Friday, September 22, 2017

Sharing my hearth, thinking my thoughts

but the city casts out
that man who weds himself to inhumanity
thanks to reckless daring. Never share my hearth
never think my thoughts, whoever does
such things.

--Sophocle, Oedipus Rex

I generally avoid citing scripture around here, and this is why:

“Over the last 10 years I’ve just independently studied the Bible and Petra myself, and come to my own conclusion,” she explains. “Over this time I have collected a large amount of what I believe to be solid Biblical, historical, cultural, archaeological, geological, and astronomical evidence, that Petra is the Place of Safety.”

Not because people use the 12th chapter of the Apocalypse of John (I do miss the old names, as Satan tells Constantine) for errant nonsense, but because scripture was never meant to be read in isolation and "independently."  This person may believe her evidence is "solid," but that means nothing to the rest of us, nor should it.  I know this kind of exegesis is rooted in the Protestant Reformation, but I think the kerosene was thrown on that fire by the Romantic Revolution, if only because so much of this foolishness is so American, and American culture is so Romantic at its core.  At least it is after the 18th century, when that revolution reached these shores and we embraced it as our own (it started in Britain, why wouldn't we love that?).

Scripture is meant for a community, not for individuals.  Recall the words of Jesus in Matthew:  when someone offends you, go to them privately and work it out.  If that doesn't work, get a few more people involved; if that still doesn't work, go to the whole community.  The final decision is theirs.  But this assumes there is a community in the first place, that no one is in charge alone, that there is a group and it is a radical democracy.  We are meant to be in community. No one is meant to be doing this alone. And scripture is meant to be for those in the community of believers, not for any one of us on our own, or especially outside a community which can test our reading and argue about it with us. This is a tree with many branches to it.

Of course, the community is not proof against the errors of individuality either.

Hostility toward immigrants isn’t the only area where Bannon’s Catholicism is suspect, although according to Joshua Green, the author of Devil’s Bargain, the new book about Bannon and Trump, Bannon grew up in an observant Catholic family and, despite some dalliances with world religions like Buddhism, considers himself a practicing Catholic.

As America magazine’s Michael O’Loughlin notes in a Washington Post profile of Bannon’s somewhat opaque relationship with Catholicism, while Bannon proclaims that both the Catholic Church and the West are suffering from a crisis of faith and morality, he has been divorced three times and to the best of many of his associates’ knowledge doesn’t attend church—pretty much the definition of a practicing Catholic.
And this explains much of the conservative Catholic movement over the past twenty years, from Bannon to Paul Ryan, who recently told a Catholic nun (who questioned his commitment to the Catholic teaching of the preferential option for the poor because he wanted to decimate the ACA) that he was following Catholic teaching by cutting taxes and getting rid of social programs:

"We exercise prudential judgment in practicing our faith. For me—for the poor that’s key to the Catholic faith. That means mobility, economic growth, equality of opportunity.

I think we need to change our approach on fighting poverty. Instead of measuring success on how much money we spend or how many programs we create or how many people on those programs, let’s measure success and poverty on outcomes."

Except that as far as outcomes go, none of the Republican’s various tax-cutting or welfare-reduction schemes have been shown to reduce poverty or create upward mobility. They aren’t a means to an end; they are an end in themselves.
So apparently Paul Ryan goes to the same cafeteria as Steve Bannon, where large helpings of words like subsidiarity and prudential judgment allow them to ignore Catholic teaching, just as sure as someone who sits in mass every week but uses the Pill. But in their case, it’s not a matter of an individual “sin” that carries little social consequence but of consequential actions that harm whole societies.

Here I would like to tell Paul Ryan that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but justice. Only, Paul Ryan is not here.  I can probably rely on a nun or two to point it out to him, though.  Which makes good copy for showing Paul Ryan is hardly in line with the community he is ostensibly a member of; but unfortunately, it doesn't make Paul Ryan change his mind.    Nor does it legitimize his ideas, either; at least not from that source.

