26 January 2011


How does one live when the image of the good has been shattered? That is one way of phrasing the classical question of theodicy in contemporary terms. Classically, the term "theodicy" means "a justification of God's goodness or power when evil exists." It might be the central problem of theism, which is belief in a personal and good and all-powerful God. If God does exist as all-good and all-powerful, why does evil also exist? A theodicy is a defense of God, or at least an explanation of God, while also acknowledging the existence of evil -- or at least the existence of The Bad.

I have just finished reading one of the best literary versions of theodicy that I have ever read. It is The Sparrow, written by Mary Doria Russell, published in 1996. The book tells the story of Emilio Sandoz, Jesuit priest, who follows his faith in God to become one of the first earth visitors to an alien planet. Yes, the book participates in a science fiction genre. But, like all good science fiction, the book is really describing our current human condition. The best science fiction is always about present humanity! And this one is about, God, too!

In the case of The Sparrow, alien music is detected from the Arecibo Observatory in the year 2019; and it is the Jesuits, among all the governments and organizations of the world, who are fist able to mount an expedition to visit the planet, Rakhat. Emilio Sandoz, superb linguist, and deep man of faith, is on the trip, with his best friends. I was delighted that it is the Jesuits who are the first explorers to the alien planet, as they often were in the history of western civilization -- for better or for worse.

I do not reveal the plot by saying that all of Sandoz's friends die; that fact is declared early in the story. As the story develops, one discovers the intensity and delight of Sandez's faith. But by 2059, when Sandoz has returned to earth and is remembering his journey, his faith is silent and dreadfully damaged. The book is, thus, a theodicy. How does one believe in a good God when all evidence seems contrary to that fact? How does one believe that "not one sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing it?" (Matthew 10:29, from which the title of the book is derived).

Now, jump back to the great J. D. Salinger (author of The Catcher in The Rye, and of my favorite, Franny and Zooey), who died one year ago. Today, I read another slender review of Kenneth Slawenski's new biography of that deeply spiritual writer, J.D. Salinger. I have already mentioned the Wall Street Journal review, by Carl Rollyson . Today, Dierdre Donahue writes in USA Today that

Slawenski has written a terrific literary biography, one that jolts the reader into realizing why Catcher connects with readers 60 years after its publication. It is not about prep school misery. Rather, in its oblique way, Catcher in the Rye touches on the struggle to keep living even if one has lost faith that the world is a good place.

Is that grand adolescent novel, The Catcher in The Rye, also a kind of theodicy? Yes, I think so.

25 January 2011


"Since 2008, nearly 200 religious facilities have been foreclosed on by banks, up from eight during the previous two years and virtually none in the decade before that, according to real-estate services firm CoStar Group, Inc. Analysts and bankers say hundreds of additional churches face financial struggles so severe they could face foreclosure or bankruptcy in the near future."

So reports Shelly Banjo in an article in the Wall Street Journal, 25 January 2011.

Jesus said something like, "those who live by the sword will die by the sword" (Matthew 26.52), which I take to mean that we die the same way we live. If we want to use the prevailing credit markets and bank products for our ministries, we ought to know what we are doing. We ought to use them wisely.

Debt is valuable if used conservatively; it destroys us if we use it unwisely. That applies to individuals, companies, and --yes-- even to churches.

Churches ought to use the wisdom and individual talents of our members. Not all of us preach. Not all of us teach. But some of us do work in the financial field; some of our number are excellent bankers. Use their advice! Don't listen to the preacher when it comes to accumulating debt loads; listen to the (sound and faithful) bankers among you!

22 January 2011

A New Biography on J.D. Salinger

Carl Rollyson says that, "Kenneth Slawenski's insightful and sympathetic biography, "J.D. Salinger," convincingly shows that Salinger felt he had sinned by polluting his early work with worldly ambition. His decision to repudiate the world he had wanted to win over with his writing thus had some of the fervor of a religious quest. In "Franny" (1955), the title character cries out: "I'm just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else's. I'm sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting." Such desires, Salinger eventually concluded, fundamentally contradicted his sense of writing as a sacred craft."

(from Carl Rollyson, "A Phony Who Reformed," Wall Street Journal Book Review, 22 January 2011)

16 January 2011


(a sermon for Epiphany 2A and Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend - a shorter edition of these remarks is published 16 Jan 2011 at Episcopal Cafe.)

Jesus asked, “What are you looking for?” and he said,”Come and see.”
John 1:38, 39

Last weekend, when I heard the devastating news from Tucson about the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six others, I was on retreat with the Chapter of the Cathedral of St. Philip. (The Chapter is the elected group of eighteen lay leaders of the Church; four canons and I were also there.) We were in the snow-covered mountains of North Georgia, preparing for the year. Obviously, my outlook suddenly saddened. I was struck deeply by the news, not just because the violence was senseless and in such a public space, but because I admire public servants.

We need politicians. We need public servants, who are called and willing to enter our public places and to care for them. Public servants always risk their time, their honor, and their reputation; they are not supposed to be risking their physical lives. On our Cathedral Chapter this year, and on retreat with us, was the sister of one of Georgia’s statewide elected officials; she knows better than I what her brother must endure and care for.

