Tag Archives: religion


Today I was baptized and joined the Mennonite Church. I imagine this might surprise some of you for various reasons, so let me provide a bit of background.

I’ve had a lot of people, both in person and in comments responding to my blog post, express surprise with statements I have made. The view of Christianity that many people have is of a group that devalues scientific inquiry and places a lot of emphasis on things like opposition to gay marriage, evolution, and abortion, and enjoys political leaders that say “bring it on.”

While I know some Christians that fall into that mold, there are quite a few that don’t as well. Some churches, such as the one I attend, have a surprisingly diverse set of people and yet still function and get along well.

Today they accepted me with joy. Nobody was concerned that I started my statement with a reference to ancient Greek philosophy, wound up suggesting that the church ought to make sure to make illegal immigrants, gays and lesbians, and prostitutes feel welcome, and embraced both religion and scientific inquiry, feeling them complimentary.

Mennonites practice adult baptism rather than infant baptism. A traditional age for people to be baptized is during high school, though emphasis is placed more on the individual than their age, so it’s not unheard-of for someone to do so a bit later in life as I have.

Part of the baptism involves the candidate sharing their faith story. These are typically intensely personal, widely varied, heartfelt, and honest. Some people’s stories involve struggles with depression, physical disabilities, or the place of religion in their lives, while others reflect little struggle at all. Mine involves letting go of a lot of things, and also seeing some things, such as serious intellectual inquiry or existential questions about God (such as “is there a god?”), as a positive rather than a negative feature of a Christian life. But it also involves a recognition and deep respect for those that don’t approach things in this way.

Though given publicly in a church, baptism testimonies are rarely published or shared more broadly. But I’m going to share mine here. I have edited it only very lightly to remove a few local references that wouldn’t make sense out of the context of this community. This was delivered in front of a rather different audience than is likely to be reading this post, so if you have questions, do feel free to ask in the comments.

Baptism Testimony

John Goerzen

May 22, 2011

Those of you that know me well will probably not be surprised that I will begin my Christian baptism testimony with a story about an ancient Greek philosopher, and also touch on the philosophical nature of truth. These are key parts of my story.

As legend goes, Socrates famously said, “I know that I know nothing” — in other words, he believed that nothing could be known with absolute certainty. The Greek Oracle — thought to be infallibly wise — said that Socrates, the man that thought he knew nothing, was the wisest man in all Athens. An interesting paradox, and one that sheds light on my own religious story. My story involves coming to grips with the understanding that I know very little, that no person can ultimately know much about God, and finding a way to make peace with that situation.

Growing up in this community, I thought I knew some things about faith and Christianity. At a certain age, it all seemed so simple. We took the Bible to be literally true. We marveled in Sunday School at how the apostles could sometimes appear so blind. And, modeled both implicitly and explicitly, was this notion: the stronger our faith, the fewer inner questions or doubt we have about the nature of God, the literal accuracy of the entire Bible, or our relationship to God. Those I perceived held up as examples never seemed to question any of these things, and showed — outwardly, at least — complete certainty about them. Moreover, holding certain intellectual beliefs was key to Christian identity, and even more importantly, to eternal life.

This model has quite obviously worked well for many people for many years. The good that has happened, and continues to happen, from people that have that kind of certainty is manifest all around us. And yet, it didn’t seem to work out for me.

I’m not the kind of person that accepts a lot of things at face value. It is helpful to be able to examine and challenge ideas — and even more helpful to have other people challenge my ideas. From well before I was in high school, I was questioning some things about the Bible, God, and religion in general. My thoughts ranged from the impact of evolution on religion to the apparently vengeful God of the Old Testament to the very existence of God. In the Christian context, I perceived having these questions as a personal failing, something that I ought to repress.

The more I tried to repress them, the more troublesome they became. Why, for instance, should a loving merciful God decide whether to let us into heaven based on whether we hold certain intellectual beliefs?

In high school, I participated in the catechism class here at this church, and was frustrated because it didn’t tackle deeper meanings or the kinds of questions I had. I wasn’t yet able to articulate all my thoughts and questions very well, and I probably had an overactive case of teenage cynicism. As a result, I didn’t get baptized like most others my age did. As I learned more about the early history of Judaism and Christianity, I only found more reasons to question the model of faith I thought I had received — the one in which Biblical literalism and a “divine guarantee” of sorts was key.

More recently, I gradually became aware that the model of Christianity I had in mind was one of many views. Christians, Mennonites, and even this church are incredibly diverse groups, and in retrospect, I am surprised that it took me so long to realize this. Three major steps led me to baptism.

