Friday, September 26, 2008

Zoroastrian Dualism and Barthian Nothingness

There are themes within historic Christian thought that quite obviously derive from ancient Persian influence—most notably, the “apocalyptic” view of history according to which the mortal world is the battleground for the epic struggle between God and the devil, a struggle which God will ultimately win, thereby ushering in a new world order in which evil has been overcome.

These ideas first emerged in Jewish thought only after exposure to the Zoroastrians of Persia. The Jews most influenced by these ideas were called the “Pharisees.” Since the apostle Paul was a Pharisee, his seminal Christian theology was laden with apocalyptic ideas—a fact that Bart Ehrman nicely shows in God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer.

Interestingly, however, Ehrman nowhere acknowledges that this apocalypticism has its roots in Zoroastrianism. And if we don’t see this, we won’t ask crucial questions—questions about how to adapt Zoroastrian ideas to the Judeo-Christian theological context.

An essential feature of the Zoroastrian theological landscape is its dualism. The conflict between God (Ahura Mazda) and the Devil (Angra Mainyu) is a conflict between two uncreated, co-eternal forces. Because of this, Ahura Mazda cannot simply annihilate Angra Mainyu. In Zoroastrianism, God’s power is limited by the counterforce of the Devil, and so the struggle against evil cannot help but be exactly that: a struggle.

But Zoroastrianism also holds that God’s ultimate victory is assured by the very fact that God is good and the Devil evil. Goodness, according to the Zoroastrians, is coextensive with creativity and wisdom, while evil is coextensive with destructiveness and foolishness. Hence, God can direct His creative energies in ways that will ultimately push the Devil’s destructive impulses inward onto himself. And so the defeat of Angra Mainyu is thus inevitable—but the road leading there is long and difficult, even for God; and it is a road that requires the participation of God’s creation. How we participate may influence the duration of the struggle as well as the magnitude of the suffering.

It’s easy to see why Jewish and Christian thinkers were drawn to this picture. First, this picture explains why there’s so much misery in the world despite the existence of a benevolent creator—and it does so without “baptizing” evil, that is, without treating it as ultimately good from some more encompassing perspective (a disturbing tendency in many theological attempts to address the problem of evil).

At the same time, however, this Zoroastrian picture preserves the concept of a sovereign God worthy of trust and devotion. Despite His limits and the forces ranged against Him, the Zoroastrian God remains a being whose existence would constitute the fulfillment of our most fundamental religious hopes. God can be relied on to make things right in the end, even if He cannot do just anything He pleases in the short term. In fact, even though Zoroastrians embraced a heaven and hell, their theology was universalist in that they believed God’s triumph would be so complete as to include overcoming the Devil’s hold on the damned. In the end the gates of hell would be shattered, and every human soul would be freed from the grip of Angra Mainyu’s lies.

This picture of a limited but resourceful and ultimately triumphant God is presupposed, I think, by any eschatological view of history in which an epic struggle between good and evil leads to the redemption of the world. But in traditional Judeo-Christian theology, Zoroastrianism’s dualistic worldview is stridently rejected, and with it the limitations on divine power that such dualism implies. So how is it that Christians and Jews can still embrace apocalypticism? I mean, God supposedly has the power to eliminate evil with a thought, doesn’t He? So why the “epic struggle”?

Introducing a “fallen angel,” a lower-case devil, offers some framework for adapting Zoroastrian mythology to the Judeo-Christian context, but it’s hardly sufficient. An almighty God could presumably vanquish a finite, created “devil” with a proverbial wave of the hand. So why doesn’t He? Is there a way to make sense of a cosmic struggle between God and some formidable nemesis that isn’t just a stage show put on by God for our benefit?

Of course, free will is routinely invoked in the effort to explain evil. And while I don’t see how to adapt Zoroastrian thought to Judeo-Christian theism without invoking free will, I think people far too quickly assume that gesturing towards freedom solves the problem.

It doesn’t, at least not by itself. After all, if we are creatures of God, where does the temptation to use our freedom for evil come from? In a theistic context, the choice of evil is incoherent. It alienates us from the source of all value. It defies our own nature as creatures of God. It can only do harm, so why choose it? Where does the impulse come from?

On the Zoroastrian view, the impulse must have its source in that which is NOT OF GOD. But we are creatures of God to the core. On the Christian view, everything that exists has its origins in God. Assume that the epic battle envisioned in Zoroastrian mythology is really a metaphor for a battle waged primarily within ourselves. Grant that our wills are the prize over which God and his nemesis struggle. Still we must ask: who is this nemesis, if everything real has its origins in God?

The great early 20th Century theologian, Karl Barth, may have offered the best answer. He saw that for Christianity, God’s ultimate nemesis couldn’t be something, since everything that exists has its origins in God. And so the nemesis had to be a negation—but one with real potency in the world. He called it “Das Nichtige,” or “the nothingness.” It is, in simplest terms, what any finite being confronts when it considers the boundaries of its existence and encounters the great ocean of what-it-is-not that lies beyond. In Barth’s words, we are all “menaced” by this nothingness.

Before creation, there is nothing apart from God, but there isn’t nothingness. Das Nichtige is born when God brings into being that which is not Himself, that which is bounded, restricted, finite. Add consciousness, and a finite being is bound to butt up against the boundaries of its existence, and experience the force of what lies beyond.

Death is our name for what lies beyond one such boundary, but there are others. Milton’s vivid portrayal of Satan’s fall is a rich metaphorical depiction of how a fixation on limits can darken our souls. And that very same tale also reveals, I think, that even in Christian mythology we must imagine something more fundamental than a fallen angel as God’s true nemesis. Even if demons exist, we must ask about the source of their corruption. It is not found in what they are (creatures made by God), but rather in what they are not: the palpable nothingness that menaces the consciousness of every finite creature, the sense of what we are not—which is so expansive as to swamp what we are. It acquires, in the lives of conscious finite beings, a substantiality that defies its status as mere negation.

In a sense, death isn’t “something.” It is, rather, the lack of something: the lack of physiological existence, the end to the only kind of life we know. But death has an impact that’s palpable. Sometimes when we contemplate it, we fall into despair. We become overcome with the sense that nothing matters, none of our efforts have any point, since death will swallow up everything in the end (even the memories of those who remembered those who once remembered us). It feels, often enough, like a consuming darkness. The fear of death can tempt us to act in ways that defy all ordinary standards of what is good and right. And the endlessness of it—the fact, to put it bluntly, that we’re dead infinitely longer than we’re alive—can lead to a cavalier dismissal of the value of life. What does it matter if you live fifty years of thirty? You end up dead forever either way.

“Death” is defined by negation. It isn’t “something” in the conventional sense. But it influences us as if it were. Its power is real. Barth warns against treating Das Nichtige otherwise: “Nothingness rejoices when it notices that it is not noticed, that it is boldly demythologized, that humanity thinks it can tackle its lesser and greater problems with a little morality and medicine and psychology and aesthetics, with progressive politics or occasionally a philosophy of unprecedented novelty—if only its own reality as nothingness remains beautifully undisclosed and intact.”

And death is not our only limit. There are so many others, and we have names for them: Ignorance, Foolishness, Impotence, Sin. We feel it all around us, sometimes only vaguely, sometimes as if it were a hungry maw poised to consume us. That which we are NOT. We can ignore it for a time, but it creeps back in, working on the subconscious. We can pretend that we can handle it with better health care and wiser public policies—but behind the scenes it feeds the avarice of corporate executives who somehow imagine they can make themselves rich enough and powerful enough to rival it, to make what they are bigger than the endless sea of what they are not. And in their subconscious obsession with such hopeless dreams they drive nations to the brink of economic ruin.

And for everyone who responds to it with dangerous grandiosity, there are more who retreat into trivialities, because it all starts to seem trivial. We’re tempted to pursue fleeting pleasures—to eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow we die. And we’re tempted to pursue them at the expense of others if that is what we must do to stay alive another day, to have our fleeting pleasures while we can.

Turn our gaze to the physical universe around us, and what do we see? We see a vast universe filled with stars and planets and nebulae—but also the void, also the emptiness. We see boundaries around it all. The darkness creeps in around the edges of our wonder, and we see the grand vistas of the cosmos as nothing but the ephemeral by-products of dead matter and energy operating according to some blind fusion of laws and chance.

Meaningless. Absurd.

Unless, and until, we achieve a shift, a sudden alteration of perspective: an intuition of the Infinite in the finite.

