Theologies of Courage

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Independence Day was hard for many Americans to celebrate this year, and Therese Patricia Okoumou, who climbed up to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty on the 4th, demonstrated succinctly in word and deed exactly why that is.

“In a democracy we do not put children in cages,” she said in remarks after her arraignment.“Period.”

“There is no debating it,” she added emphatically. “Nothing you will say to me will justify putting children in cages.”

That this not only needed to be said, but needed a public act of political protest, a singular act of courage by an individual with a story of her own to tell in her own words to drive it home, reminds us that we are in a moment that requires acts of courage from all of us. That requires us to radically change the course of our own stories.

One reason I’m so interested in Bonhoeffer is that his life story is the search for how we answer a radical evil in word and deed. His is a political theology. There’s a lot that I don’t know that I agree with in the nitty-gritty of his theology, but my agreeing with it or not (and there is literally no agreement among Bonhoeffer scholars about his theology, so no pressure) certainly doesn’t change the fact that Bonhoeffer was a genuine badass, and his theology was absolutely central to his badassery.

I have read just enough of theology to realize already that there’s really no such thing as Theology. Whether we would like or not, there are only theologies. And these theologies themselves are dynamic, each a living narrative, each a life. Bonhoeffer’s biography was his theology, his theology was biography. I think that’s why he remains such an object of fascination: you simply cannot separate the two, and the implications are positively vexing.

Such is life. And the capital T Truth of all theologies must be lived. But that dynamism shouldn’t frighten us. In fact, it’s what propels us forward, into experience, engagement and encounter. Deeper and further into life in all its vexations.

So there really is no theology outside of experience, in my thinking, and experience is  therefore not merely incidental to our theologies, sola fide (more about which later) be damned.

Bonhoeffer’s theology was as extraordinarily dynamic as his times, because, again, there is no theology outside of living relation and encounter. There is no Truth that does not lead back to encounter.

Our theologies are not really there to give us answers, they’re there to give us courage.

They are not there to provide the certainty of reward in this or a next life. They are there to give us courage to act in this one without any thought of reward.

Here’s where I’m going with this, and I’ll expand on it going forward: the presumption of certainty has brought us manifest evil, and we need dynamic theologies of courage to combat it. And not only that, we need to recognize and acknowledge the sanctity of these living theologies of courage, and challenge ourselves to engage in authentic encounter with them.

To have courage to be transformed by them, and thereby transform the world through them.

 

Echoes and Shadows

Reading about Luther in the Bonhoeffer book. Omg.

The author calls him “the Don Rickles of Wittenberg,” and says “for much of his adult life Luther suffered from constipation, hemorrhoids, a cataract in one eye, and a condition of the inner ear called Meniere’s disease, which results in dizziness, fainting spells, and tinnitus. He also suffered mood swings and depression.”

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As for his late-in-life anti-Semitism, which the Nazis were more than happy to exploit: “the trouble started in 1528 when, after a large meal of kosher food, he suffered a shattering attack of diarrhea. He concluded that the Jews had tried to poison him.”

It’s so interesting to me how much we are at the mercy of our stomachs.

There’s also a prescient passage related to Bonhoeffer’s eulogy for one of the teachers with whom he disagreed but for whom he had great enduring respect, Adolf von Harnack, who was, theologically, very much in the “opposing camp”:

Bonhoeffer’s words reveal that he was never what one might today term a culture warrior, nor could he easily be labeled conservative or liberal. He disagreed with Harnack’s liberal theological conclusions but agreed profoundly with the underlying assumptions that guided Harnack, and he rightly saw that those were more important than the conclusions to which they Led. Anyone on the side of Truth, wherever it lead, was a compatriot to be lauded. This virtue had come to Bonhoeffer, in part, from Harnack and the liberal Grunewald tradition in which he had flourished, and Bonhoeffer was generous enough to see it and state it publicly. Bonhoeffer’s father was his primary mentor in this way of thinking. Karl Bonhoeffer’s conclusions may have been different from his son’s, but his respect for truth and for other human beings of different opinions formed the foundation of a civil society in which one might disagree graciously and might reason together civilly and productively. In the years ahead this would be seriously attacked, and the Nazis would stoke the fires of the culture wars to play their enemies against each other. They would brilliantly co-opt the conservatives and the Christian churches, and when they had the power to do so, they would turn on them too.

Just sayin.

I & Thou in the Dollhouse

I was careful with my application to divinity school not to misrepresent my beliefs in any way. I mean. Its not like I’m a follower of Baal, but, you know, some people would prefer that to humanism. (I can assure you, aside from eating babies there is absolutely no overlap.)

