We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk


Thursday, June 30, 2011

Rep. Akin Follow-up

Under the posting title, "These Are Sad Times," this past Tuesday I shared with readers the comment made by Rep. Todd Akin (R - MO) that liberals at heart are God-haters who want to replace God with big government.  He made the comment last Friday.  Monday, he refused to apologize for it, but then on Tuesday he made one of those non-apology apologies that essentially means he still believes liberalism breeds God-hating (source).

Today,  three United Church of Christ clergy leaders plus a Unitarian Universalist cleric plan to deliver a letter of protest to Rep. Akin.  The text of the letter reads,
"As Missourians of faith, we found your statement that "at the heart of liberalism really is a hatred of God and a belief that government should replace God" to be ignorant and offensive. Scripture clearly warns us to "judge not, lest ye be judged," yet you condemn in disrespectful, stereotypical terms those with whom you disagree. Such insulting pronouncements degrade our nation's political dialogue and are unworthy of a public servant who claims to represent the interests of all of his constituents.
"And in light of your support for a federal budget that mainstream faith leaders have overwhelmingly condemned as punitive toward the poorest among us, we call on you to reconsider not only your words, but also your moral priorities as a political leader. Accusing others of being inspired by hatred of God while you vote to deprive the weakest and most vulnerable of medicine and basic sustenance is the antithesis of moral leadership. We call on you to apologize, and we pray that you are moved to act in a spirit of civility, compassion and justice in the future." (source)
Talk about ships passing in the night.  This is a classic example.  Given the judgmental tone of the clergy response, the bit about not judging so you won't get judged probably could have been best dropped.  And while the statement about Akin's voting record may be as the letter describes it, Akin could argue that his votes are not against the poor but for fiscal responsibility, which is also a moral issue.  The letter's moral indignation at his voting record echoes Akin's moral indignation at liberalism, although it is targeted much more narrowly and doesn't make blanket statements about conservatives.  Still, it is an expression of liberal indignation hitting back at Akin's conservative indignation at NBC's removal of "under God" from the pledge of allegiance.

Both Akin and the clergy are committed Christians. who seem to be better at preaching than listening, which is a weakness we all share no matter what our political ideology or theology.  We do not seem to be able to temper our ideologies and theologies for the sake of mutual forbearance and reconciliation—for the sake of the Gospel.  If well-intentioned followers of Christ cannot find ways past their politics, how can we expect others to do so?  These are indeed sad times.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Second Thing We Did Wrong

In our zeal to make converts, we [evangelicals] tended to focus on winning arguments instead of building relationships. One of the major problems in the evangelical world is that Christians think they need to express dissatisfaction and outrage at every misstatement others make about God and the Bible. But, people are not the problem. They are the ones who need to be loved. They are the ones who need to be rescued. We should expect non-Christians to talk and act like non-Christians. They don’t claim to embrace our value system, so why should we be angry with them when they talk and act like who they really are?

Amish Insights

The Amish buggy has become a common sight in and around Lowville, and the Amish themselves are a growing presence as they buy up farms one after another.  They are good neighbors, and local officials credit them with "saving the family farm" in Lewis County.  They offer a variety of services while draining virtually none of the tax payers' dollars.  But, one often wonders how they decide which technologies to reject and which to embrace.  CNN recently posted an informative interview with Eric Brende, who with his wife, Mary, lived for a year with the Amish.  The interview answers some of the questions you might have about the Amish, technology, and how they decide things. You can access the interview (here).

P.S. For some basic information on the Lewis County Amish see the Mayville, New York, section of the Amish America website (here).

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

These Are Sad Times

Comments that Rep. Todd Akin, Republican of Missouri, made in a recent radio interview are beginning to catch fire in the media and threaten to "go viral."  In response to a question about NBC's leaving "under God" out of the pledge of allegiance recently, Akin observed that, "Well, I think NBC has a long record of being very liberal and at the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God and a belief that government should replace God. And so they’ve had a long history of not being at all favorable toward many of the things that have been such a blessing to our country." Akin is currently seeking the Republican nomination for the Senate seat now held by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D - MO).

Missouri Democrats have grabbed onto Todd's comment hoping to use it to their political advantage. Meanwhile, progressive Christian and Jewish leaders are defending their faith in the face of what they take to be Todd's ignorance and prejudice.  While the reactions of both Democrats and progressive religious folks are understandable, there is something painfully sad about the whole incident.

Rep. Akin's comments and his later reaffirmation of them are but a further revelation of the fearful anger that is so prevalent in our national life today.  We see it in the tea party movement.  We see it in the debates over abortion, gay rights, and even raising the ceiling on the national debt.  An important element of our population is frightened and angry.  People who think differently are no longer neighbors but enemies of the nation—and of God.  And while the fear and anger seems to be especially strong on the right wing of our politics, the left wing reacts in kind, fans it, and seeks to use it to political advantage where it can.  Prejudice breeds fear, fear breeds anger, anger breeds but deeper prejudice, and the whole vicious cycle fractures our political system—renders it ineffectual.

And in it all, the actual teachings of Jesus are lost to all of us including those who sincerely intend to defend those teachings.  When Rep. Akin speaks about liberals, we do not hear in his voice the love for neighbor that Christ taught.  It is a simple truth, we defend Christ only when we speak with kindness, love, and a willingness to forgive and be reconciled.  These are the fundamental values of the New Testament.  What is truly sad is that Rep. Akin is a seminary graduate—Presbyterian no less—and knows all of this.  Somewhere along the line, however, his politics seems to have trumped his faith, at least in his rhetoric.  And one can only wonder how Rep. Todd thinks he is qualified to represent the liberal residents of Missouri in the Senate, if elected to that high office.  That, after all, is what he must do if elected—represent all of his constituents liberal as well as conservative.  How can he possibly represent the hundreds of thousands of Missourians that he believes are God-haters?  How can he practice the art of compromise in the Senate if he is convinced that liberal Democrats from places like New York are enemies of his faith and his nation?  These are sad times.

Sources for this posting:

Monday, June 27, 2011

An Article of Blind Belief

The classical neo-Darwinian explanation of the development of life on Earth...has been to assign it totally to the sifting and preservation through the process of natural selection of the effects of small random genetic mutations.  No reasonable person doubts that this is a component of the history of life but that it is the sole and and totally adequate cause of all that has happened is simply an article of blind belief.

