High Schooler Says Nose Stud Is Religious Expression

Trying to give some interpretation to this tidbit gives me an ice cream headache. The school should let the young woman wear her nose stud; and no one should pretend this is really a religion.

(From “Religion Clause” by Howard Friedman– link below)

High Schooler Says Nose Stud Is Religious Expression

In Johnston County, North Carolina, Clayton High School freshman Ariana Iacono is in a fight with school officials over the school’s dress code. The student, who along with her mother is a member of the Church of Body Modification says her wearing a nose stud is an expression of her religious beliefs. WTVD News reported Friday that that a minister of the church, Richard Ivey, explains: “We believe that the mind body soul are all one entity and that by modifying the body, you can bring the mind and soul into harmony.” Student Iacono says the nose stud helps her self esteem after years of abuse. However apparently the school district’s lawyer has concluded that the nose stud is not a necessary part of Iacono’s religion.

via Religion Clause: High Schooler Says Nose Stud Is Religious Expression.

Death, the Culture of Narcissism, and Loneliness

Death has the final word over narcissism: you can’t be the center of the universe if you don’t exist.

Narcissism is a defining characteristic of American culture in the early 21st century: everyone’s exceptional; the progress of history culminates here; we’ll go on forever. It’s a good way to counter the anxiety of nothingness, to attribute to oneself or to one’s nation the status of divinity. It’s also delusional. A good sniff of ammonia to snap us out of this delusional fog is an hour of reading Ecclesiastes, where human vanity is exposed.

The self-defeating nature of narcissism is that the center of the universe is a lonely place to be, and it’s precisely our anxiety over being alone that drives us to be narcissists. It’s a vicious cycle: loneliness, anxiety, narcissistic compensation, more loneliness, and so on.

Release comes in surrendering to our neediness: in recognizing that we are not necessary beings but contingent, fragile, mortal beings. In surrender we make ourselves available to others; we open ourselves into the vulnerability that makes intimacy possible. More and more, life ceases to be centered on me, and the grip of  loneliness relaxes. Ultimately, relationships are what we have.

Narcissus – Greek Mythology Link.

Missing the Mark

We’ve been reflecting on the work of James Hunter in recent posts (here, here, and here), on the limits of political power and the flattening of public life that results from reducing “the public realm” to the merely political. As Hunter himself acknowledges, this is cultural– and culture doesn’t change quickly. To use a meteorological metaphor (as he himself does), cultural change is more like a change in climate than it is like a change in weather. And while we can very well imagine what tomorrow’s weather will be, we can not so very well imagine what a different climate might be like, or how– or whether it’s even possible– to help bring it about. Cultural change, while a human artifact, resists human manipulation.

Hunter’s criticism of American Christianity is that both the Christian left and the Christian right have bought into the politicization of public life, thereby squandering the unique authority of the Christian worldview to provide an alternative way of being a society together. For example, politicization by its very nature leads to a public conversation marked by zero-sum outcomes: I’m right; you’re wrong. I win; you lose. An alternative– which is, as Hunter points out, one mark of a healthy culture– is a public sphere characterized by affirmation rather than negation. His words:

What’s even more striking than the negational character of political culture is the absence of robust and constructive affirmations. Vibrant cultures, healthy cultures, makes space for leisure, philosophical reflection, scientific and intellectual mastery, [and] artistic and literary expression, among other things.

Within the larger Christian community in America, one can find such vitality in pockets here and there, and yet where they do exist, they tend to be eclipsed by the greater prominence and vast resources of the political activists and their organizations. Once more, there are few if any places in the pronouncements and actions of the Christian right or left, where I could find these kinds of affirmations, [where] those kinds of gifts are acknowledged, affirmed or celebrated. What this means is that rather than being defined by its cultural achievements, its intellectual and artistic vitality, [or] its service to the needs of others, Christianity is defined to the outside world by its rhetoric of resentment and the ambitions of a will in opposition to others.

I think Hunter is largely correct. I think those of us who have hope for what a different kind of Christian contribution to public life might be, have a lot of work to do– both in bringing down the hyper-politicized barriers between so-called liberal and so-called conservative Christianity, and in building up a richer public life that is not collapsed into the merely political.

The Longest War, Empire, and Church

For those of us without a close connection to someone in the military, it’s hard to keep in mind that we are at war in Afghanistan. We don’t get many reminders in daily life: leaders are not calling for us to make sacrifices; gas is still relatively cheap; grocery shelves are stocked; the NFL is back. As we are apt to do in today’s America, we’ve called on the professionals to take care of our war-making for us, leaving the vast majority of us unencumbered to pursue our pursuits.

But we are at war. Ostensibly it’s a war of defense rather than of conquest: to make sure the Taliban don’t return to Kabul and once again provide safe haven for al-Qaeda. Still, the fact that we can fight a war so far away, at such cost (one estimate puts it at $82 million per day), suggests the kind of power projection which only the mightiest empires are capable of. Not only are we at war; we are (reluctantly or not) an empire at war.

Religion in America in general, and Christian churches in particular, have not (for the most part) asked what it means to bear witness to the Transcendent One in an age of empire– let alone given an answer to that question, and acted on its conviction. James Hunter’s critique of how American Christianity has ceded the public realm to politics, leading to the flattening of the public sphere into a squashed, cramped tussle for political domination (posts here and here) are pertinent. One form that a faithful witness would take, is to robustly insist what the Biblical narrative robustly insists: that God’s power and imperial power are not co-extensive, but are in fact of an entirely different order. While wounding our narcissism, such humility before the Higher Power would be helpful for our public life, too.

“Imagine a public realm not subsumed by the political….”

In a previous post I quoted James Hunter, a professor at the University of Virginia, as saying that there “are no political solutions to the problems most people care about.” As we here in New Hampshire– and in other states– now turn toward the November general elections, we would do well to spend some time reflecting on the limits of politics; what those limits might mean for the way we engage politically; and the potential for religion and religious leaders to help us imagine public life in a new way: a way that restores depth and breadth to those things which the practice of politics has flattened.

Another tidbit from Hunter:

So from my vantage point the biggest part of the challenge, at least as it bears on the things we’re talking about right now, is our ability to imagine a public realm that is not merely subsumed by the political. A public realm in which the common good is not merely sought through political means. A public realm in which we have the capacity to develop deeper and more integrated and cohesive notions of human justice that can inform political debate….

via Home > Programs > Religion and the Media > Publications >.

Theology Matters

Terry Jones (more about his plan here) thinks Islam is of the devil. He’s not the first Christian to make that mistake, and he won’t be the last.

Once you’ve come to the conclusion that someone, or some group, is of the devil, you are permitted– even enjoined– to obliterate it. The Qu’ran is his Salem witch: burn it at the stake. Such an enraged response to a perceived threat is, ironically, just what the devil wants: chaos, destruction, the unleashed death-force. Yes, evil exists. Unfortunately, Terry Jones is unable to identify the real Enemy, which leaves him vulnerable. The devil is, among other things, a master of disguise.

Politics Limited

The problem is that there are no political solutions to the problems that most people care about.

I take this observation to be simply true. Tracing some of the implications of this simple truth– that there are no political solutions to the problems that most people care about– will be the subject of upcoming posts.

The speaker of the above quotation is James Davison Hunter, Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory, at the University of Virginia. His analysis of American public life is illuminating, as is his critique of the way that American Christianity (both “conservative” and “liberal”) has engaged the public sphere. I will be responding to his insights.

The transcript of Professor Hunter’s three-hour presentation to the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Faith Angles conference (from which I lifted the opening quotation) is here.