The Essentials

The current crisis, in my mind, dates to Thursday, March 12.  That particular day, at least in my socially distant location, the pandemic became a panic.  Decisions were made to have employees work remotely.  Zoom or Skype meetings were substituted for the face-to-face variety.  Church services were cancelled.  There was a run on toilet paper.  This final aspect has me really vexed.  Why toilet paper?  Experts say if we kept to our usual buying habits there would be plenty for everyone, but the survivalist mentality kicked in and people began hoarding.  If the apocalypse was coming, they wanted to go down fighting with clean underwear on.  We were in Ithaca the next day to see my daughter.  We ordered out from a local restaurant.  When we got home we found a role of new toilet paper in the top of the bag.

According to my amateur dating technique, we’ve been in this state for 13 days now.  Toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels are nowhere to be found.  I looked on Amazon.  They can get you toilet paper, but you’ll need to wait until May.  Why?  Ironically, because it’s being shipped from China.  Yes, the nation where the pandemic erupted has toilet paper aplenty.  Here in the greatest [sic] nation in the world, there’s none to be found.  What does this tell us about a country that self-identifies as “Christian”?  Whatever happened to “if someone demands your coat, give them your shirt also”?  Or perhaps more to the point, “turn the other cheek”?  How has a nation of Bible believers responded to a crisis?  By becoming selfish.  By stockpiling toilet paper.

I’ve spent a lot of time camping.  I’m fairly comfortable with the ways of nature.  Like most other people I prefer a nice, private restroom with all the accoutrements, but if bears can do it in the woods, why can’t we?  I have my Boy Scout guide right here.  But it suggests using toilet paper.  If books could be ordered, I suspect How To Poop [this is the family friendly version] in the Woods would be a current bestseller.  Trump says he wants everyone back to work by Easter, but the toilet paper ordered from Asia won’t even be here by then.  And will offices have access to some secret stash that only those who buy in bulk can find?  Hoarding makes any crisis worse, but this particular one seems especially mean spirited.  It makes me realize just how great America has been made.

Latter-Day Scouts

Physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight. And prepared. That’s what Boy Scouts are supposed to be. My attempts to become an Eagle Scout were about like my attempts to become a priest—fraught with peril from the beginning. As a child I wasn’t physically strong, for one thing. The runt of the litter, I was scrawny and often sick. Mentally awake remains a reasonable goal, as does morally straight. Such are the realities of life. Then why are the Mormons parting ways with the Scouts? In a recent Washington Post story by Samantha Schmidt, the Latter-Day Saints are formally separating from the organization now known as Scouts. Whether it’s because they now allow girls to join, or if it’s because they’ve openly permitted gays, the Scouts are no doubt becoming accommodationistic in the eyes of some. In a pluralistic world it’s the only way to survive.

Girl Scouts, on the other hand, have historically not raised the question of sexual orientation. When the social dynamics of a society disadvantage girls, it’s natural that an organization to help build confidence and positive self-attitudes should exclude boys. They have no official affiliation with any religious group. I didn’t realize until reading this article that Mormon boys were automatically part of the group formerly known as Boy Scouts. It fits the image, though. If you’ve ever been on a Boy Scout retreat, however, you know that image and reality aren’t the same thing. I dropped out of Troop 3 after frequent leadership changes frustrated me from getting beyond Tenderfoot. Besides, church was taking over more and more of my life at the time. I guess I was headed for morally straight. Our troop, after all, met in a church basement.

This is about symbolism, of course. To be a Boy Scout meant you were making an effort to be good. In fact, it was kind of hard to grow up thinking you could be good without that guidance. Boy Scouts, they used to say, helped the elderly across the street. Apparently what they do behind closed bedroom doors raises the specter of morality. When I was a kid the issue seemed to be more the mentally awake aspect. The Scouts I knew were like everybody else. There was no special purity there. I never knew anyone who made it all the way to Eagle. The Boy Scout law was like a twelve-step program: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. I wasn’t a Mormon, but the church had proved itself a rival. Especially for the reverent part.

Credo

One of my seminary professors, who shall remain nameless, averred in class that Christianity in the first centuries was popular because it was exclusive. Like a country club. If just anybody can get in, why would you want to join? I’ve come to disagree with said professor’s analysis, but I have to admit there are cases where the idea does apply. Country clubs, for example. Organizations that intend to improve society, however, have it in their best interest to have doors as wide open as possible. Otherwise it’s a kind of hypocrisy. If Christianity wanted to make a better world, it soon realized, all takers should be welcome. That paradigm broke down fairly quickly, but at the beginning, I have the sense that all were welcome. So I was pleased to hear that the Boy Scouts have dropped their ban on gay troop leaders. Making a group that sets out to do a good deed a day exclusive heterosexual seems awfully backward. After all, gay leaders are nothing new. Why try to be exclusive?

