Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas, Christopher Hithcens, Sneeering, Testing, And Praying Today

Christopher Hitchens’ death on the brink of the Feast of the Nativity sets my mind spinning about the mysteries of birth, life, death, and how we understand them.

I wish Christopher Hitchens well as a person but have major issues with the meaning of Christopher Hitchens as a cultural icon. Some of the media have called him an “intellectual.” He did attend Oxford for his undergraduate education, but does not seem to have pursued any post-graduate studies or done any real academic training beyond that basic liberal arts education. He was a journalist in the contemporary sense, not so much a reporter of facts as a commentator. His commentary rightly chastised Christians for failing to live up to our highest aspirations and then gilding our flaws in religious pretense, but Hitchens drew unwarranted theological conclusions from his chastisements. The “new atheists” by and large have not brought the same weight of philosophical reason to the table that an earlier generation (e.g. Bertrand Russell) did.

To the end, Hitchens maintained his posture of sneering, bored supercilious attitude. The sneer has been au courant for nearly 300 years now. When Holman Hunt painted The Light of the World, the most popular painting of the Victorian Age, Thomas Carlyle castigated him for this naïve portrait of faith. Sneering became fashionable in the salons of 18th Century France, and has remained the ego armor of choice ever since. Hitchens was consistently faithful to his essential face-set sneer. It has become a socially prescribed way to achieve and maintain status to mock and demean innocence which may be painted as naïve. Another option, which lacks the social sanction afforded to sneering, is to join with the “naïve,” to live and die in the attitude of prayer.

The tension between sneering and praying calls to mind another great believer and disbeliever, Anthony Flew, who truly did neither. Flew, a real intellectual, was a philosopher of science and was the leading voice of atheism in our time. His was a scientific atheism, a genuine scientific atheism, not the hackneyed leaps to the wrong conclusions we see in Dawkins. Flew started from a stance of studied neutrality. His only commitment was to “follow the evidence” wherever it might lead. Eventually, it led him to believe in “God,” by which he meant an intelligent and purposeful Creator. The “new atheists” were aghast and burned him at the journalistic stake for “apostasy.” I am not kidding. The new atheists really called Flew and “apostate” from their true faith – which of course is what it is.

In the end, I am not with Flew either. But there is a contrast worth noting. The attitude of sneering is an ego-armor, a defensive pride in looking down on believers and belief. I object to sneering as a spiritual practice precisely because it protects the very ego which Buddhism would disintegrate with awareness, Islam would surrender through obedience, and Christianity would sacrifice for the sake of a selfless life lived in Christ and for others. The one thing modernity and post-modernity have in common is their deification of the ego which most ancient spiritual traditions regard as the problem. Worse yet, sneering builds up the ego at the expense of others. There is violence in it.

Scientism such as Flew’s could be egoistic but it is not inherently so. It can be rigorously honest and courageous. It can be a heroic quest for truth. I have to admire that. I would have to admire it in Flew even if it had not led him to theism. I can admire, but I cannot join. Scientism deifies a method of knowing truth. The problem is it assumes one method of inquiry is capable of knowing, proving, and expressing everything. If I may use an analogy from the scientific world, it is like doing astronomy with a microscope, and so denying the existence of stars. Leave religion out of it for the moment. There is truth in poetry, art, and music that is beyond scientific reach. There is truth in the ancient stories and yes, truth both apprehended and expressed in rituals for which there are no words. Forgive me for this quotation from my youth, but it is still true. “It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. The things which are essential are invisible to the eye.” Antoine de St. Exupery.

The God I believe in cannot be proven or disproven by experiments. But here is the situation I find myself in. Suppose God could be disproven in some rational way. Suppose pride in being right or perhaps integrity in following the truth compelled me to admit that faith is false. What then would I do? A parallel question: truth aside, what if faith simply loses its last vestige of social credibility and disappears. Suppose the church dies out from under me?

