On God

Does God exist?

Well yes, of course, though it’s very unclear what He’s like. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since Christopher Hitchens died. And as between the existence of God and Christopher Hitchens, God has an exciting edge. Generally speaking, the muscular atheists like Hitchens tended to make me favor God.

Richard Dawkins calls God a “moral monster”:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Yikes. God is worse than Hitler. Never mind comparing political opponents to Hitler anymore. Just compare them to God.

This is adolescent nonsense — a rebellion against a caricature the way teenagers rebel against their caricatured view of their parents. And everything Dawkins stridently claims about the God of the Old Testament is a grotesque misreading and misunderstanding of the Old Testament. (See Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God, by Paul Copan.) The God of the Old Testament cared about goodness and wickedness — and the latter was abundant in the Near East before Jesus.

I’m actually more comfortable with the God of the Old Testament, a God with a personality and passion, a God who changes His mind at times, than I am with the ultimate God who emerged from Christian theology — the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinitely Good everything entity who strikes me more as a cosmic supercomputer and a placeholder for Everything.

You get one or the other, it seems to me: a God with whom you can have a personal relationship (and who is therefore Great but flawed and evolving) or a Perfect Ultimate God Who is Everything Infinitely Et Cetera — and with Whom, therefore, no meaningful personal relationship is possible. A being who knows everything, can do anything, is everywhere, is always Good — think about that, step by step. Who can relate to that? Who can even conceive it? How is it possible to have a personal relationship with Infinity? That’s the infinite joke.

I grant the stupendous beauty of the Jesus story. Frankly, if I were God, I’d do it something like the Jesus way, where God becomes human. Tremendous and compelling story. I can even see the point of doing it during the Roman empire (as opposed to, say, now, when everything Jesus said would be wasted in a circus of silly pundits, people like me, and New Jersey housewives).

I just don’t get why people have to go through Jesus to get to salvation, what’s the difference between Jesus and God, why God has to be Ultimate Everything when He evidently wasn’t on Earth 2,000 years ago, how God can even be Ultimate Everything and meaningful, why God would make us choose heaven or hell (!) based upon a story, why God of all people would be coy, why God of all people would allow different (false?) stories to be perpetrated by people of abundant goodness, why God of all people would allow billions of people to be perfectly sincere but wrong, with eternal consequences, why God would design a world where sincerity didn’t matter but faithful subscription to one historical story did, why even an empty Deist God, if all religions are true, would matter a whit personally.

As I’ve made plain before, I’m a pro-God agnostic. I’m pretty sure God exists. I just don’t have any evidence for it. My dear brother said to me over the holidays, “just ask God.” Yes. I haven’t been able to do that quite yet. It reminds me of trying to pray back in the day. Tried. Wasn’t talking to anyone except myself. People who experience God — God bless you.

Here’s what I ask of you. Grant that some of us have tried and did not experience God. Treat that as real. Let it be “God’s will” or whatever story you want, but grant us sincerity. Let me be as real and true as you, okay?

And then, pray for me. My dear Hindu friend, Chaggan Patel, said to me when I lived in Kenya, “we survive on the strength of people’s prayers for us.” Maybe so. Pray for me.

What Is Tim Tebow Asking of God?

So much is interesting about Tim Tebow, or more precisely, what he exposes about our wildly conflicted culture.

For those who do not follow professional football, and do not manage to stumble into it via culture wars, I’m talking about the young Denver Broncos quarterback who prays on his knee before every game, and wears his Christianity on his sleeve.

Now there’s an image that sets fire to secular comfort. As Andrew Sullivan put it, “prayer is not supposed to be a public event, designed to display your holiness in front of the maximum number of people.” And Sullivan, to his maximum credit, followed up by posting several defenders of Mr. Tebow.

Tim Tebow, apart from being a now-winning quarterback with many now-quieter converts (irony note), is an evangelical Christian. That is, he ardently wants souls saved for Jesus. That’s his schtick. In the 2009 BCS Championship Game, he wore John 3:16 on his eye paint, and 92 million people searched “John 3:16″ on Google during or shortly after the game. The NFL doesn’t allow eye paint.

Before he became a winning quarterback (and still, in some quarters), the ugliness directed at his public prayer was astounding. You’d have thought the man flashed his penis. And this is truly a marvel.

Public displays of one’s religion, orientation and sensibility are common. Muslims are defended for engaging in their requisite prayer in public, gays are defended for being themselves in public, and Occupy Wall Street has been a massive, and massively defended, public display of in-your-face politics.

So what if Tim Tebow kneels to pray? Why the hate? Is it just that easy to hate Christians — while we defend pretty much everything else people wish to express in public? At this bizarre juncture in human history, with routine public splattering of social networking strangeness, is it really fair to criticize Tim Tebow? I’ve seen Christians and Atheists do vastly more disturbing things on Facebook.

