Thursday, August 29, 2013

Increasing religious fundamentalism

A recent New York Times article highlighted the dramatic, post-WWII increase in the number of Hasidic Jews in New York City. They now number more than 300,000 and constitute over 25% of that city's Jewish population. Hasidic demands have conflicted with state and local laws and policies over the importance of a female lifeguard at community pools (to permit modest bathing by women), the use of well rather than reservoir water in baking matzo, and dress codes for shoppers in some Hasidic owned stores. As the article notes, New York's Hasidic population has increased so dramatically because of birthrates that result in six to eight children per family.

Ironically, Israel experiences a similar problem, but in reverse. Israeli Arab birthrates are substantially higher than the birthrates of Israeli Jews. Only by continuing to reduce its Arab population through adverse treatment that engenders emigration and constructing the wall to exclude other Arabs can Israel maintain its dual identity as democratic and Jewish. Otherwise, sometime in the next three decades, and perhaps in the next decade, Israel might become a nation with a Muslim Arab majority and a Jewish minority.

Religious fundamentalism – of any flavor – almost invariably triggers conflict, either with fundamentalists from a different group or proponents of democracy. European nations (e.g., Denmark, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany) all experience this type of religious driven conflict from their minority of extremist Muslims. In addition to the conflict the article highlighted in New York City, the U.S. experiences this type of conflict from Christian fundamentalists (the anti-abortion and anti-gay rights crowd) and our growing population of Muslims fundamentalists.

Unfortunately, I suspect that religious conflict – hopefully falling short of violence – will increase before fundamentalism subsides into a quaint remnant by a bygone era and the religious scene in most of the world becomes either thoroughly secular or comfortable with the confluence that I advocate in Charting the Confluence.

Building bridges between diverse religious communities is not an activity that directly benefits most clergy of all flavors, whose professional advancement depends primarily upon building a numerically and financially thriving congregation. However, promoting religious understanding and mutual respect represents an important contribution that religious leaders are well-situated, perhaps even best situated, to make to the common good. If religious conflict becomes a catalyst for motivating religious leaders to engage in religious bridge building, then signs of conflict may signal hope for a better future.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The nexus of science and religion

Several reports about scientific advances or discoveries with implications for spirituality or ethics have caught my attention recently.

First, an anti-malaria vaccine that utilizes irradiated parasites has achieved, in preliminary lab tests, 100% success in preventing malaria (Declan Butler, "Zapped malaria parasite raises vaccine hopes," Nature News, 8 August 2013). The experiment offers hope for a practical means of preventing a life-threatening disease that is a leading cause of death among sub-Saharan children. The tests results are poignant reminders that many scientific discoveries are morally neutral; the moral consequences depend upon the use to which we put the discovery, e.g., nuclear weapons or ending malaria.

Second, MIT neuroscientists have implanted ideas into mouse brains, causing the mice to fear receiving an electric shock if they were to step in certain places within the cage even though the mouse has never received a shock in that spot (Helen Shen, "US brain project puts focus on ethics," Nature News, 14 August 2013). Although the scientists who performed the experiment disclaim any thought of conducting similar experiments with humans, the research raises the specter of remotely programmed or controlled humans. What limits, if any, should society seek to impose on neuro-research for ethical reasons?

Third, researchers at the University of Michigan found that shortly after clinical death, rat brains exhibit "activity patterns characteristic of conscious perception." Their widely reported work raises questions about the nature of near-death experiences that religious people often cite as evidence for life continuing after death and sometimes as validation of specific religious claims. If further research supports the findings and shows them to be applicable to humans, what are the theological and spiritual ramifications? One aspect of the religious claims that has long troubled me is that the near-death experiences seem to fit the culture of the person who has them, e.g., a Christian's near-death experience often involve approaching a light shrouded figure whom the person identifies as Jesus.

