Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bad Theology and Acts of God

“Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen." -- Richard Mourdock

No doubt you have read or heard about the quote above and the firestorm that has followed it. Among a great many other comments, it provoked this blog post from Susan Russell. The blog post itself is about the mistake of writing our own theological convictions into law in a secular democracy. I'm with Susan on that one--if we are against a country instituting Sharia law as their civil law, why are so many of the same people eager to write evangelical Christian theology into law in this country? Yes, we do legislate morality--from the regulations we support to the tax breaks we give--but it should be a morality common to the vast majority of citizens, not the interpretation of a shrinking faction of them.

But that isn't what I want to blog about. I want to talk about the flawed theology the under-girds Mr. Mourdock's statement: the idea that everything that happens to us is under God's control. If it happened, then God intended it to happen.

This theology is most often expressed, unhelpfully, in the wake of a tragedy. I've especially heard it after the untimely death of a loved one. Phrases like "God must have needed him in heaven" or "God meant for this to happen" or "God must have some reason for doing this" are attempts to make sense of the senseless--and to hang that effort on the belief that God controls each and every thing that happens in this world. Even insurance companies use the term "act of God" to describe a natural disaster.

Books can and have been written about why bad things happen to good people. The point is that ever since the Garden of Eden, there have been two things that blocked God's will from being done in the world: human sin and random chance. If one accepts the Garden of Eden story even as an allegory, the question comes up: Did God intend for Eve to eat the apple? No, he specifically told her not to do so. Why did he even put the forbidden tree in the garden? Because following God's will without a choice is not discipleship, it is slavery. The Bible is filled with people who were asked to make choices about their lives and the results of those choices.

It is also the case that the world functions via natural laws--tidal waves, hurricanes, earthquakes, storms and other natural phenomena don't ask whether or not there are people living in that place--the event happens regardless of whether there are two or two million people living there. Along side natural law is random chance--in other words, stuff happens. God may be omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, but God has chosen not to control everything that happens in the world. Just as human beings have free choice about whether they follow God's direction or not, the world is also not subject to God's direction. Evil exists. Disease happens. The world is a fallen, imperfect place. It is not the Kingdom of God.

All of this provides, or should provide a sense of perspective to the Christian. Whoever ends up winning the election in a little more than a week or so, God will still be God and the world will still have the problems and challenges that it has. The way we deal with those issues as people of faith is probably more important than even this issues themselves. God does not cause tragedy, but God does help us deal with tragedy. And that is an act of God.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Money, Politics, and the Race to the Bottom

I don't usually get too political on this blog, but I just received an email, ostensibly from Vice President Joe Biden (but really from the Obama campaign) with a message that made me sit up, take notice, and sigh deeply. The message was this:

"If we don't win this election, it will be because we didn't close the spending gap when we could."

Really? Has our nation become so politicized, so polarized, so shallow, that the Presidential election will be decided solely by who has raised the most money? If that's the case, couldn't we at least do it for a worthy cause--sort of like Presidential telethon for, say, cancer. The one who raises the most money for the cause wins the election. At least then it wouldn't be literally billions of dollars spent on increasingly negative ads tearing down the other candidate and distorting his or her words and/or record. Perhaps I'm neither naive or just idealistic, but I would hope that the reason anyone loses an election is that the ideas and policies put forth by him or her at least seem better than the ideas and policies put forth by his/her opponent. Period. 

I'm pretty tired of the zero-sum political game--every policy question is framed in terms of who "wins" and who "loses." Even some TED talks are being restricted because tax policy is deemed "too political." Check this one, for instance:

This is a person who has "been there and done that" as far as starting a business, and has been extremely successful doing so. Yet his testimonial is deemed "too political" in the current environment. 

I long for a day in which people argue policy questions and come to a compromise solution that is good for the country. As long as we vote for whoever comes out on top of the fundraising smackdown, everyone loses.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Sound of Silents, Volume II

I may be odd in this way (I certainly am in other ways!), but generational identity fascinates me. The idea that we are formed by the culture in which we grew up, by the events we lived through, even by the number of people who grew up alongside us, is interesting in both personal and professional ways. A new blog entry entitled Generation X Doesn't Want to Hear It (warning, profanity) essentially expresses what most my fellow Generation Xers have known: we are destined to be forgotten. Either we will be the bridge between huge generations (Boomers and Millennials) or we will be water under the bridge. In many ways, we are the forgotten especially now.  The youngest of us have broken 30 years old and most of us have topped 40 and are no longer the "cool youth demographic" that is often defined as under 35 years old, especially in the church.

We are similar, in many ways, to the generation known as the Silent Generation (born 1925 to 1942). My parents are the youngest members of that generation, born between the Great Depression and World War II and coming of age in the 1950s when underneath the post-war celebration, the tectonic plates of cultural change were beginning to shift and cause the great cultural earthquake of the 1960s. GenXers were born largely from the Silent Generation, born during the sixties with little memory of the turmoil or during the seventies when things were sorting themselves out after the tumult and things like gas lines and pop music were primary memories.

