Saturday, May 31, 2008

Obama Leaves his Church

It is really sad that it has come to this:

Barack Obama resigned Saturday from his Chicago church — where controversial sermons by his former pastor and other ministers had created repeated political headaches for the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination — his campaign confirmed.

The resignation comes days after the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a visiting Catholic priest, mocked Obama's Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, for crying in New Hampshire during the runup to the primary there.

Previously, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — former pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ and Obama's minister for about 20 years — drew unwanted attention for the campaign when videos of several of his fiery sermons surfaced.

In them, Wright suggested the U.S. government may be responsible for the spread of AIDS in the black community and equated some American wartime activities to terrorism.

Obama has said he was not present for the controversial sermons by Wright or Pfleger and had condemned both — most recently saying he was "deeply disappointed" by Pfleger's "divisive, backward-looking rhetoric."

Read it here.

I suspect that after his public break from the Rev. Wright, Trinity had become a very uncomfortable home. Well, I am sure that he and Michelle can find a nice church within walking distance from the White House.

Ian McEwan on the Day of Judgment

Ian McEwan has a fascinating two part series in the Guardian on "end time thinking." Part one is here, and part two is here.

Here are some interesting points:

First, McEwan notes that "end time" thinking is quite pronounced in the United States:

Five centuries later, the United States, responsible for more than four-fifths of the world's scientific research and still a land of plenty, can show the world an abundance of opinion polls concerning its religious convictions. The litany will be familiar. Ninety per cent of Americans say they have never doubted the existence of God and are certain they will be called to answer for their sins. Fifty-three per cent are creationists who believe that the cosmos is 6,000 years old, 44 per cent are sure that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead within the next 50 years. Only 12 per cent believe that life on earth has evolved through natural selection without the intervention of supernatural agency.

In general, belief in end-time biblical prophecy, in a world purified by catastrophe and then redeemed and made entirely Christian and free of conflict by the return of Jesus in our lifetime, is stronger in the United States than anywhere on the planet and extends from marginal, ill-educated, economically deprived groups, to college-educated people in the millions, through to governing elites, to the very summits of power. The social scientist JW Nelson notes that apocalyptic ideas "are as American as the hot dog". Wojcik reminds us of the ripple of anxiety that ran round the world in April 1984 when President Reagan expressed that he was greatly interested in the biblical prophecy of imminent Armageddon.

Second, our fascination with Armageddon is quite human--it is one of the easiest ways to give our life meaning:

We are born, as we will die, in the middle of things, in the "middest". To make sense of our span, we need what he calls "fictive concords with origins and ends. 'The End', in the grand sense, as we imagine it, will reflect our irreducibly intermediary expectations." What could grant us more meaning against the abyss of time than to identify our own personal demise with the purifying annihilation of all that is. Kermode quotes with approval from Wallace Stevens - "the imagination is always at the end of an era". Even our notions of decadence contain the hopes of renewal; the religious minded, as well as the most secular, looked on the transition to the year 2000 as inescapably significant, even if all the atheists did was to party a little harder. It was inevitably a transition, the passing of an old age into the new - and who is to say now that Osama bin Laden did not disappoint, whether we mourned at the dawn of the new millennium with the bereaved among the ruins of lower Manhattan, or danced for joy, as some did, in the Gaza Strip.

Third, this obsession with the "end times" need not be religious--there are secular versions as well:

We should add to the mix more recent secular apocalyptic beliefs - the certainty that the world is inevitably doomed through nuclear exchange, viral epidemics, meteorites, population growth or environmental degradation. Where these calamities are posed as mere possibilities in an open-ended future that might be headed off by wise human agency, we cannot consider them as apocalyptic. They are minatory, they are calls to action. But when they are presented as unavoidable outcomes driven by ineluctable forces of history or innate human failings, they share much with their religious counterparts - though they lack the demonising, cleansing, redemptive aspects, and are without the kind of supervision of a supernatural entity that might give benign meaning and purpose to a mass extinction. Clearly, fatalism is common to both camps, and both, reasonably enough, are much concerned with a nuclear holocaust, which to the prophetic believers illuminates in retrospect biblical passages that once seemed obscure.

Finally, McEwan warns that all the various types of "end times" thinking appear to be on the rise, and the resulting fatalism is quite dangerous indeed:

Thirty years ago, we might have been able to convince ourselves that contemporary religious apocalyptic thought was a harmless remnant of a more credulous, superstitious, pre-scientific age, now safely behind us. But today prophecy belief, particularly within the Christian and Islamic traditions, is a force in our contemporary history, a medieval engine driving our modern moral, geopolitical, and military concerns. The various jealous sky-gods - and they are certainly not one and the same god - who in the past directly addressed Abraham, Paul, or Mohammed, among others, now indirectly address us through the daily television news. These different gods have wound themselves inextricably around our politics and our political differences.

. . .

Periods of uncertainty in human history, of rapid, bewildering change, and of social unrest appear to give these old stories greater weight. It does not need a novelist to tell you that where a narrative has a beginning, it needs an end. Where there is a creation myth, there must be a final chapter. Where a god makes the world, it remains in his power to unmake it. When human weakness or wickedness is apparent, there will be guilty fantasies of supernatural retribution. When people are profoundly frustrated, either materially or spiritually, there will be dreams of the perfect society where all conflicts are resolved, and all needs are met.

That much we can understand or politely pretend to understand. But the problem of fatalism remains. In a nuclear age, and in an age of serious environmental degradation, apocalyptic belief creates a serious second order danger. The precarious logic of self-interest that saw us through the cold war would collapse if the leaders of one nuclear state came to welcome, or ceased to fear, mass death. The words of Ayatollah Khomeini are quoted approvingly in an Iranian 11th grade textbook: "Either we shake one another's hands in joy at the victory of Islam in the world, or all of us will turn to eternal life and martyrdom. In both cases, victory and success are ours."

And if we let global temperatures continue to rise because we give room to the faction that believes it is God's will, then we are truly - and literally - sunk.

If I were a believer, I think I would prefer to be in Jesus's camp - he is reported by Matthew to have said, "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

. . .

Have we really reached a stage in public affairs when it really is no longer too obvious to say that all the evidence of the past and all the promptings of our precious rationality suggest that our future is not fixed? We have no reason to believe that there are dates inscribed in heaven or hell. We may yet destroy ourselves; we might scrape through. Confronting that uncertainty is the obligation of our maturity and our only spur to wise action. The believers should know in their hearts by now that, even if they are right and there actually is a benign and watchful personal God, he is, as all the daily tragedies, all the dead children attest, a reluctant intervener. The rest of us, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, know that it is highly improbable that there is anyone up there at all. Either way, in this case it hardly matters who is wrong - there will be no one to save us but ourselves.

Read all of the two essays here, and here.

Hat tip once again to Dr. Jim West.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Tobias Haller on Genesis

Tobais Haller is consistently posting real gems. His latest post on the relationship of God to creation, and the implications for morality, is no exception. I strongly urge you to read it here.

I won't even begin to summarize or even "highlight" Father Haller's argument--it is to rich for even that. Instead, I want to focus on his take on reading the Genesis narratives in a post-Darwin world view. I found this quite insightful:

Genesis is not history — certainly not natural history — but sacred story. Much theological thought, even in the post-Darwinian era, and even among non-Fundamentalist thinkers, has been hampered by neglect of this distinction. This does not mean that the story is to be discarded or disregarded; language, which is based on symbols, is essential to communication. The moment we move from things themselves to the names we give them we have stepped into a symbolic world; how much more with larger concepts for which no underlying “thing” can even be said to “exist.” We cannot escape the story, nor should we, as long as we are aware that it is to be used as story and not pressed into use as natural history. The “freedom from myth” agenda of some theologians is both doomed (as language itself partakes of symbolism) and to some extent pointless, rather like translating poetry into prose. Poetry bears truths that prose cannot articulate; but at the same time, to press the symbols into service as facts is to mistake their purpose and their meaning.

