Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Family Heirloom from Otego Township

A post from 2009.   On my office wall is a framed auction announcement that will be 101 years old next week.

Public Sale of live stock and personal property. The undersigned will sell at Public Sale at his residence two miles south of Brownstown, in Otego Township, on Thursday, October 29, 1908, the following described property: Four Head of Horses consisting of 3 Good Work Horses and 1 Good 2-Year-Old Colt. 2 Good Dairy Cows and 1 Spring Calf. 13 Thirteen Head of Hogs 13 [sic] Weighing from 100 to 250 pounds. Farm implements: 1 Champion Binder. 1 McCormack Mow-Drill, 1 Steel Harrow, 1 Cultivator, 2 Breaking Plows, 1 Wagon, 1 Top Buggy, nearly new, 2 sets Double Harness, and 1 set Single Harness. Also about 5 tons of Hay and 20 acres of Corn in the field. 1 Estate Steel Range and other Household Furniture. Terms of Sale. All sums of $5.00 and under, Cash in hand. Sums over $5.00 a credit of 12 mouths will be given. Purchaser to give note with approved security before property is removed. Notes to draw 7 per cent. Interest from date if not paid when due. A discount of 5 per cent. Will be allowed for Cash on sums over $5.00. Sale to commence at 10 o’clock a.m. Farm for rent on day of sale. John Crawford. W. H. Sawrey, Auctioneer. Paul Crawford, Clerk

John was my mother’s paternal grandfather (Paul Crawford was John’s brother, and John‘s wife Susan was the granddaughter of Comfort Williams, about whom I wrote a few entries ago.) The family lived along the road that today connects U.S. 40 with Illinois 185, two or three miles north of the scene on my blog. As I recall the story, John and Susan’s second child Marvin was ill of tuberculosis and the family planned to move to Texas to assist him. I know that Marvin died in 1909, however, so I don’t know how these sad events, including the sale of all this property, turned out. I do know that John lived until 1927 and his wife Susan until 1926. Their personal papers (which I have, still kept in a 1920s oatmeal box) indicates that the couple moved back to the Brownstown area and started again. Even though I loved family history as a kid, I now think of more questions I would’ve asked my great-aunts about their parents, my grandfather having died before I was born.

Last year I forgot to note the 100th anniversary of the sale, but I will remember the day this time---and next week, October 29th is also on Thursday. Whenever I’m back in Fayette County, I nearly always drive out to Otego Township and pass by the small residence along the road, pointed out to me as the Crawfords’ long-ago farm. Though the framed announcement is sad, it gives me a happy sense of belonging to a family history, as do those Otego visits.

Friday, October 21, 2011

That Hope and Change Stuff

I first heard of the contemporary artist Shepard Fairey on a program on the Ovation network. His socially-engaged art, first manifested in his street art (especially his Andre the Giant sticker), has been collected in gallery shows and books like E Pluribus Venom, Mayday, and Obey: Supply and Demand. He became known, as well, because of his "Hope" poster widely published during the 2008 presidential campaign. A few weeks ago, taking atwriting break at “my” Barnes and Noble cafe, I noticed a book which Fairey and Jennifer Gross edited, Art for Obama: Designing Manifest Hope and the Campaign for Change (Abrams Image, 2009)

The book collects a variety of paintings, collages, computer-generated art, prints, and other works from and inspired by Obama's campaign. One by Ron English, “Blue Abraham Obama,” in which the famous 1863 Alexander Gardiner photo of Lincoln, wherein he looks directly into the camera, is rendered with Obama’s features. Another Lincolnesque painting is Scott Siedman’s “The Man from Illinois,” in which Norman Rockwell’s painting “Lincoln the Railsplitter” (depicting young Lincoln walking, reading a book, and saying an axe) is remade with Obama in the role (holding a hoe instead of an axe). There are several prints concerning America’s lack of universal health care; a very forceful print in which a 1950s-era water fountain marked “Colored” is pouring rainbow colors; numerous renderings of the promises “hope” and “change," and art connecting Obama to Dr. King and Gandhi.

Not all the art is painting, collage, and print. There is a dress, designed by Lisa Anne Auerbach, with the slogans “Chosen People Choose Obama” and “My Jewish Grandma is Voting for Obama” woven into the fabric. Sculptures and furniture are also artworks responding to Obama’s campaign. I highly recommend this book if you appreciate examples of socially-involved contemporary art (which makes me wonder if politically conservative people are also producing artworks today: I just don't know).

Exploring this book, I thought, not unkindly, "What happened to all that hope and change?" (or, as former Gov. Palin put it, unkindly, that "hopey, changey stuff"). Then, serendipity! As I sorted files from recent projects) I found a 2010 Time magazine that I’d saved in a pile of research from last year. Peter Beinart's article, “Why Washington’s Tied Up in Knots," gave me some answers to my question(,9171,1966451,00.html). I enjoy pieces like this which help me make historical connections. 

Beinart argues that the two major political parties were, until the mid-1900s, diverse with outlooks and vying interests. One force that caused a change for both parties was the support of civil rights, environmentalism, abortion rights, and "a more dovish foreign policy" among liberal Northern Democrats in the 1960s and 1970s. The Republican party grew more conservative in response, as conservative Southern Democrats became Republicans and Northern liberal Republicans became Democrats.  As this process continued, Beinart writes, "Washington politics became less a game of Rubik's Cube and more a game of shirts vs. skins."

