Wednesday, August 31, 2005

So long as I'm bothering to post, here's another e-mail exchange that I had a couple of days ago.

FROM: Greg, the Atheist Down The Hall

"Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance - and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on par with fundamentalism." (21) "By their light, religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God's law." (21)

"Religious moderates betray faith and reason equally." (21)

"All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don't like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us." (20)

TO: Greg, the Atheist Down The Hall

And your point is? Who are (21) and (20)? I take it that you are trying to make some point that Christian fundamentalism is no different than Islamist fundamentalism. I would have spotted you that one.

FROM: Greg, the Atheist Down The Hall

The numbers are references to the pages in a book from whence come the quotations. The point is tension between faithful adherence to the text and rational crticism of that text. It's something I still don't really comprehend in yours and Hal's religion [ed: Hal = Episcopal Down The Hall] -- how you reconcile rational textual criticism with the "Leap of Faith." There seems to be some very stable mid-point for you in which you seem to apply critical reason to some but not all aspects of the text and the creed.

There was a time when encountering that mind-set (the one you and Hal seem -- to me -- to have) inflamed my intellectual passions. I couldn't resist struggling against it. Perhaps I'm just tired, and also feel so much more threatened by the paradoxically more "rational" fundamentalists; but now I'm much more content to simply observe and try to understand.

TO: Greg, the Atheist Down The Hall

I had a very interesting discussion with Hal about this recently. I strongly defer to his greater knowledge and experience in these matters. But you and I have had much the same discussion in the past, albeit in a somewhat different context.

Your exasperation comes from a faulty premise. The source of our faith is not the Bible, the source of our faith is our own personal contact with a living God.

So why the Bible? We need to consult with others that have had the same experiences. The experience of communing with God is powerful and life-changing, but those times are few and far between. This God -- the one with whom we have communed -- rather firmly insists that people come to Him through faith, not certainty. He does not commune frequently enough (or in enough detail) to create absolute certainty about any course of action, or even about the various aspects of His personality.

Why the vagueness? I think it is because God wanted to create a world where people would have free will -- it's a paradoxical assignment for an omnipotent being (because even the act of choosing not to intervene is something for which He can be held responsible) -- but He felt it was necessary for humans to have control over their own lives, free from the demands of their creator. It is a little like the process of a parent learning to let go and allow the child to make his own choices. Humans are allowed to choose, to screw up, to excel, to transcend, all with nothing more than a nudge from their Creator. God hopes that we choose Him out of free will, not out of awe or fear. Because a clear view of God tends to create automatic awe, he retreats into semi-obscurity.

It is scary to accept the fundamentally obscure nature of God, because that means we must see the world through adult eyes, but it shows a great deal of respect, love and deference from God.

So, here we are, people who have communed with God, who have learned that God loves us and cares for us, and who aspire to mold our lives to be even more like this being that we have encountered. And we have also learned that God will not take us by the hand and tell us what to do. So we seek additional information and advice from the people before us who have lived with this same God. We look to the Bible. For instance, the book of Genesis. From Abraham we learn of God's promise, and of his very long-term view of those promises. From Jacob we learn that God can use even liars and crooks to achieve his blessings. From Joseph we learn that it is always better to aspire toward the divine, even when circumstances would encourage rejection and doubt. And so on, and so forth.

But those stories were (at best) written down 500 years after they were to have occurred -- 500 years of oral transmission among a generally illiterate population of herders and slaves. The writings reflect the opinions, prejudices and cultures of the time, for these mortal men interpreted God through their own experiences. (We are just as fundamentally flawed as they are; I often wonder what "blind spots" of ours will seem so ridiculous in 3,000 years.) And those books were written at critical periods in the life of a people, and intended for an upcoming purpose. So when we read these books, we have to unpack all that meaning -- what is there because of the culture, the prejudice, the upcoming war with the Canaanites? And what is there that can teach us about the eternal nature of this God, and the foibles of humanity in its attempt to satisfy God's desire to become closer to us? What is the divine message that has been conveyed through these imperfect tools?

It is a difficult task. We all have seen some people disregard portions of the Bible not out of an intellectually honest attempt to understand the truth inside the text, but out of a desire to avoid the difficult process of "training" and "refining" that is necessary for the improvement of our souls. Thus, we resist attempts to wish away parts of the Bible that seem difficult. At the same time, we have to keep our eyes open and accept the truth wherever it may be found. Darwin taught us that the creation story was metaphor. Watson and Crick taught us that the flood story was metaphor. And so on, and so on. It's hard work.

Similarly, Paul's epistles are his attempt to bring some coherence to the thoughts of a growing community of people who were incorporating all manner of prejudices, cultural biases and what-not into the faith in its infancy. Some of the great debates of the modern Church are over whether Paul incorporated some cultural biases of his own. It's hard work being humble enough to treat Paul's exhortations seriously, while at the same time being self-confident enough to weigh those assertions against what we know of God through our own experiences and study.

Fundamentalists accept the Bible as a set of rules, because it is simpler than growing up and engaging the world, and less threatening than seeking a mature relationship with God himself. They get the calculus backwards -- God exists because the Bible says he exists, they say, and thus when confronted with Darwin, or Watson and Crick, or any other threat, they react with the mixture of guilt and self-righteousness that all juveniles assert. When confronted with the contradictions in the Bible, they explain them away rather than focusing on the central truths that run through all of the Bible.

