Marriage Equality and Life in Liberal Democracy– Dangers and Reaction

Supporter of Marriage Equality at the Supreme Court

A society with a history, a culture, and a polity such as ours must continually negotiate between two fatal dangers. The rock on the left is a libertarian individualism that disregards any communal constraints or moral prohibitions that promote the common good; the shoal on the right is a moralistic purity that– too quickly and without humility– sorts society into sharp categories of those who bear the light of godliness, and those whose deviance is bringing about societal decay.

You can be the judge of which– if any– of the following reactions falls into one or the other category. These differing reactions are a fascinating window into the divergent perspectives of Christians in America today: divergence with regard to first principles/fundamental assumptions; with regard to theology; and with regard to conclusions.

Here is the beginning of the report from Religion News Service. Click on the link at the bottom, for the full, fascinating array of reactions to yesterday’s Supreme Court rulings:

“Today is a tragic day for marriage and our nation. The Supreme Court has dealt a profound injustice to the American people by striking down in part the federal Defense of Marriage Act.  The Court got it wrong. The federal government ought to respect the truth that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, even where states fail to do so. The preservation of liberty and justice requires that all laws, federal and state, respect the truth, including the truth about marriage.”

– U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

“The enormity of today’s decisions cannot be overstated. The combined impact of these two rulings puts our nation further down the inevitable and proper path towards full marriage equality for the LGBT community. All Americans should rejoice in today’s decisions because they bring us that much closer to fulfilling the promise of our Constitution.”

– Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, president of Interfaith Alliance

via Reactions to gay marriage wins at Supreme Court | Religion News Service.


Always on the Move

Theologian Douglas John Hall

Religion in the Balance is a fan of Christian theologian Douglas John Hall, whose perspective on religion is summed nicely in Karl Barth’s dictum that the “the message of the Bible is that God hates religion.” The falsehood that Barth’s dictum reveals, is the human propensity to mistake representations of mystery with the living reality of mystery itself; to mistake beliefs about God with the living  reality of God’s presence. Of all people, religious people ought to know better. God is not able to be captured in a system.

This is not to say that religion is useless. It is just to recognize the limits of religion, and to remember that the purpose of religion is to point us toward– and give us an encouraging nudge to move toward– living more fully into the deeper mysteries of life and death, and acting out of a love that includes and transcends family, clan, and nation.

Rev. Gary Schulte, leading the United Church of Christ in New Hampshire, reminds us that churches themselves derive their life from the Holy One: properly understood, churches  are not, to use Hall’s rhetoric, part of the “entire human project of possession.” Once we unclench from the mistaken belief that the future of churches is up to us, we are free to listen for a call from God, and to be disciples of Christ, re-configured for a new day. Here are Schulte’s words:

Perhaps we need to remember a text, attributed to Jesus, first spoken to Simon Peter back at the beginning:  “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”  (Matthew 16:18, NRSV).  It is not so much about Peter or his profession of faith, but about the promise of the One who does the building:  I will build my church!  I think it is time for a breath–the deep, life-giving breath of the Spirit–in a new day.  It is time for the return of joy, rather than seriousness and dire predictions of our demise.  It is time to confront our dragons and demons and be free of the heavy burdens we try to carry in the name of Christ.  It is time for listening for a call, for being disciples who can be surprised and inspired, for serving in the midst of God’s beautiful and broken world.


Unfurling Life


Virginia Woolf once referred to the “infinite possibilities… furled” within a human life.

It takes an act of the moral imagination to recall those infinite possibilities within other people– especially when we consider people who are very different from us, or who might be our enemies, or whom we might fear. Sometimes it’s the people closest to us, whose infinite possibilities we forget: familiarity effaces mystery. The unfurling of another is beyond our control, so our desire for mastery is  frustrated by the uncontainable emergence of life; the unfurling of our very own selves also can be profoundly unsettling.