It is easier to say one is not a good Catholic, than to say one is not a good Christian.  Catholic doctrine applies to Catholics, but not necessarily to others who consider themselves Christian.  Spencer Dew thinks to make this point about what he thinks is the problem:

So is this Christian thought? Is this religion? Decades ago, at the peak of the move to stigmatize contemporary religious claims under the derogatory label of “cult,” scholars spoke of the so-called “cultic milieu,” understood as a kind of shadowy underworld of kooky theories, conspiracy lore, and revamped tales from old times. The king sleeping under the mountain became a UFO under the mountain.

While used as a tool to explain very real religious claims, the larger purpose of this theory was to protect what scholars and much of the public considered to be “real” or “good” religion, the stuff of “mainstream denominations” or the reified Big Five “World Religions” imagined as monolithic structures with clear orthodoxy (and standardized ethics). The “cultic milieu” was not our milieu, such arguments went.

But it is, and Lythgoe’s work makes this strikingly evident: we live in her world, and while we may not agree with her calculations, her faith both in individual rationality (born of the Reformation and reiterated by the Founders of America) and in faith itself (her willingness—even desire—to foreground belief and work backwards at rationalizing) are basic dynamics of thinking within those communities we categorize explicitly as “religious” as well as a few others, which we might prefer to label “secular”—like law or politics.

To dismiss Lythgoe’s thinking as “unchristian” is a theological move, but to dismiss it as somehow representative of “cult” thinking rather than religious thinking more broadly acts as a parallel move—one of an invested believer seeking to mark and protect the boundaries around acceptable orthodoxy.
Yes, it is Christian thought, of a type.  It is religion, of a sort.  "Real" or "good" don't enter into it as far as whether or not we can expunge such thinking from the world by such terms:  we can't.  "V" was right:  ideas are bulletproof.  That's the problem.  But that doesn't mean all ideas are equal.  Dew ties Lythgoe's thought back the Reformation:  well, maybe, but actually it comes more from Romanticism's radical insistence on the authority of the individual.  Luther set up a church very similar to the Roman Catholic one he knew.  Calvin ran Geneva with a firm hand.  Puritans despised individuality more than affirmed it, especially when such individuality created unorthodox thought.  The power of the individual to defy all, even God, is Byron's hero, not one of Luther's theses.  As for the claim that rejection of Lythgoe is simply the act of "an invested believer seeking to mark and protect the boundaries around acceptable orthodoxy," where's the problem here?  Acceptable orthodoxy no longer has the power to enforce its views on the world with the power of government (Luther did pretty much end that, but then again, talk to Calvin and the New England Puritans who haunted Hawthorne so).  But are invested believers not allowed to form their communities and protect their boundaries?  Is "acceptable orthodoxy" illegitimate simply because some community finds it "acceptable"?
Should we dismiss Sophocles as just an invested believer?  He is not wrong; that is how we decide who is with us, and who is against us, whether we should do so or not (Jesus had something to say about that, directly; but that's quoting scripture and inviting exegesis, so I will leave that only raised, and not answered).  Or allow the free use of the "n-word" because only "invested believers" want to "protect the boundaries around acceptable orthodoxy"?  Even if the orthodoxy is not yours?  There is more to this question than simply whether or not Lythgoe gets legitimacy because her views cannot be shown to be absolutely illegitimate by any standard of measure.
Which brings us to the case of the Rev. Robert Lee.  I didn't realize he was a UCC pastor, until this article by another UCC pastor, Daniel Schultz.  Key to Schulz's analysis is that the UCC is a congregational polity, which means the congregation, not a bishop, decides who the pastor will be, and how long she will stay.  This is a point Schultz makes most eloquently:
It makes no difference that the pastor or anyone else thinks they’re going down the wrong road. Congregations get to choose their direction, they get to define themselves. The bolder the confrontation over a matter like this, the stronger the resistance. This is terribly unsatisfying for those who would like to nudge the body of Christ in a certain direction, but it is the reality of working respectfully in community.*
It's the final sentence there I'm interested in.  The factual context is that Lee gave a sermon that bluntly told his congregation to agree with him, or leave; because if they disagreed with him, they were doing church wrong.  I have a "bootleg sermon" on tape that another pastor and old friend sent me back when things weren't going so well for me in pastoral ministry.  I put it in quotes because the "sermon" was not captured in real time; it is completely fictional.  But rare is the pastor who hasn't wished to preach it, at one time or another.  The pastor giving the "sermon" simply unloaded, telling the congregation what was wrong with them and what he knew about them and what he thought about them.  As P.G. Wodehouse once described it, it was like a Scots Presbyterian elder had discovered sin in the congregation, and didn't like it.  The "sermon" was cathartic for me at the time, but also impossible.  It's what almost every pastor wants to say, at some point; but never can, or should.  We are not in charge of the community, we are just responsible for it.  That has to be a warning for anyone who wants to control the boundaries of discourse:  are you responsible, or merely in charge?  But that doesn't mean boundaries cannot be set, or won't be set (more often against outsiders, including pastors, than not).  It just means they have to be set with great awareness that you aren't in charge.  Dew seems simultaneously determined to establish that fact against orthodoxy, and somewhat upset by the fact that he can't set the "proper" boundaries.  But nobody's in charge; at best we are simply responsible.  Which is why I remember, at the heart of matters ecclesiological (pertaining to the church), the words of Jacques Derrida:  "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all."

