Monday, March 30, 2015

Evil and God

An Ethical Musings' reader framed a question about evil in an interesting way, prefacing the question with the observation that people often thank God for having spared them or their property from being harmed by a natural disaster such as a hurricane or tornado. The reader then asks, "What about their neighbor who did suffer from the natural disaster's destructive power? Did the neighbor receive a just punishment for being bad?"

Incidentally, one of the first sermons I preached happened to be in a farming community during a drought. I argued that praying for rain was a waste of time and effort. More rain in one place necessarily meant less rain elsewhere because only a limited amount of water on the ground evaporated into the atmosphere. Do we have the wisdom to know what pattern of rainfall is optimal? Should we have the hubris to think that God loves us better than God loves those who would receive less rain? Do we think that God will answer our prayers for rain yet ignore the equally (and probably more) fervent prayers of Christians who live in lands parched by multi-year droughts, Christians who with their children and neighbors are not just suffering economic hardship but actually dying because of the drought? The congregation was surprisingly more receptive than I had anticipated, but even then, I knew that their attitude was more one of charity toward a youthful preacher than actual agreement.

Thanking God for sparing (or blaming God for striking) one with any of the evils that result from a natural disaster, disease, etc., as traditional Christian theology teaches, is nonsense. Evil, as the Bible reminds us, happens to both good and bad people, to those who appear to merit punishment and to those who appear to merit something better. In the vernacular, we might say, cancer is no respecter of persons.

Nor would a good, loving God capriciously strike both the just and unjust. Pervasive evil and the apparently innocent suffering egregious injustice have led traditional Christian theologians to insist that justice will be done, if not in this life then in the next.

Consequently, the God of traditional Christian theology resembles an imaginary being more than pointing towards a credible concept of the cosmos' creator. Psychological research confirms philosophical speculation from the last two centuries: people tend to imagine God as a heavenly parent. Persons who have had loving, caring parents tend to see God as a loving, benevolent being that helps them overcome adversity and protects them from evil. Persons who have had more distant, judgmental parents tend to see God as more remote and judgmental. I, for one, want nothing to do with an imaginary being; I do not need an imaginary being in order to feel safe or to thrive.

Nobody has ever articulated a satisfactory explanation of why evil exists. Obviously, much evil results from human actions or inactivity. Human actions are responsible for murder and rape; human failure to act responsibly results in people starving to death in a world that has ample food to feed every human now alive. Humans, however, are not responsible for most cancer, most disease, most earthquakes, and most severe weather.

Process theology rejects the idea of an omnipotent God. In creating the cosmos, God shared power with creation, ceasing to be all-powerful. Whether this is the best of all possible worlds, it is the world that God created and in which we exist. That the cosmos exists suggests the existence of a creator. That people sometimes experience a profound awe, a sense of presence or power of one who is wholly other, suggests that the creator continues to engage with the cosmos.

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. Praying for rain, praising God for having spared one from suffering the destructive power of a natural disaster, or beseeching God to cure a person of cancer are all illogical. God is not supernatural (and therefore does not act supernaturally, performing miracles at supplicants' behest) but is present in the cosmos' nature. Indeed, nothing is more or can be more natural than God is.

Far too often, Christian hope for ultimate justice becomes what Marx characterized as the opiate of the masses. We cannot know with certainty if there is another world or in what way ultimate justice may prevail. My doctoral adviser, for example, believed that our life after death existed entirely in God's mind. In short, justice deferred is not justice. Thus, we must persevere in trying to make this life and this world the best that we can.


These more limited claims of process theology cohere better with our knowledge of the cosmos and offer the best explanation of evil that I've seen, much better than the answers found in traditional Christian teachings.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Changing rituals in a changing world

Zorba the Greek tells the story of an uptight Englishman who visits an Aegean island where, after several emotionally traumatic experiences, his last big hope for economic success collapses. Faced with complete catastrophe, he doesn’t cry, whine, or curse God. Instead, he turns to his earthy guide to Greek village life and says, “Zorba, teach me to dance.”

Religious rituals teach us to dance with God. For many Episcopalians, the shape of our Sunday rituals changed dramatically with the adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Holy Communion replaced Morning Prayer as the usual Sunday worship service.

Reflecting on my spiritual journey set in the broader context of American culture, two dynamics seem to have had significant roles in bringing the change about. First, I (and many others) sought a greater emphasis on community to balance an unhealthy cultural bias in favor of individualism. Morning Prayer too easily accommodated individualism, permitting attendees to avoid personal interaction. Passing the Peace during Holy Communion at least required attendees to pretend to interact as they mumbled greetings and perhaps shook hands. In the congregations with which I'm familiar, resistance to the Peace has gradually yielded to attendees learning to value a few moments to interact with other worshipers. The ritual of the Peace developed from being an awkward interruption of individual worship to an affirmation (sometimes even a celebration) of our communal identity and worship.

