Thursday, February 28, 2013

Research about guns and killing

Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who led the Center for Disease Control's gun violence research in the 1990s when he was head of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, described the research's results before Congress cut off funding for it in 1996:

One of the critical studies that we supported was looking at the question of whether having a firearm in your home protects you or puts you at increased risk. This was a very important question because people who want to sell more guns say that having a gun in your home is the way to protect your family.

What the research showed was not only did having a firearm in your home not protect you, but it hugely increased the risk that someone in your family would die from a firearm homicide. It increased the risk almost 300 percent, almost three times as high.

It also showed that the risk that someone in your home would commit suicide went up. It went up five-fold if you had a gun in the home. These are huge, huge risks, and to just put that in perspective, we look at a risk that someone might get a heart attack or that they might get a certain type of cancer, and if that risk might be 20 percent greater, that may be enough to ban a certain drug or a certain product.

But in this case, we're talking about a risk not 20 percent, not 100 percent, not 200 percent, but almost 300 percent or 500 percent. These are huge, huge risks. (Joaquin Sapien, "What Researchers Learned About Gun Violence Before Congress Killed Funding," Pro Publica, Feb. 25, 2013)

About 30,000 Americans die annually because of gun violence. None of those Americans dies defending her or himself against governmental tyranny. The evidence very strongly supports debating the merits of the second amendment, with an eye toward advocating its repeal.

If you're unwilling to go that war, consider that political columnists David Brooks and Mark Shields, one a conservative and the other liberal, who rarely agree about anything, last week agreed that implementing a universal requirement for a background check for anyone wishing to purchase a gun was a good idea. (PBS News Hour)

Guns are dangerous and generally unnecessary, except for the relative few people who hunt or target shoot. Even in those cases, storing the guns unloaded, with the safety on, under lock and key is an important step toward avoiding injury and death.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Restructuring principles for The Episcopal Church - part 2

Part 1 enumerated the first six principles. This post presents the remaining four principles, summarizes all ten, and briefly illustrates the importance of articulating principles before tackling the tough issues of restructuring.

Seventh, form should follow function. Given the paucity of scriptural principles for shaping ecclesial organizations, TEC can shed, freely and guiltlessly, any anachronistic policies, rules or structures that no longer fit today's context, detract from community or mission, or are unnecessarily convoluted. Concurrently, TEC can create any new policies, rules, or structures that seem likely to aid in being God's twenty-first century people (community) and doing God's work today (mission). I'm tempted to enumerate my candidates for elimination, but want to focus the initial conversation on the ten principles rather than specific recommendations!

Eighth, incorporating a system of checks and balances into TEC's structure will help to avoid future power imbalances in and between the denomination's various constituent members, components, and orders of ministry. The blurred lines between the executive (denominational leadership and staff/agency management), judicial (trial courts for bishops and clergy), and legislative (includes all bishops, and many lay/clergy who also have executive or judicial roles) functions makes adequate checks and balances essential.

Separation of function is not the answer. Thankfully, TEC has few judicial tasks. Generally, the pastoral should take priority over the legal, even though this adds complexity and potential role confusion. Similarly, strongly differentiating between the Presiding Bishop (PB) and other bishops could draw a clean line between executive and legislative functions, but at the potential price of moving toward more authoritarian PBs emerging in the future. In short, blurred lines between the functions are an inescapable consequence of an ecclesial structure defined by principles of representative democracy, mission, and collegiality.

Ninth, TEC's structure should exhibit transparency and accountability. The Church has nothing to hide and practicing transparency – apart from sensitive personnel issues – with its constituents, stakeholders, and even the public will assist TEC in sustaining its focus on mission and community. Transparency (open meetings, full reporting) is the most important element of good organizational accountability. Other aspects of accountability include mandating prudential fiscal management (full financial reporting; regular and thorough audits; etc.), open elections that encourage multiple candidates for each vacancy, and opportunities for input to representative bodies from their constituents.

Tenth, technology increasingly poses a greater challenge for preserving unity through common prayer than theological differences do. Our secular culture is moving away from the printed page and toward video and electronic communications. This advantageously permits greater local adaptation to better suit particular situations and audiences but at the price of introducing added liturgical diversity. The variations allowed in the provisional rites for blessing same sex relationships represent part of the leading edge of this shift, as do some of the optional Enriching Our Worship liturgies utilized in some congregations in some dioceses. TEC will probably never again publish a paper hymnal. Instead, congregations will draw their music from increasingly diverse sources. The move away from the printed page is irreversible.