And what is it, after all, that Tim is saying to God? Too many people imagine he’s seeking to put God on his side in a football game. I don’t think so. I think he’s saying, thank you God for this blessing and this opportunity, thank you for being you and being with me, whatever happens.

I don’t share Tim’s faith. But I respect his sincerity, his humility, and not least, his goodness. The man contributed his signing bonus to his charity, works with the W15S Foundation for children with life-threatening diseases, partners with Cure International to build a hospital in the Philippines, and works with “Drive for Education” to give back in the Denver community.

It’s easy these days to get worked up about people who make a lot of money. I’d like a lot of them to be more like Tim Tebow. And I’ve got no problem with the fact that he prays in public.

“Is the black church the answer to liberal prayers?”

That’s the Washington Post headline of an interesting and somewhat disturbing Thanksgiving Day piece by Lisa Miller. The column follows with pronouncements from African-American theologians and academicians who focus on “justice,” and Jesus as a class warrior, and this provocative gem from Obery Hendricks, a Bible professor at Union Theological Seminary: political conservatives who call themselves Christians but oppose government programs that help the poor are not, in any meaningful way, Christians.

Miller first cites James Cone of the Union Theological Seminary, who authored Black Theology and Black Power (1969) with inspiration from Malcolm X, and who in turn inspired Rev. Jeremiah Wright — conspicuously without supplying anything Cone said or thought (so let me): “Whether the American system is beyond redemption we will have to wait and see. But we can be certain that black patience has run out, and unless white America responds positively to the theory and activity of Black Power, then a bloody, protracted civil war is inevitable.” [Black Theology and Black Power, p.143.]

Now there’s a plan, and certainly an answer to (someone’s) prayer: marry the left to ninja super-liberal class-warfare Jesus, hint at civil war, and for good measure, call some conservative Christians not really Christians at all. That should trigger a gush of electoral success.

This shallow pastiche of Black Liberation Theology, coupled with the suggestion that it offers political guidance to the 21st century left, misunderstands religion and politics at many levels.

First, the sweeping use of “black church” should give pause — as though “black church” means something ideologically uniform (or uniform in any other way for that matter), as opposed to churches attended predominantly by African-Americans. This is precisely the religious and political stereotype of African-Americans to which so many African-Americans and others deeply objected when Rev. Jeremiah Wright was portrayed as typical of the “black church.”

There is a political contingent on the right and a political contingent on the left who want very much, for separate reasons, to pigeon-hole the “black church” as angry black-Jesus-warriors against “oppression” and “rich people.” And that’s simply not the reality of the range of black churches in America.

The right contingent and the left contingent are equally vapid, using African-Americans as a uniform political symbol — at a moment in history when African-Americans are emerging in mainstream American perception as diverse in the same ways as Americans are diverse (thanks in no small measure to the emergence of credible black conservatives who successfully weather the storm of opprobrium from disgusted liberals and their own communities).

Second, the facile equation of historical African-American oppression with the modern grievances of the left should give pause. The horrible history of slavery, racism, lynching, ghettoism and oppression in America confers upon African-Americans a unique narrative. Similarly, the Holocaust — the genocidal slaughter, ghettoism, and oppression of mid-20th-century Europe and elsewhere — confers upon Jews a unique narrative. African-Americans and Jews are understandably resistant to lots of piggy-backing on these narratives — particularly when the piggy-backing comes from loud political groups that suffered nothing even remotely approaching slavery or genocide.

Even the African-Americans and Jews who are themselves part of loud political groups advocating for some modern notion of “justice,” I would surmise, privately wince at specious conscriptions of their narratives. Thus, for example, have many African-Americans (and others) chafed at the blithe comparison of the modern gay rights movement to the 1960s civil rights movement. Gays “may want to cast their fight in civil-rights terms, and a lot of people are buying it. But not the faith community and especially not the black community,” says Bishop Harry Jackson, whose Hope Christian Church has a flock of 3,000 in the Washington, D.C. area.

And there’s no better example than the deep blue state of Maryland, controlled by a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature, and poised in early 2011 to become the sixth state to sanction gay marriage. The measure passed the Maryland Senate 25 to 21, and moved on to the House of Delegates, traditionally even more liberal on social policy. And there it floundered. A significant factor was the vocal opposition of African-American pastors — that “black church” that Lisa Miller sees as a wellspring of solace, validation and justice narration for the modern left.

My point is not to plunge into the complicated and on-going politics of gay marriage in Maryland (Maryland will likely approve gay marriage, and with support from some African-American pastors, and my support as well) — but more narrowly to highlight the error of marrying “the black church” to any current liberal “justice” agenda.

Third, any marriage of religious doctrine, left or right, to current political disputes should give pause. It is perfectly appropriate for people of faith — or even cynical admirers of the political possibilities of faith — to ask, “what would Jesus do?” in the grip of a personal moral choice. It is not appropriate to ask “how would Jesus vote?” on the stimulus package, bank bail-outs, auto industry bailouts and labor union windfalls, deficit reduction measures, and tax policy.

