Saturday, May 18, 2013

Public Schools -- Learning to Live in a Diverse World

My children attend public schools and I am very glad about that. Public education is coming under increasing attack, particularly here in Arizona, where our state legislators seem determined to undermine the very foundations of public education. At the same time, many Christians seem intent on fleeing public schools in favor of private, Christian ones or of homeschooling. I am not opposed to either option and recognize that there are many factors that influence a family's decision about educating their children. But I think that we are wrong to abandon public schools, both as a nation and as Christians.

We did not plan or expect to have our children in public schools. Because of our work overseas, our children have mostly attended small schools for expatriate Christians, where class sizes were very small (our daughter had 10 children in her combined 4-6 grade class) and the worldview largely homegeneous. Even in those environments they did gain some multi-cultural exposure, as they often had classmates from several countries as well as living themselves in a cross-cultural situation. They also took classes on-line through a Christian internet school which offered high-quality classes, but in a largely homogeneous environment. Most of their classmates were from white, middle- to upper-middle class homes. Some, like our children, lived outside of their home countries, but most were simply homeschooled children in the United States. (In the interest of full disclosure, I now teach for that school and really enjoy the students with whom I work.) Prior to high school, the one year my children lived and went to school in the United States they both attended a local private Christian school. Although the school was good, it proved to be a less-than-ideal environment for our children, particularly our daughter. As a new junior high student she felt very much marginalized and out of place. Her classmates were from similar socio-economic backgrounds and lacked the multi-cultural perspective that our daughter had. Nor could they appreciate and affirm her uniqueness. This may be more because of their age than the school environment, but the lack of diversity in the school certainly left little place for someone to feel at home who was not just like everyone else.

Now my children are both in public high schools. Although our school district has some serious problems, I am comfortable that my children will receive a solid educational foundation that will equip them for life after high school. It certainly helps that my son attends one of the nation's best high schools, according to some rankings, while my daughter attends a good, though fairly average high school. But the quality of the academics is not the primary reason I am glad my children are in public school. In public school they learn to interact with people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Our school district is, as they say, majority-minority, which means that more than 50% of the student population are not white. Every day at school my children are reminded that they live in a country that is growing increasingly diverse, one in which people who look like them will need to learn to work alongside people who don't look like them. My daughter's school is less so than my son's, but even though the socio-economic and ethnic diversity is not as great as we might wish, she still encounters a wide variety of worldviews. Neither of my children spend their school days in a Christian worldview bubble. And that's a good thing, because they are not going to live in a world where the majority of people accept an evangelical Christian worldview, or even a Judeo-Christian one. They must learn to interact with a broader world and they must choose what they believe and why and they might as well begin in high school. We can't keep them in a sheltered environment forever.

I want my children to be comfortable with the reality that people around them look and think differently than they do. I don't want them to view people as threats simply because they are different in some way. I want them to accept the wonderful diversity that is the United States. I want them to be comfortable with having a black, Hispanic, Asian or female president, and with having co-workers from all these and other backgrounds, because that's the future of this country. I don't want my children to think that white men should be the natural leaders or control the levers of power and influence, at least not simply by virtue of being white men. The world is changing. Our country is changing. By studying in public high schools, my children are learning to deal with that changing world better, I think than they would in a more homogeneous environment.

I could list other reasons that I affirm public education, both for my children and for society as a whole, but this to me is one of the key reasons we need to have public education. Rather than fleeing from public schools, rather than tearing them down either actively or passively, we need to recommit to supporting and developing them. As Christians we should do this not less, but more. Ultimately I recognize, as I said earlier, that each family must make their decision for their own reasons, but I would strongly encourage us to give serious thought to supporting public education. We want our children to be prepared to engage with a diverse world and public schools can help us do that well.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

If God wills...

In a country where I lived and worked for several years one often heard the phrase “Khudo khohad,” which equates to the Arabic phrase “Insh Allah.” We could translate this phrase along the lines of “If it is God's will.” In the culture where I lived, this phrase was frequently used to absolve oneself of responsibility for planning or for the outcome of one's actions. After all, the individual is not really in control, so what does it matter what one does? If God wants it to happen it will. If he doesn't, it won't. End of story.

This attitude permeated the culture in many ways, resulting in a fatalistic worldview. Why should one plan or work toward a better tomorrow when the future lies beyond one's control anyway? Why feel accountable for one's actions when we know that all things are really in God's control and not our own. If something happened, it must be God's will. If it doesn't happen, it obviously wasn't. Other factors come into play in this particular cultural context which only sharpen the fatalism, because in many ways people really do lack control over their world. One man had worked hard to build a couple rooms on his house for his family, only to have the whole property taken from him by the government overnight and bulldozed to make way for a prestigious government project. Although he received some minor compensation, all his efforts to plan, work and save for his family were reduced to naught without any opportunity for him to counteract it. In such a world fatalism seems to be a realistic worldview, but it isn't a very helpful one.

