Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Campaign 2012 - part 2


Virtue ethics constitutes one of the major approaches to Christian ethics. Prominent Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, a virtue ethicist, even title one of his books on the church, A Community of Character.

Politicians are notorious for making campaign promises that they cannot fulfill, often promises that they do not intend to even attempt to fulfill. Furthermore, nobody knows the future. Changing circumstances may make a campaign promise made in good faith inadvisable or impossible to realize. Finally, a politician’s perspective once elected may appropriately change, e.g., the officeholder often has access to information that candidates do not have.

A virtue approach to voting thus focuses on a candidate’s character rather than campaign promises and platforms. A candidate’s education and experience can provide important windows into his/her character. In secular democracies, voters should seek to understand the candidate’s actual ethics (what are the principles or values that seem to shape actions) rather than espoused beliefs or theology.

The candidate’s theological beliefs – whether holds an atheist, Hindu, Mormon, Muslim, or Christian concept of the deity, for example – are unimportant because they have very little if any direct bearing on how the candidate will formulate her/his positions on public policy issues. Mitt Romney’s appeal to evangelical Christians, for example, exemplifies this: evangelicals widely reject his Mormon theology while supporting his views on abortion, marriage, etc.

This approach presumes either that God speaks to all, regardless of anyone’s personal theological beliefs, or that God is most safely heard within the context of community, i.e., voting based on ethics rather than theology means not seeking a political leader who believes that God will directly and personally guide him/her. History is replete with examples of national leaders who, believing that they had heard God speak, led their nation in a disastrous direction. A leader who believes that she/he routinely relies upon God for guidance verges on a highly individualized (often idiosyncratic) theocracy that is incompatible with the belief that God’s voice is best heard through democratic processes.

Instead of asking the generally hopelessly hypothetical question of what would Jesus do? virtue ethics asks which candidate most resembles Jesus. Key Christian character/virtue qualifications on which to assess candidates might include:

·         Integrity

·         Courage

·         Prudence

·         Loyalty

·         Justice

·         Generosity

·         Magnanimity

Evaluations of a candidate’s character should emphasize traits pertinent to performance of the duties of the office for which the candidate is running. I may deplore Bill Clinton’s adultery. I’m far from certain that his marital infidelity is relevant to being Governor of Arkansas or President of the United States.

Evaluations of a candidate’s character must also be realistic. Politicians are like the rest of us: they have clay feet, i.e., they are sinners. While I might prefer a president to be faithful to her/his spouse, Bill Clinton provided more effective leadership than did either Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter.

Which candidate for each office has the preferable set of attributes – positive and negative? Voting in accordance with your answers to that question is one Christian approach to voting, an approach deeply rooted in the Christian tradition and one that honors the plural, manifold witness of that tradition.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Campaign 2012 - part 1


In this and the next three posts, I will recapitulate the connection between religion and politics, discuss two different Christian approaches to voting, and conclude with several of my complaints about how the U.S. political process currently operates. For a fuller exposition of the appropriate interplay between religion and politics, consult these previous Ethical Musings posts: Religion and Politics - parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and Was Jesus a politician?

Briefly, when Christians pray “your Kingdom come” they acknowledge that politics and the Church are inherently and inextricably intertwined. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey in his book, The Christian Priest for Today, helpfully articulates four guiding principles for that complex relationship (pp. 33-40, freely adapted).

First, the gospel takes priority over politics. But the Christian rightly emphasizes the gospel’s message for the whole person. A gospel focused only on the explicitly spiritual has fatally compromised the gospel.

Second, the Church inevitably makes judgments about right and wrong. At its most basic, these judgments include proscribing murder, theft, dishonesty, adultery, and coveting as wrong while promoting fidelity, honesty, and human dignity as good. Pretending that the Church has nothing to say about communal life is not only disingenuous but also dishonest.

Third, the Church bears a manifold, plural witness. Consequently, Christians cannot speak authoritatively with a single voice. One implication of this diverse witness is that the Church should intentionally make room for multiple perspectives. Some Christians, for example, believe that life begins at conception. Other Christians hold divergent opinions. Thus, even though Christians agree about the sacredness of life they disagree about whether abortion is murder. Other issues on which Christians bear plural witness, most of which are less emotionally charged than is the debate over abortion, include whether all Christians should be pacifists, the proper scope and policies of public welfare programs, etc. Another implication of this diverse witness is that Christians should actively resist most efforts to legislate morality (i.e., involuntarily impose on others).

Fourth, the overarching guiding principle of Christian political participation should be to promote the reconciliation of God and creation. The alienation of God and creation is evident whenever people are treated with less than equal dignity and respect, including deprivation of basic human rights and the essentials of life, and whenever the rest of creation is treated as only a means to an end rather than as having intrinsic value because God created it.

Within those broad principles, two distinct approaches two Christian voting are discernible: character and the common good. A subsequent post explores each.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Young adult ministry


A friend recently brought the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) to my attention. A program sponsored by the University of Notre Dame, ACE recruits and educates (at a reduced charge) talented young adults who agree to teach for two years for a minimal stipend in Roman Catholic schools. ACE teachers live in community, sharing life and their Christian commitment. In 19 years, ACE has produced 1600 teachers who fill a role similar to that previously filled by monks and nuns.

