Blogs 2004-2007,Part I
© Kenneth Cauthen 2004-2007. All Rights Reserved
Bible, Theology, and Church
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Objectivity and the Bible
I have read or heard a lot of debates in recent years in which two
biblical scholars on opposite sides of the gay love question squared
off on what the Bible has to say about the matter. If I knew the
general theological outlook of the opponents, I could usually predict
in advance the outcome of these objective inquiries. Liberals generally
come out saying that what the Bible rejects is sexual abuse
and exploitation, not monogamous, faithful, loving relationships
between two gay men or two lesbians. Conservatives are sure that what
those passages in the New Testament condemn is the same sort of thing
we mean by homosexual sex in our time. The Old Testament, of course,
raises other issues, but the outcome really hangs on what is done with
those verses in Romans and Corinthians. I suggest no dishonesty, no
tricks. That's just the way it turns out.
Objectivity functions within a general framework consisting of the
total set of assumptions the exegete brings to the task of biblical
inquiry. That is the human condition. Nietzsche said, "There is no
truth, only opinions." Well, I wouldn't go that far, but the
philosopher had a point.
Beyond that the assumption that the morality of homosexual love
can be settled by exegesis alone and not by theological reflection on
what we regard as highest and best in the Bible is faulty.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
Basic Errors in Theology
Theology can go wrong is lots of ways, but two approaches in particular
need to be avoided. The first is to claim that "At last we've got it."
The second is to maintain that "We've always had it." The first is
typical of liberal theologies -- the tendency to seek change in the
light of new historical circumstances. The second is characteristic of
conservative and orthodox theologies -- those that think universal
truth is located somewhere in the past, so that our task is to
reproduce it today in an appropriate form.
Illustrations abound. The Protestant Reformers played "At last we've
got it" by recovering the biblical message they thought was obscured in
Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. In the 20th century Walter
Rauschenbusch played the game with his claim that the social gospel was
the old gospel of Jesus recovered for the first time since the early
centuries. Neo-orthodoxy (Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Reinhold
Niebuhr) enjoyed the game, although his brother and my teacher H.
Richard recognized that a new generation would arise to point out the
errors of the current emphases, as they pointed out the errors of
social gospel and other liberalisms with their too optimistic hopes for
humanity. Later on liberation theologies (Latin American, black,
feminist, Native American, womanist, gay and lesbian, e.g.) claimed to
have newly discovered that the Gospel is a word of this-worldly
emancipation for the poor and oppressed, so that at last they have
recovered the true Gospel of Scripture.
"We always had it" was the battle cry of 20th century Protestant
fundamentalist perspectives that insisted on “fundamentals” that
must be in all valid theologies and neglected at the cost of
losing eternal Gospel truth. Orthodoxies of all sorts (Roman Catholic,
Eastern Orthodox, e. g.,) guard a body of divinely certified body of
truth that they have always possessed and must defend against all
The point could be elaborated indefinitely, but let it be said that it
is dangerous to play either game. Humility is called for on all sides
unless some new absolutisms emerge (At last we've got it.) or some old
ones persist (We always had it.). Holding on to what is good in the
past must be balanced by the need to be open to new insights and fresh
adjustments to changing cultural settings.
Theologies are human creations, and it is idolatrous to absolutize any
of them or to sanctify them by claiming divine authority for what their
advocates alone possess. We have this treasure in earthen vessels, and
we must be ever vigilant about losing the distinction by committing the
idolatry of claiming that our own mud pots are identical with the
treasure itself and not merely carriers of some version of it. We can
do this by our overzealous enthusiasm for something new that has at
last got it or something old that has always had it.
Tuesday, March 06, 2007
Factual Claims Can't Kill Doctrines
According to some TV news hosts, whose fondness for the sensational is
exceeded only by their ignorance of theology, Christian belief is in
great peril as a result of the claim that the bones.of Jesus have been
found in a burial box in Jerusalem. This is all presented in simplistic
fashion as if the issues were clear cut. Actually, the problems related
to science, history, and faith are extremely complex and as
intellectually challenging as string theory in physics.
I am here to tell you, however, that the naive TV notions to which we
have been subjected are mostly a pile of baloney, either before said
substance enters the digestive system or after it exits same.
That some particular theological outlooks would be devastated by
certain facts is, of course, obviously true. But that is far from
saying that if the bones of Jesus are in a box found in Jerusalem,
Christian faith and theology are kaput, period.
To oversimplify for the sake of brevity , the logic of the situation is
roughly this: One can either deny the claim is true, in which case no
problem exists. Or if one is convinced that the factual claim is true,
then one can reinterpret the matter and preserve what is held to be
essential to faith in a revised theological outlook.
I have heard some theologians on TV who agreed that if these claims are
true, then the resurrection did not occur, and Christian faith is
doomed. But note that they are sure these claims are false. Exactly!
Examples of this phenomenon abound, but I will mention only the
controversy over Darwinian evolution. Some Christians, who agree that
evolution and the Bible are incompatible, simply deny the claims of the
scientific community on the point either on scientific or philosophical
grounds or because the Bible teaches otherwise. Others accept the
evolutionary hypothesis but incorporate Darwinian views into a
reconstructed theology with no sense of theological loss and certainly
no challenge to faith.
Claims about facts can't kill doctrines for the simple reason that you
can either refuse to accept them as true, or you can accept them but
render them harmless to faith by embracing them in a reformed
Does anyone lose faith by being convinced of some factual claim? Of
course, it happens, but this simply means they are unable or unwilling
to embrace a revision of theology that makes them innocuous. It is not
a necessary reaction, i. e., one that lacks alternatives but a
contingent response based on circumstances peculiar to those persons.
It simply means they have so identified faith with a particular
theology that they can not tolerate alternatives.
But are there some natural or historical facts or lack thereof that
would devastate the truth of faith beyond any possibility of redemption
by theological reconstruction? Well, now we are in the stratospheric
intellectual level alongside, say, string theory in physics, which may
be plausible, probable, or just plain silly nonsense depending on whom
you ask. Resolve the string theory problem for me, and I will resolve
the question as to whether Christian faith rests on some particular set
of natural or historical events-facts or on no necessary fact or
cluster of facts-events at all.
Meanwhile, let's be anecdotally empirical about it. Has your faith been
threatened by the latest furor about the bones of Jesus allegedly found
in that burial box in Jerusalem? Do you know anyone who does feel
I rest my case.
I like the (I assume apocryphal) story told years ago about Paul
Tillich, a famous theologian who was accused of not being sufficiently
concerned about the historical Jesus. He was told that it had been
proven beyond doubt that the bones of Jesus had been found, no question
about it. "Well," Tillich said, "it looks like he may have lived after
Saturday, March 17, 2007
More on Facts, History, and Faith
In response to my piece on facts and faith (March 6, 2007) a friend and
friendly critic sent me this response. I thought it raised pertinent
issues and required a clarification and some emendations from me
Regarding your entry on the bones of Jesus: I've been a conversation
with my dean at the University of Chicago about the question of whether
a factual or empirical claim can ever modify a theological claim. (We
started on this when he wrote a paper on theology and intelligent
design.) He takes what I see as a Tillichian position and argues "no."
I take the other position and argue that I am representing the Chicago
tradition of empirical and modernist theology. I see you much closer to
my side than his, but I'm not sure you're with me and the early Chicago
boys (they all were, as you know, guys). If I understand you correctly,
you would say "yes, facts make a difference, but only in forcing one to
reconstruct the theological claim so as not to be influenced by the
factual claim." I want to argue that some empirical facts and the
theories that account for those facts have the consequence of shaping
doctrine. I think you would take that position, too, with regard to
evolutionary theory, but I'm not completely sure. Shailer Mathews was
slippery on such issues, but G. B. Smith wasn't, contending that what
we come to know about both history and nature count in making
So, in the case of the bones of Jesus, if there were ever real
documentable evidence that these were his, there would be both positive
and negative consequences: positive in the sense of confirming his
earthly existence and, possibly, whether death came from crucifixion;
negative, regarding any theological claim about the physical
resurrection and what that would entail for related doctrines.
I'd appreciate your clarification of your own position, along with any
criticism of mine.
You are quite right in noticing my ambiguity, obscurity, and probable
error. I was thinking specifically of doctrines like physical
resurrection of Jesus, virgin birth, evolution, second coming of Jesus,
etc. With regard to these I think my analysis is roughly right.
But as an empirical theologian in the Chicago School tradition, I would
say that obviously the experienced facts of nature and history are the
materials from which one develops a notion of the divine, values, etc.
I would say as a modernist that the highest and best (Wieman) of the
biblical tradition are contingently but not necessarily dependent on
the facts recounted by the Bible, including the life, death, and
resurrection of Jesus. We came to have some values that were generated
in this history, and they are useful in the continuing analysis of
experience. But it is conceivable that a God of unbounded love (Ogden)
could have been discovered in other histories by non-biblical persons
reflecting upon life, their total body of knowledge (accepted beliefs),
and their own experience. In the final analysis the test of any
religious claim is reflection on our experience. So I accept the
highest and best of the Christian tradition (as I understand it) but
not because it is in the Bible or comes down in tradition but because
it validates itself in our own lives and experience (as shaped, of
course, by our own upbringing in this culture and assimilated religious
beliefs. It is the what (content) of religious belief that finally
counts, not its wherefrom (source), content that is tested, revised,
and abandoned by continuing reflection upon experience.
Am I a Christian? By my standards, yes. Many others have ruled me out
long ago anyway, but I have convinced some fundamentalists by telling
them that I accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal Savior and
was baptized at age 8 in Ethridge Mill pond, that I am a sinner saved
by grace – all true.
I guess my conclusion is that while facts or events can generate,
alter, revise, undermine, and renew specific doctrines, religious truth
is not dependent on any particular fact or set of facts or events in
nature and history but is dependent on some ensemble of facts and
events that can sustain their interpretation. Whether this is a
Christian view, I will not judge but am somewhat uninterested in the
answer. So within the limited framework I was originally assuming, my
first analysis generally holds, but in a larger content, it is
misleading. Remember I said that at this level the questions become as
intellectually demanding as string theory.
Your response and corrections, suggestions, etc. would be appreciated.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
These Critics of Religion are Boring
The God Delusion by Rickard Dawkins and The End of Religion by Sam
Harris are both big sellers. They drag out all the tired old arguments
we have heard before. Only the details differ. Their shared
thesis is fundamentally this: Religion is irrational and does a lot of
harm. Ho hum! Yawn, yawn! What we have is a variation on a theme that
is as old as Western philosophy. The pre-Socratic thinkers who wanted
to replace the myths and legends of the traditional Greek gods with a
scientific-rational world-view were the first in a long line of critics
who toot the same horn. From Democritus (Circa: 400 BCE) and his notion
of reality as atoms and the void to Bertrand Russell (early 20th
century) with his "accidental collocation of atoms" in a universe void
of meaning and purpose, the denial of a Creator Powerful and Good on
the basis of science and reason has been a standard theme of
philosophy, though until recent centuries a minority opinion. (In
2007 Christopher Hitchens added his own sour diatribe in God Is Not
Is belief in God irrational? Let us just say that what reason requires
in the way of religious belief is a topic about which there can be a
real fight. For every Democritus there is a Plato and for every
Bertrand Russell, an Alfred North Whitehead. Let Dawkins, Harris, and
their ilk confidently proclaim themselves the voice of reason in our
time, while the rest of us find them at this stage of the game not a
threat but merely boring. As for science, while it provides valuable
data that needs to be taken into consideration, science as science
settles nothing with respect to the ultimate questions of life,
religion, and morality.
Does religion inspire much that is bad? Of course, but it is the source
of much good too. It is ambiguous, neither pure devil nor pure angel.
Moreover, religion always appears in a historical, cultural context and
cannot be understood as a thing in itself and by itself. That is to
deal in mere abstractions. So if you want to whip religion for its
associations with the bad, go right ahead, but you will have to get in
line. I have been doing it myself for at least half a century. But let
us tell the whole story.
So if defenders of religion want to debate the likes of Dawkins and
Harris, fine, they have a rational case to make; I just hope they make
it well. Meanwhile, I find them so boring I am getting sleepy.
Postscript: An article in The New York Times, November 21, 2006
describing a new aggressive mood by scientist in attacking religion as
a harmful delusion is remarkable mostly for its apparent identification
of religion with fundamentalism and God as an External Engineer or
Designer. This betrays not only ignorance about other religious
possibilities but a false hope that science as such can provide all
people need in their search for meaning and morality. I won't even
mention the arrogance and dogmatism displayed by some. In conferences
of scientists and theologians I used to attend eminent scientists were
always calling for theologians to get better acquainted with science. I
never heard anyone suggest that scientists had anything to learn from
anybody, much less from non-fundamentalist theologians. Now I am not
sleepy and bored; I am exasperated and mad.
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Ted Haggard's Tragedy
I listened to part of the letter that the Rev. Ted Haggard sent last
Sunday to his congregation confessing his violation of what he and his
church believed. He spoke of a life-strong struggle with what he called
a dark and repulsive side of his nature. The man poured out his heart
in sorrow and shame. It was heart-breaking to hear, Members of his
congregation expressed their deep shock and grief but offered to
What I did not hear anybody say was that he was the victim of an
oppressive culture and an oppressive religion that would not allow him
to be the person he actually was. Therein lies the deepest tragedy of
all. He was forced into a life of conflict and struggle; that
eventually lead to deception and finally exposure. All this suffering
was the result of bad religion in a prejudiced culture. The answer is
not simply in forgiveness and reconciliation but more deeply in
liberation from false and destructive ways of thinking about
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Debate on Clergy Housing Deduction
Entries appear in chronological order.
The damn New York Times has stopped preaching and started to meddle. I
knew our unfair tax breaks on housing would come to light one day. I
see no good reason why I should be able to deduct my housing expenses
while my neighbor cannot. But when it gets threatened, all the church
boards, including mine, rush in to lobby Congress with all sorts of
dubious reasons why the clergy housing deductions should be preserved.
They act just like any other institution to defend self-interest. It is
unjust, but I claim every penny of mine, don't you?
