Sunday, November 20, 2016

A case for humanism

I wanted to finish up something I said I would do. I said I would discuss the positive sides of the Phillip Kitcher interview by Ryan Bell. I ripped into them a few months ago for their vague references to atheist writers. The interview starts to pick up into a more positive side around a half hour. They start talking about how to build on what we've learned in the past. Some of that might have been encoded within religions.

As I mentioned back in June, Kitcher says opportunity should extend to everyone, with a few reasonable limits. Kitcher says things like extreme egalitarianism, the idea we are born dependent, and we need help becoming useful to that society that we depended are part of what religion has taught and passed on.

He goes on to ask, how do we make sense of the limits of a human life? And says that is answerable, but the bigger question is, how do we build a world where all people have the opportunity to be meaningful within those limits? Religion accomplishes the tasks of community and support, he says. They manage the claims we have on one another, he says. He mentions Bernie Sanders as someone who supports those values, and only for him does he say that Bernie didn't come up with the ideas. He doesn't discuss details of HOW religion does this job. But that is only criticism of exclusion, maybe he says that in one of his books, and he has some ideas about 5 minutes later, so hang in there, keep listening.

Kitcher says the message of the Sermon on the Mount includes the lessons of distributing wealth and giving others opportunities. That could be argued, but I won't because the reason he brings it up is to say this message is mostly ignored. Ryan compares this to the middle class humanist who is comfortable and doesn't notice or doesn't address the half of the world living in poverty. So there are many in this boat. We could discuss causes but Kitcher proposes some solutions, so let's stick to that. He says, what we need to provide for everyone is:

Opportunities, especially early in life, to be well educated
To have health taken care, or at least the means available
To be cared for by people who love them
Have the opportunity to participate in a nurturing society
To chose their own career paths
To discover where their talents lie
To choose their life path based on the above

Kitcher points out no government is providing services at this level. Ryan sees this as the responsibility of those who have these things, not just governments. Obviously we need an agreed upon way to manage services like this. Kitcher sticks to the ideals and talks about how our sense of purpose comes from our projects and our skills that we can employ that we see as part of something bigger, not the toys or even the political influence we might wield. That "competitive materialism" is unsatisfying. Kitcher attributes this thought to the Pope. Personally, I found it in Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, so I think we can say these ideas are integrated into modern society.

They end on a well articulated point about how religion acts as a filter to our human connections instead of a highlight of the importance of those connections. It seemed to almost contradict some of the things he said earlier, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and hope he just didn't feel the need to mention it. Just slightly paraphrasing here, Kitcher says,

"It's not just that we have no evidence for transcendent reality, but it's a distraction. It invites us to think of our horizontal relations to one another as if they are sanctioned or rendered important by our vertical common relation to some transcendent something, i.e. 'We are all children of God'. It is an unnecessary and often problematic detour."

He goes on to paraphrase John Robinson from his book "Honest to God". The important thing is our relationship to other human beings, they shouldn't be filtered through the "fact" that we are all some servants or children or worshipers of God. The relationships to each other should just simply be there freestanding, independent and at the center and focus of all of our lives and all of our concerns.  So, humanism can make use of what religion has discovered, but in the end, it has to cut free.

Couldn't agree more.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Veteran's Day

This is a tough Veteran's day for me. I have been mostly untouched by the horrors of war, but I understand its necessity. I honor my Uncles who served, and I'm glad they did not see terrible combat. I respect my fellow workers who are vets, they are often the best people in the room. I know war ended the tyrannical systems of the 19th century and stopped the fascist systems of the 20th. I've seen us get better at fighting with less collateral damage and at talking it out so we don't fire a shot.

I've let go of some of my ideals of a perfectly peaceful world, but I will never let go of the possibility of that. I doubt I will live long enough to see a world that is as peaceful as I would like it to be, as peaceful as I think it can possibly be. What I don't get is, why would anyone not want to see us improve on the current state of affairs?

I get it that war makes you tough, it builds character, it's reality, you have to fight for freedom every day, no justice no peace, all that. But comparing kids today to the 18 year old kids who stormed the beaches at Normandy, is not a contest I care to judge. Watch the opening to “Saving Private Ryan”. Those kids were crying and wetting their pants. Most of them died. This is not something we need to put every generation through just to make them somehow better people.

And the next generation watched wars on television, and watched their friends leave and not come back. Since then, we have fought low level wars, police actions, and supported UN peace keeping missions. We deal now more with PTSD and people with artificial limbs, but people are still dying. War is not going away. Can we think about it a little before we ramp it up?

