When one's theology runs into reality -- and changes

Sometimes it takes a crisis for people to see their theology clearly. And make no mistake. Everyone has a sense of theology. Everyone has some internal sense of how to answer the eternal questions, of how to describe God or why there's no god at all to describe.

TD-JakesBut that theology really doesn't get tested until it runs into some kind of challenge, some kind of catastrophe. It's then that you see whether your theology makes sense, whether it can offer explanations, even comfort.

The coronavirus pandemic was such an event for one of this country's best-known pastors, Bishop T. D. Jakes (pictured here). I found that surprising when I read this Atlantic article, which includes an interview with Jakes. I would have assumed that by this time in his career, Jakes would have run into many previous opportunities to rethink his theology. And perhaps he did. But he nonetheless still was one of the promoters of what has been called the "Prosperity Gospel," which suggests that God wants you to be rich and that if you're not rich you aren't living right.

As Jakes told The Atlantic's Emma Green, the pandemic "really makes you think through your theology. As a Christian, the one thing that is quite clear about the Christian message is that it does not hide itself from suffering and pain. When the emblem of your faith is a cross, it’s quite obvious. Suffering is center stage to our faith.

"It isn’t the contemporary theology of just blessings and gifts and promises. It is also seasoned, frequently, with the stoning of the disciples and the killing of members of the early Church. Pandemics are all throughout the Bible. When I looked at those scriptures, it really, really took my empathy toward the text to a different level. It’s one thing to know something intellectually. It’s another thing to say, 'Oh, that’s how they felt. This is how this feels.'”

I hope Jakes never loses that perspective. There are several things that make Christianity an extraordinarily difficult religion to follow. One is that followers of Christ are obliged to see the image of God in every other human being and to treat that person as a child of God. (Of course, we Christians regularly fail in that.) Another is what theologians call the old theodicy question, which asks why, if God is loving and powerful, there is suffering and evil in the world. Indeed, there is no fully satisfying answer to that question, and Christians ultimately must acknowledge that.

Jakes certainly is right, despite all of that and more, to say this: "But the other part of my faith that’s important is that ultimately, we may see suffering on Friday, but we see resurrection on Sunday. That’s the blessed hope of the Church: that there’s better ahead than there is behind us."

But it's theological malpractice in Christianity to preach the Prosperity Gospel, and those who do that need to look at their thinking about that through the lens of the pandemic, of death, of catastrophe and more.

T. D. Jakes seems now to get it. Let's hope others begin to get it, too.

* * *


I help to lead a weekly Bible study, and worry from time to time about how people will react to whatever chapter gets picked (sometimes by me) to read. I think I will share this Christianity Today piece with them so they'll know that there are no boring books in scripture. As the author writes, "The Bible isn’t boring. Even the parts that people always say are boring are weird, gripping, and awe-inspiring. If we let them, they will absolutely command our attention." Same with the Qur'an or with any sacred writ from any religious tradition. But if you're reading texts outside your own tradition, don't do it alone. Do it with someone who understands that tradition. Just recognize that if you choose a second person from that tradition to help you understand it, you won't get the same perspective.

Does the book of Revelation really matter?

The book of Revelation, the final one in the New Testament, has been argued about and caused considerable trouble (as well as insight) since it was written in roughly the year 100 C.E. by someone named John of Patmos (a different John from the one who wrote one of the four gospels).

Facing-apocalypseIndeed, it's an odd book, falling into the mysterious category of apocalyptic literature.

The great reformer John Calvin did not write a commentary about it. Some have speculated -- accurately, I suspect -- that this was because he just didn't get it, thinking it too far-fetched to be part of the canon. If so, he's far from alone.

And the person credited with starting the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, thought Revelation was among several "disputed books" in the Bible, and he, too, failed to honor it with a commentary. As he once wrote, "I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic."

And yet Revelation continues to be read and continues to both baffle and enlighten. For instance, the leader of the Branch Davidians, David Koresh, found himself in Revelation and, as a result, the federal government attacked the group's home outside of Waco, Texas, resulting in the death of dozens, including Koresh. (My articles explaining what happened to the Branch Davidians can be found in my first book, A Gift of Meaning.) And over and over, self-appointed prophets dig into Revelation and imagine that they've found a key to predicting the end of the world. At least they've all been consistent -- consistently wrong.

