Does Christianity Require Monarchy?

Adam Lee does well to remind all of us that the founding of this country was certainly and deliberately secular.

He is also right that the idea of a Republic would have been strange to many readers of scripture.  But believers need not agree that they must believe that the church, or scripture, only knows biblical theocracy.  Most Christians and Catholics would not conflate  A “Christian Nation”  with biblical culture.    Biblical understandings of blood, and the ambiguous stories behind the Israelite monarchy’s establishment, do not require that a Christian should support a kingship model of government, the “biblical theocracy” Lee describes.   The closer Christian view is: do the best with what you’re given, but struggle for peace.  Continue reading

On “cherry-picking” the faith

Recently, the Atheist Greta Christina in the progressive magazine Alternet,  offered another complaint about us theologically minded progressives.   Her argument:  we “cherry-pick,” and we’re not allowed to.  Her reason:  because there is no God.

Now I admit, I’ve heard this  before.  Traditionalist Catholics call some of us “cafeteria catholics.”  They call Episcopalians, “catholic-lite.”  It’s meant to be insulting, but it merely exposes a broad misunderstanding of the tradition and how it was actually lived. Continue reading

The Purpose of Ecumenicism

Greta Christina, a sex and atheism blogger at Alternet, a progressive newsfilter to which I subscribe, condemns ecumenicism.

I admit, I almost always get upset at her characterizations about religion.  I find them pedestrian and shallow (her sex writing and atheist-positive writing I find more interesting).   But for her, a priest, rabbi and a minister getting together isn’t a joke.  It’s offensive.  In her last essay in alternet, she describes why interfaith gatherings drive her crazy.

I think she needs to expand her circle of religious friends a bit.

Granted, I wonder if part of the reason she’s come to her views and encountered angry progressives, is because she does most of her work over the internet.  I hope not.  The internet is the last place I’d begin my research on churches, church culture, or even Christians.    I myself have spoken poorly, hastily, in this electronic medium.

But for her, an interfaith gathering seems is primarily to exclude especially, of those who lack faith.  But I think this is a simple view of the kinds of gatherings that occur, and what they are for.

There are many reasons people of different faiths gather.  Sometimes they are to diminish bigotry of other particular groups.  They may be to challenge the state on political issues, such as immigration, abortion rights, or better schools. Sometimes they are discussion sections.  Still other times they are opportunities for religious people to get to know other religious people, and to learn about other faiths.   But they fundamentally gather to pay homage to the civic religion, that of the liberal state.  This is one reason many interfaith groups do not have many evangelicals or Roman Catholics – they have different understandings of the faithful’s relationship to state power.

Greta seems to wonder what we’re actually doing if we’re not talking about identity, difference and theology.

The purpose of interfaith dialogue becomes not to convert, but to give each other legitimacy in an overwhelmingly secular, public, sphere.   Interfaith dialogue also does not always seek to paper over differences, but may diminish the fear of difference.

As someone in the religion industry, a member of a religious institution, one that participates in ecumenicism, I can understand her feeling of being excluded.  Just as a group of Democrats might not want to invite Sarah Palin to a dinner party, we generally are not interested in bringing an atheist to a gathering of religious figures.   It’s not because we wouldn’t want to get into a dialogue.  It’s because she doesn’t quite understand what we’re doing by collaborating.  We’re not thinking about atheism or God.  We’re thinking about how we, as religious communities, can get along.  This has some merit, even if it doesn’t fit the neat vision that religious communities must necessarily be at each others’ throats.

Greta complains that we never ask, “but is it true?”  Because for her, the only relevant question is whether God exists or not.  This is the ONLY truth that she respects.    The problem is that most of us aren’t asking those questions.  We’re asking questions about the practical issues that face our communities.  We’re comparing notes, talking and collaborating.   We know that prayer can make people feel better; people enjoy and benefit from the community of church; people like to sing; and priests care for people.   Is it always a perfect community?  Of course not.  Is it true?  Well – what’s the question?

Furthermore, must interfaith groups always exclude atheists?  Not necessarily. For two years, the coordinator of the White Plains Religious Leaders was the moderator of the Ethical Culture society.  Sometimes he was clearly confused by some of us.  He would say, “for those of us without a revealed tradition, we look at this differently.”   If anything he pitied us, yet it was from a position of openness, humility and patience.  He didn’t believe the bible was true, nor did he believe in God.  But he participated in the fellowship.  I suspect it it doesn’t fit her narrative that religions are necessarily violent, stupefying, and incapable of engaging non-theistic traditions.

Greta ends with a little note about talking about religion at a dinner party.  For us religious believers, when we get together, we’re sharing a little of each others spiritual “food.”  We don’t necessarily all use the same ingredients, and we’re committed to our personal culinary tradition, but we acknowledge there’s a lot of different food out there.  And then there’s one person who really hates everything that all of us chefs make.  Sometimes we really don’t want the restaurant critic around when we’re sharing war stories.

