Pondering the Legacy of Truett Cathy

Truett Cathy

S. Truett Cathy –  source: Wikimedia Commons

In reading the reflections of my fellow Berry College alumni on the passing of Truett Cathy, I am reminded of the complexity in examining the life and legacy of an influential figure.

Mr. Cathy was a gracious man, unpretentious in every way, who always displayed kindness and compassion to the individuals he encountered. Most of my friends have said the same of him, although I must admit that other folks I know have mentioned past negative interactions with Mr. Cathy. I can only speak from my own encounters, which might have been influenced by the fact that as a southern, white, cis, male there would have been no reason for him not to be gracious to me.  Nevertheless, I think on the balance it is fair to describe him as a man who is widely praised for being exceedingly kind to strangers and who had a good heart.

On the other hand, he endowed a massive scholarship program at our college, and the recipients of that scholarship were required to live in accordance with Cathy’s fundamentalist values and participate in weekly sessions meant to inculcate and reinforce those values. The scholarship program itself, in its promotional materials, explicitly opposes “pluralism” – one of the fundamental values that Berry – or any college – should actively work to nurture.

From an alum’s perspective, I was there when the anti-LGBT language and the anti-sex language was put into the Viking Code. I saw the harm that it did, and I am fully aware of the destructive force those policies, and the others for which he advocated, are in the world.  The pro-LGBT group we tried to form on campus was rejected by the Board of Trustees (as a result, we were told, of the Cathy family’s influence); and it took many years for the group to finally receive official recognition.

The program founded by Mr. Cathy continues to advocate for the same extremist ignorance, bigotry, and anti-intellectualism that I saw regularly in the “theology” of the WinShape program back in my day at Berry.  His family, his company, and his church all appear to do the same. I am horrified by the fact that the man used his money and my alma mater as a way of reinforcing – rather than eliminating – the religious bigotries and ignorance of Berry College students. Who knows how many hundreds of people are out there now, continuing to harm countless others because they think their prejudices and ignorance are “biblical.” 

This is exactly why I (along with many others who study religion) identify fundamentalism as, by any functional definition, a force for evil in the world – however much good it may appear to accomplish along the way. In examining the legacy of Mr. Cathy, it is worth pondering how the pernicious and deceptive nature of fundamentalism – which hides behind the mask of biblical fidelity and morality – allows a good person with a kind heart and good intentions to do harm in the name of their god(s).

We are faced with the same enigma that arises when we consider the “good” people of the nineteen fifties who were also passionate segregationists. Likewise, we have the history of our nation’s founders who were simultaneously slaveholders. That fundamentalism – like slavery, racism, or misogyny – is evil is, I think, beyond debate for educated people. What we should ponder is how someone with good intentions and – according to all accounts – a good heart, could further promulgate evil to such an extent.

My intent is not to ridicule Mr. Cathy.  I have dear friends who loved and respected him greatly.  Some of them tell impassioned stories about how he changed their lives for the better. By all appearances, he wanted to be a force for good in the world. Nevertheless, if we are to be honest about Mr. Cathy’s life, we must grapple with the conundrum of the identity of a kind man who meant well and did a lot of good while also doing a lot of harm. By doing so, we can not only offer a more honest eulogy, we also can make some headway into confronting the dangers of fundamentalism.

If history is any indicator, the legacies of people like Truett Cathy grow more tarnished with time, as society moves farther and farther from the superstitions and bigotries of past generations. Digging past the corrupting influences of religious fundamentalism might be the only way to preserve his legacy. At the very least, it might allow his life to be a cautionary tale for those of us who do not want to find ourselves on the wrong side of history.

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As a PostScript, here is my response to the colleague from Berry who resented my characterization of fundamentalism as ignorant and evil:

Fundamentalism is – fundamentally – anti-intellectual. It rejects science and biblical scholarship in favor of a bizarre approach to selective biblical literalism that is based solely on its self-serving agenda. Fundamentalism has no place in an academic environment.

