Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My birthday, and "another journey around the sun complete, another just beginning"

Today is my birthday. In Facebook friends post "happy birthday" and other good wishes on my 'wall'. I take a drink from my water bottle, and I check my iPod Touch to get the latest weather report. Also this morning before I left my place, I was listening to my iTunes, and I checked my cellphone for text messages...

Then I started to think, back in 1989: I was not drinking from water bottles (unless it was from my water canteen when I was camping), I was listening to music via my CD player, and if I wanted the latest weather report, I had to turn on the TV.  And cell phones? Well, since I was not Gordon Gekko (5 points if you know this reference WITHOUT going into Google) I could not afford one and besides, you  might as well carry a 5 pound dumbbell with an antenna. Oh, and on the subject of Google and of course computers, back in 1989 I was happy with (fellow computer geeks listen up) my Laser 128 computer, a clone of the Apple II series, and the internet....well lol


So I started to think about my life back in 1989 since that was the year that I started to discover more about the world, about myself and, I became a college student:


Back in 1989....


I was a college freshman in Puerto Rico. I went to Universidad Interamericana (Inter American University) or how most of us called it: la "Inter".
My college plans: get a degree in Political Science, then Law School....

Some historical events from 1989: the demonstrations by students at Tiananmen Square, the USSR pulls out of Afghanistan, the "Solidarity" movement in Poland is in full force, the beginning of the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the fall of the Berlin Wall...

Some of the music from 1989 I was listening to: "18 and life" by Skid Row, "I'll be there for you" by Bon Jovi, "Janie's got a gun" by Aerosmith, "Patience" by Guns & Roses, "Free Fallin" by Tom Petty, among other songs I liked. (Note: I learned to play "Free Fallin" on the guitar and I remember many nights, hanging out with friends and all of us singing that song to the top of our lungs "....and I am freeeeee.....free fallin'......."  lol)

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Life had a lot of surprises for me. There are too many to list so I will stick to my next time in college,

Back in 1996....


I was a music student in Boston.  I went to Berklee College of Music.
My college plans: get a degree in Film Scoring and/or Music Synthesis, then write/compose music for movies, explore the connection between computers and music...

Some historical events of 1996: Taliban forces capture the city of Kabul in Afghanistan, the 'Mad Cow' disease makes the news in Britain, Boris Yelstin comes to power in Russia, elections in Bosnia...

Some of the music of 1996 I was listening to: "Wonderwall" by Oasis, "Crash into Me" by Dave Matthews Band, "Tonigh, Tonight" by the Smashing Pumpkins, "Change the World" by Eric Clapton, and the 'lost' single "Free as a Bird" by the Beatles, among others (Note: Released by the end of 95/beginning of 96, there were many conversations and debates among many of my friends at Berklee on how "Free as a Bird" was 'rescued' and recorded, mixing an old tape of John Lennon's voice in a way that could work with the voices of Paul and George, was this a "real Beatles" song, etc),

--

More and more surprises in my life... definitely too many to list so I stick to my next time in college,

Back in 2008...


I come back to college (again lol) but this time at Purdue University.
My college plans (and still current plans): get a degree in Religious Studies (with studies in Philosophy) and Theology courses thru the Purdue/Notre Dame program, then go to seminary to become an Episcopal priest (an MDiv) or a Theologian (an MTS), or both....

Some historical events of 2008: a man that would have been called a "negro" decades ago in this country becomes president of the United States, Fidel Castro steps down permanently after ruling Cuba since 1959, 400 Buddhist monks participate in a protest in Tibet, Vladimir Putin leaves his post as president of Russia to become prime minister....

Some of the music of 2008 I was listening to: I was not that impressed with the music scene coming out in 2008, instead I was listening to some stuff from a few years before that, like the "American Idiot" album (2004) by Green Day...and as always a lot of Jazz, Rock, and Classical, among some other stuff. Plus, getting books has eclipsed getting music :)

Among my new interests of 2008 and forward: reading books like "The Republic" by Plato, the writings of St. Augustine, theologians like Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Clodovis and Leonardo Boff, Hans K√ľng, spiritual thinkers like Thomas Merton, philosophers from Plotinus to Jean-Paul Sartre... Oh, I was introduced to 'improv comedy' at Purdue, and what a great bunch of people! I even took an acting class, and my final scene will stay with me for a long time.

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And now, it is 2011......


No lo puedo creer....unbelievable.  It really is 2011.  As I look back a few things come to mind:

First, I really thought (back 1989) that later in life I would understand everything about women. Because of course as of 2011, I really know EVERYTHING lol.....well, let's just say I am not as clueless as I used to be and, if I have some advice to my fellow college students it is the following: Guys, learn to listen. Do not try to fix her problems every time, just listen. And you don't have to be a big tough guy every day. She will appreciate a bit of silliness...I know someone does ;)

Second, I may actually finish a degree. I am almost there. There were too many times in my life when I thought my life felt like a ship without a compass.  It feels good to have a compass, and not the one from Jack Sparrow. Going back to college was a risky decision for many reasons but I do not regret it one single day. It was one of the best decisions of my life.

Third, I thank God for the role that the Episcopal Church (and the Episcopal Campus Ministry at Chapel of the Good Shepherd at Purdue) has played not only in my life these last few years but also in shaping my ministry. It is this same ministry that has also allowed me to have friends from other Christian denominations. (Part of the title of this blog entry was inspired by a Methodist friend) I also include my Buddhist friends, along with my Pagan friends. Also, the LGTB community and the Non-Theist community at Purdue have not only given me great friends, but also new perspectives regarding life in this planet.

Third, I am thrilled, excited, and happy to see my vocation slowly taking shape.  Not just a vocation that will take me to new places but also one that is full of so many incredible possibilities. Over twenty years ago when I "felt" the call to the ministry I always thought it was funny; images and thoughts of "Father Mario" or "Rev. Mario" made me laugh.  That calling would come, and go, and come back many times through the years, and I always thought "that's not me".  I am happy that I finally stopped one day and asked myself:
"Wait, why is this funny?"

That takes me to number four: possibilities.  I can say from experience that life is full of possibilities. Some come once or twice, some come many times, some come only ONCE.  It is important to be open to possibilities and NEVER say "I can do that later".  You first have to ask yourself:
Why do I want to do this 'later, and 'when' is this 'later' going to be?

My Christian brothers and sisters: you will understand that God will show us many possible paths.  And the path we choose will shape many other paths in our lives and the lives of others in the world.  So what path will you choose?

To my Atheist (and Non-Theist) brothers and sisters: you will understand that the universe is infinite.  With this comes infinite possibilities. This may also affect the lives of your fellow human beings. So I ask you as well, what path will you choose?

I hope we all walk a path of love, of respect, of compassion.

In the last few years my family has truly been a rock to me. Their love, their compassion, their faith, and their sense of humor, without them I simply would have not made it this far. I am truly blessed to have them in my life.

I have so many other things to say on what a friend posted on my Facebook wall as:
"Another journey around the sun complete, another just beginning".