Fourth, a newly released study suggests that drinking more than four cups of coffee per day, if one is under age 55, may increase the odds of a premature death. Conversely, coffee, like many foods and beverages, consumed in moderation improves probable health outcomes. Perhaps one lesson of this research is a reinforcing of the Confucian doctrine of the Golden Mean (other great religions include echoes of it): do all – or at least most – things in moderation. In any case, Yale seminarian Kelsey Dallas has written a thoughtful essay based on a paraphrase of the Lord's Prayer that is worth reading, "Give us this day our daily latte" (Huffington Post, August 12, 2013).

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Irish potato famine and contemporary U.S. politics - 2

When a government acts unjustly and fails to protect its most vulnerable constituents, everyone loses. This dynamic is sadly, tragically, visible in North Carolina. If allowed to continue uninterrupted, unjust governments lead to rebellion or tyranny.

In North Carolina, the last two statewide elections have brought the Republican Party a majority in legislature and then the governorship. Republican candidates campaigned on a platform that called for restoring free markets by reducing government regulations, job creation, and tax reduction. North Carolina now has the fifth highest unemployment rate in the nation and has cut unemployment benefits for 170,000 residents. In these policies, I hear echoes of the British government's refusal to aid the Irish during the potato famine.

Also in North Carolina, spending on education is now the 47th lowest in the nation; the state bow spends less on education than it spent in 2007. A fifth year teacher earns less in North Carolina than a beginning teacher earns in several states. Poorly educated people have difficulty in finding a job, much less a well-paying job, and then getting promoted. Meanwhile, the state is cutting the both the individual and corporate income tax rates and broadening the sales tax. Analyses of projected tax law changes consistently predict that the poor will pay more and the rich will receive the largest reductions. In these policies, I hear echoes of the British government's refusal to aid the Irish during the potato famine.

North Carolina, like some other states, has new laws requiring voters to show a government issued ID before voting, reducing the hours for early voting and Sunday voting, authorizing more observers of the voting process, and eliminating checking a single box on the ballot to vote a straight party ticket. Yet less than a dozen alleged cases of people voting fraudulently were reported in the last election cycle. The changes, which to a casual observer may prima facie appear innocuous or even reasonable, are actually partisan efforts to keep the Republicans in power, banning voting practices Democratic voters disproportionately favor. In these policies, I hear echoes of the British government's refusal to aid the Irish during the potato famine.

The fundamental issue here is not Republican vs. Democrat. Some policies pushed by Democrats in Raleigh are no more just than those enacted by Republicans are, e.g., both parties gerrymander districts attempting to obtain as favorable an election result as possible rather than creating districts defined by geographic, political, and other linkages. Democratic Congresses subvert the tax code to suit special interests as much as Republicans do. Excessive government aid, sometimes advocated by well-meaning Democrats, can create a moral hazard, accustoming people and business to government aid in lieu of effectual efforts in a properly regulated market. Democrats, at times have also sought to imposed cumbersome, excessive regulation on markets, e.g., mandating how to abate pollution instead of simply stipulating acceptable levels of pollutants.

No, the fundamental issue is one of justice: a just government consistently strives, in the language of John Rawls, to protect the most vulnerable, assuring equal opportunity and equal liberties for all.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Irish potato famine and contemporary U.S. politics - 1

A striking, surprising, and sadly tragic parallel exists between the Irish potato famine that began in 1845 and contemporary U.S. politics.

Nineteenth century Ireland was poor. Rural Ireland's economy and population depended upon a single crop: potatoes. Consequently, the first reports of a disastrous 1845 Irish potato harvest immediately attracted the British government's attention. Following a brief fact-finding effort, the government established a Relief Commission and ignited a furious storm of controversy.