When I see the kids at colleges today who are crying over the election, I see kids who have not seen the world my parents and grandparents saw, and that's good. That means they did their job of making a better world. You could say they did a better job than any generation for thousands of years. Those kids grew up believing things were getting better. They saw love increasing. They saw cities getting cleaned up. They saw marginalized voices getting expressed.  They saw nations helping nations. You're darn right I want to wrap them in a blanket and tell them it's going to be okay, because it's my job now to make it okay. It's want I was trying to create when I marched against “nukes” in the Reagan years, and I understand it's what the good men and women in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria want too.

We should all want a world where we have to describe war to children. It should be something they read about in the history books and see only in digital films that were transferred from some earlier technology that is now in a museum somewhere. It's going to be hard for some generation someday to impress on those kids that there is evil out there somewhere and that ethical systems allow for self defense in the right circumstances. But wouldn't we all rather be facing that challenge than teaching them how to act around a wounded vet, or giving them the choice of one presidential candidate that wants war slightly less than the other?

Sunday, September 25, 2016

To Millenials: Use good reasoning!

I don't care who you vote for, but if this is your reasoning, read a book: Millenial or not, there are a lot of problems with this article. I don't know who Diandre is, but I've heard these complaints, and she lays them out neatly, so it's a great chance to respond to them.
  • She voted for the Iraq war.
    • True, however that was a vote for funding. Many Democrats did not expect the funds to be spent how they were or for Bush and Cheney to act as they did. But that's how the government works when it comes to war. Congress gets to vote for a bill and the President gets to administer it. So don't blame Hillary for everything Bush did.

  • She is hawkish.
    • You are voting for the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. It's part of the job. If I had the chance to vote for the president of the NRA, and the most likely winners were far right and slightly less far right, I'd vote for the second one. This is national US politics, not some local club.

  • She voted for the Patriot Act.
    • Yeah, that was bad. This one is harder to excuse due to politics.
  • Exemption to South Sudan.
    • This is a case of finding the worst aspect of what she did and ignoring the rest of the situation. If you don't know the details of this war, then you don't get to use stuff like this to make your decision about what kind of person Hillary is.
  • “Super Predators”
    • A few words taken out of context is always dangerous. It's the mark of someone who has an agenda and is not concerned with the big picture. I accept the Hillary will represent a wide spectrum of Americans, based on her track record.
  • Saudi Arabia
    • Saudi Arabia could arm itself without the help of Hillary Clinton. They've been doing it for 100 years. Hillary does not run guns to them. You do not fight for women's rights or anybody's rights by isolating yourself from every nation and every person who thinks differently than you do. Just like South Sudan, understand the situation, then tell me what you think should be done.
    • Accounting for jobs is extremely difficult. Politicians claim to “create jobs” all the time despite the fact that they don't. Detroit's problems began with riots in 1968 and has suffered from a series of bad leadership decisions that did not help it rebuild after that. She never served on local office there. Lee Iacocca sent jobs to Mexico long before NAFTA. This one essentially disqualifies Diandre as someone who should be doing this analysis.
  • Wall Street
    • Really? How? What “support” is she talking about?
  • TPP
    • Clutching for straws. This has not been implemented and she's against it, which is what you want. I want leaders who change their minds as circumstances change and as they acquire new information.
  • Tim Caine
    • Red Herring
  • Bankruptcy Bill
    • I haven't researched this one. And don't see the need to given the above.
  • Universal healthcare.
    • What exactly do you want here? She was creamed in a fight for a healthcare bill as First Lady. She learned from that. We have the Affordable Care Act in part because of that work. Obama made compromises to get it past that I don't like, but I would not have ever got anything like that done. If you want someone who can transform us in to Sweden, please name them and support them.
  • Primaries were rigged
    • Conspiracy theory. Not going to address this without better evidence.
  • Keystone and fracking.
    • This is not great. I'd like to hear your alternative plan. Hillary is actually supportive of alternatives. Maybe you should look up her plan.
  • Clinton money
    • Show your work. Again, a red flag that this person is not progressive and has a hidden agenda. What “special interest groups”? The good ones?
She goes on to blame “the media”, something that doesn't exist. There is no “the media” that speaks with one voice. And, despite not having a computer in kindergarten, I've been using the Internet since 1989. You don't have video evidence of Hillary lying, you believe constructed YouTube narratives. And who told you to sit down and shut up? You got Obama in the White House, and we all thank you for that. Keep up the good work.

Diandre, it sounds like you have discovered Democracy, and that's very exciting. You now know how I felt when I voted for Anderson instead of Reagan. We had more choices then. The debates were run by the League of Women Voters. Those were good things. Work on bringing back good things like that. You can do that with Hillary, or you can try it without her. Making up things that are wrong with Hillary is not a good thing.

Sunday, September 18, 2016


I have reached the 6 month milestone for my sermon helper, and, with the help of some good coffee, I've come once around the lectionary cycle. I hope to set a little faster pace over the next 6 months so I can relax and enjoy the summer next year as I complete the project.

