Monday, August 31, 2009

Cubs Win World Series!—When Hell Freezes Over

Last week I had the good fortune to make my annual pilgrimage to Wrigley Field to see a Cubs game. It's a gorgeous ball park, full of history and tradition, worth a visit whether you're a Cubs fan or not. It was a gray, rainy day in Chicago right up until game time, when fortuitously, the clouds went away. The weather stayed clear and pleasantly warm just long enough for the Cubs to win 9-4, a victory that made the evening even more fulfilling.

This is the time of year when the Cubs typically fall out of contention like the leaves of autumn fall out of their trees, and this year is no exception. August has been brutal for the Cubbies, and their playoff hopes are almost over once again. The team has not won the World Series for 100 years, and their loyal fans yearn to know when this long run of bitter disappointment will be over, when victory will finally come. The good news is that there is an answer to this question, at least according to popular legend, and that answer is, "The Cubs will win the World Series when hell freezes over!"

I am fascinated with the power of symbolism. How in the world is hell freezing over connected to baseball? Hell is a place of suffering, of torment, of hopelessness and despair. Obviously a real hell, if it existed, would be a far more serious thing than a losing baseball team; but on a far less grim level, Cubs fans do suffer. To say that hell will freeze over someday is to say that there will be an end to suffering; hope will replace despair, and joy will triumph over pain. It's a great image, an optimistic vision of the future. Even the lowliest will eventually come to glory. What a powerful faith statement!

To look to a day when hell freezes over is to affirm that life is full of hope, that pain and suffering are not eternal, that joy and love are ultimately stronger than despair. Whether one takes that affirmation literally or metaphorically, it is a message that lifts the spirit and gives us courage. It places the sufferings of life, or a long losing streak, into perspective. Yes, suffering is real, but suffering is not the final answer. That is the problem with hell. It says that for countless souls, there will be no hope, no more chances, no next year. But every Cubs fan knows that this is not true. There is always next year. There is always hope. Even hell will be overcome someday.

The religious group that has consistently taken the faith stance that hell will not be the final victor in human life, but that love will conquer all, is called Universalism. As an old Universalist saying goes, "We live in eternal expectation of the dawn." Or in baseball language, "Wait till next year!" May your favorite team win someday.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Most Americans Believe In Hell—Most of My Readers Don't

According to the latest Pew Forum poll, 59% of Americans believe in hell. This poll is consistent with other recent polls that confirm that slightly more than half of Americans believe that hell exists. Traditionally, hell is considered to be a place of eternal torment where nonbelievers go to be punished forever after they die.

Among the industrialized democracies, this level of belief in hell is uniquely American. European countries usually poll around 10-20% for belief in hell. America is truly different in this particular way.

Apparently the readers of my blog do not agree with the majority position on this question. Not a single person out of 45 respondents to my unscientific poll voted Yes for the traditional view.

Among the other choices that I offered, 71% of voters picked the simple, straightforward choice that hell is not real. About 40% say hell is real, but only in our minds. About 13% think hell is real, but only on this earth, a view that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed in Ebony magazine 48 years ago. The numbers do not add up to 100% because voting for more than one option was allowed.

Does any of this matter? I think religious beliefs influence the way we weave our social fabric. For example, in the current debate over health care, it is clear that Americans view this issue very differently from the rest of the industrialized world. Something that seems completely normal and natural to most of the world, namely universal health care, seems to be extraordinarily upsetting to many Americans. This reaction is too extreme and too visceral to be simply a matter of economics. People react to this idea as if it were the end of American civilization. Something else is going on beneath the surface.

I believe that part of our uniquely American and deeply troubling response to the possibility of universal health care has to do with religion. From the Calvinism of the pilgrims to the evangelicalism of the religious right, our society has long harbored an unconscious tendency to see the human family as split, divided by God into the saved and the damned, God's people and the outsiders. That is what the hell story is all about. Some will win and others will lose in life.

When you mix this deeply divisive religious component of our culture with the extreme individualism of the pioneer movement and the insensitivity of unregulated capitalism, you get a society that distrusts any idea or program that seeks to serve all the people without dividing them into winners and losers. The uniquely high level of belief in hell in America is one of the components of our deep suspicion of universal solutions to anything.

This divided way of looking at the world may have worked, or appeared to work, on the frontier, at least if one were not a Native American or an African slave. But in the 21st century, characterized by interdependence and the need for cooperation, it is a formula for failure, both moral and economic. It is time for us to change. Do you agree?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Universalism, Partialism, and Rage Over Health Care

The issue of health care is really heating up in our society. It appears to be the make or break test of the new administration. It's a huge political struggle for power, but of course it is not primarily about politics for 47 million people with no health insurance. It is about how to pay the bills.

