Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Rod Dreher and the Benedict Option

July 20, 2018

Conservative American Christians have lost the culture war, according to Rod Dreher.  While the United States may have a Christian veneer, American society is not based on Christian values.  True Christians are becoming a minority group.

Dreher’s best-selling book, THE BENEDICT OPTION: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017), is about how Christians can survive and thrive as a minority.

American society is being shaped, or rather dissolved, by what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity,” Dreher wrote.   There are no stable structures—political, economic, social or moral.  Everything is changing, so nobody can commit to a fixed role or even a fixed identity.

The result, according to Dreher, is moral disintegration.  Some 41 percent of American babies are born out of wedlock.  Pornography is everywhere.  Materialism and consumerism prevail.  The educational system is geared toward teaching how to achieve personal economic success, and nothing more.

The election of “someone as robustly vulgar, fiercely combative and morally compromised” as Donald Trump is not a solution to American’s moral decline, Dreher wrote, but a symptom of it.

The churches by and large do not resist this because they have been hollowed out.  He said this is true not only of the liberal churches (which he mostly ignores), but Evangelicals and Catholics.  Few young people have any understanding of the religious doctrines they supposedly believe in.

The prevailing implicit religion is what another sociologist, Christian Smith, called moralistic therapeutic deism—his term for what he found to be prevailing beliefs among young 21st century Americans.

Its tenets are (1) God created you, (2) God wants you to be a nice person, (3) the main goal in life is to be happy and feel good about yourself, (4) you can call on God when you have a problem and (5) good people go to heaven.

The problem for this for Dreher is not just that it ignores basic Christian teachings, such as sin and the need for repentance, and the need for prayer and worship.

It is the absence of understanding that there is a social order, a natural order and a supernatural order of which the individual is only a part, and that individuals cannot flourish if they cut themselves off from the order of things.

Dreher wrote that Christians today need to do what Saint Benedict did at the dawn of the 6th century A.D.  Benedict withdrew from the Roman society of his day and organized a new community based on a balance of work and prayer.

The Benedictines did not withdraw from society.  Hospitality was one of their principles.  But neither did they allow themselves to be absorbed by the prevailing society.  Instead they created an alternative that, in due time, became an example to others.

Most of The Benedict Option consists of reporting on contemporary Christians who are trying to do in our time what Saint Benedict did in is.   He begins with the Monastery of Saint Benedict in Norcia, Italy, which was suppressed by Napoleon in 1810, but revived by Father Cassian Folsom, a 61-year-old American, along with others in December, 2000.

Not everybody is called on to be monks, but all Christians can learn from their practice, Dreher wrote.  Families should set aside specific days and times for prayer, Bible study and serious religious conversation, and stick to that schedule, even when inconvenient.

He interviewed Czech and Polish Christians about how they survived under Communism, not by fighting the Communist governments directly, but by manifesting an alternative to life based on materialism.

He wrote about efforts large and small by Evangelicals and Catholics in the United States to build community and preserve authentic Christianity.

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The revolutionary power of early Christianity

January 25, 2017

QUO VADIS by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1896)  tells a story of the coming of Christianity to Rome in the time of Nero.  It depicts the discontinuity between Christianity and the Greco-Roman pagan world, and what happens when people actually live by the Sermon on the Mount.

This would be a revolutionary moral change today.   It was an even more revolutionary change then.

quovadis41daeylwxl-_ac_ul320_sr224320_Unlike in Christianity, worship of the Greco-Roman gods had nothing to do with morality nor with hope and heaven.   The pagan gods were regarded as powerful supernatural beings who had to be appeased with worship and animal sacrifice for the sake of one’s family or one’s city or nation, but who otherwise did not care about you.

Many of the Roman upper classes had come to believe that religion was a useful superstition for keeping the common people contented.

This had nothing to do with leading a virtuous life, which was the province of philosophy, and only a select few were followers of philosophy.

Christianity represented a moral revolution.  St. Paul, St. Peter and the Christians depicted in this novel practiced universal love, unconditional forgiveness and the sharing of all wealth and property—something unprecedented in any mass movement.

The Christian missionaries taught that in the Kingdom of God, there was no distinction between rich and poor, free and slave, man and woman or Roman, Greek or Jew.  They created communities whereby poor people could band together and provide for their own needs, independently of the oppressive and indifferent Roman state.   The collision of the pagan and Christian view of life is the subject of this novel.

