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Do Christians Really Have Three Gods?

The other day a friend wondered why we Christians have three gods, yet have the audacity to claim they’re one.  Years ago I was in an ecumenical group that included reform and conservative Jews who knew they could get us going in rhetorical circles by asking the same question.  I think they started the merry-go-round for the fun of it, especially if they were on the losing side of another argument.

Christianity is anchored in the Trinity: God known to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We may speak of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but there is only one God, not three.  It’s not a concept that fits any rational model most people would accept as valid.  God’s trinitarian existence can be inferred from scripture, but it’s not proclaimed in an overt way.  Many theologians over many centuries have done their best to explain it.  As brilliant as their work has been, circumstantial evidence is the best they’ve come up with.  The insurmountable obstacle has always been the impossibility of feeble human minds to dissect the inner workings of God, although that’s exactly what’s been tried time and again.

One might wonder where the concept of Trinity came from in the first place.  My take is this: the oneness of God was never in doubt for the first generations of Christians.  What they knew for certain was that God was truly and fully present in Jesus, and through him the fullness of God’s intentions for creation were made known.  As the faith spread to lands where the god of the Jews, Jewish history and Jewish ways were unknown, the whole thing had to be explained from the beginning making sense to Greek and Roman ways of thinking.  And it had to be explained in ways that exposed their pantheons of gods as not only false, but having no existence at all.  

That meant explaining who God is and how Jesus is related to God by using terms and reasoning understood by Greek and Roman philosophers, which is more or less what Christianity’s central creed, The Nicene Creed, tries to do.  Developed in the 4th century over more than fifty years, it can never be said to anticipate a 21st century audience, but it remains the pivot around which Christian theology rotates.  Explaining God and Jesus was not enough.  Christians have always been aware that God’s imminent and intimate presence is still with us, even if Jesus isn’t.  Drawing from abundant biblical evidence of God’s spirit active in the affairs of humans, the Holy Spirit was included in the Creed.

God’s own self revelation has come to us through prophets, in Jesus, and with the here but not seen power of God for us.  For lack of better words, we call them Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It creates a few problems for modern ears.  Father, for instance.  It does not and cannot mean that God is a male, much less and bearded old man somewhere in the heavens.  All the painted images we’re so familiar with are imitations of the Greek Zeus and Roman Jupiter.  I’m sorry they ever got used because they implanted a misleading image we can’t seem to get rid of.  Jesus called God his father to describe a relationship that today we would call genetic – Jesus is of God.  No one else ever was.  No one else ever will be.  Again, for lack of a better word, he is God’s son.  The word doesn’t really work, but it’s the best we’ve got.  

He called God father, so we do too, but God is neither male nor female.  It’s not God’s problem.  Our language isn’t up to the task, and our heritage of relationships dominated by patriarchy doesn’t help.  Humans are created in God’s image, male, female and everything between, so there is something about the godly image in us that has nothing to do with sex.  What could it be?  I think it has to do with our ability to create, to think things never before thought, and bring them into existence: art, literature, scientific theory, inventions, etc.  But I digress.

Trying to define the internal life of God, the mechanics of God’s existence as it were, is impossible.  It hasn’t stopped generations of theologians from trying, but it’s a fool’s errand.  It’s better to accept God as presented, and allow the mystery to be a part of it.  As a trinitarian Christian, I’m content to know that God has been made known to us as God, God in Jesus, and God’s Spirit with us.  Calling God Father, as Jesus did, helps illuminate God’s generative, loving relationship with creation.  God as Holy Spirit acknowledges that God remains actively engaged in the life of this world.  And, for me, God as Son is, as John the Evangelist proclaimed, the Word of God made flesh.  He is, therefore, not a prophet or sage but the living presence of God in earthly life.  As John reports Jesus to have said to Phillip, one of his followers, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14)  I’m content with that.

How Can You Believe That Stuff?

Sometimes I get questions from two sides on the same subject.  From non-believing friends it’s: “How can you, as a reasonably intelligent, well educated person, be a Christian.  I mean, do you really believe all that stuff?”  From certain conservative evangelical and fundamentalist friends it’s: “How can you claim to be Christian and buy into intellectual secularism that denies the authority of God’s Word?”

My usual response is to say this will take a while, how much time do you have?  

One thing needs to be dismissed at the outset. Being a Christian doesn’t require an emotional conversion experience where one accepts Jesus as one’s personal lord and savior. I find it a facile formula of low validity. On the other hand a personal experience of exposure to God’s imminent presence in the blinding light of pure love leaves little doubt about God’s reality. Those who have experienced it seldom talk about it. There are a lot of imitators out there. Too many believers are rooted in magical thinking, and juvenile understandings of their religion. There’s no point in getting mixed up with them.

