Sitting with My Self

In my previous blog entry, I talked about sitting with your sin (or if you prefer, sitting with your shit). I’ve mentioned that I do this as part of meditative prayer, but my entry on meditation was all about getting the body and mind ready to contemplate. Once I get there, what does sitting with my sin look like? If my sin is as much a part of me as my shadow, how do I think about the various parts of my self?

Once I find a place of stillness and balance in prayer, then I can sit with my self, and the attitude I cultivate in these moments is interest. “Isn’t it interesting that I keep repeating the same harmful action, the same self-talk? Isn’t it interesting that I keep having the same negative feelings and attitudes (resentment, self-righteousness, anger, fear, judgmentalness, vindictiveness, selfishness, greed, indifference to others, laziness, vanity, self-justification, schadenfreude)? Isn’t it interesting that I am avoiding certain tasks/activities? Isn’t it interesting that I return to certain painful memories, to the parts that still live within me from when I was 8 years old (or 13 or 35)?” Being interested in parts of your self (and not judgmental) allows you to explore your whole being.

I create a dialogue between the still center I create in meditation and the components of my self. I am in the temporary stillness, but that stillness also sits outside of my self at a distance that allows me to see the interworkings of my life. I am both the observer and the observed. In the calmness of that moment is the clarity that is necessary for change, and that distanced stillness also makes compassion for my own flaws possible.

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I’ve worked out an admittedly detailed system for understanding the psychological and spiritual components of my self, but I feel a little sheepish about sharing it. What could be more navel-gazing than to assume my system of navel-gaving might be useful to others? There’s really nothing original here; I’ve cobbled together the parts from many other thinkers. But the measure of a theory for me is its usefulness. My wife has found this discussion useful, so perhaps you might, too.

At the heart of my understanding of the self is the relationship/tension between who I am and what I do.

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“Who I am” deals with issues of identity, that which I think is long-term or permanent/unshakable about me (which means that I tend to defend it when these things are being attacked). I am a man, a father, a “nice guy,” a teacher, a husband, a heterosexual, a hard worker, a Christian, an administrator, a liberal, a musician, an American, a Southerner, a Dukie. Borrowing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ and James Baldwin’s phrase, I believe myself to be white. Some of these are my personality/characteristics; some are achievements and experiences; some are roles.

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Some of these roles are cast and some are chosen. It feels like I am cast into the role of “man,” where my role as “teacher” is something I chose. Personality and role can interact. My personality gravitates toward niceness, but “nice guy” can also become a role. I can enact that (and am expected to) even when I don’t feel nice. And so roles can become entrapping and confining. They are necessarily less than who I am (I am more than the sum of my roles), and if I spend too much time in a role (even a chosen one) I can become aware of how much of my self is left behind.

Roles can also be performed. Although I’m not hyper-masculine, it’s fun to play at caveman masculinity when I am in bed with my wife. Playing at a role allows you to expand the sense of who you are without having to commit to an identity long-term. This is part of the power of storytelling; it allows us to try on other roles/identities, and this role-occupying can be potentially transformative (particularly if you become a fan invested in a particular text/universe, revisiting it frequently and giving it emotional power). In such a way, trying on roles can feed back into who I am.

“Who I am” doesn’t necessarily refer to a single core of my being. As I noted in my previous blog entry, both light and dark (Jung’s shadow self, Paul’s “thorn in my side”) are part of my identity, and we need to make peace with that. “Who I am” may be best thought of as more than just two sides. Identity also involves the multiple voices in my head, the self-talk and scripts. I am legion, as internal family systems teaches us.

Although we tend to think of “who I am” as our personality, we are more than our personality (though society typically reduces us to our personality). I was listening to Andrew Solomon’s discussion with Krista Tippett on the “On Being” podcast, and they talked about how one of the discoveries from their depression was the sense that there is something that still exists even when depression has pretty much squelched your personal characteristics. That thing that is left over might be called my soul. It is the humanity that carries on even when personality has been nearly extinguished (by depression, advanced aging, or catastrophic illness, for instance). I care for such loved ones not because of what they can do but because of who they are (just as I care for an infant, who has little personality and no effectivity). There’s something holy about caring for a loved one who can’t give you anything tangible back. It’s an acknowledgment of our central unshakable unearned identity, that of “child of God.”

There is often a tension between my sense of who I am and what I do. (For existentialists, we are nothing but our actions. There is no central definition of who we are outside of what we do.) My actions don’t always reflect who I think I am (thus causing the need to confess sin), and so I feel the need to alter one or the other. Either I need to revise my understanding of who I am in light of what I do, or I need to change what I do to bring it more in line with my sense of self.

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Shame and guilt are often the reaction to discrepancies between who I am and what I do. I think of guilt as being directed toward the action; we feel that we should change our action to make it more consonant with who we are. Shame tends to be directed toward who we are; I feel shame about some core aspect of who I am. Guilt can be useful in helping us change what we do. Shame is more complicated because it attaches to our identity. On the one hand, shame can be paralyzing; on the other, it opens our self up to accepting and healing the shame of others once you have made peace with the shamed parts of your self. (You may have a different meaning for those words, but that’s how they’re used/defined in my consideration of the self. I’m borrowing from Brene Brown here.)

(Your occupation is both a role and it is what you do. In our utilitarian society, it’s easy to let your occupation to be a provider of your worth (or your lack of paid occupation to lead to a sense that you are worthless.) Part of the Republican mentality is that if you aren’t productive – usually meaning “getting paid for what you do” – you aren’t a full member of society. There’s little discussion of what it owed to someone simply because of their humanity.)

