Sermon by Jim Burklo for Pluralism Sunday, May 3, 2015
Fountain Street Church, Grand Rapids, MI
One evening at the Office of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, at the weekly meeting of the student Interfaith Council, the subject turned to something decidedly unusual. Unusual even for our Interfaith Council, which has representatives from student clubs of all the world’s major religions, including some religions, and sects of religions, about which I knew next to nothing before taking the job of Associate Dean of Religious Life seven years ago. On this evening, the discussion turned to the question of what people of different religions do when they lose things. One of our Muslim students spoke up right away. “When I lose my keys, or something else, I do what other Muslims do. I repeat the phrase “ya seen” forty times. And then very often I find what I lost!” I couldn’t help asking: “What does ‘ya seen’ mean?” The young woman answered “We don’t know. In the Koran there are three words for which their is no known meaning. Ya seen is one of them.” “You mean even Arabic speakers don’t know what it means?” “Yes,” she answered. There’s a passage in the Koran called the Surah Ya Seen. I’ve read it, at least in English, and for the life of me I cannot see what it has to do with losing keys. So I speculated with the student. “So you use a word that has lost its meaning to find things that you have lost?” I asked. “Hmmm,” she said. “Maybe that’s it!” The group thought about it some more and we made another guess. Repeating a mysterious couple of syllables over and over and over may have the effect of distracting one’s mind from obsessing about where the lost item was left. You know how it goes: you think about something else for a while, and then, unbidden, out of nowhere, the answer bubbles up on its own, and you remember where you left your keys.
I mused that “ya seen” is an example of spiritual homeopathy. You know, homeopathy is the ancient healing principle that a dose of that which ails you is the cure. “Ya seen” is a lost word that you dose yourself with in order to find your lost keys. So I pondered the resonance of this concept in my own religion. We’re all familiar with the substitutionary sacrifice concept of the cross: that Jesus died to save us from our sins. But right there in the book of John is a radically different interpretation. John’s gospel suggests that as the people of Israel in their exile gazed on a brass snake to get cured from snakebites, so we are cured of our human condition of suffering by gazing at the suffering of the Christ on the cross.
You learn more about your own religion by pondering what you learn from other religions, finding resonances, but also dissonances that get you to re-think and even re-feel your own faith.
In the Interfaith Council meeting, a Catholic Christian student spoke up to inform us that in his tradition, one prays to St. Anthony for divine intervention in finding things that are lost. I asked why Catholics don’t pray to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes, to find lost things. He shrugged. Another religious mystery.
It’s mystery all the way down, folks! Because if I’ve learned anything in this job for the last seven years, working in the interfaith center of a university with 40,000 students from around the planet, it’s this: the more you know about the religions of the world, the more keenly aware you are of your ignorance about them. You start praying to St. Jude in earnest, because really understanding all the world’s religions in any depth is a lost cause. I’m a Christian pastor, not a real scholar but with a scholarly bent. I’ve steeped myself in the history and spirituality of Christianity, but I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of my own tradition.
So many lost keys to religion, so little time! Ya seen, ya seen, ya seen, ya seen, ya seen….
So it’s all the more bewildering to a person in my position when I hear Christians claim that Christianity is the only true faith, that nobody can get right with God except by accepting Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. I just want to ask a person who says that, woah, dude, you know all there is to know about all the world’s religions? You’ve read all the uncountable pages of even the most obscure scriptures of the most obscure sects of all the faiths of the world? You’ve prostrated in submission to Allah, not just with Sunni Muslims but also with Shias and Alawites and Ismailis and Sufis? You know what is in the heart of a Sikh woman as she closes her eyes in the gurdwara and listens to the soulful kirtan music of praise to God, to the beat of tablas and the reedy sound of the harmonium? You know enough about the spiritual status of a Hindu bowing reverently as waves the smoke of the aarthi flame over his head with his hands, enough to know that God will condemn him to eternal hellfire for following the wrong religion? You’re really quite sure that the devout Jewish nurse who sings sweetly to her elderly patient while very carefully changing the dressings on her decubitus sores is a lost soul until she believes Jesus is the only begotten Son of God?
"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave..." says Paul in the letter to the Philippians. I ask, how did the religion of an empty man get so full of itself as to claim to be the only way to God?
Yet that’s still what a lot of Christians believe. And it’s what most non-Christians believe that Christians believe. And it’s what a fair number of people who drive past Fountain Street Church believe that Fountain Street Church members believe, because of the word “church” on your sign. So to change this perception, we have to get vocal and publicly explicit about our support for the idea that other religions can be as good for others as our religion is good for us. The wider community won’t know that there is a humbler kind of Christianity that doesn’t claim to be superior to all other faiths unless we tell them about it. That is why ProgressiveChristianity.org created an 8-point welcome statement for churches. Hundreds around the globe have adopted this statement, which includes an explicit endorsement of religious pluralism. As a volunteer for ProgressiveChristianity.org, I initiated Pluralism Sunday about a decade ago, as a Sunday when progressive congregations all over the world could “go public” with this position, and also incorporate elements of other faiths into worship, to encourage greater religious literacy.
