#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!

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#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.

Oops.

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.
 
Refrain:
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.

Sigh.

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

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Friends,

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.

#46 Hikers on Pilgrim Routes: A Cautionary Tale

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No longer content to hike the Appalachian trail or climb Denali, devout secularists have turned their sights on pilgrim routes.  One such route is the Way of St. James which wends through rugged French terrain, up and over the Pyrenees, and across the desolate plains of Northern Spain until it reaches the city of Santiago, just short of the Atlantic coast that ancients believed to be the edge of the world.  The Way now attracts a great deal of attention not just from pilgrims but from such challenge-seekers.  Anxious to share the good news of this difficult, but achievable journey, some return home and write guides to assist their fellow non-pilgrims.  So what?  So this:  some of these writers, anxious to underscore their secular motivations, betray in their travelogues their distaste for religious piety.

Such is the viewpoint of Conrad Rudolph, Professor of Medieval Art at the University of California Riverside.  In Pilgrimage to the End of the World, his book about hiking the Way of St. James, he repeatedly reminds the reader that he is most definitely “not a believer in miracles or the otherworldly.”  The book’s very title serves as Rudolph’s first disclaimer.  A bona fide pilgrim undertakes the journey to reach the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela because its Cathedral is reputed to house the remains of Jesus’ disciple, Saint James the Greater.  Rudolph, seemingly worried that he’ll be mistaken for a religious pilgrim, signals, in his title, that the real goal of his pilgrimage was not the purported relics of St. James but the Atlantic Ocean, the “End of the World,” which is three days further on foot.  No wonder then, that when Rudolph reaches Santiago, traditionally the “emotional high point” of the journey, he describes his arrival as “fun but not emotional.”

And so we have the novel phenomenon of pilgrimages undertaken by secularists, so embarrassed by the religious trappings of their journeys that they feel compelled to trumpet their lack of faith.

Rudolph defends his decision to hike The Way by explaining that he is merely following the ancient tradition of the “curious” onlooker.  According to him, even in Medieval times, “many were highly curious about the world around them.”  Apparently, this condition was so widespread that it was common for condemnations to be issued against those who made pilgrimages merely for reasons of “curiosity.”

Okay, point taken.  Except that Rudolph’s curiosity never extends to wondering what it might be (or have been) like for pilgrims to undertake the journey to Santiago out of faith.  Indeed, most pilgrims, are not “inveterate hikers” like Rudolph and so they, like their Medieval forebears, likely endure greater suffering as they negotiate rough terrain with heavy backpacks.  What motivates them to keep going day after day?  How does their faith sustain them when they are ailing, hurting and still weeks from reaching their goal?  If Rudolph asked these questions of pilgrims he met along the way, he does not share the answers in his book.

The Way of St. James was especially popular during the Middle Ages.  It attracted many pilgrims from France but pilgrims also set out from Germany, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, the eastern Austrian domains, and Slovakia.  Before they could officially begin their treks, they first had to reach the town of Le Puy in France’s Massif Central.  Then, braving bandits, persistent hunger, unpredictable weather, and ankle-busting paths, they set off to walk the thousand miles to Santiago.  There’s every reason to suspect that the roundtrip journey would have lasted six months since Medieval pilgrims covered, on average, about 15 miles a day.  While they belonged to all social classes, most pilgrims were penniless agrarians, serfs who set out for Santiago after becoming too broken down to provide useful labor to their masters or freeholders who “were better off in theory only.”  Although poverty-stricken and often in ill health, tens of thousands set off on pilgrimage every year.

Why did these Medieval serfs and freeholders choose to undertake this journey?  According to William Melczer, a Medieval scholar, they had many reasons.  Pious love for St. James was the most common.  Some went simply to pray.  Others wanted forgiveness for a laundry-list of minor transgressions.  Many used the journey as penance to atone for particularly soul-searing sins.  Still others made their way to plead for better health and relief from pain.  Their spirits were open to God and they had faith.  How often they must have prayed, especially when they looked at the path ahead, knowing full well that having overcome one challenge, they would reach another.  They rarely had enough food, often they had only pathetic shelter.  Somehow, though, every morning, they found fresh courage and set off anew in spite of the hardships they had already endured and in spite of the hardships that awaited them.

