The Long and Sober View

Religion in the Balance aims to comment on our world, taking a long view: in the words of James Hunter, looking at the “climate” (trends over time) rather than the “weather” (what’s happening now). For our culture of instant gratification, short memory, and pain-avoidance, the long view brings a needed “yin” to the culture’s dominant “yang.”

The other balancing we seek, is to counter-weight our culture’s dominant rosy view of human nature and that rosy view’s relatives, such as limitless progress (more is more!) and American exceptionalism (the tragedy of history stops here!). On the question of human nature, we acknowledge and embrace limitation, humility, and finitude– the ultimate expression of which is the memento mori, the remembering that we will die. No conception of the good life (individually, communally, or societally) can be unfettered from this sober recognition of our contingency.

It was from this perspective, then, that I was happy to read the following reminder in a recent issue of The Christian Century:

This much the church should make clear about any election: it is about fallible people choosing between fallible candidates in an electoral process that is deeply flawed.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vote. It does mean, however, that we shouldn’t act as though political power is ultimate power.

Beyond in Our Midst– A Witness

God’s City– Beyond, in the Midst

In a recent Christian Century article, author Benjamin Stewart mentions the group “Ashes to Go.” On Ash Wednesday, these clergy leave church in order to offer people the imposition of ashes– on street corners, in parking lots, and at bus stops. As the article states, they take “liturgy to the streets.”

We live in a world of reductionism. Exceptions exist for all of these examples, but reductionism pinches much of what dignifies human existence: value is reduced to economics; beauty is reduced to attractiveness; goodness is reduced to taste (“that’s good” = “I like that”); truth is reduced to subjectivity (“my” truth); life is reduced to consumption; the good life is reduced to financial success; education is reduced to career training; freedom is reduced to personal license; the Cross is reduced to a “Get Out of Hell Free” card; the Transcendent One of the Older and Newer Testaments is reduced to the cult god of American dominance.

Contemporary American society tends toward the narrow and the flat.

A Christian witness– outside of the church and in the world– witnesses to a different worldview; or, to change the metaphor, traces the shape of a different architecture to the universe: instead of narrow and flat, we see through the surface to a depth, width, and height that is beyond, even as it is here and now. Ritual action (like good art) can open up and orient us to the depth dimension of life. Ritual action (again, like good art) can also expose the tendency of reductionism to collapse the world into a single system.

An excerpt from Stewart’s Christian Century article follows:

It is perhaps this same impulse that emboldens participants in the “Ashes to Go” movement to shrug off the risk of the police and head into city streets to offer to press ashes onto the foreheads of strangers on Ash Wednesday and to speak the ancient words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

A participant in such a liturgy in New York City, Mark Genszler, described the “wash of relief” that flowed over the faces of those who received ashes—a response he found partly surprising, as he had just told them that in addition to speeding toward the next subway stop they were more certainly traveling into death. But, he reflected, “if you share the secret of your mortality with someone else—even, or especially, a stranger—then you don’t have to pretend that you’re invincible.” The hidden vulnerability becomes at least momentarily public and honored as a holy mystery. And in any case, Genszler said, a shared burden may be lighter.

via Worship without walls: Taking liturgy to the streets | The Christian Century.

3 Debate Questions from RIB

Here are three questions Religion in the Balance would ask Barack Obama and Mitt Romney tomorrow night:

1. Define the American dream, for this time in our history. If you use the phrase “pursuit of happiness,” define “happiness.” You may refer to economic prosperity and/or income growth no more than once.

2. Formal offices of power, such as President of the United States, confer great power upon the office-holder, but they also constrain the office-holder from certain kinds of bold action and bold truth-telling. Reflect on the limits of presidential power to make the changes America needs. You may refer to Congress and lobbyists no more than once.

3. What period in American history is most closely analogous to our own time, and therefore has lessons for us today; and, on the other hand, to what extent do we face unprecedented challenges/opportunities (unparallelled in history) that require creative, adaptive learning?