John Polkinghorne,
Belief in God in an Age of Science
page 94

Presbyterian Megachurches

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research website maintains a searchable database of over 1200 American Protestant "megachurches," defined as churches with an average worship attendance of 2000 or more a Sunday.  Just for fun, I did a little research on Presbyterian churches listed in the database and found the following bits of information:
  • The list includes 40 Presbyterian churches from four denominations:  15 Presbyterian Church (USA) churches; 12 Presbyterian Church in America churches; 5 Korean Presbyterian Church in America churches; 4 Evangelical Presbyterian Church congregations.  In addition, 3 Presbyterian churches were listed without any indication of denominational affiliation and one church is listed as a "Presbyterian" church affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church.
  • The largest Presbyterian church in the database is Hope PC in Cordova, Tennessee, which has an average attendance of 7,330.  It is an EPC congregation.
  • The distinction of being the largest PC(USA) church in the database is shared by two congregations: Menlo Park PC, Menlo Park, California, and University PC, Seattle, Washington.  They both number 3,200 worshippers per Sunday.
  • Only two New York Presbyterian churches made the list: Redeemer PC (EPC), New York City, with 4,000 worshippers per Sunday and  Korean PC (KPCA), Flushing, with 3,000 worshippers per Sunday.
  • In its webpage entitled, "Megachurch Definition," the Hartford Institute notes that over 60% of America's megachurches are located in the southern "Sunbelt" region of the nation stretching from California to the Atlantic coast.  Of the 40 Presbyterian churches in the database, 29 (72%) are located in that region.
If, by any chance, you are interested in more information on and insights into American megachurches, the Hartford Institute website contains a wealth of material to chew on.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Non-Territorial Magisteria

Yesterday's posting presents the argument that religion and science are usually and unnecessarily understood metaphorically as being two domains occupying separate territories in conflict with each other.  It's a useful metaphor for those who want to wage war on each other or profit from that war.  It is also a false metaphor that gets us into all sorts of trouble.

OK.  So, what do things look like if we reject the territorial metaphor?  One example might come from Michael Ruse's 1999 "Review of Stephen Jay Gould's 'Rocks of Ages," in which he critique's Gould's contention that religion and science are "non-overlapping magisteria"  (NOMA).  Ruse argues that NOMA effectively forces theists to have to constantly give away to science because science "rules supreme" in the "empirical realm."  Ruse worries that a strict construction of the boundary between science and religion puts unjustifiable constraints on the freedom of religious people.  He concludes, "One is denying [them] the right to revise and reinterpret one's faith in the light of scientific advances."  He criticizes Gould for not allowing theologians do that very thing, namely reinterpret Christian doctrine in light of scientific findings.  As an agnostic he wants to give theists the "right to explore and develop their beliefs in the light of modern science."

Ruse doesn't seem to realize that Christian thinkers have long exercised that right and many continue to do so today.   Since the days when the earliest church began to articulate its Jewish faith in Greek philosophical terms, Christian theologians have regularly and even aggressively used contemporary thought to restate our faith.  They didn't looked on those philosophies as being enemy territory but rather is being resources for discovering new aspects of our faith.  There is every reason to use scientific findings that way in our day.  When we're not engaged in a zero-sum game protecting the purity of our theological turf, we are free to accept the truth of those findings and learn from them.  They don't change our faith in Christ as Lord and Saviour.  They don't deny the presence of the Spirit in daily life.  And they only serve to expand our understanding of God as Creator.

People of faith who embrace evolution, in short, gain a great deal and lose nothing by walking away from the turf war going on between creationism and scientism.  That's not to say we ignore it so much as to say that we persist in seeing the relevance of both science and faith for understanding and living in our world.  They are resources for living.  Perhaps we should revive the old-fashioned non-territorial metaphor of God being revealed to us in two books, the Book of Nature and the Book of Faith (a.k.a the Book of Revelation, the Book of God).

Learning to Live with Amendment 10A

In July, the Presbyterian Church (USA) will officially change its ordination standards so that Presbyterians may be ordained as deacons, elders, and clergy ("teaching elders") without reference to their sexual orientation.  For insights into how this change will affect local churches and their pastors, take a look at the brief video, "Living with Differences: Two Congregations, Two Viewpoints on Gay Clergy."  It records the views of two pastors of two neighboring Presbyterian churches in Pittsburgh and gives a picture of what the future could look like as our denomination seeks to move beyond an issue that has divided it for decades.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Religion & Science as Territories

In 1997 Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay entitled, "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" (NOMA), which argued that there should not be any conflict between science and religion because they treat different fields of concern that do not intrude on each other.  While his thesis has since been widely rejected, Gould's underlying assumption that science and religion are territorial in nature has gone largely unobserved.  That is, Gould's critics generally accept the notion that science and religion are two domains and reject only that they do not overlap.   More broadly, commentators largely agree that there is conflict between science and religion.  Different authors come to different conclusions about what to do with the conflict between these two territories.  Some want to press forward to ultimate victory for one side or the other.  Some want reconciliation or even unification.  Many would, at least, like to see some form of truce declared.  Many more express weariness over the whole battle, which goes on interminably with no real resolution.  But seldom do they question the "fact" that science and religion are separate entities, each with their own "territory".

But what happens if we step back and simply dismiss the metaphor of territoriality itself?  Science is a structured, principled pursuit of knowledge.  It is a way of learning and knowing,  not a territory.  Religion is a principled, structured approach to questions of ultimate meaning and purpose.  It is a way of living and understanding, not a territory.  Furthermore, neither science nor religion is one thing.  They represent complex assortments of institutions, histories, perspectives, agendas, concerns, and purposes.  The "boundaries" of each are contested and permeable, so much so that it is difficult to speak of boundaries in any precise way at all.  Science does not exist, only sciences.  There is no such thing as religion, only a plethora of religions, each comprised again of many sects.

The turf that is being so bitterly contested by creationism and scientism, thus, is a figment of their imaginations.  Their war is about power, politics, and ego.  The conflict is real.  The sides are real as are their institutions.  It's the turf that doesn't exist.  Science and religion, in all of their complexities, are nothing less than ways of looking at reality that are different in some ways and similar in other ways.  When we realize that there's no turf to defend, we can lighten up and look on each other without fear and animosity as folks looking and searching that may in some ways be able to help each other in our journeys of exploration.

Is this naïve?  Probably so.  But that may be just what is needed: a naïve commitment to learning important things that help us move forward in our own life journey and perhaps helps others too.  Where science opens doors of the mind and heart, fantastic!  Where it isn't helpful, so what?  Why fixate on what we think is wrong-headed thinking?  In truth, testing every jot and title to make sure it is orthodox, be its religious or scientific orthodoxy, is really boring.

Friday, June 24, 2011

On the Relationship Between Science & Religion

When anti-theists dismiss religion as nothing more than immoral and anti-intellectual superstition they are wrong.  When anti-evolutionists dismiss evolution as being unbiblical and anti-God they also are wrong.  Each sets their own ideology above the classic scientific and theological quests for truth.  In their defense of what they take to be biblical orthodoxy, the biblical literalists have become the enemies of evolution.  And in their defense of science and evolution, the anti-theists set themselves up as enemies of religion.  Never the 'twain shall meet.  They have their agendas.  They have their reasons.  It's best to leave them to their war.

For those who are both evolutionists and theists one of the great tasks of our day is to figure out a less conflicted relationship between the two.  Are they two independent realms (Gould's "Non-overlapping magisteria"), as some contend?   Is one superior to the other, as others contend?  What is their relationship?  Francis S. Collins in his book, The Language of God, alludes to three different ways of thinking about the relationship of science and religion.  Sometimes he speaks of merging the two; at other times he speaks of a synthesis or, again, a harmonization of them (See my review of Collins, The Language of God).  Collins leans toward seeking a more harmonious relationship between religion and science.  Others speak of distilling the knowledge we gain from both, or of integrating religion and science, or of having to bridge the gap between the two.  Frequent mention is made of the need to reconcile religion (or faith) and science with each other.

