Ideals Incarnate

Ongoing Christian existence – discipleship to Jesus – involved a new transformed life oriented in terms drawn from the (developing) story and image of Jesus, whom Christians regarded as their Lord and whom they believed would soon be seen by all to be the Lord of the world, the Son of God, indeed the very incarnation of God on earth.

Kaufman (Jesus and Creativity 5)

Because my religious sensibility is more “sciencey” than mythical, one might wonder about my holiday spirit, because the Christmas story is so mythical.

And by mythical, please understand, I don’t mean “merely imaginary,” nor do I intend to be dismissive. Myth refers to the embodiment of a worldview in a traditional, culturally rooted story.

We skeptics nurtured in a Jesus-way might still make meaning from the Christmas story – see our ideals variously reflected in its imagery.

For me, holiday music really sets the mood, much of it the choir music I’ve learned over the years. Four-part hymns like “Joy to the World” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” I first heard in church, I’m sure, before I could speak, and they still move me deeply.  My experience in choirs has also etched choral works like Handel’s Messiah and Rutter’s Magnificat into my neural pathways.

Similarly, great secular songs of the season have settled deep within. There are the “kids’ songs” like “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Jingle Bells.” Even better are the sentimental ballads like Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” and “White Christmas.”

It may be the “bleak midwinter” (in the Northern Hemisphere) and my religious convictions may have shifted, but holiday-inspired music of many varieties still warms my soul.

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This time of year, then, I’m both conventionally and unconventionally reflective and festive – largely because of the story I can’t altogether dismiss, despite my skepticism about the factuality of many of its details. I mean, “a choir of angels”?! c’mon.

We can grant that a man, Jesus – who became a teacher who inspired a religious movement that continues today – was born at some point just over two millennia ago. Decades after his death, when the movement’s devotees compiled and canonized some of the stories that had grown around their legendary founder, it’s no wonder that the most compelling ones – for people with pre-scientific mentalities – would include miraculous elements.

“When was he born?” they may have asked. “Wasn’t it during that time when that comet appeared? Or was it when Jupiter and Venus converged?”

We postmoderns can imagine them imagining other splendid celestial events marking his birth, this worldview-changer.

Traditionally, the gospel story of Jesus’ birth and the accompanying worldview – among those who hold them dear – are presumed to prevail over the secular family spirit and commercialism that have grown around them and been supplemented with other seasonal holidays – ones important to those from other traditions. But I refuse to dismiss other traditions’ similar views and values. These glasses aren’t just half full. They can brim for those who drink from them, just like the view and values derived from Christian traditions can for those nurtured in them. And of course, our cups can spill into each other.

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In any case, we put stars or angels atop our Christmas trees, which traditionally being pines don’t seem indigenous to the Middle East, not like cedars, at least. But as evergreens, pines provide North-European types with images (Druidic perhaps) of something living through winter, the season of death, images of hope converted to everlasting life, immortality – the traditional promise of salvation.

Christmas trees, then, reflect a creative cultural blending I favor. Similarly, scholars have noted that the traditional placement of Jesus’ birth in winter is more likely symbolic than actual. We have historical and even biblical reasons to believe (which can easily be web-searched) that Jesus was born in spring, summer, or autumn – any season other than winter.

But December 25 places Jesus’ birth just after the yearly lengthening of nights ends with the winter solstice (in the northern hemisphere that is). The traditional symbolism has been lost on no one: more light is coming into the world, God’s light presumably, enlightenment, spiritual goodness, love.

I suppose other denominations’ services are similar to the Mennonite Christmas and Advent services usually I attend, where light breaking through the gathering darkness has been the symbolic emphasis, based on ancient prophecies of a coming messiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Isaiah 9:2).

The image of the child’s poverty, of his commonness, even homelessness, seems potent. These days, the part about the stable – how it associates Jesus to the animals – seems meaningful ecologically. And the most legendary, least historical part of the story, the slaughter of infants that sent Jesus, Mary, and Joseph into an Egyptian exile intensifies the poverty imagery, making the “holy family” refugees. Our attention is directed to the blessed poor, for whom God supposedly has special sympathy, and along with our attention, our sympathies and energies may be directed and developed.

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This, then, indicates who we could be at our best, how Godlike we aspire to be. The idea that God would incarnate as one of the “least,” one of the most needy, turns our attention – makes us aware of how we might be each other’s salvation. In this imagery, we see our ideals – those we project onto God – incarnated, taking human form. And they take the form of one who needs our salvation, needs us to embody these ideals providentially, in the way the story portrays them having taken human form to provide us humans salvation.

Amid this providential tangle, the story reminds us that the incarnated one set aside his godhood to assume this humanity, establishing a theme of sacrifice. The story being so old, and being told and retold year after year, we remember also that in that end, we become the body of Christ, the re/incarnation of our own projected ideals. Here too, as in the Easter story, we find an image of the transformative potential of loving self-sacrifice.

The image of the suffering servant being the exalted one, the normative model, the ideal of doing for others as we would have them do for us, even if they don’t reciprocate was old even in Jesus’ time, and had roots in many cultural traditions – light always spreading amid shadows everywhere. These days, we can still see that we’ve always been responsible for our mutual salvation. Ideally, we can “lay [our] glory by” (self-interested aggrandizement) and humanely harmonize, sympathetically appreciating dissonant worldviews, blending voices to fulfill our combined musical potential.

Hark! We earthly angels sing, “Glory …! Peace on Earth and mercy mild …, sinners reconciled.”

Confessions of a ‘Splainer

… [I]t will be clear to my readers, I am sure – especially those formed by other cultural and religious traditions, as well as those of different race or gender – that I write here, inevitably, from a modern western Christian point of view and as a white male living and working largely in academia, with whatever limitations these characteristics entail and whatever insights they make possible.

Gordon D. Kaufman (In Face of Mystery xv)

 

Confession 1: As usual, I’m behind. I only saw the term – mansplainer, that is – for the first time a few months ago.

Confession 2: To me, it’s new enough that I’m not sure I understand it completely, even with help from Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary.

Confession 3: I’m going to do some ‘splaining here. It’s what I do.

Confession 4: I hope it’s not man-, white-, or straightsplaining, though I fear it will be – unwittingly.

I know these specific designations of ‘splainer-types have been denounced for projecting the user’s biased speculation about the object’s supposed mentality. But I won’t shy away from possibly owning the unattractive qualities so named. (I have my jerk moments and general flaws, only some of which I’m conscious.)

Confession 5: Maybe I’ve been a ‘splainer all my life.

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Over the years, Joleen, my sister, has enjoyed several times telling a tale of yore, when as a talkative child I’d spout something she and my older brother, Ron, (maybe even our parents) didn’t know – and I seemed too young to – and she would ask, “Do you really know that, or are you just making it up?” (Like her, I her asking me this more than once.)

I recall her, long ago, describing this to Kay, maybe even before we were married, and more recently to (probably) each of our daughters, Aimee, Megan, and Jill, in turn – when occasion dictated they get some perspective on dear old Dad.

I don’t mind someone having some fun at my expense; self-effacing humor is prominent in my comic repertoire. But as you’d guess, her question – as an expression of disbelief, in the information or idea or, worse, in me – made me defensive as a kid. And as a kid, the best I could do was respond, “Yeah. I think I heard it on TV” or somewhere.

Obviously, such sources are not impeccable. But it still feels bad to have them pecked at. Also, the “I think I heard …” part of my response reveals my sudden uncertainty, even if I was pretty sure. But heck! I was just joining a conversation. I was a kid who paid attention and seemed to remember things.

While telling her story, Joleen describes me as “sound[ing] so sure of [my]self.” So I wonder if that was the problem – especially in a “know-it-all” kid. I can see how it could piss a person off, especially when the pissed person hasn’t been encouraged to express such confidence.

By “know-it-all,” I don’t mean that I thought I was smarter than everyone else, only that it seemed okay to say what I knew (or thought) when the time seemed right, even when the conversation was between older (smarter) kids, like Joleen – and even full-grown adults. I was never directly told to speak my mind, but I was never told not to and must have gotten some form of approval when I did. I wonder if Joleen had too often suffered others’ disapproval.

