Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Compass Rose Annual Meeting

September 23, 2009

Next week I will attend the annual Meeting of the Compass Rose Society which includes the wonderful privilege of dinner at Lambeth Palace hosted by Archbishop and Mrs. Williams. Generally there is a question and answer period before hand with the Archbishop. In some years when I have been in attendance he could be forgiven, based on the questions, for thinking that all those who support the Anglican Communion and wish to see it thrive are ardent supporters of the move toward some kind of Anglican Covenant behind which he has chosen to throw his support.

He takes the questions written on cards from members of the society in attendance, reads them verbatim and answers them thoughtfully and thoroughly. I’m chewing on what I would like to ask him and would welcome (with no promises implied) any suggestions you might have.

Anne Graham Lotz

September 23, 2009

Newsweek (September 21, 2009 p.17) reports that Billy Graham’s daughter is promoting a new book called The Magnificent Obsession. She is quoted as saying “Religion is an impediment to knowing God…Procedures, rituals, creeds: how in the world can they help you connect with God?...If you’re sprinkled when you’re baptized or dunked when you’re baptized, it doesn’t matter as far as your salvation goes.” She does also leave some room for finding fellow travelers when she says “You can really love the Lord, but after a while, if you’re all by yourself, the fire goes cold.”

I met Ms. Lotz in 1983 (although there is no reason why she would remember me.) I was a newly ordained deacon and went with some parishioners to the immensely popular Bible Study Fellowship in Raleigh where she was a primary teacher. Even then it was clear that individual salvation was her concern and that there was not sense of church, except perhaps as an optional extra. There was certainly no explicit theology of church, or the place of the church in the life of faith, or ecclesiology. I thought of this then as I do now as the Christian equivalent of being ‘spiritual, not religious’. It is a reasonable resistance to the idea that any ‘experience’ (of salvation or anything else spiritual) is necessarily mediated in some way. The problem is that there is no such thing as the unmediated experience, --at least at the point at which we think about describing it in words.

There is a sense, then, in which the Church mediates our experience of
Christ through the ways in which we tell and respond to the story of Jesus, generation to generation. I’m with Ms. Lotz in resisting prideful claims to have the only and authoritative way of telling and interpreting the story. I’m not with her in considering Christian Community to be either optional or dispensable.

End of Life

September 23, 2009

Some things have become clear in the health care conversation. One is that providing insurance for everyone is going to cost money and that money is going to have to come from somewhere. Two is that people who are currently insured do not want to lose the coverage that they have and that with a change in the system there is some likelihood that something will change for everyone involved. Three is that no one really knows what drives health care costs and that if there is not to be overt rationing of resources then our behavior has to be changed in some way regardless of insurance, if we are going to reduce or manage the amount and proportion of GNP (or whatever) our society spends on health care. Each and maybe all of these realities are going to be resisted by someone. We have more or less adjusted to the changes that brought about ‘managed care’ and those changes, while not fun, appear to have slowed the rate of growth in health care costs, and we can all adapt to any changes that come out of the current reform.

My instinct is that it is the third of these issues (cost control) that generates the most difficulties for us because it is so hard to know exactly what is driving costs in the first place. Is it doctor’s insurance in a litigious society? The cost of development of drugs and ever-more-accurate, ever-more-expensive diagnostic tools? (Hands up everyone who has ever had and MRI for a headache.) The existence of good insurance with little or no ‘co payments’? Insurance Company shareholders insisting on profits? Or is it just a plain old combination of these and a host of other factors all being driven by our fundamental fear of death? Apparently 30 percent of Medicare costs relate to the last six months of life. I can think of numerous situations in the past thirty years where medical costs near the end of life could have been reduced and treatment in the face of death made a great deal more humane for everyone (patients, families, nurses and doctors) if only there had been some serious conversation about the patient’s wishes while she or he were able to have those conversations. My attorney always addresses the need for a medical power of attorney whenever I revise my will (which is good), but that doesn’t really lead to lead to clarity. I can say quite clearly that I want aggressive and expensive treatments to have a more than 70% likelihood of being effective in restoring me to some kind of enjoyable quality of life, and I want the people who know and love me to judge what that would be for me. I do not want to say that there is no point or worth in a life in which a person is severely handicapped or incapacitated. I do not want to make those kinds of decisions for others and I certainly don’t want any laws that could lead to pressure on patients to do anything other than affirm life (even though I suspect that some things that pass for affirmation-of-life are really a far of death that is part and parcel of an already-happened spiritual death.)
Years ago, when it was still common to be in the hospital for eight weeks following a hysterectomy, for example, I put on a well attended Sunday School class on ‘the hospital experience’. A chaplain talked about end of life choices and planning. Afterwards a doctor, who acknowledged that he had gone into reconstructive surgery in part because of his abhorrence of death, asked some pointed questions. The chaplain’s response was affirming of the concerns and work of that doctor. He said “When I go to the doctor, I’m not really looking to speak with someone who is comfortable with death. I want someone who is gong to make me better.” Well said. The doctor’s office is not the place for conversations about choices at the end of life to happen any more than meeting with a bereaved family is the time to teach what makes for good liturgical choices about funerals. But those conversations need to happen somewhere and regularly if there is to be any hope of really controlling health care costs through changed behavior. We don’t want to reduce or be cavalier in any way about the importance of the gift of life. At the same time we don’t need to be turning some technical measure of life (breathing, heartbeat, brain activity) into an idol. We can put on classes and create safe spaces for conversation, but what will make us want or need to attend?

