Friday, May 25, 2012

God Delusion update: Okay, I think this will get better once Dawkins moves on to biology. It's not that it's bad, exactly -- just that it's frustrating to try and read it with an open mind and to suspect that this openness is being taken advantage of, as I tend to when a writer makes claims but then doesn't support them with reasoning or references.

On the most basic level, unless I'm missing something, on page 42 Dawkins reproduces two quotes from Thomas Jefferson for which he offers no source; he goes on, on 43, to string together a number of very short quotes, none of which is cited, and follows up with another uncited quote by Ghandi on 45.

Of the material he does cite, one John Adams quote is second hand, quoted in the context of an online article in which an Ed Buckner discusses the reception of the quote (which seems to me to deal with religious tolerance of Muslims, rather than with atheism; but of course I can't be positive, since I have no way of establishing its context). The same for many of the other citations: for example, I'm confused because I think that David McCullough's biography of Adams starts out by referencing Adams' faith, and I'd like to be able to try and resolve these contradictory elements of his character. But I can't do that, really, because I don't know where or when Adams and Jefferson said the things Dawkins is saying they said.

Dawkins does a marginally better job of citing Christopher Hitchen's biography of Jefferson and David Mills' Atheist Universe -- no page numbers, but at least he gives titles -- but  his synopsis of Mills' work doesn't really suggest to me that the book is particularly "admirable", as he claims. I'm generally suspicious of writers who rely heavily on dialect, especially in nonfiction, especially in nonfiction that is already transparently advancing a specific point of view. I suppose it isn't beyond the realm of possibility that someone would say the following sentence: "Is you gonna protest fir him or 'gin him?" and that this has nothing to do with the author's feelings about the character in question, or that the feelings followed the event, rather than the event being colored by the narrator's feelings. But I have not heard anyone talk like this, ever, and this passage doesn't do anything to effectively make this kind of speech believable. A better writer would have treated the character in such a way that the situation he's describing, and not the antagonist's speech, is the focus. Overall, the book Dawkins describes doesn't seem like reliable evidence for the point he is trying to make here, or for any point that doesn't relate directly to Mills' feelings about the situations he describes.

Margaret Downey's website,* which chronicles abuses against atheists,may be more reliable -- but I  wonder why Dawkins has to cite that website and not, for example, a police report or news article from a mainstream news source, when he claims a man was murdered for being an atheist. If his idea is that prejudice against atheists is so extreme that mainstream news forums do not carry the story when they are murdered, I think he should probably discuss this. Otherwise it just makes the Freethought Society website seem like a suspicious, fringe source of information.

(While I couldn't actually find the reference he cited -- the link doesn't work any more -- I did find a reference to the story on another atheist web site; it probably bears mentioning that the college student committing the murder seems to be mentally ill, one, and was sentenced to 25 to 45 years, two -- suggesting that to me that this might not be the best example of socially-sanctioned persecution of atheists.)

Probably the biggest failing of documentation is Dawkins' claim that the God of the Old Testament is a "psychotic delinquent" (38). However firmly Dawkins believes this statement, and however central it is to the book's argument, it is not so evident as to require no references or examples to back it up. Even a perfunctory list of episodes that support this conclusion would be helpful.

Dawkins doesn't provide them. I don't know whether he doesn't think it's necessary to support this claim, or whether he understands and doesn't want to deal with the fact that most of Old Testament stories that are read by some as proving God's psychosis or delinquency are also read by others in radically different ways -- or whether he doesn't want to afford the Old Testament the same reasonable treatment you would give to another literary text, especially those written thousands of years ago, in a radically different culture and in a foreign language, such as considering the genre or consulting scholarly work about them.

The second out-and-out silly claim -- one for which I think it would be hard to even establish a case, should Dawkins want to (apparently, he doesn't) -- is that theology "has not moved on in eighteen centuries" (34) . I'm not well read in theology, but I would have liked him to either mention the contemporary theologians who led him to this conclusion (at the very least), or, more to the point, to make an argument for how Marcus Borg, N.T. Wright, Paul Tillich, John Shelby Spong, Richard Neuhaus, or Matthew Fox (to name only a few that I've actually read) are fundamentally the same as St. Gregory the Miracle Worker, the single theologian he actually cites. He may have a case, but he doesn't make it.

This isn't a matter of the supposed "courtier's reply" (a thing I can't find discussed anywhere other than on explicitly "rational"/ secular websites). Dawkins is making a claim comparing contemporary theology to third century theology and offers as evidence a single quote from the one, taken from an encyclopedia article, and nothing at all from the former. I did more research for my third-grade report comparing Henry and Gerald Ford. Which I wrote in a two-room schoolhouse operated by fundamentalist Christians. Who taught me Creationism!

 Anyway, I feel like atheists who have taken a basic college writing course should probably be concerned about this book -- and that Christians who dislike its premise should probably not feel the need to castigate Dawkins for writing it. Maybe they aren't, and do, because while the book hasn't been especially well-reviewed (Terry Eagleton is pretty much negative, The New York Times more measured), a lot of people like it. I'd point out that a lot of people like Fox News and Michael Moore movies; this doesn't legitimize them. It doesn't mean they're bad, either; each has to stand on its own merits. So far, The God Delusion doesn't. Lots of smart people are atheists; presumably there's a stronger case against the existence of God to made than this. Maybe Dawkins just hasn't got around to making it?

* I tried to link to the website he cites,, but it wouldn't link. Then I tried:, since when I googled "Freethought Society Philadelphia", I saw that the URL for their main website has changed. No luck. Here is the link to their new main page: -- and there is why I would be more convinced by arguments drawn primarily from sources that 1. were cited, and 2. were not web sites.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

word that don't mean what we think they mean

I'm actually pretty excited about The God Delusion now. I don't know how to deal with what Dawkins probably would say is his most significant claim -- the objective reality that there is no God -- other than to say that that isn't my reality, that I've experienced a reality that corresponds to what I read in the Bible about God, and that that's true to me in an essential way. I understand that Dawkins hasn't experienced such a reality, but I believe this stems from a worldview that I would see as limited even if I didn't believe in anything supernatural.

The thing is, though, that the God he is articulating and then dismissing, not just as a delusion, but as a pernicious one (31) -- that God does exist as an idea in our culture. It sometimes seems to me that it is our culture's dominant idea of God. It, or He, is not my God; it's a caricature of the God in which I believe, the God I experience. But Dawkins isn't the one who came up with it.

In Chapter 2, Dawkins ridicules the arguments of Christology and the trinity (see his brief "treatment" of the arguments over the nature of the Trinity on pages 32-33). But the arguments he holds up as asinine are not things he made up, and he's not the only one preoccupied with them. And his claim that there's absolutely no way of knowing details about the exact nature of God's relationship to Christ seems fairly legitimate to me; moreover, he could make this point about a lot of discussions within theology. I think it's important for theologians, and more importantly, for the conferences of various denominations and the congregations of individual churches to maintain perspective about where these sort of details fit into the experience of Christianity and our collective expressions of faith.

The thing Dawkins misses (so far), of course, is that most everyday Christians (and probably most people of most faiths) don't live or die by the nuances of their denominations creed and dogma. In reality, most people who claim to be Christian don't know very much about the Bible, let alone the various debates that frame the way we view it. This is another kind of problem, since it often leads to the sort of unexamined faith that takes for granted that the Bible condemns gay marriage and abortion per se and that salvation is about going to Heaven when you die. But to the degree that my faith is at risk of becoming a matter of working out nuanced new dogmas and defining as Christian only those who adhere to them, and as "saved" only those who are Christian, Dawkins' work could be a useful corrective. 

