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Lineup for the UM Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference

Hope to meet some of my readers and fellow Metho-nerds at this great conference coming up soon, hosted by the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy. Register while there are still spots remaining!

United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy

Here’s the lineup of preachers and speakers for our conference , Holy People, Faithful Church, to be held at Armstrong Chapel UMC in Cincinnati, March 31-April 2. There are more speakers TBA.

You can register by clicking here! Bring all your friends!

Abraham
William J. Abraham 
Moore
Joy J. Moore
Palmer
Bishop Gregory V. Palmer 
lowry
Bishop Mike Lowry 
Watson head shot color
David F. Watson 

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How Not to Renew the Church: The IRD and the Need for a Better Conversation

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We can do better than this.
Image courtesy freedigitalimages.net.

Recently John Lomperis, the director of the United Methodist arm of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, blogged about how progressive UM leaders had supposedly conceded that they had lost the debate about human sexuality. This was a distortion of what Reconciling Ministries Network president Matt Berryman had indicated in his comments, but that is a separate issue. What most troubles me is how Lomperis spent three paragraphs (read them yourself at the link above) attacking the progressive UM position in what he called a “fairly summarized” manner.  The rule of Bible translation is that every translation is also an interpretation, and in that regards Lomperis’ interpretation of the progressive position was more caricature than summary. And that was far from the only problem with Lomperis’ post.

I attempted to offer what I felt was a friendly and fair critique, but alas, my response was not approved.  Here is my comment, unaltered from what I attempted to submit at the bottom of the post in question on the IRD’s Juicy Ecumenism blog:

Since when is it acceptable to simply put words in the mouths of one’s opponents for paragraph after paragraph? This is a hatchet job. There is no news here, it just a screed designed harden the opinions of fellow right-wingers.

This is particularly ludicrous: “…the usual arguments between theologically liberal and culturally conformed vs. biblical and counter-cultural approaches to the Christian faith.”

First of all “biblical” is a meaningless term in this context, as both sides claim the Bible in support of their views. Secondly, the obviously right-wing political tactics and linguistic hyperbole frequently employed by the IRD are clearly in line with the typical methods of the – highly secularized, mind you – culture wars and are in no way “counter-cultural.”

Lastly, if you are going to pontificate about bullying, anti-Golden Rule behavior, get the log out of your own eye before pointing out the splinters of others.

There is a place for criticism and we need voices on all sides UMC, and of course you have a right to your opinions. But you need to rethink your tactics if you think this kind of work is going to further your cause. It should be beneath any organization ostensibly dedicated to the renewal and strengthening of the church.

For more:
http://www.pastormack.wordpress.com

Of course, there is an irony to calling yourself the Institute for Religion and Democracy if you cannot bear to hear critical voices.  What is even more sad is a look at some of the comments that were approved, including this (a direct quote):

Jared says:

The gays in the UMC should simply give it up because everyone knows that Homosexuality is unnatural, abnormal, shameful, vile affection, perverted, and God has promised to judge all unrepented [sic] homosexuals! Stop trying to force people to believe the nonsense that you’re spouting.

Now, most of what the IRD puts out is far from this flagrant and malicious, but what does it say about them that this kind of support is publicly allowed while a relatively benign critique like mine is verboten?

Encouraging the worst elements in the church while stifling conversation is not the way forward. Renewal will not come by attempting to “win” some sort of ideological battle while burying our heads in the sand to other voices.

We need a better conversation: one that is able to hear other voices, not just lampoon them. A conversation in which all sides are firm in conviction, but charitable and fair to others in both language and tactics. We need to hear each other, and not just lob bombs before retreating back into our respective bunkers.

If that interests you, I encourage you to join my friends Stephen, Evan, and myself with a new project we are working on called Via Media Methodists. We are looking for a better way. We think God has plans for the United Methodist Church, that there is a way forward, and that it will only be discovered as those of us from different places (geographically, theologically, and ideologically) begin to converse, pray, and wrestle together.

There is a better conversation beginning to happen. I hope you’ll be a part of it.

