Imaginary gods vs. God as Revealed: edited and corrected

Editor’s note: below is the revised version of CP’s article (Dianna)

Recently, I accidentally stumbled on an old podcast discussing how concepts of God are a product of one’s imagination.  It claimed that people desire a higher power of some kind, and imagine all the things they would like a god to be, or are afraid a god might be, and stitch them together into an imaginary god that seems so real to them, it became real. To prove the point they looked at the teaching in a particular evangelical church where an emotionally intimate relationship with God was expected as the true mark of faith.  I had something else to do so didn’t get to the end of the podcast,  but I suspected a church where preaching promoted a prosperity gospel god flexibly tailored to each person’s desires. Or maybe a harshly judgmental god tailored to each person’s fears. Who knows? 

I think the podcast was right in one sense.  As far as I know every culture has some idea of the divine.  It seems to be innate in what it is to be human.  It’s true even for confirmed atheists who can’t drop talking and writing about the god they don’t believe in.  It’s not that everyone is a fervent believer.  Many are rather complacent about God as bequeathed to them by whatever tradition they grew up in, but complacency is not unbelief. 

The podcasters were partially right in another way.  In its landmark study the Robert Bellah team coined the word “Sheilaism” to identify religious beliefs imagined or borrowed to create a personal god.  Perhaps we are all guilty of a little Sheilaism now and then, but it is not the way of classical Christianity.

God can be known only through God’s self revelation which is why imaginary gods must be rejected.  For me as an Episcopalian a reliable understanding of God can be had only through scripture, tradition and reason.  The Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament record how God has made God’s self known through two thousand years of painful, slow, incremental apprehending of who we are, who God is, what our relationship is, and what it should become.  God spoke through prophets but only the test of time revealed which prophets were genuine and which were not.  For Christians, God is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ who is the Word of God made flesh.  The gospels tell the story of his birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection.  New Testament books that follow tell how the early Christians stumbled forward as they gave up their pagan gods to learn a new way of life.

We’ve been stumbling forward ever since.  That’s where tradition comes in.  Only through time have we been able to discern more fully the path on which  Jesus leads us.  We have our own two thousand years of prophets and sages who have helped us understand a little more, generation by generation.  We’ve been down blind alleys, heard from false prophets and phony sages, but the power of God to lead us has not failed.

Philosophers and scientists will speculate forever what reason is, but whatever it is, humans are endowed with it.  We can think, doubt, probe for truth, test, and yes, imagine things into being.  We are called to use that reason to study scripture, learn from the wisdom of tradition, and add to it for generations yet to follow. 

The God of revelation is not a god of imagination.

It’s a curious thing that there can be an objection to God’s self revelation that has informed us that we have been made for life in peace, justice and abundance.  How can that be objectionable?  We’ve been given freedom to choose but God has told us to choose wisely and has shown us the path of justice for the poor and oppressed, and peace and reconciliation among all peoples.  Christians have been shown the way of love pioneered by Jesus. We are commanded to follow him, and to invite all others to walk with us. We confess that we fail frequently and have to try again.  It continues to be the slow sometimes painful process of understanding more fully and following with more confidence.   How God might be leading others is another matter, but it will always be in the way of love.

As L. Ron Hubbard proved, anybody can make up a religion.  Even some churches appear to make things up as they go along, mostly in whatever image the current pastor wants.  It happens when scripture, tradition and reason are considered old fashioned and irrelevant.  Making things up as one goes along leads down side roads going nowhere. We humans like to take them but it’s never too late to turn back to the road God has revealed through scripture, tradition and reason.

©Steven Woolley

Why Biden’s Poll Numbers are so Low: A Narrative Examination

The Obama administration guided the nation into recovery from the Great Recession. It placed the economy on a stable foundation for sustainable growth capable of withstanding the vicissitudes of global events.  Under Obama’s leadership Congress passed the Affordable Care Act bringing lower cost health insurance to millions of families. This in spite of unyielding opposition from Republicans who had given up governing in favor of grasping raw power at any cost.  The cost was high.  Issues strengthening equity and justice were blocked and a Trans Pacific trading partnership was torpedoed  that would have checked a growing threat from China.  Nevertheless, by the end of his term, the economy was thriving, the deficit declining, and prospects for better yet to come looked bright.  It was not to be.

