Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Can Christians Be Catalysts for Ending Tribalism?


Recently, I attended a couple of Democratic Party events in Hawaii. Although I am a member of the Democratic Party, I am on its fringe in terms of participation. The events interested me more from a sociological than political perspective.

Political tribalism dominated. For many attendees, the local party functions as an important, perhaps even their primary, community. Few legislators or their staff members attended; none spoke or were key participants. Attendees expressed desires to include shared meals and other social events in the party’s activities. Importantly, participants with whom I spoke sought a Democratic victory in all elections and on all legislative issues. Compromise and bipartisan cooperation were unthinkable. Tribe defined identity, eclipsing concern for good government.

The core membership of the Republican, Socialist, Green, or any other political party in the U.S., and perhaps in other countries, is most likely equally tribal. On reflection, the tribalism I observed in those political events reminded me of the tribalism that prevailed in the military before the full implementation of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act designed to end inter-service rivalry, e.g., Army vs. Navy.

Researchers now report that political tribalism has reached the point where many parents are more upset when a child announces her/his engagement to a person of a different political party that when their child becomes engaged to a person of a different race or religion. Political tribalism is a key symptom of the polarization that causes gridlock in the federal government and in some state government. Compromise has become unthinkable; bipartisanship is a dirty word.

Other forms of tribalism also create fault lines along which societies and cultures fracture and become polarized. Religion is sometimes a prominent form of tribalism, e.g., Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims in much of the Middle Et, but not in Europe; Orthodox vs. Roman Catholic Christians in much of Eastern Europe but not in the U.S.; Buddhist vs. Muslim in Myanmar. Pro-life vs. pro-choice groups sometimes represent tribes in parts of the U.S. Economic disparities sometimes create tribes. Fans of one sports team vs. fans of another team may represent tribes. And so on – the types of tribes and the various identities that they entail are too numerous to delineate.

Tribalism is literally a dead end. The planet faces existential threats from the climate crisis and global heating. While competition and diffuse identities undeniably enrich life, tribal identities must be subordinated to globalization if humanity and life as we know it are to survive. The climate crisis adds fuel to tribal fires, threatening to intensify and spread those fires. The climate crisis has contributed to armed conflict in Syria, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere as “tribes,” sometimes fighting as proxies of other “tribes” fight for their fair share of scarce resources, resources the climate crisis makes increasingly scarce.

Christianity that follows in Jesus’ footsteps insists upon its adherents adopting a global identity and belonging to an inclusive community that welcomes everyone. Illustratively, Christianity is not defined by party membership. Even as it was once an expression of the Episcopal Church having lost its way in the wilderness to caricature Episcopalians as the GOP at prayer, so now it is equally an expression of the Episcopal Church having lost its way in the wilderness to caricature Episcopalians as Democrats in action. Faithful Christian Churches have room in their pews and warmly welcome people of all political parties and no political party (independents!).

Contrary to Christian groups such as the Mennonites, Hutterites, and others that teach or require their members to withdraw from the world in order to remain faithful to Jesus, God calls the Church to live out its mission in the world. Jesus described Christians as salt and as leaven. Neither salt nor leaven is of any use stored in a container on a shelf; both must be proportionately mixed with other ingredients to be of any value. Additionally, Jesus sent his disciples into the world; he never instructed them to withdraw from the world. Going into the world obeys Jesus’ teachings and follows his example.

Christianity acknowledges that to be human is to have multiple identities. A person is invariably somebody’s child, perhaps someone’s parent, perhaps a spouse, maybe an employee or employer, perhaps a member of a union or organized group, certainly a citizen of some country, and so forth. Christianity hopes to shape and influence all of those identities, but never invalidates or cancels our multiple identities.

Ultimately, Christianity reminds us that our primary identity is as a child of God, an identity share with people of other religions, persons who identify as spiritual but not religious, and even atheists.

Christianity calls its adherents to promote justice – economic, social and political – for all creation. Christianity teaches that we collectively will live or die together. Savor your tribal identity(ies), always remembering that our primary identity as God's child places loyalty to all creation before loyalty to any particular tribe. This is our best hope for our broken, badly damaged world.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Discerning God's presence


General Douglas MacArthur had a reputation as something of a “cold fish.” After World War II, his public relations people came up with an idea to help him improve his image. MacArthur would review a contingent of veterans. In the middle of the review, he would stop and suddenly recognize an enlisted man who had served with him during the war. “It will be a tremendously moving and human moment,” his advisers told him. “Out of hundreds of men lined up for your inspection, you suddenly pick out a single individual, call him by name and recall past campaigns.” MacArthur agreed to the plan.

The lucky soldier would be unaware that he’d been singled out for the honor. They searched Army records, found out everything about the fellow, and figured out precisely where he would be standing when MacArthur marched through the ranks. Just to be safe, they arranged for an aide to nudge MacArthur discreetly when he was directly in front of the proper soldier.

