Saturday, June 23, 2007

Enthusiasm For A Bad Idea

Following up on my previous post on Bishop Whittaker's thoughts on the decline of the United Methodist Church, there is a story, here, about a plan to grow the denomination through church planting. I'll just let the opening paragraphs of the story by Linda Green from UMNS speak for themselves:
Since the most effective evangelism is through new churches, The United Methodist Church wants to start 650 new congregations with 63,000 members by 2012 as part of a new emphasis on church growth in the United States.

Eventually, the shrinking denomination wants to return to its evangelistic heyday of planting a new U.S. church every day. It also wants to reach untapped frontiers such as western states where the church historically has not followed population growth.

The strategy is all part of the aggressive vision of "Path One," the newly organized strategy team on new congregational development coordinated by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

"We believe it's one of the most needed and time-sensitive national efforts in the denomination's recent history," said the Rev. Karen Greenwaldt, top executive of the Board of Discipleship. "This is a new and bold vision of church planting that has been formed out of the work of many partners."

The initiative will be headed by the Rev. Thomas G. Butcher, who on July 1 becomes executive secretary of the newly created office of new congregational development for the United States.(emphasis added)

I have highlighted parts of the story that I think need to be looked at. The very first sentence is the operating assumption, and it couldn't be further from the truth. The best way to grow churches is not to plant them, but to invest in churches that already exist, providing them with the resources to reach out to those in the community who are unchurched, or fallen away from the church, or, as in our little neck of the woods, are newly arrived and looking for a church home.

People want to go to a church that already exists. They want to become part of a community that has a history, a vitality, a life of its own. We build up church membership through participation with fellow believers, not through denominational bureaucrats telling us the best way to build churches. I realize there may be a certain nostalgia for the days when the United Methodist Church was the largest Protestant denomination in the country; I also realize that many conferences are feeling financial and other pressures that result from the diminishing resources that go with decline. Rather than begin a grand strategy with a faulty premise, one would think that church might investigate investing in churches that are thriving, discovering that it is lively and loving community that is the root of healthy churches, not the desire to plant a building where none has ever been.

When a team designs a strategy for anything - from building a better mousetrap to figuring out how to stem the tide of decline in a Christian denomination - and launches the effort with such wonderful bureaucratic accolades as are contained in this article, failure is almost guaranteed. I predict failure not because I want it to fail, or because I wish for the Church to die. I predict failure because this sounds exactly like the kind of idea a bunch of church bureaucrats designed without thinking about shifting demographics, cultural and social changes and challenges, or changing theological and underlying ideological assumptions of the society at large.

It would have been better if the folks at the General Board of Discipleship had taken the time and the money they invested in coming up with this public relations blunder and actually gone out and visited UM churches that are growing; talked to church members, local pastors, and community leaders about the role of local churches in maintaining and contributing to healthy communities; invested in inner-city churches that might now be crumbling, but only from a continued neglect on the part of the annual conference, not from a lack of faith or desire to serve. Finally, rather than devising a one-size-fits-all plan that will long be forgotten (except for the bills it racks up), it might have been better to allow local pastors congregations to do their jobs - live out the message of love and hope in faithful community, and see what effect that has upon localities. It would have been cheaper, it would have been more effective, it would have been wiser, and it would not be saddling the UMC with additional financial and other burdens it cannot bear.

Rather than scrambling around trying to devise solutions, it would seem a better use of time and money to reward those who are successful with incentives to offer their strategies and ministries, not as examples to be copied exactly, but as examples of the possibilities inherent in faithfully fulfilling the call to ministry, and living it out in the lives of the local church. By all means, plant new churches when and where necessary, but do not throw good money after bad ideas based upon an outmoded, historically anachronistic notion of what the United Methodist Church should be.

Just let the Church be what it is, at its best.

Saturday Night Rock Show

Playboy used to have a television show on the networks. Hugh Hefner's Playboy After Dark was a kind of upper-middle class hedonists version of a variety show. In 1969, they invited the Grateful Dead to perform. The Dead, puckish pranksters that they were, agreed. As you watch what follows, please remember that the Dead and their crew managed to dose everyone there - cast, crew, guests, and of course themselves - with LSD. The exception was Bob Weir whom, after a brief time of use, found he could use the experiences he already had, and that any future use would merely be redundant. Ah, the '60's, when everyone could be tripping, and no one could be the wiser.

Whence the UMC? Bishop Whittaker and the Future of the Church

Bishop Timothy Whittaker of the Florida Area has a commentary here on the reality of general church decline and the challenge and opportunity it poses to the future of the United Methodist Church. I agree with much of what Bishop Whittaker says, at least as far as the causes - both demographic and (for lack of a better word) ideological - that underly our current malaise. I think a third factor, tied in to a growing cultural assimilation of the UMC during the first half of the 20th century, was a general decline in the teaching office of the church. Relying on voluntary Sunday School staff, with curriculum based upon the idea that (a) the laity don't need to know about Biblical scholarship or theological debates; and (b) the laity aren't interested in deep theological discussions, the entire structure of what we teach and how we teach it needs to be addressed. We need a new pedagogy - one rooted in our Wesleyan heritage, but, like Wesley himself, keeping our feet firmly planted in the whole history of the Church as a way of grounding ourselves for the future.

