No, I was not a divine prize given to reward my parents for good behavior.

Early-sibs

A few weeks after my birth, a woman named Caroline wrote to my mother to share some mediocre-to-bad theology.

It requires a bit of background information to understand. So:

When my oldest sister, Karin, was born more than six years before me, she emerged with a cleft lip. This made my parents a little skittish about moving ahead with their original plan to have four children. Still, my next sister, Barbara, appeared more than four years later, and she had both a cleft lip and a cleft palate.

Cover-lle-hi-resBoth girls required medical attention. In fact, my second sister had about five different operations at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. I quote her about that experience in my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. It was the son of Barbara and her husband Jim who was murdered in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He was a passenger on the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center.

When I was born two years after Barbara (I was either an accident or my parents decided to push their luck), I was physically perfect, as I like to tell my sisters (I have three now, including Mary).

So this woman Caroline, whose note I recently discovered as I was continuing the downsizing and sorting effort that has engaged my wife and me for a year or two now, wrote this:

"He (meaning me) is your reward, I believe, for taking the added expenses connected with Karin and Barbara so beautifully."

Let that sink in for a minute.

Caroline was telling Mom that God was giving her the gift of a human being as a prize for something she did. Well, that she and Dad did well.

I would call Caroline's simplistic and, frankly, appalling theology the opposite of what is sometimes called "Retribution Theology."

Here's a bit of what the editors of the Common English Bible (in a study edition) say about that:

"The books of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings. . .are based on a theology of retribution, or divine punishment. The people of Israel are in a covenant relationship with God. If the people obey God's expectations, then according to the Deuteronomistic theology, God's people will experience blessings in the land. If they are disloyal to God's love and worship other gods or fail to live according to the instruction. . .then God's people will experience curses. . .When significant numbers of people in Israel and Judah were conquered, killed and deported violently from their homes in 722 and 587 BCE, the religious leaders and prophets understood this catastrophe as divine punishment for breaking the covenant with the Lord."

The image of God in such a theology -- and in its opposite, a theology of rewards -- is rather different from the image of God proposed by much of Christianity and from the image of God to be drawn by paying attention to history. In history, though I believe that its arc points ultimately toward justice and mercy and love, the evidence is that people who break either civil or divine laws often prosper while people who faithfully keep such laws often end up in various states of loss or grief. Not always, but often enough to make one question a theology of either retribution or rewards.

That's why we say life is unfair.

I was proud of my parents for their love of and commitment to my older sisters as they worked through the medical problems with which they were born. But they weren't doing that to get brownie points with God. And they had no expectation that if they had a third child he or she would be a prize for previous behavior.

If that's how your god works, I'll pass.

I'm certainly not saying that God doesn't have rules. Or that God doesn't have expectations of us. Or that God can't or doesn't give us gifts. Every day is a gift. But Retribution Theology and Rewards Theology reduce God to a points keeper, to a goalie, to a divine Pez dispenser. Let's put it this way: The gospels say that Jesus did absolutely everything God wanted him to do every minute of every day. And yet what happened to him on what Christians call Good Friday?

* * *

A GRIEVING JEWISH COMMUNITY

The Jewish community in southern Florida has been particularly hard hit by the recent condo collapse, as this RNS story reports: "At least 50 of the total trapped in the collapse of the Champlain condo are likely Jewish, according to various lists that have been collected among Miami Jewish organizations." One synagogue in particular there looks like it will suffer the loss of many members. May the rabbis there have strength to minister to so many anguished people.

* * *

P.S.: If you missed my most recent Flatland column when it posted on Sunday, you'll find it here. It's about a support group for religious leaders -- who've really needed it in this time of Covid.


Is access to religious power in Israel about to change?

One of the things I've learned and admired about the Jewish community in Kansas City is that, despite theological differences within it, there is generally an attitude that allows Orthodox, Conservative, Reform (the most populous branch), Reconstructionist and others to work and live together in relative harmony.

Caesarea-8It's really quite inspiring, though I'm sure there are internal conflicts that non-Jews in the KC area simply don't hear about.

A recently arisen question is whether the newly formed government of Israel might allow a similar kind of respectful sharing relationship happen there instead of letting the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, be the privileged power brokers there.

This Religion News Service story delves into that difficult question.

As the story says, "Now that Israel’s new government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, includes a Reform rabbi but no Haredi parties, religion-and-state experts in the country are watching to see if groundbreaking legislation that many Israelis and Diaspora Jews have been yearning for is on its way."

The short answer is: Don't hold your breath. In fact, the coalition that makes up the new government is so diverse that it would not be surprising to see it fall apart relatively soon, giving the former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a chance to return to power, which he held for 12 years.

