Against omnipotence

The Tikkun web site has published an article by Be Scofield that lays out many arguments against the notion of an omnipotent, interventionist deity. Much of what he says about the problem of God playing favorites in response to prayer echoes what John Shelby Spong has written on the subject of prayer (and his use of non-theistic in describing God suggests a possible connection to Spong.) Scofield writes this:

If one abandons the notion that God can intervene in the world to answer prayer God all of a sudden looks much different. Gone is the notion that the Holocaust could have been prevented and was part of God’s divine and “awesome” plan. Gone is the immense power for God to take sides in war as illustrated in the Hebrew Bible. Gone is a God that plays favorites. No longer can God be omnipotent as previously understood because God lacks the power to act in the world. For many who begin to interpret the divine in this non-theistic new light, God then becomes synonymous with love, creative energy and relatedness. Just because the theology of yesterday is insufficient for our modern standards doesn’t mean we need to abandon God, religion or appreciation for the divine.
Well stated, and I couldn't agree more.

Steven Colbert interviews Father Guido Sarducci

Father Guido Sarducci (one of the regular characters from the early days of SNL) appears on the Steven Colbert show to talk about Glen Beck. In the process, he explains, among other things, what makes one a good prophet:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Prophet Glenn Beck - Father Guido Sarducci
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorFox News

Faith against capital punishment

Deseret News reports that a Catholic bishop is among the founding members of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty:

"We oppose capital punishment not just for what it does to those guilty of horrible crimes, but for how it affects society," says Bishop John C. Wester, of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

Halal meals for the hungry

From the San Jose Mercury comes this story:

This summer, a group of Silicon Valley-based Muslims will serve all-halal meals to the hungry from a roving food truck — an effort that's the first of its kind in the Bay Area, perhaps in the nation.
Although meals are halal, they are freely given to anyone regardless of faith:

The Muslim group doesn't ask for any credentials or references before handing out the food and doesn't know how many Muslims or non-Muslims it feeds.

"Frankly, we don't ask, and we don't care," Ashraf said.

Differences shall not be tolerated

Arizona is clearly not the only place in the world where hatred rears its ugly head. In the Netherlands, a party that calls for a ban on Muslims immigrating into the country has gained seats in parliament, from nine to 24.

Naturally, the usual band of right wing bloggers are celebrating this election outcome.

The headline in the Washington Post blog entry on this subject reads, "Anti-Islam Party Surges in Netherlands." If you imagine for a moment substituting the word "Jew" for Islam in that headline it would become just a little more clear just what is going on here. Some things just never change, do they?

Meanwhile, Great Britain has enacted a new law requiring that all spouses of legal British residents be able to speak English before they can enter the country. The Telegraph points out that Queen Victoria would never have been born if that law had been effect in the nineteenth century. The AP article on this suggests that "such a move would likely go against the grain of even the more conservative elements of American society, where the diversity of languages has widely been seen as a sign of cultural vibrancy."

Well, maybe not in Arizona.

Apologizing for being a Christian

I was amused by this blog entry that describes liberal Christians who are ashamed to be associated with those other Christians.

Which reminds of the following video that was made at a Vancouver poetry slam, and that begins with the words, "I am a Christian. I'm sorry." It is too bad that certain strains of conservative Christianity have so poisoned the popular conception of what Christianity is that liberal Christians have to go out of their way to make it clear that they aren't like that. But there you have it.

Is justice irrational?

I found this quote from an article in the Sunday New York Times book review section interesting because of its the implicit bias that it reveals:

Consider an experiment economists call “the ultimatum game”: The experimenter gives one player, the sender, $20 to distribute between himself and another player, the receiver. An egalitarian sender might propose a split of $10 each. A more selfish sender might propose to give the receiver only $1, keeping $19 for himself. If the receiver accepts the deal, the two players collect their shares. If the receiver rejects the deal, both walk away with nothing. Were humans perfectly rational, the receiver would accept whatever is offered: even a dollar is better than nothing, right? Instead, researchers find, receivers will reject an overly lopsided deal, gladly giving up their shares just to punish the stingy senders.
But wait. Why is it more "rational" to accept whatever money is offered to you even if someone else gets more money out of the deal? Why is acceptance of an unequal transaction "rational"? There is a sort of implicit libertarian sort of logic embedded in that statement that would make Rand Paul proud. Without even questioning this assumption, the reviewer in this article takes for granted the notion (also apparently expressed by the author of the book she is reviewing) that it is more "rational" to accept a greater amount money in an unequal transaction than the zero dollars that would be accepted were one to reject the transaction altogether. Behind that assumption lies a further one--that concern for maximizing whatever one can acquire for one's self is the only truly rational basis for human behavior. But in fact there is simply no reason to assume this. Humans, and in fact other primates as well, are social animals who often adhere to concepts of justice and fairness:

According to research due to be published in the journal Animal Behaviour, fairness is not only essential to the human social contract, it also plays an important role in the lives of nonhuman primates more generally. Sarah F. Brosnan and colleagues conducted a series of behavioral tests with a colony of chimpanzees housed at the University of Texas in order to find out how they would respond when faced with an unfair distribution of resources. A previous study in the journal Nature by Brosnan and Frans de Waal found that capuchin monkeys would refuse a food item when they saw that another member of their group had received a more desired item at the same time (a grape instead of a slice of cucumber). Some individuals not only rejected the food, they even threw it back into the researchers face. The monkeys seemed to recognize that something was unfair and they responded accordingly. This raised the provocative question: can the basis of the social contract be found in our evolutionary cousins?
The upshot of this is that for us primates, transactions have a social character, and one could just as easily argue that it is perfectly rational for humans to take into consideration how a transaction affects other people besides themselves in evaluating whether to participate in the transaction or not. The answer that you give to that question may say more about your own biases than it does about what rationality really means.

