Sunday, October 5, 2008

As we approach the Nov 2008 elections....

"The Left mocks the Right. The Right knows it's right. Two ugly traits. How far should we go to try to understand each other's point of view? Maybe the distance grace covered on the cross is a clue."
—Bono Vox of the band U2

Blogs often take on the tone of radio talk shows. It seems their purpose is to showcase how witty one is, and just how awfully good he or she is at being right. If my blog ever takes on that tone, please take a bucket of ice water and pour it over my head, so I'll come back to my senses and remember what it is I'm really after here. The reason I write about the things I do is not because I have all the answers, but because I'm convinced of the importance of the questions, and in expressing views I hope to provoke conversation that might help shed further light. The blog is named "Thinking Aloud" to underscore its provisional, exploratory nature.

Perhaps there is no area more provisional in my thinking than politics. But as we prepare for November and I listen to the opinions of friends and loved ones and others, I thought I'd share a few comments of my own that I hope will serve as food for thought.

First I will discuss what I feel is a highly distorted and harmful way in which religion and politics are interacting in our society. Then I will propose what I feel is the vital contribution religion can and should make. Then, as a test case to see whether people of widely varying opinions can really listen to one another, I will reveal some of the specific thoughts about presidential candidates that are weighing on my mind as I prepare to go the polls this November, and ask you, the readers of this post, to send me your thoughts. Finally, I'll suggest one thing each of us can do to bring about real positive change in America and in the world.

Politics is undeniably important, and politics in the U.S. is especially important, because the actions our government takes affect everyone on the planet.

That said, I wonder if some of us don't tend to greatly exaggerate that importance….

I have to remind myself not to make an idol of politics perhaps more often than most people, due to the peculiar circumstances in which I was raised. Politics was considered extremely important in the family I grew up in. It was the measure of what you stood for ultimately, of which side you were on in the great cosmic battle of good and evil.

At least that is the message that got instilled in me as a child when, six to nine years younger than my older adolescent siblings, I had to take cover night after night amid the heated dinner table crossfire of warring family members of Left and Right. There was my oldest brother, in the thick of the 60s and the new values of a rising generation. And there were my parents who were stalwart Goldwater conservatives. Actually my dad was more moderate than he sometimes sounded. To be sure, in a given moment in the fall of '68 I could hear him making a favorable comment or two about George Wallace, but I'm almost certain he voted for Nixon. There I was, just seven years old, taking all that in. How many other families do you know where the atmosphere would lead a small child to pick up so much on the importance of politics? It seems every family has its share of weirdnesses, and this was one of our many! Forty years later, though we all love each other, whenever the political discussion gets going, to some extent it still seems like our family is a microcosm of the fierce culture wars that are ravaging our land.

Religion also got enlisted in this role of determining which side you are on, but, as I recall it, it came second both in time and in importance to politics. To my recollection, religion only came to the fore in my family's culture war after my parents left their mainline church because of its membership in the National Council of Churches which was supporting Marxist UCLA professor Angela Davis, and after my mom found herself at home in a fundamentalist church that also happened to espouse her conservative politics. Now people today sometimes forget such a time existed, but the bulk of fundamentalist Christians in America at this time were remarkably apolitical—Baptists, it was said, were potentially the most powerful political block in our state, but they only actually went to the polls to vote against legalized gambling and liquor by the drink. Some years later the Christian Right would emerge, awakened by the alarm of Roe v. Wade and finding expression in the Reagan Revolution, with my mom in the thick of it all. Much as I loved my late mom, in retrospect I think this kind of tagalong adjunct role of religion in bolstering a set of political convictions is hugely distortive of religion, and makes it hard for people on either side of the ideological wars of our cultural moment to really consider religious matters in their own right. Christians of most times and places would recognize the idiosyncracy of this moment in American Christianity much more readily than either believers or skeptics who are stuck in the middle of it all.

But does voting Democratic or Republican in the U.S. really merit being elevated to such a level of ultimate, almost religious importance? It's amazing, as I reflect on it, just how much Democrats and Republicans really agree on fundamental matters. Practically all of us favor, whether we admit it or not, some combination of socialism and free market capitalism. On the one side you have Republicans who emphasize the importance of keeping the engines of wealth creation greased. Raise taxes too much, and you'll kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, they say. Democrats respond asking who benefits from the golden eggs? Are they getting shared around enough to keep people warm and fed? Few if any Republicans or Democrats take these emphases to the possible extremes, whether libertarian laissez faire on the one hand, or Marxist-Leninist state control of the means of production on the other. I think all but the likes of Ron Paul realize that such positions, though they may seem more airtight philosophically, produce the horrible results of having either a whole lot of golden eggs for too few, or hardly any golden eggs for anybody. Republicans sometimes wax libertarian in their rhetoric, arguing it is morally wrong to rob the industrious haves to help the lazy have nots, but few would argue for abolishing, say, public schools, without which the middle classes would never have emerged from grinding poverty. And even "tax and spend" Democrats are concerned to see industry flourish; they hardly take Cuban socialism as their model.

Now religion is, by its very nature, about matters of ultimate good and evil. And that makes it all the more a colossal and dangerous error to elevate political stances, generally speaking, to this kind of plane. Politics too often and easily boils down to advocating whatever policies favor the interest of one's class or interest group, rationalized by highly tendentious appeals to "principle." To elevate such "principles" to a religious level of ultimate good and evil is not only extremely dangerous, it impedes religion from doing the kind of healing work in the heart for which it is most properly intended.

It is important to understand that the battle between good and evil takes place primarily in the human heart; religion at its best speaks prophetically to the motivations of our hearts. It challenges, often painfully, the false idols (e.g. money, others' approval, power, and innumerable other addictions) on which we are depending for our sense of wellbeing, and places us on more solid ground. It does not, I believe, speak in any comprehensive way to the content of our policy positions, at least not with respect to the relatively moderate positions that generally prevail in our democratic society.

