Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, February 28, 2014

I do not think that word...even applies here.

Thank goodness for Salon, which keeps me from reading Greenwald directly:

In the article, Greenwald provides images from a Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) documents that show how the clandestine agency has tried to “control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the Internet itself.”
Seriously?  I mean, has Greenwald been on the Internet anytime in the last decade?

Integrity of the servers, maybe; but of the content?

Seriously?

Run in circles, scream and shout....

I still say it's a facepalm.....


So far Arizona is the only state to get a "discrimination is okay if it's a sincere religious belief" bill to a governor's desk.  Even Mississippi gutted one in conference.

And yet, the Christian right is dangerous because it's cornered and losing influence.

Okay......

"The struggle continues"


Let's start with this comment, which is very nearly perfect:

Is it all right if I quote the Scriptures? :-)

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

He [Jesus] said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

For me, the only way to begin to live the teachings I quoted is "in Christ". Some days, the only way I get out of bed in the morning is "in Christ" - Christ working in me. For me, that is salvation, which I need every single day.
If only because it incorporates the scriptures along with a trust in the reality of God that isn't dependent upon someone else's idea or assent, and that doesn't, equally, try to establish a hegemony from the idea of God.*

That sounds like a slap at everyone else, and I don't mean it that way; but I'll circle back to the point.

Texts and questions are like a Rorschach inkblot:  the answers reveal so much about the person answering.  Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity, for example, would probably in reality resemble Freemasonry (such is the way of the world).  What it would not resemble is the "liberal theologians" dream,  or Camus' world of plague, or be a religion without religion which would be...secularism?  Let me quote again what I quoted below.  Bonhoeffer starts with a question:

"What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today" (LPP 279). For Bonhoeffer, Christianity’s identity was a problem because the world had "come of age;" that is, the world had become conscious of itself and the laws that governed its existence, and thus it did not need the trappings of religion any longer:

The "trappings of religion" is the issue here.  What are the "trappings of religion"?  Buildings?  Spires?  Stained glass windows?  Pews?  Organs? Pulpits?  I know of churches which have done away with all of those things.  Is that the "religionless Christianity" Bonhoeffer meant?  Knowing his work, I daresay he'd think many of those churches were closer to Christian-less Christianity.  And that's not what he was advancing.  Why?  As he makes clear, the issue is much more subtle and complex than that:

The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience – and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more (LPP 279).

I apologize for the poor formatting in the previous post; it probably contributed to the confusion.  Bonhoeffer makes a sweeping critique here, but one I think many of us would agree with, especially in the present day.  I'm intrigued by the idea that "the time when people could be told everything by means of words...is over."  In this day of cable TV and the internet where everything, even streaming videos, depends so much on words (how else does FoxNews communicate?  Or the Tea Party?), I think Bonhoeffer is still right.

We could discuss that.

He goes on to say the "time of inwardness and conscience" is over, and so the "time of religion in general" passes with the passing of these two eras.  Obviously he has a specific concept of religion in mind, but we should all be specific.  Before we get to that last sentence, let's reflect a moment on what he doesn't mean.

To understand what Bonhoeffer meant to affirm by religionless Christianity, his concept of ‘religion’ must first be grasped. In continuity with Feuerbach, Bonhoeffer regarded religion as human dependence upon God at the boundaries of life. He gave specific content to this by defining religion more precisely as individualism (the psychological attitude of a subject) and a metaphysical system (Gruchy 1991, 38). Both aspects of religion are faulty: individualism promotes an un-Christian retreat from the world, and religion’s attempt to provide a secure metaphysical explanation of salvation enables people to escape the challenge of the gospel (Gruchy 1991, 38). Moreover, in a world "come of age," religion’s psychologism and metaphysical claims about God simply cannot be accepted. Therefore, Bonhoeffer saw religion as a genuine hindrance to true faith in Jesus Christ.
If this analysis is correct, Bonhoeffer is staying true to The Cost of Discipleship and, even more importantly, to his Ethics.  It is one of the benefits of old age (or at least to get past youth) to recognize that what was true and simple when you were young, is still true, but is not simple.  I'm especially intrigued by Bonhoeffer's idea of dependence on God at the boundaries of life.  It's an insight I had in seminary, and it's probably due to Bonhoeffer more than anyone else that I realized it. It leads to what I've labeled "vulture theology," a common expression among many pastors I know that while the church may lose the youth as soon as they are old enough to stay home on Sunday morning, that we'll get 'em back when they have kids, or need a funeral, or face a crisis (financial, personal, existential, doesn't matter).  It's a rather gruesome hope for sustaining an institution that's supposed to be upheld by the God of the living and of all life.

Notice there, too (and again, I blame the poor formatting on the last post; I don't know what went wrong there), Bonhoeffer defines religion in very negative ways.  It is individualism ("religion is a private matter!") and the metaphysical system.  Both, Bonhoeffer thought (rightly, I think) led individuals away from the claims of the Gospel to be in the world while not of the world (try it.  It's quite a struggle.  That struggle is real.)  Individualism promotes a retreat from the world to what makes me happy and comfortable; the metaphysical system makes salvation paramount and secures you from any of the challenges of the gospel.  After all, if I'm saved, if my one hope is in a metaphysic that puts my soul at the center of a cosmic system of divine justice and retribution, what need I care for my fellows, except as a random act of kindness?

And the more atheists fight with Christian concepts of a metaphysical realm more real than this one, where the true life is finally lived, the more we help them make religion a hindrance to true faith in Jesus Christ.

And what would true faith be?  What does the Lord require of you?

According to Bonhoeffer, the church has failed in its mission to the modern world because it was not able to separate the message of Christ from religious trappings. The church used God as a metaphysical deus ex machina, a God of the gaps that filled the holes of our knowledge. Bonhoeffer noticed that as secularism increasingly permeated the lives of modern people, this metaphysical God of the gaps was being pushed further away into irrelevance. The Church’s response was to stake out the inner life of the person for God, thus summoning up God to answer "ultimate" questions like death and guilt. For Bonhoeffer, this signaled a retreat into subjectivism, into the personal categories of sin, despair, and anxiety over against the objective work done by God in Jesus Christ. Moreover, it only affirmed a God found in weakness, not in strength, a God at the periphery of our existence, not the center.

Vulture theology is a subset of the "God of the gaps" theology.  If we cannot reconcile the classical metaphysical system with present-day science, we push God into the places science can't yet go, and all that does is allow secularism to push God further away.  God becomes the last resort, the place that, when we have to go there, God has to make us whole.  And when God fails to do even that, then what's the point of God?  And about this time the critique of "liberal theologians" kicks in.  God as the answer to "ultimate" questions is a direct swipe at Paul Tillich.  I'll say up front I'm no fan of Tillich.  His Systematic Theology is supposedly founded on Kierkegaard's thought, but the very first thing Kierkegaard opposed was the systematic thinking of Hegel, which is pretty much what Tillich brings to the discussion.  Had he been alive, Kierkegaard would have started a third round of his authorship just to oppose Tillich who, ironically, is the father of systematic theology as a course of study in most seminaries.  Bonhoeffer opposes this retreat into "subjectivism," an opposition I'm sure Kierkegaard would join him in (when S.K. wrote "Truth is subjective," he didn't mean it's personal).  And I certainly agree with Bonhoeffer's criticism that affirming God in weakness, the "God of the gaps," is putting God at the periphery of our existence, not at the center.

Which brings us back to the comment I started with.  When I was a pastor, I was working on the idea that worship had become, even for believing Christians (never mind the baptized heathens), a matter of a Sunday morning filling station.  That is, you came to church on Sunday morning to get your spiritual tank refilled, much as you have to refill the gas tank of your car from time to time.  Bathed in the comfort and reassurance that God loves you and wants you to be just as you are, without one plea (except "Please, sir, I want some more!", which God would surely grant), you go out into the world and struggle with it as a car struggles against friction, until your energy source is used up and you return for another refill, in a week.

God as endless commodity, in other words.

What I wanted to do was shift the perception, change the assumption:  what if, instead of coming into the presence of God for a spiritual recharge or refill, we came into the presence of the living God with fear and trembling?  Not the fear induced by horror movies or the thought of destruction or the loss of loved ones or a job, but the existential awe that creates an awfulness (in the old sense of the world, being filled with awe) at the nature of God, an awe that would put the world in perspective.  Sort of the positive version of "eat a live frog first thing everyday, and nothing worse will happen to you all day."  If, on one morning of the week, you encountered the living God, the one not present in the storm, though there is a storm, not present in the earthquake, though there is an earthquake, the one who made Sinai shake and tremble until the Hebrews told Moses to talk to God for them, because they were afraid; if you encountered the presence of that God, wouldn't your week be different?  Wouldn't what loomed so large suddenly seem small?  Wouldn't you be more inclined to think you don't need to sweat the small stuff, and that it's all small stuff?  What difference might it make if you came to worship wondering what the Lord requires of you, rather than what you require of the Lord?

