#56 Ode to the “Little Way”


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Powerless and powerful?  At the same time?

You’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer and told you have two months to live.

Powerless, right?

The message of Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer is familiar:  “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

But what about taking Niebuhr’s prayer a step further.  What if you actually chose the bad things you can’t change?

Without a doubt, you wouldn’t have chosen terminal cancer had been given a choice.  Who willingly chooses cancer?  Cancer chooses you.  But choose it in return and you’re back in control.

One of France’s favorite saints, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, did just that.  Here’s how her version of Niebuhr’s prayer might have sounded:  “God grant me the serenity to embrace the things I cannot change, to choose them as if on my own terms, to choose them as if I wanted them.”

Thérèse, a Carmelite nun, died a drawn-out and painful death from tuberculosis.  She vomited blood.  Bedsores afflicted her.  Her Mother Superior denied her the relief of morphine.  Unable to take a sip of water or swallow a spoonful of food without suffering waves of nausea, she practiced what she called the Little Way—the choosing of what was handed to her.

One of Thérèse’s biographers, Monica Furlong, finds genius in the Little Way:  “to lie dying an excruciating death that took away the little privacies and forms of self-control which are precious to most of us, to endure almost unremitting pain, to have to rely on others for the smallest services…was to have ‘the last shred of dignity’ forcibly ripped away.  What else to do then but to ‘choose it,’ to respond to it out of freedom rather than out of necessity?”

Some interpret the Little Way as the way of subservience, especially for women.  But, as Furlong points out, the Little Way has “an almost ironic quality to it.  ‘If I may have nothing,’ it says gaily, ‘then I will turn reason inside out and make having nothing the most enjoyable of possibilities.’”  In essence, Thérèse charts a way “to live out an impossible situation.”

And so, faced with terminal lung cancer, the Little Way would say, “if I may lose my life to cancer in two months, I will turn reason inside out and choose the cancer.”  Seemingly powerless before the advance of one’s disease, one may choose snatch the cards one’s been dealt and play them triumphantly, powerfully, as if they were “the purest piece of luck.”

Did her practice of the Little Way as she succumbed to tuberculosis make Thérèse a saint?  According to Furlong, “at the time of her canonization Cardinal Vico described how, in the early days of the Catholic Church, people became saints by popular acclaim…  Several centuries had passed without a popular saint.” And yet, Thérèse became such a saint.  In her, ordinary people saw courage and strength.  From her, they drew encouragement to face the bad things in life.  They embraced her as their own.  Indeed, rare is the church in France without a statue of Saint Thérèse.

Often, the Little Way is not the best way.  The Little Way isn’t the best way for the Russians who are pouring into the streets to protest Vladimir Putin’s over-reach.  Many challenges are worth a good fight—like securing hot meals for underprivileged kids in public schools, or seeking refuge in a battered women shelter, or working to prevent contamination of the drinking water in your community, etc.  These are not scenarios that call for the Little Way.

But some scenarios come without options.  They have only one possible outcome.  A bad one.

May you never find yourself power-less.  If you do, the Little Way could return you to a sense of power-fulness.  You could decide to embrace the non-negotiables that life throws at you.  You could put yourself back in charge.

Resource:  Monica Furlong, Thérèse of Lisieux (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1987).

#55 iHeroes, iReligion, and iHistory


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Who, among those blessed with extra cash, doesn’t remember their first Mac?  Or first iPod?  Or first iPhone?  Or first iPad?  Or, for that matter, their first visit to a sleek, modernist Apple store?  Or first appointment at the Genius Bar?

Will Steve Jobs’ death (on Oct. 5) restore us to agnosticism when it comes to electronic marvels?  Many had become faithful converts to the power of high-tech.  We had faith that each invention would be better than the last.  Apple’s product announcements had teleological force—we needed to wait only a little before another brilliant and stylish bit of Apple wizardry paradigm-shifted our lives—yet again.  And we were justified in our faith.  Revolutionary products did arrive.  And life did change.  For the better.

Surely, Jobs belongs on the shortlist of American, if not the world’s, cultural heroes.  Our grandchildren will learn of Jobs in their American history classes.  In general, people are suckers for great men and women.  Early historians understood that we are fascinated by great individuals; these historians did not so much write biographies as produce hagiographies, distorting what could be known about their subjects and adding details to make them appear less prone to human failings than they actually were.  Among the sacred texts, the Hebrew Bible is one of the few that resists burnishing the lives it recounts.  This is a strength of the Hebrew Bible; its authors understood that it is through their faults that we recognize great heroes as fellow human beings.

A close friend of Steve Jobs, Dr. Dean Ornish, understood this too, saying, Steve “was very human…  He was so much more of a real person than most people know. That’s what made him so great.”  Jobs was imperfect like most of us schmoes.  His sister, Mona Simpson, wrote a “fictional” novel, A Regular Guy, whose main character bears many similarities to her iconic brother.  Reviewers of the book noted that it was not an unalloyed portrait.  Even his worst enemy, however, cannot deny that Jobs was blessed with unusual leadership and vision.

