Our Need for Meaningful Questions

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Two middle school boys were enjoying a laugh and sharing a sense of superiority as they described how a woman had made a fool of herself by just standing in front of people and waving her arms around. Happily unaware of how much they didn’t know, they were describing the church’s choir director. Their judgment was of the type most absolute and self-assured because it was based upon undisturbed ignorance. It occurred to neither boy to ask what the choir director was doing and how it worked. They did not ask because they knew already all they cared to know. Nothing supports certitude so well as unquestioned ignorance.

So-called social media have become our society’s means for sharing thoughts and opinions. Leaving aside the ease with which these media enable the spread of misinformation and deliberate lies and leaving aside also the nastiness and absurdity in many of the comments made in the constant crossfire between left and right, I see a subtler problem in such easy and rapid communication. For inspiration and even insight, we use memes, a word apparently coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 to refer to that which is imitated. The meme became an element of culture or behavior passed by non-genetic means, especially imitation, and now refers to supposedly humorous or insightful tidbits passed around the Internet.

I admit that I see memes I appreciate. Some I even “like” on Facebook. But after having scrolled down Facebook’s endlessly replenished succession of postings, I find myself feeling a mental sogginess. Many of the memes I see posted have not even been checked for spelling and grammar let alone for coherence of thought or fidelity to the complexities and struggles of human life. Many pretend to be wise without even being thoughtful. Worse, some pass judgment upon people without any evidence of understanding them. What presents itself as decisive and authoritative is, rather, carelessly dismissive. Suddenly, I am back in the room with two preteen boys pontificating without knowledge about the foolishness of directing a choir.

Because theology continues to be my life’s struggle and quest, I notice especially the pronouncements for and against what people think they know of religious faith. For example:

It’s possible to be a good person without being religious.
God is not real because God cannot be proved.
If it weren’t for religions, we wouldn’t have wars.
Religious people are hypocrites.
All religions are the same.
“Etc., etc., and so forth,” as the king says in the musical.

Consider just the first one: “It’s possible to be a good person without being religious.” I recognize the self-defense here against condemnations from other people or from the speaker’s own conscience, and I sympathize. People who break free from the belief moorings of family or society or just slip loose and drift away get criticized, sometimes condemned, maybe even shunned. But freedom requires good questions asked and pursued if soggy minds and shallow lives are to be avoided.

What is religion, and what is it to be religious? Consider that biblical Hebrew lacks a word for religion. I would take that lack as a hint that we are dealing here with a concept somewhat foreign to the biblical faiths. Most theologians I read use the word religion more often in the negative, in contrast with the life of trust and discipleship lived and shared within communities of faith. The concern of the many and varied books of the Bible is life, not religion, and biblically understood life is created to be relational. The goal is the restoration of our denied relation to God and relatedness with each other and all creation. In contrast, religion has often served in practice as people’s attempts at gaining security from God (or the gods) and as rulers’ means for controlling societies by making the systems in place seem sacred. The God to whom the Bible bears witness cannot be controlled but can be trusted and obeyed in trust. This God disrupts the systems of power, frees captives, cares for the vulnerable, restores the lost, and reconciles the estranged. This God loves the world and will neither give it up nor enslave it.

What is good? This question is not simple, and while simple answers may be helpful (or harmful) as starting points, they will not take us very far without more effort at thinking. Is the good whatever feels good to me? Is it whatever might make me superior to someone else? Is it virtue? Kindness? When he was addressed as “good teacher,” Jesus of Nazareth replied: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God only.” What is goodness, and what would it mean for me or anyone to be a good person?

What is a person? Am I a person all by myself, such that being a good or bad person could be a self-contained matter of me and me alone? Is it possible for me to diminish or even lose my personhood? Can it be regained or restored? Can the way I am a person be changed, healed, forgiven? Can the person I am be known? Understood? Loved? Can I myself know the person I am? Understand the person I am? Forgive that person? Love that person?

Maybe because I am rereading Douglas John Hall’s book, Thinking the Faith,” I am taking extra notice of the superficiality of our social media conversation-by-meme. Hall writes: “Undoubtedly the existence of God, which is presupposed by biblical religion, is a vital concern for many of our contemporaries; but a much more immediate concern is whether our own existence has any purpose in it!” (326)

Learning comes through asking good questions and pursuing them, not by memorizing answers, let alone by picking the correct answer from a short list of choices. Yes, theology is thinking the faith but as such must not become merely explaining or defending doctrines but thinking life. And thinking life is not at all the same as the modern technological drive to make life artificially legible, manageable, and exploitable but is a matter of wonder that engages us with life and all the living with humility, empathy, and gratitude.