So I’m very grateful to my friend and colleague Jason Hubbard and his dear wife Dana for hosting me to come to your historic and courageous church to celebrate this special Sunday with you. Today we lift up our hearts with gratitude to the Ultimate Reality of the Universe for the extraordinary richness and depth of the faith traditions of the world. Today we take on an attitude of gratitude for the faithful people of these many religions who have put their spirituality into action for compassion, peace, and justice. Today we open our hearts with deep humility toward people who practice faiths about which we know very little, and open our hearts and our minds to learning more about them. We open our hearts to the spiritual growth that awaits us through intimate exposure to the faith traditions of others.
A very important lesson in spiritual humility toward other religions came to me when I started seminary in 1976. I was hardly a theologically orthodox Christian when I got to San Francisco Theological Seminary in Marin County. I think the school understood this, so they paired me with a roommate who was at least as unorthodox. Ken Meece arrived at the seminary after spending about a year in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal. After meditating intensively for many months, he told Lama Yeshe, a famous Tibetan monk, that he wanted to take the vows to be a Buddhist monk himself. Lama Yeshe said, “No, go home. You’ve learned all the Buddhism that you need. Go home and study the religion of your culture. Become the most enlightened Christian you can be!”
Ken saluted and went home and signed up for seminary right away. There he was, his head shaved, doing yogic headstands in our seminary student apartment, meditating and chanting. I asked him to teach me everything he knew. So every morning we’d go up to the seminary chapel and bask in the light pouring through the stained glass and we’d practice Vipassana mindfulness meditation for about 45 minutes and then take a six-mile run through the redwood forest up Mount Tamalpais.
I have been practicing mindfulness meditation ever since, and have taught it in all the churches and campuses I’ve served. In this practice, I observe my thoughts and feelings, striving to do so with an attitude of deep attention, openness, non-judgment, and compassion. After a while, I begin to identify with the observer within myself, more than what the observer observes. This inner observer is God. So my experience of God, as a Christian, owes very much to this Buddhist practice. I am a better Christian because of my exposure to Buddhism.
Now imagine a Tibetan Buddhist going to a Christian seminary and being told to go home and be the most enlightened Buddhist he or she could be! That would be a rare event indeed. Part of the mission of Pluralism Sunday is to make such moments more common.
I love how succinctly Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, describes the belief that one religion is superior to all others: “It doesn’t help.” He doesn’t attack the idea. Rather, he simply points out the fact that it is not a belief that is useful for spiritual development or for growing in compassion toward others. It doesn’t help Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, or atheists. And if it doesn’t help, why hang on to it?
So it should not be a surprise that millions of Americans are letting go of the idea of religious exclusivism. According to the statistics kept by the Pew Research Center, a majority even of evangelical Christians now believe that non-Christians can get to heaven without becoming Christians. This is a huge and important change. But it is a change that hasn’t come to many of their leaders. Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of the definitive book on the religious views of Americans, American Grace, gave a talk to a group of Missouri Synod Lutheran pastors in the Midwest. They told the pastors about the fact that most evangelical lay people believe non-Christians can get to heaven. “Well, that’s not true in our church!” huffed one of the pastors. Putnam and Campbell replied that in fact, the statistics were broken down by denomination, and that in fact, a majority of lay people in the Missouri Synod were religious pluralists. Silence followed this revelation, and then a pastor blurted out, “We have failed!”
That might have been a good time for the pastors to say “ya seen” forty times. Alas, even if they’d known that Muslim practice, they would have forsworn it as assent to heresy.
But the cracks are forming and widening even among evangelical clergy. Two years ago I had the privilege of inviting Rob Bell, your former neighbor, to speak at USC. He was pastor of the big evangelical Mars Hill church here. As you may know, Rob Bell had an epiphany one Sunday at Mars Hill. There was an image of Gandhi on a wall in the church, part of a larger exhibit, and someone in the church had placed a sticky note on Gandhi’s face with the message: “He’s in hell, you know.” Rob Bell stared at the sticky note and had a moment of truth. He knew in the depths of his soul that no, Mohandas K. Gandhi is not in hell because he remained a Hindu for his whole life. And Rob knew he could never again preach a gospel that could be interpreted as suggesting that such a thing was the case. So he wrote Love Wins, a book that got him on the cover of Time Magazine, and earned him the fury of the evangelical and fundamentalist establishment of America. I brought him to USC to speak to a group of about 450 young recovering evangelicals, many of them students at our university. They were electrified by his inclusive message of love. They mobbed him with adulation after his talk.
