Saturday, June 30, 2007

Father Jones on the (Near) Future of the Anglican Communion

Father Greg Jones thinks schism is near--both of the Episcopal Church and in the larger Anglican Communion. I agree with his analysis:

I keep wondering how best to describe what is so clearly unfolding. With the news that the Anglican Church of Kenya has now appointed a second American (formerly Episcopal) priest as a bishop for missionary work in North America -- it is quickly becoming obvious what is happening. The announcements from Kenya that Murdoch and Atwood will be bishops with missionary oversight in America, and their welcome reception by the Anglican Communion Network's Bob Duncan, indicate that the long-awaited 'orthodox' and 'new' North American 'Anglican' province is on its way. It must deduced that while no such clearly worded announcement has been made by anybody -- all new facts on the ground point to the fact that a new alternative brand of Anglicanism is being offered under the guise of traditionalism on North American soil. It is indeed a joint venture between various strands of Anglo-Catholic and Anglican Evangelical -- and it includes the various dioceses still working hard to figure out a way to steal away from the Episcopal Church -- the various parishes which mostly have done so already -- and the half-dozen or so largest groups of traditionalist Anglican fellowships. It looks like there will be no shortage of bishops. If the Reformed Episcopal, Traditional Anglican, Anglican Communion Network, Convocation of Anglicans, Anlglican Mission in the Americas, Kenyan, Uganda, Bolivian, and others come together -- as it looks like they are doing this summer -- there will be more bishops than one can imagine.

. . .

Anyhow, friends, this is how it's playing out. By Summer's end, with further news that Gene Robinson will be going to Lambeth (in some reduced status), along with all the other bishops with jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church, and that the realignment forces have continued to not only ignore the Windsor process but deny that the Windsor Report urges they refrain from such activity, what reasonable hope is there that the Communion will withstand the pressures of the separatists? It won't. They will leave, as they do in many localities, and they will do everything they can to build the church they want.

Read it all here.

Friday, June 29, 2007

American Multiculturalism

Mark Lilla, professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, has a review of a new biography of Alexis de Tocqueville, in The New Republic. The review is quite critical of the biography, but I was more taken with Lilla's brief description of the development of democratic multiculturalism in the United States. In short, Lilla argues that the United States developed democratic multiculturalism better than other countries because it was paradoxically initially quite homogeneous. We had to learn toleration and equality first within this homogeneous community before we could extend it to individuals from other groups:

Tocqueville was neither a racist nor a chauvinist; Brogan tells us that he broke with his trusted aide Gobineau when the latter began publishing his bizarre theories about racial inequality. But Tocqueville did believe that every civilization begins at what he called a point de départ, out of which its prejudices, habits, and characteristic passions grow. The American point de départ was ethnic-religious: our country was first populated by Puritans, who shared what we today call a common culture, and whose theology wed the spirit of religion to the spirit of liberty. Whether or not Tocqueville was right about Puritanism, the deeper insight concerns the social preconditions of democratic life.

Tocqueville attributed no superior racial characteristics to the Anglo-Saxons (he was French, after all), but he did notice that the potential for toleration implicit in Protestantism could be realized only in a context in which people looked roughly similar, spoke the same language, and cooked the same food--in short, where equality was already a social and psychological fact. Many societies in the past practiced toleration without assuming equality: every group got its own quarter of the city, paid its taxes, and (ideally at least) was left alone. This was multiculturalism, but it was not democratic multiculturalism, which tolerates individuals as individuals. Paradoxically, ethnic and confessional homogeneity may be the historical precondition of democratic multiculturalism, which can later dissolve that homogeneity. Only once the principle of toleration exists as a social fact among similar people can it be conceived as an abstract principle and extended to others.

Read the entire review here (subscription required).

Of course, this type of democratic multiculturalism is always in danger of reverting back to the group model. At some point, separation into different groups can lead to the type of multiculturalism that is group, rather than individual, focused. Nonetheless, I am fascinated by Lilla's point--did we first need to learn toleration and equality within a homogeneous group?

Supreme Court Reverses Course on Gitmo

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will hear argument on the issue of whether Guantánamo detainees have a right to challenge their detentions in American federal courts. This is surprising since in April the Court had ruled that they would not accept this case. The Court seems to have a solid five justice conservative majority--this order suggests to me that at least one member of this majority is having second thoughts about the issue.

Here is the report from the New York Times:

The United States Supreme Court reversed course today and agreed to hear claims of Guantánamo detainees that they have a right to challenge their detentions in American federal courts.

The decision, announced in a brief order released this morning, set the stage for a historic legal battle that appeared likely to affect debates in the Bush administration about when and how to close the detention center that has become a lightning rod for international criticism.

Lawyers for many of the 375 men now held at the naval station on a scrubby corner of Cuba greeted the unexpected news with euphoria, saying it appeared the court was headed toward a ruling on one of the central principles of the administration’s detention policies: the claim that the government can hold people the military labels enemy combatants without allowing them to use the ancient legal tool of the writ of habeas corpus, a legal action used in English law for centuries to challenge the legality of detentions.

“Finally, after nearly six years, the Supreme Court is going to rule on the ultimate question: does the constitution protect the people detained at Guantánamo Bay?” said Neal Kaytal, a Georgetown University law professor who argued the last Supreme Court case dealing with the Guantánamo detainees. In that case, decided last June, the justices struck down the administration’s planned system for war crimes trials of detainees.

The issue in the case the court agreed to hear on Friday is whether the Congress can strip the federal courts of the power to hear such habeas corpus cases filed by Guantánamo detainees. In legislation passed after last June’s Supreme Court ruling, Congress included a provision barring such suits by the detainees.

“The Supreme Court has taken a giant step toward ensuring the detainees a day in court,” said David H. Remes, a Washington lawyer who represents Yemeni detainees at Guantánamo.

Today’s order was a different result than the justices reached on April 2, when they ruled that they would not hear the case at that time. Unusual language in that order had suggested some maneuvering among the justices on whether or when they should again get involved in the tangled legal questions presented by Guantánamo.

It is too early to predict what the Court will do, but I think that the Court is clealry quite uncomfortable with the notion that decisions made in Guantánamo are not subject to judicial review. My own view is that if the Bush Administration had, from the start, complied with International Law and had both treated these prisoners as POWS's (albeit ones that may be unlawful combatants) and applied the Uniform Code of Military Justice to any trials, the Supreme Court would never have entertained a request for relief. I think that it is only considering doing so now because the Administration has taken such an extreme position.

More Bad News about Mainline Church Declines

The Religion News Service is reporting further declines in the membership of several mainline Christian denominations in the United States:

Three mainline Protestant denominations--the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Church of the Brethren--have experienced steady decreases in U.S. membership rolls, continuing long-term trends, according to separate June reports.

A "state of the church" report issued by the UMC said its U.S. membership fell to 7.9 million--a loss of nearly 6 percent--from 1995 to 2005. In Africa and Asia, however, Methodist numbers are growing, with 200 percent increases on each continent during that decade.

UMC membership dropped about 1.4 percent in 2006, according to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.

Active membership in the Presbyterian Church (USA) fell by more than 46,000, to 2.27 million in 2006, according to the church's Office of the General Assembly. Almost 1,000 fewer adults, and 230 fewer children, were baptized by the church last year, the church said.

Several large congregations have left the PC(USA) this year, choosing to affiliate with the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church instead.

The Church of the Brethren reported a 1.4 percent decrease in membership last year, to about 128,000. Membership fell by a similar percentage in 2005, the church said.

Sounds like it well past time for some serious and innovative evangelism by these churches--and others like my own Episcopal Church as well.

Ten theses on Dietrich Bonhoeffer: theologian, Christian, martyr

Benjamin Myers Faith and Theology blog has a guest post by Ray Anderson of the Fuller Theological Seminary about German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In just one post, Anderson manages to provide a great deal of thought-provoking information about this theologian and martyr.

Here are some highlights:

1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian. Rather, one should say that he became a Christian theologian. Eberhard Bethge, his former student and biographer, notes the year 1933 as a “transition from theologian to Christian.” In 1936 Dietrich wrote to a girlfriend and confessed: “I plunged into work in a very unchristian way.… [T]hen something happened, something that has changed and transformed my life to the present day. For the first time I discovered the Bible…. I had often preached. I had seen a great deal of the church, spoken and preached about it, but I had not yet become a Christian” (Bethge 2000, 203-5). By his own admission, his two most scholarly writings, Sanctorum Communio (1927) and Act and Being (1930), were written by a theologian who was not yet a Christian. I take the word “Christian” here to mean “disciple” – one who does not merely believe in Christ, but experiences Christ.

