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The Impotence of Contemporary Faith | Time to Bear Witness and Minimize Verbosity

*Note: Admittedly this is a long blog.  Despite this, please take the time to read and share it.

Historical reflection matters.  In fact, it is of critical importance in terms of peaceful relations and co-existence between culturally and religiously different people and nations.

Walter Houghton, former Wellesley College professor and author of Victorian England: Portrait of an Age wrote, “to peer through the darkness of a hundred years and turn even a flashlight on the landscape of 1850 is to see our own situation a little more clearly.”

Seldom do people, especially the religiously minded, pause and consider the fact that beliefs and ideas have an origin and a prior context of (primary) meaning, as well as a historical development.

A few examples from Christian scripture:

Among evangelicals, in particular, two Bible texts, which routinely are wrenched from their social and literary contexts and misused – both to justify exclusive claim to God and truth, and legitimate mission enterprises to the “heathen” or “unsaved” – include John 14:6, in which Jesus allegedly makes the exclusive claim that he alone is the singular and only way for a person to obtain eternal life, and the “Great Commission” text of Matthew 28:18-20.

one way

In my opinion, the manner in which Christians have, and continue to use John 14:6 as a proof-text to “prove” that their belief and their religion is the true one, expresses more an inner fear and insecurity, than what they think they are communicating – certainty of identity, faith and future.  (*For a few alternative views on this text, see the writings by former Emory professor, Thomas Thangaraj, and Louisville Presbyterian Seminary professor, W. Eugene March)

Let’s be honest.  In disconcerting times and eras, such as the present, who doesn’t and wouldn’t want “evidence” that “proves” one’s life is on the right and true track?

It’s a false comfort, but a comfort, nevertheless, to be able to say “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

Every single day, each one of us use “the other” as “social mirrors,” as aids by which to navigate life and assess individual progress.

self_reflection

We look at others, and occasionally share affirmation, but most often we belittle and criticize, and in so doing it provides momentary, yet false assurance that our lives are somehow okay – especially in comparison to him, her, or them!

The utilization of another as an aide in self-criticism and self-evaluation is nothing new, and as such serves the purpose of a “control group” against which people assess their respective individual or collective progress or development.

Not so long ago, blacks and Indians were utilized by Europeans as “social mirrors” in order to discover attributes in savages which they found first but could not speak of in themselves.

As Andrew Sinclair noted in The Savage : A History of Misunderstanding, “The Puritan fought the Devil and the savage within himself, and he called the struggle conscience. . . . Often more terrible than the savage outside the stockade of the settlement was the savage within the ribcage of the Puritan, and his sternness toward all dissenters was frequently no more than fear of his own nature.”

Where has much of this troubling fear of the future come from?  

I find renowned historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, Carl Degler’s perspective compelling.

He wrote that prior to the 16th century, Martin Luther, and the Reformation, there existed a relatively predictable, ordered, and secure worldview and belief structure.  That is, a person’s sense of eternal security was guaranteed by the Catholic Church by means of a pronouncement and/or sacrament performed by a priest.

After the non-conformists effectively challenged institutional orthodoxy, coupled with the ensuing sectarian schisms that occurred among dissenters themselves, there emerged an unsettling new reality—the priesthood of every believer.

Every person, thereafter, was obligated to care for his or her own soul.  In effect, individual priesthood became every person’s “own terrifying responsibility.”

Verification of one’s eternal future or elected-ness, has over the centuries since, come to reside in an ambiguous and highly subjective “salvation template.”

It is a template that has unpredictably, yet routinely changed over time, according to Richard E. Wentz, former Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Arizona State University.

Attempts to secure signs or proof of salvation has changed over the years from a prescribed iconoclasm (destruction of images of worship), to stringent morality (puritanism), to a profession of faith, and finally to an individualizing of faith or to “saving steps” (Four Spiritual Laws).

4 steps

John 14:6, then, became a popular proof-text because it so comfortably accommodated and “proved” the popular four-step salvation template.

What is evident upon historical reflection of all “saving steps or stages,” however, is that in the post-16th century European world, life increasingly was lived as if “conducting an examination,” and Scripture read “as if peering in a mirror”—largely for the purpose of appeasing a troubled conscience and assuaging a loving, yet capricious God.