Restructuring affords TEC an excellent opportunity to adopt structures that link people together in worship in spite of this trend, e.g., emphasizing structures that offer worship and fellowship opportunities and minimize/streamline governance (cf. my earlier Daily Episcopalian posts Rethinking Episcopal Church structure Part I and Rethinking Episcopal Church structure Part II).

In sum, the ten principles proposed for guiding TEC's restructuring are:

1.      Preserve the four historic orders of ministry

2.      TEC's structure should emphasize both community and mission

3.      Preserve governance premised on discerning God's leading through representative democratic processes

4.      Practice subsidiarity

5.      Adopt a minimalist approach, reserving all specifically unidentified powers and responsibilities to individuals, congregations, or dioceses

6.      Aim for simplicity of structure

7.      Form should follow function

8.      Incorporate a structural system of checks and balances

9.      TEC's structure should exhibit transparency and accountability

10.  Take advantage of the opportunities for new forms of community and structure that technology has made possible, while seeking to avoid or minimize any adverse consequences

One of the major questions that the task force on structure will assuredly address is whether to recommend that TEC adopt a unicameral legislative structure or retain its bicameral structure. I've not directly addressed that question. Instead, I've offered a framework of principles for shaping consideration of that and other questions by the task force and others.

In particular, several of the ten principles enumerated above are relevant. Will a unicameral or bicameral legislature best focus our communal and missional concerns and efforts? Which structure is most congruent with the principles of representative democracy, subsidiarity, simplicity, ensuring adequate checks and balances, and affording the best opportunity to preserve denominational unity?

Reasonable, godly people can and will disagree about the answers to those questions. But establishing a set of guiding principles to shape the debate will help to preserve Christian civility premised on the belief that all participants want to seek both the mind of Christ and what is best for TEC. Reliance on explicitly identified principles will also help TEC to avoid polarity and a gridlock similar to that which bedevils our politicians.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Restructuring principles for The Episcopal Church - part 1

The Episcopal Church (TEC) has constituted a special task force charged with proposing denominational restructuring. Here are ten proposals for shaping their recommendations and the ensuing discussion; our denominational history and the Anglican interpretation of Christianity inform all ten. If we can agree upon a set of principles for restructuring, then the ensuing debate is likely to be more respectful and productive because participants will share common goals, though differ, perhaps sharply, in how to weight factors, perception of need, and future ramifications.

Part 1 enumerates the first six principles; Part 2 includes the remaining four, a brief illustration of the relevance of this approach, and a summary of the ten principles.

First, and perhaps most obviously, any restructuring should preserve the four historic orders of ministry (lay, deacon, priest, and bishop). The New Testament provides scant detail about the organization of the early church. Although twenty-first century Christians hold widely divergent views about the early church's structure, our Anglican tradition is clear in affirming the four orders. Holy Baptism is the lay equivalent of ordination; the ordination services establish some boundaries for each of the other three orders while recognizing considerable overlap. Scriptural and historical studies provide some, though incomplete, information about of the role and function of each order. In other words, restructuring should respect what little light the New Testament sheds on patterns of ecclesial organization while recognizing that considerable flexibility exists.

Second, TEC exists as a communal and missional expression of the body of Christ. That is, TEC does not claim to be the only legitimate branch of Christ's body, but a valid part of that body in which Christians enjoy the community of God and the saints, and in which Christians unite to serve God. Our baptismal vows make this dual emphasis on community and mission explicit. In the service of Holy Baptism, the celebrant asks any adult baptismal candidates and the assembled congregation to commit to continuing in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, and then asks whether they will proclaim the gospel in word and example, seek and serve Christ in all people, and strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human. A strong communal and missional emphasis in the task force's work will focus TEC's structure on its raison d'ĂȘtre. This sharply contrasts with the apparently widely held but mistaken presumptions that dioceses and TEC's national structures exist primarily for governance or that congregations exist primarily to preserve local tradition and their facilities or for the benefit of the clergy.

Third, restructuring should preserve governance premised on discerning God's leading through representative democratic processes. This practice, arguably rooted in New Testament accounts of the early church (e.g., reports of Church councils, their debates, and early Christians consensually drawing lots to replace Judas), was distinctive of the post-American Revolution Episcopal Church. Vestries, diocesan conventions/councils, and TEC's general convention/executive council are all expressions of representative democracy (a limited number of members/delegates/deputies represent the larger constituency). Direct democracy (everyone has a vote) is more cumbersome, costly, and time-consuming without any assurance of better results, i.e., more faithfully discerning God's will or fostering committed community.