But we now are in an era when -- like the early 1980s, when nuclear annihilation seemed possible, if not probable -- some sort of apocalypse (in this case meaning a dramatic conclusion to life as we know it) also seems not a wildly wrong idea. With that in mind, Catherine Keller, who teaches theology at Drew University, has written a book that in some ways mirrors Revelation in its ability to puzzle even as it offers wisdom and insight.

It's called Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy and Other Last Chances, and it's not for everyone. In fact, her cryptic writing style and her attraction to such made-up words as "dreamreading" and "S/Word" and "recapocalypse" may limit the readership of this book to other academics who can follow her meaning more easily than the average Christian in the pews of the average congregation. Which is too bad, given that many such people could use a good course on Revelation and what it might mean for today and tomorrow.

But while doing work in her field of theology, Keller says she discovered that "I couldn't simply write off the last book of the Bible -- despite its bitter determinism, its misogynist, good/evil dualism, its forecasts of violent mass death. There was something more to its radical vision." Indeed, she found that every important social or political movement "tapped apocalyptic metaphors of great tribulation and transformation" as each drew from the ancient Jewish prophetic tradition.

So she invites us to return to Revelation to see what patterns we can see that might in some way be instructive about the series of crises -- ecological, racial, economic, political, military and on and on -- we face today.

That invitation, she makes clear, does not mean that we should find Revelation full of predictions of the future. That road leads to trouble and confusion. Rather, she suggests we be mindful of John's situation and imagine how his ways of confronting the murderous beast that was Rome in his time might help us confront our own modern beasts.

Again and again she insists that "prophecy" does not mean "prediction." Indeed, when we speak of people of faith having prophetic voices today we don't mean they can predict the future. Rather, we mean they can and do point out what is breaking God's heart and telling us that whatever that is must also surely break ours.

So she writes that "prophecy true to its tradition anticipates much but remains irreducible to factual prediction."

Keller is no happy optimist about the future of either humankind or the creation itself. At the end of the book she outlines several possible scenarios for the future, including the complete annihilation of humanity. But she opts for a more hopeful vision of a transformation in how humans live so that we don't make planet Earth or the wider cosmos uninhabitable. We'll see. But just waiting to see won't help. We must understand our various crises now and act quickly to prevent even worse.

Now that's a prophetic message.

* * *


Recently here on the blog I wrote about the shrinkage of membership in congregations that are part of the Southern Baptist Convention. One of the matters causing turmoil in that denomination is the recent decision by Russell Moore, a top leader, to leave the SBC and what he has said on the way out. This Atlantic article explores all of that. As that article notes, "The publication of an extraordinary February 24, 2020, letter by Russell Moore, one of the most influential and respected evangelicals in America (and a friend), has shaken the Christian world." Well, at least the American evangelical, or conservative, branch of that world. There's frankly only limited overlap and contact between the various branches of Christian denominations in America, and even then it's mostly at the level of leadership. So my guess is that the average person in a pew in a United Methodist or a Presbyterian congregation in the U.S. doesn't know anything about Moore and his resignation. And yet, there are lessons to be learned by all, so all would do well to pay attention.

Theologians challenge the Vatican on LGBTQ+ issues

If the Vatican ever changes its teaching that homosexuality is "objectively disordered," (ask me about this in 50 or 100 years) it may be in response to serious theologians who are telling church leaders that their understanding is not biblical. (When you click on the link in the previous sentence, look for number 2358 in the church's catechism.)

Gay-CandlesThe National Catholic Reporter recently reported this: "An international group of theologians and scholars released an academic statement on May 4 alleging inconsistencies in the Vatican's arguments against same-sex relationships, and urging the church to review its stance in light of modern research."

I'm pleased that these theologians are saying essentially what I've been saying for years in this essay on my blog.

As the NCR piece reports, "The authors argued that the Bible never condemns consensual, faithful same-sex relationships. They also said evidence that non-heterosexual orientations occur naturally and the fact that the church allows infertile straight couples to marry undermine the Vatican's natural law arguments against same-sex relationships."

