Walter Brueggemann on the Futility of the Theological Argument over Gays and Lesbians
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Protestant theologian Walter Brueggemann once compared LGBTQ people to canaries in a coal mine, likening these proverbial birds to society’s most vulnerable members. Determining how the canaries are treated, says Brueggemann in an interview with The Witness, “is always the test case about whether we are following Jesus.”
Earlier this spring, Krista sat down with Brueggemann in our studios. In the audio clip excerpted here, he explains why he thinks gay and lesbian sexuality “has such adrenaline” in and beyond church communities. For Brueggemann, there’s no point in having a theological discussion about homosexuality. He thinks homophobia is a proxy for people’s ill-defined fears about an old world order that’s rapidly disappearing:
“It is an amorphous anxiety that we’re in a free fall as a society. And I think we kind of are in free fall as a society, but I don’t think it has anything to do with gays and lesbians particularly.”
Last week in New York, that collective “amorphous anxiety” got trumped by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s dogged push for social change with the passage of the Marriage Equality Act by the state legislature.
According to The New York Times, Governor Cuomo gathered all of the state’s Republican senators at his home to plead his case for the bill’s passage. “Their love is worth the same as your love,” he reportedly told the senators. “Their partnership is worth the same as your partnership. And they are equal in your eyes to you. That is the driving issue.”
Royal Wedding Theology of an Archbishop
by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor
I didn’t get up at 4 a.m. today, but I do hope to catch a good bit of the wedding of William Windsor and Kate Middleton. I doubt I’ll have much trouble finding it replayed (and replayed and replayed) across the spectrum of cable and broadcast networks in the days and weeks to come.
Amid all the hype about the ceremony is a deep undercurrent of cynicism about these kinds of affairs, some of it rooted in the love/hate relationship Americans have always had with the British monarchy. We’re both drawn to and baffled by it — envious, perhaps, of its rich, centuries-long tradition, yet bewildered by the rigid and often humorless deference to protocol borne of that same tradition. (And then there are those who are downright hostile to the institution, extolling the American colonists who “fought a bloody war for the privilege to ignore the king of England”).
Many Americans will view the ceremony in Westminster Abbey with sensibilities shaped by a decade of reality TV’s take on matrimony: the bride as cutthroat competitor in a harem of beauties (The Bachelor), obscenely conspicuous consumption (Say Yes to the Dress), and “Wow, honey,” — as the veil is lifted — ”nice nose job!” (Bridalplasty).
Undergirding each of these “realities” is the notion of marriage as the culmination of a fairytale relationship — not the beginning, mind you, of a journey of discovery and friendship with its inevitable bumps in the road (more like sinkholes and craters) — but a consummate, bank-breaking spectacle staged primarily for the benefit of envious onlookers. No wonder we’re cynical.
But one thing that makes me more hopeful than cynical about this royal wedding is that the third person on the altar along with William and Kate, the one who married the nervous couple in view of the whole world, is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
I have admired Williams since I first encountered his writings in seminary in the late 1980s when he was the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford University. The depth and breadth of his scholarship has always been staggeringly impressive. Whether writing on the Resurrection or Arianism or 9/11 or Dostoevsky, Williams — whose work is rooted in his vocation as priest — is an erudite, eloquent, humble, hopeful, generous communicator of the Christian gospel.
That he became the head of the worldwide Anglican communion in this age of soundbytes and short attention spans is lamentable — for him, perhaps, but especially for the rest of us. His careful, thoughtful way with words, the patience with which he engages his many and varied interlocutors, the long view he takes of the Church’s work in the world — none of this has endeared him to a skeptical, secular Britain nor to an Anglican Church ever on the edge of schism.
But Williams presses on with characteristic humility to illumine the issues that confront global Christianity. And with quiet authority he takes on matters of the human heart, human sexuality, and human community: fidelity in relationships, the risks of manipulation that attend all our relationships, and the grace necessary to sustain relationships like marriage for the long haul.
His writing is often at once mystical and deeply pragmatic, simultaneously acknowledging the mystery at the center of human sexuality and the mundane attentiveness required to persevere — and flourish — with another. In a sermon entitled “Is There a Christian Sexual Ethic?” Williams writes:
“The grace that is to be discovered in nakedness, in yielding, is released to be itself when we give up the self-protecting strategies of non-commitment, experiment, and gratification, and decide instead for the danger of promising to be there for another without a saving clause that would license us to abandon the enterprise as soon as the other declines to be possessed unilaterally by us, as soon as the other’s otherness gives us difficulty. In such a perspective, we have time for each other. A commitment without limits being set in advance says that we have (potentially) a lifetime to “create” each other together. By giving ourselves over to each other, we make something of each other.”