Here is my problem. I have known the story so long, performed the rituals so often, they are more part of me than my very heart. When I have been in trouble I have called on God time and again. Each time God has delivered me. “How can you say that?” skeptics may wonder. Sometimes my salvations have been almost miraculous. Sometimes they seemed completely miraculous. Other times, they came in reasonable, even ordinary, ways. All I know is I cast myself on God’s mercy and I received mercy. When I was at the bank of Red Sea with the Egyptian Army charging – not just once but time and again – the Sea parted. It has happened as a kind of promise that when death itself takes hold of me, even that Sea will part into God’s mercy. I do not know what that mercy will look like. I take the traditional images of life after death as a fair portrait of mercy. But whatever form it takes, if it is God’s choice; it will be fine with me.

So, if logic should compel me to deny God or if I were the only believer left, I would still have to believe. I cannot and will not adopt the option of defensive psycho-violence or a too small way of knowing. I will admire the logicians like Flew, regardless of their conclusions, but I am not one of them. They practice a monotheistic reverence for the scientific method while I am an epistemological polytheist knowing truth in various ways. Ultimately, I am one who prays. This is my advice: If one does not want to wind up like me, an old man praying, one had better stop praying at an early age. There comes a point of no return, a time when prayer has been answered with so much truth and grace that one is honor bound to keep praying even if the last blessing has already been bestowed. The Church, the fellowship of believers, a flawed lot -- but no more flawed than I am -- has carried me thus far. I hope they will be with me to the end, but if they are not, Jesus has been too present, too real, for too long – so that “Though none go with me, still I will follow.”

I have to admit the priority of my faith. I could be fooling myself to avoid the tension between faith and integrity. But the arguments for God – not just Flew’s intelligent purposeful creator but the God of infinite mystery, the God of beauty beyond the reach of our aesthetic imagination, the God of truth beyond all our ways of knowing, the God of goodness beyond our highest moral aspiration – makes vastly more sense to me than the small minded reductionism of modernist and post-modernist secularism. St. Anselm called theology “faith seeking understanding.” I am with Anselm rather than Flew. I do not start intellectually neutral. My commitment is to God as I have known him in Christ Jesus. I am with Anselm and Augustine, “Credo ut intelligam” I believe in order that I may understand.” If understanding did not buttress faith for me, then I would go with whoever (it was not Tertullian) said “credo quia absurdum est” I believe because it is absurd. I would not really believe something simply because it is absurd, but if it is absurdly hopeful in the face of despair, absurdly good in the face of evil, absurdly profound beyond the banality of our experience, then those absurdities would at least makes me want to give it a fair hearing. So count me with Augustine, Anselm, Kierkegaard, and William James (The Will To Believe). An existential posture has to go deeper than the head level. We choose to believe or we choose to disbelieve as an act of will, not intellect, then find our reasons after the fact. Having sat on a pillow long enough to watch how my heart and mind work, I know the Buddhist teachings of abidharma are precisely true. Feeling first – then thought – then perception. It works opposite to the scientific method.

And all this leads to the Star over the Stable. I believe in that Star over the Stable this Christmas – not as a provable or disprovable factum of history, but as a picture of something truer and better than science can test or words can express. When people are sorted either by God or social scientists, list my name among those who go to a stable to pray.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Surprises at St. Jude's

Today was my first Sunday visit to St. Jude’s the parish. I have visited St. Jude’s Ranch many times and have celebrated the Eucharist with gatherings of our deacons there in the Zabriske Chapel. St. Jude’s graciously hosts our deacon conferences at no charge. But this was my first Sunday visit, marking the actual return of St. Jude’s to the Episcopal fold. Bishop Katharine visited and Kay Rohde celebrated there, but the priest who served St. Jude’s was of a schismatic persuasion and was not willing to attend those services. So much of the congregation was not there either. Today, St. Jude’s is in some sense our oldest, in another sense our newest, Latino parish.

