Monday, October 5, 2015

For the Living of These Days

October 5, 1930, was a big day for Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City. It was the first worship service in Riverside’s new church building, one of the most magnificent structures in the United States. 
Although I have attended a Sunday service at Riverside only once, and that was probably around 30 years ago, I still remember being greatly impressed by the size and beauty of the building—as well as by the service itself.

(Sometime I’d like to tell you the story of how I rented a bicycle and peddled through Central Park and then through Harlem on my way to Riverside, near the bank of the beautiful Hudson River.)

Pastor Fosdick wrote a hymn for that dedication service, which was 85 years ago today. Here is the second verse of that hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” which I assume many of you have sung:

Lo! the hosts of evil round us
scorn the Christ, assail his ways!
From the fears that long have bound us
free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.

Fosdick, who was born on May 24, 1878, was one of the most influential pastors of the first half of the 1900s. Martin Luther King, Jr., characterized him as “the greatest preacher of the twentieth century.”

In 1922 Fosdick preached a sermon for which he is still widely known: “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” He was one of the first vocal opponents of Christian fundamentalism—and was a primary target of the fundamentalists.

But Fosdick was also an opponent of liberalism, back when it was called “modernism.” In 1935 one of the most significant sermons he preached at Riverside Church was “The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism.”

While rejecting both fundamentalism and extreme liberalism, Fosdick was an advocate of the Social Gospel. Two years before the dedication of the new church building, Fosdick declared that a church

 "that pretends to care for the souls of people but is not interested in the slums that damn them, the city government that corrupts them, the economic order that cripples them, and international relationships that, leading to peace or war, determine the spiritual destiny of innumerable souls’’ would receive divine condemnation (“Hope of the World, p. 25).

Fosdick died on October 5, 1969, on the 39th anniversary of that notable first Sunday at Riverside Church, where he served as pastor until 1946.

One of Fosdick’s successors was William Sloane Coffin, who was the Senior Minister at Riverside from 1977 to 1987. (See my blog article about him here.) On Oct. 5, 1980, Coffin preached at the 50th anniversary of Riverside Church. Near the end of that sermon he declared,

“Dearly beloved parishioners, we have no choice, we must work for the redistribution of wealth. We must abridge our luxuries for the sake of others’ necessities, in this city, in this land, and in the world” (“The Collected Sermons of William Sloan Coffin: The Riverside Years,” 2008, I:358).

Wealth had long been an issue at Riverside, for the new edifice, whose construction began in 1927, was largely funded by business magnate John D. Rockefeller. The dedication of that magnificent building, though, was almost a year following the beginning of the Great Depression.

So the powerful words of prayer in Fosdick’s hymn had great meaning in 1930: “Give us courage, give us wisdom, for the living of these days.”

That’s still a good prayer for us today.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Is Sister Joan (and All Others Who Believe in God) Delusional?

Why are people who show most evidence of firmly believing in and being committed to God not taken more seriously by atheists?

There are many noted people who made significant life changes because of what they resolutely believed was direct experience of God. 


Within the Christian tradition, a hastily made “top 10” list would include people such as:
· ** Hildegard of Bingen (from 1141)
· ** Francis of Assisi (from 1205)
· ** Julian of Norwich (from 1373)
· ** Ignatius of Loyola (from 1521)
· ** Teresa of Avila (from 1527)
· ** George Fox (from 1643)
· ** Blaise Pascal (from 1654)
· ** John Wesley (from 1738)
· ** C. S. Lewis (from 1929)
· ** Thomas Merton (from 1941)
  --and many others lesser known, but perhaps no less changed.

But people such as these are dismissed as superstitious, irrational, or even delusional by those who are ardent atheists—such as Jerry A. Coyne.

Coyne (b. 1949) is a professor of biology at the University of Chicago. His book Why Evolution Is True was on the “Best Sellers” list of the New York Times in 2009. In May of this year his new book, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, was published.

Back in 2006 Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion was a bestselling book. In it the British biologist argued that belief in a personal God qualifies as a delusion, which he defines as a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence.

Dawkins highly recommends Coyne’s book (found here):

The distinguished geneticist Jerry Coyne trains his formidable intellectual firepower on religious faith, and it’s hard to see how any reasonable person can resist the conclusions of his superbly argued book. Though religion will live on in the minds of the unlettered, in educated circles faith is entering its death throes.
But has Coyne been adequately “scientific” in his research? He considers many religious fundamentalists and examples from splinter religious groups, such as Jehovah Witnesses and Scientology. But he doesn’t consider people of deep faith based on direct experience of God, such as the people in the list above—or such as Joan Chittister.

This month I have been reading some of Chittister’s writings, especially her superlative Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir (2004). Sister Joan (yes, she is a Catholic nun, born in 1936), has struggled through life questioning dogmatism and institutional religion (Catholicism).

But without question she is a woman of unflagging faith in God. A biography of Sr. Joan, by Tom Roberts, will be published tomorrow, October 1. Its title: Joan Chittister: Her Journey From Certainty to Faith. 

And Sister Joan certainly has been, and is, a part of “educated circles.” She has a Ph.D. (from Penn State University), is the author of over 50 books, and has been a research associate at Cambridge University.

Coyne doesn’t consider people like her to be worthy dialogue partners, though. He declares that “anything useful will come from a monologue—one in which science does all the talking and religion the listening” (p. 260).

And while he doesn’t say so explicitly, Coyne, like Dawkins, seems to think that Sr. Joan, and all others of us who believe in God, are delusional because of our faith in God, which cannot be adequately authenticated by scientific evidence.

