Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Post-theism: A rationale and explanation

Many people find the intersection of science and religion highly problematic. The difficulty harkens back to when everyone read Scripture in a pre-scientific, literal way (except for those who read Scripture allegorically and even they presumed a pre-scientific worldview). However, by the sixteenth century, that started to change. For example, Galileo’s championing of Copernicus’ theory of a heliocentric universe evoked strong ecclesial opposition. The Church, based on its reading of Joshua 10, which says that God caused the sun to stand still for a day so that the Israelites could take vengeance on the Amorites, taught that the earth and not the sun is at the center of the universe. The sun standing still in the sky makes sense only in a geocentric, not in a heliocentric, universe. Not until the twentieth century did the Roman Catholic Church reverse its rejection of a heliocentric universe.

Numerous, apparent contradictions between scientific theory and a literal reading of Scripture exist. Scientific data points towards the earth being millions of years old. Yet the notable Anglican Irish divine, Archbishop Usher, in the early seventeenth century calculated from Scriptural data that the earth is less than five thousand years old. Moses struck the Nile River with a stick and turned the Nile to blood, a chemical impossibility. Later, Moses struck a rock with his stick and a stream flowed from the rock, a geological impossibility. When John the Baptist baptized Jesus, Luke reports that the sky opened and a dove descended upon Jesus, combining an astronomical impossibility (the sky cannot open) with a biological impossibility (the upper atmosphere has insufficient oxygen for a bird to breathe).

Explanations of the intersection of science and religion fall within four broad categories. Agnostics, those who neither believe nor disbelieve, do not constitute one of those categories as they demur from describing the nexus. First, atheists, like Richard Dawkins, argue that religion is myth and no deity exists. Religious interpretations of life are not only unhelpful but at times actually destructive. This position embodies much faith for it presumes, contrary to the rules of logic, that one can prove a negative. Religion has caused much harm. That tragic fact, per se, makes religious ideas neither true nor false.

Second, fideists (or theists), including high profile contemporary creationists, argue that religion is true and that the supernatural deity omnipotent. Fideists go to unbelievable lengths to preserve their faith in a supernatural deity consonant with a traditional reading of Scripture. True believes have told me, for example, that God created dinosaur bones and the half-life of carbon to test the faith of people. I suspect that fideists similarly dismiss DNA research that links human origins to other primates. Perhaps more importantly, fideists cannot explain why a supernatural, omnipotent God allows so much human suffering. Why does God answer the prayers of the few and not of the many? Why does God heal one of cancer and ignore the entreaties of dozens? Why does God allow the Holocaust, mass starvation from famine, and epidemics that decimate populations? Belief in miracles – supernatural interventions – makes God seem capricious or weak. A God who allows so much suffering and evil seems anything but good and loving.

Third, compartmentalizers keep faith and science apart. Stephen Jay Gould described this as the non-overlapping magisterial of science and religion. Most people probably adopt this approach by default, finding that thinking too deeply about either religion or science produces more headache than insight, more heartache than comfort. Compartmentalization at its best constitutes a na├»ve view of religion and at its worst represents problem avoidance. Religion in order to give life meaning must address the totality of life. Certainly religion and science answer different types of questions, science emphasizing what and how while religion focuses on why. Yet a radically distorted understanding of science invariably leads one to wrong whys, as evident in the creationism movement that seeks to defend God's role in creation as inconsistent with evolution. Deists, those who believe that God was the cosmos’ first cause or prime mover and then has not intervened in the cosmos, constitute a distinct subset of compartmentalizers.

Fourth and finally, post-theists rely upon science and Scripture to push past the idolatrous images of a theistic God to the God about whom humans can say nothing. Nineteenth century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach argued that the God of theism resulted from wishfully projecting an image of human perfection onto a non-existent being. Ana-Marie Rizzuto and others, building on the work of Sigmund Freud, have demonstrated that one’s image of God bears a striking resemblance to one’s dominant parent. These are idols, not God. Post-theism, rooted in the ancient via negative, finds modern spokespersons in Episcopal Bishop John Spong, Church of England Bishop John A. T. Robinson, process theologians like John Hick, and others. Nobody has yet articulated a metaphor or symbol for God that has generated widespread acceptance. All insist that God is integral to the warp and woof of the cosmos rather than a supernatural deity existing outside the cosmos. All passionately believe in God, address the reality of suffering unabated by supernatural intervention, and articulate an approach to life and faith that seeks to build on insights from every field of knowledge.