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I can see now the levels and points of privilege such confident public self-expression reflects. I can also see why it might provoke pissy response.

In our safe family circle, idea exchange was common. Lively discussion, hearty debate, even (usually) civil argument were par for the course. And I don’t recall Joleen being short on opinions or the skill to validate them.

I like to think that we conversed openly, equally, despite our different ages, addressing issues, working out views, broadening horizons, deepening convictions. That’s how I wish our public discussions were generally, respectful – if heated – exchanges for mutual edification, even when we continue to differ drastically. I wish everyone felt equally encouraged to chime in.

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I think, for me, this comes partially from being Mennonite. Supposedly, we all have gifts and perspectives that can edify the group, so we’re all entitled to a say as we supposedly discern together “God’s will for us.” Of course, this ideal has been constrained in various ways in the course of our denominational history. White men with Swiss-German surnames have traditionally been more entitled as participants than others. But for as long as I can remember, many have struggled – more or less vigorously – against this tradition.

Further constraining who has a say, we Mennonites have our traditions of shunning and of withholding membership based on such things as dissenting belief, sex, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and such in combination with being recalcitrant and too outspoken in such variation – the presumed collective goal being “be[ing] of one mind in Christ.” This has cultivated cultures of purist group-think. Throughout my adult life, however, many have struggled against this tradition too, promoting the idea that our differences can be enriching. Still, many who have been marginalized have wearied of the struggle and taken their gifts elsewhere – including purists who feel underappreciated and fear being tainted by association – while others have lost faith altogether.

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I wish I could recall our family discussions in specific detail and remember my attitude when I put in my two bits. Was any sense of privilege or superiority – however unconscious – driving me, the kid seven years Joleen’s junior, to correct or inform?

I sure hope not. But if I did, I’m glad Joleen sometimes skillfully cut me down to size with her question.

Even if I didn’t back then, I might have developed such a drive later along my way. So my current interest is in whether or not she has told her story at moments when she’s sensed me needing some resizing in relation to my daughters – or them possibly benefitting from some resizing in relation to me.

Consciously, I’ve always aimed to relate to them as capable, self-confident women. And I’ve tried to relate to Kay the same way. But who knows what subconscious motives may complicate my conscious life? I would in no way be surprised if all the privilege in which I’ve been nurtured culturally – as a straight white fairly Christian American male – compromises my good intentions.

As accomplished as the Siebert women are, as proud as I am of this, could it be that, somewhere in the recesses of my ego, I aim to maintain a privileged position? I suppose any ego might desire such primacy. So why would I be immune to the temptation? Horrifying would be any sense of the desire or the attitude being justified – in any way, let alone by my identity as a straight white fairly Christian American male.

From the looks of all this, introduction to the ‘splainer-concept has made me productively self-conscious, at least potentially. I suspect I’ll be using it, for the foreseeable future, to size myself up when I get going discursively. I’m sure things will continue to set me off on long-winded recitations and rants, but please be generous in your judgments. Like you, I’m a meaning-maker. But much much more than you, I like listening to myself talk. It’s how I speculate and figure things out to the limited extent I can.

Maybe that’s the sort of generous assessment we can make of even the most apparently arrogant ‘splainers. (I suddenly find myself on both sides of this issue.)

But if our confidence becomes tiresome, try Joleen’s question on us – with her bemusedly skeptical tone, please, if possible.

Wrestling with “God,” the God-Term

Symbolization is required for decision (envisaging different alternatives); it is required by intention (to guide our acting); and it is required in attention (to focus our sensory equipment so we will perceive what is relevant to our goal). … Humans … are capable of choosing a wide range of goals other than those imposed by nature, goals which they represent to themselves in signs and symbols – words, images, diagrams – as they direct their own activity. In this respect humans are agents in a way that other animals are not: they can intend and attend deliberately, and not only as a function of biological need or impulse.

                                Gordon D. Kaufman (In Face of Mystery 146)

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise [sic] resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.

                                Henry David Thoreau (Walden, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For”)

 

My academic field is Composition Studies, as it’s come to be called. I earned a Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English from the University of Arizona back in 1990, when we called the field Composition and Rhetoric (or Rhetoric and Composition). For my B.A. and M.A. degrees, I was an English Major – now called Literary Studies. These are the kind of name changes that help us (and others) know who we are and what we’re about.

I’m a word nerd, then. As a writer, a wordsmith – more a journeyman (journeyperson?), I’ll admit, than artisan/artist, obviously, like Nobel laureates Toni Morrison or William Faulkner, or my creative-writing colleagues and friends Tom, Raylene, Eric, Sarah, Izzy, and Dennis, whose words also wow. But I’ll own my own modest artistic skill, here, as an essayist/blogger.

People meet my ilk in those too-oft-dreaded Freshman Comp. classes, where we urge, push, cajole, nurture students to develop their skills and themselves as they think with writing. I want students to experience writing as an opportunity and responsibility, not simply as an assignment. When our words take shape on a page or screen, they sit still, awaiting scrutiny. Are they what they “need” to be, what they “should” be? Which depends on a lot of things – at the center being, who we are becoming through the text and how we envision readers relating.

There’s a fascinating interaction between the words we make and how they make us.

Kenneth Burke, a favorite thinker of “mine,” defined humans as “the symbol-using animal,” and called us wordlings.1 Words have become the prevailing type of symbol humans think with and act from. At the same time, they act upon us – along with other types of symbols.

We all know how pictures, as symbols, can strike us and music, similarly, move us. One my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies is the scene near the end of Amadeus in which, on his deathbed, Mozart dictates a movement from the Requiem to his rival, Salieri. The movement, “Confutatis,” alternates between musical images depicting the demonic and angelic, and we can almost “see” Mozart doing theology with music, especially as the film’s visual imagery augments the aural. We almost experience Salieri’s confusion and conversion in the face of Mozart’s genius. Along with Mozart, we pray for his forgiveness, musically praying through the requiem to the judgmental father who never approved of how Mozart channeled that genius.

Still, although we are also influenced by these other symbol-systems, words seem primary – our languages and terminologies, used conventionally and innovatively. So we do well to choose words carefully. Our choices change us.

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God is a word I continue to wrestle with – by choice.

In our house, the Siebert household of my childhood, God was the word – the thing, the idea – around which the rest of life was organized – our God-term. There were other big ideas too – love, forgiveness, church, school, America, and such – but they took their place in the context of God.

By comparison, the others were quite tangible, even America, as big as it was to me as a kid, as both a place and idea. And these other “tangible” terms/ideas have all grown, both physically and conceptually, as I’ve grown.

But so has God. The benevolent but judgmental old guy with a long gray beard, full-length tunic, sandals, and throne was replaced by a disembodied, ominously watchful spirit and then by a loving, inspiring, though oft-disappointed, and thus forgiving “presence.” As tradition dictated and as I matured, I repeatedly tried to picture, more complexly, a being responsible for our inconceivably immense universe, a being worthy of worship, not just too intimidating to ignore.

In recent years, having read Kaufman’s later theological writings, I’ve been emboldened to quit looking beyond, quit trying to envision/imagine such an ultimate being, a non-corporeal person/creator who expects our worship. I’m comfortably skeptical.

Still, I want to wrestle with God.

For some reason, I can’t muster Thoreau’s intensity. But like him and with his and others’ help, I want to look around and see what nature (including human nature and what we can see of the extraterrestrial universe) shows us about what’s happening. I want to become a part of it, not just inevitably but intentionally – part of what Kaufman calls the serendipitous creativity producing things.

Traditionally, God is what we’ve called it, we English-speakers, this creativity – an ultimate worthy of devotion. I want to orient myself in relation and set out from there, reducing life to its lowest (most base-ic, essential) terms, like Thoreau, though I consider my essential term the highest. As far as I can see, it refers not to a thing or being, but to an ongoing event initiated in the Big Bang and to the “direction” that event seems headed. Here, it’s producing a habitable planet and ecosystems teaming with life and, when we humans are at our best, producing love for each other and our planetary home and the other lifeforms with which we share it.

