WE CANNOT GIVE YOU THANKS, ALMIGHTY UNIVERSE, BECAUSE THERE IS NO YOU THERE TO THANK

For since the creation of the world His [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were they thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools.” (Romans 1:20-22)

A man set out for a walk on a beautiful Fall day. The sky was blue, the air crisp and clean, the Fall colors brilliant. After a long while he sat down against the trunk of a magnificent maple and began to weep. He was an atheist. He saw no gift in anything. Therefore, there was no one to thank.

There is a hollow ring in the gushing praises of those who marvel at the wonders of the universe while claiming it all came from, well, nothing. Why anyone would see fit to joyfully embrace this nihilistic, thankless view of life, with all its icy implications, is a bit hard to fathom. Not to mention the evangelical fervor of some atheists who, like the late Christopher Hitchins, take no end of delight in announcing the stupidity of belief in God while advocating for the supreme wisdom of belief in, well, nothing.

And it would appear that misery, indeed, loves company since so many of these lost souls are determined to drag us all into the hopeless void created by their boundless pride in what lies between their ears. And this is perhaps, the most monstrous of atheism’s temptations: the invitation to see nothing as gift and to abandon gratitude. At least the fellow in our story had the good sense to see this for what it is: the invitation to cover life in a shroud of hopeless grief.

THE DANGEROUS INCOHERENCE OF EQUITY AND DIVERSITY

Pastor Mark Anderson

Incoherent and irresponsible tampering with language is becoming the new norm in the current hysterical environment of ideological manipulation. But it is nothing new.

Consider the following quote taken from the ELCA’s website section on “Mission and Vision” under the title, ‘Inclusion and Diversity”:

We are a church that does not view diversity (italics mine) as a barrier to unity. We recognize and will challenge dynamics of power and privilege that create barriers to participation and equity in this church and society…”

Apparently no one at ELCA headquarters notices that diversity and equity are mutually exclusive. You can have one or the other but not both. No matter. Because logic and consistency are irrelevant here, just as they are when these terms are used by many in the wider culture. There is something else going on.

The ELCA began its life by saddling itself with the demand for quotas, a primary instrument taken from the equity toolbox. Sprinkling committees here, there and everywhere with the proper balances of sexes and ethnic representation would set the world right and lead toward the Elysian paradise of utopian wonderfulness. But this move, cloaked as it has been in ‘Lutheran nice’, is covering something. What drives the use of such language is anything but a concern for sound, Lutheran theology. These are ideological terms loaded with the freight of post-modern, neo-Marxist assumptions.

The example of quotas is but one instance of the tendency of social engineers within the church to force changes which, in their perception, are fouling up the progress of the equity doctrine. The twentieth century gave us all a front row seat to observe what happens when the drive for equity is unleashed and unrestrained. Millions were coerced, bullied and terrorized in the name of equity. That such strong arm tactics should find their way into the politics of sinful people is a grim reality of history. That we see them increasingly fostered in the life of Christ’s Church should alert us to an encroaching danger. The equity warriors, cloaked in their albs and chasubles, and convinced of their moral superiority, are determined, very determined, to bring us all into line.

DEFINE HATE SPEECH, I DARE YOU

The offense takers are running their radar overtime these days to pick up the slightest trace of ‘hate’ speech. And they never seem to fail in locating a blip on their screens. Of course, there is a very large and nasty problem with all this; who defines hate? Are we simply to subject ourselves to every little micro-group of victims and allow them to call whatever happens to give them offense, hate? That, it seems to me, is an unsolvable problem.

If we are going to discuss anything that actually matters, anything meaningful, there will always be differences. And sometimes those differences will be significant, challenging and, yes, offensive. After all, differences can be very hard on people. So, what do we do? Stop talking about things that matter? That is exactly what is happening. Not giving offense is becoming a high virtue. And along with not giving offense comes not discussing anything meaningful. Living in a state of limpid harmlessness, having been shouted into silence by the victim mob seems like a high price to pay to me.

You and I have no right to live in an offense-free society. If you want such an environment, stay in your room, become a hermit or the leader of a totalitarian regime. Hitler, Stalin and Mao had very clear ideas about what constituted hate speech – everything that gave them offense. The very people you would least want to define offensive speech held the reigns in their hands. And that is precisely the temptation of all totalitarian\utopian models; they appear to be one-size-fits-all solutions to complex problems. But they are not. They are cures far worse than the disease. And if that’s the club you want to join, God help you – and the rest of us.

A free and open society must bear the weight of free and open discourse, even very, very offensive, distasteful discourse. Which means, quite simply, you and your micro-group do not get to define hate speech and push the rest of us underground, because you can’t. You are in no position to give an ultimate definition to hate speech and neither am I. Instead, we should permit what we consider to be offensive speech and let society as whole pass judgment as to whether or not it is acceptable. This is not a great solution because we don’t have great solutions. But the alternatives are far, far worse. And they are unfolding all around us.