He's really under no obligation to get Christianity right -- though I think he'd make a stronger case if he looked at a wider range of sources when he criticized it. But it should be important to me that I get it right, in the sense that believing a bunch of truth claims about Jesus is not actually the point of Christianity. I don't think Christ's claim that "no man comes unto the Father but by me", for example, can necessarily be taken to mean that thinking the correct thoughts about Jesus determines salvation.

As Borg points out in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, to make it a condition of salvation that one "believes", in the sense of accepting, specific truth claims about God and Christ, is to make salvation conditional. Borg and Wright both seem to take the position that the redemptive work of the cross is done and is being done all the time, but not by us; so thinking the right things about Jesus doesn't make a person more or less saved.

This understanding of Christianity seems to me to be quite different from the one Dawkins is describing. It also seems to call into question the pretty central claim of most contemporary churches that you have to "believe in Jesus" -- that is, to agree that Jesus was God -- in order to be saved. I'm unconvinced that this is what the Gospel means by believe, and I think the theologies of salvation put forth by Wright and Borg may be more credible.

If nothing else, Dawkin's efforts to attack Christianity on multiple fronts does highlight elements of the "faith" as it is commonly practiced and perceived that may be pretty vulnerable to criticism, even by believers, separating these aspects of religion from those about which I feel more sure, such as the reality of God and the divinity of Christ.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

So I read Chapter 1 of The God Delusion, and: no faith crisis, no mental collapse. It took a lot for me to start reading it, not so much because I'm afraid of Dawkins' irrefutable rationalism, but because, in the first place, I tend to be susceptible to the ideas of others, and, in the second, Dawkins has the upper hand in the sense that he's arguing about things he understands and denying the existence of what he doesn't. That's an easier position to maintain than my own, which is that I affirm the existence of something I claim to experience, but haven't seen or heard or touched, that I can't prove scientifically -- since, by my definition, God is bigger than science.

The first chapter of Dawkins doesn't (yet?) reveal the snide, disingenuous character I'd expected -- the bits of rhetorical underhandedness, like congratulating the heretofore Christian reader whose "native intelligence" will allow him to put down Dawkin's book a new atheist (6), are probably unintentional. He's not trying to sway readers eager to feel smart; he genuinely sees atheism as the only rational, and therefore intelligent, response to his work. He does do that thing were he selects evidence to support a claim as though there wasn't a lot of other, contradictory evidence (see, for example, his unequivocal claim that Einstein was an atheist, of which I'm suspicious, but which I think I should write about after reading Jammer's Einstein and Religion for myself). I believe qualifying your arguments makes them stronger than does simply dismissing or obscuring contradictory evidence. In my discussions with atheists of this type (limited!), I've determined that they tend to see this sort of qualification as a kind of weakness.

If it's hard for me to deal with The God Delusion, it's not so much because Dawkins is so unanswerable in his claims and I lack the moral courage to admit it (his take) or because Dawkins is just a smarmy, propagandizing asshat (the take of most of the reviewers who dislike him). It's more that he has a lot of different issues with religion, and should a person respond to one, he's all ready to jumped onto another. Later in the book, Dawkins cites Jefferson in describing the impossibility of responding to vague ideas; I'd add that this is equally the case whether the ideas you want to deconstruct are poorly defined from the start or whether they constitute a moving target -- ie, I'm responding to the tired and incorrect characterization of the Old Testament God, and Dawkins just announced that that's not the point, anyway. (So why open the chapter with it?)

It would be helpful, for example, if Dawkin's critique that religion is damaging, and that religious beliefs that damage others shouldn't be afforded special treatment under the law, had their own book. In one part of the first chapter, he discusses a court case in which a child's right to wear a shirt claiming that gays were going to hell was defended as a religious freedom, as well as a debacle in which Muslims worldwide were incited to violence over some cartoons published in Denmark.

I think Dawkins is absolutely correct about the role religion played in how these situations were addressed. It's entirely reasonable to indict Christianity for allowing people to infringe on the rights of others, often breaking the law to do so, and then to claim that their faith justifies/ demands it. Everyone should be thinking about this argument, however they feel about Dawkins' promotion of atheism as the solution. (They might also want to research the issues he's talking about, though; I don't think that ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia can ultimately be attributed to religion just because the the various groups had different religious beliefs, any more than you could call it an act of racial violence if I get into a fight with an African-American commuter over a subway seat this morning.)

But it's not going to be possible for Christians to respond to that charge without referring back to the Bible and the various ways in which it has been interpreted -- pointing out, for example, that reading Yahweh as a God of vengeance is one of many readings of the Bible, and that responsible Christians read the passages about war and punishments against passages about everlasting love and compassion, one, and in the formal and historical context in which the texts were produced, two. If Dawkins just responds to these arguments by claiming the Bible is not credible, so actually attending to the text is as unnecessary as consulting an expert on "fairyology" (16), then he's moving on to an entirely different issue. It can't be that the Bible is permissible as evidence when he's making the case that religion is destructive, but irrelevant when Christians want to respond to that claim. Both arguments  -- that the Bible incites violence and justifies bigotry and that the Bible isn't a reliable source of evidence --  are legitimate, but each treats the Bible differently and belongs in a different book (or, at least, in its own chapter, kept from creeping into the other argument to queer its premise and terms).

This distinction is particularly important because I don't think any argument that God exists would be legitimate within Dawkin's worldview; he is candid about the fact that he believes everything fits into, and can be explained by, the natural world and (more significantly) scientific discourse. Religious people (as well as postmodernists) don't think that; both think that the scientific and logical discourse he endorses is a structure within a larger material world that can't be described through science. (A postmodernist would say, I think, that this meaninglessness is the ultimate; I believe that beyond Dawkin's science, and beyond the meaninglessness, is God).

There's not really a point, as far as I can see, in having that kind of discussion with Dawkins -- though I think it's probably helpful to read his ideas and understand where he's coming from. But the claims he makes about the various inanities and contradictions of religious people and culture are something that we can, and should, discuss. While his argument includes some claims and references that I think are poorly constructed, or wrong, it also contains some really valid points that directly bear on both atheists and believers. Rather than just pointing out the flaws in his argument, I think someone should address its main points on this topic with more care.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bad Faith

I had to return How God Became King , to my disappointment; I would have liked to re-read it. After I finished it, I knocked out Antony Flew's There is a God -- hence the weekend crisis over New Atheism. The book itself kind of got obscured for me by its role in the unsettling public negotiation of Flew's "conversion" to Deism, a side story in which no one came out looking well and I ended up feeling really depressed and hating the word senescence -- although actually, the less-loaded definition at isn't quite as unpalatable as the wikipedia entry.

It's frustrating that, as helpful as biology is in, say, developing stem cell therapy for people with spinal cord injury or pursuing ways toto treat Alzheimer's, the ideology that has grown out of contemporary evolutionary biology is as ugly and destructive as Social Darwinism. This ugliness is reflected in efforts to connect Flew's change in thinking to some sort of inexorable decline by throwing out a word that simultaneously connotes scientific authority and provokes negative associations about aging -- so that, not even knowing Flew, the reader thinks: well, obviously a man in his eighties might be more vulnerable to the spiritual equivalent of ponzi schemes and infomercials; poor Tony.

Anyway, after finishing Flew and tearing myself away from nasty play-by-plays of Flew's coming out on various secular websites, and Mark Oppenheimer's (probably) more balanced account -- it includes references to Oppenheimer's meeting with Flew but only a spliced-up description of the interview itself, and it relies more heavily on Richard Carrier's perspective than I think is justified, given that the guy had to self-publish his books and seems more like a precocious undergraduate than a historian* -- I retreated to the equally problematic but less anxiety-provoking The New Atheist Crusaders and their Unholy Grail, by Becky Garrison.

