the Bible

Agnosticism and Religious Relevance

According to a number of recent studies, agnosticism is on the rise--at least in the United States and Europe. Pope Benedict XVI has centered his pontificate around leading Europe away from secularism and back to its Christian roots. The inevitable question must be asked: Is religion still relevant?

I was born and raised in a Catholic family and I have spent most of my adult life preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ. So I approach this question with a bias in favor of religion, specifically Christianity. Still, other religions and even non-believers make essential contributions to the traditional understanding of God. Ironically, agnosticism, in particular, has the ability to both challenge and strengthen traditional religion. While there may be any number of reasons for a person to choose agnosticism, I would like to look at two. I believe that understanding these is essential to appreciating the insight agnostics bring to a discussion of God.

In a previous post on 03-Sep-2010, entitled "Multi-Universes and God" I took issue with a position physicist Stephen Hawking posits in his new book, "The Grand Design". As noted in the post, he argues for spontaneous creation based on gravity and in the process dismisses the need for a creator. My response suggested that while possibly negating certain concepts of God, Hawking's argument does not negate the need for the Bible's "creator" God. After all, the Bible is a book of faith. As such, it tells us that God created the world, but leaves open to scientists to determine the actual process of creation. That having been said, I can appreciate the developments within physics and other disciplines that lead many scientists to conclude that there is not or may not be a God. I can also appreciate the observations they bring to a discussion of God, that actually deepen faith. And since science and religion are not in competition with each another, I believe that the paradoxes will ultimately be resolved, but the dialogue must continue, for there is much that science and religion can teach each other. However...

There is another source of agnosticism that, while easier to comprehend, is more difficult to engage. The difficulty in addressing this particular agnosticism is that it is rooted in religion itself. More precisely, it is rooted in the way that religion is often presented. Indeed, there is a strong Christian component at work here and it is counter-productive. For the very people who want Jesus to be the center of life are the ones who are relegating Christianity to the periphery and, potentially, obscurity.

Every generation needs to find relevance. We look for it in work, in politics, in social structures and in religion. It is what we seek in our personal and inter-personal lives. But the Christian religion, despite its foundations, is failing on this front. Church authorities in various denominations proclaim the faith in such a way that it is anything but relevant. When a religion adheres to ancient belief systems without trying to bring them into harmony with the modern world, that religion has no claim on the mind or heart. This leaves thinking believers floundering about in a vain search for meaning within their religious traditions. When they don't find it, what options remain?

In Catholicism, the great 20th century movement to update the Church known as the Second Vatican Council is on the verge of being consigned to the dustbin of history. Vatican II accomplished exactly what it set out to achieve: a renewal through which the Church could read the signs of the times and merge the faith of our fathers with the reality of modern life. The Council began its changes by issuing new translations of the prayers for the Mass and the sacraments--changes that both God and humans could understand. Following that, Vatican II developed religious practices and teachings that discerned the divine presence in the secular. The Council outlined the role of religion in one of its seminal documents, "The Church in the Modern World". Slightly more than forty years later comes Benedict XVI. On the heels of John Paul II, he is attempting to roll back Vatican II's changes and direction, apparently oblivious to the fact that he cannot also roll back society or the world. By divorcing the divine from the secular, the Catholic Church actually give voice to agnosticism.

Besides disassociating itself from the secular, there are other ways in which the Church is sinking into irrelevance. These include its worship. Like the Second Vatican Council itself, the changes begin with prayer. Every element of a living faith is first of all based on the ability to communicate with the divine. When people in the pews are unable to speak in natural cadence, forced instead to use stilted formulations, God becomes distant and unreachable, not imminent and approachable. Never mind that these translations are supposed to be closer to the original Latin. There is a reason Latin is a dead language. This is not a hopeful or effective way to communicate with or relate to God. History will not look favorably on English-speaking bishops who surrendered the beauty of their language to the authoritarianism of Rome.

Perhaps because God is becoming more distant in the pews, there is now a renewed interest in demonic possession. More than 100 bishops and priests attended a conference on exorcism in Baltimore this past weekend. The organizer, Bishop Thomas Paprocki is a reasonable man, sounding neither hysterical nor hyperbolic when speaking of possession and exorcism. He organized the conference so that dioceses around the nation could be prepared, and he emphasized that an essential element of that preparedness is being able to distinguish between mental illness and demonic possession of God's people. Yes, you read that correctly and it is just as bizarre as it sounds--demonic possession of God's people.

R. Scott Appleby, a highly respected scholar at Notre Dame suggested that the action of the bishops makes perfect sense. By emphasizing that the Church deals with the supernatural, he said: "It's a strategy for saying we are not the Federal Reserve and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons." It is not clear if that is his own perspective or if he is simply observing the actions of the bishops. In either case, it is hardly convincing, and more than just a little embarrassing.

