Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Whole Creation is Watching

I had a conversation with our grandson last night. He’s a church nerd, like his grandfather and his father (our middle son, who is an elder and the choir director in his church, and who also is an effective lay preacher.) Our grandson is a responsible young adult with a blossoming career in Intelligence Technology. His faith runs deep, and he’s brilliant, like you’d expect one of my grandsons to be.

Last night, he expressed concern about the lack of direction and focus in his church. Understand: he’s a millennial, and millennials don’t have much time or interest for meaningless head religion or emotionalism. Millennials want to know how to follow Jesus and become more like him; and that quest usually leads to a spirituality expressed through relationships and tangible actions of love and compassion. They're not seeing that in the church.

Since the 1990s, surveys have been consistent: 95%, plus or minus two or three percent, of North Americans believe in God. Since the 1980s, Millennials have been asking, “OK; I believe. Now what?” “What’s next?” And the church has been caught off guard—distracted—busy with infighting and denominational self-justification.

During the 1950s the American church began a decline that has not been reversed. Sadly, the decline has been related more to politics than to theology or biblical doctrine.

Post-WWII fear of the bomb and of the rise of Communism sparked a growing us-versus-them mentality which was fanned into a flaming paranoia called McCarthyism. The negative effects of McCarthyism are still present; indeed, they have worsened until, today, America is a house so severely divided that many are questioning whether our nation can survive.

Historically, the church always has been vulnerable to schism, and so it was sucked quickly into the political vortex of growing partisan belligerence. The denomination I serve was the fastest growing church in America; but, the issue that eventually divided us was purely political. A prime stimulus behind McCarthyism was Mao Zedong’s movement in China. In 1949, Mao’s People’s Republic of China forced Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China into exiled in Taiwan (Formosa).

Our United Christian Missionary Society had stations in China, and faced a dilemma: should our missionaries cooperate as guests of Mao’s government, should they remain neutral, or should they actively resist the Chinese government because it was Communist? The UCMS chose neutrality; nevertheless, some missionaries were forced to leave, and there were incidents of persecution.

Back home, our denomination was divided on the question, and it eventually became the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. In 1955, 800 delegates, who opposed neutrality and advocated resistance, walked out of our national convention in Cincinnati and formed what is now known as the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.

The Restoration Movement[1] emerged as a venue for the reconciliation of the diverse denominations of Christendom. Ironically, it now is three distinct and often quarrelsome denominations—adding to the divisions of Christ’s Body, rather than reconciling them. The original split in 1905[2] was almost totally over doctrinal issues and biblical interpretations; however, while the same kinds of theological issues were present, it was political partisanism that provided the critical mass behind the 1955 split.

Other denominations have experienced similar divisions (more political than theological), and the differences between evangelical and mainline churches are more political than theological or biblical—conservatives and evangelicals generally siding with Republican ideology and mainline bodies more likely to align with Democrats.

And Millennials are calling bullshit. That’s not what church is called to be. Although we are blessed with some wonderful exceptions in the congregation I serve, Millennials typically are no-shows when it comes to organized religion. They call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” and in the process caricature all organized religion as rigid, judgmental, and generally unlike Jesus. It’s difficult to fault their conclusion.

Meanwhile, the declining church struggles to remember or to re-envision just what it is that Jesus called it to be and do. We fight over whether evangelism is more important than ministries of compassion. We debate when and how—or whether—Christ will return to rule a physical, geographical kingdom on earth. We fight and divide over who should be included and who should be excluded—and how we should treat the excluded. We argue whether to feed the hungry unless they deserve it. Highly visible church leaders square off in defense of political figures whose ethics and morality are indefensible.

And Millennials are calling bullshit. Just stop!

“The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the (children) of God coming into their own!” (Romans 8:19 ~ J. B. Phillips)

The whole creation is standing on tiptoe, watching! (And at this point I’m going to adapt a part of my favorite blogger’s post from July 26):

“(It sees) us pointing fingers and declaring who is right and who is wrong.

“(It sees) us choosing party over country.

“(It sees) us judging one another for the color of our skin.

“(It sees) us shooting one another.

“(It sees) us not doing a damn thing, really, to stop the influx of opioids into every community in this country.

“(It sees) us calling each other names and throwing jeers and crafting insults and using whatever supposed hot take we’ve come up with for the day to exact our rage on the world.

“(It sees) us refusing to work together.

“(It sees) us choosing power over love and profit over people.

“(It sees) us hiding behind our social media accounts so that we can be snarky without any accountability for it.

“(The whole creation sees us.)

