Monday, May 25, 2009

The kid felt calling Hitler evil was too judgmental.....

So, at the Harry Potter party (see May 18 blog), there was a kid who had difficulty with my calling Hitler evil. I was comparing the Dark Lord, Voldemort, to the great villains of history and this 11-year old (a Jewish boy, I think), said that calling Hitler evil was “judging him” and we didn’t have a right to do that.

Only in the suburbs.....or perhaps in academia. I managed to remain calm. I find it hard to imagine the people I know in the storefront church in Newark who put up with random violence, drug dealers preying on their kids, and so on, would find it so easy “not to judge.” Or the good citizens of Baghdad whose relatives just died in the car bomb attack. Or the survivors of the holocaust.

Mind you, I’m as allergic to judgmentalism as any other modern, right-thinking liberal. "Open mind, open heart" has been a major motif in my teaching for almost 40 years. But when a young Jewish kid has reservations about calling Hitler evil you’ve got to wonder if things haven’t gone a bit too far.

I’m surrounded by this sort of hesitation a lot: we mustn’t judge others, we must understand all and forgive all, it’s not up to us to judge, God accepts us just as we are, and so on. More and more, this seems a bit lopsided—a string of noble-sounding half-truths, ideals that ignore one half of reality.

“Judging” and making an assessment

There’s a big difference between judging as a matter of making an assessment and judgmentalism and arrogant condemnation.

The universe is actually quite good at “judging,” though we don’t usually call it that. Reality “judges” that if I step off a high cliff (unless I am Cayote in one of those Road Runner cartoons) I will be a goner. The Mississippi River “judges” that if we build our cities along its banks, they’ll get flooded from time to time. Human nature “judges” that for most people, betrayal of an important trust makes trust difficult in the future. Damage to relationships is real. Seems to be the way we’re made.

This “not judging” business seems like truly fuzzy speech. Just as “loose lips sink ships” (an old World War II slogan), fuzzy speech clouds clear thinking, not just for the brainy but for ordinary folks. Surely there’s a difference between being censorious, judgmental, and harsh in our estimation of others and the necessary business of making estimations about people and situations, and assessments of the effect of behavior on others.

“It’s not up to us to judge” is true enough if we’re talking about ultimate judgment, which is the province of God alone, “unto whom all hearts are open, and from whom no secrets are hid.” Who knows what was going on in the mind of Hitler? What demons of childhood haunted him? What brain defect warped his view of reality? What 11-year old Jewish boy taunted him in a schoolyard or on the street? Still, the death of 13 million people, and an extermination campaign against Jews, Gypsies, and Gays seems, well, a bit “evil” to me. Sure, he was “doing his own thing” superbly well, but if that’s not evil, I don’t know what is.

The Buddhists talk about right judgment, and so does Jesus: “Judge not by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). In order to do this, to quote an old bromide, we must “walk a mile in the other person’s moccasins.” And if we can’t, our judgments (call them assessments if that makes you more comfortable) have to be functional and provisional, not ultimate. Jesus is warning us off ultimate judgments, I must assume, when the says “Judge not that you may not be judged.” Be he himself did a good bit of judging: of character, of the way the wind was blowing, of the corruption of the unjust leaders, and so on.

Real-life example? Well, I am not to be trusted, I’m here to tell you, to deliver a message to my office if you give it to me at the end of a class or lecture. I’m likely to forget it. People have been known to stuff checks or notes into the side pocket of my briefcase in the conviction this will insure their delivery to my office staff. Not good judgment. But if you tell me a confidence, you can be sure I will respect its privacy. I can be trusted to do that. Even then, I wouldn’t want you to go beyond a functional judgment into ultimacy. Who knows what I might do if Dick Cheney kidnapped me and subjected me to waterboarding?

Accepted just as I am, yes; but then?

As to God accepting us “just as we are,” it’s a good start, but a dubious ending. I cut my teeth on singing, and believing, “just as I am, thou will receive/ wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve.” It meant a lot, and got a big assist from Paul Tillich’s “accept the fact that you are accepted.” A good start. But where do you go from there?

My wife accepts me, mostly, “just as I am,” but that didn’t stop her from demanding that I take responsibility for my repeated depressions (biochemical, it turned out), or my outbursts of intense anger (mostly a thing of the past). We both accepted each other “for better for worse” and have tried to minimize the worse. Why? The relationship goes better that way, and no “I have no right to judge you” is going to make our mistakes with each other really OK unless we seek to set them right. That takes honest, mutual disclosure of our judgments about all that hinders the growth of our love.

So, what about this? “God accepts us all, just as we are, for God is love. All are welcome, regardless who who they are or what they’ve done. But this love for us is so great it will not allow us to hide forever from the good that can to come forth more fully in us. In the circle of God’s acceptance, no one can remain forever unchanged, remain "just as they are" when they enter that forcefield of Ultimate understanding, no matter how long it may take them to realize there's more good potential in them than they know.