It’s the sense that behind all this finitude is something vaster still, something without boundaries or limits, a great I AM untouched by any whiff of I AM NOT. It’s the sense that the finite reality of our immediate experience is rooted in something more, something beyond experience, even beyond imagining. Mystery, yes, but one that carries with it an astonishing promise--the hope that maybe, just maybe, there is that which can preserve what I am against what I am not. And so it matters what I make of myself.

Barth’s view is that without this infinite I AM to counter Das Nichtige, we’d be lost. What we are not, and the constant dread prospect of sliding inevitably back into nonexistence, is too potent, too vast, for mere finite beings to resist alone. When we say otherwise, we lie to ourselves. When we downplay Das Nichtige’s power, we lie. And that lie is the triumph of nothingness.

Far better, far closer to the truth, to believe in mythology, to see a cosmic struggle waged between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, to see all of creation menaced by an uncreated force of darkness, and all of creation championed by a God of fire and light and love. Because, on the battleground of our wills, a struggle every bit as epic is being fought. And in the face of the menace of the Void, our only hope is to cling to something greater than us, to turn out eyes towards Infinite Being, and to let the radiance of God wash away the darkness.

I am no fan of dualisms that divide us into in-groups and out-groups, us and them; but here is a dualism that puts all that exists and is real on one side, and pits us all in solidarity against a nemesis who is nothingness. And in the end, there is only one way for us to stand against the nothingness that lies beyond our limits. It should be no surprise that the Infinite Being, the boundless I AM that can prevail against the vast I AM NOT, is also identified with love. For it is in love that we bridge the chasm between self and other, and thus transcend our limits to become more than we were before.

This is all expressed more poetically than philosophically, but that is the mood I find myself in as I write. And I want to highlight, in opposition to the fundamentalists of every stripe, that there is more of poetry in religious consciousness than there is of scientific facts. But this is not to say there is less truth.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pragmatic Implications of Belief in Hell

I have on my office door a Dilbert cartoon in which one character asks another, “What happens to the four billion people who don’t know that God loves all his children?”

The answer, of course, is this: “Eternal hell.”

The cartoon always makes me chuckle, but the joke has a bitter taste to it. My laughter isn't of a happy kind. In large part this is because there is so much truth to the cartoon's take-home message.

In most conservative expressions of the Christian view of God, we are told that God’s love is a perfect love that is unconditional, that does not wait on worth but wills the good of creatures for their own sakes…and in almost the same breath we’re informed that the most astonishing horror imaginable is an inextricable part of God’s ultimate plan: those who do not place their trust in this God of unconditional love are fated for the abyss, where they endure a degree of horror that trivializes the suffering of the mother who is raped by a host of enemy soldiers and then forced to watch as her children are killed. While her horror is incalculable for those of us who have not endured its like, it is also finite. But the sufferings of hell, in addition to being the very worst that our souls are capable of containing, also have no end. It is as if we are caught in that moment of utmost horror and never released. This is what God either inflicts (on the older view of hell) or permits (according to the more modern view).

Much ink has been spilled attempting to reconcile this doctrine of hell with a God of unconditional love and boundless mercy. Some very great minds have argued that some kind of doctrine of limited salvation is an unavoidable implication of taking human freedom seriously. It is argued that part of what characterizes divine love is a deep respect for human free agency that does not only extend to our ability to make choices for ourselves, but extends also to our potential to really have what we have chosen to have and achieve what we have chosen to achieve—even when the fruits of our choices are bitter indeed.

Defenders of hell argue that since some persons freely choose to exist in alienation from God, God leaves them to the abominable fruits of that choice. He does so out of respect for their autonomy, which is a dimension of his love. And he does so even though this choice amounts to alienation from what (given Christian theology) is the source of all that is good, all that can give satisfaction to life, and all that can make continued existence anything but utter darkness and despair.

Other defenders of eternal hell argue that it is in some sense impossible for God to interfere with our free choices on this matter, since our freedom is constitutive of who we are in such a deep way that to override our freedom with respect to something so fundamental amounts to our annihilation. God must, in effect, choose between annihilating the damned or allowing them to suffer utmost anguish for all eternity. The only choice unavailable to him is to save them.

I have written extensively against the doctrine of eternal hell, and most of my thinking has focused on the attempts to defend hell by appeal to human freedom. My basic view, in its most oversimplified form, is that no free creature would persist for eternity in rejecting the source of all that is good and satisfying, especially not after experiencing what such a choice is like and thereby coming to see the foolishness of such a choice in its most vivid possible terms. And so, even if God is committed to respecting our freedom, everyone will experience salvation in the end, even if some may have to go through hell to get there.

But recently, I’ve been thinking about the doctrine of hell in a different way. Instead of challenging the arguments in favor of this doctrine, I’ve been thinking about its pragmatic implications for this life.

Any doctrine of eternal damnation, no matter how defensible from an abstract theoretical standpoint, draws as sharp a line between human beings as it is possible to draw—human souls divided by an unbridgeable gulf, on one side the beatific vision, on the other the outer darkness. And even if that divide is held to exist in some eternal realm beyond the strictures of space and time and physical law, it nevertheless cannot help but press its stamp on this mortal existence.

And so this doctrine of separation and division infects the perspective from which its adherents see the human world. How can I embrace this teaching without seeing in each of my fellow human beings their prospects for damnation or salvation? Given that their eternal destiny has a significance in the arc of their existence far more profound than anything that might define their mortal life, how can I refrain from seeing them in terms of that destiny?

The mortal world, then, cannot help but become divided by the imprint of that eternal gulf. And this will be true even if we are reminded about our own inability to judge on which side those around us will fall. We cannot say with confidence who will be saved and who will be damned. But that doesn’t stop us from having our guesses, even our private certainties. Few of us will be so brazen as Fred Phelps—who, with his congregation of relatives, pickets the funerals of gays and lesbians with signs celebrating the fact that another fag is burning in hell. But how easy is it to avoid more quiet acts of pigeon-holing, in which we separate out those whom we just know are doomed from those we’re sure will join us in paradise? As we quietly think of us-the-saved and them-the-damned, and even more quietly locate human beings into one group or the other, it may become impossible to keep the ultimate in-group/out-group division from creating its shadow divisions in this world and this life.

If we believe in eternal damnation, it may be that the psychological costs of resisting such terrestrial divisions are too great to bear. As Schleiermacher argued some two hundred years ago, compassion for the damned is a recipe for pain. To love those who suffer requires attention and empathy—and to pay attention to the sufferings of the damned, and to empathize, is to experience in one’s own soul the most extreme horror that it is possible to endure. To love the damned is therefore to court vicarious torment.

As a father I love my children, and I know the ache I feel when they’re hurt. In recent articles, Thomas Talbott has invited us to imagine what such parental love would feel at the prospect—or the certainty—of one’s child’s damnation. He argues—and I have defended his argument on this point—that no parent who truly loves a damned child can ever experience the unvarnished joy of salvation.

The doctrine of limited salvation therefore cannot help but serve as an impediment to compassion. To truly love those who are doomed, to love them as a good parent loves his or her child (or as Christ was said to love every person), is to forsake the prospect of perfect happiness. It is to put one foot deliberately into hell. And so we create in-groups and out-groups as a form of self-protection, and limit the fullness of our love and compassion to those within our carefully demarcated circle.

The doctrine of hell thus quite naturally gives rise to limitations on the scope of our love. Out of self-protection, we are afraid to get too close, to feel too much compassion and empathy, for those who are slated for unending agony of the very worst conceivable kind.

And the very doctrine of uncertainty that is supposed to guard against this tendency actually worsens it. Since we cannot know the inner hearts of our neighbors and thereby see what fate they court, we are tempted to base our judgment instead on visible markers that we then invest with artificial significance. We protect ourselves from the fear of losing those we love to the abyss by identifying the damned with those who are already outside our circle of loves: the alien, the foreigner, the man or woman who is divided from us by existing social discrimination and stratification.

Instead of breaking down barriers, instead of creating a world in which there is neither male nor female, rich nor poor, slave nor free, the doctrine of hell threatens to reinforce all the conventional barriers that are already in place. Because of existing social realities that divide us, we grow up in a world where our circle of intimacy leaves out those who are not of our class, our race, our nationality or ethnicity or religion. And so it becomes safe to adopt a worldview according to which these outsiders are the ones who are damned.

After all, if its those OTHER people who are damned, the ones we don’t know and love, we needn’t worry about our compassion fundamentally compromising our own salvation.