Fundamentalism is also a force for evil. It allows people to promulgate ignorance and bigotry under the smokescreen of belief. When the Church persecuted the scientists who argued (based on their literal interpretation of Scripture) that the Sun went around the Earth, the Church was doing evil work. When Christians used their literal interpretation of Scripture to defend slavery, they labored for evil in God’s name. When fundamentalists today fight against science or rights for women or LGBT persons, they are doing evil work.

Not all beliefs are equally valid or deserve equal “tolerance.” Just because someone believes something does not mean it should be exempt from critical analysis or logical inquiry. Fundamentalism holds up to neither. It is ignorance shielding itself with religious rhetoric to avoid exposure to the light of day.

Fundamentalism is not simply one belief system among many.  Fundamentalism is a separate approach to belief, one that ignores critical thinking in favor of dogma.  It deserves a place at the same table where all irrational and destructive behaviors are consigned, but it does not deserve a place at the table with healthy, mature approaches to faith.

(My colleague questioned whether or not this view is consistent with his strawman construction of the “liberal value of tolerance.” As a social liberal, I have never argued that tolerance is, in and of itself, a positive value. As I state above, not all ideas are equally valid, and there is no reason to tolerate ideas that are rooted in ignorance, superstition, or bigotry. If an idea can be substantiated with logical consistency, then it has earned the opportunity for tolerance.)

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And a second PostScript

One thing that I want to make very clear is that the purpose of that post is NOT to advance any political agenda. (I’m not really sure that opposing fundamentalism is even a political issue outside the South any more.) I was trying to reconcile the two sharply contrasting portraits of Truett Cathy that I have noted in my friends’ recollections of him. To some he is a benevolent mentor. To others he is the embodiment of evil. I wanted to wrestle with how someone could be both.

I suppose, to some extent, I did, because my friends who liked the man think I was too hard on him, and my friends who despised him think I was too generous. He is a public figure, and the question of his legacy is a relevant and timely one; and I think it is particularly important to reflect on these questions now so that we can look at them again some day through the lens of history.

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Pondering the Cross

Women at the Crucifixion - Andres Mantegna

Women at the Crucifixion – Andres Mantegna (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the eighth chapter of Mark, Jesus is finally revealed to be the “Messiah,” one anointed by the Creator to change the world on behalf of the created.  Jesus immediately explains to his followers that being the anointed one of God means he will suffer rejection and pain to the point of death.  When Peter is horrified, Jesus explains that his friend is looking at the moment of Jesus’ execution from a human perspective, not a divine one.  To help him understand, Jesus gathers the whole crowd and explains that life is more than our physical existence, and that if we live for the things that are eternal – rather than the transitory distractions of everyday life – we will truly live, forever.  “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

Shortly thereafter, a voice from above reveals Jesus to be more than simply one of the anointed ones, the messiahs who – throughout history – have rescued humanity at God’s behest.  We hear, “This is my Son, the Beloved;  listen to him!”  Again Jesus is quick to clarify, “The Son of Humanity will be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and after three days he will arise.”

Twice Jesus is proclaimed by others as one set apart by God, and twice Jesus speaks up to make clear that this does not mean glory, power, and respect – it means betrayal, torture, and execution.  To be the Child of God and the child of humanity, both, means to be stretched out on the altar of human fear, weakness, and greed.  Living at the intersection between divine truth and human experience, Jesus’ path has only one possible destination:  the grave.

In response, Jesus’ closest friends, those who were tasked with establishing his Church and passing on his teachings to subsequent generations, “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

Not much has changed in the two millennia since. We are still confused and afraid of the idea that even the Son of God, that especially the Son of God, would be the victim of all of the worst elements of what it means to be human.  Over the course of history we have, in our fear and embarrassment, offered many explanations in the hope of applying some sort of logic to the incomprehensible death of God in human form.  We have argued that only the blood of the Messiah could ransom us back from the devil who had made us his vassals.  We have portrayed Jesus as a benevolent Lord who stepped in to pay the lengthy bill we have racked up against God, each itemized value representing the sum total of our failures on earth.  We have even depicted Jesus as a willing sacrifice before a God who demands the blood of an innocent in propitiation for our multitude of sins.