Bishop Whittaker notes the growth of churches in Florida (why can't a Bishop be provincially proud?). He should also look north, as some churches here in the old Northwest are growing quite well. Poplar Grove UMC is in the midst of massive growth, as is our little town (quickly becoming another bedroom community/suburb). Two other churches in town have folded, one has started (albeit without a building of its own), but we just keep getting larger. We have already outgrown the building just completed seven years ago, and are looking forward to new physical growth to accommodate our membership expansion. I think that we are growing partly because, as Bishop Whittaker points out, we have a definite clear idea of our identity even in the midst of change, not least of these being a dedication of mission work, both here in Boone County, as well as in the larger world.

There is a note I would like to make concerning the whole issue of decline, etc. While the decline in membership has many factors, and the scramble for solutions among the hierarchy at times resembles a Keystone Kops short, there is a larger question that needs to be considered. I have thought about this a great deal contemplating the shuttering of my home church, First UMC, Sayre, PA. One of the great spiritual gifts John Wesley bequeathed to the universal church was the idea we call connectionalism, but he merely referred to as a covenant. Based upon Old Testament ideas of mutuality, and an imbalance in that mutuality, John Wesley saw us, yoked in our discipleship, as being in a covenant relationship first with God, then with each other. Each New Years Eve, at Watch Night Services, Wesley recited what has come down to us as "The Covenant Prayer", which is included in our hymnal as a liturgical resource. One of the lines of that prayer is "Let me be put aside for thee." This line is the hardest to recite, because human beings, once ensconced in a role, too often refuse to surrender that role, and all the perquisites and perks that come with it. And not just individuals; institutions, even more than people, are almost impossible to get rid of, continually finding new rationales for their existence long after their original mission has gone the way of the dodo. I do believe that the Council of Bishops, the General Conference, and individual congregations need to ask themselves serious questions as they reflect upon that line of Wesley's Covenant Prayer.

One thing we must remember is that the mission of the Church has gone through all sorts of stages. It may be that the role the UMC was to play, as assigned by God through the Holy Spirit that gave us birth, has run its course, and it is time to surrender the stage for something new. Or, it may be we have simply wandered off the path - just what that path may be is, of course a bone of contention - and need to find our way back. Whatever the answer to this perplexing problem, we need to remember that, while sad, the end of the UMC would certainly be worth mourning, as a unique voice of a part of the message of the Gospel would have been lost. The ministry of the universal church, however, would not wither should the UMC fold, however. We are not the Church, just a church, a small part of the Body of Christ.

I honestly do not believe the UMC is going anywhere anytime soon. There are many exciting developments and growth in some areas offers new opportunities for new ideas and ways of being the Church. By all means, we need to re-engage our Wesleyan heritage, as well as argue with it. We need to be a voice in the wilderness of our culture and society, as well, remembering well that in the Gospel of St. Luke, what he called the "good news" of John the Baptist begins with calling "this present generation" a "brood of vipers". Of course, John the Baptist ended up with his head on Herod's platter, but that only confirmed his point.

I digress . . .

Rather than wishing and hoping we were the biggest kid on the block, part of facing the realities of decline is turning it in to a positive, by emphasizing our distance from our much-too-acculturated mid-20th century closeness to middle class ethics, politics, and culture. Our voice should be the Word of God, not a reassuring word for the comfortably well off. That, too, is part of Wesley's heritage. Regaining our prophetic edge in the midst of pastoral ministry is part of what it means to be Wesleyan.

My hope for the future is that the UMC take the vibrant, sometimes quite lively, debates that are too often restricted to seminary classrooms, annual conference sessions, and after-church coffee hours, and put them all together in one huge discussion. We are all part of the problem, and we are also part of the potential solution, if we have the will and the imagination, to risk moving forward in fear and hope as the people of God.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Spanish Hill

Note: This post is entirely off-subject for this blog, but I'm feeling a bit nostalgic, so here goes.
Over at this post at ER's place, the comment section went off on a tangent, and I mentioned a local landmark from my childhood - Spanish Hill in South Waverly, PA. The mural in the above photo is in the vestibule of the Waverly, NY Post Office, and that is Spanish Hill in the background. A glacial moraine - Waverly was about as far south as the glaciers got in my neck of the woods - the Hill stands out because, unlike the surrounding hills, it sits in the Susquehanna/Chemung Rivers flood plain, where the four communities we call "The Valley" are located.

A local historian has created a website dedicated to Spanish Hill, which you can find here. I will just highlight a couple things of interest, and allow any who might be interested to go and explore the site.

First, as to its name, from the site:
Some people believe that Spanish explorers followed the Susquehanna looking for gold and silver to take back to Spain, and ended up making camp at Spanish Hill either for the winter or for a stand off in a battle with the Iroquois. Whatever the real story is - this hill has had the name Spanish Hill as far back as our local history has recorded its existence.

One of the legends that I heard growing up was that, during an archaeological excavation there, the helmet of a Spanish conquistador was found there. I see no reference to that on the site, however, so that is probably local legend.