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But that’s not what God means! traditionalists will object.

I’ll concede I can’t make God (or any word) mean whatever I please. Plus, I’ll grant that my sense of the word is quite science-y. But I’ll still argue that the word has meant many different things in various religious traditions. Even in the Bible. So traditionalists can’t lay exclusive claim to the term, even if most people use it to envision beings rather than events.

I’ll also argue that, around it, I’ve re-organized my religious faith, with Kaufman’s help, certainly, naturalized the “object” of devotion from what my Mennonite origins supplied, but crafted a concept which the word God fits – as the word we use for an ultimate worthy to devote one’s life to.

I’d be glad to consider alternatives. Kaufman often used creativity, especially to dismiss the concept of a deific creator/being, but as reference to a religious ultimate, this would be an extremely unusual use of that word too, requiring much more explanation than any reconstruction of God. Love, as in “God is Love,” pulls at the heart-strings and is biblical (I John 4:8). But again, this is an unusual use of that term for deep affection. Plus, there’s so much more to the event of the universe than love suggests.

So I’ll continue to wrestle with God. But even as I struggle to grasp it, I won’t easily let it be  wrestled away.

 

Note

1 Cited in Coe, Richard M. “Beyond Diction: Using Burke to Empower Words – and Wordlings.” Rhetoric Review 11.2 (1993): 368-77.

Both In and Of the World

Our modern world no longer consists of nations or civilizations or people that can regard themselves as existing more or less autonomously, in independence of each other: we have become interconnected with each other in countless ways. … Although culturally we are increasingly aware both of our diversity and of our interdependence, the meaning of this for our religious institutions and traditions, and for our religious self-understanding, has barely begun to dawn upon us. We need new and more adequate ways to think [about] both the diversity and the interconnectedness of our human religiousness, if our various religious heritages are to contribute positively to the building of a world in which we, in all our differences, can live together productively and in peace.

                                Gordon D. Kaufman (God – Mystery – Diversity 133)

 

Pretty early on, I started hearing that I was supposed to be “in but not of the world” – early enough that I can’t remember the “idea” not being part of my world, though I had no idea what it meant. I was a kid, after all, and prepositions aren’t the easiest part of speech from which to derive clear meaning. (Plus, this use is clearly metaphoric.)

I heard this phrase, of course, in church – where, in my experience, the meaning of things was being most carefully shaped, even if I didn’t always understand. Because I was a kid, probably, I got the impression that it was those of us at Reedley First Mennonite who were doing this – this confusing whatever it was. The rest was the world, which I was not supposed to be of, even if I couldn’t see the difference.

Soon, I also got the message that there were other Mennonites in other places who were a lot like us Reedley First Mennonites. A little later, I started to get the message that there were people who went to other churches and wondered over the same things and did their best – which, however, wasn’t quite as good. And though we needed to get better too, we would keep trying to do it our way. Much later, someone connected this idea to something specific in the Bible (John 17), which I knew, by then, Mennonites shared with other Christians.

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Like other Christians, Mennonites take John 17 seriously, along with the rest of the Bible – different parts more seriously than others, which is what distinguishes us. John 17 is the gospel chapter in which Jesus prays that God safely keep his disciples “in but not of the world,” as it’s commonly summarized. According to the story, Jesus prayed this not only for the disciples he called and taught directly, but also for those who would follow, who would believe based on the words of preceding disciples.

Christians are supposed to be different, “other.” So even though we might trust ourselves to God’s safe-keeping (according to traditional Christian belief), Christians try (and seem always to have tried) to figure out what’s “of the world” so we can also determine how not to be that, not act in worldly ways, supposedly looking to scripture and trusting God’s Spirit as guides.

We wouldn’t presume to be perfectly God-like. On the other hand, we presumably can’t afford to be simply different but still worldly. So what’s the crucial difference we’ve traditionally tried to identify? In John 17, Jesus prays that God sanctify his followers to channel into the world something divine which is from the spiritual realm beyond. Jesus prays that they be sent into the world similarly to the way Jesus believed he had been sent – to make disciples who would spread God’s love (vv. 22-26). By implication, then, the text suggests that this is the crucial difference.

But Church history shows that Christians’ efforts to embody ideal/otherworldly love have been spotty. Tempted by narrow expediency, Christians have too frequently opted for violence and other forms of coercion to achieve ends that often seem less than heavenly – acting just as worldly as the “worldly.” On the other hand, Christianity has made love the standard, as opposed to survival or personal and clan advantage. Christians judge even themselves against this standard (at least once the dust clears), so along with people from other traditions, the church and individual Christians may be moving humanity “beyond” its animality: the instinctive indulgence of survival instincts through force.

Maybe.

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The Mennonite history I learned seems fit to this “idea.”

In the early 16th century, out of the Renaissance’s cultural turbulence that produced the Reformation, various radical reformers emerged, first in Zurich, Switzerland, and soon across Europe. In Zurich, frustrated by the local church’s “unscriptural” compromise with civil (worldly) authority, young followers of Ulrich Zwingli chose to set out on their own, breaking with the Swiss Reform Movement and defying the civil authorities concerning the nature and pace of reform. The church, they believed and argued, should not be subject to human authority, but separate and not only equal, but primary in the lives of faithful disciples, who subjected themselves only to God (not the world).

In the eyes of state-sponsored churches and the church-sponsored states, which also believed themselves subjected faithfully to God, these radical reformers were, respectively, heretics and seditionists. Thus began the vicious persecution of these radicals. Despite the threats of torture and execution throughout most of Europe, however, many people found Anabaptist versions of Christian faith compelling enough to face such risk, including Menno Simons.

So surviving Anabaptists, including those organized by Menno, were forced underground (at least until Europe became somewhat tolerant of religious diversity). Often, they secretively met in “hidden” churches. They sometimes gained “sanctuary” in friendly principalities, frequently immigrating as farming colonies to do so, multiple times over the generations, in fact. From such experience, many Anabaptist-Mennonites developed an alien mentality. Because it stemmed from their efforts to follow God’s supposed calling from “above,” they trusted that God was setting them apart, that God was keeping them “in but not of the world.” Even when continuing in urban settings, Mennonites learned to feel John 17 as definitive of their faith experiences because of the way they put themselves at risk for violent persecution.

My particular branch of the movement landed in Central North America, moving from Germanic areas in Europe to Prussia to the American Midwest in search of farmland and a peaceful way of life. We fancied ourselves “the quiet in the land,” and in certain ways we were, although we may have been naïve about the force exerted and violence wielded to make the land available to us.

In the last two or three or four generations, persecution has stopped or become more subtle or infrequent, and many of us Mennonites have moved into professions and adopted lifestyles that make us harder to distinguish from others. But perhaps it never was as easy as we flatter ourselves it was.

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Like most people acculturated in the West, my awareness of how our world’s multiple multi-cultures interact makes me increasingly comfortable with diversity. Working in university settings has enhanced this through broad exposure, although I still have a lot to learn.

Of course, we don’t have to look long to see that many people remain extremely uncomfortable. The complexity of our postmodern situation is very challenging, and simplicity has its appeal, even to those of us who love a good challenge. But we recognize the value of difference. From my students, colleagues, congregation, neighbors, and others, I gain perspective, and vice versa, I hope. In our difference, our otherness, we provide each other opportunity to experience a more expansive humanity, both collectively and personally. There’s no one perfect way to be, solely sanctified by external/divine authority. In fact, the universe seems to demonstrate that variety is the spice of life (inanimate existence too). So I don’t believe we really wish to end up the same (as if we could).

These days, like most Western Mennonites, I am quite comfortably acculturated, enough so that I smile at my Amish “cousins” – confident that quaint Amish ways are hardly ideal in their particulars, though a little nervous that I might be making greater efforts of some sort for the sake of my neighbors and neighborhood.

And these days, while I, like anyone, might gain some perspective from others, when I look at the Amish, for example, I see a counter-culture rather than some otherworldly kingdom coming into the world. At the same time that they desire to respond to their concept of God’s calling, they are reacting to the people and things of the world around them and selecting from among options human creativity has made available. Like everyone else, they inevitably embody only one other way of being in and of the world.

