Celestial Politics

Two things about my childhood: I grew up religious, and I grew up learning you didn’t talk about religion or politics. Now I see that that combination leads to tremendous potential for abuse. Many conservative Christians believe that their faith only ever endorses a Republican candidate, no matter how bad. This is a strange idea and it goes back to some strange people. If I can talk about it.

We live in a cult of celebrity. This is nothing new. People have always admired the individual who could get him or herself noticed. As early as the epic of Gilgamesh, the guy willing to show his bad self managed to capture the public imagination. We’re still reading his story some five millennia later. Of all places this tendency to treat a human being as authoritative should be considered strange is evangelical Christianity. This religion grew out of a largely Calvinistic backdrop where no individual could be assumed to be good. Indeed, total depravity was part of the theological environment. Mix in this stern outlook with the revivalism of the two “great awakenings” and an uncanny alchemy takes place. People, who used to be bad, now found enthusiasm in religion. The first real superstar in the United States was George Whitefield, a preacher. He had a massive following and was, in every sense of the word, a celebrity. This culture became the social substrata of the new nation. Open to all religions, yes, but mostly belonging to this one.

Once American religion became based on popularity, singular figures emerged as defenders of this faith. “Trusted” leaders and authors. Not all of them home-grown either. Names like C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Francis Schaeffer—not to mention Billy Graham—grew to a status they never had in their lifetimes. Well, Schaeffer and Graham came to be evangelical gurus in their own rights and Graham remains among the living, but Lewis and Bonhoeffer were really adopted by conservatives only after their deaths. The interesting point here is that Lewis and Bonhoeffer often wrote things that directly challenge the easy evangelicalism that accepts them as celebrities. The problem is, we don’t talk about religion any more. We use it for voting, and for feeling good about ourselves. Superior, even. It seems strange to think that Calvinism had some safeguards built in that have been knocked down for the sake of the polls. I can’t imagine John Calvin casting a vote for Donald Trump. But then again, Calvin became a celebrity in his own lifetime, so I might be wrong about that.

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Giving Trees

They’re not exactly worshipping the tree, but the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church is holding a memorial service for the old oak tree. I’ve written about the Basking Ridge oak before. I learned about it only in January, and I visited it this summer. Some say it’s the oldest tree in the state, while others make that claim for the Great Swamp oak, which isn’t too far away. The climate change we’ve introduced, as well as natural aging, appear to have doomed the tree. It had leaves this summer, but not in the profusion that signals health to botanists. The decision has been made to take the tree down before any massive branches fall and cause injury or damage. In the light of these sad developments, holding a service seems perfectly natural. The tree is older than the church over which it presides, after all. It’s even older than John Calvin who started the Presbyterian tradition.

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My first book was on Asherah, the goddess often associated with trees by scholars. As those who’ve read my book will know, I’m a bit skeptical, on the basis of the actual evidence, that Asherah was a “tree goddess,” but it is also clear that trees are ancient objects of veneration. From the human perspective, they can live a very long time. There is a bristlecone pine in this country that dates back to before Noah’s flood (something the creationists conveniently ignore). With that much life-force, which, we’re told, is really a fiction, these trees deserve special respect. After all, they were in the neighborhood long before we got here. Still, the Basking Ridge oak has been artificially preserved before. It’s been on life support for years. Concrete was poured to support the massive trunk, and many ponderous branches are shored up by support rods. We respect our elders.

Maybe it’s not tree worship. Maybe it’s worship beside a tree instead of worship of a tree. Prepositions can make all of the difference. Nevertheless, it’s an occasion to stop and consider our place on the planet. The fear many of us feel regarding this week’s election is a mere second in arboreal memory. The independence of this country came after the oak had been here centuries already. It may not be tree worship, but we should respect the memories of such a tree. A country young and optimistic rather than old and jaded. Maybe this tree knows a secret that it’s willing to bequeath to those of us whose lives are but a few leafing seasons in length. Good-bye, Basking Ridge Oak. It was a pleasure to meet you.

Men Without Hats

Do you want to start an argument? Mention hijab in a Christian environment. Some tempers will likely flair. The idea that a patriarchal religion would tell women to cover themselves suggests something sinister, doesn’t it? The other day I came across headcoveringmovement.com. There are, as I have come to know, many Christian groups that consider Paul’s directive for women’s headwear as, well, gospel. Commentators still spar about why Paul insisted that women cover their heads in worship. Adding “for the sake of angels” only evokes more convoluted imaginations. As any stroll through Manhattan will reveal, many Jewish men also observe head covering. What is it with bare heads, gods, and angels?

