Friday, April 29, 2016

Storm is Coming

Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight.
– Old rule of thumb for forecasting weather

One of the sites I follow on Facebook identifies itself as Storm is Coming. Ostensibly it is a site devoted to all things Bernie Sanders. But the title of the site and the tenor of the postings really points toward something different, something a bit more ominous.

There is a sense in the posts on this site that America, perhaps the world itself, is headed toward some kind of devolution into chaos. I also get the sense that while the Storm these folks see coming could be preventable, it’s unlikely that we Americans will turn away from the precipice prior to hurtling over the rim of the abyss.

In all honesty, I do not want to believe that. But I am not able to convince myself at this point that these prophets of doom are wrong. And I am not alone with that discomfort.

Yesterday’s blog post by UC Berkeley economist Robert Reich puts it well:

I just got off the phone with a former Republican member of Congress who says he “can’t believe” Trump won all of today’s primaries. “I don’t get it,” he said. “The Republican Party is completely out of control.”

Earlier today I spoke with a Hillary supporter who asked me to urge Bernie to get out of the race. “He can’t win, and the longer he stays in the harder he’s making it for Hillary in the general [election],” she said. “I just don’t get it.”

Neither of the people I spoke with “get” the biggest single force in the 2016 election: a furious revolt against the political establishment.

The revolt has taken two very different forms – progressive populism (Bernie's "political revolution") and authoritarian populism (Donald Trump’s bloviated bigotry). They are the positive and negative sides of the same coin.

Both should be wake-up calls for America’s two major political parties and the corporate and financial elites that have sponsored them for decades. Unless or until the establishment responds to the growing frustrations of a shrinking and increasingly insecure middle class, the populist revolt – its reformist zeal on one side, and its hatefulness on the other – will only intensify in coming years.

Reich’s final paragraph bespeaks much of the apprehension I feel at the moment. What we are seeing in this election should be a wake-up call. The level of violence at the Trump rallies including the confrontation of demonstrators with police outside the Orange County, CA event last night is alarming. The tone of the campaign rhetoric has become equally alarming with the former Republican Speaker of the House saying of the second place candidate for his party’s nomination that he’d be elected “over my dead body.” I almost find myself pining for the early days of the campaign when penis comparisons and menstrual references were the common fare.  

As a friend described it, this is much like watching a looming train wreck. We are unable to bear the impending sight but we are too fascinated with it to turn away.


They simply don’t get it

One of the things I do out of love for my 89 year old Dad is endure his obsession with Fox while I am at his house. As much as I try to ignore the loud chattering (my Dad keeps the TV turned up so he can hear it) of the talking heads on Fox, a few of the comments managed to get through my defense line of crossword puzzles and online solitaire Tuesday night.

One of the commentators noted the exit polling in Pennsylvania where a majority of Republicans there felt the current activities of Wall Street hurts the country as a whole. The polling data demonstrated that voters in Pennsylvania, who were considerably less likely than those in states like Connecticut and Delaware to earn more than $100,000/year, were also much more likely to see Wall Street as injurious to their daily lives. Most of these folks voted for Trump.

I was amused by the flummoxed Fox pundit who repeatedly asserted something to the effect of “How could anyone think that the greatest economy in the world’s history is harmful to their interests?” as if it were revealed truth. It was Lou Dobs who continually reminded the sputtering spokesperson for free market fundamentalism that one’s socio-economic location makes a great deal of difference in how one sees the economic status quo.

Cui bono? Good for whom and at whose expense?

I am hardly surprised that conservative ideologues are shocked to discover that the economic system which has provided them with often largely unearned privilege at the expense of many whose largely undervalued labor produces that privilege could be seen as harmful. As social critic Upton Sinclair observed at the height of the last Robber Baron era during the 1920s, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” 

What was striking in this exchange, however, was the vehemence in the denial of the reality the polling data was revealing. As Reich notes in his discussions with both Republican and Democratic loyalists, these are people who simply don’t “‘get’ the biggest single force in the 2016 election: a furious revolt against the political establishment.” And it is precisely that cluelessness and denial that prompt folks like the Facebook posters to warn us that a “Storm is Coming.”