In short, I think that the doctrine of hell, from a pragmatic point of view, narrows the scope of human love and reinforces patterns of compassion that are artificially narrowed. And so this doctrine is pragmatically at odds with any ethic that calls us to love every rational creature here below.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Food for Thought from a Philosopher with a Contrasting Perspective

My previous post, “Sniffing Around Amidst the Soccer Match,” was inspired by a recent e-mail exchange with my good friend John Shook, who is a Vice President at the Center for Inquiry (a kind of secular humanist think tank). John expresses his frustration with much contemporary Christian theology in the following message, which I share in its entirety with his permission:

Good luck Eric on your new blog! And have some sympathy for the atheist.
Christianity is nowadays so diffuse theologically that an atheist feels like
he's darting arrows into fog. Christian theology was supposed to elevate
personal religious conviction to the level of rationally defendable knowledge.
The Enlightenment severely challenged traditional theology, and provoked a
counter-enlightenment. That's actually the story behind the eruption of
non-rational "theologies" in the 1800s. Natural theology was going nowhere,
metaphysics was out-philosophizing the theologians, and science was displaying
incredible promise. Dodging strategies (amounting to a retreat) back to
emotion/mystery/dogma seemed the only option. Christianity theology has now
mutated into two kinds of "Fideism" (just believe, baby!) -- fundamentalism and
mysterianism. Fundamentalists cling to their scriptural dogmas and accuse the
atheists of clinging to their own scientific dogmas. Mysterians ensure that
their conception of god is so vague and non-intellectual that no actual evidence
could ever be used against it. For example, "My God always has a great reason
for killing people in horrible ways, but we just can't tell what it is." As
another example, "My God is the ultimate formless ground of all being in and for
itself (or "My God is pure Love", or "My God is this big presence with me all
the time", etc), so the atheist's worries can't ever count against my God's

Fideism was highly convenient for Christians, since
their next tactic was to depict the atheist as dogmatically trying to prove that
their God doesn't exist. The atheist's prompt failure (since God is now safe
behind a bluff of dogma or hidden in a fog of mystery) was declared
supernaturalism's victory. As soon as "agnosticism" was invented, fideists
promply agreed -- human reason cannot reach their God! In other words, once
agnosticism seemed more reasonable than dogmatic atheism, fideism followed suit
and upped the ante -- since you can't prove that my god doesn't exist, then my
belief is just fine and leave me alone. That's all I ever extracted from William
Lane Craig in the end (see my debate with him on Youtube). Quite forgotten in
this debate is the atheist's real position of skepticism towards religion, not
because the atheist can prove that God doesn't exist, but simply because there's
insufficient good reason to believe that God does exist. When fideism replies by
pointing out that the essence of Christianity all along was faith without
reason, the atheist and the fideist reach one thing that they can agree

Alternatively, there's always the pragmatic approach for
atheism: look at what Christians actually do, and critique their religious
beliefs accordingly. Unfortunately, that tactic is going to fail too. Try
confronting a Christian with that problem. It turns out that it is always the
bad Christians doing the bad things (or they really weren't Christians at all).
"My Christianity only leads to good behavior, while my sinning side does the bad
deed." Very convenient how Christianity ensures that we are already such bad
sinners that no bad behavior at all need ever be attributed to a Christian
belief. And criticism of God's bad behavior and immoral commands is just
irrelevant for the typical Christian, who doesn't take the irritable and
murderous bearded guy in the Old Testament too seriously

Maybe skeptical atheism can help purify the Christian's
religion, back into a purely personal conviction. Current Christian theologies
spin the fideistic dodges as positively as possible, of course. That's the
biggest problem the skeptical atheist has with such theologies: they abandon
reason and encourage anti-intellectualism among their followers, who can't
understand what the new theologies are saying anyways. Who among the laypeople
can understand Schopenhauer or Heidegger or Tillich?? Seems to me that
theologians with their heads in the clouds should take more responsibility for
the fact that a majority of Americans can't believe Darwinian evolution. Who is
holding this country back from progress? It is NOT the atheists!

Obviously, my previous post only begins to touch on the issues John raises here, many of which deserve careful and serious attention (for those interested in a deeper look at John’s thinking, his website is Among other things, I think John is right about the (ab)use to which the doctrine of original sin has been put, as a strategy for fending off pragmatic criticisms of Christianity. As my “Angry Atheism and True Faith” post makes clear, I strongly believe in the idea that religion should be subjected to pragmatic tests and evaluated in terms of such tests. Any way of formulating the doctrine of original sin which seeks to immunize someone’s religious beliefs from such tests should be viewed with skepticism.

This will be a topic for a future post, as will a discussion of the kind of responsibility theologians have for the anti-intellectualism of many religious people today (and what can be done about it). But first, I must get to that stack of papers I need to grade…

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sniffing Around Amidst the Soccer Match

A recurring complaint among atheists who are criticizing religious beliefs is that theists keep “changing the goal posts” every time an atheist argument scores a point against theism. Others speak of “slippery” theology that keeps shifting and changing every time you try to pin it down with criticism or arguments, while still others refer to such theology in terms of dodging and retreat, the idea being that these theists refuse to hold their ground long enough for their views to be falsifiable.

This was part of the main point of Anthony Flew’s famous argument in “Theology and Falsification”: Theists keep qualifying their views to avoid this criticism and that criticism until their views become empty. “Death by a thousand qualifications.” What looked like a falsifiable claim about reality has turned into nothing more than vague emotional gesturing towards Mystery. All that remains is the PRETENSE that theists are asserting some truth, making a claim about reality.

But is this really what is going on? In some cases it surely is. “God works in mysterious ways” is a common enough mantra, and it is routinely used as a way for theists to protect their pet beliefs (that God is loving and cares about us) from the obvious objections (based on the amount of suffering and misery in the world). In what sense can you be said to have an idea about what God is like if every challenge to that idea is met with an appeal to mystery? “God” just comes to mean “I-know-not-what.” And it makes little sense at all to say that one firmly believes in the existence of “I-know-not-what.”

But consider the case of Schleiermacher. Schleiermacher initiated the move toward mystery and emotion within Christianity in the modern era, and thereby launched modern progressive theology. But the move wasn’t so much a retreat in the face of challenges to his faith as it was an acknowledgement that what enlightenment thinkers were attacking deserved the attacks, combined with a conviction that there remained something of deep value in his own experience of the religious life (Christianity in particular).

Schleiermacher was a creature of the enlightenment through and through, but unlike other enlightenment intellectuals of his day he also found himself to be deeply religious in some sense of that word—but not in any of the ways of being “religious” that his enlightenment colleagues were busy attacking. There was something which he had hit on within his own religious experience that was entirely compatible with his enlightenment sensibilities and enthusiasm for the burgeoning scientific revolution, and which he thought added richness to his lived experience that did not derive from (and could not be drawn from) these other sources.

And so he tried to articulate what that something of value was, and to extract it from the religious “trappings” he thought it had become entangled with. Later progressive theologians have attempted to do the same. But when their attempts have proved to be flawed, they haven’t given up and concluded there’s nothing there after all. Rather, they’ve kept trying out different or modified formulations of their ideas.

This may look like dodging or “changing the goal posts,” but neither metaphor, it seems to me, really captures what is going on. These metaphors evoke a contest in which each side is aiming to “defeat” the opponent. What we have here is the picture of a zero-sum competition between the atheists and the theists (or between the naturalists and the supra-naturalists), very similar to the kinds of zero-sum struggles that have always seemed to infect the relations among alternative religious communities. And it is painfully easy for human beings to fall into this dynamic, to find themselves approaching the question of religion’s value as if it were a contest between two rival groups, and then to take sides.

I find myself doing it pretty often. Schleiermacher did it. My atheist friends do it. But to play this kind of game, we need to have two sides, and we need to have criteria of winning. Thus, it becomes natural to treat the inquiry as involving two possible answers to a question, and to insist upon a particular set of criteria by which each answer is to be evaluated relative to the other. We need two rival teams and a clear mechanism for determining who is victorious.

If this is the game you are playing, it can be infuriating if those you conceive of as the rival team won’t play together and won’t acknowledge the rules of the game. Their behavior can seem nonsensical. Some of them are behaving as expected and furiously trying to kick the ball into your goal while vigorously defending theirs, but not all of them are defending the same goal. Some keep missing the goal and insisting they’ve scored, and then watching the ball slam into their own goal and refusing to recognize the score. And then there are those who, every time you kick a ball into their goal, scratch their heads for a minute before wandering over to the goal, hoisting it up, and moving it somewhere else, saying “This is the place! You didn’t hit THIS goal!” And when you insist that they are cheating, they give you a puzzled look.

And then there are the opponents who are furiously kicking balls into every goal they see, on any side, but refusing to acknowledge the validity of your scorekeeping and insisting that they are advancing the cause of their team. And then there are the most infuriating of all—namely those who are wandering around sniffing at the air, and when you ask them where their goal is, they shrug and tell you that if you find it to let them know.

