A primary purpose of religion is to help people understand their purpose and the broader purpose of human life itself.
It was the latter question that New York Times columnist David Brooks (left or top) and Yale theologian Miroslav Volf (right or bottom) took up last week in a Zoom webinar sponsored by the Country Club Christian Church of Kansas City, which is doing various kinds of programming to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding. You can see a video recording of the hour-long conversation here.
It was exactly the kind of programming that faith communities should be offering to the public, to say nothing of to members of their own congregations. It used theological and educational sources to draw people into the kinds of deep questions that too often they either avoid or don't think to ask, given that they're often distracted by some reality show on TV or their incessant Twitter feed.
In his columns and books, Brooks, who was born into a Jewish family in New York City but who in more recent years has embraced Christianity, has dealt increasingly with these broader questions of life and its purposes. And Volf, who teaches theology, has spent most of his life on these questions, as shown in a book of his I reviewed here in late 2019, For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference. In it, he and his co-author try to describe what it means to live a "flourishing life," the kind of life to which God calls all people.
One of the points Brooks made in the webinar is one lots of people are loathe to accept, which is that we're usually formed not by moments of joy and celebration but, rather, by moments of suffering.
"You see deeper into yourself than you do in the normal days of happiness," Brooks said.
We need not, of course, seek out suffering. As Matthew 6:34 quotes Jesus as saying, "Each day has enough trouble of its own." In the old King James Version that was rendered "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."
But when suffering happens, we should pay attention to what it's telling us. And we should be aware when others are suffering because surely one of the purposes of a life worth living is to be a healing presence to those in crisis. That, too, is how, as Brooks says, suffering helps us see deeper into ourselves.
I was especially intrigued by the way Volf described the distressing way in which the message of the life of Jesus has been missed by so many.
"My experience of today's culture," Volf said, "is this: That Jesus has become a moral stranger to us. What he thought was important we generally think it isn't important. What we think is really important, he generally thought wasn't important." That's why, he said, he sees Jesus "losing attractiveness in the culture today."
One problem, of course, is that in many Christian churches the Jesus to whom people get introduced is the Jesus who tells them to do this or that or they'll end up in hell. Lots of us Christians believe that was far from his message. Rather, we think he was trying to tell us that the reign of God is coming but that we can live in that reign today by living lives of compassion, justice, mercy and love. It's not that this loving God is not also a god of judgment. Rather, it's that if Jesus, in Volf's words, becomes a moral stranger to us, we will be so focused on heaven that we'll be no earthly good, as a pastor friend of mine liked to say.
Well, you can listen to the Brooks-Volf conversation for yourself and draw your own conclusions. But if we don't spend at least a little time each day thinking about life's purpose and what we should be doing to advance that purpose, we will live an unexamined life. And, trust me, you cannot fully examine a life by reading about it on your social media feed.
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RELIGIOUS COMPLICITY IN THE 1/6 TERRORIST ATTACK
Did the media ministry known as "Focus on the Family," founded by James Dobson, help to promote the lies and conspiracy theories that eventually resulted in the Jan. 6 treasonous attack on the Capitol in Washington, D.C.? The author of this article finds lots of evidence that the answer is yes. Steve Rabey, a Colorado journalist, author and former seminary instructor, writes that "(i)n the months since the election, the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family has regularly provided election skeptics with plentiful ammunition and has embraced men and women in Congress who voted to overturn state election results. Meanwhile, Focus’s partner organization in Washington, D.C., the Family Research Council, continues to claim the election was stolen, and that Antifa — not Trump supporters — may have caused the Capitol attack on Jan. 6. There is no evidence to suggest Antifa led the attack, while FBI investigations have linked several militia and far-right extremist groups to the violence."
Rabey's piece includes mention of one of Missouri's senators, a leader in what I call the Putsch Caucus: "Sen. Josh Hawley’s (R-MO) decision to lead the Senate effort to overturn the Electoral College results for Biden have cost him supporters and even a book contract. His hometown paper said he 'has blood on his hands' and asked him to resign. But Focus is standing by their man, along with his wife Erin, an attorney who clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. Focus published a book for moms by Erin Hawley and has featured her on its radio programs. She has worked for the elite law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, but the firm scrubbed her name and bio from its website the day of the Capitol attack." None of this should surprise anyone who has ever listened to radio broadcasts from Focus on the Family or heard commentaries from Dobson. Still, it's disturbing and sad when religious groups become almost exclusively partisan, no matter which end of the political spectrum they choose.
(Also: Politico has done this helpful story about how people who identify as evangelical Christians sometimes confuse faith with patriotism and the damage that can do.)
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THE BOOK CORNER
God Is Just Love: Building Spiritual Resilience and Sustainable Communities for the Sake of Our Children and Creation, by Ken Whitt. As the U.S. makes a new beginning under a new president and as faith communities plan for new beginnings after emerging from the pandemic, Whitt, an American Baptist pastor, packs this small book with good ideas for getting things closer to right this time. Yes, the "Just" in the title, he acknowledges, could be translated "only," but it also is a reference to the loving justice of God. And Whitt encourages readers to find ways to offer just love to everyone, beginning with children.
Whitt's long-time interest in science, particularly on the cosmic scale, leads him to emphasize the idea that "life is impossible on this created world without destruction -- including those events that we call catastrophes." So out of the Big Bang comes a new world. And out of the Noahic flood comes a new chance. He asserts that "resurrection -- life arising from death -- is the way of the universe, the way of life on the planet Earth and the deep spirituality of my life."
A particular emphasis for Whitt is the idea with which Jesus began his ministry -- announcing that the reign of God is at hand. This divine kingdom, Whitt says, "is already within and among us in power." We simply must begin to live by the kingdom values of mercy, justice, compassion and love -- a high calling, indeed.
Whitt also complicates the thinking of readers when it comes to the biblical story of the flood: "God is love. The creation is good. But what happens within the heart of God when we are not good and not loving? God birthed a creation, a cosmic adventure. Can this birth be aborted?" I don't think Whitt is saying that God willingly performed an abortion via a flood to give the world a fresh start. But by raising that question in that way, the path is open for some deep and useful discussion about the role of death in the story of life.
This is a book youth leaders from houses of worship should find invaluable as they seek to guide young lives. But it's also encouragement for the rest of us to reimagine what our faith is calling us to think, be and do.