Mission Impossible

You can always tell Jehovah’s Witnesses by their tracts.  When I heard a tap, tap, tap on my front door the other day I was handed a flier and a cheery invitation to an important celebration (Easter).  The circumlocution used for the holiday made we wonder so I flipped over the tract and saw the familiar JW on the bottom.  I always treat religion at my door with respect because, well, you never know.  It’s this latter bit—the uncertainty—that has always given me pause when it comes to missionaries, domestic or imported.  Missionaries by definition believe their particular spin on religion is the only correct one, otherwise there’s no reason to convert others.  This is often the highest hurdle over which globalism must leap—the willingness to admit one might be wrong.

I could be wrong about this, but I have always considered the willingness to admit you might be incorrect as a sign of spiritual maturity.  I also know from my youth that that kind of uncertainty can drive you crazy.  We want to know we’re right!  But then, who doesn’t?  Those of us who think globalization is a good thing have failed to take into account just how difficult it is for many people to admit possible error.  For the vast, vast majority of human history we were separated from one another by natural boundaries.  Travel for leisure did not exist.  Within a local group beliefs would likely be fairly uniform.  Then you encounter others who might say, well, you’re wrong.  That’s seldom a welcome prospect.

More than air travel, the internet has shown us, as we connect, just how diverse a species we really are.  What about that missionary at my door?  For religions indoctrinated into one doctrine this can’t be easy.  I’ve had conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses before.  There’s no convincing them they might be wrong.  Missionaries come with the assurance they’re saving you.  Rare is the proselytizer who’s there possibly to learn the truth.  As I think about it, after decades of attending church how many times has anyone wanted to have an in-depth conversation about belief?  Outside confirmation class, that is.  And even there, when most are either teenagers or older specialists in some secular business, discussing deep issues seems to make others uncomfortable.  When the missionaries come, I want the conversation to go both ways.  I’ve spent half a century thinking about these things, after all.  When there’s a tap, tap, tapping at my door, I wonder what tracks will be left behind.

Quaker Way

QuakerWayDoctrine can be an immense stumbling block. As a person who’s been involved with many churches in my life, the virtue of virtues often seems to be sacrificed on the altar of doctrine. If you don’t believe X, you’re not one of us. It was a great delight, therefore, to read Philip Gulley’s Living the Quaker Way. Having grown up in Pennsylvania, you might think I’d know a great deal about Quakers. I never met any, however, when I lived in the state. And I really didn’t know much about their beliefs. I knew they called themselves Friends, and I knew “Quaker” was originally a derogatory title, like “Methodist,” “Jesuit,” or the near homonym, “Shaker,” later reappropriated as a name for the group. I also knew that numerically they were on the smaller end of the religious demographic. Reading Gulley’s insightful little book was an epiphany.

I learned of Calvinism at a Presbyterian College. There I was taught TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints, the first three of which struck me as dangerous and unholy. What a beaming of light to read instead of SPICE: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality. This acronym is Gulley’s shorthand for what defines the Religious Society of Friends. Doctrine is nowhere on the list. A deity who creates people just to throw them into Hell is also missing. As is Transubstantiation. And religious violence in the name of spiritual purity. There is an awful lot to be learned from the simple message of people who understand that they are people and every other person is too. Gulley is not naive; he knows Quakers aren’t perfect. What he does show, however, is that those who are willing to relinquish self-assured self-righteousness make far better neighbors who resemble what Jesus taught than do many who would rather destroy the livelihoods of those with whom they disagree.

The beauty of what this book describes is that one need not be a Quaker to live this way. Not being doctrinal, a Quaker wouldn’t insist on that and still be true to the ideals of the Friends. If we could learn to want less, to get along with those with whom we disagree, be honest, welcome others, and treat all people as if they had a bit of God inside them the world would be a better place. There can be no doubt about that. One might say, “that’s just common sense.” I would guess that most Quakers would agree. Religion, freed from platitudes, could be a viable and valuable way of being in the world.

Sorry about That, Chief

What’s worth $20,000? An apology. That figure may require some adjustment for inflation, but back in the days when I was taking conflict management training it was right. Our teachers informed us that court decision costs were lowered by $20,000 when a client apologized. I’m sorry, but I don’t see that money should be necessary for an apology. Nevertheless, in a world motivated by money, this is a factor to keep in mind. With some of the very late apologies that have come out in recent years (the church apologizing to Galileo, and to the “witches” executed in the Middle Ages) comes the realization that too late is, perhaps, better than never. Often in cases such as these, a religious bravado just can’t back down. Doctrine is doctrine and you can’t change it without losing face. This doesn’t just impact large bodies like the Vatican, either. Lots of religious groups have apologies that they could, and should, make.