It is only in responsibility that we begin to learn the true meaning of Christian humility.  Maybe that's why Christianity is not as popular as once it was.  Maybe that's why what passes for Christianity denies almost all responsibility for others and proclaims the self-worth, especially in terms of wealth, of the individual.  I don't know.  That's another "bootleg sermon" that might seem a good idea to give, but isn't, in reality, either wise or Christian.  Then again, neither are the popular perceptions of even religious faith:

Attempts "to mark and protect the boundaries around acceptable orthodoxy" is exactly what natural disasters fail to do. In fact just the opposite. For when faith and fate look the same, faith has a problem. These natural calamities should remind us that our species continues to exists in the realms of fate, subject to and contending with all the natural forces in the universe. While not denying God, they should remind us that, given such a reality as God, our all too human theological construct of Divine intention is rather meaningless in the face of a category 5 hurricane. The choice of coming under the protection of Divine omnipotence is not yet on offer.
That's one of the comments at the Dew article.  Dew mentions the Lisbon earthquake, the one that shook not just Portugal but Europe (Voltaire especially), and began to shake loose the notion that God was benevolently overseeing nature for the sake of godly Europeans.  Even the Israelites were never so narrowly focused on God taking such care of them, but it became a popular tenet of Christianity for awhile.  Some, of course, still proclaim it, because hurricanes are punishment for the wrong politics, or because some religious leaders (Pat Robertson, from decades back, comes to mind) think prayer can push off calamity (onto someone else, always, but who cares for them?  Another non-Christian "Christian" attitude).  When fate and faith look the same, the problem is not with faith, the problem is with what you think "faith" is, or how you understand the "protection of Divine omnipotence."  Consider Psalm 29:

A Psalm of David.} Give unto the LORD, O ye mighty, give unto the LORD glory and strength.

2Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.

3The voice of the LORD is upon the waters: the God of glory thundereth: the LORD is upon many waters.

4The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.

5The voice of the LORD breaketh the cedars; yea, the LORD breaketh the cedars of Lebanon.

6He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.

7The voice of the LORD divideth the flames of fire.

8The voice of the LORD shaketh the wilderness; the LORD shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh.

9The voice of the LORD maketh the hinds to calve, and discovereth the forests: and in his temple doth every one speak of his glory.

10The LORD sitteth upon the flood; yea, the LORD sitteth King for ever.

11The LORD will give strength unto his people; the LORD will bless his people with peace.

There's a lot of burning and shaking going on there (let's not forget how much of the American West is, or has been ablaze recently).  Trees breaking, waters flooding (the Lords sits on them, the Lord doesn't stop them), etc.  What does God do in the midst of this dramatic display, all the result of the "voice of the Lord"?  God gives strength to God's people, and blesses them with peace.  Which is not quite the same thing as making the hurricane go hit somebody else, the flood waters to divide and ruin someone else's life downstream.