. . .

4. Bonhoeffer was a worldly theologian. While the “worldliness of Christianity” became a dominant theme in his Letters from Prison, underlying this perspective was his conviction that the God who became human in Jesus Christ abolished the distinction between religion and the world. In his earliest writing he stated that religion is dispensable, God is not. “Not religion, but revelation, not a religious community, but the church: that is what the reality of Jesus Christ means” (Communio 1963, 112). Later, having witnessed the utter failure of the church as a religious institution to act on behalf of the oppressed Jews, he followed Christ out of the church into the world. Only those who live fully in the world have a claim to follow Christ, he wrote from prison. The God of religion whom we seek to call into the world on our behalf, has already entered the world in the form of a suffering God. “The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God” (Letters, 360). The “worldliness” of Christianity is not our invention, but our calling. The ambiguity of this situation, he asserted, is precisely what the incarnation created for us. It is ambiguity that creates prophets.

5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a prophetic theologian. He was one of the first to recognize and point out the disastrous consequences of Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. In June 1933, when the church struggle erupted over the National Bishop (Ludwig Müller) and the opposing General Superintendents were suspended, Bonhoeffer urged an interdict upon all pastoral services (baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.) as a way of confronting the German Christians with their unholy alliance with Hitler. But he could not arouse sympathy for this drastic action. In fact, Barth advised against this radical proposal, suggesting that “we should let the facts speak for themselves.” In September, following the Brown Synod, Bonhoeffer urged the formation of a new Free Church and even wrote to Barth requesting his support. But here again Bonhoeffer was disappointed at Barth’s counsel to wait until the present leaders “discredited themselves” (Bethge 2000, 292). It was in April 1933 in his article on “the Church and the Jewish Question” that he suggested that the only way to act responsibly would be by “throwing a spoke in the wheel” of the national government. Prophets often die by their own words; theologians seldom do.

6. Bonhoeffer was a postmodern theologian. Postmodern ethics was anticipated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he turned the “modern” basis for ethics (as advocated by Kant) on its head. He wrote: “In the sphere of Christian ethics it is not what ought to be that effects what is, but what is that effects what ought to be” (Communio 1963, 146). The problem of Christian ethics, said Bonhoeffer, is the same as the problem of Christian dogmatics, the realization of the reality of revelation in and among God’s creatures in the form of concreteness, immediacy, and obedience. In a world where good and evil are mixed, and where ambiguity conceals the divine commandment, the Christian’s ethical responsibility is to follow and obey Christ, not merely to adhere to abstract ethical principles. There is no place for “self justification” by virtue of reliance on predetermined principles for action. “Principles are only tools in God’s hands, soon to be thrown away as unserviceable” (Ethics 1995, 71).

. . .

8. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a practical theologian. Practical theology deals with God’s self-revelation and activity through the life and ministry of human beings. From the early Barth, Bonhoeffer learned that the act of God reveals the being of God. His second dissertation, Act and Being (1930), attempted to bring Barth’s concept of “pure act” into the historical realm through Heidegger. But Bonhoeffer was never a disciple of Barth. True, Barth led him away from idealism into critical realism with regard to divine revelation, but God’s life and activity through the human person Jesus Christ became for Bonhoeffer the praxis of revelation and thus the form of practical theology. His Christology was orthodox so far as Christ is the form of God in the world, but practical so far as the Christian is the form of Christ in the world. Because the former was merely a dogmatic assumption, his own theological praxis was concerned with action prior to reflection – a statement that scandalized his students.

Read it all (including the insightful comments).

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Michael Gerson on Faith and Politics

In his weekly Washington Post column, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson offers advice to Democrats on how to appeal to religious voters, and then offers more general advice to how Christians should look toward their faith on public policy issues. I think that his advice to Democrats is wrong. His advice to Christians, however, is spot on.

First the bad advice. Gerson, using Obama's speech to the UCC as a starting point, offers this advice to Democrats:

For Democrats, the speech was a class in remedial religion. But Obama still missed an opportunity. By speaking at a gathering of the United Church of Christ -- among the most excruciatingly progressive of Protestant denominations -- he was preaching to the liberal choir. And he did not effectively reach out to an evangelical movement in transition.

John Green of the Pew Forum describes that transition in generational terms. Survey research shows that evangelicals under 30 tend to be more concerned about the environment than are their elders, more engaged in international issues such as HIV-AIDS, a little more open on homosexual rights and less attached to the religious right. This should provide an opening for Democrats. But there is evidence, according to Green, that young evangelicals are as conservative on abortion as their parents and grandparents, if not more so.

Appealing to this group will require a three-step recovery program for Democrats. First, candidates should talk about their own faith and the importance of religion in public life, both of which Obama did well.

Second, Democrats should emphasize common-ground issues that credit the moral concerns of religious conservatives while calming the waves of the culture wars -- such as confronting the toxic excesses of popular culture, encouraging character and discipline in public schools, and promoting religious liberty abroad. Obama's speech showed little creativity on such matters.

Third, leading Democrats could make real policy changes on abortion, by adopting a more moderate position than abortion on demand. Given the current Democratic coalition, this doesn't seem likely. But some of us still remember the example of Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, whose liberal heart bled for all of the weak, including the unborn.

So what is my problem with Gerson's three-step program? I think that Gerson misses the boat with the third point. I think that "moderating" positions on issues like abortion and homosexuality will only cause a loss in votes among those who are already on our side. For every vote gained by moderating positions on these hot button issues, we are in danger of losing two we already had. In my view, the problem is quite different--we need to articulate why being pro-choice does not mean pro-abortion. And we need to offer quite concrete policy proposals on exactly how we intend to reduce the number of abortions in America.

But Gerson got something quite right. He is wise to warn Christians of all ideological stripes that the Bible is not a public policy manual:
The whole enterprise -- there are examples on the right and left -- of asking "What Would Jesus Do?" on the earned-income tax credit or missile defense is presumptuous. Jesus, were he around again in the flesh, would probably be doing sensible things such as healing the sick, embracing outcasts and preaching sacrificial love. After all, he showed little interest in issuing a "Contract With the Roman Empire." But his followers eventually found that "love your neighbor" had political consequences, leading them to challenge slavery, infanticide and the mistreatment of women and children.

This has been the Christian compromise on faith and politics. The essential humanism of Christianity requires an active, political concern about human dignity and the rights of the poor and weak. But faith says little about the means to achieve those ideals. The justice of welfare reform or tax cuts or moving toward socialized medicine is measured by the outcome of these changes. And those debates cannot be short-circuited by the claim "Thus sayeth the Lord," spoken by the Christian Coalition or the United Church of Christ.

Read the entire column here.

Children of Incarcerated Parents

Before my wife (the one on the right in the photo) decided to stay home to care for our toddler, she worked in the office of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano (the one on the left of the photo) on a wide variety of issues. One of the issues that she grew quite passionate about was the forgotten children of incarcerated parents. Despite the fact that these children are greatly at risk of becoming incarcerated themselves, they are largely forgotten by everyone. My wife worked hard to develop a wide variety of interventions--including expansion of mentoring programs. And she worked hard to make sure policymakers took these children into account when they made decisions. (Note to legislators: moving prisons hundreds or thousands of miles away from families is very, very bad for the children of those incarcerated in these prisons, and that, in turn, is bad for future victims of crime).

I was therefore pleased to see in Episcopal Life Online that several Episcopal dioceses have taken on the challenge, and are paying to send these children to camp:

Children of parents in prison "are invisible. No government entity is responsible for them," says a U.S. Senate report.

The president says there are 1.5 million of them. The Bureau of Justice statistics say they have a 70 percent chance of going to prison just like their parents.

In the hope of doing something about that, dioceses all over the country are sending the littlest victims of crime to summer camp for a week of love, learning and fun.

"If we can give them a week of unconditional love, there is hope," says the now-retired director of prison ministry for the national church, the Rev. Jackie Means.

Before she retired, she started another camp in the Diocese of Southwest Florida. Now there are camps in 20 dioceses of the Episcopal Church.

These children bring to camp "anger, fear, insecurity, suspicion and shame," said Means. "They need to know that Jesus loves them as they are. They need a safe place to deal with hard stuff and to be shown respect."

"To our utter amazement, attitudes and behaviors do get altered in that brief time," wrote the Rev. Stephen R. Caldwell. He started the first of these Episcopal camps in Sante Fe, New Mexico. "Campers are surprised to discover that our love for them is unconditional."

