Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Mythologies of Science and Religion

Photo of ruins in Jordan by Chris Glaser.

I’ve written before that I am at “that age” when you look for connections, a time late in life indicated by recent studies. Regular readers will know that, during my morning prayers these days, I’ve been slowly absorbing Fritjof Capra’s 1975 book, The Tao of Physics. I find physicist Capra’s writing more accessible than that of Stephen Hawking, though I wonder how dated his science may be today, even as he demonstrates a pretty thorough understanding of Eastern spirituality.

His recurrent theme is that Western science has come to similar conclusions as ancient, mystical Eastern philosophy. Among them, that reality is indivisible, that the observed cannot be separated from the observer, that a particular scientific analysis is not intrinsic in nature but a creation of the human mind.

Now along comes a New York Times magazine article entitled, “Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defense of Science,” about deconstructionist Latour’s similar conclusions about the nature of science after studying scientists in their “natural habitats,” much like a scientist might study other primates. In our time of pseudo-science and anti-science religionists dissing real science about climate change and evolution, philosopher Latour has recognized the danger of his work being misunderstood or worse, misused.

All this brought to mind a rather prescient conversation I created in one of my unpublished novels, the tongue-in-cheek Angus Dei – A John Boswell Mystery, written in 2002. Spiritual profiler Boswell, the Catholic narrator, is trying to find the one responsible for the death of Angus MacDonald, pastor of Primitive Presbyterian in Crowbar, Mississippi. He interviews various citizens, including science teacher Annie Hepburn, who describes Angus:

“His passion for God made him stupid, just like romantic love makes you blind to reality and prompts you to idealize the beloved. It makes us closer to the animals who breed by instinct rather than by reason. But humans bring reason into any relationship. We are not bound by blind passion, whether for a person, a country, or for God. Our passion is informed. Angus’s passion for God resisted information. His idealization of God required God to create the world as if by magic, in an instant, at most in seven days, rather than through arduous experimentation and a process known as evolution. Angus claimed it was as if I were suggesting God made the world by following a recipe, or worse, some haphazard, trial-and-error plan. If God made the world though a discernible process, then he was diminished, in Angus’s view.

“I, on the other hand, find the process so awesome that it made me more of a believer than any text of scripture ever could. The world itself is the best witness for this inspiration and yearning for life that we call God. By contrast, look how petty religion can be! They argue and divide over how to do Communion, like a bunch of obsessives with varying compulsions. Lately they’ve wasted a lot of time quibbling over whether homosexuality is right or wrong, as if love is only possible between a man and a woman. And they’ve always debated the merits of personal piety versus social responsibility, as if the two could be separated!”

I felt compelled to argue the other side, if only to hear her answer. I said, “But scientists argue over experimental procedure—their rituals. They disagree over what makes for healthy human relationships, including sexuality. And there’s always conflict between ‘pure science’ versus ethical responsibility.”

Annie paused, and smiled, and I could see that she was thinking. “That’s true,” she said at last. “Science is also a mythological framework in some ways, purporting to give meaning and order to what others see as random and chance. But what is revealed in the religion that we call ‘science’ I find ultimately more hopeful and helpful. Religion is too often caught up in the past, and both religion and science are held back if either is paralyzed by the old ways of doing things, the old ways of understanding things. The very nature of science calls for breaking boundaries, breaking the supposed rules.”

I thought of my own Catholic tradition, its very nature caught up in the past, but a past begun in the divine nature of a human being whom we believe modeled how to be a child of God, a past populated by venerable but vulnerable saints who followed the model, as well as powerful demons that didn’t, demons of conformity and cruelty, violence and division—the weeds within the harvest. And then I looked at Annie, and a thought came to mind that I dared not say, that would be highly inappropriate because it would unveil her own precious vulnerability. Just as Catholicism set up an altar to honor its lover, so she had set up an altar to honor hers, her dead husband—a side table adorned with fresh flowers and two candlesticks beneath his photograph, hanging on the wall. She too had an experience in the past of love so powerful that she also remained faithful, I thought to myself. But a true Southern gentleman or lady may only think such things, one doesn’t say them, trudging on people’s personal vulnerabilities for the sake of winning an argument. This is a Southern virtue that other Americans should emulate. Of course, then there would be less for the media, politicians, lawyers, and talk show hosts to exploit.

