Here I Sit…Waiting for the Bus

Jun 24th, 2010 | Category: Columns, Here I sit
By O. John Zillman

I haven’t seen the signs yet since I don’t get to downtown Chicago all that often. Concordia University Chicago is, as you likely know, about eight miles plus Oak Park west of the lakefront and unless one is headed to either Wrigley or Cellular Field—neither of which are really downtown—to a summer concert in Millenium Park (free!) or to, say, the Art Institute, Field Museum or Symphony Center, going in that direction requires some motivation. While the events and destinations are certainly worth the effort, driving and parking can be frustrating and public transportation, while efficient and reasonably priced for the frequent user, usually requires some research on which CTA train or bus gets you here or there. For some reason, I hear about the art shows, special events and other downtown activities after other people have been to them and they then tell me about it later. How they know what’s going on—which deli in Hyde Park is the best, the dates for Chicago Restaurant Week or how, by chance, they get standing room spots right in front of the stage for the Blackhawks Stanley Cup victory rally are beyond me. Or maybe other people just spend more time investigating those sorts of things. I can say that just having returned from a weekend in New York City to visit the Youngest Daughter who now resides and works there, I feel as though I know more about how to get around in Manhattan than in the city near which I’ve lived most of my life. I tell people I meet that I’m “from the Chicago area” which reduces the necessity of explaining the suburbs, but I am not actually a “Chicagoan” except, of course, when it comes to the Bears.

So, I haven’t seen the signs on the downtown buses yet. Apparently, according to the Chicago Tribune the Freedom From Religion Foundation is sponsoring a campaign in which they’re running ads on mass transit buses bearing the message, “Sleep In On Sundays.”  Since I’ve helped to raise two children and underscored to hundreds of students the importance of regular worship (and yeah, we miss a few Sundays here and there) I was curious about just who might be countermanding all my efforts over all these years.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, (www.ffrf.org) is a non-profit organization founded in 1978, which states as its purpose that it “is an educational group working for the separation of state and church. Its purposes, as stated in its bylaws, are to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to non-theism.” Further, it…“is a national membership association of freethinkers: atheists, agnostics and skeptics of any pedigree.”

Some additional poking around on the web site got me into a lot of interesting areas but since space is limited here, I’ll just share a few.

There are two quizzes that one can take online at the Web site. The first, “What Do You Really Know About the Bible?” is an interesting walk through questions whose answers are out-of-context biblical passages, largely from Old Testament/Mosaic law to which are applied present-day secular legal principles. The overall thrust of this appears to present religion as a significant cause of evil in the world, that historic Christianity is incompatible with modern-day notions of human rights and to portray believers as patriarchal promoters of oppression in the name of God. Ironically, it’s one of those things that one reads once in a while that makes one feel like responding in detail to every misinterpretation which is the same feeling that I have when I read some of the more polemical publications representing the exact opposite viewpoint. But more importantly, the authors of that quiz have really only led the quiz-taker to “discover” that which writers like C.S. Lewis have described as “natural Law,” the sense that there is a right and a wrong in the world and that, basically, “wrong” is what occurs when I don’t think what you’re doing or thinking is right. This, we are beginning to understand, may manifest itself in children from an early age but appears to be rather ego-centric in its orientation, i.e., the world revolves around me, my interests and my desire to get what I want without interference from anyone else, including God. In short, the Web site authors have discovered what they view as God’s rather serious view of sin and its consequences. This is nothing new.

Further, while the assertion is made that people can do good things in the absence of religion and humans are equipped with the capacity to reason, the basic understanding of right and wrong is insufficient as a basis for more complex moral thinking as it depends only upon the belief in one’s own interpretation of moral behavior. What isn’t addressed is the nature of conscience, which is the more useful tool in moral thinking. By this we humans hopefully develop the emergent, nagging sense that we might just not be right all of the time and somebody else might be hurt by what we think is right for ourselves.

The second quiz “What Do You Know About the Separation of Church and State?” is the more fairly written of the two pieces but I hesitate to say “valid” here as my educational psychology sense kicks in and asks, “So, what are we really measuring here?  Knowledge of the U.S. Constitution? Or is this a measure of one’s willingness to interpret it to promote one’s own viewpoint?” But there’s a bit of truth here, as in many things. Many of my own students still cite the Declaration of Independence as if it were the law of the land (“All men are created equal…”) rather than the statement of revolutionary political belief that it was intended to be. They may also sometimes assume that the phrase “separation of church and state” actually appears in the Constitution (it doesn’t) and neither does it use the word “God” anywhere within it.