As I argue in my essay on this subject, one of the things that concerned the Apostle Paul wasn't what today what we would consider a committed same-sex relationship. Rather, he was concerned about the practice of pederasty, in which adult men would have sexual relations with adolescent boys. It was not consensual and never between equal partners. But the practice was widespread in the Greco-Roman world. Paul said followers of Christ should recognize it as evil and not participate. But that was in no way a condemnation of homosexuality as such, a concept that we're only now beginning to understand in much detail.

The Vatican almost asked for this kind of challenge when earlier this year it said that priests can't perform same-sex marriages because the church "cannot bless sin." The idea that two people loving each other is a sin should strike people of all faith traditions as weird.

Many Mainline Protestant denominations have wrestled with what to do about this subject, most of them finally seeing the light that there's no way to make a strong biblical case against homosexuality. Perhaps if the Vatican pays attention to the scholarship represented by the theologians who created the latest statement about this instead of paying attention to a sad history of oppression of gay people, it will change its mind, too.

Or maybe the church should just stick with what Jesus said about being gay. Which was nothing. Nothing at all.

* * *

Saint Nicholas 1


St-nicholasA church badly damaged in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine, after a long and arduous fund-raising effort, is close to reopening, the Greek Orthodox Diocese of America reported recently. The diocese said that the total raising now is at $95 million and that "funding has accelerated over the past year, with $55 million raised since January 2020 and $8.5 million in the past two months alone." The press release to which I've linked you reports this: "Construction on the National Shrine continues, and the exterior is expected to be completed by September 11, 2021. The Church will open completely in the Spring of 2022." I viewed some of the damaged church the last time I visited Ground Zero.

Cover-lle-hi-res This faith community's trauma is just one more example of what happens when religious fanatics act on their destructive beliefs. The 9/11 terrorist attacks, as you no doubt recall, resulted in the death of nearly 3,000 people, including my nephew, a passenger on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center. I tell that story in my new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. I also explore there the question of how people get drawn into extremism and what we can do to stand against such radicalism. I've linked you to the book's Amazon page, but if you want an autographed copy, email me at wtammeus@gmail.com and I'll tell you how we can work that out.

(The image of what the church will look like when completed [small photo on the right] came from this site. The large photo above of the church under construction was shot June 2 and its credited to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.)

An incredibly shrinking Christian denomination

There's no doubt that the Covid pandemic has been enormously challenging for religious congregations, especially those that went into this frustrating time knowing little about technology.

SBC-logoBut Covid should be considered only one factor -- and relatively small at that -- in the decline in membership among Protestant congregations and especially in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

As this RNS story reports, since 2006 the congregations in the SBC have lost a total of more than 2 million members, going from 16.3 million members to just over 14 million.

The denomination, once a leader in attracting new members, is bleeding Baptists. Of course, it's not alone in this kind of decline. Mainline Protestant congregations and denominations have been experiencing similar drop-offs for decades. And perhaps the only reason the number of Catholics in the U.S. hasn't dropped in the same way is because of immigration.

The RNS story to which I've linked you, mentions several reasons for the decline peculiar to the SBC: "Southern Baptists, long known for denominational infighting, have seen several high-profile departures of leaders in the past year, including Bible teacher Beth Moore, ethicist Russell Moore and a number of Black pastors. The SBC has also faced controversy over revelations of abuse, disputes over support for Donald Trump and a debate over critical race theory."

I once dropped out of church, starting roughly with my first year in college. And I remained out for about a dozen years. Why did I leave? I was convinced the church was full of hypocrites. In my small hometown, I knew the people in the congregation and knew what they did on Monday through Saturday. A lot of that I couldn't square with what they professed to believe on Sunday mornings.

So I walked away. Only later did I come to realize that I was among the hypocrites and that, as the old saying goes, the church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners.

What I have heard anecdotally a lot in recent years is that people are leaving the church because sometimes what it teaches doesn't match up with the Jesus they have come to know in the Bible. When the church oppresses members of the LGBTQ+ community or women or people of color or immigrants, the only rational conclusion to draw is that the church isn't following Jesus. And if that's the case, who would want to be a member?

When people abuse religion -- such as voting for people whose lives contradict almost every value for which the religion allegedly stands -- it hurts not only that particular religion but religion generally. That's part of what's happened in recent years in response to the overwhelming support white evangelical Christians have given to former President Donald Trump. As the RNS story indicated, that's part of what's driving people out of the SBC.