Grove City College is a small school. It has, from reports I see, become more conservative than it was when I was a student there. One suspects there may have been some apologies due over the years. I was surprised, however, to find GCC mentioned in the Christian Century. A former professor at my alma mater was fired for refusing to register for the draft in World War II, according to the story. Howard Pew, chair of Sun Oil (and the board at Grove City) accused him of being a communist. Now, over half a century later, the former president of the college delivered an apology to his door. That’s a nice gesture. Former faculty are generally, in my experience, shoved far from mind. We don’t like to treat those who educate too well, some times.

Photo by "the Enlightenment"

Photo by “the Enlightenment”

For the unapologetic professor, the greatest sense of satisfaction comes not from humbled administrators, but from grateful students. On very great occasions I still hear from some of mine. It makes up for some of the pitfalls along the way of an academic life. Teaching religion, naturally, puts you in some company that you might not expect. Of all anathema topics, teaching about being decent to other people earns you the most rancor. So it is, unfortunately frequently the case among our educational institutions. Pew, whose shadow still loomed large over campus in my undergraduate days, never personally apologized. Those with plenty of money to spare seldom do. $20,000 is not too much to pay to feel completely justified in taking another person’s livelihood away. We can only hope for a better educated future.

Life as we Know it

Dying2BMeA friend asked me for a book. Since my life has mostly been about books, I’m generally happy to supply what I can. This friend is a cancer survivor and wanted to read Anita Moorjani’s Dying To Be Me. The last time I saw this friend, she handed me the book, saying she didn’t care for it. Although the author tells of her dramatic Near Death Experience, and is very optimistic about all that we can improve by loving ourselves and others, she isn’t a Christian. Raised as an Indian living in Hong Kong and sometimes attending a Catholic school, Moorjani is conversant with several religions but doesn’t favor one above the others. Her experience of being in a coma with very advanced cancer and having a prognosis of days, at most, to live, yet coming out of the coma and being completely healed of disease within weeks could be overlooked on the basis of a belief system. I decided to read her account myself.

Ironically, Moorjani directly describes why she can’t accept any single religion in her book. Her reason is because religions tend to block being open to possibilities that fall outside of doctrine. Her Near Death Experience, described in great detail, doesn’t fit any particular religion very well, including her native Hinduism. It led her to believe in a kind of universalism with everyone ending up realizing their own divinity and loving all others unconditionally. Even though many of her interpretations of her experience are a bit too New Agey for me, I have a deep appreciation for her advocacy of trying to understand others and loving everyone. I saw nothing incompatible with Christianity there. Or any other ethical religion.

Religion can divide as much as, if not more than, plain common sense. Those who think deeply about it realize that religion should make life better for all. That seems to be its evolutionary purpose, apart from personal survival. Of course, some religions also reject evolution as well. When missionaries reached far shores and found good people living ethical lives, they feared for their souls, thinking only one religion could fit all. Many of us are heirs of such missionaries, being taught from our youngest days that living in fear and self-abasement is the loving, Christian way. It may be that a Hindu who learned to trust herself by nearly crossing the brink of death has something to teach the missionaries as well. If only they could listen.

Order of Melchizedek

WhyPriests?A considered reflection from a long-time believer is a force never to be taken lightly. Garry Wills is a lifelong Catholic and an intellectual. His book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, was recommended to me by a friend and it is indeed a book that raises most profound questions. To someone born Protestant, such as the current writer, many of the arguments Wills marshals are strangely familiar. Many were lobbed in Fundamentalist harangues where clergy that believe in a literal six-day creation proved surprisingly adroit at finding the chinks in Catholic armor. The New Testament says nothing about the Christian movement having its own priests. And even the explicit command that seems to have come from Jesus—call no man father—is immediately reversed once priests become a fixture in a priestless faith. Wills explores the origins of these practices not to tear apart the religion of which he remains a loyal part, but to suggest that religious tolerance is the only proper solution. It is amazing how much of Catholic thought goes back to the disputed book of Hebrews with its mysterious Melchizedek.

While I have never been a Catholic, I have always been haunted by the idea that my religion was some kind of innovation. After all, the stakes were beyond stratospheric. If you pick the wrong one, at least according to what I was taught, Hell awaits at the end of the day. Then I discovered that my own Fundamentalism also had a history. We were called Protestants because we protested Catholicism. As I moved into the Methodist tradition, at least there seemed to be a continuity—John Wesley was an Anglican and Anglicans were really kind of English Catholics. Or so it seemed. Naturally, I became an Episcopalian since going Roman seemed like it came with exceptional amounts of accretions that were clearly not biblical. Such accretions are much of what Wills explores. Traditions that become doctrine. And exclusive. Those on the outside can hope for Purgatory at best, and the very Hell I was trying to avoid remained a distinct possibility. Who was right?