So what about Hitler, ultimately? That, of course, would be beyond my heavenly clearance level to judge.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Angels and Demons: Who’s telling the Story now?

The kids were eager. When they walked in and saw me dressed as Dumbledore, their faces lighted up. This was going to be a party with a difference. My nephew’s belated eleventh birthday party was off to a good start. The sorting hat quickly divided them into the four Houses of Hogwart’s School and the threat of their House losing points for wiggling, shoving and loud-mouthing to lapse into happy surrender to the planned program. These kids were into that story big-time.

Since the supernatural has been largely banished from the nation’s once “mainstream” Protestant churches, it has been taken up by “Supernatural” on TV. Sci-Fi or “fantasy” fiction, popular TV, cinema—even depth psychology!—now shoulder the task of telling humanity’s age-old saga of the battle of the angels of light against and the demons of darkness. Where the appointed storytellers fail to carry on part of the Story, the Divine Storyteller finds other bards.

Liberalism and humanism, of course, have their own version of the Drama, but morphed from mythic story into abstract ideas and principles: human dignity against the deadly “isms.” Fine enough. But the “isms” always go for the masses, often with success. Nazis, Fascists and fear-mongers need something more vivid than sweet reason to compete for followers in the marketplace of ideas.

Why do the religiously sophisticated so often look down their noses at the stories of angelic encounter that drives book sales among the “ordinary” folk, Christian and non-Christian alike? The older, primal archetypal levels that still rule our dreams and emotions are hardly called forth by high-minded, left-brained concepts, leaving out the deep parts of us in which soul still stirs.

I would be considered a “liberal” in many circles (I prefer “progressive”). I prize left-brain rationality in a big way. But I think e.e. cummings had it right when he said “when souls are outlawed, minds are weak.....” — that is, hyper-rationalism undermines not only soul but real rationality too. As part of the same poem, that son of a Unitarian minister also lays his finger on what may be the source of the lack of “fire in the belly” in so much late 20th century and current liberalism:

Jehovah buried, Satan dead,
do fearers worship Much and Quick;
badness not being felt as bad
itself thinks goodness what is meek....

Meanwhile, on some popular TV shows, a rather tough-minded goodness is locked in beleaguered battle with Satan with precious little help from heaven, even though there are a lot of angels of dubious character around representing the ultimate Good Guy (or Gal, as you prefer). “Supernatural” tracks two demon-hunting brothers, Sam (name = “heard by God”) and Dean ( “deacon, servant or captain”) are chosen by enigmatic forces to stop the legendary Jewish spirit Lilith from unloosing Satan on the world to start the Apocalypse. Right out of the book of Revelation, minus Jesus.

Inspired by the writings of Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods, among other works, this post-Christian drama knows vividly the immediate power of evil, but the sense of an ultimate Good is shrouded in obscurity. The young men use Latin spells and Catholic sacramentals like holy water. There are angels on the beat.

But the heavenly realm’s goodness is dubious for Gaiman. So it’s up to the stumbling, fallible humans to try to save the world from destruction, while both sides give them difficulty. The old, old Story?

Certainly it is a version of it. Good, here human good is rooted obscurely in something super-mundane, fighting for its life against uncanny and relentless evil. Humanity against the demon. The very world at stake with little sense of God. Dean and Sam as saviors, without so much as a helping hand from the Bedrock of the Universe.

Maybe, as Bultmann claimed, “nobody who uses electricity can possibly believe in demons.” But the German New Testament scholar came to this startlingly rational conclusion as a soldier in the trenches of World War I, with mortars and mustard gas in regular use. In the midst of unimaginable human evil, in a century that will prove the wickedest (and the best) in human history, he decides Satan and the angels are outmoded symbols. Go figure.

Others, like Walter Wink, lead us back to the old language. Following the lead of civil-rights activist William Stringfellow, Wink found new power in the Bible’s ancient language of demons and angels. The “principalities and powers” describe the “bigger than all of us” quality of the soul of organizations—that mysterious synergy of people, ideas and customs that somehow influences outcomes, even when the participants don’t consciously intend these results. His blend of depth psychology, organizational analysis, liberation theology and New Testament imagery about the “powers” has played to some applause, but needs to become a permanent part of our filters of moral discernment.

A cure for a hyper-rationalism that substitutes a host of “isms” for a host of demons and an army of high principles for the battalions of angels is certainly not a return to pre-modern supernaturalism. We have more than our full quotient of fundamentalists still beating that drum. Secular or religious, however, we might well take a deeper look at what truths some supposed pre-modern images (and even superstitions) point — as Susan Howatch has done so effectively in her many novels about priests and laypeople up against real psychological and spiritual evil, blending depth psychology with ancient symbols in a very sophisticated way.