In a video prepared by Lambeth Palace in anticipation of the royal wedding, Williams talks about the “mystery” and “delight” at the heart of marriage, and that ”to be a witness [to a wedding] is to be more than a spectator.”
For cynics, this might seem like a slick media strategy designed to bring more attention to an event already wildly overhyped. But Williams locates this event (and every wedding) theologically as a “moment of hope and affirmation about people’s present and future” and he counts it a privilege to “wish [William and Kate] the courage and clarity to live out this big commitment.”
So, yes, there will be plenty of commercial excesses in today’s televised nuptials — lots of gossip about guests and gowns, lots of sarcasm and cynicism about the futures of the future king and queen. But maybe there will also be room for a moment of quiet gratitude for the gift of witnessing, with a few other billion people, the “commitments that are possible,” as Williams says, when two people take each other for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until they are parted by death.
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
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Conference of Catholic Bishops Stance on Sister Johnson’s Book Is a Move Against Conversation
by Paul C. DeCamp, guest contributor
If you ban it, they will read it. That seems to be true thus far in the case of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s 2007 book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops suggested should be banned from Catholic schools in a statement on March 24.
By April 1, after national media coverage of the USCCB statement, the book was in the top 100 of the Amazon.com Religion & Spirituality Bestsellers list at #39, not far from the works of popular spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle, an impressive feat for an academic theologian.
Johnson has been respected for her work in Catholic theology especially because of her engagement with feminism, which was the subject of her now classic She Who Is, a 1993 book that sought to rediscover the “feminine God” in the Christian tradition. When asked for comment, prominent Catholic theologian David Tracy said that, while he had not yet read this book of Johnson’s, “…this much is clear to me: based on her previous work, I consider Elizabeth Johnson one of the most original and impressive theologians of our period. The range and depth of her published work is a model for contemporary Catholic theology.”
This particular work of Johnson’s explores the diversity of current thought in the theology of God, and as the subtitle indicates, maps “frontiers” in areas such as liberation, womanist, black, and political theologies, areas that have been the subject of great controversies within the Catholic Church.
The Conference said that while it did not have the authority to order the removal of the book from Catholic institutions (only the Vatican could do that), it wanted to draw attention to certain “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors” of Catholic doctrine in the book. Among these were assertions by Johnson that all names for God are metaphors, that God is continually suffering, and that all religions bear some presence of God. Because the book was “by a prominent Catholic theologian” and “written not for specialists in theology but for a ‘broad audience’,” the Conference believed it was necessary to make the public aware of its problems.
Boston College theologian Stephen J. Pope, speaking to The New York Times, said, “The reason is political. Certain bishops decide that they want to punish some theologians, and this is one way they do that. There’s nothing particularly unusual in her book as far as theology goes. It’s making an example of someone who’s prominent.”
The American bishops are continually drawing lines in the sand. Restrictions had been placed on politicians, such as the refusal of several bishops to allow John Kerry to take communion during the 2004 presidential election. The bishop of the Archdiocese of Wilmington stated that he would not permit Vice President Joe Biden to speak in Catholic schools. And now the Conference suggests that certain books should be kept from Catholic classrooms. The Conference has proven itself to be an organization that does not tolerate change or ambiguity, and Johnson’s work confronts both.
While the Conference claims to be interested in dialogue with Johnson, she indicated in a statement that no such invitations had been extended. She said in this statement, “I have always taken criticism as a valuable opportunity to delve more deeply into a subject. The task of theology, classically defined as ‘faith seeking understanding,’ calls for theologians to wrestle with mystery. The issues are always complex, especially on frontiers where the church’s living tradition is growing.”
While the USCCB’s statement may be interpreted as a move against conversation and debate among the divided American Catholics, the stir over Johnson’s book can serve to promote more open dialogue in Catholic circles. American Catholics, after all, are a group that continues to support politicians whom they are told not to vote for and to consume books that have been deemed dangerous for them to read.
