Thursday, February 26, 2015

Can Coke be a "true" craft soda

Coca-cola seems to be trying to move in on the market of small batch, specialty sodas. This one is paradoxical mix of pure cane sugar and stevia. Stevia is a natural sugar substitute. The cane sugar is a throwback to a few decades ago when all soda used it. It's easy to find Mountain Dew and others putting out batches made with pure cane sugar. It's a little better. You can decide for yourself what kind of sweetener is better for you.

As for Coke Life, it tastes kinda like you would expect it to. It's sweet, but there is the diet taste there also. It's still Coke, which now tastes like Pepsi anyway. So, if you don't pick one of these up, you're not missing much.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Prayer Breakfast

I don’t usually do current events, but this Prayer Breakfast thing has got my knickers in a knot and I’m not seeing the kind of commentary on it that I think should be out there. There's a link to the video of the speech if you follow the Christian Science Monitor below. I’m not going to comment on anything that came out of “Right Wing Watch” or Breitbart or any other such extreme news sources. I’m mostly disappointed in the response by news sources that are still widely read and are supposed to be neutral. I’m disappointed too in the lack of response by those further left, who have mostly focused on the over the top response of the right, missing the actual message from the nation’s leader.
If you missed this news, here is the line that everyone is talking about. Taken by itself it could be critiqued in many ways. Taken in context, where he spends a few minutes talking about people misusing theology, then goes on to discuss the value of being humble in the face of violence and anger, it makes much more sense:

“Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
I think these messages getting misunderstood is a symptom of the misplacement of the religion desk in media in general. It is off to the side, expected to come up with something around Christmas and Easter, but not much else. People who are not well versed on the topic are left to comment on it and we get a lot of bad information. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and hope they are not purposely giving us misinformation. In a time of war with nations and groups that justify their actions with religion, I think we need reporters who better understand the background.

Case in point, Chuck Todd on Meet the Press lauded Jon Meachem, his guest to start off the subject of the Prayer Breakfast speech. Chuck said if anybody knew this subject, Meachem did. They focused on the words “Crusades” and a little on “slavery”, and missed most of the rest of the speech. Chuck is supposed to talk politics, so I’ll give him a pass, but Meachem, a historian said, “Christianity has reformed itself”. That is inexcusable.

You can read my other blogs on that topic, as well as many others, or you can simply ask when did that happen? Everyone is tripping over themselves to point out the Crusades were 700 years ago, but I don’t remember them ending with a declaration that they were wrong. Nor did the Catholics elect reformists Popes when they had the chance in the years preceding Calvin and Luther. That’s why we call it the PROTESTANT reformation. And those two guys weren’t the most peaceful either.

If you think the reformation was some kind of peaceful transition of power, ask an Anabaptist. Their protests and demands for rights led to 100 years of war. Meanwhile people were heading off to America to escape religious oppression. Their progeny saw the contradiction of escaping persecution but having no problem with slavery in 1688.  It still took 200 more years and a Civil War to get actual legislation and if you think that settled it, read a book.

If you think the bad feelings ended in the 17th century, ask your grandmother about how big of a deal it was for Catholics to marry non-Catholics and ask yourself if you’d want your sister to marry an atheist. Or look at more recent events. In Vatican II, the church finally made some truly liberal declarations, that was 1963. They’ve done nothing but backtrack since, except a few like Oscar Romero, a priest who spoke for peace against right-wing violence in his country. He was gunned down in 1980. The military groups that did it got funding from the US and the Vatican was conveniently quiet about it until just a couple weeks ago.

Most states in the US had statements about official religions in their original constitutions. People didn’t come here and proclaim they want all faiths to be considered equal, they came here to start local governments with their religion as the basis and they wanted the federal government to stay out of it. The power of Kings to tell people how to worship was taken away from them by the people. Then, in the US, those state constitutional laws were declared invalid by the Supreme Court, and there are people alive today who are still not happy about it. So what does it mean that “Christianity reformed itself”?

But my litany here should not convince anyone. I could easily be missing or ignoring or deliberately hiding some history where religious leaders met and agreed to leave each other’s flocks alone. There could be speeches out there where religious leaders tell politicians not to mention their God in a speech about war. There could be someone other than Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn who said you can do my practices or not, it’s okay with him. There could be books co-authored by Imams and Rabbis discussing their mutual desire for peace and how both of their scriptures support it. Please link to them in the comments.

