Controversy in New Zealand

Glynn Cardy, the vicar of St Matthew-in-the-City Church in Auckland, New Zealand has not updated his blog in a long time. He has almost always had something interesting to say; he is a progressive Christian who rejects many of the dogmas of traditional orthodoxy. It seems that he has made the news internationally with a controversial billboard that I think is hilarious but which some Christians found offensive. According to the BBC, Cardy "said the aim of the billboard had been to lampoon the literal interpretation of the Christmas conception story."

He goes on to say,

What we're trying to do is to get people to think more about what Christmas is all about. Is it about a spiritual male God sending down sperm so a child would be born, or is it about the power of love in our midst as seen in Jesus?
I think that for a lot of people, Christmas is about the former. I agree with Cardy; I think it should be about the latter.

The world is not scripted

John Haught describes how the process of evolution serves as the basis of a much more interesting theology than the simplistic dogma of creationism, because evolution reveals to theologians a vision of God who "wills, but does not force, truly interesting outcomes to emerge in surprising new ways."

I believe that Haught generally has denied being a process theologian, but it is clear that his views are deeply influenced by it. This business of "willing but not forcing" expresses the notion that God has not scripted the history of the universe, but rather is a non-omnipotent co-participant in its creative processes.

This point is crucial, I think, to understanding what Haught is saying. Jerry Coyne, in his atheist blog, claimed sarcastically in response to this that Haught believed that "God is just a big playwright, directing a big script that none of us will ever be able to see to its end." This seems to be actually almost exactly the opposite of what Haught was in fact saying. Scripting is one thing, Haught argues, that God does not do.

Intercessory Prayer in a Nutshell

The "Russell's Teapot" comic strips often presented some rather pointed critiques of Christian orthodoxy. Unfortunately, as is often the case with atheist criticisms of Christianity, the author of that comic strip conflates a critique of Christian orthodoxy with support for atheism per se, when in fact it is possible to agree with many of those criticisms without being an atheist. In any case, from a couple of years ago, here is a comic that summarizes intercessory prayer:

Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.

The brouhaha over whether Patrick Kennedy should take communion just reminds me once again that that when churches practice closed communion the practice can and often will be brandished as a cudgel by those in power against those who don't toe the "correct" theological line.

Jesus didn't impose preconditions on who got invited to the table, and thus it is ironic that certain churches claiming to follow Jesus do just the opposite. Closed communion and the resulting imposition of gate keeping rules by religious authorities stands in stark contrast to what Jesus, who opposed the rigidity and exclusionary practices of religious hierarchy, stood for.

What's the Bible say about rhinoplasty?

Carrie Prejean tells Christianity Today that breast implants are not forbidden by the Bible:

"I don't think there's anything wrong with getting breast implants as a Christian," Prejean told the magazine, which advertises itself as a publication of "Evangelical conviction."

"I don't see anywhere in the Bible where it says you shoudn't get breast implants," said Prejean, 22.
The list of elective surgeries invented long after the Bible was written and which the Bible doesn't prohibit is rather long. On the other hand, the list of biblical prohibitions (for example, in the book of Leviticus) that Ms. Prejean (along with the rest of us) ignores is also rather long. It is easy to mock Prejean here, who has made a name for herself as a spokeswoman for the bigoted Christian right, but it does raise an interesting point. When you rely on the Bible as a rigid guide to determine what is acceptable and what isn't, you end up losing your ability to think for yourself. And that's the real sin, as far as I'm concerned.

"A God-shaped hole at the heart of our being"

Here is a quote by John Haught, taken from an interview with Amy Edelstein:

Sometimes people ask, “What is the evidence that the infinite exists?” For Augustine and for many religious people throughout the ages, the best evidence is the utter restlessness of the human heart. You could extend that also to the restlessness of the intellect itself. We all realize that no matter how much we know, there is yet more to be known; we all realize that no matter how much we get in life, how much we have, how much we possess, we are never fully filled up by it. So there is, in a sense, a God-shaped hole at the heart of our being. That’s what Augustine was saying—our hearts are restless until we rest in the infinite.

Finding common ground

Michael Ruse, who is an atheist, argues in favor of tolerance and respect for people of faith in an excellent column that criticizes the militancy of the "new atheists", which he posted at the Guardian website. He lays out four broad reasons why he disagrees with them, and I think anyone interested in this topic will find that it makes for great reading.

I thought the following comment that he wrote in that column about the reaction he has gotten from some of the militant atheists was rather telling:

I am not whining (in fact I am rather proud) when I point out that a rather loud group of my fellow atheists, generally today known as the "new atheists", loathe and detest my thinking. Richard Dawkins has likened me to the pusillanimous appeaser at Munich, Neville Chamberlain. Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True, says (echoing Orwell) that only someone with pretensions to the intelligentsia could believe the silly things I believe. And energetic blogger PZ Myers refers to me as a "clueless gobshite" because I confessed to seeing why true believers might find the Kentucky Creationist Museum convincing. I will spare you what my fellow philosopher Dan Dennett has to say about me.
When Dawkins, Coyne, and Myers use such vitriol against a fellow atheist who doesn't toe their particular party line, this shows that their brutish behavior is not directed only against people of faith, but against anyone who thinks differently from the way they do.

I especially appreciated his comment about how tactically foolish it is for those who want to promote the teaching of evolution in schools to attack religious people who otherwise might be your erstwhile allies. This is in contrast to PZ Myers, who wrote a few years ago that he opposed efforts like the "Evolution Weekend" project that many churches promoted, because it would mean allying himself in some sense with some of the very people of faith he was busily insulting.

It is a remarkable idea that atheists and people of faith might actually be able to get along. The fundamentalists of both the atheist and the religious camps can have at each other. The rest of us, Michael Ruse included, can try to find a common ground for dialogue and move forward.

Mr. Deity explains the Trinity

A bit of humor deflates a cherished, supposedly unassailable, and ultimately incomprehensible tenet of orthodox Christianity:

Interview with R. Crumb on his Genesis comic book

The San Francisco Chronicle interviewed R. Crumb about his new illustrated comic of the entire book of Genesis. You can read the interview here.

Quote of the Day

From Sea Raven, who left this comment in John Shuck's blog:

In my work it has become clear to me that Jesus would not be a Christian today. So far as biblical scholars can tell, Jesus did not believe what the church later came to insist that everyone has to believe to avoid going to hell.

As I say often in my commentaries, Christianity is not about belief in a resuscitated corpse, nor is christianity about what happens after we die. Christianity, as Jesus preached it, is about US personally incarnating distributive justice-compassion in this life. That means, joining the program to create the kingdom -- in John Dominic Crossan's words, creating a "share world" as opposed to a "greed world," or, as I put it "Covenant" not "Empire."

Crossan's definition of god is of a kenotic being -- one whose presence is justice and life, and whose absence is injustice and death.

The 2010 California Marriage Protection Act

I thought this was pretty funny. "If we allow anyone to get divorced, before you know it people will be divorcing their dogs!"

Rick Steves on the spirituality of travel

Rick Steves, who is a Lutheran, talks about travel, faith, and justice in this video from the ELCA.

One quote from the video that I like is this one: "It is too convenient to go down to Tijuana, build a house, come back, and then vote for your own self-interest." I think there is a lot of truth to that--it is easy for us to feel good about ourselves when we engage in charitable work or volunteer to help people in other parts of the world, without considering the broader picture of peace and justice issues.

And You Thought Hitler Gave Book Burning a Bad Rep

A North Carolina church plans on holding a good old fashioned book burning on Halloween. Among the books to be burned are any English language version of the Bible that is not a King James translation, and works by Mother Teresa.

Spong's repsonse

John Shelby Spong, not one to mince words, responds to the recent invitation from the Vatican for reactionary Anglicans to defect en masse to the Catholic Church:

[W]e have a sad picture of how out-of-date and irrelevant institutional Christianity has become. Here we have two unimpressive Christian leaders, rooted deeply in yesterday, jockeying publicly to see who can be the most prejudiced about the role of women and the place of homosexual people in the life of the Christian Church. It would be amusing if it were not so ludicrous.

This debate is by now rather tired and most of the world cares very little what either of these two leaders thinks. The Pope constantly parades before the world an uninformed homophobia and his attempt to suggest that women are "separate but equal" is almost pathetic. On his last trip to Africa where violence, bloodshed and massive hunger exist, his moral outrage was directed only toward the use of condoms to stop the spread of the HIV virus. Who can still take those attitudes seriously? The Archbishop of Canterbury, on the other hand, long ago sacrificed a commitment to truth on the altar of church unity, made peace with those infected with the prejudices of sexism and homophobia and acted as if unity could actually be achieved by rejecting women or gay people.
I am not sure that the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury represent the end all and be all of "institutional Christianity", but his point is well taken nonetheless. Neither the Pope nor the Archbishop of Canterbury have any relevance for a lot of people, and neither man has much moral credibility.

