Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sustainability and the Church

In my work as a campus planner, the issue of sustainability has gained considerable momentum as the hot-button topic of this decade. According to the United Nations General Assembly 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainability is defined as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Sustainability has taken on an air of urgency in recent years as many in the scientific and political communities have come to view the growing human population, with its associated social, environmental, and economic impacts, as being almost certainly unsustainable.

The Society for College and University Planning (or SCUP) annual international conference now includes many sustainability sessions for campus planners, architects, and consultants, and is never lacking of advice on how to go "green". As of this date, 650 university presidents in the United States have signed the President's Climate Commitment, committing to model "ways to eliminate global warming emissions, and by providing the knowledge and the educated graduates to achieve climate neutrality." In the evangelical Christian community, college students and churches are increasingly introducing Creation Care programs, and Christian leaders across the country are signing the Evangelical Climate Initiative. The elephant in the room, of course, is the strained relationship between the largely conservative evangelical movement and the environmental movement, frequently cited as being on the "liberal" agenda. As a result, many Christian leaders in higher education, such as this author, find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being convinced of the urgency of the sustainability issue, while at the same time trying to avoid any association with the left. This is a false controversy, and easily overcome through reframing of the questions to arrive at a more balanced approach.

In order to gain a more balanced perspective, the evangelical community (particularly the American community) must start at the local level to develop sustainable mindsets. This would require a wholesale change at many levels in each individual church community, followed by a network of communities into a sort of macro-community. Each community could begin be asking itself questions related to social, environmental, and economic sustainability. Some of these questions are admittedly very difficult and strike at the core of theology and church organization:
  • Social: Is the way we structure our churches (i.e. church growth resulting in mega-churches) a sustainable model? Does our theology lend itself to large families which contribute to population growth?
  • Environmental: Are our church buildings sustainable? Can we reduce church commutes through a different congregational model? Are we mistaking social structures (e.g. driving to church and eating out afterwards) for spiritual virtues ("fellowship") without considering other means to achieve the same end? Are we using local resources whenever possible? Does our eschatology promote an uncaring attitude toward our planet?
  • Economic: Are we locally committing our own resources? Are we constructing buildings/programs which are financially dependent on (unsustainable) future growth?
In his post "A church In the Green", Ooze contributor Chris Cocca imagines what a sustainable church would look like:
People get together each week in some reclaimed space or free space in their neighborhood. There is no pastor. There is some kind of “Admin” or some similar open source analogue. Each week, the liturgy (literally, “the work of the people”), the readings, the music, the things that are shared and said, the prayers…each week these emerge from whatever is brought by the gathered. Some people bring things intentionally, things they’ve written beforehand or worked on for a while. Other people write poems and prayers or make art or music that is shared in response to what’s been going on in real time. The music is done by whoever brings instruments. Communion is shared every week, and the elements are whatever people bring (out of respect for the recovery community, maybe we nix alcohol). You don’t come expecting to be talked to but to converse. You don’t come to hear one or two people’s opinions but to build an offering. You come to hang out and live.
One could wish that this scripture from Genesis 1:28 (KJV) could be interepted differently than it often is:
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
It seems that the age of subduing and dominating the earth expired long ago. Of course, the authors of the Books of Moses could not have conceived of a spherical, fragile planet teeming with seven billion human beings in a mere 3,500 years. Does the church have the courage to admit that old ideas have passed away, and it's time to make all things new?

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

On Poker and Freethought

slacktivist: Weak

"A vast number of my fellow evangelicals and my fellow Americans have come to define themselves primarily by what they are against, by that which offends them. I'm sure that many of them are, indeed, sincerely offended and sincerely opposed to the many things at which they take offense. But I am equally certain that many are less sincere and that some are wholly insincere, and I fear that the least sincere among them have taken charge."