The plan worked perfectly. MacArthur saluted the veterans; the veterans saluted MacArthur. The General began his inspection. At the right moment, the aide nudged MacArthur. He halted, turned, and looked at the man standing stiffly at attention in front of him. “Jones!” he boomed. “We were together on Corregidor. You are Corporal Jones. I remember you.”

For a moment, Jones looked startled. Then he peered quizzically at the General. Finally, he blurted out somewhat uncertainly, “MacArthur?”[1]

Do you recognize God’s presence and activity in your life? In the world? Those questions capture the essence of today’s gospel reading.[2] Those questions are also central to the spiritual struggle of many Christians and non-Christians.

Consider these two metaphors that are useful for discerning God’s presence and activity in one’s life and in the world.

First, as our Presiding Bishop constantly emphasizes, God is love. This metaphor is a prominent New Testament theme. Critically, love is non-substantial – has no being – but relational. God is present in loving relationships that liberate and give life. These relationships call us to love one another and all creation. Furthermore, loving, liberating and life-giving relationships are works in which we see God, a point the 23rd Psalm and today’s first reading[3] memorably illustrate.

Tangentially, Christians have tragically cited this morning’s gospel to justify both displacing the Jews as God’s chosen people and anti-Semitism. A literal reading of the text is nonsensical. Jesus was a Jew. His disciples and other followers were all Jews. Christianity emerged only after Jesus’ resurrection. John’s gospel was written to appeal to Gentiles, including Romans, during Roman persecution of Christians. The author crafts his appeal by implying all Jews rejected Jesus and that the Jews were responsible for his death. That line of reasoning leads to an absurd conclusion: Jesus, a Jew, would have been filled with self-loathing and partially culpable for his execution.

A better interpretation focuses on Jesus and his command to love everyone, Jew and Gentile, male and female, Democrat and Republican, the 1% and the 99%, and so forth. We follow Jesus when we love unconditionally, choosing the path that leads not to perishing but to life abundant.

A second common biblical metaphor for God is light. This metaphor reminds us of God’s unknowability. Light has some characteristics of waves and of particles, but is neither. Similarly, the metaphors of love and light help us to discern God’s presence and activity without our being able to describe God's actual nature.

Light, like the gospel’s anthropological metaphor of listening to Jesus’ voice, points to God giving us wisdom. Even as light illuminates a path, a road, or a darkened room, so does God nudge or lure us in a particular direction. Jesus most famously sought this wisdom in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed for God's guidance about whether to face execution in Jerusalem or to take a different direction.

Light also gives us courage. Think of the child – or even adults – who are afraid of dark places, moving shadows conjuring up evil images. Generations of authors have written about scary things in the dark. Turning on the light banishes those images and imbues even the faintest of heart with some degree of courage.

Light warms, or as physicists would tell us, energizes that upon which it shines. Solar power and solar heat are green alternatives to carbon-based fuel sources. Analogously, God's light, which illuminates our way and gives us courage to take the next step, also gives us the strength to take that next step.

Neither metaphor – love or light – is comprehensive or sufficient to fully describe God's presence and activity in a person’s life or in the world. However, the two metaphors helpfully point to the living God’s presence in the warp and woof of the fabric of the cosmos. We experience God relationally, God calling us to love one another and to care for creation, showing us the way ahead and then filling us with the courage and strength to journey along that path. Unlike Corporal Jones struggling to recall General MacArthur, we can with confidence acknowledge God’s presence and activity when we walk in love and light. Amen.

Sermon preached the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019

Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI



[1]James Dent, Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette, 2 July 1991.
[2] John 10:22-30.
[3] Acts 9:36-43.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

A starting point for theology


Theology used to be known as the queen of the sciences.  Theology was dethroned several centuries ago because of the growing recognition of the scientific method’s inapplicability to theology.

In general, theologians have begun their work from one of two starting points, either implicitly or explicitly.

One of those starting points was God.  Theologians working from this starting point presumed that humans could directly apprehend God.  For example, the classical arguments for the existence of God – the ontological, cosmological, and so forth – all rest on this presumption.

This starting point requires assuming that humans are able to know God.  Consequently, some religious traditions posit that humans have a soul that is similar in nature to God.  The Roman Catholic Church, for example, teaches that at conception a human receives an immortal soul.  Many other traditions have similar teachings about humans having an immortal or eternal soul.  Since the soul is immortal, there is no physical evidence of its existence.  Nor does any evidence exist that supports ensoulment.  Belief in such a soul is non-rational and therefore not subject to scientific study.

Indeed, the via negativa in the Christian tradition, Theravadan Buddhism and approaches to God in other traditions premised upon God’s unknowability all reject the idea that finite humans can accurately describe the infinite God in finite human words.  These approaches to God invariably point or lead to mysticism, which presumes that while humans may experience God they lack any specific knowledge of God that they can communicate to another person.  Unsurprisingly, mystics have often been branded heretics and mysticism rejected as providing a solid foundation for theology.