So, how do we understand their relationship?  It is clear that religion and science each represents a family of disciplines, histories, and institutions, and as such, each has its own integrity and perspective.  It would be a tragedy to each to try to merge or integrate them into a single entity or create a unifying synthesis out of them, at least at this stage of our knowledge of God and the universe.  And, if we try to harmonize them, what happens to the points where they are in disharmony?  Whether it be integration, distillation, reconciliation, or harmonization, all of these approaches to the relationship between religion and science suggest a redrawing of boundaries between two kingdoms.  There is a sense of wanting to declare peace between them and to get their inhabitants to like each other more than they do now.

Perhaps (underscore perhaps), it would be better to let each "do its thing" without worrying too much about their relationship as such.  Speaking from the perspective of faith, it is perhaps best for us to think of scientific thought and findings as a resource for theological reflection—and, perhaps, even as a school (laboratory?) teaching us the subject of divine revelation.  Theologians have long held that when we look into the heavens we catch a glimpse of God, and science today is able to look into the heavens in amazing ways.  In doing so scientists provide people of faith with data and ideas worthy of thoughtful consideration.  The discovery of the quantum world, as a prime example, expands our view of God's creative power, ingenuity, and sense of humor (metaphorically speaking, of course) in challenging new ways.  Science thus offers our generation of theologians and preachers exciting opportunities to rediscover the central truths of our various faiths.

 From our perspective, we should always be open to a dialogue with non-theistic scientists and otherwise sit at their feet as our mentors—realizing, of course, that we are learning from them more than they themselves are teaching.  Indeed, we might even be humble enough to commend these teachers for their determination to learn the truth about the physical world and to be truly thankful for what they can teach us about God.  As for the "relationship between science and religion," perhaps we should stop worrying about it—learn as much as we can, share where we can,  and let it go at that.   Just a thought.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nanomedicine is Happening Now

It's not science fiction, and it's happening now.  Medical science research is laying the groundwork for the treatment of diseases of all sorts by nanotechnology, known as nanomedicine.  In a recent study, medical researchers used nanotubes to treat strokes in lab rats, with a degree of success.  Assuming that medical science will soon enough begin to apply the findings of this study, what we can anticipate is a time ten or twenty years from now when doctors routinely and successfully treat strokes, which today defeat their skills. [Bibliography: SummaryAbstractSupporting Information]

The thing is nanomedicine offers the possibility of cures and preventative measures for many other diseases than strokes. The day is coming when the lives of those who can afford nanomedical treatments will be extended potentially indefinitely.  That means, in theory at least members of the human race will be able to live forever.

Think of the "theological implications" of that last paragraph.  How do we understand the good news of Jesus Christ in an age when some, at least, have the potential to live nearly forever?  What does it mean to be the church in a society where only those with sufficient wealth can live potentially forever?  There are developments coming down the pike that are going to make the whole creationism-scientism brouhaha look as silly and irrelevant as it actually is—developments that will pose fundamental ethical challenges for church and laboratory alike.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What Really Matters

Aljazeera's English-language website posted a news article dated June 21, 2011, entitled, "Ocean life 'facing mass extinction,'" which makes exactly that point, namely, "Pollution, global warming and other man-made problems are pushing the world's oceans to the brink of a mass extinction of marine life unprecedented in tens of millions of years..." This, according to a study entitled, "International Earth system expert workshop on ocean stresses and impacts," sponsored by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean. According to the article, the destruction of the oceans is accelerating at a pace faster than even the worst case scenarios predicted. Global warming plus massive pollution are threatening a die-back of marine life of epic proportions, a die-back that will affect all of life on earth.

Yet, as momentous as this news is, it is literally drowned out by the media's fixation with such things as former Rep. Anthony Weiner's sexting habit or former Gov. Sarah Pallin's latest escapade.  CNN, for example, posted its story, "Marine life facing mass extinction, report says," on June 21st.  Just 24 hours later, on the 22nd, CNN had archived the story.  It never was a feature item, even in its brief moment on page one.

Somehow, the fact that we're killing the oceans big time deserves more attention than this.  Those who bewail the future we're handing "our children" because of the national debt are oblivious to the actual dirty, barren, sterile world, we're handing our kids through the way we abuse the planet.  Truth is, of course, that this isn't so much about the media as it is about what kind of news catches the public eye.  The media has a keen sense of what news sells, and Anthony, Sarah, & Friends is what sells.  The oceans dying doesn't.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The 100th Post: Why Science & Religion?

This is the 100th posting since I started Rom Phra Khun in early April.  it is also the 20th posting that deals with the relationship between religion and science.  It's fair to ask why would a blog with the subtitle, "A Pastor's Blog," give so much attention to this issue.  There are several answers:
  • The relationship between religion and science is a fascinating subject in and of itself.
  • If we believe that God is revealed in nature, then the discoveries of science should be of great interest to us.  They are, in fact, a resource for theological reflection.
  • Science dominates our world today in every aspect; if we are serious about sharing our faith with others, we have to be able to speak the language of science and package our message in its language and thoughtways.
  • Because science is culturally dominant, those churches that treat it as an enemy of God are doomed to irrelevancy.
  • When our children discover that science is not the enemy of religion, as so many have been taught, it can have unfortunate consequences for their faith.  We need to teach them a better, middle way.
  • Anti-theist scientists have taken it upon themselves to attack all religion indiscriminately as being evil, and their voices have gained a popular following in some quarters.  We need to learn how to respond.
  • Anti-evolutionary biblical literalists have set themselves up as the spokespersons of faith when it comes to matters of religion and science, and those of us who are theists and evolutionists need to make our voices heard in the public debate regarding religion and science.
For me personally, the most compelling items on this list are the first two.  In all of its branches, the sciences are discovering incredible new things every day, things that broaden and deepen our understanding of the world and ourselves.  When we bring biblical faith, theological developments, and the findings of science together in dialogue, we gain a new understanding of our faith in God.  The other items on the list are important, but these two stand out—for me.

And at the end of the day, as a pastor and as a preacher it is vital that my preaching and ministry reflect the best possible understanding of God and of faith in the early 21st century.  Science, in dialogue with the Bible and the traditions of the church, is a crucial part of my daily training in ministry and a key resource for preaching.  But, mostly, it is just plain fun to play around with all the ideas that come out of examining the findings of science with the eyes of faith.

Monday, June 20, 2011

How Hot Can It Get?

Assuming global warming trends continue through the rest of the century, how hot will it be in 2100?  The website, Aol Travel did some research and found out what it will be like to visit "northern" cities such as NYC, Chicago, and Seattle as well as other American cities in 89 years.  Check out their map.  For New York folks, visiting the Big Apple is going to "feel like" Las Vegas, Nevada.  That would seem to mean that snow falls measured in feet in places like Lewis County, NY, will be a thing of the long-ago ("Do you remember when...?") past.  It is hard to imagine what the real Las Vegas will be like, let alone cities that sit on or near the equator.  Scary.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Is God Real? Does it Matter?

