Friday, August 28, 2009

I bring you aged a young man’s love
Wendell Berry, “To Tanya on My Sixtieth Birthday,” Given, 6

The love songs of youth remain a joy to list to. For those of us who grew up in the rock era there have been beautiful ballads – “Something” (The Beatles), “Colour My World” (Chicago), “You Are The Sunshine of My Life” (Stevie Wonder), among many, many others. At junior high dances I always hoped to find a partner for The Carpenters “Close To You” or Bread’s “If,” but I was shy and often left standing heartbroken watching others dance.
Love songs could also rock. She was just seventeen… and I saw her standing there (The Beatles), What I like about you, you really know how to dance (The Romantics), et. al. Awhile back I came across a used CD by The Knack a power pop band from my college days whose biggest song was a love song of sorts “My Sharona.” Truth be told there was more lust than love there, but teenage love songs are often a mysterious mixture of affection, sexuality and a desire not to be lonely. I enjoy the love songs, ballads and rockers, of my younger years.
This summer I have also been listening to a different kind of love song, more akin to Wendell Berry’s poem to his wife. John Hiatt released a CD in the last year or so entitled Same Old Man. It is filled with love songs, not the love songs of youth, but of age. Hiatt’s voice is a wonderful instrument to convey such songs.
Even when I was dead inside/You saw something to remind you/of the man I was tryin’ to hide/I just wanna go on with you/All the joy and pain and beauty too. “On With You.” To have lived with someone a long time usually means there will be joy and beauty and pain. That’s life and you want a love that can take it all in.
That’s what love can do/Make you feel brand new….Fire your heart and burn clean through, “What Love Can Do.” The fires of love may burn a little differently over time, but they still burn.

Honey, I’m still the same old man
That you married way back when
A few less brain cells a lot less hair
Honey tell me you still care
I love you more than I ever did…
You start out trying to change everything
You wind up dancing with who you bring
I loved you then and my love still stands
Honey, I’m still the same old man.
“Same Old Man”

That’s my favorite, a tribute to a love that lasts, that joins two people over the years, through easy streets and bumpy roads. Such love takes work, but it is work of the best kind. There is also a grace about such love, it is goes beyond the language of “deserving,” at least when one is the recipient of such love, as I have been (Julie and I celebrated our twenty-seventh anniversary in July). I hope I have given as much as I have received.
I will still listen to the songs of my youth, though I am no longer young. I will also celebrate the gift, the joy, the passion of a young man’s love now aged.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

15 Books

I confess, I am often reticent to get into some of the many quizzes, contests, suggestions offered through Facebook. Which theologian do you most favor? What city would be your perfect home? What color should you wear when the moon is full? Which great looking star would you most like to play you in the movie of your life? Maybe I dislike that last question because I remember in college when people told me I reminded them of John Ritter (in his Three’s Company days). Now I fear Danny DeVito might come to mind.
Anyway, two friends (Lawrence and Jerad) invited me to share fifteen book titles under the following rules: “Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Tag 15 friends, including me because I'm interested in seeing what books my friends choose.” I was intrigued. They got me. I posted my fifteen, with a little bending of the rules and tagged fifteen – o.k. sixteen – friends. Otherwise I kept it brief. Here is the list with explanatory notes.