The Slacktivist here discusses a behavior I have experienced firsthand, and which the InternetMonk has referred to as the "Tyranny of the Offended". Happily, in my own denomination, I have witnessed a deliberate move away from from the posture of being "against" and toward a more gentle attitude. But the question becomes this: for the broader American evangelical community, how much identity is invested in what we are against, and would the church even be recognizable if we let these labels fall away? For many some people I know have known, the lines they have drawn in the sand define them as Christians and serve as a very effective wall to keep outsiders out. Indeed, for peitist and holiness movements, this kind of understanding is the very foundation of the faith (notwithstanding, of course, their salvific doctrines).

It's interesting to me that the people in my circle of influence worry less about offending the weak in faith than they do about offending the powerful; people who would otherwise step outside the boundary of sanctioned behaviors and actions (for which they hold little personal conviction) most often do not out of deference to offended "powerful". Shouldn't the powerful, the best-gounded in the faith, be the most tolerant and understanding of all? Ultimately, could our separatist attitude end up actually offending the weak (whose definition?) when well-meaning Christians hesitate, or even refuse to meet them on their own terms? It seems to me to be an upside-down system.

A few of my friends in our faith comunity have joined me in living on the fringe in a number of ways. You will never find me engaged in active evangelism, but you will find me shoulder to shoulder at a poker table with people who are very different from those I work and attend church with. You will find me in freethinkers meeting, having a candid conversaton with an atheist and learning something profound in the process. You might occasionally see me reading Darwin's "Origin of Species", or Dawkin's "God Delusion". I have set aside any fear of offending the powerful, and instead choose to accept and engage "the least of these", who may actually have something to teach me after all. Humanity is a two-way street.
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Saturday, February 21, 2009

25 Random Things You Wish You Didn't Know About Me

1. I have never, ever eaten at Taco Bell.
2. I once played Bach's Inventio 11 while single handedly chalking a pool cue.
3. I often frolic.
4. I once led a large troupe of amazonian refugee children safely through a hoard of poisonous frogs.
5. I aspire to be the first person to read the entire published works of Hilaire Belloc while unicycling through the canadian rockies.
6. I have a patent pending for a more energy efficient grandfather clock.
7. I am an abstract jazz pianist and an expert asbestos inspector.
8. I can hurl jello at non-moving objects with uncanny precision.
9. I have three times escaped the clutches of evil pastafarians.
10. On Tuesday evenings, after work, I repair large hadron colliders.
11. Buddhist monks resent me.
12. I once escaped from the creation museum using only a food processer and six pages from 'Origin of the Species'.
13. I frequently beat Tiger Woods golf score, and in far fewer holes.
14. I have been known to inspire widespread gloom.
15. I prefer solving Soduko puzzles using roman numerals.
16. I have performed covert operations for the United States Chess Federation.
17. When bored, I dabble in quantum chromodynamics.
18. I am the subject of numerous autobiographies.
19. When I do eat, I eat in a hammock.
20. I can do seven minute abs in under four minutes.
21. I have 27 facebook accounts, but only 23 friends.
22. Fashion critics swoon over my latest line of academic regalia evening wear.
23. I do macrame, I drivel, I have poor circulation in my feet.
24. The laws of physics do not apply to me.
25. I resent the implication, Mr. Attorney General.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The New Dogmatism

Atheism’s Wrong Turn :: Sam Harris

In this excellent commentary on the "New Atheism" crusade, New Republic writer Damon Linker observes the danger of the dogmatic position taken by the so-called Four Horsemen of the new atheist movement. Citing their open hostility to all things religious, Linker likens the danger of their dogma to the destructiveness of fundamentalist religious faith:
The last thing America needs is a war of attrition between two mutually exclusive, absolute systems of belief. Yet this is precisely what the new atheists appear to crave. The task for the rest of us--committed to neither dogmatic faith nor dogmatic doubt--is to make certain that combatants on both sides of the theological divide fail to get their destructive way.
Read the entire article

Friday, December 28, 2007

D'Scrooga on Christmas


I came across Dinesh D'Souza's Christmas blog "How Atheists Celebrate Christmas" today. I have to say I am disappointed in this conservative-turned-apologist on a number of fronts.

