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, May 31, 2012

How We Think About God Matters

A team of Harvard researchers have found (here) that those who rely on intuition more than reflection tend to show more confident belief in God and to report more experiences they attributed to God.  In the summary of their research, they state:
Three studies—two correlational, one experimental—showed that intuitive thinking predicts belief in God. Study 1 showed that people who exhibit thinking styles that are more intuitive and less reflective are more likely to believe in God and to believe in God with greater confidence. These results held while variables related to education, socioeconomic status, and political orientation were controlled. Study 2 showed that these results held while cognitive ability and personality were controlled. In both studies, we found that cognitive style predicted self-reported changes in belief since childhood but was uncorrelated with religious influences during childhood. This suggests that cognitive style is not only predictive of one’s beliefs but also a critical factor in the evolution of one’s beliefs over time. Consistent with this hypothesis, we demonstrated a causal relationship between (induced) cognitive style and belief in God in Study 3, showing that the induction of mindsets favoring intuition (or opposing reflection) significantly increased self-reported belief in God.
People who step back and think more intensely about the "question of God" tend to be less sure about God while those who "go with their gut" tend to be more certain in their belief in God.  In other words, people who have a tendency to question and to doubt show a tendency to question and doubt beliefs about God.  The researchers make it clear that this is not a matter of intelligence but of what they call "cognitive style," that is the way we think.

These findings are hardly surprising.  In a sense, all they seem to amount to is to confirm that people who question and doubt actually do question and doubt.  Still, they are a helpful reminder that have important implication for preachers and pastors.  Pastors will themselves tend to be either more intuitive or reflective, and they need to remember that many of their parishioners are the opposite.  If, for example, a pastor is one who reflects, then issues of doubt and making sense of faith in the contemporary context will be important; but those issues may well not be so important to many members of the congregation she serves.  Indeed, one would expect that—all other things being equal—those who  are more intuitive will predominate in the congregation on an average Sunday morning.  An intuitive pastor, conversely, will more likely fail to address key issues concerning the difficulties of believing in the 21st century.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The God in Our Heads

Researchers at the University of Missouri studying the location of religious activity in our brains have determined that several different parts of the brain are involved in that activity.  They report (here) that, "spiritual experiences are likely associated with different parts of the brain."  There is no so-called "God spot" in our brains, something that previous research suggested there might be.

One atheist blogger finds in this research further confirmation that there are no such things as gods.  This blogger writes (here), "All of this is within the mind and has been demonstrated to be an effect of brain activity. Any anecdotal evidence for gods will have to prove that this mechanism is not in play." This observations leads to the hardly surprising conclusion that, "I feel more confident in my stance that gods and ghosts are simply imagination at work, aided by misinterpretations of fuzzy sensory input and wilful misguided understanding of the evidence."

OK.  That is one way to read the results of the University of Missouri study.  But on the face of it, the conclusion that spirituality activity occurs in several parts of the brain says nothing about God one way or the other.  It certainly is not proof that there is a divine being of some sort, but it also does not prove that there isn't.  The response to our atheist blogger is an obvious one: if we are created by God, then we would expect that God would create our minds in such a way as to be open to spiritual experiences of God.  Thus, a theist blogger might well jump on the Missouri data as "proof" of his or her belief in God.  The atheist blogger cited above concludes, finally, that "Gods are just ghosts in the machine between our ears."  There is no scientific way to prove that statement.  It is a faith statement.

 There is another way to read the data, one that has nothing to do with proving or disproving the existence of some sort of divine reality.  This alternative perspective is the insight that if we are created by God, then we would expect that God would create our minds in such a way as to be open to spiritual experiences of God.  Those of us who do believe humanity is part of divine creation are not surprised that several parts of the brain are involved in our religious consciousness.  Indeed, we take comfort in the fact.  Clearly (from our perspective) God is present in human evolution creating us for perception of God leading to a future we still cannot discern.  We need to  be clear here.  Reading the data this way is a matter of faith.  For people of faith it makes just as much sense to see God's presence in the data as it does for an atheist blogger to see God's absence.

This point is important because there are many Christians who inadvertently take the position of the atheist blogger.  They think that scientific data like that contained in the University of Missouri research is dangerous because, if true, it would show there is no God.  They act like theological luddites, rejecting science because they think science is dangerous to their faith.  Science is no more the enemy (or friend) of our faith than are rocks, trees, or the planets.  It is valuable, however, because it helps us to better understand creation even as it leaves to us the task of discerning the presence of the Creator in creation.  We take comfort in data that shows our brains capable of discerning the Presence of God.  How else could things be?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Who Is Running the Show?

God is to the world as our unconscious is to our everyday lives--quietly, invisibly, secretly guiding our steps; feeding us our lines; moving us into position; unifying everything we do. We are chastened to realize that what we thought was an accident was, in truth, the hand of God. Most of the time we are simply unaware.

Awareness takes too much effort, and besides, it's more fun to pretend we are running the show.

Lawrence Kushner
Source: Eyes Remade for Wonder
From: inward/outward

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Bible Goes to School

A Textbook for teaching the Bible in public schools
Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona recently signed into law a bill promoting the teaching of the Bible as an elective course in Arizona's public schools.  According to a largely critical posting (here), the purpose of the course is to, "among other things, educate students on the influence of the Old and New Testament on laws, history, morals, government, literature, art, music, customs, values, and culture."  The bill has been, of course, controversial.  The ACLU opposed it, and an editorial at The Arizona Republic (here) raises the objection that the proposed course opens the door to a number of abuses that include not only proselytizing students by Christian teachers, but also the possibility that teachers critical of the Bible will have a bully pulpit for subtle attacks on it.  In sum, teachers can't be trusted to teach the Bible fairly and circumspectly.

In theory, the idea of teaching biblical literacy in public schools is a good one.  The Bible is a key cultural document, and students should have some knowledge of it on that basis alone.  Teaching the Bible, furthermore, offers the possibility of students gaining at least some knowledge of religious concerns, which generally are barred from public education in spite of the importance of religion to our society.  This is not to say that the schools should promote religion as such.  Rather, it would be good for students to have some background in religion, especially for those who aren't getting anything at home.

The objections raised by opponents of the new law, however, also carry weight.  The opportunities for abuse are obvious and serious, especially because the law protects teachers from legal prosecution or disciplinary action so long as they can show that they followed the course outline mandated by the state. This does seem to open the door to abuses by both "pro-Bible" and "anti-Bible" teachers because any teacher can pack their own meanings into the outline.