But I will stop for now. And please allow me to say to you:
peace....

Mario
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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Is God a Delusion?" and why some of my non-theist brothers and sisters are puzzled with some theists like myself?

In my many chats with my Non-Theist (Atheist, Agnostics, Skeptics, Humanists, etc) brothers and sisters, something keeps coming up:

How is it that I can agree with them in some issues AND be a theist?

How am I reaching conclusions that are reasonable to them AND have faith?

How can I claim to attempt living a life with compassion, love, and reason AND believe in Jesus since to some of them to believe in Jesus is the same as believing in some sort of 'Sky Wizard' or "Smurfs"?

All of this reminded of a book I read a few years ago called "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. While it would be inaccurate and unfair to say that his view is the ONLY view in the Non-Theist community (I try my best not to make blanket statements or generalizations regarding individuals and/or groups with different views from mine) many of the points that Dawkins raised in his book are views that many Non-Theists do share.

While I been told that I might as well believe in a 'Sky Wizard' (could this be some sort of celestial Gandalf?) or "Smurfs" (could this be 'Papa Smurf?), Dawkins talks about how believing in God is like believing in the "Loch Ness Monster", a.k.a. "Nessie". Well, since there are not millions of people around the world taking 'Nessie' as their personal saviour, let us move on.

My current theological studies (along with my personal interpretation of the Bible), my studies in philosophy, my experiences, and lessons in life simply make me conclude the following about this book: I can agree with some things in the book AND I can disagree with some things in the book in a reasonable way, and I am not alone in doing so.

As I was thinking more and more on this, and I was about to write my comments on his book, I once again found an existing review that quite frankly is better than anything I could write right now; it contains almost every point I was going to cover and much more. This review was written by Rev. Charles Allen (Episcopal priest and Theologian) who is the chaplain of "Grace Unlimited", the Episcopal-Lutheran campus ministry at Butler University/IUPI in Indianapolis, IN. I am glad that he has so graciously given me permission to post it here.

Now, I should be clear that Charles does not expect EVERY Christian (or Theist) to agree with him regarding Dawkins's book. At the same time I believe that Charles makes one of the most lucid critiques as a Christian (from the Episcopal/Anglican view) and it is my hope that my Non-Theist brothers and sisters will read it with an open mind.

I welcome your comments and if you disagree that is fine; I simply ask that you present your views with respect and civility.

peace,
Mario

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Is God a Delusion?
Fr. Charles Allen
Chaplain, Grace Unlimited



Part I: On Dawkins’s The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins finds belief in God harmful. Given what he means by “God” and “belief,” he could be right. To his credit, he does seem to be talking about popular and influential ideas of both God (a kind of invisible Superman writ large) and faith (believing what you’re told without questioning). I suspect that there is a link between thinking of God in that way and thinking of faith in that way, and that taken together, as they all too frequently are, they can be exceedingly harmful. That’s true of many popular perceptions—like the popular equation of evolution with “the ascent of ‘Man’.” But this is not what evolution means, and what Dawkins is talking about is not what I mean by either “God” or “faith,” nor is it what many Christians, Jews, Muslims and others have ever meant.

Many people think of God as a person just the way you or I are persons, except that God has unlimited abilities and is “outside” the universe—“a supernatural, superhuman intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us” (31). This, Dawkins claims, is “the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible” (19). There are more technical philosophical versions, of course, and even philosophers of religion who defend them, but it’s not clear that they ever get away from the crude picture of a person like you and me with some very surprising abilities tacked on almost as an afterthought.

Even though I find it legitimate and vital to speak of God in personal terms, I must say I find this notion of God to be grossly anthropomorphic. If God is “the beginning and end of all things, and of rational creatures especially” (Aquinas, ST, 1.2 Intro.), if God is “over all, through all and within all” (Eph. 4.6), then God is most certainly not a person the way you and I are. True, there are plenty of Biblical portraits of God that make God look like an invisible Superman writ large, but there are others that point in a different direction. In fact, many Christian scholars would argue, the biblical writers’ views of God continued to develop, setting a precedent for further conversation beyond the Bible itself.

When the writer of 1 John tells us, “God is love, and those who dwell in love dwell in God, and God dwells in them” (4:16), we see a strikingly different portrayal of God starting to emerge, where God “indwells” all things and all things “indwell” God. This is not an invisible Superman, not even the disembodied, deep voice of “The Ten Commandments.” Instead of a person writ large, we’re presented with an interpersonal communion surrounding, pervading and opening us and all things to one another. It’s much closer to some version of “panentheism,” though a distinctively peculiar version even of that. (For more, check out “Biblical Panentheism” at http://www.frimmin.com/faith/godinall.html#—it’s sometimes fluffy, but sometimes insightful.)

Panentheism has been a major topic of discussion among theologians for over a century. In fact, I don’t know of any widely influential living theologian who has not embraced it, or at least flirted with it, in some form or in some respects (though sometimes rejecting the label). Early and Medieval Christian writers often spoke of God in those terms (a favorite is Nicholas of Cusa). But you’d never know that from reading Dawkins. For Dawkins, we can only have three choices—“theism” (of the invisible-Superman-writ-large sort), deism (an invisible Superman writ large, but utterly aloof and uninvolved), and pantheism (simply a reverence for nature which Dawkins calls “sexed-up atheism”) (18). Either Dawkins doesn’t know of panentheism, or he assumes it not to be worthy of mentioning. This is odd, because this is a view of God that quite a few people find to be spiritually and religiously engaging, both inside and outside churches, synagogues and mosques.

Dawkins gets especially irked when reviewers say, as I just have, that “the God Dawkins doesn’t believe in is a God that I don’t believe in either” (36). He thinks he’s dealt a decisive blow to any kind of God people would care about. But he has not said anything about the God most theologians are talking about. He gets even more irked when his views are put down as “nineteenth century” (156). But the fact remains that his writings do not reflect any awareness of the rich and varied philosophical discussions about the nature and aims of scientific explanations that have been circulating for at least fifty years—not quite nineteenth century, perhaps, but still a bit quaint.

He thinks he has a perfectly good reason for ignoring theologians. He believes they are not experts at anything. “What expertise can theologians bring to deep cosmological questions that scientists cannot?” (56). Well, we’ve already seen that they might have informed him about other God-concepts than the three choices he provides. Whether or not they’re justified in believing in God, they are certainly experts on what’s been thought and said about God. That alone should be enough reason to be aware of them. But Dawkins’s contempt for the field seems to go hand in hand with his cavalier attitude toward any discipline outside the “hard” sciences.

Dawkins is, of course, an original thinker and an engaging writer. But his work is controversial even in his own field, and his attempt to reduce all of human culture to the workings of self-replicating mechanisms, devoid of any awareness, is met with even greater objections outside his field. Hardly any of those objections are motivated by people with religious axes to grind. They are simply critical thinkers who recognize that different kinds of questions require different patterns of thinking and criticism. They recognize that critical thinking is itself a cultural pursuit that has to be more than an incidental by-product of unconscious, self-replicating mechanisms, whether genes or “memes.” (After all, why trust any conclusions we draw, including those about genes and memes, if our conclusions were simply produced by mechanisms that don’t reason at all?)

