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Heresies and Drumheads: Evangelicals and Trump through the Lens of Star Trek

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The German theologian, pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”  

There is an episode of Star Trek Voyager called Distant Origin where a scientist of a race in the Delta Quadrant believes that genetic evidence indicated that their race originated on Earth. His thesis is challenged the doctrine of his species and he was accused of “heresy against Doctrine” for positing something different than his people believed. He ends up being persecuted and punished for his beliefs.

Now I want to be diplomatic about this. I am not someone who simply is contrary to established doctrines, be they theological, scientific or even military theories. That being said I think it is only right to question our presuppositions, as Anselm of Canterbury did through faith seeking understanding.

That understanding as a Christian is based on the totality of the message of the Christian faith. Hans Kung said it well:

“Christians are confident that there is a living God and that in the future of this God will also maintain their believing community in life and in truth. Their confidence is based on the promise given with Jesus of Nazareth: he himself is the promise in which God’s fidelity to his people can be read.” 

What we have to admit is that our belief is rooted in our faith, faith which is given to us through the witness of very imperfect people influenced by their own culture, history and traditions. Even scripture does not make the claim to be inerrant, and the Bible cannot be understood like the Koran or other texts which make the claim to be the infallible compendium of faith delivered by an angel or dictated by God himself. It is a Divine-human collaboration so symbolic of the relationship that God has with his people, often confusing and contradictory yet inspiring.

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There is a certain sense of relationship between God and humanity within scripture and that relationship creates certain tensions between God and those people. The interesting thing is that Scripture is a collection of texts which record often in terrible honesty the lack of perfection of both the writers and their subjects. They likewise record the sometimes unpredictable and seemingly contradictory behavior of God toward humanity in the Old Testament. They bear witness to the weaknesses, limitations and lack of understanding of the people of God of the message of God but even in that those limitations and weaknesses that God is still faithful to humanity in the life death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The real fact of the matter is that fixed doctrines are much more comfortable than difficult questions than honestly examining the contradictions that exist within Scripture, history and tradition. The fact is this makes many people uncomfortable and thus the retreat into the fortress of fixed and immutable doctrine found in the various incarnations of Fundamentalism.

The fact is the world is not a safe place, and our best knowledge is always being challenged by new discoveries many of which make people nervous and uncomfortable, especially people who need the safety of certitude. So in reaction the true believers become even more strident and sometimes, in the case of some forms of Islam and Hinduism violent.

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Christianity cannot get away unscathed by such criticism. At various points in our history we have had individuals, churches and Church controlled governments persecute and kill those that have challenged their particular orthodoxy. Since Christian fundamentalists are human they like others have the capacity for violence if they feel threatened, or the cause is “holy” enough. Our history is full of sordid tales of the ignorance of some Christians masquerading as absolute truth and crushing any opposition. It is as Eric Hoffer wrote:

“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

This is the magnetic attraction of fundamentalism in all of its forms, not just Christian fundamentalism.  Yet for me there is a comfort in knowing that no matter how hard and fast we want to be certain of our doctrines, that God has the last say in the matter in the beginning and the end. We live in the uncomfortable middle but I have hope in the faith that God was in the beginning. Besides as Bonhoeffer well noted “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol” 

But there some Christians who now faced with the eloquence of men like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye who make legitimate challenges respond in the most uncouth and ignorant manners. The sad thing is that their response reveals more about them and their uncertainty than it does the faith that they boldly proclaim.

Our doctrines, the way we interpret Scripture and the way we understand God are limited by our humanity and the fact that no matter how clever we think we are that our doctrines are expressions of faith. This is because we were not in the beginning as was God and we will not be at the end, at least in this state. We live in the uncomfortable middle, faith is not science, nor is it proof, that is why it is called faith, even in our scriptures.

We are to always seek clarity and understanding but know that it is possible that such understanding and the seeking of truth, be it spiritual, historical, scientific or ethical could well upset our doctrines, but not God himself. As Henri Nouwen wrote: “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.” Is that not the point of the various interactions of Jesus with the religious leaders of his day? Men who knew that they knew the truth and even punished people who had been healed by Jesus such as the man born blind in the 9th Chapter of John’s Gospel.

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“You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.”

The interchange between the religious leaders and the man is not an indictment on Judaism, but rather on religious certitude in any time or place. The fact is that the Pharisees are no different than those who ran the Inquisition, or those who conducted Witch Trials or those who attempt to crush anyone who questions their immutable doctrine no matter what their religion.

They were and many of their theological and ecclesiastical descendants still are true believers. That has been demonstrated over and over again in regards to biblically and theologically challenged yet politically fanatical American Evangelical Christians who have willingly surrendered any pretense of following Christ to paying obeisance to President Trump; a would be dictator who plays to their perpetual sense of victimhood in order to cement his power over them and to use them as his willing foot soldiers.

What Trump has done has turned the Gospel on its head, the Christian faith has become a political bludgeon to support laws and policies that are in diametric opposition to the message of Jesus. Sadly, a large majority of Evangelicals and their leaders have become Trump’s willing accomplices.

In the episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called The Drumhead Captain Picard counsels Lieutenant Worf after their encounter with a retired admiral who turned an investigation involving a Klingon exchange scientist into a witch hunt aboard the Enterprise. That episode is well worth watching especially because it anticipates what is going on in the United States today, where a President, his party, and a reactionary fear filled cabal of religious followers has declared war on all who oppose them.

At the end of the episode Lieutenant  Worf comes to Captain Picard’s office. He is apologetic about having believed and cooperated with the Admiral. The dialogue is striking and should be heeded, especially by Evangelical Christians and others who have with open eyes sacrificed their faith even as they tear up the Constitution thinking that they are defending it.