Natural science assures us, beyond reasonable doubt, that there was no age of perfection from which humans fell through sin. Rather than seeing the Genesis accounts in that way, it is more helpful to see the story of origin, as other theologians on closer reading have done, as a kind of “upward” fall from innocence through knowledge: the place where the wages of sin and the cost of freedom merge. Seen in this light, there is a deep truth behind the sacred story (or rather stories) portrayed in Genesis, consistent with the truths revealed in natural history, and the two ways of knowing shed light upon each other, as I will demonstrate.

This may be of especial interest to Dr. James McGrath and the others that are trying to explain modern theology to atheists. As Haller points out, the creation myth still has great menaing even if it is not taken as natural history.

Again, read the whole post here.

The CIA and Waterboarding

The following is a page from a heavily redacted report by the Inspector General of the CIA. Although the redactions are immense, the report does conform that waterboarding was used on at least three detainees by the CIA.

The full report can be found here. Here is the ACLU's explanation of the document:

After CIA Director Michael Hayden publicly admitted that the CIA has, in fact, waterboarded detainees, the agency could no longer cling to its last excuses for covering up the use of the very word “waterboarding” in CIA records. As a result, yesterday we obtained several heavily redacted documents in response to an ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by the ACLU and other organizations seeking documents related to the treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody overseas.

While the documents do, in fact, reveal the word “waterboarding” or some variation, they leave pretty much everything else to the imagination. The pages that haven’t been completely withheld (many of them contain the words “Denied in Full” instead of any actual content) have the clandestine blacked-out look that’s become a sort of trademark of this administration.

Read it all here. Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Conservative Catholics Up For Grabs

It appears that Douglas Kmiec is not the only conservative Catholic considering voting for Obama. As the Wall Street Journal is reporting, conservative Catholics are more interested in the economy than abortion--and that is creating an opening for Obama:

Since the 1970s, the country's roughly 64 million Catholics have generally voted in line with the nation. Still, some distinct segments of Catholics can swing an election.

Among those blocs are the 12 million or so non-Hispanic Catholics who attend weekly Mass. While less-observant Catholics have vacillated between parties and supported John Kerry in 2004, a majority of these traditional Catholics has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1992, says John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In 2004, 62% backed President Bush.

This time around, they seem less likely to back a Republican.

This time around, they seem less likely to back a Republican.

Tricia Louis, a 43-year-old Republican and mother of four, attends Mass every Sunday near her home in Withamsville, Ohio, about 20 minutes from Cincinnati. She twice voted for Mr. Bush because of his stand against abortion. In March, she cast her ballot for Sen. Clinton.

"I didn't think the war would go on as long as it has," Mrs. Louis said. "I still think abortion is murder, but I've known two soldiers who've been killed in Iraq. That's murder, too."

. . .

A Pew poll taken in January 2007 found only 38% of traditional Catholics favored a generic Republican presidential candidate. An August 2007 poll showed them three times as concerned with the economy as social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

"Conservative Catholics are very much in play," Mr. Green says.

While Sen. Obama supports abortion rights, he has backed several bills to reduce unintended pregnancies and therefore the need for abortion. His campaign is hoping his record on other issues will carry the day. "He has spent an entire career bringing people together and putting his faith into action, and that's a distinctly Catholic concept," says Joshua DuBois, national director of religious affairs for the Obama campaign.

. . .

Even a small shift among Catholics in battleground states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania could swing the election.

One of those places is Clermont County, Ohio, where Mrs. Louis lives. Catholics helped push Mr. Bush to a 37,000-vote victory over John Kerry there in 2004. Statewide, where one of every four voters is Catholic, Mr. Bush edged Mr. Kerry by 120,000 votes out of nearly six million cast.

In March, the county's turnout was 45%, nearly twice the norm for presidential primaries. Some 4,345 registered Republicans crossed party lines to vote for a Democrat, said Judy Miller, the director of the Clermont County Board of Elections. Sen. Clinton beat Sen. Obama by 6,000 votes of 27,000 Democratic votes cast.

In the center of the state, Marion County Republican Committee Chairman John Matthews said he saw similar numbers and estimated one-third of the Republican party-changers were Catholics.

Read it all here.

Climate Change on Google Earth

Now this is really cool--although, it may be a big time killer:

The British Antarctic Survey and the UK's Met Office have released a pair of new layers for Google Earth that depict the effects of climate change across a 3D map of the globe. In one fell swoop, this about doubles the amount of climate content that's easily accessible from the Google Earth Gallery and Showcase pages.

To check out the maps, download and install Google Earth, then click here to download and open the map file (in KML format) from BAS and here for the Met Office map. (If Google Earth doesn't run when you click those links, you'll have to run it yourself and open the KML files from the File menu.) They will load into the 'Places' bar on the left - checking boxes there displays the content.

Both maps make good use of the program's time-series tool: as you watch an animation or drag a slider, BAS shows Antarctic ice shelves receding over recent decades, and then the Met Office steps in with a color-coded overlay of expected future warming under a medium-emissions scenario. There are also 'push-pins' in both layers that, when clicked, pop up photos, videos and text on climate impacts around the world.

Read it all here.

Crucifixion and Ice Cream?

To me, this is just---well, odd, and very disturbing. Am I alone?

Amid cell phones ringing, video cams rolling and ice cream melting under the Florida sun, a blood-spattered Jesus stumbles through the crowd on his way to Golgotha, where nasty Roman soldiers strip him, nail him to the cross and crucify him—while perspiring tourists look on in Bermuda shorts. After the resurrection sequence, visitors applaud and line up for a photo op, not with Mickey or Minnie, but a disciple or bloody-handed yet friendly centurion. Welcome to Orlando's most unusual theme park, the Holy Land Experience.

Read it all here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

More on the Problem of Evil

Father Sam Norton's discussion of the problem of evil that I blogged about earlier this week has turned into a successful meme. Some great minds on the blogosphere are taking on the challenge.

Professor James McGrath says the following:

Often the issue of theodicy is viewed as finding the best solution to the problem of undeserved suffering that preserves the concept of God we already have. But this assumes that we have received a unified, definitive understanding of God that must be preserved in this way, and anyone who has engaged in academic study of the Bible or religion in general will know that this is not the case. And so unless one has good reason for assuming a particular set of symbols and doctrines relating to God, the best approach is that set forth in the Book of Job: formulate and reformulate a view of God that does justice to the world as you experience, while also acknowledging how limited our understanding of the universe we are a part of really is.

If I were the sort of anthropomorphic God mentioned, I would like to hope that, if I asked my creations to be the sort of people that "go the extra mile" (literally or metaphorically), help those in need even if they are foreigners from a hated race, and hold them to these sorts of ideals, then I would live by those ideals myself. An anthropomorphic God is one who is very much like us, only bigger and more powerful and supposedly better in the sense of more kind and loving. If I asked my creations to forgive 70 times 7 times, and to turn the other cheek, I hope I would also do that myself. But this is one of the paradoxes of many forms of fundamentalism: it depicts God as setting a standard for human beings that the Scriptures, stories and doctrines of that tradition do not consistently show God living up to.