Annie continued, “Angus also hated breaking the rules. Beyond defending the only one that he thought could possibly satisfy his longing—God—he also was defending himself, his own fortress of beliefs that held him together in the chaos that’s in every person. He was afraid of letting go. And for him, removing one stone from his fortress would cause the whole thing to collapse.”

In the wake of the recent violence, my heart goes out to the Tree of Life synagogue and the beautiful Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA, which I visited years ago. I also stand in solidarity with Jewish communities everywhere in their grief and their anxiety over increasing anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks.

A reading for Halloween which seems particularly relevant these days: 

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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Aunt Helen, Nelson Mandela, and Donald Trump

Aunt Helen's nameplate sits atop my office doorway.

My most popular talk for Midtown Spiritual Community was about my audacious Aunt Helen. I have many stories to tell of her, only a few of which will be in this post. You probably will want to know especially what she shares in common with Nelson Mandela and Donald Trump, given the title. Let me add that it has taken me decades since her death my third year of seminary to better appreciate her.

No, she was no Auntie Mame, but to our fundamentalist Christian way of thinking, she nudged the confines of our worldly experience a little wider. For instance, she persuaded my mother to take us kids with her to see films like Bye, Bye, Birdie and Frank Sinatra’s Come Blow Your Horn, exposing us to a world that had little to do with Jesus.

She was the first in the extended family to fly, as far as I knew, though I would later learn her little brother (my father) had flown a friend’s biplane over my mother’s house in Pittsburg, Kansas during their courtship.

A high school mathematics teacher at Field Kinley High School in Coffeyville, Kansas, Helen Glaser was active in the National Education Association (NEA) and founded a girls’ pep and service club called The Tornado Tillies, whose emblem of a tornado found its way onto her gravestone at my urging. Among her effects we found dozens and dozens of grateful letters from “her girls” who had found their way into vocations and families around the world.

It has only recently occurred to me that women of her time were not necessarily encouraged to enter STEM professions—science, technology, engineering, and math. She was “just” another teacher in a family that had many teachers.

An avid Democrat, Aunt Helen took both my sister and brother to the Democratic Party convention in 1960 in Los Angeles. My sister recalls being there the night that John F. Kennedy was nominated for the presidency, and my brother remembers seeing Adlai Stevenson in one of the convention hotels. (Btw, in those days being a fundamentalist Christian and a Democrat were not mutually exclusive!)

A souvenir from the convention.

When she retired and moved to L.A., Aunt Helen befriended a gay couple in her apartment building and quite earnestly explained to my brother that they didn’t like the term “homosexual” but used the word “gay” to describe themselves. I had not told her that I was gay.

I gave the eulogy at her funeral, describing her as both a Martha and a Mary, busy with many activities but always attentive to what was most important. I would now describe her as a progressive follower of Jesus for her time.

While I was in high school and college, she would pass along little pamphlets containing sermons of the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale from Marble Collegiate Church, which she may have visited when she went to New York City for an NEA convention. She seemed to appreciate his Power of Positive Thinking approach to Christian living. She would have been proud that, decades later, several of the Collegiate congregations would invite me at various times to speak, preach, and lead a retreat.

Invited to preach for Pride month in 2015.

Perhaps Dr. Peale’s writings helped her inspire her students, especially as faculty advisor to the Tornado Tillies.

Peale is said to have inspired Donald Trump and his father, though in a different way. Trump’s use of superlatives for himself and his work has been traced to Peale’s positive thinking approach to life and to business, something that attracted the powerful and the conservative in New York City. It must’ve attracted the progressive and the compassionate as well, because that’s who I encountered in my dealings with the several congregations whose association his ministry spawned.

What struck me as I read the recently released Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela was that Mandela too was inspired by Dr. Peale’s 1952 bestseller, again in a different way. Writing to his ill wife, Winnie, as a political prisoner on Robben Island in 1969, he says:

“The Power of Positive Thinking” & “The Results of Positive Thinking”, both written by the American psychologist Dr Norman Vincent Peale, may be rewarding to read. The municipal library should stock them. I attach no importance to the metaphysical aspects of his arguments, but I consider his views on physical & psychological issues valuable.