In a thoughtful, balanced article  entitled, "Why We See Spirits and Souls." author Michael Graziano wrestles with human consciousness and our knowledge of God.  Graziano is a "neuroscientist" and atheist who is not what he calls an "anti-thesist."   He considers religion to be "a fascinating human psychological and cultural phenomenon," which he has no interest in trying to eradicate.

Graziano takes exception with an idea wide-spread among atheists and scientists who are anti-theists that when they explain the biological foundations of religion that they thereby "explain religion away."  That, he writes, would be like "explaining away" taste because science understands how the tongue passes information to the brain.  The explanation makes taste no less real.  He also argues that color does not actually exist as a natural phenomenon outside of our perception of color.  That fact does not make color any less real to us.  Most significantly, the structures of our brain make it possible for us to interact socially by understanding both others and ourselves in relationship to them.  He asks rhetorically if we should therefore dismiss these perceptions of others and self because we can explain them.  He states, "Perhaps perceptions have a validity of their own, even if they are purely constructs of the brain and do not correspond to a concrete reality."  He then points out that we do not experience reality directly: "We experience our perceptions, not reality."

Apparently, Graziano sees our perceptions of other people, our self, and the relationship between them as not having a "concrete reality," that is physical.  They are like color.  They are real to us but have no objective existence.  He concludes, "We live and move in the world of our perceptions and must take them as they are."  He also concludes that the existence of an objective God that exists outside of our consciousness is not what is most important about religion even for religious people.  It is the religious way of life that matters most.

Pragmatically speaking, this is where Graziano's logic takes us:  "I" am a construct of my brain.  "You" are a construct of my brain.  "God" is a construct of my brain.  I know I exist.  I know you exist.  So, what about God?  Graziano's personal conclusion is that God is only a construction of the brain and has no objective existence otherwise.  Now, if we were dealing with, say, belief in fairies, it is easy to see how he can affirm his own existence, the existence of others, and still deny God's existence.  The thing is, belief in God as some form of spiritual being(s) is found in all human cultures going as far back as we can document.  Prayer and meditation have measurable impacts on our physical brains.  Even the anti-theists admit to having spiritual experiences.  By Graziano's logic, it is reasonable to infer (putting aside personal religious experience for the moment) that I exist, you exist, and God exists.  The point is that given our current state of knowledge about the brain and its relationship to the external world, it is no less reasonable to conclude that God is an objective reality than to conclude that God is just something we made up for whatever reason.  Both are statements of faith based on particular readings of the data.  Those of us who have faith in God as an objective reality can point to experiences that give us confidence that there is a divine reality, one that touches our hearts as much as our minds.  Sure, we could be wrong, but we have faith that we aren't wrong.

Graziano is incorrect about one thing.  Religious faith, at least in the Christian religion, is deeply concerned about the objective reality of God. Our faith is a sham if there is no Creator, Saviour, and Companion God who stands Beyond time and space and yet is Present in our midst.  Our way of life is important but only because it is grounded in the reality of the One who creates, saves, and walks with us.  It does matter that God is real.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Another "What Good is Government?" Story

Some time ago, I posted an article entitled, "What Good is Government?," which described the role of the federal government in restoring the Great Lakes. A Huffington Post news article entitled, "Preschool Leads To Better Jobs And Fewer Arrests, New Study Says," offers another example of a good accomplished by government spending.

This is a major study that draws on the findings of other, less ambitious studies.  The study found that, in terms of cold hard cash and in terms of warm lives-better-lived, American society benefits from government's investment in pre-school education.  Still, preschool education is now one of the things on the chopping block in Washington.  We have become so fixated with lowering taxes and "reigning-in" government that we are literally throwing the baby out with the bath water.  It is ironic that these cuts, if made, will cost our economy more money than the programs themselves spend.  Preschool education salvages the lives of many poor kids who otherwise would end up on drugs, in jail, and otherwise a detriment to society and the economy.  Big government or small is not the issue.  The issue, rather, is government that works for all the people—not just those who can buy influence in Washington.

Friday, June 17, 2011

New Book Review Notice

There is a new book review on Rom Phra Khun Reviews. The book is Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne.

Religion, Science, & Undergrads


The overwhelming impression one gets from the media today is that there is a major battle being fought between the proponents of religion and science.  Various postings on Rom Phra Khun might themselves lead its gentle readers to that same conclusion.  In this context, a recent article by Christopher P. Scheitle entitled,  "U.S. College Students’ Perception of Religion and Science: Conflict, Collaboration, or Independence? A Research Note,"  in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2011, 50, 1: 175-186) offers an enlightening counterpoint.  Drawing on data from UCLA's Spirituality in Higher Education Project conducted in 2003 and 2007, Scheitle studied how undergraduates understand the relationship between religion and science.

His primary finding is that, "...a significant majority of undergraduates in all of the fields view the relationship between religion and science as one of independence or collaboration, not one of conflict." (p. 179)  As freshman, the students in the natural sciences and engineering & mathematics tended to side with science, but some 70.3% of them believed that the two are either independent of each other or there is collaboration between them. Freshman business and education students tended to see conflict between the two more than the science and engineering students and strongly sided with religion.  Students who showed a high commitment to their religion and students who ere religiously conservatives tended to hold a conflicted view of science and religion and, of course, favor religion.  When these students retook the survey as juniors, in general, those who changed their minds largely were those who had seen religion and science in conflict; they had decided they are not. In general, most of those who changed their minds from conflict to no conflict were students who had sided with religion, and very few students switched sides from pro-one side to pro-the other side.

The study, in sum, found a mixed picture regarding student perceptions of the relationship between science and religion. On the one hand, a large majority of students running to 70% do not see the two in conflict. On the other hand, those who do see conflict between them tended to cluster in the sciences & engineering on the pro-science side and in business and education on the pro-religion side. In other words, while the great majority of college educated people do not see conflict between religion and science, the public battle between the two will continue into the future.  Since a solid majority of education majors are pro-religion, it is likely to continue particularly in our nation's schools.

This data suggests a couple of things: first, more than ever there is going to be a need for moderate and progressive churches that preach and teach the message that science is not in conflict with the Christian faith and the teachings of the Bible.  Second, also more than ever there is a need for a large, articulate, and popular middle way literature that will equip people with insights into how religion and science complement each other.

Sardines

This is one I just couldn't pass up.  It doesn't have anything to do with church or theology or science or even nutrition.  It does have to do with baseball.  As serious fans will know, the Minnesota Twins started out the 2011 season with a terrible run of losses driven by an unprecedented number of injuries to their starting lineup.  In the last two weeks, still without most of their starters, the Twins have turned things around by winning 11 of their last 13 games—with a bunch of kids who generally belong in the minor leagues.