Illustrating a troubled conscience, are the words of Lucy Lindley’s biographer, wife of American Board 19-century missionary to South Africa, Daniel Lindley:

“Lucy was always in a state of anxiety about them [her children], their health and spiritual welfare.  Her introspection was painful in its intensity.  She was morbidly conscientious.  She who was so transparently good was always lamenting her sins.  The memory haunted her of the wide sleeves she wore when a girl, wasting stuff that might have been sold to feed the poor.  It troubled her for days when she found that a tradesman had given her ten cents too much change: ‘I must return it.  He must see that I am honest’. . . . When she saw Mary playing cards it threw her into a state of prostration that lasted for days.  That one of her boys should go to the theatre, that two of them should spend a rainy morning in the holidays at a billiard table, she took to be sure signs that they were on the road to perdition. Sincerely religious, always pouring out her heart in gratitude for blessings bestowed upon her, religion brought her little joy and serenity.  Not a happy woman; but noble in her high sense of duty and her unconquerable spirit.”

As for Matthew 28:18-20 . . . Given the complicity of imperialism/colonialism with civilizing the “heathen” by means of christianizing them, a legitimizing text was needed for this civilizing venture – i.e., just as U.S. slave owners and South African apartheid proponents co-opted Old Testament scripture as justification for their racist attitudes and actions.

What better, more suitable text for the sailing ships and their crew and passengers than Matthew’s – “Go and make disciples of all nations“?  It fit like a glove.

No one makes clearer this linkage of text with enterprise than Sri Lankan, R. S. Sugirtharajah, Professor of Biblical Hermeneutics at University of Birmingham, U.K, who I had the fortune to study under for one week in 2001.

Relying on Alan Kreider’s research, Sugirtharajah persuasively argues by quoting from primary texts that there was very little formal preaching or institutionalized mission during the growth of the pre-Christendom church, and even less admonition to evangelize.

How then did the Jesus movement grow in those early years?

It grew primarily through public demonstrations of faith or people bearing testimony to their experience of faith.  For example, faith was mediated by martyrdom.  Bystanders were astonished and in awe of those who willingly died for what they believed in.  Faith was also mediated by behavior and generous acts of charity.  The Jesus movement also grew, according to Kreider, because of the extraordinary character of worship, which prepared Christians to live exemplary, above-reproach lives in the world.

Concluding Thoughts:

I appeal to my own faith community of upbringing – evangelical, Protestant, Christian – that it’s time to:

Stop idolizing certainty, particularly the Bible and Jesus. 

Set aside your illusionary claim to “absolute” ownership (and interpretation) of truth.

When you are so controlling and insistent on your perspective, it really does not help you love others well. Ultimately it’s your attempt to control even God.

As a Lutheran pastor recently and rightly noted, we live in a time where the “public square” is the forum where people of all faiths and people who reject all faiths come together and bear testimony – not behind pulpits or in moral statements pronounced behind protective and insulated walls.

allaboutgod

Samir Selmanovic, a favorite alternative Christian voice of mine, makes the following remarks in It’s Really All About God:

“Is a God who favors anyone over anyone else worth worshiping?”

“We have saturated our religions with our own selves, and the most direct way to enter a new whirlwind of fresh and substantive religious experience is to seek and find the image of God in those who are not in our image.  It is really all about God, and God is really all about all of us.  Yet, we are afraid to be in the image of God.  And we are terrified of the prospect of finding the image of God in those who are not in our image.  This is not a call to one religion for all.  It is a call for every religion to find a way that is good for all people.”

“So much of who we all are depends on maintaining a polarized and conflicted world.  To challenge this state of affairs by finding God in the other not only disrupts our communal sense of identity but also alters our social and economic structures on every level, from our families to our nations.  In some twisted way, we have learned to benefit from the misery of the divided world we have created.  Now we have to unlearn what we think we know and then learn to embrace this newfound reality of our globally intertwined community.”

Stop thinking you, your church and Christianity as a whole will succeed together in saving the world (a popular 19th century motto was “evangelizing the world in this generation”).

Reality and history communicate the exact opposite – a persistent growth and renaissance of world faiths.

Yes, you can point to numerous examples of individuals whose lives were transformed through a conversion experience or to “church growth” or to “spiritual revivals,” yet these examples communicate a fraction of the truth.

For instance, the growth of the church and large-scale conversions in Africa and in many parts of Asia, are documented by the likes of University of Cape Town professor, David Chidester, as occurring only after their people experienced or were subjugated to the destruction or disintegration of independent economic, social and political life.