Whether that denomination -- and religion in general -- can recover from all of this is unknown. Stay tuned.

* * *


Continuing the theme here today: Another factor in church membership shrinkage may be related to what RNS reports in this story: "(N)ine out of ten young people say they didn’t hear from a religious leader during the pandemic." And yet, the story says, most of them didn't lose their faith. But it's going to take a major effort to reintegrate these younger members into congregations (of whatever faith tradition) now that the pandemic has begun to ease. If that doesn't happen, the future for many congregations and traditions looks even dimmer.

Working against what the pope calls 'ideologies'

Christian churches around the world celebrated Pentecost last Sunday, May 23. The day, 50 days after Easter, often is called the "birthday of the church."

PentecostIt's a simplistic label, given that it took as long as 100 years or longer in some places for what became Christianity to separate itself decisively from its root religion, Judaism.

The story of Pentecost is found in the New Testament book of Acts. That story says that on that day in Jerusalem followers of the resurrected Christ experienced the presence of God in a special way -- as the Holy Spirit, one of the three persons of the Holy Trinity.

In many Mainline churches (like the Presbyterian denomination to which my congregation belongs), the Holy Spirit doesn't get a lot of attention, though in such branches of Christianity as Pentecostalism, the Holy Spirit nearly always takes center stage.

Pope Francis spoke about the Holy Spirit (sometimes known as the Holy Ghost) when he addressed a Mass on Pentecost at the Vatican.

The Holy Spirit, he said, “impels us to unity, to harmony, to the harmony of diversity. He makes us see ourselves as parts of the same body, brothers and sisters of one another.” Then he added something that people in our polarized world need to hear: "Say no to ideologies, yes to the whole.”

Ideologies, as I understand the pope's use of the term, means narrow, even extremist, thinking. And we're seeing the disastrous and violent results of such thinking across the globe. We saw it in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We saw it in the neo-Nazi who murdered three people in Kansas City in 2014. We saw it in synagogue and church shootings in recent years. And more.

Cover-lle-hi-resMy new book tells the story of the murder of my nephew on 9/11, but it goes beyond that to explore the question of how people get seduced into such monochromatic thinking and what, if anything, we can do about it. The last chapter of Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, proposes a handful of strategies that we can use to unplug extremism.

One of those strategies focuses on the importance of being religiously literate -- not just about our own faith tradition, if any, but also about other religions. The idea is that if we really know in some detail what others believe and how they act out those beliefs we won't be tempted to dismiss someone else's religion as a satanic tool that needs to be eliminated.

Ignorance produces fear, which can produce bigotry and violence. And all that is unnecessary.

In terms of Christian theology, as Pope Francis said, a relationship with the Holy Spirit should help us “embody the comfort" that the Spirit brings to us so we can bring it to others.

And if you're doing your best to comfort people, one of the results is that you're not planning their demise through violent, terroristic means. Pretty simple. Pretty hard. Pretty necessary.

(The Pentecost image above came from this site.)

* * *


In the year (2019) before the pandemic, more American Protestant churches closed than new ones opened, a new study shows. Probably that trend got worse in 2020, but without the data, that's just a guess. I think that what's being rejected here isn't religion in general or spirituality but, rather, institutional religion. Combine sexual scandals with financial scandals with theology that's so rigid it oppresses humans or so squishy that it doesn't stand for anything and people eventually will walk away from it. But at least this trend keeps scholars and surveyors employed trying to figure out why.

* * *

P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about the upcoming Auschwitz exhibit at Union Station in Kansas City -- now is online here.

A Muslim's argument for a theologically freer Islam

Fifteen or so years ago I attended a workshop in the Washington, D.C., area that focused on how Muslims in the U.S. were negotiating their place in our society. This included Muslims who were African-American and were converts to Islam but the primary focus was on the stream of Muslim immigrants.

Reopening-muslim-mindsOne of the questions we looked at was whether Islam is compatible with a political system based on democracy. The answer was a resounding yes, though some scholars and other speakers noted that some Muslims might have an approach to democracy that included a few wrinkles that normally wouldn't be found in how Christians, Jews and people of other religious traditions (and none) thought about how a democratic system is supposed to work.

