Thursday, May 31, 2007

On Belief

[Note: keep reading, this post doesn't go where you think it does.]

Sam Brownback has
an editorial in the Times today wherein he attempts to back off his position on evolution. In the first GOP debate, you may recall, candidates were asked to raise their hand if they didn't believe in evolution--he was one of three who did. It today's column, he rather remarkably asks that we regard the question as a nuanced and irreduceable one that requires a complex response. This is a courtesy Christian fundamentalist pols have spent a generation trying to stifle, and I'm afraid he just broke my hypocrisy meter. But never mind, it is worth parsing. Here's how Brownback does it:
The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.
He thereafter beats a hasty retreat from science and returns to language he understands better--"meaning." As in, "It does not strike me as anti-science or anti-reason to question the philosophical presuppositions behind theories offered by scientists who, in excluding the possibility of design or purpose, venture far beyond their realm of empirical science." And finally he undoes the argument completely, admitting that the whole discussion is rigged in any case.
While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order.
This is a return to the original logic of a priori knowledge--that we know of God because His absence makes the universe impossible. Some things are too grand to be conceived, and these things must be God.

It is the moment at which Christians, by necessity, jump into the deep waters of belief. Since the enlightenment, the concept of belief has taken a beating. Beliefs are things we don't know, while facts are things we do know. Belief has become an antonym for knowledge. Beliefs are at best rudimentary lower rungs on the ladder to truth, at worst, they lead us away from truth and into the darkness of confusion.

But here's an important point: the vast majority of our operating assumptions are beliefs. We just don't see them that way. We live in a world of technology and medical science, to take two examples, that very few of us understand. We know that smoking causes cancer, for example. But for the vast majority of us, this is clearly nothing more than a belief. We haven't the dimmest comprehension of how one relates to the other, save that we have confidence in the countless studies that say there is a relationship.

The definition of belief is "a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing." We do this all the time; our minds are like a team of bookies calculating odds about various things based on our levels of confidence. The bookies have told us that our information on cavities is sound, so we brush our teeth in the morning. We take a mornng vitamin because they say it will make us healthy. When make our toast, we're pretty sure electricity will somehow power the toaster.

This is not to say we shouldn't challenge our assumptions or engage in rational thought. Debating the nature and existence of God is a worthwhile exercise, and we'll ultimately make calls individually when our mind-bookies do the math. There's a current raft of athiest literature coming out, and it's very good for the country to consider where God fits in to our society and government.

But it's worth noting that no one is exempt from the exact same habits of mind that led Brownback to raise his hand in the GOP debate. We need to be reflective about all our beliefs.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Obama's the One

I recognize that the four regular readers of this blog will not regularly check back when I post once a fortnight, and yet nevertheless I have not wholly rid (ridden, rode?) myself of the compulsion.

Preambles out of the way, I want to make a pitch for Obama. A couple of weeks ago, I outlined the major argument at BlueOregon, and yesterday I broached the subject of race in the election. Short of reposting the entire pieces (which are lengthy), there's not a way to briefly summarize them, but should you be wishing persuasion, do follow the links. Here's my capper paragraph, which maybe doesn't close the deal if you haven't read everything that comes before. It captures how I actually feel about the guy, though.

With his inclusive approach and personal charisma, Obama has already begun inspiring people. More than 100,000 people have already donated to his campaign, and he attracts thousands of people when he appears publicly. I get it. I haven't been inspired by a presidential candidate since I became politically aware in 1980. Obama strikes me as an antidote to the politics of slickness--he's warm, honest, and personable. We need reality now, not bromides, and Obama seems uniquely trustworthy. And as with earlier candidates, there's no compromise with Obama--he's liberal, smart, charismatic, and electable.
There's also a very engaging five-minute documentary at the Washington Post about his swing through New Hampshire with Michelle and the kids. Note particularly, about 40% of the way through the clip, Michelle's response to a question at a town hall meeting. She's good.

Consider yourself proselytized.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jerry Falwell is Dead

In the 1980s, there were a few ubiquitous emblems of youthful wisdom, and among these, the bumper sticker "The Moral Majority is Neither" was possibly the most so. Jerry Falwell was not a buffoon who went on unhinged campaigns against imaginary characters on PBS, he was a dangerous radical who was bent on blurring the line between church and state. His death brought mainly reminiscinces of the buffoon, some invective, but very little that recognized the enormous effect he had on our society.

American evangelicals can trace their philosophical roots back to John Calvin, and the fingerprints of his theology are evident in our history. His was a particularly engaged form of protest against the papacy. Protestants felt that an intercessory priest and Pope were not necessary; the common person could engage Christ directly, without formal education. Protestants have therefore always been predisposed toward do-it-yourselfism. Calvin added a few of key elements that persist in the DNA of fundamentalism in America.

He introduced the idea of literal readings of the Bible--lacking the organization of the church, the Bible itself took the place of the priest. Since it was an intact text of the literal word of God, anyone who picked it up could use it as a blueprint for religion. Next, he believed in orienting society around the teachings (literal, in his theology) of the Bible. And finally, he introduced a strange doctrine of predestination:
Calvin, on the other hand, built his reformed church on the concept that salvation was not a choice, but was rather pre-decided by God from the beginning of time. This mean that individuals were "elected" for salvation by God; this "elect" would form the population of the Calvinist church.... It was incumbent on churches filled with living saints to only admit other living saints; this organizational principle was called voluntary associations. Voluntary associations are predicated on the idea that a community or association chooses its own members and those members, of their own free will, choose to be a member of that community or association.
Falwell's theology, and his interest in merging society, religion, and the church, can be traced back in a pretty clear line to Calvin. In the language that he used and the way he ordered his organization, you can see this old predestination, the eternally damned and saved, populate his world. When he condemned the evil liberals and abortionists who caused 9/11, he was invoking the threat of the damed--and the danger that they brought through their association with good, Godfearing Americans. When some Christians overlook the fetid corruption that infests the Republican Party, they see instead the saved, those who commit small infractions but whose souls remain unstained.

The effect has been the poisoning, not joining, of both church and state. For those not party to this worldview, it is viscious and malignant. Public policy falls outside the realm of discussion--it will either be managed by the saved or damned, and the consequence is of transcendental proportion. That's why the resultant GOP movement was unyielding and disinterested in compromise. It is a purely undemocratic view; why on earth would you ever accede to the will of the damned, the evildoers? It has resulted in binary politics, us or them.

The same has happened in a far less noticed or documented way, within churches. The same kind of certainty and autocracy has taken hold in many churches; for liberal evangelicals, voting GOP is a matter of faith. And when politics become acts of theology, there is very little give in the system. Churches have driven away congregants for what appears absurdly petty: voting for the wrong candidate.

A lot of the invective directed at Falwell was tinged with a kind of certainty he would have recognized. Many are glad he's dead, confident that he was as evil and malignant as they imagine. But although his cultural legacy was most certainly malignant, I'm reluctant to say anything about the nature of a person I haven't met. Let us do him an honor he may not have done for those he disagreed with: let us treat his death with the respect any member of our community is due. It's the liberal thing to do.