But What Stays the Same?

(Continued from Monday.)

When I consider the forces that have influenced and continue to affect world Christianity, I am reminded that such developments need not always be negative.  While the dangers of illegitimate religious types-of-theology1combination (i.e. so much mixing or religious syncretism that Christianity adopts practices, outlooks, or beliefs which at heart contradict key aspects of the faith) are real, this is not the only narrative at work.  For inasmuch as Christianity can be derailed from its broadly held orthodoxy it can also be powerfully impacted by cultures, customs, and ideas without losing its path.

Translation is the name of the game here.  As the Church is adapted into other languages, styles, places, and people groups, it by necessity is translated into those contexts in myriad ways.  As Christ is apprehended in such places, He is understood as unchanging Truth by means of new language.  Missionaries have engaged in such work for centuries.  They continue to this day.  Sometimes such work can, far from “polluting” the faith, actually illumine some powerful realities others have forgotten.

And yet: the translation inherent in cross-cultural work brings with it a unique set of challenges.  For while such a process can help newcomers understand what Christianity is all about, the very process of translation almost by necessity changes things.  No two languages or cultures are alike, and different languages have words and nuance that are not replicated in others.  Translation is therefore a “best guess” or approximation of meaning.  Because it is inexact, it leaves, adds, and alters meaning.static1.squarespace.com

Can we accept this?  Well, I submit that we have to.  After all, I’m a beneficiary of such translation (language and culture) as I live out my own Christianity.  I, like you, read the Bible in a language and in a culture drastically different from the world from which it derives.  I’ve studied some Greek and Hebrew, certainly.  But I am far from an expert.  Even then, I do not understand it as a native speaker would in that time and place.  As I read the Bible, my context necessarily alters some of its meaning.  While I trust the divergence is so great that I’m at risk of departing from orthodox Christianity, I would be a fool to deny that my language and culture does not affect my faith.

While most believers’ (myself included) day-to-day interactions with Christianity can be discernibly orthodox, there is always the danger that things could diverge too far.  One of the reasons we need Bible scholars, teachers, and preachers is to help us understand more about the teachings of Scripture–both as connected to the language and culture in which they were written and with regard to their present-day implications.  But even they cannot perform this work perfectly without flaw or limitation.

HolyTrinityWhat I’m talking about here goes beyond culture and language.  I believe that humanity itself–regardless of learning–is simply unable to understand certain divine realities as they actually are.  We are limited and God is infinite.  We are bounded and God is transcendent.

Consider the Trinity–a complex doctrine if there ever was one.  Trying to explain it feels a bit silly at times, always careening between denying distinction in the Godhead, asserting some kind of created Jesus/Holy Spirit, and/or developing a doctrine of three gods.  Because we know from Scripture that God is three in some way while still one, we have developed the idea of the Trinity to explain it.  Does our theology describe exactly how God works?  Almost certainly not.  It is our “best guess”.  I think it is a fair one, but even so is limited.

Translation in language and culture–or at a more basic level from the divine to human–is a part of the tension at work in a faith that is both particular (i.e. Jesus) and universal (evangelistically open to all) at the same time. Such translation can pollute, forcing us to ask real questions about whether or not our perceived faith is close to the heart of God.  Even so, an endless and obsessive search for some Platonic form of Christianity to the detriment of the good and faithful ways it is practiced and embodied the world over is, I think, unfortunate.  Many of these ways are–like our articulation of the Trinity–limited and imperfect, but they are nevertheless representative of our “faith seeking understanding”.  As they remain grounded in Scripture and orthodox tradition and aware of the movement of the Spirit of God in our world, they can be powerful aspects of our shared faith.  light_clouds

Difference can mean heresy, but it need not always.  Sometimes it is just difference.

In the end, Church history helps me by aware of the diversity with Christianity, both in terms of its dangers and potential.  It also reminds me that, from Day One, Christianity has been about translation.  This means I need to be comfortable with it, at least at a certain level.  As missiologist Andrew Walls has written, “God chose translation as his mode of action for the salvation of humanity.  Christian faith rests on a divine act of translation…”


The Past Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning

things_from_the_past_by_pamba-d5cq4dlI read a brief devotional work at the beginning of most of my class sessions at Northwest University.  Now in my fifth year of teaching, I have a general pool of books from which I tend to draw.  Even so, I needed a new one for one of my courses this semester.  After quickly scanning my shelves I selected a short work from the Catholic author Henri Nouwen entitled The Living Reminder.

