December 22, 2007

“In God’s Name”

Filed under: Music,Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 10:10 am

This Sunday night at 9 PM, In God’s Name, a documentary featuring leaders of 12 faiths from around the world, airs on CBS.

One of the 12 leaders is Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop of my denomination, the ELCA, and president of the Lutheran World Federation.

It’s been some of the darkest moments in religious life in all of history when in the name of God we kill other people.

-Bp. Mark Hanson

December 18, 2007

Haught vs. Pharyngula

Filed under: Church,Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 8:07 pm has an interview of John Haught, Catholic theologian, devout Darwinian and author of books such as God After Darwin. It is very Polkinghorne-esque.

Haught covers topics such as: the shallow grasp of Christianity by the New Atheists, the compatibility of Evolution and Christianity, the false teleology of scientific materialism, his dissatisfaction with Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria, the correctness but incompleteness of scientific truth, the bankruptcy of the “God of the Gaps”, the inanity of intelligent design and the downright scariness of Mike Huckabee. He touches on some of my favorite authors like Paul Tillich, and some I’m totally unfamiliar with like Teilhard de Chardin and Camus. I found myself nodding in agreement throughout (except for the camera-at-the-resurrection part — I’m still mulling that over).

In short, it’s crack for anyone interested in the intersection of science and theology.

But the really interesting part is the reaction Haught provoked by one of the New Atheists. Pharyngula, aka PZ Myers, has a rather, um, uncharitable post in reply.

[I don’t know] why we still have universities with theology departments, and haven’t razed them to the ground and sent the few remaining rational people in them off to sociology and anthropology departments where their work might actually have some relevance. It’s terribly uncharitable of me, but after reading this interview with John Haught, a Georgetown University theologian, I’m convinced that the discipline is the domain of vapid hacks stuffed full of antiquated delusions.


Every time I read something by one of these credulous apologists for religion, I am further convinced that they are just making stuff up.


This guy is completely batty. If this is an example of theological thinking, I’m entirely justified in dismissing this entire academic discipline — these guys are the equivalent of astrologers, still lurking in the spider-webbed corners of our universities.

I don’t think he likes Haught much.

After reading Haught’s thoughtful, reasoned interview, I was struck by how little Myers actually engages with his arguments. He just kind of dismisses him and the entire field of theology. He counters Haught’s logic with invective and hand-waving, which is odd since Myers is defending the exclusive use of logic against any kind of religious belief. For example:

[From the interview:]

The new atheists don’t want to think out the implications of a complete absence of deity. Nietzsche, as well as Sartre and Camus, all expressed it quite correctly. The implications should be nihilism.

Here we have yet another believer trying to tell us what the logical conclusion of atheism should be: in this case, nihilism. Doesn’t the fact that none of the New Atheists that I know of are nihilists matter? I guess if you’re willing to abandon any requirement for evidence, you can also ignore any evidence that counters your opinion.

So…why aren’t Nietzche and Camus correct that atheism leads to nihilism? Myers doesn’t say.

But Myers really pisses me off when he says this:

I consider the feeble gullibility of, for instance, the average Lutheran church member to be the real problem — that our country and our culture as a whole endorses institutions that encourage credulity in the face of religious baloney. Even if the radical fringe weren’t throwing bombs, I’d still be asking people why the heck they believe in such patent nonsense. [emphasis mine]

Because, of course, I’m one of those average Lutheran church members. For Myers to accuse me of being gullible, after the years I’ve spent thinking, reading, challenging, doubting and rethinking, is incredibly insulting. When Myers accuses me of gullibility, he speaks of that which he does not know. He demonstrates that he is the one unwilling to consider evidence that runs counter to his opinion.

I would be totally fine with atheists and their dismissal of religious belief, except for the underlying authoritarian strain — not only are those religious people horribly wrong, but we have to do something about them! As I quoted above:

we still have universities with theology departments, and haven’t razed them to the ground and sent the few remaining rational people in them off to sociology and anthropology departments where their work might actually have some relevance.

Myers, and the Four Horseman of Atheism (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens) not only disagree with people of faith, they want to eradicate religion as though it were a virus. By all means, disagree with my beliefs, but when you want to impose your beliefs on me, by force if necessary, you’re just another authoritarian. And we already have enough of those on the religious right.

