God the Father and Mother

MotherFather

Images of God as Father permeate both Old and New Testaments. God’s fatherhood is baked into Christian theology (in the Trinity) and the language of worship (the Lord’s Prayer ain’t called the “Our Father” for nothin’). This language is so omnipresent that it’s easy to forget that it’s primarily metaphorical; it’s a way of bringing a part of the enormity of God into focus. An infinite God is so incomprehensible that we need ways of anchoring the divine in our human experience.

And so we use language to grasp one aspect of God, and we shift language to take hold of some other characteristic of God. Language is a useful simplification; it allows us to see the many faces of God one after the other. Language doesn’t define or limit God as much as it allows us to interact with God in more familiar ways. (One of Jesus’ crucial and controversial interventions was a tendency to call the God of the universe “Daddy.”) Thinking of God as parent is both useful and comforting, but obviously God does not have a gender.

Referring to God as Father gives me a certain earth-grounded specificity for conversation. Yet I worry about language that makes the face of God masculine. On this Father’s Day weekend, I think about all the sermons being preached about fatherhood. I’ve heard a number of them over the years, and they almost always foreground a normative understanding of what a father is.

I sit in these sermons, and I think about all the people around me whose fathers provided poor examples of parenting. What about children of abusive parents? What good is this father imagery to them? In spite of my family attending church whenever the doors opened, my father (who was the child of an emotionally unavailable father) duplicated the emotional abuse of his upbringing when it came to my older brother. To his great credit, my father changed and became a loving and supportive father to me. To my brother’s great credit, he has made peace with the father who raised him.

All of us now know how much more widespread family abuse was and is (sexual, physical, emotional, substance-related). How many of us have experienced the idealized version of a father who appears in Father’s Day sermons? Or rather, if we are supposed to use our earthly father as a rough draft of a heavenly father, for how many people is that an obstacle rather than an aid? And why don’t we say that out loud in church instead of pretending that fatherhood is a natural good?

I also think about the number of family configurations that do not include a father (single parent families, children of two mothers, children raised by a grandmother, and so on). How is all this talk of God the Father helpful if you don’t have a physically present father to begin with? In such instances, children learn about fathering from popular media. Each generation finds its preferred versions of pop culture fathers: Ward Cleaver, Bill Cosby, Gandalf, Dumbledore. But I worry about a fictionalized depiction of a father being the primary image of God the Father.

Let me be clear: we are all composed of factual and fictional experiences blended together. And fatherhood is both conferred and chosen. You may or may not be given a physically present father; along the way you may find a father (and a family) of choice), and a fictional father of choice has much to recommend him. He often has advantages over a piece-of-crap biological father. But a fictional character is necessarily simpler than a warts-and-all human being, and the changing relationship with a flesh-and-blood parent has advantages in modeling the evolving relationship with God. Just as your view of a parent changes as you age, our understanding of God needs to be reevaluated. Parents are not as frightening or powerful as they may seem when we are young. Similarly, God may present a different face to us as adults (rather than the combination of Santa Claus and traffic cop that can inhabit childhood imagery) if we allow that relationship to grow.

I also worry about putting up unnecessary barriers for people to engage with religion. Why do we expect that women will respond to the idea of a masculine Godhead? Because we have always expected women to accommodate, to perform the mental gymnastics of interpreting a generalized masculine word (as in “all men are created equal”) as really meaning “men or women.” And yet we know now that people don’t hear “he or she” when someone simply says “he.” The actual words are important. What is to be gained (other than linguistic simplicity) by referring to God as “he?”

Referring to God as something other than “Father” is awkward at first to practiced Christians, but that awkwardness is part of the point. It makes you stop and think: why should we automatically think of God as masculine? What new parts of God could we discover by thinking outside of old linguistic patterns? Thinking of God as something other than masculine is a useful exercise in making God new again.

Established Christians are often the ones who oppose such change. The “I like things the old way” attitude is contributing enormously to the decline of mainstream Christian churches. On the contrary, I believe that older Christians should be leading the charge to remake Christianity in ways that open up the faith. After all, well-established Christians aren’t likely to abandon the church after a life of service; we’ll still be there if and when the church changes. We who are committed to the church need to see how the familiar, comforting language and rituals we use can be a hindrance to establishing a relationship with God. Rather than requiring others to change in order to feel comfortable in our religious community, maybe we should change the community interaction to remove unnecessary barriers.

Why shouldn’t we make it easier for women to see themselves in God and to see God in themselves? Many churches have seen have experienced how transformative it is for a woman to be a priest or a pastor. It’s one thing to say that God works through men and women; it’s another thing to see and work with women in positions of spiritual leadership (particularly given the church’s long patriarchal history). And maybe men need to see feminine spiritual authority just as much as women do.

In this blog post I’m advocating for thinking of God as Mother. There’s nothing particularly new in Christianity about a feminine aspect of God. Catholics early on recognized the power of being able to pray to a figure of a woman, and so Mary rose from a relative bit player in the New Testament to a central figure of devotion, earthly comfort, and heavenly advocacy. Ditto with saints, who multiplied the image of the divine. When those early fundamentalists called Protestants decided to throw out the church’s accumulated baggage, Mary and the saints (men and women) were sidelined along with indulgences, incense, and gory crucifixes. But we Protestants lost something along the way: the ability to approach the throne of God with a woman in our minds and hearts.

And so I pray to my Heavenly Father and Mother, and I encourage other followers of Christ to give this a try as well. Seeing God as both mother and father allows me to see the divine as powerful, comforting, authoritative, understanding, demanding, forgiving, and righteous all at the same time. (It’s certainly no more difficult than conceptualizing of God as a Trinity.)

If you need scriptural justification for this, I will point you to Matthew 23:37 where Jesus compares his desire to love people to that of a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings. Is this cherry-picking the Scriptures? Oh yeah! There’s certainly an overwhelming reliance on masculine imagery throughout the Bible. But I’m not going to let the fact that the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture spoil the opportunity for me to know God more broadly and widely.

There’s a temptation to assign qualities to God the Mother and Father along standard gender lines. God the Father becomes the judge, the all-powerful, the keeper of strict standards, while God the Mother comforts and understands us. It’s easier to think of the creating, life-giving aspect of God as feminine. There’s usefulness (always my standard for good spiritual practice) in splitting God along these lines. But yet I’ve grown to blur those lines over the years.

By thinking of God as mother and father at the same time, the boundaries around masculine and feminine have eroded. You can think of God the comforting Father and God the powerful Mother. Again, real life fathers and mothers (of origin and of choice) are useful stand-ins here. Real life parents have different qualities to share with their children, and they rarely adhere so rigidly to our standard gendered assumptions. Thinking of God as both Father and Mother helps me pray. It allows me to access the full range of fathers and mothers I have had in my life. It also gives me a way to rethink what masculinity and femininity are.

If you have liberal-leaning theology, you’ve probably already worked through most of this. Good for you. The next frontier may be to contemplate whether we really need to use a gender lens for God. As we revisit and rework both the legacies and the shortcomings of masculinity and femininity in our society, maybe it becomes useful to think of God as queer.

God is, after all, the queerest imaginable being, the ultimate defier of categories (whether gendered or otherwise). I’ve spent this whole blog entry arguing that God is nonbinary. On the face of it, it makes more sense to think of God as being without gender than it does to assign God a masculine or feminine name.

Maybe. Could be. I leave you with this idea in case it’s useful to you. I’m not there yet, however. As I work on my own understanding of gender, I recognize that those categories of masculine and feminine are still emotionally important to me. Gender is the sea that we all swim in; it’s difficult for me (a cisgendered man) to navigate those waters without some version of masculine and feminine. Addressing God as Father and Mother works for me in ways that gender-neutral terms like “divine Parent” simply don’t.

In a time when we are engaged in a large conversation about gender, it’s certainly fair game to include our language about God in that discussion. I believe that queerness has much to teach us about following Christ; Christianity has been far too “straight” (in every sense) for far too long. Again, I think we need to shut up and listen, to be open to seeing God’s many faces, to find the images of God that connect to our lives and that show us the world afresh.

A New Commandment: Listen and Empathize

  empathize

 As part of the continuing drive to expand the Gospel, I propose a new commandment: that we listen to and empathize with each other.

