Monday, February 15, 2010

Problems, Problems, All God's Children Have Problems...

There's been a lot of noise lately generated by people who are angry about the state of our nation.

The Tea Party seems to be typified more by people who are pissed off at the present and past politicians for getting the country into the terrible fix it's in, than by a single overarching principle. The main complaint is that the system has been co-opted by a bunch of incompetents, and they're running it into the ground. We need to take it back, and the sooner the better. Oh, and while we're at it, the less government there is, the better off we'll all be.

The Republican Party, for its part, is wooing the Tea Party loyalists, trying to tap into the anger with the present administration and make political headway using that anger. The problem for so many Republicans is that the Tea Party is just as angry with them as it is with the Democrats.

The Democrats, meanwhile, even though they hold a majority in both houses of Congress, and have the White House, can't seem to get their act together and behave as the majority party. There have been attempts at bi-partisanship, but those have been greeted with weak support from the Democratic core, and outright disdain by the Republicans. The Democrats, the party of "Yes, we can," have been quite effectively stalled in most of their big initiatives by the party of "No, you can't!"

And in the middle of all this rancor, those of us who just want to see the government actually govern, find ourselves frustrated again and again, as first one measure after another gets stalled, delayed, and finally either discarded or watered down to such an extent that we find ourselves opposed to the Frankenstein monster that remains.

The anger is understandable. After an election that saw Barack Obama come into office with what seemed to be a mandate for change, we find a year later that much of what was true in November 2008 is true today. We've still got an economy teetering on the brink of either a jobless recovery or a double-dip recession. We've still got unemployment that's far too high. We've still got foreclosures kicking people out of their homes, and those homes losing more of their value. Even worse than in the Bush years, we've got monstrous Federal deficits that alarm just about everyone. We've got no real health care reform, and that was the centerpiece of the Obama administration's legislative agenda.

And even more galling to those of us who will never be financial industry CEOs, we have a financial sector that gives its managers and executives what we see as obscene bonuses, after many of those same managers and executives actually brought about much of the economic difficulty that we're dealing with today. We see government expansion into areas of the economy where we hardly have ever seen them before. We see that we're still embroiled in two wars and we're looking at the possibility of new fronts opening in other areas of the Muslim world.

We have trained experts failing to be able to make things better in a way that we perceive as real, even as other trained experts are not held accountable for the mess they made of the economy. We don't trust our government, we don't trust our corporations, we don't trust our institutions, we don't trust our schools, we don't trust science, and we sure as hell don't trust (the other guy's) religion. We want simple, quick solutions, and damn it all, we want them now.

It's a hard message to deliver, but someone has to say it. There are no simple, quick solutions, and there never will be. Just as the policies that led to the subprime mortgage crisis developed over years, following other actions twenty or more years ago, the solution to fix the problems we have now will take years to implement. We may have something approaching the present level of unemployment for years as the entire economy undergoes some fundamental changes, and our behavior slowly changes to match new conditions. Our expectations will probably be different, and probably scaled down, from what they were even a few years ago, about things like retirement, our children's prospects, and such. Throwing all the incumbents out is a popular idea among many at the moment, but there's enough overlap in careers of those who are in government now and those who have been in government that the contagion of the status quo will not be eradicated by replacing all the usual suspects.

China is feeling its way onto the world stage as a possible future super-power. Russia is feeling a new and powerful nationalism and desire for a return to something approaching a Soviet-era prominence. The European Union is experiencing some problems right now because of their own dependence on our financial wizards and their creative debt instruments, but the EU will be a formidable competitor once they get past these issues. We've got Hugo Chavez and newly socialist regimes in Latin America to the south, Russia to the edge of Europe, China across the Pacific, the Middle East like a powder keg with a perpetually lit fuse, and groups like Al Qaeda all too willing to hit us whenever they can. Africa sits like the world's poor relation, so full of promise and so full of problems. Quick, simple solutions are just not up to the task.