And there is a further concern, which has to do with qualifications. Science teachers are expected to know science. Math teachers have a math background. It is unlikely that most Arizona schools have teachers who have any academic training in the Bible, and it is not likely that they would have the time to become conversant with the Bible as an academic field of study. And those most likely to abuse the course (both pro-Bible & anti-Bible) are the ones least likely to be interested in the academic study of scripture. That is to say, these courses are liable to promote ignorance and/or bias as much as or more than provide an open opportunity to discover the contents of the Bible.

Brian Jennings, a Christian blogger writing from a more conservative perspective observes (here), "We need to be very careful when using the state as a means to achieve Christian ends and think through possible unintended consequences. Jesus describes the kingdom of God as something that grows in the midst of the kingdoms of this world, not something imposed by them." He goes on to state that, "I’m sure those who want the Bible taught in public schools are well-intentioned, but we should call a time out to think. Can we really reduce the Bible to literature or history without betraying its life-changing message? The Bible needs to be studied academically, but in light of what it claims to be – the self-revelation of God – not as a history book without colorful pictures."  These are real concerns.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Becoming Free

Let go, and respond to the immediate needs around you. Don't get caught in some false perception of yourself. There will always be another person more gifted than you. And don't perceive your position as important, but be ready to serve at any moment. If you can let go of who you think you are, you will become free--ready to love others. If you learn to see your impermanence, you will be able to live for the moment and not miss opportunities to love by pushing things into the future.

Thich Nhat Hanh
Source: Unknown

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Power of Idolatry in Our Times

When I was a grad student at the University of Maryland in the 1980s, I presented a paper in one of my classes on the missionary role in the modernization of 19th century northern Thailand.  Another student quizzed me on the motivations of the missionaries and rejected out of hand my claim that the missionaries were primarily motivated by their religious beliefs.  He argued that they went to the mission field in search of economic gain, and that fact explained their behavior.  Their beliefs were just a ruse.  Now, any fair reading of the missionary record does not substantiate that argument nor does the fact of the risks missionaries faced living in one of the most isolated places (from North America) in the world—especially health risks but also the risks attending living in a kind of social exile from their homeland.  I still remember, however, the scorn of my fellow student as I tried to make the case that faith was the primary motivation for most of the missionaries most of the time.  I knew from my own experience that faith is a powerful source of motivation.  And I knew for having spent years working with missionary documents and publications that their faith was the primary reason for their being missionaries, but my classmate rejected the whole idea out of hand.  He denied reality.

Previous to that experience in the classroom, I worked as a church-based archivist in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and the archives I managed contained a fair amount of missionary records going well back into the 19th century.  I remember a conversation with an American doctoral student working on his dissertation in the field of anthropology during which I observed that there was a wealth of material on his subject in the missionary records at the archives.  This grad student said with clear disdain in his voice, "I would never use missionary materials."  When I asked why, he replied, "Because they are biased."  Talk about the kettle complaining about the soot on the pot!  Yes, of course, missionaries wrote with a bias, which a reputable scholar will learn to read through and make allowances for.  On the other hand, they were the first Westerners to live for extended periods of time in northern Thailand, and their records contain a wealth of historical anthropological data obtainable from no other source.  This grad student rejected learning from that source because it was tainted by the religious nature of the record.

My point is that religious conservatives do not have a monopoly on self-righteous arrogance based on ignorant prejudice.  Those of us who are various degrees of liberal decry the denial of evolution and the findings of science by folks on the right while we engage in our own forms of prejudice and denial based on our own ideologies.  Ideological idolatry is no respecter of persons or philosophies or theologies.  It is a danger to us all.  For those of us who seek to live the Christian life, this is why doubt is so important.  Doubt can help us refrain from turning faith (which is a humble trust in God) into certainty (which can become an arrogant ownership of God).

Friday, May 25, 2012

Two Viewpoints

"I have a mindset that says bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view. I've said many times through this campaign that one of the things I hope to do is to help build a conservative majority in the United States Senate and continue to help the House build a Republican majority and have a Republican White House and then bipartisanship becomes having Democrats come our way."
Indiana Republican Senate nominee Richard Mourdock
May 9, 2012, on "Fox & Friends"

“I’ve said it many times, this is a historic time, and the most powerful people in both parties are so opposed to one another that one side simply has to win out over the other.”
Richard Mourdock
Quoted in the New York Times, May 8, 2012

"If Mr. Mourdock is elected, I want him to be a good senator. But that will require him to revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington. He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate. In effect, what he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party. His answer to the inevitable roadblocks he will encounter in Congress is merely to campaign for more Republicans who embrace the same partisan outlook. He has pledged his support to groups whose prime mission is to cleanse the Republican party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it."
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN)
Statement on his primary defeat to Richard Mourdock, May 9, 2012

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Occasional Convergences

Doi Saket Temple, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Although we sometimes seem to live in different worlds, there is evidence of a fair amount of cross-fertilization between evangelicals and ecumenicals (a.k.a. the mainline).  A wing of the evangelical movement, for example, has developed a deep concern for issues of social justice and for the environment.  There are mainline churches, meanwhile, that are discovering the importance of engaging in evangelism.  In particular cases, ecumenicals and evangelicals are each learning to speak the language of the other.  A case in point is a recent posting by Prof. Paul Louis Metzger, a self-styled evangelical, entitled, "Mormons and Buddhists are not “Isms” or “Ists.  They're people.”  Metzger calls on evangelicals to be more sensitive to the heritages and faith perspectives of people of other faiths and advocates what we might call a "soft" approach to evangelism by which one approaches others out of respect and a genuine desire to learn about their faith in hopes that the sharing that follows will help them see Christ. He concludes the posting by saying that, "Hopefully, the more personally and particularly we engage diverse religious practitioners from the perspective of their experiential participation in their traditions, the more they will experience through us and hopefully for themselves how personal—not packaged—the Jesus revealed in the Bible really is."

