Thursday, July 24, 2014

Science and Scripture

In my evangelical world, science is still sometimes at argument. Yes, it manifests itself in specific subjects, but, for the most part, it is the idea of science itself that seems to be at odds - as if somehow it's sacrilegious to think God could communicate knowledge to people outside the Bible.

Obviously it's not always so bad, but a lot of times it is.

Don't get me wrong, it's a rough slog that needs to be waded through. While the rest of the world is actually engaging science on its own terms, so many evangelicals are becoming less and less relevant to the world. People do very much need to understand that some approaches to scripture, even very old, traditional ones, come with their own assumptions and biases that aren't inherent in the text.

I don't even care so much if people still choose to form scientific opinions from religious or theological beliefs. I wish they wouldn't, but I'm not going to kill myself to change it. I do think it's important that there is at least respect in the areas of our disagreement. We can think each other stupid morons, so long as we don't treat each other that way.

Still, as I approach the debates that exist within the evangelical world around science and religion (particularly a certain kind of literal, fundamentalist religion), I more often cringe at those with whom I agree.

I know the arguments that Ken Ham, say, or some Intelligent Design officianado will put forth to defend their position (or attack mine). I get the reasoning behind it and I understand pretty clearly why I've chosen differently. Hearing those ongoing arguments make me sad, but they do not upset me.

I'm not really upset by the other "side" either. I think, for the most part, the Christian defenders of science are robust, thorough and graceful (or at least more graceful than they should probably be expected to be given the abuse they so often endure).

It's got to be tough for someone who could easily walk away from the evangelical tribe, to stay and attempts to present alternatives, counter-opinions, true Christian challenge, all the while being vilified and called enemy.

At the same time, I often regret how little emphasis is actually placed on scripture by those in the "science" camp. (And please, know it pains me deeply to even be talking about this as a "debate," but reality is as reality does - the same goes for unreality as well, I suppose.)

Sure, there is debate about the ways in which scripture is used and approached by the seven day creation camp or the ID perspective. There is a presentation of alternative perspectives and approaches to interpretation. That's not absent. What I don't often see is an affirmation of the primacy and importance of scripture for those who choose to put stock in the study of the physical world.

Now this is sort of an awkward critique. I went to school at Eastern Nazarene College and took a class from Dr. Karl Giberson, who's sort of become a leading engager of such debates and a convenient whipping boy for the most militant of evangelicals and literalists. I know Karl - not in some super close way, but we're friends on Facebook; I've been to his house a couple times. I find it hard to talk about such discussions without thinking of him.

This isn't really something that applies to Karl. He's a scientist. He really does well when he's talking (and even better when he's writing) from the scientist's perspective. He speaks well to his own religious experience, but honestly, religion is not his field and the times I'm most uncomfortable with what he has to say are the times he addresses religion more deeply - again, it's not his field.

It might be more a critique of the silent majority of those for whom religion is their field than it is of Jesus-loving scientists. Religion, theology, happens to be my field and it seems sometimes like we've hung those scientists out to dry. And, in doing so, have done a real disservice to the conversation.

You see, when there is a debate over God and science, rightly or not, the perception is that one side takes scripture more seriously and the other side is perceived to argue that perhaps they're taking it too seriously.

In many cases, though, this couldn't be further from the truth.

I believe people willing to engage so strenuously in debate (on any side of any issue) probably care pretty deeply about the subject matter. Yes, some people use a non-literalist interpretation of scripture to justify ignoring sections they don't like. But to categorize all science advocates in that vein is silly.

But it might be justifiable, especially if people who really do take scripture seriously, but find themselves in an alternative position to traditional evangelicalism refuse to speak up.

I wish the conversation would continue - beyond why one perspective on scripture is inadequate for some and onto alternative ways scripture can be taken seriously.

I grew up in a pretty conservative environment. I suspect it was my own natural contrarian proclivities that kept me from jumping hook, line, and sinker into literalist, fundamentalist beliefs. I had a lot of thinking to do in college to evaluate new information I received about science. What I didn't get until Seminary, though, were the tools to do a similar evaluation and recalibration on how that new information effected my views of God and scripture. Those tools weren't present in the science debate.

