Friday, May 29, 2015

OMG! Change the Conversation!


     The first class I (co-)taught at the University of Denver was an honors seminar, titled (assuming my memory hasn't failed me) "Science and Religion".   My "partner in crime" was a biology professor, and a leader in teaching science teachers in Denver.  After some thought, we realized it probably should have been called "Evolution and Creation", since we rarely ventured beyond questions of human origins.  We didn't, for example, consider issues of morality (some scholars, such as Marc Bekoff, are raising questions about whether or not non-human animals have a morality all their own).  Nor did we take up the conversations between string theorists/quantum physicists and theologians.  No, we stuck to the ongoing debate between biologists and those religious folks who assert that the first few chapters of Genesis contain irrefutable scientific information.  In other words, the conversation was about creators/creation.
        What a small conversation!  I was reminded of this last week while when I overheard someone remark that "Creator" was only one possible attribute of the Divine. This person mused that "Redeemer" was an equally valid, and potentially more powerful attribute of God.  And that got me thinking . . . .  Why are many of our of cultural conversations about God limited to the question of "creation"?  in various parts of the US, school curricula are being challenged/changed to include creationism and/or intelligent design.  And many of the so-called "New Atheists" delight in pooh-pooh-ing the "out-dated" views of fundamentalists -- to the delight of the media, sensing a juicy battle.
        But I wonder, what if we DID add some other attributes of God to the conversation? Let's, for example, take up just some of Islam's one-hundred "Names of God".  What would happen if we spent time considering:  "God the All-merciful"?**  What might that imply:  "Oh, you mean we need mercy?"  Why would we need mercy?  What does that say about human nature?  Does science answer that question?  Or, "God, the Provider"?  What IS the source of all that we consume, from the air we breathe and water we drink and love we cherish?  is there a scientific answer to that?  Or, equally problematic for the "other" side, do religious people have a responsibility to preserve that which God has provided?  What about "God, the Guide to the Right Path"?  Along what paths does science lead us?
       And, that's only three percent of the names!

       I am certainly NOT one to mount a critique of science. My co-instructor and I saw the underlying points of our class from pretty much the same position (which meant the class didn't get as "exciting" as we may have hoped).  And I am not necessarily denying 
that there may be scientific "answers" to some of the questions I raised above.  I am only suggesting that, by limiting our cultural conversations about God to questions of "creation" or other biological issues (e.g., bio-ethical debates or gender/sexual controversies), we are avoiding some, potentially, much more useful areas of our lives and times.
       I think it's time to change the conversation!  We 
should all benefit!



*  "OMG" = "Oh, my Glory!" (Sr. Joan Chittester)
**   Al-Rahim
***   Ar-Razzaq
****   Ar-Rashid

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