Even without the whole "Spanish" thing, the history of this little flat-top prominence is long and storied:
The village of Carantouan was placed in our history books by Samuel Champlain. Champlain wrote about all of his travels in the New Word in a 6 volume collection called "Voyages." In this text, Champlain refers to the nation of Carantounnais in the year 1615, which he subsequently sent his young interpreter Etienne Brule to secure 500 warriors for a battle. Many local historians believe Spanish Hill to be the location where Brule met the Carantouans.

Just to put this in perspective for you - - the Pilgrims will not have landed on Plymouth Rock(1620) for another 5 years at the time Brule made this trip.... - And that is why this is so important for our history. Spanish Hill very well was the first place the white man visited in Pennsylvania.

In 1878 General John S. Clark - a noted historian and surveyor - was in search if this place called Carantouannais, and in the end claimed that Spanish Hill was without a doubt the location of Carantouan.

However over the years following Clark's claim, there were others who questioned his findings and overturned them in some historians minds. Since then, the location of Carantouan has been questioned to this day.

Although Spanish Hill's history is vastly rich with or without this connection to Brule, the discrepancies concerning it as the location of Carantouan is still a heated debate. With strong feelings both for and against the location of Carantouan being located at Spanish Hill.

Finally, there is the whole mystery, related to the Carantouans, of the giant skeleton (the site uses the plural, but only one was supposed to have been found, and it has disappeared in the 91 years since it was allegedly discovered):
There is no doubt in my mind that after reading numerous accounts of these gigantic skeletons being found throughout this area, that this is not a "legend," it is a fact. These Susquehannocks (Andastes) were GIANTS especially to the men of average height (4- 5.3 feet) of that time period, but also seemed "huge" to the people who dug them up over the past 100 years. The Andaste's AVERAGE height seems to be between 6 and 7 feet, with some exceptional human specimens being recorded to be about 8 feet in height.

Think about that for a minute -

That would be around at least TWO FEET TALLER THAN MANY OTHER MEN AT THAT TIME. And it would still be considered to be HUGE by our standards today.

There were also reports of the skeleton found near Sheshequin having horns, a la the devil, etc., and you can still find people in the Valley who insist it is true, but that is not the case. Still, it is intriguing, and begs all sorts of questions for which there are too few answers.

On a related, personal note, the woman who runs the Spanish Hill site also has founded a historical society - the Susquehanna River Archaeological Center - rooted in her initial interest in Spanish Hill (the Hill is private property, and the folks who own it are a bit testy about people traipsing up and down it looking for rocks). If you go here, you will see a pdf document concerning the donation of my Uncle's huge collection of artifacts - mostly arrowheads, but also mortars, pestles, and other sundry stone pieces - to the SRAC. The item pictured is one of the many framed pieces that used to hang on the walls of his house. He had a room upstairs with boxes filled with stuff that never saw the light of day. All of it is where it belongs now - in a museum for people to see and historians and others to research.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Karl Barth and Our World Today

In the comments on my post here, I mention Karl Barth's famous dictum that theology is to be done "with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other." My good friend ER replies that he is skittish, as that is a method employed by many a pre-millenialist to "discern the signs of the times" especially in reference to the long-awaited return of Jesus in Glory. I responded that Barth's dictum was short-hand for his view that theology is to be relevant to our lives today, right now. It is an attempt to listen to God's Word to us in the midst of our lives, not a search for timeless truths.

I also lamented the fact that too many "Barthians" forgot that what the great Swiss dogmatician was doing was speaking to his own time and place; in fact, what he said changed drastically over the course of a career that spanned from just after the First World War until the 1950's. Because of his erudition, the forcefulness of both his arguments and his personality, his novelty, and the huge outpouring of words, it is all too easy to treat Barth as an icon, giving reverence to his words without considering that Barth often said he was "not a Barthian". That is, he did not laminate his books as truths, but offer them as prolegommena to any future theology.

This is not to say there is not either wisdom or truth in his vast volume of work; it is to say that such as is there should always be a starting point, not the conclusion, of a continuing struggle with the witness to the Word in the Bible and our lives as we experience them today. I rather think his idea of how we should be doing theology - and while Barth viewed the theological task as "sermon preparation", I think it is safe to say he also understood it as a way of making sense of what it means to be the Church, living our lives faithfully between those two realities that shape our perceptions and reactions - should be emulated, rather than the content. Read it, by all means. But move forward without fear.

This is the gist of my complaint with Marcus Borg's rather limp public response to our current situation in Iraq. It is also the source of my discontent with too much that passes for contemporary "theology"; we too often are too far behind the curve, or too gung-ho about some trendy contemporary intellectual force to seriously grapple with what we are supposed to be about. Borg's response would have been great four years ago. Today, it is irrelevant, and in fact counter-productive. He just hasn't had a newspaper in his hand lately as he has read the Bible.

We should not look for another Barth. We should not mimic his words, or echo his sentiments, except for his dogged insistent that God is indeed speaking a Word to us today, and it is our task to hear that word and live it out faithfully and without fear. The answers we get will be different, perhaps even contradictory, to those the revered Swiss Churchman arrived at, but that confirms rather than negates the usefulness of his method. Let us, therefore, grab our Bibles, and our newspapers (which one you choose is irrelevant), and get busy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

With Apologies . . .

