Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Golden Anniversary for the Golden Boy

Bobby Orr scores the game winning goal in overtime
on a pass from Derek Sanderson
to win the 1970 Stanley Cup.
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
Psalm 1:1, 3

Robert Gordon Orr played his first game for the Boston Bruins fifty years ago this week.

When it comes to sports heroes I cannot escape a completely unrealistic naiveté. I want to cheer for the athletes who are both good and great.

Not surprisingly, I am often disappointed.

I still haven’t fully recovered from the Lance Armstrong scandal. And Tyler Hamilton, for heaven’s sake.

Joe Paterno.

The list of disappointments is long.

But there are some great names on the other list, the coincidence of goodness and greatness.

Al Kaline, and Roberto Clemente, and Stan Musial.

Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, K.C. Jones. Actually, I could include most of the old Celtics teams. Tenley Albright. And most of the UCONN women’s basketball teams.

But “Number Four, Bobby Orr!” has a special place on that list.

His knees gave out after just twelve seasons, but over that span he was simply amazing. He revolutionized the game. His end to end rushes were astonishing. You did not have to know anything about hockey to know that you were watching greatness. He was a defenseman who could outskate and outscore the forwards. When he was killing a penalty, he was always a threat to score because when they were short a man he had more ice to skate.

He was not only the best hockey player who ever played, he was one of the most dominant players in any sport. He won the Norris Trophy as the League’s best defenseman eight times. In 1970 he won the Norris Trophy, the Hart Trophy (Most Valuable Player), the Art Ross Trophy (scoring), the Conn Smythe Trophy (MVP of the playoffs), and the Stanley Cup.

Three years ago, on Bobby Orr’s sixty-fifth birthday, Bob Hohler wrote a story for the Boston Globe talking about the quiet way that Orr has gone about doing good.

Among the many stories that Hohler recounts, these are just snippets:

“When social studies teacher Christa McAuliffe died aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, Orr learned that members of her family were Bruins fans and he quietly traveled to Concord, NH., to visit.
"When former Bruin Ace Bailey died aboard a hijacked airliner that struck the World Trade Center in New York during the 2001 terrorist attacks, Orr turned up the next morning at the door of Bailey’s widow, Katherine.”
“‘Bobby will always have a place in my heart,’ she said.
“When Orr learned last year that James Gordon, a hockey player at Hingham High School, was fighting testicular cancer, he called Gordon’s mother, Terry, and asked to visit.
“Orr chatted for several hours with James, his family, and friends, spending much of the time holding Terry’s daughter, Jenna, who has Down syndrome.
“Orr posed for pictures with everyone in the house. He later mailed them autographed photos with personal messages, having remembered the name of each family member and friend as if he had known them for years.
“Terry Gordon, still in awe months later, said, ‘Who does that?’’’

Decades ago he rescued teammate Derek Sanderson from drugs and booze and took him to detox.

Hohler reports that Sanderson relapsed over and over and Orr picked him up every time and paid for his treatment. Eventually he was able to help Sanderson begin a new life as a financial adviser. “He helped save me,’’ said Sanderson, who has been sober since 1980. “Bobby knew it wasn’t going to be an easy process, and he never gave up. He was always there.’’

Among all of the almost too good to be true stories about Bobby Orr, one of the best is told by Robin Young, who now works for NPR.

She sat next to Orr on a flight to Martha’s Vineyard where he was participating in a charity event hosted by Celtics great John Havlicek. The plane encountered extreme turbulence and mechanical problems and they shared an intense moment together.

The next night as Young left her hotel to go out for a walk, Orr surprised her by heading out with her.

She thought, “Oh, God, what’s going on here?”

“I always thought of Bobby as a gentleman, happily married, the golden boy,” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘Please don’t disappoint me.’ ”

They walked down a narrow lane to the harbor. It was a beautiful evening. The water, Young said, was shimmering in the night, and she was afraid that Orr would make a pass at her.