December 11, 2007

Romney and Lutherans Continued

Filed under: Church,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 11:45 am

Apparently I’m not the only one who doesn’t understand Romney’s comments about Lutherans in his religion speech (h/t Kevin Drum).

December 9, 2007

The Golden Compass, Donohue, and God

Filed under: Church,Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 9:59 pm

I’m going to go see The Golden Compass. What’s more, I’m going to buy the entire Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman (The Golden Compass is the first book). And I have Bill Donohue of the Catholic League to thank.

In Christian ethics, there are two seemingly contradictory strands of thought regarding criticizing others. First is the “judge not”, be charitable, if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all, strand. Second is the prophetic strand, wherein prophecy doesn’t mean fortune-telling, but telling truth to power. So while this is rather uncharitable, I say it prophetically: Bill Donohue is an asshole. He is a bully, an idiot and a self-promoting asshole.

So when I heard he was advocating a boycott of The Golden Compass, my first thought was “that’s the movie for me!” After all, the most wonderfully inspiring Christian movie I’ve ever seen was The Last Temptation of Christ, which was loudly criticized by many (conservative) Christian groups as anti-Christian propaganda.

After reading this article by Donna Freitas, Phillip Pullman fan and faithful Catholic, I am convinced of it. She is a professor of Religion at Boston University, and she writes:

I recently published (with Jason King) a book called “Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials.” I wrote this book, which portrays Pullman as a theologian rather than an atheist, and a rather Christian theologian at that, because I love “His Dark Materials.” And because I am a Catholic. I don’t see any contradiction between the two.


I don’t see any contradiction between loving God (whoever S/He may be) and loving a good story, even a challenging one, like Pullman’s, that has the power to transport us from here and now to another place and time, to forget time altogether as we journey into another world with a young girl (Lyra) and boy (Will) on a fantastic adventure. God is big enough, I think, to coexist with Will and Lyra. It is the critics of Pullman’s novels who are trying to make Her small.

Criticizing the church is not the same as criticizing God. The church is a human institution, and as Martin Luther and other reformers demonstrated, it deserves a good smack upside the head from time to time. It is particularly when the church attempts to quell dissent that dissent is most needed. As I understand it, Pullman’s bad guys are a metaphor for the church, not God.

But I also understand the books in Pullman’s trilogy go after God as well. Good. Abraham Jacob wrestled with God all night long. Job humbly but persistently challenged God. I am sure God would much rather have us argue with God than treat God with indifference and apathy. Fighting with God means we’re engaged. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.

Apparently Pullman is an agnostic, not an atheist. And from what I hear, his books are good (the movie may be another matter). I never would have heard about them if not for Bill Donohue. Thanks Bill!

December 8, 2007

Romney and Lutherans

Filed under: Church,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 10:47 pm

As we’ve all heard by now, last week Mitt Romney gave his JFK speech, attempting to make conservative Evangelical voters comfortable with his Mormon religion. There have been many excellent commentaries on the absurdity of his “freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom” statement, but I noticed another statement in the speech:

I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims.

Hmm. Confident independence of the Lutherans. Confident independence of the Lutherans? Sorry, but as a life-long Lutheran, I’m just not getting it. I never would have used that phrase to describe my denomination, the ELCA, the largest Lutheran denomination in the US. I would mention our emphasis on justification by grace, which after all is what got Luther excommunicated from the Catholic church and started this whole Protestant thing in the first place. But independence? The ELCA has entered into ecumenical agreements with the mainline Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Reformed, Methodist and UCC denominations, and even signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the Roman Catholics, essentially putting to rest the dispute that began the Protestant Reformation. Hardly steps that assert our independence.

Romney must have been referring to the other US Lutheran denominations, the conservative LCMS and the arch-conservative WELS. Both have condemned the ELCA for its ecumenism, and have created a fundamentalist Lutheran doctrine Martin Luther wouldn’t recognize. The LCMS goes so far as to forbid their pastors from praying, even in a civic memorial, with non-LCMS pastors. Indpendence indeed.

While they represent a minority of Lutherans in the US, as conservatives, they are the ones likely to vote for Romney. So I don’t know if it was a deliberate nod to the conservative minority Lutherans, or if they are the only ones Romney, or his speechwriters, are familiar with. Either way, he certainly wasn’t talking about me or the people I go to church with.

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