We have lived through a time called modern when we took for granted that we could prove or disprove what were presented as facts and that truth would be the sum of all the proven facts. We let ourselves imagine that the existence of God was the religious question we needed to prove, disprove, dismiss, or just ignore. But what (if anything) does it matter that I exist? What does it matter to me that you exist as you, a person distinct from me? What does it mean that you are distinct from me (a person in your own right) but not unrelated to me (not a person of no concern)? What is it to you and to me that God knows and loves each of us and both of us together, and not only us but all people, all creatures, and the whole of creation? The question is not, “How can I be a good person?” but how are we to keep becoming human in relation to God, each other, ourselves, the non-human creatures, and all of God’s creation? Within that overarching question, I may find and keep finding answers for what it means for me to be a person.

Anything I Want to Be?

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You Can Be Anything You Want to Be
The Help and Harm in this Common Saying

The Nonsensical

Taken literally, this popular word of encouragement would be ridiculous. If I had wanted to become an opera singer, could I have done so through persistence? I can’t carry a tune, and worse, I don’t usually even hear myself singing off key. I wonder whether I even hear all the music other people hear. Could there be a musical equivalent of partial color blindness? To believe I could have become an opera singer or any kind of singer would have required severe delusion. Maybe I should have wanted to play football in the NFL or basketball in the NBA. Why should I let factors such as size and insufficient athleticism stop me, if after all, I could be anything I wanted to be?

The Helpful

In reasonable usage, the saying is meant to lift imposed restrictions and break through unnecessary barriers. “A girl can’t be an engineer.” “A woman can’t become president of the United States.” “A black girl can’t become a ballet dancer (this bias featured in one episode of the television series, “Fame”). Many barriers have been breached already, but a breached wall does not let through everyone who wishes to pass and could pass through it but for artificially imposed restrictions. Because some have pioneered does not guarantee that many others are not impeded still. The true import of the saying is to tell the person she or he has the right to pursue any (legal) goal she or he is able to pursue when freed from the unreasonable restrictions of societal prejudice, parental authoritarianism, religious regulation, or unjust laws.

Girls don’t climb trees (even though many do). Men don’t wash dishes (even though many do). I recall reading somewhere that during the apartheid years in South Africa, white students had a difficult time earning money to help pay for a university education because the jobs available to students in other countries were closed to them because they were white and those jobs were considered beneath their status. For them, prejudice backfired, but the real issue was the limiting of non-white South Africans to those menial, poorly paid jobs. If a white student couldn’t clean floors or tables, neither could a black or “colored” person qualify for jobs restricted to white South Africans.

So, the helpful word in the saying, “You can be anything you want to be,” is its call to freedom and dignity. You are not born to be a slave to repressive forces; neither are you restricted to whatever other people decide you must be. With commitment and diligence, you may become who and what you can be, according to your capabilities and your own preferences, or at least you have the right to try.

The Blaming

If it is taken to be true that I can be anything I want to be if only I apply myself thoroughly and persistently, am I not thereby condemned for my failures, no matter their causes? More broadly, if groups of people within a prosperous society fail to prosper, are they not thereby proved to be lazy, shiftless, and of no account? More broadly still, can we not suppose that all earth’s poor are self-made failures? If it is true that anyone can be anything she or he wants to be, then nothing external can stop us – no oppression, discrimination, cruelty, deprivation, or violence – but only our own lack of ambition.

Here the saying that can be inspirational becomes, instead, a judgment of the successful upon the unsuccessful, the rich upon the poor, the happy upon the miserable. It says to them, “Don’t complain! Whatever is holding you back from success is your own fault! No one can keep you down but you yourself. You are a loser of your own making.”

Like other maxims of the rich and powerful, this one is a convenient lie designed to make privilege appear to be self-propelled attainment and greed appear to be virtue. Many of the accepted beliefs in prosperous societies, including their religious beliefs, have been developed to favor those enjoying privilege, prestige, and power and to maintain the status quo by keeping the repressed in their assigned places.

