Thursday, May 29, 2008

Does science make faith obsolete?

Yes, if by ...
No, and yes.
Absolutely not!
Not necessarily.
Of course not.
No, but it should.
No, not at all.
It depends.
Of course not.
No, but only if ...

Each of these is the title of an essay in a booklet published by the John Templeton Foundation. Thirteen contributors from the realms of science, theology, academia and journalism answered the question "Does science make belief in God obsolete?"

Perhaps you can guess what atheist Christopher Hitchens or the lead editor of the Catholic Church's catechism would say (although you might be wrong). But what about William D. Phillips, a Nobel laureate in physics? Or Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine? Or Jerome Groopman, a professor of medicine at Harvard? Or philosopher Mary Midgley?

You can read their thought-provoking essays and/or order a copy of the booklet at the foundation's Web site, which also offers debates between the contributors. You can leave your own comments, there as well as here.

I was particularly struck by this excerpt from the piece by Keith Ward, a Fellow of the British Academy, an Anglican priest and the author of "Pascal's Fire: Scientific Faith and Religious Understanding":

"Some modern physicists routinely speak of realities beyond space-time (e.g., quantum fluctuations in a vacuum from which this space-time originates). And some physicists, such as Henry Stapp, Eugene Wigner, and John von Neumann, speak of consciousness as an ultimate and irreducible element of reality, the basis of the physical as we know it, not its unanticipated by-product. ...

"It is not science that renders belief in God obsolete. It is a strictly materialistic interpretation of the world that renders belief in God obsolete, and which science is taken by some people to support. But science is more ambiguous than that, and modern scientific belief in the intelligibility and mathematical beauty of nature, and in the ultimately 'veiled' nature of objective reality, can reasonably be taken as suggesting of an underlying cosmic intelligence. To that extent, science may make a certain sort of belief in God highly plausible."


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The gospel according to ... lolcats?

And now for something completely different. Trust me. Completely. Different.

Many arguments over religion come down to debates over scripture. What does that passage really mean? Was it accurately translated? Does the translation remain understandable? The English of the King James Version is not the same as today's English. Just ask any child who was wary of Jesus' request to "Suffer the little children to come unto me" -- which has nothing to do with suffering, since the clear meaning a few hundred years ago was "Let the little children come to me."

Translations have proliferated over the past few decades, some more literal or more poetic or more narrowly targeted than others. But I recently came across one unlike any other: It is written in the pidgin English of the lolcats.

If you are familiar with lolcats, you are probably either laughing or appalled. Or both. "Lol," of course, is netspeak for "laughing out loud." Lolcats are photos of cute cats with captions written in total disregard of proper spelling, grammar and word use. (Personally, I feel sure that cats would be much more precise with language, but the perpetrators of lolcats didn't ask me.) You can find the motherlode of them here.

So in July 2007, some people with far too much time on their hands decided that what the world really needs is ... What? An end to poverty? Global peace? A cell phone that doesn't drop calls? Alas, no. Their mission was to translate the entire Bible into lolspeak.

Here, for example, is the 23rd Psalm:

Ceiling Cat iz mai sheprd (which is funni if u knowz teh joek about herdin catz LOL.) He givz me evrithin I need.
He letz me sleeps in teh sunni spot an haz liek nice waterz r ovar thar.
He makez mai soul happi an maeks sure I go teh riet wai for him. Liek thru teh cat flap insted of out teh opin windo LOL.
I iz in teh valli of dogz, fearin no pooch, bcz Ceiling Cat iz besied me rubbin' mah ears, an it maek me so kumfy.
He letz me sit at teh taebl evn when peepl who duzint liek me iz watchn. He givz me a flea baff an so much gooshy fud it runz out of mai bowl LOL.
Niec things an luck wil chase me evrydai an I wil liv in teh Ceiling Cats houz forevr.

I guess that there might be more than one purpose to the lolcats Bible. General silliness. Cynical mockery. Theological exploration. Desire to see professional editors and English teachers twitch.

Whatever the purpose, I welcome this odd addition to Holy Writ. Even the strangest translations can make a passage fresh, and I doubt that I will easily forget the image of God rubbing the beloved cat's ears as it walks through the valley of dogs, fearing no pooch.

Comments in standard English welcome.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Faith-based hatred, Christian-style

There are days when reading the incoming e-mail leaves me wishing for a delete button on my memory, not just the computer. It's not just the offers to enhance body parts; I'm talking about faith-based hatred. Far too much of this garbage claims God's approval for distorted views and even violence.

Muslim jihadists don't corner the market on this, by the way. The latest turd to land in my inbox comes from an alleged Christian who attempts to explain why Jews have suffered persecution throughout history. It's their fault, he says, certainly not our prejudice. I won't spread the manure by quoting it here, but you can be assured that he dredges up every stereotype, false accusation and ignorant anti-Semitic remark he could find.

Then there was the threatening letter that was sent from an organization with "Christians" in its name to a local activist for Palestinian rights (I refuse to name the organization not because I want to protect it but because I don't want to feed it with publicity). The long letter read in part: "... our Ecclesiastical Court has issued an edict inscribing you as a SLANDERER OF ZION and a TERRORIST COLLABORATOR. This means that our 55,000 world-wide disciples are hereby empowered to facilitate your removal from your residence and from the community of peace activists." "Facilitate your removal"? For criticizing Israeli policy?

Add into the mix news stories about the Rev. Rod Parsley's call for the destruction of Islam and the Rev. John Hagee's suggestion that Hitler's Holocaust did the world a favor by driving the Jews to Israel (a necessity for his favorite End Times scenario), and ... well, I'm ashamed that we share the name "Christian."

I hear a lot of complaints that moderate Muslims don't speak out against the extremists -- even though many do speak out, but are ignored. So what should you do when you see your own faith twisted into hate?

