Saturday, March 31, 2007

Experience As a Theological Source

Nicholas Knisely has an interesting discussion of experience as a theological source of authority that amplifies my last post, which in turn had relied on an earlier post by Nicholas. He elaborates on how our personal experience can indeed be a valid source of authority on theological matters, even in the traditional Anglican triad of scripture, authority and reason:

"But there's an implicit thinking in that essay that I really need to make more explicit. It has to do with the methodology of using human experience as a theological source or even as a norm. It is my understanding that one of the differences between the Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church is that Methodists explicitly allow human experience into the Episcopal triad of Scripture, Tradition and Reason as one of the sources of theological inquiry. If it's not true for Methodists, it's certainly true for some of the newer methods of doing theology (feminist, liberation, queer, etc.)

"The standard critique of using human experience as a source for theology is that one of the tenets of the faith is that our human nature is ontologically flowed. If we can't fully trust reason - which we supplement with other sources - then how much less can we trust our human experience.

"But, as I argue in that paper, there is I believe a way to use human experience in theologically useful manner.

"In a nutshell then, the way theological inquiry really works is that we begin by having an experience. Something about that experience seems holy or connected to God. We test that sense of the numinous by examining our triad of sources and norms to see if that sense can be validated. In other words, experience is the source of our theological inquiry in that it leads us to ask the questions in the first place.

. . .

"This is a question I've been thinking about for years because it seems to me to be at the core of how science and religion need to interact when it comes to moral questions. (Science is not only the source of the experience but it is also strongly present in the use of Reason as a norm.)"

Read it all.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Another Priest's View of Gays and Lesbians and Faith

In an earlier post I noted the fact that it was our personal experiences with gay and lesbians that led us to take a hard look at the theology of same sex relationships. Since I was criticized by Hansoniana (in a kind way) for arguing that theology should be developed by these personal experiences alone, let me be clear: my point was that these personal experience merely lead to the inquiry, they themselves do not answer the theological question. Nonetheless, these experiences offered us important empirical information that can inform the theological exploration in at least two instances. First, these personal experiences confirmed that sexual orientation is innate, and not chosen. Second, these experiences showed that same sex relationships can be filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Another example of the call for further inquiry as a result of these personal experiences is that of my own priest, Nicholas Knisely (a self-described--and accurately s0-- theological conservative by the way). Before he was a priest, Father Nicholas was a physicist and astronomer, so he uses a very interesting scientific metaphor in describing his own reason for taking into account personal experiences in this post on his blog:

"One of the most important events in 20th century Physics was Albert Einstein’s decision not to explain away the non-result produced by the Michelson-Morley experiment. (The experiment was an attempt to measure differences in the speed of light between an observer moving in the direction of the light’s emission and one moving away. There was no measurable difference even though the experiment was repeated again and again with increasing levels of accuracy and precision.)

"Einstein started his thinking toward Special and General Relativity by postulating that each observer’s experience must be treated as valid. By so doing, he constructed a physics that would require that the speed of light was exactly the same for all observers, whether they were moving or not. Einstein then was able to suggest experiments that demonstrate that his ideas were correct.

"But the key point in all this was that he accepted the experimental evidence of the Michelson-Morley experiment as valid, even though it seemed to make absolutely no sense within a Newtonian (and deterministic) framework. Einstein decided to trust in the report of the observer and by making that decision he was able to gain a radical new insight into the nature of reality. He did the same sort of thing when considering the Eotvos experiment. He began by taking at face value the experimental result that inertial and gravitational mass were exactly the same. And from that he reasoned his way through the Principle of Equivalence - that is the idea that underlies all of the mind-bending thinking of General Relativity. "

Then, Father Nicholas applies this analogy to his experiences with gay and lesbian parishioners and friends:

"I have Gay and Lesbian friends and parishioners who I know are taking their faith very seriously. I am told by them that they find their lives being transformed. They are more honest, more compassionate, more loving, and more prayerful than they used to be. They show forth the gifts of the Spirit as listed by the Apostles Paul and Peter (1 Corinthians 12:8-11, Ephesians 4, Romans 12 and 1 Peter 4:11).

"They remain gay and lesbian. They do now desire to express that orientation in a way accountable to the discipline of the Church (as do heterosexual couples). And no matter how many times people tell them that they are mistaken in their belief that God accepts them with their sexual orientation intact, they insist on following their own strong and informed conscience. By strong and informed conscience, I am using the terminology of Moral Theology. Another way to say this would be to say that the people who are having this experience are conscientiously and scrupulously presenting their whole selves to God, and are honestly asking that God’s will would be done in them and their lives. And that having done that, they are not experiencing a change in their sexuality."

