Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Gordon Brown at the UN

I must say that I am impressed with Gordon Brown, the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. His speech today at the United Nations was particularly impressive as it focused, without the typical equivocation, on the need for the industrialized countries to live up to the promises made about the Millennium Development Goals.

Here are some highlights from the speech:

When one month ago I took office as Prime Minister, one of my first acts was to ask Ministers of the United Kingdom Government - from International Development and Foreign Office to Business and Trade, Treasury and the Environment - to report to me on what we must do to meet the world's Millennium Development Goals and to eradicate the great evils of our time: illiteracy, disease, poverty, environmental degradation and under-development.

Earlier this month, the UN Secretary General launched the UN's 2007 progress
report on the goals. He said there was a clear need for urgent and concerted

Now one month later I have come to New York - to the city where the world
convenes - to support the Secretary-General's call and to tell the truth: the goals the world has set are not being met and we face an emergency - a development
emergency - and we need emergency action if we are to meet them.

And I have come today to New York because it was here seven years ago...
in this United Nations conclave...
with the eyes of the whole world upon us all...
that every world leader, every international body, almost every single country signed
a historic declaration for the new millennium, pledging to set and then to meet by
2015 eight development goals.

. . .

But seven years on it is already clear that our pace is too slow; our direction too
uncertain; our vision at risk.

The Millennium Development Goal to be met in 2015, is to reduce infant mortality by
two thirds. But unless we act, it will not be met by 2015, not even by 2030, not until 2050.

The Millennium Development Goal of 2000, to be met in 2015, is primary education
for every child. Unless we act it will not be met by 2015, not even by 2050 but at
best by 2100.

And unless we act, the planet will by 2015 be suffering not less but more
environmental degradation and millions of people will still be struggling on less than one dollar a day with millions of children still hungry.

As the UN Secretary General said earlier this month pointedly and persuasively
'millions of lives quite literally hang in the balance'.

The calendar says we are half way from 2000 to 2015. But the reality is that we are
we are a million miles away from success.

The world did not come together in New York in 2000, come together again in Doha
in 2001, in Johannesburg and Monterrey in 2002, in Gleneagles and New York in
2005 and Heiligendamm in 2007 to make, re-make and reaffirm promises, for us
then to break them.

We cannot allow our promises that became pledges to descend into just
aspirations, and then wishful thinking, and then only words that symbolise broken

We did not make the commitment to the Millennium Development Goals only for us
to be remembered as the generation that betrayed promises rather than honoured
them and undermined trust that promises can ever be kept.

. . .

Let me say to all our global institutions and international financial institutions: We have been standing at the crossroads of change for too long. It is time to implement the reforms needed, prove your relevance for the global age, and make the difficult choices that will give us an international system that is truly fit for the 21st century agenda — one that reflects new shared purpose for the age of globalisation, delivering change to those who need it most.

And let me say to governments of developed countries: We must deliver on our
previous promises — on 0.7 per cent, on making our aid more effective, on debt
cancellation, on trade, on universal access to AIDS treatment, on reducing carbon
emissions. And let us not just fulfil the commitments we have already made but
work with everyone who has a contribution to make. Not just more reports or more
studies - for we know what needs to be done - but action.

Read it all here (PDF file).

Religious Doctors Less Likely to Serve Poor

In the July/August issue of the Annals of Family Medicine, researchers from the University of Chicago and Yale New Haven Hospital report that religious physicians are less likely than non-religious physicians to serve the poor:

Although most religious traditions call on the faithful to serve the poor, a large cross-sectional survey of U.S. physicians found that physicians who are more religious are slightly less likely to practice medicine among the under-served than physicians with no religious affiliation.

In the July/August issue of the Annals of Family Medicine, researchers from the University of Chicago and Yale New Haven Hospital report that 31 percent of physicians who were more religious--as measured by "intrinsic religiosity" as well as frequency of attendance at religious services--practiced among the under-served, compared to 35 percent of physicians who described their religion as atheist, agnostic or none.

"This came as both a surprise and a disappointment," said study author Farr Curlin, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. "The Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist scriptures all urge physicians to care for the poor, and the great majority of religious physicians describe their practice of medicine as a calling. Yet we found that religious physicians were not more likely to report practice among the under-served than their secular colleagues."

. . .

To find out which religious, spiritual and personal factors were most often present in doctors who care for the under-served, Curlin and colleagues surveyed 1,820 practicing physicians from all specialties; 1,144 (63%) responded.

The survey contained questions about what the researchers called intrinsic religiosity--the extent to which individuals embrace their religion as the "master motive that guides and gives meaning to their life." Physicians were asked if they agreed or disagreed with two statements: "I try hard to carry my religious beliefs over into all my other dealings in life," and "My whole approach to life is based on my religion." They were also asked how often they attended religious services.

The survey also included questions about whether the physicians considered medicine a calling, whether their religious beliefs influence their practice of medicine, and whether the family in which they were raised emphasized helping those with few resources.

The researchers found that 26 percent of physicians reported that their patient populations are considered under-served. These physicians tended to be younger and were more likely to report working in an academic health center and receiving loan repayment in exchange for working where they do. Physicians who receive educational loan repayment are often obliged to work in under-served communities.

Physicians who strongly agreed that their religious beliefs influence their practice of medicine were more likely to report practice among the under-served. However, physicians who were more religious in general (as measured by their intrinsic religiosity or their frequency of attending religious services) were not more likely to practice among the under-served. Even the more religious physicians who reported that their families emphasized service to the poor and that, for them, the practice of medicine was a calling, were no more likely to practice among the under-served.

Curlin and colleagues also noted that those who identified themselves as very spiritual, whether or not they were religious, were roughly twice as likely to care for the under-served as those who described their spirituality as low. "Part of this divergence between religion and spirituality can be traced to a rift between Christian denominations in the late-19th and early-20th centuries," explained Curlin, who describes himself as an orthodox Christian in the Protestant tradition.

About a hundred years ago, he said, many of the mainline and liberal Protestant churches began "to emphasize efforts to right social injustices, while the more conservative churches tended to stress doctrinal orthodoxy. Research indicates that those who consider themselves spiritual but not so religious are more likely to be formed in the more liberal denominations."

Read it all here.

While the headline of the study--that more religious doctors are less likely to serve the poor is troubling, I think that the more interesting data is buried in the text of the study. Those who specifically state that their faith requires them to act in the world will be more likely to serve the poor. I suggest that the study is identifying the reality that many Christian churches are, at best, only giving lip service to service to the poor. And it is no surprise that doctors who attend these churches do not get the message that service is important.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Martin Marty on the New Atheism

The great scholar of all things religous, Martin Marty, has a column in the Christian Century about how Christians should respond to the so-called "New Atheism." While I do not agree with all that he says, I do think he offers some very good advice. Here are some highlights:

Having written "The Uses of Infidelity" (1956), >The Infidel: Freethought and American Religion (1961) and Varieties of Unbelief (1964) back when I was on the trail of atheists and their kin, I am often asked: When are you going to comment on the media's discovery of "the new atheism"? The term refers to writings by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel C. Dennett, Samuel Harris, Michel Onfray, Victor J. Stenger and other best-selling defenders of atheism and attackers of religion as something evil and needing to be banished.

Answer: Maybe someday. Meanwhile, here is advice to myself and anyone else who cares:

Keep cool. America has seen cycles like these before and has managed to survive.

Send cards of thanks. These authors bring up differences in an age of indifference.

Don't sneer. Many of these authors sneer. Where does that get us? I quote William Paley: "Who can refute a sneer?"

Don't sound triumphalist. Some say "we" have "them" outnumbered 97 to three. If true, that represents a comfort margin for believers, but what does it prove?

Converse, don't argue. No one wins arguments—which are determined by one's knowing the answer—about the existence or nonexistence of God, but everyone can profit from a conversation that tries to pose good questions and respond to them.

Read better books by these authors e.g., Dawkins's The Selfish Gene), from which you might learn something, as opposed to their sensational polemics on a subject they are not well versed in.

. . .

Agree with the authors that in the name of religion horrible things have been done and are being done, but point out that that's not the whole story of religion. Criticism of religion from within is more searching and matters more.

Save your money and your time by not reading books by or attending debates between religious fundamentalists and scientific fundamentalists.

Show regret that religious communities have been ineffective at presenting positive rationales, thus leaving people hungry for clarification as well as gullible in the face of misrepresentations.

Hold up the mirror if you are a believer, and ask whether anything anyone in religion is saying or doing gives legitimate grounds for antireligion to voice itself and creates a market for books like these.

Read it all here.