Institutions past expiration dates

The “furious revolts” that Reich observes confirms my sense that the US - and perhaps the world generally - stands on the brink of a major transformative stage in its history. As I have said here previously, while many are prone to construct this point in history as a time when our institutions are broken or failed, reacting in anger and furiously seeking others to blame, in fact those institutions have simply reached their natural expiration dates. The time for change has come.

Clearly, the status quo has served at least some of our interests in the past or it would never have come into being and remained intact. But all innovations have their points of inception and their points of decline. It is when the expiration date of an institution has been reached and the parties who are accustomed to that status quo fail to respond that the potential for “furious revolts” arises.

As I see it, virtually all of our institutions are beyond their expiration dates.

·         Our system of electoral politics  - with its barriers to participation, its money-driven interminable media campaigns and its hierarchies of power proxies from super-delegates to the nameless and faceless members of the electoral college – no longer serves “we, the people.” America has ceased to be a functioning democracy as former President Jimmy Carter has observed.

·         Our educational systems with their obsessions with assessment, the standardized test driven pedagogies it produces and the standardized – but largely uncritical and uncreative – minds it produces, no longer serve our children. A generation of bottom liners who learned early on to hate the schools and universities that served corporate needs at the expense of their own developmental needs will spend a lifetime recovering from this abuse and resenting those who heaped it upon them.

·         Our economic system has produced the most unequal society in American history. With that inequality has come social instability, the breakdown of social cohesiveness and the crime and acrimony that self-focused individuals inevitably in conflict generate. Our workers do not make living wages and our higher education graduates spend lifetimes enslaved to debt. This paradigm clearly no longer “serves the common good.”

·         Our religious institutions no longer inspire hope or provide meaning. Both science and religion have lost their way in largely contrived conflicts between them resulting in dueling fundamentalisms that have provoked terrorism on the one hand and mass exits from institutional expressions of religion on the other. Rabid refusal of religious bodies to confront the confusion of social prejudices with religion and the dogmatic understandings that inform them has disenchanted those with the capacity to think critically and feel compassionately. They have voted with their feet. The time has come for a new way of being homo religioso.

·         Our willingness to ignore the changes in our planet’s climate is no longer a luxury humanity can indulge. The challenges of sustainable energy sources and confronting the collateral damage of the war already waged on our planet’s ecosystems must command humanity’s attention for the foreseeable future. The time has come for a new way of being human vis-à-vis “this fragile earth our island home.”

What people like Bernie Sanders recognize is that our window to act, to avoid the Storm that will surely come should the current crisis in legitimacy in virtually every aspect of collective human endeavors be ignored, is rapidly closing. An old classmate of mine from high school who, like myself and Reich, has supported the Sanders campaign noted yesterday on Facebook, “A coup can happen overnight. A revolution takes a little longer.”

I think there is wisdom in that observation. Indeed, I think the revolution has been underway for a while now. But it has fallen well short of its desired goals.

Wasted opportunities

The 2008 Obama campaign focused on two ideals: hope and change. Indeed, I type these words below my framed copy of the famous HOPE poster of Obama hanging on my office wall. Like many Americans, I had enormous hopes when he was elected that change would come to America.

In all fairness, some change has occurred. My marriage to my partner of now approaching 42 years is one aspect of that change. The drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan and the resistance to the saber rattlers' calls to invade Syria and to bomb Iran are also aspects of that change even as the liberal use of weaponized drones continues to wreak havoc around the world. America got by with only a moderate depression caused by the latest failure of the free market fundamentalist model in 2008 only because Obama negotiated a largely rotten deal to bail out Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. And while a majority of people in America are not happy with the Affordable Care Act, the truth is that many people who previously had no access to medical care now do, almost like in a regular first world nation.