Garrison makes interesting points, most of which I already agreed with -- who doesn't like that? But the book is really uneven; I don't know if she's a bad writer or if she just lacks the distance to treat this subject well. She makes a lot of her role as a "religious satirist" -- by which I mean, she mentions it in almost every chapter -- and I feel like announcing yourself as a satirist suggests a certain level of difficulty with the genre.

In point of fact, I don't really think of any of what Garrison's writing as satire: in most of the book, she's directly challenging or mocking New Atheists, then retreating to a plea to "just get along". She seems to think that her dislike of religious dogma gives her common ground with New Atheists like Dawkins, who not only reject the premises of religion but seem to just plain dislike religious people, and that that will make her often lazily articulated criticism of their ideas more palatable. But I think Dawkins would probably be more interested in tearing apart her faith and its sloppy articulation here than in forming an alliance with her against the fundamentalists she dislikes.

Garrison also uses a lot of weird anachronisms that I think are supposed to make her seem hip, but that actually make it seem like she's not really taking her own arguments seriously. Most troubling, she seems to have confused injecting various forms of "come on, REALLY?" or, say, accusing Harris of "putting his fingers in his ears and singing 'Nanny nanny boo boo' " with dealing some kind of death blow to the people she's critiquing. I think she probably is smart -- though probably not as smart as Dawkins -- but her writing in this book makes her seem either dumb, lazy, or both. It's discouraging, since I think actual satire of Dawkins would be really funny, and since the footnotes here suggests that Garrison actually has material with which she could construct a relevent critique of New Atheism.

* I.e., Carrier, who was born in 1969 and got his BA in 1997, only actually finished his PhD in 2008; the two books listed on CV are published through Lulu and Authorhouse, both self-publishing companies; his shorter published pieces are primarily, though not all, either encyclopedia articles or contributions to "secular" magazines and web sites, rather than academic journals; the four conferences he lists include two sponsored by universities and two "special interest" conferences -- no mainstream forums for historical research. This isn't to disparage him -- "historian" seems to be his second career, and good for him, for that. It is to point out that despite his Columbia education, his CV kind of resembles that of a promising and eccentric new post-doc who could have used a better adviser, maybe not someone whose indictments of Flew should be understood as substantive or unbiased. Considering how unsparingly Oppenheimer skewers Varghese, another bizarre player in this strange story, he lets Carrier off pretty easily -- and it's not clear to me that Carrier is any more credible.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Anxiety, Fallout

Just one fabulous aspect of being Amanda is my recurring sense that I'm obligated to seek out exactly those extremes in worldview that provoke me most. Lately, I'm grappling with New Atheism on the one hand and a specific and apparently popular type of Biblical literalism on the other.

I remember now why I went to graduate school, not law school, after college: scholars are trained to frame questions and then look for answers; their arguments (should) derive from what they find. Lawyers are trained to establish what argument they intend to make and then seek out the evidence that best supports it -- or, when faced with a lack of such evidence, to do the best they can to employ the available evidence in the service of their claim.

I think this is why Dawkins' work on evolutionary biology holds up to the staunchest critics -- I don't find anyone, really criticizing his scientific writing (except for his weird pet theory of the meme) -- but his writing on God, while hugely popular, is not as well reviewed.* I say this with the caveat that I haven't yet read The God Delusion, though I plan to. From the reviews and excerpts that I've read, however, I have the impression Dawkins writes like a scholar in the fields in which he is a scholar, and probably more like a lawyer in the fields in which he has a more circumscribed frame of reference.

Dawkins' worldview, as I understand it, is irreconcilable with my own mostly because I see scientific discourse as functioning within history/History, whereas (I think) Dawkins would claim that it's totality -- that there is nothing outside of science. 

This is an impasse, I think. Were I to say that the God I believe in extends beyond science, existing both within and outside of it, and that consequently, I'm not able to produce scientific evidence for Him, Dawkins would likely say that that invalidates the entire belief.
I think he wouldn't call it special pleading because I'm not trying to argue that God can be proved scientifically, logically, or philosophically; I'm stating that I don't believe that those frameworks are all-compassing, and I believe God to be outside them. So any reasoning I have for believing in God will necessarily include "logical fallacies" like relying on my own experience as "evidence".

I get that, and I'm okay with it, but it does make me question whether Christian apologetics are ultimately helpful or not. My sense (and my Bible reading lately is heavily concentrated in the book of John) is that Jesus's vision for how we are to facilitate His reaching those around us is less discursive than apologists imagine. 

At the other end of the spectrum, I'm trying to work out specific texts in the Bible that bother me -- or rather, the various incompatible interpretations of which bother me.

Now, the Old Testament verses addressing homosexuality seem clearly to have been misinterpreted, and I don't know very many people who reference them any more, other than non-Christians who want to use them as a straw man. But while Paul's comments in Romans and Corinthians seem to me to bear on situations within the early church, none of which resemble contemporary homosexual monogamy, I know a lot of other readers do see these remarks as extending to address, and condemn, homosexual behavior generally.

A cursory browsing of commentaries on Romans 1 suggests to me that homosexuality became central to interpretations of Romans 1:26-27 relatively recently; Barth's commentary, for example, focuses on idolatry first, and the subsequent diminishing of those in question to “eroticism”, second. It did not seem to me to be focused on homosexuality specifically, but obviously, he's Karl Barth and I probably need to read the entire text more carefully. At the moment, my impression is that people started using these texts when it was pointed out that Sodom and Gomorrah left those arguing for the immorality of homosexuality on shaky ground. But I could be wrong, I guess, and it bears looking into.

I don't see how my political feelings could change, either way; it's clear to me that it's no more the place of Christianity to mandate heterosexual marriage than it is our place to mandate tithing, giving to the poor, or women submitting to their husbands, or to outlaw remarriage, adultery, or working on Saturdays. But reading actual scholars who feel this way, rather than posters to internet forums who take a Bible mandate against homosexuality for granted, might help me to understand why these people feel this way about being gay. I haven't found convincing evidence for this belief in the Bible; obviously, though some people read it differently. It might enable me to be more loving to those people if I understood better (at all) where they are coming from.

*It's also possible that people just don't like being told that the things they believe in aren't true; but I think if that were the cause, then the books would be well-reviewed by the godless scholarly types I was warned about as a child, and poorly-received by the unthinking masses flocking to religion as a source of consolation.

Friday, May 18, 2012

the kingdom of God is what now? -- Wright Stuff 2

Here's my theological conundrum of the day:

Wright basically identifies the Gospel as simultaneously being the following:

1. the story of Israel, brought to completion after (not) ending with a whimper in Malachi

2. the story of Israel's God, a particular kind of God -- I think this is really important since the Old Testament seems to have become a sort of stumbling block and a lot of time I just don't have the energy to get into it over Leviticus one more time

3. the renewal of God's people (not, Wright is adamant, the launching of a new group of Gods people via the early Christian church), and

4. the clash of God's kingdom with those of the world

If I'm reading it correctly, Wright believes that by recognizing that Jesus died to renew Israel, and by extension, the world -- not to save me specifically, though of course, as part of that world, I'm remade, too -- we also recognize that our individual redemption is inseparable from the advancement of God's kingdom, starting now. (Well, starting then, I guess, but starting, for me specifically, with the moment(s) I enter into my own salvation, (re)encountering Jesus and being remade by Him.)

But what is God's kingdom? What does it look like? I think, in the back of my mind, I pretty much have assumed I know that, and am only now really thinking hard about it, trying to not take it for granted. In that sense, the crisis over gay marriage has been really instructive for me. (How awesome! I love when the oppression of marginalized groups facilitates the personal growth of corresponding privileged groups! Except: oh, wait, actually, that's asinine.)

