Pandemic and Faith in Humanity

When the coronavirus outbreak restricted us to our homes and threatened various shortages, some of us in our subdivision launched a small-scale communication network (called a “block party”) to make sure no neighbors or their needs slipped through the cracks. This was promoted through the “Nextdoor” app and garnered quite a bit of affirmation. One resident commented on how efforts like this had restored her faith in humanity.

Local and national media have spotlighted countless inspiring humanitarian efforts, especially during times of crisis. From front-line personnel and food bank volunteers to MIT’s humanitarian innovation project, we can see creativity and sacrifice in every direction; efforts not limited to the current pandemic. Inspiring indeed! Examples like these provide a welcome and refreshing counterweight to the corruption and narcissism that so often dominate the news. The notion of humanity’s basic goodness is undergoing a revival of sorts, as if it were ever in serious doubt among contemporary, well-resourced Americans.

For those of us who have anchored our lives in historic Christian faith, this may chasten an imbalanced view of human depravity with a reminder of God’s common grace, still powerfully evident to and through all people. Even John Calvin, the theologian often blamed for the most dim and despondent view of humanity, insisted that there are “vestiges” of God’s image in all people. The travesties and tragedies that brand human history have often been the foil for these vestiges of goodness to arrest our attention and inspire us. I suspect that will continue through the duration of the coronavirus and its ripple effects.

With all of that genuinely and gratefully admitted, the gospel is the good news because it diverts our attention away from illusory faith in humanity. We can marvel at humanity without having faith in humanity. We cannot have faith in humanity simply because humanity (or, more honestly, to move from 3rd to 1st person – “we”) displays darkness just as predictably as goodness. In fact, vast anecdotal evidence suggests that the impressive evidences of human goodness can dissipate quickly when pressures continue or get worse.

Landon Gilkey, longtime professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School, reflected on a jarring shift in his perspective as a result of his years in a Japanese intern camp during WWII (read his published journals, Shantung Compound). Gilkey admits that he entered that period inculcated with the humanistic optimism of his privileged, early twentieth-century, liberal Protestant upbringing and education. To me, one of the most striking comments is his observation that anyone can be so optimistic about human nature when conditions are only modestly or temporarily stressful. His understanding of human nature was dramatically altered by observing the conduct of his fellow Western interns whose self-protective and territorial instincts often carried the day under conditions of protracted deprivation.

In one of Fleming Rutledge’s many published sermons (“A Better Bet,” in Advent, 328-36), she recalls accounts of how the atrocities of genocide in Ruwanda destroyed some people’s faith in humanity. Interestingly, and of more substantive hope, that is what clarified and intensified those people’s faith in God in some cases. When I read this it struck me as a surprising reversal of the common question, “Why does God let things like this happen?” That is a haunting question, I admit. Yet, it may be the wrong question. Should we rather be asking, “Why do people do things like this?” and “How does God deal with this?” The biblical storyline seems relatively silent about that first question and far more clear about the latter pair of questions.

Rutledge spotlights Jesus’ crucifixion as God’s response to the human condition, to all that emerges from it and to everything at its core that gives rise to that evil. God’s common grace and all vestiges of goodness notwithstanding, the core condition of humanity is such that it must be redeemed and healed, and that it cannot redeem and heal itself. The facts that God still grants common grace and that there was an original goodness that continues to emit strong echoes offer compelling evidence that humanity is worth redemption; not deserving of redemption, but worth redeeming because God has unilaterally loved us and bestowed that worth. Deserving and worthy are not the same. We are not the former; we are the latter.

The difference has profound implications (including formational and therapeutic, but that’s another conversation). It allows me to acknowledge both the glory and the depravity of the human condition without playing them off each other in simplistic, binary fashion, without diluting either reality, and without placing them on an equal plane. It gives me cause to celebrate, encourage, and practice acts of love and sacrifice without over-interpreting those acts. It points me to a better (and more answerable) set of questions about God’s presence and involvement in human life, and God’s redemption of the human condition, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

While I sincerely celebrate the many noble aspects of humanity, Christ’s death and resurrection restores my faith; not in humanity but in the God who redeems humanity, and in the fact that we need such redemption no matter how much good we do.



