US News Media Largely Ignored Antiwar Protests

The US news media largely continues to marginalize and ignore the antiwar movement, as they have done since the war began in 2003. Jerry Lanson writes in the Christian Science Monitor,

it seems remarkable to me that in some of the 11 cities in which protests were held – Boston and New York, for example – major news outlets treated this "National Day of Action" as though it did not exist. As far as I can tell, neither The New York Times nor The Boston Globe had so much as a news brief about the march in the days leading up to it. The day after, The Times, at least in its national edition, totally ignored the thousands who marched in New York and the tens of thousands who marched nationwide. The Globe relegated the news of 10,000 spirited citizens (including me) marching through Boston's rain-dampened streets to a short piece deep inside its metro section. A single sentence noted the event's national context.
For what it's worth the San Francisco Chronicle did give coverage of the protest that took place in San Francisco. But that was apparently the exception.

Francisco Franco: Still Dead, Still a Bastard

Some of the greatest and most important champions of social justice have come from the Roman Catholic Church. This almost goes without saying, and yet I feel I must mention this, because what I am about to discuss involves historical events from 70 years ago that are have made their way back into the news, and which do not reflect positively on the Catholic Church. I am referring to Spanish Civil War and the subsequent repressive government of Francisco Franco.

One way to describe the Spanish dictatorship of Francisco Franco would be to say that it was a unique, homegrown version of European fascism--a brutal and unholy alliance between right wing Roman Catholicism and violently repressive rule. Last summer, when I first wrote about this subject, I referenced a Time magazine article from 1944, which reported that, until D-Day, Franco kept on his desk photographs of his three favorite people: Mussolini, Hitler, and the pope.

The Spanish government is trying to do something to remember the victims of Franco's dictatorship. Called the "Law of Historical Memory", it "could make finding the remains of victims of Franco easier, and eventually lead to their names being legally cleared."

As an AP article reported,

While atrocities were committed on all sides during a war that took an estimated 500,000 lives — and the Law of Historical Memory makes reference to all of those killed — it is mostly Franco's victims, estimated at tens of thousands, who still lie in unmarked graves.
This is important background information when one considers that Pope Benedict has now beatified 498 people associated with Franco's side in the Spanish civil war. Benedict made a point of appearing at the ceremony himself. The Los Angeles Times reported that one large banner at the event read, "For a Catholic Spain, they died." Oh really? Well, here is a picture of Catholic Spain for you:

That would be Hitler marching next to his friend Franco, wouldn't it?

According to the same article,
protesters displayed a banner that, repeating graffiti that has popped up in Spain, said: "Those who have killed, tortured, and exploited cannot be beatified."

They displayed the banner with a replica of Picasso's famous Spanish War painting "Guernica." The churchgoers tore up the banner that portrays the horrors of war as the two groups brawled, Italian television reported.
Alas, it seems that those who have killed, tortured, and exploited can be beatified.

Abstract morality, concrete realities

Yesterday's New York Times ran a story about a Methodist congregation in Connecticut that is dealing with its traditional opposition to the death penalty in the face of the murder of two of its congregants.

I am reminded of something that was said the first time I attended a church in my adult life. Back in 1988, I visited a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the Midwest on a day when they featured a guest speaker who was from the state chapter of the ACLU. He mentioned in the talk that he gave that day that, after having been mugged, many people asked him if that experience made it difficult for him to justify to himself his pro-civil liberties positions with respect to criminal defendants. His answer was no. "I was against crime before I was mugged, and I still am."

Taking the moral high road is not, and never should be, dependent on whether or not you are personally involved; and being against vengeful forms of "justice" has nothing to do with being against the crimes involved. One can easily ask a death penalty opponent how one would feel if a loved one was murdered (and, in fact, this very question was asked of Michael Dukakis during the 1988 presidential debates.) The obvious answer in such a hypothetical scenario is really quite simple: "I was against murder before it happened, and I still am."

(In fact, one could point out that those who oppose the death penalty do so precisely because it is a form of judicially sponsored murder.)

In any case, abstract principles are meaningless unless you are willing to put them into practice even when it affects you personally.

In this instance, interestingly enough, one of the victims of this murder may have taken a proactive stance in that direction:

At the same time, there is a widespread belief that Mrs. Hawke-Petit was opposed to capital punishment. Having her killers put to death would be the last thing she would want, many say.

“It’d be so dishonoring to her life to do anything violent in her name,” said Carolyn Hardin Engelhardt, a church member who is the director of the ministry resource center at Yale Divinity School Library. “That’s not the kind of person she was.”

At least two church members say they think that Mrs. Hawke-Petit endorsed an anti-death-penalty document known as a Declaration of Life. The declaration states a person’s opposition to capital punishment and asks that prosecutors, in the event of the person’s own death in a capital crime, do not seek the death penalty. The documents have been signed by thousands of people, including Mario M. Cuomo, the former governor of New York, and Martin Sheen, the actor.

“She was a nurse and she would not cause harm to anyone,” said Lucy Earley, a congregant who notarized at least a dozen declarations during an appeal at the church and said she thought Mrs. Hawke-Petit’s was among them.
In a classic case of a prosecutorial double standard, a prosecutor not connected with this case made this claim:
“Our job is to enforce the law no matter who the victim is or what the victim’s religious beliefs are,” said John A. Connelly, a veteran prosecutor in Waterbury who is not involved in the Cheshire case. “If you started imposing the death penalty based on what the victim’s family felt, it would truly become arbitrary and capricious.”
The problem with the above statement is that the feelings of the victim's family are almost always brought into play by supporters of the death penalty when it suits them. Capital punishment is constantly being touted as a way of institutionalizing vengeance on behalf of the victim, as a way of bringing closure to the victim's family, as a means of fulfilling their need for "justice", and so on. But if the victim was an opponent of capital punishment, then suddenly their feelings don't matter at all. Funny how that works.

Of course, I can completely understand how this is a sensitive issue for the members of this congregation where two of their members were murdered. Sensitivity towards the families of the victims does make the entire situation difficult for everyone involved. Ultimately, I think that the prosecutor that I quoted above does make a valid point--it really shouldn't be about how the victim felt or how the victim's family feels. But, of course, once you take that matter out of the equation, one of the most commonly expressed justifications for capital punishment goes away. Instead of institutionalizing vengeful violence through judicial means, we need to instead ask ourselves what a humane and just society does in response to crime.

Science, Religion, and Fundamentalism

The most recent question posed to the panel of bloggers at the Newsweek/Washington Post "On Faith" web site is this:

In his "letter to a Southern Baptist pastor," biosociologist E.O. Wilson warns: "An alliance between science and religion, forged in an atomosphere of mutual respect, may be the only way to protect life on earth." Is such an alliance necessary? Possible?
I liked the answer given by Rabbi Irwin Kula. He begins by pointing out that much of the public dialogue on this question seems to be dominated by two sets of fundamentalisms: the "fundamentalist scientific views (Dawkins and Hitchens and co.) that claim religion is a superstitious relic from the past or a survival trick that nature uses to reproduce the species," and the "religious fundamentalist view (Dobson and Perkins and co.) that science is part of the fallen world and has no access to the Real truth." As Kula rightly points out,
As entertaining as the fight between these two fundamentalisms is it has led to an impoverishment of public conversation – a disenchanted, flattened experience of the world on the one side and an anti-science literalism that claims dogma and mythic beliefs as truth on the other.
I believe that it is indeed possible for science and religion to complement each other. The basic problem of fundamentalist scientific atheism is that it proposes to explain via science that which is outside the domain of science; and the problem with fundamentalist religion is that it proposes to explain via religious dogma and myth that which falls properly within the domain of science. So a true alliance between science and religion is only possible by moving beyond these two forms of fundamentalism. As Kula puts it:
Can we have an alliance of science and religion? Not as long as science functions as scientism and actually imagines that it is the exhaustive way to explain reality and not as long as religion imagines that its myths and stories actually explain the material world better than science. When science respects its limits to powerfully explain the external, physical and material world and religion respects its limits to powerfully illuminate our interior experience, our inner world, and our higher levels of development and consciousness, then there can indeed be mutual respect and even an alliance. This would be science that transcends the narrow scientific materialism of our fundamentalist scientists and religion that transcends the literalist, ethnocentric understanding of the myths and stories of our religious fundamentalists. One might call this a more humble science and more humble religion each of which invites the other to develop its own potentials to understand the depth and breadth of this radiant Kosmos.

