Tuesday, 8 November 2016

The Wesleyan Clinton and the Calvinist Trump

I've tended to say little on this blog about today's US Presidential election since the two candidates were determined.

It occurred to me today (while I was on my exercise bike this morning, in fact) that the key factor in the differences between the ideas of the two main candidates is actually their religious upbringing. 

This may sound odd at first, given that both the practicing Methodist Hillary Clinton and the nominally Presbyterian Donald Trump are associated with denominations which, in the United States and elsewhere in the western world, are seen as classical (and essentially interchangeable) expressions of middle-of-the-road Christianity.  In fact, in many countries, such as Canada and Australia, denominations exist which combine Methodist and Presbyterian components among others.  (I happen to be a minister in one of these denominations.)

However, there are some real differences (at least in the history of these denominations) in terms of their views about the nature of humanity.  This may give some idea about the ideas that motivate both candidates.  (From my own perspective, I grew up in a Methodist congregation, studied theology in a mostly Presbyterian setting, and am now a minister in a denomination in which Methodist and Presbyterian dimensions are present.)

Presbyterianism, from its founding in the 16th century by John Calvin in Geneva and John Knox in Scotland, had a strong sense of pessimism about human nature.  Calvin's theology says that our human nature is corrupt in its very being.  "Total depravity" is a typically Calvinist term about our human nature.  Churches following in the heritage of Calvin and Knox tend to have a pessimistic view of human nature.  According to Calvin, we are predestined by God to either good or evil, and most of us are predestined to evil.

Generally, politicians on the political "Right" tend to have a Calvinist view of human nature.  This is the case whether the individual politician is religiously a "Calvinist" or not, whether the politician is religiously a Christian or not, and whether the politician is personally religious (of any sort) or not.  Political conservatives tend to have a gloomy (Calvinist?) view of human nature, and tend to call their followers to vote for them according to a shared sense of (Calvinistic?) gloom.  This can well be the case with Mr. Trump.

Methodism, founded in the 18th century in England by the brothers John and Charles Wesley, took a different view.  The Wesleys rejected predestination.  They embraced the notion that human beings have free will, that we can choose good or evil. 

Methodism, following the Wesleys, has had a much more optimistic view of God than churches following in Calvin's theology.  Methodism has also had a much more optimistic view of humanity.  Methodists typically look for the best in people.  It's difficult to find a person of a Methodist background talking about the "total depravity" of humanity.  People of Methodist background are more likely to look for the virtues of others and celebrate them, rather than to denounce the transgressions of others.  The far more hope-filled language of Ms. Clinton may reflect her Methodist upbringing.
Inclusivity is also a Methodist characteristic.  Methodist churches (and churches such as mine with a strong Methodist influence) practice "open communion".  We don't turn people away from the Lord's table.   In the wider world, Methodists see it as a good thing when all our human communities are inclusive of people of all sorts and conditions.  Methodists typically like to build bridges, not walls.

In any event, I hope this reflection, which began on an exercise bike, may be useful to some of us as we contemplate the sources of the thinking of the two candidates, both the Wesleyan Clinton and the Calvinist Trump.

Reflections of a recently retired minister: a sermon

Over the past four-and-a-half years and the next two years, as I ease my way into retirement, there have been (and will be) a number of moments of transition.

Almost four-and-a-half years ago, in July of 2012, I concluded full-time ministry and we returned home to Tasmania and a series of overlapping part-time ministry gigs. I started to describe myself as “semi-retired” (and, occasionally, as “recycled”).
A year ago, I formally retired as far as the Uniting Church in Australia, the Australian Tax Office, and my super fund were concerned, but nothing really changed in terms of my working arrangements at that point. 

In about two years from now, I will reach that magic age of 65-and-a-half, when Centrelink considers me to be pensionable, and where there need be no “semi” at all in terms of my retirement. 

Today however, as I conclude my time of casual supply ministry here at Sorell (even as my hospital chaplaincy gig continues), this is the main occasion in which my process of retirement is marked liturgically. So it gives me an opportunity ... particularly given some difficult, painful, and courageous decisions recently made by this congregation ... to reflect from a pulpit on the life of the church in fairly broad strokes … at least without making too much of a bore of myself. 

Here goes.

Since well before the time of my ordination in late 1979, the continued decline of many mainstream churches has been a fact of life in most denominations.  