Jesus gave a pithy summary of Jewish law in Matthew 7:12: “Do to others what you want them to do to you.” This “Golden Rule” is a foundational moral principle for multiple ethics systems. It guides you to think beyond your narrow self-interest, to envision what it would be like if you were on the receiving end of your own behavior.

The wrinkle in this commandment is that it still places you at the center. You are the measure of things. You are to imagine how you might feel in someone else’s shoes, which might be fine in a society where everyone wears sandals. But what if some people feel very differently from how you think you’d feel in their place? Your life experience has shaped who you are; what if their life experience has given them a perspective that is difficult for you to imagine? The Golden Rule makes it all too easy for us to substitute a version of ourselves for the raw fact of another person’s life. If other people react differently than we would in a situation, then they are alien, wrong, and in need of correction.

This has all kinds of ramifications for do-gooding. This encourages us to substitute our obviously superior understanding for the perspectives expressed by others. We can feel compassion for others without ever really hearing them. We can provide charity with a parental hand, trusting that we know their needs better than they do themselves. We can feel sympathy for them without feeling empathy with them.

The first part of that new commandment is to listen. Through my involvement in an organization called Stephen Ministry, I have grown to understand both how healing it is to be heard and how rare. The preponderance of the training for lay Stephen Ministers involves simply learning how to listen. The training lasts for forty hours, which underlines just how difficult listening is for most of us. Although we are told that we shouldn’t judge, it’s all too easy for us to look at another person’s situation, recognize what we think they should do, and give advice. That feels like we’re helping, but often we’re simply overriding their perspective with ours.

True listening is inefficient (in our speeded up, quick fix society). It takes a long time, but it shows true caring. I have discovered how hungry people are to be heard (rather than being told what to do). There’s no shortage of advice (religious or otherwise) in our society; there’s a shortage of the time-consuming commitment to listen. When we give quick, easy, unasked-for advice, we are belittling the other person’s capacity and effort to deal with their own problems. “Judge not” is the negative version of this commandment; I suggest that the positive version begins with listening.

(You may have noticed that my recommendation to followers of Christ about interacting with others is remarkably similar to my main suggestion about praying: “first, shut up!”  And yes, I recognize that I’m giving advice here, but I think that the suggestion to listen is different. It’s advice to stop advising so quickly.)

The second part of the commandment is to empathize. This is a step beyond the liberal emphasis on “tolerance.” I understand why we liberals no longer talk so much about tolerance. It’s a namby-pamby goal; it’s hard to muster much passion for mere tolerance (I am reminded of Sean Penn’s award acceptance speech: “You tolerate me! You really tolerate me!”). Part of me says that I’d be happy with more tolerance in these divisive times, but another part believes we need a higher goal. And so even though tolerance is in short supply these days, I advocate for empathy.

As a film and television scholar, I have thought a good deal about empathy, since film and television are basically empathy machines. Part of the reason I was attracted to the field was the belief that film and television are ways for us to vividly, powerfully put on someone else’s perspective. I still believe that is true; I also see the both the power and the limitations of that idea. I see how perspective can be commodified and packaged in ways that alter it by making it more palatable, and I understand we can flatter ourselves for how tolerant we are by accepting a commercialized Other in film/TV.

The well-established rules of screenwriting tell us that to make us care about a character, it’s best to establish that the character is a “person like us,” that even though they may appear to be different, we share some basic characteristics “under the skin.” There are many, many cultural assumptions about what qualities are potentially sharable qualities and which aren’t. We are engaging in many interesting narrative experiments today about empathy with characters, and that is doing undeniably important cultural work. However, empathy with characters isn’t quite the same as empathy with real people who haven’t been shaped for public consumption. As important as media are for broadening our understanding of others, they aren’t a substitute for interactions with the raw humanity of someone different from yourself.

Media are empathy technologies, yes; but I neglected to realize that they are also judgment machines. By watching so many films and so much television over the years, we have become expert at calibrating degrees of empathy with characters; we have also become quite good at the judgments required by storytelling.

Toht

One of my favorite examples is the first time that Raiders of the Lost Ark shows us Toht, the Nazi. We don’t know anything about the character, but before he even speaks we are immediately expected to read him as a villain based on his beady eyes behind his reflective wire-rim glasses, his thin lips, and his overall smarmy appearance. To get the full rollercoaster pleasure of Raiders, we need to know how to judge bad hombres by their appearances in an instant. We are now very practiced at doing this, and we do it in film, television, social media, politics, walking down the street.

I entered the field of film/television studies with hopes about how media could enlarge our perspectives, and I still believe in that. I also now recognize how good we have become at the counter-tendency: snap judgments. I remain hopeful about empathy, though I wonder if we need a better basis for empathy than discovering that we’re “all the same underneath.” That feels to me a lot like substituting my own experience for others.

If you’re a follower of Christ, maybe the right basis for empathy is the same unearned basis we all have to lay claim to God: that we are all God’s children, not because of our actions or values or experiences. We don’t have to find ways that the other person is like us before we extend our empathy to God’s children. This empathy looks for the God within, even when the person makes choices or says things that are inexplicable to us. God is the measure for empathy, not our limited human experience.

One might say that empathizing with others (the disenfranchised and disempowered) would be a bad idea for anyone trying to create policy for those people. Policymaking requires the ability to make tough decisions, after all. I would assert that listening and empathy are vital to good policy. One may make tough pragmatic decisions, but you have done so after truly hearing other people’s perspective, not mansplaining or Christiansplaining their experiences for them. Empathy may make it more difficult to make policy decisions, but those decisions will be grounded in people’s lives, not simply in narratives of our own choosing.

Empathy is not weakness; it requires bravery and effort, particularly for those in positions of power or authority. This blog post is not focusing on the political side of things, but if I were to give advice to Republicans (yes, unsolicited advice! It is a difficult habit to give up!), I would say that the public perception of your decisionmaking is remarkably lacking in empathy. Empathy is not at odds with “toughness” and “pragmatism.”

As I discuss ways to expand the Gospel today, many of these expansions (such as Nadia Bolz-Weber’s revised Beatitudes) have to do with how to follow Christ in a diverse world. This goes far beyond not judging others (which is difficult enough!) for being different. It goes beyond assuming that others are like you (allowing you to bypass the tedious, frustrating, inefficient task of listening to them). It recognizes that other people’s lives may be so different from your own that it never occurs to you that there can be another way of being-in-the-world. If we need a miracle today, we need God to cure us of our own blindness and deafness to the experiences of those unlike us.

An Affirmation for God’s Children

AffirmationChildren2

“I am a child of God.” The first words of this affirmation have their origin in a former minister’s baptism ritual. When Nibs Stroupe baptized an infant at Oakhurst Presbyterian Church, he (like many pastors) would introduce the baby to the congregation by walking through the sanctuary. He might say “This girl will be told that she is valuable when she is attractive to men;” or “This boy will be told that he needs to dominate others in order to feel good about himself;” or “This is a middle class child who will be told that he/she is entitled above others,” and so on. He would conclude: “Our job as the church is to remind her/him of her/his true identity: a child of God.” It was a powerful ritual.

Like any good ritual, this one has variations that reinforce an underlying theme. The world is full of identities that are pre-made for us to occupy, but our status as God’s children is a foundational spiritual birthright. Before we were anything else, before we became linked to our job success or failure, our gender, or our race, we were the recipient of God’s radical grace. We didn’t do anything to deserve being a child of God; no child gets to choose her/his family of birth. And so that unearned identity is unshakable; nothing can separate us from God’s love (just as nothing can truly break the link between parent and child). We need a ritual reminder of that central identity.

We also need to recommit ourselves to the activity of following Christ. As I have noted in the previous blog entry, following Christ is less about what we believe and more about what we do.

And so I offer this affirmation of identity and activity as an alternative to traditional creeds of Christian belief. You may not do all of these things this affirmation says; you may not yet be the person these words describe. But these aspirational words are my gift to you, a reminder of the habits of mind and body that lead us to understand who we truly are: a child of God.

On religious belief

belief

A few times in this blog, I have mentioned that I think Christianity focuses far too much on what you believe. Theological differences in our beliefs have served primarily to divide us into separate denominational tribes. The central activities of following Christ, on the other hand, tend to be a broadly shared heritage that unites. What we do to follow Christ matters more than most theological beliefs.

