Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Stars, Bars, and Self Delusion

I'm not defending the Confederate flag here. I grew up largely in Vermont. I am a Yankee through and through. Whether there were any race issues with it or not, I've never been a fan. To me it always represented ignorance. I'm glad is coming down so many places and generally disappearing. At the same time, I think we need to pump the breaks a little bit on what we're talking about when we talk about the flag, the Civil War, slavery, and racism.

There's always been a lot of debate about the causes of the Civil War, which usually boil down to "states rights" and "slavery." Ultimately they're both elements of economics, because, as we know, money is the real cause of every war. People have written better, more eloquently and with stronger grasp of the material on this issue; I won't belabor the point too much other than to say, "slavery" and "states rights," while not identical, were pretty darn close to such in the 1860s.

The real Civil War conundrum we find so many modern flag haters falling into is projecting today's race struggles onto Civil War-era America. Yes, many Northerners (and a few in the South) were upset about slavery, but it was more a humanitarian objection than an egalitarian one. It's not as though every northern abolitionist was chomping at the bit to marry his daughter off to a former slave. Shoot, many northern cities are incredibly segregated even to this day - and not just geographically, but socially as well.

There are real moral issues at play here, but we really need to stop the generalization that those who embrace the Stars and Bars are somehow far behind the rest of society when it comes to race. No one is really passing that exam with flying colors.

In fact, I have some sympathy for those southerners who really do associate the flag with individualism or states rights. There are a whole lot of people (some who don't even live in the south) who would like to keep "states rights" at the forefront of political debate, even as they acknowledge that the equality (or ownership) of persons is not one of those "rights" the states should decide.

Slavery was a big part of the Civil War, but race and racism really wasn't. By today's standards, 95% of both sides were flaming racists - they just disagreed on how far it was appropriate to go in mistreating black people.

The real problem for the Confederate flag and those who love her with race-neutral motives, is the re-emergence of the flag in the 1950's and 60's as a protest to Civil Rights. The famous South Carolina statehouse flag only went up in 1961 - probably the first time they could get away with it since, you know, it was representative of a treasonous rebellion and one of the most brutal wars in human history was fought precisely to keep the thing from flying.

Whether the Confederate flag was a racist symbol before Civil Rights or not, it certainly became one when the out and proud racists consciously chose to make it so. Strom Thurmond draped himself in the Confederate Flag during his 1948 Presidential run, where he campaigned on the basis of maintaining segregation.

So, in an ideal world, it would be great if honest, well-meaning southerners could keep a symbol of their heritage pure and unsullied (I really mean this - believe me, I am as big a fan of rebellion as anyone), but it's just not possible. Other people have messed up something you hold dear. I'm sorry, but it's still got to go. There are a lot of Asian cultures who would love to have maintained their sacred, 5000-year-old religious symbol, but unfortunately the Nazi's took it and stuck it on their flag, thus ruining it for all time.

These things happen.

We can hear your heartfelt defenses all day and all night - and I have no reason to disbelieve anything you say - but it doesn't cover up or outweigh its co-option by forces of racism and segregation, not just in the 60's, but just last month when 9 people lost their lives. It stinks, but this is reality. And for those of you who'll say, "I'm not going to let one stupid kid ruin this cultural tradition," well, you should. Let him ruin it forever and let's just move on.

Because we do (all of us) actually have real issues of race to figure out and this flag thing is just a distraction. It's giving a lot of us Yankees (and amenable southerners) an excuse to pretend we're righteous in all of this, that some of us have racism figured out. The Confederate flag has become another in a long line of convenient scapegoats and we've got to get beyond that. We just do.

Ultimately we're not too many steps removed from the racial attitudes of the Civil War. The north's perspective was, essentially, "We don't care what happens to black people, so long as we're not enslaving them anymore." Today, in large part, we think, "I don't care what happens to black people, so long as they're equal under the law."

If it takes 150 years to make that small step, well, we're probably not moving fast enough.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Evolution and Sin (Part III)

In the buildup from Part I and Part II, we've sort of covered the introductory stuff to get to a place where it feels ok to explain what I've been really excited about - not so much because the idea itself is exciting, but more because it seems to explain things in a way that is a little more cohesive with scripture, the world around us, and the way postmodern theology is trending.