So moving on, for a long time it seemed that God was used to explain mysteries that couldn’t be explained in other ways.  As human knowledge grew through advances in math and science, mysteries became well understood facts that pushed the need for God farther toward the edge until there was no more need for God at all.  At least that’s how the story often goes.  I think it’s wrong.  As human knowledge has probed ever deeper into the way things are, the mystery has deepened, and God appears not at the edges, but in the center.  It’s not the same thing as arguing for intelligent design.  It’s more an argument in favor of processes set into motion by divine intention.  The universe, it turns out, is bursting with fecundity and chance, full of possibilities, successes and failures, with God free to engage or not as God chooses.  It’s not offered as a proof for God, because I have none, but it is offered as proof that human knowledge is in its infancy and utterly incapable of disproving God.  

My denomination, Episcopalian (Anglican), finds no inconsistency between science and faith, and delights in all that we are able to discover.  What is more difficult for the modern mind is the idea of spiritual reality existing with material reality.  It’s a recent phenomenon dating from the expulsion of ignorant superstitions from the rational mind of the Enlightenment.  They needed to be expelled, but they’ve never been erased.  People hang onto them for reasons deeper than ignorance or naivety.  For as long as humans have existed, they have had an awareness of spiritual reality as a part of daily life.  Spiritual reality is a form of being that is present in living things, souls for instance, but just as present in inanimate things, and on its own apart from things.  American Indians have a strong sense of the spiritual that is present in nature.  In Hawaii it’s rude to enter certain places without first honoring the spirit that is part of it.  Some of us are aware of thin places, places that can come into and go out of existence where the separation between the spiritual and material worlds is thin.  One way or another, every culture has an idea of the holy, the spiritual reality that has a special interest in humanity.  To be sure, there is an enormous variety of ways in which the idea has been manifested in religions, gods, and epic mythologies.  The point is that for millennia in every culture, spiritual reality was taken for granted because it was experienced in daily life.  Enlightenment rationality undermined superstitions that needed to go, but the popularity of fantasy entertainment and fads demonstrates that even the most adamant  rationalist can’t avoid having an awareness of the spiritual.  

The Judeo-Christian tradition, of which I am a part, believes God has revealed God’s self through prophets and sages, which for Christians, reached its climax in Jesus, whom we know to be the full presence of God revealed in human form.  For us, it banishes all superstition and fantasy.  Curiously, revelation of divine presence in Jesus had nothing to do with explaining away the mysteries of the world that science can explain through verifiable reasoning, and everything to do with guiding us toward justice, harmony, healing, reconciliation, peace, and a fuller more blessed life for us and for all of creation.  It may be, as the ancient Greek poet Aratus wrote, “in him we live and move and have our being,” but God is not simply the source of being; God is the source of loving care for all creation, you and me included.  

Theology, the philosophical discipline of understanding the relationship between God and creation, seeks to discover first the meaning of truth, and more particularly the truth about good, evil, and all that lies between. And second, if such and such is what we say is true about God, how can human minds find a way to understand it. As St. Anselm said, it’s faith seeking understanding. It can never find the end because what we are able to know is always changing, exposing us to exponential growth in what we don’t know. Speaking for myself, I know that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh; everything else is provisional.

There are Christian leaders who assert they know the absolute truth, and reject any deviation from it.  They’re wrong, and frequently so foolishly wrong they become objects of ridicule who bring disrepute on Christianity as a whole.  Not all of them are conservative fundamentalists.  Some are liberal thinkers who wander off in strange directions pursuing a god they’ve invented for themselves.   But I digress.

The point is that, as a reasonably intelligent and well educated person who has been willing to dig into history, philosophy, theology and the sciences, I am convinced of God’s being, and believe that God is most fully revealed in Jesus, whom I try to follow.  Moreover, I believe that what is spiritual and what is material are part of a whole that is the fabric of the universe.  How other religions may fit into God’s work is unknown to me, but I reject whatever in them is unable to accommodate God’s love for all of creation.

“But,” say my interlocutors, “how could you, how could you?  Can’t you see the injustice and inhuman violence done in Christ’s name throughout the ages?”  Yes, I can see them.  They have been, and continue to be, sinful outrages against everything revealed to us about God through Jesus.  They are outrages humans have and continue to commit against one another in the name of many gods and beliefs because we are arrogant, selfish, greedy, fearful creatures who choose not to listen to God.  Don’t blame God for who we have made ourselves to be.  Pay attention to God as revealed in Jesus.  Undertake the work of divine healing, as best you can, in the part of the world where you are.  You aren’t perfect, so don’t expect to be.  

Donne, Trump & Truth

John Donne (1572-1631) has a way of sneaking up on me from time to time.  I was using a portion of his Satire #3 for another article, a portion that has often counseled me through times of doubt as I struggle to understand the world around me.  Doubt is something we all deal with about nearly everything in our fast paced world.  Anyway, the other article was about religion, but as I reread Donne it occurred to me that he spoke directly to our contemporary political culture as clearly as he spoke to his own.  And that’s where this article came from.

Donne’s English is enough different from ours that some years ago I reworded this part to make it more palatable to the modern ear, and more useful in adult Christian education classes.  You should read Donne yourself in his own words, but here is my updated version intended to spark more conversation about American politics. 