In another article on the site, the Web site authors’ assert the inappropriateness of the recent actions by the Texas State Board of Education to put a specifically Christian spin onto motivations of the Founding Fathers in the history textbooks to be used in the public schools in that state. That’s a point with which I’d agree. The mission of the public schools is to prepare children for life in a democracy, consequently public schools which operate with the tax dollars of everyone—religious or not—should remain neutral on religion. This is a fair principle in that respect. This is also misinterpreted by some within Lutheran education too, I think, especially when this fundamental neutrality is misconstrued as being a position of “anti-religious” which has the result that some among us engage in “public school slamming.” The coded terminology there would be things like referring to “government schools” rather than what is really a solid American tradition of the public school as the great equalizer where being an American citizen is concerned, especially to generations of immigrants. The Web site authors’ point is well taken even if the agenda is a bit skewed.

There’s much more there that one might like to explore, most importantly for Lutheran educators in general, that understanding the argument against Christianity is good preparation for those who spend their lives for the opposite, in living and teaching it for the good of their students.

At another level, though, we understand that if the Christian faith is viewed only in human intellectual  terms, it DOES appear to be irrational. Unlike “natural Law”, the sense that there is a right and wrong, faith is not innate in us, a point which Luther acknowledges directly in the explanation of the Third Article, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him…” We’ve taken care of that argument right up front and I daresay that few would accuse Luther of being anti-intellectual in this admission. He certainly wasn’t perfect, made some rather unkind characterizations of Jews but, on the whole, he did his homework and, more importantly, was willing to put his life and, literally, his soul on the line for his doctrinal assertions that were based in careful scholarship. This is a bit different than some of the shallow, quasi-religious political shouting matches that we’re hearing in the present day.

Since FFRF asserts that it is a gathering point for “freethinkers: atheists, agnostics and skeptics of any pedigree”, then maybe there are a few things that could be mentioned that might relieve some of their fears—and the latter is what I think is really at the basis of much of this.

Can a Christian think freely?  Sometimes I wonder about that one but surely we as Lutherans wouldn’t be where we are if Brother Martin hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking deeply—but not all that freely at first—as he worked out the whole idea of the “priesthood of all believers.” But if we look like we’ve exchanged the chains of historic ecclesiastical oligarchy for the chains of self-imposed “orthodoxy”, then we must look pretty helpless, confused and perhaps laughable to the outsider.

Skepticism is cynicism’s brighter side, I think. We’re completely human when we take an attitude of “I’ll believe it when I see it” but we’re in famous company when we do. Thomas wasn’t voted out of the disciples because he expressed his doubts and skepticism about what he was hearing about Jesus’ resurrection immediately afterward. He was just being a bit thickskulled and stubborn—maybe a little jealous of the belief of the others who had already seen the risen Christ. Jesus called him out on it shortly thereafter and there was specific intent in the exchange between them: it wasn’t as though Christ was just giving a make-up lesson for an absent student as the incident also resonates with the doubts that all believers have at one time or another. We’re assured that faith is sufficient and don’t need burial shrouds or other relics as empirical proof of the Resurrection.

As an example familiar to most, my wife and I recently bade farewell to our much beloved neighbor who recently passed away one month short of her ninetieth birthday. Her close-knit Irish Catholic family surrounded her at her peaceful home-going and then extended an invitation across the backyard fence to attend the funeral mass. The priest—her brother-in-law—reminded us in the homily that in grief we sometimes don’t hold God to high enough expectations, that we might—but for faith—allow ourselves to doubt his capability of following through on his baptismal promise to us.

So for my friends at FFRF, I’d say this: If you’ve worked out in rational terms that there is no God in a “no hell below us, above us only sky” sort of way, and afterward, well, there’s just nothing when it’s all over and you’re secure in that, hey, good luck to you with that one (unless you’d like to chat sometime—my e-mail address appears below). Anyway, you won’t be able to tell us whether or not that’s the case afterward. The well-known individuals indicated in the Web site as freethinkers—Carl Sandburg, Jean-Paul Sarte, Mark Twain and Katherine Hepburn all certainly achieved great things and made lasting contributions to literature and the arts famously minus reliance on religious belief but the fact remains that, at this point, they all have but one thing in common. Physical death is a rational, measurable, biological finality on this side of the river but perhaps when the “irrational” belief that God can and will resurrect us meets the Great Question that can’t be answered from here we might have a point of discussion. Is non-belief in the Resurrection similar to that lack of holding God to high enough expectations as my departed neighbor’s priest shared with us? That things occur for reasons that are in God’s control? Or is it a lack of willingness to or fear of getting into unknown territory that can’t be explained by human intellect?