It is a scare tactic to say that evolution or serious science is an attempt to move our children away from proper doctrine or that the study of science in standard academic terms will steal a person's faith. It's not entirely wrong, though. People do encounter science and lose faith from time to time. Others find resonance with a more liberal perspective on science and faith, but lose the fervency they once had for God. It happens. It's far from inevitable, but it's not non-existent.

I wonder sometimes, if Christian kids aren't getting turned off to Christ because we're not equipping them with the tools necessary to process theology in light of science. If, by omission, we're teaching them to take scripture less seriously when we counter dearly-held childhood beliefs with alternative perspectives.

In my case, the pathological need for order drove me to deep study (well beyond anything required in any of my academic programs) to try and answer some of these questions. I know a lot of people just don't feel the need to do the same thing.

In my case, the need to incorporate scientific revelation into a life of faith lead me to an even more serious treatment of scripture than I had before. If I have one critique of the Ken Ham ilk, it's that they don't take scripture seriously enough.

I don't think this perspective on the matter gets discussed enough. It's not the job of scientists - even Christian scientists - to do it. It's my job, and really the job of anyone who's ever put in an effort to reconcile new information with ancient faith.

I've written about my continuing struggles with this reconciliation here. I will continue to explore because it's a whole lot of fun, but also because this journey has led me to some amazing discoveries about God and the world that reach far deeper and with more beauty than anything I've experienced before.

I think people encounter this kind of science everyday - it's more than biology, but sociology, history, economics, psychology, neuroscience, anthropology and more - information that doesn't immediately fit into the religious or theological framework they've been given.

I think, for a lot of people, the default position is just to devalue scripture. They just don't have the tools to do otherwise. They simply say, "well, if my understanding of scripture was wrong in this area, I guess it must be wrong here, too," and leave it at that. That's certainly where I was for many years.

As Christians, scripture is the tradition of God's people passed down through time. It may not be a verbatim dictation of thought and practice from God's mouth to your ears, but it's amazingly, profoundly, life-alteringly important.

Reconciling the two, or, especially, giving people the tools to reconcile the two, is not the job of scientists - it's the job of pastors and theologians. My people.

Too often, and I am certainly guilty of this as well, we remain silent when we should speak for fear of entering an argument that could be avoided. When we do so, we hurt ourselves, the people with whom we converse, and also those "scientists" out there, in a wide variety of fields, who've dedicated themselves to increasing knowledge and learning more about this unbelievable world God shares with us.

I'm not sure if there's a point to this whole essay - and it's about five times longer than I've intended it to be -but I've been thinking about it recently and I thought it might do some of you some good to think about it, too.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Way We Work by Dan Boone

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

Dan Boone's new book, The Way We Work, opens with some deep, challenging, and radical chapters on work, its place in our society, the history of our approach to work, and, of course, the theology of work. They're really important chapters, which ask a lot of deep and difficult questions.

From there, though, the bulk of the rest of the book is mostly about practical ways a Christian theology can and should affect a person's approach to the workplace. There's a much stronger, not to much self-help vibe, but a definite, "here are some easy steps to get more out of life" feel. Not that this isn't important and useful, simply that it doesn't quite pay off as rewardingly as the opening chapters might belie.

I probably should have expected this, though, given that the subtitle is "How Faith Makes a Difference on the Job." There really is some good stuff there, it's just not really new stuff and not what I'd term exciting. There are a lot of block quotes, with the typical indented formatting, however, there also appears to be a lot of places where the indenting pops up for what should be normally lined text - that can be quite confusing to readers and difficult to follow.

I had a preaching class with Dan Boone one time. He is truly one of the great preachers I've ever had the privilege to hear and be around. His books read a lot like sermons; Boone is a master of the casual narrative. They pop up frequently here. There are also chapters with many other styles and themes, some adapted from other books of his.