Truth and falsehood are near twins, yet truth is the elder.  Work hard to seek her.  Believe me this, you are not nothing or worse to seek the best.  To adore, or scorn an image (statues and paintings in church), or protest.  All may be bad, but doubt wisely.  In a strange way to stand inquiring is not to stray. To sleep, or run wrong, is.  

On a huge hill, cragged and steep, truth stands, and if you will reach her you must take a twisting trail.  What the hill makes difficult must be overcome.  Strive hard before age, death’s twilight, deprives you of your strength.  Do not delay. Do it now.  Hard deeds, bodily pains, difficult study, are the work that needs to be done.  

The mysteries of truth are like the sun, dazzling, blinding, yet plain to all the eyes.  When you have found truth, keep it.  Ordinary men are not so ill served by God that he has signed blank charters for kings to kill whom they hate.  They are not vicars of Christ but hangmen of fate.  Don’t be a fool, a wretch, and let your soul be tied to their laws, a slave to kings’ powers.  You will not be tried by them on the last day.

On judgement day will it do you any good to say that Phillip (King of Spain), Gregory (pope), Harry (Henry VIII), or Martin (Luther) taught you this or that? Before God their disputes are mere contraries, maybe equally wrong. Isn’t that what they claim – that each of the others is wrong? Maybe they all are.

So that you may obey kings rightly, know their bounds, their history, their nature, and their names.  Know how they’ve changed.  Humbling yourself before them is idolatry.  A king’s power is like a stream, and those who prosper in its gentle backwaters lose their roots in the greater law of God. When the tyrant rages, alas, they are driven through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost consumed, going into the sea where all is lost.  And thus also perish the souls who choose for themselves unjust power, who claim to have it from God.  Trust in God himself, not them. 

Consider that last part, “So that you may obey kings rightly, know their bounds, their history, their nature, and their names.  Know how they’ve changed”  

When I watch the crowds at Trump rallies, I don’t see people interested in obeying Trump rightly, knowing his bounds, believing his history, understanding his nature, or from whence he came.  I see people who have become idolators worshiping at the feet of a despotic man who basks in their adulation, yet cares nothing for them.  It’s all he wants from them.  He feeds on their homage like a vampire feeds on his victim’s blood.  His ego demands it.  He can’t live without it.  As long as they humble themselves before him, he’s content until his gnawing hunger for more leads him to another rally.  

Promising everything and delivering nothing, yet they remain loyal for reasons that dismay me.  Believing he will make them free and prosperous, they surrender their freedom and their prosperity to his authoritarian ways.  What’s worse, certain leaders claiming to be Christian have assumed for themselves unjust power, claiming to have it from God, and presume to confer it on Trump.

Are rallies for others any different?  I think they are.  It isn’t simply that the candidates themselves speak in full sentences with considerable knowledge about the issues.  Those attending may express passionate support for Joe, Bernie, Elizabeth, Pete, or Amy, but no two rallies are the same for any candidate.  The mood at each is unique; participants freely express widely differing thoughts on important matters.  Unquestioned loyalty is neither demanded nor expected.  Of course the candidates have sizable egos or they wouldn’t be running, but they sublimate them to earn the peoples’ trust, and in the interest of the greater good.  

In the end will it do you any good to say that Donald, or Mitch, or Bernie, or Elizabeth taught you this or that?  Before God their disputes are mere contraries, maybe equally wrong.  Isn’t that what they claim – that each of the others is wrong?  Maybe they all are.

This year brings many doubts, and Donne’s good counsel helps.  But about one matter I have no doubt.  I have no doubt that Trump is a bumbling authoritarian narcissist who, claiming to know more about everything than anybody, knows little and is unable to anticipate the consequences of his gut inspired actions.  For that reason alone he’s dangerous, and needs to be defeated.  As for Mitch, I have no doubt that he’s sold his soul in a faustian deal, and using his considerable skills works to manipulate government toward the plutocracy he favors.  

How to best evaluate the others continues to be a search for truth on a twisting trail.  Any of them  would be an improvement, but one of them will be the right one for our time.  Which?

Trying To Make Sense of Suleimani

As with many, I’m struggling to make sense of Suleimani’s assassination.  It’s not a simple matter, even for those of us who try to follow world affairs as well as we’re able.  It wasn’t an assassination because that’s against the law, so says the administration.  But it sure looks like one.  

Yes, but he’s responsible for the deaths of many Americans, says the administration.  

We all agree that’s true, but we’ve been engaged in war like conflict in the region since 1990, that’s thirty years during which we also have been responsible for uncounted deaths, including a few too many “Oops, terribly sorry, didn’t mean to bomb that wedding” incidents.

Yes, but we’re the good guys, says the administration.

I would like to think so, and Iran has tried hard to live up to its bad boy reputation.  But a quick look at a map of U.S. military installations surrounding Iran, and they do surround it, suggests Iranians may not agree that we’re the good guys.  Nations dislike being surrounded by military bases of an imperial power.  Who’s the enemy among enemies depends on whose side one is on, and let’s face it, we’re the occupying army.  There has never been a beloved occupying army, never in the history of empires. 