Would that be a religionless Christianity?

*Any establishment of a system, especially for an idea about God, runs the risk of being established against other ideas, and implicitly declaring those ideas inferior; and on what basis, except preference?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

"The struggle is real"


Time, time, time, see what's become of me...


The mention of Bonhoeffer leads me to this (which I quote in full, because it all deserves consideration):
Bonhoeffer is perhaps most famous for his "Christianity without religion" project, the attempt to give a non-religious interpretation to Christian categories. Although Bonhoeffer showed signs of shifting towards a non-religious interpretation in the Ethics, the main texts of the Christianity without religion program come from the letters he wrote to Eberhard Bethge while in prison. These letters show Bonhoeffer’s struggle to understand Christianity’s identity in the modern world: "What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today" (LPP 279). For Bonhoeffer, Christianity’s identity was a problem because the world had "come of age;" that is, the world had become conscious of itself and the laws that governed its existence, and thus it did not need the trappings of religion any longer:
The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience – and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more (LPP 279).
In a world where people "simply cannot be religious," Bonhoeffer wondered if there still was a place for Christ, if Christ could be Lord of the religionless. Bonhoeffer’s attempt to say ‘Yes’ both to the modern world and to Christ as Lord was the motivation for the project that he called "religionless Christianity" (LPP 280).

To understand what Bonhoeffer meant to affirm by religionless Christianity, his concept of ‘religion’ must first be grasped. In continuity with Feuerbach, Bonhoeffer regarded religion as human dependence upon God at the boundaries of life. He gave specific content to this by defining religion more precisely as individualism (the psychological attitude of a subject) and a metaphysical system (Gruchy 1991, 38). Both aspects of religion are faulty: individualism promotes an un-Christian retreat from the world, and religion’s attempt to provide a secure metaphysical explanation of salvation enables people to escape the challenge of the gospel (Gruchy 1991, 38). Moreover, in a world "come of age," religion’s psychologism and metaphysical claims about God simply cannot be accepted. Therefore, Bonhoeffer saw religion as a genuine hindrance to true faith in Jesus Christ.

According to Bonhoeffer, the church has failed in its mission to the modern world because it was not able to separate the message of Christ from religious trappings. The church used God as a metaphysical deus ex machina, a God of the gaps that filled the holes of our knowledge. Bonhoeffer noticed that as secularism increasingly permeated the lives of modern people, this metaphysical God of the gaps was being pushed further away into irrelevance. The Church’s response was to stake out the inner life of the person for God, thus summoning up God to answer "ultimate" questions like death and guilt. For Bonhoeffer, this signaled a retreat into subjectivism, into the personal categories of sin, despair, and anxiety over against the objective work done by God in Jesus Christ. Moreover, it only affirmed a God found in weakness, not in strength, a God at the periphery of our existence, not the center.

The purpose of the non-religious interpretation, then, was to allow the gospel to address humans in a secular age, and to do so without them having to become ‘religious’. Bonhoeffer felt that this interpretation was actually most in line with the gospel of the flesh-and-blood Lord. For Bonhoeffer, religionless Christianity did not need to presuppose humanity’s wickedness to be relevant; rather, it met humans at the center of their lives, both in their joys and sufferings:
[God] must be recognized at the centre of life, not when we are at the end of our resources; it is his will to be recognized in life, and not only when death comes; in health and vigour, and not only in suffering; in our activities, and not only in sin. The ground for this lies in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ (LPP 312).
Bonhoeffer planned to write a book that gave a non-religious interpretation of Christian concepts, but before he had the chance he was executed for his part in the attempt to assassinate Hitler. The outline for this book (see handout) contains some of Bonhoeffer’s most seminal thoughts on the issue, including hints at his non-religious interpretation of God, Christ, and the church . It is important to note that the fragments from the outline clearly show that Bonhoeffer’s non-religious interpretation was a consistent development from his earlier thought. This affirms that when Bonhoeffer said "religionless", he in no way went "Christless" or "Godless"; quite the contrary, christology was as central to the religionless interpretation of Christianity as it was to Bonhoeffer’s earlier works.

Now let's quibble over details.  What would a "religionless religion" look like?  Something like Derrida's "negative atheology"?  Or not at all?

More Songs about Buildings and Food


Rick makes this argument in a much more eloquent way than it is usually made, and part of the issue in this argument is the one of the "generation gap" (a term that is probably an anachronism by now).

So, yes, the main objection is to gay marriage. But behind that, I think (I'm admittedly an outsider here), is a great deal of anxiety about confessional identity, about the ease with which denominational authorities can ignore the standards that define what it is that ordinary congregants thought they had assented to in joining the particular church. The fact that breakaway Episcopalians emphasize the Articles, and that breakaway Presbyterians emphasize the Confessions, tends to confirm for me this view of things.
But part of the reality of the church is that the church is the people, and again, which people are the ones to whom the organization must be most sensitive?

In a survey released Wednesday, nearly one-third of Millennials who left the faith they grow up with told Public Religion Research Institute that it was "negative teachings" or "negative treatment" related to gays and lesbians that played an significant role in them leaving organized religion.

Specifically, 17 percent of Millennials, or adults between 18 and 33-years-old, said negativity around LGBT issues in religion was "somewhat important" to their departure, while 14 percent said it was a "very important" factor. A majority of Americans, 58 percent, also said that religious groups are "alienating young adults by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues." Among Millennials, that percentage jumped to 70.

"While many churches and people in the pews have been moving away from their opposition to LGBT rights over the last decade, this new research provides further evidence that negative teachings on this issue have hurt churches’ ability to attract and retain young people,” PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones said in a statement.
One question this raises is:  who are the ordinary congregants?

I can still remember fire 'n' brimstone sermons from my youth (few from the Frozen Chosen I sat with, but even those wouldn't have thawed us out).  Churches finally had to give those up, even though many were convinced they were confessional and the core of their beliefs. (Back to the question of soteriology and it's role in Christianity, but I digress....).  Nobody wanted to hear that anymore, and partly as a result of that we got the Gospel of Prosperity as peddled by Joel Osteen.  We also, however, got churches that got out of the judgment business ("Judge not, lest ye be judged," my KJV saturated memory still recalls).

Now a new generation is urging us to get out of the sex business.  Because that's part of what this is all about.  The other part, obscured but very present in the documents at the FPC website, is the question not of sola scriptura, but of sotierology.  Is Christ the sole source of salvation, or not?  That was identified as a driving issue in the documents produced by FPC in its year long discernment process.  This issue even had a name:  universalism.  Like "inerrancy of scripture," it is a term with a very specific meaning, meant to draw a bright line between "us" and "them."

There are two responses to that question which raise the hackles of many:  a) no; b) why is salvation the core concern of Christianity?

I would argue that the emphasis of Pope Francis I on poverty and care for the least among us shifts the emphasis of the church from spiritual salvation to temporal salvation; and that, to many, is the problem.  Recall the statement of the FPC church elder:

Before Sunday’s vote, church elder Eric Thomas heaped more direct criticism on PCUSA, accusing it of promoting “false teaching” and being “too often focused on social justice.”
That's not just a complaint of modern evangelicals.  It's been leveled against the Pope himself by American Catholics.  Part of the reason for the criticism is the shift in focus from what we believe (in my heart I know I'm right!) to what we do (since I know I'm right, everything I do is right!).

Does this connect with the question of gay rights?  Stick with me, I'll get there.  First we have to address the core concern of Christians:  is it salvation?  self-fulfillment?  righteousness?  Or caring for the least among us?  Is it, in other words, to offer salvation to all?  Or to be a servant to all? (whether these are mutually exclusive will be addressed; eventually).  But rather than address them and leave you buried in another avalanche of bloggage and verbiage, let me stop there for the moment with the question:

What is, or should be, the core concern of Christians?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Flailing a Deceased Equine


A few added insights to the post below:

Before Sunday’s vote, church elder Eric Thomas heaped more direct criticism on PCUSA, accusing it of promoting “false teaching” and being “too often focused on social justice.”