The first step was the realization that, whatever our understanding of the literal accuracy of the Bible, literal truth is often inferior to metaphorical truth. As an example, many of us have read the works of Shakespeare. They are fictional, but the reason they have been revered for so many centuries is that they are true. They teach us things about ourselves and our world in a way that no history book can.

By placing such an emphasis on literal truth in the Bible, I was missing out on the message right there for me. By concerning myself with creationism or evolution, I missed out on thinking about what the story in Genesis meant for the Jews, and what it could mean for me. Evolution ceased to be a threat to religion; it became simply a tool for learning about a different sort of truth than we get from religion.

N. T. Wright mentions an incident that illustrates this point. A person attending a religious conference asked the speaker, a prominent theologian, “Is it true that the serpent in Genesis actually spoke like you and I speak?” The theologian answered, “It doesn’t matter whether the serpent could speak. What matters is what the serpent said.”

The second step I took towards being baptized was realizing where the real core of Christianity lies. It’s not some debate about Genesis, but rather the death to one’s old self, and the rebirth and continual remaking of oneself in the example of Jesus. Given that, a lot of questions seem unimportant or even irrelevant. Good can be expressed in many ways, and if one person achieves a remarkably Christian life via a literal understanding of the Bible, and another via a more metaphorical reading, then it is my place only to affirm both and say that they both got it right. If we say that the task of remaking ourselves is like climbing a mountain, then what matters is not how we are climbing the mountain, but simply that we are climbing it.

I used to equate faith with an intellectual belief. I have come to see that was a narrow view. Faith, to me now, is more about vision: do we see the world like Christ did? Where do our loyalties and our trust lie — in God or in human institutions? What are our goals in life?

We humans have failed to understand God, and probably always will. I too share in that incomplete understanding, but I have come to accept that it is OK. I know enough to know that I want my loyalty to lie in Jesus, to know what kind of vision of the world I want to have, and I have learned to accept that intellectual questions can even be a form of meditation, enlightenment, and prayer.

The third step toward baptism was moving past my own shortcomings. For a long time, I thought I didn’t believe the right things, didn’t believe them strong enough, wasn’t certain enough about God, didn’t pray enough, didn’t read enough, didn’t understand enough, didn’t love enough — and ultimately, that I wasn’t good enough. I request baptism today understanding that, despite the various imperfections I still have, and we all have, everyone is good enough and deserving of love and peace. God’s love is for everyone. No exceptions!

Following Jesus boils down to this: I too must be an agent of love and peace to everyone, without exception. My vision must be centered around the fact that we are to emulate the God that loves the entire world, sinners all, and therefore I should as well. I hope I can show others the kind of love that has been shown me.

I hope, too, to share with this congregation and the global church in the vision of love. I hope that we can continually strive to re-focus on Christ’s vision. As an example, we all know that many different viewpoints about whether homosexuality is sinful exist in Mennonite Church USA. These opinions are deeply held and personal for many, and have been discussed over and over and over. But ultimately, they aren’t terribly relevant to the church’s mission. The example of Jesus unites us all: he embraced everyone. He accepted criminals and prostitutes and showed them love and kindness. Our difficult task, which is also my difficult task, is to show this same love to absolutely everyone, regardless of our varying opinions about them and their conduct. The forgotten and repressed of our day — perhaps criminals, homeless, Muslims, addicts, gays and lesbians, illegal immigrants, ethnic minorities, and still prostitutes — deserve the love of Christ’s church and all its members. My hope is that any one of the earth’s 7 billion people could step through the doors of our church, or any church, and immediately feel Christ’s love, and the unconditional, non-judgmental, welcome and love of Christ’s followers, no matter what.

This prayer from Ephesians 3 sums up my hope and my vision, for myself and everyone:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being. I pray that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. And I pray that you will know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (3.16-19)

Review: The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox

I know I’ve been on something of a religion streak on the blog of late, and this will be the last such post for awhile.

I first hear of Harvey Cox’s book The Future of Faith during an excellent hour-long interview with NPR’s Diane Rehm. It was intriguing enough that I bought the Kindle edition of the book and read it.

The title of the book is both very accurate and rather misleading. A lot of the book — and, to me, the most fascinating parts of it — focus on the history of faith. Cox’s repeated point is that we are only now regaining a notion of faith that the earliest Christians had, and it is a notion that happens to be compatible with modern science and incompatible with fundamentalism and intolerance in all its stripes.

Throughout this post, it should be understood that quotes or passages are from the book. Cox is so quotable that a good chunk of this review will be showing you some of his quotes, with a bit of discussion around them. I very much enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it.

Faith vs. Belief

It is true that for many people “faith” and “belief” are just two words for the same thing. But they are not the same … and it is important to clarify the difference. Faith is about deep-seated confidence. In everyday speech we usually apply it to people we trust or the values we treasure… a matter of what the Hebrews spoke of as the “heart.”

