Discerning Divine Foolishness

 

I think Joel’s got it exactly right: Jesus asks his followers to act counterintuitively in ways that level the playing field and even preferentially treat the weak and poor. The world sees this as foolishness, but Jesus says that it is the kingdom coming.

Large groups of Christians have, as Joel has noted, unfortunately, picked up the wrong kind of foolishness. Joel cites anti-climate change teachings, which are the perfect example of a broader, longer trend: religiously-justified anti-intellectualism. The anti-science effort, in particular, is long-standing. Some Puritans, for example, objected to lightning rods because they were an effort to control the will of God. When Boston was struck with awful earthquakes in 1727 and 1755, many explained it as God’s punishment for people who thought they could avoid his punishment via lightning rods. (Some Amish sects today still forbid them out a belief that they are a sign of lack of belief in God’s providence.)  The first generation of anti-vaxxers thought the same way: vaccinations were just an effort to thwart God, who might have wanted to smite you with smallpox.  Such anti-intellectualism is foolish, but not in the way that makes the first last and the last first. In fact, anti-intellectualism today tends to be foolishness that destroys vulnerable populations in an effort to protect and bolster the wealthy—say, oil companies profiting at the expense of indigenous people and cultures.

dinosaurs

Above, dinosaurs deny the reality of an asteroid about to hit the earth. A T-rex proclaims, “Fake asteroid!!!” and a triceratops says, “Lying media!!” as the asteroid approaches.  Christians deny climate change to everyone’s peril.

Christians compound this foolishness when they use religion to justify anti-science and anti-intellectualism.  Instead of being countercultural in ways that result in them loving their neighbors as themselves (the second greatest commandment), they fight against efforts to make life more peaceful and just. And then, they drag God into it.

Exodus 20:7 delivers this pretty important commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” The NRSV is a bit clearer about what in vain means: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” The question then becomes What is the right use of God’s name?

For Christians, the New Testament shows us when people rightly and wrongly invoke God. The religious leaders of his day frequently got it wrong—like when they asked Jesus about whose wife a remarried widow would be in the afterlife or hoped to criticize him for healing on the Sabbath.  They were invoking God, but their goal wasn’t to free the oppressed but to maintain the status quo, which harmed women and those with disabilities. Their use of “but religion says so!” wasn’t just vain (in the sense of pointless)—it was an effort to make trouble for those already burdened with troubles.

woman caught in adultery

Above, Christ and the Adulteress by Titian, 1508-1510. The painting is in the collection at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow Museums in Scotland.  Trying to make trouble with the name of God, the religious leaders ask Jesus if they can stone a woman caught in adultery, as Moses said.  Jesus is remarkably patient with them and instructs the one without sin to cast the first stone. In a rare moment, they seem to get it and leave the stones on the ground.

When political leaders today invoke God, you can almost always bet that they aren’t doing so to lift troubles from the shoulders of those already weary.   Instead, they are being foolish—careless, wasteful, vain, wrong, mischief-making, exploitative—with God’s name. You can always tell by who their actions serve and who they harm. 

 

On foolishness

Rebecca:

This concluding sentence from you blew me away:

“We have no models of Jesus scolding anyone for being too generous in their sacrifice, their love, or their hospitality—and plenty of models of grand and often dangerous gestures of generosity.”

Well said. Quite right! A mission statement, even!

And it was that particular turn of phrase — “often dangerous gestures” — that turned my mind to a bit of Scripture. Let’s pick up the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians:

“Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”

These verses don’t get talked a lot about in public these days, yet I suspect they do incredible damage to our discourse and politics.

See, I read Paul’s words as suggesting that the path of God can be counterintuitive — requiring your “often dangerous gestures” of generosity. But I think many Christians have interpreted this passage as … allowing them to embrace real, actual foolishness.

I’m thinking here of conservative attitudes on climate change. While it’s true that there’s a subset who take a faith-based foundation to defending the environment, the sad truth is that many American Christians (evangelicals, at least) have decided to accept Republican teaching on the matter, which amounts to: “Ignore all that science and scientists who tell you that human-made climate change is real and poses risks. It isn’t and doesn’t.” Why do American Christians buy into this? Well, many of them regard environmentalists as (literally) idolatrous nature lovers; some are just binding themselves to GOP tribalism — and a few figure the End Times are just around the corner, so screw it.

But: The Republican teaching is … foolish. There are lots of people — lots and lots of scientists — who say so. And I suspect this makes some conservative Christians cleave ever more closely to these ideas, because the “wise men” of the age are calling them foolish. That’s proof that they’ve taken the right position!

