On Foisting Morality

I should note that Brooke doesn’t agree with various aspects of this post.  My opinion and mine alone!

Brooke and I have had more than a few conversations about the “birth control mandate” controversy from the last few weeks, where the Obama Administration required under the Affordable Health Care Law that all employers, including Catholic Hospitals and Universities, are required to provide birth control as part of their health care coverage to employees.  Various Catholic organizations, and others, protested this requirement, so the Administration compromised in allowing these organizations to avoid paying for the coverage as part of their contracts with health insurance companies, however, the insurance companies themselves would need to provide the coverage to the employees of these organizations.

While some felt this compromise was an example of the Administration deftly maneuvering around a touchy issue in an election year, others felt it still went against the rights of the employer to deny coverage they deem to be immoral.

It was this “immorality” part that yesterday’s On Point Radio show on NPR took on, interviewing a Pro-Life representative, a Pro-Choice representative, and a Bioethicist about the issue, from a moral, non-religious standpoint.

One of the callers caught my attention as making my point better than I could ever hope to make it.  Sadly, there’s no transcript, so I can’t put it on here verbatim, but it transpired late in the podcast.  An employer called in with a hypothetical situation, based on one of his employees’ experiences.  He was quick to point out this was a “Devil’s Advocate” kind of position, but it illustrates what concerned him about legislation currently moving through the House and Senate that would allow employers to “get around” what the Obama Administration had put in place and deny coverage under a “conscience amendment.”

Suppose that an employee is under their employer’s insurance.  That employee finds out that they are pregnant, and further finds out that they are having a child with Down’s Syndrome.  The employee decides to go ahead with the pregnancy and delivers the baby.  As this actually happened, the employer (the caller) had access to the bill, or at least, what the insurance company ended up paying: right around $300,000.

So, on a moral ground, the employer could say “You know, I think it’s immoral to make other people in this company’s insurance network fork over the $300,000 to pay for this hospital visit.  It’s okay if you, the employee, want to give birth, but it’s immoral for that cost to get shifted over to the insurance company.  You, the employee, should have to pay that $300,000.  That’s your right to pay for it, but it isn’t your right to make your insurer pay for it.  On moral grounds, I don’t think you should have had the baby.”

Again, this particular employer wasn’t advocating this position, but it’s illustrative of what a law like this would allow: employers could deny any coverage they thought was immoral.  That means a company run by Jehovah’s Witnesses could disallow blood transfusions to its employees.  That means a bigoted employer could deny AIDS treatments because you’re a homosexual.  That means an employer (or insurance company), like in the hypothetical above, could say an abortion was more moral than the delivery of a disabled child.  And that means a Catholic organization could deny birth control to women with ovarian cysts, likely dooming them to infertility.

That’s why this mandate exists and that’s why it’s necessary: not to force companies to do something, but to ensure that the morals and/or religious ideology of companies and employers aren’t foisted upon you, the employee.  It’s freedom of religion and freedom from religion.  Even Protestants recognize that favoring one religious community will affect another.

People, as a group, have a right to health services.  It isn’t up to the employer which services you are allowed to get: it’s between you and your doctor.

Let’s keep it that way.

Don’t Hate The Band, Hate The Fans

I don't think these guys get it...

I’ve heard this argument before: “I don’t hate Dave Matthews Band, but their fans are so annoying!”  As in, the music isn’t beyond the realm of their enjoyment, but the people they have to enjoy it with are so terrible that it detracts from the intended experience.  The same could be said for a variety of other acts, I’m sure.

Except in the case of Coldplay.  Both their fans, and the band, are terrible.  But this should go without saying.

Increasingly, I find myself seeing a connection between this feeling toward music and toward religion, especially in the case of Christianity.  All too often in today’s culture, I feel ashamed by what seems to be the impression that Christianity sometimes portrays to the world at large.  Folks like those above, admittedly from the fringe group, the Westboro Baptist Church.  Do all Christians feel this way?  Absolutely not.  Yet any time they get attention, there are folks out there that think this is what Christianity is all about.  Much of the same can be said of Islam, where a few bad apples end up making the rest of the world fear a largely peaceful and just faith tradition.

There are examples like this guy, too:

...neither does he...

Again, I’m sure he’s in the minority, but when pictures and videos of this nature hit the internet or television, the message being spread isn’t “Love” and “Acceptance:” it’s “Retribution” and “Intolerance.”

I think I’m most sensitive to this issue when it comes to homosexuality and the Church.  I know a few folks who are gay, and they’re really good people.  Personally, I’d love for them to be able to go to church.  And I know some of them would like to.  But, their impression, based on images like those above, and from conversations they’ve had with other Christians, means they’ll probably never go.  These are people that want to learn more and want to get the same experiences that I’ve had throughout my life, but feel like they can’t, because they’ll either be turned away, or at least told that their lifestyle is going to send them to Hell.

