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Thinking Out Loud
  • Cherry Picking Faith

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 28, 2016

    Cherry Picking FaithSomeone - I won't say who to protect the guilty - recently sent me an outrageously funny parody of a worship service that's making the rounds on YouTube. The service purports to be in a "spiritual but not religious" congregation.

    The preacher who presides is outrageously hip and cool. He is relevant to the point of the ridiculous. The person offering his testimony in the service is so utterly bizarre he defies description, sharing thoughts he has written down apparently under the influence of some "special" mushrooms or something equally hallucinogenic.

    I laughed till I wept. But, like a number of things I personally may enjoy, I will not recommend the video because it goes well over any acceptable boundaries of decorum. I won't encourage you to watch it. I won't provide a link to it. And I will only obliquely reference it here. Just to make a point.

    During the "sermon" in the video, the extremely appreciative congregation (which is as hip, cool and relevant as their pastor) "ooh" and "aah," nodding their heads and swaying with joy when the preacher stresses how different their church is from merely religious institutions. His sermon provides a litany of disconnected thoughts, disconnected not only from any clear coherent message, but from each other. The preacher cherry-picks first from one then from another well-known representative of spiritual thought, traversing a variety of sages and celebrities from different faiths and spiritual traditions. One quote abuts another in a veritable train wreck of ideas all of which were chosen either because the quotes sound cool or because the preacher wants to be identified with the sages and celebrities he's quoting, not because any particular quotation contributes to an actual engagement with a deep way of being human, spiritual or faithful.

    There's no way any description can do justice to how funny the video is, or how thoroughly it made me cringe to watch it. In the cause of "not being religious," the preacher and the congregation have reduced the meaning and content of their faith to something so thin, so superficial it would make a bumper sticker look profound by comparison.*

    Now, I want to get this straight: I don't particularly care for the word "religious" myself and probably have as much suspicion of organized religion as anyone around, though I also have deep respect for the faith that is conveyed in and through religious institutions.

    My Reformed theological roots make me suspicious of "religion" on theological grounds. Karl Barth, the greatest Reformed theologian of the twentieth century, wrote one of the finest sustained critiques of religion ever conceived in his brilliant theological commentary on St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. Barth differentiates faith in the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth from the human collection of rites, ceremonies and practices commonly called "religion." Barth's argument is that religion, like every other aspect of human life and society, is fallen and stands in need of God's redemption. No religion can ascend a ladder "up" to God. In fact, from a Reformed perspective, religion can lead us as far astray from God as anything else in this fallen world.

    Religion can and often does simply enshrine our tendency to make "gods" of ourselves, which is why, although I am an official representative of a major Protestant mainline denomination, I am often as disillusioned as the most jaded among us of "institutional" or "organized religion." It is so easy for us to sacrifice humanity on the altar of institutions, religious ones included. However, I have also been hesitant to align myself uncritically with those who say they are "spiritual but not religious."

    The "spiritual but not religious" critiques often feel just a little too blithe and facile, a little too cool and trendy, to ring entirely true. I am often reminded of C.S. Lewis' senior demon, Screwtape, in The Screwtape Letters (1942) recommending that his nephew and novice demon, Wormwood, not bother to try to convince the new convert that Christianity is illogical. This is a dangerous strategy, Screwtape tells Wormwood, because once the new believer's mind is fully engaged he may discover the deep rationality of Christian faith. Rather, Screwtape advises Wormwood just to convince the new believer that Christianity is out-of-fashion with the trendiest people. Appeal to the convert's vanity, not his intellect, says Screwtape.

    These days far too many of the arguments against religion, in general, and the church and Christian faith, in particular, seem to follow Screwtape's script.

    When pressed to describe myself, I tend to avoid saying I'm religious. Instead I say that I am a person of faith. What I mean is this: I try, with only sporadic and moderate success, to follow Jesus of Nazareth while also trusting God's mercy to be more effectual than my faith or ability to follow. With every passing year, while I find Jesus more and more fascinating, more provocative, more beautiful and worthy of devotion and imitation, I also understand Jesus less and less. The mystery of Jesus of Nazareth grows larger and more profound the older I get. Thus, I tend to depend more on the vast treasury of Christian wisdom and experience than on my own individual experience. This treasury, sometimes referred to as "tradition," is deep and rich. And it is as conflicted about what we should call the "Christian thing" (religious, spiritual, faith, practice, devotion, or mysticism) as any contemporary seeker.

    The Reformed tradition to which I belong is deep and rich itself. And, in contrast to sectarian versions of Christianity, the Reformed tradition is invested in insuring that we value the larger Christian traditions from across history and around the world, from Irenaeus to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Gregory of Nyssa to Lady Julian of Norwich and Desmond Tutu, from Justin Martyr to Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz to Gustavo Gutiérrez. According to the Reformed tradition, to be narrowly sectarian betrays the Spirit of Christ.

    Being a Christian means we get to tap into a particular and sustained "way" of being human and being faithful in God's world, a "way" which bears traditions and practices and even counter-traditions from one generation to another, and has drawn on renewals and reformations and counter-reformations for over twenty centuries. The variety of Christian faith understandings is further enriched by other deep "ways" of being faithful and human. Because we know the God who is Lord of all creation, we are free to partake of wisdom which comes to us through cultures and faiths other than our own.

    So I want to second the motion presently on the table that being a Christian does not have to mean we are exclusivist. Nor does being a Christian mean that we have to be card-carrying members of only one faith "club," especially a club that defines itself by fiercely opposing and demeaning other faiths. Nor does being a Christian require us to swear fealty to an institutional brand that secures its survival at the expense of humanity.

    We worship the free God, the living God. This God is passionately devoted to making us free so that we can live before we die.

    There is much to applaud in the various attempts to speak of the life of the Spirit in ways that cross traditional boundaries. There is much to applaud in learning from other faiths and practices. And there is much to applaud in the nurture of what we sometimes call "multiple faith identity" (that is, the conscious engagement and identification with more than just one faith tradition).

    Mature faith can be nourished by various streams of very different rivers of thought, very different ways of understanding God and humanity and the meaning of life. But mature faith grows when planted deep in fertile soil. Seeds sown on thin soil, as Jesus tells us, wither under the blaze of the noonday sun. Mature faith requires something more than slick slogans and cherry-picked smatterings of various philosophies and faith traditions however cool they may sound.

    I remember one day visiting a close friend who then taught middle school. Now, first, I want to say that anyone who teaches middle school students deserves the highest civilian honor our nation can bestow, and maybe a Purple Heart too. Walking around her classroom that afternoon, I saw cheerful posters intended to inspire students with lofty passages from famous philosophers. I can't remember the quotes, but a poster offering a quote from the French Existentialist Albert Camus hung next to one from Plato next to another from William James, and so on, all around her classroom.

    I told her I loved the quotes. But, I said, "You know, lifting them out of context like this, and putting them on the walls next to each other is really pretty incoherent. Each one of these philosophers is saying something he or she believed to be true, but they are saying it in their own terms from their own historical and philosophical contexts. And, frankly, they often contradict each other in really important ways."

    "What do you suggest?" She asked, as only a weary middle school teacher can ask when, at the end of a long day, she is trying to be patient with a tedious and pedantic friend.

    "I would suggest you tell the kids these quotes are really a sort of philosophical sampler or smorgasbord. Keep the quotes, but say something like this to the students: 'Camus sounds like he might be saying something similar to Plato, but really, they are in an argument, a centuries-old argument, about the meaning of life. It's an argument you might want to jump into the middle of yourself."

    I don't recall if she took my advice, which is just as well, but we are still friends.

    There are lots of times, listening to some very popular spiritual speakers (like the one parodied on YouTube), when it becomes clear that they aren't really engaging in any deep, coherent faith traditions or sustained understandings of life at all, but are just doing what John Lennon and Paul McCartney say they are doing in their song, "Michelle," singing: "These are words that go together well."

    Well, maybe, these words go together well. Maybe not. But, here's what I know. When the scorching sun comes out, seeds planted in thin soil just die where they lie.

    Learning from various faith traditions and philosophies of life is very much an aspect of the age in which we live, this secular age, which, as Charles Taylor has observed, is predicated on the power to choose. I, personally, believe the impulse to cross boundaries of faith and philosophy can enrich one's life immeasurably. But, when we engage in varied "ways," we owe it to ourselves and we owe it to the faith traditions in which we engage and from which we borrow, to engage them deeply and with integrity.

    That takes time, attention, discipline, respect, and a willingness to be teachable, to possess what Zen master Shunryū Suzuki once called "the beginner's mind." It's certainly a lot more than cherry-picking cool statements from different spiritual or philosophical voices and forcing them into an incoherent mishmash. And it is a lot more rewarding.

    * A faith that can laugh at itself is, I think, a healthy and more mature faith; and a faith that can't take a joke is, I believe, pretty insecure. Thus, I'm always on the lookout for good religious satire that can help us see the ridiculous in ourselves and in our beliefs. Recently The Washington Post ran a story on a satirical website Babylon Bee, which is what The Onion might look like if it were written by and for Evangelical Christians. Among its headlines was the following: "Mountain Climber Recovering After Decision to Let Go and Let God." The website reminds me somewhat of that great source of religious satire The Wittenburg Door, although, frankly, nothing else has ever really taken the place of The Door at its best.

  • Like Steps to a New Dance

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 21, 2016

    San Fran Zen CenterOne of the more interesting tidbits of information to have trickled out of leadership research in recent years tells us that people who are quickest to speak up in a group tend to give the impression that they are leadership material.

    Of course, this only works up to a point. There is a line which can be crossed here between appearing knowledgeable and just looking like a know-it-all. If you manage to stay on the right side of that line you can influence people. If you cross it, you can bore them or even turn them against you.

    For years I've made a practice of observing the ways people in leadership positions communicate, whether in formal presentations or small groups, not just with what they say, but how they say it, and the ways in which their approach to communication influences those they lead. I'm still unpacking an experience that occurred in San Francisco a few months ago because I'd never witnessed anything quite like it before.

    While in the area for a denominational meeting and some visits with seminary supporters, I had a Saturday morning free, so I took a taxi to the San Francisco Zen Center. The Dharma Talk (think sermon, then forget about anything sermon-like) that day was dedicated to a celebration of the life of the late Mitsu Suzuki, the wife of the founder of the Zen Center, Shunryū Suzuki.* The abbot was giving the talk.

    The room was crowded with Buddhist monks, other Buddhist practitioners, and some of the simply curious. All were greeted at the door with the same quiet, warm welcome. Chairs lined the back of the room while the remainder of the floor space was occupied by people on cushions sitting in the classic lotus or half-lotus positions. The abbot also sat in the lotus position, his notes before him. He began to speak. For the next thirty or more minutes, he related what he had learned from Mitsu Suzuki. The stories were wonderful, but it was the abbot's delivery of the talk which stuck with me.

    He spoke in a clear, gentle voice, just loud enough to be heard. Each word was weighed, each phrase spoken as though from a center of absolute calm. No word was wasted. No word was rushed, nor did one word crowd another or try to step on the heels of its neighbors. A sentence or two, sometimes three, would be spoken, deliberately, thoughtfully, as though the words were precious grains of rice each of which deserved individual attention. When the abbot came to the end of a thought, he would pause, sometimes for a long time, sometimes closing his eyes in silence, sitting with the moment calmly until he was prepared to speak again.

    The rhythm and modulation of the abbot's talk were remarkable. His listeners leaned in to hear him.

    He would gather his thoughts in silence, then speak. Speak. And speak. Now pause ... Pause ... Pause ............ And then speak again.

    We all waited together for the words to come. And because we all waited together - speaker and listeners - we were joined in an event of holy conversation, a kind of conversation that was not driven by a compulsion to speak up, to convince or compel, to argue, or persuade, or manipulate others verbally, but by a desire to attune ourselves to the deepest level of hearing. The entire Dharma Talk was a living and communal expression of Suzuki-roshi's admonition: "Moment after moment, completely devote yourself to listening to your inner voice."**

    I would say his approach was the very antithesis of our typical Western approach to communication, but that's far too limited an assessment. His approach contrasts with many Eastern approaches as well.

    The abbot's approach also runs contrary to that tendency some of us have to talk (and talk and talk and talk) until we figure out what we want to say, or to "hold forth" until someone else has no choice but to interrupt our soliloquy just to get a word in edgewise.

    The spareness of the abbot's words magnified their value. His comments never drew attention to himself unnecessarily, never seemed motivated by anything except the goal of honoring his subject. It seemed that the words he spoke proceeded from some center of wholeness, as though spoken from a place of solitude. Listening, I couldn't help but think of the similarities between the abbot's way of talking and the admonitions of the early Christian Desert Fathers to speak only when absolutely necessary and only from inner silence.

    Even as I sit here writing these comments this morning, I can conjure up the tangible sense of quiet calm that the abbot gathered around him like his robe, the peace and calm from which he spoke words of calm and peace. I can hear the pace of his words, each one placed with care like a foot upon a forest trail without a hint of haste, without a trace of anxiety. Conscious. Awake. Mindful.

    The abbot's approach to communication impressed me deeply, but it hasn't changed my preaching or public speaking style, not really. I will rely on the classical forms of homiletical rhetoric that brought me to the dance to take me home again. However, the abbot has profoundly affected my approach to communicating in a variety of other groups.

    What I have discovered is this: when I try to do what the abbot did, slowing down, listening more mindfully, weighing my words with deliberate care, pausing, not rushing to comment, I become much more aware of the impulses that drive me and the spirit of the group with whom I am in communication. I tend to create mental space to feel the anxiety when and if it rises in a conversation, especially when it is operating inside of me. I sense better when I am taking something personally. I sort through my feelings better, more able and readier to identify my own defensiveness when it arises.

    Slowing down the pace of my comments, choosing with greater care the phrases, pausing to gather my thoughts, listening until I am sure I have understood before speaking: all of this can drive some folks in a group a little nuts sometimes, especially if they are pretty anxious. But the good of this approach to communication far outweighs any momentary frustrations.

    Breathe. Pause. Listen. Speak, speak. Breathe. P A U S E. Listen. Breathe. Speak: Like steps in a new dance, a dance well worth learning, for leaders who have something to say and who value the relational context of communication.

    *Shunryū Suzuki's thought is widely known because of the collection of his teachings published under the title, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1970), a brilliant text grounded in the author's deep understanding of Soto Zen.
    **David Chadwick, a student of Suzuki-roshe, has written an illuminating biography of his teacher, Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryū Suzuki (1999). This passage appears on p. 59.
    **Photo taken by Michael Jinkins at the San Francisco Zen Center, February 2016.

  • Pour Balm On Us; Help Us to Heal

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 17, 2016

    Editor's note: Occasionally on Fridays, "Thinking Out Loud" readers receive special blog posts. Due to the need for Michael Jinkins to be with his family this week following the recent death of his father, Dr. Jinkins asked Louisville Seminary Trustee Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston to share with the Louisville Seminary community his reaction to the June 11, 2016, shooting at an Orlando, Florida, nightclub where 49 people were killed and 53 more were wounded. Rev. Johnston is the Senior Pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. Please keep the victims of this horrible event as well as their families in your prayers.

    Dear Friends in Christ,

    Orlando PicOver the last few days—in the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando—I have had a difficult time reading the news, a difficult time making it through each wrenching sentence. I have felt alternatively numb and angry, bewildered and so very, very sad.

    I have been making a little list of things that I know. It helps me to do this. When the ground about me is shaking, it helps me to write down my surest convictions—the places where I personally feel solid and certain. Here is my short list:

    ● I know that there is no easy solace that can be offered to the friends and family members of those murdered. I know this will hurt for a long, long time.

    ● I know we can do better as a country when it comes to enacting and enforcing sane gun legislation.

    ● I know that God’s heart breaks over these deranged acts of violence.

    ● I know God loves the LGBT community just as much as God loves the straight community.

    ● I know that the forces of evil despise love. They want to hurt love. This is the sad truth of Good Friday.

    ● I also know that love—the bloodied, stubborn, refuse-to-stay-dead love Christ offers to the world—will eventually triumph. This is the deep promise of Easter morning.

    ● I know that prayer matters.

    In moments like this, some say the promise of prayer is weak and ineffective. They argue that prayer is a docile response to atrocity. I disagree. At times like this prayer is not the only action worth taking but, make no mistake, prayer is an action worth taking.

    Prayer focuses us. Prayer guides us. Prayer grounds us.

    Will you pray with me?

    O God, the only true source of wholeness and peace, in a world bearing fresh wounds,
        we ask for your help and guidance.

    As we move through this hard time, please endow us with:
        the compassion to embrace our LGBT neighbors,
        the courage to bear one another's burdens,
        and hearts unafraid to weep with those who weep.

    As we consider our response to this tragedy, save us from the desire for vengeance,
        and from the temptation to rejoice in wrongdoing.
    Help us take positive steps, real steps, bold steps toward preventing future massacres.

    Fill us this day with the love of Christ, that we might seek good for all people.
    Let us not be overcome by evil. Help us overcome evil with good.

    Finally, O Lord, pour a balm on us, help us to heal,
        for you alone are our refuge and strength, our help in time of trouble.