The good atheists and the bad atheists

NPR ran a story reporting describing what it calls a "bitter rift" between those atheists who favor an aggressive and hostile stance towards religion and those who do not . NPR names the usual suspects in the former camp, including Hitchens, Dawkins, PZ Myers (to that list one could probably add Jerry Coyne and John Loftus). In the latter camps NPR mentions Paul Kurtz, who has this to say about those of his fellow atheists for whom vitriol and ridicule are tools of the trade:

"I consider them atheist fundamentalists," he says. "They're anti-religious, and they're mean-spirited, unfortunately. Now, they're very good atheists and very dedicated people who do not believe in God. But you have this aggressive and militant phase of atheism, and that does more damage than good."
He's right that they are fundamentalists--some of them, like John Loftus, are in fact former evangelicals who simply changed teams without changing their mindsets as True Believers.

During the period of my life when I was a former-fundamentalist-turned-atheist (before I subsequently discovered progressive Christianity), I never gave religion that much thought one way or the other. I saw religion as something that I had outgrown, that no intelligent person believed in, and while I did not agree with religion, I also felt no need to actively attack it or its adherents. It simply was not a part of my life. So when I now look at someone like Hitchens, who was quoted by NPR as saying,"I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right,", all I can think is that Hitchens and his ilk are nothing but a bunch of schoolyard bullies.

Vote with your feet. Please.

The Pope has invited entire Anglican congregations to defect en masse to the Catholic Church. As the journalist for above linked the Christian Science Monitor article puts it, "it could...result in hundreds of thousands of churchgoers unhappy with openly gay and female clerics defecting to Rome."

Personally, if I were an Anglican (which I am not), my reaction to those who wanted to defect would be, don't let the door hit you on your way out. It is clear to me as I look at the Anglican communion from the outside that reactionaries have served as a major stumbling block to progressive change, as leading Anglicans have struggled to somehow make everyone happy (as if that were possible); so if those same reactionaries want to leave in favor of a church whose leadership proudly proclaims its homophobia and its misogyny, I say more power to them. I think there is something to be said for people voting with their feet; this allows the denominations to sort themselves out theologically and allows progressives to move forward without having to accommodate obstructionists who are stuck in the dark ages. As John Shelby Spong expressed it in his manifesto, talking to such people is pointless anyway.

In fact, I see that with regard to the upcoming ballot initiative in Maine that seeks to overturn legislation enabling same sex marriages, the Catholic diocese of Portland, Maine is one of the top three contributors of this campaign:

Yes On One/Stand for Marriage is relying on several large organizations to provide most of its funding: the New Jersey-based National Organization for Marriage, already under scrutiny by the Maine Ethics Commission for the source of its donations, has contributed more than $500,000 to the campaign so far; the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland has given more than $300,000 and Colorado-based Focus on the Family has raised about $90,000.
In this light we can view the fight against same-sex marriage as a kind of recruiting tool for the Catholic Church. But I would argue that religious debates should not be about popularity contests, where the denomination with the most adherents "wins". It should instead be about what is right and what is just. And in this battle, the Catholic Church stands on the wrong side of history.

Robert Jensen on religion

An interview with Robert Jensen, who has stirred up a fair amount of controversy within the Presbyterian church over his unorthodox views, can be heard on a podcast from the series "The God Complex".

I found this interview somewhat interesting from the get go simply because one of the moderators of the podcast series--and one of Jensen's interviewers in the podcast--is the pastor of a church that I blogged about a while ago when I noted a seeming incongruity between statements on the church web site ostensibly promoting diversity and other statements on the same site that provided a list of very orthodox statements describing what "we"--the church--believed. In any case, the interview was respectful and friendly and gave Jensen an opportunity to discuss his own values and theology and his own non-dogmatic take on what he thinks church community is about.

Here are a couple of great quotes from the interview. First this one:

I hadn't bothered to pay attention to the range of thinking in Christianity, and for that matter in other faiths as well (Islam, Buddhism, others). So I started a kind of education that exposed me to a wider range of thinking. Like a lot of people I think I had always rejected organized religion because I assumed the only way you could find a place in a Christian church today was to accept what I just generally call the supernatural claims, the idea of God as a distinct entity or force or being out in the world that directs our lives; and the idea that the resurrection must be understood literally as a historical fact. I assumed that to be Christian was to accept those two fundamental supernatural claims, and what I realized as I started to read more progressive theology and look at the range, not even today, but historically going back actually to the beginnings of Christianity--I realized there were people who had always had a range of ideas, and that I could in fact find a place in that tradition.
And then this one:
I think in a funny way the New Atheists and the traditional fundamentalist Christians...kind of have a field day with each other, and they love to argue with each other. And I think the reason is because both of them share an essential assumption, that the only way you can be religious, the only way you can be a Christian, is to--without question--accept those supernatural claims and a set of dogmas that come with it. Now the fundamentalists believe that, and the New Atheists believe that as well. So I've had a number of discussions with people who would subscribe to the kind of New Atheist philosophy, and when I talk about my own questions, my own theology, and talk about it in the context of a progressive Christianity, they always say the same thing; they look at me and they say, "Well, you're not a real Christian." And I always say, "Well tell me what a 'real' Christian is," as if, in a 2000 year history, one can...nail down this easy definition of what it means to be a Christian.

Crumb does Genesis

R. Crumb has illustrated the book of Genesis. This might just be worth checking out.

John Shelby Spong's manifesto

John Shelby Spong is tired of debating with those in the Christian church who condemn homosexuality. I have to admit that there is something to be said for declaring victory and going home. Anyway, here is his manifesto (and in case that link no longer works, extracts of the manifesto are presented by Ruth Gledhill of the Times Online web site):

A Manifesto! The Time Has Come!

I have made a decision. I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone. I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right-wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility. I will no longer discuss with them or listen to them tell me how homosexuality is "an abomination to God," about how homosexuality is a "chosen lifestyle," or about how through prayer and "spiritual counseling" homosexual persons can be "cured." Those arguments are no longer worthy of my time or energy. I will no longer dignify by listening to the thoughts of those who advocate "reparative therapy," as if homosexual persons are somehow broken and need to be repaired. I will no longer talk to those who believe that the unity of the church can or should be achieved by rejecting the presence of, or at least at the expense of, gay and lesbian people. I will no longer take the time to refute the unlearned and undocumentable claims of certain world religious leaders who call homosexuality "deviant." I will no longer listen to that pious sentimentality that certain Christian leaders continue to employ, which suggests some version of that strange and overtly dishonest phrase that "we love the sinner but hate the sin." That statement is, I have concluded, nothing more than a self-serving lie designed to cover the fact that these people hate homosexual persons and fear homosexuality itself, but somehow know that hatred is incompatible with the Christ they claim to profess, so they adopt this face-saving and absolutely false statement. I will no longer temper my understanding of truth in order to pretend that I have even a tiny smidgen of respect for the appalling negativity that continues to emanate from religious circles where the church has for centuries conveniently perfumed its ongoing prejudices against blacks, Jews, women and homosexual persons with what it assumes is "high-sounding, pious rhetoric." The day for that mentality has quite simply come to an end for me. I will personally neither tolerate it nor listen to it any longer. The world has moved on, leaving these elements of the Christian Church that cannot adjust to new knowledge or a new consciousness lost in a sea of their own irrelevance. They no longer talk to anyone but themselves. I will no longer seek to slow down the witness to inclusiveness by pretending that there is some middle ground between prejudice and oppression. There isn't. Justice postponed is justice denied. That can be a resting place no longer for anyone. An old civil rights song proclaimed that the only choice awaiting those who cannot adjust to a new understanding was to "Roll on over or we'll roll on over you!" Time waits for no one.

I will particularly ignore those members of my own Episcopal Church who seek to break away from this body to form a "new church," claiming that this new and bigoted instrument alone now represents the Anglican Communion. Such a new ecclesiastical body is designed to allow these pathetic human beings, who are so deeply locked into a world that no longer exists, to form a community in which they can continue to hate gay people, distort gay people with their hopeless rhetoric and to be part of a religious fellowship in which they can continue to feel justified in their homophobic prejudices for the rest of their tortured lives. Church unity can never be a virtue that is preserved by allowing injustice, oppression and psychological tyranny to go unchallenged.

In my personal life, I will no longer listen to televised debates conducted by "fair-minded" channels that seek to give "both sides" of this issue "equal time." I am aware that these stations no longer give equal time to the advocates of treating women as if they are the property of men or to the advocates of reinstating either segregation or slavery, despite the fact that when these evil institutions were coming to an end the Bible was still being quoted frequently on each of these subjects. It is time for the media to announce that there are no longer two sides to the issue of full humanity for gay and lesbian people. There is no way that justice for homosexual people can be compromised any longer.

