Inventing Concepts

A neologism is an invented word. Of course, it is impossible to be certain about the origins of many words, and even the many neologisms attributed to William Shakespeare may have been overheard by the bard at the local pub. Still, one of the things I sometimes dream of is inventing a word that will come into wide circulation. I think it must be easier to do in fiction than in non-fiction writing. When I first wrote my book, Weathering the Psalms, I chose what was, at the time, a neologism for the subtitle. “Meteorotheology” was a word I’d never read or heard before and, quite frankly, I’m not sure how to pronounce. Although the world-wide web existed when the book was written, scholarly resources were still few, and tentative. Amazingly, that has changed very rapidly. Now I’d be at a loss to find most basic information if I were isolated from a wifi hotspot. In any case, the web has revealed that others beat me to it when it comes to meteorotheology.

I suppose that some day, when I have free time, I might go back and see if I can trace the web history of the word. It is used commonly now to refer to God taking out wrath on people through the weather. For example, when the Supreme Court decision on the legality of gay marriage was handed down this summer, there were various websites—more popular than mine!—asking a “meteorotheological” question: when was God going to send a hurricane to punish the United States for its sin? These were, as far as I can tell, all tongue-in-cheek, but there can be no question that some people treat meteorotheology that way. It is a sign of divine wrath. My own use of the word had a wider connotation. When I was invited to present at talk at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in Manhattan a few weekends ago, I was reminded of my line in the book: “To understand the weather is somehow to glimpse the divine.”

That’s an idea I still stand by, but it is difficult to move beyond. What exactly does the weather say about beliefs in the divine? There’s plenty of room for exploring that. I know that when I walk outside to fetch the paper on a clear fall morning when the moon and stars are still out, I know that I’m experiencing a kind of minor theophany. The brilliant blue of a cloudless October sky can transport me to places unlike any other. What exactly it is, I can’t lay a finger on. That’s why I came up with the word meteorotheology. I many not have been the first person to use it. I may even be using it incorrectly. But the weather, in my experience, has many more moods than just anger. Any autumn day is enough to convince me of that.

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For the Sake of Fighting

Different opinions can be used for discussion or destruction. In the formal context of government, the declaration of war is—or should be—an option of last resort. Increasingly language of belligerence is status quo ante when religion is the topic. “Culture Wars” is a thinly veiled reference to the profound disagreement between social conservatism, associated with Evangelical Christianity, and progressive policies, often affiliated with nones and mainline Christian traditions that don’t wish to be left behind. For years, decades, no one side can declare victory, for example, in the debate over whether America was founded as a Christian nation. Two news stories I saw this past week addressed just that question. Fox News ran a story about a Baptist Church in Shelby, North Carolina, that has decided to fly the Christian flag over the stars and bars until, well, I guess the Second Coming. Protesting the legalization of gay marriage, the congregation wants the message, aided by Fox News, to spread that in at least this corner of the country, God comes first.

The other story, on CNN, asks the question directly: “Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?” With five professors answering the question there’s bound to be differing opinions but all agree that this isn’t a simple yes or no answer. The even larger question, it seems, is how can the founders’ religious orientations help us to avoid cultural wars? Isn’t the fact that we’re still searching historical documentation over two centuries later an answer in itself? Maybe they didn’t tell us directly because it was none of our business. Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson are quoted on both sides of the debate. Their cultural context was Christian, but as all the five scholars agree, the question didn’t become a live one until the nineteenth century. Seems that we got along a century without knowing.

The “Culture Wars” may have been there, of course, but the need for a term only arose in the late 1980’s and early ’90’s. The divide had been simmering since the end of the ’50’s, however. Leave it to Beaver versus Star Trek: the Next Generation. The media has never been shy about telling us what to think. Difference of opinion is as natural as a pre-frontal cortex. Peaceful coexistence, however, doesn’t sell newspaper or commercial airtime or space. We want the thrill of danger, the chance to declare that, unlike the adversary, we are clearly in the right. Maybe if we changed the metaphor the rhetoric might catch up. In the meanwhile, battle comes to mind. Ironically, the Bible is a place that suggests peaceful solutions to many disagreements, but neither side thinks to look there for guidance.