This mindset is quite contrary to the Western worldview in which I was raised. American culture teaches us that we can change our lives, that we are in control of our destinies, that we can make a difference in the world. This mentality runs through many Protestant churches as well. But does it sync with the teachings of Scripture? What do we do with a passage like James 4:13-17.

Instead you ought to say: “If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that.”

This sounds a lot like saying “Khudo khohad” to me. Should we as Christians in fact be fatalistic? Does the sovereignty of God render our activity pointless?

I have wrestled with the question a lot in my life, at times actively, at other times passively. I come from a Reformed theological background, which emphasizes the sovereignty of God. But I look at the world and find that God exercises this sovereignty in baffling ways, allowing things to occur that must surely grieve God's heart. Other Christians claim to see God's sovereign hand in natural disasters and other tragedies, claiming that they are God's punishment for certain sins. This mentality stems from an Old Testament worldview, but isn't entirely incompatible with a strong view of God's sovereignty. However, I cannot accept that God acts in this way. It strikes me as far to capricious and arbitrary (especially since these claims always seem to relate to certain types of sin. I've never heard anyone say that hurricane Katrina was the punishment for the greed and consumerism of Americans, for example.)

If we adopt too strong a view of sovereignty, we become passive chess pieces in some divine game. We may think we have a say in the course of the game, but we don't really. Or if we allow for some individual freedom but insist on God having a clear and decisive plan for each person's life, we can spend our energy worrying constantly whether we are in or out of God's will. I grew up with this mindset. I understood that my goal in life was to fulfill God's plan for it. I understood that this plan would be clear to me if I simply prayed and sought wisdom. But experience has shown that sometimes God's will is rather unclear. In fact, God's plan seems to me more like a broad directive than a specific agenda for each day, week, month or year. Before I worried that if I stepped outside of God's will, if I moved off that clearly defined path he had laid out for me, I would basically be trashing my life. Now I see God's will more like the markers that illuminate the edge of the highway. Yes, there are areas I don't want to go, but there is a broad swath of possibilities that are fully within “God's will.” And don't even get me going on the idea that God has a “perfect someone” for each of us to marry.

I keep running up against this question of God's sovereignty and the extent to which what I do really matters. I don't think Scripture teaches us to our actions and decisions have no real meaning. But can we change the course of events, or are all things so completely determined that our choices have no real significance? I would not want to live in such a world, nor would I consider such a God particularly worthy of worship. I don't think God wants us to be mere automatons.

Interestingly, I found a new way to think of this after watching the movie MiB3. (I must say that I never imagined having my theology influenced by Men in Black!) In that movie, agents K and J meet Griffin, a fifth-dimensional being who sees multiple timelines simultaneously. To Griffin, all futures are possible until the point that an event occurs which then eliminates some of them, while opening up new alternatives. Because Griffin exists multi-dimensionally, none of the outcomes is fixed or determined, but he can see all of them as real because he can see what would happen should any particular event occur. What if God is in some manner like Griffin, only more so? What if God's sovereignty doesn't mean that an exact course is already fixed for each of us, but that God knows the ultimate outcome (the full restoration and redemption of the creation) and in God's multi-dimensional existence can simultaneously see all possible paths to that endpoint, without dictating that any particular one of them should occur?

I find that I need room in my theology for my actions and decisions to count, so that my life has meaning beyond simply preparing me for some heavenly future. I don't believe that God created me and placed me in this world simply so I could learn some lessons in preparation for eternity. I believe God calls me, and all people, to be co-creators, or at least co-workers in the process of bringing the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. If one emphasizes too strongly God's sovereignty one can eliminate this element of human cooperation and render human life as a fully pre-determined set of events without real significance. One can also end up with a God who is distant and unmoved by the events of this world. Otherwise, surely God would act to rectify the injustices and sufferings of God's creation. If we believe that God does act, but through God's people without specifically compelling them to act, then we must allow room for flexibility in the working out of the divine will.

In a blog such as this I can only begin to touch on this deep topic. I have on my shelf a book I first read many years ago in seminary by Clark Pinnock and others entitled The Openness of God. This book caught my attention the first time I read it and it may be time for a second read. I know that it was not well received by many evangelical theologians because it directly challenges some long-held theological positions, but the questions the authors raise and the suggestions they make offer an alternative way to understand this tension between divine sovereignty and human action. If only Pinnock had had MiB3 to watch!

