Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What Would Earl Warren Do?

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.
Isaiah 11:2-4a

It has been almost forty years since Earl Warren died. In my earliest memory, I thought his name was "Chief Justice Earl Warren." I don’t remember whether or not I was surprised to discover that he was not a Native American. Later, I remember the bumper stickers that said, “Impeach Earl Warren.” They were rare on Cape Cod, and more of a curiosity than anything else.

Earl Warren was a Republican, appointed Chief Justice by President Eisenhower after serving three terms as Governor of California. In the second election he was unopposed in the general election, having won the nomination of the Republican, Democratic and Progressive parties. Before serving as Governor, he was the Attorney General, and before that he was a district attorney, known for his skill and toughness.

Sadly, as Attorney General, Warren was the driving force behind the compulsory internment of Japanese citizens during the Second World War. He was convinced that Americans of Japanese ancestry could not be trusted to be loyal to the United States and that the internment was an act of self defense by the government. In his memoirs, Warren wrote of his deep regret regarding "the removal order and my own testimony advocating it, because it was not in keeping with our American concept of freedom and the rights of citizens...Whenever I thought of the innocent little children who were torn from home, school friends, and congenial surroundings, I was conscience-stricken.”

As a young person, I believed deeply in the goodness of the Supreme Court. They were the keepers of the flame of liberty. They were the ones who would keep us on course. And I believed that when a person was appointed to the court, he (or later, she) would feel the gravity of that sacred office and rise above partisanship. In those days I had a very idealized view of history, and I had no trouble believing that decisions like “Dred Scott,” or “Plessy v. Ferguson” were aberrations, and that “Brown v. Board of Education” was and would always be the norm.

I have been reflecting on the debt we owe to “The Warren Court.” Without their ruling on segregation, it is hard to imagine the Civil Right Act. And it’s hard to imagine the subsequent Civil Rights gains for women and more recently for gays and lesbians. Our expanding view of equality is a legacy of the Warren Court. Earl Warren and his colleagues were in the right place at the right time.

One suspects that the outcome would have been very different if the Warren Court had ruled on “Citizens United,” and on the related case in Montana.

And it is interesting to wonder how the Roberts Court would have decided on “Brown.” In one sense that’s not really possible even to imagine, since the Roberts Court would be very different without that decision. Justice Thomas certainly would not be on the Supreme Court without Earl Warren’s leadership on “Brown.” And we probably would not have any women, either.

If the Warren Court were considering the Affordable Care Act, I think the Chief Justice would have to recuse himself. One of Earl Warren’s unsuccessful initiatives as Governor of California was universal health care.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Believing Is Overrated

24“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
28Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
Matthew 7:24-29

My friend Bill Flug sent me a story from The Times-Picayune about a former pastor telling the convention of the American Humanist Association how he became a nonbeliever.

Jerry DeWitt, the former pastor, said that his doubts grew gradually. First, he had trouble reconciling the concept of hell with the idea of a loving God. Then he began to doubt the reality of miracle healings, and eventually he doubted the literal understanding of the scriptures. The final break came when a friend called and asked him to pray for a family member. DeWitt said that he just couldn’t do it. And he knew that it was over.

Within the Pentecostal fellowship in which he served, those were critical failings. But in the larger context of Christian faith, there are plenty of Christians who do not believe in hell, believe that the truth of the Bible transcends a superficial literalism, and never did believe in a supernatural theism. The prayer piece might seem more problematic, but even there, the Apostle Paul said, “We do not even know how to pray . . . but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs to deep for words.”

What struck me was the emphasis on Christians as “believers.”

In the closing verses of the Sermon on the Mount quoted above, Jesus tells his disciples about building their houses on rock. A common interpretation is that he is telling them to build their lives on the rock of faith, which is believing in Jesus. But that is not at all what he says. For Jesus, the rock that can withstand the storm is acting on Jesus’ words. The important thing is not believing, but doing. In the context of his teaching, the “storms” represent the difficulty of living in a way that is contrary to the violence and oppression of the Roman Empire.

The transition from “doers” to “believers” begins in the New Testament itself.

In the Gospels, the followers of Jesus are known as disciples, a term that extends beyond the twelve who are named. And they are also known simply as followers. After his crucifixion and resurrection, they are sometimes known as “Followers of the Way” (the “Way” is Torah) and they are eventually called “Christians,” but the most common designation in the Book of Acts is “believers.”

They were called believers because they believed his teachings and were living them out. We can see this in the descriptions of how they lived together and how others reacted to them. In one way or another, they had encountered the Risen Christ, and that encounter convinced them that his teachings were the way of truth. In a way that they could not explain, he had triumphed over the powers of darkness and injustice. This meant that they were called to live as he lived. The significance of their belief was that it called them to action.

Over the intervening centuries the existential commitment to follow Jesus has devolved into an abstract belief about him. Abstract belief was not what the Book of Acts described as “turning the world upside down.” The emphasis on believing allows us to make peace with almost anything.

A closing footnote: I could not read the article about that Louisiana pastor addressing the convention of the American Humanist Association without reflecting on the name of the group and its description. In the newspaper article the convention is described as a gathering of “atheists, agnostics, humanists and other nonbelievers.” I remember my friend Kent Moorehead saying on multiple occasions, “Isn’t every Christian necessarily a humanist?” You can be a humanist without being a Christian, but you cannot be a Christian without being a humanist. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What Do You See?

Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
9You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
10You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges,
softening it with showers, and blessing its growth.
11You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
12The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
13the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.
Psalm 65:8-13

Every once in a while I receive an email that ends with the instruction, “Forward if you believe in GOD!” Sometimes there are several exclamation points. Occasionally, there is a note warning me that “this is a test.” A few promise rewards for forwarding and penalties for failing to forward.