As they stood uncomfortably, Young suggested that they should go back to the hotel and Orr agreed.

When they got back to the hotel, Orr said, “Listen, Robin, you’re a young, lovely woman. Please tell me you’re not going to walk alone by yourself again after dark. Good night.’ ’’

Young says the experience taught her a lesson. “Bobby really is the golden boy.”

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Jackie Robinson of Presidential Politics

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 
Philippians 4:8

When Branch Rickey was looking for a candidate to integrate professional baseball, he needed a gifted athlete, of course, but he also needed a man who could endure the inevitable epithets and slurs without striking back. Jackie Robinson was that remarkable mixture of spectacular ability, fierce competitive spirit and personal grace and dignity.

Barack Obama has been the Jackie Robinson of presidential politics.

Last February, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an opinion piece titled, “I Miss Barack Obama.”

We were still early in the primary season then, but already there were signs that the campaign this year would be marked by what Brooks called “a decline in behavioral standards across the board.” And then he observed that, “Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply.”

I launched this blog the week of President Obama’s first inaugural. My first post was about the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery’s benediction, which I had found very moving. The prayer began with a quotation from James Weldon Johnson’s great hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which has become the Black National Anthem. And it ends with references to the Hebrew Prophets. In between, he called on the nation to reject greed and violence, to embrace inclusion rather than exclusion, and love rather than hate.

But Lowery drew intense criticism for the last paragraph of the prayer, when he called on the nation to work toward that day “when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.”

The blogosphere exploded with righteous indignation that Lowery had declared that white people had never done what was right. Lowery, they declared, was a racist.

It was nonsense, of course, Lowery was taking an old racist rhyme and turning it upside down.

It probably never occurred to him that anyone would take it as a blanket condemnation of white people. It certainly never occurred to me.

But that firestorm over the inaugural benediction set the tone for the avalanche of attacks that would follow President Obama throughout his tenure. The general theme would be that our first African-American President was himself a racist.

Among other things, the attackers declared that he was not born in the United States, that he was a Kenyan, that he was a Muslim, that he was a Marxist, and that he was the worst president in history.

And through it all, he maintained a quiet dignity. He never lashed out. He never made personal attacks. And he never seemed to bear any animosity even toward people who obviously hated him.

Last fall, the poet, environmentalist and theologian Wendell Berry wrote about the racism directed at President Obama by members of congress:
“Some of the President’s congressional enemies—and these may be the most honest of them—have openly insulted him.  But such candor is not necessary.  Elected officials or candidates seeking the support or the votes of racists do not need to question the authenticity of Mr. Obama’s birth certificate or to call him a Muslim, a communist, a nazi, or a traitor.  They need only to stand silently by while such slurs and falsehoods are loudly voiced in public by others.  To the racist constituency, their silence is a message that secures votes.  Their silence declares that no truth or dignity is worth as much as a vote.”
Remarkably, those who have responded to his presidency with racism also accuse him of dividing the country. The contention is that President Obama is responsible for the racism of those who have attacked him. It is enough to make you crazy. But through it all he has maintained a calm dignity.

In his essay, Brooks outlined three great virtues of the Obama presidency:
“The first and most important of these is basic integrity. The Obama administration has been remarkably scandal-free. Think of the way Iran-contra or the Lewinsky scandals swallowed years from Reagan and Clinton.”
  “Second, a sense of basic humanity. Donald Trump has spent much of this campaign vowing to block Muslim immigration. You can only say that if you treat Muslim Americans as an abstraction. President Obama, meanwhile, went to a mosque, looked into people’s eyes and gave a wonderful speech reasserting their place as Americans.”
“Third, a soundness in his decision-making process. Over the years I have spoken to many members of this administration who were disappointed that the president didn’t take their advice. But those disappointed staffers almost always felt that their views had been considered in depth.”
President Obama has made mistakes and miscalculations. Policies are always subject to debate. But his basic character and demeanor have been exemplary. 

