Sunday, December 7, 2014

God of the car keys

Rev. Otis Moss

                                        And almost every one, when age,
                                          Disease, or sorrows strike him,
                                        Inclines to think there is a God,
                                          Or something very like Him.
                                                                                      —Arthur Clough

   "So what's your connection to all this?" I said, my standard opening line at weddings of strangers and luncheons such as the one I found myself at last week. I was standing awkwardly at a large round table, waiting for the program to begin and people to sit down.
     "Well, I'm a man of faith, and I care about the environment," he said, explaining that he's highly placed at  the Department of Natural Resources. "And you?"
      "Well," I said, not really thinking. "I'm not a man of faith, and I've never cared much about the environment. But Rev. Sauder asked me to come." 
     Rev. Brian Sauder, a Mennonite minister, and executive director of something called Faith in Place. (Slogan: "Stronger Congregations for a Sustainable World.") He had invited me to their "annual celebration and fundraiser" and not having anything better to do, I shrugged and went.
     The Chicago-based group, as best I could glean by the speeches, attempts a heretofore unimagined union of religious faith and environmentalism. Usually those two forces are at odds. Christianity's basic take on the Earth and its riches is that God gave the whole ball of wax to mankind to ruin however we please and it's all going to come to a fiery end any moment anyway, which is a good thing, because then the blessed goes to heaven, where nobody worries about recycling. Judaism is fairly mum on conservation too—the environment is what you scurry through to get to synagogue—though some of the newer, touchier-feelier offshoots, such as Reconstructionism, try to correct that by occasionally holding a service outdoors.
      But this group not only promotes the idea that religious values are environmental values, but are gathering all faiths under the same tent in their efforts to heal the world physically while nurturing it spiritually. Christians. Muslims. Jews. The invocation was delivered by Dr. Manish Shah, of the Jain Society of Metropolitan Chicago—Jainism is an ancient Indian faith that stresses nonviolence toward all living things, so he fit right in. Dr. Shah brought his mother up to deliver the benediction he had known as a child. 
     The main speaker was Rev. Doc. Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ on West 95th Street, who spoke of putting a green roof on the church (some old school parishioners wondered aloud at the barber shop why he was putting a putting green on top of the church) updating Malcolm X's "by any means necessary" in to "by any greens necessary," and was so forceful and entertaining that I was tempted to go up to him after and say, "Is there still time to get you to run for mayor in February? Because we need someone to scare Rahm." Maybe next time.
     The luncheon—vegetarian, natch—ended, and I never really got the chance to talk to my host, Rev. Sauder, which was too bad. He has a degree in natural resources and environmental sciences from the University of Illinois, a masters in religion from the Urbana Theological Seminary and and MBA, which makes him not quite your stereotypical Bible thumping preacher from Tazewell County, where he grew up. Some other time perhaps.
     On my way out the door, an interesting occurrence. I hurried to the coat closet, but my raincoat wasn't there. I went through each hanger carefully, Once, twice, three times. It still wasn't there. My good Burberry raincoat. Ah, but there was a second closet -- I had never been to the hall before, on the second floor of UBS Tower. Relieved, I went to that closet. The coat wasn't there either. Meanwhile, another man arrived and announced that he couldn't find his coat. "No kindness goes unpunished," he said. Having company seemed to confirm that we had been robbed. A spree. I felt a sinking feeling, an awful, is-this-happening? pit of the stomach feeling. A big sign on the closet said, in essence, "If you lose your coat, tough." I would have to go report my loss to Rev. Sauder. That seemed necessary, but really, what could he do about it? The poor man would be embarrassed. Why had I come to this at all? I looked one more time. The number coats were thinning out. Nothing on the floor. Maybe somebody had taken it by mistake...nah. That wouldn't happen to two coats. The do-gooders have been fleeced while listening to talks about bees and flowers.
    I was slowly walking back into the hall to deliver the bad news to the minister when I noticed a third closet. There my coat was. I put it on with joy.
     "Thank you God!" I exuded, out loud, quite the departure from my attitude at the beginning of lunch. I smiled at myself, recognizing how, in moments of duress, or relief, suddenly the long-scorned deity takes form before your eyes. As I once told my older son: "When you find yourself in jail—and trust me here—suddenly there's a God." I suppose I do believe, but in what George Carlin called "The God of the Car Keys." When you lose something, it's, "please God, help me find it!" Or, I suppose, when you find something you thought you had lost, He's the guy you thank, despite yourself.