1. The Bible: How can I say anything else, except this is not simply a nod to profession or piety. Among the first books I remember reading and loving were: Homer Price (and I still have my copy somewhere), Winners Never Quit (a portrait of various athletes who had hit hard times and came back) and The Greatest in Baseball. Love of books and reading came early to me, I guess, and there are certain feeling tones inside even as I type these titles. I came to the Bible most fervently after a born again experience. I asked for a copy of The Way (Living Bible) for my fourteenth birthday. I read the Bible straight through, struggling along the way. There are times when reading the Bible remains a struggle, but other times the words leap from the page into my life. Reading this book shapes the life from which I read. I should also admit that all my other reading shapes how I come back to this book again and again.
2. Writings and Drawings, Bob Dylan. As sometimes happens, a born again experience starts one on a journey that may lead away from the initial theological understandings with which one understood the experience. I remember hearing someone in my Jesus People group telling another person that they should probably not bother reading some certain book, and I remember cringing inside. What was outside this particular understanding of Christian faith? In some ways I think the same Spirit that gave me new birth urged me to think more deeply and broadly. I left that group and began asking all kinds of questions. I had sung a couple of Bob Dylan songs in a Christian small group and liked them. What more was there to this interesting guy with the remarkably distinct voice and gift for putting words together? I bought Greatest Hits I and II. I found Writings and Drawings in the Duluth East High School library. Hey Mr. Tambourine man play a song for me, I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to. Hey Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me in the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you. And I did.
3. Toward a Psychology of Being, Abraham Maslow. Senior year at East psychology class and I met Abraham Maslow (not literally). Many people know about his hierarchy of needs, but don’t get beyond that. That theory has some validity, but can also be criticized, and rightly so. But the Maslow I met in this book wanted to get beyond thinking simply about self-actualization to considering the transcendent and transpersonal. He wanted, as well, to develop a psychology of evil “one written out of compassion and love for human nature.” I deeply appreciated Maslow’s breadth and depth of learning and his gentle spirit, at least as those came through his writing.
4. Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown, Alan Watts. As I sought to discover a wider world outside my intense born-again Christian faith, I wanted to learn something about other religious traditions. Alan Watts was my first guide. This book of essays is not as well known as some of his other works, but it provides a nice selection of some of his later writings. I enjoy the title, too.
5. On the Road, Jack Kerouac; Howl, Allen Ginsberg. At a used bookstore in downtown Duluth I bought a copy of Theodore Roszak’s The Making of A Counter Culture and made the connection between Alan Watts and the beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. In a college English class on twentieth century American literature, just before we were to read some beat literature, the professor asked if anyone had read Kerouac or Ginsberg. My hand was among the two or three that was raised. I still appreciate the rush of language in these works. They were important beginning points into poetry and literature.
6. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkein. The summer I graduated from college and had no reading assignments or papers to think about, I picked up Tolkein’s trilogy (actually began with The Silmarillion and The Hobbit) and spent a summer escaping when I could into another world. It was magic.
7. Systematic Theology, Paul Tillich. Christian faith never left me, or one might better say the God of Jesus Christ kept after me, and following college I went to seminary to explore this faith that had been so intense, but had, at times come up intellectually short. Why could I not let this go? Why did it not let me go? Tillich was the first theologian I grappled with in seminary and his work remains worth the effort. His definition of sanctification (life under the impact of the Spiritual Presence) as increasing awareness, increasing freedom, increasing relatedness, and increasing transcendence captured my attention and imagination then, and it still does.
8. The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr. During college I began to become more socially aware and politically active. The Christian faith I knew at that time was not terribly socially aware. In seminary, reading Niebuhr, I discovered that faith not only helped answer existential questions, but pushed one into thinking about human social relations, too. There have been at least two or three times since seminary that I have come across articles about “needing Niebuhr” again. I am glad I found him in seminary and have never let him go.
9. Process Theology: an introductory exposition, John Cobb and David Griffin. Tillich and Niebuhr remain rich theological resources for my life and thought, but the most profound discovery in theology in my seminary years was the discovery of process theology. It categories of thought profoundly shape how I think about life, God, Jesus, the Bible - - - God as Creative-Responsive love, power as influence, relatedness as essential to experience.
10. Struggle and Fulfillment, Donald Evans. This book by a relatively little-known religious scholar and ethicist weaves together psychoanalytic psychology, theology, philosophy, ethics and religious studies. Who could ask for anything more?
11. Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman; Poems, Emily Dickinson. How different can two poets be - - - Whitman sounding his barbaric “yawp” and Dickinson asking “are you nobody, too?” Yet both poets touch something deep within. Perhaps within we find both multitudes and singleness, a need to celebrate life and confront death. Perhaps the poets are united in their sense of “divine madness.” One of the first Dickinson poems I remember reading I read on a small paper bag given me by Savran’s Paperback store in the Cedar-Riverside area of Minneapolis. “Much madness is divinest sense to a discerning eye.”
12. The Centaur, John Updike. I began reading Updike when I returned to school to work on my Ph.D. While that work left insufficient time for outside reading, somewhere along the line this book fell into my hands. I appreciate Updike’s language and story-telling. This work weaves myth into the world of a father and a son in Pennsylvania. The best literature expands our ability to experience our experience and Updike helps me do that.
13. Love’s Knowledge, Martha Nussbaum. This was one of the first books of philosophy I read after completing my Ph.D. I had returned to parish ministry so didn’t really need to be reading this kind of work, but something in me is fed by it. Nussbaum writes beautifully, insightfully and intelligently about literature, feeling, ethics and life. This book led me to develop a love for Henry James, as Nussbaum used his work in making a case for a life that is to be lived finely aware and richly responsible.
14. The Dhammapada. In 2006 I read Marjorie Suchocki’s book on religions Divinity and Diversity. In one chapter where she was discussing Buddhism, I realized that it had been a long time since I had read much literature from this tradition, especially non-Zen literature. I am not sure why I felt it might be helpful to explore this tradition more thoroughly, but I began to read. The Dhammapada is filled with insight, insight that I find helpful in developing my own Christian faith and practice.
15. The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker. Last summer I decided to read this book I had owned since college. After being a candidate for bishop and not getting elected, I think I wanted to read something that would engage me deeply, that might cause me to think in some new ways. I had heard some remarkable things about this book, and so I read it. It engaged me deeply heart, mind and soul and I continue to ponder its insights into the human situation. I love how Becker uses insights from the psychoanalytic tradition. I appreciate his finding kinship with Tillich and Niebuhr. Passages in this book sing, though the tune is often haunting. Becker died while the book was moving toward publication.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Thinking Through Some Busy Days