He therefore concludes:

"I find myself wanting to take a page from Einstein’s book. What insights might we gain as a Church if we were to take their experience seriously and consider it theologically? Einstein discovered that his generation’s most cherished views were wrong and the most successful scientific method ever invented was wrong. But he was willing to go to a place that Science was initially unwilling to go because he stubbornly insisted on following after and seeking Truth.

"There have been any number of calls for the Anglican Communion to enter into conversations with its Gay and Lesbian members in a way that does not presuppose the outcome of that conversation. To date that has not happened. It seems to me that if we are serious in our belief that the Holy Spirit acts within the Church to lead us into all truth, then we have no alternative but to listen to see what the Spirit is saying to us in the lives of Gay and Lesbian people. I have no doubt that there is great learning here. I do not presume to know what that learning is. I am, however, reminded of a quote I heard in a favorite sermon: 'Listening conversation that starts with a predetermined outcome is neither conversation nor is it listening.'"

Read it all (including the comments).

Atonement: A Guy in the Pew Struggles with Theology

As we come close to Holy Week, I think it is time to focus on the Cross. Over the course of Lent, I have been doing much reading and thinking about the theological concept of atonement--the fact that Jesus Christ died for us on the cross, and by that death he wipes out our sins and defeats death itself.

This is at the center of my faith. This is what I believe. Nonetheless, I think there are difficult issues worth exploring that might help me illuminate this faith. I therefore decided to explore the mystery of the Cross and atonement with the following admonishments in mind from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:

"We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ's death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself. All the same, some of these theories are worth looking at."

I find the traditional Western explanations very unsatisfying. They largely assume that there is some debt or penalty that must be paid for our sins. And the more liberal modern theories such as the moral influence view, which teaches that that Christ's death on the cross served for humankind as an example of God's great love and Christ's obedience, seems to downplay the divinity of Christ.

To me the challenge is this: I believe in a loving God who through Jesus Christ has, by Grace, offered salvation from sin and death. Why would this loving God demand a sacrifice as the price of this Grace? Could God not have offered us the grace of salvation without the Cross? After all, we did nothing to serve the grace that results from the crucifixion of Christ, so what is the reason for the Cross? With or without the Cross, the Grace is equally undeserved and unearned.

I am beginning to wonder whether the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was not because God required this death as an atonement for our sins, but because we required it.

At the time of Christ's crucifixion, humankind could only imagine atonement through violent sacrifice. After all, the violent sacrifice of an animal was the means of atonement in both the Jewish and Pagan worlds in the First Century. The only way to break us out of this cycle of scapegoating and sacrifice was for God to make the ultimate sacrifice of his Son. And God knew that the only way to seize our attention and have us commit to the new way of living by love described by both Jesus and Paul was by the Cross--the violent sacrifice of the innocent and divine Son of God.

In other words, the loving God could by his grace alone have reconciled us with no atonement and no sacrifice, but we could only have hope of accepting this grace if God took the additional and astounding step of putting his Son on the Cross. God did not demand such a sacrifice. We did. And I can think of no more loving act.

Francis Collins: The Language of God

One of the books that I want to read is Dr. Francis Collin's The Language of God. Dr. Collins, as you may recall, is was the leader of the Human Genome Project, and his book describes how and why he came to believe in God. This book is particularly timely in response to the anti-religion polemics coming from such well-respected scientists as Richard Dawkins.

I recently ran accross s a very interesting review in the December issue of First Things by Stephen M. Barr, theoretical particle physicist at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware. (Sidenote, this is where Nicholas Knisely did his graduate work in physics).

As Barr relates in the review, Collins' conversion began at the side of a hospital bed:

"It was in medical school that [Collin's] atheism suffered a blow: "I found the relationships [I] developed with sick and dying patients almost overwhelming." The strength and solace so many of them derived from faith profoundly impressed him and left him thinking that "if faith was a psychological crutch . . . it must be a very powerful one." His "most awkward moment" came when an older woman, suffering from a severe and untreatable heart problem, asked him what he believed. "I felt my face flush as I stammered out the words ’I’m not really sure.’" Suddenly it was brought home to him that he had dismissed religion without ever really considering-or even knowing-the arguments in its favor. How could someone who prided himself on his scientific rationality do that? He was deeply shaken and felt impelled to carry out an honest and unprejudiced examination of religion. Attempts to read the sacred scriptures of various world religions left him baffled, however, so he sought out a local Methodist minister and asked him point-blank "whether faith made any logical sense." The minister took a book down from his shelf and handed it to him. It was C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

"Lewis gave Collins a simple, though crucial, insight: God is not a part of the physical universe and therefore cannot be perceived by the methods of science. Yet God speaks to us in our hearts and minds, both in such "longings" for the transcendent as Collins had himself experienced and in the sense of objective right and wrong, "the Moral Law." A key aspect of this moral sense is "the altruistic impulse, the voice of conscience calling us to help others even if nothing is received in return." Such altruism, says Collins, "is quite frankly a scandal for reductionist reasoning," for it goes directly contrary to the selfishness of the 'selfish gene.'"