Although superficially satisfying, none of these rationalizations stands up to close scrutiny or logical analysis.  None is consistent with a God whose steadfast love never ceases, and whose mercies are endless.  An omnipotent God who seeks to offer mercy to sinners would surely not do so by cruelly punishing the only true innocent.  Simply put, the crucifixion makes no sense.

Those whose faith relies on simple formulas to explain the mind of Almighty God will be quick to point out that it does make sense if you recognize that the reasonable and fair punishment for every single human who ever lived is eternal torment and damnation in Hell, and that only the profound love of God, literally embodied in someone punished in our stead by the concentrated power of that divine justice on the cross, could save us from the fate we all deserve.

If that is true, then we are either at the questionable mercy of a tyrannical Creator who could not devise a system that avoided the murder of innocence and the eternal torment of all creation; or we are all part of a cruel and capricious universe that punishes us and our Creator equally.

As one uncomfortable with either conclusion, I must confess that I find all of the easy explanations for the nature of the cross to be unsatisfactory.  I think it is best to follow the example of Jesus’ own apostles, and recognize that in the death of Jesus there is a mystery that encompasses all our fears, and all our hopes – one we are afraid to understand.

Like Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the other women who gathered to watch the kind teacher and powerful prophet suffer and die, we must simply stand before the cross in horror and grief.

Our horror is the realization that we are capable of such brutality and cruelty.  Our grief is in seeing in the loss of the Child of Humanity the losses that every human faces:  the deaths of our loved ones, the ends of our dreams, the depredations of illness and disease, and, ultimately, our own demise.  When we look into the pained eyes of Jesus, we see ourselves reflected in a mirror that shows our failings – individually and as a species – and our own pain.

It is the brutal honesty of the image in that looking glass that makes us want to find explanations of the cross that are centered on ourselves:  Jesus did this for our sins; God required this for our mistakes; look how horrible we are.  Maybe, though, we should look through that darkened glass and focus instead on the Jesus of the cross, not the Jesus who exists as a strawman for our guilt.

I do not mean focusing on the humanistic, secular Jesus who fought for social justice, healed this sick, fed the hungry, and cared for the poor.  He is important, and we should not neglect him as part of the whole truth of the gospel, but standing at the foot of the cross is the time to ponder the divine Jesus, the holy Jesus who is – against all reason – both God and human in one wounded, bleeding, sobbing package.

Leaving aside all of our justifications and seeing only the person of Jesus, I am struck most powerfully by the inevitability of it all.  As Jesus said, to his disciples in Mark 8, this is what had to happen (δεῖ in Greek, often used to indicate an obligation or an inevitable consequence).  The very act of God taking on human form, of experiencing mortality, is not only death, but a brutal murder at the hands of a callous empire that places no value on human life.  Jesus stepped into our lives knowing that this must happen, and did it anyway.  Whatever the reason that it had to happen, the greatest miracle of the cross is that it did happen, that a God who is beyond our comprehension, our own Creator, is so drawn to us that nothing – not even the inevitability of agony and death – could hold God back from stepping into our lives.

Another miracle is that it is possible at all.  For many of us, the slow slog through adulthood is one of a gradual surrender of our belief in the miraculous.  We “grow up” and learn to live in the “real world,” and the myriad challenges of our mundane distractions cause us to deny the possibility that there is divine, holy, metaphysical reality beyond the one that demands that we feed our bodies and pay our mortgages.  Yet at the cross we can see the collision of the world we deny with the world of our limitations.  The reality of God becomes physical, not in a voice from the heavens or words carved on stone tablets, but in the lifeblood of a single person, given up freely out of love.