The good news is that Fountain Street Church is here, alive and thriving in the land of Zondervan and Eerdmans, and churches like yours dot the landscape of this whole country, and there are more and more people, Christians and non-Christians alike, who are attracted to congregations like yours that are not hung up on creeds but are focused on deeds. They’re excited to find churches that don’t worry whether or not you’re a Christian or anything else, churches that make room for the gifts of all the world’s faiths, and the spiritual gifts of those without religion, as well. Your historic church is on the side of the history that’s in the making!
It has been gratifying to be part of the national progressive Christian movement for nearly two decades, and to witness its growth. Nobody knew the term back in the early 1990’s, but now it’s understood by the media and some of the public as a real category. The public perception of Christianity is changing. I’d like to give our movement all the credit for that, but really, the biggest reason is in front of my face every day. It’s the exposure Americans get, more and more, to lovely, caring people of all the world’s faiths. I work on a university campus with truly staggering religious diversity. It’s impossible for our students not to be exposed intimately to other students who practice faiths other than their own. We have at least a thousand Muslims, even more Hindus, hundreds of Sikhs, a Zoroastrian student club, five Buddhist clubs. They are almost all really kind, thoughtful people and it’s hard to imagine that any of them are going to end up in hell because they didn’t recite this creed or that. Religious pluralism is no mere concept, no mere belief. It’s a lived reality on our campus. And as the world’s religions are represented by more and more congregations spread all over our country, the whole US is becoming like USC.
This past year we hosted a Shia Muslim theologian from Iran for a talk, and most of those who came to hear him were Sunni Muslim students. A very respectful dialogue resulted. It was a conversation that hardly happens in the Middle East, but on our campus, it is normal. It’s hard for one kind of Muslim at USC to believe that other kinds are heretical. On a few occasions we’ve hosted a Sufi Muslim rock star, Salman Ahmed, for concerts of his spiritual music at USC. Who shows up? Indian Hindus, Indian Muslims, Indian Sikhs, and Pakistani Muslims — all doing “bhangra” dancing to the beat and singing along with his songs, which are well-known in South Asia. Pakistanis and Indians don’t dance together in South Asia. But they do at USC. This kind of lived religious pluralism is a reality in America today, and it’s a model for the whole world to emulate. And we’re not just talking about toleration, not just talking about putting up with each other. We’re talking about recognizing that there is no one final true religion, or even non-religion, exclusive of all others. Many religious leaders in America have not caught on to this reality, but I think it’s just a matter of time before the leaders follow their followers and accept that God or Ultimate Reality cannot be named with just one name, or praised with but one language of faith. Your church is hastening that glorious day by living out religious pluralism, not just on Pluralism Sunday, but every day.
In my novel, SOULJOURN, the young protagonist has an experience that propels him on a quest to learn all he can about the world’s religions. Joshua T. Stoneburner lives literally in the middle of nowhere, in a little town in the southern Arizona desert. But within a hundred miles of nowhere, he’s able to find people who practice many of the world’s religions. Of course he is able to explore many kinds of Christianity - the Southern Baptists, the mainline Protestants, the Quakers; and the homegrown American Christian groups: the Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He participates in a Torah study with a Jewish group. Such faith groups are old news in America. But within an easy drive he finds a Sufi Muslim community, a Hindu temple, and a Sikh gurdwara. The more he learns, the more boggled he becomes, the more questions he asks, and the more wonderful people he meets. He joins an interfaith community of border justice activists and finds himself living his questions about religion through works of compassion. Joshua T. Stoneburner’s “souljourn” isn’t about finding the one true faith. It’s about learning many languages of spirituality. The religions he explores aren’t all the same - far from it. They might not even be different paths up the same mountain. But they share a deep human proclivity, a deep human impulse, to connect with the Cosmic Source of life and love. Will he one day focus on one religious path, join one particular religious community? The novel doesn’t answer that question. But certainly it suggests that whatever path Josh follows, it will be one that honors deeply those who walk other paths.
So I invite you to hop in the cab of Joshua T. Stoneburner’s beat-up pickup truck and see for yourself - do what Josh did, and go on your own souljourn to discover the spiritual treasures of the world’s faiths, right here in Western Michigan! Let us cheer the religions of the world to rediscover the spiritual humility so many of them have lost! Ya seen, ya seen, ya seen, ya seen! and amen —
"When the happiness or misery of others depends in any respect upon our conduct, we dare not, as self-love might suggest to us, prefer the interest of one to the interest of many." Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Book 3, Sec. 1, Chapter 3.
For the last couple of months, I've been studying the book of Genesis with a group of very bright young USC students. I'm the adviser for our "Church of the Broken Bread" progressive Christian student fellowship here. Our weekly gatherings are simple. First, each of us takes a piece and says their piece around the circle: you tear off a piece of communion bread, dip it in grape juice, eat it, and then say what's on your heart and mind. Then we read the Bible together, working on understanding it from the historical/critical/mythological viewpoint. We use the scripture as a screen upon which to project and reflect on our lives. Then we spend 15 minutes in silent mindful meditation/prayer.