This is not to say that one cannot hold to some form of anthropomorphism and deal with the problem of evil in some way. The free will defense works to a certain extent for moral evil, even though it does nothing to mitigate the issues of cyclones and tsunamis. One simply has to acknowledge that God has placed constraints on his freedom by giving freedom to his creations. The analogy I used to use was of a chess grandmaster. If I play chess against a grandmaster, the expert can know for sure he or she will win even though I am free to make any legal move within the game. How is that possible? Simple: the grandmaster is better at it, and can see further ahead because of it. Apply this to an omniscience, omnipresent God, and his will reigns supreme even if we are free. Of course, sooner or later you have to explore the details of the analogy and that is when things get dicey. What are God's pieces in such a scenario, and how does God move them?

There is much more--read it all here.

Professor Jim West gives this response:

First- let’s be clear that there are a variety of ‘evils’ in the world. First, there is man made evil and suffering. This category of evil includes crack smoking mothers giving birth to deformed babies; people building homes and cities in low lying, flood prone geographical locations; life long smokers dying of lung cancer; miners dying of black lung; and the ever delightful spread of sexually transmitted diseases because of rank, animalistic human promiscuity; the folly of war; the horror of Auschwitz. In sum, anything that man does to himself is human generated evil and suffering.

In response to human suffering God gives us the answer. One another. We are God’s plan in face of human wickedness. It is our bounden duty and responsibility to aid one another when the other suffers- whatever the cause. It is also our bounden duty to restrict the growth of suffering by proper economic and ecological planning. We need to educate the crack whore; build our cities in better locations; ban smoking; ensure the safety and well being of all workers; ban promiscuity; end war; make impossible by the imputation of mercy anything like Auschwitz. In sum, do what’s right instead of what’s wrong, selfish, or wicked.

Second- the category of evil which includes things outside of our control. Quite frankly, there just isn’t much of that. It’s easy to blame God for all manner of human induced suffering but what in life is that far outside of our ability to control? Can people in tornado prone areas not build shelters? Can mothers not take care of themselves while they are pregnant? Can governments not decide that war is never an option? Can we not develop environmentally friendly methods of providing the energy we need? In my estimation, the answer to all of those questions is yes.

In conclusion, then, suffering and evil can be laid at the feet of people. Of us. Of wickedness and selfishness and greed and, well let’s just say it, sin. Cure sin, and you cure suffering.

Read all of it here.

The Direction of Time

Sean Carroll, a senior research associate in physics at the California Institute of Technology, has a wonderfully rich and accessible article in the Scientific American that attempts to address a real puzzle: why does time seem to only move in one direction. Here are some excerpts:

Among the unnatural aspects of the universe, one stands out: time asymmetry. The microscopic laws of physics that underlie the behavior of the universe do not distinguish between past and future, yet the early universe—hot, dense, homogeneous—is completely different from today’s—cool, dilute, lumpy. The universe started off orderly and has been getting increasingly disorderly ever since. The asymmetry of time, the arrow that points from past to future, plays an unmistakable role in our everyday lives: it accounts for why we cannot turn an omelet into an egg, why ice cubes never spontaneously unmelt in a glass of water, and why we remember the past but not the future. And the origin of the asymmetry we experience can be traced all the way back to the orderliness of the universe near the big bang. Every time you break an egg, you are doing observational cosmology.

The arrow of time is arguably the most blatant feature of the universe that cosmologists are currently at an utter loss to explain. Increasingly, however, this puzzle about the universe we observe hints at the existence of a much larger spacetime we do not observe. It adds support to the notion that we are part of a multiverse whose dynamics help to explain the seemingly unnatural features of our local vicinity.

. . .

One bold but simple strategy is just to say: perhaps the very far past is not different from the future after all. Perhaps the distant past, like the future, is actually a high-entropy state. If so, the hot, dense state we have been calling “the early universe” is actually not the true beginning of the universe but rather just a transitional state between stages of its history.

. . .

Like any good high-entropy state, the tendency of empty space is to just sit there, unchanging. So the problem is: How do we get our current universe out of a desolate and quiescent spacetime? The secret might lie in the existence of dark energy.

In the presence of dark energy, empty space is not completely empty. Fluctuations of quantum fields give rise to a very low temperature—enormously lower than the temperature of today’s universe but nonetheless not quite absolute zero. All quantum fields experience occasional thermal fluctuations in such a universe. That means it is not perfectly quiescent; if we wait long enough, individual particles and even substantial collections of particles will fluctuate into existence, only to once again disperse into the vacuum. (These are real particles, as opposed to the short-lived “virtual” particles that empty space contains even in the absence of dark energy.)

Among the things that can fluctuate into existence are small patches of ultradense dark energy. If conditions are just right, that patch can undergo inflation and pinch off to form a separate universe all its own—a baby universe. Our universe may be the offspring of some other universe.

. . .

This scenario, proposed in 2004 by Jennifer Chen of the University of Chicago and me, provides a provocative solution to the origin of time asymmetry in our observable universe: we see only a tiny patch of the big picture, and this larger arena is fully time-symmetric. Entropy can increase without limit through the creation of new baby universes.

Best of all, this story can be told backward and forward in time. Imagine that we start with empty space at some particular moment and watch it evolve into the future and into the past. (It goes both ways because we are not presuming a unidirectional arrow of time.) Baby universes fluctuate into existence in both directions of time, eventually emptying out and giving birth to babies of their own. On ultralarge scales, such a multiverse would look statistically symmetric with respect to time—both the past and the future would feature new universes fluctuating into life and proliferating without bound. Each of them would experience an arrow of time, but half would have an arrow that was reversed with respect to that in the others.

The idea of a universe with a backward arrow of time might seem alarming. If we met someone from such a universe, would they remember the future? Happily, there is no danger of such a rendezvous. In the scenario we are describing, the only places where time seems to run backward are enormously far back in our past—long before our big bang. In between is a broad expanse of universe in which time does not seem to run at all; almost no matter exists, and entropy does not evolve. Any beings who lived in one of these time-reversed regions would not be born old and die young—or anything else out of the ordinary. To them, time would flow in a completely conventional fashion. It is only when comparing their universe to ours that anything seems out of the ordinary—our past is their future, and vice versa. But such a comparison is purely hypothetical, as we cannot get there and they cannot come here.

. . .

But the take-home lesson is not any particular scenario for the structure of spacetime on ultralarge scales. It is the idea that a striking feature of our observable cosmos—the arrow of time, arising from very low entropy conditions in the early universe—can provide us with clues about the nature of the unobservable universe.

Read it all here.

Our Reasonable Faith

RJS, a scientist and a Christian, has had a very good series on faith and reason at Jesus Creed. It is following Tim Keller's new book, The Reason for God. I thought that the latest essay was worth noting:

We are wrong to believe that we will ever construct an irrefutable argument or proof for the existence of or the nature of God. This is an impossible task. Rather we will look at preponderance of evidence and the viability of a Christian world view, taking into account all of the evidence we have available. Even in science we have no absolute proof – only empirically based theories that organize and explain the evidence better than anything else available. A theory is accepted if it explains and predicts — a theory is refined and improved, sometimes substantially, sometimes incrementally, in the light of new evidence, observation, and information. Keller says:

If the God of the Bible exists, he is not a man in the attic, but the Playwright. That means we won’t be able to find him like we find a passive object with the powers of empirical investigation. Rather, we must find the clues to his reality that he has written into the universe, including us. That is why, if God exists, we would expect to find that he appeals to our rational faculties. … It also means that reason alone won’t be enough. The Playwright can only be known through personal revelation. (p.123)

Read it all here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bibical Literalism and Denominations

Well this is provocative. Razib of Gene Expression has decided to examine a variety of data about various religious denominations to see if there is any relationship between the views on bibical literalism of each denomination and factors such as IQ scores and education. Here is the chart on education, using the demographic data from The Pew Religion Survey:

Razib notes that the R2 goes up to 0.81 (the measure of the fit of the curve, and thus the correlation) if you exclude Roman Catholics.

