Saturday, July 9, 2011

Musings about military chaplaincy - part 2

This was my reply:

I had dinner with an Episcopal Navy chaplain and his wife two nights ago, in DC. The chaplain was outraged over how the chaplaincy has become dominated by narrow minded sectarians. He mainly spoke about Southern Baptists who wanted to "save" everybody, e.g., a unit had suffered several casualties in Iraq and a Southern Baptist chaplain told the CO that if the CO were a Christian, God would not have "judged" the unit. I have no idea of whether the ELCA permits lay presidency at the Eucharist, but you could find that on the internet I suspect; the Episcopal Church does not permit it.

To which he answered:

That Navy chaplain is right, [the evangelical sectarians] are out there. I don't understand them or know what to do with them.  Your comments remind me that the only sermon I have ever walked out in the middle of is after a chaplain at F.E. Warren AFB stated that he believed that "...God has punished the wicked people of New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina."

I checked with my Pastor back in Denver. He tells me that the ECLA allows laymen to serve communion only in extraordinary circumstances -- which this is clearly not. Thus that is not the option I thought it might be for our congregation.

I must admit my own weakness, that the issue at hand is offending me to a degree that it should not (i.e. "why would we/I want to be serviced by a minister who doesn't think highly enough of us/me to share holy communion?"). The positive part of this is that it has caused me to do some reading about the philosophy of the MS and think about the underlying issue here. This all boils down on some level to Biblical Literalism -- something which I simply cannot abide. Biblical Literalism not only makes very intelligent people say and do very stupid things, but say and do some very cruel things. It creates an "us against them mentality," and zero sum game, not just in the Christian community but in other religious traditions. It is a very negative force in our own country, particularly politically, but also in the world.

The conversation ended with this email from me:

I agree: Biblical literalism is the root of the problem. I'd like to use a "sanitized" version of this series of email in my blog, keeping the references to ELCA and MS, but omitting names, etc., if it is okay with you.

Problems in the military chaplaincies seem likely to grow in magnitude:

1.    Recruitment of non-evangelicals (e.g., Episcopal, ELCA, mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish) continues to lag. Clergy from these faith groups find military service financially, personally, and spiritually unrewarding. Many of these clergy oppose the wars the U.S. is now fighting.

2.    Repeated deployments have taken a toll on chaplains. As for all military personnel, repeated and extended separations from loved ones is difficult. The deployments also exhaust spiritual resources. My guess, based on observation, is that evangelical chaplains sometimes have thinner spiritual resources than do chaplains from other faith traditions. Biblical literalism provides definite answers to life’s questions and problems; when confronted with situations that the answers do not fit, some evangelicals find that their faith fractures, perhaps even shatters. For a good account of the toll that the wars have taken on military chaplains, see Samuel G. Freedman, “Ministering to Soldiers, and Facing Their Struggles,” New York Times, July 1, 2011.

3.    The leadership of the various chaplaincies has failed to rise to the present challenges. Two Navy Deputy Chiefs of Chaplains were forced to retire rather than promoted to Chief for what can perhaps most charitably be described as lapses in judgment. The Army and Air Force chaplaincies are moving closer to establishing a de facto “state church” in which the senior chaplain at an installation or unit determines the “flavor” of the ministry at that command.

Any solution begins by returning to the Constitutional basis for chaplaincy: to provide for the free exercise of religion by military personnel. This requires chaplains to minister according to the dictates and policies of the chaplain’s faith group and to facilitate ministry for those of other faith groups on an equal basis. A chaplain can preach/teach according to the dictates of conscience but must ensure that those who disagree have an equal opportunity to attend worship of their own choosing (or none).

Controversies over praying in Jesus’ name offer a second window on this problem. Chaplains often offer a prayer at events that military personnel have to attend. Some chaplains in good conscience can pray in the name of God, without being more specific. Other chaplains invite attendees to pray or think during the time that the chaplain offers a prayer. Both approaches reflect genuine pluralism, recognizing diversity of belief (and of no belief) among military personnel.

But some chaplains insist on praying in Jesus’ name without verbally acknowledging that not everybody will or can offer that prayer. These chaplains frequently believe that God only responds to prayers in Jesus’ name; all other forms of prayer are at best a waste of breath and at worst sin. This type of prayer is inappropriate in a public ceremony military personnel are ordered to attend. To read a powerful, first person account of this type of problem, read Bishop Jay Magness’ essay at the Huffington Post. Unless chaplains develop and practice alternatives, I wonder whether the Supreme Court will someday rule on a challenge to the constitutionality of chaplaincy, finding against the chaplaincy.


Ted said...

