Blogs 2004-2007,Part I

 Kenneth Cauthen

Copyright ©  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 damaging revisions.

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 theological vision.

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 threatened?

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 all!"


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 theological claims.

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.
Larry Greenfield

To Larry:
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 Great.)

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. Yaaaaawwwwwwn!

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 forgive him.

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 homosexuality.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Debate on Clergy Housing Deduction
Entries appear in chronological order.
Dear Clergy,
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?

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 GEORGIA
Kenneth Dean, Sr.

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 $59,479.

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
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 housing expenses.

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 this point.

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 persons.

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 many years."

1970 court decision SC of USA upholding tax exemption of church property. 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 life.

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 and state?

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 convictions.

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 century.

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 Thanksgiving.

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 prefer.

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 by Christians.

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 Original Sin
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 new ones.

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 interests.

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 believe"!
 (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 necessity.

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 everything else.

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 itself!

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 science itself.

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 says:

"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 Constitution.

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 same reason.

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 as Creator-King.

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 life.

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 elite.

See the following for a summary of numerous recent polls on the subject.

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 government.

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 Science"?
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 methods.

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 inquiry.

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 existentially adequate.

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 realized.

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 itself.

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 good.

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 relationships.

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 conduct.

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. 14:8).

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 doing.

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 such ministry.

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 much more.

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 things as:

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 theologians.

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 life-sustaining measures.

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 public policy.

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. __________ Signed _______

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
Quasi-Acerbic Oddities
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 own society.

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
Gay Marriage
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. Problems abound:

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. Duh!

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 decision-making.

Some examples:

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 should go.

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 way:

    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 political policy.

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 so.

    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.

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 social values.

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 for both.

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:

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My E-Mail Address

Presently, the following essays on theological and ethical topics are available:
About the Author
A List of my Books
Pope John Paul II: Blessing and Curse to the World
 Outrages of the Schiavo Case
Final Reflections on the Terri Schiavo Case
Liberal Church as Impotent Political Force
 Interpreting the Bible Today
 The Authority of the Bible
 Using the Bible with Integrity
 Theology as Religious Belief
 What I Believe
 Natural Law and Moral Relativism
 What is Truth -- and Does it Matter?
 A Doctrine of God (Short Version)
 A Doctrine of God (Long Version)
Trinity: God, Christ, Spirit
 God as Masculine and Feminine
 Theodicy: the Problem of Evil
 Theodicy: A Heterodox Alternative
 The Many Faces of Evil
 A Contemporary Christology
 Christ and Christians:
A Critique of Nieburhr's Christ and Culture
 The Incompatibility of Christianity and Civilization.
Christian Ethics

Process Christian Ethics

The Ethics of Belief

Relativism, Morality, Belief
Relating Jesus to Jefferson
 Liberation Themes in Country Music
Liberation Themes in White Southerners
Southern Tragedy
Capital Punishment
Physician Assisted Suicide
Prescription Drugs and the Little Red Hen
  Bio-Ethical Decision Making
Drug Policy
Homosexuality: Same Sex Love is OK
Theology and Ecology
Religion and Politics
Science and Theology
Church and State
A Short Biographical Sketch

For an updated version of Mother Goose for the modern age, visit
Mother Goose Goes Electronic

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Nancy Cauthen

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