Razib does not think that education necessarily "causes" a reduced beleif in bibical literalism. Instead, her thinks that a different dynamic-focused on the education of the clergy, is at play:

What I think is going on is simply what we might term the Wisdom of the Crowds; people conform to the social and religious group which they identify with. Biblical literalism flourishes because most people trust pastors and parents who preach it. Similarly, a more metaphorical reading flourishes because authorities in other denominations reject fundamentalism. I do think that a deep reading of the scripture in their original languages as well as their historical context tends to erode a naive belief in the literal truth of the text. Mainline Protestant denominations and Roman Catholicism has relatively high educational standards for its clergy and theological professionals. At the other end of the spectrum many evangelical Protestant sects have no such requirement. The Assemblies of God is a good example of this phenomenon, in this sect higher educational experience can even be perceived as corrupting. There is a reason for this perception: education, wealth and acceptance does corrupt and assimilate. Methodism for example was originally an evangelical reform movement within the Church of England, but over the generations it has become thoroughly mainstream and tainted by modernism.

Read it all here. (He also has a even more provocative analysis of bibical literalism and IQ here.)

Father Sam Norton on the Problem of Evil

One of the theological issues that I am trying to struggle with is the famous "problem of evil", which is once again brough to the forefront by a new book by Bart Ehrman. The problem is one that theologians have struggled with for centuries, and there are no pat answers. Father Sam Norton (whose blog is well worth reading--great stuff on theology and peak oil, as well as wonderful photographs) had this short but useful post on his blog today:

In a comment, scott (gray) asked these four questions, which I think could work as a meme...

1. if the nature of god is omnipotent, benevolent, and anthropomorphic (that god is a person, who sees suffering as wrong, and can change all of it), why does god not act to relieve all suffering, or at least the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest amount of people the greatest amount of time?
2. if you were god, and you were omnipotent and benevolent, how would you respond to suffering?
3. if this is not the nature of god, what is the nature of god, that allows suffering in the world?
4. if these are the wrong questions to ask, what are the right ones?

My answers:
1. Put briefly I don't think that these philosophical categories map naturally onto the Christian God (they are Greek rather than Hebrew?). In particular God does not act arbitrarily (that is, he is consistent) and therefore once he is in the relationship of creator to creation, which allows freedom, he doesn't overpower that freedom of creation. Hence we have sin which causes suffering (which is a way of saying: Christians interpret suffering as estrangement from God. I think there is a deeply embedded overlap here between the orthodox Christian view and the Buddhist idea that suffering is illusion, but I would want to ponder that more).
2. Well, I'm not God and part of the problem is that God's will is by definition unfathomable. I'm not sure that a God who was fully explicable in human terms would be worth worshipping. I think this is one of the most crucial areas that lead to incomprehension on the part of atheists, because belief in God requires a certain degree of surrendering judgement and that is so profoundly taboo in Modern understandings that it is barely even mentionable.
3. The nature of God is resurrection after crucifixion. Suffering is overcome and redeemed, not blotted out.
4. I think the question I would want to pursue in the context of a conversation about suffering is: what makes life meaningful in the face of death? Does anything matter? How do we order our lives in such a way that they gain integrity and depth and meaning in the face of what can appear a totally capricious fate? (Nussbaum is really good on outlining the Ancient Greek interpretations of this in The Fragility of Goodness) It seems to me that as soon as a positive answer to these questions is explored either all meaning is self-generated and chosen (which is the specifically Modern conceit) or else we begin to talk about meaning being derived from something apart from our choices. At that point we have entered the realm of religious language and theology.

Read it all here.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Remembering Friends: My Memorial Day Rememberance

Sadly, most Americans have lost touch with the military. Joining the Army, Marines, Navy or Air Force is something that others do. As a result, a day like Memorial Day is too abstract--we vaguely (and briefly) recall the brave men and women who died while serving this country, but don't remember anyone in particular.

Just as I did last year, I want to make Memorial Day a bit less abstract by telling you about four men and women I called friends and colleagues who died serving this country. Three were solders. One was a civilian. All died serving this country.

Lieutenant General Timothy J. Maude was the highest ranking officer to die in the September 11th attack of the Pentagon. I knew him as a friend and client. We had lunch together virtually everyday in the Pentagon's General Officer's mess. He was serving as the the Army's Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel at the time of his death. He entered the United States Army as an enlisted soldier on March 21, 1966. Upon completion of Officer Candidate School in February 1967, he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Adjutant General's Corps. He served in Vietnam. Lieutenant General Maude was a soldier for more than 35 years, during which time he served in a variety of important command and staff positions, culminating in his assignment as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, United States Army. The Maude Foundation website describes Tim well: "Lieutenant General Maude understood the human spirit. He understood that the well being of the Army-soldiers, civilians, retirees, veterans and their families-is inextricably linked to our readiness as a force. The success of the "Army of One" campaign demonstrates his broad understanding of human nature and his creative instincts in delivering on that understanding. He understood that young men and women today are looking for something greater than self and are able to accept the notion of duty to country as the noblest of endeavors. . . . His love of soldiers and his devotion to the Army was deep and genuine. Simply put, Lieutenant General Maude loved soldiers; he loved the Army; he loved this wonderful country. His every action cheerfully reflected this commitment to duty." He indeed cared deeply about the welfare of soldiers.

Ernie Willcher was one of the career Army lawyers who worked with me when I was General Counsel of the Army. He was the go-to guy in our office on most personnel issues. Of the four, Ernie is the person I knew best. He dedicated a lifetime to serving the Army as a civilian lawyer. At the time of his death, he was a consultant and was meeting with Tim Maude on a project about improving the lives of the families of soldiers--ironically, a new website tool for the survivors of soldiers killed in action. Ernie was a very hard worker, a gentle soul, and the most dedicated father I have ever met. He also had many of the most challenging legal issue on his plate while I served as General Counsel, and Ernie never failed me.

Chief Warrant Officer Sharon Swartsworth was the chief warrant officer for the Army Judge Advocate Corps the entire time I served as General Counsel. She was killed in Iraq when the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter she was on was shot down Nov. 7, 2003, in Tikrit, Iraq. Sharon was the JAG Corps' top warrant officer at the time of her death, and was in Iraq with the Army JAG leadership team on a brief visit to Iraq guiding and boosting the morale of the soldiers responsible for administering military justice. She was responsible for pulling the JAG administration into the computer age --which was critically important as Army JAG officers are now deployed all over the world. She was about to retire from the Army at the time of her death. She had sold her Fairfax County home and moved with her family to Hawaii, where her Navy officer husband had a new posting. She had an eight year old son.

