Rational Religion

GodReasonReligionGod, Reason and Religion, the title of Steven M. Cahn’s book, fit uneasily together. Or so it would seem. Cahn, a philosophy professor, collected together in this little book a set of sixteen short, provocative essays keyed to major topics of the philosophy of religion. I’m always skeptical when I see Reason and Religion together on a book cover. It seems like an unholy plotting is going on. Perhaps it’s because those of us who study religion are often classed together with those who use slipshod techniques to “study” a subject they’ve already made up their minds about. Any scientist who’s seriously tried to learn Akkadian might have to reevaluate that premise. Happily, Cahn is not trying to promote such an idea. He states in the introduction, “My conclusions may be surprising, for although I am not a traditional theist, I find much to admire in a religious life, so long as its beliefs and practices do not violate the methods and results of scientific inquiry.” For books with Reason and Religion on the cover, that can be quite a concession.

One of the biggest faults of religions is their lack of introspection. That is a gross generalization, I know, but there is truth in it. Most religions have been severely challenged by the empirical method. Reason, it turns out, can explain most of what required one—or a multitude of—god(s) to accomplish. At the same time, religion makes people feel secure and happy. My experience of science has often been enlightening, but decidedly prickly. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Nevertheless, Cahn takes the reader through a maze of ways to think about religions from different angles. What is the tie between religion and ethics? How do we tell a good deity from a bad one? What is faith and is it a safe bet? Do miracles happen? These kinds of questions, when viewed rationally, don’t always have the dreadful results so often feared. So maybe the laws of physics aren’t violated, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop praying. Did I mention that Cahn makes concessions?

We are the cultural children of our logical, Greek forebears. They taught us to trust our reason and we’ve developed that to a high skill. Yet reason has its limits. Consider the Republican Party, for instance. Or Snooki. In life not everything adds up. Facing their final moments, few have the fortitude to keep their thoughts purely on the rational. What lies beyond we just don’t know. Science has no way of answering. So Reason and Religion should get along. There may be more than one way of knowing, and some things in our world may bridge that deep gulf between Reason and Religion. That bridge may sometimes be difficult to find. If you decide to seek it out, however, I would recommend taking Cahn along for some good reading. Even the most serious search must offer some concessions.

Neander Valley

Because we can—but should we? This is technological ethics in a nutshell. While we are still debating what it means to be human and the majority of people in the world address that question in religious terms, is it right to play with our own genetics? This is an unavoidable question when considering George Church’s search for a volunteer. Church, currently at the Harvard School of Medicine, would like to grow a Neanderthal baby. With DNA extracted from fossils, it is theoretically possible to clone a Neanderthal with a loving mommy. The usual argument against human cloning is, well, it’s human. Neanderthals are often considered not-quite-human, although our common ancestors hung together in the biological family tree much longer than our chimpanzee cousins. I still recall from my school days that a Neanderthal dressed in a suit and put on the streets of New York City would pass for a large, barrel-chested human. I think I may have seen him on my way to work once or twice, in fact.

Genetics are ethically frightening because they go down to the level of what used to be called essences. Some scientists today dispute that there is anything called an essence; all we have is building blocks. What you make of those blocks contains no essence—you can’t see it in a microscope or cyclotron, or spin it out of DNA. Therefore it must not exist. If there is no human essence, what is the problem with experimenting around a bit? Funnily enough, the question of natural selection enters into this equation. In the arboreal climes of Pleistocene Europe Homo sapiens sapiens bested their big-breasted cousins in the struggle for survival. Would the same be true in our technological era of easy obesity where work is considered tapping on a keyboard all day? After all, Neanderthals had bigger brain capacity—are we ready for that kind of competition? Neanderthal economics might take care of the one percenters even.