The Twins just beat the White Sox for the second time in two days, and the White Sox manager, Ozzie Guillen was quoted as saying,  “These are the little sardinas here; they are [expletive] sardines. “You see a bunch of midgets out there. But they can play."  Thank you, Ozzie.  We'll take that. (You can view Ozzie's statement about the Twins here.)

Now, the Twins may revert to their earlier losing ways or, more likely, have a decent season but not get into the playoffs.  That's OK.  It's winning stretches like this that make even a poor season fun.  Go, Sardines!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

God Shows No Favoritism

"If the gospel isn't good news for everybody, then it isn't good news for anybody. And this is because the most powerful things happen when the church surrenders its desire to convert people and convince them to join. It is when the church gives itself away in radical acts of service and compassion, expecting nothing in return, that the way of Jesus is most vividly put on display. To do this, the church must stop thinking about everybody primarily in categories of in or out, saved or not, believer or nonbeliever. Besides the fact that these terms are offensive to those who are the "un" and "non", they work against Jesus' teachings about how we are to treat each other. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor, and our neighbor can be anybody. We are all created in the image of God, and we are all sacred, valuable creations of God. Everybody matters. To treat people differently based on who believes what is to fail to respect the image of God in everyone. As the book of James says, "God shows no favoritism." So we don't either."

- Rev. Rob Bell
from Rob Bell > Quotes

The SBC's (Slight) Decline

In a recent posting entitled, "Southern Baptists decline in baptisms, membership, attendance," author Russ Rankin reports that, "The number of baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention in 2010 fell by nearly 5 percent, according to the Annual Church Profile (ACP) compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources in cooperation with Baptist state conventions." The SBC showed a decline in total members of 0.15%, the fourth straight year of decline. Worship attendance also declined by 0.19% during 2010. Denominational leaders take some comfort, however, from an increase if 1.59% in the number of SBC congregations.

The SBC remains by far-and-away the largest U. S. Protestant denomination with well over 16 million members. By the rate of decline seen in most of the so-called mainline denominations, the rates of Southern Baptist decline are almost negligible. SBC leaders find them troubling, however, because of the denomination's commitment to growth. They are also troubled by the fact that in the past they have linked other denominations' decline to those denominations' failure to maintain a correct theology according to SBC standards.

The jury is still out on whether or not organized Christianity is on the decline in the U.S. It seems to be, especially among younger people; but by international standards American churches and denominations remain impressively active and vital. If, however, the Southern Baptists continue to show decline and esp. if that decline were to accelerate, it would be an indication that some decline in organized Christianity has indeed set in. Only time will tell.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Scientific Method vs. The Creationist Method

The creationists ( biblical literalists who insist that the Bible is objectively infallible in all matters)—the creationists are playing a game that in the long run they cannot win.  Scientific knowledge is expanding exponentially and has reached a rate of discovery today that virtually overwhelms creationism with mountains of data that creationists cannot explain away.  They, of course, will never admit that fact, but their cognitive ghetto will continue to shrink and shrivel, doing serious damage all the while to the cause of Christ.  Creationism stands on the verge of becoming mere superstition, if it hasn't already fallen into that abyss.

What kinds of data? Here are a few examples gleaned from articles in the "News in Science" section of The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) website:

- European scientists have discovered what may be the location of the "last stand" of Neanderthals in the Ural Mountains 33,000 years ago. (link)
- scientists have uncovered data supporting the hypothesis that, "Cancer could be an 'evolutionary throwback' locked within our genes and linked to the time before we became multicellular animals." (link)
- Japanese scientists plan to clone a living mammoth, long extinct, using tissue from a preserved mammoth carcass in Russia. (link)
- A Scottish scientist has found evidence of complex life 1.2 billion years ago - 400 million years earlier than previously accepted." (link)
- Archeologists have discovered the remains of yet another human species in a cave in South Africa, the remains dating nearly 2 million years ago. (link)
- Meanwhile, "Scientists in Germany have discovered another new human species that lived in Siberia around 30,000 to 50,000 years ago,"  at the same time as Neanderthals and our own modern human species. (link)

The "News in Science" archives contains dozens of articles on similar topics reporting findings on all sorts of subjects and collectively substantiating and expanding the massive (unimaginably massive) collection of data, findings, fact, and theories that makes up modern science.  Many of them expand and deepen our knowledge of the facts of evolutionary biology.  And all of those article still represent only the tiniest tip of the iceberg of science.  Creationism does stand and cannot in the face of it all.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Yearning for Something Better

In his comments on the first Republican presidential nominee debate, analyst David Bergen noted that the Republican base continues to shift rightward and then concluded, "With the center of the Democratic Party moving left, we seem to be heading into even more partisan and polarized politics. Millions of Americans are yearning for something better." (link)

We can add that it's not just in politics that we are yearning to move beyond the culture wars rather than get stuck ever more deeply in them.  In organized religion, as well, we yearn for the day when the polarizing debates over abortion, homosexuality, science, and the Bible quiet down. We pray for the day when people of faith can hold to their differences with mutual forbearance and even talk about them sympathetically.

Monday, June 13, 2011

What the "Belief Blog" Learned

CNN's religion blog, entitled "Belief Blog," recently posted an article entitled, "10 things the Belief Blog learned in its first year."  Below is the list without the accompanying commentary.  You might want to take a look at that commentary, which puts some meat on each lesson learned.  The comments on #2 are particularly enlightening and the ones on #3 a little surprising.

Here's what Belief Blog learned in its first year:

1. Every big news story has a faith angle.
2. Atheists are the most fervent commenters on matters religious.
3. People are still intensely curious about the Bible, its meaning and its origins.
4. Most Americans are religiously illiterate.
5. It's impossible to understand much of the news without knowing something about religion.
6. Regardless of where they fit on the spectrum, people want others to understand what they believe. 
7. Americans still have an uneasy relationship with Islam. 
8. God may not prevent natural disasters, but religion is always a big part of the response. 
9. Apocalyptic movements come and go.
10. Most Americans don't know that President Barack Obama is a Christian.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Fast Food Follow-up: French Fries

In a follow-up to a couple of postings last week on junk food (here and here), the news article posted by Peter Overby entitled, "Lobbyists Want Fries And Pizza To Stay In School," is of interest.  The Agriculture Department has issued new guidelines for school lunches that call for fewer servings of "starchy foods" per week.  So, the potato industry lobby has gone into high gear to overturn the guidelines.  Their line, apparently, is that french fries aren't as bad for kids as they used to be.  Nutritionists disagree.  Not only are they not good for kids in and of themselves, but when given a choice kids usually go for the fries instead of healthier items on the menu.

Yet again, it is the same story.  Junk food companies and industries are making their profits at the expense of our children's health.  While it is surely true that parents are not doing enough to protect their children's health, parents don't stand in the lunch line at school to guide their kid's meal choices.  The Agriculture Department guidelines are a tiny step in the right direction.

Religion & American Attitudes Toward Muslims

The Abu Dhabi Gallup Center has recently release a report entitled, "Religious Perceptions in America with an In-Depth Analysis of U.S. Attitudes Toward Muslims and Islam."  While the whole report is worth spending time reading, a couple of its findings related to religion and prejudice against Muslims in the United States are of particular interest here.