He belongs, then, on that list of individuals that the 19th Century Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle, used to illustrate his “great man” theory.  This theory views Western history as the playground of men and women who, thanks to their genius-level scientific or artistic talents, or beyond-brilliant military and leadership instincts, or ground-breaking philosophical or spiritual gifts have impacted millions, even billions of lives over the course of their own generations and beyond.  Carlyle speculated that history could be explained by the actions of these “greats.”  He wrote, “The soul of the whole world’s history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these.”  Their extra-ordinary attributes, like “the light which enlightens” is not “a kindled lamp only” but rather “a natural luminary shining by the gift of Heaven.”

The author (Steven Levy) of the 1994 book, Insanely Great, chronicling the birth of the Mac, described the light cast by Jobs:  “He was the most passionate leader one could hope for, a motivating force without parallel.”  A co-founder of Pixar (Edwin Catmull) commented that over the course of the four years during which his company struggled to make “Toy Story,” Jobs never flagged in his determination:  “You need a lot more than vision — you need a stubbornness, tenacity, belief and patience to stay the course…In Steve’s case, he pushes right to the edge, to try to make the next big step forward.”

These traits—Jobs’ vision, stubbornness, tenacity, belief, and patience to stay the course, pushing right to the edge, driven to make the next big step—were surely shared by other “great men and women,” like Winston Churchill or Muhammad or Isaac Newton or Martha Graham, all of whom excelled in the face of outrageous odds and legions of naysayers.

Carlyle also held that the thoughts of “great men and women” were “the parents of the actions they did; their feelings were parents of their thoughts: it was the unseen and spiritual in them that determined the outward and actual.”  Religion was not, for Carlyle, defined by creeds or by the houses of worship to which they belonged.  Religion meant, rather, that which these great men or women believed, that they kept close to their hearts, that was “in all cases the primary thing” determining their practical actions.  If one adopts Carlyle’s definition, then the “chief fact” about Jobs, his “primary thing,” his religion, was this: “Stay hungry, stay foolish,” and “don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.  And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

A contemporary of Carlyle, the German philosopher, Hegel, embraced a similar view of the role of superlative individuals in history.  But for him, great people served as vehicles for the progressive unfolding of God-Spirit, or Geist in the world.  Heroes, he wrote, are not agents who act independently of the Whole; rather, they serve as agents for Geist in moving history forward.  This movement, according to Hegel, is inevitable.

Indeed, there will be those who—out of a personal dislike for Jobs, or because they are strongly attached to the notion of equality and thus resist recognizing that some human beings make greater contributions than others—will opine in Hegelian mode that if Jobs hadn’t brought forth an abundance of culture-changing gadgets, someone else would have.  Or they will turn to the common 20th Century position that we are all products of our social space and that the contributions of all “great men and women” would have been impossible without the prior existence of this space.

But the fact that it could have been some other individual produced by our current social space, actually underscores the truth that, regardless of possible competitors, Jobs was the one, the singular channel.

Goodnight sweet prince of tech.  We’ll miss you lots.  We miss you already.

Resource:   Carlyle, Thomas  (Author). On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History. London, , GBR: ElecBook, 2001.

#54 Wrong beliefs about beliefs


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A popular belief among today’s gentle partisans of inter-religious dialogue is that sharing of individual journeys succeeds where other approaches fail.  If only this were the case. Except that our beliefs shape our reaction to the experiences of others.

The sharing of individual journeys sounds promising, at first glance. What counts as success? —More humane views.  What counts as failure? —Arguing about beliefs. At the core of this approach is the assumption that talking about beliefs leads to arguing about beliefs, impasse, raised voices, bruised feelings, and, for all of these reasons, it is worse than a waste of time.

Hence the impetus to find other ways to “do” inter-religious dialogue.

One partisan of the sharing-of-life-journey approach to inter-religious dialogue is the Reverend Peter Laarman.  In Laarman’s view, if I say yes-there-is-a-God and you say no-there-is-no-God, we should avoid talking about why I don’t believe in God and why you believe in God.  Instead, we should talk about how we came to hold these views.  This kind of exchange, for Laarman, would give us the best shot at finding common ground.  It might even change our hearts and minds.  At the very least, it can lead to greater empathy.

Except that gentle and admirable folks like Laarman who recommend sharing-our-journeys as a way to make headway in inter-religious conversation are not taking into account how our beliefs influence our interpretation of experience.  In other words, our reaction to someone’s life journey is largely determined by the beliefs we already hold.

Here are a couple of scenarios illustrating the role of beliefs:  if I believe that God gives men dominion over women, then I will react differently to the life story of a woman whose nose was cut off because she shamed her husband than I would react if I believed that, to God, women and men are equally precious.  If I consider homosexual sex a sin and believe that God banishes homosexuals from his Kingdom, I am likely to react differently to the life story of a gay man whose family shunned him after he moved in with his boyfriend than I would if I believed that God loves all of God’s children, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Still unconvinced that our beliefs influence our interpretation of other people’s experiences?  Let’s take a look at what Laarman wrote in a recent article in Religion Dispatches:

We can see how ineffective our argumentation is by looking at the interminable debate over whether to welcome LGBT persons as full and equal members of congregations—not to mention as ordainable leaders, marriageable people, and members of normal families.  