And one of the reasons that I want to read this book is because of its defense of evolution and the scientific world view from a religious perspective:

"Up to this point he has been speaking on behalf of religious belief. He now turns around and speaks to his fellow Christians, especially his fellow evangelicals, on behalf of evolution. His fundamental purpose, however, remains the same: "to call a truce in the escalating war between science and spirit," a war that "was never really necessary" but "was initiated and intensified by extremists on both sides."

"Collins is appalled that "Young Earth Creationism is the view held by approximately 45 percent of Americans" and that "many evangelical Christian churches are aligned" with it. The persistence of this view, which is at once so theologically simplistic and scientifically indefensible, is "one of the great puzzles and tragedies of our time." The danger is not to science but to faith: "Young people brought up in homes and churches that insist on Creationism sooner or later encounter the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of an ancient universe and the relatedness of all living things through the process of evolution and natural selection. What a terrible and unnecessary choice they then face!"

. . .

"Collins argues forcefully that Darwinian evolution is, in fact, perfectly compatible with biblical faith. He avoids the trap into which so many liberal theologians have fallen: thinking that the lesson of evolution is that everything evolves, including God. Collins sees clearly that the key to harmonizing Darwinian evolution with Jewish and Christian faith is through the traditional teaching, so profoundly elaborated by St. Augustine, that God is outside time: "If God is outside of nature, then He is outside of space and time. In that context, God could in the moment of creation of the universe also know every detail of the future. That could include the formation of the stars, planets, and galaxies, all of the chemistry, physics, geology, and biology that led to the formation of life on earth, and the evolution of humans. . . . In that context, evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God’s perspective the outcome would be entirely specified. Thus, God could be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective, limited as it is by the tyranny of linear time, this would appear a random and undirected process." With the aid of St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis, Collins knocks down one theological objection to Darwinian evolution after another."

Gays and Lesbians and Faith: Personal Reflections of a Parish Priest

As I watch the debate unfold within the Anglican Community about issues of same sex relationships, I am struck by the importance of our own personal story as we each struggle to come to conclusions about these issues. I am no different--I was lead to take a closer look at scriptural references that appeared to condemn homosexual relationships only after I was confronted with the reality of gay and lesbian friends and family. I was confronted with very good people in apparently healthy committed same sex relationships, and with the reality that my gay and lesbian friends and family members had no choice in their sexual orientation. I therefore faced the tough issue--how were these committed relationship sinful?

I am finding that my story is the story of many who have concluded that committed, same sex relationships are not sinful. In each instance, before we began to do the tough biblical and theological thinking on this issue, we were confronted with the reality of the lives of real human beings. One of the best descriptions of this process is by Father Richard, a blogging Episcopal Priest in Mill Valley California. Here is sample of what he wrote:

"My journey in these matters began in the Midwest 32 years ago, growing up in small, rural, conservative towns where the only place sexualities other than heterosexual were discussed were in boy's locker rooms and where the word "fag" was a plain put-down and suggested some thing thoroughly disgusting and unholy.

"I grew up, like most Christian kids, with a lot of worry about my sexuality. I was straight. I knew that from at least the 2nd grade, because I liked girls. But I was being infused with a hearty dose of American puritanism, so I was taught in the cultural waters to be suspicious of sex-in-general, even if the 1980's were more enlightened than previous decades in teaching the basic anatomy, etc., when we started to approach puberty.

"I went to college sure that straight was the only way to be. My first conscious meetings with gay and bisexual people happened quite by accident, when friendships developed and I learned about their struggles on a relatively conservative University campus with flirting with the threshold of the closet. Knowing nothing about the "ex-gay" movement, I nevertheless encouraged them to seek help, believing their sexuality to be a disorder that was rooted in other emotional problems. I thought it was the right thing to do for God.

"In three years of study, I learned from Andrew much about what it means to be human. He was unassuming, full of humor, a great artist, and absolutely committed to his students and my development as a pianist. He was not a Christian. But he was a profoundly spiritual man whose devotion to compassionate life taught me a great deal about what was best about my own faith tradition. We never really discussed his sexuality at any length. But through his witness in our teacher-student relationship, I went from believing homosexuality was a perversion; to seeing it as a disorder; to believing it was a choice that I didn't need to support, but I needed to respect; to seeing it as a fully human and God-given characteristic that could be lived into through love and covenant.