And please don’t list some obscure quote from Bonheoffer or Chrysostom or Erasmus. These people were oppressed in their time, just like Martin Luther King was in ours. Of course there were always dissenting voices speaking out against the violence and corruption in the church. That’s because there has always been violence and corruption in the church. It was the enacting of laws that tamed religion. Laws against burning people at the stake, the repeal of apostasy laws, laws requiring people to use doctors for their children not just prayer, the whole concept of a nation as opposed to a monarchy ordained by God reformed Christianity, not itself.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, what can we find in the press about this?

One of the few shining examples is PatheosProgressive Secular Humanist blog. It headlined with Obama’s mention of the right of every person to practice no faith at all and also covered the range of his comments. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum headlined: “Obama Trolls Prayer Breakfast” They included a full quote from Charles Krauthammer of Fox News, "What’s important is what’s happening now, Christianity no longer goes on Crusades, and it gave up the Inquisition a while ago. The Book of Joshua is knee deep in blood; that story is over too. The story of today, of our generation, is the fact that the overwhelming volume of the violence and the barbarism that we are seeing in the world, from Nigeria, to Paris, all the way to Pakistan, and even to the Philippines, the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, is coming from one source, and that’s from inside Islam."

It also quotes Rick Santorum who claimed Christians led abolition, Civil Rights and charity groups, and then he twists Obama’s words, saying he meant Christians “cannot stand up against” ISIS.

Not only does Krauthammer admit the Bible is violent then immediately dismiss it as irrelevant, he dismisses all the violence done by nations with Protestant leaders in the recent decades as if it has nothing to do with their religious upbringing or nothing to do with the wars and protests we are currently experiencing. Santorum tries to put words in Obama’s mouth and is just as fallacious in his logic.

The New York Times did a short balanced peice, highlighting the call for equality.

WaPo said Obama missed the mark, that the crusades were 700 years ago, and slavery was condemned by Christianity. Another simply lazy, 8th grade level of analysis of history. The US came late to the game of condemning slavery and Christians were divided on it as any cursory examination of the Civil War will tell you. And there are still people alive who think the South was right.

CNN choose to focus on the comments to the Dalai Lama who was in the audience and the significance of that to our relationship with Chian.

The IJReview tried to argue that saying Jim Crow laws are supported by the Bible is “tenuous at best”. That’s true in the sense that saying there is any connection from the Bible to any actual law on the books is “tenuous at best”. Other than that it is misleading and simplistic. They also noted the variety of references Obama made to bad theology promoting violence. I’ll give them points for that.

Christian Science Monitor did a great job. They quoted Limbaugh and others, and even allowed speculation of the “trolling”, but offered as a counter, “But it’s more likely that he was taking the ecumenical setting of the prayer breakfast to try to reiterate something that’s been a US talking point since the Bush administration: America is not at war with Islam. It is fighting individuals who use distorted versions of faith as a weapon.” They continue to follow the context and flow of the logic, “Then he tries to make clear that it is people who are doing the twisting and misusing here. It is not inherent in religion itself.”

I don’t completely agree with the idea that Islam or any religion doesn’t have some powerful messages about violence, but the way Obama said it is exactly what I want my President to say. Regardless of cultural influences, in a country that is founded on freedom, it is most important that we allow people the freedom to state that their culture does not define them, that their choice of church doesn’t define them. We’re the ones who are supposed to be promoting universal principles. If you want to claim those principles agree with your religion, you’re welcome to, and the rest of us welcome you. If you want to claim your God disagrees with freedom, fairness and compassion, I defend your right to say that, but expect you to respect my right to say you are wrong.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Craft Soda is a thing

I thought it would be fun to start talking about the great micro-sodas I’m discovering lately. It appears this is a thing.

I mentioned the “Craft” root beer on facebook, but I didn’t think to get a picture of it. It was fantastic, but hard to google for it, given the name. They don’t seem to have a website either, I’ve only found other bloggers talking about it. It’s made in Illinois and has a person’s face on the label. This root beer brought back memories of A&W when they made it on site with real sugar. I would swear it was actually better but that was a long time ago, so that’s not really a blind taste test.

I also came across one that had the flavor of a mojito when I was in the Florida Keys recently. Again, no picture since I hadn’t thought of starting this soda blog yet.  There probably aren’t too many like that, so if you see it, and you like mojitos, grab it. No rum of course, but a hint of mint and a smooth creamy texture. A nice thirst quencher on a sunny day at the beach.

Today, I had a Squamscot Cherry Cola. It was a disappointment. I found it at a mall Liqour store in Cloquet, which maybe should have been a clue. It didn’t go fizt when I popped the top and it’s possible it hadn’t been bottled correctly, it was definitely a bit flat. Even if the fizz had been better, I don’t think that would have made it worth $1.95. The cherry and cola flavors were there, but they were not impressive. It was the real cola flavor, but there just wasn’t enough of it.