In the past few weeks, the stress level has clearly increased to a boiling point around this hot issue. People are yelling at each other, spreading false information, and intentionally trying to create chaos at public meetings. One of the tragic dimensions of our democracy is that such negative tactics often work.

I don't want to reduce this national discussion to a single issue, because there are multiple concerns in the health care debate—concerns about freedom of choice, finances, private versus public plans, and universal coverage. These issues all merit further discussion. But I want to invite you to be aware of how the element of religion provides another dimension of the debate, one that is often in the background, unspoken.

One of the two religious traditions that form the historical background of the religious community I serve is called Universalism. Universalism is a particular branch of Protestantism that has traditionally taught that God will eventually save everyone; no one will be condemned to eternal punishment. There are similarities between this religious argument and the current argument that everyone should have health care. The underlying sentiment is that everyone has value and is worthy of being cared for in a loving way. No one should be left out of the circle of care.

The Universalists used to call the people on the other side of the theological argument Partialists, because according to the traditional doctrine, only a part of humanity would be saved. I would suggest that we, as a society, are historically Partialists; we are unconsciously comfortable with the idea that only part of humanity will be cared for and the other part will be left out.

One dimension of what is going on behind the scenes in this intense struggle over health care is a revival of the old argument between Universalists and Partialists. In this new incarnation of an old conflict, the Universalist argument is now being recast as socialism, which is a kind of heresy in America, much like Universalism was a heresy within Christianity.

This religious undercurrent in the health care debate is one of the reasons that the argument is so intense and emotional. It is not just health care that is at stake, but for some folks, it is the whole meaning of life as they understand it. This religious underpinning of the arguments is not the whole story, of course, but it is part of the story, and it helps to explain the extraordinary level of upset in the air.

As events unfold, I invite you to reflect on how religious beliefs have a subtle effect on social issues. This is a time of transformation for America, a time when we are reevaluating our understanding of our lives in community. Both sides see this reality clearly, hence the highly charged atmosphere. Let us hope that we, as a people, can find a way to care for each other without losing our civility and decency in the process.

Let me know your take on this difficult time as well.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bela Fleck and Toumani Diabate—The Banjo Crosses the Great Divide

Bela Fleck, one of the finest musicians of our time, has done it again. Beginning in 2005, Bela packed up his banjo and set out for Africa in search of the roots of the oft-maligned instrument of which he is such a master. He journeyed across the African continent playing with many excellent musicians, particularly those who play instruments that belong to the same family as the banjo. His musical encounters are now beautifully recorded in an exquisite documentary film called Throw Down Your Heart, which I recommend wholeheartedly. A CD with the same name is also available.

Now Bela is touring with one of the musicians he encountered in Africa, Toumani Diabate from Mali. Toumani is a master of the kora, a 21-string instrument that clearly shares roots with the banjo. He plays the kora as well as Bela plays the banjo, if one can even imagine that. The two of them are magnificent together, sharing a musical dialogue of depth, improvisational complexity, and extraordinary beauty. Don't miss an opportunity to see them if you have the chance.

As an aspiring banjo player myself, I am very aware of the troubling symbolism of my adopted instrument. To many people it is a reminder of racism, of slavery, of some of the worst elements in American history. And yet the banjo is an authentic African instrument. According to one of the musicians Bela met in Africa, the banjo lifted the spirits of the people who were hijacked to America under horrible conditions and helped them survive the tragic and painful journey. The banjo may symbolize troubling dimensions of America, but it stands for Africa as well. Bela demonstrates this truth and brings the banjo back full circle to its home. There is an unmistakable feeling of redemption about this journey.

To watch Bela and Toumani play together is to see some of the wounds of the world healed, if only for an evening. They laugh together, improvise together, and delight in each giving the praise to the other. When they join hands, as they often do after a song, we feel the transcendence of boundaries, as issues of language, nationality, religion, race, and for a moment even the tragedy of slavery are overcome by the musical partnership. When they playfully weave together a medley of traditional African tunes with "Oh Susanna" and "Dueling Banjos," we have a sense of experiencing a reconciliation that is almost unimaginable.

Several readers of this blog have asked me how we can go about making the world more inclusive. What can we actually do? Transformation comes about through individual acts of creativity and courage. If Bela Fleck can redeem the symbolism of the banjo and reunite this ancient instrument, stolen from its roots by oppressors, with its deeper identity in African music, then perhaps any problem is capable of transformation. Together Bela Fleck and Toumani Diabate create marvelous, uplifting music, but they also do more. They apply healing sounds to a deep wound and give us hope that other wounds can be healed as well. We have cause to be grateful to them.

If you have other stories of overcoming boundaries, with or without music, or if this story resonates with you, leave me a comment.