To digress briefly, is this an idea that the Episcopal Church could (should) adopt? We have a number of colleges, some with adequate financial resources. We have young adults, although their ranks are declining. Nevertheless, we still have committed young adults, some of whom now volunteer in other ways. We also have an extensive network of Episcopal affiliated elementary and high school schools.

These Episcopal schools have generally charged tuition and fees sufficient to cover all of their costs. Limited financial aid (if any) was available. Consequently, Episcopal schools, many noted for their excellence, have primarily enrolled children from reasonably affluent families. In the case of schools founded by a parish, time has tended to weaken the link with the parish and schools have generally had to be financially self-sufficient.

In other words, unlike some Roman Catholic schools located in poor neighborhoods able to offer parents an affordable alternative to public schools because of the low labor costs associated with monks and nuns working as teachers and administrators, Episcopal schools have necessarily targeted a different population. Attempting to change the focus and student composition of Episcopal schools is perhaps not the best possible mission for today’s church to undertake.

Teach for America is a secular program that recruits recent college graduates to teach in underserved schools. The school district pays the teacher’s salary; the program assists with payments to cover past or future educational experiences. Teach for America has more applicants than it can place.

Perhaps the most important commonality between ACE and Teach for America, one religious and one secular, is not the most obvious, i.e., both recruit teachers for underserved schools. Arguably, the most important commonality is that both programs tap into a pool of young adults motivated by their ideals, belief in themselves, and optimism to imagine that they can change the world.

The good news is that The Episcopal Church (TEC) has two programs that offer service opportunities to our young adults. Currently, we have 18 volunteers in our Young Adult Service Corps, all of whom serve overseas. Also, the Episcopal Service Corps will sponsor 200 interns in 24 domestic programs this year.

The bad news is that interest in both programs exceeds present funding levels. Ironically, TEC bemoans its lack of young adult involvement. Yet when successful programs attract more interest than they can support, TEC acts in a very unbusinesslike (and, more to the point, an unmissionlike!) manner and does not immediately make increasing the funding for those programs an urgent top priority.

Illustratively, the Mormon Church recently changed some of the policies governing its mission emphasis for young adults to make that program more attractive. The program produces few converts. A missionary who returns home having converted even one or two people to Mormonism has been highly successful. The programs’ real importance, however, is the lifelong impact that the mission experience has on missionaries.

I suspect the same holds for both TEC’s Young Adult Service Corps and Episcopal Service Corps: generally the most substantial and enduring benefit to for TEC is in the lives of those who served. This assessment is in no way intended to demean the work of participants in both programs, but to recognize that ministry usually changes the minister at least as much as anyone to whom the person ministers.

TEC’s rhetoric says that it values young adults. Its actions make me wonder whether that really is the case.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Stem cell research and AIDS


Human stem cells uniquely possess the potential to morph into any other cell in a human body. Can stem cell research potentially yield a cure for AIDS? Some scientists think so. Even if stem cell research does not produce any results that are so dramatic, current studies indicate that stem cells are likely to help provide a cure for many now incurable diseases, including age related macular degeneration that causes blindness in tens of millions of people and some spinal injuries.

Ethical and political controversies have effected funding for stem cell research. For example, President Obama’s administration restored federal funding that President George W. Bush’s administration had cut for stem cell research. In 2004, California voters approved Proposition 71, authorizing $3 billion for stem cell research. A number of wealthy donors have contributed millions in support of stem cell research, lured by the promise of potential cures. A number of companies are pursuing stem cell research, but none has obtained FDA approval for a treatment much less turned a profit from their work with stem cells. The large pharmaceutical companies are wary of stem cell research because of the potential cost in bringing an as of yet undeveloped, untested product to market and because of the controversies.

Two ethical issues swirl around stem cell research. First, scientists have generally harvested stem cells from embryos using a process that destroyed the embryo. They used surplus embryos produced in the lab as part of treatment for infertility. People who believe that human life begins at conception (e.g., the Roman Catholic Church and some evangelical Protestants) view the embryo (a fertilized egg) as a human; harvesting stem cells is thus tantamount to murder.

No solid scientific or theological basis exists for believing that an embryo is a human. The emergence of a human life is more accurately described as a process than an event. On the one hand, no evidence exists to support belief in ensoulment, the idea that at the instant of conception the embryo receives a soul, making the embryo a human.

On the other hand, the qualities that together form an identifiable human move from potential as a sperm approaches an egg to fully realized at some point after birth. Christian ethicist Philip Wogaman helpfully emphasized the concept of presumption. At some point in the process of emerging, presumption shifts in favor of life being treated as human. U.S. courts have often identified that point as the viability of the fetus out of the uterus. Sadly, Christian ethicists have given this idea too little attention.

Ethical analysis that relies on process and presumption respects the sanctity of life without relying upon sectarian scriptural interpretations to trump scientific data. For example, it affirms the importance of treating the newborn as a human while not glossing over the newborn’s incomplete development of the linguistic skills that differentiate Homo sapiens from other primates. Conversely, this analysis does not claim that an embryo is a human, a claim of dubious prima facie credibility given the large number of human embryos that, due to natural factors, never culminate in a live birth.

