The Prophetic Call

Sunday —  July 30, 2017

In every age, religious people and religious institutions need prophets. A prophet is not primarily someone who predicts what will happen tomorrow, but a courageous observer who says what’s going wrong today. 

In our contemporary world, we certainly need our prophets: in traditional religion and in the American civil religion I touched on last week….

The prophet observes (phase one) what is really going on in society, with a kind of clear and objective vision: avoiding the fantasies and falsifications of narrow-vision special interest people and groups: even if they have high positions in the cathedral across town or the presidential house on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In phase two, the prophet moves into critical thinking: asking whether or not religious believers and spokespersons are truly living according to the faith experience that should be the source and sustainer of the particular religious tradition. A big caveat here of course is that it is much easier to critique someone else’s religious behavior than one’s own. I can, for instance, easily critique the immoral behavior of Islamic terrorists and clearly point out how they are behaving contrary to what is taught in the Quran. 

Phase two requires clear thinking based on correct information. It doesn’t happen over night and certainly not in a fit of emotional frenzy or frustration (like the actions of the peeved gun-owner, who takes the law into his or her own hands and shoots to kill).

The problem with phase two is that one can become highly skilled at passing judgment without ever accomplishing anything. It is so easy to be a critic and to get abundant “likes” on Facebook, or to chuckle and applaud the latest Borowitz Report. But then?

Phase three takes conviction and stamina, what we call real guts. Without phase three however our talk (to paraphrase William Shakespeare) can easily become a lot of sound and furry but signify nothing.

In phase three, people take action. In many ways people today need to take action.

When Christian religious leaders, for instance, create qualitative classes of people, they are acting on their own narrow prejudices not the Gospel of Christ. The Roman Catholic bishop of Springfield, Illinois has instructed priests in his diocese to deny communion, the last rites, and funerals to people in same-sex marriages; nor can they be buried in a Catholic cemetery. If one is going the make qualitative classes of Catholics and sanction them, even after death, I would ask the bishop what about all those “good Catholics” who are wife-beaters, child-molesters, cruel employers, political monsters, and financial crooks? What about ecclesiastical bureaucrats who bamboozle people with pious nonsense?

I don’t care to get into a political debate right now, but one can ask how genuinely American a political leader is who rejects the U.S. foundational teachings of the Declaration of Independence that all people are created equal. I question as well the Christianity of a political leader who promotes and wallows in narcissism, greed, pride, wrath, and lust as though they were the primary Christian virtues.

Healthy Christianity promotes and strengthens a basic sense of inter-personal relatedness, trust, and responsibility. Healthy Christianity promotes and honors human dignity. It empowers people without overpowering them. It promotes charity — not fear — as the key Christian virtue. All actions that denigrate people because of their religious, ethnic or racial origins, gender, and sexual orientation are not just humanly demeaning. They are contrary to the Gospel of Christ.

Observe, judge, and ACT: these are the keys to effective prophetic behavior. Can we not become more prophetic religious people? How can we encourage people to move from critical speaking to effective and constructive action? Can we not turn our churches into prophetic training centers? Who are today’s prophets? How can we promote and sustain them? As we read in Corinthians (1 Cor. 14:29) “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.”

….And a very final thought. This from Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:
“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

Kind regards — Jack

American Civil Religion

21 July 2017

The painting above is by John James Barralet, an Irish artist who spent the final years of his career in the United States. The painting is often called the “Apotheosis of George Washington,” i.e. Washington’s divinization. The first version of the painting appeared in 1802, three years after Washington’s death. It shows President Washington, as America’s first civil religion saint, being taken up into heaven by an angel and Father Time. Another “Apotheosis of Washington,” painted right after the Civil War, by Constantino Brumidi in 1865, is found in the eye of the US Capitol Rotunda. It depicts President Washington rising to the heavens in glory, flanked by female figures representing Liberty and Victory.