The story quotes Adam Ferziger, a professor of Jewish history and contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University, as saying he "believes the government will steer clear of major religious reforms, such as recognizing the authority of non-Orthodox rabbis, and instead chip away at the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly by offering modern Orthodox alternatives."

Here is a story that explains in more detail the rather remarkable power that the Haredi hold in Israel today.

There are, of course, theological divisions in almost all faith traditions, and sometimes those differences result in clashes that affect politics and culture in various countries. Sunni Muslims, for instance, rule Saudi Arabia, where there's essentially little or no space for Shi'a Muslims (or followers of any other religion, for that matter). In some states in the American South, the culture amounts to a landslide for Southern Baptists, just as Utah historically has been a place where members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have held religious, cultural and political power.

So in that sense Israel is not so different from lots of other countries except in the details.

But I keep thinking what a great model Israel could be for the rest of the world if religious, cultural and political power were more equally shared among the various segments of Judaism represented in that Jewish state. And yet, in the end I must ask myself why should I expect that of Israel when a similar sharing of that kind of power is so rare elsewhere in the world.

(The photo of the Israeli flag here today is one I took in Caesarea a few years ago.)

* * *

HOW CHURCHES WERE COMPLICIT IN MISTREATING INDIGENOUS CHILDREN

The appalling history of boarding schools in the U.S. and Canada that took Indigenous children (often against the wishes of their parents) and tried to turn them into white Christians finally is getting some national and international attention. As this RNS column notes, ". . .all too often when this conversation surfaces, it is directed toward the government and the harm done by those in power, while again and again, we have missed the role the church plays in the colonization of Indigenous peoples — including through boarding schools." The good news is that Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is herself Indigenous, recently announced what the RNS piece calls "a new initiative to investigate boarding schools here in the United States, which will reveal a part of our history we seldom talk about in schools, government or churches." Let's be clear that we must know our own history not so that we can denigrate our ancestors but so that we understand how things got to where they are today and so that we can do better. The story of boarding schools for American Indian children is terrible. So we must understand that history.

* * *

P.S.: A quick thought about Catholic bishops anxious to deny President Joe Biden Communion. Oh, come on. Jesus gave Communion even to Judas Iscariot. Notice, by the way, that one of the bishops pushing hard to deny Biden Communion is Archbishop Joseph Naumann of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.


What to do about racism? Here are some answers

Early in 2019, I reviewed an excellent book by Jemar Tisbey, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church's Complicity in Racism. You can read that review here.

How-to-fight-racismTisbey,  president of "The Witness: A Black Christian Collective," has a new follow-up book out that I've only read about, not read. But I have read this good interview with him in Christianity Today. And I invite you to give it a read, too, as an introduction to his book, How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice.

As I grasped his message in the first book -- and the message in the second book seems consistent with that -- it is not that American Christians (white, Black or other) should spend all their time bemoaning the often-racist history of the church. Rather, they should learn about that history, figure out what went wrong and then commit themselves not to repeat that history. And not just not repeat it but, rather, redeem it by creating a racially just church today, the kind that would make Jesus happy.

The new book, Tisbey says, "comes from the urgency that I felt about the need to take antiracist action."

(A few months ago I wrote this Flatland column about what my own [predominantly white] congregation is doing on that front. Perhaps our experience can be useful to you and your congregation, if any.)

Tisbey added this: "But the second impetus was that whenever I speak or teach about racism, the most frequent question I get is 'What do we do?' I love this question because it shows that people are seeing that racism isn’t just a past question but a present one, and it also shows that they want to be part of the solution."

Exactly the point. We can't change the past, but we can understand it. We can, however, change the future so that it reflects values that can undercut racist systems and help this country live up to some of it aspirational language in its founding documents.

There's a big role in this for people of faith because all the great world religions call on their followers to treat other people, regardless of skin color or anything else, as beloved children of God. The existence of racism in the first place is strong evidence that people of faith have failed at that task.

In the interview with Christianity Today, Tisbey makes something like that same point, but perhaps more subtly: "From a theological perspective, Christians understand that all reconciliation is relational, and this is the reason for the incarnation: God becoming human to reconcile humankind to God. But even from a sociological perspective, all reconciliation runs through relationships."

Which, of course, is why white people alone and black people alone can't solve this problem.

Tisbey puts it this way: "different groups — white people and Black people — approach the text with different priorities. And if you’ve only ever been exposed to one group’s priorities with respect to Scripture, then it becomes easy to see how another group’s priorities could be perceived as wrong or inferior or “politicized.” So, we need to study theology and to read Scripture in community, so that we are approaching the text in a broad manner that helps us see truths not available to us before."