But I also needed to make a case for why a humanist should be at all interested in Divinity School. There are many good reasons, of course and we’ll talk a lot about them in coming posts. But I tried to tackle it in a different sense in each of three very short essays I was asked to write for my application.

This one asked me to “describe and interpret a favorite book or movie with commentary on why it is meaningful to you.” I almost chose the movie Welcome to the Dollhouse

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… but went with I & Thou instead:

My freshman year at Indiana University was a returning for me. I had struggled over the previous two years with family conflict, the source of which I could not yet comprehend, which had led to a brief stint of homelessness. I had been forced to take a gap year, and while now finally back on track, my transition to life on campus was still pretty bumpy.

The Spring Semester of that year I was lucky enough to get into a 300-level course offered at my dorm (a Living & Learning Community I was also very lucky to get into), by an extraordinary professor, Rabbi Mike Morgan (now Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Jewish Studies there) who introduced me to, among many other wonders, Martin Buber’s I and Thou. The core message of the book — that “all actual life is encounter” — communicated with forceful compassion by Professor Morgan, struck a chord deep within me that gave me courage to go forth, and resonates within me to this day.

In the book, Buber posits two modes of engaging the world of the Other: “experience” — the profane, everyday, objectifying I-It — and the fleeting, sacred, reciprocal I-You of “encounter”, in which we glimpse the “the absolute relationship”, the “eternal You”. Buber offers no prescriptions of chants or mantras, no parables, arcane symbols or secret codes. I and Thou is descriptive rather than prescriptive, in keeping with its author’s matter-of-fact mysticism. Professor Morgan’s lively but focused classroom discussions brought this to vivid life.

The book’s iteration of a relational theology was not entirely unfamiliar to me, even then: it is rooted in the core belief of reciprocity we find in all world religions, that I had heard in countless interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount over the years in my own Mainline Protestant upbringing. But having struggled with the limiting concept of a remote and largely proscriptive God, I found Buber’s insistence that it is through the particular Other that we encounter “the absolute relationship” — a concept clearly informed by the dialogic tradition of Hasidism — electrifying.

In Professor Morgan’s classroom, not only was the moral imperative of attention to the reality of the Other and our vital participation in the unity and totality of encounter clear, it was put into practice. The challenge was presence, and presence the reward. Had we read and discussed I and Thou less attentively it would have been easier to shrug off its insights. Buber’s language could seem obscure at times, but for me, with Professor Morgan’s spirited delivery, it had the ring of uncanny truth of overheard corner-store conversations: “Something happens to man,” Buber says of the “absolute relationship”. “Something happens.” And I knew just what he meant. Isn’t this the essence of revelation? Isn’t this how we talk about love?

In Buber we find the mysterious and awesome Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, The I am that I am, that cannot be inferred or deduced, that “can only be addressed.” And approaching this mystery with the guidance of a great teacher is how presence in the world became home to me. Something happened in that classroom, in the “sphere between things” that has stuck with me, and gives me courage, again and again, to return.

I’ll work Welcome to the Dollhouse into all this somehow later on. Count on it.

Today’s Reading: Bonhoeffer

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Last year around this time I was posting about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters & Papers from Prison. He’s the “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil…. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” guy.

While lately there’s been a lot of protest from the right (and from that camp of the left that seems for some reason to want to prove the right right about the left) about the internet reaching singularity with Godwin’s Law, I don’t think the parallels to the rise of Nazism have to be exact for the analogy to be useful. You know, if the jackboot fits…

So I’m revisiting Bonhoeffer with this biography. His thoughts on folly, from his Letters and Papers from Prison, are more relevant than ever:

Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force. Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defence. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved – indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact, he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous. …

If we look more closely, we see that any violent display of power, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind; indeed, this seems actually to be a psychological and sociological law: the power of some needs the folly of the others. It is not that certain human capacities, intellectual capacities for instance, become stunted or destroyed, but rather that the upsurge of power makes such an overwhelming impression that men are deprived of their independent judgment, and – more or less unconsciously – give up trying to assess the new state of affairs for themselves.

The fact that the fool is often stubborn must not mislead us into thinking that he is independent. One feels in fact, when talking to him, that one is dealing, not with the man himself, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like, which have taken hold of him. He is under a spell, he is blinded, his very nature is being misused and exploited. Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. Here lies the danger of a diabolical exploitation that can do irreparable damage to human beings.