Second, the scientific materialism and philosophical reductionism that permeates our culture has made the inadequacy of words for communicating transcendent realities increasingly apparent. Shifting from Morning Prayer to Holy Communion better balanced the cognitive content of our worship services with greater emphasis on both affect and physical engagement. In addition to the listening, verbal responses, singing, and posture changes called for in Morning Prayer, Holy Communion involves eating/drinking, touch with other people, and movement (at least to and from the altar). Congregations that use incense also enlist the olfactory sense. Drawing people more deeply into the ritual has the potential to draw people more deeply into the transcendent mystery of God's presence.

Kathleen Norris in The Cloister Walk described the power of rituals to bind a community together and to bind individuals into a community. She memorably illustrated that power with her observations of a Benedictine monastic community.

I repeatedly observed the same power of ritual in my ministry, a binding that occurred more rapidly in transient military communities and more slowly in civilian communities. People acquired the local rhythms through repetition while they concurrently learned the local stories that imbued those rhythms with meaning. Rituals formed individuals into a community, giving their lives meaning.

Paul Tillich insisted that ritual, including the associated story or myth, requires continual reformation and renewal for the ritual to remain vital. I don't foresee an end to ritual. The search for meaning is basic to the human condition. However, I suspect that the Church will mostly shift from a highly stylized form of Eucharist meal toward a more casual, fuller meal format (this is already happening in some places). I expect that the number of people who find traditional Christian theological formulations satisfying will continue to diminish while the number attracted to post-theistic narratives continues to increase.

Acknowledging the pervasiveness and accelerating pace of change has become so commonplace as to be trite. A Christianity that attempts to remain static, desperately clinging to its current ritual forms and theological formulations, is dying. Refusing to change is tantamount to issuing an ecclesial do not resuscitate order.

Thankfully, the patient is not terminally ill. Christianity need not die. But it is like the uptight Englishman in Zorba the Greek after his repeated setbacks. Time is becoming critical. The Church needs to change and to keep changing at a faster pace if it is to stay alive. What will be our next dance, when will we learn it, and who will be our guide?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Feeling good about guilt

Guilt feelings are common. The Church often has a well-deserved reputation for inducing guilt feelings. Yet seldom does the Church help people understand guilt and to deal with it constructively. My most recent sermon addresses the problem of guilt, first analyzing what guilt is, and then offering practical suggestions on how guilt can be a force for good and spiritual growth in one's life (also available at Ethical Musings via this link).

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Hypocrisy, mercenaries, and Just War Theory

European nations and the United States share a common concern about their citizens going to the Middle East to fight for ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Previous Ethical Musings' posts have addressed the problem of ISIS (cf. What to do about ISIS and ISIS). Contrary to inflammatory rhetoric, the numbers of Westerners fighting for ISIS are relatively small and only a minority of those will want to engage in terrorism upon return to their native land.

Unfortunately, the parallel phenomenon of Westerners going to Iraq, Syria, or another place in the Middle East to fight against ISIS has received little notice. As in the case of those supporting ISIS, numbers are small. Many of them espouse a form of Christian fundamentalism; most have fought in the armed forces of the US or another nation in Iraq or Afghanistan. As with their counterparts who fight for ISIS, some small number of these individuals will engage in criminal behavior when they return to their native land.

Westerners fighting for or against ISIS are indicative of two basic, widely ignored problems, both of which are more troubling than the issues I've seen addressed.

First, these fighters, regardless of the side for which they fight and the rhetoric they use to justify their actions, are marginalized individuals who are misfits in a peaceful society. They reject the possibility of peaceful progress toward a more just world. Among those who are military veterans, many are adrenalin junkies who miss the thrill of action to which they became addicted in the military. In different eras, Western misfits have gone to Russia, China, Africa, and elsewhere and fought for causes they deemed important. Instead of reactively worrying about returnees' potential to cause problems, nation states should proactively work to integrate into the economic and political mainstream those who inhabit the margins.

Second and more broadly, the trickle of mercenaries represents an erosion of the norm, supported by the Just War tradition and international law, that only nation states wage war. When an individual goes abroad to fight other than as part of that the armed forces of her/his native state, then that individual takes upon himself the right to make war and abrogates the larger community's responsibility for waging war.