I see in some places a growing momentum to address all this in an effective way, even as some segments of the population want to continue to deny there's a problem. (One of the issues in that regard is that Fox News has recently doubled down on being an unhelpful leader in the culture wars and has helped to make the up-to-now obscure academic approach to studying racism known as Critical Race Theory a major target, as Margaret Sullivan recently pointed out in this Washington Post column.) At any rate, let's hope solutions-oriented people win that tug-of-war.

* * *

ANOTHER CLERGY FAILING?

Here's a sad story about former Kansas City Royals infielder Ben Zobrist. He has sued his former pastor because of an affair that pastor had with Zobrist's former wife. I can't possibly know all the details of this case, but from personal experience I know that it's devastating when your own pastor has an affair with your wife. That's why we were divorced. We need more effective screening techniques to prevent people who are morally unfit for the ministry from being ordained. That's probably a pipedream in the sense that all of us are in some sense morally unfit, but there should be a special standard for clergy.

* * *

P.S.: The latest issue of a terrific magazine, Christian History, focuses on Christianity's role in higher education. You can read the whole issue here. On the page to which I've linked you, you'll also find a way to subscribe. That's free, though donations are encouraged.


Can a hopeful pope fix the wounded planet?

The question humanity must answer -- and soon -- is whether we are so far into the environmental degradation (much if not most of it caused by humanity) that global disaster cannot now be avoided.

Climate-changeIn her new book, Facing Apocalypse, which I wrote about recently here, Catherine Keller suggests things have spun out of our control ecologically:

"Climate science has. . .shifted emphasis from mitigation to adaptation -- a polite way of saying that the Holocene Earth, the world as we have known it for ten thousand years of so-called 'civilization,' can no longer be saved. Hope melted in the meantime away from even the modest Paris Climate Agreement to keep the average global temperature rise beneath 2 degrees centigrade. Then we learn that no, 1.5 is the limit for avoiding catastrophe. We have recently reached the point of the 1 degree C rise above preindustrial temperatures, warmest in ten thousand years. Hear the trumpets?"

Nor, she writes, does it help that "at this point in our history, approximately half of the trees of the earth are gone, lost to flames and deforestations, infestations and droughts, on an overheating planet."

Into this disheartening mess steps a man whose job it is to point us toward hope.

Pope Francis in 2015 released an encyclical called "Laudato Si'." In effect, it was a Vatican manifesto committing the church to working on salvaging what the document calls "our common home," the Earth. The odds are that even six years ago it was too little and too late, but that hasn't prevented Francis from continuing to work on behalf of its Earth-saving ideas.

And now the Vatican is releasing what it's called the "Laudato Si' Action Platform," to move from worrying words into hopeful action. The platform's official launch date is in October, but why wait?

The time to let the horse out of the barn, of course, is before the barn catches fire. And yet perhaps the pope's efforts at least can convince people to make changes that will make catastrophic changes in the environment a little less disastrous. That's our hope.

As the National Catholic Reporter story to which I've linked you notes, "The Laudato Si' Action Platform is an effort to move the global church to sustainability by inviting all types of church institutions to embark on seven-year, action-oriented journeys to combat climate change and address environmental issues."

Of course, this should have started not seven years ago but at least 70, when it already was becoming clear what too-loosely regulated industrialization was doing to the planet. I regret my own contributions to the problem, but regret isn't enough. Maybe the pope's encyclical and the ensuing action -- as well as reactions from other groups and institutions that recognize the size of the problem -- will help. I just wish I were more sure that the damage to our common home isn't largely irreparable by now. I hope I'm wrong and that the trumpets I'm hearing are not just notes of warning but notes of commitment to succeed.

(The image here today came from this site.)

* * *

IS JUNETEENTH OUR NEW INDEPENDENCE DAY?

A year ago, before Juneteenth became a federal holiday, Christianity Today published this opinion article describing why it's a more suitable celebration of American independence than the Fourth of July. As you read it, pay close attention to the voice of a black Republican -- Frederick Douglass, who is quoted at some length at the start of the piece. The words in our nation's founding documents about everyone being created equal were, when written, and remain today aspirational, not a description of reality. So we still have work to do. And yet all Americans can celebrate Juneteenth with a renewed commitment to making those founding words reality.

* * *

P.S.: My latest Flatland column is about the newly opened exhibit at Union Station in Kansas City: "Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away." But beyond that, I guide you to this excellent Flatland article by my former Kansas City Star colleague Brian Burns, who writes about Harry Truman's various connections and responses to the Holocaust as a U.S. senator and then as president.


Suppose we find intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos

Deep space

The ancient question is being asked again, this time by serious scientists and government officials: Are we alone in the universe? (When my kids were growing up, I was rarely alone even in the bathroom.) And, if we are alone, how do we explain decade after decade of reports of unidentified flying objects, now called unexplained aerial phenomena?