Here are a couple "best ofs" if you aren't following the calendar.

Central Christian themes, and an alternative view 
Responds to the slam on philosophers, and offers a beautiful interpretation of the the symbolism of “bread” from William Herzog
Shows how the Old Testament just can’t be reconciled to the New.
Where I try to fix the fundamentalist interpretation
Loaves and Fishes as Community building

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Naturalization of teleological language. Say what?

I’ve been tracking Bart Campolo lately and finding him well worth a listen. In a section of this podcast, about 10 minutes long, so many things are tossed around, it could take hours to develop. It’s a rapid exchange. Bart was passionate about his desire to incorporate the many voices he hears on campus while Tripp was trying to explain the value of the language of the traditions he holds so dear. Both were pointing in the same direction, but many differences need to be worked out before they can really work together toward that same goal. Or maybe there’s a third way.

Listen to the whole thing, or jump to around 20 minutes in and try to catch up. I took their words for the next 15 minutes and made these “study” questions. Some of them get expanded on later, but mostly they are left unanswered. I hope the two of them get together for more.

Questions that depend on belief

Did the human technologies of eating together, singing together and performing rituals develop naturally, through evolution, and then get incorporated into religion, or were they developed by inspired religious leaders?

Did all of that get associated with a supernatural explanation at a time when the only explanations we had were supernatural, or do they actually have a supernatural origin? Is there another explanation?

Questions that could be separated from the belief question

Did science emerge from monotheistic assumptions then move through secularization, removing the supernatural aspects?

Since we are now developing more natural explanations, is theological language being “naturalized” to apply to our teleological relationship to creation?

How are these two sets of questions related?

How does our language hold our beliefs in place?

How do we develop the language to serve the need of bringing people together to lead happier and more productive lives?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Volf and the roots of pluralism

Part II (scroll back for part I) (Part III is on hold for the moment, maybe forever, I thought some other bloggers were going to be writing about this chapter, but that didn't materialize)

Next, I'll quote many of the same quotes Volf used when discussing Roger Williams. Williams was a Puritan from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A few of you will remember that was long before the revolution, and even longer before Jefferson ever said anything about separation of church and state, even before slavery, but it is far removed from Columbus too. I think this would have been an amazing century to be alive, to experience the new thoughts forming around how we should govern ourselves.

Williams was the pluralist, an idea that had roots with the Anabaptists, but had little other expression throughout history. He was pluralist only when it came to politics though. He was just as excluvists as his rivals, John Cotton and John Winthrop, when it came to religion. In the end, Williams and his followers were branded the dissenters and were “purged”. A fairly peaceful purging as purges go. They founded Rhode Island. The basis of the exclusivists argument was that people needed to be compelled to follow the precepts of the government or God would be displeased and the government couldn't function. Williams agreed with “Thou shalt not kill”, but said the first few commandments were about human duties to God and that government had no business with them. He did not see this as a contradiction with the idea of being religiously exclusive.

John Winthrop wrote about the “city on a hill” they had created. That city would watch over and govern the purity of religious observance. Flogging and mutilation or even death were punishments for disobedience. This was the state's job. Williams, on the other hand, wrote “The Bloudy Tennant for Persecution of Conscious”, and defended his position.

"Sixthly, it is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God's Spirit, the Word of God."

For its time, this is a radical argument for freedom of conscious. It says there is a marketplace of ideas, and it is with ideas he will fight for his god, not any other type of a sword. If that is not clear, perhaps this excerpt from a letter will help,

"First that forc’t Worshpp stincks in Gods nostrils. 2 That it denies Christ Jesus yet to be come, and makes the Church yet National, figurative and Ceremoniall. 3 That in these flames about Religion, as his Matie his Father and Grandfather have yielded, there is no prudent Christian way of preserving peace in the World but by permission of differing Consciences."


"It is directly contrary to the nature of Christ Jesus, his saints and truths, that throats of men should be torne out for his sake. Who most delighted to converse with greatness sinners."

English from 4 centuries ago can be tough, but I'm sure he means Jesus conversed with sinners, so why shouldn't we. When he founded Rhode Island, he put these ideas into his State's Constitution. Historians today agree that he wrote from his heart. His convictions were what he truly felt, not mere means to social ends. He was just as excluvists, religiously, as Winthrop or Cotton. The content of faith as they saw it is what made the difference, not the firmness of their faith.

Or, as John Plamenatz of 20th century Oxford said, "Liberty of conscience was born, not of indifference, not of skepticism, not of mere open-mindedness, but of faith. The reasoning was not, because faith is important we must impose it, but because faith is supremely important all human beings must be allowed to live by the faith that they hold true."