There’s a way of respecting persons without agreeing with another person’s beliefs.  I had a friend I’d meet at a bar occasionally with whom I’d discuss women and British Politics.  We’d reach a pause and he’d suddenly say, “you realize there’s no God, right?”  I’d say “who cares?” And then we’d laugh.  Why? Because he’d just make this statement completely out of context.  We’d be having a beer, and he just wanted to remind me that’s how he felt for no reason.    He didn’t believe what I believed.  But I also never thought he didn’t respect me.   We didn’t convert each other, but enjoyed the company of friends.

I agree that some atheism in the public sphere would be much more interesting. Atheists may be moral, humane, just and precise in their thinking.  They may also be immoral, bigoted, nasty and fuzzy as well.  Just as she may not that one’s religion is delinked from being ethical, the non-religious cannot claim their own moral superiority.  Still, there are ways Christians can engage atheists without feeling defensive.

Admittedly, I’ve been perplexed by the idea that atheists are a persecuted minority.  Atheists who want to serve in the public would have to be willing represent the interests of churches simply because because they are constituents. It’s one perspective to have a nontheistic view of the world.  It’s another to take a public position against churches.  In those cases, churches aren’t being bigoted against atheists; they’re defending their interests.  Atheists who defend the religious would may find themselves placed in a different category than those who maintain the moral superiority of their world view.

It would be nice if Christians were nicer on the internet; a little less defensive and more interested in being good examples of healthy, loving, magnanimous, truth telling individuals.   It’s unfortunate that she’s faced some bizarre vitriol.  From my perspective, it’s the nature of the medium.

I’m also a member of Rotary, where we have an invocation every meeting.  There are atheists who are members.  When they are invited to give the invocation, they do so without any reference to God.  They offer their own blessing and wonder in the natural world.  And they do so with integrity.  But what they don’t do is say, at that time, “you’ve all been lied to.”  Instead, they speak the truth, from their heart, not as evangelists, but as examples.

Non-believers and Christians need not fear one another, but they may need to learn each others’ language, and treat them with charity, if not credulity.  Perhaps we cannot respect that sort of charity from some atheists; but it nonetheless merits a Christian who can maintain their magnanimity when being confronted by the incredulous.

Gervais has an opinion about something

Ricky Gervais recently penned a little Christmas message in the Wall Street Journal.  He’s the creator of the show “The Office” and a talented comedian. I’m a fan.

In it, he declares he’s an atheist.   And Merry Christmas.

It’s the holidays.  We want to sell a few papers, and everyone wants to know what celebrities think about God.  For every Christmas, the culture wars get a little heated up, fundamentalists and atheists slogging mud at each other, pained at each other’s existence, and the conflict is, in itself, entertaining.  Even recently, atheists have organized to buy advertising on buses and conservative Christians have gotten offended.

I’m for more atheism in the public sphere.  Most of my friends outside of the church are non-believers.  A few of my friends IN the church are non-believers. Few have a deep historical and theological understanding, but for most of them, church is not where they are, or where they’re friends are.

At one time there was greater public dialogue.  Our founding fathers were far more open about religious faith.  They were generally not believers in the sense most atheists critique “belief.”  They had far more honest conversations about the role of religion and religious institutions in society.   In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, some atheists had great popularity.   And religion was not aways a part of political conversation.  It was not always demanded of our presidents before Jimmy Carter.  It may have been the language of civil society, but only a few of our presidents have been religious in any serious sense of the word.  Atheists were rarely persecuted in any serious sense; but they may have joined churches.

And granted, I’m embarrassed just considering conversations between Christians and Atheists. I pity the Christian, eager to please and convert; I empathize with the atheist, surrounded by idiots and hypocrites, insisting on using an obscure language created somewhere on the Alien Planet of the Past.   I think there are plenty of different ways to have conversations about religion and faith, but usually they end up being variations of “you’re an idiot” vs “you have no soul.”

Nonetheless, I was disappointed.  It wasn’t that Gervais had once loved Jesus and then abandoned him at the age of at eight.  Hell, I first gave him up when I was four.  The bible itself for me was a weird, incomprehensible document,  confused on the number of animals in the ark or where Jesus was really from.   When I asked my father about God and Jesus, he gave me a book about Greek myths.   At nine, I confronted a Methodist pastor, a friend of my Atheist father, about dinosaurs.  “Do you really believe that the earth was created in six days?”  After all, I knew better.  The pastor, by the nature of his profession, an idiot.   He came back with “It’s a story,” he said.  “I believe in Dinosaurs also….  It’s a story that we interpret.”  But there he was – a living breathing thinking Christian.