WORF: Am I bothering you, Captain?
PICARD: No. Please, Mister Worf. Come in.
WORF: It is over. Admiral Henry has called an end to any more hearings on this matter.
PICARD: That’s good.
WORF: Admiral Satie has left the Enterprise.
PICARD: We think we’ve come so far. The torture of heretics, the burning of witches, it’s all ancient history. Then, before you can blink an eye, it suddenly threatens to start all over again.
WORF: I believed her. I helped her. I did not see what she was.
PICARD: Mister Worf, villains who wear twirl their moustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well camouflaged.
WORF: I think after yesterday, people will not be as ready to trust her.
PICARD: Maybe. But she, or someone like her, will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mister Worf, that is the price we have to continually pay.

And that is true and despite the certitude of the true believers that we do live in the uncomfortable middle.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, faith, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary, Religion, star trek

The Winner Takes it All: American Christian Greed

Do you remember that there was a time when Conservative Christian Politicians and preachers actually supported working people and the poor? There was a period where this was true, but with the economic affluence and the political influence that we have enjoyed since the end of the Second World War we have left those days far behind.

I mean really, there was a time when preachers were not just lobbying for tax cuts for the rich in the name of the “Prosperity Gospel” or and extolling the wealthy “job creators” over the people who actually produce or serve products. Late last night I had an interaction on Facebook that was discouraging, wealthy preachers defended the most opulent and extravagant excesses of mega-church pastors. It was disheartening, especially one attacked a man who I went to war with, and who since has endured more trying medical issues than most of us will experience in our lives when he challenged the Episcopal Priest. What I read broke my heart.

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My Church History professor at Southwestern Baptist seminary back in 1988 and 1989 Christian attitudes then that is even more appropriate today. He noted that a:

“reason that many Christians are not servants is more honest: it is that we just don’t want to be servants. We live today in a “winner” society. We value the winners, whether it be in sports, business, or wars….The American Dream is success, climbing to the top of the ladder, making it, winning…. In most metro areas, on most weekends, you can go to a conference in some church where a person (for a fee) will tell you how God wants you rich….This obsession with success, money, and power is the American dream carried to its logical conclusion. It is middle-class Americanism, pure and simple. It is more motivated by greed, selfishness, and pride than by Christ. And in the churches, we have bought it. We want to be “at the top”,” not “at the bottom.”…..We coat our Americanism with a thin veneer of Christianity in an attempt to make it more palatable, but God will not have it. Let’s call this version of the American Dream what it is: selfishness, self-righteousness, and sin.” (Young, Doyle L New Life for Your Church Baker Book House, Grand Rapids Michigan 1989 pp.55-56)

I heard Dr. Young speak about this in class. I was a young Army officer, who had just left active duty to go to seminary. We were in the process of a financial meltdown brought about by the Texas oil bust of the late 1980s and my wife’s illness. We were learning what it was like to be poor. We lost almost everything but ourselves and our dogs during that time. We went to churches where the opulence was over the top, where the pastor drove a Porsche, and not a bottom end or used one. We struggled through seminary and made it, with me working two jobs and being in the National Guard. Most of the time we wondered where the money to get the next meal, tank of gas, prescription medicine, tuition payment or books. When I called the TBN prayer line just for prayer during the darkest days I was told be a “prayer warrior” that “it was obvious that I was not in God’s will because otherwise God would be blessing me.” That angered me and hardened my resolve to get through seminary. There were a good number of people who helped us, some because they felt that god wanted them to help us, others just because they  were compassionate souls. This made me very sensitive to social justice and wary of those who get rich off of God’s people.

It wasn’t always this way.

William Jennings Bryan was one of the most influential politicians of his era. He served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, he was a Senator and three time Presidential Candidate. He was also a very conservative Fundamentalist Christian perhaps most famous, or perhaps infamous now as one of the prosecuting attorneys at the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925. In fact I can find that Bryan’s handling of that case played to the basest religious and social hatred of his day and though “defending” “Biblical” ideas ended up making Christians look but small minded, intolerant and hateful. The movie Inherit the Wind, though a fictional account of that trial show how decent Christians can become consumed with hatred in the name of righteousness, little different than other “sincere believers” that are willing to kill in the name of God.

Whether one agrees on certain points of religious doctrine regarding the creation of the earth or the manner of how God created the earth that he espoused one has to admit that of pre-Great Depression politicians he was quite amazing. This was especially true in how he saw through the Godlessness of unbridled Capitalism.  He saw how workers by were devalued by those who saw them as nothing more than a way to increase their wealth. As an American and a Christian look at the body of work and life of a man. Though I find much fault in Bryan and his supporters in the Scopes Trial, I do not throw out the good things that he did and got right.

I think the apex of Bryan’s political thought is encapsulated in his speech at the Democratic National Convention of 1896, what is now called the Cross of Gold Speech.

When one looks at it now it really is timeless. Bryan saw through the charade that was being played out by politicians and the big money Wall Street types that they represented with great verve. It was a speech that one might have heard come from a prophet in the Old Testament.

I am just going to quote a couple of pertinent sections from the speech to trigger your thoughts, for you will not hear this in the vast majority of conservative Christian churches of all denominations which have been infected with the so called “Prosperity Gospel.”  These churches have thrown their support behind ideas that are nothing more than unvarnished, crude materialism of the worst kind. In fact I believe that it is nothing more than the “baptism” of such thought by Christians are among the biggest reasons for the exodus of people from the churches and the rise of the “Nones,” or those with no religious preference.

Bryan said:

“We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men.” 

His words are striking in their directness and honesty. They are not only Christian but they are deeply American. He called his Party, which had been as bad as the Republicans during the age of the unregulated Robber Barons who used the Gold Standard to manipulate the markets and eliminate silver as currency to their benefit to be different:

“Upon which side will the Democratic Party fight; upon the side of “the idle holders of idle capital” or upon the side of “the struggling masses”? That is the question which the party must answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic Party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses, who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic Party.”

He talked about two ideas of government and economics:

“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.”

He concluded his speech with this statement.

“Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

When I hear the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preachers who extol the virtue of Capital over labor and the worship of wealth as the highest good I wish that there would be some that would remember that the people who actually make things, grow things, fix things and maintain things are not just human capital, but people.

