Friday, May 6, 2011

Failure of Empathy

Why would a college student secretly film his roommate having sex and post it on the internet? What was he thinking? He clearly was not concerned about the painful humiliation the roommate would experience—or he simply didn’t care. The outcome of his lack of empathy was a talented young man jumping to his death from a bridge. Why is it that people feel free to spew any kind of bile on the internet or Facebook? Do they imagine the disembodied other at the receiving end of their vituperation cannot be wounded—or do they simply not care? Why do people shrug their shoulders at environmental degradation, warnings of the effects of global warming or the growing misery of the declining middle class and the wretched poor? Are they genuinely unconcerned about the legacy they are leaving their children and grandchildren? Or are they motivated by their own comfort and pleasure above all? What is happening to us? Are we losing our capacity to identify with the other or to make any sacrifice for the common good? Are we growing so narcissistic, so inhumane, that we seek political and philosophical reasons to pander to our own petty indulgences?

I refuse to believe, for example, that anyone seriously believes the lunatic, ultra-individualistic, anti-democratic, self-indulgent “philosophy” of Ayn Rand. If her philosophy was actually followed there would be no human society. We would be reduced once again to what Rene Girard called “a war of all against all.” Only the most powerful, most vicious, least morally inhibited would prevail and that by brute force. Her vision approximates the world of Lord of the Flies. No. I can’t believe anyone takes her seriously. Her brash narcissism is touted up as a coherent vision of society and used by the greedy and powerful to justify what they were going to do anyway. It is an excuse for the powerful to keep the powerless in tow, for the already obscenely wealthy to become even more wealthy, and for adolescent fantasists to dream of life without moral limits.

What has happened to us? According to new studies by the University of Michigan this diminishment of empathy is not an illusion. Between 1979 and 2009 research on university students showed a significant decline in empathy. The studies of Sara Konrath, cited in the May-June issue of the Utne Reader, demonstrated that between those years “empathy plummeted.” The “greatest drop” was in “empathetic concern”—48%. “The second highest drop,” reports Konrath “was in “perspective taking, a measure of people’s innate tendency to imagine others’ point of view.” This fell 34%.

This speaks not only to the failure of society, but to the failure of the church. Are we helping members of Christian congregations to empathize with the struggles of others or are we rather enabling their narcissism by appealing to their already deeply ingrained consumerism and individualism? If we cannot address this in the church we will have difficulty addressing the growing viciousness of our indifference to and scorn for others in the wider society. The horrors of Ayn Rand’s vision may yet be realized.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bell and Hell

I hesitate to add to the hype and hoopla surrounding Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins. But having read the book, I have been taken aback by the viciousness of the attacks on Bell. In fact, I find the outrage and fury surrounding the book more interesting than the books itself. Having read it I have to wonder where some of Bell’s critics have been. The first half of the book is firmly grounded in the work of our generation’s premier New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright. Bell acknowledges this in his “Further Reading” section at the end of the book. His exploration of hell draws from C. S. Lewis’ classic, The Great Divorce. While some have carped that neither Wright nor Lewis are true evangelicals, it cannot be denied that both are heroes to many who would count themselves as evangelicals. While Wright's work is relatively recent, Lewis' book was published in 1946. Lewis did not deny the existence of hell, far from it. He rather suggested that leaving the “grey town” for heaven may not be as easy as some of its denizens may think. When they arrive in heaven on their day trip from hell they are perfectly free to stay. But the vast majority returns to hell because they cannot have heaven on their own terms. Lewis makes it clear he is not trying to describe the geography of hell, but rather creating a fable. The fable addresses the profound and enduring love of God and our human capacity for self-deception and stubborn self destructiveness. Lewis would like to believe in universalism, but knows too much about human nature and values too highly human freedom to hold any hope for universal salvation. Roman Catholic scholar Hans Urs Von Balthasar wrote a little book entitled Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved. He held out the theoretical possibility of universal salvation given the freedom and love of God, but did not go so far as to say it would actually happen. Bell is not always easy to understand. Sometimes his poetic fancy gets away from him. But in the end it seemed to me he was saying something very like Lewis and Von Balthasar. You can choose hell if you want to. You can remain turned in on yourself and isolated from God and love. But the gates of hell are locked form the inside and the gates of heaven are never shut. As Lewis’ guide George MacDonald tells him in The Great Divorce, in the end you either say to God “Your will be done.” Or God says to you, “Your will be done.” In Lewis’ and Bell’s imaginations neither hell nor heaven are what many evangelicals expect. But then everything said about heaven, hell, and, for that matter God, is said via metaphor and analogy. Both Lewis and Bell are trying to integrate their understanding of God’s enduring love and God’s desire that all be saved, with the reality of human freedom and resistance. Love Wins is a provocative, engaging and quick read. But before you read Bell go to the sources. Take a look at Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright and The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis. The response to Bell once again underscores the serious divisions in what is called evangelicalism. The neo-Calvinist crowd around Piper, et. al. has decided that they and only they are the arbiters of evangelical identity. Rob Bell has given them a convenient target for their wrath and a valuable dividing line. I’m with Lewis. I am not interested in being either “neo-Calvinist” or “emerging” but merely Christian. These ongoing recriminations are humiliating and hopeless. God help us.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Iona Story

