Friday, May 15, 2015

And, success means . . .?


      And let the hand-wringing continue!
      I admit, I've been around the block a time or two, so the recent news out of the Pew Research Center was not surprising.  If you've not seen it, the study, released on May 12, 2015, is entitled:  "America’s Changing Religious Landscape Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow".  According to the research, the Christian population in the US declined from 78.4% to 70.6% between 2007 and 2014.  At the same time, the unaffiliated portion of the population grew from 16.1% to 22.8%.  There was also a small percentage increase in non-Christian traditions.  In other words, MOST of those who "left" the Christian fold simply dis-affiliated.  A couple of commentators on this trend (although writing separately from the release of this study) calls these folks the "Dones" -- as in "done" with traditional religion, as semi-distinct from the "Nones", many of whom never affiliated.*
      Well, as historians of religion in America have noted for some time -- probably since the heyday of the post-WW II years, this trend is not new (or confined to Christianity), although the steep decline in less than a decade is a bit unusual.  And many of those historians, from diverse (or no) religious traditions, have tried to make sense of the decline.  For some, it is due to changing demographics -- with new ethnic/religious groups coming to the US, intermarriage has "diluted" religious homogeneity.  For others, it is the "culture wars", and certain traditions' hard-line stance against some social issues, that has "driven" people away.  For still others, the reason for the departure is some religions' focus on their own "stuff" (e.g., building buildings rather than feeding the poor, or padding the pastor's pocket).  Others would point to the battle between religion and science. And for still others, there is a dissatisfaction with a shallow presentation of the faith, i.e., "all glitzy show and no lasting substance".
       All of these reasons have their validity; the scholars who've reasoned them out have done so with good data.  And each of the reasons usually comes with a proposal to counter the decline.  Whether it's more involvement in social justice ministries, or more "new-age" worship, or more "traditional" worship, or "Religion & Science" lecture series -- the religious groups will not go "gentle into that dark night"**.
      I get it; I understand the concern.  And I am certainly not going to weigh in on one side or another. But sometimes I wonder -- at least for some religions, such as Christianity, that have socio-political change as part of their mission -- whether or not "success" has its own downside.  My pondering here stems from the take-over by the State of many, previously, religious institutions (such as hospitals or orphanages) by the state. In other words, the Church succeeded in implementing one of its major agenda items, that is, increasing social care for the sick and the orphans.  The problem was that the success was so great that the responsibility was taken from the Church and assumed by the greater population, a population that had adopted that concern.  The problem for the Church, then, was what to do when THAT reason-for-being was removed.  Another side to the interaction is equally problematic:  when a Religion and the State become so inter-twined, which rules the other, or, which co-opts the other?  We've certainly seen this played out in the history of the West, and we're in the middle of similar negotiations in the Middle East.  The results are rarely pretty.  And many well-meaning, faithful people run away screaming.
       So, many are wringing their theological hands, wondering how to draw the unaffiliated either in or back.  I understand; as I said above, I've been around the block a few times.  I just wonder whether it's time to declare a moratorium on trying new (or old) marketing techniques, and, rather, to go on an extended retreat to get a better handle on why our religious traditions are here in the first place.



*  Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People Are DONE With Church but Not Their Faith.
** Apologies to Dylan Thomas.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Get off the fence!