It is interesting to note along these lines that the apostle Paul, faced with the reality of a long-entrenched system of slavery in the Greco-Roman world of his time, did not advocate its violent overthrow. The thought probably never even occurred to his mind, because it would have been obviously foolish and doomed the fledgling Christian movement to extinction. [It perhaps helps to remember that, in spite of occasional brutality, many slaves in the context to which he wrote enjoyed high social prestige, in some cases rivaling that of high level managers today. Today's CEOs have the freedom to retire, but considering the high percentage of them who die shortly after they retire, after losing the thing they lived for, can it really be said that they are less enslaved?] Instead, Paul did something far more powerful and subversive. He told slave-owning Philemon to welcome back the runaway slave Onesimus as "no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother." This is how what Jesus calls the "yeast" of his kingdom works to "leaven the lump of dough." It works on this level of our deepest attitudes, prying our hearts loose from slavish dependence on the things of this world that give us temporal advantage and comforts, and redirecting our deepest trust to God for our well-being, and thereby redefining our relationships. Not violence, but undermining their very basis, is the way God works to overthrow the dark powers of this world. Cf. the unstable "feet of iron mixed with clay" in the statue of the world's kingdoms in the book of Daniel, chapter two.

And on this level I think religion can legitimately suggest some worthwhile questions we should ask of ourselves as we go to the polls. To those on the Right it can ask: Are you truly concerned about your poor neighbors in the world, or are you just voting your pocketbook? To those on the Left it can ask: Are you truly concerned about what will keep the system running for everybody in the long run, or just what will benefit your class in the short run?

Some of you may think I'm being trite in talking about examining the motives of the heart. You may think you have much more important things to do than engage in this sort of reflection, maybe things like going out and getting more votes for your candidate. But this kind of reflection really is the important matter! This kind of "heart work" really is the hard work, and the work that matters the most. It requires regular investments of time, over a lifetime. Political action is easy by comparison. It is more important than political action because our natural selfishness is the creeping rot that brings any political-economic order to ruin, however socialistic or market-oriented it may be in its approaches. A rich capitalist can be compassionate or brutal in the use of wealth and power, just as a government worker can serve the public or be a lazy and self-serving apparatchik that drains the system of its effectiveness. If more people challenged their own sure sense of rightness long enough to took an honest look inside with the help of God, we might eventually see more balance and harmony in our society that has been ideologically ripped down the middle. I can't speak for other religions, but Christian religion, at its healthiest and truest to itself, has never been so much about doing the right thing as becoming the kind of person who does the right thing.

Of course our natural tendency is to say, yeah, those folks on "the other side" really need to look within! Let me just ask you this right now: Are you willing to let God really get to you? No matter how you understand God—whether you believe you have some idea of who and what God is, or whether you're not even sure "he" exists, are you willing to let him ask you questions that could challenge and reorient the deepest assumptions and attachments of your heart? Not to suggest I'm doing any better in this department than you, but Jesus clearly said to worry more about the log in our own eyes than the speck in our neighbor's. How many people, Christians or others, really take that seriously? Too often, I'm afraid, squabbling over things like politics (and religion!) is just one of the many smokescreens we use to convince ourselves we are healthy and better than others, and avoid lying down on God's operating table.

Certainly I think there are some issues in politics that cross into a clearly moral realm and invite a direct response from religion. Religion certainly can and must speak to the moral tragedy of the genocide that took place in Rwanda, for example, even if it does not spell out exactly how other nations should go about resolving such problems. Personally I feel that it also speaks to the moral failings of the Republican Party as it was taken over a couple of years or so ago by people with extreme positions on immigration. In my home state ideology and fear trumped human compassion when they passed a law in the fall of 2007 making it a crime to rent housing or otherwise "assist" illegal immigrants. My home city went one up on that, training police officers to do the work of border patrol agents. Literally thousands of families, including many who for years had been stably employed and whose children had graduated from or were close to graduating from public schools, made the decision to leave the state. There are a variety of positions on this issue that I think are morally acceptable, and there are genuinely difficult issues posed by the reality of illegal immigration such as its impact on schools and hospitals. But I believe this wave of furor that has taken ahold of Republicans in my home state and elsewhere imbibes the spirit of ethnic cleansing, and my religion, as I understand it, speaks directly and forcefully to that.

If you ask me to "weigh in" on the current candidates on the ballots, I must confess, I don't have the strongest of opinions this time round. But it might be informative for some of you who find yourselves lined up clearly on one side or the other to hear some of the things that trouble one who is less committed—for the sake of understanding one another, at the very least. Maybe you can share some perspectives that will inform my thinking as well.

But before I go there, I'd just like to warn that if we venture to share our specific opinions with one another like this, we will be taking an important test, a test which too many in our hotly divided nation are failing. The test is whether we can listen to another's point of view, striving (because it takes concerted effort to do this) to put oneself in the other's shoes, and not fly off the handle or write off the other person everytime something he or she says violates our entrenched opinions. Are you ready to take that test? If so, here are my current opinions, and feel free to email me yours….

Honestly, the choices being served up are not making this decision easy for me. Neither an inexperienced yet highly intelligent Barak Obama, nor a highly capable yet aging John McCain, would be my preferred choice for president. Sarah Palin's soccer mom cheer may be winsome to many, and her capabilities may have been underestimated by some in the media, but at the end of the day, I'd rather see a more experienced driver in the driver's seat should McCain die in office.

Now here is where the test could get especially difficult for some, because I have to talk about a very controversial issue that impacts how I feel about the candidates. That issue is abortion. Now we know going into this that whether I'm "pro-life" or "pro-choice," I'm going to offend the strong feelings of roughly one half or the other of the population. Those who share my views may tend to accept what I say more or less uncritically, and include me in the category of "correct-thinking" people they like to surround themselves with. Those who take a view contrary to mine will be tempted to write me off and shy away from ever discussing anything with me again. But, you see, this is the very problem we have in America right now. We are divided into two huge camps, each of which only talks with its own members, usually with the purpose of confirming their existing opinions and prejudices and assuring one another that they are wiser and more with it than all those people in the other camp who are crazy or evil or otherwise not worth listening to. Over time, the walls get thicker and thicker, and we do less and less listening, and so we become extremely and bitterly divided without even gaining a true understanding of the other side's point of view. If you agree that we need to get beyond that, and you're willing to try to listen empathetically to views you have strong feelings about, then, congratulations, you are already doing well in this test! Brace yourself, and read on….

