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Posts from the ‘Theology’ Category

Courage: A Case for Local, Independent Journalism

Thomas_Aquinas_in_Stained_GlassThere are high-tech adventures in theaters to strengthen one’s New Year’s resolve.  Many of them have the word “courage” in the description.  I recommend Spotlight.  It is the most encouraging movie I have seen in forever.  

Thomas Aquinas offers a helpful description of courage.  This thirteenth-century writer is the authoritative theologian for the Roman Catholic Church.  I have learned tricks over years of trying to entice Protestant students to read him.  The section of his classic Summa Theologiae that hooks students is on virtues and vices.  No one parses the fine distinctions between, for example, jealousy and backbiting, or anger and spite, or temperance and insensibility like Thomas Aquinas.  It only takes a few years in a real congregation with actual people to note the almost infinite variety of vice and virtue.

Thomas continues in a tradition to treat fortitude (courage) as one of the four basic or “cardinal” virtues.  Along with practical wisdom, temperance, and justice, courage is one of four habits of being that orient a person to understand who and where they are, and how their corner of the world fares in relation to the pivotal aspects of life that make life good.  To understand what Thomas means by the cardinal, or orienting, virtues, think of the opposite: an intentionally disorienting story.  Some writers try intentionally to disorient people, for laughs, or to make life appear utterly random.  Such writing can make you temporarily unable to regain your balance.  Courage is one of four virtues that may allow a person to regain her bearings.  Courage is often necessary to determine what is just, or practical, or temperate, particularly when people with power around you are impractical, intemperate, or unjust.  Thomas further explains that each of the four cardinal virtues balance between two excesses.  Courage is a habit of being between foolhardiness, on the one hand, and, on the other, living fearfully.  Sometimes a person has to cultivate courage in order to point out what is nonsensical.  

Or to point out what is obscene.  The word obscene names something so disorienting that it assaults your senses, rendering you senseless.  Here is one local example.  Several years ago this newspaper ran an article on how some executives at Duke University had given themselves large bonuses during a period when supposedly everyone at the university needed to “tighten our belts” and do with less.  While librarians and surgeons and nurses and teachers were doing much more with much less, some higher-ups received giant gold checks.  The week the story broke, one distinguished colleague saw me in our office hallway in a tiara and black velvet dress.  He asked me what in the world I was doing.  I told him I was on my way to perform street theater to draw attention to the scandal.  He shook his head and said, “It really is obscene.”  He did not go on record, but I used his word “obscene” repeatedly in public to characterize the mess.  The most courageous thing I have done ever was declare publicly that my marriage was untenable.  The most brazen thing I have done ever was participate in a group effort to whistle-blow, at my employer, wearing a tiara. But we would not even have had a whistle to blow without old-fashioned, journalistic muckraking.     

In his description of courage, Thomas Aquinas thinks through how courage intertwines with endurance.  Spotlight relates with similar attention to detail the actual story about a team of journalists with the Boston Globe who together discover the courageous patience sufficient to trace a pattern of disorienting deceit.  Boston clergy, lawyers and other public figures sustained a meticulously crafted, multi-faceted cover-up of the fact that at least a thousand children had been sexually violated by over a hundred church leaders in the Boston area alone.  The film depicts the slow, steady, journalistic tenacity necessary for raking up such stealthily buried muck.  The film also shows how a brilliantly lying set of liars can hone the subtle skills of manipulation and intimidation.  Each journalist in the story has to develop the courage both to note subtly delivered threats and to continue, even while noting the power behind these threats, the mundane but heroic tasks to expose truth.  An important part of the film is how Boston is a “small town,” and how a key, regional institution may develop a shield of amoral invisibility.  “The Church” had become a given, an indisputable “Good,” capital G, both uniting and silencing people.  Spotlight is in this way a real story comparable to Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play “An Enemy of the People.”  Ibsen also relates the stakes of telling the truth in a town living a lie.  Both stories vividly show why courageously independent, local journalism is vital for living well.