But at this point it is quite clear, too, that folly can be overcome, not by instruction, but only by an act of liberation; and so we have come to terms with the fact that in the great majority of cases inward liberation must be preceded by outward liberation, and that until that has taken place, we may as well abandon all attempts to convince the fool. In this state of affairs we have to realize why it is no use our trying to find out what ‘the people’ really think, and why the question is so superfluous for the man who thinks and acts responsibly – but always given these particular circumstances. … A person’s inward liberation to live a responsible life … is the only real cure for folly. But there is some consolation in these thoughts on folly: they in no way justify us in thinking that most people are fools in all circumstances. What will really matter is whether those in power expect more from people’s folly than from their wisdom and independence of mind.

 

In Medias Res, or Welcome to the Jungle!

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In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost sight of.
How hard it is to say what it was like
in the thick of thickets, in a wood so dense
and gnarled…

— Dante’s Inferno Canto I, Translated by Seamus Heaney

Love shouldn’t be serious, should it?
You meet, you kiss, you start
I fancied that I understood it
I forgot my foolish heart

— My Foolish Heart, by Kurt Weill

About a year ago, I sent out a distress call to my network. I had been slogging through a very long, dark Night of the Soul. I was about to turn 48, and my career, such as it was, had stalled. Add to that a rough break-up a few months before the rise of Trump and I was just utterly depleted. So up went the ol’ Bat Signal.

Now, I have some wonderful friends. I have one rule where pursuing friendship is concerned: “Never be the smartest person in the room.” You can substitute “funny,” “compassionate,” or “wise” for “smart,” of course.  Whatever the qualities you love and esteem in others, find friends who exemplify them and who inspire you to reflect them right back.

(Friends who will share their fries are also great, but I think this goes without saying.)

(Also needless to say: I had a lot of incredible input from my little SOS.)

I set about exploring, researching, discerning. One idea that particularly intrigued me came from my friend, Fernando, a brilliant academic whose work in the field of Public Health is staggering, who was pursuing a Master of Divinity at Boston University. He invited me to a community lunch, held at the School of Theology every Wednesday, and on a lark (two words: free food) I hopped on my bike and headed over.

What I found on this and subsequent visits was a truly diverse actualized community committed to equality, justice, diversity and inclusion.

Now, I know that sounds awful, right? What kind of people dedicate themselves to pushing that agenda? Ugh. We all know do-gooders, and let’s be honest: they’re some of the most annoying people on the planet. Either that or total Debbie Downers, right? It’s always “Do you know how they slaughtered the animal you’re eating right now? Do you know how much an hour the people who made your iPhone are paid?” And who wants to hear that when you’re stuffing your mouth full of delicious meat scrolling through your Insta feed? Gah.

But this wasn’t like that. (There was a vegetarian option, but they didn’t make a big thing about it.) No, these folks were looking at the big picture in a different way. I had met people like this all along my journey, and they were always the ones looking for a way forward, not for reasons to turn back. Here were Muslims and Christians, Buddhists and Atheists, men, women, black and white, gay, straight, and other, sitting down at that table together, differences aside, in true communion. And I was definitely not even close to the smartest cat in that room.

(In fact, if there had been an actual cat in that room, it might’ve had me beat.)

It was not the first time I had considered this path, but my thoughts and feelings about theology, both my personal beliefs and my sense of the utility of theology as a lens and a tool for social change, had evolved in the 30-odd years since I had last considered it. It’s not that I had suddenly “found religion”. I was raised in a Mainline Protestant Church in a working class neighborhood in the ’70s and ’80s, and that church community had provided me with a pretty solid set of values (which were also perfectly consistent with a secular worldview, and without any recourse to hellfire and brimstone).

I had a mentor back then, who happens to be a warrior for LGBTQ rights as well (a piece of the puzzle unknown to me at the time), who cleared a path to Divinity School for me. But in one of those moments of glorious teenage rebellion, I rejected this path, and ended up at a liberal arts college pursuing a degree in History instead, something I have certainly never regretted.  My interests in literature, art and language were so broad, my curiosity and passions so wild and profligate, I would not have benefited much from Seminary at that time (and any Seminary I ended up at would have felt the same way about me, too, you can bet).

So instead I followed these wild impulses, with decidedly mixed results (I will never understand what prompted me to take that Quantum Mechanics class), through my undergraduate degree program and off to foreign lands for a decade after college, working as an itinerate English teacher, mostly, in places as far-flung as Budapest, Istanbul and Marrakesh. Theology remained an interest, alongside many others, but I honestly didn’t spend much time fussing over the metaphysical, which I realize now, I had always thought of as metaphorical, anyway.