Some have argued, and still do, that Christianity is the national American faith. Others that Christianity, the Deism of the founding fathers, and other religious traditions in the United States have long inspired Americans in a rather generalized religion of the American Way of Life.  

My observation this week is that there is indeed an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America, alongside of and clearly differentiated from the established religious traditions. The words and acts of the founding fathers and our first few presidents shaped the form and tone of American civil religion as it has been maintained ever since.  

American civil religion is a deeply felt and strongly patriotic universal religion of the nation. It does not compete with established religions but exists alongside them and is supported by them. It is all part of the American way of religion. People growing up outside the United States, like my European friends, cannot understand it, because they have had very different experiences of religion. I am not being arrogant, but there is something unique about the American experience. 

Originating in the work of Jean Jacques Rousseau, with echoes in Alexis de Tocqueville, the civil religion concept made its first major impact on the social scientific study of religion in America with the publication of an essay titled “Civil Religion in America,” written in 1967 by sociologist of religion Robert Bellah (1927-2013). “While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith,” Bellah observed,” few have realized that there actually exists alongside the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” (One of my delights some years ago was a series of informal conversations and lunch with Bellah when he visited our university.) Civil religion is unique in American culture because it does not claim an identifiable social group but the entire society itself; or as British writer G. K. Chesterton once observed: The United States is “a nation with the soul of a church.”  

All religions have certain common features:  

(1) A god or a transcendent principle. 

(2) Sacred objects and symbols that support and unite people in their beliefs.

(3) Holy days and rituals that unite people and link them with the transcendent.

(4) Religious leaders like priests or ministers.

(5) Sacred places and shrines.

(6) Saints or heroic sacred people.

(7) Sacred writings.

American civil religion has these common features:

(1) A belief in Divine Providence that looks over America. “God bless America.”  

(2) Holy objects like the American flag and the dollar bill. And a belief in America itself as an object of religious devotion.

(3) American holy days like the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, etc.

(4) In many ways, the U.S. president – who becomes president with his hand on the Bible — functions as a kind of national high priest. FDR clearly functioned this way with his New Deal program and fireside chats.

(5) Sacred Places like the Lincoln Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery where the “martyrs” are buried, Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, etc.

(6) Sacred People like Saints George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. We commemorate them with calendar feast days each year. (I don’t think there will be a Saint Donald Trump but one never knows.)

(7) Our sacred documents are of course the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. It is not surprising that the National Archives building resembles a basilica and the nation’s sacred scriptures are displayed in an altar-type protective reliquary

Up until the Civil War (1861 – 1865), American civil religion focused, above all, on the American Revolution. It was the final act of the Exodus from the old world across the sea. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were considered new sacred scriptures; and Washington was the divinely appointed new Moses who led his people out of the old world tyranny.  

With the Civil War, new themes of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enter American civil religion. They are symbolized in the life and death of President Abraham Lincoln; and, at the end of the Civil War, in a series of national, civil religion, Holy Week events: Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865 — Palm Sunday. When he was shot on Good Friday, April, 14, President Lincoln shed his blood for his country. Lincoln died on Saturday and so, on the following day — Easter 1865, “Reconstruction” resurrection began under President Andrew Johnson.  

A few years before his own death, the American poet, Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977), understood the civil religion impact of Lincoln and offered this reflection: “The Gettysburg Address is a symbolic and sacramental act. In his words, Lincoln symbolically died, just as the Union soldiers really died – and as he himself was soon really to die. By his words, he gave the field of battle a symbolic significance that it has lacked. For us and our country, he left Jefferson’s ideals of freedom and equality joined to the Christian sacrificial act of death and rebirth. I believe this is the meaning that goes beyond sect or religion and beyond peace and war, and is now part of our lives as a challenge, obstacle, and hope.” 

Following the Civil War, the great number of war dead required the establishment of several national cemeteries. Of these, Gettysburg National Cemetery, which Lincoln’s famous address served to dedicate, has been overshadowed only by the Arlington National Cemetery, begun on the Robert E. Lee estate across the river from Washington. 

