Saturday, March 28, 2009

Scientist Affirms There Just Might be More to Reality Than Meets the Eye

To begin this posting, it would be most helpful for the reader to have a bit of knowledge concerning the John Templeton Foundation.  The Mission Statement of the Foundation presents its mission in these words:

The mission of the John Templeton Foundation is to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discovery in areas engaging life’s biggest questions. These questions range from explorations into the laws of nature and the universe to questions on the nature of love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity.

Many of these big questions that the Foundation supports investigating cross the line and begin to impinge upon religion.  That is certainly the case of the Templeton Prize winner this year. The announcement of the winner took place only a few weeks ago at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

The winner, Bernard d'Espagnat is one of the formative physicists in the area of Quantum Mechanics.  His research lead him to the conclusion that science cannot adequately explain the "nature of being."  In a statement, d'Espagnat stated that since science cannot reveal anything with certainty concerning the nature of being, it likewise cannot tell us what is not.

He writes, "Mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated.  On the contrary it is one of the most constructive elements of being."

It is extremely rare to find a religious individual that is willing to admit to possible errors and misconceptions in the content of his/her faith.  Certainly, it is unheard of in confessional/creedal statements.  We have fought to gain the dogmatic high ground.  We are not likely to relinquish it any time soon.  It is even more rare, strangely enough, to encounter a member of the scientific priesthood who clings to mystery-- even embraces it, admitting science's inability to arrive at all of the answers.

Readers interested in this topic might find my book chapter on myth an interesting read.  You can access it here: .

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Is God, Indeed, Love?

Ah.... Just to know that God is love and to rest in that knowledge. To bask in it. To lose oneself in it. It is an amazing thing. But is it true? Read the Good Book much lately? It has all kinds of little "gems" to ponder:

  1. "Bash Israel's enemies babies' heads against the wall."

  2. Utterly destroy all of the nations of Canaan. This includes the helpless little children and frightened old men and women. All of them.

  3. Since David sinned with Bathsheba, punish him by killing his infant child-- one who had committed neither good nor evil.

  4. Punish the wayward Israelites with such chastisements as famine, and slavery.

  5. Top that off with driving them to cannibalism (it's a heavy load being the "apple of God's eye").

  6. Cause women to have pain in childbirth until this world ends as payment for the primordial sin of one woman.

  7. Wipe out the entire world by flood.

  8. Promise to wipe it out again in war and fire.

  9. Make a place called hell. Determine that hell is a fair penalty for missing the mark.

Of course, one might point to many "love" passages from scripture (there are thousands). I'm not sure that all of the love cancels all of the hate. And, why did God demand a blood sacrifice of God's own son? After all, God is God. Did God really HAVE to do that to forgive? Religions other than Christianity have a concept of forgiveness without a notion of blood sacrifice. It seems very primitive, very cruel.

Is God love? If you read the right parts of the Bible, yes, of course. If you don't? Well, then.... Maybe we would be best to admit that the Bible is a book that conveys very human experiences of God. Some resonant with me. Some really "put me off." The question for us is this: Who is the historical Jesus and can we arrive at any conclusions about his teachings? Much is out there about this topic, if we take the time to look. If we don't, our theology is likely to end up all fragmented and thoroughly confused. For a few chapters about fundamentalism and the confusion it engenders, visit my book web site where you can read three full chapters.( )

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Problem With the Bible is it Talks Out of Both Sides of its Mouth

"God is Love."  Right?  Yes.  Of course.  Pure, unconditional love.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  Well... maybe.  What I love about the Bible and the God it proclaims is that God loves humanity like a gentle father.  God cares for humans like the perfect mother.  Nothing can get in the way of God's unconquerable love.  It is unflappable.  Unquenchable.  Unmeasurable.  God is the shepherd who leads us besides the still waters and goes with us through the valley of the shadow of death.  God holds our hand.  God promises that we will have perfect peace as long as our minds are stayed upon God.  Just to contemplate God is perfect peace.

"God is Love."  Love is described in 1 Corinthians 13: 

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.  (NIV)

Love is all about giving.  "God so loved the world God gave...."  What did God give?  God gave everything.  That's God.  God is love.  Who can help but to love a being  such as this?  Such great love.  It should inspire us to love.