But Dawkins ignores these thinkers just as much as he ignores theologians, because to include them would weaken his case for an all-out intellectual war on certain religious ideas, including “moderate” ones (281-308). Indeed, the entire tone of his book is a call for people to choose sides and start fighting—the intellectual equivalent of a War on Terror. And that, I suppose, is my biggest problem with the book. For like a certain other war on terror, I suspect this one will produce too much collateral damage which will in turn produce a whole new generation of conflict where it will be hard to tell the difference between one person’s terrorists and another’s freedom fighters.

There are others of us who think it’s time we dropped the militarist/terrorist tactics of name-calling and dismissal and started addressing the underlying issues in our disagreements. That would require all of us to abandon claims to already possess The One Truth, or even The One True Method for Finding Truth, without abandoning the legitimate hope for truth, community, and dependable ways of working toward both. It’s a messy prospect at best, often tedious, and certainly not as entertaining as starting another war. But really, unless we prefer living in a constant state of war, what other way forward could there be?

With Dawkins, I am appalled and even frightened by people who simply equate their own ideas, or their readings of some text, with the voice of God or with some other version of absolute, final truth. Theologians call this idolatry—mistaking the finite for the infinite, or the relative for the absolute. It’s a sinister habit of thinking (a meme, perhaps?) that conceals itself not just in religious communities but in any community that desires a better world, including scientific and other academic communities.

To wean ourselves from this habit, we need to be open to criticism and willing to examine ourselves critically over and over again. Scientific and other scholarly communities recognize this explicitly, and they deserve credit for that, but it does not make them immune to the habit. Religious communities, like other activist communities, are even more susceptible to this sort of idolatry, which is especially ironic for those who claim to denounce all idols. But I would argue that, at their best, thoughtful religious communities can offer us further resources to resist the impulse to make gods of ourselves, our views, or our ways of learning.

I speak from a tradition, Anglicanism, that at least claims to esteem appeals to reason just as highly as appeals to sacred texts or venerable traditions, and none of these appeals is ever above question. We can say all that, of course, and still be as self-serving as anybody else. We’re often not very consistent. But at least we’ve claimed it as a public standard to which we can be held accountable, by “outsiders” as well as ourselves. It’s no accident that Dawkins often finds common cause with Anglican Bishops (237, 335), though he can’t seem to figure out how they could still honestly speak of a God anyone would want to worship. But they and I believe that a self-critical mind can actually thrive in cooperation with a deep reverence for sacred texts and venerable traditions.

We will never speak of faith as a matter of believing without questioning, because we see God as an ever-present reality who constantly eludes any final descriptions, even those of our favorite creeds. For us faith is not believing in something absent but trusting in something-or-other that at least seems to be present, though never in a way we can grasp or control, and trusting further that what we say and do in response to that something-or-other is at least faithful enough to keep us going, without ever claiming to have final answers.

I wish Dawkins had made room for people like us in this book, but he has not. Perhaps he believes that over-simplification is justified when the stakes are as high as he believes them to be. Clearly his book would not have sold as well if it had been more nuanced. Those of us who preach understand the dilemma of trying to hold attention while staying honest and accurate. But this response should not be about the book I wish Dawkins had written. I intend it to be a response about what believers, skeptics and everybody in between should do in response to a book like this. What we need to do is keep inviting one another into respectful but critical conversation. We can expect to be baffled and irked by what others say and promote. But we can also expect to be pleasantly surprised.


Part II: God without Delusions?

While I do not consider all critical reasoning to follow the methods of physics or biology, I do agree with Dawkins that people should have good-enough reasons to speak of anything as real, especially if its reality is contested. But I’m not sure that we could ever agree on when one’s reasons are in fact “good enough” when we’re asking a question as all-encompassing as the this one. You can’t ask about God’s reality without reflecting on the fundamental worldviews that shape even the way we frame our questions, and then we’re in an area where you can’t settle differences by experiments or by stepping back and looking disinterested, because we’re too much a part of the picture ourselves.

For example, when we ask about God’s reality, we’re also asking if there is more to reality than what we can predict and observe. It’s not the same question, but they’re inextricably linked. And it’s not an easy question to answer. If you treat this question as an hypothesis like any other, which is what Dawkins does, then you’ve already presumed an answer to the question, and that answer is “no.” You’ve answered, in effect, that the only questions worth answering are those that lend themselves experimental testing, even though nobody has ever devised an experiment that could test that particular answer. That’s the sort of puzzle that makes the God question an odd one, to say the least.

Of course, people who claim to be able to prove God’s existence are just as likely to miss how odd the question is, and that makes them easy prey for their opponents. Dawkins has no trouble identifying what I, at least, take to be several fundamental flaws in so-called theistic proofs, especially the argument from design (77-159). He does not do justice to the ontological argument (80-84), but then who has? In any case, I appreciate his point that, even if we can’t find a way to refute it, why should we do any more than put it on the same shelf as Zeno’s paradoxes (which appear to make motion logically impossible but don’t seem to prevent us from moving anyway)?

It’s more promising to look at the God question in terms of how we experience ourselves and our surroundings. This is not at all like appeals to seeing visions or hearing voices (87-92). Those can always be explained as hallucinations or simple mistakes, and in any case I have never had any of those experiences and don’t see why I need to. And I’m not talking about something beyond question or interpretation either, since I don’t know what that would be. But I do experience the world, myself and other people “sacramentally,” i.e., as connecting me to the presence of something “more” that exceeds what I can detect with my senses or even encompass with my thinking. Whether or not Dawkins finds that worth considering (I’m not holding my breath), I find it so, and I want to explain further.

Dawkins argues that we should treat the alleged reality of God the way we treat the alleged reality of anything else, say, the Loch Ness Monster, or extraterrestrials. But “Nessie,” if real, would just be one more item in the universe, present, if at all, only at some times and in some places, not at all times or in all places. On the other hand, God, as traditionally named, is not one more item in the universe, nor is God absent from any time or place. On this point both theists and panentheists agree. So, the “evidence” or reasons for affirming or denying the reality of God cannot be anything like the evidence or reasons for affirming or denying the Loch Ness Monster.

God is not absent from anything and not confined by anything—an “intimate otherness” surrounding, pervading and opening all things to one another. Again, this is not a recent, trendy portrayal of God. This portrayal, or something like it, can be found in numerous ancient accounts—various scriptures and classics in a variety of religious or spiritual traditions, including, as we’ve seen, my own tradition. It’s not the only portrayal of God, and it’s not likely to appeal to televangelists or people who listen to them, but it’s been around for a long time. I think this is at least arguably the same God Christians claim to encounter sacramentally in the story and continuing presence of Jesus Christ.