Tell Me About the God You Don't Believe In

As Marcus Borg likes to say in response to those who don't believe in God--tell me about the God you don't believe in, and I probably don't believe in that God either. The following quote, taken from a column written by Daniel O'Rourke for the Dunkirk New York Observer, reflects a similar sentiment:

Proponents of atheism seem to take as a given an anthropomorphic god, which sees god as a super human patriarch. This god, of course, is almost always male and upstairs somewhere. The Greek Philosopher Xenophanes, however, observed long ago, “If horses had gods, their gods would look like horses.” It is not surprising then that humans make their gods sound and look human. Indeed we call them father, son, mother-father, but their projected human likeness doesn’t end there. Many churchgoers believe in — and therefore atheists deny — a god who gets angry, seeks revenge, punishes his enemies and rewards his friends. Many theists, however, don’t believe in such a petty, human-like god.

Some theists have a subtler, more spiritual, more universal idea of the Mystery. God isn’t “up there” at all; He/She/It (the pronouns never work) is down here: in nature, in us, in relationships. Theologians call this panentheism. Not pantheism, but panENtheism. God is IN everything or better: everything is in God.

The professional atheists, however, ignore panentheism and focus their arguments against the more common acknowledged super human deity. They set up a straw man (a straw god?) and then dismantle “him” with their arguments.
As Daniel O'Rourke points out, their basic argument is that "if god is all-powerful and all loving, how can “he” allow" the various evils of the world. And most of these militantly hostile atheists allow themselves to be woefully ignorant of the variety of thinking that exists about the nature of God. That is probably why most of them never bother to mention people like Marcus Borg, since his theology doesn't fit into their nice, neat stereotype of what God is about.

Antiwar Demonstration, San Francisco

I managed to take a few pictures at today's antiwar demonstration in San Francisco. I needed to leave early, and unfortunately I only did part of the march and was not able to participate in the die-in that was to take place during the march down Market Street. I did, however, manage to take a few pictures at the rally that took place before the march.

"And there you have the four successive elements of Roman imperial theology--religion, war, victory, peace. You worship the gods, you go to war with their assistance, you are victorious with their help, and you obtain peace from their generosity....For Augustus and for Rome it was always about peace, but always about peace through victory, peace through war, peace through violence.

It is vital to understand Augustus's program of peace through victory, because it is presumed in the counterprogram of those Christmas stories and by the gospels to which they are the parabolic overtures. But is there any other program for the earth besides peace through victory?" -- From The First Christmas, by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan

Why I wrote the previous post

The other night while I was in bed I was watching a French language television station that I pay extra to receive from my cable TV provider. The station was broadcasting a documentary about the bonobos. I watched several minutes of footage of these fascinating, smart, and gentle creatures, and as I drifted to sleep, it occurred to me to wonder--what if it had been thet instead of we who had made that decisive great evolutionary leap of intelligence? What if they, instead of we, had become the dominant species on the planet? Of course, I'm hardly the first person to pose that sort of question--the whole premise of the movie The Planet of the Apes (or at least the original 1968 version with Charlton Heston--I never did see the remake) was that evolved ape species wisely shouldn't trust the humans to rule the world.

But I guess the real question that comes to mind is--why us? Was it a pure fluke that we became the dominant species on earth? As we plunge the world towards a host of calamities--climate change, overpopulation, water shortages, and destructive wars--was all of this inevitable, and does this prove that we were the wrong species to take charge? Or was it just that we have made a lot of wrong choices along the way, choices that easily could have gone a different way? Could things have been different?

The optimist in me believes that humans had and still have the capacity to make the right choices. After all, our species doesn't just produce polluters and warmongers, but also ecologists and pacifists. If we really were such an inherently terrible species, there would be no idealists, dreamers, and saints among us. Those who try to build a better world are a testimony to the possibilities that lie before us.

But I still can't help but wonder what the world would be like if the bonobos were in charge.

A meeting in heaven

The scene is a top-level meeting of President God with all his cabinet officials. The time is 2.6 million years ago.

God: All right, we have an item on today's agenda concerning evolution on planet earth.

Minister of Evolution (MoE): Yes sir.

God: Well, how's it going?

MoE: Well, I have received a report that a primate species has evolved towards greater self-awareness, and they are starting to make stone tools now.

God: Excellent! All is proceeding according to our best hopes. You know, for eons we've had nothing but the highest hopes for this planet. We've coaxed the evolution of mammals, we've coaxed the development of primates, and now this! Self-consciously aware beings are finally developing! This is what we've waited 14 billion years for. I think we should have a celebration! Here's to the new rulers of the planet, the bonobos!

MoE:. Uh, sir...

God: Think of what a wonderful world the earth will be in a couple more million years of evolution, after they've spread out over the earth and established harmonious universal love in a glorious Kingdom of God.

MoE: I'm afraid I have some bad news. The bonobos aren't the primates who developed self-awareness. It is their cousins, the australopithecines.

God: What?

MoE: Yeah. The upright walking ones. My staff has decided to give them a new genus classification now that they've become more intelligent. They are now designated as homo habilis. They are also called humans.

God: Oh f***.

MoE: Excuse me?

God: Do you realize what has happened? That species will totally screw up the planet. They will wreak untold destruction. They have no self-control, they are violent, domineering, and polluting. If they take over, the whole evolutionary experiment on earth is doomed! How could this have happened?

MoE: I'm not sure, sir. Maybe the Minister of Temptation had something to do with it. [MoE looks over at Lucifer.]

God: Lucifer!

Lucifer [cringing]: I thought you wanted a species who could be easily tempted! How do you tempt a bonobo into doing evil? After the slightest conflict, they just hump one another and then they are all nice again. I can't work with such a cooperative and peaceful bunch of characters.

God: Lucifer, that's not my problem. I wanted a species that would bring harmony, peace, and love to the planet. Now we've screwed everything up.

MoE: Well, it could have been worse. It could have been the chimps. They are even more violent than humans are.

God: MoE, can we somehow turn humans into an evolutionary dead end so they'll die out or something?

MoE: Not likely. Their intelligence is going to give them a huge evolutionary advantage now.

God: Jesus Christ!

Jesus [who had been sleeping]: Wha?

Lucifer: Go back to sleep, Jesus. This doesn't concern you.

God: Well, actually Lucifer, it does. [Turning to Jesus] Son, I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that when we incarnate you, you'll be fully bipedal instead of a knuckle-walker. The bad news is that you aren't going to be a bonobo. You're going to be a human.

Jesus: Dad, you promised me that I'd get to be a bonobo!

God: I know I did, but there's been a screw up. I'm afraid that the life of endless sexual orgies and carefree living isn't in the cards.

Jesus: That sucks.

God: I guess we'll have to work with the cards that we've been dealt. Sophia, what do you think about all this?

[Minister of Wisdom] Sophia: Well, they will have free will and all. It isn't all bad. They do have the potential for loving kindness and compassion. But frankly, it is going to be tough.

God: Hmmm. Okay, Jesus, here's the deal. Your assignment is going to have to be a little different. When you make it to earth in a few million years or so, my guess is that the planet is probably going to be in bad shape. Domination systems, oppression, poverty, the works. So I will want you to non-violently resist the powerful imperial systems in place. Hopefully, people will emulate your lifestyle and message, they will bring down empires and establish a Kingdom of God. The absolutely worst case scenario is that after you are tortured to death they will worship you as being divine. Hopefully, that won't happen.

Jesus: Did you say tortured to death? Dad, did you say tortured??? That doesn't sound like the endless sexual adventures you promised me.

God: Don't worry, son. There's a planet over in the Andromeda galaxy that I'm holding out high hopes for. There's an intelligent species there that would make the bonobos look like prudish monks. If you agree to do this for me on Earth, I promise you I'll let you incarnate over in Andromeda.

Jesus [sighing]: Well, okay, dad....

And the rest, as we say, is history.