    Help us to show in our lives what we proclaim with our lips:
        Good is stronger than evil;
        love is stronger than hate;
        light is stronger than darkness;
        hope is stronger than despair.


    Bless you and all those you love this day.

  • The Dickens of a Fix

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 14, 2016

    Dickens of a FixAnyone who has attended an event on the challenges facing theological education these days has heard at least one application of a title or a line from Charles Dickens.

    "They were the best of times. They were the worst of times." That was the opening to one address. Of course, many of us will recall the title of Barbara Wheeler's Auburn Theological Seminary report on fundraising, "Great Expectations." There could be other Dickensonian allusions. "Bleak House" comes to mind. And we all know that theological education is in the midst of "Hard Times."

    Someone recently contacted me to say that she had heard from a friend (who's "well-connected") that within the next few years only one-third of theological schools now in existence will survive. Her comment is a great example of what I call "The Peoria Effect" (i.e., once the news gets to whatever is your equivalent of Peoria, the reality has changed). There is significant lag time between the production of new information and its dissemination and digestion. And, usually, by the time the word has gotten around about a social change, the word is no longer accurate. When you combine "The Peoria Effect" with good old-fashioned exaggeration, you can get some pretty outrageous prophecies.

    Yes, theological schools, some venerable ones with storied pasts, have been closing. Others have merged in arrangements that look more like acquisitions than actual partnerships. But, at the same time, new theological schools have been opening.

    Indeed, new approaches to theological education have been emerging at an astonishing pace. These new approaches tend to involve fewer ivy-covered walls. They tend to be far more nimble than their predecessors in their educational programming and much more attentive to the contextual needs of those being educated. Largely because of the emergence of new schools, despite all the shifts, changes and school closures that have occurred over the past decade, the number of member schools in the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS) has slightly increased. One might be justified in speculating that in contrast to the bleak forecast which tells us that we are witnessing the twilight of theological education, we may be seeing its Renaissance.

    What is becoming clear is that theological schools will be characterized by considerable variety in the coming years, likely more variety than any of us have seen before. Apparently there will be a place for residential seminaries that focus as much on formation through community life as they do on academic prowess, and there will be degree programs that deliver theological education either entirely online or in some sort of hybrid arrangement. But there will be other models too, some of which are only beginning to be imagined.

    Another message that lags behind the facts relates to the "overproduction of ministers to serve existing congregations." The word has gone out far and wide that because so many congregations have closed, there simply will not be enough jobs for seminary graduates in coming years. In certain denominational meetings, the sense of gloom forms a fog so thick you can't see through it. Certainly, there have been losses of congregations and congregants. Significant losses. However, data analysis conducted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) indicates that the recent patterns of more persons seeking pastoral calls than pastoral positions being available could reverse.

    One more message that needs to adjust in light of the facts: Sometimes in conversations about the losses in membership of mainline congregations and the decline in applications to mainline seminaries, one will hear that the exception to these trends is among Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches and schools. In fact, according several sources, just about every Christian denomination and school has been seeing similar numerical stresses and declines despite their theological or ideological bent. The exception to this general trend, incidentally, has been in traditionally underserved racial-ethnic minority populations: African American, Latino/a, and Asian. We continue to see numerical growth among church members and seminary applicants in these socio-ethnic and cultural groups. Recent data from ATS suggests a modest growth again in seminary admissions; most of these new students are applying to new specialized professional degree programs.

    So what the Dickens is going on? Where are theological schools headed? Do we still have options that will not undercut the quality of education we expect and need for those going into ministry?

    This last question is the one that keeps me awake at night.

    Dan Aleshire, executive director of ATS and the wisest analyst of theological schools in our time, in his address to participants in the annual Presidential Intensive Leadership Conference quoted something said many years ago by Dutch Leonard, a professor at Harvard Business School. Dr. Leonard famously said: "The central challenge for nonprofit leadership is that mediocrity is survivable."

    To which Dan said: "Maybe no longer is this true."

    Dan is so right about this. Mediocrity is dead, as Tom Friedman said in one of his New York Times columns a couple of years ago (in response to which I wrote an earlier blog). If you want your organization to survive, whatever it does must be excellent. Just "good enough" is no longer good enough.

    That is exactly where the rub comes. A mediocre school is not long for this world. Even great schools have failed. And most of the schools that have failed were still delivering a traditionally strong education to their students.

    I would hazard to guess that many, if not most, of the schools that have stumbled and fallen in the past several years didn't fail because they lacked adequate analytics. Like most businesses that fail, they failed because they didn't do what their analysis told them they needed to do. Some failed because they jumped on what appeared to be a bandwagon headed to success only to discover too late that the solution wasn't the right one for them. Others have attempted to do "business as usual" in an exceptional era, and they simply ran out of operating capital. Others were unwilling for whatever reason to sacrifice their sacred cows for the sake of their mission.

    The seminaries that have flourished have disciplined themselves to make tough choices based on their strategic vision. Furthermore, successful schools in the current environment do not think of adaptation as something they did, but something they do.

    A few days ago a new graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary asked me if I think theological education has a future. I said emphatically "yes."

    Seminaries, as schools dedicated to the preparation of people for pastoral leadership, were a result of the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, and seminaries as we know them today, as graduate-level professional schools, are less than two hundred years old. But provisions to insure the church has well-educated Christian leaders and ministers go back to the Church's patristic age. Delivered in a variety of ways over nearly two thousand years, theological education has undergirded the church's mission and ministry almost since the church's beginning. The form theological education takes, however, has changed over the centuries and will continue to change.

    Theological seminaries are in the Dickens of a fix. But whether any particular school is about to fall victim to the doomsday prophecies of the Ghost of Christmas Future depends, in large measure, on a willingness to make tough decisions to further the school's strategic vision. So, if a guy in a black cloak carrying a scythe is lurking in the neighborhood, we shouldn't cower under the covers.

    Rick Seltzer, “Seminaries Squeezed,” Inside Higher Ed, May 27, 2016, accessed May 29, 2016, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/05/27/traditional-theological-schools-explore-mergers-and-campus-sales-amid-financial?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=9bc9370ed4-DNU20160527&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-9bc9370ed4-198407137

    “2015 – 2016 Annual Data Tables,” Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, accessed May 27, 2016, http://www.ats.edu/uploads/resources/institutional-data/annual-data-tables/2015-2016-annual-data-tables.pdf

  • Ali

    by Michael Jinkins | Jun 07, 2016

    Ali memorialThis week, we will see hundreds of tributes to Muhammad Ali. And in many cases, the tributes will include attempts by their authors to squeeze into the frame of a photo of "the Champ." "That's me," the author is saying, "waving my hands in the background when Muhammad stood beside Dr. King or lifted his arms in victory over an opponent."

    It's natural. And we all want to do it, me included.

    When we witness greatness, real greatness, we want to be identified with it. But maybe we ought simply to find a way, with our own voices and whatever gifts God has given us, to emulate it instead.

    Today's blog is brief, because the camera should stay focused for this moment on Muhammad Ali and what we learned from him if we were paying attention. I will leave it to those who knew him well to tell us the stories we long to hear of this larger-than-life hero, this world-champion fighter for peace.

    As a teacher, I just want to note one thing.

    If Muhammad Ali taught us anything - and he taught us a very great deal - it was that every time a Black child succumbs to self-hatred and every heart of every person of every race does not break, the brutal lies of the bigot claim another day. With his swagger and braggadocio, this beautiful, powerful and devout man proved, first with his fists, and then with his own heart, that love begins in one's own skin, and hatred does not have to be the world's destiny.

    Thank God for Muhammad Ali.

  • My Grandmother's Stoicism

    by Michael Jinkins | May 31, 2016

    "God has not made you steward of the winds."

    (Epictetus, 1st Century A.D. Discourses, Book, I. 1. 11-19)*

    StoicismWe had just come from my grandmother's funeral. I was sitting alone in the den, reflecting on her long life touched periodically and often by sorrows and troubles, struggles, losses and worries, the extraordinary ordinariness of a long human life.

    She was of a generation that simply endured. She lived through her beloved little sister's death at age five of spinal meningitis. She kept a photograph of Pauline and her by her bed for the rest of her life. She endured her parents' divorce just after World War I, in a time when relatively few people got divorces. During the stock market crash of 1929, by then a young wife with her own family just beginning, she witnessed her father lose a fortune. Scratching and saving, as a recent graduate of the San Marcos Teacher's College, she and her husband found a way to make it through the Great Depression and its aftermath raising a family on what wages a two-room school in a one-horse Texas town could afford. She saw children off to the armed services, to business college, and presided over the family store and the farm, and somehow survived her husband's premature death. She just kept enduring. Starting over in her fifties, after his death, taking whatever job she could find (for example, as a "lunch lady" in a public school), caring for her own aged mother, teaching her weekly Sunday school class, leading the Women's Missionary Auxiliary for forty years, and serving as matriarch for her children and children's children and beyond.

    She practiced an untutored Stoicism that beats the pants off of most of the tutored kinds, my own included. But tutoring on the day we buried her was what I needed, as I sat thinking through the portion of her ninety years I knew. So I turned to the bookshelves in my parents' den and found there, among a row of old Harvard Classics, a cracked and foxed volume of Epictetus' Discourses. And I sat down to read.

    There are passages in Epictetus that, with just a few minor alterations, sound just like something my grandmother would have said:

    "We must make the best of what is under our control and leave the rest to God."

    "If we had sense we would never stop praising God."

    "How should we die? Why, as someone who is giving back something that belongs to somebody else, of course."

    I still remember vividly reading that old volume of Epictetus while the rest of the grieving family gathered in the kitchen.

    That was almost twenty years ago. Hard to believe she has been gone that long. There were probably a lot more Stoics in her generation than are around today. Debbie's grandmother was another Stoic I had the good fortune to have known.

    We have been truly lucky to have known people of such ordinary everyday pluck, grit, and courage, and really lucky if we happened to be raised by them.

    Turning to Epictetus that day, I also realized what an advantage it is exploring someone like that tough old first-century Stoic philosopher as an adult over reading him when I was a youth. Reading him as a young person, especially while at school, Epictetus represented just one of several "schools" of philosophical thought, something more to be learned about. Or, worse, his Discourses were simply another Koine Greek text to practice Greek translation on. Now, he has become an indispensable source of wisdom and consolation, someone from whom to learn to live.  Now, it's personal, you might say.

    I've written before on several occasions about the role Stoicism plays in my spiritual and intellectual life. And I will not retrace that path, except to say that I have found deep resonance between Stoicism and biblical faith, not least the teachings and way of Jesus of Nazareth and the writings of Saint Paul. And, it should be added, there are profound similarities between the thought of Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and the book of Ecclesiastes, and certain streams of Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

    Why should that surprise us? Herein lies the deep wisdom of the world. And we know that we Christians do not have a monopoly on truth. The wisdom of God is not limited to a single culture or continent or faith. Wherever we go in this world, God has been there before us. We should be prepared always, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, to meet the Christ already present.

    Although, of course, I know it is literally impossible, you can almost hear the echo of Jesus (Luke 10:41) in the passage where Epictetus says:

    "But now, although it is in our power to care for one thing only and devote ourselves to but one, we choose rather to care for many things, and to be tied fast to many. ... Wherefore, being tied fast to many things, we are burdened and dragged down by them." (Discourses, Book I. 1. 11-19)

    Can't you almost hear the voice of Jesus saying, "Martha, Martha, you worry and are distracted by so many things. Don't you know that few things are needed, indeed there is only one needful thing?"

    The comment from Epictetus which I used as the epigraph for today's column is drawn from a longer passage in which he makes fun of those who worry and fret because the winds do not favor their sailing. Their plight reminds me of the situation most of us find ourselves in from time to time, standing at a departure gate, crowded, being pushed and shoved by impatient fellow travelers, listening as angry passengers vent their frustrations at the gate agent after being told that the incoming flight has been delayed, pushing back even more your flight's already late departure. "When will the storms blow over? When will the plane be allowed to land? I've got to get to Chicago!" Epictetus is the patient old guy in the toga still sitting calmly in his chair sipping his coffee watching the rain fall outside the terminal window. He knows in his heart and not just in his head that God didn't make us stewards of the wind.

    Epictetus' fundamental teaching is elegantly simple. However much control you may or may not have over the external events of life (nature included), external events need have no control over your own feelings or perceptions or reactions, over indeed the totality of your inner universe he calls "moral purpose." You alone have control over you. Not even the most cruel suffering or threat of death can change that. Nothing can touch your freedom, provided you know what it means to be free. (And this is a subject Epictetus, the freed slave, knew a great deal about). Even if thrown into prison, even if put to death, all your jailer will have is your imprisoned body; all the executioner will possess is your dead body: you remain free. Epictetus sounds almost like St. Paul, when he makes this point himself: "Who is there left then for me to fear?" (Discourses, Book I. xxix. 6-15)

    A few years ago, deep in conversation with a therapist to whom I was then going, after a very long pause, she said: "You really are a Stoic."

    To which I said, "Thank you." And smiled.

    "That wasn't a compliment," she said.

    Well, maybe not in psychological terms. But when it comes to living wisely, when it comes to learning the art of enduring with grace whatever life brings, you really can't do much better. And that's another lesson my grandmother taught me.

    *The edition of Epictetus I prefer is the Loeb Classics, Harvard University Press, edited with English translation by W.A. Oldfather. It provides Oldfather's venerable and serviceable translation opposite the original Greek. Because Epictetus' Discourses are in common street Greek, the very same Koine Greek we meet in the New Testament, anyone with basic seminary Greek should find him very accessible.

  • Ain't No Mountain High Enough

    by Michael Jinkins | May 29, 2016

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    Ain't No MountainThe low point in the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus (Mark 9:2-9) occurs when Peter, still on the mountaintop and overwhelmed with the whole experience, says to Jesus: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

    The author of Mark’s Gospel then makes an editorial comment: “He did not know what to say.”

    Maybe not. And not knowing what to say never kept Peter from talking anyway.

    But, whether Peter’s mouth was just running while his brain was in neutral or he actually meant what he said, Peter was articulating the perspective of many people who seek in spirituality an escape from the difficulties of ordinary life, its emotional ups and downs, the trials, sufferings, and inevitable deaths. He seemed to be saying, “This is a wonderful place to be! Let’s stay here! Let’s build dwelling places for Moses, Elijah and Jesus! Let’s start a capital campaign to fund the building of the Transfiguration Center for Peak Spiritual Experiences!” This, again, is the low point in this story, at least in my view.

    I think the high point in this story, incidentally, comes at the very end of the narrative: “As they were coming down the mountain, he [Jesus] ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had arisen from the dead.” Clearly, Jesus’ words on the way down from the mountain mystified Peter even more than his peak experience. You will recall, from other stories in the gospels, that Peter (as well as the other disciples) had a hard time coming to terms with the direction Jesus’ life was headed: betrayal, suffering, rejection and death.

    Mark Epstein, a prolific psychotherapist whose work I have come to admire, tells the story of a client who was struggling with anger issues despite the fact that he was also deeply involved in mindfulness meditation. The client wanted all of life to remain as calm and still and peaceful as he found his periods of formal meditation. He could become very angry when others around him continued to act in ways that upset his expectations. He was even angry that his meditation didn’t finally settle his inner struggles. Epstein says that he “was not just trying to quiet his own mind, he was endeavoring to silence a chaotic early environment …. Instead of using meditation to move between states of storminess and stillness, to let go of one as the other took hold, he tried to use meditation to dominate life.” He wanted life to settle down, and get sorted out once and for all. He wanted life, other people and the various circumstances of daily living to stop being so unpredictable and uncontrollable. [Epstein, Going on Being (New York: Harmony, 2001) p. 94.]

    What this client failed to understand, of course, is that mindfulness is intended to allow us to observe and acknowledge emotions and thoughts without judgement, but also without identifying with those emotions and thoughts, and without clinging compulsively to them. Prayer, meditation and contemplation are not intended to remove us from the world but to prepare us to live in it with greater freedom and compassion. In light of this case, Epstein reflects on the title of a book that Jack Kornfield published in 2000, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, describing it as “a vivid description of the challenges of incorporating a spiritual awakening into the chaos of everyday life.” (Epstein, Going on Being, 95.) Much that can be said about mindfulness meditation at this point can be said of spirituality, in general, and Christian spirituality, in particular.

    One of the temptations of spirituality is to imagine that there is a time, or a quality of experience, or a place (thin, wilderness, mountaintop or retreat) that will relieve us from the burden of real life, of ordinary life back down in the valleys of existence. Even Peter wanted to stay on the mountain.

    Interestingly, in the story of the Transfiguration, it is the voice of God that breaks the spell. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.”

    And, “what,” we may ask, “does the Son of God have to say?”

    As they came down the mountain, the words of Jesus made his followers look toward his death and beyond his death to his resurrection. He reminded them that their lives were not lived on the Mount of Transfiguration. The mount was meant to prepare them to live faithfully in the world.