Many theories have been advanced for this decline. Some of these theories are mutually contradictory.

Some say that the decline of the churches has been because the leadership of the churches has been too conservative and too out-of-touch with the contemporary world. Others say the decline is because the leadership of the churches isn’t conservative enough (or, I suppose, out-of-touch enough).
Some say that the decline of the churches has been because worship in many congregations has been too traditional. Others say that the decline has been because worship in other congregations hasn’t been traditional enough.  
Some say that the decline of the churches has been because parents won’t expect their children to attend church. Others say that that the decline of the churches is because those who were forced to go church as children reacted by forcing their own kids not to go.
And in all these conflicting theories and assumptions, there are a few grains of truth and a few grains of falsehood.
Can I offer a few theories of my own as to the reasons for the seeming decline of so many churches in recent decades?
1. My first theory is that the time in history we use as a comparison to our own was a time of artificially inflated church attendance: the twenty years following the end of the Second World War. The period from 1945 to 1965 was a period in most English-speaking countries when a lot of people went to church, far more than was normal in previous decades. The decline we’re experiencing now is actually much closer to the normal levels of church participation in, say, the 1890s or 1920s. By comparing ourselves now to churches in the post-war years, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.
2. My second theory is that the religious “pie” is divided up into more slices now than it was in the post-war years. In a sizable Australian country town 60 years ago, there may have been between four to seven churches: C of E, RC, Methodist, Presbyterian (particularly in Victoria), perhaps Baptist, perhaps the Sallies, Brethren in Tasmania (particularly in the North and North-West), Lutheran if you were in South Australia or Queensland, and that was it. Double that number of congregations today. With a smaller percentage of the population going to church in the first place, more congregations make the sense of decline even greater.
3. My third theory is that people who used to go to church for non-religious reasons have stopped going to church. My worship professor at Princeton once told us to remember that some of the people we’d be preaching to would be agnostics. He was a bit behind-the-time when he said this in 1975, but there was a time in the post-war years when a number of agnostics went to church. It was how people demonstrated that they were positive, respectable, civic-minded members of the community. You get involved in a local church of some respectable denomination (even if you didn’t really believe much of it). However, by the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it was no longer necessary to go to church to show you were a “solid citizen”, and this showed in the decline in attendance.
4. My fourth theory is that the churches haven’t told their story of recent years very well.
  • Many of our neighbours haven’t picked up the little fact of the ecumenical movement, for example. There was a time – in many of our lifetimes - when many Christians were very bigoted toward other Christians. For those of us who are regular worshippers, this is a thing of the past. For many who are not regular worshippers, this little bit of news hasn’t quite registered.
  • Similarly, our attitudes as Christians has changed for the better toward people of other living faiths – Jews, Muslims, and others. You get a few weirdos who try to whip up some religious bigotry in the community, but these mostly are people who don’t hang out in churches much.
  • Most churches are much more welcoming now than we were a few decades ago to single parents, unmarried couples, divorced people, or same-gender couples.
  • Most churches have made their peace with science.
  • Most churches have largely given up the idea that God will send people to be fuel for an eternal BBQ merely for getting their theology wrong.
  • Et cetera … et cetera.
All of this is old news to most of us, but it’s not old news to many of our neighbours. This may be something they’ve never heard. It may be part of the reason why we don’t see them in worship. 
5. And then there’s a fifth theory of mine, one that applies more to the Uniting Church and to similar churches elsewhere.
For churches like ours, a big aspect to our decline is because of the strong emphasis on teaching and learning that dominates our gatherings for worship, regardless of a particular congregation’s theological emphasis, worship style, or size; and regardless of whether the “teaching-learning” component takes the form of a traditional sermon or some other form. 
I believe that, if a person turns up at a worship service, the main reason is not that the person wants to learn information about religion. Seriously, there are many other– far better – ways to learn information about religion than turning up at a worship service. 
A person who attends worship – whether regularly or occasionally – does so to encounter and to experience the God whom the congregation worships, not merely to learn information about religion. 
  • That’s why I believe all congregations need to celebrate Holy Communion far more frequently than many of us do. 
  • That’s why I believe we need to have far more silence as part of our worship, and particularly as we gather for our worship, than many of us do. 
  • That’s why I’m frequently tempted, whenever someone greets me after church with “Nice sermon”, to ask “And what was wrong with the rest of the service?” 
For our Uniting Church – and for similar churches overseas – I believe much of our current malaise as a denomination is based - at least in part - on our teaching-learning worship style.
  • It leads some people to assume “If I disagree with what I hear in worship here, I’d better shop around for another congregation – or even for another denomination – where the preacher agrees with me.” 
  • It leads other people to assume “I’ve heard all this before. Last Sunday had to be at least the eighth time, I’ve heard someone preach on the Good Samaritan. Perhaps I’ve learned everything this church can teach me. Perhaps it’s time for me to graduate from church and do something else with my Sunday mornings.” 
And both the “church-shopper” and the “church graduate” are results of our strongly “teaching-learning” style of church life. 
Despite our current malaise as a church, I am strongly committed to the ongoing life of the Uniting Church.
  • I celebrate the fact that the vast majority of UCA congregations – including every one I’ve ever served - maintains an “open table” at Holy Communion.
  • I celebrate the UCA’s commitment to women serving in every ministry of the church.
  • I celebrate the UCA’s inclusion of people of all sexualities in our church’s life.
  • I celebrate the UCA’s commitment to its ecumenical and interfaith relations, and to its covenantal relationship with indigenous people.
If, in all this, I’m also observed to be a Uniting Church minister who is frequently found in Anglican, Catholic, or Quaker pews, please regard this behaviour as part of the spiritual dimension of the self-care in which the Uniting Church’s Code of Ethics asks all of our ministers – active and "recycled" – to engage.   For my own spirituality to be healthy, I sometimes need to experience worship with a more obvious sense of God's presence than is sometimes found in some of our UCA congregations.  If this makes you uncomfortable, please note that this is not my intention.   
Even in the midst of the decline experienced by many churches, the Table around which we gather is still our source of hope.
  • Even as the churches experience dwindling numbers, the risen Christ still greets us at the Table.   
  • Even as the churches experience dwindling prestige, the crucified Christ still offers us himself in the bread and the wine.  
  • Even as the churches experience dwindling influence, the incarnate Christ still becomes one with us as food and as drink.
Thanks be to God, the Trinity of Love. Amen.


