Economic Wisdom from a Small Town Theologian – read at your own risk

One little comment about the big bailout bill.  I regret that so many around here do not get the connection between fixing the mess at the heart of our financial system and the availability of ordinary credit to conduct ordinary business on Main Street and the farm.  It seems like most of my neighbors think this is some sort of salvation only for fat cats on Wall Street, and that if we just let them sink, well, that’s their problem.  The fact that ours is an integrated system that reaches right down to and into every local bank and credit union seems to escape them, as does the idea that by underwriting a large group of mortgages and loans, the government would be stabilizing a market that might, probably would, plunge the value of your assets and mine to near zero.  One might put it this way, if I want to sell my house and there are no buyers anywhere at any price, then my house is worth nothing.  The same is true for the assets in my 401k, my pension fund, my health insurance plan, and the ability of my local grocery store to borrow temporary funds to bring in next week’s load of food.  Done in a responsible and conservative way (that’s a small ‘c’ conservative) the so-called bailout will bring stability to markets and return a large part of their investment to the taxpayers.  Done responsibly, greedy overpaid investments managers will not get rewarded for their failure.  Done responsibly, a failed political ideology that worships the myth of unregulated markets while deliberately setting up those markets to reward avarice in all its forms will be replaced by sensible regulations that protect ordinary citizens and businesses.  

Orthodox redux – again

According to one of my commentators, I appeared somewhat hostile in a recent post, and that, I suspect, centered on the phrase, “Those who are so almighty intent on being “orthodox” in every way might want to take a turn in toward Philippi and leave behind the road they’re on.”  Perhaps it’s time to talk a bit about my take on the word ‘orthodox’ as presently used in North America.  First, I want to exclude any sense of the word as it applies to the Orthodox Churches of the East inasmuch as they have their own disagreements about what it means for them.  I’m more interested in the way it’s used among North American Protestants and especially among Anglicans.

My first observation, based on attendance at two of the more contentious national conventions of the Episcopal Church, is not so much about belief as about behavior.  Those who loudly proclaimed themselves to be ‘orthodox’ did so with obvious contempt for any and all who disagreed with them in any way whatsoever.  For them it seemed that there were only two camps: the ‘orthodox’ and ultra liberal heretics. If you were not one of them, then you must be among the other. They were blatant in their disregard for the agreed upon rules of decorum and debate.  And their public statements were rife with anger and hostility.  It was Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich politics polished with a few amens.

My second observation is that there are only a few agreed upon tenets of this ‘orthodoxy’:  condemnation of homosexuality, rejection of, or at least anxiety about, ordination of women, and a fixation on one and only one way of understanding Jesus as Lord and Savior.  There seems to be a lot of divergence on other issues that tend to define the so-called conservative camp: inerrancy of scripture, whether there can be salvation for non-Christians, abortion, and things like that, so that beyond these few central points there is not much coherence.  On the whole, there is little in any of it that relates very much to the classical Christianity of the Western Churches, to the teachings of Jesus Christ, or to the central doctrines of the faith.

My third observation is that North American Protestants who believe they are the only orthodox believers operate in the midst of a dilemma that cannot be resolved and that they do not recognize. On the one hand, they proclaim rejection of the way of the world and adhere to the idea that they may be in the world but not of the world.  On the other hand, they are culturally interwoven with a conservative political ethic that wallows in a self-serving mythic story of national identity conveniently ignoring more of history than it acknowledges.  I don’t want to call that hypocrisy because I believe to be a true hypocrite you have to have some awareness of the falsehood you put forth.  I think they are simply blind to exactly how deeply embedded they, and all of us, are in that which makes us North American Europeans. 

One of the phrases that Protestant ‘orthodox’ like to use is “biblical world view.”  Seems to me if you want to have a biblical world view it might be helpful to turn to the bible.  Doing that with any serious intent has got to lead one away from the hubris of claiming a unique and exclusive orthodoxy and toward the sort of Christianity to which Paul called the people of Philippi.

Having said all of that, be cautious in your judgments.  Nothing I’ve said in any way reflects poorly on the core of Evangelical practice that rejoices in an awareness of a powerful indwelling of the Holy Spirit, nor on Pentecostal practice that finds that indwelling expressed through physical outpourings of charisms in various forms.