The historical Jesus didn’t take a single “political” position (in the sense we are discussing) except arguably the brilliant and much-debated answer to Pharisees seeking to trap him on tax obligations: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). And they were amazed and went away (Matthew 22:22).

To be sure, Jesus was a radical Jew — but his radicalism was religious and personal, not political or statist. Indeed, the notion that Jesus was some sort of justice warrior on behalf of the poor and downtrodden — and that government welfare programs are therefore “what Jesus would want” — precisely misunderstands the difference between the religious and the political, and between the personal and the public/governmental. Jesus felt enormous compassion for the poor and the oppressed, and acted personally on that compassion — as, it is fair to say, he would urge all of us to do. But he never advocated a power-structure program or any governmental redistribution initiative — not because he opposed or supported such statist programs, but because they were utterly irrelevant to his religious and personal message.

Do politics to your heart’s content, he might have said, but first do right in your personal life. Jesus had nothing to say about our politics — and much to say about how we treat other actual human beings in our life and whether we thereby honor God.

And thus we come full circle to Black Liberation Theology — its deep resonance in the 1960s and its inaptness as an “answer” for liberals in the 2010s.

When Rosa Parks was ordered to give up her bus seat solely because she was black, that was an immediate and deeply personal offense, a direct and shameful disrespect. African-Americans and their allies very naturally put Jesus on their side against such steady personal mistreatment. Using power arbitrarily to humiliate a human being would send Jesus into orbit — and law and politics conspired at the time to institutionalize precisely that repetitious personal humiliation.

Black Liberation Theology was one (among several) responses to that repetitious personal humiliation — and black theologian Cone’s threat of a “protracted civil war” — in the context I have now described — against that repetitious humiliation was a fair and angry response to human beings horribly misbehaving — directly and personally — toward other human beings. Indeed, Black Liberation Theology at the time was an honest conditional, a noble plea to white America to do the right thing — with “right” cast in sincerely Christian terms — or else. And “or else” simply meant the last resort of a people directly oppressed and personally humiliated several times a day.

The mistake, the disconnect between 1960s Black Liberation Theology and Lisa Miller’s wistful and overreaching resurrection of Black Liberation Theology fifty years later, is precisely captured in Obery Hendricks’ insistence that political conservatives who call themselves Christians but oppose government programs that help the poor are not, in any meaningful way, Christians.

That insistence isn’t tethered to any defensible solidarity with Jesus. Jesus did not make, and would not have made, any pronouncements about “government programs” — much less the religious credentials of those who debate the merits of “government programs.” Government programs have nothing whatever to do with the personal righteousness with which Jesus passionately concerned himself.

“Government programs” operate in the political realm, and their merits are fairly debated in political terms — chief among such terms being the extent and duration of public assistance, whether the assistance includes a work incentive (or disincentive), and whether the assistance encourages the superfluity of fathers and the disintegration of families. Take whichever position you wish, but do not invoke Jesus — from the left or the right.

Our politics are pointed and sullied enough without misappropriating the Gospels and excommunicating Christians of different political orientations.

 

Awareness of dying

There is a point in living when you become aware of dying. I don’t mean aware of a disease or any particular ailment. I mean a personal awareness of that dread thing that happens to everyone, an intimacy with the fact of decay that God graciously spares us for most of our lives, despite the fragility of all life always, a grace that gives us the blessed giddiness of imagined immortality — or at least a vomitously happy stretch of time with only blurriness on the other end.

And then time and sentience become in-your-face finite. That stupid vapid phrase — “nothing lasts forever” — it’s true!

The largest and smallest things are finite. Our planet is finite. Our sun and solar system are finite. In five billion years, our sun will exhaust itself, give up, explode, and grow so large that it reaches and destroys the Earth, before shrinking to an ember dwarf of its former self. And even before that, the sun’s steadfastly growing luminosity will extinguish all life on Earth. We could be destroyed by light in as little as a billion and a half years.

Our galaxy, with its hundreds of billions of stars, is finite. We are on a collision course with Andromeda, a much larger galaxy likely to ravage our galaxy and become something new. Even our universe is finite. At some point in the far distant future, all stars finally run out of fuel and die. Many of them persist as smoldering embers for a long time, but life is unsupportable. Sentience disappears. As if we never were.

It’s difficult, to put it mildly, for me to accept this prognosis. The thought of true nothingness, of everything that has been or ever will be, becoming permanently lost in stellar old age sends me reeling into lust for religion. God please give me heaven. Even hell. Anything but nothingness. Any place that remembers. Because the greatest achievement of the universe is memory.

Shortly before my great aunt Dorothy died, she answered a standard social question on the telephone in a disturbing way. “How are you doing?” And she said, with that husky, confident voice I had always known, “not good, Ken, not good,” and she said some other things I don’t remember. But I do remember being struck by her uncomfortably emphatic violation of protocol. We’re always fine. La-la-la, and then, okay, maybe we die, but we’re always fine. And you? Fine, thanks.