I have no insight to offer on such a thorny ethical issue. I do, however, believe in essences. I’ve never seen or measured one, but even concepts like good and evil are meaningless without their essences. What is the essence of a Neanderthal? I suppose it is such a question that leads Dr. Church to seek a volunteer to bring one back into the twenty-first century world. I have to admit I’m a little curious too. Just think of all the opportunities for cute commericals. Still, if natural selection already vetoed the race, maybe we should abide by that decision. This time around we might find ourselves on the losing end—who knows what Neanderthal ethics consist of? Secretly I think their essence might just be trickle down economics and they’ve been among us all along.

Me, on the way to work.

Me, on the way to work.

Twist and Shout

TwistedFaithTrue crime is not really my thing. I find regular life disturbing on a frequent basis, and reading about how someone willfully harmed another only seems to make my prognosis worse. When I saw that Gregg Olsen’s A Twisted Faith: A Minister’s Obsession and the Murder that Destroyed a Church took place in a number of places where various family members live (Poulsbo, Port Orchard, Seattle, Washington) I was drawn in. As the dark story began to unfold, at several points I almost put the book aside—this is a difficult account to read. Christ Community Church on Bremerton Island sounded a little too much like the Community Chapel in which I was reared. The power struggles, the self-righteousness, and the hidden lusts of those who live “clean lives,” all brought back painful memories. Nevertheless, I had to see how this sordid, almost salacious tale played out. Youth minister Nick Hacheney, to cut to the chase, murdered his wife and carried on affairs with at least four women in his church, including his murdered wife’s mother. Based on many personal interviews, Olsen digs deeply into the psychological trauma this one minister inflicted on the women he stalked, and revealed some of the neuroses of conservative religion.

I say “conservative religion” not to pick a fight, but because of the things both the women and men believed. After a conflict over whether to stay with the Assemblies of God denomination, Christ Community Church went independent when a new minister began seeking senior leadership over the congregation. So far that’s normal ecclesiastical politics. What made this so unbelievable is that many of the decisions were based on “prophecies” that self-proclaimed messengers of God presented and that clergy and people took at face value. Even when they blatantly failed to show any accuracy. There was never any questioning whether one received an authentic message or not. Some of these “prophecies” involved the deaths of congregation members, including the murdered Dawn Hacheney. Women with marriages in various states of decay, feeling sorry for the murderer (whom only one of them suspected) eventually gave in to his words “from God” that they were to have sex with him to help him get over his loss. The real pain was seeing the psychological manipulation he applied to his victims, causing them divine guilt if they refused.

In a community that readily accepts claims of direct messages from God, congregants are clearly sheep led to the slaughter. Most Christian denominations have mechanisms in place, no matter how faulty, to test such individual claims. Groups that trust their clergy to be honest all the time fail to calculate human weakness into the equation. It is no surprise at all when staunch, conservative clergy are caught violating their own rules (and congregants). Give them a blank check for signing God’s name to any statement and you’ve got a truly unholy writ. Many churches manage to avoid the most serious pitfalls most of the time. When one fails to discover the wolf in sheep’s wool, as happened on Bremerton Island at the end of the last century, true crime may be the mildest way to describe the results.

King’s Highway

Sometimes I forget the beauty of the Bible. With its constant current of misuse in our society, it is sometimes easy to forget that, like an abused child, the Bible is not to be blamed for being the victim. As a civilization we owe a great deal to it, and even on its own, when we overlook the insensitive and sexist parts, it remains a literary masterpiece. Just over a year ago I visited a true friend I’ve known since high school. He is not a religious man, but in his living room, on a stand, stood open the Bible. It is more than a jingoistic symbol. Even the more we become aware of other great spiritual writings: the Rig Veda, the Tao Te Ching, the Gilgamesh Epic, we shouldn’t let the sublime messages from the Bible escape our notice. Even in this secular, workaday world, the words of the Sermon on the Mount often come to me, grand and resplendent. Parts of Isaiah still bring tears to my eyes. Writers from Shakespeare to Bradbury drew on its noble sentiments.