If you want to know where I stand on all of this, it’s a little to the theological left of N.T. Wright and quite comfortable with the writings and teachings of Rowan Williams, which is not the same thing as his leadership of the Communion.

Philippian Christianity – O Get Serious

This weekend worshipers in many churches will hear a reading from Philippians 2.1-13 that includes the so-called hymn to the incarnate Christ as well as Paul’s counsel for Christians to live up to the standards of love set by Christ.  If I have this right, Paul wrote the letter to a people who were living in uncertain times in which their economic status was neither high nor secure, and where the likelihood of oppression or persecution was high.

They were encouraged to be filled with love, to do nothing from selfish ambition, to be humble in their relationships with others and to be intent on helping those in need.  They were under no illusion that faith in God through Jesus Christ would somehow make life safer, more prosperous or relieved of troubles.  That wasn’t the point.  The point was that in Christ they could not simply endure but spiritually flourish no matter what their economic and political condition might thrust upon them.  Moreover, the gift of a resurrection life of great joy was already theirs by the irrevocable grace of God through Christ.

How different that is from the huge number of modern day Christians who look to Christ to solve all their problems, patrol the road of life to remove dangers, and, in some cases, to make them prosperous, even rich.  How did we get so far away from what Jesus actually taught?  How did we take on the idea of Jesus as something of a supernatural fairy godfather, presuming, of course, that the believer has the right kind of faith in the right amount and offers up his or her prayers in the right way?

Those who are so almighty intent on being “orthodox” in every way might want to take a turn in toward Philippi and leave behind the road they’re on.


PS  One of my most intimate critics says that I don’t invite enough conversation on these posts, so consider this a very open invitation.

Anxiety About Earthly Things

Sunday worship in an Episcopal Church always starts with a Collect, a particular type of prayer intended to focus one’s attention on a general theme of worship.  Collects are set for each Sunday of the year and reflect the theological direction of the church as represented by their authors, who extend from far back in the Catholic tradition to today.  Considering the events of the last week I was especially drawn to the wisdom of the Collect for today:

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

According to one commentator, this Collect may date from the time of Pope Leo the Great in the 5th century and remembers the turmoil caused by barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire.  It remains one of the most timely prayers for each era of the last 1,500 years, and never more than for us this week, not because we are in greater turmoil than ever, we are not, but because we have too easily given our allegiance to things that are passing away.

How Wa$ Your Week?

Well, it’s been quite a week hasn’t it?  How’s your bank holding up?  Heard anything from your retirement fund managers?  If nothing else, we now ought to have a much better understanding of what global interdependence means and a far more clear picture of the connection between Wall Street, Main Street and Washington.  Anger, even outrage, may be an appropriate reaction, but smugness or self-righteousness are not.  Wall Street greed has had a lot to do with the mess we are in, but to be honest we have to admit that that greed also infected everyone who shopped around for the highest returns without checking the risks and ethics of it, who ran up credit cards to their max and then got more cards, who borrowed heavily for unneeded toys they really couldn’t afford, who let themselves get talked into mortgage obligations on terms that seemed too good to be true, and on and on. 

Of course there are serious and very unpleasant consequences to the well being of ordinary citizens, and we cannot wish them away, but it might be a good time for Christians to become more publicly adamant about promoting a new way of life in America, one that espouses a stronger sense of stewardship, holy stewardship, of the resources that have been made available to us, and that doesn’t mean just oil.  As an aside, I’ve got a friend who takes excessive pride in her simple, inexpensive life style and thinks everyone should be like her.  That’s ridiculous, but it is important to be good stewards of whatever resources one has, and that means the rich are still going to be rich, but they can be good stewards of their riches. 

Our community has begun to take on the idea of environmental sustainability as a serious policy option, and environment means a lot more than trees and water.  It means all things that we engage on a daily basis to provide the kind of life we live.  The dominant conservative political ethic was suspicious of the liberal left-wingers who initiated the movement, but even they have started to understand that, if they are to be true conservatives, they have to think about what it means to conserve the best of what we have. Maybe your community is doing something similar.  It certainly takes on more credence given the current news on the financial front. 

So where in scripture might we turn to begin a new path?  I might suggest Psalm 73.  The problem, of course, is that by next week when things look better we can be tempted to look up to heaven and say “O, never mind.”

Psa. 73:0 

1             Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.

2             But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.

3             For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

4             For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.

5             They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.

6             Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment.

7             Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.