Interestingly, theologians have discouraged pilgrimages.  Church Doctors like Augustine railed against them.  In his opinion they were “pointless” because the holy cannot “be localized in any given place.”  And since the holy is everywhere, it follows that the holy is not found in extra measure in places where sacred relics are housed.  No matter.  For hundreds of years, pilgrims have ignored these theological directives.  They know that when life follows its regular rhythms, the holy, though everywhere present, is easy to ignore.  So they walk to be with God.  During a thousand miles of contemplation, the holy is close—as close as one’s breath.

Why did Rudolph undertake this journey?  He’s quite unclear on that score, fuzzy even.  He writes about wandering through the early dawn light along a mountain ridge in northwestern Spain where the wind rustled the grass, the sun sparkled, and sheep bells sounded faintly from far off vales.  His language is evocative and lovely, his prose pleasant.  From time to time, he invokes the language of magic, saying “it was almost as if a spell had been cast.”  Perhaps afraid of venturing into intellectually indefensible territory, he changes his mind and rejects magic, writing that, after all, “experiences like these can happen anywhere.”  And then, he recants, explaining that, unlike walking Appalachian trail or hiking Denali, there is a special pay-off to pilgrimages because these experiences “don’t often happen with either the regularity or the strength that they did on the pilgrimage, where every day is an adventure…”  Hmmm, not sure most hikers would agree.

In the end, Rudolph shifts gears again.  It is not the “almost-magic” quality of his experiences, he decides, but the people he meets who made the journey a special event.  The people are, he recalls, “almost consistently as interested in what you’re doing as you are yourself.”

Oh oh.   Wait a minute here.  There’s just a little problem.

People were consistently interested in what Rudolph was doing because they assumed that he was travelling to Santiago out of deeply-felt, religious convictions.  Although a hiker, he decided to wear a clamshell tied to a cord around his neck.  The clamshell is the symbol of St. James.  By wearing it, Rudolph styled himself as a pilgrim.  It placed him, he admits, in a “special group…worthy of immediate public informality, warmth, and help, no questions asked.”  He recounts how, in a small mountain village, two old women “bless” him when they learn he is a pilgrim.  Even more notable, he says, are those who ask him “to pray for them; one horribly desperate man clearly needing it, or something, very badly.”

For unfathomable reasons, Rudolph accepts those prayer requests.  Sort of.  After he arrives in Santiago and enters St. James Cathedral, he explains (with a clear conscience) that, “no,” he didn’t pray for the “horribly desperate man.”  Nor did he pray “for any of the others who had asked [him] along the way to pray for them.”  It is enough, he decides, to “think about them” as he stands in the transept.  How lame is that?  Would the “horribly desperate man” agree with him or would he hope that even a hiker like Rudolph would, upon reaching the Cathedral at the end of the road, drop his pride, bend his knees, and pray?

These, then, are some of the quandaries you will face if you are a devoutly-secular hiker interested in hiking the Way of St. James or some other pilgrimage route.  Why choose this option instead of a hike through one of America’s or Europe’s fine national parks?  Will you wear the pilgrim’s badge?  Will you accept the kindness of strangers even when you realize they offer it because they mistake you for a pilgrim?  Will you accept prayer requests?  Will you honor those requests?  How?

Whatever you decide, you will be just as welcome on the pilgrim routes as you would have been in Medieval times.  To close, here are some verses from “La Pretiosa,” a 12th Century hymn about a hospice for pilgrims on the road to Santiago.  Other stanzas describe how monks would wash the feet, cut the hair, and trim the beards of male pilgrims—services you are, sad to say, unlikely to find today.

Its doors open to the sick and well,

to Catholics as well as to pagans,

Jews, heretics, beggars, and the indigent,

and it embraces all like brothers.

Resources:  David Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago:  The Complete Cultural Handbook (New York:  St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000); William Melczer, The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela (New York:  Italica Press, 1993); Conrad Rudolph, The Pilgrimage to the End of the World:  The Road to Santiago de Compostela (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 2004).

#45 Take to the sea for four days of Lent

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Courage!  Howard Westwood’s 1939 Lenten Manual uses outdated, high-flown language, is written in the mode of all-men-all-of-the-time, and mentions several, mostly-forgotten dead people.  Still, his exercises and meditations are worth a look.

Besides, Lent isn’t supposed to be easy.  So, as Westwood might say, abandon your safe haven and sail into the high seas of engaged reflection.

Here are a few more days from his Manual, in grey, one of the colors of the season.