That leads to one more miracle of the cross.  The blood that falls to the ground looks like a loss, a terrible, incalculable loss – and yet it is a victory.  Every terrorist, every tyrant, every abuser has claimed their power through the threat of violence.  They hold us hostage with the ultimate menace of their power over whether we live or die.  However, as we see the shadow of the cross loom across the generations, we see that death is only defeat for those who lived their lives for the pleasures of the moment.  The paradoxical miracle of the cross is that in loss is victory, in sacrifice is gain, and in death there is life.  Our priorities do not need to be dictated by the standards set by others or by our own fears of loss, because real accomplishment looks nothing like what those with temporal power would have us believe.

If we focus on the person of Jesus, we see the miraculous mystery of the cross.  We see love that cannot be dissuaded.  We see the reality of the presence of God in our world.  Finally, we see the truth that that the things that matter most in our lives are not the things that can be taken away, they are the things we can give to those we love, to those we do not know, and even to those who will follow in our footsteps.  The story of the cross is not the story of our sin, it is the story of the person who represents the best of creation and the best of the Creator: the Child of Humanity and the Son of God.  It is the story of the glorious and traumatic consequences of eternity’s collision with mortality.  It is the ultimate story, in which all good things come to an end, and we learn that – all evidence to the contrary – endings are beginnings.

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Grammy Weddings a Great Step

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Dr. King

Last night’s wedding at the Grammy’s was not just about showing same-sex couples getting married, it was also an opportunity to show the long arc of civil rights that began over a century ago with the Women’s Rights movement, and was carried forward half a century ago with the American Civil Rights movement, is now bringing forth a new harvest of Marriage Equality. An African American woman was the celebrant at a wedding for couples of a variety of backgrounds. Some of the pairing were same-sex, some of them were multi-ethnic, and they all were beautiful. The entire scene – not just the same-sex unions – would have been described as “blasphemous” and a rejection of “biblical values” by the fundamentalists and bigots of (only recently) by-gone decades.

The fight for marriage equality is not the “LGBT rights” movement, it is the continuation of a journey that has spanned generations, a journey to understand our faiths and our traditions in a way that liberates them from the prejudices, ignorance, provincialism, and ethno-centrism of our ancestors.

Having millions of people celebrate last night’s wedding wasn’t a victory, because we are not in a battle that can ever be fully won. It was, however, a reminder that we are one step nearer to that hope of beloved community, and bending ever closer toward justice.

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How I Can Be a Christian

Origen of Alexandria

Origen of Alexandria (source: wikisource.org)

How can you be a Christian?  How can you be a pastor?

I suppose, as a socially progressive, academic clergyperson who lives in the Deep South, it is hardly surprising that I get asked these questions…a lot.  When someone learns that I teach that the Christian Scriptures are a collection of documents written and edited over centuries, and that those writers and editors were influenced by political and social forces as well as theological ones, they are often surprised to learn that I read the Bible and pray every day – even while knowing that not everything contained therein actually happened.  When they learn that I have a long history of advocating for same-sex marriage and reproductive freedom (including access to abortion) they are surprised to learn that I also believe and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The question comes from both sides.  Christian fundamentalists (or “evangelicals” as they prefer to be called to avoid confusion with people who hold identical social beliefs but attribute them to a different collection of scriptures) often believe that their interpretation of Christianity is the only authentic one.  For them, failing to hold to the beliefs they impose on the tradition is a rejection of the tradition as a whole.

Interestingly, non-Christians seem to be under the same impression.  Presumably their understanding of what Christians believe is based upon the portrayal of Christians on TV and in movies, and upon the representation of Christians on the news.  From that limited perspective, Christians are people who cling to a quaint, “traditional” understanding of society and a “literal” interpretation of the Bible.

