Saturday, May 30, 2009

Pentecost: In Praise of Diveristy

When I bought a copy of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks's The Dignity of Difference, I asked the friend who had recommended it if he thought the cover illustration of the Tower of Babel was appropriate. His response was that it was, so long as we understood the story in Genesis the way Prof. Christopher Duraisingh interpreted it. Christopher is on the faculty of Episcopal Divinity School and I was on sabbatical there when I bought Sacks's book, so it did not take long for me to learn about Christopher's understanding of the Tower of Babel story.

As that story is often linked with the story of Pentecost in Acts, it has been in my thoughts as I have prepared to celebrate Pentecost. Far from being a story about division and disunity, the Tower of Babel story is, I think, a story about God's love for unity with diversity. In this fascinating story, God responds to the human desire for uniformity by affirming diversity. The desire for uniformity, while a good thing in many circumstances, can lead to a totalitarian suppression of all differences. Even in its more benign forms, this desire can lead us to overlook or dismiss the wonderful diversity that exists in creation. For me, as a white male, to assume that we are all alike would be a failure to honor the distinctive cultures, experiences, and perspectives of those who are not white males.

The story of Pentecost is not, I think, a story of the reversal of what happened in the Tower of Babel Story. Yes, there is unity in the story, but not uniformity. Those who hear the disciples "speaking about God’s deeds of power" do not hear some sort of universal language, but just the opposite. They hear them speaking in their native languages, in the languages of their childhood, their mother tongues. There was an almost universal language available, Greek, but they each heard the Good News in their own languages. Unity, yes, but not without diversity.

Pentecost is not only about the Good News of what God has done in Jesus the Christ, it is also about the Church's participation in the missio Dei, in God's ongoing work of reconciliation and renewal in the world. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall has asserted that our work in mission needs to be marked by faith, hope, and love. Far too often in the past these three virtues have been in short supply as we engage in mission. We too often have acted as if we had all the answers and that we didn't need to walk by faith because we had absolute certainty about our own understanding of the Truth. We too often have acted as if we had already arrived, had reached the goal, and no longer needed to travel in hope. And we have far too often been so dismissive of the cultures and experiences of those we meet in mission that it would be nearly impossible to say that we loved them.

I recently read a story about different approaches to language training for missionaries and about how those approaches effect their mission work. When missionaries attend language school before they are sent to the communities in which they will serve, there is a tendency for them to long for the camaraderie of those with whom they attended the language school and to welcome the chance to meet with them again. However, when the missionaries attend language school after some months in the communities in which they are serving, the pull of those reunions is much less, and when they attend meetings with other missionaries, they are anxious for the meetings to be over so they can get back to their work.

When we engage in mission, whether in our own communities or in other countries, honoring and even celebrating diversity is a Gospel imperative. It is often fear that keeps us from admitting that we don't have all the answers and might have something to learn from people of other cultures, other faiths. It is often fear that keeps us from admitting that we haven't arrived and don't even have a perfect road map for the journey. It is often fear that keeps us from becoming vulnerable by loving others. But perfect love casts out fear and we are loved perfectly by God, so let's get on with the mission of reconciliation and renewal in faith and hope and love.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Lie of Context-less Judgment

The nomination of the Hon. Sonia Sotomayor to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court has raised again the question of how context influences our judgments. To listen to some who oppose her nomination you would conclude that it is possible to make decisions that are not at all influenced by our own contexts. Judge Sotomayor understands and acknowledges that her experiences will influence her decisions, but why is that a problem for some people?

Those of us who belong to the dominant group in our country - or in any profession - can be tempted to believe that our belonging to that group does not influence our decisions. It is probably harder for someone from a minority group to be tempted in that way. But no matter our own context, our own life story, our own ethnicity, the challenge is to recognize how context influences our judgment. Denying that it does can blind us to our responsibility to make sure that context does not have an undue influence on our decisions.

If Judge Sotomayor becomes Justice Sotomayor - and I hope she does - I suspect that there will be plenty of people warning her against the danger of letting context become too great an influence. But who will be reminding the white male Justices of the same danger?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Privilege of Marriage

I have, for the most part, stayed away from the discussion of marriage in the blogosphere. I have made a few comments, usually stating that I am suspicious when people who enjoy a privilege want to deny that privilege to others. There is, however, a more fundamental argument to be made, not only about the marriage debate, but about other controversial issues.

Several summers ago a speaker at the Chautauqua Institution suggested that people whose position on an issue is based upon religious conviction need to move beyond simple assertions about God's law when they engage the issue in the public square. In our increasingly diverse country, to be effective arguments need to be based upon common values, values shared by religious and non-religious citizens.

In the current debates about extending the privilege of marriage to same-sex couples, I have yet to hear a convincing argument based upon common values. (I also haven't heard one that is based upon the Bible, but that is another matter.) All the fear-mongering about the threat that gay marriage would pose to opposite-sex marriage doesn't convince me. Same-sex couples who marry are incapable of doing the kind of damage to marriage that heterosexuals have been doing for decades. Whether or not churches decide to bless same-sex marriages, I think it is high time that states extend the privilege of marriage to same-sex couples.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


There is a very good post about the President's visit to Notre Dame at The Friends of Jake. As the controversy was heating up I wondered whether of not Notre Dame had bestowed honorary degrees on anyone who disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on other life issues, e.g., capital punishment. Unfortunately the university has not yet posted a list of past recipients, but it has promised to do so on its website.

The Friends of Jake post cites an op-ed piece by Thomas J. Reese, S.J., in which Fr. Reese wrote, 'I think part of the problem is that the bishops stopped listening and teaching and started ordering and condemning. With an educated laity it no longer works to simply say, "it is the teaching of the church." This is the equivalent of a parent shouting, "Because I said so."'

The priest with whom I served in my first parish once said that lay people in the Episcopal Church were woefully ignorant when it came to the Bible. I suspect he would have said the same thing about theology and ethics. Few branches of the Catholic Church place a very high value on having an educated laity. Far too often members of the clergy - including me - act as if theology, ethics and Biblical study are simply too hard for lay people and that we will do their thinking for them, we will tell them what to believe. Lay people, who are often quite a bit smarter than the clergy and are very well educated in other fields, are no longer likely to accept, as Fr. Reese points out, "it is the teaching of the church." They may well want to know and will ask clergy, "Why does the church teach this?"

I have a Roman Catholic friend who often speaks about the importance of an informed conscience in making moral decisions. The problem, as Fr. Reese asserts, is that informed consciences don't emerge by accident, but through teaching, teaching which involves respectful listening. The classic understanding of the work or functions of the church identifies these four: worship (liturgia), proclamation (kerygma), fellowship (koinonia) and service (diakonia), to which I think we must add a fifth: teaching (didache). Without teaching, without an educated laity, all the other functions of the church will be anemic. The church's emphasis in the past half-century on the ministry of the baptized makes attention to didache more important now, perhaps, than in any other age.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Over at Preludium Mark Harris has a post, "Friends doing well in Anglican land." One of the friends that he mentions is The Rev. Dr. Ian T. Douglas, Angus Dun Professor of Mission and World Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School. I had the privilege of auditing a course that Ian taught during my sabbatical at EDS last fall and came to appreciate Ian's continued reminders that the mission of the Church - and of the Churches 0f the Anglican Communion - is not to be shaped by our own agendas but by God's mission, the missio Dei. We are privileged, as I wrote in a recent post on my parish's website, to be able to share in God's mission. As Mark put it in his post, our work is to "get with the program."