For instance, some Muslims from such countries as Saudi Arabia might well be committed to a system of advisory councils that are used there to guide the government and might search for ways to use such councils in American democracy.

But just as followers of Islam were perfectly capable of living in a democratic political system, such as the American republic, so too are they capable of considering adjustments to the practice of their religion.

It's that latter idea that is at the heart of a new book I haven't yet had a chance to read but that I want to tell you about today by linking you to this interesting RNS story about it.

The book is called Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom and Tolerance, by Mustafa Akyol. The author gained fame as a columnist in his native Turkey. As the RNS story notes, "Today he is both a fellow of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., and a New York Times contributing opinion writer."

In essence, Akyol's new book argues that Islam should be open to less-rigid theological approaches than those often found in many of the more closed predominantly Muslim countries.

The RNS story quotes him this way: “This book, to some extent, grows out of disappointment with what happened in the Middle East over the past decade, including the failure of the Arab Spring, which saw an Islamic supremacist ideology gain prominence with groups like ISIS and at the same time an authoritarian retreatment such as in Egypt. This was unfortunate for those of us concerned about freedom in the Muslim world but, I also realized, there was a growing ethical gap within some puritan tradition of Islam in particular and wanted to look deeper into the sources.”

The RNS piece says that for Akyol the new book is "the latest in a career spent researching and making arguments for the compatibility of Islam with classical liberal values and the Enlightenment, following his previous works published in the West, Islam Without Extremes and The Islamic Jesus.

“One of the goals of the book is to make a case (that) ethical values come from human nature. Therefore those values exist beyond religious boundaries. Hence the book offers a deep criticism of the current parochialism in the world of Islam. And surely this is not a problem that is unique to Islam. Any community that rejects universal human dignity will breed intolerance and oppression.”

One of the things non-Muslims must approach with care is calling for what they might term a "Reformation" of Islam. One problem with using that term is that it draws a word that attempts to describe a particular historical development in Christianity and apply it to another faith tradition. Beyond that, of course, it's up to Muslims -- not Christians or followers of any other religion -- to suggest that Islam needs to adjust its thinking about this or that.

What I find encouraging about this new book (without, as I say, having read it yet) is that it demonstrates an intellectual vibrancy within Islam that avoids the destructive binary thinking found in such groups as al-Qaida and ISIS, which claim to be thoroughly Islamic but which violate many, if not most, of Islam's teachings.

* * *


Further evidence of what a disaster Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been as the leader of India is that he's ignored Muslims from Pakistan who can and want to help with the Covid crisis in India. As the RNS story to which I've linked you reports, "44-year-old Sufi Muslim philanthropist Faisal Edhi is ready to move his fleet of 50 ambulances and medical supplies like oxygen to India." But he can't do it yet because of silence from the recalcitrant Modi. How sad.

Why 'Christendom' is a threat to Christianity's core

"Christendom" is a term that has largely fallen out of favor -- mostly because what it attempts to describe really doesn't exist anymore. It used to refer to those areas of the world where Christianity was the dominant religion and where that religion set the parameters of the surrounding culture.

Cross-flagChristianity still is the most populous religion in the world, but its ability to define the cultures in which it's practiced now has been diminished -- in some places rather severely. That's not an entirely bad thing, especially in places where Christianity seemed to embed itself in the political instruments of state, given that the result often was compromising of Christian principles, standards and teachings.

Author David French, senior editor of The Dispatch and a columnist for Time magazine, explores the question of Christendom vs Christianity in this piece, asking, "Is American Christendom increasingly incompatible with American Christianity?"

French describes the difference between them this way: "Think of the distinctions roughly like this — Christianity is the faith, Christians are believers in the faith, and Christendom is the collective culture and institutions (universities, ministries) of the faith."

And even though participation in Christianity is slipping in the U.S. and its influence is declining, French rightly insists that "America possesses immensely powerful, immensely wealthy Christian institutions that may not be part of the state but in many places are strong enough to exercise power over the state. And they certainly create their own culture, a culture that shapes the daily lives of millions of Americans."

For French, real Christianity involves imitating Christ, which means being disciples of Jesus and living by the self-sacrificing values he demonstrated in his life and in his death.

