I’m not asking you to believe–just consider “What if?”

Fewer and fewer people are doing anything outside of their normal Friday routine today.  As the US becomes less bound to the Christian tradition, less of its people recognize that this week is the most important week on the Christian calendar, and that today is known as “Good Friday.”

As a kid, that name boggled my mind.  Now that I’m older and wiser, it still boggles my mind.  Shouldn’t it be “Good Sunday” and “Really Bad Friday?”  Now, before you start going all theological on me, I’m going to ask that you take off your spiritual glasses for a moment, and look at this story like most of the world would.  Jesus, the focal point of the Christian faith, is nailed to a cross (don’t gloss over that, just because you’ve heard it a million times–let it sink in for a minute) and he dies.

How can that be “good?”  As a kid, well-meaning family members and Sunday School teachers explained to me how it was necessary to satisfy God, to make up for all the bad things I had done, for Jesus to die.

“Why?” young Greg asks.

“Because that’s the way the penalty is paid.”

“So the guy who didn’t do anything wrong had to die to make up for me telling lies and stealing cookies?”

“Well, yes…”

“Who made those rules?”

“God did.”

“Jesus’ dad?”

“Yes.”

“Well that’s a dumb rule… But Jesus is dead, and that’s why we call it ‘Good Friday?’ ”

“I think I hear your mother calling you…”

Dead Jesus certainly didn’t seem to make sense to 10-year-old Greg.  It didn’t make sense to Peter, James, John, or the rest of Jesus’ followers.  In fact, it was so far from logical, let alone “good” that it had to be the worst day of all of their lives.

Today, no one gives a lot of thought to the execution of Jesus on the cross.  Christians might acknowledge it when they say “Jesus died for me,” but most don’t think about it any more deeply than they do “2+2=4.”  We tend to focus more on the resurrection of Jesus than the death.  Non-Christians probably don’t give it much thought at all.  Most non-Christians, if they take the time to consider the death of Jesus, are apt to write it off as either myth, or a relatively insignificant historical event that’s been blown way out of proportion by the deception of his early followers.

That’s unfortunate.

As Christians, we tend to demonstrate more gratitude to someone who finds and returns our lost wallet (with cash and credit cards intact) than the one who died a horrific death on our behalf.  What if Christians showed their gratitude for Jesus’ death by loving others the way Jesus loved those around him during his life?

For non-Christians, its doubly unfortunate in that their disbelief in the historicity of Jesus’ death, or their dismissal of its significance, causes them to not seriously consider a crucial question:  What if Jesus really did die on a Roman cross in Jerusalem?

The historicity of Jesus’ death on the cross is one of the most accurately established facts in all of history.  Refuting his death as a made up story that was manipulated by his followers into a grand religion has as much credibility as refuting the Apollo moon landings.*  And if his death was so significant that the Roman cross went from being a symbol of oppression, torture, and disgrace to the most recognized religious symbol in the world in a few hundred years, perhaps it is worth more consideration, not just from a historical standpoint, but from a personal one as well.

IF the accounts of Jesus’ death are true, if Jesus and his first followers believed he died for a purpose, and that purpose crosses the boundaries of history and includes you and me today–isn’t it worth at least exploring?

And if you believe, as I do, that the event is not only true, but that it occurred for the reasons Jesus said it would, then shouldn’t his willing sacrifice of life for my eternal benefit, cause me to live differently, as he asked?

 


*I use the analogy of the Apollo program very deliberately.  The writings which became the New Testament are strongly established to have been written within the first 50 years after Jesus’ death.  Today we would quickly dismiss as insane anyone who claims that the Apollo landings didn’t happen (approximately 50 years ago).  There is insurmountable evidence that it happened.  In much the same way, the truth of the death (and life) of Jesus of Nazareth is insurmountable, and is only dismissed by those who choose to consider only the evidence which supports their predetermined conclusion.

Reflections on “How to Raise a Pagan Kid in a Christian Home”

I just read “How to Raise a Pagan Kid in a Christian Home”, and thought I’d share it, as well as add some thoughts of my own.  The article brings up some good points, and some that I’m guilty of in my own parenting.