Similarly, in all my contacts with various subcultures from the world’s multi-cultures, I see different ways of being in and of the world – some of them at least as admirable as mine, some that also spread love of neighbor and neighborhood, sometimes as consistently as Christians have historically, sometimes less, but still inching humanity forward. In these encounters, I sometimes recognize my blind spots or see my values being challenged or supplemented or reprioritized, nudging me toward what more I may become, making me more capable of making my corner of the world a little more “heavenly,” and making me hopeful about spheres beyond my influence.

This seems to be the prospect of all our encounters, our social natures layering more deeply atop our impulsive animality. Looking at things this way, I wonder what fulfillment we all could gain – as humans nurturing “the humane” – from more considered commitment to being in and of our precious world.

Mortality and Moral Motives

The great religions have all sought to minister to and interpret the awareness of human finitude that is connected with death. They have developed various mythologies (that is, frameworks of meaning) in terms of which humans could understand this feature of their situation in the world and accept it, could continue to live and act in this life even in the face of death. And they have created rituals which provided modes of symbolic action through which participating communities and selves could feel in harmony or at one with those ultimate Powers which sustain and support human life, thus being strengthened in their efforts to live with the suffering and evil that befell them, to face whatever threats of death and destruction life confronted them.

                                Gordon D. Kaufman (In Face of Mystery 168-69)

 

As a child, in church, I was always taught to be “good” because ultimately I wanted to go to heaven. So presumed the adults around me. At least I didn’t want to go to hell, they similarly presumed.

How they knew what I wanted, I didn’t know. Of course, I now know they were trying to teach me how to see things and what to want. I can’t remember if any of them ever added “when you die” to their heaven/hell lessons. I don’t know that it would have mattered. I was a kid. Heaven, hell, death – all too vague for me to grasp.

At the time, presuming myself that grownups should know, I operated partially on their basic presumptions, usually trying to be good. I also tried to imagine an ideal world from descriptions that went around: gold-paved roads lined with gleaming white marble mansions filled with friends. I frightened myself with nightmarish underworlds: fire-seared flesh devilishly flayed, or – more haunting – absolute isolation in unending darkness. But throughout all this, I knew that what I was imagining was imaginary, all in my head. The truth had to be something else, something I wasn’t just dreaming up.

Still, these vague impressions have been hard to outgrow.

Mostly, I learned to behave myself in order, in the here and now, to avoid being punished tangibly or in hopes of being rewarded.

In my family, punishment ranged from scoldings through groundings to spankings. At first, we didn’t have a lot, so rewards usually took the form of praise. Other good things just came as a matter of course, based on need, but also on birthdays and for Christmas, occasional splurges, and vacation souvenirs. Mom and Dad were great at conveying the constancy of their love, even when I disappointed and they “had” to punish. So images of heaven and hell on Earth imprinted heart and hiney.

At home, church, school, and elsewhere, I learned behavioral cause and effect regarding creation care and, especially, human relations. People get along better and everyone is happier when we all are good. But people, including me, have trouble agreeing what good is and choosing it. So sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re not – for now.

.                                   .                                   .

Someday? Maybe not.

Actually, someday, one or the other. So I was taught. But as I matured, I also learned how tricky it might be, landing one way or the other on the other side of death. Nevertheless, as my capacity to understand grew, the theory behind the practice became clearer.

Different Christians (whom I had yet to learn believe about the afterlife differently from people who practice other religions – or none) differ in their answers to the age-old faith question about how right belief and right action interact to influence God’s decision about a soul’s salvation or damnation, when the time for judgment comes. Some Christians even believe that the decision has been made in advance, in the dawn of creation, predetermined in an omniscient God’s foreknowledge of human history, including God’s knowledge concerning what Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection would make forgivable.

My morality, taking shape in the Mennonite tradition, developed around the idea of emulating God’s love (I John 4:19) and an emphasis on James 2:18-26 – faith and works are one; what we truly believe is manifested, as a rule, in what we do. (We can sin, of course, choose not to do what is best. How these choices become forgivable seems mysteriously wrapped up in remorse and turning ourselves, our behavior, around, although we remain unworthy of God’s incomprehensible “grace.”)

There’s an appealing though loose internal logic to this. But the variety of beliefs indicated that no one really knows – a defining feature of faith, I’ll grant. This, combined with the conflict between Christianity’s premises about an all-loving but hidden God and about that God consigning puny, uninformed humans to eternal torment, troubled me. I couldn’t shake the idea that all this might be imaginary.

For the sake of tighter internal consistency, then, I converted to – I learned – a familiar heresy. I lost faith in hell and pictured a loving deity which wouldn’t damn a soul, sinful Christian or infidel, one that would instead transform and welcome us all into its heavenly presence in the end. That seemed a God worth worshipping.

.                                   .                                   .

In midlife, I encountered Kaufman’s theology, and it sharpened for me a way of seeing that had floated alongside my heresy – my growing agnosticism about supernatural realms and beings but continuing commitment to following Jesus’ worldly way of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Clearly, these days, I pursue this way from a different angle than my childhood teachers taught and different than most people I sit amid Sunday mornings. But the fact that we get to similar points, along with multitudes from other religions/worldviews, I hope we all can appreciate.

Kaufman’s naturalistic, “one-world” theology posits that life in this world/universe is all there is for humans. There being no tangible evidence to the contrary (no matter what we can imagine – or others have in the past), Kaufman starts from the idea that this life is all we get. We humans are biohistorical, to use Kaufman’s term – socio-linguistic animals evolved with consciousness, memory, and agency, some measure of free will constrained by physical endowment and acculturation. At our best, we seem built for love, built to cooperate with and care for each other. But when we die, when we stop functioning biologically, we’re done. Our only “immortality” might be imagined in influences that continue to resonate in our absence.

The corresponding absence of an angry God threatening us sinful vermin with fiery damnation makes this easier to face. Knowing I won’t live forever, I’m content, however, to know I will have had my time. But the absence of this threat might also give some the impression that nothing has ultimate meaning and, therefore, anything goes. But among us meaning-makers, that’s never been the consensus. We’ve “always” sought to understand the nature of things, what and who we are and we could be to better fit our world, religion playing a major role in this for many. We’ve sought fulfillment – personal and mutual – which, in Kaufman’s picture, are the measure of “salvation” we can strive for in this life, aiming to become more human and humane. So realizing the brevity and finality of this life could enhance its value to such beings as we who craft values, and could heighten devotion to each other’s fulfillment.

To me, it seems we don’t need gods/prophets to reveal this to us anymore, though they (as concepts at least) helped us humans stumble forward in pre-technological, less globally aware eras especially. I’m sure we will continue to stumble, but we’ve become skilled enough at observing nature – human and otherwise – to see that none of us has higher value than the next, so to gain at another’s expense or to the detriment of the biosphere we share is clearly unjustified (even if we can’t say it makes a difference in the vast scheme/lessness of things).

By every appearance (as far as I can currently see), devotion to another ultimate serves me well – the motions shaping the universe, which Kaufman calls “serendipitous creativity.” Aiming to match stride with these motions through which we’ve all come to be and to boost their momentum, I believe we do best to love our neighbors and neighborhood as ourselves – with every choice.

Marked

[Note: For interested readers who hadn’t found out some other way, obviously, since I’ve posted again, I survived my surgery. Recovery is going smoothly so far: no complications, no pain, normal activity resumed. Time will tell whether or not it was a complete success, but things are going well.]

… [M]emory provides the reservoir of symbols (language, images, et cetera) required by conscious experience and action. Although many of our images may be private, the language we learn from childhood is a complexly ordered system of public symbols continuously employed by the imagination to shape and order and classify experience, and to project alternative futures. The individual ‘I’ (with its subjectivity and privacy) could not exist at all apart from this context of symbols within which it emerges and which gives it specific structure and otherwise helps nourish and sustain it.