Memorial Day grew out of the Civil War. Memorial Day integrates people and local communities into a national observance, just as Thanksgiving Day, which was institutionalized as an annual national holiday under the presidency of Lincoln, serves to integrate families into an American civil religion celebration of unity and gratitude for the blessings of Divine Providence.    

As I mentioned last week, post WWII America was fertile ground for American civil religion; and President Dwight David Eisenhower its strong advocate. With the support of people like the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale and the Rev. Billy Graham, Eisenhower presided over a vigorous assertion of the place of religion in public life. Even when, as he said, he didn’t care what the religion was. He established the annual “presidential” prayer breakfast, and the presidential practice of ending speeches with “may God bless America.” With Eisenhower’s support, Congress inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance and placed “In God We Trust” on all currency. Few Americans opposed such steps. Protestants and Catholics were happy, and Jewish Americans felt they could live with Eisenhower’s vague public religiosity.  

A very popular civil religion spin-off at this time was the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale and his “Positive Thinking” religio-psychiatry.  Peale, who died in 1993, was probably the most famous clergyman in the United States in the 1940s and early 1950s. When Donald Trump was a child, the Trump family regularly attended Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Years later, Peale presided over Trump’s first marriage to Ivana in 1977. It was Norman Vincent Peale, by the way, who taught Donald Trump to promote and worship himself. 

Since the early nineteenth century, American civil religion has been predominantly activist, moralistic, and social rather than contemplative or theological. American civil religion has never been anticlerical or militantly secular. It has consistently borrowed from set religious traditions in such a way that the average American has seen no conflict between the two. In this way, civil religion, with no opposition from the churches, has been able to construct powerful symbols of national solidarity and to activate deep levels of personal engagement for the attainment of national goals. I am not opposed per se to private schools; but one really must also acknowledge here the contribution of public schools as shapers of civil religion values. They should not disappear.  

Sustaining the whole panorama of American civil religion are key biblical archetypes: Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But how should people understand these themes today? Do they correctly understand them? Even Robert Bellah observed years ago that “civil religion has not always been invoked in favor of worthy causes.” Today we see it being used in a rather fanatic fundamentalist way to justify racism, police brutality, homophobia, misogyny, and xenophobia. And there will always be people like Pat Robertson, who said this week on the 700 Club: “You can’t trust those liberal colleges to educate your kids. You send your son to a liberal college and he’ll come back as a transgender, who believes satanic lies like evolution and global warming.” The wax nose of civil religion? 

Next week, my final reflection on the themes of religion, faith, and civil religion …..and the challenges ahead. Yes, where do we go from here? 

Kind regards to all. 



Christianity and the American Self-Image

July 15, 2017

This week’s reflection is part one of a two part reflection about Christianity and the formation of the American self-image. For many years the area of religion and values in American society has been my area of research and teaching. I remain a critical-thinking, patriotic American. I remain as well a critical-thinking Christian believer. 

The uniqueness of the American (US) experience is rooted in the self-image and world-image of the 17th century English colonialists who understood themselves as SENT BY GOD. Those early Americans saw themselves in terms of Jewish/Christian imagery. They were the NEW ISRAEL going to a NEW PROMISED LAND and they understood themselves as SPECIALLY CHOSEN BY GOD. 

We see this understanding in “A Model of Christian Charity,” the 1630 sermon given by Puritan leader John Winthrop, on board the ship Arbella en route to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with him for this work, we have taken out a commission…. Now the only way to avoid shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God…….The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us as his own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies: when he shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations: ‘the Lord make it like that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill: The eyes of all people are upon us….” 

So the American self-image stressed being: the new chosen people, a superior people, led by Divine Providence, self-made people, with a messianic mission to humankind to convert the world. 