Belief, on the other hand, is more like opinion. We often use the term to express a degree of uncertainty … We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us, but we place our faith only in something that is vital for the way we live.

This is an important distinction, and if you stop and think about it, Cox is arguing with a common notion about faith almost from page 1. Faith isn’t about intellectual assent to a set of propositions. It’s about what we hold dear, what we think works for us in life.


Creeds are clusters of beliefs. But Christianity is not a history of creeds. It is the story of a people of faith who sometimes cobbled together creeds out of beliefs. It is also the history of equally faithful people who questioned, altered, and discarded those same creeds … But both the doctrinal canons and the architectural constructions are means to an end. Making either the defining element warps the underlying reality of faith.

Cox here reinforces the point that Christianity isn’t about believing certain statements, and it isn’t even about a literal (or not) reading of the Bible. It’s what C. S. Lewis talked about as the inward transformation in onesself. Creeds, such as the Nicene Creed, are rather irrelevant to him.

Cox separates the history of Christianity into three periods: the age of faith, stretching from the time of Jesus only a few centuries until Constantine; the age of belief, stretching from Constantine until the 20th century; and the age of the spirit, now dawning. During the age of faith, “their sharing in the living Spirit of Christ united Christians with each other, and ‘faith’ meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated.” Cox makes the point that doctrinal questions just weren’t all that important back then, and though differences existed, they weren’t considered to be fundamental to the religion. “Confidence in Christ was their primary orientation, and hope for his [earthly] Kingdom their motivating drive.” Further, he argues that the age of the spirit is a return to this earlier age, albeit with modern twists.

Christianity is growing faster than it ever has before, but mainly outside the West and in movements that accent spiritual experience, discipleship, and hope; pay scant attention to creeds; and flourish without hierarchies. We are now witnessing the beginning of a ‘post-Constantinian era.'”

Cox describes a person that described himself as “a practicing Christian, not always a believing one.” He suggests that the belief/non-believer statement is a disservice to Christianity and to other religions. He then quoted a Catholic bishop as saying: “The line between belief and unbelief runs through the middle of each one of us, including myself, a bishop of the church.” In other words, “The experience of the divine is displacing theories about it.”

Faith and Belief in Bible reading

Creation myths such as … the first chapters of Genesis were not primarily composed to answer the “how” or “when” questions. They are not scientific accounts, even though their poetical language, when read literally (which is always a mistake), may sound that way. Rather, they grapple … with the linked mysteries of both why there is a universe and what our place in it is … They are more like lyrical cantatas, symphonies of symbols through which humans have tried to make sense of their place in the world…

This is where the distinction between faith and belief is vital. These stories are — literally — “not to be believed.” They are, rather, artifacts human beings have crafted to try to wring some meaning from the mystery. They are not themselves the mystery.

I liken this to Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park. If you were to read it 1000 years in the future, it might not have been conveniently shelved above the word “fiction.” Would a reader in the future know that it was not meant to be a literal description of facts? I think sometimes we make this mistake when we read the Bible. Note, though, that although we all understand that Jurassic Park wasn’t meant to be a literal description of facts, it seems to have been valued by quite a large part of society. And it didn’t even address big mysteries.

Cox argues against ridding ourselves of the creation myths, suggesting that they are an important reminder that we are similar to humans who grappled with the same big questions centuries ago as we do today.

The ill-advised transmuting of symbols into a curious kind of “facts” has created an immense obstacle to faith for many thoughtful people. Instead of helping them confront the great mystery, it has effectively prevented them from doing so … the objective knowledge science rightly insists on is not the only kind of knowledge human beings need … Faith, although it is evoked by the mystery that surrounds us, is not the mystery itself.

Constantine and the Age of Belief

One of the most devastating blunders made by the church, especially as the Age of Belief began, was to insist that the Spirit is present only in believers.

Cox spends a lot of time covering the very interesting topic of how and why the church moved to the Age of Belief. His central thesis is that money, power, and prestige were primarily responsible, and that an unrighteous collusion between bishops and Constantine, each using Christianity for their own purposes, finally made it happen. This is very interesting stuff, but this post is too long already, so I will not spend a lot of time on it. I found the Council of Nicea to be particularly interesting, considering that the Nicean Creed came about partially by exile or execution of those Christians that disagreed with it. Cox also points out that “there never was a single ‘early Christianity’; there were many, and the idea of ‘heresy’ was unknown.”

The time is ripe to retrieve the term “Way” for Christianity and “followers of the Way” for Christians. It is at once more accurate, more original, and more contemporary than “believers.”