The Economist railed, "[C]harity is the national error of Englishmen." Enrapt with Adam Smith's seminal treatise on capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, aid opponents argued that sending aid would violate two central tenets of sound economic theory. First, giving aid would impose a moral hazard upon the Irish. Aid might alleviate immediate suffering but at the cost of creating permanent dependency since aid would enable the Irish to live beyond their means. Second, aid constituted inappropriate market intervention by the government. Smith contended that individuals pursuing their self-interest in free markets achieved the greatest social good. Consequently, when the government failed to authorize sufficient aid, tens of thousands of Irish died and even more emigrated. (For more on Britain's failure to intervene in the Irish potato famine, cf. Felix Martin, Money: The Unauthorized Biography, pp. 147-151)

Contemporary American politicians, as well as some of their peers on other continents, appear enamored with the idea free market capitalism. There is no potato famine. However, the poor are growing poorer, the rich are growing richer, and legislative bodies continue to act as if the gap between poor and rich were narrowing rather than expanding.

The unfairness is systemic, reflecting the ability of the rich and powerful to structure markets in their favor. For example, the U.S. tax code is 19,000 pages long. Poor and middle class people generally lack the financial and legal resources to plumb the code for every potential edge. The 19,000 pages are substantial (pun intended!) evidence of the ability of the rich and powerful to influence government intervention on their behalf.

In the aftermath of the 2008 housing bubble and associated, although narrowly averted, financial meltdown, critics have called for greater regulation of financial markets. Their opponents have protested against government intervention in the markets for reasons that echoed those given by opponents of the British aid to Irish famine victims. Borrowers accepted loans they had no reasonable expectation of being able to repay. That lenders pushed these loans on borrowers, not performing due diligence, indeed actively trying to persuade borrowers to accept loans because housing always appreciated in value, was irrelevant. Government intervention to rescue underwater borrowers would create a moral hazard, teaching borrowers that excessive, irresponsible borrowing is in their best self-interest. Government intervention to rescue companies in financial trouble because they had unwisely invested in packaged mortgages, even though the packagers of those mortgages made performing due diligence nearly impossible, would distort the markets.

Nevertheless, the federal government intervened to keep several large manufacturers (notably, GM and Chrysler), the world's largest reinsurer (AIG), Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and several brokerage firms from going bankrupt and plunging the U.S. economy into a crisis comparable to, or perhaps larger than, the Great Depression of the 1930s. Subsequently, government intervention through continued deficit spending and quantitative easing of the financial markets has helped to nurture a frustratingly slow economic recovery. Most of the government loans and interventions have proven profitable and the bailed out companies are repaying the loans on or ahead of schedule.

U.S. government actions have contrasted starkly with the austerity programs in Great Britain and some other European Union countries. In those nations, adherence to market principles has prolonged and, at times, intensified economic hardships. In view of these events, I understand why people often call economics a dismal science.

Just governments strive to protect the most vulnerable. Christian ethics, constructed on the ministry of the Jewish prophets, emphasize that function. Secular philosopher John Rawls in his exposition of justice as fairness makes the same point, though for different reasons. Social bonds break down when the rich and powerful exploit the poor and vulnerable. When that occurs, everyone loses as crime, other anti-social behaviors, and general economic well-being diminish. In my next post, I will illustrate those dynamics with specific examples from the state of North Carolina.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Rebooting and closure

On a recent trip, I visited a public library where I had previously used a convenient, free Wi-Fi hotspot. Unlike my prior visits, I could not connect to the Internet even though my computer received a strong signal from the network. After I rebooted my computer and still had no success, I spoke with one of the librarians. She was very pleasant, informed me that several people had complained about difficulties connecting to the internet that day, asked if I had tried rebooting my computer, and then apologetically told me that library policy does not authorize the staff to reboot the network.

Both the librarian and I were aware that rebooting can correct many computer glitches, sometimes so effectively bringing closure to problems and rectifying the situation that no trace of the prior difficulties remains.

Driving from the library to another Wi-Fi hotspot prompted me to reflect on rebooting. Most people probably have a few moments when they wish that humans came equipped with a reset button with which to reboot life or a relationship, moments for which we want (or need) forgiveness and/or closure.