I’ve read some Nouwen before, so I had hopes that his thoughts would be helpful for students.  So far, I’ve liked it.  Especially a comment I read the other day:

The older we grow the more we have to remember, and at some point we realize that most, if not all, of what we have is memory. Our memory plays a central role in our sense of being. Our pains and joys, our feelings of grief and satisfaction, are not simply dependent on the events of our lives, but also, and even more so, on the ways we remember these events. The events of our lives are probably less important than the form they take in the totality of our story. Different people remember a similar illness, accident, success, or surprise in very different ways, and much of their sense of self derives less from what happened than from how they remember what happened, how they have placed the past events into their own personal history.

Nouwen writes from a personal and pastoral viewpoint, of course.  And to that end I understand what he is saying.  How679814 we choose to make sense of our existence (which, as we get older, can be increasingly to do with the past) affects that way we see ourselves and live our lives.  It is a thoughtful insight that, well, just makes sense.

I think I resonate with this statement from my vantage point as an historian.  We who study the past are intimately connected to days gone by and constantly engaged in the task of remembrance.  In that role we can serve as “trail guides” for whole societies of individuals as they choose to look backward.  It is a heady task, surely.  But an essential one.

keep-calm-and-be-a-historianHistorical writers, commentators, museum curators, teachers: all of us have the opportunity to shape that way our world understands the past–and by extension, itself.  I am humbled by that thought even as I am challenged to continue the task assigned to me.  Our view of the past is so often used as a weapon.  It can favor those who like to have their own opinions confirmed.  It can shape so much, and not always for good.  And yet the past, as I’ve found it, can actually help us have perspectives that are much more sympathetic and nuanced than we humans like to be.

The past is not just a story.  It is a real story which we, in a sense, share with all of humanity.  I pray that as we remember it we would grow wise rather than simply confirming our foolishness.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

wallAs a 34-year old college professor, there are days when I still feel close in age to my twenty-something students.  Then there are other times when I realize that I am simply…older.  Yesterday was one of those moments.

It is now 25 years and one day since the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989.  It is a date symbolic not just for what happened in West and East Germany, but for the changes that it augured and helped initiate.  Not too many years after that fateful November day Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union would be no more.  The Cold War would be over.  The world would be changed.

I was only nine years old when the Wall fell.  I have what may amount to be only vague or inaccurate recollections of that time.  I had not–like my parents–grown up with the Cold War at 80er_mauer_akg_gmy back.  I had little understanding of world politics.  And yet: something great was happening around me.  As the son of a man born not long after his parents emigrated from Germany as refugees in the 1950s, my connections to Germany are strong.  My grandparents, Christian ministers, had returned to their ancestral land in the 1980s and were pastoring in West Germany in 1989.  Within a few years of reunification they relocated to the East to continue ministry there.

The impact of all that was taking place in Germany and the world in those days affected the two generations above me in ways I had no way of knowing at the time.  But I still lived through it.  I remember a bit of that time.  I had lived in an era when Germany was two.  When the Soviet Union was one.  I had lived in a different world…and then I got to live through the days of hope that followed when that world began to shatter.

Few of my college students remember these days.  They can’t.  Most weren’t born yet.  To them the Berlin Wall and Communism in Eastern Europe is as far off as the Nixon impeachment or Kennedy assassination is for me.  They can read about it and hear parents talk about it.  But they weren’t around in the days before and after.  And what days they were.  The fall of Communism in Europe happened with such rapidity and in such an unexpected way that there was a dreamlike sense of shock.  It would be as if Isis, Al Qaeda and others simply ceased to exist by the next presidential leninstatue1election, and the sometimes hostile Arab world suddenly became our allies.  The change was that dramatic.

The end of Communism in Europe and the burgeoning 1990s filled the world with a sense of hope it had not felt in a very long time.  I realize in retrospect that this hope was in many ways a false one and that born on its back was a host of problems…but still: they were optimistic days.  These were formative years for me.  They saw me through junior high, high school, and even into college.  In that decade we felt that despite the problems, our post-Cold War world had changed for the better.  This is the legacy of my generation’s youth.