The Not-So-Surprising Absence of Gratitude

By every imaginable measure we live in a time of unparalleled prosperity, freedom and opportunity. I was a history major in college and studied the story of humanity’s long climb out of oppression, poverty and ignorance. Given that the weight of history has been on the on the side of those demeaning attributes, it is an absolute marvel that we have come as far as we have. But that is not what our young people are taught today in the schools.

Today, especially in the colleges and universities, our young people are taught that the civilization they inhabit is the fountain of all things oppressive and awful. Virtually absent is any appreciation for the cost of what we have received, for the sacrifices and contributions across multiple generations as men and women struggled in countless unnamed places to build meaningful and productive lives, often under the most dire of circumstances. In the towns, villages and hamlets of western history families loved one another, did what they could to preserve their dignity and slowly built a cultural legacy that emerged into what we see all around us today.

Instead of learning to appreciate, even cherish this legacy of sacrifice, college students, in the full bloom of their immaturity, are told that they can see what is wrong with everything so they should go out and fundamentally alter the society. One can hardly blame them, however. The real culprits are hiding behind their PhD’s and tenure, mobilizing the naive optimism of the young in the cause of their nihilistic resentment of life as it is, even as they prod the young onward toward a slippery utopian ideal no one can define.

With vast numbers of those who inhabit the institutions of higher learning embracing atheism and holding a thinly-veiled contempt for religion, perhaps, in the end, none of this is terribly surprising. If there is no Giver, than the good things in life can hardly be seen as gift, including the gift of those millions of lives that have gone before us that gave of themselves to bring us to where we are.

The Blame Game

“YOU HYPOCRITE, FIRST TAKE THE LOG OUT OF YOUR OWN EYE, AND THEN YOU WILL SEE CLEARLY TO TAKE THE SPECK OUT OF YOUR BROTHER’S EYE.”

Matthew 7:5

These words of Jesus ring hollow in our culture of blame and self-righteous fault-finding. In the current atmosphere of taking offense the only self examination we are called upon to make is that self-scrutiny which identifies what class of victim we belong to. Once I have established my status among the oppressed all that is left is to lash out at the perceived oppressors and the game is on. Someone must be blamed for life’s failures, missed opportunities, mistakes, evils and injustices  – someone else.

This oppressed\oppressor narrative has been the bread and butter of humanities curricula across western colleges and universities since the late 1960’s. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost. Several generations of impressionable young people have been schooled in the artful politics of deflecting responsibility for life’s evils and injustice onto others. They are taught that life is to be seen as a power struggle between groups. Don’t bother with the hard work of dealing with others as persons, individuals. All that matters is your race, sex, gender and all the other tribal categories we are supposed to think of as defining today.

As long as I can lump you in with the oppressors I can dismiss you out of hand. We see the results of this way of thinking all over the place. Statues, paintings and other historic monuments are removed at the instigation of the latest group to find offense. Free speech on campuses is under attack because opinions that fall afoul of the prevailing post-modern orthodoxy “trigger” discomfort as students wilt away into safe spaces. Our society is making a virtue out of putting the worst possible interpretation on what others think, say and do. And it is shameful.

I have questions for anyone reading this who buys into and takes delight in the politically correct culture of blame. Could your life stand up to an unvarnished assessment of what you have thought, said and done? You certainly expect others to give you the benefit of the doubt, to put the best construction on what you think, say and do; so why do you withhold such a posture from others, from those you disagree with as if you stand at some point of absolute righteousness beyond criticism that sees everything clearly? Hypocrite seems to be the appropriate term for such a person. By disregarding the motives of others and the context which has given shape to their thoughts, words and deeds, you set loose in the world the toxins of envy, bitterness and resentment. And the effects are all around us to see.

I suggest abandoning the ‘culture of blame’, and the perpetual lecturing of others, for a more realistic and useful alternative; the culture of shame. And it would be quite beneficial to begin with a sober look at yourself. Before you lament too loudly why there is evil and injustice in others, you might begin by asking a more direct and pertinent question; why there is evil and injustice in you?  Because there is.

What Future?

I sat with a couple during a pre-marriage session and they asked me for advice on planning their future.

“That’s easy”, I said. “You don’t have a future.” They looked at me with shock and dismay.

“What do you mean?”, asked the groom from a posture of stiff defensiveness.

“I mean precisely what I said. Oh, you may have five or six decades together but in the end you have no future here. No one one does. You have one, very brief moment in time to handle the great opportunity of life. I suggest we give that some serious thought.”

They did and we went on to have several good conversations about things that actually matter, including the difference between a happy life and a cohesive, meaningful life. My suggestion to them was that pursuing happiness is not good enough, not a substantial enough goal for life. Happiness comes and goes with our shifting appetites and desires. And, quite frankly, a lot of life does not result in happiness but struggle, loss, even suffering. Many, many people are disappointed by the unhappiness and burdens in their lives and they have nothing meaningful to fall back upon. We see this happening all around us today, especially among young people. When there is no greater value proposition at hand than the fleeting assurance of happiness, people can become bitter, angry and resentful at the difficulties of their lives and the wider sense of injustice that is all around us all the time. A meaningful life, however, is something quite different.

