Monday, January 21, 2019

Glimpsing God

Glimpsing God
            Theology can, of course, be a way of explaining God, putting God into words. It has also functioned as a bludgeon against those deemed “heretical” by a hierarchy—a way of determining who was in and who was out. Constantine wanted a united empire and brought his bishops together to establish clear theological boundaries. The bishops were empowered by the state to police these boundaries as a way to pursue heresy and, incidentally, preserve imperial power. Not long after construction of this wall of ecclesiastical and state power, the decline and fall of the empire blew it up. The western church was forced to reimagine itself through monasticism. And in the east “heretics” endured and flourished in spite of state oppression. The “monophysite” churches, in fact, endure to this day. 
The western church, of course rebuilt itself on the basis of papal power and the work of centuries of philosophers and theologians. The church continued to link its authority to that of the state and even, at times, was able to cow some of the most powerful rulers in Europe. Heretics were burned at the stake with the connivance of the state and the faithful were at times as cowed as their rulers. But those carefully constructed theologies and practices binding Europe together were unraveled by Renaissance humanism and a verbal battering ram named Martin Luther. Dr. Luther and his fellow reformers in Geneva and Zurich thought to found their theologies on the Bible and not on the traditions of the fathers and the Roman hierarchy. But the growing independence of emerging states and rulers and the very different ways the various reformers read the Bible meant the old medieval unity was gone forever. “Heretical” groups like the Anabaptists flourished in spite of the attempts of the magisterial Reformers to suppress them. 
Further attempts to reclaim authority for the church and its theology in the 18thand 19thcentury were thwarted by the Enlightenment and the rise of democracy. Now the individual had not only the right but the responsibility to pursue and decide the truth for her or himself. Alongside reason and tradition was experience—the evidence of one’s own eyes, ears, and heart. Ecclesiastical hierarchies railed against this. Individual experience, they insisted, is fallible, subjective, subject to wishful thinking and self-deception.  And so it is. But that is the lot of all human beings and all human opinions—those of the ecclesiastical hierarchy included. In the end there is no safe ground, no secure footing.  Our frantic attempts to build walls and keep out unwanted questions and unwelcome opinions are as doomed as a sandcastle in the path of a tsunami.
But what if these repeated destructions of our attempts to build walls and create boundaries are actually being thwarted, not by human sin and frailty, but by the Spirit? What if the Spirit was moving in monasticism in the wake of Rome’s collapse? What if the Spirit was moving in the Reformation’s call to return to Scripture and the grace of God? What if the Spirit was moving in the Pietist rejection of rigid post-Reformation theologies? What if the Spirit was “strangely warming” Wesley’s heart and empowering Charismatics? What if this was God’s way of breaking up our attempts to control him? Box him in? In every case after the wind of the Spirit blew, there were attempts to build wind tunnels—human structures to channel and control God’s power. In every case this led to corruption and decline. We see this clearly in the ongoing, frantic effort of the Evangelical community to set its own interpretation of the Bible in concrete—to build a wall!
In Exodus 33 Moses asks to see God and is told he can only see his glory as he passes--only his back, not his face. In his recent book, He Held Radical Light, poet Christian Wiman uses this incident to speak of the artist’s inspiration as well as the believer’s experience of God. Both are fleeting and not finally subject to human control. In the words of A. E. Stallings,
            I know her only by her flowing
            By her glamour disappearing
            Into shadow as I’m nearing—
            I only recognize her going.
Stallings speaks of the poetic imagination, the muse. I would speak of God—the Spirit that Jesus said blows where it will and is not subject to frightened hierarchies. I will follow that wind of love; I will let it fill my sails with hope; I will live in faith in the midst of all my uncertainties.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Damning Freedom