Well, he had it coming because he fought dirty with diabolical IEDs, ragtag militias, and alliances with any disaffected terrorist he could find.  

It’s pretty much the same thing British commanders said about American revolutionaries in 1776.  It’s the way small countries fight big ones.  Consider what the Roman tribune said to Paul when he was arrested in Jerusalem: “Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” (Acts 21) 

None of that makes Suleimani an honorable man, and there is some evidence his public relations staff had burnished his reputation far beyond credulity, leaving some Iranian leaders suspicious of his political intentions.

Trump says he ordered the killing because of an imminent threat that has now been stopped.  I wonder.  In 2012 he tweeted up a storm predicting Obama would go to war with Iran to boost his chances of wining reelection.  It didn’t happen then, but in 2020 Trump appears to be following the script he wrote to boost his own chances at reelection.  Some of my right wing friends love it.  It’s the kind of “We’ll show them, and they’ll learn not to mess with us” bravado that demonstrates American toughness.  No more of this namby-pamby diplomacy that Pompeo labeled as Obama “trying to buy them off.”  

Where does that kind of thinking come from?  I said to a few others that Trump chose the Dirty Harry option, believing it would make him look like a Clint Eastwood character full of virtue and violence acting as judge, jury and executioner.  But as Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” which it appears Trump doesn’t.  It’s not just Dirty Harry, it’s the macho imagery of every action and super hero movie where virtuous, lethal revenge is equated with justice, and in the end all is well.  Revenge, lethal or not, is neither virtuous nor just, and it never ends well.  Tough guy swagger from politicians is cover for a lack of courage and wisdom.

Four years ago Iran was adhering to the terms of a nuclear agreement it had made with an alliance of Western nations.  They were being eased back into the community of nations.  Their economy was prospering as it hadn’t for years.  Ordinary Iranians were experiencing political and economic freedom in new ways.  The government was still sponsoring terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, but the West held all the economic cards that could force them in another direction.  Trump ended the agreement, reimposed sanctions, and alienated our Western allies.  So here we are. Now what?

I have no idea.  The ideal of Iranian self respect may demand an eye for an eye: the assassination of some top American.  A cable news commentator listed a dozen other options involving attacks on various installations, oil fields, etc.  Cooler heads in Tehran may prevail as they consider the consequences.  I hope so.  

In the meantime, maybe, at long last, Republican leaders will show some backbone, and take a firm stand against escalation of armed conflict we can’t win, can’t get out of with dignity, and don’t know what victory means.  Maybe, at long last, conventional conservatives will wake up to recognize this president is not a conservative and not worthy of their support.  Maybe, at long last, some who looked to Trump to save the white middle class will realize he never intended to, and doesn’t really care about them.  Maybe, at long last, some conservative evangelicals will realize he’s not one of them, not even a Christian in any recognizable way.

What about Trump’s hard core base?  They bought into his dream world, and they’ll stick with it.  Remember Hillary’s basket of deplorables?  They’re in it. 

God-Sent-Signs

The New Year is always a time for signs, but what kind?

Farmers read signs in soil and sky.  Sailors read signs in wind and water.   I wonder, do city dwellers have a harder time reading signs because there is so much competition among them for the limited attention one can give at a glance?  The next week or two will be filled with articles in the media offering signs about the year ahead, with politics and the economy dominating prognostications. 

Humans have always wanted signs that predict the future, or validate plans of action.  What will the winter bring, who will win the battle, will my plan work, what is the right thing for me to do?  What are the signs to show the way?  I suppose our signs are more sophisticated than our ancestors’ bones, clouds, chicken guts, and oracles.  After all, to conjure up our signs we have computers, algorithms, and data sets, all very rational in a Spock like way.  Whether they’re more accurate is another question.  My guess is one’s as good as the other.  

We’re coming to the Feast of the Epiphany, the day on which we remember the wise men arriving in Bethlehem with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the new born king.  They had seen a sign in the sky, a star said to be that of a newborn king of the Jews.  What could it mean?  Where would it lead?  What would they find?  It took both curiosity and courage to follow it into the unknown.  

Signs from God are like that.  They’re unexpected, unusual, and call those who see them to follow where they lead into the unknown.  But they have several things in common.  They’re always in the direction of greater love, greater inclusion, and for building up that which is good.  God’s signs come to those to whom they’re sent.  One can’t just wander into the local sign store to cast lots, read tea leaves, or see what the latest computer projection has to say.  Abraham heard an unknown voice, and followed where it led.  Moses saw a burning bush, and went to see what it was all about.  The Shepherds saw angels in the sky, and went to see this thing that had happened.  The wise men saw a star, and followed it.  None of them asked for it.  The signs came to them, and they had the courage to follow where they led.