Right wing talk radio and Koch Network machinations had worked hard to build an anti government movement of disaffected voters steeped in two decades of conspiracies and flat out lies.  It convinced enough of them to elect a wannabe dictator who promised to make America great again. He did just the opposite.

In four chaotic years,Trump undermined economic stability, degraded relationships with allies, colluded with dictators, started a tariff war that helped set fire to inflation, and blew the lid off the national debt and deficit. All in the name of making America great again. The COVID pandemic would have thrown the country into an economic slump no matter what but the Trump administration’s bumbling and his own strange announcements, drove it into a deep recession, and the deaths of a million persons. Trump led a growing white supremacist, fascist movement built on bizarre conspiracies and scapegoating.  Even now as battles loom, led by usurpers eager to push the doddering old man out of the way, the Trump movement will outlive him. He won’t go down easily, as proved by the insurrection he fomented in his last days in office, an insurrection that came dangerously close to succeeding.

A majority of American voters had had enough. They rejected Trump and trumpism in favor of Joe Biden.  With a bare and contentious majority in Congress, the Biden administration has led us out of a long and pointless war, repaired the nation’s economic foundation, guided us out of the Trump recession, begun the work of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, and reestablished American credibility in the global arena.  Even as inflation troubles family budgets, the economy remains robust.  

For all of it, Biden’s approval ratings remain in the 30% range, miserably low for any president.  The reasons are many and a little scary.  Media pundits harp on the low ratings with predictable results.   Readers and viewers are led to believe if so many others think he’s doing a bad job, it must be so, even if the evidence says otherwise. The right wing propaganda machine is in full swing with exaggerations of street crime, economic woes, bizarre conspiracies, and  more flat out lies.  There is no responsible loyal opposition from Republicans, the GOP having turned to neo-fascism abetted by cowardice among genuine conservatives.  They’ve made good use of the old war horses of illegal immigration,  fear of street crime, reckless spending, opposition to gun regulation, and various other hard-times-are-upon-us tropes.  They’ve added a few new ones such as Critical Race Theory, the decline of White hegemony, and the usual grumbling about radical leftist socialist agendas.

Taken together  they have created an avalanche of conflicting “news” leaving too many ordinary folk unable to tell what is real or unreal, true or false, fake or genuine.  Low poll numbers are the predictable result of well sown “bad” news even in the face of a surprisingly successful and effective administration. That’s today’s American politics for you.  Not promising.

Could the polls be wrong? As any student of Sir Humphrey (The British series “Yes Minister,”) knows, the pollsters could easily produce high marks for Biden simply by rewording their survey instruments. The midterms could show that the pollsters have been asking the wrong questions. Or maybe not. November will tell. 

Christians Are People Of Faith. What IS Faith?

Churches using the Revised Common Lectionary are in the midst of            lengthy scripture readings about faith.  Faith is one of those words we use without bothering to give it a clear definition yet with certainty that we know what it means.

The problem is that there is no ‘we’ in understanding what faith is. Each of us has our own more or less intuited understanding.  Moreover we’re likely to assume others have the same intuited understanding as we do.  It can lead to a lot of confusion.  For one thing just how much faith do we need?  Jesus said not much, only a little, faith no larger than a mustard seed.  With such a small amount of faith one can metaphorically move mountains.  Yes, but what kind of faith?  Faith in what?

I think understanding what faith means comes in two large categories, themselves not easily defined: belief and trust.  For example, belief that holding certain things to be true is the kind of faith one is supposed to have.  A popular example of that is the acceptance of Jesus as one’s personal lord and savior as the necessary statement of faith. Another example, for those of us who adhere to the Nicene Creed, is that accepting the doctrine of the Trinity, with Jesus as the eternally begotten word of God made flesh, is a required, if not sufficient, statement of faith.