Every poll and every wise observer points out that gay-affirming folks have not been winning on account of superior arguments, whether arguments from the Bible or theology or science. They aren’t winning on account of their superior debating skills. They’re winning by being present and visible in faith communities: by coming out in ways that clergy and congregations can’t ignore. Gay people are winning because straight people who love and respect them are coming out right along with them.  

The classic instance is the faithful older church woman—a devoted and beloved member of the community—who, at just the right moment in a congregational meeting, stands up and says, “Well, friends, I guess we can argue about all of this until the cows come home. All I know is that ________, my ________, is as dear a child of God as I will ever hope to be.” She then goes on to tell the story of she found out about ________, how they stayed close, and how her heart was changed. Bingo. Are we ready for the vote? 

Sure, those of us who welcome GLBT persons as full and equal members of our congregations would like to believe that sharing-our-life-journeys could change neah votes to yeah votes at a congregational meeting.  But it’s not that simple.  Only in a GLBT-friendly, progressive congregation would the outcome that Laarman describes be a likely one.  Members who believe homosexuality is wrong (for any number of any reasons) will not be swayed by our church lady’s experience with her ____________.

Let’s take a closer look at Laarman’s account of the faithful older woman.  Let’s suppose that another faithful older church woman—also a devoted and beloved member of the community, had said the following at the congregational meeting: “Well, friends, I guess we can argue about all of this until the cows come home.  But I know is that ____________, my ____________, is no longer a dear child of God, because the day he chose to take up with that boyfriend of his, he said his goodbyes to God.”  Then our beloved church member tells the story of how she found out about ___________, how he’d had a good head on his shoulder until his boyfriend came along and led him astray and how heartbroken she was and his parents too.  If God was against these shenanigans—and clearly God was, because sex between men was unnatural—well then, the congregation would be wrong to smile upon what God forbade.  Besides, does this congregation really want to send people like ___________ and his boyfriend the message that what they were doing was okay?  Bingo(?).  Are we ready for the vote?  Not on your life.

Our beliefs are the lenses through which we view the world.  The telling of a personal story will either reinforce what we already believe (because it aligns with our beliefs) or we will discount it because it doesn’t fit what we already deem to be true.

Until our lenses change colors, our views remain the same.  Fortunately, minds, like lenses, can be changed.

No doubt, though, on some issues we’ll have to be inflexible.  Should we give any credence to the belief that homosexuality is wrong in the eyes of God?  No way, Jose.  We don’t BELIEVE it.  In our mind of minds we get it that GLBT persons are full and equal human beings.  God, we believe, doesn’t give a fig leaf whether men are doing it with men or women are doing it with women.  So there.  Beliefs matter.

About such issues we can talk about our life journeys until we’re blue in the face.  The two beloved church members described above, one in favor of welcoming GLBTs into her church and the other against, have about as much chance of finding common ground as Barak Obama and Mitt Romney.

Although we may admire the Peter Laarmans of the world and find them praiseworthy, some issues call on us quite simply to declare:  “Here I stand.  From here I will not budge.”

#53 Grace to the rescue


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Cover by Sandra Lawrence

Summer’s nearly over and the routines of autumn are once again settling over the ever-shorter and cooler days.

Looking for something to read through the coming bevy of chilly nights?  The Naked Theologian, aka moi, has a new column in the Fall issue of the UU World magazine. To read it, click on this link: “Grace to the Rescue” or cut and paste the following web address into your browser: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/186475.shtml

You may not agree with the points of view that I discuss in the column (i.e. those of Henry Nelson Wieman, James Luther Adams, and Jerome Stone). That’s A-okay.  In the end, what matters is participating in the conversation.

To thank the UU World for making space for theology and to encourage more such offerings, post a comment on facebook.com/uuworld or send an email to world@uua.org.

Best of all, discuss the “Grace to the rescue?” piece in your blogs and link the column to the URL provided above. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the points I made in my piece and I’m sure that others would too!
The Church of the Larger Fellowship - Your Online Congregation of Unitarian Universalists.

Starting next Wednesday (Sept. 14), I’ll be teaching a five-session, online course in theology. Its highly creative title is “Theology for UUs.”  The class is offered by the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF), which means it’s designed for Unitarian Universalists but is open to anyone.  Session topics:

  1. Early Christianity and its impact on Unitarian Universalism today
  2. Atheism<->agnosticism<->deism<->theism
  3. Religious and secular humanism
  4. Earth-based religions
  5. Process thought and religious naturalism

To sign up and pay the $40 fee (come on, you’re worth it!), click on this link: www.uurgl.com/learn.

Questions?  Comments?  Compliments?  Jokes?  Hey, get in touch!

#52 Prophecies of the end of belief


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Almost as soon as the Puritans set foot in Massachusetts Bay, they began to sound the alarm that godlessness was at hand.  Prophecies of God’s impending demise are as old as the history of European settlements in the United States.  Indeed, the recent book, Prophecies of Godlessness, edited by Charles Mathewes and Christopher McKnight Nichols, offers a fascinating account of America’s death-watch for God—a death-watch that has preoccupied hopeful atheists and deists (and frightened conservative believers) for more than four centuries.