That’s enough for today. Expect some more on this and similar topics soon.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, economics and financial policy, faith, History, Political Commentary, Religion

Another Year on the Margins of the Church

1622612_10152232336042059_727365308_nMe and my Little Buddy, Minnie Scule

I have been living on the margins of American Christianity for a bit over seven years now. The watershed moment was when I returned from Iraq in February 2008 my faith shattered and my soul wounded suffering from severe PTSD. I was not in good shape then and two years later after faith returned, albeit in a different form I realized that I no longer fit in the mainstream of conservative American Christianity.

The process of return took me to the margins of the faith that I knew and grew up in. For a while I felt like a victim, but over the course of the years I have discovered a tremendous freedom in living on the margins of the church. Jamake Highwater wrote something that really struck me as true:

“What outsiders discover in their adventures on the other side of the looking glass is the courage to repudiate self-contempt and recognise their “alienation” as a precious gift of freedom from arbitrary norms that they did not make and did not sanction. At the moment a person questions the validity of the rules, the victim is no longer a victim.”

When I began to express some of those changes, which mainly had to do in the manner of how I viewed others I got in trouble. At the time I was part of a pretty conservative Episcopal-Catholic denomination with very strong Evangelical and Charismatic leanings. I wrote that I thought that homosexuals could be Christians and not automatically damned to hell. I wrote that not all Moslems were bad. I expressed a great deal of empathy for non-believers, particularly Atheists and Agnostics having recently come out of a period where for all intents I was an Agnostic praying that God really did exist and care. I also asserted that I saw no reason why women could not or should not be ordained to the Priesthood and the Episcopacy and I expressed other views that while not connected with anything to do in the Christian faith was not politically correct in conservative circles.

During that time period I found that I was getting slammed and “unfriended” on Facebook by people I had previously considered friends whenever I had the nerve to disagree with them, or innocently post something that they disagreed with on my Facebook page. I think that was the hardest part for me, I was shocked that people who I had thought were friends, who knew what I was going through were so devoted to their ideology that they condemned me and threw me away. I found that I agreed with Mahatma Gandhi who observed: “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Of course I say that with a fair amount of humility because most of the time I am not a very good Christian, if that means actually trying to emulate Jesus.

Of course that is not uncommon in the annals of Christianity. Ulrich Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich was so upset when his students and closest associates became Anabaptist that he had them drowned in the Rhine River. In fact any time Church leaders have had significant powers over people through the levers of the State they have quite often used that power to crush anyone that did not believe like them or questioned their authority.

In a sense for two millennia various groups of Christians have been creating God in their own image and inflicting their beliefs on others. Christians punishing other Christians for having views that they do not agree is so common. Last week a Chaplain of a Nazarene college was fired for questioning Christian support for war in the wake of the movie American Sniper. Sadly most of the time that Christians are condemned by other Christians it is not even for any of major doctrinal beliefs found in the Creeds, the great Ecumenical Councils of the Church, or even of the various Confessions or Statements of Faith of any denomination. Instead they usually have to with unpopular stands on political or social issues. Anne Lamott has a pithy little thought that I love which I think describes this type of Christian persecution: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

In September of 2010 I was asked to leave that church, even though my actual theological orthodoxy, as to what I believed about God and Christ was unchanged. Thankfully another church, the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church, a denomination of the Old Catholic tradition took me in. It is a tiny denomination, much like the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands, but very affirming and I fit well in it.

As far as my old church, it was going through a difficult time and the Bishop who threw me out was a big part of the problem. He was removed a few months later when it was revealed that he was plotting to take all of the military chaplains out of the denomination to another without consulting the other bishops. One friend who is still in that church speculated that I was asked to leave by the bishop because he thought I might reveal his plans, even though he had not told me directly about them.

What was odd about that church was that in 2004 I was censured by the then second ranking archbishop in that church, forbidden from publishing and even having or having any personal contact with his clergy where I was living because I was “too Catholic.” The irony was that this bishop was a big cause of the trouble that the church went through including the massive splits that occurred in 2005-2010. He left that church, became the editor of a conservative Catholic website and now is a Priest in the Anglican Ordinate and effectively a Roman Catholic Priest.  I love irony.

Thankfully I still have a number friends in my old church, and thankfully there are good people there doing their best to live the Gospel. I can’t say that I would fit in there anymore, but I have no residual animosity to the current leadership of that denomination and pray that they continue to recover from the tumult and division that marked their struggle from 2005-2011. I admit that it was a painful time and for a while I was quite bitter about how I had been treated, but it has been easier to live by forgiving. C. S. Lewis noted: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Since I have been forgiven for so much how can I not at least try to live in a forgiving manner?

I have written a lot about my frustrations with American Christianity in particular the conservative Christian subculture. Looking at what I wrote I can see that I definitely exist on the margins of that world. But that is not a bad thing, there is a certain amount of freedom as well as intellectual honesty and integrity that I have now that I could not have being for all intents closeted in my former denomination.

Living on the margins allows me to echo Galileo who wrote: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” It allows me to be at the intersection of faith and unbelief and allows me entry into both worlds, both of which I believe to be sacred and both need to be heard, as well as protected.

Thus when I champion religious liberty, it is not the liberty to use religion to bludgeon others or to use the police power of the State to enforce their religious views on others. Unfortunately that is what I see going on in this country as conservative American Christians especially Evangelicals, Charismatics and conservative Roman Catholics wage a Kulturkampf against modernism and secularism. It as if many of the leaders of that movement desire to set up a Christian theocracy. Gary North, a longtime adviser to Ron Paul and many in the Tea Party movement wrote:

“We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”

Personally, and with no invective intended I have to imagine that if a Moslem leader in this country said something similar that the Religious Right would be screaming bloody murder and that Bill O’Reilly and Fox News would be leading the charge.

 

Thus we see a reprise of the Scopes Monkey Trial in efforts to diminish the teaching of real science in schools and replace it with various religious theories of origins such as Young Earth Creationism. It doesn’t seem to matter what the issue is: equality for women, minorities, gays, teaching science, caring for the poor, the sick and the weak, acknowledging the value of other cultural traditions and religions it seems that many politically charged conservative Christians have no tolerance for anyone outside their often quite narrow belief system. North wrote:

“The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant–baptism and holy communion–must be denied citizenship, just as they were in ancient Israel.”