Corroborating this assertion is 19th-century American missionary Silas McKinney’s letter back to his missionary board, “They (Zulus) are in a transition state, breaking away from the Zulu nation, and dissolving into little bodies, and coming together again in news forms, and thus placing themselves in positions most happy for the successful introduction of the gospel.”  A colleague, Aldin Grout similarly wrote, “the Zulu nation as such is extinct.  This I have been looking for ever since I left the Zulu country.”

Sharing missionary, as well as mission trip stories of individuals, whose lives were changed when they “gave their hearts to Jesus” should not be minimized, yet neither should they effectively over-shadow or silence the many more stories of people, who likely were repelled and repulsed by both the message, method and motivation of Christians’ so-called “good news.”

Take Mahatma Gandhi, for instance.  In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, he wrote, “Christian missionaries used to stand in a corner near the high school and hold forth, pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could not endure this.  I must have stood there to hear them once only, but that was enough to dissuade me from repeating the experiment.”

In Zimbabwe I once heard a missionary speak of “wind evangelism.”  Upon questioning, he said this was a method of evangelism, whereby when you’re traveling along the highway at 75 mph, you roll your window down and release gospel tracts. These, then, flutter to the feet of Zimbabweans, who are walking or riding a bicycle, and, of course, we are then to believe this method of saving some justifies the means.

A colleague of his shared frustration at the difficulty of obtaining accurate records of baptisms. He then hit on a “novel idea” of offering to pay $1 or $2 Zimbabwe dollars for every certificate that pastors turned in.  Wow – wouldn’t you know it!  Baptisms increased dramatically in the ensuing months!

That’s Americans in Africa, but here in the U.S. it’s little different.  Although popularity seems somewhat diminished of late, I still read of churches re-enacting the Columbine Massacre, replete with shotgun during Hell House at Halloween, or implementing a Top Ten Most Wanted list, whereby you list ten people in your life who “need Jesus” and who you “target” with the gospel.

Insteadstart demonstrating how Christianity (faith) is an appreciably meaningful and practical “way of life” in the present.

Try to stop speaking so many spiritual platitudes, which in effect serve to exonerate one from involvement in the messiness of people’s daily lives.  An example that occurred during a visit by a U.S. “Christian”-based NGO leader to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.  If a destitute family welcome you into their home at your request, and then in the course of conversation express a heartfelt need for tuition assistance or a pair of shoes, don’t glibly voice with your pleated Ralph Lauren khaki pants and your buffed, shiny brown Oxford shoes, “Let’s pray and I’m sure that God will provide for your needs.”  No, you are God in those moments and you need to do any and everything within your means to assist this family.

As Samir puts it, “People are not looking for someone to show them how to escape life; they are looking for practicing sojourners and communities to help them walk the landscape of life. There is something impotent about contemporary Christianity, and it has to do with its inability to re-imagine the answer to the question ‘What do I get for following Jesus?‘  For too many Christians the answer is (simply) ‘heaven.'”

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On Vulnerability and Disengagement

My impetus for blogging about vulnerability and disengagement came from reading Brene’ Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.  Brown, a Houston-based researcher, catapulted to public awareness as a TED speaker.  Daring Greatly advocates having the courage to live vulnerable lives.

I reflect briefly on two personal examples of vulnerability: Place and space vulnerability. Relational vulnerability.

First, a definition . . . Vulnerability is a state of being open, susceptible and exposed to pain or suffering.

eyevulnerable

Vulnerability is paradoxical, in that risking a state of being vulnerable is a prerequisite to growth and intimacy and even life, as for example chemistry, anatomy, physiology and microbiology are prerequisites for most medical science programs.

Vulnerability assumes many forms and degrees of severity, including these few minor ones of mine from this week: Buying Tampax Pearl “super” and “regular” at Costco for the women in my life.  Being shown three close-up photographs of a tuxedo cat’s obstructed anus by a AT&T repair technician after I innocently asked him during a home visit to repair our internet connection what kind of cat he had, and he felt obligated to “show-tell” me more than I cared to know!

risk&reward

Vulnerability occurs by at least one of three means: 1) a voluntary and intentional choice (e.g., me buying a typically feminine product), 2) an imposed duty  (e.g., a course requirement to do or visit something unfamiliar, like the Jain temple below), or 3) an unforeseen consequence of one’s words or actions (e.g., being shown the tuxedo cat photos).  Courage and risk are not only common to all three, but prerequisites to vulnerability’s rewards.