Self-Negating? Roger Scruton on Protestant Worship

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        Scruton at the Organ, Courtesy The Telegraph/John Lawrence

Baptism of the Lord Sunday is upon us. In many United Methodist congregations, this day is marked by a somewhat unique service: a reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant. (For any interested parties, this year I am using this new service from the General Board of Discipleship instead of the service in our hymnal.) The basics: insofar as United Methodists are sacramental Christians (an identifier that varies much from place-to-place, despite official teaching and worship materials), we baptize both infants and adults, by any mode possible (it is God, not the amount of water, that provides the grace) but do not rebaptize. From time to time we do “reaffirm” our baptism; sometimes this is through a highly ordered communal ritual, and others – as in several services at my seminary’s chapel – a simple bowl of water is present as one enters the worship space and one is invited to touch the water and “remember your baptism.”  I do this service myself annually on Baptism of the Lord Sunday; it is, after all, one of those rare occasions when the church calendar lines up nicely with the world’s calendar (and who doesn’t love a fresh start at the beginning of a new year?).

Of course, baptism is an oft-misunderstood sacrament among the people called Methodists, especially here in the Bible Belt where many of our neighboring churches will happily rebaptize anyone willy-nilly and insistent low-church Protestants will inform their sacramental acquaintances that infant baptism “doesn’t count.” Misunderstanding is also rampant for the Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant services. I’ve had both family and church members tell me about being “rebaptized” on this particular Sunday, despite what I thought were clear teachings in the ritual itself and from my mouth in describing the service. This year I’ve actually included a FAQ on the cover of our bulletin that covers these questions so that this ghastly heretical accusation can be avoided.

All this reminds me of some rather cutting remarks by the British philosopher Roger Scruton. Never one to mince words, he has a biting description of Protestantism in his interesting little work An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy:

“Just as there can be religious observance without religious belief, so can there be belief without observance, or belief which leaves observance to the conscience of the believer. The Protestant tradition of Christianity has tended in this direction, gradually shedding what it regards as the idolatrous trappings of the Roman Catholic ritual, until little remains of the outward display of religion, and all is reduced to a stark confrontation between God and the soul. Such an attitude is fraught with dangers. The via negativa which leads to God by discarding the images that disguise him, may come close to discarding God as well…In its war against the impure and inessential, the Protestant religion is always in danger of negating itself: which is one reason why the Protestant churches [Mainline?] are now in far greater crisis than the Church of Rome. Nevertheless, in its stable and historically durable forms, the Protestant religion has shown an interesting tendency to combine clear theological beliefs with utter vagueness in ritual and worship.” (Roger Scruton, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy [New York: Penguin 1996], 87.)

Scruton, who himself plays the organ in his diminutive local Anglican parish, is on to something. Protestantism has so elevated the verbal proclamation of the word (aka preachin‘) that what passes for good church in many places is motivational speaking inspirational preaching coupled with a slammin’ band (and do please pass the crullers and coffee). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind informal, thumping churches and I like the coffee shop atmosphere, but at some point Scruton’s “self-negating” critique has to hit home. One can (as often happens) so purge the Christian faith of all symbol, ritual, and characteristic language that what is left is a husk of the Apostolic community, an antiseptic kind of worship, or, if you will, a Body of Christ which has been stripped of its scars. It is easy to sell people on an un-churchy church, but it remains to be seen if one can form Biblically and theologically articulate, holy, full-orbed Christians this way.

Ultimately, teaching and worship, theology and ritual go together.  Where the fullness of the faith is on offer, one will need ritual, symbol, and poetry to describe the ineffable ways of God to God’s people. Where the faith is reduced to a few fundamentals, or a silver-tongued affirmation of an undemanding deity who wants you to have “your best life now,” vagueness in worship and rite will be not only a temptation but a necessity. Whether it is on Baptism of the Lord or on “any given Sunday,” God save us from being so Protestant that we cease being Christian.

 

I, too, fell for the ruse of the sycamore nut. My friend Parson Carson’s reflections are funny and, since I was tricked too, a little sad.