Children's Healthcare

One of the few positive public policy developments in recent years has been the expansion of coverage of children through the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (Schip). Simply put, Schip expands coverage of children (and pregnant women) in Medicaid systems. It is now time to reauthorize Scip, and there are two competing proposals--the bipartisan Senate version has a modest increase in coverage funded by an increase to tobacco taxes, and the Senate version has a much larger expansion, funded by a cut in insurance company subsidies under the Medicare program.

The Bush Administration is threatening to veto both versions. Why? Paul Krugman of the New York Times thinks that the Bush Administration opposes expansion because it works too well. George Bush, who opposed this program when he was Governor, is fearful that success will put more pressure to further expand government health programs:

When a child is enrolled in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (Schip), the positive results can be dramatic. For example, after asthmatic children are enrolled in Schip, the frequency of their attacks declines on average by 60 percent, and their likelihood of being hospitalized for the condition declines more than 70 percent.

Regular care, in other words, makes a big difference. That’s why Congressional Democrats, with support from many Republicans, are trying to expand Schip, which already provides essential medical care to millions of children, to cover millions of additional children who would otherwise lack health insurance.

But President Bush says that access to care is no problem — “After all, you just go to an emergency room” — and, with the support of the Republican Congressional leadership, he’s declared that he’ll veto any Schip expansion on “philosophical” grounds.

It must be about philosophy, because it surely isn’t about cost. One of the plans Mr. Bush opposes, the one approved by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the Senate Finance Committee, would cost less over the next five years than we’ll spend in Iraq in the next four months. And it would be fully paid for by an increase in tobacco taxes.

The House plan, which would cover more children, is more expensive, but it offsets Schip costs by reducing subsidies to Medicare Advantage — a privatization scheme that pays insurance companies to provide coverage, and costs taxpayers 12 percent more per beneficiary than traditional Medicare.

Strange to say, however, the administration, although determined to prevent any expansion of children’s health care, is also dead set against any cut in Medicare Advantage payments.

So what kind of philosophy says that it’s O.K. to subsidize insurance companies, but not to provide health care to children?

Well, here’s what Mr. Bush said after explaining that emergency rooms provide all the health care you need: “They’re going to increase the number of folks eligible through Schip; some want to lower the age for Medicare. And then all of a sudden, you begin to see a — I wouldn’t call it a plot, just a strategy — to get more people to be a part of a federalization of health care.”

Now, why should Mr. Bush fear that insuring uninsured children would lead to a further “federalization” of health care, even though nothing like that is actually in either the Senate plan or the House plan? It’s not because he thinks the plans wouldn’t work. It’s because he’s afraid that they would. That is, he fears that voters, having seen how the government can help children, would ask why it can’t do the same for adults.

And there you have the core of Mr. Bush’s philosophy. He wants the public to believe that government is always the problem, never the solution. But it’s hard to convince people that government is always bad when they see it doing good things. So his philosophy says that the government must be prevented from solving problems, even if it can. In fact, the more good a proposed government program would do, the more fiercely it must be opposed.

This sounds like a caricature, but it isn’t. The truth is that this good-is-bad philosophy has always been at the core of Republican opposition to health care reform. Thus back in 1994, William Kristol warned against passage of the Clinton health care plan “in any form,” because “its success would signal the rebirth of centralized welfare-state policy at the very moment that such policy is being perceived as a failure in other areas.”

But it has taken the fight over children’s health insurance to bring the perversity of this philosophy fully into view.

Read it all here (subscription required).

I have no doubt that Krugman is correct. This is ideology trumping reality. Only, in this instance, the reality involves the health of children.

Remembering William Wilberforce

This year, we all too quietly celebrate the 200 year anniversary of the end of slavery in the British Empire. On March 25, 1998, the British Parliament voted to outlaw slavery. So why do I post on this today? Because in the Anglican Communion, today is the feast day for William Wilberforce, the member of Parliament who pushed so hard and long for the end of slavery. It is not every day that an elected politician is recognized as a saint by a religious body, and this recognition is well deserved. To celebrate, there will several services in Westminster Abbey:

Monday night in London's Westminster Abbey, Atlanta's St. Philip's Episcopal Cathedral will help celebrate one of the landmark events in history: 200 years ago, or nearly six decades before the United States settled the Civil War and ended slavery, the British Parliament voted to outlaw human bondage.

For the Britons, it was the culmination of a contentious debate, as much about human rights and justice as about the economics of empire. One member of Parliament, William Wilberforce, spoke with a moral authority that would be accepted as fact only by future generations.

The oracular thunder by Wilberforce, backed by an influential band of allies, made the abolition of slavery seem inevitable — a history depicted in the recent film "Amazing Grace."

Atlanta, too, knows something about how the struggle for basic civil rights can be achieved by many people but galvanized by one man.

So it seems fitting that the choir from St. Philip's will help celebrate the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce and the British act ending slavery. (The date of the act was March 25, 1807; today is Wilberforce's patron saint day.)

Read it all here.

Read more about Wilberforce here.

More on Climate Change: Tibet is Melting

Here is the latest on climate change: The New Scientist reports that Tibet is warming at twice the world average, which has important consequences for the region, including massive flooding in Bangladesh and India:

The Tibetan plateau is heating up by 0.3°C each decade, more than twice the worldwide average, according to a new study from the Tibet Meteorological Bureau.

The findings, reported by the official Chinese news agency Xinhua, underscore a growing understanding that high elevations in tropical regions are experiencing dramatic temperature increases similar to those seen at the poles.

"Whether you are in the Himalayas, the Andes, or Africa, the temperature is rising highest at the highest elevations," says Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist at the Ohio State University (See Interview: The Ice Man cometh). "They are seeing an acceleration in temperature rise that is very consistent with the high-elevation glacial retreat we are seeing."

Over the last 50 years, temperatures in the Arctic and Antarctica have risen by 0.2°C and approximately 0.5°C per decade, respectively, according to data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The reason surface temperatures at the poles are warming so quickly is because the seawater temperature around them has risen faster there than anywhere else on Earth.

In the tropics, warming waters also play a role. When the already warm tropical waters heat up further, due to global warming, they evaporate even more moisture, which rises straight to the upper atmosphere.

"That is latent heat that is rising from the sea and released back to the atmosphere in the mid to upper troposphere," says Thompson. "And that's where the Tibetan plateau weather stations are located."

In 2000, researchers published a study looking at temperature changes on the Tibetan plateau since the 1950s. They found that temperature was not only increasing with time, but also with elevation across the plateau, concluding the data suggests the plateau is "one of the most sensitive areas" in the world in its response to global climate change.

A study published in 2006 in Science found similar increases in air temperature at high-elevation weather stations in the Andes.

Previous studies have found that all glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas could disappear by 2035 at their present rate of decline. The melting glaciers threaten to unleash massive flooding followed by severe droughts across South Asia

Read it all here.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Africa and the Bible

Father Greg Jones (of Anglican Centrist) has an essay at the Episcopal Cafe's Daily Episcopalian about Africa and the Bible. I think this essay is very important because disputes about how to engage with Scripture is one of the leading causes over the current friction between the Episcopal Church and African Anglicans.

Here are some highlights:

As a result of this inculturation of the Word of God, in fairly recent times, denominational differences in Africa don’t mean much. Importantly, outside of South Africa perhaps, there is not a distinctively Anglican approach to the Bible in Africa. African specialist and Episcopal priest the Rev. Dr. Grant Le Marquand tells me that “Western denominationalism doesn’t make a lot of sense in Africa. In East Africa, for example, all the various churches pretty much look the same – if you had a blindfold on you might not tell the difference.” But, he says there are some distinctives in African biblical engagement, in general.

First of all, Africans are generally critical of modern Western approaches to the Bible, including those of the 19th century evangelists who brought them the Bible. Africans identify very much with the worldview of the Bible – finding it reminiscent of their own traditional African worldviews. They believe the modern Western worldview, bereft of mystery, spirits and supernaturalism, doesn’t truly resonate with the biblical worldview. The typical African sees a universe steeped in mystery – a cosmic landscape dotted with spirits, sorcery, animal sacrifice, ancestor worship, and so on – much like the one they find described in Scripture. When Africans were freed from Western interpretations of the text, and Western disparagement of African culture, they could read the Bible themselves. And, importantly, the world Africans encountered in Scripture was closer to their own world than the world of the missionaries. “When they would encounter passages about sacrifice, tyranny, blood, suffering, spirit, healing, etc. – they could deeply grasp it as of their own worldview," Le Marquand writes. "The African noted how closely connected that their world and the biblical world are.”

In addition to identifying more closely with the Bible’s own supernaturalist worldview, Africans also identify with the Bible’s communal vision of humanity. Africans are surprised by Western individualistic approaches to the Bible. They do not believe individuals are equal to the task of biblical interpretation. Ubuntu is the African notion that a person’s identity depends upon her relationships. Whereas the modern Western mindset seems to be, “I think therefore I am,” the ubuntu mindset is, “I am because we are.”