Ah, but there is more.  For you see, the Good Book is a little schizophrenic.  In the midst of all of this love, where God makes the world and declares it all good, is also a picture of unmitigated wrath.  And, I think we must admit that is true of both the Old Testament and the New Testament, at least as we have it.  It is full of eternal damnation and pure hate language. Rightly did Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards preach about the character and actions of this God in an attempt to win converts:
So that, thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger, neither is God in the least bound by any promise to hold them up one moment. The devil is waiting for them, hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash about them, and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up; the fire pent up in their own hearts is struggling to break out: and they have no interest in any Mediator, there are no means within reach that can be any security to them. In short, they have no refuge, nothing to take hold of, all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliging forbearance of an incensed God.

The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them.

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire....

Surely not! you say.  Read much of the book of Revelation lately?  Or the "hellfire and brimstone" words of Jesus?  What's going on here?  Part of me is drawn to this book and this God.  Part of me is repulsed.  And you cannot chalk it up to justice, as some preachers do.  That might work, except the Bible takes it all too far-- too much violence, too much hate.  Justice and punishment in the context of love always carries a remedial aspect-- not pure hate and destruction.

So, how do we understand this?  It seems as if the Bible writers and redactors were trying to reconcile two images of God that had been handed down to them.  Sometimes, they would get lost in the beauty and wonder of the love, sometimes, the hate images would take over.  I would say that the preponderance of evidence is that Jesus went the love way (he did NOT, as some evangelicals teach, speak more about hell than heaven).  When we attempt to construct the original sayings, as many have, we are left with precious little vengeance.  Still, the hateful/violence side of things  remains is  troubling.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The ELCA and Gay Clergy

Seems like all of the mainline denominations want to get on the "let's ordain openly gay clergy bandwagon." The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America *ELCA) has been flirting with this one for quite awhile. I hope they know what they are doing (been keeping your eyes on the ECUSA??). I don't claim to have the answer, but I'd like to weigh in a bit on the issues.

It looks as if the ELCA's main legislative body will have the issue (non-celibate gay clergy) up for a vote in August. I don't fully understand ELCA polity, but, as near as I can tell, local congregations and judicatories will have a "final" say in ordination, if the motion is approved. I guess that one could play either way.

Conservative groups in the church are already crying foul. They point out that gay ordination is certainly a departure from the "letter of the law" in the New Testament epistles. Unless one does some pretty "fancy stepping," I don't see how that can be denied. Of course, it is possible that the Bible writers are simply wrong. I'm not above entertaining that possibility. I guess it all depends on how literal one is about it all.

According to Christian Century four areas of agreement would need to be reached for it all to come about:
  1. That the ELCA is willing to recognize committed, lifelong, monogamous, same gender relationships.
  2. There is a commitment that allows such folks to serve in the church.
  3. The ELCA agrees to respect those who disagree with all of this stuff.
  4. Finally, the ELCA removes the ban from partnered gay clergy.
Nice ideas. All I can say is that I'm glad I'm not the one who is going to hold those four deals together without allienating a whole bunch of church members.

Life just ain't so simple any more. No, Toto. I don't think we are still in Kansas.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Yet More Stuff About Religious Monuments on Publiclicly-owned Property

Here we go again. Seems that the US Supreme Court has ruled that a public park in Pleasant Grove City, Utah doesn't have to put up a monument bearing the "commandments" of "Summum." a small religious sect eager to spread their religious beliefs by means of a monument placed in a tax-funded, public place. In writing the opinion for the court, Judge Alito pointed out that placing such a monument in the park is tantamount to "government speech." That, of course, cannot be allowed.

Now you might think that I would be sending the court a nice note about FINALLY doing something sensible about religion. After all of the Bush appointments and years of confounding church and state, it seems they finally got it right eh...? Well, don't forget the words of former "right winger" and chief justice Rehnquist. To quote: "The 'wall of separation between church and state' is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.” As you might imagine, after operating under this premise for the last decade plus, this recent judgement might seem like a breath of common sense.

But, not so fast there, partner! For you see, in that same park, the court saw nothing wrong with a Ten Commandments monument! It was left perfectly intact. Now, seems to me that turn about is fair play. What's good for the goose is good for the gander, etc.; etc.; etc.;and so on.

The only really fair course is to call all such monument secular and give everybody a "piece of the monument pie," or nix them all. You can't have it both ways. If a monument is government speech for the poor Summumumians, it's no less so for the Christians or Jews. Come on now! Lets play fair!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

If You Are Looking for God. Go South!