I spent too much of my life telling my kids that my job was to ensure they “grew up to be productive members of our society.”  I was wrong, and my only defense is ignorance.  For most of my kids’ formative years, that was my understanding of life.  As the author linked above states, “The only problem with this goal is that it runs in stark contrast to what the Bible teaches.”  I didn’t realize that until about nine years ago.  See, God’s goal is not to teach morality or ethics, so that we can be strong, upright citizens.  I didn’t know that; in fact, I spent most of my life thinking that was the goal, and our reward for attaining the goal was a ticket to heaven.

The author quotes Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer, who said:

“We’re drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true.”

That first sentence describes me, and everything I taught my kids (except I was pretty light on the third part–mine would probably read more accurately if you substituted “Sunday school stories and Veggie Tales” for “gospel”).  But I’m afraid that the author of the blog goes too light on what he proposes as the antidote.  He says:

“or do you teach your kids that they will never be good without Christ’s offer of grace? There is a huge difference. One leads to moralism; the other leads to brokenness. One leads to self-righteousness; the other leads to a life that realizes that Christ is everything and that nothing else matters.”

While I don’t disagree with his point, I think that his description of “Christ’s offer of grace” still points to a message of “personal salvation,” one that tells you that if you accept Christ as your personal savior, your sins are forgiven, and you get to go to heaven.

Jesus didn’t die so we could get a ticket to heaven.  Jesus didn’t preach personal salvation.  He preached the Kingdom of Heaven.  That’s not a ticket for your afterlife, that’s a new life, starting right now.

I believe that so much of the hopelessness we see in our world, particularly in kids raised in the church, is that we are told, “pray a prayer, get ‘saved,’ then after you die, God will make everything better.”  That’s not what the BIBLE says!  If you read the whole book, it’s not just a collection of morality tales, but a comprehensive story, a metanarrative of how the Creator God has planned since the beginning to make things right in his Creation, and how each one of us, under his Lordship, can participate in that story.

I made a mess of things when I tried to do it on my own, and when I tried to use God, the church, and Veggie Tales to make my kids “productive members of society.”  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got amazing, God-loving children, who have grown up to become productive members of society, and of whom I’m very proud.  However, I way too late in life discovered that “the Protestant work ethic and the American dream” weren’t enough.

What makes my life exhilarating, and fully worth living is the fact that God wants me to be a part of his Kingdom, that he made a way for me to not only be a member, but to be an active participant in the Greatest Story, the one where he brings his fallen Creation back to relationship with him.  That purpose was what I was looking for all my life, and only recently discovered.  My hope is that my kids have that same purpose, and that other parents out there can raise their kids with The Story, rather than just the “ethics and reward” lessons I taught.

Help me understand?

Last week I wrote about a meta-theme in our world today that I labeled a “spirit of offendedness.”  In trying to understand this phenomenon, I also observed a perceived relationship between it and the divisiveness in our country today (although I’m still not prepared to try to categorize the relationship).  I concluded the post with a commitment to try to help bring about change, at least in my little corner of the world, by focusing on not being offended, and by trying to unite people, seek common ground, and understand their perspective.  I titled that post “Radical Change”, but in reality, in some aspects of my life, it’s not so radical; I’ve got a lot of experience and training in doing exactly that in the professional world.

Divisiveness is a fact of life.  Life is a web of interactions with people who have perceived or real differences in objectives for those interactions.  Basic economic theory teaches that most of our decisions in the world around us involve taking our own selfish interests into the world in order to get maximum satisfaction (fulfillment of our needs) at minimum cost (fulfillment of someone else’s needs)–while the other person is trying to maximize his/her own satisfaction.  This concept has much broader application than the basic supply/demand curves that you were forced to try to understand in your Econ 101 class (yes, I’m an Econ major, and I think it’s important and valuable to all of life–that does NOT make me a nerd, no matter what my kids say).

I’ve had the privilege to take several graduate level courses on negotiations, with a focus on both traditional business negotiations and on less obvious negotiations such as dealing with personnel performance issues.  From that training, and lots of opportunities to apply it, I’ve come to the conclusion that pretty much any personal interaction is a negotiation.  Based on how I observe people interacting in our society today, I think that most people have come to that conclusion as well, either consciously or subconsciously.  However, most folks seem to be defaulting to the most rudimentary negotiation strategy:  I win by you losing.  If you never got much past the fourth week of Econ 101, the basic supply/demand curve was just the beginning.  Most transactions/human interactions are much more complex, and demand more intricate approaches.