Over the last half-century, TEC has pushed for greater inclusivity and diversity in selecting individuals to serve as representatives (deputies, delegates, etc.). Hopefully, the commitment to racial, ethnic, and gender inclusivity has sufficient traction to sustain it (better yet, for these commitments to continue to gain momentum!) without requiring institutionalizing through formal quotas. Diversity and inclusivity fall short of the mark with respect to age (e.g., General Convention deputies are disproportionately old), affluence (overcoming this would require paying all expenses for representatives, including childcare), and employment status (increasing the number of virtual meetings will allow the participation of more employed people who have limited vacation time). Additionally, term limits that allow shorter tenure among incumbents (fewer individuals filling the same position for three, four, or more terms) would advantageously allow for broader participation without increasing the number of deputies.

Fourth, the principle of subsidiarity should shape restructuring, i.e., functions better performed – for any reason(s) to include tradition, effectiveness, and preference – by provinces, dioceses, congregations, or individuals should be the responsibility of the most basic level possible. Subsidiarity promotes decentralization, creates greater opportunity for lay ministries, maximizes options for participation, and is consistent with the diocese as the Church's basic unit (in contrast to a tradition that either centralizes authority in a patriarch or views the congregation or individual Christian as the basic unit in the body of Christ).

Fifth, restructuring should adopt a minimalist approach, reserving all specifically unidentified powers and responsibilities to individuals, congregations, or dioceses. Less structure is usually better than more structure. This principle, a corollary of subsidiarity, extends the latter principle to recognize the individual and appropriately diverse nature of religious belief and practice. Centrally determined forms of prayer and cooperative action are not synonymous with uniformity of belief or coercing compliance to church norms. The failed effort to unite the Anglican Communion with a Covenant designed to ensure conformity represented an abrupt break with Anglican tradition.

Sixth, simplicity of structure will promote efficiency (cost and labor savings) while enhancing effectiveness (nimble, reasonably rapid responses). Proliferating committees, commissions, boards, task forces, etc. can create an illusion of broader participation in governance processes. However, proliferating our structures actually impedes decision-making without improving its quality. TEC depends upon volunteer labor, a scarce and precious resource that is wrongly squandered on committees (by whatever label they are known) that lack a clear function and achievable goals or are entirely tangential to TEC's mission.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Drones and targeted killings: Part 2

No American military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan for almost a month. The fall in fatalities marks the winding down of the United States' war and occupation there. However, with approximately 64,000 members of the U.S. armed forces remaining in Afghanistan, more fatalities are likely.

Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has stated that Afghanistan's forces will not request or support air strikes in urban areas. His announcement follows the death of ten civilians in a recent airstrike.

The fall in combat deaths, Karzai's announcement, and the photo of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery highlight two salient characteristics of drone strikes some of which I raised in my previous post Drones and targeted killings.

First, drone strikes represent a near-optimal form of risk transfer war, permitting killing the enemy without putting friendly forces at risk. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier honors military personnel killed in combat in a manner that did not permit recovery of identifiable remains. These deaths are reminders that warfighting has historically been inherently risky for warfighters, thereby creating what ethicists term the moral equality of combatants. Because warriors, friend and foe alike, are legitimate targets for the other side, killing a warrior during a war is morally acceptable, even though it may leave the killer with dirty hands, i.e., moral guilt for having done what was expected, even necessary, in war but is otherwise prohibited.

Second, drone warfare generally shifts the risk that military personnel once bore to non-combatants. Calling non-combatant and unintended casualties collateral damage accurately characterizes what happens, but at a cost of depersonalizing death and injury. Battles have seldom occurred without putting at least some non-combatants at risk, yet drone strikes tend to increase the probability of collateral damage substantially. Among the reasons for that increased probability are:

·         People may enter or leave the target area during any time lag between firing authorization and missile/bomb impact

·         Sensors may fail to show or permit accurate identification everyone within the likely blast area;

·         Too small a warhead may fail to kill the intended target(s);

·         And projected estimates of blast zones may be inaccurate.