  1. I'm off to Mass and will see if I can incorporate your comments in today's readings from Scripture


    P.S. I haven't gotten the paper yet, so I don't know if this appears as a column, but if it has I hope that someone changed "tend" to "tent."

  2. There are no atheists in closets.

  3. Fixed thanks. No, it's not in the paper. No Sunday column anymore. In the paper. Here, always a Sunday column.

  4. Agnosticism is a valid position. And I have no problem with someone pointing out the bad and the evil things done in the name of religion. In fact such people do religion a service.

    Mr. Steinberg generally writes a reasonable column but then has a habit of throwing in asinine stinkers such as –

    “”Christianity's basic take on the Earth and its riches is that God gave the whole ball of wax to mankind to ruin however we please...””

    I have 12 years of Roman Catholic education and was never taught anything remotely like that. I wonder why he mars otherwise reasonable columns with such inflammatory nonsense.

    But a more basic question – IS IT ALL RELATIVE THEN?

    If not – then there must be some universal moral order – aka natural law. And that is -- at the very least -- approaching some notion of a transcendent.

    1. Jerry, as I'm sure you know, today's epistle from St. Peter talks about an impending fiery destruction of the earth, a reasonable implication of which is that he was not overly concerned about preserving our environment.


  5. Jerry, I don't think you should get so worked up about that so-called "stinker" comment. You must not be used to Neil's style of writing, which includes humor, sarcasm and irony. I found the comment to be exactly what it was intended to be.

  6. "God is a concept by which we measure our pain."
    --John Lennon

  7. That loss of a coat might be occasion for spiritual angst brings to mind a wise saying of Seneca's: "Light grief's speak easily, the great ones are struck dumb."

  8. SandyK & Mr. Evans:

    I am not worked up in the least.

    Professional writers are able to articulate “feelings” and their “inner state” better than most. Mr. Steinberg gives us a view into the “soul” of a liberal/progressive. (I use “soul” in the nonreligious sense.)He is able to put into words that inner rage that many on his side of the aisle must now be feeling.

    Try to compare Mr. Steinberg to Mr. Evans. Mr. Evans evidences a mindset/worldview of the Roman Stoics.

    My mental image of Mr. Evans is that of Jep Gambardella in the 2013 Italian masterpiece La Grande Bellezza. Much of the contemporary Roman culture shown in the film was banal and yet other aspects were profound. Jep was able to distinguish one from the other.

    My spirit is probably closer to Evans than to Steinberg. Evans reads Seneca – I read THE HEART SUTRA.

    1. Jerry, If you weren't worked up by it, then I'm surprised you had to mention it. But then, of course, you bring your views of how "liberals/progressives" view the world -- the "inner rage" that they must now be feeling. Just struck me as odd, and straying from the subject of the post.

    2. Thanks for the compliment. Nice to be thought of as appearing in a masterpiece. However, I don't really wish to engage in such a competion with Steinberg, who I believe also reads and admires Seneca..

  9. Tate:

    Read the opening section of GENESIS. In particular --

    "'...and God saw all that he had made, and it was very good."

    It would be a sin to despoil God's creation.

    1. My point, Jerry, which seems to have flown past you, is that "It would be a sin to despoil God's creation" does not get a lot of traction in mainstream religion. Churches have not been in the forefront of the environmental movement, and the two do co-exist uneasily in the mind. The rest of your blunderbuss blast of verbiage is you unloading your own baggage, as usual.

    2. Genesis also says: "And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."

      Subduing it and conserving it don't seem to imply the same thing, to me. And having dominion over the fish and birds doesn't really imply looking out for their well-being (e.g., attempting to forestall their extinction.) And, as I'm sure you're aware, several passages in the N. T. make it pretty clear that the authors didn't expect the world to outlast their generation, for whatever that's worth, but I don't really want to get into the endless and pointless game of Biblical interpretation beyond that.