He makes the basic point that it is not so much the disability one suffers from that matters but one’s attitude to it. The man who says: I will conquer this illness & live a happy life, is already halfway through to victory. [p 79]

In her foreword to the letters, his granddaughter Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela concludes, “This inspirational outlook sustained my grandfather’s unwavering pursuit of justice and an equal society for all South Africans, and is one that I think can be applied to many of life’s challenges.” [p viii]

For Nelson Mandela, this outlook did not lead him to self-aggrandizement or self-congratulations but to magnanimity in the face of enormous odds, enabling him to write:

The principal task before us is the overthrow of white supremacy in all its ramifications, and the establishment of a democratic government in which all South Africans, irrespective of their station in life, of their colour or political beliefs will live side by side in perfect harmony. [p 46, from a letter stamped October 23, 1967]

Fortunately for me, however, my friends here, who are endowed with virtues far in excess of anything I can hope to command, are remarkable for their ability to think and feel for others. [ p 60, from a letter stamped October 14, 1968, of his fellow prisoners on the occasion of being denied attendance at his mother’s funeral]

How differently Aunt Helen, Nelson Mandela, and Donald Trump have applied the powers of positive thinking! Maybe we need a corrective text entitled, The Power of Magnanimous Thinking.

The OED defines magnanimity this way:

Well-founded high regard for oneself manifesting as generosity of spirit and equanimity in the face of trouble etc.; loftiness of thought or purpose; … superiority to petty resentment or jealousy, generous disregard of slights. Now rare.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

If the Church Had Been There, Matthew Shepard Would Not Have Died

This past Friday, October 12, was the 20th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death. I realized that as I read the good news that his ashes will be interred in the Washington National Cathedral alongside other national figures who helped transform our consciences for the better.

I was about to preach at Oaklands Presbyterian Church in Laurel, Maryland, when someone handed me a newspaper article about a young gay man who was hanging on to life by a thread after being beaten and hung coyote style on a fence in the prairies of Wyoming. Another gay-bashing, I thought, and I doubted any more would come of it than the gay-bashings friends and others had endured. Thank God, I was wrong about its impact.

Weeks later I paralleled Matthew’s life with the Presbyterian Church’s history on LGBT concerns during a “Moment for Mission” for Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York City on December 6, 1998. It was printed in the March/April 1999 issue of the More Light Update, and then in a Church & Society issue on “Hate,” September/October 1999.

In memory of Matthew Shepard and the many other lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people (the latter of whom bear a disproportionate brunt of our hate crimes) similarly attacked, I’ve decided to offer this as my post this week.

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him what Martha had said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother Matthew Shepard would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and those who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So everyone said, “See how he loved Matthew Shepard!”

But some of them said, “Could not one who gave vision to the visionless have kept Matthew from dying?”

The gay University of Wyoming student who was brutally killed in October 1998 was born in 1976, the year that the United Presbyterian Church set up the Task Force to Study Homosexuality. As we held our meetings and regional hearings to determine whether homosexuality was a sin and a bar to ordination, Matthew Shepard’s mother was changing his diapers and dreaming who he might become.

Matthew Shepard was just learning to walk when the 1978 General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church gathered in San Diego and rejected the recommended policy of the majority report of our task force that homosexuality was neither sin nor a bar to ordination.

Although we were devastated by this outcome, at least the General Assembly had not changed the Book of Order, had not set its recommended policy to presbyteries and congregations in stone. But, as Matthew Shepard was learning to talk, the denomination’s Stated Clerk muted our hopes by declaring that the Assembly had interpreted the church Constitution in a way that made its recommendation binding on presbyteries and congregations.

Many congregations balked and, as friends and family told Matthew Shepard’s parents what a sweet little boy they had, a handful of Presbyterian churches began passing statements saying they would welcome people into their churches and into church leadership without regard to sexual orientation. Thus began the More Light church movement, which gave rise to similar movements in other denominations.

Matthew Shepard entered school as denominations across the United States resisted being schooled in matters related to sexuality. Churches kept an arm’s length from homosexuality and human sexuality by commissioning church committees to study these issues, only to dismiss and even condemn their conclusions and recommendations.