As I like to point out when I am quoting scripture, Jesus said God knew when the sparrow fell from the sky, and had the hairs on your head counted.  But the sparrow still falls, and knowing how many hairs are on your head doesn't exactly protect you from cancer.  The promises of the "protection of Divine omnipotence" are not an "all too human theological construct" rendered meaningless by encounters with reality.  But neither are the promises that nothing bad will ever happen to you, ever.

At least not in any religious community I've ever been a member of.  Because the only promise I ever heard, was that the community, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, would be there with you:  always.

*Pastor Dan adds a helpful note to his article, indicating the circumstances of Lee's departure from Bethany church are less than clear, and no conclusions based on news reports (which almost all depend on Lee for their information) should be made.  I mention this only so no one is distracted by my reference to this story.  My point is about the necessity and complexity of community, not about the virtues (or lack thereof) of any individual.


  1. Gee, and here I spent all day making applesauce and canning it.

    My students still have to do their homework for Tuesday. There might not be eternal damnation if they don't but there will be hot water in their future.

  2. Your day was spent better than mine. I had to put my cat of 18 years down.

    House is cat-less for the first time since we got married, 40 years ago. Lots of cats under the bridge, but you miss each one.

  3. Re-reading Dew I want to add that the methods he describes for Lythgoe describeas well conspiracy theories, and are we not allowed to critique those? I see the distinction he wants to make, but he doesn't succeed at making it.

  4. I'm sorry about you having to relieve your cat's suffering. I decided after my dog died that when my two cats go, assuming they outlive me, that I'm too old to keep pets anymore. And too poor. A house without pets is strangely empty.

  5. So much here, but I will go with the relationship of the minister and the congregation. Over a year ago out pastor retired. After a period of self assessment, forming search committee, receiving a candidate, interviews, council approval, and more we had a congregational vote. (In our ELCA synod, the bishop looks at the congregation and what they have said they are looking for in a pastor, at available pastors and makes what they think is the best match. The congregation can accept or reject. If reject the process starts over with another match) In a serious miscalculation it was in August, with the expectation that she could start in September and lead the start of Sunday school, confirmation, etc. She only reached the required 2/3 majority by a few votes. Many of the younger members were away (that being those under roughly 70) with kids on vacation, getting kids back to college, etc. Those attending were tilted to the older members. Given it still was a yes, a call was extended to the candidate. The candidate entered a period of decirnment and the bishop requested and understanding of the no vote. Typically you are looking for an over 80% yes vote. Thus began a rearguard action by the no votes to sink the call. Letters to the bishop, lobbying the council, etc. She ultimately declined the call, saying that the process had uncovered conflict in the congregation that needed to be addressed.

    I am sorry for the long recitation, but it provides background. The opposition was that the candidate was a woman. Some directly said it others, were more circumspect. There was also criticism that this was her first call, and that she had entered seminary later in life. (She had gone to seminary in her mid 50's after a very active religious life). The older group wants a man, middle aged or more, having served elsewhere first, conservative and focussed on the Sunday sermon. The younger group was excited to have a woman, and liked she was focussed on youth, was supportive of social ministry, etc. So who gets to pick? The member of 35 years who comes only on Sunday? The member who has 3 kids in programs and serves on a couple of committees? Who are we as a congregation? The previous pastor of 26 years masked this conflict. It was fine the denomination ordained women, as long as they weren't here. The older group wants the same thing. The younger different. How do we resolve the conflict? (Talking to several older members, they were upset the candidate said we had conflict. There is no conflict they said. We just want what we want and the bishop should sent that person). There is also the reality that the denomination is very short of pastors, and the shortage gets more severe every year. The person they want doesn't really exist and if they did wouldn't be interested in a smaller congregation in upstate NY. So who are we?

    1. That sounds very familiar, right down to the shrinking number of available candidates, the controversy over gender, and the division over age.

      The UCC has a similar process, though the Conference Minister has slightly less authority on paper. Still: been there, done that. Except I caught the conflict on the chin.

      Congregations have to figure out sometimes the candidates they want have all retired.