The first surprise of the day was the turnout. Attendance at St. Jude’s is often around 15 to 20. On a big Sunday it breaks 40. Today we had 80 people, which packed the Chapel. They were engaged, singing the Spanish hymns a capella, fully participating in the liturgy using a Spanish translation of the Book of Common Prayer. Some of the attendance was no doubt due to the three baptisms – one early elementary schoolboy and two teenage girls. When I baptize older children and teenagers of Latino families, I always know there is a story there. I don’t know what it is, but there is a story. We are doing something important.

After the service I did a little demographic research about where the congregants reside. Many of them are, in fact, from Boulder City. When we began work on restoring our ties to St. Jude’s, I was assured that there is only one Latino family living in Boulder City and they attend St. Christopher’s. It turns out there is an invisible Latino population in BC. I am not being ironic. It really is true. By patronizing different businesses, etc. it is quite possible for ethnic groups to inhabit the same space with minimal awareness of each other’s existence. But, as I expected, many of them lived in Henderson. Neither of our churches in Henderson has a Missa Espanol so the 20 minute drive to St. Jude’s works for them just for convenience. But a significant minority drive to St. Jude’s from Las Vegas. There are no more community churches. We are all destination churches. People drive to where they choose to worship.

The next surprise came when I asked the teenagers, Cheyenne and Mia, in Spanish “Do you desire to be baptized?” They looked at me blankly. I thought it was my pronunciation; but Fr. Leslie explained that they did not speak Spanish. Oh my! Flashback to the ordeal a few years ago when I agonized over preparing and delivering a French sermon in Haiti only to learn afterward that the congregation did not speak French. They spoke Creole. So I found myself fumblingly trying to translate the questions I was reading out of a Spanish Prayer Book back into English. There goes another stereotype.

After the congregation finished receiving the sacrament, they brought the children up for blessings. I have never done more blessings of children, not even at our largest Latino congregation in Las Vegas. There was a hunger for blessings.

After the service, Christina Vela, the Regional Program Director for St. Jude’s (that means she runs the Nevada campus – there are two campuses in Texas) came by to meet me. That is a very positive gesture. If I am correct that Nevada Episcopalians share a sense of call to help at-risk children, then restoring our historic commitment to supporting St. Jude’s is a top mission priority.

Relations have been being maintained by folks like Sherm Fredericks who serves on the St. Jude’s Board. Connection with the parish restarted in earnest through the work of Fr. Bernardo Iniesta-Avila and his wife Lolita. It has been carried on by Fr. Leslie Holdridge. I am enormously grateful to them for their work at times when it was not at all clear that anything would come of it. They walked by faith and not by light; but the light is dawning. No worship space in Nevada has a holier feel than St. Jude’s. I feel blessed to have been there today and am eager to return.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Message 2011

Dear Nevada Episcopalians,

I write to express my hope that your Christmas season, in all its aspects – church, family, friends, and home – will be a time of grace and blessing, that you know in your souls the serene hope of God’s good news for us.

The Scriptures and the Carols for Christmas are exuberant in claiming that this event makes all things right. Through Advent we have sung of an absent but hoped for God:

O come, o come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

In step with nature’s season of the long nights, we darken the room for the lighting of the candle. On Christmas Eve, we will exult:

Hark the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn king
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come . . . .
No more let sins and sorrows grow
Or thorns infest the ground. . . .
He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness. . . .

We celebrate a sunrise, a dawn, an experience of grace. Like most Episcopalians, I love this celebration. Of all the branches of the Christian family, we are the ones most devoted to the Feast of the Nativity.

But I sometimes wonder two things. First, I wonder if our heads and hearts align. Do we understand what we are celebrating? In the theology of the Western world, salvation is something that happened on Good Friday to pay a debt incurred at the Fall in Eden. In that theology, the birth of Jesus is just a necessary preparation for the real action scheduled for 30 years later. To make such a to-do over Christmas makes no sense. That is part of why the Calvinist Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell, banned the celebration of Christmas for the 40 years of his rule; and the brilliant Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon concurred that we should not be so exuberant over the set up for tragedy.

