Tuesday, May 26, 2009

All You Need is Love: That's Easy???

In the 1960s, The Beatles proclaimed that “It’s easy...all you need is love.”

I certainly grew up influenced by The Beatles, but I somehow missed the 60s, so I’ve turned to a Professor of Religion, David S. Cunningham, for a first hand reaction. Cunningham writes that the reactions to the song came in two kinds: an enthusiastic embrace of love as the simple solution to the world’s problems, and a critical rejection of the word love as a dreamy emotion that would distract people as those problems grew worse. Those two attitudes towards love have, in some sense, marked all modern political culture---with one side pleading “can’t we all just get along?” while the other side demands a clear-eyed acknowledgement of, and a forceful response to the base motives and evil intent of others. (Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol. 2)

I don’t believe that either of these reactions represents what Jesus was trying to say with the words “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Last week, Carl, a member of our congregation, suggested to me that he thought someone got it wrong down the line, and that the word they wanted was not love, but respect. This perfectly sets up the dilemma: love is not an easy word in our culture. There are some ways that we use the word love that simply is not what Jesus is asking of us. Other ways of understanding the word leave us scratching our heads: what is Jesus really asking us to do in saying, “love one another as I have loved you? If it is to be as easy as The Beatles suggest, couldn’t we come up with a more clear, concise word?

I’m not sure that we can. In my conversation with Carl, I realized that my problem with “respect” is not that I don’t think it’s important, but that it’s not enough. Respecting my neighbor isn’t a bad thing: respecting the dignity of every human being is a phrase I really like. It suggests boundaries on our actions that honor the rights of others.

Where I think respect is lacking is that you can respect people without it mattering what happens to them. I can “respect someone’s privacy” and thus stand aside or avert my eyes as their life come crashing down. I’m not suggesting that I could have necessarily prevented what happened, and I’m not suggesting that we can control everything that happens to one another through intervention. Respect, at least in this sense, is not enough. I think that “love one another” reflects the earlier passage in John’s Gospel, “For God so loved the world....” There is a connection that goes beyond respect. God so respected the world just doesn’t cut it. We claim that God loves the world.

But Carl is right to be suspect of the word love, especially as we usually associate love as only a feeling. We’re so used to hearing love as the great powerful emotion: we can rightly ask how do you love people you don’t know. Or, as I suggested last week to what was now a group of people, “How do you love people that you don’t even like?”

Jesus suggests that in the calling of his disciples friends, he is freeing them to follow his commandments so that they can love one another. This is Jesus’ description of the love that reflects his relationship with the Father.

Love in this sense is a theological virtue: an excellence of character that God has by nature and in which we participate by grace. This love is primarily interested in the good of another person, rather than one’s own self interests. This love is not so much a feeling as it is a disciplined habit of care and concern that, like all of the virtues, can only be perfected over a lifetime. (Cunningham, again...)

This is the love Paul in First Corinthians when he says that love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but bares all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor. 13:4-7)

This type of love is really challenging for people because it’s not based on what we’re accustomed to. Most friendships, for example, have a certain usefulness to them like business connections or particular social circles, or are the friendships that are cultivated because they are pleasurable and we enjoy them. They are based on people’s perceived actions and reactions.

The virtue of love, however, is not based on the actions and choices that people take. This love is based for the good of others, not on finding good in others. This is really hard when we live in a world so broken, and marred by all sorts of bad choices that we all make.

Yes, it does matter when people do things that are dishonest or harmful. We should not simply brush aside the things that are hurtful and pretend they didn’t happen, and there are consequences for people’s actions. Choosing not to love and not to abide with grace is not an option that we as Christians have the luxury to choose.

Jesus calls us, his disciples, to abide in a love with him, with everyone, and with God, that exists out of mutual commitment and affection, and observes that this love should be so deeply woven into our lives that we might even find ourselves called to die for it.

The Beatles certainly got one thing wrong: this is far from easy...but it somehow it just might be all we need.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Rethinking Celibacy & RC Priesthood

As a married Episcopal priest, it really isn't my place to "rethink celibacy in the Church." However, with the latest news of Father Alberto Cutie, this is big subject in popular culture.

CNN posted two commentaries, one for celibacy, one against.

The Rev. Robert Barron of Chicago writes: A case for celibacy for priests.

The Rev. Donald Cozzens of Cleveland writes: Celibacy should be rethought.

I think Cozzens argument is stronger for many reasons, but the concluding sentences really sums it up:

It should be left to the individual priest and seminarian to determine whether or not he is blessed with the gift of celibacy.

A mandated "gift," after all, is really no gift at all.

I can't resist saying that I wish Cozzens could have instead said "whether or not he or she is blessed...," but perhaps that is for yet another rethinking at another time...

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Exploring “$#@!”

As a hockey goalie, I sometimes find myself in a locker room among new people as a substitute goalie. The language of the locker room is, shall we say, “different” from normal conversation. What often happens is this: someone asks what I do for a living, I say that I’m an Episcopal Priest, and someone(s) always apologizes for the language they used moments ago.

With my best look of piety, I deadpan “Thanks…just don’t &$%@*# let it happen again.” Breaks the ice, every time.

I am fascinated with the way popular culture approaches “the words you can’t say on television.” I am amazed how many religious people think these words are non-negotiable in their wrongness for use and outlawed by the Bible. Many teach their children that this language is full of sin and should not ever be used with the only reason that “it’s wrong”…which of course, encourages its use out of parents earshot. I also think it’s fair to say that many people don’t consider why these words can be hurtful as well.