Command Sergeant Major Cornell Gilmore was the senior non-commissioned officer for the Army Judge Advocate Corps. He was killed while flying in the same UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter as Sharon Swartsworth. Gilmore was in charge of about 3,000 paralegals, both active duty and reserve. He oversaw training and served as a support system for soldiers joining the JAG Corps. He was a veteran of the Gulf War. He loved soldiers and they loved him in return. Like Sharon, he was in Iraq in a brief morale boosting trip with the rest of the JAG leadership.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Father Matthew on Ordination

New Evidence on Human Migration

Most of the genetic work exploring the migration of humans out of Africa and thoughout the world rely on a amall set of genes. A group of Oxford scientists have announced a new statistical method that takes account of the entire genome, and the new methodology is already disclosing some interesting findings:

Scientists from the University of Oxford and University College Cork have developed a technique that analyses shared parts of chromosomes across the entire human genome. It can give much finer detail than other methods and makes it possible to delve further back in time and identify smaller genetic contributions. Application of the method has already turned up such surprising findings as a strong Mongolian contribution to the genes of the Native American Pima people and gene flow from the north of Europe to Eastern Siberia. Previous methods of genome analysis have either concentrated on one part of the human genome -- for example, just the Y-chromosome -- or are based on "beanbag genetics" -- an oversimplified model of heredity that does not fully consider chromosomal structure. The new technique described by Hellenthal and colleagues was used to analyse 2000 genetic markers using Single Nucleotide Polymorphism data from the 2006 Human Diversity Project. The researchers believe their method can cope with much larger datasets with over 500,000 genetic markers. Further developments of the technique should allow more finely detailed reconstruction of human ancestry and give a perspective independent of anthropological theory and interpretation.
Read it all here. The full paper can be accessed for free here, and it is well worth visiting--it includes lots of multimedia features, including this movie of human migration.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Thinking About the Resurrection

Recently, the Rev'd Geoffrey M. St.J. Hoare, Rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta, caused quite a furor in the conservative blogosphere by one line in his Easter sermon:

We don’t have to understand the stories as factual accounts of anything in order to grasp the truth that God’s grace changes everything.

Recently, my new friend Dan Porter (who has a decidely orthodox view of the resurrection by the way) came to the Rector's defense in the form of a letter to the rector himself. It is a wonderful post and well worth a full read, but here are some highlights:

I am 65 years old. For most of my adult life I have wrestled with what to believe about the resurrection—in a factual sense. At times, during those many years, I have closely identified with scholars such as John Dominic Crossan and many others in the Jesus Seminar. Some such as Crossan and Marcus Borg have argued that Jesus was not even buried in a tomb. Certainly, there is a good measure of historical plausibility to support that theory. At other times—more and more lately—I have found myself agreeing with Tom Wright. For him, the resurrection is a historically sound proposition—factum historicum.

The resurrection, as I’ve thought about it these many years, sometimes seemed to be only a metaphor for God’s grace. I was comfortable with that once upon a time. At other times, it seemed real, but only as a non-material spiritual reality expressed as fable. I was comfortable with that also. Lately, I have come to believe in a physical, bodily resurrection that, in all respects, was absolutely scientifically impossible and hence completely miraculous.

Thus I was attracted to what you said. Indeed, I realized, that from all my varied perspectives on the resurrection, I could nonetheless “grasp the truth that God’s grace changes everything.” But that phrase is not what the stand firm crowd really objected to. What bothered them was that you were generous to those whose perspectives are different from one another . . . to those of us on journeys of faith . . . to those who struggled as did St. Thomas and so many of the saints throughout history. For, to all these, Christianity did not make sense without resurrection even if resurrection did not always make sense.

. . .

Modern Anglican conservatism and liberalism can be intellectually engaging. Authors such as Tom Wright don’t fear or denigrate liberal and progressive thinkers and they are willing to engage respectfully in discussion and debate. The same is true for honest-to-God liberals. The little book, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (with chapters on resurrection) by Marcus Borg (liberal) and Tom Wright (conservative) is a useful, polite and informative example. I see nothing like the attitude expressed in that book by two friends in the ugly comments at Stand Firm. As one who is theologically conservative on the matter of resurrection, I am embarrassed by the verbal attacks.

Read it all here.

You can read Geoffrey Hoare's blog posts explaining the sermon here and here.

My own journey has been much like Dan's. I was very influenced by Marcus Borg, but have now moved toward a more orthodox view of the resurrection. Nonetheless, I think that there is room in our pews for a diverse set of views on the issue, and agree with Dan that Hoare's sermon is hardly worthly of the venom it is getting on Stand Firm and other websites.

Defending the Sadducees

Professor McGrath has a very interesting post on his website about the Sadducees. He thinks they have gotten a bad rap:

We only know about the Sadducees from their critics (or at the very least those who disagreed with them): Josephus is probably the least negative source, then there are the New Testament and Rabbinic literature, both of which are polemical.

It is interesting to note that the Sadducees' views, as described by Josephus, are similar to those held by the more progressive Christians of our time: a denial of "fate" (i.e. determinism), of supernatural beings such as angels, and the afterlife. It may seem ironic that the most progressive voices today sound like the most conservative from Jesus' time. But being "progressive" doesn't mean adopting the newest ideas. If it did, fundamentalism is relatively new, and so we'd all be clamouring to hop on that bandwagon. But in fact, being progressive means being willing to change and listen, even though sometimes that means being willing to return to views one once dismissed out of hand.

Josephus also says that Sadducees viewed it as a virtue to dispute with one's teachers, to question authority, to not simply accept the answers given. Progressive Christians can say "Amen" to that. But do we have the courage to do something akin to what not only Reform but even traditional Rabbinic Judaism has done in arguing with God and with Moses? Do progressive Christians have the courage to point out clearly when they disagree with Jesus?

Then Profesor McGrath notes one conversation that Jesus had with the Sadducees, and suggests that they got less than an adequate response:

The Sadducees famously tried to stump Jesus with a question about levirate marriage and the resurrection. If a woman married all of seven brothers, but had no children, whose wife would she be in the resurrection? Although one may agree that the question presupposes a rather crude understanding of resurrection and the afterlife, popular piety has often held such views, and so the question is not an inappropriate one, even if there were surely people in that time who held to more sophisticated, less crassly physicalist sorts of views.

Jesus' reply is that the Sadducees have made a fundamental mistake in thinking that there will be marriage in the resurrection. Interpreters have long wrestled with this, probably because this answer potentially undermines the whole point of a doctrine of resurrection. The doctrine of resurrection affirms that there is a continuity between our bodily existence in the present and an afterlife. Our relationships make up a substantial part of our identity. If they are going to be essentially ignored, set aside or abolished in an afterlife, then that suggests significant discontinuity between our selves now and that which survives death.

Although the scenario posed by the Sadducees is somewhat farcical, it raises intelligent questions. Jesus' response cannot be regarded as entirely satisfactory, can it? Surely it simply raises the question of what the point is of this life if it contains so many aspects that will not be worth preserving for eternity, and the question of in what sense an eternally-existing "me" that does not share my relationships with others that I have now will in any sense be "me".

Jesus concludes his response with a clever reference to God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which combined with the fact that God is the God of the living and not the dead (where does that idea come from?) is used to demonstrate from the Pentateuch (which the Sadducees accepted as authoritative) that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still around. But would anyone today find this sort of "exegetical trick" convincing?

I'm quite sure that there are plenty of places where I'd side with Jesus against the Sadducees. But at this particular moment, it doesn't seem like they received an entirely satisfactory answer to what was (and remains) a valid question. What do you think? Are we committed enough to the sort of self-critical learning and discipleship that Jesus challenged his followers to undertake, that we will even dare to question his statements and even critically analyse his arguments? Or does being a "follower" mean the religious equivalent of mindless nationalism: "My Lord, wrong or right"? Can one be a critical Christian? Why or why not?

Let me get the ball rolling by offering my own provocative answer to my own questions. Today there are only Christians who disagree at points with what Jesus thought and taught. It is inevitable. The only distinction is between Christians who acknowledge that this is the case, and Christians who pretend that it isn't.

Read it all here.

An Evangelical Scholar Speaks Out on Homosexuality

David Gushee, distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, is a self-described Evangelical centrist. He is also a brave man, who has written two columns for the Associated Baptist Press about homosexuality. The first column, published in late March focused on how the church treats GLBT persons:

I’m one of the few leaders in Baptist life with the freedom to talk openly and honestly about the complex theological, moral, pastoral, and public policy issues raised by homosexuality without destroying myself professionally.

