The Moral High Ground

Why someone from the U.S. or U.K. would want to join a terrorist organization is very hard to understand when it must be fairly obvious that such groups are bent on destruction and mayhem dredged out of intense hatred of enemies, imagined and real.  At the same time, I am reminded of two people with whom I once worked.
The first was a coworker in the late ‘60s.  Then he was considered by many to be a left wing radical.  He could barely contain his anger and contempt for the agents of big business, corporate America in general, and the federal government that he believed was beholden to the military-industrial complex.  I often wondered if he was involved in some of the violence that attacked local universities and erupted in urban race riots.  If he is still alive, I suspect that has has become a convicted tea-partier.  There isn’t much distance between the radical left and radical right.  Only mutual loathing of each other separates them. 
The second was another coworker about fifteen years later.  He was as right wing as the former was left wing.  A hard core libertarian, he detested anything the government did that he believed would limit individual rights to do what one wanted with one’s property, however one defined property.  Welfare for the poor in any form was anathema to him.  But that wasn’t the end of it.  He was an intensely proud descendent of Irish immigrants, and took on an unreasoned hatred of all things English, which led him to be an ardent supporter of the IRA in every way possible, legal or illegal.  I ran into some online information about him a few years ago and discovered that he is now a champion of a variety of radical, super patriot, right wing causes.  
Neither of them ran off to join a foreign terrorist organization, but the anger and hatred they evinced toward those whom they tagged as enemies seems to me to be like that I imagine inspires those who do.  Where does it come from?  For these two, and based on my limited knowledge and memory, it came from a combination of childhood experiences, lessons they were taught by their elders, frustrations in their early careers, and something else.  That something else seemed to be an inability to look dispassionately at the world about them, their own beliefs about it, and the moral consequences of those beliefs.  

Is that a neurological problem?  A spiritual problem?  An educational problem?  Some combination?  I don’t know.  I suspect that they would say none of the above.  They had staked out the moral high ground, and it is the rest of us who are deluded and in need of help.  

Let’s talk about Sex!

I’m part of a small clergy group that meets each week to share thoughts about the lectionary passages for the coming Sunday.  We explored a passage from Matthew’s gospel that has Jesus saying that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom ahead of others in the audience with whom he was speaking.  
That brought up the question of what it meant to be a sinner, which, given the presence of prostitutes, slid toward the usual conflation of sin with sexual immorality.  I say usual because it seems that every time the subject of sin comes up in any discussion, it turns quickly to sexual morality.  It’s a curious thing.
One can raise the issue of sin, at least in the gospels, as being a condition of living outside the boundaries of strict pharisaic standards.  That would include just about everyone living in rural communities, and most of the poor living in cities.  One can raise the issue of sin as failing to meet the moral imperatives of the Ten Commandments.  One can raise the issue of sin as any failure to live up to God’s expectations as set forth in the Sermon on the Mount.  One can raise the issue of sin in just about any way one wants to raise it, and the discussion will turn quickly to sexual morality.  Why is that?  
In popular thought sin means immorality, and immorality will be assumed to have something to do with sex.  To be sure, there are important moral questions revolving around sex including clergy abuses, human trafficking, sex tourism and more, but morality is more than sex.  You know that.  
Very strange.  Has our culture has become so obsessed with sex?  If not obsessed, has it been so overwhelmed with sexual overtones that we cannot avoid it?  FaceBook ads tell me that Fredrick’s of Hollywood is still in business.  Who knew?  I wonder why they think that would interest me?  But I digress.  That may all be true, but there is more.  I suspect that we slide so easily into equating immorality with sex as a way to avoid examination of, and responsibility for, the multitude of behaviors with moral implications that we participate in on a daily basis without giving them much thought.  And we don’t give them much thought because we don’t want to give them much thought.
I’m reminded of the years I taught an ethics course for business students (no oxymoron jokes please).  They always wanted to start off with questions about things like the morality of atomic warfare.  That gives you an idea of how long ago that was, but the point is the same.  They could grapple with that, but did not recognize the need to grapple with questions of a more immediate, everyday nature involving the decisions they actually make and are responsible for.  They didn’t recognize the need because they didn’t want to recognize it.  It was a matter of avoidance.  I think it’s the same dynamic that took place in my little clergy study group, and it takes place in almost every discussion of morality and immorality.  We quickly turn to sex because it’s, well, sexy.  The issues are real and important, but even more important, they allow us to avoid the more immediate issues that are no doubt lurking nearby.  Maybe we should leave the prostitutes out of it altogether, and focus entirely on the tax collectors.  They hit closer to the homes in which most of us live. 