First, the report finds that, "...respondents are more than twice as likely to self-report 'a great deal' of prejudice toward Muslims if they say they attend a religious service less than once a week, which suggests that religious practice makes people less likely to express extreme prejudice." (p. 14)  Second, the study also found that those who attend religious services more than once a week, "...are more than twice as likely to report feeling no prejudice toward Muslims." (p. 17)

People who are less active religiously, in sum, are more apt to self-report prejudice against Muslims while those who are active in the practice of their religion are more than twice as likely to report no prejudice.

This is what we would hope, that Americans of faith would show more tolerance of and openness toward Muslims at a time when many Americans have a deep prejudice against them.  (The study found that the respondents were "more than twice as likely to report having negative feelings toward Muslims as toward Buddhists, Christians, or Jews." - p. 18)  Practicing a faith is supposed to make us better people.  It's good to know that sometimes it actually does.

Through the Son

Through the Son, then, God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself. God made peace through his Son's blood on the cross and so brought back to himself all things, both on earth and in heaven.
- Colossians 1:20 (TEV)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Force Field Around the Solar System?

New View of the Edge
It seems that nearly every day science is discovering something new that changes the way we look at our world and universe.  Now, comes word from NASA that its two Voyager probes, launched in 1977, have discovered "foamy magnetic bubbles" at the edge of the solar system that may act as shields for some kinds of rays.  It isn't clear yet, but maybe these huge bubbles, measuring 100 million miles across, are something like a science-fictiony force field.  Cool!  According to the NASA news release, "A Big Surprise from the Edge of the Solar system," these bubbles are a surprise.  Scientific theories going back decades didn't predict them.  That is cool, too.

Maybe, some day scientists will begin to catch on that there really is something supremely intentional and pre-planned going on here and that the unified field theory they hunger after will take them into realms of the Spirit their blinders today just won't see.  Meanwhile, it's a whole lot more exciting to look at the universe with both eyes—the eye of science and the eye of faith.

Grace or Works?

It has been the mantra of Protestantism since the time of Luther that that we are saved by "faith alone."  We cannot win our own salvation because "no one can keep the law," no one is perfect.  Given these centuries-old truisms, the Wikipedia entry entitled, "Sola fide," comes as something of a shock.  While it containss a list of 30 passages from the New Testament supporting the argument that we are saved by grace alone, it also has a list of another 27 passages that support exactly the opposite conclusion. The first passage on that second list quotes Jesus as saying, ""Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." (Matthew 5:16)  If one reads just the passages from one list or the other, each argument seems equally persuasive and scriptural.  If one reads only one list, it then seems "clear" that the Bible "proves" that we are saved either by faith alone or by works, depending on which list we subscribe to.

Some random thoughts come to mind:

First, cases such as this should warn us against trying to use the Bible to "prove" one doctrine or another.  The Bible is a complex artifact of tens of centuries of faith, Hebrew-Jewish first and then Christian later.  A good deal of it was originally intended to speak to specific situations, long since passed.  The Bible is far more legitimately useful when we use it to "get us into the ball park" of Christian faith and to learn how our ancestors in the faith  thought through things and understood them.  As a general rule, the Bible leaves us a great deal of latitude to arrive at our own understanding on matters of faith and doctrine.

Second, Protestants have for so long held to one viewpoint that they virtually don't see (comprehend) passages that say the opposite to their understanding of the matter of salvation.  They see what they've been trained by the doctrines of their faith tradition to see and don't see what falls outside of the purview of tradition.  They will attack, in this case, any hint that our works have a role to play in our salvation as being "unbiblical," even though numerous biblical passages can be cited making that very point.

Third, regarding the relationship of grace to works, we would do well to work out a third understanding of salvation, one that sees faith and works as elements in a dynamic process of salvation that impacts both our sense of where we put our trust (our faith) and how we try to live our lives (our works).  Rather than holding rigidly and unthinkingly to the old-timed Protestant point of view, we will certainly derive greater benefit by wrestling with the multifaceted nature of salvation.  And we will be no less true to our Christian faith.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Apprehend God In All Things

Today's thought from Inward/Outward:

Apprehend God in all things,
for God is in all things.
Every single creature is full of God
and is a book about God.
Every creature is a word of God.
If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature--
even a caterpillar--
I would never have to prepare a sermon.
So full of God is every creature.

Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 - c. 1327)
Source: Earth Prayers From Around the World

Feel Good Basketball

Coach Reich & an IMHS player
Indiana has produced another classic feel good basketball story in the tradition of Milan High School, the small town that won Indiana's 1954 state basketball championship against improbable odds, a feat subsequently featured in the 1986 film, Hoosiers.  Under the leadership of Coach Nick Reich, the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School men's basketball team won the 2011 Class A state championship.  Metropolitan High is a charter school founded in 2007 to give urban students a second chance at a high school education and getting into college.  The school doesn't even have its own gym.  Reich was the school's social worker and used his skills, his own life experience, and a healthy dose of patience and trust to mold his players into a winning team.  Check out the story and expect an eventual movie on Coach Reich and his team, the Pumas, probably to be titled Hoosiers II.

The Right Does It, the Left Does It

What mostly happens with regard to the Bible, the Quran, and other substantial sacred texts is all-too-human. We read the texts with a view toward what we want them to say. We disregard or rationalize away the passages we don’t like, highlight the those we agree with, beat our enemies over the head with them, and claim that God is exclusively on our side.

The right does it. The left does it.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Jill Carol, "My Bible, Your Bible"
June 6, 2011

Thursday, June 9, 2011

DASH - The Best Diet

U. S. News & World Report has released a report, entitled "Best Diets Overall," on a study it conducted of twenty diets ranking them from best to worst.  The best is a diet called DASH, which was developed by the National Institutes of Health.  For more information on DASH, see CNN's detailed description here.  An abridged version of the DASH book (which costs $21.95 at Amazon.com) is available here.   Just thought some of you would like to know.  Blessings on the journey!

Pieces of a Far Grander Pie

Yesterday, I had lunch at Jeb's, a local restaurant in Lowville, and after lunch took a somewhat circuitous route back to the place we rent on N. State St.  Looking down one block, it crossed my mind that I would pass the home of a parishioner and then passed my mind that I would meet her on the street.  Then other thoughts crept in, and I walked.  Sure enough, within a minute or two I saw said parishioner coming out her front door, and we chatted for a brief moment.  She didn't seem particularly surprised when I told her, "I knew I was going to see you,"  And we went our separate ways.

As readers of this blog know by now, I think a good deal about the relationship of faith and science—and about the contentious battle being waged between biblical literalism and scientism for the hearts and minds of the American people.  What I wish both sides could see is that there are things going on in life and the universe far greater than their narrow ideologies allow them to see.  How did I know I would see my parishioner?  Why do many people have similar experiences?  What are these subterranean levels of knowing that undeniably and inexplicably allow us to know bits and pieces of the future that we shouldn't be able to know?  There are things going on here that are beyond the ken of both sides.  Atheist scientists can rail and foment at the mouth all they want, but there are times when prayer actually and really has an impact on lives.  It is a form of "future influencing" somehow parallel to my brief moment of "future knowing" that shouldn't "logically" exist but they do.  Something is going on in these places, and it seems obvious to me that when we eventually begin to understand them better we will find scientific and spiritual realities converging in ways that we can't even guess at today.