Signs from God are like that, but it doesn’t stop us from demanding more easily understood signs to guide decisions we already know we have to make.   Gideon laid out his fleece, priests and prophets cast lots to guide kings into battle, and the apostles cast lots to see who would replace Judas.  Were any of them genuine godly signs?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Who knows?  Either way, we have not given up asking for signs to guide us in our own day.  Asking for signs, and thinking about godly signs in that way, obscures our ability to see the more important signs, the ones God initiates, that are unexpected, that demand to be followed into the unknown.  Religious leaders in Jesus’ day demanded that he show them a sign, one of the usual expected signs they might recognize.  He didn’t because he was the sign.  He came unexpectedly, he invited others to come and see this thing that had happened, and to follow him.  Follow him where?  To the cross and beyond?  How crazy was that? 

I wonder how observant we are of the signs about us that call us to come, see and follow.  They’ll be unexpected.  We can’t anticipate a replay of the burning bush, angels in the sky, or a new star.  But they’ll be unusual, a curiosity out of place attracting our attention, if.  If we’re willing to see them, which I suspect we’re not much inclined to do.  We’re more inclined to like predictability, a little excitement but not too much.  Even chaotic, out of control lives can feel normal compared to following a God sent sign that probably no one else can see. 

The common assumption is that God-sent-signs call people into an intensely religious life.  They certainly call people into a life of greater intimacy with God, but Abraham kept on being a herder of livestock, the shepherds went on keeping sheep, and the wise men went back home to continue being wise.  David became a king, Isaiah a prophet, and Nehemiah a governor.  Who’s to say the greater number of God-sent-signs don’t call people to be teachers, executives, politicians, firefighters, cops, farmers or fishermen?  But always for an unexpected God-sent-purpose plunging one into the unknown with no guarantee other than “Trust me, do not be afraid, go where I send you.”

When we look for signs, and we do look for them, we tend to scan the environment, watch body language, read horoscopes, watch the Dow Jones, and dive into the latest polls.  We ask our friends, seek therapy, and hire personal coaches.  We interpret the usual signs from our experience, learning, prejudices, gut feelings, and public pressure.

When God sends a sign, it comes out of the nowhere, unbidden, and odd.  It may be why it can go unseen.  It’s the old problem of the Black Swan that couldn’t be seen because everyone knew there were no such things as  Black Swans.  I wonder how many signs there have been that we have not seen.  I wonder whether there are ways for us to be better at seeing them, and having seen to go where they lead, remembering that they are always in the direction of greater love, greater inclusion, and for building up that which is good.

American Democracy Under Threat

American democracy is threatened by the political trajectory first set by Senator McConnell during the Obama years when he blocked legislation, most judicial confirmations, and outrageously refused to consider Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court.  He removed the Senate from its tradition as a deliberative legislative body, and made it into a sledge hammer of opposition.  It’s a threat accelerated by the Trump administration, which, in spite of emotional appeals to working class folk, shows little concern for, or knowledge of, conditions favoring economic and social well being for them.  

Until recently McConnell’s mastery of political skills has enabled him to avoid too much public scrutiny.  He’s been hard to pin down, even in the harsh glare of social media and cable news.  Trump, on the other hand, is a showman, a practiced con man, whose schtick is constructed out of wildly exaggerated claims and promises about whatever enters his mind, backed by insulting contempt for anyone crossing him.  He’s impossible to avoid.  His morning tweets make headlines in spite of their inanity.  His carnival sideshow rallies and impromptu “chopper talks” display the wandering mind of an ignorant man who, nevertheless, is laser focussed on what will feed his ego and sell well to his followers.  It’s a bizarre combination of traits.

While McConnell has enriched himself, becoming a multimillionaire on the coattails of his wife’s family – bearing the odor of congressional insider trading – he’s been able to maintain a patina of good breeding and decent standing amongst the D.C. social elite.  Trump, on the other hand, makes no pretense of good breeding.  Having been rejected by the society of New York’s wealthy elite, he makes do with the adoration of his base, the unreliable loyalty of aides and associates, and his well honed ability to publicly humiliate anyone who displeases him.

Together, they’ve made themselves demigods of right wing libertarianism: the low tax, small government ideology that’s replaced authentic conservatism without most conservatives recognizing what happened.

What dismays me are the reasonably well informed acquaintances who would never tolerate a Trump like coworker whose integrity, trustworthiness and abilities were as corrupt as his, yet remain his solid supporters.  They’re convinced that, apart from his boorish behavior, he’s done great things for the country.  They dream of a libertarian dominated America as the best of all possible worlds: a paradise of limited government, low taxes, strong military, and self sufficient people living peacefully on their own plot of land.  It’s a compelling Jeffersonian dream.  They tend to hold the social values of mid 20th century middle class white America as sacred.  They believe they’re the values into which others, regardless of race or ethnicity, should aspire to live, and they’re genuinely appalled that anyone would think that racist.  They’ve been indoctrinated by talk radio and Fox News to believe anything labeled liberal or progressive is thinly disguised far left socialism intent on invading private lives, ending American capitalism, and appropriating private property.  To give them academic credibility, they have a small collection of right wing think tanks, schools like Hillsdale College, and writers like Dennis Prager.  Fearful it might all be taken away, they tolerate Trump as their last best defense.