The Bible comes to mind when thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. Our chronological spans overlapped by just five and a half years, but I followed him to Boston University School of Theology, walked the same corridors he did, meditated in the same chapel. Even then, some two decades after his martyrdom, his vision had not been fully realized. It still remains unfulfilled. At Brown University in May of last year, I was fortunate enough to be in the crowd when John Lewis received an honorary doctorate. His remarks to the crowd were humble, few, and profound. He said he never thought of the civil rights movement as a way to greatness. He was only trying to help. He admonished the affluent, the comfortable sitting on a hot Ivy League green, “Find a way to get in the way.” Injustice must come to end. The color, gender, sexual orientation, place of birth or financial status of no person should ever be used to judge her or him. With remarks I’ve heard about President Obama, most vulgarly on Facebook, we still have a long, long journey ahead of us.

In a day when the internet weaves millions of people into a fabric that should remind us we are all part of a whole, some still insist that their shading, location, or special pedigree make their part of the cloth the most valuable. Even as revolutions against injustice—something with which Americans especially should sympathize—take place in “backward” nations by using social media, we in the “first world” still judge one another by the origins of our ancestry and the mythical superiority of our skin tones. The greatest asset the United States offers to the world is its unique blend of people from everywhere. Our country demonstrates what can happen when people from every continent put their minds and wills together to work for the common good. This clashes with the biblical brand of separatism, I know. But even Isaiah, even if it is in his third incarnation, reminds us, “Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant; Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.”


Money Poppins

Marypoppins Easy answers seldom hold up. Generalizing is a way of dealing with the vast amounts of data people continually process. Now that many of us in the “developed” world spend much of our time indoors, those skills earned from thousands of generations of learning about the environment have transferred to media of various sorts. I watch a lot of movies—they are my escape from an urban reality that often weighs too heavily on my primate brain. Long ago I relegated Disney to that shelf of the least profound films. Although many of their animated features of the past decade or so have introduced complexities and some seriousness into the mix, often I find myself still hungry after sitting through a helping of the Disney fantasy-land. It seems to me that nature is crueler and more careless than Disney makes it out to be. Nevertheless, sometimes something profound can be discovered in the most unlikely of places.

I never saw Mary Poppins until I was in college, but now I come back to it as an adult from time to time and I still learn from it. While watching recently it struck me that two worlds (at least) are juxtaposed here: the world of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. On the night before the Banks children accompany their father to the bank, Mary Poppins suggests that some things are important, although quite small. She refers, of course, to the birds that the Bird Lady uses to make her pitiful living. She sells crumbs within sight of an opulent bank that stands for the order of society. She is dressed in poor clothing, a beggar woman under the protective gaze of saint and apostles. The bank has guards and bars and powerful men. The worlds are brought into collision by Jane and Michael wanting to feed the birds but they instead are forced to open a bank account. In the ensuing melee, George Banks takes the blame and is fired.

On his way to the bank that night to be sacked, he reevaluates. In a brief but significant scene, he pauses in front of the Cathedral, deserted at night, and scans where the Bird Lady sat. The scene immediately cuts to the bank, still at work, its great doors snapped open by uniformed guards. The Cathedral, dark and glowering, is just down the street. And yet, once dismissed Mr. Banks chooses the way of the Bird Lady, an unemployed man spending tuppence for paper and string to mend a kite. No, I don’t attribute much profundity to Disney, but Mary Poppins does give pause for a moment. We never see the inside of the Cathedral. It is generally dark and forbidding. The bank is light and inviting, yet liable to turn on you. Maybe it is merely lack of sleep, but as I closed my eyes last night, it seemed that even Disney may have, for one brief instant, turned its back on money.