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“What we do” has two components: our conscious actions and our habits. Our conscious actions are what we list when someone asks “how was your day?” We talk about the decisions we made and the choices we took in certain situations. It’s very easy to reduce our sense of “what we do” to those actions. Such actions, after all, are what we tell stories about, either the fairly mundane story of our day or the stories of heroes and artists.

You can think of heroes and artists as making two different kinds of conscious choices. We tell stories of heroes who take action in the world (without overt action, there is no hero). We also valorize the artist, who rearranges the world in aesthetically interesting ways that are a reflection of who the artist is. Ordinary people can act as heroes and/or artists in their own lives. We can take an aesthetic pleasure in gardening, for instance, as a reflection of who we are. We can intervene in the world in ways that are an expression of our values. The stories we tell about heroes and artists model for us these ways of being in the world as an action figure, and society loves to tell these stories.

We spend much less time talking about habits, though they occupy a good portion of our time. We leave out habitual behaviors from the story of our day (we don’t talk about the normal drive to work or brushing our teeth, for instance). Habit is vital, however, and it is powerful. Without habits we would have to allocate brain power for mundane tasks, and so putting ourselves on autopilot frees up our cognition for higher level activity.

Our habits are loops that don’t feel quite conscious/chosen. This is true for good habits (like brushing your teeth) and bad ones (like eating out of boredom). Bad habits in particular can feel like possession, as if you’ve been taken over by someone/something else that is in violation of who we conceive ourselves to be. Negotiating the tension between bad habits and your identity can be difficult because bad internal loops can seem like so much a part of you that you can’t intervene cognitively to stop them.

Habits are obviously created by conscious actions that have been internalized and automated, and many bad habits are patterns of action that have outlived their usefulness. In the stories we tell, we often neglect the power of habit because it’s not dramatic to depict. The long hours of training to be a boxer might be summarized in a brief montage on the way to a climactic scene of a championship fight, but that doesn’t give a visceral sense of how important habit-building is to achievement. It makes it seems that achievement is based on our conscious heroic actions when it often has much to do with boring practice and habit-building.

Habits are necessary but they too can be confining. If too much of what you’re doing is by habit, then you don’t have a strong sense that what you’re doing is a consciously chosen expression of who you are. You need to be able to see the heroism and/or artistry in what you do, or habit will swallow up your day and you won’t be able to recognize yourself in your actions.

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Less apparent (but still important) components of the self are what I don’t do and who I’m not. Much of an identity definition is often based on who you’re not (to be white is to be not black; to be middle class is to be not poor and not rich. And thus the power of definitions of the Other) or by taking pride in what you don’t do (“I’m a good person: I don’t lie and cheat;” “I’m a good citizen: I’ve never had to go on welfare,” “I’m not a racist: I don’t use slurs”).  Also inaction can be difficult to reconcile with who you think you are (for example, “I think of myself as a good person but I don’t volunteer and give back to the community;” “I think my health is important but I don’t exercise”). Inaction is much less visible than action, but it also is composed of important choices and habits.

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The last component of the self is the products of what you do. Here I’m referring to what happens when you put what you do into the outside world. I practiced piano privately, but when I started playing for my church choir, that put my doing into the world (intangibly and impermanently, but still out there). Once your product is in the world, you lose a certain amount of control over it. People can judge it harshly; people can use it in ways you never imagined; or people can ignore it. Each of these is horrible in their own way, particularly since putting your product into the world is an attempt to communicate something about yourself, to connect with others.

(Imagination and connection are important throughout this understanding of the self. Your ability to imagine yourself in new roles feeds into your identity. A certain amount of imagination is required to do any truly chosen action. Imagination is necessary to create products that enter the world. Our desire for connection exists throughout. Sharing an identity (Dukie) or an activity (choir) creates moments when we can connect to others more easily; that’s how community happens. As I said, sending your stuff out into the world is a call for connection. Your roles are obviously a way of being in the world.)

So there’s a hope imbedded in the act of putting your stuff into the world. The difficulty is in not confusing the products of what you do with who you are. It’s very tempting to believe that if your product sucks, then you suck. But you have relatively little control over whether it is perceived to suck; all you can control is the process of what you are doing.

The primary payoff (at last!) for sitting with the self in this manner may be this: to focus on what you are doing, to try to make sure that this is a reflection of who you are, and not to put too much focus on how the products of your actions are evaluated. Take pleasure in and responsibility for what you do as an expression of who you are and try not to tie your products to your identity too strongly (either negatively or positively). I have to trust in the doing and to see that as fulfilling in and of itself, to see that doing as sacred.

Religion happens when I connect my own doing and being with the invisible network of actions and attitudes of the children of God throughout the world and across time. By cleaning the muck out of my life, by more closely aligning what I do with what I am, I am better able to let God’s energy flow through me to the world. Therein lies the promise of purpose in the beloved community.

Thoughts on Sin (part 2)

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I will admit that I don’t find most New Testament language about sin, temptation, repentance, and confession very helpful. (Once again, this blog is about language.) Not that the Old Testament rituals of animal sacrifice help me, either. That’s ok; no one religion’s perspectives capture the fullness of an infinite God. We all grab at parts of God as best we can. (I also find the language about “holiness” vague and unhelpful. I had to take a detour into Buddhist understandings of “wholeness” before I could return to Christian holiness with new eyes. To use a metaphor that might apply to my entire blog, sometimes you need to leave your hometown so that you return and can see its advantages.)

Most New Testament advice about repenting of your sin either sounds simple or radical to me. On the one hand, we are told that you can “resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7) A quick “Get thee behind me, Satan!” should take care of things. ‘Nuff said! Reject the devil (the personification of temptation) and that’s that. What could be easier? What’s wrong with you that this isn’t effective?

I am reminded of Flip Wilson’s classic drag character Geraldine, who would say, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” only to have Satan reply, “It looks pretty good from back here, too.” Now that’s MY Tempter, not some weenie who can be dispensed with a few words!

