Unquestioned Obedience or Faithful Questioning

Unquestioned Obedience or Faithful Questioning

According to the Pew Research Center, 70.6 percent of Americans claim a religious affiliation, a drop of eight percentage points in just seven years. Among Millennials (those born between 1980 and the early 2000s) the drop is even more precipitous, down to 64 percent.

Humans need to belong. While we might think the nuclear family is the key to a culture’s health, it is actually a larger entity. It is the tribe that defines the strength of a culture. Being part of a meaningful tribe has always been a basic element of healthy living. We are wired to belong. That is one of the reasons I am intrigued by the decline in church attendance. If we need community to survive, why do Americans choose to build their community around a sports team instead of a church? (This would especially be true for Mets fans.)

When I talk with young Evangelicals about why they no longer attend church, one answer emerges time and again. They feel their churches have taken legalistic views of scripture at odds with their conscience. There was a time when the unquestioned obedience that results from a legalistic view of scripture led people to rape women, kill children, and enslave enemies in the name of God. Today’s young people reject such blind obedience. Their approach is actually very compatible with the teaching of Jesus.

In Disarming Scripture, Derek Flood describes two different types of people in the pages of the Bible. There were those who believed following God meant unquestioned obedience, and others who believed following God called for faithful questioning. Was it really necessary to kill the children of enemies? Was it necessary to view life from a perspective of scarcity, something common to all three desert religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity?

Unquestioned obedience and faithful questioning have always existed in tension among the people of God. If we follow the example of Jesus, we will be faithful questioners. As my pastor Jenny Morgan said in her sermon last Sunday, “Jesus rejected violence by re-orienting, even correcting certain passages. Jesus did this from a place of deep truth. We disarm these passages based on historical, archeological evidence and by following Jesus. There is no revenge in Jesus, so there can be no revenge in God.” She went on to say, “Unquestioning obedience is often motivated by fear, but faithful questioning is motivated by love and trust.”

Someone might object, “But that was Jesus. He was allowed to reframe whatever he wanted to reframe.” Yet the truth is the church has been following Jesus’ example for 2000 years. It is how the church came to accept that the earth revolves around the sun, though they accepted it too late to stop Galileo from suffering. It is how the church slowly and agonizingly came to see slavery as incompatible with Christianity. More recently it is how the church came to see women as equal to men, though that one is still a work in progress. In each case, the hard work of faithful questioning brought about important change.

Since the church has always made painful adjustments in light of new scientific and religious understanding, why would we be so arrogant as to think that kind of work is behind us? How can we think we have arrived at the pinnacle of understanding? There will always be new information, and humans will always adapt to our growing body of knowledge.

I do understand the current religious environment of fear. We live in a world changing more rapidly than ever before. When you add the reality that ethics has had a hard time keeping up with scientific discovery, it is understandable when people react negatively in the face of change. But we are remiss if we avoid the lesson of history. Choosing our battles poorly diminishes the character of the church and causes us to be a poor reflection of the Christ we serve. And throughout history, it is hard to deny the reality that the church, time and again, has chosen its battles poorly.

There must be room within the church for faithful questioners or the church will end up in a silo of its own making, what Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture called, “Christ against Culture.” Others refer to it as the “embattled church.” If we really believe the truth will set us free, we need not fear faithful questioners in our midst. In fact, we should be grateful for them. For it is only by wrestling with the words of scripture that we collectively reach conclusions compatible with the example of Christ. These young Millennials are reminding us what many generations have had to remind those who came before – It is Jesus we serve, not a book.

And so it goes.





A Complex and Perplexing Problem

A Complex and Perplexing Problem

This week brings the Transgender Day of Remembrance, so I return to the subject I have written about often. Last summer an op-ed piece in the New York Times addressed the issue of malleability in gender. Richard Friedman, a psychiatrist at Weil Cornell Medical College, spoke of two studies that have shed light on the transgender experience.

The first was conducted by Dr. Georg Kranz at the Medical University of Vienna and published in the Journal of Neuroscience. A specialized MRI was utilized to study the functioning brains of four different groups, natal males and females, male to female transsexuals, and female to male transsexuals. All of the trans participants had not yet begun hormone therapy, since it is known that brain structure changes with cross-sex hormones.