But why does Coyne, or any other militant atheist, have the right to make a judgment about the psychological condition of Sister Joan—or of anyone who claims to have personal and meaningful experience of God?

Why should she have the richness of her experience denigrated by paucity of his experience?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Who Are "the Crazies"?

He probably wished later he had used a different word, but last month the President made reference to “the crazies.”
According to Associated Press,

At a Democratic fundraiser Monday night [Aug. 24] in Nevada, Obama declared himself ready for the challenges he faces this fall in dealing with a Republican Congress that disagrees with him on the budget, energy policy, education and much more.
Obama said that as he’d ridden to the fundraiser with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, they’d done some reminiscing and spent some time “figuring out how we are going to deal with the crazies in terms of managing some problems.”
He didn’t identify exactly who the two of them had defined as “crazies.” 
Although he was by no means the only one to do so, Missouri 6th District Representative Sam Graves took it personal, for he thought the President was referring to those who opposed the Iran nuclear deal.  
In his September 14 email to his constituents (of which I am one), Rep. Graves wrote, “A few weeks ago, President Obama said that those of us who oppose his Iran deal are ‘crazies.’ What’s actually crazy is that our President trusts Iran with a nuclear weapon.”
Well, the opponents of Iran deal may or may not have been who the President had in mind, but that is not what he said. But it is clear, and disturbing, what Rep. Graves said.
According to the website,
After many months of principled diplomacy, the P5+1 — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany — along with the European Union, have achieved a long-term comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran that will verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful going forward.
So, on what basis does Rep. Graves, and his many Republican cohorts in Congress, say that the President trusts Iran with a nuclear weapon?
And why would we think that a farm boy from northwest Missouri (as I am also) knows more about this deal than the President, the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the Chancellor of Germany, and the presidents of China, France, and Russia?
In addition, the Iran nuclear deal has been praised by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as well as 29 of “the world’s most knowledgeable experts in the fields of nuclear weapons and arms control” (according to the New York Times).
Of course, maybe “the crazies” the President had in mind are those, such as Sen. Ted Cruz, who (again) are threatening to shut the government down next month—this time because of opposition to Planned Parenthood.
Cruz and most of the Republican presidential contenders, especially Carly Fiorina, are so opposed to Planned Parenthood because of their opposition to abortion.
But according to Planned Parenthood’s 2013-14 financial report, more than 95% of their expenditures went for STD/STI testing and treatment, contraception, cancer screening and prevention, and other health services.
Three per cent of their expenditures went for abortion services, but none of the funding for that came from the federal government. 
Planned Parenthood's 2013-14 Financial Report
So maybe those who want to shut down the government over this issue can be thought of as “the crazies.”
Or, perhaps the President was thinking of those who still, after all these years, think that he is a Muslim and not born in America. According to a recent poll, 29% of the U.S. population—including 43% of Republicans and 54% of Trump supporters—believe Obama is a Muslim.

There is, sadly, no shortage of “the crazies.” 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Listening to the Pope

Most of us Protestants, perhaps, have not paid a lot of attention to what the Pope has said and done through the years. But things have changed somewhat since Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected Pope in February 2013.

Choosing Francis as his papal name in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis has often been a topic of conversation, even for those who are not Christians as well as for Protestants.

The Pope is especially much in the news now because of his visit to Cuba, which began yesterday, and to the United States, which is scheduled to begin on Tuesday, the 22nd.

President Obama is scheduled to welcome the Pope in a ceremony at the White House at 9:15 on Wednesday morning. That will be followed by a parade along 15th Street, Constitution Avenue and 17th Street, NW.

People wishing to see the pontiff were invited to line the streets around the Ellipse and the National Mall as he rides by in the Popemobile.

That parade, scheduled to begin around 11:00 a.m., is free and open to the public on a first-come first-serve basis. However, spectators have to pass through security, with gates opening for the Ellipse and the National Mall at 4:00 a.m. and closing at 10:00 a.m.

It seems remarkable to me that people would begin lining up at 4 a.m. for a parade that wasn’t scheduled to start until seven hours later.

On Thursday morning the Pope is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress, which will be broadcast live. Three previous popes have come to the U.S., the first being Paul VI in 1965. This will be the first time, though, for a Pope to address Congress.

It will be interesting to hear what Pope Francis has to say there—and to how the members of Congress will respond. If he talks about matters related to anti-abortion and/or homosexuality issues, that would put him at odds with many Democrats.

On the other hand, if he talks about global warming, income equality and the problems of capitalism, and the immigration issue, which is more likely, he will spur strong disagreement from many Republicans.

At the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis was very highly regarded around the world. Even by February 2014, Gallup found that 76% of the people in the U.S. still had a favorable opinion of him.

By July of this year, though, that rating had fallen to 59%—and among conservatives there was only 45% approval. By comparison, in April 2008 Pope Benedict XVI had an approval rating of 63%, and for his 27 years as Pope, popular John Paul II had an average approval rating of 72%.

Francis’ popularity decline is partially due to what he has said about climate change, economics, and immigration.

It used to be that there was considerable opposition/criticism of the Pope, especially by Protestants, because of his religious beliefs. And certainly there are many things Pope Francis believes/teaches about Christianity that I don’t agree with.

Now most opposition to or criticism of the Pope is because of his stance on social and economic issues. And I agree with him on most of those matters—mainly because I think they are in keeping with the teachings of Jesus.
Pope Francis has said, “Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that creates huge inequalities.” And he has repeatedly called for solidarity with the poor. 

Congresspeople, and all of us, need to listen well to what the Pope says.