In order to avoid totally derailing this post and turning it into a negotiation class, let me just say that there are volumes of studies that indicate that in almost all situations, “win-win” scenarios exist where both parties can get a satisfactory level of satisfaction that is generally greater than the outcome they achieve by approaching the scenario from a win/lose mindset.  I had a hard time believing it too; I was presented with lots of statistics and with detailed case studies to back them up.  Why, then, do we not see more of these win-win scenarios play out?  The simple answer points back to the failure to apply one of my blog themes:  “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  Most of us either instinctively, or through conditioning, approach an interaction with an understanding of our own desired outcome, and an assumption about the other party’s desired outcome.

We fail to achieve win-win, however, by acting on that assumption without validating it.  We just behave as if it were fact.  And in that case, we often act on really bad assumptions, particularly in our current social environment, where it seems to be the norm to assume that all those who are not in our own tribe are evil, ignorant, and have malicious intent toward us.  The reality is almost always quite different!  Whether one is exploring the opposing political party’s position (they really aren’t godless Marxists set upon destroying our nation, or heartless robber-barons intent upon getting rich on the peasant labor of the expendable poor), or frustrated at the person who cut you off in traffic (it’s entirely possible that they didn’t see you through a legitimate mistake, not that they have some superiority conflict which makes them think it’s OK to seize the right of way), our assumptions tend to be inaccurate, and more often than not, tend to deviate toward the most negative or pessimistic possibility.

Pretty big assertion there, but I can back it up with decades of personal observation that affirm it.  Just in the past week I’ve seen it play out several times, where someone takes offense at another, and builds that offense to a fever pitch, because they assume the worst about the offender.  But they never took the time to validate their assumptions!  In two of the specific situations I have in mind, I know that the offended party was totally inaccurate in their assumption.  In one case, they found out the real truth, and the situation was defused.  In the second, the party is too busy being offended (I’m talking serious anger and hatred here) to even give consideration that they totally misunderstood the interaction, and what they thought they saw was not at all the case.  In a third situation, one that’s going to have major ramifications for millions of people who should all be agreeing and working together for good, one highly influential leader has declared millions of others wrong in the most divisive, hateful language possible, without so much as a single thought to trying to understand the other side of the story.

In the business world, negotiating like this might make you money in the short run (if you’ve got a lot of market power–if you don’t, you’ll find yourself bankrupt quickly), but it will soon get you branded as a heartless monster who no one wants to do business with.  In leading people, you’ll be effective only to the extent that you have significant power to wield–but you’ll also be hated as a ruthless, uncaring boss who gets ahead by stepping on the backs of others.  Competent negotiators will go to great lengths to gather as much understanding as possible of the opposite party’s position, their needs, desires, constraints, etc.  Only a foolish negotiator would enter into a negotiation by refusing to even try to gather information on the other party’s position.  Unfortunately, most of us are not trained negotiators, and we do exactly that every day.  Most of the time, it doesn’t really hurt us too much, because most of our interactions are too casual and insignificant to have lasting impact.  But when our interactions have significance, we fall right squarely in the “foolish” category if we choose not to even attempt to validate our assumptions that are the basis for our offendedness and divisiveness.

So, pitfall number one on the road to win-win is acting on assumptions without even attempting to validate them.  Pitfall number two is attempting to validate our assumptions from lousy sources.  Let’s say you’re trying to understand why proponents of Obamacare think it’s a good idea.  You assume it’s because they’re all graduates of liberal arts colleges who have been mindlessly indoctrinated in Marxist philosophy, and are programmed to destroy our nation and way of life by turning every aspect of life over to the government, that they wan to destroy the rich, and use the money of the wealthy to make it so that no one has to work who doesn’t want to.  Consulting with Rush Limbaugh, The Heritage Foundation, and Glenn Beck will certainly give you confidence in the accuracy of your assumption, but you won’t in fact have validated it.  Either of these pitfalls will knock you off the road to win-win, and leave you fuming instead in a wreck of offendedness.

