Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas has just begun

It looks like Santa Claus and his giant sack of toys have exploded in my living room; despite that fact that my wife and I try to reign in the commercial aspect of popular American Christmas celebrations by enforcing spending limits on our gift giving for the boys. She is helping one build legos and the other is playing with his Power Rangers action figures. I find myself thinking, 'I love Christmas, but I'm glad it's over.' But actually it isn't is it? Christmas has just begun and will last on the Christian Calendar until January 5th if my calculations are correct... which means two more sundays of Christmas.

Nothing makes me more aware of how influenced we are as Christians by popular culture than the Advent-Christmas season. No one goes to church on Christmas Day. I did once. A couple of years ago Christmas Day landed on a Sunday. The church wanted to continue with services... five people showed up. There were many people who didn't come to Christmas Eve services, which are usually quite popular.

So how do we practice religious devotion during Advent/Christmas? It isn't by church attendance for many. It is shopping and cooking and office parties. Many will call this their 'Holiday Celebration' completely unaware of the fact that Holiday used to mean Holy Day, a day devoted to religious observance. I feel slightly cranky and judgmental observing this and thinking some of the things that I'm thinking. Such as pondering how many people go through the season thinking that they really understand the 'reason for the season' while at the same time spending thousands of dollars on presents and never attending any sort of service or observing even private religious practices to celebrate this special season. Can we really call ourselves Christians if we go through Advent doing more to celebrate Capitalism than Christmas. So while the church is meant to be the presence of Christ to the world, in the world but not of it, St. Paul once wrote, I fear we are no more of the world than at at this season.

The thing I struggle with is, how to impress upon folks this point without sounding bitter or angry or (horror of horrors!) preachy.

I've given some thought lately to how it is that I will teach my children the meaning of Christmas. We read the Christmas story during the Advent season and we decorate the Christmas tree with hand made decorations that symbolize the Christian Christmas story... Angels, stars, crowns. We limit our own spending on them and engage them in shopping for the families that we adopt through our church. But now I must think about how to celebrate Christmas with them for the next two weeks, so that they learn that the season is not over, but has just begun. And then, do I mention any of this in church? or do I remain silent and let people enjoy a joyful season?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Dignitas Personae Cont

It is with great pleasure that I share a couple of comments from my good friend 'Theological Snob' regarding my posting on Dignitas Personae.

Darin,I'm assuming that you are agreeing with the Catholic Church that the main purpose of sex and of marriage is to have children.

No, I am not saying I agree with the Catholic Church that the main purpose of sex is to have children. I think that sex is meant to deepen and strengthen the emotional ties in marriage and be a catalyst for the emotional grouth of the two partners. Sex has a vital and important role in marriage regardless of procreation. So while I would not agree that the main 'purpose' of sex is children, I do think that the Catholic Church offers an important and necessary alternative to the purely recreational view of sex that is predominant in our culture. In my humble opinion this 'recreational view' leave sex devoid of any meaning or purpose but pleasure itself. 'Recreational Sex' is not primarily interested in a deep and intimate experience with another, but in personal happiness and satisfaction, which, in my opinion, leads to a culture which makes the sex partner, an object for the self's pleasure and which leads to the commodification of sex. In everyday life this looks like unwanted pregnancy, disease, marital infidelity and divorce in my experience (not personal experience, by the way) So while I do not necessarily agree with every conclusion the Catholic Church draws as a result of calling procreation a mystery in which humanity co-creates with God, I do think it is the best alternative to 'recreational' ethic of popular culture.

On another point, and this is where I struggle, ideally the community should come together and help the single mom (or dad) to raise the child. Somone once said, "it takes a village..." but as Ian remarked above, the reality is that churches do not have their sh-- together enough to provide that community and some people are left in a no-win choice...You can take the idealist approach and say that all abortions are wrong in every case, but how does that minister to the mother in the impossible situtation? The danger with such an idealism is that it leads to a critical legalism of categorical oughts and shoulds.

Theological Snob raises an important critique of the idea that the church should be the alternative family for single mothers who feel ill-prepared and unready to raise a child. First, the practical application of that idea, that the church becomes a global adoption agency, is unrealistic. I'm not sure I want to go that far and this is where I ready admit I 'punk out' on my own ideas. I am not suggesting that the church becomes a social service agency. I am suggesting that the churches stance should be clear. We are a community for which abortion is not a viable option. In this way we stand as a prophetic voice to culture, offering a critique to the practice of abortion and showing an alternative way to deal with the 'no-win' situations that Theological Snob mentions. (in this area I am admitedly very influenced by Hauerwas).

