of their veracity.  And at least some among us think that we should not teach people to look at such statements critically:  the Texas Republican Party adopted as part of their platform an element which puts them on record as being opposed to the teaching of higher order thinking skills.   Officials from the party later said this was a mistake, but then also said it could not be corrected until the next time the platform was considered – apparently in a couple of years or so.

We all pay a high price when ignorance triumphs.  What is to become of a country in which a significant number of its citizens are educated in a way that ignores modern science?  What is to become of a country in which a significant number of its citizens are taught that they must interpret the Bible literally, and that this literal reading trumps every other source of knowledge?  What is to become of us when we allow others who are culturally, socially, or religiously different to be vilified by unchallenged stereotypes rooted in ignorance?

I don’t think the answers to any of these questions will be good.

The Power of Belonging

I have long been impressed by the way the Gospels tell the story of the formation of the circle of Jesus’ followers:  those who became disciples are depicted as going about their daily work when Jesus comes along and says something like, “Come, follow me.”  And immediately, the stories say, the would-be disciples drop what they are doing and follow Jesus.  They seem to make their decision with very little thought.  They don’t ask questions about who Jesus is or what he’s about – they just go with him.

I have tended mostly to focus on the individuals in these stories:  that the decision to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him is made so quickly because somehow, the hearing of Jesus’ voice resonates with them in a way that allows them to recognize that he has something they have been longing for deep within themselves.

But these stories also say something about the community that Jesus is forming.  His invitation to them comes without any conditions.  He doesn’t hand them a tract that presents his doctrinal emphases.  He doesn’t tell them that if they fail to follow him, they will go to hell.  He doesn’t inquire about whether they might meet certain membership criteria.  He simply invites them to come and spend time with him, to get to know him, to see what he’s about.  Jesus begins by creating a small community.  And everything else proceeds from there.

Within this small community, Jesus’ first followers spend a lot of time together.  They form relationships with Jesus and with one another.  They pray together, they listen to Jesus’ teaching, they ask questions.   They eat together.  They share one another’s lives.  And out of this experience of community, out of a shared spiritual practice and a shared common life, they begin to understand more about who Jesus is and what he represents.  Their relationship with God is deepened.  They gradually come to believe certain things, discover certain commitments, realize their vocations.  Within this first Jesus community, the power of belonging to the community is revealed in relationships, both divine and human, that become transformative.

This pattern is almost exactly the opposite of the way in which most churches work.  We might do some inviting in, but mostly we wait for people to show up.  Whether they come through invitation or curiosity, most people are then introduced to an array of conditions for belonging to the church.   Churches want to make sure that people coming to them believe the right things, understand the essential doctrinal points that the particular church holds dear, have experienced baptism in the right way, have the right take on who Jesus is.  Only when churches are sure of these things do they then allow a person to fully belong to the community.

Churches would do well, I think, to appreciate the implications of the way in which Jesus created community.  Remarkably, he did not care much what people thought or believed.  He simply invited them in and gave them a place to belong.  It was that experience of belonging that opened up the first disciples to a transformative relationship with God in Christ.   And it is that same experience of belonging that will open up people today.