When government privatizes its coercive power (e.g., by contracting with private companies to operate prisons or authorizing private security guards to arrest people and to use deadly force), government tacitly endorses the principle that it should not have a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercion. Mercenaries represent a step further down a slippery slope that culminates in a society in which might makes right and some will try to grab as much power as they can.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Cuban relations

An Ethical Musings' reader solicited my thoughts about the relaxation of restrictions on travel to Cuba.

US restrictions on travel to and trade with Cuba represent a failed policy. Those sanctions, and others, mostly date from the early 1960s. The US imposed the restrictions in an effort to undermine the Castro regime and to appease politically active Cuban émigrés.

The Castro regime has survived for more than fifty years. In the meantime, the political influence of Cuban-American émigrés has peaked and is now on the decline. Punishing the Castro regime, now led by Fidel's brother Raul, is much less important to second-generation émigrés, many of whom would prefer to be able to visit relatives in Cuba. Economic and diplomatic sanctions, and associated travel restrictions, against Cuba have appeased Cuban-American interests at the expense of what is good for Cuba and for most US citizens.

Easing the travel restrictions is a step in the right direction but the change did not go far enough. The US should fully normalize relations with Cuba:
  • Communism is globally recognized as a failed economic and political system. Even countries, such as China, that retain a nominally communist economic and political system are changing, slowly in the case of political structures and more rapidly for economic structures. Communism does not constitute a threat to the US; sanctions of any kind against Cuba no longer serve a valid national security function.
  • US sanctions have enriched the US at Cuba's expense, i.e., the continuing exodus of energetic, entrepreneurial people from Cuba to the US have bolstered the US economy (visit Florida if you doubt this) at the expense of depriving Cuba of these individuals' industry and initiative.
  • The best hope for the US contributing to improved political and economic fairness in Cuba lies in maximizing interaction between the two states. Political envy among Cuban citizens will corrode already fragile support for the Castro regime more effectively than any other available action. Government incompetence in Cuba has already sounded the death knell of Cuban communism, an inevitable outcome once Soviet economic lifelines were cut when the Iron Curtain fell. Private enterprise is beginning to boom and ending all US sanctions will expedite that process.

The roots of the Castro revolution lie deep in the colonialism with which the US treated its Caribbean neighbors in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. Ending all sanctions and restrictions should come with two stipulations:

  1. The US should respect Cuban sovereignty. For example, the Navy base at Guantánamo Bay no longer serves a national defense function. The US should take the initiative, unilaterally end its lease, and return the land to Cuba. The prison at Guantánamo is an international embarrassment that the US should have never opened. As I have previously argued in Ethical Musings (e.g., cf. Bring this terrorist to the U.S. - NOW!) the US should bring prisoners held there to the US for trial in federal court or release them.
  2. The US should stay out of internal Cuban politics. We do not want other nations interfering in internal US political matters and should treat others with the respect that we desire.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The irony of defense spending

This chart dramatically shows excessive US military spending compared to other major nations and helps to explain why so many US political, military, and business leaders frequently push for the US to take military action. Defense spending on this vast scale is impossible to justify if a nation does not flex its military muscle, regardless of the potential consequences.

(Chart from the  Washington Post)
Military spending by just four European nations (the UK, Germany, France, and Italy) dwarfs what Russia spends on its military. Similarly, the US spends four times as much on its military as China spends on its military.

With decaying infrastructure (crumbling roads and bridges, e.g.), mounting healthcare bills, and a second rate education system, the US could achieve more for its population and become more competitive internationally by spending substantially less on defense and more on infrastructure, healthcare, and education. Ironically, defense spending is making the US more vulnerable and less secure.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Iraq update

Shiite militias are leading the fight against ISIS in Iraq. This is significant for five reasons.

First, the Iraqi Shiite militias are non-governmental forces that the US has neither trained nor equipped. The encouraging success of these groups in combat against ISIS demonstrates that Iraqis can be effective fighters. ISIS believes that Shiites are apostate Muslims who deserve death. This obviously gives Shiite militias a strong motive to fight.

Second, the problems that the Iraqi military experiences – regardless of alleged expert opinions in the US and among senior Iraqi military and government leaders – are not going to be solved by additional training or equipment. The Iraqi armed forces suffer from a lack of commitment and morale among their personnel that no amount of training or equipment can fix.

Third, no matter how much the US or other nations would like Iraq to endure as a unified country Iraq's future is in Iraqi hands. Some Iraqi Sunni groups have joined the fight against ISIS. These Sunni groups fight ISIS for reasons similar to the reasons that Kurds and Shiites fight ISIS: opposition to ISIS' rule and fear of slaughter if ISIS wins.