FROM KEN DEAN TO KEN CAUTHEN
Dear Brother Cauthen,
Sometimes a matter has to be understood in its proper context. The
reason you get a housing deduction is that "the community" once
believed that it was helpful to have a "settled" pastor in place as the
frontier developed. It also gave free land to school boards. This
settled pastor also got a given amount of corn and produce from the
fields, and very little money. Pastors still get very little money, but
no corn or wheat. Then it was recognized that a pastor was not eligible
to use his time and energy to participate in the free economic
enterprise system of profit and production– .meaning, of course, that
he would have a smaller salary than other professionals, so he/she gets
special treatment on housing. Often times the housing is owned by the
church, so when retirement comes he is out on his ass with no where to
go. (You ought to have yours kicked for writing this piece!) When
churches start paying pastors really livable salaries and giving them
benefits comparable to doctors and lawyers and other professionals
(state retirement programs and health insurance comparable to
University professors and civil servants of the state) you go right
ahead and take your housing deduction and do not feel for one second
that you are slighting your neighbor. Both you and your neighbor bring
something important to creating, re-creating and sustaining community
and this has nothing to do with where the nub of the issue is for our
day. I used "his" in describing the "getting it together years" for
defining how a local pastor gets compensated because in those days the
pastors were all "he". So you may feel free to go back through my
paragraph and insert "he/she" to make it up to date. But the housing
allowance issue will still come out the same. I think this issue may
come under what you used to teach as "contextual ethics."
Peace and blessings to one and all from down here in your home state of
Kenneth Dean, Sr.
FROM KEN CAUTHEN TO KEN DEAN
My dear apostate Baptist, Colleague, Friend, fellow Southerner, fellow
lover of old-time country music,
To steal from Kant, we have here a nest of "dialectical difficulties"
that I won't pretend to untangle completely but will make a few
marginal comments. I see two arguments in your reply: one about
community building and the other about the poor compensation of clergy.
Your first argument about settled clergy serving a community-building
function meriting state subsidy predates the incomes tax we are talking
about and smells like the era of established churches in a state that
sees religion as creating disciplined, virtuous, but docile citizens
who will not threaten the status quo. That is an argument for the
conservative role of religion in society that pleases the state, but it
is not one that a Baptist ought to be making. If we fulfilled our role
as descendants of the OT prophets, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Martin
Luther King, Jr. associated with the beloved seminary at which both of
us have taught, we would be as often raising hell and disrupting the
community – as you have done more than I have in the past.
In the income tax era, the rationale has been stated in a brochure
prepared for Jewish clergy, and I quote:
"History: When the income tax was enacted, clergy salaries were
negligible: Many, if not most clergy were given a place to live,
minimal provisions, and a very small salary. The fair market value of
non-cash items was to be counted as income, but the government
recognized that it was unfair to tax clergy on the value of the parish
house. Thus the parsonage exemption was created."
Assuming that this is the historical justification, it seems weak to
me. Why should the value of a house not be counted as taxable income?
It is the functional equivalent of cash paid that can be used to rent
or buy a house. In any case it constitutes a direct state subsidy to
clergy and indirectly to the religious institutions that employ them.
It, in effect, adds income to clergy at government expense. OK, clergy
as a whole are poorly paid compared to other professionals. That is a
problem, but why is it the state's problem? The near-poverty status of
clergy is no justification for a government subsidy unless it is
combined with something like your "community building" as a service to
the community or some other rationale for uniquely privileging clergy.
I have ready rejected that. The argument from poor clergy compensation
as such has no merit at all. Lots of working people are as poor or
poorer than clergy on the average. Why should they not have a housing
deduction too? Of course, we all have more money to spend because of
the housing deduction, but to argue that I could not have done X or Y
or Z without it is no argument at all. It simply recognizes that the
government pays us a certain amount because we are clergy. What is the
current justification of the housing bonus? I know of none whatsoever
apart from the sheer self-interest of clergy. Just for the record, a
housing deduction is in effect a direct grant of money to clergy and
eligible religious institutions and as such is a violation of the
separation of church and state, understood strictly, as Baptists should
interpret it. That is my basic response.
I will offer some concluding thoughts.
The aides in the nursing home who changed my Mother's diapers were very
poorly paid, and they could use a government subsidy to help with
housing expense. The same could be said for janitors and maids who
clean the toilets of professionals and business types at a pittance of
what those who dirty the toilets make. I would argue that such people
also contribute to "community." By the way, it should be a law strictly
enforced that those who dirty toilets should be compelled to clean them
in proportion to their usage. George with a plunger and Laura with a
toilet brush in the White House would be a splendid model for America.
This task teaches humility, virtue, discipline, and promotes delicacy
in using toilets and would be for us all a community-building
enterprise. Get this law passed, and I will argue that a housing
deduction should be given to all who earn it through toilet cleaning.
By the way not all clergy are poor: In 1995 Pastor Rick Warren of the
18,000 member Saddleback Community Church in California deducted
$79,999 for actual housing costs The IRS challenged the deduction,
claiming the "“fair market value" (rental per year) would allow only
Nevertheless, my fellow-Baptist, you offered the best defense of an
erroneous position I have seen lately.
Yours in service to Jesus, our model, who said, "Foxes have holes, and
birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his
head." Matthew 8:20
LATER REFLECTIONS OF KEN CAUTHEN
Since my impulsive outburst about the clergy housing deduction, I
realized how ignorant I was of its history and rationale. Since then I
have Googled and learned enough to be an untrustworthy guide. Like so
many issues it gets very complicated with many complexities,
ambiguities, nuances, subtleties, distinctions, and fine points of law
and logic. Courts, Constitutional lawyers, and Judges, including those
on the Supreme Court, have argued for and against it. Here is the gist
of what I have learned.
1. Exemption of religious institutions from property tax goes back to
the beginning of the country. The argument for it is that it is
necessary to separation of church and state in establishing sectarian
sovereignty as a protection against state action. The tax exemption
does not subsidize churches, but leaves them alone. Some judges argue
that religion serves a secular purpose that merits state support.
Justice Brennan stressed the "secular" benefits to society of these
exemptions: these institutions foster "moral or mental improvement" and
are "beneficial and stabilizing influences in community life." This is
the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dean's point.( See Walz v. commissioner, 397 US
664 (Decided May 4, 1970)
2. In 1921 the parsonage exemption was established in the income tax
code, which dates from 1913, enabling clergy to exclude from income the
value of the housing provided. Since 1954, the provision had also
shielded clergy members from taxes on the entire portion of their
paycheck designated by their congregations as a housing allowance,
whether they spent it on renting an apartment or buying their own home.
But the rules the IRS adopted in 1971 limited the deduction to the
smallest of three amounts: the "fair market rental value" of the home,
the housing allowance paid to the minister, or the minister's actual
3. In 1996 the IRS ruled that Rev. Rick Warren had exceeded the "“fair
rental value"” in his claim and reduced it. On May 16, 2000, the United
States Tax Court struck down the IRS cap and ruled that clergy members
could deduct "“the amount used to provide a home," however much that
might be. The IRS appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for
the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. A great battle ensued in the Court
aided and abetted by major Protestant, Catholic, and Protestant church
agencies. One question raised was whether the clergy housing deduction
was Constitutional. Before the Court could decide, the Clergy Housing
Clarification Act of 2002 had been approved unanimously in both houses
of Congress and signed into law by President Bush. The law ruled that
no limits would hold on past housing claimed but from now on the "“fair
rental value" rule would apply.
That'’s where we are now.
1. Some clergy who live in employers provided housing as a condition of
employment or for the convenience of the employer are eligible for tax
relief under general rules of tax law that have nothing to do with
religion. Granting a housing exemption to all clergy prevents
discrimination against those who don"’t qualify under that rule.
2. Tax relief favoring religion has deep historical roots. Therefore,
"the parsonage exemption is well within the accommodation tradition
through the early colonial and national period, including most
significantly the dis-establishment era, right up until today. Indeed,
the parsonage exemption is part and parcel of the types of reasonable
accommodations listed by the three dissenting justices in Texas
Monthly. These reasonable accommodations, described by the three
justices as those which "'today permeate the state and federal codes,
and have done so for many years.'"
1. It is a subsidy to religion in violation of the Constitutional
separation of church and state. Legal scholars, Constitutional lawyers,
and Judges at every level including the Supreme Court have affirmed
2. It privileges clergy in relation to non-clergy and thus
discriminates against them. Others whose work is valuable to society
and who may be as poorly paid as clergy have no such advantage. These
other low-paid care-givers, community builders, and workers essential
to society have to provide for their own housing during working years
and retirement without benefit of a housing deduction.
Moreover, clergy are allowed to "double-dip" in that they can count
mortgage payments and property tax as part of the housing expenses to
be deducted and then deduct them again on their 1040 forms just like
everybody else. Granted that, unlike most other people, they do have to
pay all their Social Security taxes, but so do all other self-employed
I include some references:
"“In the context of tax benefits, the "“subsidy" label is usually
deployed in a conclusory and unconvincing fashion. The First Amendment
is best understood as permitting governments to refrain from taxation
to accommodate the autonomy of religious actors and activities; hence,
tax benefits extended solely to sectarian institutions should pass
constitutional muster as recognition of that autonomy. Since it is most
compelling to conceive of religious tax exemption as the acknowledgment
of sectarian sovereignty, rather than the subsidization of religion,
there is no convincing constitutional reason to link that exemption to
the simultaneous extension of comparable tax benefits to secular
entities and undertakings."
Edward Zelinski, friend of the Court in Rick Warren case.
of the Court Opinion in Warren Case
"Therefore, the parsonage exemption is well within the accommodation
tradition dating at least to 1601, and extending through the early
colonial and national period, including most significantly the
dis-establishment era, right up until today. Indeed, the parsonage
exemption is part and parcel of the types of reasonable accommodations
listed by the three dissenting justices in Texas Monthly. These
reasonable accommodations, described by the three justices as those
which "today permeate the state and federal codes, and have done so for
1970 court decision SC of USA upholding tax exemption of church
Letters to the editor.
Monday, July 24, 2006
It is all so Stupid
My wife was reading one of the passages from the lectionary for next
Sunday. It was the familiar story of David's romp with Bathsheba
– a story irresistible to Hollywood, since it has sex, murder,
intrigue, and conspiracy. What caught my ear this time was not the
juicy part, but the first verse which begins like this:
“In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle . .
.” 2 Samuel 11:1a (RSV)
What struck me was how casual and routine this sounded. It is spring,
farmers plant their crops, shepherds take their flock out to pasture,
and kings go forth to battle. It is just the way things are. That's
I put this together with a flight of imagination in which I was invited
to participate in one of the endless talk shows with alleged experts
who are asked to assess the current situation with Hezbollah, Israel,
and Lebanon. My inclination would have been to say, "It is all so
stupid, so utterly senseless." Such a remark would have branded me as a
nut case totally unable to deal with reality. Actually, I probably
would have offered some ordinary, conventional, predictable
observations about "reality" like all the rest do, but I would have
been thinking, "It is all so stupid . . ."
Bombs destroy the beautiful country of Lebanon and its people, in Haifa
and Beirut bodies of men, women, and children are blown to bits or
taken to hospitals with burns, limbs missing, barely alive. It is
heartbreaking, tragic, and depressing that in two communities who have
suffered so much, now suffer more.
Meanwhile, on TV we see diplomats in their expensive, finely tailored
suits, safely removed from all the splattered blood and killing, meet,
smile, shake hands, kiss each other on the cheek, and when their
talking is over, most of the time not much changes, and scared little
children still cower in the bomb shelters, and we are watching another
commercial on TV.
We get so used to dealing with things as they are, that it becomes as
casual and routine as the observation that when it's spring, kings go
forth to war.
So occasionally we need to step back from "reality" to be reminded that
it is just plain stupid, senseless, that people should destroy each
other and their material creations.
We so easily forget that there are other possibilities. What is the
Good News proclaimed to a largely unlistening, unresponsive world but
that there is another way? Christians do not accept Wolf Blitzer's
reports on CNN as the final point of reference. A realm of transcendent
ideals stands in judgment of immediate facts and points the way to
peace, justice, and harmony. It is the failure of the human race -- all
tribes and nations -- to hear this Word that finally explains our
predicament not some particular bad tactic or failed policy.
If we could all, especially the kings of the earth, occasionally submit
ourselves to the judgment of ultimate facts and possibilities, when we
come back to the immediate reality -- as we must -- then we might
approach it with a little more perspective, a little better sense of
what we are doing, and perhaps start being a little less stupid.
Harry Emerson Fosdick in his great hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory”
has this prayerful line, "Cure Thy children'’s warring madness." Yes,
that is what it is -- "warring madness." Until that prayer is answered,
we will continue as we always have -- when it is spring, the kings of
the earth go forth to battle. But it is all so stupid.
Friday, June 23, 2006
Preachers Should Quit Acting as Agents of the State
I did it for years but no more, not only because nobody asks me these
days, but because I think it misses a fundamental distinction. When
clergy perform marriages and sign a legal document, they are acting as
agents of the state. Most of us have done so without thinking much
about it. It is just something you do by law and custom. But why should
we participate in this egregious violation of the separation of church
Will Campbell is right. A Christian minister should perform a rite of
Christian union between two people who pledge their life-long love and
loyalty to each other and who intend to spend the rest of their lives
together as companions.
If people want a legal document certifying they are legally married in
the eyes of the state, with all the rights and responsibilities
thereunto appertaining, let them go to a officer of the court legally
authorized to do such things.
When church and state are thus separated, then churches need not worry
about what the state does about gay marriage. Churches and ministers
can do their proper work of performing a Christian rite of union
without approval of the state. They can unite a man and a woman, two
men, or two women, in a religious ceremony in accordance with they own
Now it will be a great sign of progress when states and the federal
government recognize gay marriage or at least civil unions. But that is
a political battle. Let us make it plain that clergy act as agents of
the church and not of the state.
Let us quit rendering to Caesar what belongs to God and let Caesar take
care of the legalities, and let us take care of our proper business of
attending to the relationship of committed couples to each other and to
God in the presence of those who love them.
December 18, 2005
The Fuss Over What to Call Christmas
What's going on here? Can we use the word "Christmas" in a public
setting, or must we always say "Holidays?" Must "Christmas" be
restricted to Christian settings or used only in communities of shared
faith? Stores and advertisers are caught in the crossfire between
opposing parties. One resident was even advised by the neighborhood
association to remove a creche from his front yard.
Fortunately, I can explain. We are seeing a battle between two mind
sets. One I will call traditional, and the other I will call
multi-cultural or pluralistic. It all stems from the cultural
transformation that began in the 60's that did two things:(1) it
heightened the sense of identity within groups, especially those that
had been subordinated by the reigning culture, and (2) it stimulated a
demand that their rights, interests, and preferences be given equal
recognition. Women, blacks, gays, other minority groups, along with
secularists, were affected by this two-fold change of outlook. The
impact reverberated though society. The result was a rise of a
multi-cultural consciousness which insists that previously neglected or
subordinated groups receive equal regard in a new pluralism in which
hegemony by one cultural group or perspective is not allowed.