"Social justice" is somewhat a euphemism for "concern for people who are NOK."  Evangelism, defined as a rigid emphasis on salvation through Jesus Christ alone, and one a narrow concern with salvation alone, is both a cultural standard of churches in the South, and convenient cover for not paying too much attention to people who are NOK.  The old phrase is "The preacher done stopped preaching and gone to meddlin'!"  It is never applied to questions of personal salvation.  It is always referring to questions of how we treat, and more importantly think about, others.

It is the latter that is the real flash point.

There is no on-line link, but the Pastor of FPC Houston was on the local NPR affiliate insisting the ordination of gays authorized by the PCUSA 3 years ago was not the driving force for this move.  It is hard not to hear that in the context of all the public officials in Arizona urging Jan Brewer to undo what some of them just did.  It could be the media is selecting quotes like this and making them seem more representative than they are:

 In particularly fiery testimony, one opposing member said she feared the switch would make her “a member of a congregation that distinguishes itself by its homophobia.”
And let's be honest, this is about bragging rights, and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) is headhunting:

 ECO, founded in 2012, is tiny by comparison, boasting just 112 member churches. But dozens of new congregations are in the process of joining the evangelical group, which has successfully recruited some of the largest and wealthiest Presbyterian churches in Texas to its ranks.

First Presbyterian of Houston was an obvious target for the fledgling denomination. The Houston church has roughly 3,100 members, owns property valued at more than $100 million and boasts an $18 million endowment. The church is 175 years old.
There is more going on here than purity of theology or polity.  "Evangelical" is also a cultural marker.  The great distinction in my childhood between Presbyterians and Southern Baptists was that the latter were far more "evangelical" than the former, but at the time the term referred more to worship style and evangelizing, not to political/social ideology.  On that subject there really wasn't much difference.  That, too, is what some refer to when they complain about emphasis on "social issues."

So some of this split in the church represents a replay of the division between generations I experienced 45 years ago:

 Those in favor of leaving PCUSA spoke of the national organization’s “theological drift” and called for a more “Christ-centered theology.” Senior Pastor Jim Birchfield led church staff in a unanimous call for the denominational switch. In a January meeting before the congregation, he expressed concerns about First Presbyterian’s ability to attract younger members, who he said would respond to the church’s focus on orthodoxy.

...

Opponents of the switch argued for theological diversity. PCUSA does not require churches to ordain openly gay pastors if they choose not to. They bemoaned what they saw as inevitable fallout from the decision, and said that appealing to stricter evangelist views would only further isolate young members from the church.
Which orthodoxy is the orthodoxy of the next generation?

Dig  a bit deeper, there were problems in FPC with PCUSA apart from the question of gays and lesbians.  One was a Presbyterian church in Austin accepting an admitted atheist into membership.   An odd bit of a one off, but an indicator that, once they started worrying, everything was on the table.  The broader question was the theological issue of salvation,  specifically the exclusionary doctrine of salvation which is going to promote more problems, not fewer, for Christianity in general going forward.  And the clearest indication that the times they are a changin' is the perception PCUSA was withdrawing from missionary work, here understood as taking the light of the gospel to the benighted peoples of the world (an extension of the soteriological question).  Which indicates both the age of the congregants concerned, and the fact that evangelism as a theological issue was behind some of the concerns of some of the congregation.

Interesting, too, that the Session of FPC insisted their concerns were with theology and especially Christology, and yet the "Statement of Faith" they produced in 2012 emphasizes the importance and inerrancy of Scripture.  The "liberal" UCC Statements of Faith of 1959 is extremely Christological, and none of the three make any no statement of faith on, or in, Scripture at all.  There is such a thing as idolatry of scripture.

On the other hand, the Session of FPC started questioning their relationship with PCUSA after the latter passed a resolution effectively allowing for the ordination of gays and lesbians.   The Rev. Birchfield may want to insist that three years later this was not a driving cause of the process, but it was clearly the producing, if not even the proximate, cause.  Again, I think of Arizona.

I think of Arizona because churches are creatures of their social location as much as any organization is, and even as FPC wants to reject the changing times and social mores, it is bound up in them and snubs them, or outright defies them, at its peril.  Perhaps from the comforting association of ECO the Rev. Birchfield would proclaim equal treatment of gays and lesbians a sin and a violation of the gospels; but now he wants to erase the issue altogether.  To do that, he needs to clean up his church's website.  Their "Report from the Session's Task Force on Denominational Issues:  Examining Changes in PCUSA Governance and Related Matters" is dominated by, and makes the catalyst of the concerns of FPC, the decision to allow ordination of gays and lesbians in the PCUSA.

Interestingly, the Rev. Birchfield signed a letter that put the question of who can be ordained in the PCUSA at the center of the reasons why PCUSA was going astray.  In the first paragraph of that letter to address this issue, there is this sentiment:  "There is no longer a common understanding of what is meant by being “Reformed.” "  To which I would answer:  this is what it means to be "Reformed":

Grant that thy Church may be delivered from traditions which have lost their life, from usage which has lost its spirit, from institutions which no longer give life and power to their generation; that the Church may ever shine as a light in the world and be as a city set on a hill.
I realize I'm coming down hard on something that is a non-story outside the confines of the Presbyterian church in Texas, or maybe just in Houston; but there's a national story here, too.  It's a cultural story, a story of how churches face pressures to conform with ideas that may well have lost their life, or have never had life.  One of the primary concerns of the pastor of FPC, from the letters he wrote to this church, was the declining membership of young people.  There are two universal solutions to that problem, and neither seems particularly effective:  be more traditional, or be wholly untraditional.  The church faced this problem 45 years ago, and it gave the same response then it gives now.  Funny thing, "traditional" still means "conform to the moral and social standards of the immediate community," and even in small town Texas in the '60's, that was a appropriate only for highly localized communities, communities defined by the church as much as by the community around those churches.

And in seeking a solution to that problem, the pastor of FPC lead his church to a precipice, but the church refused to go over it with him.  The question for him is:  whom does he pastor now, and how does he pastor them?  Because the real issues of pastoring involve pastoral care, and getting people to not only allow for our differences, but to think about those differences.  It is one thing to speak of groups in the abstract:  as gays or blacks or Hispanics.  It is another matter to think of them as human beings, rather than people we cannot allow to be fully among us.  How we treat others is not just a matter of thinking charitable thoughts, it is a matter of thinking of them as acceptable just as they are.  Turning the other cheek is a mental as well as a physical action.  Caring for the least among us is a spiritual, not just a charitable, act. Charity begins, not just at home, but in the heart.

It is not enough to just not mistreat people; you must treat them well.  It is not enough just to not think ill of people; you must think of them as well, as being as good as you.  And that, as I say, is the real flash point:  hospitality.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Taking the thumb off the scale


Where's all the bigots? 

This is not a story of national importance; or perhaps it is.  I knew First Presbyterian Church of Houston was holding a vote yesterday, after a lengthy "discernment process" required by PCUSA, to decide whether or not to stay in that denomination because it now recognized both same-sex marriages and ordination of gays and lesbians to the Presbyterian ministry.

I didn't, however, know this:

The leadership of First Presbyterian Church, which was established shortly after Houston's founding, had unanimously endorsed the move from Presbyterian Church USA to the breakaway denomination called ECO, A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. The senior pastor, his staff, and the elected leaders from the congregation argued that PCUSA, the nation's largest Presbyterian body, had become too liberal and had drifted from the church's theological foundation.

Fortunately, this happened:

But the final count fell 36 votes short out of 1,681 ballots cast.

This kind of thing makes my statistical mind kick in, and wonder what the membership (eligible to vote) of the church is, and just how many cared enough to attend this meeting and vote today.  This article indicates the membership is around 3000; a turnout of just over half for a major vote is not surprising, and it's equally interesting the vote didn't carry.  (Local NPR this morning tells me the congregation claims 3100 members.  Either way, the vote total is a bare majority of the congregation.  Which tells me the rest don't care that much about gays or about which denomination their church belongs to.  Which is also interesting.)  That may be the part of this story that's of national interest.  Despite the united efforts of the congregational clerical staff, in a congregation that has every reason to be as conservative on social issues as any "evangelical" church, after a year of discussion this measure failed.  Perhaps Ted Cruz is on the wrong side of history, even in Texas, and the times they are a-changin'.

But what galls me is that the leadership of the church led this effort.