In short, Greg, you like religious fundamentalists because they accept the error of your initial premise -- that the text is more important than God himself.
If there is an area where I fail to apply critical reason to the text, I certainly hope that you will point it out to me, because I seek to avoid the blind spots that will ultimately impair my spiritual growth. But the fact remains that there is a living God -- a fact that I know from signposts of my own living experience. That is the premise of the argument, not the text.

I guess this leaves a question remaining -- why doesn't everyone have that experience with God? Is it unfair for God to pick and choose like that? Paul's answer to that question was to say "God treats everyone on earth with equal justice -- we all reap the fair consequences of our actions, in the end. It's that God exercises his power as sovereign to occasionally give people a nudge. It's not equal, but it's still fair." Hal's reaction has been a little less theoretical; he prays for his sons to have the same moments of communion that he does, because he is a father and wants his sons to have that same blessing. I pray the same for my son. Same reason. Justice is fair, but I want more than "fair" for him.

Then the last question, I guess, is "what if you are just hallucinating?" What if God is just a crossed wire in the wetworks?
The best answer I can give is that once one starts unraveling one's own brain to that degree, one has fallen down the postmodernist rabbit hole into madness. As one who perceives God, I can only be true to myself if I behave like one who perceives God. People that do not perceive God do not seem "rational" to me, they seem color-blind. Just as I seem "irrational" to you; bound up in hallucinations.

 9:55 AM
An e-mail I sent today, in response to a short e-mail saying "You have been taking business trips to NOLA lately, this must be very visceral for you." It's been a while since I blogged, but this seemed to be appropriate:

I do feel it viscerally, but I have to say that I have no real grounds for claiming a part of this tragedy. It's like watching the strange waves that lap on the shores of a lake, knowing that it means a powerboat went by a mile away.

It's very strange. In 2001 Houston suffered massive flooding after Tropical Storm Allison, but it was nothing like Katrina. And we're *still* not done rebuilding.

All the attorneys from my firm's New Orleans office are here in Houston, and the firm is making sure that they are taken care of. Not sure what happened to the staff -- no one seems to have the guts to ask.

The Houston paper just reported that 24,000 people are being airlifted from the Superdome to the Astrodome. I asked a friend why they didn't just take them to Baton Rouge and he said, "Baton Rouge has become a tent city." We're all a little embarrassed that, without exception, our first reaction to the Astrodome story was concern about crime.

I had to research the federal rules of appellate procedure because we had to file a brief in the Fifth Circuit that we *knew* would never arrive. No one to call to ask for an opinion on that one. We now know the Houston judges have taken over for the time being (fortunately, Chief Judge King is based in Houston) and have ordered people not to file anything for another week or two, just chill out, death penalty appeals to be faxed to Judge King's chambers.

I'm working on a brief with a guy in Dallas; work loads are being reassessed based on the fact that he's spending a lot of time helping family members who fled Katrina.

Folks here at the firm do a lot of work with oil and gas industries in the Gulf. Katrina went straight for all the major rigs, so 95% of the hydrocarbon production in the Gulf went offline. That's 1/4 of America's oil right there. If Bush hadn't ordered the market flooded with the strategic oil reserve, the price of gas would have spiked even higher than it did, and I'm not sure that he did the right thing. Everyone in the industry is relieved that all the workers were safe -- the oil companies are a hell of a lot better at evac plans than the city of NOLA -- but the problem is the aftermath. Do these workers have a job to go back to? Do these industries have a plan for what to do? Fortunately the price of oil is high; if oil was under $30 then I suspect there would be the serious danger of bankruptcies or further financial collapse. But then what does this mean for the current oil issues around the world? Some of those wells can't be restarted once they've been shut in.

And not just me -- it's all going bugshit.

The media has been caught attaching racist captions to photos -- black people leaving abandoned supermarkets are "looting," white people are "obtaining provisions."

Some are trying to stave off the inevitable "it was their fault" criticism of the victims by ensuring that people realize that (1) most of NOLA is desperately poor and without transportation, and (2) notwithstanding that fact, the only evac plans in place involved an exhortation to "get in your car and go stay at a hotel in another town." But it's already happening.

$25 billion and counting. Worst natural disaster in American history. More water flooding in, now that the pumps are out of gas. Reports coming that the floodwater in the city is unhealthful because it is contaminated with gasoline and sewer water. Helicopter crews searching for people to save; chopping through roofs to see if there are people hiding in the attic; no time to deal with dead bodies. 90% of everything from Slidell to Biloxi is concrete foundations and splinters.

And the CNN weatherman yelled at the anchor to quit interrupting him.

I feel conflicted, in a sense. This day was coming, without doubt. Lake Ponchartrain and the Mississippi River will not be held at bay forever, just so a city can continue to live below sea level. But I am disgusted at the lack of preparations, the lack of concern for the people that had nowhere to go. I wonder what will happen on that inevitable day when San Francisco falls. I wonder what will happen in my own city, a city built on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.

 9:48 AM

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