    An authentic spiritual life does not seek to provide a substitute for the life we live in which bills come due, children get sick, the laundry needs to be done, and repairs to everything have to be made. The spiritual life is ordinary life lived in the Spirit of God, the Spirit of grace, mercy and forgiveness. The spiritual life is not and does not provide an escape from the consciousness that we disappoint ourselves and others, or that they disappoint us. Rather, it prepares us to deal with this life – our life – faithfully, offering all that we are and all that we have to the God from whom all things flow. It prepares us to deal with the realities of life, its continual change, its lack of permanence, and its persistent unsatisfactoriness. It enables us to be the human beings that God created us to be and redeemed us to become in Jesus Christ.

    The spiritual life is human life lived in openness toward God’s love. It is life lived in assurance of God’s forgiveness of ourselves and of others. It is life that inspires compassion, steadiness and a willingness to remain ready to respond, but not react, to hold all things lightly and not to cling. And, for all of these reasons, it is a life that can be embraced without anxiety, because our only comfort in life and in death lies in the fact that we belong, body and soul, not to ourselves, but to God.

    I’ve often wondered what thoughts must have tumbled around in Peter’s head as he came down from that mountain, literally the ultimate mountaintop experience. Whatever he was thinking about, it took some more time and some spectacular failures on his part, before he was ready to do what the voice from heaven told him to do – to listen to Jesus when Jesus talked about the things that ran counter to Peter’s hopes and desires.  

    With this blog, I am drawing to a close this year’s special series on “Thin Places.” In the next academic year, beginning in September, in addition to the regular Tuesday blogs, I plan to introduce a series on Thomas Merton. I hope you will join us again there.

  • Where the Broken are Healed

    by Michael Jinkins | May 24, 2016


    A preaching professor once told me that each of us really has just one sermon that is truly our own. A few weeks ago, I was chatting about this subject with seminary trustee and friend Mark Goodman-Morris on a glorious Sunday morning in Northern California.

    I was there to teach Sunday school in the church, Portola Valley Presbyterian Church, near San Francisco, where Mark and Cheryl Goodman-Morris have served as co-pastors for the majority of their ministries. Both are graduates of Louisville Seminary, and both retired on Easter Sunday. The very morning I was there, in fact, Cheryl was preaching her farewell sermon. It was one of the most stunning - I'm tempted to say one of the most miraculous - sermons I've ever witnessed. The music, dramatics and gospel proclamation were unforgettable.

    So, Mark and I were standing outside the education building just before Sunday school talking about preaching and this idea that we all really have just one sermon that is truly ours.

    And I said to him, "You know, I really think I've got two sermons: ‘God is really big,’ and ‘We should be kind to each other’.”

    Now, I am a textual preacher, not a topical one. I was a lectionary preacher during the thirteen years I was a pastor. And in these subsequent twenty-three years during which I have either taught or provided leadership in Presbyterian seminaries, I most often have preached from texts about God's calling of us. Vocational sermons. But, if I went back through the files of printed sermons that have accumulated in boxes over the years, despite the texts on which I was preaching, I am pretty sure that most of my sermons would get around to saying either: "God is really big" or "We should be kind to each other."

    God is indeed big. God is really big, bigger than we can imagine, so big that the same God who creates whole universes and multiverses and holds them in existence can manage to fit into our hearts. And when God is in our hearts, God makes us kind.

    That's it. That's all I've got.

    I've written a lot lately about how big God is, so today I'm going to touch on my other sermon: "We should be kind to each other."

    Recently, I related this conversation with Mark Goodman-Morris to my spiritual director, Father Paul, and he said that it sounds like I am beginning to strip away the inessentials from my faith. He is probably being kind by not adding that this is what old guys do. But it is. Or it can be.

    Someone I have been reading again lately is an "old guy," in almost every sense of the phrase: Aelred of Rievaulx. I've written a blog about him before. But recently I returned to him, quite by accident (if you believe in accidents!), and I was struck again by how his life serves as a sort of lived sermon on the theme, "We should be kind to each other." It so happened (as "accidents" go) that while I was at Gethsemani Abbey for a post-Easter silent retreat some weeks back, I decided to read the Penguin Classics title, The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, edited and translated by Pauline Matarasso (1993). It is one of those books I've been meaning to read for years but just hadn't gotten around to. It was worth the wait because it reminded me that Aelred of Rievaulx was one of the gentlest and most gracious souls ever to walk this earth. And he held a position of leadership.

    Aelred, a native of Northumberland and once a member of King David of Scotland's household, served as abbot of Rievaulx Abbey in northeastern Yorkshire (England) from 1147 till his death almost twenty years later. He wrote books of history and spiritual guidance, and he traveled extensively as a diplomat, in addition to serving as an abbot. He did all of this despite suffering from debilitating illnesses throughout most of his adult life (apparently, high on the list of his maladies was crippling rheumatoid arthritis). Although he never seemed to have stopped working, traveling (all over Europe by horseback or on foot) and suffering, he retained a remarkable spirit of gentleness, kindness and grace.

    When I began reading Aelred seriously, I promised I would visit Rievaulx Abbey. And last summer Debbie and I spent a day at Rievaulx. There's so much to see.

    The abbey was once massive. It was one of the most impressive and beautiful abbeys in all of Europe. Built in the twelfth century, in the heyday of Cistercian expansion, it was devastated during the dissolution of abbeys under King Henry VIII of England. But its ruins remain among the most elegant structures you will see anywhere in the world. Its Gothic arches, columns and massive stone walls rise up in a lush valley like the bleached skeleton of a once proud beast.

    There was one building above all others I longed to see, though it is so small you could walk right past it without noticing: Abbot Aelred's hut. This small building, really just two little rooms, was built for Aelred when he became too sick to attend regularly to the "Honorarium," the daily routine of prayer services marking the progression of each day for Cistercian monks.

    From that little hut of stone, which stood between the infirmary and the chapel, and quite near the chapter house, Aelred, often in physical agony, would conduct the affairs of the abbey, listen to disputes between monks, pray, counsel, provide spiritual direction, write and teach. The ruins of the hut still stand. You can make them out quite clearly and walk among the low walls. Something drew me to stand in the "rooms" (or what's left of them) where Aelred lived, served and died.

    What is it that attracts me most to Aelred? Just this: If ever there was a patron saint for those whose only two sermons are "God is really big" and "We should be kind to each other," Aelred is our saint.

    This is especially true when it comes to the sermon about kindness. And the story that best exemplifies Aelred's kindness concerns a monk who would have made most abbots pull out their tonsured hair. Walter Daniel, a monk while Aelred was abbot of Rievaulx, tells the story in his biography of Aelred. [The Life of Aelred of Rievaulx (Collegeville: Cistercian Publications, 1994]

    Many people made their way to monasteries, especially Cistercian monasteries, during the twelfth century, and many did not successfully make the transition from secular to monastic life. You come across their stories often in contemporary documents.

    Usually, the people who tried but failed to live the monastic life are portrayed as hopelessly fallen, lost, even damned. But Aelred simply could not bring himself to condemn those who tried and failed to become monks.

    We see this especially in the case of a young man who came to Aelred's abbey, and departed from it, over and over again. In fact, it almost seems as though whenever this monk was in the monastery, he was pining for a secular life. The other monks had really given up on him. Probably most of the other monks gave up on him the first time he backslid. Not Aelred.

    Each time this monk returned to secular life, Aelred prayed for his return to the monastery. Each time he returned, Aelred played the role of the father in the story of the prodigal son, welcoming the prodigal home again with tears, embraces and prayers of thanksgiving. It seems clear that some monks had begun to think that it was their father-abbot who was prodigal, at least with regard to his mercy.

    The relationship endured, apparently for years, until, at last, this wayward monk returned desperately ill from a journey he had undertaken on behalf of the abbey. Aelred had a premonition that the monk had returned to die.

    As the monk came within the walls of the abbey, Aelred greeted him saying that he would soon enter into lasting glory. The monk didn't catch Aelred's meaning, and was already talking again about renouncing the monastery for the secular world even before he could take off his traveling cloak. Nonetheless Aelred treated the monk with grace and gentleness. Within hours of his return, the monk fell ill. And Aelred, consistent in his love, attended the dying monk and prayed for him for hours, despite his own infirmities. At last the man died, his head resting in Aelred's hands, the abbot interceding with Saint Benedict to pray for him as he was received by God.

    In other words, this unfaithful monk died in the ideal pose that every faithful monk longed for at death. Prayed into heaven by his abbot and St. Benedict! This was galling to the "faithful" monks, the monks who never strayed.

    What perhaps scandalized the other monks most was that Aelred seemed always to worry more about the troublesome than the faithful. And there were a lot of troublesome sorts. Rievaulx, during Aelred's time, had become something of a refuge for all sorts of people who might not otherwise have entered a monastery. In response to a monk who questioned Aelred's approach to "discipline," and who demanded that errant souls should be punished, Aelred said:

    “No, brother, no; do not kill the soul for which Christ died, nor drive away the glory from this house [the abbey]. Remember that we too are sojourners as were all our fathers, and the supreme and singular glory of Rievaulx is this: that it teaches us above all else forbearance with the weak and compassion for others in their necessities. And this is our conscientious conviction, that this house is holy inasmuch as it begets for its God children who are peacemakers. All, weak and strong alike, should find in Rievaulx a place of peace, and there, like fish in the vastness of the sea enjoy the blissful and limitless quietude of love. ..." (Daniel, The Life of Aelred, 159)

    Commenting on what Aelred did for his abbey, his chronicler, Walter Daniel, wrote that "this man turned Rievaulx into a veritable stronghold for the comfort and support of the weak. ... What person was so crushed and scorned but found there a haven of quietness? Whoever came to Rievaulx crippled in spirit and did not find in Aelred a loving father ...? When was anyone expelled from that house on account of physical or moral frailty ...?" (Daniel, The Life of Aelred, 159)

    For Aelred, his abbey was the Church of Jesus Christ in miniature. Its mission was to be a place where the sick and broken could be healed.

    Not a bad understanding of the church. And, surely, one that still deserves a try.

  • Can Christians Ever be Justified in Saying "I was just following orders"?

    by Michael Jinkins | May 17, 2016

    just following ordersIn response to one of my recent blogs on “Bonhoeffer’s Germany”, someone asked that I comment on the relationship between St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 13, and the issues raised by Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi state.

    First, just so we are all on the same page with reference to St. Paul, here’s what he says in the relevant section of Romans 13:

    “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” (Romans 13:1-7, New Revised Standard Version)

    Historically speaking, Christians have read this passage in various ways.

    Some have read it as grounds for an absolute claim of the state over all aspects of the life of every subject or citizen, whatever their faith may be. Those who subscribe to this approach may elevate this text’s authority over all other texts in scripture and use it to justify the totalitarianism of a state. This was what was done in the case of Bonhoeffer’s Germany when so-called “German Christians” appealed to this viewpoint to justify the Nazi state’s crushing all opposition and the church’s complicity in Nazism’s crimes against humanity.

    A classical version of this viewpoint has been called “Erastianism” after Thomas Erastus, a sixteenth-century Swiss theologian. Interestingly, Erastus developed his argument in opposition to the Calvinist Reformed movement when it attempted to establish its form of church discipline in the Palatinate region of Europe. According to Erastus, “the civil authorities in a state which professes but one religion have the right and the duty to exercise jurisdiction in all matters whether civil or ecclesiastical.” Erastianism played a significant role in the debates of the Westminster Assembly in 1643, and was adapted by Thomas Hobbes who altered the original teaching of Erastus so as to expand the power of the state over every aspect of human life, whether or not the state professes any religious faith at all.*

    There are many people who have read St. Paul’s words in Romans to endorse various versions of this viewpoint. Thus, if Hitler and his henchmen said that they’d like to liquidate entire populations because of their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or political views, some Christians either stood by silently or actively joined in and then justified their collusion or participation, or at least their lack of opposition, by saying “to oppose civil authorities is to oppose God.” This is, of course, a religious version of “I was just following orders.”

    In the face of this reading of St. Paul, which many Christians (myself included) and many non-Christians alike consider abhorrent, we may be tempted simply to steer clear of Romans 13 altogether. But, simply to ignore St. Paul’s teaching would be equally irresponsible for most Christians. And, if we avoid it completely, we may miss a crucial Christian teaching.

    So I think we do have to take seriously what St. Paul meant in this passage. However, I would argue that to stretch his message to a comprehensive and absolute condolence of any and every act committed in the name of secular authorities and civil governments would be to deny St. Paul’s faith and his own disobedience which landed him in court, in jail and ultimately on the executioner’s block. It would also contradict the larger context of St. Paul’s teachings within early Christianity and within Judaism which produced not only kings, but prophets who called kings to account.

    Perhaps the most helpful commentary I have yet read in connection with Romans 13:1-7 is that of the British theologian, C.E.B. Cranfield. It is so helpful, indeed, that I would like to provide a lengthy passage from him.

    He writes:

    “[Romans] 13:1-7 is also specially difficult, and congregations need help with it. The key to a right understanding is the realization that the Greek verb represented by the AV [the Authorized or King James Version] ‘be subject’, and the RV [Revised Version] ‘be in subjection’ is not equivalent to ‘obey.’ In ordinary English to obey someone is to do what the person commands. In Greek there are three very obvious verbs, all used in the New Testament, which convey this meaning. But Paul used another verb here. I think we can assume that he did so deliberately, because he thought it more suitable. It was not his intention to put a blank check in the hands of all civil rulers and authorities, laying on Christians the obligation to do whatever such authorities might command. And the Bible Societies and others who have used ‘Obedience to Rulers’ as a heading for this section have done a very serious – though no doubt unintentional – disservice to the church and to the cause of truth. The verb Paul uses here is used in Ephesians 5:21 of a reciprocal obligation (‘subjecting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ’). Obedience in the ordinary sense of the English word can hardly be reciprocal. What the Greek verb denotes is the recognition that another has a claim on one that takes precedence over one’s own claim on oneself. To subject oneself to one’s fellow-Christian is to recognize that his claim on one is superior to one’s own claim on oneself, so to put his true interests before one’s own. In exhorting the Roman Christians to be subject to the civil authorities Paul is reminding them that, as Christians, they have an inescapable obligation to the state, an inescapable political responsibility, laid on them by God, to be fulfilled conscientiously.”**

    Cranfield closes his comments on this passage by observing that the specific content of that obligation for a first-century Christian in the Roman Empire must be understood in the context of the rest of Paul’s writings and the other writings of the New Testament. A Christian living in another time and place would have to translate the specific demands of this obligation into terms appropriate for that other time and place. But there is no indication in St. Paul’s writings that if Caesar or Hitler comes along contradicting the teachings of Jesus, we should set Jesus aside and do what the latest tyranny demands.

    William Stringfellow, an attorney and lay theologian, once reflected on the critical situation faced by Christians in Germany at the time of Hitler. Placing our immediate discussion into a larger biblical context, especially putting teachings such as this one from St. Paul in conversation with the book of Revelation, Stringfellow observed that “the act of resistance to the power of death incarnate in Nazism was the only means of retaining sanity and conscience. In the circumstances of the Nazi tyranny, resistance became the only human way to live. ... In this dimension of the Resistance, the Bible became alive as a means of nurture and communication; recourse to the Bible was in itself a primary, practical, and essential tactic of resistance.”***

    Stringfellow and others have recognized that the “powers and principalities” of this world are aspects of God’s good creation, that they are authorized by God to fulfill certain fundamental and fundamentally good purposes. In fact, St. Paul describes a sort of covenant between us, as Christians, and the civil authorities who are established ultimately by God to promote good. We Christians ought then to participate with these authorities in the furthering of good. And, St. Paul says, if we are “up to no good” then the civil authorities have the right and responsibility to deal with us under the laws of the state. But the covenant which St. Paul describes has another side. What if it is the state itself that is “up to no good”? Powers and principalities, like all aspects of creation, were created good for good purposes, certainly; but they, like all other aspects of creation, are fallen. Sometimes, and this becomes a critical issue of faith for us in the most extreme cases as in the case of Nazi Germany, the civil authorities do not act in a manner consistent with God’s good purposes and, thus, break their covenant with their subjects or citizens.

    In these cases, extreme and exceptional as they may be, we are called upon as Christians, as members of the Body of Christ, to hear the Word of God. We must first acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and be willing to accept whatever consequences may come (as did Bonhoeffer); but, then, we must be willing to act in a manner consistent with the call of Jesus Christ. The Theological Declaration of Barmen describes precisely such a situation and such a response as does the more recent Belhar Confession from South Africa.

    What seems clear, however, is this: Nowhere in Christian scripture is there any indication that we are ever exempted from standing before God and our neighbors to answer for our own actions. Nowhere are we given a divine sanction to say: “I was just following orders.”

    *F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, editors, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3rd edition, 1997), 558.
    **C.E.B. Cranfield, On Romans and Other New Testament Essays (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 77-78. (British spelling has been converted to American in this excerpt)
    ***William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco: Word, 1973), 119-120.

  • Angels Hill: Serendipitous Pilgrimage, Part Three

    by Michael Jinkins | May 13, 2016

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    Thin Places v3 with cap

    "Be still, and know I am God," says the Psalm.