During that preaching course, one of the most important and most frequent critiques he gave us was that our sermons contained too many moves. A move is a thought or idea - a section of the sermon meant to communicate something specific. You can have an abundance of wonderful moves, but too many of them becomes distracting and takes away from the overall message.

If there's one thing I could say to sum up my impressions of the book it's simply that there are too many moves. The topic is important. The content is great, but there's just so much of it and with so much variety - a very broad brush without real detail in any one area. It's a good book, but probably not quite where it could be at its best. (Which is also, incidently, I think, what Dr. Boone said about my sermon in class - I hope there's no subconscious bias on my part.)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Definition of America

I've struggled mightily with this new-found Christian ideal of lawsuits. We've seen many controversial episodes recently, some ongoing, where Christian groups, individuals, or organizations sue the government, in one form or another, in the name of religious freedom. I've been unsettled by all of this.

It strikes me as wrong.

This has nothing to do with the particular merits of any one claim. I happen to appreciate some and others draw out an improperly equivalent anger. I have no problem agreeing that a Catholic hospital should be allowed to use theology in it's decision-making. At the same time, I think the complexities of reproductive care and contraception prove the Green family of Hobby Lobby fame foolish at best, ignorant at worst.

However, the real struggle I have is with the implication that any of these lawsuits are faith-based in nature. Certainly the issues discussed are matters of faith and practice. I also believe the participants are motivated by faith. Still, it seems like the suits themselves, the struggles and the manner with which these struggles are engaged, lack any grounding in faith.

Well, that's not true. It is a sort of faith that has wrapped up its own belief within the definition of America. By America, I am speaking of the United States. Often we forget that America applies to a pretty large land mass, stretching from Greenland to Chile, with an awfully diverse mix of people. Still, to most of the world, in colloquial shorthand, if nothing else, the US is America.

For many of my tribe - the American Evangelical - our understanding of America is indistinguishable tied to faith. Really, America brings this on herself. This union of faith and civics stems from the mythic and religious language characterizing the history of this country (or at least the European history of this country). From the Puritan "City on a Hill" to the Mormon New Israel, there has been a real understanding for many that the United States has somehow assumed the role of God's chosen people and carries with it an inherent righteousness beyond all other nations.

This is more than simply American exceptionalism; it is a civil religion. One in which the flag and the cross are interchangeable symbols of identity. Soldiers become martyrs, and freedom is the highest ideal. This is a painful union because flags and soldiers and freedom are not evil concepts; they're not wrong. They are simply not Christian. Unfortunately, attempts to illustrate the necessary separation of faith and patriotism involves a critique, not of the things themselves, but of what they represent to some people. This distinction, however, is often lost - and the resulting pain is truly regrettable.

But it is the truth. No nation can be a Christian nation - even if that nation adopts the symbols, practices, or morality of Christianity. That's ultimately what these battles are about - they're struggles over the moral definition of America.

Some are under the belief that these are and should be identical; for others, the civic morality should be influenced by Christian morality; for still others there should be careful consideration to intentionally preclude Christianity from impacting civic morality.

That's the struggle. And it seems the civic leaders, in the legislature, the White House, and the Supreme Court are just as engaged in the struggle - with no firm or evident lines drawn.

Regardless, the machinations of the civic process should not be the concern of Christians. We should be acting without regard to those systems. Christianity - life in the way of Jesus - has always been (even before Jesus) a lived critique of the systems around us.

We can and do, even as Christians, disagree about which laws are just and unjust and which are worth obeying and which require considered disobedience. If Hobby Lobby wants to make what I consider ill-informed and poorly-reasoned decisions based on the faith of their owners, wonderful. If the Catholic Church wants to make similar decisions for their schools and hospitals, great. We, as Christians, should not expect or even fight for, the acceptance of those ideals from the civic government under which we live. It just doesn't make any sense.

Now, there is certainly a case to be made that various Christian morals can be supported by non-religious reasoning. I don't have a problem with advocacy along those lines at all. Personally, I can't think of a single thing I do strictly because "God said so." I tend to have firm, real world rationale for just about everything.