Consequently, reliance on drone attacks creates several ethical conundrums:

1.      Are personnel who authorize and implement drone strikes warfighters or executioners?

2.      If warfighters, the attacks presume a state of war and that U.S. military personnel, military installations, and many other government facilities are legitimate targets for the enemy. Who has the Constitutional authority to declare this type of war, the President or Congress? Are the U.S. government and public prepared to accept the premise that drone attacks invite reciprocal attacks on the U.S. homeland?

3.      Answering negatively, that drone strikes are not an act of war raises an even more difficult question: what is the source of the legal authority for the attack? If the attack crosses national borders and the other nation(s) do not grant authority for the attack, is the border violation an act of war? Is execution without due process (right to face one's accuser, present evidence, defend one's self with the aid of competent counsel, etc.) legal and, more importantly, moral? What distinguishes targeted killing using drone strikes from the ancient but morally problematic adage that might makes right? In other words, without legal authority, a drone strike resembles a bully or alpha male exercising unilateral control, daring anyone to try to prevent it.

Drone strikes seem to me, when conducted apart from formally declared war, to fall between warfighting and law enforcement. Neither set of rules fully applies. But relying upon drone strikes apart from any moral framework invites abuse (power always tempts those who have power to abuse it), chaos (decisions based upon varying, even contradictory criteria), and undermines the rule of law nationally and internationally (as happened with the detention of those the Bush administration called illegal combatants following 9/11). My next post(s) on drones and targeted killing will propose a new set of rules and argue that using drones for targeted killing is morally justifiable but entails risks, moral and otherwise.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Identity narratives and roadmaps

Anglican author and priest Herbert O'Driscoll tells a story about a burning house. A woman runs out of the house, fleeing the fire. But before anyone can stop her, she runs back into the house. After a couple of minutes, she again dashes out of the house, choking and coughing, but clutching a book, her diary. She believed that without her story, carefully recorded in her diary, she would lose her identity (I heard this story from the Rt. Rev. Richard Grein on Oct. 22, 2003 at an Episcopal Chaplains Conference, Mount Calvary Retreat Center, Santa Barbara, CA.).

That woman knew her story – or at least where to find it. Each of us has a story, sometimes called an identity narrative, which describes who we are as a person. This identity narrative is actually a composite of stories about important, defining incidents in our lives. These stories may be ones that we embrace as our own, actual events that we have personally experienced, or a combination of both.

Deuteronomy 26:5-8 illustrates embracing another person's story as one's own. In the Jewish liturgical cycle, Jews recite verses from this reading during Sukkot, the Feast of Booths. The text summarizes the Jewish identity narrative. Abraham, an Aramaean nomad, moves his small family to Egypt during a famine. They remain there, becoming numerous but enslaved. God hears their laments, delivers them bondage, and leads them into a new land after forty years wandering in the wilderness, which the brush structures built at Sukkot recall.

Repeating that narrative, personalizing and claiming it as one's own story, year after year in multiple contexts and versions not only at Sukkot, but also at Passover and other times, helps to form a person into a Jew. One figuratively becomes a descendant of that wandering Aramaean, symbolically participates in Egyptian bondage, the deliverance chronicled in the Passover narrative, and the occupation of the Promised Land. The narrative creates, and successfully preserves in each new generation, the Jewish identity.

Romans 10:8-13 contains a Christian identity narrative that encapsulates the identity story of those who walk the Jesus path in a single phrase, Jesus is Lord. However, understanding that narrative requires knowing both Paul's and Jesus' stories. Paul prided himself on his knowledge of Judaism and his religious zeal. Yet in spite of his best efforts to obey God in all things, he kept failing. Then, traveling the road to Damascus, he encountered the light of God's love in a powerful, life altering way. He experienced God's accepting him – just as he was. He knew he did not have to, indeed, could not, prove anything to God. God healed Paul's guilt, guilt he felt for his own spiritual inadequacies and failures as well as guilt for having persecuted those renegade Jews called Christians.

Our liturgy, combining word and Eucharist in scripture, hymns, creed, prayers, and actions, retells the story of Jesus. When done well, our liturgy engages us in a manner analogous to the Jew reciting the passage from Deuteronomy at Sukkot. The more we tell the story, the more it shapes and permeates our identity. In good liturgy, we hear Jesus teach; we witness him healing; and we travel the Damascus road, where we too encounter the light of God's love that heals our spiritual inadequacies, failures, and brokenness.