For the newly developing Americans, the old world was a sinister and dangerous place: the old world of monarchs and popes was corrupt. The only hope for humankind was in a new world and a new age. We see this belief displayed on the one dollar bill: “In God we trust;” God blesses the American undertaking, “ANNUIT COEPTIS;” and America is a NEW CREATION “NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM.”  

For Americans “new” has always been better than old. The throw-away culture: out with the old and in with the better-working and better-looking NEW. They established New York, New Orleans, New Buffalo, etc. We have new states like New Jersey, New Hampshire, and New Mexico. 

Our ancestral Americans saw the world as the great stage for an ongoing battle battle between good and evil. They understood the struggle between good and evil as a struggle between God and Satan…..Contemporary political debate has followed the same pattern. The country is best unified when we have a devil to oppose, whether it is Adolf Hitler, Nikita Khrushchev, or Osama bin Laden. American national unity reaches its peak in times of crisis: World War II, the height of the Cold War, and the early days of the War on Terrorism. When the outside threat passes, however, they can turn on each other with racist and police brutality. The American irony. Who is the enemy? 

Right from the beginning Americans had to confront real and imagined enemies. They feared a wilderness they did not known, a climate that could destroy them, Indian conspiracies, slave revolts, famine, “popery,” witchcraft, and werewolves. Clearly identifying the “enemy” brought cohesion and a uniform identity. 

In the historical development of their identity and mission, Americans have had a succession of OUTSIDE enemies: Kings, Roman Catholics, “Indians,” “Barbarian” Germans, North Vietnamese, Islamic terrorists. Fear has been an underlying element in all of these interactions. I have often thought FDR’s words could be applied across the whole panorama of US history: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” 

Curiously, when we look at US history, African Americans were denigrated, taken for granted, and often conveniently overlooked in considerations about US identity. Were they people? I am still shocked when I read my four-times-back great grandfather’s last will and testament. He owned a plantation in Virginia and died n 1790. He listed the property and items that should go to his children. He asked the children to care for their mother. Then he listed the number and kinds of animals in the barn. At the end of the will, after the farm animals, he lists his slaves…. 

Of course, Americans are not per se bad. Americans have always struggled, however, with two elements of their character and can find a justification for each in Biblical imagery…… 

FIRST there is a positive humanitarian orientation to seek justice, do good, build a better world (as we see in the words of the Prophet MICAH). Here we can point to various humanitarian programs throughout the world, involvement to save Europe in two world wars, creation of the United Nations, etc. 

A less positive side of the American character, on the other hand, is found in a kind of self-righteousness and self-importance that arrogantly dismisses the rest of the world, due to an exaggerated sense of being a superior, CHOSEN PEOPLE. In our history, we have had: manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine, various times of isolationism, extreme xenophobia, and the policies like those advocated by the currant presidential administration. 

Although the situation is now changing, Christianity has been greatly valued by Americans, because it has reinforced the sense of being a special people in a special land and it has served as the social glue that holds the country together. It is a point for discussion but I think much of the emphasis on Christianity has been more about RELIGION and NATIONALISM than FAITH. At the time of US engagement in WWI, the popular evangelist Billy Sunday (1862-1935) said, “Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms, and hell and traitors are synonymous.” Those words still echo in parts of the country today.  

There is a uniquely American kind of focus on religion. The 18th century observer of American culture, Alexis de Toqueville, summed it up this way: “As for what we generally understand as faiths, such as customs, ancient traditions, the strength of memories, up to the present I don’t see a trace of them….The religious state of this people is perhaps the most curious thing to examine here. Go into the churches, you will hear morality preached, but of dogma not a word. What is most important for America is not that all citizens profess the true religion —- but that they should profess religion.” 

President Eisenhower echoed de Toqueville, when he observed in the 1950s “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on deep religious belief and I don’t care what it is…..” And, at about the same time, the American sociologist Will Herbert (1901-1977) wrote: “The typical American has developed a remarkable capacity for being serious about religion without taking religion seriously.” “Americans” he stressed ”believe in religion in a way that perhaps no other people do.”  