(Before I get too far into this, I’ll anticipate an objection from readers of the Book of Ephesians, who would remind me that salvation comes from God’s grace and not through any work that we do. (2: 8-9) The activities I’ve been discussing so far in this blog aren’t the kinds of moral “good deeds” that we typically mean when talking about Christian “works.” We are called to love God, to pray, to be grateful, and to engage in Scripturally-connected study. If we don’t do these fundamental activities, then we lose our vital connection to God, and so I argue that these are more life-supporting and spirit-sustaining than many theological “beliefs.”)

In my previous blog entry about what the word of God is and how it works, I left out a pat statement many Christians profess about Scripture:  “I believe the whole Bible.” Frankly, I don’t think anyone does, at least not in any deep form of “belief.” The Bible is too big, too varied, too complex to keep fully in our minds at any given time. For me, if the word “belief” has any spiritual meaning whatsoever, it has to mean more than “I can accept this idea mentally.” Spiritual belief has to mean something more than cognition; it must mean “this idea is so important that I am living by its precepts.” I am unable to do that with the whole Bible; at best I can hold only a subset of its teachings in my little mind. That’s one reason I go to listen to a sermon; I am looking to be reminded of the parts of Scripture I’ve been personally neglecting lately.

All followers of Christ carry with us our own personal version of the word of God, the parts of Scripture that have been most present and important in our lives. If you’ve been paying attention to the tags on my blogs (and I’m sure you have!), you’ll note that the religious blog entries are tagged “the Gospel according to Greg.” That’s not (purely) hubris. I think that all followers of Christ actualize a portion of the word of God and that part of “evangelism” is to share that version with others. Each follower of Christ has put certain personally resonant parts of the Bible into action. That is your “gospel.” Those are your lived spiritual “beliefs.” It’s not simply a matter of being convinced that a belief is right or wrong. It’s not about what beliefs you hold; it’s about what beliefs take hold of you. It’s about revelation, not argumentation.

The process of gaining such deep beliefs cannot be rushed. Let me give an example of someone who modeled the slow careful growth of spiritual beliefs for me. Many years ago I did a months-long group study of the whole Bible entitled Kerygma. One of the members of that group didn’t speak much during the class sessions, but when he did, his participation was always showed deep insight, so I grew to respect him greatly. At the end of the class, the leader asked us what we had learned, and various people (including me) blathered on about all we had discovered. When it came time for this man to speak, he said, “I have learned two things. One: God is.  And two: God is powerful.” That’s it; months of study, and those two short sentences of belief were the only result. But those sentences were spoken with strong conviction; he believed those things in the deepest sense of the word. I respect how careful he was with his mind and heart. Unlike the rest of us loudmouths in the class, he wasn’t about to go further in his words than his convictions.

The church often calls for us to do just that. I attend a creedal church where we regularly recite the Apostles’ Creed, and I start off like everyone else: “I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.” I do believe that. But then my voice trails off from there. There are just too many things in those words that I don’t believe with my whole being, that aren’t central to who I am as a follower of Christ, at least not at this moment. I understand why “born of a virgin” is in the creed, but the Virgin birth just isn’t a vital part of how I practice Christianity (this might be different if I were Catholic, not Protestant). And there are just weird choices made in the Apostles’ Creed. Jesus descending into hell only appears in one gospel account; why is it front and center here? Whose spiritual practice has this as a vital belief?

And so rather than awkwardly blurt out only the phrases that I do believe in (“the forgiveness of sins!”), I keep quiet thereafter. There may come a time when those other ideas (including the Virgin birth) become important to how I follow Christ. Then I will expand the “gospel according to Greg.” In the meantime, I just can’t see how saying things I don’t deeply believe out loud on a regular basis can be good for my soul. I am protective of my soul. You can get by on very few beliefs (for example, “God is” and “God is powerful”). I’d much rather say aloud an aspirational list of what we should do rather than a list of what we should believe. (More on that next time)

You won’t be surprised to hear that my favorite Bible verse comes from the story in Mark about the father who asked Jesus to heal his convulsive son if Jesus could do so. “What do you mean, ‘If I can?’ All things are possible for one who believes.” “Lord, I believe,” the father replied. “Help my unbelief.” (9:24) (That couplet makes a great mantra for meditative prayer when you’re struggling with your faith.) Jesus lowered the bar for those of us who find belief difficult, accepting those whose faith fit the smallest imaginable measure in his day (the size of a mustard seed). Mature faith is capable of admitting its limits as we work to enlarge that faith. Like my friend and the father in Mark’s gospel, we can be confident about the beliefs we truly hold central to our practice, and we can ask for divine help to see a larger vision of God’s kingdom.

The practice of Christianity often involves a complicated cocktail of beliefs and experiences mixed with community and identity. You go to church because that’s part of how you define yourself; you see your friends there, and you mentally agree with the church’s statements on what God is. But I have seen such intellectual beliefs shattered by hard times. “Why are bad things happening to me?” All too often, Christian church communities provide only token support for such struggling people. (Churches can make the mistake of assuming they are naturally warm places. If it’s no one’s job in particular to help those who suffer, then that help usually doesn’t happen.) And when the suffering believer misses church services and no one notices, that sense of community and identity can unravel, and intellectual beliefs about God provide cold comfort.

In this blog I have argued that the habits of regular thanksgiving, prayer, charity, and Scripturally-connected study build a better foundation that is far less vulnerable than any system of theological beliefs, and so I think we should concentrate our efforts there. The Psalms are full of cries to God about how people desert you when the going gets tough. That’s the point; if you have developed habits of intimacy with God, you can reach out to God’s comfort when human structures disappoint. Building that oh-so-peculiar relationship with an infinite, invisible, loving God is the best preparation for hard times. Beliefs that become disconnected to the living presence of the divine can crumble quickly.

How did Christian communities get so focused on what we should believe? I blame the professionals: the theologians and ministers. At the same time, I understand their temptations. In many ways, ministers are like my home tribe: academics. (I am reminded that the university is a direct descendant of the church whenever I don my priestly robes for graduation ceremonies.) Everyone goes to school, but those who choose the teaching profession are the freaky students who become captivated by the subject matter and want to devote their lives to knowing more.

A similar obsession/calling creates ministers and theologians. Just as we academics can become fixated on ever more arcane aspects of our chosen subjects, there’s a natural tendency for those professional Christians to delve into the details of theology, about the Christological differences among the terms “Son of God,” “Son of Man,” and “Messiah,” or about grace versus works (whether someone who undergoes a conversion experience and then continues to lead a deeply sinful life will go to heaven). These make for some fun late-night-undergrad-bull-session debates, but no one thinks that it’s a good idea for a Christian follower to do evil deeds. We all believe that grace is necessary and that righteous action is the correct response to that grace. On a practical level these intellectual distinctions don’t make much difference on the way we follow Christ.

In my own field I have seen academics battle bitterly over tiny issues that couldn’t possibly concern any ordinary person, and theologians are susceptible to the same temptation. (Preachers do have a distinct advantage over academics in airing their arguments, however. When I’m lecturing about film, no one is worried that my positions might affect their mortal soul. I only wish I had that kind of motivating factor to encourage my students to listen!).

A congregation is like a blog; you need to keep feeding it if you want people to come back. When a preacher is expected to say something significant every Sunday, it’s tempting to use your authority to weigh in on a theological debate (about whether God’s infinite knowledge is at odds with the notion of human free will, for instance, or about the existence of a literal hell). Such theological pronouncements have been at the heart of many church splits, with the result that even small communities find themselves with a different church on every other corner.

As I noted in a previous blog entry, my father led a church split in my small town over the issue of whether the church should elect deacons. He believed in a strongly egalitarian version of the “priesthood of the believer” in which no one should be placed in a position of spiritual authority over another, and that belief was enough to divide the church (if there’s anything we know how to do in the South, we know how to secede!). Looking back on this, I think about what a waste of spiritual energy that was.

The history of the Christian church (large and small) is the history of division. Sometimes principles of structural organization/authority are at issue, but usually the schisms are about theological beliefs. A certain minimal amount of belief is necessary for Christianity, but we need to recognize how an overemphasis on beliefs can rip Christian communities apart.

(In the next blog entry, I’ll suggest an action-oriented alternative to Christian creeds about beliefs.)

