Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Discerning God's presence

General Douglas MacArthur had a reputation as something of a “cold fish.” After World War II, his public relations people came up with an idea to help him improve his image. MacArthur would review a contingent of veterans. In the middle of the review, he would stop and suddenly recognize an enlisted man who had served with him during the war. “It will be a tremendously moving and human moment,” his advisers told him. “Out of hundreds of men lined up for your inspection, you suddenly pick out a single individual, call him by name and recall past campaigns.” MacArthur agreed to the plan.

The lucky soldier would be unaware that he’d been singled out for the honor. They searched Army records, found out everything about the fellow, and figured out precisely where he would be standing when MacArthur marched through the ranks. Just to be safe, they arranged for an aide to nudge MacArthur discreetly when he was directly in front of the proper soldier.

The plan worked perfectly. MacArthur saluted the veterans; the veterans saluted MacArthur. The General began his inspection. At the right moment, the aide nudged MacArthur. He halted, turned, and looked at the man standing stiffly at attention in front of him. “Jones!” he boomed. “We were together on Corregidor. You are Corporal Jones. I remember you.”

For a moment, Jones looked startled. Then he peered quizzically at the General. Finally, he blurted out somewhat uncertainly, “MacArthur?”[1]

Do you recognize God’s presence and activity in your life? In the world? Those questions capture the essence of today’s gospel reading.[2] Those questions are also central to the spiritual struggle of many Christians and non-Christians.

Consider these two metaphors that are useful for discerning God’s presence and activity in one’s life and in the world.

First, as our Presiding Bishop constantly emphasizes, God is love. This metaphor is a prominent New Testament theme. Critically, love is non-substantial – has no being – but relational. God is present in loving relationships that liberate and give life. These relationships call us to love one another and all creation. Furthermore, loving, liberating and life-giving relationships are works in which we see God, a point the 23rd Psalm and today’s first reading[3] memorably illustrate.

Tangentially, Christians have tragically cited this morning’s gospel to justify both displacing the Jews as God’s chosen people and anti-Semitism. A literal reading of the text is nonsensical. Jesus was a Jew. His disciples and other followers were all Jews. Christianity emerged only after Jesus’ resurrection. John’s gospel was written to appeal to Gentiles, including Romans, during Roman persecution of Christians. The author crafts his appeal by implying all Jews rejected Jesus and that the Jews were responsible for his death. That line of reasoning leads to an absurd conclusion: Jesus, a Jew, would have been filled with self-loathing and partially culpable for his execution.

A better interpretation focuses on Jesus and his command to love everyone, Jew and Gentile, male and female, Democrat and Republican, the 1% and the 99%, and so forth. We follow Jesus when we love unconditionally, choosing the path that leads not to perishing but to life abundant.

A second common biblical metaphor for God is light. This metaphor reminds us of God’s unknowability. Light has some characteristics of waves and of particles, but is neither. Similarly, the metaphors of love and light help us to discern God’s presence and activity without our being able to describe God's actual nature.

Light, like the gospel’s anthropological metaphor of listening to Jesus’ voice, points to God giving us wisdom. Even as light illuminates a path, a road, or a darkened room, so does God nudge or lure us in a particular direction. Jesus most famously sought this wisdom in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed for God's guidance about whether to face execution in Jerusalem or to take a different direction.

Light also gives us courage. Think of the child – or even adults – who are afraid of dark places, moving shadows conjuring up evil images. Generations of authors have written about scary things in the dark. Turning on the light banishes those images and imbues even the faintest of heart with some degree of courage.

Light warms, or as physicists would tell us, energizes that upon which it shines. Solar power and solar heat are green alternatives to carbon-based fuel sources. Analogously, God's light, which illuminates our way and gives us courage to take the next step, also gives us the strength to take that next step.

Neither metaphor – love or light – is comprehensive or sufficient to fully describe God's presence and activity in a person’s life or in the world. However, the two metaphors helpfully point to the living God’s presence in the warp and woof of the fabric of the cosmos. We experience God relationally, God calling us to love one another and to care for creation, showing us the way ahead and then filling us with the courage and strength to journey along that path. Unlike Corporal Jones struggling to recall General MacArthur, we can with confidence acknowledge God’s presence and activity when we walk in love and light. Amen.