He notes that after Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush left office, "congressional Republicans realized they could use political polarization to stymie government — and use government failure to win elections. And with that realization, vicious-circle politics started to become an art form." By the 1990s, "a new breed of aggressive Republicans — men like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay and Trent Lott — hit on a strategy for discrediting Clinton: discredit government. Rhetorically, they derided Washington as ineffective and conflict-ridden, and through their actions they guaranteed it." These congressmen used the filibuster, previously a rare devise, to force the failure of legislation. Meanwhile, conservative Republicans discredited moderate Republicans as traitors to the party. "The Gingrich Republicans" used the "vicious circle" because it worked---and in particular, it worked because (1) Americans dislike political fighting, and (2) American voters tend to blame the party in charge. "By 1994, trust in government was at an all-time low, which suited the Republicans fine, since their major line of attack against Clinton's health care plan was that it would empower government. Clintoncare collapsed, Democrats lost Congress, and Republicans learned the secrets of vicious-circle politics: When the parties are polarized, it's easy to keep anything from getting done. When nothing gets done, people turn against government. When you're the party out of power and the party that reviles government, you win."

To return (in my mind) to the outcome so far of Obama's "hope and change": Beinart further notes that this vicious-circle politics have become even more pronounced during the Obama administration than during the Clinton administration. Democrats who were thrilled at the Obama victory (as well as the Democratic majority in Congress) neglected to appreciate the resultant hardening of the Republican minority--and their unwillingness to cooperate and compromise. "In 2009, Senate Republicans filibustered a stunning 80% of major legislation, even more than during the Clinton years. GOP leader Mitch McConnell led a filibuster of a deficit-reduction commission that he himself had demanded. The Obama White House spent months trying to lure the Finance Committee's ranking Republican, Chuck Grassley, into supporting a deal on health care reform and gave his staff a major role in crafting the bill. But GOP officials back home began threatening to run a primary challenger against the Iowa Senator. By late summer, Grassley wasn't just inching away from reform; he was implying that Obamacare would euthanize Grandma."

Beinart further notes that Republicans have, during Obama's term, not only helped to thwart his goals but to foster the "rising disgust with government not just to cripple health care reform but also to derail other Obama initiatives."

He continues that there is no guarantee that Democrats might not use these tactics, although the Republicans currently use them better. And the tactics don't always work: for instance, when the government is "handing out goodies." But when the government wants people to make sacrifices, this is the point where people are called upon the trust their government: "It's when the pain is temporary but the benefits are long-term that people most need to believe that government is something other than stupid and selfish. Which is exactly what they don't believe today."

In a more recent issue, I found an article even more relevant to the Shepard Fairey book: Anthony Romano, “Wanted: A New Messiah,” Newsweek, Oct. 10 & 17, 2011 (

He writes that "America is desperate for a messiah. Christie Fever would seem a little more remarkable, for instance, if conservatives hadn’t already contracted Bachmania, Donalditis, and Restless Perry Syndrome, then cast aside each of their would-be saviors as soon as he or she showed the slightest earthly imperfection. Meanwhile, on the left, and in the center, the very voters who fueled President Obama’s landslide 2008 victory are now awarding him the lowest job-approval ratings of his career. Christie summed up popular sentiment in his speech. 'If you’re looking for leadership in America,' he said, 'you’re not going to find it in the Oval Office.' Never mind that the administration just assassinated yet another Al Qaeda kingpin, Anwar al-Awlaki, out-Bushing Bush and further discrediting the old canard that Democrats can’t protect America. The belief that there’s someone better out there—someone who can lead us not into recession, but deliver us from unemployment—now extends to both sides of the aisle."

Romano reminds us that FDR and Reagan served during economic crises, but their leadership style (according to the research of Yale's Stephen Skowronek," is "reconstructive": in Romano's words, "both of them blamed the crises they presided over on the failed, un-American ideology of the previous regime and relentlessly positioned their sweeping proposals as part of a grand project to undo the damage and revive real American values." This is a "resilient model" for a president "because it serves as a one-size-fits-all justification for everything the White House does. FDR had high hopes for his central New Deal agency, the National Recovery Administration; to him, it was 'a supreme effort to stabilize for all time the many factors which make the prosperity of the nation.' Two years after the NRA was created, however, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. While this setback may have deterred a nonreconstructive president, Roosevelt simply cited it as further evidence of the old regime’s intransigence and again started 'promising to reconstruct the very terms on which American government operated,' as Skowronek puts it. By 1936—after forcing Congress into the summer session that produced Social Security, the Wagner Act, and the Banking Act, among other reforms—he had. He won reelection with 523 electoral votes." 

Romano notes that although Reagan's approval rating was very low in the early 1980s, when unemployment was over 10%, he stuck to his script of less regulation, lower taxes, and other policies a way to return (in Reagan's words) to “the dream conceived by our Founding Fathers." Romano writes: "Eventually, the Fed rejuvenated the economy by manipulating the money supply and lowering interest rates. But Reagan got the credit because he kept harping on his reconstructive storyline (tax cuts = growth), which provided the public with a more intuitive explanation. In 1984 he carried every state but Minnesota."

Unfortunately, he writes, "Obama ran as a reconstructive leader, but he has governed as something else entirely. It’s absurd to say, as Christie did in California, that the president has been 'a bystander in the Oval Office,' or to claim, paradoxically, that he’s a socialist bent on 'transforming' America into France part deux. As Obama’s advisers often remind us, he has accomplished a lot of unradical things as president (preventing another Great Depression, passing private-health-insurance reform, saving Detroit)." But Obama has tended (in Romano's words, "to look for policy proposals, like the stimulus or health-care reform, that respectfully weave opposing viewpoints into some sort of pragmatic whole. As president, Obama has assumed the role of the bipartisan realist—the leader who prides himself on seeing the world as it is, with all its political limitations, and doing the best he can within those constraints." 

Unfortunately, Obama has also needed to communicate a reconstructive vision which (as it did for FDR and Reagan) "gave meaning to their victories, kept them buoyant during dry spells, and defined the opposition before the opposition could define them. The approach also assured voters that Reagan and Roosevelt shared their deep dissatisfaction with the way things were." To me, the fact that the Tea Party emerged and forcefully voiced a Reaganesque vision during debates about bailouts and health care reform is an example of the opposition doing the defining, rather than vice versa. 