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn and settle on the far side of the sea, even there your right had will hold me fast. Psa. 139:7-10.


It is a long way to Iona. Even if you live in Great Britain you spend a good deal of time on various modes of transport to finally make it to the holy Island. For me it involved a long, crowded flight to Heathrow, another one to Glasgow, a bus ride into the city, a three hour train trip to the west coast city of Oban, a ferry to the Island of Mull, an hour and one half bus ride on winding single lane roads across Mull, and, finally, another ferry to Iona itself. By the time you arrive it seems you have put as much time and space between yourself and your old life as possible. It seems that Glasgow is lost in the misty past—let alone Chicago. For me the distance was important. It became a great deal more than physical distance—it was psychological distance, spiritual distance. After fourteen years of joys and disappointments, celebrations and frustrations, I was near neither to myself nor to my God. Sometimes it takes distance to be able to see that. Sometimes you need to be far away to see again how near God really is. Iona is that kind of place—both far and near. It is remote and familiar. Splendid and ordinary. Immanent and transcendent. In its aching and simple beauty the carefully constructed defensive structure I had erected slowly dissolved. The rough places became, if not smooth, at least smoother. The thick places became thin. Of course, it is not hard to rebuild those structures. But for a moment—they were down.


I knew no one on my trip or on the Island. I knew I would be in a room with three other men. When I arrived at the abbey I found myself assigned to a space on the second floor of the rebuilt dormitory section of the abbey. I could go out of my room, turn left and go through a door, down a flight of steps, into the abbey chapel. I could turn right, go up a few stairs into the abbey library. My three roommates were from Norwich in England. They were all well over 70 and had known each other all their lives. When they conversed with one another they were nearly incomprehensible to me. There were two bunk beds and I was in the top bunk. I had a flashback to being 10 years old and sleeping in cabins at Bible camp. It was close quarters but congenial ones. These were good men who, with their vicar and other members of their church, were like me trying to get close to God again. I treasured our time together.

There were about 45 of us in the abbey that week: mostly from Great Britain, but also from Switzerland, Germany, Norway, and the US. We worshipped together and worked together. I was part of a team that set up and washed up for the noon meal. I also was responsible for mopping the upstairs bathrooms every morning. But there was plenty of time to be alone: sitting in the cool, glorious abbey chapel with sun streaming through the windows, praying where prayers had ascended for 800 years; walking to the north end of the island to watch the surf crash, hear seabird cries, and gaze at distant islands or the pastel mountains of Mull; or sitting on my favorite bench in the still-ruined nunnery—the bench that read “In memory’s garden it is always summer 1973.” I loved being with my colleagues in worship and work. But even for this extrovert there was something profoundly healing about those times alone, with my books, my prayers, my memories—and my God.


I was instructed to bring a torch to Iona. I had momentary thoughts of Gandalf leading Frodo and company through the mines of Moria, and then I remembered that a torch is a flashlight for our British cousins. And if you left the confines of the abbey after dark, you needed a torch. There is very little ambient light on the island. Once you have escaped the pale pool of light over the main abbey door you are in pitch dark. There are only a few buildings on the Island, no glaring streetlights, nothing to relieve the darkness or blot out the stars. One evening, after our 9 PM service, we were invited by young Swedes and Norwegians on a confirmation retreat to the Island to participate in a Taize’ service in the St. Oran chapel. The chapel is in the middle of the ancient graveyard of Iona and is the oldest building on the island, dating from the 12th century. It is tiny and perhaps 50 of us were jammed into the small, cold, and dark space. Soon the warm, soft glow of fifty candles lit our faces. We sang, and chanted, and read. It was so simple. It was so profound. I remembered the Psalm—surely the darkness is light to you. Strong young voices and creaky old ones sang out of joy and hope and love. It was the highlight of my pilgrimage.


