Thursday, April 21, 2011

An Easter Message

Crystal S. Lewis, writing at, preaches an Easter sermon that goes straight to the heart of the story.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Churches vs. Other Nonprofits (Again)

Scott Wells offers useful observations on churches and political endorsements.

But I still haven't found an answer to a question I had the last time this subject came up:

Why are churches treated differently from other nonprofits? This isn't simply a pitch to tax the churches (which I have suggested before). Instead,it's about why churches as nonprofits are classified separately from secular nonprofits.

Scott says the First Amendment is the reason, but (perhaps because I'm not a lawyer) I don't follow that.

Both, say, the East Bainbridge United Way and the First Baptist Church face IRS restrictions in how they can comment on politics (specifically, neither can endorse political candidates). Neither organization pays taxes.

Yet there's a whole special category of "church" for First Baptist Church. One side effect: Organizations that function as a church but are for some reason not structured in the way the IRS thinks a church should be end up being held up for special scrutiny.

It seems to me that to treat the First Baptist Church differently than the East Bainbridge United Way (or any other nonprofit) at best skirts the Establishment Clause: it privileges an organization simply because it is a "church". On the other side, it also forces that organization to justify itself as a church. Talk about government entanglement with religion!

So can someone explain the justification for this difference? I'd really like to know -- and I didn't want to hijack Scott's thread in the process.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"We are in the Universe, and the Universe is in us."

Neil DeGrasse Tyson on plumbing the depths of the Universe as a spiritual experience.

(via Evolutionary Christianity)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Blind Men, Blind Elephants

In the comments to my previous post, Steve Caldwell refers to a joke over at his blog that parodies the famed Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant -- a parable about the ineffable nature of the divine.

(A digression: Writing that I was reminded of seeing a blog whose motto was "effing the ineffable..." -- which led me to Google that phrase and see it attributed to, among others, Alan Watts...)

In God Is Not One, Prothero also makes reference to the blind-men-and-the-elephant story, and how it is usually interpreted: "No one has the whole truth, but each is touching the elephant" -- a single, unified God perceivable through all religions. He then turns that favorite ecumenical* interpretation on its head:

But this folk tale also demonstrates how different religions are, since it has been told in various ways and put to various uses by various religious groups.
For Buddhists, it is about how metaphysical speculation is pointless and merely induces suffering. For Hindus, it is about the ability to reach God through many paths. For Sufis, it is about using the heart rather than the mind to perceive God. For the satirist John Godfrey Saxe, the British poet who arguably introduced the story to the west, it's about the stupidity of all theology.

Now, I've always liked the story's message about the necessity of humility for anyone who seeks to privilege his or her own faith perspective, so I suppose the Hindu interpretation (or the Jain one, evidently) is most appealing to me. But I smiled in rueful recognition when I read Prothero's take on it.

As Steve notes on his blog, one lesson from the parady is about the hazards of appropriating other religious traditions and rituals:
Like the blind elephants, we may accidentally transform and even distort another's religion into a form wildly different from the original through our exploration.

A point well taken. But I'll say this: In reading Prothero it's fascinating to see how many religious traditions have borrowed from and been influenced by each other over the centuries. This seems especially true in Asia, as Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism all influenced each other (and where it's not uncommon for people to in fact worship in all three traditions interchangeably), but it is not limited to that part of the world or to those faiths by any means.

I've always been inclined to a more laissez-faire attitude toward the issue of appropriation. So long as what is borrowed is borrowed respectfully, and so long as its authenticity is not misrepresented, I'm inclined to give a lot of what some people criticize as appropriation a pass.

Reading Prothero just reinforced my point of view on the matter.

*By coincidence, I just now read this post pointing out that "ecumenical" is not the same as "interfaith". Taking that message to heart, I've edited the passage accordingly, and decided I didn't really need an alternative adjective.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Book Review: God Is Not One

God Is Not One, by Stephen Prothero

DairyStateMom got me this book for Christmas, and I finally got around to reading it over the last few weeks. Eminently readable and often laugh-out-loud witty, it will become a valued reference on the basics of eight major religions in the world. I have no real argument with his selections of which ones to cover and which not to, although I do wish that he'd included a chapter on the Pagan revival. (His closest is a chapter on the Yoruba religion from Africa, which has come to the Western Hemisphere in the form of Santeria, Vodun and numerous other variants.) Of course, modern Paganism is not one thing, and I'm sure there are sensible and thoughtful arguments against trying to lump its many different expressions into a single chapter.

My other principal disappointment (and it, too, is relatively minor) is that when in the chapter on Christianity he assesses the current state of the faith and appraises its growing edges, he focuses almost entirely on the rise of Pentecostalism and the conservative surge, driven mostly by Africa, in Mainline Protestantism. He thus ignores the very interesting (to me, anyway) Emerging/Emergent Church movement where the left wing of Evangelicalism meets a more vigorous and experimental progressive Mainline Christianity. (I would situate other progressive Christian movements, including Michael Dowd's Evolutionary Christianity and the Creation Spirituality of Matthew Fox, in this larger trend.) Again, I presume his defense would be that these eddies are so small within the larger river of contemporary Christianity that he had to draw the lines somewhere -- an editorial task I'm always loath to undertake.