That’s obviously self-reinforcing. I’m not sure how one argues against that kind of logic. And it’s a logic that gets applied to all kinds of issues.

So. How to decide what’s really foolish? And what’s wisely foolish? How do we not end up chasing our tails on this whole damn thing?

Oh dear. I think I just went full Obi-Wan:


Rebecca, you offered a pretty good measuring stick the other day when you wrote this: “We can actually measure who Christianity is for by looking at who benefits from American Christianity. And that answer is pretty clear:  the same people who have always had power. American Christianity protects the status quo.”

I suspect that asking that question would help clarify the effort to distinguish real foolishness from God’s (wise) foolishness, assuming one isn’t trying to get to a predetermined conclusion.

Wait. How does this relate back to your “often dangerous gestures” comment?

Only this: I’m not so sure it’s God’s foolishness to believe and act the way that oil companies, as well as the politicians and think tanks they buy, want you to. If a senator says exactly what you believe on C-SPAN, there’s probably not much divinely counterintuitive going on.

I don’t think God’s foolishness requires believers to ignore mounds of evidence in favor of a proposition — that makes God a trickster, and every day a sort of “Opposite Day.” Instead, I think God’s foolishness requires one to consider and discard conventional wisdom, and that is much, much more difficult than merely taking the side of everybody else in your political party.

I think living God’s foolishness is legitimately, terrifyingly difficult.

Giving your coat when asked for it. That’s hard. Turning the other cheek when you’ve already been struck. That’s hard. Loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. That’s damn near impossible. Acting in God’s foolishness often requires putting something on the line — your life, maybe, or your reputation.

It requires “often dangerous gestures” of generosity.

— Joel

P.S. We’ve started off with some heavy questions and thinking, haven’t we? I promise, Rebecca, that we’ll do some lighter stuff. I want to talk about books and movies with you. And I want to elicit some thoughts from you, in the near future, about how to raise “aware” kids. We’ve got a lot of time and ground to cover. We’ll get to it all eventually!

The Spiritual Tribalism of American Christians

I shared in an earlier post that my attraction to the Mennonite faith was due to my respect for their commitment (not always lived out perfectly) to opposing the status quo, to the “upside-down kingdom” that privileges the poor, sides with the weak, and triumphs in death. This model requires some folks—the high and the mighty—to lose. Christians shouldn’t be afraid to lose; in fact, it’s what we’re called to do—to humble ourselves, even to the point of losing everything, even to the point of death.

But if we define Christianity according to what the conservative Protestants who have such cultural power in the US right now do with their faith (the “lived religion” way of defining religion), the picture doesn’t look promising. In fact, I’ll lob a pretty big insult at them, one they’ve hurled at Catholics for ages: they are cultural, nominal Christians, NASCAR Christians who can’t be bothered with church if it interrupts the race (the equivalent of C&E Catholics), people who care more about political power than the gospel and who identify as Christian only in that life is easier when they do so; their Christianity is a way to protect, not risk, themselves. Also, they’re lazy and uninformed about the religion they claim to adhere to. That’s not just me sneering (it actually hurts my heart): the research shows that the poorer their understanding of their faith and the weaker their ties to religion, the more committed they are to Donald Trump.

Joel wondered if American Christians are more tribal than spiritual, but their spirituality and their tribalism work together.  (In fact, tribalism is too kind of a word for their practices. Tribes care for their members. And spirituality is probably too kind of a word for their faith.) An entire theology of selfishness and entitlement—best exemplified in the prosperity gospel that has been so influential in Trump’s outreach to Christians but also integral to Christian arguments in favor of “Biblical immigration” and the end of welfare—circulates in Religious Right churches and media in softer and harsher versions.

Speaking from a scholarly perspective, it may be a losing formula. Conservative churches are bleeding members right now, especially young people. (It’s tough—you have to balance the donations of the old folks against the longevity of the younger members. I’m sure some consulting firm has a formula to figure out how far you push each demographic before losing funds or future congregants.)  Younger people are tired of the culture wars but yearning to put their faith into action in ways that don’t harm their LGBT loved ones. My own students (overwhelmingly Baptist or Church of Christ) rarely want to talk about abortion or gay marriage, but they are eager to talk about sex trafficking and human slavery.

The result of a continued commitment to spiritual tribalism may be smaller, less diverse, and more ideologically pure churches; more unaffiliated “spiritual but not religious” young people; a continuing small stream of new converts to the Episcopal tradition, Catholicism, and the Orthodox Church, which provide sacramental life without quite so much of the political baggage; and more religious “nones”—those who are done with the whole endeavor. Conservative churches may become even more conservative, louder, and more dangerous to democracy.

