Friday, December 1, 2017

Fabricating a Case

       A man went to his lawyer and asked him, "My neighbor owes me $500 and he won’t pay up. What should I do?"
     "Do you have any proof he owes you the money?" asked the lawyer.
     "Nope," replied the man.
     "Okay, then write him a letter asking him for the $5,000 he owes you," said the lawyer.
     "But it's only $500," replied the man.
     "Precisely. That’s what he will reply and then you’ll have your proof!"

     This joke showed up in my inbox yesterday. It's funny (at least to me) on so many different levels.  But it also, to me, highlights a fairly human tendency: exaggerate in order either (a) to make a point, or (b) to get what one wants. Both of those "reasons" suggest that the "exaggerator" feels somewhat helpless in his/her situation.
     I've been thinking about that phenomenon--dealing with helplessness--over the last week. I had reason to re-read some ancient gnostic texts, and re-do some background checking. Gnosticism was a philosophical/religious movement that arose in late antiquity (and some would stay still exists today). it took on several different forms, on of the main tenets was that there was some kind of esoteric knowledge that, if one was initiated into the fold, would "save" the believer from a future/afterlife peril. When I looked back at the background of gnosticism, and who was most likely to be attracted to it, one of the answers (of course, scholars won't always agree!) was the folks who were already marginalized, mostly socio-economically. Finding refuge in "being in the know" gave them some comfort that their "betters" would not be better off in the age to come.
     The same phenomenon, although spelled out differently, is found in apocalyptic literature in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. "Apocalypticism" presupposes a set of "hidden" facts that are revealed (the root meaning of apocalyptic) to believers, especially about the end of the world. Anyone who has read the biblical books of Daniel or Revelations will recognize that the "underdog" (primarily a religious minority in a repressed situation) will come out the "winner" at the end of the age, and that the oppressors will get their just desserts (usually burning in hot lava forever). Again, believing this way provides some comfort for those found in trying situations.

     It seems to me that we're seeing the same phenomenon playing itself out again. Only this time rather than appeal to some special, or recently revealed, hidden knowledge, we're seeing exaggeration to make a point. And here I would point to conservative Christians in the U.S. who are claiming that they are the most persecuted group in the country. Alan Noble, in an article in The Atlantic, "The Evangelical Persecution Complex", points out many of the problems of this position. One of the "results" is that "Being a 'loser' in the world's eyes for Jesus [is], paradoxically, cool". They may believe that to be the case, but, as is/was the case with gnostic and apocalyptic beliefs, it does little to change realities. Or, as Valerie Tarico points out, "When we cultivate the sense that we have been wronged, we can’t see the wrong that we ourselves are doing. We also give up our power to make things better. If people keep being mean to us through no fault of our own, then we’re helpless as well as victims, at least in our own minds. You can’t fix what you can’t see."*
       I've had all of these thoughts swirling through my mind this week as I've been teaching my interterm course "Angels in the Architecture", where I take a group of students to a dozen different places of worship, from Buddhist to Orthodox Christian, New Thought to Krishna Consciousness, Protestant Christian to Jewish. The students always come from a variety of backgrounds, but few have ever been into the kinds of buildings we visit, or talk with members of those congregations. As they do, barriers of misunderstanding are clearly broken down. My hope is that they, once the class is over, will not have to find refuge by fabricating a false truth, or a false hope, but that they'll seek out diverse points of view in order to find a common, better, solution to the problems that face us all.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Identifying the true beast within

     This past Tuesday I participated in two, seemingly unrelated, programs. The first was a book discussion on Blair Stonechild's The Knowledge Seeker*. Stonechild is a Cree-Saulteaux member of the Muscowpetung First Nation, and his book is an account of his life-long rediscovery of his native spiritual traditions, from his boyhood at the Qu'Appelle Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan to his current position as Professor of Indigenous Studies at First Nations University of Canada. His description of indigenous spirituality begins with, what he calls, the "Great Principle":  "that we are really spirit beings who are on a physical journey as humans" (p 49). And, while humans need to experience what physicality implies, "deep inside, humans yearn to reconnect with their spirit origins" (pp 51-2).  
      The key is "re-connection", or in other words, re-gaining harmony --  harmony with Spirit, with others, and harmony within one's own self. The various mechanisms by which this is achieved are all of the rituals often associated with native traditions:  prayers, sweat lodges, vision quests, etc. Stonechild recounts how the arrival of the colonists interrupted (and, in many cases sought to destroy) this set of traditions by which so many generations of people had found meaning and connection.