"Meantime, I had joined a small, loving Anglican community on the University's edge. A gay couple there, whose partnership had been blessed there, befriended me. We had dinner together every several weeks, enjoyed great conversation on everything from science fiction to theology. Mark & Wayne showed me what a healthy, covenanted, and committed relationship looks like from the inside. Meanwhile, I began coughing up every puritanical belief I had ingested, and found warm and loving Christians ready to help me see the Gospel with fresh eyes. And it came to life for me.

. . .

"I have seen the face of Christ most in the wounded, loving, caring, and compassionate gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered Christians of this Church, lay and ordained. I am who I am because of who they are, and who God in Christ has been through them. They have become a part of me, and an integral part of my spiritual journey into the heart of God in Jesus Christ.

"So, to the Primates I now say, as a priest at the growing edge of the Anglican Communion, and with no intended reproach towards those who strongly disagree with my position on human sexuality:Wherever my brothers and sisters are damned, I am damned as well."

There is much, much more. Read the whole thing

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Daring to Be A Different Church

In an earlier post, I discussed the importance of attracting the unchurched back to church through innovations like You Tube. I also noted, however, that once folks entered our doors and attended services, we would need to offer them a reason to stay.

Father Patrick Gahan, rector of St. Stephen’s Church, Wimberley, Texas, recently wrote a very thoughtful article about how to do just that. Here are the highlights of what he had to say:

"At St. Stephen’s, the parish I serve, we decided to scrape the rust off tired, contentious, and unhealthy practices and dare to do church another way. In just 18 months, our attendance is up some 100 worshipers per Sunday, our monetary giving has increased by some 45 percent, and participation in our adult formation classes has increased by more than 100 percent. More importantly, St. Stephen’s has become a much more vibrant faith community because we have taken these five very practical roads to revival:

"1. The Episcopal parish community must extend radical, unbridled welcome. The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for the righteous. The deepest joy of a congregation is only realized when it lovingly gathers new Christians into the community. Unfortunately, most of our congregations are insular, and the closest they come to inviting in the stranger is the guest register placed in the narthex that no one bothers to read. . . . .

"2. The Episcopal parish community must insist upon systematic, comprehensive formation. If the church invites people to supper, we must give them something to eat. When a family gets up on Sunday, forgoes a leisurely morning, shakes their toddler into her tights, and rushes out the door to church, they are looking for something substantive they cannot get at home with their Starbucks coffee and New York Times. They deserve to be fed. . .

"3. The Episcopal parish community must engage in disciplined daily prayer and Bible study.Every revival in the history of the Christian Church has been accompanied by increased Bible study and prayer. The crowning and most distinctive elements of the Episcopal liturgy are daily Morning and Evening Prayer. Outside of our cathedrals, however, very few of our parishes observe the morning and evening offices with any regularity. I can assure you that the practice has warmed up our parish. . . .Put together a team of folks to write simple meditations on one of the assigned scriptures each day, read them at the Daily Office celebrations, and e-mail them to the entire parish. You will soon have a sizeable number in your congregation reading the Bible and praying every day.

"4. The Episcopal parish community must be committed to faithful, generous outreach. The Christian life cannot be abstracted. Never has that fact been more important. . . . Following our Lord, we must focus our energies outside of ourselves in order to save us from the ugliest Episcopal sin of all — narcissism! . . .

"5. The Episcopal parish community must exude irrepressible, inexhaustible joy. “The church is certainly a happy place,” I hear during my Sunday evening phone calls. It has long been my practice to call each person who visits our parish later on Sunday night. It’s rare that one does not state how animated, friendly, and joyful our people appear. Joy is the ingredient most characteristic of Christians, yet it is an ingredient sorely missing from many of our parishes right now. "

It is worth reading the whole thing.


Democrats and Evangelicals

There is a debate occurring in political circles about whether Democrats have any hope of gaining the votes of Evangelicals. No one is saying that a majority of Evangelical voters will vote Democratic--the issue is whether Democrats can make gains with these voters. Stuart Rothenberg, one of the best political analysts to be found, is skeptical, based largely on the lack of any movement in the 2006 midterm elections:

"The GOP percentage among white evangelicals dropped by 4 points from 2004 to 2006, from 74 percent to 70 percent, according to exit polls. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ showing inched up to 28 percent from 25 percent.Given the strong Democratic year and the huge Republican advantage with white evangelicals, the Democrats’ gain was unimpressive. The 2006 midterm elections were so stunningly good for Democrats that all voter groups moved toward the Democratic Party last year."

Amy Sullivan of Red Letter Christian thinks that Rothenberg simply misses the point:

"In fact, the numbers suggest no such thing. The only numbers Rothenberg cites are the meager gains Democrats made nationally among evangelicals in November 2006. But no one - and certainly not the Democratic religion consultants he criticizes in the piece - has claimed that Democrats made great strides among evangelicals nationally last year. Indeed, it would be surprising if they had, given that the party made virtually no special effort to court evangelical voters.