Luke's story of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness is effectively a prism that refracts the light of God's love onto our path, showing three of its basic components (4:1-13). The first temptation – turn stones into bread – describes the temptation to believe that because God loves us we will succeed and prosper. In the story, Jesus has not eaten for forty days and nights. Incidentally, this is one reason we annually observe Lent as a forty-day period of fasting and self-examination. Anyone who has given up something they really crave, who has eagerly longed for some upcoming event, or who loves the smell of freshly baked bread, can appreciate the power of this temptation, even mindful that in the Bible forty connotes a long period and not an actual time. As Jesus knew, and Holy Week annually reminds us, God's love is no assurance of health, wealth, or long life. Instead, genuine success in life comes through our loving relationships with God, others, and all creation.

The second temptation – jump, God will catch you – is about status, i.e., since God loves you so much, God will keep you from harm. But Jesus knew that God loves everyone, the greatest and the least among us, whether a Jesus or Judas, equally. Imagine the size of the crowds, even without help from social media, that Jesus could have drawn had he jumped off the Jerusalem temple's highest pinnacle and landed on his feet, unscathed! Jesus' response contrasts starkly with what Napoleon once wrote to Josephine after a battle, "I lost no one of any importance." Everyone is important to God; all of us have not 15 seconds, 15 minutes, or even 15 years of fame but an eternity of fame as God's children.

The third temptation – worship me and the world is yours – is about security. Jesus' most frightening opposition came from Roman authorities. They saw him as a revolutionary who told people to choose between having him or Caesar as their king. In a society riven by debates about gun ownership and insatiable demands for more spending on defense and homeland security, plagued with random killings, mass murderers, and international nuclear proliferation, we do well to remember that the only real security lies in God's love.

What is your story? Are you willing to risk your life to preserve your story? Is Jesus your Lord? Do you know his story, walk his path, and allow his light to illumine your path to success, status, and security?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Gun control and the second amendment

The influential Roman Catholic periodical America has just printed an editorial in which they argue for repealing the second amendment, an idea I had previously suggested in my post Mass murders gun control. The editorial makes thoughtful reading for those who try to walk faithfully in the footsteps of the Prince of Peace. At whose altar will you worship, that of the gun or of the one who refused to answer Roman violence with more violence?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sin and a holy Lent

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. On Ash Wednesday the Church encourages us to acknowledge our sins, confess those sins to God, accept God's forgiveness, and then amend (improve!) our lives. Thus, I found this post on the most common sins in America surprising and informative:

 “Temptations and America’s Favorite Sins,” a survey conducted by the Barna Group, a Christian research firm, concludes that the moral struggles that vex most Americans aren’t the salacious acts that drive the plotlines of reality television shows. Most Americans are too worn down or distracted to get snared by those vices, the survey concludes.

The top three sins seducing most Americans: procrastination, overeating and spending too much time on media.

“You would think it would be sex, drugs and rock and roll,” said Todd Hunter, pastor and author of “Our Favorite Sins,” whose book was consulted in conjunction with the survey.

The survey said that 60% of Americans admitted that they’re tempted to worry too much or procrastinate; 55% said they’re tempted to overeat, and 41% said they’re tempted by sloth, or laziness.

The sex, drugs and rock and roll-like vices fell dead last in the temptation categories: 11% of Americans said they were tempted by drug abuse; 9% were tempted by sexually inappropriate contact. (John Blake, "Americans Reveal their 3 Favorite Sins," CNN Belief Blog accessed February 8, 2013, at

My previous post, Cycling to Forgiveness, offers some thoughts on the dynamics of forgiveness.

May God grant us all the true repentance (i.e., turning from sin toward God) of a holy Lent. Amen.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Drones and targeted killings

Drones – technically, most drones are actually remotely piloted vehicles in contrast to true drones that fly preplanned missions and operate without real time human guidance – have become the weapon of choice in the continuing U.S. fight against terrorists, the Taliban, foreign drug lords, and other foes.

The Predator, flown by the U.S. military, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and some U.S. allies, is the drone that has received the greatest media attention. Several, more advanced drones are also operational, e.g., the Reaper. All of these drones can transmit live video; many can also launch one or more missiles (such as the Hellfire air to ground missile that often has a 150-pound warhead) at a remotely designated target.

In addition to less controversial surveillance and reconnaissance missions that may entail ethical issues (e.g., transgressing national sovereignty, invasion of privacy, and violations of Congressional mandates requiring notification of Congress about missions and assigning certain intelligence responsibilities to particular agencies), the Bush and Obama administrations have employed drones for targeted killings. In a targeted killing, the CIA or U.S. military identifies the person or persons as a high value target and the appropriate government authority then authorizes a drone launched missile strike.

