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.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Eli, Eli, Lema Sabacthani?

From the Rev. Craig Uffman, soon to be ordained an Episcopal priest...

Where Was God in the Earthquake?

I write with heavy heart, my mind assaulted by the images of devastation wrought by the cataclysmic earthquake that struck Haiti yesterday.

As my heart and mind struggle to make sense of the suffering we see now and know to anticipate in the coming weeks and months, I can't help but think of my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ of St. Anne's Church and, especially, our children. What are we to say to one another? What are we to say to our children whom we have pledged to teach to walk in the ways of the Lord? For, at such times, from the very depths of caring souls arises a groan, too deep for words, and, eventually, a haunting question: where was God in the earthquake?

There are those who speak at such times of the omnipotence of God. Some will see this and all such natural disasters as evidence against the God in whom we trust. They will portray the earthquake as 'Exhibit A' in their case against our claims of a good and loving God.

Others will feel it necessary to defend the righteousness of God. Well-meaning Christians will rise to declare this disaster to be God's majestic will, a will wholly impenetrable to us, and they will cite our story of Job to warn us against efforts to comprehend it. And, sadly, other Christians also will rise to declare this disaster to be God's will, but, forgetting Job and distorting our story tragically, they will tell us precisely which group among us brought about the earthquake as punishment for their unforgivable sins.

Each of these do us a service, for they force us to give an account of our faith in God and to remember carefully the truths about God we actually claim. For the same question that moves these groups haunts us, too, as we see the tears of anguished, hungry, and orphaned girls and boys reaching their hands out to us: where was God in the earthquake?

Theologian David Bentley Hart offers the best answer I know in his book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? He wrote it upon reflecting on the great tsunami that struck Asia in 2004. Hart reminds us that "we are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God."

As we participate vicariously in the tormented tears of young girls, lost and alone in the Haitian darkness, as our hearts pour out tears for the thousands of sons and daughters and mothers and fathers who have died so suddenly and shockingly, and as we turn to our task of being the loving and living hands of Christ in response to this tragedy, let us never forget the urgent truth about God that it is our vocation to proclaim: God does not will our sickness or our death; God does not will that evil be done; God has conquered evil and death through the Cross. This is the meaning of the empty tomb. This is our Easter faith. As Hart says so well, "Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, the forces - whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance - that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with perfect hatred."

Where, then, is God in the earthquake? Hart puts it well: "As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child, I do not see the face of God but the face of his enemy.... for [ours] is a faith that set us free from optimism long ago and taught us hope instead....rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, [God] will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes - and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne will say, 'Behold, I make all things new.'"

God's richest blessings,


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Through a Glasspool Darkly

By Eric Von Salzen

Houston recently elected a woman as mayor, and the Lord Mayor of London demanded that her election be rescinded, because she is a lesbian.

Well, of course that’s a joke, and a pretty silly one. No English official would ever think of interfering in an American election that way.

But the Anglican Communion is different. The Anglican Communion is (among other things, of course) a vestige of the British Empire, on which the sun once never set, it was “all the pink bits” on the world map, as the school teacher said in that wonderful movie Hope and Glory. Rowan Williams is the nominal head of the Anglican Communion not because he was picked by the senior clergy of the Communion as the best person to lead it (as the Cardinals pick the Pope), or because he leads the largest and most vibrant branch of the Communion, but because he was appointed by the Queen as Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Archbishop of Canterbury is head of the Church of England, and England was, once, the head of the British Empire.

The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles has selected the Rev. Canon Mary Glasspool as its new Suffragan Bishop. Canon Glasspool has been Canon to the Bishops of the Diocese of Maryland since 2001, before which she was Rector of St. Margaret’s, Annapolis, MD, Rector of St. Luke’s and St. Margaret’s, Boston, and Assistant to the Rector and interim priest-in-charge of St. Paul’s, Philadelphia. She was ordained in 1982. Her father was an Episcopal priest. Take a look at Canon Glasspool’s Candidate Statement on the LA Diocese website for more information about her.

But what attracts attention to Canon Glasspool is not her credentials, but her sexual orientation. She’s a lesbian and has been in a committed relationship since 1988.

Unlike my mythical Lord Mayor of London, the Archbishop of Canterbury has not called on the dioceses of the Episcopal Church to reject Canon Glasspool’s election – although he’s clearly not happy about it. Here’s what he said:

The election of Mary Glasspool by the Diocese of Los Angeles as suffragan bishop elect raises very serious questions not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the Communion as a whole.

The process of selection however is only part complete. The election has to be confirmed, or could be rejected, by diocesan bishops and diocesan standing committees. That decision will have very important implications.

The bishops of the Communion have collectively acknowledged that a period of gracious restraint in respect of actions which are contrary to the mind of the Communion is necessary if our bonds of mutual affection are to hold.

I believe that the most recent formal collective acknowledgement by the bishops of the need for gracious restraint was in the Primates Meeting Communiqué issued February 5th of last year. The Primates said:

There are continuing deep differences especially over the issues of the election of bishops in same-gender unions, Rites of Blessing for same-sex unions, and on cross-border interventions. The moratoria, requested by the Windsor Report and reaffirmed by the majority of bishops at the Lambeth Conference, were much discussed. If a way forward is to be found and mutual trust to be re-established, it is imperative that further aggravation and acts which cause offence, misunderstanding or hostility cease. While we are aware of the depth of conscientious conviction involved, the position of the Communion defined by the Lambeth 1998 Resolution 1.10 in its entirety remains, and gracious restraint on all three fronts is urgently needed to open the way for transforming conversation.

On the “front” of “cross-border interventions”, the interventioneers have exercised no restraint, gracious or otherwise, and unless I’ve missed it the Anglican Communion and Archbishop of Canterbury have done nothing about it. On the other two fronts, the Episcopal Church observed a de facto or de jure moratorium for six years, and there certainly has been plenty of conversation, but the opinions on both sides of these issues have not been transformed.

My own view is that gracious restraint is a two-way street, and that non-Episcopalians who object to the LA Diocese’s choice of a Suffragan Bishop should exercise restraint – which I believe that the Archbishop of Canterbury has thus far done.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

By Eric Von Salzen

I just saw this clip of news commentator Brit Hume recommending that Tiger Woods abandon his Buddhist faith [did you know Tiger is a Buddhist? Why am I always the last to know these things?] because “I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So, my message to Tiger is, ‘Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.’"

My first thought was, What business is it of a news commentator to give such advice?

My second thought was, That’s awfully rude to the Buddhist faith, and culturally insensitive, too.

My third thought was, What Hume said is what our faith teaches, isn’t it? Aren't we supposed to make disciples of all nations? Even if we are TV news commentators?

What do you think?