Fr. Richard Vega of Los Angeles, President of the National Federation of Priests' Councils suggested that there might be a rise of exorcism requests in the United States due to the migration of Catholics from Africa and South America--people, he says, who are more in touch with the supernatural. Correct me if I'm wrong, but if people who are more in touch with the supernatural need all this exorcism, then either their concept of the supernatural is seriously defective and tends toward magic, or the Church's concept of the supernatural neglects and minimizes God's love and care for his own people. It is fairly easy to see how this kind of nonsense might lead one to the conclusion that there is no God.

For myself, I still believe in Jesus. But I suggest that all believers speak about agnostics with more respect. After all, we might be the reason they don't believe.

Iran, Stoning, the Koran and the Bible

As a matter of full disclosure, I am unabashedly pro-United Nations. If that loses some readers just as I begin, I make no apologies. I consider it their loss. At the same time I am a committed Christian, specifically, Catholic. Finally, I am profoundly anti-death penalty. Just how much can be covered in one blog? Let me try to limit it this way.

It is embarrassing to me as an American that our country is the only developed nation that still executes convicted criminals. There is an English phrase that some might want to resurrect and reconsider: "A man is known by the company he keeps". As countless others have pointed out, capital punishment puts us in league with Iran, Iraq, North Korea (the three countries designated as the Axis of Evil by former President George W. Bush), Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China, and a number of other less objectionable countries. One thing that sets the U.S. apart from some of our death penalty pals, is that for the United States, capital punishment is not a command of God. It is enacted for purely secular, and, I might add, unsupported reasons, such as deterrence. In the quiet of our solitude and the recesses of our hearts, I suspect we all know that the only reason for capital punishment is revenge. Unfortunately, that cannot be voiced aloud in our current political climate.

America's problems with the death penalty might best be served in a future blog. For now, the real concern is religion and its misuse in determining the laws that control governments and their citizens. Recently, much unfavorable coverage has fallen on Iran. That in itself is no surprise, since Iranian President Ahmadinejad continues to offer reason for disdain. But recent coverage has dealt with decisions to stone people to death, in particular a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. It is very reminiscent of biblical times. Except that for educated Jews and Christians, their sacred writings have been subjected to the tools of literary criticism, thus enabling them to filter out those elements of the Bible that are conditioned by the social structures and mores of the times in which they were written, thus approaching a more accurate understanding of what God is saying through the writers of the Bible.

I say educated Jews and Christians, because among both groups there are still those who take a literal view of the Bible suggesting that the Bible is inerrant and every word should be accepted exactly as it is written. It is somewhat sad that in this day and age it is necessary to point out the absurdity of such a position. There were no secretaries taking shorthand notes, no dictaphones and no digital recorders when the Bible was written. The Holy Spirit inspired people to reflect on their situations, on God's presence in their lives and on how they might respond to God's call. But they did not always get it right. There are contradictions throughout the Bible beginning with two different and irreconcilable creation stories presented in the first two chapters of the very first book, Genesis.

When I was in the seminary I was fortunate to be taught by an internationally recognized Scripture scholar. One of his favorite statements was: "The Bible is the Word (read singular) of God in the words (read plural) of the men and women who wrote it" (The parentheses are mine). He also suggested that no significant conversation can take place with someone who does not acknowledge that the Bible can be subjected to the same principles of literary criticism that every other writing can.

To be fair, there are educated Muslims who understand that the same principles of literary criticism must be applied to the Koran, though for some reason that seems to be a far more difficult process--perhaps because there are several countries that have established Sharia, or some form of it, as their civil law. This makes it quite difficult to read the Koran and conclude that stoning a woman for adultery is neither the will of Allah, nor an acceptable practice under any concept of human rights.

Thus we arrive, once again, at the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It can be strongly and accurately argued that the Declaration should outlaw capital punishment in every country. It should also be noted that there are a number of articles that many, if not most countries violate in the name of national legislation, and which should bring down condemnation by the UN as a whole. Unfortunately, that might actually lead to the dissolution of the only organization capable of moving the peoples of the world toward some kind of order and peace.

I would like to suggest that those countries that implement the death penalty because of religious law are especially onerous. It seems to me that they stand in violation of at least the following articles 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 10, 12 and 28. As such they deserve their own form of condemnation, while not excluding or exonerating more secular governments such as the United States. It also seems that countries that impose Sharia, or some other form of religious law upon its citizens stand in violation of articles 18, 29 and 30. Given the extremism of some elements of Islam, I guess this is where I consider myself lucky to be a Christian.

I realize that the United Nations, both by its structure and mission cannot exclude or expel countries that rule under some kind of religious law. But I would like to suggest that no religious text can supplant the UN Declaration of Human Rights. This includes the texts that the three Abrahamic faiths consider to be revealed such as the Bible (Hebrew and Christian writings) and the Koran. It also includes writings that are deemed sacred and holy such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon, the Tao Tse Ching, etc.