The second ethical issue surrounding stem cell research is fear that scientists may attempt to create a new human directly from stem cells, entirely bypassing sexual reproduction. Even truer than it is trite, most knowledge has the potential to be used for good and for evil. If one accepts that creating human life from stem cells is unethical (a claim that requires much more analysis – how, for example, is this ethically different than in vitro fertilization?), the possibility of scientists wrongly attempting to do so is insufficient justification to not pursue the almost immeasurable good that cures made possible by stem cell research can do.

Will stem cell research someday produce a cure for AIDS? I don’t know. But I do know that Jesus healed the sick and directed his disciples to do the same. The ministry of healing consists of much more than praying, the laying on of hands, and anointing with oil. The ministry of healing also consists of the work of the healthcare professions, researchers whose discoveries improve healthcare, and many others. Supporting stem cell research is just one way that we follow Jesus’ example and exercise a ministry of healing, offering a glimmer of hope to those who now suffer from an incurable disease.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Burnout


The term burnout evokes the image of a rocket that having consumed all of its fuel before breaking free of the earth’s gravitational pull slowly loses forward momentum, eventually stalls, and then begins a destructive, irreversible plummet into the earth’s card crust.

That image – of a helplessly falling empty rocket – seems apropos to people who suffer from burnout: driven to achieve, working continuously, and then reaching the point of exhaustion, unable to do more. In a previous post, I addressed the issue of Clergy Burnout. Burnout, however, can happen to anyone who fails to exercise proper self-care.

Burnout differs from workaholism, a term pioneering pastoral counselor Wayne Oates coined in the 1960s to describe a person who used work as an excuse to avoid relationships, i.e., work as a form of unhealthy addiction.

Verne Harnish, an executive educator, has identified five important ways to avoid burnout (“Burning Out?” Fortune, October 8, 2012, p. 44):

1.    Get away and review: intentionally schedule time to assess your life and work

2.    Schedule regular small breaks, e.g., a weekly meeting with friends for coffee or a weekly sports night

3.    Hang out with family: spend time doing family stuff such as taking care of the children or grandchildren while turning off your smart phone

4.    Take an annual vacation

5.    Do something outrageous, e.g., go mountain climbing or attend a seminar on nature preservation held in the wild

Reflecting on the nature of burnout and Harnish’s prescriptions underscored, for me, that burnout is fundamentally a spiritual problem. A necessary condition for burnout to occur is presuming that one is indispensable, a presumption of ultimate hubris. If one were to die suddenly, no matter who one is, or what one does or may achieve, the world would not end. The world would be different, but that is true whenever anyone dies. Furthermore, behaviors that lead to burnout are ultimately self-defeating.

Similarly, Harnish’s prescriptions for self-care are spiritual propositions cloaked in secular terms:

1.    Get away and review is simply an alternative way of speaking about a retreat. This principle also reminds us of the importance of finding work that affords the opportunity for genuine satisfaction. A job or career that diminishes or deadens one’s life may be difficult to change, but making the change is essential for moving in the direction of the abundant life

2.    Schedule regular small breaks resembles Sabbath keeping, i.e., setting aside a day per week for renewal. Henry Ford discovered that when he shortened the workweek from six to five days for his assembly line employees that they were more productive and turnover fell substantially.

3.    Hang out with family rephrases Jesus’ teaching about adhering to the right set of values (your treasure is where your heart is, he said).

4.    Take an annual vacation acknowledges the importance of the jubilee principle of fallow ground (fallow spaces) in our lives for renewing creativity and productivity.

5.    Do something outrageous is another way of encouraging people to live boldly into the unknown future that God intends for us.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Getting rid of clutter


Two of my previous posts, Post-industrialization and Excess ecclesiastical infrastructure, prompted some additional musings about getting rid of clutter, both institutional and personal.

A series of questions has helped me to identify clutter, to assist others in doing likewise, and to evaluate institutional structures and resources:

1.    What is presently useful?

2.    What do I realistically anticipate be useful in the future?

3.    What has genuine aesthetic or unique sentimental value?

4.    What is irreplaceable or difficult to upgrade at a reasonable cost (all costs, not just financial) to improve performance or satisfaction?

Dispose (sell, contribute to charity, recycle, or, as a last resort, trash) of all items that do not satisfy one or more of those conditions.

Here are the principles behind the questions:

1.    Keep that which is useful in the present. Get rid of surplus quantities (these always entail some costs, e.g., storage, maintenance, etc.).

2.    Keep that which one can reasonably anticipate using in the foreseeable future (if the cost of keeping something exists the replacement cost, err on the side of disposal).

3.    Keep that which has significant aesthetic or unique sentimental value (this requires honest analysis; as with all possessions/structures, hanging on to items for their aesthetic or sentimental value entails costs that may far exceed any benefit).

