A Couple Thoughts on Belief

Greta Christina is a sex-positive writer and atheist.  I get sent her writings through the list-serve Alternet, which is a progressive news portal.

Greta represents, in my view, the casual atheism of well read, urbane liberals.    Smart and usually thoughtful, they rightly rail with passion about injustice, and are particularly attentive when it comes to the crimes of the church.  They see the abuse that happens in religious communities and they want it to stop.  Religion, for them, is deception, arrogance and power.

I will admit that, predictably, I find her understanding of religion and belief remarkably shallow.  She offers a monistic view of the system of explanation called SCIENCE, and literal, mechanical understanding of Truth.   For this reason, she is positively baffled by what she considers religious behavior.  Granted, I feel the same bafflement when watching most music videos. Continue reading

The Tea Party

I’m in the midst of doing some community organizing in my county, and I’ve been struck by the contrast between the work I’ve been doing and what is happening in the tea party “movement.”

Some interesting social analysis has been done about them.  Most of the tea party is white.  They don’t want to be told what to do.  It represents the hyperindividualism that reflects part of our cultural consciousness, and the more recently cultivated antagonism toward the behemoth that is The Government.

Reasonable people can critique the “therapeutic state” and its diminishment of civil liberties.   Institutions, after all, engineer cultures (did you know that the English propensity toward tea was based primarily on a conscious decision to prefer Tea corporations to Coffee corporations?).   Anger toward corporations, generally, is well placed, even if tea partiers aren’t that consistent.

But the tea party, which seems proud that there is little leadership or organization, seems to be blind about the nature institutions, government and the public.  Their view is of the mass, “taking over” which is more like the cultural revolution (choose any) than of getting work done.

The tea “party” ignores that politics is about people in institutions.  Joe Schmoe is just a dude spouting off about paying taxes.  He’s got some anecdotes, and he’s pissed, but just because he knows his car’s broken doesn’t mean he knows how to fix it.   It just looks like another narcissistic blowhard who doesn’t know who’s responsible for his lowered standards.

Good Government requires some leadership and management skills.  Politicians will make difficult decisions.  If tea partiers don’t want leaders, and don’t think government should manage, their task is going to be incredibly challenging as they get stuck in their internal bickering.   They will perpetually seek a consensus that will never emerge.

No government will make everyone happy.   Kenneth Arrow showed, in my view, decisively that there is no perfect government or economic system.  Someone will feel screwed.   Perhaps the rich will find some of their money confiscated; or the middle class will find their pensions cut.  Sometimes liberty wins, sometimes security.  But in a democracy we live together whether we win, or lose.   Although I talked, admittedly, about emigrating to the Netherlands after Bush won a second election.

Leaders will inevitably disappoint some people.  It’s the nature of leaders that they get hit, that they compromise, and choose between two bad, or two good, decisions.   A tea party that isn’t sure what it wants, besides being left alone, and resists any leader trying to compromise between the various publics, will find itself just another discussion group, a loud mob unable to accomplish anything.

I have not been worried about the tea party because they do not take organizing seriously.  In someways, they are like some parts (not all, of course) left – get people angry, hold a couple marches, find some politician who says what you want to hear. The hard work of engaging communities, discerning their values, discovering what keeps people up at night, and then acting upon it, is substituted for quick fixes.  Like corporations, politicians and even some progressives, the tea party thinks there is a quick fix, and that is to vote the bums out.

It doesn’t work like that.  It’s one reason I fell in love with the church. Granted, plenty of priests try to find quick fixes.  The daily life of church, however, resists it. Although I believe there may need to be a reboot of the church,  bodies of people coming together are what the church does.  Perhaps we have not done so well at that over the last 30 years.  We’ve not been able to manage within the new economy of attention.  I don’t think it’s hopeless, but I do think it will require a different kind of work.  The tea-party illustrates what we should not be doing.

I’m not hard on the tea party.  As a reformed anarchist, I’m actually sympathetic, aside from it’s loose resentments that stem from race populism.  I wish that there were some elected officials who would really challenge the economic system.  As it is, some of the tea party officials seem like stooges for state capitalism.    Which is a lot different than democratic capitalism.

One of the reasons I think that democracy, and capitalism, are fruits of some hard consequences of Christian morality is because, in the case of democracy, we learn to lose some times; and when we win, we treat the losers with respect.  Battling things politically is far better than fighting a civil war.  In capitalism, we coordinate desires, trusting in each other’s ability to share goods (I’m not talking about the system of high finance).  They are held in tension – sometimes they contradict each other.   And then we should be able to learn to choose.

The tea party needs to learn how to live within the former.

A Clergy Glut: a Few Thoughts

A reality check!

