Monday, September 30, 2013

Theological implications of exploring interstellar space


The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced in early September of this year that its Voyager I probe has become the first human made object to enter interstellar space. The announcement came after scientists reported evidence that the unmanned spacecraft has crossed the magnetic boundary separating our solar system from the rest of the galaxy. Voyager I was launched more than thirty-six years ago, embarking on a journey to give us close-up views of Jupiter and Saturn before heading toward deep space.

Following that announcement, a friend and former parishioner wrote to me with some thoughtful questions:

To me, this [the exploration of interstellar space] has cosmic and religious ramifications – does space go on forever? If not, what? What is out there? What faith is out there, if any?

The questions evoked memories of a sermon that I preached almost three decades ago entitled, “How big is your God?” The sermon, with more questions than answers, inquired:

·         Is God was one among many gods, each with a part of creation?

·         Do the life forms that almost certainly exist on other planets have religious figures or saviors similar to Jesus?

·         How can we set aside anthropocentric (humans at the center of everything) and geocentric (the earth at the center of creation) biases (astronomers tend to think that our solar system is to one side of the cosmos, not its center)?

I’m not sure that most of the congregation understood the sermon; one couple who did told the senior chaplain that they would not return to the chapel if I were to preach again, they were that distraught over the content of my sermon.

What can we say?

First, we must begin with our ignorance. Neither the Christian tradition nor scriptures say anything about life on another planet, let alone life outside this solar system. Judaism offers a constructive example at this point. Jews have a clear understanding of what their tradition teaches (or, more accurately for most Jews, the spectrum of teachings). Judaism, however, makes no statement about non-Jews, finding their scriptures and tradition silent on the subject. Christians can be clear that in Jesus they recognize what is for them God’s definitive self-revelation. We do not need to invent or hypothesize about whether the God we worship is the only God, etc., but will do well to learn to live with our unanswerable questions.

Second, we can reject as human inventions any claims about God or gods and life on other planets. For example, the claim of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) that faithful males can become a savior, similar to Jesus, for their own planet is at best wild conjecture and more probably simple foolishness. We simply do not have any sources of verifiable information about life outside the solar system nor, for that matter, about God (belief in God depends upon trust in others or personal experience, as I have previously argued in Ethical Musings posts).

Third, the best religious and spiritual teachings consequently emphasize implications for life in the present. How can I, you, or anyone else live more abundantly, completely, and fully today? Questions about what is over the horizon – whether the horizon marked by physical death, the horizon demarcated by the solar system’s boundary, or the horizon of our knowledge – have utility only in shaping our inquiries into the unknown. Genuine religion (or spirituality) gives one courage to live in the face of the unknown, wisdom to discern what is knowable from the unknown, and love with which to embrace the life and the good.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Denomination or non-denominational?


When people search for a church to join, one early stage decision in the process is whether to find a denominational or non-denominational church. Are denominations important? Is it good for a congregation to be part of a denomination?

On the one hand, independent, non-denominational megachurches and their pastors too often feature in media headlines, as reporters and editors almost gloat in uncovering the latest scandal. Even when there is no scandal, the retirement or death of an independent church pastor (regardless of the congregation's size) will often set that congregation on an irreversible downward glide path toward institutional oblivion.

On the other hand, conventional wisdom has it that denominations in general, and mainline Protestant denominations like The Episcopal Church in particular, are dying anachronisms.

Are denominations important?

Denominations provide vital ministries not readily available to non-denominational congregations. Indeed, some non-denominational megachurches have spawned networks of linked congregations becoming, in essence, a new expression of denominationalism, e.g., both Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard have linked congregations scattered across the U.S.

Among the important ministries that denominations provide, ministries that can make a denominationally affiliated congregation more appealing to many church shoppers than is a non-denominational congregation, are:

  • Continuity across geography and time of liturgical style, theological tradition, missional emphases, and organizational patterns;
  • Connectivity to an expression of Christ's body larger than the local congregation (many denominations are national entities with strong ties to their counterparts in other countries, such as The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion);
  • Providing specialized and often costly ministries and missions that few if any congregations, including megachurches, can individually resource and fund, e.g., college chaplaincies, new church starts, seminaries, church related institutions (charities, hospitals, colleges, and other schools), etc.
  • Formation, supervision, and accountability of clergy (scandals, such as covering up child abuse, do occur in denominations but in a healthy denomination the larger body works to prevent problems, deal appropriately with incompetence and misbehavior, and offer healing to those hurt);
  • Requiring audits, mandating adherence to accepted accounting methods, and use of democratic decision making, thereby substantially reducing the likelihood of financial misuses and abuses, as well as establishing some checks on clergy and laity exercising unhealthy dictatorial powers in the ecclesial community.

In sum, denominations provide vital services, which explains why non-denominational congregations sometimes, even in twenty-first century America, move to create structures that greatly resemble already existing denominations.