A Method of Meditative Prayer

Open hands

Prayer is a discipline (the other central discipline for following Christ is Scripturally-connected study, as noted in my previous blog post). Prayer doesn’t tend to work very well if you do it only when you feel like it or when you’re desperately in need. Regular prayer is an investment in your own spiritual maturity. It is the spiritual equivalent of physical exercise. Just as you need to make regular trips to the gym to build your physical strength and endurance, you need to make a habit of reorienting yourself toward God to strengthen yourself to endure times of spiritual trouble. If the most important task in following Christ is to establish a loving connection to God, that’s impossible to do without spending time. That’s as true for your relationship with God as it is with any loving relationship you have with others.

I use the word “regular” and not “daily” because we often get too hung up on the question of how often we should pray. If you’re like me, my resolutions to do things daily often fall apart. I promise myself that I’ll exercise or work on my blog every day, and then inevitably a horrible day derails my plans. Once I’ve violated the “daily” part of my commitment, it’s all too easy for me to throw the whole thing out. “Regular” is a much more realistic timing. If it’s been several days since you reconnected to God, then you need to do that. Yes, ideally it should be daily, but don’t let the ideal interfere with the practical.

My comparisons to bodily discipline aren’t coincidental because prayer for me has a lot to do with the body. My method of praying has changed significantly from the praying that has been modeled for me in Christian churches. Praying in church is concerned with words. My prayers are increasingly about silence and attention to the body. I have borrowed much from Eastern forms of meditation (we sometimes forget that Christianity too is an “Eastern” religion). As I noted in a previous blog entry, I think we have much to learn by sampling other religious practices to renew our own spiritual lives.

The traditions of Christian prayer in which I was raised continue this neglect of the body, and I have grown to realize that prayer can help us reconnect to our own bodies. Neglecting the flesh actually gives it unruly power. Prayer can unite the whole person – mind, spirit, and flesh.

In the rest of this blog, I lay out my own personal “how-to” guide to meditative prayer. Advice on how to pray is everywhere, and I don’t pretend that mine is better. It’s simply mine. I have cobbled together my own prayer routine out of various contemplative prayer routines (and singing instruction), and I suggest you do the same. Steal bits from me if you like, and leave my advice behind if it doesn’t connect to you. Find what works for you.

If you’re pretty satisfied with your own prayer discipline, then I suggest you skip the rest of this blog entry. If you’re looking to find an alternative to the all-words-all-the-time tradition of Christian prayer, then my how-to guide is as good a place to start as any. As you’ll see, I give a lot of details about how to get your body and mind into a position where you can receive God’s insight; I spend very little time talking about what words to say. This is the opposite of how I was taught to pray in church.

My form of prayer involves meditation, but it’s not about physical or mental relaxation (although calmness is a goal). The key words in my form of meditation are balance, breathing, and focus.

  • If you are able to get into the lotus position, that’s great. If not, sit on a chair with minimal padding (no sofas) with your feet flat on the floor at shoulder’s width and with your legs at a 90-degree angle. If you can, sit forward without your back touching the back of the chair, but if you need the back support, go ahead.
  • Sit tall. Sometimes it’s useful to picture a string coming out of the top of your head, pulling your spine straight.
  • As a beginning way to learn about breathing, put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your stomach. Now breathe. Does your chest go up and your stomach go in? That’s the way most people breathe, but meditation requires a different form of breathing.
    • Inhale a bit, and stop the expansion of your ribs partway. Hold it.
    • Now breathe in by pushing your stomach outward and breathe out by pulling your ab muscles in, pressing the air out. This may take some getting used to. When you get comfortable with this form of breathing, you may remove your hands from your chest and stomach.
  • Focus on a spot two inches below your navel as you breathe in and breathe out. You obviously can’t really breathe into a spot below your navel, but it’s useful to picture the breath going to that spot and then pushing the air out by starting at that spot.
  • Place your hands lightly on your knees.
  • Look straight ahead, raising your chin until it’s perpendicular to the ground. Keeping your chin in that position, look downward and focus your eyes on a fairly nondescript spot (on the floor, on a table, whatever is in front of you). This spot can be a slight irregularity in the grain of the floor, but you shouldn’t be looking at an object that would normally draw your attention. I try to keep the area directly in front of me free of visual clutter. It’s very tempting for your downward cast eyes to draw your chin downward, and then the rest of your body begins to slump. From time to time you’ll probably need to correct your posture (sitting tall, chin straight).
  • Now you’re ready to focus on your breathing: steady regular breathing in to the spot below your navel, then push the air out using the muscles of your diaphragm.
  • As you breathe, begin to become aware of your body and how its position is unbalanced in one plane or another. Are you putting more weight on one hip than the other? Are you leaning forward or leaning back a slight bit? Is your upper torso twisting a little clockwise or counterclockwise? Is your head twisted or tilted a little at the neck? Is your chin pointing upward or downward instead of straight ahead? Are your feet both pointing straight ahead? If so, correct those imbalances and try to find a position that’s perfectly balanced. Sometimes it’s helpful to overcorrect the imbalance so that I can better sense where the center point is. The goal is for your body to be a conduit for spiritual energy. Keeping your body open, balanced, and expanded helps this process. If there are kinks and twists and slouches in your body, the energy provided by proper breathing and balance will not flow through your body.
  • This can take awhile. Keep breathing properly (slowly and regularly), and think about balance. Think about how much of your life you spend out of balance (physically, emotionally, spiritually). Think about how difficult it is to get into balance and how easy it is to slip out of that. Think about the fact that you do this simple act of breathing all the time unconsciously, but now you’re restricting your thoughts to focus on this one small action, and doing that action consciously can take a significant amount of concentration. During your first few sessions you may not even get to the point of praying. You can spend all of your time just figuring out how to breathe properly and to orient your body into balance. You will get better at it with practice, but the breathing and balancing aspects are themselves a spiritual practice with a spiritual message to be learned in your body.
  • One more tiny tip to add about body position, but it’s an important one: touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. It doesn’t seem like this would matter, but it does. When you are breathing properly and your body is balanced, you can sometimes feel the energy move from the spot two inches below your navel; then up the front of your body where it hits your tongue and then curls back down your body toward the energy spot below your navel.

All of this describes an approach to meditation without any necessarily Christian aspect to it.  Let’s move toward adding some contemplative Christian prayer to that practice.

  • Sometimes it’s difficult to keep your thoughts focused just on your breathing. Other thoughts from your day come intruding in. This is where a “mantra” (a non-sense word or sound) is useful in many meditative practices. I’m not a mantra person. I use fairly standard, repeated, short Christian phrases, matching them to my breathing in and out. One that I use a lot is “(breathing in) I am a child of God; (breathing out) thanks be to God.” If you come from a fairly ritualized Christian background, something that’s been used by generations of Christians can be useful: “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy” or “Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison.” Scripture can work: “Be still and know; that I am God.” I have grown to quite like: “Remember I am dust; Yet Christ died for me.” Any short pair of phrases that resonates with your understanding of Christianity can work. Such phrases help clear my mind of extraneous thoughts; they reinforce the rhythms of my breathing; and they focus my meditation toward prayer.
  • Once you reach a state of calm, you can begin to pray more freely. I think that Christians typically talk too much during prayer and don’t listen enough. The meditative breathing helps counterbalance that. The best two word advice I can give about meditative prayer is: “SHUT UP!” You don’t have to say something with every breath. You can listen while still concentrating on your breathing and your balance.
    • I will frequently start with short prayers of thanksgiving, beginning by thanking God for very concrete things (hot showers, craft beer) and moving to more spiritual thanks. Everything is in rhythm to the breathing, which can create spaces between the short utterances.
    • I will pray for individuals and groups. I’ve grown very fond of the Quaker phrase “I hold so-and-so in the light,” which provides me a nice visual picture (I’m either embracing the person or underneath them, supporting them, lifting them up). Again the breathing usually keeps me from rattling on and on.
    • You can then talk with God about difficult matters (remember that it may take awhile before you develop the discipline to reach this point. Meditative prayer is a practice). The calm of meditative prayer allows me to sit and contemplate my own sinfulness, to think about why certain sins are so attractive to me and about how I might change that. The calm part of myself can sit and observe the part of myself who tends to engage in patterns of repeated toxic behavior, and the calm part of myself that I have created through meditation says, “Isn’t it interesting that I do this? Why do I do this?” This is not a judgmental space (nor is it a “get thee behind me, Satan” moment). I seek to understand my own sinful behavior in the quiet of meditative prayer.
    • This is also a time to take difficult problems to God and then sit quietly. Only when you quiet everything (and meditation is a great way to do this) can you hear the “still small voice” of God. Try to develop confidence/faith that the answer you arrive at by considering and weighing the quiet voices in contemplative prayer is the right, God-breathed answer.
    • I find it useful to make a mental connection between this session of meditative, contemplative prayer and the previous one. The image I use is to think of time as being like a river, and my meditative times are islands I create, still points in that stream. I mentally connect this island in time with the previous one to acknowledge God’s continuing presence in my life, to acknowledge that God meets me here in these still times, and I thank God for that continuing intervention.
  • When I am particularly aware of God’s presence, I will sometimes turn my hands upwards (still resting on my knees) in a gesture that indicates (to me) openness and reception of God’s spirit. You can experiment with gestures that work for you if that feels too “charismatic,” but you can explore finding ways for your body to express your spirituality.