No...wait a minute.... What I have just said does not really do justice to the difficult thing I am asking you to do. Because some of you, when you hear my views on this issue that so divides our country, will be greatly pained. You will feel aghast. You will cry. You will feel a disheartened sinking feeling. You will be sincerely troubled as to how anybody could think the way I do and still be human, unless I am just atrociously ignorant of essential facts of the matter or of the incredible hurt or injustice my views, if carried out, would inflict on so many human beings. You will feel that the dearest principles you stand for are being trampled. All this will be the case to one group or another, no matter which position on this issue I take. I want you to know, that in mentioning my views on this issue, I am not asking those of you who disagree with me to weaken your moral will, to give in out of weakness, to care any less than you do. I am asking you to do something far more costly, far more sacrificial. I am asking you to remain strong in your moral resolve, and yet willingly and humbly submit to this painful process of mutual listening that all of us on both sides of the cultural divide of our day will have to go through if there is to be healing in our land. To listen with genuine empathy to views that run counter to core values involves pain. Bono mentioned the cross of Christ, and that is very much to the point. The easy thing would have been for Christ to go to the cross in anger, in bitterness, in violent resistance. Another easy approach would have been to cower in moral weakness, to surrender to the Romans' base values, to accept and tolerate and legitimize the abuse of the oppressor. But such a response to abuse is not the costly and sacrificial way of love. What Christ did was infinitely more painful and loving. And what I am asking you to do, simply by listening to views that seem to trample what you hold dear, also requires sacrifice, also requires a willing taking on of pain, out of love. And yet, even knowing the pain this is going to cause one group or the other of you, I still ask you to do it, because it is the very thing we all are going to have to learn to do if we are to break down the walls of division in this country. Of course it is my hope that, as we listen to one another, even on topics on which we are hotly divided, that one or the other or both of us will change our minds in regard to some practical policy issues, not by giving up core values, but by discovering that there is another approach to the matter that upholds all the essential values that all sides are seeking to uphold. But even if that does not happen, and we fail to find common ground on a given issue--like the issue of abortion I am about to discuss--the pain of mutual listening is still the way to mutual love and respect. There is no real love if we do not go to the cross for one another. And without that there will be no resurrection, no healing and new life in our land. Are you convinced that is so? If so, and if you are willing and ready, let us proceed....

I believe unborn babies have a greater claim to legal protection than the pro-choice view of the Democratic Party recognizes. Just to say this is to offend many people's strong feelings. Yet, again, if I expressed any other opinion on this, it would offend others' strong feelings, and the honest truth is, I respect and love you all! Just for the record, my position would call for legal sanctions far, far short of what we apply to those who kill adults, because I don't think abortion is premeditated intentional murder, and I don't think the rights and nature of the fetus at a given stage can be established one way or another beyond all reasonable doubt, though the case for their rights is plenty strong enough at the point of conception, and harder to deny with every passing day of development. Precisely due to this uncertainty, I think abortion constitutes a reckless endangerment of human life, so that abortionists should be sanctioned sufficiently to move them to seek alternatives means of making a living. I also think legalized abortion, far from elevating the rights of women, ultimately sends a cheapening and dehumanizing message to the distressed women who are often pressured by boyfriends and parents and oppressive social and family systems into seeking this desperate "solution." There are many women who have had or contemplated abortions in the past who agree with me, even as there are many others who do not. By the way, literally millions of Catholics and others of otherwise Democratic leanings would agree with my policy position, even if they are more dogmatic than I am about the status of the fetus, but these people are given no real voice on the matter in the Democratic Party. There is much more to be said than I can say in this article in defending my position, in exploring how appropriate or effective legal sanctions may be, in exploring what other actions on the part of government and civil society are necessary to really tackle the problem effectively, etc. But in regard to the current candidates, suffice it to say that I found Obama's comments that the Supreme Court's upholding of a law banning "partial birth" abortion was a setback to women's rights to be no less than chilling. What other voiceless constituencies will have their rights trampled on by an Obama administration? Newborn infants? To be sure, cultural circumstances won't let that happen anytime in the foreseeable future, but I'm left wondering what there is in Obama's philosophy that would otherwise prevent it. By being more extreme and intolerant of diversity on the abortion issue than Republicans ever have been, Democrats make it very hard for millions of people to vote for them with a clear conscience. They have that in very large part to thank for their not being in the White House for the last 8 years.

Though abortion is one important issue bearing on my thinking about the current candidates, there are many other important matters weighing on my mind, most of which will occasion less heated controversy. Most readers, I think, will be able to breathe at least a little bit easier in what follows....

Earlier I referred to "voiceless constituencies." But I have to wonder, for all the Republicans' talk about the rights of the unborn, if they really are paying attention to millions of other human beings on the planet whose voices are not being heard. Which Republicans, for example, are lobbying hard to permanently remove all punitive trade barriers against Central American exports, and to pressure the E.U. to lift similar barriers against manufactured goods in Africa, so as to enable producing economies in those countries to get off the ground? Never mind that such policies that stifle development in those countries could lead to future terrorist threats closer to home (and in fact already are fueling illegal immigration and the spread of violent criminal gangs all over the continent)—keeping domestic producers sufficiently appeased is what wins elections now. And who is pushing a concept of "free trade" that recognizes that it can only work for the benefit of all concerned if there is relatively free (albeit screened and regulated) movement of labor as well as goods?

Add to all this the sheer complexity of the issue of the war in Iraq and the world situation, and the difficulty I have personally in keeping up with enough information to be able to form solid opinions of which candidate's proposed policies make the most sense. I know all this may be crystal clear in the minds of some of you, great military and geopolitical strategists that you may be. I see enormous downsides to every conceivable possible option. Push come to shove, though I'm not the least bit competent to make this kind of decision myself, I'd place my bets on doing whatever can be safely done to free up military resources for areas other than where they are currently deployed. Sadly, it's not really a question of avoiding all disasters, it's a matter of deciding which disasters are most important and possible to prevent or contain. For all the rhetoric of the candidates concerning the war, I'm not even entirely sure either of them would really act that much differently in office, once the votes are cast and they are free to adjust their positions to changing circumstances. The question then becomes who has the most sober head. Again, I might have preferred a younger John McCain or an older Barak Obama at the helm….

In sum, there is much I admire, and much I am concerned about, in both major candidates. For the moment, count me undecided…. I could go on, but I think I will stop there in regard to my views of the candidates.