That, he says, is where Christianity often gets compromised in favor of the culture of Christendom.

As French writes, "The true imitation of Christ becomes not wisdom, but folly. Many people may choose doctrine. Few people choose the cross. For who would really choose the cross when their ministry does such good, when it reaches so many people, and when it’s so very important to the soul of a nation?. . .Yet the institutions of Christendom should model the way of the cross if they’re going to preach the way of the cross."

None of this is simply worry over hypothetical situations. French puts it this way: "I have written time and again about the immense amount of Christian fear that motivated support for Donald Trump. Christians voted, it was said, in self-defense. Faced with an avalanche of fearmongering that falsely proclaimed an existential threat to Christian institutions if the Democrats won just one more presidential race, Christendom responded — we must live.

"And so the mighty power of tens of millions of American Christians was exerted on behalf of a cruel, incompetent man — a man whose vanity and ignorance contributed to the deaths of countless thousands of his fellow citizens."

Political choices made on the basis not of religious doctrine and values but of power and influence almost inevitably turn out to be damaging to the religion of the people who made those choices. People outside of that faith tradition see through the hypocrisy and the lusting after power. That, in turn, damages not only the reputation of the religion whose followers made that choice but of religion generally.

That should be more obvious than it seems to be.

By the way, a new study from Brown University suggests that political polarization is often a result of an intolerance of uncertainty. It's true of people who describe themselves as liberal and those who describe themselves as conservative, researchers found. One of the researchers put it this way: “This shows that some of the animosity and misunderstanding we see in society is not due to irreconcilable differences in political beliefs, but instead depends on surprising — and potentially solvable — factors such as the uncertainty people experience in daily life.” The problem, then, is that people dislike uncertainty, paradox, mystery -- anything but clear and concise answers and outcomes. And yet what is life if not the playing out of uncertainty, paradox, mystery and ambiguity? We need to find ways to teach people how to live with uncertainty without degenerating into simplistic thinking.

* * *


The primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall, famous for her work with chimpanzees, has won won the 2021 Templeton Prize. As this RNS story explains, it's given to people who "use science to explore humankind’s place and purpose within the universe." Think of it as an honor to people who imagine that science and religion have something to say to one another, as they do. What's important for scientists and people of faith (they're not mutually exclusive groups) to remember is that science tries to answer questions about what, where, how and when. Religion, by contrast, concerns itself with a question that science can't answer, the question purpose, the question of why the world, including people, is here at all. If each discipline stays in its lane while appreciating (and communicating with) the lane of the other, everything works better.

* * *

P.S.: Another cost of the fighting between Hamas and Israel has been that it has threatened interfaith cooperation, especially between Muslims and Jews, as this Associated Press story reports. Violence and war complicate everything. Everything.

A new snapshot of Jewish Americans today

Religious groups seem to attract surveyors and scholars like ants to a picnic.

Star-davidFor instance, the Pew Research Center regularly looks at the American religious landscape so you'll know that Orthodox Christians make up one-half of one percent of the population. You needed to know that, right?

And the Association of Religious Data Archives can tell you pretty much anything you want to know about religion in America (and a lot about religion around the world). Better yet, it includes links to many of the other surveys about religion.

So it should be no surprise that researchers -- in this case, from Pew Research -- would take a periodic look at Jews in the U.S.

In fact, Pew just released this large survey about that covering 2020. It's called "Jewish Americans in 2020."

One unsurprising conclusion is that older people in the Jewish community tend to identify as religious. By contrast, roughly 40 percent of Jews ages 18-29 do not consider themselves religious.

But it may be surprising to learn that "younger Jewish adults are much more likely than older Jews to identify as Orthodox."

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, has written this RNS piece in which he pulls out what he considers the take-aways from the Pew study. I've met Brad a few times, interviewed him and am impressed with his mind, so I know he's worth reading.

For instance, he writes this: "The Pew study repeatedly distinguishes between 'Judaism' — religious acts — and 'Jewish culture' — the many things Jews do that have Jewish meaning and significance but don’t include synagogue, liturgy or God.

"This is a potentially misleading dichotomy. . .The very distinction made between culture and religion assumes that there is a Jewish religion that is distinct from Jewish culture and implies that that culture does not accomplish many of the very things that religion accomplishes."