A light, comical example: At some point in my marriage I took a risk and chose to buy my wife an outfit of clothes.  It was a vulnerable, risky and spur of the moment act because it’s a typically feminine versus manly thing to do, plus, she might have taken exception to or misinterpreted my act and/or what I bought her.  Yet, having acted despite the risk, I was and continue to be rewarded by her: liking most everything I buy; I get all the compliments indirectly from her friends, plus, it’s fun to hear the standard I’ve now created for their husbands and boyfriends once they hear I bought all my wife’s outfits; and, finally, I get to “dress her hot.”  Hah!

My wife wearing & receiving "my clothing line."

My wife wearing & receiving “my clothing line.”

My first significant personal experience with vulnerability occurred during postgraduate studies in world religions.  I entered the program from a conservative upbringing, similar it seems to Charles Kimball, author of When Religion Becomes Evil, who described his early formative “context of meaning” as Southern Baptist, but who today – like me – has journeyed far from that without being merely reactionary.

My belief structure and self-identity leading up to graduate studies was evangelical, in so far as that communicates a consciousness and spirituality overly concerned with not only “how to get into,” but also “who’s in and who’s out” of heaven/eternity.  Ultimately, I believe, it’s a frail and insecure faith.  It’s a faith orientation rabbi David Hartman aptly observed about, “The longing to be eternally redeemed can become so profound that you doubt whether your way will take you there if you see another person enjoying his or her different way.”

It’s a faith still reflective of, if not mired in its Puritan roots, especially its perception of God:  loving, yes, but also capricious and punitive.  To illustrate using a common African image  – It views eternal security from the fearful perspective of an infant having of necessity to cling to its mother’s neck lest it fall off, rather than seeing the mother’s anxious love as all-embracing and anxious to ensure, herself, that her child doesn’t fall and injure itself.

My wife with our youngest.

My wife with our youngest.

My studies program required that I engage first-hand with cultural and religious difference.  So, for example, instead of learning about Jains from a disengaged and purely theoretical vantage point (books and lecture), I engaged in a year-long participation and engaged study of a Jain community in Richardson, Texas, with no conscious intention other than to experience and understand a people and faith different from my own.  Phenomenology is the term that describes this approach to study.  In the so-called Bible Belt of the southern United States, learning about the religious and cultural “different other” more often than not, it seems, focuses on identifying and emphasizing cultural and religious differences so as to more effectively proselytize.

Indiareligions

Recalling that first Sunday in 2000, twelve years later, stirs up vulnerable feelings of discomfiture. What would “their” place of worship look like?  Am I appropriately dressed?  Has everyone removed their shoes outside the front door, or only some people?  Should I?  Will my shoes be here when I leave?  What kind of reception awaits me as a guest, a white face among likely all brown?  How should I greet them?  Do I greet the men differently than the women? What will “their” order of worship be?  Will I be expected to participate in everything?  Would I even be allowed to?  Will someone be available to explain things?

Similar fears and imagined antagonisms occurred during my trans-Atlantic flight the following year to Geneva, Switzerland, and seminar attendance at the World Council of Churches’ Bossey Ecumenical Institute.  My wife and I laugh now, but as a grown man at 33 years of age, I admit I was emotionally distraught when I “called back home” after arrival and check-in at Bossey.  Everything was threatening, but especially the religious and cultural “different others,” including I came to find out, people who were either gays, themselves, or who had no theological or moral problem with gayness (understand this was my feeling then, not now).

Bossey Ecumenical Institute

Bossey Ecumenical Institute

Over the course of three weeks we participants from many parts of the globe and varying faith and no faith backgrounds engaged each other in sustained conversation and shared experiences.  We ate, laughed, traveled by bus, cried and shared stories.  I still remember the story one Sri Lankan participant shared during morning devotion.  He was attempting to illustrate what it was like to live as a person from a non-super power, colonized population, where local “history” is interpreted and communicated from the victor’s perspective.  In the story, a student asks his teacher, “Ma’am, if the lion is the king of the jungle, why is it that the hunter always wins?”  His wise teacher thought, then replied, “That’s only how it seems on the surface and for the moment, until which time as the lion has his opportunity to tell his side of the story.”

