God is naughtier than sex

As a followup to my recent post about how Americans feel a need to exaggerate their religiousness while Europeans are ashamed of their religiousness, I ran across this article from the Danish national broadcast network's website. The original article is in Danish, although you can run it through Google Translate to get an English translation, albeit with some awkward constructions here and there. The title of the article is "God is naughtier than sex", and it describes a Danish man who wrote a children's Bible. Here a cleaned up text of the Google Translate version of the article:

"If I had said something about my marriage or my sex life to the reporter from a newspaper, then it would almost be less taboo than my disclosure that I believed in God." Such is what Sigurd Barrett experienced, when once during an interview he answered "yes" that he believed in God. The day after he could read in a double spread in the newspaper : "Sigurd believes in God!"

Sigurd Barrett finds that Danes are reluctant, almost afraid of the Christian faith, even though 80.9 percent of us are still members of the Church. This is partly why he agreed to make a children's bible. Not because he wants to proselytize or moralize, but because he wants it to be possible to talk about God without people responding nonsensically.

Not least, the kids need to be able to talk about God. Sigurd Barrett believes that it is our duty to speak with them about what faith is. And they should not be scared about wanting to talk with and about God:

"If we as parents put a lid on this impulse of fear to indoctrinate or brainwash our children, I mean really, we deprive them of the opportunity to found a spiritual dimension to their understanding of themselves. Praying a prayer is not an extreme or fanatical action. It is a natural desire to communicate with a higher power," he says.
I think that this once again illustrates the point that just as there is a kind of cultural stigma in the US against not being religious, there is an opposite stigma against being religious in many parts of Europe. By calling attention to this, I am not implying anything about whether being religious is good or bad--but I do think the cultural difference is interesting, and it says less about whether the people in a country as a whole are actually more or less religious than it does about how people in a given country want to present themselves. This also once again raises the question--why do Americans frequently want to make themselves out to be more religious than they are, and why Europeans frequently want to make themselves out to be less religious than they are?

Prayer for victory in war

I ran across this article in the LA Times about a prayer that General Patton asked his chaplain to come up with. The prayer asked God to help give Patton favorable weather during the waning months of World War II, just prior to the Battle of the Bulge. The prayer that the chaplain came up with was this:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies, and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen.
The article points out,
Throughout history, soldiers have called upon their gods for protection and victory over their enemies. But Patton's now legendary prayer was extraordinary in its presumption and audacity, said Hymel. "There were four other American commanders in the European Theater during that time, and none of them were asking God to fix the weather."
I am reminded of Mark Twain's famous "War Prayer" story, a brilliant anti-war spoof of the very idea of praying for God to help "our" side win. (If anyone is not familiar with this short work of Twain's, I highly recommend it.)

If one assumes that God can control the weather to enable one's own side to win in battle, then the inevitable question is why God is limited to working his magic in that way. After all, why was the horror of World War II, with its millions of senseless deaths, even necessary in first place if a simple prayer to God could have fixed it. If God can determine the fate of battles by clearing up the skies, then surely God could have prevented Hitler from ever taking power, and surely God could have prevented massive horror of the Holocaust.

It is interesting how divine intervention, supposedly a manifestation of God's omnipotence, is actually conceived in rather limited terms. Why appeal to God to help fix the mess that an omnipotent God could have prevented in the first place?

Americans, Europeans, and claiming to be religious

Three years ago, I posted an entry to my blog titled "Europe and the Failure of Orthodox Christianity" in which, among other things, I quoted from a researcher from a New York Times article who pointed out that Americans claim to be more religious than they actually are, while Europeans claim to be less religious than they actually are. The researcher, a Spanish sociologist named José Casanova, said