This provoked a reaction by the traditionalists who felt their
interests, values, customs, and preferences were threatened. Accustomed
to having their way in the public domain, including commerce, they
insisted that what has been common practice remain so.
So the battle is underway. What is funny about the traditionalist
position is that tradition in this context means roughly the prevailing
practices during the lifetime and memory of the cultural majority and
their parents and grandparents or roughly the first half of the 20th
century. Forgotten is that an annual observance of the birth of Jesus
is not a New Testament practice. Memory of the resurrection was far
more important. Neglected also is the fact that December 25 involved
the adoption and Christianizing of a pagan sun festival in the 4th
More pertinent is the fact that the early Puritans hated
Christmas as unbiblical. In Massachusetts from 1659 to 1681 it was a
crime to celebrate the occasion by feasting and not working. Until well
into the 19th century this reticence regarding and objection to
Christmas observance continued among many Protestants. Not until the
20th century did it acquire the importance in commercial and domestic
life it has today with all the symbols and practices we all know so
well. Among the reasons it is such a big deal today were the growing
popularity of St. Nick based on the images from Clement Moore's poem
and the drawings of Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly. With the rise of
high-powered advertising and the credit card, the stage was set,
symbolized by the annual Friday shopping frenzy the day after
Christians, especially Protestants, are accustomed to dominating the
culture and having special privileges regarding the customs, symbols,
habits, and practices surrounding it the season. Some are upset at the
new pluralism that demands that public displays, language, and
observances reflect the multi cultural reality of America today.
So what shall we do? The logic of capitalism will work well in commerce
to find the proper accommodation of conflicting demands that will
maximize profit margins. I would urge all other parties to cool it,
simmer down, take a deep breath, and relax. We are all overly sensitive
these days about our own prerogatives. The foundations of civilization,
decency, and religion are not at stake here. Cosmic equilibrium does
not hang in the balance. Christians should realize that the celebration
of Christmas in the familiar ways of a half-century ago is a
historically contingent development and not of the essence of the faith
and that they do not require recognition by businesses and governments
to authenticate their religion.
Pluralists and secularists should recognize that huge numbers of
Americans identify themselves at least nominally as Christians and give
them a little leeway if this is recognized publicly in some ways
(though not officially by governments) in non-intimidating,
non-coercive ways that involve no loss of their own worth or identity.
Both sides need to give a little, calm down, and quell the hysteria.
No great principles of natural right or Constitutional validity are in
question regarding whether Sears courts shoppers with Christmas or
holiday advertising. Religious symbols and language peculiar to a
particular religion should, of course, not be given governmental
support or sanction in the public sphere common to us all. Beyond that,
we would all do well to loosen the springs of our sensitivities and
allow some room in the public sphere for non-threatening, non-congenial
practices, even if they get into our space a bit in ways we would not
Do I expect my advice to be taken? Of course not! The zealots on both
extremes of the spectrum are too wrapped up in their own partisan
concerns to let anything like civility, tolerance, perspective, common
sense, a sense of humor, historical fact, and – well, the
Christmas/holiday spirit – moderate their passions.
Perhaps we could all say "Yo Saturnalia" (let's hear it for the god
Saturn), which after all was the original meaning of the day taken over
PS With thanks to the column by Adam Cohen in The New York Times
(Sunday, December 4, 2005).
Thursday, September 29, 2005
The Hermeneutics of Superstition: the Epistemic Implications of
With apologies to Paul Ricoeuer and "the hermeneutics of suspicion," I
give you the hermeneutics of superstition (HOS). It is part of the
doctrine of original sin. It refers to the tendency of individuals and
organizations to prefer interpretations that best fit the ideology and
self-interests they bring to the consideration of any issue, especially
Some examples will make the concept clear. It is not surprising the
tobacco companies resisted the causal connection between smoking and
lung cancer as long as they possibly could find scientists or use the
lap dog scientists on their payroll to refute the notion. Only a few
years ago a row of them to a person expressed to Congress the view that
cigarette smoking is not addictive. Why? An ideology that served their
monetary interests was at stake. In such instances, the hermeneutics of
superstition raises its ugly head.
Is global warming taking place, and is it in part due to human
activity? If you have an organization entranced by the wonders of the
free market and is supported by businesses and individuals dedicated to
that ideology, it will likely prefer to believe that recent global
warming is a part of long-term natural cycles and that human activity
plays a minimal role.
Was racism involved in the treatment of poor blacks after Katrina? You
can supply names and organizations as well as I that were absolutely
sure there was. Conservatives thought the idea was ridiculous. Good
evidence was in short supply from both sides.
Is it safe to import prescription drugs from other countries to make
them cheaper? Pharmaceutical companies are sure it is not. Consumer
groups insist that it is or can be made to be. Do Pharmaceutical
companies need to charge high prices for new drugs to recoup their
research costs? Of course we do, say they. Of course not, say the
critics, since the government pays for much of the basic research and
the amount spent on marketing costs and cultivating the good will of
physicians with lavish goodies is inordinate and inexcusable.
How doe we account for this? Why the hermeneutics of superstition, of
course! We could make this list as long as we wanted to. Just take any
new issue and proponents and opponents will find that the evidence fits
their preconceived outlook on life and/or is beneficial to their own
Will tax cuts to the wealthy benefit the economy? Of course, say
conservatives. There is a better way to do it say the liberals that
does not inordinately gift the already filthy rich with even more
wealth. The hermeneutics of superstition is like the universal solvent
that will dissolve anything, but, unfortunately, there was nowhere to
put it. The HOS is universally relevant (or almost so), but there is a
place to put it -- in our minds where we use it to be skeptical of all
points of view, including our own.
Overcoming this obstacle to truth requires eternal vigilance,
agnosticism about what fits the natural predilections of proponents,
and hard-headed insistence upon clear and convincing evidence to
counteract the seductive appeal of HOS. We need especially to be
critical of ourselves, since, like original sin, it corrupts everybody.
By the way, the HOS also applies to thought about religion and morals.
I have said this so well in other writings that I need only repeat it
here. As I once wrote:
"The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski set forth
the Law of the Infinite Cornucopia, which notes that no shortage exists
of reasons to bolster whatever theory anyone wants to believe. I
suggest a theological version that I will call the Law of Infinite
Hermeneutical Adaptability. This law states that the Bible can be
interpreted so as to make it compatible with nearly every conceivable
doctrine. The greatest proof of the operation of this Law is that
irreconcilable positions on nearly every theological and ethical
question are extant, all of which claim to have the sanction of
Scripture. The sublime form of the Law indicates that reasons can
always be given to demonstrate that Jesus himself would have approved
of the conclusions reached by a given individual or community. When the
Law of Infinite Hermeneutical Adaptability is in operation, it is
nearly always accompanied by the Phenomenon of Total Surprise. I prefer
the description of this Phenomenon in its "Lo and Behold" form: When
individuals and groups find the Word of God in the Bible, the results,
lo and behold, turn out to be identical with what they themselves
(From my Toward a New Modernism, 31,1997)
Want an illustration? What does the Bible teach about homosexuality?
Tell me the theological point of view of the interpreter, and I will
tell you in advance what they will conclude after examining the
evidence. There are, of course, renegade modernists like myself who say
it doesn't matter what specific passages say. The question is whether
same-sex love is healthy and beneficial to all concerned. See the
dictum of Paul in Romans and I Corinthians : Love is the fulfilling of
the law, the whole of the law. Moreover, all things are permitted but
not everything is healthy and beneficial, but we should not be enslaved
to anything. I add that that enslavement includes bondage to our own
point of view that we bring to scriptural exegesis.
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
The Hubris of Imperialistic Science
The Intelligent Design project is not science as defined by the
scientific community -- the best working definition we can provide.
Therefore, it should not be part of the curriculum of science. But that
is not the only hazard we face in schools and in the culture generally.
In our midst is also an intellectual imperialism that is a form of
naturalistic or even materialistic metaphysics masquerading as science.
It has at least two parts. The first is the implication or explicit
claim that taking science seriously means rejecting belief in God.
Examples are this fallacy are Steven Weinberg, Carl Sagan, and Richard
Dawkins. The assumption is that science gives us a full explanation of
things that makes rational belief in God unnecessary (weak form) or
impossible (strong form). Belief in another dimension of reality
violates Occam's law that forbids us to multiply entities beyond
Naively, some think that affirming God as the creator of nature only
raises a further question from children's Sunday School classes, i. e.,
who created God. Why not just stop with nature, they say. This
simplistic solution ignores the fact that all thought must finally
reach a point of ultimacy beyond which it cannot go that must be
accepted as a given. It is the final level of reality that cannot be
accounted for by anything more ultimate but which is the explanation of
It may be that nature is the point at which we should stop and simply
assume its laws and its constituents and proceed to interpret the
particulars of nature in that light. But -- and here is the essential
point -- the determination of whether that is the case is a
philosophical issue, not a scientific one. It must be argued for on
philosophical grounds. Science as science cannot settle it. Some of us
believe that thought is best served by reference to a dimension of
reality that transcends nature although it is manifest in nature.
Intelligent Design is not science. It is metaphysics. Atheism presented
as the necessary or possible implication of science is not science
either. It is metaphysics. Neither should be in a science curriculum or
presented in any form as just truth and not philosophical opinion.
Some scientific atheists, including Richard Dawkins, offer a second
fallacy in the name of science that deserves to be identified and
rejected. It is Darwinian evolution not only as an account of the
origin of species but as the clue to human psychology and culture. It
assumes that the ruling power in nature and culture is natural
selection that leads to the survival of the fittest. Fittest is defined
tautologically as that which survives, i. e. has success in reproducing
This principle holds whether we are talking about a plant or animal
species, a form of behavior in human beings, or an idea or value in
culture. Natural selection becomes imperialistic when it is extended by
its proponents beyond plants and animals into the human realm of
psychology, behavior, and culture as a unquestioned verity of science.
At the root of it all is the gene. Speaking metaphorically, genes want
replicas of themselves to be spread as widely as possible. We can speak
of "the selfish gene" (Dawkins, 1976). An organism is the gene's way of
making another gene -- to adapt the old adage that the chicken is just
an egg's way of producing another egg. Human beings behave and adopt
ideas and values, and some get reproduced over generations and some
don't. Success is whatever survives over time, i. e., gets more
cultural genes into the population so they will continue. Variations in
what people think and do lead either to failure or success depending on
whether they succeed better than others in passing their biological,
behavioral or cultural "genes" on to subsequent generations.
Sociobiology (E. O. Wilson, 1975) and later evolutionary psychology
emerged to show how principles that explain natural selection in nature
are also exemplified in human behavior and in culture. Traits are
valuable to the extent they ensure reproductive success whether in
nature or history.
The problem here is that the extension of Darwinian principles beyond
their original use into psychology and other disciplines introduces
philosophical assumptions that are not derived as such from scientific
investigation. The central question is: What is a human being? The
Darwinians speak boldly about human beings by naively extending
biological principles without sufficient questioning their relevance
beyond their original use. I have seen TV programs explaining human
behavior in Darwinian terms that assume what they present is true
without any doubt. It is just what science teaches us. When someone
defines the mind as a complex machine or as a computing device, we
should be put on guard that an assumption has been surreptitiously
slipped into the discussion that is not necessarily warranted by
That human beings are biological creatures and that genetic makeup
affects mental as well as physical aspects of our makeup is certainly
the case. The question is whether we have the capacity to transcend
nature as self-conscious rational beings. Some of us believe there is a
dimension of spirit that must be taken into account. In any case, the
conversation about who we are and why we do what we do requires a
conversation on many levels among biologists, psychologists,
sociologists, philosophers, theologians, and others that makes science
a contributor but not a hegemonic Queen to whom all disciplines must
give obsequious obedience.
When these questionable philosophies creep into the classroom or
elsewhere uncritically as just plain scientific truth, an offense is
created that is as misleading and dangerous as Intelligent Design
parading as science
Monday, September 05, 2005
Religion and Politics Again
"The issue for both sides is not so much what Roberts believes is right
or wrong. Rather, it is the degree to which he believes religious
morality may be permitted to influence public policy." The Washington
Post, September 5, 2005. Here we go again -- confusion about religion
and politics in relation to separation of church and state. The quote
concerns the likely questioning of John Roberts in his confirmation
hearings to be a justice and now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. If
John Roberts believes as a Catholic that abortion is wrong, that is
fine. But as public policy he must support that view on the basis of
the laws, traditions, and values of American history and culture,
especially those enshrined in its founding documents. This means that
while it is perfectly legitimate to espouse values that are rooted in
religion, in terms of law and public policy he must articulate those
values in the language common to all Americans.
The most profound understanding of the relation of religion and
politics I know of -- except, of course in my own writings! -- is found
in a speech by Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York in an address at the
University of Notre Dame September 13, 1984. He was dealing with the
question as to whether he as a Catholic was bound to adopt a position
against abortion in accordance with the teachings of the church. His
answer was that he was not necessarily bound to do so. Here is what he
"Our public morality, then, -- the moral standards we maintain for
everyone, not just the ones we insist on in our private lives-- depends
on a consensus view of right and wrong. The values derived from
religious belief will not --and should not -- be accepted as part of
the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community
at large, by consensus. That those values happen to be religious values
does not deny them acceptability as a part of this consensus. But it
does not require their acceptability, either. . . . the question
whether to engage the political system in a struggle to have it adopt
certain articles of our belief as part of public morality is not a
matter of doctrine: it is a matter of prudential political judgment.
Yes, we create our public morality through consensus and in this
country that consensus reflects to some extent religious values of a
great majority of Americans. But. no, all religiously based values
don't have an a priori place in our public morality. The community must
decide if what is being proposed would be better left to private
discretion than public policy; whether it restricts freedom, and if so
to what end, to whose benefit; whether it will produce a good or bad
result; whether overall it will help the community or merely divide it."
I could not have said it better myself. However, I would stress that
any prevailing consensus of values among the American people itself
must finally be judged by the founding documents, especially the
1. Cuomo clearly recognizes that church and state is not the same
problem as religion and politics.
2. He recognizes that religiously-based values have a legitimate place
in public political discourse, but they have no privileged status since
we have to find a moral consensus in a pluralistic society that
includes a variety of religious belief and unbelief.