Parson Carson

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On a lighter note, I tend to pride myself on having a reasonable amount of common sense. I also pride myself on my knowledge of plant life. Therefore I only have jetlag to blame for the following incident.

On our first night in Bethlehem, we were served some nuts (pictured above) as an appetizer. We all commented on how tasty they were, and even suggested that they were like peanuts, only better. We asked around, and no one could offer us a good explanation for what kind of nut they were. So we determined they must be a magical Holy Land nut.

Fast forward to the next day when we visited the sycamore tree where Zacchaeus supposedly climbed up to see Jesus in Jericho (below). As we got out of the bus, vendors swarmed us attempting to sell scarves, postcards, prayer shawls, and…. Sycamore nuts! Mystery solved and case closed!

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“I Hear That There Are Divisions Among You”: Discerning the Broken Body at General Conference 2012

ImageCourtesy UMNS

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. (1 Corinthians 11:27-29)

The matter of unworthiness has a sticky history in Protestantism.  Most astute readers of Scripture now agree that Paul’s concern for “eating unto damnation” was not an issue of individual sin, but rather of communal brokenness that made a mockery of the Lord’s Supper.  At issue in Corinth was not a bunch of sinners eating something that they had no business eating (for we are always sinners asking for scraps and sips of grace), but that the community was unmaking the Body of Christ by scandalous practices: ignoring the hungry, getting drunk before the holy meal, etc.  I have been reflecting on these passages as I wonder about one particular act at General Conference: the use of Communion as an act of protest.

A couple of quick notes: I am not a liturgical scholar, just a pastor who is interested in improving the celebration (both qualitative and quantitative) of the Eucharist my church. My chief issue is with the context of the Communion and not the particular motivations of those who went to the table that day (read: I would find it just as problematic if another caucus, say Good News or either side of the Israel/Palestine debate had taken similar action).  Lastly, in the interest of fairness, I have invited Rev. Becca Clark, the elder who presided at this action, to share her perspective and respond if she so desires.  I am a big believer – and General Conference illustrated this too well – that a major drawback of social media is the ability to snipe one another at a distance.  I have given Becca a head’s up so that this might be a more civil dialogue, and she kindly granted me permission to share some of her thoughts as part of this initial post.  A video of the events in question can be found here. (The video comes from the YouTube channel of the IRD, but rest assured that this is not an endorsement.)

Eucharist As An Act of Protest

From her own blog, here is Rev. Clark’s recollection.  After the Conference rejected several petitions, including an “agree to disagree” statement led by Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter and enduring some inflammatory rhetoric

… we did the only thing we could do.

We set the communion table in the center of the room. We welcomed the visitors and supporters from outside the voting bar and delegates from the floor. We blessed bread and cup. I was the elder closest to the bread, and I lifted it in the air, breaking it as we are broken. I looked across the table and through my tears I saw my new friend and fellow laborer for justice, Gregory Gross, holding the cup.

We sent servers with (gluten free) wafers and cups of juice to serve those around the room. Some bystanders received communion with from those with whom they disagree, and some refused. I served those around me, offering them the Body of Christ as we all wept.

We stayed at the table when the session attempted to reconvene. Unable to get the delegates back to their seats and the visitors off the floor– indeed unable to even to get people to stop singing, the Bishop had no choice but to call for an early lunch.

In our correspondence, Rev. Clark indicated that the group had discussed the possibility of this being viewed as an unseemly act:

We discussed the use of the sacrament and the dangers of being perceived as politicizing a sacred gift. We also talked about maybe an affirmation of baptism instead. But what we decided was that the moment, no matter how the vote went, would be one of brokenness and deep pain for roughly half the room no matter what. And yet, in this brokenness and division, we are still one, and we still believe that God is able to bring healing, indeed salvation, out of the deepest pain and division.