While some liberal Christians might feel that Metzger still has too much of an agenda, the tone and feel of his approach to people of other faiths stands in stark contrast to that of many evangelicals who are dismissive of other religions and certainly would not be willing to listen to what their adherents have to say.  In interfaith settings, there is nothing inherently wrong with a respectful mutual sharing of one's own faith.  The key is a willingness to be shared with as much (or more) than to share.  I recommend that you take a look at Metzger's posting.  It represents a hopeful convergence between the best of ecumenical and evangelical thinking.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Brand New

The Gospel is handed down from generation to generation but it must reach each one of us brand new, or not at all. If it is merely "tradition" and not news, it has not been preached or not heard--it is not Gospel.... If there is no risk in revelation, if there is no fear in it, if there is no challenge in it, if it is not a word which creates whole new worlds, and new beings, if it does not call into existence a new creature, our new self, then religion is dead and God is dead.

Thomas Merton
Source: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Riding the Black Swan

Christ on the Cross, Diego Velazquez
Two previous postings (here and here) described and reflected on the idea of Black Swan Events, historical events that are unexpected, have a significant impact, and are later accepted as having been almost the natural course of things.  We've seen that Black Swan Events are complex and that the name itself names something historians and many others were already aware of.  We know they exist, but coming to terms with them is the issue.  Yesterday (here), I considered the possibility that God authors Black Swan Events, including especially the Christ Event, for divine ends and left off with the following questions: In our day and age, how do we best make sense of the Presence of God in history and our lives? Given the complexity of Black Swan Events, does it make sense to believe that God uses some of them for divine ends?

Humanity has been wrestling with the divine since the dawn of the race, and these are not questions to be answered in a single blog posting—or at all, actually.  However, it is worth considering that God who is Beyond has created the parameters within which we live.  God created an evolving universe and made us the "products" of an evolutionary process.  God has given us freedom, and it seems only reasonable to presume that we are the "authors" of Black Swan Events, which events betray all of the marks of a broken humanity trapped in chaotic conditions of our own making.  Yet, we are more than just broken.  We create good as well as evil, and thus some of our Black Swan Events are positive, creative ones.

In a manner we do not understand but sometimes perceive with deep spiritual clarity, God who is Present rides the swirling surf of our lives working quietly but persistently to change the course of history.  As Christians, we trust that God was Present in Christ in a unique way, a full way.  God, that is, resides in and rides the crest of Black Swan Events constantly seeking to transform them or, at least, bring healing that mitigates the destruction such events can cause.

God works in history the way our hearts work in our lives.  I don't mean the pumping physical heart but, rather, the emotional heart.  That heart is as real, sometimes more real than the physical one even if the idea of the heart seems to be "only" a metaphor.  Both the heart and God are beyond-physical realities that define important elements of our human experience.  Beyond proving but powerful nonetheless.  In freedom, we do the things that lead to Black Swan Events.  In love, God seeds those events with healing and even, sometimes, transformation.  Amen.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Black Swan Events & God

Christ on the Cross, Diego Velazquez
Two recent postings (here and here) described and reflected on the idea of Black Swan Events, historical events that are unexpected, have a significant impact, and are later accepted as having been almost the natural course of things.  We've seen that Black Swan Events are complex and that the name itself names something historians and many others were already aware of.  We know they exist, but coming to terms with them is the issue.

Viewed theologically, we might be inclined to embrace this concept as describing the way in which God acts in human history.  Any number of biblical events including the call of Abraham, the Exodus, and especially the "Christ event" fit the description of Black Swan Events.  They were unforeseen, significant, and later were turned into a narrative that purported to explain them so that we don't normally even think of them as being Black Swan Events.  We might conclude, then, that God uses Black Swan Events to influence and change the course of human history.

The problem is that the temptation of Adam & Eve, the death of Abel, and other biblical events can also be seen as Black Swan Events—as can a myriad of ugly, tragic historical events right down to the present.  God did not cause the death of Abel, and God was not the author of 9/11.  So, then, we should amend our inclination to say that God acts positively ("redemptively" in theological-speak) and  occasionally in history and does so through Black Swan Events.

OK, sounds good, but does God actually instigate Black Swan Events to influence the course of human history in an intentional way?  Or, are we reading God as the cause of such events back into them so that we can make sense of them?  The concept of Black Swan Events, that is, leads us back to a perennial theological issue, which is the way in which God is present in human history (and in our personal lives).

With all due humility, we must confess that we do not know how God is Present in history and our lives.  We know what the Bible says, and we put a good deal of stock in scripture; but it was written at times when humanity had a vastly different understanding of the universe.  In those times, it made perfect sense to believe that God causes Black Swan Events.  The vast majority of Christians still accept that ancient view, but one wonders how much spiritual sense it actually makes today.  In particular, are we willing to accept the biblical understanding that God repeatedly failed to make effective use of Black Swan Events, which is the tale the Old Testament tells?  God created humanity, which rebelled.  God called the Hebrews, who time and time again failed their calling.  It is an open question whether the Christian church will prove the Black Swan Event of Christ was any more of a success.

In our day and age, how do we best make sense of the Presence of God in history and our lives?  Given the complexity of Black Swan Events, does it make sense to believe that God uses some of them for divine ends?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Puzzling & Repellent Religion

"If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know."

C.S. Lewis,
A  Sermon preached at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, June 8, 1942

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Black Swan Events Revisited

Yesterday's posting introduced the idea of Black Swan Events, as being significant historical events that are unpredictable.  This concept, which originates with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, describes a phenomenon that historians have long been keenly aware of, which is that there is a randomness to history that defies all of their powers of explanation.  Even the most important of historical events "just happen," and all of our post-event explanations cannot fully account for them.  Historians are also aware of Black Swan Events that almost happened, such as the failed assassination attempt on president-elect Franklin Roosevelt in 1933.  There is a whole genre of alternative history fiction devoted to speculating what might have happened if a given Black Swan Event didn't happen, such as the accidental murder of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson during the Civil War.  Sci-fi author, Orson Scott Card, has written a fascinating book entitled, Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, which describes a future where it becomes possible to manipulate past Black Swan Events—in this case, the discovery of the Americas, which has to stand as one of the great Black Swan Events of all time.