This past week, another article by Beinart caught my eye: "Occupy Protests’ Seismic Effect" (The Daily Beast – Mon, Oct 17, 2011, writes about the demonstrations "against unregulated capitalism" that had just taken place in 900 cities.  He addresses the topic of the hopefulness exhibited in the Obama campaign, and shows how it is taking a slightly different direction.

He writes: "In a great many countries, especially in the West, the political grass is dry. Huge numbers of young people are unemployed, governments are launching harsh and unpopular austerity programs, and the financial elites responsible for the global economic meltdown have almost entirely escaped justice. Millions of articulate, educated, tech-savvy people are enraged and desperate. And they have time on their hands." This movement is quite fertile, he notes, and something like this hasn't been seen since the 1960s. He notes that those movements did not push American politics to the left because, among several reason, "many ordinary Americans were starting to chafe against taxes and regulations that had been growing since the New Deal. Although few realized it until Ronald Reagan’s election, the relationship between government and the economy in the late 1960s and 1970s was actually more conducive to right-wing than left-wing change."

Although the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s was a precursor to what we're seeing now, that movement had more to do with "globalization's impact in the developing world" while the current movement is, according to Beinart, primarily focused on what unregulated capitalism has done to their own societies [i.e., America and Europe]—societies where there is much greater anger and pain than there was 15 years ago. Therein lies the movement’s greater potential to create political change."

But---to return to my interest in the Shepard Fairey book---Beinart argues that a more recent and more important precursor is Obama's 2008 election! He traces the beginnings of the "netroots" activism in Howard Dean's 2004 campaign and the beginning of sites like DailyKos and MoveOn. "But," Beinart writes, "in retrospect, the netroots movement’s focus on candidates as a vehicle for change left it unprepared for the aftermath of Obama’s election, when Obama failed to articulate a story about why the financial meltdown had occurred—and why America’s regulatory system and welfare state needed to be rebuilt—that could compete with the Tea Party’s narrative of a government grown so large that it was stifling both economic growth and personal liberty."

He continues: "What we are witnessing in Zuccotti Park actually represents an improvement over the Obama campaign. That campaign was largely about faith in one man. The Occupy Wall Street movement, by contrast, represents a direct reckoning with the most powerful forces in American life, forces that are not voted in and out of office every two or four years. And it represents a belief that young Americans must force that reckoning by themselves. No politician will do it for them. Those instincts are exactly right, and we’ve never needed them more."

Monday, October 17, 2011

Those Fragile Egos

In my last post, I thought about the fact that we might be growing in love and the fruit of the Spirit, and yet aspects of our personalities grow slowly or resist growth. We need to be kind to ourselves and others if we perceive faults and flaws; God may be maturing us in faith, hope and love, even though personality flaws and struggles remain. 

Feeling spiritually "dry," I was leafing through another favorite book, Robert J. Wicks' Touching the Holy: Ordinariness, Self-Esteem, and Friendship (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1992, 2007). I found a page which I'd already dogearred. Wicks talks about the fact that many of us have somewhat fragile egos, even though we seek to grow in God's love all the while. He tells a story on himself that he was deeply offended by a rude person on the phone who had said, self-importantly, "This is the Reverend..." But a friend asked why he was so upset by the call. Wicks realized that his own big ego had caused him to be offended at the person's pompous and curt tone. His own fragile self-image had caused him to let the person have power over his mood  (p. 21).

Wicks goes on with a quote from Henri Nouwen, who had been deeply hurt over some rejection and was ruminating the experience. A friend helped him see that, although he might have had reason to feel hurt, he (Nouwen) was hurt out of proportion to the event--and, in fact, the people whom had made him feel that way were not that important to him.

Nouwen reflected that he did have a hidden need for "total affection" and "full acceptance" which he brought into even small experiences--but unfortunately, a "small rejection" might thereby lead to "a devastating despair and a feeling of total failure." (p. 22, quoting Genesee Diary, New York, Doubleday, 1976, pp. 51-52).

This resonated with me, as I too nurse sad feelings at slights and criticisms. I've grown tremendously in this area over the years, but I still have to talk myself through certain circumstances when I fall into sadness and feelings of unimportance. (I was feeling downcast and self-doubtful about my teaching one day when I checked my email and discovered I'd been voted the graduating seniors' favorite teacher; one's feelings don't always match up at all with reality!) It's one thing to be sad when someone important to us treats us rudely, but sometimes (and certainly with me) we feel hurt by the opinion of people who just aren't that close or important to us. That Henri Nouwen---whom I met years ago and whose books are filled with brilliant spiritual insights---dealt with a sad, fragile ego was very reassuring!

Wicks goes on to say that, if we have a good balanced view of our own "ordinariness," we needn't give others so much power over us--and we can be strong enough to deal with conflicts in a manner between being overly nice, and being rude in return (pp. 22-24)

In general, we "continually fail to see that the chance for real joy is wrapped in unexamined anger, apathy, and confusion," and our peace is similarly "shrouded in a fog of anxiety and preoccupation." But he encourages us to get out of those things in order to find and enjoy God. Understanding prayer as having a "dynamic interpersonal aspect" is key--it's "a journey into a deeper encounter with the living God" (p. 53).

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Natural and Graced Virtues

I've a favorite book by Thomas H. Green, S.J., When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1998). Green's reflections can be helpful for many growing Christians, though obviously the book is written from a Catholic perspective. Recently I returned to the book as I felt spiritually "dry" myself, but before I got to those sections I found another section worth pondering.

Drawing on writings by St. Teresa, Green notes that our prayer life necessarily results in growth in faith, hope, and love; in greater love for God and one another; in love for our enemies as well as our friends. But he also distinguishes between natural and "graced" virtues: our natural qualities, and the qualities that are fruit of the Spirit.