    What kind of knowledge is this that requires stillness? Not bustling about, nor test tubes and Bunsen burners, nor microscopes, nor telescopes; not searching through the nooks and crannies and endless stacks of the world's great libraries, nor examining, exploring, translating, factoring, or any of the myriad activities we usually associate with knowing.

    "Be still and know ..."
    "Be still, and know I am ..."
    "Be still, and know I am God. I am exalted among the nations. I am exalted in the earth."
    (Psalm 46:10)

    This year, a very interesting event occurred in my life. I now know something I never knew before. I now "know" red and green, and a lot of other colors and hues that depend upon these essential colors.

    I did not acquire this new knowledge because I finally took time to buy a box of crayons or read up on the difference between these colors. I had "known about" red and green since I was a child. And I now "know" red and green because this Christmas my wife, Debbie, bought me a pair of spectacles that correct for the misshapen innards of my eyes which have caused me to be red/green spectrum color blind my entire life.

    There were a few specific reds and a very few specific greens that I was able to see before, but these were exceptional. Most reds, most greens, I just couldn't detect. I didn't know them. I adapted myself to my lack of knowledge, sometimes more successfully than others.

    Driving at night, especially through small towns in the country, has always proven a challenge for me, because I discern traffic signals ("stop, go, and whoa you better go slow!") primarily by their positions relative to one another. And at night that just doesn't work too well.

    Color blindness isn't fatal, of course, unless you mistake a red light for a green one, or unless you always wanted to be a representational painter, in which case, you'd better find another vocation. No, color blindness usually isn't fatal, but it does represent a real loss. But, now, thanks to medical science, technology and Debbie, I know red and green. Which means I know a lot of other things, too.

    The first time I wore these glasses on a bright, sunny, spring day (although Debbie bought the specs for me for Christmas, it took awhile to get the prescription right), I was driving and the strangest thing happened. I pulled up to the traffic light at the corner of Alta Vista Road and Lexington Road, and the light was green. I mean the light actually looked green to me. I knew it as green, and I'd never before known a green light. When I was a little boy, in fact, I thought the phrase "green light" was some sort of weird adult idiom, a figure of speech. The lights looked white to me, a pretty common experience among color-blind people. But, this time, and for the very first time in my life, the light was green.

    And, "wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles," when I turned the corner onto Lexington, something else really strange happened. I saw a redbud tree in full bloom, and the darned thing was purple - fuchsia to be more exact - with outrageously pink highlights! I still remember the first time I told someone I couldn't understand why a blue tree was called a “redbud tree.” Now I knew. It isn't blue. In a sense, I was seeing a redbud tree for the very first time. I now knew something I had never known before.

    The kind of knowing necessary to know colors isn't the same kind of knowing necessary to solve a quadratic equation or to know the chemical makeup of table salt, or to know whether there's a previously undiscovered planet lurking in the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt. Knowing colors requires a particular facility, an experiencing, an understanding that is different from attaining even the most sophisticated insights or the most profound wisdom. This kind of knowledge has to do with being able to see what is there, to know what is right in front of you. It's really just the easiest, most natural thing in the world; unless, of course, you can't do it, in which case there are things you just don't know. (By the way, it makes no sense to ask a color-blind person, "what do you see when you see green." It really doesn't matter. IT ISN'T GREEN!!!)

    "Be still, and know ..."
    "Be still, and know I am ..."
    "Be still, and know I am God."

    "See" what I'm getting at?

    Knowledge of God isn't waiting at the end of a philosopher's proofs; it doesn't depend on the results of a scientist's experiments; this kind of knowing isn't even lurking within the intricacies of a theologian's pious mental webworks. All of these ways of knowing have their contributions to make. And we are deeply indebted to them. But knowledge of God doesn't yield to these sorts of searches, though each of these ways of knowing (and many others) may bring us profound insights about many things and need not be seen as a barrier to knowing God and may complement our knowledge of God. Knowing God is a different kind of knowing. More like knowing green for the first time, though green has always been there.

    That's why in the Bible we hear people's awakening to God described as "coming to themselves" or "having their eyes opened." This is why, at the end of some enigmatic parable, Jesus often uses that cryptic statement: "for those who have ears to hear, let them hear."

    And, in the Psalms, we find: "Be still, and know that I am God." Some people interpret this passage to mean "easy does it" or "stop and smell the roses." But this passage isn't about slowing down and taking it easy. It is about epistemology; it is about what we need to do to know God.

    Still Knowing
    You have to know where Angels Hill is in order to find it. It's not really hidden, you just don't know what it is or what to look for or where unless someone with local knowledge shows you. Fortunately, we had David, the session clerk of the Kilninver Church, (about which I wrote a few weeks ago) to show us the way. David lives on the shores of Loch Feochan virtually in the shadow of Angel's Hill.

    The day that David showed us Angels Hill, he met Debbie and me about a half-mile from his house. He led us up a steep, unpaved, deeply rutted gravel farm road that threatened to break the axles of our rental car. Among the fir trees on the hillside, suddenly a sign appeared by the road. It said, "Old Manse."

    Pulling to a stop in front of the house, the actual "old manse" where John McLeod Campbell was raised, we parked in front of an ancient burial ground where McLeod Campbell's father lies under a headstone bearing a touching (and remarkably long) tribute his children had carved. Among the weathered gravestones lie a few broken and eroded remains of a medieval church building. Within a few steps of these largely forgotten stones, across a wire fence and through a stand of thick gorse, is an outcropping of rock known as Angels Hill.

    On this high point, from which you can look westward out to sea to the Isles of Kerrera and Mull, and northwards to the whole fjord-like inlet of the sea loch, Loch Feochan, a lookout fire was once kindled to warn farm families living along the banks whenever Viking longships appeared on the horizon. This is likely why the bare stone outcropping is scarred and fire-fractured as it is. And this is almost certainly how the hill got the name, "Angels Hill." Angels are the messengers (Gr. aggeloi) of God. And it surely must have seemed like a message from God to get a timely warning when Vikings were coming.

    People have settled in this area, in these highlands and valleys and all along this sea loch, since just after the last Ice Age. The centuries - from prehistory, to medieval, to now - huddle together on top of this hill watching a scene below that hasn't changed at all in millennia, and that changes all the time with every shift of the wind.

    I have a special fondness for Angels Hill, and have returned to stand quietly on it dozens of times since first being shown where and what it is. Looking west from its summit, pastels of the most subtle shades of pink and lavender indicate the presence in the distance of vast islands above a quicksilver sea. The line of the distant horizon looks like it was drawn with a straightedge across the streams of blues, shifting moment to moment from deep midnight to aquamarine to shimmering navy, and (I'm told) to green, before fading to black. Outrageous. Extravagant. Unlikely, garish colors appear as sun plays on clouds, reflecting pinks and reds and oranges and yellows you can scarce believe are possible in nature's palette. (I can hardly wait to look at it again and this time through my new correctional lenses so I can see all the colors I never before knew.)

    Sometimes when you stand quietly enough and long enough and still enough on the crest of Angels Hill, you become aware that the gorse bushes and clusters of heather all around you are shivering, twitching and humming. They are all alive with tiny birds and bees. And in their shadows are sheltered all sorts of small animals, like small rabbits and hedgehogs. Walking through the gorse, you might not notice the birds and other life at first because they will scatter so quickly before noisy feet get that far. The first time I visited the hill, I certainly wasn't tuned into anything as small as a bee, my eyes were set on the distant horizon of sea and sky. But if you stand still, listening beyond or beneath the sound of the wind that never ceases, watching the subtle movement among the gorse and heather, and listening to the even more subtle sounds, you will become aware that you are not alone on Angels Hill. If you are very still, you will know you are not alone.

    And maybe that is exactly what we are supposed to be doing all the time wherever we find ourselves. "Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations. I am exalted in the earth." (Psalm 46:10)

    This isn't good advice. It is good news.

  • A Deafening Silence: Bonhoeffer's Germany - Part Four

    by Michael Jinkins | May 10, 2016

    "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little."
    (Edmund Burke, 1729-1797)

    Bonhoeffer 4The phrase "a deafening silence," gets used a good bit these days, usually to describe a situation when something ought to be said but isn't. But on the evening of February 1, 1933, a "deafening silence" really did echo across Germany, when toward the end of a radio broadcast given by a young professor, Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, suddenly listeners experienced what those in the broadcasting world call "dead air." The broadcast suddenly and, at the most crucial moment in Bonhoeffer's speech, went silent.

    We can only imagine the confusion as families were sitting, gathered around their radios in their sitting rooms, in those days when the radio was still both a large piece of furniture and a big part of most people's lives, listening to the young scholar earnestly speaking on a subject of considerable interest to many listeners. His argument had unfolded step-by-step, reasonably, rationally. He was just reaching the climax of his address. He was just about to make the critical point. He was about to raise the concern for which he had carefully set the stage, trying to earn credibility with his audience before raising the alarm.




    Dead air.

    To this day, it remains unclear exactly what happened in the control room of the broadcast center. Even Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer's student, close friend and biographer, couldn't discover what really occurred that night. But, whatever happened, whoever pulled the plug on the radio broadcast, and for whatever reason they did so, the broadcast of Bonhoeffer's speech on the topic "The Younger Generation's Altered View of the Concept of Führer" came to an abrupt halt before Bonhoeffer could utter the most provocative words in his script.

    His listeners that evening never heard those final words which we can now read.

    In the closing sentences of his address, Bonhoeffer wanted to warn his listeners that if a national leader surrenders "to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol - then the image of the Leader will gradually become the image of the 'misleader' ... Leaders or offices which set themselves up as gods mock God."*

    Bonhoeffer's address was really quite conservative. It was also, however, deeply critical. He raised questions about why youth in Germany at that particular historical moment placed so much hope in a "strong leader," allowing their enthusiasm to be transformed from a political movement to a personality cult.**

    Whenever he communicated, Bonhoeffer's message was theological, even when he examined social, cultural and political matters. But his theological message was never abstracted from the human arena. Anyone who has read Bonhoeffer's doctoral dissertation, "Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church" (1930), for example, will know that for Bonhoeffer there was no impermeable firewall between theology and so-called "secular disciplines" such as sociology. When Bonhoeffer took up consideration of a theological question, he refused to ignore the human and social dimensions of that question. To understand Bonhoeffer's theological reflections, one must be prepared to allow theology to touch the ground. And, conversely, it is helpful in understanding Bonhoeffer's social, cultural and political remarks (such as his radio address) to examine also his explicitly theological statements.

    Roughly at the same time that Bonhoeffer was wrestling with the subject of his radio address, the ways in which the youth of Germany were thinking about the "Führer," Bonhoeffer also wrote a fascinating theological essay: "Thy Kingdom Come! The Prayer of the Church-Community for God's Kingdom on Earth." As one can tell from the title of this essay, it is a theological text about a fundamental theological act, prayer, specifically the prayer of the Christian community. The essay, in which the full range of Bonhoeffer's extraordinary mind is on display, from biblical interpreter to philosopher, culminates in passages of crystalline clarity, stripped of all technical jargon, words simple and direct. He writes:

    "The kingdom of God is found not in some other world beyond but in our midst. It seeks our obedience despite contradictory appearances, and then it constantly seeks, through our obedience, the miracle, like lightening allowed to flash from the perfect, blessed world of the final promise. On Earth, God seeks to be honored by us in the other, and nowhere else. God plants his kingdom in the cursed ground. We must open our eyes, become sober, obey God here."***

    Bonhoeffer believed that our faith in God is a matter of life and death. Bonhoeffer believed our faith in God is even more important than that. He believed it is of eternal consequence. And he would not allow talk about such things as "eternity" or "eternal consequence" or even "God's kingdom" to float off into the stratosphere of abstractions. Our love for God is demonstrated in the ways we treat other human beings, most especially those from whom we have nothing to gain, those with whom we have little or nothing in common, the powerless, the outsiders, the strangers, the vulnerable, the forgotten, the hated and the despised. Either we love them, or we don't love God. The reign of God changes us in the here-and-now because to speak of God's reign is to speak of the ways in which God demands our ultimate allegiance in this life. The ultimate allegiance which God demands of us takes the concrete shape of love, not an emotion, nor some thin affection, but a living commitment "to be for the other" no matter what the cost.

    "On Earth, God seeks to be honored by us in the other, and nowhere else." If Bonhoeffer had uttered those words from his "Thy Kingdom Come!" essay on the radio, let's say at the beginning of the radio address, I wonder how long he would have remained on the air. In some ways, this explicitly theological message speaks even more directly to his contemporary situation than his radio address did. But, the concern in both the radio address and the essay on the Lord's Prayer was idolatry, worshipping that which is not God in place of God, allowing that which should never claim our ultimate allegiance to shape our actions and attitudes.

    Whom we worship determines whom we serve. And whom we serve determines who we are.

    Bonhoeffer was observing the fundamental problem of turning over our ultimate allegiance, which properly belonged only to God, to a human leader. Whatever fear and insecurity, uncertainty and resentment drove the youth (and others) of his day to surrender their allegiance to a human "Führer," the outcome would never live up to the promises. Human idols have a way of ushering in demonic reigns.

    It is striking to note the scarlet thread that runs through Bonhoeffer's life and thought from his first days as a preacher and teacher to his last days as a political prisoner. I have often wondered what it must have been like for this gregarious and kind young man, who loved music from the most formal Bach chorales to the lively gospel anthems he heard in churches in Harlem, New York, who loved conversation and the free flow of ideas, to endure the months and years of incarceration.

    The reports of him in prison are of a person engaged fully in his vocation even behind bars. I mean his "vocation" in the strictest sense of the term, as his "calling" to follow Jesus Christ. This vocation, for Bonhoeffer, trumped every other claim on his own allegiance. And this vocation kept shaping him as a person, kept expanding his love for others, including his enemies, even in the midst of oppression, even in the shadow of the scaffold.

    "The church is the church only when it exists for others."**** So Bonhoeffer wrote in one of his last communications from prison.

    Existing "for others" is what it means to be like Jesus of Nazareth. Not to exist "for others" is to deny Christ. Thus, if some "Führer," some "strong leader" or some political idol sculpted and crafted by human hands comes along and tells us that our prosperity, security or national future can be secured by demeaning, destroying, torturing and vilifying others - strangers, aliens, foreigners, immigrants, outsiders - the Christian's choice isn't all that hard to figure out.

    Making that choice, however, may just cost a lot.

    *Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, revised edition, 2000), pp. 259-260.
    **Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "The Younger Generation's Altered a View of the Concept of Fuhrer," in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Berlin: 1932-1933, Works, Volume 12, Larry Rasmussen, editor (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), pp. 266-268.
    ***Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Thy Kingdom Come," Berlin: 1932-1933, p. 295.
    **** Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1972), p. 382.

  • God is With Us?: Bonhoeffer's Germany - Part Three

    by Michael Jinkins | May 03, 2016

    "Sin has many tools, but a lie is the handle that fits them all."
    (Edmund Burke, 1727-1797)

    Bonhoeffer 3Perhaps there is nothing quite so seductive as the idea that God is on our side and that our enemies are God's enemies.*

    Virtually anything can be justified if we believe this lie. Any violence, terror or act of torture can be rationalized. No cruelty is beyond the pale. Not if we are God's people, not if we speak for God, not if our actions are unequivocally endorsed by God. Thus seduced, we come to believe that we are God's hands wielding not our own bloody swords, but God's instruments of righteousness.

    No faith has a clean conscience when it comes to this seduction. At some time or the other, probably every faith under heaven has convinced itself that God's way and their way are indistinguishable. And, every people, every land, every nation, I am sure, has had its own version of this myth. It is simply too useful a lie not to believe. It is so appealing. But it is a lie. And it has been a plague upon the world. This is why even the most innocently pious prayer of even the humblest patriotic citizen, however justifiably proud of his homeland, can carry within it a pathogen that can be that nation's undoing and a curse to those who live in other lands.

    Soldiers on opposing sides in war after war have remarked upon the irony of both armies calling upon God. Abraham Lincoln famously commented on this irony, observing with his characteristically tragic sense of humor, that it is just possible that God is on neither side, but stands merciful and just beyond the reach of both. In the mid-twentieth century, soldiers who pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to this "one nation under God" took deadly aim at Wehrmacht soldiers whose belt buckles reminded them Gott mit uns. Often the soldiers, more than their supporters, took such slogans with a grain of salt; their duty, they knew, was more pedestrian, though bloodier.

    The piety of the most fervent patriot, however fraught it may be, stands innocent beside the much graver peril of nationalistic, tribal or racist idolatry, hoping not that we seek to align ourselves with God's will, but convinced that God is our fellow partisan. Therein lies the danger that faith in God will be bent and twisted and perverted to fit the bent and twisted and perverted causes of mankind rather than remaining an indispensable and incorruptible yardstick, a true plumb line, a just scale and unimpeachable standard against which every human being and every human nation must ultimately find itself measured.

    "Render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar," said Jesus of Nazareth. "And unto God the things that are God's." But there have been Caesars who have claimed more than their due, lusting to own that which belongs to God alone. There have been Caesars who were not content to receive the duties symbolized by a coinage bearing their image, but who demanded hearts, souls, minds and strength. There have been Caesars who wanted to lay claim to the totality of human existence.