The point is that Black Swan Events are complex, and we have to be careful about how we use the term to understand the past.  Taleb claims, for example, that they are unpredictable and unlooked for.  The fact that we can't control them is part of their power over us.  If that is the case, was 9/11 a Black Swan Event?  According to the Wikipedia article, Rick Rescorla, "As the World Trade Center security chief for the financial services firm Morgan Stanley and Dean Witter, Rescorla anticipated both attacks on the towers and implemented evacuation procedures that are credited with saving many lives. He died in the attacks of September 11, 2001, while leading the evacuation efforts." Rescorla, obviously, did not predict the particular event of September 11, 2001, but he did anticipate the possibility of that event.  He took steps to anticipate that possibility and thus actually exercised a (small) measure of control over it that saved some lives.  So, was 9/11 truly a Black Swan Event?   Or, again, was the assassination of President Kennedy such an event?  The government had developed a whole set of personnel and procedures to deal with just such an eventuality, and while it is true that all of that preparation failed to prevent the assassination it was anticipated.  It was known to be a possibility.  Was it a Black Swan Event?

In determining what constitutes a Black Swan Event, more weight needs to be given to the idea that such events are unexpected rather than unpredicted.  Many Black Swan Events were predicted by someone, but those who had the power to respond to those predictions and prepared for their potential consequences either ignored the predictions or did not even know about them—or, took a few ineffective precautions.  We can know something about the future, but our knowledge is partial, uncertain, and easy to discount.  As we know from political punditry, it is also often just downright wrong.  And sometimes even when we anticipate them and take massive steps to counter-act them—such as is the case with presidential assassinations—we still fail to stop them.  On the other hand, sometimes we do prevent them, such as the foiled attempt to assassinate President Reagan.

In an excerpt from his book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (here), Taleb writes a Black Swan Event is, "an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility."  By this definition, Kennedy's assassination was not a Black Swan Event, however much impact it had on our world in 1963 and subsequently.   We know that a presidential assassination is always a possibility.  But Kennedy's death was a Black Swan Event.  We didn't expect it.  It had tremendous impact.  And since 1963, we've expended tremendous effort to trying to understand the event.  There was a presidential commission devoted to exactly that task.  That is, we can correctly argue either way on this one.  It both was and was not a Black Swan Event.

In sum, the actual nature of actual events in the real world are complex (even in our personal lives) and the concept of Black Swan Events does not do justice to that complexity.  It may be a useful term in some ways, but it needs to be treated and used circumspectly.  By the way, the term "black swan" goes back to ancient Roman times when everyone knew that all swans are white.  "Black swan" described something that was impossible.  Then, Europeans discovered Australia and learned that swans can be black, so the term eventually came to mean something unexpected.  The discovering of black swans was thus a smallish but significant black swan event.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Black Swan Events

Source: corporate-eye.com
Nassim Nicholas Taleb has developed the concept of Black Swan Events to describe a phenomenon already well-known among historians.   Basically, a Black Swan Event is any historical event that was unlooked for and had significant impact on subsequent events.  Once it has taken place, historians and society in general develops  explanations about why it happened so that it no longer seems to have been unpredictable.  According to Taleb, history is driven by Black Swan Events.  The unpredictable is far more powerful in our lives than we usually realize.  In an excerpt from his book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (here), Taleb writes, "Black Swan logic makes what you don't know far more relevant than what you do know."

While apparently Taleb has become something of a guru of unpredictability and yet another prophet alerting us to the fundamental ignorance of the human race, Black Swan Events is but a name for the way history unfolds.  War, for example, is a breeding ground of black swan events large and small, which are collectively termed "the fog of war."  And while historians struggle mightily to understand the origins of Black Swan Events, they realize that at the end of the day such events can't be fully accounted for.  Historians are also aware of the Black Swan Events that didn't take place, such as Winston Churchill being run over by a car in New York City well before World War II.  If he had been killed or more severely injured, the course of world history would surely have been significantly different.  Had the assassination attempt on Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 before he was inaugurated been successful, history also would have been greatly affected.

Taleb is wrong, I think, in claiming that humanity has gone through history ignorant of the importance of Black Swan Events.  In fact, the book of Genesis, written some 2,500 years ago, contains a vivid account of just such an event: the call of Abraham and the emergence of the Hebrew people.  Surely, the Exodus and Moses, also stands as a Black Swan Event.  The Old Testament explains these unlooked for events as being the work of God, which is one way to make sense of them.

Taleb contends that such explanations obscure the unpredictability of Black Swan Events and normalizes them in a sense,  which means that we fail to see their true nature as random events.  He may be correct, but only to a degree.  Historians of World War I realize that for all of their explanations about how that war happened, they cannot really explain the random events that led to it.  They can only describe them.  That is why history is not a science and more of a craft than anything else.  Science has not yet developed investigative tools and research methods for studying the past, and it is hard to see how it ever will—short of time travel!

Still, the concept of Black Swan Events names something that deserves being named, the randomness and unpredictability that is a key part of the human experience.  We are tremendously shaped by unexpected events.  I'd like to follow up tomorrow.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Silver Lining in Rooting for the Worst Team in Baseball

The Minnesota Twins won yesterday, beating their arch rival Detroit Tigers 11-7 in spite of the fact that the Tigers knocked the Twins pitcher out of the game after only two innings.  The Twins have earned their position as the worst team in baseball almost magnificently.  Their starting pitching has been so pathetic as to deserve a monument—almost.  Hitting hasn't been a whole lot better, last evening not withstanding.

Last year was different, the memory of a first place finish in 2010 was still fresh.  On paper, the team looked like it should be as good in 2011, and at times it seemed to be.  Last year was a year of crushed expectations.  This year?  Things are hopeless enough so that we (Twins fans) can relax and savor each victory.  And the team has improved slightly from losing almost three games in every four to now losing about only every two games in three.  And they beat the Tigers, which  must irritate Tigers fans, which is always nice to do.

In any event, every win seems almost magical.  One day in three we get a little surprise - hey, the Twins won!  How about that!  The sun shines and all is right with the world.  And there is no anxiety—no worry about whether or not they can hang on to their lead in the standings or whether they can make up for lost ground.  There is just the occasional happy gift of an occasional victory, occasionally.  And we can take consolation in the thought that eventually they have to get better—probably.  Go Twins!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Bible Translations & Theology

"Translation is theology.  You cannot translate without doing theology.  Any time we translate a text, we're really creating something new."

Prof. Timothy Beal,
Case Western University
Commenting (here) on a controversy in the translation of the Bible into Arabic

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Church Sign in Portland, Oregon

Maybe you've seen this one already, but just in case you haven't.  Below is a message posted on the sign of the Rose City Park United Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon.  You can read Pastor Tom Tate's take on the stir the sign has created (here).  It has evidently "gone viral."  In our over-heated era of the culture wars, it is worth noting.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Doubt Belongs in Church

People come to faith in many different ways.  One size does not fit all.  For many, doubt is an important part of the search.  I count myself among that number.  Doubt has been an important friend on my faith journey.  it is a gift that keeps me from being sure of things I should not be sure about.  Yet, it is porous enough to allow me to put my trust in things that are (for me, at least) worthy of my trust.