I will no longer act as if the Papal office is to be respected if the present occupant of that office is either not willing or not able to inform and educate himself on public issues on which he dares to speak with embarrassing ineptitude. I will no longer be respectful of the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems to believe that rude behavior, intolerance and even killing prejudice is somehow acceptable, so long as it comes from third-world religious leaders, who more than anything else reveal in themselves the price that colonial oppression has required of the minds and hearts of so many of our world's population. I see no way that ignorance and truth can be placed side by side, nor do I believe that evil is somehow less evil if the Bible is quoted to justify it. I will dismiss as unworthy of any more of my attention the wild, false and uninformed opinions of such would-be religious leaders as Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Albert Mohler, and Robert Duncan. My country and my church have both already spent too much time, energy and money trying to accommodate these backward points of view when they are no longer even tolerable.

I make these statements because it is time to move on. The battle is over. The victory has been won. There is no reasonable doubt as to what the final outcome of this struggle will be. Homosexual people will be accepted as equal, full human beings, who have a legitimate claim on every right that both church and society have to offer any of us. Homosexual marriages will become legal, recognized by the state and pronounced holy by the church. "Don't ask, don't tell" will be dismantled as the policy of our armed forces. We will and we must learn that equality of citizenship is not something that should ever be submitted to a referendum. Equality under and before the law is a solemn promise conveyed to all our citizens in the Constitution itself. Can any of us imagine having a public referendum on whether slavery should continue, whether segregation should be dismantled, whether voting privileges should be offered to women? The time has come for politicians to stop hiding behind unjust laws that they themselves helped to enact, and to abandon that convenient shield of demanding a vote on the rights of full citizenship because they do not understand the difference between a constitutional democracy, which this nation has, and a "mobocracy," which this nation rejected when it adopted its constitution. We do not put the civil rights of a minority to the vote of a plebiscite.

I will also no longer act as if I need a majority vote of some ecclesiastical body in order to bless, ordain, recognize and celebrate the lives and gifts of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church. No one should ever again be forced to submit the privilege of citizenship in this nation or membership in the Christian Church to the will of a majority vote.

The battle in both our culture and our church to rid our souls of this dying prejudice is finished. A new consciousness has arisen. A decision has quite clearly been made. Inequality for gay and lesbian people is no longer a debatable issue in either church or state. Therefore, I will from this moment on refuse to dignify the continued public expression of ignorant prejudice by engaging it. I do not tolerate racism or sexism any longer. From this moment on, I will no longer tolerate our culture's various forms of homophobia. I do not care who it is who articulates these attitudes or who tries to make them sound holy with religious jargon.

I have been part of this debate for years, but things do get settled and this issue is now settled for me. I do not debate any longer with members of the "Flat Earth Society" either. I do not debate with people who think we should treat epilepsy by casting demons out of the epileptic person; I do not waste time engaging those medical opinions that suggest that bleeding the patient might release the infection. I do not converse with people who think that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans as punishment for the sin of being the birthplace of Ellen DeGeneres or that the terrorists hit the United Sates on 9/11 because we tolerated homosexual people, abortions, feminism or the American Civil Liberties Union. I am tired of being embarrassed by so much of my church's participation in causes that are quite unworthy of the Christ I serve or the God whose mystery and wonder I appreciate more each day. Indeed I feel the Christian Church should not only apologize, but do public penance for the way we have treated people of color, women, adherents of other religions and those we designated heretics, as well as gay and lesbian people.

Life moves on. As the poet James Russell Lowell once put it more than a century ago: "New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth." I am ready now to claim the victory. I will from now on assume it and live into it. I am unwilling to argue about it or to discuss it as if there are two equally valid, competing positions any longer. The day for that mentality has simply gone forever.

This is my manifesto and my creed. I proclaim it today. I invite others to join me in this public declaration. I believe that such a public outpouring will help cleanse both the church and this nation of its own distorting past. It will restore integrity and honor to both church and state. It will signal that a new day has dawned and we are ready not just to embrace it, but also to rejoice in it and to celebrate it.

Social justice and interfaith dialogue

I stumbled upon a blog on a web site focused on Jewish issues in which Michael Rosen, a progressive Jewish author, describes his frustrating experiences in attempting to promote his recent book to progressive Christian audiences. He writes that he encountered a resistance by Christians who are interested in social justice issues--whom he assumed would be a natural audience for the story he tells in his book:

I figured that our story- a White couple with two White sons in New York City meeting five disadvantaged Black and Latino teenage boys on a blacktop baseball field, welcoming the boys into our home and also becoming our sons, then the story of navigating the whole ship of boys to safe harbor - would naturally to be of interest to religion-based groups dedicated to the Biblical call to social justice.
Instead, it seemed that the Christians he encountered were hesitant about inviting him into their own politically focused religious communities. He felt it was as if they were a bit too involved with the orthodoxy of their own faith to want to link up with someone of a different faith, despite a common cause of social justice. He thought--perhaps naively--that Matthew 25 would serve as an inspiration for Christians to put aside theological differences when the real thing was whether you fed the poor or took in the stranger. (Among those Christian social justice groups who he felt spurned him was Sojourners magazine.)

I can't help but wonder if part of the problem he faced was in mistaking a commitment to social justice with being uninterested in orthodoxy. What isn't always obvious is how vague and confusing the term "progressive Christian" can really be. For some, it means being theologically orthodox but politically progressive. For others, it isn't necessarily focused on politics but instead means being theologically progressive in the sense of embracing religious pluralism, not taking the bible or its miracle stories literally, and perhaps embracing a theology such as process theology or panentheism (groups from that category do tend to be interested in social justice as well, however.) And for still others it means focusing almost entirely on orthopraxis as the basis of the faith and denying that anything can really be said about God.

I can't speak to Sojourners specifically, about which I don't know a lot, but my guess is that it falls a little more closely into the "theologically orthodox but politically progressive" category. On other other hand, if you take a look at an someone like Jim Burklo, a Presbyterian pastor who has been involved intimately in the Center for Progressive Christianity, he appears to be all about orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy, and I'd be willing to guess he would embrace what Rosen is doing (at a church he used to pastor, the web site said that they were about the "deeds rather than the creeds".) I similarly know of a Lutheran pastor in the city where I live, San Francisco, who is very much involved with both progressive Christianity and interfaith dialogue. And so on.

I guess the point is that it does get complicated and one might suggest that Michael Rosen was just talking to the wrong "progressive" or "social justice" Christians. It is also possible that many social justice Christians will always be hesitant about joining forces with religious communities outside the Christian orbit.

Opulence, simplicity, and the problem of world poverty

Here is a hilarious video by Sarah Silverman (which one should not watch if one is offended by certain kinds of language):

The video reminds of this satirical piece from the Onion with the headline that reads, "Heaven Less Opulent Than Vatican, Reports Disappointed Pope", which includes this text describing John Paul II's reaction to the afterlife:

According to the pope, heaven is merely a place of unending peace and happiness, wherein all the spirits of the Elect live together forever in perfect harmony and goodness, basking in the rays of God's divine love.

"Up here, everyone is equal," John Paul II said. "No one has to go through an elaborate bowing ritual when they greet me. And do you know how many times my ring has been kissed since I arrived? None. Up here, I'm mingling with tax collectors, fishermen, and whores. It's just going to take a little getting used to, is all."

Sure, we all know that the Vatican wouldn't really solve the problem of world poverty by selling its assets. Sarah Silverman is a comedian, after all, not an economist, and her video was a work of comedy.

In a way, though, her satirical piece does strike a chord, at least with me, because I think it does address the question of what it means for any religious institution to own a trove of valuable or even priceless works of art and architecture, or what it means for the leadership of a church to live among such treasures. Although I am a lapsed Quaker, I find that many Quaker values are still a part of who I am. The Wikipedia article on the Quaker Testimony of Simplicity describes the many facets of this testimony, one of which is described as follows:
Like many aspects of Quaker life, the practice of plainness has evolved over time, although it is based on principles that have been a lasting part of Quaker thought. These principles now form part of the Quaker testimonies. Plainness is an extension of the testimony of simplicity and can still be observed today among modern Friends who do not follow fashion trends or purchase extravagant clothing. Simplicity to Friends has generally been a reference to material possessions (see plainness above). Friends traditionally limited their possessions to what they needed to live their lives, rather than pursuing luxuries. Recently this testimony is often taken to have an ecological dimension: that Friends should not use more than their fair share of the Earth's resources.

This testimony is largely responsible for the tradition of plain walls and functional furniture in meetinghouses
The reasons for living a simple life are not because you believe you will magically solve all of the world's ills if you eschew a life of luxury. It really is more a matter of expressing one's self through one's lifestyle, with personal integrity and in a way that is consistent with one's values of equality and justice. It means internalizing the values of justice and then expressing them through how you live. The best testimony to Jesus's life and message are not those who expect others to kiss their ring, but rather those who hang out, as Jesus did, with the "tax collectors, fishermen, and whores."