I had the opportunity to hear D'Souza speak a few weeks ago, and I actually briefly met him to obtain an autograph on his recent book "What's So Great About Christianity". At the time, I had only recently learned of D'Souza after watching his debate with atheist and author Christopher Hitchens. I have watched many of Hitchens' debates with Christian apologists (as well as those of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris), and I found D'Souza to be one of his better opponents. He seemed very cogent in his faith worldview, and responded with civility, good humor, and intelligence. I felt the same when I heard him speak. Having read his Christmas blog, however, I wonder now what sets him apart from his adversaries.

In his blog, D'Souza wonders out loud how Atheists celebrate Christmas. This is a puzzling question from the start, as Christmas as celebrated in America is largely a secular, commercial holiday. No doubt this troubles D'Souza as it does so many other believers who long for a long-lost day when the religious meaning of Christmas was a towering aiguille (if ever such a day existed). Having no one to blame for this except our consumerist culture, he has found a surrogate in the "atheists", and what better atheist than the notorious Christopher Hitchens of "God is Not Great" fame?

In his attempts at good-humored cynicism, one wonders whether D'Souza is attempting to emulate Ann Coulter, or even Hitchens himself (he fails on both counts). Here's the first example:
Then there's Christopher Hitchens, whom I've known over the years and like just as much. Hitchens, alas, seems to be letting his atheism get to him. First, the poor man is never seen without a drink. ... you'll see that Hitchens reaches for his glass with the same alacrity that fundamentalists reach for the Bible.
This is an unwarranted ad hominum attack. While it may be true that Hitchens is never seen to be far from his glass, what is the point? Is this the worst he can say of Hitchens character, that he may in fact have a substance abuse issue? I laughed out loud at the irony of his self-betraying reference to the fundamentalist needing his bible in the same way that an alcoholic needs his drink. But wait - there's more:
Many libertarians are basically conservatives who are either gay or druggies or people who generally find the conservative moral agenda too restrictive. So they flee from the conservative to the libertarian camp where much wider parameters of personal behavior are embraced. To the sensible idea of political and economic freedom many libertarians add the more controversial principle of moral freedom, the freedom to live however you want as long as you don't harm others. Hitchens, needless to say, is at home in this group.
In truth, many libertarians are religious, opposed to substance abuse, accepting of people without regard to sexual orientation, and committed to an ethical lifestyle, the conservative "moral agenda" notwithstanding. Libertarianism, as a political philosophy, prizes individual liberty and personal sovereignty over ones own affairs. This principle is deemed violated if any person or institution (including a government) initiates force against said liberty or exercise thereof. Unfortunately, the religious right (whom D'Souze blithely names as "conservatives") has freely initiated force against personal liberty by promotion of the so-named "moral agenda". In fact, it could be said that libertarians have their own moral agenda, one not based on personal private choices, but rather on those moral issues which threaten the well-being and very existence of mankind. In this sense, Christ himself was very much a libertarian, willing to immerse himself in a culture that the religious right of his day would readily name "immoral" for the cause of promoting a higher moral agenda:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners. (Isaiah 61:1)
The third point made by D'Souza is to object to Hitchens' reading at a Christmas Party of a satirical lyric by Tom Lehrer:
Hitchens' contribution to the party was to read an irreverent Christmas ditty by the lyricist Tom Lehrer. Remember Lehrer? He's a bit of a relic, like the Monty Python and the Rocky Horror movies. When I was eighteen and a freshman at Dartmouth I found Lehrer and Monty Python very sophisticated and amusing. Most of us, however, outgrow the juvenile sense of humor that they represent.
In order that no one miss the point of Lehrer's lyric, here it is:
Christmas time is here, by golly,
Disapproval would be folly,
Deck the halls with hunks of holly,
Fill the cup and don't say when.
Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,
Mix the punch, drag out the dickens,
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again.