Or, most importantly, perhaps it’s this: The biblical references in the quiz are definitely legalistic—no doubt about it—but the one quiz item asking how God describes himself and for which the answer is “jealous” is the key to the whole thing. God IS jealous of his Creation which includes all of us and our intellectual capacities and, quite simply, he’s not fair. And lucky for us, too, because if God were fair and held all of us to the rules and rubrics of the Mosaic Law, we’d be in very deep trouble, indeed. Judged by that impossible standard, it would be “game over” for all of us at the end and one could thereby intellectually construe that there’s not much love where God is concerned. The part that’s missing throughout that entire quiz and the explanations of the “correct responses” to those loaded questions is the irrational, that is, the Gospel. The grave (so to speak) business of the Law and sin which, as noted , often led to rather violent and, yes, bloody consequences is really evidence of God’s very serious view of our value to him and, in that, his fair warning that being apart from his grace will lead to dire things. On the other hand, his response in his good time was to follow through on a promise to provide a solution to the problem, to become human himself in Christ and willingly allow his human rights to be violated through the very bloody, slow and horrifically painful execution process of crucifixion. If that practice was commonly used today, Amnesty International would rightly have it on their radar as inhuman, degrading, cruel and unusual. Water-boarding pales in comparison.

That God followed through on that promise willingly is the deeply moving absolute sacrifice that Christians appropriately call “the Passion.” Jesus had to have known what was involved in crucifixion as it was the go-to punishment by the Romans for many different crimes from theft to treason and his deep struggle in Gethsemane the night beforehand likely included thoughts of what was in store for him: Golgotha was well-known in its use as a killing ground for the occupying army and the puppet government of the day. The circumstances of Jesus’ execution were essentially a political expediency and the “trial” preceding it had no more legal legitimacy than a lynching. But it had a purpose that no one human at the time had yet quite figured out.

That God could transcend and defeat death, could absolve the human race of its guilt and sin and the day-to-day futility of guessing about the correct response to the demands of “natural Law” leads to the conclusion that St. Augustine reached: “Love God, and do as you please” (Moulds, 2007, p. 113). Loving God is neither natural nor is it grounded in human nature. It’s the result of faith, a fruit of the Spirit and, above all, is the ultimate freedom—not freedom from religion but freedom through religion. Rather than matching up with a set of rules in a cause and effect way, the Resurrection results in their complete collapse as standards for meaningful living into the freedom that, yes, compels Christians to worship and celebrate God’s peace with each other, to participate in the sacrament by which we recall and physically receive the Body and Blood and then go out and actually act like we love God and, thereby, our neighbor as ourselves.

And, hey, as a bonus of living in America, we have the freedom to do that and to formally educate children, youth and adults into what it means for them. It also allows the freedom to write articles like this in response to those who have the very same freedom to take the opposite viewpoint. But there’s a difference: the latter freedom derives from the rule of law by the consent of the governed as we Americans rightfully claim. We have had—and will likely have in the future—occasions to make steep sacrifices to defend it. The freedom from the finality of death transcends all of it, is from God alone and is ours to embrace as Gospel: God has already won it and we didn’t have to do a thing to earn it except to believe that it is so.

So, while I disagree with much of their stated agenda, I guess I’ll give grudging credit to the Freedom From Religion Foundation for their creativity in putting a message out there in public that will actually make people think about something that’s more important rather than just another way to spend their money or to be entertained. And even though I still haven’t actually seen any of the “Sleep In On Sundays” signs on the buses, I believe they are there because the newspaper and a website site told me so. Now that I think about it, perhaps I’m just taking their existence on faith. LEJ

Reference:

Moulds, R. (2007).  A Teacher of the Church. (Ed.), Wipf and Stock Publishers: Eugene, OR

Author Information

John Zillman, Editor, may be contacted at John.Zillman@CUChicago.edu.

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