August 30, 2005

Katrina: I Will Not Be Subdued

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:10 pm

So I sat down after dinner to blog about the latest trends in progressive politics and Christianity, the declining approval ratings for President Bush and discontent with the Iraq War, the growing dissension among chaplains in the US armed forces, and other very topical and fascinating issues. But I clicked on a link to an MSNBC story on the latest from New Orleans and Biloxi, then I watched some video online, then I turned on CNN, and here I am hours later with no desire to blog about anything but the transient and unpredictable nature of human existence.

In Genesis 1:28 we find:

God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’

Now we clearly have dominion over all living things on earth, especially when you consider that the ability to doom a species to extinction qualifies as “having dominion”. But are we really able to subdue the earth? New Orleans is something like 10 feet below sea level, and it seems the Mississippi River and the Gulf are reclaiming what was once theirs.

A more appropriate verse, it seems to me, is Job 38:4-11:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?– when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?

I think God’s dressing down of Job seems more appropriate tonight than God’s command to subdue the earth.

Let’s pray for the people of Louisiana and Mississippi for God to comfort them in their loss of property and of loved ones.

August 29, 2005

Comment Problem Fixed

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:24 pm

I thought no one wanted to talk to me anymore. Then I realized that the new SecureImage plugin I installed was preventing both spambots and humans from posting comments.

Sorry…its uninstalled now, so comment away.

But if you just don’t want to talk to me, that’s okay too.


August 28, 2005

The Iraq War: Why Stay?

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:09 pm

As debate about the Iraq War grows, in large part fueled by Cindy Sheehan’s vigil and the resulting counter-protest, I thought I should revisit my thoughts on the war. And by revisit, I really mean rethink.

I would like to be able to say that I have been 100% opposed to the Iraq War from the beginning. After all, if Rick Santorum can rewrite history to claim that he has raised concerns about the war in the past, why can’t I do a bit of a rewrite myself? Alas, it’s that old intellectual honesty thing. That, and the fact that I’m on the record last year as being “ambivalent” about the war, not opposed to it.

During the debate in Congress on the war, I still remember clearly Senator Byrd saying something along the lines of “Why now? What’s the rush? Why, after living with Saddam Hussein in power all these years do we have to invade Iraq now?” His reservations rang true for me then, and even truer now. After all, one of the criteria for a just war is that it is a last resort, a test this war clearly failed. (Father Jake has a post at the Christian Alliance for Progress that lays out all the ways this war falls short of a just war.)

But as we went to war, I held out the hope that something good would come of it. It was wrong to go to war, but that didn’t mean that nothing good could result, or so I thought. My “ambivalence” was born of my hope that at least the Iraqi people would be freed from the oppression they had suffered during Saddam’s rule. This could be the “just cause” required of a just war. The toppling of the Saddam statues and the election in January encouraged me in my hope.

By June, it became clear to me and most of the country that the war was a tragic mistake. Nothing good was going to come from the war. My “just cause” had turned into a hopeless cause. Still, I felt that an immediate withdrawal was out of the question; having created this mess, I thought we had a moral responsibility to clean it up.

So here we are in late August, and the key question has become: are we doing more harm than good by staying? Is our presence inflaming violence that is costing Iraqi and American lives that could be saved by our withdrawal? Is the most moral act we could take at this point to leave the mess we’ve created to the Iraqis? Perhaps we are like the clumsy co-worker who, having spilled coffee on your shirt, insists on helping you clean it off, only making it worse.

Except we aren’t talking about a dry cleaning bill here, we’re talking about thousands of human lives.

This is the case that Bush needs to make to the American people. Most of us now see that starting this war was immoral and pointless. Bush spends so much time trying to justify that original mistake that he’s not telling me what I want to know: why stay? Cindy Sheehan is a wonderful Christian voice speaking truth to power. But is she right to demand our immediate withdrawal? I just want to hear a realistic assessment from the Bush administration on whether we are helping, rather than hurting, Iraq.