4.    Replace items (and dispose of the old!) when a better, affordable alternative exists, i.e., practice continual improvement by seeking to improve or upgrade the status quo. Change is endemic to life and, no matter how good an item may be, improvement is always possible. Newer is not necessarily better; sometimes refurbishing the old (as in renewing a relationship) trumps replacement.

Get rid of everything else – structures, possessions, etc. Economists and ethical utilitarians will recognize that this approach to getting rid of clutter is a functional cost-benefit analysis.

Applying this analytical method to ecclesiastical infrastructure, the questions become:

1.    What buildings, congregational structures, and diocesan structures actually contribute to building God’s kingdom in the present? For example, the U.S. population is increasingly urban, leaving many once thriving rural congregations with small numbers that struggle to maintain a building and programs, perhaps meeting their own needs but doing little to advance the kingdom beyond their own lives. Similarly, some groups within a parish, such as a men’s or women’s group, that once met real needs may today be a burdensome legacy, marginalized by changing cultural patterns. I made a similar point in my post on excess ecclesiastical infrastructure, pointing to a 38% decrease in the number of Episcopalians without a corresponding decrease in the number of congregations or dioceses, which has resulted in increased per capita administrative overhead.

2.    What marginally used buildings, etc., will, within five or ten years, again be situated so as to become vital assets for doing God’s work? A building that can easily accommodate 100 people but hosts only 40 for three hours per week is a very costly way to provide space for those 40 people. But, if located in an area likely to quadruple in population because of urban sprawl, keeping the building may cost less than obtaining a new facility when needed.

3.    Experts can determine aesthetic value. A Tiffany window, for example, is clearly valuable but by itself insufficient to justify the expense of maintaining a building. An unused or underused facility represents not only a cost in terms of maintenance and operations but also an opportunity cost: if sold, the funds gained could perhaps advance the kingdom in more effective and efficient ways; if donated to another congregation or organization, the donation is itself a mission work. Not all items that have sentimental value have unique sentimental value. To preserve the past in total would be to make the church a historical preservation society rather than a human transformation organization.

4.    The switch from outhouses to interior bathrooms poignantly illustrates the value and necessity of facility upgrades. Yet plumbing fixtures, along with heating, air conditioning, and ventilation equipment, are among the few aspects of ecclesiastical architecture in most places that have changed substantially in the last 150 years. Chairs, for example, provide more flexibility, intimacy, and sense community for small groups than do rigid pews. In an era when God seems too distant, remote altars reinforce that impression rather than an altar situated in the midst of the worshipers. Two centuries of experience have proven Sunday Schools, once thought the ideal approach to evangelism and formation, less effective than hoped. Yet many congregations carry the expensive burden of large, seriously underutilized religious education facilities, rarely exploring alternative uses for those spaces. In an era when community exists virtually and informally, the extensive committee structures that characterize most congregations and dioceses are anachronisms that consumer precious volunteer hours and do little to advance the kingdom.

One major difficulty in disposing of clutter is that people become emotionally attached to possessions, buildings, and structures for a variety of reasons, many of them unhealthy. These things, for example, may create the illusion – but never the reality – of security. Clinging to the past may prevent one from moving boldly into the future that God intends. Clutter may be emotional as well as physical.

When was the last time you sought to de-clutter your life, congregation, or diocese? What clutter prevents you from living as fully, boldly, and productively as God intends?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Excess ecclesiastical infrastructure


In 1960, the Episcopal Church had more than 3.4 million members. By 2012, that number had shrunk to 2.1 million, a decrease of 38%. Yet the Episcopal Church has slightly increased the number of its dioceses. This move is counterintuitive.

To simplify the math, presume that the Episcopal Church has had a constant number of dioceses, 100 in 1960 and 2012. In 1960, each diocese would have had approximately 34,000 members (in fact, dioceses vary widely in number of members). Maintaining that average per diocese would translate into 38 fewer dioceses in 2012

Dioceses with fewer members have the potential advantages of experiencing a greater sense of community and increased interaction with their bishop.

However, the reality is that fewer members do not mean proportionally fewer congregations. Thus, the decrease in membership represents a double fiscal burden: little decrease in building maintenance and operating costs and little, if any, decrease (indeed more likely an increase because of rising healthcare insurance costs) in the diocesan operating budgets.

In other words, 38% fewer members fund an institutional structure that once accommodated 3.4 million members instead of today’s 2.1 million members. Of course, agreeing with the macro analysis is easy. The real obstacle to institutional realignment – both realignment driven by declining numbers and by changing culture – is that few people want to close their parish or eliminate their diocese. The real commitment of Episcopalians is to an institution rather than to mission.

Concurrently, the number of Americans who report no religious affiliation has climbed to 20% of the population. Some of these people believe in God, even pray daily. Many openly identify as an atheist or agnostic. This trend means that the decline in Episcopalians is not about to reverse. The Episcopal Church does not need to preserve its excess capacity (underutilized infrastructure) for a surge in new members that lies just over the horizon. Decades of declining numbers provides ample evidence that the path to renewal and growth does not lie along the trajectory of preserving ecclesiastical infrastructure, a conclusion that Venice (and, in varying degrees, much of Europe) with its plethora of expensive, ornate church buildings and dearth of worshipers reinforces.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Pedestrian friendly Venice


The islands that comprise the center of Venice have no motorized wheeled vehicles. The streets are sometimes narrow – less than three feet wide. The bridges over the canals are built with steps; only a handful of bridges also have ramps, all of which are recent additions. The streets, even the back ones and dead ends, are well lit. I’ve seen more solitary women walking about Venice late at night than I have seen anywhere else. Apparently, Venice is a safe city for pedestrians, something critical for tourism but also a significant positive for the quality of life of Venetians.

