The communal hall in the elegantly appointed First Baptist Church in downtown Tallahassee is packed with noontime listeners this mid-September Friday. They are also lunchers, filling their plastic plates with tacos as they prepare to listen to ‘The God Squad’, five Tallahassee faith leaders perched on stools, who, as they have monthly for the last five years will talk about those places where religion, politics and societal issues bounce against each other like so many boats on a stormy sea. For this Faith.Food.Friday program, the crowd of nearly 200 people seems ready to eat it up. Today’s program (Friday, Oct. 9) is on Religious Freedom and will be held at Good Samaritan United Methodist Church. Tickets for food are $8 with reservations and $10 at the door.
Is this truly an accurate assumption? Do faith (or religion) and science have to be pursuits that are in opposition to each other? In 2009 Pope Benedict XVI gave an address at the University of Regensburg. This speech tried to give a perspective on the intersection of faith and reason, and subsequently religion and science. It was a brilliantly conceived and written speech. Unfortunately, the world focused on a quote the Pope used from a dialogue between a Byzantine emperor and a Persian intellect that reflected badly on Islam. The press about the address centered on support for or opposition to Benedict’s statement about Islam. His quite cogent statements about faith and reason got buried in the storm.
What did Pope Benedict say? He began with reminiscences of his days teaching at the university, noting how, with apparent pleasure, reasonable people could disagree on such fundamental issues as religion and God. He recalled a colleague commenting how odd it was to have two faculties at the university devoted to something that did not exist – God. Perhaps my favorite quote from his speech is this, “The scientific ethos…is the will to be obedient to the truth, and as such, it embodies an attitude which reflects one of the basic tenets of Christianity.” Think about this. By seeking truth, science is reflecting a core religious value. Science searches for the truth about the mechanics and the Church reveals truths about the “why” of the existence of the mechanics. Rather than seeing these as incompatible, Benedict saw them as reflections of two needed basic values – faith and reason. At the very core of his message was a plea for people to be reasonable. People of opposing views must at least share a commitment to “reason.” One cannot be so anchored in faith as to reject what is reasonable.
But is the reconciliation of science and faith a reasonable expectation? When one reads the critiques of religion by Oxford professor Richard Dawkins – then probably not. Dawkins, in an article commenting on the relative contributions of science and theology to the origins of the universe and humanity writes, “It is science and science alone that has given us this knowledge and given it, moreover, in fascinating, overwhelmingly, mutually confirming detail. On every one of these questions, theology has held a view that has been conclusively proved wrong.” Proceeding with even harsher words he adds, “What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?”
Religious institutions will take varying degrees of umbrage at Dawkins’ comments. The Catholic Church, which is the source and supporter of many distinguished institutions of higher learning, cannot give up the totally improvable concept of the resurrection. To do so would destroy a basic underpinning of the Church. Further, segments of the Church believe in the existence of Satan, an additional irrationality. In the larger Christian world (at least in America) a majority do not accept the science of evolution, taking the first chapters of Genesis to be literal truth. Religious Americans who believe in the literal truth of Genesis and anyone embracing the scientific discoveries regarding the origins of the universe do not even consider the possibility that the other side is, as Pope Benedict would have said, “reasonable.”
Indeed, the word reasonable might not even be relevant when considering the human characteristic of “believing.” We all have articles of faith on which we build our lives. Many seem completely unreasonable to our neighbor. Trying to understand creation, from either the science or religious perspective, is a prime battle ground for this conflict. Yet, out of the ashes of this battle are some embers of possibility.
Recently I moderated a panel for The Village Square on issues of faith and science. Featured on the panel was the noted physicist, Dr. Harrison Prosper. Dr. Prosper is part of the team at CERN that discovered the Higgs boson, the particle that explains much towards how our universe actually holds together. If you want a sample of his brilliance, please listen to this TEDX talk:
Dr. Prosper is not a religious person in any way, yet acknowledges that when looking at the complicated set of equations involved in the creation and order of the universe, one can wonder if intelligence was indeed behind it all. Indeed there are scientists who see an intelligent hand in the structure of the universe, in both what is physically observable as well as in the math necessary to explain its structure. For example, the value of pi (3.14…) is present in many of the equations that explain our surroundings. Is that a calculated marker left by intelligence?
Further, the belief in scientific theory can at times be another form of faith. All you have to do is read Thomas Kuhn’s book “Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Kuhn shows that stubborn belief is what happens when one scientific paradigm is about to give way to a new one. Scientists have a history of holding onto a theory, often in the face of mounting evidence that disproves the theory. Sometimes society will have shifted to the new change before the scientific community. This is simply faith, but under a different guise. While there are certainly areas of science considered universally to be true, our scientific understanding of the universe often undergoes radical revision. During the program I moderated, I found Dr. Prosper’s most interesting statement to be his wish that everything his team had discovered would be overturned by a whole new discovery. What makes the process exciting for human inquiry is the disproving of a theory by new, amazing evidence. Where religion becomes “unreasonable” is when it tries to discount scientific theory without evidence, only faith that the words of the Bible are incontrovertibly true.