There was a UCC church in Texas, one of the largest (which, yes, ain't sayin' much in the scheme of things) that left the UCC back when I was in parish ministry (a decade ago, by now, in other words).  Led by their clergy as well, the church departed for the same reasons FPUC held a vote yesterday:  the UCC was "too liberal" and "had drifted from the church's theological foundation."  They left meaning to form a new denomination, and expecting many Texas UCC churches (which still aren't hotbeds of liberal, much less liberation, theology) to go with them.

No one did; in fact, the other UCC church in town thanked the departing congregation for making them the largest UCC church in town.  I expect the departing church  finally joined up with some other church denomination, or formed a new one with other, non-UCC churches.  I don't know and I don't care.  I'm not a "company man" when it comes to the denomination (I argue with it ceaselessly, and don't have much regard for my local Conference or Association), but I despise a pastor who leads that church out of its place.

When I joined the UCC before seminary, the congregation I joined was in the process of considering a merger with another congregation in another denomination.  The pastor of the church I joined knew this meant his work there was over, but he remained resolutely neutral on the idea of the merger, and supportive of the congregation as it struggled with the idea (it involved merging two disparate worship styles, among other things:  one that was essentially Lutheran with one that was essentially American Frontier Reformed).  When the merger went through, he left gracefully.  What he never did was tried to lead that church where it didn't want to go.

Let me make my thinking clear beyond just a personal anecdote.  A minister is ordained by a denomination, with rare exception.  The call to ministry is always recognized by a group, and especially when that group is larger than just the local church, the minister has a certain fealty to that larger group.  The polity of the Presbyterian church is quite clear:  the local church is not nearly as autonomous as a local church in the UCC.  Like the old German E&R church, which became part of the UCC in 1957, the Presbyterian church actually owns the church building and, in a sense, the pastor.  It is the PCUSA which can end a pastor's ordination, just as it can grant it in the first place.  But the PCUSA also owns the church building; you don't take that away from them because a majority of your congregation no longer likes what the denomination is saying and doing.  That's why the PCUSA has a complicated "discernment process," in part:  if you want to leave, they don't want a court fight over who gets the property.  Now that analysis seems to put a premium on the property, but when a group wants to leave the denomination, they want to take the property with them; so it isn't the denomination that starts this fight.

And when the denomination has given you a career, it's a bit churlish to bite the hand that has fed you for so long and to steal from them what has made it possible for you to have a career for so long.  Churlish, to say the least; it is rather like shooting your parents and then asking mercy of the court because you are now an orphan.  As I say, if you think you must leave the denomination, leave; but whether you are a pastor or a congregation, you strike out on your own.  Trying to leave by taking from the denomination what was never rightfully yours, is criminal, in the purest (if not most legal) sense of the word.

If I were pastoring a church that wanted to leave the denomination I was ordained into, even if I no longer agreed with that denomination, I would either remain neutral on the issue, or oppose it on the simple grounds you don't take your ball and go home when you don't like the way the game is going.  FPC Houston is over 160 years old.  It has weathered the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement, and much more.  Now it flounders on the question of gays and lesbians in the pulpit or in the rite of marriage.  I can't see any difference between this world and the U.S. before Loving v. Virginia, or before the Civil Rights Act (although no law forced white churches to accept black members or black clergy).  We haven't moved much, in other words, from the churches Martin Luther King addressed.  50 years later we are fighting the same fight for the same reasons, and clergy ordained and representing the denomination, are leading churches to leave that denomination.

I consider that kind of leadership a sickening betrayal.  If you feel the denomination has left you, then leave it, and go your own way.  But don't try to take the cushy sinecure of a wealthy downtown Houston church with you.  That's not speaking truth to power; that's standing on the side of Pilate.  If you believe so strongly God is with you, then strike out into the wilderness and see if anyone follows.  That, or find a new denomination which will ordain you.  But don't claim your virtue makes you superior to the very body that authorized you to represent them in the pulpit; that betrayal undermines your very claim to ministry in the first place.

As for the vote:  it at least means gay marriage and recognition of gays and lesbians as full persons in the church and in society is not the hot-button issue it once was.  And for that I say:  Thanks be to God!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Revolution Day

NTodd tells me today's the day Galileo got himself in hot water with the Church, which sent me looking into what New Advent had to say.  It's a bit long but, not unsurprisingly, there's a lot about the story "we all know" which is simply made up, and a lot of the complexity is lost in the re-telling:

In regard to their history, there are two main points to be considered. It is in the first place constantly assumed, especially at the present day, that the opposition which Copernicanism encountered at the hands of ecclesiastical authority was prompted by hatred of science and a desire to keep the minds of men in the darkness of ignorance. To suppose that any body of men could deliberately adopt such a course is ridiculous, especially a body which, with whatever defects of method, had for so long been the only one which concerned itself with science at all.

It is likewise contradicted by the history of the very controversy with which we are now concerned. According to a popular notion the point, upon which beyond all others churchmen were determined to insist, was the geocentric system of astronomy. Nevertheless it was a churchman, Nicholas Copernicus, who first advanced the contrary doctrine that the sun and not the earth is the centre of our system, round which our planet revolves, rotating on its own axis. His great work, "De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium", was published at the earnest solicitation of two distinguished churchmen, Cardinal Schömberg and Tiedemann Giese, Bishop of Culm. It was dedicated by permission to Pope Paul III in order, as Copernicus explained, that it might be thus protected from the attacks which it was sure to encounter on the part of the "mathematicians" (i.e. philosophers) for its apparent contradiction of the evidence of our senses, and even of common sense. He added that he made no account of objections which might be brought by ignorant wiseacres on Scriptural grounds. Indeed, for nearly three quarters of a century no such difficulties were raised on the Catholic side, although Luther and Melanchthon condemned the work of Copernicus in unmeasured terms. Neither Paul III, nor any of the nine popes who followed him, nor the Roman Congregations raised any alarm, and, as has been seen, Galileo himself in 1597, speaking of the risks he might run by an advocacy of Copernicanism, mentioned ridicule only and said nothing of persecution. Even when he had made his famous discoveries, no change occurred in this respect. On the contrary, coming to Rome in 1611, he was received in triumph; all the world, clerical and lay, flocked to see him, and, setting up his telescope in the Quirinal Garden belonging to Cardinal Bandim, he exhibited the sunspots and other objects to an admiring throng.It was not until four years later that trouble arose, the ecclesiastical authorities taking alarm at the persistence with which Galileo proclaimed the truth of the Copernican doctrine. That their opposition was grounded, as is constantly assumed, upon a fear lest men should be enlightened by the diffusion of scientific truth, it is obviously absurd to maintain. On the contrary, they were firmly convinced, with Bacon and others, that the new teaching was radically false and unscientific, while it is now truly admitted that Galileo himself had no sufficient proof of what he so vehemently advocated, and Professor Huxley after examining the case avowed his opinion that the opponents of Galileo "had rather the best of it". But what, more than all, raised alarm was anxiety for the credit of Holy Scripture, the letter of which was then universally believed to be the supreme authority in matters of science, as in all others. When therefore it spoke of the sun staying his course at the prayer of Joshua, or the earth as being ever immovable, it was assumed that the doctrine of Copernicus and Galileo was anti-Scriptural; and therefore heretical. It is evident that, since the days of Copernicus himself, the Reformation controversy had done much to attach suspicion to novel interpretations of the Bible, which was not lessened by the endeavours of Galileo and his ally Foscarini to find positive arguments for Copernicanism in the inspired volume. Foscarini, a Carmelite friar of noble lineage, who had twice ruled Calabria as provincial, and had considerable reputation as a preacher and theologian, threw himself with more zeal than discretion into the controversy, as when he sought to find an argument for Copernicanism in the seven-branched candlestick of the Old Law. Above all, he excited alarm by publishing works on the subject in the vernacular, and thus spreading the new doctrine, which was startling even for the learned, amongst the masses who were incapable of forming any sound judgment concerning it. There was at the time an active sceptical party in Italy, which aimed at the overthrow of all religion, and, as Sir David Brewster acknowledges (Martyrs of Science), there is no doubt that this party lent Galileo all its support.