Quantitative Thinking and Empathetic Capacity

Quantitative thinking frequently gets us in trouble theologically. By “quantitative thinking” I’m not referring simply to questions that can be answered or realities that can be measured numerically, but to what we might call a “fixed substance” mindset. This outlook instinctively sees life in terms of binary choices and fixed entities. That mode of thought works well of course in some arenas of life, for example, how much gas will fit in the tank of a car or how much medication to prescribe and take for a specific illness (and other substantial matters). When it comes to matters such as relationships, justice, grace, forgiveness, and love, that approach often spells confusion if not disaster. How many relationships have gone aground when couples or friends began keeping score in one way or another?

Numerous examples could be offered from theology (if we define theology as the study of God and God’s ways with the world). Quite often I try to make my students aware and wary of these. Recently a new example came to mind – the capacity for empathy. Don’t ask me what brought this to mind when I was sitting and sweating on an exercise machine at the gym. Maybe I was having an empathetic moment for someone – or wasn’t – and wondered why.

Anyway, I have heard countless people who were in some form of struggle, like a severe loss or a tragedy, say to others that they cannot understand (empathize) unless they have had the same experience. That statement could be pressed to such a limit that one person must have an identical experience – a precise iteration – in order to empathize. But even then those two people would have had the experience as two different people, with the uniqueness of each of their lives shaping they way they had that experience. In that case, nobody could ever really empathize with anyone!

That approach is a prime example of the quantitative thinking I described. When sufferers isolate themselves from the empathy of others who have not had the same or something close to the same experience, they treat their suffering as a substance, a thing that has its own unique shape and features such that others can only enter the pain of that experience if they have had the same “thing”. Yet, the capacity for true empathy does not work that way, and it’s good that it doesn’t! Quantitative thinking applied to empathy tends to isolate those who need empathy.

Could the capacity for empathy derive from being human; from the capacity for emotion; the capacity for experiences to have meaning and for that meaning to be shared with others? Certainly, those who share the same or very similar experiences can have a deeply meaningful and unique bond. That type of bond has great value and therapeutic potency. It is not to be trivialized. Yet, empathy is not so restricted. Empathy is open to all who can genuinely experience their humanity.

When another person enters our pain or delight through their own, that matters. If only those who have experienced the same or almost the same iteration of pain or delight can be considered empathetic, those who need empathy relegate themselves to a tiny corner where they are least able to receive it. I say that as one who has walked through the unimaginable that relatively few have experienced and that I wish nobody else would ever experience. Yet, I have been upheld in life-giving ways by the empathy of those who were willing to hurt with me. Most have not hurt in the specific way that I hurt but they entered with me through the fact that as human beings we all hurt.

Empathy is open to all humans. It’s not limited only to those with the same experience (the quantitative). Those who need empathy may have far more at their disposal than they realize. Those who don’t share the specific experiences of others they care about, still have far more to give they may think.

For the Theology of Work – Glory on the Grindstone?

Since the mid-1990s I have paid attention to what is now called the “theology of work” or “faith and work.” Over the past twenty-five or so years this has become a movement and a lively field of research with lots of traction. I’m excited about the literature, the organizations, the conferences, and other initiatives aimed at closing the gap between the faith we confess and the countless occupations (call them vocations, jobs, careers, tasks, or whatever you like – paid or unpaid) that comprise this enormous domain of human life we call “work”.

In its formative years the movement focused primarily on the types of work done by those with higher levels of education and responsibility, and with more choices about what they do for and in work. Happily, that field of vision is expanding (though slowly, it seems) to include the work done by most of the human race in most parts of the globe for most of human history. In some cases this is raw manual labor. For many others the work may not be physically demanding but can be dull, dehumanizing, rote, meagerly or under-compensated, and generally unsatisfying. In other words, it’s simply what people do to survive. Having done a fair bit of this type of work in my earlier years and having grown up in blue-collar, lower middle class settings, I have a particular concern for those who want to follow Christ in all areas of life but have intense difficulty closing the gap between their faith and the specific work they do; in lots of instances, with few choices.