(I find myself envisioning an updated version of the classic Monty Python sketch involving a soccer match between the Greek and German philosophers.)

When things begin to look so crazy, maybe the reason is because we’re working with the wrong metaphor. So let’s try a different one. It’s not that progressive Christians are facing off against atheism and naturalism in a soccer match but then refusing to play by the rules of the game. Maybe, instead, they are in the metaphorical House of Christianity, smelling something delicious and looking around for the source of the fragrance.

Conservative Christians are, perhaps, insisting on the inestimable value of the house exactly as it is, and trying to counter the atheists who point out leaks in the roof and black mold under the floorboards (either closing their eyes to these things, or insisting that they must be part of what makes the house so fabulous even though no one can see why, or declaring that these things really aren’t technically PART of the house at all). Meanwhile, the progressive Christians are wandering around trying to find the source of that fabulous fragrance. And as they step into a room and the scent becomes stronger, they say, “I think it might be in here somewhere. It smells kind of like lilacs. Maybe there’s a vase of lilacs in the cupboard.”

Perhaps some atheists see this as a move in their ongoing debate with the conservatives. And so, as the progressive Christian’s gaze turns to one cupboard and the next, the atheist swings each open in turn and declares, “See! Moldy cheese! It stinks! See! This one’s empty! Nothing there at all!”

What progressive Christians should say in response, I think, is this: “Thank you. I now know not to look there.”

And when the atheists shout, "But I've refuted your lilacs in the cupboard hypothesis!", the appropriate reply might be, "I'm following a scent, not clinging to a hypothesis."

In the meantime, they shouldn’t be discouraged from enjoying the aroma. And they certainly shouldn’t be prevented from sniffing around, just because others don’t smell anything, and just because the smell might be “all in their heads.” It might be that, but then again, some people have noses that are unusually keen—like my wife, who can tell when I’m coming down with a cold two days before I exhibit symptoms.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Jake Reitan: Person of the Year

This past weekend, my cousin (first cousin once removed, to be precise) was awarded the Twin City's Human Rights Campaign “Brian Coyle Leadership Award.” I know for a fact that the award was richly deserved.

Jake has been active in pursuing justice and equal rights for sexual minorities since his courageous decision, in high school, to come out at his school and try to create a gay-straight alliance there. He experienced first-hand the backlash that can come from being open about one’s sexuality, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to pursue social justice for gays and lesbians and other sexual minorities.

In college, he took a year off to work for the Human Rights Campaign (a grassroots organization that advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights) and for Soulforce (a civil rights organization that uses the nonviolent direct action methods of Gandhi and King to fight oppressive teachings and practices targeting sexual minorities, especially those coming out of churches). He created for Soulforce their “Power of Youth” video, which aims to inspire young adults to engage in social justice activism—and which, in my judgment, is the best short film that Soulforce has produced.

And then one day he met a young gay man from Wheaton College who was not only conflicted about his sexuality, but who believed all the things that the conservative Christian community had been telling him about himself: that his sexuality was intrinsically disordered, that he would be a sinner if he fell in love and acted on those feelings, that his sexual orientation was a mental illness, that policies which would expell this young man from Wheaton College were he to come out were actually a good thing.

What amazed Jake was that this young man had been so immersed in a community that taught these things that he’d never really encountered a strong statement of any alternative perspective. He’d never been inspired to reflect critically on the validity of these messages, these ideas that battered his self-image and drove him to pursue love furtively as if it were some kind of crime. The young gay man had gone straight from a conservative Christian home to a Christian college that perpetuated the same message he’d been immersed in growing up. And he still believed in the anti-gay teachings in which he was immersed, even though he experienced them as so soul-crushing that he couldn't follow them.

Jake saw in this young man something that is hardly unique among young gays and lesbians: someone mired in self-loathing, driven to hypocrisy by “principles” that do little more that suck the joy and richness out of life.

And so Jake had an idea—one inspired by the Freedom Rides of the civil rights era. His idea was to find a group of young men and women, mostly gays and lesbians, to ride a bus across the country, visiting those colleges and universities that enforced policies discriminatory against gays and lesbians, schools that perpetuated the message that gays and lesbians were sick or sinful simply for living out who they were with integrity, rather than striving to repress or change their native sexuality.

The Equality Ride was born. I have witnessed it in action here in Oklahoma. I’ve followed with interest the efforts to engage students, faculty, and administrators at these colleges and universities in open dialogue, to invite critical reflection on teachings that are so hurtful to so many. I’ve been impressed at the creative ways that they have brought their message to light when efforts at dialogue have broken down. (Once, when Oklahoma Baptist University restricted their access on campus, they labored at the outskirts of the university to create a "Tapestry of Love" stitched together from scraps of cloth marked with Bible verses and other positive messages, which they intended to give to OBU as a gift. When they attempted to deliver it to the student center, they were arrested. Amazingly, OBU students took up the task, lifting the quilt and carrying it to the student center on their behalf). A former philosophy student of mine became an Equality Rider in its second year, and I know that the experience was transformative for him. I cannot but believe that this kind of project, if pursued by people of good will and courage, has the power to change the world for the better.

Jake has also led actions challenging the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. He approached James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” complex with his parents, intent on delivering a letter detailing the ways in which Dobson’s anti-gay rhetoric has damaged and continues to damage gays and lesbians and their families. He was arrested for his trouble, but that’s nothing new to Jake. Practicing civil disobedience takes courage, and sometimes it entails spending time in a jail cell.

Jake is now a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. He was prominently featured in the award-winning documentary, "For the Bible Tells Me So," and will be featured in the fortcoming documentary, "Ask Not," a film about the military "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. I can only imagine what he will do next…but I watch with interest and no small measure of pride that we share the same last name.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Quaker Silence and Nonviolent Communication

This weekend my family drove to Arkansas so that my wife and I could facilitate an Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop. The workshop was a Training for Trainers, and the participants were all Quakers. While a babysitter played with the children downstairs, eight Quakers (the participants) joined with a progressive Lutheran in Exile (me) and a deeply spiritual agnostic hurt by organized religion and wrestling with questions of faith (my wife) to immerse ourselves not only in learning the art of facilitating an experiential workshop, but also in improving our ability to live in a spirit of nonviolence.

And so I’m thinking a lot about what it means to live out a spirit of nonviolence. And on that issue, Quakers (or Friends) have much to teach us.

Quakers are among my favorite people. There is something ironic about saying this. After all, part of what defines being a Quaker is an ethical commitment to resisting the us/them dynamics that so often shape group identity. I like Quakers as a group in part because, as a group, they reject those conventional group-defining criteria which create boundaries between groups. In other words, Quakers generally resist characterizing persons in terms of group identity. And here I am doing it in expressing my fondness for Quakers.

And yet there is no question that Quakers are an identifiable group, a community distinct from other communities by virtue of characteristics that can be identified (if only in the most general terms). Quaker worship is characterized, historically and today, by meditative silence. The typical Quaker community gathers in a circle (rather than facing a pulpit) and for an hour or so sits quietly. Occasionally someone is moved to speak. In one Quaker meeting I attended, many were so moved, and so the hour passed with numerous thoughtful reflections coming at me from different parts of the circle.

But that’s the exception. More often than not, at least in my experience of Quaker worship, no one speaks at all. The hour passes in a special kind of silence. Borrowing Simone Weil’s words, it is “a silence which is not an absence of sound but which is the object of a positive sensation, more positive than that of sound. Noises, if there are any, only reach me after crossing this silence.”

I cannot but believe that the deliberate attempt, on a regular basis, to immerse oneself in that kind of Silence—especially to do so in community with others—has the power to transform the spirit. Few Quakers would contest that immersion in such Silence is a means of connecting with the divine—although they would likely have very different, often competing, conceptions of the divine. But the point in Quaker worship is to set aside such competing ideologies and share together in the same root experience from which all these competing theological speculations flow. It is to discover community in a place free from the things that divide us—a place of Silence.

It is a place free from the effort to impose labels and categories and hierarchies, a place in which what we have in common rises to the surface. When the Silence of a Quaker meeting ends, when my eyes open and I look around at those in the circle with me, I see human beings like myself, and there is the almost irresistible urge to hug.

The essence of conflict resolution, as we teach it in AVP, is to get beyond the differences in viewpoints and agendas, the disagreements about how we ought to live, the diverging political and religious allegiances, the group affiliations and class distinctions, etc.—to get past these things and seek instead the place of common humanity—the place of feelings and needs. If connections of empathy can be forged at that level, then disagreements and differences lose their capacity to define us, and thereby also their capacity to separate US from THEM. And when that happens, we can actually have a human conversation—even a conversation about matters that we deeply disagree on.

