Is It a Prayer, or Isn’t It?

The Arizona State House

This little news item calls for brief theological reflection…

The AP reported last week on an incident in the Arizona House of Representatives. State representatives take turns offering a prayer of invocation; Rep. Juan Mendez– described in reports as an atheist– took his turn and “asked House members not to bow their heads but to instead look around at each other ‘sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state.'” (from Juan Cole’s Religion Clause)

The following day, Rep. Steve Smith– described in reports as a Christian– expressed his judgment that Mendez’s offering on the previous day did not count as a prayer. (The full report and link are below).

I take Mendez’s offering as authentic prayer for the following reasons. First, it is life-affirming: his words regarding the “extraordinary experience of being alive” evoke the gift and mystery that life itself is. Second, the gesture of looking at other humans can be reasonably interpreted as a gesture pointing us to the sacred (even if, from the atheistic point of view, it does not point us to the divine). Third, his words call people out of narrow self-regard, to consider the larger whole.

Smith is right that Mendez’s invocation was not Christian prayer; it is also obvious but worth mentioning that, at the end of the day, there are irreconcilable differences between an atheistic and a Christian way of experiencing and acting in the world.

One might also plausibly think, however, that the Christian way of engaging difference– especially in this diverse and pluralistic nation– would be to seek common ground when possible. Followers of Jesus have a special obligation, in this age of fear and in this culture of death, to ally when possible with all who affirm life, and who desire to care for all people– as expressed in Rep. Mendez’s prayer– even if they don’t believe in God. This does not mean softening the gospel, or selling out to syncretism.

On the contrary, such Christian engagement comes from a deep trust in the One whose ways of working towards the fulfillment of history are mysterious: a deep trust in the God whose ways are not our ways. It is faithful, Biblically-grounded Christian practice not to put limits on how, and where, the Holy One is working out the purpose of the world.

AP today reports on an unusual controversy in Arizona over the opening prayer offered by one member of the state House of Representatives. Members of the House rotate in offering the invocation. On Tuesday it was Rep. Juan Mendez’s turn. With members of the Secular Coalition for Arizona in the visitor’s gallery, Mendez, an atheist, asked House members not to bow their heads but to instead look around at each other “sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state.”

The next day, Rep. Steve Smith complained that Mendez’s remarks did not qualify as a prayer. He asked other House members to join him in a second prayer in repentance for there not being one the prior day. Smith said that Mendez’s remarks were analogous to someone leading the Pledge of Allegiance by pledging “I love England.”

via Religion Clause.

via Member Page.

Bring to a Boil and Reduce to Simmer… and then Bow Down Before the Lord Your Noodle

This from Howard Friedman’s “Religion Clause” today:

In Austria, Niko Alm, an atheist who says he belongs to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, has been successful in getting authorities to issue him a driver’s license with him wearing a pasta strainer as a head covering in his photo. According to BBC today, Alm decided to claim the head covering was required by his belief in “pastafarianism” after he read that one could wear a head covering in a license photo only for religious reasons. Police, however, say that the only requirement is that the photo show the driver’s face uncovered, which Alm’s did. Alm said that after he applied, he was asked to submit to a medical interview to determine his mental fitness to drive.

Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

via Religion Clause.

Atheists in “Interfaith” Dialogue?

Atheists in “interfaith” dialogue? I hope so.

We probably need to change the terminology. Loosely understood, “faith” is shorthand for some kind of religious belief– and “religious belief” is generally understood to include the existence of a god or gods (or goddesses). The defining feature of atheism is the affirmation that, in the realm of all that exists, divine beings are not included. At that level, it seems incorrect to call atheism a “faith.” Therefore, it seems incorrect to call a conversation between a theist and an atheist “interfaith” dialogue.

Terminology aside, I hope that theists and atheists alike would welcome the kind of open and searching conversation, that in other contexts is called interfaith dialogue. Such dialogue, properly understood and properly undertaken, is not about trying to convert the other. It’s not about trying to convince the other that her beliefs are benighted and her practices superstitious. Rather, true interfaith dialogue starts from the acceptance of the other, and moves into conversation in the spirit of openness and learning. Instead of defending one’s perspective, true dialogue moves in the much riskier direction of allowing for the possibility for change– most daringly, for the possibility for change in one’s very own self, through the encounter with the other. Theists and atheists have things to learn from one another.

Below is an excerpt, and the link, to an article entitled “Do Atheists Belong in the Interfaith Movement?”

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk in the organized atheist, humanist, skeptic and freethought movements about the potential benefits and drawbacks of interfaith work.

Over at Patheos, the Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, Roy Speckhardt, recently made an excellent case that while the terminology of “interfaith” may be problematic and there are several other important issues to grapple with, it is worth atheists’ while to get involved. At Friendly Atheist, Secular Student Alliance Communications Director Jesse Galef offered a long list of reasons atheists might participate, and how their involvement might improve some of the problems within the interfaith movement. Despite Galef and Speckhardt’s serious concerns and reservations, they have been actively involved in intentionally interfaith efforts, and I suspect their participation has informed their conclusions about the idea….

What is the Nature of this Universe?– World Atheist Convention Meets in Dublin

Issues and content aside, the most compelling upshot of this past weekend’s meeting of atheists in Ireland is what it tells us about the universe we Westerners (and increasingly, all of us on this hot and crowded planet) inhabit– believers and atheists alike. Succinctly, we don’t live in a universe anymore. We live in a multi-verse– or, less charitably, we live in a chaos (the opposite of a cosmos).