A fundamental question seems to be, was this an act of unity or disunity?  Was this a kind of prophetic sign-act, calling the assembly to a unity that was not yet a reality, or did it drive that wedge deeper? According to Rev. Clark, their thinking was that the Eucharist

was one standout example of what it means, theologically and spiritually, to live in the broken but believe in the whole and hope for the future we cannot see. Was there ever greater brokenness than the division, distrust, and ungodliness that led to Christ’s sacrifice? Is there any better example of how the broken becomes whole than the bread shared, the cup poured out to make us one?

To be sure, the Eucharist is a prophetic act, a sacrament that looks forward to God’s full reign of peace, justice, and love.  We learn much about how to live the truly human life, the grace-enabled life of holiness, at God’s Table.  Thus, the Eucharistic celebration is always an act of protest against brokenness, evil, and injustice in whatever forms.

But what about “Make us one?”

Paul seems clear that the brokenness of the community makes a mockery of the Lord’s Table.  It is one thing for a Chinese house-church to break bread and share the cup in the midst of their persecution, as a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice and anticipation of the New Creation against all the facts of their present situation.  That is a truly sacramental, Christ-centered protest.  Likewise, Oscar Romero lifting up the chalice in the midst of his enemies, knowing the danger he faced to bring God’s justice to his beloved El Salvador, was an act of protest.  He died protesting, a martyr at the Table.

It is an altogether different kind of act if it is undertaken in such a way as to highlight a division in Christ’s Body, to drive the wedge deeper, to coerce and manipulate.  This is precisely where this action became problematic.  Communion is always to be an act of and with the whole assembly.  In our recently approved study of the sacrament, This Holy Mystery, we find this guiding principle:

The whole assembly actively celebrates Holy Communion. All who are baptized into the body of Christ Jesus become servants and ministers within that body, which is the church…The one Body, drawn together by the one Spirit, is fully realized when all its many parts eat together in love and offer their lives in service at the Table of the Lord. (19)

Communion is the sacred meal that is at the heart of the life of the church.  Because it is Christ’s Table, it unites us as few other practices can.  As we share a loaf and cup, we are reminded that though we are many, we are indeed one through Christ Jesus.  I think, for instance, that it would have been entirely appropriate for the presiding Bishop to call for bread and cup and offer the Eucharist as a means to call us back to our center.  Something like this would have accomplished what I believe this group intended.  What actually occurred, though, was the interruption of perhaps the most important gathering of the world-wide church so that a particular caucus could make a statement in the form of a sacrament.  It seems to me that, however good the intention, the use of Communion at the height of a very heated debate made a Christ-centered act something much less.  The whole assembly may have been welcome, but those at the table had taken it by force, making Christ’s Table effectively their table.  In this, the witness of the Eucharistic table was sullied.  Again, from This Holy Mystery:

Communing with others in our congregations is a sign of community and mutual love between Christians throughout the church universal. The church must offer to the world a model of genuine community grounded in God’s deep love for every person. (35)

Celebrated well, the Eucharist accomplishes this.  At the Table, we see the world as it should be: all are welcome, all are invited to acknowledge the good news of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, and to feast of his holy body and thus be made into his likeness.  At General Conference on May 3, what should have been a liminal space, a “thin place” in the language of Celtic Christianity, became little more than another booth for another cause in the exhibition hall.  Genuine community, already stretched, became less possible by this act.  Mutual love was not encouraged.

The Missing Peace

I asked Rev. Clark for details of the liturgy that was used as they occupied the center table:

I was a delegate, so what I knew was get to the communion table. Someone will bring bread and juice. The ordained elder closest to the bread– which ended up being me– was to take the bread, silently pray words of blessing and institution, and break it. The rest just happened. By the time I was holding the bread, people were singing “let us break bread together.” the man who lifted the cup is a deacon and we had served on committee together, so it was a blessing to see him across the table. I prayed as best I could what I remembered of the communion liturgy, which I have memorized, but that day felt like– pour out your Spirit on us. We’re broken too and we want to be one body, like the bread makes us one. One with you and Christ. One with each other some day. Broken as we are, let us be your body for the world.

Many people served out of napkins of wafers and cups of juice. When I offered bread to those near me, I said, “the Body of Christ, broken as we are broken.”