In the end heaven and earth are wed. In the end we don’t go to heaven, heaven comes to us. In the end, God makes his dwelling place with his people. You can certainly go to Iona and see nothing but pretty scenery and interesting old buildings. But then, I could have stayed in Chicago and be transported into glory while praying in North Park’s Isaacson Chapel—as unlikely as that may seem! But those of us in education and ministry, who make a business out of praying and preaching and teaching, need to be reminded of the thin, gauzy veil between this world and the next. We can become numb worrying about the worship band or the sermon or the business meeting or that troubled marriage in the third row. We can begin to treat the living God like subject matter and our own lives like experiments in holy living. We can live once removed from genuine engagement. We can end up with the pastorate or the professorate, or the deanship as just one more role we play—a role we lose ourselves in. But every now and then, on a tiny, remote, holy island, we can remember once again, who we are, what we are about, and why we signed on with God in the first place. We can pull back the curtain, and for a brief moment hear the heavenly choir cry holy.

John E. Phelan, Jr.
North Park Theological Seminary

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Jews, Palestinians and Identity Politics

In his posthumous book The Memory Chalet the late Tony Judt, author of such highly regarded works as Postwar and Ill Fares the Land, describes his teenage experience in a left-wing Jewish kibbutz in Israel. Initially taken with the vigorous sense of purpose, egalitarian vision, and physical rigor, Judt became disenchanted with the movement’s “smugness of self-regard” and “ethnic solipsism.” He became wary of “true believers” of any kind knowing “what sort of price one pays for such intensity of identification and unquestioning allegiance.” Much to the dismay of his colleagues in the kibbutz he returned to his native England to attend King’s College, Cambridge. Because of his experience in Israel, he writes, “I was . . . immune to the enthusiasm and seduction of the New Left, much less its radical spin-offs: Maoism, guachisme, tiers-mondisme, etc. For the same reasons,” he continues, “I was decidedly uninspired by student centered dogmas of anticapitalist transformation, much less the siren calls of femino-Marxism or sexual politics in general. I was—and remain—suspicious of identity politics in all forms.” Judt through his long and distinguished academic career remained a liberal. His experience with “Labor Zionism” made him “a universalist social democrat.” He eschewed the rigidities of Marxism, Socialism, and Fascism alike. His commitment to social democracy is well described in Ill Fares the Land, which espouses the value of a government that is grounded in a commitment to the people’s freedom and at the same time intent on providing opportunities for citizens to rise from poverty, ignorance, and fear.

Identity politics are, of course, very popular these days. Everyone seems to be angling to portray themselves as the victim of someone or something. From the bewildering variety of liberation movements on the left to the tangled skein of the “Tea Party” on the right, everyone seems to be casting about for a villain—someone to blame for their misery and oppression. This is not to say, of course, that misery and oppression do not exist. Certainly there are economic, political and social forces that contribute to the suffering and rage of a variety of persons across the gender, ethnic, and class spectrum. Nevertheless, like Judt I am suspicious of identity politics. Such politics are characteristic of postmodernism, with its fragmenting allegiances and splintered identities. Someone once said that in the future we would all receive our “fifteen minutes of fame.” Today, perhaps, we will all be granted “fifteen minutes of victimhood.” The problem with identity politics, among other things, is that it abstracts me and people like me from the community as a whole. It requires me to declare exclusive allegiance to a particular sense of outrage and entitlement. It identifies everyone outside of my circle as “other” and by definition a threat. Rather than create sympathy and understanding it frequently produces resentment. It can, ironically, make the despised “other” feel victimized and put upon and thus contribute to further balkanization.