In these circumstances, Galileo, hearing that some had denounced his doctrine as anti-Scriptural, presented himself at Rome in December, 1615, and was courteously received. He was presently interrogated before the Inquisition, which after consultation declared the system he upheld to be scientifically false, and anti-Scriptural or heretical, and that he must renounce it. This he obediently did, promising to teach it no more. Then followed a decree of the Congregation of the Index dated 5 March 1616, prohibiting various heretical works to which were added any advocating the Copernican system. In this decree no mention is made of Galileo, or of any of his works. Neither is the name of the pope introduced, though there is no doubt that he fully approved the decision, having presided at the session of the Inquisition, wherein the matter was discussed and decided. In thus acting, it is undeniable that the ecclesiastical authorities committed a grave and deplorable error, and sanctioned an altogether false principle as to the proper use of Scripture. Galileo and Foscarini rightly urged that the Bible is intended to teach men to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that, while there was as yet no sufficient proof of the Copernican system, no objection was made to its being taught as an hypothesis which explained all phenomena in a simpler manner than the Ptolemaic, and might for all practical purposes be adopted by astronomers. What was objected to was the assertion that Copernicanism was in fact true, "which appears to contradict Scripture". It is clear, moreover, that the authors of the judgment themselves did not consider it to be absolutely final and irreversible, for Cardinal Bellarmine, the most influential member of the Sacred College, writing to Foscarini, after urging that he and Galileo should be content to show that their system explains all celestial phenomena — an unexceptional proposition, and one sufficient for all practical purposes — but should not categorically assert what seemed to contradict the Bible, thus continued:

I say that if a real proof be found that the sun is fixed and does not revolve round the earth, but the earth round the sun, then it will be necessary, very carefully, to proceed to the explanation of the passages of Scripture which appear to be contrary, and we should rather say that we have misunderstood these than pronounce that to be false which is demonstrated.

By this decree the work of Copernicus was for the first time prohibited, as well as the "Epitome" of Kepler, but in each instance only donec corrigatur, the corrections prescribed being such as were necessary to exhibit the Copernican system as an hypothesis, not as an established fact. We learn further that with permission these works might be read in their entirety, by "the learned and skilful in the science" (Remus to Kepler). Galileo seems, says von Gebler, to have treated the decree of the Inquisition pretty coolly, speaking with satisfaction of the trifling changes prescribed in the work of Copernicus. He left Rome, however, with the evident intention of violating the promise extracted from him, and, while he pursued unmolested his searches in other branches of science, he lost no opportunity of manifesting his contempt for the astronomical system which he had promised to embrace. Nevertheless, when in 1624 he again visited Rome, he met with what is rightly described as "a noble and generous reception". The pope now reigning, Urban VIII, had, as Cardinal Barberini, been his friend and had opposed his condemnation in 1616. He conferred on his visitor a pension, to which as a foreigner in Rome Galileo had no claim, and which, says Brewster, must be regarded as an endowment of Science itself. But to Galileo's disappointment Urban would not annul the former judgment of the Inquisition.

After his return to Florence, Galileo set himself to compose the work which revived and aggravated all former animosities, namely a dialogue in which a Ptolemist is utterly routed and confounded by two Copernicans. This was published in 1632, and, being plainly inconsistent with his former promise, was taken by the Roman authorities as a direct challenge. He was therefore again cited before the Inquisition, and again failed to display the courage of his opinions, declaring that since his former trial in 1616 he had never held the Copernican theory. Such a declaration, naturally was not taken very seriously, and in spite of it he was condemned as "vehemently suspected of heresy" to incarceration at the pleasure of the tribunal and to recite the Seven Penitential Psalms once a week for three years.

Under the sentence of imprisonment Galileo remained till his death in 1642. It is, however, untrue to speak of him as in any proper sense a "prisoner". As his Protestant biographer, von Gebler, tells us, "One glance at the truest historical source for the famous trial, would convince any one that Galileo spent altogether twenty-two days in the buildings of the Holy Office (i.e. the Inquisition), and even then not in a prison cell with barred windows, but in the handsome and commodious apartment of an official of the Inquisition." For the rest, he was allowed to use as his places of confinement the houses of friends, always comfortable and usually luxurious. It is wholly untrue that he was — as is constantly stated — either tortured or blinded by his persecutors — though in 1637, five years before his death, he became totally blind — or that he was refused burial in consecrated ground. On the contrary, although the pope (Urban VIII) did not allow a monument to be erected over his tomb, he sent his special blessing to the dying man, who was interred not only in consecrated ground, but within the church of Santa Croce at Florence.

Finally, the famous "E pur si muove", supposed to have been uttered by Galileo, as he rose from his knees after renouncing the motion of the earth, is an acknowledged fiction, of which no mention can be found till more than a century after his death, which took place 8 January 1642, the year in which Newton was born.
If you wade through that (sorry; New Advent is not known for brevity!), the first thing that stands out to me is that this happened after the Protestant Reformation.  That is not a small point, and if you like your history dramatized, look to the film "Elizabeth" for some idea of how seriously the Catholic church took its claims to English souls (and property; Henry's crimes included not just leading people astray, but taking all the ecclesiastical property and giving it to his friends).  The film nicely dramatizes the politics and violence that Henry's break with Rome produced.  My point being not to praise a movie, or declare it a documentary, but to point out how politically treacherous the post-Reformation era was in Europe, as people drew up sides and decided who was in, who was out (a recent biography of Shakespeare points out his parents may have been Catholic, but hid their beliefs in order not to run afoul of Good Queen Bess; to be Catholic in England in the 17th century was to be a traitor to the Crown.  You don't get much more political than that.)

 This isn't to justify the reaction of the Church to Galileo, but to examine it a bit more carefully.  Similarities to Creationists and fundamentalists in general may be made, but only glancingly.  Rome in 17th century Europe had real political and military power.  Ken Ham may have the power to persuade states to include Creationism in public school curricula, but he lacks the power to imprison scientists or contain ideas.  And, given that today, not quite 400 years later, about 1/4th of the people in "First World" countries still admit to geocentrism when it comes to the solar system, the fear of the church in the 17th century that "the masses...were incapable of forming any sound judgment concerning" Galileo's assertions is not an entirely unreasonable one.  Unless you're going to argue the people of 17th century Europe were far more enlightened than the people of 21st century Europe.

I'd prefer to argue they were no worse.

There was clearly an attempt, at the time, to assert the supremacy of Scripture, but that was a point upheld by Luther and Melanchthon as well.  It was misguided, but it was the 17th century, and the very foundations of Church authority were being challenged; not so much by Galileo as by Luther and Calvin and Zwingli, and people like that "active sceptical party in Italy."  And Luther and Calvin were trying to establish their own authority, not to release authority altogether.  The reaction to Galileo was not to behead him or torture him or excommunicate him, but simply to gain control over a fractious problem.  Galileo, in other words, was within the Church's reach (as he acknowledged by going to Rome.  He probably could have joined Luther in Germany; except Luther probably wouldn't have helped him.).  And the problem the Church faced was one of order, and of control.

Which is where Creationism treads now:  it wants to recover the social control the Church once had, and had through Protestantism, not just before the Reformation.  The real desire of Ken Ham is to recover a past that never existed.  The Roman church was trying to stop a changing world; Creationists want to turn that entire world back; back to a world that never was.  Try as they might to do that, they have no chance of success, or even of a minor victory.  I don't even think it's a real threat to scientific inquiry. It isn't science. It's so internally contradictory that to espouse it, you have to be as committed to the fundamentalist literal view of the Bible as Ken Ham is.  And that's not a matter of "compartmentalization;" that's a matter of adherence to a worldview only a tiny percentage of people are ever going to accept.

So is there a lesson in the story of Galileo?  Only a lesson in the complexity of reason; that reason is not positivism or empiricism or unitary and reducible to one result which excludes all others. 

And that history is never just one story we can easily tell to children.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Awards Day


I'm struggling to keep up with the stories here.  Now:

Greenwald had already condemned the ruling and promised a legal appeal in a blog post on Wednesday morning. He told Minkovski that the ruling was "in line with this government's genuine hostility to what most people in the Western world consider a basic freedom of a free press."

He also pointed to a part of the ruling in which the judges quoted from the communications of the British Security Services, which said that it had "intelligence" that Miranda was traveling from Berlin and carrying material from Snowden.

"There is no possible way for them to have known any of that unless they were eavesdropping on our communications," he said. "To invade those kinds of communications of journalists is itself a pretty grave menace to the newsgathering process."

And then

“It is clear why those took me. It’s because I’m Glenn’s partner. Because I went to Berlin. Because Laura lives there. So they think I have a big connection,” he said. “But I don’t have a role. I don’t look at documents. I don’t even know if it was documents that I was carrying. It could have been for the movie that Laura is working on.”