If the human connection doesn’t happen, then too often so-called “conversations” about divergent political or religious or moral ideas are nothing of the kind. Instead of having a conversation, we are seeking to impose our ideas on the other guy and then, out of duty, waiting impatiently for the other guy to stop talking so we can get back to showing them how wrong they are. We somehow imagine they are really listening and trying to understand our point of view even though we refuse to return the favor.

I am surely guilty of doing this. We all are. But when we do, we’ve lost all hope of having meaningful exchanges that can move us to deeper levels of wisdom.

Let me say that I believe in healthy debate. I engage in it for a living. I believe that it is important to discuss issues and ideas with those who disagree with us, to share why we believe what we believe, why it matters to us, and to offer objections to opposing views (and then afford the other parties to the debate the opportunity to do the same). My point is not that debate has no place in human relationships, but that such debate is healthy only to the extent that it proceeds out of a place of mutual respect and a recognition of shared humanity, and when the goal isn’t to win the debate but to facilitate learning—both for oneself and for the other parties to the debate.

Mutual learning won’t happen unless all parties are engaged in an authentic effort to listen to and understand those with whom we disagree. And we don’t make such efforts when we think of our opponents as just that, rather than as fellow human beings struggling with us to figure things out in a complex and confusing world. To listen is to empty ourselves, at least for a moment, of our own “stuff”—the judgments and ideas and concerns that so fill up our minds that there is no room left to receive what others are trying to share.

To really hear others, we need to find in ourselves that place of Silence which is really also a place of listening. In the Silence of worship, we are listening to Reality itself, to Truth in whatever form it might descend upon us. We are opening ourselves up fully, waiting expectantly, making a space into which the divine may rush: a tide of grace. In a sense, listening to our neighbors is really no different from worship. It is an exercise of caring attention, of openness to being transformed, of trust.

Some measure of this needs to happen every time we connect with another person. If not, then all we are doing is imposing ourselves on them. Even in philosophical discussions and debates, we need to cultivate the inner Silence that is an opening up of the self to that which is Other. This is the context for real human conversation, rather than verbal fights or intellectual fencing matches.

We’ve all had, I think, the experience of debating issues over and over, with strangers or with people we love, only to find that things are going nowhere. When this happens, I suspect that what has happened is that the context for real human conversation has been lost. And one thing that Quakers teach us is the power of Silence to help restore that context.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ariel Sightings and Atheist Faith

A few days ago, as my family was getting loaded into the car for a thrilling afternoon of shopping, we all noticed a bird dropping on the rear driver’s side window—a mostly white SPLAT with, of course, the requisite dribbles (now dry). Actually, I should say that my wife and I noticed it, as did our five-year-old son. My daughter, who is two, didn’t notice it until a little while later, as we were driving away from a visit to Goody’s Department Store.

We were pulling out of our parking space when my daughter shouted out, “Ariel!” I glanced around and saw no obvious images of the Little Mermaid, but my daughter is good at spotting them even when I don’t. A few months ago, at the airport, her Ariel radar proved to be especially keen, and whenever she cried out “Ariel!” or “Mermaid!” I would eventually (after looking around for a few minutes), find some tiny Little Mermaid bookmark in a shop window or an Ariel backpack disappearing around a corner (attached to the back of a flouncy five-year-old with pigtails).

But this time I could see nothing of the sort. “Where?” I asked.

She pointed insistently out her brother’s window. I looked out across the parking lot, in the direction she had indicated, but saw nothing…until I abruptly realized she was pointing at the window.

To be precise, she was pointing at the bird poop. And as I looked at it, the splat of excrement took on a new meaning. I could see Ariel rising in the water, her hair streaming behind her, her fish tail lost in a roiling swirl, clearly about to be transformed into legs.

The poop bore a remarkable resemblance to the scene from Disney’s The Little Mermaid in which Ariel is rising to the surface of the ocean just after visiting with the sea witch, as her wish for human legs is in the process of coming true.

And I thought to myself: “Too bad it doesn’t look like Our Lady of Guadalupe. Then I could remove the window, laminate it, and sell it on e-Bay for $28,000.”

Instead, when we stopped to fill gas, I went after the Ariel image with the blue window washing liquid and squeegee courteously supplied by the gas station. In moments, Ariel was no more.

The lesson, of course, is this: bird poop is always forming patterns. Most of the time these patterns don’t match any to which we’ve attached special significance. Sometimes they match ones that are deeply important only to two-year-olds. And, every once in awhile, they’re going to match images that someone, somewhere, invests with religious meaning. The same is true, of course, of patterns in toast and chocolate drippings.

And so, when it just so happens that an image imprinted in toast looks like the Blessed Virgin, it really doesn’t make any more sense to view this as a sign from God than it does to view Ariel-in-bird-poop as a sign from Triton the Sea King.

But many religious people are hungry for signs of this sort—tangible images which we can see or touch or (God forbid) taste. They long for a world in which God shows up not just as a quiet presence in a moment of meditative prayer, but in more straightforwardly empirical ways.

Of course, there is a long theological tradition which claims that God does show up in the empirical world all the time because the very existence of the empirical world in all its wonder and mystery is a constant manifestation of the divine. Such a theological view has no need for Virgin Mary sightings, because the entire created world in every aspect is a constant testament to the glory of God. (I should note that this tradition of thought, although it needn't exclude talk of miracles, is very different from the tradition of religious thought which is fixated on miraculous suspensions of natural laws).

But this idea that the empirical world is an ongoing manifestation of the divine is a WAY of seeing the world—and there are other ways to see it, too.

A religious worldview offers one set of glasses through which to interpret and understand the meaning of our ordinary experience. But there are non-religious worldviews that do this, too. So long as these worldviews do not call upon us to reject or deny empirical facts or the best understandings of the patterns by which the material world works (in the way that, say, Young Earth Creationists do), there is nothing in the empirical evidence that will force us to prefer one such worldview to another. There may be more broadly philosophical reasons to favor one general worldview over another, but the empirical data by itself is “polysemitic”—that is, able to be invested with alternative fundamental meanings.

And this means that the embrace of a broadly religious worldview will always be a matter of choice and hope, not a matter of certainty. But many are uncomfortable with living in hope. For a variety of reasons they long for a certainty that is impossible to have, at least in this world we live in.

We see this hunger for certainty not just among the religious, but also among many atheists, who insist that their naturalistic worldview—according to which the world we encounter through our senses and through scientific investigation constitutes all that there is—is an incontrovertible truth established by the empirical evidence. But it should be plain that the question, “Is there more to reality than meets the eye?”, will not be answered by pointing out that I cannot see more to reality than meets my eye. Empirical evidence cannot settle the question of whether there are orders of reality beyond the empirical one.

But the hunger for certainty leads many to look for empirical evidence that confirms in some way their worldview. And this is why so many cling to Virgin Mary sightings. They want something in the empirical world that settles the question of what, if anything, lies beyond the world. The problem, of course, is that nothing will really do this trick. Even if the heavens parted tomorrow and a booming voice declared to the entire planet, “I AM,” it would still be possible to be an atheist. After all, the manifestation might be the work of space aliens (or the result of a freakishly rare confluence of natural events that produced a sonic boom which, by virtue of our tendency to discern anthropomorphic patterns in natural events, we interpreted as the words “I AM”).

In short, to look for proof that your way of seeing the world is the right one by pointing to images of the Blessed Virgin in a grilled cheese sandwich is just shifting the problem of interpretation down one level. The image in the grilled cheese is itself polysemitic, and to treat that image as the deliberate product of a transcendent God is to offer one possible interpretation among many.

In the words of the theologian John Hick, “the true character of the universe does not force itself upon us, and we are left with an important element of freedom and responsibility in response to it…I would suggest that this element of uncompelled interpretation in our experience of life is to be identified with faith in the most fundamental sense of that word.”

If there is a God, he hasn’t created a universe in which His presence is unambuously attested to, perhaps because such an uncompromising testament to His presence would stifle our development as autonomous selves. And if there is no God, then nothing in the universe cares enough about us to make the fundamental nature of reality manifest to us. And so we are left with the “element of uncompelled interpretation” that Hick identifies with faith.