These two kinds of virtues are easily confused! He writes that 
"[s]ome people are naturally cheerful, pliable, energetic, service-oriented. And others are naturally worrisome, stubborn... lethargic, hesitant to get involved. It is very tempting to categorize the first group as holy and the second group as spiritually mediocre." (pp. 72-73). But this is not at all necessarily the case! "[I]t is not the natural qualities of temperament and upbringing which are the marks of a genuine and solid spirituality. It is rather those qualities, those virtues (like a love of the cross) which transcend the natural and cannot be explained by any merely human formation" (p. 73).

He goes on to write about a person he directed, who was a difficult and overbearing personality, and about whom questions had been raised whether the person was genuinely spiritual. But Green found, in private counseling, that the person was very open to being guided and was genuinely growing in faith, hope, and love (pp. 74-75).

He continues, "If there are underlying signs of growing faith, hope, and love I would judge that the Spirit of God is at work, even though there are still many thorny (and highly visible) weeds in the garden of the Lord" (p. 75). He admits that he has personality traits and failings which have persisted for years but which he would consider inconsistent with his calling; and yet the Lord keeps deepening their relationship. "Instinctual failings and flaws of personality are not necessarily or automatically uprooted by a genuine spirituality," and a good example is the impatient Apostle Paul (p. 76).

The distinction between natural and "graced" virtues seems obvious, but as I think about it, we confuse these all the time. For instance, a parishioner might complain that the church's pastor "isn't spiritual" when the matter is simply a personality difference, nothing to do with the pastor's heart. I felt very annoyed at a person at our church who left the congregation because she thought the pastor wasn't spiritual enough, when the actual problem was (in my opinion) that she liked the previous pastor's style. 

Another time, my parents came home from an errand one day and commented how huffy and impatient a local pastor had been as he waited in a long line at the bank. What kind of Christian is he? was the implication. That's the kind of judgmental nonsense that pastors have to endure---but isn't it human nature to make such judgments! I've done it too, although I do limit my venting to the privacy of my home, to avoid talking about people behind their backs in public.  (That's still being judgmental, of course.)

It's easy to make superficial assessments of people, both positive and negative. I've noticed that some folk are very articulate about faith-matters, have significant ideas, and speak in a very loving manner. Unfortunately, sometimes those same people are unreliable at carrying out certain tasks, or they're unreliable as friends, terrible at giving favors, are alarmingly lacking in self-awareness, and so on. But on first acquaintance, such folk are often judged as SO spiritual (and, of course, they may very well be, in terms of growing in "graced virtues," but you don't know).

Now, on the other hand, they very well may not be spiritual at all! That's the tricky thing. The Bible does warn us that we can go through the trappings, rituals and proper articulation of religious faith but be empty inside.  

Some folks are challenging in the opposite way: they're so "into" their vision and passion to do good, that they've difficult personalities! I noticed this article about the recently deceased Steve Jobs and his similarities with notable saints, none of whom were people who'd necessarily like to be around.

Although it's human nature to make judgments about people (and also to feel disappointed in God when other people let us down), this distinction between natural and graced virtues might help us be less critical about the quality of other people's faith.  We can grow in compassion and intercessory prayer. We can understand more clearly that the personality weakness and the failings of other people do not mean that God has let you down. A fellow Christian may annoy you (he gives you unhelpful advice; he throws Scripture at you instead of listening; she isn't "there for you; he or she has a serious moral failing, etc.). A pastor may be off-putting for whatever reason. But none of these things necessarily mean such folk are spiritual phonies; they're just flawed like you and me.

The distinction has helped me see ways to be more accepting of others and also more accepting of myself. I tend to beat up on myself because, like Fr. Green, I see personality traits, anxieties, failings, and other things about myself. I've made progress on all these over the years (including the mediocre self-acceptance), but they very much remain. Of course, as we all go about our lives, we also discover new things about ourselves---people and situations that hurt us more than we realized. Progress sometimes seems like "baby steps" regarding our old hurts, half-forgotten wounds, and personality imperfections.

But God does not give up on us! As long as we live, God works in our lives to help us grow in faith, hope, love, and the fruit of the Spirit, no matter what. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tillich in the Coffee Shop on a Fall Day

We've always loved books. My younger, innocent desire to build a library of texts---maybe someday I might own the complete Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (whether I read German or not), the entire Anchor Bible series, assorted interesting texts in history, literature, and religion, and, heck, maybe even The Official Record of the War of the Rebellion, all kept in a cozy, shelf-lined office--came down to earth when we moved across country one year and I learned how much even our modest collection of books cost to move.  

So now, whenever we relocate, we sell or donate items that seem unnecessary to move, including books. Beth and I do accumulate many books for our work and our interests, and Emily loves books, too.  I've thinned my book collection several times, notably this last move, when I reduced it by nearly half. I thought that if I hadn't used a book in at least five years (unless the book was an antique or a special keepsake), I should donate it to the local book fair. 

I still have several religion books that I purchased in college or div school in the 1970s and early 1980s. I've my Barth's Dogmatics; the old Interpreter's Bible; Old Testament texts by Brevard Childs, Gerhard von Rad, Walther Eichrodt; New Testament texts by Howard Clark Kee, Joaquin Jeremias, Nils Alstrup Dahl and Rudolf Bultmann; a few volumes of Karl Rahner's Theological Investigations and of G. C. Berkouwer's Studies in Dogmatics. Stepping up my personal Bible study during the past few years, I've been using several of these books again, giving the double pleasure of study and nostalgia. Because I attended div school in Connecticut, feelings of New England cling to these books: thoughts of cool temperatures, country drives, great friendships which have endured, and autumn leaves.  

With each move, I consider donating or selling my paperback copies of Paul Tillich's three-volume Systematic Theology---no longer read, only a modest keepsake---and never can. I took them from the shelves the other day and noticed that I'd written my name and the date of purchase inside one of the books: October 13, 1977. That's 34 years ago this week! (The 46th anniversary of Tillich's death is next week, the 22nd.) I don't remember where I purchased them---the college bookstore, perhaps; in 1977 I was 20 and in college---but I do remember having them along in 1978 or 79 when my parents and I visited the campus of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, six hours north of my hometown. Garrett was one school I was considering for my masters degree. The family car broke down along I-57, and I read a few sections of Tillich's system as we waited in a garage for the repair work. In addition to anxiety about the delayed visit, I was fascinated at how Tillich used philosophical concepts to explicate biblical truths.

