Saturday, March 21, 2015

"When so much public God-talk is cringeworthy and meanspirited, it’s worth noting moments like these."

I agree with everything that is said here.  If I add anything, it only to fill out the idea of theology as a public exercise, not to turn the conversation toward my experience, or even toward me.

When I was in seminary I had the distinct pleasure of giving a sermon (which, being good Protestants, we all thought was the main point of why we were leading worship.  I learned later to reconsider that opinion, although my congregations never did.  Gary Wills anticipates a Catholic church becoming more Protestant, but the emphasis on the Word, on preaching, is one thing I hope they don't take up.  Protestantism did itself more harm than good with that emphasis.  Ah, but I digress.....) to a church where I was a mere student (I was, shortly thereafter, a student pastor with my own congregation.  They were gracious enough to put up with me for the short time I inflicted myself on congregations.).  My sermon revolved around a story:  not a Biblical story, but one from television.

The details are another digression, so let me get to the point:  after the sermon (I think it was a week later, but memory now thinks it was immediately after), a mother came to me to thank me for the sermon, because it gave her son a way to understand Jesus as real to him.  It wasn't what I was going for, not by a long shot.  In fact, I was trying to get people to consider the invisibility of the poor, of the other; something typically highfalutin' like that.  Her son had taken it as a lesson in metaphysics, but who was I to judge him wrong?  I had a few other experiences like that, people pleasantly surprised at what I opened to them (but then just as often disillusioned when I didn't continue to give them more of the same, to keep them in their new comfort zone.  Ministry is hard; it really is.), but being the first, that's the one I remember the best.

They are still moments worth noting, especially since they don't neatly end with "And they all lived happily ever after."  The story ends there, the whole narrative goes on.  I know the name "Kathy Gissendaner" because of this article; and this article was written because she managed to make friends with very notable persons (it never occurred to me to become pen pals with Jurgen Moltmann; maybe I should have shown more interest in contemporary theology than in contemporary philosophy.  Still, it never occurred to me to become pen pals with Jacques Derrida, either.  Oh, well....).  It is still true that it isn't what you know, it's who you know.   Not, apparently, that it has commuted the death sentence on Ms. Gissendaner.

But aside from the interest she has managed to garner for herself, is the issue of value.  If theology is of value in her life, is it of value in the world?  Or should that even be the question?  Should we adjudge theology by it's value according to worldly standards?  And which ones are those?  I don't mean, by asking that, the silly ignorant standards of a Richard Dawkins or a Sam Harris; and I don't mean the commercial standards of the market place, either.  Actually, the only "valuable" thing theology has done for Ms. Gissendaner is to make her a bit better known that she was.  Her death is still more scheduled than mine.  But has it been of value to her, personally?  And if it has, how do we assess that?

Perhaps we don't; perhaps we just acknowledge, or admire, how many more things there are in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies; perhaps we humble ourselves before the varieties of religious, and even non-religious, experiences.  Perhaps from a story like this we learn not to make our lives and our experiences and our understanding the one yardstick by which everyone else, and everything else, is measured.

Maybe we at least reconsider making so much of our public discussion so cringeworthy and mean spirited.

But where are the clicks in that?


  1. i'm a little startled at the (muted) assumption of bad faith (i apologize, but it seems the best phrase) regarding ms gissendaner's religious exploration. the writer of the religion dispatches article, you, or i might not consider contacting someone like dr moltmann, but why not? i would assume a lot of people do- and that she must have had something going to which he responded

    this doesn't really relate to anything you wrote, but it's something i've been stewing about: we just seem to be too in love with our own certainties- they limit us even as we're most sure they're setting us free

  2. I apologize for any suggestion in my post of bad faith on the part of Ms. Gissander. If anything, I'm a bit jealous she contacted Dr. Moltmann. It's honestly the kind of thing that's never occurred to me.

    In fact, as I was reading the article, I thought it was less about the fact someone on death row now had famous friends to advocate for her (and how unfair that is to others on death row around the country) and more about the power of theology.

    I think I may have lost that thread, however. It happens to me more often than not. I would prefer to focus on the value of human contact, and maybe even the reality that we can't love humankind (thinking of Linus Van Pelt's famous statement "I love mankind, it's people I can't stand!"; or better, his statement to his sister Lucy that he loved all things (moved by Christian impulses, you understand). When Lucy said he didn't love gila monsters, Linus replied, "If I knew what a gila monster was, I'd love it!").

    I should, in other words, have turned it toward a deeper theological reflection. I think I missed that. If there is true value in theology, it is in making us examine ourselves more thoroughly, and recognize our limitations, and sometimes even, not to scold ourselves for merely being human.