I was talking about some of the things I've covered so far in a Theology of Creation class I took a few years back and the professor (whom you can likely figure out, but will remain nameless here just in case he doesn't want to be associated with this crazy, crackpot idea) mentioned an old Rabbinic teaching about two forces at work in the world - not a "good vs evil" kind of thing, but two contrary, amoral forces underlying reality. (I wrote a paper for that course exploring the biblical and historical basis for this idea, which is long and pretty dense, but gives more detail.)

Ultimately, I decided the biblical basis for the notion was tenuous at best (and that's being generous), but the fact that people have been toying with this notion for thousands of years really sparked my imagination. It struck me how well this notion of two forces fit into the way I had already conceptualized sin and creation; it also made great room for evolution in the process.

Selfishness isn't good or bad - it's one of those amoral forces I mentioned above. Selfishness is what keeps a baby alive - if it didn't cry for food and attention, it would die. There's a sense that our self-preservation is essential to our survival. Now, obviously, selfishness can be really terrible and lead us to do terrible things, but the notion to self-preservation can't be condemned on its own. This is essentially what evolution is - an individual trying to survive and pass some part of itself on to the next generation. That's natural selection; it's survival of the fittest. You can even extend it back to the big bang. Even when the elements of the universe weren't sentient or alive, they were living in a process of continuing.

What if that was how God created? Just spoke existence into existence with the knowledge that things would continue to develop. God wouldn't have to plan out what specific things would evolve and arise, but putting the universe on a trajectory of self-preservation necessarily determined where things would end up. Eventually some specifies would arise capable of understanding this selfish force at work in the world, evaluating it, and potentially acting contrary to the very forces that provided for its creation.

I'm not sure God planned on relatively hairless, bipedal primates as that species (we could have been purple, globulous things with beaks for all it mattered), but we would have the ability to understand our natural inclinations and choose against them. That was the important part. From there God could enter into our existence in a relational way - choosing a specific tribe, for example, to pass on specific guidance for life - but even more broadly than that, the very reality that humans can think outside instinct and drive makes the God who inhabits all reality not only a possibility, but a force in the world we are aware of. The very nature of who we are as humans means we have some understanding of God - it's why we can see core elements of a very similar belief underlying the metaphysical understanding of every culture and religion. There's something deep within us as humans who understand at least the reality of God. The creative force of the universe - this amoral self-regard - demands it.

Now this force, on its own, it utter destruction, right? It's what leads a society to kill of its disabled members, it's troublesome. Those things make sense evolutionarily, but we naturally react against them because we also have within us this force of selfless love. This is the presence and action of God in the world. God is love. This force of selfless love works in tandem with the force of self-preservation, where they can temper each other and keep us moving forward towards God's end.

The way I'd describe the reality of this is simply that from the moment of creation, that self-preservation force "took the lead" (for lack of a better term). This force was the driving force that brought us to existence and drove the world to where it needed to be for God's big turn. That turn comes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Creation has reached a point (in the fullness of time, as the gospels put it) where God could physically enter into the picture. We always talk about the cross meaning something - that it effects not just spiritual change, but real, permanent, physical change in the world. Theologically we might say Jesus was the "inauguration of the kingdom" or the point in which we start to experience heaven.

In this particular narrative we say this is where self-preservation takes a back seat to the selfless love of God. We talk about the defeat of death and the coming of eternity, in which there is no need for self-preservation because the self will be eternally preserved in resurrection. Death is the roadblock that drives evolution - without the reality of death there is no imperative to grow and change, to reproduce and survive. You can't start a world like our without death - it would change all the rules.

Now, however, we can build upon this world already created - with the rules already in place - and we can begin to work by a different set of rules, to change and shape the future into something that looks like the life Christ lead, the kind of hope and future most religions envision. We begin to work toward heave. Jesus is the turning point.

This leaves us with a future world in which we're being shaped and formed by different rules, moving again, without prejudice for specifics, into a different kind of people - no longer ruled by self-preservation, but by selfless love. This is what people talk about in the coming of the Kingdom. Just as creation could have taken an infinite number of paths to get to it's crisis point, so creation can again take an infinite number of paths to get to our final destination (which may, in itself, be an eternal, continual process - who knows?).

Everything in our world is changing - moving from one thing to another. It always works this way - in nature, within ourselves, and in the relationships we have. There's no reason to think, as the traditional narrative does, that God started with what he wanted, we screwed it up, and the purpose of all existence is to get back to what we lost.