So, as Matthew Shepard was becoming aware of his own sexuality, our church and almost every church was announcing in the media that it was sinful, not God’s wish for humanity, evil, sick. Matthew would have had an easier time of it had he grown up in the 1950s when few people talked about homosexuality.

In Matthew’s final years of high school, as he was developing the normal crushes and contemplating what he would do with his life, the Presbyterian Church was busy codifying its anti-gay position by an amendment to our Book of Order.

As Matthew began a college career focused on political science and international relations and hoped someday to serve the United States government in a foreign embassy, that same government passed legislation that prevented recognizing the same-gender marriage he might have had.

And the night of Matthew’s death, the Presbyterian church was sleeping on its ecclesiastical sofa, having declared a moratorium on decisions regarding homosexuality.

Russell Arthur Henderson and Aaron James McKinney were coming of age at the same time, exposed to the same anti-gay messages that the church was sending to Matthew Shepard. If the church calls gay life sick and depraved, why shouldn’t they? If Christians angrily attack the so-called homosexual agenda, why shouldn’t they attack homosexuals? If Christians rob gays and lesbians of their spiritual inheritance and vocations, why shouldn’t they rob Matthew?

If the church excommunicates gays and lesbians, why shouldn’t they cast Matthew out? Excommunication means to send out of community, away from the resources needed for survival, to die of exposure in the wilderness. And in the wilderness of Wyoming, Russell and Aaron executed that sentence upon Matthew Shepard.

If the body of Christ—the church—had been there, Matthew Shepard would not have died.

If the body of Christ had been there, Russell and Aaron would not have brutalized him simply for who he was.

Unlike Jesus, the body of Christ doesn’t have a second chance with Matthew. The church cannot resurrect people. So it needs to get there sooner if it is to bring life to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. It cannot dawdle, lest its only service to gay people be to bury its failures at rescuing the spiritually abused.

“Lord, if you had been there, our brother Matthew Shepard would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”

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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Pride and Shame

I was one of two original grand marshals of the 
2009 Atlanta Pride parade. That's Wade in the front seat.

Along with others, Dean Lewis has been the longtime conscience and “better angel” of the Presbyterian Church on multiple social justice issues. He was on the staff of the Advisory Council on Church and Society of the former United Presbyterian Church under whose auspices the Task Force to Study Homosexuality (1976-1978) was formed and did our work. Knowing of my intern work for the Christian Association at the University of Pennsylvania with LGBT people on campus (1975-1976), I believe Dean was the one or among those who recommended me for the task force.

I served as its only openly gay member, appointed by the first African American woman to serve as General Assembly Moderator, the Rev. Dr. Thelma Adair, and Elder Jeanne Marshall, chair of the advisory council, who became a good friend and later advisor and board member of the Lazarus Project, a Los Angeles based ministry of reconciliation between the church and the LGBT community that I served as founding director.

In his birthday greeting to me last week, Dean reminded me that this year was the 40th anniversary of the delivery of our task force report to the 1978 General Assembly meeting in San Diego, a report whose majority of 14 recommended that homosexuality not be considered a bar to ordination.

The minority report recommended the opposite, and the view of that minority of five held sway at the assembly, putting in place a ban on the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and, by inference, transgender candidates for professional ministry and lay leadership within the denomination that lasted nearly forty years, and lingers in the less inclusive presbyteries and congregations of the church to this day.

Tomorrow, October 11, is Coming Out Day, a day inviting LGBTQ people and our families, friends and allies to come out about our “faith in the idea that God had when God made” us, in the words of Isak Dinesen (nee Karen Blixen) in Out of Africa and her Immigrant’s Notebook.

Atlanta’s Pride festival and parade/march come this weekend, moved some years ago from the traditional observance on the anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion the final weekend of June because of the Georgia drought that prompted concern about the lawns and grounds of its venue, Piedmont Park. Unique to Atlanta Pride, I believe, is that it has always been an invitation for all to express pride in our diversity, regardless of sexual orientation.