Sermon preached the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019

Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1]James Dent, Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette, 2 July 1991.
[2] John 10:22-30.
[3] Acts 9:36-43.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

A starting point for theology

Theology used to be known as the queen of the sciences.  Theology was dethroned several centuries ago because of the growing recognition of the scientific method’s inapplicability to theology.

In general, theologians have begun their work from one of two starting points, either implicitly or explicitly.

One of those starting points was God.  Theologians working from this starting point presumed that humans could directly apprehend God.  For example, the classical arguments for the existence of God – the ontological, cosmological, and so forth – all rest on this presumption.

This starting point requires assuming that humans are able to know God.  Consequently, some religious traditions posit that humans have a soul that is similar in nature to God.  The Roman Catholic Church, for example, teaches that at conception a human receives an immortal soul.  Many other traditions have similar teachings about humans having an immortal or eternal soul.  Since the soul is immortal, there is no physical evidence of its existence.  Nor does any evidence exist that supports ensoulment.  Belief in such a soul is non-rational and therefore not subject to scientific study.

Indeed, the via negativa in the Christian tradition, Theravadan Buddhism and approaches to God in other traditions premised upon God’s unknowability all reject the idea that finite humans can accurately describe the infinite God in finite human words.  These approaches to God invariably point or lead to mysticism, which presumes that while humans may experience God they lack any specific knowledge of God that they can communicate to another person.  Unsurprisingly, mystics have often been branded heretics and mysticism rejected as providing a solid foundation for theology.

The other starting point for theology is scripture.  A theologian would presume that the scriptures of his or her tradition were authoritative.  Sometimes, these theologians argue that their scriptures are authoritative using their scriptures to prove that God had revealed those scriptures.  Protestants who subscribe to a solo scriptura approach to their faith have adopted the presumption that the Christian Bible is authoritative.  Similarly, Muslims who believe that the Koran was dictated by God to Mohammad and Mormons who believe that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from two golden tablets, which the angel Moroni showed him, all presume that their scriptures are authoritative. From a rhetorical perspective, these theologians use their conclusion to prove their initial predicate.

Awareness of other religions and the claim of multiple, conflicting scriptures to be the authoritative revelation of God undercut the claim that any one scripture is authoritative.  How is one to choose which scripture to accept as authoritative?  In the past, the vast majority of people simply adopted the religious tradition of their family and culture.  In a global world with multiple religions and many more people aware of at least several of those religions, fewer people find the practice of mindlessly following in parental or cultural footsteps satisfying.  People now want to choose which if any religion they will practice.

Simply positing that one particular scripture is authoritative no longer works, nor is that approach amenable to scientific study.  The essence of the difficulty is the claim that God dictated or otherwise revealed the scripture through a supernatural process.  The word supernatural itself highlights that religion claims not to be natural and therefore not subject to scientific study.

If God, should God exist, be entirely natural as some theologians now claim, then scientific analysis may lead to signs of God’s presence and activity in the cosmos.  This presumption of a natural God calls for a new starting point for theology.

Perhaps humans do not have an immortal soul.  Perhaps humans have an entirely natural spirit comprised of those aspects of human existence that are quintessentially human although evident in other species to a lesser degree.  For more on this idea, read my article “Making the Ethereal Earthly: A New Definition of the Human Spirit,” in the Journal for the Study of Spirituality (a link to this article is also found on the right hand side of the Ethical Musings webpage).

One major advantage of this approach to theology is that it moves theology from the realm of speculation and grounds it in in the physical world amenable to scientific study.

A second major advantage of this approach to theology is that it begins to construct a believable, more factually based understanding of God and spirit. This approach builds on the deconstructive work of Bishop Spong, Bishop Robinson and others who identified the reasons why theism in all of its forms lacks credibility in the third millennium. Sadly, most of the deconstructionists failed to offer a post-theism theology.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Choosing the right lens

Recently, I read an article that suggested environmentalism should be a lens through which people view the world rather than treated as one of many issues that warrant attention and action (Nathan Empsall, “Connecting the environment and the church”). The rationale for arguing that environmentalism should be a lens is that basically everything (or almost everything) a person does affects the environment.

