Monday, November 17, 2014

The CRC's Agony

Okay, so this will be a short rant rooted in the pain of loss and frustration and love for an old friend.

The Banner, magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, arrived last week. I love this magazine for the place it has in my life and the people that worked there. I was its editor for ten years until about ten years ago.

As I noted, The Banner came in the mail. I’ve recycled it in the meantime. But not before I saw an article that insists that Genesis can be read literally (so called) and still be consistent with the observable and verifiable science of today. The article suggests that you can do science and somehow still believe in a young earth and worldwide flood. It doesn’t seem to matter to the author that all—well maybe only 99%--of the scientists who actually work on these matters disagree with him.

I wrote, years ago, that all theological propositions are under-warranted. That is, even when there is a good cases to be made for some theological proposition or another, it is likely that another theologian can make a decent case for a different point of view. Think the nature of Jesus’ presence at the Eucharist, or infant versus adult baptism, or the various views of the atonement. However, the trouble with the creationist view of science, and the theology that flows from it, is that both are unwarranted. 

How does one explain a denomination that feels the need to keep such nonsense before its members to the exclusion of even talking about the theological implications that might follow if 99% of all scientists are actually correct? This is willful pretending. It is hubris.

I feel bad for the editorial board that feels political pressure to publish such stuff and a synod that exorcises an editor for publishing articles that ask, “theologically what might it mean if every scientist out there is right and our old, traditional fall-back positions are wrong?” But I guess most denominations have their own brand of craziness. Mormons believe that Native Americans are descended from the lost tribes of Israel. Premilleniallists think Jesus is going to return any minute and usher in a thousand year millennial reign. Or maybe a tribulation. Or maybe not. Fundamentalist Christians think being homosexual is a sin, and evangelicals think that isn’t so, but homosexual acts are a sin. Roman Catholics think that Mother Mary bodily ascended to heaven and that birth control is a sin (well, at least they teach this. Most Catholics don't really believe it). If I dug around a bit, I’m sure I could find some craziness in the United Church of Canada too. Though at least in this denomination no one will hold you to it. 

Simone Weil--who, admittedly, was also a bit crazy about some stuff--got this one exactly right. She said of all "associations for promoting ideas" (things like churches and unions) that no one should be "liable to be invited to subscribe to a collection of assertions crystallized in written form." She added that excommunication should follow only for moral breaches, and not for intellectual disagreements, because, "too great a uniformity of opinion would render any such association suspect." I suppose that means that in a church creation scientists and real scientists would be invited to live in peace.

I remember the pressure to publish such articles when I was editor of that magazine. I resisted—but at a certain point, resistance was futile. The church is, after all, full of people who do believe this stuff. They can’t always be denied; but they shouldn't be given the rod of correction either. Another way of putting it is that you can sanctify this creation science stuff but you can’t excuse it.

But oh, what a mess for the CRC. This sort of article swaps modern fundamentalist myths for serious scholarship and the sort of common sense any teen can learn by taking a grade ten biology course—though it would need to be in a public school (but not one in Kansas or Texas, I suppose). And it means that any scientist who is actually “on the bench,” or doing field work (for an oil company, maybe; or like my daughter-in-law, working with DNA) will get a pit in his or her stomach and ask, “can I really trust what the church teaches about the nature of Jesus’ presence at the Lord’s Supper, or salvation, or original sin if it promotes this nonsense even to the exclusion of other widely accepted (if often secretly held) points of view?” The answer is, ultimately, "no."

The church’s insistence on such nonsense has created a culture of fear among scientists employed by the church. I remember the agony of Howard Van Till and it made an impact. We remember that John Schneider and Dan Harlow were politely shown the door (more or less) for wondering about alternatives to the current rut. I once interviewed pretty much the entire biology faculty of an CRC-connected college. Not a single person there had any sympathy for creation science views, but all of them agreed they wouldn’t say so.

I can also name thirty or forty people I'm personally acquainted with—people I grew up with, went to seminary with, and many who now worship in the United Church or who belong to other denominations—who left the CRC over this and similar issues. They just couldn’t deal with the dissonance anymore. You could probably fill Grand Rapids’ Van Andel stadium with West Michigan people who have left the CRC over such issues—or are on the verge of doing so. And if the CRC took a stand and said, “Of course, we really do need to talk about such stuff in an atmosphere of mutual respect, safety, and love,” (and actually do this, too, for talk is cheap) that same stadium could be filled with an equal number of people who would leave the CRC because they thought the CRC had left them.

It is, as I said, a mess.

Monday, November 10, 2014


         Patriotism is a good word that also throws dark shadows.

         For starters, “patriotism” is derived from Latin and Greek words that mean “father,” as in “fatherland.” As if there are no mothers or daughters or sons. Patriotism has, historically, been about patriarchy, androcentrism and phallocentrism (a polite word that means “thinking with your penis”). Patriotic stories are invariably violent. We are most patriotic when the news is an unending and breathless series of updates about the murders and funerals of Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent.