Not until later did I understand my great aunt’s words as the simple honesty of someone who knew she wouldn’t celebrate the next Thanksgiving. Even after she died, I felt troubled by that exchange — because I hadn’t become aware of dying. And I couldn’t comprehend how anyone else might confront it.

A little while later, my father with his faltering heart confided that he didn’t look to the future anymore. He found himself thinking mostly about the past. And then he died. Suddenly. The doctor reportedly said he gave up. And I vaguely understood, for a man who had endured a triple bypass and had his rib-cage stretched wide, maybe he just couldn’t accept a life that involved more of that.

My father giving up made a strange sense to me, even though I beat on his grave and wept. My father looking mostly to the past took me longer to understand. My father had become not only aware of dying, but intimately aware of his own dying, just as his aunt Dorothy had. They knew it was over. I sort of understand them now.

Perhaps the strangest thing we do, as life, is die. It makes no sense to be so fulsomely what we are, and then not.

It is a tiny absurdity against the vast absurdity of the universe dying. Every fiber of my being tells me it cannot possibly be that everything simply blinks out someday. Perhaps there is hope in the tiniest and densest point yet conceived by modern physics: the singularity, the true core of a black hole, which physics has yet to fathom.

Because it could be that new universes burst out of the singularity. It could be that our own universe is a big bang belch from a previous singularity. It could be that we keep happening, that we do not finally die after all. Perhaps we could even remember.

And just maybe my father is in heaven, or hell, or in between, or spiritually recycled. Any would give me comfort over the alternative. And if this is the origin of religion, it comes from our deepest place.

On Paterno, Sandusky, and what we may have learned

I didn’t think I’d talk about Joe Paterno or Jerry Sandusky, even though I’ve stumbled into so much coverage of the issue in the news and among my fellow bloggers. I’d take a pass, I thought, rather as I did with the Casey Anthony case, and let others rage about abominations. But then I read Ross Douthat’s column in the New York Times and experienced a cascade of emotions.

Douthat speaks delicately of good people who do bad things and bad people who do bad things — as we all, I instantly associated with his message and recollect from my childhood in church, have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But Douthat did not intend a cleansing message, a solidarity in sin that suspends judgment.

Quite the contrary. Good people and bad people do bad things for different reasons — and good people too often fall into the trap of imagining they do bad things for “a higher cause.” Douthat’s final riveting paragraphs:

Sins committed in the name of a higher good, [Catholic essayist John] Zmirak wrote, can “smell and look like lilies. But they flank a coffin. Lying dead and stiff inside that box is natural Justice … what each of us owes the other in an unconditional debt.”

No higher cause can trump that obligation — not a church, and certainly not a football program. And not even a lifetime of heroism can make up for leaving a single child alone, abandoned to evil, weeping in the dark.

Reading these lines, I knew I should talk about Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky. And I realized that perhaps I initially thought to move on and let Joe and Jerry sink beneath the nano-short American attention span because I was molested as a child by a trusted and beloved teacher — and I didn’t particularly want to think about it, and knew I wouldn’t need to much longer.

I wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t “raped.” I was molested while I slept, and when I awoke and realized what was happening, I gradually, ever so slowly so as not to disturb or alarm my teacher, eased myself out of the bed and slept on the floor for the rest of the night. I didn’t tell anyone for a long time, and always felt I had simply handled it. I never felt injured, just betrayed. The man didn’t love me. He lusted for my little penis. But that was between me and the teacher, and there were ways, in due course, he would know what that betrayal meant. Just him.

When I punished him in tiny ways, there never issued an apology, or even an acknowledgement of what had happened. Just obtuseness. Just a tacit power relationship that had now been flipped. And I had no desire for the power, just the apology. Just the basic recognition that what had happened was wrong. Just the flicker of a moral framework so that we could move on. It never came.

I still like to think I just handled it, and that was it, end of story. But I know I will never know for sure. It’s finally impossible to parse why we are who we are. And therapy, which has never struck me as good value for the money, seems just as likely to take us down rabbit trails, and new exciting reasons to validate ourselves, typically at someone else’s expense, as to yield true self-understanding — which happens, if ever, as a happenstance of cosmic grace. But being the man with two failed marriages makes me wonder, lightly, and makes me wish more earnestly I knew who I am and why with the clarity that seems to me the most obvious gift God could ever give us, if He were truly a God of compassion.

I later learned that my teacher was rumored to be involved with several other instances of molestation. My little brain didn’t know how to process this. The best I could do is tell another boy insistently, don’t ever let him do it.

As far as I know, my teacher never acknowledged that what he did was wrong. He was never held to account.

And I suppose this is the true injury — not to me, but to us, all of us — this tacit permission we grant again and again with our silence to have sex with children, to feel vague horror, turn away, and do nothing.