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Murray Bookchin: the legacy of freedom

June 8, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005).  

chapter seven – the legacy of freedom

Bookchin was an anarchist who believed it was possible to create a society without government or corporations, in which free people could live in peace with each other and with nature.  I’m interested in Bookchin because of the failures of state socialism and corporate neoliberalism and the unsatisfactory nature of current politics.

In the first six chapters of The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin described how hierarchy emerged from what he called the original organic society, of how tribal shamans and warrior bands became priesthoods and armies and of how the idea of abstract justice to balance the power of ancient despots.

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin wrote about how Christianity shaped the idea of freedom, and how, for many centuries, the struggle between freedom and hierarchy was fought within the framework of Christian thought.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Early Christian communities, in many ways, fit Bookchin’s anarchist ideal.   Early Christians came together voluntarily and as equals.  They not only came together for worship, but to provide for each others’ needs, since the Roman government’s functions were mainly limited to collecting taxes, suppressing disorder and waging war.

Later on the Christian church developed a hierarchy that accommodated itself to the Roman Empire, and then to feudal lords and medieval kings, and to the modern state.

The medieval Papacy was the ultimate hierarchy.  Its ideal was the Great Chain of Being—God and his angels at the peak, delegating authority to popes and kings, who empowered priests and nobles, with the common people at the bottom.  Papal power reached its peak under Pope Gregory VII, who excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, for resisting the church’s claims to power.

But, as Bookchin noted, the memory and ideal of primitive Christianity never entirely disappeared.  In time, Puritans, in the name of Christianity, beheaded their king and labeled the Pope as the Antichrist.

St. Augustine, he wrote, regarded government not merely as irrelevant, but as evil—a necessary evil, however, because people were corrupted by original sin.  The ideal, however, was a community in which people were united by the bonds of love, and that ideal never disappeared.

The ancient Greeks, Romans and most of the rest of the pagan world regarded history as cyclical, so that everything that happened would happen again.   But Christians believed that history had a direction and a goal, starting with the Garden of Eden and ending with the Second Coming of Christ, in which a better world would come into being.   That hope of a better world never disappeared.

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The passing scene – August 9, 2015

August 9, 2015

These are links to interesting articles I’ve come across in the past day or so.  I may add links during the day.  Please feel free to make general or off-topic comments.

Coyotes in New York and Chicago by Lance Richardson for Slate.

150731_WILD_CoyoteLIC.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2Coyotes now inhabit New York, Chicago and other big American cities.  Lance Richardson thinks they may well fit the urban and suburban environment better than the rural environment.

Coyotes eat rats and mice.  They eat feral cats, which prey on songbirds.  In suburbs, where hunters are forbidden to discharge firearms, they keep the deer population down.

Farmers and ranchers kill coyotes because coyotes destroy poultry and livestock.  But in cities and suburbs, most pets and other domestic animals are locked up, and coyotes survive by eating vermin.

Meet the electric life forms that live on pure energy by Catherine Brahic for New Scientist.

Scientists have discovered bacteria that eat and breathe electrons, and they can be found nearly everywhere.  All life and all chemical reactions are based on a flow of electrons, but these bacteria survive on electricity in its purest form.

Kropotkin on the Hudson by Polly Howells for In These Times.

Members of the Long Spoon Collective in Saugerties, New York, try to live by the anarchist values of voluntary sharing.   I highly approve of what they’re attempting and wish them well.  I’m not sure such communities can work without extra-ordinary dedication, but I’d be happy to be proved wrong.  I don’t have it in me to live as they do myself.

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Meaninglessness, horror and philosophy

August 8, 2015

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My friend Hal Bauer called my attention to a radio interview with a young philosopher named Eugene Thacker, author of In the Dust of This Planet: the Horror of Philosophy, Volume I.

Thacker, a self-described pessimist and nihilist, thinks that horror fiction—in which nothing makes sense and something bad can happen at any moment—is a good guide to the modern predicament of living in a meaningless world.

My argument with Thacker is that he treats meaningless as a fact, and I think meaninglessness is a choice.

The old Greek and Roman philosophers were not concerned about meaninglessness.  To them, the purpose of philosophy was to teach you how to endure hardship, pain and death, with dignity and without whining.

Christianity created meaning.   The Christian church taught people they were actors a drama that extended from birth to the afterlife, and from Creation to the Last Judgment.