I have never had so much fun, nor so much fascination, reading Genesis before! Our students find all sorts of surprising nuances in the text and bring such creative interpretations to it. They're natural-born midrashic rabbinical scholars! We use the New Oxford Annotated Bible (New Revised Standard Version), which offers a non-doctrinal, academic viewpoint to the scripture.
A week ago, insight came to us about the meaning of Genesis as a whole. Together, we conjectured that the book is about God's desperate need for human companionship, tangled by his jealous attitude toward his own divine status. God creates humans as near-peers with whom he chats on walks around the Garden of Eden. But the minute we gain the knowledge of good and evil - a divine level of wisdom - in a fit of pique he banishes us out of the Garden and into the cold, cruel world. But of course the crown of his creation adjusts to the new circumstances quickly. God watches civilization develop, with its attendant corruptions, and in fury he floods the world almost to total death. He repents of this mayhem, but freaks out again when people adjust once more, by building cities with towers that threaten to bring them up to his level. He then afflicts humanity with a confusion of languages, to hold them back from getting too much like him. Of course, people adapt with their God-given brainpower, and civilization continues. God tries a new tactic to keep humanity close to him without letting us get too close. He takes a subset of the humans he's created and gives this group a special role so that, through them, he can manage his relationship with humankind as a whole.
But he's afraid that this subset of people - the people of Israel - will also get full of themselves and act too God-like. He has a plan for them, but if he tells them exactly what it is, he's afraid they'll get cocky. So he tells them he has a promise for them, but he hides the details. He throws monkey-wrenches into their lives, over and over, to confuse them and keep them guessing. He says their people will be great and many, but then makes their women barren until the last minute before giving birth to the patriarchs of Israel. He sows discord between them - Cain and Abel, Sarah and Hagar, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers. Any of these conflicts had the potential to break the chain to the promise. He gives Israel land, then takes it away.
God's tangle with humanity gets up-in-your-face physical. Jacob, on his way to reconcile with Esau, encounters the divine in a wrestling match. Jacob is about to pin the divine being to the ground, but the angel throws Jacob's hip out of joint. God cheats in order to prevent himself being one-upped by humanity again! Jacob bargains for a divine blessing, and limps away with courage to face the brother he's wronged. (One of our students speculated that the angel was really Esau. He got that insight from the passage that follows, in which Jacob says that Esau's face looks like the face of God.) Then Jacob is re-named as Israel, a Hebrew word that means "one who strives (fights, wrestles) with God". (The Arabic equivalent is "jihad", by the way.)
The God of Genesis was almost omnipotent. But his extreme potency and his immortal nature prevented him from having the one ability he needed most in order to fully experience and enjoy the companionship of the human beings he had created: vulnerability.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a lecture at USC by Paul Woodruff, a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin. His academic focus has been on the Greeks, particularly the philosophical implications in Greek theater. (His book, "Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue", has been an important one for me.) Paul made reference to the lack of compassion in the Greek gods. Greek plays made reference to the problem. The gods had no way of empathizing with the sufferings and fears of mortal people. They weren't vulnerable.
Carl Jung, the depth psychologist, wrote "Answer to Job" (1958). God tested Job's piety by inflicting terrible suffering on him. Job bitterly complained to God for this injustice and indignity, and he did so in a manner that displayed that he was not only deeply pious, but had a higher level of moral integrity than God. In the end, God restored Job's fortunes, but Jung suggested that God knew this was not a sufficient response. God knew he had to change. Consistent with the book of Genesis, in which God constantly tried to keep people in their place, and out of his place, God could not let Job be his moral superior. Jung interprets the Christian gospel as the mythical story of God's decision to make amends for what he did to Job by becoming a human being and experiencing human suffering personally as Jesus Christ. Jung described God's transformation through his relationship with humanity this way: "... the despairing cry from the Cross: 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' Here his human nature attains divinity; at the moment God experiences what it means to be a mortal man and drinks to the dregs what he made his faithful servant Job suffer. Here is given the answer to Job..." (Sec VII, 647) Through his difficult relationships with people, the God of the books of Genesis and Job evolved toward compassion. One and the same with this evolution of God's consciousness was the elevation of humanity's capacity for kindness. "To sum up: the immediate cause of the Incarnation lies in Job's elevation, and its purpose is the differentiation of Yahweh's consciousness." (Sec VI, 642)
After all his failed attempts in Genesis, after making a hash of it with Job, the only way God could one-up humanity, once and for all, was to one-down himself and become a human being. In doing so, he had to give up being the big-guy-in-the-sky, and let himself be no more or less than Love itself. In the Christian mythological context, Genesis is the first messy, tangled act in God's long story of becoming humane. And Genesis is also the first part of the myth of how humans become humane, more reflective of the image of the God of compassion. As the German Catholic bishop, Franz Kamphaus, once said, "Christmas: Do it like God. Become human." Through our relationships with each other, evolving toward compassion, we become more humane, more human, and more divine.
Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California
Pluralism Sunday - a project of ProgressiveChristianity.org - is on May 3 this year. Churches around the world celebrate that other religions can be as good for others as ours is for us, by including music, readings, and speakers from other faiths in worship. Below is my re-write of the old revival song, Old Time Religion… a good one for Pluralism Sunday! Use freely.)
Old Time Religion
Give me that old time religion, give me that old time religion,
give me that old time religion, it's good enough for me
It was good enough for Noah, it was good enough for Miriam,
it was good enough for Moses, and it's good enough for me
Give me that old time religion, give me that old time religion,
give me that old time religion, it's good enough for me
It was good enough for Buddha, it was good enough for Jesus,
it was good enough for Mohammed, and it's good enough for me
Give me that old time religion, give me that old time religion,
give me that old time religion, it's good enough for me
It was good enough for Krishna, it was good enough for Gandhi,
it was good enough for Teresa, and it's good enough for me
Give me that old time religion, give me that old time religion,
give me that old time religion, it's good enough for me
DEEPER LOVE Faithful Rhetoric for Progressive Social Change
A project of Progressive Christians Uniting
Listen to the DEEPER LOVE hymn
Words by Jim Burklo - Sung by Argentine singer-songwriter, Lucia Marco, soloist at Woodland Hills Community Church, UCC, Los Angeles
What Is Deeper Love?
Deeper Love is a web resource provided by Progressive Christians Uniting, updated regularly with input from its users, offering faith-based language for progressive political and social action. It provides activists, lay and clergy people, politicians, campaigners, and organizers with inspiring rhetoric to advance social change. Deeper Love is edited by Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California, with the Theological Reflection Committee of Progressive Christians Uniting.
Not by Bread Alone
By Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California
‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, in Matthew 4:4 (NRSV)
“Politics without prayer or mysticism quickly becomes grim and barbaric; prayer or mysticism without political love quickly becomes sentimental and irrelevant interiority.”
– Edward Schillebeeckx, The Schillebeeckx Reader
It’s been said that money is the mother's milk of politics. But, to paraphrase a passage from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, politics does not live by mother's milk alone. It also feeds on spiritual food. Politics is animated by hearts that burn and souls that yearn. Why else would people ever vote for a politician who passes laws that effectively take bread off their tables?
In his wise book, Reverence, the philosopher Paul Woodruff muses that "voting is irrational." The outcome of an election is extremely unlikely to be determined by whether or not I vote. So why do I still fill out the ballot and mail it in? It's a ceremony, says Woodruff. A liturgy we use to affirm the spiritual value of the dignity and worth of our common humanity. It dramatizes and reinforces the conviction that your word and mine have no less weight than the voices of the rich and the famous. Those of us who vote do so religiously - quite literally. To cast a ballot is to make a statement of faith.
Many of those who don’t vote – well over half the eligible electorate in many if not most elections – have lost faith because the language of politics is so seldom the language of the heart. Love is drowned out by vituperative partisan ranting in mass media.
This project aims to change that. It gives life to rhetoric that moves the heart to move the hand to mark the ballot to build a kinder and better nation. “Deeper Love” is about keeping the body politic and the soul together in a new way. “Deeper Love” offers an inspiring, positive political language of love that will “votivate” Americans.
But to move forward, we must look back to see how we got where we are today.
Politics didn’t lose its soul because of our Constitution, nor because of the way that our courts have interpreted it. There is no separation of religion and public policymaking, even though the Constitution puts up a wall between church and state. That’s because the wall has a one-way door in it. The body politic must refrain from imposing a creed or a structure of faith on the people. But religious people and institutions freely influence politics. And politicians can be guided by the light of the spirit as they see it, and speak the word of soul as they hear it. Bans on Christmas crèches on the front lawns of city halls, or of scripture references on courtroom walls, pose no impediments to the free expression of faith in political life. On the contrary, preventing the government from establishing religion has resulted in a very lively free market of faith in this country.
The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book Democracy in America (1840, p 445), was impressed with the vigor of religious life in America and with its positive influence on democracy: “Every religion… imposes on each man some obligations toward mankind, and so it draws him away, from time to time, from thinking about himself… Thus religious people are naturally strong just at the point where democratic peoples are weak.” These words echoed those of William Penn over a hundred years before: “If we will not be governed by God, we must be governed by tyrants.”