When I consider my students, however, I am reminded that in addition to having no memory of the Berlin Wall’s fall , they also didn’t experience the immediate years that followed.  The 1990s for them are vague if remembered at all.  Like me, their political and global consciousness wasn’t awakened until the latter part of their childhood.  Much more rudely than mine, however, and with a much darker era to follow.

For while I was privileged to live through times of optimism and hope, my college seniors had a rather different youth.  In the fall of 2001 many of them 9-11 would have turned eight or nine.  On a certain September morning their televisions were filled with images that have defined their lives ever since.  A terrible day followed by years of war and fear.  This is the persistent legacy they’ve been living down through junior high, high school, and now into college.

What a difference indeed.  I mourn that this has been their world, and I pray that the we see 9 Novembers again with increasing frequency even as the 11 Septembers fade from view.

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done: on Earth as it is in Heaven.

The Footsteps of Doom

indexStudying history is a unique experience.  While sometimes it is an exercise in discovery and exploration, at other moments it is more akin to reading a Shakespearean tragedy or watching a slow motion car crash.

You know what’s coming even when the people you are studying have absolutely no idea.

Investigating the background to the First World War as Europe blindly stumbles towards a bloodbath.  Reading a four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, all the while knowing he would leave the Presidency destroyed by the effects of Vietnam.  Understanding that Constantinople will fall in 1453 and that there is nothing you can do about it.  That’s what being an historian is like some days.

As someone who focuses most of his historical attention on the United States, there is little that has this sense of impending doom like the NollCivil War.  Slavery exists early in European colonization of the New World.  Every time it is mentioned, we know what’s going to happen.  The rhetoric of freedom in the Revolution highlights the inequities inherent in the system, even as Jefferson continues to own slaves.  Gradual abolition in the North gives hope every time you read about it.  Until, that is, the South begins to conservative and clamp down around its “peculiar institution.”

As the nation expanded westward–a process that happens every time I read about, without fail–the question of slave states versus free states continued to perplex.  Compromise after compromise was reached, but only papered over the growing differences between societies North and South.  Religiously they shared common belief and read a common Bible, but the situation on the ground led them to express and live that faith in increasingly different ways.  As denominations begin to shatter North and South starting around 1840, they were but a harbinger of the breaking of America that could no longer be averted by 1860-1.

conf0206-1-smallNothing, it seemed, could hold the nation together.  Not even the vaunted and optimistic claims of the dominant evangelicalism of the 19th century.  The United States’ lack of unity and inability to end the crime of slavery without war (like Britain) constitutes–together with the existence of slavery in the first place–a foundational tragedy at the center of the American story.  It is a drama written by no one person, but rather one with numerous actors continually impelled towards the bloody conclusion of places like Bull Run, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Ford’s Theater.

As we reflect on this story again and again, may we seek to realize in our own day what the actors could not in theirs.  May we see the inner meaning of the tragedy to which they inadvertently pointed and, in so doing, gain more insight into the directions of our own contemporary story.  In the wreck of their blindness and failures of faith and deed, may we learn.

America the Exceptional

puritans25As I teach a course entitled “American Religious History” this semester, I am deeply enjoying the process of engaging once again with my doctoral field of study.  Since we are early in the term, we’ve only gotten to colonial America at this time.  Requisite, therefore, was a reading from the Puritan John Winthrop, who compared the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as something like a “City on a Hill.”

This image–a reference to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount–reverberates powerfully, and has come to be identified in a very real sense with the idea of “American exceptionalism.”  Taken to mean that America is distinct from the rest of the world and–not uncommonly–that it is better in some very real ways, the theory is (as you might imagine) somewhat controversial.

It is a potent idea to analyze historically and dispassionately by asking what this idea meant in the lives of citizens over the course of our nation’s development.  It is also, of course, a relevant question to consider in terms of contemporary politics and personal outlook. What we think today about America’s exceptionalism or lack thereof has some definite implications for not only our self-image, but the way(s) we act in the larger world.Shining_City_Upon_Hill-American-Exceptionalism

A lot of ink has been spilled on this topic.  Probably enough to address it from every possible angle.  If you are interested, I commend much of this material to you.  For my part, I’ll simply say this: historically speaking, it is difficult to deny that parts of America’s history have been the exception to the rule.  Unique settlement.  The ability for Old Worlders to start over.  Diverse religious groups that led to disestablishment and de facto and eventually de jure religious toleration.  An early experiment in democracy that continues to have staying power.  A multinational and multiethnic composition that defies easy categorization.