In other words, even the atheist has faith when we get to the most basic level of interpretation. I would argue that even agnostics have faith in this sense, insofar as some kind of implicit worldview is needed in order to live one’s life in any kind of coherent way. At least on an implicit or practical level, we make a decision about what the world is like at its root. And it’s just that, inescapably that: a decision. It's a decision that ought to pay attention to the facts. That is, we should make sure as best we can that our interpretation fits with the facts. But I am sceptical of anyone who claims that only one worldview, or one kind of worldview, will offer such a fit.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Sarah Palin (Again): On Agapic Love

This morning, as usual, I woke up to the sound of NPR blaring in my left ear, reporting the news as only NPR can. Well, I suppose if we want to be completely accurate about things, other news media can report the news in the way that NPR does; they just choose not to.

Anyway, the news report that seeped into my subconscious mind (before I could fumble my way to the snooze button) infected my dreams with impressions of Sarah Palin relishing her role as Republican attack dog (Barracuda? Lipstick-sporting pit bull?), throwing out zingers against Barack Obama with obvious pleasure, even going so far as to represent his work as a community organizer as an appropriate object of derision.

The NPR report was not, however, about Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention, and it made no mention at all of her self-identification with hockey moms. Instead, the report was about the “bounce” that the Republican presidential ticket was enjoying in the wake of Palin’s entering the race. As the NPR voice put it, voters who had previously been planning to vote against Obama (and only grudgingly for McCain) are now eager to cast their vote for the republican ticket—because Sarah Palin is on it.

And the most enthusiastic converts to such republican enthusiasm are none other than conservative evangelicals. Sarah Palin has consolidated this reliably republican voting block, apparently guaranteeing not only that they will come out to vote in their usual numbers, but also that they will provide the much-needed people-power to bring out the vote for the McCain/Palin (Palin/McCain?) ticket.

The question that finally blasted the sleep from my head was this: Why? Why exactly are evangelical Christians SO enthusiastic about Sarah Palin?

This question may sound na├»ve. Isn’t the answer obvious? Palin is one of their own. She’s a staunchly pro-life, self-identifying evangelical who apparently embraces a fairly literal interpretation of the biblical creation story and who favors abstinence-only sex education in schools. She stands for traditional Christian values. Right?

Here’s my problem. The core Christian value—the value at the heart of Christianity and from which all Christian ethics supposedly derives—is agapic love. In other words, it is a love that transcends ordinary human boundaries and divisions, that extends to every neighbor, not just those we like, that finds its fullest expression only when it reaches out to the bitterest enemies.

A.J. Muste described the nature of Christian love in the following terms: “If I can’t love Hitler, I can’t love anybody.” He was making a definitional point about the nature of agapic love. A love that excludes Hitler cannot be agapic Christian love, because agapic Christian love is precisely the kind of love that refuses to make distinctions between those worthy of our caring impulses and those unworthy of it.

This is the kind of love described by Simone Weil in the quotation that appears under the title of this blog. It is a love radically opposed to the in-group/out-group divisions that so broadly characterize human relations. It is a love, I think, that we are capable of expressing in our lives only when we open ourselves up to a perspective that transcends the merely human one. Put in Christian terms, it is possible for us only when we become channels through which divine grace is free to operate in the world. This is what “submitting to the will of God” really means.

And this love is the fundamental Christian value. It is what Jesus himself reportedly highlighted when he was asked which of the commandments were the most important. It is what St. Paul identified as the fulfillment of the law, when he placed all the earthly commandments under the rubric of the law of love in Romans 13:9-10. And, I would argue, such love for our neighbors is also the practical consequence of love for God. After all, God needs nothing from us. To love God is really about giving ourselves over to God so fully that God’s love flows through us into the world. We love God when we give ourselves over to the God who is love, and when we love as God loves: without distinction or qualification, without the boundaries of in-groups and out-groups.

If this is the heart and soul of Christian ethics and Christian values, then every Christian should be extremely cautious about partisan politics, which embodies the very in-group/out-group divisions that agapic love opposes.

This does not mean that no Christian should ever enter the political arena. I’m not in favor of preserving personal purity at the expense of engaging with the realities of the world. What it does mean is that part of being Christian is a commitment to bringing the fundamental Christian value to those places where it is not routinely expressed. It is about striving to operate in terms of an ethic of agapic love even in those venues in which partisanship and division are the norm.

I’m not at all convinced that Sarah Palin is any worse than the broad stream of politicians in this regard. Partisanship is rampart on the American political scene. But the relish with which she attacked Barack Obama shows that she isn’t any better, either. While she takes the “evangelical Christian” side in the culture wars, the fact that one side in these wars has been identified with the name “Christian” really just shows how far the idea of what it means to be Christian has drifted from the core Christian value of agapic love.

And so, it seems, if one is approaching an assessment of her from the standpoint of someone with an allegiance to fundamental Christian values, one’s reaction should be, at best, tepid.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Religious Patriarchy and Sarah Palin

In the wake of the announcement that Sarah Palin would be the republican VP nominee, some voices in the media asked questions about the propriety of her accepting the nomination. The concern focused on her family situation: a baby with special needs, a pregnant teen daughter, etc. Rather quickly, other voices in the media and elsewhere shot back with the charge of sexism. The suggestion that it might be inappropriate for Palin to run for Vice President because doing so might conflict with her familial duties is, clearly, sexist. No male candidate would be subjected to a similar litmus test. Both political parties, as well as representatives of both presidential campaigns, agree on this point: focusing on Palin’s family life and treating it as somehow relevant to her candidacy is sexist.

And they are right. And, in my judgment, sexism is a great evil. And so it follows that placing demands on Palin that are not similarly expected of male candidates is a great evil.

But not everyone seems to think that sexism is wrong. To be specific, Palin herself comes from a stream of Christianity that tends to affirm stark gender role divisions, and she appeals to conservative Christians who see traditional gender roles as part of the “family values” and religious values they espouse. According to these conservative “family values,” men are the head of the household, and women have a unique responsibility to nurture the children within the family and to in other ways care for the health of the family unit. And let us not forget the strident affirmation of gender role divisions expressed by the Southern Baptist Convention in its 2000 decision explicitly excluding women from church leadership. This is part of a broader affirmation of a patriarchal value system that is deeply held by many conservative evangelicals.

The most interesting question is not whether such conservative evangelicals are being hypocritical in their embrace of Palin, but whether their embrace of Palin expresses a willingness to more broadly reconsider their endorsement of patriarchy. Are they being moved to reflect in a broader way on the legitimacy and propriety of cleaving to these old patriarchal norms? And if not, why not?

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, addressed this very line of questions in a recent Christianity Today interview. His response? “The only restrictions we find in Scripture are, that for whatever reason women are not to be in charge of a marriage and women are not to be in charge of a church. That has nothing to do with governor, or senator or the House of Representatives, or president, or vice president.”

I’m inclined to treat this response as a kind of reductio ad absurdum argument against the Southern Baptist view, but I know that to do so would be too quick. Land’s thinking here is a variant of the bumper sticker which declares, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” I’ve often thought someone should cross out the last line and replace it with, “Therefore I have an inconsistent belief set.” But I suppose that to do so would only be to replace thoughtful reflection with more slogans.

The fact is that even those who take the Bible as an inerrant authority need to wrestle with the complexities of the text. One of those complexities is noted with great care by Bart Ehrman in Misquoting Jesus: the fact is that it is the original Scriptures that are authoritative, and those Scriptures are not available to us. The Bible has been altered so many times in so many ways that, among the various copies of the Bible we have access to today, there are more variations in the text of the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament.

Changes have clearly been made to the originals. While most of these changes are trivial, some are not. For example, biblical scholars today generally agree, on the basis of strong textual evidence, that 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35, in which women are instructed to keep silent in church, was a later addition to Paul’s letter, most likely intended to neutralize some of Paul’s more radical ideas about men and women being equal in Christ. Similar references in 1 Timothy were original to that letter—but most scholars agree that Paul did not actually write 1 Timothy.

And it would be odd indeed if he had, given what that letter says about women. After all, it seems quite strange to imagine Paul instructing women to be silent in church when he praised women “apostles” in his epistles—women who were engaged in teaching and leadership roles within Christian communities.

As one might expect of a reactionary patriarchal community, later Christians sought to obscure the most blatant Pauline reference to a female apostle, in Romans 16:7. In the oldest Greek and Latin translations of the text Paul instructs the Romans to “greet Andronicus and Junia,” whom he then explicitly names as apostles of special worth. “Junia” is of course a woman’s name, and the overwhelming evidence supports the view that until the middle ages, Junia was known to the Christian community as a female apostle. Finding this intolerable, medieval translators masculinized the name by slapping an “s” on the end of it.