Change is endemic to the cosmos. Historically, religion has planted a standard, declared, “Here I stand,” and refused to change. This produced a static body of religious knowledge (theology). Defenders of static religious knowledge generally fail to recognize the extent to which their theology incorporates anachronistic elements of other disciplines. For example, Galileo’s ecclesial foes relied as much upon Aristotelian astronomy as upon Scripture, a reliance that all took for granted until someone called the science into question. Similarly, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – for which more scientific data exists than almost any other scientific theory – challenged a biology that presumed species exist independently of one another and that species do not change over time.

I do not know where post-theism will go or how I will articulate my faith in the future. I do know that the time is well past when I could believe in a God who allows great evil and who appears to intervene supernaturally on a seemingly sporadic basis. I know that I cannot compartmentalize my faith from science or other fields of knowledge. My faith must be sufficiently robust to engage life’s most challenging issues informed by the best available insights from every discipline. In other words, I cannot afford to bypass, ignore, or recklessly proceed through the intersection of faith science if my faith is to be dynamic and alive, pointing toward that reality which no words can describe. Any other type of faith leaves me with a dead idol.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Moving toward unity while celebrating diversity

A couple were going out for the evening. They called a taxi and put the cat out for the evening.

The taxi arrived, and as the couple walked out the front door, the cat shot back in. They didn’t want the cat shut in the house, so one person went out to the taxi while the other went upstairs to chase the cat out. The passenger, not wanting it known that the house would be empty explained to the taxi driver, “My spouse is just going upstairs to say goodbye to my mother.”

A few minutes later, the spouse climbed into the cab. “Sorry I took so long. Stupid old thing was hiding under the bed and I had to poke her with a coat hanger to get her to come out!”

The ability to communicate constitutes an essential element of being human. As philosopher Michael de Unamuno says, "Language is the blood of the spirit."

Yet, humans often communicate poorly. The Genesis story about the Tower of Babel is an early attempt to explain why, if people supposedly descended from common ancestors, they speak so many languages and are frequently unable to communicate with one another.[1] Today, evolutionary biologists, archaeologists, ethnologists, semanticists and other experts suggest a far more complex process for the development of language and the thousands of human languages. The Genesis reading is important not as history but because of its confident assurance that anything is possible for humans when we cooperate, when we speak a single language and live and work in harmony with one another.

The reading from Acts, heard with different languages spoken simultaneously, may have sounded cacophonic.[2] However, I suspect that most of us could follow the reading in a language we personally know. The Day of Pentecost, when the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit, God with us, is the Day when we celebrate being united by a single language, the language of love manifest in Jesus. Pentecost aims us toward unity in the midst of diversity.

A senior high Sunday school class was studying the Old Testament book of Lamentations. The teacher began by asking his students what kind of book they thought it would be. No answer. Then he asked what “lament” means. Still no answers. Patiently, he tried again. "What does the word `lamentations' mean?" Upon that, one of the teenagers brightened and responded: "I think it means to cover things with plastic."[3]

Some of the personal histories St Clement parishioners have told me recount the story of love between two people, drawn together even though they did not speak a common language. As a chaplain, I heard similar stories from sailors and Marines who married a sweetheart from abroad. Not all such marriages end well, but some do. In those cases, love becomes the common language that unites. Love is God’s plastic which laminates relationships, binding people together.

Ministry as a Navy chaplain also introduced me to clergy and laity from a wide variety of Christian denominations. Pentecostals, as you may know, believe that God gives the Holy Spirit to individual believers as a sign the person is a genuine believer. Proponents of the prosperity gospel teach that God blesses genuine believers with wealth.

Prominent Pentecostal televangelist Kenneth Copeland preaches the prosperity gospel and has recently been in the news. He preaches that if you send him money as an expression of your faith, sometimes described as planting a seed, then God will bless you financially many times over. He is spectacularly successful: he owns three jets and has a net worth of approximately $760 million. On the other hand, his followers do not enjoy the same success, often scrimping on essentials to plant financial seeds with Copeland.

Hopefully, you recognize and reject Copeland’s exploitative pattern of behavior that brazenly ignores three basic theological truths. First, the gospel is not about individuals, the gospel is about us, all of us, all of God's children and all of God's creation. Second, Pentecost is not about individuals but about the community of God's people. Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, not of an individual. Third, God's community is characterized by love; Jesus taught that people would recognize his disciples by their love for one another, an idea echoed in today’s gospel reading.[4] Love leads me to share my wealth with the hungry, thirsty and homeless. When the fullness of God's plan for the cosmos is realized, what the Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin labelled the Omega point of history,[5] we who are members of one body and drink from one Spirit, will be united with one common language, the language of love.