Denominations receive a bad press for at least three reasons. First, the important ministries that denominations provide are not news. Denominations have served congregations in those ways for generations. News, for the media, typically connotes new, adverse developments, not reportage about steady, ongoing positive work. However, no press is, in effect, tantamount to bad press, as denominations and congregations become unnoticed, i.e., taken for granted.

Second, denominations are undoubtedly shrinking. The Episcopal Church, for example, has lost approximately one million members in the last fifty years (cf. Is the Episcopal Church going the way of the Grange?). The loss of members, and an attendant loss of influence and funding (cf. Beware the ecclesial fiscal cliff), is news but not good news, especially when people presume that denominations are in a death spiral.

Third, denominational clergy prefer humility to the limelight, seeking to keep the spotlight on Christ. Their congregations often occupy legacy buildings, frequently in disrepair and no longer occupying a prime location. To survive, the non-denominational congregation, which is usually a new congregation, must grow. Many of these congregations decide that the optimal way to grow consists in finding a dynamic, personable, and attractive pastor to lead a program attuned to today's culture and housed in an attractive, conveniently located facility. The pastor becomes the congregation's focal point.

Some Episcopalians and members of other denominations seem uncomfortable with their identity, ministries, and traditions; these people push for change, and more change, but many times fail to communicate, at least to me, what they hope the changes will achieve. Others of us, confident that we have it right, choose to persevere with business as usual, opposing most or all change. Yet others have opted to disengage (and, in many cases, never engaged in the first place) from the denomination, myopically regard their local congregation as their Church, and view both the diocese and national church as unnecessary and expensive encumbrances.

Change is inevitable (cf. Maria Evans' post Change: Unsafe at any speed). Some change will happen regardless of whether we deem it desirable. In a recent Daily Episcopalian post, I predicted that The Episcopal Church would not issue a new edition of the Book of Common Prayer. Responses to my prediction varied, but two groups of responses amused me: normative responses (i.e., those proffering a value judgment on the importance of keeping a printed prayer book) and responses that presumed people using electronic media were young. My prediction is descriptive, not normative. Printed books are quickly and irreversibly becoming relics of an earlier era. I personally like books and treasure the Book of Common Prayer. The people I have observed opting to follow the liturgy on a smartphone or tablet are, more often than not, forty or older.

However, we can influence some change. Denominations provide valuable, essential ministries; otherwise, non-denominational congregations would not develop their own analogue to denominational structures.

Identifying and focusing on the core competencies and contributions of denominations could beneficially guide decisions about reimagining, restructuring, and mission funding. Conversely, denominations should scrap images, structures, and programs that do not directly support core competencies and contributions. Important questions, some raised by people who have commented on previous Daily Episcopalian posts, include:

  • Which dioceses are redundant or unaffordable?
  • For what denominational ministries and missions should volunteers rather than paid staffs take responsibility (applies to both dioceses and the national Church)?
  • How can we best create a flat, nimble, responsive structure focused on ministry and mission rather than institutional maintenance (for some ideas, cf. my previous Daily Episcopalian posts on reimagining the Church, parts 1 and 2)?
  • Finally, how can we capitalize on our denomination's strengths to market The Episcopal Church and its congregation to people who are church shopping?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Change is difficult


The neighborhood in which I live recently received new recycling bins from the city. Now that people have the ne new, larger bins, the city will only collect recyclables every other week, instead of weekly. The city uses trucks that have a mechanical arm to empty the new bins, saving labor costs and helping to keep property taxes in check.

On my morning run the first day of the new schedule for collecting trash and recyclables, I observed a surprising number of both the old and the new recycling bins curbside. A couple of residents even had placed both the old and new bins curbside. Our neighborhood, as indicated on the schedule, had only trash collected the first week; the city collected the recyclables, along with the trash, the following week but only from the new bins.

The city distributed color-coded calendars and clearly worded guidance on when and how the new collection policy would take effect. After noting the number of people who had incorrectly followed the guidance, I reexamined the materials the city had distributed, thinking that perhaps they were unclear. However, the information was straightforward and simple.

Unsurprisingly, when one residence got the schedule wrong, usually several of the neighbors followed suit. Peer pressure affects most of us, not just the young.

Furthermore, some of my neighbors object to the new bins, contending that the bins are too large (the bins are on wheels and are smaller than the trash bins). I find the new bins are a significant environmental improvement because they hold almost four times the amount of material that the old bins held, encouraging recycling rather than disposing of in the trash, which ends up in a landfill.

The experience underscores how difficult people find change – even an uncomplicated, rather incidental, well-explained change that offers ecological and potential financial benefits. Yet our bodies and our world are constantly changing, sometimes in life-altering ways. No wonder that so many of us find change difficult!

I'm reminder of the words of the preacher:

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,

vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

What do people gain from all the toil

at which they toil under the sun?

A generation goes, and a generation comes,

but the earth remains forever.