Well, who do we have ready to tackle this laundry list of troubles? We've got Sarah Palin, a woman who showed what it really means to stick to the job until it's done, making noises that she might consider a 2012 presidential run. Whatever you think of her as a person, as a government official she failed to deliver.

We have other Republican luminaries, governors and senators, some of whom have run before, and some of whom are just waiting to get into the contest.

On the Democratic side we have President Obama, who has been in office just over one year and already has a very mixed record of accomplishments. On the one hand he's changed our reputation in the world, and on the other, his main initiative is now stuck in a limbo between the two houses of Congress where a single filibuster could kill it completely. In some ways he's been genius, and in other ways he's stumbled around like a prize fighter who's been hit once too often. Skilled oratory goes only so far, and he needs to deliver on some of the things that people care about.

In all that I've written so far, I haven't really addressed any spiritual concerns, which is the main subject area that this blog tries to center on. It's time for that now.

For those Christians who think that America is God's answer to spread the Gospel to a dark and needy world, I say it's time to open your eyes and start looking at the real world. We have a need to get our own house in order before we can be that "city on the hill" that will shine God's light on the rest of benighted mankind. Being a capitalist paradise will not accomplish that goal. Having the world's highest standard of living will not accomplish that goal. Being in debt to countries like China to finance our profligate living will not accomplish that goal. A consumer society will not accomplish that goal. The "gospel of prosperity" takes us farther from that goal by the day. Continuing to allow our financial institutions to get us all farther and farther into debt will forever keep us from that goal.

We are not bright enough to bring about paradise on earth.

We are not wise enough to bring about a truly just society.

We are not rich enough so that everyone can live like we've been living.

We are not powerful enough to keep ourselves from death's door eventually.

We need a savior, and that savior is not us.

The Bible talks about how the rich will fade away, and the poor will be elevated. Read James 1 to see what I'm talking about.

The best we can do at present is to get into the habit of working together, putting our differences aside to work for the good of all. We can begin to practice what it would be like to live in that paradise that we want to see. As I've said before, this paradise won't come in this world, with us as we are. New hearts and new minds and new bodies are required; it will be God's doing. Our part of the bargain is getting ready for it, and that requires surrendering who we are in all our pride and ego. The political battles that anger us and drive us farther from what God would have us be will need to end before we can do that. No one is righteous, none is good, says Jesus, save the Father. Get comfortable with that fact, and you'll be one step closer to being the person God made you to be. Embrace your mess, and own up to it. You're closer still. Even with a long way to go, you're closer.

God loves us. He desires us to know that intimately. We need to understand this to get on with dealing with our problems.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Utopian Visions, Part 4

There's an old country song by Hank Cochran called "Make the World Go Away." That phrase seems to be a suitable way to begin this post.

The last time, I wrote about God's tough love for his creatures. I said it wasn't a smothering kind of love, but a love that waits for us to open our eyes and see what is in store for us if we will only return to him.

Our blindness is something to which we cling with fierce determination. It is so much easier and more satisfying to demonize people with whom we disagree and make enemies of them. It's so much more fulfilling to deny their essential humanity, and that they might have valid reasons for doing what they do, than to do the hard work of actually listening to what they have to say. It is so much more enjoyable to take the cloak of judgment from God and wrap ourselves in it, and pronounce sentence on other human beings in this world.

We are damned if we cling to this insane way of life. Love and forgiveness are inextricably tied together. When you wish for a good life for someone else, you have in a very real sense forgiven them of any wrong they may have done against you. When you actually act upon that impulse, and work toward helping to provide that good life, you are turning faith into action. The Bible says that "faith without works is dead." What good is our faith if nothing comes of it?

More to the point about which I've been writing, what good is faith if it has no effect on the lives of people in the world, here and now? Does it do anyone any good to participate in the destruction of the natural environment that sustains us here and now? Does it do anyone any good to strip mine and clear cut God's good Creation?