"What Democrats like Mara Vanderslice and Eric Sapp (and, to be fair, me) have said is that in the states where Democrats spent a year or two establishing relationships with evangelical leaders and voters, candidates did make significant gains. In Michigan and Ohio, for instance, the Democratic gubernatorial candidates nearly split the evangelical vote. And, contrary to Rothenberg's assertion that evangelicals won't vote Democratic because they vote based on issues (which he defines narrowly as gay marriage and abortion), those winning Democratic candidates were pro-choice and pro-gay rights. . . .

Well, Vanderslice and Sapp may not be pollsters, but they are evangelicals, so they know a thing or two about the community. And they know that while a majority of evangelicals may decide to stick with the GOP in the hopes of changing the party from the inside, it's more than possible for Democrats to pick up enough evangelical voters to put them over the top. Republicans did the same thing courting socially conservative African-American voters in 2004. It works where Democrats have tried it. So why on earth would you hold up cases in which Democrats haven't tried it as proof that it can't work?"

I am with Amy Sullivan on this debate. When I ran for Congress in 1994, our polling data showed a surprising receptiveness among Evangelical voters to Democratic candidates. These voters are not all single-issue voters on issues like abortion and gay rights. The problem is that in election after election, Democratic candidates have either ignored these voters or expressed outright hostility and disdain for them. Indeed, I am doubtful if most Democratic consultants could even name the leading Evangelical pastors and churches in the district or state they are working in. It's no surprise that Evangelicals return the favor with their votes.

In light of this history, courting Evangelical voters takes work. but it can be done. In the Ohio Governor's race, the Democrat, Ted Strickland won as many Evangelical voters as the Republican, Ken Blackwell. And in Michigan, pro-choice liberal Democrat Jennifer Granholm won 35% of the white Evangelical vote. Given the results in Arizona, I would not be surprised if Governor Janet Napolitano similarly carried a large percentage of the Evangelical vote. This article gives some details about how these victories among Evangelicals were achieved.

Politics is a game of addition, not division. It behooves the Democrats to learn from the lessons in Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere, and aggressive court Evangelical voters.

After I published this post, I found an article in the Washington Post discussing the growing opposition to the war in Iraq among Evangelicals. Included in the article was the following very interesting snippet that supports my view that Democrats can win votes among the Evangelicals:
"Daniel R. Lockwood, president of Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary in Portland, Ore., said he has seen a "sea change" among his students, who are looking beyond conservative issues such as abortion and homosexuality to the environment, children with HIV/AIDS and the poor.

"'More and more, students are very interested in social justice and issues often associated with the middle and the left,' Lockwood said, "and the war is a piece of that.'"


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Maison de Naissance: Saving the World One Child (and One Mother) at A Time

"I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink'...Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?...'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." Matthew 25:35, 37, 40

We as Christians need to take very seriously this call to take care of the "least of these who are members of my family." Accordingly, from time to time, this blog will discuss organizations that meet this call, and are therefore worthy of our support.

The first organization for which I urge your support is Maison de Naissance .

Maternal and infant mortality rates in Haiti are the highest in the western hemisphere and among the highest in the world. One in every 16 women in Haiti will die during childbirth (about 200 times the risk of mothers in the United States). Most women have known a relative or neighbor who has died in childbirth. One in every 12 infants will die before their first birthday. The period of greatest risk is immediately following birth.

Maison de Naissance is a maternity center designed as a birthing home. Its mission is to provide preferential care for mothers and babies in extreme poverty in Haiti. The services of a modern maternity center are offered in the hospitality of a safe, culturally appropriate, welcoming, and friendly home - a house of birth - Maison de Naissance.

Although Maison de Naissance is operated in Haiti as an institution of the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti, my wife Allison and I have more personal ties to the organization. Allison's best friend from high school is Dr. Elizabeth Wickstrom MD, high risk OB/GYN who makes several trips a year to volunteer at the Maison de Naissance maternity center, and who was one of its founders.

Want to meet Christ's challenge to help the least of these? Consider a donation.

Apocalypse Wow!: Father Matthew Presents

Father Matthew. the young Curate from Yonkers making good use of You Tube that I wrote about in an earlier post, has a new video that does the best job I have seen putting the book of Revelations in proper context. It take about 5 minutes, but is well worth a look:

Are We Listening?

One of the sources of difficulty that the Episcopal Church is having with the Anglican Communion is a resolution passed at the 1998 Lambeth Conference (which is essentially a conference of Anglican bishops). Resolution 1.10 states that the Anglican Communion as a whole upholds “faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage.” Also included in this Resolution, however, was the following:

“[We recognize] there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church, and God's transforming power for the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships. We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ...”

