Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fear Not: For, Behold, . . .

I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Merry Christmas from the Godfather!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Mug’s Game

By Eric Von Salzen

Have you heard? A debate was held the other day between religion and atheism.

Religion lost.

Although this debate is hardly in the same class as the infamous Oxford Union debate in 1933 (the one where the winning side affirmed that “this house will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country”), it is nevertheless instructive.

The debate was held on November 26, 2010 in Toronto, Canada (no, really, please don’t stop reading this just because it happened in Canada). The proposition under consideration was:

Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.

For the affirmative was Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister. Blair is a recent convert to Roman Catholicism. For the negative was Christopher Hitchens, a prominent polemicist for atheism, the author of God Is Not Great, among other writings. (Hitchens is dying of cancer, which has not softened his position on God, and which, to his credit, he did not exploit in the course of the debate.)

The transcript of the debate, and a link to the video, can he found here.

The religion side, as I said, lost. The vote was 68% against to 32% for the proposition. To be fair to Tony, the deck was stacked against him: Before the debate, the audience was 57% against and 22% for.

There are two lessons I suggest we can draw from this debate. The first is that a good polemicist will beat a good politician in debate any time. That shouldn’t be surprising. A polemicist’s role is to argue and score points, to make the other side look foolish, stupid, evil, uninformed, or whatever it takes to win. But a politician’s role is to solve problems, and (at least in a democracy) that means working with opponents, compromising, and downplaying differences of principle. Blair, who was able to lead his country through an unpopular but necssary war, never really had a chance in this debate.

Time and again, Hitchens slammed religion in general and every specific religion that came to mind, not fairly, of course, but effectively:

In the religious view, human beings are “objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well”.

God is “swift to punish [us for] the original sins with which [he] so tenderly gifted us in the very first place.”

“Is it good for the world to worship a deity that takes sides in wars and human affairs? To appeal to our fear and to our guilt, is it good for the world? To our terror, our terror of death, is it good to appeal?"

Circumcision is genital mutilation.

The Old Testament is responsible for the inability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Roman Catholic church has “preached that AIDS was not as bad as condoms”.

To none of these slanders did Mr. Blair offer a rebuttal. He eschewed (as a politician should) theological issues, and talked instead about all the good things that religious people do for the poor and down trodden of the world.

“[I]t is undoubtedly true that people commit horrific acts of evil in the name of religion. It is also undoubtedly true that people do acts of extraordinary common good inspired by religion.”

“My claim is just very simple, there are nonetheless people who are inspired by their faith to do good.”

But, as a politician who wants to build and maintain relationships with any group that can be helpful in solving problems, he has to say that good works are not exclusively the province of religion, that non-religious people can do the same wonderful things that religious people do. He describes work done by religious people in Africa with children infected by AIDS, and says:

Is it possible for them to have done that without their religious faith? Of course it's possible for them to have done it.

Later he concedes that:

Yes, of course, it is absolutely true, they might decide to do this, irrespective of the fact that they have religious faith.

And again:

So when we say, well, that could be done by humanism, yes, it could.

Well, if there are bad things that could be ascribed, at least in part, to religion – the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Ireland – and if the good things done by religious people can also be done by humanists, how do you conclude that, net, religion is good for the world?

The second lesson from this debate is more important, and it is this: It is folly to try to defend or promote “religion” as a generic concept. “Religion” is not a faith, it’s a category. Talking about “religion” in general is like talking about “husbands” or “wives” in general: The differences within the category render generalizations meaningless – unless you want to do stand-up, like Henny Youngman or Phyllis Diller.

If you try to defend or promote “religion”, you drain all the life out of the particular faiths that people embrace and end up with mush like this:

There is a basic belief common to all faiths, in serving and loving God, through serving and loving your fellow human beings.

It’s not that this Esperanto of “religion” is wrong, it’s just that it’s so weak, compared to, say:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good:
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, and to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?

Or to:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Besides, beyond the “basic belief” that Mr. Blair says is “common to all faiths”, there are specific beliefs of specific religions, and, truth be told, some of them are hard enough for members of the religion to defend; so how much harder you make it for yourself if you set about to defend all “religion”. Mr. Blair was challenged not only regarding his own church’s positions on birth control and original sin, but also on the Jewish rite of circumcision and the supposed Old Testament warrant for Israeli expansionism, on the Biblical literalism of some fundamentalist Christians, on faith healing, and so forth. There was little he was able or willing to say in response.

The fact is, if you are a faithful believer in a particular religion, there are all sorts of beliefs of other religions that you think are unreasonable, repellant, ridiculous, or just plain crazy. Why should you set yourself up to be beaten over the head about them by becoming an advocate for “religion”?

The defender of “religion” also has to deal with the inconvenient fact that a great deal of the conflict in the world arises out of disputes between members of different religions: Israeli Jews v. Arab Muslims, Roman Catholic Irish v. Protestant Irish, Hindu Indians v. Muslim Pakistanis, and so on. Tom Lehrer put it so well, years ago:

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Muslims,
And everybody hates the Jews.

Mr. Blair argued that some religious leaders struggle hard to bring peace to places rent by sectarian conflict, like Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Undoubtedly he is right. But if the question is whether “religion” is a force for good in the world, you don’t prove it that it is by showing that some religious people try to repair damage caused by religious differences. If you do, John Lennon answers you:

Imagine. . . no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

If you are out to defend “religion”, every religious conflict rebuts your argument. It’s different if you defend a particular religion. Your particular religion may be blameless with respect to, say, the conflict in Northern Ireland, and indeed may be playing a role in bringing about peace and tolerance. Even if your religion is involved in a particular conflict, the option is open to you, as a member of that faith, to defend your religion’s position (“we got here first”, or “they keep attacking us”, or whatever), or even to confess that your religion is in the wrong and you join with some of your co-religionists who are trying to right the wrong. You can’t do that if you are trying to defend “religion” in general.

You may devote yourself to Buddhism, or Judaism, or Hinduism, your life may have been changed by Islam, or Christianity, or Zoroastrianism, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who has devoted his life to “religion”.

None of this means that members of different faiths can’t or don’t cooperate to accomplish common goals and to make this world a better place. They do so all the time, as Mr. Blair testified. But they do so as Jews, or Christians, or Muslims, as Roman Catholics, or Presbyterians, or Anglicans. There’s no need to submerge these powerful religious impulses in some amorphous thing called “religion”.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Rich Man and Lazarus -- Updated

There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in fine Italian suits and custom-made shirts, and fared sumptuously every day at the finest restaurants in the city and also at home for verily he employed a cordon bleu chef.

And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at the door of the rich man’s Fifth Avenue coop, full of sores, although not for long because the door man drove him off,

And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table, or with the garbage from the finest restaurants in the city, or even from the worst ones; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.

And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom; the rich man also died, and was buried.

And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.

And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, it doesn’t have to be Evian, even tap water will do, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.

But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted, and thou are tormented.

And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, very much like the door man of your Fifth Avenue coop; so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.

Then he said, but Father Abraham, although I didn’t feed Lazarus the crumbs from my table, all my life I paid very high taxes, you wouldn’t believe how high my taxes were, which supported homeless shelters and soup kitchens and other good things for people like Lazarus. You ought to give me some credit for that.

But Abraham said, Son, you were required to pay your taxes. If you had not done so, the soldiers would have come and thrown you in prison. This shows no love, no charity, for Lazarus.

Then the rich man said, but Father Abraham, that’s not all I did. I voted, and I always voted for the Party of Compassion, and gave the candidates of that Party many silver talents of political contributions through several different PACs, and the candidates of the Party of Compassion promised to raise the taxes on all the rich men in the land, to pay for more homeless shelters and soup kitchens, and many other good things; so if you give me no credit for paying my own taxes, you should give me credit for making other rich men pay more taxes.

But Abraham said, Son, I have said that paying taxes that you are required to pay shows no love or charity for Lazarus. How then can you imagine that making other men pay taxes shows love or charity for Lazarus?

