Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Itinerant Meditation during Advent

First, of course, theologians don't have any power; and they shouldn't go seeking an excuse to claim some.

Second, the last time theologians gained any notoriety, it got some of them on the cover of Time Magazine.  And while there's hardly a straight line and a single cause, getting the then most influential news magazine in America to ask "Is God Dead?" probably sparked, or at least was one more spark, to the rise of the fundamentalists, a problem we're still dealing with in America and on the world stage (funny nobody calls Daesh Islamic fundamentalists, although they so clearly are).

So be careful what you ask for; you might get it.

Third,  never forget the old adage that you can lead a horse to water, but you wan't make him think.  About 100 years ago, learning koine Greek was a growth industry in America.  People bought correspondence courses so they could read the Greek New Testament in the original language.  Why?  Probably it was sparked by the German Biblical scholars who also sparked the first wave of the American Christian fundamentalist movement; suddenly Biblical scholarship was a hot topic, and people wanted to read the words for themselves, without interpretations.  A similar interest in Biblical scholarship, if not in learning Greek, rose up again at the end of the century when the Jesus Seminar decided which words of Jesus were authentic.  The faint echo of even that interest comes back now with the revelation that science can tell us what Jesus looked like (I always preferred to say he looked like Yasser Arafat, but that's a dated reference now, too.)

The best explanation I can give, in other words, is that it was the zeitgeist.  People were interested in something new.  Even the Jesus Seminar didn't spark any interest in learning Greek.  Why not?  A variety of reasons, I'm sure, but it comes down to:  it didn't happen.  What was the result of all the interest in Greek in the early years of the last century?  Maybe it explains the dip in self-identification with a religious organization (it's low point was 1916).  Maybe not.  But it wasn't anything theologians could fix.

I've learned one thing about education:  you can't educate someone who doesn't want to learn.  You can confuse them, confound them, confront them with their ignorance:  you can't educate them into knowing what you want them to know, if they have no desire to know it.  What do most of us know about Islam?  It's probably as wrong as what I knew about Judaism when I was a child.  I wasn't raised to think the Jews were "Christ killers," but I was raised to think they asked Rome to kill Jesus, and that Jews were too concerned with every jot and tittle of the law, and never understood its human importance the way people I knew did.

Of course, I didn't even think of it as the law of Moses, much less as the Torah.  I'd never heard of midrash, and what I knew of Jews I took from the portraits of the Pharisees in the gospels.  Everything I knew, in other words, was wrong.  It didn't destroy my world to learn that; I just took it as a measure of my ignorance, and learned from it my ignorance is always larger than my knowledge.

Most people, however, don't want to think that way.  I learned it from my extended family, from the humility still exemplified by my Primitive Baptist family members.  Humility doesn't sell well, either.

So I'm not sanguine that better education will solve our problems.  Being a creature of the post-Enlightenment world, a card-carrying member of Western civilization, I'm supposed to believe that, of course:  that knowledge leads to wisdom, that education leads to understanding, and that understanding and wisdom lead to enlightenment and a better way.  And maybe it does; but there's still that problem of the horse, and the water.

All I know is, I know less about Islam than I do about Judaism; that, and I know that 1.6 billion Muslims are neither trying to kill me, convert me, or establish an international caliphate.  This seems to me self-evident, and yet there is another panic upon the land that Muslims will shoot us, and somehow that's much worse than if your generic white guy with a gun shoots us.  Panic is an easily stirred emotion, especially in America.  I think it has something to do with being an immigrant country, and with wanting to form a more perfect union.  The issue, as ever, is that we can never agree on what to unite around, and we always fear a more perfect union means we (never them) lose out.  It's a curious division:  our public discourse is irrational and quite mad; our private discourse is more often calm and reasonable.

I mean, you want to start an argument on the internet, tell someone who claims they know, that they know nothing about Islam or Christianity, or religion in general.  It gives a whole new meaning to "talking to a brick wall."  "A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest," as Paul Simon wrote.  Truer words were never put to music.  But in private?  Who do you argue with about matters of religion, or politics?  You probably work with Muslims and transgendered and gays and lesbians and unmarried couples with children and people who've had abortions, and never think for a moment that you should shun or despise any one of them.  They are people; you know them.  When same-sex marriage is an abstraction, an idea, it may be frightening:  when it is people you have known for decades, you can't see any reason to oppose it.

What can theologians do?  No more than pastors can:  introduce people to people.  Let souls shake hands with souls.  Those who will do it, will do it; those who will not, will not.  Can you lead the great herd of America to water and make them drink?  No.

But you can trust that the great herd of America has yet to be heard on these subjects, and that while they may seem panicky, they can also be wise.  Seek the strength of wisdom; teach the power of powerlessness, the spiritual value of hospitality.  If theologians teach that, who will listen?  Maybe one; maybe two.  Pursue the wisdom that one or two is enough, that all you can do is light a candle in the darkness.

As Jesus said of the one sword his disciples could produce, "It is enough."  It is not, after all, swords and power, either through the sword or through education, that we rely on.

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