Deliveries, trash removal, and rapid transit all require boats and, in for deliveries and trash removal, two-wheeled push carts. The city’s density and web of canals makes this lifestyle possible without feeling that one has returned to a pre-motorized era. Venetians generally walk at a faster pace than do the tourists, perhaps because they are accustomed to sights, know where they are going, and walking is their primary mode of transport.

What I do miss are green areas. Venice has a few parks, most of which are poorly kept, perhaps because of Italy’s or Venice’s financial problems. A minority of large homes have small courtyards, most of which are also poorly tended. I’ve seen more greenery on rooftop terraces than I have in courtyards. Perhaps the occasional flooding that happens in much of Venice discourages gardeners. At first I attributed the lack of green areas to the lack of land and population density, but then I thought of London and Manhattan, which both have lots of green areas in spite of a high population density and are both pedestrian friendly, although Manhattan is less safe than London or Venice.

Research in the U.S. suggests that people born in the last third of the twentieth century are more likely to seek a pedestrian friendly lifestyle than were their elders. A pedestrian friendly lifestyle not only includes purposeful exercise (Venetians appear less overweight than most Americans), but also encourages one to know one’s neighbors (neighborhoods resound with shouted greetings), contributes less to global warming, and encourages people to live in smaller dwellings and therefore accumulate less stuff. In sum, a pedestrian friendly lifestyle encourages healthier communities than does a lifestyle built around automobiles, which tend to be more hurried, stressful, ecologically damaging and isolating.

I’m not a Luddite. Gasoline powered engines have enabled some great advances, not only in transport, but also in other labor saving, quality of life improvements.

However, burning carbon based fuels does contribute to global warming, making life more precarious and probably less healthy for many species, including humans. Furthermore, the supply of carbon based fuels is limited. The more people who consume carbon based fuels at the rate Americans consume those fuels, the more quickly humans will deplete the supply and exacerbate ecological problems.

People becoming more intentional about judicious reliance on carbon fuels and opting for advantageous alternatives – such as pedestrian friendly urban lifestyles – can expand earth’s capacity to support human life and permit significant improvements in the quality of life for billions. Promoting ecological responsibility may have more success by promoting positive alternatives to the status quo rather than simply seeking to limit pollution and economic growth.

Thomas Malthus was an Anglican priest and an early economist who believed that population growth would not only preclude humans from establishing an earthly utopia but also eventually exceed the earth’s ability to sustain life. Time has proven his specific forecasts wrong. Humans have repeatedly found ways to increase food production and to achieve other quality of life improvements. Yet the earth obviously has some maximum capacity for sustaining life, including human life. The earth also has a limited capacity for self-renewal (this is one of the theses of James Lovelock’s Gaia: A New Look at Life on Planet Earth).

An ethic that promotes life abundant will promote lifestyles compatible with an abundant life for as many creatures (including people) with maximal quality of life. In the broadest, most profound sense, such lifestyles are also the ones most compatible with the genetic drive for reproduction and a broad reciprocal altruism. This gives one’s progeny a better chance of reproducing than does a more narrowly focused ethic than emphasizes self over others – in other words, Ayn Rand was wrong and Jesus, Confucius, the Buddha, and other great religious leaders were right!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Further Venetian observations


Some miscellaneous observations on and from Venice:

·         Persuading people to give money for buildings was, as remains true, easier than persuading people to donate funds for ongoing operations, missions, and maintenance. If this had not been true, then Venice would have fewer grand churches and a greater reputation for global missions. If this did not remain true, religious people would build fewer expensive buildings and spend more on feeding the spiritually and physically hungry. I suspect that part of the explanation is people like to see what their money paid for. Another part of the explanation is that for many people a building seems to be more of a lasting legacy than does the satisfied hunger of some unknown person. Buildings can help to evoke a sense of the sacred, but grand architecture and art alone are often insufficient; they find hallowing in the prayers of people. Unlike great churches and temples I have visited elsewhere, I have seen few people in the churches pausing for prayer or meditation.

·         Venice is a polyglot city. Not surprisingly, menus, and many other things, are printed in multiple languages that include Italian, various forms of English, French, German, Russian, and Chinese. I’ve also heard Spanish, Japanese, and several eastern European languages that I could not identify. Surprisingly, most of the people in Venetian museums, churches, and businesses with whom I have dealt the last few weeks, unlike their counterparts elsewhere in Italy with whom I have dealt, showed little interest in attempting to communicate in Italian. They were very happy to transact business in English, or whatever the customer’s native language might be. Occasionally, I have observed employee and customer explore several languages before finding one (usually English) in which both could communicate. I’m uncertain about why communicating in Italian is not more important to Venetians. Perhaps part of the explanation is that they have their own dialect. Perhaps part of the explanation is that they know tourism is Venice’s economic mainstay, they want to satisfy customer choices accurately, and in the busy summer months need to deal with more customers. In some bars and small restaurants frequented by as many Venetians as tourists, the background music, played on an Italian radio station, is American. Perhaps Venetians are simply riding the wave of homogenization set in motion by globalization and the electronic age.