OK, so I’m back to turning this into a negotiating class, and wearing out my road metaphor–let me cut to the chase:  In most cases, a well-placed question to the other party can reveal a lot of information (maybe not all the details, but enough to validate, or at least make your assumptions significantly more accurate).  “What is this magic question?” you ask!  It’s actually amazingly simple, if asked with sincerity.

“Help me understand…?” 

Now, how you finish the sentence is important.  “Help me understand how come you’re so stupid you can’t see that your idea will ruin the world?” isn’t going to get you too far.  “Help me understand the benefit you see in this approach?” is much better.  It even works when someone screws you over!  Instead of going into attack mode of “why did you provide such negative feedback about me on the recommendation?!”  try “I was surprised by your feedback on the recommendation.  Help me understand what led you to make those remarks about my performance on the last project?” creates an opportunity for the other party to explain their position.  You might just discover that there was a misunderstanding–it’s a lot easier for someone to admit they made a mistake if you give them a graceful opportunity to explain, rather than to tear into them with teeth bared.  And go to the source, not your friends, co-workers, other family members, etc.  As a leader who has made lots of mistakes, I can tell you that I ALWAYS appreciated the opportunity to own up to it to the offended party, rather than to have them ask other members of the team, and in the process multiply the derogatory assumptions.

I really need to wrap this up, and I appreciate it if you’ve hung in this long.  Bottom line:  lots of folks are offended by others today; it either leads to, or is caused by divisiveness.  Lots of science indicates that we all tend to make assumptions about others that we interact with, and that we often fail to validate those assumptions.  The farther outside our own social circle the other party is, the more we tend to assume the worst about the other party’s actions, motives, etc; which exacerbates our offendedness and further divides us.  A critical life principle and foundation of my thinking (and blog) is the idea that we should “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  A great little tool for seeking understanding in human interaction is to ask a simple question:  “Help me understand?”

Try it.

Radical Change

It’s been seven months since I last posted in this blog.  A lot has changed in my life in seven months:

  • I’ve moved from one end of the continent to the other (Alaska to Florida)
  • My daughter got married in June
  • My son has moved and bought his first home
  • I went from being extremely busy in a well-paying job to relatively unbusy in a non-job.

Technically I’m not “unemployed,” since the formal definition of that term requires one to be looking for a job.  I’m not.  After a lot of discussion, prayer, and doubts, my wife and I decided that I needed to “take some time off.”  If it were a more formal arrangement, one might call this a “sabbatical,” but I don’t have an end date, and I’m not going back to my old job (as far as I know, anyway).  We’ve relocated to an idyllic place where I can spend my time decompressing, studying, thinking, and learning how to relax (which is the toughest task I think I’ve ever had).

One of my goals for this time has been to spend a lot of time thinking and studying, and then writing on a fairly regular basis.  We’ve been in our new home now for a little more than a month, and we’re settled enough that I’ve embarked on the studying, and was starting to feel guilty for not having written yet.  My biggest challenge hasn’t been motivation or finding a topic, but rather to distill all the thoughts into something singular to post about.

“So what are you going to write about today, Brain?”
“The same thing I do every time, Pinky:  How to fix the world.”  (1990s cartoon reference in honor of my kids)

While topics such as the Affordable Care Act, the federal government shutdown, NSA spying on pretty much everybody, and others are interesting potential fodder for future posts, I want to start with what I see as a meta-theme and my approach to it.

I’ve struggled mightily to try to accurately define this meta-theme that I see prevalent throughout our society, and I’m still not sure I’ve done it accurately.  For lack of a more accurate term, I’m going to initially refer to it as a “spirit of offendedness.”  It seems to me that we have a strong tendency to be offended, and in fact, that we often seem to seek reasons to be offended.  Whether it’s in traffic, or an encounter with a neighbor and loose dogs, or collectively in our political tribes, or in just about any group encounter, we are offended by the actions of others.  It seems to be our default position.  Note, I’m using first person plural throughout this description, as I’m seeing it in myself, and not just trying to pin it on everyone else.

I think there’s a relationship here between the “spirit of offendedness” and the divisiveness plaguing our nation, but I’m not sure exactly what that relationship is.  But the combination of our proclivity to be offended, and the divisiveness in virtually all aspects of our country seem to be at the root of much of the troubles we’re facing today, at the macro and the micro level.