DAY 6 (1st Tuesday):  “We Avow Our Faith”

“Here I stand, so help me God, I can do no other.” These words of Luther remind us of a statement by Prof. Kirsopp Lake: “Faith is not belief in spite of evidence, but life in scorn of consequence — a courageous trust in the great purpose of all things and pressing forward to finish the work which is in sign, whatever the price may be.” So do we avow our faith, without hesitation, equivocation or apology. For the moment we leave argument and discussion behind.  We are engaged in an enterprise that we will defend at all hazards and promote without compromise. We do not ask for a secure haven for we propose to sail the high seas. We do not ask for guaranteed certainty for we possess what is more important, the inward certitude of consecrated purpose.

Exercise: Dwell upon the assertion, “We become what we affirm.” Some psychologists condemn wishful thinking, therefore comment on, “The right kind of wishful thinking leads to creative power.”

Meditation: Spirit of Life, give us the courage to match our purpose, the will to endure and the trust which falters not. Above all, strengthen daily within us faith equal to our high resolve.

[The 2nd week’s theme.]
IMPLICATIONS OF THE AVOWAL

DAY 7 (2nd Wednesday):  “In God”

In his essay “Is Life Worth Living?” William James utters words of profound insight in declaring “God himself may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity.” He also quotes William Salter, the late leader of the Philadelphia Ethical Society: “As the essence of courage is to stake one’s life as a possibility, so the essence of faith is to believe that the possibility exists.” In avowing our faith in God, we are staking our life on the possibility that the world is not a meaningless void, but that the highest within us reflects and reveals the Life and Intelligence through which all things exist.”

Exercise: Dwell on St. Paul’s statement, “We are co-laborers with God.” What do you think about the quotation from Wm. James?

Meditation: O Soul of All in the heart of each, help me to trust my deepest intuitions as expression of thy purpose, and in loyal devotion teach me to fulfill them in the experience of life.

DAY 8 (2nd Thursday):  “In Eternal Love”

How keen in their insight these words of the Bard of Avon:

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove.

How beautiful in its constancy the frequent devotion of husband and wife, of parent and child! Yet human love is sometimes inconstant, for often it is influenced by changing circumstance and the passing of the years. The prophet causes the Eternal to say, “I have loved thee with an everlasting love.” Reflect on the eternal constancy of Nature in the rhythms of day
and night, the seasons, seed-time and harvest, etc. Note the great certainties in the invariableness of Nature’s laws. The manifestations of Nature are infinite, but Nature herself is unchanging. The laws of Love are likewise unchanging.

Exercise: The thought in the lesson is a challenge to our own constancy. This phase of the avowal is a pledge to overcome fickleness of mood and temper. Let us examine ourselves in this.

Meditation: O Spirit of Love, how often have we betrayed thee! By they divine constancy, control our changing moods and the waywardness of our affections. Keep the compass of our spirits ever true.

DAY 9 (2nd Friday):  In All-Conquering Love

It is the nature of Love never to know defeat.  Among the most revealing parables of the Great Teacher is that of the Lost Sheep, in which the shepherd seeks for the wanderer from the fold “until he finds it.” In his majestic poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” Francis Thompson likens the Divine Spirit to a relentless seeker forever on the trail of the soul of man. Likewise, the unknown author of the 139th Psalm, when he exclaims, “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?”

In his hour of trial George Matheson cried, “O Love, that wilt not let me go!” There is a persistent quality in Love which never surrenders.

Exercise: Read Thompson’s poem referred to in the less. Take the time, even if you have to visit a library to obtain the poem. Treat the thought personally, “Love is destined to have its way with me.”

Meditation: O Love forever seeking us, teach experiences of our lives, thou art indeed the highest expression of the Universal Life. Teach me the secret of thine enduring patience, for in this is the assurance that thou shalt prevail, even with me.

#44 Her Nakedness passes her Ph.D. comps!

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Phew.  Comps are over!  Now onward to the dissertation proposal.  A Ph.D. student’s work is never done–or so it seems.

The season of Lent has begun.  Whether or not you spent last Wednesday with a sooty cross on your forehead, you may be wondering how to participate in this season.  Horace Westwood’s 1939 Lenten Manual could be just the ticket.  While serving as a Unitarian minister, the Reverend Westwood wrote a Manual making it a straightforward affair to participate in Lent through the practice of a daily, guided meditation.  It’s a wonderful resource–because, after all, who wants to reinvent the wheel for every religious holiday. Should you decide to create your own manual, however, please share!