We will miss him.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Some Comments on that Famous Video

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
John 18:36-38

If you thought that Donald Trump’s lewd comments caught on tape would cost him the endorsement of his evangelical supporters, you would mostly be wrong.

Most of them are still on board.

One of the strange commonplaces of politics and religion in America is that conservative evangelical pastors routinely endorse political candidates and mainline pastors do not. And the conservative evangelicals do not just endorse a candidate. They are not shy about telling us that God has raised up this one or that one on a holy mission. Since they are the only ones speaking, this creates an asymmetrical picture and makes it look as if all Christians are conservative evangelicals.

This is not because mainline pastors do not think that the Gospel has political implications. On the contrary, we are more likely to emphasize the politics of Jesus than the evangelicals.

We recognize that the Bible is a profoundly political book. The prophets proclaim God’s passion for justice as the foundation of the social order. And the message of Jesus is centered on “the good news of the Kingdom of God.” In the Lord’s Prayer, our first petition is, “Thy Kingdom come.” When the early church spoke of Jesus as “Lord,” and “Savior,” and “Son of God,” they knew that all of these terms were used to apply to the Emperor. And they knew that the Empire had killed Jesus because he was a political threat. When early Christians said that Jesus was “Lord,” they were also saying, “and Caesar is not.”

The Gospel is intensely political and we cannot read it with any measure of intellectual honestly and pretend otherwise. It is about proclaiming a vision of the Kingdom of God. It is about social and economic justice. But we must also remember that the Kingdom of God can never be identified with any single political group or cause, or country. Instead, it is always the standard by which every political plan is judged.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who certainly understood the political implications of the Gospel better than most, never endorsed a political candidate.

In the famous scene from John’s Gospel excerpted above, Pilate asks Jesus whether or not he is a king, and Jesus responds with one of the best known verses in the Bible. In the older, and more familiar, King James Version, it is translated as “My kingdom is not of this world.”

That is often taken to mean that Jesus is concerned with “heaven” rather than with any earthly kingdom. But if that were the case, then he would not have told his followers to pray for the kingdom of God to come on earth. Jesus was telling Pilate that his kingdom was not like other kingdoms. It was not built on violence and oppression; it was built on non-violent justice.

Unfortunately, that is not a concept easily reduced to a bumper sticker or a sound-bite, and it is not surprising that when mainline pastors do venture into the political arena we are often misunderstood.

After the release of the famous Donald Trump video, Bishop John Schol, who is the United Methodist Bishop of the Greater New Jersey area, posted the following statement on Facebook: 

“Because of my role, I do not comment on political elections and candidates. But this is not a political commentary. It is a faith comment, a comment about the human condition. The recent revelation of Donald Trump’s view of women as sex objects goes against the Scriptures and who God created us as female and male. While we know there are men everywhere who think and talk about women in this way, these comments should never go unchecked whether in private conversation or public conversation. The world needs people everywhere to denounce such comments and call for just treatment of women everywhere. When these comments go unchecked, they give permission for the physical, sexual and emotional abuse of women. The world needs all of us to be better and do better.”
He received many positive responses, but he also received a huge amount of pushback.

Some comments criticized him for making a political statement. Others criticized him for taking sides, or for focusing on words rather than actions. And still others thought he should balance his criticism of Trump by criticizing Hillary Clinton for . . . something.

First, a criticism of Mr. Trump should not be interpreted as an endorsement of Secretary Clinton.

Second, it’s not just about what Mr. Trump said on the video; it’s about what he said he did. He said that he committed sexual assaults on numerous women.

Finally, we need to move beyond our obsessive need for a false equivalency. The video is lewd. And if you want more lewd comments from Mr. Trump, you can listen to what he said about his daughter on Howard Stern’s radio program. 

Some things are just wrong. 

All by themselves.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, and the Forty-Seven Percent

When Mitt Romney spoke about the "forty-seven percent," 
I doubt that he had Donald Trump in mind.
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
James 2:1-4

We tend to favor the rich.

And we have always favored the rich.