3. Political policies must be judged by whether they are best for the
society as a whole, whether they promote peace, justice, freedom, and
equality for all, not by whether they have religious sanction in some
specific religion or denomination.
4. Christians as citizens and as public officials have to make an
attempt to balance the moral truths they hold against political
realities. Pragmatic judgments must be made which may require a
compromise of the personal morality they espouse as persons of faith.
If a person running for office believes, e. g., that abortion is wrong
because the Bible of the church says so, it is perfectly legitimate for
her or him to try to persuade other Americans to oppose abortion.
However, --and here is the crucial point -- the persuasion must, or
should be, be in terms of values, principles, and beliefs embodied in
the secular history of the country, not because the Bible or the Church
says so. Religiously-based values should be translated into the
language of American history in terms of whether it will further the
common good. Appeal to the Bible or the Pope as such is not valid or
pragmatically advisable. The Bible and the Pope as such are not
authoritative for American political philosophy. If there is a
correspondence between what the Bible and the Pope teach, on the one
hand, and the laws, traditions, culture, the Constitution, and a
consensus of Americans in general based on whatever authorities they
follow, on the other hand, fine. But the support in the public realm
must be based on the latter not on the former. And a consensus of
contemporary values must finally be tested by the Constitution.
Segregation was supported -- by some on allegedly religious grounds --
by large numbers of people in 1950, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1954
that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
In short, it doesn't matter what a political proposal is based on,
whether the Bible, the Koran, Hindu or Buddhist sources, or an
atheistic moral philosophy. The only thing that matters is whether it
is acceptable to a majority of voting citizens and can pass the
Constitutional test as judged by the courts. Clear thinking may get
lost in the heat of battle and succumb to slogans, deep-rooted
religious or secular bias, or false premises that ignore vital
distinctions. Let us hope, however, that we can at least avoid
simplistic generalizations that say we should adopt a policy because
the Bible or the Pope or the Koran supports it or reject it for the
Sunday, September 04, 2005
Intelligent Design and Darwinian Evolution
Should Intelligent Design be taught alongside Darwinian evolution in
science classes? The issue will finally likely be settled not on
philosophical or educational grounds but politically by local school
boards, state legislatures, and Congress and then tested in the courts.
Cliches, slogans, half-truths, misunderstandings, and a general
shallowness will rule the day, generating more heat than light.
Nevertheless, an analysis to sort out the issues is worth the attempt.
Many arguments for Intelligent Design that I have seen rely heavily on
statistical analyses of probability rather than on detailed empirical
refutations of the specifics of Darwinian theory, although this can be
found too. The general notion is that random mutation and natural
selection cannot account for the "irreducible" (Michael Behe) or
"specific" (William Demski) complexity seen in organisms. The chance,
for example, that Darwinian mechanisms can explain the marvelous
complexity of the eye are such that this infinitesimal possibility
cannot be rationally entertained. From the design seen in living
things, we can infer an Intelligent Designer. This is the best
explanation of what we actually find in organisms and their organs. The
theory is objective, rational, based on observation, and is, in fact,
scientific, proponents insist.
For a brief introduction see:
The Darwinists are quick to offer refutations, contending that given
the billions of years involved, it is possible to show how minute
random mutations could be organized incrementally over time to produce
the complexity illustrated in the eye. Likewise, biologists already
have elaborated in detail how the intricate processes that produced
organisms as a whole can come about along with all the checks,
balances, and bio-feedback mechanisms needed to keep them functioning
properly . Moreover, Intelligent Design theory yields no empirically
testable hypotheses by the usual and ordinary methods of science. Also,
not all features seem "intelligent." The retina is backward,
necessitating a hole in the back for the transmitting nerves to get
through on their way to the brain. The result is the "blind spot." I
would also like to know how Katrina qualifies as intelligent if the
Designer is also thought to be good.
It interests me that both the Intelligent Design theorists and
Darwinians who refute them seem to think of purpose and design in
engineering terms. An intelligent agent decides to makes something and
figures out how to do it so that the resulting product works. Parts are
created and coordinated so that they cooperate in producing the desired
ends. In this way they embody the purposes built in by the designer.
This is then applied to the world as a whole resulting in a view of God
as the Cosmic Designer, an external, supernatural Agent. I will suggest
that a biological rather than a technological model is superior both to
the intelligent design scheme or to the biblical political model of God
The prototype of the intelligent design God can be found in the 18th
century philosopher William Paley. He maintains that if you found a
watch lying in the sand, you would conclude that the intricate and
interworking parts required a clever creator who build the mechanism
for a purpose. A watch requires a watchmaker. Likewise, the world with
its complex and cooperating parts and laws requires a World Maker, i.
e., an Intelligent Designer we commonly call God. David Hume, of
course, offered at the time a devastating critique.
Contemporary Intelligent Design proponents think Paley was right, and
the strict Darwinists think this is nonsense. Science can account for
everything in worldly terms without reference to a Supernatural
External Agent, for whom there is no evidence or necessity. More
recently the mathematicians have provided new versions of Intelligent
Design using theories of probability to show the absurdity of a process
operating by law and chance alone producing the complexity we see in
organisms, organs ,and cells. Lecomte du Nouy, Human Destiny, 1947, is
a classic example..
My conclusion is that Intelligent Design is right in seeing purpose in
the process but wrong about how it works. The Darwinians are right in
suggesting that they can account for the apparent purpose and amazing
complexity exhibited by organisms within a scientific framework but
wrong in thinking that science tells us the whole truth about the
matter. Science provides a perspective on the objects it studies but
within the limits of what can be known by its methods. Hence, it gives
us partial but essential knowledge of the evolutionary process. It
abstracts from the concrete whole of entities what its observations can
discern. This means we need a more comprehensive outlook that specifies
what the concrete whole is from which science abstracts what yields
itself to its methods. I argue this in the immediately preceding blog
and will not repeat it here.
I am convinced by a form of Whiteheadian panpsychism in which the
disastrous separation of body and mind in modern science and philosophy
is overcome and replaced by a notion of organisms as unitary beings
with both physical (body) and mental capacities (mind). The internal
mental (but mainly not consciousness) processes operate. at every level
of nature from subatomic particles to human beings. Purpose is to be
found, therefore, in all nature in ways commensurate with the
complexity of the subjects involved. Chance and law are involved in the
efforts of primitive organisms at the simplest levels all the way up to
human beings in the effort to "live, to live well, and to live better"
(Whitehead). The world is made up its entirety of "experiencing
subjects" whose internal mental operations exhibit purpose.
Science can discern only that part of the whole that its methods permit
and that excludes perception of the internal purposes of these living
subjects. Life is the primary philosophical category and is found at
every level of nature, and life processes everywhere exhibit purpose
guided by an internal mentality that is pervasive. (Note: rocks,
computers, oceans, and planets, etc. as such are not subjects but pure
objects composed of smaller life-like, purposive subjects. Life may in
a narrower sense be restricted to organisms that require food.) At the
base of it all is God -- the All-Inclusive Life whose purposes are
universally exhibited throughout the universe. This Universal Life is
not omnipotent but limited in power and works in all things
persuasively and by law to create life and to increase the enjoyment of
I entertain belief in a God unlike the External Designer of the
Intelligent Design school but not permitted among atheistic scientists
who find no evidence for the traditional God within or beyond science
(Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, and Carl Sagan, e. g.). This
fragmentary introduction will have to suffice here but is elaborated in
my books and in articles on my website.
Should Intelligent Design be taught in public schools as a scientific
alternative to Darwinism. No, because its credentials as science are
too minimal to qualify. Science is what the community of scientists
currently believe. Today the consensus in favor of Darwinian theory in
its main outlines is overwhelming. Only a tiny population of
credentialed scientists at the fringe think otherwise. But what is
wrong in simply acknowledging briefly in science classes that a large
number of Americans do not accept Darwinian reductionism and prefer
alternatives, including creationism and Intelligent Design theory, that
are outside the current understanding of the biological sciences,
except for a small number of dissenters too insignificant to be taken
seriously within science itself? The purpose of the public schools is
not only to teach contemporary scientific understandings but also to
introduce students to their culture. It may be sad, even tragic, but
evolutionary theory is held in bad odor by numbers approaching if not
exceeding a majority of citizens. A majority want Darwinian
alternatives recognized and taught as well. Those numbers are too large
to be ignored. In the last analysis what the public schools teach is a
matter for the people who pay the taxes to decide, not a scientific
See the following for a summary of numerous recent polls on the
In short, the public schools should teach the truth. The truth is that
the contemporary community of scientists, without significant
exception, hold to a broadly Darwinian view of evolution. That is what
contemporary science is. The truth also is that huge numbers of
Americans want alternatives presented as well. The schools do not have
to settle the question of whether Intelligent Design or Darwinian
evolution is true. They just need to teach the truth about these
contemporary ways of understanding. By the way, those cartoons that
suggest teaching creationism or Intelligent Design alongside Darwinian
evolution is like teaching phrenology, flat earth theory, astrology,
etc. alongside neurology, round earth, and astronomy are misleading.
All these latter theories are now generally discredited but in their
time were held by learned scholars as well as by the population as a
whole. When only an insignificant number of the population hold to
creationism or Intelligent Design, then the cartoon will be relevant
but no longer funny.
Thursday, September 01, 2005
Science and God
OK, let's get one thing straight: Eminence in science does not
automatically qualify one as an expert in religion. Yet such is the
prestige of science in our culture that the opinions of scientists are
regarded as having a unique credence. What Harry Emerson Fosdick said
decades ago still holds, "We have come to the point that the greatest
compliment that can be paid to God is that some scientist believes in
him!" The opposite is true as well. If a scientist says science
undermines belief in God, that is thought to be especially devastating
to religion. Nonsense.
The fact is that science as science has nothing to say, absolutely
nothing, about God one way or the other, and a scientist as scientist
has no more authority on the subject than bar tenders, taxi drivers
slightly intoxicated prostitutes. pimps, or Tom DeLay -- all of whom
have on occasion. regarded themselves as experts. In fact, most
everyone thinks he/she can speak with authority about religion.
When scientists deny the reality of God, they are offering a
philosophical overbelief that cannot be tested empirically and yields
no scientifically testable hypotheses. It is not a scientific
statement. Frequently what underlies scientific atheism is an
assumption that can be called scientism. It goes like this: What cannot
be known by science is not only unknowable but is not real. This
proposition is then fatuously offered as a necessary implication of
science in ignorance of the fact that the scientist in question has
left science and is speaking as a philosopher. That is fine, but let us
not be fooled into believing that this sleight of hand gives scientific
credibility to the underlying scientism.
One hears from some scientists that religion is the source of
fanaticism, violence, war, persecution, and a host of other evils. Some
think we would be better off if we were enlightened enough by science
to get rid of it altogether. A few seem reluctant to admit that
religion had any role in social progress, e. g., in combating slavery,
the oppression of women, and promoting civil rights. No one outdoes me
in pointing to the dark side of religion. But what the critics neglect
is the ambiguity attached to religion as to all human endeavors.
Religion inspires good and evil, compassion and violence. These
scientists could look equally to politics and point out the horrors of
Hitler and Stalin, e. g., and conclude that we should abolish
And what about science? It was not Baptist preachers who gave us
nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction. J.
Robert Oppenhemier, one of the creators of the first atomic bomb, said
if nuclear weapons were to be added to arsenal of usable weapons, "then
the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and
Hiroshima." Again, "the physicists have known sin, and this is a
knowledge they cannot lose." He confessed that he had "blood on his
hands." Enrico Fermi and I. I. Rabi, themselves notable scientists,
wrote that the bomb could not be justified on any ethical ground and
added, " It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light." Why
not abolish science?
Current research in the life sciences sometimes gets into areas that
are morally problematic. Yet, as Robert Pollack observes, ". . . for
more than three decades, there have been no reports of any scientist,
in any field, precipitating a voluntary moratorium on any line of
active basic research in order to establish a regulated system of
approval for further work." Robert Pollack, "A Place for Religion in
Cross Currents (Summer 2005)
What we need is an examination of the scope and limits of scientific
knowledge. The resolution of this issue requires philosophical
reasoning in which scientists may engage, but let us not be seduced
into believing that science as science can resolve it, although it may
contribute valuable, even essential, data. Let us note that scientists
and philosophers hold a variety of views on the nature, scope, and
limits of scientific knowledge. There are realists, idealists,
positivists, pragmatists, and so on. Yet they can work side by side in
the laboratory doing scientific research that is entirely unaffected by
the conflicting philosophies they hold on extra-scientific matters.
Likewise, atheists and theists can cooperate in scientific projects
without any conflict whatsoever.
If there are realities that scientific method cannot as such discern,
then we need other modes of thought to complete our understanding of
things. Let us take some easy examples. Science as such cannot give us
direct knowledge of pain, consciousness, or purpose. Yet most of us
believe they are real. Science cannot observe pain. Scientists can
observe the physiological correlates of pain and note the behavior of
organisms experiencing pain, but they cannot detect the pain itself.
Why do you think doctors ask you for a subjective evaluation of your
pain on a scale of 1 to 10? They do not ask you what you think your
blood pressure is or what the sodium levels in your blood or your HCT
are. They measure them quantitatively with their instruments. Likewise,
consciousness cannot be observed by scientific procedures, although the
physical processes that underlie and are associated with consciousness
can. Science studies the brain not the mind. Science cannot observe
purpose in organisms. They can only observe behavior that they can
infer seems to imply internal purposes. Noting this, psychologist B. F.
Skinner proposed simply to devise rules of behavior without any
necessary reference to mind, consciousness, purpose, or mental
processes. That does not mean that what he excluded is unreal but only
that science has limits in what it can directly know. Science discerns
only those aspects of reality that are open to inspection by its
Alfred North Whitehead figured all this out long ago with a knowledge
of science and philosophy that few in our time or any time have had. I
quote from his Modes of Thought: "Science can find no individual
enjoyment in nature: Science can find no creativity in nature; it finds
mere rules of succession. These negations are true of natural science.
They are inherent in its methodology. The reason for this blindness of
physical science lies in the fact that such science only deals with
half the evidence provided by human experience."
