Is It a Prayer, or Isn’t It?

The Arizona State House

This little news item calls for brief theological reflection…

The AP reported last week on an incident in the Arizona House of Representatives. State representatives take turns offering a prayer of invocation; Rep. Juan Mendez– described in reports as an atheist– took his turn and “asked House members not to bow their heads but to instead look around at each other ‘sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state.'” (from Juan Cole’s Religion Clause)

The following day, Rep. Steve Smith– described in reports as a Christian– expressed his judgment that Mendez’s offering on the previous day did not count as a prayer. (The full report and link are below).

I take Mendez’s offering as authentic prayer for the following reasons. First, it is life-affirming: his words regarding the “extraordinary experience of being alive” evoke the gift and mystery that life itself is. Second, the gesture of looking at other humans can be reasonably interpreted as a gesture pointing us to the sacred (even if, from the atheistic point of view, it does not point us to the divine). Third, his words call people out of narrow self-regard, to consider the larger whole.

Smith is right that Mendez’s invocation was not Christian prayer; it is also obvious but worth mentioning that, at the end of the day, there are irreconcilable differences between an atheistic and a Christian way of experiencing and acting in the world.

One might also plausibly think, however, that the Christian way of engaging difference– especially in this diverse and pluralistic nation– would be to seek common ground when possible. Followers of Jesus have a special obligation, in this age of fear and in this culture of death, to ally when possible with all who affirm life, and who desire to care for all people– as expressed in Rep. Mendez’s prayer– even if they don’t believe in God. This does not mean softening the gospel, or selling out to syncretism.

On the contrary, such Christian engagement comes from a deep trust in the One whose ways of working towards the fulfillment of history are mysterious: a deep trust in the God whose ways are not our ways. It is faithful, Biblically-grounded Christian practice not to put limits on how, and where, the Holy One is working out the purpose of the world.

AP today reports on an unusual controversy in Arizona over the opening prayer offered by one member of the state House of Representatives. Members of the House rotate in offering the invocation. On Tuesday it was Rep. Juan Mendez’s turn. With members of the Secular Coalition for Arizona in the visitor’s gallery, Mendez, an atheist, asked House members not to bow their heads but to instead look around at each other “sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state.”

The next day, Rep. Steve Smith complained that Mendez’s remarks did not qualify as a prayer. He asked other House members to join him in a second prayer in repentance for there not being one the prior day. Smith said that Mendez’s remarks were analogous to someone leading the Pledge of Allegiance by pledging “I love England.”

via Religion Clause.

via Member Page.

Luxury Real Estate

Manhattan

Since I don’t look at mainstream media (for the most part, although– digression alert– I sometimes cannot resist the temptation of things like the dog-emerges-from-tornado-wreckage footage on the AOL Homepage), I do not know if this week’s Occupy Wall Street protest at the Department of Justice is getting any air. I found it only after googling “whatever happened to the Occupy Movement?” That the protest at Justice is focused on home foreclosures is apropos of last Sunday’s front-page New York Times article (link below), on a luxury apartment tower being built in Manhattan.

“Luxury” is an understatement: “… the top penthouse is already under contract for $95 million,” the Times’ Charles Bagli reports; the total amount under contract, at this point in the development of the building at 432 Park Avenue, is $1 billion. For those with modest desires, the asking price for a 2-bedroom apartment (1789 sq.ft.) is $9.7 million. The people who can afford this housing are the worlds’ super-rich. Because they are super-rich, they generally own several properties; but because they are human, they can only inhabit one of those properties at a time. Consequently, the 84-story building will usually be 3/4 empty.

Those protesting this week at the Department of Justice over home foreclosures are angry because they feel like the Americans who are in the class of the  rich and super-rich (who can afford multi-million dollar properties) got away with making the mistakes that led to people losing their homes. For them, “Too Big to Fail” has become “Too Rich to Jail.”

On the other hand is the defense of the rich and the super-rich: they worked for it, they earned it; and their risk-taking entrepreneurship is the rising tide that lifts all boats. Stifle that, and stifle all economic growth.

These are irreconcilable views. What is not debatable, is that the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing.