What does it mean to say that God "creates"?

An Old Testament scholar in the Netherlands has suggested that the opening line of Genesis has been generally mistranslated and that it actually does not say that God "created" the heaven and the earth (but rather that God "separated" an already existing heaven and earth) . The implication is that this passage serves as a biblical refutation of the doctrine of creatio ex nihio, since the this translation implies that the universe already existed in some form and that God worked with this existing universe rather than creating it out of nothing. I am not a scholar in such matters and I cannot comment on the accuracy of this claim about the translation, but several things leapt to my mind as I read the this news item in the UK daily the Telegraph.

The Religion Editor for the same newspaper, George Pitcher, responded in a followup article by correctly pointing out correctly that "just because Genesis is a myth doesn't mean it's untrue". He writes:

Genesis is a transcription of ancient Hebrew creation myth. Calling it a myth doesn’t mean it’s “untrue”; it means that its truth is contained in the timeless quest for understanding of transcendental things like God’s provenance over time and space, the mystery of why something exists in the universe rather than nothing, human responsibility for stewardship of the planet and the origins of life. But, sorry Creationists, it isn’t and was never intended to be a piece of reportage about the first week of the universe. And, sorry secularists, a mistranslated Hebraic word doesn’t mean there is no God.
That's all well and good, but I also think that the we should consider the possibility that believing that God necessarily created the universe out of nothing reflects a bias about what God's nature necessarily must be. There is an assumption that some have that God must be by definition independent of the world and that the universe had to have been created out of nothing by an all powerful deity. However, as the process theologians conceive of God, neither God nor the world can be comprehended independently of one another.

There is thus no need under process theology to posit a doctrine of creation out of nothing. In fact, process theology views divine creativity not as a coercive act of forcing something into existence, but rather a collaborative act between God and the world. Thus God is not so much the "Creator" as the chief co-creator of the world, or perhaps it is better to say chief co-creator with the world. Without God, under this view, there could be no true creativity because God plays a central role as the source of novelty in the creative process, but similarly there could not be creativity unless the world also actively participated in that same creative process.

I think there are a lot of problems with the doctrine of divine omnipotence, and it seems to me that it would be useful to jettison the doctrine of creation out of nothing once and for all. As a creation myth, the first chapter of Genesis serves as an interesting starting point for discussion among monotheists in the Western tradition. But I don't think that an entire theology should base itself on the accuracy of a translation of a single sentence written thousands of years ago.

Quote of the Day

From John Shuck's blog:

I am a heretic. My theology is crap. I don't know one thing about God. I don't know anything about rationality or reason or the divine spectacle of revelation or whatever. I don't know much about the Bible and I don't even care about it that much.

I am OK with that. Because the people I am increasingly coming in contact with in the church have fancy theology but then tell lies about other human beings.

If your Bible and your God can't help you tell the truth about your neighbor and treat her with justice then I want nothing to do with your Bible or your God.

You can have it all, my friend, the Bible, theology, John Calvin ...God for that matter.

I'll take human decency.

Father Damien and Canonization

Yet another saint is about to be canonized by the Catholic Church--this time, Father Damien of Hawaii. I have no doubt that he did wonderful acts of service with those affected by leprosy or other diseases, so I don't have a problem with publicly recognizing his, or anyone else's, service to humanity. What I do object to is the criterion of "verified" miracles that the Catholic Church uses as a prerequisite for sainthood, and I find it objectionable on several levels.

First, the idea that service to humanity is not enough to garner recognition--that you also have to have been a heavenly magician as well--trivializes the importance of loving service and makes a mockery of what our respect for saintly people should be about. Second, it relies on a pre-modern theology of divine interventionism that makes no sense in the modern world. Third, the idea that these miracles take place after the saint's death as a "proof" that they are now in heaven really represents a a case of theological hubris in which pronouncements about individuals' fate after death are claimed. Fourth, the supposedly "verified" nature of these miracles are nothing of the sort; no verification by the Vatican or approval by the Pope would pass any empirical or scientific test for verifiability; thus the usage "verified" is really a misnomer. It simply means that the Vatican "investigated" the claims of miracles and decided to give their approval to them.

In fact, when we talk about "verifying" miracles, we are generally describing events such as medical healings that are unverifiable, which is precisely what makes them serve so conveniently as fodder for miracle claims. We simply lack the capability of observing in detail all the processes that take place in the human body down to the molecular level. Since we can't really observe what takes place there, if someone gets better from an illness or condition contrary to expectations, then the expectations themselves form the basis of the miracle claim. What it is that God or the saint supposedly did at the molecular level to effect the healing is impossible to say, impossible to verify--what switch did God flip, what cancer cells did God kill, what bacteria did God eliminate?--and therefore ultimately the attribution of a miracle is nothing more than a case of hopeful thinking. There is no "verification" involved at all. Human bodies are not deterministic machines and are subject to the chaos of uncertainty and probability. This is simply another case of the God of the Gaps rearing its ugly head.

This is related in general to the various moral and theological problems that exist with the concept of intercessory prayer. When people claim that intercessory prayer "works" when they pray for a sick loved one to get better, they are really just engaging in wishful thinking as they project their hopes onto the God of the Gaps. There are no millions of tiny little cameras in the human body that can record what is happening to every single cell and the atom, so if someone gets better, it is easy enough to assert that it is because others prayed for God (or some saint) to intervene. All the people we prayed for who didn't get better--well, that was just God saying "no". And for the people who were unlucky enough to have no Christian friends to pray for them--well, that's too bad. The moral implications of an interventionist God (or his lieutenants) who works behind the scenes to effect "miraculous" healings on some people but not others defies logic and moral sense.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again--the real miracle is found every time someone loves another and expresses that love through service and compassion. The saints are those who carry out these acts of love throughout their life. If there is an afterlife and saints are to be found there, so be it, but I see no use in speculation about such matters, let alone making definitive pronouncements from on high. And as for the alleged miracles, it is my contention that magical tricks are the stuff of medieval theology and have no place in serious theology.

Scientism and Religious Literalism

I don't make a practice of reading atheist blogger Jerry Coyne's sneering attacks against religion, but sometimes I do web searches of blogs for references to theologians who interest me, and his blog unfortunately sometimes comes up. When I peek at his blog, I find it to be a fascinating case study in denial, since he seems to understand at some level that his generalizations about religion are clearly undercut by counterexamples that he must then vigorously belittle and attack. Interestingly, part of his strategy of asserting that theologies that don't conform to his counterexamples are irrelevant is by dismissing certain individuals as "academic" theologians--a strange insult indeed considering that it comes from someone who himself is an academic. He recently wrote this just the other day in his blog:

how truly fatuous are the lucubrations of people like Armstrong, Eagleton, and Haught. Sarcasm will be the best weapon against this stuff.
Sarcasm is thus for Coyne what passes for serious dialogue about these issues. The need to dismiss such theologians in this way is clear. There are clearly many theologians whose conceptions of God don't correspond to the kind of deity that the entire militant atheist critique of religion per se rests upon. But if one makes a sweeping generalization about the inherent nature of religion, then counterexamples which contradict such a universal characterization clearly pose a huge problem since they render the generalization patently false.

In other words, if you can't pretend that John Haught or process theologians don't exist--deligitimize them, and pretend that somehow even though they exist as counterexamples, they don't really count! (The fact that such authors actually sell books outside of academia and are actually read and followed by lay people of faith is a bit inconvenient, but there you have it.) This is a variant of the "most people" argument--the idea that the mythical "most people" get to decide what is and isn't legitimately religious.

Coyne attacks the poetic language of myth and meaning that is found among the theologians he dismisses, and I would suggest that this is a symptom of a certain kind of mindset that seeks to apply literalism to everything in life--an unfortunate symptom of the scientism that he embraces. We saw this in Dawkins, who was quoted as objecting to teaching children stories that involved fantasy. This is where I stand apart from both the scientism of Dawkins and Coyne and from those who embrace religious myths literally. Both mindsets embrace literalism in different ways--scientism detests mythic language because it doesn't conform to the literalist mindset, and religious literalism embraces mythic language as if it were literal truth because not to do so would deny the literalist mindset. In other words, both scientism and religious literalism are twin sides of the same literalist coin.

Scientists like Coyne who think that everything must be an expression of empirical truth and who lack the poetic imagination to see things in other ways ultimately have to end up concluding that many expressions of philosophical and poetic inquiry, when ripped out of context, are merely "fatuous lucubrations", as he describes it in his blog. My guess is that Coyne would probably say the same things about Kant or Wittgenstein that he says about Karen Armstrong, since philosophers also frequently use language that lies beyond the rigid and literal empiricism that Coyne seems to think applies to everything in the universe, and when taken out of context the words of the great Western philosophers could be as easily mocked by people like Coyne as the words of progressive Christian theologians are.