I would just note that what Whitehead means is that science can only
deal with that half of the evidence that is provided by observing
things from the outside as objects. The half it neglects is the
internal experience of organisms as subjects who have purposes of their
own that cannot be observed as such from the outside. Some organisms
are conscious, and sometimes they feel pain or joy or sadness or love,
all of which are as real as the entities entertained in scientific
What we need is a philosophy that puts all this together in a coherent
manner and that is consistent with all the evidence provided by our
sense experience of objects and our internal experience as feeling,
thinking, purposing subjects. This philosophy, I believe, has to
include a reference to God. Science as science and scientists as
scientists can neither confirm or refute the reality of God, although
valuable data is provided by scientific inquiry that in our time must
be included in a total philosophy that is theoretically cogent and
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
What the Bible is all About
Implicit in the Bible is a religious and moral vision unsurpassable in
excellence. At its heart is the developing story of a Powerful Creative
Love at the base of all things whose purpose is to create and to
perfect a people and a cosmos. At the end of the drama a community
united in the love and praise of God and one another lives in a world
free from all suffering and evil, and death is no more.
The Good News is that God loves us and seeks to perfect us in a
community of universal justice and joy. The proper human response is to
reproduce in our actions toward others the quality (love) and aim (a
perfected, evil-free community) of God's action in the whole world.
Simply put, the Gospel is this: God loves you. Love God totally and
your neighbor as yourself as all together seek a community in which
peace and justice reign and all human ills have been abolished allowing
the human potential for joy and happiness to be universally and fully
I believe this is the acme of the vision that arises out of the
interior logic of the biblical witness as a whole. It took centuries
for its fullness to be revealed, and at every stage its purity was
obscured by being filtered through cultural understandings that
frequently masked and sometimes overpowered its own inner rationale. In
the Old Testament, e. g., God is often seen as commanding, approving,
and even perpetrating massive violence. Genesis 6, the Book of Joshua,
and Esther 9 are prime examples. The text reflects the culture in which
it was written, including its prejudices, in ways that often contradict
what is highest and best in its own message. The acceptance of slavery,
the subordination of women, and the acceptance of the death penalty for
a multitude of offenses, some quite trivial (See Leviticus and
Deuteronomy) illustrate the adulteration that has to be purged in order
to see what is permanently valuable.
The New Testament, including Jesus, teaches an absolute division
between the saved and the lost in which the wicked are to be
everlastingly punished. Such a rigid separation contradicts the
gradations and complexities of human virtue. The same holds for the
faith that receives grace, which can be strong or weak, steady or
wavering, etc. It is also contrary to the universalism implicit in the
logic of the gospel of love that does not rest until all are included.
The desire to punish the wicked without limit I suspect originates in
the experience of an oppressed people who cannot conceive of a just
ending to history that does not involve the utter destruction of their
enemies. Making the punishment everlasting is an understandable excess
perhaps, but it does not represent the foundational motifs of the Bible
This account of the heart of the Bible is, of course, mine and is
viewed through my own set of cultural and personal filters. We have the
Gospel only in some version of it. We have the treasure in earthen
vessels (2 Cor.4:7). Every presentation will always say as much about
us as it does the Bible. All the disputes that rage today are conflicts
between different versions of what is obligatory for us today in the
message of this ancient document. Moreover, novel filters are added as
we confront situations never confronted or imagined in the Bible
itself, e. g. stem cell research.
What annoys me most is that some parties claim not to have merely a
version but the truth about the matter, the real thing, the genuine
article. Catholic and Protestant varieties abound. Disappointment lies
in the fact that those who are so sure they have the truth straight
from God often propose standards of conduct that seem to me not only to
be destructive of human well-being. but also to obscure what is highest
and best in the Bible itself.
The standard of judgment for all doctrines and moral views is the
supremely excellent vision implicit in the received tradition. When I
am critical of some things in the Bible or of some interpretations of
the Bible, it is because I am convinced that there is something so much
better in its witness that is being missed, ignored, or obscured.
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
Family Values in the Bible
The Evangelicals are right. We need a return to good family values.
What better place to look than to the Bible for guidance, as they would
certainly agree. Here is a sample:
1. Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel. One of them murdered the
other. Gen. 4:8
2. Women on earth messed around with some strange mighty men of old,
men of renown, (sons of God) and had babies with them. Gen. 6:1-4
3. After the flood Noah took to the wine got drunk and lay naked. One
of his sons (Ham) did something forbidden (incest?) and Noah cursed his
descendants. (Gen. 9:2-27
4. Sarah had produced no heir for Abraham, so he had a child with
Sarah's servant Hagar. Gen. 16:1ff.
5. Lot offered his two virgin daughters to the men of Sodom and told
them to do what they wanted. He did this to satisfy them when they
demanded to have sex with his male guests, a great act of hospitality
in the eyes of all. Gen. 19:4-8
6. Lot lived in a cave with his two daughters. Fearing they could not
find a husband, they got their father drunk and had sex with him, and
both got pregnant. Gen. 19:30-36
7. Abraham was prepared to stick a knife through his son's heart and
set him on fire, i. e., sacrifice his son on the altar, to show his
loyalty to God, who had prepared this nifty little way of testing the
patriarch's faith. Gen. 22:1-14
Noting that several of these ancient heroes had more than one wife, let
us move on to family values in other parts of the Bible.
8. Fathers are authorized to sell their daughters into slavery. Ex. 21:7
9. If you curse or strike your mother or father, you are to be killed.
Ex. 21:15, 17
10. If you worship the wrong god or have sex with an animal, you are to
be killed. Ex. 22:19-20
11. Stubborn sons are to be stoned to death. Deut. 21:18-21
12. Adulterers are to be put to death, so are people who commit incest
and males who have sex with each other. Lev. 20:10-16
13. By now we are getting the picture, so let us move rapidly to David,
the Warrior King, who arranged to have a man killed in battle so he
could take his wife Bathsheba, with whom he had been intimate, as his
wife. II Sam. 10: 11:1-27
14. Solomon, a very wise man, had seven hundred wives, princesses, and
three hundred concubines. I Kings 11:3
15. Jesus allows men to divorce their wives on the grounds of adultery
but not because of cruelty, violence, abandonment, or voting for
Republicans. Matt. 5:31
16. Oops, it seems that Jesus allows no divorce at all, not even for
cruelty, violence, abandonment, or voting for Republicans. Mark 10:1-12
17. Women are told to keep quiet in church and ask their husbands later
what happened. I Cor. 14:34-36
18. Wives are told as the weaker sex to submit to their husbands, to be
subject to them in everything. Ephes. 5:22,24; Col 3:18; I Peter 3:1
19. In these same passages husbands are urged to love their wives and
treat them gently, loving them as they love their own bodies. This is
20. Households are assumed to have slaves, who are also to be obedient
to their masters.
21. Eve was deceived in the garden of Eden, not Adam. Women are not to
teach men or have authority over them. They should learn in silence
with all submissiveness. I Tim. 2:11-15
With these examples as our guides, we can surely figure the rest out
and adapt these ancient teachings to modern conditions. Surely we will
be better off if we do so. I am with the Evangelicals on this
point. I can’t help before quitting to point out that what the
Religious Right calls “family values” typically means the customs,
mores, morals, and accepted practices of America in the 1950's.
Fortunately for them, the Bible contains enough variety that they can
find enough verses supporting this set of beliefs to enable them to
claim biblical authority for their own views.
Thursday, May 12, 2005
The Sin of Inclusiveness
The World Council of Churches is so inclusive that it has to tread
softly with regard to the ordination of women and same-sex
The National Council of Churches is so inclusive that it cannot be
inclusive enough. It refuses membership to the Metropolitan Community
Church (a refuge for gay people) because the Orthodox Church threatens
to leave if they do.
In every main-line denomination in this country homosexuality is
debated hotly, and in some the ordination of women is divisive.
Progressive American Baptists want to embrace gay-friendly
congregations. Conservative Baptists want to exclude them from
fellowship. Progressives pitch the battle on Baptist principles of soul
liberty, autonomy of local churches, and the like while conservatives
say it is a matter of obeying Scripture, which condemns homosexual
Inclusion and diversity were highly praised at the school where I
taught. But we did not have an biblical inerrantist on the faculty, and
I would have opposed hiring one. I liked to make this point. I
delighted even more in needling the enthusiasts of inclusiveness and
diversity in this bastion of freedom who wanted rules forbidding sexist
language and certain moral positions in chapel worship. The point is
that even those who love inclusiveness the most have their own rules of
exclusion if things get bad enough.
In recent days we have been rightly aghast at the Baptist pastor in
North Caroline who wanted to expel members who voted for John Kerry
last November. But let us be honest. As much as we may value diversity,
pluralism, inclusivity, and tolerance, we all draw a line at some point
or ought to. If five people as a group presented themselves for
membership in your church making it clear they would be loud and
persistent in teaching that God hates blacks, gays, and liberal judges,
would you vote to take them in? I wouldn't.
Diversity, inclusiveness, tolerance, pluralism are good things, but
they are limited not complete, relative not absolute. Unity of belief
and practice in a group is not only valuable but at some level is
essential to community morale and effective functioning. Passionate,
intense devotion to something important cannot easily coexist with its
opposite. It is hard to be tolerant of what is deeply abhorrent to us
when something vital is at stake. Breadth of inclusion stands in
tension with depth of commitment to a single truth about things. At
some point embracing variety in an atmosphere of unqualified tolerance
ceases to be a virtue. Too much diversity compromises clarity of
witness. Trumpets of uncertain sound prepare no one for battle (I Cor.
We generally avoid a stark confrontation on divisive issues by a
process based on destiny (the groups we are born into) and choice (the
groups we choose). We usually end up with people who more or less share
our point of view on doctrine, morals, style of worship, and so on. We
can afford inclusiveness and diversity within limits in our habitual
environments, especially if there are gains associated with membership
in the larger community that outweigh the disadvantages of conflict on
some particular points. Obviously, this is what keeps the National and
World Councils of Churches together, despite the painful controversies
that threaten their unity. Individual denominations can embrace
threatening differences and survive for the same reason.
Sometimes, however, a crisis arises that forces us to decide whether
the price of inclusiveness is worth tolerating doctrines and practices
abhorrent to us. There are no easy solutions or infallible guidelines,
only tentative ad hoc adjustments as circumstances merit. Purity of
principle is a futile quest. We have to muddle through as best we can.
A pragmatic approach seeking the broadest inclusiveness compatible with
tolerable diversity under given conditions will serve us best.
Inclusiveness is gained at the expense of diversity on specific points
of doctrines and morals. The more inclusive and diverse a group is, the
more general must be the principle of union in order to allow for
disagreements on subsidiary matters. Sometimes disputes on particulars
within the framework of unity become acute and threaten to take
precedence over what unites the community at some higher level. An
indefinite number of compromises and accommodations can preserve the
unity of the whole in the midst of painful diversity.
But we cannot rule out the possibility that the time might come when we
need to get out or to throw the offending rascals out if we have the
power. And, of course, this is where the agony of decision begins with
pain following. In many churches on the gay issue and in some on the
ordination of women that is exactly where we are right now.
Tuesday, May 03, 2005
I Fear Absolutism More Than Relativism
Popes and people who write letters to the editor worry about
relativism. It is, they lament, a hazard to morality portending chaos
and destruction. If truth be told, relativism is a complicated concept
with many meanings and ambiguities, but this does not faze the critics,
who usually leave the word undefined. Whatever it means to them, it is
bad. The surface meaning is that it refers to views they find inferior
to their own and hazardous. Meanwhile, they assume or assert in full
confidence that they possess the truth, the whole truth, and nothing
but the truth.
I have made my defense of a form of relativism (objective relativism, I
call it) elsewhere. Here I boldly assert that absolutism is a greater
threat to soul and body than all the extant relativisms in the world
laid end to end. First, there are so many of them. Absolutists are all
around us: Pious Popes, Protestant preachers, and pompous politicians
come immediately to mind. Taxi drivers, barbers, free market
economists, right-wing think tanks, liberals who want speech or
practices offensive to them suppressed, and many people who write
letters to editors can be added.
Then there are single issue absolutists, who usually have their
opposite numbers: extremist advocates of unrestricted gun possession
for everyone contend with gun control fanatics, free choice zealots vie
with anti-abortion zealots. Christian fundamentalists attack Muslim
fundamentalists. Israeli and Palestinian extremists will apparently
fight to the death rather than compromise or recognize any validity in
their opponent's claims. Actually, Israelis and Palestinians form two
communities of suffering whose compassion for the other could surely
find a road to peace with approximate justice for all.
The danger lies in the fact that the certainty of absolutists is a
temptation to suppress error. Some extremists use violence without
apology. The worst of the absolutists will gladly cut your head off,
burn you up, torture you, cut off your testicles or breasts in the name
of God if you challenge their assumed prerogatives. We could all make a
long list of past examples without breaking a sweat. On a kinder scale
absolutists in churches will punish ministerial dissent or practice on
the issue of homosexuality.
The answer to the moral relativism the new Pope deplores is not Roman
Catholic absolutism; nor is it Protestant or Muslim fundamentalism. For
absolutists, often relativism means you don't agree with me about
issues of right and wrong, and I, of course, posses the truth.
Relativism properly defined means that we (Popes pipefitters, Baptists,
etc), can justify religious and moral claims only by making use of the
approved and available resources (sources, norms, tests) in a
particular time and place, i. e., from the vantage point of the
claimants in history, culture, etc. With respect to God and morality
there is no guarantee that such claims mirror, correspond with, reflect
reality, i. e., give us truth that is universal and certain. Believing
they are true even while stomping the foot does not make them true.
Absolutely believing them and shouting that they are true, TRUE, TRUE
does not make them so. Stomping the foot helps only a little. It only
mean the claimant has absolute confidence in them invulnerable to doubt.
Pope Benedict XVI has said he is open to dialogue with other religious
groups. e. g., Protestant and other Christians, Jews, Muslims for the
sake of improving the human condition on earth. This is highly
commendable and welcomed. But on what basis will these discussions take
place? Will it assume equality among all with no stated or assumed
notion that exclusive or unique truth is held by one of the parties?
Until the Pope takes back the notion that we separated folks, e. g.,
Baptists and other Protestants, have only some but not all marks of the
whole, full, complete church and that they cannot have until they are
in full communion with Rome, then I don't see how equality can prevail.
Will each group secretly hold quietly in its own bosom the notion that
it has more truth than others while being nice, polite, tolerant, open
to hear all points of view? What? On whatever basis they are conducted,
I guess they can't hurt, but I doubt they will accomplish much either
beyond a temporary boost to good feelings and an illusory sense of
having done something worthwhile. If these dialogues are for a limited
purpose like finding ways to cooperate to feed the hungry, fine. Maybe
something worthwhile might happen. But pretty soon the ugly face of sex
would emerge, and we will be fighting over birth control,
populations growing beyond means to support them, condom to prevent
AIDS, so people can live to farm and produce the necessities of life.