The other starting point for theology is scripture.  A theologian would presume that the scriptures of his or her tradition were authoritative.  Sometimes, these theologians argue that their scriptures are authoritative using their scriptures to prove that God had revealed those scriptures.  Protestants who subscribe to a solo scriptura approach to their faith have adopted the presumption that the Christian Bible is authoritative.  Similarly, Muslims who believe that the Koran was dictated by God to Mohammad and Mormons who believe that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from two golden tablets, which the angel Moroni showed him, all presume that their scriptures are authoritative. From a rhetorical perspective, these theologians use their conclusion to prove their initial predicate.

Awareness of other religions and the claim of multiple, conflicting scriptures to be the authoritative revelation of God undercut the claim that any one scripture is authoritative.  How is one to choose which scripture to accept as authoritative?  In the past, the vast majority of people simply adopted the religious tradition of their family and culture.  In a global world with multiple religions and many more people aware of at least several of those religions, fewer people find the practice of mindlessly following in parental or cultural footsteps satisfying.  People now want to choose which if any religion they will practice.

Simply positing that one particular scripture is authoritative no longer works, nor is that approach amenable to scientific study.  The essence of the difficulty is the claim that God dictated or otherwise revealed the scripture through a supernatural process.  The word supernatural itself highlights that religion claims not to be natural and therefore not subject to scientific study.

If God, should God exist, be entirely natural as some theologians now claim, then scientific analysis may lead to signs of God’s presence and activity in the cosmos.  This presumption of a natural God calls for a new starting point for theology.

Perhaps humans do not have an immortal soul.  Perhaps humans have an entirely natural spirit comprised of those aspects of human existence that are quintessentially human although evident in other species to a lesser degree.  For more on this idea, read my article “Making the Ethereal Earthly: A New Definition of the Human Spirit,” in the Journal for the Study of Spirituality (a link to this article is also found on the right hand side of the Ethical Musings webpage).

One major advantage of this approach to theology is that it moves theology from the realm of speculation and grounds it in in the physical world amenable to scientific study.

A second major advantage of this approach to theology is that it begins to construct a believable, more factually based understanding of God and spirit. This approach builds on the deconstructive work of Bishop Spong, Bishop Robinson and others who identified the reasons why theism in all of its forms lacks credibility in the third millennium. Sadly, most of the deconstructionists failed to offer a post-theism theology.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Choosing the right lens


Recently, I read an article that suggested environmentalism should be a lens through which people view the world rather than treated as one of many issues that warrant attention and action (Nathan Empsall, “Connecting the environment and the church”). The rationale for arguing that environmentalism should be a lens is that basically everything (or almost everything) a person does affects the environment.

An environmentally responsible approach to life entails asking, “How will this action affect the environment?” Sometimes the answer is easy: throwing away trash creates unsightly litter and inappropriately disposes of waste material; walking avoids creating greenhouse gases internal combustion engines produce; eating less meat supports a food chain that harms the environment less; etc.

Often, however, the answer is less obvious. Is the environmental harm of an electric car or of a gasoline powered car greater when one considers (1) the manufacture of the vehicle and all of its parts, (2) the generation of electricity to operate the vehicle or the production of gas to operate the car, and (3) the environmental impact of eventually disposing of the vehicle? Few if any of us can knowledgably answer such a complicated, comprehensive question.

In general, the familiar mantra of reducing, reusing and recycling provides a convenient heuristic for learning to see the world through an environmental lens.

The article prompted some further musings about the importance of having the right lens or lenses through which to view creation, other people, and life itself. The image of a lens resonates with me because having the correct prescription for the lenses through which I see the world is essential if I am to enjoy clear, accurate vision.

Similarly, the ongoing journey of becoming a Christian is more about learning to view the world as Jesus saw it than about ontological change, i.e., becoming a Christian is not about a changing a person’s being but altering a person’s way of living and seeing the world. Illustratively, Jesus taught his disciples to see each person the disciples encountered as an individual who was worthy of dignity and respect.

Like Jesus, I must learn to see the difference between condemning evil and not condemning the person who commits an evil deed. For example, this means welcoming back into the community the person released from prison by helping that person find a decent place to live, a job that pays enough for the person to pay his/her bills, and embracing the person as a valued member of God’s family.

Like Jesus, I must learn to see myself as a member of a larger community, a community that begins locally with my fellow Christians and that extends to embrace all creation. Consequently, I must change the narrative of my life from self-centered to communal. This means, among other things, changing the narrative about paying taxes from avoidance/minimizing (what President Trump advocates, belittling those who willingly pay taxes) to viewing taxes (as economist John Kenneth Galbraith saw taxes) as an opportunity and responsibility to pay for civilization and its benefits.

Like Jesus, I must dare to believe that, in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memorable image, the arc of history is long but bends irreversibly and inevitably toward justice. Thus, Christians who look through the lens of Jesus at the world act in ways that affirm justice will eventually prevail. We begin even today to beat swords into plowshares by spending more on the most vulnerable and needy instead of supporting defense budgets that exceed Defense Department requests.

What is the lens or lenses through which you see yourself and the world?