Bear with me. This is an ongoing reflection. Next week some observations about American civil religion. Then my thoughts about what I see as major contemporary trends in American religion and culture. 





Religion’s Wax Nose

July 10, 2017

Joseph Coppens (1896-1981), eminent Belgian scripture scholar, was one of my favorite professors in the 1960s at the University of Louvain (Leuven). One of his warnings to us young students, as we began our biblical studies, was “Sacred Scripture has a wax nose: you can twist and shape it to fit your own agenda and your own prejudices.” 

What Professor Coppens said about Sacred Scripture can be said as well about RELIGION. It has a wax nose and can be adjusted to be either wonderfully healthy and humane or inhumanely cruel and denigrating. 

We see clear examples of inhumane religion in daily news updates: fanatic Muslims who butcher people to honor God. We see it as well in American fanatic white supremacist Christians, who proclaim and practice cruel racism, denigrating misogyny, and violent xenophobic behavior as Christian virtues.  

Last week, a friend of mine, a respected local lawyer, said that all the world’s problems are due to religion. I said “OK but then….we all know that all lawyers are crooks.” He got a bit agitated and said “we’ll wait minute……”  

Indeed. Let’s pause to reflect. We need more interpretation and more distinctions………

Until my last breath I will be forever grateful for what my Christian religion has done for me and millions of other people: helping me discover the Divine in Reality; educating me from childhood to post-doctoral research and teaching. Giving me employment for my professional life. I was never wealthy but enjoyed my work and found it life-giving.  Religion for me has been a blessing.

Unhealthy religion? Of course it exists. In my own Christian tradition, I have encountered crafty monsters in fancy robes, who used their religious authority (and still use it) to abuse children and adults and desecrate the Gospel they claim to promote.  Their focus is not ministry TO people but manipulative power OVER people to advance their own careers. Pardon the expression, but they are ecclesiastical bastards.

A major misconception about religion is that Religion is Faith. 

Our FAITH experience is the encounter with the DIVINE: Our encounter with God, the Sacred, the Other, the Great Spirit, Allah, etc.  We experience this but then struggle go put it into words….

These days I resonate more and more with the words of the RCC theologian Karl Rahner (1904-1984): “I must confess to you in all honesty that for me God is and has always been absolute mystery. I do not understand what God is; no one can. We have intimations, and inklings. We make faltering attempts to put mystery into words. But there is no word for it, no sentence for it.”  

What has always excited me is THEOLOGY, which is a deeply reflective interpretation of the FAITH experience – always in development because we grow in our understanding; and words and thought categories change over time. (One of my own theological frustrations today is how we can still continue to use an archaic Nicene Creed, written in the language and philosophy of the fourth century.) 

Back to religion……. 

RELIGION (any religion) is an institutionalized theology: Theology is Faith seeking understanding.  

Religion is an attempt to systematize an interpretation of the experience of the Divine: religion is a system of beliefs and practices that helps people understand and live with the Divine. Religion therefore gives people: rituals, ritual places, ritual leaders, sacred books, sacred places, sacred days and seasons, codes of morality, and creedal statements. Religion provides helpful aids – MEANS – that point people to the Divine. That’s good and proper. It is not Faith. It points us to the faith experience…if it is healthy religion. 

All religions, however, go through a life cycle. In every age people need to understand this….. All religions go through a four-stage cycle:  

1) They begin with the charismatic foundational stage, e.g. the primitive Christian community. Here people have such a vivid lived awareness of the Faith experience that they have little need for institutional structure and rely on do-it-self and charismatic ways of praying, speaking, and celebrating.  

(2) Then when people begin to ask “how do we safeguard what we have and how do we pass this on to the next generation?” we enter stage two. This is the stage of institutionalization: important things are written down (e.g. writing the Gospels), set ways of praying are established (official sacramental rituals and gestures are established), properly authorized leaders are established (e.g. ordination is created to be a kind of quality control mechanism to make certain that the Christian leaders are competent and reliable).  