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Burning Times

One of the most disturbing images from my childhood years is the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức in Saigon. Of course, I didn’t see this image as a child. It was high school before I was deemed mature enough (and the internet didn’t exist) to see such a troubling image. Now we are being told in a kind of gleeful grotesque tongue-in-cheek that those who seemed to claim similar conviction over gay marriage now have a chance to show their faith. Pastor Rick Scarborough, according to The Advocate, made such a statement. As of last Friday, he’s had to find a way to explain his remarks. I’m not sure what he said, but I find the implications distressing. Those who’ve supported gay rights all along haven’t been wishing evil on anyone. Schadenfreude can be quite troubling.

Maybe it’s just that we get so tired of self-righteousness. Those who claim to be the torchbearers of the truth seem to delight in pointing out the weaknesses that we all have. Who has never misspoke? Let he who is without sin cast the first syllable. Rhetoric can be our master at times. Beneath the unfortunate speeches, however, lies a terrible fear. Some who believe the Bible literally true can’t see this any other way. Poking fun at them, however, isn’t likely to make the situation any better. Quiet victory celebrations aren’t in fashion. We live in an “in your face” world where we like to see the stains appear on the immaculate suit. Banana cream pie in the face all made up for the television crowd. I’d rather see a world with no more need for self-immolations. Religions sometimes make this difficult.

Although I have reflected on religion deeply for many years and have come to take a very broad view of things, I still have very conservative friends. If I poke fun at their views from time to time I hope it is good-natured fun. I respect their rights to their views. I grew out of that culture myself and I’d be a hypocrite if I looked at it any other way. I am extremely pleased about the supreme court decision recognizing gay marriage. This, however, is a political issue. Religion has always informed political views, and has not infrequently stood in the way of fair treatment. These walls must come down. Before we begin the demolition work we need to make sure the way is cleared of any potential victims. One thing religions frequently do right is offer consolation to those who are suffering. It is the humane thing to do. Victory without humiliation is far better than the flames of Waco.

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Mores the Merrier

The Presbyterian Church (USA) and I go back a long way now. Not that I’ve ever been a member, but one of their institutions gladly accepted four years of my tuition money and tolerated my presence on campus during that same time. I arrived at college a fundamentalist, but, as a religion major who thought through what was presented in class, I soon discovered that literalism was as wrong as sin. This past week the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow gay marriages. Talking to someone I still know in my native, conservative western Pennsylvania, I learned that disgruntled heterosexuals I’ve known since I was a child are now denomination shopping because of the change. Ironically, this includes divorced individuals and others who can’t seem to get the hang of this heterosexual relationship thing. Marriage may not work for straights, but we sure don’t want the gays to have a chance at it.

Gay marriage, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg upon which modern Christianity is bearing down. And not just Christianity. Any ancient religion that finds itself surviving in a world that has completely changed since its founding has trouble remaining relevant. This issues of peasants in Palestine under imperial Roman rule are very different from a high-tech, service-industry, desk-job society. One could argue that people never change, but I suspect that society gives the lie to that. Some issues are perennial—we still haven’t figured out how to make sure the poor have enough. We will walk out of church, however, when we see affluent people of the same gender walking down the aisle together. With priorities arranged this way, is it any wonder that the mainline churches have difficulties retaining members? For some, the church has become a place to feel comfortable with their prejudices rather than to try to figure out what a first-century religion means in a twenty-first-century world.