I used to joke, for example, that the life of my seminary was still controlled by a powerful 19th-century dean who built most of the buildings—that whoever the current dean was had to consult him every night by means of a golden Ouija Board. Of course, I didn’t mean it literally, and no one took it that way. But only such a parable could describe the uncanny way that the seminary drama was always the seminary drama, no matter who was cast in the roles.

Meanwhile, while our liberal churches continue their internal house-keeping wars, the Story is still told by many bards and poets to the “crowd,” the vast increasingly post-Christian audience. We are a story-telling species, and mythic tales that tell us what the unseen forces are doing gets our juices going.

Buffy, the ordinary high school girl, rises to the challenge of being the Chosen Vampire-Slayer. Clark Kent, just entering adulthood on “Smallville” (he almost realizes he loves Lois Lane, finally!) ended the season prepared to die to save the world. And the impending release of the latest film episode in the Harry Potter series leads us inexorably toward that last, final battle with the Dark Lord in which Harry will die and rise again, ending the threat of world-consuming evil.

Most everybody knows in their guts we face the End of the Age that birthed us, that civilization is in a sea-change going we know not where. Anybody who doesn’t is living in the most protected suburbs and ignoring the news completely, so caught up in money-making they neither notice nor care, or has such blind faith in the myth of Progress that they haven’t been noticing events. The lot seems to have fallen to the TV bards and science fantasy seers to tell the tale, often in disguise of Christ and Anti-Christ, of demons and angels, of the world at peril and the otherwise ordinary humans called to heroic missions and given special powers. Even Dan Brown’s dreadfully written pot-boilers (“Angels and Demons”/ “The DaVinci Code”) make razzle-dazzle movies, telling the tale of reason and tolerance in crowd-winning ways.

The writers may not believe the stories literally, but they address our fears with the ancient hopes, and they know that these mythic symbols are the best way humanity has found to describe the truly mysterious movements of good and evil. Or if they are not telling this story, they are imagining future ages past this coming time of difficulty, and painting pictures of eschatological possibilities unheard in most post-mainstream pulpits.

Perhaps they are just whistling the old tune in fear of “what is coming upon the earth,” or perhaps the Storytelling One is speaking the persistent Word through them, however blunted the full message may be. Surely the story of God’s struggle against the dark forces of the human heart should be told as vividly for our day. It needs to be told, with force, in its fullness, instead of by writers less certain of the power of Goodness, storytellers more knowledgeable about its many Names.

For whatever reason, the young are listening to the new Bards in rapt attention. The 11-year olds at my nephew’s recent Harry Potter party knew that story, chapter and verse, the way my childhood fundamentalist Sunday-School classmates knew the story of Jesus and the battle of Jericho.

What that mysterious Bardic One will make out of this cultural phenomenon remains to be seen.


Thursday, May 7, 2009

You've got to have some sympathy for God.....

Poor God is getting buffeted about badly these days. To be more accurate, the most widespread stereotype about the God of western religion (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) is taking it in the neck a lot. A grand Idea, developed over centuries by the leading lights of Western philosophy—Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, Kierkegaard, Schliermacher, Tillich....I could go on—is treated with the scorn and contempt suffered by Zeus in some of the Roman comedy, who appears as a bit of a buffoon.

But poor God has become a Poor God indeed. Tarred and feathered over being the biggest cause of prejuice and hatred (murder, genocide, sexual dysfunction...I could go on) in human history, He who was once the fount of all goodness is now for many the source of noxious fumes. You'd almost think he had become the Devil in many people's eyes, like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the leading "Brights" of the new vanguard of evangelistic atheists.

In a way, you can't blame them, what with hateful preachers saying "God hates Gay," fanatical suicide bombers claiming (through a distorted, non-classical form of Islam) to kill in the name of the God of Abraham, and 8 years of a right-wing "Christian" American presidential administration pushing "abstinence only" programs for teens that cause more pregnancies than any other advice for teen behavior.

"Good" Religion Under-reported

The news media, of course, can't be bothered to report that religious institutions are responsible for most of the charity provided to the poor, the sick, and other people in need. The history books, mostly, don't tell young people that American Christians (and later on Jews) launched the women's suffrage movement, the abolition of slavery, supported labor union organization, virtually created and was a major force in the progressive politics of the first half of the 20th century. They don't report that religious institutions are the base of most of the volunteer work in America. Nor can Hollywood or TV find much room for positive images of clergy, who are usually Bible-toting, narrow-minded moralizers, or worse.