Faith has always been part of public discourse. For most of its history, American political rhetoric was characterized by what Rousseau called the "civil religion". The American sociologist Robert Bellah saw it as a spirit and a rhetoric grounding politics in non-doctrinal, broadly Judeo-Christian themes. Abraham Lincoln, though criticized for not belonging to any church, artfully and sincerely employed the civil religion to lay the spiritual cornerstone of reconstruction. He declared that the Civil War was the consequence of the sin of the whole nation - north and south - for allowing slavery to go on for so long. God demanded justice, and it was extracted in the blood of both the blue and the grey. For Lincoln, bringing the nation together again was the next step in the divine plan to restore righteousness. In his second inaugural address, he said: “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”
From its founding, America's public life bubbled out of a spiritual fountain, taking form somewhere between Deism and “mainline” Protestantism. Generally, politicians employed faith language that stayed out of the weeds of sectarian dogma. And Christians understood that political action and structural social change were necessary means toward the end of living out the gospel. We don’t associate the Salvation Army with progressive politics today. But in the1890’s, Ballington Booth, commander of the Salvation Army in the United States, said that “To right the social wrong by charity is like bailing out the ocean with a thimble… We must readjust our social machinery so that the producers of wealth become also owners of wealth…” Many other evangelicals and fundamentalists in America in the late 19th and early 20th century were political leftists, and did not hesitate to use religious rhetoric in support of the labor movement and of the legislative efforts to reign in the runaway power of corporate trusts and monopoly capital. William Jennings Bryan was a fundamentalist Christian who ran unsuccessfully three times for the presidency as the Democratic nominee. Later he became famous for defending six-day creationism in the Scopes Monkey Trial. Hard as it is to imagine it today, in that time he was attacked by the Republicans for being so strident and public about his old-fashioned religious beliefs. But in fact his most notable uses of religious rhetoric fit into the mold of the “civil religion”. He was a vigorous advocate of “bi-metallism”, which would have allowed the US central bank more flexibility in monetary policy that would have benefited farmers and workers. The business elite defended the gold standard. In his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, he declaimed: “If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” It was a classical example of the use of religious rhetoric without reference to religious dogma.
Martin Luther King did the same. A Baptist preacher, he spoke for the highest ideals of the nation when he compared the civil rights struggle of blacks to the exodus of the Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land. It was an inclusive spiritual message that resonated with people across religious boundaries.
Such expressions of the civil religion began to recede in 1980's as the Republican Party entered into a coalition with Christian fundamentalists. It was a political wedding of the business elite with white cultural conservatives in the Bible Belt. The movement suggested a real American to be someone who accepted a specific creedal manifestation of Christianity. Biblical literalism and Christian exclusivism, once confined to a cultural backwater, became integral to right-wing public discourse. Political candidates were subjected to grilling about their doctrinal purity. Horrified by such divisive language, many Democrats abandoned religious rhetoric for fear of being associated with radio preachers drawling about apocalyptic “end-times”, or they used religious language in a defensive, negative way to distinguish themselves from Republicans. Except for brief flickers of consciousness that they have abandoned a potentially sympathetic constituency, many progressives still cede too much of the language of faith to conservatives' political space. Theological conservatism does not and never did equal political conservatism, but political progressives seem to have lost sight of this fact.
The conservative movement for over 30 years has consistently demonized government as the enemy of the people, and when it has held power in Washington, it has given Americans good reason to believe that this assertion is true. President Barack Obama sagely diagnosed the resulting “Catch-22” on October 29, 2014: “There has been a certain cynical genius to what some of these folks have done in Washington. What they’ve realized is, if we don’t get anything done, then people are going to get cynical about government and its possibilities of doing good for everybody. And since they don’t believe in government, that’s a pretty good thing. And the more cynical people get, the less they vote. And if turnout is low and people don’t vote, that pretty much benefits those who benefit from the status quo.”
This cycle of cynicism alienates the American people ever further from their national institutions and symbols. Gerrymandering of legislative districts to favor the party in power has the effect of further demoralizing the electorate. Just before the 2014 midterm election, the public’s approval rating of the Republican-dominated Congress was 14% (less than half of President Obama's approval rating), yet almost all incumbents were re-elected because their districts had been drawn to ensure their “safety”. A growing number of Americans blame politics and politicians in general for their alienation, and that makes progressive change even harder to achieve.
Conservatives relentlessly advocate "personal responsibility". You are on your own. You owe little to society, and society owes little to you. This is a factless, faithless, loveless political philosophy. It is unappealing to most Americans. Republicans may have prevailed in the 2014 midterm election, but their political dogma landed with a hollow thud in the hearts of the 64% of potential voters who didn't cast ballots. How can any politician claim a mandate for action with such a pitifully low voter turnout? To do so makes a mockery of democracy. And the outrageousness of politicians acting on a mandate that doesn’t exist makes citizens even less motivated to vote.
