Saturday, September 1, 2012

Simultaneously Embracing the Magical, Mythical, Empirical, and Rational

Eric Elnes, Senior Pastor of Countryside Community Church (UCC), has begun thinking about what he sees as a "convergence" trajectory for post-evangelical Christians and postliberal Christians.  He thinks those two groups are moving toward one another from different places.  He has written a great blog post, "The Characteristics of Convergence Christianity," in which he identifies "something these communities [both post-evangelicals and postliberals] generally are letting go of, and the new reality they generally are embracing."

His remarks are interesting, but not all of them describe who I am or what I see in others who are postliberal progressives.  For instance, he begins by saying, "They are letting go of the notion that their particular faith is the only legitimate one on the planet."  Perhaps post-evangelicals are letting go of that, but "the notion that their particular faith is the only legitimate one on the planet" has not been part of the liberal or postliberal tradition.  Most of his twelve characteristics, in my view, describe what post-evangelicals are letting go of.  I would like to think about what postliberals are letting go of and what we are embracing.

A note on terminology: Eric speaks of postliberals, while  I speak of postliberal progressives.  I have never identified myself as a postliberal.  Some who use that label or who have that label applied to them seem to have returned to traditional Christianity rather than moving on to a new form beyond liberalism.  If I were to think of myself as a postliberal, I would therefore think of myself as a postliberal progressive rather than simply as a postliberal, which might include both postliberal progressives and postliberal traditionalists.

So what is it that I think postliberal progressives are letting go of, and what are we embracing?  W
hat follows in the next few paragraphs comes in response to questions posed to me by my good friend Danny Nettleton, whose poetry blog, Words and Spaces, you should definitely follow.

Persons in different stages of faith, a la James Fowler's Stages of Faith, experience different socially constructed realities. Faith is experienced differently for persons in different stages, and truth is understood differently. When I was in a magical stage of faith and first learned that Jesus said faith the size of a mustard seed could move mountains, I prayed that God would move the barn across the road to show me I had enough faith. Is it true that faith moves mountains? Was my prayer a true prayer? Was my lack of faith responsible for the barn never moving? Was Jesus untrue when he said this? (Did Jesus even say it? A question from a later stage of faith.)

Since the Enlightenment, empiricism and rationalism have been privileged over other ways of knowing and over other kinds of truth. This has brought us great boons, including boons in the realm of the critical study of religion. Historical criticism helps us to understand the context of the writings in the Bible, and it helps us to figure out who wrote what when.  Rationalism and empiricism help us decide that some of the things written in the Bible can't be true in the sense that empiricism and rationalism dictate. Some people have bought into the Enlightenment paradigm to the extent that they see truth only in this way. The magical and mythical elements can't be true for them. This is grounded in the work of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theologians, biblical scholars, and religious scholars who sought to demythologize Christianity. I once was there, thinking we had to rid Christianity of its mythical elements.

Postmodern thought, though, has discredited this imperialistic notion that empiricism and rationalism have a monopoly on truth. Paul Ricoeur writes about coming through the stringent criticisms the "masters of suspicion" have about religion, taking those criticisms to heart, but returning to the myth and the magic in a willed naïveté or second naïveté. This is not a return to a pre-critical understanding of religion but a re-embracing of ways of knowing that the critical methods of the Enlightenment had cast away. Fowler calls this the "conjunctive" stage of faith, holding in paradoxical tension positions that seem to be antithetical to one another.

Eric Elnes, with whom I began this blog post, in addition to being pastor and author, is the host of an online show, Darkwood Brew, which its website describes as "a mind-opening exploration of Christian faith for the modern world. This weekly program blends ancient worship practices developed by Benedictine monks with cutting-edge media technology."  In one episode, Eric speaks with Brian McLaren via Skype (Skype interviews are a regular part of each episode) about the notion of Convergence Christians.  At around 34:00, McLaren speaks about Ricoeur's notion of the willed, second naivete and about some mainline Christians becoming post-critical Christians.  This is exactly what I think postliberal progressives are letting go of and what we are embracing.