Among the important ethical issues that targeted killings raise are:

1.      Who (or what court, committee, or other entity) should authorize including a person on a list approved for targeted killing? Under current U.S. policy, authorization may come from a military field commander, from the Secretary of Defense, the President, the Vice President, and perhaps several others, depending upon the list is the one kept by the CIA, the military's Joint Special Operations Command, Central Command, etc. What check(s) should the process incorporate to avoid abuses?

2.      What standard of proof should be required for an approval authority to authorize including a person on a list for targeted killing? Does the collected evidence meet that standard? Is the evidence current and reliable? What are the best definitions for "current" and "reliable"?

3.      Once included on an approved list for targeted killing, who should authorize an actual strike, and of what type, against an individual(s)? Other means have included cruise missiles, ordnance from crewed aircraft, and use of ground troops and special forces.

4.      How much collateral damage will the strike probably cause? Is that anticipated collateral damage proportional to the potential benefits of killing the target? What are the consequences if the attack fails?

5.      Should one standard apply in case of U.S. citizens and another for non-U.S. citizens? What moral justification exists for that double standard, especially from a Christian perspective in which God loves all people equally and regards all people as worthy of equal respect and dignity, and, therefore by implication, as having equal rights?

6.      Prima facie, targeted killing appears to deprive U.S. citizens of their Constitutional rights to counsel, fair trial, due process, and so forth. Previous suspensions of Constitutional rights in the name of national security (e.g., Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus and the WWII internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent) proved unjustifiable, failing to make the nation more secure. What evidence exists to justify violating the Constitutional rights of citizens approved for targeted killings? Why not attempt apprehension and adjudication?

7.      More broadly, international law represents an attempt to curtail violence across national borders, one nation unilaterally taking action in another nation's territory. Do target killings represent an unintended step toward lawlessness, inviting other nations to take similar steps against real or perceived foes in third countries? For example, what if China conducted a targeted killing of a Chinese dissident living in the U.S. and who is a Chinese citizen? How do alternatives to targeted killing compare ethically?

8.      If targeted killing constitutes an act of warfighting, does targeted killing of terrorists implicitly confer the status of warrior upon terrorists? Does the practice of targeted killing implicitly lend international legal sanction to reprisals against U.S. armed forces at home and abroad by tacitly acknowledging that a state of war exists between the U.S. and its enemies?

Future Ethical Musings posts will address some of these specific issues. In general, I'm deeply concerned about the lack of checks, oversight, and openness that surround current practices. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Furthermore, I want to live under the rule of law in a democratic society, two precepts that prima facie seem incompatible with targeted killings. History has repeatedly demonstrated that justifying otherwise morally suspect practices in the name of national security produces often unintended but adverse consequences. I see no reason to believe that this will not hold true for targeted killings as currently conducted.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Getting ready for Lent

One of the most difficult things about Lent for me, and apparently many others from the number of people who have asked me about it over the years, is choosing a Lenten discipline. A Lenten discipline is a spiritual practice – either giving up something (e.g., meat or chocolate) or taking on something (e.g., saying Morning or Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer daily) – that a person commits to following during the forty days of Lent that span the period from Ash Wednesday until Palm Sunday.

Some people adopt the same discipline every year, an approach that avoids a potentially difficult. Considerate individuals who live with other peopl generally attempt to select a discipline that will not create relationship difficulties, e.g., deciding to become Vegan in a household where meat is the main course for most meals. Other persons seek a discipline that they think will be both practical and realistic, e.g., a night owl might want to think twice (or even three times!) before committing to rise at 4:00 am for two hours of physical and spiritual exercise every morning during Lent.

Yet another approach to selecting a Lenten discipline is to reflect on why you wish to adopt it, i.e., what you hope to gain from observing a particular rule or engaging in a particular practice for forty days. Last year, I wrote about this, suggesting that a Lenten discipline might be an excellent opportunity to cultivate a character habit or trait that you think might make you a better person, i.e., more like Jesus (cf. Ethical Musings Importance of Character).

Still another perspective on choosing a Lenten discipline is that the practice or rule will hopefully draw one more deeply into the spiritual life, move one along the path toward God. Do you adopt your Lenten practice or rule with an expectation of magic, mystery, or mysticism?