That widening gap leads to these twin questions: assuming that some gap between the rich and the poor is inevitable, at what point on the acceptability scale does the size of the gap become morally unacceptable? Politically unsustainable?

Here’s an answer: the size of the gap becomes morally unacceptable when a class of people in a society avoidably bear disproportionate pain in hard times. I think we have crossed that line.

via Boom in Luxury Towers Is Warping New York Real Estate Market – NYTimes.com.

Resident Aliens

Hauerwas and Willimon’s “Resident Aliens” (1989)

This book’s cover’s quaint font betrays its late 1980s publication date. The main idea still pertains, however, and now even moreso: we Americans don’t live in a Christian culture today, if ever we did. I don’t mean this, as some do, in a narrow, nostalgic-for-lost-morality way: restoring purity to naughty words in song lyrics would not restore Christian culture. The idea is more radical: there is no such thing as a national culture that is Christian. To be a follower of Jesus is to be– more or less, but never not– counter-cultural. It is, in a way and always, to be a foreigner, an alien, in this land. Home is not here.

Many of us live in a material luxury and physical comfort unprecedented in the history of the world. Seemingly removed from the struggle of keeping body and soul together (no one who reads this blog is concerned about a failed harvest leading to famine), the soothing strum of American consumerism in which we participate (with varying degrees of investment) lulls us into a sleepy, false sense of security: we’re safe here; this is home.

To be a follower of Jesus is to snap out of that narcotic snooze, and recognize that lie. Our only security is with Him; our true home is with the Transcendent One. From that awareness will come a re-awakened church, re-committed to proclaiming the gospel and re-dedicated to exposing the false twin-gods of our culture: invulnerability and control. Such a re-awakened church will embody and practice a trust in the Holy One– the Holy One who always defeats the false gods who spawn neurotic anxiety, ruptured relationships, fear-based violence, and exploitative economic and political arrangements. Home is not here. Home is where reconciliation is complete, and the lion lies down with the lamb.

In the meantime, we walk in this foreign land, and point toward home.

Unity and Paradox

Willi Unsoeld

Willi Unsoeld was a mountaineer, educator, and speaker. His talk “The Spiritual Value of Wilderness” reflects the 1970s North American/European desire to re-unify what modernity had divided. In the context of Unsoeld’s mountaineering, Outward Bound-ing life, the division of human beings from nature was the template from which all the other divisions (man from woman; body from soul; human beings from God) could be derived.

We are the intellectual and spiritual heirs of this desire for unity. One positive development is that we speak nowadays more about “healing” than about “unity.” Unity is ecstatic and therefore fleeting and adolescent; healing is integrative and therefore enduring and hopeful.

The 1970s are now two generations ago; the times have changed. Re-unifying what modernity has divided is not our challenge and call. Our challenge and call is to live the creative tension of irreconcilables– which entails living beyond the limits of reason alone. Our challenge and call is to live the creative tension of paradox.

For example. The supreme paradox of all creation, for followers of Jesus, is his nature: fully human and fully divine. Reason cannot reconcile these two essentially different natures. However, holding these irreconcilable natures in tension points us to a way of living on this earth, now, that realizes divinity present in human vulnerability, and embraces humble, human self-giving as the way God’s power is most fully expressed. An ethic of graceful, creative living follows from this theology.

In our hot and crowded world, where we live in unprecedentedly close and often prickly proximity with people and ideas that are irreconcilably different– I’ll say it again– our challenge and call is to live the creative tension of these irreconcilables. Unity is not possible, but creativity is.

Here’s my list of the paradoxes at the heart of life– seeming opposites that, in truth, need each other for completion. I’d be curious to know what you, reader, might add (or subtract!):

life and death; male and female; liberal and conservative; Christian and Muslim; active and passive; sanity and insanity; presence and absence; grief and love.

via Willi Unsoeld – Brief Biography & Quotes.

A Found Item– from Czeslaw Milosz’s “The Captive Mind”

Czeslaw Milosz

The epigram of Milosz’s The Captive Mind:

“When someone is honestly 55% right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God. But what’s to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever says he’s 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.”

— An Old Jew of Galicia

via Czeslaw Milosz- Poets.org – Poetry, Poems, Bios & More.