      You're not "worked up in the least," but are able to discern that today's post by Neil demonstrates the "inner rage" that we pathetic libs "must" be feeling? Uh, okay. Alas, as much as I hate to pile on, Jerry, I gotta give a tip of the cap to Neil for "blunderbuss blast of verbiage"!

  10. Mr. Steinberg:

    I beg your pardon but your point was ----

    “”Christianity's basic take on the Earth and its riches is that God gave the whole ball of wax to mankind to ruin however we please...””

    Every educated Westerner has probably read the opening section of Genesis. I simply do not understand how you can assert --especially as a non-believer -- that

    """...the two [ environmentalism and religion] do co-exist uneasily in the mind. ""

    And of course Churches have not been in the forefront of the environmental movement. That is not their primary job.

    Your are beginning to shame yourself with your rant against Christianity. But by all means continue.

  11. Replies
    1. No shame here, Jerry. And it's not a rant; that's the word you lunge at because my position confuses and frightens you. Nor do I need your leave to continue -- in fact, it's the opposite. You are granted a small portion of my territory under the perhaps spurious theory that people other than yourself get something from it. A lease, I will remind you, that can be revoked at any time. But my question is: if you find the opinions here so objectionable, then why are you living under my bridge? You were gone for a while. You're welcome to be gone some more. This isn't Zornland, where we suffer fools gladly.

  12. Mr. Steinberg:

    Thanks for the response.

    Using contemporary labels I know roughly where I fit in. It is moderate conservative/libertarian. I am a non-devout cafeteria Catholic. WendyC and Jakash know me well from Zorn’s blog. I am not a knee-jerk contrarian. I call it as I see it, and have been critical of those to the right of me.

    This is a liberal/progressive blog. I know I am not going to convince you guys of anything. Name calling and gratuitous insults are merely a waste of time for all. Perhaps “confused” -- but I am not “frightened” of your views because I agree with some of them.

    I am courtroom polite. I am interested in how liberals/progressives think and feel when confronted with hardball ideas to the contrary.

    In several other fora I do the same with hardline Catholics who believe society should be constructed along the lines of Thomas Aquinas. That is the libertarian vs. natural law debate.

    WendyC and Jakash can vouch that I simply do what I do. Since I am not being paid –I am not interested in doing otherwise.

    By now you know what I am about. You are the host. I am the guest. I am not going to change. There is no need to set a filter against me. Simply ask me to leave if that is what you desire.

    And if you ask me to leave – I now want to simply thank you for the opportunity to comment here.

  13. Those of us who simply don't care much about which moral, political and theological box JerryB has constructed to put himself in must encounter his byline and think of a comment supposedly made by Adam to Eve on the first day: "I don't know how long this is going to get."

  14. Great post, Neil. I love it. All of it, and it's informative for my work in helpful ways.

    I, too, am thanking God that the lost was found. For my embarrassment would have been indeed considerable, and my helplessness apparent.

    And I'm looking forward to that some other time!

  15. I forget, is NY Review of Books one of the 3 magazines Mr. Steinberg reads? Or was that the New Yorker? Regardless, I highly recommend the recent (a couple issues back) review/essay of Naomi Klein's book on global warming. If you don't have time for the whole thing, just read the last paragraph - I was reminded of this as I read Mr. Steinberg's column and recalled what a stern taskmaster the Lord in the Bible often is:

  16. "Christianity's basic take on the Earth and its riches is that God gave the whole ball of wax to mankind to ruin however we please"

    Quite simply, this is untrue, and if you don't know it, you should.

    Maybe you call it sarcasm, or satire, or journalistic license. Maybe you just call it the type of blather that knee jerk self-styled progressives are entitled to say, because their cause is just. I call it bigotry.

    I do find your opinions objectionable, and I seldom live under your bridge, and you can yank my license if you can't stand the heat in the kitchen. None of that stops me from calling a spade a spade.


  17. Folks:

    Note that MCN is no mere mortal. He is the Gertrude Stein of the right with his famous and exclusive MEN'S DINNERS on the North Shore -- one of which was attended by Eric Zorn -- Chicago's leading liberal/progressive pundit.