    A Rising Tide that Did Not Lift all Vessels
    Some Christians in Germany understood early on in Hitler's rise to power that he was such a "totalitarian" Caesar. They recognized in the cult of personality surrounding him the hallmarks of totalitarian tyranny. They saw reflected in the faces of his followers the fears and angers that stoked not a responsible electorate, but a mob. They understood that in Hitler's demagoguery, the masses had found a vessel to make effective their most vile and violent impulses.

    Although Dietrich Bonhoeffer's initial reaction to Hitler's political rise was typical of a churchman schooled in the traditional Lutheranism of his day, which gave wide berth and generous latitude to political leaders provided they allowed churches plenty of room to exercise their ecclesiastical and spiritual authority, Bonhoeffer's views rapidly evolved when laws appeared expressing the venality of Nazi anti-Semitism and its racist and nationalistic mythologies, sometimes thinly masquerading as "Christian." So did others, but the tide of history was against them, at least for a while.

    In 1934, Adolf Hitler expressed his contempt for German Protestants in general to a group of Nazi insiders. Hitler said of Protestant Christians in Germany: "You can do anything you want with them. They will submit. ... They are insignificant little people, submissive as dogs, and they sweat with embarrassment when you talk to them."1

    Hitler's skill as a bully and manipulator worked particularly well with many of the Christians of Germany, at times charming them by playing on their prejudices, their fears, or their hatred of people who did not share their faith or their tribe. At other times, Hitler cajoled, dominated and threatened them. If the carrots of bigotry and corruption didn't do the trick, Hitler did not hesitate to use the stick of naked brutality. He could play both good cop and bad, unpredictability itself was an instrument in his hands to gain his ends.

    We sometimes forget that Hitler used the democratic process to achieve power, as was noted in the previous blog. But we also, and perhaps even more often, fail to note that while thirteen million Germans supported his policies, and his core, fanatical Nazis numbered about a million, he could never have succeeded if the Protestant Christians of Germany had united against him.

    When Hitler rose to power, there were about forty-five million Protestants in Germany, most of whom belonged to some twenty-eight Lutheran and Reformed groups. Two-thirds of these Protestants did not align with the pro-Nazi "German Christian movement" which supported the Nazi party's explicitly anti-Semitic views and the party's demands that "un-German impurities" be removed from the Bible (including the whole of the Old Testament and everything that Jesus taught that did not "conform entirely to the demands of National Socialism"). Nor, however, did this two-thirds majority of Protestants in Germany align with the "Confessing Church movement" to which Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth and Martin Niemöller belonged.2 Rather, the overwhelming majority of Protestants in Germany tried to balance themselves precariously on the fence, hoping neither to be identified with Hitler's henchmen nor to attract their ire; like the Laodiceans of John's Revelation, they were neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm as they staggered toward the apocalypse (Revelation 3:13-17).

    The battle for the hearts, minds and allegiance of the larger share of Protestants in Germany would be fierce throughout the period.

    The German Christians held their first national convention in early April of 1933. Their theme was: "The State of Adolf Hitler appeals to the Church, and the Church must hear his call." At the close of this pro-Nazi convention a statement was adopted which said (among other things): "God has created me a German. Germanism is a gift of God. ... For a German the church is the fellowship of believers who are obligated to fight for a Christian Germany. The goal of the 'Faith movement of German Christians' is an evangelical German Reich Church."3

    Leaders of the Confessing Church movement did not remain silent in the face of this threat to the integrity of the Christian gospel.

    One of the most notable leaders in the Confessing Church was the Reverend Martin Niemöller, pastor of a congregation in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem. Niemöller was one of the most highly decorated German heroes of the First World War and a former U-boat captain who became a minister. Niemöller, like many patriotic conservative churchmen, initially supported Hitler's rise to power. In Niemöller's popular autobiography, From U-Boat to Pulpit, he described the era of the German republic following World War I as "the years of darkness" in contrast to which Hitler's political triumph heralded the return to the light of "National revival." Less than two years after Hitler came to power, however, Niemöller regretted his support of the Nazis.4 In the first major, mass meeting in opposition to the Nazis, a meeting held in Niemöller's own church by leaders of the Confessing Church movement on November 8, 1934, Niemöller was clearly recognized as a leader of the anti-Nazi Protestants. Toward the end of the gathering, he told the audience that for them, the question which must be faced squarely now was "which master the German Protestants are going to serve. Christ or another."5 Indeed, as Robert McAfee Brown has noted, in case anyone missed the point he was trying to make, Niemöller published a book of sermons titled, Christus ist mein Führer.**6

    Echoes of Ancient Faithfulness
    Niemöller's message reflected the commitment of the Theological Declaration of Barmen which had been adopted by representatives of the Reformed, Lutheran and United churches in May of 1934 in opposition to the Nazification of the German Protestant church. Two leading Lutheran theologians and the Reformed theologian Karl Barth had been tasked with writing a draft statement for the synod at Barmen, though, as Barth later joked: following lunch and wine on that hot spring afternoon, while the Lutherans took a nap, he wrote the draft in his hotel room, fueled by strong coffee and Cuban cigars. The Declaration was debated, revised by a committee and adopted by the leadership of the Confessing Church movement, becoming in time one of the most important confessions of Reformed Christians the world over, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).7

    Drawing extensively from biblical texts, the Declaration contradicted the core teachings of the German Christians. Confessing the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all aspects of human life, the Declaration pronounced its anathema upon myths of racism, nationalism and totalitarianism espoused by the Nazis. In direct counter attack to the German Christians who claimed that Hitler represented "a new revelation" (a statement actually made by a German Christian leader who sought to replace, as authoritative foundation for the Christian faith, the Apostles Creed, with the platform of the Nazi Party), Barmen confesses faith in "Jesus Christ, as he is testified to us in the Holy Scriptures … the one Word of God whom we must hear and whom we must trust and obey in life and in death." Barmen repudiates the heresy that there are "other voices to which the church must submit as the revelation of God, and that there are areas of human life in which Christians do not belong to God, but to other masters."8

    The fact that echoes of other hallowed creeds can be heard in the Barmen Declaration was not lost on its audience. The Heidelberg Catechism with its stirring confession that the Christian's only comfort lies in the fact that "we belong, in life and in death, not to ourselves, but to our faithful savior Jesus Christ," echoes through Barmen, reminding the Confessing Church that Lutherans and Reformed Christians had joined together centuries earlier to speak with one voice.

    What is even more significant, however, is the fact that the ancient confession of Judaism, the Schema, ("Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone") is subtly (though, perhaps, too subtly) invoked in the Declaration. The defiance of the Barmen Declaration is the defiance breathing not only the New Testament passages explicitly cited in it, but the life and spirit of Hebrew Scripture: "Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and their rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his Christ. ... He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision." (Psalm 2:1-4) This is the spirit of Barmen.

    Although the Barmen Declaration did not take up the cause of the Jewish people (in contrast to Dietrich Bonhoeffer who had already addressed Nazi anti-Semitism),9 the Declaration "speaks a common word" reaffirming the historic confessions of faith of the Lutheran, Reformed and United churches which understood the Old Testament to be authoritative alongside the New, and recognized that the "God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" is the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."

    Above all, the Confessing Church's Declaration reminded Protestants in Germany and throughout the world that the task of the Christian Church in every place is not to endorse and advance the dominant ideology or politics du jour which claims God as a partisan for our favorite causes, but to proclaim our allegiance to God and our willingness to follow God where God leads, even if God leads us to oppose seemingly insurmountable odds.

    The living God will not be enthralled by our little human schemes and causes, but remains free. And freely God calls us to follow whatever the cost of discipleship may be.

    *While it may be highly desirable and theologically commendable always to hope that we are on God's side, it is inherently risky to believe that God is on ours. The former viewpoint aspires to conform one's hopes and actions to God, the latter seeks only to make God over in our own small image. The former inspires humility, comparing ourselves with the goodness, mercy, grace and justice of God, the latter indulges in a cycle of pride, arrogance and self-deception. What is true of individual piety is true also for national politics and international relations, at least for Christians. But, although it is blessed to believe that we are created in the image and likeness of God, it is a curse to us and all around us to imagine that God is made in ours.

    **Martin Niemöller also wrote one of the most evocative confessions of sin to emerge from the era:
    "In Germany they came first for the communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up." (Jack Rogers, Presbyterian Creeds, p. 196.)

    They "came for" Martin Niemöller in 1937, the same year that the Gestapo closed the underground seminary at Finkenwalde which Dietrich Bonhoeffer led.

    1William L. Shirer, The Nightmare Years: 1930-1940 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984), p. 152.
    2Shirer, pp. 150-151.
    3Jack Rogers, Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), p. 182.
    4Shirer, p. 151-152.
    5Shirer, p. 153.
    6Robert McAfee Brown, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible Through Third World Eyes (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), p. 59.
    7Rogers, pp. 189-190.
    8John Leith, editor, Creeds of the Churches (Atlanta: John Knox Press, Third edition, 1982), pp. 517-522.
    9Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Berlin: 1932-1933: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 12, Larry L. Rasmussen, English edition editor (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), "Editor's Introduction," pp. 34-37. Also see Bonhoeffer's "Essay: The Church and the Jewish Question," pp. 361-370; "Memorandum: The Jewish-Christian Question as Status Confessionis," pp. 371-373; and "Theses on 'The Aryan Paragraph in the Church," pp. 425-432.

  • No Concessions, Mercifully: Serendipitous Pilgrimage, Part Two

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 29, 2016

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    No Concessions

    In our last "Thin Places" blog, I said something to the effect that it is not that the places are "thin" but that we are usually sort of thick.

    Actually, what I said was this: usually we just aren't really conscious of the holy who is always in our midst, the God who did not just create everything and abscond with his presence, but who is in fact present in and through this creation that is held in existence at every precious moment by none other than God's gracious creative Spirit.

    We get distracted. Or, maybe, we are pretty nearly perpetually distracted.

    The thirteenth-century Japanese sage, Dogen, observed that our "thoughts run around like a wild horse," our "feelings jump about like a monkey in the forest." There's frankly so much distracted frolicking by the zoo within us we have a hard time even noticing what's right in front of our noses, much less being conscious of the deep reality that holds this present moment in existence.

    To remember a story from the life of Jesus much beloved in Christian mystical writings, we are more often a distracted Martha, running hither and thither in our minds if not on our feet, rather than Mary, sitting at Jesus' feet, resolutely attentive to the presence of Christ.

    But, sometimes, in some places, God gets our attention. That's really what we mean by "thin places." God puts us in places where the callous that we have built up on our attentiveness gets worn away enough to notice what's right there, what's always been right there, waiting with the patience of the rock of ages for us to wake up.

    Even saints sometimes need to get to that "place" where they can be attentive again. Today, I want you to visit with me the place where one of the greatest saints (if there is such a scale) went for this purpose.

    An "Accidental" Discovery
    After a few years of visiting Seil Island and its neighborhood (to which I introduced readers recently) only as a stopover on our way somewhere else, we decided to rent a cottage on the island for a week one summer. Thus began what has become a more or less regular event, and for longer and longer periods of time.

    On one particular visit, about fifteen years ago, I had just presented a paper at Cambridge. Debbie and I stayed at Ridley College where a friend, Jeremy Begbie, then served as vice principal. After a few days, we took a train to Edinburgh, Scotland, to visit old friends and planned to cap off the trip with a couple of weeks on the Isle of Seil in the village of Ellenabeich. It was during that particular stay in Ellenabeich that we heard about the Seafari Adventure boats that take tourists out into the Atlantic Ocean to view wildlife on several of the neighboring islands and to experience first-hand what they described as "the third largest permanent whirlpool in the world." This "whirlpool" is really a highly unstable tidal area in the Gulf of Corryvreckan between the islands of Scarba and Jura where whirlpools form and break up one after another, on some days so violently that no one dares to enter the gulf. In the days of sailing vessels, it was well known as a graveyard of ships. Despite the touristy name of the tour conductors, "Seafari," we were intrigued enough to take the tour.

    So we went on the Seafari tour. It was great. We saw deer striding high up on the hilltops, seal basking in the sun, and sea birds of all sorts. And, of course, we experienced the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpools. The boat used was a super-fast craft, part rigid, part rubberized, the kind of boat used for sea rescues in dangerous waters. Just riding in it gave us all a nice adrenaline rush. After passing though the Correyvrecken, the captain took us out into the open ocean, and as we came around from the Atlantic side of the Isle of Scarba, turning to head back toward Seil, he pointed-out a series of tiny islands on the horizon to the northwest. From where we sat, the islands looked like a line of rocky humps rising just above the surface of the water.

    "Over there," he shouted above a blowing westerly wind, "Over there are the Garvellachs." He slowed the boat a little so we could focus on these small archipelagos before continuing his commentary.

    "On one of those islands, St. Brendan of Ireland is supposed to be buried. Brendan preceded St. Columba to Scotland by several years, and established a small monastery on the southernmost island of the Garvellachs, an island called Eileach an Naoimh."

    As we bounced up and down in the water, the horizon bearing those small islands appearing and disappearing with every surge of the waves, he added: "That may also be where St. Columba's body was re-buried when it was removed from its original burial site on Iona. The monks of Iona had to hide his body from marauding Vikings. It seems this island was where Columba used to go in spiritual retreat from Iona. He is supposed to have loved it here. And it is where, reputedly, his mother is buried too, up on the top of that hill that overlooks the monastery's graveyard."

    Almost as an aside he said: "We have a license to take small groups there, if you are ever interested. As long as I can get enough folks to justify the petrol, I can come out." Then he revved the engines and we flew across the waves back to Ellenabeich.

    Of course I was immediately interested. And I began to do research on Britain's third and least known "holy isle."

    The first two holy isles of Britain are famous: the first being Iona, just beyond the tip of Mull (really only a few miles from the Garvellachs as the seagull flies; the second, Lindisfarne, is off the northeastern coast of England a few miles south of Berwick-Upon-Tweed. The first island is associated forever with St. Columba, the founder of those monastic missionaries who took the Celtic version of Christianity through Scotland and Northumbria and across Northwestern Europe into the very center of that continent. The latter island conjures up the names of St. Aidan and one of the most beloved saints in all of British history, St. Cuthbert. Lindisfarne was originally also a Celtic Christian monastery, with close ties to Iona. The Celtic monks prayed, preached and taught a Christian faith forged in Ireland long before St. Augustine of Canterbury established (or, really, formally re-established) the Roman Catholic version of our faith in the south of England.

    These two holy isles are now very accessible places. Iona is reachable by a regular ferry service. Lindisfarne is connected to the mainland by a somewhat precarious causeway each day at low tide. Both are frequented by thousands of pilgrims and tourists every year.

    The third holy isle, however, is not so accessible. Eileach an Naoimh's annual visitors number in the tens.

    We did succeed that year in getting up a group of about ten intrepid souls who wanted to visit Eileach an Naoimh. So down to the sea we went again and into the open ocean.

    As our tiny zephyr pulled up to the island, it suddenly became clear why so few people visit it. Our "dock" consisted of a large eye-bolt sticking out of the side of a cliff. The captain pulled alongside the cliff as his crew member tied the bow of the boat to the eye-bolt. As the stern slapped rhythmically against the cliff face, the crew member, then back at the stern, held it in place just long enough that each of us could scurry up the steep rocks.

    That was our landing. The boat then quickly unfastened its rope and headed out to sea for two hours, giving us time to explore.

    As we made our way across the huge boulders that make up the shore, then up a sheep trail toward the remains of a medieval Benedictine monastery that once stood in a flat area below the crest of the hill, we passed by the ruins of much earlier monastic beehive cells (picture, if you will, igloos of stone rather than blocks of ice). Celtic monks lived in these cells year-round, and at one time there were many of them on the western islands and mainland of Scotland.

    The once ubiquitous presence of these "cells" remains indelibly marked upon this entire contemporary landscape. Every map is dotted with small settlements, some little more than a couple of houses and an old church, the names of which often begin with the prefix "kil," which was the original Gaelic word for the Latin "cell" in this region; a cell or a kil was just where a priest or a monk lived. Kilmelford, Kilbrendan, Kilninver: you see them everywhere. Here on this remote island are some of the most complete remains of the structures that gave us this word. You can still crawl into them (and we did) - surprisingly roomy - and picture what life might have been like almost fifteen hundred years ago.

    I can hardly think of this island without recalling Neal Ascherson's reflections (quoted last time) about the kinds of revelation that occur in the lives of people in this landscape, this unforgiving, harsh, at times frigid and almost always wind-blown, yet stunningly beautiful landscape. I am especially struck by Ascherson's consciousness, awakened here of the ultimate oneness of humanity with the bracken, rocks, sea, soil and stone. Doors to the soul have a way of opening here because we are stopped by the very elements we contemplate. We are empowered by being stilled to see the world for what it is beyond the mental scaffolding which prevents us from seeing behind our illusions and momentary appearances.

