For many, the greatest possible objection to belief in God-- and often the most painfully personal-- is the existence of immense amounts of pain and suffering in the universe. From Christian apologist CS Lewis, to Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, to Jewish Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, to "new atheist" Christopher Hitchens, to conservative Evangelical Alvin Plantinga, to liberal physicist-cum-theologian John Polkinghorne *, there is a wide swath of agreement that this very problem forms the key objection to theism in general, and Christianity in particular. It can be stated in many ways: "Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?" "Why would a good God allow evil to destroy his creation?" "How could God allow [insert name of tragedy] to happen to [insert name(s) of victim(s)]?"
While I have a deep and abiding hope in the ultimate purposes of God to restore all of creation through Jesus Christ, when I ponder the near future I tend to be a bit more cynical. We have wars and rumors of war. We have warnings of ecological apocalypse. We face a rampant consumerism that turns people in the developed world into little more than zombies, and turns laborers in the developing world into little more than slaves. The mainline religious establishment which values social justice, civil society and education seems to shrink, while more fundamentalist religious movements that promote exclusion, anger and fear seem to grow. And all the while our government seems to be bogged down in an intractable partisan quagmire.
The near future can seem bleak indeed.
So, it is rather odd for me to encounter a week's events that bring optimism. First off, the Affordable Healthcare Act was upheld. And while it is pretty horrible compromise legislation that was heavily neutered, it is better than nothing for millions of uninsured, and a step toward the National Healthcare system that any reasonably civilized country should have. Next, Marriage Equality was upheld. In the words of one man I talked to: "This means I am fully human now!" Then the President sang Amazing Grace at a funeral and acted as our "Pastor in Chief". And then, to top off an incredible week, the Episcopal Church elected Michael Curry as our 27th Presiding Bishop.
Suddenly it feels like the tectonic plates of cultural gridlock might be shifting. Maybe just a little.
A friend of mine recently sent me an editorial attributed to Rick Mathes, a Christian minister who works with prison populations. In the editorial, Rick reports a conversation with a Muslim cleric in which he basically causes the Muslim cleric to admit that Islam, as a religion, has an INHERENT duty to wage violent war with "infidels" who are not Muslim. As a religion teacher and Episcopal priest, my friend was wondering what my take on this was. So I wrote the following:
Today I wrote a short letter to my Texas State governor, senator and representative about the "Open Carry" legislation making its way through Austin. If enacted, such legislation will make swaths of Texas look like some suburban caricature of an Old West boomtown with every insecure, over-anxious, under-prepared redneck thug packing and scaring the hell out of my children "becuz the law seyz we can!". There's a whole Star Trek episode dedicated to this proposition in fact. Well worth watching.
This will probably wind up being one of my more hokey blog posts, and it will probably bear the stamp of staying up too late at night watching videos about aliens on youtube (oh the things we do when insomnia strikes!). But, then again, perhaps this needs to be said. And on the off chance it might need to be said, I guess I will say it.
Recently, in applying for a program of graduate studies in educational leadership, it became clear that I have a rather glaring lacuna in my training and education up to this point: In depth reflection on the goals and processes of leadership. It occurs to me that, while I have read fairly widely and written on many aspects of pastoral life, from Biblical studies to Liturgy, from Systematic theology to Systems theory in Congregational Development, from Ecumenical Councils to Crisis Counseling, I have never focused on leadership as such.
Leadership is something I do every day, and something I teach others about. But I have never delved deeply into the theoretical foundations of leadership, and I would characterize my own understanding and practice of leadership as largely mentor-based, intuitive, and "caught rather than taught". So, with that said, I would like to express both systemically and yet somewhat naively what leadership is to me, why I think leadership is important, how I have seen leadership practiced and mis-practiced, and most importantly, how leadership reflects the nature and purposes of the Triune God.
A colleague of mine recently sent me an article from the Atlantic entitled "The Science of Superstition", which appears to be a précis of a book by the same name. This article claims to do something that very badly needs to be done here in the buckle of the Bible-Belt: Open our eyes to the dangers of the superstition and magical thinking that cloud our everyday lives and judgements.
However, I will admit that my first reaction to this article is one of minor disdain, as if the author is quite naive about all of the assumptions he is making about "the way things really are", and the fact that there are myriads of PhDs in every field of research who would question his basic assumptions. There are many, in fact, who might call his assumptions mere "superstitions" made without reference to empirical observation, nor without reference to the background assumptions that make science itself work.