Friday, January 9, 2015

How to end any argument

Unfortunately not all arguments end well. I’ll get to ending them well by end of this, but I need to go over how they usually end first.

Children figure out how to derail a discussion pretty quickly. They just keep asking why. Some people never get over this, they become philosophers. “Why” is one of the most important questions in philosophy. They delve into the “ultimate why”. Most people don’t concern themselves with this on a daily basis. Some people find it annoying.

There are adult ways of presenting that why question without sounding like you are pontificating or being childish. Some people will suggest we’re in the matrix, or we are brains in a vat, or everyone else is a zombie. This is more of a sophomoric version, one you might hear in a dorm room. But it comes from a slightly more sophisticated tradition. Descartes’ first meditation, sometimes called “the evil demon”, suggests if we doubt all of our perceptions, we don’t know who we really are and could be under the control of an evil demon.

There are even more modern versions of this, maybe you’ve heard a few;

you’re completely misinformed, you’re mind has been controlled by advertising and bad schooling, you are privileged, you’ve been tricked (there is a facebook page for this, they call you sheeple), you are trying to trick me, you are a shill for a corporation, you were home schooled, you were born in Flint, MI.

That last one really happened. I was talking about Michael Moore and I told someone I was born there. You should have seen the look. It was as if being born in the same town as Michael Moore was as bad as being a child of Osama bin Laden.

All of these are nothing but prejudice. You might as well be using ethnic slurs. Granted each one has facts that lead to them being used in the first place. Our schools do have problems, we are products of our environment. That’s why racial slurs hurt. Regardless of those facts of social science, these are almost always distortions.

If, “you had bad schooling” is not followed by some legitimate help in educating the person, in providing them with the information they need to make an informed decision, then it is just an insult. It is usually a judgment made before gathering facts, before even inquiring into just what schooling the person had. This leads to the argument ending with, “You don’t even know me.”

There are also more positive sounding versions, such as;

there is a higher purpose that you are unaware of, it’s in the interest of national security, it’s nature’s way, it’s part of our great leaders vision, it’s just the way things are.

These aren’t necessarily aimed at anyone, but they are equally useless. They propose that no more facts are available, that further discussion is pointless.

All of these come from artifacts left over from the philosophers of the Middle Ages. Descartes, in his second meditation said, “I think therefore I am” and profoundly changed how we see ourselves. Too bad he was wrong. Rather than explain that last sentence, I’d rather stick to why it’s a problem today. The problem is we don’t talk about the context of how he came to it or the improvements that have been made on it since.

Descartes third meditation is sometimes called “the existence of God”. He posits that what we can conceive must exist so if we can conceive of perfection it must exist. It’s more complicated than that, but I’m not going to analyze it. I only point it out because it is probably the reason why Descartes is not covered in any detail in public school. Meditations 4 and 5 are about God too. They are his solution to the problem he created by doubting his senses in the 1st meditation.

So we’re stuck here, on an island as Simon Blackburn calls it, where we verify our own existence based on our own experience. Even if we are in the matrix we can still have the thought that we are in the matrix, so the machines controlling us have not taken that last piece of our self away. If we are so deluded that even that is not our self thinking, then none of this matters anyway. We can’t know ourselves and we can’t know that we can’t know ourselves.

But why do we need this hyperbolic doubt in the first place that then requires a solution? As I’ve shown above, it is used to confuse, to bring a logical discussion of valid choices down in to a spiraling pit of meaningless. To end an argument by destroying the other persons confidence in their argument. I say we don’t need it. The way to interrupt it is by saying, “I exist and I have value”, or if the argument is not about you, say you are arguing for feeding starving children, “they exist and they have value.”

David Hume later stated the problem of understanding ourselves is a problem of matching what we sense to reality. If we doubt everything our senses tell us, then anything could be true. We know our senses can fail us but we also know they serve us pretty well. We can look at other animals and see that those with better senses do better. But all that still relies on our self to make that judgment.

So you can still bring any argument to a halt without any evil demons, simply by pointing out the flawed nature of our senses. Usually this is done by someone questioning only the other persons senses or the superiority of their own. As in claiming to have a degree or having read a book or seen a documentary, something that mere senses can’t trump. This is still a complete foul. Unless you are willing to actually explain the facts you have, it’s just mean. Even if it is true.

A non-mean, fair way of employing this simple truth is agreeing that no one really knows anything. That we are perceiving any degree of reality is an act of faith. Whether you call that pure skepticism or pure belief in powers we can’t perceive, you arrive at it with similar logic.