There are few blogs that really upset me. The last two make my blood boil. I'm sure I would get in trouble if I were near those religious incompetents especially if one of my troops really needed their counseling and prayer.
If this is the way the chaplaincy is, then lets do away with them and have services on the internet where everyone gets their OWN flavor of religion.
I remember a few years ago the Air Force academy had its own religous issues.
What is next with the military?

George Clifford said...

I suspected that this incident might raise your ire.

Bill Gnade said...

Dear Fr. Clifford,

As you may have guessed from my first comment (which, I hope, has passed your moderation), I am an Episcopalian. Actually, to be specific, I am an Episcopalian-in-exile (or so I call myself).

Indeed, biblical literalism IS a problem, but I am not sure it is THE problem. I say this because such literalism is really a product of the Reformation; it is a consequence of not having an authoritative basis for one's religious truth claims. As you know, evangelicals -- well, most Protestants, really -- reject the authority of tradition or the Church; and Episcopalians' three-legged stool makes sense only to those few who believe reason can be an authoritative guide in such matters.

I will make one point about biblical literalism that I witnessed in the debate over the consecration of Gene Robinson (I reside in his diocese). When defending homosexuality and sundry issues regarding gay rights, I heard many Episcopalians say this (or some form of this):

If homosexuality was such a big deal in the Semitic world in Jesus' time; if it was the incredible sin that so many folks presently make it out to be, it would seem that Jesus would have mentioned it at least once. But Jesus is curiously silent on the matter. And if Jesus is silent on such an apparently important matter, then I shall be too. I mean, if Jesus is our guide in all things Christian, then it's clear homosexuality was not an issue for Him.

I am sure you immediately see the problem with this argument. If not, let me state it plainly: this is a form of biblical literalism. However, instead of taking Jesus' words (or the saints') words literally, we have taken His silence literally: we have absolutized His silence, making that silence literally authoritative. Not doubt this seems paradoxical (how can silence be taken literally?), and it might be, but the fact is that liberals do indeed take things literally.

In fact, if we stay on the issue of homosexuality, liberal theologians have gone to great lengths to interpret St. Paul LITERALLY, using the strictest textual and linguistic (and socio-cultural) criteria to interpret St. Paul's words precisely (and hence, authoritatively). Interpreting Paul according to his "Sitz-im-Leben" is not simply the bailiwick of conservative literalists. It is the thrust of liberal theology, too. (What DOES arsenokoitai literally mean?)

Moreover, religious liberals are quick to take Jesus' words on love, neighborliness, judgmentalism and "turning the other cheek" quite literally; and the minor prophets are invoked for all kinds of social justice issues. Surely you, as a chaplain, have heard liberals quote Jesus to the very letter; surely you've heard "those who live by the sword shall die by the sword" in discussions about war and self-defense, no?

(Isn't it odd that no one ever seems to speculate that biblical references to love, grace, justice and pacifism are not textual corruptions, glosses or additions?)

My point: religious liberals are equally prone to "biblical literalism."

Blessings, and peace.

Tom Barnes said...

Ire ... Mr. Clifford? You suspected Ted's ire? Curious as to your professional connection. You two must be close. Nice.
And as to 'Jay's (could not sustain his full name in my short term memory long enough to place it here. He deserves better) Huff. Post words ... I say: Now there is a refreshingly measured handling of the issue of the need for pluralistic (if you will) closings or basings of military prayer ... in ordered (as in 'orders given') assemblies. Delicate he is in moving the issue (evolving the issue)to it's next increment ... that of respect AND inclusion. Here I underscore 'Jay's' suggestion that 'inclusion' is where to go next; clearly a mature thinker and contributor to the issue. I'd read the next cite you propose of him.

Ms. G said...

PS. I am friends with Tom Barnes, who informs me you are old family friends.

George Clifford said...

Many people (perhaps all of us, if we’re honest) are inconsistent in our beliefs and too often slip into the egregious habit of believing that we have definitive answers. That said, how does anyone know what Jesus said? Scripture provides what is at best a highly unreliable witness. Biblical scholars hotly debate what few words of Jesus one might find in the gospels, and have done so for several centuries. What appears in the Bible is what people remembered Jesus saying or better yet, their interpretation of their encounter with Jesus. For example, when the gospels report Jesus saying that he is the way, truth, and life and that no one comes to the father but by him what I hear is the author of the gospel writing that for the author Jesus was the only way to encounter the ultimate meaning and reality of life. This interpretation makes no claim about what another might experience in encountering Jesus. People who want to absolutize Jesus’ silence about any subject commit the logical fallacy of arguing from a negative, i.e., when nothing is said one can legitimately draw no conclusion. The best liberal biblical scholars interpret the Bible as the word of humans, not as the word of God. Themes – grace, love, and justice – are more important than specifics. Applying those themes to specific situations demands that one consult not only the text but also tradition and reason (which includes experience). Interpretation should be a living, dynamic process as exemplified by the rabbinic tradition.