In case you missed it - it's pretty much everywhere - the until now invisible and pseudonymous Digby revealed herself to the world today.

I must apologize here and now for the horribly sexist presumption that Digby was a man. I have referred to "him" too often. I am embarrassed by my own myopia.

Great words, spoken by the best of the best. You can check them out at Fire Dog Lake, if you are interested.

Is That All? Marcus Borg's "Solution" to the Iraq Dilemma

Faith in Public Life has a link to this article in the Newsweek/Washington Post's "On Faith" series in which New Testament Scholar Marcus Borg offers his suggestion for retrieving our chestnuts from the Mesopotamian Fire we have set - get the international community to help.

After a review of the general concepts guiding Christian attitudes towards war - from the pacifism of Jesus to the Just War Theory of St. Augustine (neither of which is exhaustive; neither of which represent the ethos that guides many Christians' reflections on these issues) - Borg insists that the US elicit help from the other countries, specifically Iraq's neighbors. What is missing from this "suggestion" for a "just way" is the part about repairing all those burned bridges to the international community the Bush Administration has engaged in for the past six years. It is all well and good to say, with many right-wingers, that other countries need to step up to the plate, but so many questions are begged that one wonders if Borg has been paying attention to what has been happening since the invasion four years ago.

It would seem to me a more comprehensive approach, based upon Christian ethical principles, would include an national admission of guilt; a willingness to co-operate with international judicial organs from the ICC to the World Court in The Hague in investigating and prosecuting possible war crimes committed by American troops and officials; closing not only Guantanamo Bay and all other facilities that house illegally detained individuals; not only ending torture, but prosecuting those who conduct and direct it, as well as paying compensation to its victims or their families; a thorough, legislative-based recapitulation of basic American legal principles, from habeas corpus to the First Amendment; the public disclosure of FBI eavesdropping and infiltration upon American citizens in direct violation of the law; barring, by law, any and all persons who are convicted of any crime of violence, including official acts of intensive interrogation, from seeking either elected or appointed office (call it the Elliot Abrams Memorial Act); paying our back dues to the United Nations with interest; recognizing the Hamas-led government of the Palestinian Authority as a first step to moving forward with a real peace process; stop calling the democratically-elected President of Iran a dictator, and pursue negotiations on a broad range of issues; replace out-sourced, privatized hacks in Iraq with trained government functionaries who actually know how to do their jobs, at less expense and with greater success.

This list is hardly exhaustive, but one would think Borg, who is at least titularly more intelligent than I am, might have listed one or two of them.


No Easy Answers

Maggie Mahar has a column here on the ethical issues raised by the case of a family facing the exhaustion of financial resources to care for their child born with multiple defects to the heart. Elizabeth Warren has some background and you can find out more information from the boy's website. I am highlighting this particular case because it is an instance where the specifics of a case present for the world (a) all that is wrong with out current system of financing health care; and (b) the truly horrific choices we as a society face.

I challenge you readers to check out these links, take in the information, and offer your reflections. The implications of this one case, of a boy born with many, many problems that are theoretically soluble yet troubling in what they mean for the entire system of healthcare delivery and financing, leave us with no easy answers. I, for one, cannot see any answers that do not leave me feeling very sad, precisely because we are dealing with real people and their real lives. It is all well and good to rant about "socialized medicine" on one extreme and "universal healthcare" on the other, but I ask you - what do these empty buzzwords mean when facing a case such as this (and make no mistake, Matthew is not alone in needing extraordinary care)?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Self-Righteousness of the Good and Its Discontents

We are living under the rule of the Manichaeans. Glenn Greenwald has a book highlighting our current tendencies towards Manichaeanism in his new book (which can be pre-ordered through a link he helpfully provides here). The good-vs-evil mentality that currently rules our country - one could argue, I think, it has always so ruled through the idea of American exceptionalism - has had disastrous consequences, on display for anyone to see in Iraq, the Department of Justice, and so on.

Yet, this tendency is not just public or limited to grand policy. Human beings tend to defend their own goodness and righteousness when confronted with the horrors beings commit. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, except when it creates blinders that prevent us from sharing the human lot with those benighted evildoers among us. We congratulate ourselves on our own goodness to our peril, however, because inside all of us is a horrible monster creaming and slavering to be released.

On this thread over at ER's blog is the following comment that wonderfully summarizes the view that some of us human beings are more equal than others (the reference to Cologne Cathedral concerns the fact that it was spared, not out of reverence, but practicality because pilots used it as a navigation reference):
I tend to consider that it takes all kinds to make a world, and unfortunately some of those kinds really suck. Do you count yourself amongst those who refuse to identify evil when they see it? I do not identify myself as being the same as evildoers. Thus, I feel no shame for being a human being. That one point alone just is.(emphasis added)

I forget the dastardly deeds of the Crusaders until someone deems it necessary to bring it up again, and usually to put forth some moral equivalency between Christianity and other religions or ideologies.(emphasis added)

Is it possible that the Cologne Cathedral was spared for both reasons? That is, maybe they preferred to spare such places and then realized that it's military value helps seal the deal. I'll go with that until proved wrong. You can believe there is no honor within anyone in the military if that's where you're leaning.

"Human beings can never kill each other without killing God."