Dear Pope Benedict XVI, prove me wrong, please. Show me that such
dialogue can provide real help to real people suffering from hunger,
war, and injustice, and not just make the participants to the
conversations feel good for a day.
Yes, there is a form of relativism that may degenerate into nihilism in
which might takes precedence over notions of right. In short, the
extremes of absolutism and relativism are dangerous. But in a world
full of people who are so damn sure they know the truth and you don't,
some dissent, some vigorous questioning of authority, some appeals for
humility, tolerance, and modesty are healthy. They are, in fact,
essential in preventing us from falling into extremes of absolutism
which will suppress doubt and punish doubters. In the present world I
fear the power of aggressive absolutists more than I fear the nihilism
of reckless relativists.
Friday, April 29, 2005
Quasi-Acerbic Oddities for Today
President Bush says his favorite philosopher is Jesus. I suggest he
read the synoptic gospels, underlining in red all the warnings to the
rich about the dangers their souls are in and in green all the
admonitions to feed the hungry and meet the needs of the poor and
suffering with dire consequences for those who don't. Then he should
compare his findings with his political works that grant huge tax
benefits to the rich and cut benefits for the poor and the neediest
people in the country, e. g., his latest budget. If only I could
remember how to spell hipocracy, hipokrisy, whatever!
One of the biggest problems for the church is that it is tied to the
authority of the Bible. The Book contains some awful morality,
including the dreadful jihad passages in Joshua and Esther 9, stoning
to death disobedient boys, authorizing fathers to sell their daughters
into slavery, (they are property), the death penalty for a multitude of
crimes large and small, including the command to kill gay men -- just
to list a few of the worst. In the New Testament slavery is approved,
never condemned, women are admonished to keep their mouths shut in
church, made the villain for the primordial sin, forbidden to teach
men, made subordinate to their husbands.
Liberals, evangelicals, fundamentalists -- all are burdened with the
worst and the best the Bible has to offer. The only distinction in them
is that while each group finds ways to take the authority out of what
they don't like, they dislike different things. Each, of course, claims
to have the right interpretation. The Bible is important in these
disputes only as a common point of reference. The crucial point is what
is deauthoritized or simply ignored by the disputants.
Equally challenging is the problem of dealing with the highest and best
of Scripture, the Sermon on the Mount being the prime example. All
regularly ignore, water down, explain away, the hard passages in
Matthew 5. Only a few people since 30 CE have consistently loved their
neighbors equally with themselves. At last count there were 97.
Yet we all do love our Bibles, praise it, insist it is our authority,
while all the time our creativity rises to its acme in figuring out
ways to take the authority out of what we don't like, without ever
being embarrassed in the slightest by, or even aware of, what we are
If you are a Christian, please tell me how the ministry of raising the
dead and casting out demons is going in your church (Matthew 10:8).
These are commands of Jesus to his Apostles. Churches claim to continue
the ministry of the Apostles. Now tell me how you explain away the fact
that you do not take this very seriously in your church, i. e., have no
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
THE TRUTH – Who holds the franchise?
Tired, old, impatient Baptist that I am, I have had it. During the
period in which Pope John Paul II was passing from the scene and a new
Pope was being elected and installed, cable news networks needing to
fill the airwaves 24/7, presented us with an endless parade of
uniformed Roman Catholic priests and professors whose message assumed
roughly the following: There is a body of religious and moral TRUTH
that has been uniquely bequeathed to the Roman Catholic Church. The two
Popes in focus are reliable witnesses to this TRUTH in the face of all
the false moralities, relativism, and misguided values our godless and
god infused societies espouse in their chaotic, hazardous, brazen
disdain of the papal gardens in which roses of TRUTH flourish and exude
the odor of Rome. Surrounding these pretentious theological claims
totally lacking in modesty and humility were a host of others that have
only tenuous claims to historical truth, e. g., Peter was the first
Pope in any meaningful continuity with the present holders of that
office. The whole ball of wax was taken for granted sometimes
apparently by TV hosts as well as by their Catholics guests. We were
suffused in and with Catholic doctrine.
If these high claims produced propositions of shining, convincing
excellence or generated powerful enlightenment useful for human uplift,
it would be more palatable. But when it results in such abominations as
the rejection of condoms in a age where millions of dying of AIDS,
condemns responsible same-sex love, keeps women and married men out the
priesthood, supports the comical casuistry of marriage annulment,
rejects effective means of family planning, and the like, it does make
one wonder -- and doubt.
Well, I am here to tell you that some of us do more than doubt. We
demur. I will not drag out the whole panoply of Protestant objections
to Roman Catholic hubris. I will not go into the ensemble of claims
erected on dubious historical premises, some as weak as spider webs,
although I am sorely tempted to do so. Here I will focus on the
question of truth and who has it. The Apostle Paul says that we walk by
faith and not by sight, that in this life we see through a glass darkly
(or in a mirror dimly). Religious absolutists and fundamentalists,
however, in practice ignore or forget this as it applies to them when
they speak confidently on matters on which they think their doctrines
come straight from God or universal principles of reason. Please, a
little humility, a dab of modesty, about our human perceptions of
TRUTH, a little recognition of human fallibilities, from which no
person or institution, religious or otherwise, is exempt.
So please – professor, potato peeler, pedophile, priest, or Pope–
when you speak about relativism, I beg you at least to define your
terms. The word has many meanings. I have analyzed them in detail in
another place. The vulgar or unthinking sometimes at least, seem to
imply that it means that one person's opinion is as good as anyone
else's or that there is no truth only conjecture. No serious person
really believes this except, as Richard Rorty said, an occasional
willing freshman who will believe anything for a day. If this is not
what is meant by relativism, what does it mean? I suggest that a
persuasive rendering is that we, including Popes, theologians, and
taxi-drivers, can justify our claims to truth about God and ethics only
by using the resources and norms available to us in our time and place
in history and culture. We have no infallible way of determining
whether these resources deliver judgments that correspond (in some
meaningful or practical sense) with reality when the deeper matters of
religious and morality are at stake. That somebody believes beyond
doubt that their sources and methods (Bible, reason, experience,
church, Pope, tradition, chicken entrails, messages found under rocks,
etc.) give them the truth does not make it so.
In some everyday matters everybody believes there is truth and one and
only rendering of it. Assume that you are about to open the bathroom
door and that you have to go badly, urgently. Someone says, "There is a
ferocious, man-eating tiger in the bathroom." Now who at that moment
would conclude that one opinion is as good as another, that truth is
relative, subjective, that there are no tests of truth that can
reliably justify the claim? Granted that the theoretical proposition
that a God, good and powerful, exists or the moral judgment that
same-sex love is immoral are not subject to that same kind of
adjudication yielding equally valid conclusions, theoretically and
practically. Such issues are of a different order about which
reasonable, equally moral and competent persons may disagree. I would
maintain that some tests are available nevertheless, although they rest
on assumptions that are more problematic and relative.
Hence, we need methods of acquiring and testing propositions of fact
and judgments of value appropriate to the specific issue in question. I
have analyzed this matter in great detail in books and web pages and
will not repeat the process here. I will merely state the following: 1.
Propositions about religion (God) and morality (right and wrong) are
not subject to validation yielding indubitable certainties. Few
religious and moral claims persuade everyone, except in maybe some few
cases such as that gratuitous cruelty to babies is never justified.
2. Hence, we should limit ourselves to confessing our beliefs about
such issues, reciting how we came to have them historically and in life
experience, and setting forth the reasons for holding them.
3. We should make such confessions in humility and be tolerant within
limits of other views, willing to hear them, and be open to changing
our minds upon finding grounds sufficient to justify doing so. However,
some things are so abhorrent that we can not tolerate them complacently
but must oppose them by means appropriate to the occasion, even to the
point of violence in some extreme cases in order to protect the dignity
of persons and the just interests of the poor, the innocent, and weak
in accordance with love and compassion for the suffering.
4. When absolutists claim they state the TRUTH about God and morality,
it amounts to their having convictions invulnerable to doubt and not
Our convictions about God and morality, whether based on divine
revelation, human reason, or readings of manure piles, change over time
and vary from culture to culture. This does not mean there are no
objectively valid views but only that we can not be certain who, if
anyone, has them. There is no available infallible guarantor of the
truth of our moral and religious convictions. We have beliefs, and that
is what we deal with in practice in our everyday lives. The claim that
our convictions are true adds nothing to their value or validity. It
merely means we believe them to be true. They nevertheless function for
us as clues and guides to the universe and our place in it and provide
useful means of coping with the joys, terrors, and catastrophes of life
and the certainty of death.
The Roman Catholic Church has changed its teachings about many things
over time. Pope Benedict XVI himself admitted as much in his writings
when he was Josef Ratzinger, university professor. The church no longer
teachers that sexual pleasure in marriage is sinful or that women are
inferior. The new Pope is not opposed to all change. He just wants it
to come from the top where it can be controlled and not from everyday
Catholic people. i. e., faithful women who feel a call to Roman
Catholic priesthood, parents with all the children they can afford, or
from secular norms. Once intellects the size of his and of Aristotle
taught that natural law justified slavery, the denial of the right of
women to vote, and other abominations but not any more. The Roman
Catholic Church has changed its mind over time regarding slavery, usury
and religious liberty, according to John T. Noonan, Jr. (See his
"Development in Moral Doctrine," Theological Studies 54 (December
1993), and The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching. We could add
capital punishment to this list. This is only to say that church
teachings and cultural norms have the marks of humanity, fallibility,
and relativity all over them, and some of them change over time. We can
only hope that with further reflection and experience our insights can
be purified and made more humane and in accordance with dictates of
justice and love. But it never ceases to be the case that we see
through a glass darkly as we walk by faith and not by perfect sight.
Friday, April 22, 2005
I was Wrong About Josef Ratzinger
OK, I was wrong about the new Pope.
I was glad at last to see pictures of Josef Ratzinger, whose name in
English is Joe Mousezapper. He is actually a nice-looking man with a
big smile, shy, generous, gracious. All these years I thought he was a
little old man with a hook nose and a pointed chin who lived in the
bowels of the Vatican (like The Phantom of the Opera), who never came
out except on dark, moonless nights. From these dark recesses with bats
flying around he sent missives of condemnation written with poison
around the world laying bare the heresies of people who said such nasty
that condoms were ethical to prevent unwanted kids and AIDS,
that the Pill gave women effective, responsible control over the number
of children they had and was morally OK,
that married men, like the Apostle Peter, could be good priests,
that women could dispense the body and blood as well as men,
that gay people were not morally degenerate perverts but real nice
people just like everybody else whose love was valid and whose erotic
deeds are part of the goodness of creation,
that in Latin America it was OK to learn from Marx and that sometimes
it might be a good thing to remove by force as a last resort cruel
dictators who killed people without mercy in order to get justice for
the poor and democracy for all, i. e., those despicable liberation
Well, I was wrong.
He is really a nice man who from now on from his comfy office in the
Vatican will send missives of condemnation wrapped in pastoral velvet
dipped in papal honey around the world laying bare the heresies of
people who say such nasty things as the aforementioned.
Friday, April 15, 2005
Liberal Churches Have Waning Influence in Public Life
Liberal Churches have little influence on public policy debates these
days. They are present but well-nigh impotent as a social force
affecting legislation for the poor. They are practically invisible when
TV news stations seek the voice of religion on hot current debates.
Take the recent Terri Schiavo case. Who were the spokespersons of
religion? They were hysterical fundamentalist zealots, reactionary
Catholic priests, ignoramuses with heat and no light. Pat Robertson's
statement that it was "judicial murder" is representative of the lack
of knowledge and insight attributed to religion. There was Jesse
Jackson, usually a sane voice for the down and out, right there with
the rest of the irrational chorus, ignorant of or ignoring law,
standard medical practice, and common sense that gives the right of
patients or their proxies the right to refuse or demand cessation of
Time Magazine recently featured the 25 most influential evangelicals.
Jim Wallis, who is a voice for the poor and for justice for all, was
not among them. When will we expect an issue devoted to the most
influential liberal Christians? Don't hold your breath. Many of the
featured evangelical do good work with projects to assist the poor and
suffering around the world. This is commendable, but the public voice
of the religious right, conservatives, evangelicals, whatever, is not
for a higher minimum wage, a demand for universal health insurance,
environmental sanity, and the like but against abortion, gay marriage,
abstinence only sex education, prayer in public schools, "God" in the
Pledge of Allegiance, and the like. The voice of Jesus on these issues
is mute, but he spoke plainly about meeting the needs of the poor,
healing the sick, and relieving suffering. Common sense should teach us
that these goals require political, public, and social approaches as
well as ministry to individuals.
Liberal churches have been caught up in internal debates that have
consumed much of what energy they have left. They have argued over the
role of women and whether homosexuals should be welcomed without
conditions or ordained. It should have been immediately forthcoming
that women and men, heterosexuals and homosexuals, are equal in every
ecclesiastical and other respects and should be so treated in church
and society. While these are inevitable and important, though
regrettable, debates, they do absolutely nothing to help the poor and
those without health insurance. They do nothing to raise wages for the
poor and working class. They do nothing to counteract the aim of the
Bush Administration to redistribute income away from the poor and the
middle class to the wealthy. They do nothing to combat the power of
huge corporations, polluters, and others to have their selfish way in
Consequently, there is no loud and effective public voice on matters of
global peace, social justice, and the suffering of the masses of people
around the world.
All are welcome to refute, modify, and amend as necessary. But I am
sure that the final outcome will not be far from the dismal
generalizations set forth here in sorrow.
Here is a response from a pastor and a former student of mine.
Is it possible that we have bought the rhetoric of the culture that
says we're all too busy and too fatigued for anything other than
minding our own store? Of all the obstacles progressive churches face,
finding congregational leaders (including pastors and pastoral
candidates) who give the church emphasis in their lives is the largest.
I think, too, that folks are weary of controversy and incivility. In
other words, perhaps liberals like it on the sidelines. __________
Here is my response, slightly modified for public display:
My dear friend,
I am very grateful to you for your response. I don't think it is
cynical at all. I think your points are telling, perceptive, and
accurate, especially about liberals on the sidelines.
I too am tired of controversy and incivility. Most of the incivility
shown to me and a good part of it in public debate is from those who
claim to love Jesus and live by the Bible.