      My regular (car-)commute route to DU takes me past a church that routinely posts a quotation on one of their lawn-signs.  Early this week the quotation was from Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and author Elie Wiesel:  "The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference."  (There is more to the original:  "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death."*)   I recalled seeing Elie Wiesel speak many years ago.  I was struck by his lack of indifference.  His many books are passion-filled; he argues effectively for the future of our species, even while experiencing one of our darkest periods.
       Also this week, I received a newsletter, the "Awakin Weekly". The lead article was by another well-known Jewish author and scholar, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, entitled "
Radical Amazement".  He wrote:  "The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin (emphasis added)."  I was struck by the coincidence (or synchronicity) of finding both authors addressing "indifference" in the same week -- although in very different ways.
        Their concern, however, about "indifference" is something I've shared, and puzzled over, for some time.  I've long advocated for passionately pursuing a goal, not sitting on the sidelines.  My doctoral dissertation (on self-castration among some early Christian men . . . yes, that was the topic . . . and, yes, you may inquire further) focused on why someone would inflict irreversible injury on one's own body for religious reasons --- that is NOT the action of someone who was INDIFFERENT, but who REALLY believed in what he was doing.  It wasn't much of a stretch for me to wonder about kamikaze pilots as well -- not indifferent people at all.
        Individuals in these latter two groups are folks many of us would call "crazy".  We wonder, too, about the state-of-mind of those who would be seduced by rhetoric suggesting that suicide terrorist acts are praiseworthy.  But all of them display, it seems to me, a passion, a commitment, that, if it conformed to our belief-system, would be commended.  I've come to believe that we judge the act not by the commitment that lies behind it, but rather by the cause it reflects.
         I may open myself to criticism here (and it won't be the first time!), but I'd rather engage--peacefully, of course--with someone who was committed to their cause, whether I agreed or not, than with someone who couldn't care less.  And it seems to me that that is what a university should be all about:  fostering passion and commitment in the service of others . . . as well as civil discourse that can move us all forward.  What both Wiesel and Heschel point out is that doing otherwise, not paying attention, is setting oneself up to be caught on the fence, embarrassed, ineffective, 
immobile -- perhaps even sinful.        



*US News & World Report, October 27, 1986

Friday, May 1, 2015

Morning poem

         Life continues to intervene in very unexpected ways.  That has continued to be the case for my family the last several weeks.  And, so, again, instead of my usual Friday meditation, I offer a poem from  Mary Oliver as a spur for meditation:
Morning Poem

Every morning
the world
is created. 
Under the orange 

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again 

and fasten themselves to the high branches ---
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands 

of summer lilies. 
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails 

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere. 
And if your spirit
carries within it 

the thorn
that is heavier than lead ---
if it's all you can do
to keep on trudging --- 

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted --- 

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning, 

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy, 
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray. 

from Dream Work (1986) by Mary Oliver



Friday, April 17, 2015

Caravan to Love

         Life intervenes sometimes in very unexpected ways.  That has been the case for my family this week.  And, so, instead of my usual Friday meditation, I'm going to offer a brief prayer/poem from the poet Rumi as a spur for meditation:
Come, come, whoever you are.
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come. 



Friday, April 10, 2015

To tell the truth?