I would argue that "rational" doesn't just have to translate to "how something will benefit me personally the most". It is possible to conceive of a rationality that accounts for how others besides one's self will benefit or be harmed by it, or how equitably a transaction treats all the parties involved. This understanding lies at the basis of many concepts of justice--and I happen to think that justice is actually a perfectly rational concept.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose
And sometimes the blues get hold of you
Just when you thought you had made it

-- Carole King, "Sweet Seasons"
When I was younger and more optimistic than I am today, I thought that I saw in the sweep of history the still voice of God operating through the struggles and pains of developments of ideas that coursed through world events. No, I didn't see God as guiding or controlling the what happened, but rather as offering us at all times the opportunity to be better people, both as individuals and as a societies. To the extent that we listened to God, I felt, we could move beyond our tribalism and into a more inclusive and tolerant society. The inclusive developments against racism, sexism, homophobia, and other sins of tribalism seemed like ways in which people were listening to the voice of God.

The problem was this: when you are in the midst of world history rather than standing outside of it, it is sometimes hard to see where the progress is being made.

Are we keeping a scorecard? Are things getting better or worse in the struggle for greater inclusiveness?

I take some comfort in reading that a community board in New York voted by a whopping 29-1 to allow the building of the mosque near Ground Zero. Score one for reason, tolerance, and common sense.

Yet, meanwhile, the fight continues in Arizona against SB 1070, which was signed into law a little over a month ago. Score one for bigotry, hate, and intolerance.

Of course, the legal and moral battle against SB 1070 isn't over yet, but the fact that such a law was passed in the first place shows that we have a long way to go in this country. Sometimes it just seems like every step forward towards tolerance and inclusion is matched with just as many steps back.

Of course, there is nothing new in American society about anti-immigrant bigotry. The Know-Nothing Party of the nineteenth century was a precursor to what is happening in Arizona today. As the Wikipedia article on the Know-Nothing movement describes it,
The Know Nothing movement was a nativist American political movement of the 1840s and 1850s. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to Anglo-Saxon values...
Sound familiar? Change the ethnic groups and it does seem like nothing has changed. Movements like these, which opposed those who are different in some way from the perceived cultural norm, have been rampant in the not just in the US, but in Europe as well, for a long time. In Europe, there is of course a long and sordid history of anti-Semitism, but these days it is more fashionable to spew hatred against Muslims, as demonstrated by the rise of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim parties of the far right (such as the Danish People's Party in Denmark), or by the recent law in Switzerland banning minarets.

In an essay in the Sunday New York Times book review, Geoff Nicholson writes of the cultural biases found in books of "facts" printed in the 19th century:
books of facts always display localized preferences, cultural values, sometimes straightforward prejudices. My “New American Cyclopaedia” (1872) tells me that in 1855 there were 25,858 people in New York who could neither read nor write, and 21,378 of them were Irish. This may well have been true, but why exactly did it need to be emphasized? Well, I think we might hazard a guess.
Nowadays, people toss around supposed statistics about the alleged percentage of terrorist acts committed today by Muslims. This need to categorize The Other by statistical means thus has a long and rich history. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I happened to be passing through Arizona when SB 1070 was first hitting the national news. The infamously bigoted sheriff Joe Arpaio was asked on the TV news what would be an example of a reasonable suspicion that someone might be an illegal immigrant. His answer--and this priceless but typical--was that speaking another language, or English with an accent, could be used as indicators that someone was an illegal immigrant. You could almost laugh at the absurdity of that statement if it were not so tragic. But you can see what this is really about--people who talk differently from us must be viewed with suspicion.

Yes, it is about fear of others, fear of the stranger--and yes, fear of people who talk or look differently from the way you do--that lies at the heart of so much tribalism. And it is tribalism that the world has struggled to overcome since the dawn of time.

There has always been that other strain, a strain of universalism and of tolerance. Religion has often been all about tribalism, and yet within religion there has always been the flip side. After all, Exodus 23:9 says, "You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt." Meanwhile, within the Christian tradition, Jesus was quite the poster child for inclusiveness. He was the guy who ate and drank with the excluded and outcasts of his society, and it pissed people off. And yet, so much of modern Christianity is stuck on its own forms of exclusionary practices. Sherry of "A Feather Adrift" recently linked to another blog that in turn cited an article on the Beliefnet website that criticized the trend towards open communion in many churches, complaining that "nothing is expected of those who receive Communion." Horror of horrors! The idea that something must be expected of you before you can be included in God's grace--well, I can see why the author of that article was so offended.

At the heart of tolerance and inclusion, I think, lies empathy. To the extent that we can cultivate empathy, tolerance and inclusion naturally follow. Maybe it helps if you have been excluded from something at some point in your life. Maybe it helps to know what the pain feels like of being excluded before you want to reach out and extend the hand of friendship to those who are excluded. If you always live safely and comfortably in your tribe, maybe you don't know what it is like to be excluded. Or maybe some people just don't care about such issues and would rather not think about them at all. In any case, it seems that the need to preserve the integrity of the tribe at all costs leads directly to intolerance, exclusion, racism, and bigotry. Those who are different threaten this integrity, or so it is felt.

Groucho Marx once said that he would not want to join a club that would have him as a member. I think that if it is a club spent its time deciding who was worthy and not worthy of being part of the select included few, I wouldn't want to join that club either.

But some days I wonder if we will ever see a world in which the tribal impulse is gone from our midst.