Fourth, the success of non-governmental forces fighting against ISIS (primarily the Kurdish groups and Shiite militias) puts the problem of ISIS in context. ISIS is not a direct threat to the US or Europe; ISIS poses regional problems best solved by the people of the effected region.


Fifth, ISIS does not justify the US reengaging militarily in Iraq or spending large sums to train and equip Iraqi armed forces. Equipment provided to Iraqi government forces will tend to end up in the hands of non-governmental forces, including ISIS. Air power can aid the fight but is never decisive by itself. Being the wealthiest, most powerful nation does not mean that the US can, much less should, impose its will on other nation states.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Love the person and reject fundamentalism!

My previous Ethical Musings post explored reasons people find religious fundamentalism attractive. The post concluded that some people turn to fundamentalism as a source of political power. Fundamentalism, especially when adopted as a source of political power, unavoidably spawns three evils.

First, fundamentalism promotes ignorance and devalues non-religious sources of knowledge. Abundant evidence of this exists in the United States. Christian fundamentalists oppose the teaching of scientific theories such as evolution even though no credible alternative theory exists. They also want to falsify U.S. history to fit their beliefs of American exceptionalism and that the US was established as a Christian nation. Similarly, Islamist fundamentalists close schools for girls and destroy important historical artifacts.

Second, fundamentalism divides rather than unifies people. Opposition in the name of Christian fundamentalism to full civil rights for all people regardless of gender and gender orientation exemplifies this divisiveness. The divisiveness is also evident in Sunni Islamist fundamentalists declaring that all Shiite Muslims are apostates. Genuine tolerance, which is essential for people to live in unity and harmony with one another, requires mutual respect in the face of diversity. Fundamentalism produces an intolerance that demands conformity to laws and norms the fundamentalist promulgates.

Third, fundamentalism is an early step toward religiously motivated terrorism. A majority of people find religious fundamentalism of any flavor unappealing. This means that fundamentalists represent a minority, generally a disempowered minority. Non-state terrorism is a violent tactic or strategy that the weak adopt because they see no viable alternative to right what they perceive to be egregious injustice. Terrorism is always wrong because it targets the innocent for the political benefit of others. Thus, Christian anti-abortion terrorists bomb abortion clinics (a weak, non-state group targeting healthcare providers the group deems guilty of murder). Islamist terrorists destroy the World Trade Center (a weak, non-state group targeting business people they deem guilty of anti-Islamic policies and, if nominally Muslim, of apostasy).

Fundamentalist religion provides both the motive and justification for the terror attacks. The motive is to establish a more just world. The group's conception of a more just world is religiously determined and therefore not subject to discussion or compromise. Hence, the vision of a just world is unique to each fundamentalist group and will inevitably be incompatible with a secular democracy that respects the dignity of all persons and a broad diversity of beliefs and values. Violent attacks that target non-group members are justifiable because adherents of other (or no) religion are prima facie guilty. Non-members implicitly, if not explicitly, reject the one true way, i.e., the terror group's fundamentalist ideology.


As Christians, remaining silent in the face of Christian fundamentalism is no longer excusable. We betray the one who taught that the truth will set us free, who loved and respected all people equally, and whose disciples called knew him as the Prince of Peace. Love the person and reject fundamentalism!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Fundamentalism – a cause for concern

My tolerance for religious fundamentalism of any variety – Christian, Muslim, or otherwise – is rapidly vanishing. Fundamentalism results from ignorance, too many of whom prefer ignorance to knowledge. Fundamentalism inherently promotes extreme views and narrow interpretations; it unavoidably leads to social backwardness and terrorism.

Religious fundamentalism of any persuasion requires a person to ignore both the plurality of religions and non-religious sources of knowledge. A person may have little knowledge of other religions. Nevertheless, in the twenty-first century only members of the most isolated and primitive tribes can truthfully claim not to know that the world has several widely held religions. Ideas such as God created those other religions to confuse people or that God condemns all persons who are not adherents of my religion reflect an arrogance that human finitude cannot justify.

Furthermore, all major religions have scriptures. Science, literary criticism, and historical studies challenge a literal reading of those scriptures, e.g., questioning reports of miracles, inaccurate accounts of alleged historical events, etc.

Fundamentalist claims that rigorous intellectual effort undergirds their positions are deceptive if not dishonest. The theology of many fundamentalist groups is admittedly elaborate, reflecting the expenditure of great mental effort to integrate disparate materials, to paint a comprehensive worldview, and to draw logical and exhaustive connections between all points of doctrine and the full gamut of their scriptures.

