Who’s in Charge?

Written by: Joe Morris Doss

Democracy is supposed to maximize the agency of the individual citizen, to give everyone, to the extent possible, the opportunity to control her or his own destiny together with fellow citizens. Today, few of us in the United States who are ordinary citizens feel that we have much of a say. We share a profound sense of being out of the loop, in some else’s control, helpless. This is leading to rather scary possibilities. I make no secret of my most immediate fear that could come of this: election of a pseudo-strong-man hyper-nationalist who will “take charge” by running over whole categories of population that he opposes and seek fatuously simplistic solutions that will not come close to working, but instead can be devastatingly counterproductive. Whatever may come in the fall, the fact is that our collective sense of being out of a political ballgame that feels rigged begs some analysis and evaluation.

It will not surprise anyone that people of faith are unsettled by the institutional decline of the church and by the overwhelming secularization of western culture. A society that has no faith in religion, and takes so little interest in transcendent reality, will become faithful only to matters that cannot ground us and are bound to fail us. If being out of touch with reality is the definition of insanity, then it is hardly surprising that human society seems increasingly crazy, for it is more and more out of touch with the fullness of reality. It is especially dismaying to a Christian to grasp how misunderstood the gospel of Jesus Christ is within this society – despite the assumption that it knows all about it. In fact, the Christianity that is popularized in American society comes closer to the first century pagan religious understandings of God and humanity than to the vision of the man from Nazareth. But let’s come back to this after some consideration of facts “on the ground.”

We will need to think about this in a series of offerings. This will be more productive if you contribute to our thinking about why we feel that we lack the personal agency that we once enjoyed. Nothing would be more helpful than a conversation. I would be happy to post whatever you have to say.

I have to begin with an admission that I don’t understand the world as clearly as I used to think I did.

I wrote a book (The Songs of the Mothers) in which I asserted that the world is changing so much and so rapidly that the church, as an incarnational faith, was going to have to change in order to adapt to it, and serve it as the body of Christ. Thus did I predict the coming ecumenical reformation and issued a plea that we begin reforming now – even if full and ecumenical reformation is not so immediately at hand.

I based this assertion regarding the church’s reformation on the premise that there have been only three watershed reformations (The Constantinian Settlement of the Fourth Century, the Gregorian Reformation that established the Medieval Church, and the Protestant and Catholic Counter Reformations of the Sixteenth Century) and they came about because of two simultaneous forces. First, there was, in each instance, so much pain being experience by the faithful within the church that the internal call for reform was insistent. But at the same time, the world was changing so profoundly that the church too had to adjust just as radically, by way of reform.

That brings us to the question of what is forcing change in the world today. Historically it takes a turning point crisis or a technological revolution to bring about the magnitude of change the world is in the process of going through. Today we have both. We will begin our discussion there.


Going Deeper

By: Joe Morris Doss

At the Threshold has noted previously that strategic decisions were made and acted upon by a determined and focused group of wealthy Americans as the Conservative Movement gained ascendancy. Most of these people were not active members of a Christian church, and even fewer had strong feelings for any one of the several faith communities. Yet, they invested heavily in the church. They did so for purely political purposes. Readers of modern historical material about activities such as are documented in Dark Money (Jane Mayer) and Thy Kingdom Come (Randall Balmer) will not find this surprising.

One of the important strategic goals was to convince the public, through manipulation of the media, that Christianity is politically conservative by its very nature and limited in scope to private matters of personal moral behavior, individual “spirituality,” and otherworldly aspirations. For those reasons, it was asserted, Christians support liberal causes only as the church becomes captured by a secular agenda, e.g. the “gay agenda,” the “feminists agenda,” etc. In such a light, the proper public role of the church should be to support laws and policies that will suit the views of its most conservative Christians and impose laws that they consider “God’s will” for human society.

The conservative columnist Cal Thomas wrote an April 30 op-ed in which the accepted assumptions that identify Christianity with conservative political positions are exemplified. Speaking at an evangelical seminary he had no compunction about addressing his audience as though he was speaking for all of Christianity. Thomas lamented the failures of Christian influence in American government, noting the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage as an example of the secularization of society, and compared the situation of the present day church to that of the early church, “when it was the target of persecution.”

That Christians seem to be losing ground in what has erroneously been called the “culture wars” may not be a bad thing. It might force them to re-think their primary calling, which is to a kingdom “not of this world.”

This Christian vision is narrow and shallow. If it is taken as the vision of the church there can be little wonder that we have lost the imagination of society.