Is this intimate otherness real? Again, we’re not going to find out by going out and looking for it, the way we could go look for the Loch Ness Monster. God just isn’t like that. But if God is supposed to be present in some way at all times and places, then we can approach the question from other angles. We’re not just idly speculating about something out there somewhere. We’re trying to speak of something-or-other that’s both “out there” and “in here,” something-or-other that’s constantly engaging us, even if we fail to notice. (Note: I’m going to use the pronoun “it” sometimes when I’m talking about this something-or-other. But that’s only because I don’t want to prejudge whether I’m talking about something personal.)

If we can approach the question from that angle, then I can begin to answer it in this way: In my most reflective moments—moments when I am most aware of myself and others—I find myself also to be aware of an intimate otherness surrounding, pervading and opening me to the fundamental interrelatedness of all things. This is not just me, nor is it simply the fundamental interrelatedness of all things. It’s intimately other to me and to everything else, never absent, but never confined. And in moments like that, I find myself to be more aware, more open to criticism and questions, more open to everybody else, even those who may seem a bit threatening or irritating.

Is this God? People are not going to agree about that, and I don’t want to shut down any conversations. But if God is anything like the ever-present, never-confined reality affirmed by many traditional believers, this is precisely how I would expect you or me or anybody else to be aware of God. Whether or not that’s a good enough reason to believe depends on what else you may think about reasons or about the world we inhabit.

You could reply that this is only a projection, a product of wishful thinking. I can’t simply refute that idea, and I wouldn’t want to ignore it. But I do want to point out that, if I were going to project some consoling figment of the imagination, even unconsciously, I don’t think I would be projecting anything as peculiar or as disconcerting as this. It challenges me every bit as much as it may assure me. It won’t let me stay trapped in a world of my own imagining, because it keeps opening me to all kinds of unexpected encounters. What kind of wishful thinking would produce that?

Dawkins might counter that this is simply a “meme”—a gene-like, self-replicating idea which persists, not because I want it to persist, but simply because the idea itself is especially efficient at self-replication in a surprising variety of contexts. Now meme-theory is still controversial, and despite Dawkins repeated disclaimers, I’m not so sure that he can ever say much of anything about “selfish” genes or memes without introducing an unusual degree of agency on the part of molecules and ideas. (“The memes that prevail will be the ones that are good at getting themselves copied” [196]. Getting themselves copied?—how do ideas get themselves copied? If this is shorthand for something less anthropomorphic, just what is it shorthand for? In any case, how does an idea self-replicate?) But let’s not get sidetracked on the merits or demerits of memetic theory. The point is, even if this idea is a meme, that doesn’t settle anything. In fact, for Dawkins, every idea is a meme. Scientific method is a meme or a “memeplex.” But if we accept that, it still doesn’t tell us whether we should encourage its replication or discourage it. That depends on whatever else we think is there also, and where this meme might take us.

You might also reply that, even if this is not just wishful thinking, or just a meme, it can’t be the personal God most believers claim to worship. But I find it appropriate to speak of this intimate otherness in personal terms, and here’s why. I’m aware of lesser kinds of intimate otherness—you and me, for example, or even my cat. There is something-or-other present in all moments of my life, yet not confined by any of them, and I am that very something-or-other. You could say that about yourself, and so could I (about you, that is). And we both could consider saying that about my cat, though she can’t speak directly to the issue the way you and I can. But I would not pretend to be present in every moment everywhere, and I wouldn’t claim that of you or my cat. That’s one of the things that makes us different from God. (A Hindu Advaitan might differ with me over this, but I’ll save that for another conversation.) But it’s also one of the reasons why we tend to speak of God in personal analogies (just as I sometimes do with my cat). Persons epitomize this ability to be present in a whole succession of moments without being confined to any one of them. And I have never found a reason to reduce them to anything less.

Obviously, if you embrace a reductionist approach to science and reality, you won’t find any of what I’ve just said convincing in the least. But if you accept the idea of different levels or angles of explanation and understanding, you’ll at least find this worth considering. Many scientists and philosophers who are not particularly religious agree that you can’t understand atoms simply in terms of their subatomic constituents, or molecules (some, at least) simply in terms of atoms, or cells simply in terms of molecules, or organisms simply in terms of cells, or personalities simply in terms of organisms, or cultures simply in terms of individual personalities. They’re claiming that this is not just because one level of explanation hasn’t progressed far enough. They’re simply recognizing that wholes cannot be fully explained in terms of their parts. This is not some mystifying hocus pocus. It’s simply a recognition of irreducible complexity all around us (which, by the way, does not open the door to the conceptual confusions of intelligent design arguments). It’s also a recognition that critical reasoning and understanding can take a variety of forms which do not have to be reduced to one, overarching method.

None of this proves that there is a higher, more complex level than, say, the personal or the cultural. But it sets a precedent for speaking of such a level, provided that there are reasons for introducing the idea that can be openly shared and critiqued. Again, I am not leaving the door open to intelligent design arguments of the sort that I’ve encountered so far. The ID crowd focuses on gaps that are as yet unfilled at one level of explanation to justify introducing a cause vastly unlike anything else at or near that level. If those gaps do get filled some day (at about the same level), then the ID crowd will be in trouble. (And I’m wagering that those gaps will get filled.) The multileveled view I’m talking about does not require that there be any gaps at any levels. The only justification it requires is noticing that complex wholes do not behave precisely as their parts behave, and that, even so, there are still ways to make good sense of what’s happening around us, even if we can’t reduce them to one simple way.

This multi-perspectival, holistic approach to reality and how we understand it, plus the sacramental awareness I’ve outlined, are the principal reasons I have for believing that I am not deluded about God’s reality. It’s no proof, but it’s hardly an evasion of the question. I do not see how opening to this intimate otherness could ever lead me or anybody else to be less open to correction from others’ insights or criticisms. It prevents me from invoking my own faith community’s sacred texts, traditions or doctrines as trump cards, while at the same time offering me new insights into what my community is still struggling to articulate. Of course I can fool myself about being open when in fact I’m not, and so can anybody else. But fortunately, with this approach, no matter how artfully I contrive to fool myself, I can trust that there is something-or-other at work beyond, within and through me that will not let me rest in my own pet delusions, or leave me a victim to even the most virulent “memes.” If Dawkins and others like him remain unimpressed, I’ll live with that. And I’ll keep on with the work of inviting others to a life of total transparency before the One who surrounds, pervades and opens us and all things to one another.


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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"Mommies are special because they made us." (by Mario Melendez)

As my little girl was watching TV with me, she turned around and said: "Daddy, I think mommies are special because they made us." Well, besides feeling proud of my daughter for making such a deep and profound observation (and I admit, in such an adorable way) it made me think. And where would we all be without our mothers?

I have had the privilege of meeting some courageous, intelligent, strong and compassionate women in my life from all walks of life: different places, different political parties (yes, can you believe that lol), different faiths and worldviews (from Christian and Pagan, to Buddhist and Atheist), different countries, etc. And many of these women (when they are mothers now or later) simply never stop to amaze me. In many ways I am the man I am today due in part to them.