Paul C. DeCamp is an M.A. student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Lafayette College.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
When Doctrine Isn’t Enough: A Former Nun Awakens to the Responsibility of Her Own Spirituality
by Jan Phillips, guest contributor
Young girls dressed in white symbolizing purity shower flowers and rose petals before the passing of the Holy Host carried in solemnity by the parish priest. (photo: Peter Grima/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
At an early age, I learned that God was a being who dwelled in a place far from where I ever stood. I learned to commune with the transcendent God of the above, not the immanent divine within. But over the years, as I let go of childish thinking and took responsibility for my spiritual life, my perception of God changed dramatically. I am guided now not so much by teachings that were handed down to me, but by ideas that have risen up from within — a shift that began 30 years ago when I was a young postulant nun in a religious order taking my first theology class.
The Jesuit priest stood in front of the room and asked us what we believed about God. One postulant raised her hand, stood up, and said, “God made me to show His goodness and to share His everlasting life with me in heaven.” I nodded my head in agreement, having memorized this years ago just like everyone else in the room.
The priest looked dismayed. “That’s it?” he asked.
“Sit down,” he barked, looking around for the next hand.
Up it went, and the next brave soul stood up saying, “In God there are three divine persons, really distinct, and equal in all things — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
I nodded again, and the priest frowned. “Is that the best you can do?”
“Next,” he yelled, as she took her seat, looking around in wonder.
By now, we’re all confused, but one more raised her hand.
“God can do all things, and nothing is hard or impossible to Him.”
“Sit down,” he said.
He rolled his eyes, crossed his arms, and surveyed the whole group of us with a kind of silent disdain. By now, I’m feeling anxious and blood is rushing up my neck. I feel hot and sweaty. My first anxiety attack.
“How could he do this?” It seemed so mean. He asked for our ideas about God and yet, when we said them, it felt like he took a sledge hammer and smashed our beliefs into a thousand pieces. A tear rolled down my cheek.
It was a moment of devastating loss, incomprehensible sadness. I felt as if everything I believed in, everything on which I had based my life, was now being challenged. We sat there, 30 of us, for what seemed an eternity, reckoning with the obliteration of God as we had known Him. What if everything we believed wasn’t true? Did Father Grabys know something we didn’t know?
Finally the priest spoke. “You should be ashamed for having nothing more than catechism answers to this question. Are you just a bunch of parrots, repeating everything you’ve been taught? Hasn’t anyone here gone beyond the Baltimore Catechism in your thinking?”
The air was thick with silence. Hands were folded, eyes cast down. Tears cascaded down my face. I prayed he wouldn’t call on me.
“You must come to know what is true about God from your own experience,” said the priest. “If you are to be a nun worth your salt, you have to arrive at a faith that is deeper than your learning, one that is rooted in your ultimate concerns and rises up from the nature of who you are.”
I looked up at him, wondering how in the world to build a faith from my human nature. Wasn’t faith something I was born into — something I inherited from the outside?
I was a Catholic by default. They told me everything I was supposed to believe. That was the point, wasn’t it? I was just lucky to be born into the one true faith. I certainly didn’t have anything to say about it. That’s what infallible popes were for.
I raised my hand and asked him how someone could create a faith from the inside out, and why we even needed to since we knew what we needed to know from the catechism.
“What you believe, that is religion,” he said. “Who you are, what you live for — that is faith. And that is what we are here to explore, to create, and to declare — our faith and spirituality. You can let go of your beliefs for awhile as you learn how to create a faith that will see you through everything.”
I didn’t want to let go of any beliefs. They were all I had. And they were enough. I didn’t need anything more, or so I thought. As we continued on in the class, the biblical paradox that says we must lose our lives in order to find them suddenly began to make sense. Taking responsibility for our own spirituality was a painstaking process that lasted the entire semester as we worked to find and define our own commitments and ultimate concerns — a task that was supremely challenging for young women who had been taught all their lives what to think, but not how to think.
We never looked at another catechism, never recited another memorized belief, but step by step we built a new spirituality for ourselves that was deeply personal and rooted in our ultimate concerns. And every day during meditation there was something new and profoundly elegant to contemplate: myself as the creator of my own spiritual path.
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Children Help Us Embrace the Mystery
by Krista Tippett, host
The notion of God as father is a metaphor, of course, like much religious language. It is necessary approximation and analogy. When I became a mother myself, I was stunned at how little we have filled this metaphor with meaning from the real experience of parenting. The Heavenly Father of my childhood was implacable, inscrutable, all-powerful. But to become a parent in reality is to enter a state of extreme vulnerability. “To become a father,” the French theologian Louis Evely aptly put it, “is to experience an infinite dependency on an infinitely small, frail being, dependent on us and therefore omnipotent over our heart.”