I just read the Eichenwald Newsweek article on the Bible. It starts out swirling the toilet bowl of scholarship, but is at least floating by the end of the essay. It begins as Erhman fundamentalism, as if someone deified the works of Bart Ehrman* (and his ilk) and then parroted all his talking points, but without his nuance or scholarship to back it. Large swaths of this article lend itself to a line by line refutation, but that comes across as petty and defensive. While I have great sympathies with his take on right-wing culture, I was very saddened by his scholarly naivety. And it alarms me that he plays that loose with the facts (and his editors let him get away with it). If you want me to get specific, ask me about almost any point of scholarship made in the beginning of that article (and much of it later), and I can direct you to historical evidence which substantially modifies or altogether refutes the points he is making.
The ball has dropped. The calendar has flipped. The holiday break is almost over.
And thus, I suppose it is time to do this year's obligatory resolutions (which, in fact, are continuations of things I am already working on).
However, on the supposition that if I make my decisions public, I have a greater chance of actually accomplishing them, here are my resolutions for 2015. I have limited myself to 5 goals, because I tend to accomplish things in sets of 3 or 5. God created us to evolve with five digits, so that is a pretty handy way of keeping track. And so without further ado, my New Years resolutions for 2015:
|Beware of generalizations that start with "every" or "all", as they are almost always wrong.|
A recent article on io9 stated that climate change may make the human population more religious. Why? Because when droughts and famines begin to affect global society, people will turn to propitiate their "gods" to make the suffering and privation go away. This article was greeted by usual comments from folks who are non-religious or post-religious that this trend was a bad thing, that the world needs less religion (not more), and that hopefully the suffering allowed by their "gods" would turn more people away from religion until there was no more religion, and we finally enter into the secular utopia long prophesied by the secular prophets of the Western Enlightenment.
OK, I may have added a little flourish there. But that was the gist. And if you dig past the veneer of "just the facts ma'am" on the surface of anti-religious claims about the good that can be brought about by secularism, you soon find a robust religious faith in an ideology that has borne little fruit in making the world a better moral place, despite all our technological advances. For instance, John Lennon wrote the secular Hymn "Imagine" which prophesied secular world peace and prosperity at a time when various secular regimes that "imagined no heaven" (such as China, Russia, Vietnam and Cambodia) were also engaged in various atrocities.
But my real problem is that this article assumes that the major (or only) reason to be religious is out of fear: To get a divine being to protect you from something you are afraid of, or to change something that is threatening you.
A Pollock painting or random paint splatters? You decide.
Although Sapolsky was raised as an Orthodox Jew, he has since left his childhood faith and describes himself as an atheist. However, he says, "I’m not saying ‘you gotta be crazy to be religious. That would be nonsense. Nor am I saying, even, that most people who are, are psychiatrically suspect." Sapolsky is fascinated by the underlying biology of these traits common to to both certain kinds of abnormal psychology and extreme religious experience. And he confesses that his atheism seems to be something he "appears to be unable to change".
I have spent the last five years working with students from all kinds of Christian traditions, and from non-Christian religions and secular families as well. Multiple times each year, I have the opportunity to introduce them to Christianity, in all its various versions and sects and denominations. Whether it is talking in chapel, teaching New Testament, or discussing world religions, I often have to help students find a "road map" to understand the diversity and variety of spiritual viewpoints and practices we call "Christian".
As a result of this experience, I have developed a curriculum of key ideas, charts, and videos designed to introduce teens and adults to the vast family of Christian traditions in around two hours. This assumes that the audience already is introduced to the basics of what the Bible is all about, and what basic ideas are shared across Christian traditions (such as Trinity, Incarnation, Revelation, Salvation, etc.).
This Thanksgiving, as we stop to ponder the material, social, and spiritual abundance that we are immersed in and give thanks for it, I have been thinking about what makes for a good social system. At a time when right and left wing politics across Western civilization have imploded into intractable debates between oligarchs, when every system seems to enslave and oppress others in the service of the few, it makes me wonder: What should our public institutions-- political and religious, educational and economic-- be striving for.
In looking at this situation, I propose that the dictum of Irenaeus must be applied to God's children and all their works. When Irenaeus said "The Glory of God is humanity fully alive" he was absolutely correct. God's glory is not in rote obedience, nor fearful worship, nor abject compliments (although clearly God wants us to recognize his gifts in thanksgiving, for honest recognition of another's generosity is good for the health of our own soul). God's glory is not primarily found in what we do for or to God, but in who we become as we live in the world God has given us. The analogy of parenthood is apt here, for the primary goal and final glory of parenthood is NOT merely obedient children. The goal and glory of parenthood is healthy, vibrant, virtuous, self-actualized children. Thus God's glory is the full flourishing of his children.
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.