So, what can we learn from (gasp!) our parents in the Silent Generation? Well, first, that they (like we) are/were a diverse lot--George Carlin, Peter, Paul and Mary, Newt Gingrich, Harrison Ford, and John McCain are (or were) of this generation. Wikipedia notes that:
In their book Generations, William Strauss and Neil Howe define this [Silent] generation as an Artist/Adaptive generation. An Artist (or Adaptive) generation is born during a Crisis, spends its rising adult years in a new High, spends midlife in an Awakening, and spends old age in an Unraveling. Artistic leaders have been advocates of fairness and the politics of inclusion, irrepressible in the wake of failure.
If Generation X is similar, we were born during the cultural and economic crisis of the 1960s and 1970s, came of age in the 1980s and 1990s while watching Silicon Valley and technology transform our lives and then saw the dot-com boom and bust and, during our (mostly young-) adulthood, the events of 9/11. By the pattern of the Silents, we are in a state of Awakening and they are in a state of Unraveling.  The legacy of the Silent Generation may be that they kept the country stable long enough for the Boomers to come of age and for the Generation Xers to survive our childhoods.

The other lesson and legacy of our Silent Generation parents is that we inherited the "adaptive" gifts and skill set--we appear to be able to adjust rapidly to changing realities, a skill forged during the technological revolution and the ups and downs of economic and political life. We're not quite the "fix it myself" folks that the Silent Generation are--many of them grew up on farms and learned to make do with the physical resources they had where as we grew up in suburbia and learned to make do with the emotional and mental resources we had.

This is only the beginning of some time I'd love to spend reflecting on lessons that I any my fellow GenXers can learn from those we are generationally (and sometimes literally) our parents. We'll see where that leads!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

From Assembly Line to Artisan

I am a huge fan of RSA, and more specifically the RSAnimate video series. Recently, I ran across a great video from 2010 discussing the huge challenges facing education in the twenty-first century. Check it out here:

I think the author, Sir Ken Robinson, makes some excellent points. I began formal schooling nearly 40 years ago. When I began, we did do a lot of playing, interacting with the world, and (yes) learning in the process. Fairly quickly, however, we ended up in a classroom with rows of desks, teachers in front of blackboards, heavy textbooks which we were not permitted to write in, and, increasingly, being taught subjects we had no interest in and many of which seem to have no practical application. So, now my children are in school and what fantastic progress has been made in almost 40 years? Well, there is more "group work" and children sitting in "pods" of four to six children (which has its own problems for those of us who are introverts, as this video points out). There certainly are more computers, smart boards, and other technology. White boards with pens have replaced blackboards with chalk. There is a lot more standardized testing.

Aside from all of that, kids are still being stuffed into classrooms with teachers in front of white boards, taught subjects of questionable utility from heavy textbooks (which they're still prohibited from writing in) and penalized if they don't find this as scintillating as conversations with one another or staring out the window, of which there are increasingly few. The comparison to a factory churning out groups of standardized students made in the video is painfully apt. We appear to be doing almost exactly the same teaching, with some technical modifications and "improvements" as we did four decades ago.

That lack of progress would be enough of a tragedy, but it is compounded by the fact that the world in which we are training our children to take their place as contributing citizens not only will not exist when they graduate, it does not exist now.  We live in a hyper-networked world where I can more easily contact someone halfway around the world than I can run down the hallway and see them face-to-face. We have access to more information in less time than anyone in human history. The speed of innovation is increasing exponentially--and our institutions and infrastructure are imploding.

From politics, to nonprofits, to corporations, and even to the church, institutions that launched the Baby Boomers into the world as arguably the most successful generation in history are crumbling in the face of a lack of common purpose, a lack of money, and a lack of a compelling rationale for their continued existence. Rather than seizing this opportunity to re-make the world with the revolutionary fervor of the 1960s, most of those Boomers and Xers in power are fighting a doomed fight to preserve what can be preserved of what was. And, sadly, they are being rewarded for doing so by constituents and consumers in a sort of "race to the bottom."

The solution is easy to say and difficult to implement--primary because it requires qualities that our parents and grandparents had but which seem increasingly in short supply: sacrifice and courage. We need to acknowledge the reality that some long-cherished things are dead or in their final stages of life. We need to think creatively about how to re-make the United States as a successful twenty-first century country in a twenty-first century world, and we need to reward politicians and corporate leaders for truth-telling and courageous leadership rather than for telling us what we want to hear. And we need to do this now, before a generation or two of people emerges that are ill-equipped to deal with twenty-first century realities and can only watch helplessly as things (sometimes literally) sink beneath the waves. It is also going to require that we recognize that the world has moved from the assembly-line back to the artisan, the craftsman, this time in the craftsmanship of the mind. We need to reward and enhance creative thinking rather than penalizing it--because we can't keep doing what we've been doing for the last half-century.

I think we can do all of this, but it is going to require us to resist easy answers, to know that the economic party of the 1990s and 2000s is over, and begin the make the adaptive changes needed rather than simply doing some technical tweaking.

Here ends the sermon.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tradition: Foundation Stone or Rock of Sisyphus?

