Putting the “You” In Church

One of the fascinating things to think about in this self-involved culture we love to call our own is the current situation in the churches. They live on the edge of a contradiction that is fascinating in its way.

As we all know, the traditional churches are losing parishioners at a rapid pace. After all, self-absorbed people don’t want to be told what to do and cajoled into making sacrifices when they are used to being stroked and entertained. Both Protestant and Catholic Churches have lost large numbers of members in recent years as many people raised in traditional churches either drop out of church altogether or transfer to other, more “friendly” churches that will give them what they want. What they want is to be entertained and this is what the mega-churches promise. And they deliver.

The Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas is the largest church in the United States. It is so big that they now hold their services in a renovated sports arena.Their services come complete with expensive coffee and doughnuts, lounge chairs, TVs, and a bookstore they can visit during or after the service as parishioners are welcomed in with messages designed to assure them that absolutely nothing will be asked of them (except for a small contribution); their need to be stroked as they were when young and in school will be continued and kneeling is optional; they may sit where they want and take in a service that is sure to thrill and delight them.

These devout people are assured that winning is a good thing and that God wants them to be wealthy. Three of the four largest churches in this country practice what is called “prosperity Christianity” which tells parishioners that God wants them to be rich.The self-esteem mantra is repeated steadily that assures them that they are special and that they will be successful if they really want to be successful — because God would never let them desire something they couldn’t achieve. As pastor Joel Osteen of the Lakewood Church says “God would not have put the dream in your heart if He had not already given you everything you need to fulfill it.”

The contradiction to all this comes once they are lured into the mega-church and they are then told that they really should love their fellow-man (except homosexuals, of course) — though they must love themselves first (repeating the false cliché that insists that self-adoration leads to healthy relationships with others). They are also told that God doesn’t want them to sin, even though He does want them to prosper. So under all the hype there is a trace of the traditional message of Christianity as Osteen and others of his ilk tell the gathered throng stories about St. Paul and Jesus that warm their hearts. He also admonishes his parishioners that they must “take time for people [most people]. . .learn to appreciate them. When you go to the grocery store, encourage the cashier. Be friendly.” There are also rules: no adultery, no idols, go to church, don’t lie, don’t steal, and don’t covet your neighbor’s stuff — faint echoes of the Ten Commandments. And this from a man who has been telling these people that first and foremost is their love of self and that God wants them to be successful and prosper.

The contradiction between self-adoration and the friendliness they are supposed to show toward [some of] their fellow humans (which frequently demands that they actually pay attention to others) is passed over lightly as people flock to the services and go home feeling good about themselves, assured that as long as they are pleasant to the cashier at the local grocery store they are living the good life and that while they must keep one eye on their weaknesses and make sure they don’t fall too deeply into sin, they are on the right track and doing just fine. And meanwhile the traditional churches where God comes first and parishioners are reminded to be humble and care about others see their pews slowly empty, their doors close, and the buildings turned into homes, apartments, or public houses.

For Better, For Worse

Living as I do in Minnesota where a referendum item regarding “same-sex marriage” on this year’s ballot has drawn considerable discussion and a great deal of wasted money on TV ads pro and con, I was interested that a New York appeals court declared a similar law in that state unconstitutional. As a Yahoo News story tells us:

NEW YORK (Reuters) – An appeals court in New York ruled on Thursday that a law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman is unconstitutional. It was the second federal appeals court to reject the law, which could go before the Supreme Court soon.

New York is the third state to rule the law unconstitutional and it is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue soon, since these cases involve the Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996 and the federal government at present does not recognize same-sex marriages. That should be interesting, though the verdict is predictable. But as a philosopher the entire issue strikes me as puzzling in the extreme. Same-sex marriages are “victimless crimes,” though I would not call them crimes at all. Why do we need laws prohibiting acts that do not involve harm to others? It reeks of paternalism. No one is getting hurt: on the contrary. These marriages are merely found to be offensive by the homophobes among us and those people should simply be told to shut up and find something to keep them busy.

