Thursday, December 29, 2005

I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag?

Yesterday marked the 60th birthday of the Pledge of Allegiance, which was officially recognized by Congress on December 28, 1945. The Pledge has been a source of great controversy lately, with the words "under God" being challenged as a violation of the US Constitution's anti-establishment clause. But that controversy, while important insofar as it speaks to the issue of whether or not a person must recognize the existence and supremacy of a deity to be a good citizen of a secular nation, may blind us to the greater trouble with the Pledge of Allegiance.

I remember in elementary school being forced (though socially more than officially - I never had the inclination or the courage to challenge this practice) to recite the Pledge from memory. Its words - much like the words to the Lord's Prayer or the Apostle's Creed at church - were burned into my brain against my will. Did that forced and rote recitation ensure that I would be a loyal citizen of the United States of America? I doubt it. In fact, other than perhaps having some sort of unconscious symbolic value, I can't see what saying the Pledge did other than reinforce a sense of powerlessness in the face of authority.

In our country at this moment feeling powerless in the face of authority is a very dangerous thing. The executive branch of our government, inexplicably still feeling drunk on its post 9-11 glory despite a string of abject failures, is testing the limits of its power. US citizens inside the United States are being spied on by our government without warrants and without the consent of the legislative or judicial branches of our government. US citizens are being held indefinitely as so-called "enemy combatants" without legal recourse on the orders of the executive branch.

These breaches of civil liberties (even civil rights!) are being brought about by the unilateral decree of a single branch of the government, which grows increasingly unchecked by the other two branches. This expansion of executive power - supposedly necessitated by our perpetual war against an idea and our unjust war in Iraq - makes me fear that the real purpose of the Pledge is to subtly train the resistance out of our children before they have a chance to cry "foul" at the injustices being perpetrated in their and our names.

But, even if that is not the case, I still don't like the Pledge of Allegiance. This is not because I don't feel loyal to our country. I am a loyal citizen of the United States - though I feel that part of my loyalty to this country is to hold it morally accountable when it tramples the God-given freedoms of its citizens and members of the international community. I don't like the Pledge of Allegiance, first and foremost not for any ideological reason, but simply because, on the surface, it doesn't make any sense.

"I pledge allegiance to the flag..." The flag! I have just sworn my undying allegiance to a piece of fabric! I know that I have been getting on my own religious community for being too literal minded and not seeing symbolism, but come on! I don't see another way to take that statement. Before you pledge your allegiance to the nation for which the flag stands, thus obtaining the symbolic value of the flag, you have to pledge your allegiance to the flag itself.

But how would that flag hold you to your oath? What would that flag get from your allegiance, and what would it offer in return?

I'm not saying that the language of the Pledge is some kind of evil scheme to get us to idolatrously pledge ourselves to fabric. Rather I'm saying that aside from being an unnecessary imposition on the free wills of children, the Pledge of Allegiance is a shabby and hastily written composition which is literally meaningless because it binds us by our oath to a piece of fabric.

Oh, well... Happy birthday, Pledge. Now, go away!

Monday, December 26, 2005

"Merry" Christmas! Another Assault in the Culture War

This holiday season we learned that Christmas has been taken captive by our beloved culture warriors. Bill O'Reilly is famous (or infamous) for his declaration that Christmas in America is under attack. This attack on Christmas is another example of how evangelical Christians are persecuted in America for their faith. As an evangelical (even if a liberal one) I must ask: Who is doing this persecution?

Evangelical Christians now control all three branches of the federal government and also hold positions of power in most state governments. Evangelicals were behind the box office success of Mel Gibson's religious snuff film The Passion of the Christ and have their own media empires. Anyone who is not an evangelical Christian must, after seeing the political, fiscal and cultural power accumulated by evangelicals, feel at least a little bit threatened. Far from removing religion from the public sphere as many "persecuted" evangelicals claim, America is creeping toward a frightening theocracy. Sure this theocracy is more a de facto than de juro development, but that must be cold comfort to the many Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, atheists and agnostics in America.

But, the argument goes, evangelicals are being persecuted for their religious beliefs, which are scoffed at by the majority of Americans. One example of this persecution, which is part of the secularization of America, is that in polite (or politically correct) society the phrase "Merry Christmas" is being exchanged (like an unwanted gift) for "Happy Holidays".

Stephen Nissenbaum, historian and author of The Battle for Christmas, reminds us of the origins of "Merry Christmas," the phrase which is evidentially under attack by the demons of political correctness who keep liberalizing and secularizing America. The word "merry" came into use in "merry old England" in roughly the time of Shakespeare. In England of the 16th century there were two days which were considered "merry"; Christmas and May Day. On May Day, of course, people would dance around a giant fallic symbol and then go copulate in the woods, so what do you think "merry" means?

A 17th century English language dictionary claims that "drunk" is "a polite term for what most men mean by 'merry'." To "make merry" is, essentially to get wildly drunk and then act recklessly, often sexually. Merriment is not for the pious or virtuous.

Christmas was, when it was "merry," quite merry in deed. Nissenbaum quotes a prominent figure in the Anglican church of the 17th century as saying that more sins are committed in the 12 days of Christmas than in the rest of the twelve months of the year combined. But this merriment was not limited to merry old England. Christmas was so "merry" in the "New Land" that many of the Puritan colonies outlawed it because it was irreligious.

I have noted here before that Christmas was not a celebrated in the early church. This is in part because the scriptures do not tell us when Jesus was born, and in part because the early church was more focused on the scandal of the cross and the celebrated mystery of the Easter resurrection. Christmas was eventually celebrated, but more for cultural than religious reasons, and its celebration today is still very secular in nature.

There is no new "war on Christmas." There is only the never ending war - as old as religion itself - between the secular and the sacred. This war is fought within religions, denominations, congregations, cultures, states and individuals. There is nothing in this world which is purely sacred, as everything has in some way been profaned or corrupted. But, because everything has been inspired directly or indirectly by God, nothing is entirely secular, either.

The now sacred phrase "Merry Christmas" has, as we have seen, its bawdy origins. The apparently secular phrase "Happy Holidays" (the bane of Bill O'Reilly and other self-righteous, hypocritical culture warriors) also contains something of the sacred, as it reminds us that some days are made "holy" ("holiday" = "holy day"), to be set aside for God. So, even though it is past Christmas, let us not forget to "make merry" this season, while also setting aside some time to happily be holy.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Christian Meditations: Christmas Edition

A few years ago, inspired by my grandfather's excellent devotional books (so far there are two, Creekside Chats and Creekside Conversations, with a third on the way in the new year) I decided to write a series of devotionals myself. The devotional format is difficult because the short length of each entry requires a kind of disciplined and economical writing style that I have never had. I titled the now dead project Christian Meditations, with the idea that my job as a writer is to inspire others to meditate on the implications of their faith.

My two favorite meditations were on Christmas, a holiday which I have been trying unsuccessfully to take back from Wal Mart and shopping malls for as long as I've realized that there's more to it that the toys I got as a kid.

Christianity, first and foremost, is the religion of incarnation. In the Christian doctrine of incarnation we have the simple but profound idea that God is not just some sort of distant cosmic organizer. In incarnation we understand that God came near to us to show us love, and to give us fuller, richer, more meaningful (abundant, not just eternal) lives.

While Christmas was not celebrated in the early church (Easter, the celebration of resurrection, was once the dominant Christian holiday - Christmas has only recently overtaken it in part because of all of the gift giving which drives our economy), Christmas is the day of incarnation. At Christmas we celebrate the coming of God incarnate in Jesus the Christ.

I'm taking a bit of a vacation for Christmas, so instead of writing new posts I am instead giving you my two Meditations on Christmas, "Jesus Wept" and "Prince of Peace". Each of these brief meditations are designed to help reclaim the holiday (and "holiday" means "holy day," a day set aside for a sacred purpose) from the commercial elements which are sucking the sacred out of our world more than any of the so-called liberal attacks on Christmas.

I hope that you have a Merry Christmas, and I hope that these Meditations on Christmas will inspire you to more fuller consider the implications of your faith during this sacred time.

Jesus Wept

The words “Jesus wept,” in John 11:35 are perhaps the most profound words in the Bible. In them we see the God of the universe, in the humble form of a Jewish carpenter, sharing a most human moment: grief. Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died. He is now standing at his tomb. As our Lord and Savior he knows what fate awaits Lazarus. He needs no one to tell him about the fragile nature of this life. He needs no one to tell him about the glorious nature of the next life. Also, as the Son of God in our world, he knows that he has been given the power over life and death, the power to work miracles. He knows that, in a moment, he will call Lazarus from the grave and Lazarus will answer, becoming a timeless example of the resurrecting power of God.

And yet, as he stands at the tomb of his friend, though he knows that death certainly does not have the last say, Jesus weeps. He has, in fact, come to this Earth to do just that. He has left his throne in glory to become a mortal man, subject to pain, subject to frailty, subject to brokenness, subject to grief, so that, in this moment he can share in our experience of humanness. And, as he shares our experience, so too, we can share our experience with him, confident that the God to whom we pray knows first hand what we are going through.