The Anglican Communion has just released reports by various parts of the Communion that purport to report what was learned in this "Listening Process." As several Bloggers have noted, there is not much listening going on in many Provinces of the Communion. Instead, the "reports" largely reflect folks talking about gays and lesbians, instead of listening to them. Check out Father Jones' post entitled Anglican Centrist 18 – The Listening Process , Father Jake, and Tobias Haller for insightful analysis.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Kindler Gentler World? If so, why?

The March 19, 2007 edition of The New Republic includes a fascinating article by Steven Pinker, a professor at Harvard, about the largely unnoticed decline in violence and cruelty worldwide since the 16th Century:

"In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, "[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized." Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world. This change in sensibilities is just one example of perhaps the most important and most under appreciated trend in the human saga: Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth.

"In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.

"Some of the evidence has been under our nose all along. Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution--all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light."

Pinker proceeds to offer a variety of possible explanations for this decline in cruelty and violence, but it seems to me that he misses one contributing force--the decoupling of religious authority from political authority that began in the Reformation. In my view, one of the leading causes of the decline in violence and cruelty, and the end of such abhorrent practices as slavery, was the strong and prophetic voice of religious leaders. But the possibility of such a prophetical voice could only arise when religious institutions developed some degree of independence from the State, since before the Reformation, the Church was an Ally to the State. And such an independence in Western Europe only began after the Reformation. And the personal piety that arose from the Reformation may well have been a strong motivating factor in those who chose to be a prophetic voice.

As Pinker notes, the "leading edge [of the decline in violence and cruelty] has been in Western societies, especially England and Holland, and there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the early seventeenth century." Of course, England and Holland were both cradles of the Reformation, and it was in the early seventeenth century that the Reformation was first beginning to cause some degree of independence from political authority.

The importance of the prophetic voice in ending such violent acts as unjust wars, slavery and other forms of oppression cannot be underestimated. As the recent movie "Amazing Grace" illustrates well, it was the force of religious conviction that caused the end of the Slave trade in the English Empire. The leader in the British Parliament advocating a career against the Slave Trade was William Wilberforce , who was compelled by his strong Christian faith. In the United States, many of the leading Abolitionists were similarly compelled by religious conviction. And it was the voice of the African-American religious leaders that lead the fight for civil rights in this country. This prophetic voice continues to this day. As Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times noted in a column (subscription required) last December

Moreover, for all the slaughters in the name of religion over the centuries, there is another side of the ledger. Every time I travel in the poorest parts of Africa, I see missionary hospitals that are the only source of assistance to desperate people. God may not help amputees sprout new limbs, but churches do galvanize their members to support soup kitchens, homeless shelters and clinics that otherwise would not exist. Religious constituencies have pushed for more action on AIDS, malaria, sex trafficking and Darfur's genocide, and believers often give large proportions of their incomes to charities that are a lifeline to the neediest.


Conservative Jews and Gay Rabbis

The Jewish Theological Seminary is one of this nation's leading rabbinical schools for conservative Jews. The Seminary just announced that they will now allow the admission of gay and lesbian students. Here are some highlights (the emphasis is mine):

"I write to announce that, effective immediately, The Jewish Theological Seminary will accept qualified gay and lesbian students to our rabbinical and cantorial schools.

"This matter has aroused thoughtful introspection about the nature and future of both JTS and the Conservative Movement to a degree not seen in our community since the decision to admit women to The Rabbinical School nearly twenty-five years ago. Convictions and feelings are strong on both sides. Some will cheer this decision as justice long overdue. Others will condemn it as a departure from Jewish law and age-old Jewish custom. One thing is abundantly clear: after years of discussion and debate, heartfelt and thoughtful division on the matter is evident among JTS faculty, students, and administration. The same is true of professionals and lay leaders of the Conservative Movement. For many of us, the issue runs deep inside ourselves. . .

"We believe that the law can be modified, and therefore should be modified, in accord with our society's changed knowledge about and moral attitudes toward homosexuality, knowledge and attitudes far different than those of our ancestors that guided their reading of law and tradition. Core Jewish teachings such as the imperative to treat every human being with full respect as a creature in God's image urge us strongly in this direction. We do not alter established belief and behavior casually. But we are convinced that change in this case is permitted and required, precisely in order to preserve the tradition charged with guiding us in greatly altered circumstances.