·         A sizable minority of tourists appear to spend more time filming Venice than actually experiencing Venice. It’s a common to observe a tourist standing in a water taxi, holding a tablet up, watching what the camera records rather than enjoying Venice directly. (Incidentally, this is a bad bargain as water taxis are the most expensive way to get around Venice). In those moments and for those tourists, virtual experience has replaced actual experience, raising the question: why travel? Excellent video footage of Venice is already available on the internet, probably of better quality than unedited video recorded via tablet; watching footage on the internet is easier and cheaper than traveling to Venice. Many nominally religious people engage in similar behavior: they want to experience the spiritual life without investing the considerable time and energy that genuine spiritual journeying requires. Reading about others’ spiritual journeys and attending worship or other faith community events without actively participating are two sets of activities that may resemble spiritual journeying but that allow the person to maintain a distance and lack of real engagement. However, for both the virtual tourist and nominally spiritual, tentative steps may prove sufficiently alluring to persuade the tourist to set aside his/her tablet and the spiritual neophyte to move from primarily observing to engaging the community and its activities.

·         Given the popularity of masks, carnival, which precedes Ash Wednesday, presumably figures prominently in Venetian life. Pretending to be someone else can be exhilarating (a refreshing change), educational (learning to see life through a different set of eyes), or escapist (fleeing from one’s own life). When and why do you wear a mask (even if it is more figurative than literal?

Monday, October 8, 2012

The art of sainthood


Venice is full of sculpture and paintings depicting Christian saints. Looking at this art makes the Protestant Reformation’s reaction against saints more understandable. A fine line separates worshipping a saint from pointing to the example of that saint as a person who lived the Christian life writ large.

The Roman Catholic Church’s insistence on a deceased Christian performing two miracles before being designated a saint further blurs that distinction. If, as the Christian Church, has long taught, God’s people – the living and the dead – form a single community, then praying for the dead and asking them to pray for us makes sense (cf. Ethical Musings Thoughts on Grieving).

However, postulating that a saint has more credibility or influence with God than does an ordinary person reduces prayer to an influence peddling scheme in which who you know carries disproportionate weight. This suggests that God is akin to an earthly monarch, swayed by friendship, loyalty, good works, etc. This is just bad theology.

Two factors helped to distort the role saints played within Roman Catholicism. First, following the Council of Chalcedon, Jesus became progressively more exalted, less grounded in human reality, and, therefore, less accessible in the thoughts and spiritual lives of most Christians.

Second, a tendency developed within the Roman Church to allow only priests to receive the transubstantiated bread and wine that the Church taught was the body and blood of Christ. In part, this move happened because the Church wanted to prevent people from sinning by wrongly communing. Before Vatican II, the norm was for only the priest to receive the wine. One radical change of the English Reformation that birthed Anglicanism was to insist that priest commune with the consecrated bread and wine and then to offer both to all confirmed members of the Church. In lieu of receiving Holy Communion, the Roman Church encouraged the veneration of the consecrated host by clergy and laity. These changes made Jesus more distant and, implicitly, the saints closer to the lives of ordinary Christians.

In the New Testament, the word saint denotes a Christian. Honoring saints who have lived the Christian life writ large affords multiple role models, encouraging people by demonstrating that the Jesus path does not represent an unattainable ideal. If one accepts the possibility of life after death, praying for the dead and soliciting their prayers for us makes sense, expressing the bonds that unite God’s people in spite of death without presuming to exert greater influence on God. An omniscient God knows what is best and will find prayers, from the living and the dead, unpersuasive.

Art – sculpture, paintings, and other media – that chronicles a saint’s life can edify and inspire without becoming the occasion of idolatry. But too much emphasis on the saints can obscure the light from the one whom they sought.

The art of sainthood – whether in Venice or in one’s own life – is to be an icon, a door, a window that invites observers to enter more deeply into the light, to walk more vigorously the path of life abundant.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Finding one's way


Physically, Venice, more than anything else, resembles a maze. Venice’s streets appear to follow a perpendicular pattern, though the length of blocks and width of the streets varies widely. But never have I seen so many people staring at maps, confused about their specific location and how they arrived at that place.

More careful observation reveals that Venice is full of subtle acute (less than ninety degrees) angles and dead end streets. What appears to be an alley may be the principle avenue; the broadest path may go nowhere. Watching the directionally challenged in Venice reminded me that Jesus used a similar analogy to characterize his teachings. Those who walk the Jesus path to life abundant will choose the narrow way.

A useful principle for walking around Venice is to follow the crowd. A street, no matter how promising or appealing, with nobody walking along it is unlikely to go very far. Spiritually, the path of abundant life flows in the direction of community and not individualism. Of course, the crowd may lead in an undesired direction (San Marco instead of the Rialto bridge, for example), but the direction in which nobody is going is more likely to be a dead end.