I’m not going to try to defend my argument today; that’s not the point of my post.  Instead, with this new start to my (hopefully) regular blogging, I’m committing publicly to try to defuse this meta-theme in my own actions, thoughts, and writing.  Further, by putting it here, I’m giving you permission to call me on it when I come up short.  Finally, I’m inviting you to join me.  See, the more I consider it, the more I realizing that I’m trying to draw on one of the most significant moments of my life, when wisdom it me so hard in the nose that it still stings 30 years later.

Early in my Army career, I had the extreme fortune to be assigned as the platoon leader’s RTO (although at the time I saw nothing fortunate about it at all).  We had jumped into an exercise at sundown, then moved all night before setting up in our patrol base.  Normally that would mean time to get some sleep, but my PL wanted me to help him build a sand table to prepare to brief the operations order.  I was tired, grumpy, and generally being a punk private, and went into a profanity laced tirade about how hosed up everything was.  As I was about to hit my rhythm, LT Miller bellowed, “Walker, Shut the f*(& up!  You’re real good at telling me everything that is wrong, but you never say a single word about how to fix it.  Until you have a viable solution, I don’t want to hear another word out of you!”  My immediate response was to close my mouth, although I’m sure my brain went into a nonverbal tirade about the obnoxious know-it-all-lieutenant.  But after the red drained out of my face, I realized he was right.  If all you’re doing is telling everyone you see what is wrong with what’s going on, but you’re not doing anything constructive to make it better, you’re just bitching.  That seems to be our new national pastime.  I’ve probably failed at following LT Miller’s advice more than I’ve succeeded, but I’ve tried to make it a maxim to live by.

So here’s the deal:  I am going to try not to take up offense, or to be divisive.  Instead, I’m going to work here, and in all aspects of my life, to try to unite people, to find common ground.  I’m going to work, when I see something that bugs me, that I don’t like, or that might actually inconvenience me, to try to understand the reasoning behind the other position before I assume that the other is trying to ruin my life.  I’m not going to begin with the assumption (or the perceived “fact”) that the person or group that is offending me is a selfish, or worse yet devious idiot who is determined to ruin me, my country, or my drive to the store.  Maybe they know something I don’t?  Maybe they have different (which does not mean wrong) priorities?  Maybe they just made an honest mistake (rather than a devious lie designed to deceive)?

I’m not saying I’m not going to debate, or disagree–just that I’m not going to disagree from a point of offense or divisiveness, but from a point of trying to achieve understanding, and seeking common ground.

For me, that’s pretty radical.  Want to join me?

Where Does Religion Belong?

Many of the leading issues in our country today have a significant moral or ethical element to them that invariably introduces a religious perspective into the conversation:  Gay marriage, abortion, and the death penalty all are heavily influenced by religious perspective in their public debate.  Even issues that are not so directly linked to basic freedoms can have religious elements to their debate–welfare, health care, and fiscal policy issues have all seen either overt religious reasoning applied to them, or more subtle attempts to sway the argument by appealing to moral and ethical factors formed by religious beliefs.

Several responses to “The Post That May Just Offend Everybody | My Thoughts on the Gay Marriage Issue” included a common theme that the respondent was perfectly willing to tolerate another person’s religious beliefs, so long as that person kept their beliefs private, and did not bring them into the public square.  I submit to you that this is an impossible, and I will go so far to even claim intolerant request.

I am too far removed from my undergrad days to recall the precise linear relationship of values, morals, ethics, beliefs, etc, but I do know that all of those have some root in each individual’s religious beliefs (even if those beliefs are to discount or even deny religion).  To ask a person to participate in the public square without applying their religious beliefs to their involvement seems to me to be akin to asking an accountant to do his job without applying arithmetic.  He can’t fathom doing it, and in reality all of the higher level governing elements of accounting are all foundational to the basic precept that 1+1=2, every time  (I’m sure this analogy has a hole in it somewhere in the fundamental differences between arithmetic and religion, but suffer me the comparison for the sake of discussion).