No doubt, in cultures where men are expected to restrain themselves less than women, hair can sometimes be seen as sexually provocative. (I’m not excusing, just observing.) Most men will eventually experience nature’s tonsure in some form or another, and perhaps this knowledge makes feminine hair more alluring. None of this, however, answers the question. What is so hubristic about uncovered heads? I’m not authorized to speak about fashion, but I feel confident in asserting that in many periods of human history, hats were the norm. Look at old portraits. What did Martin Luther or John Calvin look like without their ubiquitous hats? Did they serve to cover bad theological hair days? Or was it just the climate? Distinctive hats have been used to identify social classes and professions. We still use the expression “putting on my [chose a noun] hat.” So what’s all this with head covering for women?

“The wearing of fabric head coverings in worship was universally the practice of Christian women until the twentieth century. What happened? Did we suddenly find some biblical truth to which the saints for thousands of years were blind? Or were our biblical views of women gradually eroded by the modern feminist movement that has infiltrated the Church…? – R.C. Sproul.” So states Headcovering Movement’s homepage at the date of this writing. There can be little doubt about what’s behind this scheme. I recall a phase when my mother wore headscarves to church. Many years later, even in high church Episcopalian settings I’ve seen women walk in with what looked like lace doilies on their heads. Is there an agenda here? I can’t speak for Muslims, but it seems that Sproul believes the rightful place for a woman is beneath a man. Theology in the service of chauvinism. Just try to read 1 Corinthians 11 and come out without a headache. The saint’s logic here is so confused that I want to pull my hat over my eyes. Or I would, if I wore a hat.

Photo credit: Themightyquill, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Themightyquill, Wikimedia Commons

New York Calvin

So I’m standing at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 29th Street, gazing at Marble Collegiate Church, of the Reformed Church in America.  A cold breeze is blowing, and I wish I’d thought to dress a bit more warmly.  Although the building in front of me was erected in the nineteenth century, the church was founded in 1628, making it among the oldest continuous Protestant congregations in the New World.  It is regularly passed by tourists and shoppers who give it nary a glance, not realizing that the Dutch who gave us New Amsterdam also gave us a Reformed Church that has stood the test of time in an increasingly secular New York City. 

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I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Calvinist.  That may seem odd coming from a religion scholar who attended a very Presbyterian College and earned a doctorate at a Presbyterian department at the University of Edinburgh.  Nevertheless, despite the many belief systems I’ve indulged, the Reformed wing has never appealed.  That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate what Calvinists have to offer: where would we be without the many good things Presbyterians have brought to us?  In any case, I was recently considering how I automatically equate Calvinism with Presbyterianism, and how I really need to get over that habit.  The Swiss reformers were a far more fragmented sect than the Lutheran contingent ever became.  That still shows in the many historic Calvinistic traditions out there.
 
Presbyterianism, on its own, is not a uniform denomination anymore.  For the time being, however, if we consider all Presbyterian groups as one stream of Calvinism, we need also to consider the Reformed groups.  Although all Calvinists are reformed, the Reformed Church had its historic stronghold in the Netherlands.  Doctrinal differences continued to fracture the Reformed Church into several denominations, two of the most prominent in the New World being the Reformed Church in America and its splinter, now larger, of the Christian Reformed Church (not to be confused with the Christian Church, (Disciples of Christ)).  Congregational churches, which have no overarching governing body, frequently fall into the Calvinistic theological tradition, although that is not necessarily the case.  Other Protestant denominations, such as Methodism, have equally diverse origins.  Others, like the Baptists, have an early history that is unclear even today.
 
The Calvinist theological family tree is well studied, and it stretches back from where I’m standing to Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin and their peers, some five centuries ago.  Although it never reached the size of the Baptist and Methodist growth spurts during the Great Awakening, Calvinism did make a lasting imprint on the landscape of North America, and still continues to bring some of us out on a chilly day just to look and wonder.

New Salzburg

For some reason Austria is on my mind. It been more than two decades now since I have been there, but I recently decided to read a little of the history of Salzburg. My interest revolved around a case of religious intolerance that took place well before the days of political correctness, but after the idea of religious freedom was being promoted in New World colonies. Two centuries after Martin Luther’s theses stirred the world (perhaps the last time in history a religious thesis has received such attention), the Roman Catholic Archbishop—and Count! (rank has its privileges)—Leopold Anton von Firmian decided to expel the Protestants from Salzburg. Religious diversity was frequently seen as a threat to civil authority. Either Protestants would recant or be forced from their homes in the winter, often losing everything they had in the process. A substantial number of citizens were exiled and found little in the way of refuge. Prussia finally offered some quarter and others made their way to England or to a then religiously tolerant Georgia.

Religious imperialism is a funny phenomenon. Religions, as sets of teachings, often emphasize the just and fair treatment of other people. When powerful people (or power-hungry people) become religious they find a great mind-control technique available in it. Popes, for instance, very quickly ceased being pastors and instead styled themselves as princes. This was a safe move since Jesus was king, and since he’s in heaven any attempts at usurpation are bound to be suspect. As a co-regent, however, various privileges apply! This is something Protestant reformers very swiftly learned as well. John Calvin was practically in charge of Geneva, and who can think of Lynchburg, Virginia without accounting for Jerry Falwell or Virginia Beach without Pat Robertson? Religion, by its genetic nature, seeks to take over and control.