Too often Christians have wrongly described the narrow way, perhaps most famously in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the broad path is full of perils dear to an evangelical’s heart and the narrow path challenging because of worldly temptations. We have an unfortunate proclivity to characterize our path as narrow and paths other than our own as broad, i.e., we seek to be exclusive rather than inclusive in our theology and ecclesiology. If this is a costly path for me, then surely those who do not pay the price deserve far less.

We forget (or ignore!) Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers who labor for varying amounts of time and yet all receive the same wage. What is a costly for us may be easy for another. Of course, the converse is also true.

A second useful principle for getting around Venice is that there are many ways to reach one’s destination. The lazy, wealthy, or those in a hurry take a boat. For the rest of us, walking affords a wonderful opportunity to see a unique city. Around almost every corner is something worth seeing. In other words, the journey is as important as the destination and each path offers its own rewards, with its unique decision points, dead ends, and detours.

Walking the Jesus path does not require necessitate claiming that it is the only path. Indeed, the exclusive language of the New Testament is better understood as the language of love than of logic. That is, statements such as Jesus saying he is the only way to the Father reflect that for the disciples who knew him, who hear his words and passed those words along to the authors of the gospel, Jesus was the one, much as a lover tells his/her beloved that he/she is the only one who can bring the lover happiness. Regarding the words that gospel authors attribute to Jesus as his actual words betrays fidelity to the process that birthed the gospels, substituting human words for a divine word.

A third principle for navigating around Venice is to notice the directional signs. Within a few blocks of most parts of the city, one can find at least one sign, and often several, on a building, usually just above the level of the ground floor ceiling, that points toward one or more major landmarks. Amazingly, some people wander around Venice for days without noticing the signs’ existence. Similarly, many people wander through life without ever paying attention to the signs – the instructions or directions – that point the way to the abundant life, discernible in the writings, constructions, and lives of others. Most helpfully, we can best see those signs when God’s light illuminates them; the signs, like the ones in Venice, are hidden in the darkness or go unseen by the preoccupied and those frantically searching for the way.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Episcopal Church finances


The Economist recently featured a scathing indictment of how the Roman Catholic Church manages its finances (“Earthly Concerns,” pp. 19-23, August 18, 2012). Settlements in child abuse cases totaling $3.3 billion over the last 15 years, which have averaged more than $1 million per case, and the bankruptcies of several U.S. dioceses combined to pique the authors’ curiosity about the Roman Catholic Church’s finances.

 

The Roman Catholic Church has 196 dioceses in the U.S., divided into 34 metropolitan provinces with 270 bishops and about 100 million members. They comprise approximately 18,000 parishes, served by 40,000 priests and 17,000 married deacons.

 

Estimates for 2010, the latest year for which data is available, show that the Roman Church spent $171 billion. Healthcare institutions, colleges, and universities spent almost $150 billion of that total. Only $11 billion went to parish ministry and a relatively paltry $4.7 billion to charity, although Catholic Charities provides important services and is the nation’s largest charitable organization. Altogether, the Catholic Church has about 1 million employees in the U.S. By way of comparison, General Electric’s 2010 revenues were $150 billion and Wal-Mart employed 2 million people that year.

 

The Roman Church routinely comingles funds, mixing operating, pension, endowment, and other accounts. Dioceses facing bankruptcy move funds offshore, beyond the reach of claimants and creditors. The Roman Church provides no public accounting of its funds; a corporation sole holds all of the assets of each diocese, over which the diocesan bishop has complete authority, subject only to the Vatican.

 

The recent Vatican scandal over leaks from the Pope’s butler suggests that financial problems extend across the Roman Catholic Church. No for profit entity could legally manage its finances using the unorthodox methods, accounting principles and secrecy upon which the Roman Catholic Church routinely relies.

 

The secrecy is counterproductive. The lack of transparency discourages donor support, a conclusion ample anecdotal evidence supports. The lack of transparency also promotes a culture of deceit and tacitly suggests that laity, clergy, and members of religious orders lack the spiritual maturity and intellectual ability to comprehend ecclesiastical finances.

 

Evil flourishes in the dark; light dispels the darkness and brings health. The Roman Catholic Church, of all institutions, should understand this basic spiritual concept that is so deeply rooted in the Christian faith. Financial management and use of funds express values and beliefs more powerful than can any amount of verbiage.

 

So, how well does The Episcopal Church manage its finances? Errors in budget proposals for the next triennium that were published before this year’s General Convention implicitly raised questions about the competence of our financial management. From my review of national documents, reading several dioceses’ financial reports, and hearing complaints about a lack of financial transparency in at least some TEC congregations, I know that our financial management is much better than what happens in the Roman Catholic Church (e.g., we  require regular audits) but leaves room for significantly improving transparency.