Gordon D. Kaufman (In Face of Mystery 153-54)

 

About three years ago, Jill got a tattoo – a small heart, high on her right “hip.”

Immediately, I felt emboldened. I’d long wanted one, for over 30 years, at least since my brother Jeff showed me his (a design symbolizing his identity). I felt a twinge of jealousy. Back then, tattoos were just becoming “mainstream” enough that I’d noticed and had begun to think it would be cool to have one. But I had no idea what sort, so indecision and the least budgetary discouragement continually restrained me until interest faded.

Since then, tattoos have become more mainstream. But Jill’s ink again brought the idea right home, and as has happened to me so often as a father, my daughter revealed me to myself.

Soon I had my first and second tattoos. I’ve since added two more and plan a couple more.

Spurred by Jill, I acted fast but not impulsively. Because I’d waited and seen who I’d become, how life had already marked me, I could craft designs that represent this.

.                                   .                                   .

My most recent tattoo is a shamrock in three shades of green with Aimee’s, Megan’s, and Jill’s initials, in black, in its leaves. It’s about two inches across. For the sake of visual “balance,” I had it placed on the side of my right calf. Their initials are arranged to spell JAM, but the shamrock is tilted counter-clockwise to reflect birth-order, the ‘A’ slightly higher than the ‘M,’ which is slightly higher than the ‘J.’ Of course, the shamrock is familiar as a symbol of luck.

Certainly, I feel fortunate as a father. I’ve often said that “The girls have made being a dad easy,” and I’ve been one now for almost half my life. (Damn! I only just noticed that. Aimee’s closing in on 29. Next fall (2017), we’ll pass 30 and 60 within a few weeks of each other.)

Each in her own way has been a lovely person from the beginning: spunky, smart, empathetic, more and more accomplished. They’ve made me very self-conscious about being who I need to be so that they can flourish into themselves. So as much as I’ve raised them alongside Kay, they’ve raised me/us too – been central figures in the family in which I’ve/we’ve continued to grow up.

I’m lucky to have been raised so well.

.                                   .                                   .

I’m also lucky to have loved, and been loved, so well. I designed my first tattoo to express this fact, this feeling. High on my left pec, where my fingertips would reach were I pledging allegiance, is a two-and-a-half-inch-tall, rose-red K, standing atop a grey infinity symbol and “encircled” by a crimson “heart.”

Kay and I celebrated our 35th anniversary recently (July 25). Because we threw Megan and Andrew a wedding and I had heart surgery, our celebration was smaller than some might wish for on a multiple of five: “only” a matinee movie and nice dinner one day, plus regional theater and second nice dinner another day. But really, it’s all one thing – the life I’ve wished for without even knowing it.

Although we’d dated for almost three years, when we married, Kay was still something of a mystery. Now she’s fulfillment. I’m not myself without her. And even as I say that, I strongly suspect I don’t understand the half of it.

Certainly, the framework of who I am had taken shape in my first “home.” Together, we’ve remodeled and decorated, not always to Kay’s complete satisfaction, I’m sure. But that’s the challenge and reward of marriage: loving and sharing oneself with someone who is already somehow whole but always taking shape, only partially “under” one’s influence, all the while knowing/hoping the other is experiencing the same challenge and reward.

Tattooed so or not, I’ve thus been marked. Always, I pledge my allegiance.

.                                   .                                   .

I designed my third tattoo to reflect an idea I’m devoted to. It runs down/up my right arm from near the top of my shoulder to the middle of my bicep. Running down my arm, it is the word evolve. However, the first ‘e’ is turned backward. I chose a font in which the ‘v,’ ‘o,’ and ‘l’ look much the same facing either way. Because of this and because I had the first four letters of evolve outlined in black and filled in blue (the last two inked solid black), to a person reading up my arm evolve’s first four letters would also spell love. I highlighted this with three blue triangles below and between love’s four letters, directing people to read them this way too. To clarify further, I “encircled” the ‘v’ with a “heart.”

Love, I believe as a KaufMennonite, is the direction we humans need to continue to evolve socially, toward further cultivation of the humane in us. The symbolic compound evolve-love reads as an imperative, although I mean it less as a command than as a reminder to myself and as an “encouragement” to anyone who may read me.

We have gotten to this point along the general paths the biological and social sciences and our multi-cultural histories are revealing. We’ve become linguistically oriented social animals. Kenneth Burke has defined humans as “the symbol-using animal” (“Definition of Man”). Gordon Kaufman calls us biohistorical beings and notes how the historical portion of this nature is socio-linguistically driven. Certainly, both nature and nurture shape us. So for the sake of continued human flourishing amid the wider natural habitat, we must evolve socially, caring for the habitat that provides, for each other, and for ourselves.

.                                   .                                   .

A rib or two down from my left shoulder-blade, in black letters about a half-inch high, is my second tattoo. It’s a phrase from E. E. Cummings’ sonnet, “i thank You God,” a fragment from two lines of the poem: “and for everything / which is yes.” A more accurate quotation would have an ellipsis between “everything” (which ends the first line) and “which is yes” (which ends the second). For brevity’s sake, I omitted two other categories Cummings lists. Instead of providing the ellipsis, I just divided the lines, not wanting to break the thought.

In its entirety, the first stanza reads this way:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

Although Cummings and I seem to direct our gratitude differently, Cummings’ poem provided me a compact expression of my sentiment. I wanted to inscribe myself with gratitude. I wanted to express my gratitude for everything, especially the good, the positive, everything affirmative. I acknowledge there is more, even things we wish weren’t. But here we are, alive and aware amid so much that isn’t, with our chances at so much that is good. I’m glad to have experienced as much as I have.

.                                   .                                   .

Soon, I plan to get a strand of DNA around my left bicep – for life writ large. Next summer, after the deal is done between Braden and Jill, I’ll get another shamrock on my calf – for my sons-in-law, whose initials happen to spell BAM.

Countless other things have marked me, I know. I wasn’t born being who I am. But these mark my adult experience most deeply, with marks I’m proud to display.

Yea! (Though I Walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death)

… [T]he ultimate symbol of our human lack of power and control with respect to the future, and our unavoidable movement into the future, may well be death. All animals die, but only we humans (the self-conscious animals) are aware that we must die …. The great religions have all sought to minister to and interpret the awareness of human finitude that is connected with death. They have developed various mythologies (that is, frameworks of meaning) in terms of which humans could understand this feature of their situation in the world and accept it, could continue to live and act in this life even in the face of death.

                                Gordon D. Kaufman (In Face of Mystery 168)

 

I sang for a funeral the other day. Today, I’m having surgery.

I’ve had the surgery scheduled for a few months, so my part of the coincidence didn’t arise suddenly. Their proximity just allows me to meditate on death as a KaufMennonite, as opposed to a more traditional Christian.

The funeral (celebration of life) was for an older woman who had grown up in Kay’s mother’s hometown. We’d gotten to know her a little after she started coming to our church about five years ago. She had lived a “full” life as a minister’s wife and, thus, as a minister herself, though un-ordained. She’d raised a loving family, which now included several great-grandchildren. Many from her extended family, including brothers and at least one sister-in-law, had traveled to the funeral, some from considerable distances.

The song I sang was a piano and voice adaptation of the spiritual “Goin’ Home” as set in Anton Dvorak’s “From the New World” symphony. The woman had chosen it for her ceremony, as had (I learned) several others in her family for theirs. Its text seems well suited to comfort mourners with the traditional idea of death being not an end, but a passage through which people travel, freeing the deceased from trouble and reuniting them with departed loved-ones.

.                                   .                                   .

I will be having an ablation, which – if successful – will cure my problem with atrial fibrillation. Currently, we keep it in check with a rhythm-regulating drug, but I have had to have two cardioversions, the procedure where they shock the heart back into rhythm.

To the extent I understand it, here’s what’s happening. (Were I techie enough, I’d insert a cutaway diagram of the heart here.)

The surgeon will open my femoral artery near the groin and insert a scope apparatus (so he can see what he’s doing), feeding it upward toward my heart. When it gets there, it will be on the opposite side from where it needs to be. So the surgeon will poke it through the wall separating my heart’s two atria.