The Episcopal Church did a horrible job of funding clergy education.  It’s why I went to University of Chicago rather than General.  It is one reason seminaries aren’t supported by their clergy after they graduate.  The Episcopal church, as a whole, does not fund clergy education the way other denominations do.

It might be that our jobs will change.  Churches fund benefits,  allow priests to be out in the world, doing other vocational work that they love.  As churches are organized, they can get benefits for their priests and fund a pension much more reasonably.  Priests can do what they love during the week, but fulfill their clear canonical expectations of teaching.  They can live in the rectory and throw parties for the church.   In essence, priests would work 1/3rd time.  It would be humane, force churches do develop lay leadership, and encourage some creativity in the clergy.  It shouldn’t be the only type of position, but a possible one.  Perhaps we would ordain people who were already lawyers, social workers and musicians with a steady profession.

But this also means that seminary education should change.  We could require masters in other disciplines, but require a steady three year reading list, consistent writing, and local apprenticeship.    Seminaries can do online education during the year, and host intensive 2-3 week training on-site, or weekend training for lay people; or offer training during the week training for clergy.

Not all residential three year seminaries should close.  But they should be competitive.  Let them turn people down.  But we should remind congregations that “we need strong lay people” and do a better job of rewarding them.  Clergy should have $15,000 hospitality budgets to spend on feeding and rewarding other people.

Prolegomena to the Current Anglican Crisis

After a recent exchange on another blog, I’d like to address a few reasons why  reasserters and reappraisers do not understand each others’ arguments.  It seems to me that we see our current context with very different lenses, and thus our discussions easily veer off track.

What I’d like to offer are a series of broader issues, one that isn’t exhaustive,  that shape the conflict.  Perhaps by examining these descriptively, we can address our different prescriptions.

1.  A general crisis of authority.  Over the last 50 years, all our major institutions are not trusted by the laity.  There has been a crisis in the authority of scripture and the church.  This parallels a lack of trust in governments as well.

2. An alteration in the relationship between public and private.  Sex was once private, but is now ubiquitous, in part because it is used to sell products.  Public persons are not merely individuals representing institutions, but persons who’s private lives are also public.

3. The introduction of the market into institutions that had previously been sheltered from competition.  These include the church, social service organizations, and unions.

4. The immediacy of communication.  This undermines the virtues of reflection, prudence and even the Sabbath itself.  Videos and emails are exchanged quickly without consideration about their underlying meanings or the proper audience.   Although audiences are easily segmented, anyone can be a hearer, and may hear exactly the opposite of what the speaker intends.

5. The reconceptualization of place.  Cyberspace dictates the rules of civil engagement.  Geography has less of a hold on identity.  Much of our battle happens in cyberspace, and not in person.  However, it is still physical persons who make decisions and operate institutions.

6. The social engagement of more Americans with non-Christians.  This directly impacts how the average lay person thinks of heaven, hell and the uniqueness of Christian doctrine.

7. The diminishing consequences of sex outside of marriage.

8. The effect of capital upon churches and the liberation of desire for the sake of profit.

9.  Our lives and ideologies are generally fragmented, and we put them back together again sometimes in haphazard ways.

Until we can get an accurate description of our cultural context, it will be a challenge for us to even understand our proscriptions.

By and large, the progressive church has accepted the impact of liberal capitalism into the sphere of social relationships.  Some have some antagonism toward neo-liberal / libertarian economic policies, but by and large it accepts the colonial, bourgeois, world-view.   I am saying this as a description.

The conservatives generally accept, however, the place of the US as an empire, but are unwilling to adapt a pre-modern understanding of cosmology and the role of the church.

There seems to a be some link between social conservatism, political conservatism and theological conservatism, but I don’t think the links are intellectually necessary.   One can be a theological conservative and an economic progressive; a theological liberal and a libertarian or neo-conservative.  I can say that I share a cultural identity (bourgeois, private college, suburban/urban, Yankee) with people who call themselves “liberal.”  What that means on a daily basis changes.

John Wooden, RIP

I’m not a sports fan, except I will occasionally participate in the madness and enjoy the periodic live game.  I admire skill, but I think amateur sports a re lot more entertaining.  So to read about John Wooden has been interesting because I knew so little about this sports hero.

Although I am usually skeptical of the advice given by coaches, businessmen or celebrities, I find the following a reasonable creed.

John Wooden’s Seven Point Creed.

  • Be true to yourself.
  • Make each day your masterpiece.
  • Help others.
  • Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.
  • Make friendship a fine art.
  • Build a shelter against a rainy day.
  • Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.

Personally, I think clergy could learn from good coaches.  It is one of the skills that should replace pastoral care.