Finally, in addition to a worldview steeped in mystery, and a communal understanding of human identity, Africans engage with the Word of God in the Bible from within their context of suffering and pain.

With few exceptions, modern Africa is a study in pain, death, disease, war and oppression. Independence from colonial rule did not bring ‘the true law of liberty’ to Africa. As such, all African Christians read the Bible in light of brutal circumstances. It is perhaps this last distinctive which draws them so deeply into the biblical story – which is about suffering and deliverance, oppression and liberation, bondage and redemption.

Read it all here.

As Father Jones observes, this view of the Scriptures has served the African Church quite well. It has allowed Christianity in Africa to remain true to African culture, and Christianity is thriving as a result. But it is a view of the Bible that leaves little room for dispute on issues like same sex relationships. And that explains a great deal of what is now occurring within the Anglican Communion.

Friday, July 27, 2007

New Poll on Young Voters

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a predominant Democratic polling firm, has done a poll of younger voters for Democracy Corp. The poll involved a national survey of 1017 young people ages 18-29, and includes some interesting results on religion as well as politics.

Some interesting results include:

This cohort is more secular than the rest of the country – 25 percent describe their religious affiliation as “none” compared to 11 percent in the country as a whole – and 60 percent believe “religion and faith should not play a role in politics.”

Younger people are well ahead of the rest of the country in supporting gay marriage (52 percent favor, 45 percent oppose). Moreover, 67 percent of younger people believe
“same sex couples trying to get married are courageous in facing opposition and really committed to building happy lives together.”

Read the survey here.

The real issue for me is whether the lack of religion is unique to this age cohort or suggests a change from previous generations. Younger adults tend to be less church-going that older adults. the issue is whether this generation has a more pronounced pattern. It is interesting, however, that there is such strong support for gay marriage--this is an opinion that is likely to last, and may suggest an emerging majority on this issue.

Bishop Gene Robinson Interviewed

Andrew Collier, a freelance journalist based in Scotland, interviewed Bishop Gene Robinson in London, and Ruth Gledhill of the Times has the full transcript on her blog. It is worth reading.

Here are some highlights. First, on gays in the Church of England:

'I think the thing that is the most mystifying to me and the most troubling about the Church of England is its refusal to be honest about just how many gay clergy it has – many of them partnered and many of them living in rectories. I have met so many gay partnered clergy here and it is so troubling to hear them tell me that their bishop comes to their house for dinner, knows fully about their relationship, is wonderfully supportive but has also said if this ever becomes public then I’m your worst enemy. It’s a terrible way to live your life and I think it’s a terrible way to be a church. I think integrity is so important. What does it mean for a clergy person to be in a pulpit calling the parishioners to a life of integrity when they can’t even live a life of integrity with their own bishop and their own church? So I would feel better about the Church of England’s stance, its reluctance to support the Episcopal Church in what it has done if it would at least admit that this not an American problem and just an American challenge. If all the gay people stayed away from church on a given Sunday the Church of England would be close to shut down between its organists, its clergy, its wardens.....it just seems less than humble not to admit that.

On his surprsise at the furor his consencration as a Bishop has caused within the Anglican Communion:

Did I think it would be controversial? Of course. Did I have any idea that the furore over my consecration would be as broad or as deep as it was? Absolutely not. We took seriously the voices that were coming our way and we knew this would be a shock in many quarters. On the other hand I think the Episcopal Church is trying to do ministry in its own context and our context. Gay and lesbian people have become active and open members of our congregations and active and open members of the clergy. This was just a next logical step for us. It’s important to remember that the consents to my election were done separately with the laity, the clergy and the bishops and all three of those consent votes were by about a two thirds majority. It was not a narrow margin.
Q. But the sheer scale of the venom you could never have expected...
That’s right. That’s right.
Q ECUSA ordains gay priests but has a problem with bishops...
That’s right. It’s very interesting. As I look back on this – and perhaps it has something to do with the theology of the episcopate – ECUSA has been ordaining gay priests for many, many years. Not every bishop will do that but many do. I will and have. Many make a requirement that the person be celibate, but many do not make such a requirement. It’s interesting that the wider Anglican Communion has either not known that or has not chosen to make an issue of it before now. I understand that a bishop is understood to be ordained for the whole church, although that’s true for the priesthood as well. One is a priest of the church and provided they are a priest of good standing, they can exercise their ministry anywhere in the world. It’s just a surprise to me that this issue did not become an issue until a gay and lesbian person became elected bishop. If it’s wrong for one (bishop and priest) it ought to be wrong for both. Bishops have a certain importance, but it’s just an importance that the church has given them. It’s not an innate importance. So it either ought to be wrong for all orders of ministry, or for none.

His views on the Bishops who oppose him, and his own evolving views on sexuality:

Q. How do you feel when you read some of these comments from other provinces of the church? From your fellow bishops?
The pain comes less from the fact those statements are coming from fellow bishops than that they are coming from fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. That is now how we are meant to treat one another in the body of Christ. Frankly as an act of self protection I pay as little attention to those as possible. I have important and serious work to do in my own diocese and I am so grateful to have those people. I love those people. I love them. If I were to pay overly much attention to all of those comments coming my way I would be so distracted from the real work and ministry I have been given to do. It would paralyse me. I pay as little attention to them as possible. Some of them are so hateful and vile and inaccurate that I get frustrated and angry, but for the most part I feel so close to God...
Q. Can you forgive them?
You know, I can. And here’s why. They only believe what the church has taught them to believe, and I believed those same things myself for a very long time. This is what a gay person has to contend with. We’ve been taught the same things everyone else has. It took me 39 years to claim who I really am as a child of God and as a gay man. How can I expect someone who has never met anyone openly gay who struggled with those themselves to so easily change their minds about this? So while I don’t welcome that kind of hatred coming my way, and while I don’t believe the church teaches us to hate, certainly the church has taught us all to condemn homosexual behaviour. I would argue it has taught that mistakenly, but I can certainly understand why people feel this way so no, I don’t have any trouble forgiving.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith?
Not since I was 20 years old perhaps. I believe it is in God’s plan to include all of God’s children in God’s church. I don’t know if it was in God’s plan for me to somehow play a key role in that for gay and lesbian people. I do believe in free will so if I had not said yes to God’s call someone else would have. Indeed for many years I didn’t know if I would play a role in that, or if I would play a small and insignificant role and someone else would stand on my shoulders and do this thing and I was quite as surprised as anyone else that it seemed to fall to me to be the one elected and to be something of a focus. But we are told over and over in scripture that we will pay a heavy price for doing God’s will. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. I don’t know why it comes as a surprise to Christians that there is always a difficult price to be paid. I can’t imagine Desmond Tutu being surprised that his journey has been difficult at times – that he has had death threats. It certainly was true for Our Lord in his life and it’s all over the scriptures. I think we don’t want to believe it because who could wish for such a thing? But when it comes why should it be a surprise?

Read the entire interview at Ruth's blog here.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The End is Near (okay 12 million years away)

With a tongue firming in the cheek, but based on some peer-reviewed science, the Scientific American blog reports that we will suffer a life-ending extinction event in 12 million years:

I know there are disasters just over the horizon--terrorism, climate change, the rapture--but some ends to the human race are so profoundly unavoidable that they deserve further scrutiny, even if it's just to satisfy my need for some kind of secular eschatology.

Back in May, a pair of researchers at the University of Kansas proposed a unique solution to the puzzling periodicity of mass extinctions on Earth--which happen about once every 62 million years.

According to Adrian Melott, professor of physics and astronomy at KU, the motion of the solar system exposes Earth to an onslaught of cosmic rays on a schedule that is synchronized to the mass extinctions.

That white dot is us, oscillating through the periphery of our parent galaxy along that helpfully-illustrated snaky green path. Of doom.

Like Baltimore, St. Louis or (insert economically depressed city here) writ large, the galaxy has a good side of town and a bad side. Keep this in mind the next time you're piloting a faster-than-light spaceship home after a few too many: The bad side of the Milky Way is the north side.

The KU researchers hypothesize that the leading, north side of the Milky Way generates a shock wave as the galaxy plunges through the universe.

When the solar system periodically journeys up to the north boundary of the galaxy -- about once every 64 million years -- the galactic shock wave exposes Earth to a huge dose of high-energy radiation.

In other words, the earth is periodically irradiated like a steaming heap of potentially contaminated ground chuck, only it ain't just the salmonella that are wiped out.