For me, this is where all arguments should begin, that nobody knows for sure. From there we can only build towards greater probability of being accurate, of matching our perception to reality. We can share our perceptions with each other. We can create languages that describe things we can’t perceive directly. We can predict and test our predictions. We can challenge each other to be more accurate in our descriptions, more honest. We can be aware of our limitations and we can grow beyond them by working together.

We know there is a coherent consistent world that is available to us when we are awake and clear. We have built on that foundation for so long that it is now impossible for one person to obtain all the knowledge available. That knowledge is being refined every day. If everyone in a some field of knowledge said one person knew everything they knew, that could still change the next day with a new discovery. So everyone knows that they don’t know everything.

The criteria for certification of having the higher levels of knowledge are constantly reviewed and updated. Having that certification doesn’t mean you know everything in that field, and very few people are certified in more than one field.  Certification is still important, I have very few other tools for evaluating if my doctor knows what he is doing. But the idea of “authority” has limits. That’s a foundational principle of the modern world where we say we value the opinions of everyone, not just the King and the royal family.

The only adult, fair, sane way to end an argument is to not approach differences as arguments in the first place. You can have convictions, you can stand up for what you believe, you could also be wrong. As I have ended more than one of my blogs, all we really have is each other.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Year Without Atheism

Ryan Bell just completed an amazing year “trying” to live without God. No small challenge for a pastor. Inspired by that, I thought I’d try a year without atheism. It should be a lot easier since I’m not really giving up anything or trying anything on. To be a non-atheist is not a simple matter of applying math like logic and cancelling the double negative to end up with theist. It means not identifying myself as not being something else. In other words, it’s like being most other people.

I know some atheists can get pretty touchy about the definition of that word, and you either have some degree of belief in god or you don’t, or you’re still thinking about it, but anyway, the key word here is “identify”. I think if you ask most people to say who they are, they’ll start with a familial relation like “mother” or maybe with a career, next might be geographical like their hometown or country, then a few might start mentioning religion. Of course if you ask them about religion they might go on all night, but the key here is identity. For me, I’ve been saying I’m an atheist because I want it to be clear that there is no theology out there that is believable. For this year, I’m saying I just don’t care.

I heard a story that when rabbis were asked “what is the Torah” they answered that “it is the interpretation of Torah”. In other words, the stories are there to be told and also to be discussed. They are not flat or literal or unchanging or prescriptive. Their meaning should be discovered by each generation. That’s nice. Unfortunately it’s not how many people approach scripture, but for me, what it really misses, is that Torah is one of many books exploring how human beings have come to know who they are and why they’re here. For me, the answer to “what is the Torah” is “it is reading and listening to how others experience life”. Scripture is often a rare glimpse into the thoughts of regular people dealing with larger world events . 

I’m not “spiritual but not religious”, I’m not non-spiritual either. I don’t know what the word “spiritual” means and I’m a little burnt out by people using the word even though they don’t know what it means either. I’m looking forward to year of not thinking about it, not attempting to better construct or defend a worldview.

Ryan started out his year reading up on philosophy. I won’t be starting by reading up on theology. I won’t be looking for ways to challenge myself or my thought process any more than anyone normally should. I’ve been doing that for 4 years. I’m sure some will be relieved to know that I won’t be pointing out to others how some political action or world event is related to theism.

That doesn’t mean I won’t be listening for hidden agendas in the words of elected officials. That doesn’t mean I won’t be celebrating as the rest of the United States and who knows who else embraces same-sex marriage. It doesn’t mean my ideas about the cause of terrorism will change. Those are normal things that we all should do. Atheism never informed my values so my values won’t change. Atheism didn’t tell me to use the scientific method, I’ll still use it.

It will be more like the answer to this joke: How many atheists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Just one, they just unscrew the old one and put in a new one.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Good cops

When I was little, somewhere around 4, because I barely remember it, I followed a neighbor girl as her mother walked with her to the grocery store. They were way ahead and didn’t notice me. I stopped when they crossed a busy street. I don’t know how long I wandered around, but a policeman came by and picked me up and drove until I recognized my house.

It all seemed perfectly natural to me. Including that my mother was not happy I’d walked off but at the same time happy I was home. At the time I lived in the bubble where all policemen are good. They are selected by a magical process that sees the goodness in their heart and knows they will do the right thing with a little boy wandering around aimlessly.

Later, I was taught that authorities sanctioned, directed, or sometimes looked the other way as people who were acting peacefully and exercising their right to free speech were beaten, gassed, bloodied and even killed. The magic bubble shrank a bit, but those were just the “bad police”, the ones from the south, from decades ago.