For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

a time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to throw away;

a time to tear, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

a time to love, and a time to hate;

a time for war, and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4; 3:1-8 (NRSV))

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Taxes, welfare, and government


People complain that more Americans do not pay federal income taxes. At first glance, apparently 43% of Americans pay no federal income tax. However, the numbers merit closer examination. Paying attention to the headline ignores the real story.

Of households who pay no federal income tax, 12.1% have incomes between $50,000 and $100,000 while 1.3% have incomes that exceed $100,000. In particular, "an estimated 798,000 households in the nonpayer group make between $100,000 and $200,000 a year; 48,000 have incomes between $200,000 and $500,000; 3,000 make between $500,000 and $1 million; and 1,000 households bring in more than $1 million." I have little sympathy for these households.

However, of the remaining 84.6% of households who pay no federal income tax and whose income is less than $50,000, two-thirds of them (46 million households) have incomes of less than $30,000. Remember, many of these households will pay social security and Medicare taxes; many may also pay state or local income taxes. Experts estimate that two-thirds of those who pay no tax at all are elderly and not working. (Data and quotation are from Jeanne Sahadi, "43% pay no federal income taxes," CNNMoney, August 29, 2013.)

Why is this important?

The Tea Party movement and others decry what they perceive as an emerging entitlement culture in the United States. For example, almost 50 million Americans now receive food assistance, a staggering number that represents something between 1 in every 6 or 7 people who live in the U.S. Recognizing that 46 million households have an income of less than $30,000 provides critical context for the number of Americans who receive food assistance.

No less a bastion of conservatism than the managing editor of Fortune, Andy Serwer, recently presented the following analysis as part of his argument for raising effective tax rates on the wealthiest Americans and increasing the capital tax gains rate:

The federal minimum wage was last raised in July 2009 to $7.25 an hour (which works out to $15,080 a year). Consider that in 1968 the minimum wage was $1.60, which is $10.74 in 2013 dollars, or $22,339 a year. ("The Income Gap," Fortune, September 2, 2013, p. 10)

Let's acknowledge that some people abuse the social safety net.

Nevertheless, the data paints a painful picture of a deeply divided America, the haves and the have-nots.

I'm disturbed that we are not having meaningful public discourse about how to create a more effective, compassionate social safety net with a more effective incentive for self-reliance. On the one hand, the large and growing disparity between the affluent and the poor/hungry in this nation raises significant moral issues. The disparity cannot bode well for the nation's future. On the other hand, people who do not share part of the burden of funding the government can easily begin to feel disconnected from the government, a widespread problem in nations that receive large sums of foreign aid or non-tax revenue. Similarly, recipients may begin to believe that the benefits they receive are their right, producing households dependent upon government largesse for multiple generations, a problem with which the United Kingdom now struggles.

These three graphs, reproduced from two articles in the Wall Street Journal from August 31, 2012 that debated the system of entitlements that has developed in the United States over the last fifty years underscore the urgency of having this debate:



 

(Nicholas Eberstadt, "Are Entitlements Corrupting Us? Yes, American Character Is at Stake," Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2012 accessed August 31, 2013 at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444914904577619671931313542.html and William A. Galston, "Entitlements Are Part of the Civic Compact," Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2012 accessed August 31, 2013 at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444914904577619672512345362.html)

Perhaps the best way to force such a discourse is a Constitutional amendment to require that federal government expenditures not exceed tax revenues unless a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress agrees and the President signs the legislation. Congress could override a Presidential veto with a three-quarters majority in both houses. The high threshold for approving an exception to expenditures exceeding tax revenues allows flexibility in case of a national emergency. Passage of the amendment would most likely require years, providing time for the federal government to move toward a balanced budget.

The element of this proposal that I find most problematic is that it probably precludes using government stimulus (i.e., deficit spending) to expedite a financial return after a major recession or depression. Conversely, what I find most attractive in the proposal is that it would stop (or at least slow) the erosion of Congressional power by a powerful Presidency, prevent national bankruptcy by forcing the nation to live within its means, and attempt to strengthen a popular perception of government by, for, and of the people.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Human brain reproduction


Scientists have taken significant steps toward creating a human brain in the laboratory. Using stem cells, scientists have grown clusters of brain cells about the size of a BB that display characteristics of key areas including the hippocampus and cerebral cortex and are reminiscent of a nine-week-old fetus' brain. The work offers possibilities for individualized drug testing and probably paves the way for further developments. (Laura Sanders, "Tiny human almost-brains made in lab," Science News, August 28, 2013)

This research pushes the work done with mouse brains, reported in a previous Ethical Musings post, even closer to sharp ethical issues.

Humans have found modifying human brains morally acceptable. Drugs can temporarily alter a brain's functioning, sometimes legally and beneficially (e.g., an antidepressant, an effort to prevent seizures, or to dissolve a brain clot) and sometimes illegally and of questionable benefit (e.g., illegal hallucinogenics). Surgery can permanently alter a brain or its functioning, sometimes beneficially (e.g., to remove a clot or stop seizures) and sometimes of questionable benefit (e.g., lobotomies to end depression).

