Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Re-think Corporations

So obviously the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Hobby Lobby case, as well as previous rulings such as Citizens United are not universally popular.  Personally I find a lot in them that I do not agree with; however, since I have yet to be named to the Supreme Court and see little immediate avenue for change, rather than just lament I figured to try and make some lemons out of lemonade ... or maybe the other way around.

Corporations are people too, at least right now there is no getting around this fact.  Recent rulings have made it quite clear.  We can fight it and joke about it, but what if we actually did something positive about it?  What would it look like if we started treating companies MORE like people instead of less.  If companies can have religious beliefs, maybe we should be working to help them have good ones.  Should a good Christian company tithe from its income (not profits)?  What would a good humanist company look like?  Would we prefer these sorts of companies to strictly profit-based ones.  I mean, they are not holding beliefs you don't agree with, except maybe the belief that they should have your money and not you.  We often find fault with companies for NOT caring about their workers, so maybe we continue to work on an understanding of what it means to care.  Outside of birth control, Hobby Lobby seems to be making some good steps in that direction (above minimum wage pay, Sundays off, etc), but there is always room for growth.  What if we found ways to teach an understanding of business that was not just about the money but instead was a reflection of our values.  Too often, good people hide behind the veil of corporations to justify their bad actions.  Maybe we need to start creating a climate that is different.  Companies, like all other people, need to start acting like good citizens.  And if the company is Christian, they had better be in church on Sunday, I don't care how nice it is on the lake!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Speaking of God

A recent ruling by the Supreme Court has raised once again the issue of prayer in the public sphere (perhaps more accurately the civic sphere).  While the ruling itself arguably does not have a huge impact, it does a lot to create a national dialogue around how we talk about God.  One of the issues in the case (and a point of contention between the majority and minority opinions) was how neutral the language around a divine figure needed to be a public prayer.  Given that many of the prayers in question clearly used Christ-centric language did they alienate non-Christians and serve to implicit create a sense of a government backed religion?

Those who disagree with the ruling might still find themselves divided upon the solution to this problem.  Some would argue that the solution is simple to use a more generic form when praying.  Rather than assuming a Christian audience and using Christian terminology as was done in the town meetings at issue, perhaps simply using more generic terms like God, or Divine, and avoiding references to specific religious views and values (like Christ's death) would solve the problem.

Another solution would be to argue for a clean break between religion and the civic sphere.  Since even prayer itself assumes a level of religious value not universal in our nation and since we are dedicated to being an a-theistic state, it would be better to not pray at all.  People are free to offer their own prayers whenever they like, but an official prayer at the start of a meeting still creates a government sanctioning of some sort and potentially creates a normative behavior that is not universally held.  Even this has consequences since NOT praying before a meeting is creating its own cultural standard and pattern of behavior.  It is awkward to be the only not praying AND it is awkward to be the only one praying (try it in a restaurant sometime and see what I mean).

There are real benefits and dangers to allowing space for prayer in the midst of civic meetings.  Some of us might be comforted by the idea that Congress (with its single digit approval rating) was consulting some sort of higher power for help.  Others however might feel that their approval of Congress is based on the fact that its members seem beholden to a religious agenda instead of one that benefits the country.  I think it is safe to say that almost no one wants to be the Jews in Nazi Germany, but most of the Germans did not start out thinking they would be the bad guys either.

Can we protect the freedoms of both the religious and the non-religious?  I have strong concerns about state sponsored religion, but I also think that the notion of separation of church and state was created with a poor understanding of faith in mind.  Faith is not simply allegiance to a particular denomination or religion, nor is it something that can be turned on and off like a cell phone on an airplane.  It is an important part of people's identities.  Denying that is to ask people to deny and hide part of who they are.  I am not sure I am okay with the government prohibiting prayer in the civic arena because that feels equally unwelcoming.  I am also aware that my own views on the importance of prayer influence my views on this issue.  For me I see the value of prayer and also communal prayer.  Believing in the benefits it is easy to overlook the harms.  By the same extension I can see that those who find no value in prayer might simply be concerned with the harm it does.  It is not an easy impasse to get around but I think we achieve it by leaving space for everyone.  We do not mandate prayer in our civic organizations nor do we prohibit it.  We don't require prayers to be made in a certain way nor do we forbid them from being done in another format.  We cannot live into the idea of "out of many one" by denying religion a space in the civic sphere but nor can we do it by simply establishing a civic religion of the majority.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Agnostic Christianity