Having seized the headlines, fundamentalist, right-wing Christianity has come to define the brand name in the eyes of millions, especially a growing section of the next generation. Few people realize what a specifically "modern," trimmed-down, and (from the standpoint of the mainstream of classical Christianity through the ages) distorted version of a grand way of wisdom.

Counter-trends in Religion

There are counter-trends of course. Interfaith cooperation between Christians, Jews and, increasingly, Muslims is growing remarkably and rapidly. Millions of "progressive" Christians and Jews support progressive social change, and fight against racial prejudice, gay oppression, America's historic "too bad for you: work harder" stance about the poor, and many other causes liberal atheists, agnostics, and humanists support.

And progressive theologians, as they did in every age, incorporating new knowledge into ancient religious impression of a Divine ground and Source of the life of the universe. Their "God" is not your grandmother's God, and a good thing too. While respecting the wisdom of the ancestors, they see a Divine energy at the heart of evolution, growth and change in moral awareness, sexual joy, physical health, and love of the stranger and those who are different from us.

Meanwhile, trends in anthropology, studies is social evolution, brain research, cross-cultural study of mystical experience in every religion, and demonstrating that while theological explanations of God change, the actual experiences of "cosmic mind," overwhelming Love surging through creation, a compassionate awareness lurking at the depths of the human psyche, unexpected and seemingly miraculous guidance and healing, and the subtle but unmistakable feeling of being in a "Knowing Presence" persist in every age. They are erecting a new picture of religious pathways as a powerful, and mostly beneficial, bond in human societies, and major source of moral inspiration.

What's the Future of our "Secular Paradise"?

Meanwhile, the 20th century utopian fantasies of building a secular paradise on earth through capitalist progress, Fascist or Communist dictatorship, socialist and humanist progress, while they contain bright hopes for human flourishing (based, often, on ideas drawn from the Hebrew prophets) keep coming a bit of a cropper, even though they sometimes (Fascism excepted) do some good along with more evil than modern people want admit.

Some of the evil is clear: it was not Christianity that killed tens of millions in Stalin's atheist regime or Hitler's neo-pagan hell; it was not Buddhism that produced the killing fields of Cambodia. Some less highlighted, even taken for granted: the slaughter of the native populations by "enlighted, progressive" European colonialism (the missionaries often tried to save the natives); the "ethnic cleansing" that built secular Turkey and other nations; and the (inadvertent, unintended) death of millions of infants and adults in modern medicine around the world, especially in areas overpopulated and underfed because of increased hygience and lowered infant mortality rates. Not all evil is planned and intended--and every movement causes some.

Religious groups sometimes commit evil because any human institution—medicine, government, even the family—are capable of evil. Secular humanism can cause much good. It has not had time enough in human history to demonstrate it is capable of more good than the religions at their best.

Don't get me wrong: I have relatives and good friends who are humanists and/or atheists. I have nothing but admiration for their moral courage and deep human values. Nor do I despise all fundamentalists or religious conservatives. Again, I know dozens of loving fundamentalist Christians who are the lights of the world. But the question is what represents Christianity best, and what is the most socially, morally, and spiritually beneficial view of life and the universe for humanity going forward in this difficult century.

The Aims of Religion Re-assessed

"At least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions," writes the British cultural critic Terry Eagleton in his new book "Reason, Faith and Revolution" (Yale University Press, 2009). Religions “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.” And it is only that great subject, and the aspirations it generates, that can lead, Eagleton insists, to “a radical transformation of what we say and do.”

Not a traditional believer himself he feels that in the wisdom of the religious "radicals might discover there some valuable insights into human emancipation, in an era where the political left stands in dire need of good ideas....(T)he Jewish and Christian scriptures have much to say about some vital questions—death, suffering, love, self-dispossession, and the like—on which the left has for the most part maintained an embarrassed silence. It is time for this politically crippling shyness to come to an end." (See "God Talk" by Stanley Fish in the NY Times, May 3, 2009)

And it is time for educated, progressive Jews and Christians, especially those who represent a generous reading of the classical theological and moral tradition, to speak out boldly and vigorously to address the burning issues of our day, and to take the bull of reactionary religion by the horns and try to wrestle it to the ground. The world deserves better than what they offer, and what we have too often not offered while the foundations of culture eroded beneath us while we were coasting on the progressive hegemony of the last century.

Monday, May 4, 2009


Welcome to this blog! Today I did what I've planned to do for a long time: start a blog. I'm moving into the next phase of my work and since I'm a writer (three books now and a lot of essays) it would come naturally, especially as my work becomes more diversified. What I'm doing now is continuing my life as an Episcopal priest in a public educational ministry, Interweave, an interfaith center for spirituality, wellness, and the common good. But more and more, I'm hip-deep in interfaith leadership work, gang violence reduction in Newark, spiritual direction, and public and political issues. So here goes. First post soon.