The one thing that was left out of much of the original reporting on the story, the Letters section of the July 14 issue of Science News informs me, is when we're due for another trip to the wrong side of the tracks:

"We've just passed the mid-plane of the galaxy," said Melott. "We're on the way up and we'll reach a peak in about 10 or 12 million years. That's when the radiation should start getting bad again -- if our idea is right."

"As for the next die-off, there is plenty of time to prepare," cheerfully notes the pr department of the University of Kansas.

Read the post here.

The KU press release ofers a bit more details--and even offers a silver lining:

Melott said a bath of cosmic rays produced by the Milky Way’s shock wave could cut down numbers of Earth’s species in a variety of ways: boosting exposure to elementary particles called muons, creating a blanket of planet-cooling clouds and damaging the ozone layer so that increased radiation causes more mutations, cancers and cataracts.

According to Melott, radiation weakens the biosphere for prolonged periods so that when sudden events occur, such as meteor hits or volcanic eruptions, the disturbance to life on Earth is more severe. “It’s like having the flu and then getting shot,” Melott said.

But the news is not all bad for Earth’s inhabitants. Data shows that while overall diversity of Earth’s species drops during the 62-million-year cycle, it also rebounds every time, like a spring.

“Radiation could increase the number of mutations and also help new species arise,” said Melott. “During these times of lowered biodiversity a lot of new species come into existence, which ride the wave up to the new peak of biodiversity.”

Read the KU press release about the bad news here

On the Dangers of Staying and Fighting

Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News has a post on his blog today about a recenct article in Again by Father Gregory and Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green about their decision to leave the Episcopal Church to join the Antiochian Orthodox Church. I could not find access to the full article, but Dreher has some very interesting quotes from the article. In it, Frederica writes:

The straw that broke the camel's back, though, came during the 1991 General Convention of the Episcopal Church. I was present in the house of bishops when they voted on the Frey Resolution. It states: "Episcopal clergy should abstain from sex outside of marriage." ... After the votes were counted, we found that the resolution was defeated. I went out and found a pay phone and called my husband in tears. I said to him, "This is not a church anymore. It may be some kind of social workers' organization with excellent aesthetics, but it is not a church anymore, because it has no intention of obeying its Lord."

. . .

The one thing I worry about is those people who get heavily invested in what I call the "stay and fight" position. I think there's a negative side to that. Year after year of reinforcing the "stay and fight" identity can form you into the kind of person who loves to fight. The evil one can lure certain kinds of personalities into enjoyment of conflict itself, and into a love of playing for power. You can get addicted to saying the witty thing that slashes someone to ribbons. "You did not so learn Christ' (Eph 4:20). And there's a potential for vanity, too, in the self-valorizaiton as a courageous fighter. For people susceptible to these temptations, the alternative of being in a faithful church, working out one's own salvation queitly, can look boring. They have come to love to fight.

Rod elaborates on the point about not staying and fighting with his own personal experiences as a Roman Catholic (he too, is now Orthodox):

You regular readers know my story all too well, so I won't rehash it here. When I realized that the harder I tried to hold on to what I had, the more deeply it burned my hands, I let go before it seared my hand completely off. What I'm interested in hearing from y'all -- well, from you who have changed churches, religions, or left faith behind entirely, is what was the final point of departure? You know what it was for Frederica. For me, the breaking point was discovering that a Catholic parish we'd come to trust was harboring an accused clerical abuser with the full knowledge of the pastor, who'd hid it from his bishop. That, and seeing how I was destroying my faith and my family's spirituality with my unresolvable anger and despair -- the very thing Frederica points out in her article. I look back with dismay how me and some of my Catholic friends had gotten to the point when the only time we talked about the faith, we talked about the Church, and whenever we talked about the Church, we talked about Church politics and the scandal. You can imagine what that does to a healthy spirituality.

Read Rod's post here.

As one who takes the view that there is room in the Episcopal Church for all points of view on the issues of the day, Frederica's point about the spiritual dangers of "staying and fighting" hit hard. Her description of the spiritual dangers of the "fight" certainly rings true of what we are seeing on both sides of the great Episcopal battle--it certainly describes the power plays now occurring in many dioceses, and the nastiness evident on many blogs. Again, on all sides of the debate.

But the lesson here is not that we should therefore welcome a schism. That is the not the point of unity or communion. But, it is true that the notion of stay and fight is fraught with peril. Instead, we should urge all to stay and do God's will, which includes staying and attempting to reconcile.

More Lambeth 2008 Boycotts?

Ruth Gledhill reports in the Timesthat a large number of Church of England Bishops are threatening to boycott Lambeth if the Episcopal Church does not agree to the requirements of the Communique:

Six out of ten senior Church of England bishops could boycott next year’s Lambeth Conference of more than 800 Anglican bishops and archbishops from around the world because of the row over gays.

Such a boycott would be unprecedented in the history of the Anglican Church and would be an indication of how deep the divisions go, in England as well as in the rest of the communion.

The fifth most senior bishop in the mother church of the Anglican Communion warns today that a majority of English diocesan bishops could consider a boycott if the US does not row back on its pro-gay agenda.

A UK boycott would confirm the gravity of the splits within even the Church of England, traditionally the model for Anglicanism’s “via media”. It would effectively spell the end of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s dream of maintaing unity.

. . .

He tells the Gazette that up to ten diocesan and suffragan bishops, from the Church’s evangelical and Anglican-Catholic wings, would be “constrained” in their protest by their loyalty to Dr Rowan Williams. Speaking to The Times he said later, "The point I was making was that they are having to think about it".

. . .

Bishop Scott-Joynt says in the Gazette that for a boycott not to take place, the bishops of The Episcopal Church must meet the demands of the recent Primates’ Meeting in Dar es Salaam.

In their communique, the Primates gave the US bishops until September 30 to agree to “make an unequivocal common covenant that the bishops will not authorise any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions” and “confirm that... a candidate for episcopal orders living in a same-sex union shall not receive the necessary consent unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion.”

The Primates warned that “if the reassurances requested of the House of Bishops cannot in good conscience be given, the relationship between The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as a whole remains damaged at best, and this has consequences for the full participation of the Church in the life of the Communion.”

Read it all here.

On her blog, Ruth offers these thoughts:
Great efforts are being made to forestall any kind of Lambeth boycott. There is more than a hint of desperation coming out of it all. The Lambeth Conference is of course an instrument of unity, or communion now I think. It would be a disaster were it to become a symbol of disunity. Were it to be the mark of fragmentation of the communion for future historians.

Winton himself admits that Bishops who want to boycott might be "constrained" by their loyalty to Dr Williams. Probably they will in their end be constrained also by their loyalty to the Church.

But as the Global South leaders said in London last week, now is a 'critical time' for the Communion. It will be surprising if everyone does in the end turn up. The deadline for responses to invites is next Tuesday, two months before the critical TEC bishops' meeting in September. The only thing that will be more surprising than a unified Lambeth will be a decision from the September meeting that somehow averts a split.

Read the entire post here.

There is also some good analysis at the Episcopal Cafe's The Lead.

I think we need to take this with a big grain of salt--as Ruth notes, many (if not most) of the Church of England Bishops making this threat may not follow through out of affection and loyalty to Williams. Moreover, the consequence of such a boycott to the Anglican Communion (and the Church of England) would be so immense that it is difficult to believe that the Bishops would, after reflection, take this step.

Of course, a key to the events in the future will be the Episcopal Bishops response to the Communique. As I have said before, the audience for this response should not be the more conservative Global South Bishops--rather the audience should be the Archbishop of Canterbury and the more moderate Bishops and Primates in the Anglican Communion. An appropriately respectful and thoughtful response--that rests on a desire to stay in Communion--will go a long to forestalling such a disastrous boycott. this does not meant that we need to agree to the Communique in full detail or in full, but a another decalration of independence or a lecture on polity will not do.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Eternity for Atheists?

The New York Times Magazine for this coming Sunday has an interesting article about various theories of life persisting after death that do not depend on the existence of a God. Here are some highlights:

If God is dead, does that mean we cannot survive our own deaths? Recent best-selling books against religion agree that immortality is a myth we ought to outgrow. But there are a few thinkers with unimpeachable scientific credentials who have been waving their arms and shouting: not so fast. Even without God, they say, we have reason to hope for — or possibly fear — an afterlife.

. . .

Where does this leave those who, while secular in outlook, still pine after immortality? A little more than a century ago, the American philosopher William James proposed an interesting way of keeping open the door to an afterlife. We know that the mind depends on the physical brain, James said. But that doesn’t mean that our brain processes actually produce our mental life, as opposed to merely transmitting it. Perhaps, he conjectured, our brains allow our minds to filter through to this world from some transcendent “mother sea” of consciousness. Had James given his lecture a few decades later, he might have used the radio as a metaphor. When a radio is damaged, the music becomes distorted. When it is smashed, the music stops altogether. All the while, however, the signal is still out there, uncorrupted.