The more I ponder these candidates, the more I'm drawn back to the observation that candidates are only as good as the state of awareness and discussion in the general public concerning policy issues. As we engage in the work of thinking and talking important issues through, we will have even better McCains and Obamas to choose among. And listening empathetically to one another, keeping dialog open, are the habits a society needs to make democracy work.

I would urge that learning to listen empathetically to others, especially those with whom we disagree, is the singlemost important thing we can do to bring about positive change in our country and world. And it all starts with you and me, one interaction at a time….

There are three specific challenges I think we need to overcome if we are to improve our listening skills and raise political dialog in our country to a more civil and productive plane. First, we need to work hard at truly listening even when it offends our strong feelings, without instinctively dismissing the other person as stupid or ignorant or evil. Abortion is a case in point, and if people of pro-choice conviction email me their views, I will face the same challenge of truly listening that I gave them in the discussion above.

Second, I think we need to develop a stomach for greater complexity and nuance in discussions, in what we're willing to read, in the kinds of conversations we're willing to have. Are you frustrated that the media only give us sound bites without substance? Why complain? All they are doing is giving people what they want. Simplistic thinking is really what works best if the goal is to massage one another's prejudices in our own group while putting down and deriding all the "wrong-thinking" people in the other group. Meanwhile, certain media pundits see their ratings and personal incomes soar by catering to the prejudices of one group or the other, being sure to keep things as simplistic and heated as possible. But reaching across the divide with meaningful discussion will require contemplating more complex models of reality. Embracing greater complexity will also reduce the power of special interests, by making it more difficult to manipulate the public with slogans and rallying cries.

To give an example of this need to embrace greater complexity, often the disagreements I have with people on the "Left" boil down to differences in our understandings of how the economy works. The frustrating thing is that most such people I talk to don't have any interest in contemplating policy outcomes in the light of economic theories. The truth is, my understanding of economics may be way off base, but policies will obviously fail to achieve their intended outcomes if they run afoul of economic reality, and the only way anybody is going to be able to lead me to a more realistic understanding of economics is if they are willing to enter the discussion at some level of complexity and show how their understanding better accounts for things. As another example, often the disagreements I have with people on the "Right" concern the environment. And the frustrating thing is that most such people I talk to do not seem to have any interest in really engaging with what people in the mainstream scientific community are saying. They arrive at their foregone conclusions, bolstered by secondhand accounts of minority view scientific studies funded by organizations with a vested interest.

It may be objected that it is impossible for everybody to gain an understanding of such complex matters. But this brings us to the crucial dilemma of democracy, does it not? There is no denying that the amount and kinds of knowledge required by voters to make intelligent decisions is formidable. Yet the alternative of ceding all power to an elite intelligentsia is not an acceptable one. Though their decisions may be better informed, they will not serve the interests of the society at large, they will serve the interests of their own elite! There is no perfect solution to this, only a relative one—the better informed the public is, the better government we will get, and the more power the people truly will have.

We all see through a glass darkly, and can only do the best we can in this regard. We all have limited time and mental space for pursuing the knowledge we need for our careers, for our relationships, for our roles as citizens in a democracy. But if we at least remain open to having our current thinking challenged by the insights and perspectives of others, we can at least grow and arrive at much more balanced approaches than if we remain locked inside entrenched opposing camps that do not even seek to understand one another. And we may then become more willing to engage with others' concerns at the same level of complexity with which we routinely tackle the concerns that are closest to our hearts (e.g. re our careers, or the particular angles of policy issues we're naturally most prone to dwell on).

Third, if we find that the only voices we routinely hear are those within "our camp" which merely confirm our current thinking, we need to proactively seek opportunities to listen to people whose thinking is different from ours. Five steps: 1. Let's each have a conversation with ourself and challenge our own tendency to be "wise in our own eyes" (Proverbs 26:12). What factors may be contributing to my own biases, such as socioeconomic status, personal history, my self-centered focus, etc.? In what ways have my life circumstances and prejudices narrowed the field of voices that can speak meaningfully to me? 2. Let's read some articles from a point of view very different from ours, and ask ourselves, What are the valid driving concerns that are important to the author and others who share his or her views? Why have those concerns never been as important to me as they are to them? Is there any good reason I should not consider those concerns important? Third, find one or two people who typically hold a different viewpoint to have a conversation with, and resolve to do nothing more than listen. At some point be sure to ask the person, "You know, in the past I have not thought the way you do on these matters, and I'm just wondering if there are some blind spots, some things about my circumstances or background that I'm not consciously aware of, that have been influencing me and causing me to be biased. What do you think some of those things might be?" 5. If and only if the other person asks to hear your opinions, schedule a time to meet again. But tell the person, "I would really like at least a day or two to process what you have just told me before I share my views. Thanks for helping me think things through from angles I had not considered." If you can, do this before November 4, 2008. More importantly, keep doing it, as a regular habit, over the next four years! Can you think of anything more powerful that we can do to make our society healthier and happier?

Back to the role of religion, I can't help but wonder.... Might our ability to humbly listen to others be an "acid test" of how well religion is functioning in our lives? On the other hand, if our religion makes us proud and arrogant and stuck in our prejudices, might we be missing the whole point? God help us!

As we prepare to go to the polls, I'd just like to leave all my loved ones and fellow citizens on each side of the great divide with one final thought: If you vote differently than I do, you will still have my respect. I will not conclude that you are ignorant or an idiot, just because you think differently from me. You are all in "my group." Nor will I suspect you of being in league with the dark forces of the universe. I hope you will treat me the same way. In the end I hope we can all try to better understand and extend a bit of charity to one another.

When the elections are over, we should all give each other a tearful hug and spend some time on the lighter side of life. Rumor has it that George W. Bush has taken up dancing. (See Maybe we should do the same.

[Now listening to: "Hands," by Jewel.]