I once read Dante’s The Divine Comedy as part of a reading group, and was saw how Dante gave every little thing that he encountered a theological significance, a metaphysical significance and a moral significance.  It would be wonderful to see things that way, I thought.

The disappearance of this significance is hard on people who can’t believe in Christianity, but who’ve grown up in a civilization formed by Christianity.

Thacker tries to get this back through the study of occult philosophy, which does indeed give things metaphysical and magical significance.

There may well be “hidden worlds” as occult philosophers believe.  If you think, as I do, that everything that exists is the result of impersonal natural laws and of the decisions of sentient beings, then the occult is the realm of natural laws and sentient beings we don’t know about.

The problem with occult philosophy, as opposed to empirical science, is that it provides no criteria for distinguishing truth about the “hidden world” from meaningless gobbledegook.

In science, if the experiment doesn’t work or the prediction doesn’t come about, the theory is not true—or at least is subject to doubt.  In occult philosophy, the only criterion is whether it rings true to you personally.

If you can’t believe in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or any of the other established religions, I recommend you took at the classic Greek and Roman philosophers.  Broadly speaking, they were concerned with happiness, not with meaningfulness, and they pursued happiness in two ways.

One was to learn to appreciate life’s blessings, however small, and to not make yourself unhappy wishing things could be different from what they were.  The other was to live your life in such a way that you could look back on it with justified satisfaction at having done your duty.

LINKS

In The Dust of This Planet – Radiolab.

Playing: In the Dust of This Planet.

In the Dust of This Planet: an excerpt from the book.

The Sight of a Mangled Corpse, an interview with Eugene Thacker.

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Loving your neighbor as yourself

August 2, 2015

If someone has to agree with your theological system in order to agree that what you are doing is “love,” then you are not loving your neighbor as yourself.

via Storied Theology.

Notes on religion: Links & comments 10/5/14

October 5, 2014

The Revelations of Marilynne Robinson by Wyatt Mason for The New York Times Magazine.  (Hat tip to Anne Tanner)

The Christian essayist and novelist Marilynne Robinson deplores the American culture of fear, our failure to appreciate the wonder of life and of humanity, and our unwillingness to talk about the things that concern us most.  I like Robinson’s books and I thought there was a lot of meat in this interview.

The Myth of Religious Violence by Karen Armstrong for The Guardian.

The late Christopher Hitchens said religion spoils everything.  Karen Armstrong says religion is spoiled when it is weaponized to serve non-religious purposes.

In Medicine We Trust by Brian Palmer for Slate.

A secular humanist faces up to the fact that Christian medical missionaries are the largest group of people on the ground fighting the Ebola plague in west Africa.

Something I cannot understand

June 26, 2014

I’m not well-traveled, and I speak no language other than English.   The way I try to understand why people in foreign cultures do what they do is to imagine myself in their place.  Usually I conclude that if I were in their situation, and had had their life experiences, I probably would do as they did.

But recently I read news stories about people who wanted to kill close relatives because they were of a different religion.  I cannot understand this.

One report was about “Josef,” a Pakistani man who is in hiding in Afghanistan from his Muslim family who want to kill him because he has converted to Christianity.   The other was about Meriam Ibrahim, a woman who was raised a Christian in Sudan after being deserted by her Muslim father.  She narrowly escaped being sentenced to death after her father’s family accused her of “renouncing” Islam—a religion in which she had never believed.

I believe that people have a right to believe in whatever religion they choose, or, to put it more precisely, I believe that people have a right to state openly that they believe whatever they inwardly feel compelled to believe.   I cannot imagine wanting to kill a relative or loved one because they reject my beliefs and values.

Naziism is the most abhorrent belief that I can think of.  But if a relative become a Nazi, my response would be to make him see the error of his ways, as long as I thought this were possible.   I might give up meeting him on a regular basis if all he did was harangue me.  In an extreme case, if he planned a murder or a dangerous act of violence, I would threaten to report him to the police.  But I can’t imagine killing a loved one or relative just because of what they think, however barbarous.

I don’t think these two news articles justify a general condemnation of all the world’s one billion Muslims, who certainly are not all alike.  But they do justify a feeling of pride and gratitude for the religious freedom of the USA.  I can’t imagine the most intolerant American Christian attempting to kill someone for renouncing Christianity and, if such a person existed, they would be put in trial for their crime.

