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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Interpreting the American Religion

The American civil religion is the shared, collective faith that drives our politics.This public faith is expressed in propositions and behaviors. The public faith should not be identified with those expressions and behaviors though it can be discerned through them. And it needs to be carefully distinguished from the private realms of family and tribal culture and economy, e.g. the household religions.

When you take the words that most Americans say express the civil religion, much depends on their interpretation in any given time or place. As Hannah Arendt has taught: "the pursuit of happiness" meant originally "public happiness"--space where all can appear, express themselves, and be respected. A place where common good is sought over private profit. Those who make private wealth the indicator of happiness, who put economy over politics, and measure goodness by private virtue misunderstand those founding words. Personal happiness is achieved most fully in public happiness.

"Liberty" means the absence of tyranny, compulsion, or violence. But that is only the negative side of "freedom." Freedom is not the absence of limits, of small government, and of reduced regulations. Freedom is power. And power is not domination and control by force. Power is the ability to act in concert to shape our social environment. There is no freedom without limits; but those limits are set through the democratic process in which everyone's dignity is affirmed.

Justice means "right order." For some it means a hierarchy where the wealthiest, the most well born, the most physical, the most beautiful, the most celebrated have the most influence. But justice can also mean rule of law and law designed to recognize the potential of every person and the right of every person to have whatever needed to actualize the potential to be fully human and happy.

Another foundational principle is expressed as "we the people." This is the principle that we are all in this together, that even our creative individuality is determined by our participation in community, that our collective will takes precedence over our personal self interest. It is an affirmation of our responsibility to, with, and for each other.

Our faith in these principles, again not as actually achieved, not as fixed beliefs, but as aspirations which arise from our collective experience of our human potential, is what unites us. That faith in future possibility is what makes us American. Yes, we are condemned by our hypocrisy, by our selfish greed, by our small mindedness, and the cowardice that puts immediate gratification over public good, by winning personal battles when losing our national soul. But when we acknowledge our shortcomings, our hypocrisies, our lack of being exceptional, and yet go on persuing our disappointed aspirations, then we are most exceptional.

Those, who most vehemently profess American exceptualism as we are have been, are the ones who most deny American exceptualism for who we might be. The faith that unites us is not expressions of being better than others, not accomplishments and claims of being superior. It is our drive to do and be better, to actually take responsibility for achieving freedom, justice, and happiness for all.

Next: in defense of political correctness and identity politics.


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

American Faith and American Belief

If you know me, you know that the key distinction that I make, when talking about religion or theology or the spiritual dimension of anything we do, is between faith and belief. The confusion of these two concepts is responsible for a lot of trouble in our lives and world.

I know, I know. A lot of people use them as synonyms and you will see in most dictionaries they are defined by each other. But it is so very important to distinguish the two.

I am trying to distinguish (not separate) the act of speaking from the spoken word, the uttering from the utterance, the thinking from the thought, the knowing from knowledge, the expressing act and the completed expression.  One is subjectively perceived, the other objectively perceived.

But besides act and expression, I am also trying to distinguish between creative speaking and secondary speech. When I just prattle on saying what everyone else is saying, I'm hardly moving the conversation forward or exploring new avenues of thinking. But when I take what you are saying, relate it to what others have said, and even get new insights to put in other words, then I am co-initiating with you, adding different perspectives, opening up to future understandings.

Faith is the dynamic and transcending feature of creative expressive activity. It includes decision-making, expressing into the world of others, and the subjective or lived experience of so doing. Faith is an openness beyond the present beliefs--mine and yours. Faith is an adventure, a risk towards the unknown, an drive to the future. It doesn't get stuck in its this-time-and-place expressions. It is transcendence in human acting in the world.

Transcending religions are religions of faith, not of dogmas and beliefs. That doesn't mean they don't have doctrines and beliefs.  They do; but they are not stuck in them. That is why transcending religions condemn idolatry--no word, no symbol, no teaching, no proposition, no book, no rite, no behavior, no person is absolute. Faith beyond belief.

In the 1950s Will Herberg opined that there were three ways you could be American--as Catholic, Protestant, and Jew because these cultural traditions all adopted the American political principles of the founding documents. This was an acceptance of Jefferson's notion of a civil religion (devoid of superstition, supernature, and sacrament) by which private, even bizarre, factions (Hamilton's term) could exist and cooperate for the public good. Sociologist Robert Bellah studied America's civil religion and demonstrated that it consisted not merely in those principles but in how they were being interpreted in the present context.