    Since Debbie and I first visited this remote island, which each day takes the full force of Atlantic swells breaking for the first time in thousands of miles, we have returned with our grown children and their spouses. We have braved the savage "midges" (tiny, ferocious biting insects that have been known to make cattle go mad and run over cliffs to their death). We have climbed to the top of the high ground overlooking the island and felt the full force of the Atlantic winds which, even on a gentle day, threaten to knock you over.

    Each time we have visited, we have returned home with new insights and new tales. But the story I was told by a woman on our very first visit fifteen years ago has stayed with me. I remember her struggling a bit in the small boat as we made our way out across the rough seas. I recall how hard it was for her to make her way up the cliff where we "docked" and across the broken boulders to the trail that led to the ancient monastic site. But climb she did to that place that provided a view overlooking the ocean on the island's easterly side.

    When she finally reached her goal, that hillside where she could gaze out over the sea to the east, someone asked her why she was braving this visit. This was obviously not her natural element.

    She said that she had long wished to step onto this island. Her father loved it, she said, and his ashes had been scattered in the ocean just off its rocky shores. Right out there. "I wanted to come to see for myself this place he loved so much, to feel close to him."

    "Was he a religious man?" someone asked, thinking, I am sure, about the island’s associations with the Celtic monks.

    "Not particularly," she replied.

    Her comments left me deep in thought. No, it isn't "religion" per se that is kindled in the soul on this solitary holy island. It is something, if possible, even deeper than religion, something somehow more elemental. The word "spiritual" hardly gets at it either. Rather, I would say that there is a sense of "presence" here. And something about this "presence," realized in this fierce wind among these stones and waves, blesses us with a consciousness of our vulnerability, certainly, because this world of wind, water and stone has no regard for us at all. But, even in this realization, this hard blessing of our vulnerability, we also sense that if our words will just give way to the natural silence of this place, broken only by those sounds that nature herself makes in our absence, we can feel our ultimate oneness with all creation.

    There is a hard-to-miss quality here that can be missed entirely in so many other busy places, including even Iona and Lindisfarne.

    When we step onto this island, it is as though for just a moment we have stepped into a world set apart from ordinary endeavors and pursuits; that is surely at the heart of the meaning of holiness, this being set apart. There is here a sense of being in the presence of something that waits, and will wait for all eternity, if necessary, something that waits in silence, alone, in grandeur and stillness.

    We yearn in the midst of lives frenetic, loud and stress-filled for such silence and solitude, or we believe we do. This place is so pregnant with silence, so full, so rich with solitude; we glimpse here the infinite that brings proportion and perspective to our lives. The canopy of blue or grey overhead that turns into the purest darkness on earth at night, shrinks us down to size and allows us to know in our bones how very small we are in comparison to God's great works, and how enormous God's love must be even to notice us.

    These stones, this water, this sky does not care if we are there or not. The divine aseity of nature bears witness more capably than any human tongue to the miracle of God's love. The silence tells us this and more.

    Anyone who has ever tried (probably in vain) to shut out the chatter of tourist voices in the contemporary crowds visiting "holy" sites in Jerusalem or Rome, crowd-pressed in a cathedral in London, or among the mobs on Iona in the high season when coaches disgorge their passengers on the tip of Mull - anyone who has longed in the bustle of so many people and so much noise to sense "holiness" and "presence" in any of these grand places - would do well to stand on Eileach an Naoimh's hillsides wrapped in silence as rough as the wool that covered the ancient Celtic monks. But whoever dares to enter this landscape should come prepared. Mercifully, there are no concessions here.

  • How Could This Happen?: Bonhoeffer's Germany - Part Two

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 26, 2016

    "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing." (Edmund Burke,1729-1797)

    Bonhoeffer 2From 1934 till 1940, American journalist William Shirer had a front row seat to witness the era in Germany that he would later describe as "the Nightmare Years," a decade that resulted in our world being plunged into terror, bloodshed, brutality and genocide.

    Many commentators have observed, with amazement, Hitler's rise to power. They have wondered how a man regarded by so many as a clown and a buffoon was elected, as one historian has said, "for his self-assertion and not because of his arguments." While Hitler and his followers were dismissed as a joke by many intellectuals, like the University of Berlin student who said, "it's a comedy," Hitler was, nonetheless, supported by some sane and calculating, but desperate politicians hungry for power. He was lavishly funded by some of Germany's leading industrialists, all of whom believed that ultimately they could control Hitler and use his popular appeal to their own ends.

    Hitler's popular appeal was considerable. And many who did not rally to his cause did relatively little actively to oppose him.

    Shirer confesses his surprise that the "vast majority" of German people simply were not terribly concerned with what happened to a few "Socialists, pacifists, defiant priests and pastors, and the Jews." Indeed, Shirer writes, a "newly arrived observer (to Germany) was forced, however reluctantly, as in my case, to conclude that on the whole the people did not seem to feel that they were being cowed and held down by an unscrupulous tyranny. On the contrary, and much to my surprise, they appeared to support it with genuine enthusiasm."*

    "How was this possible?" One might well ask.

    The reason lies, at least in part, in history.

    At the end of World War I, the defeated German people had felt humiliated by the forced terms of the Versailles Treaty. But that's not all. Having only recently emerged from one of the worst economic crises they had ever known, in which staggering inflation had reduced the country to penury and starvation, Germany then found itself plunged into a worldwide Great Depression led by the catastrophic failure of America's Wall Street.

    The impulse to place the blame for all their humiliations, woes and insecurities on aliens, immigrants, Jews, and what many considered "unGerman outsiders" was irresistible to many. A belief had become commonplace among many that the democratic institutions and politicians that had been put in place in Germany since the end of the First World War did not represent the interests of the German people and enthralled the German people to foreign powers. A yearning emerged among many Germans for a sort of savior, a strong leader, who could restore Germany's national pride.**

    "What seemed to matter to them the most," Shirer wrote, "was that the Führer was setting out to liquidate the past, with all its frustrations and bitter disappointments. He was promising to free Germany from the consequences of its defeat in 1918: the shackles of the peace treaty imposed on a beaten nation. He was assuring the people that he would make Germany strong again."***

    When we ask the question "How could a nation like Germany allow itself to be seduced by Nazism?", we have to reckon with the fact, as uncomfortable as it may be, that Hitler used the mechanisms of a democratic process to rise to power. As Ian Kershaw observes in the second volume of his magisterial study of Hitler: "By the time he was levered into power, the 'redemptive' politics which Hitler preached - the overturning of the defeat and revolution of 1918 at their heart - had won the support of over 13 million Germans, among them an activist base of well over a million members of the various branches of the Nazi Movement."****

    Of course, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer's friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge documents in considerable detail, Bonhoeffer's family would never have been numbered among the thirteen million Germans charmed by the so-called "redemptive" politics Hitler preached. The family into which Bonhoeffer was born represented the qualities that every potential Hitler most dreads.

    Bonhoeffer's maternal grandfather, Karl August von Hase, had been a respected church leader and professor of practical theology. Von Hase baptized Dietrich and his twin sister, Sabine, as well as Dietrich's younger sister, Susanne. Bonhoeffer's great-grandfather, Karl August the elder, had been invited to teach church history and historical theology at the university in Jena by none other than Goethe. His progressive thinking led to an early brush with prison and his eventual rise to a peerage.

    Dietrich's paternal grandmother exemplified her family's humanity, courage and grit. On April 1, 1933, at the age of ninety-one, this elderly matriarch defied the Nazi boycott of Jewish shops, marching right past an armed cordon enforced by Nazi Storm Troopers to shop at a Jewish-owned business in Berlin.

    Dietrich's father, Karl, was a well-respected psychiatrist and neurologist; his mother, Paula, cultured and well-educated in her own right, presided over and provided the early education for her large family and managed her household staff. Dietrich and his seven siblings were reared in a home of considerable privilege, where musical, artistic and intellectual interests were encouraged, and critical thinking and service to society were expected. The First World War touched the Bonhoeffer family very deeply. Dietrich's elder brother, Walter, was killed in 1918, a loss that, according to Bethge, seemed to break his mother's spirit and left an indelible mark on Dietrich, perhaps influencing his later pacifism.*****

    Bonhoeffer's family passed through the same crucible of history that their fellow Germans had experienced. However, his family met the challenges of the crises facing Germany in a very different manner from those who supported the Nazis in the streets or in the offices and salons of the country.

    The attitude of the Bonhoeffers and their circle is captured in the horror and revulsion communicated by a family friend, a man whose life and death would be bound up with Dietrich's own, Hans von Dohnányi. He reflected on the manner in which a respected university professor, lecturing in 1922 on "The Student in the New Age," found himself violently prevented from speaking by a group of radical young people and war veterans stamping their feet and shouting personal insults at him. Von Dohnányi is particularly prescient when he writes about this incident: "It is depressing to see the people on whom one relies for the future. ... Only think of the trouble we shall have later with these people."******

    The smoldering anger, the growing anxiety and wounded national pride that would break out in violence even in a university lecture provided exactly the right combination of factors for a master manipulator and demagogue like Hitler bent on grasping power. His message was a torch thrown among barrels of gasoline, a public ready to believe that all their prejudices were confirmed and their greatest cruelties justified.

    The difference between the response to Hitler on the part of Bonhoeffer's family circle and that of some other even highly educated, morally reflective Germans is striking. From the very beginning, Bonhoeffer and his family circle saw the dangers that others blithely dismissed. They took seriously the threat to Germany and the world which Hitler and his followers represented. And they aligned themselves strategically with those who would oppose the Nazis.

    Adolf Hitler once said that it was very lucky for him that people simply do not think. Bad luck for him and his ilk in every age that some people do.

    *William L. Shirer, The Nightmare Years: 1930-1940 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984), p. 147.
    **Sir Isaiah Berlin traced the origins of Germany's national humiliation and resentment back even further, exploring the cultural roots of a national lack of self-confidence, concluding that the inflamed nationalism and militarism emerging in Germany in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries derive, at least in part, from ancient "wounds," a  "form of collective humiliation" owing to the fact that the German-speaking lands of Europe were viewed as cultural backwaters, largely outside of the intellectual, artistic, and social developments that flourished in the late eighteenth century among Germany's neighbors, especially France. Berlin writes: "To be the object of contempt or patronizing tolerance on the part of proud neighbors is one of the most traumatic experiences that individuals or societies can suffer. The response, as often as not, is a pathological exaggeration of one's real or imaginary virtues, and resentment and hostility towards the proud, the happy, the successful." Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity (London: Fontana edition, 1991), pp. 245-246. See also John Moses' excellent brief introduction to the period leading up to Hitler's ascendency, "Bonhoeffer's Germany: The Political Context," in John W. de Gruchy, editor, The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cambridge University Press, 1999), in which the author notes the factors that conspired against the republic.
    ***Shirer, p. 148.
    ****Ian Kershaw, Hitler: 1936-45 Nemesis (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), p. xlii.
    *****This very brief overview of the Bonhoeffer family is drawn from Eberhard Bethge's Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, revised edition, 2000), pp. 3-28.
    ******Bethge, p. 34, and Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern, No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnányi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State (New York: New York Review Books, 2013).

  • Then and Now: Bonhoeffer's Germany - Part One

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 19, 2016

    "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."
    (Edmund Burke, 1729-1797, Irish political philosopher)

    Bonhoeffer Part oneEarly on a gray spring morning in Flossenbürg, Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was taken from his cell, marched naked to the gallows, and hanged. The prison doctor later wrote a brief account of his last moments:

    "Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this unusually lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God."*

    While virtually everyone now regards Bonhoeffer as a martyr to his faith, it is revealing to observe that at the end of the war, his home church refused to honor him as such, drawing a sharp line between those men and women who died for their Christian faith and those who died because of their resistance to the Nazi state. Perhaps this should not surprise us.

    One of the most lamentable stories in all the history of Christianity must be the failure of the church in Germany to stand not only against Hitler and the Nazi movement, but to stand against the things that allowed fascism to flourish in Germany. There were notable exceptions in this sad history, of course; Martin Niemöller stands as an example of one whose faith placed boundaries upon the claims of his patriotism. But the relative paucity of exceptions (their notability, in fact) only makes the reality more painful. Christians became complicit in the crimes of the Nazi state, sometimes by remaining silent, and sometimes as enthusiastic and active participants.

    Jack Forstman, in his remarkable study, Christian Faith in Dark Times: Theological Conflicts in the Shadow of Hitler, begins his book by quoting Kurt Tucholsky, a brilliant German Jew, who wrote: "Nothing is more difficult and nothing requires more character than to find oneself in open opposition to one's time and to say loudly: No."** And, if that "No!" must be spoken in opposition not only to one's time, but also to the leadership of one's country, to the followers of that leadership, and to one's own church, how much more character does it require?

    It is so easy - it is too easy - as a Christian living in the United States in the second decade of the twenty-first century to stand in judgment of German Christians in the 1930s, to pretend that if we had been in Germany in the time of Bonhoeffer, we would have been his supporters and his colleagues, and that we would have stood with him against fascism.

    We ask:
    Did the German Christians not see the evil of the anti-Semitism that raged in their society?

    Did they not understand that their facile endorsement of Hitler, their glorification of "German soil" and the myths of the Aryan race, and their subordination of their Christian Faith to the platform of the Nazi party were demonic?

    Could they not discern that equating patriotism with nationalism, and nationalism with militarism was mistaken?

    Their sins seem so clear to us. Why did they not see them?

    We, American Christians, can see the impediment in the German eye (it was so much bigger than the "mote" of Jesus' story that we don't require a magnifying glass to see their faults!). But, of course, the question is: Can we see the plank in our own eye?

    Surely one of the questions that has mystified historians of the twentieth century has been this: How could a nation as civilized, sophisticated and scientifically advanced as Germany allow itself to be seduced by Nazism and Hitler's band of thugs, con men, racists and sadists? However, a question that inevitably arises from this question about twentieth-century Germany is a question much closer to home: Could what happened in Germany then happen here now?

    This latter question is not merely academic. It is a question that goes to the heart of what it means to be both a Christian and a citizen of the United States. It is an intensely personal question as well as a political one. And it is a question, ultimately, of faith. It is a question with which we must wrestle today, especially today, as Christians and as Americans. And, in order to answer this question, I will ask us to reflect on Bonhoeffer's Germany. For the next three weeks, in this blog, with the help of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we will explore this question.

    We will begin by reflecting briefly on the Germany into which Bonhoeffer was born, a country that had produced some of the greatest minds and spirits of all time, from Luther and Bach to Kant, Schleiermacher and Schweitzer; a country also, however, haunted by economic strife, long-nursed grievances and smoldering resentments; a people apparently all-too-ready to believe racist mythologies and political conspiracies, to trust violence and a mob mentality more their own democratic processes and institutions. First, we will reflect on these and other forces that allowed Nazism to take power. Then, we will consider the religious bigotry and racism that sadly the church did little to counter and much to promote. We will, of course, reflect on one bright and shining moment in Barmen when the church rose up to speak against fascism, though it was such a brief moment of light which the darkness soon prevailed against. And we will allow Bonhoeffer to have a last word.

    I know that this series of blogs will raise more questions than it can possibly answer. But sometimes just raising a question can be edifying.

    *Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), pp. 927-928.
    **Jack Forstman, Christian Faith in Dark Times (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), p. 11.

  • Are We There Yet?: Serendipitous Pilgrimage, Part One

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 15, 2016

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    Are We there yet

    If there is any place in my life where serendipity has intervened, brushing so closely to providence that the two have become almost indistinguishable, it is in the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It's hard to say why. But I started out going there as a tourist nearly thirty years ago, and have become a pilgrim there since. What once seemed merely the magic and beauty and lore of the land has become more and more difficult to describe.

    I am not alone in this experience. As Neal Ascherson writes:

    "There are many kinds of revelation. But the most powerful is the vision which transcends the mental boundary between life and non-life, and Scotland is a place where this sort of revelation often approaches. Staring into a Scottish landscape, I have often asked myself why - in spite of all appearances - bracken, rocks, man and sea are at some level one. Sometimes this secret seems about to open, like a light moving briefly behind a closed door." [Neal Ascherson, Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland (New York: Hill & Wang, 2004), p. 26]

    Not long ago, while on the west coast of Scotland doing research and writing, I was engaged in my usual habit of writing in the morning while my wife, Debbie, painted or searched for sea glass along the rocky shore (a quest that is becoming more difficult in the age of plastics).

    Debbie stopped in the village shop that particular morning where the shopkeeper, who had seen her painting earlier down near the harbor in a decidedly "fresh" Scottish summer breeze (read: "bone-chilling cold wind blowing off the North Atlantic") offered her a steaming cup of tea. During their chat Debbie mentioned what I was doing - writing on the relationship between places, histories and the life of the spirit. The shopkeeper expressed his interest in my work. Later that day, as Debbie and I visited his shop together, it became clear why Debbie's comments had sparked the shopkeeper's interest.

    He explained that he had visited this region as a tourist thinking he might stay a couple of weeks. That was over forty years ago. He didn't know what drew him there, or what kept him there, but, he said, it was something somehow spiritual, a connection he had sensed almost immediately. It would be quite enough, he told us, if this was his experience alone, but it wasn't.