For years the left has espoused the cause of the Palestinians and denounced Israel. Good liberals could lose their union cards as political liberals if they said anything positive about Israel or raised questions about the actions of the Palestinians. Of course, the same is true of the right: Israel can do no wrong and all Arabs are terrorists. For me this is one of the worst and most dangerous manifestations of “identity politics” and “true believerism.” The “true believer” is not someone who has deep convictions about the truthfulness and appropriateness of their cause. A “true believer” needs more than conviction. A true believer needs an enemy. Their cause must always be in the right and the other side must always be unambiguously evil. I am sympathetic to the suffering of many in the Palestinian territories. I am saddened and appalled by the violence they frequently endure. That being said, I grow weary of some of their advocates apparent unwillingness to acknowledge the justified fear of the Israelis that their fragile democracy will be destroyed and their people once again slaughtered in an anti-Semitic purge. The Israelis have good reason to fear what is going on these days in Egypt. Identity politics are not serving the Middle East well. But true believers are incapable of seeing the world from the perspective of the other—be they Jews or Palestinians.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Good Work?

President Obama’s recent State of the Union address was a relentlessly upbeat hymn to American ingenuity and creativity. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he produced cheerleaders shaking pompoms and shouting “We’re number one!” Evidently this kind of thing goes down well with the American populace. According to a poll right after the speech 65% of us loved it. This giddy celebration of American ingenuity was, of course, in service of “getting the economy moving again” and enabling American workers to compete in the “global marketplace.” While the economy does seem to be growing again, job creation is lagging and many of the long term unemployed are growing understandably desperate. A job—any job that pays reasonably well and has at least minimal benefits—must look good to them. And Obama, like President Clinton before him, knows that, in the latter’s immortal words: “It’s the economy stupid.” Of course, this is perfectly clear to Republican politicians as well—perhaps even more so. For most of our political leaders, nothing should be permitted to restrict the growth of the economy. The next election depends on it!

Good work is a gift from God. To be without work that sustains one’s imagination as well as one’s family and community is a great sorrow. Georgetown College’s Norman Wirzba argues in his recent book Living the Sabbath that “human work finds its inspiration and fulfillment in God’s own work of healing, restoring, strengthening, and maintaining the life of creation.” From the beginning human beings were created to work alongside God, to continue God’s work of creation. When there was “no one to till the ground” (Gen. 2:5), God created human beings. Adam was given the task of naming the animals God had created (Gen. 2:19, 20). From the beginning human beings were stewards of God’s creation. Work itself was not the result of the first couple’s disobedience, but fruitless and painful work (Gen. 3:16-19). Even good and necessary work would be at times frustrating and difficult. All around us, to this day, we see and experience degrading, destructive, and even useless work. Wendell Berry calls such work “blasphemy”, making “shoddy work of the work of God.”

I have profound sympathy with the jobless and underemployed. I grieve with those who have worked diligently all their lives only to see their life savings evaporate and their homes suffer foreclosure. We certainly do need good work, good jobs. We need jobs that produce delight as well as useful products and services. We need work that, with Wirzba, “finds its inspiration and fulfillment in God’s own work.” One of the great tragedies of this recent near economic collapse is that as a people and a culture we did not step back and ask what a better, healthier, more sustainable economy would look like. We have assumed along with our leaders that  only more of the same will sustain us. I fear that approach is not simply foolish but suicidal. I am not sure what an economy that joined our work to God’s would look like. But I am quite certain we need to ask our leaders and ourselves more probing questions about our current set of assumptions and practices. I fear we are only rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Seeking Moral High Ground

For the last week we have been subjected to a rather distressing game of moral one-upmanship. In the wake of the tragic shooting in Tucson people, understandably, sought explanations and then, unfortunately, rushed to assign blame.

“It’s your side’s fault,” some said.

“Well, your side does the same thing,” was the response.

“Your side is worse.”

“Is not!”

“Is so!”

Ad nauseam.

Both sides sought to wrap themselves in righteousness and victimhood while the real victims lay bleeding in front of the Safeway.

I understand the anger. I was angry myself. Here were Americans engaged in an activity most fundamental to our democracy—speaking to representatives and listening to constituents--and they were killed or wounded by a spray of bullets from a semi-automatic handgun. I had not heard of Gabrielle Giffords. For the first hour or so I did not know whether she was a Democrat or a Republican. In fact, given the area she represented I assumed she was a Republican. And for most of us, Republican or Democrat, it didn’t matter. I was moved by the evident emotion of Speaker of the House John Boehner in the immediate wake of the tragedy and even more moved by the speech of President Obama at the memorial service. When Americans suffer such a tragedy there is no room for partisanship. But we can’t seem to help it.