I learned a lot, much of it the hard way, loved and lost and loved and lost again (and three or four more times after that, as you do), and made a decision to return to the States — to Boston — in 2001. But 9/11 and its immediate aftermath had me turning right around, and back to Budapest I went. No one who experienced that day can quantify the sense of loss, the sense of a world out of balance and teetering on the edge of an existential and actual abyss. And religion was the last place to look for refuge from that world-shattering violence. I didn’t even think about it.

I spent another two years abroad, finally returning to the States for good in 2003 to help care for my ailing father, back in Indiana, where I’d grown up. This was a profound homecoming for me. I had occasion to really reflect on my personal beliefs, while reflecting on his and on the beliefs of other members of my family, whom I loved and respected but did not always ever agree with. This was nothing new, though. It had been the case since at least college, when I had declared rather dramatically to my mother that I was no longer a believer. (“Are you on drugs?” she had asked over breakfast at Denny’s. “Not at the moment, unfortunately,” I remember answering.)

But it didn’t matter. Not as we came together as a family (and an extended family and community) to care for dad and, as importantly, for each other in this important chapter of all our lives. I helped care for him in home hospice for the last 4-5 months of his life, and we all managed to set our differences aside. There was something much more powerful, more enduring and authentic than our differences that we were taking part in, that we had opened our hearts and minds to: our shared humanity.

But it was hard some days to keep our hearts and minds open, I’m not going to deny it. Outside, in the time I had been off conquering the globe, a lot had changed in Indiana. My family had been in a turbo-powered new wave of white flight, fueled by demographic change and twenty-plus years of “Culture War” propaganda. Exurbs were popping up by the day to the West of Indy along the Route 36 corridor, complete with big box stores and mega-churches all along the way.

The old, rather boring Mainline Protestant Churches of my youth had been relegated to a slow death while Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches were popping up in white enclaves outside the city limits, with gleaming new structures that included top-of-the-line sports, education and social services (for tithing members). They were also aggressively, often radically political, and brooked no dissent from their Culture War dogma.

My father, in his mid-70s, and a lapsed Catholic from way back who had embraced the life of our little Church in Speedway, had no patience for the overlong over-the-top services of the local megachurch or its impersonal pastor, Steve — Dad derisively called it “The Church of Steve” — whose preaching was “too preachy” for him. When I asked him why he never went to church anymore, without missing a beat he said: “I’m always afraid Tammy Faye Bakker is going to leap out from behind a rubber plant!” He had also gotten spoiled by the old church’s strict Order of Worship that had literally never, in all the years we had attended services there, run over an hour, whereas Steve could bang on for God knows how long. And then your whole Sunday is screwed. Nobody wants to have to rush through brunch because Steve got a bug up his ass about abortion. Let’s be honest.

Dad was careful not to criticize The Church of Steve in front of my mother, of course. She had evolved from a lapsed Lutheran with a wild streak to someone deeply concerned about the salvation of all those around her and constantly anxious about the Second Coming. Minutes after my dad passed, she wondered aloud if we should honor his wish to be cremated, since she wasn’t quite sure how this would impact his being raised from the dead when the time came. My brothers and I convinced her that if God was capable of raising the dead, he could probably raise them from ashes as well.

I mean.

But her obsession with the metaphysical was not purely coincidental. It’s obviously a big part of how the Church of Steve legitimizes itself as a moral authority. There is a relentless focus on eschatology and decoding batshit prophecies in “Churches of Steve” (I’ll just call them that from now on) that is coupled with a liturgy that emphasizes the divine hierarchy, judgement and punishment, over radical equality, love and forgiveness. One of the foundations of this brand of indoctrination is dredged from Galatians 2:16: “Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ”. Often breezily summed up as: “The Gospel is founded upon faith, not works.” This is how the metaphysical has eclipsed the moral in the modern Evangelical movement. And I have some, uhh, problems with that.

It’s obviously a gobsmacking distortion of the original message and meaning. And it gets to why, after a great deal of discernment over many months, I’m pursuing a Master of Divinity at Boston University. While the number of people regularly attending church is in steady decline, the power of these institutions is still formidable. If, as many of the good-hearted and fiercely intelligent people I’ve already encountered in this field believe, these traditions and institutions can be leveraged to effectively redress some of the great wrongs in society, many of which they have historically been used to justify, it’s worth understanding how this can be achieved, and working together toward those better outcomes.

This second part — working together — is very important to me. The element of community in so-called communities of faith, the element of affiliation and belonging — both the tribalism it can engender at its worst, and its power to organize for greater good at its best — is something I want to know more about. BU offers an opportunity to study and participate in a diverse and vibrant community that seeks the greatest good that welcomes people of all faiths and no faith to the table.

(OK. Two words: free food.)