I understand what the New Testament writers are up to here. They want to emphasize that grace, repentance, and forgiveness can’t be earned through our own efforts, that power over our sin comes from God and not from our own human ability. But repentance is more complicated than the word implies (and thus the innumerable sermons that remind us that “repentance” actually means “turning away” from sin).

The ancient injunction to simply “repent” can look an awful lot like what we in the modern world call “repression.” Shove it aside and it will go away. I’m personally very fond of repression, which has its uses, but it’s not a great tool for handling the big stuff. There are many garden variety sins (I was mean to someone today; I didn’t stop and help someone) where a quick prayer of repentance will suffice, but in this blog entry we’ve been focusing on the perpetual sins that don’t go away so easily, the things you can’t just say a few “Hail Marys” to solve. These are the deep temptations that I really didn’t want to go too far away, and so unsurprisingly they don’t. Deep repentance cannot be formulaic, and the church does us a disservice by acting like it can be.

This concept — that we can dispense with temptation with a few words — continues to reverberate today. It’s behind the modern idea that we can “just say no” to addiction. It’s at the heart of the cold-hearted injunction that people with problems should just “get over it.” As I have said elsewhere, the individual decision to change is a necessary part of all personal transformation, but that decision alone is not enough, not when we’re dealing with long-term patterns. When we refuse to empathize with people’s plight and tell them that they need to “get over it,” we are extending the wrong part of Christian language, language that provides an inadequate answer for deep-seated problems.

Paul’s language about his “thorn in the flesh” — about the persistent sin/temptation that he couldn’t get rid of in spite of his best efforts — comes closer to the mark. Instead of confessing his sin publicly, Paul is frustratingly vague and private about what his personal “thorn” is (and this language is way too tied up in his negative attitudes toward the flesh/body). Clearly the thorn is a deep nagging sin that is part of him, and much to his frustration it appears he’s going to have to get used to living with it. (Attaboy, Paul! Now we’re talking about sin!)

The persistent sin doesn’t budge when we try to rebuke it, and it is also resistant to the Gospel’s more radical advice about what to do with sin: if your eye or hand causes you to sin, then pluck it out, cut it off. (What’s up with the Bible’s obsession with chopping off body parts??) My experience with trying to purge truly deep temptation through an effort of will is that it comes back, which is what any modern thinker will tell you happens with repression.

If you chop off a part of you, you may find that that part was intimately connected to things you value. Here’s an example: I always have a musical playlist running through my head, and so I have long been a hummer (meaning “one who hums,” not an oversized land vehicle). My wife found it irritating when I hummed while she was talking, and so she asked me to stop. When I complied with this entirely justifiable request, I overdid it; I stopped humming altogether, much to my wife’s regret. She liked the soundtrack from my mental jukebox and had no intention of silencing it, but I was unable to surgically remove the offending part. It was somehow deeply connected to other things I valued.

Carl Jung’s idea of the shadow has helped me rethink how repentance works (once again, venturing into territory outside Christianity can help you refresh your understanding when Christian concepts have grown stale). Jung believed that our recurrent dark impulses are as much a part of us as our desire to do good; those thoughts are as inseparable from us as our shadow is. In fact, the shadow self should be explored — not lopped off – because it can contain vital energy. Investigating the shadow may unveil buried, highly personal insights into who you are and why you do the things you do. Jung saw the shadow as a gift.

You may not be willing to go that far, to see deep personal patterns of sin as a gift. But this is at least a reminder that the “thorn” may have a purpose: to remind us of our own weakness and helplessness. If we get too cocky with how well this repentance thing is working in our lives, here’s a persistent, humbling reminder that we don’t get it right. Humility is built into the practice of following Christ.

A really deep pattern of sin feels much like an addiction: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15) While it may appear that a recovering alcoholic repressed their drinking, they also have acknowledged its centrality and negotiated an uneasy peace with it. Cutting out drinking doesn’t get rid of the desire for drinking, just as cutting off a diseased limb doesn’t prevent pain from reoccurring (in the form of phantom pain). The openly acknowledged desire to engage in addictive behavior becomes part of their identity (“I am an alcoholic”), and the recovering alcoholic reavows the relationship with the shadow daily and in community. Once again, I think the language and practice of Alcoholics Anonymous can be instructive.

The dominant New Testament language about what do to with sin (rebuking it or cutting it out) has had limited success for me. As an alternative, I have grown used to sitting with my deeply seated sins in meditative prayer. Productive things happen when I sit nonjudgmentally with my addictive patterns instead of shoving them aside (that “judge not” commandment can be awfully handy). Once I sit a while with my own weaknesses, they seem less like boogeymen to me. I am much more able to view them with a merciful heart. I am much closer to real forgiveness.

As with all spiritual matters, your mileage may vary (which is why it’s important for all of us to proclaim the Gospel as we experience it, to open up alternatives for others). Rebuking and chopping may be perfectly sufficient for you. But if you also have found yourself too often in a “repent, lather, repeat” cycle when it comes to the patterns that separate you from the presence of God, may I suggest sitting with your deep sin. Or, as I like to say, “sitting with your shit.” (I find that being a pottymouth can be spiritually useful.) You can’t hide your shit from an omniscient God; you only end up trying to hide it from yourself. You may discover that your shit doesn’t disgust God, that it doesn’t actually cause God’s presence to withdraw. You can learn to sit with your shit in the merciful presence of God.