I applaud the Presbyterian Church (USA) for its decision. It will certainly cost the denomination numbers. It is, however, a move to try to introduce justice back onto the agenda. One does wonder whether it was predestined. Far be it from me to speak for a first-century carpenter, but I suspect that a church founder who stressed repeatedly that love, not judgment, was the way to become one of his followers might be a bit sad at the political turn this has all taken. We know, from all that biology tells us, that sex has far more importance to humans than reproduction. It has a pair-bonding social function without which many couples would split up. This seems true regardless of the gender combination involved. Why not acknowledge this fact as truth and get on with the important business of negotiating the twenty-first century? Of course, we will have to find some other way to justify our prejudices.

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Biblically Married

The Bible says—. Fill in the blank. Go ahead, someone will believe you. The problem with biblical literalism is that it is often held by people who don’t read the Bible. Well, it is a gosh-darn big book—well over a thousand pages—do you know how much quality television watching time that represents? So many fundamentalists are surprised to find out how little the Bible has to say about marriage. In fact, it says almost nothing. There are no marriage rites given, and marriages are mentioned but not described in detail. So when modern-day readers want to find guidance about political policy they have to—to be frank—make a lot of stuff up.

Take North Carolina, for example. Next week they are scheduled to vote on an issue of defining marriage. The intent, apparently, is to bring the state in line with the Good Book. In comes Matthew Vines, an evangelical Christian who’s also gay. Being a Harvard student, he has immediately impressive credentials. He has an on-line biblical exegetical exploration of what the Bible says, and more importantly, doesn’t say, about homosexuality. The other solution, to actually read the Bible, is a little too much to ask. Another part of the problem is that the Bible was written in a very different context, and to understand the Bible’s view on anything, you need to fit it into its context. All this Bible reading—and context too? Better leave it to someone on the television to explain it all.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist that I’ve come to trust. His good sense comes through in all his work. In Wednesday’s column, he highlights Matthew Vines’ hour-long talk as an example of what happens when common sense meets the Bible. For those who bother to read it, it will become clear that the Bible nowhere defines marriage. It says nothing about sexual orientation. The few passages on homosexual acts have a narrow context (that word!) that must be considered. Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible nor the New Testament is marriage considered a religious matter. It’s simply what people do. So as North Carolina heads to the polls, Bibles clutched in hands, but not in their heads, it might do to watch Matthew Vines as homework. I haven’t seen the video myself. An hour is just too long to take from my busy television-watching schedule.

Voted Off the Island

One of my readers sent me an article about the Church of Sweden. According to this article only about 15 percent of the members of this national church “believe in Jesus.” The question raised by this statistic is a vital one in a world where politics and religion become inextricably intertwined: what is Christianity and who decides? As the recent vote in New York permitting gay marriage (about time!) shows, many who identify themselves as Christians in America equate that religious outlook with conservative political views (even on issues the Bible says little about). It is what the believer says they “believe” that defines the religion. Ancient religions, as I have noted before, show that this outlook on devotional practice is not the only alternative.

Religions began as a matter of praxis—what people did rather than what they believed. What does an almighty deity gain from theological assent in the heads of believers? Is it a warm, fuzzy feeling or something more? Belief, a very strong motivating factor in humanity, is a psychological phenomenon, not a spiritual one. Many religious groups today are reluctant to accept that psychology covers the territory formerly covered by spirituality. Both phenomena (or the phenomenon) occur in the brain. If a brain does not assent to the typical belief structure, is it thereby deported from the gathering of a religious body? Many times in religious history that has been the case, but what do we say to the Church of Sweden? Kick out 85 percent of your members? I can see many unhappy, unemployed clergy in such a future.

What does it mean to be Christian? Is it to deny civil rights to anyone who differs in outlook or lifestyle from you? Is it sleepily to say “yea” when you wake up after a sermon? Or is it following the teachings of Jesus? The same one who once taught his followers to love those who differed from them, to turn the other cheek instead of proactively pulling out their handguns? It seems that in the modern furor to laid hold of claims of absolute righteousness humanity has somewhere fallen between the cracks. I’ve never been assaulted by a Swede, and I don’t recall, in recent years, Sweden invading other countries to further its economic fortunes. Could it be that, to paraphrase a religious thinker of antiquity, a Swede shall lead them?