This provides access to the two pulmonary arteries that feed oxygenated blood into the heart, for pumping out to the rest of the body. Apparently, a “redundant” network of nerves that usually helps the heart pulse effectively runs along these arteries and spreads out from around those openings.

But in people like me, the signals from these nerves fire at cross-purposes with the signals from the “primary” system, causing the heart to fibrillate/flutter inefficiently rather than pulse effectively. Some of our blood might “pool” in the heart then, increasing the dangers related to blood clots, like strokes. Blood-thinning drugs can reduce these dangers, but living with thinned blood carries its own risks. Thus, it’s usually best to cardiovert the heart into rhythm or cure the condition with an ablation.

To keep these disruptive signals from spreading through the heart muscle and confuse my pulse, the surgeon will use a lazar to burn a circle around each pulmonary artery, severing the neural connections through which the disruptive signals would spread and leaving the primary system to maintain my pulse, unimpeded.

The bigger risks of the surgery – like death – are pretty remote, much more remote, sadly, than those that, daily, threaten multitudes. But as with any surgery, they’re there. Still, I’ve chosen to face them, at a pretty safe “distance.” Still, they’ve also given me occasion to consider my own mortality – as I do more frequently anyway, having passed 50 and “midlife.” But I’ll admit it’s a little scary and I’m only a little brave.

.                                   .                                   .

So welcome, Bradley, to the human condition – to stark awareness, at least, of this grim factor in the condition. Though perhaps unawares, to be alive is to face death. In effect, from our first steps, we walk in the valley of the shadow of death, the shadow being deepest in those times of awareness.

The heart of the matter is that I’m lucky to be alive. I’ve never stood at death’s door, but I’ve had near misses in accidents that could have ended me.

Certainly, I’m lucky to have lived as I have, when I have. To have lived a modest middle-class American life since the second half of the 20th century, somehow becoming thoughtful and well-educated. To have lived in a time when blood-thinners, pulse-regulating drugs, and ablations are available to people like me. To have the choice to have the surgery and face its risks in order to have a more healthful life if all goes as well as hoped.

Fifty years ago or a continent over or economic status lower, my condition may have already taken its toll. I wish everyone could have at least similar good fortune, though I worry I may have had more than my share of what natural providence can sustain, given the number of us roaming the planet.

To have been raised in a loving home and to have made one with Kay and our girls. To have developed precious friendships and a satisfying career among fine colleagues/friends. To have suffered no losses yet within my closest circles of affection.

So yea! I love my life and want it to go on. It will end someday, but I’m extremely grateful for what I’ve already had. No one could have expected as much. Presuming there would be no more, whenever this is over, I want that to be said.

Idolizing Scripture; Demonizing People

The notions of God’s “transcendence” or “absoluteness,” central to the meaning of the symbol, suggest that God is to be conceived as not to be bound by any of the psychological or cultural relativities or interests which obscure our insight or understanding, making these always something less than true or right.  … Above all, such an ultimate point of reference can alert us to the likelihood that in our devotion to our own beliefs and practices and institutions we are involved in idolatries that need to be questioned and (perhaps drastically) corrected, even though we ourselves fail to see at just what points they are deficient or corrupted.

                                                Gordon D. Kaufman (In Face of Mystery 8)

 

Being KaufMennonite and, thus, being agnostic/skeptical of the existence of an anthropomorphic deity which somehow sired Jesus, I further have a strained relationship with the Bible – certainly an untraditional one by Christian standards.

I won’t deny the Bible is an important book. But across its history, I think its status has been elevated way too far – by too many Christians (almost all, it seems), including Mennonites.

“The Word of God”? I’m not just skeptical; I’m doubtful. What Kaufman calls serendipitous creativity (motions governed by the laws of physics) shapes our universe making it an ultimate in relationship through which it’s worth orienting our lives, something Kaufman says might properly be call “God.” This creativity has led, on Earth, to words being developed and passed around among humans. But it doesn’t utter words itself, nor even exist as a self.

.                                   .                                   .

In part, Mennonite Church USA’s Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective puts its traditional view of scripture this way:

We believe that all Scripture is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit for instruction in salvation and training in righteousness. We accept the Scriptures as the Word of God and as the fully reliable and trustworthy standard for Christian faith and life. We seek to understand and interpret Scripture in harmony with Jesus Christ as we are led by the Holy Spirit in the church. (Article 4, p. 21)

The rest of Article 4 elaborates on this, saying such things as “We believe that God was at work through the centuries in the process by which the books of the Old and New Testament were inspired and written” and “We … acknowledge the Scripture as the fully reliable and trustworthy Word of God written in human language. We believe that God continues to speak through the living and written Word” (p. 21). Concerning scripture’s use, Article 4 also says, “Other claims on our understanding of Christian faith and life, such as tradition, culture, experience, reason, and political powers, need to be tested and corrected in the light of Holy Scripture” (pp. 21-22) and “We participate in the church’s task of interpreting the Bible and of discerning what God is saying in our time by examining all things in the light of Scripture” (p. 22).

Nothing entirely surprising to Christians here, although some might be shocked by the idea of interpreting scripture rather than simply (or miraculously) recognizing its “literal interpretation” or might be disconcerted by the absence of any mention of biblical “infallibility” or “inerrancy.” The Confession may also have commented on the beliefs surrounding the miraculous preservation and canonization of the Bible as we have it today, although for many Mennonites, that might involve unpalatable affirmation of Constantinian Catholicism.

.                                   .                                   .

The way Scripture and Word of God are capitalizes alongside God, Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ catches the eye. It implies the book’s deification.

I think of Jesus as an insightful rabbi who taught life lessons steeped in his culture, lessons I aim to live by to the extent they have historically shaped and continue to apply to my sub/culture and, I hope, continue to shape them. So I respect the Bible as a book that partially conveys those teachings and that cultural tradition. But I don’t buy the supernatural beliefs surrounding the stories, even though I acknowledge that such beliefs seem to have motivated the writing and preservation of the stories and continue to motivate most Christians’ reverence toward the Bible. In my worldview, these elements look like mistakes – honest ones, I’ll grant, by people less scientifically informed than we can be these days.

Naturally, this might tempt some to dismiss my thinking itself as the product of a misinformed point of view, or even condemn it as heresy. But let’s not be hasty; years ago, in an article for the Mennonite Weekly Review, which I’ve included at the end of this essay,1 I processed this thought from the more traditional point of view I held then.

I reached the same conclusion: It’s tempting to idolize the Bible, to convince ourselves somehow that we’ve grasped the mind of that anthropomorphic God.

I wondered even then, how could a book embody the traditional God? Even if such a God exists, there are too many human fingerprints on the Bible: the original writings, their preservation and canonization, and their many translations and paraphrases. Even if that sort of God provided inspiration for all this, various humans executed the respiration, filtering supposed Providence through free-will, culture, language, personal mentality, and so on.

From either point of view (and many others, I’d wager), we who look to the Bible for guidance in life would do well, then, not to be too confident of its traditionally presumed infallibility and of our own understandings and applications. Idols lurk at every turn – in the book and even in ourselves.

.                                   .                                   .

The greatest danger in all this lies in the application. We’re prone to weaponize an idolized scripture, whatever our religion, and wield it against those who don’t see things precisely our way – for the devil, we might presume, is in those details. So differences in belief and behavior may seem demonic.

More extreme ways we may treat each other on such bases are clear. A cursory glimpse at religious history reveals enormous blood stains. Careful scrutiny unveils myriads of ways we’ve devised to wound each other more subtly.

Mennonites’ pacifist tradition has made us less prone to advocate war, torture, and execution institutionally or participate individually or collectively (although there have been exceptions). More common are instances where we violate each other socially, based on biblical interpretation authorized through “communal discernment,” supposedly having identified the Satanic sort of stuff we can’t risk associating with lest our goodness be sullied. Shamelessly, we have shunned each other – or coerced others’ obedience and their feigned common belief.

