Biblical Literalism is Scientific, but Not in the Way You Think

The argument assertion goes something like this:

Number 1:

  • Evolution has never been directly observed.
  • It is based on of a theory created by one man (Darwin).
  • Therefore it is not science.

Number 2:

  • The probability of the ordered universe emerging out of chaos is infinitesimally small.
  • You can’t get the order of the universe without direction.
  • Therefore a Designer must have made it that way.

Let’s table the fact that what we see here is a total lack of understanding of what the scientific method is, what a hypothesis is, and how all of those observations and predictions create theories. The scientific method is in itself a process of creating order out of chaos.

If you can stomach it, this fellow goes through the tired assertions of the above argument. Not to mention he is basically calling his atheist interlocutor stupid which is ironic since the supposed atheist seems to understand 5th grade science better than Mr. Feuerstein.

Literal readings developed when both German biblical criticism and science began challenging the construction of knowledge itself. The process by which knowledge is created in ways not related to God gained traction as research based education grew. LIteral readings of the text emerged as a response to the growth of a more or less agnostic presentation of knowledge through science and rationalism, but did so in a strange way. Fundamentalism, and similar evangelical streams of religious thinking, actually made a move to make the bible more scientifically relevant. That is to say, the bible was based in observable fact even more so than science. It is like an epistemological pissing contest.

However, this fundamentalist understanding of knowledge relies on a Baconian scientific system that rooted in pure observation. Science is not in itself the problem. The hypothetical testing process is what, and still does, have the biblical literalist sort in a tizzy. They argue that because you can’t “see” evolution, it is a faith claim and therefore not science. Yet faith in God is formed out of experience and belief in the authority of the bible as a testimony to actual events people witnessed. Because it is authoritative by divine mandate, it is more “factual” and based on “observation.” See how that move works? It argues that a literalist reading of the bible is more scientifically valid than the science of evolution! How’s that for irony.

We should pay attention to how we make sense of the world. Watch how this way of constructing knowledge persists even in post-fundamentalist thinking where the process remains the same, while only the content changes. A kind of self-pity emerges because when one system is destroyed, no alternative means of knowledge construction is there. I call this the depressed liberal. You have new content for what you believe, but you no longer have a viable structure to make sense of all of it and manage it. Thus, the blanket term “postmodern” is thrust upon it as an explanation for something that isn’t even there.

Here is where science and religion converge. Science is an act of refining and making more precise what we know about the world down to the smallest building blocks of nature. The practice of knowing God is a disciplined program where one comes to understand oneself in relation to God down to the smallest fraction of time and through the most mindful of behaviors. In both, a kind of awareness develops about the cosmos and how everything is somehow intelligible and mysterious at the same time.

While Feuerstein and his ilk see this relationship between two understandings of reality as a war, I see it as a dance.

Refusing the Gangster God

Why did Jesus die?

I was baptized Catholic and then went through a few stages of Protestantism as my mom sought a different expression of her faith. If memory serves me correctly, she had become alienated from the Catholic focus on original sin and persistent guilt. The idea of “if you don’t follow these rules then you will go to hell” was no longer something to settle for. Catholic guilt was the real deal in my family. When my family was going through some rough times the way God looked was alienating.

When my mom married my step-father we joined him in the Presbyterian Church (USA). As she puts it, that church was the first time she heard the Gospel preached and she met God there. It was a powerful experience for her and she has remained Presbyterian ever since. I was just in junior high school so at church, I pretty much just fell asleep.

In between naps, it was there that I hooked into evangelical Protestantism. I found an identity there. Evangelicalism eventually fit. It was my first real faith journey and it lasted from the end of junior high school through seminary. I was a Calvinist, evangelical through my middle year at seminary. However, the fit was never as comfortable as I thought it needed to be in order to fit a solid evangelical mold. I felt out-of-place and as I got more honest about my faith, the friction intensified. So what changed?

Doctrinally, the change came down to one idea: I could no longer accept the notion that God needed to satisfy His own law and its consequences by killing off His Son. The idea that Jesus died to fulfill a legal contract God made with a humanity that didn’t keep up its end of the bargain seemed absurd. It was as if the presence of Jesus himself was relegated to a background status because none of that in itself was meaningful in closing the deal on sin.