And some of these women are not biological mothers.  Along with the mothers that adopt, I include all the aunts, sisters, friends, and strangers; I include the unknown woman that some years ago took pity on me because she saw that my daughter (who wanted to go to the restroom) did not want to go to the Men's room but wanted ME to take her into the Ladies room....the lady said "You need help, do you want me to take her and you can wait for her outside?" I was truly thankful, and so was Maggie :)

So I was looking at some of my books and I saw my copy of "She Who Is" by theologian Elizabeth Johnson. Besides being an important book in the development of feminist theology, it also has (as part of her meditations and thoughts) some beautiful quotes from poets, philosophers, thinkers, and even songs.

So allow me to share the following from the book, a song from Colombian Indians that expresses how human beings should be good guardians of the world, as good parents of a large household that includes vulnerable but necessary nonhuman creatures with their own beauty, value, and integrity. The writers of the song were inspired by the concept of wholistic concern for universal justice and the image of God the Mother:

She is the mother of all races, the mother of all tribes.
She is the mother of thunder, mother of the rain and rivers,
the mother of trees and all living things.
She is the mother of the animals, the only one,
and the mother of the Milky Way.
And the mother has left in us a memory...
She left songs and dances as a reminder.




Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The "Rapture": a long time ago, in a theology far, far...away??? Part 2

As I was doing the reasearch nesessary for this, I found an article by an excellent writer. It then became clear to me that since I really did not have that much to add to what he said I decided to share some of his ideas with you.

The following is from Kyle Roberts, Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Lead Faculty of Christian Thought, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul, MN); he contributes articles to the "Evangelical" portal at the website 'Patheos'.  He is one of the the theologians (along with Timothy Dalrymple) that I read to get a solid and honest intellectual view from the Evangelical perspective.  In this article he himself quotes Jurgen Moltmann and N.T. Wright, two of the most respected theologians of the last 20 years; I was going to N.T. Wright's books myself as I was reflecting on this matter.

My dear reader, if you are an Evangelical and/or believe in the 'Rapture' I strongly encourage you to read this. Roberts presents his arguments in a reasonable and respectful way.

peace,
Mario

------

Rapture theology has captivated the contemporary public imagination. The most recent iteration was the popular Left Behind material. Prior to that, in 1970, Hal Lindsey's The Late, Great Planet Earth fascinated countless Christians. In contrast, contemporary evangelical theological scholarship found its voice, to some extent, as a counter to the sensationalist eschatologies of dispensational fundamentalism. George Eldon Ladd's influential work on New Testament eschatology moved evangelical theology away from a focus on literal fulfillment of end-times scenarios, especially literalistic readings of Revelation and "rapture" theologies connected to tribulation schemes. Yet within popular evangelicalism, fascination with the rapture continues to pervade preaching and teaching about the "end of the world." This is a problem.

Biblically, rapture theology finds its roots in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, with its language of being "caught up . . . in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." N.T. Wright suggests, however, in Surprised by Hope,

When Paul speaks of "meeting" the Lord "in the air," the point is precisely not—as in the popular rapture theology—that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from. (p. 133)

Moreover, while rapture theology retains the apocalyptic vision of the New Testament, it does so in precisely the opposite direction of the biblical authors (see Moltmann's The Coming of God, p. 159). Rather than seeing the apocalyptic as a reason to resist evil, rapture theology suggests that Christians are meant to escape this world and that the destiny of this world is destruction. In such a view, Christians will be swept off the face of the planet, leaving it to the devices of evil and the horrors of tribulation.

The biblical witness suggests exactly the opposite, that Jesus is already king and that his kingdom has already made inroads into this world, which will one day be ratified and confirmed (at his Second Coming). Tribulation is a past and present reality, and the church is called to endure it on behalf of the world and to stand up against it through the power of the Spirit. Rapture theology, in which Jesus will take his people away and leave the world to the devices and whims of evil, runs counter to the good news that the kingdom of God has already come in Christ (e.g., Mk. 1:14-15).


In contrast to rapture theology, a biblical eschatology:

1) Affirms the inherent value of the earth and motivates care for creation. Rapture theology suggests that we are "just passing through" this temporary dwelling place. Eventually we will escape this world and find our final home in an ethereal realm, a "heaven" filled with mansions and streets of gold. Again N.T. Wright helps to re-frame our expectations. God's plan is for "a new heaven and a new earth" (Rev. 21:1), what Wright calls "life after life after death" (pp. 148ff). Since the goal is the re-creation and redemption of thisworld, we have motivation to care for and cultivate it now.

2) Offers a compelling vision for resistance against evil, injustice, and all forms of oppression in the present world order. Rapture theology generates an "escapist" mentality whereby our best hope for dealing with injustice, wickedness, and hopelessness is to simply fly off to a perfect spiritual world unhampered by sin and finitude. Most harmfully, rapture theology sees injustice, oppression, and even natural disasters as predictive signs of the end of this life for Christians, rather than as the evil and discord they really are.

3) Redefines Christian mission as anticipation of and participation in the kingdom of God. Salvation, as Wright suggests, enables us to be witnesses to and signs of the ultimate salvation of the cosmos, as well as participants in that salvation (p. 200). That's why the biblical witness says that Christians are to be agents of reconciliation with those who do not yet know God and are to participate in the restoration of the cosmos (2 Cor. 5:20). In contrast, rapture theology suggests a sudden, disruptive end to that project, cutting off hope for reconciliation and renewal.

A de-raptured theology reorients evangelism and the meaning of salvation around the centrality of the kingdom of God. Rapture theology tends to use scare tactics—"Don't get left behind!"—that market individual salvation as an economic transaction rather than a new way of living justice, righteousness, and peace. A de-raptured evangelism is an invitation to embrace the reality of the Kingdom inaugurated by Christ.

Unfortunately, out of distaste for rapture theology, some Christians have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. They focus everything on the present, believing that our world is what we make of it and that it is not only futile but even counter-productive to look to an apocalyptic Eschaton. Perhaps biblical eschatology resides not at either end of the spectrum, but somewhere in the middle. Only God can bring about the Kingdom, and Christians rightly await the second, and final, return of Christ (Col. 3:4). We look for his coming and long for the justice it will bring. In this sense, Christian theology should retain the apocalyptic (the hope that God is coming to make things right) without falling prey to fanciful notions ofapocalypticism.

America is a nation imbued with eschatological consciousness. It's often how we talk about hope, change, and how we motivate action in the present toward a better future. As such, American Christianity will always be infatuated by and prone to predictions about the coming end. The recent media preoccupation with the doomsday, rapture theology of a well-meaning but deeply mistaken radio broadcaster is just the latest example. Christian leaders have a responsibility to remind people that we cannot know the "day or hour" and that it is counter-productive to speculate about it. They should also emphasize, however, that Christians should not seek to escape the world, but to embrace and engage it instead.


Monday, August 8, 2011

What is the Bible and how we "read" it?