“And we should be ashamed of what we’re showing (it).”[3] 

That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,


[1] Led by Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, Walter Scott, and others in the early 19th century.
[2] The 1905 split gave rise to today’s non-instrumental Church of Christ.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

When Winning Is Losing

A growing number of people are having exceptional difficulty accepting any information that does not match what they choose to believe. “Fake news” and “alternative facts” have become throwaway terms used by people even at the highest levels of public service.
It’s not a new thing. In the 90s we talked about people living in information cocoons. The newer terminology is information bubble. Same thing, as far as I can tell.
Along with the cry, “Fake News!” is a refusal to accept any fact-checker that disagrees. Evidence is irrelevant; just another part of the fake news conspiracy. “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with facts!”
The phenomenon is an expression of a reality I’ve discussed in several previous blogs, viz., the “I’m right!” syndrome. I’d rather risk my grandchildren’s safety and health than be proven wrong. It really is not about ideology or philosophy or creed. It’s all about me.
Several recent conferences held in major universities and research institutions in the USA and Europe have examined the current glut of fake news and propaganda. They report that, even though all citizens are sometimes vulnerable to fake news, misinformation is predominantly “a pathology of the right.” Due to vicious attacks on mainstream media, conservatives are even suspicious of fact-checking sites.[1]
The reports conclude that fake news and hateful propaganda appear at both extremes of the political continuum but is significantly more heavily concentrated toward the right. The uncritical re-posting of such misinformation on social media is of particular concern. The consensus is that, regardless of the intention of persons who re-post it on social media, “it operates to harden ‘us-vs-them’ stances, to normalize prejudices, to create scapegoats, and to mock and discredit truth-seeking endeavors of universities, religious institutions and faith leaders, non-partisan policy research centers, journalists, and other concerned citizens.”
A colleague shared that an acquaintance refused to accept data even from Pew Research Center, a world-renowned and respected, trustworthy source of social scientific research.
My colleague followed up by scrolling through several months of Facebook postings by her acquaintance, and used Media Bias/Fact Check[2] to see how the acquaintance’s preferred media sources are rated in terms of factual reporting and bias. Of 43 posts, 16 were unrated, 26 were rated from “far right” to “extreme questionable”, one was listed as “right center”. None were listed as “Least Biased” or to the Left.
Obviously, the acquaintance got all her information from sources, I’m guessing, that reinforced her already existing biases. In my observation, that is the norm.
What may not be as obvious is my colleague’s evaluation that Media Bias/Fact Check is “the most comprehensive media bias resource on the internet.” While my own bias leans toward agreeing with her evaluation, the question comes to mind: who set up the categories of media bias in the first place? Conservatives will cry, “Foul!” and automatically assume the study is biased and invalid. The problem boils down to an unwillingness on both sides of the aisle to accept the standards of evaluation favored by those on the other side.
Conservatives deny sources that refute their beliefs, and liberals reject sources that support conservative biases.
We’re all biased.
We’re all biased.
Until all of us—ALL OF US—accept and deal with our own biases and prejudices—until all of us accept and deal the reality that we are fallible creatures and we know nothing—we will continue to be a divided, adversarial culture sliding out-of-control toward self-destruction.
We know nothing. The most universally accepted scientific principles are but conclusions based upon the preponderance of evidence. We can, and do, believe in these principles and accept both the evidence and the conclusions. We live our lives in the faith that these principles are valid. We even take them for granted. But, we don’t know. Anything. Even the preponderance of evidence fails us occasionally, as in the virtual guarantees by the poll-takers that Hillary Clinton would be elected President in 2016.
My statement is not new. It’s straight from Plato’s allegory of the cave. It’s reflected in St. Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth (13:12): “Now I know in part.”
The danger is that when we assume or presume that our partial knowledge is absolute, or even when we accept our knowledge as incomplete but judge it superior to others’ partial knowledge, we do two things: (1) we erect divisive barriers and create antagonistic factions, and (2) we deny ourselves and our culture the natural growth and advancement that comes from exploring the unknown and examining unfamiliar ideas and principles.
Humanity always has advanced on the shoulders of those who have been willing to venture into the unknown, from sailing beyond the “falling-off” place in a flat world to walking on the moon, from testing and trying new combinations to create light bulbs to virtually eliminating smallpox and polio from the planet.
Political experimentation has seen humanity ebb and flow from tribalism to monarchy, from Pax Romana to feudalism to the Magna Carta to Democracy. There have been spin-offs and rebellions and aberrations, and always there have been those whose obsession with power and wealth have led societies down destructive paths, from Hitler to Jim Jones and David Koresh.
But, with all the advancement in human technology and ideology, no one can say our species has yet produced a political system that effectively actualizes “liberty and justice for all.” And our species will not produce such an ideal as long as belligerent factions choose to hurl insulting names and epithets at each other, rather than to enter with integrity into open, honest dialogue. Remember: dialogue is, by definition, two-way. It involves at least as much listening as speaking.
I believe in the human ability to resolve conflicts, to discover common ground and to build upon that common ground to make life better and better for everyone. I believe in that ability; but I see very little human willingness to exercise that ability.
What I see is, “I just want to win the fight.”
That’s the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,