Conservation?

I am not a conservative.  There, I’ve said it.  You have very little control over who your parents are or how they raise you.  As I confessed here many times, I was raised in a conservative Christian home of the fundamentalist stripe.  Like most kids scared of Hell I took it all very seriously.  It is the reason I followed the career path—or perhaps career swamp trek—that I have.  In any case, the other day I was looking through a Baker Academic catalogue.  Baker, in case you don’t follow the high drama of the publishing industry, is one of the many Christian publishing houses with roots in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Like most publishers in that collective, it tends toward the conservative end of the theological spectrum.  As I flipped through I noticed bio after bio of authors with Ph.D.s from Edinburgh, Cambridge, and other prestigious universities in the United Kingdom.

I hadn’t been warned, you see.  Many conservatives who want a doctorate study in the UK because they can do so without taking all those classes that will make them examine the Bible critically.  That’s not why I went to Edinburgh, but I can see how it might look like that from the outside.  I went to Grove City College—a bastion of conservatism.  (I was raised that way, remember?)  My next educational move should give the lie to my attempt to remain conservative; Boston University School of Theology was considered the most liberal United Methodist seminary in the pre-Internet days.  I attended for that very reason.  Edinburgh, my true alma mater, was selected because they offered a scholarship that made it possible for a poor kid to finish a doctorate.  I wasn’t conservative when I went, and I wasn’t conservative when I came out.

I didn’t get the memo, I guess.  The sneaking suspicion that I might be conservative has dogged my career.  My dissertation can be read that way, but it’s not a conservative argument.  I merely suggested the decision to marry Yahweh off to Asherah was a bit hasty, based on the actual evidence.  I’m all for married deities—they tend to be less frustrated toward humanity.  Maybe the Almighty could speak to Mrs. God about correcting these worries about what I “really believe.”  I went to a conservative college to learn—there were a fair number of attempts to indoctrinate there, but if you thought about things you could see through them, even with a fundie upbringing.  But as I thumb through the catalogue I can see how perceptions can work against you, especially when your first job is at a conservative seminary, eh, Mrs. God?  

Knowing How To Know

Some questions are deceptively simple.  For example: how do you know?  The fancy philosophical word for this is “epistemology,” although that often takes it a step further to ask how do you know you know.  Given that many powerful individuals are motivated by a Fundamentalist faith the question of how we know is more important than it might seem.  Back in the days when faith commitments meant thinking such things through, theologians in the western world came up with three bases of knowledge: scripture, tradition, and reason.  Anglicans, especially, favored this “three-legged stool.”  If you removed any one of the three, the stool became unstable, topsy-turvy.  The analogy worked well.  It assumed that all three factors would be weighed against each other.

Image credit: Blackash at en.wikipedia

As time went on two developments occurred—the wider belief in science, and the work of John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England and founder of the Methodists.  Science argued that reason alone led to knowledge, whereas Wesley’s thought suggested a fourth leg for the stool—experience.  This latter configuration eventually became known as the Wesleyan quadrilateral, sometimes one leg was bigger (usually Scripture), but the other three could not be dismissed.  Science, however, rested on a one-legged stool, reason alone.  Fundamentalism, which is a fairly new form of religion, chooses Scripture as its one leg for a wobbly stool.  It may sometimes claim “tradition,” but since it only dates to the nineteenth century its tradition can’t hold a candle to that of, say, Roman Catholicism.

Amid all the drama we see developing in the halls of government where, increasingly, the power to declare truth resides, it’s important to understand how we know.  For a large and growing segment of society Scripture has been removed as a leg of the stool.  For others it is the only leg.  Having attended a United Methodist seminary, I admit the Wesleyan quadrilateral made great sense as soon as I heard of it.  At the time I didn’t think of this, but if you remove Scripture, the stool still has three legs, and could stand for even a secular person.  Scientists, if they examine their own precepts closely, could see that their stool has those three legs: tradition, reason, and experience.  The largest, of course, is reason.  Still, science builds on the work of earlier thinkers (tradition) and the observation of results (experience).   Knowing how we know the truth has become a question that theologians would’ve never anticipated.  The self-assured assertions of a self-convinced egoist don’t have a single leg to sit on.

 

 

Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons

Lead Serve

For never having been a Catholic, my life has been strangely tied to the Roman Catholic Church. Like many in my diminishing profession, I was raised in a religious household—in my case non-denominational Protestantism with a strong Fundamentalist streak—and have wandered a bit from my starting point. When my family moved to a small town with just two churches—United Methodist and Roman Catholic—we had no choice which to join. I learned the Methodists were just disgruntled Anglicans, and logic dictated that I would eventually join the Episcopal Church and gain a deep appreciation of Catholicism. My first professional job was teaching at an “Anglo-Catholic” Episcopal Seminary. While there I was interviewed for positions at Roman Catholic schools, and not infrequently brought to campus: the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities, Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, Sacred Heart School of Theology just down the road in Hales Corners, Wisconsin. Most of the time I was in the list of finalists when the position would go to a Roman Catholic, “no hard feelings, right?” Long ago the Episcopal Church, ironically, got out of the higher education market.

