On Being “Christian”. Or Not.

Thirteen percent of American citizens do not believe Barack Obama when he says he is a Christian. I’m hardly an apologist for the political status quo, but it seems like you might not have to look too hard to find thirteen percent of American citizens who wouldn’t believe Barack Obama if he said the Earth orbited the Sun instead of the other way around. While some of these folks are being rebutted, it still raises an issue worth thinking about: who gets to say who’s “Christian” and who’s not?

I’ve been surprised to be on the outside of that consideration before. My wife jokes that I’m a “heathen Protestant”, but that’s in good fun. I did have a professor remark that we were all Christians in a classroom, with the aside “or near enough to it” directed my way referencing my Quaker beliefs. Sure, I could have argued that George Fox was pretty thorough-going as a Christian and that the majority of Meetings worldwide are more likely to be mistaken for a Methodist Church than anything outside the umbrella of generally considered “Christian” belief, but frankly I’m tired of doing so. When I first started attending Meeting in the mid-1990s, I had to explain to my mother that yes: Quakers believe in Jesus Christ. Generally. We’re just not compelled to do so by authority. And that’s where it gets complicated.

To my reading of the Gospels, Jesus didn’t lay out too many dogmatic guidelines for a church to follow his teachings. Anything we have that we can turn to for such guidance comes from at least twenty to thirty years after the crucifixion: a very long time indeed in an oral culture. So without firm guidelines, we turn to a version of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy in defining the beliefs of others for them. For those unfamiliar, this circular argument runs as follows:

  • No Scotsman eats sugar in his porridge.
  • Angus from Glasgow eats sugar in his porridge.
  • OK, fine then. No TRUE Scotsman eats sugar in his porridge.

And we do this all the time in Christian communities. “No Christian would do or believe X” becomes “No TRUE Christian would do or believe X” when confronted with a Christian who has in fact done or believed X. So Billy Graham’s son has decided that no TRUE Christian can behave or believe as Barack Obama does. Thankfully, it’s not up to Franklin Graham to decide what does or does not constitute a true Christian. And quite frankly if being a TRUE Christian means following Franklin Graham, I’d rather be false.

Guest Writer: Shannon Kearns “Open Letter to Serene Jones”

Guest writer Shannon Kearns, M.Div. ’09, responds to President Serene Jones’ recent open letter to Glenn Beck

Dear President Jones:

I write with sadness over your response to Mr. Glenn Beck. I understand that you were trying to counter his hateful speech with humor, however by taking such a tone you made his words something to be laughed at instead of  something to be taken seriously.

You insinuated in your response that Mr. Beck hasn’t read the Bible. I know it was an attempt to be funny but as someone who grew up in a conservative and fundamentalist church I assure you the one thing we did was read the Bible. In fact, I would say that in coming to Union I knew the Bible better than many of my classmates. I say that not to
brag, but to drive home the point that just because there is someone you don’t agree with doesn’t mean they haven’t read the Bible. What I needed from Union was Professors to put the content of what I knew into perspective and practice. I needed someone to explain Liberation Theology, to drive home the historical background of the Scripture, to make me aware of issues outside of my privileged, white upbringing. I got that education at Union and I am thankful for it.

Your response to Mr. Beck doesn’t provide any of that background. It doesn’t explain where he got it wrong. Instead it just sends humorous jabs his way as if Mr. Beck isn’t to be taken seriously. And this is the most dangerous attitude of all. I live in the midwest. Out here everyone knows who Glenn Beck is but no one has ever heard of Union Theological Seminary. When Mr. Beck mentions a book on his show it sells out at the bookstore where I work. He holds sway with many people that Union will never reach. By taking a tone that sounds as if Union is better than Mr. Beck we feed into our own arrogance; an arrogance that assumes that the world should listen to us simply because we are Union. When in reality, outside of elite and educated circles no one really knows who Union is or what we stand for.

As a graduate of Union I beg a better response to Mr. Beck. One that takes seriously the power that he has in the current political climate. One that counters his argument with intelligence, humility and grace. One that moves past poking fun and talks about why his comments are hurtful and harmful. A response that knows that words manifest into actions and that his vitriolic speech can translate into real violence. That is the kind of response that Union needs to be

Shannon T.L. Kearns M.Div. ’09

Catholic church in trouble. In Boston. Again.

The Catholic church in Boston is in trouble again.

The Catholic church in Boston is in trouble again.