Some of this may just be a matter of personality--some people get it, and others do not. The problem lies in that some of those who don't get it make a career out of attacking those who do, and then end up looking like fools in the process.

Karen Armstrong and the purpose of religious faith

I have mixed feelings about Karen Armstrong. In theory, I like a lot of what she has to say about God and religion, and in fact I have borrowed her concept of "freelance monotheism" and adopted it as my own. On the other hand, both times I tried to read one of her books, I ended up hating them. I find her interesting as a speaker; as an author, not so much.

For that reason, I have not read her latest book, The Case for God, but at the same time I was curious what Ross Douthats had to say about it in his New York Times book review , which appeared last Sunday.

Douthat writes

Karen Armstrong, a former nun turned prolific popular historian, wants to rescue the idea of God from its cultured despisers and its more literal-minded adherents alike. To that end, she doesn’t just argue that her preferred approach to religion — which emphasizes the pursuit of an unknowable Deity, rather than the quest for theological correctness — is compatible with a liberal, scientific, technologically advanced society. She argues that it’s actually truer to the ancient traditions of Judaism, Islam and (especially) Christianity than is much of what currently passes for “conservative” religion. And the neglect of these traditions, she suggests, is “one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today.”
Douthat disputes this latter claim, arguing that early Christianity was actually quite dogmatic in the claims that it made about God's nature. I think that Douthat has a point in this criticism. It is true that fundamentalism is largely a modern phenomenon, a reaction to modernism and science--this is a point that Marcus Borg has made repeatedly. In particular, Biblical literalism as we know it today is largely a modern phenomenon. However, one should not confuse fundamentalism with orthodoxy. The insistence on the right to make absolute claims about theology and to impose that theology on others has a long and sorry tradition that goes way back to the days of the Nicene Creed and earlier. When Nicene Christians were imposing Trinitarian doctrine on the faith as a whole and suppressing dissenting views, they were claiming that something about God is quite knowable, quite particular and quite abstruse.

So on that score, I think that Douthat makes a valid point. However, it is when he moves beyond a factual crique of Armstrong's book and starts making theological arguments that his review falls flat. Douthat characterizes liberal religion as "parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith, which create and sustain the practices that the liberal believer picks and chooses from, reads symbolically and reinterprets for a more enlightened age." This is utter nonsense. Like so many apologists for orthodoxy, Douthout characterizes religious dogmatism as essentially the only legitimate expression of faith. He claims that the "sturdy appeal of Western monotheism" lies not just in "myth and ritual and symbolism...but also scandalously literal claims — that the Jews really are God’s chosen people; that Christ really did rise from the dead; and that however much the author of the universe may surpass our understanding, we can live in hope that he loves the world enough to save it, and us, from the annihilating power of death." In other words, according to Douthat, religion is only useful if it makes absolutist and fantastical assertions about events in the real world.

This is, of course, what militant atheists believe to be the essence of religion, and it lies at the heart of their critique. But if that is what religion is really all about, then the militant atheists have won the argument, because there is no way of reconciling such claims about the world with a modern and rational sensibility.

Douthat unfortunately justifies his position by using the old canard, the "most people" argument. "Most people", Douthat argues, "are hungry for myths that are not only resonant but true." Douthat misses the point here the "truth" of a myth does not lie in being a literal description of a historical event, as any student of myth will tell you. "Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens", as Dominic Crossan points out. More importantly, religion is not a matter of majority vote. Even if Douthat really has an accurate reading of what "most" people supposedly want, the point is irrelevant. Douthat no more speaks for everyone than Armstrong does. (The funny thing about religious dogmatism is the lack of unanimity among those dogmatists who proclaim the certainty of their own pet belief system. Dogmatism is good, we are told--but of course, my dogmatism is right and yours is wrong. How this serves as an argument for the absolute knowability of God is anyone's guess)

Contrary to Douthat, I think that the varieties of religious faith suggest that these claims about the real world that religions often make might just be secondary to the human needs that religion addresses--and that ultimately it is the myths and the meaning and the pointing of ourselves outward towards something greater and more ultimate that matter more than whether any of the claims that are made are literally true. Be that as it may, it isn't really germane to the discussion to posit what "most people" want out of religion. Religion is many things to many people, and one size doesn't fit all. The question is, what kind of religion works for those of us who seek a deeper meaning in the world and who see myths and traditions of a particular faith as a means of mediating the sacred, but who also reject a belief in irrational or fantastical claims? Such a religious faith is indeed possible, and Armstrong is one of the people who tries to address this possibility. People like Douthat just don't get a say in what everyone's religious faith is about.

The Bible and authority

Blogger Wade G writes in his blog "Evolution of the Mystery":

The fact is, it is okay to just say that in certain respects the Bible can be wrong. Dead wrong, about facts and morals, and even world views. People can read into the Bible pretty much anything they want, but think of this: if someone could prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the Bible truly taught that women should be subordinate would that make it true? Of course not. It would mean that the Bible was WRONG. WRONG WRONG WRONG. Why is that so hard for folk to understand? The Bible is here for us - we are not here to serve the Bible.
I think he is right, of course, and I do think that even among liberal Christians there is sometimes a tendency to approach the Bible with a kind of reverence or to assign it a kind of authority that I don't think it necessarily deserves. I believe that the word "authority" is problematic in this case; if the Bible is clearly wrong about some things, and if we are honest with ourselves in accepting this, then it is hard to see whence comes this authority.

Some Christians try to balance out the Bible as an authority with other sources; for example, there is the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. But I think this view still assigns a kind of authority to the Bible, and I look at this issue from a different angle. The value of the Bible as I see it lies not in its absolute "rightness" but rather in that it gives us a record of the kinds of issues that people struggled with in certain formative periods of Judaism and Christianity--and, despite its flaws, it also contains some inspirational literature to boot. An analogy I would make is with philosophers who study Plato; they do this, not because Plato was right about everything, but because he was a foundational figure in Western philosopher who touched on nearly all the issues that philosophy has struggled with ever since. Similarly, the Bible touched on virtually all the important issues that monotheistic Western faith has grappled with ever since.

The Bible is a starting point, not an end point. It is instructive for not just the things it got right, but for the things it got wrong as well. Part of the process of discovery is learning from past mistakes, and if religion is a journey towards the mystery, then part of understanding the journey is knowing where we made some wrong turns.

Spong on what it means to be a Christian

John Shelby Spong regularly sends out emails of answers that he offers to various questions. I am not on the email list, but occasionally I find that some of his email posts do make their way into various blogs. Here is one that I like, because first of all it responds to the claim that I often hear that liberal Christianity "redefines" or "waters down" the definition of what it means to be a Christian--which I think is categorically untrue--and secondly because it refutes what I think is a misconception about orthodoxy--namely a belief that the history of Christian theology has proceeded in a straight line from Jesus and the apostles directly to later orthodoxy, with any competing theologies merely coming into the faith as interlopers without any basis to be found in the origins of the faith, being somehow contrary to this one true theology that was essentially there, at least in its roots, from the beginning.

On the contrary, it seems clear to me that the seeds of Christianity could have evolved in many different ways from what was early on a diverse faith, with one set of beliefs emerging as the victor in a series of disputes, then calling itself "orthodox" and labeling the losing sides "heresy"and doing the best it could to stamp out those losing opinions.

What I find also find interesting about Spong's post is that he argues that it is worth it for those who the orthodoxy tries to marginalize and exclude from the faith to stay within the Christian community in order to have a say in its future, rather than to give up and just walk away. I admire the spirit behind this sentiment, even if I myself feel more comfortable hovering near or even outside the margins of Christianity.

Here is Spong's post:

Karen Hutton from Pleasantville, California, writes:

Is there any purpose in staying a member of a traditional Christian Church if you no longer believe the things the church regards as its core beliefs? Why have you stayed with your church, given your criticisms of many of the basic aspects of Christianity?

Dear Karen,

Before answering that question, we need to identify what it is you are calling "core beliefs" or the "basic aspects of Christianity." I believe that what most people call orthodoxy in religious beliefs is little more than the imposed authority of some part of the Christian faith. The claim to be orthodox in one's belief is not to acknowledge a point of view that is true, but only the point of view that has prevailed. My studies lead me to believe that there never was a single consistent set of Christian beliefs. There were many Christianities from the dawn of Christianity itself. Various groups have tried to define true Christianity, but when they do they almost always define their own institutional, authoritarian system.

Some people, for example, assert that the historic creeds defined primitive Christianity. The Apostles' Creed, however, began as a series of baptismal formulas in local churches in the third century and these formulas differed widely until they evolved into a single form somewhere between 250 and 290 CE. I doubt if the actual apostles would have recognized much of it.