Since when are the Christians the ones doing the persecuting, eh?

I’m tired of these folks above representing me.  Of having some bearing on how my faith and traditions are perceived by the world at large.  These people do not represent the whole of Christianity.  Nor does the feeling that homosexuals are evil.  Nor does the feeling that women who have an abortion are going directly to Hell.  These feelings are indicative of unacceptance, of intolerance, and of hate.  In my opinion, they are inherently unchristian beliefs.

To those people that want to quote Old Testament scripture or the Letters of Paul (neither of which are words of Jesus, for the record…), I give you this:

12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.     — Matthew 7:12; NIV

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  — Matthew 22: 36-40; NIV 

That is the Christian message, as I see it, straight from the mouth of Jesus Christ.  Treat others as you want to be treated.  Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  These are the important aspects of Christianity, and if you follow these tenets, then you are not only a good Christian, but you’re also a good human being.  Unsurprisingly, the Golden Rule transcends Christianity and applies to other world religions, as well.  It’s just one of those things you should do.  Christians included!

These feelings always get stirred up around election season, when I see self-righteous “family candidates” like Rick Santorum up on a stage, talking about “family values” while denouncing pro-choice women and homosexuality, among other things, all the while representing Christianity on the world scene.  I’m appalled by the things this guy says, in the name of Jesus Christ and in the name of the Christian faith, as a whole.  I just hope that people around the world don’t think he, and others like him, are representative of all Christianity.

They’re not.

To anyone reading this that has been wronged by people in the name of Christianity, then I sincerely apologize.  I just hope anyone that knows me, or Brooke, knows that we’re Christians and we don’t feel the same way as those that seem to represent us.

And we aren’t alone.

Accepting Religious Curiosity in Context

I was catching up on NPR’s “On Point” from February 16th, where Tom Ashbrook was interviewing Richard Watts, author of various books, the most recent of which is “Hungers of the Heart: Spirituality and Religion for the 21st Century.” The entire podcast is worth listening to, but toward the end, Watts and Ashbrook got into some interesting territory.  In general, Watts is very interested in “the historical Jesus,” looking at the man and historical record and the context in which the Bible was written, as opposed to focusing on what could be considered the more “mystical” aspects of the Bible.  We pick up this transcript as Tom Ashbrook is reading a comment off the internet:

Ashbrook: “…but then here’s Elmridge who says of you ‘but he is denying the divinity of Jesus.’  What about that, Rev. Watts?”

Watts: “Well, one of the things we need to do is we always need to read texts in context.  When we don’t do that we get into big trouble.  Now, for example, if I tell you that there’s…that I know someone in the first century that’s called ‘divine,’ ‘the son of god,’ and ‘the savior,’ you know, who do you suppose I’m talking about?  Well, most people would say you’re talking about Jesus.  No, I’m talking about Caesar Augustus.  Caesar Augustus received all of those divine titles, and so when Christians talked about Jesus and what they had encountered in his life, they used titles which were very counter-cultural, they were saying, look, if you want to know what life is about, if you want to know what real power is, if you want to know where divinity is, look at this peasant going around talking about creating a new community of compassion and love.  Don’t look for the seat of power for the emperor in Rome.”

Watts: “Christianity in the very beginning, before it was called ‘Christianity,’ Tom [Ashbrook], it was called ‘The Way.’  And it was a way of life.  It was a lifestyle.  It doesn’t mean that lifestyle was devoid of a basis of belief, of course it was, but it was a lifestyle long before it was a creed, and I think we need to get over our hang-up with absolute creeds and get back to the lifestyle, a lifestyle which is non-violent, which is compassionate, which is inclusive, which creates community rather than holding people off at arm’s length.”

There was another interesting exchange later in the podcast.

Ashbrook: “You know very well, as do many other preachers, that the kind of mainline protestant churches that you’re describing that may be most open to this kind of open-minded, liberal conversation, are the ones that have seen their attendance just go through the floor in the last decade.  Now why is that?”

Watts: “Part of that, that’s a great question, and part of the problem is, that, I have to lay at the feet of clergy.  It seems to me that an awful lot of clergy don’t bother to teach the people what they themselves have learned.  And so, people are sort of fundamentalist by default because they, these sorts of questions that you and I are talking about today are not often raised and I know that in mainline churches there are all kinds of people sitting there never receiving permission to raise their questions, never having the opportunity to engage in give-and-take about what their life experience has taught them, or what their life experience has asked them.