      Later that day, I attended a program on Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism. Professors Andrea Stanton (Religious Studies) and Sarah Pessin (Philosophy, and Center for Judaic Studies) both addressed the fear-based reactions of a religious-majority culture to (in this case) religious minorities. What distinguished their two accounts was the location of the threat. In the case of Islamophobia, Stanton argued, the threat was seen as coming from without:  immigration is allowing the "threat" (i.e., Muslims) into the country.  On the other hand, Pessin argued, in the case of anti-Semitism, the threat was seen as arising from within, from a people that appear to have assimilated, but will never really be "of" the majority.
       I was struck, as I went home that evening, how the two events raised issues of dis-ease/disease. To follow the medical analogy, Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism are based in the theory that there is some sort of "invader", whether from without or within, that is weakening the body (politic). In other words, it is "germ theory". Contrarily, disease in native traditions is a matter of being out-of-harmony. And, in this, there is great consonance with ancient Greco-Roman theories of health (i.e., the humours), as well as Chinese traditional medicine (i.e., restoring and balancing Qi).
      In the west, "modern" (i.e., western) medical theories are part of the "air" we breathe. As Stanton's and Pessin's lectures showed, they can even inform how we might interpret political and social realities. I wonder, however, whether our constant search for an "invader" prevents us from the kind of search for the disruption, and then restoration, of our internal harmony. Are we so encouraged to search for, and demonize, the alien that we are blinded to the beast within? Or are we simply too afraid to look within? And, without that introspection, are we the weaker for it?



* The Knowledge Seeker: Embracing Indigenous Spirituality (University of Regina Press, 2016).

Friday, November 10, 2017

Hear? See? Speak!

    Yesterday I was having lunch with a group of fellow clergy-folk, but from different traditions (Roman Catholic, Buddhist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian).  While the topic of conversation was NOT sermon-giving, during the course of the conversation the subject came up. We pretty much all agreed on two (dirty-little-clergy-secret) points:  (1) most clergy only have one or two sermons; we just work to repackage them for different occasions; and (2) most clergy preach to themselves, that is, telling themselves what they need to hear (and hoping the some in the congregation will identify).  Put those two points together, and it would appear that we need to tell ourselves the same thing over and over again.        And I was reminded of an old joke about a congregation that had called a new pastor. The first time the clergy-person preached, the sermon was well-received and compliments were bestowed. The following week there was a bit of consternation on the part of the congregation when they heard the same sermon! But many attributed it to the new pastor's being busy getting oriented, and not having time to prepare a new sermon. But, the following week, when they heard the same sermon for the third time, some of the congregation's leaders went to the preacher and said, "We've noticed that you've preached the same sermon three times in a row. That was not quite what we expected when we hired you. Can you explain?" The preacher responded, "Well, in the sermon I suggested that there might need to be some changes in y'all's behavior. I haven't noticed any improvement, so I had to assume that no one really listened, and I needed to repeat myself."
      It seems to me that, over the last weeks and months, we've been hearing the same stories over and over again. The two themes that have been most prevalent have been gun violence -- in particular mass shootings, and sexual predation/harrassment. I really cannot imagine any "normal" person would think that either of these two horrors is anything BUT horrible. But we hear about them over and over again, and little seems to change. Indeed, on some (high-profile) fronts, retrenchment and/or dismissal seem to be some of the most prevalent responses.      An only-slightly-les-problematic response is the now-cliched "Our thoughts and prayers are with . . . ". I can't help but see that response as a cop-out: "I don't really want to do anything, or take any responsibility, so I'll make it all God's issue." I have significant theological issues with that statement, since I don't believe in a thunder-bolt-throwing deity. On the contrary, the religious traditions I know suggest that humans have responsibility to right wrongs.         That means us, people! When we see evil, we must speak. When we hear evil, we must speak. Over and over and over, and loudly and loudly and loudly.  But we must do more . . . WE MUST ACT. And, if we don't, we're complicit. And we need to hear that sermon over and over.



Friday, November 3, 2017

I'm (not) certain; I'm reformed!