Angels of Ages

Angels&Ages February 12, 1809. Both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Some days can be momentous that way. Although I’d known about this coincidental birth for some years, I had supposed it was one of history’s curiosities and nothing more. Adam Gropnik’s Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life changed all that. What’s more, while both Lincoln and Darwin are secular characters, the book has a strong dose of how religion influenced and perhaps even emanated from ideas both of these giants had. Religion actually surfaces throughout much of the book, although Lincoln grew up as a skeptic, and certainly was not a “church goer,” and Darwin was groomed for the clergy but came, through nature, to have serious doubts about God’s existence. Religion may not be Gropnik’s main point, but it has a way of following these two historical figures around.

Using a biographical and intellectual parallelism, Gropnik lays the two men side-by-side in their Victorian lives and shows how death was really a factor that bound them. Both lost a beloved child at about the same age, and both found death’s pervasiveness a problem for believing in any kindly God. Of course, we all know that none of us would be here now if our forebears had not passed on, making room for us. It is the way of nature. Nature is hardly kind or just, however. Ringing throughout this fascinating exploration is the ubiquitous problem of theodicy—in a world of such palpable suffering, where, indeed, has God gone? How do we continue to believe when all the evidence is contrary? Some of our greatest doubters have become our greatest guides.

I appreciated especially how Gropnik ends his little book with some thoughts on religion. He makes the essential point that Darwinism, by definition, cannot be a religion. Even better is the clear-eyed vision that he has that religion and science are both needed by people and they may both be held as true. Even when they’re fighting. The truth is nobody has all the answers. Those who brashly dismiss religion or science are equally wrong. In his eloquent style, Gropnik makes a decidedly sane suggestion that we should learn from our assertions of pluralism. We are accustomed to thinking about much of life and culture as being equally valued, no matter where on the planet we find it. Why can we not do the same with truths? Some will find meaning in science and have little time for faith. Others will find religion to be their ultimate and will not be bothered by science. The vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle. And what brought us to this point was the fact that February 12, 1809 was such an extraordinary day.

Hardsell and Gospel

When I find myself a considerable distance from my point of egress sometimes I have to take the subway to escape New York. Don’t get me wrong—I love New York, but Monday through Friday it is a place to work, not to play. Getting home is serious business. To get to the Port Authority Bus Terminal from the subway, one venue is a long underground passage. When I take this corridor, I find that it is often a favorite place for street evangelists during inclement weather; apparently the gospel goes underground when the weather turns nasty. So as I recently padded along that tunnel, I noticed an interesting conflict in worldviews. There were a series of street preachers, the central one with Bible in hand, and several others handing out tracts. If I’d had time I’d have listened to the preachers a bit; one was riffing with street language and intonation, and another was fluently flashing between English and Spanish. I took one of his tracts.


The contrasting worldview was the posters repeatedly displayed in a long line along the wall—Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. The movie is due for release next week. One of the modern remakes of fairy tales in the horror/action genre, this might be a fun ride, but the idea of secular forces taking on monsters clashed with the old fashioned gospel I was hearing with my ears. Or did it? Witch-hunting is not exactly PC in the days of religious pluralism when Wicca is becoming as normal a religion as the Anabaptists. Anyone who listens to most modern day witches knows that they are not evil, so I wonder how the movie plans on setting up the “evil” that our eponymous brother and sister have to conquer. I might just have to go to the theater alone to find out.


But is this really so different from our earnest street preachers below the ground? They are railing against the evil in the world, and if you follow their tracts, there is clearly no shyness about blood and torture here. The movie is rated PG-13, but what about the slip of paper I hold in my hand that shows a much bloodied Jesus hanging on a cross? Whether it’s with fancy crossbows or just plain crosses, the goal is to overcome evil. The real question is how to define it. Some, I suppose, would consider this movie a kind of evil; Gretel’s tight-fitting uniform is a little low-cut for taking on the forces of darkness, I should think. But the real evil is treating other people as enemies. And that even goes for street evangelists. If only they would admit the same for the wider world, maybe all this blood wouldn’t be necessary.