No one tells you when the bubble is gone. You look in the rear view mirror one day and you wonder which kind of officer that is. You realize the badge tells you nothing about the person. Where you are and what you are doing there have much more to do with how things will go than any uniform.

“Good” and “bad” are completely independent of “police officer”, “American” , “clean”, “White”, “Christian”, “educated”. Statistically, you can say a lot about a group of people and be accurate. Most cops are good. Education leads to a healthier society. Americans are leaders in many fields. Christians have contributed to a better world. But individually, that means nothing. There are more than a few clean, white, educated, Christian American police officers in jail.

You can replace any one of those words with anything you like and it changes nothing about this post. Substitute “police officer” with “protestor”, “Christian” with “Muslim”, “white” with “yellow”. None of that tells you anything about good and bad. Comments from Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki and Bill Bratton show an intense misunderstanding of this.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

I was a Moderate Christian

On Nov 5, 2009, Karen Armstrong was the guest on Speaking ofFaith, a public radio show about life’s big questions. Karen was a nun in the 1960’s, but she realized it was not for her. She has remained interested in the theologies of the world and in 2008 won the annual TED prize which she used to launch the Charter for Compassion, an examination and promotion of the idea that there are good ideas shared across all religions.

In this interview on Speaking of Faith, she told a story of an earlier conference she had been in called “God 2000”. It was an interfaith conference examining those shared good ideas. Near the end of it, a man appeared at the back of the room, yelling somewhat incoherently about how everyone there was a sinner and they would never accomplish anything because they did not believe in the right god in the right way. They attempted to engage him but couldn’t and to the time of the Speaking of Faith interview, Karen still did not know how it was possible to engage such people at all.

 A Great Question

I think it is a great question, how do we as modern people, attempting to live in a pluralistic world, remain in dialogue with those who want their ways, the ways codified in centuries old scripture, to be the ways that the rest of the world adopts? Sometimes called “fundamentalists”, they pose a problem not just for the secular world which has set up boundaries against them, but for what are sometimes called “moderate” religious people whose boundaries are not quite as clear.

 At the time, I was a moderate Christian, I would say a liberal Christian. I had joined a liberal church partly in reaction to the political world being infiltrated by conservative Christians. I had discovered Liberation Theology and The Jesus Seminar and Reconciling Congregations, but I still had not figured out how the core concepts of Christianity differed from the fundamentalists. I knew my politics differed and my fellow liberal Christians were saying their politics stemmed from their faith. But I couldn’t see how. I wondered what I was doing wrong.

To understand how to approach this, I first had to understand what fundamentalism meant. I had heard it was a recent phenomenon, that they had hijacked the true faith or even that Jesus’ message had been corrupted as far back as Constantine. But those were claims, not explanations. I had to start looking for answers on my own.

The Fundamentals

The “recent phenomenon” part is more about the use of the word itself. Between 1910 and 1916, a series of pamphlets were written anddistributed for free titled “The Fundamentals”. They contained guidelines about believing in Christ, the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, the truth of prophecies and miracles, salvation, the Second Coming and other such standard dogma. They were a reaction to centuries of critiques of the Bible as literature, known as Higher Criticism, to Darwin’s new theory of evolution and to the rise of science as a new source of truth and understanding of the universe.

The beliefs they thought were important should sound pretty familiar. Jesus was born of a virgin. He suffered on the cross and rose again to provide salvation for our sins. Jesus performed miracles and fulfilled prophecies. Heaven is real, hell is real. Jesus will come again and reign over his kingdom. Creation happened as described in Genesis. God is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Although the pamphlets are recent, there is nothing new in the above list of beliefs. Some other beliefs commonly associated with Christian fundamentalists are actually recent, so I’ll take a minute to run through those before getting back to what I think the heart of the problem is.

Recent Phenomenon

Intelligent Design: This was a theory that began a little before Darwin to try to integrate scientific discoveries such as dinosaur bones and plate tectonics with a God created world. It had other names and ebbed and flowed in popularity. It could not have come about except as a reaction to scientific discoveries. Before that it was just assumed God created the universe, so in a way this is nothing new.

Dispensationalism: This is definitely new. It is an odd analysis of the Bible saying it is divided into phases or dispensations, and that we are currently in the final one. In some ways it is just a new look at the old idea of an end of times.

Bible Inerrancy: The first explicit statement that the Bible is the inerrant word of God was not written into a church doctrine until the 16th century by a Baptist church. I don’t wish to argue theology, but I think the case could be made from statements and writings throughout history that it was a common belief, a belief so obvious, it didn’t need to be written down.

