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Thursday, April 23, 2015

On tolerance

An Ethical Musings' reader recently inquired about the place of tolerance in the Christian life.

The French philosopher and author Voltaire observed, "If you were fully persuaded you would not be intolerant. You are intolerant only because deep in your heart you feel that you are being deceived." Voltaire's explanation of intolerance's origin seems wrong, but he was right to conclude that intolerance is indicative of doubt.

Name-calling and bullying often connote a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem on the part of the name-caller or bully, an attempt at self-aggrandizement or self-preservation at the expense of another person. At its most extreme, bullying becomes physical assault, sexual molestation, or other criminal behavior.

Name-calling and bullying have no place in Christianity for three reasons. First, the most genuine and enduring sources of self-confidence and self-esteem are to know who one is, to like one's self, and to live one's formative years among family and friends who reinforce those positives. Second, name-calling and bullying demean and disrespect, acts incompatible with Jesus' example of respecting everyone. Third, Jesus recognized human diversity and individuality. Intolerance demands uniformity incompatible with the human diversity and individuality.

Sadly, social science research shows that a link exists between intolerance and religiosity:
The correlation between religiosity and intolerance has been confirmed with many different measures of religiosity and of intolerance. In measuring intolerance it is important to ask 'intolerant of whom?' Generally speaking, those on the left tend to be more concerned to protect the rights of progressive groups, while conservatives tend to be more protective of the rights of right-wing groups. (Robert D. Putnam and David E Campbell, American Grace, Kindle Location 7417-19)
In other words, while Christians – regardless of their theological persuasion – may pay lip service to respecting everyone, the practice of tolerance falls well short of the ideal.

Certainty is unchristian. The Christian life requires a person to act in the absence of absolutes, incontrovertible proof, and undebatable truth. If that were not so, then the entire world would long ago have converted to Christianity, Christians would be united instead of hopelessly divided, and the spiritual life would rest upon fact instead of belief.


Thankfully, the converse of Voltaire's observation that intolerance indicates doubt is not true. Tolerance does not necessarily indicate a lack of doubt. Although tolerance may indicate a lack of any firm beliefs (e.g., as in relativism), tolerance may also reflect a healthy balance of belief and doubt in which a person knows his/her beliefs and yet is open to the possibility of being wrong and therefore the possibility of growth. With doubt, change and growth become possible; with doubt, one has room for the genuine tolerance that values diversity.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Earth Day

Earth Day is April 22. Life is precious and impossible without the earth.


Animals, including this sea otter, depend upon the earth for life.

Even humans depend upon the earth. But only humans can care for the earth and all of its inhabitants, a task at which we have often failed, as communicated poignantly by these ruins of a church destroyed during fighting at Verdun in World War I. When humans so often treat one another poorly, it's not surprising that we treat other species and the earth even worse.


In this Easter season of resurrection, when we commemorate Earth Day, i encourage you to adopt a daily spiritual discipline that will help to revitalize this earth, our fragile island home, by reducing our consumption of limited resources, reusing those resources whenever possible, and recycling as much as possible.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Ministering in a time of war and conflict in the Middle East

An Ethical Musings' reader sent me these comments:

I like your blogs. You have the ability to condense complicated arguments into thought provoking ideas.

I went to see the Viet Nam veteran play on Sunday and just thought about war in general and the results of a few who make the rules but don't suffer the consequences. How sad we live in a world where others die for unjust reasons. In most cases, those who we declare as our enemy would be good neighbors if they lived near you. I was glad to attend the play about what it looks like on the other side of the wall and what people might tell those who died.

"Seeking God's preferential treatment, especially if doing so will disadvantage or harm others, is immoral, a conclusion that most of us along with the Ethical Musings' reader whose question prompted this post intuitively recognize."

So how did you manage to preach to service members? I never ask for favors, just to do what is right.

So can you explain who our enemy in the Middle East is? I hear military leaders try to explain what we are trying to accomplish; but they have no idea how to solve this issue, only kill. Their backup is to establish a stable government as if there are any in the area.

Thanks again for your blogs.

Preaching to military people was sometimes a challenge. The problem became acute when faced with the prospect of ministering to our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither the prospect of caring for individuals nor being a war zone was the issue. The issue was that I strongly opposed both wars, seeming them as impossible to justify morally and as inevitably ending badly. Unfortunately, chaplains are usually expected to be cheerleaders for the troops and their mission, a role that I could not in good conscience fulfill. So, I retired.