Incivility, I suppose, like pornography, is in the eye of the beholder. We know it when we see it—or hear it. But we might begin by acknowledging a few fundamental facts if we wish to improve our fractious civil discourse.

1. No one has cornered the market of civility, or for that matter, incivility. The right gets bashed a good deal for incivility. But if you don’t believe the left can be just a vicious and uncivil read a conservative blogger and look at the responses. Read the scornful, profanity-laced tirades in the responses from the left. Could you find the same thing on a liberal blog from the right? Of course. And that is the point. There are angry, hateful, and dangerous people on both the far left and far right. Seeking moral high ground by saying the other side is worse is an act of self-deception.

2. It is not uncivil to disagree and disagree sharply. Our democracy is advanced by such disagreements. But to be productive the disagreements must entail listening to the other, respecting the other, not caricaturing or abusing the other. We need to listen to understand the nature of our disagreements. We also need to listen to learn from the other. Because whether we are on the right or on the left we are bound to be wrong about something! After all, we are fragile, sinful human beings.

3. We must recognize the humanity of the other. It is all too easy to dismiss the other as “a right wing nut” or “a liberal loony.” But behind the opinions we find uninformed or even offensive is a human being made in the image of God. Everyone has a story. Our opinions are part of our personal narrative and some of that narrative may be quite painful. We will never find common ground if we do not first acknowledge a common humanity.

I have not always been civil myself. Certainly in the privacy of my thoughts I have been uncharitable and worse. But in my writings and on Facebook I have recorded thoughts I later regretted—thoughts that were intended to wound, not to enhance our discourse or engage our common humanity. But I need the love of my critics to grow in grace—even if I still in the end think they are wrong. And whether or not they know it or want it, they need my love as well—even when they remain unconvinced by my arguments. For a follower of Jesus the call to love is still preeminent. St. Paul, no stranger to conflict himself, makes this clear in I Corinthians 13. Seeking moral high ground in order to rain down fire on the enemy is, in these days, a particularly inapt metaphor and I trust we will reject both the image and the action.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Aryan Jesus

I am in the midst of reading Susannah Heschel’s book The Aryan Jesus. It is a study of “The Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life.” Founded in 1939 the institute sponsored conferences, produced books and pamphlets, and worked with university students and pastors in an effort to purge German Christianity of Judaism. Many important German biblical scholars and theologians were prominent members of the institute and participants in its activities. After the war they understandably ignored, suppressed, or minimized their participation in such anti-Semitic activities. Nevertheless, Heschel makes it clear that the impact of the institute and its scholarship survived the war in the scholars and their students. Their research into the nature of first century Judaism and its conflicts with early Christianity shaped European New Testament studies especially, given the prominence of German biblical scholarship. This was seen, for example, in the effort to differentiate Galilee from Jerusalem: to make the former more “Gentile” and the latter more “Jewish”. Recent archeological evidence makes it clear that in the first century even the cities of Galilee were overwhelmingly Jewish. But especially during the pre-war period this was a way to distance Jesus from Judaism and even make him “Aryan.” Heschel makes it clear that this scholarly activity had its roots deep in 19th century anti-Semitic fantasies about race. The “white” Europeans surely had to find different theological and cultural ancestors than the despised Jews. So they constructed a Jesus in their own image—a Jesus who as not only not Jewish, but anti-Semitic—a white Jesus.

Recent generations of New Testament scholarship have rejected the non-Jewish Jesus. But anti-Semitism still hangs over biblical studies and Christianity like a pall. Although I have questions at points about her methods and conclusions, I commend to you Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. Dr. Levine is quite right to point out that our off handed comments about Judaism in comparison to Christianity are often not only offensive, but wrong. There are certainly differences to discuss! There are certainly areas of serious disagreement between Jews and Christians. But these differences can be engaged respectfully, carefully and thoughtfully only when Christians do not caricature and distort Judaism and Jews. These days anti-Semitism is alive and well. It even flies under the flag of liberalism in the blanket critiques of the state of Israel. Israel at times deserves criticism—as done the United States or any nation state. Not all who critique Israel are anti-Semitic. But the popular abhorrence of Israel that characterizes liberal critics in Europe and the US provides cover for anti-Semites to be respectable.