The view that American democracy is vulnerable and under attack by the president and senate majority leader is in stark contrast to the view that American values are under attack by liberals and progressives.  Each side views centrists as doormats lying between the two poles.  Still, for the most part they are poles that could be in conversation with one another, leading to acceptable agreements that could work well enough.  And well enough may be as much as we can hope for.  

What happens when political leaders can’t be satisfied with well enough?  McConnell can’t, but he’s hemmed in by senate traditions, the Constitution, public scrutiny, and maybe even lingering loyalty to the principles of representative democracy.  He won’t compromise, but he’s limited in what he can accomplish.  Trump believes he’s not hemmed in by anything, neither tradition, the Constitution, nor public scrutiny.  He thinks he can do anything he wants, and has said so.  He has little understanding of the principles of representative democracy, and so little loyalty to them.  To the extent he can be hemmed in, it’s by his own incompetency, and the public scrutiny of impeachment that he hadn’t expected. 

Hemming in is not enough.  They need to go.  Both of them.  As soon as possible.  Government needs to be returned to the leadership of persons able to engage in conversation with those whose ideas are dramatically different from their own, persons who can negotiate workable agreements with each other.  Tea party and Freedom Caucus legislators need to be replaced with representatives who desire to serve the needs and interests of their states and districts in the context of what works best for the nation.  

Conservative voices are needed to check liberal excess. Liberal voices are needed to open doors to new ways toward better lives for more people.  Centrist voices are needed as a reality check on both. 

Judgment & the Golden Mean

Although we’re warned about judging others, we do it anyway, and not once in a while, but always.  We’re not very good at it, but that doesn’t stop us.  Psychologists like to remind us that we can’t possibly know what’s going on in the lives of most others we judge.  Our evidence is weak, our prejudice strong, and still our convictions are unshakable. It doesn’t stop us. 

Judgments can be mild, perhaps even affectionate, but more often they’re arrows and verbal hand grenades tossed at each other, causing harm even when none is intended.  Jesus cautioned us not to judge others lest we be judged and held accountable for it.  Yet we’re not excused from judging.  There are critical decisions we must make: judgment of persons, places, conditions and consequences.  Each day requires us to make them about the integrity, trustworthiness and abilities of others with whom we live, work, and encounter.  We can’t avoid it.  Whether or not we must, we also make judgments about people and issues more remote from our daily lives,  Some are important because the people and issues are important to the well being of communities and nations; others entertain our emotional needs and desires in good ways and bad.

There are three easy paths to making judgments.  One is to be a cynic, suspicious of everyone and everything, certain that every boon comes with a treacherous hook.  The second is to be a sentimentalist, naively unaware of threatening conditions and behavior, believing in the best of everybody.  Oddly enough, both are gullible, easily manipulated, and constantly make poor decisions with bad consequences.  Most of us are neither one nor the other, but wander about in between, sometimes leaning a little this way, sometimes the other.  Some relish being knee deep in conflict, others avoid it in any way they can.  

The third easy path is zealotry.  I’m writing this piece on the Feast of St. Stephen, a young man known to us from the 7th chapter of Acts where his unfettered zeal overriding good judgment ended in death by stoning.  His story introduced Saul (Paul) as being driven by an opposite but equally unfettered zeal overriding good judgment.  Saul eventually got knocked to the ground by Jesus’ sudden appearance in a blinding light.  Sternly lectured by the Lord, his zeal was transformed from a rabid desire to imprison and kill Christians, to teaching and leading them.  He learned to fetter his zeal (most of the time) and made better judgements for it.

Balance is the key.  It’s the Golden Mean of Pythagorus, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the middle way.  It’s a way often ridiculed in today’s politically polarized environment as standing for nothing, willing to compromise on everything, a way only the wishy-washy would choose.  Yet it’s the way through which better judgments for the greater good are made possible without being torpedoed by cynicism, sentimentality or zealotry.  It’s a way marked by an appropriate degree of patience, time for reflection, consideration of options and consequences, and determination to see things through.  It’s a way not easily sidetracked by polarizing emotional appeals, but seeks to find ground for workable answers to issues.  It’s a way that tries, as best it can, to truly see and understand the other, set aside its own prejudices, and make room for an acceptable range of variation.

Sometimes missed in the gospel record is how much time Jesus took to slow down, reflect and pray; how much time he took to listen carefully to others; and how much effort he put into teaching others to be both “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”  He established a pattern for others to follow.  As Christians who acknowledge his divinity, it is a pattern more than divinely inspired.  It’s instruction directly from the Word of God about how we are to think and act when making judgments about persons, places, conditions, and consequences.  

Saul, soon to be known as Paul, had to learn that the hard way.  As his letters attest, never a sentimentalist but sometimes falling back into cynicism and zealotry, he did the best he could.  If we are serious about following Jesus, we too must do the best we can to strike for the Golden Mean.  It requires judgment based on reason, a search for and testing of objective truth, a self awareness of our own values, beliefs and prejudices, and submission to God’s Way of Love.

It’s not a quest for perfection.  But with Paul as an example, and with compassion for our own weaknesses, we can do better.  It is, in my opinion, the only way through which we can help our society emerge from the extreme polarization experienced today.