Only one other major war occurred during my military service (there were several minor conflicts such as the invasions of Grenada and Panama). Thankfully, I had spent the first Gulf War - through no choice of mine - on the staff of the Chief of Chaplains in DC and did not have to face that question directly. I know that when I preached to President George H.W. Bush on the eve of the first Gulf War at Camp David that he was not happy with my sermon on just war theory. I think he sensed my opposition to the prospect of war and had already decided to launch the conflict.

Who is our enemy in the Middle East? That good question has several answers.

First, our enemy in the Middle East is the fundamentalist/extremist, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. Christian fundamentalists unhelpfully want to defend Israel against all enemies, real and imagined. Many Christian fundamentalists believe that the end of the world, an event for which they yearn believing that it will usher in Christ's return to earth and the fulfillment of God's kingdom, requires Israel to re-occupy the lands it held during Solomon's reign. The US should ensure that Israel's enemies do not annihilate it, but that is highly improbable given Israel's status as a nuclear power. Ultra-orthodox Jews (aka Jewish fundamentalists) are also our enemies, cooperating with Christian fundamentalists to expand Israel's territory at the expense of Palestinians and adamantly opposing every move to create an independent, viable Palestinian state. Muslim extremists, compared to Christian and Jewish fundamentalists, receive a disproportionate amount of negative press but are equally responsible for the lack of progress toward peace in the Middle East. Their violent intransigence has repeatedly disrupted peace in Israel, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere. Violent extremism – regardless of its religious flavor – is the enemy of civilization, democracy, and peace.

Second, every independent state in the Middle East (this list includes Syria, Jordan, Israel, Iran, Egypt, and others) is our enemy, though I use that word in a different sense. Independent states pursue their own national interests. When those interests conflict with US national interests, then we are at odds with them. For example, Israel's government deems it imperative that Iran not develop or acquire nuclear weapons. Given the physical distance between the US and Iran as well as the US's overwhelming nuclear arsenal and conventional military superiority, Iran possessing nuclear weapons poses little threat to the US. This divergence in positions has been obvious during negotiations with Iran of an accord to forestall Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons.

Third, from yet another perspective, the US has no real enemies in the Middle East. No Middle Eastern state or non-state organization (e.g., a terror group such as al Qaeda) poses an existential threat to the US. Although some terror groups located in the Middle East may perceive opportunistic advantages from launching a terror attack on the US, those organizations lack the people and resources to launch multiple attacks much less to wage war against the US. From this perspective, the only real enemies the US has in the Middle East are those that we (or our politicians or media) create.

Fourth, from yet another perspective, an enemy of the US in the Middle East is any state or non-state group that attempts to disrupt the global oil market. Although the US buys relatively little oil from the Middle East, the market for oil is global. Disrupting source of supply directly affects price and availability of oil across the global market. Supermajor oil companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron may have their headquarters in the US and need their size and global reach to develop increasingly expensive new sources of oil. However, these supermajor oil companies also have little loyalty to any state and their very existence is indicative of the global nature of oil markets.


As the commenter correctly observed, the US military (or the civilian politicians who wield or would wield that sword) consistently respond to threats by wanting to kill our enemies. With Israel the only stable government in the Middle East (identifying a second stable state in the Middle East is really difficult if one takes more than a cursory look) and a lack of clarity about who is the enemy, nobody should be surprised that the US has for decades had an ineffective foreign policy in the Middle East.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Healing the gulf between religion and science

Recently, I heard the Rev. Canon Sally Bingham speak at a meeting of the North Carolina Interfaith Power and Light (IPL) chapter. She described her journey from being a mother and homemaker to Episcopal priest and environmental activist. The catalyst for her journey was an invitation to join the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) Board. EDF Board meetings began with expert presentations on environmental issues that included overfishing, pesticides, deforestation, and climate change. Her expanding knowledge of those problems prompted personal questions about why the other group to which she was strongly committed – the Episcopal Church – thanked God for the gift of creation but was silent about environmental harms. Through conversations with friends and neighbors from various religious traditions, she discovered that their faith groups were also silent about environmental concerns. Seeking answers to explain this apparent disconnect, she went to seminary, eventually sought ordination, and founded IPL.