Sunday I was invited to encourage the community of Ormewood Church to attend both festival and parade/march in support as part of a year-long series on “Loving Our Neighbors.” The Sunday before, Ormewood Church had celebrated our first anniversary meeting together thanks to the leadership of many fine people, including organizing pastor, the Rev. Jenelle Holmes.

When the Task Force to Study Homosexuality announced its majority/minority divide on the ordination of LGBT people in the winter of 1978, many opposed to that ordination said that, if the task force had included more lay people, the vote would have been more clearly opposed.

But the minority of five who opposed ordination of LGBT people were all straight, white, older male clergy. The majority of fourteen who saw no reason to exclude LGBT people from ordination were lay and clergy, male and female, black and white, old and young, straight and gay. Diversity welcomed inclusion.

This is especially relevant as we face this week a U.S. Supreme Court which will be dominated by five straight white men.

During the hearings on the nominee for Supreme Court justice, my spouse Wade expressed his continuing dismay that the Senate is mostly old white men. “We need a Congress that is as diverse as the American people,” he said. Amen to that!

I recently lost as a Facebook friend one of my best friends from high school when he questioned “identity politics” and I responded politely that “identity politics” has always been with us: as long as you were a straight, white male, you were welcomed into the power structures of government, business, military, and church.

I wrote in my first book, Uncommon Calling, that it was the Rev. Dr. Thelma Adair who gave me a helpful perspective on the LGBT movement as we waited in line for “The Women’s Breakfast” at the San Diego General Assembly. She said simply, “When I first started coming to General Assemblies, we [African Americans] were not allowed to stay in the same hotels with white delegates. We had to stay in private homes far from the venue.”

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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

My Birthday Wish

Children in Soweto.

Several readers of last week’s post responded that they too had visited Soweto. One mentioned that he had been taken to a children’s cemetery there. I wrote back that one thought nagged me when visiting: how can a kid born and reared in the shacks of Soweto rise above the mentality/culture instilled by such an upbringing?

I immediately recognize the paternalism inherent in my thinking. Poverty and poor housing do not automatically “mark” someone for life. At the same time, they can limit one’s hopes and dreams. I know my own hopes and dreams were limited in scope by a working-class upbringing. As I listened to the Senate hearings of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh last week, I caught a glimpse of a privileged, preppy, country club world that surely gave them both a boost in their own careers, though it also propelled them toward the incident that Dr. Ford convincingly described and Judge Kavanaugh unconvincingly denied.

I mentioned last week that Dennis, the guide who took us to Soweto, had grown up there and had never seen a skyscraper until he was 22 years old. The government had built an earthen ridge so Soweto’s residents could not see the skyline of Johannesburg, lest they aspired to a life apartheid denied them.

Now there is better housing and schools in Soweto, with more to come. Satellite dishes on even some of the smallest homes suggest access to a larger world. And that two of South Africa’s national heroes had residences there, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, surely must elevate the hopes and dreams of even the most destitute.

But the contrast between Soweto and Sandton—the upscale financial district of Johannesburg where we were staying—indicates an income inequality that could breed discontent if not revolution.

Me and Wade in Nelson Mandela Square,
a huge, upscale shopping mall in Sandton.

Dennis told us that he had lost relatives as a result of apartheid. But he credited Mandela with his family’s ability to cope, even as they heard from those responsible for their deaths during the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a process that offered amnesty to those who would come forward and honestly admit what they had done. Dennis told us of later running into one of those men who confessed, and both were able to greet one another civilly. He said honestly that if it had not been for Mandela’s example he might have killed the man. Mandela averted a blood bath, he explained.

But then I wondered about the children living in poverty in Soweto who are growing up without a Mandela at the helm of the South African government.

As I write this, it occurs to me that we in the United States could benefit from a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that could help us talk about sexual assault, racial violence, LGBT bashing, and other ills. We too suffer from income inequality that breeds discontent if not revolution.

We could use both a Nelson Mandela and a Desmond Tutu.

Today is my birthday. Most of my birthday wishes throughout my life have been for peace on earth, sometimes for a particular region, sometimes for the whole world. And I’ve meant a full-bodied peace—that is, peace with justice but not revenge.

Today I wish for peacemakers.

Yours truly. 

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Text and photos copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser and Wade T. Jones. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.