Monday, September 20, 2010

Avoid Speeches on the Constitution?

I recently read the article "Republicans and the Tea Party - Enlist but Avoid Speeches on the Constitution" by Kate Zernike.  Unfortunately, I can't tell if this is Ms. Zernike's advice for the Republicans or the mood within the Republican party.  The only authority that she cites is Stuart Rothenburg who is a non-partisan political analyst.
“You see these rallies and the signs are all about the Constitution,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a nonpartisan political report. “They want it to be about these big ideological ideas, when I don’t think most voters think that way. It’s very clear that what’s best for the election is to make it about Obama, Pelosi, health care, the deficit.” 
From wherever the advice is coming, I disagree.  It seems that the American people could benefit from a large-scale debate about the Constitution and the proper role of government.  Some guy in a tricorn hat railing on the 17th Amendment and the direct election of senators might be a non-starter, but American rhetoric needs more than "who's hot" and "who's not".  In the last presidential election, I was sadly disappointed that neither candidate seemed willing or able to articulate a governing philosophy.  There are hard questions facing the republic, and many voters want to know how a leader thinks. What can government do and not do?  What are the limits to freedom?  How will a leader establish priorities and resolve conflicts of interest? 

All these folks dressed as Revolutionary reenactors have a point.  History and our founding documents matter.  The excesses of the Tea Party movement should be met with principled argument, not ridicule.  Whether the issue is health care or war in the Middle East or the role of religion in society, "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" require some explanation.  Americans are generally conservative, and they want to know that the rules aren't changing in the middle of the game.  At the very least, they want to know that change is consistent with their heritage and principles.  The conservatism of which I speak is not ideological.  It's an outlook.  In a few years, I bet we will hear again that the Republicans have overreached precisely because they forgot this advice. 
In the meantime, showing disdain for the Constitution is not the way to get elected.  

Saturday, September 11, 2010

September 11th

Nine years ago, we were reminded that evil is real, that heroes exist, and that hope never dies. Despite her sins, America remains a beautiful, wonderful land whose greatest resource is her people. Let us not forget those who died, those who mourn, and the children whose parents are never coming home.

"Oh, that my words were recorded, that they were written on a scroll, that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead, or engraved in rock forever! I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth" (Job 19:23-25).

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Community Organizers

I currently receive e-mail from Sojourners.  Even if I disagree with an article, there is always food for thought.  The cover story for this month is about congregation-based "community organizers".  In another time in my life, I worked as a teacher in a poorer community in Arkansas.  I appreciate the work of those who bring communities together, empowering individuals and strengthening families.  Those folks are doing the Lord's work.  From the conclusion of the article...
That is what hundreds of thousands of Christians and others have found in congregation-based community organizing, a practical way to live the values of the kingdom of God, or “the world as it should be,” amid the messy realities of “the world as it is.” As Nolan said, “Organizing is a really great marriage of the pragmatic and the prophetic.”
Unfortunately, there are some organizers who only see the community as "haves" and "have-nots".  They reject the possibility of personal transformation, ignore the gifts already present in the community and treat the powerful as the enemy.  Rather than seek reconciliation, they perpetuate the divisions in society pitting one group against the other.  Others have a myopic view of the problems that communities face.  Clearly, encouraging political involvement is important, but politics is not a panacea.  Even Barack Obama, the former community organizer, has acknowledged, "...we know the government can't solve every problem."

Saul Alinsky is credited as the father of "community organizing" which I personally think is unfortunate.  Alinsky's writing gravitates toward the worst tendencies of community organizing.  However, the Sojourners' article suggests that things are changing...
When organizing moved into churches, it also started to lose some of the rough edges that were hallmarks of the Alinsky style. For instance, Alinsky’s method called for “personalizing” the issue, making one individual the face of the enemy. Today organizers are more likely to talk in terms of building relationships, even with public officials or business leaders who might be the current adversary.
Thank God that we are moving away from "personalizing" the issue...

...Never mind.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Benefits of Being Wrong

According to the Declaration of Independence, governments exist in order to secure the rights that we have naturally.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men..."
When John Locke speaks of rights, he has a different triumvirate--life, liberty and property.  "The pursuit of Happiness" although not original with Thomas Jefferson is the American innovation.

Happiness is not about emotional well-being.  It is about teleology.  What is the proper end of society?  What are our highest aspirations?  History gives us multiple examples of the ends of social life.   Honor, virtue, salvation and wealth are but a few.  The Declaration was purposely vague on the meaning of happiness.  This was not an endorsement of a moral relativism where truth did not exist.  Instead, the Founders believed that truth would be revealed in the free exchange of ideas. 

Kathryn Schulz in a recent post on the Freakonomics blog doesn't write explicitly about the pursuit of happiness, but her insight is helpful here.  She speaks about the tolerance of dissent and disagreement.
...We are a young country built on a mature idea: that all of us must be at liberty to make mistakes. We are free to say things our fellow citizens think are untrue, worship gods our neighbors regard as idols, hold fast to convictions that contradict those of our leaders.
We think of these liberties as embodying the American tolerance for dissent.  But our nation’s founders were not simply some kind of 18th century ACLU, fighting to protect everyone’s right to express even the fringiest beliefs.  Instead, they protected minority opinions for a pragmatic reason: they recognized that, over time, the fringe rather than the mainstream might prove right. What they inscribed in the Constitution was an awareness of the perpetual possibility that we are mistaken.
The proper role of government is not to interfere with our freedom to discover and pursue our own happiness.  Our laws provide proper channels for the resolution of disagreements when our pursuits conflict.  Whether from a minority or the majority, all opinions are tested.  Even if someone is mistaken, there is a benefit to society.  It serves as a teachable moment.  We revisit the arguments and discover the truth once again.