James’s idea of immortality may sound far-fetched, but for him and other scientifically minded thinkers of his time it had one great virtue. It explained the existence of what were thought to be psychic phenomena: ghostly apparitions, communications from the dead at séances and seeming cases of reincarnation. Alas, little of this supposed evidence for an afterlife has held up under the scrutiny of rigorous investigation.

. . .

The most interesting possibilities for an afterlife proposed in recent years are based on hard science with a dash of speculation. In his 1994 book, “The Physics of Immortality,” Frank J. Tipler, a specialist in relativity theory at Tulane University, showed how future beings might, in their drive for total knowledge, “resurrect” us in the form of computer simulations. (If this seems implausible to you, think how close we are right now to “resurrecting” extinct species through knowledge of their genomes.) John Leslie, a Canadian who ranks as one of the world’s leading philosophers of cosmology, draws on quantum physics in his painstakingly argued new book, “Immortality Defended.” Each of us, Leslie submits, is immortal because our life patterns are but an aspect of an “existentially unified” cosmos that will persist after our death. Both Tipler and Leslie are, in different ways, heirs to the view of William James. The mind or “soul,” as they see it, consists of information, not matter. And one of the deepest principles of quantum theory, called “unitarity,” forbids the disappearance of information. (Stephen Hawking used to think you could destroy your information by heaving yourself into a black hole, but a few years ago he changed his mind.)

If death is not extinction, what might it be like? That’s a question the Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, who died five years ago, enjoyed pondering. One of the more rococo possibilities he considered was that the dying person’s organized energy might bubble into a new universe created in that person’s image. Although his reflections were inconclusive, Nozick hit on a seductive maxim: first, imagine what form of immortality would be best; then live your life right now as though it were true. And, who knows, it may be true. “Life is a great surprise,” Vladimir Nabokov once observed. “I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.”

Read it all here (subscription required).

If I were an atheist, I would find each of these theories quite unsatisfying. While each gives a theory why life can persist after death without a god or gods, each still requires a leap of faith. The speculations are interesting--but ultimately rely on unverifiable propositions. In my experience, atheists have a consistent materialistic and empirical view of reality. Put simply, they live completely and comfortably in modernity. They would be just as unpersuaded by these theories as they are in the existence of God.

Father Stephen on Secularism, Part 2

Father Stephen has posted an elaboration on his original post (which I discussed here) on living in a secular world. In this second post, he asks the tough question: what does it mean in our every day life to live a life in Christ in our secular culture. It offers some very good advice:

It is one thing to describe the cultural mix in which we swim and quite another to swim in an opposite direction. One of my favorite icons is a Theophany icon (Christ’s Baptism). In it you can see fish swimming in the water. All of the fish are swimming downstream except one. A single fish, just beneath the hand of Christ, is swimming in the opposite direction. The first time I saw this icon a priest said to me, “With the blessing of Christ, we overcome the world.”

The same is true of us - fish as we are. With the blessing of Christ we do not have to be conformed to this world. Our minds can be transformed (Romans 12:2). A large measure of this is to be found in availing ourselves of the grace given to us in the Mysteries of the Church. Confessing our sins, striving to make a good communion, the simple ascesis of attending services with their attendant struggle to turn our hearts to God.

But there are many more opportunities in the day (for most, the Mysteries of the Church are far from daily opportunities). I think of two particular opportunities that offer themselves with great frequency. The first, of course, is prayer. Simple prayer, such as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or simple phrases from the Psalms: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name,” or the hundreds of other possibilities. Such prayer turns our heart to God and moves us towards the “constant remembrance of God.” Such remembrance allows us to see the world as it truly is and to see others as they truly are. With such true sight comes the Kingdom of God.

Another opportunity, which I think is akin to the first, is to practice obedience to the commandments of God. I have suggested before in my postings the simple obedience: Today I will be kind to all whom I meet. Kindness is more than the absence of rudeness or malice - it is a positive act of generosity of spirit towards all whom I meet. Such an obedience, simple to state, is full of struggle. But the struggle also reveals to us the state of our heart and also reveals the world around us in a clearer light. As we struggle towards mere kindness, we see that our own hearts are darkened - and not as the result of the actions of others but from the depths of our own selves. And so the struggle helps to beget repentance as well.

There are any number of such obediences - drawn simply from meditation on the commandments of God.

Today I will seek to deceive no one.

Today I will not refuse an opportunity to do good.

Today I will speak ill of no one.

The list can be lengthened quite easily. It’s not unwise to discuss such an undertaking with a confessor or a trusted spiritual friend. In my own experience, it’s almost impossible to take on such a thing for more than a day at a time (our Lord enjoins us to live one day at a time) or to take on more than one such obedience at a time. Of course we should strive to keep all of God’s commandments at all times - but having said that - such a statement quickly passes into banality - indeed it becomes an abstraction, part of the murky waters of our secular world.

We should be wary of generalities - not because they aren’t true - but because they are often true in a very vague way - a way that is too vague to practice. We are very concrete beings and it helps to put things in concise and concrete terms. If you feel tempted to point out that this paragraph is a generality, I noticed it already. Its antidote is to be found two paragraphs above.

Read it here.

In my discussions with atheists, I am struck by how often a get a lecture on how Christians have done evil deeds in history. They are right. This is a historical truth. But this misses another side of this same issue. Chrisitans have also done great good in the world as well. They were instrumental in ending the salve trade (and then slavery). The civil rights movement would have been delayed decades without the Black church and saints like Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, young Christian workers are working in the hells of the world like Darfur.

So the question for me is not whether people have done evil deeds in the name of Christ in the past. The issue instead is this: does following Christ make me a better person. And I think it has, the imperfect sinner that I am.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

More on the 2007 Pew Study

Okay, this graphic is striking. It shows that the United States was the one nation listed most often as the closest ally and biggest threat in the 2007 Pew Global Survey. Here is the Pew analysis:

The polling also underscores the lack of international consensus about the world order reported in this year's first Global Attitudes report. Notably, the United States is named about as often as a close ally as it is named the biggest threat by respondents in the 47-nation survey. No other single country or international institution was as frequently cited as a top ally or threat, including Iran.

. . .

The United States is singled out as a close ally by people in many African nations and in Israel and Kuwait, where the United States remains popular. The publics of two of America's closest allies, Great Britain and Canada, also regard the United States as their closest ally, despite their criticism of U.S. foreign policies.

By contrast, the publics in many predominately Muslim countries, Latin America, and China see the United States as their greatest potential threat. For example, two-thirds of Chinese (66%) and nearly as many in Turkey and Pakistan (64% each), name the United States as the country that poses the greatest threat to their own country in the future. Majorities in Venezuela (54%) and Argentina (52%) also view the United States as a potential threat.

Read it all here.

Pew has a more in-depth analysis of the decline in the view of the United States here.

Support for Suicide Bombing Dropping in the Muslim World

Suggesting that our enemies may, in fact, be their own worst enemy, the 2007 Pew Global Survey, released today, is showing a significant decline in support for suicide bombing and other attacks on innocent lives. the sole exception appears to be among Palestinians:

Among the most striking trends in predominantly Muslim nations is the continuing decline in the number saying that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilians are justifiable in the defense of Islam. In Lebanon, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia, the proportion of Muslims who view suicide bombing and other attacks against civilians as being often or sometimes justified has declined by half or more over the past five years.

Wide majorities say such attacks are, at most, rarely acceptable. However, this is decidedly not the case in the Palestinian territories. Fully 70% of Palestinians believe that suicide bombings against civilians can be often or sometimes justified, a position starkly at odds with Muslims in other Middle Eastern, Asian, and African nations.

The decreasing acceptance of extremism among Muslims also is reflected in declining support for Osama bin Laden. Since 2003, Muslim confidence in bin Laden to do the right thing in world affairs has fallen; in Jordan, just 20% express a lot or some confidence in bin Laden, down from 56% four years ago. Yet confidence in bin Laden in the Palestinian territories, while lower than it was in 2003, remains relatively high (57%).

Opinion about Hezbollah and Hamas varies among Muslim publics. Views of both groups are favorable among most predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia. And Palestinians have strongly positive opinions of both militant groups. But majorities in Turkey have negative impressions of both Hezbollah and Hamas.

The study also found that the world was generally a more happy place in the last year.

So what explains this rapid change? In my view, one word--Iraq. Just as the Iraq War (and the related issues like torture) has tarnished the image of the United States in the Muslim world (and worldwide), the sectarian use of suicide bombing in Iraq is clearly changing views on this issue within the larger Muslim world.