Then the rich man said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldnst send Lazarus to my father’s house;

For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, and tell them they can stop supporting the Party of Compassion, because it won’t keep them from coming into this place of torment; let them support the Party of Frugality, which will lower their taxes and they can eat and drink even more sumptuously before they die.

And Abraham saith unto him, Thou still getteth not the point.

By Eric Von Salzen

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ignorance In The Pew[s]

By Eric Von Salzen

Are religious people more ignorant and less educated than non-religious people? Non-religious people often think so, and may find aid and comfort for that opinion in a survey of “U.S. Religious Knowledge” recently released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Pew concludes that, although “America is one of the most religious of the world’s developed nations”,

[L]arge numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions – including their own.

Indeed, Pew says:

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

On average, Americans answered only half of the 32 “religious knowledge” questions correctly, but atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons got 20-21 right. Protestants got an average score of 16, and Roman Catholics just under 15.

The specific examples of religious ignorance that Pew highlights are:

More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. About half of Protestants (53%) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity. Roughly four-in-ten Jews (43%) do not recognize that Maimonides, one of the most venerated rabbis in history, was Jewish.

I was surprised by these results, because I haven’t found that the religious people I know are ignorant about religion. Besides, I'm a religious person, and I'm not dumb (at least I don't think so). Also, I hate to see more ammunition being provided to the anti-religious zealots.

So I wanted to take a look at the actual questions and answers that led Pew to these conclusions. It wasn’t easy to find them; they aren’t highlighted on the Pew website. But after combing through the text, I found them in Appendix B. On closer examination, they undermine Pew’s facile conclusions that I quoted above.

Let's start with the question about transubstantiation, which 45% of Catholics got wrong. The question reads: “Which of the following best describes Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for Communion?” The two choices are: They “actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ” or they “are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” The first is the “correct” answer to Pew, but it’s incomplete. The Roman Catholic Church, as I understand it, teaches that the bread and wine do become in truth the body and blood of Christ, but also that there is no change in the empirical appearances of the bread and wine; that is, the “substance” of the bread and wine are changed, but their “accidents” are not. Now, I would assume that most Catholics are well-enough indoctrinated to pick the first answer, whether they understand all the details or not – and 55% did get it right – but I can’t get all worked up that a minority picked the other answer. Transubstantiation is a complex theological issue that doesn’t lend itself to a multiple-choice test.

Then there’s Martin Luther, who, Pew says, most (53%) Protestants “cannot correctly identify . . . as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion [sic] a separate branch of Christianity”. The question Pew asked was, “What was the name of the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation?”, and the choices were Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, and John Wesley. Again, this is a badly worded question. I suspect that a number of respondents who gave the “wrong” answer knew who Martin Luther was, but they didn’t know what the phrase “the Protestant Reformation” meant. Of course this phrase is part of the vocabulary of theologians, historians, and history junkies like me, but if you aren’t familiar with the term, its meaning isn’t self-evident. Just from the words, it could refer to a reform of Protestantism, not a revolt against the Roman Catholic Church (perhaps that’s what the 12% of respondents were thinking when they named John Wesley as “the inspiration of the Protestant Reformation”). The dead giveaway that this was a bad question is that Pew, in describing the results, and wanting to emphasize for readers the degree of ignorance the answers to this question represented, felt it necessary to explain what the Protestant Reformation was (“the Protestant Reformation . . . made their [Protestants’] religion [sic, again] a separate branch of Christianity”). If the respondents had been given the benefit of that hint, I think it likely that more than 47% would have gotten the answer right.

And then there’s Maimonides. The question was, “Maimonides was ___”, and the possible answers were, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Mormon, or Hindu. Only 8% of all respondents knew that he was Jewish, but 57% of Jewish respondents did. Again, it’s a bad question. A non-Jew is very unlikely to have heard of Maimonides, unless he/she has studied comparative religion (I don’t even think he’s mentioned in EFM). It seems to me peculiar to ask about Maimonides, but not an equivalent Christian figure, like Thomas Aquinas for example. Of course, the reason Pew picked Maimonides was undoubtedly because his name doesn’t sound Jewish. If the question had been, “What religion was Hillel ben Samuel?” you’d probably have 90% correct answers, even though hardly any respondent would know who he was.

Thus, the three questions that Pew chose to highlight do not, in my view, prove as much about Americans’ "ignorance" about religion as Pew seems to think they do. In fact, the survey as a whole shows that Americans know a lot about religions, their own and others’. Almost three-quarters of respondents knew that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (not Nazareth or Jerusalem, two of the other choices), and a similar number knew that Moses led the exodus from Egypt; more than half knew that the Golden Rule isn’t one of the Ten Commandments, and a like number knew that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son for God. Fully 82% knew that Mother Teresa was Catholic.

Other answers, though, do show surprising ignorance. I was shocked that fewer than half of respondents were able to name the four Gospels correctly. (A few years ago some might have mistakenly named the Gospel of Judas, which for a time received a disproportionate amount of attention in the media, but that’s old news now, I think.) In a survey in which more than three-quarters of respondents identify themselves as Christians, it’s hard to understand this result.

About 2/3 of respondents knew that Zeus was the king of the gods in Greek mythology, but only about a third knew that Vishnu and Shiva are Hindu deities (actually, the question refers to them as “central figures” in a religion). Given the relative number of adherents to these religious traditions, one might infer a shortcoming in our educational systems.

Certainly, those whose job it is to teach religion to children, youth, and adults should see the results of the Pew survey as a challenge, but there’s no reason to despair.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Ingrid Betancourt, a Columbian politician, was kidnapped by FARC guerillas and held captive for six years. She and other hostages were finally freed by Columbian army forces.

Ms. Betancourt has written a book about her experiences, Even Silence Has An End , which I haven’t read and won’t discuss. What I want to call to your attention is a statement from an interview in which Ms. Betancourt talks about her captivity. She said that one of the few books she had access to was the Bible, and she read it over and over again. She described a passage that stuck out:

“It says that when you cross the valley of tears, and you arrive to the oasis, the reward of God is not success, it’s not money, it’s not admiration or fame, it’s not power. His reward is rest. So that’s what I want for me now.”

I think that’s very powerful, particularly given the circumstances in which she read it. But I can’t figure out what Bible passage she’s referring to.

Can you? Please comment.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Love and Hate

Nine years ago this week, the men captured the planes, destroyed the buildings, and committed vast evil against our country.

Since then, w/ 8,000 dead at home and in Asia, w/ trillions of dollars in damages and rebuilding and fighting: we’ve been at war.

Nine years of war, and an economic meltdown, numerous mega-disasters, and extreme weather patterns, and it sure seems like times are tough.

It’s no wonder the current president and his predecessor aren’t too popular.

But, this is -- nothing new. Is it?

The troubles we face in this country didn’t begin on 9/11. Or the 2000 election. Or with Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter or Nixon. Or the deaths of King and Kennedy.

Or Viet Nam, Korea, Two World Wars, or the War Between the States.

No, the troubles we know all to well, are old. They are original troubles. They go all the way back, to just a few moments after the beginning.

In the Garden of Eden.

The issues that plague us -- greed, ego, sloth, profligacy, corpulence, materialism -- and that’s just at Wal-Mart -- are not new issues. They are just old fashioned sin. And that’s what’s wrong.

Disaster, tragedy, scarcity, and war -- the bane of peace, harmony, plenty and all is well -- they are the teeth of sin.

But, welcome to real life.

Real life. It’s a mixed bag. There’s much to love and there’s much to endure. There’s much to fight, and much to flee.

Real life as we know it, began the day humanity learned to disobey God.

The poetic vision of Genesis says we learned to disobey God the day we ate that darn apple, from that darn tree, and our eyes to truly see and hearts to truly love were distorted. Bent. Blurred.

God gave us eyes to see the glorious infinity of all things, and hearts to love with the pure, unconditional love of God.

