Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Growing in the Faith

Is your religious faith, or lack thereof, the same now as it was, say, when you were twenty years old, or (for you mature adults) when you were forty years old? If not, how would you explain the difference? Is the difference due to growth or stagnation?
CONSIDERING A QUESTION
One of my church friends, who fairly recently became a Thinking Friend, is a young woman who had strong ties to Southern Baptists while growing up. Her family still has close ties with the Southern Baptist Convention: her sister, for example, is currently a student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary here in Kansas City.
My friend, who is an activist and quite “liberal” in her social views, knows that I was a Southern Baptist for most of my life but that I now largely agree with her and share most of her “liberal” social views.
A few weeks ago my friend asked, “What caused you to change?”
My answer: “I would like to think it has been the result of growing in the faith.”
Indeed, I do think that—but I realize that there are others who knew me “back then” who would have a different assessment. They would likely explain my change as being due to abandoning the faith—at least the faith as was known and practiced by most Southern Baptists in the 1950s and by many SBs still.
CONSIDERING AREAS OF CHANGE/GROWTH
Two of the main areas in which I believe I have experienced change/growth in faith are (1) change from an exclusivistic view of God and God’s relationship to the people of the world to much more inclusivistic view, and (2) change from a predominantly other-worldly view of life to an equally dominant, if even not more prominent, this-worldly emphasis .
Perhaps reading J.B. Phillips’s Your God Is Too Small (1953), during my first year of college started me growing toward a view of God that was broader, more inclusive than what I had grown up thinking/believing.
Back in 2015, I ended my Oct. 15 blog article with these words:
Without question, Christianity has often held to an exclusivism that has been divisive and restrictive. But a deeper understanding moves one from exclusion to inclusion and from restriction to expansion. – Maturing in faith impels a person to move from the us/them mentality of childhood to including “others” as a part of an inclusive circle of “we.”
Then, consistent with the evangelicalism/revivalism that I was nurtured in and embraced well into my 30s, the overwhelmingly important mission of the Christian faith, I thought, was “saving souls” for life after death, for Heaven. That is an “other-worldly” emphasis that many of you readily recognize.
But gradually I came to understand that human life and well-being in this world is of great importance--and, in fact, the Kingdom of God is as much about, or even more about, God’s desired reign now rather than after the “end of the world.” 

CONSIDERING EXAMPLES
Some of the contemporary Christians I admire the most, and by whom I have been influenced, have a story similar to mine. They also moved from a narrow, fundamentalistic type of Christianity toward a broader, socially “liberal” position on many issues.
Three good examples are Jim Wallis, Philip Yancey, and Brian McLaren—three “mature adults” in their 60s. I must write more about these three: to this point in my blog articles, I have “labeled” Wallis twice, Yancey once (here on 10/5/16), and McLaren not even once.
First, though, I plan to write about the ten Christian speakers/writers whom I admire most—and who have helped nurture my growth in the faith.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Frederick Douglass: Getting Recognized More and More

This Black History Month article is about Frederick Douglass, the African-American man who now seems to be getting recognized more and more—partly because of DJT’s somewhat puzzling comment to that effect on Feb. 1.
HISTORIC SITE
Last Thursday I flew to Washington, D.C., where son Keith picked me up. At my request we went straight from the airport to the Frederick Douglass Historic Site in southeast D.C. It was a wonderful visit of the Cedar Hill residence that Douglass purchased in 1877 and lived in until his death in 1895.
Douglass was able to purchase the splendid house in Anacostia because of his appointment as Federal Marshal of Washington, D.C. Soon after President Hayes’s inauguration in March 1877, he named Douglass to that position, partly in appreciation for his support during the heated presidential campaign of 1876.
Here is a picture I took of his spacious Cedar Hill home: 