I am old, tired, and impatient. Once I was young, enthusiastic,
idealistic, committed. I was pastor in the deep South in 1953-55, when
race was a hot topic. I bit my tongue when I heard crude racists
remarks from good Christians. I put passages in my sermons on race then
qualified them to keep from offending the segregationists (99.9% of the
congregation), although I offended them often enough as they reminded
me. I was patient trying to make a little gain now and then. At Mercer
I tempered the wind to the thin coats of the lambs sitting before me
trying to bring them into the modern world by teaching moderate
doctrines that their pastors should have taught them, for they were
trained, many of them, in the same biblical disciplines as I was. But
they kept silent to build bigger buildings, baptize more to get credit,
and to move up the church ladder of success and to get a big pastorate
in Atlanta. (Don't rock the boat was their motto). They knew better on
race but did nothing, nothing, in most cases to disturb the peace of
their congregations. The big social issue among Baptists in 1955 in my
Association was protesting the teaching of square dancing in the
schools. Straining at gnats, swallowing camels.
But now, _______, I am old, tired, and impatient. A college professor
said to me, the first time he heard a white man call a black man
brother was not in a church but in a labor union. A map of the South
showing the percentage of whites and blacks in each county taught me
that resistance to racial change varied with the percentage of blacks
in the county and state, regardless of church membership, which was
largely irrelevant. H. R. Niebuhr taught me that churches are divided
not only by doctrine but by race, geography, nationality, class, etc.
Liston Pope showed that the reaction of churches to strikers in
Gastonia, NC, in 1929 varied by class and culture.
All these things made a deep imprint on me. Yet I stayed in the church,
hoping and working. But then I find that about the same % of white
Protestants vote for Republican presidential candidates now as when I
began my ministry, so I despair. When Jesus confronts culture in the
churches, culture wins 80% of the time. I used to find hope in the 20%,
but now I am old, tired, and impatient.
I do not want to sit in a church and hear one more time what the Bible
says about homosexuality (most of it is awful) or arguments why
churches should affirm gay people. I don't want to make those arguments
myself one more time. I do so on my web site, which is a form of church
ministry for which I get grateful letters from gay people who rejoice
to hear a Baptist preacher defend them. How long, O lord, how long?
Progressive churches would do well to ask why some liberals are on the
sidelines. Maybe it is because some of them are old, tired, and
impatient, and some of them are young and don't think the church is
worth the effort.
Now you and I should sit down and talk about all this. Thanks once
again for taking the time to make a thoughtful and insightful response
to my latest outburst.
To one of my prized students from a teacher who admires what you are
doing at __________.
One more response from a former student.
He asked if I knew what a liberal was. Woe is me! I had to admit I had
violated one of my cardinal principles. In class I was a bear for
careful, rigorous definition of terms with detailed attention to
ambiguities, complexities, and nuances and limitations of same. What do
you mean by that word, was one of my trademarks.
My aim was always to keep a proper combination of head (thought), heart
(love), and gut (passion, feeling). Guts alone can forsake reason and
neglect love. In class, head was the organizing principle, in the
pulpit, heart, and in prayer, meditation, and in the psychiatrist's
office, gut. You always need a mix of the three appropriate to the
audience and occasion.
Now that I am old, tired, and impatient, I find the gut more in
evidence. Thus my reference to some of my tirades as outbursts. Nearly
40 years ago a psychiatrist told me I ought to practice deliberately
irritating people. Who me? Kind, gentle, non-confrontational, extremely
introverted, shy, timid as a mouse ME? Well, I have a message for that
doctor. Hey, remember when you said I ought to practice deliberately
annoying people, and I thought you were crazy? Well, doc, you ought to
see me now, and I have never felt better in my life!
Now for liberalism. I carelessly conflated a political and a religious
meaning. Politically, for me, a liberal is one biased in favor of the
poor, the oppressed, the weak, and the unjustly and needlessly
suffering. In religion a liberal for me is non-fundamentalist, open to
science, the historical-critical approach to the Bible, open-minded,
irenic in spirit, and a proponent of the social gospel. An evangelical
in theology can be liberal in politics, note, CAN BE! To aggravate the
confusion, sometimes I referred to churches and religion generally
under the aphorism that the best clue to a person's moral, social,
cultural, and political outlook is not church membership but zip code.
There was a lot of gut going in that little diatribe with offense to
thought and probably to love.
Tuesday, April 12, 2005
In exactly 89.463789% of the time, the best clue to the moral, social,
and ethical views of Christians is not the Bible but their zip code.
In approximately the same number of cases the clue to the beliefs and
practices of Roman Catholics is not what the church or the Pope teaches
but their zip code.
As a general rule, the higher the authority attributed to Scripture,
the more perverse the ethical views associated with it.
It is important to know what the Bible and the Koran teach. However,
for all practical purposes you can ignore all that. What really matters
-- and the only thing that finally matters -- is what Christians and
Muslims believe and do. For this you need to know their cultural and
family backgrounds, where they live, and their social location in their
Tuesday, April 05, 2005
Pope John Paul II: Blessing and Curse to the World
Amid all the hagiography accompanying the death of Pope John Paul II,
perhaps a more balanced assessment is in order. His legacy is mixed,
thoroughly ambiguous from my point of view. On war and peace, social
justice, capital punishment, special attention to the poor, the dignity
of all human beings, and the like, he was consistent and eloquent. On
matters of sexual morality, homosexuality, the role of women, a married
priesthood, abortion, birth control, and end of life issues, he was a
dogmatic traditionalist lost somewhere in the middle ages, totally out
of touch with the most humane and rational of policies for today’s
realities and needs.
He was pastoral, kind, and compassionate in dealing with individuals,
but he could be an angry monarch furious at the disobedience of his
subjects, who were expected to submit to his teachings and not think
for themselves. Subordination to his will, not collegial dialogue with
the faithful, was his insistent and consistent demand.
He was a tender, sympathetic pastor at the bedside of people, including
children, dying of AIDS in Africa. But his unrelenting condemnation of
the use of condoms even among married people is an inexcusable
violation of his own concern for the dignity of all human beings. It
represents a shameful triumph of rigid dogma over reason, experience,
and common sense. This point becomes even more vivid when we consider
that all decent means are needed to curb population growth in some of
the developing nations of the world.
Pope John Paul II was a stalwart foe of godless, materialistic
communism. He urged people and church to oppose tyranny in his native
Poland. It is widely acknowledged that his courage was a factor in
facilitating the growing deterioration of the Soviet Union. Thus did he
influence politics from above politics say his defenders. He also
pointed out the greed, materialism, and consumerism of advanced
capitalist societies -- warnings we would do well to heed but won’t.
But when liberation theologians in Latin America were calling for
political resistance to the excesses of capitalism in creating a wide
chasm between the rich and the poor, the Pope was instrumental in
destroying the movement because it was tainted with Marxist analysis of
material conditions and advocated violent resistance. He urged the
clergy to make peace with tyrannical right-wing despots with their
death squads. One of these terrorist groups gunned down one of his own.
In 1980 while he was saying Sunday mass, Archbishop Oscar Romero was
killed for his outspoken resistance to the inhumanity heaped upon the
poor people of El Salvador by their government. The Archbishop’s appeal
to the President Jimmy Carter went unheeded. The Reagan administration
entered into a disgraceful pact with the Pope to combat the liberation
movement and the evils of communism. The Pope gradually replaced those
in the Latin American hierarchy who sympathized with the liberation
movement. He replaced them with traditionalists more obedient to papal
directives. While he defended human rights and deplored the plight of
the poor, the church, the Pope said, was to be pastoral in this setting
not political and activist. He was so afraid of communism, to which he
urged resistance, at least indirectly or spiritually, that he, in
effect, tolerated an equally despicable right-wing dictatorship. He
angrily lectured a trembling, kneeling liberation priest and ordered
him to get along with the government. It was not that he approved of
despotic regimes but that he disapproved the way liberation theologians
wanted to deal with it. He wanted an approach and church leaders under
his control. He was generally against violence but supported,
ambiguously at least, the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Pope apologized to Jews and to women for past misconduct toward
them. He went to a mosque and to a synagogue and made contact with the
Orthodox Church. All of this is commendable, and he should be given
full credit for this candor and openness. However, he duly noted as
dogma dictates, that while individual members of the church had sinned,
“the Church” had not, since it transcends the vicissitudes and
frailties of merely human agents. This distinction between this inner
essence and its human representatives is lost on most of us. Is it
unfair to wonder if this demarcation is stressed more when something
bad is under discussion than when its representatives speak truth, do
good, and mediate divine grace?
One is not supposed to speak ill of the dead. But maybe when a person
of such fame, prestige, power, and importance is being evaluated, it
may be more important to witness to truth, as one sees it, than merely
to be nice. In this light it has to be said that Pope John Paul II was
both a blessing and a curse to the world.
For a similar perspective by a liberal Roman Catholic theologian, see:
Tuesday, May 25, 2004
Interpreting the Bible
The country folks I grew up with said, "You can prove anything by the
Bible." They were 99% right.
There is only one rule of hermeneutics: No Christian allows the Bible
when speaking as the authoritative Word of God for today to teach
anything he or she knows or believes strongly (for whatever reasons) to
be either untrue or immoral.
A thorough study reveals that 97.3459% of the time the Bible functions
as a mirror in which the interpreter finds the Bible to teach what that
interpreter believes. I made the study myself listening to
Bible-believing people for the last 70 years.
To ask, What would Jesus do? is the same as asking what conclusion do I
reach when I appeal to my highest ideals.
If is often true that the higher the authority attributed to Scripture,
the more perverse the ethics that result.
Tuesday, May 25, 2004
The opposition to gay marriage is not based on rational or moral
considerations. If it were, convincing reasons could be given in
support of the position. Three reasons in particular are typically
offered, but none is compelling. All fail to make the case.
1. Homosexuality and gay marriage are contrary to nature. Natural law
is supposed to provide a rational basis for morality that all competent
reasoners can recognize. A good theory, but it doesn't work, since
fully rational persons come to divergent conclusions. In the argument
over female suffrage, e. g., both the proponents and the opponents
appealed to "self-evident" natural law. The test of universality fails.
A. Natural law is always what somebody says it is. There is no
universal agreement today about what natural law teaches about gay
marriage or many other subjects. What is called natural law regarding
homosexuality is nothing more than a cultural belief or individual
conviction given transcendent authority by locating it in the very
moral structure of the universe and the mind of God. Some natural law
claims may indeed reflect an objective order of truth and value, but we
cannot be sure of that, and we cannot know for sure which claims, if
any, in fact do so. The claim that reason rightly employed will produce
universal claims cannot bear close scrutiny, since natural law changes
on particular issues with cultural consciousness and interpreters past
and present disagree about what natural law requires.
B. Natural law has been used in the past to defend what nearly
everybody now recognizes to be evil. Slavery, the denial of the vote to
women, and the segregation of the races were said in times past to be
in accordance with natural law. Opinions about what natural law
requires on particular subjects changes with changing cultural values.
The only way to get universal agreement is to stay at some very high
level of generality, e. g., that good is to be done and evil avoided.
Hence, the argument from natural law fails. It is no more than
somebody's current opinion.
2. Homosexuality is condemned by Scripture. So it is in Leviticus 20:13
and perhaps in Romans 1:26-27. The problem here is that those who find
compelling authority in particular passages must also affirm that gay
men be killed like the Leviticus passage says, that men can sell their
daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7)and that disobedient sons should be
stoned to death (Deut. 21:18-21. Slavery is nowhere condemned in the
Bible, and is everywhere assumed. Those who condemn homosexuality use
the supportive texts that are available but conveniently ignore other
passages that would require them to do things that are abhorrent to
them and most everybody else. There is a lot of bad morality in
specific passages. Biblical morality must be judged by what is highest
and best in its witness. Paul's best advice was given in Romans 13:8-10
and I Corinthians 6:12. Love of neighbor fulfills the law, and all
things are permitted that are not harmful and that are helpful.
Responsible same-sex love harms no one; it is helpful for those who
find fulfillment in it; and it is the fulfillment of the law of love.
3. Gay sex and marriage are harmful to society. No good reason can be
given to justify this claim. Heterosexual marriage could go on as
always. No one would be harmed, and gay people would be greatly
benefitted. What are the bad consequences that would follow? Who would
be hurt? What would be lost that is worth preserving? I have yet to see
a persuasive argument that individuals or society as a whole would
harmed. What we need is a change of attitude, thinking, and law.
Instead of persuasive reasons, what we get are ungrounded assertions,
dogmatic pronouncements, taboo, visceral reactions based on upbringing,
cultural traditions, bad religion, and the like, none of which will
stand rational scrutiny in light of the highest moral principles of
reason and Scripture.
For a more detailed version of these ideas, see:
Friday, May 21, 2004
Misunderstandings of Religion and Politics
Comments in the media on the relation of religion and politics
frequently betray ignorance, prejudice, and confusion. Many journalists
think there are only two options:
1. faith dictates political policies.
2. faith is a private matter and has no implications for political
E. J. Dionne, Jr., in his op-ed piece "Kerry and his church" (The
Washington Post, May 4, 2004), refers, to John Kennedy's statement that
his faith would have no effect on how he governed. This is not Dionne's
position, but Kennedy is widely quoted as having the right idea.
Andrew Sullivan, in Time (May 24, 94), suggests that John Kerry
has to convince the Catholic Church that he is not “too American, I
mean in the sense that religious faith is a personal matter, that it
can be sealed off from public life, that it doesn’t dictate political
views on any one issue or another.” Being American implies on this view
a total divorce of faith and politics.
Brian Urquhart, in The New York Review of Books (June 10, 2004),
speaking of President Bush’s frequent use of religious language in
public discourse, raises the question of “where, in public, personal
faith should stop and national leadership begin,” as if the two were
opposites on a continuum, so that pure national leadership would
totally exclude personal faith.
For the secular purists, the second is the American way. Many suspect
the first is a violation of church and state. There is a third
alternative that is usually ignored. It can be stated as follows:
3. Religious faith has implications for politics, (the truth in 1
missed in 2.) but in our diverse society of many faiths and no faith,
these implications should be stated, not in the religious terms of a
particular denomination (the perversion of 1) but translated into the
values found in the secular American tradition (the truth in 2).
Position 2 implies that persons of faith must get their political
values someplace other than their faith. The truth in 2 is that in a
pluralistic society like ours politicians should not use the language
of a particular religion or denomination. Moreover, religious doctrine
as such has no authority in the political arena. The appeal must be to
common values resident our secular history and culture. If politicians
do use religiously-based language, it may be bad practice, but it is
not a violation of church and state.
