All posts by Dr. Charlie Self

The Path Forward, Part Two: Back to the Future: Seeing the Tapestry of History

How we understand our personal, cultural, and national history is vital for our own sense of self and for building a flourishing future. In this moment of competing narratives and agitation propaganda, embracing the complexity and contradictions of historical narratives has never been more important. Leaving aside the dangerous and foolish mythologies of blood and soil supremacy (and they are found in almost every culture), how we understand the past has profound consequences for present actions and future visions.

Before evaluating two current trends in American history, it is important to note that every civilization or significant nation begins with a dominant group and then expands to include others (with variable notions of equality). This is NOT a defense of racism – just the opposite. Racial injustice (and its twin, tribalism) is a universal phenomenon of a fallen human species. People with agendas cherry pick historical data and avoid the uncomfortable facts that do not fit their narrative. For example, the legacy of Western colonialism from about 1800-1960 is seen as an era of oppression…and it was. Muslims in particular critique the control of their ancient lands by “Crusaders.” Infrastructure, religious toleration, education, and economic developments are all ignored. I am not defending the terrible history of conquest and control. What is ignored are the centuries of Islamic conquests and oppressions from the 7th to the 17th century. In other words, history is complicated.

On the popular level (there are many historians doing good work on complex issues no one will ever hear about!), American history is often presented as either the progress of a divinely-ordained nation or the tragic story of White oppression. The recent 1619 Project bring to public attention the neglected narratives of African American and Native American oppression. The problem is not with highlighting the tragedies of systemic racism. The 1619 project is marred by reducing the American story to racism and seeing everything through this lens. In contrast, many conservative and religious groups see the USA as exceptional, and while acknowledging the many imperfections, the story is one of almost unbroken progress. The 1776 Initiative sought to counter the extremes of the 1619 project, but it has been cancelled by the new administration because it was created under the old one.

The path forward concerning American history and hope calls for maturity that can hold several narratives in tension simultaneously, celebrating trends of liberty and justice, lamenting deep injustices, and calling for more research on ignored and marginalized voices. For example, religious conservatives downplay the profound missed opportunity of the early 19th century as every denomination split over race and slavery (and only reunited in the Civil Rights era of the 1960s). Imagine the different trajectory of our American story if the churches had discarded their racism! The same willful ignorance applied to the horrendous treaty violations and violence toward Native American tribes from the 17th to the 20th century. Imagine if the Quaker voices were heeded and European settlers and indigenous people shared the development of a grand experiment in mutual respect and love. Lest progressives become proud, their refusal to include the positive record of both Christian and secular leaders working for justice and the devastations of the modern welfare state on the groups it was supposed to help, is willful blindness that keeps us from progress.

Seeing history through the four-fold lens of the Grand Narrative of the Bible is helpful so we have hopefulness and realism, and hold the tensions of the human soul and social contracts in proper balance. The biblical story begins with the divine design for worship and work, with humankind enjoying God and creatively and ethically stewarding a beautiful world. Men and women are equal image-bearers and the marital bond is celebrated. But. Human rebellion (the root of all sin) brings disaster as the divine image and purpose are defaced and distorted. Yet divine deliverance is promised. A redemptive history of grace, liberation, and holy love, culminating in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, offers hope and power for positive change. And the fourth chapter reveals an eternal destiny in a renewed earth and heavens, where worship and work are fulfilled with love and justice and the original design finds its fulfillment. All four chapters are real today and will help us be positive and wise as we navigate so many problems.

The more we study all the historical narratives, the more we find saints and sinners, progress and regress, opportunities missed and seized, and systems in desperate need of change. Let’s grow up and embrace the complexity of the past so we can distill its wisdom for the future.

The Path Forward, Part One: Seeking and Telling the Truth

“Everything is political.” “Knowledge is merely a power struggle.” ‘My job as a journalist is to tell my truth.” “Objectivity and seeing things from both sides are overrated notions.” “Hate speech is anything we hate.” These are just a few of the observations of that reveal our current crisis of knowledge and further deepen cultural and political divisions across the globe and in the USA.

In our data-saturated and wisdom-deficient age, the very notion of objective truth is questioned, with particular “narratives” gaining prominence over exploration of evidence, critical thinking, and continual modification of understanding. Humility demands that we are tentative about final conclusions of many matters, but this does not mean utter agnosticism or an absence of relative certainty.