(3) But….Eventually the institution becomes so much the focus of people’s attention that it ceases to be a means and path to the Divine and instead it becomes the OBJECT of religious devotion. This is the stage of idolatry. The church institution, or certain institutional leaders or certain religious objects, teachings or regulations become IDOLS. People get so involved in just religious veneration, or the use of religious power and influence fur their own goals,  that they miss or distort the Divine.  Unhealthy religion.

Religion, for example, becomes a form of exaggerated nationalism. We see this in Russia, with the Russian Orthodox Church’s affection for President Putin; but we also see in the USA. I saw it this summer in Croatia. Roman Catholicism is very important for supporting Croation nationalism; but hardly anyone goes to church. This kind of distorted religion is a very contemporary problem, all around the world.

(4) The only solution in stage four is REFORMATION : an attempt to regain the vision, the focus on the Divine, and the vigor and creative enthusiasm of stage two.  
Reformation can and will happen……So let the reform begin….. 


Resuming Another Voice

July 4, 2017

Some welcomed days of Reflection and good old R&R are behind me. For me the Fourth of July has always signaled the start of a new season. Growing up on a fruit farm in SW Michigan, many a July 4th was spent picking cherries…..and then we watched the fireworks at night. Happy memories.

Perhaps it just happens, as people reach a certain age. This summer for the first time in my life I began to feel like an old man. In my 75th year, I look at things very differently. I think I have a clearer sense of what is really important in life and what things are simply foolish and nonsensical. You see a lot of that in the evening news…..Is it wisdom or just the fact that one realizes one is still living, as a younger world expands and comes to life around you? This past year I said goodbye to a lot of friends: high school and college classmates, and most painfully to some of my former students, such bright and wonderfully talented men and women.

I am neither depressed nor pessimistic; but probably more of a hardened realist. On more than one occasion this past month I found myself saying: look around you, think about what you should be doing, then get busy and do it!

One of my more memorable conversations in the past weeks was with a young fellow, who wanted to speak with me “about God.” He sat across the table from me and started his “conversation” with a series of short exclamations: “I am not agnostic.” “I am not an atheist.” “I don’t believe in the old God up there.” “God is not a person.” “There is a lot of mythology in religions.” “I think God is somehow at the center of reality — our world and who we are.” “Now what do you think about that?”

I was amazed. I told him I thought he was a very reflective and perceptive young man and that I could resonate with what he had shared with me. We talked for a long time…. I know his father and at some point the conversation will and must continue.

Actually, without mentioning the word, we were talking about spirituality.

Spirituality is not something added on top of our Christian life. Spirituality is our way of life – in LIVED awareness of the Divine Presence. Spirituality is rooted in the realization that FAITH is a personal relationship with the Divine. My young questioner, in his own way, has experienced a taste of the Divine. I am happy for him and encourage him to keep asking questions….

Our mission as Christians is to call people to awareness: to tune in to their spirituality, to open their minds and hearts to God’s presence in their lives and the world around them.

“Do you not know,” Paul asked the community in Corinth “that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (See 1 Corinthians 3:9-16)

Christian spirituality is about confronting the religious and secularization shifts in contemporary life and responding with, yes, “another voice.” Many people in our churches, and many people who have walked out of our churches, and many young people, long to hear good news. They need people willing to travel with them, search and reflect with them. That is our contemporary Christian challenge: To stand in awe with them, as together we explore REALITY.

The depth value of Christian spirituality lies precisely in the encounter it creates between Faith, the Gospel, theology and belief, and the extensive and expanding terrains of human development, human needs, and the search for the meaning of life.

It can be very exciting……I look forward to continuing the journey with you.

To all of my USA compatriots: Happy Fourth of July! 

May we all rejoice in our commitment to fundamental human equality, and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all!