True prophecy, the prophecy of which Joel spoke in today’s reading from Acts, discerns God at work in the world. The ancient Hebrews recognized that all things were possible when people created in God's image cooperated. The first Christians recognized that God sent the Holy Spirit, God's abiding presence amongst us, to form us into one community of people bound together by the common language of love. In this era of globalization, we see those signs of God at work in the world. So, we gather, hopeful and encouraged, cherishing our unity in Christ's love while celebrating our diversity. Amen.

Sermon preached on Pentecost, June 9, 2019

Parish of St Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] Genesis 11:1-9.
[2] Acts 2:1-21.
[3] The United Church Observer, March 1994, p. 55.
[4] John 13:35; 14:8-17.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Is another American civil war inevitable?

Is another American civil war inevitable?

Some people on the Christian right answer affirmatively, and have even been predicting another civil war for a couple of decades or longer.

The cause of this impending conflagration? Disputes over abortion.

A person’s attitude about abortion often depends upon the person’s belief on when a human life begins. If a human life begins at the moment of conception, then the claim that abortion equals murder of the unborn makes sense. If a human life begins at some point after conception – for example, when a fetus is viable outside the womb – then the claim that not all abortion equals murder makes sense. The very great problem with belief in this instance is that the belief, regardless of when one believes that a human life begins, does not rest upon any demonstrable or provable facts.

Life is precious. Albert Schweitzer consistently emphasized that life is sacred. However, one immense difficulty is an irresolvable lack of clarity – at least in the present – about when life begins.

Christian opponents of all abortion AND Christian pro-choice individuals who support a woman’s right to have an abortion can both make scripturally based arguments in support of their belief. If these diametrically opposed interpretations of scripture could be resolved, Christians would assuredly have reached a broad consensus by now. Only a few outliers would continue to hold out for a different position (consensus, in other words, does not connote unanimity).

If life begins at conception, then all abortion is wrong. That includes aborting a pregnancy that results from rape or incest. Yet many people opposed to abortion feel that at least in the case of rape or incest abortion may be morally justifiable.

This internal inconsistency among abortion opponents points to a second difficulty in arguing about abortion. Not only is there a lack of factual clarity about when a human life begins, abortion is a complex issue with competing values. One vital issue is that a woman is not simply a “brood mare.” A woman is a person whose rights equal those of a man. A woman may be unable to prevent rape, whether perpetrated by a stranger or a husband. This does not mean that the woman therefore must surrender control over her body or is in any way “damaged goods” of less value than she was before the rape.

That analysis leads to another vital issue. Sex and pregnancy are not inherently and irrevocably linked. Sexual intercourse is not always and only for the purpose of procreation. Sex is a good in and of itself when expressed in a healthy, intimate relationship between two consenting adults. No method of birth control is 100% certain except for vasectomies and hysterectomies. Some couples may cherish their sexual relationship without being ready or willing to be parents.

Finally, this analysis presumes that God does not micromanage human affairs. In creation, through the evolutionary process, God endowed humans with an equal measure of value not contingent upon gender as well as some limited degree of autonomy. Humans have the privilege and opportunity to engage in sexual activity for their mutual enjoyment and benefit.

Concurrently, humans live with imperfect knowledge, looking through a glass darkly. Consequently, Christians tend to agree with Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Living in a democracy requires living with policies with which one disagrees, perhaps even policies with which one vehemently disagrees.

Public policy that rests exclusively upon theological premises transforms a democracy into a theocracy. Few Americans would want to live in Iran or any other one of the theocratic states found in the twenty-first century world. Few Americans would choose to live in the world’s on Christian theocratic state, the Vatican. Indeed, the forebears of many Americans migrated to the States to escape from a theocracy, preferring the freedoms of this democracy, albeit a very imperfect democracy with unequal freedoms. Obviously, other migrants sought better economic opportunities, some sought safety from persecution, and yet others had no choice arriving as slaves. All previous efforts to establish a theocracy (e.g., the Mormons in their migration to Utah and some of the Utopian communities established in the nineteenth century) adopted democracy or failed.

Any argument that rests solely upon theological premises is an inappropriate and insufficient basis for establishing public policy. Examples of wrongheaded public policies that failed to gain widespread traction in large measure because of their dependence upon theological premises include Sunday “blue” laws that upheld a Puritanical interpretation of Sabbath keeping, prohibition, and more recently laws limiting marriage to heterosexual couples.

Many of the laws regulating abortion and limiting a woman’s access to abortion similarly rest upon theological premises to which only a minority of Americans subscribe. Opinion polls consistently report that although Americans do not like abortion, a strong majority believe that it is a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. Even as prohibition was the catalyst for speakeasies, bootlegging, and other illegal activities, so will a ban on abortion lead to a return to “back alley” abortions that jeopardize a woman’s life while bypassing the ban on abortion.