  18. Mr. Steinberg:

    I reserve my anger for only a few. You are not one of them.

    Any echo chamber -- whether it be on the right or the left -- is a yawn.

    You really need MCN and me to run a sur-blog on your blog. That would make things more interesting and perhaps more financially rewarding for you.

    What is wrong with intellectually honest debate? It was interesting that you became PO--ed
    here. MCN and I know Jakash. He is a good guy. Mr. Evans seems pretty good too.

    You really need more like the four of us here.

    1. I became PO'ed because it's frustrating to see a clear and historically-accurate position skewed by zealotry. That isn't debate, it's re-labeling. Anyway, I'm off to lunch with Zorn. I'll tell him you said hello.

  19. My status as your ideological adversary does not ipso facto make me a zealot, Mr. Steinberg. Surely you understand that.

    You make the anthropomorphic error of suggesting that an infinite being must have the same motives as a finite one.

    As for Zorn, he's had dinner at my home and can confirm my reasonableness. Give him my regards.

    I do, however, have a pretty good grasp of Christian doctrine, something you lack.


  20. Mr. Steinberg:

    Your assertion was:

    “”Christianity's basic take on the Earth and its riches is that God gave the whole ball of wax to mankind to ruin however we please...””

    In my more than half-century of living – I never heard this before.

    You say that this assertion is –“”...clear and historically-accurate ...”

    I challenged you to make the case. No evidence has been forthcoming other than one reference to the “end of times” in an Epistle by Peter proffered by Tate and Jakash’s gloss on Genesis. *

    My guess is that you would have been mightily offended if similarly crude statements were made about Judaism.

    *Jakash – even if God gave mankind the authority to subdue the earth and it creatures –it was implicit that this should be done in a way that would conserve these resources for the many generations to come. The Christian teaching that I have heard over the years is that we should be wise stewards over God’s creation. The concept of ‘stewardship’ appears in many contexts in both the old and new testament.

  21. Folks:

    I have a question.

    How many of you want Steinberg’s blog to be a place where you find ideological solace – in other words -- a protective and nurturing nest – that MCN and I are now fouling with our dissent?

    The above question is serious. It is not meant as a ‘stick in the eye’ provocation. Here is what got me thinking.

    (I won’t reveal private conversations that MCN and I had with Eric Zorn.)

    Zorn is one of Chicago’s leading journalistic authorities on police and prosecutorial misconduct leading to wrongful criminal convictions. He applied the insights learned over the years to an even handed assessment of the evidence against George Zimmerman. Yet on his blog he was called a “racist” by a regular commenter. And Zorn revealed -- on his blog – that several of his personal friendships were strained.

    MCN –my friend – and I have opposing views with respect to SS-marriage. Yet we are the best of friends.

    The left and the right have their mirror image characters. Clearly Limbaugh is the right’s Jon Stewart. You have the Reverend Al Sharpton and Senator Ellen Warren. We have Sarah Palin. They are all ideological hucksters and charlatans.

    But the anti-symmetries are more interesting. The right likes to debate. The left views dissent against their positions as moral failings. That is why some commenters called Zorn a racist and his friendships were strained with others.

  22. Correction -- ""That is why [a commenter] called Zorn.......

  23. I'm not ignoring you, it's just that work is extra demanding today and I don't have time to absorb all that you're trying to say. Let's just focus on issues, and set personalities aside because, to be honest, nobody cares. I sure don't.

  24. Well, here we have 2/3 of the Cabal reassembled on a blog with a sacrilegious title. Who'd a thunk it? While Greg continues to wage his lonely, interminable battles over on what's left of CoS, making what seem to be about a quarter of the comments there, from what I've observed. ; ) Anyway, hey there, MCN! I wouldn't have thought that the slight provocation of the above post would have warranted your attention, but the more the merrier. (Apologies to any readers still left on this thread for that brief address to personalities, as I grudgingly admit that, as Neil notes, nobody else cares.)


