Monday, May 18, 2009

Christian Enclaves-- Places One Can Run and Hide

There were a couple of interesting articles in our local paper a week or so ago, both sent out by the AP. In a way, they both dealt with education and the attempt to create "Christian enclaves"-- protected places where Christians can run and hide.

The first that caught my eye dealt with Domino's Pizza founder, Thomas Monahan. Monahan is a Roman Catholic. He has started a project in the Naples area of Florida that is a bit reminiscent of the religious utopian experiments of the early 19th. century. He is creating a town, centered around a college that he foresees as being a distinctively "Catholic" experiment. At first, he proclaimed that no store would sell contraceptives or pornography. The Cable T.V. would carry no adult content. Due to complaints by civil rights activists, he has since backed-down on these proscriptions, but such guidelines are still highly encouraged.

At the center of Monohan's town is Ava Maria University, a quite conservative Catholic school. In the article in question, reporter Mitch Stacy quoted one student speaking about the benefits of the school. The young woman commented, "It's just nice to go to a school where you don't feel challenged in your faith."

A second article described how Falwell's Liberty University was "infiltrated" by a senior from Brown University who enrolled as a student while secretly planning to write a book about the experience. He expected a lot of mindless fundamentalism. He found it, to be sure. He also found students trying to make romantic "hook-ups" in Bible class, dorms full of gossip, hip-hop music, and secret viewing of R-rated movies.

I imagine these things are at Ava Maria as well. After all, even many priests are far from sainthood. The world is a funny thing. You can run, but you can't hide. And there is always the problem of the second generation that may not be as "enthusiastic" as the first. It will be interesting to watch the progress of both Ava Maria and Liberty over the years. The 19th century utopians could not sustain their ardor. Can the Falwellians and the Monohanians?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Christians Support Torture

A recent op ed piece by Lenoard Pitts discussed the results of a recent Pew opinion poll dealing with American's views of torture.  Pitts makes several excellent points that bear restating here:
  1. Between 1933 and 1945 the Nazi regime systematically slaughtered six million Jews.  Yet, for the most part, the Christian church said nothing.  This is especially true of the German church-- although the criticism can be extended well beyond the borders of Germany.  (I have written about the history of the German church during the days of Nazi Germany and the opposition, if you are unfamiliar with the history, you might want to read about it.)
  2. Between 1955 and 1968, the US was awash in violence as forces of "US apartheid" attempted to keep an entire race (all citizens of our nation) in abject poverty and subjection.  The church largely said nothing.  Still, often in the face of continuing racism, the church refuses to speak out.
  3. Beginning in the 1980's, folks with AIDS became modern day pariahs in our society.  The church did not, for the most part, speak out for justice and mercy.  The church largely said nothing.  In the mid 1980's, I was completing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education.  My placement was at a psychiatric institution.  The other student chaplain found out that several of the residents had HIV/AIDS.  After that, he refused to be around, or (especially) touch those patients.  I kept wondering how he could ever be their chaplain.
Now, a recent Pew poll has found that almost 50% of Americans support torture in some cases. That's pretty sad.  Even sadder is that the least likely to support torture are the secular folks. The most likely are White, evangelical, protestants (62%).

One would think, as Pitts writes, Christians would  be the least likely to support torture.  First, by international law, it's illegal.  Second, by any fair estimate, it's immoral.  Finally, it's a vicious practice that brings Americans "down to the level" of terrorists.

I must say, over the last year, I have written about many things on this blog.  There are days it is hard to continue to call myself a Christian.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Does Faith Lead Terminally Ill Patients to Approve Using "all Means Possible" to Preserve Life?

A recent study in The Journal of the American Medical Association seems to indicate that more religious patients approve of more aggressive means of treating cancer. This seems to be the case even when such treatment only offers a prolongation of suffering. Researchers expressed concerns that not only did such treatment prolong the suffering of the patient, it made coping for the bereaved at an inevitable passing (or so it seemed to be apparent when the patient was living) much more difficult.

