Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Courageous Pastor

I'd like to walk you through another post about one of those liberal pastors that I often write about. This one does not end with me being disappointed about how much like a fundamentalist she is. She takes a step beyond any pastor that I ever met. She is not afraid to let us know what she actually learned in seminary school. She's not afraid to challenge her leaders to move forward with her, even if it threatens her career.

In a letter to those leaders, she says belief in “the existence of a supernatural being whose purposes can be divined...” can lead to violence. There's a little more to it if you read the full article, but even in her more nuanced form, it's pretty strong stuff. She says something, that if I say it, I'm told I focus too much on the negative aspects of religion, and that Christianity has “reformed itself”. She says, “This belief has led to innumerable tragedies throughout the timeline of human history and will continue to do so until it fades from our ravaged memory.”

That's going pretty far, admitting that religion still has work to do to bring itself into a modern world where wars must be justified on grounds other than a difference in theology. Unfortunately this rather obvious statement has to be made by someone who is considered progressive and when she says it, someone calls for her resignation just for saying it. I think Christianity and all religion needs to go a lot further. She goes a little bit further with this statement, “If we maintain that our moral framework is dependent upon that supernatural being, we allow others to make the same claim and must defend their right to do so even if their choices and acts are radically different from our own; we do not hold the right to parcel out divine authority only to those with whom we agree.”

First, in case you don't recognize it, or don't know much about Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, she is saying, all religions can't be right. Dawkins and Hitchens take this a step further and say, therefore, most likely all of them are wrong. But without going there, we are left with the choice of figuring out which one is right using some sort of method of discernment that we can all agree on, or killing anyone who disagrees. The latter has not worked out too well and the former is now called science. Like it or not, meditation and divine revelation are increasingly unacceptable in government or any institution, except theocracies and churches. When governments or businesses need a question answered, they turn to science.

But put that aside if you must and consider the implications of what she says. She is asking you to consider the consequences of choosing a supernatural explanation. By definition you have no natural explanation for that. You can't prove it, except by personal experience, and you are giving up the need to prove it, it's a choice made on faith. If you can do that, how can you turn around and deny someone else the right to do the same? Obviously you don't deny your fellow parishioners that right, but how do you feel about someone from a different religion, a different denomination, or someone who just doesn't understand Jesus like you do?

Greta simply asks that you extend the same courtesy to all believers that you would to your grandmother. I don't know enough about Greta, but my guess is she is calling for this level of tolerance because she believes it is a request that religious people will consider. I don't know if she sees it as a step toward something else, or as an end in itself. We all know that asking people to not believe at all is very unpopular.

But what is she trying to accomplish? This article was written right after a couple major events of religious violence. We look to the purveyors of reason and peace at those times, but is that the church? The argument is that if we lose the churches, we lose the holders of the rules, the houses of ethics, the ones with the soup kitchens and the shelters. Without them, it's anything goes. This works when the religion is in complete control. People do survive without it as history as shown with religions that have collapsed, but the culture is lost.

But look again at what she's asking. She's asking, let me choose my system of ethics based on nothing but tradition and I will leave you to choose yours based on a completely different tradition. Traditions that are well known to include justifications of violence. She is saying she has the right to choose an institution simply because it exists and has some history of doing some good. Well, Nixon opened negotiations with China and Clinton reduced the deficit, but I have a lot of other reasons for thinking which one of those is the better president. But I'm not arguing with her right to make that choice. I prefer a free world where such choices can be made and I'm willing to live with the consequences of that.

It's a bit ironic here that in her attempt to promote a world of reason, she suggests that anything goes. She ends up allowing for what all religions say about atheism. They say that if you are choosing atheism, you are choosing hedonism. Religions say they have the right set of rules to live by and they have the moral authority to set them. Some go as far as to say it is impossible to base moral rules on anything except their god. Without their god, there can be no basis for morality. Most at least claim a long standing tradition or the authority of many generations who have refined those rules.

We now have better ways of determining rules. We listen to the voices of not just those with land or weapons or those who happened to be born where the ground is more fertile or the animals could be domesticated or whose parents were in positions of power, but to everyone. These new systems still have some of the old problems, but solutions for them are not coming from the old voices.

Oddly enough, although I believe in freedom, I also believe in holding others accountable for their actions, in requiring explanations for actions. I don't accept someone else's moral system with the agreement that they will accept mine. If they are going to share my government, my schools, my health system, I expect some pretty complicated negotiations about just what is agreeable. I'll defend everyone's right to be free, but that doesn't include the right to restrict my freedoms without reason.

In a separate interview, Greta said her church has stopped most of the traditional rituals of a church. They stopped teaching the children the Lord's prayer because the parents said they didn't want them learning that they should believe those things and have to figure out for themselves later if they choose not to. If you have ever thought this, I encourage you to bring it up with your church leadership. If they aren't supportive, ask around, you might find out there are more just like you.

Interestingly enough, around that same time, a different pastor posted a statement that went quite a bit further. Greta even links to him via her blog page. I can't evaluate what this guy is doing, or if I'd join his “belief-less church” without spending some actual time there. But it's starting to sound like something that is truly workable in a tolerant pluralistic world.

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