The Nicene Creed, adopted at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, was designed primarily to close the loopholes in the Apostles' Creed. The Athanasian Creed, a product of the late fourth century, was designed to close loopholes in the Nicene Creed. The earliest creed of the Church was only three words, Jesus is Messiah. The word "messiah" meant a variety of things to the Jews, so even the three-word creed had wide flexibility.

Others assert that believing in the Virgin Birth is a "core doctrine" of Christianity, but scholars can now demonstrate quite conclusively that both Paul and Mark seem never to have heard of it; and John, who was among the last writers in the New Testament, appears to have specifically rejected it since he refers to Jesus on two occasions as the "son of Joseph."

Still others suggest that the physical resurrection of Jesus is the essential core belief of Christianity, but I think I can demonstrate that Paul did not believe the resurrection was physical, and neither did Mark. Matthew is ambivalent. It is Luke and John, the last two gospels to be written, that interpret the resurrection as a physical resuscitation of a deceased body. So determining what the "core beliefs" of Christianity are is not as easy as people seem to think.

Some, usually in evangelical or in the conservative Catholic traditions, argue that doctrines like the Incarnation, the Atonement and the Trinity set the boundaries around essential Christianity, but once again these doctrines were not fully developed until the third and fourth centuries and it would be difficult to demonstrate that either Paul or Mark were Trinitarians.

My point is that Christianity has always been a movement and that most churches have simply frozen Christianity at fairly primitive levels. It is not to oppose basic Christianity that is the agenda of Christian scholars; it is to seek truth through the Christian story or through the Christian lens. That is what keeps me active in church life. Christianity is not static or doctrinal. It is a pathway we walk into the mystery of God. I grant that it is easier to walk the Christ path in some churches than in others, but true Christianity is always evolving into what it can be; its purpose is not to protect what it has been. So I would suggest that for you to see your role in your church to be that of a change agent, you are in fact being a true worshiper of Christ.

I hope this helps. I think institutional Christianity needs people like you and me in it.

– John Shelby Spong

The confines of Christian faith

I ran across a blogger (who does not allow comments in his blog) who criticizes John Shelby Spong from the perspective of a former Christian who left the faith a long time ago and "never looked back". Spong is a difficult person for me to write about because I have mixed feelings about him, as I've described elsewhere. Overall, despite my misgivings, he does get my qualified support for what I think he is trying to accomplish, which among other things is to try to show those people who are spiritually inclined but otherwise alienated from Christian orthodoxy that it might not be necessary for them to live in exile from Christianity. Since I feel mostly in exile myself, I'm not sure that I feel confident in the ultimate success of that project, but I still think it is a project that is worth the effort.

The blogger who criticized Spong is an example of one of those people who made the transition from what Marcus Borg calls "pre-critical naivete" to "critical thinking" but who never made it to the next step of "post-critical naivete", and as a result maintains a rather simplistic definition of what Christianity entails. He doesn't see Spong's theology as fitting into his own stereotype of what he thinks Christianity necessarily must be. Like a lot of people in that category, he goes further than that, arguing essentially that all intelligent people should view religion the same way that he does. In that sense, he certainly shares Spong's own unfortunate dogmatic tendencies. In fact, in critiquing a paradigm that doesn't fit into his own, he ultimately criticizes Spong's own intellectual honesty, accusing Spong of having to resolve the sort of cognitive dissonance that as a former bishop he somehow must be experiencing--that is to say, as one who sees the Bible as having flaws but whose lifetime of service to the church requires him to desperately cling to a Christian identity that he can't possibly really agree with at same deeper level of his being.

The blogger, thus, exemplifies what I have talked about before--the former Christian who changes teams without changing their basic assumptions about what Christianity necessarily means. More importantly, we see the assumption that this narrow definition of what Christianity entails must also be imposed on progressive Christians as well. Somehow all these progressive Christians don't actually know what it is they really believe, apparently. The blogger writes,

Consider Spong’s predicament: he is now a retired bishop, who spent his entire career in the service of the Episcopal Church. Like many of us, he is too intelligent to believe that the Bible is literally true. But, because of his position in life, he feels obligated to not reject the Bible outright, so he ends up wrapping himself around the axle of his own justifications.
The blogger also assumes that all Christians must necessarily believe in the exclusive nature of their own faith--that their faith is the only legitimate way. If there are other ways of being spiritual or of loving or of focusing on an ultimate higher purpose, then (the assumption goes), there is no point in being a Christian. The blogger writes,
But one need not be a Christian to do this. The Christian filter is strictly optional. There are a multitude of ways to approach spirituality, and Christianity is but one. Once a person admits the possibility that Christianity isn’t the “One True” religion, and that the Bible isn’t the inerrant “Word of God,” the whole edifice starts to crumble. And as millions of ex-Christians have found, once we’re free from the confines of Christian Faith, we don’t miss it at all.
My guess is that Spong would agree that there are a "multitude of ways to approach spirituality, and Christianity is but one." Certainly Marcus Borg agrees with that, as do many other progressive Christians, theologians and lay people alike. So of course by asserting that there are many paths to spiritual fulfillment, the blogger is not saying anything we don't already know. The fact that one chooses a means of mediating the sacred may be nothing more than that particular means speaks to one's own inner self in ways that others do not. And I think this is the key point here. When the blogger says that "we don't miss [Christianity] at all", the blogger is speaking for himself but then generalizing on behalf of others. This is the "I know what's best for everyone else" response. I would agree that not everyone is cut out to be religious, or a Christian. But the blogger cannot speak for everyone. And it is certainly not true that "the whole edifice starts to crumble" if you reject exclusivist claims for a particular faith. On the contrary, once we move beyond exclusivist claims, a religion is not defining limiting "confines" but instead celebrates the liberation of the human spirit through a spiritual journey--and that is a much stronger foundation upon which to build a Christian faith, in my opinion.

God without certainty

I recently got into a discussion in James McGrath's blog with a Buddhist who asked me what the point of theistic religion is if it doesn't entail receiving clearly defined messages from God. He saw his own nontheistic religion as a scientific and empircally valid form of psychology, and for him any religion--especially one involving God--that is non-empircal or riddled with ambiguity and uncertainty is pointless. This discussion illustrated, I think, a common misconception about what religion necessarily means for everyone. Those who don't get progressive religion are often baffled by the idea of a faith that isn't about dogma or certainty. This is certainly the assumption of a lot of fundamentalist Christians, for whom certainty and dogma are central. But I have found that a lot of atheists also share the same assumption. Many of them think that there is no point in positing a God if that God doesn't give us obvious and unambiguous instructions, apparently accompanied by lightning bolts and spoken with a booming voice from the sky.

For others of us, however, religion is not about having answers handed to us on a silver platter, but rather about the mystery and the journey of discovery. It is about myth, meaning, and community. For us, to ask what is the point of belief in God without certainty is like asking what is the point of a poem. This is something that some people just don't get, and, unfortunately, such people often seem to spend a lot of energy trying to insist that the rest of us see things their own way.

That's great, but what about process theology?

I sometimes feel like a broken record when I complain about authors on religious topics who ignore process theology, but it after reading Robert Wright's column in today's New York Times about how to reconcile faith in God with evolution, I once again found myself thinking, "That's great, but what about process theology?" One of the reasons I find process theology intriguing is that it addresses two theological questions that I think have to be resolved if belief in God is to be tenable: how to reconcile science and religion, and how to reconcile the existence of God with the problem of evil. Thus whenever an author gives an ostensibly comprehensive analysis on either of those two subjects for public consumption, and yet in so doing ignores process theology altogether, then I find myself objecting that the treatment of the subject matter is really incomplete.

Wright argues in his column that the only way for believers in God to also believe in evolution is to subscribe to a kind of deistic biology, in which God created the mechanism of natural selection and then subsequently just sat back and watched:

The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever).
This isn't much different from other kinds of deism, and while it is true that this would indeed be one solution to the problem, another possible solution he doesn't mention and yet which is offered by process theology, suggests that God is actively involved in all the processes of the world (including biological evolution), but not in a coercive fashion but rather as One who offers creative possibilities at each moment. God under this model is then a non-omnipotent co-creator with creation itself. Thus, unlike the deistic evolution that Wright proposes, process theology sees God as remaining active--but not in an omnipotent sense.

I am certainly not saying that anyone, including Robert Wright, has to accept process theology. I do think it is frustrating, though, when process theology gets short shrift in an area of theology that it is specifically suited to address, and thus a treatment of a subject like this is not as comprehensive as it sets out to be.