I was never a devoted Tillichian, preferring Barth and his epic Dogmatics, or as John Updike's eponymous character in "Lifeguard" puts it, "the bewildering duplicities of Tillich's divine politicking" and "the terrifying attempts of Kierkegaard, Berdyaev, and Barth to scourge God into being." But I still found Tillich fascinating. One author writes, "The main thrust of Tillich’s thought was to recreate a meaningful link between Christianity and contemporary society. Like Karl Barth, he intended to do so by reintroducing the absoluteness of God and the Christian message, as opposed to its attempted “enculturation” in the liberal Protestantism of that time. That attempt, Tillich and Barth felt, was doomed to fail, as it deprived Christianity of its very essence. Like Barth, Tillich also linked the Christian message to social justice and the socialist movement. Unlike Barth, however, Tillich did not believe that a mere insistence on the absoluteness of faith in God as the “wholly other” was a viable solution. He strongly felt that ways had to be sought to show how religion was a necessary dimension of any society and how the absolute God was at the same time present in all relative cultural life." ( While both theologians were conscious of the need to articulate a basis for theology that respected the critiques of Kant and also Feuerbach, I always wondered if there was a disconnect between Barth's personal appreciation of culture and his insistence that nothing in human knowledge and culture can be a contact-point for revelation. Tillich sees the task of theology as understanding one's own time and as serving one's time via the latter's questions and issues.

For years I looked for a book by my teacher, Robert Clyde Johnson, Authority in Protestant Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958). His to me spellbinding lectures echoed his monograph, and in the days before internet booksellers (where I finally found the text), I searched every used bookstore for a hard copy to replace my old photocopies. Johnson studied under Tillich, so I enjoyed only a degree of separation from the great German-American theologian.

Johnson writes of Tillich's belief that the theological task is "bipolar" (in the sense of having two poles or orientations), the responsibilities to state the truth of the Christian message and also to interpret that truth for each new generation. "Situation" is for Tillich a technical term for one's socio-historical location, including cues from art, politics, science, philosophy, and ethics. But the theologian must also participate in the divine reality that is being articulated theologically. The theologian must find a norm within his/her era---which will not be the norm of other generations---with which to speak with theological authority to the questions of his/her times. "New Being" is Tillich's theological norm. This norm fills out Paul's own conception of "new creation" because Tillich can include the venerable philosophical concept of being into Christology (pp. 119, 136).

The theologian's analysis of the questions of his/her era allows for a correlation of the symbols of the Christian religion to the questions posed by contemporary times. As Tillich states in the system (I, 61), "symbolically speaking, God answers man's questions, and under the impact of God's answers, man asks them" (pp. 111-113). To the charge that in Tillich's system form determines content (p. 143), Tillich would respond that the questions of one's era (and human experience generally) are not an independent source for theology.

In all this, Tillich seeks a different path than, for instance, Barth's "kerygmatic" theology---wherein there is no contact point between God and humans---as well as American fundamentalism and Protestant orthodoxy, and also a different path than 19th- and 20th-centural liberal theology, which undercuts the knowledge of eternal truth by focusing upon the character of faith within human experience (pp. 112-113). Johnson points out, for instance, that Tillich criticized Schleiermacher for opening the way for a confusion of the medium of theological experience (the believing self) with revelation itself.

Tillich is open to the charge that he does not use biblical expressions in his theology. Johnson writes that the challenge isn't that Tillich uses different language and expressions but that, in using the questions of his own era, alters biblical emphases: for instance, when Tillich makes sin a "state" before it is individual actions---and consequently, in Tillich's system, we find forgiveness, atonement, and redemption given less emphasis and the incarnation expressed as "the negation of finitude" (pp. 122-123). But Tillich himself points out that Calvin's correlation of the knowledge of God and self, expressed in the opening sentence of the Institutes, imply that we cannot seek God until we realize and lament our sin and finitude (p. 123).

Another book by another teacher, Robert P. Scharlemann, is Reflection and Doubt in the Thought of Paul Tillich (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969. Scharlemann---my doctoral advisor, in fact---shows how Tillich takes on the post-Hegelian problem of the historically conditioned character of thinking.

In pre-Kantian times, theology provided a greater certainty than history and science, because metaphysics provided access beyond history and the changing physical world to unchanging being and God. But Kant reduced synthetic a priori knowledge to that of time and space, and thus metaphysical knowledge of God is no longer possible via pure reason (which cannot access the noumena).

Post-Kantian philosophers dealt with this challenge, notably Hegel, who sought a solution by constructing a system wherein temporality is embodied in eternity; thinking travels through logical and historical relationships until we reach the final stage that "thinking is being," and ongoing thinking (acts of reflection) are anticipated by and already included in the whole system of thought. But Scharlemann (echoing Tillich and others) notes that ongoing thinking (the kind which is not anticipated and included) does indeed happen in spite of Hegel's contention otherwise. Consequently, the challenge for theology is that (in Scharlemann's words) "what I think is never identical with the here-and-now act of thinking it; the act is always gone before it comes content" (p. xiii). This is a problem because we can thus never know God with certainty because the eternal vanishes with the continual passing-away of my here-and-now thinking. With no certain presence of God and no objectivity in thinking, Nietzsche declares "the nothingness of being and the death of God" (p. xiii).