So, from the perspective of the left and the right, those of us who take a more thoughtful, historically-conscious approach to our faith must not be “real” Christians.  Here are some reasons why that view is short-sighted:

1. Fundamentalists aren’t really that “Fundamental”

Fundamentalists of every stripe like to portray themselves as biblical literalists who cling to the “timeless” truths of their tradition.  This is very far from true.  The beliefs and  practices of twenty-first century evangelicals would be viewed as permissive and libertine by their nineteenth-century predecessors, and would be almost unrecognizable from the perspective of the Early Church.  Since most people lack the historical perspective to recognize any changes that go back more than a century, modern evangelicals get away with calling themselves “traditionalists” when it’s really just that their innovations are slightly less recent than those of “progressives.”

They also are no more “literal” in their treatment of the Christian Scriptures than anyone else.  I have already dealt with that here, here, and here.  I do not feel the need to rehash all of those points in this essay, so I will limit myself to the observation that fundamentalists only treat texts literally when it supports their social agenda.  Those texts that run contrary to that agenda, or which undermine their claims about the Bible’s divine authorship or historical accuracy, are interpreted allegorically – often with astonishingly convoluted logic.

Consequently, I see no reason that non-fundamentalists should be held to a standard that the fundamentalists themselves do not keep.  Perhaps if fundamentalist Christians become pacifists who hold no property, fast multiple times a week, gather to stand for worship services that last an entire day, and require years of study before a person can become a convert – then I might find their argument more compelling.

2. Knowledge Moves Forward

The reality of the history of Christianity, however, is that beliefs about doctrine, Scripture, worship, and the nature of Christian obligation change dramatically from century to century.  Every religious tradition does this.  If they did not, those traditions would quickly fade into irrelevance.

Studying the evolution of those changes, and the process that produced the Christian Scriptures, often poses a dilemma for young seminary students.  They essentially have three choices.  They can reject what they learn in seminary, and persist in a more simple understanding of the faith.  They can reject Christianity, believing that if the understanding of Christianity they had in Sunday School is not true, they cannot be Christians any more.  Or, they can find a way to participate in the tradition that is honest about biblical and historical scholarship.

I have chosen the latter option.  In every area of knowledge, our understanding of how to interpret observable phenomena changes as new information emerges.  We do not consider physicians “liberals” or “heretics” because they do not think a fever comes from an imbalance of the “humours of the body” or because they do not treat it with bleeding.  Nor do we claim that fevers did not exist in the eighteenth century because physicians of that era described them imprecisely and did not understand their cause.

The practice and study of faith should not be exempt from this process.  The Bible is the record of several generations’ encounters with the presence of God.  Those encounters were interpreted through their cultural beliefs, political concerns, prejudices, and superstitions.  Subsequent generations then re-interpreted those writings through the lenses of their own assumptions and limitations, as our generation does as well.  Being honest about that reality does not minimize or contradict the reality of those original encounters with God.  Nor does it impugn the honesty and sincerity of the faith journey of subsequent generations.

3.  Accountability

So should we just believe whatever we want and call ourselves “Christians?”  Nothing could be farther from my point.  To continue the example above, if a physician said, “Well, if fevers aren’t caused by a humour imbalance then I might as well believe they are caused by aliens” one would question the legitimacy of their medical training.  Likewise, recognizing that biblical and theological scholarship calls into question the assumptions of past generations does not mean that we should all run willy-nilly into whatever theological trend or ludicrous spiritualism seems appealing.

Through seminary training and graduate school, the ordination process, and continuing, prayerful study of both scholarship and Scripture, I hold myself accountable to the history of the tradition and the perspective of my colleagues.  This is an important element to Christian practice – it is not an expression of individual belief.  Christianity is about living in community.  Recognizing that the history of the tradition reveals drastic sea changes in belief does not mean abandoning accountability to the community that is rooted in that history.