Good point. I know some Jews who make it a point to belong to a synagogue even though they rarely attend and would not describe themselves as "Torah-observant." But they belong out of a sense of solidarity with other Jews.

Hirschfield also expresses concern that many Jews seem more interested in their children marrying people who agree with them politically rather than those who are in Jewish harmony with them.

As he writes, "What’s most disturbing in this finding is that it indicates that politics has become the thing that stirs our passions, as religion used to. Our loves and our divides are based not on where we pray but on how we vote. That Jews feel this way, too, only means we are part of America in every sense of the word."

Such surveys -- of any religious group -- inevitably smooth over differences and fail to notice certain trends that are just showing up. But the Pew folks do a good job and this probably is as accurate picture of Jewish Americans as you're likely to get at the moment.

As Hirschfield notes, "More troubling is the gap between counting Jews and making Jews count. Data is never the whole story, nor what we do with survey numbers. . ."

* * *


One way to get an insight into the current fighting between Israelis and Palestinians is to listen to an Arab man from the area who would love nothing more than for some kind of permanent peace to exist between the two sides. This Forward piece quotes him at length on the situation on the ground there now. "This time," he says, "the wound is much much deeper than before. Luckily, we have a short memory, and maybe the memory of people in Israel, Jews and Arabs, is shorter than the memory of other nations around the world. That’s the blessing we have in the holy land." It reminds me of what I heard an Israeli historian say on NPR the other day: The Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which is a subset of the Israeli-Arab dispute, he said, is one that can be managed but not solved. I suppose that's true of life, too, but in this case not coming to some kind of peaceful resolution is continuing to cost precious lives while incompetent or uncaring leaders seem not to be held accountable.

Here's a more detailed picture of 'Christian nationalism'

The term "Christian nationalism" has been heard in the land a lot in the last few years. And many people are beginning to understand that those who identify as Christian nationalists believe that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation and that it should be a Christian nation today.

Christian nationalismPeople who disagree with that stance, in a sense, can take a hike, the nationalists believe. In the view of Christian nationalists, their version of Christianity should set the tone for society and establish the political goals of the entire nation.

But perhaps it will help to get a more detailed picture of what a Christian nationalist looks like and how he or she operates. So let's do that today by digesting this New Yorker article by Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Eliza Griswold, who writes about Doug Mastriano, a Republican state senator from Gettysburg, Pa.

Why focus on him? Well, as Griswold writes, "in the past year, he has led rallies against mask mandates and other public-health protocols, which he has characterized as 'the governor’s autocratic control over our lives.' He has become a leader of the Stop the Steal campaign, and claims that he spoke to Donald Trump at least fifteen times between the 2020 election and the insurrection at the Capitol, on January 6th.

"He urged his followers to attend the rally at the Capitol that led to the riots, saying, 'I’m really praying that God will pour His Spirit upon Washington, D.C., like we’ve never seen before.' Throughout this time, he has cast the fight against both lockdowns and Trump’s electoral loss as a religious battle against the forces of evil. He has come to embody a set of beliefs characterized as Christian nationalism, which center on the idea that God intended America to be a Christian nation, and which, when mingled with conspiracy theory and white nationalism, helped to fuel the insurrection."

It should not surprise you, given all that, that bills "that Mastriano supported in the legislature would have mandated teaching the Bible in public schools and would have made it legal for adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples, among other things," as the New Yorker story notes.

Nor should it surprise you that Mastriano has been promoting the idea that Muslims want to take over America and institute Shari'a law in place of the U.S. Constitution and that he has been repeating what's now being regularly and accurately called the "Big Lie" that Donald J. Trump won the 2020 presidential election. Indeed, Mastriano used campaign money to pay for half a dozen bus loads of pro-Trump supporters to come to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, the day of the insurrection at the nation's Capitol.

The New Yorker story is long and detailed, but it should give you a better sense of what Christian nationalism is all about. If you identify as a Christian and you object to the notion that this movement and stance is in any meaningful way Christian, then it's your job to speak out against Christian nationalism and do what you can to oppose it. Silence amounts to complicity.

(The image here today came from this site, which contains a useful United Methodist Church essay on Christian nationalism.)