The lessson? Sometimes taking the high moral ground does pay off in the end. Too bad we did not take that high moral ground and are not in any position to take advantage of this shift in attitude.

And lest I sound too optimistic, the numbers from the Palestinian Territories are troubling.

Read it all here.

Father Stephen on Secularism

Father Stephen, a former Episcopal priest, now serving as an Orthodox priest in Tennessee, is always worth reading. Today he has a very thoughtful post on how our culture distances us from God.

First, he observes the default view of God in our culture. I think he nails it--this is how we see God:

The default position of America is secular protestantism.

I say this is the default position and mean by it - that without effort and care - we all find ourselves thinking and acting out of a secular protestant mindset. Of course, I need to offer a definition for my terms. By secular protestantism (and I mean no insult to Protestants by the term) I mean a generalized belief in God - but a God who is removed from the world (hence the term secular). Secularism is not the belief that there is no God - but the belief that God belongs to a religious sphere and the rest of the world is neutral in some independent sense. I add the term “protestantism” to it, because, generally, our culture gives lip-service to protestant foundations, and because Protestant Churches generally understand themselves as relatively human organizations, the true Church being something in the mind of God. (I will grant exceptions to my definition and understanding).

With such a mindset, of course, whatever religious sense one has is generally a matter of effort, organization, control, marketing - in short - religious life is no different from every other aspect of life. It is separated and defined only by its purpose. Such religion is, of course, not Christianity at all, even though it may strive to do good secular work for Christ. True Christianity is a life lived in union with Christ and all that we do that has value is what we do in union with Him.

Next, he describs how this mindset affects our every day life. Put simply, we act as if God did not exist in our every day lives:

It is in reflecting on this that I ponder many conversations I hear (or overhear). Many times I hear myself or others expressing dismay or anxiety over a situation, or plotting to achieve one goal or another. The frightening dynamic in many of these conversations - let alone the actions that flow from them - is the dynamic of secularism. We live as though there were no God, or as if the God Who Exists is not able to act within our world. Having decided what is in God’s best interest, or the interest of the faith, we design our efforts (perhaps even thinking to please Him).

Finally, Father Stephen reminds us of what God requires of us:

But God does not seek to be pleased by actions taken in separation from Him. It is union with God that saves us (and this alone). Neither can we undertake any activity that has a saving character except that activity be taken in union with Christ.

Why should we love our enemies and pray for them? Because there is little else you can do for them that is in union with Christ. You cannot seek vengeance in union with Christ. You cannot even seek to “fix” other people in union with Christ. The action of Christ is always respectful of our freedom and always acts in love. Action in union with Christ cannot have some other character.

Actions such as kindness and mercy, patience and love are easily lived in union with Christ. But our secular mindset rarely sees such actions as useful.

. . .

The Church is either the Mystical Body of Christ or it is nothing at all. And if it is the Mystical Body of Christ in this world, then its life will be lived and governed in no way different from the life of Christ considered in any other manner. Thus, the way of the Cross is always the way of life. Laying down our lives for one another and for the world is simply how we are to live. It is not an extraordinary act - it is a normative act.

Doubtless our culture and its mindset will be what they are. But in its midst we should live “without sin” and let the love of Christ speak of itself (if the love of Christ isn’t speaking of itself, then our own words about the love of Christ will be hollow and meaningless) - and this transfigures life. This is not a plan or a roadmap for the transformation of our culture. God alone knows such things. But it is a roadmap for obeying the admonition of the Apostle:

“…be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:2).

Read it all here.

To me, the most important reminder here is that the way of Christ is the way of the Cross--loving self-sacrifice for others--and that this needs to be our every day way of life and not something extraordinary.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Nicholas Knisley Versus James Dobson on Harry Potter

The Christian Post is reporting that Dr. James Dobson (who does not appear to have read any of the books in question) is advising Christian families to avoid the Harry Potter series:

"‘In a story about Christians' views on the Harry Potter books and films, reporter Jacqueline Salmon wrote that ‘Christian parenting guru James Dobson has praised the Potter books,’’ the statement read. ‘This is the exact opposite of Dr. Dobson's opinion – in fact, he said a few years ago on his daily radio broadcast that ‘We have spoken out strongly against all of the Harry Potter products.’’
The reason the ministry leader is against the material is obvious given the presence of magical characters (witches, wizards, ghosts, goblins, werewolves, poltergeists and so on) in the Harry Potter stories.

‘[A]nd given the trend toward witchcraft and New Age ideology in the larger culture,’ FOTF added, ‘it's difficult to ignore the effects such stories (albeit imaginary) might have on young, impressionable minds.

Read it all here.

Father Nicholas Knisley (who has read all seven books in the series) strongly disagrees at the Epsicopal Cafe's Lead news blog:

Your humble news editor-of-the-day, having spent all night Friday in line with his family for the last book of the series, wonders if Dr. Dobson has actually read them...

Without giving too much away, the final book makes it clear to most that JK Rowling is writing within the model set by the Oxford "Inklings" of the last century. The works as a whole seem very much in the tradition of Pilgrim's Progress. The final work has images of christian morality, teaching and theology that rival the works of C.S. Lewis in the Narnia books in terms of their explicitness.

It seems to us here at the Cafe, that Rowling is writing in a style that follows much of the traditions of great Anglican writing by both clergy and lay people with particular examples being Gulliver's Travels by The Very Rev. Jonathan Smith, Alice in Wonderland by "Lewis Carroll" aka The Rev Deacon Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and Prof. C.S. Lewis. and Prof. Charles Williams of the Inklings themselves. It is in keeping with the instructions of St. Gregory the Great to St. Augustine of Canterbury (the first archbishop) who was instructed to make use of the common culture he found in England to teach the Christian faith to the nation he was sent to evangelize.

Read it all here.

Even if Nicholas were not my priest and friend, I would be with him on this one. It is hard to see how some clearly Christian themed books like C.S. Lewis' Narnia series or J.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Ringseries would have passed muster with Dobson. I, for one, look forward to reading all three series with my son when he is old enough to enjoy these books.

Melissa Rogers on Power versus Authority

I have been doing quite a bit of pontificating about what what Christians should do in the world if we are to be true to our faith. I think that Melissa Rogers post today should give a healthly pause to all of us who urge others to take actions based on faith. To put it most bluntly, she is argung that we need to walk the talk:

Bruce Prescott makes me think: How often could it be said that we religious communities need to get our own houses in order before we go out and tell the rest of the world how to live?

Greg Boyd and Tony Campolo have been influential in my thinking on this point as well. Whether it is sexual morality, sacrificial giving and service to the poor, resisting the temptation to lust after power, or a turning away from commercialism and greed, what stands can we take that will a) force us to do the hard work of bringing our own conduct in line with our principles; and b) send a message to the world that is more powerful than all of our public statements and pronouncements that simply tell others what to do?

I'm not saying that there aren't times for telling others what to do. Clearly, there are. But, as Tony Campolo says, when we do so, we can speak from a position of power or from a position of authority. Mother Teresa, he explained, spoke from a position of authority because of her sacrificial lifestyle. People listened to her because they knew that she lived the principles she called on others to adopt. What about us?

Read it here. By the way, if you are interested in the interface of faith and public policy from a Christian perspective that respects pluralisim and basic american values like freedome of religion, read Meliss every day.

Albert Mohler Responds to Mary Zeiss Stange on Gays and Luther

I earlier posted the comments of Mary Zeiss Strange on Luther and homosexuality. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, responds in the Christian Post. I think that he does a good job of laying out the theological arguments that need to be addressed. I will lay out his argument and offer a brief response.

First, he rejects the argument that we can discount Paul's statements on homosexuality on the basis of a modern understanding of human sexuality:

The Apostle Paul's statements in the Bible are either divinely inspired or not. This is and will remain the crucial issue in the issue of Christianity and controversies over homosexuality. The Bible's statements are clear and they are uniformly condemnatory of all same-sex sexual acts – period. Those who want to push for the normalization of homosexuality and the recognition of same-sex relationships within the church have to find some way around those passages and they must convince enough fellow church members to accept their arguments.

The specific move Professor Stange makes is not new, nor is it honest. Proponents of homosexuality try to argue that we now possess knowledge of sexuality that renders the biblical teachings obsolete. In other words, Paul was writing with the only knowledge of homosexuality available to him at that time. We now know better?

When Professor Stange acknowledges that the concept of "sexual orientation" is a modern invention, she acknowledges the massive shift in modern sexual morality. But do we really know anything new about the essential morality of homosexual acts? We do not.