Where does this idea that people should leave their religious beliefs at home when participating in society (or at least in public debate of societal or governmental issues) come from?  I’ve done a little reading, and there’s no simple answer, but I submit that most in the US today will point back to the First Amendment religion clause and the “wall of separation between church and state” concept first described by Thomas Jefferson.  I think the important distinction that may be getting lost over time is that the intent of our founding fathers, and even Jefferson in his letter first describing the “wall of separation” was to avoid the government establishment of, or preferential treatment to, any particular religion.

Os Guinness has written a phenomenal book that addresses this topic and the context which raised it, called The Case for Civility, And Why Our Future Depends on It.  I won’t attempt to cover all the key points in this book that pertain to this topic, as I’d almost be recreating the book.  Guinness gives name to two concepts that are relevant to this conversation:  the “Sacred Public Square” and the “Naked Public Square.”  The “Sacred Public Square” refers to the idea that government should establish a particular religion as preferred–that very concept that our founding fathers sought to, and succeeded in prohibiting.*  The “Naked Public Square” refers to the idea that public interaction should exclude any consideration of religious thinking or beliefs.

I do not advocate in any way for the concept of the “Sacred Public Square.”  Without spending a lot of time here, I cannot submit to a government that forces me to ascribe to a faith system different from my own, so by that precept, I could only accept living in a Christian theocracy.  The problem with that is that so long as we remain a democratic nation (which I am strongly in favor, of, and dedicated much of my adult life to ensuring), I run the risk of some other religious system assuming control and running the government according to their religious principles.  Therefore, it is best for me (and I submit, for people of all faiths) to oppose the government establishment of any religion.

I also  can’t advocate for the “Naked Public Square.”  In the US today, this desire for a “Naked Public Square” has manifested itself primarily in the desire to exclude Christian beliefs, as, let’s face it, that is the primary religious belief system in play in our nation today, although the attempt to exclude Muslim beliefs is rising, primarily in more conservative circles.  No one talks too much about systematically excluding Hindu or naturalist thought, because given their relative representation in the US, they aren’t a real threat to attempt to influence our lives today.   In its most extreme, calls for the “Naked Public Square” include voices such as Sam Harris, who in his book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason states “We can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene.”  I don’t believe for a minute that most Americans ascribe to the extremes advocated by Harris, but extreme voices like his dominate his side of the argument, much as extreme voices from the right tend to dominate the argument of the opposite side.

Part of the reason that the extreme voice dominates the religious side of the argument in America today is that many Christians have believed the “Naked Square’s” basic assertion that we should keep our religious beliefs in our churches and homes, but we shouldn’t take them out in public.  For much of the twentieth century Christians dutifully (or timidly) avoided displaying our religious beliefs in the public square, in what I believe was a well-intentioned attempt to allow for pluralism and diversity.  However, in the process we removed a reasonable Christian voice from the stage of public life.  I am borrowing Guinness’s distinction here to try to demonstrate that there is a difference between the “public square” where we collectively go about the business of establishing the rules of how society lives together, and “public life,” where individuals go about their lives interacting with others under those rules.  In other words, I interpret the distinction this way:  The public square is the structures where we as a society interact (government, the marketplace, etc); public life is how the individual interacts in the public square.   Guinness states that “There is a broad overlap, with no exact boundaries, between the public square and public life.”  Nonetheless, there is an important distinction that has been lost, and in an effort to avoid a “Sacred Public Square,” Christians (often at the encouragement of non-Christians) have withdrawn our voice not only from the public square, but from public life.

An unfortunate byproduct of the absence of a broad, moderate Christian voice in public life was that we allowed beliefs contrary to Christian beliefs to roam the public square unchallenged.  The absence of checks and balances permitted the growth and normalization of beliefs that contrasted with Christianity, and while moderate Christians became increasingly uncomfortable, the more extreme voices spoke up, and started trying to “reclaim” the public square.  The problem is, in my eyes, that the voices that are dominating the counterpoint are often too strident, and more importantly, they are approaching the problem not by participating in the public square in a way in which their beliefs influence the square, but instead they are trying to control the public square by legislating Christian beliefs.