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sound science and sound biblical interpretation are the means and the end

I am refreshed, as I reflect on these matters, by a growing sense that answers to these questions of biological origins in relation to understanding the Bible and its teachings concerning moral culpability and redemption are not only solvable, the solutions are likely right under our nose, even if we have not consciously clarified them in our own minds or agreed upon them! Of course I can't prove this to the satisfaction of skeptics, short of actually arriving at solutions and clearly articulating them. But my intuition that solutions will be found is nevertheless compelling to me personally in the light of historical precedent and the pattern of my experience with God. I suspect a later generation of Christians will see the solutions with such greater clarity that they will have to struggle to put themselves in our shoes in our moment of history to even understand what the fuss was all about, just as we puzzle over the difficulties Christians had in an earlier era in seeing that the Bible is completely compatible with a Copernican understanding of the universe. No doubt the role of extra-biblical assumptions, smuggled in from a relatively recent intellectual milieu that is very foreign to that of the biblical writers, will be identified as the culprit, just as we see very clearly today how the entrenched dominance of Ptolemaic astronomy clouded people's understanding of biblical texts that we see today as obviously poetic.

But even if I have high hopes that a day of greater clarity will surely come, this does not mean there is no reason to strive to hasten that day by means of serious inquiry and reflection. What drives me in this regard is my growing awareness that the Bible has something rich and essential to say to people right now, and this perceived disconnect between the Bible and science, based largely on misconceptions that Christains themselves have been perpetuating, is preventing many people from exploring that.

Genuine clarity will only come as a result of greater sensitivity to the biblical text; genuine solutions must help us read the Bible more on its own terms. And skeptics and Christians alike would do well to note that this is exactly what happened in the case of the Copernican controversy. At that time some people were hung up on Psalm 93:1b ("The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved"), a verse that people today understand as poetic imagery that cannot reasonably be pressed into the service of defending a geocentric universe. But the metaphorical interpretation is not accepted today merely because it is more compatible with science; it is accepted in the light of the nature of the text itself. The whole psalm is saturated with metaphor, as is obvious from phrases before and after such as "the LORD is robed in majesty" and "holiness adorns yours house...." "The world...cannot be moved" is no more to be taken literally than we are to understand the LORD as wearing literal clothes or living in a literal house. Employing such a text to support a particular view of astronomy actually detracts from the intended force of the text in inspiring a sense of awe and wonder concerning the God of the universe! If we had grown up hearing constant appeals to this verse to support Ptolemaic astronomy, we might have more difficulty seeing this. But once the metaphorical reading has had a chance to grip us, there's no turning back, it speaks more authentically and with greater power, and it becomes easy for us to see how the concerns to defend a geocentric universe were imposed agenda alien to the concerns of the biblical writer.

Skeptics should note that the Bible was exonerated in that case. Certain interpretations of the Bible were laid aside, but the Bible itself came through unscathed. Science prompted a revisiting of the biblical text, and that reflection led to a more natural and sensitive reading of the biblical text. There may be much about commmunities of biblical faith that turn skeptics off; but does not the Copernican episode at least raise the possibility that the real problem is not the Bible itself? And if the problem is not the Bible itself, might a more sensitive reading of it tell us something very much worth hearing today?

Christians should note the rabbit trails that Christians of an earlier era spent enormous energy in pursuing. The more invested they were in defending long-reigning Ptolemaic astronomy against Copernicus, the longer their misreading of the holy text was allowed to persist. But lest we proudly upbraid them for not seeing the obvious, might not a future generation reprove us for extrabiblical assumptions and agenda that have muddled our own reading of other biblical texts? And might there be people--whom we deem the "enemy," from whom we are mutually alienated on account of the battle over Darwinism and other issues in our current cultural divide-- who we really NEED to interact with in order to arrive at sounder understandings of the Bible?

What about a "retroactive fall"?

I can bask in vain self-congratulation now that one as noteworthy (or notorious, depending on your point of view) as William Dembski has articulated the same understanding of humanity's fall into sin as I once conceived and tentatively put forth in a short paper some years ago, to wit, the idea of a first sin that had retroactive consequences on the creation. See (An Orthodox priest advocates essentially the same view, if I understand him correctly, at Thanks go to Kirk Jordan and his web page for the trail of links that led me to Dembski's article. 

Dembski's paper and mine both posited a special environment in which no temptation could be felt, thus allowing a free decision of the first humans to sin or not sin. Since God is beyond time and knows the future, it is possible that the world of death and cruelty that we live in could have flowed causally from the first humans' sin, even though its emergence preceded that event in time. Dembski argues that such a preemptive action of God is an appropriate response to human sin, in order to demonstrate sin's gravity so that we might come to our senses and seek salvation from it.

But is the idea of a retroactive fall really satisfying? To my limited mind, I find it plausible, and see no insuperable difficulties in establishing its consonance with biblical exegesis and science. (And it does NOT require acceptance of other ideas that Demski has advanced elsewhere concerning design and irreducible complexity; the solution works with theistic evolutionary understandings that do not require special interventions of divine creative energy other than that which underlies and sustains the entire process.) And, even though it's just one possible solution, the very existence of "one possible solution" has enormous implications. By disarming the common casual assumption that science has "ruled out" the Bible and its ability to speak healing truth into our modern context, people may perhaps consider the Bible and its claims with less negative bias. Still, I can't help but wonder if there may be simpler and more compelling solutions than this one that Dembski and others and I have proposed, and that is something I hope to explore in future posts, if God lets me live long enough and grants me sufficient clarity to articulate them. 

Dembski's article is in any case well worth reading, because in surveying options he considers inadequate and in articulating his own views, he puts the reader in touch with what the important questions really are concerning science and the Bible, whether or not one is happy with his answer. The real issue that needs attention is not the question of the "days" of the creation narrative in Genesis, which no more require a literal interpretation than the "throne" on which God "sits" in similar passages portraying the declaration and execution of the divine will upon the earth. A matter that needs more attention, and that not only has bearing on the Bible's reception in the world today, but also has sweeping watershed implications for the future of ethics and law and self-understanding and culture in the decades to come, is the question of accounting for moral culpability, and the need to be delivered from it, given an evolutionary understanding of our biological history.

One very wonderful thing that I take away from reading Dembski's article is the sweet REALIZATION that life in this world of sin and death and disease as we now experience it is not our ultimate destiny or purpose. I experience this realization as a wave of divine refreshment sweeping over me, as the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead works through even Scriptures that we do not fully understand.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Who is the "fool"?

