Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ruth Marcus on Harvard's Accomodation of Religion

I wrote previously have the big controversy about Harvard's efforts to accomodate its Muslem minority. In short, I thought that the uproar was a bit much. One of my friends from Harvard Law School, Ruth Marcus agrees in her Washington Post column:

My reaction is more along the lines of: "Get a grip." It's reasonable to set aside a few off-peak hours at one of Harvard's many gyms. It's not offensive to have the call to prayer echoing across Harvard Yard, any more than it is to ring church bells or erect a giant menorah there.

I share the apprehensions stirred up by the more radical followers of Islam, with their drive to restore the caliphate and subjugate women. But I come to this issue as a member of another minority religion, Judaism, whose adherents often seek flexibility from the majority culture in order to practice their faith. As with Islam, my religion's more observant believers endorse practices -- segregating the sexes at prayer, excluding women from engaging in certain rituals -- that I find disturbing, bordering on offensive. I have relatives who would shrink from shaking my hand. Still, I would defend to the death their right not to touch me.

Certainly, accommodation has its limits. Ten years ago, Orthodox Jewish students at Yale sued -- unsuccessfully -- after the university refused their requests to live off campus because, they claimed, living in co-ed dorms would violate their religious principles. Muslim students at Australian universities are demanding course schedules that fit into their prayer times and separate, female-only dining areas. In Britain, female Muslim medical students have objected to being required to roll up their sleeves to scrub and to exposing their forearms in the operating room. Fine with me if they need a place to scrub in private, but your right to exercise your religion ends where my safety begins.

A regime of reasonable accommodation inevitably entails difficult -- Talmudic, even -- line-drawing. That's not true of the claim that the call to prayer offends because it proclaims publicly what other religions are polite enough to keep private: the exclusive primacy of their faith. Surely even Harvard students aren't so delicate that they can't cope with hearing speech with which they disagree -- in a language they don't understand.

All of this matters not because it's Harvard but because it underscores that America is not immune from the tensions over Islamic rights that have gripped Western Europe. In the Washington area earlier this year, a Muslim runner was disqualified from a track meet after officials decreed that her body-covering unitard violated the rules.

There have been similar disputes over women seeking to wear headscarves on the college basketball court or while walking the police beat. More problematically, Muslim cabdrivers at the Minneapolis airport sought unsuccessfully last year to be excused from picking up passengers carrying alcohol.

The wisdom of the Framers ensures that some of the excesses of Europe -- in both directions -- won't be replicated here. The French ban on students wearing headscarves would not only be unimaginable in the United States, it would also violate the Constitution's free-exercise clause. The archbishop of Canterbury recently suggested that the British legal system should incorporate aspects of sharia law; that, too, would be unimaginable here and would violate the establishment clause.

But the Constitution goes only so far to help American society navigate the familiar issues raised by this unfamiliar religion. Muslim women who enroll at Harvard and turn up in hijabs at its gyms reflect a strand of Islam that society ought to encourage, the better to compete with its more odious cousins.

Read it all here.

Faith of Our Fathers

Steven Waldman, the editor-in-chief of Beliefnet has a very interesting book about the role of faith in our public life. His book challenges both liberal and conservative assumptions about what the founding fathers thought about the issue. He has a recent blog post that summarizes some of his conclusions:

In writing my new book, Founding Faith, I was struck by two things of possible importance to today’s religious progressives.

First, the 18th century evangelicals had a very different approach to religious freedom than many of their 21st century descendents. They were crucial advocates for separation of church and state. This ought to be a challenge to both modern liberal secularists who assume that evangelicals are awlays on the side of tyranny, and for religious conservatives who have disowned the arguments of their ancestors. If not for evangelicals, we wouldn’t have religious freedom.

Second, the Founders mostly assess religion through the prism of one question: does it promote good behavior? Though each of the Founders I studied in Founding Faith (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison) started at different religious places, they ended up at the end of their lives whittling their creeds down to a few simple items:

Benjamin Franklin: "That the most acceptable service we can render to [God], is doing good to his other children."