I take for granted that Gods kingdom looks like love being valued, especially when that love is something that has to be fought for, something that transcends not just categories like race, class or gender but the institutions that make those categories an issue. I mean that, not in the sense that I haven't struggled with claims that race and gender do matter to God, but in the sense that I did evaluate those claims, read the Bible, prayed, resolved the issue to my own satisfaction, and no longer wonder whether God has a problem with homosexuality or not.

But what do you do when people who seem equally committed to God and His word have a vision of the kingdom so unlike, and incompatible with, your own? I mean, I imagine God's kingdom as a place where justice is being done, where hate and prejudice are marginalized to make room for the very people who the haters and prejudice are seeking to marginalize. Where the infinite value that God attributes to each individual is affirmed by the people who represent Him.

I'm only really starting to try and make sense of the fact that that is not what God's kingdom looks like to others -- so when I'm like, sign my gay marriage petition this and come to my FGM conference that and sleep at a homeless shelter what-have-you, they're not interested, not because the kingdom doesn't matter to them, but because they are trying to bring into being an entirely different kingdom.

That maybe sounds like I'm thinking my idea is right and just looking for a way to work that in. I'm not. Obviously, I do think my vision of the kingdom is right, is Biblical; otherwise I'd have a different vision. But I'm legitimately confused about how they can have one that is so different from my own. I mean, honestly, it seems like a lot of contemporary Christians are going to their Bibles, reading them as scrupulously as I try to read mine, and finding in them a totally different God.

That's deeply unsettling to me for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it does seem to affirm the claims of non-believers that we just make our God in our own image, that He isn't real.

I don't have any way to resolve that. It's pretty high up, I guess, on lists of things to pray over today.

To Anne Lamott's two greatest prayers (Thank you, thank you, thank you and Help me, help me, help me), may I suggest adding: Wtf, wtf, wtf?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Good teachers change lives

So, the new crop of Teaching Fellows transcripts showed up in my mailbox yesterday morning, and I reviewed them and ate free bagels (which, maybe I should stop my bitching about the million meetings faculty are always having at Hunter, because, yum) and then went home, crabby and depressed, and tutored one of my students.

And felt better, because who wouldn't? Teaching is the best thing in the world.

The best thing except my husband, my son, and my parents, which is, of course, why I'm becoming a nurse.

But the fact that I'm not willing to make the sacrifices required to be a full-time teacher makes it more important for me to point out that all of my desire to teach (in or out of the classroom), and most of the other choices I have made, have been directly or indirectly influenced by a particular teacher I had in high school, Ms. Bryant.

I was lucky to have a lot of pretty terrific teachers once I went to high school -- smart people who generally treated me with respect even though I was different. (I'll point out that my brother, probably no more different than I was, but less desperate to be liked, did not have this experience, and should have; but then, we had very few of the same teachers.)

Ms. Bryant was the best, though. She was so good that she managed to get through to me even though, for much of the year I spent in her class, I was 1. seriously ill and 2. barely attending. She was the perfect teacher for me, from her summer reading assignments to her unwillingness to pull punches (her notes on my incoherent written response to "The Hunger Artist" precipitated my pulling it together enough to graduate high school and go on to college; she was also the person who got me to reconsider my excessive reliance on hyphens in analytical writing).

It's frustrating to be a creative person when you're in high school; a lot of people think they are "English people," when actually they are just inexact, people for whom precision is difficult or irrelevant and who, subsequently, can't get through science or math courses. My biggest criticism of the current education system is that its system for identifying academic progress does nothing to separate these people from people who actually use language well, or who can attend to it responsibly in a text or a poem or a journal article.

This, I think, is the root of a lot of the current political problems we're facing: people can decode, but they can't read. This is why people pull a single verse from the Bible or from the Constitution, ignore history, context, syntax, and every other tool designed for use in interpreting a text, and hold it up as a marker for their pet belief.

My experience is that often, contemporary readers honestly do not know how to differentiate between a close reading and a cursory reading of a text. Moreover, they're suspicious of critical reading; they claim that texts like the Bible and the Constitution should be self-evident. (Because texts inspired by the Infinite and translated across multiple languages, centuries, and cultures generally are transparent, right? Because readers who thought the Bible and the Constitution legitimized slavery were misguided, but we can't possibly be, correct?)

Whatever Sam Harris wants to tell you, for a long time, religious faith was a motivating factor for some pretty remarkable intellectual and creative work. People founded churches, produced treatises, and led revolutions in their efforts to seek out God. The current climate -- in which reactionary politics and unexamined faith join hands -- is what happens when the difference between decoding and reading is regarded as somehow indulgent, a "higher order concern", when you point out that the bar we've set for our students is so low that it's basically irrelevant and are met by claims that you're letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I'm not the smartest person in the world; I don't think I was even the smartest person in her class, if such a distinction means anything. But I was educated well while I was in it, and I left it better able to make sense of the world. Particularly since I had grown up in a fundamentalist religious environment, that education has been critical; it's allowed me to re-approach my God and my faith without having to try to force myself into beliefs that are not just contradictory, but incoherent.

This isn't to say I have all the answers, either; obviously I don't. But I do have a sense of what questions to ask when I'm approaching a public policy, a historical event, a Biblical passage.

Good teaching matters. I don't want this to turn into a diatribe about how our educational system is careening off course, how the kids who need teachers like Ms. Bryant "most" won't get them. I was a white kid in a rural school; I needed her badly enough. Policy trends being what they are, and those currently in control of them being who they are, I guess I should be happy if anyone gets a teacher like her at all.

I do want to thank her, to acknowledge how much of my life, of myself, I owe to her, and how to the degree that our current generation includes people willing to negotiate the limits of both modern "rationality" and pre-modern literalism in a post-modern world, it's because of teachers like her. Whatever I do with the remainder of my life, I hope I'm able to impact any one person -- student, patient, tutee, my own son -- as positively as she impacted me.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Atonement Theology, also not all about me: Wright Stuff 1

OK, How God Became King. We're down to the wire here: the book's overdue and on reserve and my next library trip (happy day!) is this evening. So: here are my thoughts, around 200 pages in.

This article at Internet Monk is really helpful before, during, and after reading. While Wright's sentences are all very clear individually, the distinction he constructs between how the Gospel is perceived now and how it was intended by the evangelists is hard to grasp. This may be because I don't have a background in liturgy: I've heard the creeds he starts with, but the church in which I grew up didn't use them. So essentially, Wright is arguing against an interpretation of Christ couched in terms that don't actually seem ubiquitous to me.

What is recognizable in Wright's description of contemporary Christianity is its focus on being saved so you can go to Heaven. None of the "four speakers" that Wright envisions blaring the Gospel as it culminates at the cross touch on this; none of them are about how now Amanda gets to go to Heaven if she's good, and her dad won't be sick and her unborn babies will be there.

Honestly, the idea that Jesus's death is not fundamentally about my personal Get out of Mortality Free card is overwhelming. I don't want to die. I'm not really afraid of it; my worst fears about death involve there just not being a God or Heaven to "go to", which is sad, not scary.

If instead of walking down to the public library, my Grandpa is with his Creator, well, I'm not really sad about that at all, then. If my baby won't know me because he went directly to Christ, I'm pretty okay. If they're just gone, if what they get now is a big "nothing" -- well, that hurts.

It hurts more to think of all the people whose primary experiences of grief don't only involve people they loved who lived into their eighties and babies they never met. I want this to be resolved so badly that I have to fight back anxiety as I grapple with the idea that God is allowing this now, whatever the plan is for then.

It will be resolved. I think that's central to the Gospel -- Christ's claims that He will make all things new, that He is the way, that those who believe in Him, though they die, will live.