What would this look like?  How can I let go of empiricism and rationalism as the only forms of truth and still embrace magic, myth, and empirical, rational forms of knowing simultaneously?  In another Darkwood Brew episode, Failing, Falling and Flying: Genesis Stories of Original Grace – Week 1: “Imago Dei – Rethinking Our Creation”, Eric incarnates this posture perfectly.  He has a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Princeton.  (To my chat buddies on Darkwood Brew, drink!  Inside joke, for everyone else.  Sorry.)  He has a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Princeton, so he utilizes the best critical scholarship regarding the creation story in Genesis 1, but instead of demythologizing them, he explains their message in relation to another, influential creation myth existing at the time that the biblical story is being told, written, and edited.  He contends that Genesis 1 is a creation myth written in conversation with the creation myth of the Babylonians, found in the Enuma Elish.  He notes both similarities and differences between the two texts and says that reading only the Bible without understanding the Enuma Elish is like overhearing one side of a telephone conversation.  We might think we know what Genesis 1 is saying, but without hearing the Enuma Elish, its conversation partner, we can't get the real gist.  I encourage you to watch this wonderful episode, but I'll share just a couple of Eric's points.  

In the Enuma Elish, creation is the result of the slaying of an ocean goddess, symbol of chaos, in the form of a dragon or sea serpent, by a storm god.  The heavens and earth are created when her body is cut down the middle.  Human beings are formed from the clay of the earth by the gods and infused with the blood of the slain chaos monster.  In this view, we are inherently chaotic and violent.  In contrast, Genesis 1 has no such violence and, while Genesis 2 has the first human formed from the dust of the earth, it is God's own breath that makes humanity a living soul.  In Genesis 1, humanity is created in God's image, but, in the Enuma Elish, only the king is created in the image of the gods.  Eric is saying that the stories in Genesis 1-11 are largely a conversation with the Enuma Elish and function as both a counter-narrative and a cautionary tale.  When the serpent, symbol in Genesis 2 of the Babylonian myth, whispers in our ears and we think of ourselves in the way the Babylonian myth characterizes human beings, we do descend into chaos and violence, but we are not created to be that way.
In seminary I learned everything about the Enuma Elish that Eric mentions in this episode, but I think it's important to think this way about the Bible in the context of the convergence with which this post began.  Eric uses the best of critical study of the Bible—Enlightenment tools—not to demythologize the Bible but to help us better appreciate the message and the power of the mythical elements in Genesis.  This, I think, is precisely what postliberal progressives are embracing, but it is only possible to do so after we have let go of the notion that empiricism and rationalism are the only forms of truth.

Are post-evangelicals also arriving at this spot?  I'm not sure of that.  Post-evangelicals like Brian McLaren seem to be arriving there, so some post-evangelicals are there or will be there at some point.  Postliberals and post-evangelicals are coming from different places, though, and are moving in different directions.  We may converge on the same territory for a while, or at least similar territories, but it may wind up being the case that we part ways again as we continue on our respective journeys.  I am not yet convinced that convergence is the best metaphor for the cross-fertilization that is taking place between post-evangelicals and postliberal progressives, but I will be happy to walk with post-evangelicals as long as we are in the same vicinity.  

And I am very excited that there seems to be some sort of movement among progressives to become the kind of conjunctive Christians Fowler describes, to take on Ricoeur's willed, second naïveté.  I think this could breathe fresh life into mainline churches, as long as we don't try to hang on to the institutional aspects that are so obviously failing.  But that is another blog post.

(Also published at

Monday, August 20, 2012

Why I Keep Ranting about Gay Rights: Part 2 — Me and My Shadow

This is my second post in a short series about experiences that have contributed to my quite vocal advocacy for gay rights.  My first post tells about my feeling of liberation upon encountering the critical study of religion and of learning to interpret the Bible in ways other than literally.  This post will be about encountering my own shadow and having the powers that systemically oppress unmasked.