But, then, in Eden, with that apple, and the infection of sin, our eyes started to see in a new way. Not to glorious infinity, but partial sight. Dim sight. Sight that catches only reflections of the truth, and those bent in such a way that all things look like what we want, or fear, or desire, or hate.

In Eden, when infected by sin, our hearts started to love in a new kind of way. Not with joy, and hope, and unconditional concern for others, but rather with self-interest. Infected by sin, our hearts learned to love not God and neighbor as self; but self, and neighbor when it benefits self.

And from the infection of sin, the distortion of our eyes to color the world as we desire or fear, and the distortion of our hearts to put our selves first, and those allied with our selves, enmity, strife and sorrow have grown and grown.

That’s what Jesus is getting at in his very HARD words this morning.

So, what could Jesus possibly mean when he says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple...”???

Such surprising words from the King of Love, no?

Well. To be sure, we must know that Jesus is setting up a very serious teaching here -- and thus uses extreme language to set the tone and stage.

As well, as a first century rabbi, Jesus speaks out of a context in which Masters required total obedience from Disciples. Rabbis were given undivided loyalty by their pupils. That was the culture of Judaism.

So, partly, when Jesus says, “hate ... family, etc.”, he’s saying “Discipleship requires total obedience, and all other priorities are second.”

Jesus as Master, as Lord, as Teacher of Disciples is thus talking about putting that relationship with him first and foremost.

Also, going deeper, Jesus is talking about the deep corruption of the world by sin, though, and how we must learn to hate its fallenness.

We must learn from God to do away, to shed, to crucify, all those distortions of sin’s infection.

We must shed our selfish sight and selfish loves -- not to become hateful, of course -- but to learn how to truly see and love.


The challenge of today’s Gospel is a real as ever. Do you, do we, really truly see the truth and know how to love?

Examine your loves -- do we love our family -- for their sake? Or for ours.

Do we love our partners and children and siblings for their sake -- or for ours?

Are we truly loving?

Jesus says, the only way to truly love, to truly see, is to begin by opening our hearts to the Lordship of God. By giving our hearts, our eyes, our lives to the Lordship, the Mastery, the Ownership of God.

The promise is that by doing so, our eyes and hearts will be restored to the way they were when God made them. We will begin to see what God sees in all people, and we will begin to truly love God, neighbor and self.

The Gospel says this is the only cure for what ails the world.


Friday, September 3, 2010

"The Grand Design"

By Eric Von Salzen

I’m looking forward to reading Stephen Hawking’s new book , in which he argues that we do not need to believe in God to explain the existence of the universe. Instead, we are to believe in “M-theory”, which involves 11 space-time dimensions, “vibrating strings, ... point particles, two-dimensional membranes, three-dimensional blobs and other objects that are more difficult to picture and occupy even more dimensions of space.” Boy, that’s a relief! Just good old common sense, and none of that religious mumbo-jumbo!

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Cloud of Witnesses

By Eric Von Salzen

A day or two after 9/11, an interfaith meeting was held at my church (St. Alban’s, Washington, DC). It was part of a series of meetings among Christians, Jews, and Muslims that had been going on for quite awhile, but they changed whatever the planned agenda had been for this meeting and focused on the terrorist attacks.

I went and listened to clergy, lay leaders, and regular folks from all three Abrahamic faiths express their shock, their sorrow, and their anger at these vicious attacks on our country. No Christian and no Jew blamed the attacks on Islam, and no Muslim offered any defense of the killers.

I think about the Muslims I heard speak at that meeting when I hear and read about the controversy over the “Ground Zero Mosque”, the proposed Islamic center that the Cordoba Initiative wants to build a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center site. If the Muslims who spoke at St. Alban’s nine years ago want to worship God in that location, how could I object? They were not complicit in the attacks; they are as much enemies of the terrorists as I am.

If the Catholic Church were to propose building a facility two blocks from the site of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, would anyone object on the ground that Timothy McVeigh was raised a Catholic?

But some people do object, including some of the families of people killed at the World Trade Center. We owe it to the memory of those who died to think about the objections seriously. We owe it to ourselves, too, because all Americans were (and are) targets of the terrorists. Platitudes about America’s commitment to religious tolerance – true as they are – are insufficient to answer the objections.

The problem, as I see it, is that the 9/11 killers and those who sent them didn’t just “happen to be” Muslims. Their Muslim faith was the central motive for what they did. They acted out of a deep conviction that Islam sanctioned these actions; more than that, they believed that Islam demanded this action.

The Muslims I heard speak at St. Alban’s that evening rejected that claim. They denied that Islam permits, much less requires, such murderous actions. They condemned as false and un-Islamic the religious claims of the terrorists. I believed them.

The problem that many people have, who oppose the “Ground Zero Mosque”, is that they didn’t hear the Muslims that I heard at St. Alban’s. Most Americans, I believe, don’t know many, or any, Muslims very well. We hear and read that al-Qaida and other Islamic terrorist groups claim to be the “true” Islam, and we don’t have Muslim friends and neighbors and co-workers to tell us, No, that’s not true.

We have the news media, of course, and that’s what most of us rely on to learn about things in the world beyond our own individual experience. Perhaps I read the wrong newspapers, watch the wrong TV shows, read the wrong websites, but I have the sense that the voices of the Muslims I heard at St. Alban’s aren’t being heard very much. I have the sense that most Americans don’t hear, on a regular basis, prominent Muslims and spokespersons for Muslim organizations condemning Islamic religious extremism. The news has been full of Islamic extremism, whether it’s terrorism in the US or the UK or Bali, whether it’s violence or threats of violence against cartoonists who dare to depict the Prophet or movie-makers who criticize Muslim treatment of women, or whether it’s a fatwa against a novelist who criticizes Islam.

What the news has not been full of, so far as I can tell, is Muslim voices condemning Islamic extremism.

So when people hear that Muslims want to build a facility near the “sacred ground” where the World Trade Center once stood, they ask themselves: Are they on our side or on the other side? And they are not confident that the answer is, They’re on our side.

The Cordoba Initiative says that it seeks to improve “Muslim-West relations”. That is a noble goal and something we desperately need. I think they need to ask themselves whether building in this particular location serves that purpose.

(By the way, the photo at the top of this post is not the "Ground Zero Mosque", but what was once the Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain. It is now a Roman Catholic Church. We live in a complicated world.)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Revenge of the Vampires

By Eric Von Salzen

I’m not a big vampire fan (well, in my youth I did envy Bela Lugosi for his suave neck munching), so I’ve never read any of Anne Rice’s innumerable vampire novels. I had heard of her of course, and so I was interested several years ago to hear that she had returned to the Christian religion, specifically to the Roman Catholic Church in which she grew up. She did a radio discussion about this with N. T. Wright in 2006, which is worth listening to. She was in the process of writing a series of novels about the life of Jesus under the overall title Christ The Lord, and she has now published two volumes, subtitled Out of Egypt and The Road to Cana. I recommend both of them.

Now Ms. Rice has announced (on her Facebook page!) that she has left Christianity. She explains:

For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being "Christian" or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to "belong" to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

If that’s not clear enough, she lists several characteristics of Christianity to which she objects, It’s anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-artificial birth control, anti-Democrat, anti-secular humanism, anti-science, and anti-life.

If I took her argument seriously, I guess I’d have to leave Christianity, too, because I also oppose anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-artificial birth control, anti-science, and anti-life positions (and some of my best friends are Democrats and secular humanists). But I’m not leaving.

In part I infer that what Ms. Rice really objects to are positions of the Roman Catholic Church, and she has confused “Christianity” with Roman Catholicism. This is not surprising. When I was growing up (Ms. Rice and I are of an age) a lot of my Roman Catholic friends thought that the only valid form of Christianity was Roman Catholicism (and a lot of my Protestant friends thought the Roman Catholics were mackerel snappers). If she’d said that she’s leaving the Catholic Church for the reasons she cites I wouldn’t question her decision.