To the future

Cox describes attending a meeting of the church in Hong Kong in 2003, and uses it as a metaphor for the future of faith:

Their idea of interfaith dialogue was to work with their fellow Asians of whatever religion to advance the Kingdom that Jesus had inspired them, as Christians, to strive for, regardless of what the others called it. They were neither “fundamentalist” nor “modernist.” They seemed more attuned to the element of mystery at the core of Christianity and to its vision of justice. They were also clearly impatient with many of the disputes that preoccupy the different wings of the American churches.”


I found this book to be both enlightening and informative. I highly recommend it, even if you disagree with some of Cox’s conclusions. It is a fascinating view into how the world’s largest religion evolved over the years, and a candid look at the mistakes it has made in that time.

Is the Roman Emperor Still Your God?

In ancient Rome, the Imperial cult was the worship of the Roman emperor as a god. It came to be at roughly the same time as Christianity. In the cult of the emperor, Caesar was revered as a deity. According to Harvey Cox, “This was what we might today call a “civil religion” — it had its holidays, processions, and holy sites throughout the empire. Adherence to it was required of all of the emperor’s subjects, wherever they lived and whatever other deities they also worshiped. It was the religious and ideological mucilage that held the far-flung empire together.”

Perhaps you see where this is going. There was a certain group that found the imperial cult, well, repugnant. They felt their own goals — bringing their god’s peace and justice to the world — were incompatible with this sort of devotion to a human institution, and the very institution that had killed their leader at that. Their reaction went like this:

Regarding worship of the emperor, Christians responded with an unequivocal “no.” They claimed that Jesus Christ was God’s kyrios (“anointed one” in Greek), but since kyrios was one of the titles attributed to Caesar, they refused to participate in the imperial cult. They were willing to pray for the emperor and for his health, but they stubbornly refused to pray to him or offer ritual tribute. They recognized that one could not be a follower of Jesus while also honoring a rival to the loyalty their faith in him and his Kingdom required; therefore, “not even one pinch of incense on the imperial altar.” This defiance of the political religion of the empire, which led their critics to brand them subversive, landed many of them in arenas with salivating lions.

— Harvey Cox in The Future of Faith

Now, you may be wondering, why am I asking if anyone still worships the emperor of a long-extinct empire? I maintain that this practice is still alive and well, just under a different name.

I have been interested in some of the debates about American institutions that choose to perform neither the national anthem nor the pledge of allegiance. Many of these institutions are Mennonite, and their reason for not participating in these two particular acts mirrors that of the early Christians refusing to worship Caesar: namely, their goal is to bring about God’s peaceful and just kingdom on earth, and no country, no human institution at all, can ever command greater loyalty than that cause.

Moreover, the American national anthem is a particularly violent one, celebrating the taking of life right there at the beginning. Not completely compatible with the ethics of a church trying to bring about a more peaceful world, right?

It is from that basis that many Mennonites, and our institutions, do not perform the national anthem or say the pledge of allegiance. For myself, when the national anthem is being performed, I will stand out of respect for those around me for whom the moment is important, but I do not sing. I am deeply appreciative that the United States, like many other countries, makes it legal to do this. I am heartened by the fact that I do not risk a confrontation with the lions over my religious stance today.

Goshen College, a Mennonite institution, recently decided to go back on a century of history (which goes back farther than the anthem itself, which was only adopted in 1931) and will now be performing the anthem, followed by a prayer, before select sporting events.

And by so doing, they fail both to act in accordance with the way of Christ, and to be a patriot. They fail to act for peace and justice by playing an anthem that supports and glorifies war and violence.

And they fail to be patriotic. Patriotism and nationalism are different things. It’s easy to be nationalistic — to get up there and sing a song that everyone wants you to sing. It is far more difficult to be patriotic. Being patriotic in the United States means using the freedoms we have to improve our country. Goshen ought to use its freedom to not observe the national anthem as a way to try to draw a line in the sand against violence, to suggest that our anthem fails to adequately recognize the character of the American people and who we want to be, and to suggest a better alternative. After all, those people who are venerated today as patriots — anyone from Martin Luther to Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King — stood up to their fallible human governments to seek positive change.

Instead of a route both religious and patriotic, Goshen College has chosen one that is neither. I am deeply disappointed that 300 phone calls have apparently cowed their leadership. What have we come to when our ancestors braved the lions, and we give up our principles over the fear of… bad publicity?

Ah, Goshen, perhaps you are thinking that you could spare a few pinches of incense for Caesar after all?

Greek Mythology and the Old Testament

I have lately been reading Homer’s epic poems: first The Iliad, and now I am nearly done with The Odyssey.