Let me tell you a very brief story.  There was a scholar in the Jesus Seminar, which works to uncover the facts about the historical Jesus, that was giving a talk to a group of Missouri Synod Lutherans, a very conservative denomination, and he was talking about New Testament documents, and the document “Q,” which is a lost document of the sayings of Jesus.  And then came time for the question period and he wondered, he felt like Daniel in the lion’s den, and a woman stood up and, instead of addressing the speaker, she turned around to address her preacher in the pew behind her and she said to him, ‘did you know about Q?’ And he said, ‘well, yeah.’  And she said, ‘why didn’t you tell us?’  And I think that’s a very powerful parable, that our churches are full of people that are questioning, who are curious, but who aren’t being adequately taught…”

I won’t write much about this, as the post is already long enough with these transcripts included.  I just wanted to say that this is the kind of thing I like to hear about, the historical context in which the Bible was written, and how that context can help inform what we know and what we don’t know about religion.  Moreover, I think that if there was more of this being taught in our churches today, there would be fewer “black and white” interpretations of what the Bible tells us, and we would all be more accepting of each other.

It’s a shame when pastors and educators shut down the intellectually curious.  We should all be fostering curiosity in ourselves and in our kids in order to better understand where we come from and who we are, rather than asking someone to tell us, and then accepting that information blindly.

Questioning and thoughtful investigation is the way of science.  It should be the way of religion, too.

“I was in the prison, and you visited me…”

Brooke and Meg were out of town this past weekend, so I attended church alone.  We had a guest pastor in church, as our regular pastor was out of town.  Her name was Pastor Arnette Pint, and she was the first Associate Pastor for Shueyville UMC back in the late-90s.  Since that time, she has gone on to a few positions, but her most recent one is serving a congregation called Women at the Well, that she started at the Mitchellville, IA Women’s Correctional Facility, so she had some very interesting perspectives.

Pastor Arnette described a variety of statistics and anecdotal stories to help illustrate what she does and why it’s important.  First, she told us that this is a relatively new concept, having a church within a prison.  This is different than having churches visit prisons, as you end up getting a variety of groups coming through and not staying – no sense of permanence.  The United Methodist Church in Iowa felt the need to appoint a pastor specifically to this prison, as the system apparently works well in other states where it’s been implemented.  Pastor Arnette relayed a story of the pastor (whose name I can’t find) that started this movement and, effectively, “wrote the book” on doing this sort of thing.  He had been ministering to the men of a prison in South Dakota and he got the sense that they wanted an actual, regular, church service.  Something permanent.  Something they could depend on.  After he started a weekly service, the numbers of attendees grew, and their outlooks after prison improved.

The part of the story that hit me was that, supposedly, one inmate thanked him for starting the service, lamenting the endless parade of churches and groups coming through to preach to them.  The inmate said “We was tired of gettin’ saved.”  It was an interesting point to make, as these churches that were coming to the prison somehow felt as though, because they were prisoners, they must obviously not be Christians.  Because they were in prison, they obviously needed “saving.”

With this framework in mind, Pastor Arnette went through some statistics, saying that 60% of inmate in her prison have been diagnosed with a mental illness, though that number is surely higher.  Most of those diagnoses happened outside the prison system, as the ones that occur once you’re in the system can be difficult to interpret.  There are 600 women in the prison, while 30 years ago, in the same building, there were only 40-something women there.  It’s a crowded place, and there’s one psychologist to manage all of them.  They communicate over the internet with a psychiatrist in order to get any medications approved.  Pastor Arnette also said that, while the statistics aren’t solid on this, she thinks it’s somewhere between 80% and 90% of these women that have been abused in some fashion during their lives, and the majority of them have struggled with addiction at some time.  For many of them, addiction is the reason they are in prison at all.  She said that, while they have counselors at the prison to help the psychologist in their day-to-day routine, these counselors, more often than not, are prison guards that have ranked up high enough to get off the floor.

The United Methodist Church in Iowa also started a program to help provide clothing for women that are leaving prison.  Apparently, the State of Iowa doesn’t provide you with a change of clothes for your bus ride home, so there are women riding from Des Moines to all points of the State in their prison uniform.  Hardly the “right foot” to get started on.  So, the Methodist Church started collecting clothes from women across the state, asking them to donate their lightly-used clothes so that these women have something to start fresh with.  The church provides a set of casual clothes, as well as a set of clothes nice enough for “that first job interview.”  Certainly a nice gesture.

One of her larger points was with regards to the cost of building and operating prisons.  She pointed out that almost $180 million has been approved by the State of Iowa to help refurbish this current prison, as well as build another prison in the state (and that’s just to build, not to operate).  That’s $180+ million to help deal with all these women that have been coming in (remember, 40 women increased to 600 in this one building over 30 years, largely due to influx of methamphetamine and harsher drug laws).  She suggested that, maybe, that $180+ million would have been better spent on helping these women before they got into prison, by providing greater access to abuse and addiction counselors, or to even see a mental health professional.

At a time when state funding for mental health is declining drastically, our spending on new prison facilities is increasing.  “How does this make sense,” she asks.