    I concede that the intent for mankind to exercise thoughtful stewardship of the Lord's creation can be inferred from many passages in the Bible. As in so many cases, interpretations may vary. I would even stipulate, for my part, that the sentence of Neil's that you and MCN find so offensive would be less inflammatory if it read "to use" rather than "to ruin." And, for him to refer to "a heretofore unimagined union of religious faith and environmentalism" indicates that he perhaps hasn't been paying much attention to the matter, depending on what date he's suggesting with "heretofore."

    Clearly, in the past few years, especially, there has been a burgeoning movement among certain Christians to include stewardship of the environment among the more pressing issues of the day. But, I hope that you'll concede that his statement that "it's all going to come to a fiery end any moment anyway, which is a good thing, because then the blessed goes to heaven, where nobody worries about recycling" is a valid observation about a vocal subset of Christians, as well.

    Two observations:

    As is often the case, generalizations can be problematic. "Christianity," as referred to in the post, is a huge tent. You and MCN *never* like it when you (and Catholicism, in general) are lumped in with Biblical literalists, left-behinders, or evolution-denying proponents of Intelligent Design. But they're Christians too. Saying what Christians believe about the environment, as a group, is no more possible than saying what Christians think about Obama.

    Secondly, the fact that there has been a movement among some Christians to emphasize stewardship of the environment lately demonstrates, in itself, that Neil is correct that such an interest in the environment has been lacking among many religious folks in the past. And you'll be delighted, I'm sure, when I point out that this largely is correlated with political inclinations. "Environmentalists," since the 70's, have largely been seen as godless lefties who care more about the spotted owl than they care about, say, loggers. Not surprisingly, many conservative religious people find the idea of caring for the environment, for its own sake, to be incompatible with the idea of Creation being here for mankind's benefit, and mankind's role in the world being preeminent. Which is certainly not to deny that many are conservative and concerned about the environment, as well, of course.

    Ironically, if I may be so bold, Neil seems to be pretty much of a godless lefty, and among the other things he writes above is that he "never cared much about the environment." So, that's another generalization that doesn't work. But I gotta stop! The phrase "blunderbuss blast of verbiage" is coming back to haunt me! ; )

  25. I don't remember anyone calling Zorn a racist. As for accusing others of bigotry, a certain person should first admit the same exists within his Church, in one form or another, going back centuries.

    1. Hi, Wendy! Way to stir things up! ; ) Sorry to disagree, but IIRC, given the dozens of posts and thousands of heated comments about Zimmerman, one could find instances of more than just the person Jerry has in mind going the "r" route. And I fear we might be finding out... : )

  26. Jakash, hello to you too. I think you overstate the case a bit, but who am I to quibble?

    WendyC, hello to you, too, and I'm the first to concede (and condemn) some really unpleasant conduct by purported Catholics over the past two millennia, including specifically some vile anti-Semitism. Please don't extend your notion of bigotry to homosexual marriage, though, which I reject entirely and which I no longer wish to debate. But what is at issue here is bigotry in the present, and if you don't think anti-Catholicism (and Christianity) is rife within the self-flattering progressive left, well, wake up and smell the coffee.


    1. MCN,

      "who am I to quibble?" LOL!

      Stipulated: there's a fair amount of anti-Catholicism and anti-Christianism among both the self-flattering and self-loathing segments of the progressive left. Proposed: After over 4 centuries of holding sway with huge majorities in almost all levels of government and society in this country, during which they had more than a slight tendency to discriminate against some of the many minorities, Christians might suck it up a bit when it comes to dealing with the shoe occasionally being on the other foot at this point.

    2. " Christians might suck it up a bit when it comes to dealing with the shoe occasionally being on the other foot at this point. "

      If you say so. In a society in which one presumes we are trying to eliminate all forms of bigotry, offensiveness, and bias, and to encourage a culture of tolerance, that defense doesn't go very far, does it? Particularly when coming from one of Mr. Steinberg's leanings.


  27. MCN, just as you acknowledge, that door swings both ways.

    Jakash, you may be right. I just don't recall the specific accusation of racist, at least not by us regulars.

  28. WendyC:

    It was the "D" lady from CoS. I linked to her comments several times in order to give liberals/progressives a hard time. You know whom I am talking about. But it is not fair to drag her name in here.


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