Is the creation of a human brain morally acceptable?

For example, could brain replacement one day enable a brain-dead person to live again? Although the body with the replacement brain would be the same, perhaps even hosting a brain identical to the person's brain at birth, the experiences recorded in the brain – which change the brain – would be different. The replacement brain would have no memories or information about the person's previous experiences, relationships, learning, etc. The person, in very many ways would be and always remain a different person than before the brain trauma that preceded the replacement. Brain replacement will not enable the brain-dead to live again.

Alternatively, could creation of a human brain represent a new frontier in human reproduction, substituting a brain (and perhaps the rest of the body) grown in a lab for sexual reproduction? This option has at least two major ethical problems.

First, asexual human reproduction through cultivation of stem cells in a laboratory carries with it all the disadvantages of most forms of asexual reproduction by narrowing the gene pool. Nor is it apparent that people who could both afford and would choose this form of reproduction represent either the best of Homo sapiens or the preferred path for the species' future.

Second, asexual human reproduction through cultivation of stem cells in a laboratory also establishes the potential for genetic manipulation by the scientists responsible for the process. Not only are the potential effects of that manipulation exceedingly unpredictable given our limited understanding of how thousands of genes interact with one but it is also not obvious that humans have the moral wisdom or can look sufficiently far into the future to make choices about the best path of human development.

In sum, growing a human brain from stem cells puts the creature in the creator's role: God set human sexual reproduction in motion through choosing to create the cosmos using evolutionary processes; altering something that basic is so fraught with unknown and unknowable dangers that it would be an act of human hubris.

Incidentally, other researchers have recently reported that poverty or wealth effects the brain's functioning: in general, the affluent function better cognitively than do the poor, perhaps, the researchers speculate because the poor's worries about finances disrupt occupy their thoughts. The effects seem reversible. Coming into sudden affluence restores cognitive functioning to its pre-poverty level. (Bruce Bower, "Poverty may tax thinking abilities," Science News, August 29, 2013)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Futility of military action against Syria


In London’s West End last week, I saw War Horse. War Horse is Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel of the same name (which I have not read). I don’t know if the story is based on an actual incident, but the play’s plot is a powerful witness to the brutality and futility of war.

Watching the play evoked memories of visiting World War I (WWI) battle sties at Verdun and the Somme, touring re-created trenches in London’s Imperial War Museum, and reading about the “war to end all wars.”

In early WWI battles, Allied cavalry units charged entrenched German positions defended by machine guns and armor. War Horse, in part, is the story of a horse sold to the British Army and its participation in such attacks.

WWI also included the first documented use of chemical weapons in warfighting. Both the Central Powers and the Allies used tearing agents (e.g., chloropicrin and chloromethyl chloroformate), asphyxiants (e.g., chlorine and cyanide compounds), and blistering agents (e.g., mustard gas). Of these weapons, mustard gas was perhaps most feared, causing internal and external bleeding that, over the course of several weeks, usually resulted in a very painful death.

The Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein utilized chemical weapons in Iraq’s 1988 war with Iran and against Kurdish Iraqis. In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect executed the last known chemical weapons attack prior to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, releasing sarin in the Tokyo subway, killing twelve and injuring over fifty-five hundred people. Press reports suggest that the Syrian attacks also used sarin, but may have killed as many as 1400 people.

Nations rarely act in ways that contravene their perceived national interests. International bans against chemical weapons are no exception to that generalization. Although the rhetoric about chemical weapon emphasizes the horrendous suffering that chemical weapons cause, an international ban would never have achieved wide support if chemical weapons were truly useful militarily. However, chemical weapons depend upon the vagaries of the wind (no known water borne chemical agent has been used), resulting in effects that are unpredictable and unreliable. Furthermore, modern militaries, even with an international ban in place, routinely practice defending against chemical attacks, using protective clothing and other measures to reduce or avoid potential harm.

So why does the United States draw a “red line” against Syrian use of chemical weapons?

One reason may be that the U.S. was hoping to dissuade Syria (or the rebels, if one accepts Vladimir Putin’s assertion in a September 11, 2013, letter to the New York Times that the rebels, not the Syrian government, used the chemical weapons) from using chemical weapons. Apparently, the threat of retaliation failed to provide sufficient deterrence.

Another reason, not mutually exclusive, may be that the U.S. wants to promote the rule of law by encouraging groups to respect the international ban against chemical weapons. Ironically, as Putin acidly observes in his letter, the U.S. taking unilateral military action against Syria would violate other provisions of international law, undercutting the integrity of its position as an advocate of adhering to international norms and law.