Humans, however, differ from computers. Rebooting a life, or even a relationship, is impossible. Our brains record data from every experience. Some of that data may degrade over time, some may become inaccessible to one's conscious mind, but no data set is ever likely to be entirely deleted (apart from permanent brain injury or a debilitating neurological disorder).

Popular theological and spiritual descriptions of forgiveness as wiping the slate clean therefore rely on an unhelpful metaphor. We can more powerfully conceptualize forgiveness by picturing it as removing the barrier that an injury or wrong places between two people, or even between God and a person.

For example, in the fifth chapter of John's gospel, Jesus tells a paralytic, Walk! The paralytic, and probably most of those present, shared the worldview that paralysis resulted from sin, that is, a wrong done to God or neighbor prevented the person from walking. Jesus' injunction to walk shattered that perceived barrier, communicated forgiveness, and brought healing. The gospel is also clear: the paralytic, after his healing, remembered his paralysis and, by inference, the circumstances that had led to his paralysis.

Decades of ministry have taught me to recognize the paralysis that sin causes. One of my first parishioners refused to enter the church, insisting that a nameless, unforgivable sin would cause the roof would collapse. In retrospect, I now recognize that parishioner lived in the shackles of paralysis caused by sin. Other cases of paralysis caused by sin were perhaps less dramatic but no less real: individuals trapped in dead-end, destructive relationships convinced that s/he deserved nothing better; individuals unwilling to succeed, believing that they merited only failure; etc.

Most of us have moments that we wish a rebooting would delete. Those moments need not paralyze us; the reality of forgiveness can shatter the barrier or barriers that prevent us from living abundantly. Jesus incarnated God's forgiveness; his words to the paralytic echo across the years, words we can hear him speak freshly and directly and freshly to us: Take up your pallet and walk; live fully, as God intended.

One of my pet liturgical peeves is people pausing between two inseparable phrases of the Lord's Prayer: forgive us our trespasses PAUSE as we forgive those who trespass against us. The PAUSE insidiously implies that experiencing God's forgiveness is detached from our forgiving others when actually the two are indivisible. Resenting others blinds and deafens us to God's grace; spiritually, and perhaps otherwise, negativity immobilizes us.

Yet forgiveness is not rebooting. Living with moments that we would prefer to delete and the associated remorse can help us to learn from our mistakes and to avoid, at least some of the time, hurtful repetition.

If rebooting – starting fresh with no lingering memories of the past – is impossible for humans, is closure also impossible?

The phenomenon of people explicitly talking about closure is relatively new. Couples ending their relationship want closure. Bereaved persons seek closure. Families missing a loved one (a member of the armed services missing in action (MIA), a person presumed to have died in a natural disaster but whose body remains undiscovered, etc.) yearn for closure. Traumatized persons pursue closure, wanting to move ahead with life free of their injurious past.

Aiming for a type of closure that connotes erasing all memory of a relationship, no matter how desirable, is to tilt quixotically at windmills. The physiological reasons that prevent human rebooting also thwart any closure that entails erasing memories. Furthermore, the plasticity of the human brain records and then subsequently contributes to the unique interaction of the physical and experiential that shapes an individual. Erasing every residual memory trace of a relationship, regardless of how painful or damaging the relationship, would alter a person in presently unimaginable ways.

Instead, genuinely constructive closure adds a new layer or sequence of experiences to an existing relationship, as an author might add a new chapter to a book or a composer might append additional measures to an existing opus. The new complements or completes rather than replaces the old. A couple may rejoice for what they shared, jointly acknowledge what has changed, and together release the other from the vows that once expressed their mutual claims upon the other. Symbolically, the bereaved says goodbye to the deceased, admits to feeling abandoned (or other negative feelings), and takes the first tentative steps to a new life. Families tell stories to remember the missing and honor the life shared; through caring expressions for others, done in the name of their beloved, they can give the gift of hope and enable the missing to live again. Traumatized persons may metaphorically burn their memories, expressing their decision to not allow a painful, injurious past to monopolize the present, discovering in the release living springs from which spiritual gifts flow.