Following up on the last post, this statement in the Psalms comes to mind:

"The fool says in his heart,'There is no God.' "
(Psalm 14 and 53)

People today might tend to read this as saying that atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Antony Flew (before he became a deist), etc. believe what they believe because they're stupid or morally deficient. Many a preacher will quote this verse to that effect, but no biblical scholar I know of would see that as the intent of the verse.

Psalm 53 goes on to say: "Will the evildoers never learn—those who devour my people as men eat bread and who do not call on God?" Psalm 14, another version of the same psalm, adds: "You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor, but the LORD is their refuge."

The psalm, then, is not a word to philosophical atheists, per se. It is a word to people who DEVOUR others. At issue in this psalm is the relationship between what we put our ultimate hope in and how we treat other people. What does the rich oppressor take refuge in? In his agenda, in his clever schemes of oppression, in his retinue of advisers and co-conspirators, not in God. The poor have nothing to depend on but God, thanks to the injustice inflicted on them by the powerful. But because the one on whom they depend is in fact the God of the universe, these psalms are saying, the poor really have the better end of the stick in the end. Jesus, with this pervasive Old Testament theme in mind, makes this same point about misplaced confidence in the temporal advantages we can procure for ourselves through cunning scheming in this life: "But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep." (Luke 6:24-25)

What's being said, I think, is that all of us really know deep down that we live our lives before a divine audience, as it were. We all know there are consequences to our actions. To repress this knowledge with our self-talk, to throw ethical caution to the wind, thinking it doesn't really matter if we expropriate some poor bloke's land, is the height of folly.

Now I think it's very ironic that power mongers who exploit religious sentiment to their ends, the very people that modern philosophical atheists like Dawkins and Harris decry, are really saying the same thing as the "fool" in this psalm. They're saying to themselves and everybody else, "There's a God all right, but surely he backs my agenda. There is no God who is really beyond me, who is truly outside of me, who is capable of weighing my thoughts and actions in the balance and finding them wanting." How is that any different from saying, "There is no God to whom I'm accountable"?

And I would submit that it is just this sort of formally religious but practically atheistic leader that the psalmist has in mind. Don't think for a minute that evil, oppressive kings in the psalmist's day did not make a show of religious adherence. Bob Dylan's song "With God on our Side" is not about some new phenomenon. The oppressors didn't go around preaching philosophical atheism to people as a justification for their actions. No, they formally adhered to the conglomeration of the worship of Baal and Yahweh that was popular in their time, just as Hitler's PR machine tried to make him out as a religious man but launched a campaign of stealth to subvert the churches' doctrines and imprisoned those who resolutely opposed him. The oppressor's atheism is not public, philosophical talk, it's practical self-talk. He says it "in his heart." So the psalmist is really talking about the same sort of people Richard Dawkins and others are talking about: People who claim to believe in God and do horrible things.

But the psalmist and today's atheist writers take quite a different approach in dealing with this phenomenon. The atheist writers are essentially saying, "These people say they believe in God, and they enlist masses of followers who believe in God to support them. Therefore, belief in God is the problem. Let's get rid of that."

The psalmist, and all the biblical prophets, and Jesus himself, tell the oppressor, "Actually, there really IS a God, and he's a whole lot bigger, he is far more beyond you, than you ever thought. He is not blinded by your self-serving interests, and he is scrutinizing your actions. Maybe you should do the same."

I think the latter approach is more reasonable and certainly more effective for combating evil. For all the times power mongers have misappropriated religious sentiment to serve their interests, I have to wonder how many times people in power have at least been given momentary pause by the thought that there might really be a God, a God who really acts like God and not like some politician's servile publicist speaking from the clouds. And how many times has conviction of the reality of God in the public led to pressure being brought to bear in the halls of power? It seems exactly that is what led the British Parliament to finally abolish the slave trade, after years of William Wilberforce being a voice in the wilderness, even though abolition had significant economic ramifications that every citizen felt the brunt of for a time. It's not often that good triumphs that clearly. But I wonder how much more bad might have triumphed throughout history if atheism had prevailed. I can't help but wonder, if Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins succeed in convincing everybody that God does not exist, if they might get more than they bargained for, by reducing that residual level of restraint in society that we take for granted and that comes from belief in the One Who Weighs our Actions who, on some level, I think we all really know is there.

So who is the fool the Psalms are talking about? I think he's all of us, whenever and to whatever extent we put ourselves, our ideologies, our interests, rather than God, at the center of the universe, and so fail to love our neighbor.
Hi e. peevie,

Great to hear from you!

If I may chime in with what you wrote, it seems to me that atheists like Josef Stalin have done their share of terrible things too! Not to suggest that atheism MAKES people into Stalins. Rather, I think the darkness in the heart of a Stalin is left quite unrestrained by a belief that no one is watching who will call to account.

Yet, there's no escaping it, religious beliefs can easily become a tool of POWER of some people over others. "You're going to hell, unless you tap into God, by means of the way that my fellow priests and I have been exclusively entrusted by God to show you."

But if there really is a God, do you think he would author a religion that would put that kind of power in the hands of people?

The biblical approach, I think, is to relativize the human role by exalting the ultimate power and importance of God. The Bible says, yes, Israel is God's chosen people, for the purpose of blessing the world (Genesis 12, 17; cf. Romans 11), but, look what a bunch of schmucks they are, their status surely isn't due to their own merits, and this promised blessing is only going to work if God himself brings it about through and in spite of them. Likewise, Peter and the apostles hold, in some sense, the keys to the kingdom, and yet Peter is portrayed in the New Testament as having said all sorts of stupid things and denied his master three times, so this role that God is assigning him can only work in spite of the man himself as God works through him.

The potential for religious leaders to abuse the power of religious beliefs is certainly there. And yet, if God is also really there, is it not those religious leaders themselves who ought to fear the most (yet really believe the least), because they will have to answer to God for their abuse?

Much depends, I think, on what kind of God you believe in, and on what level you really believe. I think the worst kind of God you can possibly believe in is one that you think you can control or make subservient to your earthly interests. That is indeed the God of much of what passes for Christianity and many other religions, and I think it is our natural tendency to convert biblical religion into this by means of a highly selective reading of the Bible. Such a person thinks of himself as pretty OK, and certainly not in need of being delivered from any dire predicament like "sin," even if he holds himself out to be a necessary instrument of deliverance to all the poor blokes around him who hang on his every word. Such people have indeed committed every kind of atrocity.