I figure there isn’t anyone alive today that believes that Zeus literally caused thunder in answer to a prayer, or that Athene really transformed Ulysses between having a youthful and an aged physical appearance at a whim.

Despite our understanding that these poems don’t reflect a literal truth, we still find meaning and truth in them. It is for this reason that they are read by high school and college students all over the world. This same reason drives our reading of more modern plays and novels — everything from King Lear to Catcher in the Rye. We learn something of the author’s world, something about our world, and if we are truly lucky, a deeper understanding of the universal truths of human life.

And it is with that preface that I suggest that the Old Testament — or parts of it, at least — ought to be read in the same manner.

Modern Christianity speaks of a loving, caring God, one who is deeply concerned for the wellbeing of all. Under this understanding, forgiveness is more desired than retribution, and helping the week is better than enslaving them. How then can one square that with a literal reading of the Old Testament?

This was a key question I asked over a span of perhaps 15 years. I was perplexed that the God of Love ought to turn someone into a pillar of salt for turning her head the right way, that almost all life on earth might be extinguished by a flood, that slavery is condoned and regulated, and all sorts of people being stoned to death, animals killed for no reason. In short, the God of the Torah, at least, didn’t seem to me to be even the same person as the God the Church talks about.

I raised this question with many people, and there was even a seminar on it at a convention I went to in 2001. The answers I got usually were of one of two types: 1) God is beyond our comprehension, and this is one of the mysteries we will never understand because that’s just the way it is; or 2) the arrival of Jesus changed things, and it’s impossible for a modern person to fully appreciate the laws as they existed prior to that. These are really two sides of the same stick: they’re both saying, “Yep, that’s odd. But we have to believe that the Bible is inerrant and literally true, so we just have to accept the mystery and move on.”

Except I’m not so good at accepting mysteries and moving on.

It strikes me as odd that nobody even mentioned the third option: that some of the stuff in the Old Testament is, to be blunt, made up. This even though I have come to learn later that some of those people probably believed this to be the most correct explanation.

Now, that doesn’t mean it has no value or that is doesn’t show us truth. Romeo & Juliet was made up, but we learn from it.

A typical example of this is the creation myth. There are some that are very defensive about it, perhaps thinking that it weakens their religion to admit it might not be literally true. To me, I find that insisting upon its literal truth weakens the religion; can we not see how a piece of literature speaks to us today and leave it at that? Need we say that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is an inferior play because it is a work of historical fiction?

The position I suggest here is not some crazy nutjob position. Wikipedia has a concise overview of some of the scholarship surrounding these ideas.

I now count myself as somewhat inspired by Homer to read the Old Testament in the same way that I read Homer: as a story that can speak to us today, one that inspired a nation in captivity and after, and launched perhaps the most amazing religious movement in history.

I only wish that more people would admit the possibility of a non-literal reading of the Bible. This return to an earlier era of Christianity is, in my mind, the only way that Christianity can maintain its relevance in this age.

Update: A note I received suggests I ought to make a bit of a clarification. I am not bothered by the fact that people have differing opinions about the historicity of Genesis. I’m all for putting all the opinions out there for sure. I think that really the concern over whether Genesis is literally true or not is mostly irrelevant. I have no problem with Christians that find Genesis to be literally true. What I’m lamenting is the attitude that “you’re not Christian if you’re not sure that Genesis is literally true” or “saying anything else about Genesis undermines Christianity.” I believe neither of those statements, and would really rather that we collectively got past the creationism vs. evolution debate already.

Update 2: It appears that my use of a bit of technical language has caused some confusion. A creation myth can be defined as “a supernatural story or explanation that describes the beginnings of humanity, earth, life, and the universe (cosmogony), often as a deliberate act by one or more deities.” It is a category of explanations. Simply calling the Genesis story a “creation myth” is an act of categorization only, and doesn’t imply anything about its accuracy or value.

Politics and the Church

My church is one in which politics are checked at the door. Some church members wear their politics on their yard, or on their blog — and just about every opinion is represented in the church. But you rarely hear politics mentioned in church. When it is mentioned, it’s issue-oriented rather than candidate-oriented or policy-oriented — we’ll hear updates on efforts to create a peace tax fund, for instance.

But today, hearing about politics is just about unavoidable.

The relationship between Christianity and government has been uneasy and troubled all the way back to the religion’s founding. Many Christians, and I count myself in this, believe that our first loyalty is to Jesus, and on those grounds, refuse to say the pledge of allegiance. What, we wonder, would our word be worth if we were forced to disobey our government because of a law that was unjust or immoral? How could we even say the words “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all” when those words were written at a time when the KKK was active, lynchings were common, and are said today at a time when people treat Muslims and immigrants with modern disdain?