While the book is primarily a narrative reference work, it's framed within an argument about how we discuss religious diversity and religious pluralism. Early on, Prothero takes exception to the common metaphor of pluralists that the different religions of the world are "many paths up the same mountain" and meet at the top there. The religions of the world, he argues, are better understood as going up different mountains, and what they find at the top is equally different, one from another.

One particular problem with the one-mountain metaphor, as he notes, is that it tends to enforce a view of all religions that sanitizes their more difficult and troubling elements in the name of ecumenism. Part of Prothero's brief here is to not flinch from those troubling elements and also not to paper over intra-faith conflicts and disagreements in his descriptions.

I think that Prothero's point about the deficiency of the one-mountain metaphor is true as far as it goes, and while I have casually accepted the "many paths/one mountain" image in my own conversation and thought, I'll try very hard not to do so again, and instead to always mentally footnote Prothero when I read or hear those references. I find, instead, a very helpful alternative in Forrest Church's metaphor for pluralism, The Cathedral of the World, in which many varied windows look out on and interpret a mysterious universe. To a great extent, I believe this approach avoids the problem Prothero identifies. (And yes, I am aware of Steve Caldwell's interesting extension of the Cathedral metaphor, in which he suggests atheism offers a clear plate-glass window as an alternative to the many different varieties of stained-glass presented by the world's faiths.)

Prothero's rejection of the one-mountain metaphor doesn't mean he rejects religious pluralism. Rather, he prescribes that conversations about religious differences can and should move from the arena of faith and belief to the more neutral ground of description, and that the project of interfaith cooperation can move ahead by simply focusing on shared values and objectives, rooted in the respective faith traditions and calls of the participants. Of course, there are limits to that, too: I rather doubt a UU congregation that has stood boldly for reproductive choice could find a way to team up with a Baptist church whose congregants man the gauntlet to discourage patients from entering the local Planned Parenthood clinic each weekend -- at least not on anything that has to do with reproductive freedom. But perhaps they could join together on a Habitat for Humanity house-raising.

Prothero says that the old kind of pluralism, which emphasizes getting along with our neighbors over doctrine, was "a game for religious liberals -- religious conservatives need not apply." Of course, to really get to the vision of pluralism that Prothero advances, the most doctrinaire -- whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or even Atheist or, yes, UU -- will still have to be willing to modulate their own dogmas, at least in their words, if not in their hearts.

That in itself may be challenging enough. But if it's not any easier, it's probably something worth trying.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Lament, and A Question: Please Weigh In!

Well, if you haven't heard yet, the news from Wisconsin's state Supreme Court race has just gotten positively bizarre: Thanks to a previously unreported 10,000 or so votes, the seemingly-defeated incumbent now appears to have a 7,000-vote margin of victory against the once-triumphant challenger whose paper-thin margin of fewer than 300 votes was wiped away. Given that the race itself had become a proxy war in the highly charged battle over union rights for public employees, the emotional uproar brought on by this revelation is almost impossible to exaggerate.

I have two thoughts about these latest developments.

The first, and big-picture observation, is that except for who actually wins, the new numbers really don't change the overall landscape. Before the vote-canvassing upset Thursday, I thought the smartest (if fairly obvious) observations were from those who saw etched in these numbers the deep and fairly even division of the state's residents. The margin is still in the area of one percentage point; we're talking roughly 1 person for every 8 or 9 square miles in the state, or little more than 100 people per county. So we're likely to see-saw a bit over the next few years, as we have in the past, as momentary circumstances edge first one, then the other party over the top. In that way, we're an awful lot like the whole country. (And our governor's lame claim that somehow it was just "Madison" vs. "the rest of the state" was absolute horse-pucky.)

As an aside, a county-by-county map of the vote [which appears not to have been updated since Thursday's revelation] points out something else: That majorities for one candidate or another are notably greater in individual counties, suggesting that Wisconsin has experienced the "Big Sort" phenomenon that Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing wrote about in a book of that name published three years ago.

There are, of course, already dark conspiracy theories being spun. I am not a huge fan of conspiracy theories. I think Oswald probably did kill Kennedy, acting more or less alone, I don't think 9/11 was an inside job, and so on.

But I do admit to questioning the way the 2000 Florida vote was wasn't resolved. I do think that big, corporate money in campaigns has hijacked our political system in ways that we are only dimly aware of, serving an agenda in the interests of wealth rather than democracy.

As I said to DairyStateMom this morning:

"I don't want to be a sucker for a conspiracy theory. I also don't want to be a sucker for a conspiracy."

And so I end with a question and hope to get some serious responses in comments:

What is the most bizarre theory about a long-hidden conspiracy you can recall that actually turned out to be basically true?

And that latter point is key: basically true according to a reasonably broad consensus. Kennedy theories and 9/11 debunking haven't reached that threshold yet -- nor have any of the other examples I cite above, whether I am inclined to believe them or not.

Any suggestions?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Wow. This is Hard. And True.

Christine, commenting at Spirituality and Sunflowers, paraphrasing something at People of the Second Chance, says this:

[I]t is hardest to give grace to grace killers. You know what I mean? And I say that because when I read blog posts similar to the one referenced, I know that I struggle with anger, and indignation with this sense of “YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!” I struggle to remind myself of this, that I should give grace to the people who fail to use it. To be gentle in one’s criticism.

I don't know anything that has brought me up so short as that. I think practicing it might just be the work of a lifetime.