Because I hold a tenured professorship in Christian ethics at Mercer University, I am one of those rare souls who can talk candidly about this hot-button issue. And these days I’m finding it hard to avoid the nagging and unsought conviction that this freedom now demands responsible exercise.

Methodology is everything. Starting points are everything. Glen Stassen and I wrote a widely read book in which we argued that truly Christian ethics focuses relentlessly on Jesus Christ. It starts there, it dwells there, it ends there. All statements about Christian morality -- all statements about anything -- must fit with the Jesus we meet in the Gospels. Jesus is where God meets the world, and thus where any who bear his name must meet the world as well.

Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He defined neighbors to include everyone. Absolutely everyone. He sharpened that definition by calling us to attend to those regarded as the last, the least and the lost. The most rejected, the most hated, the most abandoned, the most feared, the most loathed, the most despised, the most mocked -- these are the people to whom Jesus most directs us to offer our love.

. . .

In light of the hatred, mockery, loathing, fear and rejection directed at homosexuals in our society -- and in our churches -- I hope to God that I am not and never have been a perpetrator. But I fear I have indeed been a bystander. I am trying to figure out what it might mean to be a rescuer.

There are always very, very compelling reasons to be a bystander. Mainly these revolve around self-interest. You live longer when you are a bystander. People like you more. And even if you entertain nagging questions of conscience about your inaction, in the end it is easier to stay out of it. And so the hated group keeps getting thrown under the bus.

There are dozens of such particular flashpoints related to the issue of homosexuality. Christians, their churches, their denominations and their institutions are arguing about everything from homosexuality’s causes to whether active gays can be church members or leaders to even whether gay couples can appear alongside other families in church pictorial directories.

I want to begin a dialogue in this column by simply calling for the rudiments of Christian love of neighbor to extend to the homosexual. And the place to begin is in the church -- that community of faith in which we have (reportedly) affirmed that Jesus Christ is Lord. I call for the following Christian commitments:

-- The complete rejection of still-common forms of speech in which anti-homosexual slurs (“queer,” “fag”) are employed either in jest or in all seriousness

-- The complete rejection of a heart attitude of hatred, loathing, and fear toward homosexuals

-- The complete rejection of any form of bullying directed against homosexuals or those thought to be homosexuals

-- The complete rejection of political demagoguery in which homosexuals are scapegoated for our nation’s social ills and used as tools for partisan politics

-- The complete rejection of casual, imprecise and erroneous factual claims about homosexuality in preaching, teaching or private speech, such as, “All homosexuals choose to be that way.”

-- The complete recognition of the full dignity and humanity of the homosexual as a person made in God’s image and sacred in God’s sight

-- The complete recognition that in any faith community of any size one will find persons wrestling with homosexuality, either in their own lives or the lives of people that they love

-- The complete recognition that when Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, that includes especially our homosexual neighbors, because the more a group is hated, the more they need Christ’s love through us

There is more to be said. But this is at least a place to start.

Read it all here.

The second column, published in early May, seems to move beyond a simple "tolerance" theme:

I want to suggest in this column that two fundamental stories compete at the poles of the Christianity-and-homosexuality debate. They are alternative ways of interpreting what is really going on amidst the heated contemporary debate over homosexuality and the church. (I will confine my comments in this column to the church, not the state, and will analyze the issue, not reveal everything I think.)

The conservative narrative frames the homosexuality debate as a fight for biblical conviction in a relativistic and sexually confused culture. In this view, homosexual behavior is clearly sinful, like all other sexual behavior outside of monogamous heterosexual marriage.

Some conservative pastors, scholars, and activists treat the homosexuality issue as a pivotal matter in church life (and culture). They believe that we must hold the line right here, right now, or Christian sexual ethics (and Christian biblical commitments) will be compromised irreparably. Others try to treat it as one issue among many, but still hold the moral rejection of homosexual behavior with certainty. The “moral of this story” is that homosexuality is a sin that must be resisted even against powerful cultural currents demanding its acceptance.

At the other pole of the homosexuality debate within the Christian community is a justice-and-liberation understanding of the issue. This view holds that homosexuals are a population victimized by a bigotry rooted in irrational prejudices and a misreading of Scripture. The injustices homosexuals experience are, in this view, a cruel violation of the Christian values of love and justice. These values, in turn, are viewed as either overriding biblical prohibitions on homosexual conduct or as leading to a re-interpretation of those Scripture passages.

Those who hold this view of the debate believe that Christians should side with homosexuals and act on behalf of their liberation from such oppression and victimization. The moral of this story is that homosexuality is one of the biggest human-rights issues of our time -- and that the church must join the fight on the side of the victims.

In moments of grave moral conflict there are always such competing narratives about what’s really going on. The question becomes how we discern God’s will, how we read the signs of the times, how we figure out whose narrative is the right one.

Consider: 1850, United States: Slavery is either a biblically mandated practice or an abomination before God. 1938, Germany: The church is either called to accommodate itself patriotically to Nazi rule or to resist it even to the point of imprisonment and death. 1963, United States: The Civil Rights Movement is either a great Spirit-led force for liberating oppressed black people or a bunch of misguided rabble-rousers destroying public order. 1980, South Africa: Apartheid is either God’s plan for keeping the races separate or a grave violation of God’s will for justice. 1990, Southern Baptist Convention: Full equality of women in church leadership is either direct disobedience to Scripture or a long-delayed fulfillment of God’s will.

Those caught in the midst of such profound moral conflicts have three options: they can clearly side with one narrative, they can clearly side with the other narrative, or they can seek a kind of in-between position in an effort to take some of the rough edges off of the debate -- and, in doing so, perhaps prevent irreparable divisions in churches and denominations.

But in the end, as the examples above indicate, on the most significant issues, the middle-of-the-road position almost always fails.

In the homosexuality debate, these in-between positions have created at least tentative common ground within many churches and denominations. One might say that they have bought a bit of peace and some time for further reflection on this issue. Most of these have involved at least the tacit acceptance of the idea that homosexual behavior does contravene God’s will. We can call this the “sinful, but” position.

In this view, homosexual behavior is sinful, but homosexual orientation/inclination (as opposed to behavior) should be viewed as temptation rather than sin. Therefore, those struggling with homosexual inclination but not acting on it should be included in the fellowship of the church along with all other struggling sinners.

And, according to this view, homosexual behavior is sinful, but so are many, many other things that people -- including churchgoing Christians -- do. Leading church sins include anger, factionalism, lovelessness, greed, luxury, selfishness, gluttony, gossip, and pride. Therefore, a church can either practice a consistent church discipline in which every sin is met with resistance and accountability by the congregation -- leading, when necessary, to exclusion of the offending party (a rare position in today’s churches). Or a congregation hewing to the middle-road position can opt for a form of church life in which believing sinners congregate for forgiveness, instruction, and community. If it chooses this latter stance, homosexuals can be quietly accepted in the community as believing sinners like everyone else.

Also, in this intermediate view, homosexual behavior is sinful, but Christians need to be compassionate. Therefore, we need to offer hospitable welcome to gays, but not affirmation of homosexual practice.

Finally, in this view, homosexual behavior is sinful, but Christian anti-homosexual activism has damaged our evangelistic witness. Therefore, we need to quiet down on this issue while not changing our basic stance.

The “sinful, but” stance definitely can take the edge off of the homosexuality debate. It can offer a welcome reduction of attention to this particular sin among all sins. And it is a pretty safe position in many Christian circles, so self-interest drives many church leaders to this stance.

But the ultimate question does not lie here, so the middle-of-the-road positions leave the fundamental issue unresolved.

The deeper question is posed by the competing narratives presented above. Either homosexual behavior is by definition sinful, or it is not. If it is sinful by definition, then presumably it must be resisted like any other sin. If it is not sinful by definition, then the homosexuality issue is a liberation/justice struggle for a victimized group.