John Adams: "I have learned nothing of importance to me, for they have made no change in my moral or religious creed, which has for 50 or 60 years been contained in four short words: 'Be just and good.'"

Thomas Jefferson: "1) That there is one only God, and he all-perfect. 2) That there is a future state of rewards and punishments. 3) That to love God with all thy heart and they neighbor as theyself, is the sum of religion." (Click here for an online version of the Jefferson Bible that shows how he cut out the miracles from the Bible, and highlighted the moral teachings.)

George Washington: "In politics, as in religion, my tenets are few and simple; the leading one of which, and indeed that which embraces most others, is to be honest and just ourselves, and to exact it from others; meddling as little as possible in their affairs where our own are not involved. If this maxim was generally adopted, wars would cease and our swords would soon be converted into reap-hooks and our harvests be more peaceful, abundant and happy." (Washington letter to James Anderson, December 25, 1795, as quoted in Chadwick, p. 487.)

It’s not accurate to say these men were not religious. I don’t believe it’s even accurate to say they were Deists, since most of them believed in a God that intervened in history and in their lives. But it is clear that they judged the success of religion by whether it inculcated good behavior, and created good citizens.

Read it all here.

A Primer on Black Liberation Theology

Confused about the controversy over Pastor Wright? Want to learn a bit more about what black liberation theology is all about? Father Peter Carey has some useful resources on his blog here.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ed Kilgore on Obama and His Church

I have known and admired Ed Kilgore for many years. He is a great political thinker--and also an Epicopalian. I thought that his remarks on Obama's church ad faith to be very insightful. His main point is that criticism of Obama for not leaving his church reflects a very consumerist vision of the church that is alien to the very Catholic view that the church is an organic community:

But the Wright controversy also touches on religion, and in a few brief references in his speech, Obama hinted at an alternative approach he probably considered, and might even return to in the future.

Here's what Obama had to say about Trinity UCC Church and its pastor:

The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS....
Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children...I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.

On one level, this is a statement of racial solidarity. But on another, it's an argument that the church is the embodiment of the community it serves, with all its imperfections, which Obama bluntly describes. This is a very old, very "Catholic" idea of the church as an organic expression of "the people" as they happen to exist. It is likely to be baffling to those white Protestant Americans who think of church membership as more of a matter of consumer preference, doctrinal agreement or family heritage (none of which seem to have been major factors in Obama's original "conversion" at Trinity UCC) and who also probably don't understand why Obama didn't just choose a different congregation the first time he heard something objectionable from Wright's pulpit.

The difference in perspective, which Obama indirectly alludes to, is the unique community leadership role played in this country by the African-American church. In Jim Crow society, the church was often the only strong institution in many African-American communities. It had to play a social and even political role, and it's no accident that it supplied most of the leaders of the early civil rights movement, along with its anthems and martyrs.

Kilgore further observes that the sermons of Rev. Wright need to be placed in their appropriate prophetic context:

But there's another important thing to say about Rev. Wright that's as much about religion as about race. In his offensive comments about America, he wasn't just making an inflammatory political statement. He was overtly adopting a prophetic stance. "God Damn America" isn't just a profane and angry set of three words; it is quite literally an invocation for God to chastise what Wright considered a wicked society, much as his namesake, the Jewish Prophet Jeremiah, called on God to bring his own people back into obedience by subjecting them to the wrath of the Babylonians.

The prophetic stance has a very old history in Protestantism, and in fact, is the implicit and sometimes explicit foundation for the current political radicalism of the Christian Right. While conservative evangelical pastors have so far as I know avoided calling on God to "Damn America" (though Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson came very close to it when initially blaming 9/11 on the country's sinful ways), the phrase may well be in the back of their minds as they describe America as a depraved country that casually kills its children by the millions, persecutes Christians, and seeks to destroy the family. Those conservative commentators who have expressed so much shock and outrage at Wright's words need to look around at their comrades on the cultural barricades.