On Scriptural Study; or Christianity Is Dangerous

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The two basic disciplines of the Christian life are prayer and Scripturally-connected study.

For anyone who’s spent any time in church, this is a pretty unsurprising statement, but bear with me: I hope to take this in a more interesting direction. First let me phrase this a bit more aggressively: if you’re not doing both of these disciplines on a fairly regular basis, you’re at incredible risk of not following Christ.

A bit of ground-clearing here so you’ll know where I’m coming from regarding Scripture (ok, a LOT of ground-clearing. My apologies in advance). Do I believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible? No. I greatly prefer the words that the Bible uses to describe itself: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” (2 Tim. 3:16) The whole notion of “literal truth” developed much later than when the Bible was written (Bart Ehrman has made an interesting argument that fundamentalist Christianity is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and its emphasis on objective truth). To ask the Bible to adhere to the standard of “literalness” is to impose a set of values that are external to Scripture. I’d rather stick to what the Bible says about itself.

To be honest, I’ve never quite understood what it means to believe the Bible literally. What would a literal understanding of the poetry of Song of Solomon look like? The Scriptures are full of metaphor, and no one is tempted to take those literally. Does anyone believe that the streets of heaven are paved with element number 79 on the earthly period table? Does anyone expect that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will actually ride horses? “Literalness” applied to poetry and metaphor would fundamentally misunderstand those words.

And what would a “literal” reading of a parable be? Parables are explicitly stories for our edification; no one literally believes there was an actual Prodigal Son. It’s a bit of fabrication that’s meant to yield a deeper truth. (Yes, I guess I did just call Jesus a liar. Another word for that is “storyteller.”) Those stories are designed to prompt our interpretation. Their power is not in their literalness; it’s in the call for us to participate in making sense of them for our lives.

What “literal” means is that you treat parts of the Bible literally; not the metaphor and poetry but the events depicted. But then you’re picking and choosing which portions of the Bible should be understood “literally” (the Creation, the Flood, the Exodus, Satan, and the miracles, not the parables), and so we’re back in the world of interpretation and choosing which portions of Scripture should be our focus and which should not.

We do this all the time in Christianity. We expand the significance of certain scriptures by making them prominent (there’s a lot less about original sin in the Bible than you would expect, given its prominence in doctrine). We ignore virtually all of the behavioral prescriptions in the Old Testament Pentateuch (except for the Ten Commandments, of course) because Jesus has done away the old law.

More pertinent to modern Christians is the way we bypass the Apostle Paul’s anti-women rhetoric, particularly his very explicit statement that women should be silent in church (I Corinthians 14:34). How many churches observe this today? Hopefully not many. Hopefully we use our interpretive powers to see how individual prescriptions in the Bible can be counter to the overall message. Those individual words should be weighed within the whole and interpreted in light of God’s Spirit, not weaponized to silence and harm others.

So there is no alternative to “interpretation;” it’s built into our experience of the Bible at the most basic structural level (and to the process of all reading. If you want my secular thoughts about “reading into” a text, I’ll point you to something I wrote for introductory film/media classes called “It’s Just a Movie”). There aren’t vowels actually written in the Torah; they have to be added by the reader. The familiar structure of chapters and verses was as added later by not-particularly inspired scribes trying to break the text up into more manageable and quotable chunks.

Rabbis interrogate and interpret the Scriptures; the idea of nailing down the “literal” meaning of Scriptures would be utterly foreign to the enterprise that Jesus himself participated in. And of course the Bible is written in Hebrew and Greek, and so translation into another language is necessarily a process of interpretation. Reading Scripture is participatory.

Because of this participation, I believe that the Word of God is a living, breathing process, and that process expands Scripture. Jesus himself magnified a part of the existing Jewish law (on love, on thought/motivation, and against materialism), opened up more intimate access to God, and increased the reach of the gospel outside of sanctimonious people in Israel and Judea (to prostitutes, ethically compromised officials in imperialist governments, and Samaritans).

I believe it is significant that the first major theological struggle documented for early believers is the question of whether Christianity would be a Jewish sect or a religion that extends to Gentiles. The Book of Acts details a conversion story in which Peter has to be convinced that non-Jews can be followers of Christ. That conversion happens (in part) by face-to-face encounters between Peter and Gentile believers. When he is confronted with real human beings who undeniably love and serve Christ, he alters his theology. He discovers that the chosen people of God are no longer a tribal few, even though the vast majority of the written Scriptures say that it is. In the ministry of Jesus and in the earliest interactions of the church, we see the Kingdom of God grow past our narrow Scriptural confines. I do not think this is coincidence; I think this is a demonstration of how we should all interact with Scripture.

I don’t see why the process of revelation should stop with the Book of Revelations (growing up in fundamentalist religion, I was taught that the period of such prophecy was over, though it was never clear to me why that was). Partly I blame mainstream Christian education for this, particularly its Protestant version. We somehow pretend that our church began with Martin Luther’s revolutionary reinterpretation (opening up the doors to the Kingdom further by enlarging the “priesthood” to include all believers), managing to ignore all that Catholic church history beforehand.

We don’t hear much about a series of councils throughout Christianity’s early centuries in which our theology moved from open, contested questions to settled doctrine. The concept of the Trinity and the idea that Jesus was fully human and fully divine at the same time became official church theology through a combination of argumentation and assertion of authority. These core Christian tenets are far from being clear, obvious parts of the faith; believers managed to follow Christ without having these things settled for centuries.

Far from a “the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it” mentality, it took many generations of Christians to arrive at what we now think the Bible “says.” We do a disservice to those generations of followers of Christ to ignore the struggle to make sense out of such a complex book and to pretend that now such questioning is somehow settled. The history of following Christ is a history of struggling to understand and to continue the work of expanding the Kingdom of God.

And so it makes perfect sense to me to expand our understanding of God’s kingdom to include gays and lesbians. The key to expanding our theology is people, not doctrine (just as it was for Peter). When I attended a Methodist church in the Nineties, my minister had what he described as a “conversion experience.” A long-established pillar of the church came out to him as lesbian, and through a series of interactions with her, he altered his understanding of the Kingdom. When confronted by the raw fact of an incontrovertible follower of Christ, he (like Peter) enlarged his theology.

In similar fashion, I am open to the idea that the Kingdom of God includes those who don’t use the J-word or the C-word when they pray. I have met people of undeniable spiritual maturity from faiths other than Christianity. I have no problem seeing God working through them. If we take the world-expanding experiences of Jesus and the early church seriously, then we too need to be open to the call to grow the Kingdom. What if “evangelical” came to mean “opening up our own understanding of the Kingdom to incorporate a wider range of people to participate with us in religion?” (instead of forcing them to “convert” their thinking to ours)

Encounters with other religious traditions can enrich a follower of Christ. If your reading stays entirely within the Christian sphere, you also inherit certain time-honored traditions about what you believe and what you practice. Learning something about other religious practices can help shake the cobwebs off your theology and your spiritual discipline. Buddhism, to my mind, has a much better articulation of what “holiness” is; in Christianity, it’s a word we toss around without really thinking much about what it means. After learning about meditation, my prayer life has changed dramatically from the all-words-all-the-time tradition in which I was raised to a much more quiet, contemplative experience. I’m intrigued by the greater involvement of the body in Buddhist and Muslim prayer; our Christian heritage has given us a fraught relationship with our bodies.