We're awaiting this month a federal report on this subject. In the meantime, it seems, everyone from conspiracy theorists to religious people are weighing in on the subject.

This NPR story describes how the nation at large got more interested in this subject.

"Interest in the idea that alien beings might be visiting Earth from off-planet," the NPR story says, "has skyrocketed in recent years, particularly after the Pentagon verified that several videos showing what look to be objects moving at incredible speeds and with remarkable agility had indeed come from official U.S. Navy sources."

As for people of faith, here's a recent article from the Jesuit magazine America that suggests Catholics should be -- and are -- ready to deal with any theological questions that might be raised if and when life outside our solar system is found.

"The Catholic intellectual tradition," the writer says, "would have absolutely zero problem with the idea of intelligent life — that is, substances of a rational nature (the classic definition of a 'person' in my field) — on other planets."

And here's a recent article from the Jewish publication The Forward that says that "if and when contact occurs, there will be a number of rabbis lined up to explain how this was all foretold in the Bible."

The only people of faith who may be resistant to the idea of other sentient beings elsewhere in the cosmos, probably, are those who engage in a literal reading of scripture and believe that human beings first appeared on Earth a few thousand years ago essentially looking and thinking like they do today.

Other religious people who have at least some grasp of science and the theory of evolution know better, while still believing in a beneficent god.

And yet even if we're open to the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere, I suspect it will be difficult to root out our almost inherent sense of being special, of being at the center of the universe. Religion's message of God's uncompromising love for all humanity no doubt adds to that self-centeredness. So it will be fascinating to see how humans on Earth will react to the realization that they're not alone.

I'm guessing some will want to exploit the newly found life forms for economic purposes. Some will want to make friends. Some will want to convert them to this or that religious tradition. And some will blame them for voting fraudulently in the 2020 presidential election. That latter development may become known as the Big Lie in the Big Sky. You heard it here first.

By the way, I thought science writer Mark Buchanan made some interesting points in this Washington Post piece about why we should be really, really careful about making contact with other life forms in the cosmos if they exist. See what you think.

(I found the image displayed above here.)

* * *

WHY ASSAULTS ON CRITICAL RACE THEORY MATTER

There's been a lot of recent criticism of the academic discipline known as Critical Race Theory. In some ways it's been a good and healthy debate. In others, not so much. Even the Southern Baptist Convention, now in its annual meeting, is debating several statements about it. Perhaps it's time to hear from someone who thinks that all that criticism of CRT is a hopeful sign. See what you think.

And while we're on the difficult topic of racism, I want to share a few wise words from a slightly dated (1995) but wise book I'm reading: The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution, by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Francesco Cavalli-Sforza: "The idea of race in the human species serves no purpose. . . (Tammeus note: Indeed, the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, after this book was published, told us that race is a political -- not a biological -- construct.) Racism has many origins and definitions, but we know that racists often worry about racial 'purity.' Let us dispense with this aspect first: There are no pure races, and if we tried to create one, the results would be most uninviting. . .Racism is the conviction that one race is biologically superior to the others. That is what underlies racists' concern for the 'purity' of the race. . .Therefore, to think about conserving purity is absurd. . .

"Although today we are fully convinced that pure and perfect races cannot exist, in the past the false ideal of racial purity has been the cornerstone of many invalid theories, and some have had significant influence on history. . .(Tammeus note: I wish that the authors were right about everyone being convinced of this today. But in white nationalism and other nationalisms, for instance, we see otherwise.) Across the whole of Europe, there is an enormous resurgence of racist sentiment. . .Are we to conclude that racism is an incurable social disease, destined to torment us forever?"

I hope not and will continue to do what I can to make sure not. But as these authors note, the roots of racism go deep. It's only in recognizing that and in working to uproot racism that we might be able to remove it -- not from history, but from the present and the future.

* * *

P.S.: You might be interested in a group called Faith Counts, about which I've just learned. It's a national interfaith effort to promote the idea that people of faith do a lot of good in the world. At its "Facts on Faith" site, for instance, it says that there are 12,000 faith-based programs to give prisoners a second chance, that 17 percent of U.S. hospitals are faith-based (and 20 percent of the beds) and that 56,000 congregations have programs to improve race relations. The many contributions religion makes to society should be applauded, even if at times religion also causes some of the trouble that society faces.


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.

* * *

IF SCRIPTURE IS BORING MAYBE YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG

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.

* * *

A SHAKEN U.S. CHRISTIAN WORLD?

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.

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Saint Nicholas 1

A NEW YORK CHURCH RECOVERING FROM 9/11

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.

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LOSING YOUNGER MEMBERS?

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.)

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MORE PROTESTANT SLIPPAGE

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.

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