The concept of sexual orientation is indeed a modern invention, if by orientation we refer to the entire complex of psychological, emotional, relational, social, and physiological factors that are involved in an individual's sexual development. We have learned a great deal in recent decades on these issues, but nothing we have learned changes the basic morality of same-sex acts. We may understand to a greater extent what might be involved in an individual's sexual profile and attractions, but this does not change the morality of homosexuality.

I agree with Mohrer that there is little doubt that Paul rejected the homosexuality known to his time, but I think that Mohrer is a bit too glib in arguing that while we know more about the psychology of sexuality, we have not learned much about its morality. The problem with Mohrer's argument is that it assumes too much about what Paul was rejecting. Did Paul ever associate homosexuality in the context of a committed long term relationship? Are the (unspoken) moral problems he associated with homosexuality present in such relationships?

From what I understand, Paul was largely speaking of either cultic sexual practices of a competing religion or promiscuous (and often coercive) homosexual relationship known to the Greek world. Seems to me that the morality of these relationships are quite different than that of a committed long term relationship. Indeed, I would be curious to hear what Mohrer views as the moral wrong of such a relationship.

Second, Mohrer relies on Luther for a view that does not allow us to vary from the pronouncements in the New Testament:

What would Luther do? Asking this kind of question invites trouble. The question might be a fun exercise for a graduate seminar, but it cannot be answered in any helpful way, other than to go back to what Luther did.

Luther stood upon the authority of every single word of the Bible. As he repeatedly made clear, no word of the Bible could be dismissed – every word carries the full authority of God Himself. Luther put his life on the line for the sole authority of the Bible and this became the formal principle of the Reformation itself – sola Scriptura.

Luther specifically affirmed the Bible's teachings on homosexuality and he never rejected or denied the full authority of any text of Scripture. It is intellectual dishonesty of the highest degree to suggest that Luther would change his position on homosexuality if only he could be instructed about the modern concepts of sexual orientation and sexual lifestyles.

This is the real Luther:

"Is it not certain that he who does not or will not believe one article correctly (after he has been taught and admonished) does not believe any sincerely and with the right faith? And whoever is so bold that he ventures to accuse God of fraud and deception in a single word and does so willfully again and again after he has been warned and instructed once or twice will likewise certainly venture to accuse God of fraud and deception in all of His words. Therefore it is true, absolutely and without exception, that everything is believed or nothing is believed. The Holy Spirit does not suffer Himself to be separated and divided so that He should teach and cause to be believed one doctrine rightly and another falsely."

Luther argued that anyone who would deny the authority of one biblical text will deny others as well. In his own words, "everything is believed or nothing is believed." Those churches and denominations considering the homosexuality question should ponder that statement carefully.

I am no expert on Luther, so I won't opine on whether Mohrer is correctly summarizing Luther's views on the authority of scripture. I do, however, think that the concept that "everything is believed or nothing is believed" overstates how we, in fact, both should read the Bible and do read the Bible. The New Testament is quite clear on divorce, yet most Protestant denominations accept that divorce can be acceptable. The Bible was read for centuries as compatible with slavery. Nonetheless, Christians rejected these passages of the Bible as inconsistent with Jesus's larger message of love. Scripture, must be read in light of bothe reason and experience.

To this end, I think the best rejoinder to Mohrer comes from Luke Timothy Johnson (what a great name for a New Testament Scholar!):

Our situation vis-à-vis the authority of Scripture is not unlike that of abolitionists in nineteenth-century America. During the 1850s, arguments raged over the morality of slave-holding, and the exegesis of Scripture played a key role in those debates. The exegetical battles were one-sided: all abolitionists could point to was Galatians 3:28 and the Letter of Philemon, while slave owners had the rest of the Old and New Testaments, which gave every indication that slaveholding was a legitimate, indeed God-ordained social arrangement, one to which neither Moses nor Jesus nor Paul raised a fundamental objection. So how is it that now, in the early twenty-first century, the authority of the scriptural texts on slavery and the arguments made on their basis appear to all of us, without exception, as completely beside the point and deeply wrong?

The answer is that over time the human experience of slavery and its horror came home to the popular conscience-through personal testimony and direct personal contact, through fiction like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and, of course, through a great Civil War in which ghastly numbers of people gave their lives so that slaves could be seen not as property but as persons. As persons, they could be treated by the same law of love that governed relations among all Christians, and could therefore eventually also realize full civil rights within society. And once that experience of their full humanity and the evil of their bondage reached a stage of critical consciousness, this nation could neither turn back to the practice of slavery nor ever read the Bible in the same way again.

Read Luke Timothy Johnson here.

Read all of Mohrer's essay here.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Archbishop of York to Global South: Come to Lambeth

Dr John Sentamu, an African Anglican now serving in the Church of England as the Archbishop of York warned conservative Anglicans that they are endangering their ties to the Anglican Communion if they boycott Lambeth 2008.

Here is the report from the Daily Telegraph :

The Archbishop of York has warned conservative Anglican leaders that they will effectively expel themselves from the worldwide Church if they boycott next year's Lambeth Conference.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Telegraph, Dr John Sentamu pleaded with them to attend the conference despite their war with liberals over homosexuality.

But he told them that if they "voted with their feet" they risked severing their links with the Archbishop of Canterbury and with historic Anglicanism, a breach that could take centuries to heal.

"Anglicanism has its roots through Canterbury," he said. "If you sever that link you are severing yourself from the Communion. There is no doubt about it."

The archbishop's outspoken comments will dismay conservatives, who blame the liberals for bringing the Church to the brink of schism by consecrating Anglicanism's first openly gay bishop in 2003.

A handful of archbishops and hundreds of bishops from Africa and Asia, representing well over a third of the 70 million strong worldwide Church, are threatening to boycott the Lambeth Conference, the 10-yearly gathering of all Anglican bishops in Canterbury. They are angry that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has invited liberal American bishops.

. . .

Dr Sentamu, a close ally of Dr Williams, said that as long as Anglican bishops did not deny the basic Christian doctrines they should all be able to remain within the same Church.

While liberal north Americans disagreed with conservatives over sexual ethics, these were not core issues, he said.

If the conservatives boycotted Lambeth "they would be the ones voting with their feet and saying, as far as we are concerned, we are the true Anglicans".

He added: "Whenever we break there is a lot of pain and the healing of it is very difficult. I want to warn people, don't spend the next century trying to find a way back."

But he also warned the American bishops that Dr Williams reserved the right to withdraw their invitations if they were not prepared to engage in the decision-making processes of the Communion in the future.

Read it all here.

The Archbishop us close to Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. His words are well worth reading with care. Indeed, he may well be who the Episcopal church has in mind as we formulate our response to the Communique. the two most important points made here are (1) the Archbishop does not believe that issues of sexuality are "core doctrine" that define who is a proper Anglican, but also (2) the Archbishop of Canterbury may withdraw invitations to Lambeth of the Episcopal Bishop if the Bishops do not show some willingness to engage meaningfully with the other Anglican provinces on these issues.

Back from Vacation

Actually, my family got back from vacation three weeks ago, but work commitments have kept me from downloading our photographs until today. We spent a week in Oregon (mostly at the Oregon Coast). I had a 30 year (ugh!) high school reunion in Salem, Oregon (where I grew up), and used the opportunity to get out of the summer heat.

My son loved the beach, and the animals at both the Oregon Zoo and the Newport Aquarium.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor on Faith and Reason in the U.S. and Europe

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has a wonderful essay in the Times that describes the different views of faith and reason in the united States and Europe--and the different challenges that face both the United States and Europe as a result. He thinks that the united States tend to be more comfortable with faith and reason as compatible, but notes that we too often believe our own rhetoric of being a chosen people:

Today Americans still readily embrace both religious faith and patriotism, a striking paradox in a land where Church and State are deliberately separated. We have much to learn from the people of the United States. Their search for a better life and their optimism are linked with their religious faith. From their first day at school, American children learn to salute the flag and declare their Americanness. They say: “God bless America,” and then happily add: “I’m a Baptist, or a Jew, a Catholic or a Muslim.” To them, it seems, being a good Catholic, a good Jew, a good Baptist or a good Muslim fits in perfectly with being a good American. Americans always look with hopeful eyes to the future. Problems can be solved, people can be saved and God will continue to bless his people. Since the days of the Pilgrim Fathers, Americans have seen themselves as a chosen people, called to share in God’s work in history.

The contrast with Europe is striking. In the first place, Europeans have misgivings about patriotism because of the extreme nationalism that blighted Europe throughout the past century. The European Union is a conscious attempt to transcend national loyalties and to foster a new “European” identity based on common values. But Europe’s slow and painful birth has involved an attempt to brush under the carpet the continent’s Christian heritage. Whether it is motivated by overt hostility to religion or by a desire to find a lowest common denominator, such denial of the obvious is unhealthy and dishonest.