As a Catholic, I am committed to the truths contained in the Bible and I believe that it offers time honored principles of justice and peace that are often dishonored by its most vociferous defenders. But I also believe that in the effort to bring about cooperation among the world's nations and eventually to achieve world peace, there may be no greater writing than the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

It may be acceptable in some countries to establsh a law that adultery is illegal (though I would have difficulty finding such justification). But to suggest that the penalty should be death is as great an affront to Allah as it is to the person caught in the act.

Multi-Universes and God

Stephen Hawking is one of the pre-eminent physicists in modern science. Perhaps due to his prominence he is also no stranger to controversy. In fact, not only does he not shy away from it, he seems to enjoy fomenting a little. This is not a negative assessment. The greatest thinkers in history have always created intellectual turmoil in the advance of new ideas. Over time, that has led to the development and acceptance of new and sometimes vastly different views of what we thought we knew of the world, of ourselves and even our understandings of God.

In the case of science and religion, such controversy has generated a concept that science and religion are at odds with each other and cannot coexist. It is an idea shared equally by some scientists and some religionists. Precisely because theology is not an empirical science, it is easy for some to accept a dichotomy that exists more in the imagination than it does in reality.

Putting aside the visions and apparitions claimed by people who are already pre-disposed to believe in God, the fact remains that we cannot see God, nor can we prove that God exists. The frequently used example of the artist remains apropos today. While one can recognize Rembrandt in one of his paintings, it is not the same as seeing Rembrandt himself. For people of faith, it is easy to see God's hand at work in creation, but that is not the same as seeing God. Another analogy that has been popular among preachers, and is perhaps more accessible, is wind. We can see and feel the effects of wind, but cannot see the wind itself. Yet we know that it is there. Of course, all analogies limp. Knowing the wind is there from observation is clearly not the same as believing that God exists by observation. There simply is no proof that God exists. This need not bother a believer, for it is in the definition of faith, itself. If God's existence could be proved, there could be no faith.

There is a similar principle at work in the world of science. For example, scientists have theorized for years about the existence of dark matter. Alternatives to dark matter notwithstanding, (specifically Milgrom's Modification of Newton's Dynamics {MOND}), the vast majority of scientists have continued to believe in the existence of dark matter, even though it cannot be seen. The presumed existence of dark matter helps to explain some of the observations in the rotation of galaxies and galaxy clusters.

The same principle is at work in the existence of our universe and the existence of parallel or multi-universes. Stephen Hawking's new book, "The Grand Design" argues "Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist." Using the existence of gravity, he argues "the universe can and will create itself from nothing." Hawking suggests there is no need for God and he seeks to support this from a couple of observable facts. First, there are innumerable planets in our universe, thereby raising the probability that intelligent life exists elsewhere. Where that life exists, it will always find itself living in a suitable place with no need for a God to explain its existence.

The second observable fact has long been the staple of science fiction, but today clearly resides in the mainstream of modern science. This is the concept of parallel or multi-universes. Without going into the details, cosmological observations give rise to four levels of multi-universes, successively more complex. We see the first two of these at work in popular science fiction: Level I multiverse is what is presented in a number of episodes of the various "Star Trek" series. The film "Men In Black II" ends with a nod to the Level II multiverse. Beyond these are two additional levels of multiverse. According to Hawking, among the parallel universes, a universe like ours will also have the same laws of physics. For him, that universe begins exactly as our did and must arise from nothing.

Scientifically, there is nothing problematic in Hawking's argument. However, it does not negate the existence of God, and his contention that it negates the need for God is grossly over-stated. Substantially different religious traditions have different concepts of God. Perhaps Hawking's argument negates the need for some of the them. Yet he seems not to understand the God of the Bible, for nothing in his presentation negates the existence of this God.

Hawking appears to make the same mistake that many fundamentalists do, namely, failing to distinguish the difference between fact/fiction and truth/falsehood. The result is the mistaken notion that the Bible is either science or history--it is neither--and this leads to the false conflict between science and religion. Truth and fiction are not opposites of each other. The opposite of truth is falsehood, the opposite of fact is fiction. Great works of fiction can speak profound truths about life, but they are not factual. The same can be said of the Bible.

In both of the creation narratives in the Book of Genesis, God is presented as the creator of the world (universe). But these creation stories seek to tell truth through the poetry of myth (fiction). The works of Stephen Hawking and other scientists seek to explain the facts of the universe. Both of these endeavors can and do speak to truth.

As one of my professors, a Scripture scholar, was fond of saying: "The Bible tells us that God created the world. Science tells us how God created the world." The spontaneous creation that Hawking refers to is for the believer, an act of God. This may not convince scientists that God actually exists or that he created the universe. That remains an article of faith. But it should free them from the obligation to attempt to prove that either God does not exist or did not create the universe. In today's world we need to find ways for science and religion to work together. To arrive at the deepest truths we need them both.