An environmentally responsible approach to life entails asking, “How will this action affect the environment?” Sometimes the answer is easy: throwing away trash creates unsightly litter and inappropriately disposes of waste material; walking avoids creating greenhouse gases internal combustion engines produce; eating less meat supports a food chain that harms the environment less; etc.

Often, however, the answer is less obvious. Is the environmental harm of an electric car or of a gasoline powered car greater when one considers (1) the manufacture of the vehicle and all of its parts, (2) the generation of electricity to operate the vehicle or the production of gas to operate the car, and (3) the environmental impact of eventually disposing of the vehicle? Few if any of us can knowledgably answer such a complicated, comprehensive question.

In general, the familiar mantra of reducing, reusing and recycling provides a convenient heuristic for learning to see the world through an environmental lens.

The article prompted some further musings about the importance of having the right lens or lenses through which to view creation, other people, and life itself. The image of a lens resonates with me because having the correct prescription for the lenses through which I see the world is essential if I am to enjoy clear, accurate vision.

Similarly, the ongoing journey of becoming a Christian is more about learning to view the world as Jesus saw it than about ontological change, i.e., becoming a Christian is not about a changing a person’s being but altering a person’s way of living and seeing the world. Illustratively, Jesus taught his disciples to see each person the disciples encountered as an individual who was worthy of dignity and respect.

Like Jesus, I must learn to see the difference between condemning evil and not condemning the person who commits an evil deed. For example, this means welcoming back into the community the person released from prison by helping that person find a decent place to live, a job that pays enough for the person to pay his/her bills, and embracing the person as a valued member of God’s family.

Like Jesus, I must learn to see myself as a member of a larger community, a community that begins locally with my fellow Christians and that extends to embrace all creation. Consequently, I must change the narrative of my life from self-centered to communal. This means, among other things, changing the narrative about paying taxes from avoidance/minimizing (what President Trump advocates, belittling those who willingly pay taxes) to viewing taxes (as economist John Kenneth Galbraith saw taxes) as an opportunity and responsibility to pay for civilization and its benefits.

Like Jesus, I must dare to believe that, in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memorable image, the arc of history is long but bends irreversibly and inevitably toward justice. Thus, Christians who look through the lens of Jesus at the world act in ways that affirm justice will eventually prevail. We begin even today to beat swords into plowshares by spending more on the most vulnerable and needy instead of supporting defense budgets that exceed Defense Department requests.

What is the lens or lenses through which you see yourself and the world?

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Now is the time for “Burger King” churches

The neighborhood church is dead. Long live the special interest church.

If you doubt that pronouncement, map where the attendees or members of your congregation live. Also plot the locations of all churches – regardless of flavor (i.e., denomination) – in the geographic area in which your congregation lives.

The parish system originated when the Christian Church tailored its organization to meet the requirements of being the Roman Empire’s established religion. Ecclesiastical and/or secular authorities divided territory into non-overlapping, contiguous dioceses. Dioceses were subdivided into geographically defined parishes, with a church and at least one priest assigned to each parish. The nation states that emerged after the collapse of the Roman Empire retained the parish system for their established Churches.

The parish model theoretically provided ministry to everyone. Ministry, particularly in pre-printing press days, primarily consisted of administering the sacraments, caring for the sick, burying the dead, and managing the institution.

The parish system has two potential disadvantages. First, as population shifts occur, church buildings and parish boundaries once tailored to fit the population distribution may no longer align with where people live. Second, the parish system presumes a sufficient supply of clergy to staff all of a diocese’s parishes.

The Church of England’s Diocese of Birmingham recently proposed ending its parish system for both of those reasons. Birmingham’s population has migrated from rural areas to urban and suburban areas, producing an imbalance between the location of church buildings and people. The Diocese also has too few clergy to assign one priest to each parish.

The Episcopal Church (TEC) does not have formal geographic boundaries for its parishes and missions. Nevertheless, TEC has functioned for most of the last two centuries as though it had a de facto parish system. TEC divided the nation into geographic dioceses. Dioceses often aimed, intentionally or otherwise, to situate a parish or mission in each town, neighborhood, or other population cluster. Each of those congregations then usually sought to develop the finances to afford its own full-time priest, the primary distinction between parishes and missions.