But, as profound as these words, “Jesus wept,” are, their place in scripture would have come as no surprise to Joseph and Mary. After all, the man who would become God’s plan for the redemption of our world began his life the same way as everyone else; as a baby. And, if there is one thing we can be sure that babies do, it is cry. This is not a bad thing. Crying is, in fact, a test for a healthy baby. You know that if your baby is crying then his or her lungs are working, and that things are going to be OK. And so the Jesus who so profoundly wept for his friend as a grown man, sharing in our experience of grief, must have bawled many times as a baby.

It is, I suppose, appropriate that tears are a sign of healthy life. After all, our lives are seemingly characterized at times by so much suffering. And yet, in the tears of the baby Jesus, as well as the adult Jesus, we can take comfort in that, when God decided to share our experience of life, he shared it all the way. Not just as a triumphant Saviour, nor even as a suffering servant, but as a baby, crying in the arms of his teenaged mother, interrupting the sleep of his carpenter father.

Prince of Peace

Perhaps none of the scriptural titles which Christians claim for him fit Jesus better than one which was written hundreds of years before he was born; the title “Prince of Peace” from Isaiah 9:6. Jesus is truly our “Prince of Peace,” a divine agent of the peace of God in this violent world.

There is no time at which we need the peace of God more than the holiday season. Our streets are filled with perpetual bumper to bumper traffic, making each excursion from our homes a festival of pain and an experiment in the creative expressions of “road rage.” Our stores are claustrophobically packed with impatient shoppers standing elbow to elbow hoping to nudge the person next to them out of position so that they can snatch up whatever hot new item it is they are hoping to give to a nephew, grandson, lover or friend. Our radios are perpetually trying our nerves with constant and tedious renditions of mediocre Christmas carols whose giddy melodies stand in stark contrast to our depressingly mad Christmas rush. The sheer wattage of our neighbors’ Christmas lights compete with the airport’s runway lights making us wonder which will happen first; a 747 landing in our front yard or a power outage.

Christmas, while a celebration marking the coming of the “Prince of Peace” to our world, has become a time of stress and anxiety. We worry about what to get for that special someone, forgetting that our love is enough. We worry about what to wear to the party or the church service, forgetting that our presence is enough. We worry about anything and everything, and so get distracted from the real meaning of this Christmas season.

In an age marred by the violence of terrorism and preemptive wars, perhaps we need to take time this Christmas to refocus on the peace that comes from the “Prince of Peace.” Perhaps, this Christmas, we need to lead lives characterized by the peace of Christ that passes all understanding. Perhaps this Christmas we need to escape from the mad rush of the holiday season and find the peace that comes from resting in our Savior.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Finding Community in the Dignity of Difference

When I wish to be (or to be seen as, or to see myself as) a unique thinker or a misunderstood radical it is very distressing to realize that everything that I could ever think, say, or write has probably already been thought, said or written by someone who did a better job of it than I ever will. But this desire to be so unique is an unhealthy desire, because not only is it egoistic, but it cuts me off from the community which is so essential for healthy living. C.S. Lewis once defined friendship as being able to say "Oh, you think that too. I thought I was the only one." That kind of friendship, built on intellectual and spiritual camaraderie, brings the lone wolf pseudo-intellectual into a community built on common ideas.

Lately, as I've written before, I've been reading Jonathan Sacks' The Dignity of Difference. I recommend this book as highly as I can recommend anything. Each chapter, each page, each sentence has been an epiphany, a revelation. While Sacks identifies himself as a conservative (and he says nothing in his book which makes me question that self-identification) and while he belongs to a different religious tradition, in reading his ideas I've found myself often exclaiming that line which C.S. Lewis claims is the basis for friendship. In Jonathan Sacks, or at least in this book, I have found a true friend, a friend which calls me into a community.

Sacks, in this book, is a pluralist in the same way that I am a pluralist. He is not the sort of patronizing pluralist who says that all religious expressions are equally valid or that all religions are really saying the same thing. He clearly understands the uniqueness of his own Jewish tradition as well as the respective uniqueness of each other tradition. There may be points of commonality, but each religious tradition is distinct, saying its own thing. Rather, his pluralism, like mine, is an acknowledgement that while we are all different we occupy the same space, and must learn how to share that space in peace, respecting each other not in spite of but because of our respective differences.

This morning I read a passage from The Dignity of Difference which summed up my project with this blog better than I could have said it myself. I am loathe to allow others to speak for me. When I was a youth minister and later the pastor of my own church I rarely used any kind of standardized curriculum because I wanted to be able to find and use my own voice. But I am losing my need to be so unique, and I am losing the pride that I have in my own abilities. If Sacks can say what I wanted to say better than I could have said it, then let Sacks speak. So, at the risk of turning this blog into a storehouse of quotes, here is Jonathan Sacks, in The Dignity of Difference, saying what I wish that I had said:

Religions do not agree with one another, nor with secular philosophies, when it comes to some of the great moral issues: abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, stem-cell research, homosexuality, cohabitation outside marriage and many other divisive matters. It is this very potential for bitter conflict that leads people to embrace moral relativism on the one hand (if religions do not agree, then morality is mere choice), libertarianism on the other (society should pass no collective judgement on moral matters; morality is a private affair). Both of these positions are, I believe, false. We argue about morality in a way, and with a seriousness, we do not about matters that are really relative (how to dress for a dinner party, for example). And we do not truly believe that moral issues are private - if we did, there would be no protests on environmental or human rights issues, no public moral debate at all. Yet the question is real and urgent: how do we live with moral difference and yet sustain an overarching community?

The answer... is conversation - not mere debate but the disciplined act of communicating (making my views intelligible to someone who does not share them) and listening (entering into the inner world of someone whose views are opposed to my own). Each is a genuine form of respect, of paying attention to the other, of conferring value on his or her opinions even though they are not mine. In a debate one side wins, the other loses, but both are the same as they were before. In a conversation neither side loses and both are changed, because they now know what reality looks like from a different perspective. That is not to say that either gives up its previous convictions. That is not what conversation is about. It does mean, however, that I may now realize that I must make space for another deeply held belief, and if my own case has been compelling, the other side may understand that it too must make space for mine. That is how public morality is constructed in a plural society - not by a single dominant voice, nor by the relegation of moral issues to the private domain of home and local congregation, but by a sustained act of understanding and seeking to be understood, across the boundaries of difference.

In a plural society - all the more in a plural world - each of us has to settle for less than we do when we associate with fellow believers. A Catholic may believe that abortion is murder, a Jew or Muslim that sex outside marriage is forbidden, and these convictions are given life within our respective communities of faith. But we cannot seek to have them imposed by force of law on those who are not members of our community if there are other groups who seriously disagree and make a compelling case for the right to construct a life along different lines. Yet what we lose is more than compensated for by the fact that together we are architects of a society larger than we could construct on our own, one in which our voice is heard and attended to even if it does not carry the day. Just as community is built on the willingness to let the 'I' be shaped by the 'We', so society is made by the readiness to let the 'We' of our community be constrained by the need to make space for other communities and their deeply held beliefs. Society is a conversation scored for many voices. But it is precisely in and through that conversation that we become conjoint authors of our collective futures, rather than dust blown by the wind of economic forces. Conversation - respectful, engaged, reciprocal, calling forth some of our greatest powers of empathy and understanding - is the moral form of a world governed by the dignity of difference.

I have but little to add to this. As I read it, it occurred to me that while Sacks is speaking on a large scale, with interactions between religious groups within nations and across national boundaries, his insight, particularly on the need to distinguish between conversation and debate, also carries over into smaller, more intimate interpersonal relationships. The most difficult aspect of marriage is trying to fit two distinct wills into one living space. Marriage is cohabitating in life-partnership with the "other." This other may compliment you nicely, but is also different from you, with different values, intentions and expectations. Most of these differences are not fully explored until well into the marriage because there has never been a need to bring them up. But, when they arise (and they do arise, they always arise) they must be dealt with appropriately or they will poison the relationship.

My wife and I, in the midst of the chaos which has followed our joint decision for me to leave the ministry, are learning the value of distinguishing between conversation and debate. We are learning to converse, but it is a slow and painful process. I have a will, and she has a will, and conversation requires the mutual submission of our individual wills for the good of our family. For this to work, we are discovering, we each must be willing to listen more intently and less judgmentally than we have ever had to listen before. We must also learn how to communicate authentically by welcoming the other into our own perspective without making them feel threatened or guilty. We must learn how to share pain without blame. We must learn how to open up without exploding. We are learning this, and I am very encouraged.

I expect that, in this respect, what is true of us is true of others as well. The mutual submission of wills is the most difficult necessity for any interpersonal relationship. And we are made for relationship. The songwriter David Wilcox argues that relationships, with the mutual submission of wills which they require, are the way in which we learn to be fully human. Here (rather than, say, in quantum mechanics, which is crazy!) what is true of the small is also true of the large, and vice versa. Human relationships, whether they are between individuals, communities, or societies, require the approach that Jonathan Sacks has laid out for us, as they are all about not only overcoming but even respecting and loving difference.