 In an interview published July 19 of last year, Mr. Greenwald told Der Spiegel that he and Ms. Poitras had copies of all the documents Mr. Snowden took from the NSA, all 9000-10,000 of them.  On August 6, 2013, Mr. Greenwald told the Brazilian Senate that he had 20,000 documents.  On August 18, 2013, David Miranda was detained at Heathrow on his way back from Germany.

Nope; no way in the world the British government could suspect Mr. Miranda of being a mule without wiretapping Mr. Greenwald's communications.  Or just reading the internet; or just knowing Mr. Miranda was going from Brazil to Germany, and that he had connections with both Greenwald and Poitras.

And by the way, the British government claimed it found 58,000 documents in Mr. Miranda's possession.  And the password for the encrypted documents, on a piece of paper.  Mr. Greenwald is a security genius.  He's also either a liar, or has a huge problem with counting.

All of this in the context of whether or not it is safe for Mr. Greenwald to return to America, where the government may strip him of his journalistic protections and put him in jail.

Remind me again of when Barton Gellman was arrested for interviewing Mr. Snowden.

Glenn Greenwald is so brave!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A little knowledge is....a little knowledge


Remember that Gallup poll about creationism in America?

Gallup has asked Americans to choose among these three explanations for the origin and development of human beings 11 times since 1982. Although the percentages choosing each view have varied from survey to survey, the 46% who today choose the creationist explanation is virtually the same as the 45% average over that period -- and very similar to the 44% who chose that explanation in 1982. The 32% who choose the "theistic evolution" view that humans evolved under God's guidance is slightly below the 30-year average of 37%, while the 15% choosing the secular evolution view is slightly higher (12%).

Well, it ain't that America is full of Tea Party loonies and fundamentalist know-nothings.  It seems

The NSF conducts the poll on some basic science facts every two years, The Atlantic reported. The foundation said there has been little change in the percentages of correct answers since 1992.

Generally, U.S. residents showed a knowledge of science comparable to those of other countries with high levels of education, including Japan, the European Union and South Korea, the NSF said. In fact, they did better than EU residents on the question about whether Earth moves around the sun.

The most recent survey of more than 2,200 people was conducted in 2012 and just released.

On two controversial questions, whether the universe began with a large explosion and whether humans are descended from other species, fewer than half in the United States said those are true.

The Atlantic said those percentages go up by a significant amount when the questions are rephrased to ask if the big-bang theory and evolution are scientifically accepted.

No other polling data or methodology details were reported.

You could say it's a wonder tall trees ain't layin' down.  Or you could realize that this is about as far as education reaches, no matter where you live on the globe, or when, You can also take heart that we're doing better than the EU.

Me, I think of all the atheists I've met online who mock Christians who don't know anything about Christian doctrine. Seems to me every American spends more hours of their young life in science class than in Sunday school.

Maybe it depends on how you phrase the question.....

Monday, February 17, 2014

Fools rush in

I actually endorse the sentiments in those signs.  I just don't think that's how you get there....

The story of the death of Jamie Coots is showing up on Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo.  Southern Beale, however, points me to this story from NPR last October that really deserves reconsideration in connection with Pastor Coots' death:

"I think most snakes, a rattlesnake or a copperhead, if you are gentle with them after they've been in captivity and [you] pick them up gently, they won't bite you. So, it wouldn't matter what [your] religious belief was," Gibbons says.

He does not recommend that anyone try this.

But here's the real issue:  Coots and his ilk were not rounding up snakes from the wild just before services:

The herpetologists at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo have been following the activities of Pentecostal snake handlers for years. They have watched hours of video of snake-handling services and examined snakes used in church.

"The animals that I've seen that have come from religious snake handlers were in bad condition," says Kristen Wiley, curator of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, a facility in the town of Slade that produces venom and promotes the conservation of snakes. "They did not have water. The cages had been left not cleaned for a pretty long period of time. And the other thing we noticed is there were eight or 10 copperheads in a container that was not very large."

What's more, she says there was no fecal material in the container, which indicated the snakes were not being fed. Riley says a snake that may be dehydrated, underweight and sick from close confinement is less likely to strike than a healthy snake. Moreover, the venom it produces is weaker.

She says snake-handling preachers who don't take care of their snakes are "setting themselves up for a safer encounter during their services when they use a snake that is in bad condition to begin with."
This, to me, was the clincher:

When we visited the snake room behind Coots' house, there were about 30 snakes — mostly timber rattlers and copperheads — crowded into glass cages. He says he waters them regularly but that his supplier of live mice and rats moved away. And many of the snakes won't eat anyway.
Well, that and the fact snakes in captivity can live from 10-20 years or longer, and Coots says his snakes only lasted 3-4 months.

I don't think Coots was trying to scam anyone.  I think he truly considered snakes dangerous and, by the same token, unworthy of any consideration.  Just the idea of handling snakes to prove one's worthiness to God is clear evidence of that.  That the snakes died in a few months was just another sign they were unfit for God's creation, that they were of the devil and so corrupt and full of death.  Perhaps, if he thought about it at all, he reasoned that God hated snakes, too, and so snakes didn't live long in the wild or in captivity.  I can imagine the justifications.

Rationalization is a powerful force.  I mean, you never hear a news report of someone firing a gun because they were stupid, or careless.  It's always "accidental" and the gun always "goes off."  I don't think guns are really any less dangerous than snakes.  It's the handler that can make the close contact safe or extremely dangerous, just as a gun is safe, or not, depending on how you handle it.  But we humans love to shift responsibility. And in the end, if this blog has an unofficial motto, it's the words of Jacques Derrida:  "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all."

Perhaps Pastor Coots took responsibility for his religious beliefs; but perhaps he would have been more responsible by recognizing even snakes are part of God's creation, and deserve to be treated at least as he would want to be treated; which is to say, mostly left alone.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

All they will call you will be....


....anything but a former Nazi.

Speaking of Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, somehow this bothers me more:

In doing the research, one discovers that not only was von Braun a Nazi, but a member of the SS. And not only was he running the underground slave labor facility where his rockets were being built — he wasn't running the facility but he was in charge of the science there — but when they were running low of good technicians, Wernher von Braun himself traveled nearby to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he hand-picked slaves to work for him as laborers.

When you see that kind of activity during the war, and you have to imagine what he saw and what he knew, it's impossible to excuse him from his Nazi past.
Or this:

 They all had different trajectories, but none of them seemed to have been held accountable for what happened and what they were involved in during the war. Dr. Benzinger, who was one of the Nazi doctors, came here, and when he died at the age of ninety-something he had a wonderful obituary in The New York Times lauding him for inventing the ear thermometer. Entirely left out of the story was the work that he performed on concentration camp prisoners.
Does the convenience of the ear thermometer outweigh the fact the inventor was a monster?  And here's a direct quote from the book, to drive the point home:

 The men profiled in this book were not nominal Nazis. Eight of the twenty-one — Otto Ambros, Theodor Ben-zinger, Kurt Blome, Walter Dornberger, Siegfried Knemeyer, Walter Schreiber, Walter Schieber, and Wernher von Braun — each at some point worked side by side with Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, or Hermann Göring during the war. Fifteen of the twenty-one were dedicated members of the Nazi Party; ten of them also joined the ultra-violent, ultra-nationalistic Nazi Party paramilitary squads, the SA (Sturmabteilung, or Storm Troopers) and the SS (Schutzstaffel, or Protection Squadron); two wore the Golden Party Badge, indi­cating favor bestowed by the Führer; one was given an award of one million reichsmarks for scientific achievement.

Six of the twenty-one stood trial at Nuremberg, a seventh was released without trial under mysterious circumstances, and an eighth stood trial in Dachau for regional war crimes. One was con­victed of mass murder and slavery, served some time in prison, was granted clemency, and then was hired by the U.S. Department of Energy. They came to America at the behest of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Some officials believed that by endorsing the Paperclip pro­gram they were accepting the lesser of two evils — that if America didn't recruit these scientists, the Soviet Communists surely would. Other generals and colonels respected and admired these men and said so.
I knew von Braun had worked for the Nazis.  It had conveniently not occurred to me that he was a Nazi.  I had no idea he was a member of the SS.

Suddenly the moon landing doesn't seem like quite so glorious an accomplishment.  I mean, if an allegation against Woody Allen taints his artistic output, what does this do?