But by saying that she’s leaving “Christianity”, and by identifying all these negative characteristics with Christianity, she’s made a fundamental mistake. Although there certainly are Christians who hold the views to which she objects, not all Christians do so. And more important: These positions are not an essential part of Christian belief or Christian theology. Yes, yes, I know that Paul said some beastly things about gays and women, but that doesn’t mean that you have to believe that all gays are idolaters, or that women must be silent in church, in order to be a Christian. Christianity is about faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Savior of Humanity. If Anne Rice remains “committed to Christ as always” (as she says), she’s a Christian whether she likes the name or not.

The other thing that’s wrong with Ms. Rice’s announcement is that it reflects the notion that you shouldn’t be part of an institution that has objectionable people in it. Groucho Marx said he wouldn’t join a club that would accept him as a member, and Ms. Rice won’t belong to a church that has any sinners in it. She’s going to be mighty lonely. She would do well to read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians to help her understand that our church is made up of flawed people, who are nevertheless called to a common faith.

The attitude that Ms. Rice displays is by no means unique to her or to the Roman Catholic Church. It is an attitude that lies behind much of the friction and fragmentation in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, the idea that we won’t sit in the same pews, or kneel at the same rail, with “THEM” (whoever “THEM” are). Ms. Rice describes Christians as “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous”. The description fits not only Christians but all human beings. Yet we are called to break bread together.

When the Holy Spirit touches the heart of Anne Rice and brings her back to the Christian community, she should be welcomed.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Impasse on Women

The Church of England still seems to be having trouble finding its way into the 20th Century. The C of E had previously decided to allow women to become bishops (I look forward to the forthcoming BBC series, The Bishop Of Dibley), but to avoid offending the "traditionalists", the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed that each female bishop be paired with a "complementary" male bishop -- apparently not for the purpose of keeping the flighty little thing from getting her knickers in a twist, but "to minister to traditionalists unwilling to accept a woman as the head of their diocese." So the New York Times reports.

The General Synod, however, has rejected that proposal, leaving the traditionalists with no choice, I suppose, but Rome or a stiff upper lip.

Perhaps, though, the Episcopal Church could regain the favor of the ABC by agreeing to pair each of our gay or lesbian bishops with a "complementary" straight bishop. What do you think?

By Eric Von Salzen

Monday, June 28, 2010

Sunday, June 20, 2010


By Eric Von Salzen

As Christians we believe in a peculiar kind of God. The God we believe in not only created the heavens and the earth, but this God also loves us, each one of us, as a father loves a child. We have this on the authority of the Son of God himself.

It must have seemed quite remarkable to the followers of Jesus that he addressed God as his father, and even used the word Abba, which implied an intimate family relationship with God. But then, perhaps his followers said to each other, Jesus could say this because he was something special. Even before they began to realize who Jesus truly was, they thought he was at least a prophet, and perhaps even the Messiah, the Anointed One, someone with a really special relationship to God. The son of the Emperor in Rome might call Caesar “Daddy”.

But no, that wasn’t it. Jesus told them that God was their father, too, and they should address him the same way he did. That had to be shocking. The God who created the entire universe, the God who spoke from Mount Sinai in the thunder and lightning and smoke, the God who feeds the young lions and made leviathan for sport, the God that only Moses could talk to face to face, and even he not always – this God they were to call Daddy?

And what kind of father this God was! In what must be his most famous parable, Jesus described a father running to greet his returning prodigal son and throwing his arms around him. This is a father who casts aside his dignity for the love of his child. In our mind’s eye we see the old man running up the dusty road toward the distant figure of his son, his white hair streaming behind him, his robes flapping around his pumping legs, perhaps a lost sandal left behind in the dirt. Is this how we are to imagine the God who answered Job out of the whirlwind and told him how he made Behemoth and Leviathan? Is he that kind of father?

Yes, just that kind of father.

I know that there are some among us to whom the word father does not arouse warm and fuzzy feelings. Fathers are sometimes abusive, irresponsible, cruel, deadbeats, aloof, or absent. Jesus clearly didn’t have fathers like that in mind when he called God Daddy and said that we should, too. It was the earthly Jesus who said these things, before he died and rose again, and I can’t help but think that he was influenced by the example of his earthly father, Joseph. I have a warm spot in my heart for Joseph, because, like me, he was a stepfather. The scriptures don’t tell us much about the kind of father Joseph was, but we can infer that he was the kind of father Jesus wanted his followers to think of when he described God as their father. This kind of father.

I’m fortunate. I had that kind of father. I wish I’d had him longer – I was 33 when he died – but I knew what a father is supposed to be, thanks to him. Now, a generation later, I see my stepson being a father to his three wonderful little girls, and I learn again what a father is supposed to be.

Happy Father’s Day.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Is The Archbishop of Canterbury Next?

The Telegraph reports from London:

Christian preacher arrested for saying homosexuality is a sin.

It couldn't happen here, of course. We have our First Amendment. But I guess it can happen in the UK. Where could it lead, do you suppose?

By Eric Von Salzen

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Theology of Marriage - Robert Wright Article

From the Diocese of North Carolina's Bishop's Task Force on the Theology of Marriage, which I chaired this past year. This piece is from Robert Wright (a GTS board member, Duke University development officer, and active member of Chapel of the Cross, in Chapel Hill.) -- Greg

Robert E. Wright

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “Whether you can make words mean so many different things?”
"The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master? – That’s all.”

This conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Lewis Carroll's classic Through the Looking Glass sounds in many ways like the arguments now being waged in Anglicanism over matters of human sexuality and ecclesiology. On one side are those who cite church canons regarding property held in trust within a hierarchical church, as well as the Nicene tradition of respecting diocesan and provincial boundaries. On the other side are those who cite Scripture and Tradition regarding who may be considered eligible for marriage and ordination. Each side, in a sense, is playing Humpty Dumpty, regarding how the church's authoritative texts are to be interpreted with regard to sexual ethics as well as the ecclesiology of the church.

An Augustinian Hermeneutic
To be sure, now we all look through the glass darkly, but with Tradition and Reason as sources of illumination, we may more clearly look through the window of Scripture to see God's face. In particular, from our Tradition, St. Augustine sheds much light on our discernment. Perhaps the late 4th-early 5th century African bishop offers us a way out of the game Humpty Dumpty seeks to play, about who gets to be 'master' of what authoritative texts must mean to us. In particular, the Augustinian hermeneutic offers help as the church wrestles with marriage and our desire to faithfully interpret the Bible, as we also seek to include partnered Christians who are gay and lesbian into the sacramental life of the church.

In his treatise On Christian Doctrine, begun c. 396, Augustine wrote:

Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way. (I.36.40)

Later he elaborates, situating the interpretation of Scripture in the context of the entire canon and not proof-texting:

For he who examines the divine eloquence, desiring to discover the intention of the author through whom the Holy Spirit created the Scripture, whether he attains this end or finds another meaning in the words not contrary to right faith, is free from blame if he has evidence from some other place in the divine books. For the author himself may have seen the same meaning in the words we seek to understand. And certainly the Spirit of God, who worked through that author, undoubtedly foresaw that this meaning would occur to the reader or the listener. Rather, He provided that it might occur to him, since that meaning is dependent upon truth. For what could God have more generously and abundantly provided in the divine writings than that the same words might be understood in various ways which other no less divine witnesses approve? (III.27.38)

The premise of Augustine’s interpretive principle lies in the distinction between charity (caritas) and cupidity (cupiditas). As he defines these terms:

I call “charity” the motion of the soul toward the enjoyment of God for His own sake, and the enjoyment of one’s self and of one’s neighbor for the sake of God; but “cupidity” is a motion of the soul toward the enjoyment of one’s self, one’s neighbor, or any corporal thing for the sake of something other than God. (III.10.16)

In other words, the “master” of the text (to use Humpty’s term) is not the human author or those who would have interpreted his words in the historical, social, or cultural context within which they were written, but rather God himself who as Logos is the true author and whose words are always to be interpreted in terms of the law of charity. Of this principle he writes:

. . . every student of the Divine Scriptures must exercise himself, having found nothing else in them except, first, that God is to be loved for Himself, and his neighbor for the sake of God; second, that he is to love God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his mind; and third, that he should love his neighbor as himself, that is, so that all love for our neighbor should, like all love for ourselves, be referred to God. (II.7.10)

Later in the work, he explains that this interpretive principle may be applied as well to secular, even pagan, texts.