In her posting, "My Faith: Returning to church, despite my doubts," author Andrea Palpant Dilley briefly documents here own journey from faith to un-faith and back again and makes two points.  First, she writes, "My doubt belonged in church."  Second, she concludes, "My doubt is actually part of my faith."  Her posting is relatively brief and worth a look.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

We See these things With the Eyes of Faith

In the grandeur of the universe, we glimpse the still greater glory of God.  In the sunset, we are touched by God's grace.  In a child's smile, we dimly sense God's love.  In scientific descriptions of biological evolution, we discern the grand sweep of God's creative power.  In quantum physics, we chuckle at God's infinite sense of humor—and pause at the reminder that things are not what they seem to be.  In Christ, we find the connection between God who is Beyond and God who is Present.  It is with the eyes of faith that we see these thing.  None of what we see proves or disproves the reality of God for faith stands on the threshold of a meta-reality that is both beyond and present.  In faith, we arrive at a place where trust building on goodness rules.  It is the realm of the Spirit, which Jesus called the Kingdom of God.  In its grandeur, too, we glimpse the still greater glory of God.  Amen.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Standing by the Well

O God as you have made mountains and valleys in the earth so have you made them in me.
For moments when I stand on a peak and am filled with wonder, I am thankful.
For uplifted moments when I walk the quiet mountain path in light, I am thankful.
For moments when I feel you near and sense the print of joy upon me, I am thankful.
But every day is not a mountaintop and every moment is not filled with joy.
When I walk in shadows, show me the way.
When I trip on my bumpy inner self, uphold me.
When I run and miss the beauty of the valley, forgive.
When I stop trying for fear of falling, pace me.
During these days when I cannot run and tell or walk without being weary
help me stand by the well with my cup.

From: Jeanette Struchen,
Prayers to Pray Without Really Trying (1969)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Testing Prayer (v)

I really meant to end the series on the scientific study of prayer yesterday.  The series looked at a research project that had results that suggest that "prayer works," in the sense that personal one-on-one prayer led to measurable improvements in seeing or hearing for a test group of 24 Christians in rural Mozambique.  It also considered a critique of those results by Dr. Steven Novella, who rejects out of hand the premise that intercessory prayer works.  As best as I can tell, it appears that in rejecting the efficacy of intercessory prayer what Dr. Novella is actually rejecting is the notion that a divine being answers prayer, which was not what the Mozambique research was trying to determine.  There is no way to test scientifically the statement that intercessory prayer does not work because a divine being does not answer prayer.  Given the superficial understanding of a god who sits on the rim of the universe and manipulates human life, all a believing theist has to say is, "God chose not to answer test prayers.  Scripture itself says that we are not to test God (Deuteronomy 6:16, Luke 4:12)."  The scientist's answer that such a response is ridiculous is based only on the scientist's own notion of what is commonsensical and what is not.  The debate is a theological one, which science cannot decide on the basis of research because its results can in all cases be attributed to the action (or inaction) of God.

But, are there ways to see if "prayer works" if we stay out of the realm of theology?  The Mozambique approach is one that does, because it tests a common form of prayer.  Dr. Novella claims that it is bad scientific method to test subjects who know they are being prayed for, but that form of prayer is a common, everyday form.  Believers pray for each other with each other.  Another common form of prayer is to pray for a person not present but who knows that she or he is being prayed for.  If science is prevented from studying these forms of prayer because of methodological considerations, then we have a clear indication that science is ill-equipped to study prayer—not that "prayer doesn't work."

Let's reject the idea that science is unable to study prayer in its various forms including one-on-one prayer.  In that case, an interesting approach would be to study a group that prays for other people and for specific outcomes and see how frequently those outcomes actually take place.  The goal is not to test whether or not a deity answers prayer.  It is simply to see if prayer in some way or another allows us to manipulate our world.  From a non-theistic point of view, science may eventually discover entirely naturalistic explanations for the conclusion that under certain circumstances "prayer works" in a measurable number of times.

There are a couple of limitations involved.  First, scientists will have to try to discover the impact of their own observations on the prayer process.  How does the presence of an observer skew the results?  Perhaps, they will have to "blind" the research subjects not from each other but from the observer, but that raises ethical questions about using people for research purposes without their consent.  Second, researchers cannot definitively say that prayer doesn't work in all cases or under all circumstances because they can't test all cases and circumstances.  Theists can always account for science's failure to find positive test results for prayer, as I indicated above—using explanations science can't test.  Science could theoretically affirm that prayer does work (sometimes under some conditions), but it cannot theoretically affirm that it does not work.  The best it can do is to say that the scientific study of prayer finds no data proving that it works.

The point is that actually studying the phenomenon of prayer itself is complex and does not admit to simplistic conclusions, not if it is studied as it is actually practiced.

Later Note (5/16/12):

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Science & Prayer (iv)

A group of mothers at prayer
In the last three postings, I have been looking at a research project on intercessory prayer conducted by an American team in Mozambique (here) and the criticism of that project by Harvard Medical School professor, Dr. Steven Novella (here).  The research team found that one on one prayer with 24 Christians suffering from hearing and seeing disabilities resulted in measurable improvement in their conditions—measurable by standard auditory and visual tests.  Dr. Novella dismisses these findings as meaningless because they are based on an unscientific methodology.

What is fascinating in Dr. Novella's critique of the Mozambique findings is that it is essentially a theological critique.  As I quoted yesterday, he partly bases his critique on his theological observation that, "I find that argument that a deity is better able to heal when the person asking them to do so is physically close to the person they are praying for absurd, lame, and convenient."  Now, the Mozambique team was careful not to claim that a deity had anything to do with their results.  They concluded that "prayer worked" because it results in measurable therapeutic benefit.  In their report, they state that they chose to study hearing and seeing conditions because they could be measured, thus limiting the influence of subjective feelings of being healed on the results.  The team also called for further studies to test their results and further explore the possibilities of using one on one prayer as a therapeutic aid esp. in remote areas where it is difficult to get modern medical care.