Yet a third, non-exclusive reason for the U.S. to oppose Syria’s use of chemical weapons so aggressively is out of concern for preventing attacks against Israel. When Iraq, then a U.S. supported ally, used chemical weapons against Iran U.S. leaders did not call for decisive action against Iraq. Only when Iraq ceased to be a U.S. ally, did the U.S. voice concerns and demand action to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, i.e., the U.S., like most nations, tends to act in ways that support its perceived national interests.

Putin called for the U.S. to support Syria turning over its chemical weapons to a third party and to stop arming the rebels in lieu of the U.S. taking military action against Syria. Some commentators have described Putin as tossing a “lifeline” to Obama, offering a positive way out of an otherwise no win situation.

At least two of the rebel groups opposed to President Assad’s Syrian forces are groups that the U.S. has formally declared terror groups. Any action that enables those groups to seize power directly, or to become part of a coalition that seizes power, bodes ill for U.S. national interests, Israel, and Syria’s diverse population. The potential exists for an even worse regime or chaos to replace Assad’s evil regime.

In War Horse, the boy, who had raised the horse at the center of the plot, lies about his age to enlist in the British Army so as to find his horse, which his father had sold to the Army at the war’s beginning. The boy’s enduring love for his horse poignantly shows love’s power and importance, even in the midst of horrendous slaughter. Helpless in what appears a hopeless situation, he perseveres.

Although the play offers no hint about the boy’s religious orientation, he models what Christ, the Prince of Peace, calls his followers to incarnate in their peacemaking: a hope that perseveres against all odds. Perhaps in Syria we can today see a glimmer of hope that prayers, protests, letters, and other expressions of concern will contribute to a resolution of the crisis that will entail the destruction of chemical weapons, end nations arming both sides, and avoid direct military action by any other nation.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Happiness and time orientation


Elizabeth Bernstein, writing in the Wall Street Journal, reports on a novel approach to finding happiness: cultivate favorable memories of the past, but focus on moderately enjoying the present with a moderately high orientation toward building a positive future ("A Different Therapy to Find Greater Happiness," August 26, 2013).

The method, called Time Perspective Therapy, has found its highest profile advocate in Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist and Stanford University professor emeritus. Zimbardo has developed a 56-item inventory, the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory, to help people assess their perspective on time. The inventory, available at this link, is free, quick to take, and informative.

Unsurprisingly, people locked into a negative past, who also have low present hedonism and high future fatalism, are the unhappiest.

Conversely, delayed gratification (part of a positive future orientation) observed in four and five year old children correlates with better grades in school, scoring 250 points higher on the SAT, and happier family lives.

The best news is that people can change their time perspective. Bernstein provided a brief but suggestive synopsis of some of Zimbardo's recommendations for helping people to change their time orientation:

A person can raise a past-positive score, Dr. Zimbardo says, by focusing on the good in your past: create photo albums, write letters of gratitude to people who inspired you, start an oral history of your family.

Your future orientation can get a boost by organizing your calendar or planning a family vacation, actions that get you to envision and plan for a positive future. And volunteering or becoming a mentor can help you see that your actions can have a positive impact.

And you can increase your present hedonism—selectively!—by doing something to balance your mood, such as exercise or a nature walk. Also, reward your hard work with an activity you enjoy: dinner with a friend, a massage, an afternoon playing your favorite sport.

To lower your past-negative scores you can work to silence your pessimistic inner critic by meditating or keeping an ongoing list of all the good things in your life right now. "It's thinking about what's good in your life now, rather than what was bad in your life then," says Dr. Zimbardo.

And you can reduce your future fatalistic perspective by learning a new skill or hobby that allows you to see your change, and doing it with a partner—it's less isolating and the other person can give you positive feedback.

Thinking that Christianity demands or encourages a transcendental future orientation (i.e., happiness comes after death when one is in heaven) misconstrues Christianity. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is now, in us. The promise of future reward does not justify present suffering. Otherwise, a handful of self-sacrificing hedonists could justify treating everyone else as their slaves, using them as a means of satisfying every whim. These self-sacrificing hedonists would attempt to convince everyone else of the merits of this system by emphasizing that their present pleasures would pale in comparison to the heavenly delights that await the vast majority at death.

What is your time orientation? Can you rebalance your time orientation to lead a happier, more abundant life?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Radically reimagining TEC – 2


Presume, even if just for a couple of moments, that the prophets of doom are correct in predicting that denominations – including The Episcopal Church (TEC) – are living dinosaurs, anachronisms from a bygone era that will soon die off completely. If accurate, those predictions invite, perhaps demand, a radical rather than incremental reimagining of TEC because we have little to lose. Post-radical reimagining, the worst possible scenario is that we have inadvertently hastened TEC's demise as a denominational force. However, the best possible scenario is that radical reimagining reinvents and reinvigorates TEC as a twenty-first century missional force united by common prayer. Here are two proposals.