The 1960’s, however, was a watershed decade.  The ever-increasing ability of science to explain reality and the decreasing faith in the inerrancy of the Bible resulted in a crescendo of predictions that God was dead, or might as well be since no one believed any longer.

During this era, social scientists and secular humanists in particular, were certain that belief in God was, at long last, dying and not a minute too soon! According to the scholar of religion, Slavica Jakelic, whose essay covers the sixties in Prophecies, social scientists and secular humanists projected their desire onto the population at large.  America, they maintained (wished), if not the world, was finally coming to its senses.  God, they detected (wished), was—finally—absent from daily life.  Murder by neglect seemed a fait accompli.  Growing religious skepticism and critical questioning had yanked the rug out from under pious belief.  The religions had been shown for what they were—providers of consolation and of meaning for the feeble-hearted and logic-challenged.

Convinced that the country’s religiosity had plummeted, social scientists felt no need to confirm their prophecies of godlessness by gathering empirical data.

When surveys were finally carried out, the data revealed that the number of God-believers in this country has remained amazingly steady for at least three generations.  That’s right.  Go ahead and re-read that sentence if you must.  Today, ninety-four percent of Americans believe in God or in a Higher Power.  Exactly the same percentage as in the 1960’s when ninety-four percent of Americans also believed in God or a Higher Power.


The predictions of social scientists and secular humanists turned out to be wrong. God was (and is) alive and well.

But why?

Quite simply because science offers only certain kinds of answers–data-based answers.  It can’t help us make sense of life’s most important and most intractable questions like, “Why am I here?”  “What is my purpose?”  “What is expected of me?”  “How can I go on now that my partner has died?”  “What is the right thing to do?”  “Why should I do the right thing?”  “What is a good life?”   The list of questions that science can’t answer is long.

Singer-songwriter Johnny Cash wrestled with these questions in his music.  No doubt, this has much to do with its popularity.  His lyrics, set to fitting (and haunting) melodies, capture what many of us experience.  Here are some lines from “Help Me:”

Oh Lord, help me to walk another mile, just one more mile.
I’m tired of walking all alone.
And Lord, help me to smile another smile, just one more smile.
Don’t think I can do things on my own.
I never thought I needed help before.
Thought that I could get by, by myself.
Now I know I just can’t take it any more.
And with a humble heart on bended knee,
I’m begging you please, for help.

Social scientists and secular humanists would surely counsel Johnny’s many fans to focus instead on the so-called sacred texts that are chock full of contradictions.  Or focus on the so-called religious experiences that are born of overactive or diseased imaginations.  Anyone who focuses on the “real” issues will surely turn from God.

Okay, sure, we can try to forget Johnny Cash and his music, but the majority (remember–at least 94%!) of us aren’t going to stop wondering whether we can (or want) to do things on our own.  We aren’t going to stop asking, with a humble heart, on bended knee, for God’s help.  Science and secular society have failed to provide compelling substitutes.  It’s pointless to recommend that we ask science for help when we’re dealing with a cancer diagnosis or the death of a child.  Science can’t help us when we’re struggling every day to get by or to smile another smile or to walk another mile.

No matter.  Some social scientists and secular humanists continue to discount the kind of human predicament described in the song, “Help me.”  They continue to discount the evidence demonstrating that predictions of imminent, nation-wide atheism are without warrant.  They assume atrophy of religious belief where none exists.  They remain attached to the idea of loss of faith and to its anticipated outcome—a godless America.


Truth is that God is not going away any time soon.  In this country, the number of God-believers remains high and stable.  Almost all Americans believe, have believed, and if current trends can be trusted, will continue to believe in God.

Let’s face it.  Prophecies of godlessness fritter away precious time and brainpower.  Though social scientists and secular humanists are unlikely to stop predicting God’s disappearance from human affairs, their time and brainpower would be better spent on issues that relate to the world as it actually operates.

Rather than scoff, they could take an interest in and support the work of theologians who are committed to developing intriguing visions of God—say, a God who calls on us to work harder to secure greater justice and better living conditions for those who have little or none.

Rather than roll their eyes, they could make a point of talking to God-believers, especially those with strong beliefs.  By doing so, they are more likely to make an impact, especially if, when speaking to someone whose God seems to undermine efforts to eradicate suffering and oppression, they explain why they see things differently.  Also, by engaging in dialogue with those whose religious views they do not share, they will be reminded of the humanity of the Other.

So, what’s it going to be, Mr. or Ms. social-scientist and secular-humanist?  More breath-wasting and ink-squandering prophecies that help no one?  Or life-enhancing engagement with theology and religion that could help many?

Resource:  Slavica Jakelic, “The Sixties:  Secularization and the Prophesies of Freedom,” in Prophesies of Godlessness:  Predictions of American’s imminent Secularization from the Puritans to the Present Day, ed. Charles Mathewes and Christopher McKnight Nichols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 156-190.

#51 Society Without God


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The sociologist of religion, Phil Zuckerman, visited the closest thing to Nirvana for those who dream of living in a society without God—Denmark.  Zuckerman’s plan to spend several months in one of the most secular places on the planet was driven by his desire to demonstrate that there’s a link between a general lack of interest in God and the existence of a successful society in which people are happy and help their neighbors.

What did Zuckerman find after living in a typical Danish city and interviewing some 150 Danes and Swedes about their religious views?

