Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Danger of Certainty

Christian writer Annie Lamott wrote: “The opposite of faith is not doubt. It is certainty. You can tell you have created God in your own image when it turns out that he hates all the same people you do.”

In a world where so much is uncertain many people long for clarity and certainty, and religious faith can indeed provide that certainty in significant ways—the certainty that we are loved, the certainty that our lives have value and meaning, the certainty that nothing of ultimate importance can ever be taken from us, even by death.

But Annie is talking about a different and far more dangerous form of certainty—the certainty that we are right and those who disagree with us are wrong. That kind of certainty inevitably leads to intolerance, and a faith that preaches hatred or intolerance is no longer faith. Healthy faith fosters attitudes of respect, appreciation and cooperation between persons of other faiths, even while we “agree to disagree” about specific truth-claims. A friend of mine, the former pastor of a fairly conservative Evangelical church, enjoyed a close friendship with his Muslim neighbor. Some of his colleagues challenged him for sharing a friendship with a non-Christian. He shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Well, clearly one of us is wrong about Jesus.” They maintained their friendship for years, learning from one another and discovering how many values they held in common. Wisely, the left it to God to sort out which one of them was “right” and which was “wrong.”

Rigid, intolerant expressions of faith are almost always rooted in a narrow, literal interpretation of that faith’s sacred scriptures. I want to be careful here: not everyone who reads scripture literally is narrow-minded or intolerant. I am speaking of a “my way or the highway” interpretation that turns sacred scripture into a weapon employed to attack persons who read those same writings differently or who center their life in a different set of writings. If humility is indeed one of the greatest virtues, it seems to me that religious people should be sufficiently humble to admit that we cannot always be certain we are interpreting our sacred scriptures correctly. If we are to err, we should err on the side of the universal teachings of religious faith: kindness, compassion, justice, mercy and love. As Martin Luther once observed, “Even Satan can quote scripture to his own purposes.”

So be wary of anyone who claims to have no doubts that his or her interpretation of faith is absolutely correct. One of my favorite quotes comes from a Canadian pastor who was challenged to summarize the entire message of the Bible in a single sentence. He thought for a moment then offered this: “I am God and you are not!” Because we are not God – not even close – we are limited in our wisdom, knowledge and understanding. Which means that we should be slow to judge others, or to claim exclusive ownership of the truth.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Being Owned by Books

"I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves."
~ Anna Quindlen

A friend sent me that quote recently, knowing that I would appreciate it. Susan and I are both book lovers, often reading two or three books at the same time. We have lived in our house more than twenty years, and in the course of those years we have placed bookshelves most everyplace a bookshelf could be reasonably placed. These bookshelves are not only full; they are bulging at the seams. Which means we are living at the ragged edge of a major book crisis.

Susan is a wonderful lady with far fewer flaws and character defects than I have, but she has never willingly parted with a book. Because she is a college professor she has acquired an obscene number of books, including textbooks. Worse yet, one of the courses she teaches is “the history of psychology.” Because she teaches this course, she believes that it is her duty to keep a copy of every edition of every textbook that has ever been used to teach psychology.

Many of these textbooks currently reside on bookshelves in her office at the university. Someday she will retire, and when she does she will bring those books home. To make room for them, something will have to be moved out. Something or someone. I have every reason to believe she loves me very much, but if she had to choose between her books and me it would be a very tough choice.

For years now I have been attempting, with limited success, to enforce a rule that I call Mandatory Book Rotation. Books that we have recently read tend to get stacked in piles until the piles become dangerously high. When they do, they must be placed on a bookshelf. But because all the bookshelves are completely full, that means that other books must first be removed from those bookshelves and taken down to the bookshelves in the basement. Those bookshelves are also completely full, of course, so in order to place the books removed from the bookshelves in the den or the living room on the bookshelves in the basement, books must first be removed from the basement bookshelves. The books removed from the bookshelves in the basement are theoretically to be placed in cardboard boxes and taken to Goodwill.

This last step is the problematic one. Susan has no problem parting with clothing or other material possessions, but she is not above retrieving books from the Goodwill cartons and sneaking them back onto a bookshelf when I am not paying attention. Our house no longer stands on a foundation of poured cement; it rests on a foundation of Tolstoy and Updike.

I recently spent time in the basement with a tape measure. If I removed non-essential items – chairs, for example – I might be able to squeeze three more bookshelves down there. But I dare not do that yet because all three would instantly be filled, leaving no space for the books from Susan’s office when she retires. So we need to do some serious negotiation about which books to keep and which to donate to Goodwill. It will not be easy. As we move into our sixties, we are sincerely attempting to let go of possessions we already own rather than acquiring more. But somewhere along the way books became defined as “friends” rather than “possessions.” And you don’t get rid of friends.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Getting Older, Staying Married

I had lunch today with someone I have known casually for more than 25 years but have never had an extended conversation with before. We bumped into one another at a social gathering more than six months ago and made vague vows to “have lunch sometime” and finally followed through.

She is, I think, a few years older than I am. About three years ago she retired from a demanding position and began what she thought would be a wonderful new phase of life, working part-time while returning to her long-neglected interest in doing art. She quickly discovered, as she put it, that “I do not do well without external structure.” She is once more working full-time in a demanding position and has no plans to leave it in the foreseeable future.

Her husband, meanwhile, has been retired for four years and has no intention of ever working again. I asked her if he was pressuring her to quit working so that they could have more time to play together, and she smiled and shook her head. That was another thing she learned during her brief period of retirement: their marriage works much better when they are not together all day. Her working schedule has a bit of variability, so on days when she is home he tends to take reading materials to a restaurant (he is well-known at McDonalds). She is pushing him to add some new activities to his life, but he is resisting. She even set up a blog for him so that he could write about his field of expertise, but he has yet to make an entry in it. It sounds as if he is perfectly content doing nothing much in particular.