George Clifford said...

The Missouri Synod Lutherans have decided to end their joint chaplain meetings with the ELCA because the ELCA has agreed to meet with Episcopal chaplains. (Faith groups and not the military sponsor these sessions.) Ironically, although the MS and ELCA chaplains met together they always segregated for worship, indicative of the uncompromising separatism of the Missouri Synod.

Bill Gnade said...

Dear Fr. Clifford,

Again, peace to you.

Indeed, being inconsistent in one's beliefs is rather common. Being aware of that inconsistency, however, does not strike me as common at all. Do you find the same?

And you are right to ask: "How does anyone know what Jesus said?" It is the basal question, for sure.

Can I be a pest? You said:

Themes – grace, love, and justice – are more important than specifics.

I must ask: How do you know this? Who says themes are more important than specifics? And why those themes; why do we think true religion must deal with grace, love, justice and even beauty? Where does that come from?

I ask because of what I've touched on already. If we accept the scholarship of the Jesus Seminar, for example; or if we look at Thomas Jefferson's redacted New Testament, we have to ask why there seems a bias against the supernatural aspects of the gospel narrative and myth and not the natural. If we delete the references to transcendence, and this because we can't trust the gospel writers, then why do we accept the references to immanence? If Jesus did not actually say "I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me", why do we accept that He talked about love, grace and mercy? Maybe these things are the additions, the textual corruptions. Maybe the "good" things of Christ's teachings, the acceptable things, are not his at all.

I note in your blog description that you believe "Jesus of Nazareth identified the goal of human existence as life abundant." But even a casual reading of John 10:10 would show this to be other than what was written, for that passage quite clearly emphasizes Jesus, not the abundant life: "I am come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly." Perhaps you've heard Christian apologists make this point before, but (and I am no apologist) I think it ought to be stated again: If we take Jesus' message prima facie (even if redacted heavily by the gospel writers), the one thing we note is that he is unique among all religious founders/leaders, as HE and not some set of ethics is the "good news." Jesus' emphasis is on himself; he is not pointing to some code or system or philosophy, he is pointing to himself. He's the story; he's what is interesting. (It is noteworthy the writers of the gospel texts did not write the tale as if some teaching, system or "gnosis" was the central idea.)

In other words, Jesus' words in John 10:10 are, if accurate, either narcissistic or something else. Nowhere does he say "I am come to teach you how to have abundant life." No, he's the very vehicle for that abundance, nay, he is the abundance. But if he is not, then he's a narcissist, plain and simple (and I doubt centuries of redaction would have overlooked how Jesus sounds if he is not, in fact, God in the flesh).

I am not here to conclude anything. I am only interested in pointing out that consistency is a tough thing to achieve. And I am not suggesting you are inconsistent, though I might be suggesting you give such an appearance. But it's all good.

Peace to you.


George Clifford said...


Thanks for your comments. I have a couple of responses.

First, the themes are important because they consistently appear in the world’s great religions, not just Christianity. Similarly, secular philosophers generally emphasize the themes of love and justice.

Second, the notion that Christianity differs from other religions because Jesus offered himself and not a set of ethics represents an orthodox Christian reading of the New Testament with which a growing number of scholars disagrees. One foundation of their disagreement is that Jesus was first and foremost a Jew; ergo, what he had to offer must have focused on God and ethics (i.e., living obediently to God) and not on himself. I find that argument compelling.

Third, I’m confident that I’m inconsistent at points, something that seems pervasive among humans. However, I suspect that what you perceive as some of my inconsistencies may reflect your imposing traditional Christian perspectives on my thought when I in fact am happily engaged in developing a post-theistic version of Christianity.


Bill Gnade said...

Dear Fr. Clifford,

Thank you for continuing to dialogue with me.

You said:

... the themes are important because they consistently appear in the world’s great religions, not just Christianity. Similarly, secular philosophers generally emphasize the themes of love and justice.

Fair enough. But why do we care what other religions think, or the philosophers? Isn't this just the fallacy ad verecundiam, the appeal to authority? Besides, Hinduism is one of the "great religions", and yet wouldn't we be terribly mistaken to argue that Hinduism's idea of justice is similar to Christianity's?