    A few years after moving to the island, a friend of his from Glasgow visited him there. After rambling among the hills, the cliffs and ocean inlets for a few days, the friend informed him that he had come to a decision. He had decided to enroll in divinity school. Something had happened in this place. Stripped of all the distractions that ordinarily kept him from himself and that insulated him from reflecting deeply on what matters most, he had sensed God's call.

    "Something is going on here," said the shopkeeper.

    We told him we had experienced something similar. And that something kept us coming back year after year.

    The first time we visited the west coast of Scotland, specifically the coastal region of Argyll and Bute, I was on a mundane errand. To my recollection, the trip had no explicitly spiritual intentions. I was tracking down the childhood roots of John McLeod Campbell, the arch-heretic of nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterianism in hopes of putting some flesh on the bare historical and theological bones of his writings. McLeod Campbell was one of two theologians at the heart of my Ph.D. dissertation (the other was the American theologian, Jonathan Edwards).

    Campbell was convicted of heresy by the Church of Scotland in 1830 because he taught that God is love. Really. He was convicted of heresy in the Presbyterian Church because he taught that God IS love. I'm not making this up.

    It so happened that the International School of Aberdeen, where Debbie then taught and our children attended primary school, was taking a long weekend to celebrate our American holiday of Thanksgiving. The British don't celebrate Thanksgiving, of course, except in the way in which the English wit and curmudgeon G.K. Chesterton suggested, as that blessed occasion when the nation of Britain gives thanks that our Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers left England for America.

    I had discovered that McLeod Campbell grew up a few miles south of Oban in the manse of the Kilninver Parish Church where his father served as minister. So we piled into our car and set out for the west coast.

    A coast-to-coast trip across the whole country sounds like a long journey. Frankly, most any road trip sounds a lot longer to the average Scot than to the average American, especially an expatriate Texan who routinely will drive 90 miles to have dinner in a really good family-owned Mexican restaurant. Even considering that a mile of Highlands roads takes three times longer to traverse than the sorts of highways linking Fort Worth to Austin, our trip all the way across Scotland, from Aberdeen to Oban, was completed that day, even after a late start in the morning. We even had plenty of time to enjoy dinner at a great little fish and chips shop in Oban where, ironically, Buddy Holly's greatest hits played non-stop. A very Scottish experience.

    That first trip stands out in my memory for many reasons, but perhaps most distinctly because the children spent so much of the trip suffering from car-sickness. The Highland and coastal roads have lots of twists and curves. Then there was the disastrous day spent on the Isle of Iona (our first trip to the holy isle) when one nauseated child taunted the other nauseated child until we were all sick.

    We have, after several repeated attempts to visit Iona with our children, decided that there is something about that particular place that causes temporary demon possession with our children. Just a few years ago, Debbie and I vowed after another visit to Iona with our children (then adults, with their bewildered spouses along, neither of whom had ever witnessed demon possession first-hand) that we will never again return to Iona WITH THEM.

    But that is not the subject of this story. Our story today is about what happened a few miles south of Oban on that very first trip.

    Just off the A816 trunk road south of Oban, we found the tiny church where Campbell's beloved bewhiskered father served as pastor and where Campbell himself preached his first sermon, in Gaelic. It was on later trips that I would find, with the help of locals, the manse where Campbell grew up and the palatial home belonging to the area's leading aristocratic family where Campbell's mother gave birth to him. After examining the exterior of the locked church, feeling relatively satisfied with the trip, I declared the scholarly part of our outing accomplished and recommended that we become tourists again.

    That was when serendipity intervened. Helped by just a bit of madness.

    As I pulled away from the church, Debbie, who had been reading tourist brochures aloud to the children the whole time I wandered around the churchyard, said: "If we turn right at this Y in the road, and continue along for a few miles, we should come to the Clachan Bridge, (and she quoted from the brochure) "the famous bridge over the Atlantic Ocean, built in 1792."

    Looking up from the brochure, she added, "I think the children would enjoy seeing the bridge across the Atlantic Ocean."

    Debbie spoke these words with a peculiar half-mad look in her eyes which, if I read it correctly, marked a collision between: (A) what I had always, at least until then, experienced as her inextinguishable good humor well on its way to being ... well ... extinguished; (B) her instinctive maternal sense of nurture and care for these two children that was being tested pretty much to the limit just now; and (C) the desperation of a person who was trying with only mixed success to entertain two beloved, but very nauseated, very energetic and increasingly bored children who had been confined in the backseat of a car for days while this woman's husband, their father, was utterly distracted by the childhood of someone who had been dead for over a hundred years.

    When she suggested that we turn at the Y and drive out to the Clachan Bridge, I somehow must have communicated just a note of hesitation. Something, perhaps in the way I sighed, showed that I contested her idea and that I didn't really want to go exploring that far afield. Maybe it was my counter-suggestion that we go back to Oban to look around in the bookstore, but something definitely met with her disapproval. As I started the car, I turned and looked at Debbie.

    With a twitch in her left eye (that I had never before detected), and taking hold of my wrist with a surprisingly strong grip, she repeated: "I said I think the children would enjoy seeing the bridge over the Atlantic."

    As Lyle Lovett has confessed upon reaching the boundaries of what his "baby won't tolerate": "Now a small and more ordinary man might not appreciate the guidance of a good woman who truly loves him. ... That's not me. No. Yessiree. I'm proof that true love will set you free."

    Or, proof of something.

    I smiled weakly, and turned at the Y toward the world-famous Clachan Bridge over the Atlantic.

    That turn, unremarkable in every respect, except that it probably extended my life by some years, ended up changing our lives.

    We drove across the Clachan Bridge over the narrow stream off an inlet from the Atlantic (thus "the bridge over the Atlantic Ocean") onto Seil Island, careening down more winding roads and harrowing single-track lanes for miles until we reached, at last, the village of Ellenabeich, the last stop before you reach Canada which lies on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. For almost thirty years we have returned repeatedly to this remote village clinging to a patch of land recovered from now abandoned slate pits at the edge of the sea, sheer cliffs climbing into the sky behind it.

    Something else has happened in the decades since we first visited this island and the area surrounding it, something frankly much more difficult to describe or even to talk about.

    When we first visited this part of the world, my interest lay on the surface. The surface is beautiful and fascinating to me, aesthetic junkie and nature romantic that I am. But somehow along the way, my interest shifted.

    The visual world of natural wonders and historical events have become a sort of portal through which I enter another realm, a spiritual landscape imbedded in this physical world and inseparable from it. It is a spiritual landscape that endures within me no matter how far from these places I may roam.

    What I have come to realize is simply this. It's not that there are thin places where the eternal, the transcendent, or the holy breaks through. But there are places that invite and allow us to strip away the distractions that keep us from being conscious of the eternal which is always present, the transcendent that is always immanent, the holy who is hidden only because our eyes are not accustomed to paying attention to the One who is everywhere we may go.

    Next time, I'll explore the place of retreat for St. Columba when Iona became too hectic.

  • The Rise and Fall of Professions

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 12, 2016

    ProfessionsWhen I was a kid, we didn't really have a lot of conversations about what "I would be when I grew up." It just wasn't necessary. The members of our family whom I most admired were all attorneys. Uncle Curtis (actually my grandfather's elder brother) founded a law office on the courthouse square and served as the youngest-ever county attorney. His son, Bill, and his grandson, Kurt, followed him into the same practice. Kurt is my parent's attorney these days. Uncle Curtis' siblings were all professionals. My grandfather was a teacher and his other brothers were a doctor and a chemist. It was long assumed that I would follow my mother's brother, Uncle B.C., into the law too, perhaps in his practice in Houston. In the end, however, I was called to be a minister and a teacher. I grew up in what many consider the golden age of professions, that period from just after the end of World War II (I was born in 1953) till the late 1980s.

    Professions have a storied history, even a legendary prehistory. Medicine's lineage includes Galen and Hippocrates ("do no harm"). Lawyers originated largely among the scribes and clerks necessary for institutional religion. Teachers and religious leaders can trace their origins back even further. And, while the professions we recognize today are largely a product of post-Enlightenment Western Europe, you can see the rise of a professional class in the medieval period.*

    A generation ago, professions, especially in the United States, were universally respected, highly valued and, according to the journal of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, Dædalus, they were "triumphant." So writes Howard Gardner, the dean of educational psychology and Harvard professor, in his fascinating article, "Is There a Future for the Professions? An Interim Verdict."**

    As the president of a professional school, I have more than a passing interest in Dr. Gardner's question. And as a member of two professions, a personal stake, too.

    The ancient universities of Europe, like those at Paris and Oxford, were established essentially to educate persons for professions, particularly in the church. The professions inherited certain values that were transmitted in these schools and, over the centuries, became more or less codified. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, occupations that were accorded the status of a profession could be described, as Gardner writes: As consisting "of individuals who have undergone a standard form of training, culminating in some kind of recognized title and degree. In return for the status accorded the professional, the individual is expected to provide services to individuals and institutions in need, to draw on his or her technical knowledge, and to perform this task in a respectful, disinterested, and professional manner." (Gardner, p. 78)

    Gardner goes on to observe that among the other attributes traditionally applied to professionals are "the abilities to make complex technical and ethical decisions under conditions of uncertainty, to cherish and protect the key institutions and values of the profession, and to nurture, train and certify younger aspirants while always keeping the public interest in mind." To these attributes, Gardner adds that a professional is also conscious of an obligation to enact a particular "role" needed by society. (Gardner, p. 78)

    These are lofty standards, even ideals, but society came to believe that it is absolutely essential for the common good that these ideals should be embodied by those who would lead religious communities, provide medical care, and carry out the obligations of legal interpretation and representation, and other core social functions. And, according to Gardner, the lofty expectations of these traditional professions became contagious. In the twentieth century, an ever-widening variety of occupations aspired to professionalization, seeking not only to develop high standards of vocational excellence but also to enrich their occupational standards with a larger vision of public service. And this trend might well have continued for years and years to come, writes Gardner, but for "two large events - one economic, the other technological -" that together have shaken "the professions to their foundations" and have led many to wonder if the professions have a future at all. (Gardner, p. 79)

    Gardner observes first the economic features of a shift in social valuing that has led to the erosion of professionalism. To put his argument in a nutshell, in recent years, a person's success and credibility have become tied inexorably to income.

    Gardner writes: "In earlier times, professionals had hardly been self-sacrificing; but they had generally been content to have a reasonable middle-class lifestyle. ... But in a society moving toward a 'winner take all' mentality, many professionals ... came to value their total salary more than other indices of accomplishment." (Gardner, p. 80) Thus, as Gardner noticed at a recent Harvard College reunion, while ten of his twelve closest college friends (all graduates from fifty years ago) had entered a profession such as law, medicine or higher education, virtually none of their grandchildren had done so. Instead, the grandkids were more likely to have gone to work in some aspect of the entertainment industry, technology or finance. Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Wall Street became the favored occupational destinations, said Gardner. That's where the social status is because that's where the money is.

    The second shift in social valuation was more subtle, and on the face of it, even apparently benign: the rise of the digital age.

    In principle, the vast technological advances of recent years could be seen as supportive to the sources of knowledge on which professionals depend. In practice, however, "the digital technologies have been at least as disruptive as the market mentality." (Gardner, p. 82) To cite just one example, Gardner writes: "Instead of having a trained lawyer draw up a trust that is appropriate for a client, an online system can pose a set of questions to a client and then produce a finished document," and at a fraction of the cost of using an attorney. (Gardner, p. 82) Whether that app is much help in a variety of other legal situations, when the terms of the computer-generated trust or will are later challenged in court, for example, is another matter, of course.

    I have half-joked that it takes no formal theological education at all (ethics aside) for someone to download a sermon someone else has written and to preach it as his or her own. But it does require a good theological education to know which sermon is worth stealing. And I take seriously the advice of my physician not to rely on my iPhone to diagnose an illness. This point was recently made convincingly (for me at least) by an emergency room physician who corrected my self-diagnoses of bronchitis with the correct one of pneumonia. These arguments I've just made, however, are themselves simply knowledge-based or technique-based, too. They fail to get at the real issue, the issue of the values for which we live and which enrich our society. In the final analysis, the ultimate argument in favor of the professions goes back to their purpose as advocates for and guarantors of the public good. And this is where the current challenge to professionalism becomes most critical.

    It has been observed that many of our public institutions have lost a good deal of the confidence people once placed in them, and oftentimes those institutions have earned this loss of confidence. Similarly, there is no doubt that selfish and dishonest actions, greed and incompetence on the part of some professionals have undermined public trust in the professions. The view that professionals are just another group "out for themselves" is not uncommon. And, so, why should I trust them to look out for my interests, especially when they can be replaced by an algorithm? But there is something even larger at stake than our convenience, and something far more important than anyone's professional prestige and position that we all have a stake in preserving and reinvigorating the professions.

    A society without meaningful institutions will inevitably reduce itself to chaos, anarchy and injustices beyond measure. And a society that no longer embodies and safeguards the values that have been represented historically in the professions is well on its way to social disintegration.

    It may be that the endangerment of professions is only a symptom of a much graver danger. If so, it is up to us all, and not just to professionals, to reevaluate what we care about and reinvest in the common good.

    *Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England, (London: Folio, 2013), 44-45.
    **This personal and passionate essay by Howard Gardner appears in the most recent issue (Spring 2016, Vol. 18; No. 1) of what I think is consistently the most stimulating journal focused on contemporary culture, The Hedgehog Review, published by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture of the University of Virginia.

  • Songs

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 05, 2016

    SongsWhen the great Glenn Frey, co-founder with Don Henley of the rock group The Eagles, died recently, I heard several people say that The Eagles had provided the soundtrack for their lives. I may have said it too. But, for some of us, much the same could be said of so many other singers and song writers: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Simon and Garfunkel (and then just Paul Simon), Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears, Otis Redding, James Brown, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendricks. I could go on and on.

    We could all produce our own soundtracks from the songs we love most. Many of us have done so courtesy of the "playlist” function of those ubiquitous little iPods, iPhones and iPads. Recently, I discovered that when my iPod tabulated my most frequently played songs, Nanci Griffith's "Going Back to Georgia" was No. 1, followed by Thomas Tallis's "O Lord, Give Thy Holy Spirit" (sung by Pro Cantione Antiqua, conducted by Mark Brown), and ZZ Top's "Tush."

    Some may argue that this is taking eclecticism too far, but there it is. Our songs reflect who we are. They also shape who we have been and will become.

    George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" and the score of "Jesus Christ Superstar" shaped my teenage piety more than my pastor's sermons. Kris Kristofferson elucidated my restless heart when he sang, "The Pilgrim, Chapter 33." My brother, the week before he died, gave me a pirated copy of Don Williams singing, "Good Old Boys Like Me" because he knew the lyrics felt like they had been written just for me. Willie Nelson's "There's Nothing I Can Do About It Now" has gotten me through a lot of rough days. And Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," in all its gloriously sacred profanity, never fails to remind me why, how, and because of whom the spirit endures.

    Songs travel to places inside of us that nothing else can reach. And they have the power to stick there, not just for days, or months, or even years, but for decades. They reflect us. They shape us. They cheer us up and balm our wounded souls. Songs don't represent the only form of music, and certainly not the highest, but they speak, and the best of them speak eloquently.

    One of my most treasured memories relates to a small Christmas service I conducted in a nursing home many years ago. Debbie came along to play the piano. Our then very small children, Jeremy and Jessica, came along to see their old friends. I said a few words of introduction to the service, read the story of the birth of Jesus from St. Luke, and prayed. By this point, some had fallen asleep where they sat. Then we sang, and they woke up.

    We sang and we sang. Carol after carol after carol. No hymn books were needed with this crowd. I shall never forget their eyes, cataract-clouded or clear, some open, many closed, seeing as they sang far beyond that moment to something long ago or yet to come, something fondly recalled or dimly hoped. People who could remember next to nothing (some of whom struggled to remember the names of their children) remembered the words of "Silent Night" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem." The moment that we began to sing, the present became (to use Paul Tillich's phrase) the "Eternal Now." The moment shimmered brighter than tinsel and rang truer than any bell.

    That was a Christmas service, but something similar happened any old time we got the songs right. "Amazing Grace" with some, "The Old Rugged Cross" or "In the Garden" with others.

    One of the sweetest memories I hold as a pastor was leading a Women's Guild meeting at the Beechgrove Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, when I served there. I had done a Bible study, which covered the usual business. Before we retired to the parlor for tea and cakes, we sang, "The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond." It had never occurred to me to listen carefully to this familiar song. But when this group of women, many of whom were widows, sang: "Oh, ye'll tak the high road and I'll tak the low road, and I'll be in Scotland afore ye; but me and my true love will never meet again, on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond," I saw in their tear-filled eyes the longing they let one another see in that moment through years of practiced stoicism, and I put aside my cynical view that this was just a song sung for the sake of the tourists.

    When I was a young pastor, I held strong convictions about what was proper to be sung at Christian burial services, but I'll tell you right now, if any of those women asked me if we could sing "Loch Lomond" at the close of their memorials, I would have said yes without hesitation. And, I suppose, after they sing "For All the Saints" and "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" (tune: hyfrydol or don't do it!) at mine, I hope they'll let Willie sing too, "There's Nothing I Can Do About It Now."