I’m not holding my breath.

August 24, 2005

Borowitz: Pat Robertson Urges U.S. to Covet Chavez' Wife

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:47 am

From Andy Borowitz:

Televangelist Breaks Second Commandment in Two Days

One day after Pat Robertson called for the U.S. to assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the televangelist raised the ante again today, urging the U.S. to covet President Chavez’ wife.

In so doing, Mr. Robertson appeared to contradict two of The Ten Commandments in as many days, having flouted “Thou shat not kill” on Monday.

Speaking on the television program he hosts, “The 700 Club,” Mr. Robertson lashed out at the Venezuelan strongman once more, telling his audience, “It’s high time that the United States coveted Hugo Chavez’ wife.”

Warming to his topic, the opinionated preacher added, “And while we’re at it, we should covet his house, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox and his ass, for that matter.”

Mr. Robertson indicated that all of the coveting he referred to would not require a war, arguing that it could be all done through the use of covert operatives within Venezuela.

“We could send some special ops guys down there, and bang-bang, covet all of that stuff,” Mr. Robertson told his audience.

August 22, 2005

Church Attendance and Voting Preference

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 3:54 pm

The latest BusinessWeek has a column by Robert Barro, one of their regular contributing economists, on the impact of church attendance on voting preference. There are several interesting points made here — its kind of a Freakonomics-type analysis getting to the causal factors behind the data. But before I get to the column, let me revisit a statement made by political analyst Bill Schneider right after the election.

Schneider said that the best question used to identify a person’s political convictions is how often they attend church. Churchgoers, of any religion, are more likely to vote Republican, he said.

The study referred to in the BW column confirms that Schneider’s statement is in fact true. Church attendance is the best indicator of voting preference. But for us statistics-challenged, Schneider gives the impression that regular church-goers almost always vote for Republicans, and non-church-goers almost always vote for Democrats. And the problem with this impression is that a church-going Christian on the fence may think that they should vote Republican because, well, all the other church-going Christians are voting Republican.

I’m not accusing Schneider of deliberately spinning the data, but the BW column shows that the impression that Christians always vote Republican is just not true:

The religiousness differential in favor of the GOP peaked in 1992 and 1996 at 17 and 14 percentage points, when Democratic candidate Bill Clinton appeared to be highly secular (but still won). In 2000, when the evangelical George W. Bush beat Al Gore, the effect was still a strong 12 percentage points. Full data for 2004 are not yet available, but the religion effect was likely larger than the one in 2000.

So let’s assume for argument’s sake that the differential for 2004 was 14 percentage points. If we ignore the third party voters, that means that 57% of regular church-goers voted for Bush, and 43% of regular church-goers voted for Kerry. So think about that. Over 4 out of 10 regular church-goers voted for Kerry. This gives a very different picture than Schneider’s sound bite.

In an evenly divided nation, a swing of 7% of voters in any demographic is huge, and hence Schneider’s statement about church attendance as the top predictor. But that still means that 43% (or thereabouts) of us didn’t vote for Bush! The Christian vote is hardly as unified or monolithic as many would have you believe. It is simply not the case that Christians speak with one voice on politics.

Any bets on how big that differential will be in 2006 and 2008?

August 19, 2005

TNR, Slate and Slacktivist on Intelligent Design

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:10 pm

I really think this intelligent design debate is a distraction from the important issues for Christians, say, ending extreme poverty in Africa. But there are a lot of interesting things being written on the topic worth blogging about. Here are a couple more.

First, Fred Clark, aka Slacktivist, has an excellent rebuttal to a piece by Jacob Weisberg in Slate. Weisberg seems to have the opposite reason than Christian fundamentalists for insisting that one can’t both be a Christian and believe in evolution — he wants to shoot down Christianity, not evolution. This is the real downside for the intelligent design argument: since evolution is demonstrably true, then Christianity must be false. Also be sure to check out Fred’s follow-up post as well (I will never look at a beetle, or an ostrich, in quite the same way again.)