Magic promises assured results through correct manipulation of things and proper application of power, usually through ritual. Wicca, a modern nature religion, claims to teach its adherents how to produce beneficial outcomes through manipulating things and conducting rituals in accordance with their teaching. In fact, the Wiccans have more in common with alchemists than with religion. Medieval alchemists' greatest interest was in turning base metal into gold, a challenge that attracted such luminaries as Newton, much to the embarrassment of genuine scientists.

Magic is either bunk or illusion. Nobody can saw a person in half and then reassemble the parts into a whole, unscarred and uninjured. Alchemy and most of the Wiccan teachings that I've read are pure bunk: no amount of manipulation of the specified things when accompanied by the allegedly appropriate ritual properly performed can produce the promised results.

Although we may wish, even sometimes truly and profoundly desire, our religious practices to be magic, they are never genuine magic. No amount of right belief, right prayer, right giving, right worship, or right anything else can guarantee that God, another person, or any other element of creation will act according to our aspirations. God, as I have written previously at Ethical Musings, is not a celestial vending machine whom people can manipulate by depositing the right "coinage" (prayers or spiritual practices). A "vending machine" God is anything but the dynamic, loving creator of the cosmos.

Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, and a host of other novelists have popularized the genre of mystery. Some of these authors were Christians, who like Dorothy Sayre and Kate Charles, followed the Anglican branch of the Christian path; others, including G.K. Chesterton (who is remembered in the Episcopal Church's annual commemoration of persons who have lived the Christian life writ large), travelled different branches of the Christian path.

Mystery, whether it connotes fiction, unknown facts that are relevant to science or another field of inquiry, or questions about the future, delves beyond magic. Mystery poses a question or questions, often presuming that answers will become accessible, given sufficient time, diligence in searching, and intelligence.

Genuine religion suggests that some mysteries exist for which the answers are so sublime, so ineffable, that highlighting the mystery is as close to an answer as is possible. For example, a god describable in human language – not in abstract nouns that lack a referent and are therefore but signs that point to mystery but through concrete nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs – is not divine, but an idol, reduced to the finite scale of human linguistic referents.

On occasion, a person may move beyond the mystery into a moment of encounter with the divine, perhaps experiencing an overwhelming love, oneness with nature and all creation, or the bliss of an indescribable inner peace. Known as mystical experiences, brevity, ineffability, transcendence, and a noetic quality are four marks that characterize such moments.

Daily meditation is the most commonly identified means for cultivating mystical experiences, heightening one's awareness of the world within or without through focused attention (for more on meditation, see Ethical Musings Meditation - a form of prayer and path to human flourishing).

However, there are several other entry points for those seeking a mystical experience, i.e., personal encounter with the Holy. Contemplation – a form of reflection – is one such entry point, whether of nature, spiritual writings (to include scripture), art, or music (for more on contemplation, see Ethical Musings Contemplation).

Moments of intense love for another person can provide another entry point. The Song of Solomon, a prima facie love poem between a man and a woman is also a testament to the power of such love to move one beyond the mysterious acceptance, affirmation, and unity experienced in human love to the mystical acceptance, affirmation, and unity experienced in God's love for us. The great Jewish philosopher and mystic Martin Buber described this type of relationship as an I-Thou relationship, in stark contrast to the I-It relationships that predominate. We can find these moments with one whom we love as parent, partner, friend, or child; we can find these moments with one whom we serve, our neighbor whom we love as we love ourselves.

In the past, have you chosen a Lenten discipline out of habit, convenience, or practicality? Have you chosen a practice or rule, something to give up or something to do, hoping to produce magical changes in yourself or God? Has your journey taken you deeper, moving you into the realm of mystery, challenging you to search for answers and to learn to live in the silence? Is this the year in which you want to go even deeper, to seek the One who is sensed but not grasped, experienced but not named?

If so, then choose a Lenten rule or practice that will help you to travel from magic to mystery or from mystery to mysticism.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Postmodern individualism

An Ethical Musings reader prompted this post, suggesting that I write about postmodern individualism. (NB: Suggestions for posts are always welcome!)

Defining each word provides a helpful backdrop for discussing the phrase. The nineteenth century French historian and politician, Alexis de Tocqueville, apparently first used the term individualism, which suggests that a focus on self in contrast to family or a larger grouping is relatively new. The most extreme and weirdest example of individualism I have encountered is the 2003 marriage in Haarlem, Holland, of Jennifer Hoes to herself. The German magazine, Der Spiegel, reported that she explained, "We live in a Me society. Hence, it is logical that one promises to be faithful to oneself." In sum, individualism emphasizes self above all else. The German philosopher Max Stirner, an advocate of individualism, hoped that each person would become "an almighty I."