Judeo-Christianity has never stood alone. From its earliest days, it has cross-fertilized and been influenced by Zoroastrianism, wisdom traditions, and Greek philosophy. We do ourselves a disservice by trying to set Christianity entirely apart from other religious traditions. Learning about other religious practices has strengthened my own Christian path. Other religions emphasize other parts of the enormity of God. The altered perspective they provide allow me to see familiar Christian teachings with new eyes. A new perspective is a gift; I welcome it wherever it comes from.

And so you’ll note that I say that one of the central disciplines of following Christ is “Scripturally-connected study” and not simply “reading the Bible.” By the former phrase I mean “engaging in reading and study that enlarges your understanding of the Bible.” Sometimes that means reading the Bible. But as I noted, it’s easy for the cobwebs of Christian tradition to accumulate in our minds; it’s hard to find new perspectives if you’ve been in the church for awhile. Sometimes it’s better to read works that elaborate on Scripture. Sometimes it’s good to study religious perspectives that are foreign and to use those traditions to illuminate the Bible. Such “foreign travel” can help you see your religious “homeland” in a larger way.

For many Christians, the answer to problems is “read your Bible.” (Some people prescribe the Bible like medicine: “read some and you’ll be all better.”) But we also should recognize what a frustrating, confusing, and at times boring book the Bible is.

Let me be clear: the Bible is at the center of Christianity. We (like generations before us) need to keep coming back to that book. I believe that reading works of Buddhism or Islam can enliven your Christian understanding, but if those works become truly central for you, then you’re probably no longer doing something called “Christianity.” One thing that connects millennia of Christ’s followers is that we are all doing the same thing: trying to figure out what purposes can this first century book can serve in our contemporary world. Connecting your study and your life to this annoying, beguiling, and undeniably central book is a key discipline.

As you might guess, I think the two disciplines of prayer and Scriptural study begin to bleed into each other. The Word of God is not just a book; it is a living thing that grows, that exists not only between the covers of the Holy Bible but also in words spoken and written and actions done today. Some may be uncomfortable with how porous the Word of God is for me. Doesn’t this loosey-goosey “expanding the Word of God” stuff make it pretty easy for me to invoke “God’s will” and substitute my own? Isn’t it easy to remake the Bible into your own image, for your own purposes?

Hell yes. That’s a danger.

Let me first note the other danger: using the Bible without prayerful meditation about how God wants you to put those words into action. If your focus is entirely on the Bible, then you are making the Bible into your God. It is possible to violate the “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” commandment by putting a legalistic version of the Bible first. God is larger than the Bible. Biblical study without prayer can become rigid and judgmental.

The opposite danger is prayer/meditation without checking in with the Scriptures. It is easy for such practice to become solipsistic, for you and your own ideas to become your God. As I’ve said, I need to regularly experience voices (in sermons and in reading) that remind me how inadequate my own understanding of God is. We need both disciplines: prayer and Scripturally-centered study. One without the other is deadly.

I’ll go further: if you study and contemplate the Scriptures as a whole and if you regularly listen to the still small voice of God that you hear in prayer/meditation, you should do what that voice says. Over and over again in the Judeo-Christian faith, we have examples of people acting through faith on their revelations of what God wants them to do in the world. We believe that if you’re doing both of the central disciplines, you should act boldly on what you are called to do.

I’ll admit this is scary stuff. This is terrorist stuff, potentially. What if you believe God is calling you to smite your enemies? (There’s an awful lot of smiting that goes on in the Bible, so you can definitely find precedent) How does this faith differ from the justifications that terrorists give?

Let me add to the discussion earlier blog posts in which I argued that the primary job of a follower of Christ is to love God and then to engage in charity and justice. Those are the central calling/activities for following Christ, as I see it. If you love God and work for charity and justice while you pray and study Scripture, then I cannot believe that the still small voice of God will tell you to commit violence. That is not the God I know. I recognize the danger of getting this wrong. Christians have gotten this wrong for centuries (witness the Crusades and the support of slavery). But that is the faith I have in those central beliefs and disciplines.

Christianity is dangerous. Or it should be.

(More on prayer, that other dangerous discipline, next time.)

Continuity or Change: Conservatives, Liberals, and the Power of the Past

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A friend (thanks, Tim Engelbracht!) suggested that conservatives prefer continuity and liberals favor change, and I’d like to explore that nugget. (Please don’t blame Tim for the length of this blog entry, however!) I’m expanding on an idea from a previous post:  that if the right and the left see each other as counterbalancing forces leading in different directions, we can value what each group brings to the negotiating table.

In that blog entry, I focused on what liberals and conservatives want, on their goals for the future. In this post I’ll emphasize their different relationships to the past.

Conservatives make no bones about the importance of the past; it’s right there in their name. One of their primary jobs is to conserve what is best about our history, to make sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Conservatives have an important function: to remind us of the achievements of the past and to ensure that those legacies continue into the future.

Liberals have a tendency to say, “My, that baby sure still is dirty. Looks like it needs another bath!”  Or at times we can say, “What baby? Look at the damage caused by patriarchy or whiteness or religion or capitalism. Throw ‘em out!” We can romanticize social revolution (admittedly, some right-wingers are a bit too in love with the idea of armed rebellion against the government). We liberals can overestimate the power of policy to change society. At times we can be in love with programs and their potential. Conservatives can temper our desire for change by rearticulating the values of the past.

The tricky question is: “which past?” There’s a broad thread of American life that glorifies our history: the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, the battles won by the “greatest generation.” There’s another broad tradition of questioning and criticizing that vision of a shining past. This recognizes the tendency to bathe the past in the comforting glow of nostalgia. Although some assert that America should be a “love it or leave it” proposition, we need to recognize that that love can take very different forms. The nostalgic and the critical are both time-honored American traditions.

I remember hearing a news story about a college campus that decided to have a Fifties day in the dining halls. You can picture what this would be like: cafeteria workers in poodle skirts and ducktails, Chuck Berry and Bill Haley on the sound system. Someone suggested that this be turned into a different exercise in time travel: that food should be served only by black people; that only white students could attend classes; that water fountains be labeled “white” and “colored.” Both are visions of the past: one nostalgic and comfortable, one necessarily challenging and uncomfortable.

Liberals can come across as party-poopers when it comes to the past. Who wouldn’t rather go to the Bill Haley Fifties day than the “white/colored only” version? And so I think conservatives have an easier time celebrating and invoking the past as a repository of greatness. Conservatives often call themselves “realists” compared to unrealistic dreamers on the left, and yet liberals are often the ones asking for a more realistic, uncomfortable understanding of our past.

Yes, the greatest generation had mighty military and industrial achievements; there was also much more misogyny and sexual abuse going on at that time than we ever realized. Yes, the Founding Fathers created a remarkable new system of government; they were also wealthy landowners looking out for the interests of their property (including human property). Yes, the public education system in America (particularly in the G.I. Bill era) was the envy of the world, but remember how many women and people of color were excluded from those hallowed halls. The triumphs of the past depended on a system of unpaid/underpaid labor from women, the poor, and people of color, and it’s misleading to extricate the achievements from the system that made them possible. And so a return to poodle skirts and rocking around the clock is a return to a fiction, a Marty McFly journey to a world that never existed except in a few isolated pockets.

Nostalgia’s lens is further clouded because it often focuses on the era of our childhood. The “good old days” we want to return to are simpler times partly because we were children then; we weren’t aware of the complexity of the adult world. My favorite example of this is John Boorman’s 1987 film Hope and Glory, rooted in his childhood memories of being in WW2’s London Blitz. Rather than a traumatic experience, it’s a sunny film with children playing among the rubble. When the local school is bombed, the kids shout to the sky, “Thank you, Adolf!” Childhood of course is not sunny for everyone, but Hope and Glory reminds me how childhood memories can put a rosy patina around even the most difficult times. The question of “whose past?” is important.