For Me

Because of the faith commitment that has claimed me from childhood and been renewed repeatedly throughout my life, my question about my future could never be simply, “Who do I want to be, and what do I want to do with the life given to me?” but rather, “Who am I called to be and become, and what am I called to seek and to do?” It would be pretentious and self-deceiving to say my own desires have had nothing to with my life-answers to those questions, as it would be silly to suggest my capabilities and limitations played no part. There has been no blueprint for my personhood or road map for my seeking, learning, failing, succeeding, floundering, and advancing along the winding path.

Because biblically and for me truly, life is relational, the questions of who to be and what to do have never been allowed an isolated, individualized answer. I am or have been many people to various others: son, brother, classmate, husband, father, friend, pastor, student, stranger, opponent, colleague, neighbor, fellow, and so on. All by myself without even memory of relatedness to other people, I would no one and nothing I wanted to be, but that truth applies to all of us whether we know it or not. Biblical understanding of faith promotes relational concerns to the forefront of aspirations for self and life.

Have I always wanted to be who I was and what I am? No, and neither have I always held unqualified gratitude for what I have believed myself called to do. I wonder if anyone of us truly and without reservation likes himself or herself. I cannot even imagine being thoroughly satisfied with who I have become so far and what I have done with the time, life, friendship, abilities, experiences, and love I have been given. The notion of having no regrets is lost on me.

Vocation

In Christian church history, vocation came to mean a special religious calling away from the world, apart from the people (the laity). Biblically, however, to be chosen means to be called out by God from the people, the many, for the purpose of service to the people. Even a king is a shepherd, called to take care of the people and see to justice and compassion that faithfully represent God’s own justice and compassion. Being a prophet came to mean, for the great prophets, being called to live in sympathetic vibration of the soul with God’s pathos – God’s intense and vital love for the people and the creation – while, at the same time empathizing with the people and standing with them and for them before God.

Martin Luther protested the division between the vocations (priests and nuns) and the laity. He insisted that all Christians are called so that all can and should see and live their lives as vocations. Here the word vocation is not limited to a trade, art, or profession – to a job – but defines a whole life lived as a person called by Christ to follow him for the sake of the world and its people whatever the job, marital status, ability, disability, or path. Here life is a gift given with each breath but also a calling renewed each new day.

In practice, however, the idea of a calling or vacation can be degraded right back to prescribed duty, place, and station. The whole idea of the saying, “You can be anything you want to be,” is to break the restrictions imposed upon a person by society, parents, custom, or religion. So, for the one who believes herself (or himself) called to follow and to serve, becoming who I am to be is not just a struggle between ego and calling but a three-way struggle among ego, suppression of the self, and calling.

Because life is relational, maturing happens in continuous tension between the need for personal freedom and the need for acceptance by others and belonging with them. Vocation or calling adds a vertical dimension to this tension, but I think it is a serious mistake to imagine that the vertical (between God and the self) eliminates the tension between freedom and belonging, as though God dictated my choices and told me which way to go at every turn. I hear people declare, “God told me to do such and such,” and I fear that such passing upward of all human responsibility provides a dangerous opening for magical thinking and self-deception. The so-called prosperity gospel plays upon just such thinking and self-deception, does it not?

Conclusion

The saying, “You can be anything you want to be,” clearly should not be taken literally and simplistically. I could not have become an opera singer or a pro athlete. Plus, there are always trade-offs. Could I become a good, published writer? Maybe, but only with a lot of work in isolation from other people. Am I willing to give up much of life’s interaction to strive to show something of life with words (not just tell about it)? In the tensions and choices of living, almost every gain has a corresponding loss.

To me, the saying functions best as a hammer to break chains or a pry bar to open boxes of confinement into which people have been placed. It protests confinement and restriction, opening new possibilities. As such, it can do good.

Danger comes from self-delusion or just selfishness. Life is not given to me so I can be all about what I want. Having it all, as people say of supposed success, is a trap in which the self is snared by taking all to itself. The greater harm is done by blaming the repressed for their own repression. We’ve heard more lately of this vicious nonsense: only weak women get abused. Once again, insult is added to injury as the powerful dismiss the protests of the victimized.