I don’t think I must leave my Christian beliefs at home when I come to the public square in order to influence the governing of our society, and the functioning of our economy, any more than I believe I can tell a Muslim to leave his beliefs at home.  Where either of us go wrong is when we attempt to control the public square and enforce our religious beliefs.**

To avoid the risk of trying to re-write Guinness’s book in my own words, I’m going to let him close this post, in his words, in what I assert is an excellent answer for all of us to the question “Where does Religion Belong?”:

“…we should be clear that it is playing with fire to begin to argue in the public square about whether different faiths are true–because of the very seriousness of truth.  Nothing is more precious and potent than truth, but nothing is more dangerous than to debate such argument in the public square…. I am not arguing that faith should be ‘privileged,’ as if it requires kid-gloves discussion for fear of causing offense…. Truth and tough-minded debates about truth are the oxygen of a free society…. The politics of ‘no offense’ is a recipe for cowardice and appeasement.  Atheists [and those of other faiths] have every right to speak out, to argue for, and to attack whatever they choose.  The question for them is whether their arguments are good arguments….

“That said, in wise societies where the link between freedom and civility is respected, the public square is not the wisest place to examine the truth claims of different faiths.  Certainly it can and should be done in the private sphere with no holds barred, and certainly, too, in public life, if done with greater care.  But the public square is the place where the roots of faith are generally best left unspoken, and what is discussed are the results of faith–their implications for public policy and the common life of all citizens. 

“In short, my opening answer… is to call for civility first–to establish a civil public square, within which we may all learn to respect our deepest differences and discuss them robustly but civilly and peacefully–and then in the appropriate setting, human being to human being, to explore the reasons for why we believe and all that it means [with respect to public policy and the common life of all citizens that he refers to previously].”  –(Bold and underlined emphases are mine, italics are the original author’s; bracketed comments are mine)

My religious beliefs are my source of truth–they’re part of who I am.  Your source of truth, whatever it might be, is essential to who you are.  You can’t leave it out of living your life, even if you wanted to.  To say that you do is intellectually dishonest.   Bring your truth; let the implications of our varying understandings of truth influence our discussion as human beings over “public policy and the common life of all citizens.”  Beyond that, in the boundaries of civil society, let’s debate our differing sources of truth (not in the public square, but here and in other places of public life) to test our beliefs of truth, and to understand the beliefs of others.  Understanding those beliefs, whether or not we choose to ascribe accuracy to them, is crucial to our effectiveness in maintaining civil society.

 

*I acknowledge that our founding fathers were essentially writing to preclude establishment of a particular Christian denomination, and that they themselves were predominantly Christians, or at least aligned with Christian theology, rather than Islam, Hinduism, or some other naturalist theology.  That said, I do not want to debate whether or not the US was established as a “Christian nation.”  Most considerate people should be able to acknowledge that the religious practices of our nation’s original citizens were predominantly Christian, and that the national government was built on a foundation of “Christian” ethics (not that they are exclusively Christian, but their origins are from the Christian faith–because that’s where our founders derived their ethics). 

To my Christian brethren who want to insist on a foundation as a Christian nation that we must somehow return to, complete with government-sanctioned public prayer and religious observances, I strongly encourage you to  consider the fact that we are a very pluralistic society, and that it’s not unreasonable to think that although those prayers and observances might be focused on the Christian God today, they may one day soon be oriented toward a god that Christians would NOT want to pray to or publicly recognize.  More on that thought in my post “Hawaii Senate ends daily prayer in chamber.”

**This distinction is vital, and yet I’m not sure if I made it clearly.  My values will always effect my interaction in the public square, and in public life, by definition of the word values.  If I believe something is wrong I have every right to advocate vociferously against it, within the bounds of the rules of the public square, just as my Muslim brother does.  But my argument should not prevail solely because it is Christian, and it shouldn’t impose Christian practices upon others.  It’s when influence becomes control that we have crossed the line into the “Sacred Public Square.”

“Squirrel!”

So it seems in my random musings that I have at least two threads of thought started, both of which I promised to continue to develop in coming posts.  That said, I’m not thinking linear at all lately in any aspect of my life, so why should this place be any different.  My wife has picked up the analogy of traffic lights to describe her current state of being…  In that vein, my life, my thoughts, my world seems to be analogous to a traffic circle–I’m in it, I’m going around, but there’s no signs to mark the streets that branch off the circle, and I’m not sure what my destination is anyway.  (If I still haven’t convinced you, just look at the total disconnect from the previous posts, to the title of this post, to the totally unrelated analogy above).