         I checked a thesaurus to see if I could find any kinder and gentler synonyms for patriotism. The thesaurus offered “loyalty,” and “devotion,” as possibilities. But other synonyms included nationalism, jingoism, chauvinism, and worst of all, “xenophobia.” That means, “fear of the other” but is widely used to mean “hatred of anyone who isn’t like me.” Patriotism is perhaps the best word for the quality I want to write about, but it throws long shadows.

         No wonder then, that in England, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “patriotic” was understood to be a slur. To be a patriot then was pretty much the same as being called a “Tea Partier” now—only worse.

         “Patriotism” is also an “ism.” Such words insist that you are either a true believer or badly mistaken. “Ism” words like “Marxism,” “fundamentalism,” and even “liberalism” are used to draw lines in the sand. These are words for ideologies that take over the minutes, days, and sometimes the souls of our lives.
         Patriotism might be a good word but it casts dark shadows. For example, Irene and I have a large charcoal drawing of a statue that stands in the center of the Dutch City of Rotterdam. The statue is entitled, Stad Zonder Hart," which means, "city without a heart."

         The statue is of a person who seems contorted in pain. The body is twisted in unnatural ways, arms all akimbo. And the torso is cratered by a huge hole where the heart belongs. City without a heart.

         The statue commemorates the destruction of Rotterdam, on May 14, 1940. In the space of a few hours, Nazis dropped nearly 2000 bombs on the city center. The blitzkrieg ignited a firestorm. More than 1000 people died, 85,000 more were homeless, and nearly three square kilometers of the centrum was pulverized into dust.

         Stad Zondar Hart is a monument to the devotion—the patriotism—that the surviving Dutch have for their nation.

         But the Stad Zonder Hart inevitably casts a terrible shadow, too. See it and you are confronted with another group of patriots: the generals who launched those bombers against Rotterdam, the pilots who flew them, and the ruthless SS who came in their wake to round up Jews and send them to death camps. Nazi patriots stole Rotterdam’s heart.

         And that is one of the problems with patriotism, isn’t it? Tie patriotism too strongly to country and suddenly few are asking what is right or wrong.

         I’m reading Karen Armstrong’s new Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence for review. Along the way she reminds readers that Jerusalem has been destroyed several times. And she points to a remarkable passage that Isaiah writes in response to the destruction of Jerusalem.

         Of course, Isaiah describes the pain of Jerusalem’s destruction. He does so, for example, in a passage Christians would later use to describe Jesus. Israel, says Isaiah, was despised and rejected, afflicted, wounded for our transgressions, and led like a lamb to the slaughter. In many ways, Isaiah’s book is a written Stad Zonder Hart, a patriotic, anguished monument to the horror of a nation’s utter defeat. Isaiah is a book with lots of shadow in it.

         But then, surprisingly, in a passage Armstrong highlights, Isaiah 60—among other similar passages—Isaiah writes: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” And that light is dawning on a New Jerusalem. A parade of nations—including many of Israel’s past enemies—comes to New Jerusalem’s gates to honor her. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

         The light in New Jerusalem, of course, is God. So, at first, reading Isaiah 60, I’m a bit anxious because patriotism mixed with religion tends to be very scary. Consider those fight for Allah or who died for the Divine Hirohito of Japan. Consider the crusades or The Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda.

         But leaving aside, for a moment, the difficulties of mixing religion and patriotism, there is something else in this passage that is at least a partial antidote to the many shadow sides of patriotism. The author says that in New Jerusalem, God “will appoint peace as your overseer, and righteousness as your taskmaster. Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders.”

         So Isaiah 60 hints at patriotism rooted not in aching sadness about the destruction of Jerusalem, or in memories of war dead, or even in a volatile mix of nationalism and God. It hints at a patriotism based on ideals.

         Listen, patriotism has always been a good word wrapped in dark shadow. We ought never forget the sacrifices so many made to preserve freedom at home, or to liberate our friends abroad. But if patriotism is based only on the memory of sacrifices made, it will not necessarily have a moral heart. Memory, after all, is fickle. The past—from Pax Romana to the American Revolution, is always subject to pragmatic revision by the state for its own ends.

         So, ultimately, patriotism must be informed by enduring ideals if it to avoid walking the fence between jingoism and disaster. Unless the Canadian—and American—way is all about finding and making peace rather than being dragged off into one war after another; unless we believe in reconciliation and equal opportunity as means to short-circuit violence at the fringes of our domestic society; unless we embrace righteousness—that is, justice and equity for neighbors both near and far—unless we embrace righteousness rather than mere health and wealth for ourselves; unless we root our patriotism in a future worth bequeathing to our children, rather than in memories of past battles won or lost patriotism will merely continue to be a good word that casts a long shadow.

         But when patriotism is informed by the light of Isaiah’s kind of ideals: peace, nonviolence, righteousness and reconciliation, it will go far to cast our national shadows away.