HISTORICAL SKETCH
Statue of Douglass in Visitors Center
It is not certain that Douglass was born in February, but his birthday was celebrated at the Historic Site this week on Monday. Most sources now say he was born in 1818, although Charles Chesnutt’s 1899 biography of Douglass gives his birth year as 1817. There were not good historical records kept on slaves—and Douglass’s mother was a slave in Maryland at the time of his birth.
When he was about twenty years old, in 1838 Douglass escaped from slavery, fleeing to New York. That same year he married Anna Murray, who became the mother of his five children and was his wife until her death in 1882.
In 1841 Douglass became widely known as a public speaker, delivering speeches for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Seven years later, he attended the first women’s rights convention and also became an advocate of suffrage for women.
Then in 1858 John Brown stayed in the Douglass home (in Rochester, N.Y.) for a month, but Douglass never condoned Brown’s plan for the Harpers Ferry attack. He did, however, later recruit Black soldiers to fight for the Union. He also served as an adviser to President Lincoln during the Civil War.
(This link to Douglass’s timeline gives much more historical information.)
Douglass died in his Cedar Ridge home on Feb. 20, 1895. Since he had been a lifelong Methodist, his elaborate funeral was held at a large AME Church in D.C.
HISTORIC CRITICISM
In the appendix of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), the first of his three autobiographies, Douglass explained what he had written about religion in his book:
What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest, possible difference--so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.
Frederick Douglass was unquestionably a great man. I am glad his life and work, including this historic criticism of “slaveholding religion,” is now “getting recognized more and more.” 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Problem with Being a Centrist

Does calling for a radiant center in politics mean that people of good will should be, or seek to be, centrists? Is being a centrist always a positive thing? Is there anything negative about being a centrist? These are some of the questions I began to think about after posting my Feb. 8 blog article and reading the thoughtful comments made about it.
WHY BEING A CENTRIST IS GOOD
Assuming that being in the “radiant center” as proposed in that blog article makes one a centrist, the positive things about such location must be considered.
Centrists are persons who don’t like extremism and want to live in peace and harmony with all people as much as possible. That’s good.
Centrists are persons who want to accept, and be accepted by, people who disagree with them and who promote inclusion over exclusion. That’s good.
Centrists are persons who appreciate and affirm truth, beauty, and goodness wherever it is found, no matter the label or the location. That’s good, too.
WHY BEING A CENTRIST CAN BE BAD
Sometimes being a centrist is not a good thing, however. That is particularly true when, or if, centrality means neutrality in the face of injustice.
In one of his oft-quoted statements, Desmond Tutu said, 

In the 1930s, what benefit was it to the Jews for many (most) Germans to be centrists rather than being on the left opposing Hitler and the Nazi fascists?
In the early 1960s, what benefit was it for many (most) white Americans to be centrists rather than being on the left opposing the Jim Crow laws supported by the segregationists on the right?  
In the 2010s, what benefit was it for many (most) “straight” people to be centrists rather than being on the left supporting the civil rights of LGBT people buffeted by prejudice and discrimination by those on the right?
And looking toward the future, if human habitation on this planet is in jeopardy because of effects of global warming, as it most probably is, what benefit is it for citizens of the world to be centrists rather than being on the left and in vocal opposition to the global warming deniers on the right?
If being a centrist means not taking a stand against injustice and against the mistreatment of people or the environment, then clearly that is not good.
ANOTHER WAY OF BEING A CENTRIST
Soon after posting the Feb. 8 article on the radiant center, I realized that I had mixed metaphors in talking about the center. That realization was partly due to reading Mennonite theologian Ted Grimsrud’s Feb. 7 blog article titled “The Left/Right Schema Must Go” (see here).
Grimsrud stressed the importance of holding to “core values.” This means that the center is the core, not the position between the right and the left on a linear spectrum. This is what Easel Roberts was suggesting, I came to realize, with the image of the merry-go-round—and what I had missed by staying with the right/left schema.
So, moving toward the center, which represents core values, is another way—and a good way—to be a centrist.
But, alas, that doesn’t seem to solve the problem of the division (“polarity”!) so prominent in contemporary society. Why? Because people disagree on core values. For example, conservatives (people on the right) see their opposition to abortion (“killing babies”) to be an immovable core value. But people on the left see women’s reproductive rights (“pro-choice”) as an important core value.
So, being this kind of centrist is also a problem.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

“On Not Leaving It to the Snake”