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

We are leaving in a couple of days for a few weeks away on a trip that will take us on ten flight legs through several countries.  I find myself a bit anxious.  It’s not the anxiety of fear. It’s more of anticipation, the kind that children feel as they wait impatiently for Christmas.  I’m a little surprised.  Having spent a good part of my life traveling domestically and abroad, why is this trip different?
The answer, I think, is twofold.  First, the combination of closely timed flights on airlines large, small, and unfamiliar, means that if any link fails in this technologically knitted fabric, the whole thing comes unraveled, and then what?  Second, part of our trip will be in entirely new territory, and anticipation of the wholly unknown tends to raise a strange combination of eagerness and anxiousness.  
There is probably something else as well.  When I was younger, my attitude was more like, ‘What could possibly go wrong?,’ and when something did, it just added to the adventure.  Now I’m old and know perfectly well what can go wrong.  Moreover, not so many years ago we might have got a taste of breaking news in other parts of the world on the evening news.  Now it’s splattered all over the electronic byways in instantaneous, hyperbolic ad nauseam, so that highly improbable events are presented as potential and immediate threats.  It can’t help but have an effect, even on a calm, reasonable person like me.

So, we shall see what we shall see.  I wonder if Paul felt like this as he prepared to set sail from Antioch?

Provisional Truth

Provisional truth is something I’ve sometimes preached about, and it has always been discomforting for those (few) who were paying attention.  What they want, and what would be comforting for me also, is absolute truth.  But, to slightly reword a sentence from William James, “We must be content to regard our most assured conclusions concerning matters of fact as hypotheses liable to modification in the course of future experience.”
Scientific fact is one thing.  Theological fact is another.  Our most solid reasoning, experimentation, evidence and peer review, backs up scientific fact as irrefutable, given what we currently know, and there’s the rub.  What we currently know.  Each time we add a bit of verifiable knowledge to the pot, it changes the whole stew.  It’s what enables some people to discount scientific fact as just another opinion, no better than their own.  Well grounded theories are dismissed with “It’s just a theory, no one really knows,” as if theory and uninformed guesses are pretty much the same thing.  Operating from that set of assumptions, one can claim anything they want as their own private fact. 
Theological fact gets even more complicated.  It can rarely, if ever, be anything other than provisional.  As a Christian preacher, I believe that our provisional truths point reliably toward the absolute truths that are hidden in God, but, along with Paul, I’m doubtful that we can see them except as in a mirror and dimly.  It’s an argument unacceptable to many who demand to know now what the absolute truth is, and are willing to accept the word of anyone who claims to have it.  Some claim the absolute truth that God is a hoax because God cannot be subject to scientific verification.  Some claim the absolute truth about God they have coaxed out of scripture, which they assert to be inerrant.  The historical record of competing claims to know the absolute truth is wobbly at best.  No one view can endure for more than a few years, and each appears to be in unreconcilable competition with all others, but that doesn’t seem to dissuade their true believers.   
Lower case ‘o’ orthodox Christianity, for the most part, holds that scripture is a genuine bearer of God’s truth without having to be scientifically or historically factual in every way, which is way too fuzzy for those who want the certainty of a fifth grade arithmetic text.  Yet, it took centuries for the priests and rabbis of our paternal roots to discern which of the many writings could be trusted as Hebrew scripture.  In like manner, it took several centuries for the Church to discern which of the many writings could be trusted as scripture in what we now call the New Testament.  Unlike the sciences, theology cannot turn to the laboratory to conduct controlled experiments whose results are made public for peer review.  But that doesn’t mean that writings and teachings cannot be subject to examination and evaluation.  It’s the very task of theology.  It may be that authentic scripture, inspired by God, is still being written.  Every now and then someone says that it has.  The Koran and the Book of Mormon are two examples that have been accepted by many, but rejected by orthodox Christianity as inconsistent with what what God has revealed God’s self to be through the progressive revelation of provisional truths that we have learned can be trusted.  In like manner, the so called Gnostic Gospels have been instructive for what they say about the communities they served, but rejected as scripture because they are inconsistent with what we have learned is trustworthy about who Jesus is. 
The test of consistency is a good one, but it has serious limitations.  If every new truth had to be consistent with the old truths, we would still live on a flat earth, so to speak.  Sometimes the Church has acted as if we do.  However, the essential characteristics of the consistency of Godly revelation are change and direction of change .  It’s always changing, so the new and challenging always have to be looked for, and it reliably goes in the direction of love, reconciliation, healing, inclusion, and transparency.  Reliable scripture always speaks to the people of the time of its writing in terms they can understand given the vocabulary available to them and the cultural setting in which they lived, but it also pushes the limits of meaning in the uncomfortable direction of love, reconciliation, healing, inclusion, and transparency.  Speech that claims to speak for God but goes in the opposite direction has to be suspect.
We’ve come to accept the canon as a reliable revelation of the nature of God, humanity, and the relationship between the two.  Two thousand years of theology have informed and guided our expanding and deepening understanding within the context of the times and places we have lived, but it has always been an uncomfortable understanding that has pushed us into unfamiliar territory.  For all of that, no matter how respected a teaching has been, none has been accorded the authority of scripture.  Somehow we have recognized that it’s all provisional, but, walking in faith, we are confident that it points more or less in the right direction.
If you would like to wade in with your own thoughts, please do so in the comments, or drop me an email.

