Timeless Truth vs. Modern Manifestation

The Vatican grabbed headlines last week, frustrating the efforts of US bishops to keep Catholic lawsuits about contraception in the spotlight.  Both news stories offer a small window into how difficult it is for religions to change.  Some religious groups like the Amish resist all change, moral and technological, while others like the Society of Saint John the Evangelist were founded to be “men of the moment,” present to modern day hurts and needs just as Jesus was in his day.

Religious attitudes towards procreation have consequences that ripple through societies in all directions.  I’d hazard a guess that for most of religious history, enhancing population would have been advantageous either for the human species in general or for certain religious groups specifically.  The medieval era saw population decimating epidemics and low childhood survival rates.  Similarly, in sparsely populated agrarian settings, increasing population would have been advantageous regardless of religious considerations.  Always a minority, Jews are one religious group that has a long history of promoting procreation, especially following the holocaust.  But on an overpopulated planet struggling to feed the inhabitants it already has, what is the ethical stand on contraception and reproductive rights?

One-time Republican presidential nomination hopeful Rick Santorum, with a straight face, told Chris Wallace he doesn’t give to charity because his children are too expensive.  He happens to be Catholic, he believes birth control is morally wrong, and his wife gave birth to their eighth child at age 48.  Tragically, the child is afflicted by a serious genetic disorder for which the risk rises with maternal age.  The bible talks a lot more about helping the poor than procreating, but Santorum clearly bought into the American Catholic priority on procreation, despite the risks.  What would our country look like if a majority followed Santorum’s example?  I shudder to imagine.

This brings a significant question into focus.  How do religious communities discern the difference between timeless values that merit preservation and manifestations of those values that change with changing societal conditions?  Jesus was clearly concerned with feeding the hungry and healing the sick.  How do those values translate into action in a society where the biggest health risk to the poor is obesity?  Surely it looks different than in biblical times, and surely addressing food stability for those who are already alive is no less imperative.  Blithely stating one is “for life” is gratuitous without addressing the poor who already happen to be alive.

My last post pondered invitations for transformation, and as a country, it seems that the healthcare reform discussion offers such an invitation.  Historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan boils Jesus’ ministry down to two radical elements—free healing and open table.  With that religious foundation, it’s hard to understand why the American Christian voice for healing is not louder.

Join the conversation.  What attitudes embodied a timeless truth in a bygone era and should manifest differently in current conditions?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Skin in the Game

Maureen Dowd is at it with the Catholic bishops again. Today’s column takes aim at them for rejecting the president’s proposed compromise on employee reproductive healthcare.  The opinion is well composed, as usual, but I disagree with Dowd at the end.  She concludes, “…what the bishops portray as an attack on religion by the president is really an attack on women by the bishops.”

Plenty of commentary characterizes the Catholic hierarchy as power hungry (suppressing women to consolidate power) or outright misogynist, but to me, those charges don’t ring true.  I had a flash of insight on this recently, thanks to that great spiritual thinker and writer Richard Rohr.  He is also a Catholic priest, by the way, and doesn’t shy away from candid observations on our culture and public discourse.  He says it is easiest to pillory that which threatens our own character the least.  “Many Christians whittle down the great Gospel to some moral issue over which they can feel totally triumphant and superior, and which usually asks nothing of them personally.”  As examples he cites:

“celibate priests focusing on birth control and abortion as the core of evil, heterosexuals seeing gay marriage as the ultimate threat to society, liberals invested in some current political correctness while living lives of rather total isolation from actual suffering in the world, Bible thumpers ignoring most of the Bible when it asks them to change, a nation of immigrants being anti-immigrant, etc.”

Although it seems that the Catholic hierarchy has an ax to grind regarding reproductive rights, and this issue seems to rank way above reaching out to the poor or outcast on its public policy agenda, I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why.  Rohr has supplied it.  For men who have taken a lifetime vow of celibacy, reproductive concerns are far from personal turf.  This is safe ground to stomp on.  They don’t really have to do anything or to be changed in any way, on a personal level, no matter the outcome.  They don’t have to expose themselves to God’s transformational power or embrace Jesus’ radically egalitarian message.  Human reproduction is something they can all agree on because, basically, it doesn’t impact them.  They don’t have any skin in that game.

Now, welcoming the despised and outcast or taking in the poor, that is another story entirely.  That, evidently, is a bit too close to home.  Too much focus there would inevitably shine a spotlight on actions of the bishops themselves.  Some bishops might not be comfortable actually doing some things.  There might be disagreements about how or how much to do.  Outcomes might not be predictable or controllable.  The safest course appears to be supporting the good work of food pantries, shelters and clinics on a local level without calling public policy attention to systemic forces underlying the needs.  Otherwise, calling for change might call them to change.

To disagree respectfully with Maureen Dowd, the bishops’ stance is not so much an attack on women as it is a sprinting retreat from the gospel.