Gay Yerger, a staffer at Mississippi's ecumenical Camp Caritas, said: "They sing songs, they beat drums, they dance, they cut and paste and draw, they write, they imagine, they listen and they speak. They run and they rest ... In a safe and loving environment, children discover self-worth, broaden their horizons, make positive choices and develop leadership skills ... Children and adults are transformed."

A few of the children who attended a camp in Oklahoma for children 8-12 were getting into trouble once they turned 13, said Deacon Judy Gann. So a second -- Camp Start -- was created for children 12-15.

Read it all.

The dioceses involved include an impressively diverse group: Rio Grande, Oklahoma, Northern Michigan, Mississippi, Texas, West Texas, Nevada, East Carolina, Montana, Maryland, Florida, Southwest Florida, Arkansas, Vermont, Wisconsin, Easton, Md., Connecticut, Northern Indiana, Alaska, Louisiana. And, a resolution adopted by General Convention in 2006 set aside $65,000 for a three-year commitment to camps for children of prisoners. Further information is available here.

Kudos to these dioceses. The Diocese of Arizona should look to do the same.

More on Liberation Theology

Mike Ion, a Labour member of the British Parliament, has a post on the Guardian's "Comment is Free" group blog that argues that the Catholic Church needs to accept a new "Liberation Theology":

"Aspire not to have more but to be more." These were the words of Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980 by the pro-US military junta who then ran El Salvador. Romero was an advocate of what became known as liberation theology, a movement which took root throughout Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s and focused on helping the poor and oppressed, even if that meant confronting political powers. It was a theology that was later to be severely criticised as a "fundamental threat" to the church by one Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now better known as Pope Benedict XVI.

Romero spoke out for a theology that preached about the "preferential option for the poor". Ordained priests like Gutiérrez, Sobrino and Boff argued that when the Catholic church failed to speak for the poor and the oppressed, and when it refused to take the side of the persecuted and downtrodden, it did not exercise neutrality. Instead it abandoned, indeed abdicated, its moral responsibility. During the 1960s and 1970s, military dictatorships ruled much of Latin America, including Brazil, Argentina and Chile. The region's anti-communist rulers often clashed with radical priests, whose confrontational preoccupation with class struggle brought them into conflict with the rich and powerful as well as the Vatican itself.

Yet the movement seems to have all but disappeared. The Catholic church of 2007 encourages its flock to "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's", it advocates the view that politics and faith are separate arenas and that the two cannot, indeed should not, mix. The result of such a narrow-minded stance is that the church is in danger of becoming completely irrelevant to the life of the modern man.

. . .

Today there is an even greater need for the voices of liberation to be heard. There is the unjust distribution of goods and services whereby a relative minority of wealthy groups and ruling classes use their power and influence to perpetuate macro-economic and political structures which exploit the labour and lives of the vast majority of the planet's population. The church is, all too often, silent on this issue.

Or take the deep and widespread oppression of women, along with the elderly, and children dependent upon women, in all patriarchal societies around the globe where women and their dependents are dehumanised and depersonalised. Is the Catholic church working to further liberate women in these settings, or does it silently support the structures that keep things as they are?

So we either need a new liberation theology or we need the church to be liberated. We need a church that offers hope - not a jam-tomorrow kind of hope, rather the hope that the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard described as the "passion for the possible".

We need a church that can show that it understands that what people need is to believe that things will, and can, be better.

In other words, we need the church to renew itself and we need a theology that will actively seek and proclaim the liberation of people from poverty, injustice and persecution - all people, regardless of their faith or their background.

The true message of liberation will always result in some people feeling uneasy. To side, as many liberation theologians in the 1960s and 1970s did, against injustice, to commit one's life to the poor is not a political stance but a moral one. The true message of hope, of a promise that the world can be fairer, more just and less divided often results in giving comfort to the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

Read it all

I think that Ion misunderstands the Pope's opposition to liberation theology. It does not come from a rejection of the preference for the poor--this is consistent both with Catholic social teaching and the current Pope's own writings. Rather, the concern of the Church was that liberation theology was too closely tied to a particular materialistic theory of liberation--notably Marxism.

More on Lambeth

Ruth Geldhill of The U.K.-based Times is reporting that Bishop Robinson will indeed be invited as a non-voting guest at Lambeth:

A number of Anglicans in England have been writing to the Archbishop of Canterbury in protest at his decision to leave Gene Robinson off the invitation list to Lambeth. I have been 'leaked' one of the letters sent back in response. Signed by Canon Flora Winfield, of his office for International, Ecumenical and Anglican Communion Affairs, it reflects on the Archbishop's concern about the 'canonical impediment' to Bishop Robinson's consecration. The letter concludes: 'The Archbishop is therefore exploring inviting Bishop Robinson to the conference in another status.' Full text printed at the end of this post.

A source tells me he will indeed be invited as an official guest, with a voice but no vote, in the same way that eight TEC delegates were invited to the ACC meeting at Nottingham. Ecumenical guests would fall into the same category. Martyn Minns will not be invited in any category however. The two more recent consecrations, including that of Bill Atwood, have not been discussed yet.

. . .

Canon Flora Winfield's letter to those enquiring about Gene Robinson's attendance at Lambeth:

'The Archbishop of Canterbury has asked me to thank you for your letter of 22 May 2007 regarding his invitation to bishops of the Anglican Communion to next year’s Lambeth Conference. The Archbishop is taking a period of study leave this summer and he has therefore asked me to respond to your letter on his behalf.

Prior to his departure, Archbishop Rowan noted carefully the level of disappointment expressed by correspondents, following his decision not to extend an invitation to Bishop Gene Robinson to attend the Lambeth Conference along with the other bishops. He stressed in his letter to the bishops that he did not take this decision lightly, but that he regarded it as appropriate in the light of the recommendations set out in the Windsor Report.

The Windsor Report counselled that in the future proper regard should be taken to the bounds of affection and interdependence between member Churches when considering the acceptability of a candidate for Episcopal appointment. While is it recognised that Bishop Robinson was duly elected and consecrated according to the canons of The Episcopal Church in view of the widespread objections to Bishop Robinson’s ministry in other Provinces of the Communion, the Windsor Report further recommend that the Archbishop ‘ exercise very considerable caution in inviting him to the councils of the Communion.

From the time of the election of Bishop Gene Robinson to See of New Hampshire, both the representatives of many Anglican Provinces and the Instruments of Communion made it clear that full recognition by the Communion could not be given to a bishop whose chosen lifestyle would, in most Provinces of the Communion, give rise to canonical impediment to his consecration as a bishop. The Archbishop has to be loyal to that widespread concern as well as bearing in mind the position of Bishop Robinson within The Episcopal Church. The Archbishop is therefore exploring inviting Bishop Robinson to the conference in another status.

Thank you once again for writing.'

Read it all.

In light of the fact that Lambeth 2008 is not expected to be a policymaking conference, Bishop Robinson's status at Lambeth may not make much of a difference. And, with the expected absence of many of the Global South Bishops, Bishop Robinson may be more welcome than even he expects.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Father Matthew Goes to Italy

It has been a while sionce I posted a Father Matthew video, so here goes. Father Matthew describes his vacation to Italy--including an audience with the Pope.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Growing the Mainline Church

Economist and Episcopalian John Chilton has a very interesting post at Episcopal Cafe about why mainline churches have declined relative to more conservative churches. Like the true economist that he is, John looks at the data.

John notes that at one time the growth of more conservative churches was indeed due to higher fertility rates, but then observes that other factors are now more important:

The relative decline of mainline denominations could of course be due both to differences in fertility and in evangelism. My commenter pointed me to what he admitted was a somewhat dated paper here. From that tip I was able to find a more recent paper, “The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States” by Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley and Melissa J. Wilde, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 107, No. 2. (Sep., 2001), pp. 468-500 [JSTOR, subscription only].

Hout et al. have individual records on religious affiliation at birth, change in affiliation and fertility rates of women through 1998 via the General Social Survey. The data is recent enough to include the rise of the Religious Right in public awareness, but not to capture developments after 2003, the year that Gene Robinson was confirmed as the Bishop of New Hampshire. This is just as well because they do not report on denominations separately. The 139 Protestant denominations are classified and grouped as either mainline or conservative.Socioeconomically the conservatives have become more like the mainline denominations. They have climbed the economic ladder, but unlike in the past, they are less likely to switch to a mainline denomination.