Of course, the Scouts continue to disallow atheists. This is a fairly common, if medieval, marker of personal integrity. The Elks, last I heard, had few entrance requirements. One of the few stipulations, however, is that you have to believe in God. I don’t know how that plays out for Hindu Elks. Perhaps the more the merrier. Somehow, I doubt it. Exclusive belief entry requirements are a way of weeding out questions before they’re raised. Sheltering those inside from baleful influence among hoi polloi. We are better because we are different. Granted, these organizations go back to a time when theism, of sorts, was virtually a given in American society. Times have changed. Boy Scouts, it seems, are dragged into the future kicking and screaming.

I’ve always been impressed, by contrast, with the Girl Scouts’ openness. No creedal requirements are in place. Atheist girls, Buddhist girls, girls who climb on rocks, any girls are allowed to join. The last three presidents (including Obama) have been Boy Scouts. Two prior presidents have been as well. You might think the organization could meet its pedigree requirements with ease. In my view, they might look to the girls to take a cue on how to make the world a better place. When I was growing up, I knew no atheists. I remember attending a funeral of a family friend who hadn’t been a church goer, and that was pretty traumatic. As an adult I know many atheists and I trust them as much, if not more than, some of the religious I know. Would they be able to lead Boy Scout troops well? I have a suggestion—why not ask the Girl Scouts and find out?

IMG_2405

Accept Cookies

You have probably noticed it. As expected as the warmer days of spring are also the Girl Scout cookies. A symbol of wholesome fundraising, Girl Scout cookies have some dedicated buyers, and many imitators. Like any human organization, the Girl Scouts have their troubles, but I can’t help but compare them with the Boy Scouts in which I grew up. Well, at least for a few years. We’ve watched as the media have declared on the excluding of various demographics from the Boy Scouts. To rise to the top you must not deviate from the mythic model of the perfect man. Meanwhile, as an article in Tablet notes, Girl Scouts have been tolerant of difference from the beginning. In a day when being Jewish was still suspect in the wider community, Girl Scouts were founded with early troop leaders who were Jewish, and this was in the days before the First World War and the ensuing tragedy of the Holocaust during the Second. From those early days, Girl Scouts have continued to have a policy of acceptance of those who differ in religious outlook. It erects no barrier.

The success of social progress depends on how we train our young. Prejudice has to be learned. Children are accepting of those with differences until they learn not to be. Radical groups have to recruit constantly. Fear of strangers is natural, but when it becomes a paradigm it is a pathology. One of my professors once claimed that early Christianity thrived because it was exclusive. Only true members could join, like a country club, making it desirable among hoi polloi. Further research has demonstrated the falsity of this view. There were many varieties of Christianities in antiquity. Only by declaring itself uniquely correct, and convincing Constantine of the same, did one sect become dominant. And dominance was what it was about.

Society is all about getting along. We have come together around money to build the tallest structures on the planet. The tallest buildings used to be in the United States. Then China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates. A tower serves no purpose without a collective to take pride in it. Religions, unfortunately, often measure themselves by those who stand outside. Taking the view that it only feels good to be right if others are wrong, it is easy for such thinking to slip into a prejudice that promotes and rewards exclusivity. One percent, anyone? Many aspire to such menial goals as getting more money. For me, a life that has a box of Girl Scout cookies available is enough. And I’ll take a tall glass of tolerance with that, and hope that others will feel free to share.

DSCN5045

Religion Is Fundamental

One of the books on my shelf growing up was a cheap paperback entitled How to Be a Christian without Being Religious. The idea appealed since having to do all that “religious” stuff seemed kind of like Catholicism or some other formal system of behavior rather than a kind of organic relationship with God. Ironically now, fast forward an indeterminate number of years, and the “spiritual but not religious” demographic is quickly rising. From the secular side. As a sign of this new direction society seems to be turning is the Hart and Crescent Award, designed for Girl and Boy Scouts who are members of a nature religion. Perhaps the most widely recognized religion of this category is Wicca, the modern incarnation of witchcraft, according to some, simple nature religion according to others. The award, according to the website, is open to any young person who completes the requirements to learn about the earth and earth religion.

762px-Shaman_tableau

Also worthy of note is a story in last week’s Time magazine about atheist churches. Ministers from a number of traditions, disenchanted with belief systems that just don’t match what we know of reality are starting to form congregations of unbelievers. This may distress some materialists who find no reason to be spiritual, but the fact is, people naturally are. The article cites, for example, Bill Maher who stands against the idea. There is security in numbers, and in a society where people find themselves increasingly isolated from others, joining together on a Sunday morning for time with likeminded non-believers may not be such a bad thing.