During my doctoral studies I had a seminar with a visiting Old Testament professor from Sweden. The course in question was on the books of Proverbs. Each class, he told us, we would be assigned a passage from Proverbs to translate from Hebrew.  He would ask one of us to translate and lead a discussion on the meaning of the passage in question.  Evidently this was a bit too loose for one of my colleagues. “Will there be a final exam?”, he asked. “Most of our professors give final exams.” The professor looked a bit startled. “A final exam? Well, if you want a final exam, I can give a final exam.” The rest of us could have killed him. The professor was offering us a kind of freedom that evidently made my fellow student nervous. He needed something concrete to establish his worth as a student; something he could point to that would demonstrate his accomplishment. Translating and discussing the passage would, of course, be challenging. But an exam with a grade at the top would provide of means of assessment that was for him evidently easier to quantify and appreciate.
It is difficult to live in freedom. Like my colleague, many people insist on knowing the boundaries, following the rules, obeying the commands. They need to know where they stand, they need a grade—they need a final exam! And not only do they insist on the “final exam” for themselves, they want to impose it on the rest of the class! The professor wanted the mutual accountability of colleagues reading the text together. My fellow student wanted the exam, evidently, to help him evaluate whether he, and for that matter, the rest of us, was meeting the expectations of the teacher. The professor’s working assumption was trust and collegiality. The student’s working assumption was distrust and individuality.  Without an  external standard of judgment—the exam—we could not be trusted or fairly evaluated. Was he afraid the professor would not be fair? Was he worried someone in the class would get away with something? Did he simply need to be able to know the rules and follow them? Did freedom make him nervous? Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Paul said, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.” But it is hard to be free.
In Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov a character tells the story of the Grand inquisitor in  15th century Spain. He hears that Jesus has come to town and has him arrested and imprisoned. In the dungeon he asks Jesus why he has returned to trouble the church. It had taken the church hundreds of years to correct his mistake of offering people the gift of freedom. “They can’t handle such a gift,” the Inquisitors insists. “They are rebellious and ignorant, they need a firm hand and guidance. Why didn’t you listen to the devil?” he wonders. “He gave you good advice: offer them bread, mystery, and miracles and they will fall at your feet. Offer them freedom and they will cower in fear or act out like fools.” Jesus remains silent through all this. At the end he kisses the old man who trembles and tells his to go and not come back. 
Throughout its history the church has far too often been like my friend (who later regretted his actions!) or the Grand Inquisitor. Trusting neither the mutual accountability of a local community or the integrity and discernment of the individual it has sought to impose rules and boundaries and creeds. It has produced canon law and set regulations for pastors and churches. These rules have been meekly accepted; freedom has been abdicated. The church has been like the man in Jesus’ parable: freed from demonic possession but  fearing that freedom, it has welcomed an even worse band of demons so that its latter state is worse than its first. Years ago in a Sunday School class a wise teacher asked us to ponder who made the hardest rules to live by, God or the Devil. It was a good question and I have considered it the rest of my life. God wants us to live in freedom—and while it may be hard work, it is joyful, glorious work. The Devil wants us tangled in self-doubt, fear, and insecurity. In spite of the work required to be free, the prospects of a fear-based, rule-guided life are much harder, much bleaker. Such a life attenuates us and cripples us. It renders us forever childish, immature and incapable of stepping into the glorious freedom of the daughters and sons of God. The life bounded by “rules” and “final exams” appears to be wise and cautious. But such rules are not the work of God, the God who sets us free. Around them one rather catches a whiff of sulfur. 

