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Paris, France and How Big and Majestic is Your Conception of God?
in the news: Shortly after the recent "Islamic terrorist attack" in Paris, and as global citizens gathered in that city for the UN Convention on Climate Change (COP 21), Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr.--speaking with the school's motto "Training Champions for Christ since 1971" displayed on a banner behind him and carrying a gun in his back pocket--urged students to take the university's free training course, get their concealed carry permits and be ready to "end those Muslims" should the need arise. Liberty University graduate Jonathan Merritt, writing in the December 6 online edition of the The Atlantic found Falwell's remarks "troubling." A few days later another American Christian University, Wheaton College, made news with its suspension of professor Larycia Hawkins who claims that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. In analyzing the move in a Washington Post op-ed, Yale University theology professor Miroslav Volf argued "Her suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims." The associated headline referred to that as "anti-Muslim bigotry."
commentary and analysis (by Stephen P. Cook, project Worldview, www.projectworldview.org): As we anticipate celebrating Christmas in a few days, before I (rather simplistically?!) attempt to make sense of all this, let me recount some recent personal history...
I wanted to be in Paris for the start of COP 21, and accordingly planned my week-long tour of northwest France to end there. The most intriguing sites I visited can be crudely lumped into two categories: 1) religious shrines celebrating the majesty of God and transcendent feelings of belonging (Chartres, le Mont Saint Michel, cathedrals at Angers, Bayeux, Rouen, and Saint Chapelle and Notre Dame in Paris) and 2) more down to earth structures commemorating human alienation and inability to get along with each other (castles and battlefields). From Chartres, I passed through Tours and hadn't time to find the (lost?) battlefield where Christians and Muslims battled in 732 AD as I headed to the river spanning castle at Chenonceau. Of what I learned about its six century history I note here that the French WW II resistance to Nazi tyranny used the castle to get Jews (across the river and then political boundary) out of the occupied zone. The castles at Angers and Fougeres were equally impressive, not for their beauty but as fortresses to hold as war raged. After seeing the eleventh century cathedral at Bayeux, the next morning I looked over remains of Nazi concrete coastal defenses and paid tribute to those who fell at Omaha Beach. In the afternoon, as I walked the 240 foot long, nearly thousand year old Bayeux tapestry, my audioguide headset told me the story of William the Conqueror's successful invasion of England in 1066. In Rouen I couldn't decide whether I was most moved by France's tallest (and some would argue most impressive) cathedral, or the tributes to (saint) Joan of Arc near where the English burned her at the stake during the Hundred Years War. The palace at Versailles made realize that, if anything, the inequality gulf between haves and have nots was even wider in the years preceding the French Revolution than it is today.
After hastily seeing da Vinci's Mona Lisa and recalling stumbling upon (a few days earlier) the castle near Amboise where this creative genius died in 1519, I left the Louvre. My November 30th evening trip out of Paris was delayed when skittish city authorities closed down the whole transit system due to a bomb scare. Security concerns had previously canceled protests organized by environmental activists, delayed the civil society opening of COP 21, and messed up my plans to connect with that event. Now back to some analysis, and to contrasting conceptions of God...
Inside magnificent cathedrals, many thoughts and feelings soar. Such moving experience can inspire conceptions of God that might (some would say naively) weave together many seemingly disparate elements: the perfection of Heaven and looking for it not only upward but inward; God as pure spirit of love and goodness; humbly and gratefully feeling wonder and awe; human consciousness linked together in the ultimate, inclusive unity; a pantheisic feeling that God is everywhere and within everything, etc. Associated worldviews are built on both Mysticism (theme #7A) and Monotheism (theme #8A) and for some eventually incorporate The Golden Rule (theme #16), Gratitude and Forgiveness (theme #17B) and even a fellow feeling that transcends national boundaries, ethnic origins, etc in something like The Global Citizen theme (theme #37B).
Some of the above conception of God transcends words--one feels it--but elsewhere words are needed. A few days ago I attended a moving (mostly musical) Christmas program in the beautiful sanctuary of a Lutheran Church in Prescott, Arizona. Music alone without words or lyrics could have carried the program--but alas, many of us wanted to sing those Christmas songs we grew up with. So words were needed..."In the beginning was the WORD, and the word was with God" --the opening of the New Testament was featured on the program's cover. And it was obviously an event put together and mostly attended by those whose worldview is built around "Belief in a Personal God" (theme #8B). To those lost in the reverie of the previously described, cathedral inspired conception of God, linking God to humans can bring in an unwanted element: imperfection. Humans are most certainly imperfect creatures: they have faults, psychological issues, can be greedily self-interested, have feelings of jealousy, anger, their brains may lead them to naturally discriminate against those perceived as being different, they blame, find scapegoats, rage, hate and fight wars...In short they sin, and thus many conceive of a justice-dispensing Moralistic God (theme #14A).
Conceptions of God heavily built on these last two themes often also extend to include attributes quite different from those of the previously described, cathedral inspired conception--a God who takes sides (Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" song parodies this), who excludes, assigns blame, intolerantly scapegoats--and quite different themes: including Bitterness & Vengeance (theme #17A), and a patriotic/nationalist Proud Orientation (theme #37A). I knew that the Old Testament God was vengeful, at times seemingly blood-thirsty, but the pastor at the Christmas service I attended helped me appreciate that even the seemingly loving Christian New Testament God takes sides. He recited a verse (Luke 2: 14) in which God wishes "earth peace among man with whom he is pleased"--not peace on Earth for everyone.
Recalling the headlines made by Wheaton College and Liberty University, all of this brings me around to even more extreme worldviews that link Christian behavior to teachings antithetical to Jesus: namely excluding others perceived as different (like Muslims) and advocating that disputes be settled violently with guns. Recalling Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan, his meek, "turn the other cheek" manner, his characterization as "the prince of peace," etc.--not surprisingly many Christians (like author Jonathan Merritt) feel "troubled" by such extremism. Non-Christians and others are troubled that some terrorists are often termed "Islamist," while others (those who bomb abortion clinics or attack Planned Parenthood) are not similarly termed "Christian." Seems most religious scholars would agree that both religions preach peace and those who kill others in terrorist attacks should not be associated with such religions. Fortunately the Paris attacks and other terrorist activity inspired by those with a narrow, small-minded, intolerant, hate-based worldviews (and often related conceptions of God ), did not shut down the Paris UN convention. Those with bigger, certainly less sectarian / more global, perhaps more majestic (detractors might say overly idealistic and naive) worldviews were able to reach (what many feel is) an important climate change agreement.
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