Europe’s mood is pessimistic. This is surprising, as the institutions that were created postwar to keep the peace in Europe – the EU itself, Nato, and the European Convention on Human Rights under the Council of Europe – have been remarkably successful in this perennially troubled continent. Part of the problem may be that the role of religion is not usually acknowledged. The American example suggests that seeing Christianity as part of the European vision, rather than ignoring it, could only enhance the construction of a common European civilisation.

The Enlightenment and the Age of Reason were intellectual landmarks as much in Europe as in America, but the two continents have handled them very differently. The Founding Fathers who devised the American Constitution combined the vision that came from faith with the rationality that came from the Enlightenment.

In Europe faith and reason have generally been seen as mutually exclusive. But pure reason will never inspire bold visions and great deeds. It is worth remembering that the founders of postwar Europe were also men of faith (though no doubt entirely rational). If we Europeans now choose to ignore the energy that drove them, it is hardly surprising if the resulting grey edifice fails to fire the imagination of its citizens. Pretending that Christianity played no part in Europe’s history could undo the whole European project.

. . .

Europe and America appear to be at different stages in their journey of faith. And there is a warning to both of them in that. In America’s case, the warning comes from the Old Testament history of another people that believed itself chosen. The warning is that there is a cyclical rhythm, where faithfulness is followed by laxity, even idolatry and unfaithfulness. The things of God become instruments of power, used for selfish or wicked purposes. In this spiritual cycle, the people who lost their way in the wilderness were rescued when a prophet appeared to remind them of their sins and show them the way back. Where Europe is in that cycle, and where America is, I leave to your imagination. But wherever they are, each can learn from the other. The American experience shows that religion and democracy must make room for each other: to banish religion from the public square in the name of freedom and democracy is to threaten freedom and democracy, and the very existence of that public square. The separation of Church and State may indeed guarantee diversity and the exclusion of none; but if it systematically excludes any, problems will follow.

Read it all here.

De Facto Religious Tests

The United States Constitution has always barred religious tests for political office. But this is merely a formal, legal rule that bars only formal tests to get on the ballot. It does not bar individual voters from taking religion into account and,in fact, American voters have always done so. As reported in the New York times, however, this religious test is becoming less sectarian over time. Catholics used to concern voters. They do no longer. Mormons and Muslims, however, still face political hurtles. And, some belief in God still seems to be a requirement for higher office:

Although the Constitution bars any religious test for office, if polls are to be believed, Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, faces a serious obstacle to winning the presidency because of his faith. Surveys show a substantial percentage of Americans would be less likely to vote for a Mormon, or for that matter a Muslim or an atheist. But how rigid is that sentiment?

The answer, of course, is complicated. Historical precedent and other polling information offer clues that many voters are willing to make at least certain concessions when it comes to a candidate’s religious observance when they pull the curtain behind them in the voting booth.

But could voters accept a president who believes in the Book of Mormon? What about one who believes in the Old Testament but not the New? Or one who venerates Muhammad, or Buddha?

There does seem to be at least one bottom line for many voters: belief in God.

“This is a deeply religious nation by many standards,” said Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. “They want their leaders to be believers. They want them to believe in something higher, to have a moral framework as they lead the country.”

Indeed, the religion test imposed by voters has evolved over the years, said John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

. . .

Polls in recent years have shown a clear shift in religious considerations. The vast majority of Americans at this point, said Mr. Green, care less about sectarian affiliation, at least among members of faiths that are now perceived to be part of the American mainstream — Protestants, Catholics and most recently Jews — and more generally about whether the candidate believes in God and how that lends itself to a moral framework.

A national telephone survey released earlier this year by the Pew Research Center asked which traits, including being black, a woman, a Mormon, a Muslim, or a homosexual, would help or hurt a candidate the most. The worst trait for a candidate to possess? “Doesn’t believe in God.”

. . .

Skepticism persists, however, about those who belong to certain religious minorities. The Pew survey, for example, found 46 percent would be less likely to vote for a Muslim presidential candidate.

Nevertheless, the 110th Congress, which took office this year, included for the first time, two Buddhists and a Muslim.

An important part of overcoming the suspicions of voters, said Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat and the only Muslim ever elected to Congress, is to allow them to get to know the candidate as an individual.

“Could we elect a Muslim, or a Mormon, or someone from any other minority religion, is a different question from, ‘Could we elect Keith Ellison to represent the Fifth Congressional District,’ ” Mr. Ellison said. “Could we elect Mitt Romney? He’s a Mormon, but it’s not the only thing there is about Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney does not just represent Mormonism. Mormonism informs him, but he is fundamentally an individual. I think people are going to get that.”

Mormons at this point only represent about 1.5 percent of the population. In the Pew survey, 30 percent of respondents said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate.

When challenged about his beliefs, Mr. Romney has sought to emphasize points of commonality with Protestants and Catholics, often asserting that he considers Jesus Christ his lord and savior.

But Charles W. Dunn, dean of the school of government at Regent University, founded by the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, advised caution on this approach.

“That doesn’t play well with let’s say an evangelical audience,” he said. “Doctrinally, they understand, ‘No, we don’t worship the same God. We don’t have the same approach.’ ”

Instead, he said, like Kennedy before him, Mr. Romney should seek to emphasize religious tolerance. Indeed, Mr. Romney’s response to Mrs. Van Steenis ultimately settled on this message.

“This is a nation where people come from different faiths, different doctrines, different churches,” Mr. Romney said. “But, unlike the people we’re fighting over in the Middle East, we don’t have a religious test to say who should be able to run our country. It’s over there where people say, ‘You don’t go to my church, you can’t run our country.’ ”

When he finished, his audience applauded.

Read it all here.

As the case of Congressman Ellison illustrates, voters may form a different view of the importance of religious belief when they face a real live Muslim as opposed to the abstract notion of voting for a Muslim. I suspect this will be true of Romney--and perhaps even a future atheistic candidate as well.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Bishop Geoffrey Rowell on Faith and Science

Bishop Geoffrey Rowell, the Anglican Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, has a very thoughtful essay on faith in the Times, that argues that faith is essential to any human activity (including science and politics)--and the only real issue is where we put our faith. In doing so, of course, he uses a different view of faith than the straw man ("Faith is belief without evidence") that is often used by atheists in denouncing faith as unreasonable. Here are some highlights:

It was Michael Polanyi, the philosopher of science, who recognised that for a scientist to test a new hypothesis they had to have faith in that hypothesis. Faith seeking understanding was as true of science as of religion, though a faith that was indeed a reasonable faith shaped by compelling evidence. Belief, he argued, was the source of all knowledge. “Tacit assent and intellectual passions, the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural heritage, affiliation to a like-minded community: such are the impulses which shape our vision of the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of things.” We need what he called “a fiduciary framework” if we are to have any knowledge. Without it, knowledge is impossible. As St Augustine said: “I believe in order that I may understand.”

A few weeks later I spent some time in Romania, an Orthodox country, which suffered much under the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. As with Russia, there has been a renaissance of religion after the fall of communism. Orthodoxy is deeply rooted in the identity of that country; it is a significant example of what Newman said about living religion – it is “a mould in which nations have been cast”. What gives a country identity is an overarching story with a transcendent reference that explicitly and implicitly binds people together. “Religion”, after all, means that which binds. When that “overarching story” becomes merely a matter of opinion, societies dissolve. In the Book of Proverbs we read that “where there is no vision the people perish” –or, as the Hebrew more precisely means, “the people unravel”. Without a shared faith and a shared vision springing from an understanding of human nature and human flourishing that encompasses life and death, sin and redemption, we are reduced to merely political arrangements.

We have to live by faith, for we can live in no other way. The question is, in what shall we put our faith? The seductive attractions of advertisers, the many gods and lords of fashion, of possessions that possess us, the addictions that undermine our human integrity, all compete for our allegiance. In the end, the Christian gospel teaches us that the God who is love, and who comes down to the lowest part of our need, is the God who made us for Himself. “You are made to love, as the sun is to shine,” said that sunniest of poet-priests, Thomas Traherne. When my niece says in her wedding today the simple words “I will” to her husband, and two young people give themselves to each other “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death is do part” they will witness to their faith in the God of love made known in Jesus Christ and an openness to the reality of His transforming grace. When the distraught and weeping Mary Magdalen, whom the Church commemorates tomorrow, heard in the garden on the first Easter Day her name called by the Risen Christ, her life was turned around. She was caught up into the life of the new creation of the God who is the conqueror of sin and death, and was told to share the good news of that new creation. It was that faith and that good news that shaped England and Europe, and has shaped countless lives and still has power to do so today.

Read it all here.