God the judge. God the gangster. God made an offer that we couldn’t refuse. Since we refused it we deserved death.

Since we could not possibly satisfy a king and judge like God, God had to suck it up and do it for us. It is as if God was shackled to His own Law. Love is in the service of justice and Jesus serves justice on the cross. Jesus came to die. My exposure to the church Fathers beginning with St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation turned my understanding of God upside down.

Saint John's Orthodox Church of Hermitage, Pennsylvania, Old Church

Saint John’s Orthodox Church of Hermitage, Pennsylvania, Old Church

In Orthodoxy Jesus didn’t come here to save us from God’s wrath, He came in order to heal what was broken. The most broken aspect of human life is death itself. That’s the Gospel I heard in the narratives. This was the same God who raised Lazarus, who welcomed prostitutes and tax collectors, gave sight to the blind, and told a man to pick up his mat and walk.

God is a God who heals wounds in spite of the fact that we cut ourselves open every day.

God healed death by dying and rising from death. He did this not to satisfy an immutable Law, but because the very nature of God is Love. God’s salvation is not a legal contract, it is a radical healing of the very structure of nature for it to be what it was always intended to be: undivided from God Himself. As the Paschal Troparion is sung:

Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life.

Love, Life, Grace. That’s a God for whom I am will to work. That is a God for whom amending my life to get closer is completely worth the effort.

This is something of a preview to what I will be speaking about at the 2014 Wild Goose Festival. Hope to see you there!

Wild Goose Festival 2014

Wild Goose Festival 2014

Tom Corbett’s Insult to Public Education

The development of an educated public must never be allowed to take a back seat to making short-term profits. With a longer view, it is clear that education is a source of economic growth and so much more. “What people know matters” (Hanushek & Woessmann, 2010, p. 251).

Sadly, despite the impact of education and libraries on society and the economy, states continue to cut their funding. The conservative cry for less government and more local control could not be a more hollow sentiment given the lack of attention to local control itself.

In Pennsylvania, education is simply not a high priority. Overall, education funding will be increased a mere 3.22% and not in areas that suggest lasting improvement. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has increased funding for “Ready to Learn Block Grants” that are designed to stimulate student outcomes at the elementary level. These grants would also support teacher training in order meet grant objectives. However, that is only one data point among many in a budget that either decreases or flattens funding on numerous other programs.

  • Community college funding is set to go down .38%
  • Higher education funding will remain flat for the third year in a row.
  • Job training programs are being cut out of the budget – that is 8.5 million in funding towards these programs!
  • Library access funding is set to decrease by more than 8%.
  • Public library subsidies are only getting a paltry .93% increase after no increases in three years.

This is like leaving an $.80 tip for a $25 dinner. If you ask any server, that’s an insult.

The library in my own community of State College, PA is closed this week. It is closed to save money. I wrote a letter to our legislators who are in support of these cuts. I have copied that letter below. To write your own letter, please visit the Schlow Library website.

Expect more closings of public services and cuts to education programs. To say that Tom Corbett and his supporters undervalue the public trust of education is a sad understatement.

Tell our state government to wake up and fund public libraries!

Public and civic education used to be a unique element of American liberty. The library has been at the center of American life with the college and the religious community. Yet funding education in all of its forms seems to be an afterthought in this state government.

While industry is important in many respects, once the gas is used up, the jobs will disappear again and towns will shut down all over Pennsylvania. The rich will take their money and run. Companies investing in Pennsylvania will go back to Houston and overseas fat and happy. It has happened before; it will happen again.

Freedom is not built on global industry; it is built on public knowledge and trust. When we stop funding public education and community development, of which libraries are a central resource, our liberty is clipped at the root. This begs the question: What kind of liberty do our representatives espouse? Shall we defend carrying guns rather than books? True freedom begins in the mind and not in the holster or the bank account.

I cannot count the number of kids I see with books at the library. People like reading and learning. It is empowering and baptizes the imaginations to push thinking and doing. The library is a place where communities can thrive. My kids love that place. We go and there to read, then walk in town grabbing some water ice at Rita’s, or walk up to the Creamery. It is part of our culture. We represent one family along many others in this town who enjoy that outlet on a regular basis.

