Sometimes religion does its best work by asking questions.
During a recent month as a "theologian-in-residence" in Honolulu, one of my best assignments was speaking to 150 eighth graders at Punahou School (President Obama'ês high school alma mater) as a follow up to a chapel students had planned on the theme, "Does God Take Sides?"
At the chapel service, two narrators read opposing sides aloud, as posters were held aloft for the same positions. Meanwhile, the rest of the kids grabbed hold of a rope for a tug-of-war. For example, narrator 1 read: 'êDoes God Take Sides?'ê then narrator 2 said, 'êCaucasians versus People of Color.'ê The tug-of-war began. After a minute one narrator broke in, "Wait! We're not in opposition. At least most of us, I'm surely not!"
Some of their other oppositions were, "Humankind vs. Nature," "Heterosexuals vs. Homosexuals," "Muslims vs. Jews," "America vs. Al Qaeda," "Yes vs. No," and "Red Sox vs. Yankees." After a time of tug-of-war, a further thought or question followed each pairing before moving on to the next. After "Humankind vs. Nature," for example, that line was, "Wait! I don'êt think so, unless you see earthquakes and such as acts of God."
My assignment was to speak to their question, "Does God Take Sides," and lead a discussion as a follow-up to the Chapel. I began by saying I thought they had come up with a fantastic theme and question. I also said it was a really tough question.
Tough because if we said 'êno,'ê then it made, or appeared to make, God indifferent to our world and concerns, which couldn't be true. But if we said "yes," we tended to reduce God to our terms or positions and that couldn't be true either. I noted that in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln had pondered their precise question, acknowledging that both sides in the Civil War claimed God was on their side. Lincoln concluded that, "In the present conflict God's purposes may be different than that of either side," which was a really astonishing thing for a president embroiled in war to say. Imagine a president today saying that. What would happen?
From there we were off into discussion, mostly their questions and my responses. And that was interesting. Their questions ranged from, "With religion and science, is God against science?" to "Is God against death?" and from "Why didn't God just make one religion?" to "This economic thing, what do you call it, the recession, is that a judgment from God?"
It was a fascinating and challenging morning. I came away with several reflections.
First, these kids have been living with the Culture Wars since they were in their mother's wombs and are suspicious, maybe sick of it. Good. There's hope if the generation that is coming along is weary of the polarized way created for framing nearly every issue we face.
Second, Punahou School is a private (K through 12) school founded by Congregationalists. There's a modest religious program, one half-hour chapel a week for each grade level and classes on World Religions. How great that kids can study religion as part of their education and explore such questions. How sad that public schools, by and large, are so terrified of religion that most pretend it simply does not exist.
In that pretense, our public schools do not prepare students well for a world in which religion is, like it or not, a huge factor. One can study religion and the religions of the world without promoting one or any.
Third, many churches, instead of challenging Culture War polarities, only mirror them. Some churches identity themselves as "Bible-believing," implying that others aren't. Others identify as "progressive," a sly way of saying that others are regressive. Maybe churches and other religious congregations ought, rather than accepting the given terms of engagement, to challenge them?
Fourth, often people think of the Bible and other sacred texts as books that have the answers. They do have answers of course, but they also have questions, arguably the greatest questions ever asked. "Am I my brother'ês keeper?" "Where are you?" "What are you doing here?" "What is truth?" "Who do you say that I (Jesus) am?'ê and "Who is my neighbor?" are some of the great questions of the Bible.
In many ways religions do their best work when they question or challenge the answers we think we know. When we are so sure that God, or virtue or truth, is on our side, or that our answer is the right one, religion (at its best) questions our answers. As a Christian, I see Jesus less as the answer to our problems and more as the problem for our answers. The eighth graders seemed to be on to that as they questioned the contemporary penchant for setting most everything up in terms of easy and often false polarities.