I’m sorry but again this sounds not too dissimilar to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, without the sheep and the comfortable clothes, or the Moslem Brotherhood types, Hezbollah or the Iranian Imams. The religion of North might be different from the Taliban but the goals are eerily similar, and only a fool would not see that. But then we Christians are quite good at ignoring the hate being preached by those that claim to be defending us from those “evil” Moslems.

This is no empty threat, throughout the country Christian Conservatives and their political front men are ramming through laws that have but one intent, the establishment of a Christian theocracy and the persecution of those who do not agree. Allegedly all of these laws are designed to “protect religious liberty” but in fact are nothing more than a legislative attempt to disenfranchise non-believers or others that the majority does not approve. Unfortunately the people pushing these laws do not understand that once the become law they can be used against them if another group comes into power. They set precedent and under such precedent even Sharia Law could be enacted in Moslem dominated areas of the country, such as Dearborn Michigan, or polygamy in separatist Mormon communities in Utah and Idaho.

I am sorry but that is antithetical to the thoughts of our founders and the real defenders of religious liberty in the early days of our republic. John Leland, head of the Virginia Baptists and a key player in the drafting of the First Amendment and religious liberty protections in Virginia wrote:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”

Leland understood what he was talking about, because in Virginia Baptists and others were being persecuted by Anglicans who before the Revolution had been the State Church of Virginia and wanted to be again in the new republic. James Madison wrote of the danger:  “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

I will defend the right of religious conservative to believe what they want, including the right to teach it in their churches, church schools and homes and to express those views in the public square as part of real dialogue. I may not agree with them, but if I want my views to be protected I should grant others what I would want. What I cannot support is the attempt of some politically active Christian conservatives to force those views on others through the power of the State, the public schools or any other place where the citizens of our very diverse and pluralistic society have to co-exist.

Likewise, I have become much more outspoken in defending those who are the targets of real Christian hate, in particular the LGBT community, unbelievers, especially atheists and agnostics and Moslems. That may seem odd, but really, if we as Christians do not show God’s love to them, just how do we expect that they will embrace what we believe?

I love the movie Inherit the Wind. I especially love the scene where Spencer Tracy playing the fictionalized version of Clarence Darrow gives a logical yet passionate defense of religious, civil and intellectual liberty.

“Can’t you understand? That if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools? And tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. And then you may turn Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding. And soon, your Honor, with banners flying and with drums beating we’ll be marching backward, BACKWARD, through the glorious ages of that Sixteenth Century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind!”

Since I don’t want to go back to the 16th Century I will be content to live in the freedom that I have on the margins of contemporary American Christianity. Personally I would rather be there than in the 16th century.

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Back in 2010 when I was getting kicked out of my old church and suffering the rejection of friends it wasn’t something that I enjoyed. However, I am grateful to be where I am now and to have the freedom that I enjoy. I certainly didn’t plan it this way, but I am definitely okay with the way things have turned out. Living on the margins of American Christianity beats the hell out of living within the hateful, greedy and oppressive structures that permeate our American Christian landscape.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Fallacy of Reductionist Fundamentalism: You Cannot be Competent in God

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Today is a day for something a bit more theological in nature. A couple of days ago I wrote about the dangers of reductionist fundamentalism. One of the issues that fundamentalists of all stripes wrestle with is the issue of certitude. For them life has to be bounded by certainty. For them, whether in the matter of origins, or how life came about, in the matter of faith and morals, how life is lived in the present; or how the world ends, life must be certain. In fact, fundamentalism in all its forms inculcates believers that there is only one way of thinking, one way of knowing, one way of understanding things that are unknowable. 

Because of this need for certitude, Christians, Moslems, Jews and others of various persuasions have attempted to define the beginning and the end, as well as to dictate what is acceptable to believe, or acceptable behavior. However, this actually says more about their insecurity than reflects the strength of their beliefs. I can speak to this need for certitude from a Christian point of view, and from my study of other faiths make what I think is informed commentary.

But for people who supposedly believe in God, the reality is that in presuming certitude in what we think that we know  is actually a denial of faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “a God who would let us prove his existence is an idol.” Bonhoeffer was right, not only do those that presume to know exactly how creation came about, how the universe will end or say with unrequited certitude what constitutes proper belief or behavior in the eyes of God make an idol of their God, they also, whether they intend to or not, put themselves in the place of God.

According to the writer of the Book of Hebrews, “faith is the essence of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” That writer, who I think is Priscilla (see Acts Priscilla and Aquila) understood that faith was not the same as empirical knowledge, otherwise it would not be faith. To understand faith in a modern sense it means that faith is something that we admittedly cannot prove. That is why it is faith.

I am admittedly a skeptic. I am. Christian, I do believe, but I doubt as much as I believe. In fact for nearly two years I lived as an agnostic, a priest praying that God still existed, thus is believe but even now doubt. That being said I have seen things that cannot be explained by science or anything rational, and there are physicians that I have worked with that can attest to those things. That being said I think there are a lot of events claimed by some as “miraculous” that are explainable and are not miraculous at all.

The fact is, whether it it about creation and the questions of origins, an exact definition by which to judge absolute truth for living or belief, or the manner of how creation will end; every single statement of such absolutes is contradicted by the fact that we live as Bonhoeffer wrote, and I like to call “the uncomfortable middle. Bonhoeffer wrote in his book Creation, Fall and Temptation that:

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them.”  

The reality for Christians is that we have to admit is that our belief is rooted in our faith, faith which is given to us through the witness of very imperfect people influenced by their own culture, history, traditions as well as limitations in terms of scientific knowledge. Even scripture does not make the claim to be inerrant, though some Christian Fundamentalist make that claim. Because of that, the Bible cannot be understood like the Koran or other texts which make the claim to be the infallible compendium of faith delivered by an angel or dictated by God himself. The Bible, of we actually believe it, is a Divine-human collaboration so symbolic of the relationship that God has with his people, often confusing and contradictory yet inspiring. As Hans Kung so rightly wrote:

“Christians are confident that there is a living God and that in the future of this God will also maintain their believing community in life and in truth. Their confidence is based on the promise given with Jesus of Nazareth: he himself is the promise in which God’s fidelity to his people can be read.” 