So, here is a draft piece I wrote on that subject last year. It’s not been published and needs a lot more work (no pun intended), but if you’re interested enough to read it, perhaps it will spark some meaningful conversation and ideas. At any rate I hope to give the overall theology of work movement a bit more traction in broader directions.

Glory on the Grindstone

Spiritual Formation for Academic Types

Those with experience in graduate level theological education (like seminary) will recognize the sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle condescension of the “classical” disciplines toward the “practical” or “pastoral” disciplines. Those who teach in the former will often characterize the latter as somehow intellectually softer, less rigorous, dependent on the former to provide the content and methodology needed for legitimacy, and consequently less substantive. As one who teaches on “both sides of the aisle,” this unfortunate chasm is worthy of our suspicion.

Quite a few years ago when I was working more directly with the non-formal curriculum of spiritual formation at my own school (through the mentoring program), our program staff visited the Roman Catholic seminary across town to learn about how they approached spiritual formation in their unique educational venue. Apart from differences in theology and educational structure, we were struck at a particular commitment they lived out regarding the place of spiritual formation in their educational process.

Admittedly, since their M.Div. process is far longer than that of Protestant seminaries, they have more time with their students. What do they do with that extra time? They require an entire academic year devoted to various spiritual formation exercises prior to students engaging any traditional (classical) academic work. This, we were told, is rather unusual even among Roman Catholic seminaries. So, they had done comparative studies with some other Roman Catholic institutions and discovered that their students actually did better work in the classical courses than those without that personally formative base. Their interpretation of those results was that the year of attention to the “heart” actually helped students better integrate their more cerebral endeavors.

James M. Houston, former professor at the University of Oxford and co-founder of Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., has mused at length on the dangers of academia without attention to one’s personal life. In a sort of memoir, Joyful Exiles, he makes the following indicting and challenging observation.

“Alan Bullock, head of one of the colleges I taught in [at Oxford], once assured me that it was an immature teacher who saw the subject as all-important. Rather, a mark of academic maturity is to value the personal formation of the student in the light of the discipline being taught. . . . This has persuaded me ever since to cultivate a compassionate, not just critical scholarship” (106).

He continues,

“If you are tempted to think my appeal here is only devotional and therefore ‘soft,’ I respond with the assertion that living out as a person takes hard thinking indeed! Michael Polanyi was one of my early neighbors at Oxford, so I read his work Personal Knowledge as soon as it was published in 1959. Although he might have received the Nobel Prize had he remained as a research chemist, he chose to become a philosopher of science to combat current false Marxist interpretations. It was a selfless act in defense of the truth, recognizing that scientists are fully and personally involved with their subject matter, regardless of ideology. For there is no impersonal scientific knowledge” (109).

My concern is that the relationship between different types of disciplines needs to be reconfigured. Without a doubt, the “classical” disciplines provide a type of content and methodological rigor that can help other disciplines be accountable and rigorous. Yet, there is more than one type of content to be mined and transmitted. Other disciplines provide essential content that the classical disciplines need just as much and often seem unable to recognize.

Houston’s remarks served as a timely reminder to me of the old adage that “we don’t teach subjects, we teach people.” And, it takes well-formed people to form people well.

On Being “Centrist”

On and off for some years now I’ve been pondering what it means to be “centrist,” particularly in the world of evangelical Christianity, though not limited to the faith arena. The institution where I teach would be more conventionally described as “nondenominational,” but “centrist” also fits in numerous ways. Increasingly, congregations take on that posture as well. Positioning ourselves that way—individually or institutionally—often creates the reputation, and sometimes the effect, of being theologically minimalist in an attempt to relate to and serve the broadest possible spectrum of people who can commit to the “basics”.