Perhaps the greatest problem was all of this is that it was not a reconciled community that celebrated.  Because this was an act of a few and not the whole, there was no opportunity for the whole assembly to go to the table forgiven and reconciled.  In the UM Book of Worship, the following suggestions are given under “An Order of Sunday Worship”:

The people may offer one another signs of reconciliation and love, particularly when Holy Communion is celebrated.  The Peace is an act of reconciliation and blessing, based on New Testament Christian practice…it is not simply our peace but the peace of Christ that we offer. (p. 26)

Again, this particular debate would have been a perfect occasion to ask the assembly to pass the peace.  But because this was forced on the assembly by a few, no reconciliation was possible.  In fact, the ability to join hands, listen to each other, or even “agree to disagree” was damaged, not helped, by this act.

Rev. Clark acknowledges that not all will approve:

I recognize it was not an action everyone can stand behind. However, my intent was to be pastoral in a moment of brokenness and call us to the reminder of the “reason for the hope that we have” that God can and will make us whole.

The fact that I cannot stand behind this matters little, to be honest.  Our leaders seem much more concerned with institutional survival than sacramental faithfulness.  And yet, I felt this warranted comment.  In all the Twitter chat and Facebook rants, the voluminous articles and conversations about General Conference, I found it astounding that no one raised this particular question.  For a church that claims John Wesley as its founding father, an Anglican priest who loved the Lord’s Table and went to great pains to encourage his people to celebrate it regularly and properly, this is a sad commentary indeed.  In a world of partisan politics, bitter divides, and thoughtless polemic, the Eucharist should be one place where God reaches through all of the muck and mire to speak a word of grace and peace.  The Lord’s Table is where, like Christ, we are taken, blessed, broken, and given.  To make the Eucharist our act instead of God’s, a mere tool in a game of political manipulation rather than a sacrament of God’s grace, is a great disservice to Christ and his church.  The words of Brian Wren remind us what can and should happen in this holy mystery:

As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,

each proud division ends.

The love that made us makes us one,

and strangers now are friends.

Sadly, this particular time at the Table exacerbated each and every “proud division.”  Strangers became even more estranged.  The body was not discerned.

Kýrie, eléison.

The Flight From Conversation At/About General Conference 2012

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Just a few, potentially unconnected thoughts:

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness…” (2 Timothy 2:24-25a)

Why is there so much interest in the Twitter-verse?  Social media is great in many ways, but producing quality, in-depth conversation is not its chief good.  Why is there so much concern for what folks are Tweeting about the proceedings?  Adam Hamilton, apparently unhurt by but still concerned about the ire being thrown around during his presentation recently, met with young delegates to address their concerns. He spoke pointedly about the dangers of social media, and how easy it is to make someone look good or foolish based on what we preachers would call prooftexting.  He lamented how snark has replaced honest conversation.

Sherry Turkle of MIT recently recflected,

Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.

We are tempted to think that our little “sips” of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don’t. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places — in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation.

At and around GC there seems to be little reflecting, lots of reaction; little conversation, much activism.  Attempts at “Holy Conversations,” some quarters report, failed.  I doubt a conversation will ever be holy so long as folks cannot bear to hear a contrary opinion without running to feelings police.  This may sound unnecessarily harsh, but I don’t intend it to be.  It is more a concern for the power play that is the “hurt feelings” routine.  I think I even read about a bishop saying they were hurt because someone else was hurt.  Where does it end?  I think, more often than we would care to admit, the claim to hurt feelings in church gatherings large and small is a power play that should not always be taken at face value.

And why are the young delegates and young clergy being coddled so much?  For the record, I’m allowed to say this, as one of the few under-30 pastors in the church these days.  Why are we so interesting?  I want to know what old, experienced pastors think.  I want to know what leaders think, people who have been around a while.  I suppose I am not a good enough American, because at the end of the day I don’t think everyone’s voice has remotely the same merit.  In some churches everyone defers to the old guys with the long beards and funky hats.  We seem to be running the opposite direction: the people with the youngest, hippest audience, or those with the largest twitter following, are determining how we go about this work of “holy conferencing.” 