It is also notable in this case that Wright goes on to say in his column that "organisms must come from a different creative process than rocks" and that " this creative process imparts a purpose (however mundane) to organisms." The idea that there are two different creative processes at work in the universe involves a kind of dualism that some might find a bit unsatisfying at some level, and he takes this dualism for granted when in fact it is not philosophically necessary. Indeed, this kind of dualism in the creative processes is something that process theology also rejects, seeing ultimately the same Divine creativity at work throughout all the processes of the universe.

Interfaith dialogue--or not, as the case may be

Many Jews are understandably outraged at a document produced by US Catholic bishops:

Jewish groups said they interpret the new document to mean that the bishops view interfaith dialogue as a chance to invite Jews to become Catholic. The Jewish leaders said they "pose no objection" to Christians sharing their faith, but said dialogue with Jews becomes "untenable" if the goal is to persuade Jews to accept Christ as their savior.
I read the document in question , and I simply can't comprehend that its authors wouldn't know that it uses language that is patently offensive to Jews. For example, here is a quote from the document: "this line of reasoning could lead some to conclude mistakenly that Jews have an obligation not to become Christian and that the Church has a corresponding obligation not to baptize Jews."

Genuine ecumenical dialogue is mutually respectful; it does not try to proselytize. More importantly, given historical circumstances, Jews have a particular reason for being sensitive about efforts to convert them to Christianity. The Catholic Church clearly doesn't get it.

Changing teams

On reading a post in the blog "Debunking Christianity", authored by a former Christian named John Loftus who is now an atheist, I was struck by the fact that, except for a few changes of wording here and there, the entry could have been posted in a fundamentalist blog. It illustrates the point that I've seen time and time again, that a lot of former Christians-turned-atheist have changed teams without changing a lot of their assumptions about the nature of Christianity. It's the same fundamentalist mindset--just the team has changed.

For example, Loftus writes in his blog that "liberal Christians"

should just acknowledge that and admit they have cut themselves off from any historic understanding of what defines a Christian
I always find it interesting when atheists claim the right to decide who is and is not a Christian.

Rowan Williams and human liberation

Some people in the past have defended Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, by suggesting that on the subject of sexuality he is caught between the disparate factions of the church, and that his response to the Episcopal Church's moves towards greater equality for gays and lesbians is nothing more than the actions of an impartial referee who is trying to keep the church from falling apart.

Pronouncements that Williams has made make it clear that nothing could be farther from the truth. Far from being an impartial referee, Williams has revealed an underlying allegiance with the conservatives. Among other things, Williams stated regarding same-sex marriage that

a person living in such a union is in the same case as a heterosexual person living in a sexual relationship outside the marriage bond; whatever the human respect and pastoral sensitivity such persons must be given, their chosen lifestyle is not one that the Church's teaching sanctions, and thus it is hard to see how they can act in the necessarily representative role that the ordained ministry, especially the episcopate, requires. (emphasis added).
His reference to "their chosen lifestyle" is telling.

It is also interesting to see what Williams's view on the role of the church with respect to human liberation and social progress is:
if the Church has echoed the harshness of the law and of popular bigotry – as it so often has done – and justified itself by pointing to what society took for granted, it has been wrong to do so. But on the same basis, if society changes its attitudes, that change does not of itself count as a reason for the Church to change its discipline.
In other words, according to Williams, if society is more progressive than the church, if society develops a liberating impulse ahead of the church, if the church lags behind society, then that is not the church's problem! I have a very different idea; I think that religious faith should be at the forefront of human liberation and social progress. I am reminded of John Woolman, the eighteenth century American Quaker who, inspired by his religious faith, fought a lifelong struggle to oppose slavery. Woolman understood what Williams does not, that faith can and should be a driving impulse to support justice and inclusion. Williams places institutional inertia over these most important of human values. I want no part of Rowan Williams's religion.

Francis Collins and science

There has been a brouhaha in the blogosphere over the appointment of Francis Collins as Director of the National Institutes of Health. Many militant atheists have complained that Collins, who is a Christian, should not be given such an eminent scientific post, because he is an avid proselytizer for the belief in the harmony of science and faith (he even has a website on the subject). You can predict who the most vocal complainers are--people like PZ Myers and Sam Harris, for example--and their complaints can be taken with the usual mountains of salt. In fact, Andrew Brown of the UK Guardian newspaper began his commentary on this controversy with a scathing critique of Sam Harris:

Anyone tempted to believe that the abolition of religion would make the world a wiser and better place should study the works of Sam Harris. Shallow, narrow, and self-righteous, he defends and embodies all of the traits that have made organised religion repulsive; and he does so in the name of atheism and rationality. He has, for example, defended torture, ("restraint in the use of torture cannot be reconciled with our willingness to wage war in the first place") attacked religious toleration in ways that would make Pio Nono blush: "We can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene" ; he has claimed that there are some ideas so terrible that we may be justified in killing people just for believing them. Naturally, he also believes that the Nazis were really mere catspaws of the Christians. ("Knowingly or not, the Nazis were agents of religion").
There is no question that the bigotry of Myers and Harris play a clear role in their objections to Collins's appointment. And yet, my feelings on this subject are somewhat complicated by the fact that while I, like Collins, believe that science and faith can be compatible, I am not sure that I am in Collins's camp when he gets down to specifics. The reason for this has a lot to do with the fact that Collins has been described as an evangelical.

First and foremost, I should make it clear that I think that if Collins has shown himself to be a qualified scientist, then his religious beliefs should be irrelevant. The fact that he publicly states his views on religion should also be irrelevant, in my view. (The blogger who posts to the "Evolution is True" blog has actually complained about scientists "who insist on publicly harmonizing their faith with science"! Apparently, according to this objection, Christian scientists are supposed to keep their religious views as deep, dark secrets that they never reveal to the world.) I think that Collins's work as a scientist should be judged solely on its own merits alone, so these objections about his public expressions of faith strike me as ridiculous. If he is a qualified scientist, then he has earned the right to hold the job.

On the other hand, aside from his qualifications for the job, I also think that Collins poses a difficult problem if he is presented as some sort of spokesman for the harmony of science and religion. As I mentioned, I myself am a strong believer that science and faith can be compatible, to the extent that religious faith embraces a rationalist understanding of the world. Collins does believe in evolution--if he did not, he would certainly not be qualified for the job, since serious biology is impossible without an acceptance of evolution. The question is, how does Collins believe that God plays a role in evolution or other scientific processes? Collins spends an inordinate amount of time on his website trying to reconcile science with the mythological tales in Genesis, which I don't really see the point of. The Genesis stories were attempts by people with a primitive scientific understanding to understand the world and God's role in its creation. They are nice stories, and they provide interesting ideas into the human condition, but to assign them an authoritative role beyond that just complicates matters. It would be a lot easier if people just stopped trying to justify Geneis or trying "reconcile" Genesis with science; I think there is simply no need to do so. There is nothing to "reconcile" because Genesis is not science.

It also gets complicated when he tries to reconcile the idea of divine "Sovereignty" (that is to say, supernatural interventionism) with evolution. The problem here is that he gets rather vague on this subject. At one point, he clearly affirms the idea of an interventionist deity and at the same time seems to be taking the Deist position:
the creator can act outside the created physical laws. However, we must not say that miraculous events outside the laws of nature are the only instances of God’s involvement. For this reason, BioLogos requires no miraculous events in its account of God’s creative process, except for the origins of the natural laws guiding the process.
The first sentence of the above quote affirms the existence of miraculous events, but then the second sentence seems to come straight out of Deism. However, later in the same text, he then backs off of this seeming Deism completely and leans toward something somewhat closer to process theology, in which God is constantly involved in creation through "influence"; unlike process theology, however, he still affirms divine omnipotence, believing that God merely "allows" the world to exist in freedom outside of his/her control:
BioLogos does not seek a concept of a God who is involved at certain times and who only observes at other times. In harmony with theism, BioLogos affirms a God who is at all times involved, yet who still allows a degree of freedom to the creation....

It is thus perfectly possible that God might influence the creation in subtle ways that are unrecognizable to scientific observation.
I haven't studied Collins's views in great enough detail to know comprehensibly what he is arguing, but based on these statements it appears that he is suggesting that God a) created the world through omnipotent intervention; b) has influenced the world through a subtle, below-the-radar act of continuous influence; c) may get involved from time to time through more direct acts of intervention.

One of the reasons that I rejected the idea of a supernatural interventionist God is not just that it violates my understanding of a rational, orderly world, but also that it poses immense problems for theodicy; but of course the latter objection is a completely separate moral problem and isn't relevant to the question of how divine action could be consistent with science. Collins seems wedded to the idea of a supernaturally interventionist God, and this is where I part with him. I think it is important to recognize that there can be more than one potential way of reconciling faith and science, and Collins's approach is not the only one.