Friday, December 16, 2005

"I Can't Decide": An Ode to Our Commercial Society

A couple of years ago I thought I might want to be a songwriter. I love music, but I have little aptitude for it, a fact which is frustrated by the musical genius of my twin brother. Armed with my love of music, and my ideas about what a good pop song (as opposed to the crap I hear on the radio) should sound like, I penned some words and told my brother roughly what I wanted the music to sound like ("this is a quarter-time, bluesy feeling tune"; "this one's in six, kind of a rip off of a Sixpence tune," etc). He, of course, mostly disregarded my musical advice and crafted a few songs which felt rather than sounded like what I wanted. We hastily recorded them so that we wouldn't forget them, and haven't really done anything with them since.

This morning, while I was reading Jonathan Sacks' The Dignity of Difference, I thought of one of those ill fated, stillborn songs. In this book Sacks, a Jewish rabbi (is there any other kind of rabbi?), deals with the difficulties of globalization in an attempt to avoid the "clash of civilizations." Here is a passage that I read this morning, which reminded me of my stillborn song:

The great metaphors of our time - the supermarket, cable and satellite television and the Internet - put before us a seemingly endless range of options, each offering the great deal, the best buy, the highest specification, the lowest price. But consumption is a poor candidate for salvation. The very happiness we are promised by buying these designer jeans, that watch or this car, is what the next product assures us we do not yet have until we have bought something else. A consumer society is kept going by an endless process of stimulating, satisfying, and re-stimulating desire. It is more like an addiction than a quest for fulfillment.

My last post - my Christmas list - ought to tell you that, like Sacks, I am observing a trend rather than necessarily condemning it. Or, if I am condemning it then I am also condemning myself, because I certainly crave the endless supply of superficial material goods that our society mistakes for the "good life." Struggling to be an authentic person in this society of contrived goods and services, I wrote a song called "I Can't Decide." It ain't poetry. It's just a pop song, with some blues and some funk mixed in courtesy of my musician brother. But it's the best I could do. Here are the words:

I Can't Decide

I've got 10,000 cell phone plans
But none of them I understand
Too many choices on my hands
I can't decide

Which greaseburger should I eat?
'Want fries with that? How 'bout a drink?
These choices all seal my defeat
I can't decide

No, I can't decide

I pig out at a buffet line
While the starving masses bide their time
I can't see them - I'm doing fine
and I can't decide

Which gas-guzzler should I drive?
As SUVs go nationwide
Wildlife should run and hide
I can't decide

No, I can't decide

As I go through these TV plans
With the satellite and cable man
All my choices seem so bland
and I can't decide

The things that matter are ignored
As I keep choosing more and more
From shiny junk that I can horde
and I can't decide

No, I can't decide (ad nauseum)

Not quite as powerful without the music, but I'm not techno-savvy enough to put music on here, and even if I were I'd have to know you a lot better before I let you hear me sing!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Christmas Wish List 2005

Here's my ode to the commercialization of Christmas. My mother called me yesterday to ask what I wanted for Christmas. I hadn't put much thought into it, so today I wrote out a Christmas list, which I've posted here just because.

Books: (political)
Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think by George Lakoff
When Presidents Lie: A History…by Eric Alterman
God’s Politics: How Conservatives Get it Wrong and Liberals Don’t Get It by Jim Wallis

Books: (religious, Christian)
Systematic Theology by Paul Tillich (any and all volumes)
A History of Christian Thought by Paul Tillich
Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another by Rowan Williams
Love Burning in the Soul: The Story of Christian Mystics, from Saint Paul to Thomas Merton by James Harpur

Books: (religious, Jewish)
The Prophets by Abraham Heschel
Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity by Abraham Heschel
I and Thou by Martin Buber

Books: (religious, Buddhist)
The Dharma of Star Wars by Matthew Bortolin
Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teaching of Master Seung Sahn edited by Stephen Mitchell
Hooked: Buddhist Writing on Greed, Desire and the Urge to Consume edited by Stephanie Kaza
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

Books: (Japanese philosophy)
Bushido: The Spirit of the Samurai by Inazo Nitobe
The Art of Peace by Morihei Ueshiba (translated by John Stephens)

[Note: Feel free to get me any other book that looks interesting.]

Movies (on widescreen DVD, of course, and in no particular order)
Moulin Rouge!
To Kill a Mockingbird (the Gregory Peck version)
Malcom X (the Spike Lee version starring Denzel Washington)
Schindler’s List
Merchant of Venice (the new one starring Al Pacino)
Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2
Office Space
Batman Begins

TV shows on DVD
The Simpsons (seasons 3-7, since I already have seasons 1 and 2)
The West Wing (any season)

Nintendo Game Cube stuff
2 new controllers (preferably wireless so that Adam will stop swinging them around and smashing them)
Memory cards
NBA Live ‘06
Donkey Konga and/or Donkey Konga 2

Wishful Thinking (big ticket dreams)
Digital video camera and software etc. to burn home movies to dvd
Home theater/ surround sound system

Music products available only on the Internet

Daniel Amos, "The Making of Mr. Beuchner's Dream DVD"
Daniel Amos, "Live in Anaheim '85 DVD"

7&7 is "Fun With Sound"

from Iona:
Iona "Live in London (double DVD)" (not yet available)
Iona "The Circling Hour" (cd, also not yet available)
Iona "Songs For Luca" (double cd)
Iona "The River Flows" (4 cd Boxset Anthology)

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Thales Falls Down the Well Again and Again

A witty and attractive Thracian servant-girl is said to have mocked Thales for falling into a well while he was observing the stars and gazing upwards; declaring that he was eager to know the things in the sky, but what was behind him and just by his feet escaped his attention.

- A fragment on Thales from Plato's Theaetetus

Thales is, along with Anaximander, considered to be the first Greek philosopher. He lived in Miletus in Asia Minor in the 6th Century B.C.E., and (according to Baird and Kaufman's Ancient Philosophy) was "a contemporary of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, of the Persian prophet Zoroaster, of the Indian sage Gautama Siddhartha (the Buddha), and of the Chinese philosophers Confucius and Lao-Tze." [note: there is little historical evidence that Lao-Tzu (preferred spelling in the Wade-Giles method of transliterating Chinese) actually existed. He was most likely a legendary figure created by early Taoists, but that is for another time.]

In this passage from Plato's Theaetetus we have quite possibly the first ever "absent-minded professor" story. Thales was, by reputation, an excellent astronomer, and it is said that he accurately predicted the solar eclipse of May 23, 585 B.C.E. However, contemplating the nature of the heavenlies is a dangerous hobby, and according to this story, one day while he was staring up at the sky charting the course of the stars Thales fell down a well.

I first heard this story in an Ancient Greek Philosophy course in college, and I loved it immediately. It has become one of my favorite stories, because I can so relate to someone who was so fixated on heaven that they got tripped up on the earth. But I don't just mention it here because it is one of my favorite stories, and I don't just mention it because I think that many of us religious people could learn from Thales' tumble down a well; I mention the story of Thales falling down a well here first and foremost because I think that through looking at this story we can see how we ought to approach all ancient stories, even and especially the ancient stories recorded in our sacred Bible.

It is important to notice what concerns we bring to a story, and what questions we ask of a story. Nothing that was written by Thales has survived, and so all that we know of him comes from fragments found in other ancient Greek philosophers, many writing hundreds of years after Thales' time. If the main concern that we bring to the story of Thales falling down a well is the historicity of the story (and, for whatever reason that is often the main concern that we bring to Biblical stories) then the question that we ask of the story is: Did this really happen? Did a man named Thales ever fall down a well? Did a witty and attractive Thracian servant-girl ever mock him for it?

This concern leads us to ask questions which cannot be answered, and whose answers would not really be helpful, anyway. There is simply not enough historical evidence to say whether or not this event happened, or whether Plato took some dramatic liberties. We don't know if this represents accurate history or a myth which developed after Thales' death. But, even if we could know that this story happened, how would such knowledge help us? Would we get any more out of the story knowing that it is a historically "true" story?

There are other, better concerns which could be brought to this story, and other, better questions which could be asked of it. Rather than asking whether or not a story really happened, we could ask, for instance, what a story means. We could ask: What does this story communicate? Of the story of Thales falling down the well while staring at the stars we could ask: Why was this story told in the first place? Why was it so important that it was preserved for the two centuries between Thales and Plato, or the twenty-three centuries between Plato and us?

That any story from the ancient world has survived long enough for us to be familiar with it is a miracle. But it is not a random miracle. It is a designed miracle, which required a great deal of human effort and perhaps a little divine intervention. Stories which survive have been preserved by cultures for a reason. When we encounter these stories we must wonder at why these stories were so important that they were preserved. What did they mean for the people who preserved them? What do they mean to us today? These questions are so much more important questions than the question of historical accuracy, because they open us up to meaning.

The story of Thales falling down the well is a true story because it provides us with true information about ourselves. There are many kinds of people in the world, including absent minded philosophers and witty but pretty servant-girls. This story tells us that those who stare at the stars fall down wells and are mocked by the practical minded people around them.