Sanctuary

Professors are characters. This is a reason the Harry Potter fantasy rings true. Whether teachers in a haunted institution start out strange, many of us grow into characters. When I arrived at Yale Divinity School in 1990, the portraits on the wall might as well have been enchanted, for all the stories swirling around. One history professor had stepped into a trashcan while lecturing on Luther, and evidently did not miss a beat. A bible professor had read straight through the same lecture twice in a row. He did not pause to look up to see his room full of students looking back at him, pens down, amused. Read more

Memorial Day Post, for my Grandmother

Readers who followed my Facebook page following the end of my marriage may recall I was determined to learn the mandolin.  High Strung in Durham rented me a beautiful mandolin, and I proceeded to admire it, trying to play a few chords.  My daughters asked I do this on the porch, because the sounds I made were jangled, discordant – not at all like the Bill Monroe tapes my dad played on car trips.  After taking one lesson from an impatient teacher, I tried to learn online.  When I told my mom the reason I was not going to give up, she explained something to me.  I had been determined to play the mandolin because my grandfather had played the mandolin at home with his four brothers.  I had told myself a story that he had also played the mandolin after he returned from war.  I had told myself a story that he played the mandolin to heal from the trauma of war.  My mom, his daughter-in-law, explained to me that I had this wrong.  My grandfather could not play the mandolin after he returned from war.  Some wounds of trauma do not fully “heal” in the way that many people think about “healing.” Read more

Be Not Afraid

good-spreadI’ve learned how to “tweet.” This involves putting words together to share, using 140 characters. One of my most “retweeted” “tweets” on the internet came out after a tragedy had everyone in panic mode. These were the words: “The world is transfixed by fear. Perfect love whispers in fear’s ear to turn his head toward hope.”

I was paraphrasing a fourteenth-century mystic, Julian of Norwich. I am writing a book about what her visions have taught me about fear. She is really in my head this week because, according to every news media outlet around us, we are supposed to be scared of one another. Restaurants, waiting rooms, and the pump at my gas station have news blaring: EBOLA! ISIS! Short of sleeping at the Eno River, you too will be exposed to the contagion of FEAR.

I recommend an antidote. But first, a history lesson. Julian of Norwich is the name given to the woman who wrote the first book written in English attributed to a woman. We don’t know what name “Julian of Norwich” answered to before she came to be called “Julian of Norwich.” We refer to her by that because, toward the end of her life, she was a resident wise woman in a church in Norwich, England that had long been called St. Julian’s. Sometime near the late fourteenth-century, this woman took the name of St. Julian’s church in Norwich. The church was bombed to oblivion by the German air force during WW II. But it was rebuilt for people who have the means to travel and love the writer known as Julian of Norwich. Tourists who don’t know a fig about the second century St. Julian go there because they think Mother Julian, from the fourteenth century, was holy. They go to see the apartment she lived in, adjacent to the place where people received Mass (the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion) and feel close to her.

St. Julian's Church, Norwich

St. Julian’s Church, Norwich

Norwich, England was a port city. In the fourteenth-century there were “sumptuary laws” in England. This meant that peasants, farmers, and other human beings without certifiably blue blood were forbidden to dress in a way that might allow them to pass above their station. As a port, Norwich had people coming in ships from Europe, dressed in ways that could not be easily sorted. Also, the official English church at this time distributed the Lord’s Supper, or Communion, according to rank and station. The first were to be first to the table, and the middle to be middle, and the last to be very, very last. If there was no more bread by then, so be it. Christianity, as it was practiced in the beautiful, fancy churches that people pay good money to see, was practiced during Julian of Norwich’s time to remind everyone to keep in their place. And, well . . . then there was The Plague. Thousands of people during this period were dying, horribly and suddenly. And they were dying “unshriven.” There were so few priests left alive in some areas to deliver the last rites to the dying that people were dying without being cared for to say confession and receive blessing. People left behind were stricken with fear that their husband, mother, or child was condemned to hell.