But, like many of us who dared to HOPE with Obama’s election, our hopes have largely been drowned in a tidal wave of mindless Republican opposition  that announced the day of his inauguration that their only focus would be to thwart anything Obama proposed regardless of what it was or how it impacted the American people. As a result, Washington has essentially shut down – once quite literally – for the last eight years.

There is a reason the revolts Reich observes are furious and I fear they will be increasingly so.

With the soft revolution of Obama largely stopped in its tracks, I had hoped that Bernie Sanders might offer a way out of this morass. His willingness to articulate the places where our current electoral, economic and educational systems have reached their limits and must be transformed connected with many voters. His appreciation of the increasing role diversity in our population will play in determining our future was always palpable. His vision of the future connected with the Millennial Generation which as of yesterday became the largest cohort in our country surpassing the Boomers.

But, it appears Bernie’s revolution, struggling to appeal to voters beyond his base of largely well educated white folks and Gen Y Millennials, will not be coming to a polling place near you in November. Instead, we will have two representatives of the status quo facing off in what is likely to be the nastiest and costliest election in US history.  

This is where I begin worrying about a coming Storm.

One place I disagree with Bernie is his summation of Hillary’s qualifications. She is certainly qualified to run a government under the status quo system. But if the status quo is the problem, as I and many other furious revolutionaries see it, that is not an adequate answer to the problems we face. It is simply more of the same, a prolonging of the current agony.

But I am not at all certain that Hillary Clinton can win this election. Mr. Trump has an enormous war chest at his behest and his corporate buddies will spare no expense in soft money painting Hillary in demonic tones. She will be absolutely unrecognizable before the campaign is over and frankly after the experience with George Bush, I no longer have a lot of confidence in the American voters to see through that haze. Even if she wins, unless there is an unforeseen sweep of Congress by the Democrats, unlikely given the gerrymandered House districts, President Hillary will face a Congress at least as determined to shut down her presidency at all costs (including to the American people) as her predecessor’s.

On the other hand, Trump will be a disaster if elected. His track record as a businessman is currently in the black but it also includes a long list of failures from an airline to his own brand of vodka. One wonders how many failures America can absorb under a Trump regime after eight disastrous years of Bush followed by eight years of near lockdown with Obama and his Teapots under the Dome. Trump will immediately engender mistrust from our allies and confrontation from our current foes as this American version of Vladimir Putin takes the field. And he has already dramatically polarized an increasingly diverse America that in just a couple of decades will have no single majority ethnicity.

That leaves the Storm….

I do agree with my classmate that revolutions, unlike coups, take a long time. Transformations take even longer. It is when the dominant paradigm of the status quo reaches its expiration date and refuses to relinquish its hold that conflict arises.

Last Tuesday night as I listened to the increasingly anxious voices of the guardians of the status quo who refused to see the new reality that was being revealed in  polling places across the northeast, it occurred to me that conflict and chaos may be the only way forward for America. We have rejected the soft revolution of Obama and now have turned down  the invitation from Sanders for a more direct and thoughtful revolution. 

That leaves the Storm. 

I shudder to think of what that might look like. But transformation is surely coming. The only questions remaining are how, how soon and how furious the Storm.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Quest for the Conscious Candidate

The Rev. Frederich Schmidt, a fellow Episcopal priest and blogger whose work I often read on the Patheos site, has prompted his readers to think about the insights which inform their voting in political elections in his most recent blog post. From his own insights, he has distilled five priorities which are listed below:

One: Take the long view.
Two: Don’t panic.
Three: Focus on character and experience.
Four: Vote for bridge builders, not bridge burners.
Five: Support people who tell the truth.

I think these are valuable priorities indeed.

Guide for the Politically Perplexed

One: Take the long view. - The first is important to consider. Rome was not built in a day and neither were the problems our candidates face in any given election. Though we Americans are well-trained consumers who expect instant gratification, the problems of climate change, gun violence, racism, economic inequality, educational direction and security in a fragile technologically sophisticated society did not arise overnight and will take many years of concerted effort to resolve. Delayed gratification is the mark of an adult human being. America is still maturing as a culture in many ways.