Delicate Matters of Faith

Friday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger ran an op-ed piece by Phyllis Zagano entitled “Teaching how, not what, to think.” The essay concerns a tale of two professors, one at the University of Illinois and one at Seton Hall. Both have come under fire for teaching on the issue of gay marriage, one from, one against, a Catholic viewpoint. Zagano’s point of view, evident from her title, is that professors should teach students how to think, but not what to think.

This is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching religious studies. I am in my eighteenth year of teaching in the field. In that time I have taught at both religious and secular schools and, in both settings, presented the material objectively. There are those in both settings who complain. Students at Nashotah House frequently wanted me to bend the Bible to fit conservative Anglo-Catholic teaching. Under immense logical pressure to accept what reason told them of the world, they wanted an authoritative book to back them up in a pre-decided outlook. A theological ace of spades to trump the uncomfortable conclusions of rationality. At the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and at Rutgers University students frequently want to know my religious outlook so that they might know how to categorize what they are learning: is it sanctioned or is it anathematized? We need to know who you are so we can evaluate your authority in such delicate matters as faith.

I frequently ponder the issues raised by Zagano. I know of no other field of study where the stakes are so high, with the possible exception of political science. Religion is an all-encompassing phenomenon. All of life must conform to religious teaching, often with eternal consequences. It therefore makes an enormous difference what you are being taught. Like Zagano, I try to teach students to think for themselves. Both at the seminary and university I refused to reveal my personal outlook on the issues; I try to kick-start the thinking process. I have paid the price for this in the past, but it is a non-negotiable component of education. If the truth is uncomfortable, it is always possible to let someone else do the thinking for you.

Biblical Weddings

Maine is getting ready to vote tomorrow on the legalization of gay marriages. With conservatives hopped up on fears that such a move will destroy traditional, patriarchal privilege, the Bible is beaten rather severely as proponents seek evidence for man + woman = marriage in holy writ. The funny thing is, the Bible says very little about marriage.

In an era when marriage is often associated with houses of worship and a smiling, tolerant divine face beaming down on a couple about to do “the bad thing” with divine sanction, it is difficult to realize just how little the Bible talks about it. The Hebrew Bible is particularly mute when it comes to the particulars of wedding ceremonies: “Then Isaac brought here into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife,” according to Genesis 24.67. No sacral ceremony here, by prior arrangement, sex equals marriage. A few chapters later when his son Jacob marries, there is a feast mentioned, but no sacerdotal functionary hovering nearby (one who might have actually noticed that Jacob ended up with the wrong woman, by the by). And so the biblical narrative limps on with patriarchs bedding and marrying their women with no mention of God. Eventually religious folks got a little nervous about this and ceremonies with divine approval were introduced, but that is not even in the case with the wedding at Cana, which, in desperation, the Book of Common Prayer latches onto for a marriage lection: “The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee” (the Order for The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage). Apart from the difficulty of a covenant being an uneasy peace between a superior and inferior party, this introduction relies on a literal Adam and Eve and the means for a large wedding party to get drunk, courtesy of the miracle in Cana. Apart from Paul’s putative comments regarding the marital status of early church leaders, we hear little else in the Bible.

I have nothing against weddings; I was the groom in a particularly stylish wedding in Ames, Iowa some years back. The problem I see is that the Bible is being forced to say what it does not. If the few biblical marriages are all heterosexual, it simply reflects the options open at the time. How does allowing gay marriages threaten the marital bless of the heterosexual? It seems to me that the only thing to be lost is “privileged status” and benefits allotted to those formally united in the eyes of the law. Unless things have changed recently, even in a religious marriage a state-issued license is required! Why not allow firm affirmations and privileges of loving couples without relying on non-existent biblical platitudes? I hope Maine will do the right thing tomorrow.