The Dialects of God

heart on old handwritten letter

When people find out that I studied English in school and teach English at college, they often assume I’m some sort of grammar police. At which point, the conversation goes one of two ways: if they are themselves grammar police, they go on rants about prepositions in the wrong place, who vs. whom, good vs. well, and so on; if they are the offenders (labeled as such by the first type), they get self-conscious about their own “bad grammar,” often shutting down the conversation a bit.

I’m actually much more bothered by the first type–I find it hard to understand why people get so self-righteous about grammar, almost as if good grammar equates with good character. For my own part, the more I learn about language, the less I care to try to police it. For one thing, there’s no such thing as “correct English”–English officially has no governing body to set down its rules. So out of the many hundreds or thousands of English dialects, there’s really no way to say which one is right. In fact, the dialect we call “Standard English” is hardly actually spoken by anyone (even the grammar police), and only became the standard because it was the dialect of the elites. Other dialects were looked down on not because they were deviations from the “one true English,” but because the people who used them were looked down on. (For a fascinating example using ask vs aks/ax, click here).

For me, the question is more one of purpose than correctness. There are certainly times when using Standard English is more appropriate, and I do teach it to my students; but most of the time when people are having a conversation, the purpose is simply to communicate and build relationships, and a misplaced modifier or using less instead of fewer almost never gets in the way of that. In those times, attacking someone else’s grammar can only serve to make one person feel superior and the other feel self-conscious, inadequate, or defensive–and the result is often to stifle the communication that’s the real purpose anyway.

I find a strong parallel here with religion–people have a tendency to be “belief police,” making sure people have the correct beliefs. But there are innumerable dialects of God, and who’s to say what the “right” ones are? When we shut out those other ways of speaking God, when we assume our way is the right way, we risk being contentious or exclusionary, making ourselves feel superior but making others feel unaccepted or defensive. When we put belief before belonging, we shut down the conversation before it begins and miss out on the real purpose of creating relationships and community. Just like with grammar, there may be times when it’s important to address someone’s belief, but only after those relationships have been built, and not to make sure it’s “correct” so much as to make sure it’s in harmony with God’s purposes.

In college writing classes, we don’t teach “correct” language anymore–we teach students to use a variety of styles and dialects to match whatever purpose they have for writing. I think we could benefit from the same approach in our church lives.

Let’s learn to hear, speak, and celebrate the many dialects of God and learn to use them to build community amidst God’s beautifully diverse creation.

 

Photo from this site.

 

Defending Faith

books

I teach a literary theory course for college English majors–things like Marxism, feminism, postcolonial criticism–and at some point each semester, one of my students is bound to say something like, “Why does theory hate religion so much!” It’s true that a lot of the theories we discuss point in one way or another to religion in general and Christianity in particular as something that has been used to marginalize or exploit certain groups. And so my students, many of whom are religious, often get defensive about the “attacks” on Christianity and some dismiss the critiques on religion outright as part of a “liberal bias” in academics.

Though as an academic I accept the premises of these theories’ criticism, to a certain extent I share my students’  desire to defend my faith against accusations of Christianity’s misdeeds. In fact, I believe strongly that Community of Christ’s mission, beliefs, and principles stand up very well against the criticisms offered by the theories I teach.

Where Marxism calls religion “the opiate of the masses” that tries to placate the poor and keep them in their place, I can point to our Mission Initiative to “abolish poverty and end suffering,” echoing Christ’s own endeavors to restore dignity to the poor and lift them out of the conditions of injustice.

Where feminism and queer theory implicate religion with the perpetuation of repressive patriarchy and homophobia, I turn to our focus on developing right relationships with and between all people, and our insistence on the worth of all persons and the belief that all are called to share in God’s loving and restoring work. And I see us enacting these principles in the hard work and tough decisions of recent national conferences as we try to better understand what it means to live out these ideals.

Where postcolonial criticism looks painfully on a history of Christianity imposed (often violently) around the world and used to denigrate indigenous cultures and beliefs, I see a world church dedicated to extending a loving invitation to Christ and striving to make the mission and ministry of the gospel speak through the diverse languages and cultures of the church.

Where environmental criticism sees human domination and exploitation of nature written into the Judeo-Christian heritage of Genesis, I remember our own heritage of stewardship, seeing all creation as sacred and deserving of our loving care as co-creators with God.