On christmas day you cant get sore,
Your fellow man you must adore,
Theres time to rob him all the more
The other three hundred and sixty-four.

Relations, sparing no expensell
Send some useless old utensil,
Or a matching pen and pencil.
Just the thing I need! how nice!
It doesnt matter how sincere it
Is, nor how heartfelt the spirit,
Sentiment will not endear it,
Whats important is the price.

Hark the herald tribune sings,
Advertising wondrous things.
God rest ye merry, merchants,
May you make the yuletide pay.
Angels we have heard on high
Tell us to go out and buy!

So let the raucous sleigh bells jingle,
Hail our dear old friend kris kringle,
Driving his reindeer across the sky.
Dont stand underneath when they fly by.
It's worth noting that Tom Lehrer's "Christmas Carol" (quoted eyes-closed by a clearly inebriated Hitchens)is a biting commentary on a commercialized christmas holiday, and makes no (repeat, zero) attacks on Christ or Christianity. What it does attack is the consumerist, duplicitous holiday that the American Christmas has become. This is the fodder for Hitchens' cynical attack, and a point of view shared by many people of faith. Kudos to Hitchens for once again speaking the truth. Mysterious ways, indeed.

As for D'Souza's incursion against Monty Python, well that is something completely different. I mean, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition...

Altar Boyz in da Hood

Fight breaks out among Bethlehem priests (OneNewsNow.com)
BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Robed Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests went at each other with brooms and stones inside the Church of the Nativity on Thursday as long-standing rivalries erupted in violence during holiday cleaning. Read More

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A New Apologetic

One source of cognitive dissonance for me in recent years has been my attempt to reconcile the legitimacy of "faith" (specifically American evangelical Christian beliefs based on a plain reading of the Bible), and "reason" (a universal, objective view of physical reality). Volumes can be and have been written on how faith and reason can or cannot or should or should not be taken together. Paleantologist and educator Stephen Jay Gould identified these as non- overlapping magisteria (NOMA):
(T)he magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).
This sounds simple enough, but seems insufficient to explain the recent escalation of rhetoric in America over science and religion, theism and atheism, creation and evolution, and church and state. The controversy widens each day as presidential candidates jab each other over doctrinal tenets, the House passes legislation "Protecting" Christmas, and atheist authors top the 2007 best sellers lists. Clearly, if people accepted the NOMA concept, the conflict wouldn't exist to the degree that it does. Among the evangelical christian circles that I have been a part of, NOMA has been only partially embraced. More often, Christians seeking to make a case for their faith will subject it to the purely modern rigors of scientific inquiry, utilizing traditional apologetics to "explain" their doctrines or beliefs. In the face of arguments set forth by atheist rationalists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and in light of modern scientific knowledge and scholarship, traditional apologetic arguments (such as those posited by Lee Strobel and even C.S. Lewis), appear impotent.

A new apologetic is needed, one that is relevant to the postmodern, deconstructionist mindset. There are those postmodern Christian apologists such as Caputo and McLaren who are developing new ways of approaching the Christian faith. In the blog A New Kind of Conversation, Myron B. Penner summarizes a new apologetic thus:
"From the Christian point of view, the truth about Christianity cannot be found in modern-styled objectivity. Not only does the essence of Christianity concern the desperate need of humans and God’s gracious (and personal) response to our need, but it also starts with the assumption that human being (including human reason) is unable to save itself. Christian truth presumes to master us, rather than to be mastered by us. In this case, whenever I try to establish the fundamental reasonability of Christianity in modern terms I remove its fundamental “offense” to reason and transform Christianity into something domestic, with nothing other than a cognitive claim on my life. Christianity, however, is a way of being, or what Kierkegaard calls an “actuality”—a way of living with and before God—and not just a cognitive event involving intellectual assent to a set of propositions."
I'd be interested in hearing what both religious and secular folks have to add to this conversation.