Augustine applies this principal in determining whether certain texts are to be interpreted literally or figuratively. He quotes the Apostle, “For the letter killeth, but the spirit quickeneth,” commenting, “That is, when that which is said figuratively is taken as though it were literal, it is understood carnally . . . He who follows the letter takes figurative expressions as though they were literal and does not refer the things signified to anything else.” As an example, Augustine notes that “if he hears of the Sabbath, he thinks only of one day out of the seven that are repeated in a continuous cycle . . .” and cites the scribes and Pharisees’ accusations against Jesus for performing healings on the Sabbath. (III.5.9-10)

An Expanded Interpretation of Marriage?
Two remarkable resolutions passed by successive General Conventions of The Episcopal Church in 2000 and 2003, together with the legalization of same-gender marriage first in Massachusetts in 2004 and subsequently in several other states, have effectively changed the terms and the context of the church's debate over the blessing of same-gender unions. Whereas the conversation once tended to be about same-gender partnerships, envisioning them as alternative types of human relationship wholly other than 'marriage,' now people began to be asking whether or not marriage was what we were talking about for everybody - whether straight or gay.

The first, passed by the 73rd General Convention meeting in Denver, stated in part:

Resolved, That we acknowledge that while the issues of human sexuality are not yet resolved, there are currently couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in marriage and couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in other life-long committed relationships; and be it further
Resolved, That we expect such relationships will be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God; and be it further
Resolved, That we denounce promiscuity, exploitation, and abusiveness in the relationships of any of our members; and be it further
Resolved, That this Church intends to hold all its members accountable to these values, and will provide for them the prayerful support, encouragement, and pastoral care necessary to live faithfully by them . . .

The second, passed by the 74th General Convention meeting in Minneapolis, reaffirmed the resolve that defined the positive qualities of such relationships and added:

Resolved, That we recognize that local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions.

I believe, these two resolutions point not to the formation of a new category of domestic partnership - which might be available to persons of any sexual orientation - nor do they represent an altogether new vision of marriage itself. Rather, they point to an evolved interpretation of traditional marriage, whereby it may begin to be understood as appropriate for same-gender couples as well as mixed-gender couples.

When one asks how this might be in light of Scripture and Tradition, it is here that I believe Augustine's hermeneutic of charity - when applied to biblical and traditional texts - is the key to this new understanding of how that may faithfully be.

For example, in Genesis' first creation account, we encounter the words: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1.27) In the second creation account, we encounter the words: “God said, 'it is not good that man should be alone, I will make him a helper as his partner." And, "then the man said, This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. " (Gen 2:18&23)

As a Christian who is gay, I interepret these passages to have little to do with purely physically determined gender complementarity, as much as with the personal complementarity that I know to be possible between two persons of the same gender who love each other intimately. Moreover, I see in these passages a calling to mutuality and partnership - as checks against solitude or selfishness, and the sacred vocation partnered persons have to accompany and serve each other faithfully. According to the Augustinian hermeneutic, I interpret these passages in light of how they reveal to me a godly form of life rooted in the love of God and of neighbor as self.
By the same hermeneutic, a reading of Matthew 22 demonstrates God's will for a principled inclusion to all sorts of persons to the wedding feast of God's Kingdom. Such an principled approach would apply not only to the guests, who are all invited but also expected to abide by a set of agreed groundrules ('the wearing of the wedding garment'), but also the couple sealing their covenant with one another, with God, and with the community of faith.

In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine writes, “. . . every good and true Christian should understand that wherever he may find truth, it is his Lord’s” (II.18.28) Many now believe that The Episcopal Church is called to expand its understanding of marriage - not to make the word mean many things or just any thing - as Humpty Dumpty would do. No, many believe that under an Augustinian hermeneutic of charity, in which we believe the "love of God and of neighbor as self" is the master of our authoritative texts, we may understand marriage to be an honorable estate which includes persons of same-gender affection.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Tough Guy

By Eric Von Salzen

I’m not a big fan of Lent. Lent makes me think about things I’d just as soon not think about. In Lent — and particularly in this week, this Holy Week — we’re supposed to think about some very unpleasant things, like betrayal, cowardice, oppression, injustice, violence, torture, pain, and death.

Of course, the discomfort of hearing about these things is eased for us by the fact that we know where it is leading: To Easter and the Resurrection. We’ve already read the last chapter of the book, seen the final reel of the movie; we know how it’s going to come out.

But the people who lived through those events didn’t know that everything was going to turn out all right in the end. Even though Jesus had told them what was going to happen, they didn’t understand it, they didn’t believe it. They didn’t believe it when he told them he was going to be killed, and when he was killed they didn’t believe that he would rise, although he’d told them that, too.

When Jesus was arrested, condemned, and taken to the place of execution, the Disciples thought that it would be all over if Jesus died. And he did die. How terrible that must have been for the Disciples, and for Jesus’ family and friends. Unlike us, they didn’t know that Easter was coming.

And yet, even in those dark days, before anyone knew there would be an Easter, there was the shining light of redemption. And it came at the worst hour of those ghastly days: the crucifixion itself.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified with two criminals — or robbers, or bandits, or thieves, depending on the translation. And Matthew and Mark tell us that these thieves joined in with the Roman soldiers, and the chief priests and scribes, and the others who gathered below the crosses, in mocking and reviling Jesus.

But Luke tells a fuller story. He says that one of the thieves did indeed mock Jesus, saying, “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and save us!”

Think about that. Here is this criminal, who has been condemned to death, to a painful and dishonorable death. And while that terrible sentence is being carried out on him, he takes the time to mock another human being who is under the same sentence and is suffering the same agonies that he is suffering.

Why did he do that?

Luke tells us that the thief spoke after the Roman soldiers said much the same thing to Jesus, and I think the thief was seeking the soldiers’ approval by joining in with them. The thief was proud of himself for being a tough guy, and he wanted the Roman soldiers – and everyone knew that they were toughest guys around – to know that he was a tough guy, too, he was really one of them, even though they were torturing and killing him at the time. He wanted their respect. So he mocked the man dying on the next cross.

To the first thief, it was important that he be respected by the tough guys, by the people that he respected, and he hoped that they would remember him as a tough guy even after his death. Perhaps they did. For awhile.

But the second thief didn’t join in the mockery. On the contrary, he rebuked his fellow thief. (I’m drawing an inference when I call him a “fellow thief”. Luke doesn’t tell us whether the two thieves knew each other. But the second thief says to the first:

“We have been condemned justly; we are getting what we deserve for our deeds.”

So it sounds to me as though the two thieves knew each other pretty well.)

And then the second thief goes on to say that Jesus “has done nothing wrong.”

Now, if that were the whole story, it would be powerful enough. It would be the story of a condemned criminal, suffering and dying for his crimes, able to see that the man suffering beside him was innocent, and using his last breath to testify to that man’s innocence.

But there is more than that to the story. For then the second thief speaks to Jesus and says: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

The second thief understands that Jesus is just who we (who have read the last chapter of the book) know that He is: The Messiah, the Christ. The second thief knows that after the crucifixion Jesus will come into His kingdom.

Think about that: It will not be until the third day that the Disciples realize what a dying thief knows on day one.

The two thieves offer us two very different visions of what is important in life. Like the first thief, we can seek the approval of those people that we think are important in our world, by doing and saying what they do and say, or what we think that they want us to do and say, and we can hope that they will respect us as their kind of person and even remember us, for awhile, after we’re gone.