     I was in the fitness center this week, working out on an elliptical trainer.  As is the case in just about every gym I've visited, there is a bank of television sets tuned to a variety of channels - I suppose to keep our minds off of how exhausted we're getting. At that particular time of the day, there was a locally-produced "show" that is little more than info-mercials -- just with a Colorado slant.  Since I've been in the gym at that time before, I've seen "interviews" with doctors, dentists, cooks, home-repair folks, etc.  But this particular "episode" just about floored me.
      The segment was about (what looked like) a "fat-reducing machine".  The gizmo, as far as I could tell (since there was no sound), was placed on the belly of the patient and, somehow, through suction and heat, that awful belly-fat was made to disappear.  AND, they had before and after pictures to PROVE it!  And, golly, there were people in lab coats performing the procedure!  You just gotta trust 'em, right?  They have to be telling the truth!  All I could think of were the vibrating bands and little steam cabinets that were features of shows like "I Love Lucy", or even some of the early James Bond films -- and that have been thoroughly discredited.  Not to mention snake-oil salesmen of the 19-th century. 
But, folks will believe what they WANT to believe, especially if it's presented in a way that seems only slightly-more than half-way plausible.
       Yes, we're gullible.  But we're also AWARE that we're gullible, and we've even turned this trait into entertainment.  Whether its the party game (or committee ice-breaker), "Two Truths and a Lie"*, or the television show so popular ("To Tell the Truth"**) it was produced and then re-produced decades later (not counting syndication), or the traveling "The Liar Show"***, the joy of lying, or, maybe more positively, of trying to ferret out the truth seems to grip us all.  And, certainly, detective "whodunits" play to this same desire: we want to know the truth from amongst a pack of lies, false truths, and red-herrings.  And, it's fun!  I don't deny, or discount it.  I love mysteries!
      The problem, it seems to me, is that, sometimes, we begin to believe our own fabrications.  We begin to lose sight of that which is really the case. We begin to believe the alternative view that WE may have constructed, even when we know it's false.  Then we get caught up in that alternative world, not recognizing (or caring about) the harm that "living" there may cause others.  For some, certainly, this might be traced to a psychological disorder. Others may use the "distancing form reality" as a means of keeping them from dealing with their own "issues":  "If I don't acknowledge it, it doesn't exist!".  It's a sort of psychological/theological equivalent of children sticking their fingers in their ears, singing, "Lalalalalalala", to keep from hearing that throwing the vase at the cat was not a good thing.
        So . . . gullibility is one side of the equation.  Self-delusion or self-deception, another.  Neither is particularly healthy for us.  I recall the psalmist's observation:  "While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long . . . my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not conceal my guilt. I said, 'I will confess my trasngressions to the Lord.' Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin" (Ps. 32.3-5).  the implication is that honesty/confession brings release and renewal.  The same assertion is found in the New Testament:  "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (I John 1.8).****  Similar teachings can be found in all the religious traditions:  Be honest in your dealings with others, but also be honest in your dealings with yourself.
        Telling the truth may be difficult, but, given the world in which we live, we are NOT living in a game.


*  In the off chance you've not played this, instructions are here.
**  More information here
***  More information here.
****  Commentator Ron Allen wrote concerning this verse:  "The community’s part is to confess sins, that is, to name and admit ways in which the members continue to live by the values of the world. To fail to do so is to lie, i.e. to perpetuate the values of the world in the community of Jesus. Indeed, to fail to confess is the same as treating God as if God is a liar."  [I would assert that the more general word "faith" could easily be substituted for "Jesus" in this context.]

Friday, April 3, 2015

Up the ante! Down with the anti-!

      Yesterday, we heard the horrifying news of the killing of 147 college students in Kenya.  Further reporting later in the day and this morning suggested that the majority of the students that the Al-Shabab militants singled out as hostages or for killing were Christians.  That is, their "crime" -- other than being Kenyan, since many Kenyan Muslim students were freed -- was their religious tradition.  The Somali Al-Shabab gunmen were, therefore, both anti-Kenyan and anti-Christian. We have recently heard similar stories coming out of other countries where religious extremism and political discontent have become potent allies in pressing a particular agenda.  The anti-[fill-in-the-blank] forces seem to be out in full.
      Sometime in the last couple of weeks I was listening to a radio discussion about whether anti-semitism was so on the rise in Europe that Jews would be better off, or safer, in some other country -- the U.S. and Israel were suggested as good examples  where their "safety" was better assured.  There was, of course, discussion as to the source of the anti-semitism:  was it related to increasing Muslim extremism in Europe?  Or was it related to a resurgence of Nazi-like thinking? 
The experiences of Jews in Europe has been seen to be negative, however, regardless of the source. 
      Reporting out of Burma/Myanmar, on the other hand, indicates that the Rohingya Muslim minority is being persecuted by the Buddhist majority, sometimes quite violently.  Many of us can recall the horrific Christian massacres of Muslims in the Balkans several decades ago. But lest we think this is all somewhere "over there", we read, often enough, of anti-Muslim incidents in the US. The killing of three Muslim young people in Chapel Hill, NC a few weeks ago is just one example.
      So, within the span of about a week, I heard stories of "anti-Muslim" actions, "anti-Christian" actions, and "anti-Semitic" actions.  If I plug the words "persecution" and the name of any religion into a search engine, I can be assured of multiple results.  The same would be true, of course, if I 
substituted the names of ethnic or racial minorities for religious groups. As much as any group is persecuted, so are no groups free of being the persecutor.  We, as a species, seem hell-bent (and I use that word purposely) on being opposed to folks who are different from us.  If we can't find something obvious, we will manufacture some feature/belief that we can use to divide us from the "un-washed". And, once we've established the dividing line, we're not too far from setting up mechanisms to eliminate the opposition.
       I am not so naive to believe that there aren't some folks who pretty much ARE wrong, and who need to be corralled.  I would see various terrorist groups -- foreign and domestic -- as examples.  Those groups take an "oppositional attitude" and run amok with it.  Yet most opposition does not need to result in violent conflict; it can, sometimes, result in productive discussion and learning . . . if we are willing to allow for the possibility that we have something TO learn.
       Refusal to be taught is refusal to grow, a refusal to proceed, a refusal to progress. It is a choice to live in an "anti-world".  The challenge to us who think more positively is to up the ante, to live in a "pro-world", to learn and to teach that a peaceful future can be seen in the eyes and hearts of those who look different, and differently, than us.