Of course, none of this is to say that Paul had entirely freed himself from the patriarchal norms of his time and culture (which is clear enough from 1 Corinthians 11:2-16). My point is that whatever prejudices he had, Paul had shaken them off enough to recognize the worth of women as leaders and teachers within the church. It’s time, I think, for Southern Baptists to do the same—and maybe their enthusiasm for Sarah Palin can serve as the occasion for it.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Angry Atheists and True Faith

On my first day of philosophy of religion class this semester, I brought to class a series of visual aids—specifically, a half dozen books, all of them bestsellers, all of them attacks on religion and belief in God. I trotted out Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and his follow-up Letter to a Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Christopher Hitchens’ god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (he deliberately refuses to capitalize “God” even in the title), and physicist Victor Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis.

Few of these books say much of anything that’s new (the exception is Dennett's book). What distinguishes them is the authors’ anger. While attending college and graduate school I was always conscious of the dominant atheist culture of academia—but the prevailing attitude towards religion was one of quiet disdain and condescension, not the vitriolic rage that pervades this recent wave of bestsellers. So I asked my students: Why are these atheists so angry?

They proposed a variety of answers, some better than others. But then one student sent me a link to a blog by Greta Christina, in which she—an atheist—seeks to directly answer this question. Since I’ve used Greta Christina’s “Are We Having Sex Now or What?” in my sexual ethics classes, I knew she was an intelligent, provocative, and effective writer, and so I read her post with some interest (her post can be found at

Her post has two parts. The first is a laundry list of things she’s angry about—abuses that have been committed by religious people and communities. Most of the things on this list made me nod my head, because they are things that I am angry about, too. But, of course, I am a Christian (although not exactly of the conventional sort). So, obviously, I believe that there is a version of religion, a way of being religious, that avoids this list of abuses and doesn’t warrant such an angry response. But it turns out that this idea—that not all religion is deserving of the atheist’s vitriolic rage—is one of the things that Greta is angry about. She is angry at religious people who try to worm out from under her barrage of righteous outrage by saying, “But that isn’t my faith or my religion.” She urgently wants all religion to be guilty as charged.

The second part of her essay focuses on the value of anger. She points out, rightly, that anger is a powerful motivator, that it can inspire one to act against injustices and social ills. I agree with this. In my capacity as a gay rights activist I’ve endured oppressive heat and frigid cold to stand vigil outside conservative religious venues, holding signs that read “Stop Spiritual Violence” or bearing images of hate crime victims whose attackers felt vindicated by the poisonous messages spewing from fundamentalist pulpits. It was my anger that gave me the energy, the motivation, to do this.

I was present when Jimmy Creech, a Methodist pastor defrocked for performing holy unions, confronted a leading bishop in the United Methodist Church, a bishop who was on his way to put a pastor on trial for the affront of being in a loving monogamous relationship with a woman (the pastor was a woman herself). I watched the bishop say rather sheepishly that he had to do it—that his position and the rules of the church required that he put this woman on trial for the crime of loving someone. And I saw the way this man shrank in the face of Jimmy Creech’s reply (paraphrased here, since I don’t recall the exact words): “You do not ‘have’ to do this. You can say no to injustice. You can act on conscience and face the costs.” This, of course, is what Jimmy Creech himself had done. And the power of his words was in part born from this truth, and in part from the controlled, focused anger that illuminated so sharply the wrong that was being done—the same anger that gave him the will to defy unjust regulations despite the costs to his career.

Anger has power. Were he not so angry, my cousin Jake would never have founded the Equality Ride, which has had an astonishing impact on the lives of those touched by it. (For those unfamiliar with the Equality Ride, it is a Soulforce-sponsored campaign that for two years and counting has been sending busloads of young gays and lesbians around the country to pursue dialogue at colleges and universities—mostly religious—whose policies oppress sexual minorities.)

Anger can motivate and empower. But, as Greta herself notes in her blog, it can also be dangerous. There are distinctions that anger does not see. Sometimes, the failure to see these distinctions can inspire us, in righteous indignation, to recklessly destroy treasures.

Two hundred years ago, the revolutionary theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote a series of essays entitled On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, in which he argued that there is an essential feeling at the root of religiosity, a feeling distinct from doctrines and institutions and moral codes, which is religion’s real wellspring. Behind and beyond the hierarchical organizations with their membership criteria, behind the creeds and theological disputations, distinct from the myths about superhuman tyrants in the clouds, there is the human longing to connect with an ultimate Mystery, and (more fleetingly) the subjective experience of such a connection. He calls this religious feeling “the intuition of the Infinite in the finite”—the sense that one is in contact with something transcendent, something astonishing behind the empirical skin of the world, something that defies all attempts to be adequately captured in human language.

This, for Schleiermacher, is the essence of religion. He reserves the name “theology” for those attempts to understand the religious feeling (however inadequately or incompletely) in propositional terms. And while he had great respect for theology (he was, after all, himself a theologian), his deeper allegiance was to religion itself. In responding to the intellectual despisers of religion in his day (early 19th Century Europe), Schleiermacher argued that these “cultured despisers” didn’t really get what religion was about at its most fundamental level, largely because most of the people who claim to be religious only “juggle with its trappings.”

The core idea here is that there have been people in every culture and historical setting who have had this distinctive feeling, this sense of something essentially good beyond what our senses can discern. And in all times and places, they have come together with others to share it and try to understand it. But this feeling has always found itself existing side-by-side with fear-born superstitions about supermen commanding lightning storms, and with tribal gods invented to justify violent vendettas against rival tribes. The religious feeling is, of course, at odds with these things. It speaks of ineffable mystery at those points where fear-born superstitions speak of anthropomorphic supermen; it is a matter of hope where superstition is a matter of fear; and religious feeling gives those who experience it a sense of the essential unity of all things rather than the tribal divisions between us and them that have so bloodied human history.

And so, this religious feeling tends to inspire those who experience it to stand up against the forces of oppression and division. The seminal religious visionaries, even those with blatant human imperfections (such as Martin Luther), have routinely been critics of the established social order, recognizing its injustices and standing up for the marginalized and oppressed. Their compassion transcended established social boundaries—even if (again Martin Luther is a good example) they did not succeed in overcoming them all.

For these reasons the religious feeling inevitably becomes a threat to the privileged classes, who therefore seek to tame it, to channel it into institutional structures in which its revolutionary capacities are subverted. And because both the religious feeling and fear-born superstitions speak of something “supernatural” beyond the empirical world, it is often easy to displace the numinous transcendence of religious experience with the more parochial, manageable products of our fear-inspired imaginings. And oppressors have a strong motivation to do just that. After all, fear can be used as a tool of control.

I am angry at fundamentalist religion, not just because of what it has done to so many people through history, but because of what it has done to the religious feeling—which, with Schleiermacher, I believe to be religion’s real essence. This essence has been systematically stifled and subverted. It has been buried beneath heaps of crud. And yet it has never been completely squelched, even within the most fundamentalist communities. Somehow the echoes of it persist. And some who are attuned to it have the courage to follow where it leads, and, like Jimmy Creech, stand up and speak its message clearly and loudly.

One hears both anger and compassion in the voices of people like Jimmy Creech—but it is clear that the anger is born out of the compassion. And this is important. Anger can spring from many sources, and not all are created equal. When men and women are motivated to act by their anger, and when their anger has its roots in a clear vision and an authentic compassion, we have what Christianity, within its own ranks, has long called the “prophetic voice” of the church. It is the voice of the Old Testament prophets railing against the social injustices that trample the poor, of Jesus invoking fierce metaphors to highlight the gravity of economic marginalization, of Martin Luther crying out against the abuses of a papacy that extracted money from impoverished people in exchange for “indulgences” that would supposedly shorten the duration of their loved ones’ purgatory. Today, it is the voice of Jimmy Creech and others like him who stand up to a Christian community that has scapegoated gays and lesbians and then stopped up its ears with Bible verses to avoided having to hear their anguished cries.

This prophetic voice is attuned to the seminal religious experience, the sense of an awesome mystery at the root of creation and at the heart of our own consciousness. And those who hear this prophetic voice without the blinders of prejudice or indoctrination cannot help but blink in dumb wonder and say, “Yes, yes. This is the real thing. This is religion!”

And so I am, admittedly, angry at those who cavalierly dismiss this redolent feeling that lies so often beneath the “trappings” of earthly religions. I’m angry at those who, not having experienced it, insist without a hint of humility that there’s nothing there to experience (those who wrestle with this experience and, taking it with all seriousness, finally conclude that it is delusional, do not similarly raise my ire). And I’m angry at those who dismissively scorn the voices that say, “What you hate is also something that I hate, but what you hate is not religion as I know it and experience it. It is a tragic distortion, a corruption of something essentially beautiful, something that I am inclined to call true faith.”