I am not saying Christians can't and shouldn't be involved in shaping civic morality - simply that we should not be doing it by appealing to our faith or religious freedom.

Religious freedom is the freedom to practice one's religion without being harmed or hindered. This does not include the right to participate in society with the same unmolested religious practice. When civic morality differs from religious morality, there is still freedom of religion, just not freedom of participation. That's not guaranteed - nor should it be.

Christians participate in civic society as much as as the society allows and as much as their own faith practices allow. Amish communities are exempt from a lot of the taxes and responsibilities of other citizens, but in exchange they've given up many of the benefits as well - sometimes the privilege of being involved in civic society. The separation is not all by choice.

Religious organizations and individuals are free to act on their faith in their own communities. The idea that this freedom must be extended to the public economic, social, and cultural spheres is pretty antithetical to the idea of a nation. No nation can afford to have competing life narratives at play among decision makers.

As much as we make of the differences between Republican and Democrats (or Libertarians and Socialists for that matter) they are all simply divergent voices in the midst of the unified national narrative. Certainly there could be a religious party alongside, with its own unique perspective on how we define America (that happens in a lot of countries). We avoid that here because religion is still an undercurrent of the grand narrative.

It's simply not a Christian undercurrent.

The American narrative, our civil religion, the machinations of government - none of them are conducive to actual Christian participation. This is what's borne out in the lawsuits that so trouble me.

Christians do not demand rights. We have none. That is the very definition of Christian freedom. When Paul speaks of being slaves to Christ, he equates that with freedom. We have a way of life particular to us, peculiar as it may be. That way of life gives us freedom - not freedom to do as we please, but freedom from the alternative narratives in the world.

Yes, that does sometimes mean suffering. We must live with the consequences of our actions. What it means to live as Christ in the midst of a world that thinks and lives differently is sometimes suffering. But again, as Paul says, it is not really suffering if we genuinely believe the Christian way is the right way to live in the world. Often, though, it seems our modern, American, Christian desire is to live a comfortable life and also go to heaven when it's over. That's much more the embodiment of the American civil religion than it is anything to do with Christ.

So how then do Christians have any influence on the world? Well, it's through example - through loving action. I truly mourned when the Catholic Church used claims of rights and constitutional arguments concerning its schools and hospitals. A Christian response would be to continue living out their faith (on this particular issue - the evils of birth control - I don't even agree with the stance). But I guarantee you, if the Catholic Church had been willing to close all its schools and hospitals over this stance, the public would have reacted and the civic morality would have been sufficiently changed. It would not have been a power move, but one of humility. All the good, positive, loving action generated from Catholic schools and hospitals would have overwhelmed what is, in reality, a much smaller controversy.

When Christian stand up for their principles and no one notices, it's simply because they haven't been making a positive enough impact to be missed.

This is a real problem for public, for-profit companies. The ways the markets work, if one company shuts down because of moral or religious reasons, some other, less morally constricted company will take their place. The Hobby Lobby suit was an attempt to participate in civic society without cowing to civic morality. That's wanting to have your cake and eat it, too.

Yes, it would be wonderful if that were possible, but it would require the civic morality to match the morality of the business owner. That's the real struggle - not for religious freedom or Christian expression or any of that - it is a fight for the definition of America.

If the system is Christian, then Christians should be able to participate in it. If it is American, then Christians have to choose where their allegiance lies.

I'd like to say this is a new problems, but it really isn't. It's simply a new, more overt twist on an old problem. Since government first began using Christianity to advance its own causes (way back in good, old Roman times), the faith itself has been altered and amended and sacrificed to please the civic morality - the needs of the State. Yes, the civic morality has equally been altered and amended and sacrificed at times as well - it is a mutual symbiosis. But the underlying relationship has been to advance the cause of civil society under the mantle of Christianity.

There's been an almost 2,000 year old lie that the two can be one.