Here, try this, also from the book itself:

The [Joint Intelligence Committee, operated out of ring "E" of the Pentagon] remains the least known and least studied U.S. intelligence agency of the twentieth century. To understand the mind-set of the Joint Intelligence Committee, consider this: Within one year of the atomic bomb­ings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the JIC warned the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the United States needed to prepare for "total war" with the Soviets — to include atomic, chemical, and biological warfare — and they even set an estimated start date of 1952. 

I have seen newsreel footage of Gen. Curtis LeMay telling JFK to strike the Soviet Union before the missiles coming into Cuba gave the Soviets the opportunity to strike the U.S. first.  He was plainly and bluntly calling for nuclear war, with all that would entail.  "Seven Days in May" was taken from watching TV, not from paranoid fantasies.  More than a few people in the Pentagon thought such war both doable and necessary.  No wonder they admired the Nazis they were able to bring to America.

I just finished seeing "Monuments Men," which I thoroughly enjoyed.  Now I'm even more grateful someone was trying to save civilization in that war, because clearly even some very influential people on our side were willing to destroy the village in order to save it.

The greatest of these is...irony

Paganism?  Or religious insight?

The title question ("If God exists, why is anyone unhappy?") and then the pull quote ("We've been misled by years of monotheism to think there's one answer to everything") are so absurd on their face, to go further is to belabor the point.  But two assertions in this interview about the ascendancy of atheism are especially misdirected:

We see that in my book section on [philosopher Ludwig] Wittgenstein — in his idea that there is a limit to language. Wittgenstein believed that there are some things that we can’t describe, but that we can show or that we can experience.

For instance, when Wittgenstein talks about painters, he says: We can all recognize the difference between a Degas and a Renoir and a Van Gogh, but if you ask the painter to paint his way of painting, it can’t be done. It’s a limit to the language! A painter can make a painting of what he sees in the world, but he can’t actually paint his way of painting. Wittgenstein would describe that as mystical, though not in any sense religious.
No, actually, Russell would describe that as "mystical."  It was his word for Wittgenstein after Russell finished reading the Tractatus.  If Wittgenstein would not call himself religious, it is because he thought himself unworthy, not because he was in any sense an atheist:

Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Ethics, Life and Faith," The Wittgenstein Reader, ed. Anthony Kenny (Oxford, Blackwell Press 1994).

And then there's this:

It did. I have one of your quotes written down right here. It’s [poet] W. H. Auden: “We are here on earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.” I thought that was wonderful. Do you have a favorite quote from the book?

My favorite is another Auden: “If equal affection cannot be, Let the more loving one be me.” When I say it in a talk, a lot of people go Ahhh. They realize that it has enlarged their lives.
By the time he wrote those lines, Wystan Hugh had already very publicly converted to Christianity, and was a devotee of the works of Kierkegaard (why does Kierkegaard never come up in these discussions?)  That would be the same Kierkegaard who had already identified most members of the state church of Denmark (in which he was ordained as a pastor) as "pagans" in their understanding of Christianity.  Nietzsche, in other words, was several decades too late in breaking that ground.

Not that you can't read Auden's lines as humanist rather than Christian, if you like; but it leaves me wondering who, besides seminary students and religious scholars, and to some degree English majors, studies hermeneutics anymore.  Because if Peter Watson even has a clue what the word means, he doesn't display that knowledge in the interview (or, I'd guess, in his book).

There's a reason these clowns talk to general interest magazines and not anyone with knowledge of the fields involved.

Friday, February 14, 2014

February 14, 2014

This is why I go to New Advent for this stuff:

At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under date of 14 February. One is described as a priest at Rome, another as bishop of Interamna (modern Terni), and these two seem both to have suffered in the second half of the third century and to have been buried on the Flaminian Way, but at different distances from the city. In William of Malmesbury's time what was known to the ancients as the Flaminian Gate of Rome and is now the Porta del Popolo, was called the Gate of St. Valentine. The name seems to have been taken from a small church dedicated to the saint which was in the immediate neighborhood. Of both these St. Valentines some sort of Acta are preserved but they are of relatively late date and of no historical value. Of the third Saint Valentine, who suffered in Africa with a number of companions, nothing further is known.

Saint Valentine's Day

The popular customs associated with Saint Valentine's Day undoubtedly had their origin in a conventional belief generally received in England and France during the Middle Ages, that on 14 February, i.e. half way through the second month of the year, the birds began to pair. Thus in Chaucer's Parliament of Foules we read:

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.

For this reason the day was looked upon as specially consecrated to lovers and as a proper occasion for writing love letters and sending lovers' tokens. Both the French and English literatures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries contain allusions to the practice. Perhaps the earliest to be found is in the 34th and 35th Ballades of the bilingual poet, John Gower, written in French; but Lydgate and Clauvowe supply other examples. Those who chose each other under these circumstances seem to have been called by each other their Valentines. In the Paston Letters, Dame Elizabeth Brews writes thus about a match she hopes to make for her daughter (we modernize the spelling), addressing the favoured suitor:

And, cousin mine, upon Monday is Saint Valentine's Day and every bird chooses himself a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday night, and make provision that you may abide till then, I trust to God that ye shall speak to my husband and I shall pray that we may bring the matter to a conclusion.

Shortly after the young lady herself wrote a letter to the same man addressing it "Unto my rightwell beloved Valentine, John Paston Esquire". The custom of choosing and sending valentines has of late years fallen into comparative desuetude.

Where else are you gonna read a word like "desuetude"?

You're welcome.  Enjoy the hearts and flowers today.  Just keep in mind it's got zip to do with Christianity or Emperor Claudius.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of....um, wait, what?


I would send Mark Joseph Stern some Chick Tracts; but I'm afraid the shock would kill him.

What he describes here is not really too different from my childhood in East Texas.  I knew people who were determined to raise their children in at least some measure of ignorance.  To me, the ignorance that mattered was Christian doctrine. I started reading Kierkegaard at 17 in response to the mind-numbing vulgarities that were passed on to me as "Christianity."  I kept the Christian faith; I discarded the stupid.

I met the children of fundamentalists, even then.  I knew families who had been normal and suddenly became irrational, and I had arguments with them about the "literal inerrancy" of the Bible.  I learned quickly you couldn't win, that they would hold fast to their doctrine that every word in the Bible was literally true, even when it couldn't be.  What you gonna do with folks like that?

Stop discussing religion with them; that's all you can do.  Avoid them like the plague, because they are worse than Amway sales reps.  (Funny how people don't freak out about Amway sales reps; they can be just as obnoxious as people who want to save your soul.)

But dangerous?  All I can say is, they tried to control the Texas Board of Education, and while that august body is still several bricks shy of a load and their elevator still doesn't reach the top floor, in a one-party GOP state, the fiercest of the fundies and creationists on the BofE were removed in a GOP primary election(!!!!!).  We don't pay enough for education in Texas, and we don't pay enough attention to it; but we still don't want our kids being taught pure bullsgeschicte.

Stern insists, however, that this is the end of civilization as we know it, if we don't watch out:

It’s easy to scoff at all this, to giggle at the vivid weirdness of young Earth creationism and then shrug it off as an isolated cult. But the 40 percent of Americans who reject evolution, as well as the tens of thousands of children or more who are being brainwashed with it in publicly funded classrooms, aren’t laughing. Creationism is built to metastasize; those who believe it won’t rest until everyone else believes it, too. True believers yearn for the rest of us to be locked up in the same mental prison where they have consigned themselves and their children. They insist that evolution has robbed us of our humanity. But in reality, it’s their twisted gospel that aims to strip us of the very thing that makes us human.

That "tens of thousands of children" claim refers in part to some charter schools in Texas, which I'd like to see shut down, too.  All of 'em, for my money, even the ones that are supposedly doing a good job.  I'm no fan of charter schools, especially not when Texas schools are so strapped for cash.  On the other hand, I suspect the kids being taught creationism would get the same information at home, or the parents in a public school would be complaining about "godless evolution" (and there is more of a fight on that front in Texas education than there should be).  But is it the end of civilization?  In a state still heavily dependent on knowledge of geology for money, I'm not too worried that we're about to turn out a whole generation of Ken Ham disciples.