I've spent most of my life trying and failing to balance spiritual contemplation with practical application. Thales struggled with this as well, so when I read this story about Thales I learn about myself. I've looked up at the sky and wondered what was behind the stars, past the edges of the universe. I've asked the unanswerable questions and answered them anyway, knowing my answers were wrong. I've had thoughts and questions burning inside me, demanding that I release them. And I've fallen into more than a few wells while dealing with these issues.

The story of Thales has been preserved in part because it reminds us that this struggle to find balance is an inherently human struggle which has been around for all of recorded history. The truth of the story does not depend on whether or not the events described in the story ever happened. The truth of the story depends on whether or not the insights communicated by the story still ring true today, in our culture, a culture so different than the culture in which the story was first conveyed.

No matter what the fundamentalists say, the Bible can be approached in this way as well. In fact, I think, the Bible ought to be approached in this way. The Bible is an ancient book full of ancient stories, stories whose value is found not in whether or not the events described ever happened, but in whether or not the messages still speak to us.

I don't know whether or not Thales fell down a well, and there's no way I will ever be able to know that. But I do know that when I read of Thales' fall I read of my own fall. I'm pretty sure, based on the nature of the literature, that Adam and Eve never literally existed, but when I read of their temptation in the garden I read of my own spiritual pride. There may never have been a man named Noah, or an ark, or a world-wide flood [note: the flood narrative was a popular myth in the ancient Near East, and it predates the peoples of Ancient Israel] but that Biblical story speaks to me of a God who holds the whole universe together, and of a life which is very fragile indeed without the grace of that God.

When our primary concern is historical, and when we lose the value of myth and the meaning of story, we cut ourselves off from the power of these mythological stories to speak to us and transform us. When we lose that the Bible stops being the Word of God because God no longer speaks through it. It simply becomes a history text or an encyclopedia, spitting out questionable "facts" which don't really communicate anything.

Monday, December 12, 2005

70% Cocoa, 100% Gone

I am a vegetarian who doesn't smoke or drink alcohol. I almost never drink soft drinks or eat candy or potato chips. I rarely eat anything deep fried, and I never eat fast food. I've kicked most of my superficial or culinary sins, which means that all I have left is the big stuff, you know, like selfishness, covetousness, arrogance, false humility and crippling pride.

I do, however, have one last guilty pleasure, which I rarely enjoy but will never give up: chocolate.

When I say chocolate I don't mean Hershey bars or Reese cups. I don't mean Swiss Miss or Nestle. I mean the good stuff. Rich, dark, snobby chocolate. The kind that has more cocoa than sugar.

My wife doesn't join me in this indulgence. She reasons that you can get maybe a thousand Jolly Ranchers or Starburst for what I spend on a single bar of chocolate, and they give you a much better sugar buzz. But its not sugar I go for. She can keep her sweets; I want my rich, dark, semi-bitter chocolate.

Because my tastes in chocolate are a bit pricy, and because I keep a rather strict diet, I only indulge in my cocoa-laced fantasy a couple of times a year. Last night was one of those nights.

Times have been kind of rough lately. Since I left professional ministry we've had to pinch pennies a little tighter than usual, and I'm starting to feel like a familial parasite. I still call myself a freelance writer, but publishers and magazines aren't exactly knocking themselves over for my work. If I don't start drawing some income from writing soon I'm going to have to get the kind of job I swore I'd never work again, punching into someone else's time clock selling products I'll never believe in. That's soul-sucking work any way you cut it, and I was glad to be rid of it when I entered the ministry.

But ministerial work sucks your soul as well. You spend all day every day tending to the spiritual needs of others never noticing that you have needs yourself. By the end of my ministerial career, I am ashamed to say, I never read the Bible except to prepare a lesson or a sermon, and I never prayed except as part of my pastoral duties.

Reaping no spiritual benefit for my work, and taking a great deal of abuse for my theology, I knew I couldn't sustain that career. So I quit, and now my family has had to adjust to a life we never planned to live. Sure I've still got hopes, dreams, ambition and direction, but in the meantime we need money.

My wife has watched me plummet down the bottomless pit of negative self-talk and self abuse. Last night she decided to do something about it. Of course we don't really believe that you can solve your problems by indulging in the sorts of food you aren't usually allowed to eat, but desperate times call for desperate measures and little yet exquisite pleasures, so as a random act of kindness while shopping for a Secret Santa gift at work she picked me up a bar of the purest, darkest chocolate I have ever seen.

Last night, while I was vegetating in front of the West Wing, she handed me a bar of Lindt dark chocolate, which, the package claimed, was 70% cocoa. Most chocolate bars are three parts milk and sugar for every one part cocoa, or so it seems from tasting them. They ought not be allowed to call themselves chocolate. But this bar... 70%... I was, and am, at a loss for words.

When you really know someone you can select for them the "perfect" gift, and that was, for me at that moment, as close to perfection as any gift could come. Having grown up fighting with two hungry brothers for every scrap of food we could get, I usually snatch at and greedily devour any rare treat that I get. But to inhale this chocolate bar would be to chug a bottle of the best red at a wine tasting. I may have no manners, but I can fake them when the situation demands it.

I slowly unwrapped the pure, rich chocolate, and gently but firmly broke off two squares. I gave one to my wife, who politely took a nibble to confirm that the flavor is still wasted on her, and then handed it back to me. Holding two squares of culinary ecstasy, I slowly and deliberately ate them both, and then rewrapped the rest of the bar. Chocolate this good is meant to be savored, and I intend to savor this the rest of the Christmas season.

I gave the rewrapped bar to my wife and joked that with the way that I usually eat perhaps she ought to hide it from me. She took it into the kitchen, and I didn't think of it again until this morning when, overwhelmed with craving for my new addiction I sought out the bar in the kitchen. It isn't there. She really did hide it from me. My chocolate bliss has dematerialized. I tore the kitchen apart, sniffing for it as though I were a pig and it a truffle, but to no avail.

I don't know how to tie this story up. I don't know if there is a moral or a point, nor do I know if I can turn it into any kind of spiritual lesson. I just know that my beloved chocolate is, at least for the moment, gone, and I can't even be mad at the person who took it.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A Day of Mourning

My parents' cat died this morning, on the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's death. Check out the eulogy my brother wrote for her. My son and I marked the occasion by huddling inside listening to music while watching the snow fall (as Matt Slocum wrote) "like a million parachutes," waiting to be enveloped by a billowy blanket of wintry white.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Culture War and Homosexuality: A Different Sort of Quagmire

[note: as a matter of disclosure, my denomination, the United Methodist Church, does not yet agree with my position on this issue, so don't blame them if you don't like what I have to say.]

What a queer age when live in, when the greatest source of tension and division in the church universal involves sexual orientation. This is a debate that I have long shied away from because I thought that no good could come of it. Every church that ever employed me for any ministerial role wanted, at one point or another, for me to weigh in on the topic of homosexuality. It has become a perverse informal litmus test.

When, as a minister, I was asked what I thought about homosexuality, I always replied with something like this:

"When I have a church full of gay people I'll speak about homosexual ethics. Since this church claims that it has only heterosexuals, here I'll speak about heterosexual ethics."

Gay people have long been scapegoated because of mainstream society's confusion about sex. This is particularly true in the religious sector. Christians in America are every bit as likely as the rest of the population to become addicted to pornography, engage in extra-marital sex, and get divorced. The church, it seems, has little impact (at least statistically) on sexual behavior.

The divorce rate in America is now over 50%, indicating that heterosexual marriage is in a state of crisis. This crisis involves, of course, the unrealistic expectations which we all bring to relationships, as well as our general inability to communicate in healthy ways. But this crisis also has a sexual component. People are having sex outside of marriage (by which I mean prior to marriage; during marriage, but with someone other that their spouse; and after divorce) at higher and higher rates. This fact clashes with our traditional sexual ethic, and creates the impression of a moral collapse.

In the midst of this sexual confusion and chaos, as morals shift and marriages dissolve, Christians have had to do a great deal of soul searching regarding sex and marriage. Alas, rather than embracing our own sinful nature and taking responsibility for our role in this crisis, we too often have sought to pin the blame for the marital difficulties on gays.

There is, in our country at the moment, an all out culture war. This war is fought over many different symbolic issues, such as abortion, public religious displays, and homosexuality. These issues, while somewhat important in their own right, are much more important for what they represent to those fighting the good fight in the culture war. They represent a battle for America's soul.

There has recently been a great debate in the comments section of a previous post. While the original post made no mention of homosexuality, the debate at that post has inevitably turned to homosexuality. This is a debate that I do not wish to have, because it is such a great source of division in the church, and such a minor issue in its own right. While the U.S. is involved in an unjust war in Iraq and an endless war against an ideology at home, I'm sure that we can come up with more important moral issues that who is allowed to have sex with whom.

That said, I will be silent on this subject no longer. In the culture war, the battle over homosexuality is being fought on two fronts:

1. The civic, or secular front
2. The religious (particularly Christian) front

On the civic front the debate centers on the issue of marriage. In the last election cycle a number of states, including my home of Kentucky, considered constitutional amendments banning "gay marriage" by defining marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. These constitutional amendments were considered necessary because of the very real fear that mere laws passed against gay marriage would be overturned as unconstitutional.