Existence of an actual hell: The Old Testament definitely does not have a hell and some say the New Testament doesn’t either. The word “hell” as used by Jesus was translated from “Gihenna” which was a really bad neighborhood in Jerusalem filled with burning garbage. It also appears to be a Greek myth that entered the Jewish community in the 1st century. The modern reference to “fire and brimstone” began in 1670. So, this one is a gray area.

Government should be based on Christian principles: It was the French and American revolutions that codified religion out of government, at least in terms of a declared faith for its leaders or a faith requirement. So saying that is “recent” would only mean its return since then. Before that, Kings were anointed by Popes and before that, in antiquity, religion was part of daily life, so separating the two was not even in the vocabulary.

Subjugation of women: Although not usually stated that way by fundamentalists, they do say things about Jesus being the head of the church and the man being the head of the house. The New Testament has specific statements about women not speaking in church and although Jesus welcomed women into his circle, churches traditionally have not. Definitely not new in principle although new in how it is applied. There is some evidence that the early Christian communities were much more egalitarian but that ended in the 4th century. More about that later.

But, who is right?

So putting those few actually recent ideologies aside, the question remains; did the men who wrote The Fundamentalist pamphlets get it right? This is a much easier question than you might think. What makes it seem difficult is that there are 30,000 versions of Christianity, so how can we sort out what it is right if they can’t? The answer is, that is what Christianity has always been. There were competing sects from the beginning. That’s why we have 4 gospels. Peter and Paul argue about how to obtain salvation in their letters and they don’t settle it. The Book of Revelations was controversial in the early centuries and some denominations still don’t have it in their Bible and many don’t read from it. Religion, like philosophy, is defined as a discussion that is never really settled.

It is not necessary for all us to become theologians and enter into the fray of arguing about whether or not fundamentalists are right or not. In fact, it is better to keep some mystery. That is, if you want to keep people coming back every Sunday. When questions about why God does not heal amputees can’t be answered, the answer is that God works in mysterious ways and we can’t know his ways. The most liberal “spiritual but not religious” person uses some version of that. Most religious traditions have something about people not being able to know the mind of God, we are supposed to always only be on a path toward something that we don’t completely understand.

The answer to what is a Christian is very broad. I would put a minimum requirement of accepting that Jesus did something for humanity. After that, any argument should only be between Christians themselves. Leave the rest of us out of it and leave it out of public schools and government. If anyone brings up that they have a special friend who knows everything, therefore that friend is right and can’t be argued with, then the argument is over. That type of absolutism does not belong in the public square and is simply not reasonable. Unfortunately, for most people who get elected in the US government, and for many people just getting along in their community, they have to pick the right special friend.

God is the God beyond God

Karen Armstrong tells the story that the rabbis, when asked “what is Torah” answered, “it is the interpretation of Torah”. She thinks that means something about it being good to always be working through these ideas. She also thinks “God is the God beyond God” means something. She is no more capable of getting out of the trap of religion than a person who was raised in a fundamentalist church, home schooled and not allowed to use the internet. If anything, a fundamentalist has made a deal with God and may at some point realize that bargain was not made fairly. Their break from religion may be painful, but it will be clean. A liberal Christian has no such deal and can continue to find comfort in religion simply by altering their relationship to it.

I’m thankful that I live in a modern world where there are Christians who use scripture to support ideals of feeding the poor and being in fellowship with homosexuals. And it’s great that the government is not arresting them. But that’s my government. With these modern advances also comes dealing with other governments and convincing them that it is better to treat their citizens with the same respect. We’ve tried leaving them to their own devices and that has not gone well.

When we get to the discussion of human rights, the usefulness of the religious argument breaks down. The basis of the religious argument is that God is right. The argument then shifts to who is right about God or sometimes it is which god. That argument has never been settled and it can be demonstrated why it never will be. Even if I accept that some god is sending some people messages, those messages are no more decipherable than the combined wisdom from all of human history. In my opinion, they are considerably less decipherable and less useful. We are not going to figure out which religion is right, we are going to have to figure out how to get along by talking to each other.

Back to Basics

Getting back to where this came from, the first thing that made me really question the liberal view of fundamentalists was the Nicean Creed. Very few churches are so liberal as to avoid ever reciting it. It contains most of what I listed in the above summary of the pamphlets. It goes all the way back to the 4th century, when Constantine got tired of those early sects arguing all the time. There are many myths and legends about what happened at the Council of Nicea, but that motivation for it, to get them to agree so violence in the kingdom would be reduced, is pretty well agreed upon.

