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Monotheism as a Moral Issue, Part Three: Loyalty and the Limits of Equality

Mar29

by: George P. Fletcher on March 29th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Genesis 1:26.

AND GOD SAID, LET US MAKE ADAM IN OUR IMAGE, AFTER OUR LIKENESS

Part III: Loyalty and the Limits of Equality.

The principle of equality has become the template of philosophical debate since the early 1970′s. The debate has largely taken place at Harvard, but with an intriguing Zionist influence. It began with John Rawls’ paradigm-shattering book, A Theory of Justice (1971). Almost two centuries after the writing of Immanuel Kant, the same humanistic theory burst on the scene but with an economic twist, namely the non-ethical concept of incentive or self-interested action. As is often the case, the fusion of independent physical or mental elements can produce a sudden spurt of energy – in this case, of Kantian moral thought merged with an economic version of self-interest.

Rawls’ book changed the face of American moral and legal thinking. Yet it undoubtedly has its roots in Genesis 1:26, the creation of Adam in God’s image, and the evolution of that idea in the work of Immanuel Kant. Rawls assumes that the principles of justice* binding on all humanity* should be based on the choice rational* people would make behind a veil of ignorance. All three asterisk indicate problematic terms – justice, humanity, and rational choice.

First, the concept of justice represents a middle point between Kant’s theory of morality (1785) and his theory of law or Right (1797). The theory of morality is based on the ability of a human being to prescribe a universal law for himself and for humanity, as I have discussed in earlier posts. This law is generally called the categorical imperative or the principle of treating human beings as ends in themselves, and never as a means to an end.

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Monotheism as a Moral Issue, Part Two: God’s Image and Equality

Mar8

by: George P. Fletcher on March 8th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Julius Schnorr.

Note: This is part two of a four part series by George P. Fletcher.

Genesis 1:26

AND GOD SAID, LET US MAKE ADAM IN OUR IMAGE, AFTER OUR LIKENESS

Part II. God’s Image and Equality

This text has an unappreciated relationship to our commitment to human equality. In my class on Biblical Jurisprudence I usually begin by asking the students whether they agree that human equality is a premise of modern jurisprudence and if so, how they justify our commitment, A subsidiary question is whether if the law is so committed, can override the principle with an argument for affirmative action or some other social good.

Virtually all of the students begin with utilitarian arguments. The principle of equality allegedly maintains peace among different segments of society. This is a dubious claim. Wage inequality, which results from and sustains hierarchy, has reached disturbing proportions in the United States. No one seems disturbed by our continuing to prevent released felons from voting in many states (a factor, by the way, that enabled George W. Bush to win the 2000 election in Florida and the nation).

The only argument I have ever found to support our intuitive commitment to equality is the biblical premise. Abraham Lincoln revealed his commitment to the Bible when he interpreted the Declaration of Independence in the Gettysburg Address. There is no moral claim in any other legal system as powerful as: All Men are Created Equal. Of course, we understand this now to mean all persons (with many disputes about when personhood begins and ends). No other legal system even comes close to using this religious language. The typical European legal provision reads: All persons are equal before the law. As we know from the history of slavery, the law can not be distrusted as the ultimate arbiter of our values.

Anchoring human value in God’s image generates an argument for Lincoln’s commitment to equality. If God is the infinite value, and we are created in God’s image, then we must be equal. And you might say: well how does equality fare for atheists? Immanuel Kant secularized the argument in his Foundations of Morality by distinguishing human beings and things. Things have value, human beings are ‘beyond price’. Kant generated this argument by building on the insight that human beings have the capacity to universalize the premises of their actions into universal laws of nature.

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Monotheism as a Moral Issue

Feb24

by: George P. Fletcher on February 24th, 2016 | Comments Off

Source: r the Providence Lithograph Company

Part I. Domination Over Nature

And God said, let us make Adam in our image, after our likeness and they shall dominate the fish of the sea, and the fowl of the air, and the cattle and every moving thing on the Earth. – Genesis 1:26

In this installment, the first of four, I will concentrate on the moral imperative of monotheism; in the next, on the implication of this passage for the principle of equality; in the third, on the moral limitations on equality that inhere in the principle of loyalty; and finally, in the fourth, on the implications of God’s Image for the concept of reason, an innate human characteristic.

Monotheism is taken for granted in the Abrahamic faiths and indeed in many other religions, even though the commitment to a single God is inconsistent with the use of the plural to refer to God, not only in the beginning but in the second clause this passage. We do not receive a singular reference to God until the tetragrammaton (Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh) is introduced in Genesis 2.