Probably the right answer to this question will be very clear to everyone (that is, to 99% of all reasonable Christian human beings) in 100 years, as the proper positions on slavery and Nazism and civil rights and Apartheid are to modern-day Christians. But in real time, right now, it is tearing churches and denominations apart here and around the world.

Read it all here. I think this is a very big deal.

Gunshee writes a weekly column. You can find them here.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

NEVER: Religious Bloggers Against Torture

Aaron Krager of Faithfully Liberal has started a new campaign called Never: Religious Bloggers Against Torture. since I am a religious blogger and am against torture, I joined the Facebook group. Here is a link the the website.

You can find my own past posts on torture here.

Former Navy Chaplain George Clifford has a great essay at the Daily Episcopalian that argues that torture is both immoral and ineffective. Here is the money quote:

People who abandon a morality founded upon firm principles or unwavering virtue for consequentialism lack a moral floor below which they are unwilling to proceed. No act is too bad to contemplate if the potential benefits are of sufficient magnitude. Torture involves acts that should lie beyond the bounds of acceptable morality – always. Fortunately, debates about torture do not have to end with neither side speaking in terms the other cannot really understand. Not only is torture antithetical to Christian principles and incompatible with Christian virtue, torture is also ineffective. In other words, the evil of torture very rarely if ever results in a greater good.

Read it all here.

Mapping the Bible

Well this is a very cool resource. Bible Geocoding offers lots of very interesting resources, including the use of Google Earth to offer a wealth of geographical information about every place mentioned in the Bible. You can look at the entire Bible as a whole or look at places identified in individual books. Check it out here.

Hat tip to Think Christian.

Support for Gay Marriage

If you are a political junky, there is no better place on the web than You not only get great polling data--you get in-depth understanding of various survey methodologies. How cool is that!! (At this point, my loving wife informs me that I am not a political junky--I am a political geek. Sigh)

In any event, as an example of the excellent work you can find on this site, is Charles Franklin's detailed analysis of the changing views of the public toward gay marriage.

First, Franklin offers this analysis of the changing views of the public on gay marriage:

[i]n 1985 82% of the public opposed same sex marriage, while only 11% supported it. By the early 1990s, when the data become richer, opposition was at about 65% while support stood at about 28%. Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the federal "Defense of Marriage Act" in September 1996, but public opinion trends seem not to have noticed at all, neither rising nor falling around that time. By the week of the California ruling, May 15, 2008, opposition had declined to about 55% while support had grown to 40%. The net effect of some 16 years of public debate was a 10 point decline in opposition and a 12 point rise in support.

But that trend was not uniform. The Massachusetts ruling, and the 2004 election campaign, coincided with a sharp, if relatively short term, disruption of the previous slow but steady decade long shift of opinion. The Massachusetts Court decision placed the issue squarely on the public radar, and the 11 state ballot proposals in the 2004 election created the setting for public debate and political exploitation of the issue.

During the year from November 2003 to November 2004, opposition to same-sex marriage rose by five points, from 55% to just over 60%. Meanwhile support fell by about eight points, from 38% to 30%, then rebounded by a point or so by election day. (These shifts slightly predate the Massachusetts decision, probably reflecting the increased visibility of the issue prior to the Court's ruling.) The impact of these shifts and of the 11 referendums that were passed on the presidential election remains debatable. Initial punditry credited the referenda with helping defeat John Kerry, especially in Ohio. More careful subsequent analysis doubts much of an effect, however.

These sharp shifts in trend reversed direction immediately following the 2004 election, but took more than two years to return to pre-2004 levels. Support returned to 2003 levels in mid-2007 while opposition has only now, in May 2008, declined back to where it stood in mid-2003. Despite this slow recovery from the 2004 "shock", the 2005-08 trend lines make it clear that public opinion returned to its previous trajectory of slowly rising support and declining opposition in the aftermath of 2004. It is also interesting that the 2006 elections, with 8 states voting on referenda, made no discernible difference to the post-2004 trend. In part this may reflect the more limited number of states, but it also reflects some decline in the saliency of the marriage issue.

Franklin then addresses the issue of whether the California decision will cause, like the Massachusetts decision, a down-turn in opposition to gay marriage:

The 2003-04 data clearly show the potential for sharp changes when the marriage issue becomes extremely salient. That the fight will take place in the most populous state in the Union also guarantees national exposure. However, the fact that most states have already settled this issue through law or amendment, and that only three states (so far) are on track to have proposals on the ballot, means that the issue is more localized than it was in 2004.

Opinion now is not much different from where it was in mid-2003, so a similar reaction is possible but there may be an element of "been there, done that" as well. The novelty of the issue is surely much reduced now than it was five years ago, though the record of referenda passing in 7 of 8 states in 2006 certainly demonstrates that opposition to same-sex marriage remained strong even in a very pro-Democratic election year. (Wisconsin, for example, reelected a Democratic governor and flipped a House seat to the Democrats but also modified its constitution to ban same sex marriage or anything substantially equivalent to marriage.)

Finally, Franklin notes that while the public is opposed to gay marriage (by declining margins), this is not true of marriage alternatives such as civil unions, and when you combine support for civil unions with that of gay marriage, there is a winning majority for some form of recognition for long-term same sex relationships:

When the "civil unions" option is added, opposition to gay rights drops significantly from about 55% to 40%. Likewise, support for gay marriage drops from 40% to 29%. The "comfortable" middle ground is then some 26% who are willing to support civil unions so long as they fall short of "marriage".

This "half a loaf" approach is acceptable to only some in the gay rights community, but it is precisely the politically acceptable position that Democratic politicians think can move them from the losing side of public opinion to the winning side. If we add supporters of marriage to supporters of civil unions, we get the chart below.

This is now a near mirror image of the balance of opinion in the first chart. Now about 53% support either civil unions or marriage, and a minority of 40% oppose any legal rights for gay and lesbian couples. By assuming supporters of marriage will not punish them for the expedient support of only civil unions, Clinton and Obama (and many other Democrats) have tried to turn a losing position into a winning one.

Read it all here.

So what does this all mean? In the short-term, it will be a close call whether the public in California will support a constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage. (But remember that the California Legislature twice adopted same sex marriage.) In the not so distant future (in about a decade), however, if these trend lines continue, public opinion will support same sex marriage.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Unread Books Meme

Through Tobias Haller (and he got it from Grandmère Mimi:)

What we have below is a list of the top 106 books most often marked as "unread" by LibraryThing users. Bold the ones you've read, underline the ones you read for school (actually, I used stars), italicize the ones you started but didn't finish.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great Expectations
American Gods
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Atlas Shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales***
The Historian : a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum
The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible : a novel
Angels & Demons
The Inferno (and Purgatory and Paradise)
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver’s Travels
Les Misérables
The Corrections
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes : a memoir
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Scarlet Letter***
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake : a novel
Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud Atlas
The Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the RoadThe Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an inquiry into values
The Aeneid (excerpts in school)
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit
In Cold Blood
White Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers

Join the fun!

(You can tell that I was a chemistry major by the few books above I read in class).

Can Catholics Support Obama?

Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver has published an essay that addresses the question: can a Roman Catholic support a pro-choice candidate such as Barak Obama. The essay is in First things, but he also relies on some previous remarks he made:

In the years after the Carter loss, I began to notice that very few of the people, including Catholics, who claimed to be “personally opposed” to abortion really did anything about it. Nor did they intend to. For most, their personal opposition was little more than pious hand-wringing and a convenient excuse—exactly as it is today. In fact, I can’t name any pro-choice Catholic politician who has been active, in a sustained public way, in trying to discourage abortion and to protect unborn human life—not one. Some talk about it, and some may mean well, but there’s very little action. In the United States in 2008, abortion is an acceptable form of homicide. And it will remain that way until Catholics force their political parties and elected officials to act differently.