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Niqab in France

September 7, 2009

The debate over Nicholas Sarkosky’s attempts to ban the wearing of the niqab in France gets at much of the dilemma I experience in relation to Islam. If you do a search for relevant articles, look for the burqa rather than the niqab. The burqa is the head covering worn by some Muslim women in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere which has a gill of some kind covering a woman’s eyes, where the niqab leaves a slit in the head covering making a woman’s eyes visible to others. The hijab is a headscarf which is often worn by Muslim women in America.

The view of some in France, as I understand it, is that these head coverings are signs of the oppression of women in a male dominated religious culture and therefore fundamentally at odds with the liberal values of secular France. Some Muslim women however point out that they are French nationals, often born in France, who are highly educated and who choose to wear the niqab as a sign of their own religious commitment to modesty in a secular state which they see as having no moral boundaries or center. So is this a question of civil rights or freedom of religion?

I have seen some blog sites in which many of the commentators are convinced that the fundamental underlying issue represents neither civil rights nor religious freedom but a full fledged hatred of Islam and a determined effort to make France inhospitable to that faith.

My efforts to understand my own responses to Islam have led me to read Islam Under Siege (Polity, 2003) and Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization (Brookings Institution Press, 2007), both by Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He identifies three primary streams or models for Islam which he identifies with three places in South India.

The stream he associates with ‘Ajmer’, home of the founder of the Chisti order and sympathetic to those familiar with the more mystical traditions of Islam represented by Rumi and generally familiar as Sufism. Adherents of this model can be austere and puritanical all the way to people who might use drugs and or alcohol, (prohibited in Islam) in service of their mystical pursuits.

The ‘Deoband’ model includes all mainstream Islamic movements from the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia to the Muslim brotherhood or Hamas in the Middle East. They all seek to trace their view of the world to Muslim tradition in a conscious way. Ahmed would include Ibn Taymiyya from the past and Syed Qtub more recently among those who represent this model. Our friends at the Al-Farook Masjid of Atlanta would fall into this broad category which can include that minority who resort to terror all the way to people simply trying to keep the traditions of their tribe or culture in foreign lands.

‘Aligarh’ represents a modernist Muslim response to the world. This is where Ahmed finds himself and bemoans the declining influence of the movement as many of his coreligionists (and many conservatives of other faith streams) seek to reject Modernism and its consequences in the face of globalization with no perceivable moral center. This model includes genuine democrats and military dictators (Muhammad Abduh in Egypt in the 19th century to the Shah more recently. They wish to preserve what is essential to Islam while engaging modern ideas. They may be extremely devout or effectively ‘secular’.

Clearly none of these models provide and exact match to the complexities of Judaism or Christianity, but they help us see the same trajectory of growing conservatism in reaction to what many perceive as a world out of control, a world of instant communication and no moral guiding principles, a world in which global markets are good at creating wealth but dreadful at distributing it in any way that makes for community or justice, a world in which the gaps between rich and poor are growing ever more severe.

The excellent Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks has pointed a way toward addressing these challenges in another excellent book called The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (Continuum, 2002), in which he argues for constructive engagement between peoples of faith.

The French debate about the niqab does not admit of simple or simplistic analysis but points to a whole host of issues and challenges in the large sweeping currents that affect all of our lives.

More to follow in due course.