What it means to be a Christian, part II

God will punish the United States if we do not vote the way God wants us to in the 2010 elections, according to Cindy Jacobs. Who is Cindy Jacobs, you might ask? Well, according to her website, she is a prophet, so I guess it must be true.

The voices of bigotry are getting shriller

It appears that right wing hatemongers have upped the ante in their smear campaign against Muslims:

Self-described “anti-jihadist” and conservative blogger Pamela Geller — the executive director of Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) — has joined the chorus of right-wing paranoia. Earlier this month on MSNBC, Geller suggested the Islamic center is a “triumphal mosque” on “conquered lands.” Now her organization has recently launched a series of bus ads reading, “Fatwa on your head? Is your family or community threatening you? Leaving Islam? Got questions? Get answers!” in major cities, including San Francisco, Miami, and New York
The fact that this kind of hatred is so openly prevalent is a sad testimony to the state of American society. I am reminded of the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan in the US during 1920s, or the anti-semitic radio broadcasts of Charles Coughlin in the 1930s. We like to think that we have moved beyond that sort of bigotry in this country, but clearly we have not.

What it means to be a Christian, part I

Author Ann Rice has announced on her Facebook page that she has quit being a Christian. Her reasoning is as follows:

I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life.
Understandable objections, although perhaps the problem may be that she is just hanging around with the wrong bunch of Christians. I personally know many Christians who are not anti-gay, anti-feminist, or anti-science. It is interesting to hear this announcement from Rice just days after the ELCA, the largest Lutheran denomination in the US, formally and publicly welcomed gay pastors into the denomination. Of course, what it really boils down to is that "Christian" is a label, and like a lot of labels you can still be a person of faith whether you call yourself a "Christian" or not. She apparently hasn't given up on her faith, stating that she "remain[s] committed to Christ as always."

Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal church has, meanwhile, presented a different vision of what it means to be a Christian than the one that Ann Rice describes, in a sermon published in the UK newspaper The Guardian. Schori states that "We must challenge the human tendency to insist that dignity doesn't apply to the poor, or to immigrants, or to women, or Muslims, or gay and lesbian people."

That's a vision of Christianity that I can live with.

The seeds of justice

David Brooks has written a column for the New York Times in which he discusses the idea that morality is a product of our evolutionary past. According to this view, our ancestors developed a sense of what successfully facilitated social cooperation, and that therein lies the basis of an innate moral sense that all of us have (and which even small infants show some expression of). Interestingly enough, Brooks makes a connection in his article between morality and justice; he quotes a researcher who says that "people have a rudimentary sense of justice from a very early age."

He also discusses the relationship between morality and empathy:

People who behave morally don’t generally do it because they have greater knowledge; they do it because they have a greater sensitivity to other people’s points of view. Hauser reported on research showing that bullies are surprisingly sophisticated at reading other people’s intentions, but they’re not good at anticipating and feeling other people’s pain.
The very existence of bullies points to the fact that not everyone has an equally developed sense of morality--bullies seem to express less moral sense than compassionate people, at least when they bully others--which ultimately implies that not everyone has an equally developed sense of empathy. Even if there is an innate moral sense within us as humans, it is still something that needs to be cultivated to be fully manifest. And this struggle to cultivate our morality has been played out in human history. Oppressive human social structures and ideologies--the list is long, but could include such things as slavery, sexism, racism, oligarchy, torture, economic exploitation--can all be seen as examples of an institutionalized lack of empathy. It has been a historical struggle to cultivate greater empathy at a societal level in order that people might understand that, for example, sexism is a bad thing, and further that society should reflect this understanding at an institutional level. Achieving this understanding has meant appealing to people's innate moral sense, their sense of justice, to inspire them to alter societal structures to make them more just.

When we stand up for society's victims--the poor, the oppressed, the immigrant, the religious minority, the excluded--we are expanding upon that innate moral sense and that innate sense of justice. But that innate sense will be stunted unless it is nourished. The seeds of justice may lie within us, but we have to cultivate them to make them grow.

More on the rising tide of intolerance

Newt Gingrich has weighed in on the Ground Zero mosque issue, and (I'm sure this comes as no surprise) it turns out that he's against the building of that mosque. His reasoning? He argues that since there isn't freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia, we shouldn't have freedom of religion in New York City either:

...There are no churches or synagogues in all of Saudi Arabia. In fact no Christian or Jew can even enter Mecca...If the people behind the Cordoba House were serious about religious toleration, they would be imploring the Saudis, as fellow Muslims, to immediately open up Mecca to all and immediately announce their intention to allow non-Muslim houses of worship in the Kingdom.
I think it is fair to say that if you follow the convoluted logic behind that argument, you have a bright future ahead of you as an upstanding member of the conservative movement. I wish I were making all of this up, because it shows just how wacko the wacko right really has become, and it also shows to what degree hatred has become part of mainstream American politics.