The civil religion in America is a journey towards the achievement of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" or "freedom and justice for all" on this earth through political engagement or action together for the common good. It is more of a faith than a set of hard beliefs. It has beliefs and behaviors but they too must be understood in terms of American political principles.  It is that faith that unites, not the beliefs. Culture and economy in the private sector divides, republican politics unites--e pluribus unum.

Would Herberg include Islam, Mormonism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Indigenous religions in his ways of being American today. Yes, I believe he would argue, but only to the extent that they are transcending religions that share the same faith in the human pursuit of life, happiness, freedom, and justice for all.

Next: Interpreting the American civil religion.



Tuesday, July 25, 2017

E pluribus

The writing on our coins: e pluribus unum originally meant "from many states, one nation." It was an affirmation of the Constitution of the United States.  From the resistance of tyranny by many states to the foundation of a new united nation.

That unity has been seriously challenged throughout the history of the nation. It is challenged today. How we perceive the foundation of unity makes all the difference in how we understand the strains and polarizations that threaten the nation today.

Carlos Lozada wrote an excellent piece on Samuel Huntington, the great political thinker, and his connection to the Age of Trump. I began reading Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations about ten year ago. But I could not finish because I so vehemently disagreed with his analysis.

Description and prescription interact. How you diagnose a problem shapes your solution. The solution you prescribe shapes your analysis of the problem.  And both problem and solution, I learned in Divinity School under Al Pritchard, are shaped by vision and values--what we want.

Huntington in The Clash was analyzing the American situation and proposing a course of action that I refuse to accept for myself, my community, and my species. It is the very solution that Trump, influenced by Steve Bannon, is selling to hurting people who see themselves as victims. It is the view of Victor Hanson, the Stanford classicist become political pundit, who blames the decline of America on Mexicans (Mexifornia), identity politics, multiculturalism in schools and in culture. Build the wall!

According to this description and prescription, the True America and its foundation is in its Anglo-Saxon heritage, its calvinist roots in support capitalism, the frontier spirit of taking land and taming the wild through hard toil, its English language, and a set of propositions that comes out of English common law and philosophy but was refined and clarified by the founders. If strangers come, they must assimilate, become, act, and believe like true patriots.

But Lozada pointed out that there is another Huntington, the one before he lost hope and became cynical. In American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, Huntington presented another foundation for unity. Lozada indicates it is a credal unity, a belief in what America stands for. "What holds America together is not about ethnic identity or religious faith (note: I prefer to say religious 'beliefs' for reasons I will explain), but about political belief (and here I prefer to say 'faith')." We hold these truths, Huntington says. Who holds these truths? Americans do. Americans are defined by their political faith or what many of us have called our civil religion.

In this view, America is held together by a dream, not the economic one of wealth and domination, not the cultural one of same religion, but the political one of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" or "freedom and justice for all." All who have this dream, whoever they are, wherever they come from, whatever they believe, however they live their lives, whomever they love, and however they express this dream, they, i.e. we, are Americans. Indeed, diversity and disharmony in culture and economy provide the occasion and opportunity for unity.

These are such radically different analyses and prescriptions, based on such different visions and values of humanity and of American politics. They indicate the crisis we face today, along with our feelings of unsettlement, hurt, fear, and anger. America is in crisis, at a point of decision once again.


Next: American Faith and American Belief.

And next: Interpreting the American Religion.

And then: In defense of identity politics and political correctness.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Immortal Soul

Does the soul expand beyond and outlast the body?

I recall the great souled ones I have encountered through stories, many of whom have been preserved in the writings of their acolytes and scholars: Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tzu, Sappho, Socrates, Francis, Lincoln, for example. Some of whom I have heard in my own lifetime: Gandhi, de Beauvoir, Havel, Tubman, Mandela, Einstein, King. And there are my great souled personal heroes—friends, relations, teachers, pastors--who, without celebrity, mentored me in my own journey.  I name them all in my own soul as long as my mind will function.