Despite the harassment and prejudice that Muslims sometimes endure in the United States, I think that they not only enjoy more freedom than do Christians in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Sudan, I think they enjoy more freedom here than do Muslims in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Sudan.

LINKS

A Christian Convert, on the Run in Afghanistan, by Azam Ahmed for the New York Times. Hat tip to Rod Dreher.

Meriam Ibrahim freed again after rearrest at Sudan airport by the Associated Press.

Sudan death penalty case reignites Islam apostasy debate by BBC News.

Lifelong Christian may die as a Muslim apostate

May 22, 2014

 A woman raised as a Christian, who has been a Christian all her life, has been sentenced to death in Sudan as an apostate from Islam, because her father was a Muslim.

Meriam Ibrahim was sentenced a week ago after refusing to renounce her religion and her marriage to Daniel Wani, a Christian man born in Sudan and now a U.S. citizen.   She said her father deserted his family when she was a child, and she was raised by her Ethiopian-born Christian mother.  She said she never was a Muslim.

She is eight months pregnant.  Her husband, who is confined to a wheelchair, was allowed to visit her Monday.  He said she was shackled to a wall.  Her 20-month-old son, Martin, is in prison with her.

Sudan officials said the verdict is not final.  There has been a great international protest of the sentence, and I hope the Sudan government will force the religious court to back down.

What kind of a religion is this?  I believe that how you live is more important than your opinions about religion.  But suppose, for the sake of argument, that your soul is doomed if you do not believe that there is no God but Allah, and that Mohammed is his prophet.  What is the point of forcing someone to give lip service to that belief, or any belief, against her will?

Does the court believe that God wants a hypocritical and unwilling submission?  Or do they think that God can be fooled into believing the conversion is sincere?

I do not believe that the Sudan religious court represents all Muslims.  History shows that intolerance is not an inherent part of the Muslim religion.  At certain times in history, persecuted Jews and heretical Christians took refuge in Muslim lands.

The problem is with a Muslim sect called the Wahhabis, who originated in Saudi Arabia and whose teachings are spread through the Muslim world by the Saudi monarchy.  They are among the few Muslim sects that persecute other Muslims.  Wahhabis are not necessarily terrorists, but Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda movement arose from Wahhabi teachings.

The rise of Wahhabism is a historical accident—the fact that the Ibn Saud family allied itself with the Wahhabi movement in its rise to power in Arabia, and the fact that so much of the world’s oil wealth is under control of the Saudi family.

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If you take the Bible literally…

January 12, 2014

My friend Bill Elwell e-mailed me this quote by Marilynne Robinson, a Christian novelist whom I greatly admire.

marilynne-robinson41People who insist that the sacredness of Scripture depends on belief in creation in a literal six days seem never to insist on a literal reading of “to him who asks, give,” or “sell what you have and give the money to the poor.”

In fact, their politics and economics align themselves quite precisely with those of their adversaries, who yearn to dis-burden themselves of the weak, and to unshackle the great creative forces of competition.

The defenders of “religion” have made religion seem foolish while rendering it mute in the face of a prolonged and highly effective assault on the poor.

I am wary of overgeneralizing.  I would never say that Biblical fundamentalists as a group fail to follow Jesus’s teaching about giving to the poor.   I’d guess, for example, that there are Creationists in the Salvation Army, which does as much to help poor people as any organization I know, and whose political and social program, if enacted, would make the world a better place.

I recall that, 15 or so years ago, I was part of a team of volunteers for Catholic Family Services, helping resettle refugees from other lands in their new home in Rochester, N.Y.  I am a Unitarian Universalist, our team leader was a Lutheran woman and our other team members were an Irish Catholic women and a born-again Christian man, with amazing stories about people whose lives were transformed overnight by a single revival meeting.   We worked together very well.

All that said, I think we all have encountered the type of person to which Marilynne Robinson refers.  If the shoe fits, put it on.

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The liberal Christianity of Marilynne Robinson

November 17, 2013

marilynne-robinson41

Marilynne Robinson is a novelist and essayist who teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  I greatly admire her novel, Gilead, which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, and her two essay collections, The Death of Adam and When I Was a Child I Read Books.  She is a liberal Christian—uncompromisingly liberal and uncompromisingly Christian.

I never thought that anybody could persuade me to have a good opinion of John Calvin, but she did.  I could never accept the Calvinist doctrine that some people are predestined to Hell, because if there is an all-powerful, all-loving Heavenly Father, human beings would either have free will or be predestined to Heaven.