The biblical witness, on the other hand, consistently presents an alternative vision. From the Torah through the prophets, to Jesus and the early church, the Bible argues against our bias.

The poor, says the Bible, are blessed by God precisely because they are not blessed by us.

Four years ago Mitt Romney translated our bias into political language when he made his famous observation about the forty-seven percent of Americans who paid no income tax and would vote for President Obama because they were dependent on government. This was his analysis:
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, he starts off with a huge number.
“These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. So he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people.
“I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not.”
Romney made two claims in his analysis. First he claimed that the 47 percent who pay no income tax are “dependent upon government.” And second, he claimed that because they are dependent on the government they will vote for the politicians, like President Obama, who support the programs on which they depend.

Both claims are mistaken.

About half of those who pay no income tax are working people whose incomes are so low (typically below $27,000) that they do not owe any income tax. They do pay other taxes (Social Security, Medicare, excise taxes, property taxes, and sales taxes), but they do not pay income tax. Some receive government benefits and others do not. Others who pay no income tax are seniors on Social Security and those whose deductions and credits eliminate their tax liability.

The forty-seven percent do not vote as a block. Nearly half of them typically vote for Republican candidates. The ten states with the highest percentage of individuals and families owing no federal income tax all traditionally vote Republican, and conversely all of the ten states with the lowest percentage of those with no tax liability typically vote Democratic.

Apparently, Donald Trump is one of the estimated 7,000 families and individuals making more than a million dollars per year and not paying any federal income tax. In Mr. Trump’s case it is possible that he has not paid income tax in nearly two decades.

What is most striking in this is that our reaction to a rich person paying no taxes is so very different from what we think when a poor person is doing the same thing. The rich person, we think, is smart. The poor person is characterized as a freeloader.

A friend who works in a very lucrative field and is very good at what he does observed that, “It’s amazing; when you’re rich everybody wants to give you stuff.”

Sometimes the free stuff is given in the hope that the rich person will buy an expensive car or house or boat. Other times the free stuff comes along because rich people are friends with other rich people who give them the use of a yacht or a summer home.

When a poor person gets something for free, we worry that they will become “dependent.” When a rich person gets something for free we somehow think they have earned it.

At some point, if we are Christians we need to ask ourselves the biblical question, “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?"

Thank you for reading this post. Comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Dealing with Bullying and Religion

Outsports founder Cyd Zeigler Marries His Partner Dan Pinar 
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Exodus 20:7

Cyd Zeigler was the first person I knew personally who could dunk a basketball. As basketball players go, Cyd was not very tall by today’s standards. I’m guessing he was 6’2” or so. And he played center. Today there are taller high school guards. But in the Cape League in the late 60’s he was tall, and he could jump. He was also a very nice guy.

His son, also named Cyd Zeigler, was an even more accomplished athlete in high school. He led the Harwich High School track team in scoring for three straight years and he set two high school records. He went Stanford University and became a very successful sports journalist.

The younger Cyd Zeigler is gay.

He founded with Jim Buzinski, with whom he also co-authored a book “The Outsports Revolution: Truth & Myth in the World of Gay Sports.” He broke the story or John Amaechi coming out as a gay professional basketball player as well as the coming out of Michael Sam. He has been on ESPN, MSNBC, and Fox News. In the world of gay sports and sports writers, Cyd Zeigler is a big deal. 

He will return to Cape Cod on October 6 to speak at a special program called “Identifying the Intersection of Athletics, LGBTQ Diversity and Anti-Bullying Rhetoric.”

In an introduction to the event, he writes:
“From fourth grade until I graduated I was teased for being gay, despite not even knowing I had any attraction to boys until about eighth grade. As I succeeded more and more in sports, winning team MVP awards and setting school track & field records, the teasing abated the last few years of high school.
“. . . I hope the schools across the Cape . . . will send their student-athletes to this great event created . . . . and I hope some parents, coaches and teachers join us too. I know I'll be sharing some powerful stories . . . .”
It sounds like a great event and an important milestone in how our schools can support and affirm our LGBTQ youth. 