The last point I’ll leave with you are some interesting statistics on recidivism (as in, the likelihood someone within the prison will come back to the prison one or more times).  The rate in Iowa is 60%, which is comparable to other states.  According to her, in studies that have looked into programs like hers, with churches that are actually based within a prison, the recidivism rate drops to 15% for those individuals.  If those individuals leave the prison and find a church home (as in, one they attend regularly, as opposed to “just visiting”), the rate drops to 2%.

It was an excellent sermon, and an eye-opening testament to what goes on in the prison system.  Thankfully, my family isn’t known for their prison stints, so I can’t say I have any experience with what it’s like to “go through the system.”  I hope I never do, but if anyone I know has to go through it, I hope they have someone like Pastor Arnette and a program like hers to help them see it through.

God is (Un)necessary

I listened to an episode of On Point on NPR this past weekend, where Tom Ashbrook interviewed Leonard Mlodinow, co-author with Stephen Hawking of a new book titled “The Grand Design.”  I had never heard of Mlodinow before this episode, but I’d certainly heard of Hawking, the theoretical physicist that is confined to his wheelchair as a result of advanced ALS who wrote “A Brief History of Time” back in the 80s.  His first book, “A Brief History…” was relatively short (heck, even I was able to read it) and did a reasonably good job at helping explain to the layman some very advanced cosmological concepts.

Their new book, “The Grand Design,” is set up to answer the question: “Is God necessary?”  Or more generally, does all life in the Universe require the hand of an all-powerful Creator being?  According to their book, the answer is “no.”

Now, as Mlodinow says in the interview, that answer doesn’t mean “there is no God.”  He points this out a few times: Science itself cannot determine whether or not God (or any Creator) exists, but many or all of the questions of Creation can, in fact, be explained by Science.  Hawking was quoted when the book came out as saying that “there is no God,” but that was a mischaracterization of what the book describes.

Interestingly, around the 12:30 mark of the podcast, Ashbrook plays some tape of an interview with Hawking from a few years ago.

Interviewer: “Do you believe in God?”

Hawking: “The basic assumption of science is scientific determinism. The laws of science determine the evolution of the universe, given its state at one time. These laws may, or may not, have been decreed by God, but he cannot intervene to break the laws, or they would not be laws. That leaves God with the freedom to choose the initial state of the universe, but even here, it seems, there may be laws. So God would have no freedom at all.”

While I realize this is something of a cryptic answer, my interpretation is that Hawking kinda believes as I do about this whole “Creation” thing.  Hawking is describing the idea that our Universe is based on a series of Laws (e.g. gravity, the speed of light, etc.) and our Universe is well-suited to the existence of Life (as we know it…).  If the Universe did not have the Laws it currently does, then Life would not exist (as we know it).  Therefore, God set a series of Laws (or adhered to previously existing ones) that allowed for the existence of Life.  Therefore, we humans eventually showed up on the cosmic block.

So yeah, as the authors point out, a Creator may not be “necessary” in a Scientific manner, in that our Universe is apparently set up in such a fashion that Life can and does exist.  From that standpoint, God is “unnecessary.”

However, I would argue that God is, in fact, “necessary” for our lives, at the very least for the social and moral implications.  Sure, God may not be “necessary” for our existence, but He is “necessary” for bringing meaning to that existence.  For providing a moral compass to follow.  For helping define who we are and who we all want to be.  It all depends on how one views “God” (whether in the Christian, Muslim, or Judaic traditions, amongst others), but all faith traditions provide us with a relatively clear idea of the kind of people we should be.  The kind of people we all want to be.

I guess I’ve always felt this way.  I’ve never felt that the “Creation” part of the Bible was all that important to who I was.  The Book of Genesis does not define my life.  It really isn’t important how I was “created.”  However, it’s important that I’m here now.  I do exist, regardless of how it happened.  My existence entails a sense of responsibility that I conduct that existence in a manner I can be proud of.  So for me, God is necessary.

Side-note: Tom Ashbrook asks Mlodinow multiple times to explain how you get “something” out of “nothing,” as in, how exactly did all of the things we know just “spring up” out of the void of existence (e.g. the initial “Creation” itself).  He tries explaining a few times but it was still pretty difficult to follow…may just need to read the book…  I think he was trying to explain it in terms of quantum mechanics in that, according to what we know from quantum theory, you can actually have things just “appear.”  He never said “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle,” but I think that’s what he was getting at.  Heisenberg stated that you can either know where an object is in space or how fast it’s moving, but you can’t know both at the same time.  As I understand the theory, there’s all kinds of math involved that suggests you can actually get “something” out of “nothing.”  Mlodinow also talked about multiple dimensions in his answer.  In short, I don’t really understand it either, but it was addressed in the podcast as well…. 😛