Some upside down thoughts about being faithful...

My favorite conservative, David Brooks, wrote yet another column about the upside down state of moral discourse in the USA at this moment in time.  At the heart of today's work is this insight:

Many people today find it easy to use the vocabulary of enterepeneurism, whether they are in business or social entrepreneurs. This is a utilitarian vocabulary. How can I serve the greatest number? How can I most productively apply my talents to the problems of the world? It's about resource allocation. People are less good at using the vocabulary of moral evaluation, which is less about what sort of career path you choose than what sort of person you are... (All around me) I see young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tend to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about how to be into questions of what to do.  (check it out @

As I've noted before, when the only working metaphor of a culture is the market place - and the only tool for evaluation is the bottom line - is it any wonder that our best and brightest no longer have a moral vocabulary?  What's more, given the public track record of our religious institutions - Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim - it is no wonder that our youth are not learning their moral vocabulary from our spiritual traditions. In a highly publicized survey conducted by Georgetown University's Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs it was reported that:  while 76% of millenials (young people between the ages of 18-24) believe that Christianity has good values and moral principles, a staggering 62% of these same people find Christianity harsh and judgmental - and have left their churches in droves.  And 64% of these spiritual but no longer religious millenials cite the church's attitude and teaching towards the LGBTQ community as proof!

Mary Catherine Bateson, writing in her new book, Composing a Further Life, says that in general "conversations and dialogues between (differing) communities are hindered by the fact that members (of these communities) describe their own faith in terms of ideal norms within the community while outsiders characterize them with negative examples of actual behavior in the past or present. Thus, Christian have mounted crusades and have sometimes owned slaves, Jews have sometimes been moneylenders, Muslims have sometimes been terrorists and so on and on."  Given this huge divide, it is clear that old Feurbach was right:  you ARE what you eat!

Brooks concludes:

It is worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can also spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets and more Dostoevsky and the Book of Job.

What Brooks doesn't address, however, is how this shift in the conversation towards moral vocabulary takes place.  And from my perspective of doing ministry for 30 years in the local church, I've come to two conclusions:

+ First, in 2012 we are starting from scratch.  Not only have we lost touch with our historic moral vocabulary, but we now have 3-4 generations who don't know the time tested stories of ethical exploration.  Not only haven't they read or heard of Job, they don't know the 10 Commandments.  They may have gone through the DARE program in school, but they haven't talked about the Golden Rule, the Sermon on the Mount or the 23rd Psalm around the dinner table.  So, we are at ground zero and have to start again. (Hmmmm, no wonder I love those post-apocalyptic movies, yes?)  Now you can piss and moan about this, or, you can say like Meister Eckhart: "Reality is the will of God - it can always be better - but you have to start with what is real."

+ Second, while the old stories are essential, old school shame and guilt no longer cuts it (if it ever did!) Not only will the old judgments drive our young families away (see the millenial survey from Georgetown above) but they will guarantee that another generation becomes deaf, dumb and blind to the ethical wisdom and moral vocabulary of our various spiritual traditions.  I've seen it happen over and over:  a hate and fear filled preacher like Worley gets public notoriety for a few days and more young people run away from the insights of religion.  More than ever, I sense that faith communities are being called to do "family moral education" rather than incidental Sunday School as an alternative to the status quo.  Let's face it:  45 minutes every other week does NOT create a moral foundation to deal with the hard ethical realities of this (or any other) generation. We need something deeper.  More real.  And certainly more bold that what is currently taking place in most of our congregations.

And this is, perhaps, the real upside down moment:  faith communities are being given a new chance to reclaim our moral vocabularies if we are willing to seize the moment. In an era Parker Palmer calls "the politics of the broken hearted," we can begin to show what an alternative to greed and the bottom line looks like.  We can begin to retrain young families in the time-tested stories of ethical development.  And even do so in an environment of encouragement, hope, joy and moral integrity. (Carrie Newcomer models this commitment in her sweet song, "I'll Go Too.")

To seize this moment with tenderness and patience is the challenge - even the patience of Job.


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