Two: Don’t panic. - The second is a version of my own maxim: Fear makes a particularly poor basis for policy making. While prudence requires critically examining possibilities that our interests in being secure could be jeopardized, the ongoing awfulizing of bogey men, both real and imaginary, that has dominated our entertainment driven media, our foreign policy and increasingly the behavior of our local police departments, has long since lapsed from prudence into paranoia. As such it poisons our visions of the other, both those in foreign lands who follow different creeds, but in the festering hearts of our cities at home as well. Don’t panic is not simply an insight. It is an imperative for a healthy society.


Three: Focus on character and experience. - The third is perhaps the most critical in my view. What is the life experience of the candidate? What do they know about poverty? About war? About making a living on minimum wage or less? What do they know about being disempowered, about being in positions where the privilege they take for granted is denied them, situations where they are not in control of their most basic life concerns? These are learning experiences that build character in my view. Without them, candidates tend to operate largely out of tribal perspectives, presuming that their own limited experience and the understandings of the world that flow from them are somehow normative for everyone.


Four: Vote for bridge builders, not bridge burners. – The explanation the author gives for this priority is the ability and willingness to compromise. This concern arises in a context of the least productive Congress in American history due to the large influx of Teapot congressman unwilling to compromise on anything. Yet, the ability to compromise is an important trait for a candidate who would seek to serve an entire country or state or locality and not just the infamous “base.”

Clearly elections give voters an opportunity to serve only their own particular or tribal interests, an option sometimes encouraged by candidates willing to appeal to the lowest, most self-focused levels of moral reasoning (“Are YOU better off than you were four years ago?” – Ronald Reagan 1980 campaign). Yet, the holder of collective power must be willing to transcend those interests if s/he is to be an effective public servant. ALL of the public deserves to be served fairly and equally in a true democratic republic. While that may well involve compromise, it decidedly means meeting the need to transcend one’s own interests (e.g., reelection) and the narrow interests of one’s political base.

Five: Support people who tell the truth. – This is perhaps the most primordial of Schmidt’s priorities in that truth telling and candor are required for any kind of relationship with those governed which is based in trust. 

Without trust, government has no legitimacy. Without legitimacy, governments have very short shelf lives. 


Sadly, I have come to wonder if the American public truly desires truthfulness in its elections. We have acquiesced to an electoral process dominated by marketing which can spin a sow’s ear into a silk purse and find willing buyers. Indeed, to the degree Americans have traded in their duties as citizens to become educated, informed and involved in the democratic process for the largely passive roles of consumers demanding comfort, convenience and instant gratification, we have signaled to candidates that not only do we not want candid truth telling from our candidates, we want them to tell us what we want to hear.

At the bottom line, it appears we have chosen to be entertained rather than informed. There is a reason this election has been dominated by a “reality” television actor and frat boys trading in penis jokes.


In Search of Conscious Candidates

I think Father Schmidt has done a good job of laying out priorities that thoughtful voters should consider. The fact his column has gained few respondents on the Anglican Communion list on LinkedIn or the Patheos list online is disappointing but not terribly surprising. He is calling all of us to do something we are loathe to do: to become critically conscious of our own values, why we hold them and how they affect the lives we lead. If I had to summarize his priorities in one concept, it would be Consciousness.

Over my lifetime as a voter (I registered to vote on my 18th birthday and have only missed one election on a local referendum since) I have voted for candidates in both major political parties as well as those from the Green, Peace and Justice, Libertarian and New Alliance parties. In addition, I have voted for numerous candidates with no party affiliation. I spend a day prior to each election reading up on the candidates both from their online sites and the avalanche of bulk mailers they send me as well the newspaper endorsements and voter guides online.