In this it is not so different from other aggressive ideologies such as capitalism or communism. The problem is that religions claim sanction from the highest authority, and once a believer is convinced of that no amount of reason is sufficient to dissuade him or her. So it was that an Austrian Count, also an Archbishop, decided to turn out members of his own putative religion (Christianity) into a harsh winter where many would die and others would live the remainder of their lives in exile. Were this the hallmark of one religion alone we might have united together as a species and cast it out. Unfortunately history has repeatedly shown us that even the most placid religions can quickly form the dark face of a demonic storm front if certain of their privileges are threatened. No one likes to be wrong. In the game of religions, however, there must be losers if anyone is right. Where is the New Salzburg? It may be going by a different name these days.

Black Swain

In a somewhat rare move, I watched a film that was released less than five years ago this weekend. Black Swan is difficult to classify since it crosses so many genres with relative ease and it left me strangely reflective. Although called a “thriller,” the frenetic pacing and sense of outside menace of most thrillers is lacking. Black Swan includes some horror elements, but little in the film defies rational explanation if Nina Sayers is really going insane. The underlying story, however, is something that every religion would recognize—the need for transformation. Even before John Calvin dreamed up the laughable doctrine of total depravity (and for any Presbyterian readers, I was predestined to write that), all religions have at their heart the concept that people need to change. Sometimes the transformation is subtle and gentle, at other times fiery and dramatic. If you end life the same way you began it, you are a religious failure. This premise lies behind every movie where a character transforms into something else, be it werewolf, Mr. Hyde, Mrs. Doubtfire, or a wereswan.

Our perceptions of who we are cause us considerable introspection. Nina Sayers is a timid yet ambitious girl, living with her mother yet wanting to be the seductive black swan. She really doesn’t comprehend what she is wanting to become, but she knows that it must be better than what she presently is. Again, the parallels with religion are striking. I have known good people who’ve transformed into black swans under the influence of noble religions such as Christianity and its monotheistic siblings. People who have become intolerant and judgmental, insisting that their way is the only possible correct way. In the mirror they see a white swan, but the audience sees the black one.

Black Swan is heavily symbolic and provocatively mythic. Like any honest account of life it refuses to provide any definitive answers. Since each experience we undergo leaves its mark upon us, we cannot help but transform. Volition, however, can lead us toward paradise or perdition and any ambiguous place in between. Is the Nina Sayers dying on stage the greatest sinner of all, or a saint who has been beatified as fully human? The answer to the riddle the film stubbornly refuses to relinquish. So it is with life. We will transform over its course. Religion will declare whether it is good or bad, right or wrong. At the end of the script, however, we are both the white and the black swan.

Determinism to Succeed

I’ve been watching some episodes of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole, the recent Science Channel sop to the masses to explain what scientists are thinking. I always appreciate when scientists (and other specialists) are willing to abandon argot and talk to the rest of us in plainspeak. Even if the implications are a little scary. The episodes I watched this weekend shared a near determinism. The physicists interviewed stopped shy of saying that all is ordained by the rules of science, but the implications still rang loudly in my ears. This concept is at home in the church.

Back as a college student attending a Presbyterian school (I have never ascribed to this particular flavor of Christian thought), I first chanced upon predestination. In fact, the subject was well nigh unavoidable. Students of all majors and backgrounds ended up discussing it around dinner tables as well as in the classroom. The instigator, instead of physics, was John Calvin. His theology suggested that mere mortals had no say in their destinies; God created some to be saved, the rest to be damned, fairness be confounded. I sat through many classes where the professors would argue with erudite words that all this had been foreordained. Some, “double predestinarians,” went as far as to argue that every firing of every synapse, every motion of every muscle, had been predetermined by God before the creation of the world. When I asked “why?” I was told that God has his (always “his”) reasons, and that I, a non-Presbyterian, should simply accept my fate.

Four years of wrangling and no one managed to convince the opposite party. One of my more intelligent professors once told me after class, “you free-willers always win on philosophical grounds, but we predestinarians always win on scriptural grounds.” He seemed to think that solved it. Perhaps he was predestined to conclude that. I disagreed. No greater monster could exist than a deity who predestined the horror we’ve created in our world. To see all this human suffering, much of it pointless, and simply shrug and say “God has his reasons,” is to implicate the creator in a cosmic Nuremberg. For me, I’d feel safer with the physicists saying it is all a matter of unfeeling cosmic laws. Perhaps I’m predestined to write this, but I still think they’re all wrong.

Was Calvin predestined to wear that hat?