Often forgotten, is that before bringing the Christians together to settle their differences in 325, Constantine wrote an edict of religious tolerance in 313. This allowed Christianity to be practiced without prosecution from the Roman authorities. Constantine did not make Christianity the law of the land. That came later. In fact, he at first embraced the Nicean Creed, but later regretted that. His famous baptism near his death was done by an Arian bishop. Again, we don’t all need to be theologians and know the difference between the Arian and Nicean versions of the Trinity, we just need to know that they were different and that they fought about it.

Depending on who you ask, the fighting either ended or was taken to a new level in 381 AD. That year, Theodosius, who had come from the Nicean western half of the Roman Empire to be emperor in the Arian eastern half, passed an edict declaring Christianity the only legal religion in the empire. This was fundamentalism on steroids. If you look up Theodosius in theCatholic encyclopedia online, it says he “expelled” Arians from the empire. Sounds like a nice word, but “ethnic cleansing”  would be more accurate.

This was not just a law to support Christianity, it was for a certain type of Christianity. The details of which involved something about the Trinity, whether the son comes from the father and/or the Holy Spirit or some such nonsense (See the link to the Nicene Creed above). Because it was no clearer then than it is now, enforcing it had its challenges. To do so, the Roman army was authorized to burn books and the people who attempted to hide them. Soldiers were not trained in theology and did not spend much effort sorting out what they destroyed. The next couple centuries were the worst for Catholics destroying pagan temples and works of philosophy and science.

These are also the centuries when Christianity increased its following many fold. No wonder, if the empire is not only supporting it and building churches, but also eliminating your competition. There was descent at the time that has survived, men such as John Chrysotom, and there are many today who label this as the time when church was hijacked by “corporate rule”. It may be true that Augustine used Platonic philosophy to harmonize the gospels with Roman law and make them acceptable to the elite. But what exactly was hijacked?

Saint Augustine’s work in creating the final form of the Nicean Creed has survived all forms of Protestantism. Peter and Paul had debated circumcision, dietary laws and how to obtain salvation. The more egalitarian, philosophical days inspired by St. Peter were replaced with the harsher rules of St. Paul (Note some may argue that the Paul was not harsh. I’m referring the Pauline writings in the Bible). After a few centuries of enforcing that theology, common wisdom would be that the Church fathers had worked out the difficult questions of Jesus’ message for us. A thousand years later, when more Bibles were printed and in a language more people could read, that would be questioned.

What you do to the least of these, you do to me

Military force alone was probably not the only factor in changing Christianity from several small sects meeting in homes, helping their neighbors and tending to community needs into an integral part of an evil empire. I think it had to be a flaw in the philosophy itself. There is nothing wrong with loving your neighbor, a common belief of many successful civilizations. And the more unique ideas of caring for “the least of these” is no doubt a reason for Christianity’s longevity. The flaw I believe is that they kept the idea from Judaism that these moral imperatives were imparted to us from an absolute authority that could not be questioned.

Worshipping Jesus and praying to the Lord most likely did not entail working out the details of how to distribute resources to both help the needy and maintain infrastructure to promote commerce. I doubt those early Christian communities spent any more time discussing exactly what it means to turn the other cheek than Christians do today. You would think that someone would have noticed that the Sermon on the Mount says both to “let your light shine before men” and “do not sound a trumpet before thee”. I know of no famous theologian who has ever mentioned it. It was pointed out to me by a famous atheist. For those early communities to grow, they would have had to work out these details. I know of no record of them attempting to do so.

Absolutely right

When all of your loyalty is put into a small set of rules, whether it be certain scriptures or certain charismatic leaders, there is a danger. If those rules fail, you are left with no system to come up with new ones. It is particularly dangerous when those ideas survive a generation or two so the loyalty is passed on to people who no longer need to prove the power of the ideas, they only need to claim knowledge of the earlier generations and point to the past successes. Claiming things were better in the past is always easier than dealing with the real problems of today. Once the miracles of Jesus were believed by enough people to create a culture, and some good could be seen coming out of that culture, the leaders were legitimized. Once it became a sin to question them, anything they did could be considered legitimate.

In the ancient world there was no difference between religious and secular life. How you prepared your food, how you dressed, and who you married was all tied into what you worshipped. Questioning what you wore meant questioning God. The Greco-Roman world was starting to come out of that when Theodosius and his might reversed it. He did not do this single handedly. I am only highlighting one of the many major turning points in the fall of Rome. For Christian history, it was a significant one.  

