Saturday Night Theologian
5 November 2006

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

The 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court decisions that removed teacher-led prayer and school-sanctioned Bible study courses from the public school classroom are pointed to by church-state separationists as important court decisions that champion religious liberty. Those who do not believe that the separation of church and state is desirable in the classroom revile the decisions as the beginning of the cultural decline of America. Neither those who support the Court's decisions nor those who oppose them disagree on the importance of teaching children proper values, they just disagree on what the proper venue for such instruction is. Today's reading from Deuteronomy includes the Shema, one of the passages of central importance to both Jewish and Christian faith. "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." Love for God is the primary covenant obligation that believers have. Unless we love God, our other actions under the guise of faith will be devoid of meaning. This love of God must be complete, engulfing mind, soul, and body, the totality of our beings. Love of God is such an important principle, that the scripture says that parents are responsible for passing it on to their children, and it even gives suggestions for remembering the passage: nailing it above the door or attaching it to their hands or foreheads. As a parent, it is my privilege, and my responsibility, to transmit my understanding of and love for God to my children. This task is too important to leave it to a stranger, even a well-meaning stranger, like my child's teacher. Besides, how do I know if a particular teacher has the same understanding of God as I do? Based on what I know about some of my children's teachers, I wouldn't want many of them giving my children religious instruction, and I suspect that other parents probably feel much the same way. The fact of the matter is, even if I like what a teacher might say about God to my kids, I still don't want them doing so in a public school setting, for a couple of reasons. First, teaching my child about God or spiritual matters usurps my prerogative and responsibility as a parent. Second, just because I might like what the teacher has to say, I'm sure that there would be other children in the classroom whose parents don't agree with the teacher's presentation. Religious instruction is too important to be done in a public school classroom, and the variety of different beliefs or approaches to teaching the material vary too greatly in any case to teach the material in a manner consistent with every parent's right to protect his or her child from unwanted indoctrination.

Psalm 119:1-8

One of the leading news stories as the week ends is the resignation of Ted Haggard as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, in the wake of an admitted male prostitute's claims regarding a long-standing sexual relationship between the two. Haggard has denied the accusations of engaging in gay sex, though he has admitted that he called his accuser for a massage (based on a referral from a hotel) and that he bought meth from him (which Haggard says he threw away). Undoubtedly more details will surface in coming days, and the public will be closer to an understanding of the actual situation. Any way you look at it, however, both the accusation and the partial admission of indiscretion on the part of Haggard are yet another example of questionable behavior on the part of a religious leader. Of course, questionable or downright bad behavior is not limited to religious leaders, for everyone is susceptible to the temptation to sin. The psalmist says, "Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord." Is there anyone who is truly blameless? It's easy to point to the sins--real or purported--of leading religious figures as examples of rank hypocrisy, but the fact of the matter is that we've all been hypocrites from time to time. To me, the biggest problem with a case like Haggard's is not the sex or the drugs. Those are matters of personal morality. The biggest problem in this case is that Haggard is a very visible public spokesman against gay marriage and equal rights for homosexuals, and if the accusations prove true, the charge will be rightly leveled against him that he publicly proclaimed one set of values and privately lived another. It is a fact that baseless accusations are often leveled against public figures (e.g., the swift-boating of John Kerry in the 2004 election, or the false accusations during the 2000 primaries that Sen. John McCain fathered a dark-skinned child out of wedlock). It is also true, however, that public figures--like so many in the private sector as well--often have skeletons in their closets that they don't want the public to know about. Part of the problem with the public discourse is that self-righteous people love to point out the sins of others, yet they fail to acknowledge their own sins. Personal moral failings are probably important to know about in religious leaders. They are less important in political leaders, unless their moral failings affect their job performance (e.g., bribes, ongoing drug use, etc.). One thing we can learn from this passage from Psalm 119 is that a life of blamelessness is a goal we can strive for. Since we will never fully attain it, however, it is a good idea to show humility when dealing with the failings of others.

Hebrews 9:11-14

One of the key issues in the debate over the evolution and creationism is the question of the existence of God. Creationists believe that God exists, but they claim that God's existence excludes the possibility that life evolved under the influence of natural selection. Evolutionists who don't believe in God often agree with the creationists' claims, although from the other side of the argument. Those who believe in God but also accept evolution as a well-established scientific theory argue that the existence of God is perfectly compatible with evolutionary theory, though in a more complex way than that proposed by traditional creationists. One of the corollaries of God's existence is the corresponding existence of transcendent meaning. In a purely materialist universe, whatever meaning there is must be assigned by others; it is not innate. In a world where God exists, meaning can inhere in objects or actions. The author of Hebrews says that the blood of Christ confers eternal redemption on those who believe. On a purely human, interpersonal scale, people who are at odds with one another can forgive one another, put their differences behind them, and be reconciled. However, the reconciliation that occurs in inherently temporal. One party or the other can decide at some point in the future to break the bond, and the rift between the two people is established again. The redemption that the author of Hebrews describes is eternal, not simply everlasting but outside of time entirely, in the realm of the transcendent. Various theories of the atoning death of Christ have been proposed over the centuries of Christian history, but the bottom line is that Christ's death is evidence of God's eternal love for humankind, the kind of love that supercedes both time and space.

Mark 12:28-34

Many people today, especially those in public life, talk about how they love God and how God loves them. Too rarely do they talk about loving their neighbors, however. The public, politicized form of Christianity that often manifests itself in political campaigns too frequently devolves into statements that reflect hate rather than love for our neighbors. Many politicians win votes by pitching their hatred of immigrants, of homosexuals, of Muslims, and very often they succeed. In Mark's version of the inaptly named Great Commandment, an admiring scribe asks Jesus which commandment is the greatest. I say that the traditional title for this section is inaptly named because Jesus answers the scribes question by giving two Great Commandments, neither of which is sufficient without the other. The first is the Shema, the command to love God with all one's being. The second is from Leviticus 19:18: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." In Mark's version of this story, Jesus' answer wins the approval of the scribe, who praises Jesus for his astute answer. Jesus in turn tells him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Mark's version of this story is interesting because the scribes are usually portrayed as opponents or rivals of Jesus. On this occasion, however, Jesus recognizes the wisdom of the scribe's response, and he acknowledges that the scribe is close to the kingdom. Jesus' words fly in the face of the attitude that those with whom we disagree theologically have no access to God. Christians who say that Muslims or Jews pray to a different God, for example, or even that Christians from other denominations are separated from God have not understood the implications of this story. More importantly, they have failed to put into practice the clear teaching of Jesus that we are to love our neighbors. Condemning our neighbors to hell because we disagree with them is hardly a demonstration of love.