Does that mean that we fully comprehend the nature of Christ, or the doctrinal formulation of the Hypostatic Union which defines Christ as being fully human and fully God? Or does it mean that we fully comprehend or understand the doctrine of the Trinity encapsulated in either the Nicene or Athanasian Creed? Certainly not, none of those doctrines are provable by science, or for that manner even history, for there were and are people who consider themselves Christians who do not believe and who reject those doctrinal formulations. Thus for Christians to attempt to argue such matters as fact to those who do not believe is not productive at all. We must understand that faith in the living Christ is not in a doctrine but  a promise that we believe, by faith, is given given by God through Jesus of Nazareth.

The real fact of the matter is that fixed doctrines are much more comfortable than living with difficult questions or honestly examining the contradictions that exist within Scripture, history and tradition. The fact is this makes many people uncomfortable and thus the retreat into the fortress of fixed and immutable doctrine found in the various incarnations of Fundamentalism.

The fact is the world is not a safe place, and our best knowledge is always being challenged by new discoveries many of which make people nervous and uncomfortable, especially people who need the safety of certitude. So in reaction “true believers” become even more strident and sometimes even violent when confronted with issues that question immutable doctrine.

I wish it were otherwise but Christianity cannot get away unscathed by such criticism. At various points in our history we have had individuals, churches and Church controlled governments persecute and kill those that have challenged their particular orthodoxy. Since Christian fundamentalists are human they like others have the capacity for violence if they feel threatened, or the cause is “holy” enough. Our history is full of sordid tales of the ignorance of some Christians masquerading as absolute truth and crushing any opposition. Doctrinal certitude is comforting. It is as Eric Hoffer wrote:

“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

This is the magnetic attraction of fundamentalism in all of its forms, not just Christian fundamentalism.  Yet for me there is a comfort in knowing that no matter how hard and fast we want to be certain of our doctrines, that God has the last say in the matter in the beginning and the end.

But there some Christians who now faced with the eloquence of men like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye who make legitimate challenges respond in the most uncouth and ignorant manners. The sad thing is that their response reveals more about them and their uncertainty and insecurity than it does the faith that they boldly proclaim.

themiddle1

Our doctrines, the way we interpret Scripture and the way we understand God are limited by our humanity and the fact that no matter how clever we think we are that our doctrines are at best expressions of faith. We were not there in the beginning  and we will not be present at the end, at least in this mortal state. We do live in the uncomfortable middle. Our faith is not science, nor is it proof. That is why it is called faith, even in our scriptures where as Paul the Apostle says “If Christ is not raised your faith is worthless”  and we “are to be pitied among men.” (1 Cor. 15:17-18)

We are to always seek clarity and understanding. However it is possible that such understanding and the seeking of truth, be it spiritual, historical, scientific or ethical could well upset our doctrines about God and that is not heresy, it is an admission that God will not allow us to put hi m in our theological box. As Henri Nouwen wrote: “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.”

With that I will close for tonight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Distant Origen: The Danger of Doctrinal Certitude While Living in the Uncomfortable Middle

galaxy_universe-normal

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

There is an episode of Star Trek Voyager called Distant Origin where a scientist of a race in the Delta Quadrant believes that genetic evidence indicated that their race originated on Earth. His thesis is challenged the doctrine of his species and he was accused of “heresy against Doctrine” for positing something different than his people believed. He ends up being persecuted and punished for his beliefs.

Now I want to be diplomatic about this. I am not someone who simply is contrary to established doctrines, be they theological, scientific or even military theories. That being said I think it is only right to question our presuppositions, as Anselm of Canterbury did through faith seeking understanding.

That understanding as a Christian is based on the totality of the message of the Christian faith. Hans Kung said it well:
“Christians are confident that there is a living God and that in the future of this God will also maintain their believing community in life and in truth. Their confidence is based on the promise given with Jesus of Nazareth: he himself is the promise in which God’s fidelity to his people can be read.” 

What we have to admit is that our belief is rooted in our faith, faith which is given to us through the witness of very imperfect people influenced by their own culture, history and traditions. Even scripture does not make the claim to be inerrant, and the Bible cannot be understood like the Koran or other texts which make the claim to be the infallible compendium of faith delivered by an angel or dictated by God himself. It is a Divine-human collaboration so symbolic of the relationship that God has with his people, often confusing and contradictory yet inspiring.

themiddle

There is a certain sense of relationship between God and humanity within scripture and that relationship creates certain tensions between God and those people. The interesting thing is that Scripture is a collection of texts which record often in terrible honesty the lack of perfection of both the writers and their subjects. They likewise record the sometimes unpredictable and seemingly contradictory behavior of God toward humanity in the Old Testament. They bear witness to the weaknesses, limitations and lack of understanding of the people of God of the message of God but even in that those limitations and weaknesses that God is still faithful to humanity in the life death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The real fact of the matter is that fixed doctrines are much more comfortable than difficult questions than honestly examining the contradictions that exist within Scripture, history and tradition. The fact is this makes many people uncomfortable and thus the retreat into the fortress of fixed and immutable doctrine found in the various incarnations of Fundamentalism.

The fact is the world is not a safe place, and our best knowledge is always being challenged by new discoveries many of which make people nervous and uncomfortable, especially people who need the safety of certitude. So in reaction the true believers become even more strident and sometimes, in the case of some forms of Islam and Hinduism violent.