I just wonder if that really means the things we tell ourselves it means, or if -- as Wright seems to suggest -- I've become so caught up in attaching Christ's work to my hopes for my individual future that I am missing the actual nature of that work, its immediacy. I wonder if, in clinging to that idea that salvation guarantees my individual assurance of Heaven, I have kind of missed the point -- which ultimately is what God did, what He is, not what I might get out of it.

I'm not trying to say that Wright denies the existence of Heaven in this book. I do think it's fair to say that Wright makes an only apparently subtle shift from the evangelical claim that "Christ died for you" to "Christ died for us" -- for Israel, and, by extension, for the world. I think it's that us, that acknowledgement that His death was less to save me individually than it was to rework the entire terms under which we all live, that  undoes the division between cross (Wright's signifier for atonement theology) and kingdom.

Really -- and this is at the heart of the call to love one another, at the heart of the charge for us, broken, frail, and impermanent, to advance His kingdom -- there is no Christ dying for me. My salvation, stemming, as it does, from Someone entirely outside myself, can't be untangled from that of anyone else. In accepting it, I'm not just claiming my space in the afterlife; I'm committing myself to an ongoing transformation that starts now and extends indefinitely -- regardless of how my role in that kingdom and my experience of it may change when my body dies.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Rx for my "Case of the Mondays"

Because it's apparent to me that I have now gotten myself into a situation in which I don't understand either of the books I'm chewing through (Dynamics of Faith or N.T. Wright's How God Became King), and because visiting grandparents is conducive to neither reading lay theology or completing thoughtful blog postings, I'm going to hold off on my cross v. kingdom musings and include some unambiguously happy stories today:

1. The Argentine Miracle Baby is still alive!

2. The CAMBA Kids are marching to save their afterschool program! So touching I'm not even going to use any bad words if you ask me why they have to march to save said program when five similar programs were funded in Park Slope (home of the ubiquitous stay-at-home-mom-who-still-has-a-nanny and the PTA-funded after school programs).

3. Laura Dominguez, who is quadriplegic, is able to move again thanks to adult stem cell research (they took cells from her sinus cavity and are regrowing her spine). Find out how to help support continued stem cell research here.

4. Not only will Seun Adebiyi survive his blood cancer, he's setting up a donor registry so other people of African descent can, too.

5. In a large part due to donations from New York Times readers, this guy and doctors like him can now repair women's fistulas in West Africa. If you want to donate to the Worldwide Fistula Fund and help moms (most of whom have lost at least their most recent babies) not be left out for the hyenas to eat because they smell bad, go here.

Also: btw, two weeks left of higher ed administering, after which I am committed to not talking about Teach for America for at least a year.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Not-So-Great Commission

Someone asked me yesterday why we need to share the gospel -- which is a terrific question, the answer to which was so taken for granted in my church of origin that I had never really considered it and subsequently went a little deer-in-headlights before responding.

Because I really don't like discussing religion with people unless they already agree with me, to be honest. And, okay, I get that the trendy thing not is to be spiritual, not religious, and I sympathize with that impulse, particularly since I feel like Christians are kind of representing ourselves really poorly right now. Often, I talk to people who don't like Christianity and I end up thinking, well, you're right. To a large degree, Christianity has just been subsumed into consumer culture, warping itself into an ugly prosperity gospel about which I don't want to elaborate because I've certainly got enough weaknesses when it comes to managing my finances, but suffice it to say that I really don't think Christ is going to be looking around at New York City, past the mind-boggling, nauseating class disparity, and single out only those whose $12 mimosas are being served up by fabulous model-slash-waiters in Chelsea.

More relevant, and less comfortable, is the reality that I'm not a "good" Christian. I say this not to beat myself up but because I think self-esteem that is built on an unsubstantiated premise is useless. The list of things that I need to pray over, because I get all ugly, sardonic, and unloving whenever they come up, is embarrassingly long, and the degree to which I allow that ugliness to color my behavior and interfere with my accurately reflecting what God does in my life when I can just shut up about TFA for two seconds, is -- to steal a phrase from Anne Lamott -- enough to make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.

I'm a mess, and I always think I'm going to do better and that when I do -- when I can complete a single thought or prayer without being like, really, Bloomburg/North Carolina/ Michelle Rhee? Really? -- then I'll be in a position to share the gospel. In fact, I might even be so awesome that I won't have to, you know, tell people about Jesus and risk alienating them, or revealing myself for the hypocrite that I often feel I am.

And to be honest, I have doubts, like a lot of people probably do, and there are times when I'm like, well, what if I'm just imagining all this, and Christ isn't real, and I devote my life to "sharing" something with people that's not true?


Here's what is real: my life is fundamentally different when I open it to God. Different in the sense that instead of wasting it feeling sorry for myself, sleeping with people I hate because I am angry, starving myself to prove a point no one really understands, or alientating people in an effort to feel in control, I feel like things are okay. I feel cared for, like I have worth, like the things I do have meaning.

I understand that other people find and articulate senses of purpose and self-worth that they don't derive from an experience of God, or Christ. I don't know what's going on with those people and I can't speak to their experience. But I do know my own: apart from God, any efforts to believe the world is okay are just words to me, an extremely well-written seminar paper the thesis of which I never really found convincing myself, or a clever, tightly-constructed personal statement for law school, when I don't want to be a lawyer.

However self-conscious I am using this phrase, my relationship with God is ultimately the most enriching part of my life, even though I often suspect I bring very little to this relationship. It casts a kind of light on the other things that are important to me and coaxes me to loosen the terrified death grip in which I tend to hold them. And while I wish I had better words and a better life to back them up, I do think the grace I have experienced, and the God through whom I received it, is worth articulating. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

"Straights" who like straights who hate gays getting married

I spent a lot of time yesterday anxious about my post. Though realistically, I don't think very many people read my blog, I do think that there are specific people who might, who might find it hurtful. And while I think that hurting people is inevitable sometimes -- as when they are doing something or supporting something that is hurting others, and you believe that this is wrong -- I don't like it when I do.

Also: over dinner last night, my husband, who is genius, pointed out the number of people he knows who are good people, who take their faith seriously, and who feel radically different about this subject than I do. And while I still think those people are wrong, and hope they continue to really think about how this kind of attitude plays into their faith, I also think it's important not to allow one set of actions-- however infuriating and painful those actions are -- dominate my perception of the person who is carrying them out.

To wit: here are 5 vocal anti-gay public figures who I actually really admire for specific reasons (that don't relate to their endorsement of laws like Amendment One):

Sarah Palin: I'm not joking. Her politics make me mad, but no more than most other people in her party. I don't love her position on abortion, but I do love the fact that she kept, and celebrates, her son, who has Down Syndrome. I think one of the unfortunate consequences of Roe v. Wade has been the normalization of abortion as a solution to pregnancies that are unwanted for any reason, including disability, and I think a society that legitimizes the elimination of potential babies because of their potential disabilities is an ugly one.

I'm also a fan of her keeping her pregnant daughter visible; any double standard of which she can be accused is less frustrating to me than the one that aggressively sexualizes teenage girls as an image and then shames actual human teenagers for having sex and getting pregnant. I also don't think it's wrong to tell your own child that if she gets pregnant, she have a responsibility beyond just making it go away. Moreover, having gone through my own D/C in an abortion clinic, alongside women who were having abortions, I wouldn't want my kid to have one. No one in that clinic was happy about being there.

I do wish Palin would either stop trying to legislate other people's kids' sex lives, or else show other pregnant teenagers and disabled people the kind of support she extends to her own children -- but the fact that she doesn't, doesn't detract from the fact that she's handled these particular difficult situations with grace.

Rick Santorum: See above. Trisomy 18 is a whole different thing from Down Syndrome, as I know from my own foray into genetic testing with my pregnancy. Kids with Trisomy 18 most often don't live to birth, or to their first week, and those who live beyond that time often have a limited quality of life and a considerable amount of suffering.