So while the saga of Barack Obama, his church and his pastor is most definitely about race, it's also about the inherently uneasy relationship of Christian believers to "this world." As a politician who has shown a remarkable degree of depth in weighing into the usually shallow waters of debate on the subject of religion and politics, Obama might want to address this subject more directly at some point. I don't know anyone better equipped to, say, compare and contrast Wright's prophetic stance to that of Martin Luther King, Jr., who moved and changed America instead of damning it--precisely what Barack Obama says he intends to do as president of the United States.

Read it all here.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Money Can Buy Happiness!

Ed at Not Exactly Rocket Science reports on new studies that show that while income is generally not very important to aperson's happiness, people who give lots of mony away to charities or other people are quite happy. The moral: money can buy you happiness if you give it away:

Across and within countries, income has an incredibly weak effect on happiness once people have enough to secure basic needs and standards of living. Once people are lifted out of abject poverty and thrown into the middle class, any extra earnings do little to improve their joie de vivre. Time trends tell a similar story; even developed countries that have enjoyed economic booms have seen plateauing levels of satisfaction.

But a new study reveals that money can indeed buy happiness... if it's spent on others. Elizabeth Dunn from the University of British Columbia wanted to see if there were ways of channelling the inevitable pursuit of money towards actually making people happier. Together with Lara Aknin and Michael Norton, she asked a representative group of 632 Americans to disclose their average monthly expenditure and to rate how happy they were.

She found that personal spending, including bills, living expenses and treats for oneself, made up 90% of the average outgoings but had no bearing on satisfaction. On the other hand, people who spent more money on others by way of gifts or charitable donations, were much happier for it. That either suggests that selfless spending increases happiness, or just that happier people are more likely to plump up more money for friends or charities.

Dunn sought out firmer conclusions by watching what happened to people who received an unexpected windfall. She surveyed 16 employees at a Boston firm who were given a bonus that ranged from $3,000 to $8,000. About two months later, Dunn grilled them about how they had spent the money and again, regardless of the size of the bonus, those who devoted more of their windfalls to selfless ends ended up happier, while those who splashed out on themselves did not. To paraphrase a saying, it's not how much you have, it's what you do with it that counts.

Finally, Dunn tested this theory through an experiment. She gave 46 people either $5 of $20, and an afternoon to spend it. Half of the lucky volunteers were told to splurge on themselves, while the other half had to buy a gift for someone else or to give the money to charity. By the evening, the charitable individuals felt happier than they did in the morning while the self-spenders did not, regardless of which bill they were given, and despite the fact that they were acting on instructions.

Read it all here.

So, feeling blue? Write a check to your favorite charity.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama's Speech

A lot has been said about Obama's speech, and I don't really have much to add. I thought that it was a brilliant speech, whose full impact is only beginning to be felt. It does strike me, however, that one reason that Obama is getting so much heat about the comments of his pastor is that many Americans can't imagine have different political views than their religious leaders. Indeed, for many Americans, religion and politics are inseparable.

I have been a member of many churches in my time, and have heard many a sermon whose political content disturbed me. My pastor at a Lutheran Church in D.C. was far to the left of me and made comments about the military on many occasions that set me on edge. Yet I stayed a member of that congregation. Why? Because this man was otherwise a wise spiritual leader who was instrumental in getting me to come back to church. Because a congregation is about a whole lot of people, and not just the pastor. And because I can accept that my faith and my politics, while linked by values, are not the same.

I think that one of the best observations about the Obama speech was by Marc Ambinder:

In the midst of rejecting his minister's broader critique of American society, Obama endorsed one crucial particular of Jeremiah Wright's political theology: Race is a fact, and it matters. With this speech, Obama effectively distanced himself from the "post-racial" label that many of his supporters have applied to him. Instead of suggesting that America should move beyond racial resentments, he argued that we need to confront them, acknowledge that both black and white resentments are "grounded in legitimate concerns" and respond to them. He was careful to dismiss the possibility that America can "get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy." But the tenor of the speech, and the directness with which it took on Obama's own identity as a mixed-race man whom others code as black, left the impression that Obama believes he carries on his shoulders a great responsibility to help break the "racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years," and expiate what he often calls America's "original sin."