But Tillich solves the problem of the failure of Hegel's absolute whole with the ideas of correlation and paradox. Because the self responds in a dual way to reality--both reflection and response---the failure of reflection to "catch" certainty about God in Hegel's system is countered by a system of response: "What being is is answered by God, to whom response is made; and the God to whom total response is made is present as being" (p. xv). Paradox, in turn, also counters the failure of reflection to "catch" knowledge of God in one's here-and-now thinking, via Tillich's definition of temporality as "paradoxical reality" and God as "paradoxical presence. That is, God is thought via the double reflection of my here-and-now thinking and my recognition of its failure (pp. xvi-xvii).

Furthermore, Tillich's conception of "symbol" as that which participates in the depth or ground of being without being an empirical concept prevents our thinking from unsuccessfully trying to grasp God (because of the historical nature of our thinking) or to wrongly fit God into the subject-object quality of our finite knowledge and being; "symbol" allows God to bridge that gap (pp. 29-30).

There is much more to Tillich's system, as well as to his large corpus of writings in both German and English.  Spending an afternoon at my favorite coffee shop, rereading Tillich and these two appreciative authors gave me terrific pleasure amid the week's other tasks.  It's never too late to rediscover an interesting book. So I'm happy that I kept these, first perused in an Illinois repair shop on I-57, then further enjoyed during a sojourn in New England.  They're also a nice reminder that my initial excitement in discovering religious studies, not long before I purchased these books, has never abated in the slightest.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

"Flooded with Relief"

Remembering that today is Yom Kippur, I read the article on "Judaism 101" about the day. Among other interesting aspects, the author notes that the communal confessions of the day include a general list, a longer, more specific list, and also a "catch-all" confession, "Forgive us the breach of positive commands and negative commands, whether or not they involve an act, whether or not they are known to us."

The author writes: "It is interesting to note that these confessions do not specifically address the kinds of ritual sins that some people think are the be-all-and-end-all of Judaism. There is no "for the sin we have sinned before you by eating pork, and for the sin we have sinned against you by driving on Shabbat" (though obviously these are implicitly included in the catch-all). The vast majority of the sins enumerated involve mistreatment of other people, most of them by speech (offensive speech, scoffing, slander, talebearing, and swearing falsely, to name a few). These all come into the category of sin known as "lashon ha-ra" (lit: the evil tongue), which is considered a very serious sin in Judaism."

What a wonderful reminder! I've known an awful lot of gossipy Christians over the years and have been very hurt by some. I've never meant to hurt anyone's feelings but I'm sure I have.  Prayers for our big mouths would be wonderful prayers---and also soul searching for what stupid things we've said to people and how, if possible, we can make amends.

But words also bless! Browsing the internet, I also found these words of poetry and mediation concerning Yom Kippur:
Check these out; they're all wonderful truths. I lift this one out as particularly wonderful to me personally, because of the assurance that God "knows we are dust" (Psalm 104:13). (This quote also reminds me a little of a Christian poem by John Donne, "Hymn to God the Father.")

"I am grateful for this, / a moment of truth, / grateful to stand before You / in judgment. / You know me as a liar / and I am flooded with relief / to have my darkest self / exposed at last. / Every day I break my vows— / to be the dutiful child, / selfless parent, caring friend, / responsible citizen of the world. / No one sees, no one knows / how often I take the easy way, / I let myself off the hook, / give myself the benefit of / the doubt— / every day, every day. / On this day, this one day, / I stand before You naked, / without disguise, without / embellishment, naked, /shivering, ridiculous. / I implore You— / let me try again. (Merle Feld, poet, playwright, activist, and educator)"

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Programs and Taxes and Debt

Every once in a while I like to take notes from news articles and columns, to help me think through ideas and topics. The Bible calls us to care for the needy and so perhaps I can do "my little bit" for voicing concern for those in society who are struggling---as I also seek to do "my little bit" in other ways. (I do realize that many of the articles I enjoy come from the Huffington Post, although I'm also focusing on GOP positions, which interest me as one who taught the party's history several years ago.) 

"God so loved the world," as the Gospel teaches, but what's happening in that beloved world at the moment? Big economic issues and the accompanying politics are "what's happening," among other things. Steve Thorngate, writing for The Christian Century, laments that there wasn’t serious policy debate in the debt-ceiling negotiations of this past summer. The president wanted to “get to yes,” while the GOP leaders are keen on preventing Obama’s reelection, while Reps. Boehner and Cantor want control of the House republicans. This is, as Thorngate writes, all about “zero-sum electoral politics.” He criticizes the way the mainstream media (for instance, an article in Time that week) conflates policy talks with the trope that leaders should “just compromise.” In reality, there are no liberal extremists parallel to GOP hardliners who refused to budge on raising the debt ceiling and letting Bush-era tax cuts expire for the sake of increased federal revenue. Democrats have already compromised concerning cuts to what the Time article called“cherished entitlement programs like Medicare”, but GOPs will meanwhile (in Thorngate’s words) “feign disappointment when agreeing to cut tax expenditures.” (

Coming from the conservative perspective, David Frum, a CNN columnist and former assistant to President Bush, complains that  “[o]nly about one-third of Republicans agree that cutting government spending should be the country’s top priority. Only about one-quarter of Republicans insist the budget be balanced without any tax increases. Yet that one-third and one-quarter have come to dominate my party. That one-third and that one-quarter forced a debt standoff that could have ended in default and a second Great Recession.”  Frum offers several ideas. One is to borrow money at less thant 3% interest in order to help people get out of unemployment, because “Unemployment is a more urgent problem than debt.”