    Stand if you are able, and let us sing.

  • The Way, the Truth and the Life

    by Michael Jinkins | Apr 01, 2016

    Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

    the way the truth and the lifeAs dusk gathered and our neighborhood bat swooped and dived skimming water from the surface of the pool, a group of about twenty students and I drifted into a time of silence allowing the stillness of the evening and the chirping of cicadas to take our thoughts away. We sat quietly. Some sat and thought. Some sat and prayed. Some sat and sipped their drinks. And some reflected on the words I had just read from one of my all-time favorite sources of spiritual wisdom.

    For many years, at the seminary in which I served before coming to Louisville, I met weekly with a group of students and staff  for prayer and reflection on classic texts of Christian spirituality. Over the years, we read brilliant texts both historical (by Lady Julian of NorwichBlaise Pascal and Thomas á Kempis) and modern (Karen ArmstrongC.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer). We covenanted to pray the Psalms daily using the arrangement provided by the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer. Some of us prayed morning and evening according to the Daily Office of the Anglican tradition; others made use of the Daily Prayer resources of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

    One year, some students from our group decided to engage in an exercise that turned out to be lots of fun. The students asked various members of our faculty if they would share with the students their own personal spiritual practices. In many cases the students were invited to the homes of the professors to engage in these practices with them. The exercise was open to anyone in the seminary community who wanted to participate.

    Toward the end of the year, the group asked me to share my personal spiritual practices with them. Since they already knew the core of my practice to be the Episcopal Daily Office and the daily praying of the Psalms, I thought I would share with them other aspects of my devotional life. This turned out to be a surprise to some because, in addition to reflection on classical Christian sources, I have for the past thirty years regularly drawn on sources of spiritual wisdom from other traditions, such as Abraham Heschel's The Sabbath, Epictetus's DiscoursesThe Epic of Gilgamesh and the Tao Te Ching.

    As I explained to the students, this part of my spiritual discipline consisted of sitting in our back garden, usually as the evening gathered over the pool and often drinking a nice bourbon or scotch and enjoying a good cigar. Often I would read quietly and then reflect on a passage from the reading. Sometimes, after I finished this lectio process, I would listen to music.

    Naturally, the students wanted to engage in my spiritual practice with me. The group that gathered at our home, for some mysterious reason, swelled to become the largest such spiritual gathering of the year. (Call me suspicious, but I do suspect that the popularity of this gathering had as much to do with what we imbibed as it did with what I was actually going to read to them.) They joined me one warm spring evening for cigars, a whiskey (or another suitable beverage of their choosing), readings from the Tao Te Ching and quiet reflection, followed by the music of Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Willie Nelson and Bonnie Raitt, and, of course, lively conversation that lasted into the very wee hours.

    The Spell of the Tao
    I cannot now recall when I first came under the spell of the Tao Te Ching (also sometimes transliterated from the Chinese as the Daode jing). From my first encounter with the Tao Te Ching, I was struck by the apparent simplicity and the real paradoxes of this ancient text, the roots of which date well before the Common Era.* The verses are often lyrical, often contrarian, sometimes veering toward the anarchic. They are thoroughly resonant with the natural world and virtually redefine the notion of "counter-cultural."
    Some of our most familiar sayings have their origin in the Tao Te Ching, like: "Those who talk don't know, and those who know don't say."

    At the heart of the Tao Te Ching resides a respect for the mystery that lies beyond and beneath and within all things: "There is a Tao that can be spoken, but it is not the eternal Tao."

    The word "Tao" is very hard to render into English; it is frequently translated as "the Way," though it means much, much more.

    Whenever I turn to this text, I find myself drawn ever more deeply into a sense of awe and respect for the natural world and for the eternal wisdom and creative power that brought this world into existence and sustains it by unseen and unknowable forces. The text is profoundly humbling, reminding us that it is hubris and insecurity rather than a zeal for righteousness that drives so many of our attempts to "improve" other people.

    I have often recommended the Tao Te Ching to others in leadership, and they have sometimes returned to me mystified that I encouraged them to read the text. From the perspective of the Tao Te Ching, the greatest leader is the one who, like the great sea, is content to lie below and serve the surrounding rivers and plains.

    "Why is the sea king of a hundred streams?
    Because it lies below them.

    Therefore it is the king of a hundred streams.
    "If the sage would guide the people, he must serve with humility.
    If he would lead them, he must follow behind. ...

    "Because he does not compete,
    He does not meet competition."
    (Chapter 64)**

    The leader is not inactive (a common misunderstanding of the Taoist concept of "wu-wei"), but the leader (who should also be a sage) seeks not to attract attention to his or her own efforts, does not insist on having his or her own way, and does not need to strive to prove his or her own merit. The sage/leader of the Tao tradition knows that he or she is not indispensable.

    The greatest service of the leader is to BE in a particular way, in harmony with the eternal Tao, in harmony with the true nature of reality, glorying in silence, listening with care, speaking mindfully when speaking is appropriate and responding always in reflection rather than reacting in anxiety. As Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes observes in a recent essay:

    "Particularly in Western culture inaction is a term that denotes a pejorative character in nature of idleness or abstention from involvement of any sort. Yet in ancient Taoism the philosophy of wu-wei is a type of action so well in accordance with the flow of things that its author leaves no trace of himself or herself in the universe." ***

    Recently I was thinking about the similarity between the wisdom of the Tao and the spirituality of some of the First Peoples of the Americas. This similarity is exemplified by Willa Cather in her novel, Death Comes to the Archbishop, when she contrasts the way of the Navajo traveling companion (Eusabio) of the French missionary bishop (Father Latour) of New Mexico and the way of the Europeans lately come to that region. Cather writes:

    "Traveling with Eusabio was like traveling with the landscape made human. He accepted chance and weather as the country did, with a sort of grave enjoyment. ... When they left the rock or tree or sand dune that had sheltered them for the night, the Navajo was careful to obliterate every trace of their temporary occupation. He buried the embers of the fire and the remnants of food, unpiled any stones he had piled together, filled up the holes he had scooped in the sand. ... Father Latour judged that, just as it was the white man's way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least to leave some mark of memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian's way to pass through the country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through the water, or birds through the air." ****

    One could not find a better illustration of the spirit of wu-wei in any collection of tales of the Tao. The Tao Te Ching's conception of wu-wei conveys as much an exhortation to reverence as a warning against arrogance, as we see in the following passage:

    "Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
    I do not believe it can be done.

    "The universe is sacred.
    You cannot improve it.
    If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
    If you try to hold it, you will lose it."
    (Chapter 29)**

    My favorite translation of the Tao Te Ching sits here beside me now as I write these words. It is dog-eared, margin-marked, cross-indexed, and thoroughly loved to tatters. It tempts me now to take you on an excursion into its chapters of ancient wisdom. But I simply wouldn't be able to stop myself if I got started; I'd probably end up reprinting the entire Tao Te Ching in this blog. Instead, I'll close by responding to a query I often get from folks who are confused or concerned that a Christian (and Christian theologian, at that) is nourished to such a large extent as I am by spiritual traditions beyond the Christian family, especially, in my case, by Judaism, Stoicism, Buddhism and Taoism. I'll respond with a story.

    Several years ago, Stephen Prothero and I were speakers for a daylong educational event sponsored by a Presbyterian group in greater Washington, D.C. I had never before met Steve, but I respected his work on religious literacy and interfaith studies. His brilliant book, God is Not One, had just recently come out.

    Throughout the course of the day, in one of many side conversations with Steve, he discovered how much Taoism means to me. He observed, however, that I behave, at least professionally, in a manner more consistent with Confucianism than Taoism. We agreed that this made sense, given my Reformed and Presbyterian roots and outlook on the world. (Presbyterians are the Confucians of the Protestant Christian world!) I asked him if it was problematic that I loved Taoist thought but acted, at least in my workday, more like a Confucian. To the contrary, he said. In fact, in certain Asian cultures, he said, it was understood that when at work one behaves as a Confucian, but on the weekends and in the evenings one is Taoist.

    What I took away from that conversation is an awareness that we can be well nourished and informed by a variety of spiritual traditions beyond our "home" tradition. Some approaches will speak to us more directly and appropriately in certain circumstances than others. I have found that it is quite possible to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and to find in the Tao a deep wisdom that also guides one's life.

    However, we must, I believe, be respectful of the integrity of the various spiritual traditions that feed us. We must not water them down, but understand them constructively and even critically, as much as possible in their own terms, as we seek to live our lives. And we must be clear within ourselves where the boundaries of our Christian "home" faith are, what is non-negotiable, and who God has revealed Godself to be in Jesus of Nazareth.

    We must do these things even while we continue to grow and learn and allow the living God to test the boundaries, to call into question even our "non-negotiables," and to act as (to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis) "the eternal Iconoclast" who dismantles every idol we craft, even when that idol is made of our own most precious creeds.

    Maturity in being human comes as much from discarding the extraneous as it does from acquiring new insights. Ultimately, that which ennobles us is our humility in the face of the holy. As the Tao Te Ching says: "When [humans] lack a sense of awe, there will be disaster." (Chapter 72)**
    *One "manuscript" version of the Tao Te Ching, written on bamboo strips, dates to around 300 B.C. The origins of this book are cloaked in legend. It is traditionally attributed to a legendary sage called Lao Tzu or Laozi. The text itself is quite short, consisting of about five thousand Chinese characters. It is divided into eighty-one brief chapters, and consists of two parts, the Tao (or Dao) and the Te (De). A very helpful introduction to Taoism is provided by Alicia Kohn, "Taoist Traditions," in an excellent volume Merton and the Tao: Dialogues with John Wu and the Ancient Sages, edited by Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2013), 1-29. Those familiar with Thomas Merton will know of his amazing book The Way of Chuang Tzu, the most recent edition of which includes a preface by the Dalai Lama (New York: New Directions, 1965/1997).
    **Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, with introduction and notes by Jacob Needleman (New York: Vintage, 1972), 68. This is my favorite edition of the Tao Te Ching.
    ***This essay, "The Mystical Teaching of Wu-Wei in the Daode Jing: A Comparative Study of East and West on Spiritual Detachment," appears in the volume on Merton and the Tao, edited by Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes, 30-44.
    ****Willa Cather, Death Comes to the Archbishop, (New York: Vintage classics edition, 1990), 232-233.

  • Call it What You Want, but Don't Call it Christian

    by Michael Jinkins | Mar 29, 2016

    Our Neighborhood of Many FaithsI watched a fascinating interview on television recently. Fascinating and disturbing.

    The interview was on the evening news. It was with three Muslim American citizens. Each of the three was proud to be an American.

    The first man interviewed spoke eloquently of his love for the values that define America, values such as freedom, equality and justice. Another spoke insightfully of the fact that Muslims in America have become well integrated into American culture and have had a real stake in American society. This is a major reason, he said, that America has proven to be infertile ground for Jihadists' propaganda in contrast to some European countries. This man, a native-born American, also talked about his worries that some political rhetoric seems to be aimed at separating Muslim Americans from non-Muslim Americans, segregating them, treating them as perpetual suspects, keeping them under surveillance, and thus providing a real boost to the propaganda of those radicals who would divide Americans along lines of faith and ethnicity.

    The interview that really disturbed me most, however, was with the third person, a woman. She was quiet, modest and soft-spoken. She seemed to carry a solemn grief. When she told her story, you saw the source of her sorrow. She had been attacked some months ago while eating dinner at an American chain restaurant. Another woman came up to her and hit her in the face with a beer bottle because she wore the headscarf representing her faith. The interview cut away to show still photographs of the restaurant where she was attacked and pictures of her face cut and bruised. This Muslim woman, also a native-born American citizen, was singled out for an act of hatred and violence because of her religious faith and because of her ethnicity. The loss she felt related directly to how much she loves this country and the values for which it stands.

    One might call the attack on her un-American, and it was.

    The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, as some people may have forgotten, was insisted upon as a condition by some for the ratification of the Constitution. In particular, the First Amendment, guaranteeing religious freedom, was insisted upon by those who belonged to religious minorities, particularly the Baptists, who feared that the state might establish a state religion thus limiting the free exercise of their beliefs.* These representatives of minority religious faiths insisted that the United States should be a place where religious minorities can safely practice their faith. The Baptists were not the only religious minority at that time. There were also then in this country Quakers, Roman Catholics, Jews and others, including Muslims. Indeed, lest anyone think that the boundaries of "religious freedom" imagined by the founding fathers were limited to Christians and Jews, we would do well to consult the text that influenced the framers more than any other on this subject, not least because of its influence on Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia bill guaranteeing religious freedom. In 1689, John Locke published his "Letter Concerning Toleration", which specifically included Muslims as an example of religious faiths which should be tolerated. Locke's thought occupied a position of prominence in the minds of the founders of our republic second only to Thomas Paine. The Virginia statute guaranteeing religious freedom, a bill close to the heart of Thomas Jefferson, specifically guarantees religious freedom to Muslims. And, lest anyone think practitioners of Islam are late arrivals on these shores, George Washington worked with Muslims to insure they would not have their taxes used to support Christian worship and said that he would welcome Muslims to Mount Vernon.

    Tolerance of faith is woven into the American republic from its founding. We might say that while it is the most American of values to guarantee people can live as they choose as long as they don't harm others, it is the most American of virtues to ensure that people can practice their faith unfettered by the beliefs of others.

    Thomas Jefferson (a deist, devoted to the ideals of the Greek philosophy of Epicureanism) was as much an American as was John Adams (a devout Unitarian, though raised Congregationalist) and George Washington (who, while raised an Anglican, was also a deist). This country has provided a haven for people who practice a wide variety of faiths and for those who practice no faith at all. And this country has been stronger for it.**

    But this is not my point today. Not really.

    There are those who claim that their intolerance, their bigotry, their hatred, even their violence is somehow justified by their Christian faith. And I am here today to say one thing and to say it as clearly as I know how: You can call it many things when neighbor rises against neighbor in fear, hatred and violence, but you can't call it "Christian."

    You can call it tribalism, nationalism, fascism, racism or just plain ignorance, but it isn't Christian. Those who follow Jesus are distinguished as saints for the crosses they bear, not the crosses they erect at the expense of others.

    Hatred is not a Christian virtue, though tragically our creed has harbored some world-class haters in our history. But I find some comfort in the fact that for every advocate of some newfangled crusade of vengeance against others, there has been a Tolstoy, or a Bonhoeffer, or a Mother Teresa to remind us whom Christians are called to follow: Jesus of Nazareth. And this Jesus of Nazareth, himself, was not a Christian (a simple fact that I've seen folks turn somersaults trying to contradict). And Jesus of Nazareth, that wondrous and mystifying Palestinian Jew whom some of us believe was none other than the Christ of God, died a victim of political, religious and imperial violence.

    I know a lot of folks are critiquing what some politicians are saying these days. They are concerned about the violent, divisive and hateful rhetoric among some political candidates. As bad as that may be, that's not what concerns me most.

    Politicians will say what people want to hear. If nobody's buying their message, they stop peddling it. Sadly, however, there's a booming market for hatred and bigotry in our country.

    The buyers as well as the peddlers in that market can wrap their hatred in a flag if they wish (though an American flag really doesn't fit their message), but they cannot hide behind the cross of Jesus.

    Today, as I write these words, our Christian faith observes Easter Sunday. This is the day Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. This is the day we confess our trust in the God who has declared that death and sin will not have the last word over life and love. In the faith of the risen Christ, early followers of Jesus defied fear and violence, even death, certain that our lives, deaths and future rest in God's hands.

    The fear that drives so much hatred and violence in our country is explicitly contradicted today by the Easter faith. God, the Bible tells us, chooses freedom over safety, creativity over selfishness, the risk of love over any security that violates humanity. So, when we Christians confess "Christ is risen!", we aren't affirming a dead dogma, but a living commitment to follow Jesus whatever the consequences may be, trusting God to raise us from whatever death may come.

    In this Easter faith we welcome all persons of all faiths into a neighborhood of humanity that knows no bounds. If God is big enough to include us in this neighborhood, we can do no less.

    *Probably the Baptist preacher John Leland, then of Virginia, exercised the single greatest influence in this matter during that period in which the new U.S. Constitution was being debated in Virginia. He played a key role in helping persuade James Madison of the political necessity to frame an amendment to the Constitution, which would guarantee that the state would neither establish a state religion (Leland and others were especially fearful that the Anglican Church would take that role) nor limit the free exercise of one's faith.
    ** Jefferson, a lifelong champion of religious liberty, made sure that copies of the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom was reprinted, translated into European languages, and distributed to diplomats even of despotic countries. As Dumas Malone noted in volume two of his classic six-volume biography of Jefferson: "He missed no good chance to point out that after so many years in which the human mind had been held in vassalage the standard of reason had been erected in the forests of Virginia." (pp. 103-104) While Jefferson "believed in one God, not no God, not twenty gods," writes Malone, "he thought it much better for the human spirit if a country had twenty sects rather than only one." (111) Dumas Malone, Jefferson and the Rights of Man (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951).

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