If by “exceptional” we mean different, then in all of these things and more, America was certainly the exception to the rule of the Old World.  If we take the phrase to mean “better,” then, of course, we get into some sticky territory.  The dangers of national chauvinism and being blind to our own faults can ever be wrapped up in this idea.  It makes me nervous to say much in this direction but I will offer this:  I do think that the United States has been better in certain areas.  Think of the persistence of the rule of law.  The functioning of our democracy.  Our value of the freedoms we often take for granted.  Throughout the history of humanity and even today, these things are what sets America apart from so many.  Not from everyone and not at all times…but they have nevertheless been there.

exceptional1200As an historian, though, I realize all of these distinctives and positive “exceptions” are borne on the back of a lot of darkness as well.  The subjugation of native peoples.  Deep-seated racial strife and intolerance of many kinds.  A history of slavery.  A sometimes national chauvinism with international implications.  Economic inequities and the persistence of poverty.  The list could go on.  It is possible to be exceptional for good and bad, it would seem.

Morever, even many of America’s benefits are more from historical happenstance or the hand of Providence than any effort on our part.  What if the continent had been much smaller?  Denuded of natural resources?  Had been populated by a much more technologically advanced set of natives?  What if it was discovered at a different period in human history?  If a few developments in our history had simply gone another way?  So much contributed to the development of America over time, and not all of that can be assigned to the efforts of America itself.  The connotations of “exceptional” changes a bit when one remembers that other lands not so similarly blessed could have tried all of the things we did and ended up with some very different results.

So while I would agree that America is and has been exceptional in a number of ways, I would be very hesitant to say thisCaptain-America without deep qualifications or the understanding that it is an unmitigated grace rather than a necessary consequence.  Exceptional means primarily difference and only secondarily better.  In no case does it mean that it will necessarily continue into the future or that we always deserve this.  It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t other exceptional nations out there.  Good, bad, and ugly, the world is full of them.  It also doesn’t mean that others have not prefigured our exceptions and met or surpassed them today.

Further, if we are really to embrace John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” as a model for this outlook, we would be wise to hear all of us his words, reminding us that great power is often met with a call to great responsibility and not unquestioning pride:

Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. Wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of God, and all professors for God’s sake. Wee shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into curses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are a goeing.

Admittedly, these have been some very quick thoughts as I dash off to class.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this important topic.

A Long Time Coming

money-bagsThis series began with a post on the First Amendment on 17 January 2013.  Today I conclude it with a discussion of the Twenty-seventh.

That took a while.

Fitting, then, that the most recent Amendment to our Constitution has the distinction of having taken the longest to ratify.  First submitted in 1789, it did not become law until over 200 years later.  Here’s the text:

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.

It basically says that if members of Congress vote themselves a pay raise, this change cannot take effect until a next set of Representatives have been elected.  As a guard against corruption, this makes sense.  Initially proposed with twelve other Amendments (ten of which became what we know today as the Bill of Rights), this one never made it to the requisite three-quarters approval by the States during the founding era.  xbush_podium.jpg.pagespeed.ic.17n6EL-8X2

When the Amendment was finally picked up again in earnest by the legislatures, it came to pass in relatively short order: only about a decade.  So it was that in the final year of the George H. W. Bush administration an Amendment was ratified that was initially proposed during the first months of George Washington’s tenure.

The Twenty-seventh Amendment itself is fairly boilerplate, but it makes good sense in a country that seeks to avoid corruption.  What is more interesting about it for me is the extended length of time it took for passage.  Think about it: all of the other Amendments I have discussed in this series were considered, voted upon, and passed in the time this one waited to become law.  The overwhelming bulk of American history took place while it simply waited in the wings.  All sorts of things: the XYZ Affair, the Age of Jackson, the Mexican War, the Battle of Gettysburg, the Wright Brothers, Pearl Harbor, Lee Harvey Oswald, the rise and fall of the Cold War, and so much more.  It may be a “bookend” to Constitutional Amendments, but what a history it bookends.