It's worth noting that both Charles Murray, the author of The Bell Curve, and Pat Buchanan, the vessel for white ethnic resentment in the 1990s, found Obama's speech persuasive and even brilliant. Perhaps this is because Obama recognized the reality of white racial consciousness too, and defended working-class whites who oppose affirmative action and worry about crime from the charge of racism. But even as he acknowledged the legitimacy of these resentments, he suggested - in a move that is typical of his campaign - that they should be addressed through liberal means. You may be right to be offended by affirmative action, his rhetoric suggested, but health care is where the real action is. The speech ultimately reads as a call to address the root causes of racial resentments, white and black alike, with government entitlements. Conservatives will ultimately reject that message. Independents may not.

Read it all here.

Monday, March 17, 2008

March Gladness

Episopalians for Global Reconciliation have a brilliant idea involving the NCAA Basketball finals (aka March Madness). The Lead has the full story:

The brackets are set, the NCAA tournament bids are out -- this year Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation invites you to add a little purpose to your picking. We call it March Gladness.

March Gladness combines two of our favorite things -- Making Poverty History and the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Here's how it works:

Like your regular NCAA pool, you fill out your tournament bracket -- picking each game in the field of 65 right up to the championship game. Like your regular pool it costs a little to get in. Like your regular pool, the people who do the best picking the games win the pot.

Here's where Madness turns to Gladness:

*Instead of an entry fee, there is a small donation ($10).

*Along with your bracket(s) you designate a nonprofit (must be an official 501(c)3 whose work contributes to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals that you will be picking for.

*Instead of the winners taking home the pot, all money raised will be given to the designated MDG-related organizations.

Everyone has fun and it's all for a great cause -- God's mission of global reconciliation and making poverty history!

Entries close at tip-off of the first game on Thursday, March 20 (the play-in game is not included). You can enter as many times as you like, but entries will only count if an entry donation is received for each bracket.

Finally, this is about having fun while raising money to help people who need it the most. The more the merrier! Forward this to everyone you know ... let's see how much money and awareness we can raise for Making Poverty History!

For more information on the Millennium Development Goals and the movement for God's mission of global reconciliation, check out the EGR website at

Read it here.

If you are looking for some charities to designate, here are some worthy options:

Lutheran World Relief
Episcopal Relief and Development
Maison de Naissance

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Eliot Spitzer and Prostitution

I must say that I am stunned and saddened. Eliot was a friend in law school (we served onthe law review together) and I have been a supporter of his various political campaigns.

I won't even begin to speculate about Governor Spitzer was thinking when he made such a profoundly stupid and tragic mistake. Instead, what I find most interesting about this entire episode is that many are asking the question: why is prostitution illegal in the first place? I think Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times offers the best answer and an innovative response to the problem:

The big news here in New York is Governor Spitzer being linked to a prostitution ring. That raised my eyebrows, because a few months ago the governor encouraged me to write about his anti-trafficking work in New York (which was indeed impressive). All this raises obvious questions: Should prostitution indeed be illegal? Is it worse to be caught paying for sex than simply having an affair?
My own sense is that prostitution is deeply enmeshed with coercion and various other illegal behavior, so it is very different from having an affair (which I don’t think newspapers should worry about, unless there’s some impact on official duties). I grant that there are some cases of financial transactions for sex that are indeed negotiated by fully consenting adults, and they don’t bother me. But I think that at a practical level those transactions are difficult to disentangle from those in which coercion and drug dependency do play roles.

The Netherlands legalized prostitution, and the results seemed unimpressive: no decline in trafficking and only marginal improvements in public health at best. Meanwhile, Sweden took a different approach, decriminalizing prostitution for the women but making it an offense to pay for sexual services. In short: Sweden arrests the customers and leaves the women alone.