  1. 25% believe in a personal God
  2. 10% believe in hell
  3. 7% believe that God the Bible is the literal word of God
  4. 100% identify themselves as Christians

In his book, Zuckerman argues, in part, against scholars of religion who claim that human beings are naturally religious.  Against this assertion, Zuckerman shows that Danes and Swedes do not look to religion or God for answers about the meaning of life and death.

Perhaps more interesting was Zuckerman’s discovery that these questions only rarely crossed the minds of Danes and Swedes.  His contacts simply lacked curiosity about God and about the meaning of life and death.  Indeed, the examples he provided, based on interviews and ordinary day-to-day interactions, reveal that, in Denmark:

  1. Questions about why bad things happen are not central to everyday life
  2. Religion, God, and the meaning of life rarely come up
  3. When asked about the meaning of life, people answered that there is no meaning
  4. When asked what gives them reasons to live, they cited friends and family
  5. When asked about death, they said it was part of life

However, this picture is in tension with several other facts:

  1. The majority of Danes and Swedes pay taxes to the Lutheran Church without complaint
  2. They tend to baptize their children
  3. They get married in Church
  4. They follow the Lutheran teaching of being kind to their neighbors
  5. Tensions exist between the Lutheran population and the growing Muslim population

Zuckerman postulates that, for Danes and Swedes, the religious practices and institutions of the Lutheran Church have become cultural, secular vehicles.  If his assessment is correct, then Denmark’s “cultural” religion—secular Lutheranism—resembles other “cultural” religions such as secular Judaism.

Nylars Round Church

Because hardly anything that appears simple, is simple, a reviewer of Zuckerman’s book, Michal Pagis, raises several thorny questions.  Even hardcore cheerleaders of Denmark’s “society without God” should pause to wonder whether important complexities and tensions remain to be identified.

Many of Pagis’ questions (which appear below) were posed by the intellectually-honest Zuckerman.  Although he attempts to address some of them, he acknowledges that they will require further research to answer:

  1. Are people around the globe less interested in ultimate existential questions than philosophers or religious scholars have long assumed?
  2. What is the connection between secularism and the lack of interest in the meaning of life and death?
  3. How do we explain the fact that novels, poetry, or philosophical texts tackle these questions (and that there is a market for them)?
  4. Why are secular Jews (and other relatively secular Europeans like the French and the Germans) attracted to these questions, but not secular Danes?
  5. Could the long religious monopoly of Lutheranism, and hence the lack of competition among religions have led to a loss of interest in religion among the Danes and Swedes?
  6. Could Denmark’s high degree of social and economic security explain the low interest in religion?
  7. Could the high percentage of independent women and the rise of feminism account for the decline of Christianity in Denmark?
  8. Is it possible that Scandinavian society was never a religious one?

Resource:  Michal Pagis, review of Society Without God:  What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment by Phil Zuckerman, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79:1 (March 2011): 264-267.

#50 Is OCD the source of religion?


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Martin Luther (1483 - 1546)

Martin Luther, the Father of Protestantism, had OCD.  So what?

Robert Sapolsky, the brilliant professor of biology and neuroscience at Stanford, has made his field accessible and entertaining.  But he admits that he sometimes steps beyond his area of expertise–for example, when he prognosticates on Martin Luther, and on the relationship between OCD and religion.  Sapolsky, it turns out, is no fan of Luther or of religion.

The mysterious title of Sapolsky’s essay, “Circling the Blanket around God,” expresses his view of the relationship between religion and OCD.  It refers to the “fixed action pattern” of the dog who, inexplicably, but nonetheless predictably, circles her blanket several times before finally plopping herself down for the night.  A human being suffering from OCD is like a dog circling, Sapolsky writes, except that s/he is unable to stop circling and continues, “exhausted and bewildered.”  Thus, the theistic individual—in Sapolsky’s view—circles the blanket around God, circling around and around, “exhausted and bewildered,” but unable to stop.

By his own admission, Sapolsky offers a single original idea in this essay—namely, the idea that OCD individuals started religious rituals.  Their attempts, he postulates, to reduce their anxiety by performing set rituals “somehow turns into rules for everyone else.”  Somehow.  Somehow?  Although this is an intriguing idea, it is most certainly not original but rather has preoccupied students of religion for some time.  Too bad that Sapolsky doesn’t ask the next, and most important question: what exactly is the mechanism whereby an individual suffering from OCD “somehow” turns his or her anxiety-reducing rituals into “rules for everyone else?”

As an example of a religious figure whose “anxiety-reducing rituals” became “rules for everyone else,” Sapolsky selects Martin Luther.  Luther started his theological career as an Augustinian monk but made his way up the academic ranks until he became a professor, among other things, of the Old Testament.  His distaste for indulgences (a payment paid to Church authorities to shorten one’s time in purgatory) led him to try to reform the Catholic Church.  Instead, he touched off the Protestant Reformation and permanently fractured Western Christianity into its two major families.  Luther, scholars agree, and Sapolsky observes, suffered from a bad case of “scrups,” or in everyday speech, from a terrible, OCD-induced, case of scruples.