Some elaboration may be helpful, and while I speak only on Christians,
the same would hold true for Jews, Muslims, and others. Christians have
membership in two communities. They are believers in the church and
citizens in the world. As church members Christians speak theologically
in the language their faith provides them. As American citizens they
speak the secular language provided by the American political
tradition. When they assume one membership, the other is presupposed,
and usually there is no reason to make the distinction. They form an
organic whole. In ordinary life we move easily between the two sets of
language and mix them constantly in ways that cause no confusion.
However, when a Christian formally enters the political realm in our
pluralistic society, other considerations come into play. Christians
must remain true to their faith but speak to people of diverse
religious persuasions as well as to pure secularists. Here is how it
Faith has moral, social, and political implications. In church,
believers can deal with these implications in religious terms. As
citizens in the public sphere, they will speak of these implications in
the language of the secular American political tradition as found in
the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and other founding
documents, writings, presidential speeches, Supreme Court decisions,
and so on. They can even quote Jesus, the prophets and the apostles on
the campaign trail as cultural figures of our past with sound ideas and
values but not, as such, authoritative for secular politics.
The point is that Christian politicians do (should) not say that faith
is a purely private matter and does not influence their politics in any
way. What a travesty that would be! And it should provide more than a
vague moral inspiration to do good things for people. They should say
(or at least know in their hearts) that their faith is presupposed in
all they say and do, but in politics they will use the language of the
American tradition (which does contain some God language after all) to
express the political implications of their private religion. As
believers they know (or should) that Christian love and biblical
justice, e. g., require universal health care, but they will advocate
for it in the public sphere not in the language of Jesus, the prophets,
and the apostles but submit that it will facilitate life, liberty, and
the pursuit of happiness, will do justice for all, enhance equality,
and promote the common welfare in accordance with American ideals.
The notion that faith is a purely private matter and contributes
nothing but a moral urge to do what is right and just is an
impoverished, insipid view of things. It abstracts faith from the whole
of life. It also leaves open the question of where the candidate with a
politically irrelevant faith does get his/her ideas, values, and
convictions. They come from somewhere. It is legitimate to insist that
a candidate must not claim that her/his proposals are valid because the
Pope, the Bible, or religious dogma authorizes them and for that reason
alone. If someone enters the public arena, the political and policy
implications of that personal faith should embody the values of the
secular American tradition and be stated in the language that heritage
provides. Theoretically, it may be permissible for believers to
argue for a political policy in the language of their faith, but
pragmatically, I think my suggestion is better. There is enough
congruity between Christian political ethics and the highest ideals of
American history to make my proposal work. Christians may, of course,
reasonably differ on what a detailed elaboration of Christian social
ethics will contain.
Sunday, May 16, 2004
Kennedy and His Church
President Kennedy has been much and often praised lately because he
indicated that religion was a private matter and would not affect his
presidential decision making. It is the right way to relate religion
and politics say the commentators. I think Kennedy's position is
profoundly ambiguous and deeply flawed.
Speaking to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960 at a
time when his Catholicism had raised questions about his full adherence
to the separation of church and state, John F. Kennedy said that
church-state issues were not the most important matters. The real
concerns were "the hungry children I saw in West Virginia, the old
people who cannot pay their doctor bills, the families forced to give
up their farms -- an America with too many slums, with too few
schools." These "are not religious issues -- for war and hunger and
ignorance and despair know no religious barriers." He asserted that
religion is a private matter. He went on to assure the Baptists in this
Whatever issues may come before me as President
– on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other
subject – I will make my decision . . . in accordance with what
my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard
to outside religious pressures or dictates.
To steal from Immanuel Kant, we have here a "nest of dialectical
difficulties." Let us analyze these assertions one by one.
1. Kennedy says hunger, health care, war, and the like are not
religious issues because they "know no religious barriers." If he means
that all great religions urge care and compassion for the needy, that
is true. Perhaps he means also that non-religious people may be in
favor of feeding the hungry. In any case, that does not mean that they
are "not religious issues." Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism all
think they are. Jesus certainly thought feeding the hungry was central
to faith in God. Matthew 25:31-46 makes it clear that one's eternal
destiny depends on just such things.
2. Kennedy further states that religion is "a private matter." If he
means that religion is a matter of inward piety and love of God in the
hearts of individual persons, that cannot be disputed. But that does
not mean that trust in God has no essential connection with morality,
social ethics, or politics. Inward, private piety has ethical and
social consequences. Individual religion has political implications.
The prophets of Israel left no doubt about that.
3. Finally, Kennedy says that he will be guided by his own conscience
and that he will not be dictated to by religious authorities. If he
means that he will not let Catholic Bishops or the Pope or church dogma
dictate his political choices, that is worthy and commendable. But we
are entitled to ask what informs his conscience. If it is not in some
significant way guided by his religion, then he has some explaining to
do about what does inform his politics. Morality and social ethics rest
on something, depend on some set of assumptions about right and wrong,
good and evil. If his conscience is not guided at all by his religion,
then we need to ask what kind of religion he has or is referring to. It
does not sound like the Roman Catholic Christianity he professes to
believe. Kennedy says he will be guided by what his conscience tells
him is the "national interest." But is the national interest totally
devoid of moral considerations? I hope not.
Kennedy wants to assert his unqualified belief in the separation of
church and state, but he gets tripped up by seeming to confuse this
with religion and politics. Given the setting, it may be that the main
point he wanted to make was his independence of church authorities and
Catholic dogma in governing the country. Perhaps he feared that any
mention of a connection between his religious faith and his moral
commitments might intensify the problem he was trying to get out of the
way. Nevertheless, the statements quoted show little understanding of
the complex relation between faith, conscience, morality, and social
ethics. They show no awareness that in biblical religion ones relation
to God has consequences for how we treat other people, especially the
weak, the outcasts, and the sick and hungry. In our time and society
that necessarily has a political dimension, since we have to ask what
we can do together as a nation to help the helpless, seek peace among
nations, and promote justice for all. A purely private, inward piety
that does not have social and political implications is not one, I
hope, that upon reflection Mr. Kennedy would want to defend.
The missing ingredient, I would urge, is that he should acknowledge
that his religion has political consequence but that he would express
the implications of his private faith in language and values located in
secular American history and traditions, especially those articulated
in the founding documents. He should state them as American ideas and
ideals not in theological or religious or Catholic terms. This assumes,
of course, that there is sufficient congruity between Christian faith
and secular American ideals to allow this proposition to work. I assert
that there is. In fact, one of the sources of the values enshrined in
the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence is the Bible.
These simple distinctions and clarifications are absent in most
politicians and journalists. They have simplistic views that will not
stand close scrutiny in terms of a sophisticated and defensible
understanding of the relation of private religious faith to public
Tuesday, May 04, 2004
John Kerry and his Church
When John Kerry was asked by The Interfaith Alliance about the relation
of religious faith to political decision-making, he made a good
statement. Faith, he said, is "your guidepost. . . your moral compass."
We must do whatever "make sense to everybody that allows for the full
diversity of our country, doesn't speak to one particular religion or
one particular belief, but brings people together around a set of
values that we share as a nation." Your moral compass is behind what
"you transfer into policy, without in fact talking about it every
minute and translating it into whatever your article of faith is."
I agree with Kerry, although I would put it a little differently.
Religious faith has political implications. But those implications
should be translated into language that arises out of secular American
history and tradition, especially the founding documents. They should
be advocated, not because the Bible, the Pope, or the church says so,
but because they represent authentic American values. Given Roman
Catholic pressure on him to oppose abortion, the question for John
Kerry is whether he will allow his church to dictate his views or
whether he will make his own translation of faith into the language of
American tradition. Kerry should support pro-choice because it promotes
liberty, justice, and the common welfare and is an implication of his
religious faith as he interprets it. The other possibility, of course,
is that his position on abortion is a matter of pure political
expediency! I am not at all suggesting that, although he could not run
as a Democrat if he capitulated to the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
Tuesday, May 04, 2004
Mario Cuomo and his Church
The most profound understanding of the relation of religion and
politics I know of is found in a speech by Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York
in an address at the University of Notre Dame September 13, 1984. He
was dealing with the question as to whether he as a Catholic was bound
to adopt a position against abortion in accordance with the teachings
of the church. His answer was that he was not necessarily bound to do
Our public morality, then – the moral standards we
maintain for everyone, not just the ones we insist on in our private
lives – depends on a consensus view of right and wrong. The values
derived from religious belief will not – and should not – be accepted
as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the
pluralistic community at large, by consensus. That those values happen
to be religious values does not deny them acceptability as a part of
this consensus. But it does not require their acceptability, either.
. . . the question whether to engage the political
system in a struggle to have it adopt certain articles of our belief as
part of public morality is not a matter of doctrine: it is a matter of
prudential political judgment.
Yes, we create our public morality through consensus
and in this country that consensus reflects to some extent religious
values of a great majority of Americans. But “no,” all religiously
based values don’t have an a priori place in our public morality. The
community must decide if what is being proposed would be better left to
private discretion than public policy; whether it restricts freedom,
and if so to what end, to whose benefit; whether it will produce a good
or bad result; whether overall it will help the community or merely
1. Cuomo clearly recognizes that church and state is not the same
problem as religion and politics.
2. He recognizes that religiously-based values have a legitimate place
in public political discourse, but they have no privileged status since
we have to find a moral consensus in a pluralistic society that
includes a variety of religious belief and unbelief.
3. Political policies must be judged by whether they are best for the
society as a whole, whether they promote peace, justice, freedom, and
equality for all, not by whether they have religious sanction in some
specific religion or denomination.
4. Christians as citizens and as public officials have to make an
attempt to balance the moral truths they hold against political
realities. Pragmatic judgments must be made which may require a
compromise of the personal morality they espouse is persons of faith.
Monday, April 26, 2004
Confusion about Religion and Politics
The issue of church and state is not the same as religion and politics.
Confusion on this point is nearly universal among journalists and
politicians alike. Church and state has to do with institutions and
practices. Here separation is the rule. Religion and politics has to do
with the relationship between personal faith and its political
expression. In their confusion, many think that separation is the rule
here too. Religion, they think, is a purely private, inward matter and
has no relationship to politics beyond inspiring a vague moral urge to
do good things for people. There is much more to it than that for the
serious religious person. Religion is a personal matter, but it also
has consequences for social policy beyond mere inspiration. Here is
where things get complicated. The truth in the separation position is
that the political implications of religious faith should not be
expressed in the vocabulary peculiar to a particular religious
tradition but should be translated into language found in American
history and tradition, especially in the founding documents. Christians
in the political realm should not appeal to the Bible, Jesus, the Pope,
or any sectarian dogma or value. As such, religious beliefs have no
secular authority, are not a legitimate appeal in political discourse
in the public realm. Christians, Jews, and Muslims should not argue
politically for universal health care by appealing to the Hebrew or
Christian Scriptures or the Koran but support it because it would
contribute to liberty, equality, and justice for all, would promote the
general welfare, enlarge the common good. Hence, personal religion can
be expressed legitimately in the public and political arena if its
peculiar theological vocabulary is translated into language common to
all Americans as defined by our secular history, moral traditions, and
Sunday, 18 April 2004
How to Relate Religious Faith to Politics: Jesus and Jefferson
1. Religion and politics is not the same issue as church and state. 2.
We must distinguish between religious faith and its political
implications. 3. It is legitimate for citizens express the social
ideals and principles rooted in their religious faith in the political
arena, but they should express them in language and values located in
secular American history and traditions, especially those articulated
in the founding documents.
Church and State
The problem of church and state has to do with institutions and
practices. Neither must trespass the boundaries that define its
legitimate sphere of action. Here the concept of separation is valid.
Religion and Politics
Religion and politics has to do with two spheres of activities in the
life of the same persons. Citizens who belong to religious groups are
also members of the secular society, and this dual association
generates complications. Religious beliefs have moral and social
implications, and it is appropriate for people of faith to express
these through their activities as citizens in the political order. The
fact that ethical convictions are rooted in religious faith does not
disqualify them from the political realm. However, they do not have
secular validity merely because they are thought by their exponents to
be religiously authorized. They must be argued for in appropriate
social and political terms in harmony with national values.
1. It is sometimes said that it is all right for religious people to
have private beliefs about social and political issues, but it is not
appropriate for them to try to seek legislation that imposes them on
everybody else. This simplistic notion fails to recognize that all
attempts to get laws passed are efforts to impose the beliefs of some
on everybody, since not many laws have universal consent.
2. Every belief that citizens try to express politically is rooted in
some philosophy or religion or some set of assumptions about society
and its well-being and, if pressed far enough, about the ultimate
nature of things. Ethical convictions do not come from out of nowhere.
Reason and conscience are informed by something that is foundational
3. Ideally and in principle, religious believers should not seek to get
laws passed on religious grounds but because they express the values of
the secular society as defined by its founding documents and traditions
as they have come to be embedded in the common life.
4. A two-sided critique is required. Against religious people who
explicitly support political policies on religious grounds peculiar to
a particular denomination (the Bible, the Pope, church doctrine, and
the like), we must insist that our government does not rest as such on
the principles of particular religions, denominations, or sects. In
this sense, we are a secular state. Against some secular zealots we
must insist that religious people have as much right to express the
social and ethical implications of their faith in political terms as
they have to express their non-religious or atheist philosophies.
5. In practical terms, however, if believers actually convince other
voters to support legislation because the Bible, the Pope, or church
doctrine mandates it, not much can be done about it except to make an
effort to persuade citizens there is a better way.
6. Churches must determine on the basis of their polity and doctrine
whether it is legitimate or wise for a church official, congregation,
or Denominational body to endorse a particular policy or candidate. But
the state must determine whether partisan political activities engaged
in officially by religious institutions jeopardize their tax exemption,
since it then becomes a matter of church and state.
For other essays in theology and
ethics, see my web homepage:
There you will find links to numerous other essays. I
invite comments to to:
Please remove * in my e-mail address before sending. The *
was added to thwart spammers. Thank you.
My E-Mail Address
Presently, the following essays
on theological and ethical topics
Having a Web site is becoming a family enterprise. First to have a Page
was my son.
The latest entry is that of my son-in-law and daughter.Ric Brown
These sites are very different, but both are creative,imaginative
productions. They would welcome a visit.
Please remove * in my e-mail address before sending. The * was added to thwart spammers.
My E-Mail Address
Visitors since Friday, August 5, 2005
Powered by counter.bloke.com
Created Friday, August 5, 2005.