Panel - Christ Feeding the Five Thousand

Above, a late 12th/early 13th century stained glass depiction of Jesus feeding the 5000, currently in the William and Eileen Ruddock Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The story does not tell us that he asked anyone he fed for their passport, visa, or birth certificate; he did not inquire about pre-existing conditions, political ideology, or the details of their faith. He did not demand they provide proof of income to insure that they were among the “worthy poor.” He fed them simply because they were hungry, even though he was personally tired.  Some of them probably even wasted their food or were ungrateful. Some of them probably didn’t join up with his movement, despite his generosity.  He seems to be okay with all of that. 

Speaking from a Mennonite perspective, the spiritual tribalism of much of conservative Protestantism is wicked, an offense to the wideness of God’s mercy, a show of disdain for scripture, and a usurpation of the authority of God, who did not charge us with gatekeeping. (For those who would like to toss out my perspective because you might assume that Christian progressives don’t care about sin, scripture, or God as sovereign—read that previous sentence again.) We have no models of Jesus scolding anyone for being too generous in their sacrifice, their love, or their hospitality—and plenty of models of grand and often dangerous gestures of generosity.

WHO is Christianity for?

I love that Joel starts with the big questions: What is Christianity, anyway? And what is it supposed to be for? And is Joel weird? The answers, in order, are: Good question, wrong question, and yes, but only in that he’s not a cynical as some others of us, for which I am grateful. I’ll tackle them each briefly.

What is Christianity?

Writes religion scholar Sam. D. Gill on the effort to define religion: “Most religion scholars have grown weary of the effort… despite the widely accepted principle that a word that cannot be defined is a word of limited…  value.” But defining religion isn’t merely an exhausting academic exercise: if we don’t know what religion is, how can we insure that it is protected by the First Amendment? Right now, for example, rightwing anti-immigrant forces are attempting to define Islam not as a religion but as a political ideology in order to strip Muslims of First Amendment rights.

But just because it’s important to know what religion is doesn’t mean that it’s easy.

The humanist tradition stresses religion’s distinction between the sacred—what sociologist Emile Durkheim called “things set apart and forbidden”—and the profane—the petty concerns of an individual’s everyday, ordinary life. In religion, says the theological Paul Tillich, we are “grasped by an ultimate concern.” Rudolph Otto said that, underlying all religion, was the numinous experience of mysterium tremendum et fascinans—experiencing a Wholly Other that, despite its awesomeness, attracts us.

All very charming, but the result of defining religion this way is that much world religion got ignored or derided—and not just the religions of the people Europeans colonized and enslaved the world over but also the religion of European women and poor people. While much religion does, indeed, have to do with the sacred, much of it also has to do with our everyday lives. We might not agree that Soul Cycle is religion, but lots of us have religious experiences that are also mundane, something not possible in Durkheim’s set-up.  We certainly have religion that isn’t about encountering God or being transformed. This notion likely offends evangelical Christians and faithful Catholics (who, after all, are supposed to be encountering the literal body and blood of Jesus at mass each week), but if we are looking for a useful definition of religion, we have to recognize that many religious people are not “spiritual” and that the supernatural is not all that (or even at all) important to them.

We might be better served by thinking of religion as a syndrome—a set of signs that often “run together” and characterize a condition. So we can say that religion often includes a concern for the sacred, a belief in the supernatural, a moral code, a set of prescribed behaviors insuring avoidance of the profane, beliefs, symbols, rituals, revelations, scriptures, and an erasure of the invention of all these things (a key point in the definition for anthropologist Clifford Geertz), but not all religions display all these characteristics.

As for defining Christianity, we can define Christianity by asking self-identified Christians what it is—that is, a descriptive rather than prescriptive definition. That’s a lot of people—about 2 billion, worldwide—with a lot of variation and considerable disagreement even on the basics and some answers that would make our Sunday school teachers sigh in frustration. This is a “lived religion” approach to the question, and I think it’s the one that is most useful.

Who is Christianity for?

Joel actually asked, What is Christianity supposed to be for? but that question is teleological, suggesting a purpose to Christianity that somehow informed its origins—an interesting historical question, but not one that addresses this rather terrible moment in American Christianity.

So I’ll ask instead: Who is American Christianity for today? If you’ll allow me to define Christianity as what Christians say it is, then we can actually measure who Christianity is for by looking at who benefits from American Christianity. And that answer is pretty clear:  the same people who have always had power. American Christianity protects the status quo. If you’re a Christian and that grosses you out—well, I think it should.