Sociology team Samuel and Pearl Oliner examined the reasons why some Gentiles helped Jews during the Holocaust. They did hundreds of interviews, all toward divining what mattered, in the moment, when a Jew on the run from the Nazis showed up at your doorstep. Did you slam the door? Did you tell them with a quiver in your voice that you couldn’t afford to help them? Or did you invite them in?

The Oliners ran the variables as to what would make some Gentiles help Jews and others not. As it happens, piety or frequency of church-going (or not) doesn’t predict inclination to help a Jew — and neither did particular religious affiliation, political party or orientation, education level, or socioeconomic status.

The single variable that mattered was having been raised with a clear sense of right and wrong. The Gentiles most likely to help Jews, even at risk to themselves, were Gentiles with a core sense of right and wrong. In that terrible moment, with everything in their life imperiled, they concluded they could not not help this person.

And this is Douthat’s ultimate point. We know in our gut, or we do not, what is right and what is wrong — quite apart from our religion, our politics, or anything else — and when the terrible and unfair moment arrives, as it does to an arbitrary few, as it did to Joe Paterno, do we do what is right at risk to ourselves and higher causes to which we’ve devoted our lives, or not?

I can’t condemn Joe Paterno. But I can say to every parent: teach your children the difference between right and wrong. Instill that simple dichotomy as insistently as you possibly can — because some day, the most profound justice of the moment may turn on your child’s simple appreciation of right and wrong.

On Culture Wars and Gay Christian Sinners

Fellow blogger John Barron has an excellent post over at Sifting Reality defending Christians with respect to homosexuality — or more specifically, Christian obsession with homosexuality, given the in-your-face ubiquity of homosexual and homosexual-accepting culture, coupled with the demonization of Christians as intolerant bigots for viewing homosexuality as a sin.

He’s right. It’s a trap of demonization and counter-demonization. And he’s also right that homosexuality is unique among the “sexual sins” (adultery, promiscuity, incest, pedophilia, etc.) in demanding not merely non-criminality, but full acceptance — which takes, for many Christians, offensive forms of open homosexual displays.

I made something like this point, though not as effectively as John, back in July, when I explored whether libertarians should support gay marriage:

Part of the conservative discomfort with the gay political and cultural agenda in America is its selective outrage, its contempt for tradition, its relatively mild reaction to how horribly gays are treated in countries currently favored by the Left (as opposed to Israel, for example, where gays enjoy by far the most civil, political and cultural rights of any nation in the Middle East), its sometimes in-your-face promotion of gay sex (no different, in conservative estimation, than in-your-face promotion of heterosexual sex and hyper-sexualization of women), and its demonization of ordinary Americans for vague discomfort with gay culture.

My answer, by the way, was yes, libertarians should support gay marriage, but not necessarily the entire gay-rights agenda:

It is a libertarian imperative to support gay marriage as a political (not judicial) proposition because marriage is a government-sanctioned institution and the government has no legitimate interest in the genders of the spouses-to-be. It is not a libertarian imperative to support the gay rights agenda across the board, and it is the prerogative of any libertarian to be troubled by, and object to, some aspects of the gay rights agenda.

As it is the prerogative of any libertarian to support every aspect of the gay rights agenda, as I generally do, because I personally believe in a culture of equal respect and stature among gays, trans-gendered, and straights. But that’s a political proposition, and it must be won politically, without recourse to heavy-handed [judicial] absolutes.

Which takes me back to John Barron’s defense of Christian obsession with homosexuality.

I say the following respectfully, as most of my family and many of my friends are Christians. Christians started this fight by freighting homosexuality with the heavily denunciatory baggage of “sin” (never mind “abomination” and such).

And they often did so in a way that cast doubt upon even the possibility of a “gay Christian.” In other words, total war. To be sure, some congregations nervously accepted homosexuals as sinners like all the rest of us, even though they actively choose a daily lifestyle that is supposedly sinful. (“Hi, my name is x, and I love Jesus, but I’ll be actively and deliberately sinning for the rest of my life.”) But that’s not an actual comfort to a gay person.

Homosexuality is an orientation — which science and history view as natural for a minority, and in the language of religion, “the way God made them.” For gay people, it’s as bizarre to insist that they “resist these impulses” and become something else as to insist that healthy chocolate lovers resist that impulse and become rigorous chocolate-avoiders. It cannot be right, in the Christian tradition, to condemn so many people to active pursuit of sinfulness, simply because of who they already are.

It’s impossible, therefore, to parse “sin” in the same way as, for example, adultery. Adulterers are not making a choice about who they are. They’re making a choice about what they will do, very consistent with who they are (heterosexuals). Adulterers can nevertheless come to church, and take solace in the fact that we’re all sinners, we all do bad acts. And we’re good Christians because we do so many other proper Christian things. Homosexuals cannot come into the same church and take any solace in the fact that we’re all sinners, because they’re not simply guilty of a sinful act, or acts, but guilty, according to much Christian dogma, of actively choosing “sin” every day of their lives because of who they are. That’s no way to live.