What I look for in candidates are the indications of their levels of Consciousness. Here are some of the elements that I consider:

1.    Tribality - Do they appeal primarily to tribal interests? How big is their tribe? Do they demonstrate any awareness that others exist outside the circled wagons?  Do they evidence the capacity and the willingness to transcend the interests of their tribe to serve the interests of “we, the people” generally?

2.    Groupspeak- Do they speak in code about “school choice,” “tax incentives” or “law and order” to avoid the implications of their thinly disguised racial and class appeals? How frequently do they lapse into ideological constructions such as nebulous references to “the market” or undefined but clearly pejorative references to “socialism?” Does their speech demonize others such as references to “illegal aliens?” Do they deliberately confuse disparate ideas such as Islam, the world’s second largest faith tradition, with terrorism?  

3.    Life Cocoon - What is their background, educationally and experientially? Have their developmental lives sheltered them from those who were different from themselves or allowed if not required them to engage the wider world around them? Do they have the experiential bases to draw sound decisions? How big is the life cocoon in which they have developed? How likely is their life experience to have taken them outside their comfort zones? Did they stay at Hyatts in overseas locations or live with the common people of their destination, learning of their food, their customs, their concerns?

4.    Rational Capacity - Do they demonstrate the capacity to think critically? Do they offer evidence of the ability to engage in creative problem solving or do they simply defer to one more arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic deck of the status quo? Do they have a vision (recognizing that without a vision the people perish)? Is their rationality critical, informed by heart and spirit and concern for how their decision making might impact people very different from themselves? Or does their rationality tend to be instrumental, serving foregone conclusions without consideration for how they might impact others?

5.    Groundedness – Do they demonstrate any kind of spiritual grounding? Do they manifest compassion for those who suffer for whatever reason? Do they demonstrate an awareness of and appreciation for the other life forms with whom we share this planet?  Do they respect the many disparate ways human beings have tried to make meaning of our brief lives in this place? What level of consciousness do their own systems of meaning demonstrate? What ultimate values do they evidence?

Clearly, these are deeper considerations of candidates than most voters are willing to make. I recognize that the chances that a Platonic philosopher king will be on the ballot this fall are slim and his/her chances of succeeding once there would be even slimmer.

Yet, I continue to hold to hope that Churchill was correct in his other observation that “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.” Indeed, I see my concern for consciousness in those who would lead us as the natural culmination of the democratic impulse. We deserve the best and the brightest leading us but we must also do our own part to insure that happens.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8


Thursday, April 21, 2016

What’s in a Name? Visions of the Holy One

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
–William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597)

In the world religions and humanities courses I teach from time to time, I do an exercise with my classes that I picked up from an Integrity gathering in Atlanta years ago. I first ask students to write their name on the front of a piece of paper and then, when given a word, to flip the paper over and write the first thing that comes to their minds. 

The word is “God.”

I give them a minute to write their responses then ask each student to read their word and I record their answers on the board. What quickly results is a visual display of their understandings of the concept of G-d which range from theological constructions (savior, judge, Bible) to understandings expressing doubt and occasionally anger (non-existent, myth, pathological).

Once all the responses are recorded, I ask “Which one is right?” Inevitably an excellent discussion ensues which allows students to recognize that the word many of them use regularly without second thought is multivalent in meaning. It is quite possible that two of them could be using the same word and meaning something very, very different by it.

This exercise was an eye opener for me years ago at that Integrity meeting in Atlanta (thank you, Mark Graham) and it provides an important learning experience for students today which extends beyond the immediate application in world religions courses: much of what we know about life turns on what we bring to the process of knowing.

This revelation flies in the face of a natural tendency to believe that our own understanding of the deity, human nature and the relationship between the two is self-evidently true and thus normative for everyone. It arises out of a presumption that everyone knows my understanding is right or they ought to.  

But clearly that is not true. And why would it be?