As for Theological Snobs concern, that such a view becomes critical legalism, I think that is an excellent point. The alternative, however, leaves us no ground upon which to do pastoral care, which TS is concerned about. If the church does not have a clear and concise theological understanding of what marriage is, sex and procreation... if we do not clearly state that procreation is participation in the creativity of God, that children are such a high value that they should be created in the state of marriage and that abortion is a violation of who God is and how God acts in the world (which by the way the church is meant to be, the ebodiment of a Creative and Grace-full God) than what how do we determine our pastoral counsel? My fear is that if we refuse to have a clear statement about abortion, we have no ground for our pastoral care. If our pastoral care is not grounded on theology, than I fear we end up sliding towards the view expressed in the Nation, where the best way we can serve an un-wed mother ill-prepared and frightened, is to take up a collection for her abortion. Haven't we then ceased to be the church? In other words, how do we do pastoral care if we don't take a definite theological stand for life? If we do not offer a theological or spiritual view of the matter we are nothing but very poorly trained social workers.

While some may use a clear and concise theological statement regarding marriage, sex, procreation, and abortion in a legalistic manner, to throw away a uniquely biblical and theological view of a complex situation simply because some misuse it, is to throw the baby out with the bathwater (in a what is not an attempt at a clever pun). So while there is danger to 'idealism' I think the Liberal Christian church has discovered the danger of 'pragmatism' which is silence and apathy in regards to the issue of life, abortion and human sexuality.

My main concern (I think, because this is all just a theological thought experiment right now) is that the liberal church has failed to be a witness to its faith in regards to this issue. I am not trying to find a way to set social policy, but to return the church to its calling, which is to bear witness to the powerful presence of a living God. How can we do that if we remain so wishy-washy about a topic like Life?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Dignitas Personae

It may seem strange that an American Baptist pastor would place a link to a Roman Catholic Document. But I have long felt that Catholicism offers the most clear and concise thought available in regards to bio-ethics especially in the area of Abortion. The document 'Dignitas Personae' offers an excellent summation of Catholic thought in regards to these bio-ethical issues. Note especially under the heading 'Faith and human dignity' the statement; 'God has created every human being in his own image, and his Son has made it possible for us to become children of God.' Nothing new I suppose, but profound when compared to a recent post on 'The Nation' which is meant to lend a 'down to earth' approach to thinking about abortion. While in Dignitas Personae the unborn child bears the image of God and is therefore to be highly valued, in the Nation, the unborn child is a 'threat.'

the problem with the argument that Katha Pollit offers is two-fold, the first of which is the subject for today. First of all she vastly over-simplifies the perspective of those who are 'anti-choice'. Notice how she describes the perspectives of those who disagree with her in negative terms. The perspective of those of us who feel that abortion is the ultimate violation of the image of God that the unborn infant is created in, do NOT think that this child is 'one of life's little challenges.' As a matter of fact Dignitas Personae takes the conception and birth of a child in the most serious of terms. Under the heading 'The two fundamental principles' we read' 'The origin of human life has its authentic context in marriage and in the family, where it is generated through an act which expresses the reciprocal love between a man and a woman. Procreation which is truly responsible vis-a-vis the child to be born must be the fruit of marriage.' The child is not a slight inconvenience, but a gift that is to be treated with the utmost respect, care and responsibility. Under 'Faith and married life' we read; 'God, who is love and life, has inscribed in man and woman the vocation to share in a special way in his mystery of personal communion and in his work as Creator and Father...' Nothing could be taken more serious than the birth of a child for it is a mysterious cooperation between humanity and God in the process of creation.

I think that protestants could learn a thing or two from this Catholic document. That a man and woman are cooperating with God's creativity through conception may not be very romantic, but it does lend theological clarity to the sexual act, a necessary corrective to the 'purely recreational' view of sexuality that is rampant in our culture. And it reminds us that there is something sacred in every child. Every child bears the mark of the Creator, whether its life is viable outside the womb or not.