The interesting fact is that people responding to questions about religion lie in both directions. In America, people exaggerate how religious they are, and in Europe, it’s the other way around. That has to do with the situation of religion in both places. Americans think religion is a good thing and tend to feel guilty that they aren’t religious enough. In Europe, they think being religious is bad, and they actually feel guilty about being too religious.
This is borne out a recent study that was highlighted in an article in Slate magazine, which poses the question: Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are?" It seems that Americans report going to church much more often than they actually do. Which then leads to this question:
Why do Americans and Canadians feel the need to overreport their religious attendance? You could say that religiosity for Americans is tied to their identity in a way that it is not for the Germans, the French, and the British. But that only restates the mystery. Why is religiosity tied to American identity?
The author of the Slate article, Shankar Vedantam, offers no definitive answer to that question. It does reinforce the notion that Americans are not really as different from Europeans on the subject of religion as people often assume.

Taking the Christmas story seriously, but not literally.

Susan Strouse, a blogger who is the pastor of a small, progressive Lutheran church in San Francisco, writes about her personal odyssey in learning to take the Christmas story seriously, but not literally. Her entry begins:

About ten years ago, at a December gathering of a women’s clergy support group, someone brought a beautiful Nativity story book. As we passed it around, I found myself growing more and more uncomfortable. Finally I dared to say the unthinkable: “But I don’t believe that this ever really happened.”

They all laughed and said, “Well, neither do we. It’s a story; it’s not literal history.”

She wonders how many people, not just clergy, but those in the pews, also feel the same way. I like this comment:

I had the wonderful experience of an 80-something woman in my previous congregation, after reading Why Christianity Must Change or Die by John Shelby Spong, exclaiming to me, “I wish I’d read this 70 years ago!”

The fatal implications of religious dogma

The leadership of the Catholic Church in the US was very upset when a Catholic Hospital in Arizona performed an emergency abortion to save a mother's life. Now it is being reported that Bishop Thomas Olmstead

is not only castigating Catholic Healthcare West, the group that runs St. Joseph's Hospital, for saving her life but threatening them in order to force them to promise that doctors will never save a woman's life if it requires an emergency abortion ever again...Bishop Olmstead calls the life-saving procedure "morally wrong" even though he doesn't deny that it almost certainly saved her life.
The irony is, of course, that the Catholic Church defines itself as a "pro-life" church and considers its position on abortion to be a "pro-life" stance. I guess saving the life of a mother is less important than letting her (and her fetus) die, all for the sake of a rigid and morally incomprehensible religious dogma.

A mature faith and an immature faith

I found this interesting article about the religious faith of Elizabeth Edwards. In her farewell statement, she said, "You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces -- my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope." Because she made no mention of God in that statement, people of a certain sensibility were offended. For example, blogger Donald Douglas attacked her for having the temerity of not holding Douglas's own theological views, and then went off half cocked with the ridiculous statement, "Being anti-religion is cool, so Edwards' non-theological theology gets props from the neo-communists."

How one can draw sweeping conclusions about another person's theology based on what they didn't say in a single sentence is a little odd, but based on other information in the above cited article, it is clear that what she believed about God was anything but simplistic. Any deviation from conservative orthodoxy is not, of course, a "non-theological theology", and the "neo-communists" remark by Douglas is laughable. But what particularly caught my eye in this article about Edwards was the following view that Edwards once expressed on divine intervention:

"I have, I think, somewhat of an odd version of God," Edwards explained to an audience of women bloggers when asked how her beliefs inform her politics. "I do not have an intervening God. I don't think I can pray to him -- or her -- to cure me of cancer."

Edwards, according to Stan, laughed after describing God as "her" -- hardly a heresy and certainly understandable given her audience -- and continued on:

"I appreciate other people's prayers for that [a cure for her cancer], but I believe that we are given a set of guidelines, and that we are obligated to live our lives with a view to those guidelines. And I don't believe that we should live our lives that way for some promise of eternal life, but because that's what's right. We should do those things because that's what's right."
Wise words indeed. In fact, I would argue that there is nothing odd at all about not believing that God will cure her of cancer if she prays for it. This, to me, is the hallmark of a more mature faith.