The way that I am asking this question– what kind of universe do we inhabit?– is a metaphysical/philosophical question, not a physical/scientific question.  The evidence that we live in a multi-verse, is that there is no common understanding– in fact, there is very serious disagreement– about the nature of what is real; about what we can know and how we know it; about where we came from and where we’re going; about what is beautiful and good, and on what ground we can make that judgment— in sum, about all questions of meaning and purpose. Any universe begins from assumptions about the nature of what exists; the defining characteristic of those assumptions is that they themselves cannot be proven. Even the universe of Western material science is not exempt from the logical necessity for this epistemological first move, which for materialistic atheists is the functional equivalent to, ironically, a religious leap of faith.

Western culture has been in turmoil– more or less– since at least the Enlightenment, and as the West has bumped elbows with non-Western cultures, those cultures have at various times elbowed back. Fundamentalisms of all stripes– Christianism, Islamism, scientism– have wide appeal, because they aim to supply us once again with a universe to inhabit– a cosmos instead of a chaos. Such a tidy resolution to questions of ultimate purpose– such a tidy restoration of the universe– is not possible, because the commitments that people have to their cosmos– to their way of making meaning of experience– are, at root, non-rational.

A multi-verse– a world with different and competing ways of ordering morality and meaning, origin and destiny–  is always at risk of becoming a chaos. The opportunity of our time is achieving a widely-shared, deepening appreciation for all that is life-affirming in the multi-verses we inhabit together– and for the mystery at which our knowing cannot reach.

[Last] weekend [June 5th and 6th], about 350 conventioneers descend[ed] on Dublin to discuss matters of faith and its place in public life. It’s not a meeting of the Catholic Church hierarchy, but the first World Atheist Convention.

Organizers claim they aren’t trying to make a statement by selecting Ireland, often seen as one of Europe’s most religious nations, but the get-together of nonbelievers does come in a country where religiosity has been in steady decline. In fact, faith seems to be on many European minds of late and questions of religion in public life have reentered political discourse here – from the French “burqa ban” to Ireland’s antiblasphemy law to frequent complaints from Pope Benedict XVI about perceived moral relativism.

Long considered a private matter, some say public questions of faith are even threatening Europe’s traditionally secular politics. “Broadly speaking, religion is back on the agenda in a way people didn’t think it would be 10 or 15 years ago,” says Titus Hjelm, a sociologist of religion at University College London.

via Atheist confab in Ireland comes as Europe confronts religion in public life –

William Sloane Coffin on Suffering….

William Sloane Coffin

My good friend Rich Simpson posted the following on his blog (link below, and also in the sidebar) on March 18th. Having recently reflected on suffering here with Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts (prompted by the destruction in Japan), I found these words an apt follow-on. According to Rich, “the sermon was titled ‘The Uses and Misuses of Suffering’ and can be found in Volume I of The Collected Sermons: The Riverside Years:”

If the only God I could believe in was the God of…atheists like Nietzsche and Camus, I too would be an atheist. I could never believe in a God who didn’t suffer – given the suffering of the world. I could never believe in a God whose chief characteristic was his power, not his goodness. And because my God is a God of goodness, his chief characteristic is not peace but pain. I only quote Scripture, “He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” My God hangs upon a cross, a victim not an executioner; the quarry, not the hunter; and one who not only suffers with me but for me, seeking not only to console but, beyond consolation, to strengthen me. Such a God I can affirm and a world with such a God in it I can affirm too. Metaphysically, I can’t answer the problem of pain. I can only resolve it by sharing it – by holding hands with the dying, by protesting in the name of my crucified Lord against war, hunger, oppression, torture, against suffering inflicted by our own human injustice. I know that the worst of all evil is indifference to evil…to keep vigil with him who neither slumbers nor sleeps – that’s the way to live.

via Rich’s Ruminations: The Uses and Misuses of Suffering (William Sloane Coffin, Jr.).

Religion At All? (Let Alone in the Balance…)

In response to my recent post on Salman Taseer’s assassination, my friend Paul writes:

Violence is rarely the answer, perhaps never. And it leaves me to wonder if John Lennon wasn’t onto something when he said, “imagine no religion …” Can the good ever outweigh the evil done in religions’ name(s)?

Thankfully, the critique of religion is not just the province of atheists– of whatever historical moment and philosophical stripe– but is also the province of religious people themselves. In a recent article in The Christian Century, Douglas John Hall quotes Swiss theologian Karl Barth as having remarked, “‘The message of the Bible is that God hates religion.'” The idea is to contrast religion– understood as the way to capture and own God– with faith: faith being a lived and living trust in the transformative power of the Transcendent One,  Who by definition is beyond being controlled or captured.

As long as human beings are around, religion isn’t going away. That means that the need for the critique of religion isn’t going away either. And that’s the spirit of this blog: that true religion opens individuals and orients communities toward active trust in the mystery and power of God– and that it is precisely this kind of faith that can provide a balancing counterweight to the violence and narcissism of our time.

The Atheism of Fundamentalism

Christian fundamentalisms like Answers in Genesis are at root atheistic because they reduce all discourse– all ways of speaking and knowing– to the scientific. Instead of approaching the world with God as the location of all coherence, they approach the world with the particular way that Western, post-Enlightenment humans understand the physical world– science– as the location of all coherence. God is then forced to fit into that schema: the Creation story in Genesis has to be “scientific,” in order to be true.

The first move out of this impoverished misapprehension is to recognize multiple ways of making meaning. The way the words of a poem “mean” something, for example, is different than the way the words of your owner’s manual for the microwave oven “mean” something– and the way the words of your marriage vow (“I do”) “mean” something, is even different still. It’s a mistake to read an instruction manual as poetry; it’s a mistake to read poetry as a promise; and it’s a mistake to read Genesis as science.

God is surely no worse off for that– and we’re better off, because we can then find a faith for the twenty-first century, that is intellectually honest.