Monday, January 30, 2017

Cherry-picking in Norway

Norway, how do I love Thee? With apologies to EBB, let me count the ways…

Norway, like many other European countries, has a state church.  (Actually had a state church; I'll get to that in a minute.) And since I am very American in wanting to keep church and state apart, and a non-believer who doesn’t think much about organized religion anyway, I know I’m a hypocrite to say this, but I just love the fact that Norway has just decided to allow same-sex weddings in their state ("Norwegian People's") church.  And I don’t know what tickles me more: that fact, or the fact that Sweden and Denmark got there before them, Sweden in 2009 and Denmark in 2012.

But enough with the false humility.  I recognized a long time ago that religious bodies are social entities that lay down a bunch of arrogant assumptions about knowledge of truth, but at the same time provide succor and comfort to millions of people. In their good moments, they inspire and bring out the best in people - when they focus on the parts which encourage them to be kind and compassionate and loving.  Churches, both local congregations and the institution writ large, are what people make of them.

For the longest time I struggled with the commonly held notion that what’s wrong with Islam is not just the radical jihadists but the very religion itself, particularly the Qur’an and all those passages telling people when and how to lop off people’s heads.  I’ve come down from that position, having taken a closer look in recent months at the contents of the Bible and discovered what a wretched collection of bashing kids’ heads against rocks type stories that abound.  It really isn’t the “bad parts” or the “good parts” of a religious Scripture that determines what the faith is; it’s what the collective makes of those parts, which ones it chooses to stand by, which ones it chooses to define as limited to historical-and-no-longer-binding contexts.

I spend a lot of time listening to German talk shows where a bunch of people sit around discussing things like “Is Islam compatible with Germany?”  And I’ve come to see what a really dumb question that is.  The response should be that the question is unanswerable, because there is no ultimate authority – no ultimate single authority – on what exactly Islam is.  Germany is a secular democracy – even with its state churches – and what binds its people is its Grundgesetz (Basic Law) – its equivalent to our U.S. Constitution.  Claim it as your own, agree to live by it, and you’ve got the makings of a good citizen.  Reject it and it doesn’t matter whether you’re religious or not – you’re choosing to be an outsider to the national community.  Religion is irrelevant in the modern world when it comes to civic identity and civic duty.

One of the good things that has come from the Protestant Reformation is the weakening of authoritarian religion.  It took a few centuries.  Lutherans for a time got just as nasty and authoritarian as the Catholic Church they broke away from, but they established the pattern of thinking for oneself when it comes to religious matters, and that, in time, led to making people receptive to the notion of universal rights without regard to race, creed, sexual preference – and ultimately religion itself.  And it opened organized religion to the possibility of placing the values of the larger universal modern culture ahead of the traditional values of a particular local religion.  And yes, I see the Church of Rome as local, despite its “catholic” claims.

I blogged earlier on cherry-picking and how it is supposed to be a bad thing when it comes to religion.  Authoritarian (clericalist) Catholics sneer about “cafeteria Catholics” who think they can have the sugary parts of the faith and not eat their vegetables, but even these folk are usually careful to live by the rules set down by the secularized community they live in.  They don’t jail senators for passing abortion-rights laws (although they do try to deny them communion), or throw rocks at gay weddings.  They simply state their views, and agree to disagree with their compatriots.  And that makes it possible for us all to live together in the modern world. 

The point is we have reached a time in the history of the Western World when we rise or fall on the basis of our secular values.  And the Church of Norway has just decided those values include extending Christian love and compassion to their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters – all the way and not just half way.  And I predict that, in time, the Christians of the nations with state churches that marry LGBT people (and agree to support without reservation the families that come from such unions) will wonder what the hell took them so long?  I doubt there are many whose dying words are, “I should not have extended a loving embrace to my gay neighbors.  I should have left them out in the cold to live in shame.”

What a happy place is Norway today.

And what a cool dude their king is.

Have a listen to this... 
Norwegians come from the north of Norway, from the middle, from the south and all the other regions.  Norwegians are also immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Poland, Sweden, Somalia and Syria.  It is not always easy to say where we come from, to which nationality we belong.  Home is where the heart is.  That cannot always be placed within country borders. 
Norwegians are girls who love girls, boys who love boys, and boys and girls who love each other. Norwegians believe in God, Allah, everything and nothing.  Norwegians like Grieg, Kygo, Hellbillies and Kari Bremnes.  In other words, You are Norway.  We are Norway.
My biggest hope for Norway is that we will manage to take care of each other.  That we can build this country further on trust, solidarity and generosity.
... and ask yourself whether the head of the church of Norway got this way from being the head of the church of Norway.  Or whether the church of Norway became what it is today because of men and women like King Harald.  I take the view that the two evolved together, that religion and culture become inseparable in time, that one hand washes the other and an organized religious group can actually become its better self through the influence of enlightened cultural values, many of which come from folk and from traditions outside the religion itself.

Technically, what was once the state church of Norway no longer is.  Its official designation was changed in 2012 from state church to “Norges Folkekirke” (Norway’s people’s church) a designation that took legal effect just a few weeks ago, on January 1, 2017.  Its 1250 active clergy are no longer employees of the Norwegian government.  And King Harald is no longer its head.

And, I might add, only about 20% of the population now identify with the church, so cynics are welcome to say they’ve only shut the barn door now that the horses have escaped.

Be that as it may.  The church is there if you want it, and it’s a warmer, more inclusive compassionate place than it used to be.  Christianity in Norway  – in its official organized form – has come a long way since it was introduced in the 9th Century. Olaf II was killed for the faith and canonized in 1031 for killing the church’s enemies.  In 1537 Christian III of Denmark forced the Lutheran Church down everybody’s throat, banished the Catholics and plundered their resources.

Norwegian (and other) Christians can celebrate Olaf and Christian, if they choose.

Or they can celebrate the decision this week to allow its pastors to marry gay people.

How you identify as a Christian is pretty much up to you.

picture credit: fjords of Norway

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