Join the conversation.  Where do you see moral triumph, and where do you see invitations to be transformed?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Iterative Progress

Spiritual maintenance starts with a candid look inward.  For some people, taking an inner inventory feels cathartic and liberating.  For those who are approaching a major life change, introspection can reveal truths that validate their new direction and propel them towards it.  It can give them a new energy and peace for the next life stage.  For others, however, there is just too much pain in the past to confront it all at once.  Twelve Step recovery seekers sometimes describe the Fourth Step “searching and fearless moral inventory” as an onion with layers.  If one doesn’t have the capacity to cut to the core all at once, he peels back as much as he can handle, and then returns to peel back more as he is able.

Some people take this onion layers approach not only to introspection but also to forgiveness.  Forgiving is a key ingredient for healing and spiritual growth.  It is also an obligation in several faith traditions.  Medieval Rabbinic authority Maimonides instructed:

“The offended person is prohibited from being cruel in not [forgoing the other’s indebtedness], for this is not the way of the seed of Israel.  Rather, if the offender has [resolved all material claims] and has asked and begged for forgiveness once, even twice, and if the offended person knows that the other has done repentance for sin and feels remorse for what was done, the offended person should offer the sinner [forgiveness.]”

The stakes are even higher on forgiveness in the Christian tradition.  Scripture makes clear that forgiveness requires forgiving and that God extends it under no other terms.

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (Mark 11:25)

For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.  (James2:13)

Even with intellectual assent to the moral obligation of forgiveness, and an earnest desire to be rid of resentment, releasing it in the act forgiveness can take time.  Resentment acts like terrible blinders that restrict our view.  After releasing resentment for some aspects of wrongdoing, other more subtle aspects of the offense may come into view.  That gives us yet another opportunity to release resentment in deepening forgiveness.

Progress on the spiritual journey is individual.  Our eyes might be opened to great spiritual insights in a flash, and we may wander in a wilderness of uncertainty for long periods.  One child abuse survivor shared her story of coming into the ability to forgive her abuser suddenly and unexpectedly on this blog several months ago.  Whether your ability to release resentment deepens with effort over time or arrives all at once in an unexpected moment, forgiveness lightens our load on the journey.

Join the conversation.  Have you ever discovered something you thought you had forgiven lurking in your psyche?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Spiritual Maintenance

It takes spiritual maturity to recognize dependence on God when things are going well—either before we hit rock bottom or after salvaging life from a broken place.  When we have been saved from that broken place, and when we have experienced some healing and perhaps some spiritual growth, embracing redemption means leaving the past in the past.  We can look inward to see if we are being called to further life change without rehashing the past.  Introspection can focus less on one’s past and more on one’s present relationship with God.

A regular practice of inner inventory will keep us moving from intellectual awareness into action.  Many spiritual traditions rely on introspection to keep us from settling into a comfortable rut.  The Catholic tradition has a practice of confessing weekly before celebrating mass.  Early Buddhist texts indicate monks confessed individual faults to a superior privately twice a month at the full and new moons.   Jews observe Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, annually with prayers of confession spoken aloud in community.  Outside of ancient religious traditions, Twelve Step addiction recovery programs rely on the power of introspection in the Fourth Step, searching and fearless moral inventory, but also as an ongoing practice.  The Tenth Step calls for frequent inventory in order to make prompt amends.

What is the optimal interval?  It’s individual, of course.  Some Twelve step recovery programs encourage nightly examination.  Several protestant traditions incorporate weekly confession into Eucharistic prayers.  When we look at our challenges with a daily or a weekly focal length, however, we can overlook patterns.  Most of us have to step back from what occupies us day-to-day and week-to-week to discern the major themes at work in our present journey.

Jewish and some liturgical Christian traditions also give a framework for annual self-examination with Yom Kippur and Lent.  For a truly searching and fearless moral inventory of the patterns in my life, I find that a yearly interval is practical.  Embracing your own new life alongside others in your faith community can intensify the experience.  Traditional symbolism can deepen meaning as well.  Alternatively, confessing annually on the anniversary of a first confession or, in the case of addiction recovery seekers, the anniversary of one’s last drink may have special meaning.

An American commentator (and I am hopeful an alert reader will remind me of which one) drew the analogy that a white fence grows black over time unless it is repainted every year.  We, too, are in need of spiritual maintenance at intervals.

Join the conversation.  How do you know whether you need spiritual maintenance if you don’t stop to look?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Haven’t I Changed Enough?

Several years ago, a friend went on a medical mission to Honduras.  Hundreds of eye glasses had been donated for the mission, and my friend’s job was to dispense the glasses to Hondurans who needed them.  The process for doing so was not unlike what an optometrist does, administering a piecewise test comparing lens A and B repeatedly until narrowing in upon the optimal correction.  The difference was the glasses were organized for that piecewise comparison rather than a medical instrument.  My friend’s biggest challenge was once a Honduran had the first pair of glasses on, he was so awed by the improvement that he would stand up to leave, hugging and thanking her profusely, without trying any other glasses.  My friend struggled through the language difference to explain that the first pair is just the starting point, and what she intended to give was much better still!

