Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Guitar players are notorious for hearing with their eyes... a cool looking guitar always sounds better.  For electric guitar players, they see some guitars or amps and hear them as "BIG!"  Of course the epitome of this effect took place when a band's stage set up included a wall of huge speaker cabinets... except they were all empty and just for show.  For acoustic players, lighter colored woods like maple for the backs and sides are heard as being thin and bright while darker colored woods like most rosewoods are heard as richer and deeper.  That is why you see very few high end acoustic guitars with backs and sides of light colored woods and some companies traditionally dye medium colored woods like mahogany to make them darker (CF Martin is an example).  For both groups of players, the shapes of the guitar also impacts what we hear.  Now there clearly are differences between different kinds of woods and different shapes of instruments... but they are not always consistent with the assumptions.

It turns out there is a scientific background for this called the McGurk Effect.  Watch this fascinating video...

Cool huh?  I think that roughly the same thing is going on for the guitar players.  Now, here's the question... does this work in theology?  Politics?  other social settings?  And does it extend beyond just sight and hearing playing against each other?  I think so.  When I was doing my doctorate, we had a couple of faculty with southern accents.  One of them joked that the right kind of southern accent always increased respect.  The wrong kind, got you written off immediately.  How many times I've heard a newscaster here in sunny Cali with Valley Girl inflections and written her off as a ditz...  And it goes further still, when certain vocabulary is used I place the speaker in categories that impact what I hear.  Start talking to me about seeing angels or getting people saved or the Cosmic All and I easily slide you into a slot defined by preconceptions which color what I hear and do not hear. 

The good news is that I can be aware of it and work to really listen to whatever it is you're saying, trying to understand your language without my baggage getting in the way.  The bad news is that like the McGurk Effect, I may not always be successful.  I'm trying though.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Political Life and Faith

First, let me begin with two disclaimers.  1. I fully believe there are politicians who are men and women of sincere and authentic faith.  2. I have no ability to judge the faith of another beyond what I see and whether their words and actions are consistent with their professed faith.  Even that is shaky.

Back in the '80's we lived in Philadelphia and there was a pastor of one of the larger African American Churches who was elected to the House.  He was charismatic.  He was bright.  e was a good "politician" in that he knew how to work with a variety of people to get things done.  He was easily vetted.  Everyone expected he would go far, perhaps even to become the first Black president.  Then one day he resigned.  He said that it was not possible to be a politician and to retain his integrity.  He chose his integrity and he resigned.

Again, I don't doubt that there are some people of faith who retain their integrity in the political process, but it clearly is not an easy task.  The temptations of power are always present.  Doing things the easy way is just easier.  Compromises of character are not the same as political compromises but it is easy to confuse the two.  As I've been watching Rick Santorum, who presents himself as a man of faith and is often touted as such by the Christian Right, I'm struck that his behavior is not very "Christian."  Often, he says things in his campaign speeches that are clearly not true.  Yes, that is what politicians do... but it is not what Christians do, at least not real ones.  By playing that faith card so prominently, he opens himself to that criticism and calls into question his integrity as a Christian and as a human being.

I'm struck too that the reverse is equally true... when people of faith become overly involved in partisan politics, they too risk losing their integrity.  Earlier this week, Franklin Graham was on the television show, Morning Joe, and was asked about the faith of the president.  He wouldn't go so far as to deny Obama's Christianity but at the very least he waffled, saying that he couldn't judge the veracity of another's faith.  And he clearly does not like Obama's politics.  When asked about Santorum, he was sure that he is a Christian.  He volunteered the same knowledge regarding Gingrich.  When the host stated that Graham was revealing an amazing double standard, Graham responded that Obama seems to be more concerned about the Muslims of the world than the "Christians murdered in the Muslim world."   Here's a link to the interview.  And here's a response to Graham from Zachary Bailes, an M. Div. student at Wake Forest, on the Associated Baptist Press.  I don't follow Graham and so don't know whether he still had any integrity in this area, but if he did, he sure blew it in this interview.

Here's the piece that worries me.  I obviously have strong political views (duh!) and even agree with Franklin Graham that my understanding of faith, of who Jesus is, and of his call on my life, must impact my political views.  So, how do I avoid losing my integrity?  Howdo I keep my faith from being so tied into partisan politics that it becomes co-opted?   I try to be honest and to look at the whole picture.  I try to be respectful of opinions that I clearly believe are wrong.  I try to see the strengths and the failings of my own "side" as well as any other.  Still, the risk is real.  The best I can say is that I'm trying to retain my integrity as a person of faith while strongly holding opinions regarding important issues.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Radical Inclusion

I have never been to Burning Man... but it is sort of on my bucket list.  There is something about the event that calls to me.  I'm not sure that I'd enjoy a full week of desert, dust, and weirdness, but I would guess that in order to really experience it, you need to experience the entire event.  And that has kept me from going. 