Monday, May 19, 2008

'Sin tax' misses the biggies

Gov. Easley is calling for an increase in the "sin tax" -- the common term for taxes levied on items viewed as personal vices.

When I first ran across that term, I wasn't sure what it meant but was very curious about how it would be enforced. Surely sins were committed not just in our deeds but in our thoughts, in our attitudes toward others, in our insistence on personal comfort rather than the common good.

How can you tax hatred or greed or jealousy or laziness? Wouldn't you need to tax good actions left undone as well as the evil actions we take? And who gets to decide what a sin is, anyway?

It was almost a letdown to find out that a "sin tax" was nothing more than a few pennies added to the cost of a pack of cigarettes or bottle of booze. What a cheapening of the word "sin"!

These days, the common view of sin is remarkably physical in nature: It is whatever offends our sense of propriety or damages our health. So we focus on personal vices like smoking and drinking, or on variations from the sexual norm. There's much less attention paid to the ways in which we, individually and collectively, degrade other people, destroy the earth and turn away from the suffering of others.

But it's easy to collect a tax at the grocery store check-out line. It's impossible to levy a tax every time you change the channel because you can't stand to see another report about the thousands who died in China or Myanmar. But which do you really think pains God more, your neighbor's beer or your callousness?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

This is your brain on God ...

Is research into how the brain works changing the debate over God? Will it affect the long-running tug-of-(holy)-war between materialism and a worldview that includes the sacred?

That's the subject of an intriguing piece this week from New York Times columnist David Brooks: The Neural Buddhists.

Brooks writes that the new wave of neurological research "will not seep into the public realm in the form of militant atheism. Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism." The research points to common moral instincts in all religions and a built-in ability for the mind "to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real."

"In unexpected ways," he writes, "science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day."

Is the debate shifting from (Round 1) belief in God vs. atheism to (Round 2) belief in transcendence vs. belief in God as revealed in a specific religion?

If the comments in this blog are any indicator, there's plenty of fighting left to do in both rounds.

Do you agree with Brooks' analysis? What do you think the changing debate will mean for the future of faith in America?

Friday, May 9, 2008

Evangelicals on politics and faith

On Wednesday, a group of leading Evangelical Christians released a 20-page paper they call The Evangelical Manifesto. It is a remarkable document -- an impassioned defense of Evangelicalism as well as a call to reform it. It's the most honest self-examination I've ever seen come from a religious group, most likely because it's not an official denominational pronouncement.

Here's a summary, and here is the complete text.

First, the manifesto describes what Evangelicals are: followers of Jesus who define their faith and life according to the Gospel. It stakes out a middle ground between liberal revisionists (who run the risk of being "Christians who betray Jesus with an interpretation") and fundamentalists (who tend to react to the modern world in ways "that are personally and publicly militant to the point where they are sub-Christian").

Then it pulls no punches in outlining where Evangelicals have gone astray -- for example, by becoming "cheerleaders for those in power and the naïve sycophants of the powerful and the rich."

While decrying faith that is entirely private and personal ("hot tub spirituality"), the manifesto also warns against politicizing Christianity:

"That way faith loses its independence, the church becomes 'the regime at prayer,' Christians become 'useful idiots' for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology in its purest form. Christian beliefs are used as weapons for political interests.

"Christians from both sides of the political spectrum, left as well as right, have made the mistake of politicizing faith; and it would be no improvement to respond to a weakening of the religious right with a rejuvenation of the religious left. Whichever side it comes from, a politicized faith is faithless, foolish, and disastrous for the church – and disastrous first and foremost for Christian reasons rather than constitutional reasons. Called to an allegiance higher than party, ideology, and nationality, we Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, or nationality."

There is much more to the document, but this was the part that struck me as particularly worthy of conversation in this blog. What do you think is the role of faith in politics? Is a politicized faith always "faithless, foolish, and disastrous"?


Edit to add, by request, a link to the list of those who signed the manifesto.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Does faith affect your vote?

It's been an exciting election season here in North Carolina, especially in the Democratic presidential primary. I can't recall us ever before getting this much attention from the national candidates. Now it's our turn. Choose wisely!

When you vote -- which I trust you will -- how will spirituality or religion factor into your choice?

In part, that's a question about whether and how you evaluate the candidates' stated beliefs or associations. But I'd also like to know how your own beliefs affect your choice. Do you feel guided by God in the voting booth? Do you look for a candidate who shares your values? How has that played out in this election?

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Devil, you say!

An e-mail correspondent who wishes to be identified as Seeker raises an interesting question:

"What do you or your readers make of Jesus' references to 'the ruler of the world' - Satan as mentioned in John 14:30 and other places? These references leave me with the feeling that Jesus is in fear of Satan even though he states 'he has no power over me.' I hear about avoiding sin during Sunday homilies, but I hear little about avoiding Satan, as if he doesn't exist or no one seems to have a good grasp on who/what he is."

Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world, so saying that Satan rules this world yet "has no power over me" is like me saying that Raul Castro rules Cuba yet has no power over me.

As you say, this gets into the whole issue of who or what Satan is. I've held different views on this over the years, but now I essentially believe that Satan is a psychologically useful personification of the evil within us that pulls us away from God. Why useful? Because it's easier to resist something that is seen as an outside force than to wrestle with the darkness within yourself -- or even to admit that it exists.

The problem with externalizing this evil, though, is that it makes it all too easy to see it only in other people rather than wrestling with it in your own heart.

Evil is real. It is destructive. It is the opposite of love. It separates us from God and one another. How you picture it (personally, I love C.S. Lewis' depiction of Satanic plotting in "The Screwtape Letters") is far less important than whether you resist it.