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

How Churches Die

            In a 1988 essay, “The Work of Local Culture”, Wendell Berry argues that local cultures collapse into distrust when community members no longer know one another’s stories or trust one another’s motives. Public officials and professionals, distrusting their constituents and clients, protect themselves with expensive insurance. Country doctors “send their patients to specialists in the city, not necessarily because they believe that they are wrong in their diagnosis, but because they know they are not infallible and they must protect themselves against lawsuits, at great expense to us.” Neighbors, wary of one another and quick to sniff out perceived attempts to take advantage or overstep perceived communal boundaries, control one another with covenants and bylaws, This is when communities once formed around common stories and common loves collapse into organizations formed around rules and their enforcers. Sociologists call this a move from a gemeinschaft (communal structure) to a gesellschaft (a corporate structure).
            This has happened over and over again in the history of the church. Anarchic movements full of life and Spirit are fenced in by the purse lipped devotees of “law and order”. Constantine was not concerned about “the truth” when he brought those bishops to Nicaea, he was concerned about the unity of his empire. Various creeds and confessions were developed to protect the powerful, keep out the riff-raff and to make it clear who should be incinerated for heresy. The people in charge, whether they are kings or bishops, priests or pastors, presidents or superintendents are not fans of chaos—or what they perceive as chaos. Such people tend to like straight lines, clear boundaries, and compliant constituencies. They do not trust the outliers, the innovators, the questioners. And so they are eager to draw lines, to make rules, to make sure the outliers remain outside.
            When a “life movement” can no longer trust its pastors and lay leaders to exercise pastoral and communal discernment, when it requires “rules” to silence and conform, it is no longer a community of colleagues and friends with common stories and common hopes, but a corporation guided by an increasingly powerful hierarchy. The accountability of local community, the trust in the wisdom and compassion of pastors and lay leaders, is discarded for the exercise of regulatory powers at times brutally enforced. This high level of control is piously masked as a concern for the “truth” but is often rooted in fear—the loss of power, resources, and reputation.  This has been repeated over and over in the history of the Christian church and in a variety of denominations.  Perhaps it is inevitable for “life movements” to become organizations and communities to become corporations. But there is something terribly sad about it. 
            Some years ago I heard a speaker use an arresting image. She suggested that a fire in a home was a good thing as long as it stayed in the fireplace. If you start a fire in the middle of the living room, you can burn the house down. On the other hand, if you get so concerned about the fire that you rob it of fuel and oxygen you put the fire out and rob the house of its essential heat. It is an appealing metaphor, subject, as are all metaphors to misunderstanding and misuse. It would be easy enough, after all, for a church or denomination to insist that the fire be built only in this particular fireplace. Be that as it may, when we try to control God and channel the Spirit, life and fire tend to burst out in spite of us—because that is God’s way. But we may find ourselves freezing and angry as the Spirit warms those more attuned to the fire of God’s love.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Rags to Riches or Riches to Rags?

“If you show special attention to the to the one wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you, but say to the one who is poor, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet’, have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts.”
James 2: 3,4

            Recently during an interview author Gary Shteyngart suggested that in the United States it is considered a moral failing to be poor. I was struck by the obvious truth of this statement. Our national myth suggests that if we are hard-working, ambitious, and diligent we can all eventually become hedge fund managers. Miserable childhoods full of abject poverty, wretched schools, and a lack of moral and spiritual models are seen as the excuses of losers.  On the other hand Shteyngart suggested, being rich frequently absolves one’s obvious moral failings or, at least, gives one the resources, not to mention the legal team, to obscure them. This has enabled politicians to despise the poor and use their plight to demonize their desires for equal opportunity and basic fairness. Such people, we are told, only want handouts, are lazy, even dangerous. The rich are lionized for being “wealth producers” even if their “wealth” is not returned to the community for “job creation” but squirreled away in an offshore bank. These days the wealth being produced  is demonstrably heading into the stuffed coffers of the already wealthy. 
            We Americans have always been dazzled by success—especially the “rags to riches” stories—the poor boy who becomes a mogul; the poor girl who marries a prince (I use these examples advisedly). That such stories are few and far between has not caused them to lose their luster. The “self-made” man (again I use this advisedly) is still most admired.  Nearly every politician no matter how rich and privileged wants to claim this mantle, to tell their own rags to riches story. I have always thought these stories rather like “personal testimonies” I have heard. I once was a sinner (a poor person), but by the grace of God (and success on the stock market or in real estate) I was saved (I became rich). Thus the rich person who clawed his or her way to wealth through whatever dubious means burnishes their reputation with a sheen of ersatz salvation. I once was lost (poor), but now am found (rich). The interaction of these stories is all the more plausible when the poor are demonized as moral failures.
            Why have large swaths of the Evangelical world been so resistant to efforts to support and encourage the poorest in the United States—especially if this includes government intervention? I would suggest a couple of reasons: Evangelicalism claims to believe we are “saved by grace” but really believe we are at least validated by “works”. The poor person, the person who has not made a success of his or her life is demonstrably morally deficient. If they were really “saved”, if they were really “moral” and “hard-working” they would obviously be successful. Their “failure” demonstrates their moral weakness. For this reason the poor, the unsuccessful, of whatever “race”, gender, or culture can be despised or condescended to. I see this as one of Evangelicalisms long-standing theological and spiritual failures. We have always been dazzled by wealth, celebrity and “success” (witness the Evangelical fawning over “Christian” celebrities and, for that matter, the entire megachurch movement). This has put us on the road to misery. “You say, ‘I am rich, I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing/’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” (Revelation 3:17). Someone once said, it takes a lot of humiliation to find a little humility. Perhaps that is what we will finally need as a country and as a church to recover our compassion, our generosity and hope.
John E. Phelan, Jr.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Perhaps We Should Just Shut-Up