Faith and science should both expand our minds, our horizons, and inspire us (yes, fill us with the Spirit) to continue the journey forward in discovery of deeper realities than either sees now—a journey that will eventually reveal that the knowledge of science and the knowledge of faith are but two pieces of a larger and far grander pie.  Instead, the literalists-fundamentalists and the science-ists build their massive fortifications of intellectual/spiritual narrowness and lob their grenades of half-truth and half-arrogance at each other, almost glorying in a totally unnecessary war.  They seem to need each other, to feed off of each other, and to gain their sense of identity from being against each other.

As I've said before, violence—including its intellectual and spiritual varieties—always has consequences, and they are seldom pretty.  Violence kills, destroys, wrecks & ruins.  The violent clash going on between the religion-ists and science-ists is at once unscientific and unspiritual—and it is hurtful as violence always is.  End of rant.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Rationality vs. Religion

"Rationality is always better than religion. Provable ideas are always preferable to beliefs. Conclusions derived from scientific methods are always far better than religious beliefs that conclude first, then later look for supporting facts."
Article ID 1214,  "Faith versus the scientific method,"  March 25, 2008

There is a basic principle, of which these three sentences from the website, Digital Bits Skeptic, is but another instance.  Scientists, in particular, and self-styled atheists/agnostics, in general, make lousy theologians (see the last paragraph of my RPK posting, "Reverse God-of-the-Gaps").  By inserting the simple little word, "always," into these three sentences the author has transformed them into theological cum moral statements of faith and ethics.  They are certainly not scientific since such absolutes are not testable.  Run as many experiments as you will, there is always the possibility of a fluke, no matter how remote.  And it takes only one fluke to prove an absolute wrong.

So, treating these sentences as theology, there is much to criticize.   There are, for starters, the issues of defining the moral category of "better" as well as the meaning of the concept of rationality.  The Wiktionary definition of "rational" is "healthy or balanced intellectually, reasonable" and "capable of deductive reasoning."  That is an impressively broad definition.  Things that are entirely rational in one society, say in Chiang Mai, Thailand, are certainly not rational in another, say Lowville, NY.  Dr. Francis S. Collins' book, The Language of God, whatever else it might be, fits the Wiktionary definition in its reasonable and balanced presentation of its case in spite of the fact that Collins is a believer as well as a scientist.  That is to say, it is not immediately apparent that the the two categories of rational and religious are even mutually exclusive by the definition of rationality.  The theological works of a Barth or a Tillich can hardly be labeled "irrational" by any reasonable definition of rationality.  Dealing with the category of "better" is also tricky.  How is rationality better?  What does "better" mean and how do you determine objective (i.e. scientific) measures for better in this case?  Indeed, one might ask if it is reasonable (rational) to claim that rationality is always "better" than religion?

The truth of the matter is that our anonymous author's first sentence is but short hand for, "My rationality, which I believe is based on science, is always better by my standards and in my opinion than is your religion, which I believe to be always irrational by definition."  In other words, the sentence expresses subjective personal beliefs, opinions, and prejudices disguised as an objective statement of fact; and it expresses them normatively, which makes it a moral statement as well.  In fact, the statement is not even theological.  It is ideology, pure and simple.

We might (reasonably) ask also if it is true that provable ideas are always preferable to beliefs—and what that claim even means.  What is perhaps most striking in this second sentence is the way it devalues "belief" when scientists themselves are utterly dependent on their faith in their own senses to understand reality.  There is no way to prove that our senses give us a true picture of reality, an issue that philosophy has wrestled with long and hard. We trust our senses as a matter of faith and belief.  In the same way, scientists trust their method as providing them with a reliable description of reality.  Science itself is a belief system, which renders the second sentence nonsensical from the get-go.  The whole statement, in fact, is a statement of faith expressing the beliefs of the author.

The category of "provable idea" is also problematic as is the implied assumption that religion is founded on nothing more than beliefs, so-called.  What constitutes "proof" is a difficult issue.  At what point did science prove the idea of evolution?  While generally accepted as proven today, it took decades to achieve that status, and there was no one point at which biologists said, "OK, now it is proven."  What exactly, then, constitutes the level of certainty necessary to render an idea proven?

One might respond that a "provable idea" is any proposition that can one day be proven true by the application of the scientific method. By this measure, the idea that there is a God that created the universe is provable. At least, scientists writing against religion from time to time acknowledge that science might conceivably find someday that God is the creator of the universe. They avow that it is highly unlikely to happen, but conceivable. God is thus a "provable idea." Or again, there is a growing body of data demonstrating a positive correlation between the practice of religion and well-being. Actively religious people are happier and apparently healthier than those who do not actively engage in religious activities. Which is to say that the often-expressed belief of religious people that a life of faith is observably better than a life lived without faith is a provable idea.  Religious beliefs thus can be treated as provable ideas rendering the distinction between provable ideas and beliefs fuzzy and permeable.  There is some evidence, furthermore, to indicate that the placebo effect is a real one: if a person believes he is going to get better she actually does get better.  Belief, sometimes in and of itself, can be a good idea and preferable to the facts provided by science.

The point is that the three sentences above constitute a personal faith-like statement of ideology, one based on assumptions that themselves suggest more of an ideological rather than a scientific mindset.  Why is it that a certain class of scientist types don't seem to be able to bring a scientific concern for precision, clarity, and humility (i.e. saying only as much as the actual data allows one to say) to bear on religious subjects?  Where is the patient neutrality of the scientist "on the hunt" for truth?  Evidently this class of scientist believes itself at war with a certain class of religionists and perhaps is trying to fight fire with fire.  There must be a better way.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Amazing Endeavor Pic

Couldn't pass up this amazing image of the space shuttle Endeavor making its final landing at the Kennedy space center.  The original is on NASA's website here.

Augustine on Genesis

Icon of St. Augustine
In his commentary on the Book of Genesis, the leading theologian of the early church, St. Augustine, wrote concerning different interpretations of the meaning of Genesis 1:
"In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find  treated in Holy Scripture, different Interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture. "
St. Augustine
Commentary on the Biblical Book of Genesis

Sixteen centuries later, his advice is as sound as ever.  We read Genesis 1 best when we read it circumspectly, provisionally, and with our faith firmly placed in God rather than an ancient, pre-scientific worldview.  The Bible is best read faithfully, which is a very different thing from reading it literally.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Whither Evangelicalism?

     In 2006, E. J. Dionne wrote an article entitled, "Evangelical Evolution," which put forward the thesis that evangelical Christians were, if not becoming more liberal, at least "mellowing" in their religious attitudes.  In 2006, evangelicals were taking more of an interest in some mainstream issues such as pollution and climate change.  Some leaders were less aggressive and closed-minded.  Dionne focused largely on events in the Southern Baptist Church although he did include general developments as well.