I am troubled by: We can do better

I am troubled by – these words begin a number of my Facebook and Twitter posts.  Among other things, I am troubled by the civic life of our country subsumed under floods of ranting presidential tweets footnoted by spontaneous “Chopper Talk” press briefings that often devolve into rambling nonsense.  I am troubled by his cartoonish performances at rallies where there are no barriers between truth and fiction.  I am troubled because the way presidents present themselves helps set acceptable standards for public conversation in every coffee shop, bar, and social gathering.  All the more so in our age of real time coverage and unfiltered social networking that leaves little opportunity for studied reflection.

For instance, it’s now acceptable to use humiliating name calling as a conventional form of exchange on social media.  It’s now acceptable to define others by their most controversial characteristics.  That kind of behavior was always around.  Most of us grew out of it by the end of our high school years.  Those who didn’t seldom rose far in their chosen fields.  Relatively small sectors of the population adopted crude, humiliating, demeaning talk as language shared among themselves, I suppose as self defense against the hostile world they believed surrounded them.

Starting with talk radio and the tea party movement, growing with the freedom caucus in congress, and culminating with our current president, this form of crude public discourse has become normalized – just another way of expressing one’s legitimate opinions and feelings as protected by the First Amendment.  Moreover, led by the president, he and his supporters now claim to speak for the majority of Americans.  It’s given license to any and all, from whatever corner of the political world, to do the same. 

The anonymity one can claim on social media makes it safer to ‘troll’ others without fear of consequence.  It means conversation in the public forum about important issues is sure to be invaded by demeaningly hostile comments providing nothing useful.  Extending beyond social media, the same is just as likely to occur in gatherings where featured speakers are subject to verbal highjacking by loud, crude protesters demanding that their right to be heard outweighs anyone else’s right to be heard. 

The idea of decorum, politeness, and adhering to standards of propriety is too often dismissed as more than old fashioned.  It’s a sign of ‘snow flake’ weakness, an unwillingness to stand for what is right.  To expect public conversation about important issues to rise to a reasonable level of intellectual integrity and respect for one another is the vain hope of “an effete corps of impudent snobs,” to borrow a phrase from Spiro Agnew: he whose integrity was for sale to any bidder.

We can do better.  To allow ourselves to sink to such a low level is a national embarrassment that weakens our international standing, and tears at the soul and fabric of society.

I'm a Sap for Christmas

I’m a sap for Christmas. In my former parishes, never did I get through the opening solo of “Once in Royal David’s City” without a tearful thank you for yet another generation of young people, acolytes kneeling at the altar rail. At the little rural church I serve in retirement, never once have I made it through “Silent Night” sung in candlelight without a tearful thank you for the faithful service of this elderly congregation that never lets age get in its way.

Wondrous beyond words is the image of the Word made flesh lying as a newborn in rough conditions and threatening times, yet proclaimed by angels and adored by shepherds. 

And, yes, I’m the same guy who’s lectured about the historic origins of Christmas celebrations; the uncertainty of the place, date or time of year of Jesus birth; and the unpleasant news that Luke and Matthew can’t be harmonized into a fabulous Charlie Brown pageant.  

It’s true that Mark says nothing about the birth, and doesn’t begin the story of Jesus until his baptism when he was about 30 by John the Baptist.  John the Evangelist, also says nothing about the birth, and his story begins with the beginning when God began to create.  Only Matthew and Luke have anything to say, and they tell two very different stories about the birth.  I don’t think they invented them out of imagination.  I think the stories were old, their origins springing from the event itself.  However mutated they became through their telling and retelling, they nevertheless bore truth that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not long before Herod the Great died.  There was scandalous doubt about his parentage.  Locals who witnessed it told of strange, inexplicable events in the skies.

I don’t know why Mark had nothing to say about it.  Maybe he’d heard the stories in all their various forms too often, and deciding to skip what he could not resolve, got right to the heart of the matter –– the start of Jesus’ adult work.  John, on the other hand, was aware that Matthew and Luke had told their versions, so why repeat them.  It was more important for him to answer a different question: What do we mean when we say Jesus is the Son of God?

Maybe the larger question is why Matthew and Luke felt it necessary to include a birth narrative.  I’ll never know that answer either, but have a guess.  First, they had the stories.  Second, they may have thought Mark was wrong in not including them, especially since they were now writing for audiences living far away, unfamiliar with Judaean Judaism, and naturally curious about where Jesus came from.  Third, they may have thought the birth narrative was a necessary bookend to the resurrection narrative, which taken together, leave no doubt about who Jesus is as the Word made flesh.