If you don't know about Burning Man, it is a crazy bohemian hippie gathering in the middle of the desert that takes place in late August to early September.  There are lots of interesting and bizarre people, art, music, and a unique ethic based on 10 principles - 
1. radical inclusion
2. gifting
3. decomodification
4. radical self reliance
5. radical self expression
6. communal effort 
7. civic responsibility 
8. leaving no trace
9. participation
10. immediacy

As you can imagine that makes for a very interesting social experiment.  And from what I understand, it has worked for the most part... until this year.  Last year was a very good year with great weather and good press.  It also sold out.  This year the tickets went on sale and the immediate requests were 4 times the capacity of the event.  Radical inclusion bit the dust.  As the organizers said, "Radical inclusion does not mean we can all fit in the same place at the same time."  Still, if there is one thing radical inclusion cannot mean it is, "sorry, you can't come." 

All of this has me thinking about church... if there is a principle we should be embodying it is radical inclusion yet, we rarely do.

for a wonderful taste of Burning Man, here is part of the problem, a great video that went viral this year.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Authority of Faith or If You're Going to be a Catholic, Be a Catholic

I believe in freedom of religion.  I believe politicians can and should vote their consciences and that their consciences should be informed by their faith.  I also don't believe that public policy should be formed around religious preferences.   That basically means that when a politician puts forward a policy that is consonant with their faith, they better also have some good reasons that are outside of their faith.  A foundation in one's faith is not enough to form public policy.

I respect politicians who truly hold their faith, whatever it may be, and live it with authenticity.  I have no respect for politicians who use faith as a wedge between constituencies and I have little respect for politicians who are less than genuine in their commitments.

That brings me to Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, both of who have been playing the "good Roman Catholic" card of late.  Neither is a good Roman Catholic.  Both are ignoring the nature of authority in the Catholic church.  They think and act as if a good Roman Catholic can pick and choose between the teachings of the church and embrace those that fit their own politics or morals while rejecting others.  While in fact, many who call themselves Roman Catholics in the US do just that, it is a difficult place to be when the Catholic Church is built on a hierarchy of authority which cannot be easily ignored.  Juan Cole has an interesting blog piece entitled the Top Ten Roman Catholic Teaching Rick Santorum Rejects While Obsessing about Birth Control where he shows how Santorum does just that.  These two politicians claim to be pro-life and point to their supposed Roman Catholic faith as the foundation for that understanding, all the while ignoring that in Roman Catholic teaching, pro-life is a much broader term that rejects capital punishment, any kind of pre-emptive war, most specific wars including Iraq, and which calls for universal health care, welfare for all needy families...

The first time a politician stands up and says "I am against birth control because I'm a Roman Catholic... and I'm also against capital punishment.  I take Just War Theory seriously and I believe in a safety net that truly provides for the needs and dignity of the poor," I will take that person seriously.  Until then, he or she can't say that they hold a position based on the authority of their church without me laughing at them.  I laugh at Santorum and Gingrich.

Now, there are other kinds of Christians who understand authority very differently.  The Baptist tradition, for example, says that an individual's relationship to God is between them and God.  Authority does not come from a hierarchy but from responsible reflection by the individual and interaction with the Holy.  Without responsible reflection and without relationship to the Holy, there is no authority.  Even when the relationship is authentic, in this tradition, one still cannot generalize the shape or substance of another's relationship with the Holy.  (This is why freedom of religion was an idea that came primarily from the early Baptists).  I know many in this tradition, my tradition, who see things very differently than I do.  Some I respect deeply because their views are based in responsible reflection and in their understanding of their relationships with God.  Others... not so much.

Still other traditions place the authority in the gathered community.  The bottom line is that if one is going to claim religious authority for a particular stand, they had better understand how authority works in that tradition and own the tradition.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

A True American Story

The other day, a friend of mine shared a bit of his story.  His father was a devout man who held his faith deeply.  The nation where he lived made it very difficult to practice his faith as he believed God called him so, with pain and difficulty, leaving behind family, friends, job, and roots, moved to another country where he believed he would be able to faithfully practice his faith.  He put down new roots and raised a family, trying to be faithful and to build a good life.  Jump forward a generation and my friend, another faithful man, was trying to live out his understanding of his faith which didn't quite fit into the majority opinion of his homeland found himself in the US attending college.  It was a new world with a broad mix of religions and opinions about faith.  More important though,  it was a place with an expressed commitment to freedom of religion.  Each individual could practice his or her faith (or lack thereof) in a way that was most faithful to the deep commitments of their hearts.  My friend and his new wife decided, this was the kind of place they could truly be faithful to their understanding of God's yearnings for them.  It was the kind of place they wanted to raise their children.  They stayed in the US and became citizens here, working, putting down roots, raising a family, and living out their faith in freedom.

Can you think of a story that more characterizes the American dream?  Can you think of a story that is more consonant with the commitments that gave birth to this nation and continue to shape our culture as a people?  I can't.  This strikes me as the quintessential American story.  It just happens that Mukhtar is Muslim.  His father left India for Saudi Arabia to find a pace where he could live his Muslim faith without difficulty.  Mukhtar left Saudi Arabia to find a place where he could live out his faith in a way that was authentic to his understanding of God's yearnings for him... he came to the land of freedom of religion so he could faithfully live as a Muslim, next door to Catholics, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Protestants, Mormons, Atheists, and a hundred other commitments, all learning from one another, struggling with one another, and even disagreeing with one another... in freedom.