Of course, as far as I know, Santorum hasn't articulated a plan for a health care system that would care for such kids should they be born to middle- or working- class parents. He's able to care for his daughter at home, to give her an actual life. Again, the fact that his efforts to force parents without the resources to do that to carry to term babies who they can't care for in this way, doesn't detract from the fact that, since he could, he did. I admire that.

Mel Gibson: So, less lovey-dovey parenting stuff here, it's true. But I think this guy is pretty easy to criticize for someone who, despite his often-hateful rantings, apparently loves sick kids enough to give them $10 million. He's actually ranked one of the biggest charity-donating celebrities, giving to a hospital, to rainforests, and to the aforementioned truly awesome charity that flies kids from developing countries to hospitals in developed countries, allowing them to have live-saving surgery.

Also: you know, the guy is mentally ill. I think it's unfair to consider his hateful rantings on par with the more considered and deliberate ones that are expressed by other people who aren't trying to live in the public eye with a mental illness.

Tim Keller: Now, I don't love this guy enough to stay in his church, which was sad, because I really liked Redeemer. I think he's wrong about gay marriage and wrong about women's ordination, and both of those things frustrate me, because unlike the other people on this list, the guy makes a living studying the Bible and his faith. He should know better.

But I do think (1) that his books are consistently helpful to me, (2) that his church does offer a lot of opportunities to serve others in New York, to a population that seems disinclined to do so, and (3) that I can recall at least one sermon of his in which he pointed out to said New Yorkers their need to think about something besides themselves and advancing their careers.

Also to his credit: I didn't know Redeemer was anti-gay-marriage until I started attending leadership training there, so while Tim presumably believes there's a problem with gay people (ie, with their "lifestyle", which involves "being gay", which is what they are), he doesn't identify it as a cornerstone of the gospel.

Dian Matlock: I actually know Dian, which makes me a little reluctant to include her -- but since I know her, and have gotten to hear about and see how her faith plays out in her life, and since she really is the one who consistently reminds me that a person can hold a belief with which I disagree, but still provide a role model for me in other ways, I don't feel right leaving her out. She recently wrote a book -- Come Walk with Me to Glory -- that talks only a little about her beliefs about God and homosexuality, and a lot about her life simultaneously caring for her son as he died of AIDS and her husband as he died of Alzheimer's. She also is pretty direct about her belief that homosexuality is a sin like any other sin -- and while I don't agree that its a sin, that attitude makes considerably more sense to me than the the one that presumably allows Christians in North Carolina to divorce and remarry/ have sex outside of marriage/ swear/ lie/ neglect the poor/ whatever, and believe that the sin that they need to be "wiping out" is someone else's monogamous, committed relationship.

Anyway, the thing I try to keep sight of when I regret being vocal about this issue is that laws like Amendment One hurt people. Given the choice between someone blogging that I was wrong, and being told that loveless, adulterous, and polygamous relationships could all be sanctioned, but not mine, no matter how deeply I loved my wife and how committed I was to her -- well, it seems pretty evident to me that there's a lesser and a greater of two evils here.

But both evils are the actions that are being carried out -- not the people carrying them out, not even the beliefs that enable those actions. I don't need to be told not to oppress gay people -- but I do need to remember that fact.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

5 directives on which the Bible is clearer than it is on gay marriage

1. Take care of the poor: "If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother." Deuteronomy 15:7. See also: Deuteronomy 15:7, Leviticus 25:25, 35, 39, Deuteronomy 24:19-21,  Proverbs 21:13, Proverbs 19:17, Proverbs 14:13, Isaiah 58:6-7, Matthew 19:21, Matthew 25:3 -- to name a small handful.

2. Fight for justice for the poor: "Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits." Exodus 23:6. See also:  Leviticus 19:15 Deuteronomy 24:17 Deuteronomy 27:19,  Proverbs 22:2.

3. Pay your tithe: "Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. "But you ask, 'How do we rob you?' "In tithes and offerings." Malachi 3:8. See also Leviticus 27:30; Numbers 18:26; Deuteronomy 14:24; 2 Chronicles 31:5.

4. Don't judge others, hold a grudge against them, or become angry with them:  "Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven." Luke 6:37. See also Romans 14:12-13, Matthew 7:1-5, 1 Corinthians 1:5,  Matthew 5:2.

5. Focus on God, not accomplishments, money or power: "For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world."1 John 2:16. See also Luke 9:25, Matthew 6:33, 1 Timothy 6:9, Philippians 2:4, Matthew 23:12, Colossians 2:8, Luke 22:26, Isaiah 5:8.

There's nothing in the Bible about gay marriage. Monogamous gay relationships are not addressed in the Bible; the original words in Leviticus, Romans, etc, all connote non-monogamous relationships with prostitutes or young boys, or as parts of orgies.

Beyond that, though, political actions to deprive gay people of civil rights in the interest of

1. saving their souls, somehow or
2. "preserving the sanctity of marriage"


1. counterproductive: you can't bully someone into agreeing with you,
2. inconsistent: we're not regulating remarriage or adultery, last I checked, and
3. hateful, sanctimonious garbage: if your marriage is so unstable that the existence of gay married couples threatens it, then you need to be tending your own garden.

I am really, really, really angry that people are using Christianity as a rhetorical tactic in promoting their own agendas. Jesus said nothing about being gay, or about any obligation of Christians to impose even the most inarguable moral agenda on others. He said to come to Him. He said He was the way.

How weak does your faith have to be in order to believe that, should Jesus have a problem with the way someone is living, He needs you to seek them out to tell them?

That is not the gospel we're supposed to be sharing; anyone who has read the Gospel has to concede that. And don't quote the 2 or 3 passages that address going to "your brother" and addressing his sin. You're wasting time that could be spent sharing God with others on something totally meaningless and not your business; you haven't earned the right to call any of these gay people who you're apparently dead-set on regulating into Heaven you brother.

I've met one Christian who can point to one chapter of the Bible that she states supports her beliefs about homosexuality (I don't agree, but I give her credit for substantiating her belief with something other than blind hate). Christians who have chosen this issue as needing government regulation need to have the guts to acknowledge that they are editing out the entire Gospel, which is extremely clear about what Christ calls us to do, and which does not mention homosexuality at any point. It does, however, have much to say about people who interfere with others' access to Jesus -- say, by snatching away from Caesar what is his and claiming Jesus made you do it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

summer lovin

In a low moment earlier this week, I was reading about Brooke Ellison, who has been quadreplegic since the age of 12 and who is currently working on her fourth degree and running for office, and I realized that I've been given so many opportunities that I've just turned down or wasted. While I tend to focus on service to the point where it almost becomes an idol, I often don't get much done. Instead of focusing my efforts and following through, I endlessly look for projects to take on, without really following through on any of them.

My new practice is to finish the projects I take on. And the first step in this, I think, is to become clear about what things I am taking on that are worth sticking to: do they fit with what I believe God wants me to do, specifically? Less self-importantly: are they in line with what I'm passionate about? Or are they just nice things to do?

Here's the tentative list of things I'm going to follow through on this summer:

1. Work with CAGeM, the Campaign Against Female Genital Mutilation. This is something I've been interested in since I was a teenager, and I've applied to join them as an administrative volunteer. I'm interviewing with them Thursday or Friday.

2. Work with Amnesty International -- another thing that was super important to me when I was younger. I've signed up for a monthly meeting on Monday, 5/12 and for an advocacy training on 5/23.

3. Form a group of volunteer-mommies in Brooklyn; build a community of moms who are interested in helping others here in the city.

4. Help kids who need attention and care in the city: I've signed up to mentor with imentor and am hoping to team lead a college application workshop for New York Cares, as well as an evening project at Tilden House. I'd like to start a similar project at one of the projects in our neighborhood.