"For we are Conservative Jews. The question facing us now, as always, is what the tradition as a whole commands us to do. Members of our community disagree about the correct answer to that question and about the proper method of answering it but not, I think, about the nature or urgency of the question itself. As Conservative Jews, we know that halakhah has a history. The fact of its development and change over time, partly in response to altered circumstances, ways of thinking, and moral convictions, was proclaimed by Zacharias Frankel at the very outset of the movement. It is a given in scholarship on Jewish law as well. The CJLS debate and the discussion in its wake follow from these principles of Conservative Judaism. "

I found this via Andrew Sullivan's blog. Here is his take on this development:

"Read the whole thing. It's a landmark decision. It pains me to note that as Episcopalians, reform and conservative Jews, and many other religious groups are grappling with this question with compassion and insight, my own church has actually regressed back to the dark ages with respect to gay seminarians."

I agree with Andrew, this is a very interesting document that is worth a very close read.

Father Jones on Diversity in the Anglican Communion

My second post on this blog raised the issue of why the Anglican Communion is about to schism over the issue of same sex relationships. This is obviously a very important issue to the lives of worshippers in the Communion, but as I argued in my post, the Anglican Communion has tolerated diversity on far more critical issues of faith. Father Greg Jones of the Anglican Centrist blog makes the same argument, albeit with far more authority and learning than my humble second post, in responding to the claim by Nigerian Archbishop Akinola that the issue of same sex relationships is worth dividing the Church over:

"In another place, Archbishop Akinola asserts as a matter of principle that issues like this one are worth dividing the Church over -- because, he says, "two cannot go together except if they agree." He asserts this principle -- as if it were well-known and long-operative in Anglicanism. But, in fact, it isn't and hasn't been.

"For nearly five centuries now Anglicans have been defined by their willingness to stick together in worship, sacrament and ministry despite radical and deep disagreement on theological and moral issues.

"For example, since the 16th century, Anglicans have disagreed to a greater or lesser extent over the question of baptismal regeneration.

"Some Anglicans believe that the sacrament of baptism alone does not assure salvation or represent 'new birth' into Christ. (Even though the early Church and the Prayer Book have always said it does.) Amazingly, while this may properly be seen as a question of eternal significance, the Anglican Communion is not threatened by widespread disagreement. Clearly, two have walked together who do not agree -- for a long time, on many points."

The entire post is well worth reading for a host of reasons, including Father Jones' analysis of bibical authority. Read it all (the post is entitled "Anglican Centrist 16 -- Comment on the Primate of Nigeria's Theology ")

Monday, March 26, 2007

Appealing to the UnChurched

Last week, the Barna Group released a study showing that "one out of every three adults (33%) is classified as unchurched - meaning they have not attended a religious service of any type during the past six months. " The Barna researchers noted that:

"These results coincide with a unique book released this week by Tyndale House Publishers, entitled Jim and Casper Go to Church. That book describes the experience of a former pastor and an avowed atheist who together visited a dozen significant churches across the nation. Jim Henderson, who has been a pastor of small and large churches, interviewed the atheist (Matt Casper) during and after each church service they attended to gain insights into what it’s like for an outsider to attend such churches. Among the congregations visited were well-known ministries such as Willow Creek (pastored by Bill Hybels), Saddleback (led by Rick Warren), Lakewood (featuring Joel Osteen), and The Potter’s House (home of T.D. Jakes).

"Many of the insights drawn from the experiences of "Jim and Casper" parallel the findings of Barna Group studies among the unchurched. Some of the critical discoveries were the relative indifference of most churched Christians to unchurched people; the overt emphasis upon a personal rather than communal faith journey; the tendency of congregations to perform rituals and exercise talents rather than invite and experience the presence of God; the absence of a compelling call to action given to those who attend; and the failure to listen to dissident voices and spiritual guidance to dig deeper in one’s faith. "

I am fortunate to belong to a Church that is attracting new members every week (including a surprising number of twentysomethings). Nonetheless, I think that these results are very troubling. My fear is that most of the unchurched are so turned off by their preconceived notions of Church that they never come through our red doors. We need to reach them another way.

It seems to me that it is time to use technology to break down these misconceptions and draw in the unchurched. One young priest, Fr. Matthew Moretz of St. Paul's, Yonkers, NY, is doing just that: He has produces short, intelligent and funny videos on his You Tube site. Each of his videos is viewed by thousands--not bad for a young Curate at a small church. It seems to me that every church needs to similarly creative--using technology to the fullest to draw people back in our pews. Of course, once they come in our doors, we need to feed them the spiritual food that will keep them coming back for more.

Here is one of Father Mathews more timely videos. Enjoy!


The Episcopal Church and Salvation

As I mentioned in my last post, there are numerous orthodox Anglicans who argue that the Episcopal church's views on same sex relationships is just the final straw. In most cases, the example used are comments made by our Presiding Bishop about her views on salvation. As an example of this argument, one conservative Rector argued as follows:

"When bishops refuse to affirm the Nicene Creed and core essentials of the Christian faith, there is a crisis in the Church. When they vote to bless and call holy behaviors that the Bible defines as sin, there is a problem. When the leader of the denomination responds to Jesus' words -- "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me," (John 14:6) -- by stating that Christians should not say that Jesus is the only way to God, "If we insist we know the one way to God, we've put God in a very small box," orthodox Anglicans take issue.