Thinking Friend Charles Kiker referred to Harvey Cox in commenting on a recent blog article. I responded (see here) by acknowledging my appreciation of Cox’s thinking and by mentioning his book On Not Leaving It to the Snake (1967).
Even though I have long been an admirer of his, up to this point I have not written about Cox, now professor emeritus of Harvard Divinity School, in any of my blog articles. I am filling that lacuna now.
COX’S BOOKS
Harvey Cox (b. 1929) became widely known in theological circles—and beyond—with the publication of his book The Secular City (1965). Remarkably, it has sold over a million copies, a rarity for a theological book.
Cox’s book titled God’s Revolution and Man’s Responsibility was also published in 1965. Unlike the former book, which I read soon after it came out (and again later with even more appreciation), I didn’t read this latter book until in the 1970s. I found it, too, to be a good and important book.
Through the years, Cox has written many other books—including one I have not seen yet: The Market as God (2016), introduced in a Jan. 5, 2017, article in The Nation.
It is specifically Cox’s On Not Leaving It to the Snake, though, that I am writing about in this article. More particularly, I am focusing on the part of that book most relevant to us now: “Introduction: Faith and Decision” (pp. vii-xviii).
COX’S POINT
Cox explains that in the long history of Christian theology, “original sin” has generally been interpreted in such a way that pride is seen to be “the most dangerous of all human sins.” 
In contrast, using the “sexist” language usual for the 1960s, Cox avers that “man’s most debilitating proclivity is not his pride. It is not his attempt to be more than man. Rather it is his sloth, his unwillingness to be everything man was intended to be.”
Accordingly, in the Genesis story of Eve, she was guilty of the sin of sloth, letting the snake tell her what to do.
The ongoing significance of that mythical story is simply this: “Adam and Eve are the biblical Everyman and Everywoman. Their sin is our sin.”
COX’S RELEVANCE
It might be argued that part of the political problem we have in the U.S. today is because many voters committed the sin of sloth. And here I am thinking of the (literally) millions of people who voted for Obama in 2012 but who--because of apathy, or whatever—did not vote at all in 2016.
Further, and perhaps even worse, is the fact that probably millions of voters left it up not to the snake but to the fox (Fox News) to tell them (implicitly, if not explicitly) who to vote for.
In looking ahead, the sin of sloth/apathy may well do the country in—or vigilant resistance/action may keep the country from going down the tubes.
The March 2017 issue of The Atlantic has a long and significant article titled "How to Build an Autocracy" (which you can read here). In that article, David Frum, the author, “argues that if Congress is quiescent and the public apathetic, President Trump can set the country down a path toward illiberalism, institutional subversion, and endemic graft.”

So far, there has been considerable resistance to DJT. Let’s pray that peaceful actions for justice will continue and that a large majority of the population will not succumb to the sin of apathy and will not leave it to the snake (or the fox) to tell them what to do.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Can There Be a Radiant Center in Politics?

“Republicans are moving further Right and Democrats are moving further Left. NEITHER situation makes for a unified country.” That comment on my Jan. 25 blog article was posted by Easel Roberts, a Thinking Friend (TF) with whom I used to attend the same Sunday School class here in Liberty but who now lives in South Carolina.
COMPELLING COMMENTS
Easel is a P.E. (Professional Engineer) who works at GE Renewable Energy, and I value his viewpoint, partly because few of my TFs have the educational background and occupational experience that he has.
In a follow-up email, Easel wrote,
“It is, as if, some cosmic force (media, Facebook, politics, social issues) has put us all on a kid’s merry-go-round. The only answer is ‘I’m right and you are wrong’ and vice versa. There is no meaningful dialogue or debate.
“The ‘forces’ are making the merry-go-round go faster and faster. We are fighting desperately to hold on for dear life to keep from being thrown off. IF we could only get to the center, we could relax because there would be no forces throwing us toward the edge. 
“While certainly not human nature, we need to lead people to the middle OR . . . we will destroy the country by trying to WIN. If Christians, and by extension the church, cannot figure this out, then we truly have no hope.” 