Stop defunding education in all of its forms. Stop defunding community development and civic engagement. Give us back our libraries and support our schools. It is these investments that will build deeper roots into the economic and community soil of this state.

Not supporting the collective education of the community is a disgrace to this nation and to the very notion of liberty to which all Americans are entitled. It is our right.

Sincerely,
Andrew Tatusko, Ph.D.

http://shutdown.schlowlibrary.org/

The Jesus Movie You Didn’t Hear About, But Should

With Son of God, Noah, God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real, and Exodus: Gods and Kings coming soon, God has been a popular source of movie material this year. Son of God has racked up over $59 million since its release. Noah is at about $98 million, while Heaven is for Real and God’s Not Dead are hanging around $55 million.

What do all of these movies have in common?

White people.

The history of Jesus in recent film is very white. From Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, Scorsese’s the Last Temptation of Christ, Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ, and Son of God, Jesus is a white guy every time. Gibson’s film makes Jesus only seem Middle Eastern because Jim Caviezel, wore a prosthetic nose and his eyes were digitally enhanced to appear brown. Gibson essentially put Caviezel in black face to play Jesus. I’ll give Son of God a little credit since Diogo Morgado is Portuguese. At least we are headed in the right direction.

But no matter what, America still likes a good, white Jesus.

The movie you probably did not hear about was filmed in Jordan and Bulgaria, by a Palestinian director, with a Jordanian cast, and written in Arabic. It was based on the Gospel of Luke and premiered in Turkey. Not a single white person is in the movie – not even the Romans.

There’s one hang-up – there are Muslims who play many of the roles in the film. Of the many marketing reasons including the language issue, the fact that Muslims are even in the movie isn’t exactly a big selling point for a US Christian audience.

For the brave souls who can tolerate a brown Jesus surrounded by brown people from the same region in which the biblical narratives took place, the film is called The Savior and you might want to see it.

Many Christians berate all of the white Jesus images not only because Jesus was not a white guy, but that they over-emphasize the dominance of white culture and power in the world. I understand this sentiment and support it. I support it not only from the perspective of Biblical scholarship, but from the perspective of what I know about the culture and dynamics in a Middle Eastern, multi-cultural context.

So here is the preview to Savior. Want a Jesus movie more true to form? Get this one, share it, and crowd out the loud power trip of white Jesus. Prosthetic nose not included.

Being Christian after Religion

“Religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there.”

Those in programs of recovery from drugs and alcohol have no doubt heard this expression. For a while I thought I was alone in thinking that it was dreck. Now I know I’m not.

Religion is more than seeking a spiritual experience – it is a way to structure life around the search for deeper connections to the world, to each other, and to a sacred reality. With the vast options for religious structure in the world, spirituality without a religious structure doesn’t own the market on coming out of hellish and torturous experience.

Archbishop Rowan Williams made a not-too-startling admission that Britain has become “post-Christian.” The facts seem to support his claim:

  • 56% consider Britain Christian where the remainder either consider it non-religious or are not sure.
  • 38% of those who consider themselves Christian do not practice regularly.
  • More Christians feel threatened to talk publicly about their beliefs.

None of this is all of that new. Steve Bruce (2002) argued this trend and its implications:

“Our critics might gloss our work as predicting the imminent disappearance of religion, but this is not our view. Our case can be summarized as saying that religion diminishes in social significance, becomes increasingly privatized, and losses personal social salience except where it finds work to do other than relating individuals to the supernatural” (p. 30).

Similarly Grace Davie (2002) argues that while Europe is seeing a decline not only in the practice of Christianity but in religion in general, this is an exceptional case when compared to the United States, Latin America, Africa, and the Far East.

“In short, many Europeans have ceased to connect with their religious institutions in any active sense, but they have not abandoned, so far, either their deep-seated religious aspirations or (in many cases) a latent sense of belonging” (p. 8).

While the condition of these “deep-seated religious aspirations” seems to be failing in health, the personal connection of religious belief to institutions also looks unhealthy not only in Britain and Europe, but also in the US. What remains is the desire for connection to a sense of belonging and meaning.

However, maybe Bruce is wrong. Maybe there is another salience to religion other than a connection to the supernatural. David Putnam (2000) argued that while our social connections have lost value, they are still vital to a happy and good-natured society. It’s more likely that the value of these connections is something we continue hold dearly, but we no longer know where to find it. If so, existing networks can, and should, be reconfigured to create space to recoup the value of social connections. Religion is one structure that can continue to provide a function to cultivate the value of deep connections to each other, the world, and deeper meaning.