5. Help families affected by the mayor's budget cuts: I'll be at CAMBAs Family Night this Thursday, and hopefully will be talking to Christie about how to help when I'm there.

6. Help people who are disabled get back to work. I'm not sure how to go this one yet, but I have joined NSCIA's New York Chapter and filled out a volunteer application for a local organization that assists the disabled.

7. Help make life better for people in nursing homes: I know the funding has been cut for a lot of programs in nursing homes throughout the city. I want to help but need to find a nursing home that needs volunteers first.

So: there's this summer. I think I'm still held back by wanting to do everything, but at least I'm sticking to these (seven) things, and can actually try and hold myself accountable for doing them, instead of spinning my wheels searching for new ways to help others on Craigslist.

Monday, May 7, 2012

queen of the harpies, pt 1

I'm really not a good wife -- at least, not lately. And I want to focus on my struggles to be a good wife without turning this post into a liturgy of the complaints that comprise my primary wife-failing, which is: I am so freaking judgmental towards my husband.

As it turns out, there are reasons why couples often do pre-marital counseling. When two people feel radically differently about fundamental questions like, What is the purpose of our lives? and What do we want our family life to look like?, it is extremely difficult to have unmediated conversations about these issues, or about the more everyday and concrete conflicts they generate. Mostly, conversations about these things start out innocuously but end up with one or both spouses (definitely me, if I'm part of the couple in question) reiterating the belief that his or her worldview and value system is better that his or her spouse's.

Well, who wouldn't want to be part of that conversation? And yet, I'm repeatedly disappointed and frustrated that my husband never seems to want to Talk about our Marriage.

Add to this the fact that apparently, I am called to obey and submit to my husband, but that the things he wants us to do often conflict with my understanding of what God wants me to do, as well as with my best judgment and my desire to provide for our kid(s). I tend to overestimate my ability to distinguish between legitimate non-negotiables, such as the amount of debt I'm willing to take on to go back to school, and areas where I may just want my way. I imagine it should be of concern that I don't recall the last time I felt like God was telling me my husband was right about one of our disagreements.

So, for this week, I am not initiating any discussions about my husband's choices or behavior, or about our relationship or family and what I think we need to do. I'm unsure about the gender politics that Paul's endorsing in Corinthians, but I do feel reasonably sure that I, specifically, don't actually need any practice telling my husband all the ways he could be doing things better. I suspect that I could use a lot of practice evaluating my own behavior within the context of our marriage, and then exploring the degree to which I can make things better for both of us by changing that behavior.

mommy faith

Faith... happens in the center of the personal life and includes all its elements.” ~ Dynamics of Faith, pg 4.

Right now, two books are informing how I pray: Tillich's Dynamics of Faith and The Power of a Positive Mom, by Karol Ladd, “bestselling author". Ladd's book is pretty much exactly what you'd imagine a parenting book for Christian moms to be, which is a relief after pressing through another three paragraphs of Dynamics and emerging with one sentence that I think, maybe, I understand.

Tillich frames faith in a few different ways: first, it is "the state of being ultimately concerned" – of not just thinking that something is true, but involving yourself in a practice that simultaneously takes the you beyond your self and engages the entirety of that self, so that you become a self you could not be apart from faith. I am most who I am, I am only the person who I am (rather than being only mostly the person I am) when I am connected to the source and the object of my faith.

I like this notion of consuming faith better than the idea that I give up all the things that matter to me, but that are not God, in order to be faithful. Although, if God is infinite, then maybe that is what I'm doing; maybe the things that I don't have to give up are, in some way, the material of God. To the degree that my love for my husband, parents and son is not grasping, not rooted in fear, then maybe when I love my child, I am participating in God.

Certainly Ladd doesn't see a conflict between love of God and love of one's children. But it scares me that I love my son much more than I love the other children at his day care, because: are you supposed to? You're not supposed, are you? But I do.

I know that, historically, women have been considered less spiritual than men, and that often this was intertwined with this idea that women somehow embodied sex and the associated shame. But I feel like it's maternity, and not sexuality, that is hard to reconcile with my faith. My love for my son specifically makes it hard to really identify God as my ultimate concern.

It occurs to me, though, that my love for my child in particular may be a part of the total personality, the centered self, that carries out the act of faith. Faith may be the process through which I devote to God not only a piece of my life, but my entire self, including the part that doubts that I could match Abraham's faith, that is sometimes relieved for the abstract nature of God and His demands in my own life -- since no one today, no matter how devout, would leave it up to me to determine whether or not God was telling me to kill my son.

That doubt, that wondering about why God would demand that, that desire to evade a God who would demand that – those are all elements of the centered self that I am concerning ultimately and totally with God, not things I just set aside in order to pursue Him. And it is that self, doubts included, that is made larger and more through my encounter with God, and that is able to love my family and son with that new largeness.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

suprisingly, "it" still not all about me

It occurred to me last night that my life is much richer now that I spend less of it obsessively trolling the internet for Things to Do (that I won't ever actually do).

So, naturally, I spent this morning obsessively trolling the internet for opportunities to be Of Service, sending out resumes to volunteer for one place after another and fretting over the impossibility of signing up for New York Cares projects because of the baby, and generally making myself feel stressed out and inadequate and desirous of every piece of bread ever toasted and peanut-buttered.

And then I picked up Dynamics of Faith and reread the first section, Faith as Ultimate Concern, and I understood it. I think.

This is huge! My post was originally going to be titled, Paul Tillich: WTF?, as I read well into Dynamics of Faith on the train yesterday without understanding any of it, as evidenced by the compulsive and acquisitive spirit with which I approached my efforts to Advance God's Kingdom today.

I didn't need Tillich to teach me that God's not the means to some end in which Amanda saves all the children aging out of foster care, the cancelled after school programs, the young girls at risk of female genital mutilation. Obviously, though, I did need a reminder that faith is not a checklist of things I think God would want me to do. It's the practice of seeking God first, of looking to Him for direction as to how I should live my life, as it is, today – of asking not who can I bring into my life to serve? so much as, what can I do to serve the people already around me?

As much as I want to help other people, my husband and son are right here in my own house with me. I need a balance of seeking out those who might need me and living out my faith with respect to those who already do.

And I need to remember that service is not the object of my ultimate concern, of my faith; God is. I serve at His direction, because I believe in Him. To do otherwise is to indulge the belief that what I have to offer others is intrinsic to myself, rather than something that has been given to me.

To set out to self-consciously Serve Others is to end up frustrated, spinning my wheels; to seek God is to end up doing His will. That – not my idea of how the world should be -- is the object of my ultimate concern. God is the focus of my faith and the source of that faith, superseding everything, even my image of myself as a servant -- so that my satisfaction comes from Him, not from reflecting on all the Good I've done this weekend.

Friday, May 4, 2012

not being a teacher

I decided to become a nurse rather than a teacher for a few reasons: I want a schedule where I can be with my kids more; I want to make enough money to have more kids; at some point, I realized that I felt a stab of envy every time I set foot in a hospital. I wanted to be part of meeting people's needs in a very basic way. 

Those are the practical reasons, the ones I can talk about without being kind of embarrassed, feeling like I'm being sanctimonious.The other reason is this: I don't think ambition is healthy. Not for me, anyway. For me, it's like a cancer, turning the things I love into sources of anxiety and meanness.

I don't want that for myself, and I feel like that's what our education system has become about, and maybe that's necessary. Maybe you do need to be coaching students in how to get ahead in our economic system rather than holding up the curtain so they can see past it, rather than reminding them, every day, that they have inherent worth right now – that they won't suddenly attain that worth when they pass the Regents. And, to be fair, it's easy for me to have romantic fantasies about the “real value” of education, about what it should really be: I have always had enough to eat. I got into college and had the skills to get through it.