These constitutional amendments had various motivations. One very real motivation was simple power politics. This is, of course, always the case when elections are involved. Conservative politicians (particularly national Republican figures) fan the flames of the culture war in order to rally their base to vote. If one of the major issues being discussed nationally and locally is a so-called "moral" issue on which almost all conservatives agree, and if this issue is seen as part of a larger war for the soul of America, then it is easy for morally conservative voters to overlook other, more messy issues such as the state of the economy and the war in Iraq.

Another motivation was the prevailing cultural confusion about sex, and the decline of traditional marriages. Gay marriage was seen, in this time of marital crisis, as yet another threat to traditional marriage. Of course this is a nonsense argument. I am a married heterosexual. My wife and I have had some problems in our marriage. We struggle to communicate to each other openly and honestly, without passing judgment. We struggle to listen to each other attentively. We struggle to truly understand and cater to each other's emotional needs. We struggle with how best to deal with our financial issues. I would say that, by and large, we have a very good marriage, but there have been times when I have understood why some people find it easier to get divorced. One thing which has never affected the health of our marriage, however, is the idea that some day gay people might actually be able to get married too.

One of the most popular civic/secular arguments against homosexuality and gay marriage is that if homosexual relationships are legitimized, and gays are allowed to get married, then that would set a kind of perverse precedent for extending legitimacy to all kinds of relationships which we wouldn't want to legitimize. If a man can marry a man, and a woman can marry a woman, what is to prevent a man or woman from marrying a horse or a dog? If homosexuality is legitimized, why shouldn't we also legitimize bestiality, polygamy, and child molestation?

In logic this kind of argument is called a slippery slope fallacy. A fallacy, of course, is a fancy word for a very bad argument which, unfortunately, many people fall for. This particular fallacy works by convincing people that if we give on one point we have to give on every subsequent point. And, while this particular point might be worth conceding on its own merits, the other "hidden" points are not worth conceding. So, by virtue of those things that we aren't arguing for yet we cannot concede this seemingly harmless point.

There is no reason at all to suggest that legitimizing homosexuality somehow paves the way for bestiality and other sorts of abnormal or deviant sexual acts to be legitimized as well. Legitimizing homosexuality simply recognizes homosexual relationships as legitimate relationships. Morally and logically speaking, homosexuality is a subject which should be judged on its own rather than weighed down with appeals to completely irrelevant lifestyles. Homosexuals have no more desire to have sex with children or barnyard animals than heterosexuals.

But the real battle over homosexuality is, as best as I can tell, not being fought in the secular world. The real battle over homosexuality, while it has many civic ramifications, is being fought in the religious world. The real battle over homosexuality is being fought in congregations and denominations across America.

One of the few positive aspects of the culture war is that it has conservative Protestants and Catholics, two groups long divided with little hope of reconciliation, uniting with a common mission. Conservative Catholics, like their evangelical and fundamentalist brethren, oppose abortion, homosexuality, secularism, and a whole host of other so-called “liberal” developments.

But, while conservative Catholics and Protestants share many of the same positions on these social issues, they often arrive at their positions in different ways and for different reasons.

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 CE) still stands as perhaps the most dominant and formative theologian of the Catholic tradition, if not all of Christianity. His Confessions is a unique work. It is considered the first autobiography of the Western tradition, but it is at least as much philosophy and theology as it is personal narrative. It is the story of how he came to understand his relationship with God, and how his nature is inexorably tied to the nature of the divine.

It is often taught in college philosophy classes that Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 CE) are the bookends of Medieval philosophy, with Augustine at the beginning of the period and Aquinas at the end. It is also taught that while they are the two largest figures in Catholic theology, to a certain extent they are opposites. Augustine is seen as a neo-Platonist because of the way in which he Christianized the philosophy of Plato (428 – 348 BCE), while Aquinas is credited with helping to reclaim the philosophy of Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) after it had been lost in the West.

But Augustine predates the loss of Aristotle’s writing, and he was certainly aware of it and influenced by it. In fact, his approach to human sinfulness is Aristotelian through and through.

Aristotle defined “natural” in a way that would be foreign to modern naturalists. For Aristotle, that which is natural is that which is the best possible end of a thing. This is particularly true in the realm of ethics. In Book I of his Nichomachean Ethics, for instance, Aristotle states that because “every action and choice seem to aim at some good; the good, therefore, has been well defined as that at which all things aim.”

It is natural that actions lead to a natural good, and to the extent which an action aims for the end which is natural to it, that action is a good action. Augustine operated with this understanding of good, thus, for Augustine every action had to aim at a good. Humans demonstrate their inherent sinfulness when they engage in actions which do not aim at the proper good of those actions.

This is particularly apparent in Augustine’s position on sex, and it is that position which shapes the Catholic dogma as it pertains to sex. The natural end, and therefore the good and proper end, of sex is procreation. Sex is a procreative act. Therefore, any sexual act which does not aim to conceive a child is a sinful act. Sexual acts between members of the same sex, according to this view, must by nature always be sinful, because they cannot aim at conceiving a child.

It is for this reason, for instance, that the Roman Catholic Church still opposes any means of birth control. This opposition is purely a token opposition, as Catholics in America are every bit as likely as non-Catholics of taking advantage of our culture’s ability to control the birth rate. But at least the appearance of opposition must be maintained by a dogmatic hierarchy which sees any concession to the modern secular world as a dilution of the true theology of the church.

It would surprise people to learn, then, that the Catholic Church has not always opposed homosexuality. While Catholic theology is rigidly dogmatic, in Catholicism as in all other religious traditions there is a wide chasm between official teachings and actual practice. This chasm was particularly wide in the Medieval period.

Catholicism has not always insisted on a celibate clergy. In fact, Catholicism today does not insist on a celibate clergy, as a married Episcopal priest can convert to Catholicism and become a Catholic priest without giving up his wife. Celibacy has not always been normative for the Roman Catholic clergy. Celibacy was first imposed upon that clergy not because of any theological argument (though of course theological arguments were made to advance the policy) but because of the realities of secular property transfer laws in Medieval Europe. These laws required that all property be given to the first born son at the time of the father’s death. This meant, in effect, that when a priest died, if that priest had sired a son, then that son would get all of the church property. Celibacy was imposed on the clergy, then, as a way of keeping church property in the church.

In this climate, as you can imagine, priests with homosexual tendencies, far from being ostracized by the church hierarchy, were actually quite popular politically. This is, of course, because when they acted on their sexual desires there was no chance that the church could lose its property because of it.

Since celibacy has been imposed on the Roman Catholic clergy many gay men, culturally conditioned to be ashamed of their homosexuality, have sought refuge in the priesthood. Now, after a host of lawsuits over the way in which the Catholic Church has handled the sexual abuse of its children by priests, the Catholic approach to its gay clergy is changing. This is a real shame, in part because Catholics have naturally limited their clergy by excluding women and imposing celibacy, and in part because, as argued earlier, homosexuals (as a group) have no more desire to have sex with children than heterosexuals. The Catholic Church has brought this priest sex scandal on itself not by welcoming celibate gays into its priesthood but by not allowing clergy members to find healthy outlets for their sexual energies and by not giving applicants to the priesthood proper psychological examinations.

The Catholic argument against homosexuality, an argument from an Aristotelian understanding of nature, says that homosexual acts are unnatural sexual acts, and are therefore morally wrong. This is an argument which depends on the understanding of sexual morality that early church figures such as Augustine had. Yet these figures, particularly Augustine, had an understanding of sex which is no longer held today. As such this argument is usually dismissed, like so much other pieces of traditional Catholic dogma, as being outdated.

C.S. Lewis used to say that you don’t measure arguments with a watch. This was his humorous way of saying that if the best you can do is dismiss an argument with an appeal to time then you’d better go back to the drawing board. But there is a reason why, through the years, our attitude about sex has changed. In Augustine’s time the church, under the influence of the neo-Platonism prevalent in the Roman Empire, made a firm division between the fleshly and the spiritual. The fleshly was considered, if not out and out evil, at the very least less good. It was the spiritual which was godly, and therefore good, with the potential to be perfect.

Neo-Platonism held that the soul was the true good of a person, and that the corruptible body held that soul in this evil realm. At death the soul escaped the body, and was reunited with the good. As this view carried over into Christianity the church lost its Jewish roots, and in doing so lost touch with the value of the body.

Sex was seen as a fleshly act, and as such an evil act which could only be justified by some appeal to a greater good. Procreation was the greater good which, under extremely limited circumstances, made sex permissible.

We have now recaptured an understanding of the value of bodies. Bodies are beautiful again. As such to say that sex is fleshly is not necessarily to say that sex is evil. Certainly it is powerful, and not to be taken lightly. But one no longer needs to appeal to some greater good to justify their natural sexual appetite. This does not mean that all sexual desires or acts are morally permissible, but neither does it mean that any sex act which does not aim at procreation is evil.

We would never think of saying to a barren woman or a sterile man that they can never engage in any form of acceptable sex because they are not naturally equipped for procreation. As such we can no longer say that homosexual sex acts are necessarily evil because they cannot produce children.