Perhaps We Should Just Shut-Up

            Some years ago a student at North Park Theological Seminary where I taught argued in his MA thesis for what he called “a discipline of silence.” He referred this in particular to the relationship between the church and the Jews. He argued that the church’s horrendous treatment of the Jews over the centuries meant that it needed to earn the right to speak to Jews of what Christians had found in Jesus of Nazareth. I thought of this as I read the last letters of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his friend Eberhard Bethge. Bonhoeffer was sitting in a prison cell in Berlin awaiting trial for crimes against the German Reich. Within a few months of his most important letters to Bethge he would be murdered by the Nazis. In the last year of his life Bonhoeffer was distressed by the failures of the German Church—not only the “German Christians” who had capitulated to Hitler, but the “Confessing Church” that seemed to him only concerned about self-preservation. He was also scornful of those who felt they needed to convince perfectly contented people that there was really something deeply wrong with them; of those who needed to persuade others that they were right and all others were wrong; of those who had so little faith of their own that they hid “behind the notion of the ‘faith of the Church.’” He considered this “a cheap clerical excuse and is always perceived that way outside the church.” In modern lingo Bonhoeffer saw no authenticity in the German church or German Christians of his day. They were busy protecting their institutions and shoring up the structures of their beliefs but were not truly there for others.  “The church”, Bonhoeffer continues “is church only when it is there for others.” He concludes:
“The church must participate in the worldly tasks of life in community—not dominating but helping and serving. It must tell people in every calling
what a life with Christ is, what it means ‘to be there for others’. In particular, our church will have to confront the vices of hubris, the worship of power, envy, and illusionism as the roots of all evil. It will have  to speak of moderation, authenticity, trust, faithfulness, steadfastness patience, discipline and humility, modesty, contentment.”
[From an “Outline for a Book” he sent to Bethge in August 1944]

            Some years ago Rodney Stark argued that Christianity succeeded in the Roman world not because it persuaded the Romans of the truth of his assertions, but because it showed them a better way to live. It was “there for others” in its appeal to women and slaves, in its care for those afflicted with disease and poverty, in its formation of communities that functioned as places of refuge and family. This was corrupted by the worship of power, the hubris of certainty, and the illusion that one could answer all the questions and silence all opposition.
From this hubris, this illusion comes all the misery visited on human beings by the church—“heretics” whose understanding of the relationship between the human and divine in Christ was slightly different from the “great church”; Jews who were herded into ghettos, forbidden most professions, treated with contempt at best and brutalized at worst. People were burned at the stake for reasons theological or personal that we find bizarre or obscure. Women were accused of being witches and men of being sorcerers. And always and everywhere the church was enthusiastic to enforce conformity to its particular sexual values using the power of the state.