Or, we can follow the second thief, and ask Jesus to remember us.

And if we do ask, the promise is there. Because what Jesus said to the second thief was: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

“You will be with me in Paradise.”


Two days before Easter.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Prayer Card

By Eric Von Salzen

The other day, a Roman Catholic friend enclosed a prayer card with my birthday card. It was a “Prayer For Judges”. I’m a lawyer, and I supposed my friend couldn’t find any prayers for lawyers (we’re hopeless, I guess), and sent the next best thing.

It wasn’t, though, a prayer to support judges in their difficult but important work, or a prayer that God grant them wisdom and discernment. It was a prayer about abortion.

The Prayer For Judges said that judges had legalized abortion by putting their own opinions ahead of God’s Law, and it called on judges to start applying God’s Law and end abortion. I can’t quote it exactly, because I didn’t keep it.

Now the fact is, I oppose abortion, and I think that Rowe v. Wade was wrongly decided. There’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution that prohibits states from regulating or prohibiting abortion. The Supreme Court majority did read its own social and moral values into the Constitution in reaching its decision. I don’t think judges should do that. To that extent, I agree with whoever wrote the Prayer For Judges.

But my mother taught me as a little boy that two wrongs don’t make a right. If it was wrong for the Supreme Court majority to impose their social and moral values on the country by legalizing abortion, it would be just as wrong for different judges to impose their notion of God’s Law to end abortion. The Constitution doesn’t embody the personal opinions of Harry Blackmun, nor does it embody the religious convictions of the Conference of Bishops or the College of Cardinals. Or even of The Godfather.

But judges are a special case. The rest of us, as citizens in a democratic republic, as voters, as writers of letters to the editor, as participants in political parties or tea parties, certainly have the right to use God’s Law, as we understand it, in deciding what policies are right and wrong, and therefore what candidates do and don’t merit our support at the polls. And as Christians that’s what we think we ought to do, isn’t it?

Of course, translating our religious convictions into political choices isn’t easy, and in this post I’m not going to discuss how we decide, based on God’s Law, who we should vote for, or what policies we should support. That’s too big an issue. I’m going to focus on a narrower issue: How our religious faith figures in the way we talk about political issues, and how we try to persuade our fellow citizens to support the positions and candidates we favor.

And the first thing you notice, when you think about that issue is that we don’t often use religious arguments when we try to persuade people to support whatever position it is that we advocate. Our religious convictions may lead us to support or oppose particular policies or candidates; but when we try to persuade others to join us, we don’t usually do so by telling them that it’s God’s will.

One of the reasons we don’t do so is because we know that it generally won’t work. If someone doesn’t share your religious convictions, or isn’t sure what he or she believes in that regard, the religious argument is unlikely to persuade them to support the policy or candidate that you support. Before the religious argument could be effective you’d have to first persuade them that your religious view are right; you’d have give them a full-fledged indoctrination in your religious tradition, and persuade them to embrace it. If you succeed in doing that, you’ll have accomplished a conversion and may have saved a soul, but by the time you do so, the election will be long since over. So when we try to persuade those who don’t already agree with us on a political issue, we usually don’t base our arguments on religious principles, even if those are why we support of oppose the policies we do. We try to construct arguments based whatever values they already have.

Another reason that we usually don’t use religious arguments when we are trying to persuade others to support our positions is that we sense that such arguments can be divisive in a society like ours, with a wide variety of religious and secular faiths. Divisive arguments are sometimes necessary, but we try to avoid them if we can. Suppose I want to persuade someone to support teaching Creationism in the public schools. If I argue that the Bible says that God created the world in seven days so it must be true, no matter what atheist scientists say to the contrary, not only will my argument fail to convince someone who isn’t already a Biblical literalist, I will offend non-fundamentalists and drive them away from my position. A more effective approach might be to argue that the schools should present both sides of controversial issues, because that’s being open minded and tolerant of the views of those we disagree with. We all like to think we’re tolerant, don’t we?

A third, and critical, reason not to use religious beliefs in political discussions is that religious beliefs tend to be about ends, and political issues tend to be about means. Christian religious beliefs, for example, may lead you to believe that you have a moral duty to help the poor, but they won’t tell you whether raising the minimum wage will help the poor or hurt them; for that you need economics. Your religious principles may lead you to want to free the oppressed, to protect the helpless, to stop the evil doer, but whether it’s possible to do this by military action, or diplomacy, or covert action – or whether under the circumstances the best thing to do is admit our helplessness in the face of evil – requires knowledge, experience, and expertise that must be found elsewhere than in scripture.

It’s not impossible to find political issues that can be resolved (for some) solely on religious grounds, but it’s not common either. In writing this post, I’ve used abortion and Creationism as examples of political issues that, for a lot of people (not all, by any means), can be resolved on purely religious grounds. I’m hard-pressed to think of a lot of other examples.

So we generally don’t rely on religious arguments to persuade others to agree with us on political issues or candidates. Yet religious beliefs – or our understanding of God’s Law, to go back to the Prayer For Judges – are important to political decision-making. To many of us, religious principles underlie our political principles, even though we don’t use religious values to explain our politics to others who don’t share them. Our religious beliefs may give us the courage, the energy, and the endurance to pursue political goals. Religious principles may also help us to energize others, who share our beliefs, to join in trying to implement them. The civil rights movement is an obvious example. So is the Prayer For Judges; it probably won’t persuade Protestant or secularist pro-choicers to become pro-lifers, but it may rally Roman Catholic pro-lifers to try harder to support a cause they already believe in.

The other day, I saw another example of how religion can be used to support political advocacy. The Raleigh paper ran a front-page story about people, hit by hard economic times, increasing their use of food assistance programs. The paper illustrated the story with a photo of an out-of-work father and his two daughters holding hands as they say grace over a meal made possible by government food assistance. Leave aside the question whether such advocacy belongs in a news story, and just focus on how effective it is. It’s effective because we think that religious people, those who pray before meals, are good, hard-working folks, who are more likely to give a hand-out than take one. If they need this kind of help, aren’t we glad they can get it? It’s a picture worth a thousand words.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Comment Moderation Turned OFF

Sorry for the delay in publishing comments --- I have turned moderation off. So -- moderate yourselves! Thanks so much. My apologies.

Monday, March 1, 2010

“. . . Until an Opportune Time”

By Eric Von Salzen

Today is my birthday. No, I’m not hinting for cards or presents. I’ve been thinking. Today I’m 67. In 1976, my father died, a few days short of his 67th birthday. I’m now having the birthday my father didn’t get to have.

At the time, I thought that my father’s death was awfully premature. I didn’t, though, realize then how very young 67 is. I do now. Sixty-seven is no age at all. If it weren’t for Social Security and my AARP card, I wouldn’t even call myself a senior citizen, much less “elderly”. I feel like a youngster of 50. Most of the time anyway.

So did my father, until the brain tumor. So, as I said, I’ve been thinking.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is cancer. I hate cancer. Cancer killed my father. Cancer killed my best friend from prep school when he was barely 50. Cancer killed other friends in their 50’s and 60’s. When I was 15 I had a friend at YMCA summer camp; he didn’t come back the next summer; he’d died of leukemia. Most of the people I know who died prematurely died from cancer.

Of course, one of the reasons for that is that science has defeated so many other diseases that in earlier times would have killed us before cancer got to us. My father, for example, came back from Ethiopia, where he’d been a medical missionary for six months, with tuberculosis. He hadn’t contracted the disease there, though; it turns out he’d had a latent case of TB since his youth, and it became active when he got rundown and exhausted in Ethiopia. Dad thought it was interesting to contemplate that if that disease he’d been carrying had become active years earlier, before the antibiotics to treat it were developed after WW II, it would likely have killed him. As it was, a course of drugs and a couple of months in a sanatorium, and he was cured. Until the cancer got him five years later.