That may be true. But I suspect God is able to distinguish between the intention behind a murderous suicide bomber and the intention behind a soldier or cop defending a civilian. It takes a human to infer there's no difference.(emphasis added)

The first highlighted point speaks for itself - the wonderful declaration of the self-righteousness of the good.

The second is a strange notion. How can there not be a moral equivalence between Christianity and other religions? The greatest theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, spent hundreds of pages in the thousands of pages of his multi-volume Church Dogmatics piercing the bubble of self-satisfaction of Christians, lulled in to unreality by a sense of their own superiority. Barth was at pains to point out that the church in all its various forms was as sinful an institution as any other (a point America's own Reinhold Niebuhr was making in a different way and in a different context at about the same time) and we forget this to our peril. Barth was a witness to the degradation of the church at the hands of the Nazis, and mourned the fact that Christian triumphalism had played a part in the demonic self-destruction of the Church in Germany.

As to the last highlighted comment, all I can say is that the commenter introduces an idea that I had never thought of before - that he and he alone understands the mind of God when it comes to discerning the moral worth of human actions. Apparently, killing those in need of killing is fine with God, and the commenter. If this person truly believes this, and worships this God, I want no part of god at all, because his god is a monster willing to sacrifice human lives for some illusion called goodness.

Of course, we could respond by pointing out the idea of sin. I know this is a word that irritates people, but it does serve the useful function of reminding us that, as human beings, we share certain defects with the worst among us. We could remind the commenter that the imputation of goodness and righteousness comes through grace, not through anything we do, or think of doing, or through our intentions or will or anything else. We could remind the commenter that, in the end, whether we are Heinrich Himmler, John Wayne Gacey, or Geoffrey Kruse-Safford, we all stand at the foot of the cross, accused, tried, and convicted. This does not free us from the necessity of judging the actions of others; it is, or should be, a brake upon our own smug sense of our own inherent worth, however.

The temptation to view ourselves as good, especially in the face of monstrous evil is only human, and perfectly understandable. The trick is to not fall in to that trap. The cure for evil is not goodness, but a recognition of our own participation in evil actions, and prayer that we can do better, recognizing that, of course, we will fail. One of the best ways to cure the Manichaean impulse is to flatten out the distinction between the good "us" and the evil "them" and to see all of us as human beings.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Music Monday

Back in the 1990's, the so-called "alternative music" scene contained a disparate array of bands and performers, and at its media-induced height, 1994's Woodstock reunion, much was made of the fact that classic folk-rock group Crosby, Stills, and Nash would be following industrial band Nine Inch Nails. I thought The Downward Spiral was a brilliant album, and I do not think Reznor has done anything as brilliant - not even close - since. Here's "March of the Pigs":

One of Reznor's protege's was the Florida-based Marilyn Manson. I thought Anti-Christ Superstar was a brilliantly conceived album - how can you not smile when the first song on the CD was titled "Irresponsible Hate Anthem"? - but developments disappointed. First, I learned that most of the "live shows" were in fact mimed - the band was either too wasted or simply unable to play. Also, Manson himself started taking himself much too seriously. Too bad. Here's the title track from the aforementioned recording (I will warn those of a sensitive nature there are some comments Manson makes that might offend some):

In contrast to the earnest, and self-defeating, self-seriousness of Marilyn Manson is the tongue-in-cheeky approach of Rob Zombie. Much more firmly rooted in the Alice Cooper shock-rock approach precisely because his approach is so over the top, Zombie also produces some fine music that makes your ears bleed, and is also quite danceable, should one so choose. Zombie is also a fine movie director. His first film, House of 1000 Corpses was panned because it was what it was - an over-the-top homage to the slasher/low-budget horror movies of the 1970's and 1980's. The Devil's Rejects, the sequel, was received with more enthusiasm. Should you be interested, get the Director's Cut, which includes an unedited scene with 1980's porn queen Ginger Lynne Allen that will make you laugh and cringe at the same time. Here's Rob on Letterman with "American Witch":

At It Again - Tucker The Uber-Christian

Back in February, I wrote here concerning Tucker Carlson's attempt to smear Barack Obama's church. He can't get enough of his new-found expertise on matters theological, and now he has seen fit to call something he calls "the religious left" "insincere" (you can read all about it here at Media Matters).

I am so glad we have Tucker Carlson as the new gatekeeper for what is and is not sincere religious belief.

What a doofus.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Just A Reminder - A Blast From the Past

It was easy enough to find this particular reference, but I thought I would spend a moment highlighting why I am repeating myself here. Democracy Lover finds the militant atheism of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris refreshing. I find the former to be intellectually dubious and the latter to be monumentally immoral. In an interview published at Alternet (you can find the whole thing here) Harris is heard to endorse ESP, reincarnation, and argues that "spirituality" is more important than a life of faith (preferably Buddhist spirituality). His most outrageous comments, however, were reserved for an endorsement of torture and an alliance with the most virulent right-wing war-mongers in America, because the latter understood what Harris did - this was a war against religion, against Islam, and therefore there was no reason to have qualms about torturing them. After all, they were religious believers, a danger to the rational and peace-loving secular folk of the west, so we had to bite the bullet as it were, and resolve that we are engaged in a heroic effort to rid the world of those evil Muslim hordes. Torture, it would seem, is morally justifiable if those being tortured are religious believers. Of course, this is Nazi talk, but his defenders - and he has them, believe me - refuse to countenance the notion. I will let the interview speak for itself should you not believe me:
Harris moonlights as inquisitor as well as heretic. Without irony, he switches hats between chapters of "The End of Faith." Chapter 3 finds him complaining that the medieval Church tortured Jews over phony "blood libel" conspiracies. Then in chapter 6, "A Science of Good & Evil," he devotes several pages to upholding the "judicial torture" of Muslims, a practice for which "reasonable men and women" have come out.