In any event, the people most intimately involved are together because they love one another and that is supposed to be the cornerstone of the religion that harbors the greatest number of critics of same-sex marriage. The inconsistency is glaring. But consistency is the hobgoblin of tiny minds, as Emerson said. So we can take comfort in the fact that the critics of same-sex marriage are simply much smarter than the rest of us who embrace the laws of contradiction and seek to make sure our thinking is consistent and coherent. Right. (I never did agree with Emerson.) Of course in cases such as this there is very little thought of any kind involved, mostly just feelings — strong, often incoherent, feelings.

Seriously, folks, where’s the moral issue here? There is none. And why are states and the federal government wasting precious time and money on a non-issue when there are serious problems to be solved — or at least addressed? People are walking around with semi-automatic weapons in their pockets; the planet is under siege; and the economy is in the toilet while these overpaid politicians waste time discussing whether men should marry men or women marry women. This waste of time and money is the problem, not the pseudo-issue of whether persons who love one another should marry. It’s time to turn to problems that demand solutions and away from trivial issues that don’t deserve serious attention.

My Friend Danny

I met “Danny” over forty years ago when we first moved to this little town. He taught math and science in the local high school and he loved to play chess. He worked for a superintendent named Brundleson the kids called “the Nazi.” Brundleson liked to brag that he “ran a tight ship.” Every day Danny and the other teachers would have to walk in to the man’s office and smile and greet him with a handshake. If any teacher dared to utter a word of criticism at any point, he or she was gone. Danny wanted to start a chess club and wasn’t allowed to do so as the parents would think they were doing drugs, Brundleson said. Danny wanted to take his biology students across the road to examine pond life in a small lake nearby, but he was not allowed to because of the danger of crossing the road. Yeah, a “tight ship.”

Anyway, Danny lasted a couple of years and then moved away and after a year of travel he ended up in Appleton, Wisconsin teaching math in a middle school and, with his wife, running an “ABC” house that boarded students from around the country who were being deprived of an opportunity to get a good education by virtue of their social circumstances; they were transferred to cities like Appleton, Wisconsin. Denny and his wife took care of the eight students in addition to their full-time jobs. They were parents, tutors and friends.

As you may be starting to figure out, Danny was one who has given of himself all his life. He is one of the gentlest, most caring people I have ever met. He finds himself by losing himself in the lives of other people. After forty years in Wisconsin, he retired and decided to walk the Appalachian Trail — the whole trail from bottom to top. And he did it. After that he moved to Arkansas and started his retirement. But he read that an “Alternative School” for disadvantaged students needed teachers so he decided to go back to work. He has done that for eight years, working from 7:00 A.M. until 4:30 P.M. each week day, teaching math at all levels, breaking up fights, taking weapons from angry boys, counseling them, and generally being their friend. His wife has been after him to quit as the job is dangerous: many of the kids he works with are marginal criminals; all are “problem kids” that are sent to the schools because they don’t “fit in” anywhere else. Or they have been let out on parole and one condition of their freedom is attending school. It is dangerous work, indeed. But Danny feels it is important and he doesn’t see retirement in his future any time soon even though he is already drawing Social Security.

The man is one of the most balanced people I have ever met. To be sure, things bother him. He is concerned about politics and global warming. But he tends to channel that concern and focus on what he can take care of — the problem at hand. He never seems to get riled up. He is calm and collected. I expect that explains his success with troubled kids. He is like an oasis in a desert. It’s what attracts people to him, and he has many friends. But above all else, he is a person who has spent his life giving himself to others. And it seems to make him happy. Perhaps that is the secret: we benefit most by giving ourselves to others. It sounds selfish, but it is not: it is the heart of altruism — and Christian love.

Political Soft Shoe

It has been interesting to read about the political spin-off from President Obama’s announcement recently that he was in favor of gay marriages. Many a pastor around the country had to calm down enraged parishioners because they find in the Bible what they regard as clear evidence of God’s opposition to such an “unnatural” relationship.

But the spin-off has also affected other Democrats who are running for political office this Fall and they have been showing how adept they are at the old soft-shoe. In a recent Yahoo article Senatorial candidate  Tim Kaine from Virginia apparently supports Obama’s stand on gay marriage, but gets high marks for euphemism in coming out in favor of “equal relationships,” avoiding altogether the mention of the word “marriage.” “The underlying issue is: Should committed couples have the same legal rights and responsibilities? And the answer to that is an unequivocal ‘yes,'” Kaine, the former governor of Virginia now running for Senate, reportedly told the media Tuesday. “I believe in the legal equality of relationships… Just say I’m for relationship equality.”