Both disadvantages of the parish system are evident in the American context. First, population shifts from rural to urban and suburban areas have left many once thriving congregations struggling to afford a priest and to maintain buildings. Second, many rural congregations experience great difficulty in calling a priest because priests generally prefer urban or suburban living. This distribution problem is frequently misdiagnosed as a clergy shortage.

Another factor compounds the parish system’s problems, especially in the United States but also increasingly in the United Kingdom. We are living in a “Burger King” culture. Individuals want everything, including religion, their own way. No longer do people almost reflexively walk to the nearest congregation of the faith group inherited from their parents. People want to choose where they worship – if they attend any worships service at all. Growing numbers in both the U.S. and U.K. now opt to identify as spiritual but not religious, agnostic, or atheist.

Persons who do choose religion increasingly want to choose whether to belong to a Christian church or faith community of another religion. Those who choose Christianity then choose which flavor of Christianity they like, at least the flavor they currently prefer, and may move from one flavor to another. Over half of U.S. Episcopalians, for example, are not cradle Episcopalians.

The desire to choose is so strong, that coupled with the American love affair with the automobile, people unhesitatingly drive past one or several congregations of the desired flavor to find a congregation that offers what they seek in terms of worship, programs, ordained leaders’ personality style or type, parking, etc.

The neighborhood church is on life support, if not dead.

Is there a healthy alternative to the parish system?

Intentionally becoming a destination church – what I more broadly call a special interest church – offers a promising alternative, especially in the U.S. where the parish system is not mandated by law.

“Destination church” is not a new concept. “Destination church” typically connotes a church that offers something so special that it draws people from well beyond its immediate neighborhood, analogous to how magnet schools attract students from across a school district. English cathedrals, and often American cathedrals, are destination churches. A large downtown congregation may be a destination church because of its expensive, high-quality music program or some other, probably costly, distinctive programming.

The concept of special interest church adapts the idea of a destination church to fit congregations of all sizes and resource levels. Let’s stop pretending that any one congregation can, or even should attempt to, minister to everyone. Wealthy congregations, like Trinity Wall Street, will never attract people who believe, as St. Francis of Assisi did, that walking in Jesus’ footsteps requires disavowing all worldly possessions. Large congregations, such as St. Martin’s in Houston, will never attract people who seek the family-like experience that comes from knowing every member of the congregation. Conversely, small congregations cannot offer either the anonymity or diverse programming possible in a large congregation. Not every congregation has the youth, leaders or money to offer top-quality youth ministry.

What does your individual congregation do really well? Honest answers, for most churches, will number only one to a half-dozen items. No congregation, no priest, can do everything exceptionally well. To identify strengths, truthfully compare your congregation to other congregations in the community (of all flavors) and in the diocese. What does your congregation do so well that other congregations could learn from it?

Paul wrote that “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22) Paul’s statement was clearly a hyperbole. He could not change his race or gender. He remained a tentmaker, being neither a peasant nor a noble. As identity politics underscores, nobody can literally be all things to all people. Let’s stop tilting at windmills, attempting the impossible, and deluding ourselves about congregational limitations. Instead. build on your strengths.

Furthermore, with the multiplication of denominations (making lemonade out of the lemons of schism), extremely few communities have just one church. Only very large congregations have the people, staff, and resources to offer a truly wide variety of first-rate programming for children of all ages, adults of all ages and interests, professional quality music, effective social advocacy that makes a difference locally and globally, etc. People today increasingly reject the mediocre as unsatisfactory. Instead, people want to be associated with the truly excellent, whether in their choice of a smart phone, health care, or a religious congregation. Great congregations today measure success by the quality, not the quantity, of their ministries and missions.

Dream about what your congregation might look like if it single-mindedly focused on its few outstanding strengths. Then design and deliver ministry and mission programs to bring that dream to fruition, boldly scrapping everything else and realigning resources, including lay and staff time, with that dream.

The neighborhood church is dead. Long live the special interest church!