Monks were expected to meet higher ethical standards than those that pertained to the lay population.  His religious order required that he set aside time for an examination of his soul; he was expected to identify every immoral behavior or idea.  No matter how petty the behavior or idea, he was to react to them with true sorrow, to repent with true contrition, and to ask God for forgiveness.  These steps were critically important; if not followed to the letter, Luther could not hope to be restored, by God, to a state of grace.  If he were to die unexpectedly, he would, because he was reprobate, be condemned to eternal damnation.

Luther was convinced that he had failed to repent for every single moral breach. Terrified for his soul, Luther sought relief from his OCD-exacerbated scruples.  Nothing worked.  Until he discovered a new way to understand the Bible and salvation.

By then, Luther had embarked on academic studies in theology and, having earned a Ph.D., he served as Doctor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg.  He became such an adept translator of Scripture that his translation of the Bible into German continues to be widely used today.  His painstaking study of Biblical texts eventually led him to develop a novel, but compelling, Scripture-based theology of “salvation by faith alone” (the basic tenet of what would become Protestantism).  Luther believed that, because of his faith in Christ, God would not punish him.

Okay, fine.  But how did Luther manage to convince so many non-OCD-sufferers to adopt his radical message?  By the early 1520s, he had attracted a vast and passionate following, and by the time of his death in 1546, people of all social classes sided with him and with his new creed.

Explanations for this abound.  Some point to the wide dissemination of Luther’s books and pamphlets thanks to the advent of the printing press, others ascribe Luther’s ascendance to the spiritual crisis that gripped Europe during the late Middle Ages or to the disgust engendered by the widespread corruption of the Church hierarchy.

Clearly, OCD or not, Luther managed to convince many other, rational, non-OCD individuals, to adopt his way of looking at the world, God, and human beings.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466 - 1536)

The key observation Sapolsky left out of his essay is this:  no novel theologies can succeed, including ones influenced by the OCD terrors of their authors, if they fail to be persuasive.  Luther and Lutheranism have persuaded, and continue to persuade a significant number of people.  Surely Sapolsky does not wish to impugn the intelligence of the political and religious leaders who took Luther and Lutheranism seriously.  The best minds of the era were conscripted by the Catholic Church to challenge Luther, including the highly esteemed Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus.  Most scholars agree that, for all of his learning, Erasmus had met his intellectual match; his arguments failed to erode Luther’s theological claims in any significant way.  Other, different arguments would be needed.

To dismiss Luther’s theology because Luther suffered from OCD is a deplorable tactic.  There are better, more helpful ways to evaluate Luther’s theology.

Sapolsky’s is a cautionary tale of how data, even when it matches our own opinions, may deserve a second look.  Unless, of course, our own most cherished opinions are too fragile to survive being called into question or too fragile to survive comparisons to other opinions.  If this is the case then they ought not to survive.

Resource:  Robert Sapolsky, “Circling the Blanket for God,” in The Trouble with Testosterone, 241-288 (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1997).

#49 Reporting to God for duty


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When it comes to religion, some of us want to have it both ways:  when deeply religious people do bad things, we are quick to say that their religious beliefs are to blame, but when deeply religious people do good things, we take little to no interest in their religious beliefs, as if those beliefs were irrelevant.

Example?  The recent belief.net blog-post, “God in Wisconsin:  Scott Walker’s Obedience” authored by the scholar of religion, Diana Butler Bass.

In her post, the politically-progressive Bass slams Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s brand of evangelical religion.  For her, the most disturbing part of his conservative Christianity is his no-wiggle-room obedience to God’s commands.  Bass points out that, for evangelicals like Walker, “Once you know God’s direction, no change is allowed.  Doubt opens the door to failure.  Obeying Christ’s plan is the only option.  In this theological universe, hard-headedness is a virtue, compromise is the work of the Devil, and anything that works to accomplish God’s plan is considered ethically justifiable.”

This, she notes, is the same sort of evangelical religion that shaped George W. Bush–and led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  She is of the opinion that President Bush’s obedience to God’s commands was the cause of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In spite of the ugh-producing situation of turning to someone like Walker or Bush to shed light on our own thinking, progressives, please take a deep breath (you may even need to swallow hard) and then ask yourselves this question:  is obedience really the problem here, or is the real problem the commands Walker or Bush claims to obey?  Because if Walker were obeying a different set of commands—say, God’s command that Wisconsin increase its minimum wage, would Bass (or you) object?  Or if Walker claimed to be obeying God’s command to work tirelessly on behalf of legislation to decrease the inequity between the richest and the poorest, would Bass (or you) object?

Most of us can name good people who have done good (defined here as progressive) things.  Yet, tsk tsk tsk, we rarely acknowledge their religious motives for doing that good.  Do we imagine that they were simply good people who would have done good things regardless of their religious beliefs?  Or is it simply that, because they did good things, their religious beliefs raise no red flags and so warrant no scrutiny?

But by overlooking the religious beliefs that motivate our heroes, are we ignoring some fundamental part of who they are?

Corrie ten Boom, raised in the Dutch Reform tradition, once said, “Don’t bother to give God instructions; just report for duty.”  For her, reporting for duty meant starting girls and boys’ clubs in her native Holland and eventually risking her life to hide Jewish refugees during WW II.  The risks were real; she was arrested but managed to survive Ravensbruck concentration camp.