Hout and his co-authors report, conservatives have succeeded in evangelism because they have conformed to the edict, “be fruitful and multiply.” From the GSS records they were able to tease out fertility rates for women in the cohorts born between 1903 and 1973. Using only the fertility data they then project the implied growth in membership from 1903 to 1998 – in the following categories: mainline, conservative, other religion, and no religion. Their result:

Evidence from the General Social Survey indicates that higher fertility and earlier childbearing among women from conservative denominations explains 76% of the observed trend for cohorts born between 1903 and 1973: conservative denominations have grown their own.

Again: “conservative denominations have grown their own.” Hence the “demographic imperative” – a smaller group will eventually become the larger group if its growth rate is larger. For much of the 20th century the mainline fertility by age cohort was just over two, barely enough for zero growth. In contrast, conservative fertility in the early part of the century was almost one more child per woman; more recently it remains above but is nearly equal to mainline fertility.

Why has conservative fertility declined? Socioeconomically the conservatives have become more like the mainline denominations. They have climbed the economic ladder, but unlike in the past, they are less likely to switch to a mainline denomination.

Herein lies the other substantial part of the reason the conservatives have had more success in evangelism. They not only grow more of their own, they “teach their children well” so that they do not convert to a mainline denomination in their adulthood. This is not to say that conservatives have improved on "backdoor evangelism," i.e. the rate at which members leave. Rather, most of those who leave don't join mainline denominations; they grow up to be unaffiliated with any faith.It's a great irony that after differential birthrates, the second most important fact in explaining the rise of conservative membership relative to the mainline is that a portion of conservative youth that in the past would have converted to mainline in their adulthood now drop out of Christianity altogether.

Two final findings: (1) “a recent rise in apostasy added a few percentage points to mainline decline” and (2) “conversions from mainline to conservative denominations have not changed, so they played no role in the restructuring.” The bad news for the mainline denominations is that they are losing more of their young people. (But this is only a small part of the explanation of the decline, and it could have to do with recent trends in delay of marriage, and delay in childbearing.) The surprising thing about conservative denominations is that their growth is not due to work in the mission field. It has to do with reproduction and rearing. Reports of their success in evangelism are greatly overstated.

Read it all.

This is not to say that the Episcopal Church should not focus on evangelism--this is still critically important--especially in efforts to attract younger couples back to church.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Evolution and the Soul

The New York Times normal tuesday Science section is devoted to evolution. One of the more interesting articles is on how cognitive scientists and evolutionary scientists are beginning to find a biological basis for moral behavior and emotions that make us human. This raises an important issue--what does this developing science mean for our theology of the soul. Here are some highlights:

But as evolutionary biologists and cognitive neuroscientists peer ever deeper into the brain, they are discovering more and more genes, brain structures and other physical correlates to feelings like empathy, disgust and joy. That is, they are discovering physical bases for the feelings from which moral sense emerges — not just in people but in other animals as well.

The result is perhaps the strongest challenge yet to the worldview summed up by Descartes, the 17th-century philosopher who divided the creatures of the world between humanity and everything else. As biologists turn up evidence that animals can exhibit emotions and patterns of cognition once thought of as strictly human, Descartes’s dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” loses its force.

For many scientists, the evidence that moral reasoning is a result of physical traits that evolve along with everything else is just more evidence against the existence of the soul, or of a God to imbue humans with souls. For many believers, particularly in the United States, the findings show the error, even wickedness, of viewing the world in strictly material terms. And they provide for theologians a growing impetus to reconcile the existence of the soul with the growing evidence that humans are not, physically or even mentally, in a class by themselves.

. . .

Nevertheless, the idea of a divinely inspired soul will not be put aside. To cite just one example, when 10 Republican presidential candidates were asked at a debate last month if there was anyone among them who did not believe in evolution, 3 raised their hands. One of them, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, explained later in an op-ed article in this newspaper that he did not reject all evolutionary theory. But he added, “Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order.”

That is the nub of the issue, according to Nancey Murphy, a philosopher at Fuller Theological Seminary who has written widely on science, religion and the soul. Challenges to the uniqueness of humanity in creation are just as alarming as the Copernican assertion that Earth is not the center of the universe, she writes in her book “Bodies and Souls or Spirited Bodies?” (Cambridge, 2006). Just as Copernicus knocked Earth off its celestial pedestal, she said, the new findings on cognition have displaced people from their “strategic location” in creation.

Another theologian who has written widely on the issue, John F. Haught of Georgetown University, said in an interview that “for many Americans the only way to preserve the discontinuity that’s implied in the notion of a soul, a distinct soul, is to deny evolution,” which he said was “unfortunate.”

There is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the diversity and complexity of life on earth.

For Dr. Murphy and Dr. Haught, though, people make a mistake when they assume that people can be “ensouled” only if other creatures are soulless.

“Evolutionary biology shows the transition from animal to human to be too gradual to make sense of the idea that we humans have souls while animals do not,” wrote Dr. Murphy, an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren. “All the human capacities once attributed to the mind or soul are now being fruitfully studied as brain processes — or, more accurately, I should say, processes involving the brain, the rest of the nervous system and other bodily systems, all interacting with the socio-cultural world.”

. . .

Does this mean, say, that Australopithecus afarensis, the proto-human famously exemplified by the fossil skeleton known as Lucy, had a soul? {Dr. Haight]paused and then said: “I think so, yes. I think all of our hominid ancestors were ensouled in some way, but that does not rule out the possibility that as evolution continues, the shape of the soul can vary just as it does from individual to individual.”

Will this idea catch on? “It’s not something you hear in the suburban pulpit,” said Dr. Haught, a Roman Catholic whose book “God After Darwin” (Westview Press, 2000) is being reissued this year. “This is out of vogue in the modern world because the philosopher Descartes made such a distinction between mind and matter. He placed the whole animal world on the side of matter, which is essentially mindless.”

Dr. Haught said it could be difficult to discuss the soul and evolution because it was one of many issues in which philosophical thinking was not keeping up with fast-moving science. “The theology itself is still in process,” he said.

For scientists who are people of faith, like Kenneth R. Miller, a biologist at Brown University, asking about the science of the soul is pointless, in a way, because it is not a subject science can address. “It is not physical and investigateable in the world of science,” he said.

“Everything we know about the biological sciences says that life is a phenomenon of physics and chemistry, and therefore the notion of some sort of spirit to animate it and give the flesh a life really doesn’t fit with modern science,” said Dr. Miller, a Roman Catholic whose book, “Finding Darwin’s God” (Harper, 1999) explains his reconciliation of the theory of evolution with religious faith. “However, if you regard the soul as something else, as you might, say, the spiritual reflection of your individuality as a human being, then the theology of the soul it seems to me is on firm ground.”

Dr. Miller, who also testified in the Dover case, said he spoke often at college campuses and elsewhere and was regularly asked, “What do you say as a scientist about the soul?” His answer, he said, is always the same: “As a scientist, I have nothing to say about the soul. It’s not a scientific idea.”

Read it all.

Obama on his Faith

Barak Obama's speech to the United Church of Christ convention has gotten a great deal of press about his statements about the religious right. It seems to me, however, that the more personal story of his conversion is far more interesting:

I was not raised in a particularly religious household. My father, who I didn't know, returned to Kenya when I was just two. He was nominally a Muslim since there were a number of Muslims in the village where he was born. But by the time he was a young adult, he was an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was one of the most spiritual souls I ever knew. She had this enormous capacity for wonder, and lived by the Golden Rule. But she had a healthy skepticism of religion as an institution. And as a consequence, so did I.

. . .

So it's 1985, and I'm in Chicago, and I'm working with these churches, and with lots of laypeople who are much older than I am. And I found that I recognized in these folks a part of myself. I learned that everyone's got a sacred story when you take the time to listen. And I think they recognized a part of themselves in me too. They saw that I knew the Scriptures and that many of the values I held and that propelled me in my work were values they shared. But I think they also sensed that a part of me remained removed and detached - that I was an observer in their midst.

And slowly, I came to realize that something was missing as well - that without an anchor for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.

And it's around this time that some pastors I was working with came up to me and asked if I was a member of a church. "If you're organizing churches," they said, "it might be helpful if you went to church once in a while." And I thought, "Well, I guess that makes sense."

So one Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called "The Audacity of Hope." And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn't suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.

Read the whole speech here.

Obama has oddly been criticized for embracing a theocracy of the left. This seesm like an odd charge to me in light of the end of his speech:
So let's rededicate ourselves to a new kind of politics - a politics of conscience. Let's come together - Protestant and Catholic, Muslim and Hindu and Jew, believer and non-believer alike. We're not going to agree on everything, but we can disagree without being disagreeable. We can affirm our faith without endangering the separation of church and state, as long as we understand that when we're in the public square, we have to speak in universal terms that everyone can understand. And if we can do that - if we can embrace a common destiny - then I believe we'll not just help bring about a more hopeful day in America, we'll not just be caring for our own souls, we'll be doing God's work here on Earth. Thank you.