During the last couple of weeks (and pretty much for the last few years) I have been involved in a lot of discussions about the Bible. From classes to chats with friends, I have heard a lot, a lot of answers to the following question: what is the Bible and how we "read" it?

My discussions have included Christians from many denominations, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Pagans, and many other people from different traditions. Lately, the discussion has included people from the Atheists/Agnostic tradition. And let us not forget those that refuse to identify as anything...even the "Other" label may not be accurate enough.

Here is a list of some terms that come up when talking about the Bible:

The Word of God.
Literal.
Inerrant.
Allegorical.
Metaphorical.
Historical.
Inspired.
Sola Scriptura or "Scripture Alone".

I am guessing that you can probably come up with more terms than that. As I was thinking about it I decided to look at how (as of right now) some Christian denominations see the Bible.  If you belong to a particular denomination (or non-denomination) as a Christian, try looking up the details that apply to you.

Here is the one from the Southern Baptist Convention, as found in their "The Baptist Faith & Messsage" of their website:



The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.

Now, look at the two sections called The Bible isn't a book. It's a library and Know what the Bible is – and what it isn't from the Roman Catholic Church, as found in the Bible section of the USCCB or United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website:


The Bible is a collection of 73 books written over the course of many centuries. The books include royal history, prophecy, poetry, challenging letters to struggling new faith communities, and believers' accounts of the preaching and passion of Jesus. Knowing the genre of the book you are reading will help you understand the literary tools the author is using and the meaning the author is trying to convey.

and,



The Bible is the story of God's relationship with the people he has called to himself. It is not intended to be read as history text, a science book, or a political manifesto. In the Bible, God teaches us the truths that we need for the sake of our salvation.

Of course this does not include the many other definitions and statements from other traditions on what the Bible is and how to read it, not to mention the debates on how and when it was written, the books that should be in the Bible, etc, etc.

To me, the Bible is many things, and that can be influenced by the language (if I read it in English or in Spanish), the book from Bible I read a particular day, or simply when I am not reading it and I find myself in silence.

I have been told by some friends to "read it and accept it". I have also been told to "interpret it", to use my sense of reason to "find all the beautiful layers in it". Some other friends will tell me that "you are wasting your time reading it."  Perhaps some of you belong to one of these three groups..or others.  :)

I have found that my way of "reading" the Bible is never the same...then again, who among us is always the "same"?  

Allow me to leave you with one more way of "reading" the Bible, from an ancient Christian thinker: 
St. Augustine.  

I highly recommend that you read his commentaries (he wrote three of them) on the book of Genesis to see how he struggled on how to "read" the Bible; I am not saying that this is THE way to read the Bible but it always fascinating to get an 'opinion' from someone belonging to a time and place different from us:

It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. 

It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.

"No Room" at the Anglican Inn? (one man urges his church to speak out on human rights abuses)

What is a "calling"? Do we have a "calling"? Is it spiritual? Or is it simply the name we give to a certain drive inside our minds and hearts? Or, is it both?

Bishop Christopher Senyonjo has found a calling and a new ministry in his retirement years. This calling and ministry now calls him to serve the LGBT community in Uganda, a community that is not only marginalized and faces systematic discrimination, but also faces emotional and physical violence from government and religious institutions. No human being deserves to live this way.

The Anglican Church of Uganda considers him an enemy and a heretic because of this calling. But instead of being able to silent him, he continues to ask his church (and the rest of the Anglican Communion) to stand up for human rights, and to reject the fear and hate his church spreads in Uganda; a fear and hate that fellow human beings feel every day there and around the world.

I share with you his reflections from last Christmas. He is truly an inspiration.

peace,
Mario
--------

“No Room” At The Anglican Inn?

(As the Anglican Communion reflects on the future of its international relationships, Bishop Christopher Senyonjo urges the Anglican Church to speak out on human rights abuses.)

For 24 years, I served the Anglican Church of Uganda as the bishop of West Buganda.We built the great cathedral of St. Paul as the spiritual heart of a diocese of one million souls. When I retired, I decided to serve as counselor to anyone who needed me, without discrimination. My new community came from the most marginalized sections of our society, the lesbian, gay. Bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

I made it clear to my church that LGBT people should be respected and listened to without intimidation or condemnation. After a decade of work, my mother Anglican Church of Uganda still has no place for LGBT people or myself.

From being a bishop of a great diocese with its marvelous cathedral for a million souls, I now pray and break bread with the most despised and rejected ones. In my retirement years, I am rediscovering theChristmas message that God continues to come among us to reveal his love for all human beings. Jesus Christ is Love incarnate.

The Church of Uganda has stripped me of my pension and rights to exercise my ministry as a bishop, but I have found comfort in remaining a faithful member of my home parish of St. Andrew’s, Bukato.I am there because I believe the seed of inclusiveness in the church will grow from within and not from without. I have not given up on the church that has rejected me in the same way many LGBT people have not given up on the good news of Jesus Christ and his inclusive love. It is difficult for them to come to our parishes where the messages against homosexuality still ring out from our pulpits. So where are they to go?

I remember one young man named Thomas. We were looking for a place to accommodate the programs of St. Paul’s Reconciliation and Equality Center in Kampala and he saw a big garage and suggested that it should be well used for our prayer services that he had been deprived of by his mother church.

Thomas said, “The church has made hell of our lives. We need to find a sanctuary to worship God from.”

I was very moved by what I heard from him and took in what he said. He was a Christmas angel to me. I still have a ministry. It is good news to me. It was a Christmas message of joy! Because of Thomas and others, that garage will soon become a sanctuary. We can certainly start using it this Christmas. My church has forced us out of the churches and cathedrals but we will worship God in a garage. From this humble place, many who are in hiding for fear of their lives will pray for strength and an end to their persecution by the state and the church.

This year, we ask all faithful Christians who receive the new born king in churches and cathedrals this Christmas to remember us as we remember you. This is what it means to be the Anglican Communion. We are together.

Sadly, many who have to worship in garages do so because they are LGBT or they are battered women trying to find a way to save their own lives and spirits. Some will worship there because they are just poor. All of them are unwanted by the bishops and today’s potentates.

All faithful Christians will read the same story of our beginnings as Christians. The story in Luke’s gospel is of a family that had nowhere to go but the stable because they were unwanted.There was no room for them to stay in the inn. In our case, there is no room in the beautiful churches or soaring cathedrals, only the garage is open.

Behind the scenes of Jesus’ birth were kings who were frightened by this child and plotted to kill him. Today, in Uganda, tabloids incite hatred and mob actions against LGBT people by publishing names and photos of me, a straight man, and LGBT people with “Hang the Homos” as a headline. Months later, I still am waiting to hear my Anglican Church speak on the side of the poor, the captives, and the oppressed. But they have been very busy with drafting the “Anglican Covenant.”