While in seminary, I was the white pastor of an African-American congregation.  I had grown up in a family that made racist remarks on occasion and in a community that was completely bereft of African Americans.  Racial slurs coming from the mouth of my friends were not uncommon, nor were racially derogatory jokes.  My father once, upon seeing a mixed-race couple in a car, exclaimed to my sister and me that he'd better never see us do anything like that.  When filling out my housing application for college, he made me write in the "Special Considerations" section that "I am a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant with deep Southern convictions."  I remember those words exactly because they troubled me considerably.  This was 1980.  I had been a voracious reader growing up and had read a lot about racism in the South.  (I know there is racism everywhere, but I mention the South because of what Dad made me write.)  I was from poor, rural Kentucky and had no "deep Southern convictions" of the kind he had in mind.  I nevertheless complied.

Seven years later, I went to this African-American congregation with the naive notion that my commitment to the gospel and my conscious repudiation of racism had eradicated it from within me.  Simply put, I was wrong.  Regardless of my conscious decisions and my exercise of will, there were times when I was afraid while walking in my own neighborhood at night.  I would meet an African-American male or a group and would sometimes think, "I wonder if they know who I am.  If they don't know, I wonder if they will attack me for being a white guy in the black part of town at night."  During the four years I was there this fear eventually left me, but at first it was pretty powerful.  I didn't want to be afraid.  I consciously repudiated whatever it was that was bubbling up from within me, but it was there nonetheless.

Early in seminary, in a Pastoral Care and Counseling class, I began to learn about unconscious behavior, about family-systems theory that talked about individuals fulfilling roles because the family system demand they do so, and about the notion of the shadow.  (Some people feel that the very terminology of the shadow and its negative connotations is itself racist.  I haven't decided what I think about that, but I will use the familiar terminology of the shadow for clarity.)  The shadow might be understood as everything about oneself of which one is not consciously aware (Jung), or it might refer to the aspects about oneself that one doesn't want to acknowledge and so it gets repressed (Freud).  In this second understanding of the shadow, it is almost completely negative.  I do think this is true and that it plays itself out personally, socially, societally, and systemically.

During the time I was there, I read an article about social justice by, I think, the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church, my particular denomination.  It suggested, in order to understand systemic injustice as distinct from personal prejudice, that the reader walk around their own neighborhood and simply pay attention to the condition of the sidewalks.  I did just that.  I walked all over that small town in central Kentucky, noticing nothing but the sidewalks.  In the affluent parts of town, the sidewalks were perfect.  In other parts of town, they were functional but not perfect.  But in the parts of town in and near the housing projects (where I lived, by the way), the sidewalk might as well not be there.  Chunks of it were missing.  Sometimes it would disappear for blocks.  Sometimes adjacent sections of the sidewalk might be inches or even a couple of feet apart in height, like an earthquake had hit it.   

I delved deeper into the concept of social justice, and I learned about systemic classism, systemic racism, systemic sexism; and I would soon couple that with systemic heterosexism.  There are structures in place that benefit some people at the expense of other people.  This is not the same as personal prejudice.  Sometimes people with no personal prejudice benefit from these structures without even realizing it.  Look at me, a white, straight, male.  I benefit from systemic injustice without even wanting it.  People treat me differently simple because of this.  

Sometimes, though, structures exist to enact prejudicial treatment, while masking the personal aspect of it.  “I’m not racist, but there are laws against whites and blacks going to school together.”  “I’m not sexist, but the rules say that only men can be in this club.”  This systemic expression of the shadow goes beyond the personal.