In striking contrast, on the morning that I read this opinion I next picked up an excerpt from Belief in God in An Age of Science by John Polkinghorne. (All quotes and references are taken from Part 5.) The author is a world-renown physicist who is also a noted philosopher and theologian. As a student of the physical makeup of the universe Polkinghorne is not to be turned away from interest in creation – its physicality, its order, and its purposes. From the very beginning in the first century the church courageously opened its mind in search of the full truth being revealed to them in the Jesus story. It certainly refused to ignore God’s design and commitment to creation.

This is not the place or the occasion for a sufficiently in-depth theological exploration, but perhaps some rudimentary sketching will offer a hint for why I found the comparison of the two essays so arresting. Polkinghorne is aware not only that transience and death have always been part of the world of human experience, but that today we realize how mortality characterizes the whole universe itself.

“Not only has it looked very different in the past from its appearance today, but eventually, after many more billions of years, it will change again, ending either in the bang of cosmic collapse or the long-drawn out whimper of an ever expanding dying world.”

The author links our own hope for resurrection with the resurrected universe and offers his studied hope that both we and it will be made new, just as God raised Jesus by transforming his dead body into a new form of embodied life.

“I have never felt that the perpetuation of the race, or of life itself, or—least of all—of selfish genes, represented sufficient fulfillment to make sense of the history of this world. The fact that we now know that all these carbon-based entities will one day perish only makes the point more clearly. If cosmic history is no more than the temporary flourishing of remarkable fruitfulness followed by its subsequent decay and disappearance, then I think Macbeth was right and it is indeed a tale told by an idiot.”

Polkinghorne perceives a deep yearning, an intuition of hope within the human spirit, that is expressed by no less than the atheist philosopher, Max Horkheimer, in his cosmic fancy that the murderer should not triumph over his innocent victim.

“Theology is—and I consciously phrase it carefully—the hope that injustice, which is typical of the world, will not have the last say… a yearning that in the end the hand of the killer will not remain on top of the innocent victim.” (Horkheimer, “Die Sehnschucht nach dem ganz Anderen,” Gesammelte Schriften, VII, s. 389, as quoted here.)

If we consider profound Christian hope and thus the role of the church in politics, we must reach into such deep and complex issues and, yes, we must consider even the “end things,” how it is all to turn out if God’s will is to be fulfilled. Only God can take from death the last word and if the human intuition of hope – that all will be well and that the world makes ultimate sense – depends on God. But, as frightening as it may be, God has made us agents of the divine will.

What Polkinghorne has to say as a profoundly modern Christian thinker sounds to me like solid Pauline scripture, surprised not that the whole world is in the process, groaning in travail though it may be, of coming to the new birth in which there shall be justice and peace – shalom – but that each of us is loved by God as though every one of us is a whole cosmos. This is a  Christian vision that can charge the people of the earth with energy and a passion for justice.


By Reza Aslan for CNN

When I was 15 years old, I found Jesus.

I spent the summer of my sophomore year at an evangelical youth camp in Northern California, a place of timbered fields and boundless blue skies, where, given enough time and stillness and soft-spoken encouragement, one could not help but hear the voice of God.

Amid the man-made lakes and majestic pines my friends and I sang songs, played games and swapped secrets, rollicking in our freedom from the pressures of home and school.

Read the full article at cnn.com.


By Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

Four daily newspapers greet the Martys at breakfast. The morning after the school killings at Newtown, Connecticut, twenty-four pages of these informed us, while zillions of twitters and tweets and television and radio programs also addressed the tragedy. Readers don’t need Sightings to spot traces of religion-in-public life this time, since coverage of it comes in blinding flashes when certain issues come up. So, just three reflections:

First, God showed up most vividly in language of the competitor to televangelist Pat Robertson’s assessment that God smote a wayward people in the Sikh-temple murders so recently. This week’s competition was broadcast by Governor (and GOP presidential candidate and ongoing television host) Mike Huckabee. He wins, hands down, the prize for his absurdist judgment that “Newtown” should have been no surprise; Why? Because our nation had “systematically removed God” from public schools. Hence the schools have become a “place of carnage.” So a capricious but vengeful God took revenge on twenty Newtown pupils, representative sufferers for all.

Read the full story at Sightings, the Martin Marty Center’s twice weekly publication on “the events, agents, and trends in public life where issues of religion are writ large, in plain view—or are simmering under the surface.”