Many are only now realizing that this is not true (although many have always known so and been silenced as radicals). Civil society has realized it doesn't need Christianity any longer - its interests can be advanced just as well and just as fervently with the civil religion - a story of social, economic, and military success - a story of personal freedom and hard work.

Christians react to this in many different ways. Some are simply so attached to the civil religion that they'll go along with the change and notice no real difference in life. Some cling to the notion that the two - civil society and Christian faith - must be connected and are necessarily by divine right, whether reality plays out this way or not. I humbly offer an alternative:

Recognize that civil society and Christian faith are not of the same kind, that they cannot be united simply by virtue of their existential purpose and also by the underlying principles of their individual narratives.

Live in the way of Christ. Be willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary (including everything we might call a "right") in order to live the transformative love we know can change the world. But leave God to do the changing. We can only make choices for ourselves and our lives - to live in the way of the cross - we can't force anything else to change, no by lawsuits or hard work or manipulation. We can only love and let that mystical, unexplainable transformation take place in the way of Christ.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Guns in Public

So, a lot of people have been up in arms about the open carry demonstrations happening in some places. People who carry around large guns on their everyday errands simply to prove they have the legal right to do so.

Yesterday, I ran across one, very logical response. There's a couple of good arguments there about the problems inherent with such demonstrations, and a reference to the very real legal death spiral that could potentially arise in light of the most extreme versions of "stand you ground" laws.

I don't get the open carry thing. I don't even get the concealed carry thing. I am biased here. I always thought we had robust police forces and gun laws because the old "Wild West" tradition supporters of open carry so often tout didn't really work for civilized society. But what do I know?

The solution proposed in that article above is just to leave immediately whenever there are guns present. If it means walking out on the bill at a restaurant in favor of your and your family's safety, then so be it. This is essentially a economic protest (and one likely more effective than a boycott) - real actual customers have much more influence on merchants than angry former-customers (that's how Wal-mart employees got improved health care).

I don't like this response, though. It seems to make some presumptions I'm uncomfortable with. It's entirely based on fear (both real and pretend). The article advises leaving, even if you're pretty confident the gun carrier means no harm. It's a statement of ignorance, really; "I see a weapon that could be dangerous. I don't know the person carrying it or their intentions. Therefore I will leave to avoid a potential trauma."

I don't like increasing fear, even if it's the righteously indignant variety. Fear is what got us into this predicament in the first place. People carry guns out of fear. They're afraid, God forbid, some situation might arise where they or their loved ones or the people around them might be threatened in some way and they want to be able to act decisively. They may not be afraid; they might be brave, but the motivation is still one of fear.

I'm not even saying it's an unjustified fear (although, I suspect, in most cases, it is)- there could be all the evidence in the world to support such suspicion and preparation, but it is still ultimately a fear reaction (or proaction, as the case may be).

I don't think responding to one fear reaction with another is the right thing to do.

I'm not exactly sure what the right thing to do is, but, when in doubt, I revert to love.

Thankfully, I'm not involved in violent or threatening situations that often. I have, however, spent more than a fair amount of time thinking about how I'd like to respond if I were in one. Fear isn't an option (it's probably likely; I'm pretty convinced I'd run crying like a scared toddler from gunshots as an instinctual reaction - but that still doesn't make it the right thing to do).

So what is a loving response to such perceived threats? Well, even before this issue of open carry became a "thing," my decision was simply to treat anyone with a gun as if they meant no harm - even if they explicitly stated otherwise (as opposed to the article, which asks people to treat every gun as malicious, even if told otherwise). I simply believe that people do what they do for a reason - it might be a dumb reason or a selfish one or even an unconscious reason of which they are entirely unaware - but outside of brainwashed child soldiers or abuse victims, most everyone acts in what they believe to be the "right" way for their particular situation (and even child soldiers and abuse victims have clear justification in their own minds).

Fear brings out the worst in people, both in the terrified and in the object of terror. People react poorly when others are afraid of them; we are not our best selves. It gets even worse when people are already stressed out or confused, and even worse still when they're armed.