Thoughts on Sin (part 1)

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I’ve actually heard surprisingly few sermons focused on sin during my years in the church. This is partly because my adult religious life has been spent in mainline Protestant churches where we tend to avoid talking too much about sin so that people don’t confuse us with Bible-thumping evangelicals. But even growing up in a small-town evangelical church, I don’t remember a lot of sermons specifically on sin. Sin was like porn for Potter Stewart; you knew it when you saw it. Sin was difficult to handle on our own, but it wasn’t very complicated, so there was no need to talk about it in much detail on the way to the good stuff (forgiveness and salvation).

But what is sin? If you’ve been reading my blog, you won’t be surprised to know that I have a liberal take on the question. I don’t mean “liberal” in the “anything goes” way; I mean it in the “expanding beyond the original” way. I’ve been discussing the (only slightly heretical) “gospel according to Greg,” which includes new commandments (to listen and empathize), new beatitudes (borrowed from Nadia Bolz-Weber), nontraditional modes of prayer, and relatively underemphasized aspects of God (as feminine).

I believe that expansion is built into the very nature of Christianity. Jesus himself expanded on Judaism by emphasizing that serving God involves more than just doing good things and avoiding bad actions; it is also a habit of the heart and mind. Those in the Jewish faith say that we give too much credit to Jesus’ efforts to refocus attention away from obeying laws and toward our internal motivations. After all, the first two of the Ten Commandments are about our thoughts and emotions, about loving God and making God a priority, and daily prayers remind observant Jews of this orientation. But you have to admit that these commandments get a little lost in the 611 other regulations in the Torah. Jesus certainly took these ideas from the Torah, enlarged them into a commandment to “love your enemies,” and made them more central to the faith.

I think it’s also significant that the first issue for the Christian church was whether to expand the religion past its narrow Scriptural confines, whether to interpret Jesus’ teachings broadly and open up to those outside Judaism. The disciples became convinced that you didn’t have to be born to Jewish parents to be part of the chosen people of God. The new faith had seemingly easy entrance requirements: a change of heart and belief and not chopping off the end of your penis (ending these requirements certainly helped make it possible for Christianity to spread more easily throughout the world). By documenting Peter’s struggle to accept a broader vision of Christianity, the Book of Acts gives us a model for what we all should do: to expand our understanding of Scripture and the Kingdom of God.

It is in that spirit that I offer an expanded notion of what sin is as an extension of Jesus’ efforts to do the same. Although we typically think of sin as something you do, it can be something you don’t do. When the religious people ignore the wounded robbery victim in the Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, that is sin, just as it is sin for us to ignore the suffering of others today. Then Jesus seriously upped the spiritual ante on sin in the Sermon on the Mount, saying that thought could be sinful and not just your actions.

It’s possible for this radical ante-upping idea — that thinking about murder/adultery is the spiritual equivalent of committing those acts – to become paralyzingly guilt-inducing.  I know that I will never become so spiritually advanced that I don’t think sinful thoughts. I am a parent, and like all parents I have thought about throttling my child. I certainly have “lusted in my heart” just like Jimmy Carter, and I can’t imagine being so sexually dead that I won’t do so again.

In my college years I considered suicide for a while, and whenever something bad happens to me, those thoughts briefly reappear. Because I lingered over the idea of killing myself when I was younger, I will always be aware that suicide is an option (though it’s an option I have long ago rejected). Because of my history, there will never be a time when such thoughts don’t flit past my consciousness.

I like Martin Luther’s poetic nuance on this idea: “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from nesting in your hair.” (I can only hope that he had a tonsure when he said this.)  Luther recognizes that our thoughts are unruly things. He also understands that there’s a difference between thinking of sin and dwelling on it, revisiting it, relishing it. The uncontrollable thoughts that visit our minds are not sin; instead, sin is the dark thoughts that take residence and set up shop inside us. (Thank God for Luther’s updating of this particular Scripture.)

Powerful sinful thoughts are the ones we loop, the self-talk that denigrates ourselves or others, rehearses old hurts, imagines new ones, replays obsessive fantasies. Imagination is one of our greatest gifts from God; it allows us to think beyond our current circumstances and envision new possibilities. It also allows us to populate our internal world with hateful or self-lacerating tormentors. We nurture these tormentors with data that we seek and find in the world around us (and in the extended world that comes to us from self-confirming media feeds). These are the thoughts that separate us from God, from others, and from our core identity.

And thus – finally – my definition of sin: anything that separates us from the presence of God.

Sin is individually tailored. Some things are sinful for everyone, of course: murder, stealing, and so on. But some things are sin for some but not for others. Alcohol is a good example. For many, a drink is no big deal; for an alcoholic, however, a drink can send them down a destructive path. That drink is sin for the alcoholic but not for others.

In my liberal approach, anything can potentially become sin. The Second Commandment reminds us that if we spend too much time focused on something, then that thing/activity can become a god to us, something that must be served instead of adding delight to our lives. Sin has a tendency to distort the good things of the world (“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” according to the quote misattributed to Ben Franklin on many a t-shirt), to transform these gifts into ways of separating ourselves from God.

Football, for instance, is a beautiful thing, a combination of chess and ballet with 300-pound bodies. But if you find yourself watching college football all day Saturday and the pros all day Sunday to the point that you are ignoring your family, you have distorted that beautiful activity into a false god.

Religion itself can become a false god. Volunteering at church or some other nonprofit organization is a way to give back to the world, but I have occasionally seen people for whom volunteering serves as a way to escape the parts of their lives that need attending to. Volunteering (and the good feeling that it brings) can become addictive. Virtue can become an end in itself and not a path toward God. An expanded understanding of sin recognizes that we need to monitor our attitudes, values, and motivations and not just the actions themselves.

The Gospel puts the relationship between motivation and action into the spotlight. Matthew 6 tells us that if the reason we do good deeds is to be admired by others, then those actions are not righteous at all. This apparently sets a high bar for any virtuous action. Any follower of Christ knows full well the warm feeling that accompanies good deeds. It’s hard to imagine any charitable action that isn’t accompanied by at least some feeling of self-congratulation on being a “good person.”