Healthy Minds and Sin Sick Souls

 A century ago early sociologist of religion William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experiences in which he delineated the two primary experiences of the divine he observed in the people he studied. In figures like his contemporaries Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman he observed "One can but recognize in such writers as these the presence of a temperament organically weighted on the side of cheer and fatally forbidden to linger, as those of opposite temperament linger, over the darker aspects of the universe." James called this temperament the healthy minded soul.

In contrast, figures like Martin Luther and Leo Tolstoy embodied what James called the sick soul, a melancholy vision in which “[t]he world now looks remote, strange, sinister, uncanny. Its color is gone, its breath is cold, there is no speculation in the eyes it glares with.” James analogizes this vision to a quote from an asylum patient: "It is as if I lived in another century, I see everything through a cloud…"

James believed that while the healthy-minded were happier and led more fulfilling lives, the sick souls held greater insight into the human condition and were far more numerous. Taking James’ dichotomy one step further, English scholar Francis Newman, the younger brother of his more famous sibling Cardinal Newman, observed “God has two families of children on this earth, the once-born and the twice-born,” distinguishing the vision of G_d of once-born from their twice-born counterparts: “They see God, not as a strict Judge, not as a Glorious Potentate; but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmonious world, Beneficent and Kind, Merciful as well as Pure.”

Catholic and Protestant Imaginations

Toward the end of the last century, Roman Catholic scholar David Tracy would write of two visions of the divine which focused not only on characteristics attributed to the deity but also determined the relationship of that deity to human beings. The Analogical Imagination sees the world as a revelation of G-d, the good Creation which St. Francis saw as a riot of ongoing disclosures of the divine presence all around us. 

The Dialectical Imagination reflects a world in which the divine presence is radically absent. Analogical visions see the world in the ways in which it is like, analogous to, the divine. Dialectical visions see the world in the ways in which it is different from and thus can be contrasted with the divine. Developed further by Roman Catholic sociologist Andrew Greeley in work entitled The Catholic Imagination, the two competing, though sometimes overlapping visions could be seen as follows

Analogical Vision:

·         God reveals Himself in his creation.
·         Assumes a God who is present in the world, disclosing Himself in and through creation. Hence, the world and all its events, objects, and people tend to be somewhat like God.
·         Society is a "sacrament" of God, a set of ordered relationships governed by both justice and love, that reveal, however, imperfectly, the presence of God. Society is "natural" and "good." For humans and their "natural" response to God is social.

Dialectical Vision:

·         God is over against the world and its communities and artifacts.
·         Assumes a God who is radically absent from the world and who discloses Himself only on rare occasions. Hence, the world (and all its events, objects, and people) tend to be radically different from God.
·         Society is "God-forsaken" and unnatural and oppressive. The individual stands over/against society and not integrated into it. The human becomes fully human only when s/he is able to break away from social oppression and relate to the absent God as a completely free individual.

Tracy had noted that the Analogical vision corresponded historically to much of the Roman Catholic tradition, particularly its Franciscan incarnation. Correspondingly, the Dialectic vision corresponded historically to the Protestant tradition of the Reformers who sought to distinguish themselves and their vision from the Roman Catholics. 

Roman Catholic sociologist Andrew Greeley found that this dichotomy largely explained the differences in these two major movements within the Christian tradition though there were exceptions. The more Augustinian the vision of the Roman Catholic, perhaps seen in the Jansenist movement of history and the traditionalist movement of today, the more it tends toward the Dialectical vision.  Conversely, some expressions of liberal Protestantism which have left the Augustinian roots of the Reformation behind might well be much closer to the Analogical vision than the more dialectic visions of their Reformer brethren.

Greeley also found that images of G-d tended to vary along the Analogical to Dialectical continuum and were often predictive of social and political attitudes. Using data from the General Social Survey, Greeley observed that Analogical visions of the divine tended to be portrayed in images of mother, spouse, lover and friend while contrasting Dialectical visions more often took the form of father, master, judge and king. 