If you have been looking for something new here for the past couple of weeks, my apologies. I have been busy with a number of projects. From July 22-31, I was teaching a course in Christian Ethics for the United Methodist Course of Study School. Sponsored by Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, the course was held on the campus of North Central College in Naperville, Illinois – outside of Chicago. Since I last wrote here, I have been either teaching or preparing to teach. In between the first and second weeks, I traveled to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to join members of my church who were engaged in flood recovery work. Teaching was wonderful and our work in Cedar Rapids very worthwhile and meaningful.
One day, while teaching someone in my class asked me about substitutionary atonement, the theological doctrine that Jesus death was a substitute for our own, that in dying on the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for our sinfulness. What did I think of this? Well, the topic has not been central to the discipline of Christian Ethics, but the class was based in discussion and it seemed appropriate to offer a few brief thoughts. I responded by saying that the fundamental Christian affirmation of faith is that Jesus death has some salvific significance for human beings, but that the New Testament, and Christian theological thought through the ages has offered a variety of images, metaphors, perspectives for understanding that significance. We moved on.
Serendipitously, that day at lunch, one of my faculty colleagues, Ty Inbody, who I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time at Course of Study, was talking about his class in systematic theology and his discussion of atonement theory. He mentioned some of his concerns with substitutionary theories of atonement. Since arriving home I dug out my copy of his book The Many Faces of Christology (which I confessed to him I had not yet read) to explore his thought a bit further. To say that he has reservations about substitutionary atonement is to put the matter mildly. The cross means nothing but one more human tragedy apart from the power of the resurrection. God turns human wrongdoing around, and uses it against itself…. We are redeemed by the incarnation, not by the cross…. No one had to pay any price to anyone…. Rather the God of compassion and lovingkindness redeems us through the divine power which undergoes our suffering caused by our sin and raises to new life those who participate in the power of his cross and resurrection. (163)
This conversation got me to thinking more deeply about ethics and theology. The next day in class I told the students that one thing the discipline of ethics offers theology is questions about doctrine. If the adequacy of a theology is measured by the criteria of appropriateness to the Christian witness of faith and credibility to human experience (I learned this from my teacher Schubert Ogden), one dimension of the credibility of a theological proposition is its moral credibility. I went on to say that for many people, penal sustitutionary theories of the atonement lack some moral credibility. I stated this with humble boldness, inviting the students to disagree.
Well this past Saturday, I got up and turned on the television for a bit of news, but surfing by a church service, I stopped. I listened as the pastor, from a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Church, developed in his sermon the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Here is some of what he said.
God is angry with us because of sin. Apparently this anger of God is rather blinding because God does not differentiate between us and murderers, thieves or prostitutes. God is angry about human sin and that sin deeply offends God, and justice demands that a price be paid for this offense of justice. The pastor then discussed substitution, using the example of a volleyball team – substituting a better player when needed in a game. In this case, Jesus becomes the substitute. We have a price to pay for our sin, but Jesus takes our place by dying on the cross. Not only did Jesus die, said the pastor, he was crushed. He asked his listeners to recall what children do to bugs – they squash them, crush them, destroy them – and that’s what God did to Jesus on the cross. But because such crushing was the penalty due for our sin, we can now become children of God. One might legitimately ask, at this point, what that might mean. The pastor has just told us, afterall, how God treated one of his best children – by crushing him like a bug. I think this theological position raises some significant moral questions, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.
In his book The Human Being Walter Wink discusses various theories of the atonement, the significance to human well-being of the death of Jesus. He concludes with these observations: There is truth in most of these atonement theories…. The point is that no religious experience can be made normative for all people. God reaches out to us in love wherever we are and instigates what leads us to wholeness…. The virtue of multiple images of the atonement in the New Testament is that each communicates some aspect of forgiveness and new life, without a single model being elevated as exclusively correct. Atonement theories are need-specific remedies for the spiritual afflictions that assail us. (111)
I am grateful for the multiplicity of ways Christian tradition has grappled with the significance of the death of Jesus for human life. Given the limits of penal substitutionary atonement theology, I am glad it is not the only option. My guess is that there are people outside the church who have trouble with that theory and who would like to hear about Christian faith in a different key. I'd like to talk with them.

With Faith and With Feathers,