As L.P. Hartley noted, the past can be a “foreign country; they do things differently there.” The battle lines in the past are always clearer, given hindsight’s clear seeing. Every new era looks shabby and messy compared to the Golden Era, and politicians can always make use of this narrative of decline. (It’s at the heart of any fundamentalist movement, whether that revival is religious or political.) The story of civilization’s decline and decay is such a constant that Patrick Brantlinger has written a history of such rhetoric called Bread and Circuses (to be honest, the book is a little disappointing – wink). Seeing the past clearly (and not solely through the rhetoric of decay or nostalgia) is tough, and thus the importance of liberals’ annoying questioning of the uses and value of the past in today’s world.

Competing visions of the past recently re-emerged in the controversy about Confederate statues. Supporters of these statues usually argue with H-words (“heritage” and “history”). Someone has said, “When you hear the word ‘heritage,’ it always means ‘bad history.’” (Clearly a liberal talking there.) There was an uptick in Confederate statues and the use of the stars-and-bars on flags during times of racial unrest, and so these markers of “heritage” have a clear but coded message in the way they repurpose history for contemporary purposes. History has its usefulness in the present.

The controversy over statues is about who we commemorate and why, not about history. No one is asking that we erase the books written about Robert E. Lee; they are arguing that we stop commemorating the action of rebelling against the government to promote the continued enslavement of black people. Heritage necessarily whitewashes.

Both left and right tend to cherry-pick from history. On the one hand, Michelangelo and the modern economy; on the other, protests and the poor. One difficulty with conservative cherry picking is the temptation to think that history is over, that we have accomplished the goals of the civil rights movement or worker’s rights, and now we should just move on. Liberals, to this way of thinking, are too obsessed with race, gender, class, and the Sixties. It’s counterproductive for us to dredge up the difficult past. Let’s move forward.

The standard liberal reply is William Faulkner’s classic “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And thus the weirdness of the conservative’s relationship to history: they advocate that parts of our traditions should remain alive and well while discounting the past’s full influence on the here and now. History for conservatives alternates between being really important and not important at all.

Liberals can’t help but note that “let’s move on” also means “let’s ignore how conservatives in the past opposed crucial progressive changes that are now widely accepted” from the minimum wage requirement to Social Security to voting reform for women and African Americans. Conservative pushback on such initiatives often emphasizes the possible unintended consequences of change, and it often foregrounds the frightening possible outcomes (economic or social) of a new program (and fear, as I noted in a previous blog post, is a particularly dependable touchstone emotion of the right).

Yes, conservatives are correct: there are always unintended consequences, which (by definition) can’t be predicted. But liberals would rather be on the side of change rather than not trying anything and thus avoiding unintended consequences. For liberals, we’d rather try a new solution than do nothing. For conservatives, doing nothing is not a bad thing because trying new things can do more harm than good (a political repurposing of the Hippocratic oath).

True enough: change CAN do more harm than good. But that argument can be raised about any new idea or program. If you emphasize how frightening the unintended consequences (economic, social, whatever) can be, you’ll never implement any change. If you want a guarantee that a program will do exactly what it hopes without causing collateral problems, then you would never start any program. Avoiding all unintended outcomes is a recipe for the status quo. Which is not a bad thing for conservatives because they are designed to be a voice for preserving the status quo (or at least returning to a version of the status quo in the recent past, whether that’s Reagan or Eisenhower or even Hoover).

Forgive the extended flashback into history (or our attitudes toward it), but my argument here is that our differing visions of the future (and the means we trust to get us there) have much to do with our different relations to the past. Our understanding of the past and its value shapes our decisions in the present.

It’s hard to imagine a purer distillation of American conservativism’s relation to the past than “Make America Great Again.” It acknowledges the nation’s superiority but then suggests that’s not so true right now (because libs have been mucking it up). It locates that greatness in the indefinable past (but not so far in the past that it’s out of memory). Let’s go forward by going back.

Nor can one imagine a terser call to arms for liberals than Obama’s “Change.” Change to what? From what? Such details matter less than the need to change what’s wrong.

Here’s where liberals have an obvious advantage in the culture. Every advertisement in our consumer world tries to convince you that buying a new and improved thing can give you a new and improved life. Virtually every narrative is about how characters change for the better. There are few novels and films about staying the same; change is the basic material of drama. Morals and mores necessarily change. No wonder conservatives feel that their values are under attack; the cultural cards are structurally stacked against them.

The other rhetorical awkwardness of the conservative appeal is that Republicans can become the “party of ‘no.’” Instead of being able to argue forcefully for what they want to do (“so what IS your alternative to the Affordable Care Act?”), conservatives can more powerfully assert what they don’t want to do: no more taxes, no more regulations, no more immigration, no more Obamacare, no more expansion of Constitutional rights, no more new forms of gender and sexuality, no more having to worry about what pronouns to use. That is their job, after all, but it’s not a particularly sexy one. Our society has a prejudice toward those who build new things; demolition is not nearly as glorious a job. And thus need to anchor the conservative appeal to when America was great (as opposed to a strong affirmation of the ongoing “American experiment,” which is necessarily open-ended and exploratory).

Again, here’s where an understanding of the yin and yang of politics can be useful. We liberals can acknowledge that a shiny new program is usually tempting for us and that we need questions and opposition from the right to temper our optimism and shape better policy. Conservatives could recognize that their tendency to distrust the new can hinder the republic’s progress, that they need the questions and ideas of the left to move forward (not back into an all-too-imagined past). You need both an accelerator and a brake to drive a car.

So how would such a discussion move forward? Conservatives would need to address liberals’ questions seriously and not sneer at these concerns as silly or disingenuous or uselessly navel-gazing. What is good about patriarchy, or whiteness, or capitalism? What of these historical forces should we hold onto, and why? Are their advantages inextricably caught up in their disadvantages, or can they be separated? Are they worth the damage that they have caused? In spite of our idea of “progress,” there are always tradeoffs. The past wasn’t simpler; there were tradeoffs made (some good, some not so good). The same is true for the balance of stability and adaptability in our current institutions.

I’m in an interesting position here myself because I’m a political liberal who is personally invested in one our oldest, most stabilizing institutions: organized religion. I recognize that there’s an awful lot of bathwater here. I acknowledge that organized religion has been one of the most retrograde, violent, repressive, damaging forces in human history. And yet I still believe in the Baby. I believe in working from within rather than throwing the whole thing out. I believe that clearly seeing our past (both our collective sins and our collective glories) is vital to the process of living fully in the present and moving toward our future.

What Do Conservatives Want?

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As I search for middle ground where liberals and conservatives can work together, it seems reasonable to ask what the other side wants. If each of us can understand what our political rivals desire, then perhaps be can more sensibly steer the conversation toward a mutually acceptable compromise, one where we all get a bit of what we hope for.

Before I look for an answer to my title question, it’s only fair that I hazard an answer about liberals’ goals. My late conservative father-in-law frequently harangued me about what he saw were the false end-goals for liberalism: the idea of “equality” and a belief in the perfectibility of humankind. (Bob spent a lot of time telling me that he didn’t think liberals had gotten over Rousseau and the Romantics)  He said that true equality was impossible, that people could not all be the same because they had different capabilities. Because of human nature, people would remain fundamentally flawed, and so it was hopeless to try to improve human interaction till we all join hands and sing “Kum Bah Yah.”

My reply was that I didn’t recognize these goals at all. I couldn’t think of a single liberal who would say that perfecting human society was achievable. Liberals believe that society can be improved, and incrementalists believe this change comes one hard-fought gain at a time, not through revolution (a more romantic and inspirational rallying cry, but revolutions are usually very tricky to implement). But just because perfection is impossible doesn’t mean that we should short-circuit our efforts to improve the lot of humanity.

Nor did I accept that talk of “equality” meant that people were literally the same (in fact, we’re the folks who are talking about cultural difference all the time!). Equality didn’t mean uniformity (either socially or economically). I suppose Bob could be forgiven for mistaking talk about “redistribution of wealth” to mean that everyone would receive an equal parcel of wealth (though discussions of a universal basic income do veer in this direction. Many liberals have too much in their 401(k) to support a fundamental equalizing of capital). We liberals often emphasize “equality,” but that may need a bit of elaboration to explain ourselves to conservatives.

This portion of my discussions with my father-in-law went nowhere because Bob kept accusing liberals of having goals that I didn’t recognize or accept. I learned from this exercise in frustration that if this dialogue is going to proceed, both sides should start with a version of liberalism/conservativism that that the group itself recognizes. If liberals tell conservatives what conservatives think (or if conservatives do the same), then the entire discussion becomes about whether that label fits. That may be a discussion worth having, but it’s not a discussion that can start us working together. I suggest that as a working hypothesis we should begin with a self-description that liberals and conservatives recognize.