            Today the church, especially in its Evangelical and Roman Catholic forms,  seems confused that no one seems to listen to it anymore.  It is distressed that its values, especially certain ethical commitments (particularly sexual) are viewed with at best indifference and at most utter scorn.  And so it shouts even louder; it desperately seeks the power of the state to reinforce its commitments; it tries to persuade perfectly happy people that they are (or at least should be) miserable. Lately it seems that every time an Evangelical leader opens his (or very occasionally her) mouth they do more damage to the reputation of the church.  Every time they appeal to power they corrupt the mission of the church. Every time they condemn and mock their opponents—Democrats, liberals, mainline churches, the gay community, women, and even (especially) more “progressive” Evangelicals, they reduce their capacity to be “the church for others.”  And so I have a modest proposal. Perhaps you should shut up for a while; perhaps we should all shut up for a while! I do not mean we should not worship and teach and preach and write so as to form people capable of representing  Jesus Christ, the man for others. Quite the contrary! But we should give up attacking our “enemies” and serve them. We should not do this merely as a matter of pragmatism, but as an act of love. Perhaps, as Jesus did, we should even forbid them to tell who it was that served them or healed them. Perhaps in a few generations we would be formed by our discipleship and our very marginality, to have the right to speak again.

John E. Phelan, Jr.




Saturday, September 29, 2018

Reading Bonhoeffer in the Age of Trump

            Recently my Jewish friend and I were discussing the disastrous state of our national life. Since I am in the process of re-reading the works of the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer I cited his example of courage in the face of the rising fascism of his era. My friend chided me suggesting that our situation and Bonhoeffer’s were very different. The Nazi’s destroyed Germany’s institutions of democracy: elections, the press, and the courts. Today those institutions are still very much alive in America if not exactly well. Trump has attacked each one of them both before and after his election: he has raised questions about the legitimacy of our elections, called the press “the enemy of the people”, and is now is the process of attempting to pack the courts with right-wing ideologues rather than judges of honesty and integrity whether they lean left or right. The difference between Trump and Hitler, of course, is that Trump has no discernable ideology other than puffing his own ego, increasing his own power, and enriching himself, his family, and his friends. In pursuit of these aims he has lied and dissembled, cruelly attacked anyone who crossed him, and corrupted all who serve him. It will take us a generation to recover from his narcissistic bile, if we ever do.

            We should not have been surprised. His apparent lack of a moral core was demonstrated well before the election when he bragged about assaulting women and paid off prostitutes and porn stars to keep quiet about sexual liaisons. His dishonest business dealings were legendary and especially devastating to the small contractors his lawyers could bully and intimidate. I could go on. In spite of this the Evangelical world, my spiritual homeland through the majority of my life, showed itself as morally bankrupt as Trump himself. Jerry Falwell, Jr., Franklin Graham, James Dobson and a host of lesser lights fawned over Trump. They saw in him a way to silence women, shove gay people back into the closet, attack advocates for social justice with political impunity, and, especially, gain access to the power and influence they so desperately craved. Although some Evangelicals have shrilly claimed that this is not the true Evangelicalism, the large numbers of white Evangelical voters that enabled Trump’s election puts a lie to this. After all those sonorous words about the importance of moral probity and character in our leaders the Evangelical world swooned over a duplicitous, adulterous, sad little man. I repudiate the lot of them.

            One outcome of this has been, at least to me, surprising. I recently heard a group of progressive thinkers pondering what it meant to live an ethical life.  One woman said this was one of the major conversations in her circle of friends. Confronted with a total lack of ethical probity in the White House, the abject failure of many faith leaders on the right and the flaccidness of some on the left, some progressives are now pondering their own failures.  They are finding there is a difference between living an ethically robust life and political correctness. The latter could be a matter of checking an ideological box. The former requires a richly articulated set of values and convictions to ground one’s behavior in more than the current, passing moralistic fad. This has the potential of driving progressives back to the conversations so recently abandoned by Evangelicals in their quest for power: the nature of  personal character, communal standards of ethical conduct, and the wisdom located in the texts and traditions of the great religions of the world—including Christianity. And here, for me, is the value of reading Bonhoeffer. In the midst of creeping fascism Bonhoeffer was deeply rooted in his Christian, specifically Lutheran, texts and traditions. He possessed a moral narrative from which to challenge Hitler’s assault on Germany’s political, moral, and spiritual foundations. This grounding enabled him to resist all the way to the point of death. It is melodramatic to suggest our creeping fascism may lead to martyrdoms, but lacking a moral core and a spiritual grounding, we will much more easily give way to the seductive calls of wealth, power, and injustice.