First, TEC might replace its formal, bicameral, hierarchical approach to governance with highly decentralized, ad hoc, multiple open channels that social media makes possible at little or no cost (imagine shattering rice bowls!). In this new inclusive approach, dynamic, self-organizing groups with open membership would convene around a task or shared interest. Groups would form, subdivide, multiply, and dissolve when and as members deemed appropriate, superseding the existing permanent agglomeration of TEC commissions, committees, and boards. Virtual meetings, online polling (direct democracy displacing representative democracy), and other electronic communication would advantageously eliminate most of the overhead costs associated with our current approach to governance.

For example, instead of only one group studying the theology of marriage, TEC could capture the energy the subject generates and allow any number of self-selected groups to grapple with the theology of marriage. The groups could all publish their reports; the initial reports might approach a consensus opinion (surely an indicator that the Spirit was at work!), a new group or groups might form to develop a comprehensive report, people might be comfortable with plural views, or a completely unexpected development might occur. An open-ended, decentralized process creates space and time for discerning the Spirit in ways that formal structures and tidy processes make difficult and improbable. Having only one group study a subject, report its findings, and then General Convention act decisively on that report perpetuates a chimera of common belief better suited to the Christendom of yore than the post-modern individualism of the twenty-first century.

TEC might discover that the majority of contemporary Episcopalians regard the elections, legislative processes, and budget debates in which we now invest considerable time and money as unimportant and irrelevant. (As an experiment, ask some Episcopalians what occurred in the last General Convention or Executive Council meeting, or to name three key TEC mission programs.)

Attempts to justify the importance of formal structures are both dated and circular. TEC requires minimal structure to comply with state and federal law. Nor do our Constitution and Canons interpose insurmountable obstacles. Eliminating most elected positions will minimize the need for elections; we can conduct any necessary elections electronically. Legislative processes are inherently exclusive, costly, and self-perpetuating; most TEC members are neither engaged nor invested in TEC's ministry or mission. Finally, the next proposal replaces centralized finance and budgeting and with an entrepreneurial approach designed to promote involvement and ownership. In sum, focusing our common life and endeavors around celebratory worship, building community, spiritual formation, and shared mission endeavors will achieve more for God than the status quo does.

An open structure maximizes breadth and expansiveness (no limit on participation), honors an incarnational view of life (the Spirit can move through all Episcopalians, not just elected representatives), and is continuous with the past (retaining democratic discernment of the God's leading) while changing with the times (a flat structure congruent with post-modernism). An open structure also coheres well with TEC's theology that in Baptism God calls all Christians to ministry; the other orders of ministry connote particular functions within the body that an open structure respects.

Second, TEC might replace its reliance on diocesan financial commitments with endowment income, crowdsourcing, and outsourcing. TEC's endowment is sufficient to fund the Presiding Bishop, Anglican and ecumenical relations, and a small program. Crowdsourcing might fund some of TEC's ministry and mission, i.e., direct giving from multiple dioceses, congregations, and individuals to particular ministries or missions of their choice. People and groups give enthusiastically of time, talent, and treasure when they believe in the program or cause to which they are donating.

TEC could also outsource some of its ministries and missions to dioceses, congregations, or groups willing to take responsibility for a particular ministry or mission. TEC did this, in effect, decades ago with theological education, outsourcing responsibility for funding and operating clergy education to seminaries that, in spite of their links to TEC, now are largely autonomous. (That model worked well, though the failure of seminaries to adapt to our post-modern, post-Christendom world suggests that significant changes are in their future.) A diocese with a large military population might fund and support the Office for Federal Ministries, paying the salary for the Bishop for Federal Ministries who would remain a Suffragan to the Presiding Bishop. Another diocese (or group of dioceses) might take responsibility for youth ministry, or new church starts, etc. Several dioceses are moving in this direction, establishing local programs for clergy education. Outsourcing would both cohere with TREC's key themes and encourage dioceses and congregations to expand their view of ministry and mission from the local to the national or international.

Ministries and missions not funded through endowment income, crowdsourcing, or outsourcing would end. Any expectation that the current flow of funds from congregations to TEC via dioceses gives the original donor a feeling of ownership or participation in the ministry or mission of TEC seems erroneous, perhaps naïve. The present approach of centralized decision making and assessments better suited a pre-Information Age Church that depended upon printing to disseminate information. In today's world, General Convention and Executive Council approving TEC budgets paternalistically presumes that those bodies can more faithfully discern God's leading than can the rest of the Church. Crowdsourcing and outsourcing eliminate that presumption, a presumption at odds with TREC's key themes of breadth/expansiveness, incarnational theology, and social engagement/prophetic dissent. Moreover, this approach would foster entrepreneurialism, encouraging new ministries and missions for which dioceses, congregations, or ad hoc groups hear a call and have a passion.

Some entities, like an army, require strong, hierarchical, organization and structure. But TEC is not an army. And although strong, clear structure and governance provide some benefits, they can actually impede rather than promote ministry and mission. Sometimes, a flat, loosely connected organization can best leverage people's gifts and passions, quickly adapt to new opportunities, and create community while preserving individuality.