For the Christian I must add that following Jesus Christ does not excuse me from making choices, struggling with responsibilities, and thinking for myself. There is a big difference between thinking for myself and thinking only of myself. Unthinking faith is a contradiction in terms. As Augustine declared and the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall insists, belief seeks understanding. I must put my trust in Christ, but I may not pass off to him my responsibility for myself, my life, and my service.

The helpful force of the saying seems to me now especially important for girls who much too long and far too imperiously have been told what they must (and must not) do and who they may be. Not only girls but especially girls. Not only the young but especially the young. Not only people in minorities but they especially.

[References available for Heschel, Hall, and the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (biblical Hebrew word for “chosen”).  The footnotes didn’t move well from WordPerfect to WordPress.]

Like Cold Water

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Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
(Psalm 51:2-3 NRSV)

All day long my disgrace is before me,
and shame has covered my face
at the words of the taunters and revilers,
at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
(Psalm 44:15-16 NRSV)

For the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever.
Rise up, O LORD! Do not let mortals prevail; let the nations be judged before you.
Put them in fear, O LORD; let the nations know that they are only human.
(Psalm 9:18-20 NRSV)

Jesus went throughout Galilee,
teaching in their synagogues
and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom
and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
(Matthew 4:23 NRSV)

Each Sunday, the Presbyterian worship service includes a prayer of confession followed by an assurance of God’s continuing grace of forgiveness, healing, help, and guidance – in short, renewal of the damaged relationship. Confession in this sense admits need, but mostly I find it narrows to admitting fault. The focus falls upon guilt summarized in the familiar phrase about those things we have done (that we ought not to have done) and those things we have left undone (that we ought to have done). Here we have the two-fold source of guilt: sins of commission (done) and sins of omission (left undone). Grace then narrows to pardon and cleansing – not counting our sins against us but washing our guilt away – and may even be degraded into the notion of another chance to get it right even though we are assured we shall fail and need pardon again. Such a misunderstanding of grace tends to have the wrong effect: instead of making us gracious toward others, it may make us continuously guilt-ridden and pressured to do life perfectly (or just better than someone else).

I am not suggesting that guilt is no great human problem. I know better, but I know also that guilt is far from being the only human problem, and currently it does not seem to be weighing so heavily on many people’s minds, especially not the minds of younger adults, as other problems in the human condition.

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Searching for the Narrow Gate in Lancaster County

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Enter by the narrow gate, since the road that leads to destruction is wide and spacious, and many take it; but it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
(Matthew 7:13,14 in the New Jerusalem Bible translation)

This brief passage from the Sermon on the Mount is not self-explanatory. Without context and interpretation, it exhorts the follower of Jesus not to take the popular, easy way of discipleship, but it seems to me not enough to look for the unpopular, hard way simply because it is difficult and lonely. I am not dismissing Jesus’ warning but acknowledging my need to think about where the lines might fall in my own life with the choices I must make and in the lives of the churches in our North American context.

The Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall recalls Martin Luther’s distinction between Christianity’s prominent way of thinking and making choices with its wide gate and attractive, well marked road and Christianity’s other way less often taken. Luther labeled the dominant way as the “theology of glory” which today we call triumphalism, and the unpopular “thin tradition” as “the theology of the cross” which is the way of humility, compassion, and non-authoritarian service. Pope Francis is shaking up the Roman Catholic Church by tending toward the humble way of the theology of the cross. Francis of Assisi stands in the tradition as another example of this never-popular but more faithful path of Christian discipleship.

The model, to be sure, is Jesus of Nazareth himself who eschewed power, prestige, and bullying authority. His was and continues to be the way of the servant.

After we retired and moved into Pennsylvania, my wife and I needed to find a church

After we retired and moved into Pennsylvania, my wife and I needed to find a church, a community of faith, with which to worship, learn, grow, and serve. Our search took longer than we had expected. We were looking and listening for this “thin tradition” – this attitude, posture, thought, and manner of the theology of the cross.

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What Parent Among You?

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Seek and you will find.  Knock and the door will be opened.  Ask and it will be given.  In his teaching presented to us in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus promises God will respond to the searching of the person who persists and will not remain distant.  He does not say that finding God will be quick or easy, nor does he suggest that entering into the life God desires to give will be a simple or painless matter for the seeker, but he does promise it will not be futile.