     This past week at the University of Denver, the Department of Religious Studies and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, along with many student group partners, mounted its first Religious Awareness Week. The theme, provided by the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 theses for reform of the Roman Catholic Church, was "Reformations".  There were opportunities for worship, informal inter-faith conversations and learning, as well as more formal, academic, offerings.
      One of the first events was a lecture by Prof. Susan Schreiner from the University of Chicago:  "The Reformation and the Problem of Certainty". I'll admit that I had no idea what to expect. But what I remember most was, to me, an interesting difference of opinion between the Reformers and the Catholic Church on the role of "certainty."  I may not be representing Prof. Schreiner's point entirely correctly, but the Reformers stressed that the believers be certain that their salvation was entirely the product of grace, that they could do nothing to earn it. This was the point of "salvation by faith", i.e, certain trust in the workings of grace." For the Catholics, certainty rested in the teaching authority of the Church. What the Church taught was to be obeyed; through that obedience, one was certain of salvation.
       For either group — the Reformers or the Catholics — the emphasis on certainty left no real room for questioning or doubt; an individual could only place trust in one of the two options. This idea of "no-doubt" seems strange to many of us, and Prof. Schreiner pointed out that most of us often look at the Reformation through "Enlightenment eyes", eyes that are conditioned to look for nuances, rather than settle into strict dichotomies. Given that difference in perspective (Late Medieval/Reformation vs. Enlightenment), she encouraged us to see the disputes between the Roman Catholic Church and Reformers with a little more understanding and patience.        That said, most of us are (perhaps uncomfortable) children of the Enlightenment -- perhaps even the Post-Enlightenment. Popular songs and books/movies speak of "shades of gray" as representative of reality.  Of course, there is push-back. Be it in the form of competing truth-claims about religion, or whether or not something is "fake" news, there are still many folks who take the position "My way or the highway!" This latter, pre-Englightment but purely Reformation-era, kind of thinking is not, in my opinion, going to get us very far in the complex world we inhabit.        I, for one, will follow Luther in "doubting" almost any entrenched "certainty". On the other hand, I refuse to set up another "entrenched certainty" in its place. I have to trust a bit in the power of doubt. That, to me, is a powerful offspring of "reformation."


Friday, October 27, 2017

Green Eggs & Ham?

 "I do not like green eggs and ham, Sam-I-Am!" 
     This fall I began offering a program called "Beans in a Cup". Developed by a former chaplain (The Rev. Dr. Timothy Moore), it is an interactive program centered around religious diversity, both nationally and on campus, as well as students' experience with religion.  It is heavily data-informed, from multiple national and local polls/surveys. Questions range from "How many Americans pray regularly?" to "What's the percentage of students who claim [religion x] as their tradition?" Attendees then "vote" their answer by putting a bean in one of eleven cups ranging from 0% to 100%. Conversation commences with the prompt: "Why do you think that?" Often the answer to that question has to do with limited experience of "the other" (such as "My high school was very mono-cultural").
      In addition to the "percentage" questions, there are also a number of True/False questions. These tend to be less "tricky" (since many of the students reflect the answers). But one question I really love discussing is:  "In general, exploring your faith while, also, exploring and interacting with other faiths makes you less faithful to your own tradition."   The answer (I hope you know) is "False". Again, I always ask "Why do you think that?" when the answer is confirmed. The responses usually center around two main ideas. First, putting one's own tradition in conversation with another often reveals common themes, which can strengthen one's security in their own thinking. And, second, putting one's own tradition in conversation with another can evoke the realization that "Gee, I never thought about it that way!"

       Part of the reason I love asking that particular question is that I have heard, from more than one sector of the religious world (and truth be told, most often from parents), that if students are exposed to another tradition, they might flee "home" and convert. Clearly the data (i.e., the self-reported experience of university students) indicates otherwise! Asking the question, and the resultant discussion, also gives me the opportunity to encourage exploration!

Would you? Could you? In a car?
Eat them! Eat them! Here they are. 

        Today, I am also going to encourage exploration! This evening we begin our first Religious Awareness Week at DU. A dream of mine for some time, we're finally able to offer a wide variety of opportunities for folks to explore something new, religiously. You can worship with Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Bakhti and Muslim friends. You can hear varying perspectives on how different faith traditions have undergone, or are undergoing "reformation". You can recount what kind of personal "reformations" you've experience, religious or otherwise. You can even post your "thesis" for reform on a red door (and see what others think!). A full schedule of events can be found here; you're bound to find something you may like!

Say! I like green eggs and ham! I do! I like them, Sam-I-am!
And I would eat them in a boat. And I would eat them with a goat...
and I will eat them in the rain. And in the dark. And on a train.
And in a car. And in a tree. They are so good, so good, you see!
So I will eat them in a box. And I will eat them with a fox.
And I will eat them in a house. And I will eat them with a mouse.
And I will eat them here and there. Say! I will eat them ANYWHERE!
I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am!*


*From Green Eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss (1960). Text retrieved from