Political conservatives generally use negative rhetoric in campaigns – except when they use religious language. The opposite is true for progressives. “… Democratic religious rhetoric tended to be considerably more negative than that of Republicans. This is particularly interesting, given that secular speech did not follow this pattern. In fact when we examine the secular campaign stump speeches, it is clear that Republicans tended to be the more negative party of the two,… Nevertheless, this pattern was reversed when the parties spoke to voters in religious terms… much of the angry Democratic religious rhetoric was in response to the relationship between religion and the Republican Party. This defensive posture has characterized much of the Democratic religious rhetoric from 1980 to 2004. “ (Christopher Chapp, Religious Rhetoric and American Politics, Cornell Univ. Press, 2012, P 77)
The disuse and misuse of religious language by progressives is also a consequence of a long-term trend in America toward spiritual individualism. What religious language will resonate with a nation of such diverse beliefs, or of no beliefs at all? According to recent Pew Research Center data, 23% of young people between ages 18-29 have no religious affiliation, and that number is rising. In their magisterial analysis of current trends, American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell describe the weakening loyalties of Americans toward all kinds of religious institutions. Yet the bookstores and the blogosphere abound with things to read and watch about matters spiritual. America is split between a minority of citizens with very strong religious allegiances and a larger population with increasingly fluid spirituality. Putnam and Campbell tease out the statistics to reveal a hard core of politically conservative and strongly religiously affiliated people who are more attracted to the political orientations of their congregations than they are to their theological commitments. This minority group of conservatives who tend to show up regularly to vote faces a larger population of citizens whose voting turnout is as spotty as their worship attendance. The right-wing political preaching in conservative churches has alienated many young people who are dropping out of both religion and civic engagement.
The collapse of the civil religion is partly a consequence of progressives’ failure to understand the nature of politics itself. George Lakoff, cognitive linguist at UC Berkeley, argues that people reason with their emotions, not through a cold, Cartesian logical calculus. But many progressives craft their political rhetoric with the assumption that people vote on the basis of cold self-interest. Says Lakoff: “Right now the Democratic Party is into marketing. They pick a number of issues like prescription drugs and Social Security and ask which ones sell best across the spectrum, and they run on those issues. They have no moral perspective, no general values, no identity. People vote their identity, they don't just vote on the issues, and Democrats don't understand that.” Lakoff explains that conservatives do a much better job than liberals in expressing their morality in straightforward, emotionally-charged terms. Until progressives learn this lesson, they will have a hard time motivating their natural constituencies not only to vote for them, but to vote at all. People vote on the basis of inspirational morality and identity, and spirituality and religion are central to both.
“I do think the Democratic Party has for far too long been hesitant to talk about the things we deeply believe and value, ... Many public policy positions have their foundation in religious beliefs that we hold dear.” Former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland (an ordained Methodist pastor)
Political progressives try to appeal to the American people with particular policies that would benefit them. But this does not inspire the souls of the people, and it also leads into the weeds. Hardly anyone understands exactly how Obamacare works, nor do they wish to read the fine print. Hardly anyone has considered every complex detail of the bipartisan immigration reform proposal that the Tea Party Republicans have stymied in Congress. Progressive politicians must touch the hearts of the people by inspiring them to serve not their own self-interests, but the interests of their fellow citizens. If we all vote with love for others, we can begin to meet everyone’s needs.
“The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question.” Nikolai Berdyaev
The politics of deeper love, delivered in spiritually grounded rhetoric, affirms democracy as the way we care for our fellow citizens in the thousand ways that they cannot possibly or practically care of themselves alone. We need progressive political platforms expressed in heartfelt, positive, and simple terms, using the spiritual language of compassion, especially for the most vulnerable members of our society.
The collapse of the old civil religion partly results from the increasing religious diversity of America. Immigrants bring to our shores all of the world’s faiths, and sects of those faiths, contributing to the spiritual heterodoxy of Americans. We pick and choose our beliefs from a longer and longer menu of perceived options, creating individualized theologies and combinations of practices. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, in his book Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited, explored the North American tendency to make religion a matter of personal experience. There is a trend of long-standing in America to value direct mystical encounter with God over the repetition of corporate religious ritual. This perspective dominates across the theological spectrum. The Pew Research statistics show that more and more people report having mystical spiritual experiences, even as worship attendance goes down. Fundamental and evangelical Christians today ask a question that would have been essentially meaningless to the first Christian settlers in America: “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” The 1620 Pilgrims believed that their salvation came to them not as individuals through personal confession, but as a community through divine providence and predestination. But this sense of communal spirituality has eroded among Christians across the theological spectrum. And Americans with weaker religious ties also see spirituality as a matter of personal experience and mutable choice. Culturally Jewish people practice Buddhist meditation, people raised Catholic go to yoga retreats, and some nominal evangelical Christians believe in astrology and reincarnation.