Besides, the "40 percent of Americans who reject evolution" claim is not quite right.  "Built to metastasize"?  Then why hasn't the percentage changed significantly in the past 3 decades?  According to Gallup:

Gallup has asked Americans to choose among these three explanations for the origin and development of human beings 11 times since 1982. Although the percentages choosing each view have varied from survey to survey, the 46% who today choose the creationist explanation is virtually the same as the 45% average over that period -- and very similar to the 44% who chose that explanation in 1982. The 32% who choose the "theistic evolution" view that humans evolved under God's guidance is slightly below the 30-year average of 37%, while the 15% choosing the secular evolution view is slightly higher (12%).
I'm curious as to what the percentages were before 1982, and when "creationism" was formulated as a doctrine (1982?  Earlier?  Later?  I dunno.)  There is also a correlation to church attendance (those who attend church weekly are most likely to agree with what Gallup calls the "creationist explanation") and with education level attained.  Not too surprisingly, those with only a high school education are most likely to agree with the "creationist explanation."

Which brings us back to what we teach in public schools, and how well we teach it.  It's only been within the last year that Texas has allowed the teaching of "alternatives", and I don't think that even took effect until this school year.  Yet the percentage of Americans who prefer "creationism" has remained effectively the same since 1982.  Kind of hard to blame that on the creeping influence of Ken Ham or charter schools.

After all, most of these idiotic ideas have been around for a long time.  I didn't get any creationism in my public school education in Texas, but neither was I told the only explanation for life was evolution, and that excluded God (a la Richard Dawkins & Co.).  I have a lot of complaints with public education in Texas; but I'm not setting my hair on fire that the whole state, much less the whole country, is about to descend into a new dark ages (or, conversely, that we're all about to become atheists).  The true believers have always yearned to lock the rest of us up in the same mental prison they live in.  It's what keeps Chick in tracts.

But just because somebody somewhere is crazy, doesn't mean it's as contagious as a movie epidemic.  Viruses in real life don't spread as fast or rabidly as they do in movie plots, and bad ideas will never turn us all into mindless zombies a la "Resident Evil," either.

I'd really rather see the attention turned toward the root problem.  And while most education "theory," at least as it trickles down to me, seems to think the problem in public schools is they aren't entertaining enough, the students seem to think the problem is school isn't challenging enough.

So, maybe, if instead of focusing on teaching data (which is all AP classes really emphasize) we taught kids to think instead:  to reason, to question, to examine, to take nothing at face value and question everything critically and deliberately; we wouldn't even have as many high school graduates who thought nonsense like "creationism" made any sense at all.

Happy Valentine's Day!


Because we all really should be Charlie Brown before we grow up.  It would be a life lesson; or something.

“Valentine’s Day is about expressing your unique heartfelt feelings for your special loved one,” blogger Elizabeth Esther told Fox News host Elisabeth Hasselbeck. “To just robotically hand out, ‘Here’s your Valentine, here’s your Valentine.’ Like, what are we? It totally removes the meaning, the special memory for the kids.”

I remember buying boxes of Valentines:  they were simple cards, usually in a box of 30 or so, which you distributed to everyone in the classroom, without fear or favor (oh, maybe you tried to favor one person).  But it was pretty much "Here's your Valentine, here's your Valentine."  I mean, who in elementary school has "unique heartfelt feelings for your special loved one"?

As Charlie Pierce says:

Imagine the mind that thinks this way. Imagine the mind that thinks, hey, this is a viewpoint worth airing on national television.

These really are the mole people.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Loving v. not loving....


I have no legal expertise in the matter, but this could be interesting:

Wednesday's hearing combines two cases, one from Mark Phariss and Victor Holmes who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit complaining that Texas' ban unconstitutionally denies them the fundamental right to marry because of their sexual orientation. The other lawsuit was filed by Cleopatra De Leon and Nicole Dimetman, who argue that Texas officials are violating their rights and those of their 2-year-old child by not recognizing their marriage license from Massachusetts.
This is why I find it interesting:

This case presents a constitutional question never addressed by this Court: whether a statutory scheme adopted by the State of Virginia to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. [n1] For reasons which seem to us to reflect the central meaning of those constitutional commands, we conclude that these statutes cannot stand consistently with the Fourteenth Amendment.

In June, 1958, two residents of Virginia, Mildred Jeter, a Negro woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, were married in the District of Columbia pursuant to its laws. Shortly after their marriage, the Lovings returned to Virginia and established their marital abode in Caroline County. At the October Term, 1958, of the Circuit Court [p3] of Caroline County, a grand jury issued an indictment charging the Lovings with violating Virginia's ban on interracial marriages. On January 6, 199, the Lovings pleaded guilty to the charge, and were sentenced to one year in jail; however, the trial judge suspended the sentence for a period of 25 years on the condition that the Lovings leave the State and not return to Virginia together for 25 years. 

Granted, the difference in Loving is that Virginia had criminalized interracial marriages.  Then again, how do you ban marriage between men and women of different "races" (I use the term advisedly, frankly) except to make it criminal?  Far easier to simply say the state won't recognize same-sex marriages, that they are a legal nullity.  It doesn't make the ban any less repugnant, IMHO, but it does tend to lower the threshold just a bit.  It certainly changes the application of the due process argument, a central part of the ruling in Loving.

It might, in other words, be enough of a distinction for the very conservative 5th Circuit.  Because otherwise, I have a hard time seeing how at least one claim here isn't on point with the Loving decision.

In upholding the constitutionality of these provisions in the decision below, the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia referred to its 1965 decision in Naim v. Naim, 197 Va. 80, 87 S.E.2d 749, as stating the reasons supporting the validity of these laws. In Naim, the state court concluded that the State's legitimate purposes were "to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens," and to prevent "the corruption of blood," "a mongrel breed of citizens," and "the obliteration of racial pride," obviously an endorsement of the doctrine of White Supremacy. Id. at 90, 87 S.E.2d at 756. The court also reasoned that marriage has traditionally been subject to state regulation without federal intervention, and, consequently, the regulation of marriage should be left to exclusive state control by the Tenth Amendment.'
We don't use quite such blatantly racist language in court opinions or statutes anymore, but the arguments against same sex marriage pretty much rest on preserving the integrity of marriage as well as the "sanctity" of marriage (an issue in which the state has no legitimate interest, since I take "sanctity" to be a religious concept).  And that last line could as easily be the words of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott:

"The attorney general's office will defend the Texas Constitution in this case just as we do in all cases where state laws are challenged in court," Abbott's spokeswoman Lauren Bean said. "The U.S. Supreme Court was clear that states have independent authority to establish their marriage laws."
Not that the Supreme Court said states have carte blanche to establish any marriage laws they please, mind:

 While the state court is no doubt correct in asserting that marriage is a social relation subject to the State's police power, Maynard v. Hill, 125 U.S. 190 (1888), the State does not contend in its argument before this Court that its powers to regulate marriage are unlimited notwithstanding the commands of the Fourteenth Amendment. Nor could it do so in light of Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923), and Skinner v. Oklahoma, 316 U.S. 535 (1942).
So Abbott is posturing for the cameras in that press release.  I'm sure his briefing attorneys will present a much better legal argument.

This is where my knowledge of the law breaks down.  Loving is not a solitary decision; it has been interpreted since by the courts, and may have seen it's conclusions expanded beyond the racial discrimination grounds the Court was primarily concerned with in that case.  Loving does rest on a due process argument which isn't applicable here; and the equal protection argument of the case is primarily concerned with racial discrimination.  So I'm not sure Loving is dispositive in these cases, but subsequent rulings have probably used it to support arguments regarding same-sex marriage.

There's also simply the question of comity:  how do you deny a marriage in one state, in another state?  I find the legal basis for that rather bewildering.  It seems to me any state that wanted could require all marriages to be performed in that state, for a fee paid to the state (don't laugh; Texas more and more relies heavily on fees to fund state government), and all out of state marriages are void unless the fee is paid in that state (again, say: Texas).

Would that be defensible?  If not, then why is it defensible for Texas to refuse to recognize certain marriages from other states, but not other marriages?  Seems to me, in fact, that's where the equal protection argument takes hold.  On what basis do you declare some marriages valid, others not, when there is no effect on society (I'm thinking of bigamy, degrees of consanguinity, and marriage of minors here)?  The only grounds for banning same sex marriage is that it is not traditional.

And I don't think that's enough to escape an equal protection analysis.*

*DOMA, by the way, was a Federal law.  It violated due process and equal protection, but under the 5th Amendment, not the 14th.  There really isn't enough similarity between U.S. v. Windsor and Loving for me to be comfortable making an analysis of Texas law based on Windsor.  On the other hand, Windsor seems to be the decision all the Federal courts are going to. The court in Kentucky ruled that the state cannot refuse to recognize out of state marriages on an equal protection argument.  

I'm optimistic that's where this is going now.  We'll just have to see.