And beyond.  They have entered into my character to shape who I am and who I want to be. They have helped me unite with them, you, and others to create a world and give it hope by celebrating life and confronting injustice. They bring light to our minds and lead us little ones to big purpose. The great souled ones have generated an atmosphere of enlightened, loving consciousness incasing the world to heal the poisoned atmosphere of fear and hate of small minded, no souled ones: they who for mere short-term profit pollute our atmosphere and ravage the earth which is the condition of our life and soul growing.

I join my soul with these great souled ones by seeking to critically know and to generously love in the face of the ignorance and hate of others. Other truths, other perspectives, other ways of being human. I join them by listening deeply, by putting on their habits, by taking on their project, by entering their adventure, and by pursuing their transcendent purpose. This union of souls unites past to future, spirit in matter, and individuality within community. I hope that union will persist eternally forever. And this hope which I freely choose drives me to live as fully as I can now and for the future.

This here-and-now hope founds the great images, myths, and allegories of an afterlife, a heaven or paradise to come, a time of enjoyment with the gods, the veneration of ancestors and saints, a return of my personal fire to the great conflagration, resurrection and eternity even in the certainty of mortality. I accept that hope is fragile. I accept that there is as much evidence for failure for the human prospect as there is for success. I accept that the knowledge I now have will change. I accept that I and all the people I know and love shall die. It is only our faith that provides the evidence of a future.

As I ease into and accept aging and death, the lifelong project that began the moment of my birth, I realize that my body will dissolve into the elements of the universe from which it arose; but my soul, if grown large enough, will endure in the transcending consciousness of the universe with which I connect and to which I contribute. Using the language of information theory, I have added my bits.

I am matter that the earth generated within a universe which, organizing itself over billions of years, produced life and spirit. In me, in concert with you and our world, spirit is emerging from the potentiality for consciousness of every atom and bit of matter. These atoms and bits are being joined to produce new forms and organizations of matter into life and thought and love. I need not be conscious as a particular ego or a named self to join my soul with the soul of loved and loving ones, with the soul of the earth and the universe. In choosing faith, hope, and love, I choose eternity and infinity. I choose transcending consciousness or emerging spirit and growing soul—which in different times and language has been understood as the essence of God.
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In reflecting on the birth, growth, and future of soul, I also reflect on my theology in transmodern times. The theology I advocate is consistent with contemporary science and its method. It rejects supernatural explanations by embracing nature as discovered through observation and verified by experiment. It surpasses conventional wisdom by engaging in critical thinking. It finds in the uncertainty of empirical knowledge the way to truth. New theology is search, adventure, and process. It discards dogmatism, the irrevocability and permanence of beliefs, in favor of faith, the continuing, never-ending desire and drive for truth.

What makes this search theology over and beyond empirical science is that it appeals to subjective as well as objective data, that is, to the dynamic drive of transcending consciousness as experienced in the very act of sensing, imagining, and understanding the world in which we find ourselves inventing. It perpetually begins and ends in the wonder of faith, the anticipation of hope, and the realization of love. Amazement, expectation, and communion. Theology is the grasp of incorporated soulfulness, relational uniqueness, intersubjective individuality, spirit in matter.

As I inquire into and try to describe the soul and its development, I make up and tell a story that has value insofar as 1) it is interesting and engaging, 2) it fits the emerging scientific story of the universe, 3) it is inclusive, not divisive, offering a way to understand other stories from other perspectives and cultures, 4) it provides the rationale to keep alive and learning, 5) it communicates the transcendent aim and purpose for existence personally and collectively, 6) it impels me here and now to pass beyond our present by engaging our past to risk our future. This unfolding narrative is my theology--the context of my communication, the basis of my belief, the story of my soul.

Important is not the account in words or depiction in pictures, but the story as lived with others: the activities of falling in love, raising children, discussing the world’s problems with friends, saying hello to the stranger on the street, acting for peace by protesting injustice in the public forum. A person with soul tells her stories by living them with others. These stories as lived contribute to the culture and nudge our transcending consciousness forward towards the meaning of ourselves and our universe. This is not the immortality of the living dead, of spooky souls extricated from bodies, of a fixed and unchanging egos, or of the extension of lives being attempted through the technological singularity. Nevertheless, even in aging and death, spirit soars and soul persists.

As the great souled Paul said, vain is our faith without hope in resurrection.