The civil religion was predicated on a society in which people had respect for civic institutions. It was predicated on a spiritual authority underlying the temporal authority of governments and churches, and even of companies and clubs. But the relentless conservative message that “government is the enemy”, the splintering of the news media into a myriad of sources that often are no more than ideological echo-chambers, the lack of loyalty of corporations to their employees and the resulting lack of loyalty of employees to their employers, to say nothing of the drastic weakening of people’s loyalty to religious denominations – all are both causes and effects of the weakening of social authority.
Conservatives know they are a minority group whose political domination is tenuous, so they show up to vote more often than liberals. Conservatives feel and express, more clearly and succinctly than liberals, the emotional logic of their positions. Conservative politicians wrap themselves in the flag and claim to be the “real” Americans, while dismantling the American institutions that protect the people from physical and social insecurity. This perpetuates a cycle of cynicism that alienates the American people ever further from their national institutions and symbols. A growing number of Americans blame politics and politicians in general for this alienation, and that makes progressive change even harder to achieve.
“There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.” Martin Luther King Jr.
At its root, this cynicism is a spiritual problem, and it requires a spiritual solution. “The present crisis of authority is only one of a thousand consequences of the general crisis of spirituality in the world at present. Humankind, having lost its respect for a higher authority, has inevitably lost respect for earthly authority as well.” These were the words of Vaclav Havel, the avant-garde playwright who became the first president of the Czech Republic after communism, in a talk to the National Press Club of Australia in March of 1995. He believed that both capitalism and communism had lost this sense of responsibility to a transcendent order, and had been swept up in destructive hubris. Havel was not a religious person, but he believed that the future of democracy and of human civilization depended on deep respect for the transcendent.
Even if we wanted to go back to the old days of the “civil religion”, could we? - now that American religion has become so diversified, atomized, privatized, and even commodified - now that we have so little sense of holy or even unholy authority underlying our institutions?
But we can and we must craft a fresh political rhetoric that flows from our shared spiritual experience of compassion, giving life and purpose to our democracy.
America still has a soul. It will express itself differently than it did in the days of the nation’s founders, or even in the days of the great civil rights and anti-poverty struggles of the 1960’s. We may be at a loss for words to express them, but our nation’s heart is still burning to put our transcendent values into action.
Havel gave America a hint of the new civil religion in his memorable address to a joint session of the US Congress in February of 1980. “Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed – be it ecological, social, demographic, or a general breakdown of civilization – will be unavoidable…. (what is required is) Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my company, my success – responsibility to the order of being where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where and only where they will be properly judged.” Havel used spiritual rhetoric to move his nation away from a spirit of retribution against the oppression of the communists and toward a flowering of democracy and freedom. As an artist who understood the reality and power of words, he believed that this rhetoric was not only a tool to use toward these ends, but was the essence of the ends themselves. The open expression of respect for the transcendent is itself the foundation of social and political authority. And the transcendent need not be expressed in supernatural terms.
“In the beginning was the Word,” opens the gospel of John. Can we have personal spiritual experience without language to express it? Whether or not one believes that thought is predicated on language, it’s clear that experience and words to describe it are inseparable, and that words are social constructions. So there is no way for spirituality to be individualized completely. Charles Taylor observed that “It matters to each of us as we act that others are there, as witnesses of what we are doing, and thus as co-determiners of the meaning of our action. (p 85)”
“So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55: 11, NRSV) This was the word of God divined by the prophet. The ancients took this idea literally. Until the invention of the printing press, when printed words became ubiquitous, most people believed that words were not just random symbolic place-holders to refer to things, but were real things in themselves. Words were real entities that went forth in the world to act and deliver results.
Part of the disenchantment of Western civilization has been the loss of this palpable sense of power in the word. Essential to the re-enchantment of our civilization and its political life and institutions is holy awe for the potential energy packed in the language we speak and hear and write and read.
This resource aims to re-enchant America with a spiritually-centered rhetoric that reconnects our souls with our political activism in a language that unites rather than divides, includes rather than excludes. It is language that opens doors to the world rather than separating insiders from outsiders. It is language that takes a stand but doesn’t suggest a last stand. It is language that leaves room for interpretation. It moves through poetry and music. It’s a rhetoric that makes us hungry for love and justice, moving us to share the bread for the sake of a deeper love.
Robert N. Bellah, Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditionalist World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991, p. 168. http://www.robertbellah.com/articles_5.htm
Ballington Booth, quoted in Norris Magnuson, Salvation in the Slums: Evangelical Social Work 1865-1920, 1977, p 166.
Christopher Chapp, Religious Rhetoric and American Politics, Cornell Univ. Press, 2012
Vaclav Havel, quoted in “Cross Currents” magazine, Fall 1997.
George Lakoff, quoted in UC Berkeley News, Oct 27, 2003.
Robert Putnam, David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us: New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010.
Edward Schillebeeckx, The Schillebeeckx Reader. Crossroads Press, 1987.
Charles Taylor, Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited. Harvard University Press, 2002.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America,1840
Paul Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, chapter 2