Religious patients were also more likely to request "heroic" measures such as being placed on a ventilator, or a stomach tube during their final week of life. It would seem that religion would make death a more "peaceful" occurrence (if that is possible). Why would the faithful choose this path?
  1. Perhaps their faith makes them optimistic, even if the situation seems hopeless. They are holding out a hope that God will yet intervene and "heal" them.
  2. Along that same line, very religious folks may see sickness more as a test of faith than a path terminating in death.
  3. Perhaps the faith the religious hold on to gives them the strength they need to face a dismal quality of life and withstand heroic measures at the end.
  4. Maybe it is fear. We know from studies that much of religion does contain a "fear element." Is it possible that belief in an afterlife inhabited by a stern and exacting judge creates a desire to avoid facing that judge as long as possible?
  5. Is there some fear that they may have been wrong about it all? Being uncertain what the end holds, they wish to remain in the familiar as opposed to the unknown kingdom.
  6. Or... maybe it's all about sanctity of life-- that life must be preserved at all costs. Of course, there may be a fear element here as well.

Dr, Phelps, the author of the study expressed concern about the findings. Quoting Phelps, "We are worried because aggressive care, at least among cancer patients, is a difficult and burdensome treatment that medically doesn't usually provide a whole lot of benefit."

Yet, there is a caveat. We all probably know someone for whom experimental or "last ditch efforts" worked (I have a dear friend in that group-- I'm glad he went through it). Still, I think for all of us there is a basic fear of death-- the unknown. Is it just possible that religious myths added to strong faith does lead to a greater fear than the absence of those factors?

So, what would I do if I had to face that decision at some point in my own life? I really don't know. Not completely anyway. I have a living will. But, if "push came to shove?" What would I choose? What would any of us choose?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Passion for Truth

"The passion for truth is silenced by answers which have the weight of undisputed authority"
Paul Tillich

The passion for truth, what is it?  Simply put, it is an insatiable, never-ending search for meaning and reality.  It is that part of us, each of us, that longs to be more than the sum total of (what I have been told is)  a few bucks of chemicals.  It is a hunger to know why that particular collection of chemicals has come together as it has-- in short, Why are we? or, more personally, Who am I?

The passion for truth recognizes this search as a work always in progress.  It admits to its own ignorance and inadequacy to the task.  Those who seek for truth with passion know that the book is never closed, there is always more.  Always.  Such seekers recognize that there are many "truths" in the world.  Our truth is conditioned by our desire, our education, our culture, and our dispositions.  A passion for truth demands that we admit the (very high) possibility that it is highly unlikely that on a planet of about six billion folks, we are the only ones to get it right.  Passion for truth rightly sees such hubris for the arrogance that it is.

Truth is always viewed from a perspective.  My perspective may not match yours.  Not even when we are supposedly examining the same truth proposition.  We all hear it with slightly different ears.  It is doubtful that any of us ever really hears the stories of the Bible in exactly the same way.

That being the case, the greatest disservice a religious institution can perform for an adherent is to "close down" the search.  When that happens, where else do we go?  We have nowhere to turn.  We must believe, even if we cannot.  Since faith is a matter of certitude more than certainty (as Gordon Allport might say), when religious leaders stop all debate, they stop spiritual progress as well.

So, don't get boxed in.  The truth is a many faceted jewel.  Passion for the truth is as precious as the truth itself.  Own the passion.  Don't buy somebody else's answers.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Gay Marriage Gains Acceptance

In an earlier post, I discussed the results of a recent survey that showed that the South was the "most religious" region of the US. It also appeared in the survey that New England might be called the "least religious." Of course, the issue is raised, How are "most" and "least" religious defined? and, an associated question, Are the operational definition of the terms framed in such a way that they actually measure religiosity as opposed to something else? I advise the reader to visit the earlier posting and decide for him/herself.

One thing is certain, New England does appear to be more, let us say, "liberal" (another tricky word to operationally define). Currently Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut permit gay marriage. Listening to NPR this week, I have discovered that New Hampshire and Maine may soon join those ranks as well. Certainly, when it comes to the issue of marriage, New England is the most gay friendly place to be.

All of these moves have been applauded, in rather official ways, by the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Unitarian Universalists. The ECUSA and the UCC are both more decidedly "Christian" than the UU Church. This raises further issues about the nature of these denominations. Both do have a strong presence in New England-- especially the UCC, being the "church of the Pilgrims," at least after a fashion.

Then there are the Concerned Women for America. They are right on top of the situation stating: "While government officials may change definitions they cannot change nature.... The first human relationship was between one man and one woman, and it became the foundation of all society."

Now, there are two parts to that statement. The first is an appeal to nature. It might be incorrect, but it must carry some weight in considering this matter. The second part is based on a religious myth-- at least to some degree. There are many cultures and many myths in this world. It reminds me of an old Jerry Falwell line (a rather ridiculous one at that, I might add), "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."