I saw this in action after an instance of racial violence in the high school while at the congregation I've been talking about.  As my congregation expected its pastor to be active in the community to further and to protect its interests, I was part of the conversation afterward.  Sometimes the school administration invited me to meetings about the event that it didn’t invite the African-American pastors in town (see my above comments on white privilege).  I guess they thought I was on their side.  Here’s their side: The black kids, of course, started the fight that turned into a riot.  They started the fight by being on the wrong side of the hall.  In the mind of these (all white) administrators, the African-American kids were in the wrong simply by being in the “white” zone.  This was in 1990, if you can believe it.  Believe it.  

Another instance involved small children being terrorized on the bus by others writing racial slurs in the fog on the bus windows.  The mother reported this, and the administration’s response was basically, “Kids will be kids.”  They did nothing.  This mother and her two small children sat in my living room, telling me about it.  They were hoping and expecting that I could do something about it.  I did speak to the school administrators, but they didn’t think it was important enough to worry about.  In the end, the only thing I could do was to tell those children that they were beautiful, that God had made them with skin that is a beautiful color just like God made me with skin that is a beautiful color, being “black” was beautiful just like being “white” was beautiful, that the kids who wrote those mean things didn’t know that yet, but that maybe they would learn it someday.  The mother wept and thanked me, saying she’d never heard a white person say anything like that before.  That’s quite a “something” that happened to me, something that has changed me forever.

My last post in this short series will apply my North Star of biblical interpretation and my understanding of the personal and systemic shadow to the issue of gay rights.  Once again, I want to thank you for reading this.  I know that the forthcoming post about gay rights will contain opinions and perspectives with which some of you will not agree.  I can only offer them as my own.  I love you and respect you, but I wholeheartedly think that Christians who oppose gay rights are misusing the Bible and are engaged in behavior, whether conscious or stemming from the "shadow," that systemically oppresses a class of people.  And, if you are one of those persons, I will oppose you.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Reprehensible Ethics that Underpin Paul Ryan's Politics

Now that Romney has chosen Paul Ryan as his running mate, I've decided to write briefly on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, whom Ryan credits as the inspiration for his policies and proposals.  I'm particularly concerned with Ryan's draconian budget proposal and his proposals to privatize Social Security and to eliminate Medicare and Medicaid.  There are many places where the budget and his other proposals are critiqued, but I want to write about Rand's philosophy.  Ryan's proposals are not merely compatible with Rand's philosophy, but he credits her philosophy as the bedrock of his own thought.  His only caveat is that he does not agree with her atheism.  My perspective on this is that there is much more about her philosophy that is antithetical to Christianity than her atheism, which is of absolutely no concern to me.

I've read Atlas Shrugged and several, but not all, of the essays that comprise The Virtue of Selfishness.  I find her explication of ethics as solely self-interest to be reprehensible.  She sums it up: "Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life."  The Ayn Rand Institute adds this addendum, which is completely consistent with what I've read in The Virtue of Selfishness: "Thus Objectivism rejects any form of altruism—the claim that morality consists in living for others or for society."  

This, I think, is the antithesis of every form of spiritual wisdom, which she reviled, whatever the tradition.  I also wholeheartedly disagree with her metaphysics, epistemology, and politics, but mainly because they express her ethics, just from a different angle.

I do agree that one should not sacrifice others for oneself, but the systems that would be set up by objectivism do just that.  Just because an individual does not personally stand on the throat of another individual, that doesn't mean the systems set up don't function in that way for the benefit of the so-called "producers" over against the so-called "looters" or "moochers" Rand describes in Atlas Shrugged.

Rand's entire philosophy centers around the idea that an individual owes nothing to any other person or, even worse from the perspective of objectivism, to any group of people.  It sees everything that an individual owns as solely owned by that individual, with no social or societal obligation.  An individual may choose to provide care for another individual, usually a family member, but that is only because it is in the rational self-interest of the individual to continue genetically through offspring.  But, even then, it would be left up to the individual as to whether one extends care (functional care, not psychological feelings) or whether one withholds it.  Any other instance in which one sacrifices for others is ethically wrong, according to Rand.