Homosexuality, as we have seen, has been decried as “unnatural.” Yet, per the way that we now understand the term, homosexuality is very natural. It is a naturally occurring phenomenon, and there is overwhelming evidence to indicate that this is because sexual orientation is genetically determined. Roughly 10% of the world’s human population is homosexual, and this percentage has been static for as long as we have been able to measure it. Same sex sexual relations occur naturally in every sexually reproducing species, again strongly indicating that sexual orientation is genetically determined.

On the basis of nature, then, there is no reason to condemn homosexuality, or even to treat sexual orientation as a moral issue. As it is natural, and genetically determined, it has (on the grounds of nature, at least) no more moral value than preferences in food.

During the Reformation Protestants broke with the Roman Catholic Church over a number of issues. There was great corruption in the Catholic Church at that time, which created an environment favorable to the Reformation. But there were also some very real, as of yet very irreconcilable, theological differences.

Catholicism views the church as the mediator between God and humanity. The church stands between humans and God, interpreting the acts of God for humans, and reconciling sinful humans to the holy God. Because of its role as mediator the Catholic Church enjoyed a great deal of power over the day to day affairs of its members. The Catholic Church taught that you had to be in the good graces of the church to be in the good graces of God. Anyone whom the church forgives and absolves of their sins is forgiven by God and accepted into heaven. Anyone, however, whom the church does not forgive is not forgiven by God, and is eternally damned.

The Catholic Church also (and perhaps quite rightly, given the chaos which has followed the Protestant Reformation) had a dim view of the ability of the laity to interpret scripture for themselves. As such, only priests had access to the Bible, and had sole authority to interpret the contents of the Bible. The Bible was interpreted in light of official church teachings, and church tradition was held to be equal in authority to the Biblical record.

Protestants rejected these teachings. The argued that Christ alone, and not the church, is the mediator between God and humanity. They argued that faith alone, and not the indulgences of the church, is the way to salvation. And they argued that the Bible alone, and not the traditions of the church, has authority over the faithful.

As such when conservative Protestants oppose homosexuality they do so not, in their minds, because the church as an institution has declared homosexuality to be sinful, nor because of the theological arguments of dominant church figures such as Augustine and Aquinas; but rather because they see scripture condemning homosexuality. Conservative Protestants argue that the Bible universally condemns homosexuality, and so accepting homosexual relationships as legitimate is a denial of Biblical authority.

One of the great struggles of the Reformation was to give all people access to the Holy Scriptures. The early Reformers felt that if everyone could read the Bible, and read it in their own language, then all of the conflict that they saw in the church universal would be ended. This is because they felt that if everyone had the access to the Bible and if everyone agreed that the Bible was the sole authority; then they would all agree about what the Bible says and accept it in their lives. They saw the fundamental conflict of their day, between Protestants and Catholics, as being a conflict between corrupt church tradition and the uniform voice of scripture. It never occurred to them that reasonable people would disagree about what the Bible says, or what we mean by Biblical authority.

Part of this struggle to give the laity access to the Bible involved a great act of translation and canonical reformation. The Bible of the Catholic Church was the Latin Vulgate translation, arranged in part in accordance with the Septuagint, a Greek language version of the Hebrew Bible which also contained Jewish works originally written in Greek. Reformers like John Calvin sought to return to what he called the “Hebrew truth,” recapturing the original Hebrew text (as far as it was possible) and then translating that text into the vernacular languages of the cultures who would read it.

This work was, of course, very difficult, and many problems arose out of it. For the first time in more than a thousand years there was mainstream debate about which books were authentic, and how best to understand them. Also, for the first time since Jerome penned the Vulgate text, there were disagreements about the wording of passages. Those disagreements, despite protests to the contrary, exist to this day.

Fundamentalists and some other conservatives treat the Bible as though it were a single work. But, of course, one look at even the table of contents of any translation of the Bible will teach you that the Bible is a series of books, written over a vast expanse of time. The Bible is not a systematic work, as the authors and compilers of each book were not aware of many of the other books, which in many cases had not yet been written when they were doing their work. Books which were composed at roughly the same time were in some cases unaware of each other. So treating the Bible like you would a regular book, written by a single author on a single topic, is a dangerous thing.

There is no uniform scriptural witness, though many theologians have rightly tried to piece together a sweeping Biblical narrative from which to build systems of belief. Rather, when we are dealing with the Bible we are dealing with many separate books which often overlap but sometimes contradict. We are, when we are dealing with the Bible, dealing with a series of ever changing ideas about the nature of God and how it is that humans relate to the divine. I say this not to detract from the authority of scripture, but rather to explain how it is that we can understand how to read scripture and understand it.

There are, in the entirety of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, only two places (by which I do not mean verses, as each of these places contains a number of verses, each of which is often quoted separately by conservatives as a way of out “proof-texting” their opponents) where anything resembling what we call homosexuality is attacked. From these two places conservatives attempt to build their attack on homosexuality.

The first place where homosexuality is apparently condemned is found in the Holiness Code of ancient Israel. I know that many people will say to this, “Wait a second! What about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis?” Genesis 19:1-11 describes the sin committed by the men of Sodom, which is often understood to be homosexuality. It is from this passage that we get the word “sodomy.” Yet sodomy, ironically, does not describe the sin of Sodom. Sodom was not condemned for homosexuality. Sure, the men of Sodom tried to take two of Lot’s male guests for sex acts, but their intention was certainly not to be sexual partners with them. “Partners” implies a kind of equality, like what is seen in good, loving, sexual relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual. The intention of the men of Sodom was gang rape.

And, alas, it was not the gang rape which was condemned. After all, Lot offered to allow the mob to gang rape his daughters and is still considered righteous. No, the people of Sodom are condemned for their failure to observe the laws of hospitality of the Middle East. Because the men (or angels in the guise of men, though it is unclear what is meant by "angel" here) were Lot’s guests, they were also guests of the community. As such they fell under both the protection of Lot and the protection of all of Sodom. The men of Sodom, in their attempt to kidnap and ritually gang rape Lot’s guests, failed to live up to the divine law concerning how you treat guests. There is absolutely nothing in this story to indicate how we should view homosexuality. Of course, even if there were something about homosexuality in this story, would we want to learn sexual ethics from a story which allows its hero to offer up his daughters to a mob bent on gang rape?

The most overt apparent condemnations of homosexuality in the Hebrew Bible are found in the Holiness Code of Leviticus, and it is from these verses that the Biblical attack on homosexuality is usually waged. Only two verses in this enormous set of laws which govern all sorts of behavior have to do with sexual relations between members of the same sex. Leviticus 18:22 says (all Biblical quotations here are from the NRSV) “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Leviticus 20:13 says “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.”

It is first important to note that neither of these verses says anything about lesbians. This is because the authors of scripture could not, from their patriarchal bias, imagine sex without men. All sex acts, in their minds, were initiated by men, and had only men as the active participants. These passages simply have nothing to say about lesbianism.

The subject of what the Bible says about human sexuality may have been best handled by the Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, in his book Living in Sin?. Chapter Nine of that book, titled “The Bible and Homosexuality”, specifically handles Biblical passages which seem to condemn homosexuality. In it, he writes

“Abomination,” the word Leviticus uses to describe homosexuality, is a strong word and carries a sense of repulsive evil. It is noteworthy that the priestly writers use that same word to describe a menstruating woman. There is no question but that in many ancient traditions, including those described in the Bible, there is a deep fear of menstruation. Legends and superstitions reflected that fear circulated freely. Cleansing rituals were required before the banished woman was allowed back into the life of the tribe. She was unclean and presumed a threat to male virility and to the health and well-being of the male sex organs. If a man had sexual relations with a menstruating woman, both were to be cut off from the people.

Of course, we no longer have this fear of menstruation, because now we understand it and its role in the reproductive process. It is not unhealthy, nor is it a sign of uncleanliness. Rather, it is a perfectly natural phenomenon.

We have also come to understand homosexuality as a natural phenomenon, but the pre-modern prejudice against it continues. As such, while no one would, on scriptural grounds, condemn a man for having sexual relations with his wife while she is on her period (despite the "scriptural witness” of Lev. 20:18) homosexuals are condemned.

Conservatives always lampoon liberals for “picking and choosing” which verses to “believe” as though they did not do the same things themselves. Yet, while they cite Leviticus to condemn gays, they do not condemn the blind or the lame, hunchbacks of dwarves, or those with severe acne or “crushed” testicles, even though the same set of laws which they use to condemn homosexuality declares each of those groups unclean.

It is impossible to take an ancient moral or legal code, such as the one in Leviticus, and impose it completely on a modern society. We would not want ancient medicine because we have made so many advances since then. Similarly we have come to understand human behavior so much more than the priestly writers of Leviticus could ever have imagined. Their laws, as they pertain to many forms of behavior, are no longer acceptable in any society, even a conservative Christian one. Why is it that homosexuality is the one holdover?

The Gospels are silent on the issue of homosexuality, indicating that Jesus, despite the opinions of his modern day followers, did not consider it a very big deal. There are, however, a few passages from the letters of the apostle Paul which seem to condemn homosexuality.

