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.


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?

Restore America Now– A Sign for the Times

A thoughtful reader [editor’s note: all of our readers at this point qualify as “thoughtful”; apparently we are not attracting the “TMZ” crowd. Although I shouldn’t presume. You may confess your secret TMZ obsession confidentially, offline] writes the following regarding Ron Paul:

His message is generally that we should not be locating power in political institutions, and especially that America should not be militarily intervening abroad (much to the embarrassment of the other Republicans at the debates).

This thoughtful reader gets my larger point (whether he agrees or not, I’m not sure) that it’s problematic– and perhaps even wrongheaded– to look to the realm of politics for the restoration of America. The follow-up question, then, is: Can a politician’s anti-federal-government views, and proposed policies, effect– or at least abet– the restoration of America? And a related question– a question that goes way beyond Ron Paul– is: Is being anti-government the same thing as recognizing the limits of politics?

As a society I think we are seriously confused about that second question. I think there is a deeply shared feeling in America that we’ve gone badly astray. One response to that general dis-ease is to re-emphasize personal responsibility [a good thing]– and blame government [not altogether a good thing]. There are some things that we need government– even the federal government– to do, given the unprecedented-in-world-history interconnectedness of peoples, cultures, and economies. To recognize the limits of the political realm to effect the renewal we need, is not the same thing as saying– as many in our state of New Hampshire and around the country do– that government is, always and everywhere, bad.

To claim that government is always and everywhere bad, is the same coin– flipped, of course, but still the same coin– as claiming that the hope of the nation can be neatly pinned, like a campaign button, onto the outcome of a presidential election. The restoration of America– if it is to come at all– will come from a deeper place than where the “Got Hopers” and the “Tea Partiers” are looking.

Ideas for a Better World in 2011

I wrote about James Davison Hunter a few times this September, and I was happy to find his critique of American Christianity included in the Christian Science Monitor’s recent article: “Ideas for a Better World in 2011.” Davison thinks that American Christianity is squandering its unique potential to transform American public life by being too political– that (perhaps counterintuitively), American Christianity’s potential to effect change in our culture is compromised by its over-involvement in politics. Davison suggests a different way of being for churches– a way that is public but not political:

Mr. Hunter argues that the Christian community should move away from the “politicization of everything.” Churches are now too often destructive battlegrounds of an ideological right and left. He advocates something called “faithful presence” – a humble reappraisal of what is distinctive and different about church and its public expression. “This is active, not passive; it requires engagement, not an opt-out. It is not ideological, but it is public,” he says.

The title of Hunter’s controversial new book, “To Change the World,” is ironic. While American Christianity often imagines itself a major player in US public life, it is, in fact, marginalized, he says. Despite large numbers, they don’t influence the actual structures of power and culture. Worry that a Christian America is fading has not brought a deeper commitment to church but anger. Political efforts to conform law or policy to narrow or sectarian teaching are often acted out coercively, not compassionately.

The “faithful presence” Hunter calls for transcends politics. The point, he says, is to serve faithfully and well in relationships, tasks, and networks of social influence. “Christians need to abandon talk about ‘redeeming the culture,’ ‘advancing the kingdom,’ and ‘changing the world,'” he said in the magazine Christianity Today. “Such talk carries too much weight….” In the case of abortion, he suggests that 10,000 families could get together in Illinois and announce they will adopt a child of any background and declare no unwanted children in the state; it’s a public but not a political act.

via Ideas for a better world in 2011 – James Davison Hunter –

An Adult Conversation

Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, co-chairs of President Obama's deficit commission, hope their final report will start an 'adult conversation' about the national debt. But members of Congress might have too much to lose politically to back the report.

The final report from the debt commission is out. (Previous posts on the debt commission here, here, and here.)

Marks of maturity (requirements for an “adult conversation”) include the ability to defer short-term gratification in exchange for greater rewards in the long-term; and the related ability to make sacrifices and give of oneself, for the benefit of others. (Healthy parenting would be a prime example of this kind of sacrifice, where we give up certain things for ourselves in order to meet the needs of our children.)

I don’t think our political life can support or sustain the “adult conversation” that Simpson and Bowles are hoping for.

If that’s true, and if projections of fiscal ruin are true, then to avert disaster, leadership on this question (and by “leadership” in this context I mean both the ability to support and sustain an “adult conversation,” and the will to take appropriate action) will need to come from somewhere other than the political arena.

via Why Obama’s latest bid to control national debt might not change anything –

Reclaiming Meaning in Public Conversation: What We Hold in Common

I’m very excited that Aziz Abu Sarah and Kobi Skolnick (photos below) will be joining us here in southern New Hampshire for a presentation on Sunday called “Conflicting Peace: From Revenge to Reconciliation in the Holy Land.” (Note: Aziz will be with us via satellite from East Jerusalem, due to issues in Israel with his Jerusalem identification status.)

Kobi is Israeli and Jewish; Aziz is Palestinian and Muslim. Each of them shares their personal story of the transformational power of suffering. Pain can shrink us into bitter and vengeful people, or it can enlarge our capacity for empathy and compassion. Kobi and Aziz have chosen the latter– a risky and costly choice.

What we make of the suffering in our lives is a quintessential religious question. There’s nothing abstract or theoretical about it: how we find meaning (or not) in our suffering informs all our relationships, shapes all our attitudes, and affects all our choices in the things that matter. Kobi’s and Aziz’s presentation goes to this level of our human journey.

This kind of public discourse goes far beyond the shriveled nature of today’s political sloganeering to remind us both of our human vulnerabilities, and of our potential to enlist those vulnerabilities in the cause of affirming life’s goodness.

Sunday evening, 6:30pm, Souhegan High School Auditorium. Free.

Real Change?


Could this gesture of giving mean more than the food on the plate?


I’ve got nothing against letter-writing campaigns, and I don’t know anything about Bread for the World’s David Beckmann. However, I do think it’s worth questioning the premise of the following paragraph:

Beckmann believes real change comes through politics, not soup kitchens, which is why Bread for the World encourages its member churches to launch letter-writing campaigns on such unglamorous issues as tax credits for the working poor. Moses, he points out, was not sent by God to pick up a few cans and warm blankets at Pharaoh’s court. He was sent to change the world.

via Miller: A Minister’s Mission to Fight Poverty – Newsweek.

The question that author Lisa Miller begs is, “What counts as real change?” As James Hunter points out (post here and others), most of us– including those of us who profess that God’s rule is ultimate– readily go along with the popular notion that “real change” is the province of politics. In the spirit of confession, I’ve been one of those people.

That unspoken assumption needs aired; it doesn’t withstand examination. Politics, in fact, might be the very last place to look, in order to find “real change.”

Lisa Miller gives us a false choice: that churches must choose between acts of compassion (which, in her reading, are well-intentioned but naive), and acts of lobbying (which, in her reading, are savvy and worldly-wise). Both can be good and helpful things to do, and both can effect some kinds of change. But real change?

Moses wasn’t changing the world– God was. Real change , while inevitably involving human actors, will be deeper and broader than any end we might imagine.