And yet that is the aspiration, part of the impossibly high calling that is following Christ: that we act lovingly in the world not because we are “good people” but because we recognize that God is working through us. One can act morally without involving higher powers. Many fine people do the right thing simply because it’s right – no religion required. But to follow Christ is to see our actions and prayers as being connected to an invisible network, one where our actions begin in God and are magnified and given meaning as they reverberate through the world. In fact, thinking of yourself as a “good person” can actually cause a spiritual problem if it disconnects you from the network, if you begin to see yourself as the sole origin of your righteous actions.

Mother Teresa articulated this desire to stay connected to the source in a prayer that asks God to “penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly that all my life may only be a radiance of yours. Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel your presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus.” This is one of great paradoxes of following Christ: that by “losing your life” – by loosening your grip on the tempting scripts and self-talk and identities that you call your “self” – you can find a clarity, a transparency that reveals the image of God within you.

Mother Teresa prayed this prayer daily because she never fully got to that point. Neither will I. But just because this is an impossible aspiration doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pursue it, just as we work toward other impossible goals: justice, truth, the eradication of poverty, equality of opportunity.

Although choosing to follow Christ may seem easy on the face of it (“Just give your heart to Jesus! Now available with no penis-chopping!”), it is actually an extraordinarily high calling, one that we all fail at. If you go to church, you’ve probably gotten used to admitting out loud that you’re a sinner, that the things we do and think and don’t do separate us from the presence of God. Sometimes I think that the word “sinner” has become too religious-y familiar. I suggest the word “fuckup,” which has more punch to it. Basically when you walk into church, you are acknowledging that you are one of the fuckups. Thanks be to God.

Sometimes I think the Church took a major wrong turn when individual confession became a private matter between priest and believer. I often think we have a lot to learn from Alcoholics Anonymous, that we should walk into church and say aloud, “My name is Greg, and I’m a fuckup.” (Hi, Greg!) Such an admission is necessarily humbling. It openly recognizes that we are far from being good or nice (“nice” is a particularly strong aspiration/temptation for Southerners. Being nice isn’t necessarily the same as being good).

Corporate worship is an acknowledgment of our fuckedupedness and an embrace from other fuckups like us. As professional smart-aleck Mark Russell puts it, “Maybe the whole purpose of religion, like family, is to make people feel loved and inadequate at the same time.”

(Next time: thoughts on sin and repentance.)

Evangelical Christianity and “Warfare” (part 3)

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In this blog post, I ask you to consider that Christianity may be better off by being less central in American culture. After all, Christianity doesn’t have a particularly good record when it’s enmeshed with governmental power. Christianity took a major step forward in influence when it was endorsed by the emperor Constantine; it also took on the basic hierarchical structure of the Roman Empire, enabling the church to indulge in raw authority. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the intolerance of early American religiously-focused colonies, the opposition to the civil rights movement by many white churches: Christianity has a nasty tendency to get distorted when it is officially sanctioned.

Christianity may be more effective when it operates from the margins; when it is synonymous with existing social structures, the salt can lose its savor. Christ said that we are the salt of the earth; he didn’t say that we were the entrée. If your religion depends on being underwritten and endorsed by the culture at large, you’re in trouble.

I think many Christians are mourning a shift in their visibility within the culture. They sense that media everywhere seem to be advocating a less strict adherence to traditional moral codes. If characters with old-fashioned standards do appear on television/film, they are usually the ones who need to “learn” a better way. (think about the dance-hating preacher in Footloose) The best you can hope for in Christian portrayals is often a well-meaning, tender-hearted, but essentially simple-minded soul (Sheldon’s mom in Young Sheldon). The cool, hip, attractive, morally validated characters are those who believe in inclusion and broad-mindedness, not straight-laced standards. Characters with traditional morality are now less likely to be founts of wisdom; it’s more likely that they need to wise up.

I well understand the temptation to make uptight Christianity the “bad guy.” I did it myself when I wrote a graphic novel. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time establishing a villain (that wasn’t the focus of the horror comic), so I needed a fairly stock character to commit a heinous act. For various reasons, I didn’t settle on rednecks, Nazis, gang members, or terrorists; without giving too much of the plot away, I chose a sexually repressive church leader in the Old West. It was easy; no one has ever called me on it. It’s one of the things I regret about that graphic novel.

I recognize that politically conservative Christians do not see themselves and their own corner of the world being honored and valued. I can see, therefore, the temptation to echo charges of “fake news” (even though there’s no way they can have enough insider information into a journalist’s process to determine if there has been intentional “fakery”). Distrust of “the media” (another very useful choice of words that lumps together and generalizes) becomes a stance toward the world. Toss in a good bit of nostalgia for the “good old days,” and you have a fine recipe for conservative politics (which is inclined toward the past and which knows the mobilizing power of fear).

As a media scholar, it’s hard for me not to see this as partly a problem of representation, this inability for evangelical Christians to see themselves in the images created by Hollywood “elites.” It seems to me that this provides an opportunity for evangelical Christianity to understand a bit of what minorities have felt for ages: the pain of misrepresentation and stereotypes, the frustration with a lack of presence in mainstream imagery, the yearning to be seen.

White Christians have never before felt the hunger for images that minorities have. (I think of stories from early television history where the word that a black person was on television would spread like wildfire through an African American neighborhood. White people have never experienced anything like that desire for visibility.) Perhaps evangelical Christians can now get a taste of what it’s like to be represented badly or not at all, and that provides an opportunity for increasing your understanding. (For more about the importance of being seen and on the difficulty of feeling superfluous – among other things – I recommend Krista Tippett’s conversation with Lyndsey Stonebridge about the contemporary relevance of Hannah Arendt’s thought.)