* * *


David Clohessy, former national director of SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), has written this interesting RNS opinion piece saying it's time for Joe Biden, America's second Catholic president, to speak out and take action on behalf of victims abused by priests and protected by some bishops. Clohessy, whom I know, writes this: "In just a few weeks, Biden has shown both genuine compassion and impressive energy in addressing a myriad of serious problems. It’s time he do so with the most serious problem in his own church." And he offers a list of things Biden could do and say.

When religion leads its followers to binary thinking

One of the dangers of religion is that when not used carefully and thoughtfully, it can lead people into binary thinking.

Binary-thinkingWhich means we're faced with either good or evil. In religious terms, nothing is more good than God and nothing more evil than Satan. One lives in heaven and one in hell. 1 and 2. Black and white. Up and down. No third, fifth or 500th choice.

Reality, of course, is much more complicated than this-or-that thinking. And so are human beings. One of the reasons we Americans today are so politically divided (and divided in many other ways, too) is that many of us tend to engage in binary thinking that oversimplifies reality, thus misleading us -- sometimes on purpose.

I've been thinking about this problem a lot, but recently found some help by reading a book called The Happy Burden of History: From Sovereign Impunity to Responsible Selfhood. One of the four co-authors is someone I know, Andrew S. Bergerson, who teaches history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and whose area of expertise includes the Holocaust.

In writing about modern German history, the authors say this: "One source of confusion here is that we take human beings at their word when they claim to have a coherent self under their command. Historians, for instance, tend to label people as victims, bystanders or perpetrators; or try to determine, once and for all, if a given German was a real Nazi or just a collaborator.

"They treat the self as if it could be expressed as a simple identity like a = b. We presume a coherent self for at least two reasons. There is a sense of nostalgia for a non-fragmentary self, as if we had once been whole and that antediluvian self has not lost its coherence. There is also a contradiction between the whole self we think we want and the plural self that is the only kind we can have. Either way, the myths of a coherent, cohesive individual dangerously oversimplify the way we think about selfhood in everyday life.

"Human beings are compilations of multiple identities. We are necessarily composed of fragments by virtue of the fact that we act in a variety different ways in a variety of different situations, and these manifold deeds engender identities as divergent as philosopher and thief."

Which raises questions about how we judge and label people. Is someone who broke into a locked-up store to grab a rope to throw to a drowning person guilty of theft? Religion that leads to binary thinking doesn't help us answer that question. But religion that says human life is always more valuable than property gives us a good framework to use to come up with a useful answer.

So that leaves us with the task of evaluating what our religious tradition, if any, teaches us. If it teaches simplistic, binary thinking it will lead us astray eventually. If it teaches us core values that can help us make difficult judgments in a complicated non-binary world, then it's a healthy and helpful religion.

Our hunger for simplistic answers is understandable but ultimately such answers will hide more than they reveal and will leave us with a view of the world that is badly out of focus, inevitably causing us to make bad decisions.

(P.S.: Bergerson is scheduled to be one of the speakers in a series of talks that will accompany the "Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away" exhibit that opens June 14 at Union Station in Kansas City. My next Flatland column, scheduled to post May 30, will have some thoughts about that exhibit.)

* * *


How does change happen in institutional religion? Sometimes via people willing to challenge current rules. For instance, the Vatican says that Catholic priests are not allowed to preside at same-sex weddings. But as this RNS story reports, "Germany’s powerful Catholic progressives are openly defying a recent Holy See pronouncement that priests cannot bless same-sex unions by offering such blessings at services in about 100 different churches all over the country this week." Something similar happened in the 1960s when the Vatican declared that artificial birth control methods were forbidden. Especially in America, women defied that ruling in droves. The Vatican never changed its mind, but the practice changed in the U.S. Maybe that's what will happen in Germany now. And from there it may spread until the Vatican is following on this issue, not leading. It's not quite what's known as "civil disobedience," but it's close. Another example of a faith community defying the rules: The recent ordination of three women at a Southern Baptist church despite denominational rules against ordaining women to ministry.

* * *

: I am participating in a global conference on press freedom, focused on Turkey, that will stream on YouTube starting at 11 a.m. CDT this Saturday. The graphic here will give you the link to view the event.