Along with profound public contention, this subjective view of truth leads to devastating personal and social consequences. First, we are paralyzed by self-deception and unable to tell the truth to ourselves, lest our carefully-crafted, protective “safe space” be shattered by the laser-light of reality. We adopt (even unconsciously) feigned humility and smug confidence utterly unjustified by any empirical facts or rational reflection. “My opinion is just as good as yours!” is the petulant cry of infantile thinking, not an invitation to debate as maturing adults.

A second consequence of this subjectivity and solipsistic mindset is that we no longer voice our ideas to each other, with a view toward civil debate and growing in wisdom. We are quick to cancel, slow to listen, and hastily place people in categories that allow us to avoid hearing their thoughts. We assume way too much, instead of looking for common ground, nuance, and potential refinement of our own ideas. For example, in the (often simplistic) debates between capitalism and socialism, caricatures abound and reality is tossed out the window. Most thoughtful women and men do not want a return to Maoism or Stalinism (though it is surprising how many will exchange freedom for security!). Free-market thinkers do understand that personal and social ethics are at the heart of the confidence and trust needed for free exchange and opportunity. The Scandinavian nations are capitalistic with a large safety net (and rather small, homogenous populations), and have been cutting back on the size of government for a decade or more. We need economic debates – without the labeling and libeling.

A third consequence is building public policy on insufficient information. Partisan loyalty is prized over careful stewardship of public resources, and immediate power gains take priority over long-term fiscal and social consequences. For example, better stewardship of the environment is the right direction, but the apocalyptic rhetoric is leading to policies devasting to the working classes and enriching to high-tech firms that will parrot the party line. The progress of the last several decades and the resistance of non-Western empires to any change is ignored in favor of “climate catastrophe.” Anyone not emotionally engaged in this crisis is deemed a “denier” – placing their views parallel to Holocaust denial! Research? It only matters if it furthers the narrative of massive wealth transfer. Criticism? You are destroying the earth. We can do better than this.

Looking forward, there are three positive dispositions and disciplines that are helpful. First, we can choose humility, courage, and love as our foundations for fruitful learning and discourse. If our motives are right, our minds are open, and we desire for all others the opportunities and wisdom we enjoy, the world is a better place. Second, we must – with kindness and patience – refuse all attempts at intimidation and state our convictions and ideas and allow them to germinate, be refined, and be either discarded or improved. Finally, we can consciously and consistently dialogue with women and men who see the world quite differently. Minds may not immediately change, but friendships can form, arenas of cooperation be discovered, and exemplary civil discourse can help set the tone for coming generations.

Let’s tell the truth to ourselves and others.

All Shall Be Well

Juliana of Norwich was a 14th century anchorite and spiritual writer and the first female author published in English. She was not formally a nun, but lived most of her life in a small room, receiving daily food through a window and dedicating herself to prayer. Her best-known book is Revelations of Divine Love. Her infatuation with God and desire for others to know divine love and grace influenced thousands in her day and millions of readers over the past centuries. She shared her hope and love in a world full of plagues and wars (that make COVID-19 seem tame), ecclesial disputes, and social unrest. Why was she so happy?

Juliana experienced deep intimacy with Christ, both as the Crucified Savior and Risen Lord. She knew the entire biblical narrative and the final chapters of the Book of Revelation spoke to her as she reminded her suffering friends, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” The hope of the resurrection and the beautiful visions of eternity detailed in Scripture informed her optimism in the midst of so much degradation and tragedy.

We need Mother Juliana’s hope in our world. Easter reminds us that death does not have the final word and our current afflictions are working new affections of compassion and endurance in our souls. Injustice and underserved pain, the selfishness of the powerful, and our own self-inflicted wounds all conspire toward fatalism and hopelessness. But Easter has come and our mourning turns to joy as our tears are dried by the nail-scarred hands of Christ!

It was the Holy Spirit that gave Juliana of Norwich her revelations of divine love and hope. The same Holy Spirit lives in every believer and in the church opening our hearts and minds toward courage and wisdom, and loving service. The same Holy Spirit will empower the sharing of the Gospel as we invite others to experience forgiveness, healing, and foretastes of eternal delight.

While we contend for truth, work for justice, and engage in all domains of our culture, we will have defeats and victories, tragic reversals and miraculous advances. In the midst of it all, our Risen Lord reminds us, “All shall be well.”

Our Stories Are Not Finished Yet

The Lenten Season is a period of self-reflection and sacrifice as followers of Christ ponder the obedience of Jesus that led to a Cross and Resurrection, bringing hope and reconciling grace to our weary world. The story of Jesus includes his humble beginnings. It features family life in an artisan’s home. There is a Bar Mitzvah that astounded some learned religious leaders. And then there were quiet years running a business until his early 30s. If the narrative stopped here, it would have been one more story of an anonymous Jewish family in the early first century.

But the full story continues as Jesus begins his public ministry. For more than three years this Rabbi delivers and heals, forgives and reconciles, teaches and demonstrates the love, grace, and truth of God’s kingdom. For his trouble, Jesus is betrayed, arrested, subject to multiple (mis)trials, scourged, crucified, and buried in a borrowed tomb with a 24-hour Roman guard. If the story had ended here, Jesus would have been one more zealous Rabbi and wonder-worker and perhaps classified as a good teacher by some and a pernicious influence by others. (Oh wait…isn’t that how many still see him?)

But the story is only complete on Easter morning as the Lord is raised from the dead in a transformed body still bearing the scars of his atoning death while revealing the ultimate future of all who believe. Easter is not only a promise of eternity, it is a present reality as followers of Jesus receive the Holy Spirit and walk in his pathway of love and humility, offering the same deliverance and healing, forgiveness and reconciliation to all.

And Easter means that all of OUR stories are still being written. Starting right now, our future can be different as we listen more deeply to our Lord, align our hearts and minds with his commands, and join Jesus in his mission. Yes, we may bear the consequences and scars of previous traumas or our own sins. No, we cannot be “anything” we imagine – that is nonsense. But starting today, we can become the best version of the person God created us to be and start doing the good works he designed in advance for us to do. We were created to enjoy God’s presence and fulfill his purpose. As we worship and work, and allow the Lord to refine our character and define our charisms, a better future opens to us – and to the world.

Our stories are not finished until our mortal journeys have ended. And even then, they continue in a new creation. Be encouraged today! Jettison the fatalism and the fantasies, and embrace the Cross. In humility and service, we discover our purpose and find great strength.

Out of Disappointment Comes Determination

People of conscience and thoughtfulness in both political parties are at a crossroads. The events of January 6th and the recent policies of the new administration are troubling many. The legacy of the previous administration was deeply tarnished and the promises of unity and amicable dialogue of the new folks in Washington are remain unfulfilled. Power and punishment, rancor and reaction dominate the public square and there is utter disregard for any fiscal restraint.

Out of the deep disappointment of this moment is an opportunity for a new determination for people that care about the common good and want all Americans engaged in helping their neighbors flourish. Beginning the week of April 5, I will introduce a nine-part series, “The Way Forward.” I will outline pathways of progress on the most challenging issues of our time. Until then, the focus of this essay and the two that will follow will be on the changes in us that provide the soil from which creativity and innovation thrive.

Here are seven “decide ahead of time” choices that help us face the world with confidence and humility, hope and courage.

  • First, we stop lying to ourselves. We must own the areas of self-deceit that capture our hearts and minds. 
  • Second, with our new found humility, we now own our personal choices and get the help we need so that any lingering victim-hood recedes and is replaced by empowerment.
  • Third, while we engage in the political process, we realize that we do not elect messiahs. Some emotional/mental distance from political soundbites will improve our health.
  • Fourth, we choose pathways that help us befriend people very different from ourselves and learn from their sufferings and triumphs.
  • Fifth, we own our historical narratives – all of them. We reject nostalgia and cynicism and recognize the good and the evil in human hearts and social systems.
  • Sixth, we do not wait for government programs to help others in need. Our churches, daily work, local charities, and many other venues offer ways of concretely changing lives.
  • Seventh and supremely, we must return to God in awe and reverence and stop making ourselves the center of the universe. When we follow the way of Christ – a life of service that will include suffering infused with love and hope – we find all our best and deepest longings fulfilled.

Will we spend less time scrolling and more time praying? Will we stop reacting with clenched fists and begin responding with open hands? It all begins with each of us and the choices we make each day.