Why do I mention this now? Earlier this spring, a group called “Roman Catholics for Obama ’08” quoted my own published words in the following way:

So can a Catholic in good conscience vote for a pro-choice candidate? The answer is: I can’t, and I won’t. But I do know some serious Catholics— people whom I admire—who may. I think their reasoning is mistaken, but at least they sincerely struggle with the abortion issue, and it causes them real pain. And most important: They don’t keep quiet about it; they don’t give up; they keep lobbying their party and their representatives to change their pro-abortion views and protect the unborn. Catholics can vote for pro-choice candidates if they vote for them despite—not because of—their pro-choice views.

What’s interesting about this quotation—which is accurate but incomplete—is the wording that was left out. The very next sentences in the article of mine they selected, which Roman Catholics for Obama neglected to quote, run as follows:

But [Catholics who support pro-choice candidates] also need a compelling proportionate reason to justify it. What is a “proportionate” reason when it comes to the abortion issue? It’s the kind of reason we will be able to explain, with a clean heart, to the victims of abortion when we meet them face to face in the next life—which we most certainly will. If we’re confident that these victims will accept our motives as something more than an alibi, then we can proceed.

. . .

Changing the views of “pro-choice” candidates takes a lot more than verbal gymnastics, good alibis, and pious talk about “personal opposition” to killing unborn children. I’m sure Roman Catholics for Obama know that, and I wish them good luck. They’ll need it.

Read it all here.

I think the Archbishop's challenge must be taken seriously, but have the following observations. First, I challenge anyone to defend the proposition that the position of the President has made any measurable difference in the number of abortions in the United States. As the chart above shows, there is little relationship between the position of the President and the rate of decline in abortions. While pro-life advocates focus on the selection of Supreme Court Justices, there have been far more appointments to the Court by pro-life Presidents than by pro-choice Presidents, and Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land. And the issues that remain in the hands of the federal executive are largely symbolic, and affect very few (if any) abortions. The sad fact is that the abortion issue is largely used by both sides to win elections with little to show for the energy this issue gets during elections. (There is a very good analysis of this very history at the Catholic (and Pro-Life) group blog Vox Nova.)

Second, it is not as if there are not other quite profound moral issues, including issues on which there is clear Catholic teaching, that are profoundly affected by the election of the President. The decision of the present Administration to endorse torture is perhaps the clearest example.

Still, I think that the Archbishop's posited conversation in the afterlife is an important one. But I think that it is one that political leaders on both sides of this issue need to answer: sadly the current political system is so busy fighting each other on largely symbolic issues, and neither side has done a good job of being serious about reducing the number of abortions.

So I think that the challenge to candidates on both sides of the abortion issue is this: given the reality of Roe v. Wade, what concrete steps can we take to reduce the number of abortions? There are actually some groups taking this question quite seriously. The Democrats for Life have a proposal that aims to reduce the number of abortions by 95% in ten years. Some of the proposals are opposed by pro-choice groups, but many are not. Pro-choice Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro and Pro-Life Congressman Tim Ryan are leading a coalition of members on both sides of the issue to sponsor the “Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act,” a summary of which can be found here.

So what do I think? I think a serious pro life Catholic can have more than lip service to say about why they are supporting a pro choice candidate for President, but it is long overdue for politicians in both parties to focus on abortion as a problem to be solved rather than political football.

Letter to Aslan

McSweeney's is a fun diversion. Perhaps due to the release of the movie Prince Caspian they recently posted this "Letter to Aslan." For those familiar with the Narnia series, it is worth reading in full, but here are some highlights:

To His Imperial Majesty, Aslan, the Great Lion, he who rises from uncomfortable and broken stone tables, son of the Emperor-Over-Sea, with extreme respect:

In the course of talking-animal events, it may become necessary for one animal—or human—or divine being—to come and rescue Narnia from its deepest, darkest hours. We're cool with that. We're just saying ...

Why does it have to be kids?

No offense to your wisdom and such, but, frankly, things don't go so well when they show up. Consider the results so far:

. . .

Visit 2

1. The sudden and terrible arrests of multiple Narnia residents, stemming entirely from the unauthorized visits of a small child to the forest area.

2. The sudden release of multiple dangerous creatures, who, until then, had been safely imprisoned as stone animals.

3. Your own bloody and demoralizing assassination.

4. The destruction of a valuable ancient stone table.

5. A major battle resulting in the injury and death of several Narnian citizens.

6. Restoration of a nonparticipatory monarchy, headed up by four children with limited education and absolutely no civil governing experience.

. . .

Frankly, we'd be less concerned were it not for our understanding that your true intentions are less to help us and more to help these children understand their own religion, which, we admit, sounds pretty confusing. End result: the kids get a deeply transforming religious experience, and we get left with shit. Excuse our language, but we're basically animals here.

. . .

So, anyway, here's what we're getting at: Send us a hero. Send us a grownup. Send us someone capable of understanding the complex economic structure underlying Narnia, of understanding why destroying our mines is not exactly a major plus. Just stop sending us kids. And consider this message urgent. We understand that something called a last battle might be coming up soon, and we're a bit afraid that if you send us any more helpful kids they'll end up destroying our entire world. Sure, we could end up in some perfect magical mirror of it, but what are the chances of that?

Read it all here. Hat Tip to Think Christian.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Where We Go To Church

It turns out that Americans do not have a one-size-fits-all approach to our preferred faith community. some like large churches; others like small. some prefer contemporary services; others prefer more traditional services. Some move to more conservative churches; others moved to more liberal churches. Here is the report from the Christian Post:

In a study of over 1,000 American adults, released Monday by Ellison Research, 69 percent of all Americans who currently attend worship services have attended more than one place of worship - which includes churches, temples, or houses of worship - as an adult. Only 31 percent say their current place of worship is the only one they have regularly attended since age 18.

When changing where they worship, not all opt for a bigger congregation or a more contemporary worship style.

When choosing size, Americans are nearly evenly divided between a larger or smaller congregation. Forty-three percent of American Protestants have moved to a larger congregation and 45 percent switched to a smaller one. Just 11 percent switched to a place that is about the same size of the place they left.

Only 31 percent of Protestants say their current church has a more contemporary worship style while 42 percent say their new church is more traditional in worship.

Sellers believes the study results challenges common perceptions that Americans are abandoning traditional worship and small churches.

“With the rise of megachurches over the past few decades, and the increase in the use of contemporary forms of worship such as rock music, drama, or the folk mass, two common concerns are that traditional forms of worship are dying out, and that small churches may become a vanishing breed. There has been a slight trend toward more contemporary worship styles among people who switch where they worship, but certainly not a wholesale move away from traditional styles," Sellers commented.

. . .

Theologically, 53 percent of adults who changed their place of worship say their current place is about the same as their old one; 28 percent moved to a place that is more theologically conservative; and 12 percent switched to one that is more liberal. Protestants were much more likely than other faith groups to have moved to a place that is theologically different from their old church (52 percent). Only 25 percent of Catholics noted a theological difference between their current and old churches.

Some Americans who went to a different place of worship changed denominations or faith groups, including 37 percent of all adults and 44 percent of Protestants.

While the study did not focus on why people moved to another place of worship, it did find that in a majority of cases, Americans switched to find someplace closer to home.

Read it all here. Be sure to also read Jim West's post about why we should be concerned about megachurches.

A side-note: we are discovering at Trinity Cathedral that more traditional services are a far bigger draw for younger worshippers than contemporary services.