Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Transformation rather than conversion

The theological term conversion has sufficiently troubled me that I have avoided using it for decades. Initially, this avoidance was unconscious but more recently has been intentional.

The English word conversion has today, especially in religious contexts, the overwhelming connotation of a change in a person’s beliefs or thinking. Yet Christianity is about learning to walk the Jesus path ever more faithfully, not about persuading people to hold right beliefs.

Actions speak louder than words. My observation of religious people (including me!) is that considerable disparity often exists between an individual’s avowed theological beliefs/thinking and what that person’s actions indicate s/he actually believes/thinks. While it’s easy to describe that disparity as hypocrisy, the disparity is frequently better understood as the aspirational difference between what a person would like to believe and what s/he actually believes.

Christian evangelical efforts focused on conversion easily produce unfortunate aberrations and coerced conversions. Until the nineteenth century, Christians occasionally baptized non-Christians and then slaughtered the newly baptized before they could commit apostasy. More recently, some evangelically motivated Christians superficially “count coup,” i.e., track the number of individuals who verbally confessed faith in Christ as a result of the Christian’s efforts while ignoring the deeper question of whether any real lifestyle or behavioral change occurred in the new convert.

Consequently, I find that the word transformation more accurately communicates the meaning of the Greek word metanoia, the Biblical word frequently translated as conversion. Having less baggage than does the word conversion, transformation emphasizes a change in a person and their actions as well as in their feelings and ideation.

Emphasizing transformation instead of conversion has shaped my ministry. For example, I am convinced that there is only one God and that many paths lead to God. One reason I subscribe to those views is that persons treading diverse religious paths hold varying beliefs but nevertheless experience similar life-giving and life-enriching transformations.

Those convictions cohered well with my ministry as a Navy chaplain. Historically, military chaplains have had three roles. First, chaplains minister to people of the chaplain’s faith community in as an inclusive a manner as possible. For Episcopal priests, inclusive ministry may include: (1) Conducting a wide variety of Protestant worship services, most of which are arguably some form of Morning or Evening Prayer; (2) Administering Holy Baptism when requested, to include full immersion of a believer who desires that form of baptism; (3) Celebrating Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer’s rubrics and rites.

A chaplain’s second role is to facilitate the free exercise of religion for members of other faith communities. While on active duty, I provided space, equipment, and supplies as needed and upon request for Buddhist, Jewish, Latter Day Saint, and Muslim faith communities to worship and otherwise practice their faith. Memorably, I once had a Jewish sailor ask me to conduct a Passover Seder for him. I explained to him that if I conducted the Seder it would by definition be a Christian Seder. I then added that if he conducted the Seder, I would provide the foodstuffs, publicity, and coaching for him, as well as attend and recruit other attendees to ensure the presence of a minyan.

Incidentally, the last few decades have seen an increase in controversies over the military chaplaincy precisely because some evangelical Christian chaplains have abandoned facilitation in favor of conversion. Sometimes evangelical Christians have implicitly linked career or promotion opportunities to conversion. This move, reminiscent of some coerced conversion efforts in prior generations, seriously undermines the chaplaincy’s constitutional standing by prima facie establishing government support for a particular religion. Analogously, this move also inhibits the interfaith cooperation and communication that depend upon respecting the beliefs of all and honoring the integrity of other faith groups.

A chaplain’s third role is to care for everyone. A Marine whose mother has just died has, in my experience, no interest in religious conversion. The Marine simply seeks an understanding, caring listener. Other times, the person who has sought out the chaplain because of vocational concerns, adjustment issues, family problems, substance abuse, or a host of other difficulties may want to change, but is usually unaware of any theological dimensions of that change. The best chaplains in such situations function as catalysts for transformation rather than as conversion agents.

Widespread adherence to those three roles by military chaplains of previous generations built the mutual respect and trust required for genuine interfaith cooperation and established military chaplaincy as a model for such ministry. Similar patterns of ministry, perhaps articulated in different terms, also frequently shapes chaplaincy in other institutional settings, e.g., hospitals, prisons, and hospices.


Since retiring from the Navy, I have recognized that those three functions equally describe parish ministry at its best. The best parochial priests exercise a ministry that seeks to include as many people as possible while being faithful to the Book of Common Prayer’s rubrics and rites. Illustratively, in my current diocese, this inclusivity sometimes means adapting ancient Hawaiian symbols and terms. But no parish, regardless of its size or resources, can meet everyone’s perceived spiritual needs. Honoring that diversity by pointing a person to a more suitable alternative – another Episcopal parish, a Roman Catholic parish, or a congregation of another denomination – ministers to that person while respecting his/her dignity and worth. Finally, the Church should care for all. Genuine caring seeks what is best for a person: healing, growth, becoming more whole, and living more abundantly. Genuine caring has no ulterior motive. Transformation, not conversion, best describes Christianity’s goal.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Why I object to putting America first