Friday, 4 November 2016

Book review: Sympathy for Jonah

David Benjamin Blower, Sympathy for Jonah: Reflections on Humiliation, Terror, and the Politics of Enemy-Love, Eugene OR (USA):  Resource Publications, 2016.

David Blower’s brief (60 pages) study of the Book of Jonah challenges the main foundation of most popular interpretations of this book, i.e., Jonah was a bigot whose exaggerated hatred for the people of Nineveh led him to “run away” from God’s call to preach to the people of Nineveh.  Not only did Jonah seek to evade God’s call, he did so via the ridiculous action of getting on a ship going as far away in the opposite direction from Nineveh as possible.  Speaking personally, I have promoted this popular interpretation of Jonah over the years in preaching sermons, leading Bible studies, and conducting retreats. 

However, Blower sees a serious flaw in this interpretation.  He feels it can lead (particularly in the hands of an interpreter who is hostile to Jews and Judaism) to the false notion that Jonah’s bigotry is somehow characteristically Jewish.  This can then lead to an artificial (and frequently antisemitic) contrast between “Jewish exclusivism” and “Christian universalism”. 

Blower works from a radically different starting-point than the popular view of “Jonah-as-Bigot”.  His starting point is that Jonah’s loathing for Nineveh was well-grounded in reality.  The Assyrian Empire, of which Nineveh was the capital, was a particularly cruel empire in terms of its treatment of its enemies and its conquered peoples.  Blower compared Jonah’s eventual preaching in Nineveh to that of a person standing up in the midst of an ISIS stronghold or a Nazi rally to proclaim an alternate viewpoint to that of the prevailing ideology.  Jonah’s initial wish to avoid going to Nineveh need not have been a sign of bigotry.  It was merely a sign of an intelligent desire for self-preservation. 

Jonah’s eventual decision to proclaim God’s message in Nineveh, leading to the surprising repentance of the Ninevites, stands at the heart of the Book of Jonah.  God is able to radically transform even the most destructive realities found in our world.  This, according to Blower, is the subversive message of the Book of Jonah.