I didn’t give up my atheism there, but realized that I was doing a grave disservice to myself if I thought that religious people were as simple as Gervais presumes.

In plenty of churches, people don’t believe in a God that looks like the God he describes.   So when Gervais argues we’re more like atheists, I wonder if he has read the pagans who accused Christians of precisely this:  our God was more like no-God than the imperial God.    Who are the clergy and lay people who believe in an anthropomorphic God?  No clergy I know; and my unscientific internal polls of my own lay people indicate they’re much more skeptical than your average Ayn Rand reader.

God made him an atheist?  Well, yes.  That’s actually the way Christians have typically described faith – as a “gift.”   It’s the challenge inherited from both Calvinism and the idea of the “invisible church.” His funny retort has been a theological response to understand unbelief.

He compares science’s gifts over the comforts of religion; identifies of cultural taboo with religious creed.  All trite; and all ignorant.  Not even a passing understanding of the church’s contribution to astronomy; or it’s doctrinal antagonism toward folk superstitions.   I don’t need every atheist to get the history right, but it remains disappointing when someone who loves truth can’t get his own facts straight and seems to believe that the content of religion is found mainly in the propositions people make about their faith.  Most clergy would cheer his brief proclamation of the beauties of truth.

Religious people do not oppose evolution.  We enjoy “imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer and pizza.”    A few of us are unimaginitive puppets without heart or joy who won’t watch a Lions game at the local pub.  But Jesus at the right hand of the Father is a place in our imagination that refers to a particular understanding of relationships; we haven’t given up on free will as a way of explaining evil; and we’ve got some pretty great music.   Our heaven is like a wedding feast.  We also had something to do with making beer and wine. Just a little homework, Ricky, and you’ll find that boozing and Godding have a long, intimate history.  Some would argue that without religious institutions, we’d be far more sober than we’d enjoy.

His pedestrian confusion of faith and the afterlife confirms he knows only one sort of believer.  How many mainline Christians actually believe in fire and brimstone?   I asked my senior posse that question a couple years ago.   Not one of them did, although they did express a wish that some people would go there.   They were much closer to the traditional annihilationist conception of hell without any formal classes in theology.  They had just spent probably 10 minutes more time thinking about the question than Gervais.

And last, I just wish he were funny.  But perhaps this is an improvement.  Atheist comedians can now be as unfunny and thoughtless as all the other pundits.  I guess I’m going to have to lower my standards.

But until then, I’m sticking with Woody Allen.

A Couple Thoughts on Belief

Greta Christina is a sex-positive writer and atheist.  I get sent her writings through the list-serve Alternet, which is a progressive news portal.

Greta represents, in my view, the casual atheism of well read, urbane liberals.    Smart and usually thoughtful, they rightly rail with passion about injustice, and are particularly attentive when it comes to the crimes of the church.  They see the abuse that happens in religious communities and they want it to stop.  Religion, for them, is deception, arrogance and power.

I will admit that, predictably, I find her understanding of religion and belief remarkably shallow.  She offers a monistic view of the system of explanation called SCIENCE, and literal, mechanical understanding of Truth.   For this reason, she is positively baffled by what she considers religious behavior.  Granted, I feel the same bafflement when watching most music videos. Continue reading

Atheists and Public Office

Rob Boston reports the story of a North Carolina councilman, Cecil Bothwell, who some local politicians would like to remove.  He’s an atheist.  There is also a legal reason to do so.  Being an atheist, and a public servant, is against the law.

This law should also be offensive to believers.

I understand the argument:  there is a generally held belief about believers that atheism cannot provide a general account of the common good.  I don’t think it is a bad argument, but it is empirically wrong, if deductively plausible.  Religious people should be wary of such requirements for the simple reason is that it makes politicians hypocrites and liars.

Most politicians are opportunistic in their belief.  There are plenty of ultra right wing conservative Christian politicians who have no faith, but find it useful to proclaim it.  Announcing one’s faith says “I’m on your team.”    S/he may say they don’t believe in evolution but insist on requiring their own kids take science classes.  They still want their children to go to a secular, private, ivy schools.

Religious requirements make politicians liars.

Religious affiliation is, after all, a low cost marker.  It doesn’t require commitment; it doesn’t require sacrifice.  Just parrot the right things, and the credulous will believe you.

So when an atheist runs for office we should commend them for their honesty, and evaluate them on their politics.

And that’s actually the real issue.

The issue is not, in my view, about his beliefs.  If he had been an atheist who believed in conservative politics, would there have been such an outrage?  Chances are he would have been a bit quieter, perhaps, but I doubt politicians would be aggressively challenging him.  What has happened, alas, is that non-belief becomes an identifier for progressive politics.  It need not be that way, of course.  There are lots of libertarians and conservatives who have no truck with religious institutions, traditions or thought.