Torture then and now: The difference, he tells AlterNet, is that the Inquisition "manufactured" crimes and forced Jews to confess "fictional accomplices."

But if the Iraq War hasn't been about "fictional accomplices," what has? "There's nothing about my writing about torture that should suggest I supported what was going on in Abu Ghraib," says Harris, who supported the invasion but says it has become a "travesty." "We abused people who we know had no intelligence value."

While our soldiers are waging war on Islam in our detention centers, according to Harris, our civilians must evolve past churchgoing to "modern spiritual practice," he writes. "[M]ysticism is a rational enterprise," he writes in his book, arguing it lets spiritualists "uncover genuine facts about the world." And he tells AlterNet there are "social pressures" against research into ESP.

Society is remarkably free, however, in airing justifications for putting Muslims to the thumbscrews. Harris's case for torture is this: since "we" are OK with horrific collateral damage, "we" should have no qualms against waterboarding, the lesser evil. "It's better than death." Better, in other words, than bombing innocents.

Then again, Sam Harris is not devoting his time in the media to call for an end to bombing civilians. Attacking the sacred cow of airstrikes might have been a real heresy, true to his Quaker roots but ensuring himself exile from cable news. Instead the logic he lays out -- that Islam itself is our enemy -- invites the reader to feel comfort at the deaths of its believers. He writes: "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them."

Playing his part in last year's War Over Christmas, Harris plays it safe with "Letter to a Christian Nation." The book lumbers under a title so heavy, you'd think Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote it from prison. While keeping the Christian Nation on notice that Harris remains disdainful of "wasting time" on Jesus, he now calls for something of an alliance with the Right against Muslim Arabs and the "head-in-the-sand liberals" he denounced in a recent editorial. "Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living," he writes.

Thus praising the hard Right for its "moral clarity" in the War on Terror, Harris reserves much of his wrath for nonfundamentalist Christians, whom he considers enablers of a virgin-birth sham.

There is so much morally and intellectually wrong with Harris, there will never be enough space to point out all that is wrong. It is not enough for Democracy Lover to say, "Well, you know, Harris is a hack, but he does make good points." The Nazis introduced social security, but that hardly redeems them. Harris is a Nazi, but he just replaces Jews with Muslims, and sees no reason on earth to spare them death for the crime of existing. Nothing he has ever written or said since then should ever weigh in the balance against it.

On a final note, Alternet was quite literally flooded with comments and emails after this interview was published, most of them quite violent in their attacks upon the interviewer. Of course, the interview was benign - it did nothing else than ask Harris to expand upon and defend what was already in the public realm in his published works - and when it called him on his backpedaling, his morally outrageous defense of anti-Islamic genocide, and his intellectually dubious defense of silly ideas like ESP and reincarnation, the site and interviewer were showered with abuse. It isn't enough that Harris is a cad and a fraud; he apparently has the ability to dispense his minions to attack any who might question his non-existent integrity.

He's still out there, still peddling his papers to any willing to read and listen. I find it outrageous that anyone would defend what he has to say (although not his freedom to say it). In fact, I find it outrageous that anyone would insist he be given a fair hearing at all. He doesn't deserve it. Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian, Ralph Waldo Emerson's various essays and works, Richard Rorty, even Carl Sagan - I can read these folks and listen to what they have to say because none of them endorse the murder of human beings in the name of ridding the world of religion. They did not shed their moral compass in the name of some illusory goal.

None of them were Nazis.

Politics, Religion, & Militant Atheism

I have exhausted my intellectual patience with the evangelical atheists - Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and now Christopher Hitchens - but an article at Alternet, a reprint from The Nation, by Ronald Aronson, considers their popularity from a different perspective, and forces upon me some questions I have been asking myself privately, but have yet to address openly.

Dawkins and Harris are hacks, at least when it comes to religion. Dawkins pretends no one has ever tried to disprove the existence of God, then resurrects an old Humean argument and pretends no one has ever thought of it before. Harris, who argued in an interview at Alternet this past winter, in favor of the torture of Muslims precisely because they are Muslims, as well as claiming that torture is efficacious (which is demonstrably untrue) all the while insisting that religious people forfeit any claim to ethical teaching is worse than a hypocrite; a self-promoting nincompoop who deserves only derision would be my fair-minded judgment. As for Hitchens, I am neither surprised nor particularly interested. Years ago he published an attack upon Mother Theresa, Missionary Position, and even as he aligns himself increasingly with the most immoderate religious forces in the United States (who have said a thing or two about drunkenness Hitchens might imbibe between bourbon-and-waters) he now comes out with the usual indictments of the usual suspects. Yawn.