AN AFFIRMING RESPONSE
In my response to Easel’s thought-provoking comments, I said, “In my book The Limits of Liberalism I wrote about the need for a ‘radiant center’ regarding theological issues. Perhaps that is one of the biggest needs politically also.”
Finding such a radiant center, however, is probably more difficult, more elusive, and more unlikely in the political world than in the theological world. Yet perhaps that is a goal, an intention, an aspiration that needs to be given the highest priority.
Over the last couple of weeks I have heard mention of a possible civil war ensuing in the near future. Finding the center is not only essential for Christians (the church) as Easel emphasized, it is essential for the United States as a whole.
THE PERSISTING PROBLEM
The ongoing, persistent problem, though, is this: How could a radiant center ever be formed?
For example, what would a radiant center look like in a society where some people consider all abortion the same as murder and others see abortion as an essential part of “women’s reproductive rights”?
What would a radiant center look like in a society where some people consider same-sex marriage as an abomination contrary to the clear teachings of the Bible and others see it as a necessary part of some people’s civil rights?
What would a radiant center look like in a society where some people consider “illegal aliens,” visitors from Near Eastern countries, and refugees from Syria to be serious threats to the safety and wellbeing of U.S. citizens and others see the welcoming of strangers and suffering people to be an indispensable expression of Christian love or even of human decency?
Perhaps there is no center position on such issues. Perhaps it illusionary to think that there could be a center embracing both “pro-life” and “pro-choice”—although there are those now who are emphasizing that “pro-life” means far more than anti-abortion, and most on the left can agree with that emphasis.

Maybe, though, with a constant emphasis on such things as freedom with responsibility, full acceptance of those who are “different,” justice, compassion, etc., there can gradually be, even in politics, the growth and expansion of a much-needed radiant center.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

What about the National Prayer Breakfast?

You likely have heard various things about the National Prayer Breakfast that was held on Thursday morning. The first thing I saw reported was about DJT asking those in attendance to “pray for Arnold” (Schwarzenegger) and his ratings on The Apprentice.
Fair enough, I guess. Good speakers usually start off with something in a light-hearted vein—although ordinarily not quite so vain.
THE GOOD
The POTUS had some good lines in his speech, which you can read here in its entirety. For example, even though he is a billionaire, DJT declared that “the quality of our lives is not defined by our material success, but by our spiritual success.” Quite true.
The President also emphasized that “we are all united by our faith, in our creator and our firm knowledge that we are all equal in His eyes.” No disagreement there.
While there may be some discrepancy between these words of DJT and what he has said and done in the past, most of us are able to applaud those statements.
THE BAD
The worst part of the talk by the POTUS was his promise to eradicate an important safeguard in the separation of church and state. "I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution," he said.
As most of you know, the Johnson Amendment, enacted in 1954, states that tax-exempt entities, such as churches and charitable organizations, are unable to directly or indirectly participate in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate if they wish to maintain their tax exemption.
The Christian Right has been trying to get that changed in the name of religious freedom, and it looks as if DJT is willing to seek that—perhaps partially in payment for the support he received from evangelicals in the past election.
This is a disturbing proposal that some quickly opposed. For example, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, an organization of traditional Baptists, who have always been outspoken proponents of the separation of church and state, issued an opposing statement on the same day.
To change the law would hinder the church’s prophetic witness, threatening to turn pulpit prophets into political puppets,” they said.
THE QUESTIONABLE
The whole idea of having a National Prayer Breakfast, which was started, and continues to be supported, largely by conservative Christians, is highly questionable.
(Although it was written in February of last year, I encourage you to read this article by Thinking Friend and eminent Kansas City blogger Bill Tammeus.)
The National Prayer Breakfast, which has been held every year since 1953, was created by The Fellowship, also known as The Family, a religious and political organization founded in 1935 by Abraham Vereide.
The Fellowship/Family is a very questionable organization as Jeff Sharlet’s book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (2008) points out well. Sharlet’s work is perhaps a bit exaggerated, but he raises many questions that ought to be taken seriously.

So as a long-time advocate of the separation of church and state, as almost all baptists (small “b” intentional) in this country have been since the time of Roger Williams in the 1630s, I think that not only were the remarks of DJT on Thursday highly questionable but also that the annual observance of a National Prayer Breakfast itself is questionable. 

I am not against praying and certainly not against breakfasts, but perhaps it is not a good idea to have a “national” prayer breakfast, especially when it focusses on prayers to God primarily as understood and worshipped by conservative evangelical Christians.