Who hurts people more? The adulterer or the homosexual? I don’t have the statistics, but if the strife and collateral damage of torn marriages is any indication, adultery hurts vastly more people than homosexuality. Is “who hurts people more” a fair question? Fair question, as concerns whether it is possible to reach conciliation between gays and Christians. Depends on your taste for absolutes.

We posit the adulterer as the one who commits a sin, desires not to do so again, does so again, desires not to do so again, does so again, and so forth — but always remains within the grace of God, and always capable of choosing not to commit an obvious and calamitous and injurious sin again, and therefore happily within the embracing and forgiving rubric of the church.

But our conservative churches view the homosexual as different, as heavily freighted with categorically unforgivable sin from the get-go. There is no presumption of grace, you’re-only-as-bad-as-your-next-act, much less a steady embrace of their Christianity. Homosexuals simply choose sin, whether or not they ever hurt another human being for the rest of their lives, and they’re accordingly the worst sinners, the sinners who permanently choose and love sin. Even the worst adulterers are forgiven because they don’t “permanently” choose sin. It’s not something they “are,” just something they do, sometimes repeatedly. But being homosexual is a permanent sin, an “abomination.”

It cannot be a surprise that gay culture reacted strongly to this characterization. It cannot be a surprise that secular gay culture, in particular, declared war on this Christian hostility. It cannot be a surprise that where gay culture is predominant, it would include a heavy dollop of sometimes disgusting and vicious anti-Christian sentiment. And it cannot be a surprise that we’re witnessing the current horrible nastiness of gays against Christians and Christians against gays.

At the root of the hostility is the definition of “sin.” That single short word commands legions of warriors on both sides. If homosexuality is angrily and categorically viewed as “sin,” regardless of its consequences, then there will be very few gay Christians, and the historically and successfully inclusive quality of Christianity will most oddly stop just short of homosexuals.

On Religion and Politics, Unbelievably…

Here’s an announcement: politicians aren’t actually religious. They pretend to be because they must. And in some cases, they parrot religiosity quite well. But they don’t do that thing that religious people daily and sincerely do and they don’t believe in a personal God. At best, they’re Deists, like Thomas Jefferson, and therefore talk God-talk well enough.

Accept this. And then move on to the truly critical political proposition that religious orientation is not an issue in the 2012 election. Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith is as irrelevant as Barack Obama’s suspect Muslim faith. Yes, one is manifest and the other is earnest gossip — but they share a profoundly un-American obsession with the religious orientation of public servants.

Over two hundred years ago, the Founding Fathers quashed discussion of religious orientation as legitimate dialogue in political contests. And they did so wisely and resolutely. In the same clause where they required fealty to the Constitution, they declared any religious test off-limits. The juxtaposition of these two isn’t coincidental.

Article VI, Clause 3, United States Constitution:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

In sum, affirmation of the Constitution is an absolute — and by the way, do this, and then your religious orientation is irrelevant. The United States Constitution is large enough to embrace all religions — but trumps all of them as to loyalty. Affirming it subordinates any religious idiosyncrasies for purposes of public office.

That such a profoundly wise mediation of religion and politics could have been accomplished in the 18th century is another testament to the grandeur of the United States Constitution. From two hundred years ago, we hear this, and we best accede: shut up about Mormonism and Islam.

This discussion is necessary, of course, because, Southern Baptist Pastor Jeffress, supporter of Rick Perry, absurdly declared the Mormon faith a non-Christian “cult.” And progressive blogger Jeffrey Goldberg predicts a leftist gush of anti-Mormonism:

If Romney wins the nomination, we will see a rush of anti-Mormon propaganda — generated by secular liberals, not evangelicals. Anti-Romney leftists, the sort of people who would be loath to utter an unfavorable word about Islamic doctrine, will expend a great deal of energy and money bringing to light the most peculiar aspects of Mormon theology and practice, in an effort to convince evangelicals that the man leading the Republican Party is a harebrained heathen.

Yes, sadly, that’s politics. And our obligation, notwithstanding, is to stay sober. We best honor the Constitution by shutting down even the first hints of religious bigotry in this election.

And Pastor Jeffress is an embarrassment to religion and politics.

Stonehenge Step Aside (plus God)

11,600 years ago — 7,000 years before Stonehenge — humans built an elaborate temple. They had no writing. They had no metal. They had no pottery. They didn’t even have wheels to aid construction. But they had some kind of yearning.

The site is Gobekli Tepe, in southeastern Turkey.

The temple is impossible. The humans foraging for food at the time had no way to undertake such a construction, or to haul the massive stones from a distance, or even to stay in one place long enough to think about constructing a temple.

But there it is. Our origins are a massive multiplying mystery.

Let’s think about God and His chronology.