These days, we Mennonites call it “dismemberment” – an appalling metaphor. We call for others to be severed from the denominational body, or sever ourselves from the body, over matters of biblical authority and “discipline” – most often, these days, the status of self-respecting (noncelibate) LGBTQIA people in the church.

This case demonstrates the limitations of the Bible and the problem of all other sources of understanding being “tested and corrected in the light of Holy Scripture.” Comparatively, people in biblical times knew precious little about sexuality-diversity. And the Bible shows this. Scholars like Willard Swartley (Homosexuality, ch. 4) note that Paul made up words to express what he considered “unnatural” and immoral in male homosexual intercourse. But Swartley concedes that Paul had no “notion of homosexual orientation,” I suspect because he had no words through which to conceive of LGBTQIA sexualities as natural to some. Why would he? Death by stoning – or the threat of stoning – silenced those who might have produced such words and made the case.

In this case, then, it seems more sensible and inspired to test scripture in the light of emerging knowledge and reason.

In any case (maybe in every case), our differences seem less likely to reveal demonic influence than human limitations (including our own) and the wounds we’ve unwittingly or self-righteously inflicted on each other.

__________________

1Here, in “Musings on Biblical Infallibility” (Mennonite Weekly Review June 18, 1998, p. 5), you’ll see an expression of my former way of thinking about scriptural idolatry, one based in a more traditional Christian theology and faith.

I was interested to read about the Eastern District Conference (GC [the General Conference Mennonite Church]) decision to discuss the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective more before voting again on whether or not to endorse it (MWR, May 7 [1998]).

Most eye-catching was that the district was divided over the confession’s description of scriptural authority and interpretation.

One group accepts the confession’s description of “the Scriptures as the Word of God and as the fully reliable and trustworthy standard for Christian faith and life” (Article 4). Others want to describe the Bible as “infallible.”

.                                   .                                   .

Controversy about scriptural authority is not new, nor is it confined to the Eastern District. In fact, it’s biblical.

Jesus was confronted with it. The gospels tell stories of scribes and Pharisees trying to trick Jesus into heresy.

Jesus said he came not to abolish but to fulfill the Law and Prophets (Matt. 5:17). Nevertheless, Jesus goes on, several times saying, “You have heard that it was said, … but I say …” (Matt. 5:21-48).

And Jesus summarized the Law and Prophets in the commandments to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-40), doubtless “erasing” scriptural details many thought vital.

The apostles also struggled with the issue. Like the writers of Hebrews (5:2) and I Peter (2:2), Paul scolds his readers for being spiritual infants, still needing milk, not ready for solid food (I Cor. 3:2).

Certainly, the milk they deliver is nutritious. But is milk all we got? What they write often seems meaty enough. But they never wrote specifically, “Here’s the meat.” I wonder what they may have saved to serve later.

.                                   .                                   .

As an alternative to “infallibility,” I am pleased with the descriptive language of the confession, including the terms “fully reliable” and “trustworthy.” Most compelling, however, is the statement that further describes the Bible as “the essential book of the church.” We can’t get along without it.

It is the inspired witness to God’s work in history up to and through the time of the Word’s coming in human form, Emanuel, God with us. The Bible represents God’s efforts to get humanity straightened out.

But for some reason, we need two creation stories (Gen. 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-25) and two histories of the kings (the first is I and II Samuel and I and II Kings and the second is I and II Chronicles). If either were complete, why would we need the other? If each is incomplete, is it infallible?

The Gospels give us four perspectives on Jesus, none of them seemingly complete. Are four perspectives even adequate to convey the significance of Jesus’ life and ministry in the continuing life of the church? Even those who knew Jesus seem to have had trouble fulfilling this in their day. We face the same interpretive challenge.

.                                   .                                   .

So I am uncomfortable with the idea of biblical infallibility. But by saying this, I don’t mean that the Bible is false or deceptive. Scripture’s account of salvation history up to its climax gives us vision for what we should be about, with God’s help.

I worry, however, that the talk of biblical infallibility may amount to idolatry. Are we turning the Bible into a graven image?

I freely confess God to be infallible. I hesitate to confess that the Bible conveys the infinite God fully, even while I confess the Bible to be inspired. The Bible begins and ends. It must be finite, partial.

But I also worry that talk of infallibility tempts us to self-righteousness. A text incapable of error would seem incapable of leading to error. What I grasp of the Scriptures becomes absolute Truth, then, by which I can live without question. Rather than living by faith, I can live by the certainty that I have grasped the mind of God. And I can grasp my absolute Truth like a weapon against dissenters.

But even Moses was told not to look directly as God passed. Paul was blinded by his vision on the Road to Damascus. Such stories suggest that humans can’t fully comprehend God. We see through a glass – the lens of language in the Bible’s case – dimly. As Paul wrote (I Cor. 13:12), we must be content with a promise of full knowledge.

How then can we stand, and where? We can humbly stand by faith with each other’s and with the Spirit’s help, as parts of the body to which Christ is the head. The God who inspired the biblical writers is still with us, inspiring our readings and our collective, albeit partial, discernment.

Rewriting Responsive Readings

The types, possibilities, and extent of our freedom of thought, imagination, and action are heavily dependent on the structures and the flexibility of the language in terms of which we do our experiencing, imagining, and thinking.

Gordon D. Kaufman (In Face of Mystery 161)

It’s not so much that I’m worried about someone “putting words in my mouth.” After all, all the words in my mouth are someone else’s – or everyone else’s. They didn’t originate with me – except for viagravated.[1]

It’s more that I usually try to be careful about the words I speak or write or even think (even the mildly crude ones) – careful about the meanings I formulate. I don’t simply accept the words others use to make and convey meaning. Through the lens of language, I try to see things for myself.

That’s why I’ve started rewriting the responsive readings we often recite at Southern Hills Mennonite. Some are okay as is. Nothing is inherently wrong with the others per se – nothing I have stronger qualms about than some of the hymn lyrics we sing together. But these lyrics trip along too quickly for me to revise while following the tenor notes. Plus, I have definite qualms about scribbling in the hymnal.

I have no such reservation about marking up our bulletins, which usually end up in the recycling bin by the end of the week.

It’s a matter of perspective. I aim, to the extent possible, to rework each reading to fit my KaufMennonite sensibility: “How or what do I think about this stuff?”

In recent months, among others, I’ve had opportunities to rewrite some readings in ways that fit them better to my thinking about cosmic creativity and about human responsibility, charity, and humility – themes I have discussed previously.

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Here’s what I did to the end of one recent reading; the rest of it seemed acceptable (the original text is in normal print, some of it crossed out; my additions, in bold print):

LEADER: wherever people are tempted to think of themselves as better than others, more worthy, more deserving, more important to you,

PEOPLE: may your humility break in and challenge us, reminding us of our brokenness limitations and need, and teaching moving us to serve and love everyone with the grace and humility you show toward us.

The original reading is, to Christians, recognizably traditional in its anthropomorphic/humanlike picturing of God and its ethical teaching about striving for humility. In fact, the bulletin noted that the entire reading was inspired by Luke 18:9-14, Jesus’ parable comparing the Pharisee’s and the tax collector’s prayers.

The reading is very clever, as is Jesus’ parable, at shifting focus from “people”/others to us. It’s not only others who suffer superiority complexes; it’s usme at least, if not you. Temptation to pride or self-righteousness may, paradoxically, be inherent in our efforts to make moral/ethical choices, to recognize “temptation” and overcome it. When we succeed, we probably can’t help but notice when others don’t and, thus, feel good about ourselves – comparatively, at least. Of course, it should deflate us some to recognize in this the temptation we haven’t overcome.

So in my rewrite, the ethical element remains. But in faith, being myself oriented in relation to cosmic creativity instead of a creator, I’ve removed the references to an anthropomorphic (virtually human) God – the you in the reading that models proper humility.

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Here’s what I did with another reading:

(from Psalm 104:24-31)

LEADER: O Lord, [W]hat a variety of things you have made has come to be!

In your wisdom you have made them all How intricately are they related.

The earth is full of your creatures.

PEOPLE: Every one of them is dependent on you interdependent

for to give them what they need to survive.