There's a lively and acrimonious debate on the validity of man's contribution to "global warming," or as it's more precisely called, "climate change." A lot of the debate is over whether it's actually taking place. The climate records are pretty clear -- it's taking place. The argument might be more profitably about what part our own human activities have had in affecting this climate change.

Whether you accept the common view that mankind has contributed to climate change because of fossil fuel use, or deny that this is the cause, the reality is inescapable. The climate is changing. Adaptations will have to be made to facts like receding polar ice caps, diminishing snow pack in mountain regions, and rising sea levels. Weather cycles are changing, producing stronger storms and more extreme temperatures, both highs and lows, in winter and summer. These changes are impacting growing seasons and wildlife populations. Whether we made this happen or not, we will have to accommodate to these changes.

If our attitude is one of "let it go, God is gonna clean house soon anyway," then we truly are hateful and murderous people. We are judged on the quality of our lives in the here and now, and willfully acquiescing to the deprivations of others' lives does not reflect love as a real presence in our own.

Let me be blunt. God's love is a tough love, respecting our own choices, but always ready to forgive and welcome us back. At one and the same time, God came to earth as Jesus, divinity clothed in mortal flesh, and allowed men to kill him as a final and totally atoning sacrifice for our sinfulness. God made that gesture independent of anything we had done, have done, or will do in the future. Jesus' time on this earth was brief, but no one can deny the impact those thirty-three years have had on us since he walked among us. He came as the sacrifice, but he gave his followers marching orders. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Heal the sick. Befriend the marginalized. Judge not, unless you want to be judged by the same standard. Give up all you have and follow him.

By this measure, our love is to be as assertive as God's was. God sent his own being to live among us. We are to do likewise, to go where we are needed to be Jesus here and now. This is really like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, though; the father didn't drag the son back home. Instead, he waited all the days to see his son returning because his eyes had been opened to his true need. We must be where we are needed, to be there when our help is required. That's why we're in Haiti, that's why Christians are always where there is poverty, hatred, hunger, need of any kind. Sometimes we're slow in realizing the need, but we respond.

"Creation care" is what the new Christian environmental sensibility is called, one name among others. We were originally chartered with caring for God's Creation; that hasn't changed, even as we were evicted from the Garden because of our willfulness and pride. We are still to care for God's world. We can not exist independently of our world. Our technology doesn't give us that out. If the world goes, so do we. I'm not sure that God would be pleased. I don't have that kind of faith. Do you?

So, to wrap this all up, here we are. We believe in a future Kingdom of God that will see an end to all sorrow, to all pain, to death itself. I yearn for that communion with God that I swear belief in. I can not prove these things scientifically. Science is not the tool for that, as marvelous as it is at discovering the ways our world works. The appropriate tool for that is faith, the hope in things unseen. We will all one day know if this is truth or not, for as the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:19, "For if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we should be pitied more than anyone."

We hope for this utopian vision, this Kingdom of Heaven, but we're not building it entire at this time. No, we're working on it, or should be, getting into practice for living in that world. You might say we're in a training camp for saints. We won't be able to build the perfect world as we are now. It will take new hearts in new bodies to achieve that. We can be obedient, though, and do what Jesus told us to do, to follow his marching orders. We can hear and humbly try to fully understand Micah 6:8: "He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord really wants from you: He wants you to promote justice, to be faithful, and to live obediently before your God."

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Utopian Visions, Part 3

In the paradigm of Jesus, we have a notion of murder, destruction, and hatefulness...

I'm going to keep this short and (bitter)sweet. Let me unpack that first sentence.

The paradigm of Jesus is the reflection and manifestation of his sacrificial personality in our own lives. We are to live lives of love, forgiveness, charity, and selflessness, and depend on God to meet our needs. Even for people who don't believe in the Godhood of Jesus, there is often a selflessness and a caring for their fellow human beings. Where does this heart of charity come from?

A notion of murder springs directly from words of Jesus. From Matthew 5:21-22 we hear: "You have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell." [All citations from the NET Bible] What are we doing nowadays? We're calling those with whom we disagree fools, or worse. We have an attitude of murder toward these people. This is just as true of people on the left as on the right -- we're murderers in our hearts, all of us.