 

No good reason exists to keep TEC finances shrouded in mystery. Shadows invite, even encourage, wrongdoing. Dioceses should publish a full accounting of their income and expenses – with three exceptions. First, financial reports rightly aggregate assistance provided to individuals into a single line item. Identifying the individual recipients of such aid demeans the recipients’ dignity and provides no essential information to donors or other interested parties. Annual audits and appropriate oversight can ensure that the funds do not benefit the wrong people.

 

Second, financial statements rightly aggregate staff salaries and benefits – except for key employees. Donors and other interested parties do not have any legitimate need to know how much an office assistant or receptionist earns. Budget committees, managers, and auditors appropriately manage such matters. Organizations with salary scales or wage guidelines will usefully publish that information to promote transparency, demonstrate good stewardship, and model paying living wages with benefits.

 

However, financial reports should specify salaries and benefits for key employees, e.g., bishops, canons to the ordinary, etc. Making this information public helps to ensure that leaders do not manage the institution for personal benefit. I have served in key leadership positions where donors knew my pay. Although I’m an intensely private person, I knew of no other way to establish appropriate accountability and transparency. Conversely, religious organizations that have not followed this policy have too often experienced shattering scandals.

 

Finally, the diocese should report aggregated unrestricted gifts from individual persons without identifying the individual donors or the amount each gave. The diocese should identify donors and amounts of restricted gifts because the donor’s restrictions, when the diocese accepts the gift, impose a form of control on the diocese and its operations. Similarly, a diocese should identify any grants, loans, or other funds received from foundations, corporations, or other entities because acceptance of these funds almost always entails an obligation to spend the funds in a particular way or use them for a particular program.

 

These same principles apply to TEC’s national offices, its provinces, and all of its congregations. Most people will ignore published financial reports. Some will read the reports and find the reports uninteresting or too difficult to understand. But making a full public reporting of ecclesiastical is an essential step in establishing the transparency and accountability that God's people deserve. TEC and its constituent components have no “proprietary” or “trade” secrets to hide from the competition. We do have an obligation of full disclosure to our various stakeholders.

 

Full accountability and fiscal transparency are essential elements of good stewardship. Thankfully, TEC, its dioceses, and its congregations have had relatively few documented instances of financial wrongdoing. Regular audits help to ensure fiscal integrity and to encourage sound accounting methods and financial management.

 

Promptly acting to meet the standard of good stewardship through greater financial openness is the right thing to do, will proactively reduce the opportunity for fiscal abuses, promote healthy conversations about mission, and avoid both attempts to circumvent our democratic decisions making processes and ill-informed conflict about who has access to what information.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Venetian churches and spirituality


Venice, by most modern standards, has a surfeit of churches. Most have ornate, even grandiose, marble facades. The other three sides are often brick and very plain. Inside, most of the churches are dimly lit and dirty but contain valuable paintings, frescoes, or statuary. None appears to have a sizable attendance, although a couple of the churches show evidence of loving care from devout if small congregations. Some Venetian churches charge tourists admission, some solicit donations, some are closed to the public, and some are wide open. All appear in worse disrepair than much of the city.

I wonder how many people in bygone centuries, gazing at the façade of a Venetian church, contemplated life and wondered about the nature of God, inspired by the beauty to reflect on a power that transcended human existence. Conversely, how many Venetians took pride in the building’s façade as a sign of the congregation’s wealth and prestige?

Religious communities and individuals are not immune from a human tendency to erect facades – false fronts – in an effort to shape how others perceive them. To the extent that the façade represents a goal or ideal into which the community or individual strives to live, this can provide healthy motivation and challenge. But if the façade masks an ugly interior with which the community or individual is content to live, then the façade constitutes unhealthy hypocrisy.

The relative emptiness of the churches and their disrepair speak volumes about Christianity’s failure in Venice (and many other places) to adapt to changing times and cultures. Buildings and art that once hopefully evoked, at least for many people, an awareness of the transcendent are now historical artifacts, a valuable heritage but largely devoid of spiritual power.

None of the churches that I have visited in Venice, unlike buildings that house religious communities elsewhere, has been for me – and that personal caveat is essential – a thin place in which I have felt drawn toward the transcendent. In a city with few public places in which to experience natural beauty as a thin place, art – paintings, sculpture, architecture, etc. – becomes more important for people seeking thin places. I have found more thin places among Venice’s art in its museums than in its churches, perhaps partially because the art in the museums seems more valued and better displayed than the art in churches. Of course, not knowing Italian prevents me from seeking and finding thin places among the people of Venice and their community relationships.

Musing about Venetian churches has also prompted me to wonder to what extent people reflect on spiritual questions about the meaning of life, relationship with a power greater than self, the nature of the truly abundant life (eudemonia), etc. I wonder how many people and with what frequency ponder those questions. Do I think about them because of my vocation in the Church or do I think about them because of an underlying attraction that lures me toward a transcendent power?

One advantage of participating in a healthy faith community is that the community will encourage and assist its members in reflecting on spiritual questions. Living with and into the questions characterizes the spiritual life; answers are elusive approximations. Perhaps part of why Venetian churches struggle is that Venetians have discovered that definitive doctrinal claims are no more substantial than their city, built on pilings, and sinking into the mire. Vibrant faith communities journey together rather than pretending to believe common theological propositions.