Friday, March 27, 2015

How Important is Matching the Hatch?

       Last Saturday, I was standing in the Cache de Poudre River, northwest of Ft. Collins, engaging in that wonderfully frustrating past-time, "Fishing".  [Note:  I did not say "Catching"!]  I had spent the week prior brushing up on what to expect: what the weather might be, the water temperature and flows, and what kinds of bugs might be prevalent (i.e., what the menu might be on the trout smorgasbord).  It was a glorious day, and I was set!  The fish, on the other hand, had other ideas.
       One of my fellow-anglers was not experiencing the same level of frustration as I. And, so, as fisher-folk often do, I asked "What are you using?"  In other words, did he have the secret formula for a fly that, were I to use it, might result in MY success.  HIs answer didn't offer much help, as I was already using much the same thing . . . and I didn't have available to me the exact pattern that he was using.
       And so, as I stood in the river, I began musing on the strange business of fly-fishing and fly-tying.  One of the biggest pieces of advice assumed by all fly-anglers is that one needs to "match the hatch."  That is, if fish are feeding on a certain species of mayfly (because they seem to be "hatching" at that time), then they will probably not pay much attention to your offering of something resembling a stonefly.  Or even more frustrating is that they  might be feeding readily on a reddish bug, but ignore a black bug of the same style and size.
       So we embark on the quest for the right match.  Famous fly-tyers from across the years, and around the country, develop new patterns and tweak old ones in the pursuit of 
precisely replicating the legs, antennae, wings and tails of teeny little bugs.  One extra wrap of this wire.  Precise proportions of wing height to body length.  It's a quest for a Holy Grail!  And the funny thing is that almost ALL of those patterns will catch fish (well, except when they're on the end of MY fly-line!).  The correspondence between the actual bug and its replica doesn't have to be exact.
        Most anglers know the names of the afore-mentioned "famous fly-tiers".  We attend seminars given by them, hoping to learn the tricks and techniques that will improve our art.  We recognize that some of their patterns will work better in some parts of the country than in others.  They've learned on different waters, with slightly different insect populations.  they may have affinity for different materials; "natural vs. synthetic" is one hot argument.
        As Saturday wore on, and the times I changed flies increased, I began to see the whole enterprise in theological, or religious, terms.  Or, perhaps, to turn it around, I began to think about our religious longings in the same light as the longing for the "perfect fly".  If we get the ritual right; if we say the right words; follow the right theologians; if we understand the Divine in the right way; if we do all of these things correctly, then maybe, just maybe, we'll have that life-altering encounter with our quarry.  And I suppose this makes some sense.
        On the other hand, there were many of us in the river last Saturday; the parking lot was FULL, and each vehicle usually carried more than one person.  We were all in the pursuit of the same goal.  And, I dare say, few of us had exactly the same flies at the ends of our lines.  But most were successful in the encounter.  And, almost to an angler, we rejoiced with their success, not spending time arguing that THEIR flies and technique (which actually worked) were the WRONG ones.
        I learn a lot from fishing.