And did you know that Florence Nightingale was a Christian universalist who believed that God wanted her to be a nurse?  In her journal, she wrote:  “God called me in the morning and asked me would I do good for him alone without reputation.”

Other religious do-gooders include Dorothy Day, John Newman, William Wilberforce, and Desmond Tutu.

Surely these report-to-God-for-duty folks would be troubled to learn that their religious commitment to serving others is being downplayed or ignored.  Surely they would be dismayed to discover that the force of their relationship with God is being excised from their biographies.

Though we may see ourselves as too autonomous or too agnostic to follow commands from God, we can learn something from the doggedness and zeal of those who report to God for duty.  Imagine for a moment that you believed, with as much conviction as a Scott Walker or a George W. Bush or a Corrie ten Boom or a Florence Nightingale that God commanded you to dedicate yourself to raising the average standard of living in the United States.  What if you could proclaim:  “Once I know God’s direction, no change is allowed.  Doubt opens the door to failure.  Obeying God’s plan is the only option.”

With a no-doubt, no-compromise, no-holds-barred, God-on-your-side-for-sure attitude, who knows what you might accomplish!  Would any effort seem too big, any policy-change impossible?

Maybe.  Maybe not.  Still, the point remains that disapprovers of the Walker and Bush brand of conservative religion can’t have it both ways when it comes to linking religious belief with good or bad actions.  Either religious conviction matters or it doesn’t.

If religion influences those with whom we disagree, then we have to allow that religion also influences those with whom we do agree.  To which Corrie ten Boom, Florence Nightingale, Dorothy Day, John Newman, William Wilberforce, Desmond Tutu, and many others would say amen.

#48 Better than milk: Got God




Long time no read!  Her Nakedness has been extra-busy these last few months with pre-dissertation requirements, writing academic papers, and attending conferences. Finally (finally!), full-time research and dissertation-writing are about to begin–with time set aside for blogging.  Look for a “real” post before week’s end.

But you don’t have to wait to read some new work. The Naked Theologian, aka Myriam Renaud, has a piece in the Spring 2011 issue of the UU World. To access it, click on this link: “Got God?” or cut and paste the following web address into your browser:  www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/175437.shtml

Want to support theological conversation in the UU World?  Here’s some ways you can let the editorial staff know that theology matters (even the fully-clothed kind) and that you’d like to see more of it in the World:

1.  Write a letter to the editor:  Christopher Walton, UU World, 25 Beacon Street, Boston MA 02108-2803

2.  Post a comment on facebook.com/uuworld

3.  Send an email to world@uua.org

Magazines look for internet chatter about what they’ve published so please mention the “Got God?” piece in your blogs (even if you don’t agree with my views) and include a link. The more chatter, the better.  So please, chatter away!

Be back.  Real soon.

#47 Men, please get as mad as hell!


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When women have gotten the right to vote or to divorce or to inherit property or to have legal protection from rape, it’s because men have agreed to change the law of the land.  A few forward-thinking women demanded those rights—some nicely, some not so nicely.  Allied to their cause was some of the menfolk, the forward-thinking men who were as mad as hell about women’s lack of rights and about how other men treated women.  Especially since the Enlightenment, these men, sometimes at great costs to themselves, have toiled to persuade other men to get mad too.

Forward-thinking men had to do the convincing since men who don’t already think highly of women aren’t likely to pay attention to what women have to say. They only listen to other men.

In the United States, men-to-men persuading rippled through the ranks of maledom until eventually enough men joined together to bend the arc of history.

For example, would American women have gotten the vote as early as 1920 if President Woodrow Wilson hadn’t publicly declared his support for the 19th amendment?  The Senate refused to vote on the amendment, so women went into overdrive to convince the all-male voters to elect pro-suffrage Representatives and Senators.  The men came through, and in 1919, the all-male House of Representatives and the all-male Senate ratified the amendment.

When it comes to religious teachings, however, righteous anger among men over the fate of womankind is harder to identify.  In Afghanistan, men granted women the vote in 1963.  No matter.  In 2009, the government of President Hamid Karzai passed the so-called marriage-rape law.  This law gives Afghan husbands the right to force their wives to have sex with them.  It also permits them to starve their wives if they refuse to have sex at least four times a week.  President Karzai pushed this law as a nod to the country’s Shiite minority and as a nod to hardline Shia clerics whose votes he needed to be re-elected.

When, oh when, will hardline Shia clerics get mad about the abuse of their mothers and of their sisters and of their daughters?  When will they speak out against it?  Because what’s clear is that until they speak out, the abuse will continue.

And really, what man could fail to get angry upon seeing the August 9,2010, Time Magazine’s cover with its photograph of Aisha, an eighteen-year old Afghani woman whose nose was sliced off by her Taliban husband?

Photograph by Jodi Bieber

In case you’ve been absent from the news cycle recently, here’s Aisha’s story in brief.  When she was twelve, her father decided to give her, along with her four-year old sister, to the man destined to become their husband.  This gift was intended to settle the blood feud started by Aisha’s uncle when he killed one of the future husband’s relatives.