"Another statement was: "Christians understand that Jesus is the route to God. That is not to say that Muslims, or Sikhs, or Jains, don't come to God in a radically different way. They come to God through human experience, through human experience of the divine -- that doesn't mean that a Hindu doesn't experience God except through Jesus. It says that Hindus and people of other faith traditions approach God through their own cultural contexts; they relate to God, they experience God in human relationships, as well as ones that transcend human relationships." Orthodox Anglicans can only see such pronouncements as heresy."

As Nicholas Knisely reports, however, it appears that the Presiding Bishops' views about the role of Christ in salvation is decidely orthodox and mainstream. I also found an earlier post on this issue by Father Greg Jones (in a post entitled "Will Only A Few Be Saved") very instructive.


Sunday, March 25, 2007

Gays, Lesbians and the Episcopal Church

Since I worship at an Episcopal Church, it seems apt to start this blog with a comment on the current battle occurring in the Episcopal Church over inclusion of gays and lesbians as full members of the church body. It appears that a schism--of the entire Anglican Communion and of the Episcopal Church itself--may be in the works as a result of this issue. I have views on this issue, and will comment on them at greater length in a later post, but it seems to me that the larger issue is why it is THIS issue that threatens to split the Anglican Communion. After all, the issue of the church's views of the morality of same sex relationships, as important as it may be, is hardly central to the Christian faith. It has nothing to do with the divinity of Christ, the reality of the resurrection, or the meaning of the Eucharist. Oddly, however, the Anglican Community has tolerated wildly divergent beliefs on each of these issues. And the Communion did not split over the decision to allow women to be ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church.

To put this more personally, I worship at a church with a tradition of full inclusion of gay and lesbian members whose priest is in line with the majority view within the Episcopal Church on these issues. Yet, when my wife and I recently worshiped at St. Mathews Cathedral in Dallas, a church in a diocese with a decidedly different point of view, we were struck with how "at home" we felt in this congregation. The liturgy was the same, the congregation was quite welcoming, and even the sermon was consistent with what my wife and I believe. Nothing essential was apparently lost by the difference of opinion over the morality of same gender relationships in these two congregations.

One of the strengths of the Episcopal Church, and the larger Anglican Communion, has always been the fact that it tolerated a wide variety of theological views and backgrounds. The result has been positive--the Anglo-Catholics among us had much to learn from the Evangelicals, and vice versa. In addition, much like the federal government system allows States to act as "laboratories of democracy" by allowing states to experiment with public policy ideas, the diversity in the Anglican Communion allows parts of the Church to test whether new ideas are indeed the works of the Holy Spirit. For example, the Episcopal Church was among the first in the Communion to ordain women as priests. I think that the fruits of this experiment have evidenced the work of the Holy Spirit, and other parts of the Communion have since begun the same practice.

The question, therefore, is why the Communion (and several Diocese within the Episcopal Church) are unwilling to tolerate diversity of beliefs on same sex relationships. After all, a congregation that does accept gays in the priesthood does not have to call one, and the Episcopal Church has learned to respect the decision of Bishops who decline to ordain women as priests.

I think several factors may be coming into play. Perhaps, the fact that homosexuality as a secular cultural issue, even apart from its religious doctrinal importance, is driving up the salience of homosexuality as a faith issue within the church. This is certainly true in several African Churches where abhorrence of homosexuality transcends religious boundaries, but I think this is true in the United States today as well. There is a larger culture war in this country (and the world at large) on the issue of same sex relationships, and the passions of the debate outside our church are sadly increasing the importance of this issue within our church.

I also think the theological issue of same sex relationships has become the issue too far for many conservatives within the Church. My wife and I have a friend who worships at Falls Church (which recently left the Church), and this is how she articulates her decision to support her congregation's decision. And this view was recently expressed by the author of this op-ed.


This Blog

To many people the focus of this blog will come as a surprise. I am fairly well known in Arizona political circles as a Democratic member of the State Senate in the 1990's, as a Member of the Clinton Administration in President's second term (serving in both the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Pentagon), and as a lawyer for various Democratic candidates and organizations and progressive causes. Many people would therefore expect me to focus on politics and public policy. The people who know me best, however, know that lately my focus has been elsewhere--on questions of faith. That will be the focus of this blog. Of course, I am an unreformed political junky and will, at times, talk about current political events. And, as should soon be clear, I think that my faith itself has political implications. Nonetheless, I will aim to focus on what matters first--my faith.