I have long thought that American conservatives are pissed as much by the tone of liberal harangues as much as they are the content. As I have mentioned in a previous blog post, liberals have an unfortunate tendency toward being sanctimonious, and nothing seems to rile people more than a good dose of snooty elitism. Believe me, I understand; this is a blog called Confessions of a Reformed Hick. I know all too well the rhetorical power of an “I’m superior and you’re such an idiot” tone. I’ve heard this from academics, who should know better. Shaming someone’s knowledge is not a useful way to start the process of education. And how exactly do you argue against tone?

So the hick part of me understands evangelical Christians’ problems with liberal “elites.” The reformed part of me wonders if this isn’t a case of Christians reaping what they sow. My wife stayed away from church for a long time (in part) because of her distaste for the holier-than-thou attitudes expressed by many Christians. Smug judgmentalness did nothing to endear her to Christianity. (As the always quotable Alain de Botton says, “The great enemy of love, good relationships, good friendships, is self-righteousness.”)

Members of the church have had near exclusive privileges when it comes to moral self-righteousness, so perhaps it stings more to have that tone used on them, to have their morality dismissed by people’s attitudes. Here’s an opportunity to learn what how infuriating moral superiority can be.

So I ask white fundamentalist evangelical American Christians to consider giving up “warfare” and “attacks” as a framework for their experience. I realize that’s difficult. For one thing, war is exciting; its purpose and energy are addicting.  We Americans love to declare war: on poverty, on drugs, on terror. War is an infinitely renewable political resource as long as there aren’t significant casualties and physical damage. Journalists from William Randolph Hearst (the Spanish American War) to Fox News (the “War on Christmas”) have learned that a call to “war” is great for business. The “warfare” frame of reference is a dependable button to push to garner support.

I encourage evangelicals to reframe this “warfare” as a chance to re-engage in nonsanctimonious discussion with the world. We have an opportunity here to refocus on the fundamentals of following Christ. “Values voters” could organize around kindness, gentleness, and other fruit of the Spirit. Jesus said little about sex, marriage, and reproduction or about taxes and government; he said much about love.

The distinctive “weapon” in the Christian “arsenal” is compassion. “Love your enemies” is Jesus’ explicit reframing response to Trump’s favorite verse: “An eye for an eye.” (Significantly, Trump has chosen the only Old Testament scripture that Jesus singles out as in need of repair: Matt. 5: 38-44)

Compassion is a weapon that disarms both its target and the one who wields it. Followers of Christ have faith that it transforms both sides of a combative dynamic. If we lose that faith, we lose far too much of who we are. If you’re willing to bypass your distinctive way of interacting with the world so that you can hold onto your importance, then you’re in danger of gaining the world and losing your soul.

I’ll go further in my unsolicited friendly advice to evangelicals. Don’t fight to regain your losses. Rejoice in your marginalization. Embrace the insights that come from being on the margins. Marginalization, through the upside-down logic of Christianity, can be a gift. As the Sermon on the Mount tells us, therein lies not persecution but blessedness.

Evangelical Christianity and “Warfare” (part 2)

evangelicalwar

In spite of the fact that I have largely left this tradition (or that it left me), I hope I still have enough credibility to say to evangelical Christians: this is not war. You are not under attack. You are not being persecuted. If you step away from that language, you will discover that Christianity is being criticized, that it is less central to culture than it once was. That’s not the same as “war,” and it is a damaging overreaction to speak that way.

Christianity does have a long relationship with persecution (both on the giving and receiving ends), but to call our current state of affairs “persecution” is to do a disservice to those who were truly persecuted. A brief reality check: no American is barred from worshiping God as they please. No one is prevented from praying to God. No one is told to leave the country because of their Christian faith. No one is jailed in America for their Christian beliefs. No Christian is barred from voting or owning a business or serving as an elected official. We are at the point where some Christian businesspeople are being asked to compromise their personal beliefs in order to provide their goods and services (decorated cake, for instance). Christians are encouraged to think about whether “Merry Christmas” is a one-size-fits-all greeting. This is a long way from warfare.

I am fine with organized Christian religion being criticized and challenged. Churchgoers listen to messages that point out our shortcomings every Sunday. We are extraordinarily practiced at taking criticism. We should be in the lead in demonstrating how to receive it gracefully. If we can’t take criticism, we’ve got no business interacting with the world.

Nowadays the American cultural mainstream does not focus on Christianity in the way that it once did. As an example of the fruit of that good old Baptist (and other) heritage of the separation of church and state, we are moving away from “prayer in school” (an interestingly loaded turn of phrase). No one is interfering with individuals’ ability to pray privately in school; that would be a true invasion of privacy. We are shifting away from a very specific form of prayer: the oral mass prayer in public school settings.

This form of prayer was front and center and officially sanctioned, and those words mattered. They sent the message that Christianity was still at the heart of society. When people say we should “bring back prayer in school,” I say that it never left. It just left center stage.

I have heard conservative Christians use the phrase “attack on the family” as a basic statement of how things are today. Again, I would encourage people to pay attention to the words they use and to the arguments packed into pat phrases. People today are questioning the old faith in the traditional mother/father/children conception of the family. If you truly believe in the superiority of the dominant understanding of the nuclear family, you should be able to voice an effective argument in its favor, not sequester yourself with like-minded folks. Engaging with questions from those outside the faith can help you to find your own answers and to own those answers more firmly instead of simply inheriting them from others.

“Attack” language justifies barricading yourself in with those who agree with you, not explaining yourself to those who think differently. I witnessed one of the early modern examples of bubble-formation as I grew up in the Seventies in an evangelical family. As cable media blossomed, certain members of my family started mentioning The 700 Club, James Dobson (of Focus on the Family), and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in almost every conversation as if these figures were part of their social circle.