He makes other points. Second: “the deficit is a symptom of America’s economic problems, not a cause,” because government spending increased and revenue declines when the economy weekends. Third: “The time to cut is after the economy recovers.” Fourth: “The place to cut is health care, not assistance to the unemployed and poor”; the US, he says, “provide less assistance to the unemployed and the poor than almost any other democracy” and yet health care is more expensive here and with “worse results.” Fifth: he argues that federal income could be increased not by raising tax rates but by, for instance, higher taxes on energy to encourage conservation or eliminating certain deductions (like state and local taxes) from taxable income. Sixth: he argues that the “frenzy of rage and contempt” among Republicans toward Obama “satisfies the emotions of the Republican base” but are undercutting their own good judgment via pinning all the responsibility for our economic problems on Obama. Finally, he worries that some GOP leaders are going to ruin our economic system in order to prove that the system is in trouble.  (

Speaking of Obama-hating, I'm honestly not aware that liberalism has produced a cottage industry of angry media; liberal-hating authors fill an entire shelf at my nearby Barnes and Noble. One thing that urks me badly is when my churchgoing Christian friends start to sound hate-ful and snarky like some of these authors and broadcasters.  I personally have found only one book (there may be others) that aims to persuade in a more irenic manner: Patrick M. Garry, Conservatism Redefined: A Creed for the Poor and Disadvantaged. New York: Encounter Books, 2010.

There is a lot of talk about taxing the wealthy these days, especially with regard to retaining earlier  tax cuts and the need for national debt reduction. I worry that some of the rhetoric give a very one-sided picture. In my own little world, I know well-to-do people who are extremely generous, concerned about social issues, and hopeful to improve the common good, and I know of large companies that contribute notably to beneficial efforts.  In current discussions of taxes and federal revenue, Charles Hugh Smith, writing at, notes that we tend to lump the wealthy together. That's mistaken: many wealthy people (Steve Jobs is his example) "created value" and benefited millions of people, while other wealthy people (those connected with Countryside and Enron) deserve condemnation.

Smith clarifies some of the issues. Smith cautions that "the debate over tax rates is pointless, because as long as the super-wealthy own the levers of Federal governance and regulation, then they will buy exclusions, loopholes, rebates, subsidies etc. which relieve them of whatever official tax rates have been passed for public consumption/propaganda purposes." He cites the sociologist G. William Domhoff who distinguishes "the net worth held by households in 'marketable assets' such as homes and vehicles and 'financial wealth.' Homes and other tangible assets are, in Domhoff's words, 'not as readily converted into cash and are more valuable to their owners for use purposes than they are for resale.' Meanwhile, "[f]inancial wealth such as stocks, bonds and other securities are liquid and therefore easily converted to cash," and Domhoff calls these "non-home wealth." Smith cites 2007 statistics that "the bottom 80% of American households held a mere 7% of these financial assets, while the top 1% held 42.7%, the top 5% holds 72% and the top 10% held fully 83%." I direct people to this interesting article for Smith's several graphs and analysis. His conclusion:

"Beneath the happy surface of Federal transfers and spending funded by debt, earned incomes for the bottom 95% are falling and wealth is accumulating in the top 1%. (Emphasis in text.) The Federal Reserve's project of goosing stocks and bonds has greatly enriched the holders of those assets, while doing essentially nothing for the bottom 90% except increasing their government's debt load.
"It's painfully obvious that the Federal government and the Fed are the handmaidens of the politically powerful Financial Elites. Why spend your own money on bribes, bread and circuses when you can arrange for the Central State to borrow the money? Why, indeed. 'Austerity' is of course a modest reduction in the amount of money borrowed and spread around to keep the masses safely passive, but a few trillion trimmed here and there over a decade won't change the Great Game." (

Taxes, by their very nature, do impede economic growth by taking money from businesses and consumers. The author of Naked Economics, Charles Wheelan, notes that when government is “doing the things that it is theoretically supposed to be, government spending must be financed by levying taxes, and taxes exert a cost on the economy.” In his opinion “supply-side economics” is a “chimera” because “we cannot cut taxes and have more money to spend on government programs.” Basically if we pay more taxes, we get more government services, and if we pay fewer taxes, the government will have “fewer resources to fight wars, balance the budget, catch terrorists, educate children,” and other traditional government functions. So how do we have strong services and security from our government while also doing things that encourage economic growth?[1]  (I wish I knew!)  

Another notion in the news is "class warfare." Two articles I found are worth reading, one is "Classlessness in America: the uses and abuses of an enduring myth," in The Economist, discusses the reality of class in the wake of Rep. Paul Ryan's remark about 'class warfare." ( ) Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott's "Class Warfare?" which argues that although a "millionaire's tax" does not solve all problems, but that it is a significant way to raise revenue, but President Obama "hasn't made out [the] moral case to the American people," and that his critics are wrong to argue that it is not a serious possible solution to our economic struggles. "More and more citizens believe--and rightly so--that we aren't all in this together, and that there isn't a level playing field.... Intergenerational income mobility is lower in the United States than in many European countries...The rich get richer, and so do their children, while the great majority struggles. It is the winner-take-all economy, not taxation, that is the moral problem threatening our democracy." (

Yet another article, by Joshua Holland for Alternet, is "The real 'class war' in America: Six narratives wealthy elites are using to destroy the nation's poor." All his points are worth reading. One of the false narratives he lists is "unemployment benefits have created a 'nation of slackers.'" He quotes the hard words of Rep. Steve King (R-IA), "The 80 million Americans that are of working age but are simply not in the workforce need to be put to work. We can't have a nation of slackers... We've gotta get this country back to work and get those people out of the slacker rolls and onto the employed rolls." But Holland points out that America has one of the "stingiest unemployment benefits" among developed countries, and that unemployment benefits are not discouraging people from finding work---because "[t]here are no jobs!" We have nearly 7 million fewer jobs than in 2007, and to that you can add many millions more people who are working part-time and would like a full-time job, so "you get 25.4 million workers vying for 3.2 million full-time job openings. King, comments Holland, takes an assertion that there are millions of people not in the work force, and derives from that the conclusion that they're all "slackers." Similarly, Holland argues that food stamps do, indeed, help people and in fact discourage starvation for many people! But the stigma attached to SNAP, perpetuated by critics who equate nutritional assistance with perpetuating instead of helping to curb poverty, causes some people to not seek this assistance despite eligibility. (