Raising a new human being in this world is a monumental spiritual task, yet we so rarely call it that. This does not become easier when, at some point, our offspring become little theologians and philosophers. They begin to ask huge questions about life and the universe — basic questions about how we got here and where God lives and why people die and why people hurt each other and what it means to be good and to be happy. These questions are the building blocks of religion and ethics. We refine them all of our lives, but at heart they remain the same. What changes is our ability to articulate and act on them.
As parents, we want to support this part of our children’s natures. With other mundane aspects of parenting — like how to help them sleep, or how to feed them, or how to teach them to read — we know that we need help. We seek maps, books, and counselors. But when it comes to these personal, existential questions of meaning, we often feel that we should intuitively have the answers. In my own life, and as I’ve spoken with different people across the country these past years, the spirituality of parenting is often a source of anxiety. It provokes a feeling of inadequacy. This is heightened in our age by the fact that so many of us are less connected to specific religious traditions and institutions than the generations that preceded us. And many of us inherit a mix of spiritual practices in our own histories, marriages, and extended families.
As we prepared to create our show titled “The Spirituality of Parenting,” we put out a call for the reflections and questions of our listeners and newsletter subscribers. Many, many parents wrote in, as well as grandparents and ministers and teachers. You can hear some of their voices and stories, and see their pictures, on our website. Each contribution has been wonderful to read. The breadth of spiritual searching and the diversity of spiritual moorings among them is startling, reflecting the plurality of the culture we inhabit. And more than a few who are deeply rooted in a particular tradition stressed that even they need guidance on how to teach and model a vocabulary of words and practice for exploring religion and meaning and ethics as they share ordinary life with the children they love.
I don’t believe I could have found a better conversation partner than Rabbi Sandy Sasso. Her ideas have kept me pondering, and I’m delighted to send them out into the world. She encourages us to begin with what we know, and also to let our children lead us on a new journey of questioning and learning. We can seek out maps and books and counselors on this part of their development too, and we should. She also urges parents to explore the place they come from, the communities or traditions in their family and background, even if they have left it behind at another stage in life. Don’t let those who modeled the worst of your faith, she adds, define that faith for you. Understand yourself as an ancestor to the next generation, as part of tradition’s unfolding story.
Most of all, we should attend to our children’s musings about life’s wonders and injustices, their grief at the death of a pet or a loved one, their response to a homeless person encountered on the street. It is all right not to have answers for their large moral and existential questions. Unlike adults, children are not afraid of mystery. But they do need us to help them develop vocabularies and ways of living to keep those questions alive and growing. They need to hear how we think about large questions of meaning, and about what experience has taught us. They need to hear our questions and our stories. Stories are the vocabulary of theology for children. They also crave and will use ritual and routine, and we can form these from daily life and commonplace experiences.
I return to the insight I began with — that children can make the essence of religion come alive. They may ultimately teach us far more than we teach them. “Children open windows for us,” Sandy Sasso says, “or can crawl through windows that we can’t crawl through, and they open part of our life that maybe has been dormant for a long time.” The rest is mystery, and our children will help us embrace that more joyfully too.
(photo: Renata Baião/Flickr)
What Title Would You Have Given It?
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Did you get a chance to listen to this week’s show with Prof. Ellen Davis discussing her approach to sustainability — through an agrarian reading of the Bible — along with Wendell Berry reading his poems?
If you haven’t, swell. This Sunday morning exercise is ripe for the picking. Then you’ll have a fresh perspective unencumbered by the content. You won’t get mired in the details of summarizing or full description. You are our target audience. You are the listeners we want to grab with the title and draw in. Now, if you have heard the show, that’s great too. Then you’ll have an insider perspective, an intimate understanding of the interviews and readings. The content may inform your decision. And you may sympathize with our plight.
Here are a few titles we considered:
» “The Poetry of Creatures”
» “An Exquisite Attention to a Fragile Land”
» “Land, Life, and the Poetry of Creatures”
Show titles do a lot of work. They appear in one-minute bumpers to the show and within the show itself. They are part of promotional spots on the radio. The appear in iTunes podcast feeds and on our email update, websites, Facebook page, blog, Twitter. Duke University will uses it in their communication.