This trend toward centrism is far from new and is quite understandable as a reaction to legacies of quibbling and divisiveness over issues that don’t seem worth the relational loss that occurs. It can also be a reaction to doctrinal insularity—a type of theological culture (narcissism?) marked by an intramural, defensive, protectionist ethos. Sadly, the law of unintended consequences shows up here just as it does in economics and other fields. Those consequences include a trend toward doctrinal passivity and apathy; sometimes even embarrassment about being too “confessional” or “dogmatic” in one’s faith. At the root of that hesitation lay distorted and overdone versions of doctrinal commitment that have made dogma into dogmatism and wreaked all kinds of personal and ecclesiastical havoc. We must own this if dogma and centrism are to be redeemed.

In short, centrism is often taken to imply a doctrinal version of Aristotle’s golden mean, i.e., theological balance and equilibrium. Put more bluntly, it can incapacitate commitment except in a broad manner, resulting from a binary assumption that unless a commitment is worth everything, it’s worth almost nothing. This leaves no space for commitments and distinctives that have immense value even if they are not worth dying for (or making someone die for!). That sort of balance is bland, tasteless, devoid of character and identity, and utterly uninviting—like eating dry toast!

What’s the solution? Roll the clock back to the days of “fighting fundamentalism”? Expand doctrinal statements and make them once again more detailed and specific? Opt for commitment for commitment’s sake? No. Actually, my recent musings on this have led me to believe that centrism contains the solution after all. It’s a really good thing, but in a different way than we so often see practiced. Centrism is problematic when understood as balance (equal portions of many factors, without too much of any one—another example of how quantitative thinking almost always gets us in trouble theologically), when driven by political and social fears of offending, or when it expresses binary minimalism. Yet, it can be great when it highlights the Center that anchors and animates everything else.

Currently, I’m reading Fleming Rutledge’s remarkable work, The Crucifixion. I wanted and needed to read it anyway, but moved it up on the list as preparation for my upcoming Good Friday sermon. She is taking me (shamelessly and aggressively) back to the center, not in any simplistic way but in a defining way, positing “the cross as the center of Christian understanding” (p. 43). In an “ah ha” moment this morning it occurred to me that this is how we can rethink what it means to be centrist. The crucifixion, in all its radical nuance and scandal and shame, ended up for the Apostles—shockingly—as the defining and anchoring and illuminating and empowering factor for everything else. It did not trivialize the doctrinal reflection that would occur over time. It gave character and perspective to those reflections. It did not defuse the theological passion of the Church. It showed how doctrines were ways of working out the lifegiving implications of what happened in Christ’s crucifixion.

We need a specific example so that this does not turn into merely one more safe, preachy, academic generalization. For starters, are we having serious, leadership level conversation in our congregations and faculties about how the Center of our faith shapes, defines, anchors, and animates everything else? Or do we assume that we already have all that “down” and can move on to other, more contemporary challenges? Are we reflecting as much on what we DO hold and confess as we reflect (even tacitly) on where we don’t want to be too dogmatic and need to provide latitude?

I need to stop for now. Far more must be said on this matter, particularly in light of our upcoming Passion Week and Resurrection celebrations AND as so many of us try to steward faithfully what it means to be properly centrist in our respective ecclesiastical and academic environments.

More on Guns

Sen. Marco Rubio has courageously reconsidered his position on the issue of high capacity magazines for guns. The basis for his argument was human safety. Good on you, Senator! Then, he resisted the notion of banning all semi-automatic weapons on the basis that it was outside the mainstream—an argument based on political expediency. Senator Rubio, what if you were to use human safety as your basis consistently, regardless of how it would sell with your perception of the mainstream (a.k.a. your constituency)? So what if you don’t get re-elected? You will never lack for work or income.

Even if we don’t go so far as to ban all semi-automatic weapons (which I think is unlikely), regardless of whether it should be done—can we not seriously entertain a discussion focused on the type of semi-automatic weapons used so frequently in mass shootings? Some who have criticized me recently take umbrage at calling them “assault” weapons, as if that unfairly stigmatizes and miscategorizes them. So, let’s simply look at how easily they are used to inflict the type of human carnage that we have witnessed so often and so recently.