I hate cancer. There’s no excuse for it. I don’t understand why God created it. Of course I know that earthly life is not supposed to be perfect. That’s what makes it earthly. If it were perfect it would be Heaven. I accept that in this world we must bear mosquitoes and hurricanes and Rosie O’Donnell and other greater and lesser tribulations, but isn’t that enough? Must there also be cancer?

The other thing I’ve been thinking about is eternal life. That’s the great promise of Christianity. It’s only natural that we would think about it more as the span of earthly life ahead of us grows shorter. But what does it mean, this “eternal life”?

If you listen to some “liberal” Christians (I hate using political terminology for a religious category, but what can you do?), the Christian promise of eternal life means a fuller and richer life while we’re here on earth, not something we get later after we die. That’s what the Unitarian minister said she believed in the discussion with Christopher Hitchens that I wrote about in “. . . A Knife to a Gunfight.” Well, there’s surely some truth in that. I know that Christianity has made my own life better, and happier, and more fulfilled than it was before. But I don’t think that’s all there is to it.

Certainly that’s not what the first Christians believed. They didn’t risk life and limb, endure imprisonment, torture, and death, to obtain a richer and more fulfilled life here on earth. I can’t imagine Peter, dying crucified upside down, saying to himself that it was the rich experiences of his earthly life that made it all worthwhile. The first Christians, the ones who actually heard Jesus, thought that when he spoke of eternal life he meant something beyond this earthly life, something after and greater. They thought that when he said “eternal life” he meant, well, eternal life.

The other side of the coin is the idea that life here on earth really doesn’t matter, except as a pathway to Heaven. I remember that on a television show about Heaven some years ago, one of the talking heads, a Roman Catholic priest, said that the entire purpose of life here on earth is to get into Heaven when we die. Well, in a way that’s just common sense. As the old saying goes, life’s short, and you’re a long time dead. If you have to balance the importance of your three score years and ten (or four score and seven years, or whatever modern medicine gives you) of life on earth against eternity, then it’s just logical that where you’re going to spend eternity is the most important issue.

The problem is, while we’re living life here on earth it seems pretty important. What happens later seems remote, no matter how important logic tells us that it is. And that perhaps is why Jesus took the time in his ministry to tell us how to have a richer, fuller life while we are here on earth. Doesn’t the Sermon on the Mount, at least in part, tell us about how to live a good life on earth? Isn’t that what the Parable of the Good Samaritan is about? If the only thing that counts is getting into Heaven when we die, why shouldn’t the Samaritan leave the traveler to die in the ditch, as the priest and the Levite did, and let him go to Heaven sooner rather than later? Is the only reason why we should resist casting the first stone, and should forgive those who trespass against us, and so forth that that’s how we get into Heaven? Aren’t these ways of living better on earth?

Perhaps I’ve created a false dichotomy when I contrast the opinions of the “liberal” minister and the conservative priest. Perhaps the way that we’re told will get us into Heaven is often the way that will also get us a better life here on earth. Not always, of course. If we’re called to be saints or martyrs, well then “rich full life” (in the conventional sense) may not be on the menu. Then the promise of eternal life has got to get us through.

And even for those of us who are not called to be saints or martyrs, the promise of eternal life is part of what can make our life here on earth as full and rich as possible. Life at its best nevertheless includes its disappointments, its tragedies, its pains, its losses. I’m not sure that age brings wisdom, but it does provide perspective. There comes a time when you realize that there are dreams that will not be fulfilled, that the crest of the hill is behind you, that dusk is falling. The promise of eternal life perhaps begins to shine more brightly then.

Imagine life as a night at the opera. If you don’t care for opera, then just imagine any opera. If you love opera, then imagine your least-favorite opera, sung by uninspired singers, with a mediocre orchestra. It isn’t a completely wasted evening. Even poor singers may perform a particular song well. The costumes may be colorful. The sets may be imaginative. But it does drag on.

Now suppose that after the opera is over, you know that you will be joining good friends, or a loved one, for a feast, with your favorite foods and libations; you will be able to share with them what was good, and what was disappointing, about the opera. Don’t you think that this knowledge would make it easier to bear the soprano who can’t quite reach the high notes? Wouldn’t this make you more likely to appreciate the rich-voiced basso in the small role?

Or suppose on the other hand that you have nothing to look forward to after the opera. Wouldn’t that make it even harder to bear?

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking about.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

“. . . A Knife to a Gunfight”

By Eric Von Salzen

In a comment to a recent post of mine, a commenter (Chris H.) referred to a post on the Anglican Curmudgeon blog about a discussion “between atheist author [Christopher] Hitchens and a progressive priest” as proof that “liberalism [is] as damaging to faith as Creationism”. Point well taken.

The Curmudgeon was kind enough to link to one of my Anglican Centrist posts a couple of months ago, and I’m happy to link to one of his.

In The Kingdom Of The Blind provides excerpts from a discussion between the fervent atheist Christopher Hitchens and a retired Unitarian minister (not, thank goodness, a priest). Although the minister describes herself as a Christian, she believes that the God, Christ, and the scriptures are true only “metaphorically”. It’s the atheist who has the best line:

[I]f you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Amen, brother.

This discussion proves – if the point needed proving – how useless it is for professed Christians to try to make their religion acceptable to secularists by diluting all the “God stuff” out of it. The secularists won’t buy it; why should they? And commenter Chris H. (not to be confused, I trust, with Christopher Hitchens) is right that it damages our faith.

The Anglican Curmudgeon is too kind in the title to his post (if he means that the Unitarian minister is the one-eyed person in the kingdom of the blind). I think the title I’ve chosen for this post describes the situation about right.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Can You Go Home?

Can you go home?

As Buechner tells us, a longing for home is a universal human thing. We all long for home...where it's safe, and warm, and comforting. Home's a place we were made for -- and we've tried to make them wherever we can, whether cave, caravan or condo.*

Since God knit us together in our mothers' wombs, we have yearned to be connected, cared for, and expected at home.

But, can you go home?

Home is what we long to go to -- and come from -- and work towards. And yet, so much of this life involves our leaving home. In good ways and bad.

Certainly a big part of growing up is leaving home, and making a new one.

But, can you go home?

Jesus had a hard time at home. Consider his home life. His first home was a barn. Then he lived on the lamb in Egypt as a refugee from Herod. Then he was raised in a podunk town. And in his religious homelife -- the synagogue where he knew them all and spent his faithful young life tried to kill him, and the Temple which he called "His Father's House" did eventually get him killed.

Yes, even Jesus had it hard at home (and his parents were saints.)

What about you?

Home, like life, can be a mixture of hopes and hurts. Maybe like Jesus you feel you cannot be yourself when you return home -- either to parents, family, hometown, friends, or whatever. Maybe you don't now. Maybe you've had to start a new life, away from too much hurt at home, and not enough hope.

I think we all struggle to match the inner yearning for home with the realities of where we are.

Jesus presents the Good News in an interesting way. I believe he presents the Kingdom of God as the fulfillment of our longing for home. If one substitutes the word 'home' for 'Kingdom' you can see what I mean. Imagine if he said, "home is a place of enrichment, it is good news for the poor in body, mind and soul." Or, "home is a place of liberation, not captivity." Or, "home is a place of light and vision, not shadow."

Jesus tells us that God's dream is that all people have a home like this -- ideally on earth as in heaven.

The Good News of Jesus is that He has come to build the way to that home, and to offer us the building materials for building such heavenly homes on earth (as best we can with God's help.)

The building materials of such homes are grace, mercy, forgiveness, and above all, love. Love not for self, but for other.

These building materials are precious, and of course, we can't forge them ourselves. This is where our prayer life and corporate life in Christ come in -- we must obtain all we need to build our Kingdom homes from the Maker himself.

Can you go home? Allow Christ to bring you by His way.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Who Do You Trust?