The mistake that we make is to assume that this issue is primarily about belief.  It is more about how progressive politics will get framed, challenging the standard narratives of political discourse.  If this creates more honesty, then we should welcome it.  But it’s not first about religion; its about politics.  We need more truthfulness in institutions, and should commend those who can speak about their religious allegiances, or non-allegiances, without fear of judgment.

Deliver Us From Evil

Greta Christina has a review of the movie.

Often I get visitors from the Roman Catholic Church. Many of them have been in congregations where priests have, in some way, abused their authority. A local pastor had a gambling addiction; the bishop had an affair; a priest in Croton had molested young boys. They say to me, “I love God and the church. I just can’t be in that family any more.”

Andrew Greeley once argued that the fundamental problem is pride and secrecy. The priests don’t listen to the people; the bishops don’t listen to their priests, and the holy see doesn’t even listen to its bishops. People can report to priests; priests can report to the church, but as long as the imperial church places itself above the rule of the state, without being held accountable, it will continue to harm people and open itself to further disaster.

In the early 1940’s a priest in my current church exposed himself to a young boy. He argued it was “sex education.” There was a local controversy. The wardens and half the vestry wanted to excuse the priest, but the bishop stepped in and in a letter argued, “what if it were your boy?” The bishop let the state handle it, and upon their verdict defrocked the priest. The bishop wrote a letter to the priest: “Our prayers are with you. But you have done irreparable harm to the family and to the church.” The case went to court. The bishop followed through.

Thus, my experience has been of bishops doing the right thing, even when parishioners themselves were convinced otherwise. The church is a wide organization.

I know the movie’s story. I get it a lot. I hear from people fleeing the church. Even my uncle, a Roman Catholic, joked with me after telling him about a break-up I’d had: “you aren’t the kind who likes little boys, are you?” He laughed, thinking he’d told an innovative, hilarious joke.

“Heh. Funny.” I replied.

I did not think it was funny.

Ms. Christina is an Atheist. She isn’t content to be a secularist or a humanist, a skeptic or a materialist. Atheism is the true way of understanding the world. Religion is for idiots. It’s really about the supernatural. Justifiably, she carefully unpacks the inconsistencies of particular propositions uttered by the religious.

It’s like shooting fish in a barrel, but she does it with passion.

Here isher review.

And I have a couple complaints.

First, she believes she’s learned the entire nature of the church from a movie.

Yes, a movie. Not much reading on the early fathers, or Aquinas, a church historian or even the New York Times.

Here is what the church is about for Greta: When you teach people — especially children — that the only way to God and Heaven is through the rites of the Church, administered by Church authorities? When you teach people — especially children — that Church authorities have a special connection to God and goodness that ordinary people don’t have? When you teach people — especially children — that defying the Church and its earthly representatives will condemn you to permanent, infinite burning and torture?

The Children!
I thought this was the standard fundamentalist cry!

I understand: if you want to example the insanity of American Foreign policy, analyze Cuba; if you want to learn about graft, just examine how stadiums get built. We learn from lenses. And this is Christina’s lens. Is it the right one?

While she turns to the harm that religious institutions do, I wonder how empirically different it is than the eight years of mismanagement and real harm done to the entire world by the previous political administration. Were they religious? Not really. The religious right were their electoral pawns. Most of the neo-conservatives weren’t Christian, or religious. But she seems, however, to think the church behaves differently than other institutions that are shaped without checks and balances.

It’s a fairly pedestrian view: our culture doesn’t support sex and children. Blame the Catholic church! It just seems a little more tawdry than when it’s done in a public school or the boy scouts.

Why doesn’t she ask what the church really says about itself, and what its intentions are? I learned it was motivated by a love of the world and all people, not merely political power, working for their interests. It may be that the two are intertwined, and that it is difficult to tell one from the other. It is a view that can, and should be challenged. But all the evidence should be laid out, not just the ones of the detractors.

Arguing she understands the true maliciousness of religion through this movie is a lot like saying we know a lot about Germany by watching movies by Leni Riefenstahl. Or, saying that Stalin is a good example of Atheism in power. Is it absolutely true? Probably not. Did Germans participate? Are there atheists who would like to round up the dull and send them to Siberia? I’m sure a few. As she condemns the entire church, rightfully, for the coverup, there is an insinuation that somehow sexual abuse is worse because the church is the church. It reminds me a bit of how Michelle Malkin critiques Obama.

It’s not as if atheists are the only people critiquing the church. So is the church. Plenty of Roman Catholic priests are already critiquing the institution. Ms. Christina overreaches in implying these terrible events represents the entirety of religious work, or that finally damns the religious “experience.” There is no doubt that the secrecy and lack of accountability destroyed the lives of many. Where as she might say it is all too religious. I would argue, it is all to human. Alas.