Instead of threatening civil war, we must learn to engage in civil discourse with one another. Regardless of one’s views on the morality of abortion, a person remains a child of God, worthy of equal dignity and respect. Another civil war is not inevitable; another civil war will harm the innocent without resolving the issue(s) that divide us.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Can Christians Be Catalysts for Ending Tribalism?

Recently, I attended a couple of Democratic Party events in Hawaii. Although I am a member of the Democratic Party, I am on its fringe in terms of participation. The events interested me more from a sociological than political perspective.

Political tribalism dominated. For many attendees, the local party functions as an important, perhaps even their primary, community. Few legislators or their staff members attended; none spoke or were key participants. Attendees expressed desires to include shared meals and other social events in the party’s activities. Importantly, participants with whom I spoke sought a Democratic victory in all elections and on all legislative issues. Compromise and bipartisan cooperation were unthinkable. Tribe defined identity, eclipsing concern for good government.

The core membership of the Republican, Socialist, Green, or any other political party in the U.S., and perhaps in other countries, is most likely equally tribal. On reflection, the tribalism I observed in those political events reminded me of the tribalism that prevailed in the military before the full implementation of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act designed to end inter-service rivalry, e.g., Army vs. Navy.

Researchers now report that political tribalism has reached the point where many parents are more upset when a child announces her/his engagement to a person of a different political party that when their child becomes engaged to a person of a different race or religion. Political tribalism is a key symptom of the polarization that causes gridlock in the federal government and in some state government. Compromise has become unthinkable; bipartisanship is a dirty word.

Other forms of tribalism also create fault lines along which societies and cultures fracture and become polarized. Religion is sometimes a prominent form of tribalism, e.g., Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims in much of the Middle Et, but not in Europe; Orthodox vs. Roman Catholic Christians in much of Eastern Europe but not in the U.S.; Buddhist vs. Muslim in Myanmar. Pro-life vs. pro-choice groups sometimes represent tribes in parts of the U.S. Economic disparities sometimes create tribes. Fans of one sports team vs. fans of another team may represent tribes. And so on – the types of tribes and the various identities that they entail are too numerous to delineate.

Tribalism is literally a dead end. The planet faces existential threats from the climate crisis and global heating. While competition and diffuse identities undeniably enrich life, tribal identities must be subordinated to globalization if humanity and life as we know it are to survive. The climate crisis adds fuel to tribal fires, threatening to intensify and spread those fires. The climate crisis has contributed to armed conflict in Syria, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere as “tribes,” sometimes fighting as proxies of other “tribes” fight for their fair share of scarce resources, resources the climate crisis makes increasingly scarce.

Christianity that follows in Jesus’ footsteps insists upon its adherents adopting a global identity and belonging to an inclusive community that welcomes everyone. Illustratively, Christianity is not defined by party membership. Even as it was once an expression of the Episcopal Church having lost its way in the wilderness to caricature Episcopalians as the GOP at prayer, so now it is equally an expression of the Episcopal Church having lost its way in the wilderness to caricature Episcopalians as Democrats in action. Faithful Christian Churches have room in their pews and warmly welcome people of all political parties and no political party (independents!).

Contrary to Christian groups such as the Mennonites, Hutterites, and others that teach or require their members to withdraw from the world in order to remain faithful to Jesus, God calls the Church to live out its mission in the world. Jesus described Christians as salt and as leaven. Neither salt nor leaven is of any use stored in a container on a shelf; both must be proportionately mixed with other ingredients to be of any value. Additionally, Jesus sent his disciples into the world; he never instructed them to withdraw from the world. Going into the world obeys Jesus’ teachings and follows his example.

Christianity acknowledges that to be human is to have multiple identities. A person is invariably somebody’s child, perhaps someone’s parent, perhaps a spouse, maybe an employee or employer, perhaps a member of a union or organized group, certainly a citizen of some country, and so forth. Christianity hopes to shape and influence all of those identities, but never invalidates or cancels our multiple identities.

Ultimately, Christianity reminds us that our primary identity is as a child of God, an identity share with people of other religions, persons who identify as spiritual but not religious, and even atheists.

Christianity calls its adherents to promote justice – economic, social and political – for all creation. Christianity teaches that we collectively will live or die together. Savor your tribal identity(ies), always remembering that our primary identity as God's child places loyalty to all creation before loyalty to any particular tribe. This is our best hope for our broken, badly damaged world.