The Lollards' Pit is now a pub.

The Lollards’ Pit is now a pub.

Norwich also had what came to be known as “Lollard’s Pit,” a place where heretics were brought by the

church authorities to be burned alive. Fourteenth-century followers of a man named John Wycliffe, a group known pejoratively as “the Lollards,” were thrown in a pit and burned alive as examples of how not to think around the time that Julian of Norwich was bravely trying to write down what she had seen. The Lollards were in trouble for suggesting that regular people ought to be able to read the Bible. This was a dangerous suggestion. If regular people started reading the Bible themselves, they might believe they could think for themselves, without the strictly hierarchical authority of the feudal and church system. Wycliffe and his band of merry men and women had caught an idea that was irrepressible throughout early Christian history. No matter the chaos and rules around you, Jesus had given a new rule. Sit down and eat with your brothers and sisters. And, by the way, your brothers and sisters are those you most fear.

When Julian of Norwich wrote, people were dying by the thousands of disease. People were scared of newcomers, given that they could be carriers of disease, chaos, or heresy. And, Christians were being hanged for saying that Jesus did not care much for the stupid rank and file system. Her answer? Laugh at the devil. Look to Jesus. Keep hope. And don’t let fear be your new religion.

Sheep pen, from the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1320-40

Sheep pen, from the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1320-40

The Vorpal Bunny: An Eastertide Post

The first church I served after surviving my M.Div. was in New Canaan, on what is known as the Connecticut Gold Coast.  If you want some sense of New Canaan, take this concentrated website and add two parts water.  Not every single household there is super-duper-duper wealthy (and, of course, not everyone there is a man with a cigar) but it is definitely a Yankee form of swanky.

My favorite Easter story comes from that year of ministry, with a man named John Gerlach.  John was winsomely manic about his faith.  He had left the craziness of the New York corporate world after Jesus found him, and he enjoyed stirring up holy mischief in this United Methodist parish.  On Easter, wearing a huge grin, he greeted everyone coming in the door with “Happy Day of the Resurrection!”  Loudly.  With flourish.  And, when people looked confused, he just kept going, on to the next person: “Happy Day of the Resurrection!”  It was gauche to be too verbal about one’s religious convictions in New Canaan.  And to be so fundamentalist as to believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ was downright tacky. God bless weird John Gerlach.   I have a hard time saying the words “Happy Easter” even today without feeling I am being hopelessly accommodationist.

George Lindbeck was one of my favorite professors at Yale, and two of my best Lindbeck stories involve Easter.  I’ll tell the hard one first.  Way back when I completed my dissertation, on which The Treachery of Love is based, George Lindbeck called me on the phone.  He said such gracious things about the manuscript that I was genuinely confused.  I didn’t realize I had written something so well worth reading.  But he was concerned about a conspicuous lack of the Resurrection in the book – that is, a conspicuous lack of Easter joy.  I had so focused on the cross that I missed the next chapter, so to speak. (George Pattison also wrote as much, in Danish, in his review of the book.)  I will return to this detail later.  For now, the second story is important.