Dismissals of this message are almost always too quick. Consider Greta’s dismissal of it by insisting that “you have no more reason to think that you’re practicing religion the way God wants you to than anybody else does.” But if I’ve witnessed something that’s soul-destroying to my gay best friend, and then I encounter something that moves us one step closer to that elusive “beloved community” Martin Luther King envisioned with such eloquence—when I experience the crushing effects of one so-called religious practice, and then observe with my own eyes the redemptive potential of another, is it really fair to say that I have no reason to think the latter has more claim on being authentically divine?

The Gospels attribute to Jesus a strategy for distinguishing authentically prophetic voices from pretenders: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16). Notice what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say we will recognize them by their conformity to an established orthodoxy (how could we ever come to establish an orthodoxy if that were the measure?). He doesn’t say we will recognize them by their conformity to a holy text (after all, Jesus was critical of the established holy text of his community, rejecting among other things the literal interpretations of scriptural rules that precluded work on the Sabbath and required that those caught in adultery be put to death). Jesus' view, I think, goes something like this: The true prophet is one who is moved by an ineffable religious encounter with the transcendent being we call God—and prophecy that springs from such a font can be recognized by the goodness of its fruits.

And yes, this means that we must rely on our own internal moral compass, our instinctive understanding of good and evil, right and wrong—in short, our conscience—to see whether the fruits of prophetic teachings are true or false. If there is a God, surely He would entrust the task of discernment to such an inner compass that springs from our essence as children of God, rather than entrusting it to one holy book among a sea of rivals. After all, if our ability to discern good fruits from bad fruits depended on accessing the teachings of a holy book, then we would have no way to discern which holy book was truly prophetic, and which wasn’t, among all the competing scriptures from all the rival religions throughout our world. The same can be said for living prophets or institutions.

And so I ask again: If I rely on my own internal moral compass to distinguish between those so-called “faiths” that shatter human spirits and relationships and those faiths that inspire and uplift and nurture moral courage, is it truly fair to say that I have no reason at all to think that the latter has more of a claim on being true faith than the former?

Consider Greta’s response to those who are inspired by Jesus and His “way of the Cross” even though they bemoan what religious communities have so often done in Jesus’ name. She quickly stabs back with the following: “If you believe that the Gospels are a more or less accurate representation of what Jesus said, then you have to acknowledge that Jesus said some pretty fucked-up things. Including a whole lot of stuff about how people who didn’t believe in him and follow him were going to burn in Hell for eternity.”

But why do Christians have to accept the antecedent here (even if, as I will admit, they routinely do)? Greta’s comment assumes several things. First, it assumes that all those who seek to follow Jesus’ path believe that the Gospels offer an inerrant portrayal of Him. It also assumes, I think, that we have no resources for getting past the misrepresentations of scriptural authors, so as to see within their imperfect accounts an extraordinary person worthy of emulation. Finally, it assumes that the meaning of Jesus’ words as they are represented in the Gospels can be grasped in a straightforward way two thousand years later by people operating from a radically different set of cultural conventions and experiences. It assumes, in other words, that an “accurate representation” of what Jesus said will give people today an accurate picture of what Jesus meant, even though we are interpreting those words through a modern set of culturally mediated expectations and beliefs.

These assumptions are dubious at best. And underlying these assumptions is, I think, a common view about the nature of religion (one expressed by Sam Harris), according to which being religious is really all about taking some purportedly revelatory text (the Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads, the Guru Granth Sahib, etc.) to be the fundamental authority in one’s life. That Greta is (perhaps unknowingly) assuming this picture of religion becomes evident when Greta says the following: “You don’t have any more reason to think you have the true faith than any other believer does… You can quote chapter and verse, but so can the people whose interpretation of the faith you disagree with. That’s sort of the nature of chapter and verse; it can be used to support just about any interpretation you can come up with.”

It is certainly true that what might be dubbed "Bible worshippers" (what C.S. Lewis called "bibliolaters") can reach radically different understandings of what the object of their worship actually says. This is true, in my view, because the object of their worship is a collection of writings by diverse human authors, many with contrasting and irreconcilable views. But isn’t it a mistake to attribute such fundamentalist ideas to those who see fundamentalism as a corruption of religion’s essential core, and who urgently cry out for efforts to clear away these corrupting forces? Isn't it a mistake to attribute such fundemantalism to those who take the Bible to be, not the infallible word of God, but the seminal writings of diverse human authors who are wrestling with the meaning of their own profound religious experiences or retelling richly symbolic narratives about the struggles of earlier peoples to understand what it means to live as children of God? In other words, isn’t it a mistake to attribute to non-fundamentalist religion the very attributes which non-fundamentalist religion stands opposed to?

All Christians revere the Bible—but a text can be revered in different ways. I revere Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Of all the single-author works I’ve read, it has perhaps had the greatest influence on my personal growth. But I’d hardly say that Aristotle is an infallible authority. I’d hardly call the Nicomachean Ethics inerrant. When I read it, I encounter passages of blazing insight that strike me as springing from a wisdom I can only dream of possessing. I have internal resources that, somehow, recognize great ideas even when I would never have thought them up on my own. We all do (although some have clearly more discernment than I do, and some less). And then there are passages that obviously express the prevailing social prejudices of Aristotle’s age—prejudices that thousands of years of human history have revealed to be errors. I have no trouble quickly dismissing these prejudices for what they are.

What is true of Aristotle is also true of the Apostle Paul. Even when we set aside the misogynistic passages in Paul’s letters that most scholars agree were added later, as well as those letters that were attributed to Paul but weren’t really written by him at all, we still find things in Paul that two thousand years of human history have revealed to be nothing more than cultural prejudice (at least if we shake off the stranglehold of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy). But the discovery of such errors should not shut down for us the extraordinary wisdom that fills his letters, the great ideas that we would never have thought up on our own, but which our own internal resources recognize when they are presented to us with lucidity and passion.

And when we encounter such great ideas, we should honor the source even if that source also contains ideas that are less than great.

Among the inner resources for distinguishing wisdom from foolishness, many (including myself) are inclined to identify the religious feeling—the very feeling that Schleiermacher took to be the thing which keeps religion alive in the human heart. It is a feeling of having encountered a transcendent mystery, a feeling that by its very nature leaves us conscious of how paltry and limited our human conceptual categories are. For most of us, this feeling is just a glimmering of what the great Jewish-Marxist-Philosopher-Mystic, Simone Weil, described in her letter to a Catholic priest friend, when she talked about breaking free of the confines of ordinary experience to find herself in “the presence of love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.” And many of us share Simone Weil’s conviction that even in the face of such an encounter, “one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth…If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

Religion in this sense is so far removed from the target of Greta’s atheistic outrage that Simone Weil was able to see Greta’s brand of atheism as a step on the path away from fundamentalist religion (although she didn’t use that term) and towards true faith. In Weil's view religion can often prove to be “a hindrance to true faith,” so that “atheism is a purification.” She explains: “Of two men who have no experience of God, he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the other. The false God who is like the true one in everything, except that we cannot touch him, prevents us from ever coming to the true one.”

And what is the true God like? In insisting that those who speak in terms of “true faith” arrogantly believe they understand God while others don’t, Greta misses the point of the great mystical tradition of which Weil was a part—a tradition which sees true faith as residing precisely in the recognition of one’s own inability to adequately conceptualize God. When Socrates said he was the wisest man in Athens, he meant only this: that he was the only man in Athens who knew that he didn’t know much of anything. Likewise, within the mystical stream of religion, “true faith” is construed in large measure as residing in a deep awareness of one’s own ignorance in the face of the divine.

And so, for example, the great medieval mystical work written in Middle English (its author anonymous) is titled The Cloud of Unknowing. God resides in such a cloud. The difference between false and true faith, within this stream of thought, is that false faith claims to describe accurately the contents of that cloud through precise doctrines and teachings. True faith, by contrast, only reaches upward into mystery, ready to experience the inexpressible, and treats attempts to understand this mystery as fallible speculation that is always open to revision. Weil expresses this mysticism clearly when she says, “I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure my love is not illusory. I am quite sure there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be anything like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word. But that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.”

There is something extraordinary here, something that many are recklessly casting to the flames along with the evils that have been done in religion’s name. And so, while I share much of Greta’s anger, I also think her anger has caused a bit of recklessness, which in turn threatens something precious. The fundamentalists bury this precious thing under heaps of crud, and I am plenty angry at them for it. But I must also reserve a bit of anger for those who set fire to the crud without a thought to what might be hidden in its depths.

I propose, instead, that we all try to do a bit of excavation.