Picard

Christianity cannot get away unscathed by such criticism. At various points in our history we have had individuals, churches and Church controlled governments persecute and kill those that have challenged their particular orthodoxy. Since Christian fundamentalists are human they like others have the capacity for violence if they feel threatened, or the cause is “holy” enough. Our history is full of sordid tales of the ignorance of some Christians masquerading as absolute truth and crushing any opposition. It is as Eric Hoffer wrote:

“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

This is the magnetic attraction of fundamentalism in all of its forms, not just Christian fundamentalism.  Yet for me there is a comfort in knowing that no matter how hard and fast we want to be certain of our doctrines, that God has the last say in the matter in the beginning and the end. We live in the uncomfortable middle but I have hope in the faith that God was in the beginning. Besides as Bonhoeffer well noted “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol” 

But there some Christians who now faced with the eloquence of men like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye who make legitimate challenges respond in the most uncouth and ignorant manners. The sad thing is that their response reveals more about them and their uncertainty than it does the faith that they boldly proclaim.

Our doctrines, the way we interpret Scripture and the way we understand God are limited by our humanity and the fact that no matter how clever we think we are that our doctrines are expressions of faith. This is because we were not in the beginning as was God and we will not be at the end, at least in this state. We live in the uncomfortable middle, faith is not science, nor is it proof, that is why it is called faith, even in our scriptures.

We are to always seek clarity and understanding but know that it is possible that such understanding and the seeking of truth, be it spiritual, historical, scientific or ethical could well upset our doctrines, but not God himself. As Henri Nouwen wrote: “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.” Is that not the point of the various interactions of Jesus with the religious leaders of his day? Men who knew that they knew the truth and even punished people who had been healed by Jesus such as the man born blind in the 9th Chapter of John’s Gospel.

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“You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.”

The interchange between the religious leaders and the man is not an indictment on Judaism, but rather on religious certitude in any time or place. The fact is that the Pharisees are no different than those who ran the Inquisition, or those who conducted Witch Trials or those who attempt to crush anyone who questions their immutable doctrine no matter what their religion. They were and are true believers.

In the episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called The Drumhead Captain Picard counsels Lieutenant Worf after their encounter with a special investigator who turned an investigation into a witch hunt on the Enterprise. Picard told Worf, who had initially been taken in by the investigator:

“But she, or someone like her, will always be with us, waiting for the right climate in which to flourish, spreading fear in the name of righteousness. Vigilance, Mister Worf – that is the price we have to continually pay.”

And that is true.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Freedom of Living on the Margins of American Christianity

1622612_10152232336042059_727365308_nMe and my Littlest Buddy, Minnie Scule

I have been living on the margins of American Christianity for a bit over six years now. The watershed moment was when I returned from Iraq in February 2008 my faith shattered and my soul wounded suffering from severe PTSD. I was not in good shape then and two years later after faith returned, albeit in a different form I realized that I no longer fit in the mainstream of conservative American Christianity.

When I began to express some of those changes, which mainly had to do in the manner of how I viewed others I got in trouble. At the time I was part of a pretty conservative Episcopal-Catholic denomination with very strong Evangelical and Charismatic leanings. I wrote that I thought that homosexuals could be Christians and not automatically damned to hell. I wrote that not all Moslems were bad. I expressed a great deal of empathy for non-believers, particularly Atheists and Agnostics having recently come out of a period where for all intents I was an Agnostic praying that God really did exist and care. I also asserted that I saw no reason why women could not or should not be ordained to the Priesthood and the Episcopacy and I expressed other views that while not connected with anything to do in the Christian faith was not politically correct in conservative circles.

During that time period I found that I was getting slammed and “unfriended” on Facebook by people I had previously considered friends whenever I had the nerve to disagree with them, or innocently post something that they disagreed with on my Facebook page. I think that was the hardest part for me, I was shocked that people who I had thought were friends, who knew what I was going through were so devoted to their ideology that they condemned me and threw me away. I found that I agreed with Mahatma Gandhi who observed: “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Of course I say that with a fair amount of humility because most of the time I am not a very good Christian, if that means actually trying to emulate Jesus.

Of course that is not uncommon in the annals of Christianity. Ulrich Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich was so upset when his students and closest associates became Anabaptist that he had them drowned in the Rhine River. In fact any time Church leaders have had significant powers over people through the levers of the State they have quite often used that power to crush anyone that did not believe like them or questioned their authority.

In a sense for two millennia various groups of Christians have been creating God in their own image and inflicting their beliefs on others. Anne Lamott has a pithy little thought that I love: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

In September of 2010 I was asked to leave that church, even though my actual theological orthodoxy, as to what I believed about God and Christ was unchanged. Thankfully another church, the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church, a denomination of the Old Catholic tradition took me in. It is a tiny denomination, much like the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands, but very affirming and I fit well in it.

As far as my old church, it was going through a difficult time and the Bishop who threw me out was a big part of the problem. He was removed a few months later when it was revealed that he was plotting to take all of the military chaplains out of the denomination to another without consulting the other bishops. One friend who is still in that church speculated that I was asked to leave by the bishop because he thought I might reveal his plans, even though he had not told me directly about them.

What was odd about that church was that in 2004 I was censured by the then second ranking archbishop in that church, forbidden from publishing and even having or having any personal contact with his clergy where I was living because I was “too Catholic.” The irony was that this bishop was a big cause of the trouble that the church went through including the massive splits that occurred in 2005-2010. He left that church, became the editor of a conservative Catholic website and now is a Priest in the Anglican Ordinate and effectively a Roman Catholic Priest.  I love irony.

Thankfully I still have many friends in my old church, and thankfully there are good people there doing their best to live the Gospel. I can’t say that I would fit in there anymore, but I have no residual animosity to the current leadership of that denomination and pray that they continue to recover from the tumult and division that marked their struggle from 2005-2011. I admit that it was a painful time and for a while I was quite bitter about how I had been treated, but it has been easier to live by forgiving. C. S. Lewis noted: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Since I have been forgiven for so much how can I not at least try to live in a forgiving manner?

Last night I wrote about my frustrations with American Christianity in particular the conservative Christian subculture. Looking at what I wrote I can see that I definitely exist on the margins of that world. But that is not a bad thing, there is a certain amount of freedom as well as intellectual honesty and integrity that I have now that I could not have being for all intents closeted in my former denomination.

Living on the margins allows me to echo Galileo who wrote: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” It allows me to be at the intersection of faith and unbelief and allows me entry into both worlds, both of which I believe to be sacred and both need to be heard, as well as protected.