Correlating those visions with attitudes toward the world, Greeley found that Analogical visions corresponded with support for social safety nets, equality for disenfranchised minorities, opposition to state killing, less obsession with issues of sexuality and more concern for environmental issues. Dialectical visions corresponded with just the opposite.

Much in American politics today might be explained through the Tracy/Greeley model. The communitarian vision of Democrats Bernie Sanders and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton, reflect a more Analogical vision while the hyperindividualist and hypercompetitive vision of Republicans generally and its Tea Party wing in particular, reflect a more Dialectical vision. 

Again, it is important to recognize that these models are ideal types operating out of generalizations based upon commonalities within members of groups, generalizations designed to provide a means of understanding the way human beings conceive and respond to the world in which they live. Actual types (i.e., individuals) are inevitably more complex than any ideal type can convey.

America’s Four Gods

A study of how Americans understand G-d has been recently released by two sociologists of religion at Baylor University. A summary of their study an be found here. Using a national religious survey they devised, the conductors of the survey sought to ascertain how Americans would respond to two basic questions about their understanding of the deity and their relationship, if any, to that deity. The questions were: 

1. Does God interact with the world? 
2. Does God judge the world? 

From their results, four models of the deity and their prevalence were observed:

1. Authoritative – engaged and judgmental (31%)
2. Benevolent – engaged and non-judgmental (24%)
3. Critical – disengaged and judgmental (16%)
4. Distant – disengaged and non-judgmental (24%)

The study also found that the proportion of Americans who classify themselves as atheists remains steady at about 5% of respondents as it has for the past several decades even as the percentage of Americans who claim no affiliation with organized religion, often described as the “nones,” now accounts for about one in four Americans.

Like preceding work by Tracy and Greeley, the Baylor study found that the model of G-d which given individuals or groups of people found compelling turned in part on socio-cultural factors. The region of the country in which one resides plays a major factor with the authoritative deity who is actively involved in daily life and highly prone to judge the morality of individual and societal conduct broadly observable among evangelicals in America’s Bible Belt. Conversely, the distant, non-judgmental deity of highly ethically focused traditions is most observable on America’s self-described progressive Pacific rim. People of color often found the Critical model of god, who does not exercise an active role in the world while reserving judgment for the afterlife, more compelling.

The study also found that the appeal of a given model also turned on personal factors, particularly one’s familial upbringing. Disciplinarian parenting often produced authoritative models of G-d in adults while parenting focused on fairness, equality and enticing behaviors without punishment often produced Benevolent models of G-d.  

And man, being a gentleman, returned the favor

A witty saying attributed to sources as disparate as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Mark Twain observes that “God created man in his own image. And man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.” How we construct the image of G-d we hold and unconsciously offer to others as normative inevitably says as much about us as the subject matter we would describe. It reveals our visions of how the world should be and how we see and interact with one another. Becoming conscious of our visions of G-d and why we hold that vision is an important step in becoming honest with ourselves. It is also a necessary predicate for holding any discussions of our faith in even a modicum of intellectual honesty.  

We do not all mean the same things even as we use the same words to point toward articles of faith.  And we cannot in good faith presume that everyone either holds our understandings or ought to. We cannot simply defer to "the Bible" as if it is self-evident and self-explanatory since we are all reading the same words yet coming to different conclusions as to their meaning. The notion of a faith “once delivered” is no doubt enticing to many but it is neither consistent with the history of our tradition nor does it describe any given commodity we all share today. 

That pesky potential question “When you say that, what do you mean by it?” simply never goes away.  

The challenge that scholars from William James to those conducting the current studies at Baylor pose to us as people of faith is to become conscious of our presumptions and as honest with ourselves and others as we can be in our discussions of what we believe. While this is no doubt daunting if not annoying to many, the alternative – operating out of presumptions of which we are not consciously aware and thus failing to be honest with ourselves and others about what we believe and why –is simply a lot less compelling to people of good faith. 

In the end we owe ourselves and others more than that. 

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8