A Southern Baptist Looks at Liberation Theology

Pastor Benjamin Cole of Parkview Baptist in Arlington, Texas is a Southern Baptist minister who thinks Evangelicals have much to learn from liberation theology. His blog post on liberation theology is worth reading in full, but here are some highlights.

Southern Baptists are perhaps inordinately fearful and thoroughly ignorant of Liberation theologies. Whether the Black liberationism of James Cone, or the Roman Catholic liberationism of Gustavo Gutierrez, or the Feminist liberation of Rosemary Reuther, or the Gay liberation of Marcella Althius-Reid, or the Jewish liberationism of Marc Ellis, Evangelicals as a whole, and Southern Baptists in particular avoid investigating and assessing the contributions and dangers of Liberation Theology, much to our own peril.

During my entire course of study at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and briefly at Southwestern, I know of no serious engagement with Liberation Theology. There was the passing reference in Systematic Theology, and an occasional mention in Church History, but when it came to actual study, we were all woefully uninformed. When it was mentioned, Liberation Theology was characterized as an aberrant Marxist political agenda unworthy of serious consideration.

In fact, I think that Southern Baptists have been denied a rewarding opportunity to explore themes of social justice and hermeneutical emphases highlighted by men like Gutierrez, Cone, Ellis, and others. Embracing the study of Liberation Theology does not require embracing the central tenets thereof, but the anti-intellectualism of our fundamentalist fathers inhibits any honest reading of the primary theological influence found in the Southern Hemisphere, and a minor, yet very real influence in the Northern.

Essentially, Liberation Theology is guided by a concern for the poor and oppressed. Liberation theologians take seriously the words of Jesus, who told his disciples that the blessed poor were those for whom the gospel was intended. Whether our exorbitant materialism or our latent classism and racism have kept us from seeing this major New Testament emphasis, I do not know.

Liberation theology is concerned with revolution, both political and ecclesial. The powers of governmental and magisterial authorities have been allowed to flourish on the backs of the worker. The widening gulf of economic disparity has closed our eyes to the epidemic poverty, and people for whom Christ died are shuffled aside in our efforts to reach the “target groups” of our evangelistic strategies.

Read it all. The highlight of the post is on Cole's own exposure to liberation theology through Marc Ellis--a professor with whom he often fought. Here is a sample:
I owe my initial substantive exposure to Liberation Theology to my Baylor professor, Marc Ellis, a man listed among the most dangerous intellectuals in the American academy by David Horowitz. At first, Ellis and I had a strained relationship. He is an agnostic Jew with strong Democratic leanings and complete disdain for aggressive proselytization. I was an insufferable proponent for the need for Evangelical parity in the American academy, with a holdover belief that Baylor was a stronghold of theological and political liberalism.

. . .

I will never forget the day Ellis assigned me to a small group with two students, one of whom was a Roman Catholic and the other a lesbian. In what seemed like the introduction to a joke – three students walk into a bar, etc. – we engaged one another in collegial conversation about the ethical and moral questions raised by Christian higher education. For once, on a Baptist university campus, I felt like the minority.

I think that was Ellis’ point: to force Christians to sense some degree of oppression, harassment, and ridicule that other religious and irreligious groups feel on the campus of a Christian university. You don’t get that in a seminary education, and it is understandable that a confessional institution would limit such free exchange of ideas.

Nevertheless, I think some of Southern Baptist insensitivity to the perspectives of Latino immigrants in border states, legal or otherwise, impoverished Blacks along the Mississippi Delta, ethnic Jews in New York, Chinese Buddhists in San Francisco, and even the Gay and Lesbian sense of legal discrimination, owes to the fact that most of our preachers are never exposed to the cultural varieties available in a graduate program of non-Southern Baptist commitments. Of course, Southern Baptists will not graft many of these perspectives into our own, but we are fooling ourselves if we think our churches are better served by cultural isolation that inhibits meaningful dialogue with these groups.

Democrats and the Catholic Vote

Catholics were once a core constituency of the Democratic Party. that is true no longer. Bush won the Catholic vote despite the fact that his opponent, John Kerry was himself Catholic. As U.S. News and World Report notes, however, the Democratic Party is taking some serious steps to win back at least some of the Catholics that have voted Republican in previous elections:

A Roman Catholic nun who leads a social justice advocacy group called Network, Simone Campbell rarely got a phone call from Capitol Hill before the 2006 election. Campbell, based in Washington, D.C., says she "wore her knuckles bare" fruitlessly knocking on lawmakers' doors, particularly those of Democrats who should have been natural allies on issues like raising the minimum wage and comprehensive immigration reform.

Then came last year's midterm elections. Campbell joined a new Catholic voter-turnout operation working to reverse the wilting Catholic support Democrats had seen in 2004. After her efforts helped elect Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Bob Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania, her phone began ringing. Campbell's group is now regularly invited to meetings with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. On a recent conference call about immigration with other religious activists, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York announced at the last minute that she wanted to jump on. Campbell was asked to give the closing prayer at a big Democratic National Committee meeting last winter. "I stopped being a pariah," she says. "Now, I'm value added."

Indeed, having witnessed both George W. Bush's victory among Catholics in 2004 and the Catholic vote's dramatic rejection of Republicans last year, Democrats are now waging a multifront offensive to shore up what was once a bedrock constituency. The Democratic National Committee has hired its first director of Catholic outreach. The DNC is also slated to soon unveil an organizing hub for Catholics on its website, and it's planning to supply state parties with Catholic voter lists before the 2008 election. Catholic Democrats in Congress are introducing legislation to reduce demand for abortion, a top issue for the Roman Catholic Church. And some Democratic presidential candidates are already devising Catholic outreach plans. "You know things have gotten off track when a Roman Catholic candidate has to do outreach to people within his own church," says Senator Casey, discussing his own 2006 outreach effort. "But we're getting it back on track now." With Catholics accounting for 1 in 5 American voters, the mobilization could determine whether Democrats win the White House and keep control of Congress in 2008.

"Catholics are ideal targets" for Democrats courting religious voters, says University of Akron political scientist John Green. Many Catholics are political centrists, unlike overwhelmingly conservative evangelical Christians. Catholics also tend to be less observant than evangelicals and so are less likely to tow the church line politically. What's more, the Catholic Church's promotion of social welfare programs and its opposition to war (including Iraq) dovetails with the Democratic Party platform.

But Catholics face cross-pressures from their church to oppose abortion and gay marriage, pushing them closer to the GOP. In 2004, a handful of Catholic bishops denounced Democratic nominee John Kerry's pro-abortion-rights position; one said he'd deny Kerry, a Catholic, the Eucharist. Kerry lost white Catholics—who make up the vast majority of the Catholic community—to Bush by 56 to 43 percent. By contrast, the only Catholic ever elected president, John F. Kennedy, won nearly 80 percent of the Catholic vote. Analysts blame Kerry's weak showing among Catholics largely on his unassertive response to the bishops' attacks.

What is interesting about this strategy is that the party is trying to confront the issue of abortion while still essentially keeping a pro-choice position. How? By focusing on the real issue, and not buying into the notion that the abortion issue can be narrowly defined by the decision whether to criminalize abortion. Instead, Democrats are asking what can be done to reduce the number of abortions:
The DNC's new Catholic outreach director, John Kelly, is an alumnus of the Pennsylvania and Ohio campaigns. He has already met with scores of Catholic leaders, devising "practical solutions" on hot-button issues like abortion. Those solutions include three Democratic proposals in Congress to reduce the number of abortions. One, cosponsored by Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, seeks to help prevent unwanted pregnancies through education and contraception (which is opposed by the Catholic Church) and to provide counseling and economic assistance to low-income, pregnant women to dissuade them from having abortions. DeLauro says Catholics who support abortion rights must stand up against what she considers the church's attacks: "There are people who have used religion and the Eucharist as a political weapon, and we as Catholics have to speak out to define ourselves."

Read it all.

As the article notes, unlike the Evangelical vote, many Catholics are centrists and are otherwise attracted to the Democratic Party's positions on economics and social justice issues. And while the party's position on abortion will not satisfy all Catholic voters, the focus on the need to reduce abortions may be enough for more moderate pro-life Catholic voters.