Thus when I champion religious liberty, it is not the liberty to use religion to bludgeon others or to use the police power of the State to enforce their religious views on others. Unfortunately that is what I see going on in this country as conservative American Christians especially Evangelicals, Charismatics and conservative Roman Catholics wage a Kulturkampf against modernism and secularism. It as if many of the leaders of that movement desire to set up a Christian theocracy. Gary North, a longtime adviser to Ron Paul and many in the Tea Party movement wrote:

“We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”

Personally, and with no invective intended I have to imagine that if a Moslem leader in this country said somethings similar that the Religious Right would be screaming bloody murder and that Bill O’Reilly and Fox News would be leading the charge.

Thus we see a reprise of the Scopes Monkey Trial in efforts to diminish the teaching of real science in schools and replace it with various religious theories of origins such as Young Earth Creationism. It doesn’t seem to matter what the issue is: equality for women, minorities, gays, teaching science, caring for the poor, the sick and the weak, acknowledging the value of other cultural traditions and religions it seems that many politically charged conservative Christians have no tolerance for anyone outside their often quite narrow belief system. North wrote:

“The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant–baptism and holy communion–must be denied citizenship, just as they were in ancient Israel.”

I’m sorry but again this sounds not too dissimilar to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, without the sheep and the comfortable clothes, or the Moslem Brotherhood types, Hezbollah or the Iranian Imams. The religion of North might be different from the Taliban but the goals are eerily similar, and only a fool would not see that. But then we Christians are quite good at ignoring the hate being preached by those that claim to be defending us from those “evil” Moslems.

This is no empty threat, throughout the country Christian Conservatives and their political front men are ramming through laws that have but one intent, the establishment of a Christian theocracy and the persecution of those who do not agree. Allegedly all of these laws are designed to “protect religious liberty” but in fact are nothing more than a legislative attempt to disenfranchise non-believers or others that the majority does not approve. Unfortunately the people pushing these laws do not understand that once the become law they can be used against them if another group comes into power. They set precedent and under such precedent even Sharia Law could could be enacted in Moslem dominated areas of the country, such as Dearborn Michigan, or polygamy in separatist Mormon communities in Utah and Idaho.

I am sorry but that is antithetical to the thoughts of our founders and the real defenders of religious liberty in the early days of our republic. John Leland, head of the Virginia Baptists and a key player in the drafting of the First Amendment and religious liberty protections in Virginia wrote:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”

Leland understood what he was talking about, because in Virginia Baptists and others were being persecuted by Anglicans who before the Revolution had been the State Church of Virginia and wanted to be again in the new republic. James Madison wrote of the danger:  “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

I will defend the right of religious conservative to believe what they want, including the right to teach it in their churches, church schools and homes and to express those views in the public square as part of real dialogue. I may not agree with them, but if I want my views to be protected I should grant others what I would want. What I cannot support is the attempt of some politically active Christian conservatives to force those views on others through the power of the State, the public schools or any other place where the citizens of our very diverse and pluralistic society have to co-exist.

I love the movie Inherit the Wind. I especially love the scene where Spencer Tracy playing the fictionalized version of Clarence Darrow gives a logical yet passionate defense of religious, civil and intellectual liberty.

“Can’t you understand? That if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools? And tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. And then you may turn Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding. And soon, your Honor, with banners flying and with drums beating we’ll be marching backward, BACKWARD, through the glorious ages of that Sixteenth Century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind!”

Since I don’t want to go back to the 16th Century I will be content to live in the freedom that I have on the margins of contemporary American Christianity. Personally I would rather be there than in the 16th century.

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Back in 2010 when I was getting kicked out of my old church and suffering the rejection of friends it wasn’t something that I enjoyed. However, I am grateful to be where I am now and to have the freedom that I enjoy. I certainly didn’t plan it this way, but I am definitely okay with the way things have turned out.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Inherit the Wind: A Film for Today

inherit-the-wind

“As long as the prerequisite for that shining paradise is ignorance, bigotry and hate, I say the hell with it.” Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) Inherit the Wind

It is fascinating that a play and film set about an incident that actually occurred in the 1920s remains so timeless. It is hard to believe that 90 years after the trial and over 50 years after the movie that our society would still be debating the issue in the movie and that legislatures and school boards are still attempting to pass religious doctrine off as science.

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It is a film about what is commonly called the “Scopes Monkey Trial” which was litigated in July of 1925 and featured an epic battle between populist three time Presidential Candidate and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow.

The trial was brought about after the passage of the Butler Act in Tennessee. It was an act that made it a criminal offense to teach evolution in any publicly funded school. The act stipulated:

“That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

The author of the act was Tennessee State Representative John W. Butler, a farmer and   the head of the World Christian Fundamentals Association an interdenominational organization dedicated to a “New Protestantism” based on the Pre-Millennial interpretation of Bible prophecy.

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Butler was heavily influenced by William Jennings Bryant who with his followers had gotten legislation banning evolution in 15 states. H.L. Mencken commented that over the years of his public life that Bryan had “transformed himself” into some “sort of Fundamentalist Pope.”

Butler was opposed to the teaching of evolution and the  act passed the house by a vote of 75-1. No public hearings had been held on it and no debate proffered.

Butler’s legislation did face some opposition in the State Senate. However it passed there on a vote of 24-6 after the famous Fundamentalist evangelist Billy Sunday preached as series of revival meetings to incite public opinion in favor of the bill. Sunday’s message was clear, he preached that “Education today is chained to the Devil’s throne” and praised Butler and the House for their “action against that God forsaken gang of evolutionary cutthroats.” The bill was signed into law by Governor Austin Peay, but Peay expected little to come of it.

The American Civil Liberties Union put the law to the test using high school biology teacher John Scopes who was charged with breaking the law. The trial ended up becoming less about the guilt or innocence of Scopes or even the constitutionality of the law, but rather as the field where the conflict between religious and social issues and faith versus intellectualism was fought. Butler, the man who legislated the law on religious grounds covered it as a correspondent.

