There’s a lot of news out there these days about progress (and the lack thereof) in religion, specifically Protestant denominations. Several large American mainline denominations have had conventions and conferences, both national and regional, of late. Note this USA Today article about various denominations, particularly the Episcopal Church USA and the Presbyterian Church (USA), and their ongoing debates over same-sex unions and ordination. At the time of this writing, the Episcopalians are still holding their General Convention in Columbus, Ohio – this is a triennial conference of the Episcopal Church throughout the USA. They are still debating resolutions about whether to express regret to the global Anglican community regarding the ordination of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as a bishop a couple of years ago. In a hopeful sign of progressiveness, however, they elected a woman (and a liberal one, theologically speaking), Katharine Jefferts Schori, to be their new “Presiding Bishop”, which is sort of like being the chief Archbishop over the whole country. Bishop Schori is a very interesting woman – she earned a Ph.D. in oceanography in 1983 and worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service before changing career paths and entering the ordained ministry, and is apparently a strong advocate for the Millennium Development Goals. Naturally, there are some Episcopalians who are unhappy about her election – although they say their unhappiness stems not from her gender, but from her progressive theology.
Meanwhile, a recent regional Conference of the United Methodist Church was a mixed bag of religious tricks. On the bad side, during a debate on an resolution about bringing the troops home from Iraq, one delegate addressed the Conference by reading a passage from the Quran about killing infidels and the like, and cited this passage as evidence that Muslims are inherently violent, and therefore we'll never be able to cease the war on terror until we subdue them all. Apparently this good Christian brother isn't familiar with Psalm 137, where the psalmist writes (verses 8-9) “Babylon the destroyer, happy is he who repays you for what you did to us! Happy is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against a rock.” Nor is he probably familiar with Hosea 13:16, “Samaria will become desolate because she has rebelled against her God; her babes will fall by the sword and will be dashed to the ground, and pregnant women will be ripped up.” Funny, sounds like Christians have their own violent past, doesn't it?
In other words, Christianity doesn’t have an exclusive angle on peacemaking and love, nor does Islam have an exclusive angle on a violent past. All of us religious types have histories we need to overcome, to evolve beyond. Unfortunately, some religious types are stuck in the past, or want to defend the past and are fearful of evolution (spiritual as well as biological). We who are not, I believe, are obligated to continue striving for enlightenment and understanding, both within ourselves and throughout our faith communities. Anything less will condemn us to the ash heap of history, because history is inherently progressive and forward-moving.
Should we hope or despair? Should we be optimists or pessimists? I reached one tentative conclusion this past week – I think I might try to be a spiritual optimist and a political cynic. That is, I do think that history inevitably moves forward, and human enlightenment has no choice but to grow and expand. The alternative, I suppose, is species extinction. I don’t think that this progress is neatly linear – reformations always spawn counter-reformations, and the forces of retrenchment get pretty fierce when they begin to perceive that the struggle might not turn out their way. As noted author (and former Episcopalian priest) Barbara Brown Taylor put it, "human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God." Here’s my question: If the God you worship is in such dire need of your protection, what kind of deity is he? I could say the same thing about the so-called “Defense of Marriage” amendments kicking around Congress and various state legislatures - if your marriage needs to be defended from two gay men or two lesbians who love each other and are monogamous with each other and want to get married to each other, perhaps you should be less concerned with them and more concerned with what’s going on in your own marriage.