According to the August 6, 2010, edition of the International Herald Tribune, Aisha and her sister were left in the care of their would-be husband’s family during the long periods when he went into hiding.  During his absences, Aisha and her sister were forced to live with the livestock and treated like slaves.  They were also beaten as punishment for their uncle’s crime.  When Aisha reached puberty, she was married to the Taliban fighter.  And when she was old enough to take care of herself, she ran away.

“Shamed” by her flight, her husband “lost his nose”—or so goes the Pashtun saying.  He tracked her down and dragged her back to his home province.  There, “on a lonely mountainside [he] cut off her nose and both ears.”  And there, he abandoned her.  How she made her way off the mountainside she still can’t remember.  Aisha, although angry about what happened to her, refuses to reveal her family name to protect her father from scrutiny and approbation.

American aid workers took Aisha to one of only nineteen women’s shelters (all run by private charities) in Afghanistan.  Although few in numbers, these shelters are already under threat.  After a TV station in Kabul complained that they were merely fronts for prostitution, President Karzai convened a commission to investigate these complaints.  If the charges stick, then the shelters will be shut down, leaving abused women with no place to go.  The man chosen by President Karzai to head this commission is a conservative mullah.  Although no official report has yet been released, the mullah has already spoken out in favor of the prostitution claim.  The mullah’s name is Nematullah Shahrani.  It has been shared with the press and so he, unlike Aisha’s father, is open to scrutiny and approbation.  And approbation he deserves.  As does President Karzai.

Now is a good time for a disclaimer.  This post is not a “cynical ploy” to “justify [the] occupation” of Afghanistan by American troops by “exploiting gender politics,”—a complaint launched at Time Magazine’s cover story of Aisha.  However, it is a ploy to get men who aren’t already angry—well, angry.  Why?  Because the more men get angry at the status quo the more likely they’ll attain the collective strength of will required to stop other men from abusing women.

Whether the violence done to Afghani women is justified based on religion, or culture, or both, makes little difference.  Let’s face it, attempts to tease apart religion from culture in these situations usually lead to stalemates.  But the fact remains that Aisha has no nose.  Her now ten-year old sister is still a slave in her husband’s household.  The shelter that rescued her may be shut down.  Married women raped by their husbands have no legal recourse.  Intra-family honor killings continue.  The stoning of women convicted of adultery continues.

One day, a few forward-thinking Afghani mullahs will finally get angry about the treatment of women—for example, they will get angry about the stoning of purported adulteresses.  Their anger will compel them to look for resources within the Islamic tradition to develop the kinds of authoritative, legal opinions that Afghani men take seriously.  This is the key.  Islamic cleric must speak out against violence.  To speak with authority, they must find support in Islamic sources.  And if they seek support in Islamic sources, they will find it.

Indeed, we need look no further than Iran—yes, Iran of all places—for how this might work.  Let’s look at the case of stoning.  Until the ratification of the Islamic Penal Code in 1983, stoning did not exist in Iran.  However, stoning became a legal punishment when the republic of Iran came under the rule of Muslim clerics.  Since many Muslim jurists shared the opinion that stoning could be considered Islamic, this sentence was included in the set of legal options ratified by the government.

Sharia Law is based on three authoritative texts:  the Qu’ran, the sayings attributed to Mohammed (the hadith), and Mohammed’s biography.  Stoning does not appear in any Shiite hadith, but it does appears in the Sunni hadith collected by Sahih Bukhari; according to this Sunni hadith, Mohammed ordered stoning more than 34 times as punishment.  However, the Qu’ran makes no mention of this form of punishment.

Women and men all over the world protested when Iran made stoning legal.  Faced with intense and persistent international criticism, the government of Iran, unlike that of President Karzai, reconsidered its stance on stoning.  Iran also faced intense domestic criticism (Afghanistan does not).  Thanks to both external and internal pressure, Iran eventually placed a moratorium on stoning.  A few judges ignored the moratorium and handed down stoning sentences during 2006-8.  But as of June 2009, Iran’s parliament has undertaken a review of the Islamic penal code, intent on eliminating stoning as a legal form of punishment.

Like Afghanistan, Iran is a nation where Muslim clerics have a great deal of influence on daily life.  Unlike Afghanistan, Iran looked for resources within Islam to justify removing stoning from the Islamic penal code.  Because it looked for those resources, it found them.

Because Iran is majority Shiite, it could disregard the Sunni hadith.  A country like Indonesia did not have that luxury—it is predominantly Sunni.  No matter.  Indonesia’s majority-male legislators made stoning illegal (except for Aceh province).  Some of its clerics looked for Islamic resources to ban stoning and found them.  By extension, if its clerics decide to look for Islamic resources to ban all violence against women, they will find them.

Afghanistan’s Muslim clerics could follow suit.  The war on Afghani women will not end until mullahs change their minds about violence against women.  The war on women will not end until Afghani men get angry and demand the mullahs change.  The war on women will not end until more men around the world get angry and demand that Afghani men and mullahs change.

And why focus all of the attention on Afghanistan.  Women all over the world continue to be subject to violence.  So men of the world, won’t you please get mad as hell!

Reference:  Rod Nordland, International Herald Tribune, 6 August 2010, p. 5.


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