We generally call these words and expressions “swear words,” but I wish to make some clear distinctions between “vulgar” words and “curses and oaths.” In my opinion, The Bible is concerned with “curses and oaths.” I’ll write more in another post sometime soon, but will quickly say that I define “curses” as the asking for God’s action against someone or something (God “curse” that person…with a bolt of lightning, eternal hell, or some similar action). An oath, on the other hand, takes God’s name and binds a person to or against someone or some action. Peter “swore an oath” that he did not know Jesus. These actions are clearly wrong in the Bible, for good reason.

“Vulgar” words are not really addressed by The Bible, and are in a completely different category. Vulgar words are usually either slang for the anatomy, what comes in and out of our anatomy, and the things one can do with one’s anatomy. (I only recently considered how many vulgar words this description covers.)

I believe that vulgar words have an important role to play in our communication with one another and the world.

Now, it may seem strange for me to write about vulgar words. I think, however, that our general pious aversion to such words has hurt our culture more than it’s helped. We need to teach each other that it matters not that we use vulgar words, but HOW we use them. We need to be aware of the real affects of such words in our society.

First off, a vulgar word or phrase sometimes is the only way to give voice to something that happens to us: the moment of realization. They can express frustration, shock, disbelief, the unbelievable, and the outright funny. Vulgar words, in this context, are understood by all who hear it. The vulgar word or phrase is often a moment of bonding: leading to sympathy, empathy, or in the best cases…uncontrollable laughter. There is no meanness, no evil or ill intent, and no desire to provoke someone. It is just the perfect word(s) to express the moment.

In a similar way, a vulgar word can add just the right amount of emphasis to something. Use your imagination…

I’ll dare to say that both of these examples are good ways to use vulgar words. But it’s very clear that vulgar words lose their power when they are used casually to stand in for every expression. If every fifth word out of someone’s mouth is a vulgar word, they become common and meaningless. The “specialness” of vulgar words is that we DON’T use them in polite conversation, or around children. The “special use” of these words, I believe, holds no offense to God. Perhaps, God might even be enjoying the moment along with everyone else…

(Quick note: I will concede the argument that “vulgar words” could be considered “curses” in certain contexts. If I miss the nail with the hammer I swing, and smash my thumb instead, the vulgar word I yell out might be technically a curse. But I think it’s also fair to say that it is a heat of the moment expression of pain and dismay over my ineptitude, more than it is the desire for God to intervene and act against the hammer.)

Vulgar words are also used to temporally describe people who anger or frustrate us. It’s an understandable way to “blow off steam,” but there are plenty of pitfalls. It’s a potential mess if this gets back to the person in question. To go further, it’s not a generous thing to reduce someone in this way, especially if we let ourselves believe that our “choice word” accurately describes a person. If we stay in the “vulgar place,” we make no attempt to understand the person or their actions. We might actually be more healthy as a whole if we resist the urge to describe people, even really unpleasant people, in this way.

I can hear some of you saying “Oh, come on, get real Kurt.” Alright, I will a little bit…perhaps it’s not unhealthy to think “you jerk” when someone acts in a petty, mean or unreasonable way. But I maintain that it’s easy to let a “harmless characterization” keep us from really dealing with conflict, which can clearly hurt us and our relationships with others.

This leads to a distinction: it is different to call a rival a vulgar word than to jokingly or casually “describe” a friend. For example, a good friend, seeing me do something particularly not brilliant, makes a witty or ironic comment. I then suggest to him that he’s such a _____, (or to go do such and such), and he might reply, “I love you too.”

This, in my opinion, can be a term of endearment. My friend knows that this isn’t real name calling, or meant to degrade, disparage, or bring down. I don’t think my friend is really this: quite the opposite is actually true. This is cement of friendship and bonds of affection.

The danger here is that context is absolutely critical. It’s very easy to step over the line and to hurt or enrage a friend or loved one.

There is also the problem and challenge of what I call the “vulgar group words” that are slang for race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and so on. These words are the ones that have been used to hurt so many people at various times…can they be used in a positive way?

This gets really tricky. As a white, heterosexual, protestant male, I believe that I have no claim to any of these words. I avoid using them because of how they have been used in the past to inflect pain and dominance over groups of people. There are plenty of choice “generic” vulgar words to use, that I don’t need to chance misunderstanding.

What about those who are in the afflicted group? Certain offensive and hurtful words that have been used to degrade tend to get reclaimed and rebranded by the afflicted group.

The “safest example” to talk about is the b-word for women. (I think this might be considered safer because “b____” generally describes characteristics of a particular woman instead of all women, which is unlike most of the other words.) Books to “claim your inner b____,” and the female singer who sings that, among other things, that “I’m a b____,” are attempts by women to recast the word to express alternatives to the negative way men have branded women.

While I recognize the sincere attempt to “turn a negative into a positive,” I wonder if this really works. What do men end of thinking when they hear a woman proclaim she (or someone else) is a b_____? Do they understand what’s being said, or do they hear the classic insult and putdown? Does it matter what they might think?

This conversation across our groups might be helpful in breaking down stereotypes and barriers, but it cannot happen if we simply lump all vulgar words as “bad.”

So I say, let vulgar words take their proper place in our language without apology. At the same time, let us talk openly and honestly about the power of language, and consider its affects on each other. That distinction of “right or wrong” is a conversation worth having with other adults, as well as our children.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

God Talk in the NY Times

Stanley Fish wrote an Op-Ed on British critic Terry Eagleton's new book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution.

Judging from the 664 comments in two days, it has struck a nerve with its readers.

Read the article for yourself, but let me wet your appetite with most of Fish's opening:

Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed. “What other symbolic form,” he queries, “has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”

The other projects, he concedes, provide various comforts and pleasures, but they are finally superficial and tend to the perpetuation of the status quo rather than to meaningful change: “A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.”

By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”

The fact that science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can not ask — never mind answer — such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do.

And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”