The findings supported the hypothesis that gender dysphoria is neural in its origins. The MRIs of both groups were about halfway between the natal males and females. What accounts for the findings? It is known that biological sex develops in the first trimester of gestation, while the brain’s sexual wiring does not develop until the second half of pregnancy. The study makes the educated assumption some kind of glitch occurs when the brain is wired with its gender identity, leaving a brain not in sync with its corresponding body.

The second study was completed by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. They followed 324 transgender individuals for 10 years post-transition and found the incidence of suicide 19 times higher than the population at large. Friedman did not mention that the study was of people who transitioned before 1989, a time when virtually no society was welcoming toward transgender individuals.

Dr. Friedman does not believe the Karolinska study shows that transitioning is unwarranted. To the contrary, he acknowledges that transitioning resolves gender dysphoria. His question, which remained unanswered in the article, is why does transitioning not make for a better life? Fortunately there are more recent studies that answer that question.

A study of 1229 transgender individuals published in August of this year showed 35 percent of the participants had seriously considered suicide. But the additional findings of the study shed considerable light on the reasons for that suicidal ideation.

First, transgender people who had the support of their families had an 82 percent lower rate of suicide than those who did not have family support. The study also showed that transgender people who were not a part of a racial/ethnic minority and had a higher level of education had far lower rates of suicide. Additionally, transgender people who “passed” in public reported a quality of life not statistically different from the population at large. In other words, if you are like me, white and educated with a supportive family, and you can live in your new gender without people on the street staring at you, your chances for having a satisfying life are pretty good. If you don’t have all of those things, it is a different story.

The study showed those who had been discriminated against in employment and housing had a higher rate of suicide, as did those who were subject to physical violence and those who did not have the means to complete the legal name and gender change process. Alarmingly, another study showed that transgender youth whose parents were not supportive had a 13 times greater chance of suicide than those whose parents were.

The biggest indicators of difficulty in transition are alienation from family, friends, and co-workers, and the accompanying deep sense of shame. If the trans person internalizes transphobia, their adjustment to their new life becomes monumentally difficult.

Some have used the suicide rate to attack the transgender community, suggesting these suicides occur because of multiple mental disorders, when the reality is the suicide rate is not high because of psychiatric comorbidities. It is high because of societal issues. When trans people have the kind of support received by the population at large, they report a quality of life in line with the population at large. The problem is that a lot of trans people are not supported at all, but face rejection everywhere they turn. That is the main reason they internalize transphobia.

The debacle in Houston is a prime example. Millions of dollars were spent to create a threat where none exists. There is not a single record anywhere of a trans person attacking anyone in a restroom. But that did not stop the misguided zealots from their shame-inducing smear campaign. The tragedy is that this vilification of the trans community does not happen in a vacuum. Real live struggling trans people in Houston were subjected to a barrage of attacks that for those who do not have the support they need, result in the internalization of shame and transphobia. The hate pedaled in the name of decency will lead, with great certainty, to the suicides of vulnerable trans people. It also perpetuates the global hate that leads to one transgender person being murdered every 29 hours.

We live in a world in which hate abounds, minorities are vilified, and innocent people are slaughtered, often in the name of religion. The solution to all of the hatred is not complicated.

On his last day of public ministry, in answer to the last question he was ever asked by the population at large, Jesus said the greatest laws were to love God and love your neighbor. Everything else was based on those two. Matthew tells us his audience didn’t like the answer and Jesus was greeted with dead silence. Matthew goes on to say from that day on no one dared to ask Jesus any more questions. He made clear what he wanted people to do. They just decided not to do it. And 2000 years later, not much has changed.

And so it goes.

Minneapolis in October

Minneapolis in October

Three weeks ago I attended the OPEN conference in Minneapolis.   A fascinating crowd of dreamers, intellectuals and assorted pilgrims gathered to discuss what it means to be a progressive, inclusive leader in today’s Evangelical-ish church. Speakers included Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Frank Schaeffer, Kent Dobson, and a variety of other better and lesser-known folk.

As with most conferences, the unscheduled conversations were the most enjoyable part of the event. I listened to the heartfelt stories of a few megachurch senior pastors who lost half their members because they became LGBTQ inclusive, but who can now sleep at night. I had dinner with Teresa Pasquale, the author of an excellent book on spiritual abuse called Sacred Wounds. I enjoyed lunch with a seminary administrator who has bravely moved beyond her southern fundamentalist roots. I listened to a brilliant young therapist who helps families work through their children’s sexual and gender identities.