Romans 1: 26-27 says, “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with the women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

This passage, like so many others, must be read in its context. Paul’s intention in this section from his letter to the church in Rome was not to condemn homosexuality, though he certainly didn’t think it was a good thing. He was in this letter building an argument for expanding Christianity beyond its Jewish roots to include all kinds of people. Of this Spong says

His [Paul’s] argument was that in the worship of idols instead of the creator the worshipping creature became distorted. Truth was exchanged for a lie, and natural relations were confused with unnatural. Homosexual activity was regarded by Paul as punishment visited upon idolaters by God because of their unfaithfulness.

Here, then, homosexuality is not the sin, but the punishment for the sin of idolatry. Paul sees it as punishment because to him it is as “unnatural” as idolatry. Of course, as we have come to understand homosexuality as a natural phenomenon we can no longer hold that it is sinful on the grounds that it is unnatural.

Also, some scholars argue that the Greek word translated “unnatural” is better translated “atypical,” and has no ethical implication.

The only other passages from Paul, and as such the only other passages in the Bible, which appear to deal with homosexuality are found in I Corinthians 6:9 (in a list of types of people who will not inherit the kingdom of heaven) and I Timothy 1:10. In both cases the best translation of the word which is often translated as something like “homosexuals” is unclear. There is, however, no reason other than prejudice to believe that the obscure Greek word in question amounts to a Biblical condemnation of all homosexuals, or even homosexual acts.

The Biblical case against homosexuality, then, is anything but a slam dunk. It rests on a literal reading of scripture and a refusal to read verses of scripture in their historical, cultural and textual context. That these verses are used to exclude people from the grace of God is another example of how religious authorities are always trying to come between God and the people of God.

We live in an age of sexual confusion, and that confusion has rightly caught the attention of social and religious conservatives, prompting them to action. But their intolerant actions are destructive at a time in which we need constructive action. In condemning homosexuals as sinners, and in condemning their defenders as heretics, conservatives are not modeling the example of the Christ who refused to condemn anyone except for those religious authorities who stood between God and the people of God, and self-righteous hypocrites.

To address the sexual confusion so prevalent in our society we need to not return to the prejudices of the past, but rather to build up a comprehensive understanding of human sexuality and sexual ethics in light of both our ancient faith and modern science.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Moving the Discussion on Faith and Belief

We are still having a rather exhilarating (if you're into that sort of thing) discussion on the post Well... He's a Liberal, But..., which has become in part a discussion on the distinction I make between faith and belief. That there is a distinction I think no one doubts. But, what we make of that distinction has brought about some interesting arguments.

I have said that because there is a distinction between faith and belief, it is possible (but perhaps not likely) to have faith without belief. Some people are understandably skeptical about this. To catch up on that discussion check out the original post and the comments which have been left there.

The Russian Orthodox tradition, I am told, has a story which I think comes from Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats. In the story there are two men. One of these men is a very pious (and relatively wealthy) church-goer who professes to have faith. The other man is a poor, simple farmer who, the story goes, is ignorant to the true faith.

A shabby looking man visits these two men, who could not be more opposite. First he visits the wealthy, pious churchman, knocking on his door and asking for some food and shelter. Of course the churchman turns him away, for he does not want his daily prayers interrupted by some smelly bum. Next the shabby looking man visits the humble farmer, again asking for some food and shelter. He is welcomed in like a long-lost brother, and is given the chance to share everything that belongs to the farmer.

The next day the shabby looking man reveals that he is, in fact, Jesus, come down from heaven for a day to see how His people are doing. He was turned away by the man who claimed the name of Christ, but is welcomed in by the man who did not.

In welcoming this incognito Christ into his home, the farmer did an act of service for a Lord in whom he did not believe. In denying Christ food and shelter the man who believed in the Lord refused to serve Him.

What does this have to do with the possibility of having faith without belief? A good teacher never explains a parable until the students have had a crack at it. But I am not a teacher, much less a good one, so I'll do my best to unravel this one.

I believe in God, and I have faith in God. As part of my belief in God I believe certain things about God, which roughly become my flexible creed. But those things which I believe about God are almost certainly wrong, or at least extremely incomplete. After all I am a mere mortal trying to understand the incomprehensible mystery of the divine. To what extent do my beliefs about God resemble God? At a certain point I have to accept that my belief in a description of God is not a belief in the one true God of the universe, because it bears so little resemblance to who God actually might be. If faith is not possible without belief, what does this improper belief say about my faith?

In the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus teaches that the people who truly serve the Lord do not really know the Lord whom they are serving while they render their act of service. Their beliefs are mistaken. They think that they are merely serving other people, but in fact they are serving the Lord. Startled by this realization, they ask the Lord, "When did we serve you?" They don't understand the full implications of their actions.

If, as the parable and the story which came out of it suggest, we can serve God without believing that we are doing so, why can we not have faith in God without, at the moment of the birth of that faith, believing in the God who is the object of our faith?

I have faith in God, and I believe in a God (or a description of God). But, as it is unlikely that my beliefs about God are anything like the way that God actually is, do I believe in the God in whom I have faith?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Boldly Going Where No Man Ought to Go

In my house growing up, the dinner table was the closest thing we had to sacred space. At the dinner table (and often only at the dinner table) there were firm rules guarding our civility. We had, for reasons I have still not figured out, to keep our elbows off the table. We had to chew with our mouths closed. We had to ask for someone to "please pass me" whatever it was that we wanted, rather than just reaching across the table and grabbing it. But most importantly, we had to talk calmly and quietly, using our inside voices.

Dinner table conversation was, at least in retrospect, the highlight of my days. It was the one moment during the day that I got to talk about what I wanted to talk about, to a captive audience that had to treat me with respect. My parents orchestrated the dinner table conversation such that we hit on many topics of global, local, and personal import. If we acted according to the firm but never overtly stated rules that governed our civility, no topic was taboo. Well, almost no topic.

There were two things which my father would almost never allow us to discuss over dinner: religion, and abortion. He said that there was no point in discussing subjects on which no one would ever change their mind, and which elicited such profound emotional responses. I suspect he also knew that we children, who had grown up in a religiously conservative church environment, would probably vehemently disagree with him and our mother, who were more secularist liberals.

I have long since overcome the household taboo against talking about religion, though I have to say that, by and large my father was right. When I get into religious discussions I find that either the other person already agrees with me, in which case we are both just preaching to the choir, or they do not agree with me. When we disagree, usually the disagreement provokes us both to become even more firmly entrenched in our views, and to see the other person as "the enemy," that unspeakable evil force which is leading the world straight to hell.

But abortion is still, for me, a touchy subject. And for good reason. Nothing is more personal than the reproductive process, and nothing is more precious than the lives produced by that process. Because of this abortion is a highly charged issue which causes otherwise reasonable people to become, when facing off with someone who disagrees with their position on abortion, real assholes.

Nothing served to mobilize conservative and fundamentalist Christians in America like the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in 1973, Roe v. Wade. Fundamentalists had by and large withdrawn from the American mainstream after the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, which pitted the ACLU's famous Clarence Darrow against the populist former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, a conservative if not fundamentalist Christian. During the trial Bryan mistakenly allowed himself to be put on the stand by Darrow as a so-called "Biblical expert." He was ruthlessly cross examined, and his views, which were broadcast across the nation via the radio, were held up to public ridicule. He won the trial in the courtroom, but lost in the much more important court of public opinion. This defeat caused those who shared Bryan's literalist views of the Bible to withdraw from public life, sensing that the nation was not yet ready to accept them and their view of God and the Bible.

But Roe v. Wade, which effectively legalized abortion by ruling the existing state laws prohibiting it unconstitutional, sounded a battle cry for fundamentalists who had become emboldened by their retreat from public life. Yes, fundamentalism had mobilized somewhat before then, but Roe v. Wade reminded both fundamentalists and conservatives of what was at stake, and pressed them into much more aggressive action.

Since Roe v. Wade we have seen an exponential increase in fundamentalism to the point that much of what had been labeled fundamentalist now carries the much more innocuous label "conservative." Conservative Christianity, particularly within the Protestant tradition, is growing rapidly.

The Pro-Life/ Anti-Abortion movement has grown and mobilized as religious America has shifted to the right. Emboldened by this, many people I come into contact with through religious organizations assume that everyone they know who claims the name of Christ agrees with their views on abortion. While I was in professional ministry, first as a Youth Minister and then as the pastor of my own church, it was not wise for me to encourage people to look seriously at abortion as a complex moral situation which is not always morally wrong. To do so would have been career suicide. But now that I have left professional ministry, and now that my family's ability to eat is not so closely tied to people thinking that I always agree with them, I can finally approach abortion as the morally complicated situation which it really is.

Pro-Life/ Anti-Abortion activists often use a simple slogan which I think best sums up their position: Abortion is Murder. In fact, to them abortion is murder of the worst kind, because it is the murder of an innocent, helpless baby. Because they assume abortion is murder, and because they assume that all morally reasonable people will grant them that assumption, they do not feel the need to argue for their assumption. They do not explain why it is that abortion is murder, because to them it is so obviously the case that it ought to be intuitive. If others are incapable of or unwilling to arrive at the same conclusion, then it represents a failure of their reason, their morality, or more likely, both.