Aronson, however, asks the right questions - especially concerning the sudden popularity of the views expressed by the latest incarnation of Laplace ("We have no need of that [God] hypothesis") - and I think he strikes the right note when he takes in to consideration the trouble with the definition of "God" in all those surveys that show 91% of Americans believing. I have always felt that number inflated, as well as irrelevant, and Aronson does some good work deconstructing it. He also addresses the religion-saturation of the past generation as a factor in the rise of the new, militant, atheists. I agree that their voices are welcome to a certain extent - they certainly pop the self-satisfaction of many a believer with their arrogance, self-assurance, and militancy - and my arguments with them are more about the details of their arguments, as well as their pretensions that they actually are saying anything new; I think it is all to the good that we address these questions publicly.

Yet, the question continues to be begged, and Aronson addresses it head on, forcing me to confront a problem I have wanted to avoid: Where do we go from here?
Living without God means turning toward something. To flourish we need coherent secular popular philosophies that effectively answer life's vital questions. Enlightenment optimism once supplied unbelievers with hope for a better world, whether this was based on Marxism, science, education or democracy. After Progress, after Marxism, is it any wonder atheism fell on hard times? Restoring secular confidence will take much positive work as well as the fierce attacks on religion by our atheist champions. On a societal level, as Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris point out in Sacred and Secular, living without God requires creating conditions in which people are free from the kinds of existential vulnerability that have marked all human societies until the advent of Europe's postindustrial welfare states. Markedly more religious than any of them, the United States provides a life that is far more unequal and far more insecure.(emphasis added)

I think Aronson is taking for granted something in this argument that is in fact not necessarily true. One can not accept the existence of God, one can have no beliefs that anyone could remotely call religious, and still live a joyful, loving, morally centered existence. Aronson's argument, at least here, smacks of Eisenhower's "I don't care what they believe" agnosticism. To argue that belief in a larger reality is necessary to erect barriers against existential vulnerability - and to see in the failings of the US to provide the kind of social safety nets that might mitigate the greater exigencies of life - pushes more begged questions upon us, not the least of which is whether this in itself is an argument against religion, as the US seems religion-soaked, yet the least officially compassionate industrialized nation on the planet.

I do not believe that religion functions this way; nor do I believe that human beings find it necessary to "turn towards something" should they turn away from religion. I will merely assert this without elaborating

Continuing directly from the excerpt above, Aronson writes:
The surprising response to the New Atheist offensive should thus inspire us to think politically as well as philosophically. As a first step this demands creating a coalition between unbelievers and their natural allies, secular-minded believers. I am speaking first about many millions of Americans who nominally belong to a religion but effectively live without any active relationship either to it or to God, or belong to a church and attend services but are "tacit atheists," living day in and day out with only token reference to God. And I also include the many believers who accept the principle of America as a secular society. These include members of the liberal Jewish and Christian denominations, who have long practice in accommodating themselves to science and the modern world and who, as the National Council of Churches website tells us, may remain inspired by Genesis while not needing to take it in "literal, factual terms." Many of these turned up in the most significant finding of the Baylor survey, namely that more than one in four American "believers" does not mean by this a personal God at all but a distant God who has little or nothing to do with the world or themselves. This sounds very much like the deist God of "unbelievers" Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.

These believers, along with those who think of themselves as "spiritual," as well as professed unbelievers, help to explain why according to the Pew study so many Americans -- 32 percent -- want less religious influence on government. Twenty-four percent say that President Bush talks too much about his religious faith and prayer, and 28 percent deny that the United States is a Christian nation. Most dramatically, a whopping 49 percent believe that Christian conservatives have gone too far "in trying to impose their religious values on the country." This, then, is an unreported secret of American life: Considerable numbers of Americans, religious and secular, are becoming fed up with the in-your-face religion that has come to mark our society.

Until now the most vocal left-of-center response to the Christian right, for example by Sojourners, has been to call for more religion in politics, not less. In early June the group organized a nationally televised forum at which John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton testified to their faith, talking about the "hand of God" (Edwards), forgiveness (Obama) and prayer (Clinton).(emphasis added) Few loud-and-clear voices have been agitating in the mainstream on behalf of the separation of church and state, for secular and public education, or demanding less rather than more political discussion of religion. Yet tens of millions of Americans worry about such things.

Whether most of them continue to believe in God matters much less than that they are comfortable with secular knowledge and America's secular Constitution. Barry Lynn, for example, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is a Protestant minister. Although Harris and Dawkins castigate all believers for sharing the premises of conservative Christians, the fact is that many believers could easily be working with out-and-out atheists and agnostics on key issues.

I think Aronson is on to something here, but I want to address the highlighted portion first. I do not believe that Wallis' position is either tenable or welcome. I have written pretty plainly that I think Wallis is to religious and Christian progressives what Falwell was to the right - with all the negative implications such a judgment entails. I also thought the recent Sojourner's forum featuring Obama, Edwards, and Clinton was actually a step backwards; I am with that 24% who think we need to talk less about religion, because, frankly, I don't care. This separates me from many progressive Christians, but I accept that separation because I think that discussions over personal belief are irrelevant. It smacks of George Bush constantly arguing that such-and-such a person in his administration is a "good man"; I honestly don't care whether or not he is, and the constant failures of the Bush years should be all the proof we need that moral goodness and professional competence in matters of public policy are not the same thing.

