Thursday, June 30, 2016

MacWorld and Tribalism

The recent vote to exit the European Union by Britain (Brexit) highlights a trend toward tribalism that has been going on since the turn of the century. The cause of this trend is a reaction against globalization. Alvin Toffler, in his book Future Shock, called this globalization “MacWorld.” He used the ubiquitous fast food chain MacDonald’s as a symbol of the changing world of both economics and culture. No matter where on the globe you live, what language you speak, or what tribe you belong to, you can order from exactly the same menu.

Economically, free trade agreements have opened up borders to buy and sell products globally. I can now buy my favorite Swiss chocolate in my local grocery store, whereas before I could only purchase it in Switzerland. Culturally, the world not only eats the same hamburgers, but it also consumes the same music, movies and wears the same outfits. The result of all of this is a homogenization of culture and tastes. Many dreamers have seen this as a boon to better understanding and peace among the various nations of the world and an end to tribalism. But this has not been the case.

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, the world was divided into two superpowers pitted against each other with either strong dictatorships or military alliances holding the precarious peace of world together. After the fall of the Berlin wall, tribalism began to break out across Europe like the Black Plague. The ethnic wars in the former Yugoslavia and the votes in Catalonia for independence from Spain are two simple examples.

I witnessed some less dramatic changes in Switzerland over the years which I attribute to this return to tribalism and a reaction to globalization as well. When I first lived in Switzerland, all written communications were done in Standard German—German that could be understood by any German speaker from anywhere in the German-speaking world. All the radio and television programs were done in Standard German as well. The regional dialects of German, and there are many, were mostly used for oral communication. Since the turn of the century, however, and with the advent of the Internet and the cell phone, younger Swiss have increasingly begun to write in their regional dialects to communicate with each other. With literally hundreds of regional dialects, the size of the audience able to understand these individual communications has shrunk considerably.

The same applies to radio broadcasts, and to a lesser  extent television. Many independent radio stations have sprung up which use only the regional dialects in their broadcasts. Whereas before any German speaker could understand all radio broadcasts throughout Switzerland, it is now more difficult, since dialects used change from region to region.

For me, all this points to a reaction against MacWorld and a return to a love of the local tribe. Whether it is the breakup of Yugoslavia and Spain, or the use of regional dialects in Switzerland, or the British leaving the European Union, the world is reacting to the unstoppable march of globalization. We see it in the US as well with the Donald Trump phenomenon. Most of his supporters want to preserve the WASP tribe that they think is what made the USA great.

We all love our tribe, desiring to be with those who talk like us and look like us. I wrote about my own tribe here. But there is no way to stop the globalization which is taking place. We are surrounded by strangers, by strange languages, strange cultures and foods. We cannot stoop to xenophobia, or fear of the stranger. Ronald Rolheiser in his weekly mediation says: “In Scripture, God's promise, revelation, and new truth are most often brought not through what's familiar or through those whom we know and who are like us, but through a stranger.” Amen.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Celtic Christianity: Original Sin or Original Blessing?

For the next several blog posts, I’d like to explore a few important themes in Celtic Christian theology. Most of these thoughts come from reading John Philip Newell’s book Christ of the Celts, among others.

A Celtic Cross
I grew up in a home with a very strict authoritarian father. There was little I could do to receive his favor. I was constantly in fear of misstepping and being punished for it. I grew up in a church with a very strict authoritarian God. There was little that I could do to receive his (sic) favor. I was constantly in fear of misstepping and being punished for it. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” a proverb based on Proverbs 13:24, was often quoted in my home and church.

My father’s “rod” was usually made of leather and was wrapped around his waist. My God’s “rod” was usually imagined as a bolt of lightning, zapping me for stepping out of line. This view of an angry, retributive God, was reinforced by innumerable evangelistic meetings that emphasized my sinfulness and degraded nature and the need for repentance if I wanted to avoid the eternal damnation of hell.

John Philip Newell, in his book Christ of the Celts, has written that the view of God which I portrayed, and the way my father reared me, comes from the doctrine of original sin. “It teaches that what is deepest in us is opposed to God rather than of God. It means that we are essentially ignorant rather than bearers of light, that we are essentially ugly rather than made in the image of love. . . It is a doctrine that disempowers us. . . The consequences, both individually and collectively, have been disastrous,” p. 19.

Individually, this doctrine has made me feel like a worm; like a worthless creature incapable of ever measuring up to the standards of either my earthly or heavenly father. It has made me nearly incapable of receiving or giving love. If I wasn’t worthy of love, neither was anyone else. It has taken me YEARS to mitigate this self-loathing and projection on to others, and I am still a work in progress.

Collectively, Newell shows how the doctrine of original sin “was a convenient ‘truth’ for the builders of empire. They could continue to conquer the world and subdue peoples. And now they could do it with the authority of a divine calling,” p. 19. In other words, the Roman empire now had the church to help keep its conquered peoples in line. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who developed the idea of original sin, lived during the time when the Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire (380). A highly influential theologian, he became a leading apologist for the fusion of church and state.

In contrast to Augustine, Newell, citing many Celtic thinkers and writers, emphasizes that instead of being “opposed to God,” we are “essentially of God” (p. 58), because we were made in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1: 26-27). Furthermore, when God saw his creation, he pronounced it “good” six times, and after creating humankind, he pronounced them “very good!” (Gen. 1: 31).

“The image of God is at the core of our being,” writes Newell.  “. . . it is at the beginning of who we are,” p. 3. Some writers call being created in God’s image “original blessing” as opposed to “original sin.” This is not to deny the presence of evil and sin. It didn’t take long till Adam and Eve rebelled and tainted their God-likeness with disobedience. However, this does not make their origin—their beginning—evil. They were created good. It was their rebellion that caused evil and sin.

Because of the doctrine of original sin, “We have tended to define ourselves and one another in terms of the blight, in terms of sin or evil, in terms of the failings or illnesses of our lives,” writes Newell.  This is certainly how my upbringing, both church and family, defined me. Rather, according to Newell, we should be “seeing what is deeper still, the beauty of the image of God at the core of our being.”

How different would my childhood have been, had I been affirmed as essentially good, rather than essentially bad? What if my church had declared my original blessing instead of my original sin? I can only imagine that I would have experienced a genuine love; a love that would not have been based on intimidation and fear, but instead based on the beauty of our mutual God-likeness. A love that would probably kept me from rebelling as much as I did.

Affirming our original blessing instead of our original sin does not mean that we do not need grace and repentance when we rebel. “Instead of grace being viewed as opposed to our essential nature or as somehow saving us from ourselves [our original sin], [. . .] grace [is] viewed as flowing […] from God,” writes Newell. “Grace is given, not to lead us into another identity but to reconnect us to the beauty of our deepest identity [image of God, original blessing].”