4. Comfort with Ambiguity

Yet, as we have discussed, very few of the members of that community agree on everything.  Even limiting the boundaries to mainline Christianity, there is considerable diversity in belief and practice.  The obvious reality is that we cannot all be right, and – based on the long history of changes in Christian assumptions about “incontrovertible” truths, the Church has likely been wrong more often than it has been right.  An honest assessment of the truth of the Christian tradition means comfort with ambiguity; far fewer truths are as certain as we would like them to be.  Christianity is about a journey toward truth, not an affirmation of it.

5. Reality

Finally, I am a Christian pastor because – for me – the Christian tradition helps me understand the world as I have experienced it, and because Christian worship draws me closer to the metaphysical world I have glimpsed from afar.  There have been times when the presence of God has been a real and sustaining force in my life.  Prayer has brought me peace and focus, and I believe – along with Martha Berry and my Great Grandmother – that “Prayer Changes Things.”

I would not presume to claim that Christianity fully encompasses the depth and complexity of a transcendent God, but it draws me closer to that God whom my own experiences have convinced me is real.

Concluding Thoughts

A famous seventeenth-century quote by Rupertus Meldenius, but often attributed to St. Augustine, can be translated: “In essentials, unity; in uncertain things, liberty; and in all things charity.”  This logic is at the heart of why I am comfortable as a Christian and a member of the clergy.  Our essentials come from the broad consensus of the tradition, yet an honest appraisal of the history of Christianity reveals that – beyond those essentials – there is far more uncertainty than some might wish or claim.  Ultimately, if the gospel is to be “good news,” we must seek it – charitably – together as a shared question, not a settled answer, and my life is the richer for that journey.

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Regarding Ender’s Game

Ender's Game Movie Poster

Ender’s Game Movie Poster

The topic of boycotting the new Ender’s Game movie is generating considerable debate in the speculative fiction community right now, especially after Orson Scott Card’s recent plea for “tolerance” of his past intolerance.

1. Homosexuality in general – This comes up any time its germane even tangentially to the topic at hand. Bigotry against people in same-sex relationships is sufficiently destructive that you cannot avoid talking about its consequences when addressing related issues. As Card, and other religious fundamentalists apparently realize, the issue is settled and they are on the losing end of history on this one (as the segregationists were a couple of generations ago). This one is done, but it is still important that we don’t forget the injustices that gay, lesbian, and transgender people have endured in the past.

2. Enjoying the art of someone whose views we dislike/detest – This one, I think, is not absolute. Would I hang a picture on my wall painted by someone who worked for Monsanto? Probably not, but possibly. Would I hang a painting on my wall that was painted by Hitler? No. Would I hang a picture on my wall painted by someone who smokes cigarettes? Sure.  Distance in time and place make a difference. I’m sure that there are a lot of things in Sumerian culture I would find horrifying – but I still read Gilgamesh.

3. Financially supporting someone whose views we dislike/detest – This is somewhat different, especially when the person actively uses their fame or wealth to influence those issues which we hold dear. Personally, I try not to give money to people or organizations that use those profits for causes I oppose. Because of the incestuous nature of our corporate culture, and the fact that many corporations act in despicable ways, this is sometimes hard to avoid – but I don’t think it’s an unreasonable, general rule.

4. What happens when something becomes a cause celebre? – Sometimes how we spend our money becomes a political statement over and above its inherent value. This happened with Chik-fil-A, and is now happening with Orson Scott Card. At that point, sometimes there is value in simply joining your voice with the chorus making the public statement that some behaviors/ideas are despicable, and we repudiate them.

5. Orson Scott Card himself – In my interactions with him (only by correspondence) he has always been gracious and thoughtful. Perhaps in the echo chamber of religious fundamentalism he did not realize just how offensive his statements really are, or how out of step with mainstream Western culture (religious and secular) he has become. Perhaps also he did not realize that the SF community – likely because of the level of education of its members and the nature of the genre – has increasingly become even more welcoming and affirming than the general culture. I understand why some folks defend him (for who he is as a whole), and I understand why others vilify him (for the reprehensible things he has said). As with any kind of bigot, the question is “How do we love the sinner and hate the sin?”

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