Tag Archives: Richard Rodriguez

Dogmatic Ben Franklin

The blasphemy that attaches to monotheism is the blasphemy of certainty. Richard Rodriguez

Every time someone claims that we live in a country founded on “Christian principles,” I think of Benjamin Franklin. autobiographyHis Autobiography is often a text at the appropriate time in the interdisciplinary program I teach in—it’s short, pithy, no nonsense and quintessentially American. Exactly what I would expect from Ben. He doesn’t say a lot about organized religion other than to express his distaste for and rejection of it, turning his back on the Presbyterianism of his youth because the ministers’ sermons were primarily “explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect,” clearly designed to create good Presbyterians rather than good citizens. He describes himself as a “thorough Deist” just as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were,three amigos believing in a creating God who has little to no direct engagement in the world, who is best worshipped by “doing good to man,” and who will in some manner “certainly reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter.” DeismNo miracles, no incarnation, resurrection or revelation. And no organized worship.

Ben was surrounded by religion in eighteenth century colonial America but remained as secular as they come throughout his life. He observed concerning a saintly Catholic woman who had spent her life in service to others while living in a one-room garret with only a table, bed, crucifix and picture of Saint Veronica that he was amazed “on how small an income life and health may be supported,” while being most impressed with the ability of George Whitfield—one of the primary preachers during “The Great Awakening,” a remarkable religious revival in 1700s New England—to project his voice across a large open field. He was particularly intrigued by the Dunkers, a small Baptist sect (who “dunked” the newly baptized) that would become the Church of the Brethren a couple of centuries later. With a name like that, they could have given our favorite New England donut and coffee establishment a run for its money. One of the Dunker leaders complained to Benjamin that, as often happens when religion is concerned, other religious groups frequently accused the Dunkers of “abominable practices and principles, to which they were utter strangers.” brethrenBen sensibly suggested that the Dunkers should publish “the articles of their belief, and the rules of their discipline,” thus reducing the opportunity for misunderstanding and slander. To which suggestion the Dunker leader made a remarkable reply.

When we were first drawn together as a society, it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, which we once esteemed truths, were errors; and that others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we have arrived at the end of this progression . . . we fear that, if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confin’d by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive farther improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.

creedI like the Dunkers’ attitude. Doctrine bothers me because it so easily turns into its evil and rigid twin, dogma. As I recited the Nicene Creed with a dozen or so other 8:00 service attendees a couple of Sundays ago, I made more effort than usual to pay attention to what this close-to-two-thousand-years-old affirmation of faith is actually committing me to. There’s some pretty weird stuff there. Not long ago I heard someone mention that she is comforted by the fact that the words she is saying when reciting the creed are the very same words Christian believers have recited for close to two millennia. I’m not sure why that’s something to be comforted by. On the Sunday in question, I rather was wondering what makes any of us think that what fit the bill two millennia ago is still a perfect fit. I was reminded of something IWiman read from Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss the other day: “Only when doctrine itself is understood to be provisional does doctrine begin to take on a more than provisional significance.”

I understand the immediate and obvious pushback from many circles, of course. I grew up in a religious world in which all of the images of belief involved stability, immutability, inflexibility and certainty. Truth does not change. If you are not stable and secure in what you believe, how are you going to be able to defend it against the inevitable onslaught of change, unbelief, secularism and relativism? We sang “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand” and that we were “standing on the promises of Christ my king.” We would not have recognized ourselves in Christopher Wiman’s unflinching description:

Dogma needs regular infusions of unknowingness to keep from calcifying into the predictable, pontificating, and anti-intellectual services so common in mainstream American churches.

But that was us. Wiman continues:

The minute any human or human institution arrogates to itself a singular knowledge of God, there comes into that knowledge a kind of strychnine pride, and it is as if the most animated and vital creature were instantaneously transformed into a corpse . . . The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone.

people of the bookThose who follow the great Western monotheistic religions are often referred to as “People of the Book.” What the Dunkers realized is that writing something down, “setting it in stone,” so to speak, creates the very real possibility that worship will turn toward the book rather than focusing on what inspired it in the first place. Doctrine and dogma are just two of many ways in which human beings try to make encounters with the divine safe and predictable. And of course, the more I turn my attention toward expressions of what I believe rather than to the open spaces where the object of that belief resides, the more defensive I get. BBTAs Barbara Brown Taylor writes,

Human beings never behave so badly as when they believe they are protecting God. . . . If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape.

So there’s a New Year’s resolution for you: Be like the Dunkers. It’s no way to run a successful religion—but then, Jesus wasn’t interested in doing that.

Moving On

“Get a picture of yourself ten years from now in your mind,” I said to my eighteen-year old freshmen. “Your job, whether you’ll be in a permanent relationship, whether you will have kids or have considered having them, where you’ll be living, graduate school or not. The works.” Most of them had smiles on their faces as they constructed their future selves in their imaginations. We were studying the Stoics, so I suspect they were wondering what this exercise had to do with the day’s material. “Got the picture?” I asked—they all nodded. “None of it is going to happen, or at least not at all in the way you think.” life is what happensThis appeared to be a surprise to some of them—at eighteen it is still easy to believe that much of your future is within your control.