In my December post, I recounted the words of the now-retired Rector of St. Bartholomew's Church that the Episcopal Church has a "huge and nearly immovable weight of tradition" that often prevents it from adapting well or quickly to new realities. Last week, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams announced he was resigning to become head of Magdalene College at Cambridge. In a recent interview, Williams discusses tradition and the "fresh expressions of church" movement in England:
Remember, you're not the first people to read the bible. There's twenty centuries of people praying and thinking through scripture and passing on their wisdom. It would be wonderful if we could recover a really lively and positive sense of what tradition meant. Not this great weight pressing down on you---this is how we've always done it---but there's this great reservoir of experience and wisdom which we're free to draw on and grow with.

And I think that is one lesson that all new kinds of congregation[s] have to bear in mind. The more traditional, traditionally mainstream kinds of church, need to know that the church is always being restored and renewed from unexpected places. The new, renewing, bits of church need to remember that God has not abandoned His church over twenty centuries and has been giving gifts all the way through to learn from. So it's that balance, what I once called the "mixed economy" of the church, which I think keeps us fit.
That got me to thinking about the nature of tradition. On the one hand, it can and does form a solid foundation upon which to build. On the other hand, it can just as easily become the proverbial Rock of Sisyphus that folks get tired of moving.

I think this has a lot to do with an emerging (no pun intended) idea that this post-Christian time period is much like the time after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. We're in a post-establishment time and there is a huge temptation to metaphorically attempt to carry some of the foundation stones away from the now-destroyed temple in an attempt at reconstruction, or at least an attempt to hold onto a symbol of the way things used to be. Contrast that with Jesus' words about the temple that were read two Sundays ago:
Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" But he was speaking of the temple of his body." (John 2:18-21)
Jesus also famously said to his disciples, upon sending them out for the first time:
"You may take along a walking stick. But don't carry food or a traveling bag or any money. It's all right to wear sandals, but don't take along a change of clothes. When you are welcomed into a home, stay there until you leave that town. If any place won't welcome you or listen to your message, leave and shake the dust from your feet  as a warning to them." (Mark 6:8b-11)
I'm just beginning to unpack the metaphor of the similarities between post-temple Judaism and post-Christendom Christianity, but the lesson for us may be to be quite careful about what we choose to put in our "tradition packs." When I was a child, our family used to take backpacking trips regularly. When one backpacks, the object is to make things as light as possible, since you are going to be carrying anything you pack for many miles. So, things are re-packaged to minimize weight, one makes use of freeze-dried foods that are much lighter than regular food, and one is very careful about what sort of "extras" one takes--and things that seem critical in regular camping, not to mention around the house, rapidly become "extras" when one is forced to carry them for many miles on one's back!

Perhaps that is what we're doing these days in the church--we're packing for an ecclesiastical backpacking trip. We're trying to sort our the essentials from the extras--and sometimes finding out that things that seemed essential when we were in the comforts of Christendom have become extras now that we are packing for a trip into the ecclesiastical and spiritual wilderness. Perhaps we also need to unload and drop our temple building-stones and recall that Jesus is talking about himself when he says:
 "Then what do the Scriptures mean when they say, `The stone that the builders tossed aside is now the most important stone of all'? Anyone who stumbles over this stone will get hurt, and anyone it falls on will be smashed to pieces." (Luke 20:17b-18)
Pack carefully....

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Maintenance, Mission, and Ministry

I just watched a video greeting (via Episcopal Cafe) by Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, ostensibly to the deputies to General Convention 2012, but is useful for everyone to begin to think and pray about what sorts of structures are useful in nurturing mission and ministry in our multicultural, postmodern context and which are either less useful or, worse, actually choke off the Spirit's work in and through us.

I'm glad that we're having this conversation. While I don't think maintenance and mission are mutually exclusive, a balance between the two would seem a necessary prerequisite to effective ministry in today's fluid and networked world. I am aware, however, that there is a temptation to overcompensate by simply getting rid of nearly all structures in the name of freedom of ministry. I don't really think that is a great idea, either. The Episcopal Church has a sense of order and a Benedictine value of stability within its DNA. While some of the structures might tend to be stifling, other (such as the ordination and disciplinary canons mentioned in the video) have their place if properly applied. I don't think anyone wants to go back to the days when the "ordination process" was merely a nice chat with one's bishop, with little involvement from others nor a disciplinary process that involved an uncomfortable conversation with that same bishop and then a quiet resolution to the issue. Generally transparency and communal discernment are to be commended.

That said, it makes complete sense to ask the question: "Why are we spending over half of our financial resources keeping the structures functioning?" Some of the reason is provincial--no one wants to have their department cut or committee dissolved and there is some concern that a leaner church structure is also a less democratic one. I'm not quite sure that democracy is a Gospel or biblical value, but even if it is, a denomination with less than 2 million people that has a legislature larger than the United States congress that meets every three years for a marathon legislative session seems more than a little out of balance to me.

I'm not a deputy to General Convention. I am a member of our own diocesan Standing Committee, and we also are asking questions about the structure and purpose of various ways of doing things. Like cleaning out closets, it will be an interesting process of deciding what to keep, what to throw away, and what to re-purpose.