And then, not able to avoid the ID debate, I cracked open my print copy of the New Republic, and caught an article with the most comprehensive rebuttal to ID I’ve seen. Maybe this is old news to some of you — it’s been on the web for a week — but I had missed it until now.

In the article, Jerry Coyne covers the scientific evidence for evolution and against intelligent design:

Insofar as intelligent-design theory can be tested scientifically, it has been falsified. Organisms simply do not look as if they had been intelligently designed. Would an intelligent designer create millions of species and then make them go extinct, only to replace them with other species, repeating this process over and over again? Would an intelligent designer produce animals having a mixture of mammalian and reptilian traits, at exactly the time when reptiles are thought to have been evolving into mammals? Why did the designer give tiny, non-functional wings to kiwi birds? Or useless eyes to cave animals? Or a transitory coat of hair to a human fetus? Or an appendix, an injurious organ that just happens to resemble a vestigial version of a digestive pouch in related organisms? Why would the designer give us a pathway for making vitamin C, but then destroy it by disabling one of its enzymes? Why didn’t the intelligent designer stock oceanic islands with reptiles, mammals, amphibians, and freshwater fish, despite the suitability of such islands for these species? And why would he make the flora and fauna on those islands resemble that of the nearest mainland, even when the environments are very different? Why, about a million years ago, would the designer produce creatures that have an apelike cranium perched atop a humanlike skeleton? And why would he then successively replace these creatures with others having an ever-closer resemblance to modern humans?

Coyne then goes on to the motive of proponents of intelligent design. He quotes a Christian journalist’s description of the strategy of Phillip Johnson, a retired law professor and ID advocate:

Johnson calls his movement “The Wedge.” The objective, he said, is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism v. evolution to the existence of God v. the nonexistence of God. From there people are introduced to “the truth” of the Bible and then “the question of sin” and finally “introduced to Jesus.”

Of course the problem with this strategy is that Darwinism is not inherently atheistic, unless one insists on adhering to a theology that shrinks God to a tinkerer in a workshop instead of the creator of all that is, seen and unseen. As Coyne points at, and many of us Christian bloggers and commenters exemplify, it is entirely possible to be Christian and to accept evolution as scientific fact.

So why does the ID crowd cling to this antipathy to evolution? Coyne has an answer:

The real issues behind intelligent design–and much of creationism–are purpose and morality: specifically, the fear that if evolution is true, then we are no different from other animals, not the special objects of God’s creation but a contingent product of natural selection, and so we lack real purpose, and our morality is just the law of the jungle. Tom DeLay furnished a colorful example of this view on the floor of the House of Representatives on June 16, 1999. Explaining the causes of the massacre at Columbine High School, he read a sarcastic letter in a Texas newspaper that suggested that “it couldn’t have been because our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud.”

Coyne points out that belief in evolution doesn’t really lead to anarchy: Europe is far more secular than the US, but relatively more peaceful. But this isn’t about a rational fear of increasing crime rates.

I believe the fight against evolution is a symptom of a fear of the loss of moral certainty in life, or what Paul Tillich in The Courage to Be calls “the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness”. It is a terror of falling into a moral abyss with no bottom. Despite the IDers assertion that their objection to evolution is because of their faith, it is based on fear, which of course is a failing of faith.

I’m not about to criticize anyone for struggling with doubt about their religious beliefs. It is part of being human. Which is kind of the point. Instead of fighting in the school boards, we Christians can accept doubt as part of the natural religious experience. Biblical literalism can’t give us stronger faith, only God can do that. We can confess our doubts to God, and let God nurture us and give us the courage to accept the world as we find it. And as God increases our faith, fighting over evolution will seem a lot less important.