We need politicians, politicians who take challenges and make themselves vulnerable. However, the Tucson events reminded me that, at some level, we are all politicians. We all have a place, politically, in this democratic republic of the United States of America, and we all take risks. The victims of the Tucson shootings, from a federal judge to a nine-year old child, were fulfilling their roles in the public square. They were showing up for a good old-fashioned “Meet your Congressperson” event. People and politicians were doing what we were supposed to be doing.

The theme I presented to the Cathedral Chapter was “Beloved Community.” It is the image with which I view the future. The Cathedral of St. Philip has the gift, in our times, of being a beloved community; all churches in these times have that gift. Our gift of beloved community enriches us, but it can also serve as a model of community for the world around us.

This weekend, our country honors the memory and the witness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., prophet and preacher of this city. Dr. King was fond of the phrase “beloved community,” and I will always associate the image of “beloved community” with him; but he was not its originator. I would claim that its origin goes back to the New Testament itself. “Beloved” is a dear phrase in the New Testament, from the instant in which Jesus is called “beloved” at his baptism, in the gospel lesson we heard last Sunday.

The first thing Jesus does after his baptism, the first thing he does, according to the Gospel of John, is call people to community. According to the Gospel of John, the first recorded words of Jesus are to people hanging around him. “What are you looking for?” Jesus asks them. “Rabbi,” they respond. And Jesus says, “Come and see.”

Come and see. The first thing the beloved Jesus does is call disciples into beloved community. Note, too, the countless instances in which Saint Paul describes his church members as “beloved” (five times in the Corinthian epistles). God really does love Jesus, who called the church into being. The church’s great apostle, Paul, really did love his people. The church is meant to be a community, beloved of God, beloved by each other, and beloved for the world.

But these are times in which our society seems especially confused about community. Our culture too easily accepts shallow community; and we often demand shallow community.Waiters come up to my table and introduce themselves by their first names. Talk show hosts demand that callers use only first names. Our schools and civic organizations and sports teams call themselves “families.” These associations are nice, and valuable to our wider community life. However, using intimate forms of conversation before the hard work of relationship-building can lead to dramatic disappointment. True community takes time and effort and care.

Another area where we are truly confused about community is in our use of television, the internet, and social media. (Can you believe that the term “social media” was not even a phrase a few years ago?) The speed in which we can acquire data, through television and random internet searches, leads us to think that we know all there is to know about a subject or person just with mechanical facts. Our social media sites give us the opportunity to make quick comments, and sometimes biting, vicious comments, about subjects and persons without having to look at other people face to face. These comments create a “form” of community, but that form is astoundingly weaker and less informed than face-to-face community! At their weakest, members of these “internet communities” are actually quite isolated and lonely; they become loners and renegades.

I do admit, of course, that these forms of social media, at their best, are wonderful! I find that, at their best, they reinforce healthy relationships that have already been formed face to face. I love reviewing social media photographs, for instance, which remind me of wonderful past events or which inform me of what my friend or colleague is doing.

Jesus continues to ask us, “What are you looking for? Jesus continues to ask our culture, “What are you looking for?” And we are looking for community, even when we are confused about it. Today, I believe the church has the calling and gift to be true community, to be “Beloved Community.” We are meant to gather together, to learn and laugh together, to love and cry together. And, together, we account for each other. We teach each other and hold each other to standards of civility and grace. We love for the long term, and we live for the long term, not the short term. The Christian Church, at our best, offers true and beloved community.

I am way down the line when it comes to being qualified to speculate about why the Tucson shootings occurred. Like you, I have read and listened to all sorts of reactions. But most of them leave me concerned that our various reactions to the shootings have become further elements of our polarized divisions. Even our various reactions to a tragedy have become occasions for antagonistic extremes.

David Gergen, at CNN.com, made the sad observation on 9 January 2011, just a day after the shootings, that “As of this hour, we have a country that is not only deeply saddened but even more divided than we were before the shooting.”

So, I repeat: Even our various reactions to a tragedy have become occasions for antagonistic extremes. I do not want to speculate too extremely myself. The simplest explanation for the Tucson violence is a deranged person. But I would also suggest that people who resort to violence are not, unfortunately, part of beloved communities. For various reasons, they sadly do not belong to communities who offer measured grace and civil relationship and justice over the long term. People who resort to violence are not part of healthy religious communities, healthy Christian churches, healthy Jewish synagogues, or healthy Muslim mosques. My sad comment about the Tucson shooter is that he did not have beloved community.

The way out of random acts of violence is the way of community. I mean healthy, life-giving, community; and I mean beloved community. It is beloved community that sustains daily interactions of civility and sustenance. With others, face to face, hand in hand, and sometimes arm to arm, we learn how to behave in the world. We learn how to care, and we learn how to express disapproval with peace and honor.

Finally, of course, in a beloved community, our ultimate values are the same values as the One who “beloves” us. And it is a peaceful and just God who beloves us. Such is the God who inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired him to realize that the church’s values of peace and non-violence could be a model for the world around us. That world certainly includes the political world, in which we all play a part. Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community came to include, not just the church, but the world itself. And that is our calling, too. All of us have a part in today’s political world, to risk ourselves, to give ourselves, to the peace and justice, honor and respect, of a truly beloved community. I thank God for everyone who shows up in this church, for beloved community. I thank God for everyone who shows up in the public square, for the common good, to take that risk.

“What are you looking for?” Jesus said, “Come and see.” Beloved community.