Advantageously, radically reimagining TEC's structure and finances may create new centripetal forces to hold us together as a Church united in common prayer. Involving more people – lay and ordained – in the Church's larger mission may be the best option for helping a highly individualized, denominationally disengaged constituency to value our connectional polity. Engaging people in the Church's ministry and mission, creating linkages that transcend geography by finding common theological and liturgical ground, will both promote common prayer and common forms of prayer.

The two proposals outlined above, admittedly short on specifics, suggest one possible way to reimagine TEC. Surely other options for radically reimagining TEC exist. Reform is not the answer. TEC is dramatically out of step with social changes and appears headed toward oblivion unless it successfully reimagines itself. Fewer Episcopalians are giving their time to support TEC ministries and missions; dioceses are increasingly reluctant to fund TEC. Radical reimagining offers hope for preserving TEC's distinctive liturgical and theological identity as a church united in common prayer while adapting our structure, governance, and funding to the exigencies of twenty-first century life.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Radically reimagining TEC – 1


The 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the last printed version of the prayer book that The Episcopal Church (TEC) will ever publish. Three rationales support that prognostication. First, a growing majority of TEC congregations struggle financially. They often lack the funds to meet their current expenses, much less purchase new prayer books. Second, e-books are rapidly overtaking traditional printed books in popularity. Some Episcopalians already participate in worship by following the service on a tablet, smartphone, or other electronic device instead of printed books or a leaflet. Third, TEC is so theologically, liturgically, and linguistically diverse that developing sufficient support for any prayer book revision seems problematic. Instead, the number and variety of liturgies authorized for trial will almost certainly continue to proliferate.

Lamenting or applauding the shift from printed to electronic media is unproductive. The change is occurring both rapidly and irreversibly. However, the increasing reliance on electronic versions of the liturgy represents a troubling and growing challenge to TEC's identity as a church united by common prayer rather than common belief. Unlike printed prayer books, altering an electronic version of the liturgy to suit local needs, preferences, or theology is very easy, costs little or nothing, and already happens. Furthermore, this ongoing move toward multiple liturgical forms, some locally adapted, even when authorized by proper ecclesiastical authority, is a centrifugal force pulling TEC away from its historic connectional ethos toward a congregational ethos.

Many Episcopalians value, as do I, our tradition of unity rooted in common prayer rather than common belief. Is the demise of common prayer inevitable? If not, how do we preserve common prayer with the shift toward electronic versions of our liturgy and our growing congregational ethos? Perhaps more basically, how do we maintain our unity in view of these changes?

In 2012, the 77th General Convention established a Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) to "create a plan for reforming the Church’s structures, governance, and administration." If tinkering at the margins or making other simple fixes to reform structures, governance, and administration could reinvigorate the denomination, then TEC (or another of the many denominations experiencing similar declines in attendance, participation, and giving) would probably have already taken those steps.

TEC needs a radical makeover, not incremental reform. Radically reimagining TEC –holding on to the essentials of our identity, letting go of anachronistic non-essentials, and embracing new forms and styles appropriate for the early twenty-first century – has the potential to reinvent and reinvigorate TEC while also charting a path toward preserving unity rooted in common prayer.

TREC, at their July 2013 meeting, enumerated five key themes for restructuring (their report is available here):

  1. Breadth/expansiveness
  2. Incarnational view of human life
  3. The arts, liturgy, and mystery
  4. Continuity and change
  5. Social engagement and prophetic dissent

Those themes represent a good description of who Episcopalians have been and want to be. However, those themes afford no assurance that TREC's reimagining of the Church will lead to the substantial changes TEC needs if it is to reinvent and reinvigorate itself (with God's help, we pray!) as a twenty-first century missional force.

The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886 and 1888 emphasized the importance of Church unity and outlined the terms on which Anglicans seek unity. The Quadrilateral includes two principles essential for a radical reimagining of The Episcopal Church:

That in all things of human ordering or human choice, relating to modes of worship and discipline, or to traditional customs, this Church is ready in the spirit of love and humility to forego all preferences of her own…

and

The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.

In other words, TEC insists on retaining the historic episcopate but in most other matters recognizes that neither Scripture nor tradition provides a timeless, authoritative pattern of ecclesial structure or governance. Thus, the options for reimagining TEC are numerous and have few inherent limits. Perhaps the greatest barriers to radically reimagining TEC are entrenched groups and individuals who enjoy their privileged positions and powers under the status quo and our own blinders with respect to what may be possible.

Historic patterns of ecclesiastical organization have ranged from unstructured collegiality to authoritarian and from almost complete reliance on individual initiative to corporate clericalism. What pattern and style of organization best suits TEC's liturgical and theological emphases in ways that accommodate or, better yet, utilize social changes over which we have no control (e.g., electronic communication and heightened individualism) to promote the community, ministry, and mission of God's people in and through TEC?