Faith, Reason, and Science, Part IV: More on the Moral Law Argument

I had previously written that I thought that the Moral Law Argument for the existence of God--which is argued by both C.S. Lewis and Francis Collins--is in danger of the "God of the Gaps" Fallacy. It appears that my concern has merit--altruistic behavior is not uniquely human, and this suggests an evolutionary explanation. Here is the Science Daily report:

Experimental evidence reveals that chimpanzees will help other unrelated humans and conspecifics without a reward, showing that they share crucial aspects of altruism with humans.

Debates about altruism are often based on the assumption that it is either unique to humans or else the human version differs from that of other animals in important ways. Thus, only humans are supposed to act on behalf of others, even toward genetically unrelated individuals, without personal gain, at a cost to themselves.

Studies investigating such behaviors in nonhuman primates, especially our close relative the chimpanzee, form an important contribution to this debate.

Felix Warneken and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology present experimental evidence that chimpanzees act altruistically toward genetically unrelated conspecifics.

In addition, in two comparative experiments, they found that both chimpanzees and human infants helped altruistically regardless of any expectation of reward, even when some effort was required, and even when the recipient was an unfamiliar individual--all features previously thought to be unique to humans.

The evolutionary roots of human altruism may thus go deeper than previously thought, reaching as far back as the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees. In a related article, Frans de Waal discusses the issues brought out by this discovery.

Read it all.

What is very interesting about this is that the altruism went even to unrelated chimpanzees, which suggests that the evolutionary explanation is complicated.

More on Religion As a Source of Evil

Christopher Hitchens' book God is Not Good has, as one of its focus, the undisputed history of evil done in the name of religion. As I wrote earlier, I think that this has more to do with human nature and not religion per se. British journalist Edward Pearce offers a further response in a commentary on the Guardian group blog:

All the evidence taken together makes religion look dreadful. But religious faith, the prime mover of evil?

The response to such a grand, archdeacon-annihilating sweep of the arm must be a prolonged, grown-up "Steady on." Rebuttal begins at personal goodness. Put in evidence San Carlo Borromeo and William Mompesson. Both, Catholic Archbishop and Anglican Vicar, discharged for puritan views, faced bubonic plague - in Milan 1576 and Derbyshire 1665/6, respectively. Borromeo refused to follow the great body of the well-to-do into the clean air of exile, but stayed, cared and expended his own fortune - something he had already done during a major famine in 1572. Mompesson, the Puritan, told his parishioners that if they fled the village of Eyam for somewhere free from pestilence, they would only spread their sickness to other people and resolutely stayed himself, to tend the victims.

Both acts of resolute human goodness sprang from religious conviction, and one can add to them at generous length: Lord Ashley of the ten-hour bill, so objectionable to free-market principles, Clarkson and Wilberforce taking on the comfortable iniquity of slavery. They did so because their Christianity implied the equality of all before God. Consider also the Religious Society of Friends, interpreters of Christianity as renunciation of all killing and all wars; a source of evil - the Quakers?>

. . .

Incidentally there is a mighty contradiction between the doings of Franco or Pavelic and the teachings of Jesus. "Love your enemies." "Do good to them that hate you." "Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor. And the maimed, and the halt and the blind." Both from St Luke's gospel. Such a gap surely also lies between the central invocation, "Allah, the merciful, the compassionate one" and current practices.

Such words, so many dead; such exultant killings in their name. How are they reconciled? Quite easily. For what Hitchens passes by in his rush to pronounce is power. Power and the lust for it created the wars of recent centuries. Clive wanted to master a sub-continent, Napoleon moved in 1807 beyond consolidation of defence to open-ended empire and lost the far-seeing Talleyrand when he did. Kaiser Wilhelm yearned to use his superb war machine to win something; Hitler had specific objects in the despised Slavonic East. And as power infected the weakest or nastiest rulers, so it infected the church. How remote are the Crusader Popes from the gospels? So unchristian are the makers of the thirty-years War, a conflict in which the final Catholic/ Protestant balance would decide the division of mastery. Cuius regio, eiuus religio goes the tag; to govern a state was to choose its faith.

. . .

Power has been called an aphrodisiac, which I doubt. It is more of a grand alibi, a cloak under which every worst instinct, the non-sexual ID of human desire, takes refuge. People who imagined themselves pacific, liberal creatures of the Enlightenment, have discovered that making war is good, delightful - and morally right. "Now God be thanked, who has matched us with his hour," wrote that crying fool, Rupert Brooke, in 1914.

Only delete poor God, the universal squash wall of human motive, and you have the sentiments of the people now engaged in justifying what you might properly call a crusade. It is a crusade for western values, which values through money, weaponry and the ready instruction of a power-loyal press, hope to prevail. Religion just doesn't have the thrill of it.

Read it all.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Canadian Anglicans Narrowly Defeat Same-Sex Blessings

It was a momentous week in Canada, with the General Synod of the Canadian Anglican Church first narrowly accepting a resolution that affirmed that the blessing of same sex unions is not in conflict with core doctrine, and then narrowly rejecting a resolution that would have permitted dioceses within the Canadian Church to authorize same sex blessings. In each case, the clergy and laity approved the resolutions by large margins, and in both cases the vote by the Bishops was as narrow as can be.

My colleague Andrew Gerns at The Lead has an excellent summary of today's events:

The decision shocked many same-sex supporters who thought the motion would pass since earlier in the day Anglicans voted same-sex blessings were not in conflict with the church’s doctrine.

Much of the sixth day of the synod was taken up with debate on the two questions, with dozens of people approaching microphones in the plenary hall to voice emotional opinions.

Both supporters and opponents agree that the two contradictory votes pose a problem for the Canadian Church.

Chris Ambidge, national spokesman for an Anglican group that supports same-sex unions, said, “What is wrong with having rights of blessing when you’ve already said it’s OK? I just don’t understand that.” He said the national meeting sent mixed messages to Anglicans across Canada and was confusing to everyone who voted.

Opponents to same-sex blessings agree. Cheryl Chang, a spokesperson for Anglican Essentials, a group which opposes blessing same-sex unions, called Sunday’s vote a “divisive tragedy” for the entire church.

Bishop Fred Hiltz the new Primate for the Anglican Church of Canada voted for the resolution. Afterwards he commented that ''There is no question that there was a lot of disappointment on the part of some people and a lot of pain, and some people will be saying, 'How long, oh Lord, how long will this conversation continue?' And it will continue.''

While those in favor of the measure said that the overall progess towards blessings was positive, the practical effect will be limited. ''We now have theological agreement that same-sex unions are not in opposition to doctrine and that's a big deal,'' said Chris Ambidge, president of the Toronto chapter of gay advocacy group Integrity. ''However, it's just a 75 percent win because there's no pastoral benefit to gay and lesbians with what has happened today. The church approved things in principle, but said we're not going to do anything about it.''

Chang predicted that people on both sides of the issue were going to start looking for new churches to attend "tomorrow."

Bishop Michael Ingham, of the Diocese of New Westminster, which has allowed for same-sex blessings since 2002, said the vote won’t make anyone happy. “A majority of people voted in favor. I think everyone’s a loser. Traditional Christians can’t take comfort in the vote and those who want to move on are held back by a small number of bishops. I think we need to look at the composition of the house of bishops and whether it properly reflects the Anglican Church of Canada.” There is a predominance of bishops from rural areas while the Canadian church is predominantly an urban church, he said.

Some churches have already said that they intend to pursue and carry out same-sex blessings no matter how the synod vote.

Read it all.

I have just a few observations. First, it seems to me that the key resolution here was the one that passed--it recognized that same sex blessings are not prohibited by the core doctrines of the Church. This puts the Canadian Church in essentially the same position as the Episcopal Church--there has been no formal recognition of same sex blessings, but there has been a large step in that direction.

Second, while I am a supporter of the recognition of same sex blessings, I am quite surprised that the Canadian Church was willing to take such a critical theological step simply on the basis of a slim majority in a single Synod. It seems to me that it is not unreasonable to demand a somewhat greater consensus on such an important issue before taking action. It may well be that it was the narrowness of the success on the first resolution that lead some Bishops to reconsider the step of authorizing same sex blessings by a mere majority.

Tony Blair To Convert to Catholism

Prime Minister, a member of the Church of England, will convert to Catholicism in the next few days after a visit with the pope. The Guardian has some details:

Tony Blair will tomorrow travel to the Vatican to meet the Pope in preparation for his conversion to Roman Catholicism as sources in London and Rome said the outgoing prime minister had taken the decision to seek admission to the church.
All that remained uncertain was the timing of the announcement. It was not intended that it should take place in Rome, and might be made either before or after Mr Blair left office next week.