My modest proposal is that Bob just needed us liberals to use a few more words. Utter equality isn’t the goal. I assert that goal for liberals is equality of opportunity. (Since it’s my blog, I get to speak for all liberals here.  (wink)  )

Equality of opportunity would mean (in part) counteracting the structures that make opportunity unequal: poverty, racism, sexism, and others. I want to emphasize that these are social and economic structures with long histories. It’s not simply a matter of changing people’s attitudes, though that’s part of it. Although Americans love to reinvent themselves, histories have weight; they’re hard to change quickly. And so rather than pretending that everyone exists on a level playing field, we acknowledge that everyone is not equal when it comes to the opportunities provided by birth. You can’t judge the race to success by who crosses the finish line first; you have to acknowledge that some people’s starting line is much further back than others.

And so working toward equality of opportunity can look like treating people unequally in the here and now because we’re looking at them as people with histories, not freestanding individuals without context. It may require programs targeted to help poor people gain life skills that middle class people gain for themselves along the way. It may require family leave policies that allow women a longer period of absence from the workplace. It may use affirmative action, Head Start, and summer programs to open up educational opportunities to those who may not recognize that such opportunities exist for them.

I’m not necessarily advocating any one of these policy suggestions (the advantages and disadvantages of policies always have to be weighed against each other). I’m simply making the point that a slavish adherence to “equality” of treatment in the here and now looks different from the idea of equality of opportunity that acknowledges we all have a history.

The list of pseudo-policy suggestions I just made is pretty slanted toward economic opportunity. We’re so conditioned to think fiscally these days that we forget that citizenship is more than just being a consumer. The government has impact on our lives beyond taxes and spending. When I say “equality of opportunity,” I also mean equality of opportunity to access the full range of the government.

This would include equality of access to justice. We all know that the justice system looks different if you have an expensive lawyer as opposed to depending on an overworked public defender. If we talk about being “equal before the law,” then some of us are more equal than others.

This would also include equality of access to policymaking. Lawmakers hold hearings to gather perspectives on policy, but often the only people invited to those hearings are technocrats who have an interest in shifting the policy in an economically self-interested direction. Lobbying also requires money to gain access to decisionmakers, and so well-funded interests have a stronger voice in shaping policy. Equality of opportunity would mean opening up those channels to influence how laws are made and enforced.

You might say this is liberal pie-in-the-sky thinking to believe that money can be counterbalanced, and you would be right. I have no illusions that the justice system will ever treat poor and rich people equally or that lawmakers will ignore special interests with deep pockets. Having money always is an advantage. But just because true equality of opportunity/access isn’t impossible doesn’t mean that this is an unworthy goal. That’s what makes it a goal. We don’t throw the concept of justice out simply because it’s an unattainable ideal. It’s an aspiration that we can work toward one step at a time.

I apologize for the lengthy sidetrack into what liberals want (at least my version of that), but I do think it’s useful to make your goals legible to the other side. If I ask conservatives to articulate their goals, I should be able to do the same for the left.

There’s a fairly standard conservative “wish list” that would include: smaller government, lower taxes, a stronger military, fewer regulations, a pro-business stance, and a return to established values. My first question would be: are these directions or goals?

That may seem like a fairly academic difference, but I think the distinction has ramifications. Let’s say that conservatives successfully advocate for increased military spending in a given budget cycle. Do then they ask for another increase the next year, and another, and another? That depends on whether they think of a stronger military as a goal or a direction. Do they have an end result in mind — a particular vision of the military – or is military strength a never-ending direction, something that can always be improved on? Negotiation proceeds differently in these two scenarios. If I can picture your desired goal in a negotiation, that helps me in working toward an acceptable compromise. Negotiating with someone who always wants more military spending or more tax cuts is a very different thing.

The person who always wants more is someone who believes their politics pursues a direction, not an endgoal. And even that person can work within the system for the benefit of all if they believe the opposition is honorably doing the same. You can think of the opposing political party as a countervailing force that acts in the opposite direction, one that will always be there, dependably exerting pressure. In this scenario, you can advocate all out for your side (cutting regulations, cutting taxes) knowing full well that your opponents will provide a check on your advocacy and that the resulting policy will end up somewhere in the middle. In this conception (liberalism and conservatism as directions), both sides depend on each other to temper the potential excesses of the other’s rhetoric. Both sides at least implicitly acknowledge the value of the opposing view to make better policy for all.

The difficulty arises when single-direction politics believes its own excessive rhetoric, that things would be better if they had full control. That can lead to a wartime mentality where the opposing party becomes an obstacle that should be eliminated. A certain amount of the politics of elimination is inevitable in elections when the cry rises to “throw the bums out.” But an “everyone who doesn’t agree with me should be thrown out” mentality doesn’t work for the negotiations of everyday politics. Now that the cycle of election/re-election rhetoric is almost constant, I worry about the politics of elimination holding sway over the politics of compromise and reasoning.

One of the reasons I’m asking the fairly abstract question about goals vs. directions is that if we explicitly acknowledge conservatism/liberalism as a direction, we can explicitly acknowledge that we’re in this together to balance each other’s excesses. That seems like a productive framework for understanding the function of both sides.

Libertarianism has always seemed more understandable to me than conservativism because of the basic simplicity of libertarian philosophy. The libertarian goal is straightforward: to maintain as limited a government as is necessary to guarantee the welfare of its citizens. And so you get lefty libertarians who are interested in getting the government out of our bedrooms and righty libertarians who advocate budget cutbacks. I’m not a libertarian (I don’t have that much faith in enlightened self-interest to solve the problem of the commons), but I understand what they’re after.

Conservativism has always seemed more convoluted to me. “Let’s be fiscally responsible (except when it comes to military spending or cutting taxes).”  “Let’s cut back on regulations (but increase them for those receiving ‘entitlements’ and keep regulations of private behavior).” The various appeals seem to pull against each other. A better understanding of what conservatives want would help liberals to see how these initiatives work together.

You’ll notice that I’m avoiding the hypothesis that the tie that binds conservativism together is racism. I’m not saying that that’s an invalid hypothesis; I’m just saying that for my purposes here, it’s not a useful one. Remember that I said that I wanted a definition of conservativism/liberalism that those groups would accept about themselves. While there’s an important conversation to be had about race and conservative policies (and I will take up race as an issue later in this blog), I don’t believe that conservatives are going to accept/acknowledge racism as a central tenet of their politics. That would be a long and painful conversation to have. I’m trying to find a working hypothesis that will allow us to move forward together. Part of the challenge of my question is to give conservatives the opportunity to explain how their various interests make sense without recourse to racism. Otherwise, conservatives would certainly leave themselves open to the charge that racism (and fear/hatred of the “Other”) is the glue that binds their politics together.

Helping us liberals to see how conservatism coheres around a goal or a direction would also help eliminate the other strongly negative hypothesis that circulates about conservatives: that they are interested in nothing but power. Of course, all politics involves power. If you eliminated the political figures that were interested in increasing their power, there would be no one left in the room, left or right. But there is a difference between gaining power in order to better serve your principles versus a raw power grab. Some on the left think that conservative politics is motivated primarily by the lust for power. This belief is so widespread that it circulates in our entertainment, as in the movie Vice when Dick Cheney asks, “What do we believe?” only to be answered by Donald Rumsfeld’s raucous laughter. We have reached a point where many liberals believe that conservatives seek nothing but power, that there is no basis in principle beyond self-aggrandizement and self-benefit.

I do not believe that is true.

If it is true for individual political figures, if they have been seduced by power and transformed into cynics, then I don’t believe that most begin that way. My sense is that most people enter politics out of a combination of conviction, ego, and hubris. I don’t see why or how you would seek a lifetime of abuse without some version of all three. And if that is true, then there is some core of conviction in the most cynical politician. Finding and connecting to that is a road forward.

If conservatives can help liberals understand what conservatives really want, this would take away the basis for liberals to believe that conservatives are interested in nothing more than self-serving power. It seems all too easy in these days of political mistrust for us to assume the worst. Understanding what the other side wants would help restore a bit of humanity to our politics.