The quality of intellectual effort is more important than quantity. A fundamentalist theology, examined as a whole and in isolation, may appear cogent. Examining that same theology using the lenses of multiple disciplines, exposing purported facts to historical, literary, and scientific examination will reveal fundamentalism for the fraud that it is.

Illustratively, a literal reading of the Christian Bible requires compromising one's intellectual integrity to bend, spindle, or mutilate the text in order to harmonize hundreds of contradictions and discrepancies. In the Christian tradition, scripture contains multiple accounts of creation based upon different scientific theories, numerous reports of miraculous events including the bodily assumption of living beings into heaven and the resuscitation of the dead, and conflicting accounts of events in Jesus' life.

Thus, why do so many people subscribe to Christian fundamentalism? Part of the answer is that many people do not expend much intellectual effort examining their nominal religious beliefs. Demographers have long reported that most people do not choose a religion but simply follow the religion of their parents. Another part of the answer is that many people compartmentalize their religion from other aspects of life, thereby minimizing the cognitive dissonance that a fuller integration would generate. These explanations of why people subscribe to Christian fundamentalism also apply to fundamentalists of other faiths.

There are yet two more explanations of why people adopt fundamentalism. First, in a world of incessant change occurring at an accelerating pace, some persons seek the stabilizing comfort that they hope an unchanging worldview and set of beliefs will provide. To guarantee that one's religion will not change, a person must adopt a fundamentalist, literal interpretation of its scriptures and then unquestioningly and adamantly reject all alternative views. This insistence on a myopic, unexamined interpretation largely explains why fundamentalists who share a religious tradition argue as stridently and vociferously among themselves as with non-believers. For example, various contemporary Salafist groups insist that competing Salafist groups are in error and therefore apostate. Christian fundamentalists exhibit a similar narrow-minded exclusivity.


Second, some people turn to fundamentalism as a source of political power. For example, in a nominally Islamic state, the government finds it difficult to squelch protests couched in Islamic rhetoric. Analogously, Christian anti-abortionists have found the language of Christian fundamentalism powerful because of respect for religious freedom, e.g., misinterpreting the words of Jeremiah – "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you" – to mean that personhood begins at conception. My next Ethical Musings post delineates three evils that religious fundamentalism unavoidably spawns in this pursuit of power.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Mohammed was wrong


The prophet Mohammed erred. The Koran, which allegedly Mohammed received as a message from God, describes Jesus' birth as a virgin birth, that is, Jesus' mother Mary had, in the words of one English translation of the Koran, "neither been touched by any man nor ever been unchaste" (19:19).

Jesus was not born of a virgin. Although biologists know that virginal births are a very rare possibility, such births would almost invariably result in a girl and never a boy because the man contributes the Y chromosome that distinguishes males from females. Over the last couple of centuries, Christians have helpfully moved from reading scripture literally to reading it metaphorically. The story of the virgin birth is significant because of what the gospel authors want to say about their experience of Jesus and not because the authors are making a biological claim.

Muslims extremists have not made a similar shift, but still read their scripture literally. In other words, they believe Jesus was born of a virgin because both that is what they read in the Koran and Mohammed accurately recited what God had spoken to him.

Either God lied (I find the notion of God intentionally deceiving anyone ludicrous) or Mohammed got it wrong. Jesus was not born of a virgin.

Am I, like the Charlie Hebdo satirical cartoonists, disrespecting Mohammed and Islam? Alternatively, am I expressing an opinion based upon analyzing a text in light of scientific information?

Ideally, individuals express their ideas in ways that are respectful of others. However, respect for others that precludes an open, honest exchange of views is in fact insulting of others. It's naïve to imagine that everyone agrees about anything. Differences of opinion and value are endemic to the human condition. I know that some Muslims will disagree with my conclusion that Mohammed erred; some Christians similarly continue to cling to the anachronistic notion of a virgin birth.

Stifling public discourse by insisting that persons only say that to which nobody will take offense is equivalent to completely ending public discourse. Adversarial legal systems exist, in part, because communities have recognized that the best approach to discerning true from false is to encourage open debate. Admittedly, the process often results in partial truths or even upholding falsehoods. Nevertheless, open debate, in which we weigh evidence and arguments and test hypotheses, generally yields the most progress in science, law, and religion.

My hope is that in time, both Muslims and Christians completely abandon the rigid fundamentalism that leads to hatred, enmity, and violence because they find it so unbelievable in view of everything else that they know about the world. Until then, refraining from voicing about controversial opinions to avoid giving offense or out of concern for one's own safety allows extremism to continue unchecked.