I especially enjoyed the hours spent in our rental house with many of the dear leaders from Highlands Church, grateful that God has led me to such a transparent, devoted community. With the Highlands folk we welcomed the staff from a church in New York and talked late into the night about the bold steps of faith to which God is calling us all.

I’m guessing no one in attendance was a person who believed in unquestioned obedience to the Scriptures. This was not a group that sees the Bible as an inerrant rulebook. This was a group of faithful questioners who see the Bible as the inspired record of God’s people on earth, a guide to understanding what it means to live as Jesus might live today. In the spirit of the Old Testament prophets, they call into question the typical way of seeing things and humbly, yet boldly proclaim the news that the gospel really is good news for all.

Many of those in attendance have been on a spiritual journey similar to my own (well, without the part about transitioning genders.) They grew up in Evangelical or Fundamentalist homes and through a thousand questions processed by curious minds, they all arrived at the station platform surprised and delighted to meet others waiting for the same train. Echoing the words of Carl Sandburg, they all know the travelers on the Sunset Limited are going somewhere beyond Omaha.

We are wired for community, so I should not be surprised these people managed to find one another. No one wants to blaze a trail alone. There were common names that played a part in all of us buying tickets to the same destination – Mary Oliver, Phyllis Tickle, Wendell Berry, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Richard Rohr. All are people on similar journeys, though Phyllis Tickle’s journey has moved to another plane.

There was a ten-foot wild goose hanging from the ceiling at the church building in which the conference was held!  Yep, a little odd.  Yet it sent our thoughts to a poem treasured by many, Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese, a poem I memorized years ago. On the final morning the poem was quoted, acknowledging what many were feeling, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.  You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”  The poem ends with these life affirming words:  “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination.  It calls to you, like the wild geese, harsh and exciting, over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

 And so it goes.

Rooted in Love

Rooted in Love

How my family and I deal with my transition is not a subject for public discourse. But my post from several weeks ago (All is Calm, All is Bright) has had a lot of page views and comments that go far beyond Cathy’s character and our relationship.

The responses invite me to consider a question. What can we expect from marriage? When we marry, virtually all of us hope our marriage will be fulfilling, but most of us are unaware how much baggage we bring from childhood, including deeply held desires for our partner to heal the wounds of childhood. But that is a tall order to fill and far beyond the capacity of even the most loving spouse. The only one who can heal a childhood wound is the adult child herself. And as many of us know, that process is arduous. All a spouse can do is stand by and offer support.

When I wrote that Cathy would come to me still, I was not referring to a childhood need to be rescued form that dark church hallway. Dealing with that memory is my job. With the post I was talking about the nature of the person I married. Cathy is deeply loving and fully devoted to her family. Though Cathy and I don’t exactly know what to call our relationship any longer, our love for one another remains. Many people never know deep love. They only experience relationships that are profoundly conditional, leaving them with little stability.

Cathy and I both struggle to understand how Christianity, a religion rooted in love, has become so completely a religion rooted in judgment and conditional acceptance. When it comes to our family’s life together, we have chosen to be rooted in the unconditional love Jesus modeled for us.

That kind of love does not have expectations the lover will take on our own struggles. The healthiest marriages are those in which each person attends to his or her own unresolved issues, but the couple works together on the one thing they can control, their relationship.

Cathy and I always encourage couples to see their relationships as an additional entity residing in their home. There is mom and dad and the kids, but there is also the relationship. Give it a name if you like, Hope or Joy or Grace. But give it the attention you give your children. It is the one thing remaining when the children leave home.

From our marriage Cathy and I expected to provide a stable home for our children, a base camp from which we could each climb our own mountains, and a secure environment in which we could grow through the decades. Of course we also expected to do it as husband and wife. When it comes to our current circumstance, there are no rules and little guidance. But wherever our relationship takes us, there is one thing we know. Our love remains.

In his book, Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God, Frank Schaeffer writes, “My hope is that a trillionth of a second before the Big Bang, the energy animating the mystery of matter being created out of nothing was love.” I hold the same hope, that from the beginning and all the way to the very end, it is love that makes the world go round.

And so it goes.