By Eric Von Salzen

My first exposure to the philosophy of science was in the 6th grade, when we learned about Galileo dropping two balls off the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The lesson was that for centuries everyone had thought that a heavier weight fell faster than a lighter weight, because that’s what the Greek philosophers said. But no one had actually tested that proposition through an experiment, until Galileo. He did the experiment and proved that the two balls of different weights fell at the same speed.

Thus, we were told, it is unscientific (and hence incorrect) to base a conclusion on what some authority figure tells us. Rather, we should base our conclusions on what we learn from actual observations and experiments.

From then on, I and (so far as I know) everyone else in the class have believed that two balls of different weights fall at the same speed. But none of us ever did an experiment to find out if that was true. We believed it because that’s what our teacher and the science book told us. We believed it because the authority figures in our lives told us it was so.

And the fact is that, as a practical matter, we have to rely on authority figures – on experts – for a huge amount of our knowledge. We simply lack the time or ability to find out everything for ourselves through experiments and observations. I believe that the world is round, but I’ve never been around it; I believe the people who say it’s round; I believe the photographs that people tell me are pictures of the Earth taken from space. I believe (sticking with the globe example) that when Lord Cornwallis surrendered to the American and French forces at Yorktown, the band played “The World Turned Upside Down”, but I wasn’t there to hear it, and so far as I know I’ve never heard that song.

I believe that light travels at about 186,000 miles per second, but I’ve never measured the speed of light, and I don’t believe that I would be capable of doing so if I tried. (I remember reading that in the 19th century they tried to measure the speed of light by having guys flash lanterns at each other between distant hill tops and seeing how much time passed between the flash and the response; it didn’t work, because light moves too fast for that kind of experiment. I couldn’t do better.)

We believe a lot of things because we believe what we’ve been told, not because we’ve done experiments. But there’s more to it than simple credulity. Although I can’t replicate the Michaelson-Morley experiment, I have read innumerable books and articles that say that light travels at around 186,000 mps: books about astronomy and quantum physics, articles about communications satellites, histories of science, and so forth. According to these sources, the speed of light is interwoven into the fabric of the world I see around me. These books and articles were written by professors at renowned universities. It’s hard to believe that Oxford University would hire a professor who asserted that light traveled at that speed if that assertion were not widely regarded as correct. How do I know that Oxford University is widely respected? Because I’ve read that it is respected in books, magazines, and newspaper articles too numerous to count.

In other words, although my belief that light travels at 186,000 mps is not supported by any experiment that I have performed, it isn’t supported merely by the assertion of one or a few authoritative voices either. It is supported by a web of cross-authenticating authorities, a vast structure of authority.

Almost everything that almost everyone believes, outside of his or her own immediate personal experience, is supported by such a web of authentication. If someone asserts something that’s contrary to that web of authentication, we tend to reject it. If someone tells me that the Apollo astronauts never landed on the moon, that the whole thing was faked in a movie studio, I can’t prove that the assertion is wrong – I saw the lunar landing on television, in the Day Room of an Army barracks (Charlie Company, 3d Battalion, 2d Brigade) at Fort Bliss, TX. It could have been faked; it was nowhere near as realistic as the special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But to believe that the lunar landing was faked would require that I tear apart a whole web of authorities that authenticate it, and it would take more than a plausible assertion to persuade me to do that.

Of course, the web does get torn apart from time to time. That was what Galileo did when he dropped the balls off the Leaning Tower. It’s what Michaelson and Morley did, inadvertently, when they found that the speed of light is constant in every direction regardless of the movement of the light source through the "luminiferous aether". Whole new webs were woven as a result of the work of these scientists. In the last couple of months, the web authenticating the theory of human-caused global warming has been frayed by revelations of scientific misconduct by several global warming scientists and scientific institutions. I’m not a climate scientist. I don’t know whether the Earth is warming or not – I’m looking out my window at snow and ice as I write – and I certainly don’t know what’s causing the warming if it is happening. But there was a web of authentication supporting that theory, in the form of books and articles by respected and credentialed scientists and by popularizers of science, even an academy-award winning documentary based on the work of climate scientists. Now we’ve learned that some of the scientists making up that web have been hiding their data so independent scientists couldn’t check it, have been using their influence to prevent the publication of differing conclusions in scientific journals, have presented data in misleading ways, have used unreliable, non-peer-reviewed, and apparently incorrect sources for some of their conclusions. As a result, it’s become much harder for a layman to say, "I believe in anthropogenic global warming because the scientists say it’s true, and they should know." The community of climate scientists now has to reweave the web of authentication before we non-experts can again accept their conclusions with the same confidence we used to have.

The web of authentication is important. Whatever the scientific truth may be, it was reckless and irresponsible for those scientists to risk damaging it.

Which brings us to religion (I discuss only the Christian religion, as I am unqualified to discuss any other). Religious belief, too, is supported by a web of authentication. We Anglicans are familiar with Hooker’s three-legged stool, of scripture, reason, and tradition; that’s just a different metaphor for what I’ve been calling a web. None of us was “there when they crucified my Lord”. If we believe that the event happened, we believe because “the Bible tells me so”, we believe because historical evidence and inference support it, and we believe because thoughtful Christians have believed it for two thousand years and given us good reasons for their beliefs. We can say that our belief is supported by Hooker’s three-legged stool, or by the Godfather’s web of authentication; the point is the same.

(In addition to the stool or the web, some Christians have had an experience of Christ in their own lives that compels belief in the Christian message, in a way that a hot day in August doesn’t compel belief in global warming. But even so, the web of authentication is likely to be an important part of why we believe what we believe.)

The web of authentication of Christian belief is vital, and it would be as reckless and irresponsible of us to tear its fabric, as it was of the East Anglia climate scientists to tear the fabric of the web authenticating global warming.

There are undoubtedly many challenges to the web of Christian belief, but there’s one that I want to mention here: Biblical literalism. Literalism is perhaps most frequently seen in the form of Creationism or its more sophisticated progeny, Intelligent Design, so I’ll start there, but not end there.

I hesitate the call Creationism a threat to the web of authentication of Christian belief, because I know that for many Christians it seems to be part of the web supporting their belief. If the reason that you believe that Jesus Christ died and rose again is that it says so in the Bible, and the Bible is the literal and inerrant truth, then you should also believe that God created the world and all its creatures in seven days, because it says that in the Bible, too. The problem is that the latter is not true. No matter how much you wish it to be so, it isn’t. The web authenticating the billions-of-years history of the Earth and the billion-year development of its present and former life forms is overwhelming. If you insist that the truth of the Gospels is the same as the truth of Genesis 1 and 2, you’ve built your house on sand. Worse, to the extent that you convince others that to believe in the message of Christ they must disbelieve in science you’ve set up a stumbling block in their path to Christian faith.

Now my guess is that on this blog I’m pretty much preaching to the choir in disagreeing with Creationism. If there are Creationists in the Episcopal Church, I’ve missed them. But there are still literalists among us. Quite a few. They are the ones who say that our church must exclude gays and lesbians from our clergy and limit their participation in our community, because of what it says in a few passages in Leviticus and a couple of Paul’s Epistles. These are the ones who will not listen to what modern psychiatrists and psychologists have to tell us about human sexuality, just as the Creationists will not listen to what modern geologists and biologists have to tell us about the Earth and its creatures. Like the Creationists, they create a stumbling block to Christian faith in the way of many.

Think about the web of authentication that supports Christian belief in Twenty-First Century America. And think about where that web is weakest and most vulnerable. If your version of Christianity excludes gays and lesbians you will of course limit your membership to some extent, but that’s not really the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that the reason you would exclude gays and lesbians is that you refuse to think about the meaning and application of passages from scriptures written 2,500 or 2,000 years ago. Much of our scriptures are that old, and it is not self-evident that we should govern our lives by them today. We have to be able to explain intelligently why these particular authorities still remain valid and compelling. If we are unable to distinguish Leviticus 18:22 from Luke 10:37, if we insist that to be a Christian one must follow both teachings because they're both in the Bible, we should not be surprised if many decide to follow neither.

And thus the web unravels.