I never forward any of them. But they often provide occasions for reflection.

One of those emails tells the unlikely story of a teacher preparing to teach a classroom of six year-olds about evolution. The implicit assumption is that believing in God and evolution are mutually exclusive, which is nonsense, but that’s really not relevant to the story.

The teacher asks a little boy if he can see the grass outside and then asks him to go outside and look up at the sky and then come back and tell the class what he saw. (I know, you’re thinking that if you send a 6 year-old boy outside on a nice day there is no way he’s going to just look up at the sky and then run right back to the classroom. But I already said that it’s an unlikely story. You’ll just have to pretend that he would come right back.) When he gets back, she asks if he saw the sky, which he did. Then she asks if he saw God in the sky, and he says that he didn’t. “Well,” says the teacher, “maybe the reason you didn’t see God is because he isn’t there. Maybe he doesn’t exist.”

At this point a little girl raises her hand and asks if she can ask the little boy some questions. First, she asks him if he can see the teacher, and he says that he can. Then she asks him if he can see the teacher’s brain, and he says that he can’t. “Then,” says the little girl, “according to what we were just taught, maybe that’s because she doesn’t have one!”

The story is smug and offensive on several different levels. And the point, of course, is that just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. But my reflections took me in the opposite direction.

For some of us, when we look at the sky, we do see God. We don’t see God “in the sky,” and we don’t believe that the sky is God, but when we look at the sky we see God. When I was growing up on Cape Cod, I would look at the ocean, vast and mysterious, serene and powerful, and I wondered if I could ever have the same spiritual experience away from the shore. Later I was surprised to hear that other people felt that way about the mountains, or the forest. When I went to Israel with a group of rabbis I marveled that they felt the same way about the desert wilderness that I did about the ocean. And then I went to the wilderness and I understood. On a clear summer night in those places where there is not too much light pollution, I am amazed to see the Milky Way stretching out almost beyond imagination.

Thomas Altizer said that God is present “in every human hand and face.” I don’t know whether this looking and seeing comes naturally to some people and not to others. Some of my more spiritually gifted friends speak of the practice of “mindfulness,” an active open attention to the present moment and an intentional awakening to that experience.

What do you see when you look at the world around you?

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Limits of Doctrine

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30

William Willimon, the most widely published United Methodist Bishop, is retiring from his episcopal responsibilities and returning to teaching at Duke Divinity School. In an interview published in The Christian Century, he commented on a broad range of issues relating to the work of a bishop and the ministry of the United Methodist Church.

He was asked whether in his role as Bishop he would have removed a pastor who had “recanted doctrinal vows he or she had solemnly pledged to honor.” “Absolutely,” said Willimon, “tell me you have misgivings about the Trinity or trouble believing in the bodily resurrection and I’ll help you find less intellectually challenging work—like being a Republican candidate for president.”

Throughout his career, Willimon has been known more for his wit than his wisdom, and if one assumes that he was trying to be funny about the Republican candidates, then maybe he was just kidding in his doctrinal illustration.

If he wasn’t kidding, then it’s troubling to think that having “misgivings about the Trinity or trouble believing in the bodily resurrection” would be grounds for dismissing a pastor.

In the first place, Methodists have never been greatly concerned about doctrine. We are united in a general affirmation that Jesus is the Christ, but widely divided about precisely what that means.

In the second place, if “misgivings” can be grounds for dismissal, then it will be difficult to have really honest conversation with one’s bishop, who is supposed to be a “pastor to the pastors.”

But there’s more.

This coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday. I’m guessing that the average United Methodist lay person doesn’t know that and doesn’t care. The Trinity has a strong tradition as church doctrine, but it is connected to the biblical witness of the early church by the thinnest threads of biblical evidence.

The Trinity does represent an important truth: we experience God in different ways. The traditional formulation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, reminds us that we experience God as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. But to the average person, the doctrine of the Trinity often sounds like a belief in three gods, rather than three experiences of the One.

Willimon’s second example of denying a doctrine is described as “having trouble believing in the bodily resurrection.” Nothing is more central to Christian faith than the resurrection of Jesus. The Gospels are written by people who are convinced that they have met the risen Christ. That encounter vindicates everything that Jesus taught. They are clear that they are not just talking about a memory, and they have not encountered a ghost. His presence is real.

Expressing that reality in a way that it can be understood is not easy. Clearly, we are not talking about a resuscitated corpse. The Gospel descriptions never confront the issue head on. We see an empty tomb and we hear a voice. He approaches two of them on the road to Emmaus, and they talk for hours before they recognize him in the breaking of bread. When Paul describes his encounter on the road to Damascus, he claims that the appearance to him is just the same as previous appearances to other disciples. There are no words to describe the experience which has turned their world upside down.

More than half a century ago, the great theologian Paul Tillich argued that Jesus had come to free us from what he called, “The Yoke of Religion.” He described the predicament of modern “man” this way:

“The religious law demands that he accept ideas and dogmas, that he believe in doctrines and traditions, the acceptance of which is the condition of his salvation from anxiety, despair and death. So he tries to accept them, although they may have become strange or doubtful to him. He labors and toils under the religious demand to believe things he cannot believe.”

In Tillich’s time, there were many church goers who labored and toiled under the religious demand to believe things they could not believe. In our time some of those people are searching desperately for a way to reconcile their faith with ancient doctrines, while many others simply leave the church. For such people, a pastor with “misgivings” about those doctrines may be exactly what they need.

When Jesus called his disciples, he did not demand that they believe something, only that they follow him. That is still our invitation.