Above, Donald Trump speaks at the Values Voter Summit on September 9, 2016. The logos on the wall behind him belong to various religiously conservative political organizations. In his speech, he promised that he would, as president, insure that “our Christian heritage will be cherished like never before.” The our inserts him into the Christian family, while the Christian heritage appeals to both Christian and white nationalists. The will be hints at a legal mandate to recognize Christianity as important in US culture, and the like never before is an appeal to the politics of resentment felt by entitled white conservative Christians who have argued for decades that they have been denied their place of supremacy in American culture. The standing ovation that Trump received for this speech helps us see how American Christians define their faith: as something that deserves to be officially vaunted by the US government.

This is not new. From colonization to Indian removal and “pacification” to slavery and segregation up to today’s social Darwinist delight in the death of the poor, Christianity has insured that the weak stay weak and the strong stay strong. (Note that I don’t say Christianity has been used to do bad things. I’m saying that Christianity has done bad things. Because there is no pure, innocent, ideal Christianity apart from how people use it.) Some heroes have resisted this and risked their lives for a Christianity that  lifts up the downtrodden, but they are the exception. What makes them—Bartolemé de la Casas, William Wilberforce, Corrie ten Boom, Oscar Romero—heroes is that they defied their own Christian traditions (sometimes after too long of a wait) in order to care for those more vulnerable.

I don’t have a lot of love for Russell Moore, who, along with other Southern Baptists, has spent decades now using fear of women and sexual minorities to drum up support for the Republican Party (and that’s beside the fact that, no, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, I do not forgive them for being on the wrong side of emancipation). But while I think that Moore should have taken this position far earlier, I appreciate his effort to remind his fellow Southern Baptists that a marriage of politics and religion is seldom good for religion. As the Baptist hero Roger Williams wrote:

When they [Christians] have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the Candlestick, etc., and made His Garden a wilderness as it is this day.

Moore is getting hammered by fellow Southern Baptists because he opposes the invocation of faith to support the general moral depravity of Donald Trump. But Moore has also long been associating with people who would only use religion to advance their own interests. He didn’t challenge their lazy, self-centered theology earlier because it didn’t upset his thinking about sexuality. The consequence of his anti-gay teaching has been that thousands of queer Baptists kids were spiritually, sexually, and physically abused; many are homeless because their parents refuse to allow the “sin” of gay sexuality in their homes. If the pro-Trump backlash is millstone that drowns him for the violence he’s done to the “least of these”… well, perhaps that is a risk he took.

But I share Joel’s concern for what he sees as “a wound to Southern Baptist integrity.” We are wounded because we expect religion—Christianity broadly and specifically Southern Baptists, who do, with their tradition of religious liberty, have a lot to offer—to do better. I think, in the long run, that’s actually a realistic expectation.

What Is Christianity, anyway? (Russell Moore edition)

Rebecca:

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I suspect it’s a topic you can shed some light on: What is Christianity, anyway?

Let me get more specific. Is it just a means of encountering God — the “just” does a lot of work there — and being transformed, even redeemed, by our encounter with the divine? Or is it just another tribe that we who are Christian (or post-Christian) belong to, an identity that marks us externally instead of internally (or eternally)? Is it political or apolitical?

Or maybe all of it? Or none of it?

I regularly come up with reasons for wanting to delve into this. My own sense is that American Christianity is largely more tribalistic than spiritual. Which — though I’m quasi-agnostic these days — makes me feel less than charitable towards a lot of people who call themselves Christian.

Here’s my latest example:

Concern is mounting among evangelicals that Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, could lose his job following months of backlash over his critiques of President Trump and religious leaders who publicly supported the Republican candidate. Any such move could be explosive for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which has been divided over politics, theology and, perhaps most starkly, race.

More than 100 of the denomination’s 46,000 churches have threatened to cut off financial support for the SBC’s umbrella fund, according to Frank Page, president of the executive committee. The committee is studying whether the churches are acting out of displeasure with Moore because it has received more threats to funding over him than over any other “personality issue” in recent memory, said Page, who will meet with Moore today.

Now: I’m not Southern Baptist. Russell Moore’s theology is not my own. But he’s struck me as a sincere, thoughtful guy walking in his faith — in a very public way — as best he knows how.

Let’s back up here. What did Moore say that was so controversial anyway?