Is Satan the reflection we see in the mirror?

I was struck by a line from Job in Morning Prayer this morning.  “Those at ease have contempt for misfortune, but it is ready for those whose feet stumble.”  Peterson puts it this way: “It’s easy for the well-to-do to point their fingers in blame, for the well-fixed to pour scorn on the strugglers.”
I wonder what it is that entices those of us who are more or less at ease to heap contempt on beggars, immigrants (illegal or otherwise), low wage workers in part time jobs with no benefits, the intellectually less competent, the intellectually more competent, the poor, anyone receiving government benefits other than the ones we receive (because we’ve earned and deserve them), and so forth.  It goes even deeper than that.  Some of us, as in the story of Job, heap contempt on the inadequate faith of others which, no doubt, has led to their failure to recover from their misfortunes.  We even dare to heap contempt on God by attributing to God our own worst impulses toward punishment and revenge.  The character of Satan in the story of Job is very much a reflection of us, which is not a very flattering revelation.  To paraphrase Pogo, “We have met Satan and he is us.”  
A few months ago I wrote about a friend who believes that anyone can lift herself or himself out of poverty and the ghetto.  He is not blind to social and racial beliefs and attitudes that effectively fence off any but the most determined and able, he’s in favor of them as tools to separate the worthy from the unworthy, with his sort as the arbiters.  Others, who are not quite as perverse as he, are just not observant and don’t see what is clearly in front of them.  Of course, it’s not all about race, class, and social barriers.  Just the ordinary events of life tend to seduce us into smugly blaming the victims of disease and injury.
It is that smugness that is so infuriating.  “I’m at ease, they are not, and it’s their own fault.”  When we are at ease, it is easy to be smug about the misfortunes of others, and yet we are horrified at the unfairness of life when misfortunes happen to us.  Even that horror is a form of smugness because we are certain that we don’t deserve the misfortunes that come to us, unlike others whose misfortunes are deserved. 

My friend, who is such a contented bigot, does what he can to help some individuals whom he deems to be be worthy, if less fortunate, as long as they bend to the task as he defines the task.  Maybe that’s a good thing, or at least better than those of us who are simply ignorant and too lazy to pay attention to our surroundings.  I’m not sure.