I do not think their marriage is “troubled;” it is likely as good as or better than most. Like every marriage I know, it is its own unique creature. But I suspect that in the next few years, as growing numbers of baby boomers who are more-or-less happy in long-term marriages retire, we will see a lot of couples scratching their heads and sorting out what it is going to be all about. Who are we together, and what passions will drive out lives both individually and corporately? I have known many couples who struggled or even divorced after the nest emptied because parenting was the only thing they really knew how to do together. I wonder how many other couples basically bought themselves some extra years after the kids moved out by stepping up the pace with work/career. If there is truth to that, the chickens will come home to roost when retirement comes.

There are several variants of the retired husband joke whose punchline is “I married him for better or worse, but not for lunch.” More and more folks are living that joke and trying to figure out if it is funny, true or both. My broad observation is that men in retirement tend to become more isolated than women do (not always unhappily) but that both genders experience this to some degree. Relating to a spouse who is spending less time with other people on a daily basis can bring challenges that take us by surprise. I know that Susan frets a bit about me taking less initiative to get together with friends for lunch or coffee than I did a few years ago. I plead tight budget, which is certainly true. It is also true that there are a fair number of people I used to think it important to spend time with, say, once a month who I am now content to see three or four times a year. It is not that they have become less interesting or that we are less fond of one another; we simply do not have as many day-to-day shared experiences to talk about. Which appears to be what is happening to some couples as their respective worlds become a bit smaller in retirement.

What are the things that married couples express interest in doing more of when they finally both retire? Golfing? Shopping? We don’t do the first and hate the second. Travel? That would be great if our savings and pensions were not down the toilet. Moving to Florida? I have instructed our children to shoot me if I ever talk such foolishness. So it will likely involve more community service, writing, and speaking about topics we have passion about. Susan will live the life of a born academic as long as there is life in her, writing books and articles and hopping on airplanes for speaking engagements until her arthritic joints give out on her entirely. I will putter (I love to putter) about the house and yard, play my ukulele and tell bad jokes. We will likely continue to find things to talk about, and even eat the occasional lunch together. We are very fortunate.

But it will certainly help if we can both maintain active lives beyond our marriage. I suspect one of the reasons that my acquaintance was eager to have lunch with me today is that – despite her engaging job, her solid marriage and her grandchildren – she is a bit lonely. Loneliness in various forms will be one of the greatest challenges for our age cohort as we age. Which is precisely why we need to be thinking and talking about radical new forms of church and community. We baby boomers have already reinvented ourselves several times, or at least we have that conceit. Now it is time for us to reinvent old age.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

My Buddy Darwin

Last night I received a phone call from a faculty member – a biologist – at UW-Fox Valley inviting me to be a participant in a panel discussion on Charles Darwin’s birthday. She had heard me give a convocation address a few years ago, so pretty much assumed that I did not have a big problem with Darwin, but she still did a little two-step shuffle, feeling me out on the matter. I asked her if she was familiar with the Clergy Letter Project, which she was. “Well, I wrote that letter,” I informed her. I could feel her relax, right through the phone.

Some history here: In 2004 I received a call from Michael Zimmerman, then a dean at UW-O. Michael is a passionate and energetic man, a scientist who was somewhere between appalled and terrified by the successful efforts in Wisconsin and elsewhere to stack school boards with Fundamentalist Christians determined to get the theory of evolution out of public classrooms, or at least to have it presented as “one theory among many” alongside so-called Creation Science. He wanted me to draft a letter stating that science and faith were not incompatible with one another, with the goal of having that letter endorsed by other clergy.

I agreed to write it primarily because I was afraid that it would be written badly by someone else. I asked that my name not be used, not out of either modesty or fear of backlash, but simply because I did not consider it a big deal. I devoted all of twenty minutes to writing it, and moved on to other things.

I had underestimated Michael’s passion and energy. It became a very big deal indeed, and soon I was being tracked down by reporters and folks who wanted to acquaint me with the error of my ways. It became an important resource in successful efforts to reverse school board actions in a number of communities, and it continues in circulation to this day. The last I checked, it had about 12,000 endorsers.

It is slowly sinking in that this two-paragraph letter I dashed out in twenty minutes and took no credit for is likely to be the most widely read and influential piece I will write in my lifetime. Had I known that would happen, I might have devoted an extra ten minutes to writing it. And to be perfectly honest, I will always harbor some ambivalence about my role in this. I comfortably stand by what I wrote, and sincerely believe that the theory of evolution is, as I wrote, “a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests.”

My problem is that sometimes I feel like I have served the cause of Scientific Fundamentalists – those who makes no room for the possibility of God at the table of science and sincerely believes the world would be a far better place if all religions disappeared overnight (please note that I am not speaking of Michael, but of some of his bedfellows. Which is not to suggest that he is sleeping with scientific fundamentalists).

Religious Fundamentalists refuse to welcome science and reason to their table—if science appears to contradict a verse in the Bible, then science is false. For Scientific Fundamentalists, such apparent contradictions “prove” that religion is false. A pox on both their houses! Both extremist views are, in my view, abhorrent, which is why I ended the letter with the statement: “We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.” But I still have the uneasy feeling that I helped one set of bad guys beat another set of bad guys, and that I in some ways compromised faith in the process.

So what will likely be my most influential contribution to the world of ideas was written anonymously, and I will always be a bit ambivalent about having done it. There’s got to be a metaphor in there somewhere. Oh, because Michael leaves no opportunities to seek support for his cause on the table, he put the entire story up on Wikipedia, and thoughtfully credited me with authorship. We do not get to choose what our legacy will be—it gets assigned to us by others.