At a purely practical level, this seems to have been quite effective in reducing trafficking and coerced prostitution in Sweden. Skeptics say it has just driven the prostitution underground, but Swedes themselves say in opinion polls that the experiment has succeeded. I suggest that American states should experiment with the Swedish model and see if it works better than the existing model in reducing the social problems and coercion that tend to coexist with prostitution in this country

Read it all here.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Father Dan Martins on Demonizing the Enemy

For many of us on both sides of the great Anglican soap opera, one of the worst features as been the tendency--by those on both sides of the debate--to demonize our opponents. As I have often said, there is room in our church for both sids on the issue of same sex relationships. Indeed, we need both sides in our church.

Father Dan Martins, who differs from me on the issue of same sex relationships agrees in a must read post:

It seems to me that what most gets in the way of the ability to empathize is the tendency on all sides to paint the opposition with a very broad brush. The way conservatives do this is to hang the institutional label of the Episcopal Church on every misdeed that any liberal has committed. All the detestable enormities of "revisionism" thereby become monolithic. It's an impressive list. Who can work up very much empathy for an institution that subverts the sacrament of marriage, rejects the authority of Holy Scripture, denies the divinity of Christ and his atoning work, allows Druids and Muslims to serve as priests, believes there are already enough Christians in the world, welcomes unbelievers and pagans to Holy Communion, and confuses the gospel with the Millennium Development Goals?

The problem is, "the Episcopal Church" doesn't do any of those things. Some--many, perhaps; including people in positions of high leadership--do some of them, and that is a serious problem. But nobody, to my knowledge, does all of them. And none of them represent the official teaching or practice of the Episcopal Church.

Liberals, of course, have their own version of the broad brush. They have, at various times, portrayed their opponents as misogynists, homophobes, mindless fundamentalists, neo-Puritans, Anglo-Baptist interlopers, and--my personal favorite--Nazis, all of whom get together at night while the good-hearted politically naive liberals are sound asleep to swear allegiance to the Chapman Memo and plot to steal the Episcopal Church from itself. What decent person in his or her right mind would want to hang out with that crowd?

Once again, the problem is that we're dealing sweeping generalizations. That any or all of the labels (except "Nazi," no doubt) has at one time or another been true of an Episcopalian/Anglican conservative is invoked by many as license to spray paint the whole list of labels on to anyone who dares to resist what is widely perceived as the majority view in TEC.

Of course, merely by describing these phenomena, I have to an extent indulged in them! So I will plead with anyone who will listen: Let's put the broad brushes away. Conservatives would do well to quit automatically unchurching anyone who holds "reappraiser" views, not just because it really pisses them off, but because it's just wrong to do. Somebody can hold a mistaken view on the sexuality questions without being lumped together with John Spong and Markus Borg--or Katharine Jefferts Schori, for that matter. Liberals would do well to quit assuming anyone who holds "reasserter" views does so out of either ignorance, selfishness, or mere power-hungry churlishness. A person can hold a traditional view of sexual morality without being lumped together with Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps.

Both sides in this mess clearly feel beaten up and misunderstood by the other. There is abundant opportunity for empathy. But lest it be thought that I'm just turning into a ball of cotton candy, I will observe that empathizing is not just a charitable thing to do, it's a strategically smart thing to do. I am regularly astonished at how few on either side of the divide seem to understand this. Somehow it's more appealing--no doubt because it's more gratifying in the short term--to hang on to our broad brushes, responding to our opponents with sweeping generalizations and rhetorical flourishes, scoring easy PR points with our homeys by lobbing polemical hand grenades across enemy lines. That's a surefire formula for a World War I-style stalemate. Whichever side is the first to successfully get inside their opponents' collective head, to learn to think what they think and feel what they feel, to learn what motivates them from the inside, will be the first to emerge from the foulness of the trench.