Forgiveness and closure, unlike rebooting, are inflection points in the spiritual life. The option for Reconciliation of a Penitent in the Book of Common Prayer's Pastoral Offices and the new liturgy for the Dissolution of a Marriage are helpful rites for marking and more fully experiencing God's grace in inflection points. We would do well to create more such liturgies, for in inflection points God acts, barriers fall, and we experience life a little more abundantly.

Monday, August 12, 2013

How shall we live?

How does God want people to live? One common answer is that God tells people how to live, providing them a set of rules or divine commands to follow. Another common answer is that God wants people to subscribe to particular theological doctrines or beliefs. Both of those answers are wrong. God wants our hearts, i.e., to treasure our relationship with God and our neighbor. I develop this idea more fully in the sermon that I preached yesterday, available for reading here.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A spiritual typology

Walter Hilton, a fifteenth century English monk and spiritual guide, in his book, The Ladder of Perfection, described three men standing in the light of the sun. One is blind. He can believe in the sun only through the word of another person. The warmth he experiences may be from a fire or an unknown source. Atheists, for example, are among the blind. They may encounter the warmth of God's love without knowing from whence that life-giving force comes.

A second man is aware of the sunlight, but has his eyes closed, sees only a glimmer of light through his eyelids. Most of us are this second man: we know that the sunlight exists but find the light too intense, preferring to hide behind our eyelids. We, to be blunt, prefer living a self-centered and selfish existence to walking the Jesus path.

The third man sees the sun clearly, eyes open. This person knows and embodies the Jesus way. Saints are men and women who have lived the Christian life writ large, individuals who have walked the Jesus path further and more closely than most people do.

Hilton's choice of three men instead of three persons reflects the masculine and patriarchal language and worldview of his point in time and history. However, his typology of those who cannot discern, those who decline to discern, and those who discern spiritual realities and powers seem more timeless.

Which of the three best describes you?

Monday, August 5, 2013


Fatalism – the belief that what is meant to be will be, that God will make happen what God intends to happen, and similar beliefs – seems wrong to me. When the story of Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom (Genesis 18:20-30) was read during the Sunday Eucharist the last Sunday of July, Abraham's audacity struck me. God's willingness to negotiate with Abraham made an even greater impression.

It is certainly not necessary to take the story of Abraham badgering God as literal history. If nothing else, the story reflects the attitude of the story's author(s) and subsequent editors about God. They clearly reject fatalism and the belief that history is already determined. Instead, they express confidence in an open future, one at least partially determined by human actions and partially by God's actions.

Obviously, individuals exercise little or no control over much of life. None of us can choose our genes or the people who raise us from infancy to childhood; only a few people have any voice even then in who will rear them (the exception of which I am thinking is a child of a divorcing couple who has the option of determining with which parent she or he will live). Even as adults, we have little influence over probably a majority of what happens to us, e.g., we cannot see the millions if not billions of viruses and bacteria that daily assault us, we attribute many other events to luck or chance, we call yet other things over which we have no control accidents, etc. Furthermore, prior choices shape not only our present options but also shape our attitudes toward those options.

Altogether, humans enjoy at best a limited autonomy.

Nevertheless, humans display amazing creativity in all fields. We examine data and perceive new patterns, or the possibility of new patterns, and then call those patterns theories. Science and the social science advance through the formulation of new theory. We arrange words and colors in new patterns to create art (literature, painting, sculpture, etc.). This continuing and incredible creativity in most aspects of our existence suggests the possibility of at least limited human autonomy, i.e., humans occasionally and in perhaps small ways acting in a non-predetermined manner.