John E. Phelan, Jr. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Are Evangelicals Devotees of a New Imperial Cult?

            It was not uncommon in the ancient world for rulers to be deified. In the case of the Roman empire deceased emperors were often elevated to divine status and temples built in their honor. Cities, particularly in the east, would vie for the right to promote a cult of the emperor as a way of currying favor in Rome and bringing in revenue. Eventually residents of the Roman Empire would be required to make offerings to the “genius” or spirit of the living emperor. Most people in the Roman world saw this as a political act, rather like standing for the national anthem, and were outraged that Christians refused to perform what they considered an ordinary civic duty. In John’s Revelation he describes a beast (some scholars think he is alluding to Nero) who had recovered from a fatal wound: “The beast is given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies” (Rev. 13:5). The Beast comes to dominate the world and moves against God’s people. A bit later John describes another beast who encourages the inhabitants of the earth to worship the first beast: “It ordered them to set up an image in honor of the first beast. . . . It also forced people, great and small . . . to receive a mark on their right hands and their foreheads, so they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark” (Rev. 13:14,16). Some scholars think this second beast is an allusion to the imperial priesthood who promoted the cult of the emperor and the mark an allusion to the requirement that citizens participate in the imperial cult in order to do business in Roman cities. John did not see this as a “civic duty” but nothing short of idolatry.
            Let me hasten to say that I do not think John’s Revelation is “prediction” in the normal sense of the term. I do not believe that Revelation 13 is referring to a “beast” yet to come who will dominate the entire world. I rather think that Revelation is a prophetic reflection on the threat of the Roman Empire to the emerging church and the dangers of compromise with its seductive power. Its enduring significance is that it speaks to the threat the state has always represented for the church (and always will). The state will consistently offer its power to the church only at the price of the church’s integrity and faithfulness to God--as the last 1500 years of church history has made abundantly clear. John’s Revelation continues to be powerful, not because it is predicting the future, but because it is interpreting the present. And this brings me to Donald Trump.
            Evangelicals famously voted for Donald Trump in droves. And they have continued to support him regardless of his frequent violations of the law and common decency. It doesn’t seem to matter to many, if not most, Evangelicals that he lies constantly, cheated on his wives, paid off his sexual partners, posts cruel tweets, and in general is the poster boy for what Paul calls “the acts of the sinful nature”—sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy (see Galatians 5:19,20). I can recall the sonorous condemnations of Bill Clinton for his sexual misbehaviors back in the 90s by many of the very same people who are today continuing in their enthusiasm for Trump.  So, why is this? I would suggest that a considerable portion of the Evangelical world has always been a cult of America. Christianity in the Evangelical world has frequently been identified with “American values”. Many of the American values touted by American Evangelicals would be shared by most Americans, even other American Christians. But Evangelicals often include values that appear to have little or nothing to do with Christian faith per se. It is not clear that support for market capitalism and a strong military, opposition to welfare programs and fears of big government are particularly Christian. These values, which are certainly debatable by reasonable people, are often accompanied by values that clearly are not Christian: nativism, racism and misogyny—to name a few. In short, today’s Evangelicalism is a form of religious nationalism, where is it not always clear where the nationalism ends and the religion begins. 
In Donald Trump these Evangelicals have found their president—their “dream president”, as Jerry Falwell, Jr. put it. Many have noted that Trump’s following resembles a cult. I would suggest it resembles nothing so much as the imperial cult—a cult that has seduced a large swath of the Evangelical world. Falwell, Franklin Graham, and all the others are now the new high priests of the cult of Trump. In order to sustain their bigoted forms of nationalism, in order to indulge their fears of the “other” (Muslims, immigrants, women, gays and lesbians, “liberals”, etc.), in order have access to the so-called halls of power, they will evidently compromise their faith and integrity to sustain the beast’s approval.  In one of his letters to the seven churches John has the risen Christ say to the church at Laodicea, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). Indeed.

Glimpsing God

Glimpsing God             Theology can, of course, be a way of explaining God, putting God into words. It has also functioned as a bludge...