Judaism has little conflict with science. We can point to numerous examples in rabbinic teaching that affirm and support scientific truth. The model of creation proposed by the 16th century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria, is eerily similar to the “big bang” theory of creation, complete with a miniscule singularity point out of which all of creation explodes. Perhaps most impressive is the work of the 13th century rabbi Maimonides, who posits that the language about God in the Torah is metaphorical, as our ability to articulate anything about God is so limited. He goes on to teach that in order to better understand God, one must develop their intellect, and study science, philosophy and math. Some more contemporary Jewish thought posits God not as an object, but as verb – the process of continuing existence. Our prayers are an attempt to relate to this process, to sensitize us to the process and to find our place in it.
The scientific community need not see religion as opposition. Rather, just as science is an attempt to explore truth, religion does the same. But I believe the truth religion is exploring is much more and much deeper than the “why” to the mechanics of the universe. All of us have our non-rational sides. They are moved in different ways, music, art, spiritual wonder, and the search for meaning. Prayer is an emotive experience, that can deeply move our souls. Prayer can sensitize us to human suffering in ways very different than fact and research. I do not claim everyone needs religion, just that it can provide as much as a path to meaning, to managing life as science. In addition, religion is the primary arena in which morality and ethics evolves. Deeply religions people can be at odds over profound moral dilemmas (see abortion, same sex marriage as examples). Science can give us some facts to frame issues, but it is religion that leads the struggle over what our moral boundaries should be.
Finally, both religion and science must grow and evolve to remain vibrant and relevant. Both find strength when finding a proper path that holds onto tradition and history yet changes as humans change. At their best, religion and science travel parallel roads on their search for respective truths.
Our regular guest panelist Dr. Parvez Ahmed writes this powerful piece with Village Square’s board member and “Faith, Food, Friday” co-founder Rabbi Jack Romberg:
We write this as two friends, a Jew and a Muslim, both with leadership roles in our respective communities. Together we have broken bread, facilitated interfaith dialogue, and come to the realization that we have the same goal of peace, understanding and respect for people of all faiths and backgrounds. The recent spate of violence between Hamas and Israel presents a new test for us. Yet, in the end, even as we might have some disagreement on the details, or in parsing the conflict, we find that we share the same hopes, ideals and values. We both must wrestle with some inconvenient truths.
Read the entire article online at The Huffington Post.
“As we create a conversation, I hope it is filled with grace. I hope that there are people here who don’t share my faith and I hope we can talk well together and I think what we need to do in settings like this is we need to be able to really wrestle together and honor each other and listen to each other. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from liberals and conservatives is that you can think you have all the right answers and still be mean. And if you’re mean, no one really wants to listen to you anyway. And maybe one of the most powerful witnesses that we can have is our ability to disagree well and to have civil dialogue. I think it’s Martin Marty that said the new political camps are not just left and right, but they’re nice and mean. And I want to be with people that are marked by grace and love and can disagree well with people… I think one of the things that marks our community is that we know how to laugh together… And if we can’t laugh the enemy’s already won.” — Shane Claiborne, Harvard Veritas (Thanks to Lea Marshall as always)
Last week I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by legendary political scientist Robert Putnam of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on his new book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.
If you’re not familiar with Dr. Putnam, he’s probably best known for Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital in which he observed – metaphorically – the rise in the number of bowlers but the drop in the number of bowling leagues as an indicator of a sociological trend in American public life. Our modern life has been marked by a steep decline in social, civic and fraternal organizations that have been foundational for the functioning of our democracy. He distinguishes between bonding capital (with groups that are like-minded) and bridging capital (with diverse groups across divides… like The Village Square). Read all »
Robert Putnam, of Bowling Alone fame, is out with a new book that’s of interest to Village Square-ish thinking. Co-authored with David Campbell, American Grace seems to make many of the arguments our organization has advanced about division in America: To the extent that we can have positive interactions with our neighbors – regardless of how different they might be on matters of faith – we seem able to put aside differences in favor of community. From the New York Times:
…the story told in this book, by the social scientists Robert D. Putnam of Harvard and David E. Campbell of Notre Dame, is urgently relevant to the recent surge in interfaith tension. Read all »
Fire came one sunny September morning to America nine years ago tomorrow. It was bright and blinding and so unexpected that even these many years later we can barely look directly at it.
When radical Islamists chose to set fire to America, the consequences – human nature being what it is – were probably to some extent predetermined: There would be more fire.