Such a move may lead to final victory. Then again, in God's mercy, it may lead to reconciliation--reconciliation of a sort that none of us can presently envision or imagine.

Read it all here.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Father Matthew on the Sacrament of Unction

The latest from Father Matthew. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Yglesias versus on Religious Accomodation

Many in the blogoshere are outraged that my old Alma Mater, Harvard is accommodating female Muslim students by banning men at a gym during certain hours. Andrew Sullivan is outraged:

They would never do that kind of thing for any other religion. If a religion refuses to allow men and women to work out together in public, then its adherents need to work out at home. What's next? Removing all gay men from the locker-room? This is the West, guys. Get over yourselves.

Read it all here.

Matthew Ygesias, I think, has the better response:

Suppose I were to inform Andrew that Harvard, like all American institutions of higher education of which I'm aware, shuts down and creates a holiday in late December that just so happens to coincide with an important familial and religious observance for Christians whereas no such allowance is made for Passover visits. Christianism? Worse, it happens in public high schools and elementary schools all across the country, the very same country in which no mail can be delivered on Sunday! Meanwhile, when I was a student at Harvard there was a ban on having anything on fire in a dorm room and also a movement to create an exemption so that Jewish students could light Hanukkah candles. I don't recall whether or not the exemption was granted, but if it was that certainly wouldn't constitute the dawning of a new era of Jewish theocratic rule at the university. I know for a fact that they allow students to reschedule exams for religious reasons, like a Jewish or Muslim obligation to avoid taking an exam on a Saturday (no exams are scheduled on Sundays).

There's a range of things one can think about these policies. The preferential treatment granted by public institutions to Christmas rankles, but given the vast number of Christmas-celebrators in the country it's also inevitable and practical. The "no mail on Sundays" thing is poor public policy and obviously has religious origins of a sort, but it's hardly some intolerable burden on minorities, it's just bad public policy. Letting people reschedule exams for religious reasons, but not just because they happen to feel like taking them in some other order, seems like an eminently fair and practical way of dealing with the situation. New York City public schools make the Jewish High Holy Days a day off, due to the city's large Jewish population, most other jurisdictions don't do that but will look the other way if Jewish kids don't show up -- reasonable responses to the objective situation in both cases.

Finding a way to accommodate observant Muslims' concerns about co-ed workouts, in short, is hardly some per se outrageous violation of a strict U.S. tradition of secularism. Is the particular way they've done this unduly burdensome? I think to say whether or not it is you'd need to look at the situation and the available alternatives in some detail.

Read it here.

As Matthew points out, there may still be reason to think that the accommodation here goes too far (think of those poor Harvard boys without a gym for a few hours--the horror). Nonetheless, I think that he is correct that accommodation of our religious diversity is quite consistent with our best American traditions. I find it ironic that many of those outraged (Sullivan is decidedly not in this category) are also the most adamant in insisting that secularists celebrate Christmas.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

An Economist Loves Harry Potter

Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics writes about his unexpected love of the Harry Potter series. I must admit that I had exactly the same reaction: initial disinterest followed by a rapid and addicting read of the entire series in a matter of weeks:

When it comes to Harry Potter, I was a late adopter. For years, I chuckled at the avid readers who camped out at book stores the night before the latest book’s release. My wife is hard to buy for, so when she mentioned half-heartedly that she should read Harry Potter because all of her friends were fans, I bought her the boxed set of the first 6 volumes. She read about 10 pages to humor me, and has not picked them up since.
Months later, looking for something to read one day as I left for the airport, I grabbed the first book of the series from her bedside table. I was instantly addicted, and proceeded to plow through all seven books during the next 4 months. I can’t articulate what is so great about these books, but rarely have I enjoyed reading anything more.
Now, having finished them all, I find myself depressed and empty. I knew this would happen, so I nursed the last two books, never reading more than a little bit at a time. Still, I am left aimless in Harry’s absence. Which is why I turn to you, the blog readers: what should a recovering Harry Potter addict read next to restore meaning to his life?