According to informed sources, Mr Blair has been readied for this milestone in his spiritual life by a Royal Air Force chaplain, Father John Walsh, who for the past four years has been quietly slipping into Chequers, the prime minister's country residence, to say mass for the Blair family on Saturday evenings.
Mr Blair has been attending Catholic services for many years, and regularly worshipped at the 5.30pm Saturday evening service at Westminster cathedral until security considerations persuaded him to seek a private arrangement.

He turned to Father Michael Seed, a familiar and gregarious figure in Westminster who prepared the Conservative MPs, John Gummer and Ann Widdecombe, for conversion. Father Seed became a regular visitor to Number 10, but sources say Mr Blair cast around about four years ago for a less well-known, and more discreet, spiritual counsellor.

. . .

A senior Labour party source said: "[Mr Blair] does and always has gone regularly to Catholic church with Cherie and the children. But for security reasons, detectives felt he should not go regularly to the same one or two places. On a fairly regular basis, this guy [Father Walsh] has come in rather than him going to church."

Mr Blair's attendances at Catholic services over the years has not been without controversy. In 1996 he was upbraided by the then Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume, for taking communion at his wife's church in Islington.

The couple have also worshipped at a Roman Catholic church in Great Missenden, near Chequers.

Britain has never had a Catholic prime minister, and Mr Blair's lengthy road to conversion is almost certainly as a result of his desire to leave office before taking the final steps. Religion is a sensitive issue in British politics, particularly in connection with issues such as abortion, contraception, homosexuality and faith schools.

Cherie Blair and the couple's four children are Roman Catholic. Her husband is thought to have attended a mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II in the papal private apartments in the Vatican in 2003 following an official audience.

There have been persistent rumours that he received communion from the Polish pontiff on that occasion.

Read it all

This does not come as much of a surprise. there have been rumours that this would occur for years. Blair's wife and children are Catholics.

Tom Friedman on the Senate-Passed Energy Bill

The Senate passed an energy bill, and the surprise is that the Senate ultimately did not cave into the automobile industry and the coal industry as many had expected. But as Tom Friedman points out, this is damning by faint praise. The bill is hardly a serious plan to confront climate change:

The whole Senate energy effort only reinforced my feelings that we’re in a green bubble — a festival of hot air by the news media, corporate America and presidential candidates about green this and green that, but, when it comes to actually doing something hard to bring about a green revolution at scale — and if you don’t have scale on this you have nothing — we wimp out. Climate change is not a hoax. The hoax is that we are really doing something about it.

No question, it’s great news that the Democrat-led Senate finally stood up to the automakers, and to the Michigan senators, and said, “No more — no more assisted suicide of the U.S. auto industry by the U.S. Congress. We’re passing the first bill since 1975 that mandates an increase in fuel economy.” If the Senate bill, which now has to go through the House, becomes law, automakers will have to boost the average mileage of new cars and light trucks to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, compared with about 25 miles per gallon today.

But before you celebrate, pay attention to some fine print in the Senate bill. If the Transportation Department determines that the fuel economy goal for any given year is not “cost-effective” — that is, too expensive for the car companies to meet — it can ease the standard. That loophole has to be tightened by the House, which takes up this legislation next week.

But even this new mileage standard is not exactly world leading. The European Union is today where we want to be in 2020, around 35 miles per gallon, and it is committed to going well over 40 m.p.g. by 2012. Ditto Japan.

There are other things that make the Senate energy effort ugly. Senate Republicans killed a proposed national renewable electricity mandate that would have required utilities to produce 15 percent of their power from wind, solar, biomass and other clean-energy sources by 2020. Twenty-three states already have such mandates. No matter. Making it national was too much for the Republicans.

And the Senate, thanks again to the Republicans, also squashed a Democratic proposal to boost taxes on oil and gas companies that would have raised some $32 billion for alternative fuel projects.

Despite all the new research on climate change, the Senate didn’t even touch the idea of either a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax to limit carbon dioxide emissions. An effort by Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota to legislate a national reporting (“carbon counter”) system to simply measure all sources of greenhouse gas emissions, which would enable a cap-and-trade system to work if we ever passed one, also got killed by Republicans. We can’t cap and trade something we can’t measure.

Here is the truth: the core of our energy crisis is in Washington. We have all the technology we need right now to make huge inroads in becoming more energy efficient and energy independent, with drastically lower emissions. We have all the capital we need as well. But because of the unique nature of the energy and climate-change issues — which require incentives and regulations to build alternatives to dirty, but cheap, fossil fuels — you need public policy to connect the energy and capital the right way. That is what has been missing.

Read it all (subscription required).

Sounds like it is time to write our Representatives in Congress to urge them to get serious about climate change.

Friday, June 22, 2007

How the West Lost God

Mary Tedeschi Eberstadt,a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, has a very interesting essay in the Hoover Institution's Policy Review. She argues that the West has become more secular, and less religious, because we stopped having families. In otherwords, she reverses the usual causal relationship between family anf God. She argues that we lose our faith when we stop having children. Some highlights:

For well over a century now, the idea that something about modernity will ultimately cause religion to wither away has been practically axiomatic among modern, sophisticated Westerners.1 Known in philosophy as Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous story of the madman who runs into the marketplace declaring that “Gott ist tot,” and in sociology as the “secularization thesis,” it is an idea that many urbane men and women no longer even think to question, so self-evident does it appear.2 As people become more educated and more prosperous, the secularist story line goes, they find themselves both more skeptical of religion’s premises and less needful of its ostensible consolations.3 Hence, somewhere in the long run — perhaps even the very long run; Nietzsche himself predicted it would take “hundreds and hundreds” of years for the “news” to reach everyone — religion, or more specifically the Christianity so long dominant on the Continent, will die out.

As everybody also knows, much about the current scene would seem to clinch the point, at least in Western Europe. Elderly altar servers in childless churches attended by mere handfuls of pensioners; tourist throngs in Notre Dame and other cathedrals circling ever-emptier pews roped off for worshippers; former abbeys and convents and monasteries remade into luxury hotels and sybaritic spas; empty churches here and there shuttered for decades and then re-made into discos — even into a mosque or two. Hardly a day passes without details like these issuing from the Continent’s post-Christian front.4 If God were to be dead in the Nietzschean sense, one suspects that the wake would look a lot like this.

. . . .

This essay represents what might be called a radical friendly amendment to the revisionists. It questions the theory of secularization and, by extension, its father Nietzsche, not by citing current facts about religious renewal or historical facts about Christianity’s influence, but rather by exploring a hitherto unexamined logical leap in the famous story line. To be fancy about it for a moment, what secularization theory assumes is that religious belief comes ontologically first for people and that it goes on to determine or shape other things they do — including such elemental personal decisions as whether they marry and have children or not.10 Implied here is a striking, albeit widely assumed, view of how one social phenenomenon powers another: that religious believers are more likely to produce families because religious belief somehow comes first.

And therein lies a real defect with the conventional story line about how and why religion collapsed in Western Europe. For what has not been explained, but rather assumed throughout that chain of argument, is why the causal relationship between belief and practice should always run that way instead of the other, at least some of the time. It is as if recent intellectual history had lined up all the right puzzle pieces — modernity, belief and disbelief, technology, shrinking and absent families — only to press them together in a way that looks whole from a distance but leaves something critical out.

This essay is a preliminary attempt to supply that missing piece. It moves the human family from the periphery to the center of this debate over secularization — and not as a theoretical exercise, but rather because compelling empirical evidence suggests an alternative account of what Nietzsche’s madman really saw in the “tombs” (read, the churches and cathedrals) of Europe.

In brief, it is not only possible but highly plausible that many Western European Christians did not just stop having children and families because they became secular. At least some of the time, the record suggests, they also became secular because they stopped having children and families. If this way of augmenting the conventional explanation for the collapse of faith in Europe is correct, then certain things, including some radical things, follow from it.

Read it all.

Democrats and Abortion

Without much doubt, the Democratic party is much more of a pro-choice party than the Republican party is a pro-life party. Melinda Henneberger has a provocative op-ed in today's New York Times that makes the case that Democrats need to recognize most voter's complicated beliefs about abortion. Here are highlights:

Over 18 months, I traveled to 20 states listening to women of all ages, races, tax brackets and points of view speak at length on the issues they care about heading into ’08. They convinced me that the conventional wisdom was wrong about the last presidential contest, that Democrats did not lose support among women because “security moms” saw President Bush as the better protector against terrorism. What first-time defectors mentioned most often was abortion.