8             They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.

9             They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.

10            Therefore the people turn and praise them, and find no fault in them.

11            And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most

12            Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.

13            All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.

14             For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning.

15             If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,” I would have been untrue to the circle of your children.

16             But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task,

17             until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end.

18             Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.

19             How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!

20             They are like a dream when one awakes; on awaking you despise their phantoms.

21             When my soul was embittered,when I was pricked in heart,  

22             I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast toward you.

23             Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.

24             You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me with honor.

25             Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.

26             My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

27             Indeed, those who are far from you will perish; you put an end to those who are false to you.

28             But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, to tell of all your works.


Is the World Enchanted?

Theologian Charles Taylor argues that one of the reasons it is so hard to be a classical Christian these days is that the world is no longer enchanted.  Actually he uses the word orthodox but it’s such a loaded word that I’d rather use the word classical in its place.  Anyway, writing from a singularly European perspective, he believes that in days of yore it was all but impossible not to have a Christian faith in God, even if that faith was imbued with all manner of pagan myths and superstitions, because the world then was enchanted.  In the enchanted world the material world of the temporal now was not separated from the transcendent world of the eternal there, and spirits of all kinds roamed the earth involving themselves for good or evil in human affairs.  Paganized Christianity was simply the biggest, most powerful and most trustworthy spiritual force around and belief in it provided one with the best defense against the dark forces.  That world ended, says Taylor, with the advent of the Enlightenment and modern scientific method.  As a result the coin has turned so that now it is all but impossible to have a Christian faith.

I wonder.  If our scientific minds have so shut out all but verifiable, temporal facts, how is it that we have such a hunger for that which is enchanted?  Popular entertainment is rife with programming about magic, crossing over, witches and wizards of various sorts, transcendent powers known only to certain martial arts experts, super powers come to life from comic book pages, and ghosts of every kind.  Frankly, I think our claims to being non-religious, secular and fact driven are nothing more than a very thin veneer covering a deeper belief in enchantment that was never really left behind. 

Maybe what makes it difficult to be a classical Christian is that its teachings expose that kind of enchantment for the pagan superstition that it is.  By that I mean that that kind of enchantment holds out the promise that we can engage spiritual powers on our own terms by learning the secrets through which we can control our own environments and destinies.  Classical Christian teaching declares that to be untrue in every way, and proclaims not simply another path but another universal reality altogether, one that requires greater personal responsibility while committing one’s self more fully into God’s care and keeping.  Perhaps that’s just too big a pill for some to swallow.  What do you think?

The Wreckage on Wall Street

In 1989 Michael Lewis published “Liar’s Poker: rising through the wreckage on Wall Street.”  With some humor it chronicled his brief career with Solomon Bros., and more particularly, the avaricious greed, calculated duplicity, and arrogant incompetence of those who ran the show and made the most money.  The real life he recorded was not so different from fictional works such as “Wall Street”, and “The Devil’s Advocate,” but it rang no bells of warning for anyone, and was taken more as a popular, even humorous, entertainment.  But avarice is not one of the traditional deadly sins for nothing.  Avarice is a cancer eating at the core of an otherwise healthy body.  It is a parasite living off its host until the host is dead. 

To be sure, the greediest (and richest) are losing their jobs, but not without taking millions, tens of millions and hundreds of millions with them.  They may be jobless but they’re not destitute.  The wreckage they leave behind includes thousands of people doing honest work for modest pay down in the bowels of their companies; people who will have little in savings, may have to declare their own bankruptcy, and who now wonder what kind of life they can rebuild from the bottom up.  The wreckage they leave behind are clients who entrusted them with their financial well being through pensions funds, retirement accounts, health savings plans and modest investments that now lie in shambles.  Indeed, the wreckage they leave behind jeopardizes the entire American economy in every place and every way.

I would like to think that we have learned our collective lesson, but greed is a seductive evil, and evil it is, that will undoubtedly draw a new generation into its web of deceit and destruction. 

As Christians, we teach and preach the warnings of the prophets and the promises of God in Christ.  We proclaim the path to a blessed life marked above all by personal and institutional integrity undergirded by confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation that can be fully experienced only through trust in God’s presence and love.

Who knows if that healing balm will ever be taken seriously where avarice makes its home.  Perhaps, at least for a moment, it will.  In the meantime the voice of Jeremiah rings loud in my ears.