11,600 years ago, human hunter-gatherers on the border of the Ice Age build a temple, having (to our knowledge) never built anything more complicated than a hut. This is a sacred outreach, a spectacular superfluity in the teeth of challenging Neolithic survival. Nothing seems necessary about the temple, in the way that huts and game and berries are necessary. But such an undertaking could not have happened unless its builders viewed it as necessary — indeed, more urgent than huts and game and berries.

Yet God waited until over 7,000 years after this human monumental yearning for the divine to get in touch with Abraham, and the authors of the Hindu Vedas, then another 1,400 years to inspire Gautama the Buddha, and then another 600 years to send His son into human history to die for our sins, and another 600 years thereafter to speak with Mohamed. Why?

Why not establish the definitive relationship of God and humanity at the earliest point of humanoid yearning for the divine? Why not get it settled? What was God thinking?

Why would God be coy? Perhaps God desired true presence with human beings only when they could truly register it, only when it was possible to spread the Word by other than word-of-mouth. Perhaps God was dealing with other matters for a few millennia.

I must confess to a bias here. The asserted omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience of God makes God unreal to me. An all-powerful, everywhere, all-knowing God generates mind-boggling contradictions. I like a smaller God. A God with a personality — which is impossible if God is all-everything. The ultimate turbo-God looks so much like a necessary heuristic, a concept that had to be invented to reinforce monotheism, but which strips God of any meaningfulness. God is everything? Okay. Not helpful.

If God, possibly, is not literally everything (and therefore potentially meaningful), then a God-space becomes much more attractive. Interestingly, every major religion treats God, in its narrative passages, as a personality. The Jewish scriptures show God changing His mind, getting emotional, engaging in negotiations with good people, and evolving in His sensibility. Christianity and Islam built upon this narrative, but became much more rigorously monotheistic and absolutist — while, oddly, embracing the original Jewish narrative — and in the case of Christianity, ironically, developing a polytheistic heuristic with the doctrine of the Trinity.

The reach of the human imagination is awe-inspiring, and never more so than when it seeks the divine. Our religious architecture — our urgent thinking and feeling about God and everything we conceive in that urgency — is, to borrow Keats, a thing of beauty, a joy forever, and always the best of the human impulse to stand modest before what we cannot understand.

I love the humans that built the Gobekli Tepe temple. I love their sacrifice and their devotion. They were modest and lifted up their hands to God, somehow, and said please save us. And the rest is history.

On Whittaker Chambers and Right and Wrong

Fifty years ago last month, Whittaker Chambers died. Last month I turned 52 and finally finished his remarkable book, Witness. Whittaker Chambers was a Communist, and then a Soviet spy, when it mattered rather enormously. Appalled by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and profoundly by Stalin’s purges, Chambers finally broke with Communism and became an informant.

More to the point, Chambers found God, and identified the amoral atheism of Soviet Communism as a grievous threat to democracy — indeed, in his view, a peril likely to prevail because the Communists were more determined. No moral code, except steadfast adherence to the party line, constrained the Communists. If the party line dictated that you salute Nazi Germany and Trotsky one day, and then condemn Nazi Germany and Trotsky the next, you did both with resolution and nary a hint of cognitive dissonance. It mattered only that the party cause, and the ultimate dialectical resolution, be advanced.

Chambers believed Communists would prevail. Yet he fought their spy ring by testifying against them. He identified several individuals in American government who were Communist spies, including, most famously, Alger Hiss — the State Department functionary who had been at Yalta. And there begins a fascinating chapter of America’s culture wars. Harvard-educated Alger Hiss versus working-class farmer Whittaker Chambers. Chambers testified by himself. Hiss defended himself with a battery of the best lawyers in the nation.

Deny, always deny, as Chambers described the Communist imperative, because lying for the cause was a secular virtue. And Hiss predictably denied that he was a Communist until he died, in his 90s. But he was convicted for perjury, and indeed he was a Communist, and a Soviet spy. His defenders were legion. Two Supreme Court justices testified as character witnesses on his behalf. The New Deal elite overwhelmingly favored Hiss. And they were wrong.

An “expert” avoids all the small errors and sweeps on to the grand fallacy. American distrust of intellectuals — that impulse that Europeans deride as benighted — usefully checks the ideological condescension and statist urgencies of America’s intellectuals. On the American class structure in the 1930s, Chambers quotes a European at a dinner party: “In the United States, the working class are Democrats. The middle class are Republicans. The upper class are Communists.”

In the Chambers camp were the common men and women, whom God, as Lincoln said, must have dearly loved because he made so many of them. Most of us are common men and women. We have no ancestry or coat of arms except as kitsch. We sport no ostentatious Yale chair in our office and rarely correct another’s grammar. We think we know the difference between right and wrong and sweetly urge the former.

Just to have a clear sense of right and wrong matters. What made the Communists in Chambers’ day so formidable — what convinced him they would win — was their subordination of right and wrong to the party line. That basic impulse — understanding right and wrong, at times decency and indecency — mattered nothing to the Communists. Anything goes, so long as it advances the prosperity of the party.