As a second year M.Div. student (way before I ever read Kierkegaard) I was in a small seminar on ecclesiology.  I think I was the only woman.  And I was young.  And confused.  And when I am confused, I ask more questions.  There were all of these unwritten assumptions going on in the seminar, and, at one point, while trying to understand something we had read, I used the word “symbol” in the same sentence with the word “cross.” Some of the students in the class gasped.  I remember in particular the visiting scholar from Germany looking at me, visibly aghast.  George Lindbeck ignored their remonstrations and tried to explain patiently the problem with seeing the cross as a symbol.  I didn’t understand, so I asked more questions.  Were the silly trappings of Easter the problem?  Like, the bunny and the eggs and the bonnets?  “No, no, no,” he said with a frustrated wave of his hand (confusing some of the dour students).  “The bunny isn’t a problem.  I don’t begrudge the children a bunny.”  He then made up a précis of a symbol-cross Easter sermon  – wherein the Resurrection is a symbol, an example, or an instance, of a universal experience of something or other.  I finally got it!  That is the problem with making the cross into a symbol.  Whether on the grand scale (say, genocide) or the micro scale (say, domestic abuse) human horror is not the cross, and human redemption is not “the Resurrection.”   “Oh!  That is the deadly bunny with the teeth!”  It was the only time I made George Lindbeck LOL.  (See this grisly video if you are as lost as the German scholar was.)  Making the Cross and the Resurrection into symbols might seem nice and cuddly and furry, but it is a dangerous shift in meaning.  (This makes George Lindbeck into the character with the strange, horned hat in the skit.  And Pierre Teilhard de Chardin into the foolish knight, maybe?)

When John Gerlach went around scaring people with “the Resurrection” that Easter Sunday in New Canaan, he was trying to take the symbol out of their Easter.  He was declaring with annoying repetition that, when United Methodists say “The Lord is Risen Indeed!” we don’t mean that some concept of human hope is irrepressible.  We don’t mean that some vague sense of the human spirit is floating above the particulars of our bodies and delights and predicaments.  We mean that Jesus Christ is Risen, from the dead.  This crazy fact matters for our matter.  But, if we make the cross into a symbol of some facet of something called human experience, or human history, or evolutionary theory, or the resilience of democracy, etc, then we make Jesus a malleable, useful thing for our projects.  That is the bunny with the teeth.

Now, for the harder part.  What George Lindbeck said about my first book was right, in retrospect.  Trying to name Easter joy has been hard for me.  I wasn’t sure how to name Resurrection hope without betraying what I thought was my inescapable commitment to a very hard marriage.  The Resurrection is not symbolic, I got that.  Check.  But I wasn’t sure how to sort through the fact of God’s redeeming grace for my own life.  If Easter involves literal freedom from a literal tomb, and the redemption of our actual bodies, what did that mean for the actual me?  I didn’t know how to think that and still remain married.

Thinking right alongside the literal Resurrection of Jesus is messy, and confusing.  My daughter Emily made this point when she was about three years old.  Our dog Ernie was on his last leg.  He had lost control not only of his bladder but of his bowels, and we were doing doggie hospice at our house.   Emily asked me if Ernie would be in heaven.  She then asked if Ernie would be chasing squirrels in heaven.  And, would Ernie be eating in heaven?  This led to her inevitable conclusion that there would be pooping in heaven, and that it would all be somehow ok.  It turns out, reckoning with how God might redeem my own poopy life was much harder for me to do than to affirm the physical resurrection of Jesus for my dead dog.

It is still easier for me to name a theological impulse gone wrong – making the Resurrection a symbol – than to live into the very weird affirmation that “The Lord is Risen Indeed!”  But, three years out from divorce, I am beginning to risk it.  I am beginning to believe that, when Jesus Christ came out of that tomb, he brought me with him, even now, even here.

We sang a song at Trinity United Methodist on Easter Sunday that had awkward words and an unfamiliar tune.  (Our ambitious new music director is stretching us, hard.)  The hymn is by John Bell, and it is in the little, black paperback hymnal that we have to share awkwardly with our neighbors in the pew (because there are fewer copies than the red, hardbound hymnal).   The hymn is called “Christ Has Risen,” and I have been singing a phrase from it while sweeping and washing dishes.  “Christ has risen and forever lives to challenge and to change all whose lives are messed or mangled, all who find religion strange.”  I am not sure about Bell’s use of the word “religion.”  But I do know that this faith I am called to preach is strange.  And I know my messed and mangled life has been challenged, and is being changed.

So, “Happy Day of the Resurrection!”  Indeed.

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