Meanwhile, Yahoo News has published a story on the rise in protests against the erection of mosques everywhere, not just New York City. The article refers to "the site of a mosque in Columbia, Tennessee, that had been burned down and vandalized with painted swastikas in 2008."

"The local tiny Muslim community was in a state of shock because most of them were born in America and had lived very happily in the small community," he says. "People say, 'Go back home,' and they say, 'Where do we go? This is our home.' "

The painting of swastikas as part of the vandalism summarizes pretty well what is going on here. The headline for the Yahoo article reads, "Anti-mosque protests on the rise, say Muslim advocates." Now imagine if the headline had read, "Anti-synagogue protests on the rise, say Jewish advocates." It's funny what sounds like a horrible expression of bigotry suddenly becomes acceptable to a certain element in our society once they aim their bigotry at a different religious group.

The article also reports that

Of course, opponents of mosques do not consider themselves bigots, and many are genuinely concerned that mosques may help produce homegrown terrorists.

Of course, few people care to label themselves as bigots--just as few apologists for torture by the US ever actually use the word "torture" to describe what they advocate. Labels are like that. But the whole "terrorist" connection is rather interesting. I have cited, in earlier blog postings, the example of Christian-based terrorism in Mexico that is derived from the teachings of an American evangelist named John Eldredge. Of course, Eldredge disavows any responsibility for how his teachings are being used, but the point is that these terrorists are using Christianity to justify their violence--just as those who commit acts of terrorism in the name of Islam use the Muslim religion to justify their own violence. Interestingly enough, you don't hear too many of the Islamophobes using the example of Eldredge to justify the prevention of churches being built.

And speaking of terrorism, a right wing terrorist just the other day got into a shootout with the California Highway Patrol. He is said to have been "angry with "the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items, and as a result "he traveled to San Francisco and planned to attack two nonprofit groups there 'to start a revolution'".

But I somehow don't expect that Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin will have much to say about that.

The Onion reports that God is retiring

The satirical website The Onion reports that God is considering retirement.

The article reports:

He Who Commanded Light to Shine Out of Darkness told reporters that his biggest regret was putting his job above spending more time with his son. In particular, God mentioned that he deeply lamented missing his only child's once-in-a-lifetime crucifixion.

"Your son's down there being martyred in front of all these people, but you can't be there for it," said God, his voice cracking slightly. "He thought I'd forsaken him. Of course, I was tied up working on something that seemed important at the time but that I can't even remember now. And I'll never get that moment back."

Many worry that God's retirement could create a void at the helm of creation that no omnipotent deity would be available to fill. However, sources close to the Heavenly Father pointed out that he has been gradually delegating key responsibilities to respected subordinates, such as the Holy Ghost, for at least an eon.

Attempting to downplay such concerns, God told reporters that he wasn't "going anywhere just yet" and that, in any case, the universe was largely self-sustaining these days.

You see, that's the whole problem with omnipotence!

"Refudiating" hatred--a tall order, apparently

It seems that Sarah Palin has weighed in on the question of building a Mosque near Ground Zero, and you can guess which side of the issue she had taken. The story of how she used the non-existent word "refudiate" when she wrote on Twitter about the issue, then deleted the Tweet out of apparent embarrassment while at the same time claiming that she is just being creative like Shakespeare was, definitely makes for entertaining reading.

Meanwhile, in other news, down in Southern California in a place called Temecula Valley, which funnily enough is pretty darned far from Ground Zero, a vocal group of people have objected to the building of a mosque. According to the LA Times, one of the leaders of the opposition is Bill Rench, the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, who (and I wish I were making this up, but unfortunately I am not) said "the two religions 'mix like oil and water' and predicted a 'confrontational atmosphere' if the project moves forward.

I hate to break it to Pastor Bill Rench, but the only people doing the confronting are he and his ilk.

All of which illustrates the point that the objection to the building of a mosque at Ground Zero really has nothing to do with any alleged sensitivity to the victims (but you knew that, since Muslims were counted among the victims of that act of terrorism), but rather are part of a pattern of bigotry that extends across the country.

On not wanting that kind of religion

Today's New York Times book review section features a review by Lauren Winner in which she writes about Eric Lax's book Faith Interrupted. Winner notes that Lax, who writes of his lost faith, seems unable to handle the idea of a faith imbued with ambiguity and doubt:

Yet Lax does not seem interested in cultivating a spiritual life shot through with doubt. He doesn’t want an ambivalent (or, one might say, mature) faith; rather, he writes, recalling the aftermath of his parents’ deaths, “what I wanted to have was what I’d always had, but the faith I had accepted without question and could articulate with catechismal rote could not be recaptured.” Of course, many of us come to a place where such faith is neither possible nor even desirable; I suspect my own small Episcopal church would be largely empty on Sundays if anyone who ever questioned the Creed, anyone whose faith life included seasons of aridity, stayed home.
Based on those comments, Lax comes across as someone who Marcus Borg would describe as having made the transition from "pre-critical naivete" to "critical thinking" without ever found a way towards what Borg calls "postcritical naivete". I think it might be worth asking why it is that a lot of people make the first transition but not the second (and there are many people with religious upbringings for whom this is the case--Bart Ehrman comes to mind as famous example). Lax, as described in the above quote, wistfully longs for the dogmatic certainty of his upbringing, and so perhaps the answer in his case is that he would find a religion of ambiguity and uncertainty to be unfulfilling because it would not address this desire to return to a childlike sense of certainty. On the other hand, I often tend to think that people often stop at the "critical thinking" phase not so much because of what they want but because of their own limitations in defining religion--their conception of what religion necessarily is encapsulated in that childlike conception and in some sense it just doesn't occur to them that a religion can be anything else. Certainly a lot of the New Atheists subscribe to this simplistic notion of religion.

Perhaps there is a little of both going on. When many atheists are confronted with progressive or non-theistic forms of religion that don't conform to their stereotypes about religion, two common responses are either to deride such religious ideas for being vague or ill-defined (thus indicating a strong attachment to a dogmatic certainty that resembles the childlike religion that Lax was attached to), or to simply pose the question, "What's the point of such a religion?" While the former objection is rooted in an attachment to the notion of dogmatic certainty as a religious virtue, I think the latter question in particular expresses the problem that a religion of ambiguity or uncertainty doesn't seem to be particularly attractive to some people.

I wonder how much of this is all interrelated. Maybe sometimes, if you are attached to the idea of a religion offering childlike certainty--whether you reject that religion or not--then maybe the reason that a religion of ambiguity and uncertainty can in some sense be so under the radar that is that there are many who, like Eric Lax, find any themselves wistfully attached at some level to a religious certainty that their thinking minds know is not a valid option. Any other kind of religion is thus out of the question. The result is that they are left with no sense of faith at all.

The truth of a work of art--or a religious doctrine

Today's New York Times op-ed page contained an essay by someone who spent considerable effort to try to find the actual diner depicted in Edward Hopper's famous painting "Nighthawks". The story makes for a good read, and yet there is a an almost plainly self-evident revelation late in the column. The author turns to a book about Hopper and reads that

the diner was “based partly on an all-night coffee stand Hopper saw on Greenwich Avenue ... ‘only more so,’” and that Hopper himself said: “I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger. Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”

Partly. More so. Simplified. The hidden truth became clearer. The diner began to fade. And then I saw it — on every triangular corner, in the candy shop’s cornice and the newsstand’s advertisement for 5-cent cigars, in the bakery’s curved window and the liquor store’s ghostly wedge, in the dark bricks that loom in the background of every Village street.
Here we see the expression of an essential point about art--that it is not just a literal depiction of objective reality, but rather speaks deeper truths that spring from the imagination of the artist.

This same thing could also be said about religious doctrines and scriptures, could it not?

Christianity and violence

A while ago I wrote about a violent drug gang in Mexico using John Eldredge's form of American fundamentalist Christianity as inspiration. Naturally, Eldredge disavows any responsibility for the impact of his views on Mexican drug terror, but here's an article that quotes extensively from Eldredge and shows how violent his language really is.

Of course, one can certainly point out that Eldredge's theology, or those who commit violence or terror in the name of the sort of faith that he advocates, in no way represents Christianity as a whole--just as one can point out that Muslim terrorists in no way represent Islam as a whole. That is really the point, isn't it? We shouldn't be stigmatizing any religion based on its extremist elements. The problem seems to be that terrorism by certain religions gets lots of media play while Christian terrorism gets little attention. Maybe it is time to recognize that any religion, especially a major world religion with sufficient critical mass to produce its own diversity of thought, can have its extremists or violent elements; and it is a mistake to paint a picture of any religion with too broad a brush.

God hears children's prayers better?

In the midst of a tragic story in the New York Times of a soldier who lost both his arms and his legs comes this quote from his mother:

“That was one of the worst experiences of my life without a doubt,” she said. “I went back to my room and called one of my best friends, whose son is a youth minister, to get the children to pray. God hears children’s prayers better. I said, ‘Get the prayer chain going. I’m losing him. I’m losing him.’

“If I hadn’t been there,” she added, “I feel I would have lost him.”

I feel great sympathy for this woman and the pain she was going through, and given her experience I certainly give her a lot of leeway to express her pain in ways that may not make sense to me. But at the same time I also think it is really sad to hear anyone say something like that. It does make me wonder if there is a common belief out that that somehow "God hears children's prayers better," or that the only thing standing between someone living an dying is a loved one who prays hard enough or who enlists an army of children to pray on their behalf. And what does that say to the people whose loved ones don't pull through? Are we supposed to tell them that they didn't pray hard enough or make use of their local youth minister that the death of their loved one is somehow their fault?