If you read Pollit's article carefully you find the second problem with her thought process. There a young woman, pregnant, who stands the very real risk of physical abuse from family, should she return home as an unwed mother. Pollit is admittedly a 'pro-choice' thinker. Being 'pro-choice' means assuming that sexuality is the choice of the individual, as is procreation and giving birth. Pollit hopes that we will support this womans personal choice to have an abortion. But her argument for abortion shows the weakness of the whole idea that ther is anything personal about sex, conception and birth. It requires the concent of a community, whether that is the community of father and mother in the act of conception, or the concent of the family is helping to raise the child. A child is not the choice of the individual, but the responsibility of a community, parents, family and yes, God. The family does not consent to this child, and so Pollit offers us an illustration of the weakness of her perspective. having a child is NOT an idividual choice.

Pollit offers the support of a community in her article... a community that will pay for an abortion. This is where the church must be more active in my opinion. It is not enough for us to be simply against abortion, but to be for the family, even the mother and unborn child that has no supportive family. We have to offer our consent to life by offering support, safety, home, and help to this mother who is in such danger. I am particularly reminded of Mary. We do not know exactly how her own parents felt about her pregnancy. We do know that her husband, despite some doubts and fear, consented to the child in her womb... and then the Holy Spirit created a supportive community around her; her cousin Elizabeth, the shepherds, the Magi. I see in the gospels the creation of an alternative family for the Holy Family that would support them in birthing and raising an unexpected child.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

God Against Religion

My friend theobilly and I went to the Paulist Center in Boston yesterday to hear Matthew Myer Boulton, currently associate professor at Harvard, formerly of my own school, Andover Newton, give a short lecture based on his new book 'God Against Religion; Rethinking Christian Theology Through Worship'. I have NOT read the book, so this is a short review of his lecture. To be honest my initial reaction was that Boulton's argument was thin... but upon more reflection I think that was more because he had 45 minutes to summarize the argument of an entire book.

This morning I am having a different reaction. In the lecture Boulton begin by referencing the second creation story of Genesis where humanity is created to serve, protect and enjoy the earth. He notes that no mention is made of worship of God in the purpose of humanities creation and existence. This part of the lecture I did not find helpful to his argument. He went on the story of Cain and Abel, and his reading of this story I found interesting. He notes that this is the first act of worship in the Bible and notes (something I have never notices) that this appears to have been completely the initiative of Cain and Abel... in other words, God did not ask for this or command it. Boulton asserts that this story serves as a warning about religion. The details of why Abel is 'regarded' or 'noticed' by God in this act of worship and Cain is not are non-existent. Genesis does not explain why. The point is that Cain reacts with anger and violence and we witness the first murder. Boulton reads this as a critique of self-centered religion and relatedly, worship. Cain was more interested in gaining God's favor than in truly making an offering of love to God. His religion and worship was self-centered, not God centered and this leads to violence. Boulton also notes that God speaks to Cain and reminds him in his anger (previous to the murder) that if he 'does well' he will be accepted. Boulton ties this 'doing well' to prophetic texts that voice God's rejection of Israel's worship because their lives outside of worship are not lived well; they do not live ethically. Boulton notes Amos 5:21-24, Micah 6:6-8, and Hosea 6:4-6 as prophetic expression of God's rejection of religion through the emptiness of worship. Worship is focused, as Cain was, upon gaining God's favor... but does not lead to acts of justice and kindness, and so offends God and does not please God. Boulton does not intend this to be a critique of Judaism or Israel, but a mytho-poetic story about all religion and all worship. All Worship and religion holds the dangerous potential to be more about the worshipper and his/her comfort, than about the God we worship and the righteousness and justice God expects.

I think that Boulton's work may be very important and I intend to buy and read this book. The very idea that God could 'be against' anything, is revolutionary in this day and age. Since so many think of God as a largely non-intrusive idea that can be largely ignored until times are tough and we want some comfort (think Cain) the idea that God is much more invested in the daily living of our lives an the trajectory of our values (toward or away from justice) is an important addition to discourse on God.

And I also think this offers interesting potential for a clear discussion of popular Christian worship in Christianity in America. While we are busily arguing, one way or another, for praise bands, praise choruses, fancy projection tech, etc. Boulton may indeed be offering us a theologically clear star upon which to fix our journey through troubling waters... justice. Is our worship focused on justice and does it inspire us to live just lives? This is what I hope Boulton gets to in the book... his lecture inspired me to think more clearly along these lines. If you are interested on some other thoughts I have had on worship and justice click the link to Tradition, Progression and Justice in Worship