Then he adds a parable which I understand to use the same type of argument from lesser to greater I explained in my previous post about the parable of the shepherd who goes out to find the one stray sheep.  This teaching method presents an ordinary human situation which serves as the lesser condition, then invites and challenges faith to make the jump to the greater condition which involves the will and way of God in dealing with human beings.

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!  (Matthew 7:9-11 NRSV)

The lesser premise is that decent parents know how to give good, helpful, life-nourishing things to their children.  Here Jesus suggests absurdities to clarify the situation and gain agreement.  What kind of parent would trick a hungry child by offering a small loaf of bread but then do a bait-and-switch with a stone of similar size and shape?  Would that be funny?  Even crazier would be the idea that some parent might actually think the stone was as good a provision as the bread for satisfying the child’s hunger.  Say what?  Worse yet is the idea of tricking the hungry child by offering a fish but substituting a (live, venomous) snake.  The obvious answer for the listeners to Jesus’ questions is something like, “Are you kidding?  No one would do such things, at least not I nor anyone else I know or would care to know.”  The questions are deliberately weird because they invite unquestioned agreement.  No even minimally good parents treat their children that way.

Don’t be thrown by the phrase, “you who are evil.” 

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Caliban

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Caliban in the Coal Mines

GOD, we don’t like to complain;
We know that the mine is no lark.
But — there’s the pools from the rain;
But — there’s the cold and the dark.

God, You don’t know what it is —
You, in Your well-lighted sky —
Watching the meteors whizz;
Warm, with a sun always by.

God, if You had but the moon
Stuck in Your cap for a lamp,
Even You’d tire of it soon,
Down in the dark and the damp.

Nothing but blackness above
And nothing that moves but the cars …
God, if You wish for our love,
Fling us a handful of stars!

~Louis Untermeyer

The Christian answer is that God does know what it’s like down in the dark and the damp, but the protest of the miner Caliban remains unanswered because he can’t hear answers tossed down from bright, warm places of elevated comfort and security. What Christians call the Incarnation (the Word or life-giving truth of God made human flesh and blood) means God down here with us, living in our conditions with our limitations, feelings, and pains.

If my reaction to Untermeyer’s poem with its irreverent Caliban is to take offense and argue that God has already come down into suffering and shame worse than his in the mines, then the question becomes, I think, “Why are the Calibans of this world still stuck down in the dark and the damp where they continue to make wealth for the prosperous up in the warmth and brightness?”

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Theology Not Ideology

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Ideology makes smart people stupid. No, it doesn’t decrease the IQ or the cleverness with which the ideologue defends a position and attacks others who dissent, but it makes people think and act as though they were stupid. Here’s what I mean.

To be an ideologue is not just to hold beliefs strongly but to hold to a belief system that dictates the way reality must be, no matter what. Facts must be made to conform to the ideologue’s beliefs, even when they don’t. So, the ideologue must dismiss facts or else distort them to maintain beliefs which are held as absolute.

In his book I’m just beginning to read, The Cross in Our Context, the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall, introduces us to the theology he develops first in the manner called via negativa, by saying what it is not. One of the things his theology of the cross is not and must not become is an ideology. Hall writes:

By ideology I mean a theoretical statement or system of interpretation that functions for its adherents as a full and sufficient credo, a source of personal authority, and an intellectually and psychologically comforting insulation from the frightening and chaotic mish-mash of daily existence. For the ideologue, whether religious or political, it is not necessary to expose oneself constantly to the ongoingness of life; one knows in advance what one is going to find in the world. (25).

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Doubter Believer

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When I was a kid in our church’s youth group, one of our adult leaders played a record for us that pictured the church as a fortress under siege by the forces of Satan, and among the demonic elements attacking the true believers were battalions of doubters. I remember that one group was identified as “resurrection doubters.” Even then, by the way, I thought the record was awful and resented having to listen to it.

Biblical Christian faith is not belief that, but belief in. It is trust in the One who loves us. Faith is relational and responsive to the Other in whom we trust. Does belief in God not have beliefs about God? Of course it does, just as love for another human being has beliefs about that person and about the nature of the relationship I have with that person. I love this particular person, who . . . . After the word “who,” I may tell of things the person has done, qualities I appreciate and respect in that person, experiences we have shared, and what I currently think and feel the person means to me. What comes after “who” will change and grow as years pass and the relationship itself continues to develop. All the while, however, it will be the person I love.

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