The other broad category of trust is to simply trust God, God in Christ Jesus, to be the way, the truth, and the life.  Call it blind trust with eyes wide open.  It’s a leap of faith that many theologians talk about.  I’m a great fan of the Letter of James and think trust is the kind of faith he writes about.  With trust in God, one will do as God commands and follow where Jesus leads without having the need to satisfy a deeper understanding.  In fact, wrote James, one shows one’s trust by what one does in everyday life. 

The two kinds of faith are not mutually exclusive.  They are not the same but they always overlap in ill defined ways.  Maybe it’s that lack of definition that makes talk about faith so fuzzy.

Is everyone left on their own to come up with a comfortable balance of belief and trust about who God is, and what it is to be a Christian?   Does that mean each one is to discover for our faith through a preacher who claims you must believe or trust in such and such a way to be a Christian? I think not!  That’s the way of religious charlatans, and there are plenty of them around.

I think a more reliable way of understanding faith is to “trust” in the sloppy, messy, slow, process faithful council leaders outline for us. Through hard work, prayer, and led by the Holy Spirit, these leaders articulate a realm of belief and trust within which the Church, the body of Christ, can faithfully exist. It’s an ever changing realm because our ability to understand where God is leading us is ever changing.  It’s a process of godly trial and error – frustrating for those who want clear, definitive answers.

It is always provisional truth, which makes trust the more important element of faith.  Statements of belief must always be somewhat provisional because we are humans of limited ability to understand who God is and where God is leading us. We must always be willing to listen and learn.  God is not done speaking. 

I personally believe that statements of belief in the Nicene Creed draw a large enough circle to accommodate everyone.  But if the Creed proves to be inadequate, I trust God to lead us to a fuller understanding.

The coinage of the United States states that “In God We Trust.”  I wish that were true.  Maybe it will be some day when we can trust that a nation of “mixed races” is a good and valued thing, that God is at work among those who do not believe as we do, and that it is right to take seriously God’s admonitions to tend to social and economic justice for all persons, and creation itself.

What If?

What If? What if Russia had respected Ukraine’s independence and maturing democracy? What if Russia had encouraged Ukraine to remain neutral?  What if Russia had made cultural exchanges celebrating their shared histories?  What if death and destruction had not been rained down on Ukraine, and Russia had not become an outlaw nation?  Would Putin’s stature and Russia’s world standing be different now?

What if China refrains from bellicose threats against Taiwan?  Would China and Taiwan become cousins, first cousins, rejoicing in family reunions and strengthening ties between the two?  Would Xi be hailed as a wise leader exemplifying Confucian heritage?  Would China become America’s fierce but friendly competitor and not its enemy competitor?

What if?

AMERICAN DEMOCRACY WILL RISE OR FALL ON VOTER TURNOUT

Voter turnout for the 2018 midterms was the highest ever at 53%.  In the most energetic midterms ever 47% sat on the sidelines.  Reasons are many but always seem to circle back to,“My vote doesn’t make any difference, nothing will change.”  The midterms are upon us again and if the hard core right wingers are not to gain control of Congress, it’s up to others to see that the 2018 record turnout is surpassed by a healthy margin. However, I suspect that centrist and progressive leaders, who represent the vast majority of Americans, have been working against themselves, me included with some of my columns.

Far too much effort has been expended trying to find ways to  understand and talk with the trumpian core, hoping to dissuade them from dedication to bizarre conspiracies. The core has been reduced in number and now barricade themselves behind locked and bolted doors.  No amount of pounding on those doors will make any difference.  Behind their fortress walls and to their hearts’ content, they blast their views over the airways and internet.

In the meantime centrist and progressive leaders have all but ignored the vast numbers of those opted out, tired of the noise, wanting only a little tranquility in what appears to be an un-tranquil land.  They include the 47% who did not vote in 2018 and many of whom are tagged by pundits as suburban housewives.  It’s a lousy misnomer for a group of women and men living in every quarter of the country, many having voted for Obama and then Trump. They are the ones with whom centrist and progressive leaders must be talking – talking WITH, not talking to.

That talking with should be happening all day, every day, even in the most conservative strongholds.  Pay attention to what Stacy Abrams & Co. are doing. Engage in “boots on the ground” organizing.  Find out what makes the non-voters anxious, what kind of life they want, what issues are important to them.  Do not give them a consultant created list of possible issues.  Let them speak in their own voices.  Forget all that push-pull stuff. Ask them and listen.