Well, this for example:

We should not demand to see the long-form certificate for Mr. Trump’s second birth. We should, though, ask about his personal character and fitness for office. His personal morality is clear, not because of tabloid exposés but because of his own boasts. His attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord. He tells us in one of his books that he revels in the fact that he gets to sleep with some of the “top women in the world.” He has divorced two wives (so far) for other women.

This should not be surprising to social conservatives in a culture shaped by pornographic understandings of the meaning of love and sex. What is surprising is that some self-identified evangelicals are telling pollsters they’re for Mr. Trump. Worse, some social conservative leaders are praising Mr. Trump for “telling it like it is.”

So Southern Baptists are angry at Moore … for a critique of Trump based on the longstanding Southern Baptist understanding of sexuality?

Now, Rebecca: I’m pretty sure the Southern Baptist sexual ethic isn’t mine, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t yours either. But it also seems pretty foundational to the Southern Baptist identity. Did I miss something?

I dunno. It bothers me when churches seem to so easily dispense with their message when earthly politics are on the line. If Russell Moore is forced from his job, it seems to me the Southern Baptist witness will be rooted in Trumpism rather than any particular understanding of the Christian faith or message. And I suspect that Trumpism, for all its faults, isn’t really rooted in the kind of eternal outlook you’d expect of a religion.

I’m still trying to make my thoughts cohere on this. I’m not Southern Baptist, but I’m offended at what I see as a wound to Southern Baptist integrity. Does that make sense? Am I weird?

And what the heck is Christianity supposed to be for, anyway?

— Joel

Resist the Internet? Not quite.

Without the Internet, I imagine I would’ve ended up with a nice, long career writing and editing for newspapers in small Kansas towns. This was the career track I was on, early in the Digital Era, before the Internet’s rise finally started to displace everything in its path. This would’ve been good.

Because of the Internet, I write regularly today for national outlets like Macworld and Vice.com — and because of the Internet, I got to leave my Kansas roots for awhile and live nearly a decade on the East Coast. It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything — and it has also been good, but in a very different way.

The Internet opens the world to me. The Internet floods me with too much information. The Internet forces me to be in contact with people from my past whom I’d sometimes like to shed. The Internet lets those people offer me support when times are rough. The Internet is too much for our minds and not enough for our souls.

In other words, the Internet is like any other human creation: It can be used for good. Or it can be abused to our detriment.

This may seem obvious, but it’s also worth asserting from time to time. There are lots of smart, bookish people who sometimes seem to regard the Internet as a malevolent force even as they surrender to its warm embrace. Take Ross Douthat’s column today, entitled “Resist the Internet”: Continue reading “Resist the Internet? Not quite.”

‘Faith, taken seriously, has consequences’

Joel and I have been in conversation for years now. As maybe this blog will reveal over time, he’s just the kind of friend to push your thinking forward when you are getting complacent, frustrated, stuck, inappropriately indignant, or just plain intolerable. We all need those kinds of friends, and I’m fortunate Joel has been one for me.

Like Joel’s story, my own isn’t the straightforward narrative of a “cradle Mennonite.” I grew up in rural Lancaster County, close to my Amish neighbors, who sold us raw milk, used our telephone in an emergency, and occasionally babysat us.  I was a wildly churched child, attending every Vacation Bible School in our rural area and hitching a ride to Sunday School from any neighbor who would tolerate me. In adolescence, I decided to stick with the Mennonites for reasons that were clear even at the time: every church preached that we should be like Jesus, and the Mennonites I knew best fit that description as I understood it at that time: patient with each other, humble, and radically hospitable, even in poverty. Like many adolescents, I detested bullshit, and the Mennonites addressed the hypocrisy of Christian support for war explicitly by calling it what it is—sin—and fighting against it.  The peace that comes from living with consistency was more appealing that anything any other faith could offer, and I’ve been Mennonite ever since.

My faith has been the least complicated part of my life. I’m not naïve about the Mennonite tradition, Mennonite organizations, or Mennonite people, but I continue to be inspired by the best of each. I fail often in my faith, but it never fails to provide me with a higher standard than that which I’d default to if I weren’t committed to the disciplines of simplicity and peace-making. After decades of practice, I’ve got the hang of a lot of it—some of it ingrained since before I joined the church, from living in a Mennonite enclave. It informs my politics, my relational style, my parenting, my research, and my teaching in ways that I sometimes only become aware of after someone else points it out. I take that as a good sign but also as a reminder to always be critical about faith because faith, taken seriously, has consequences.

I consider this blog a public effort to do that well or at least often, even if we’re not talking about religion explicitly. And I’m grateful for the challenge and the chance to do it with a longtime friend.

— Rebecca