My post today is nothing more than grabbing a quote from a book I’m reading:  Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  I’m only vaguely familiar with Bonhoeffer’s work, and have been wanting to read this biography for a couple of years now.  For those of you who, like me, don’t know much about him, here’s the short version:  Born around the turn of the 20th century to an elite German family; afforded the most privileged upbringing and education, this genius chose to pursue theology, wound up as an amazing scholar who also turned out to be a great pastor (an uncommon pairing), who lost his life as a result of his participation in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Adolph Hitler.

I’m still early in the book; the excerpt below is from a lecture he delivered in his early 20s, to a high-school aged crowd on a Tuesday night (says something of his pastoral abilities to be able to get high-schoolers to church on a weeknight).

“One admires Christ according to aesthetic categories as an aesthetic genius, calls him the greatest ethicist; one admires his going to his death as a heroic sacrifice for his ideas. Only one thing one doesn’t do: one doesn’t take him seriously. That is, one doesn’t bring the center of his or her own life into contact with the claim of Christ to speak the revelation of God and to be that revelation. One maintains a distance between himself or herself and the word of Christ, and allows no serious encounter to take place. I can doubtless live with or without Jesus as a religious genius, as an ethicist, as a gentleman — just as, after all, I can also live without Plato and Kant…. Should, however, there be something in Christ that claims my life entirely with the full seriousness that here God himself speaks and if the word of God once became present only in Christ, then Christ has not only relative but absolute, urgent significance for me…. Understanding Christ means taking Christ seriously. Understanding this claim means taking seriously his absolute claim on our commitment. And it is now of importance for us to clarify the seriousness of this matter and to extricate Christ from the secularization process in which he has been incorporated since the Enlightenment.”

80 years ago Bonhoeffer spoke to something that has become even more significant today.  Too often I compartmentalize Christ.  I fail to acknowledge through my priorities, my thoughts, and my actions his “absolute claim” on me.  I was somewhat shocked to see him calling out the failing of the “Enlightenment” almost a century ago.  And this isn’t some uneducated religious rube; by the time of this particular writing, he’d already earned his doctorate (at 22), studying under some of the preeminent liberal theologians of the modern era.

I am more certain than ever that my first response inside the pearly gates will be “Forgive me for underestimating you so completely.”

E pluribus…ME

A friend of mine posted a link to this article on his FB page yesterday.

Let’s Give Up on the Constitution

I find it interesting that the author asserts that we should “decide” to give up on certain aspects of the Constitution.  But then he goes on to cite other elements that we should continue to obey, such as Presidential term limits.  Who made him the “decider”?  If we just “decide” to not worry about checks and balances written into our Constitution, such as requiring revenue measures to originate in the lower house (such a silly, outdated rule), who’s to say that a sitting president can’t just “decide” to ignore the rule that says his term ends in 4 years?

See, here’s the cool thing about that “poetic piece of parchment”.  Those ignorant old land-owning white guys made a means to update the document.  If the “revenue measures originating in the lower house” rule is so antiquated and difficult to manage that it truly disrupts the good order and discipline of the US Government, then by all means, let’s get rid of the rule!  But we do it by Constitutional amendment–the editing process built into the document.  NOT by deciding to pick and choose what we think is good.  Because although it seems like a good idea now, one day you might not be the “decider”, and the “decider” might decide to ignore things you think are important, like… oh, let’s just start with the whole First Amendment. 

I’m concerned that a professor of Constitutional Law at Georgetown University with over 40 years experience does not see the elementary fallacy of his logic:  Just because there may be instances of someone (President, SC Justice, Congress, or other) choosing not to comply with the law, and nothing really bad happened, does not mean that the law did not prevent one hundred other instances of really bad things from happening in the first place.  The good professor just jumped with both feet onto the slippery slope that leads to the conclusion that we don’t need any laws, we’ll just let people decide what they think is right at the time.  If that’s where we want to go, I think the last Constitutional right I’ll choose to give up is the 2nd Amendment.

Is my concern that Dr. Seidman’s idea will gain real traction?  Not really.  I’m more concerned with what I see as a broader problem that our nation is staring at, and which I see as a root cause of many of the problems we are facing today.  I think I’m going to call it E pluribus…me.