In short, we believe we are called to be citizens of a different kingdom first.

So, today, our pastor deliberately picked a difficult scripture passage for us: Romans 13:1-7, which reads, in part:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities. . . The authorities that exist have been established by God. . . Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. . . Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

What an extraordinary set of statements. This was written during the time of the Roman Empire, which could hardly be said to have been a just and benign government. It’s hard for me to imagine the Roman Legion being established by God.

In more modern times, it would seem to denounce the American revolution as a rebellion against authority and therefore a rebellion against God. It would also seem to denounce the protests that we see all over the world — striking workers in France, human rights seekers in Burma, war protesters in the United States. Would it even have condemned the protests in the 1960s over civil rights in this country, or the protests against war today?

One commentator notes that “Paul is not stating that this will always be true but is describing the proper, ideal function of rulers. When civil rulers overstep their proper function, the Christian is to obey God rather than human authorities” — a theme Paul mentioned more than once in Acts.

What relevance does this have for us today? It seems that we are to help our rulers act in a just way, even if we disagree with them — no matter who wins the election. It is also a reminder that a superficial reading of the Bible, taken out of context and without a deep understanding to understand the author’s point, can potentially lead to very strange conclusions.

The American National Council of Churches has issued a non-partisan voting guide, which we found in our bulletin today. It is an interesting read, and probably not what you think; it begins with, “War is contrary to the will of God.” Thought-provoking stuff.

I find it interesting that there are a lot of people out there that say that religion is responsible for a lot of ill in this country, then proceed to hold pretty much the same opinions I do for pretty much the same reasons. I just point out that the Bible is deeper than intolerance and submission.

What Traditional Values Mean to Me

A comment on Facebook yesterday got me thinking what American “traditional values” are all about. We hear it a lot, and I suspect it means something different to different people.

Here’s what it means to me.

It starts with an ethic fundamentally informed by the central tenets of Christianity — which are also excellent standards of decency by secular standards. We are called to have a relentless drive to care for the repressed, poor, downtrodden. As Jesus said, “whatever you do to the least of these, so you do to me.” It means extending the hand of friendship and compassion to all, in our own neighborhood and around the world. It means taking good care of the resources we have, acting responsibly, and affirming and supporting others so they can do the same. It means that, as our founding fathers emphasized, remembering that all people are created equal, are equally deserving of a good life, and deserve liberty and freedom. Finally, it means a constant realization that we are creating a human institution, and will always have an imperfect answer to these ideals, but that we can — and must — recognize our faults and strive to make things better.

How do these apply to our time?

We must start with the poor, the repressed, and habitually think of their situation in everything we do. That means remembering that when we drop a bomb in Afghanistan to kill a terrorist, we also usually kill 50 innocent bystanders, and devastate their families. It means remembering that illegal immigrants from Mexico come here because all they want is refuge from drug wars, food on the table, and a roof over their head. It means showing compassion in deportation proceedings: when illegal immigrant parents have a child born in the United States, the child is an American citizen and can’t be deported, but deporting the parents will create an orphan. It means actively helping the repressed people of the world, whether they be in Sudan, Georgia, or AIDS victims in Africa, Muslims in New York. It means reducing taxes on the poor, giving them the skills and tools they need to make their way in life. It means caring for those with alcohol drug addictions, helping them to summon the strength to get past those problems, rather than locking them up or throwing them out on the street. In days past, this might have meant sharing firewood with the family down the road that was at risk of freezing in winter. Today it might mean assistance with winter heating bills.

Remembering that all people are created equal means that we must provide good education for everyone, whether they live in suburban California, inner city Detroit, or rural Appalachia. We owe quality health care to everyone; those without means to pay for health care, or to pay for a car to get to a clinic, should be treated with dignity and respect, and have equal access to medicine.

Remembering that all people are created equal also means that we must provide equal justice under law, and give everyone a fair trail. We must abandon the death penalty, because we have a shocking number of people on death row — hugely disproportionately black and poor — that have been shown innocent of their crimes thanks to advances in DNA testing. We must maintain the integrity of checks and balances in government, and support judicial oversight over search and seizure. We must avoid warrantless wiretapping because it subverts judicial oversight and corrupts our justice system by making the exercise of power secret. We must denounce torture, and refuse to employ it, because no human, being created equal, deserves to be treated in such a way — and we have been applying it to innocent humans.

We owe the opportunity to grow up in a loving family, in a safe community, to every child. We must make sure that gangs no longer have the run of our streets, that drugs aren’t displacing hard work as the currency of the community, and that adoption is inexpensive and practical for more families, rather than costing thousands of dollars. Doing so will help every child grow up knowing that they are valued, are important, rather than being unwanted and therefore abused or neglected.