Chaos theorists have identified what they call the butterfly effect, the ability of a small change to produce, over time, large-scale results. In other words, even if humans have severely limited opportunities to exercise autonomy, autonomy associated with relatively minuscule nudges or other moves could explain much of the diversity and development attributable to humans.

Theologically, Christians and others have hope for the future, aware of creation's dynamism and confident that creation did not exhaust the Creator's goodness and influence. God's continuing activity nudges or lures creation toward a future that God desires. Having initiated a creation that now functions independently, God is clearly no longer omnipotent. Without some degree of independence, limited autonomy would be impossible and fatalism (also known as kismet in Islam and samsara in some other religions) would prevail.

If fatalism truly prevailed, then Abraham negotiating with God would be a farce; God already and inflexibly would have decided what to do. Change, and therefore hope, would be unwarranted. Yet humans persistently and almost universally believe that we can make choices and therefore that we can make a difference. Perhaps our intuition is partially correct: we have limited autonomy, though not nearly as much as we often think.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Refreshing but not fresh - Pope Francis

Pope Francis, returning to Rome from Brazil on his first overseas trip, gave a lengthy (80 minute) interview to the reporters on the papal plane. According to all reports, the Pope was candid, informal, and answered every question asked.

Fr. Bill Dailey, a Roman Catholic priest who is the Thomas More Fellow at Notre Dame's Center for Ethics and Culture, wrote a guest column, "One priest's early thoughts on Pope Francis's ways," for the Washington Post's WONKBLOG (July 31, 2013).

Dailey's column prompted four different musings about Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic Church, and Christianity in general.

First, Pope Francis is a refreshing change in the character of the papacy. His humility, his openness, and his self-confidence strike me as profoundly Christian. Few world leaders would agree to ride in, much less insist upon, a family sedan in lieu of a limousine. Members of the press flying aboard the papal plane seem likely to be reporters that the Vatican considers friendly or at least tame. Even so, initiating and welcoming eighty minutes of unscripted questions reflects commendable openness and self-confidence.

Second, Pope Francis and my bishop, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, share a similar focus in their ministry. Dailey suggests that Pope Francis wants to shift the Roman Catholic Church's focus from the inward look of his two immediate predecessors to an outward engagement with the world. For several years, Bishop Curry has emphasized his diocese and its congregations going to Galilee, that is, taking the church into the world. The Church exists for the world, not the reverse.

Third, people tend to see in leaders traits or emphases that suit the observer. I've noted with interest an assortment of commentators who praise the Pope for his openness to gays and another assortment who criticize him for upholding the Roman Catholic Church's teaching that homosexuality is a sin. Thankfully, Dailey's column is anomalous. He reports the Pope's remarks, says that Francis seems very comfortable with the Church's teachings, and that his remarks may offer pastoral encouragement to people on both sides of the debate. Francis similarly nuanced his comments about women: he acknowledges that the Church's teachings need more depth while holding the line against the ordination of women.

Fourth, the Roman Catholic Church is in decline and Pope Francis seems unlikely to reverse the decline. The Roman Catholic decline mirrors what is occurring in religion more generally. With improved education and higher standards of living, people appear to be drifting away from organized religion. This trend is far advanced in Europe; in the United States, the decline in the Roman Catholic Church would be far more apparent without an influx of Catholic immigrants.

The Roman Catholic Church, Christianity more broadly, and religion in general are in decline not because they have abandoned their historic teachings but because they have failed to keep pace with expanding knowledge, updating teachings and theology to incorporate the best available wisdom. Going into the world may temporarily slow the decline, but this represents at best a rearguard action. Reversing the decline will require honest grappling with questions that ancient theologies and teachings never imagined.

For Christians, one of those questions is how to make sense of the Bible's prima facie claims of Jesus' unique necessity for salvation in view of other religions in which people experience life-giving, liberating transformations identical to what occurs in the lives of people walking the Jesus path. For one answer, you might want to read my book, Charting a Theological Confluence.