As for consistency (I am inconsistent), I note a problem in your last comment. You said you found the following compelling:

...the notion that Christianity differs from other religions because Jesus offered himself and not a set of ethics represents an orthodox Christian reading of the New Testament with which a growing number of scholars disagrees. One foundation of their disagreement is that Jesus was first and foremost a Jew; ergo, what he had to offer must have focused on God and ethics (i.e., living obediently to God) and not on himself.

And then you say this:

I suspect that what you perceive as some of my inconsistencies may reflect your imposing traditional Christian perspectives on my thought when I in fact am happily engaged in developing a post-theistic version of Christianity.

These two passages, it appears, cannot be reconciled. If Jesus was as you say, i.e., a Jew who spoke of God and ethics, then there is no such thing as a post-theistic Christianity. In fact, a post-theistic Christianity is a contradiction in terms: one can't have a Christianity without the Christ, especially one (alleged) who was Jewish and undeniably believed in God (as you said). In other words, it is impossible to divorce Christianity from theism, and this because you find compelling the argument that Jesus could only have spoken of God and God's moral expectations for humanity.

Does that make sense? If you find compelling that Jesus was a theist -- and I don't see how this can be denied -- then a post-theistic Christianity is an intellectual absurdity. The thing can't exist.

As for me imposing traditional Christian perspectives, I've really done no such thing. I've not actually posited what I believe. But that's OK.

But what I will posit is that the argument you find compelling I also find compelling, though I am compelled away from the argument. Surely Judaism has long held a prophetic tradition regarding a messiah. If this is true, then Jesus, who I will stipulate was a mere man, may very well have stepped into that prophetic tradition and thus spoke beyond the limitations of mere God and mere ethics. In fact, any sentient soul claiming messianic rights would be mindful that he (or she) would have to teach MORE than something about God and ethics. A wannabe messiah who simply regurgitated the essence of Jewish of tradition would be laughable on many levels. But the wannabe messiah who hoped to WOW his audience would have to engage in something other than acting like a typical Jew.

Hence, since we see Jesus acting throughout the gospels as something other than a typical 1st century Jew, we can only conclude that he was probably not at all like a typical 1st century Jew -- even if he was a charlatan. (OK. A bad charlatan would regurgitate the typical fodder common to the cult of his day.) Jesus clearly presents a different hermeneutic -- at least -- in his comments; or, if we must, we can say the gospel writers presented a different hermeneutic. But clearly that hermeneutic was radical, transformative and compelling. Hence, it could not have been a mere echo of common Judaica.

This, of course, does not mean he was God incarnate. It just means that I don't find the argument you site all that convincing.

But that's OK. Agreements are often boring.

Peace to you! Stay cool.

George Clifford said...

Philosophically, I’m a pragmatist. If something works, I tend to adopt it. That the world’s great religions and many of the world’s philosophers emphasize similar themes suggests to me that people find those themes enrich life. That’s why I care about them. Having taught comparative religious ethics, I found great commonalities between the Hindu concept of justice and Christianity’s concept of justice. Indeed, the moral imperatives of these themes has roots in our genetics that predisposes humans toward reciprocal altruism, enabling one to speak of morality without reference to God.

Jesus, by all indications, was a theist. However, that does not mean that Jesus’ followers must be theists. Like any human, Jesus lived in a particular place and time. That specificity shaped his beliefs or at least the way in which he attempted to communicate what he believed (who can say what Jesus actually believed?). Jesus spoke of God. But what did he mean by that term? A supernatural being akin to theistic theology? A fully natural ultimate reality integral to the warp and weave of the cosmos and in no way supernatural?

I find theism in all of its traditional formulations difficult to reconcile with what science suggests about the nature of the cosmos. One can also have Christianity apart from theism, as many Christian process theologians argue.

One can have Christianity without a divine Christ. That was one of the original tenets of the Unitarians who insisted that they were Christian but rejected the idea that Jesus was both fully human and divine. The Arians had made a similar argument in Christianity’s first decades. Although other Christians considered the Arians heretics, the Arian understanding of Jesus has found advocates in every generation.

The rabbis with whom I’ve worked and Jewish scholars whom I’ve read do not believe in nor expect a Messiah. They regard Jewish expectations of a Messiah as a detour that Judaism took from its main trajectory, a detour now regrettably preserved by Christianity and only a handful of Jews who are on Judaism’s fringe and probably more influenced by Christianity than Judaism. The prophetic tradition in Judaism is one of discerning what God is doing in the present not of foretelling the future. I do not think that Jesus made any claims to be a Messiah; those claims represent an interpretation of Jesus by his followers after his death. That reinterpretation explains why the Jesus about whom we read in the gospels seems to have acted as if he were a Messiah.

Thankfully, air conditioning makes life bearable!