     It is an interesting thesis.  Recent polling conducted by the Pew Research Center including the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life suggests that Dionne may have been correct, at least to a degree.  We saw here just a few days ago that the evangelical pundit, Chuck Colson, is upset by the finding of one Pew poll that some 57% of self-identified evangelicals agreed with the statement that,"Many religions can lead to eternal life."  That is a striking figure given the emphasis evangelical churches usually place on an exclusive salvation restricted to the born-again.  Another intriguing bit of data has come to hand in just the last few days.  A Pew poll studying the current state of American presidential politics including  the traits of potential candidates claims there is much greater acceptance of the possibility of a homosexual candidate now compared to four years ago—including among evangelical Protestants.  In 2007, 71% of white evangelicals polled stated that they would be less likely to vote for a homosexual candidate while today 65% responded in the same way.  That is a drop of 6%, which doesn't seem like much until we consider how vehemently opposed to homosexuality the evangelical establishment has been over the years.  So-called mainline Protestants dropped from 37% objecting to a homosexual candidate to 30%, a drop of 7%.

     Perhaps one of the surest signs that "something" is afoot is the appearance of articles online denying that there is any leftward trend among evangelicals, including (or even especially) among young evangelicals.  Byron Johnson's, "The Good News About Evangelicalism," is a case in point. Drawing largely from data gathered by the Baylor Religion Survey (2006) Johnson argues that evangelicals are holding steady in their conservative beliefs.  It's interesting that his data is five years out of date, but his arguments remind us to be cautious in buying into the idea that evangelicals are moderating their views on various subjects.  Still, the highly reputable Pew Center did find that 57% of evangelicals agree to an inclusive rather than exclusive view of salvation, and if did find that as much as one-third of evangelicals would not be disinclined to vote for a homosexual presidential candidate.  What does this mean?   Are we seeing a quiet but potentially significant trend toward moderation among evangelicals?  Or, perhaps what we are seeing is that evangelicalism has grown so large and so diverse that it includes many more voices and perspectives than it did in the "good old days" when it was a smallish minority group on the American religious stage.  That, at least, is the view taken by John Ortberg in his article entitled, "Who Speaks for Evangelicals?"  So, then, where is evangelicalism headed—towards moderation or not so much?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Latest Junk Food Gizmos

Kids using a Freestyle "fountain system"
Yesterday's RPK post looks at McDonald's role in the use of advertising to the sell junk food to young people & children.  Junk food is a huge business involving equally huge profits—largely at the expense of our children's health.  The junk food industry and advertising fuel the obesity epidemic that is spreading around the world.  Scary stuff.

Equally as scary is the latest gimmick-gizmo invented by the Coca-Cola Company.  In a news article entitled, "One giant leap in soda fountains," author Mike Huglett reports on "a newfangled, high-tech soda fountain" being distributed by Coca-Cola.  It is called "Freestyle," and it is officially a beverage dispenser that is able to produce over one hundred "Coke offerings" instead of the usual eight or so found in the average soft drink vending machine.  And according to the article, the Freestyle specifically targets young people.  The article reports, in fact, that older folks find the Freestyle confusing and hard to use.  There's a learning curve for us.  (This is just one more instance of our kids "getting" the technology stuff well before we their parents.)  This stuff isn't good for our kids (for details, see here or here), and the last thing we need is a still more enticing and efficient obesity dispenser.

Note: Coca Cola reported a substantial increase in profit for the first quarter of 2010, according to an article at MarketWatch.com, on a total revenue of $10,520,000,000 ($10.52 billion).  Obesity is big business—and hugely profitable.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Advertising Junk Food

Recently, a group of some 550 health care professionals and groups from every state in the nation, issued a joint letter to Jim Skinner, the CEO of the McDonald's Corporation.  In the letter, they point to the increasing rates of child obesity in the U.S., the significant negative impact of that obesity on their health and lives, and the fact that McDonald's Corporation invests some $2 billion a year in advertising to peddle their junk food to kids.  The letter closes with the following request,
"We know the contributors to today’s epidemic are manifold and a broad societal response is required. But marketing can no longer be ignored as a significant part of this massive problem.
We ask that you heed our concern and retire your marketing promotions for food high in salt, fat, sugar, and calories to children, whatever form they take – from Ronald McDonald to toy giveaways. Our children and health care system will benefit from your leadership on this issue."
It is highly unlikely, of course, that McDonald's will heed this call for reducing the amount of aggressive advertising they aim at children.  To do so would certainly cut into their bottom line, which is not something they will do even if they see the serious negative health and social consequences of their product.  In the current political climate, furthermore, it is also virtually impossible that the federal government can do what it must if the childhood obesity epidemic is to be brought under control, which is to legislate aggressive controls on junk food.  That is, we have to do to junk food what we did to cigarettes, which is not to outlaw it but to engage in counter-advertising campaigns while severely restricting the advertising of the producers.  McDonald's, of course, hides behind self-serving appeals to American freedom of choice while blaming parents for not being better at parenting (In other words, for not being able to keep their kids from buying the harmful junk peddled by McDonald's!).  They will always resist anything that cuts into the corporation's profit margin—even when they know the consequences of doing so.  Sad.

Note:  According to MarketWatch.com, McDonald's earnings for the 3rd quarter of 2010 were $1,390,000,000  (that's 1.39 billion) on a total income of $6.30 billion.  Profits were up 10% and total income up %4.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Our Changing Nation

A recent news item on the Christian Science Monitor website entitled, "Census Bureau: Hispanics account for half of US population growth," underscores the accelerating demographic change taking place in our nation. We are becoming more and more ethnically pluralistic, and the time is coming when white Americans of European ancestry will be but another minority. There won't be one predominate majority.  Drawing on a U. S. Census Bureau "brief," the article notes that, "...[America's] Hispanic population grew by 43 percent – four times America’s overall 9.7 percent growth rate and much more than the non-Hispanic white population, which grew by barely more than 1 percent over the same period."  Hispanic growth is taking place across the nation, especially in the South and the Midwest.  It at least doubled in one-fourth of the nation's counties.  The article concludes by noting that Hispanic population growth has important political implications since Hispanics generally vote Democratic by a significant percentage.

Briefly, these changes mean several things for America's churches.  First, churches and denominations are going to have to become more multi-cultural if they want to have a meaningful place in American society.  Second, American churches are going to have to learn the term, "dialogue" and how to think and behave in a "dialogical" manner.  That is, we will have to develop skills for speaking meaningfully with people of other cultures.  Third, we will do best in the future when we think about Christ, faith, and theology in pluralistic terms.  It will be to our advantage to acknowledge that Christ can be different things to different people, that salvation takes on different meanings in different contexts, and that we can speak of God legitimately in different languages and from many different perspectives.  It will be important for us to spend less time defending our orthodoxies and more time learning from Christians of other nations, cultures, and faith traditions.

All of this could be very exciting, but one suspects that many American churches and denominations won't be able to stand the excitement.