Postmodern is a widely used concept but ill defined. Postmodern may mean that which occurred after the modern era, a period often identified as the first half, or even most, of the twentieth century. More philosophically, postmodern connotes an outlook that rejects the accessibility, perhaps even the existence, of absolute truth and advocates relativism as the basis for human thought, including ethics, philosophy, and religion.

For example, in one Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown and his friends lie on their backs in a grassy field, watching clouds drift across the skies. One of his friends sees a famous painting in a particular cloud formation. An embarrassed Charlie Brown was about to suggest that the formation resembled a horse and a sheep. Millard J. Erickson in The Postmodern World: Discerning the Times and the Spirit of our Age, citing that cartoon, writes that clouds really have no shapes or patterns, only those shapes or patterns that individuals impose.

Existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger universalized this idea when he wrote that reality is just as a person perceives it. German economist and sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) wrote that when faced with conflicting moral positions, "the individual has to decide which is God for him and which is the devil."

Postmodern individualism refers to a radical individualism linked to total, or nearly total, relativism. There are at least two problems with radical postmodern individualism. First, postmodern individualism carried to its logical conclusion makes community – whether family, tribe, nation, church, or any other form of community – impossible. Community requires compromise, two or more individuals willingly agreeing to make room, figuratively and literally, for the other. This room generally entails emotional space, as well as accepting divergent ideas, values, behaviors, and so forth.

Regardless of what we might want to think, no person can exist entirely and completely as an individual. Without human succor, a newborn will die. Death may not be as immediate for an infant, a seriously ill person, or an elderly individual suffering severe decline in mental or physical capacity forced to exist without assistance from anyone else, but death is as inevitable for such a person as for the newborn. None of these people has the requisite capacities to produce and preserve food, construct shelter, fabricate clothing and other necessities, etc. Stories of lone adult castaways such as Robinson Crusoe tell a highly romanticized and literally incredible (i.e., unbelievable) tale of an individual triumphing alone against the world. Even when successful at satisfying human requirements for water, food, shelter, and clothing, Crusoe's greatest need, for friendship, remains unmet until he establishes a relationship with Friday.

Ironically, postmodern individualism dehumanizes instead of humanizes people, the opposite of what it promises. When I view others primarily as a means to an end (that is, as a means to my happiness or flourishing), I block the possibility of entering into a genuine relationship with that person; the same applies to any relationship that I may seek to have with animals or with God. This is one lesson that we can learn from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who contrasted I-Thou relationships with I-It relationships. In the 1970s and 80s, Jesuit priest John Powell used Buber's thinking to create a series of very popular workshops and books in which he interpreted the goal of Jesus' message as helping people to become fully human, fully human.

Postmodern individualism, at least in part, appears to be a reaction to the narrow certainties of the Victorian era and its continental counterparts. The apostle Paul wrote that we see as though through a glass or mirror, dimly, i.e., imperfectly and incompletely.

Secondly, postmodern individualism with its absolute relativism provides no basis for declaring any behavior wrong for everyone. Thus, some may claim the daily prerogative of murdering with moral impunity, some may opt for pedophilia, etc. I find this prospect so deeply troubling that I cannot accept it. Some behaviors – such as pedophilia, wanton murder, and rape – appear always, or at least almost always (allowing for remote, usually hypothetical, exceptions), morally wrong.

Affirmations of human dignity, the worth of all creation, and respect for life transcend cultural boundaries and appear to have roots in most societies as well as human biology, i.e., they result from an experiential, pragmatic epistemology. Those propositions currently offer reasonable foundations for ethics and efforts to promote human flourishing. However, subsequent generations, with the benefit of a perspective perhaps shaped by space travel, undreamt of scientific discoveries and theories, and other new data may substantially revise those foundations. In other words, healthy relativism permits me to appreciate human diversity in the present, encourage ethical living and flourishing, and remain open to unexpected future possibilities.

Creative living happens when people hold in tension individualism (God created each of us as unique individuals), community (no person is an island, no person can become fully human, fully alive, apart from community), and resist the temptation to absolutize our limited, temporal understandings and perspectives. Postmodern individualism provides an insufficient foundation for human flourishing.