One aspect of Josh Sanburn’s article has me a little puzzled, however. He notes that Richard Dawkins has torn religion apart in his books, and yet, here it is. Dawkins and Maher and other vocal atheists seem to believe that religion has brought us nothing but evil. How quick we are to forget that civilization itself is typically defined as having a formal concept religion, as well as several other components of what it means not to be “savage” or “barbarian.” That religion may not be Christianity. It may be Wicca. It may be the Houston Oasis and its atheistic system. People need common cause. Reason is great, indeed marvelous as far as it goes. People, however, are not entirely rational. They can be spiritual without being religious. And they can be religious without being believers. If you persist in it, your Scout can even earn an award for caring for the earth. And that should be no cause for complaint.


Down the Garden Trail

According to NBC, a new “Christian” alternative to Boy Scouts USA is being launched in (over)reaction to the vote to allow gay teens to “join” the organization. Calling themselves “Trail Life USA,” this redeemed-only organization is supposed to be “safer” than other scouting options. This issue, of course, is all about perception. There have been gay Boy Scouts from the beginning and there will be gay Trail Life members. People are people, and just by saying that a sexual orientation is excluded does not mean that it will be, or ever can be (nor should be). “This is not another church program,” John Stemberger, one of the founders, is quoted as saying. “This is going to be a masculine outdoor program to raise young men.” The subtext is sluggish with irony. I am reminded of the scene in Disney’s Mulan where Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po are about to climb the pillars to the emperor’s palace in drag and the song “Be a man,” starts its reprise. Masculine outdoor program indeed.

Photo by Bruce Anderson, Wikipedia Commons

Photo by Bruce Anderson, Wikipedia Commons

The idea of separating youth from the realities of the world to keep them safe is like taking them into the woods without telling them there may be bears. Those of us who’ve spent nights in the woods know that hating bears is a ridiculous posture to take. Bears, even when gnawing on your arm, don’t hate you. They simply exist. It is the balance of nature. Studies of nature have time and again revealed that homosexuality is far from unnatural. Several species practice various homosexual behaviors and I am certain that the more we observe nature the more we will find ourselves mirrored in it. Nature can be quite encompassing in that way.

Christianity also has a long history of being at a kind of equilibrium with homosexuality. The all-male priesthood of the Middle Ages could hardly be classified as all self-denying heterosexuals. Even some televangelists of the most Protestant stripe have confessed to gay encounters and episodes. New uniforms and solemn promises will not change the way a person is born. Of course, if the child is Jewish or Hindu or Muslim, he will need to abide by a statement of Christian belief. What of Mormons or Seventh Day Adventists? Thankfully lines drawn in the sand are easily washed away. Exclusion may have been the trope of the Christian past, but as Boy Scouts boldly go where every man should’ve gone before, Trail Life, it seems, may have been appropriately named. It’s life John, but not as we know it.

Treasure Hunting

It is raining in Midtown. On my lunch hour I’m in a deserted public square down on my knees with an umbrella over my head. My free hand is reaching under a piece of outdoor furniture feeling for something. At least this one is not located in the private regions of a metallic stag. What in the world am I doing here?

One of my sometime passions is Geocaching. Many years ago we started this as a family activity but with schedules changing and families being forced apart by work and school, I’ve taken to caching alone. For those not familiar with Geocaching, you many not be aware that in millions of places around the world tiny containers are hidden from view. There is likely one not too far from you. They are listed on different websites, but Geocaching.com is the main source. You set up a free account, get ahold of a GPS device and go looking. Some of the containers have goodies for the kids, while others are very, very small and your only reward is signing your name and logging the find online. As a family we found nearly 400 caches over the years. Since I spend my days in Manhattan I’ve been urban caching. Urban caches are very small and stealth must be used because those who don’t know about Geocaching who find the containers often take them, not realizing that they have a purpose. So that’s why I’m on my knees in the rain in the middle of New York City.

I raise Geocaching as a topic because of a recent article on NBC about Scouting. Girl and Boy Scouts often know about Geocaching. This is similar to what used to be called (probably still is) orienteering—learning how to find your way around. The NBC story, however, focuses on a different kind of finding your way around. Over the past several years, non-faith-based alternatives to the Scouts have been enjoying some measure of success. Not that Girl or Boy Scouts are explicitly Christian, but they did emerge from that social context. The article specifically cites the Spiral Scouts, a Wiccan-based group, as well as several secular, and even some overtly faith-based alternatives. Yes, it looks like many groups, regardless of religion, want to get kids used to the great outdoors.

DSCN2484

Some might fear that alternative movements signal a rend in the social fabric. I think the social fabric ought to be more like a quilt. If sewn properly, a quilt is just as functional as whole cloth, but much more interesting to look at. Girls, boys, gays, straights, Christians, Pagans, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus—what is wrong with that? I think that after being out in the rain, I might just curl up under a quilt when I get home, and I’ll be thankful for all the diversity I see comforting me under the gray skies.