Destruction is what we seem to be bent upon. By ignoring the plight of the poor, by turning our backs upon the world as the climate changes (in part because of our own insatiable appetite for "stuff" to decorate our hovels while we entertain ourselves until we die, by thinking that we can just discard this world that God created and saw was good, by bulldozing Eden and strip-mining our own home, all we evidence is the minds of plunderers and molesters.

Hatefulness is more or less redundant, but I've added it for completeness. "God Hates Fags" is the strident message of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, home of Fred Phelps and his small mob of fundamentalists. Why is Fred so certain of this? Might it not be that God hates Fred? Or perhaps God loves him, and lets him go his own demented way, out of respect for his sovereignty as a person.

What is the "love of God" like? I'm pretty sure we don't often think about the nature of this tough love, but I think it's best represented by the parable of the Prodigal Son. From Luke 15:11-32:

"Then Jesus said, “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that will belong to me.’ So he divided his assets between them. After a few days, the younger son gathered together all he had and left on a journey to a distant country, and there he squandered his wealth with a wild lifestyle. Then after he had spent everything, a severe famine took place in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and worked for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He was longing to eat the carob pods the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. But when he came to his senses he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have food enough to spare, but here I am dying from hunger! I will get up and go to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired workers.”’ So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way from home his father saw him, and his heart went out to him; he ran and hugged his son and kissed him. Then his son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Hurry! Bring the best robe, and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Bring the fattened calf and kill it! Let us eat and celebrate, because this son of mine was dead, and is alive again – he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field. As he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the slaves and asked what was happening. The slave replied, ‘Your brother has returned, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he got his son back safe and sound.’ But the older son became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and appealed to him, but he answered his father, ‘Look! These many years I have worked like a slave for you, and I never disobeyed your commands. Yet you never gave me even a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends! But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything that belongs to me is yours. It was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.’”

The salient feature to me is that the father loves his younger son so much that he lets him go his own way. He doesn't mount an expedition to get the son back; he is ready to receive him with welcoming arms when he approaches on his own. Everything in this tale speaks of the forgiveness of the father -- the actual injured party here -- toward his son. The door was always open for the son to return, but the son had to discover that he needed to be there. In some sense, the father loved his son so much that he was willing to let him go to a hell of his own making rather than force himself on the son.

There's a saying that if you love something, set it free. That's demonstrated by this parable, don't you think?

So, what does all this have to do with a utopian vision, care for the world around us, and paradoxically, a desire to just let the world go to pot? And what about those harsh accusations I've posted above? I'll have some words about all that in the next post.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Utopian Visions, Part 2

Do we need a utopian vision to spur us on to try to create it?

The word "utopia" is an interesting name for an imagined perfect state of existence. According to Wikipedia, it's based on two Greek roots: "ou" meaning "not," and "topos" meaning "place." It comes originally from the book written by Sir Thomas More in 1516, "Of the Best State of a Republic, and of the New Island Utopia." The word seems to indicate that the place is an allegory, not a society that can possibly be created; why else would it mean, literally, "no-place"?

Since More may have been engaging in some ironic commentary on his own world of the sixteenth century, it was probably not his intention to lay out the ground rules for the creation of a perfect state. If that's the case, then our interest in the idea that we can create our own "perfected society" is probably a misappropriation of More's work. I'd say the odds are pretty good that he would have considered the creation of a perfect society by men of his day (or of our own) a pipe dream at best.

In our own time, we seem to be farther from a perfect state than we have been in years. The United States is characterized now by two political parties that can't seem to come together on anything to arrive at legislative consensus. Partisanship seems to be at an all-time high, with no interest on the part of either side to really meet in the middle. Instead, we see a scorched earth outcome as the only desirable result of our differences. Damn it, we'll show those frickin' ____________ (fill in your most hated party). The antipathy between the two parties isn't the end of that story either. Splinter political groups have arisen that feel as though neither major party truly represents them or their values. There's pressure to "take back my country." But whose country are we talking about?

