We Become What We Attend To
NOTE: In this, my final blog for Phillips Theological Seminary (I retire on January 31 after 29.5 years in theological education and 24.5 at Phillips), I’ve tried to sum up the most important perspectives I’ve formed in the work I’ve been privileged to do for Phillips during the past 3.5 years. My overall calling in being involved in seminary education since 1993 has been the same of the blog: I hope that, when Christians speak on public issues, we have something thoughtful to say. With the blog, I hoped to bring a way of reasoning to a public broader than can attend a graduate seminary. To borrow and adapt a saying from another realm of culture: theology is too important to be left only to theologians. Thank you for reading and considering.
Culture is like soil. If you don’t like the results you’re getting from the soil of culture, look at both what we’re planting and how healthy or toxic the soil is.
Racism is a bamboo rhizome in American culture. Its roots are everywhere, and the roots are intertwined with and sometimes nurtured by white Christianity.
Both politics and religion live in and express culture. There is a significant overlap between them that cannot be divorced, unlike matters of church and state that can be separated. In the realms of politics and religion, adherents tell formational stories, define what it means to belong, express a moral order, and name what it would take to become the people we really ought to be. Those four cultural expressions are the overlap area in the Venn diagram of politics and religion.
The dominant American myth (deep, defining story) is Manifest Destiny. That is comprised of appropriating God’s promises to ancient Israel for eastward-moving white people. Today, this myth is dying a death of a thousand cuts. The danger of living without a deep, defining story is that the nation doesn’t yet have an alternative in which peoples of many origins and ancestries can imagine a “we, the people.”
Telling American history and a defining myth requires articulating between the stories of those peoples brought here in captivity, of those peoples who lived and flourished here before the colonist-settlers, of those immigrants who in wave after wave were exploited, and of the colonist-settlers from various nations (not only England). Every religion has played one role or another in these stories. Each religious congregation should teach their people whole, unvarnished stories of their faith’s role in American history. This work is especially important in an era when government officials prohibit public schools from telling the whole of American history.
Black American Christian theologies and Native America perspectives provide powerful, honest and hopeful alternatives to the dominant narrative.
Christianity is as Christians do. A culture does not distinguish between “real” Christians and “false” Christians. “Real Christians don’t do that” is true from an internal perspective but meaningless to those on the receiving end of a Christian’s action. An act of kindness by one who claims to be a Christian and an act of hate by one who claims to be a Christian are both real Christian actions.
E Pluribus Unum is a much better motto for the U.S. than the impossible national commitment to “In God We Trust.” The former is also a more worthy aspiration for America’s religions.
Never claim spiritual authority for the state or secular jurisdiction for a religion.
Civil discourse is a disciplined practice of conversing and arguing with those with whom one deeply disagrees but with whom one must find a way to live and work together. Civil discourse has nothing to do with suppressing voices or being nice. It is one among many methods of dealing with conflict. Religious institutions ought to teach civil discourse as a discipline necessary for community life.
The Bible does not speak. The Bible must be read and interpreted. Interpreters ought to claim responsibility for their interpretations rather than deferring to “God said.” A claim made in public must be defensible in public by the human beings who interpret sacred texts.
Western Christian theology over many centuries has been dominated by issues of authority and governance and how God acts in history. Western theologians, with exceptions and up until recent decades, have given too little attention to the inseverable relationship between the earth and humankind. Homo sapiens is a life form evolved from the earth rather than one that lives separately from “nature.”
The greatest sin (broken relationship) the U.S. can and does commit, which has worldwide impact, is to act as if the earth is ours to do as we please. Perhaps this is also the greatest sin in which religious people are complicit as the planet becomes less habitable for human beings and for thousands of other species.
Look at the skies and what humanity sees through telescopes. A 14-billion year old universe full of wonders, all of it connected in ways we are just beginning to fathom. With all we see, we are still the only world we know that sustains developed life, let alone having re-generated life at least four previous times. Our home is a rare, rare, rare place.
Those of us who live in wealthier, consumer societies need to learn the practice of saying “enough”—to ourselves. In recent decades, I’ve read numerous theologians who claim it is essential to switch from an attitude of scarcity to an attitude of abundance. That is one valid perspective. But in an economy that produces more and more and more while many lifeforms on earth are choking on human garbage, it seems essential to apply the power of spiritual disciplines to say, “This is enough. I have enough.”
We become what we attend to.
Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.