Former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong writes in The Battle for God that extremism of one ilk exists because extremism of the other does. Extreme action on one side provokes an equal and opposite extreme reaction on the other. And so it goes, with many flavors of homegrown extremism having taken center stage since the 9/11 attack. Tomorrow’s installment of extremism, straight from central casting, was to be a ceremonial Quran burning. (At this writing it’s been suspended but it is not yet clear if “suspended” really means canceled in what has inexplicably become a Muslim/Christian he said/he said. You can’t make this stuff up.)
In the days after 9/11, in one of the innumerable searching conversations happening in the American family, my brother (a military man well acquainted with “fire”) imagined how he wanted America’s reaction to play out: We’d capture Bin Laden alive, then bring him back to New York City, get him a good lawyer and put him on trial. Then, in the darkest and least civilized corners of the world, that America would ensure such a man a fair trial in our abiding commitment to the rule of law would shine a light so bright that the forces in the world that build would irrevocably trump the forces that destroy.
My brother was describing water.
That conversation – and more generally the tragedy of 9/11 – were no small part the genesis of what would eventually become our Tallahassee Florida go at dousing the fire with water by building The Village Square.
But fire is flammable and demands attention and 50 members of a congregation a couple hours south of us has been getting international news coverage by pouring gasoline on it (by using water, The Village Square is lucky if we get covered in local briefs). Fire is hot, fire sells newspapers.
When asked to speak about The Village Square, I’ve been known to lament that we’d be a national mass movement by now if our events involved statements of outrageous fury instead of thoughtful moderation. It’s simply the elemental difference between fire and water. This week Terry Jones and his Gainesville church have proven my theory as even the Vatican weighed in on their intemperance.
Other efforts at extinguishing fire with water get equally short shrift compared to the fire starters, such as this group of national religious leaders who got a big yawn from the media as they tried to advance moderation in the face of the planned event in Gainesville.
America is – at her best – the perfect solution to fire, both at home and elsewhere in the world. Our founders were students of human nature and prescribed an effective system to balance extremism. It’s tragic when we can’t rise to the call of our birthright because we’re stuck in an equal and opposite reaction to the horrible extremism of that day nine years ago. We may not quite know it, but we are in a unique position to shine that light my brother described all around the world in multitudes of ways that dampen the fires. Maybe welcoming a mosque near ground zero is just such a moment when a country with a really Big Idea shines a really big light?
My daughter is a junior at the University of Florida. She says there is a rumor going around campus that the football game being played tomorrow in Gainesville (91,000 people in “The Swamp”) is the target of a bomb threat. News yesterday was that the FBI says there are credible retaliatory threats. And so it goes: Extremism begets extremism.
General Petraeus knows fire and water and equal and opposite reactions. He said of the plan to burn Qurans: “We’re concerned that the images from the burning of a Quran would be used in the same way that extremists used images from Abu Ghraib that they would in a sense be indelible.”
Indelible is a good word for what people do with fire.
Please note that we are waiting for a statement of support for The Village Square from the Vatican.
Liz Joyner is the Executive Director and co-founder of The Village Square.
Today on the radio Glenn Beck said that Americans are about to lose their religious freedom. He was actively rallying the forces to prevent it. Perhaps someone who agrees with his sentiment could help those of us who say “huh?”
There is a valid argument that legal secularism has overreached in working toward a “naked public square” (a term used by Christian writer Os Guinness, theologian John Neuhaus although I’m not clear of its genesis), removing faith from our public spaces, rather than aiming for a public square where all faiths – and no faith at all – are warmly welcomed into a rich conversation. The second option allows for the “constant clashing of opinion” that our Founders envisioned as a check on excess in the majority.
But the suggestion that there are vast and sustained efforts to subvert Christians’ religious freedom doesn’t seem to hold up. A drive through town on a Sunday morning paints a vivid picture of religious diversity and freedom, alive and well in America.
Overreaction on one “side” of an argument inevitably leads to an equal and opposite overreaction. Greater than the risk that Christians, though they are the vast majority of us, will lose their religious liberty is the risk that this sort of white hot rhetoric overshoots the mark enough that it will actually create what it fears. If you’re of a minority religious view, a wall of angry Christians coming at you (especially if you are not aware of any action against them) does little to make your religious liberty feel secure. Then you, in turn, feel the need to defend what you perceive as an assault. And so it goes, on and on in likely escalation if we don’t mind the exaggerations that come out of our mouths.
And this kind of “die on the hill” rhetoric also does what C.S. Lewis refers to as making “black blacker” as it creates an aggressive, powerful and villainous foe out of a largely disorganized minority of people. Read Lewis HERE.
While we’re on this topic, take a look at our We the Wiki Faith & Politics space. Feel free to add a topic and toss in what you think is important. Opposing views, when expressed with civility, are warmly welcome.