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Mencken wrote of the trial:

“The Scopes trial, from the start, has been carried on in a manner exactly fitted to the anti- evolution law and the simian imbecility under it. There hasn’t been the slightest pretense to decorum. The rustic judge, a candidate for re-election, has postured the yokels like a clown in a ten-cent side show, and almost every word he has uttered has been an undisguised appeal to their prejudices and superstitions. The chief prosecuting attorney, beginning like a competent lawyer and a man of self-respect, ended like a convert at a Billy Sunday revival. It fell to him, finally, to make a clear and astounding statement of theory of justice prevailing under fundamentalism. What he said, in brief, was that a man accused of infidelity had no rights whatever under Tennessee law…”

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/580245/Inherit-The-Wind-Movie-Clip-We-Are-Simple-Folk.html 

It was an epic event covered by news outlets across the nation and the atmosphere in the town outside the courthouse was circus like, something that the movie depicts very well. The defense was not allowed to produce Scientists as witnesses, even to the chagrin of Butler who despite his opposition to evolutionary theory felt that it was not fair. When all was said and done Scopes had been convicted and a fine of $100 assessed, which was overturned on appeal. Bryan died a week after the trial and of the 15 states with similar legislation to Butler passed them into law.

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The film is based on the play of the same name written in 1950 by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. It was written during the height of the McCarthy Era and opened in 1955. The first film version starring Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow), Frederic March as Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan), Gene Kelly as E.K. Hornbeck (H.L. Mencken) while Dick York played Bertram Cates (John Scopes). Lawrence and Lee invented some fictional characters including Reverend Brown played by Claude Akins.

The film directed by Stanley Kramer captures the raw emotions of the trial, the participants and the spectators who came from near and far. The depiction of the angry mob of Christians is terrifying to watch. In the film they sing:

“We’ll hang Bertram Cates to a sour apple tree, we’ll hang Bertram Cates to a sour apple tree, we’ll hang Bertram Cates to a sour apple tree. Our God is marching on! Glory Glory Hallelujah! Glory Glory Hallelujah! Glory Gory Hallelujah! His truth is marching on. We’ll hang Henry Drummond to a sour apple tree, we’ll hang Henry Drummond to a sour apple tree, we’ll hang Henry Drummond to a sour apple tree, our God is marching on.”

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March’s depiction of Matthew Harrison Brady is riveting. The Brady of the film does not do justice to other parts of Bryan’s life. Bryan, outside his fight against evolution was ahead of his time in many ways. Earlier in his career he had pressed for Universal Suffrage, fought against war and labored against the social Darwinism of the banks, business and the Robber Barons. However the loss of three Presidential elections left him bitter and it is believed that he saw the trial as an opportunity to regain the limelight and perhaps build a base to again run for President. This speech by Brady is a fair characterization of Bryan’s beliefs:

“I have been to their cities and I have seen the altars upon which they sacrifice the futures of their children to the gods of science. And what are their rewards? Confusion and self-destruction. New ways to kill each other in wars. I tell you gentlemen the way of science is the way of darkness.”

The problem with the Bryan of the Scopes Trial was that he was a caricature of his former self, he played to the crowds. The trial played to the worst parts of his character and that shows in the movie depiction. Some Christians find this an unfair portrayal and even call it a lie, however even though March’s portrayal is fictional it does fit the spirit of the trial which is captured in the writings of many of the contemporary commentators of the trial. Mencken wrote of the real Bryan: It is a tragedy, indeed, to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon.

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/179726/Inherit-the-Wind-Movie-Clip-Time.html 

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Another of those commentators, Marcet Haldeman-Julius wrote of the real Bryan:

“As he sat there in the court room, day after day, silent, fanning, fanning, his face set I was appalled by the hardness, the malice in it.  No one who has watched the fanatical light in those hard, glittering black eyes of Bryan’s can doubt but that he believes both in a heaven and in a hell.  At the same time the cruel lines of his thin, tight-pressed mouth proclaim, it seems to me, that he would stop at nothing to attain his own ends.  It is anything but a weak face–Bryan’s.  But it is a face from which one could expect neither understanding nor pity.  My own opinion is that he is sincere enough in his religion.  Also that in it is included the doctrine Paul so frankly taught–that a lie told for the glory of God is justified…”

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But I think that the real drama and tension in the film comes from Spencer Tracy in his portrayal of Drummond. This speech is taken almost verbatim from the trial:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_DQUAuNUvw 

“Can’t you understand? That if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools? And tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. And then you may turn Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding. And soon, your Honor, with banners flying and with drums beating we’ll be marching backward, BACKWARD, through the glorious ages of that Sixteenth Century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind!”

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I think that this speech is the real crux of the tension that we face even now. Legislators in a number of States have enacted laws of much the same kind of spirit as Butler and defended them with the same kind of fire as Bryan. Civil libertarians, especially secular ones bring up the same issues as Darrow did. I am a Christian and a Priest and my thinking about this is much like that espoused by Drummond in the movie.

So the film may be a fictional depiction of the Scopes Trial, but it is a film that I think that people would do well to watch. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me or the issues that I agree with brought up by the character of Henry Drummond. However, I think that everyone should watch the film and come to their own conclusions as well as to ask themselves how their particular ethic, whether secular or religious informs them in how they deal with this issue and so many others that divide us today.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECITwTYSIs 

I just know when I watched it again this week that it could have been in the news this week, only with a different cast of characters. My concern is that there is a very loud minority that wants to inflict its particular religious view on everyone and use the public treasure to do it. The attitude of many of these people is much like the characters from the actual Scopes Trial including their view that pushes both demonizes those they oppose and their desire to regulate the secular opposition to the sidelines.

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I know that the same accusation is made by religious people of secularists, however I have seen the results of religious wars in Iraq and the Balkans, and from history. Those conflicts and the brutality of religious people in them give me great pause when I see religious and political leaders here suggest curtailing the civil liberties and even using the law against those that they oppose. As Drummond asked in the movie: “Must men go to jail because they find themselves at odds with a self-appointed prophet?”

That is why this film is so important.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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