Arguments for gun ownership as an inalienable, moral, human right on the basis of the right to self-defense have finite elasticity and cannot stretch so far as to defend those weapons. They are utterly unnecessary for hunting or self-defense, regardless of the fact that they CAN be used for those purposes. I can also use a screwdriver or crowbar for self-defense if needed, as well as for many other creative purposes outside what they were invented to do. Yet, if in some bizarre, alternate universe people began to use screwdrivers and crowbars in a systemically and socially destructive fashion, why would we not put human ingenuity to work to invent other means of driving fasteners and gaining leverage? Such moves have actually been made many times in the manufacturing industry when a product design has become a public health hazard. There are plenty of other perfectly adequate options for both hunting and self-defense, other than the type of semi-automatic weapons that can be equipped with high capacity magazines and altered to function (with bump stocks) as fully automatic weapons.

Let’s be honest. Nobody needs one of those weapons for hunting or for self-defense. For those who use them safely and responsibly, they are simply fun—and I’ll be the first to admit that. I have used them (though I plan never to do so again, on grounds of principle) and they are a blast (pun intended)! Yet, for them to be accessible to the responsible public makes them accessible to the wrong people. No amount of background checking or database reporting can or will prevent that. The NRA’s call for more reporting and enforcement of existing laws ignores the fact that everyone who commits a crime commits one for the first time at some point. It is impossible to catch preemptively those who will commit shooting atrocities (or other atrocities) with the level of effectiveness presumed by those who appeal to this as the answer to the problem.

What She Said!

In the interests of fairness, her “all or nothing” descriptor of the NRA does not accurately represent the NRA’s efforts, at least in word and in principle, to support legislation that keeps guns from people who should not have them. However, the practical reality of the NRA’s actions (from my years as an NRA member) does not seem to align with their rhetoric when it comes to the type of legislation they will support and the basis for what they will and will not support.

Gun Control . . . Again!

This comes from one, like so many, with a heart broken by the relentless string of mass shootings in our country; and, I reside within walking distance of Columbine High School. This comes from one who dislikes and tends to avoid controversy, especially on issues like gun control; it stresses me and seems to go nowhere. This comes from one intensely frustrated by perpetual stalemate in the discourse about gun control. It’s started again on Facebook and in other venues. Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, this comes from one deeply embarrassed by many other gun owners and their predictable reactions to suggestions of gun control after such tragedies as we have recently—once again—witnessed.

I used the word “surprisingly” because those who know me well know that I am a gun owner. I am an avid hunter, blessed every year with a freezer full of wild game for which I have the privilege of taking responsibility “from trigger to table”. I own numerous guns and enjoy them for multiple reasons other than hunting or self-defense.  Furthermore, I am a strong advocate for the RESPONSIBLE right (I should say “privilege”) to keep and bear arms and an equally strong advocate for EFFECTIVE gun control.

With that runway and set of caveats in place, I want to express the most intense disappointment at the responses of my fellow gun owners to those who cry out for some type of legislation that can somehow reduce the chances and the scale of shooting deaths. The various aphorisms thrown out are little more than reactionary, bumper sticker reductionisms and generalizations that reflect the most egregiously fallacious reasoning. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” “The problem is not guns, it’s sin (or people or whatever; fill in the blank).” “We already have plenty of gun laws. They simply need to be enforced.” The list could go further. Please, fellow gun owners, stop that nonsense!

I find it equally egregious and embarrassing that when a tragic shooting and resultant deaths occur, those who cry out for more gun control do so in the interests of HUMAN LIVES that have been and will continue to be lost, while so many of my fellow gun owners default to defensive arguments that abstract the problem to the level of constitutional rights. And this from many who would be first in line to uphold pro-life values. A true pro-life commitment would seem to generate an entirely different type of discourse among gun owners; one that starts from a posture of grief and prioritizes collaboration with ALL other citizens to find positive new solutions that transcend the relentless conversational stalemate the surfaces with each shooting. A true pro-life commitment would prompt gun owners to start the conversation rather than respond in defensiveness.