Westwood’s Manual is based on his faith in God as Eternal and All-Conquering Love. The Manual is broken down by weekly themes and daily meditations except for Sundays since Westwood assumed Lentenites would be in Church (where else could you possibly want to be?).

Now, for the promised manual.   The foreword explains how Westwood intended it to be used.  Also included are Saturday’s meditation to situate and prepare you for today’s meditation, the first Monday of Lent.

FOREWORD

The Great Avowal: “We avow our faith in God as Eternal and All-Conquering Love.” (The Worcester Statement)

This Lenten booklet is based on the plan of a brief daily lesson, followed by an exercise and a meditation. The purpose of the lesson, however, is not to instruct but to stimulate thought on the part of the reader. It makes little difference whether or not there is agreement with the writer. The important thing is that those who follow the lessons should do their own thinking and form their own conclusions. In other words, this is a work booklet.

It is not intended to encourage sentimental piety, than which there is no greater enemy to religion. The times [1939] demand a certain ruggedness of temper and incisiveness of mind.  The period through which the world is passing calls for spiritual hardihood, fortitude and strength. While our central theme is “Eternal and All-Conquering Love,” and while we may not overlook that Love has its tender side, the reader is reminded that Love can be most searching in its demands and stern in its requirements.

A few practical suggestions for the best use of the booklet:

(1) Set aside a definite period each day during Lent, at least ten minutes, better still, fifteen
or twenty.

(2) Try to relax and quiet the mind before reading the lesson.

(3) Read the lesson slowly and thoughtfully.
Sometimes its thought may seem obscure and sometimes you may profoundly disagree. Well, this is a sign that you are using your mind, which is the important thing.

(4) Use the exercises faithfully

(5) Keep a notebook and record your reactions.

(6) Use the meditation as a sincere expression of your own purpose.

(7) Remember that in using these lessons day by day you are sharing an experience with hundreds of others who are doing the same thing. Seek, then, to become aware of the fellowship you share. It will be to you a source of encouragement and power. Also, you will be a source of inspiration to others.

[The 1st week’s theme.]
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE AVOWAL

DAY 4 (1st Saturday):  A Way of Behavior

The importance of the Great Avowal [“We avow our faith in God as Eternal and All-Conquering Love”] lies in that it is more than an argument. It means that you and I pledge ourselves to a particular way of life. It means that we “highly resolve” to behave as though Love were the Supreme Reality behind the centuries of history and the events of the passing show. It means, despite the terrible record of the past few years, despite dictatorships, concentration camps, persecutions and the exploitation of human life on behalf of the “will to power,” and despite the hatred of class struggle, war and revolution, we proclaim that Love will endure and will prevail.

Exercise: Why do we say “to behave” rather than “to live”? Comment on, “A reasonable argument without the committal of self to the conclusion is of no avail.”

Meditation:
Creation’s Lord, we give thee thanks
That this thy world is incomplete;
That battle calls our marshaled ranks
That work awaits our hands and feet;

That thou hast not yet finished man,
That we are in the making still, –
As friends who share the Maker’s plan,
As sons who know the Father’s will.

Since what we choose is what we are,
And what we love we yet shall be,
The goal may ever shine afar, –
The will to win it makes us free.
(William De Witt Hyde)

DAY 5 (1st Monday):  The Importance of Demonstration

How few of us realize that there is a sense in which we make the truth! When Clara Barton undertook her great work during the Civil War she began to make the truth of the Red Cross movement. When Jesus cried, “Father, forgive them: for they know not what they do,” he added to the truth of the power of magnanimity and the redeeming strength of the forgiving heart. In later lessons we shall discover that the avowal of “God as Eternal and All-Conquering Love” is grounded in reason. But because we avow it, we make it the truth by which we conduct the affairs of life. We enter upon the most thrilling and daring of adventures. Cowardly spirits will shrink from the enterprise. What more important task could we undertake than to demonstrate the Supremacy of Love?

Exercise: We must beware of sentimentalism in our thought of love. Contemplate the sentence, “Love can be hard.” Review previous lessons.

Meditation: O Love revealing to us the heart of God and the depths of the soul of Man, give us the wisdom to perceive thee at work behind the events of the hour. We would adventure with thee into the dark places of life and reveal thy power in thought, word, and deed.