But Robinson did clear Calvin and the Puritans of the charge that they were success-worshipers, that they believed that the rich and fortunate were God’s elect.  John Calvin and the New England Puritans, like Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, condemned rich people who were indifferent to the poor, and preached loving charity as the most essential Christian virtue.  That is why, she wrote, the heirs of the Puritans were in the forefront of the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, humane treatment of the blind, the deaf and the insane or other humanitarian reforms.

The American Conservative magazine recently published an interview with Marilynne Robinson which I like.  Here are some highlights.

TAC:  You draw deeply upon Christian figures of the past in your work.  Are there any figures in contemporary Christendom whom you find particularly inspiring or admirable?

MR: Something I find regrettable in contemporary Christianity is the degree to which it has abandoned its own heritage, in thought and art and literature.   It was at the center of learning in the West for centuries—because it deserved to be.  Now there seems to be actual hostility on the part of many Christians to what, historically, was called Christian thought, as if the whole point were to get a few things right and then stand pat.

I believe very strongly that this world, these billions of companions on earth that we know are God’s images, are to be loved, not only in their sins, but especially in all that is wonderful about them.  And as God is God of the living, that means we ought to be open to the wonderful in all generations.  These are my reasons for writing about Christian figures of the past.

At present there is much praying on street corners.   There are many loud declarations of personal piety, which my reading of the Gospels forbids me to take at face value.  The media are drawn by noise, so it is difficult to get a sense of the actual state of things in American religious culture.

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The maldistribution of guilt

July 21, 2013

One of the things I decided at a young age was that although I would take moral responsibility for my actions, I would never let anybody make me feel guilty about what I am.

This was partly a reaction against my early religious upbringing.  I learned many good values in my church, such as respect for the dignity and worth of all persons and the duty to stand up for what is right when everybody else disagreed.  But I also took away a belief that guilt holds positive value.

At age 13 and 14, I believed, because I failed to love other people as myself and failed to love God with all by heart, soul and mind, I was a sinner and that it was because of sinners such as me that Jesus had to suffer and die on the cross.  I noticed that in the Gospels Jesus was forgiving of repentant sinners, but condemned people who took satisfaction in following religious rules.   I concluded that the best thing I could hope to be is a repentant sinner, but repentance was of no value if I took satisfaction in being repentant.

I do not claim this is an accurate account of Christian teachings.  But it is what I believed at age 13 and 14, and I do not think I was unique in these beliefs.

guilt2Guilt has a positive function.  If you feel bad about doing bad things, and good about doing good things, you are motivated to do fewer bad things and more good things.  But if your sense of guilt is so highly developed that you feel bad about feeling good, you are trapped in a Catch-22 vicious circle.

Guilt, like many other things, is badly distributed.   Some people have much more than is good for them, but those who need it the most have none at all.

I knew a woman, a person of no explicit religious beliefs, who came as close as anybody I know to being a saint.  She spent decades of her life as a volunteer teacher in New York state prisons, ministering to society’s outcasts just as Jesus did.  From time to time she would talk about how rewarding she found her work and the relationships with the inmates.  Then she would bring herself up short.  She thought that if she found pleasure and satisfaction in her volunteer work, her reason volunteering was selfish and had no moral merit.   Neither she nor anybody else benefited from this kind of reasoning.

I am highly suspicious of anybody to tries to persuade me to do or believe something based on the guilt I supposedly should feel for being white or middle-class or American.  This approach leads me to believe that the persuader has no valid argument.

I think that white guilt—the feeling of guilt for being a member of the white race—is a subconscious version of Christian original sin.  It is based not on what you do, but what you are.

I have listened to liberal white people in workshops confessing that they are all a bunch of racists.  I think such conversations reflect the subconscious notion that feeling guilty has moral value in and of itself, regardless of whether the feeling leads to constructive action.   If you are concerned about civil rights, it should be because you want everyone’s basic rights respected, not because you are trying to get rid of negative feelings about yourself.

Francis Spufford’s faith without belief

October 28, 2012

Francis Spufford is the author of the wonderful book, Red Plenty, a novelistic account of the failed Soviet economic reforms in the Khrushchev era.  It is interesting throughout and shows why the system was unreformable.  Now he has written a new book, Unapologetic, in which he defends Christianity against New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins.  The first chapter was published in The Guardian.