Extending the hand of friendship and compassion to all starts with being a good example — that shining city on a hill that Reagan talked about. We have to run an open, just, and fair society ourselves. We must not fear those that are different than us, just because they’re different. We have to recognize that citizens of Iran, Russia, North Korea, Palestine, and the United States fundamentally are humans, created equal, seeking the same thing: a safe and secure future for themselves and their families. Being able to coexist peacefully means starting from that point, and being willing to talk to them, and yes, even their leaders, regardless of how distasteful they may be.

Acting responsibly with our resources starts at home — things like not driving up credit card debt, not living outside our means. The same applies to government: massive deficits each year are exceptionally irresponsible and place us at great risk both at the present and in the future. We also have a duty to care for the planet and the environment in which we live, which means actively working to curb the things we do to harm the planet and cause global warming.

What about recognizing our faults? Perhaps the most patriotic duty asked of Americans is dissent. It is never easy, but is essential to keeping our democracy functioning. This country has a long history of successes, and also a long history of failures. We failed so many by keeping slavery legal for so long, and discrimination and lynching legal for even longer. We failed that Native Americans by forcing them from their lands and treating them with brutality. We have, to some extent, risen above these failures thanks to the ability to recognize them and try, to the best of our ability, to fix them. This is what the civil rights movement was about, and why we have a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. He spoke out against a society that said some couldn’t eat in a restaurant because of the color of their skin, or who were repressed because of their economic status. He recognized that problem in America, and by speaking out against it, helped to change this country for the better.

Today we have to recognize the things we are doing wrong, and try to change them. We are torturing potentially innocent people. We are discriminating against Muslims and homosexuals in our midst. We are giving extraordinary power to big media companies through changes in copyright law, to big communications companies through failure to enact network neutrality laws. And we are labeling people that disagree with war as unpatriotic.

Notice some things I didn’t mention, such as abortion. It’s not really relevant, and the lines we are fed by both sides present us with this false pro choice vs. pro life debate. In reality, it seems to me that both sides want the best for the children: for every child to grow up in a loving family, where he or she is wanted. We all know from research that laws banning abortion do not actually reduce it. So we ought all to come together and try to make it more rare by providing more support to single parents, by making it easier to adopt children, by trying to make the perceived need for an abortion to go away.

So, in this election, I look at the candidates and it seems pretty clear which one is promoting traditional values and which one isn’t. Obama is actively trying to reach across the aisle and find common ground. Even in his convention speech, he suggested ways to work together on abortion like I just mentioned. In the debate, he listened carefully to his opponent and acknowledged when he thought McCain was right. This is a necessary first step in working together to move forward. McCain subsequently released an ad mocking Obama for this.

What about caring for the poor? Again, Obama’s tax policies, education policies, and health care policies take care of them far better than McCain’s. About responsibility? McCain supported these deficit-busting budgets of the last 6 years, supported the oil-centric energy policies, and has been only lukewarm towards dealing with global warming. McCain and Palin mock Obama for trying to help poor Chicago neighborhoods 20 years ago, for being willing to just talk to our supposed enemies, for actually reaching across the aisle.

So yes, I am a values voter, and that’s why I can’t possibly do anything but vote for Obama.

A response to “7 Ways Religion is Detrimental to Science”

I read 7 Ways Religion is Detrimental to Science, and thought it would be an interesting read. It was, but I don’t think it really made sense. Let’s look at the 7 ways they highlighted:

1. Faith and the Scientific Method are Opposites

The article states:

Faith is a belief in an idea regardless of the evidence for or against it.

Actually, that’s not true at all, at least for traditional Christianity. (Note that traditional Christianity is not the same as fundamentalism). Marcus J. Borg describes faith in four ways:

Fiducia — trusting in God. Borg says, “Faith . . . [means] we trust in God as the one upon whom we rely, as our support and foundation and ground, as our safe place.”

Fidelitas — loyalty, or “the comment of the self at its deepest level, the commitment of the ‘heart’. Faith as fidelitas does not mean faithfulness to statements about God. . . Fidelitas refers to a radical centering in God.”

Visio — a way of seeing — “a way of seeing the whole, a way of seeing ‘what is’. . . the ability to love and to be present to the moment. It generates a ‘willingness to spend and be spent’ for the sake of a vision that goes beyond ourselves.”

Assensus — perhaps the closest to what the author meant, is “faith as belief.” Borg goes on to add:

The notion that Christian faith is primarily . . . about belief, about a “head” matter, is recent. . . For many, Christian faith began to mean believing questionable things to be true. . . this is the most widespread contemporary understanding of “belief”.