But it is obviously the case that abortion is murder? I think not. I hope that abortion is not obviously murder since the majority of our nation still favors a woman's right to choose to have an abortion. I hope that I do not live in a nation whose collective moral reasoning is so out of whack that they favor an act which is obviously murder. But as someone who opposed a war which at the time was favored by the majority, I know that we cannot always trust the moral reasoning of the majority.

Murder has best been defined as "the unjustified killing of a person." If this is a good definition of murder, then in order to demonstrate that an act is murder you have to demonstrate three things:

1. That something has been killed.
2. That the something which has been killed is "a person."
3. That that killing of a person was "unjustified."

So for abortion to be murder, per this definition of murder, it has to involve the killing of a person, and that killing must not count as a justified killing.

The first question this raises in my mind is: What do we mean by a "person?" What constitutes "personhood?"

This might seem like an easy question to answer, but as we try to answer it reasonably it gets very complicated very quickly. We might want to say that "person" and "human" are interchangeable terms; that a person is a human and a human is a person. But (not to sound like Bill Clinton pondering the meaning of "is"!) what do we mean by human?

We might mean biologically human, containing human DNA. But does this help us to understand the morality of abortion? A human fetus is, at the very least, a biologically human mass contained within a biological human. If personhood is granted to that fetus by virtue of it containing human DNA and therefore being biologically human, then it would be a very serious thing to remove that biologically human mass, thereby "killing" it. But a tumor may be described by the same language we just used to describe the fetus. Would it be a morally similar act to remove the tumor from the biological human? I certainly doubt it, which means we need to clean up our definition of person.

In utilitarian ethics a person (by which we mean here that which has moral standing) is defined as a sentient being - a being capable of experiencing pleasure and pain and expressing preference. This understanding has been particularly beneficial when discussing the rights of animals, but for those who don't want to extend rights to other animals similar to the ones we enjoy as human animals it isn't particularly helpful. It is, for those who wish to argue that abortion is wrong, a particularly unhelpful framework, because the extent to which an unborn child is sentient is not obvious to us. A fetus is certainly less sentient than, say, the cow which became the hamburger you just had for lunch. If sentience is our ground for personhood, why would it be less wrong to kill the cow than it is to kill the fetus?

This question concerning personhood, because it is central to our understanding of the moral and legal implications of abortion, had to be seriously considered by Justice Harry B. Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade. While I was an undergraduate Philosophy student I took an Ethics class in which I had to write a paper on how Blackmun dealt with personhood in his decision. For that paper I wrote this:

"In writing the majority opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, Justice Harry B. Blackmun outlines several historical perspectives on what it means to be a person. Some have held that life begins at conception, and therefore one has personhood, by virtue of the potential to be human, at birth. Others have claimed that a fetus is only a person once it has 'quickened', or moved. Still others have claimed that a person is only a person when it is 'viable', capable of surviving on its own. And finally, some have claimed that personhood begins only upon being born.

"Justice Blackmun himself seems mute on personhood, leaving, for the most part, his opinions outside the argument. In fact, he goes out of his way to maintain that it is not necessary that he, or any other justice in the court, pin down exactly when life, or personhood occurs. He argues that if the great doctors, philosophers, and theologians of all time have been unable to reach a consensus, then certainly one will not be reached by lawyers in a courtroom. However, what he can determine is what, constitutionally speaking, the laws of the United States of America can and cannot regulate.

"Although he does not come up with a firm definition of personhood, Justice Blackmun notes that both sides of the argument on abortion appeal to the protection of 'persons' in Section 1 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which states:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

"If a fetus is considered a person, then, clearly, according to the 14th Amendment, it has the right to life, which supersedes any claim the mother may make to rights, unless the mother's own life is in jeopardy. However, neither the internal evidence of the text, nor the evidence of history seems to indicate that this Amendment considers unborn fetuses to be 'persons.' Rather, it seems that only those who have been 'born' are considered here persons, therefore, legally, constitutionally speaking, the issue of potential personhood of a fetus is not to be respected."

To say exactly what we mean by the term "person" and exactly who counts as a person is a difficult thing. Any reasonable account of personhood, and any ethical theory which takes personhood seriously is necessarily complex. Because personhood is the foundation of moral standing, we need to have a very broad understanding of who counts as a person. The dangers of placing limits on personhood should be obvious. In early American history blacks were not considered persons, and they are still fighting to regain that lost personhood. But I can see no reason to consider fetuses to be persons in the same sense that those who have been born are considered persons. This is not to say that fetuses have no moral consideration whatsoever, but just that killing a fetus, morally and legally, is not the same thing as killing a person.

But even if we do consider a fetus to be a person, and many reasonable people do, it does not necessarily follow from that that abortion in all cases is murder. After all, we have defined murder as the unjustified killing of a person, so we still have to consider the question of justification.

As such, the next question is: Is killing a person ever justified?

This is, remarkably enough, a much more difficult question to answer than the first one. It is also a question which cuts to the moral heart of a great deal more than just abortion. If the answer to this question is no, then there should be no state sanctioned killing, whether it be war or the death penalty or whatever.

It is on this point that many Catholics do not consider Protestants (and particularly American Protestants) to be sufficiently Pro Life. For American Protestant activists Pro Life really means merely anti-abortion. For Catholics, however, life does not (as my father likes to say) end at birth. To be Pro Life means to fight not just against abortion but against all state sanctioned killings, particularly the death penalty.

I would love to here get into arguments concerning war and the death penalty, but as you may have already noticed it is far too easy for me to get off on a tangent. Suffice it to say that war and the death penalty will be dealt with at some point before this blog (Sandalstrap's Sanctuary itself, rather than this particular never-ending post) has finally run its course. For now the more relevant argument concerns self-defense.

As a society we grant that a person has the right to defend themselves against the threat of attack. It might come as some surprise to Christians that Jesus did not always seem to grant that right. In telling his followers to "turn the other cheek" when struck, was Jesus giving pastoral advice or laying down a moral imperative? How you answer that question, if you take the role of Jesus as the Christ seriously, should inform how you view claims about a right to self-defense.

But what does self-defense have to do with abortion? Simply this: if you grant that a person has the right to defend themselves then not all killings of persons are murder. To kill another person in order to preserve your own life (or even health) may be a justified killing. If that is the case, then even if fetuses count as persons not all abortions are murder, because some abortions are performed in order to preserve the life or health of the mother. In that instance, at least, the abortion would be a justified killing.

Delving into the ethics of abortion gets a great deal more complicated than this, but I will stop muddying the water for now because, believe it or not, it is not the ethics of abortion which I wish to consider here. While I do not believe that abortion is murder or that abortion in all cases is morally wrong, I do believe that abortion in many if not most cases is morally wrong. At the very least an abortion represents a tragedy which should have been avoided. So, while I am not a Pro Lifer (in the sense that the term is usually used, though of course, as a living being, I am quite in favor of life) I share the Pro Life goal of limiting abortions as much as possible.

The issue of abortion, for me, is not primarily a moral issue. Rather it is a pastoral issue. I am interested in the pastoral care of people who have had abortions, who are thinking about having abortions, or who may eventually have or need abortions. I do not desire that people have an abortion unless it is absolutely necessary (and I know that some of you Pro Lifers will argue that it is never necessary, but we'll have that argument later, I'm sure). As such I would love to be able to reduce the number of abortions performed in this country.

But that is not my only consideration. I also must consider the well being of the woman who may or may not have the abortion. It is through this lens that I will consider the question of whether or not it should be legal to obtain an abortion in the United States. And, of course, like a good allegedly brain-washed liberal, I believe that abortion should remain legal.

Laws against abortion do not prevent abortions from happening. There were, in fact, more abortions performed in the years immediately before Roe v. Wade effectively legalized abortion than in the years immediately after that landmark ruling. Laws against abortion do, however, make abortions unsafe by denying proper medical care to the women seeking abortions. A doctor's office, hospital or clinic is a much safer environment than a black-market basement. A surgical procedure is much safer than a coat hanger.

Now I know that many people are unmoved by that kind of arguing because they reason that if you are willing to kill your own baby (a very unfair characterization of abortion, in my mind) then you deserve whatever you get. Such callousness has no place in the body of Christ. Christianity is ultimately about the grace of God, a grace which, by the way, tells us that we have all sinned. It is God's grace which keeps us all from falling under judgment. Those who wish to judge others should be reminded of these words from the Epistle of James:

... speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:12-13, NRSV)

Women have for too long been left by selfish men to fend for themselves when they become unwantedly pregnant. These women should be the objects of Christian love, not self-righteous, hypocritical scorn. They are in a difficult situation, and need real options. Abortion should remain legal because to outlaw it only creates more criminals, and provides unnaturally harsh consequences for actions performed by women who think that they are out of options. Abortion should remain legal because to outlaw it would make it difficult for women with serious medical problems to have access to tragic but life saving procedures.

If you think that abortion is a tragic thing, and a morally serious thing, you'll get no argument from me. But stop looking for the easy answers, because they only make the problem worse.