I’m not sure there will be much faith left to pass on if the future of the church is dependent upon what a million 19-year-olds can fit into 120 characters at a time.  If we were praying as ardently as we were Tweeting, we’d look more like a church recognizable to Jesus, the apostles, and John Wesley.

 

All Religion is in Trouble…Even Atheism

It is commonplace in the rubble of the mainline denominations these days to drone on and on about the sorry state of the church in the West.  We go to workshops, blog, read books, and wallow in anxious conversation all with the same subtitle: “How do we not die?”  Not exactly a vivifying conversation.  We think the non-religious forces are winning; that secularism is successful and popular “New” Atheism is ascendant.  But is atheism doing so well?

If you actually listen to the things that atheists are saying, there is little here that is a challenge to faith of any brand, much less that of Christians.  Indeed, atheist literature and public discourse tends to be just as vain as popular Christian discourse.  So laments Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart:

…it seems obvious to me that the peculiar vapidity of New Atheist literature is simply a reflection of the more general vapidity of all public religious discourse these days, believing and unbelieving alike. In part, of course, this is because the modern media encourage only fragmentary, sloganeering, and emotive debates, but it is also because centuries of the incremental secularization of society have left us with a shared grammar that is perhaps no longer adequate to the kinds of claims that either reflective faith or reflective faithlessness makes.

Yes, reading Hart for long periods of time will hurt your brain.  He is as acerbic as he is brilliant, which is a feat.  Nonetheless, I think his premise is hard to argue against.  Case in point: an interview I read over on MMA Weekly with Seth Petruzelli, an MMA fighter (most famous for knocking Kimbo Slice off of any serious fan’s radar) who happens to be an outspoken atheist.  He explains how his first conflict with religious members of the MMA community came on the set of the reality show The Ultimate Fighter:

The first time it actually came up was in season 2 of The Ultimate Fighter in the house. Marcus Davis, he’s a pretty hardcore Christian and a lot of the guys in the house were the same way, especially with Matt Hughes being one of the coaches. There’s a scene actually in The Ultimate Fighter house where me and Matt kind of get into an argument for about 15 minutes or so about the bible, and obviously I think the bible [sic] is a bunch of BS, and that obviously struck a nerve with him.

To be an atheist is to – “obviously” – believe that the Bible is “BS”?  That is a stronger claim than many Christians would make about the holy books of other communities.  I have certainly never taught my people that the Koran or the Vedas are “BS,” even though I would not say that these words are inspired of the Triune God.  And yes, if you dismiss the word of God as BS, them’s probably going to be fighting words (unless you’ve been reading a lot of John Howard Yoder).  Petruzelli further describes the conflict with an outspoken Christian fighter:

We kind of had an argument back and forth, with me coming out on top obviously cause you can’t argue with science. Science trumps faith in all aspects of everything. But they had group bible sessions in the house and I just kind of had a little dialogue obviously with Marcus Davis too about it, all kinds of stuff in the bible [sic].

Is this the kind of reflection that the supposedly super-rational New Atheism is producing?  At what point will the hackneyed ‘science vs. faith’ thesis be done with?  Granted, there are Christians that still have not gotten the memo that science is not something to fear.  But we’re working on it.  There are plenty of Christians working in scientific fields who are faithful people.  Christians need not shun the search for truth in whatever form.  Thoughtful atheists should see the dialogue not as science vs. faith but atheism vs. various kinds of theism, Christianity among them.  The scientific method, which, if my high school biology class was right, deals with observable, verifiable, and repeatable phenomena, can neither confirm nor deny the presence of a deity.  Even psuedo-scientific work that purports to “prove” a divine intelligence can only get us to a vaguely theistic being, not the Triune God revealed in the Bible.  Neither faith nor non-faith should claim to be provable by science.  Doing so, whether one is a Christian or an atheist, belies a fundamental perversion of what faith actually is.  To whit:

Faith to me is intellectual bankruptcy…I have faith in my fighting ability because there’s facts to back it up and that I can fight. Blind faith? Like I said, it’s intellectual bankruptcy, it’s a cop out. Tim Minchin has a great quote about this. ‘Science adjusts its views on what is observed, and faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.’