In addition to the curiosity of its existence, the Amendment also testifies to the potential for such changes (like the twenty-seven we’ve considered here) to be rather slow and deliberate.  For some, this stands as continued evidence to the inefficacy of government.  For others–and I’ll confess I am in this camp–it reminds us that the initial writers of the Constitution wanted to set a high bar for potential changes.  As the operating system of our national government, the Constitution is essential.  Its initial construction and passage took place in the midst of debate and travail, and its value was ConstitutionalConvention1787deemed such that it should not be changed unless it absolutely needed to be.  By setting such a lofty threshold for these alterations, the Founders provided some protection, then, that only the most essential and/or common-sense changes might be made.  Temporary winds of passion, demagogic grandstanding, or passing fads ought not apply.

Lastly, the passage of this Amendment over twenty years ago reminds us that there haven’t been any Constitutional changes since.  Coming as it did just before the Clinton administration and the polarization of politics that followed–helped by talk radio, new media, and more–one wonders if this was the last change of its kind…at least for now.  Barring one of those “common-sense” Amendments that might come along, it is difficult to imagine so much of America agreeing on one thing.  In other words, the more the proposed change is of any real substance or philosophical heft, the less likely I suspect it will be to gain passage.

We shall see what the future holds, and whether or not our nation will be able to address Constitutional needs as they arise under the current system or whether they will have the drive, fortitude, and cooperation to make any changes required.

And so the continuing saga of American history soldiers on. Whatever happens, I promise I’ll reopen the series if the time comes.

Roads Not Travelled

dc_Capitol-BuildingToday I arrive at the 23rd Amendment, a piece of legislation wholly designed to give Washington, DC a say in the Electoral College similar to the 50 states.  Previously excluded from the process of presidential election, this amendment sought to correct the situation.

Fairly straightforward.  What it does bring to mind, though, is the fact that the United States has numbered itself at fifty stars for about 55 years now, which I’m pretty sure is the longest it has gone without adding any new states to the Union.  The days of expansion and Manifest Destiny are over.  People sometimes throw around the possibility of DC becoming a state at some point.  Puerto Rico is in the mix.  Guam too, I suppose.  One day this may happen.  Then again, maybe not.  Anything is possible.  It’s interesting to consider…and not only for the requisite changes in the flag.  I sometimes think about what America was, is, might be in the future… or could have been like if things had been different.800px-us_51-star_alternate_flagsvg

There have been a number of points in history where the possibility of additional US expansion has been possible or at least desired.  These have not always been positive developments.  Many–most, if not all–have been tinged by imperialism and/or war.  For that matter, a significant portion of the territory the United States now possesses and governs was not exactly procured by the most….peaceful of procedures.  Just ask the British.  The Mexicans.  The Native Americans.

8937264765_5bafd41cd1_cThis is all history, of course.  Engaging, enlightening, informative, and often tragic all at the same time.  In light of this, it is interesting to consider some of the ways it might have gone.  What if the United States were larger, having added all or most of Mexico to its territory after the Mexican War?  What if the Philipines were the 51st state?  What if the Louisiana Purchase never happened?  What if the divisions of the Civil War were permanent?  All of these “what-ifs” of history are part of a genre called “alternate history.

At once factual and science-fictiony, stories or projections in this genre can be powerful to consider.  Sometimes they can be quite plausible (What if World War The_Man_in_the_High_CastleII started a few years early?) and at other times they can be nonsensical (What if John F. Kennedy starred in the 1960s television show “Star Trek?”).  When done well, they can help us to think outside the box a little, remind us of the contingencies of history, and give us insight into our own present.  And then sometimes, they can just be strangely goofy explorations.

If you’re interested in learning more from a more academic point of view, take a look at What If?  For a classic in the genre, try Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.  For a more popular approach, check out the (often scandalous and R-rated) Harry Turtledove.  Lastly, www.alternatehistory.com is a good place for some quick reads and continuing discussion.  It is also one of my favorite sites to kill some time. 

And to think, all of this from the 23rd Amendment.