Read it here.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Thinking About God

Professor James McGrath, offers some very provocative thoughts about how we think about God in the modern world. He points out that the Bible itself displayes a shift in thinking about God (from a polytheistic worldview to a monothesitic one), and asks whether it makes sense to freeze our view of god to the understanding of the ancient peoples who authored the Bible:

In the Bible, studied critically, we can see some steps in the process of the shift from a polytheistic view, which personified the forces of nature, to a monotheistic (or proto-monotheistic) one that explained these various forces of nature in terms of a single personified agent behind them. We see the results of this as the Biblical authors rewrote the traditional flood story in light of their revised thinking about God, and the result is perplexing yet represents progress in perceiving an underlying unity to all things and helping to get us to the scientific approach that built upon this foundation. They had no other way of making sense of such stories than to assume the flood happened and assume God had a moral reason for inflicting it on humans.

Today we have more information and to stop our thinking about God at the stage of the Biblical authors would represent a really bizarre decision on our part. Thanks to our better (although far from perfect) understanding of the universe we inhabit, we do not need either to personify forces of nature, or blame "acts of God" on God. Unless we seriously rethink our concept of God in light of such new data, we end up with a very troubling view, as one blogger I read insightfully points out. It makes little sense to argue that God wants us to not seek our own glory, to not repay those who dishonor and harm us in kind, and yet to depict God as the ultimate glory-seeker who beats up (or one day in the future will torture) those who refuse to respect him. If we realize that the Biblical literature indicates points on a trajectory rather than a static God-concept, then we are free to avoid such troubling inconsistencies and think of God in ways that are in accordance with our highest moral standards.

Charles Allen pointed out that we can pay metaphysical compliments to God without thinking about what they really mean. For instance, if we say that God is omniscient, are we willing to maximize that at the expense of God's freedom? If God foreknows everything, we end up with what I call the 'bored view of God', where God spends eternity doing what God knew that God would do, powerless to change anything since that would cause God's foreknowledge to be in error.

If we unthinkingly attribute to God the maximal attributes in all areas, we just end up with a God who is omnipotent, omniscience, omnipresent and omnivorous...

Read it all here.

So, what do you think?

Men and Forgiveness

Every so often in my practice as a lawyer, I meet people (sometimes they are clients, and sometimes they are the opposing party) who simply can't let go of a perceived wrongdoing. In my experience, this is never healthy--I have seen lives ruined with an obsession about vengeance. Forgiveness is never easy, but I have no doubt that the willingness to forgive is essential to a healthy life.

I was therefore intrigued by a recent scientific study that showed that men are less willing to forgive than women:

Forgiveness can be a powerful means to healing, but it does not come naturally for both sexes. Men have a harder time forgiving than women do, according to Case Western Reserve University psychologist Julie Juola Exline. But that can change if men develop empathy toward an offender by seeing they may also be capable of similar actions. Then the gender gap closes, and men become less vengeful.

In seven forgiveness-related studies Exline conducted between 1998 through 2005 with more than 1,400 college students, gender differences between men and women consistently emerged. When asked to recall offenses they had committed personally, men became less vengeful toward people who had offended them. Women reflecting on personal offenses, and beginning at a lower baseline for vengeance, exhibited no differences in levels of unforgiving. When women had to recall a similar offense in relation to the other's offense, women felt guilty and tended to magnify the other's offense.

"The gender difference is not anything that we predicted. We actually got aggravated, because we kept getting it over and over again in our studies," said Exline. "We kept trying to explain it away, but it kept repeating in the experiments."

The John Templeton Foundation-supported studies used hypothetical situations, actual recalled offenses, individual and group situations and surveys to study the ability to forgive.

Read it all here.

Aside from the gender difference, what I find most fascinating is that a reminder of our own wrongdoings leads to am empathy towards an offender, and this then leads to forgiveness. Doesn't this sound vaguely familiar?