The proposed Anglican Covenant emerged from the threats of schism following the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson, an openly gay man. Although it is cast as the last hope for unity, it was written specifically to humiliate and disempower LGBT people and their supporters by creating a lower level of participation for those bodies. Even though my brothers and sisters in the USA have never been part of the British Commonwealth (and even Ireland left it many years ago to escape imperial authority) they are now excluded from the inner circle of a sadly misnamed “Anglican Covenant.” This document establishes a new elite power structure and reads more like a model for British Commonwealth rule than a religious covenant.

Tragically, church officials from Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Kenya, Australia and Anglican North America announced that the statement did not go far enough to exclude and condemn any support for LGBT people.

All of the African countries listed above imprison LGBT people because of who they are. As a bishop in the midst of those countries, I am now a shepherd caring for the lost sheep who are persecuted by the church and prosecuted by the state. I preach the new covenant of Jesus Christ sealed in love as we read in John 15:12. This is the heart of the Gospel--the Good News. This sacrifice of love is mocked when sister churches tolerate or promote the violation of basic human rights. Life and liberty are at risk and we must hold each other accountable. A loving Anglican Communion should not keep quiet when a paper openly supports the “hanging of the homos,” including a fellow bishop! Is there no archbishop for the outcast and persecuted minorities in my congregation? Silence has the power to kill.

The churches failed to protect minority communities in Europe during World War II when people were sent to the gas chambers and concentration camps. Many religious people in Europe emerged from that experience to help create the Declaration of Human Rights.We now have sixty years of building an internationally recognized framework for the protection of human rights in every country. If Anglicans in one country dehumanize, persecute and imprison minorities we must be true to the Gospel and challenge such assaults on basic human rights.

African Anglicans have a rich and powerful history of speaking out on human rights in the most difficult of situations. Bishop Colenso worked with Zulus to establish an indigenous church while being fought by his fellow English bishops. Bishops Trevor Huddleston, John Taylor and Desmond Tutu resisted Apartheid. We must not demean our great tradition by oppressing LGBT minorities under the guise of an “Anglican Covenant.” The proposed Covenant speaks more from a Lambeth palace than from a Bethlehem stable. If we are to heal our bloody imperial past as Anglican Christians, we must not default to a 19th Century model of superiority. If we are to proclaim the blood of Jesus Christ is shed for all and be in solidarity with the marginalized, we need a Gospel framework.

If exclusionary forces prevail, the Episcopal Church and others may find themselves abandoned.But just as my ministry is continuing without the support of my beloved Church of Uganda, the ministry of the Episcopal Church and other churches may also be in exile. Nevertheless, exile can lead us to a new journey towards wholeness and holiness. I have found a new calling in my 78th year on this beautiful earth and remain a faithful Anglican, even if the larger church rejects me and my people. We rejoice from the garages and stables for we are in good company with the one who came 2,000 years ago.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Part 1--Reflections on Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car"....

Do you ever have one of those moments when you have listened to a song hundreds and hundreds of times and then you are listening to it once again and.....you stop, and you think. And you think some more, you reflect, you ask questions, perhaps you remember something, and suddenly inspiration hits you but not like lighting.

No, maybe it hits you with the feeling you get when it is morning and you feel the warmth of the sun as he greets with a friendly hello. Makes me wonder if that is anything similar to a fraction of that experience to what the mystics "sense" (sense, interesting word to use here) when they feel the presence of the divine...

I just had a similar experience as I was listening to Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car".  Before I continue, I recommend to at least read the lyrics. To get the full experience you should really listen to it.  Then take some time to yourself, think, and later come back here to the second part of this blog entry.  :)

Here is the video...
and
here are the lyrics:

----
You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere

Anyplace is better
Starting from zero got nothing to lose
Maybe we'll make something
But me myself I got nothing to prove

You got a fast car
And I got a plan to get us out of here
I been working at the convenience store
Managed to save just a little bit of money
We won't have to drive too far
Just 'cross the border and into the city
You and I can both get jobs
And finally see what it means to be living

You see my old man's got a problem
He live with the bottle that's the way it is
He says his body's too old for working
I say his body's too young to look like his
My mama went off and left him
She wanted more from life than he could give
I said somebody's got to take care of him
So I quit school and that's what I did

You got a fast car
But is it fast enough so we can fly away
We gotta make a decision
We leave tonight or live and die this way

I remember we were driving driving in your car
The speed so fast I felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arm felt nice wrapped 'round my shoulder
And I had a feeling that I belonged
And I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone

You got a fast car
And we go cruising to entertain ourselves
You still ain't got a job
And I work in a market as a checkout girl
I know things will get better
You'll find work and I'll get promoted
We'll move out of the shelter
Buy a big house and live in the suburbs
You got a fast car
And I got a job that pays all our bills
You stay out drinking late at the bar
See more of your friends than you do of your kids
I'd always hoped for better
Thought maybe together you and me would find it
I got no plans I ain't going nowhere
So take your fast car and keep on driving

You got a fast car
But is it fast enough so you can fly away
You gotta make a decision
You leave tonight or live and die this way

----


Friday, August 5, 2011

What can Christians learn from the Warren Jeffs/FLDS case?

Many Christians are angry, schoked, and sad over the revelations related to Warren Jeffs (leader of the Fundamentailist Latter Days Saints church) and his conviction of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old who were his "spiritual wives." To me this takes a more personal angle since my daughter could have been anyone of these girls.

Now, I understand that many of us are making absolutely clear that most Christians do not approve and condem this behaviour. Many of us cringe at the thought that these people (that call themselves Christians) created a community that not only tolerated this but approved of this. But defending ourselves and saying "We are not like them" is not enough. We must also ask the following: what can we learn and what can we do about it?


These are some of the questions that come to mind:


If you go to a church, have you ever spoken to your pastor/priest about this?
What rules and guidelines are in place to help avoid this from happening?
Do they need to be updated?
If you have children, how can you have a conversation with them about this potential threat?
If your church belongs to a denomination, what do the current rules say? Have these rules been enforced?

Those are just some of the questions and some of the things we can do and you probably can think of many more. We must educate ourselves and always remember that when a priest/pastor/religious leader commits this kind of crime is not only the crime that cannot be tolerated: this is also an abuse of the authority and a violation of trust.

Child sexual abuse (along with any kind of child exploitation) is never justified.
Never.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

200 Non-Theists (atheists, agnostics, skeptics, humanists, and others) and me :)

What do Thomas Jefferson, Carl Sagan, Mahatma Gandhi, The Dalai Lama, Immanuel Kant, and Jean-Paul Sartre all have in common? Well, they were all "part" of the SSA (Secular Student Alliance) conference last weekend, at the Ohio State University campus. No, I don't mean that for example, the Dalai Lama came all the way from Dharamsala. I will explain later :)

For those of you who do not know, the SSA is (according to their website) a national umbrella organization that aids high school and college student groups in the atheist, agnostic, humanist, skeptic, and freethought movement. Here at Purdue (as part of my involvement with the Episcopal Student Association or ESA) I had a chance to meet people from the Society of Non-Theists at Purdue. Many of them are now good friends of mine and they invited me to come with them to the conference.