No, rather, I'd argue we were created exactly as God intended - through a process that produces people with a distinct lack, a lack only filled by the selfless, mysterious love of God, exemplified in Christ, that will eventually provide us with the power and grace to become what we ere always intended to be. The story of God is one of things getting better and better, becoming more and more right, ever increasing in value and purpose. So, to address the second half of the title - sin is simply any action which works against this trend, some of it is accidental, some is intentional; some does real damage, some is merely a detour that slows us down, but all of it is covered by the love and grace of the God who designed and inhabits the whole thing.

Now this raises any number of questions - some I've thought through and many, many more that I couldn't even have imagined yet. I'd love to keep doing posts tackling some of those - likely not with answers, but with directions and ideas for further conversation. So bring on the feedback.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Go as a Way Opens by ML "Swanee" Schwanz

This book was sent to me as a gift, but it comes from Storian Press, for whom I've written in the past and who's publishing vision I want to promote. Go as a Way Opens is the written version of some stories from the life of Swanee Schwanz, a man who, along with his family, spent many years in Haiti and Africa, giving themselves to the work of God in the world, mostly through organizing and leading the building of schools, hospitals, and churches in places where they wouldn't otherwise exist.

It is a story of faith and perseverance, but also of grace and learning and love. Uniquely, Swanee told the stories orally, and recorded them. His brother then transcribed them and edited them into a coherent narrative for the book. Each section is loosely themed and flows pretty well. The stories are often dramatic and well told - it's interesting for just about any reader.

This seems to be mostly a project of love, allowing the author to pass on these stories to family and friends, but it could certainly be used as an interesting discussion piece for small groups or mission training in local congregations. I suspect those who know the Schwanz family well will be most impacted by these stories, but even if these stories don't all resonate with you, Chapter 10 is worth the purchase price and more.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Theological Fundamentalism

One of the foundational understandings of biblical fundamentalism is that "if anything in the Bible is untrue, it's all untrue." This needs some unpacking (mostly because "true" has a relative definition depending on context), but ultimately it's set the Bible up like a tower - if any brick in the tower gets pulled out, the whole thing will fall down.

What I've been wondering lately is if there is a theological fundamentalism at play in the world as well. I wonder this because it seems to me there are people taking a hard line on some theological issues who don't necessarily have a traditional fundamentalist view of scripture. It certainly isn't fair to lump everyone into one box, especially if that box is so ill-fitting for many.

One would not need to be a biblical fundamentalist to be a theological fundamentalist, but there is a similar "tower" concept, one not dependent on a "literal" reading of scripture, but one based on a traditional systematic theology. Through the years of modernity (and even long before), Christian thinkers sought to organize our understanding of God into specific doctrines that fit together to form a cohesive whole (hence the descriptor 'systematic').

As we've reached a more post-modern way of looking at the world, some Christians are much more comfortable with a theology that doesn't fit together quite so well. There may have been some doctrinal manipulation to fit everything we know about God and the world into neat little bricks for tower building. As people are more comfortable with unknowing and mystery, some have seen fit to reshape some doctrines, to explain them in different ways that don't make for easy building blocks, some have been made more general and less concrete.

I don't believe this changes the general shape or core of Christian theology, but it's much less systematic. It doesn't arrive at a complete explanation of understanding. Theology is no longer a closed system for many people.

I suspect this is really disturbing to people who are very comfortable with systematic theological structures, especially those who operate under a modern perspective and find themselves alien in the world of post-modernity. This leads to real battles, hard lines drawn, and vociferous objections to many ways of speaking about theology (and the practical implications of such).

I might categorize the two approaches as 1) I need to know as much about God as possible to follow God well, or 2) I need to constantly ask new questions, challenge old conclusions, and embrace unknowing to follow God well.

I don't know that these approaches are necessarily incompatible, but it's certainly easy to see where conflict could arise. The problem comes because neither is really right or wrong. They're different - with different strengths and weaknesses.

Lately, we've seen some real knock-down, drag-out fights regarding how people understand God, interpret scripture, and make decisions for life in the world. It's been painful and divisive for the Church.

I'm not particularly sure what a solution might be. It's difficult for a fundamentalist (of any kind) to gracefully allow disagreement. Allowing known disagreement in others necessarily invites doubt or disagreement into one's own sphere of belief and I have great sympathy for the problems that might cause. I don't know if I can properly speak to this, since I personally consider doubt and disagreement as important parts of theological and personal faith development.

I do know, though, we need to work better of differentiating between how someone views scripture and how they view theology. We're not treating everyone with respect in the way we derisively marginalize them into boxes they find offensive. Understanding where people are and from whence they come and how their beliefs are structured should help us love one another or, at the very least, be more charitable in our discourse.