The atheist bus says: “There’s probably no God.  So stop worrying and enjoy your life.” All right: which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with recognizable human experience so fast it doesn’t even have time to wave goodbye?  It isn’t “probably”.  New Atheists aren’t claiming anything outrageous when they say that there probably isn’t a God.   In fact they aren’t claiming anything substantial at all, because, really, how would they know?   It’s as much of a guess for them as it is for me.  No, the word that offends against realism here is “enjoy”.

I’m sorry – enjoy your life?  I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely.  Enjoyment is great.  The more enjoyment the better.  But enjoyment is one emotion.  To say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying that mountains should only have summits, or that all colors should be purple, or that all plays should be by Shakespeare.  This really is a bizarre category error.

But not necessarily an innocent one.  Not necessarily a piece of fluffy pretending that does no harm.  The implication of the bus slogan is that enjoyment would be your natural state if you weren’t being “worried” by us believers and our hellfire preaching.  Take away the malignant threat of God-talk, and you would revert to continuous pleasure, under cloudless skies.   What’s so wrong with this, apart from it being total bollocks?  Well, in the first place, that it buys a bill of goods, sight unseen, from modern marketing.  Given that human life isn’t and can’t be made up of enjoyment, it is in effect accepting a picture of human life in which those pieces of living where easy enjoyment is more likely become the only pieces that are visible … …

… Suppose, as the atheist bus goes by, you are poverty-stricken, or desperate for a job, or a drug addict, or social services have just taken away your child.  The bus tells you that there’s probably no God so you should stop worrying and enjoy your life, and now the slogan is not just bitterly inappropriate in mood.  What it means, if it’s true, is that anyone who isn’t enjoying themselves is entirely on their own.  What the bus says is: there’s no help coming.  Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s any help coming, in one large and important sense of the term.  I don’t believe anything is going to happen that will materially alter the position these people find themselves in.  But let’s be clear about the emotional logic of the bus’s message. It amounts to a denial of hope or consolation on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation.  St Augustine called this kind of thing “cruel optimism” 1,500 years ago, and it’s still cruel.

A consolation you could believe in would be one that wasn’t in danger of popping like a soap bubble on contact with the ordinary truths about us.  A consolation you could trust would be one that acknowledged the difficult stuff rather than being in flight from it, and then found you grounds for hope in spite of it, or even because of it, with your fingers firmly out of your ears, and all the sounds of the complicated world rushing in, undenied.

via The Guardian.

Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, asserts, correctly, that there is no empirical or logical proof of the existence of God, and that as a scientific hypothesis, the Christian religion and other religions make no sense.  He has no sense of religion as a source of meaning and purpose in individual lives, or as a source of community.   What Dawkins has instead is a great sense of joy and (you might say) reverence in learning of the wonders of the natural world.

Spufford, surprisingly, agrees that the truth of Christianity is unprovable to those who don’t already have faith.   He wrote this for the New Humanist magazine.

We believe there is a God.  You believe there isn’t one.  Meanwhile, nobody knows, nobody can know, whether He exists or not, it not being a matter susceptible to proof or disproof.  The most science can do is to demonstrate that God is not necessary as a physical explanation for anything, which is very much not the same thing as demonstrating that He isn’t there.  So the natural, neutral, temperate position here would be agnosticism: a calm, indifferent not-knowing. … …

Religion isn’t a philosophical argument, just as it isn’t a dodgy cosmology, or any other kind of alternative to science.  In fact, it isn’t primarily a system of propositions about the world at all.  Before it is anything else, it is a structure of feeling, a house built of emotions. You don’t have the emotions because you’ve signed up to the proposition that God exists; you entertain the proposition that God exists because you’ve had the emotions.  You entertain the proposition, and perhaps eventually sign up to it, because it makes a secondary kind of sense of something you’re feeling anyway.

via New Humanist.

The question is whether you can have a solid religious faith without making assertions of objective fact.   Richard Dawkins in the preface to The God Delusion says the metaphorical faith of people such as Karen Armstrong, and by implication Francis Spufford, is beyond the scope of his book.  His argument is with religion as an assertion that revelation takes precedence over scientific fact.  This is not a straw man.   This is in fact what most Jews, Christians and Muslims believe.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution is compatible with Christian belief, but it still is necessary to believe that the human race is descended from one man and one woman who were guilty of original sin, and to believe that as fact, not metaphor.