I began to realize how it was possible to spend most of your day engaged with such media, to send your children to Christian white-flight schools, to patronize businesses that proclaimed they were Christian owned and operated, and to listen to contemporary Christian radio. Evangelical Christian media were on the forefront of building a world where you could “protect” yourself from outside influences. This was a long way from Christ’s injunction to be “in the world but not of the world,” a long way from a prophet who had dinner with sex workers.

Around this time another buzzword — “family values” — came to into prominence. I’ve always found this phrase quizzical as a stand-in for “Christianity” because the Gospels aren’t particularly pro-family; in fact, Jesus tends to act in ways that explicitly de-emphasize family. When preaching to a crowd, he neglects to go see his mother, and she and her brothers seek him out. When informed they are visiting, he smacks them down: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (My own mother would have tanned my hide for that.)

When asked what the most important thing in life is, Jesus answers that we are to love God and love our neighbors. Focusing on the family doesn’t appear on the list. Jesus says that he has come to set a son against his father and a daughter against her mother; “anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matt. 10: 37) Whatever you make of this, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the centrality of the family. Whenever “family values” substitutes for the more radical message of the Gospels, be suspicious.

The word “Christianity” also becomes easily allied with the prominent display of the Ten Commandments (including that one about honoring your father and mother), which ignores that there’s nothing particularly “Christian” about those ten. They are (mostly) moral injunctions about behavior that makes social interaction more possible. Some version of these rules appears in virtually every society and every religion; without some sort of warning against lying, murder, theft, and adultery, it’s difficult to maintain a community. Not all discussions of morality are Christian.

The American Founders shared this set of common moral beliefs, but they shied away from explicitly mentioning Jesus in governmental documents to avoid the notion that America was a Christian nation. (They preferred a broader deist notion of “God.”)  I know that the wonderful thing about the Founders is that you can find some quote to back up almost anything you say, but for me it’s hard to get around John Adams declaring in the Treaty of Tripoli (1797) that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Once again, notice how we can imbed arguments within a couple of strategically chosen words. By proclaiming America a “Christian nation,” by foregrounding the Ten Commandments as an explicitly Christian heritage as opposed to seeing them as articulating broad moral rules held by most religions, by making a specific vision of “family values” important to Christianity, by worrying about the disappearance of “prayer in school,” we choose words that attempt to keep Christianity central in American society. Or rather these words attempt to keep the form of Christianity in society’s limelight.

Christianity’s world-turned-upside-down values are too strange to fit comfortably in society. It is entirely reasonable to strike back when you feel threatened, but Christ’s message is not reasonable. The admonition to give your life away instead of holding onto it; the idea that there is strength in weakness; the belief that wealth is soul-endangering and not a universal motivator; the commandment to love your enemies instead of attacking them: these are principles that upend the status quo instead of preserving it.

Next time: The advantages of speaking from the margins.

Evangelical Christianity and “Warfare” (part 1)

evangelicalwar

I’m always interested in reading news/opinion articles that seek to unravel the mystery of evangelical Christians’ deep, paradoxical, and seemingly unshakable support for Donald Trump. How can evangelical Christians endorse someone whose personal conduct and style is so much at odds with Christian principles?

I’ve heard Biblically-grounded arguments that God can use ungodly kings/leaders for divine purposes. I’ve seen Trump linked to a desire for black-and-white explanations of the world and to a need for authority. I’ve read discussions that separate personal character from policy, but none of the explanations work that well for me. A lot of these articles have “I’m an anthropologist exploring this strange foreign land” feel to them as opposed to the sympathetic investigation of the phenomenon that I’d like to see.

For whatever reason, this article by Elizabeth Bruenig led me to write this blog entry, my first one that focuses on religion and politics, not religion or politics. Perhaps this article sparked questions and comments because the author (like me) grew up in an evangelical environment but ended up a liberal. I feel the need to put my upbringing into conversation with my adult politics and the current state of politics, and I need to do so without demonizing the tradition in which I was born. Even though I have largely left this tradition, I’m enormously grateful for being raised in it. I fully see the gifts it brings, and I value them.

I was raised in devoted Southern Baptist family in a small Southern town. I participated in “sword drills” (which isn’t as exciting as it sounds, but it does prepare you in case you need speedy non-internet access to, say, Obadiah 2:7); I went to Vacation Bible School. Throughout my teenage years I either played piano, organ, or led the music on Sundays for my small home church. I played piano for a teen gospel quartet called “Cornerstone.”

I would call my upbringing unabashedly “evangelical” without necessarily being “fundamentalist.” I’ve been to funerals so wholeheartedly evangelical that the preacher made an altar call for people to be saved before it’s too late. My mother would automatically tear up whenever she thought about those who were lost and in need of salvation. Evangelism was a watchword for my early church years.

But “fundamentalism” was not. Baptist theology as I was taught it in the 60s and 70s had a strong emphasis on individual thinking. I have heard Baptist leaders criticize fundamentalist black-and-white approaches to the Bible (I remember one striking turn of phrase: “The problem with fundamentalists is that they’re ‘damn mentalists’ with no ‘fun.’ They’re more concerned with the rules in their heads than the love in their hearts.”) There was a proud connection to the “priesthood of the believer,” the notion that no one (not even an ordained minister) could tell you how to interpret the Bible. Everything pointed back to the authority of scripture, but in the end the only arbiter of “what the Bible says” was you and God.