Gun owner/advocates who persist in playing the “rights” card need to rethink the Enlightenment individualism that has so infected the “rights” conversation in this country. Individual rights must always be tempered by corporate responsibility for those individuals with greater power, resource, and maturity to sacrifice for the sake of the common good when many do not have, for example, the moral wherewithal to use those rights responsibly. Parents do that with children routinely. And is that not, after all, the way of Christ? Or do we conveniently check Jesus’ example at the door when it comes to this conversation?

What about the futility of trying to legislate maturity and morality? Can gun laws address the sin problem that causes people to harm other people? Of course not! Yet, that is in fact how Scripture portrays a key function of government—to restrain (not eliminate) the expressions of evil. We must have effective gun laws that can actually restrict access to the types of weapons that are most likely to be used and can be most easily used by the wrong people to do such great damage! Arguing that this will not eliminate gun-related deaths is beside the point and displays an example of the egregious reasoning I mentioned above. Simplistic, binary reasoning such as this impedes good legislation from making a substantial difference in many areas of civic life. How much reasonable and necessary legislation would ever see the light of day if only those measures were approved that would entirely solve a problem for good or that always got to the core of a problem?

As a grateful (not proud, but grateful) gun owner, I call on my fellow gun owners to take the initiative in charting a different and constructive conversation that will preserve the privilege of appropriate gun ownership while putting into place the type of restrictions that can actually make an impact (even if they don’t solve the entire problem) – as tough as they need to be! It may only save a few lives, but if one of those lives happen to be one of your or my loved ones, matters might look a bit different. For example, and disagree with this as you will, I cannot think of a single good reason why a general citizenry should have access to assault weapons used by the military and law enforcement agencies; particularly when those weapons have the capacity to hold substantial ammunition and be equipped with “bump stocks” that effectively make them fully automatic. Are these guns fun? Sure. Do many use them safely and responsibly? Of course. But that is not the point! In light of circumstances as they are NOW in our country – not as they were in colonial days or as we think they should be in an ideal world – should these be available AT ALL to the general public anywhere? Without appealing to slippery slope arguments, what is lost if nobody can get them except law enforcement or military personnel?

A final note that is certain to lose me lots of gun owning friends. Let’s rethink the NRA. Several years ago I abandoned my membership in the NRA. After years of support and appreciation for how I thought they were protecting my rights from “all those liberals out there” who wanted my guns, I finally concluded that—to put it bluntly—the NRA has lost its mind. It has taken on iconic status and now seems to represent in toto the rationale for gun ownership. To oppose the NRA, its reasoning, and its strategies, is seen by most of the gun owners I know as constituting intolerable and prima facie evidence of a liberalism that wants to fast track our nation covertly toward communism (or at least some type of suffocating governmental control of our lives). I, for one, and there must be other gun owners out there who feel the same (please, identify yourselves!) want a very different type of support for gun ownership; one that is part of solutions, not part of the problem.

Perhaps it’s time for a sane and constructive alternative to the NRA. Having said that, I have little hope that it will actually occur. Yet, we desperately need something like Citizens for Responsible Gun Ownership and Control if as a nation we are ever to make progress on this issue. Each shooting tragedy should remind us that this is not just an “issue” but that human lives are at stake. I would readily relinquish every gun I own if I thought that would actually make a difference. Getting rid of all or even most guns is simply not going to happen here—whether or not anyone thinks it should. Nor do I want that to happen. But what CAN happen? What CAN we ALL do that will get past the retrenched positions and recycled arguments? Gun owners, join me in finding a new way forward that moves past the idolization of gun rights as they are currently defended and helps preserve not only healthy, responsible gun ownership but, of INFINITELY greater importance – lives made in God’s image.