Dr. Novella changes the definition of "worked" in the conclusion that "prayer worked" in this instance.  He ignores the claim that prayer worked because it led to healing, which healing he dismisses as being subjective without explaining why the standard measures suggest that it wasn't merely subjective.  For him, apparently, "prayer works" means that there must be a"deity" involved and that the research team was actually trying to prove that God answers prayer.  He finds the whole notion ridiculous.  It appears that his theological prejudices have led him to misread the findings of the research.  Furthermore, his comment about a deity that "is better able to heal when the person asking them to do so is physically close to the person they are praying for" suggests that he has a narrow and superficial conception of God.  Like many non-theist scientists who have never studied theology and show disdain for it as a field of study, he has accepted as his definition of God one that is about as unsophisticated as you can get: the grandfather who sits on the rim of the universe and pulls our strings at his whim.  Christian theology has worked out over the centuries any number of other views of God, which would make more sense of the Mozambique data if we wanted to associate the data with a deity.

Prayer is a complex phenomenon, which requires a number of approaches if it is to be understood scientifically.  And that study has to be strictly about the phenomenon itself, leaving to others conclusions about whether or not God is involved.  Science can document the therapeutic value of prayer.  It cannot link that value to God.  Faithful followers of Christ can take the findings of science and find in them a universe compatible with a Creator God.  We don't expect Dr. Novella to agree.  It is fine that he doesn't.  However, I want to be clear here.  In the case we have studied, he disagrees for theological reasons, not scientific ones.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Science & Prayer (iii)

A group of mothers at prayer
In the two previous postings (here) and (here), I presented briefly the findings of an American research team, which studied the therapeutic qualities of intercessory prayer among evangelical and Pentecostal Christians in Mozambique.  The study provided data showing that individuals with hearing and seeing impairments experienced improved hearing or seeing after having someone pray with them personally.  The published version of their research is available online (here).  I also presented Dr. Steven Novella's critique of the research (here), which dismisses its findings as meaningless.  His conclusions seem to be based largely on his own theological biases, and he did not actually account for the flaws he claims are in the data or adequately explain why the methodology used by the Mozambique team was unscientific.  On the basis of his own comments, he seems to be biased against prayer and does not want to entertain data that might contradict that bias.

The point here is that the Mozambique study does suggest that prayer has a therapeutic value for those who believe in the power of prayer.  Regular readers of Rom Phra Khun know by now that one of the things I'm doing here is building a case for the value of science for the practice of faith and theological reflection.  This study is just one more building block.  It does not prove there is a God.  Such proof lies beyond the capabilities of science as we know it today.  It does not prove that God answers prayer.

The study is helpful, however, in two ways.  First, it reinforces confidence in the real value of praying with those in need of prayer.  This study suggests that intercessory prayer does work under certain conditions.  It doesn't say why praying with people is helpful, just that it is—measurably so in this case.  In the most general sense, this study is one more piece of evidence pointing to the value of living a life of faith for those who live such a life.  It is not conclusive.  It is simply one more data point.  Still, those who practice prayer with those who believe in prayer are not surprised by these scientific findings, restrained and limited as they are.  They only point to a possible conclusion that people who live in faith have already concluded from their own experience: prayer works.  We believe that God participates in our prayers, but whether or not God or a god is involved is beside the point here.  Prayer works.

Second, in an evolving universe created at the outset by God and since then superintended by the Spirit of God working within the parameters of the original creation we would expect that intercessory prayer would have "therapeutic value."  I remain convinced that on the whole credible scientific data reveals a universe that is compatible with the idea that it is created by God.  Not all of it does, but in general it does.  There have been prayer studies, for example, that suggest prayer isn't of any value, but those have to do with "distance intercessory prayer" (DIP) and sometimes seem designed to prove prayer doesn't work.  If I am correct, the more time devoted to discovering the actual healing value of prayer and the more scientists study prayer without an agenda one way or the other, the more they are going to find that prayer heals and can be a valuable element in the healing process given certain circumstances.  All I'm saying is that this is precisely the kind of scientific conclusion we would expect in a universe created by God and superintended by the Spirit.  That's all.

As for Dr. Novella's skepticism, one can understand it.  However, as a scientist he has a responsibility to deal with the data without pre-judging it on the basis of his own theological bias against a particular kind of god he thinks is implied by the conclusion that "prayer works".  His critique of the Mozambique study fails because he makes too much of its methodology while failing to deal with the data itself.  Twenty-four believing Christians experienced measurable improvement in their hearing or seeing impairments after a Christian leader sat and prayed with them.  Is that not data worth exploring rather than dismissing it out of hand?  One would think so.

I would like to return to all of this one more time, tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Science & Prayer (ii)

A group of mothers at prayer
In yesterday's posting (here), I introduced a research project conducted by an American team in Mozambique, which found that "proximal intercessory prayer" (PIP) resulted in measurable improvements in hearing or seeing among a group of 24 visually or hearing impaired evangelical Christians.  Objective hearing and seeing tests were conducted on each subject before and after church leaders prayed with them for their healing.  The published version of their research is available online (here).

As we saw yesterday, Dr. Steven Novella of the Yale University School of Medicine has posted a critique of this research project (here), which dismisses its findings as being meaningless.  The study failed to "blind" the subjects (i.e. keep them from knowing they were being prayed for) or establish a proper control group.  The results, thus, were caused by suggestion.  The subjects were susceptible to that suggest because they already believed in prayer.  The results, therefore, were merely subjective.

Dr. Novella has evidently misread the results of the research, apparently because of his own theological biases.  In the course of his critique, he writes, "I find that argument that a deity is better able to heal when the person asking them to do so is physically close to the person they are praying for absurd, lame, and convenient."  He believes that such an argument is just a way to justify doing loose research.  Interestingly enough, the Mozambique study does not refer to God as being involved.  It does not provide any theological explanation for the healing that took place.  The researchers merely observe that PIP resulted in measurable healing (by standard measures) of 24 research subjects.  They, furthermore, intentionally unblinded the subjects and sought out subjects who believed in prayer in order to expand the field of research regarding intercessory prayer.  Dr. Novella dismisses the attempt, and one of his key points in doing so is theological.  He does not find a god that answers PIP but not "distance intercessory prayer" (DIP) credible.  Belief in such a god is "absurd, lame and convenient."  At the same time, Dr. Novella does not actually account for the measurable differences in seeing and hearing the Mozambique researchers claimed resulted from PIP.  He dismisses them was being "subjective" without explaining how they could fake standard eye and hearing tests.  The Mozambique research report contains the numbers, but Dr. Novella does not respond to them.  He dismisses them.