Let’s ignore for the moment, the candidate’s slick soft shoe. There are two separate issues here, at least. On the one hand, neither the Federal government nor the President can legislate on this issue: they cannot order the states to allow gay marriages. Obama himself made that clear. It is a question of states’ rights and the states in many cases have already spoken — including North Carolina that recently voted overwhelmingly against gay marriage (which should make the Democratic Convention interesting in Charlotte this Fall!). But the second issue is one of the legal rights of married couples. Whether or not one happens to think that men should marry other men or women marry other women, the fact remains that if there is no marriage contract, very often members of these relationships are denied the right of equal treatment. They may not be able to inherit and or have any legal claim to property should there be a separation or death, for instance. In addition, if there are adopted children, the status of the child is in legal doubt, though the evidence suggests that children raised in a same-sex marriage are as healthy and well-adjusted as children raised in heterosexual marriages.

But aside from these technical issues, there is the larger issue of tolerance. The fact that a sitting President took a strong stand on a controversial issue (whatever his motives might have been) is like a breath of fresh air in the stuffy room of contemporary politics where the political dodge and the old soft-shoe are the moves of the day.  As a nation, we pride ourselves on being honest and tolerant. And in many ways we are  — certainly more tolerant about the rights of women than, say,  Middle Eastern countries where women aren’t even allowed to uncover their faces in public or drive a car.

But we have little bragging room, since in issues such as the one before us at the moment we hear considerable outcry surrounding the president’s position on gay marriage and much of it comes from those who pride themselves on being the most devout members of the Christian churches in this country,  We read, for example, that Some churches were silent on the issue. At others, pastors spoke against the president’s decision Wednesday—but kindly of the man himself. A few blasted the president and his decision. A minority spoke in favor of the decision and expressed understanding of the president’s change of heart. I cannot for a moment think that the founder of that particular religion looks on with approval. But then the history of the Christian church in the West is a history of intolerance, including the Inquisition that went on in Spain for several hundred years, and the persecution of witches and other non-believers in this country by the Puritans early on. Perhaps it is time for those who call themselves “Christian” and cannot find anything in their religion about love of their fellow humans to read and take to heart the New Testament. In the meantime, we will continue to admire the politicians in this country who are most adept at the political soft shoe and the ability to say something without actually saying anything. We might at least get some entertainment value for our tax dollars.

Conservative Numbers

A recent story from ABC news about the growing number of “conservative” voters around the country raises interesting questions. The story reads, in part, as follows:

“Even the general public has increasingly leaned to the right. In a Gallup poll last month, 40 percent of Americans identified themselves as conservative, 35 percent as moderate and 21 percent as liberal. The numbers marked the third straight year that conservatives outnumbered moderates, which have declined steadily since the early 1990s. . . .

“‘In recent years, conservatives have become the single largest group, consistently outnumbering moderates since 2009 and outnumbering liberals by 2 to 1. Overall, the nation has grown more ideologically polarized over the past decade,’ the analysis stated. ‘The increase in the proportion of conservatives is entirely the result of increased conservatism among Republicans and independents, and is also seen in Americans 30 and older — particularly seniors.'”

I especially like the last sentence where we are told that the proportion of conservatives has increased because of “increased conservatism.” Is it just me, or is that circular? It tells us nothing. In fact, the entire article tells us very little because (as I have said before) we really don’t know what these terms mean.

But there are several reasons why the country as a whole seems to be drifting to the political right. To begin with, the population is aging and as we grow older we tend to become more conservative — meaning we don’t like change. And, given that we are talking about “dollar conservatism,” in a weak economy people naturally want to hold on to their money. Nothing startling here.