Do not tell them all the wonderful things your candidates can do for them.  Use their answers to explain how your candidate can help them realize what they want.  Commit a new Congress to be a deliberative body able to seek and find agreement that works for the good of all. Most Americans want strong leaders, especially strong leaders in Congress who will speak boldly and work together.  They want democracy, not dictatorship.  They want performance, not bluster.

For two decades, the driving message from the hard core right wing has provoked fear and tagged government as the enemy of the people.  That message has been morally corrupting and institutionally corrosive making out centrists to be flaccid pushovers and progressives as elitist socialists.  Only “boots on the ground” can convince vast numbers of election bystanders that centrists and progressives are the ones who care and will act for them to build a better future.

Many well intentioned people will object that the hard core trumpians have a right to say what they think.  We have to be nice to everyone.  Freedom of speech is a constitutional right but that lays no obligation on anyone to listen.  Nor is it mean spirited to call out the danger they pose to our democracy with their weird, fantastical conspiracies, violent white supremacy, heretical “Christian” nationalism, and desire for anti-democratic strong man rule.

Biden is not up for re-election.  Members of Congress are.  Pundits will try to make it about Biden.  Centrist and progressive leaders have to make it about each candidate in each race and the things that matter to their targeted constituents.  Single issue protagonists will try to highjack the agenda in each district.  Candidates can’t let that happen.    Having and sticking to a game plan is essential with frequent breaks to assess, adjust and reset. 

We don’t need a 53% turnout in November. We need a 60 or 70% turnout.

Readers are welcome to share Country Parson Posts with attribution.

© Steven E. Woolley, 2022

Remember the Deplorables? They Were and Still Are

Hillary Clinton was roundly criticized when she called Trump’s hard right anti-government supporters, deplorable. The deplorables loved it, taking up the mantle as a badge of identity emblazoned on t-shirts and banners. The rest of us tut-tutted. It wasn’t a nice thing to say and we’re supposed to be nice.  After all, every side deserves an equal right to be heard – or does it?

The thing is Hillary was right about the hard right core of the Trump movement. They were and are deplorable. They include the willfully ignorant who bought into the government is your enemy schtick sold by Limbaugh & Co. They eagerly followed would-be fascists promising the strong leadership of a democratically elected dictator who would be their agent in the seat of power.  Higher up leadership came from well informed, calculating, political opportunists.  They in turn were encouraged and financed by libertarian oligarchs who expected to pull the strings from behind the scenes.  No doubt many of the crowd were among the aggrieved and gullible, but the core and its leadership were morally corrupt, a clear and present danger to American democracy.

Frankly, it’s time to get angry.  Our democracy and the well being of our people cannot be held captive in fearful niceness to a relatively small group of strident voices intent on destroying all that America stands for.  Yes that small band just mentioned numbers in the millions but the rest of us number in the hundreds of millions.

Trumpism has morphed into a deplorable movement that will long outlive Trump. The libertarian oligarchs who helped give it birth now realize the mistake they made. Their puppet strings never existed and whatever control they expected to have evaporated overnight. They are quietly backing away, but we should not be quiet.

But, and it’s a big but, trumpism’s base is right about one thing.  Coastal interests have ignored rural and mid-America. They’ve relied on polls, studies, and economic data to create ways to pompously tell rural and mid-Americans who they are, what they need, promising it all and seldom delivering.  They have rarely bothered to talk WITH and listen with understanding to rural and mid-Americans speaking for themselves.  If they had they would have discovered a much larger population of well informed, sophisticated persons, more conservative than liberal but not off the rails. They would have discovered people who know their local environment better than most coastal people know theirs. It doesn’t help that the political professionals who inhabit the D.C. arena tend to live in a self generated bubble in which they drink from an imaginary well of all important knowledge and wisdom, and spar with each other for power, position and recognition.

John Lewis called it “Good Trouble”.  It’s time for the rest of us to make some Good Trouble.   To fail to do so would be…….deplorable.