As a Norwegian seminar colleague shared with me as we sat with a glass of wine looking out over Lake Geneva – “Scott, I feel like we’ve done a lot of deconstruction (of our respective faith and cultural traditions, plus years of acquired book learning), yet very little reconstruction.”  I think that’s a lot of what a vibrant, maturing vulnerability entails.  It requires, as it were, unlearning or giving up for a time mono-cycling, so as to learn how to share in riding tandem.

Vulnerability isn’t only important for overcoming our rootedness to place and space (our proverbial “bubble”), but also in building and nurturing relationships.

The most vulnerable of all relationships

The most vulnerable of all relationships

Several months ago I responded to a Harvard Business Review article entitled “We Approach Diversity the Wrong Way” by Liz Ryan, in which she advocated for “MoCo” (more conversations – that is, more vulnerable and candid sharing with each other about stereotypical and prejudicial perceptions and attitudes acquired over the years toward each other; not less) in addressing problems related to diversity. I wrote:

“I appreciate this corrective perspective, especially helping people learn to talk about the ‘sticky human stuff’ by MoCo – more conversation. I recall a conversation a small group of us (whites) had with black colleagues in South Africa years ago – just barely, if yet democratic South Africa. We came together with our culturally acquired stereotypes to discuss a joint work project.  The lingering positive effect and lesson for me was the ‘real conversation’ that transacted, which affected positively on work and interpersonal relationships.  I recall a black colleague sharing, ‘When we see a white person approaching our house we immediately ask ourselves, ‘What is he coming here to ask us to do?’ This man’s comment immediately hit home to me for the truth it was.  I, in turn, candidly replied, When we see a black man coming to our homes, we tend to ask, ‘I wonder what he’s coming to ask for?’  This rare ‘MoCo moment’ was priceless and helped establish trust between people in a new post-racial society by partially clearing the underbrush.”

I resonate with Brown’s observation that while “betrayal” is most often associated with partner/spousal cheating, lying, breaking a confidence, and failure to defend a friend against false accusation, in actuality a more “insidious” and corrosive of trust betrayal is disengagement.

Disengaged?

Disengagement is when one or more parties in a relationship stop making effort and fighting for the relationship, stop paying attention, stop investing time, and stop caring.  Disengagement is the precursor, the underlying condition prior to cheating, lying, abandoning, et cetera.

Illustrative of disengagement is a funny and effective South African Tedelex advertisement.  A husband is slouching on a sofa watching Saturday sports on the “telly” (English for TV). The viewer is led to believe the husband’s crime is neglecting and disengaging completely from wife and marriage.  The wife does several walk-bys the TV trying to get his attention, before resorting to one final and desperate measure.  On the final walk-by she wears nothing but a bathrobe.  She stops mid-center of the TV, turns toward her husband, flashes open her robe, then closes the robe and walks away.  Only then does the husband take quick and eager cognizance of his wife and gets up from the sofa, conveying the message that only one thing possesses the potency to lure men away from their sports – sex.

Seldom, of course, is relational disengagement quite so humorous.  The neglected child, the struggling single parent, the unemployed, the poor, the immigrant, the soldier, the elderly – to name only a few – feel disengagement acutely. Disengagement from friends, church members, family, neighbors, former colleagues is exacerbated when combined with unwelcome, yet, inevitable attending self-shame: a sense of failure, inadequacy and not measuring up, not being good enough.  This is why Brown includes a section in Daring Greatly on “shame resilience.”

Thinking back on a few close friendships lost, as well as many marital separations of friends and family members, I wonder how many of those relationships might still be intact today if either one or both parties had, out of respect for the other and the relationship, resolutely refused to disengage time, attention, effort and caring?

In 2013 my wife and I will celebrate our 28th anniversary.  I credit her for demonstrating and teaching me the importance of engagement.  She (more than I can be credited with) did this through stubborn insistence that we talk through our “everythings” – and I do mean everything, including feelings and insecurities, and the secrets and insecurities of men and maleness, or women and femaleness. Difficult as it is on some days to see or acknowledge, our marriage and family is worth fighting for relative to “anything else out there on the market”.  Brene’ Brown’s importance was in reminding me of the dangers of disengagement and the imperative even for macho men to exercise courage in practicing vulnerability.

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