This seems to be an odd thing for a him to do—simply dismiss apparently objective measures of a physical phenomenon for patently theological reasons.  He is after all a scientist.  He doesn't accuse the Mozambique researchers of intentionally falsifying evidence, but he himself does not address the data directly.  He dismisses it on methodological grounds, but he seems to have a theological agenda in doing so.  Methodologically, what is "wrong" with seeing what happens when unwell individuals who believe in prayer are prayed for in a personal way?  One-on-one prayer is a common form of prayer, one especially important in pastoral ministry.  Why should it not be studied?  The researchers found that under such conditions prayer contributed to healing in a measurable way.  Honestly, Dr. Novella seems to dismiss these findings because he does not want to entertain any data that contradicts his bottom line conclusion that "intercessory prayer does not work."  He seems to want to consider only those research methods and results that confirm his own theological perspective (prejudice, actually) about prayer.

Instead of being intrigued by the possibility that PIP "works" where DIP does not, he is offended.  It turns out that Dr. Novella is President of the New England Skeptical Society, an activist organization dedicated to ferreting out quackery of various kinds.  That's fine.  It's just that he is a man with an agenda, and in the case of his critique of the Mozambique research findings that agenda is showing big time.

There's more to say tomorrow.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Science & Prayer (i)

A group of mothers at prayer
Recently, a group of American researchers studied the use of what they call "proximal intercessory prayer" (PIP) by evangelicals and Pentecostals in the African country of Mozambique to heal hearing and seeing disorders. They report that, "We measured significant improvements in auditory and visual function across both tested populations." And they conclude that, "Rural Mozambican subjects exhibited improved audition and/or visual acuity subsequent to PIP. The magnitude of measured effects exceeds that reported in previous suggestion and hypnosis studies. Future study seems warranted to assess whether PIP may be a useful adjunct to standard medical care for certain patients with auditory and/or visual impairments, especially in contexts where access to conventional treatment is limited." The published version of their research is available online (here).

The researchers very carefully do not claim anything about God or engage in theological explanations of why PIP worked in the 24 cases they studied.  They recognize that suggestion played a part, but they set up objective measures for improved hearing and seeing, which could not be achieved merely by their research subjects thinking they had received healing.  One goal of the research was to expand the research on prayer into a less studied area of that research.  To date, most of it has been done on "distance intercessory prayer" (DIP) in which those being prayed for had no knowledge of the prayers.  They were "blinded."  The Mozambique study purposely unblinds the research subjects to see if close, virtually hands on personal prayer would have an impact.  In this case, it did.  That is, in one rural setting in Africa one particular form of face to face intercessory prayer did help patients suffering from hearing and seeing disorders improve their hearing or their sight.  Those prayers, when used with individuals who believe in prayer, had therapeutic value.

The research has its critics including, for example, Dr. Steven Novella, an academic neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine.  Dr. Novella has posted a critique of the Mozambique study (here), which discounts its results as being unscientific and meaningless.  He objects that, "There was no blinding or control group – so everyone in the study, subjects and experimenters, knew that every subject was getting the treatment. The treatment involves active physical intervention with the subject. The protocol also calls for multiple interventions if initial treatments are not effective – essentially the subjects receive repeat treatments as long as possible until they report a response."  He states that it is obvious that the failures to blind the subjects and to have a control group results in a study that "tells us nothing."  Dr. Novella refers to other studies in intercessory prayer that were poorly done, clealry suggesting that the Mozambique study is but one more example of such research.  He concludes, "Bottom line‚intercessory prayer does not work."  By this he means that it does not work when research subjects are "properly blinded" so that they do not know they are being prayed for.  He dismisses the improvements in hearing and sight as being subjective and exaggerated.

Let me stop here for this posting.  The issue before us is whether or not proximal intercessory prayer "works".  The Mozambique study suggests that under certain conditions its application as a therapeutic treatment results in improved hearing and seeing for test subjects who believe in prayer.  Dr. Novella rejects these findings as being based on an improper methodology.  More tomorrow.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Recommended Paraphrase of the Bible

Kookaburra: the Laughing Bird
I'm surprised I haven't done this yet, but checking back I find that I have not yet recommended that readers of Rom Phra Khun take a look at the Laughing Bird Paraphrase translation of the Bible, which you can access (here).  According to its introductory blurb, the Laughing Bird paraphrases were originally inspired by Eugene Peterson's widely used paraphrase translation, The Message, which proved to be both intriguing and a problem in Australian contexts.  The Message offered a fresh approach to the Bible, but the authors of the Laughing Bird alternative found it was often hard to read publicly and not always understandable for Aussies.  The Laughing Bird paraphrases are offered as an alternative that are easier to read in public and more appropriate to an Australian audience.  The introductory blurb does not attribute them to any one author, but apparently the Rev. Nathan Nettleton, pastor of the South Yarra Community Baptist Church, Melbourne, has a good deal to do with them.

Paraphrases have to be used with a degree of caution, but they consciously interpret scripture in a contemporary idiom.  Translations focus on words in the transferring of thought from one language to another.  Paraphrases translate the thoughts.  That being said, the Laughing Bird Paraphrase provides frequently lively, insightful, and clear readings of the Bible only made more enjoyable for an American by the Australian tinge given to the Bible.  It is unfortunate that the Laughing Bird Paraphrase is not available for the whole of the Bible.  Its intention is to be an aid in worship and thus is tied to the Revised Common Lectionary.  One other problem with using the paraphrase is that it does not have verse numbers in the text, which makes it sometimes hard to compare with other translations or locate particular verses for reference.

Still, I highly recommend that you check it out.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Blazing New Paths

When the church starts to be the church it will constantly be adventuring out into places where there are no tried and tested ways. If the church in our day has few prophetic voices to sound above the noises of the street, perhaps in large part it is because the pioneering spirit has become foreign to it. It shows little willingness to explore new ways. Where it does it has often been called an experiment. We would say that the church of Christ is never an experiment, but wherever that church is true to its mission it will be experimenting, pioneering, blazing new paths, seeking how to speak the reconciling Word of God to its own age.