But as I tell my students, these theories aren’t criticizing what Christianity believes so much as what Christianity does; and like it or not, religion has an all-too-familiar history of not living up to its own principles. I might smugly comfort myself that my church believes and says all the right things, but that’s not really the point. The challenge here isn’t to my belief, it’s to the actions I undertake (or fail to undertake) as a result of that belief. So in those times and in those discussions where it’s easy to see Christianity “under attack,” I’ve learned to ask myself, not “How does my faith stack up to the criticism?” but “How do my actions stack up to my faith?”

The Politics of Poverty?

politicsofpoverty

Photo by Zac Harmon-McLaughlin

I recently gave a sermon focused on the scripture in Luke where Jesus claims,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

I focused on the radical vision of justice and concern for the poor and marginalized Christ invokes in this “mission statement” for his ministry, and how that justice is unconditional, lovingly extended to everyone whether they “deserve” it or not.

After the service, I was taken aback when one of the congregants thanked me for the good “liberal” sermon, and joked that he should have worn his “Red-State Democrat” shirt to church that day (the congregation is in Kansas, a majority Republican state). My distress at his comment wasn’t that I was chagrined to be labeled a liberal, but that the message would be taken to be political at all. I don’t believe the message of justice to be liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. It is unfair to assume that conservatives care less about the poor than liberals, just as it is reductive to assume liberals are more concerned about poverty and injustice than conservatives. The political debate is one over the best means by which to attend to the needy and ensure justice: either by the exercise of charity by private citizens/organizations, or by taxation to fund government programs—or (in all reality), some combination of both. To make blanket statements about one side or the other not caring about the poor only exacerbates our current contentious political climate, and worse, potentially alienates our brothers and sisters who may hold different views by denying their good faith efforts to act justly as they understand it.

Sadly there was a kernel of truth in my fellow congregant’s comment: we do find ourselves confronting a cultural climate with an incipient and growing sense that we should not have to care about the poor at all. But this attitude, I would argue, is pervasive throughout our culture, with both conservative and liberal flavors. From one side, we hear that we shouldn’t have to give our money to those who screwed their own lives up; from the other side, we hear a message that abdicates responsibility for the poor to the government and removes any personal sense of culpability for the fate of others. Either way, both liberal and conservative politics have the potential to be selfish and self-serving, obscuring Christ’s message of justice and our personal and collective mission to abolish poverty and end suffering.

Ultimately, the message of justice is not a political one—it’s a Christian one. We may have genuine and (hopefully) productive disagreements about the best course to pursue it, but we should avoid any message—right or left, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican—that denies the worth of all persons and our personal responsibility to honor that worth by actively pursuing justice in our own practices, whatever form that takes.

God’s Unplanned Purpose

sunset silhouette

Right after I graduated college, I was having a hard time finding a job. In the depths of my frustration and growing self-doubt, a well-meaning friend said something I’ve heard many times before and since: “Don’t worry, God has a plan for you. Apparently you just weren’t meant to get any of those jobs. Everything will work out and you’ll find yourself exactly where you’re supposed to be.”

It’s a comforting idea for many, I suppose, the notion that God is in total control, that everything happens for a reason and that we always end up where we’re “supposed” to be. But for me, it wasn’t comforting so much as it was disturbing—after all, that makes God sound more like fate or destiny, something that controls outcomes by controlling us and others.

And it also leaves me at a loss to explain the way God intervenes in our lives: Why and how does God choose to work good or harm (or not at all), helping some people to get a job, win the Super Bowl, overcome disease, win wars and not others? Why would God include disaster and tragedy, pain and loss in a plan for ultimate love and reconciliation, and distribute it so unevenly throughout creation?

I believe thinking of God as totally controlling everything that happens in our lives with a plan or reason gives us a false impression of God and our relationship with God. God is love and cannot act apart from love. Love does not produce harm, and love does not control. God does not plan the good or evil that happens in our lives and in our world, or undercut our agency to make things happen to us or for us. We have agency to choose and act as we will, making the problems of this world the product of our own decisions, systems, societies, and failings.

But because God is love, God also has a purpose and desire for us, and we have to trust that God is loving enough and God-enough to work good purposes through our choices, our mistakes, and our limitations. Our task is not to figure out or to carry out God’s plan, but to be in such close relationship with God that our actions and choices will naturally reflect God’s purposes of love and reconciliation. And we must trust that if and when we fall short, if and when the systems, cultures, societies we live in fall short and cause more pain and distress, even here God can still work God’s purposes of love out of the mess we make of our own plans.

Photo credit: http://janawoj.wordpress.com/