Religions suffer with time. The faith that Jesus seems to have proclaimed had already altered by the time Paul put pen to parchment. Ask any Gnostic. Already, within just three decades, the question became “now what did he say again?” And what exactly did he mean? The core of that message seemed to be love above all else, but that doesn’t make for sexy doctrine. Exclusivity achieves what love could never accomplish. Wills explores how sacraments evolved, and how Scripture became a sword dividing believer from believer. His most sensible solution? Its time to get beyond priests. He doesn’t actually suggest doing away with them, but asks Catholics why they don’t consider closely the implications of their roots. Melchizedek takes on a stature greater than anyone seems to have imagined for an imaginary figure. And a lifelong believer here asks the most basic of questions: what is Christianity truly about?

When (Nearly) Everything Changed

WhenEverythingChangedMy wife and I just finished reading When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins. (In the spirit of the book, I wash the dishes while my wife reads to me.) Although Collins does not dwell on the religious motivations in “traditional” women’s roles, I couldn’t help pondering how religions, rather than encouraging equal rights, have often acquiesced to the unfair treatment of women as a matter of principle. That principle is often abstract and theological. More often than not it is also mythical. As society changed to allow a greater measure of equality in social roles for the sexes, religious leaders held back, concerned more about doctrine than people. This is perhaps the most disheartening aspect of religious belief—as a human phenomenon it too easily loses sight of humanity.

Historically, of course, the roles of the sexes were tied to reproductive necessities. Women with nursing children (and startling low mortality rates) could not do the heavy work required in the agricultural societies of antiquity. I am aware that this is over-simplifying—it seems clear, however, from the materials left to us from the earliest literate cultures that a basic biological divide determined appropriate roles. Not only were women victims of high mortality rates due to difficult childbirth, but infant mortality was also high. In such circumstances it was important to guard those who survived from the potentially dangerous work of protecting flocks and tilling fields. And this was the time when the ancestors of our religions emerged. Technology improved survival rates and quality of life, but religious dogma is very slow to evolve. Some dogmas still don’t even accept the idea of evolution.

Back to When Everything Changed. Yes, bottles and birth control gave a new freedom to women. Day-care and daddy involvement also helped. And yet, not everything changed. Seeing the progress, religions tended to cry “foul!” and insist that, for women anyway, nothing had really changed. No doubt Collins is correct about a large swath of life in the secular sector. Most jobs are open to both sexes, and issues of fairness, although still lagging, are starting to be addressed. Many major religious bodies, however, still hold women in a subordinate role. Basing their reasoning on theologies long outdated, they insist than nothing has really changed at all. If only the wisdom of women and their experience were taken seriously many religions would have changed for the better as well. Only when that happens will we be able to consider that, in Collins’ hopeful words, everything will have changed.


I suppose it is always premature to hope that ancient institutions are likely to improve. Like many other followers of developments in religion, I was pleasantly amazed to read reports of Pope Francis declaring that, in my vernacular, that the church should not be so stuck in the rut of doctrinal abstemiousness that it forget mercy and charity. How sad to see that hours later he was forced, Galileo-like, to recant somewhat. The forces at work are far more powerful than the vicar of Christ. In some minds religion is doctrine. I know whereof I speak. For several years of my professional life I worked for a doctrinaire institution where any hint of mercy was considered a kind of Protestant mewling before a God who would’ve made even Jonathan Edwards tremble. Although officially released “without cause,” I can’t help but think that my own pastoral sensitivities were at fault. I don’t believe that religions thriving on condemnation deserve the title.

Ironically, I was at Notre Dame University when headlines about the Pope’s declaration that the church should not obsess about homosexuality and abortion appeared in the papers. It was with a kind of wonder that I heard an academic say, “the Pope is sounding more Lutheran all the time.” I’m not naive enough to suppose that the pontiff is suggesting a change in doctrine—there are rocks so heavy that the Almighty himself can’t lift them—but that the leader of the world’s largest church was suggesting mercy and compassion outweigh legality felt as if Amos or Micah had just walked into the Vatican. The next day the Pope had to come out and strongly condemn abortion. Politics, it seems, will always trump human understanding.


We live in an era of iron-willed religions. The human element often vanishes beneath a frowning providence that wishes for clocks to be turned back decades, if not centuries. These religions have no place for improving the human lot in this sinful world—it is much easier to condemn than to contemplate compassion. Religion is hard, for people find forgiveness a difficult doctrine to accept. Jonathan Edwards dangled his spider over the eternal fires of hell, but ecclesiastics today suggest that swift shears taken to that silken web would solve all the problems. Time for change? Not in this century. Religions, too, evolve. But evolution doesn’t equal improvement. Many an agnostic has become so because of the reality of “nature red in tooth and claw.”