As it happens, Chambers was mistaken. Communism did not prevail. Americans, common men and women, understood the peril of the Communist ideology and fought it. As an instance in understanding the difference between right and wrong, there is no greater world historical example.

Ayn Rand versus Christians and Those Alleged “Republican Contradictions”

When intelligent commentators write unintelligently, one suspects their minds were simply elsewhere, their true intention obscured by the strange words they cobbled together while they thought about something else.

Andrew Sullivan’s mind was elsewhere with his post, “Heightening the Republican Contradictions,” in which he featured two partisan videos by the liberal group faithfulamerica.org, introduced by this pastiche of illogic:

The doctrines of Ayn Rand and the core values of Christianity are explicitly opposed – as Rand herself insisted. And this poses a philosophical problem for contemporary Republicanism which insists on both Randian capitalism and evangelical Christianity. That can only work if you treat Christianity as a cultural signal and a political organizing tool, rather than a living faith, hence my insistence on using the term Christianism, rather than Christianity.

Sullivan is mind-boggling wrong in so many ways. Indeed, his post looks like a brazenly partisan promotion of cynical wedge politics — especially given his chosen title: “Heightening the Republican Contradictions.” In this case, it’s wedge politics at its most inept — on politics and religion.

  1. Sullivan confuses Rand’s general opposition to religion with specific opposition to “the core values of Christianity.” What? That’s like saying “I’m an atheist, therefore I’m opposed to love (as expressed in First Corinthians 13), and the ‘hunger for justice’ (as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount). Logical nonsense.
  2. Rand’s opposition to religion, like any rational atheist’s opposition to religion, doesn’t target Christianity specifically, while leaving open the possibility that Confucianism might be true. It makes no sense to pit an atheist’s objection to religion against only a single religion’s “core values,” whatever they may be (unless your object is partisan).
  3. When an atheist does target a specific religion, it is because that religion has some objectionable power or makes some objectionable claim in a specific context, not because the atheist generally objects to the “core values,” whatever they may be, of that particular religion.
  4. Sullivan doesn’t identify “the core values of Christianity” — because he can’t. He simply chooses to treat “the core values of Christianity” as a mysterious given (an article of faith?) to make his partisan point, which spits in the face of two millennia of debate over the “core values of Christianity.”
  5. That Sullivan declines to identify “the core values of Christianity” brings into even sharper relief his breezy insistence that these “core values” are not merely inconsistent with, but “explicitly opposed” to the doctrines of Ayn Rand. “Explicitly”? That’s a word one appropriately uses when one has at least shown the explicitness — which is to say, been explicit. Sullivan wasn’t.
  6. In fact, atheists commonly embrace many, if not most, of religions’ “core values,” whatever they may be. Atheists simply say the values did not come from God. Sullivan wishes, for some reason, to equate a-theism with a-morality. And that is a slanderous confusion worthy of the most benighted evangelical Christian Republicans Sullivan so mightily wishes to tarnish.
  7. In fact, over the centuries, Christianity has been conscripted into multiple left and right notions and ideologies. But it is an abuse of Christianity to reduce it to Liberation Theology or the Protestant Work Ethic or any other partial interpretation of certain aspects of Christianity.
  8. There is no such thing as a homogenous and unified “contemporary Republicanism,” anymore than there is such a thing as a homogenous and unified “contemporary Democraticism.” Even to pose such a notion ignores perhaps the most elementary fact about American politics: the necessarily big tents of its two major political parties.
  9. It’s flat nonsense to say that “contemporary Republicanism insists on Randian capitalism.” There are, to be sure, many more Republicans than Democrats inspired by certain Randian notions of limited government, but no Republican in office — much less “contemporary Republicanism” generally — truly insists on actual “Randian capitalism.” That’s like saying “the Democratic party insists upon Marxism” because many of its members are sympathetic to “power to the people” and “workers of the world unite.”
  10. It’s flat nonsense to say that “contemporary Republicanism insists on evangelical Christianity.” There are, to be sure, more evangelical Christian Republicans than evangelical Christian Democrats. But “contemporary Republicanism” does not “insist” upon any single faith — much less a single denomination within one faith. To suggest such a facile notion betrays a bigotry concerning both Republicans and evangelical Christians — the design being to equate the two so that everyone who has any negative association with either will willy-nilly have a negative association with both. And that’s just poor political writing.

Let’s be clear. Sullivan, an intelligent man, is here remarkably superficial about religion and politics because he primarily wishes to promote a liberal organization of religious people. Good for Democrats for finally realizing that kicking religion in the teeth, or treating it as something to which frightened Americans “cling,” may not be a sound political strategy. Good for liberal Christians for organizing.

But liberals hardly help their religious credibility with commentary that craps ineptly on evangelical Christianity and makes bone-headed generalizations about atheists, religious people, and Republicans.

 

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