This is very different from what faith as assensus meant. . . A deep but humble (and therefore imprecise) understanding of Christian faith as assensus, as involving affirmation of the centrality of God as known in the Bible and Jesus, is very close to faith as vision. It is a way of seeing reality.

As a Christian, I do not find the scientific method to be a problem. I find it to be enlightening in all sorts of matters, including even the history of religion in some instances. Christian faith is not about believing in certain ideas (such as the world being created in 6 literal 24-hour days), though there are those that distort it to be so. Rather, Christian faith is about living your life a certain way, about the meaning of life, about our duties to make the world a better place.

2. People Vote Base on Religious Ideas

The author says that “Stem Cells weren’t the first time a body of research didn’t get proper funding because some religious wack-jobs.” Well, I agree that that was a problem. Non-religious people can vote in odd ways too. I argue that the rejection of stem-cell research goes against Christian teaching; after all, we are to help the least among us, and do not people with Alzheimer’s qualify?

I think the author’s point should have been “exremists have odd views.” Extremists can be atheist, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or other religions. Religion does not have a monopoly on them.

3. Religion Removes the Need For Science

The author says:

When people are content to believe in something that explains why they are here, even if it is wrong, they become less interested in other ideas. Religion often leads people to believe that they have all the answers. Science is self-correcting in that nobody assumes they are absolutely correct.

That is incorrect on several levels. First, science cannot explain why we are here. It can explain some of the mechanics. As an example, let us take for granted that modern scientific thought on the origin of humanity is correct: that there was a Big Bang, that single-celled creatures evolved on earth, and that human life eventually evolved through a complex process of evolution and natural selection. Fine; this does not contradict religion in any way. Science and religion answer different questions. Science answers “how”. Religion answers “why”. Science cannot answer the question “Why was there a big bang?” or “Did the evolution of humanity serve a larger purpose?”

Moreover, religion should not assume that they have all the answers, either. The canonical Christian Bible was mostly fixed within a few centuries AD. Life in 200AD was a lot different from life today. Part of the reason there are many different groups of Christians is the complexity of applying the stories in the Bible to modern life. The ideas in any given denomination evolve over time, too. I think it would be the height of hubris for anyone, religious or not, to claim that he or she had all the answers. Again, I know that some religious people act that way, but then so do some atheists or agnostics.

4. People Lean on Religion, When They Could Benefit From Science

The author of “7 Ways” cites the quite rare case where a child dies of a curable disease while his/her parents pray, refusing medical care. This is an extreme position that is not shared by the vast majority of religious people. Most religious people are perfectly content to use the latest medical care.

Meditation or prayer does not replace medical care; it supplements it. Scientific studies have even demonstrated its effectiveness.

5. The Church Takes Up Natural Resources

The original author states that “The land that churches take up around the world could be used to build schools, homes, recreational buildings and commercial operations.” This is perhaps the most frivolous of arguments. Putting aside the fact that many churches operate schools, churches are often one of the few ways that modern city dwellers have to form a sense of community. They are not just places to engage in religion. They are places to meditate, to get away from it all, to meet your neighbors, to vote.

6. The Church Takes Up Monetary Resources

The original author says “if people donated to scientific advancement like they did to the church, imagine where we would be today.” It’s not a pleasant picture. Religion, and institutions supported primarily because of the teaching of religion, are the people that feed the hungry after natural disasters, that operate food pantries (our church operates the only one in our community, and it’s open to anyone without any questions or talk about religion), that operate schools in disadvantaged areas, that have spread the whole idea of fair trade for third-world artisans, etc.

It is true that acts of evil have been committed in the name of the church, too. It is also unquestionably true that some church groups spend money more carefully than others. As with any donation, people should be careful where they give. Government-operated research studies are not necessarily a good use of money, either.

7. Religion is A Strong Meme

The author of the original story seems to be responding to a particular brand of Christianity: what Borg calls “literal-factual” religion. There are quite a few people that take that stand. They are sometimes inaccurately referred to as “evangelicals” or the “religious right”; while there is some overlap between the groups, they are not one and the same. The people with the literal-factual view are not representative of the whole.

More interestingly, Borg points out that the literal-factual view was actually a response to the development of the scientific method during the Enlightenment. As the modern idea of truth moved to literal, factual, provable truth, some Christians grew defensive about their faith, and started to look for “scientific” ways to prove that the world was created in 6 days, etc. in an attempt to show the world that Christianity fit their new notion of truth.

That makes a compelling argument that the scientific method is the stronger meme in today’s Western world — so strong that the author of the rant against religion has apparently forgotten the more prevalant — both throughout history and today — view of Christianity that is “more than” Science, not at odds with science.