Friday, October 20, 2017

A True Reality Show

     Sometime in the last week or so a Facebook post hit my "News Feed" that I wish I could relocate! The gist was that the individual had received a box (part of a monthly subscription service, I guess) containing a bunch of random objects . . . as well as a suggestion that the objects be used to create another "thing."  Imagine, for example, receiving a paper clip, a scrunchie, a pencil, a plastic spoon, a foot of braided cord, and a golf ball. The instructions:  "Replicate C3PO".  It reminded me of the reality cooking show -- "Chopped" -- where the guest chefs are given a number of ingredients and told to use them all in the creation of a three-course meal. The winner is the one who can imaginatively put together kit-lats, kale, kumquats, (k)lams, and kool-ade.
      One of the points, it seems to me, of both these exercises is that the "assembler" -- whether craft-er or cook-er -- has to suspend a bit of prejudicial logic and engage in a lot of creativity.  "Who would EVER pair a paper clip and a golf ball?" "Who would cook clams and kit-lats . . . together?"  Yet the assumption in both cases is that
it is possible.  And, sometimes, the outcome is quite amazing (well, at least in some of the menus). Who knew? E pluribus unum!
      As I ruminated on the "craft-of-the-month" and "Chopped", I saw them both as metaphors for our common life. Another, more immediate metaphor -- the human body -- has been used for centuries in this regard. Aristotle, for example, writing of the 'body politic" notes that all parts are critically important:  "since the whole is of necessity prior to the part; for example, if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand."* In the context of the expansion of early Christianity beyond its Jewish roots, the apostle Paul made great use of the metaphor in a letter to the church at Corinth (I Corinthians 12.14-20):

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.  If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?  But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.  If all were a single member, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many members, yet one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

It is fairly easy to relate these teachings to our current national sets of debates. We have competing visions of how a "whole" should look, and have had them since . . . well, at least, Aristotle and Paul's time.
       It is easy to look to the larger stage. But I found myself also looking at my daily life. I encounter, over and over again, situations and people NOT of my choosing. My knee-jerk reaction is to discount those that do not conform to my predilections or preconceived notions of "appropriate" or "acceptable". But, if I expand my idea of what might be my "body", I open myself up to some potential growth.  Encounters of any kind, according to process philosophers, inevitably change us. The challenge is to point that change in a positive, fruitful, rich, direction. The challenge is not a box of ingredients that arrives once a month, or on stage in front of the cameras. It is with us all the time . . . a true reality show.



* Politics, Book I, Pt. 2

Friday, October 13, 2017

Annoyance => Curiosity

      October 5th was . . . wait for it . . . Rocky Mountain Oyster Day*! (Well, you may NOT be waiting for it! I'm still not sure if I'll be observing it next year . . .). I had no idea that that was the case until I read about it in the article linked above. And, it seems, there was a good reason. The day didn't become designated as such until THIS YEAR!
      The establishment of a day devoted to this Colorado delicacy was the labor-of-love (?) of Denver Post contributor Allyson Reedy. As a food-writer, she says she got annoyed by all of the "national food days" she was constantly being asked to cover. But, as she told interviewer Ryan Warner in a Colorado Matters segment, that annoyance turned into curiosity -- curiosity about how "national food days" were established. I will leave it to the "curious" reader/listener to learn that process! What really interested me in Ms. Reedy's interview was her transition from annoyance to curiosity.
      My immediate thought was that most of us experience some different sort of transition when faced with an annoying situation/person:  from annoyance to anger; from annoyance to belittlement; from annoyance to avoidance. For some reason, however, Ms. Reedy chose to "lean in to" her annoyance, and transform it. (Note: Ms. Reedy confesses in her interview that, prior to this year's Rocky Mountain Oyster Day, she had never HAD one of the "oysters". So her efforts were NOT based on her appreciation for the delicacy.) Her annoyance => curiosity led her to learn a lot about many things. It was not the same outcome as a dead-end annoyance =>avoidance.

       As often happens for me, listening to the podcast coincided with another encounter, this one with a text attributed to the fourth-century Syrian Christian St. Ephraem: "[Y]our word, Lord, has many shades of meaning just as those who study it have many different points of view."** As I considered Ephraem's words, I mused that the variety of interpretations of ANY word can be both a good thing and a bad thing.  On the negative side, multiple interpretations "mess with the truth" -- at least the "truth" as we understand it. Annoyance here begets, I suspect, belittlement and/or avoidance. I think of the old phrase "America: Love it or Leave it!" -- it all depends on how one understands "America".
       On the plus side, however, multiple interpretations can broaden our understanding. Anyone who has engaged in translating one language to another recognizes that most words in one language resist easy equivalency in another. Translators must make a choice (at least if they want their translation to flow), recognizing that that choice is probably inadequate. Readers may not like the choice and, as above, can (a) belittle, or (b) avoid. Or they can do a bit more digging (c) to find out more of the nuances of the translation; and/or (d) to understand more about the author's stance. Either of the possibilities "c" or "d" can lead to growth of understanding and, perhaps appreciation. Possibilities "a" or "b" will most likely lead to animosity.
        May we learn to translate annoyance into curiosity. (Gentle reader, you may solve the question of Rocky Mountain Oysters in the privacy of your own heart.)



* Yes, for those foodies in the know, it was also National Apple Betty Day -- but that doesn't make for such a good opening line!
** From The Tao of Jesus: A Book of Days for the Natural Year, edited by John Beverley Butcher (Harper Collins, 1984), 334.