But I was particularly struck by this paragraph:
“Growing up a very closeted gay athlete in Harwich, Massachusetts, had a profound effect on me. My experiences in that small town on the Cape helped shape the person I am today, from dealing with bullies and religion to taking time to listen and learn.”
He will talk about “dealing with bullies and religion.”

As a Christian, I find the juxtaposition of “bullies” and “religion” heartbreaking.

In our increasingly secular age, Christianity specifically and religion generally, are often criticized. Many of these criticisms are false or misguided. 

But on this issue we are guilty as charged.

A century ago, perhaps even half a century ago, our embrace of a cultural taboo was understandable and unsurprising. There are many places where the biblical witness is no better than its cultural and historical context, and one of the great challenges of biblical interpretation is separating the passages which are time bound from those that speak across the ages. But on this issue our understanding has evolved over time. We know things now that we didn’t know even a few decades ago.

But we have been slow learners.

We have bullied our LGBTQ youth. And we have done it in the name of God.

That last part is what the Bible calls “blasphemy.” 

We have made “wrongful use of the name of our LORD.”

Our religious bullying has left a trail of broken hearts and minds and bodies from coast to coast and around the world. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that even now there are people who call themselves Christian who persist in this profoundly unchristian oppression and harassment. 

In a video about the event, Zeigler says that as a young person he was “very religious.” I have no idea where he might be now in his spiritual journey, but he must have lived through a very painful time as he came to terms with his sexual orientation. I cannot help thinking how different his growing up might have been if his religious experience had been more open, accepting, and affirming.

Beyond the unconscionable pain inflicted on LGBTQ youth and their families, the Christian church has done great damage to its place in the world. 

If you belong to a church, by which I mean a local church, you know that it is a remarkable place. At its best it really is the body of Christ in the world. And as Saint Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” At its best, the church is a place of healing and wholeness, where people accept us as we are and help us to grow into our best selves.

The Christian Church has never been perfect. From the smallest individual local church to the largest denominations, there have always been flaws. But the church has also been a force for enormous good in the world.

That great legacy has been done great harm by our unfaithfulness on this one issue. Our failure on this issue has jeopardized our witness on everything else. 

This should not surprise us, “for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.”

Thank you for reading this post. Please feel free to comment here or on Facebook. Please share on social media as you wish.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
Genesis 22:1-2

Last Sunday I talked about Abraham and Sarah.

There is a wonderful scene where the “messengers of God” come as strangers to visit them by the oaks of Mamre, and they repeat the promise that Sarah will conceive and bear a son whose descendants will become a great nation. As Abraham talks with the men, Sarah is inside the tent listening, and when she hears them tell Abraham that they will conceive a child now, at the age of ninety, she laughs. The strangers ask her why she laughs at the promises of God and she says she didn’t laugh. One of them repeats the promise and then ends the announcement saying, “But you did laugh.”

I love the image of Sarah, laughing at the promise.

That is one of the high points in the story. When the child is born, they name him Isaac, which means laughter.

But just a few verses later, the narrative turns dark and cold.

God calls Abraham to sacrifice his son. Some readers may be comforted by the notion that it is “a test,” but it is a monstrous test. And more than a few readers are likely to stop right there and give up on the whole biblical enterprise.

If one of the central stories is that immoral, how can the Bible claim any authority in our lives?

One interpretation notes that after this incident God never speaks to Abraham again and suggests that this is because Abraham so totally misunderstood what God was calling him to do. Another ancient commentary rebukes Abraham for his failure to argue with God for his son’s life, as he argued against the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Still others point to the last minute intervention:
‘But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.” (Genesis 22:11-13)
A Jewish prayer book instructs the reader to stand and take a few steps backward, as if staggered by the story. It is in so many ways incomprehensible.

As I researched interpretations, I came across a poem by Wilfred Owen, called “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.”