Which one would you have chosen? What’s an alternative you might suggest? Should it be just catchy? Should it tell you more about the show? Should it be a tease? How will it render in a graphic for our online channels. Will it help in our search rankings?
These are the few of the questions we ask when titling. And, as you can see, we struggle mightily with this task. We labor, we strive, we grope, we concede. But we always end up with something. For this show, I can’t help wonder if we could’ve done better.
Two Vatican Astronomers: A Twitterscript
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Two Jesuits who work at the Vatican Observatory — Brother Guy Consolmagno, curator of meteorites, and Father George Coyne, its former director (whom you might recognize from his appearance in Bill Maher’s Religulous) — have been on our interview list for years. Yesterday, Krista was finally able to interview them, together, from a recording studio in Arizona. These two astronomers had a great dynamic between them and have a bit of different perspective from most of the “hard” scientists — usually physicists — we have spoken to over the years. Oh, and they have great sense of humor, as you can see in the video to the right of Br. Consolmagno’s appearance on The Colbert Report.
We’ll start producing this interview while Krista’s out on tour speaking about her new book, and we can’t wait to release this program! In the meantime, Colleen and I tweeted some of the lines that struck our ears. A transcript of our Twitter stream:
- For the next 90 minutes, tweets from Krista’s interview w/ two Vatican Observatory astronomers: Fr. George Coyne and Br. Guy Consolmagno.
- 68 degrees in Arizona. They’re rubbing it in since it is frigid today in Minnesota.
- Fr. George is a Jesuit who grew up in Baltimore. Tells a great story about a priest who hooked him up w/ books from the Reading, PA library.
- Br. Guy grew up in Detroit and transferred to MIT when he discovered they had the largest science fiction collection!
- Br. Guy joined Peace Corps b/c he “couldn’t see the point of studying stars when people are suffering.” Realized that all people love stars.
- Fr. Coyne: if all we do is feed and clothe people, we’re all going to be naked; what really makes us human is music, the arts, science…
- Br. Guy: you don’t find answers to theological ?s by looking through a telescope; you don’t go to the Bible to find answers to science.
- Fr. George: “the God of religious faith is a lover.”
- Fr. George: “My understanding of the universe does not need God. I don’t need God in my science.”
- Br. Guy Consolmagno: “The tragedy of Haiti is the tragedy of death. … There isn’t any answer to that.”
- Fr. George Coyne, astronomer: “To limit our human experience to scientific knowledge is to impoverish all of us.”
- Br. Guy Consolmagno, on seismic and cosmic activity in the creation of life: “The climate will change. … The Earth is not a paradise.”
- Fr. George Coyne: “To have faith is an extreme risk. ‘Rock of Ages’ is a nice hymn but…”
- Br. Guy Consolmagno: “We know our understanding of the universe is incomplete; our understanding of God is incomplete.”
- Br. Guy Consolmagno: “You have to experience something before you can react to it.”
- Fr. George Coyne, an astronomer on his science: “It’s exciting to be ignorant.”
- Fr. George Coyne, when he presents papers at scientific conferences: “I’m not dressed as a priest. It just confuses things.” Funny moment.
- The Vatican Observatory is staffed by all Jesuits, except one diocesan priest. But the observatory was not founded by the Jesuit Order.
- 4 Jesuits have asteroids named after them: Xavier, Loyola, and the 2 chaps Krista is interviewing: Fr. George Coyne + Br. Guy Consolmagno
- Br Guy on Galileo: why is it that 400 years later he’s symbol of science religion clash when that’s not what it was about at his time?
- Br Guy: Don’t just learn science from reading Newton & Galileo, but also from Plato, Shakespeare, and scripture
- Br. Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit astronomer: “Truth can sometimes only be expressed in a poetry.”
- Fr Coyne: language of universe is math; it’s a tool to understand beauty; we absract to understand
- Br Guy: Being able to do science is trying to understand how God plays with us
Kate Moos, managing producer
Much will be said and written. But for now, all I can think about is Franny and Zooey, the long theological passage in which
Franny Zooey tells his sister she doesn’t have to recite the Jesus prayer to experience God. Janet Malcolm’s 2001 piece in The New York Review of Books says much about Salinger, Franny and Zooey, and its reception by critics who once doted on him.
(photo: “zooey.” by Victoria/Flickr)