In the second part of this essay, I suggest two proposals for a radical makeover, offering them as conversation starters intended to stretch our thinking about what is possible and not as definitive ukases.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Are atheist chaplains an oxymoron or appropriate?


Jason Heap, a graduate of Texas Christian University's Brite Divinity School and Oxford, has applied to the U.S. Navy for commissioning as a chaplain. What makes Heap unique is that the faith group endorsing him is the Humanist Society. A former Christian minister who no longer believes in God, Heap is now an atheist and a humanist. By every standard, except possibly believing in God, Heap appears an exceptionally well-qualified chaplain candidate. (For more, cf. the NPR feature, "Should Military Chaplains Have to Believe in God?")

Should military chaplains believe in God?

Prominent universities, including Harvard and Stanford, have concluded that faith in God is not essential for a chaplain and now, in addition to chaplains from traditional religions, have humanist chaplains on their chaplaincy staffs.

On the other side, the U.S. House of Representatives last week approved legislation requiring military chaplains to believe in a higher power. The bill seems problematic because it appears to legislate the establishment of religion and because some Buddhists deny believing in a higher power. Banning some Buddhist chaplains is perhaps (or not, depending upon how influential one believes evangelical Christians to be) an unintended consequence of the proposed bill.

Who is right? Should military chaplains believe in God?

The larger issue, it seems to me, entails defining the chaplain's role. If the chaplain's role is to be a caring friend, relied upon by commanders and troops alike, to render assistance to personnel in cases that one might typically refer in a civilian context to a psychologist or social worker, then allowing humanists to serve as chaplains makes sense.

I object to this understanding of the chaplain's role on two grounds. First, this shortchanges our military personnel. They deserve the best. Too many chaplains lack the skills that social work and counseling require. Commanders sometimes prefer chaplains to trained professionals because commanders believe that chaplains are more susceptible to command influence than are social workers and psychologists. Sadly, that assessment, in my experience, was all too often correct. Troops sometimes prefer chaplains because conversations with a chaplain are completely confidential. Conversations with social workers and psychologists are most confidential, though these professionals must report individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others, or who have a medical problem that may affect unit readiness. Confidentiality, in either situation, imposes a threat to well-being or contributes to ill health.

Second, the Constitutional justification for funding military chaplaincy is to ensure military personnel the ability to practice their religion in the absence of civilian religious resources. Troops assigned overseas are generally distant from English faith communities and personnel in boot camps, military hospitals, and some other settings may not have ready access, for good military reasons, to local faith communities. Chaplains provide religious ministry for personnel of their own faith community, for as many others as the chaplain can accommodate with integrity, and facilitate free exercise for others.

For example, the Bishop for Federal Ministries instructed Episcopal military chaplains that any non-Eucharistic Christian worship was acceptable as a form of morning or evening prayer. This permitted Episcopal chaplains to lead services in rotation with other chaplains without having to impose Episcopal formats or wording. When stationed on Adak, a remote Aleutian island with no civilian community, a Jewish sailor asked me to conduct a Passover Seder for him. I declined. If I conducted the Seder, the Seder would be, by definition, a Christian Seder. However, I told him that if he led the Seder, I would provide the space, the food, advertise the event, and ensure that we had at least a dozen attend. He was grateful; I was simply doing my job, facilitating for someone for whom I could not directly provide.

Buddhist chaplains, similarly, conduct religious rituals according to the teachings of their school of Buddhism. Anyone who has visited a Buddhist temple in the States or abroad may have seen one or more of these rituals. Buddhist chaplains would, as I did, facilitate for people of other religions (helping a Jew organize a Seder, a Roman Catholic to find a priest or lay Eucharistic minister, etc.).

What would a humanist chaplain do? Do humanists have any distinctive rituals or practices? If not, why do atheist and agnostic military personnel (who certainly number more than the 1% of the force who have self-identified as agnostic or atheist) need a chaplain?

Requiring chaplains to believe in God unnecessarily and inappropriately entangles the government with religion. Equally important, the current practice of military chaplaincy shortchanges the nation, its military personnel, and their family members. Perhaps Jason Heap's vital contribution to the military chaplaincy is to be the catalyst for restoring the chaplaincy to its real mission of providing religious ministry so that armed forces personnel can exercise, when and as militarily feasible, their right to religious freedom.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Attacking Syria


President Obama has announced that he will seek Congressional approval before taking military action against Syria. This is an important and constructive move because it takes a step away from the imperial presidency (the Constitution assigns Congress the power to declare war) and because it makes military action against Syria less likely.

The Episcopal Peace Fellowship has disseminated a Just War analysis of possible military action against Syria that I wrote. In that essay, I argue that military action against Syria would not satisfy the just war norms of just cause, right authority, proportionality, and reasonable chance of success.

The situation in Syria is deplorable. However, war is the answer to very few problems and for the U.S. to believe that it can solve another nation's problems requires great hubris.