Stephanie Paulsell was discussing the Song of Songs with other scholars and students at Harvard, when the Marathon bombing occurred. She remarks how the careful attention to beautiful and sacred scripture (it just as easily could have been careful attention to art, or nature) is the precise opposite of setting off a bomb amidst strangers. Indiscriminate violence kills presently; it also kills that which is poised to emerge. On the other hand, carefully attending to what is beautiful and sacred is the way to discover and to upraise  the possibilities enfolded within. Loving attention is another name for hope.

To bomb anything is the signature of some spectacular human failure– somewhere and somehow– in the unfolding of God’s purpose for the world. While it may be that, in a fallen world and within strict constraints, limited violence is justified to prevent an even graver evil– still, to destroy represents a failure. Every human life contains “infinite possibilities” furled within.

Here is Stephanie Paulsell in The Christian Century:

When I remember the bombings, I hope I will recall, alongside the terrible losses and the heroic actions, the quiet work of love I was privileged to witness that day: a group of human beings holding in their collective hands a poem rendered sacred by centuries of study and debate, prayer and argument, hope and longing. I hope I will remember the close, careful attention of those readers who cherished not only what was shining on the surface of the Song but also what was hidden from our eyes. And I hope I remember to pass on to my students not only the skills they need to do such work but the conviction that reverent attention to all that is furled within a text, within the world, within the life of another human being is holy, life-saving work.

Things Change. They Just Do.

E. J. Dionne has a piece in Commonweal about the decline of democracy in America and Europe. Hard-data seekers will be frustrated, because quantifying this decline is not possible. Historical development, like human nature itself, defies final summation in mathematical equations.

The afterglow of the dissolution of the Soviet Union is still with us. Despite our anxieties about militant Islam; despite our less than triumphant wars in Central Asia and the Middle East; despite the unraveling of domestic civility and the worst economic crisis in nearly a century– despite all this, we like to think that American democracy is the culminating apex of historical development. We won the Cold War; that victory proved the superiority of American democracy over any autocratic or totalitarian system.

Let’s say that’s true. Let’s say that the fall of the Berlin Wall was the sign that democracy won. The mistake is to believe that democracy won forever: that history had come to an end, and that all the world– if it were progressing to enlightened ends– would inevitably become like us.

The merits and shortcomings of democracy aside, what such triumphalism lacks is historical imagination. Historical imagination involves two activities of the mind: first, it considers centuries– rather than today’s hours and minutes, or the next election cycle– as the pertinent measure of time; second, it consciously resists projecting this era’s dominant worldview onto the past, or into the future. Not unlike the religious imagination, historical imagination both recalls us to the truth that our life is but a breath, and checks our natural inclination to believe that the sun revolves around us.

With historical imagination, it’s not hard to foresee a time when American democracy is not triumphant; to conceive of a day when another way will work better to meet the challenges of that particular day. Things change. They just do.

We can prepare for inevitable change– the inevitable, unavoidable change that comes at many times in a human life, and throughout human history. How we can prepare for the changes that will come, is for next time.

An excerpt from Dionne, and the link, follow:

We know American politics are dysfunctional. But after a week of scandal obsession during which the nation’s capital and the media virtually ignored the problems most voters care about — jobs, incomes, growth, opportunity, education — it’s worth asking if there is something especially flawed about our democracy….

Citizen dissatisfaction is hardly surprising in the wake of a deeply damaging economic downturn. That doesn’t make the challenge any less daunting. We should consider whether democracy itself is in danger of being discredited. Politicians might usefully disentangle themselves from their day-to-day power struggles long enough to take seriously their responsibility to a noble idea and the systems that undergird it.

Earlier this month, the Transatlantic Academy, a global partnership of think tanks led by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, issued “The Democratic Disconnect,” a sober report by a group of distinguished academics.

“Democracy is in trouble,” the report begins. “The collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good — the bedrock of a healthy democracy — is eroding. Democratic governments often seem crippled in their capacity to deliver what their people want and need….”

via Is Democracy in Trouble? | Commonweal Magazine.