Yet, how do we move beyond discussions over the over-saturation of our public discourse with religious imagery to working coalitions between believers and non-believers? It is easy enough to set aside Dawkins' and Harris' assertion that religious believers of any and all types are no better than the worst offenders among their faithful counterparts with differing views; for two people who screech about "evidence" and "science" so much, one would think such blanket assertions would embarrass them, but I do not believe embarrassment (or self-knowledge) is something with which these men are acquainted. We are still left with the possibilities and problems of various coalitions.

Part of the solution, it seems to me, is to look at denominational statements, rather than individual Christian's pronouncements. The United Methodist Church has a Social Affirmation, and various resolutions within its Discipline in regards to social issues, some of which are still under debate. For example, the UMC is officially pro-life, but there is enough wiggle room to allow for people of conscience to disagree. We also affirm the dignity of sexual minorities, as well as affirm the necessity for equal civil rights for sexual minorities. It seems to me these are good places to start.

The militant atheism creates many problems, and solves few. Religion and religious belief are not going anywhere. Degrees and depth of commitment vary, but we still have to consider the reality that there are faithful among us, faithful with whom many secular folks might just be able to work. It is all well and good to take on the brain-dead and worst aspects of our faith; we are still left with how we work together to move our country forward, and to that end, forming coalitions of the willing, as it were, is part of the answer. Militant atheism is certainly interesting, but it is, in the end, apolitical, even antithetical to a politics of coalition building that is necessary if we are to move forward.

The Church and The Transgendered

This has been floating around for a while, and I have to admit I really have no opinion about it, except to say the the presiding Bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference acted in accordance with the law and the gospel. The former Rev. Ann Gordon, now the Rev. Dan Phoenix, was reappointed to St. John's UMC in Baltimore after undergoing gender reassignment surgery. He shared with the conference his struggles both with the personal nature of his decision and the professional aspect as well.

Mark Tooley of UMAction at the Institute for Religion and Democracy had this to say:
The decision to reappoint the former Rev. Gordon to St. John’s church in Baltimore, with no wider discussion in the church, sets a troubling precedent. Once again, liberal church elites, presiding over dwindling churches, are making decisions without regard for historic Christian teaching or a wider consensus among the church’s membership.

Rev. Phoenix merits compassion for a lifelong struggle over gender identity issues, as related at the conference. But the church helps no one when it fails to faithfully transmit the Gospel of hope and transformation.

We hope The United Methodist Church will act, where the leadership of the Baltimore-Washington Conference has failed, by establishing clear ethical and theological guidelines about the role of gender is God’s creation.

In other words - there isn't any law governing a case like this, but there should be.

First, let me say that, as gender reassignment surgery has been around for a generation, and this is the first case of which I am aware, at least in the United Methodist Church, of a transgendered person seeking appointment, all I can say is there probably does not need to be a law about it. This, it would seem, should remain at the discretion of the presiding Bishop, with burden upon the Bishop and Cabinet as to why they are not appointing a person who has changed their sexual identity. The former Rev. Gordon apparently made it through all the steps to ordination - including psychological evaluation - even as her struggles over gender identity went on. While I did not know her when she was still Ann Gordon, I do believe that, as someone who has wrestled with this particular angel, the struggle over what God is doing in one's life is something that never ends, and as there is no legal reason to deny him appointment, it would be in keeping with the Gospel of grace to keep him in ministry.

On the question of gender reassignment, I will admit mixed feelings. For myself, I think that, despite all the troubles that ensue (physical, social), going through medical and surgical gender transformation is a way of sidestepping underlying issues of identity rather than dealing with them openly. Unlike sexual orientation, the social construction of gender identity should not be ignored; if a person internalizes certain conflicting feelings that abound in our society about gender, resulting in confusion, I would think that, rather than the radical step of changing one's persona to fit the conflict, it might be better to pursue aggressive therapy to deal with the conflict.

Or, I could be wrong. Perhaps gender reassignment is something that comes only after the very struggle and therapeutic alternatives I mention above have been exhausted, with the only option for peace of mind being reassignment. The process is unknown to me, and so I suppose I should reserve comments just as I reserve judgment.

As to the question of the place of transgendered in the Church and ministry, all I can say is that, unlike sexual orientation, we have here a horse of a whole different color. Tooley throws in all sorts of non-sequiturs - dwindling numbers (he should come to our church, which is growing by leaps and bounds), the lack of debate, etc. - and he never comes out and argues that Rev. Phoenix should not have been appointed. The reason, it seems, is clear - there is no precedent, no reason in law to deny him appointment. Tooley is being sneaky here, insisting that the issue be addressed at General Conference next year, presumably to act to deny any future appointment for the transgendered.

I have to ask why. My own discomfort and questions aside, the issue is one of the legitimacy of Rev. Phoenix's call, not a legal issue of whether or not he should be appointed to serve a church. As the matter is unaddressed, silence is consent. I admit my own discomfort while still placing my faith in the Holy Spirit's work through Rev. Phoenix's struggle. It would seem that Tooley might benefit from doing the same.

Virtual Tin Cup

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