And that's just nationally. Internationally, we find ourselves beset with new pressures to combat a resurgent China, a resurgent Russia, and the ever-present threat of terrorism from radical jihadis. Perhaps it's no wonder that ever since the advent of the Cold War, we've felt more identification with dystopias than with their more positive opposites. Who can believe that out of this we could create a perfect(ed) society? Our only hope seems to be in some future where the bad guys -- whoever they are -- have been eliminated and the good people -- whoever they are -- can be brought together into that promised paradise.

As I indicated in the previous post, I want to propose that this societal decay (which is itself debatable, in light of history's record of human societies in the past) is not because of the removal of prescribed prayer from American public schools since the early 1960's. Instead, I'd say it's partially to be blamed on a fascination with, and focus on, that utopian promise of an afterlife and lack of interest in the world that we currently inhabit. I also indicated that I can't find any physical evidence for life after death, or the promised paradise after our demise.

Now wait a minute, you may sputter. You're a Christian, right? Don't you believe in the promise of life after death and judgment day and all the other stuff that's written about in the Bible?

Yes, I am a Christian. And yes, I do believe in those things. What I also believe is that we can't prove that they're real, or will be real, by any scientific means that I'm aware of.

If that's the case, then, it appears that we have a stand-off. On the one hand, I believe in the value of good scientific evidence for things I hold to be true. On the other hand, I don't believe that scientific evidence exists for something that I hold to be true.

Maybe I'm just a crackpot... (Please, no cheering yet!)

So, to the question at the top of this post. Do we need a utopian vision to spur us on to create what we imagine?

Maybe we do. What we seem to have now isn't that kind of utopian vision, however. What we seem to have, in large part, is a willingness to forget about building the society we imagine, except the part about getting rid of the bad guys -- whoever they are -- and ignoring the fix we're in now, with all its complications. Instead of working to build something better right now, we're content to wait until everything is sorted out and we can enter that new Jerusalem ourselves.

So, in the paradigm of Jesus, we have a notion of murder, destruction, and hatefulness.

I'll have more to say on this next time.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Utopia -- Moving on from all that...

Today I read a post at about how IBM is reinventing the idea of Utopia for Disney at EPCOT. In the comments I read that the reason that dystopian visions have become so prevalent is because our country has banned prayer from public schools since 1963. This loss of prayer, according to this commenter's thesis, is directly behind all the social ills that we see besetting our society. More specifically, it's because of the lack of emphasis on a future utopian "life everlasting" that we have fallen into dystopian patterns now.

I'd like to take a contrarian stance on this, and propose that the reason we seem to have a fascination with dystopian ideas is directly related to the notion of a future utopian life in the here-after. More to the point, I'd like to propose that the more we put our emphasis on that afterlife, the more likely we are (based on available evidence) to disregard the world we have around us right now.

I'm going to develop this hypothesis over the next few days; I'm not going to lay the whole thing out in one post. I want to see if I can get a lively discussion going in the comments section. Consider it an experiment in readership cultivation.

Let's just put one proposal out there right now, and see what comes of it.

I don't believe there's any physical, independently verifiable evidence, or any experience that many of us share in our daily lives, that unambiguously confirms the existence of either life after death, or an eternity after some judgment day. Testimony is not sufficient to verify this, by the standards I just laid down. Intensity of personal belief in these things is not sufficient. The strength of one's convictions is no validation at all. Suicide bombers have great strength of conviction; do any of us have that much strength of conviction as Christians, to put it to the test? Perhaps a few do -- I'll have more to say about all that as these posts appear, but not right now.

So -- what do you say, reader(s)? Any comments? Any atheists out there? Want to join in the conversation?

This is the first of several posts that will examine the ideas of afterlife, utopia (and what it means, plus what it could mean), and what it takes to hold these beliefs as true.