But how about belief in a God who is the high and majestic King, and yet humbled himself to serve his unworthy subjects, and paid an incomprehensible price to deliver them from their sins? What kind of behavior does that belief engender? Can anyone who deep down really believes in that kind of God maintain pride and arrogance and act mercilessly to fellow human creatures? When I say "believe" I don't mean the beliefs you formally profess, but the ones that really drive your actions. What this means is that, whenever we fail to "act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8), it is evidence that, at that moment and to that degree, our professed belief in the biblical God is not really driving us.

Does Dawkins explore the distinctions between varieties of God concepts, and the kinds of behavior they motivate? For example, one of the most moving examples of Christian compassion I have ever read about was that of Charles Wesley, who visited condemned criminals on death row. In his day it was a popular pastime to gather around and jeer at prisoners as they were being led in procession to the gallows. Charles ran up behind a cart that was carrying a condemned African slave whom he had visited in the prison, and hopped on the cart to comfort this new believer as he was led to his death. What I would want to ask Richard Dawkins is what kind of belief in what kind of God motivated that behavior? Is it the same idea of God that lay behind the actions of religious people that he decries? And would an atheist be likely to do what Charles Wesley did? In actual fact, skepticism and ridicule of religious "enthusiasts" was very much in vogue among the aristocratic classes of the 18th and 19th Centuries, who opposed the efforts of Evangelicals like William Wilberforce and Hannah Moore to abolish the slave trade, educate the poor, etc. Wilberforce et al did what they did because they really believed that all people were "created in God's image" and that all people would in the end have to give an account of their actions before a just and holy God. The rich fashionable atheists who routinely oppressed others had no such belief in their hearts.

Both atheists and believers in controllable gods have left tremendous misery and oppression in their wakes. But I would invite people like Richard Dawkins to open their minds just a crack and take a careful look at Jesus as he is presented in the New Testament, and ask what kinds of behavior does a deep and genuine belief in him really lead to.

Response from e. peevie

Thought I'd move this exchange from the comments section to the main blog page....SJ

E. Peevie said...

Interesting post. I'm slowly making my way through The God Delusion by Richard Dawson. In the first few chapters, I agreed with almost everything he said, but as I kept reading, what was most striking to me was his his hostility toward belief in God.

It seems to me that a scientist making a case for or against something should make a solid effort to put his emotions out of the picture.

Obviously, bad things are done in the name of religion, and it's right to be angry about those things, and at those people. But it's a little telling, don't you think, that he lumps all people of faith together in one ignorant, hateful lump.

I haven't finished the book, so I don't know if he has anything to say about people motivated by faith to do great works of compassion, not to mention art.

June 29, 2008 8:06 PM

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Strategies for atheists...and why they don't work for me

Justin Barrett, in his book Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, shows why belief in God or gods is more natural than atheism in most environments that humans have faced. While the features of our minds that make theism naturally compelling have evolved by natural selection motivated by survival and reproduction, to dismiss it on such grounds would also call into question many beliefs that atheists normally take for granted, such as belief in the existence of other minds, the passage of time, etc., which are likewise perceived by an evolved mental apparatus. Atheism, Barrett argues, thrives mostly among privileged elites who live in uncommon environments. (Cf. Bible passages that suggest God has a preference for working in and through the weak and powerless of the world in order to make his glory and power known.)

In a very intriguing chapter, Barrett explores the features of those uncommon environments where atheism thrives. He casts this in terms of "strategies" atheists could use to overcome the normally-occurring natural intuitive impediments to accepting their point of view. Living in an urban setting where nearly everything one encounters can be attributed to human agency, and surrounding yourself with other atheists who can reflectively generate alternate explanations of phenomena that would otherwise invite attribution to theistic agency, helps. Living in the wilderness hurts. And since the features of our minds which detect and characterize divine agency tend to be more active in urgent situations, it is important to reduce urgency in your life. In other words, I suppose the advice could be summarized like this: Be rich, and don't go sailing on the open sea (cf. Psalm 107).

Among the strategies for bolstering atheism Barrett mentions is "Reduce Secondhand Accounts That Might Become Evidence for God." One way to do this is simply to avoid contact with religious people, so you don't hear their stories. Another way is to "become immersed in a pluralistic society in which others' experiences hold little importance to you.... We live in a social environment in which there is a great plurality of daily demands and experiences, and consequently others' experiences are (intuitively) a less important database for evaluating beliefs."

This last "strategy" underscores one of the things that prevents me from throwing out theism or accepting naturalistic explanations as necessarily displacing God's role in events. I can read an evolutionary writer like David Sloan Wilson (see, e.g., Evolution For Everyone) and grant him that, given the phenomena he is viewing, he has given plausible and coherent naturalistic explanations that do not require the immediate action of a divine agent apart from natural causes. Yet there is nothing in his account--though the mystery of suffering and death built into the process does cause me to scratch my head--that rules out the possibility that the hand of divine providence underlies it all. In other words, if Wilson's account of our natural history is correct, God's role may be moved "deeper" (as an underlying providence sustaining all things and events) as opposed to the more surface role implied, for example, by a literalistic reading of Genesis 2 (a reading that, in any case, many find suspect on sheerly literary-critical grounds), but it is not necessarily eliminated.

But I, unlike David Sloan Wilson, did not grow up among the secular-minded intelligentsia of New England. I grew up in a religious community, and thus have had the opportunity to hear many stories of events that invite the attribution of divine agency.

I'll share a few such stories that come readily to mind. Stephen Beck, who was my church's pastor and whom I knew fairly well, once recounted how, when he was a UPS driver and his wife and he were struggling financially, they needed a certain amount of money to pay their bills. Nobody else had any way of knowing the exact amount, and yet someone felt "moved" to give them a sum of money, and it turned out to be the exact amount of their shortfall. Perhaps a story like this would have little effect on one like David Sloan Wilson, because he has not lived in the church community so as to gain a sense of my pastor's credibility and honesty, but I am in a fundamentally different position. I find it exceedingly hard to believe that he was flat-out lying. I also find it doubtful that his wife Susan would go along with it. Moreover, the VERY SAME THING happened to another fellow named Bob Vincent, who does not know Stephen or Susan, but who I have reason to consider a sane and honest reporter of what happened to him. The notion that Bob is making this up is simply out of the question for anyone who knows his character.