As Christina Patterson from the Guardian writes:

“There is a place to go when we don’t have the words. There’s a calm, quiet peaceful place where someone else will supply the words when your heart is too full and your mind is too weary to come up with words of your own. There’s a place that will give us the solace of ritual. Human beings have always needed ritual. And the rituals we’ve developed in our still-quite-Christian country are on offer to everyone, and make almost no demands.”

There is a value to social connections, ways to structure our beliefs, and space to explore deeper questions about life without fear or threat. Much of religion today may over-value an intentional lack of structure. But what people seem to need most is a safe place to structure their experience of being together.

—————————-

Sources

Bruce, S. (2002). God is dead: Secularization in the west. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers.

Davie, G. (2002). Europe: The exceptional case : Parameters of faith in the modern world. London: Darton Longman & Todd.

Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of american community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Palin Pisses on Baptism

“Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” – Romans 6:4

Suggesting or pronouncing that baptism is a form of torture sounds absurd at best and down right heretical from most theological positions among Christians. In fact, I am not sure if it has been said in the modern age.

Sarah Palin has now used baptism as a metaphor for torture amidst cheers at a recent NRA rally.

Let’s give her some slack; she was trying to make a joke. We all make bad jokes. If this came out of the mouth of Bill Maher, Louis Black, or Louis C.K. we might be offended, but expect to be offended since these are comedians. The difference is that she made this leap not as a comedian, and at an NRA rally. She engaged the audience and they lapped it up like parched dogs. I give her credit for that. But she also revealed utter theological ignorance and an ironic lack of conviction for her faith.

I haven’t spoken to or heard from any Christian who thought she was clever or amusing. The reaction has been quite the opposite. Pundits all over the map are registering really bad reviews for her near sadistic rant.

Here’s the snippet of what she said:

“They obviously have information on plots to carry out Jihad,” she said at the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meeting on Saturday evening, referring to prisoners. “Oh, but you can’t offend them, can’t make them feel uncomfortable, not even a smidgen. Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”

This statement should alienate her from any Christian who takes sacraments seriously. Baptism is perhaps the most universally revered of the holy mysteries of Christianity as it marks the initiation of one’s life with God and the Christian community.

Baptism was certainly important in her own religious upbringing. Ms. Palin became a Christian as a member of the The First Assembly of God in Wasilla, AK. The Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination of Christianity, believes that one is baptized after the initiate declares a pronouncement of faith in Jesus Christ, and encourages a Baptism in the Holy Spirit, a sign of which is speaking in tongues.

Ms. Palin has never been shy about her faith, offering often loud and convicted statements. Baptism played an important role in her own life as told in Charisma Magazine in 2009.

“It was so cool growing up in this church and getting saved here, getting baptized by Pastor Riley … my whole family getting baptized,” she told the congregation, just two months before her vice presidential nomination.

With these pronouncements, her language at the NRA rally takes a rhetoric of fear, violence, and hatred up many notches. Her faith preached from the pulpit of the gun is now scarcely recognizable from what it may have been.

Here is another comparison. The above image is an infamous photograph called Piss Christ (1987) taken by Andres Serrano. Here a Crucifix is submerged into a beautifully colored container of urine. Lovely. This work of art drew the ire of many, but the loudest voice was from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in the United States; a conservative Catholic organization. The Crucifix Serrano used in the photo is distinctly Roman Catholic.

“I would argue that ethics should dictate that you don’t go around gratuitously and intentionally insulting people of faith,” (Bill) Donohue told the Guardian. “I don’t care whether you’re Muslim or Jewish or Catholic or whatever you might be.”

Whether it’s pissing on a Crucifix or telling us that a method of torture is like being baptized, Christianity was just mocked by one of its supposed champions.

The Master of Divinity is Not Helping the Church Survive

Help WantedBecoming a pastor is competitive business. I had a solid seminary education, passed the Presbyterian (PCUSA) ordination exams on my first shot, passed the psychological evaluation, and was free to seek a call to be a pastor of a church.

But I didn’t go the route of a pastor and chose instead to pursue work in higher education.