Intellectual bankruptcy?  Ouch.  That aside, Petruzelli confuses confidence with faith.  “I have faith in my fighting ability because [there are] facts to back it up.”  If there are facts to back “it” up, then what you have is not faith.  As Hebrews 11:1 makes clear,  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  There may be evidence of faith, indeed, fruits of the Spirit, or the inner witness so important to Wesley and other spiritual writers, but this is not the kind of evidence that will be observable under a microscope.  It’s also just barely worth pointing out that there is no monolithic “science,” and that the work of Thomas Kuhn and others shows how often scientists disagree on, willfully distort, and ignore supposed facts.  Scientific revolutions often only occur after a long, hard fight about what indeed the science is saying.

It seems somewhat unfair to criticize Petruzelli, who, as far as I know, has no theological training.  I don’t mean to be unnecessarily harsh, and I like to think that I’m equally critical of poor arguments made by Christians.  He is, however, making some striking claims in a very public space, and I think that makes confrontation both fair and necessary.  The Church must have answers to such arguments, for in the years to come they will only get louder.

If only a serious dialogue with atheists was possible.  When I read folks like Nietzche, I am challenged to think about my faith, to really question its basics.  This is a service to the faithful, for our critics really are our friends.  To return to a fighting metaphor: if Nietzche’s arguments are useful sparring partners, then, by comparison, the shallow vitriol of the New Atheists can only be described as the vain thrashing of an infant fighting off a clean diaper.

We’ll let a more skilled combatant fight the closing round.  Hart expresses disdain for such a-thinking (see what i did there?) with adroitness, arguing that today’s atheists

 …lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap)…A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

May God grant us the blessing of able conversation partners, and save us from shallow faith, whether it is our own, or that of others.

P.S.  For the record, I think Damon Martin’s piece drastically overstates the place of religion in the fight game.  Atheists may be offended that there are so many nods to Jesus in the cage, but beyond post-fight shout-outs and mildly offensive clothing, I don’t think there is much substantive Christianity there.  More likely is that, in an increasingly secularized world, many folks in the media are frankly caught off guard when someone like Benson Henderson (or Tim Tebow) makes public statements of faith.  Rather like the pagans of bygone (?) eras, cultural observers and elites are surprised to find a small cadre of men and women who will not sacrifice to the official cultus and, rather offensively, talk about God beyond the privacy of their own closet.

Flotillas and Foreign Policy

In seminary, a buddy of mine who was interested, like me, in both foregn policy and theology introduced me to a great resource called STRATFOR.  It is essentially a private inteligence company used by governments, corporations, and private individuals.  You can pay for their full line of resources, or sign up for free analysis that comes on a weekly basis.

Today’s article had some very interesting analysis of the situation with Israel and Gaza:

This maneuver was far more effective than suicide bombings or the Intifada in challenging Israel’s public perception and therefore its geopolitical position (though if the Palestinians return to some of their more distasteful tactics like suicide bombing, the Turkish strategy of portraying Israel as the instigator of violence will be undermined).

Essentially, they argue that the flotilla is less a humanitarian relief effort, as stated, and more a political ploy designed to weaken the position of Israel.  it makes perfect sense, really; Israel has been backed into a corner – either don’t show force have their position weakened in the region, or respond as they are expected to and weaken their position on the international scene.

Judging by how often video of an Israeli “commando” raid is currently playing on the news, its obvious this tactic is working against Israel.

The STRATFOR piece goes on to suggest that most people in the international community – not having a taste for complexity – won’t see this situation for what it is (a geopolitical chess match).

How true.  As Tom Friedman once wrote, “When it comes to discussing the Middle East, people lose their minds.”  For most of us, our picture of Middle East relations fits into a very simple narrative such as Israeli aggression, or Palestinian terrorism.  We like one side to be wholly right and one side to be wholly wrong.

In that part of the world, it’s almost never the case.  That remains true in this instance, also.

[This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR]