Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

by Kurt Nelson

Rollins Chapel – 9/29/10
Am I My Brother’s Keeper.  Genesis 3: 2-11

I’ve been on what can only be described as a spiritual journey,
with this text, this past week,
As, I suppose, one would hope from sitting with any good, big question.
I wanted to make sense not only of this strange story in Genesis,
but also of the various uses of the phrase,
"am I my brother's keeper?"
within our popular and political context.
We are - I've come to the undeniable conclusion -
We’re not really sure if, or to what extent,
we are our brothers keepers.
Though that doesn’t stop us from quoting the passage frequently.
The phrase "I am my brother's keeper" or
"I am my sister's keeper" is a popular one with our current President.
Though, like most of those who quote this line,
 the murderous context seems all but forgotten.
But we’re just as likely to hear the phrase,
"brother's keeper" style politics uttered with scorn and disdain,
to highlight a more conservative vantage point,
on various social and entitlement programs.
Indeed, the only consistent use of the phrase,
relates to literal relationships of brotherhood.
So, of course, I pondered my own younger brother,
whose name is Carl. 
he's 4 ½ years younger than I,
And he was a great source of difficulty for me growing up,
as I was for him.
I don't consider myself much of a Cain figure,
nor him much of an Abel.
Neither of us ever murdered the other out of jealous rage.
But we had our challenges,
our dust-ups,
and our difficulties.
I suspect, as the younger brother,
that Carl got the worst of it.
For he was the young, brash, obnoxious one.
But I was the older, wiser, more malevolent one.
Thus, I was asked by parents fairly often,
in good biblical fashion,
"Where is your brother Carl?"
Maybe it was because I had a robust sense of parental authority,
or perhaps due to my good, Lutheran upbringing,
I knew that Cain's response didn't work very well –
but I was much more likely to give an honest response to this question,
such as:
"He's probably still stuck in the laundry chute,"
or, "I convinced him to hide in the dryer a while back,
and I haven't seen him since,"
than I was to utter Cain's sarcastic question,
"Am I my brother's keeper?"

It is a strangely profound question,
which no doubt continues to play on the public imagination.
But let us note that it comes from a deeply strange
and troubling text.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Who told you that you were naked?- Richard R. Crocker

Who told you that you were naked?
Richard Crocker
Rollins Chapel
Sept 22, 2010
Genesis 3:8-13

I am glad that you are here, this morning, so early, on the first day of the new term and the new year.
“Who told you that you were naked?”
We are talking this term about big questions, and the significance of this one may not be obvious to you. But it is a big question, as I will try to explain.
“Who told you that you were naked?” This is a question God asked Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It’s a quaint story, depicting God as a person who wanders through the garden in the cool of the day, and during the stroll God encounters his favorite creatures adorned in unusual costume. Whereas heretofore they had been just as the other creatures, now they had decked themselves with fig-leaves, which they had sewn together. They had made clothes. So we may say that the first casualty of the fall was the creation of the fashion industry. Because, you see, until they had eaten the forbidden fruits from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve had no sense of nakedness; they had no self-consciousness; no need to adorn themselves, no need to hide.

Alas, all of us, their children, have inherited their guilt. All of us are all too aware of our nakedness, even though the fashion industry continues to help us hide. To be human is to be self-conscious, to feel awkward, out-of-place, to want to hide. Who told us that we were naked? We learned it very young, when we failed, when we were misunderstood, when we were chosen last or called dorks, or ridiculed, or hurt. Maybe no one needed to. But still, we have been told every day, in one way or another. We have always been clothed, since our births. And we have been engaged in a life-long cover up attempt. We have been covering up our sense of inadequacy, springing from fear and doubt.

I will never forget when my youngest son, when he was about four years old, once asked the family, “what does embarrass: mean?” His older brother promptly walked over to him, pulled down the young kid’s shorts and said, “That’s what it means.” Such love.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Big Questions - Richard Crocker

Big Questions
Richard R. Crocker
Rollins Chapel
September 19, 2010

I welcome you all to Dartmouth and especially Rollins Chapel. I hope that this place will become a refuge for you, and an inspiration.

You have come to college, I believe and hope, to seek answers for big questions. Big questions. Questions such as: what is the purpose of my life? Why is there war? Can it ever be ended? Why is there suffering? Can it be redeemed? What is really real? Is it only material? Or is there another kind of reality? Is temporality essential to all reality, or is there something real called eternity? These are big questions – questions you may already have thought about, but questions that are even more appropriate to your age and to a college such as Dartmouth.

But do not be deceived. You will not always find encouragement for asking such questions. Some people – fellow students and even some faculty members, will declare that such questions are foolish. Many more will simply seek distractions from the big questions by asking many little questions. Little questions, such as: what are the easiest courses? Where are the best parties? How do I meet cute girls or cute boys? Which major will help me earn the most money? How can I be cool? These little questions will gnaw away your soul, but they are, alas, the sum and substance of many people’s lives.

Kurt and I are going to talk about big questions, from the perspective of Christian faith, during the Wednesday morning chapel services this term. Both of us will speak quite briefly today, but usually only one of us will speak. As you know, I am Richard Crocker. I am the Dean of the Tucker Foundation and the College Chaplain. Kurt Nelson is the assistant chaplain. Though you might find it hard to believe, I am a lot older than Kurt. For that reason, and others, we sometimes see things differently. I think it’s valuable for you to hear from our different experiences and perspectives.

When I entered college in the late 1960’s - I came to Brown from rural Alabama. It was during the middle of the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam war. Yes, it was the era of free love and drugs for many, but it was also, for me, and for many of my friends, a time of deep struggle. I was forced to confront the fact that much of what I had been taught was wrong – although much of it was also right. I learned that our government was sometimes dreadfully wrong. I confronted big questions of morality – the morality of war, the morality of racism, the morality of complacency. For me, and many others, big questions confronted us every day as we thought about being drafted to fight a war that we thought was wrong. Those
big questions have haunted me until now. They are the reason that I changed from my intention to study biology to studying literature, and then religion, and then becoming a minister.

Kurt had different big questions to answer. He will tell you about that. And you will have yours.

This time isn’t so different than mine. You, too, have a war to think about – though it may be easier for you not to think about it because there is no draft. You too have questions of justice and equality to think about in a society that is deeply troubled about difference. The circumstances are different, but I suppose the big questions are similar. They all concern how we live with integrity, how we maintain hope in the midst of suffering and injustice, and what is worthy of our whole life’s work. It is a question of what truly gives life meaning.

Although I have many quarrels with many who espouse Christian faith, although I think many very wrong things are done by those who call themselves Christian, I have found, and continue to find, Christian faith, centered in the life, death, resurrection and teachings of Jesus Christ, to be the center of my life and hope. Such a conviction was what led to the founding of this college, and the erection of this chapel. It is a gospel of which we need not be ashamed, even though shameful things have been done in its name. Questioning our faith – whether it be faith in God, faith in ourselves, faith in the privileges that we take for granted – whatever our faith may be, questioning it is the biggest question of all. But not questioning it, not pursuing the center of meaning in life, is the biggest mistake, because an unexamined faith will not hold.

Kurt and I – and many others – are here for you – not to insist that we have the answers for your questions, but to tell you how important the big questions are, and to be supports and companions for you as you ask them. May your faith grow truer, stronger, and make you more compassionate as you live and study in this very wonderful place.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

God is not one.

by Kurt Nelson

A number of people have sent me the following article, announcing the coming of Stephen Prothero's new book God is Not One.

My esteemed colleague and co-blogger, Richard, shared it with me a number of months ago. And we discussed it.  And then he sent it to me again this morning.  So I figure it's worth a comment.  (And I've ordered the book through our library.)

I'll start by saying I agree with Prothero's basic point.  There are many who believe that all religions are essentially the same.  And I am not one of them.  And it seems to me the basic point of honest, multi-faith dialogue to come to terms with this fact, and to find a way to live and work with it.

In that vein, I take umbrage with the following paragraph:

While I do not believe we are witnessing a “clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam, it is a fantasy to imagine that the world’s two largest religions are in any meaningful sense the same, or that interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims will magically bridge the gap.

There are many poor opportunities out there for multi-faith dialogue (so too there are poor religious studies courses, and poor opportunities for religious observance.)  I have certainly witnessed and participated in badly run dialogues.  But there is a new generation of inter-faith leaders who are trying to live and work with difference without ignoring, avoiding, or glossing over it.  This is how we describe and do multi-faith dialogue.  It's far from "magical" and is often quite difficult.  But I have faith that a world with more thoroughgoing inter-faith engagement and education will be a world where blatantly anti-Muslim rhetoric is not so politically advantageous.

So says Prothero later:

What we need is a realistic view of where religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate. The world is what it is. And both tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know whatever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.

Indeed, we are allies on this front.  But purchasing this particular book isn't the only way to get there.  In the midst of increasingly diverse college campuses especially, I would welcome the encouragement of both good religious studies work in the classroom, and good and honest inter-faith engagement and dialogue outside of it.  In the current religious climate, I suspect it will take us all to make a serious, lasting difference.