This last week I preached on the story from the Gospel of John about how after Jesus heals a blind man the Pharisees get into a heated debated over how this was even possible.  My main thesis was that part of our faith is being open to not being right.  The Pharisees were so sure they were right that they were unable to see the miracle that God was doing right in front of them.  By contrast the blind man was open to the possibilities of God's miraculous work in the world and so in turn was able to see.  This got me to ponder if maybe the term "Agnostic Christian" would be a good one for me to try and claim.

One of the central problems we are facing in our culture right now is a lack of healthy agnosticism.  On almost every issue people are rooted firmly in one camp or another.  The idea that a person could not have a position or be clearly uncertain about their position is seemingly foreign and such a voice is rarely welcomed in a debate.  Whatever you believe it seems to be clear that you need to be certain about it.  Unfortunately, as we see from the story in John, being certain you are right is not really a good way to learn anything.  In fact it seems to be a sure recipe for missing the obvious signs of things all around you.  For that reason I like the idea of being an Agnostic Christian.

Now I am not saying I think of myself as being agnostic in the strictest definition of the word.  Rather what I am saying that as a Christian I think it is important to embrace the faith aspect of faith.  What I believe is based solidly on my experiences of the world but it also contains within it assumptions and the possibility that I could be wrong.  Scientists have been working to understand the effects of religion and faith on the brain.  Simply knowing these effects does not prove something.  It could be that my experience of God happens because of the way my brain is firing OR my brain is firing the way it is because of the presence of God.  I believe the philosopher Hume is one of many who points out that our belief in causality is rooted in faith. (Intro to Philosophy was a long time ago) If we try and work only about what we know for certain we cannot really do anything or function in the world.  We have to take some things on faith.  At the same time it is important to remember that things we take on faith exist with a certain degree of doubt ... we can be wrong.  Holding this in tension is a necessary challenge for us but one that I think we need to work on as a culture.  We need to find ways to be much more agnostic about matters of faith and life than we currently are.  In my mind the Christian faith is really rooted in agnosticism, the acknowledgement that God works in ways beyond our understanding and all we know about God really gets filtered through the lens of our experience.  That is part of what makes the incarnation so powerful it gives us a more direct and tangible understanding of a God beyond comprehension.  At least I think it does, I could be wrong.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Diluting the Sacred?

There was a great article yesterday on MPR about another church doing a "Beer and Hymns" event.  While the story focused around one church in Fargo/Moorhead, I know it is something that a variety of churches all over have been trying recently.  On the one hand it is not something new, for years we have been adding coffee to our worship to make it a more comfortable and familiar experience for people.  I wonder though if we are helping by making the sacred more accessible through things like beer, coffee, couches, and casual clothes, or if we are diluting the sacred.

I am big fan of casual; casual liturgy, casual clothes, and sipping a beverage while you make yourself at home in worship.  That being said there can be something powerful about the ways that we create the sacred space for worship.  Are we doing ourselves a disservice by watering down the holy and making it too mundane?  I remember talking once about having communion more than once a month and someone commenting that they liked it less often because it made communion feel special. Do things like beer or coffee with our worship turn it from something special into something ordinary.  Monday night is football night, Tuesday is trivia night, and Wednesday is hymns down at the local pub.  Do we run the risk of turning worship into just another event that shares time with everything else in our week?

Making the sacred accessible without diluting it is a tough challenge.  Part of what makes something sacred is how it becomes special and set apart and yet that same distance can create a barrier for people seeking it.  Perhaps the real challenge is finding ways to make the sacred in new spaces.  How do we build up the sacred without many of the familiar trappings we have been using for hundreds of years (like ornate architecture, fancy robes, and complex liturgy).  Now we are removing some of the props we have used to create the sacred in the past and inserting others in their place.  The challenge for us remains to lead people to the sacred in whatever format we are using and to find ways to give people access to the divine through worship.