I recall recently that some of our politicians thought an election ended the conversation.  One party won, and the other lost.  Therefore, the losers should just sit down and be quiet.  Thankfully in the United States, it is never enough to win an election.  We must continually put our arguments before the people.  Our leaders always have the responsibility to teach.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Improbabilities Don't Prove a Creator

According to Stephen Hawking, God did not create the universe.  Apparently this is the revelation found in his recent book, Grand Design which has gotten all the press.  Sadly, there are probably much more fascinating comments in the book, but in the interest of internet clicks, God vs. the atheists is always good seller.

In a Wall Street Journal article, Stephen Hawking explains the fire behind the smoke.  If I understand him correctly, Hawking suggests that we shouldn't be fooled by the amazing improbabilities that life even exists.  What improbabilities?  The scientist gives us a litany.
  • The distance from the earth to the sun is just right.  Too close water would boil.  Too far water would freeze.
  • If forces were not conducive to the formation of stars, heavier elements would never have formed including carbon and oxygen which is necessary for us to exist.
  • If the dynamics of stars did not include that some would explode, then those heavier elements would not be distributed throughout the universe.
  • Change 0.5% or the strong nuclear force or 4% in the electric force and all carbon and oxygen would be destroyed in stars.
  • The orbit of our planet needed stability for a few hundred million years in order for life to develop.  This is an amazing feat considering all the gravitational influences from other bodies in the solar system.
I find such facts quite incredible, and at the very least suggest a posture of humility.  Laying coincidence upon coincidence, for many the probabilities seem too improbable.  As a result, they postulate a Creator.  Hawking suggests we make those conclusions too quickly. 

I see his point.  Moving backwards from a swarm of improbabilities to a certitude of a Creator is a leap.  God doesn't play dice with the universe, at least according to Einstein, but we certainly do.  What is the probability that someone would throw a "6" on a regular die?  Around 17%.  The odds are against it.  After the die is thrown and the player actually gets a "6".  What are the odds now?  100%.  To put it another way, The odds that a particular person would win a lottery are millions to one.  Let's say Homer Noodleman of Houston, Texas actually wins.  Is it fair to argue backwards?  It was so improbable that Mr. Noodleman would win that he must have cheated or the gods of luck favored him or something.  However, the improbabilities prove no such thing.

For the person of faith, of which I am one, the improbabilities are not a proof but a hymn of praise.  I thank God for the incredibly complex and fragile universe that he created.  The atheist who has read this far will suddenly take issue.  So be it.  However, I am intrigued by Stephen Hawking's assertion, "Everything in the Universe follows laws, without exception."  That there is a discernible logic to the universe may not prove God's existence, but it certainly moves us away from a meaningless and random universe.  It even opens us to the possibility of natural laws relating to justice or ethics.  During the Enlightenment, many thinkers who spoke of God or Providence were thinking precisely of those natural laws.

It's interesting.  I believe in the God of the Old and New Testaments.  However, I have much in common with a person like Thomas Jefferson or even Christopher Hitchens who despite religious differences, believe that the universe is reasonable.  We are in fact living with many of the same epistemological assumptions, most growing out of the fertile soil of religious belief.  Stephen Hawking hasn't ended the God debate.  He still is indebted to his opponents.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

A Defense of Theological Debate

Rick Warren the pastor of Saddleback Church  in California and author of the Purpose Driven Life offered this afternoon a "tweet".
"Rick Warren (@RickWarren) 9/4/10 1:44 PM
We like to defend our preferred worship styles in theological terms but it's really more about your background than beliefs"
Whether hot or cold, the worship wars in our congregations continue to be fought.  In an important sense, Warren is correct.  Our preferred worship style says much about our background.  What is comfortable for us?  What are our cherished memories?

However, I disagree with Warren here.  I rarely hear people defend their preferred worship styles in theological terms.  Frankly, I would see a theological defense as an improvement.  As a pastor, I am constantly trying to move the conversation to the theological.

There is no pathway out of the quagmire of opinion, taste or feelings.  If a particular style assaults my comfort level, there is nothing I can do.  You have your pleasure, and I have mine.  In theological conversations, by contrast, there are authorities such as the Bible and tradition.  There are expectations of civility and love for those with whom you disagree.  Often there is a hierarchy of purpose.  I honestly thought that was the whole point of the Purpose Driven Church/Life/etc.  We sacrifice for the sake of the greater purpose.

Finally, I don't like the implication of Warren's statement.  If I raise theological objections or concerns to a particular worship style, then my motives are suspect.  No one has to answer my concerns because I am the one being silly.  I am just being moved by my own background and prejudices.  I know that often our inner psychological struggles and family issues influence how we see the world, but as Sigmund Freud supposedly said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."