Back to New England.... Does this just prove the stereotype (or research) that folks aren't particularly religious "up there?" Or does it prove that they are strong supporters of justice, equality, and human rights? What do you think?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On Existentialism, Fundamentalism, and What Really Matters

Existentialism has long proclaimed an oddly unified message. I say oddly unified, because the existentialist movement in philosophy (and somewhat in theology) is anything but a unified movement. By its very nature, it proclaims a message of individualism and personal action. Yet, there are four points upon which the existentialists appear to be largely in agreement. These deal with the dilemma of humans-- the angst of our condition, the source of our anxiety and despair. These four major points, or better, problems, may be summed up as followed:
  1. The problem of meaninglessness-- Human life seems meaningless, really absurd in many ways. Why are we here? Is there any meaning to our existence? Is this all there is?
  2. The problem of isolation-- The bottom line is that we are tragically alone. At the final conclusion, it's just us. There is no one else. How do we deal with the problem (one all of us have felt) of loneliness and isolation?
  3. The problem of freedom-- Humanity is really free. Frighteningly free. We are, in the final analysis actors. We are free actors, though. We usually "make it up as we go along." Since we live in a world devoid of any real meaning and since we are, at our base alone, we must use our freedom to make meaning out of our lives. Of course, with freedom comes responsibility.
  4. The problem of death-- Humans are unique among earth's inhabitants in that we know that we shall die. This life will end, and we shall be no more. How do we live in the face of that awareness?
Death is the capstone. If you follow this line of thinking, life really is "one thing after another, then you die." Yet, if we are honest and brave, death also makes our lives worth living. Knowing that we will not smell a fragrance some day causes us to enjoy spring flowers all the more. Knowing that we may not see tomorrow, causes us to want to live today to its fullest.

I once read that Albert Camus said that sometimes we must give 100% commitment to that for which we have only 51% evidence. The psychologist Gordon Allport has written that religious folks are well aware that they cannot know their position with absolute certainty. Still they hold to the probability, the likelihood that God is there. Probability+faith+love is good enough to provide the certitude they need to have faith.

Life can seem pretty meaningless. Maybe, though Camus and Allport are on to something. Fundamentalist certainty notwithstanding (it is an illusion after all), true faith may trump it all.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Catholic Church Was Well Aware of Pedophillia Years Before "it" All Went Public

The letter of Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald was recently published in the National Catholic Reporter. Fitzgerald is a priest who specializes in the treatment of sexually abusive priests. He warned leaders, after becoming aware of the prevalence of the problem, that sexually abusive priests should be defrocked. In fact, he felt they were rather "beyond the point of redemption"-- at least in this matter-- and should perhaps be exiled to a Caribbean island. He wrote the pope (Paul VI) of priests addicted to sexually abnormal practices, the dangers they posed to youth, and the urgency of action called for by the situation. He wrote repeatedly to Catholic bishops in the 1950's and 1960's and personally to the pope in 1963.

As is apparent, his concerns went largely unheeded. Bishops merely "moved" offending priests around. Victims were often made to feel like they were victimizers. It is difficult to understand the status that priests occupy in the eyes of the Catholic faithful (less today). In many ways, it seemed to me as if they were (are?) held in an almost divine status.

But, then again, it makes some sense. The Catholic Church is an authoritarian hierarchy that claims to hold the "keys to the Kingdom." It is a dangerous thing to risk dissent when the priests and bishops have the power to forgive sin, and the whole system is lead by an individual claiming infallibility derived from God Almighty.

In the recent book, Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America-and Found Unexpected Peace, Former LA Times Religion writer William Lobdell recounts how his investigative reporting of the clergy sex abuse scandal became one of the main influences in his abandoning religion (certainly not the only factor). At the time when he began investigating, he was deeply involved in RCIA(the adult initiation right of the Catholic Church. Yet, he knew it just wouldn't work. He simply could not, in good conscience, unite himself with those making high moral claims nor accept the moral superiority of Christians making those claims when such little evidence of moral superiority existed.

This sort of situation (the sex scandal) is not unique to Catholicism. Witness evangelicals Swaggart, Bakker, and, more recently, Haggard. We could also write volumes about more flamboyant figures as Benny Hinn, Robert Tilton and others mostly interested in money. Or what of the political powerbrokers in ecclesiastical trappings (Robertson, Dobson, etc.)? Whenever people have almost near absolute control over the thinking of others-- usually willingly granted them by those very folks wanting some other person or organization to think for them-- Watch out! Danger is not far away.