The second thing I wonder is whether we believe our Scriptures and our Carols deeply; or is it a night of just pretending it’s all alright. Agnostic professor Bart Ehrman attributes his disbelief to the disconnect between the Christmas celebration of “Peace on Earth, Good will toward men” with our experience that two thousand years later sickness, crime, poverty, prejudice, and death are just as real as they were before – in a sense, more so. Sins and sorrows still grow. Thorns infest the ground.

So what are we celebrating? First, it helps to broaden our theology a bit, to stretch it farther to the East and farther back in time. The great Eastern theologians, the same ones who gave us the Nicene Creed, taught that the Incarnation itself was part and parcel of our redemption and salvation. God in taking on human nature changes it sanctifies our very being. By entering more deeply into our world, God makes it holy. That is why the Creed links salvation to the Incarnation:

For us and for our salvation
He came down from heaven.
By the power of the Holy Spirit,
he became incarnate of the virgin Mary
and was made human.

And our Eucharistic Prayer says:

When we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death,
You, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ your only and eternal Son
to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us,
to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.

Human life becomes God’s life; God’s life becomes human. The temporal is imbued with the eternal. This is not to deny or diminish the salvific power of Good Friday. Western Theology has got that right; but the power of Christmas – and Easter and Pentecost for that matter – are at least as much a part of God’s great drama of our redemption.

But what about our experience? Can we really believe that something important has happened when so much still seems so wrong in our world? Christians have never claimed that the power of sin in the world is already vanquished. The fulfillment of our hope lies beyond the reach of our mortal lives and beyond the reach of unfolding history. St. Paul tells us that this world is still under the sway of “the powers and the principalities of this present age.” C. S. Lewis says our world is “in enemy hands.” But the end of the story has changed and we are given a foretaste of our destiny in the joy of Christmas. In a novel, the meaning of each chapter depends on how the book comes out. All our present delights and regrets, successes and failures, take on their meaning from a story; the story of our lives, the story of human history, the story of the whole cosmos has been decisively changed.

At Christmas, we touch holiness. More than that, we are touched by holiness. At a little Episcopal Church in Texas a long, long time ago, I attended my first liturgical worship. I was a teenage Presbyterian with minimal understanding of what was happening. It was not a dramatic conversion experience. But in a quiet way, I touched holiness and was touched by holiness. I didn’t know it then but the course of my life was changed. Christmas after Christmas over the years, I have received grace. My prayer for you is that you will touch the holy and be touched by the holy, and so be drawn closer to your destiny in union with the God and Father of All.

Bishop Dan

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Having Our Cake And Eating It Too: An Amateur Question About The Payroll Tax Gridlock

I am not a political scientist and am even less of an economist, so this is just the naive question of an amateur.

We want to continue the tax cut for working people not just for their direct benefit but to stimulate demand for the sake of the whole economy. Everyone agrees on that. The question is how to pay for it.

The leading proposal is a tax surcharge on the rich. The objection is that if the rich have less disposable income, they will not invest in businesses that would employ people. That may or may not be true, (we gave the largest most powerful banks all that bailout money thinking they would actually loan it to small businesses -- didn't happen) but let's assume it is true. The rich need more money so they can invest in job creating businesses.

Other recent news stories disclose that the richest 1% of the nation contributes a ludicrous amount of money to fund political campaigns -- way, way disproportionate to the rest of us, more money than average people earn all year.

So here's what I am wondering. If we extended the tax cut for working people and paid for it by a surcharge on the rich, maybe we could put a cap on individual campain contributions. Then instead of bearing the unfair and noxious burden of paying for all those annoying tv ads, the rich could use the money they save to invest in businesses that create jobs.

My idea is no doubt unconstitutional, but by the time that issue gets to the Supreme Court, the economy will have been saved and everyone will be happy. But what do I know?