I have no nice conclusion to this post, because the issue remains open for me. I do not reject God's sovereignty, but I need to understand it in a way that allows for real, meaningful human action and freedom. I don't want to be reduced to saying “If God wills” and absolving myself from responsibility or action. On the other hand, I do want to recognize that my actions and plans still rest within the larger framework of God's actions in the world. That provides, as it were, a safety net, because I can have confidence that God remains in control even when I make the mistakes that I inevitably will.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Energy Independence -- at what cost?

I believe we have a moral responsibility to care for the created world. Creation care, as I have written earlier, is part of our worship of God the Creator. As such, I advocate for the development and use of sustainable energy forms, among other things. I see the growing impact of climate change on our world—most particularly on the poorest regions of the earth-- and cannot continue to live complacently a high-consumption American lifestyle. In the past few years I have, with mixed feelings because it also impacts my budget, welcomed the increase in the price of gasoline and other petroleum-based products. As these fuels become more expensive, they make alternatives more desirable and cost-effective. This benefits the environment and has the potential to create new economic growth in sustainable energy.

Now I read (in articles such as this in The Atlantic) that advances in technology, combined with the higher price for petroleum and therefore the higher economic return on the investment, have driven significant new discoveries of oil and natural gas within the United States as well as in other regions. Within a very short time frame we have gone from a scenario in which oil would become in increasingly short supply to one in which the supply has suddenly become quite abundant, or at least potentially so. In fact, some argue that the United States could become not only oil self-sufficient but even an oil exporter in the next several years.

This could be the best thing to happen to not only our country but much of the world in quite some time. If we could eliminate our dependance on oil from the Middle East, Venezuela and other countries, we would no longer be investing our money and resources supporting petro-dictatorships. It doesn't take much to recognize that the largest oil-producing countries also have some of the worst political and human rights situations in the world (think of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran). As long as we depend on their oil, we will support those in power in these countries because we cannot afford to rock the boat too much. But if we and other countries no longer depended on them, they would suddenly lose the funds that keep them in power. That might in fact be very destablizing for those countries and their people, and possibly for the world as a whole, but it would at the least mean we wouldn't have to keep paying tribute to governments whose behavior violates many of the principles that we as Americans claim to hold most dear.

Producing oil and gas domestically could also be environmentally positive in that, if we were to enact and enforce strict environmental legislation, we could create a situation in which they would be produced with the least negative impact on the environment possible. We don't have that control in other countries. We can have it here, although the power and influence of the oil and gas industry makes me doubt we will be as stringent in this area as we ought.

At the same time, oil independence could be the worst thing to happen to our country and our world, for a couple key reasons. First of all, most of the new oil and gas being produced comes from the practice of fracking. This practice, in which steam and other chemicals are introduced into deep wells to fracture the rock, thereby releasing the petroleum and gas locked within, has opened vast new deposits of petroleum to production. But it has also raised some serious questions about the long-term effect on the environment. North Dakota has been undergoing an oil boom for some time due to this process. It has brought great wealth and economic opportunity to the state, but at an uncertain cost. Farmers have complained of their farmland becoming toxic in some manner. Wells and water sources may have become contaminated. The link between fracking and these effects remains hotly contested, but the oil and gas industry is doing their best to stifle the discussion with reassurances that fracking is completely safe. If they are so certain that it is, then why not allow more open debate and discussion, as well as unbiased analysis of the effects? We will make a very poor exchange indeed if we purchase our short-term energy independence at the cost of the long-term destruction of our environment, especially the environment that produces much of our food.

In addition, oil independence reduces the incentive to pursue and promote alternative, sustainable energy sources. Why should we concern ourselves with those when it appears that we have a supply of oil that will last far longer than anyone imagined a short time ago? Despite the advances made in alternative energy sources in the past decade or more, they still cost more per energy unit than oil and gas at current market prices. If oil supply continues to increase – even if demand also increases – oil will still remain less expensive than alternatives. Nonetheless, while acknowledging that we will continue to need petroleum-based energy for quite some time, we cannot continue to use these types of sources as we have for so long without significant harm to our environment and, ultimately, to ourselves and our children. Unfortunately, I think far too many people are content to continue living the status quo as long as possible.

I would love to see us have a healthy discussion of these issues as a society, including but not limited to the political realm. What kind of future do we want for ourselves and our world? What price are we willing to pay for our own comfort and convenience now as opposed to the sustainability of our world and our country for future generations? I fear that such a conversation will not take place, at least not openly and publicly, because so many special interests are at play and they are the ones with the wealth and power to control the conversation, be it through the information we receive or through the political discussions in Congress and state legislatures. What role do we as Christians have to play in this? How can we engage in the conversation and bring a theology of creation care into it?