I recently came across an interesting item from the Religious News Service.  A new Gallop Poll, based on over 350,000 interviews has discovered that Mississippi is the place to be if one is looking for folks who are into religion.  In fact, 85% of the residents stated that religion was an important part of their daily lives.  Other "high scorers" were also southern states, situated in the Bible Belt.  In fact, Tennessee, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, and Arkansas were all "cruizin'" around the 80% level.  So, my conclusion?  Want religion?  Go south!

New England?  Forget it!  Only 42% of Vermonters found religion to be very important on a daily basis.  New Hampshire?  46%.  Maine and Massachusetts, both 48%.  Some places in the Northwest aren't doing so hot either.  Alaska?  51%  (Governor Palin, what the hell is going on up there???).  Washington state weighs in at about 52%.

Overall, the poll found that 65% of all Americans rated religion as important to their daily lives. Considering other Western industrialized nations, that's really pretty high when you think about it (of course, so is 42%).  The poll did seem to indicate that the lack of interest in New England reflected a large drop in the Catholic population.  It was noted that this seemed to be a a genuine case of people moving away from the religion not the region.

It is interesting to note that, of course, the Bible Belt states are far more fundamentalist in religious outlook.  That might account for some of the difference between regions.  At any rate, it is an interesting trend.  I hope that such studies might lead to other studies of sociological and demographic trends that might be related to the trends highlighted in this recent poll.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Double-heart of Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism has two hearts. These hearts pulsate, and beat, and pound out the rhythm of life of the fundamentalist. Just as it is the heart of a person that circulates the blood, the lymph, the nutrients, the force of life that maintains our one's existence, so fundamentalism has a living center. However, in contrast to human biological life, the center of fundamentalism represents two foci, two hearts, one within and one without. To continue to function as a "living, breathing", and I might add, irritating, entity, fundamentalism requires both hearts.

The inward heart is whatever central authority informs the given variety of fundamentalism we might consider. It might be the Koran, the Bible, the imams or mullahs, preacher or popes. In the case of atheistic fundamentalism, it might be the collection of "tried and true" buttons to push, which are known for their shock value. No matter what it might be, as Tillich so clearly pointed out over half a century ago, such rigidity will quarter no doubt. In the vanquishing of doubt, unknowingly, the fundamentalist institution (whether paper or pope one might say) also vanquishes truly mature faith, which always includes an element of doubt.

The outward heart is the "interface" of fundamentalism and the world, i.e. the individual adherent. The key character of the adherent is unapproachability, unreasonableness, and the inability to entertain any notions contrary to "the party line." Fundamentalists are "hardliners" they know what they believe, even if they have lost sight of why they believe it. As the interface, they are cocksure, "signed, sealed, and delivered." Forget about any silly notion of finding middle ground or rapprochement. It ain't gonna happen! End of discussion.

From these two "hearts," absolute infallibility and a mind slammed closed to any other possibility, fundamentalism derives its very life. It needs both "hearts" to live and thrive in our world. The truly sad thing thing is that the world has become such a confusing place that many will sell their very human birthright of asking difficult questions and being willing to live without all the answers-- even when it hurts. That is what maturity is. It means living in the face of mystery without having all of the answers and seeking truth even though we will surely make many false starts and wrong turns. Living that way takes courage. Maybe, reflecting on Tillich again, that is central to faith as well.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Book Review: Godless

On 2/24/09, I made mention of the book Why I became an Atheist by John Loftus. I pointed out that the book was an okay read, but not particularly outstanding. I did, however, greatly appreciate Loftus' Chapter 4, which I explored at some length in the posting. I do believe that the the book is worth reading, if for no other reason than to read that particular chapter. This isn't to detract from the rest of the text. I found it informative, but not exceptional. It is, however, a good beginning point in examining the issues.

While pursuing the latest in the atheist genre (Is there such a thing? There seems to be a genre developing at any rate!) I came across my FAVORITE atheist presentation to date. I think it is because it resonates so much with me. Anyone reading my book would likely see that we cover much of the same ground and approach it in many similar ways (read 3 chapters from my book at The Recovering Fundamentalist). At any rate, I HIGHLY recommend Dan Barker's book, Godless (2008, Ulysses Press).

Dan was an evangelical preacher with impeccable evangelical credentials. He is now co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, one of the leading atheist, freethought organizations in the US. The book chronicles his days as an evangelist and how, first by small questions, then by large, he felt compelled to abandon Christianity and all religion. The sections of the book where he raises questions and asks religion to respond (well, in an way, you might say) are worthwhile reading. It resonated with me, because it asked questions that I have asked of religion and myself over and over again. My answers are different (I am a believer; Dan is not), but the questions are the same.