Why would that be, given that Roe v. Wade was decided almost 35 years ago? Opponents of abortion rights saw 2004 as the chance of a lifetime to overturn Roe, with a movement favorite already in the Oval Office and several spots on the Supreme Court likely to open up. A handful of Catholic bishops spoke out more plainly than in any previous election season and moved the Catholic swing vote that Al Gore had won in 2000 to Mr. Bush.

The standard response from Democratic leaders has been that anyone lost to them over this issue is not coming back — and that regrettable as that might be, there is nothing to be done. But that is not what I heard from these voters.

Many of them, Catholic women in particular, are liberal, deep-in-their-heart Democrats who support social spending, who opposed the war from the start and who cross their arms over their chests reflexively when they say the word “Republican.” Some could fairly be described as desperate to find a way home. And if the party they’d prefer doesn’t send a car for them, with a really polite driver, it will have only itself to blame.

What would it take to win them back? Respect, for starters — and not only on the night of the candidate forum on faith. As it turns out, you cannot call people extremists and expect them to vote for you. But real respect would require an understanding that what supporters of abortion rights genuinely see as a hard-earned freedom, opponents genuinely see as a self-inflicted wound and — though I can feel some of you tensing as you read this — a human rights issue comparable to slavery.

. . . .

Actually, it is a stark reminder of how fully capable they all are of losing it. A Democratic senator I spoke with recently did not see the disconnect between public opinion and the party’s position on Carhart as any reason to worry: “Make no mistake; this is a pro-choice country, period.”

But in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 41 percent of respondents favored stricter limits on abortion, with an additional 23 percent saying it should not be permitted at all.

What are we to make of all this? Surely at a minimum that our enduring reluctance to acknowledge the complexity of the abortion issue has only prolonged and hardened the debate. Most Americans fall somewhere between the extremes of “never” and “no problem” when it comes to abortion.

What polling can’t capture and politicians won’t hear is the voice of the nun I interviewed who considers herself pro-choice — and has been disciplined by her diocese as a result — because she does not think abortion is wrong for rape victims. Or the voices of the many women I spoke to who hold far more expansive views yet call themselves pro-life. Most people differentiate between a fetus in the early weeks of development and at nearly full term, and draw the line at a procedure that Democratic Senator Pat Moynihan regarded as infanticide.

Read it all (subscription required).

I don't think that the answer is to become a pro-life party, but the Democratic Party needs to be careful that it recognize that abortion is not merely an issue of civil liberties, but also a deeply important moral choice for which Americans have very complicated views indeed. At a minimum, we should begin to offer real answers by what we really mean when we claim in our speeches that we want abortions to be rare. Thi needs to be far more than lip service.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Limbo and The Problem of Salvation

The First Things blog "On the Square" has two very interesting posts today on the Catholic Church's International Theological Commission’s (ITC) Report on Limbo, “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.” The two posts are worth reading even by non-Catholics.

What is quite interesting is that the ITC was faced with the nearly impossible task of reconciling a pastoral problem (what to tell the parents of unbaptised infants who die about the eternal life of their children) with clear Church teaching and tradition about the importance of baptism to salvation. The solution, not uncommon in any discussion of salvation, is this: “Our conclusion is that [there are] . . . grounds for hope that unbaptized infants will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision” , but “the church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants” because “the destiny of . . . infants who die without baptism has not been revealed to us, and the church teaches and judges only with regard to what has been revealed.”

Father Edward T. Oakes, S.J., who teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, offers a history lesson about the development of the doctrine of limbo. He points out that the doctrine developed out of the classic dispute about original sin between Augistine and Pelagius:

To the best of my knowledge, the term limbo to describe the painless, soteriologically neutral place where unbaptized infants go was first coined by Albert the Great in his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Unfortunately for the orthodox, the fifth-century heretic Pelagius proposed something very similar.

Pelagius’ denial of original sin always had one great weakness: the universal practice of infant baptism, which was too embedded in church life for him to overthrow. But why baptize babies if original sin didn’t exist? Citing the very verse that the orthodox used to insist on the necessity of baptism (“No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit,” John 3:5), Pelagius granted the point but then made a distinction between the kingdom of God (for access to which baptism is required) and what he called eternal life, which, he claimed, unbaptized infants enjoy by virtue of their having immortal souls.

Now if by eternal life Pelagius meant supernatural eternal life, then his exegesis of the Gospel of John was obviously specious. But maybe he meant something like a purely “natural” eternal life? If one assumes with Pelagius that original sin does not exist, the latter option would seem not to run into the same exegetical difficulties. But of course for Augustine original sin does exist, which automatically precludes Pelagius’ hypothesis of “eternal life” under any guise. But then comes the kicker in his logic: if unbaptized infants don’t enjoy eternal life, then eternal death must be their fate.

Read it all.

Robert T. Miller,an assistant professor at the Villanova University School of Law, offers a more critical reflection on the ITC report:

Back in October, I wrote in this space about how the Vatican’s International theological Commission (ITC) was preparing a document on the fate of unbaptized infants that, by some accounts, would say that such infants are saved and enjoy the beatific vision. I noted then that the Catholic Church has never taught de fide on this topic, and I argued that the ITC’s taking the position rumored would be a serious mistake. The reason, I said, is that the Scriptures are simply silent on this topic and sacred tradition runs strongly contrary to the idea that such infants are saved. Hence, nothing more positive can be justified by traditional methods of theological argument than the guarded view, already stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1261), that it is possible that such infants are saved and we may hope that they are.

In fact, the ITC even seems to back off slightly from the position taken in the Catechism, for the ITC expressly notes that the traditional teaching on limbo “remains a possible theological opinion” (no. 41). And no wonder, for in the section of the document treating the history of the question, the ITC assembles quite an array of authorities tending in various ways to oppose the view that unbaptized infants are saved. The list includes Pseudo-Athanasius, Anastasius of Sinai, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, Augustine, Jerome, Fulgentius, Avitus of Vienne, Gregory the Great, Anselm of Canterbury, Hugh of St. Victor, Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard, Innocent III, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Robert Bellarmine, Paul III, Benedict XIV, Clement XIII, Pius VI, and Pius XII.

Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, what arguments does the ITC adduce to explain why it hopes that unbaptized infants be saved? After “provid[ing] a new context” by referring to the wars of the twentieth century, the modern temptation to despair, the improvement of global communications and travel, and the fact that we all feel bad when we see children suffer (none of which, of course, is in the least relevant), and after quoting and requoting (sometimes three and four times) the same passages from Scripture—passages that the ITC had already conceded don’t settle the issue (no. 9)—the argument comes down to this: God’s universal salvific will, plus the fact that Christ entered into solidarity with all humanity in a “great cosmic mystery of communion” (no. 92), give us “grounds for hope that unbaptized infants . . . will be saved” (no. 102). Given all the doctors, theologians, and popes on the other side of the question, one might think of this argument as being the triumph of hope over expertise.

Even calling it an argument, however, is generous. It amounts to nothing more than saying, “There seems to be a tension between . . . the universal salvific will of God on the one hand and the necessity of sacramental baptism on the other,” because the latter “seems to limit the extension of God’s universal salvific will” (no. 10).

. . .

The answer to this, of course, is obvious and well-known in sacred tradition. Although God wants all men to be saved, nevertheless some men are damned to hell (a fact the ITC acknowledges by quoting from the Synod of Quiercy), and if God’s universal salvific will is compatible with some men being damned to hell, then there’s no problem at all with it being compatible with some unbaptized infants enjoying a natural but not a supernatural happiness in limbo. God wills all men to be saved, provided that certain conditions are met—for instance, that they not die in a state of mortal sin. Once we are clear that God’s universal salvific will is conditional in this way, the question becomes whether sacramental baptism is such a condition for infants, and the tradition strongly (though not conclusively) supports the idea that it is.

. . .

The commission would have done better to limit itself to saying that God’s saving power is not confined to the sacraments, and that he can certainly save unbaptized infants if he so chooses; but that we do not know whether he has done so because he has not revealed this to us. The ITC’s argument about the universal salvific will of God is an attempt to make it seem more likely than not that God has chosen to do this. That argument must fail because, if it succeeded, then it really would have been revealed to us what God has chosen in this instance, and the ITC expressly concedes that this is not so. Having reached this inevitable latter conclusion, the ITC should have been consistent and not ventured an obviously inadequate argument for the speculation it prefers.

Read it all.

Of course, this debate also occurs in the larger debate about salvation. I think my approach to this particular issue would be stronger even than the ITC: God can certainly choose to offer salvation outside the sacraments, and it is hard to imagine that the loving God that I know from the Gospels through the person of Jesus would deny salvation to unbaptised infants.