Once we have mustered the courage to make a big life change, we can be like the Honduran with the first pair of glasses.  We are awed by how much better we can see and by all the new things we are able to do as a result.  The life change is thrilling.  Often we don’t realize this is just the starting point.  We don’t see that God intends much more for us.

After shaking one or two seriously harmful habits or patterns, it is tempting to feel we’re not perfect but we’re good enough.  We set a low standard for ourselves and rationalize it as humility.  To err is human.  It’s hubris to try to be perfect.  Some of us believe the struggle to make the right choices is central to the human condition, and that as long as we’re earnestly struggling, we’re following the playbook.  No one is going to bat 1000.  While that’s true, no athlete logs time in a batting cage for the sake of training time.  Rather, athletes practice to improve performance.  We shouldn’t struggle for the sake of struggling or acknowledge how we should act without actually doing it.  We also need practice to improve our choices.

This brings us face-to-face with the profound difference between intellectual assent to an ideal and earnest intent to become what God wants us to be.  The “What Would Jesus Do?” movement popularized among Christian youth groups in the 1990s has been criticized and parodied, but it clearly makes the point that ultimately actions, not ideals, matter.  When my choices fall short, there are consequences.  Certainly there are consequences for myself, but God also is present to those consequences.  He gives many gifts.  All I had to do was reach out and lay my hand upon the abundance he offered, yet I was blind, distracted, or focused on the wrong thing.  I reject a gift, and a chance to give God a reciprocal gift, when I accept struggling as good enough instead of doing the next right thing.

Join the conversation.  What change in your life looked like a destination but turned out to be a starting point?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Failing to Change

Something sad is happening in Dallas.  Dallas is home to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, the only institution in the world with five Nobel laureates.  No other institution has four, or even three.  Last I checked, there were only a few institutions that had two.  UT Southwestern’s ascendancy can be observed visually, too.  A sprawling complex of research labs and treatment facilities have sprung up, completely changing the complexion of a two mile stretch of road in the past 20 years.  UT Southwestern’s rise to prominence happened under the leadership of a highly respected medical doctor, professor, dean and president named Dr. Kern Wildenthal.

Dr. Wildenthal resigned as President in 2007, but he resigned from his position with the Southwestern Medical Foundation last week amid charges of “questionable judgment in making discretionary decisions on spending.”  In short, there was a lot of international travel, expensive entertainment, and inadequate documentation.  And his wife sometimes accompanied him, leading to accusations of blurriness between business travel and family vacations.  The local daily paper, Dallas Morning News, conceived of and researched the story and gave the UT regents a chance to respond.  Seven months and a 365-page third party report later, the story ran, and resignations followed.  (Two people in the institution’s internal audit organization left also.)

There has been no shortage of criticism in the aftermath.  Some of it is aimed at the struggling local paper–on the one hand for taking aim at a community bright spot to feed its own investigative aspirations, and on the other for sitting on the story for 7 months.  Some criticism is aimed at the Rick Perry appointed UT regents who seem to relish scandal over science for spending $1 million to expose $70,000 in questionable expenses (juxtaposed against an endowment increase of $1.3 billion).  Some of the criticism is even aimed, inexplicably, at the Nobel laureates who publicly thanked Dr. Wildenthal for his 25 years of service as evidence of an entitlement culture in higher education.

Most of the criticism, though, focuses on Dr. Wildenthal.  Some see him as a Colonel Jessup kind of character from A Few Good Men, sure that what he does is all to the greater good.  They acknowledge that “you have to spend money to make money,” but question whether lavish trips with family are out of line for a public servant.  Personally, I don’t question that.  Cultivating world-wide support and recognition requires world-wide travel.  Individuals who donate $10’s of millions want to feel that they know and like and trust the person at the top on a very personal level.  That requires spending time with them on their (expensive) turf, and a person’s spouse can reveal a lot about a person.  In that regard, I think Texans owe a debt of gratitude to Mrs. Wildenthal as well.

It’s the sad part of this story that can serve as a warning to us.  Times change, regulations change, enforcement attitudes change.  When I was in high school, the Texas drinking age was 18 and enforcement was lax.  These days, private high schools threaten to expel students served a glass of wine at their family Christmas dinner.  Attitudes about accounting standards have changed a lot in the past 20 years, too.  Attitudes about executive compensation have changed a lot in the past 2 years.  I suspect that practices considered excessively conservative 20 years ago, e.g. donating half your expense reimbursement back to the institution, fall woefully short now.  I don’t know if that is what has happened here, but I have seen it bring other gifted leaders down.  It’s sad when failing to change ends an exceptional career on a low note.

Join the Conversation.  What signs of changing attitudes would today’s leaders do well to heed?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.