In a couple of other "news round-ups" ( and, I thought about the need for conservatives to create a compelling vision for the common good rather than being a "party of No." Recently, Vice President Joe Biden noted "You've got audiences cheering at the prospect of somebody dying because they don't have health care and booing a service member in Iraq because [he's] gay. That's not reflective of who we are. This is a choice about the fundamental direction of our country." As the article author noted, too, the "histrionics of a small minority of the GOP debate crowd ... continues to present a lasting problem for a Republican Party struggling to come off as inclusive." (

Unfortunately, the possibility of a positive, inclusive political vision emerging on the national scene seems hopeless right now in the wake of numerous political changes that have arisen over the past fifteen or so years, as discussed in another article, "Why Congress is So Dysfunctional" (

A few weeks ago, an article from Religion News Service indicated that conservative Christian leaders were praiing Governor Rick Perry and his presidential candidacy. Former Focus on the Family leader James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jr., of Liberty University, and other evangelical leaders supported Perry's style, policies, and faith. Falwell even admired Perry's "guts" for suggesting Texas might secede from the Union. (

Still another article author, Karl Giberson, explains some of the background to this (to me lamentable) position of these evangelical leaders. "Widespread rejection of human-induced climate change by evangelical Christians, of the sort we have seen recently from Rich Perry and others, is a bit of a puzzler. There is no obvious reason why evangelical faith commitments should motivate the faithful to reject climate science." But he comments that "one of the strategies employed most effectively by evangelicals in their crusade against evolution, which does pose real, although soluble, biblical and theological problems, has been to undermine the entire scientific enterprise. If science is a deeply flawed, ideologically driven, philosophically suspect enterprise, then why should anyone care if almost every scientist supports the theory of evolution [and by extension, climate change]?" And the anti-science polemic by, for instance, the Discovery Institute, characterizes science as a kind of left-wing ideology which one can reject. This is very sad, as is the way some evangelical Christians will, nevertheless, become attracted to "faith-friendly" but "indefensible views in many areas: American history (the Founding Fathers intended America to be a Christian nation), sexual orientation (you can 'pray away the gay'), climate change (not happening), evolution (never happened), cosmology (Big Bang is a big joke) and even biblical studies (the bible tells us what is about to happen in the Middle East." (

Another article, "Rick Perry and Republican Magical Thinking" by Lincoln Mitchell, points out that Perry does "project an image of strength and independence" as well as "a record and some relevant experience while also legitimately presenting himself as a political outsider." The "magical thinking" part is a fuzziness of some Republicans' thinking "that cutting taxes can magically solve all economic woes," as well as the contention "that global warming is a conspiracy by liberal scientists." (

Yet another article, by Eric Sapp of the Eleison Group, criticizes Gov. Perry for his combination of belief in God with his determination to cut government programs for the poor. This is interesting not only from a political position but it also speaks to the role of church and government in fostering the social common good.  Gov. Perry, like many conservatives, believe the church can care for society's need better than government programs. Sapp notes that progressives tend to lose this "Church can do it better" argument, which in turn supports the conservative argument that government isn't supposed to solve all problems. Sapp argues, "What we should be saying is that it doesn't matter whether the Church could do a better job caring for the poor or not because the Christ isn't doing it. We wouldn't need Section 8 housing if we had enough Habitat homes. We wouldn't need food stamps or school lunches if we had enough soup kitchens. The way to ensure better care for the poor than government can provide is not to hobble government programs but for the Church to make these programs unnecessary." (

The more I've thought about this particular issue, the more I think it's not a simple either-or. I think that the Tea Party, with its anti-taxation and small-government rhetoric, has raised this issue afresh.  But there can be possibilities of government working along side of faith-communities for the common good, and of persons of faith working as citizens and civic leaders in order to serve the common good through government.

Last year, while working on a research project about faith and citizenship (purchasableright now!, I found an interesting book Doing Justice in Our Cities by Warren R. Copeland, professor of Religion and Director of Urban Studies at Wittenberg University, and also a several-term mayor and civic leader in Springfield, Ohio. He notes that, after he and his wife became the legal guardians of a teenaged girl, people remarked, “You are such good Christian people to take this girl into your home.” But he wonders why people don’t say they’re “good Christian people” because they participate in the public life of their community! “Being legal guardians for a teenager is not significantly less complicated than being a good citizen,” but he wonders “why is the direct relationship of a legal guardian so often seen as more of an act of faith than the principled participation in a community’s public life?” He adds that “Those who have served on the board of a voluntary association know that that can be just as difficult as government,” since voluntary associations, like local government, “shape our communities and understandings of the issues we face” in public life.[2]

Similarly Copeland wonders if people avoid public service because (to use his example) building a house for Habitat for Humanity is somehow more clearly a "good cause” than dealing with local and federal laws about, for instance, housing. During one year of his elected service, Copeland voted to support construction of over 200 housing units for medium- and low-income families via a federal tax credit program. In addition, his city’s public housing authority supports nearly 2000 housing units. In twenty years, he notes, Springfield’s local Habitat chapter constructed forty homes.[3] “Voluntary organizations provide a human touch and often a spiritual dimension that may be missing from government programs. However, we are not about to meet the huge needs of our urban communities through volunteerism.” He also uses the examples of public schools. He notes that people make personal decisions about their children’s education, sometimes by moving to new communities or removing children from public schools, but “[g]enerally this only makes things worse for the vast majority of our children and makes the overall education system less just” Individual and volunteer errors cannot address all the problems of school quality, funding, and so on.[4]

“Both [government and voluntary groups] are essential to a democratic society.” This is, to him, a matter of faith. “I believe that the fundamental values of real freedom and real diversity are essential to the experience of full humanity in our human communities. I believe that the ethical principles of respect for the integrity of other human beings, recognition of the just claims of our neighbors, and concern for the common good deserve our commitment.”[5]

Words to ponder---and to end this little "news round-up"!



1. Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 94, 97.

2. Warren R. Copeland, Doing Justice in Our Cities: Lessons in Public Policy from America’s Heartland (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 124.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.