Canon Bingham never answered the question at the nexus of her personal transformation: why have religious groups been slow to join the environmental movement? However, her question intrigued me. Reflecting on my education, reading, and spiritual journey, I found three answers, each troubling.

First, post-Enlightenment societies and most of their religious communities treasure rationalism; they widely regard emotion as untrustworthy. Illustratively, mid- twentieth century Christian movements with a non-rational focus, ranging from centering prayer to charismatic renewal, consistently failed to gain sufficient momentum to move from the margin to the mainstream. Philosophy and the theory of evolution had already combined to end most theological interest in natural revelation. Concomitantly, persons who sought to experience God's presence in the awe (an emotion!) evoked by nature's majestic beauty were dismissed as romantic transcendentalists. Scriptural and liturgical references to creation became relics, perhaps cherished relics, but nonetheless relics, vestiges of a prior era's faith.

Second, during the Enlightenment a chasm developed between theology and science that largely persists into the present. One explanation of the chasm is benign: few people are intellectually able or have the time and resources to acquire expertise in both religion and science. Theologians and scientists often focus exclusively on their discipline, remaining silent on other topics. Stephen Jay Gould's proposition that science and religion constitute non-overlapping magisteria sanctions this specialization. Another explanation, in which religious people have been complicit by default, is far less benign: the Enlightenment brought with it scientific reductionism, the belief that science is the only valid source of knowledge. By definition, God, if conceptualized as the transcendent Other, is excluded from scientific study with its requirements for observation and measurement. Similarly, religious believers by privileging their scriptures as a source of revelation create a closed interpretive worldview not subject to scientific investigation. Having compartmentalized religion and science, a majority of Americans incongruously (if not schizophrenically) believes in a supernatural God, values science, but also rejects the theory of evolution.

Third, a majority of the non-religious and religious appear to worship at the altar of Mammon. Scriptures and theological doctrines that might enjoin humans to value and care for creation as responsible stewards receive a narrower, skewed interpretation. For example, the Christian tradition, particularly Protestantism, too often interprets God's injunction for human's to exercise dominion over creation as God's authorization to use, even to exploit, the natural world exclusively for human benefit and the production of wealth. In fact, that text correctly understood within the larger biblical context calls Christians to act as God's stewards, caring for the well-being and health of all creation.

If we are serious about caring for creation, becoming responsible stewards who end ecological abuse and remediate past harms when possible, then each of those answers implicitly represents a call to action. Integrating science and theology is essential for wholeness, ethics, and earth's future. Thankfully, there are positive moves to bridge the chasm between religion and science, such as the work of the Templeton Foundation and process theologians. Easter, with its emphasis on resurrection, is an appropriate time to adopt spiritual disciplines shaped by these concerns to support those efforts.

Emotion balances and completes reason; indeed, the two are inseparable. Leonard Nimoy's Star Trek character, the Vulcan Spock, caricatures the idea of the emotionless human; Spock's extreme rationality emphasizes that he is only half-human. A religion that aims to be completely rational is a religion devoid of love, transcendence, beauty, mystery, and meaning. A restorative Easter discipline can be (re)connecting with nature by spending time in or with the natural world, intentionally leaving electronic and electric devices behind. Enter into the mystery and emotion of creation by meditating daily on flowers or trees, regularly observing the sky, or weekly walking in a park or rural place.

Achieving integrity and wholeness requires bridging the gap between religion and science. Science, for example, can reveal the causes and possible solutions to ecological harms; religion shapes and motivates our response. Scientist and bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori decries the climate change that science shows humans have caused; she proclaims that responding is a Christian moral imperative because climate change harms God's earth, the poor, and the most vulnerable. This Easter, try setting specific, measurable goals to reduce energy and water consumption, to reuse items instead of purchasing new, and to recycle rather than trash the unwanted/unusable.

Jesus famously declared, "You cannot serve God and Mammon." Pope Francis emulates his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. Francis has taken high profile, sometimes startling steps as a moral exemplar and leader, to call people to return to material simplicity. He lives in a guesthouse suite, travels in an inexpensive automobile, spends time with the poor, and encourages Roman Catholic Church leaders to live modestly. Instead of following Lenten fasts with Easter excesses, culturally symbolized by bunnies and baskets, adopt a discipline more conducive to life abundant: grow organic food, buy locally produced goods, walk instead of driving, etc.


Integrating science and religion is good for creation, Christianity, and us.