A society grounded in this philosophy would be, in my estimation, a horror.  No other political philosopher (and I don't know of any actual philosophers who hold to objectivism) sees society in this manner, not the most optimistic about human beings and not the most pessimistic.  The Enlightenment political philosophers whose underpinnings are most responsible for the establishment of the modern democratic or republican state -- Kant, Hobbes, Locke, and Jefferson -- all speak of a social contract.  Hobbes, who was the most pessimistic about human nature, saw the state as a monster, hence _Leviathan_ as the title of his most well-known work, but a necessary monster to which individuals cede some measure of our autonomy (sovereignty) because the alternative, humanity in our "natural" state, is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."  That's what I see if any society were to embody Rand's objectivism, which is what Ryan would like to see.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Why I Keep Ranting about Gay Rights: Part 1 — My North Star of Biblical Interpretation

Someone on a Facebook thread a few days ago said that something must have happened to me in the past to make me have such a strong conviction in favor of gay rights.  That same person later described my expression of said convictions to be ranting.  So I decided to explain why I keep “ranting” about gay rights.  I’m going to break up this explanation into a few separate blog posts.

I didn’t start out life with a rant in mind.  I grew up in rural Kentucky in the 1970s, and I learned stereotypical homophobia from the guys I ran around with.  We made jokes about the sexuality of one another, implying that whomever was the butt of our joke (don’t make anything out of that) was gay.  But we didn’t know anything about real gay people whatsoever.  There were certain individuals in school who were rumored to be gay.  There were a few guys who had what we thought of as effeminate characteristics and a few girls who seemed masculine to us.  Quite frankly, I never really cared, but, to my shame today, I engaged in the same anti-gay banter into which I had been enculturated.

In college, one of the “somethings” that must have happened to me for me to so strongly express solidarity with the civil-rights struggle of GLBTQI persons actually happened.  This first “something” that happened to me was that I learned to think critically.  That’s one of the things a good education teaches, despite the Texas Republican Party’s insistence otherwise.  I learned to examine my own prejudices and to re-evaluate them, particularly, as a pre-ministerial student, my religious prejudices.  While a student at the same United Methodist college where I am currently the chaplain, I learned to apply these critical-thinking skills to religion in general and to the Bible in particular.
From Coda's Flickrsteram, 

This continued in seminary and is epitomized by what Old Testament professor Dr. George Coats said on the first day of class.  He told us about the first time he kissed the woman who would become his wife.  He described climbing a hill in his hometown in Texas.  He told about looking into the night sky after the kiss.  He held up a large print of a photo of the night sky.  He said that the facts were that the sky looked something like this.  But the truth, he said, holding up a print of van Gogh’s Starry Night, was that he experienced something like that.  He said that much of the Hebrew Scriptures were the artistic expression of a people who had experienced intimacy with God.  In the same way that Starry Night expresses a truth about the night sky and about the depth of what it means to be human that a factual photo cannot express, the Hebrew Scriptures contain both factual information and artistic expressions of faith that point to truth that mere facts cannot express.  This became my North Star of biblical interpretation and has been my approach ever since.  This is the first “something” that happened to me.   It guides me through the analysis of biblical criticism and beyond to a place where I can appreciate and appropriate what the biblical authors wrote during the intoxication of their intimacy with God without always having to view what they wrote in a literal or factual manner.  In doing so, I engage in what I consider to be part of my life’s mission – the integration of the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit.
From Wikipedia Commons

My next post will deal with my experience as the white pastor of an African-American congregation and my becoming a social-justice Christian as I learned about structures of racism that go far beyond personal prejudice.  I will finish with a post that applies both my North Star of biblical interpretation and my experience of structural racism to the issues of gay rights and marriage equality.

I don’t think my experiences or my perspective trump those of everyone else, and I thank you for taking the time to read about my perspective.  I offer it with love toward those who may disagree with me but with passion and conviction that the repression of persons for any reason, including that of sexual orientation, is contrary to the best impulses of Christianity.