It is said "the unexamined life is not worth living." The same may be said of faith. While I disagree that reason and reason alone can arrive at (all?) truth and that myth has nothing to speak in that arena, the questions raised by Barker must be faced head on. Either one must hide his/her head in the sand, play Scarlet talking with Rhett and just wish all of the questions away, find a way to answer them without skirting the issue or calling on pseudo-science, or, follow Dan on a path away from all views of God (AND READ THE BOOK! THE QUESTIONS ARE PRETTY ENGAGING!).

However, my favorite part of the book of the the first section, "Rejecting God." This tells Dan's story and gives the book true legitimacy. This guy is speaking as someone who knows what he is talking about. Many a confused evangelical might just see themselves in Dan's story.

In short, this book is quite well written, non-aggressive, and honest. It is a captivating book-- even if you (like I) disagree with "the conclusion." I highly recommend Godless to add to your reading list.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

It's All About How You Read It

I have two rather distinct "hats" I wear almost everyday. One is my theological, religious, pastoral hat. When I wear this hat, I think about theology. I ponder questions of philosophy, I ask myself and other questions about the basic nature of religion and the roots of religious authority, I serve as bi-vocational pastor of a small congregation and carry out the responsibilities that entails-- visiting the sick, performing more "priestly" functions such as marriages, baptisms, and Eucharistic services, and, of course, I preach. That is one hat I wear. It is supposed to be, in some respects, my more ""part time" hat, but I find myself wearing it quite a bit each day.

My other hat is my college professor hat. When I am wearing this hat, I mostly deal with two areas of knowledge as they relate to preparing pre-service teachers. One of these areas is educational psychology. This subsumes the areas one might typically associate as being included in that rubric. In my case, however, it extends a bit, as I also teach in areas more closely resembling parenting education or family life studies.

My second area of expertise is literacy studies. My primary responsibilities is to train future elementary teachers to be teachers of reading and writing. In this arena, I teach courses in the psychology of reading, reading education methods, and children's literature. It is to this last knowledge domain that I wish to turn.

In some ways, the teaching children's literature is carried out quite differently than teaching in any other literature course offered at the college (actually in most ways). But in some respects, it does share common ground. The main point of commonality is that, to a greater or lesser degree, both my English Department colleagues and I are interested in literary theory. In that arena, there is a figure who emerges as a seminal thinker in both cases: Louise Rosenblatt.

In 1938, Louise Rosenblatt put forth her Readers Response Theory, which those of us in children's literature usually refer to as the Transactive Theory. It works like this:
  1. The author has an intention, a message s/he desires to convey.
  2. The first hurdle to be conquered is the limitation of language. Often, a writer may feel as if words are simply not adequate for what s/he wishes to convey. Still, taking all of the limitations of language into account, the author writes.
  3. The product, from the author's perspective, encapsulates the meaning which s/he intended to convey (at least as closely as possible).
  4. The reader approaches the author's work. There is an unspoken reader/writer contract that states that if the reader reads what the writer has written, it will contain meaning.
  5. The reader approaches the the authors work with a lifetime of experiences. Some of these are experiences with people, places, things, and events. Some are quite emotive and carry much emotional content. All of this shapes the way that a reader frames new events, people, and thoughts and symbolic representations of these things (i.e. language). It may even frame the emotional and cognitive content of language proper-- right down to the very phrase and word level.
  6. The writer writes with intention "A" clearly in mind. The reader brings experiences "B" to the text. Therefore, it is not logical to automatically assume that "A"="A" in the mind of the reader. "A" may reach some close approximation of "A". Still, to the reader, although the writer may have intended "A", in reality (the readers reality) "A"="C"-- some totally new meaning (because "A" is "filtered" through the lenses of "B").
  7. Therefore, when it comes to text and meaning, it is more "created" or "constructed" than understood.
The implications of all of this are, of course, huge. This is especially true about a text already so debated as the Bible. One might almost say that it may well be impossible to ever completely understand what the writer intended. Our homiletical expositions are really only approximations-- what the text says to the preacher. And, even then, the folks in the pew may take away something different still.

So, what are we to do? I see only one logical conclusion: We should avoid fundamentalist dogmatism. Approaching the Bible takes much greater humility than the modern day prophets of the absolute have to offer us. We need to leave room for multiple interpretations and for difference without condemnation.

Literary interpretation is an uncertain science. Religion even more so.