LEADER: When you send out your breath Through the universe’s marvelous motions, life is created,

and the face of the earth is made beautiful

and is renewed.

PEOPLE: May your glory glorious life endure forever, O God,

and may you we find joy in the splendor of your creation.

In most of these changes, I’ve tried to retain the awe conveyed in the original, but again without attributing these natural wonders to an anthropomorphic creator/ruler. I just don’t believe that’s what’s behind it all. Instead, the creativity initiated in the Big Bang continues to bring what is and will be into being, including Earth’s complex ecosystem.

In the last statement of the “people,” instead of flattering that anthropomorphic creator, I express a fervent hope – one that I am religiously devoted to. This desire for life on Earth to endure must in turn transform itself into action – convert hope into reality, a common responsibility to care for our habitat. We can’t wait on divine intervention.

However, “forever” is really a lot to hope for. Science predicts that, in millions of years, the Sun will swell and incinerate the Earth. Science also describes the possibility of other cosmic catastrophes that could extinguish terrestrial life.

But in these, we play no part. In the prospects of “nuclear winter” or “green-house summer,” we do. We should act accordingly.

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Here’s what I did with yesterday’s reading:

LEADER: Come, people of God promise, diverse and beloved.

ALL: We come, ready to meet our brothers and sisters in Christ faith.

LEADER: Come you faithful generations.

ALL: We come, ready to meet our God our evolving selves.

LEADER: Come and Let’s clothe yourselves ourselves in Christ’s saving love.

ALL: We come, ready to meet even the “other,” for we are all heirs of God’s in our difference, we find promise and hope.

Here, I saw a chance to reflect on our responsibilities to each other. As important to me as the responsibilities Christians assume toward each other are the responsibilities all humans might take for each other.

Skeptical (as I’ve said) about the existence of a person-God, life after death, and thus Jesus’ ongoing deific providence, again I’ve removed such references, turning attention to human promise – our potential for growth and the strength available in human diversity.

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While rewriting responsive readings, I take some time Sunday mornings to get my bearings as I continue on my unusual Jesus way. I’m still growing into my KaufMennonite sensibility, and these rewrites help. So do these blog essays. They both cause growth and measure it.

They are exercises in basic active “listening” and critical thinking – but from a perspective I’ve had a taste but not a name for through much of my adult life.

In the end, therefore, I wouldn’t put words in your mouth. (As if I could.) Instead, if it might be any help to you in gaining perspective, consider bouncing your sensibility off mine.

My hope is that our differences nourish something creative.

 

[1] That neologism I coined several years ago for one of my Frank Lehman dialogues in Mennonite Weekly Review (as it was called then). The contextual implication suggested a state of unsettled annoyance related to a sexual topic.

My Life Flows On in Endless Song (Metaphorically)

All animals die, but only we humans (the self-conscious animals) are aware that we must die – aware, that is to say, that although we must always face a future, one day that future will be gone; aware that although we seemingly must always be projecting, planning, deciding, moving, one day all these projects and motions will be cut off in mid-air, unfinished, incomplete, never to be realized; aware that one day we too will be gone forever, that we will no longer be conscious biohistorical selves, able to appreciate and enjoy our small achievements, to remember moments of joy and happiness, to hope for new and rich experiences of meaning, fulfillment, peace.

Kaufman (In Face of Mystery 168)

 

As do so many occasions in our lives, the weekend of Jill’s graduation ceremony filled with music.

Unrelated to graduation, that Friday night, she drove home for Lauren and Josh’s wedding, Lauren is one of Jill’s great “high-school” friends. Jill and another of them, Sarah, were singing. On Friday, they rehearsed. On Saturday (because Jill’s friends became ours), Kay and I attended the wedding and heard her and Sarah sing a beautiful cover of Elvis’ “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.”

As it happens, the week before, Jill and Braden had become engaged, so even though there’s been plenty in the meantime, more happy chatter ensued. Also, Megan and Andrew are soon to be married. Apparently, all this converged as Jill and Sarah sang, conjuring memories of music from our wedding and Aimee and Michael’s and inspiring “visions” of music from weddings to come.

That was just the start.

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After the reception, we three hustled back to North Newton Saturday night. Jill sings in the Bethel College Choir, which would be featured in the Baccalaureate service Sunday morning. For the two-hour trek, the three of us divided between two cars: Jill and Kay filling one, I presume, with more happy chatter; me (at the top of my lungs) filling the other with my tunes.

As I’ve written previously, such sing-alongs take me way back and very deep. But along the way, they pass by family road trips that probably echo in Kay, Aimee, Megan, and Jill’s memories too. And I’m reminded that many of their tunes have become mine. Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer” became “our song,” even before Kay and I were married, and our friends Andy and Ruth covered it at our reception. Then and still, I sing it with a rich kind of feeling I experience singing along with Yes, Kansas, ELP, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, Robin Trower, and the rest.

As they developed their own musical tastes, the girls insisted the Caravan be filled with their music proportionately with mine – and there are three of them! So as I got up to speed, we joined voices with Jason Mraz, John Mayer, Steel Wheels, Wailin’ Jennys, et al.

I deeply hope there are songs still to be learned from – and maybe passed to – people still to be met.

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Sunday morning, we got to Baccalaureate an hour early – to claim a good seat. For the many music-lovers in the Bethel College community, the half-hour prelude is perhaps the highlight of the service, even though music is prominent in the service too. It certainly was a highlight for us.

Between them, Jill and Braden were part of five of the eight songs comprising the prelude. Jill and five of her friends from choir, fellow graduates, started things with a Wailin’ Jennys song, and later, she sang a solo from her senior recital (accompanied by Braden’s mom, Karen). Braden played a trumpet piece from his recital (accompanied by his mom); he also played with the BC Brass Quintet and sang/harmonica’d with his bluegrass group, the Flannelbacks.

The choir sang six songs during the service itself. One, Esenvalds’ “Only in Sleep,” Braden conducted skillfully while Jill sang the featured solo, her bell-like soprano voice ringing clearly through the lush choral accompaniment.

My experience, too, was lush – with immediate aesthetic pleasure, of course, but also with familial pride and familiar nostalgia. I had felt similar pride at Aimee and Megan’s Baccalaureates, when they too had sung. I also had sung in that choir, a choir my mom, Florence (Fast), and sister, Joleen, had previously sung in; I had sung at Bethel College Baccalaureates in my day, had met Kay, in fact, in the choir her father, Marles Preheim, had conducted and, before that, had sung in with her mom, Norma.

I heard Jill’s notes – amid the sopranos and apart. And they felt like my notes somehow. I was with her, as I’d been with Megan and Aimee. I heard the tenor notes I would have sung alongside her/them; they were my notes too. Through Jill, that morning, the whole choir became a voice I felt part of, though I’d departed stage and looked back on it from a small distance.

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At the graduation ceremony, one of Marles’ protégés, perhaps the most prominent, as Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Hege, gave the Commencement Address.

Jill walked with her class, although she has postponed graduating officially until she has finished her student teaching in the fall. She is following in her mother’s footsteps, like Megan, as an elementary school music teacher – soon producing protégés of her own. Perhaps they have begun already, each having taken a turn directing the Bethel College Mennonite Church Cherub Choir, as had their grandmother, Norma, for many years.

Like their sister, Aimee, they’re also gathering more singers to the table at home (once just a duet), filling out (and helping me balance the voicing of) an octet. We eight may never squeeze into a single vehicle, but occasionally, we’ve all joined voices to bless a meal with song. And various subsets have joined the extended family to do the same.

As I understand it, there are plans to extend the music further. Certainly, a good thing, because the world needs music and, inevitably, we must leave the stage at some point.

Perhaps we graduate to another stage of life. I would like that, but I doubt it. Even so, I’m content. I’m not disheartened by the thought of simply ending – not while music I was once part of, endures.

 

Appendix

“How Can I Keep from Singing?” by Robert Lowry, v. 1 & refrain

 

My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation.

I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.

 

No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging.

Since Love is Lord of heav’n and earth, how can I keep from singing?