In his book Acts of Faith, Eboo Patel describes his belief that the challenge of our century is whether religious extremism will prevail or whether religious pluralism with hang in. He has a unique observation of how extremism works:
Religious totalitarians have the unique advantage of being able to oppose each other and work together at the same time. Osama bin Laden says that Christians are out to destroy Muslims. Pat Robertson says that Muslims want only to dominate Christians. Bin Laden points to Pat Robertson as evidence of his case. But if you look from a certain angle, you see that they are not on opposite sides at all. They are right next to each other, standing shoulder to shoulder, a most unlikely pair, two totalitarians working collectively against the dream of a common life together.
From the book Abraham by Bruce Feiler, describing his conversation with an American who came to Jerusalem after winning fourteen thousand dollars on Wheel of Fortune:
He decided to come to Israel for a year. Fifteen years later he hadn’t left. He tells a story to answer why.
Two brothers live on either side of a hill. One is wealthy and has no family; the other has a large family but limited wealth. The rich brother decides one night that he is blessed with goods and, taking a sack of grain from his silo, carries it to the silo of his brother. The other brother decides that he is blessed with many children, and since his brother should at least have wealth, he takes a sack of grain from his silo and carries it to that of his brother. Each night they go through this process, and every morning each brother is astounded that he has the same amount of grain as the day before. Finally one night they meet at the top of the hill and realize what’s been happening. They embrace and kiss each other.
And at that moment a heavenly voice declares, “This is the place where I can build my house on earth.”
“That story is shared by all three religions,” David said. “And our tradition says that this is that hill, long before the Temple, long before Abraham. And the point of the story is that this degree of brotherly love is necessary before God can be manifest in the world.”
“This is not only the spot where it is possible to connect with God, it’s the spot where you can connect with God only if you understand what it means to connect with one another.
“The relationship between a person and another human being is what creates and allows for a relationship with God. If you’re not capable of living with each other and getting along with each other, then you’re not capable of having a relationship with God.” He gestured up at the Wall, the Dome, the churches.
Then he turned back to me. “So the question is not whether God can bring peace into the world. The question is: Can we?”
For this quote, hat tip to Lea*, who somehow seems to know when anyone discusses civility on any blog across America at the same time as she drives her kids around town in endless loops, takes beautiful pictures of everyone she knows and pursues her career as a thespian in Young Actors Theatre’s Celebrity Edition of High School Musical (tired just writing all this)…
From C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:
“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”
The liberal Washington Monthly blogger who brings us this quote continues:
If you give in to “the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible”, it’s easy to see how you could end up thinking things about them that it is implausible to think about any group of human beings.. Your opponents become cartoons in your mind, and the normal duty to be charitable and generous, or even realistic, in your views about other people seem not to apply to them. You stop thinking of them as fellow human beings, and start thinking of them as enemies…
No one — not liberals, not conservatives — should forget that their opponents are human beings. And no one can afford to start down the road Lewis describes, in which you allow yourself to be disappointed when your opponents aren’t as bad as you first thought, or want them to be as bad as possible. And no one should get so wrapped up in political fights that in focussing on the mote in someone else’s eye, they lose sight of the beam in their own.
Worth noting is that Lea originally saw this post echoed on a Christian blog Cranach: The Blog of Veith. An iconic Christian author quoted on the blog of a cornerstone left-leaning publication (that I should add my sister used to work for); the left-leaning blog subsequently quoted on a Christian blog.
If you really think about it, all of this makes black a lot less black, eh?
*In the vernacular of this ugly political war we’ve found ourselves in, Lea is my “enemy” and I hers. If you find it impossible to believe that we’re dear friends, you really need to get out more.
1. He made a bold move- lead by his own curiosity. Born into a liberal Quaker family- this free-spirited, fair-trade coffee drinking, anti-war protesting Brown student decided that after a visit to Thomas Road Baptist Church with A.J. Jacobs (while doing research for The Year of Living Biblically) that he wanted to see more. To understand what it really meant to “go to Liberty”, he decided to enroll.
2. He gave it a fair chance. When something seemed crazy or unsettling. He went deeper. He longed to know and to understand. He joined Bible studies, had regular meetings with professors, played intramurals, sang in the choir and dated Liberty gals. Above all, he was open to Liberty changing him. His way of thinking, his perspective. He was open. (Even to The Liberty Way…. a 46 page Code of Conduct that even makes me cringe. Enough said.)
3. He hasn’t abandoned ship. It would be easy to say that he is done. He, after all, has the last print interview with Jerry Falwell… who wouldn’t hang up their hat? And his book is now published (and it is no longer banned from Liberty’s bookstore). What more is there? But Kev is continually involved in understanding evangelical culture. Namely at Liberty. He is continually seeking the common ground.