Elizabeth O'Connor
Source: Call to Commitment

Friday, May 4, 2012

Thank You, CNN

Death by Soda
As RPK's humble contribution to better health, I'm going to keep putting on the Rom Phra Khun table the fact that processed sugar is dangerous to our health.  Call it one ongoing RPK theme—or a minor rant, if you like.  Anyway, thanks to CNN for its recent posting entitled, "Soft drinks: Public enemy No 1. in obesity fight?"  The long answer to the question in the posting's title is, "No, not all by itself."  The short answer is, "Yes."  The posting includes some hopeful data: obesity rates among women and girls in the U.S. have actually dropped slightly in recent years while increasing among men and boys only slightly.  The consumption of soft drinks (diet as well as "regular") has dropped by 17.3% since 1998.  Still, the problem of obesity and the contribution of soft drinks to the problem remains huge and a major drain on our healthcare system.  More importantly, drinking this junk harms individual lives.

Dear readers, soft drinks are not good for you.  They're corrosive and contribute to ill health.  In the video still shot at the head of the CNN posting,  are the words, "2011: Sugar a toxin, doctors say."  And that is food for thought (pun intended).  If you drink the stuff, please for your sake and that of those who care about you, please, stop.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Christian Beliefs & Gay Marriage

"I have very strong Christian beliefs, and personally I have always said when I accepted the Lord, I became more tolerant of others. I stopped judging people and try to live by the Golden Rule. This is part of my decision,"

Washington State Senator Margaret Haugen (D),
Explaining her vote in support of same-sex marriage

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Same & Not

Kittamaqundi Community Church sanctuary
On Sunday, April 15th, my wife Runee & I attended worship at the Kittamaqundi Community Church, Columbia, MD, known affectionately as "KC" to its members.  KC is an independent congregation that began as a house church in the late 1960s.  It is not a large church, having about 70-80 on an average Sunday morning.  On the 15th, the congregation sat at tables of six, and in place of the sermon each table shared in a discussion concerning their reasons for attending worship.  Why bother in our modern age?  Mostly, the discussions became an affirmation of the participants' sense of belonging to KC and its importance to them as a faith community.

Although more than 40 years old, KC continues to be an experimental church in some ways.  It attracts a particular "clientele," namely those for whom more traditional churches no longer work.  It employs a variety of worship approaches, and one person who sat at our table likened it to an "emerging church."

That being said, it was interesting to note a couple of crucial similarities to mainline churches.  First, it is a noticeably aging congregation.  There were only a handful of kids and no younger children at all.  There was no mention of Sunday school or any special program for children.  Perhaps there are things going on that I didn't observe, but the outward appearance of the congregation was a church composed largely of those in their 50s to 70s.  Second, in a chat with one member afterward it was said that the congregation was experiencing a time of resurgence because of its pastor, who has been with them for about five years.  That's good, but evidently KC is pretty much like other  churches, which depend on their pastors for their good, indifferent, or ill fortunes.  As I have noted in a previous posting (here), the problem is that it takes a special kind of pastor to grow a church, and the demand for such pastors is far greater than the supply of them.

The lesson for those of us "out here" in the world of the mainline church is that it is not enough for a church to make changes along the lines of the Kittamaqundi congregation.  Certainly, the worship service we attended was more engaging, more openly participatory, and more of a celebration than what takes place in most churches on most Sunday mornings.  Yet, the one teen I could see seemed disengaged and disinterested—and just one teen is not a fair sample, of course, but she served as a reminder to me that there are no magic bullets in the world of church renewal.  That, I think, was the larger lesson I learned from my visit to KC.  They have something good that is happening, and I really like their style of worship.  But they are located in a setting very different from ours here in the North Country, which meant that I came away with ideas, but not a model—hardly surprising, in retrospect.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

In a Different World

Castellano & Maddow on "Meet the Press"
This past Sunday, April 29th, speaking together on the news program "Meet the Press,"  Rachel Maddow of MSNBC exchanged words with Republican strategist Alex Castellanos on the subject of equal pay for men and women in the workforce.  Maddow made the point that women on average make substantially less than men doing comparable work with comparable qualifications and experience.  Castellanos immediately denied the truth of the statement.  It is a liberal myth based on a misunderstanding of the facts.  Last night, Maddow invested a considerable amount of time laying out the data in detail, all of which shows beyond any reasonable doubt that across virtually all major occupations women do not receive comparable compensation for comparable work done with comparable skills and experience.  The data comes from multiple sources, mostly federal government labor and commerce statistics.  The case is air-tight so far as the data goes.

It is clearly not air-tight, however, once ideology is factored in.  Castellanos approached the whole question as a matter of belief.  He does not believe the slant given the data by "liberals".  In his universe, women don't receive equal pay because they don't do comparable work.  Now, the hard data analyzed statistically does not allow that conclusion, and this is not a matter of belief.  But, he turned it into one.   To hear Maddow go through this, it seems that she is stunned by the discovery that she and Castellanos are not living in the same world of fact.  Since she is 39 year's old, we have to assume that she actually did already know that, but maybe she was surprised to have the fact reaffirmed with such painful clarity.

I mention this in Rom Phra Khun because Maddow has bumped up against a reality that we live with in the church constantly.  People chose to believe things that are simply not true.  At the top of the list is the denial of evolution and the findings of the whole science of modern biology.  We evolve.  Life evolves.  This is not a matter of belief but of simple fact.  As I've pointed out here many times before, the science is overwhelming and the mountain of data is so incredibly huge that no reasonable person should be able to reject it.  Yet, tens of millions of American Christians do reject the data as being merely "bogus".  They maintain their rejection, indeed bolster it, by living in a world of people, institutions, and beliefs that all reinforce their denial—make that denial plausible and sustainable.  They are not crazy, and they are not dumb.  They live in a different world, one in which the age of the world is a mere 6,000-plus years.  In their world, any so-called fact that contradicts that conclusion is bogus and, more to the point, a denial of God and God's "Word," the Bible.  There is no arguing with the truths they know to be true because they exist in a different universe and living in that universe they demonstrate one of the most important insights of modern sociology.  We socially construct reality.  We establish truths together and together uphold the truth of those truths even when they are not true.

One of our failures in American politics today and in the church today is that we are not able to dialogue across our ideologies.  That failure is poisoning our politics and it leads Christians to treat each other in ways that are far from Christ-like.  Our ideological differences are a threat to church, nation, and the globe.