But the really interesting question is why people tend to become conservative in the first place. As suggested, we tend to be more liberal when we are young and more conservative as we grow older. The key factor, it seems to me, is fear of uncertainty. As young people we fear change less because we are more hopeful (naive?) that change will bring us success (in the terms we tend to measure success in this country). The young tend not to fear much of anything: they think they are invincible. As we grow older we realize that we are not invincible and that change doesn’t always translate into success. In a word, we become more fearful. And this seems to be the root of the issue.

Again, using the terms in the rather loose way we use them, the people who identify themselves as “conservative,” include those in the camp of the spiritually certain who fear that the country is going to the devil. In the middle of that group are those who want to do away with sex education, the teaching of evolution, reintroduce prayer in the schools, and/or do away with government entirely. But the “conservative” group also includes many who do not identify themselves as Christian enthusiasts but who are nevertheless fearful of change in any form. There is some reason for this as the face of the world seems to exhibit so many frowns at present. There are a great many things to fear in a world in which not only the economy is tottering, but violence is forever in the news, terrorism is an ever-present possibility anywhere and at any time, and hatred seems to be the rule of the day. It takes a person who is either in denial or who has a great deal of hope to be sanguine these days. And there seems to be a smaller number of these people as each day passes.

Hope is regarded in the New Testament as one of the three cardinal virtues, along with faith and love. And the hope mandated in the New Testament is based on the conviction that a better day is coming, and that particular conviction grows weaker every day — even among the religious right that should be the one group in this country that has hope in abundance. The expectation that there is a better world, the hope that we will be happier after we leave this world, has grown weaker since the First World War, as cultural historians have noted many times. As long as one focuses attention on this world — and especially on the kind of “lifestyle” one wants to achieve in this world — there can be hope only as long as there is considerable optimism, as there was in this country just prior to the Great War. And as things in this world seem more and more uncertain and even frightening, it follows that we will become more and more conservative, clinging to the things we know and are closest to us and fearing anything that threatens to take those things away.

In a word, it stands to reason that as a culture the more we focus on this world the more fearful we become. The more fearful we become the more conservative. The thing we fear most is change, because there is too much of it, and it always seems to make things worse. Conservatism grows along with uncertainty and fear.

What Would Jesus Say?

The latest action opposing the teachings of the New Testament has recently come out of a church in Kentucky where we read: “Nine members of Gulnare Freewill Baptist Church backed their former pastor, with six opposed, in Sunday’s vote to bar interracial couples from church membership and worship activities. Funerals were excluded.” Reading this put me in mind of an incident that took place during my first year as an undergraduate in Annapolis, Maryland. One of my classmates, an African-American woman made the “mistake” of attending a Catholic Church near the college on a Sunday. She was met at the door by the priest after the service who told her that there was another Church on the other side of town that she should attend; she should not go back to his church.

What’s going on here? One must assume that members of the congregation are uncomfortable having to socialize with people who have a different lifestyle or different colored skin. But isn’t that what the New Testament is all about? — making people uncomfortable, people who have been aptly described by E.M. Forster in The Longest Journey, people who “live together without love. They work without conviction. They seek money without requiring it. They die, and nothing will have happened, either for themselves or for others.” Don’t such people need to be awakened, disturbed out of their complacency and self-absorbed, materialistic lives and led to higher, spiritual pursuits that will almost certainly require sacrifice and even, at times, unpleasantness, but which will almost certainly be  better? One begins to wonder if the Churches have forgotten their mission, which is to lead people to an imitation of Christ, and away from business as usual.

The pastor of the Baptist Church in Kentucky took the lead in building walls between his congregation and those would become members of that congregation, based, no doubt, on a selective reading of the Bible. As I read it, Christ preached love, not hate, charity not bigotry. In Matthew, Christ says “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Note the inclusive “all” here.

The vote of these pious Baptists echoes the political movement to foster hatred of gays — who are also God’s children — and prohibit marriages between couples who aren’t just like us. But it is clearly antithetical to the New Testament where Christ’s words are recorded and where one can find only open arms and a willingness to embrace everyone (including thieves and prostitutes) and where one cannot find proscriptions against universal membership in a church that pretends to preach His word.

Of considerable interest to me is the exception of funerals. Are these fools trying to say something? Or just throwing a bone to demonstrate that they are not complete idiots? Too little, too late.