Owen was one of the great poets of the First World War. He was badly injured in battle and sent back to England to recover. The injury was more than enough to keep him at home, but he volunteered to go back to the front. He won honors for his gallantry in battle and was promoted to First Lieutenant. He was killed in action on November 4, 1918, exactly one week before the armistice. He was twenty-five years old. As the church bells were ringing to celebrate the end of the war, his mother received two telegrams, one told of his promotion and the other reported his death.

When I read the story of the Binding of Isaac, I am appalled, and I know that we modern people would never do anything so barbaric. 

But then I am brought up short by the last lines of Owen’s poem:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Of course, we tell ourselves, we would not sacrifice a single child. Yet the reality is that we have sacrificed millions to the god of war.

Over and over, the old men sacrifice the young men to the gods of Nationalism and Pride.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

John Silber and Bad Theology

Marsh Chapel with Memorial to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the foreground.
Hear, O Israel: The LORD your God is One. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9

On a beautiful day in early September in 1971 I sat in Marsh Chapel for the first time. Dean Walter Muelder smiled warmly as he welcomed the new class of students to Boston University School of Theology and introduced us to the incoming University President, John Silber. He spoke of Dr. Silber’s study of Kant’s philosophy, of the great leadership he had shown in his previous position at the University of Texas, of his intellect and his commitment to learning.

We gave him a standing ovation. 

And while we were still standing, Dr. Silber began to speak.

There were many, he said, who questioned whether the study of theology should even be part of a university or whether it might more appropriately be left  to what he called “the backwaters of civilization.”

I did not have a warm feeling.

We stood, awkwardly, waiting politely for him to indicate that we could be seated. He just kept talking. A few people sat down, but that seemed impolite. 

President Silber posed a question and asked for a show of hands. “How many of you believe that God exists?”

I was new to the study of theology, but I had read enough of Paul Tillich to know that the question was very poorly phrased. Existence is a limited and contingent category. God cannot “exist” in the way that other people and animals and things exist.

Reluctantly, I raised my hand. 

“I see,” said President Silber, “Now, how many of you believe that you can answer that question through rational inquiry?”

I lowered my hand. 

“Theoretically,” he said, we should see at least as many hands as before, plus a few who do not presently believe in the existence of God but are willing to submit that belief to rational inquiry and academic study.”

No, I thought. Wrong again. This is not a question that can be answered through academic research or analysis. It’s an existential question. What we can do intellectually is to frame the question, and put ourselves in a position to answer it in our lives.

Then Dr. Muelder interrupted and invited us to be seated. The Dean was no longer smiling.

And all at once, that was my introduction to Boston University School of Theology, John Silber, and bad theology.

My first impression of President Silber was confirmed by his relentless antipathy toward the School of Theology. My impression of Dean Muelder as an academic functionary was completely wrong. It did not take long for me to realize that he had an incredible grasp of philosophy and theology and could bring that to bear on any discussion or inquiry. 

But I totally missed the significance of John Silber’s question.

I had been exposed to bad theology before. I probably heard some of it from well-meaning adults. I certainly heard it from other children in elementary school, and I’m sure I offered my own versions back to them. 

But this was the first time I heard bad theology from a well-educated adult, and I did not recognize how much of a problem that would become. 

To be fair, it could have been a lot worse. Silber did not ask, “How many of you believe in a god?” 

I’m not sure how we got there, but that’s where we are. The truth is that even within the church, we do not do theology very well anymore.

Paul Tillich pointed out that when we speak of “God,” we are always speaking symbolically. We do not really have a word for that reality. And so he spoke of God as the Ground of Being, Being Itself, and Ultimate Reality. 

Tillich liked to speak of faith rather than belief, because believing is generally associated with a conviction or certainty that something is true although it cannot be proven. Faith, for Tillich, is ultimate concern; it is being grasped by ultimate questions.

But setting aside Tillich’s aversion to the word “belief.”

We do not believe in “a god.” 

We do not even believe in “a God.” 

We believe in God.

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