I suppose we could discuss questions such as these for a long time, as previous generations have for centuries.  But it would lead us away from the awesome mystery of God’s incarnation in the most vulnerable way possible.  As others have in their times, our time seems dark and vulnerable.  Prophetic hope seems more remote than it did a few decades ago.  During the World Wars we had a clear understanding of who the enemies of peace were.  During the Cold War, we thought we did.  Today we’re in endless wars of no particular purpose or end.  Today we see the most threatening violence and strife not elsewhere, but within our nation.  Day and night we scan the world for enemies, but iniquity and trouble are within it; ruin is in its midst; oppression and fraud do not depart from our marketplaces (Ps. 55).  No need is so pressing that we cannot stop, reflect, and go to the manger to see this thing that has taken place.  What better time than this to “hush the noise and cease [our] strife and hear the angels sing.”  

We & They: Who are We? Who are They?

Who are we? Who are they?  The rise of ethnic nationalism may have something to do with how these questions are answered.

Every person has struggled with the question, who am I?  It can be answered only in the context of one’s life experiences among the people with whom one lives and works.  It means an equally important question will always be, who are we?  But who are we is usually answered in the context of, who are they?, the they who are not we.

I sent in for one of the cheap DNA tests to discover my heritage.  Raised a son of the Upper Midwest, it turns out I’m mostly British.  Given the successive waves of tribes that invaded the British Isles, and the cheap price I paid for the basic kit, little more can be said about my ethnic or racial ancestors.  Still, to be British, or more particularly, to be English, always meant to be among a certain class of we who were definitely not among the many they of continental Europe, or anywhere else.  It’s no longer true.  The Anglo-Saxon-Norman English can no longer be certain about who the we of England are.  Waves of immigration from former colonies and Eastern Europe mean a large population who cannot claim descent from centuries of life on the island, yet they’re citizens of the United KIngdom with all the rights and privileges thereof.  The mayor of London, for instance, traces his lineage to colonial India, and he’s not C of E but Sunni.

Perhaps Brexit should not be a surprise, but an expected move to recapture, as much as possible, the we-ness of being English according to the old standards.  Of course it’s a fool’s errand, but it’s not irrational.  The same can be said of most European countries.  Their long cherished national identity as a people sharing common ancestry is challenged by the influx of peoples whose skin color and religion are not theirs, and who trace their ancestry to far off places on other continents.

We Americans are a little different.  Proudly we claim to be a nation of immigrants –– with limitations.  My status as a WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) placed me in the center of those who controlled the stories of who we are as Americans.  I am among the we who established us as the standard to which all others were held.  Some of the others were were admitted to the circle of we if, after a time, they assimilated our ethos, and adopted our stories as theirs.  We had no objection to them retaining a few symbols of ethnic heritage, as long as they didn’t crowd out the dominance of our own.  Blacks, American Indians, Asians and most Hispanics never quite made the cut, not that we didn’t try with well meaning efforts to make them into honorary WASPs, sometimes against their will –– the Indian schools for instance.

It’s breaking down.  It’s been breaking down since the end of WWII.  WASPs no longer have the place of authority that once allowed them to set the rules of who we, as Americans, are.  Whites of whatever ethnicity or social class are no longer the sole arbiters of who is in and who is not.  Moreover, the stories we tell about our origins as a people are no longer limited to Pilgrims and pioneers.  I was struck by Ghana’s Year of Return (2019) that encouraged American blacks to discover their roots in Africa.  They hoped for settlement and investment, and got some of it, but mostly they got visitors who came to discover more about who they are.  Then they went home carrying with them new stories America’s origins that don’t begin in coastal slave markets, but don’t deny the reality of it.  In a similar way, American Indians have boldly asserted the right of their stories to a place of primacy as first peoples in America’s narrative.  The same is true of Hispanics whose ancestors settled the West long before other Europeans.  And consider those of Asian descent who were banned from entering the country or owning property, yet flourish as fully accredited Americans who don’t need to be accredited by anyone else.    

Curiously, the old WASPish standards retain influence.  Who we are as Americans tends to gravitate in that direction, but into that vortex come new stories and traditions creating a new narrative with more parts.  American history can no longer start in England with a parade of ships to Jamestown and Plymouth.  It has to include Ghana, China, Spanish America, and the Indian nations into which they came.  They won’t displace Jamestown and Plymouth, nor will they displace the Revolutionary War, Civil War, or westward push of European settlement.  But those stories will have to stand side-by-side with others that will diminish the luster with which they’ve been polished.  That’s OK.  We’ll polish up the new narrative to have its own luster.

In the meantime, it shouldn’t surprise us that a large part of the old time white population isn’t happy about losing their place, or being forced to accommodate a new narrative that includes others always treated as they, not we.  It’s what’s behind a lot of the tea party stuff and America First nationalism.  Nor should we be surprised at the angry impatience of some who demand their rightful status as members of we Americans, on their own terms, and without the need of anyone else’s permission.

There’s a lot of talk about the divisiveness in society, our polarization, and how E Pluribus Unum is disintegrating before our very eyes.  There is an unhealthy turn away from representative democracy toward authoritarianism aided by a racially segregated plutocracy.  I want to believe it is the last refuge of those committed to the old narrative, and that for all their bravado, they’re doomed to failure.  I want to believe we are feeling the birth pangs of a new narrative, a healthier more resilient narrative, that will give new life to a stronger democratic republic.