Another story was told to me over lunch by a Pentecostal pastor in my area. The pastor's mom was in a women's Bible study that a newcomer attended. In the middle of the study, the pastor's mom interrupted whatever they were talking about, and announced that she saw a vision of a neon sign over the head of the newcomer. The sign read, "Keep on truckin'." On hearing this, the newcomer burst into tears and explained that her husband had recently died, and that she and her family were wrestling with a decision of whether to sell her late husband's trucking business or continue to operate it. I don't know the pastor's mom, and I have seen Pentecostals be pretty gullible at times, so this story is not as compelling to me as the other one. Still, I find it easier to believe that the story is true than to believe that she or her son were flat-out lying. (If I had heard the story from, say, Benny Hinn, on the other hand, I wouldn't have given it a moment's thought.)

Another story was told to me by Sunder Krishnan, an engineer with Atomic Energy of Canada of Hindu background who became a Christian pastor and highly eloquent preacher. He had recently returned from a meeting with Iranian Christian exiles in the U.K., and related the story of how one of them had become a Christian. An Iranian man had a dream of a little boy who knocked on his door and informed him that he and his family were going to move in next door and were going to come over and tell him about God. Later, in real life, the boy and his family did move in and visited with him and told him about God. He became a Christian. I asked Sunder why he believed that story. He immediately shot back, "How else would he have become a Christian?" It's true, a Muslim in the middle of Iran at that time would have faced the threat of death, being disowned by relatives, loss of employment, etc. for converting to Christianity. If it is unusual for an Iranian Muslim in such circumstances to become a Christian, is it really surprising to find that something unusual and compelling had occurred in his life leading him to do so? I realized that my skepticism derived from a deep-seated secular Western prejudice against the supernatural, and not from anything intrinsically suspect about the story.

Perhaps I should also share another thing that happened to me personally. I had just closed down the business I was operating, due to financial issues. For a period of a week or two, when I wasn't engaged in the work of wrapping up affairs, I spent a lot of time in prayer and Bible reading. It was a time of sober reflection and repentance, after having drifted far from any kind of closeness to God. My accountant invited me to his church. I went the following Sunday, but couldn't find him, so my family and I did not sit next to him. We found seats roughly halfway back from the stage of this disco that the church was renting on Sunday mornings. This was quite a rock and roll kind of church, and I found myself uncharacteristically jumping up and down during the music, as were members of the worship team on stage, with my little boy Perry in my arms. After a time of singing the pastor began to preach. In the middle of his preaching, he interrupted what he was saying, looked right at me ("Me?" "Yes, you") and asked me to stand up. He said he had a word from the Lord concerning me. He told me, in about these words: "You are going through a time of great change in your life. You will experience a season of repentance and joy, so you may go and refresh the brothers." I asked my accountant later, and he swore that the pastor knew nothing of my personal situation. Further, as I recall, there were lights shining on the pastor that probably made it difficult for him to even see me all that clearly. Now one could theorize that I was a newcomer, and he had spotted me jumping up and down, and perhaps he was a particularly perceptive reader of persons so as to note that this was uncharacteristic behavior for me, and that his "prophecy" was MERELY a good guess based on these perceptions. But the theory that God was involved is at least as compelling to me, especially given other evidences of God's intervention in human affairs such as the above.

Of the above stories, the stories told by Stephen Beck and Bob Vincent are perhaps the most compelling and hardest to explain away in my mind. Stories like that, where it is plainly hard NOT to see God at work, give other stories where God's hand has been perceived at least prima facie plausibility. The numerous stories I have heard from credible people of God's timely provision to others of his servants ring true. In addition, such stories, coming as they do from credible and trustworthy people, lead me to at least not a priori chalk up to mere coincidence the numerous times when messages about the Bible have been spoken in my hearing, by persons who had no knowledge of my circumstances, in an uncannily timely way that spoke powerfully to me in those circumstances. Sometimes these incidents have happened in close succession, during seasons in which it seemed God was speaking to me at every turn.

Moreover, there is the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which seems credible to me for the same sorts of reasons, i.e., the seeming credibility of the accounts, the fact that the persons telling the stories do not seem to have the profile or motivations of liars, etc.

Basically, then, I find it hard not to believe in God, even if our natural history can be coherently explained without reference to immediate creative interventions, because otherwise it is difficult to explain who or what is talking to me and intervening in my life and the lives of others I know.

At the same time, I am finding evolutionary theory compelling, and there are implications that would seem to require significant modifications of traditional beliefs about God and interpretations of biblical texts. For example, I am less inclined to consider a number of parts of the Old Testament as having the same kind of literal historical intent, as, say, the gospels, or of those parts of the New Testament epistles in which events in the authors' lives are recalled. And, frankly, there isn't a lot about the Old Testament texts themselves that seems incongruous with this new understanding. Stories like the making of the woman from the rib of the man do NOT obviously read like literal historical narratives--far from it--and the assertion that they are may simply reflect an assumption people are bringing to the text that the original readers may not have had. Certainly these texts are not the same genre as the gospels or epistles, which bear marks of being based on the eyewitness testimony of people who personally knew Jesus. As a rule of thumb, I find it entirely reasonable to expect that, when a biblical author is writing of the distant and mysterious past (e.g. Genesis 1-3) or the distant and mysterious future (like Revelation), evocative myth or metaphor, rather than literal historical narrative, is likely to be used. When, as in the New Testament, the narratives relate events in the authors' own lives (even mentioning the number of fish they caught on one occasion, see John 21:11), a more literal historical intent seems apparent. So I don't think I am adopting an awkward or forced interpretation simply for the sake of harmonizing with science.

I find it further telling that, of all the stories I have ever heard from credible people about divine intervention in people's lives, I do not recall any that was used to validate one interpretation of Scripture over another, or to settle a doctrinal controversy. I have never heard an extraordinary story that had bearing on the question of our biological history and the interpretation of Genesis, for example. It would seem that God himself has other interests. Every such story that I can recall has been about letting God's loved ones know that he is there and cares for them, even in the midst of tragedy and hardship, and about giving them encouragement and strength to fulfill the missions in life that God has called them to.