August 18, 2005

The Theory of Intelligent Falling

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 4:19 pm

Given my recent posts on Intelligent Design, both serious and satirical, I can’t resist blogging on a piece from that outstanding journal of high-brow nonsense, The Onion. Bruce at Mainstream Baptist points to The Onion article on the new evangelical theory of “Intelligent Falling”. Choice excerpts:

Scientists from the Evangelical Center For Faith-Based Reasoning are now asserting that the long-held “theory of gravity” is flawed, and they have responded to it with a new theory of Intelligent Falling.

“Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, ‘God’ if you will, is pushing them down,” said Gabriel Burdett, who holds degrees in education, applied Scripture, and physics from Oral Roberts University.


“Let’s take a look at the evidence,” said ECFR senior fellow Gregory Lunsden.”In Matthew 15:14, Jesus says, ‘And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.’ He says nothing about some gravity making them fall—just that they will fall. Then, in Job 5:7, we read, ‘But mankind is born to trouble, as surely as sparks fly upwards.’ If gravity is pulling everything down, why do the sparks fly upwards with great surety? This clearly indicates that a conscious intelligence governs all falling.”

“Anti-falling physicists have been theorizing for decades about the ‘electromagnetic force,’ the ‘weak nuclear force,’ the ‘strong nuclear force,’ and so-called ‘force of gravity,'” Burdett said. “And they tilt their findings toward trying to unite them into one force. But readers of the Bible have already known for millennia what this one, unified force is: His name is Jesus.”

The scary thing is that I don’t really find that last paragraph all that satirical!

August 15, 2005

God the Creator, Not the Designer

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 12:43 pm

The LA Times has an opinion piece today by Michael McGough on intelligent design titled Bad science, bad theology. In it, he explains why Christians do God a disservice by insisting that God is the designer and maker of the universe.

“The Christian confession of God as creator,” [Catholic theologian Luke Timothy Johnson] writes in “The Creed,” “is not theory about how things came to be, but a perception of how everything is still and is always coming into being.

“God’s self-disclosure in creation, therefore, is not like the traces of the watchmaker in his watch. God is revealed in the world first of all not through the ‘whatness’ of things but through the ‘isness’ of things. That anything exists at all is the primordial mystery that points us to God.”

Johnson sees this vision of creation as being “entirely compatible with theories of evolution.” He adds: “The theories of the natural and biological sciences address, and can only address, the interconnecting causes of beings that have been or are now already in existence. They cannot account for existence itself.”

And although Johnson doesn’t refer specifically to intelligent design, he calls its close relative, creationism, a “failed enterprise lacking … intellectual integrity.”

For atheists, the distinction between these accounts of the doctrine of creation and intelligent design might seem a distinction without a difference. After all, they both see a God of some sort behind or under (pick your metaphor) physical reality. Yet for many Christians, it is not only possible but necessary to reject the idea of God as the watchmaker, the mere Intelligent Designer, who walks away from his work. [emphasis mine]

Apologies up front for getting metaphysical, but here is another way to think about it. God does not act within time, God is not subject to the passing of time as we are. Time is a creation of God’s, along with the spatial dimensions of the universe. The Big Bang does not imply that God stretched out a finger at some point in the past to start the universe and then retired. In a single creative act, God created the universe from the very beginning of time until the very end of time. We are now living in the midst of God’s creative act, and through God’s grace, are allowed to be co-creators with God.

Science has clearly demonstrated that evolution is part of God’s creation. But humans didn’t arise as a mere random event, as a non-theist would have it. And evolution didn’t require God’s constant tinkering with its mechanism over time to make sure it led to us. Humans arose because God created, or rather creates, a universe that seamlessly and inevitably stretches from the Big Bang to the formation of stars, planets, the earth, complex organic compounds, single-celled organisms, vertebrates, humans, and God only knows what’s next, until literally the end of time.