Yes, I know, my decided response is pretty irresponsible and it's going to be called naive (although I'd argue nothing can be naive when you know full well what you're doing). It's quite likely (at least in public perception) to get me hurt or killed. (I'd still argue that the likelihood I'd ever be in a situation to even require this reaction is slim to none, but ultimately irrelevant.) But, you know what? I would honestly rather die in love and grace than live with fear.

I say that not just for the quality of life each choice brings, but for the overarching existential statement. I'd rather be a dead guy dumb enough to believe in love, than a living guy who's suspicious and afraid - no matter how smart and well-respected it makes me.

That's my choice. It doesn't have to be yours. But this is just an opinion - and the guy in the article above gave his. There's great merit there and much logical sense. I choose to go a different direction. If you want me advice about how to respond if you see some guy with an AK-47 across the aisle from you at the movies, here it is:


Just refuse to be afraid.


Assume he's some guy with extreme views about guns and freedom and that he's just trying to enjoy Melissa McCarthy fat jokes like the rest of us.

If you refuse to be afraid, then you'll never need a gun. If everyone refuses to be afraid, then no one will need a gun (unless MacGyver-style deer traps just aren't you thing). Sure, you might ask what happens if a few people fail to follow this trend and keep their guns, using them for malicious purposes - but that's the fear talking. I've seen more people talk their way out of tricky situations with grace and love than I've ever seen people shoot their way out of anything.

Before I finish, I do know that fear is not something you necessarily control (hence my confession to likely running from danger at the first opportunity). Sometimes we are afraid and sometimes that fear is strong enough to motivate action. Sometimes we don't get the choice whether to react our of fear or out of something else. To that, I'd just say, don't make it easier for fear to win. We make choices each and every day that set ourselves for the reactions we have. Think about how you want to respond in a tense situation, and in those other times, when you aren't reacting on instinct, set yourself up to choose love over fear.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Trust and Separation

Sorry for the lack of posting recently. My wife and I returned from a long-pinned-for trip to Hawaii. It took a while to save up all the frequent flyer miles, it was a very long trip home, but we had a lot of fun. We did, however, leave our daughter at home, overnight, without us, for the first time.

We'd left her with neighbors before, for a few hours, and we always put her to bed when we got home. We did leave her with grandparents, in her own home, with her things and routines. We have wonderful neighbors who made sure to be near and familiar. She had a wonderful time and didn't even seem all that excited to see us when we got back.

It was tremendously difficult to leave though. I knew it would be awful for my wife. She'd dreaded the trip since we booked tickets last August. I didn't expect it to hit me so hard. I think we were both looking through tears out the windshield as we drove away that night towards Baltimore and then, five thousand miles away, Hawaii.

I knew, intellectually, it was the right thing to do. I worked it out. We can't cling to our daughter forever. It's not good for her and it's not good for us. Having separation like this on a regular basis is helpful and important. Once we got on the plane and there was really nothing we could do about it, I settled down. Skype is great, but I found myself pretty able to focus on the trip and enjoying our time.

Our daughter is not really our daughter, she's a child of God. That's what we said when we brought her to the church, a week into life, and introduced her to the waters of baptism. We are charged with loving and raising her, but ultimately she (nor we) does not rely on us for protection, but God. We forget that sometimes. A trip like this helps remind us.

We left Eva with her family and friends, immersed in the midst of the community we love and in which we live. These are the same people who would care for her if we were gone permanently. At some point Eva will have to live without us, it's important for her to know firsthand how possible it is and how important it is to have people around her.

We don't control our lives. Even if you don't believe in God, that statement is just as true. We can be proactive and organized and intentional, but, in the end, we're only just reacting to the world around us.

That doesn't mean we have to live only for the moment, but we must act, in the moment, with a mind towards how each action is shaping our future. Time away from Eva was difficult, but just about everything is at first. Ultimately, hopefully, we're teaching her things that will help her be a more well-rounded, independent, intentional person - someone who can trust God and have faith in the future. It was good for her and it was good for us. Let's just hope we have the strength to do it again sometime - a very long time from now.