It is with this background that I keep an eye on the Roman Catholic Church. Many friends and colleagues are Catholic and we have far more in common than I have with my Fundamentalist forebears. I frequently find myself in wonder at Pope Francis. Many church leaders have made the news over the past several decades, but few of them for such good. In an article on NBC over the weekend, the Pope called for seminary reform, noting that always toeing the line will turn priests into “little monsters.” I taught at Nashotah House for fourteen years, and I know exactly what he means. I encountered students who could quote Paul about being freed from the law and in the next breath lay down ecclesiastical law with enough force to behead a heathen. The Episcopal Church, which is small but disproportionately powerful, should take the words of the pontiff to heart.

A cold day in...

A cold day in…

Pope Francis noted that seminaries need to keep up with the times. Indeed, the laity of most religious traditions have little trouble accommodating to culture while their faith remains mired in the Middle Ages. In a world robbed of essences and meanings, it is difficult to teach future clergy that the spirit of a faith can be honored in outwardly different ways. The idea that we can just hold on ’til Jesus gets back should’ve been questioned once Islam came to be a major force a few centuries after Christianity settled in. Since that time Christianity has fractured into thousands of sects united by little more than essences. Instead of settling in for the long haul as an empire, the Pope is suggesting that the church settle in as servants. That’s a radical idea. And it is one, if I read my Bible aright, that its founder would be pleased to find in force should he ever decide to return.

Imagine Images

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Thus spake the Lord one day long ago. So the Bible says. The problem is that humans are visually oriented. We teach our young to read by enticing them with books with pretty pictures—images that captivate. We make things that are pleasant to see, some of them are even graven. I used to ask my students what the difference was between a god and an idol. The answer is, of course, perception. “Idol” is a word that implies falsehood. The item represented is somehow divine, but is not actually divine. There are ways around the rules, of course.

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I spent many years in the United Methodist Church. Many people I knew claimed that the local Catholics were idol worshippers, and when I entered a Catholic church for the first time I was struck by the graven images that seemed to stand in blatant contradiction to the second commandment. How could this not be a direct violation of divine orders? After all, this wasn’t some minor infraction—it was one of the very commandments! Back in my Methodist context, I began to wonder, however. We had crosses, some of them in the round, right up there on the altar. True, there was no corpus on our crucifix, but that seemed to be a handy bit of casuistry. Human beings naturally convert images to idols. We all knew, Protestants though we were, that you should never take a sacred object out to the streets and treat it profanely. An image in a sacred venue could be an idol.

Over the years it seems that the strictures of the ten commandments might have been relaxed just a little. Collectively as a culture, the real has become more and more virtual. We buy our movies, music and books in electronic format. We play our games on computers. In such a context a physical image may seem somehow less real. Our idols have been digitized. It doesn’t seem like the Bible was looking that far ahead when attempting to create an exhaustive list of what might anger the divine. After all, electricity wouldn’t be discovered for millennia. Reality was dry, dusty, and deadly. The prohibition was against physical images. It is no longer an issue for many in the Judeo-Christian tradition that a statue or an icon might be a sign of piety rather than profanity. Things seem to have come full circle when I find a statue of John Wesley, nearly of bobble-head proportions, looking at me with eyes seeking prevenient grace. I guess the powers that be might just be willing to overlook even Methodists gone native.

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Can You Handle the Truth?

Time magazine’s Religion feature this week announces Claremont School of Theology’s decision to go interfaith. In response to declining enrollment, the United Methodist seminary has decided to offer training to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic leaders. Naturally, this will have to be done with the approval and support of training facilities for rabbis and imams, but it will be a way forward for the beleaguered Christian seminary. Seminaries have been in a state of crisis over the past few decades (otherwise it is hard to explain how I might have been hired by one, and a particularly conservative one at that!). And it is not difficult to see why.

Religion is, by nature, conservative. If truth is unchanging, there is no improving upon it. Religions claim to espouse the truth, so stability, orthodoxy – stagnancy – are required. Yet theological seminaries compete with graduate schools for students and faculty. Seminaries crave academic respectability – this is the entire reason for academic accreditation (my old-time colleague Daniel Aleshire of the Association of Theological Schools is quoted in the article). The basic operating premise of institutions of higher education, however, is that we are still learning the truth. We are not there yet. No God reveals the laws of physics in whole cloth (or vellum). Humans must theorize, discover, criticize, and theorize further. Meanwhile, seminaries wave their muted flags and shout, “Over here! We already have the truth!” To be accredited, they have to hire Ph.D.s who have been critically trained. Critical training does not accept simple truth claims. The result: seminaries hire critical faculty while religious authorities insist that the party line be toed. Something has to give.

Offering to bring different religious traditions together is a wonderful idea. Established religions need exposure to each other if the human race is going to survive. Exposure, no doubt, however, will reveal the amorphous nature of truth. The fact is that we are still looking for answers. Everything we have learned about religion points in that direction. What I find particularly telling about this situation is the motivation. Claremont is trying this route for financial reasons. The great god of all higher education, Cash, has finally gotten his talons into religious institutions as well. If there is any unchanging truth out there, it has a dollar sign in front of it.

In gold we trust...