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Discussion of Volf's pluralism

In chapter 4 of Miroslav Volf's “Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World”, he attempts to make the case that exclusivist religion can be compatible with pluralist politics. I'm not sure how many blogs it will take to cover this somewhat lengthy chapter. I'll begin with an overview.

The words “exlcusivist” and “pluralist” seem to make their own case against “compatible”, but his argument is thorough and compelling, complete with historical precedent. Even if he is wrong, I think the discussion of the possibility is worth the effort. Any attempt to address the current problems of fundamentalism, Christian or otherwise, deserves consideration. A program of elimination of religion or quarantining it is similar in exclusionary tactics to a program of converting everyone to believe in a particular god. A truly pluralist society consists of people with open minds, willing to engage any reasonable argument.

I have already laid several land mines for myself in that opening paragraph and I can see the jaws clenching and the eyes rolling. To allay some of those fears of hearing the same old arguments, Volf begins by noting the Puritans left the religious persecution of England, only to set up their own exclusive system in America. A seeming contradiction. He later explains how pluralism had roots in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and how the exculsivist and pluralist factions had to part company. He admits that there are limits to the use of reason by fundamentalist. That it is often used only to defend their own preconceived notions and breaks down when challenged. He quotes Popper and Rousseau. He admits not all who embrace exclusivist religion will go along with his ideas. He asks very little of the pluralist society and demands much from his fellow Christians.

When considering the possibility that religion can continue to some extent in the forms we see it now, it's important to take a broad perspective. We are decades into a movement sometimes called the Christian Right, but it is a recent phenomena and it's dominance is starting to wane. Before that, sociologist were pretty well agreed that science would continue to advance and religion would fade. Further back, people like Thomas Jefferson expected the world to move toward some form of the Unitarianism, akin to religion but without all the miracles. He was wrong about that, but he did pretty well with shaping democracy, so I'll cut him some slack. 500 years before that Aquinas attempted to reconcile Greek rationalist thought with his faith. There were other failed attempts, but the important point is that the dominant view of religion changes throughout time and we can influence that view.

In a rare moment for Christian theologians, Volf presents Peter Berger's steps toward the gradual disappearance of religious exclusivism. He contends social pluralism naturally leads to the affirmation of religious pluralism. When religious people mix with other ideologies, they experience a degree of “Cognitive contamination”. Certainly any cult leader who keeps his minions isolated knows this.
Whether this contamination is other religions or not, it eventually becomes secularism. This phenomenon could also be observed in the recent acceptance of homosexuality in America. As more and more people came to know a gay person personally, they found out they weren't so bad. The steps are:

1 Live with others
2 Learn to appreciate them
3 Realize their ways of living aren't utterly false
4 Their truth is as good as yours

Volf points out at least one flaw in Berger; not everyone makes that last step.

This is where Volf's theology steps in, providing a way to live between steps 3 and 4. He notes that the three major monotheisms and even Buddhism contain ideas not only that their god (or in Buddhism's case their ideology) is the only one, and the right one, but also that you should not be arrogant about this. If you are right, and of course you are, you should not need to boast. God will give you the strength and wisdom you need to endure the unbelievers and to convert them. Indeed, you should not fear hearing the ideas of others, you should apply the golden rule and treat those ideas with respect, just as you would expect your ideas to be treated, knowing that in the end you will prevail.

I would like to interject at this point, that Volf, throughout the entire book is notorious for ignoring large swaths of history. He never mentions the dozens of other versions of “do unto others”. I can't tell if this is purposeful or if he is actually unaware that Jesus did not invent that.

He shows a strong grasp of world history, so it is to hard understand how he could miss certain details or why he thinks them unimportant. He covers the unique aspects of Judaism and Christianity, and how they ended up being religions that grew beyond their tribal beginnings. He calls them “world” religions. Christianity for instance took a stand of consciousness against imperialist Rome. Those ideas lived on and have been adapted and used by many revolutionary cultures and oppressed groups. I would have liked it Volf did not slide past the harsh versions of that, when Christianity later partnered with empire and brutally oppressed and enforced its exclusiveness. He may think it would hinder his argument to do so, but I think it hinders his argument to not do it.

I am not suggesting that he, or anyone, meld their precious ideologies into some grand philosophy that is a mix of all human knowledge. I would like to see that, but I don't expect it to happen in my lifetime. What Volf suggests, and I would accept as a minimum, is that religions find an interpretation of their ideology that allows for co-existence with other ideologies. If they can do that, I'm fine with them hanging on to hope of a second coming, or for implementation of as many as their purity laws as they can find agreement for. As long as they maintain values of peace and order while attempting to achieve those ends, the rest of us can continue to work toward those shared values in our own ways. Hopefully we can all find ways to form partnerships and move toward those shared values.