In AD 409, a Roman law states “If perchance any person should be convicted of having hidden any of these books under any pretext or fraud whatever and of having failed to deliver them (for burning), he shall know that he himself shall suffer capital punishment, as a retainer of noxious books and writings and as guilty of the crime of maleficium.” It only takes a few hundred years or so of laws like that to destroy intellectualism. It would be harder today with mass communication. But people are still trying. The 2012 Texas Republican Party platform states:

“We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”
But that’s not my Christianity

I have covered the origins of Christianity and shown how current Christians are still influenced by those early scholars. But most people don't relate to a 5th century Roman emperor and many don't relate to the Texas Republicans. Some details of how those are connected can be found in my links at the end. I also think most people don't want to think about these early influences any more than they want to think about their founding fathers owning slaves. They say they are different, but don't explain how.

The affect that moderate have on all of this as a whole is, in short, very little. Moderates may be in the majority, but that is a reflection of how religion has been changed from the outside. When the Peace at Westphalia in 1648 took away power from the Vatican the Pope was not happy about it. Since that time the ideas supported by religions have had to compete on an increasingly level playing field with ideas coming from the whole of the human experience. That playing field is still not very level, but it is trending that way for now.

When the power of religion to organize is used to fight for something like civil rights, the source of the ideas is secondary to the power of the ideas. An ideal like equality couldn’t’ be claimed to be from a single cultural source, or by definition you would not be talking about equality at all. You be emulating the pigs in George Orwell’s 1984, saying you were more equal than those others.

When religion is used to organize and fight for political gains that include religious intolerance they are opposed primarily by the ideals of equality, fairness, freedom and the rule of law. If the opposition state their claims in ethnic terms, it will probably be considered a civil war and building a multi-cultural coalition will be difficult. The rest of the world is much more likely to come to your aid if you show you support egalitarian governance rather than simple military might.

When it comes to important social issues, there is no distinction between a moderate Christian who accepts homosexuality and a LGBTQ person who wants to marry a have children and has never been to church. When it comes to how you treat your neighbor, there is no difference between a moderate Muslim and the guy next door who was born in Turkey and doesn’t practice the faith, but he does shovel your part of the sidewalk. And here’s the key point, the moderates are different from the fundamentalist in the same way the non-religious are different from the fundamentalists.

To the fundamentalist of course, there is a big difference between themselves and moderates. Moderates are doing it wrong as far as they are concerned. To some that’s worse than doing nothing. The fundamentalist standing outside the abortion clinic doesn’t care if you are a moderate anything. And, the reasons for me wanting that fundamentalist to stop harassing people going into that clinic are exactly the same as a moderately religious person. You can attempt to engage them in a theological debate, but ultimately the discussion needs to be based on moral principles common to all cultures. Attempting to have the theological debate just legitimates the idea that proper interpretation of scripture matters to the unique situations of all the individuals involved.

But that was then, this is now

Rather than descend further into the darkness of how these ideas were past on for 2,000 years, I’d rather shift to some thoughts about what can be done about it. I have written about that if you want to explore more.

I’ve already mentioned that you can bring your special friend to the public square and claim him or her as your source of inspiration, but understand that is not a logical argument. If when you say, “love your enemies” or “house the homeless” you want to give credit to where you heard that, that’s great, I reference quotes all the time. But the idea still has to be weighed by the merits of the idea. If you say, “follow these rules and be rewarded in heaven, open your heart to the spirit of this one man and you will find understanding and guidance”, I’ll ask you to explain how that works and to give some evidence for it.
End on a high note

We can see examples of combining inspirational voices from the past with practical steps in the present by paying attention to our leaders. One of the great speech makers of the 20th century was Martin Luther King. In one of his last at Gross Point High he said “No lie can live forever” and he referenced it saying “as Carlisle said”. He wanted us to know who his inspiration was and wanted us to look that person up. As we all know, he also referenced the Bible frequently. But that was a speech, intended to inspire and rally to action. If we left it at that, it would not be much different than scripture.

If he were in a more intimate setting, he might agree that lies can in fact live for quite a long time. Oppressing the truth is a time tested tradition. It’s also true that oppressing truth takes resources, it takes constant pressure. And King did not just make speeches to get people to protest, he negotiated legislation, he gathered data and made a case to governments to change policies, he exposed the oppression using evidence and data and helped developed plans to end it. There was much more to Martin Luther King than great speeches.

I think people who look to the 1st century for answers are missing 20 other centuries, also full of answers. It’s easy to say that empires have failed and philosophies have failed and it’s a lot harder to figure out why. Martin Luther King is not here to tell us if he thought the answers were in the Bible, but his words and actions indicate he was looking to other sources of wisdom in addition to that one.

I’m not so sure looking for answers is the right approach anyway. It may be we just need to get the question right. Perhaps the question is, how do we build a caring community that seeks justice and lives in peace? Perhaps the question is not where is God, the question is where are we?


For further reading:

A.D. 381

God Laughs and Plays

Sense and Goodness Without God

Constantine’s Sword