My father was the Biblical scholar of the family, and his individual study led him to some interesting places. His favorite branch of theological study was eschatology, and the majority of the books weighing down our bookshelves were studies of the Book of Revelations. If pressed, I can still reconstruct a pretty good timeline for the Rapture, the Seven Year Tribulation Period, Armageddon, the Thousand Year Reign, Judgment Day, and the New Heaven and New Earth.

As I have noted in a previous blog entry, my autodidact father believed so strongly that everyone was equal in the eyes of God that he opposed the ordination of deacons (even though they’re clearly there in the New Testament). In spite of Paul’s commandment for women to be silent in church, my father came to believe that women should be ordained as ministers (having the approval of an old church stalwart like my father was very affirming for a female Baptist minister friend of mine). These aren’t exactly radical progressive insights, but they were definitely demonstrations to me of how a committed Christian scholar could find his own path.

When I was taught Baptist history, we proudly celebrated the Baptist contribution to the separation of church and state in America (Roger Williams and Maryland). This fierce independence influenced church structure. Although our church belonged to the Southern Baptist Convention, there was no central organization that either chose or recommended a pastor for a church (unlike Catholics, Presbyterians, or Methodists). Each local congregation was free to call whatever pastor it thought was best for them. Looking back, there’s certainly a “states-rightsy” feel to all this (undoubtedly part of being Southern Baptist), though I never noticed it at the time.

I won’t pretend that my small town Baptist church in the 70s was a hotbed of liberal progressive thought. It was, after all, a small town with necessarily conservative values on tradition. Fairly early on I strained against those bonds, leading me to leave that town. Only as an adult did I discover the advantages of that tradition. (I also discovered there’s a weird secret society of lefty academics who came from fundamentalist/evangelical homes, which does make an odd kind of sense. Once you decide that it’s worthwhile to study The Book in deep detail, it’s not that far away to think that maybe other books could be studied in that intense manner, too.)

My experience in the Baptist church was always a mix of local conservative values/rituals and potentially liberal theology. The theological message that came through to me was about a community of believers each seeking to find her/his path to God through Scripture, and that vision is still a big part of who I am. I watched at a distance as the Southern Baptist Convention tacked doctrinally to the right in the 80s. Perhaps the breaking point was an official repudiation of the idea of the “priesthood of the believer” as a group of strongly minister-centered churches came to power in the denomination. And there’s been no turning back after that. In my eyes (although I’m a Presbyterian), I never left the Baptist church; the Baptist church left me.

And so I’ve viewed from afar as “evangelical” (meaning “wanting to extend the Kingdom of God,” an impulse shared in differing degrees by all Christian churches) and “fundamentalist” (meaning “an overt return to a perceived core set of values”) apparently merged and took on a coherent new politics. And here is where I begin to be unable to recognize the version of the Gospel that circulates among the community that used to be my home.

If you look at the Elizabeth Bruenig article (and here’s a related one), there’s a consistent set of positions voiced by evangelicals. At least in the realm of politics, fundamentalist evangelicals are portrayed as united around opposition to abortion and climate change explanations; they favor lower taxes; they prioritize immigration; they focus on a conservative approach to gender, sexuality, and marriage. (There is no question raised that perhaps these policies are not embraced by large numbers of evangelicals, so I assume that this is correct. I would love to hear if that depiction in the press is an oversimplification.)

My question in return is (and this is now an outsider’s question): how the hell did these get to be the central values of the Gospel? I can understand believers coming to individual conclusions about each other those political issues. I could see the evangelical Christians of my upbringing having different opinions about these matters. How did evangelical Christians as a whole come to adopt these political stances as central to the faith, as something that unites believers?

The thing that really clicked for me in this article about evangelical support for Trump was the preponderance of “war” language. Christianity is under “attack” from an “incursion.” “Persecuted” Christians have been forced onto a “precipice” on the verge of a “catalysm.” They need to erect a “fortress,” and so they need a “protector” to look out for their interests. This wartime mentality means that you might have ally yourself with a “bully” in order to “defend” yourself.

War rhetoric calls for an all-out effort. It suspends our standards of decency while the fighting is ongoing. We use another set of (martial) laws that bypasses our normal rules for how we treat each other. War doesn’t tolerate dissent; you’re either for us or against us.

If you are in a war, then you can’t be picky about your protector. Criticisms of that protector aren’t going to matter much to you; in fact, they may remind you of how persecuted you feel. You thank God you have a bully who will attack and not just defend, because this isn’t just warfare; it’s a battle against unseen “principalities and powers.” It’s a battle on a cosmic scale with Armageddon surely around the corner.

As the son of self-taught Biblical prophecy scholar, let me tell you that nobody does stakes like Christianity can. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a bunch of secular johnny-come-latelys compared to us. We invented the apocalypse (which might be our most widely marketable product these days). If the end of the world is nigh, you’re just grateful that someone is fighting for you in a good Old Testament “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” manner. Your enemies need some good old-fashioned smiting, and it’s good to have someone who isn’t bound by “cheek turning” principles on your side of the war.

And thus we return to one of the continuing themes of this blog: the power of words. On the religious side of the blog, I’ve advocated for calling yourself a “follower of Christ,” not a “Christian.” I’ve talked about the benefits of calling God Father and mother. I have asserted that calling each other by our preferred names is helpful for creating dialogue. Words frame our experience. Reasserting that you are in a war creates that war, even if external circumstances do not support that claim. You find supporting evidence, and this colors your world to make the war emotionally real.

In spite of the fact that I have largely left this tradition (or that it left me), I hope I still have enough credibility to say to evangelical Christians: this is not war. You are not under attack. You are not being persecuted. If you step away from that language, you will discover that Christianity is being criticized, that it is less central to culture than it once was. That’s not the same as “war,” and it is a damaging overreaction to speak that way.

(More on the pros and cons of “war” next time….)

God the Father and Mother

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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 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

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 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.