When fundamentalism serves a corporate agenda

A New York Times review of a book on Wal-Mart provided a fascinating glimpse into the ways that a corporation can use fundamentalist Christian values to promote a corporate agenda that advances the bottom line through lower wages or other exploitative policies. The reviewer notes that

Anyone who has read Barbara Ehrenreich’s description of her experiences as a Wal-Mart clerk in “Nickel and Dimed” or Steven Greenhouse’s chronicle of Wal-Mart’s widespread flouting of safety and hours regulations in“The Big Squeeze” might well wonder why anyone would even consider a job with the company.
The answer, it seems, is that Wal-Mart appeals to fundamentalist Christian values. These values were particularly prominent in the Bible Belt region where the company was founded:
Sam Walton was not a fundamentalist Christian. He and his wife, Helen, worshipped at a liberal branch of the Presbyterian Church, and Mrs. Walton was even an early abortion rights advocate. But Moreton argues that Walton and his fellow executives quickly recognized the economic advantage of weaving specific strands of the Ozark region’s fundamentalist belief system into their corporate strategy.

At the heart of that strategy was the company’s emphasis on the Christian concept of “servant leadership.” In other parts of the retail sector, the servitude demanded of retail clerks was typically experienced as demeaning. But by repeatedly reminding employees that the Christian servant leader cherishes opportunities to provide cheerful service to others, Moreton argues, Wal-Mart transformed servitude from a negative job characteristic into a positive one.

Another cultural strand in Moreton’s account is the company’s policy of reproducing the social relationships characteristic of fundamentalist Christian households in the workplace. To this end, Wal-Mart needed a legal pretext for hiring mostly men as managers and mostly women as clerks. The solution was to move managers to new store locations frequently, a condition of employment that men would generally accept but most women would not.

But even though the managerial jobs paid better and offered more opportunities for promotion, there was still a problem for male employees. The highly regimented, rule-driven jobs at Wal-Mart were a pale substitute for the independent farmer’s role from which the company’s Ozark male managers had recently been driven. Rather than cede greater control to managers, Moreton argues, the company salved the egos of the men by celebrating a patriarchal ideal of “Christian manliness.” The women, for their part, were only too happy to adopt the prescribed submissive role.

"He is alive"

One of my favorite movies of all time, and one of the best political thrillers ever made, is Z, directed by Costra-Gavras. The movie was nominated for the best picture Oscar for 1969, and won the Academy Award for best foreign language film.

The movie provides a fictionalized account of events in Greece after a peace activist was murdered in the early 1960s. The letter "Z" became a catchword in the film among those who wanted to continue his work after he died. It meant "He is alive".

When his followers expressed this sentiment, they clearly did not mean that he was literally still alive. They meant instead that they honored what he sought to accomplish, and that his spirit carried on in the work of those who came after him.

Perhaps this is similar to what the followers of a certain Jewish mystic 2000 years ago were also saying after he was killed for what he stood for.

John Haught on the resurrection

From an interview in

What do you make of the miracles in the Bible -- most importantly, the Resurrection? Do you think that happened in the literal sense?

I don't think theology is being responsible if it ever takes anything with completely literal understanding. What we have in the New Testament is a story that's trying to awaken us to trust that our lives make sense, that in the end, everything works out for the best. In a pre-scientific age, this is done in a way in which unlettered and scientifically illiterate people can be challenged by this Resurrection. But if you ask me whether a scientific experiment could verify the Resurrection, I would say such an event is entirely too important to be subjected to a method which is devoid of all religious meaning.

So if a camera was at the Resurrection, it would have recorded nothing?

If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it. I'm not the only one to say this. Even conservative Catholic theologians say that. Faith means taking the risk of being vulnerable and opening your heart to that which is most important. We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable? Science is simply not equipped to deal with the dimensions of purposefulness, love, compassion, forgiveness -- all the feelings and experiences that accompanied the early community's belief that Jesus is still alive. Science is simply not equipped to deal with that. We have to learn to read the universe at different levels. That means we have to overcome literalism not just in the Christian or Jewish or Islamic interpretations of scripture but also in the scientific exploration of the universe. There are levels of depth in the cosmos that science simply cannot reach by itself.

Terry Eagleton on religion

I found this great quote by Terry Eagleton:

“[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.”

That kind of explains everything, doesn't it?

I ran across an article from last year in the New York Times in which Richard Dawkins derides children's stories that include elements of fantasy or myth:

Richard Dawkins has said that he is now writing a book for children. In an interview with Britain’s Channel 4, Dr. Dawkins said he was working on a book that would explore children’s relationships with fairy tales, and encourage them to think about the world scientifically rather than mythologically. “I would like to know whether there’s any evidence that bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards and magic wands and things turning into other things — it is unscientific, I think it’s anti-scientific."
I guess if you don't see the value of myth for adults, then it is not surprising that you wouldn't see the value of myth for children either.

The "Everyone knows" argument, redux.

I recently commented on some of what atheist blogger Sean Carroll has written about religion, noting that his concept of religion is narrow and mostly defined by Christian orthodoxy. Apparently I am not the only one who called him on this, because last week he wrote another blog entry in which, once again, he attempted to justify his definition of religion. Here is what he wrote:

When I use words like “God” or “religion,” I try to use them in senses that are consistent with how they have been understood (at least in the Western world) through history, by the large majority of contemporary believers, and according to definitions as you would encounter them in a dictionary. It seems clear to me that, by those standards, religious belief typically involves various claims about things that happen in the world — for example, the virgin birth or ultimate resurrection of Jesus. Those claims can be judged by science, and are found wanting.
What I find interesting is that the two examples that he cites--the virgin birth and the "ultimate" resurrection (by which I assume he means a "literal" or "physical" resurrection) of Jesus--both come from Christian orthodoxy. He thus betrays that what is "clear" to him about religion in general is essentially based on one specific class of religious belief, one that he is apparently the most familiar with--and which he then uses to base a generalization about all of religious faith or all conceptions of God. Carroll claims that a basic reference work definition of God or religion matches his own conception, namely one that necessarily involves claims about what happens in the world; it might do Carroll some good to read the Wikipedia article on "Conceptions of God" and then come back and write a blog entry once he has informed himself a bit more on the vast variety of conceptions that fall under that subject. For a scientist, he is remarkably good at throwing around a lot of unsubstantiated pronouncements about what "God" and "religion" supposedly mean to everyone. He goes on to say, for example, that
Most Christians would disagree with the claim that Jesus came about because Joseph and Mary had sex and his sperm fertilized her ovum and things proceeded conventionally from there, or that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead...
Once again, we see here the "most Christians" argument. If "most" Christians believe something, so the argument goes, then the minority don't get to be included in the definition of Christianity. (And by extension, if most Christians believe in a theistic God, then a theistic and interventionist God is a necessary part of the definition of "religion". ) Since I doubt that he has actually done an opinion poll of what "most" Christians believe, this is just an imprecise assertion that masquerades as an argument. He might actually be surprised at just how many Christians don't believe in the virgin birth. Then again, there is always the possibility of the circular reasoning that says that if they don't believe that, then they aren't even Christians in the first place.

The real question is why any of this matters, and Carroll himself asks this question:
Furthermore, if a religious person really did believe that nothing ever happened in the world that couldn’t be perfectly well explained by ordinary non-religious means, I would think they would expend their argument-energy engaging with the many millions of people who believe that the virgin birth and the resurrection and the promise of an eternal afterlife and the efficacy of intercessory prayer are all actually literally true, rather than with a handful of atheist bloggers with whom they agree about everything that happens in the world.
I really think that Carroll should read a book by John Shelby Spong some time. Many people of faith who reject supernatural theism or an interventionist deity do expend a lot of energy arguing with religious orthodoxy. But it is not a matter of either-or here; if there are more than two sides to an issue, then I will freely argue with both positions that I disagree with. I think the problem here is that I for one feel caught in the middle between Christian orthodoxy and atheism, and it annoys me. Christian orthodoxy annoys me for the obvious reasons, but militant atheism also annoys me because it often shares the same exact assumptions about what religion is or should be that the orthodoxy does. I find myself standing on the sidelines in the arguments between these groups of people, and the problem is that they are both wrong. Sometimes in life, there are more than two sides to an argument, but when an argument is carried out as if certain points of view don't even exist, when those points of view are thus shut out of the debate, one effectively cheats the rest of us out of a chance to really examine the issue from all sides. The reality is that lots of people with a spiritual inclination but who reject supernatural interventionism end up thinking that this is what religion is and join the "church alumni society", when, in reality, that isn't their only option. Not to mention the fact that it ends up being presumptuous and insulting; when someone claims that "everyone knows" what religion or God really is, based on a faulty assumption, what results is a definition that presumes to deny the reality of my own religious belief.

To Sean Carroll I say--sorry, but my religious belief is religious, even if it doesn't fit into your compartmentalized view of things. And that is why I argue with you.