So, this brings me to something that I was asked by many people during the conference when they found out that I was a Christian (or a "Theist") and it was always some variation of the same question: why?

Why did I want to be there?

What reasons did I have to be there?

Why are you wearing a wire? [No, just kidding, I made that one up] ;)

I had many reasons to be there.

1) Social reasons. I had good friends from Purdue Non-Theists that were going, so I figured "Why not?" 2) I wanted to hear some of the talks at the conference. 3) Many of the issues that Non-Theists care about are issues that I care about. 4) I wanted to see how they (as they get more organized) look at issues of diversity. 5) etc, etc.

So, how was my experience? It was a good experience. I enjoyed most of the talks (some were better than others) and I had a great time talking to people there. Of course, I did wonder how long would it take before most people knew I was a "Theist" and sure enough it was during the "icebreakers" part of the conference.

This consisted of everyone coming to the center stage of the auditorium and you were supposed to raise your hand and step forward if a question or statement from a member happened to match you and/or your experiences. Then "someone" (yes, she knows I am talking about her) said "I am a Theist". And guess my dear reader, who was the only one that matched that description and had to step forward who said:
"Oh, come on!!!!!!!"

Well, that got a good laugh from everyone including JT Ebehard, the "master of ceremonies" of this particular"exercise" (who I met when he came to Purdue last semester) who of course without missing a beat said: "You are a brave man Mario...what would you like on your tombstone?" At that point a part of me was wondering "How are people going to react to having a 'Theist' there?" And I am happy to say that I was treated with respect by everyone for the entire time of the conference. JT later came to give me a hug.

In regards to the talks, some of my favorites were the ones given by Hemant Mehta (known as the "Friendly Atheist") who used a good combination of humor and examples for a presentation on the importance of developing critical thinking, specially when it comes to mathematics. (Note: a common reaction by many of us was "I wish I had him as a math teacher back in high school.")

Another good talk was given by Dr. Anthony Pinn (intellectual and scholar from Rice University) on how to reach out to the African-American community among other themes. I was very impressed by his candid statements, in particular to the importance of creating a "safe community" for young people that identify themselves as non-theists.

The sense of community is something that many in the movement believe is very important. Many of them lost that the moment they left their churches and their religious beliefs. To feel alone is something that anyone that has felt that way (for any reason) will understand that it can be a very, very tough thing, specially in high school and in college.

The talk given by Jessica Ahlquist (to many in the crowd including myself) was very moving. To hear her story in her own words and from someone that young really touched the whole place. Among the things she said, is that people should not simply disregard teenagers as people that cannot or will not care for anything. Her passion was contagious and I was really bothered to hear that many of my fellow Christians in high school have given her such a difficult time (from teasing, harassment, and threats) for being an atheist and even more, from some adults and parents. To stand for separation of church and state is never, never, never a reason to do any of these things. To respect difference of opinion is very important...then again, considering how many of our political leaders treat their adversaries I am not surprised.

One of the other speakers (that I knew only from his appearances on television) was David Silverman, the current president of the American Atheists. While I could see that he did a very good job of firing up the crowd on Saturday, I have to say that some of his arguments made me scratch my head. Why do you ask?

As part of his presentation he gave three examples of why the Atheist movement will prevail, "why are we winning this war" if I remember correctly. The three examples were: the women's movement, the civil rights movement, and the LGBTQ rights movement. Now, he argued that all three of these movements have one thing in common: that "Religion" had opposed each one of those movements. Now, yes the following he said is true: it is important to recognize the efforts of American non-theists for all of these movements. And yes, many people because of religion have opposed these movements. However, to NOT recognize what Americans have contributed to these movements because of religion is simply not acceptable. For example, when it comes to the civil rights movement, many people in religion played a very extremely important role. And you don't have to look at the big names like Dr. Martin Luther King but also some of the less known people. I wonder if Dave Silverman has heard of Jonathan Daniels.

Jonathan Daniels was a seminary student at EDS (Episcopal Divinity School), a seminary for the Episcopal Church in Cambridge, MA. Jonathan Daniels (and other seminary students from many other denominations) decided to get involved in the civil rights movements. This decision to stand up for what he thought was right would eventually cost him his life: in August 13, 1965 Daniels was shot at close range by a former deputy sheriff in Hayneville, Alabama. Daniels was the 26th civil rights worker killed in the South. And there were more people like Jonathan Daniels who were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice because it was the right thing to do and the reasonable thing to do. Even more, it was a matter of love, compassion, and respect for fellow human beings.

After that talk some of my friends actually apologized to me for that and some of the other things that Silverman said. But it was not just this that bothered me: if you are going to claim that you belong to a movement that is concerned with critical thinking, reason, and the truth (and I really believe that many of my friends in the movement pursue this with their hearts and minds) then your arguments should avoid generalizations, stereotypes, blanket statements, and other similar things. That kind of talk can lead to misunderstandings, and it can tragically lead to fear and hate. Now, does this mean that I am more reasonable than Silverman? No, because it would be unreasonable to judge someone on just one presentation. However, that particular part of the talk was I believe not very reasonable.

Speaking of reasonable, I enjoyed many of the talks I had with people at the dorms, during dinner, coffee, etc. I talked to an agnostic about Immanuel Kant; he had Sapere Aude tattooed on his arm. One atheist saw me reading a philosophy book and that lead to a talk about Jean-Paul Sartre. With Dr. Pinn we talked a bit about his work and the book he is about to publish. With some guys we had fun talking about the television series Firefly, about Star Trek, movies like Gattaca, and other related Sci-Fi talk...oh yes, I admit it: I'm a Sci-Fi geek, along with being a Theology geek, Philosophy geek, Music geek, Improv geek, and other forms of "geekdom" :)

I also had a chance to talk to a very nice volunteer with the "Foundation Beyond Belief", a charitable foundation created to focus, encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists on causes like health, education, poverty, environment, child welfare, human rights, etc. I took that chance to tell her about the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and also about "Food Finders", a food bank in my local area that provides food to member agencies, advocates for the hungry and educates the public about hunger related issues.

All in all, I had a great time. And to my non-theist friends, brothers, and sisters, I tell you from the bottom of my heart: there are many people in religion that want to work with you. We recognize that we have our differences but that does not mean that those differences have to get on the way of talking to each other with respect, to work for common issues, and to make this planet a better place. Thank you to everyone at SSA for making me feel welcome.

A final thought, at one of the tables I saw a magnet by a certain person of religion by the name of Mahatma Gandhi. It said:
There is no God higher than truth.

He also once said:
At a time when I may have to launch the biggest struggle of my life, I may not harbour hatred against anybody.

Again, we do not have to hate each other and we do not have to be enemies. It is one thing to stand our ground and defend our beliefs with an honest conscience. It is another thing to demonize and disrespect those that disagree with us. History has shown where that path can lead us.

I am glad to say that most of you (my non-theist friends, brothers, and sisters) do not see me (and many like me) as an enemy....I also do not see you as my enemy, but as a fellow human being :)

peace,
Mario