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[W]e have a sad picture of how out-of-date and irrelevant institutional Christianity has become.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.