I object to Trump’s campaign slogan and post-election efforts to “put America first” for two reasons.
Firstly, trying to “put America first” is ultimately self-defeating behavior similar to an egocentric’s efforts to put him/herself first. As I have repeatedly explained in Ethical Musings posts, no person is an island. Our individual welfare depends upon assistance from other people. Therefore, reciprocal altruism and not self-serving behaviors best describe human behavior, regardless of any dissent by selfish gene proponents. The survival of the fittest, for humans, requires not only personal but also interpersonal competencies. Theological ethics express this idea in the various formulations of the Golden Rule, e.g., love others as you love yourself.
Similarly, as globalism inexorably expands until one day it will touch every aspect of our existence, larger human communities, such as nations, will maximally thrive only by practicing reciprocal altruism. In other word, win-win will ultimately replace win-lose in geopolitics. Trump’s America first is a throwback to win-lose and therefore has no long-term viability or future.
What’s best for America is to try to balance US interests equitably with the interests of other nation states instead of putting America first.

Secondly, Trump’s slogan is blatantly dishonest. His executive actions, legislative proposals, and tweets consistently put only select Americans first: the wealthy, the healthy, the military, and those alive today (not future generations who will have to deal with the consequences of global warming and pollution). America consists not only of the people Trump likes and favors but also of those he apparently dislikes and treats unfavorably: the poor, the ill, globalists, future generations, immigrants, and many others. Genuinely putting America first requires treating all Americans equally, thereby emulating the living God.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Giving to panhandlers

Pope Francis recently offered advice regarding the perennial question of whether giving money to a panhandler is good. He said, Give and don’t worry about it. His advice is scripturally sound and was offered in an interview with a Milan magazine before the beginning of Lent.
An Ethical Musings’ reader took the Pope’s advice to heart. Here’s the reader’s description of what happened the first time that he followed the Pope’s guidance:
This evening I was walking up to the State House and ran into a panhandler, he asked could I spare a dollar.
I said, yes and gave him more than a dollar, shook his hand, looked him in the eye, wished him luck – I think he was shocked and I was also. We spoke to one another like two people. He looked me in the eye as we were shaking hands, thanked me and wished me luck.
The Pope is right – I believe we both felt good about the meeting.

Try giving to panhandlers during Lent. If you are willing to share, I’d like to read about your experiences.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A new Lenten discipline

In view of my previous Ethical Musings post about Rethinking Ash Wednesday, traditional Lenten practices of giving something up to demonstrate one’s true feelings of regret and penance for one’s sins or of taking on a new discipline to help one to sin less in the future by becoming a better Christian are outdated.
Instead, a more appropriate and spiritually helpful discipline is to commit to celebrating life daily, weekly, or at least once during Lent. This discipline is admittedly out of step with traditional ecclesiastical emphases on confessing one’s sins and penitence, e.g., many parishes will use (pp. 148-153, Book of Common Prayer) on Sundays during Lent. However, this discipline coheres with a twenty-first century understanding of Ash Wednesday and Lent.
Celebrating life can take many different forms; one’s imagination is the primary limiter of what is possible. Options include arranging a feast or night of lodging in a hotel for a homeless person, an outsize generous gift for a person who works for minimum wages or less, and adding a work of art to the life of another or to one’s own life. These ideas are intended to prime the pump of your imagination.

We are dust and to dust we shall return. We therefore share in the glitter, the reflected glory of the creator, visible in all creation. Similarly, we are also inherently part of something far vaster than the self. So celebrate life, for in doing so we celebrate the gift of creation and the Creator!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Rethinking Ash Wednesday

In this post, I suggest a more modern interpretation of why Christians continue to impose ashes. (My 2016 Ethical Musings post Ash Wednesday sketched the traditional understandings of the annual Christian practice of imposing ashes.)
Christianity needs to rethink Ash Wednesday. Few twenty-first Christians in the developed world feel very guilty, especially compared to Christians during the Middle Ages. Furthermore, guilt is a poor motivator for changing behavior. Finally, increasing numbers of Christians reject not only the theological doctrine of original sin but also all of the several interpretations of Jesus’ crucifixion that emphasize his death as an essential requirement for God forgiving human sin. Hence, a majority of Christians have voted with their feet, absenting themselves from Ash Wednesday observances, tacitly believing the observances generally meaningless and irrelevant.
Rethinking Ash Wednesday begins by recognizing that the words used to impose ashes – Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return – has two widely ignored meanings vitally relevant to contemporary life.
First, being dust emphasizes that humans are physical beings. Our spiritual dimension has no independent existence. Instead, the human spirit consists of those physical attributes that are quintessentially and uniquely (only in degree) human.

Second, because humans are dust, humans are inherently integral elements of God’s glorious creation. Therefore, we should celebrate rather than bemoan or lament human life and the human condition. Consequently, adding glitter to the ashes imposed on Ash Wednesday is a very appropriate act (though I’ve not yet seen this interpretation of that act).