Part of my reasoning was the job market for pastors. Maybe I was too picky with unrealistic expectations. I went to Princeton Seminary where graduates generally expect serve at big churches. I was not even thinking about the small church life. It was the data balanced by my expectations that switched my career path. I wanted to get in the pulpit to preach and organize education programs right out of the gate. I found that to be an unrealistic goal when I saw where most graduates were landing in their first positions. As someone who neither liked youth ministry nor the small church life – I had done both – I got out of the system.

There are many recent seminary graduates and current students who have the same expectations and experiences I did. They are accepted into M.Div. programs throughout the country and after earning a master’s degree they expect to be employed. The Master of Divinity is a professional degree. This means that you earn it as part of a training program in order to enter church leadership. In the latter half of the 19th century, higher education introduced professional degrees in law, business, and medicine. Charles Eliot, president of Harvard (1869-1909), sought to give the vocation of the pastor as much credibility and validation as these other professions in order to maintain and justify the divinity school at Harvard. It was this kind of thinking that transformed the Bachelor of Divinity, which had been the seat of training for ministry, into a professional graduate degree we now call the Master of Divinity (M.Div.).

It may have been a good idea at the time when the mainline churches were large and growing. But today, the degree has serious problems. The average time it takes to complete an M.Div. (90) is on par with or more than business (MBA – around 60 credit hours) or law school (Juris Doctor – around 85). A Master’s in Health Administration requires about 40 credit hours whereas the nursing profession requires a B.S.N. and a passing NCLEX score. Even then there are accelerated programs which take only 11-18 months to complete. Granted the cost of a degree like the MBA or J.D. is much higher than an M.Div., but so is the return on investment. Moreover, the M.Div. is also used as a gateway to doctorate degrees in theology and religion which means that the curriculum itself complicates academic programming outcomes at theological seminaries. Thus, a terminal degree in theology can take a longer time to earn than in some other fields.

Adding to all of these problems are denominational ordination requirements which seek the same rigor as other professional fields like law or nursing. These require candidates to endure multiple hoops of examinations both written and oral. The process can be very long, expensive, and arduous for a job that will offer a median income of around $35,000. This is just above the poverty level which in 2012 was about $23,000 correcting for location. M.Div. graduates can barely make payments on the interest of student loans acquired not only from undergraduate education, but from the M.Div. process. Undergraduate debt is now over $29,000. They have to eat and pay basic bills too. Carol Howard Merritt reflects on this burgeoning problem:

The truth is that it is very likely that you will go to seminary and never be able to get through the ordination process. I usually tell them my story. I graduated with great grades. I had been a Teacher’s Aid, Tutor and Research Assistant in Systematic Theology, Church History, Greek, Hebrew, and Practical Theology. My internship went well. The church hired me when the internship was over, because they wanted me to continue in the position. I had wonderful recommendations. But I couldn’t pass one of my Ordination Exams, so I couldn’t look for a job.

Some institutions have sought to cut down on some of the problems in the system with accelerated M.Div. programs. But the result is just not helpful enough. Liberty University’s accelerated program still requires 75 credit hours and a thesis. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary offers an Advanced Master of Divinity that requires undergraduate study in religion with a 3.3 minimum GPA. But even here, the M.Div. and still requires 79-80 credit hours to complete. The degree itself does not go below 80 credit hours as the standard. Thus, no amount of acceleration will give a student much of a break. This hardly compares with the other accelerated programs or innovative ideas to accelerate the Ph.D., especially in the humanities. American University’s Ph.D. in Communication is particularly “out-of-the-box.”

So where is the M.Div.? I don’t know. Mainline church membership is continuing to decline, there is a glut of candidates for the ministry, and M.Div programs along with the denominational requirements are putting unrealistic expectations and pressure on those just respond to a call to serve God and people in a small community. Where churches often face frustration levels so high that they pass over into resignation over declining numbers, the denominations and their seminaries are not moving enough to restructure the training requirements for prospective ministers. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Seminaries and denominations have got to innovate and restructure the educational requirements for the M.Div. and for ordination. Why this cannot be a 60 credit degree or a 2-year fast track is baffling. It’s time to stop asking questions and to start acting like the rest of graduate education that understand what and who they need to serve.