How fundamentalism poisons the mind

A posting in the blog of a former fundamentalist Christian asked some questions about progressive Christianity. I made some attempt at addressing some of the questions, and in the course of the ensuing discussion I was reminded of how difficult it can be sometimes to have a serious conversation about religion with some people who came out of but are no longer part of fundamentalist Christianity.

It can be a painful process to leave fundamentalism behind. Once you realize that you have been lied to, bitterness is a common result. Some people can make a soft landing out of religious fundamentalism by flowing almost seamlessly into a more mature spirituality. Those are the lucky ones. Speaking as an ex-fundamentalist myself, I don't know how they do that, actually. From Marcus Borg's writings of his own spiritual odyssey, he gives the impression of someone who was able to evolve into a progressive faith without experiencing a protracted period of bitterness about what he had been taught in his youth. Others, however, having felt betrayed by the lies they were told, feel bitter; and, unfortunately, in many ways they are still stuck in the fundamentalist mindset that they think they have left behind, with disastrous consequences for their own spiritual growth.

I saw this latter phenomenon in the case of the blogger I had some discussions with. There was much close mindedness that made a serious discussion quite impossible. For example, she insisted that there was nothing good whatsoever to be found in the Bible--that it was for all practical purposes an evil body of work. That is obviously such a biased and dogmatic opinion, it is hard to know how to react when people say such things. When I pointed out that there is both good and bad to be found in the Bible, she simply closed her mind down and refused to concede this most elementary point. I think this sort of extreme position is a typical outcome of the binary thinking of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists do essentially take an all-or-nothing position on the Bible--it must be all good and all true, they tell us, because otherwise it would be totally worthless and there would be no point in valuing it at all. Once someone with a fundamentalist mindset realizes that the Bible has its flaws, then, based on that same all-or-nothing position, the natural tendency is to take the opposite point of view and totally deride the Bible as worthless. That is obviously not very logical, nuanced, or open minded, but then neither is fundamentalism in the first place.

The same sort of weirdly close minded intolerance came up again, when she pointed out that lots of evil has been done in the name of the Bible and God. I of course fully concede the point, but when I pointed out that by the same token many people have also expressed compassion and a concern for social justice in the name of the Bible and God, she simply denied it or dismissed it. On this point, once again, her mind was completely closed. Again, in contrast to my attempt at presenting something of a more balanced perspective that shows how the Bible has been used to support all sorts of things, both good and bad, she took an all or nothing approach. This unwillingness (or inability) to take a more nuanced view of the subject suggests that a kind of fundamentalist dogmatism that is still at work.

The individual in question also often seemed to confuse "fundamentalism" and "religion", essentially making no distinction between the two. Again, I think this is a typical outcome of the fundamentalist way of thinking; when you come from a religion of True Believers that considers itself the only legitimate expression of a faith, then once you reject that the fundamentalist version of the faith, then you just assume that no other expression has any legitimacy--so therefore all religion is rejected as invalid. Again, the sort of binary, all-or-nothing thinking is clearly at work here.

I actually can relate to some of what is at work in this process. When I as a teenager bitterly rejected the fundamentalism of my upbringing, I still carried with me a lot of ideas about what religion supposedly meant--ideas that originated in fundamentalism, but which I had not put behind me even though I had rejected the religion. Like this blogger, I was unable to comprehend that the "God" that I had rejected was not the only way of conceiving of the Divine. Like this blogger, I associated a rejection of fundamentalism with a rejection of all religion. On the other hand, I don't think I took such an extreme stand on the Bible; I didn't hate the Bible as much as I just considered it irrelevant--especially the miracle stories, which I didn't take seriously as historical events. But even as an atheist I found ethical virtue in, for example, the Sermon on the Mount.

I myself still carry the scars of fundamentalism with me, though it has been more than 30 years since I rejected the religion of my upbringing at age 16. The scars I carry probably have a lot to do with why I don't take communion at church services, or why I remain unaffiliated with any given church, or why I am so sensitive about hearing even a hint of certain theological ideas in church, or why I eschew the use of the label "Christian" for myself, even though I am in close agreement with many progressive Christian theologians.

It took a long time for me to grow and to learn that there is more to Christianity than the fundamentalism I was taught as a child. I don't know if I'll ever get over those last remaining scars that I carry with me, though.

However, now that I feel like I have learned a lot and grown beyond where I came from, I do find that running up against total close mindedness from others who came out of fundamentalism, on subjects like the Bible, can be frustrating. It certainly does make a real discussion impossible. I feel like I ought to be able to tell former religous fundamentalists, "Hey, I've been there, I can relate to what you are saying, and maybe you should consider this." But I think for the most part they aren't interested in what I have to say. They have to learn the hard way, I guess, if they will learn at all.

Unfortunately, I find that it is about as difficult to discuss religion with militantly anti-religious former fundamentalists as it is with religious fundamentalists themselves. I think the problem is that it is hard for many people who come from a fundamentalist background to shed their old fundamentalist way of thinking. They haven't really stopped being fundamentalists; they've just changed teams, is all. The binary thinking that characterized their old faith still haunts them. This illustrates just how much fundamentalism really does poison the mind.

A church visit

I recently paid a visit to a church that I had not been to before. It wasn't for the purpose of finding a primary church home; I've been attending another church that has been working fairly well for me. However, I do like to take the opportunity to explore other churches from time to time, and this one was ostensibly progressive.

My impressions were initially pretty positive. During the passing of the peace, almost everyone who greeted me took note of the fact that I was a visitor and everyone was very warm and welcoming. I also was impressed to learn of the existence of a book study group that was going to tackle a work by a well-known and controversial progressive theologian. Score one for being welcoming, and score one for being open to theological progressivism.

I was less enamored of the PBS-style pledge drive moment that took place early during the service. I understood the need for churches to acquire a little lucre to keep themselves afloat, but using time in an already somewhat long church service for that purpose didn't really enhance my own worship experience, especially since I was just a visitor who wasn't going to be pledging money anyway.

The time for public prayers was described in terms of two types: "intercessory", and another category that I don't exactly remember, but I think it included prayers of thanksgiving and such. Many of the "intercessory" prayers were simple expressions of hopes and concerns laid before God, but I do have a theological problem with the term "intercessory", which presumes that we are asking God to somehow "intercede"--for example, to end the suffering in Darfur. Maybe it is a small quibble, but it did bother me because it runs counter to my concept of God.

Communion was an interesting experience because everyone was supposed to gather into a circle and participate in the event. It was made clear that anyone was free to reject the bread and juice if they wished. I actually appreciated that this was made explicit. Until recently, I was unaware of that there is a commonly used body language used in many churches that indicates that one doesn't want to take communion. The Episcopal church St. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, gathers everyone into a circle for communion, and no one there ever explains to you there that you can opt out of partaking, which I found rather annoying, because it seemed to me like you were forced into participating in a ritual, whether you wanted to or not.

To me, there is a difference between opting in for communion (when you have to walk up to the altar, for example) and opting out (where the default is that everyone takes communion unless you explicitly request not to). As much as I appreciate that it is made explicit that one can opt out, I still think that opting out is more awkward than opting in. And while I understand the theory of inclusive welcome that lies behind gathering everyone together in a circle for communion, I also prefer not to be put on the spot like that. I chose not to take communion while in the circle, and in some sense I felt that, despite the prior assurances to the contrary, I was perceived as rejecting their welcome in some sense.

I also didn't stay for coffee hour. Here's the thing: I find coffee hours awkward, especially when I visit a church by myself and I have no one to provide moral support or back me up in what for me is a somewhat socially uncomfortable situation. Surrounded by strangers in an unfamiliar environment, I am not comfortable starting conversations with just anyone who happens to pass by. But standing around like a doofus and waiting for someone to talk to me is also awkward. Had someone explicitly come up to me and the end of the service and invited me to stay for coffee hour, I would have done so. But no one did. So I decided to leave.

The associate pastor stood near the doorway, which was not in the direction of the coffee. I assumed they were saying good bye to people who were heading out. I decided to shake their hand and thank them for the service, but from their reaction to me, it seemed like I had already been judged as someone who had rejected the church--no communion and no coffee hour. Actually, I wasn't writing them off at all, but after that uncomfortable interaction at the door, I felt in a way that I had been written off. I didn't walk away from the church with a good feeling.

It wouldn't be fair for me to judge a church based on a brief moment with just one person at the end of the service, and I am not ruling out paying them another visit--maybe on a non-communion day. But it was interesting to watch how my caution and reticence seemed to have been interpreted by a member of the clergy as a kind of rejection.

Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

The Templeton Foundation placed a two-page ad in today's New York Times, with the opening paragraphs of essays that various academics wrote in response to the question, "Does the Universe Have a Purpose?" The full essays are available at the foundation's web site. The answers, of course, ranged across the spectrum, some saying "No", others saying "Yes", and still others taking uncertain positions somewhere in between. One of the answers I found interesting came from Owen Gingerich, who said (among other things):

In the deep mystery of God's vast creative experiment there may be many facets that we, in human terms, would relate to as purposes of the universe. I believe that, incredibly, this includes the creator's self-revelation though human intelligence and personalities. With God's experiment comes the freedom of choice, and I choose to believe in a purposeful universe.

My thoughtful atheistic friends who deny that the universe has any ultimate meaning are also men and women of faith. Perhaps intimidated by intimations of design, they seek to understand the universe in other ways. Ironically, they themselves may well be part of the purpose of the universe.

Elie Wiesel, as one can imagine, also gave an interesting answer, which included these words:
Man’s task is thus to liberate God, while freeing the forces of generosity in a world teetering more and more between curse and promise.
Ultimately, I do believe that the universe has a purpose; but that doesn't mean that every individual event that happens in the universe has a purpose. The Nazi holocaust had no purpose; global warming has no purpose; suicide bombings have no purpose. The overall purpose of the universe does not determine each event, perhaps because an important element of that overall purpose is the very free will that allows for purposeless events to take place. It seems paradoxical, but maybe that is the way it has to be.

The universe managed to evolve itself to the point where free, self-conscious creatures are able to ask themselves what the purpose of the universe is. And maybe that is a key to the purpose that we seek; maybe God sought to evoke a universe of conscious creatures, whose self-awareness represented a value in and of itself. And maybe it was part of God's purposes that these self-aware creatures could freely receive God's infinite unfolding love, and could also express love themselves.

Score one for inclusiveness

In response to yesterday's article on the brouhaha over Roman Catholic communion having been given to two gay men dressed as nuns, the following letter was published in today's San Francisco Chronicle:

Editor - Thank you for printing "Wafer Madness," Oct. 17, because it reminded me that there is much I admire and respect in Roman Catholicism and much I loathe and vehemently oppose. There is much I admire in the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and there is much I loathe and vehemently oppose.

But most of all, I am deeply humbled and grateful that I pastor a tiny congregation and lead a small denomination where neither Catholics, nor the "Sisters", nor anyone else, would ever be excluded from communion.


The Inclusive Celtic Episcopal Church Church of St. Savior

San Francisco


Heaher Reichgott asks, "What does the sovereignty of God mean to you?"

I hesitate to answer that question because "sovereignty" is actually not a word that I normally use in conjunction with my understanding of God. The word has for me certain connotations of power and control that don't really jibe with my understanding God as acting through persuasive love rather than coercion. I prefer to think of God a as a co-creator and companion on my journey of life, rather than as a Ruler of the Universe.

For similar reasons, I never really cared for the word "Lord" as a name for God, because that term has for me certain patriarchal, feudal, and hierarchical implications.

However, Dominic Crossan has pointed out that there are other ways of looking at this kind of terminology, especially if we consider the historical context. For example, he points out that when Jesus spoke of the "Kingdom of God", he was making a politically provocative statement, since he was envisioning what the world as he knew it would be like if God rather than Caesar were in charge. Similarly, when the early members of the Jesus movement said that Jesus was "Lord", they were also making a politically provocative statement, since this title contrasted Jesus's Lordship to the Lordship of Caesar.

In an age when kings and lords and hierarchical institutions were accepted as simply part of the natural order of society, then Jesus and his early followers challenged the status quo by using the paradigms that they understood--kings and lords. It was appropriate to their own time and circumstances. In our age, on the other hand, the terminology of kings and lords seems rather quaint, but we often cling to those words in religious contexts anyway because of the power of the traditions that lie behind them. But it is also worth considering whether such language hinders as much as it helps, especially if we don't consider the context from which it arose.

A absolute monarch can be said to "love his people", but divine love is not like that sort of condescending kingly love, and I find the analogy off-putting. To me, it is God's loving call that sustains the world, not God's supposed power. I envision God's "power" as being of a different order from that which typically characterizes hierarchical human relations, because it is non-coercive and persuasive; nor do I believe that God simply withholds coercive power provisionally while hanging that power over us as a means of last resort. An absolute monarch might rely on persuasion as a tool at his disposal, but he or she always has the use of force with which to back the persuasion up. God doesn't work that way, I believe.

God's non-coercive power, I think, lies in the very fact of Divine participation in everything that happens. Unlike a worldly monarch, either absolute or constitutionally limited, God is not to be held distant and aloof from the commoners. God is immanent. God gets his or her hands dirty. God feels our pain and shares in our joys. God is with us--in ways that a sovereign never could be.

Yes, I believe that God has a transcendent nature. But this is not kingly transcendence, but rather a transcendent lure of continually unfolding love. God is beckoning to us with the power of persuasion. "C'mon", God says to us. "This way."

Dress codes for sacraments

I kid you not. This story appeared on the front page of yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle:

Archbishop apologizes for giving Communion to gays dressed as nuns

Must have been a slow news day.

According to the article:

On Oct. 7, Archbishop George Niederauer delivered the Eucharist to members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence - an activist group whose motto is "go forth and sin some more" - prompting cries of outrage from conservatives across the country and Catholics in San Francisco.

In response to a request for comment, Niederauer released a letter of apology addressed to "Catholics of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and to Catholics at large" in which he said he did not realize his mistake until after the Mass at Most Holy Redeemer Church in the Castro district.

"At Communion time, toward the end of the line, two strangely dressed persons came to receive Communion," Niederauer wrote. "As I recall, one of them wore a large flowered hat or garland."

A large flowered hat or garland! Oh my. What, you guys got a dress code for your sacraments?

Seriously, what was the "mistake" here? Bill May, chairman of an organization called "Catholics for the Common Good", complained that "they desecrated what is most sacred and dear to every Catholic in the world." I'm not a Catholic, so I can't speak for what is sacred and dear to them. But really--I infer that Mr. May thinks that being radically inclusive is not among the things that are most sacred and dear to every Catholic in the world. The Chronicle managed to find a theologian with a somewhat different opinion than Mr. May's on this subject:

"The general sacramental principle is that you don't deny the sacrament to someone who requests it," said the Rev. Jim Bretzke, professor of moral theology at University of San Francisco, a Jesuit Catholic university. "The second principle is that you cannot give communion to someone who has been excommunicated."

He said such people are designated "manifest public sinners" in canon law.

"This is someone who violates in a serious way one of the Ten Commandments or one of the important laws of the Church," he said. "While I can see Bill O'Reilly and others might be offended, the sisters do not meet the criteria the church has for denying Communion. Over-accessorizing and poor taste in makeup is not an excommunicable offense."

Bretzke added, "Even if these people were bizarrely dressed, the archbishop was following clear pastoral and canonical principles in giving them Communion. The default is, you give Holy Communion to one who presents himself."

"Over-accessorizing and poor taste in makeup is not an excommunicable offense". Wow, really? Who knew?

I remember attending a rather stodgy Episcopal service full of well dressed white people whose average age was probably at least fifty. In the back of the church sat a lone individual, a young woman, probably in her twenties, with multiple facial piercings, dressed in a sweatshirt, and basically sticking out like a sore thumb. She got up for communion just like everyone else did--and no one batted an eye.

As I have stated before, I disagree on principle the idea of closed communion--even the fairly liberal interpretation of it that Rev. Bretzke gives in the above quote. The pastor of a church I have been attending recently compared closed communion to inviting people to a dinner party and then telling them once they arrive that they can't eat. I agree with that analogy. I'm not a Catholic, so it isn't my place to tell Catholics how to perform their sacred rituals. They do have rules about who can and cannot participate in communion. That just isn't my thing. I believe that Jesus didn't turn anyone away at the table, and I find myself in sympathy with those who follow that example today.

The Simpsons and religion has published an article by Mark Pinsky on the important role that religion plays in "The Simpsons". I have not always watched the show with regularity--I've gone entire years without watching a single episode--but more recently I've become a more consistent fan of the series. I am aware, of course, of Ned Flanders, the next door neighbor, and I am aware that the Simpsons are sometimes shown attending church--but I had not really considered just how much religion generally figures into the series on a regular basis.

According to another article by Pinsky, also on Beliefnet, one researcher a few years ago found that "69% of the episodes contained at least one religious reference, and, in 11% the plot centered on a religious issue." Those are rather amazing statistics.

As for what the Simpsons says about religion--well, that's an interesting question.

Above, we see an image of Homer Simpson sitting next to God--notice that while Homer, like many cartoon characters, lacks the full complement of fingers (he only has four), while God has five. Humans often construct their images of God, of course, in our own image--consider Michaelangelo's painting of the creation of Adam, for example. So we humans often give him hands and fingers in our artistic renderings. But apparently God as portrayed in the Simpsons is more like us than the cartoon people of Springfield are.

Regarding Ned Flanders, I have mixed feelings about his character. His evangelical theology, from all appearances, is rigid and orthodox--as far as I can tell, he has no respect for other religious faiths, for instance. In that sense, he plays up to a certain kind of stereotype of devout Christian belief that does not really represent the diversity of theologies that exist among deeply spiritual Christians. But his heart is in the right place and he often expresses the compassion and generous spirit that many Christians would do well to emulate. Of course, he is not the only Christian in the show--just the most devoutly self-identified one. The Simpsons themselves attend church and would presumably consider themselves to be Christians as well.

The Pinsky article includes some amusing quotes from the series. For example, there is this quote from Bart Simpson: "It's all Christianity, people. The little, stupid differences are nothing next to the big, stupid similarities."

I wonder if it is as likely that a character in a series with live actors could get away with making comments like that.

Muslim leaders send peace message to Christians

138 Muslim leaders have sent a message of peace to Christians. According to Time magazine:

It is time that Muslims and Christians recognized just how similar they are — the fate of the world depends on it. That's the message being sent out today by 138 Muslim leaders and scholars in an open letter to their Christian counterparts saying that world peace hinges on greater understanding between the two faiths.

The 29-page letter — entitled "A Common Word between Us and You" — is addressed to Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and 25 other named Christian leaders and "Leaders of Christian Churches, everywhere". Organized by the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman, Jordan, it's the first time so many high-profile Muslims have come together to make such a public call for peace. Launched first in Jordan this morning, and then in other countries over the course of the day, the letter gets its final unveiling at a joint press conference in Washington, D.C., this afternoon by Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia, and John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. By pointing out the similarities between the Bible and the Koran, between Christianity and Islam, the letter's signatories are asking Christian leaders to "come together with us on the common essentials of our two religions."
One can only hope that Christian leaders will respond to this overture in a similar vein, in the spirit of peace and mutual respect. I have discovered that the presiding bishop of the ELCA, for one, has indeed issued a respectful response. I don't know if leaders of other Christians denominations have yet done likewise.

The entire text of the letter can be found here. No, I haven't read it in its entirety. A cursory glance does show the following text:
The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity.
The love of God and the love of neighbor--aren't those two commandments the essence of the Christian faith, according to none other than Jesus himself?

This spirit of mutual respect stands in contrast to the bigoted statements about Jews that Anne Coulter has recently made--when she insisted that Jews need to convert to Christianity so they could be "perfected".

Paul and atonement

I recently attended a "Living the Questions" session that was devoted to the apostle Paul. I found it fascinating. Paul has often been misunderstood, and often unfairly maligned; but in fact some of the most egregiously offensive (sexist or homophobic) comments associated with him are found in letters attributed to him but which he did not write. In addition, although 1 Corinthians is a legitimately Pauline letter, it is believed by many that 1 Corinthians 14:34, which says that women should remain silent in church, was not written by Paul, but is instead an inauthentic passage that was inserted into that epistle later on. Combine all of this with the fact that Paul seemed remarkably progressive elsewhere in his authentic epistles--he referred positively to a female apostle, for example, and he stated that there is "neither male nor female" in Christ--then we can see that Paul was much more progressive than his reputation would suggest.

Leaving aside the questions of sexism and homophobia, though, there is also the theological doctrine of atonement that is attributed to Paul, and which is problematic for many people. Romans 3:21-26 in particular is cited as the source of this doctrine. The NRSV translation, for example, has Paul saying:

But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
The above passage has been used as the basis for much fundamentalist proselytizing. The notion frequently attributed to Paul by many Christians is that we are "saved" by the blood atonement of Jesus's death so long as we have the correct theological beliefs, namely belief in Jesus.

One of the theologians who figures prominently in the "Living the Questions" session about Paul is John Cobb, who raises a couple of important points about the Greek text that serves as the basis of this passage. First, he argues that the Greek word pistis that is translated as "faith" in this passage would be better rendered by the word "faithfulness". Second, the phrase "faith in Jesus" uses a mistranslated preposition; instead of "in", the correct word should actually be "of". Thus, instead of "faith in Jesus", Paul was talking about "faithfulness of Jesus". Which, of course, changes everything. Suddenly, instead of a theology that required people to believe in Jesus in order to be "saved", Paul was talking about emulating the model of a faithful lifestyle that Jesus himself exhibited.

I found an online text of a lecture that Cobb has given on this same subject, but in much greater detail. The lecture, titled "Did Paul Teach the Doctrine of the Atonement", takes apart that passage in Romans, line by line, analyzing the original Greek and how it has been and probably should be rendered in English. The alternate translation that Cobb proposes is delivered piecemeal in the lecture, but if I assemble the parts I come up with this:
Apart from the law the justice of God has now been disclosed to all who are faithful in the faithfulness of Jesus. This is attested by the Jewish scriptures. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the liberation that is in Christ Jesus, which God purposed as an act of conciliation through Jesus' faithfulness to death. God did this (the act of conciliation) to show God's justice (which had been disclosed in Jesus' faithfulness). Although God had expressed forbearance earlier by passing over sins, the new disclosure was to demonstrate at the present time that God is just and that God justifies the one who participates in the faithfulness of Jesus.
Participating in Jesus's own faithfulness--that's the essential point. According to this view, we are being asked to join in with Jesus, to be co-participants in his faith--and be faithful like he was. This has nothing to do with a doctrine of atonement, let alone the notion that in order to receive the benefits of said atonement one has to affirm one's "faith" by assenting to a set of theological propositions about Jesus:
Those who insist on the atonement often suppose that without such a doctrine Christians cannot explain how their salvation depends on Jesus Christ. They point out that what is called the moral influence theory fails to take full account of the power of sin. Paul certainly gives some suggestion of an influence of Jesus upon us, with his extraordinary faithfulness even to death on the cross evoking faithfulness on our part. But the idea of moral influence is far too weak to capture his meaning.

Paul surely believed that Jesus revealed the nature of God's justice and that in doing this, Jesus deeply changed the way we think of God and relate to God. But Paul did not suppose that changing our understanding of God by itself saved us.

Paul believed that in Jesus God won a victory over sin. But the idea that God did this by paying Jesus to the Devil as the price for ransoming human beings would have made no sense to him. Certainly, the later explanation of God's victory over the Devil in terms of tricking him into unjustly killing Jesus was not at all in the horizons of his thought.
So how, according to Paul, did Jesus save us if not through blood atonement? Cobb writes:
Jesus saves us by being radically faithful. This faithfulness shows us the true character of God's justice. This whole passage emphasizes God's disclosing and demonstrating this paradoxical justice that would more typically be called mercy. The disclosure transforms the relation of God and the world from one of wrath of one of love. Human participation is this new transformed situation is by faithfulness. This faithfulness is a participation in the faithfulness of Jesus. God views those who participate in Jesus' faithfulness in terms of the justice to which they thereby attain rather than in terms of their continuing sinfulness. This participation in Jesus' faithfulness entails readiness to suffer with Jesus. In baptism we participate in Jesus' death and burial. By thus being united with Jesus, the faithful live in confidence that they will rise with him and share in his glory.
We are being asked to join in with Jesus by emulating his own faithfulness.

In discovering this interpretation of Paul's writings, Paul suddenly seems to me to be a much more interesting author than he did before. It is so easy to read Paul in the light of later theological interpretations, and as a result his words have often struck me as trite. But perhaps I wasn't giving Paul enough credit.

Why Christianity?

I stumbled across a brand new blog by a Unitarian Universalist minister in Iowa. He has written just one entry (so far), which contains his answers to a set of questions about his faith. I liked this one in particular:

You call yourself a UU Christian. You serve on the UUCF [Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship] national board. Why?

I believe that Jesus points the way to this God of creativity and love in ways that surpass other prophets and teachers. I believe that the humanity of Jesus, his teachings and his life, are worth lifting up as a strong guide to the idea of coming to faith. When I see that Jesus is corrupted by political agendas that devalue life and the earth, I feel compelled to lift up the vision of Jesus who a) never asked someone who needed help anything about their theological beliefs, b) stood against empire and domination and oppression while maintaining a strong stance of non-violent witness; c) who stood against the moral guardians of the law in favor of a common sense approach to lifting up humanity and d) who still to this day provides in his teachings and his life the way of compassion and love.

Borg and the Afterlife

After reading Marcus Borg's comments on the afterlife in his blog on the Newsweek/Washington Post "On Faith" web site, I am once again amazed to discover that I am not so alone in my thinking on a major theological question. I have said in this blog that I am an agnostic on the question of the afterlife; so does Marcus Borg. Borg says, in fact,

I think that conventional Christianity’s emphasis on the afterlife for many centuries is one of its negative features. I have often said that if I were to make a list of Christianity’s ten worst contributions to religion, it would be its emphasis on an afterlife, for more than one reason.
I have so often objected to this focus on the afterlife within much of Christian orthodoxy. I believe firmly in the idea of religion being about our relationship with the Sacred in this life, not about some reward in the next one. In this blog I have mentioned the time I was visited at my Colorado apartment years ago by a pair of evangelical proselytizers, whose first question to me after I opened the door was whether I knew if I was going to heaven. How I objected to the very premise behind using that question as a proselytizing tool! I have also talked about how, as a child in the emergency room after an accident involving my bike and a car, I cried and told my mother that I was worried about going to hell. This is how such notions of an afterlife can poison a child's mind.

Borg gives several examples of why he objects so strongly to the idea of emphasizing the afterlife in Christian faith. For example:
When the afterlife is emphasized, it almost inevitable that Christianity becomes a religion of requirements and rewards. If there is a blessed afterlife, it seems unfair to most people that everyone gets one, regardless of how they have lived. So there must be something that differentiates those who get to go to heaven from those who don’t – and that something must be something we do, either believing or behaving or some combination of both. And this counters the central Christian claim that salvation is by grace, not by meeting requirements.

Another problem: the division between those who “measure up” and those who don’t leads to further distinctions: between the righteous and the unrighteous, the saved and the unsaved.
The exception to this idea that some people get to heaven and others don't is, of course, Christian Universalism. But I think Borg is right that many people think it is "unfair" that everyone would be granted access to God's grace in the afterlife. But it is also worth pointing out that Christian views on the afterlife were never based on ordinary concepts of fairness anyway. According to the Protestant fundamentalist theology I was taught as a kid, if even the most heinous mass murderer accepted Christ as his personal savior right before he died, God's grace (thanks to Jesus dying for our sins) would wipe his years of sin clean and he had a ticket to heaven. This is a view of Divine justice that is based on belief rather than actions, and as such it is a half-assed view of Divine grace, but it does undermine the premise of human justice that would require a "fair" meting out of justice in the afterlife based on the sum of our lives on earth. Once you've gone down that road, then "fair" has nothing to do with it.

I am not one of those people who thinks that universal Divine grace is unfair. How it would be carried out in practice, assuming there is an afterlife, is anyone's guess, and certainly not something I would venture to say. Still, in practice, it is true that much of Christian orthodoxy hinges on the notion that personal outcomes in the afterlife are not the same for everyone. A powerful argument for being a Christian according to this view is to make sure you are one of the ones who get the good outcome. But, as Borg points out, any focus on how different outcomes will be meted out in the afterlife takes our focus away from God's grace. I think that the problem in this case isn't thus belief in an afterlife per se, but rather belief in a notion of different types of an afterlife for different people, which ultimately doesn't just take the focus away from, but can effectively contradict the very essence of the notion of Divine grace. That's where you get into trouble. Take away this concern about who gets in and who doesn't, and you are free to focus instead on your relationship with God--for its own sake. The religious life becomes its own reward, and by taking away any division between the "ins" and the "outs" you can apply the concept of God's gracious and radical inclusiveness and hospitality to everyone in your everyday life.

Borg makes another important point:
Another problem: an emphasis on the afterlife focuses our attention on the next world rather than on this world. Most of the Bible, on the other hand, focuses our attention on our lives in this world and the transformation of this world. At the heart of the Lord’s Prayer is the petition for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth: your kingdom come on earth, as it already is in heaven. There is nothing in the Lord’s Prayer asking that God take us to heaven when we die.
A classic criticism that has been made against religion is the notion that hope for an afterlife has been used historically as a way of keeping people in their place and accepting injustice in this life. Obviously, not all Christians who believe in an afterlife have taken this point of view--some of the most courageous proponents of social justice have been Christians who believe in life after death. But there is also no question that, in the course of Christian history, this reasoning has been used by the privileged and powerful to keep people down.

More to the point, I believe that social justice was absolutely fundamental to the religion of Jesus. I think that the emphasis on an afterlife turns our focus away from what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God--which Dominic Crossan defines as what the world would look like if God rather than Caesar were in charge. Jesus was very much focused on the world he lived in, a world controlled by a powerful Empire that was in collusion with the religious authorities of his time--and Jesus identified with the outcasts in that world. Jesus proclaimed a big party, and everyone was invited--which was a direct slap in the face of the class system ideology and theocratic gate keeping of his time. Jesus's message of God's radically inclusive welcome was a radical message that sought to change the world in which he lived.

Building a better world is part and parcel of what religion means to me. I prefer to let the afterlife take care of itself.

The odyssey of theodicy

Here's an interesting quote on the subject of theodicy from Bruce Sanguin, from his book Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos:

I believe that God is present to us, even in the midst of evil and suffering, but it requires some theological updating to see how and where.

First, let go of omnipotence as a divine characteristic. God is not "up there," like a cosmic puppeteer, pulling all the strings. God is not all-powerful, at least not in the way we normally think of power. God's power is the non-coercive, alluring power of love. While some things are absolutely evil, evil is not ultimate. Evil needs to be set within the larger arc of the universe story and the gospel narrative. Both stories witness to an inexorable evolutionary movement, from simplicity to complexity, disorder to coherence, instinct to increasing levels of conscious awareness, selfishness to compassionate concern. This movement occurs through a love that orients all creation toward God's own heart, and enfolds even the worst atrocity into that same encompassing heart.

Second, remember Paul's insight that God's heart was on display in the "servanthood" of Jesus of Nazareth (Phillipians 2). Specifically, the incarnation represents a "kenotic" or self-emptying process, whereby God continually makes room for others and for their evolutionary development. As a result, there is genuine freedom and novelty in creation. Genetic dead ends and natural disasters will occur, as all levels of creation find their own way. Empires, tyrants, and hearts filled with hate express one cost of the divine gift of freedom. As the Holy One makes room, we may choose to fill up the space with unbridled greed and lust for power. God doesn't unilaterally intervene on these occasions, because it is not in God's nature to do so. On the other hand, God is always present, offering love to hearts that are closed.

Third, the theology of the cross affirms that God was present on the cross. This was considered foolishness by the religions of the day. A God who suffers and dies! Get serious! But it's only preposterous if we insist on clinging to a God who exercises coercive power. The God of the gospels deals with suffering by entering into it. The presence of the divine in suffering is not limited to the occasion of the crucifixion. It extends throughout the 14-billion-year story of creation. For Christians, this pan-cosmic, suffering presence of the divine is symbolized by the crucifixion. (pp. 237-239)

Angels and Demons

Here is a quote from Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos, by Bruce Sanguin:

Jesus is portrayed in the gospels as casting out demons. In first-century Mediterranean culture, demons were believed to be the cause of disease and psychological illness. Today we might think of them as the mythological equivalent of hostile takeovers in the corporate world. They coercively possess what is not theirs to possess. Recall that in chaos theory the basin of attraction defines the limits within which a system can experiment with new forms and still remain itself. Demonic presences can be understood as influences that desire to change a person or an ecosystem into something they are not intended to be.

In Mark's gospel, for example, the demonic presence tells Jesus that its name is "Legion" (Mark 5:9). There is no question that the author of this gospel is referring to the Roman Legion, which, by its occupying force, has invaded both the nation and the souls of the conquered people. Rome's political and economic order goes beyond even chaos. It is demonic in the sense that Rome's influence threatens the very definition and identity of what it meant to be Jewish. "Legion," therefore, represents an influence needing to be cast out, not experimented with. This demon ends up in a herd of swine, an animal associated with gentile culture. That's where it belonged, not in Israel. This is also why every empire is eventually cast out. The current neo-imperialist regime of the U.S. administration will be forced to withdraw for the same reason. American culture and values cannot be forced upon other nations. (p. 234)
This past weekend, my city of San Francisco played host to an air show by the US Navy's Blue Angels squadron. This event draws people from around the region who come to watch war jets doing high speed stunts in the air.

What is the Blue Angels show really about, other than making an entertainment spectacle of what are essentially instruments of death and destruction? Isn't this a way of sanitizing what these jets really are all about? The roar that the jets make as they fly overhead may sound wonderfully high tech, but there would nothing cool about the sound of such jets if you lived in a city where that roar signified another payload of death being unleashed on your people.

According to their web site, "the Blue Angels’ mission is to enhance Navy and Marine Corps recruiting efforts and to represent the naval service to the United States." San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom has given his full support for what the Navy admits is essentially a high tech military recruitment commercial by the Blue Angels. This same mayor, by the way, has instituted a new major crackdown that criminalizes the homeless, just in time for his almost certain re-election. One can't help but wonder of those two things are connected somehow.

The passage in Mark that describes a demonic presence in terms of Roman Imperial military force was a subversive expression of Jesus's opposition to the Imperial culture of his day. How do we remain true to that spirit today?

The future of American Christianity

In Kelly Fryer's blog she refers to an article in Time magazine that tells an interesting story about what is happening to Christianity in the United States, according to some polling data. As Time puts it, Christianity has an "image problem". For example, "Nine out of ten outsiders found Christians too 'anti-homosexual,' and nearly as many perceived it as 'hypocritical' and 'judgmental.'" This isn't very surprising, given the way the religious right has invested so much effort in equating its own views with Christianity per se. But what I find more interesting are the trends that they found among increasing numbers of young people. It seems that the younger people are, the less likely they are to identify themselves as Christian:

23% of Americans over 61 were non-Christians; 27% among people ages 42-60; and 40% among 16-29 year olds.
This is really significant. Two fifths of young people under 30 do not consider themselves Christian. This is nearly twice the number of non-Christians than you find among those over 61. Even among Christians under 30, many share some of the same negative views towards their own faith that non-Chrisitians have!
Churchgoers of the same age share several of the non-Christians' complaints about Christianity. For instance, 80% of the Christians polled picked "anti-homosexual" as a negative adjective describing Christianity today. And the view of 85% of non-Christians aged 16-29 that present day Christianity is "hypocritical — saying one thing doing another," was, in fact, shared by 52% of Christians of the same age. Fifty percent found their own faith "too involved in politics." Forty-four percent found it "confusing."
Unless all these young people suddenly get religion when they get older, the long term prognosis is clear. This suggests that the US is, in a sense, slowly becoming more like Europe in finding itself less and less attached to Christianity. Maybe it is taking us a little longer to get there than the Europeans did, but we are essentially becoming a more secular society.

If Christianity has, as Time puts it, an "image problem", then the blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the Religious Right. The religious right, with its intolerance and narrow mindedness, are giving Christianity such a negative image that it is helping to push people away from the faith altogether. Yet I think that this can also be an opportunity for religious progressives to share their understanding of faith. There is a vast group of people out there who some call the "church alumni society". In a sense, this is true in Europe as well; many Europeans have a longing for God, but they find that traditional Christianity so steeped in ancient cosmologies and fanciful notions that it just doesn't fit the bill. In the US, there are similarly large numbers of people who have spiritual longings which conservative Christianity cannot fulfill. As long as people associate conservative Christianity with Christianity per se, the problem will persist. Religion is not inherently about intolerance, and it is not about believing in the unbelievable. However, if more of those disillusioned people became aware of theologians like, for example, Marcus Borg or Dominic Crossan, they may be drawn back into the faith.

From nature to God

I'm currently in the middle of reading two very different books that have been making me think about humanity's place in nature. One of them is Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos by Bruce Sanguin, which discusses "an ecological Christianity". The other is The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which is ostensibly about what the world would be like if humans suddenly disappeared, but in fact is really about the environmental impact that humans have on the world.

While Sanguin's book is theological and Weisman's is not, the books do complement each other in that both remind us that we are not separate from the natural world that we inhabit. Weisman's book can be very depressing; after reading his chapter on the massive and long-lasting damage that plastic is having on our ecosystems, including our oceans, you'll never want to put your groceries in a plastic bag again.

Some theologies would look to the damage that humans are doing to their world as an example of our inherently flawed nature. Others would look to the world that we are a part of--a world of which death, pain, and violence are part and parcel--and say that nature itself is flawed. The messiness of evolution, which gave us humans things like wisdom teeth and appendicitis, is surely nothing like an orderly eschatological vision in which nature is flawless, harmonious, and peaceful, where the lion lies down next to the lamb. Some would argue from this reality that nature alone cannot point us to God.

But to say that an imperfect nature will not point us to God is to make assumptions about God's nature. If you assume that "God" is a necessarily supernaturally theistic Deity who is utterly in control and who could order up a peaceful, harmonious utopia if it so pleased "him", then you would find the current messiness of the world to be contrary to Divine prerogative and therefore not the way to the discovery of the Divine.

This assumption reminds me of the monologue that George Carlin delivered about God in the very first episode of Saturday Night Live back in 1975. He suggested that God's work was less than stellar:

I-I think God may not be, uh, perfect. I think His work.. shows that. Take a look at a mountain range - they're all crooked, they're never in line. All different sizes. There are no two leaves that same. He can't even give two people the same fingerprints! He's had BILLIONS of years to work on some of this stuff! And EVERYTHING He has ever MADE.. DIED!! Everything so far!! [ audience applauds ] So far! Where did He get this great reputation? He's batting .000!
Despite Carlin's negativity towards religion, he seems to share some assumptions about God with theologians who say that nature does not lead us to God. Both assume that an imperfect world--one in which all of us die, for example--in some sense defies the purposes of an ostensibly perfect God. Carlin sees this as reason to be cynical about the existence of God. Certain theologians see this as a reason to be cynical about the universe--the latter suggesting that the world is at a fundamental level divorced from God's perfection. I think both positions are wrong.

Yes, the world is messy. Yes, the world doesn't always live up to God's desires. But I would argue that the overall framework under which the world operates and in which God participates is consistent with God's purposes. That framework is one of freedom and creativity, and these, I believe, reflect Divine virtues. This same Divinely sanctioned freedom that characterizes the universe is also what allows the universe to diverge from Divine purposes. The universe doesn't always act according to what God wants as each moment transpires, but these worldly misfires take place within the context of an overall evolutionary framework in which God plays an integral part. We know the world has evolved slowly, since the Big Bang. Whenever the world goes wrong somehow by not acting according to Divine purposes, at each moment in the ever-ongoing processes of evolution that have been taking place for 14 billion years, God is still there, prodding and urging the world to right itself, to take itself in new directions for the betterment of all. The messiness of the world is thus part of the very processes that God participates in. You can't divorce God from the world of nature, because God is so intimately involved with it. I would suggest that nature may not point us to certain conceptions of God, but it does point us to one such as I am describing here, where God coaxes the world towards greater complexity, self-awareness, order, and beauty.

Sanguin's book has led me to ponder an interesting notion about the fundamental ordering of the universe that I had not considered before. Citing various versions of the anthropic principle, which notes that humans could not have existed if the laws of the universe had not been just so, Sanguin offers an alternative vision:
A variation of the anthropic principle, much more attractive in my opinion, is the "strong aesthetic principle." The universe does have direction and purpose, evidenced in the human being certainly, but not exclusively. The "aim" of the universe is seen throughout all of creation, in the form of beauty. Beauty, in a cosmological context, includes our common notions of beauty, but also much more. Alfred North Whitehead talks about it as "a harmony of contrasts," or the "ordering of novelty." As John Haught points out in his book God after Darwin, without contrast (chaos), there is only the monotony of sheer order. Without order, there is only chaos. The universe's unfolding involves the intricate interplay of these two poles at every level of being. Beauty is a "delicate synthesis of unity and complexity, stability and motion, form and dynamics." The capacity for conscious self-reflection in the human being is one, but only one, expression of this delicate synthesis, which the universe displays. This also means that, at any given moment in time, disharmony may predominate, but, in the wide sweep of the evolutionary process, it will always be gathered up in the service of beauty.

If beauty, understood in this broad sense, is the aim of the universe (the strong aesthetic principle), then diversity needs to be understood as a primary expression of beauty, and also, therefore, as one of the primary values of Spirit in an evolutionary universe.
Here we have the notion that there is an aim, such as what we call "beauty", built into the very processes of the universe. My take on an evolutionary universe from the perspective of process theology had been up to this point focused on the notion that there were individual processes having immediate, limited aims, while God had the global vision thing going on, coaxing those processes towards greater complexity. But from Sanguin's comments it occurs to me to wonder if there is a tendency, or even a predisposition, for the universe at its fundamental core to self-organize itself towards the creation of emergent and more complex forms of organization that involve both order and chaos. Maybe the universe can't help but do so; maybe it has a sense of beauty built into its very fabric. Or maybe it all just comes from God's visionary lure, that guided the universe towards emergent forms of complexity over the course of eons. Either way, though, I think that the evolving self-organization of the universe, from the Big Bang to the present, shows an unfolding world that is constantly engaged in a vibrant dance with God. The improvisational nature of this unfolding process, complete with mistakes, can be said to reflect the way that God interacts with it. Nature is in God and is with God at every step of the way.

The things they teach kids in church

I sometimes peruse the reviews of churches that people post to the website I found the following snippet from a review of a church in Berkeley particularly amusing:

After visiting the church several times, one of my older kids decided to attend children's church, held concurrently to the sermon in a room adjacent to the sanctuary. Attending this with my kid, I witnessed the kids learning the words to R.Kelly's, "I Believe I Can Fly" and practicing swaying side to side in unison, the kids practiced Bible verses and won awards for memorizing verses. My kid was entranced with singing in the choir, and I felt comfortable to leave him and return to the sanctuary to hear the end of the sermon.

Mrs. McBride (Mother M) led the kids back into the sanctuary and they sang the song for the congregation. I loved watching my kid swaying and singing, If I believe it, I can do it.... After the kids sang, Mother M talked to the congregation about what they learned in children's church.

Prepared to hear a discussion how the song reminded kids that they can do and be anything, I was shocked to hear Mother M say that it was important to know how to fly because when the rapture comes, flying will be a necessary skill. WTF!!!

I wrote Pastor McBride an email hoping for some clarification. He kindly wrote back and it became clear that this theology is not for me or my family.
What I want to know is--if it is a necessary skill, were they giving flying lessons to the adults as well?


This is a place where eternally
Fire is applied to the body
Teeth are extruded and bones are ground
Then baked into cakes which are passed around.
- "Hell", by the Squirrel Nut Zippers

L'enfer, c'est les autres.
- "Huis Clos", by John-Paul Sartre

Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
- "Heaven", by the Talking Heads
Once as as a teenager, when I was beginning to seriously question the religious dogmas that I had been brought up to believe, I had a conversation with my brother and mother, both of whom were Christians, about hell. I asked them how they could possibly find it acceptable that another one of my brothers, who was at the time an atheist, would be condemned to eternal torture in an afterlife just because he wasn't a Christian. The answer I got was predictably unsatisfactory--a sort of "that's just the way it is." I was appalled. I am still appalled thirty years later. This is the kind of rationalization that takes place when dogmas are more important than common sense human compassion, and even familial love--and I just don't get it.

Recently a commenter in Heather's blog who disapproved of the idea of hell posted a link to this article of a few years ago from Christianity Today, in which a conservative theologian answered the question, "Won't heaven's joy be spoiled by our awareness of unsaved loved ones in hell?"

That's an interesting question. How can one exist in eternal bliss if one knows that others are suffering? The answer that was given in that article was every bit as appalling as you might expect. Of course, it repeats the usual claim that people "choose" to go to hell (how you can choose to go to a place that you don't even believe exists isn't exactly explained), but more to the point, it claims that humans in heaven will be transformed by God in such a way as to be totally in sync with God's glory and justice, and therefore they will not even give those in hell a single thought. "Love and pity for hell's occupants will not enter our hearts," this author claims. This is because "God will be doing the right thing," and "we shall approve the judgment of persons—rebels—whom we have known and loved."

Ahem. It is bad enough when people compartmentalize the doctrine of hell or simply shrug it away as "just the way it is." But the above justification goes much farther by spinning a scenario that tries to make all of this barbarism into something glorious and positive. It suggests that Christians in heaven won't mourn those in hell because God won't do so either, and since God's perfect justice will be revealed to them they will just think like God does on the matter.

But why assume, even if we accept for the sake of argument that God's perfect judgment requires the existence of hell, that God wouldn't mourn those who suffered there? Imagine that hell is somehow necessary (I don't believe that, but let's assume it for a moment.) Why does the necessity therefore imply that there is nothing tragic about it? Even if humans in an afterlife "approve of the judgment", how does that imply that they wouldn't also mourn its consequences as well? Since when is there a contradiction between approving of an action and still recognizing that it might have elements of tragedy? That sort of thing happens all the time in the real world; it is the stuff of which pathos is made.

Which is to say that the author of that article is making a huge leap from acceptance of necessity to outright indifference towards the consequences. But acceptance doesn't mean indifference, and necessity doesn't obviate compassion. To suggest that God would ever be immune to the pathos of some form of human suffering simply because of a supposed necessity is to confuse the issue, and it is to limit God's compassion. To suggest that humans in a hypothetical afterlife would emulate God in such a scenario is to cheapen human compassion as well.

The real problem is that if you believe that some people are consigned to eternal torment in hell, you have to come up with some way of reconciling that with the idea that some of those who love them are supposed to exist in infinite and eternal bliss. And the only way around that conundrum is to claim that somehow compassion for those in hell will disappear among the saved once one is in heaven. Out of sight, out of mind. Blissfully ignorant, in other words.

But I do not believe that God is ever indifferent to any human suffering. Ever. For God not to be compassionate at all times, for all of those who suffer under any circumstances--well, I simply cannot believe in such a God. An implication of God's perfect knowledge and compassion is that he/she experiences fully the joys and sufferings that all creatures experience. If there were a hell, then God would have to be fully aware of and perfectly empathize with the suffering that its denizens experienced. The subjective experience that each person in hell experienced could not be out of God's sight and mind. If it were, then God's knowledge would not be infinite.

And frankly, a heaven full of people who don't mourn the suffering of others sounds more like hell to me.

This whole idea of eternal damnation in hell for non-believers was the kind of thing that made me as a teenager resent so bitterly the religion of my upbringing. I think I objected to the notion of hell even more than I did to its unscientific biblical literalism--and that's saying a lot. It offended my moral sense at a core level. I had internalized the idea of Divine love and compassion for all that Christianity ostensibly preaches in certain contexts; and I could not reconcile that with the idea of a post-death torment for endless gazillions of years, simply because someone didn't have the right theology over the course of their 15 or 35 or 70 or whatever years of existence on earth. And I still feel that way today.

Silence in the face of evil

File this under "Remaining Silent in the Face of Evil":

While thousands of Buddhist monks have marched on the streets to protest against Myanmar's military regime, the Catholic Church has ordered its clergy not to take part in demonstrations or political activities.
I think there is a quote by Martin Niemöller that applies here.