We have all heard the related truisms: “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans,” “If you want to give God a good laugh, tell her your plans” and so on. Anyone past a certain age—say thirty—nods bemusedly when hearing them because unlike many bumper sticker summaries of the complexities of human life, these sound bites are completely true. Sometimes the unexpected changes are welcome, other times we are surprised by events so challenging and disturbing that we doubt we’ll survive them. under constructionBut we do. The persons we are and will become have been and will be constructed out of what we never saw and won’t see coming.

I’m fifty-eight, well established in a profession that I deeply love, happily in love with and married to my best friend, living in my favorite part of the country—Jeanne and I have carved out a life that seems comfortable, predictable, and stable. She observed positively upon returning from visiting her family and the latest drama in New York a couple of weeks ago that “we really live a peaceful life.” Exactly as we want it. But on this New Year’s Eve I am on the brink of a year of significant change and am reminded that even within the boundaries of apparent stability, things never stay the same for long.

I am entering my final semester of directing a large academic program on my campus, a task that has consumed and defined my life both on campus and off for the past four years. When July 1 of next year arrives and I hand the reins over to my successor, I DWCwill have spent eight of my last eleven professional years as both an administrator and teacher (four years as department chair, four years as program director). I did not go into the teaching profession to be an administrator; although it’s part of the academic life to play administrator on occasion, I’m looking forward to finding out what it’s like to be just a full-time teacher. And yet . . . in a strange way I’m going to miss being a program director. I’ve learned a lot about myself as I juggle scheduling, faculty herding and student management on a daily basis. There are many indications that the program has become better over the past few years—and I sort of like being in charge. But all things come to an end, including this.

The timing of my stepping down from directing this program is intentionally coordinated with the beginning of my next sabbatical next July 1. sabbaticalThis will be my third sabbatical. I wrote a book during my first one, my life was changed during my second one, so who knows what this one will bring? It will be my first full-year sabbatical—I’ve told everyone that I wanted to have one full-year sabbatical during my career, and this is the time. By the time my next one comes around, I may be too decrepit and crotchety to appreciate it. I have a plan for what I want to do, but where it will happen and how is totally up in the air. Proposals have been sent, contacts have been made, feelers have been extended—and I won’t know how things will be shaping up for at least two or three months.

Outside of work things are also in flux. Jeanne’s job was eliminated a couple of months ago—who knows when or if someone will be smart enough to recognize what an asset she will be for them?Trinity Everything is moving on at the church we have attended and been involved with for the past four years. Our good friend Marsue, who is the reason why we started going to the church has retired (at least for a couple of weeks) and a new rector has been hired. Marsue used to turn the pulpit over to me about once every three or four months to give the sermon—I’ve probably given my last sermon at Trinity. A couple of months before Marsue’s retirement a full-time music minister was hired, which means three years of frequent, interim organ playing—one of the loveliest surprises that has come my way in many years—are at an end. Everyone at Trinity knows we started attending because of Marsue—will we be staying? Jeanne and I have answered regularly that it depends on what Big Bird is doing. The wind blows where it will, and no one can tell where it’s coming from or where it is going—so it is with all things Big Bird.

A couple of Sundays ago I was lector at church and read the Old Testament lesson from Second Samuel. After cementing his rise from shepherd to king through a series of struggles over many years against challenges both internal and external, David is ready to enjoy his middle-age years as monarch and to turn his attention toward God. arkHe tells his prophet advisor and sidekick Nathan of his plans to build a temple to house the Ark of the Covenant, a place for God to settle down and enjoy himself just as David plans to. Given that God’s dwelling has been a tent or movable tabernacle for centuries, Nathan approves of David’s plans. Until God sets Nathan straight in a dream, that is. When did I ever say I wanted a permanent place to live? God asks. Do I look like someone who want to settle down? I haven’t stopped being a nomad since I delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt and don’t plan to stop now. If you want to hang out with me, don’t get too comfortable and be ready to move. Then this wonderful promise passed on to David through Nathan: “The Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.”

WimanIn other words, God already has a house—Us. You and me. That restless spirit of change that permeates everyone’s life? That’s God. As Christian Wiman writes in his wonderful My Bright Abyss,

To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility.

This, Richard Rodriguez suggests, is what monotheists get for believing in a desert God.rodriquez

The desert’s uninhabitability convinces Jew and Christian and Muslim that we are meant for another place.

Which means that trying to confine this restless deity in buildings, dogma, or certainty is a mistake of cosmic proportions.

Desert is the fossil of water. Is dogma a fossil of the living God—the shell of God’s passage—but God is otherwise or opposite?

For those not inclined toward religious belief, feel free to come up with your own explanation for the contingency and uncertainty of human existence. You don’t need a pillar of fire to convince you that it’s all about moving on.moving on