Yes, kids who can read and write and do math will more than likely have better lives than kids who can't. But a vision that can only imagine that, that imagines that as the social justice issue of this century, as the kids say, seems anemic to me. And I feel like education, and especially education reform, has become a pet project of well-off young adults who teach for two years and then can't wait to Make Change, whereas I believe very strongly that change often is made by talking less and acting more.

I have to remind myself, or be reminded, that I believe that, and that's why I want to be a nurse. I am a person who is perilously close to shooting my mouth off all the time, and as many As as I get for my scathing critical theory papers, as formidable as I come across over brunch if someone brings up Bloomberg, I'd trade a hundred opinions and episodes of PC agitas for a clean bedpan, a shot of morphine when I need it, someone to get the doctor when my blood pressure starts tap dancing or my epidural falls out.

I think change is made less in endless rounds of conference calls and rallies and more in those moments when small, good things are done. Basically, I think a lot of people believe they are above changing adult diapers; I'm equally vulnerable to that particular bit of smallness. But in my best moments, I believe that no one is above anything that another human being needs to have done, that being respected and cared for when you are sick as though you mattered is critically important. And I believe I can do that.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

kingdom of mommies

In an effort to find the areas where I am wasting my life – as if I didn't realize I was sinking hours into reading recaps of Mad Men online– I've started recording how I spend my time each day. Among the number of challenges that have grown out of this practice is this: I really want to use my life to serve God and tp serve those around me, but that's not what I do with most of my free time.

This was easy to correct when I was “just” married. I could work a 60 hour a week job, or sign up for a dozen new York Cares projects, or sleep at homeless shelters. But now, every minute of free time I spend serving others, I don't spend parenting my son. And because I love my son, because I see him both as part of me and as something I wanted and asked for and now have, I struggle with the feeling that caring for him is less an act of service, and, as such, is less legitimate a way to spend my time, than, for example, caring for other people's kids.

I don't really mean that, or, if I do, I don't actually believe it's a problem; however it makes me feel, given the choice between serving others and caring for Mac, I know where my priorities lie.

But I do wish I could find moms like me, who want to balance the two. While I know there must be moms like this somewhere, the people I find at missional community meetings and New York Cares all seem to be childless. This is hard for me. In my smaller moments, it reminds me that they have careers “worth” prioritizing and I didn't really, so I didn't need to wait any longer to have kids.

It also leaves me feeling that there's a division between "kingdom vision" and serving God on the one hand, and parenting on the other.  And I don't think there should be; I feel like churches in other places where I've lived, and even in the city, support families, and vice versa. But having kids in the city is such a huge financial undertaking if you are middle or upper middle class that it seems to divide people from their community more than connect them.

And that seems wrong to me. If well-off white professional can connect to kids in the projects, as our church is trying to do, why wouldn't a thirty-year-old mom in Park Slope be able to connect to a twenty-two-year old mom in Bed Stuy? Although they experience it in radically different ways, I imagine that each one has some things to say about the kind of neighborhood they envision for their kids, for other people's kids.

I want to start a ministry that connects moms whose experiences and needs are radically different. I want to work with other moms on understanding how parenting fits into what God has called us to do, despite the feeling I get, even in church, that parenting isn't somehow not a part of building the kingdom. I think this feeling is exacerbated by the division of moms who can buy their kids the care, tutoring, etc, that they need, from moms who rely on a village for it.  I suspect that the kind of isolation and removal parenting seems to engender among privileged people (like me) is particular to our class; from what I've seen, among other communities, parenthood actually serves as a starting point for community.

I wish that there was someone besides fundamentalist Christians who took seriously the idea of parenting as service, and of parenting as a motivation for other kinds service, rather than a competing claim on our time. I wish I could express that when choose to give up a volunteer project so I have a free Saturday with my husband and son, I am doing God's will, without feeling like I'm just making excuses. Most of all, I wish there wasn't this division between what you do for your family and what you do for your world -- that we could reframe service as a way of bringing their children into the community already around them, rather than constructing, or purchasing, artificial communities of kids that look like them.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Act, Love, Walk

And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. ~ Micah 6:8

One of my New Year's resolutions was to find a church to belong to. Lately, I've been trying to decide between the United Methodist Church and Trinity Grace Church, both in Park Slope (I know).

Now, I love UMCPS for a couple of reasons:

1. They explicitly “affirm” gay and lesbian people, and while it makes me sad and frustrated that they have to do so, it seems like they do: my whole church search started when I left Redeemer, the church where “all the hip white kids go”, after learning that their tenets include a statement that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

2. UMC is diverse in terms of the age and backgrounds and ability status of their congregants – especially for a church, and especially for a church in Park Slope.

But the sermon at Trinity last week blew me away. Not only because of my instant crush on the speaker, and not only because it was about prayer, at which I had spent all week failing, but because she a. vehemently and voice-raisingly located the Lord's Prayer within a life devoted to "advancing the Kingdom," and b. took for granted that doing justice is integral to that kingdom.

So I managed to pray for more than ninety seconds this morning, and one main thrust of my prayer was this: I don't understand all these verses in the Bible that promise that God will take care of His people, when so many lives in this world end in devastating, unnecessary ways. My life seems to always work out well -- eating disorder healed, baby healthy. But other people's don't, and I can't see God "rewarding" one person and not another, especially when the one being rewarded is me. Much of the time, I'm a faithless mess – but my son's alive, while other mothers are losing their babies as I type.

And it occurred to me then – and I believe this was God; it was a pretty God thing to say -- well, you have this money in your savings account and it's not doing any dying babies any good there, so I'm not sure what you want Me to tell you.

So, three things I'm really good at: complaining because my husband likes nice things and I don't like to spend money, bemoaning the fact that I can do so little to help people who are dying of horrible and easily preventable conditions, and justifying why I can't afford things. One thing I'm trying to get better at: doing what I'm told, what I can do, instead of complaining about the insurmountable nature of whatever I'm facing.

It's one thing, a more comfortable thing, to rely on faith when I need something to do something and I can't, to take comfort in God and ask Him for stuff I need and can't get for myself. But to radically alter how I am living my life and what matters to me in order to align my will with His, to give things up because of God -- well, that's a little excessive, isn't it? Surely God doesn't want me to jeopardize my own well-being just to try and make things more fair, more like the kingdom He envisions.

Except He probably does, especially given how expansive my definition of well-being has become. And ultimately, I think the kind of faith you have when you have no other option doesn't mean a whole lot: I've spent the past few weeks all, well, it's okay if I believe in God and ultimately He turns out not to exist, because I wouldn't have lost anything; it's not like I'm giving anything up to believe in Him.

I'd suggest, though, that I should do things differently because I am trying to live in connection to Him, am trying to follow His will. I should be giving things up and doing things that feel hard and unnatural. I should be giving things up in order to act out my faith – even if the things I give up ultimately turn out not to be worth very much.

I tell myself that I want to help others but don't know where to start, but I think the real problem is that I don't like the way I have to start: by taking my cues from a God that I know most people around me think of as some sky-fairy, not a real thing; by entertaining the possibility that actually acting out what I believe will make me look crazy or foolish. I don't like to feel stupid, and I'm afraid of being alienated, not just from this "most people," but from specific people I love very much. Like my husband. Like my parents.

No one – at least, none of the witty, sophisticated people in my life – likes to hear you're doing something because God told you to. But underneath all my reservations and desire to maintain my image of myself, that is what I want: to be doing what God wants me to do. To feel that closeness, to feel part of something that I know has meaning, that will last beyond this month or year or lifetime. To act justly, to do justice, in a world in which justice requires a radical departure from the way the world works, when, to be honest, the world as it is is quite comfortable for me.