One problem with Spufford’s religion of personal experience is that it does not speak to those who do not have the religious experience he speaks of, of whom I am one.   And most Jews, Christians and Muslims believe as they do not because of their subjective personal experience, but because they accept a certain religious revelation as objectively true.   This brings religion into Richard Dawkins’ field of fire.

Click on The trouble with atheists: a defense of faith for Spufford’s full article in The Guardian.

Click on Dear atheists… for Spufford’s full article in the New Humanist.

Click on Dear Christians… for a rebuttal to Spufford.

Click on The dream of a Communist utopia for my review of Red Plenty

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Christian in the Washington County sense

January 8, 2012

When I was growing up in Washington County, Md., in the 1940s and 1950s, if you spoke of someone as a “real philosopher,” you did not mean somebody who deeply understood Plato or Bertrand Russell.  You meant somebody who kept their mental balance in good fortune and bad, who didn’t allow their self-respect to be affected by things they did not control.

And if you spoke of someone as a “real Christian,” you did not mean somebody with a lot of animosity toward atheists or feminists or some other group of people.  You mean somebody who was especially patient, modest, peaceable and concerned about other people.

With the conflicts we Americans have over abortion rights, gay rights and the relation of religion to government, you might think that the real Christians in the Washington County sense had been pushed into the background.  I don’t think this is the case.  I think there are just as many as there always were.

I think that the majority of evangelical Christians, liberal Christians and us crazy Unitarian Universalists are more alike than we are different.  Our congregations all try to minister to the needy and troubled in our own congregations, and to do good in the world – most of them without doing anything special to call attention to themselves.  I continually find out good things that congregations here in Rochester, N.Y., are doing, as Jesus recommended, without calling attention to themselves.

Some years ago I was a volunteer driver for Catholic Family Services’ refugee resettlement program in Rochester, N.Y.   Our team leader was a Lutheran, and the other members were a Catholic and a born-again evangelical Protestant full of amazing stories about how people’s lives had been turned around by instant conversions.  The refugees we helped included Christians and Muslims, from Somalia, Afghanistan, Liberia, Bosnia and other countries.  We didn’t make any distinctions, and neither did they.  The refugees had learned through that somebody who pays lip service to the same religion as you do is not necessarily your friend, and somebody who pays lip service to a different religion is not necessarily your enemy.

More recently the churches in Rochester started a program to provide, in rotation, temporary shelter for homeless families while the adults sought jobs and more permanent quarters.  My church, First Universalist Church, is paired with St. Mary’s Catholic Church in this project.  Our theological beliefs are at opposite extremes, but we work together just fine.

In Rochester there is an annual union Thanksgiving service in which Christians, Jews, UUs and Muslims all participate.   These religions don’t all teach the same thing.  I don’t want to make light of the distinctive teachings of the different religions, or to claim that it doesn’t matter who (if anybody)  is right.  But I believe that beyond all our differences and beneath all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one.

Is the United States a Christian nation?

July 7, 2011

What is the definition of “Christian nation?”

The United States is a Christian nation in the sense that a majority of Americans are Christians, in the sense that United States is a country in which the Christian religion flourishes, in the sense that the United States is part of Western civilization, which is rooted in Christianity, the Bible and the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome.

But the United States is not a Christian nation in the sense that Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan are Muslim nations, Israel is a Jewish nation and the Dalai Lama’s Tibet was a Buddhist nation.  There is no religious test for American citizenship.

Declaration and Constitution don't mention Jesus

On this question, as in other things, we can look to our differing but complementary founding documents for guidance – the Declaration of Independence, a religious document, and the Constitution, a secular document.

The Declaration speaks of “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” entitle them, the inalienable rights with which people are endowed “by their Creator,” with inalienable rights, and “a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence.”

This is a religious statement— an ecumenical religious statement.  There is nothing in the Declaration to which any Christian would object, but the Declaration also is compatible with Judaism, Islam and many other religions, including “deism” – belief in God unconnected from any organized religious body.

The Constitution, on the other hand, does not mention God at all.  It only speaks of religion – that there shall be no religious test for public office, and that Congress shall pass no law regarding the establishment of religion nor limiting the free exercise of religion.

What I take these two documents together to mean is this.  It is assumed that everybody believes in God in some way, shape or form.  But this is not considered any of the government’s business.  Neither the Declaration nor the Constitution provide any justification for forcing religion on anyone, nor relegating anybody to second-class citizenship based on their religious belief or lack of belief.

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