The Boston archdiocese of the Roman Catholic church has gotten itself into trouble again. The current troubles revolve around children, the church and sexuality. Unlike previous years, however, this imbroglio is not about clergy sexual abuse.

Boston’s ABC affiliate carries this story about Michael Pakaluk’s column of June 4. The column argues against allowing the child of a same-sex couple admission to a parochial school. The reasons given are all patently absurd: the child would be more likely to bring pornography to school, since same-sex relationships are inherently more eroticized than heterosexual relationships; the same-sex parents of a child should not be called “parents” unless there is a biological relationship; etc.

I wonder if Pakaluk would object to adoptive heterosexual “parents” bearing that title. They have no biological relationship to the child in their care either. If procreation is the bulwark against purely eroticized relationships between adults, does that hold for the biologically infertile? Logically speaking, the adopted child of a biologically infertile couple should be barred admission from the same school on the same grounds as a child of a same-sex couple.

To deal with the 800 pound gorilla you may have noticed over in the corner of the room, I’ll add the following statements. The Catholic church in Boston has no legitimate moral standing to discuss sexual morality. I lived in Boston while the horrors of the abuse scandal were coming at long last to light. I read the reports in the Boston Globe that would later become the book “Betrayal”. I attended Mass with my Catholic wife at the one church she could bear to enter in the entire archdiocese.

Not only are Pakaluk’s arguments laughable from the standpoint of reason, but they are hate-filled stereotypes akin to blackface performances and the unedited cut of Disney’s “Song of the South”. That this was written by a faithful Catholic is disappointing but unfortunately not surprising, given the pulpit-level view of sexuality prevalent in that church. That it was published in the official newspaper of the archdiocese at the epicenter of the greatest moral failing of Christianity since its relative silence in the Holocaust is infuriating, hypocritical and nearly unforgivable.

Investing Justly?

Jesus Casting Out The Money Changers At The Temple, by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Jesus Casting Out The Money Changers At The Temple, by Carl Heinrich Bloch

A recent NY Times article on the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility raises some interesting questions to face as people of faith. Shouldn’t our religious consciences extend to our investment portfolios? ICCR executive director Laura Berry believes so and also expresses a belief in the benevolence of the market:

“I actually believe that God, whatever God is, set up the system so that it works better when we don’t cheat.”

I don’t want to seem combative to someone whose heart truly does appear to be in the right place, but I’m left pretty uncomfortable by the idea that God is somehow the Smithian “invisible hand” of the marketplace. Certainly it’s no coincidence that the United States is as tied to market capitalism as it is: both this nation and “The Wealth of Nations” were issued as first editions in the same year. Adam Smith’s language of the invisible guiding hand of market corrections fit like, well, hand-in-glove with the deist theology popular among the founders of the United States.

I am left with the question of whether it is naïve or good-hearted to believe in the beneficence of the economy. I certainly wish that the stock market was set up so that it worked better when people didn’t cheat. Unfortunately, the economic markets don’t work poorly when people cheat. Rather, they stammer and stutter only when people are caught cheating.

Is it possible to invest justly? Following the advice of the ICCR is certainly better than investing without any qualm of conscience. Conscience is inconvenient. Whether it is the quotidian act of buying a cup of coffee that doesn’t fund the oppression of finca workers in Central America or the long-term plan of retiring, conscience has a real dollars-and-cents cost associated with it. The question I can’t answer is whether “just investments” are just enough. Fiscal asceticism is not a good answer for most people, but is a program of “just investment” rigorous enough to pass muster as truly a moral act?

About The Wheat and the Chaff

At its base, this blog/dialogue (“blog-o-logue” anyone?) will be a review of religion in the news. Presuming we can pick out the most provocative, conversation-starting religious news, we’ll be looking to separate the wheat from the chaff, if you will. That is, we’ll not simply be looking for the most popular topics concerning religion in the news (though that will happen often); we’ll be looking for the religious news that points to deep issues within contemporary Christianity (and other faiths) in a modern, pluralistic world.

In many ways, this blog will attempt to bridge a gap between the journalistic worldview of religion and the academic/seminarian worldview. It will bring the audience to the stories of religion in the news in hopes that we all will think critically about what we’re seeing and reading. Is what’s showing up in the news accurate? Is it unfairly partisan or potentially harmful? What is it telling us about the shape of belief, faith and religion today?  We will be dealing with it socratically, and we ask you to join us, add to the conversation and at times even point the way.