In one of his letters, St. Paul makes this statement; “In Christ all things cohere.” Paul was telling the ancient Church, and he proclaims to us, that a truly cohesive, meaningful life is one that is rooted in the very life of God, revealed supremely in Jesus Christ. The faithful life has cohesion, substance and purpose. This authentic life of faith, rooted in the grace and love of God, is able to bear the unhappiness and suffering in life precisely because we trust that in spite of all its contradictions and uncertainties, life is a good and gracious gift held in the firm, unflinching purposes of God. Such faith replaces anger, bitterness and resentment with a gratitude that sees the gift in all things, and looks forward in hope to God’s future when all life’s hopes and dreams will find their perfect fulfillment in Christ Jesus.

“A MORE EXCELLENT WAY” 1Corinthians 12:31

Beginning in the 7th century Islamic armies brought the sword, sweeping over the Mediterranean world like a firestorm. Eventually, the societies of Europe launched the crusades to counter the onslaught. Those who object that Christian Europe was no better because of the crusades have obviously never heard the sound of tramping boots coming over the hill. Christian Europe should offer no apology for opposing a religion unalterably bent on the eradication of the Christian faith and their way of life. In the twenty first century things are not so simple.

As Lutheran Christians we hold to a view of what Martin Luther spoke of as the ‘two kingdoms’. On the one hand (the kingdom on the right ) God uses all forms of law, in all societies, to make society as civil as possible and to restrain evil. On the other hand (the kingdom on the left) God uses the Gospel of Jesus Christ to “call gather, enlighten and sanctify” people in faith for His kingdom. Both kingdoms have their place but they are not the same. We believe there will be no kingdom of God established in this world, no fully realized Utopian future. That is for the world to come. In the meantime societies are free to establish flexible laws that bring about as just and peaceful a world as possible.

The Islamic religion sees things differently. Their ideal world is one where every man, woman and child submits to the absolutes of Sharia law. After all, the word Islam means “submission”. And while Islam is not monolithic, and the vast majority of Muslims are certainly not gun-wielding terrorists, Muslims are convinced of their superiority, claiming to have received the final and ultimate revelation from God, and live uneasily where Islam is not religiously, politically and culturally dominant. They make no distinction between sacred and secular law. Secular law is flexible and adapts, Sharia law endures, permitting no irony, immovable and untouchable. And so they press on, barely tolerating what is to them ultimately intolerable, the non-Islamic world.

The battleground in the west, apart from the more obvious violent episodes of terrorism that occur from time to time, can be hard to define. Islam is carrying it’s reactionary cause into daily life; the law courts, city councils and school boards where they press their religion forward one issue at a time. And they are fundamentally not communities of engagement but of withdrawal; colonies which seek to preserve the totality of the Islamic culture within every non-Muslim country they inhabit, patiently waiting for the demographics to tip in their favor. Cunning Islamists are using our democratic institutions with an eye on a larger goal which is anything but democratic. And they are using our democratic freedoms to their advantage largely because western countries have lost confidence in themselves and the Christian moral order that has stood beneath our civilization. The growing presence of Islam and its alien, incompatible politic in the west has exposed this waning of the moral order, and the great religion that has been its underpinning. Secularism, new Marxism and a selfish materialism are no substitute for the spiritual foundations of a civilization. Islamists sense the vacuum and are determined to fill it.

If Islam is to find a place in the west, difficult questions need to be answered. Can Islam affirm the political and cultural inheritance of the west, freedom of speech, association and religion? Can Islam learn to put religious law in a category apart from secular law? Can Islam absorb criticism, even what it sees as blasphemy, for the sake of a diverse and pluralistic society? Can Islam turn from its rigid legalisms toward a more tolerant posture? In the current atmosphere of self-loathing and appeasement whether these questions will be asked broadly with any real seriousness is an open question. Nevertheless, as citizens of the west it is our obligation to do so.

As Christians, we have the joy and obligation of reaching out to our Islamic neighbors with the Gospel of authentic peace, the forgiveness that is Christ. Forgiveness, after all, is a far more potent force than the resentments and harsh, inflexible bigotries that drive much of the Islamic cause. English philosopher Sir Roger Scruton frames it this way;

Christians should follow the path laid down for us by Christ, and that means looking soberly and in a spirit of forgiveness on the hurts that we receive, and showing, by our example, that these hurts achieve nothing save to discredit the one who inflicts them. This is the hard part of the task — hard to perform, hard to endorse and hard to recommend to others.” This hard task of living and proclaiming the “more excellent way” of love and forgiveness in Christ is the genius and power of the Christian life. For that life is not fueled by brittle legalisms or resentful, envious politics but the resilient, gracious and merciful love of the Living God.