Each moment in God’s universe flows into the next and the next and it could not be otherwise, because God’s creation includes time and cause and effect. But God does not operate within time, and God’s creative act doesn’t extend across time. As it was in the beginning, God’s creative act is now, and forever shall be. Intelligent Design completely misses this incredible wondrousness of creation.

Like McGough, I think that Intelligent Design turns an omnipotent God into a tinkerer, an artisan in a workshop. God is so much more than that.

August 14, 2005

A Sad Day for the ELCA

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:22 pm

I’m back from vacation (very nice, thank you), and find I must post about a sad day in the life of my denomination, the ELCA. On Friday, the Churchwide Assembly voted down a small step towards relaxing rules against allowing actively gay clergy to serve.

First, some background: four years ago, the 2001 Churchwide Assembly directed a Sexuality Task Force to develop recommendations on allowing the blessing of gay unions and actively gay Pastors. In January, the task force delivered their three recommendations, which I paraphrase here:

  1. We in the ELCA should learn to live with our strong disagreements over these issues, instead of letting them split the denomination.
  2. The rules prohibiting the blessing of gay unions should not be changed, but Pastors should figure out how to provide “faithful pastoral care” to gay couples.
  3. A process should be put in place to allow exceptions to the requirement that gay Pastors remain celibate.

Despite my strong desire to see the ELCA bless gay unions and allow actively gay clergy, I was generally in favor of the recommendations, mostly because I didn’t think the laity would agree to stronger measures. These seemed like baby steps that would at least provide some forward movement towards the goal of full acceptance of gays in the church.

Now, the actions of the Churchwide Assembly: as it turns out, even these baby steps were too much. Recommendation 1 passed overwhelmingly. Recommendation 2 passed, but only after it was amended to remove the words “same sex couples”, avoiding any acknowledgement that two people of the same sex can be a couple. And recommendation 3, the one that provided a small window for change, was defeated by a slight majority. This is not as close as it sounds — since this measure would change the ELCA bylaws, it required a two-thirds majority to pass.

I am very disappointed. The problem, though, is who to blame for this setback. With the recommendations themselves, we could get angry at the national leadership of the ELCA in Chicago for their timidity. But the voting members of the Assembly are elected representatives from each of 65 synods, 60% of them laypersons. I assume these attendees are representative of the entire laity and clergy of the ELCA, so the only people I can get angry with over this are my fellow Lutherans. We have met the enemy, and it is us.

The Sexuality Task Force was right to not push for more. The membership of the ELCA is not ready for any relaxation of the rules against gay marriage and gay clergy. Part of this is generational — I suspect older Lutherans are less accepting of the gays in their midst. But this also seems a reflection of America. Gay rights is making progress, but has not yet arrived. The good news is that the vote on recommendation 3 was 49% in favor to 51% opposed, so we are very close to a simple majority for increasing gay rights. Demographics, along with a growing acceptance of gays in other spheres of life, can only lead the vote count in the right direction.

Just as I felt that the electorate of the US made a tragic mistake in re-electing George Bush, so too I feel that the membership of the ELCA has made a tragic mistake in rejecting greater tolerance toward gay Lutherans. But like the election, there is nothing to be done except to continue to advocate for a greater morality in my church, to work harder to help others see the injustice being done in the name of Christianity. This vote reflects where my fellow Lutherans stand at this point in time, but not where my denomination will stand in the future. I am confident that within my lifetime we will look back at this vote as an embarassing missed opportunity on the path to the acceptance of gays and lesbians as full participants in the life of our church.

I will probably post more on this topic later, so stay tuned. For more views, Father Jake provides a post from the progressive side, and Mark Hasty posts from the traditionalist side.

August 1, 2005

On Hiatus

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:49 am

I am a Christian Too will be on hiatus for a week or two, but don’t worry…I will be back and posting profound thoughts and innocuous drivel again soon. In the meantime, feel free to leave a comment as always.

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