True, we are not bound by the text as some American constitutional lawyers think they are committed to the words written down on parchment one hot summer in Philadelphia. It would seem inevitable that not only the language changes over time but the moral grid that we bring to interpretation changes as well. Therefore, it is entirely plausible to read this text through the grid of accepted monotheism.

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A Second Scientific Revolution Reveals the Mortality of the Modern World

Feb5

by: David W. Noble on February 5th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

In this essay I explain how I moved from a critique of a metaphor of two worlds, America and Europe, to a critique of a metaphor of two worlds, modern and traditional. I also now see America and the modern as symbolic representations of a limitless frontier. I see Europe and the traditional as symbolic representations of a limited home. Once I saw Europeans leaving home to come to an American frontier; now I see modern people leaving traditional homes to come to a universal frontier/marketplace. And I see this powerful modern prophecy of an exodus from a limited old world to a limitless new world as the major cause of our dangerous environmental crisis. We do not nurture our earthly home because we believe we are going to a frontier of unlimited resources.

During the summer of 1944 I became self-conscious of the fact that irony is a significant aspect of human experience. I had graduated from high school into the army in June 1943. Throughout my childhood and youth I was told that my German grandparents had left a European old world of economic scarcity and war and came to an American new world of plenty and peace. But now in an army hospital I began to question this metaphor of two worlds and the concept of a redemptive exodus to a new world. Before being injured in an accidental explosion I had experienced severe poverty from 1940, when our farm was foreclosed, to 1943, when I entered the army. Our home for my father, mother, and me during those years was a small barn that had electricity and running water. We could not afford morphine to ease my father’s pain as he was dying from stomach cancer.

My sense of irony was compounded, therefore, by my financial ability as a disabled veteran to enroll at Princeton University in 1945. Working with my older brother in the 1930s to deliver milk in Princeton, I had learned that Princeton University was a school for the sons of rich men. I was not grateful, however, that I could now sit in classes with young men who came from wealthy backgrounds. But I was grateful that I could begin to prepare for a career in teaching. I wanted to inform my fellow citizens that the metaphor of two worlds and an exodus narrative were not true. They were not an accurate description of human experience.


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Nonviolent Communication, Christianity, and Notions of Right and Wrong

Dec4

by: on December 4th, 2015 | 4 Comments »

Recently, I received a question from a student about the compatibility of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) with Christianity given that the NVC worldview speaks of a world beyond right and wrong, and this person’s understanding of Christianity is rooted in those very notions.

Although I have often received and addressed similar questions, this time, because the focus was so squarely on Christianity, and I am neither Christian nor a theist, I chose to engage with others: fellow NVC trainers and friends. Thirty something emails on the topic later, this quest culminated in a conversation with my friend Nichola Torbett, Founder of Seminary of the Street, with whom I often have deep discussions about theology. With all this help, I am now both ready to respond to the question I was asked, and ready to share here some specific discoveries Nichola and I made today, informed, also, by what I learned from others.

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Why Did the Pope Choose Francis as His Name?

Oct15

by: Stephen S. Bowman on October 15th, 2015 | Comments Off

Watching Pope Francis cast his spell over America last week I found myself recalling the words of Shakespeare’s Juliet asking “What is in a name?”, or more precisely, why did Pope choose Francis to be his new name upon his ascendancy?  The common answer is that he was told by a friend to remember the poor, but that seems too superficial.   And perhaps equally curious, why have no other pontiffs in the past 800 years taken the name before?  It seems that Francis of Assisi, though the most beloved of all Catholic saints, was seen as just too revolutionary in the past, but that zeal is precisely why this pope chose the name, and it is in that spirit that he is leading us today.

To understand our Pope’s mission, one must review the often overlooked facts of the life of St. Francis, which are often obscured by hagiography and superstition.   Today he is often only remembered for taming wild beasts with a blessing and preaching to larks and sparrows.  But this narrow view does both the saint and ourselves a great disservice and diminishes his radical vision.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

To understand St. Francis, we must put him in his proper context of the 12th century.  In the Middle Ages, Europe was a highly structured feudal hierarchy, largely illiterate, and struggling in subsistence poverty.   And the Catholic Church, was dominated by a monastic system that kept many priests and brothers locked behind the walls of their monasteries serving their God thru prayer.  The church orthodoxy was colored by St. Augustine who offered a bleak view of both human nature, and the world in which we live.   It was an otherworldly institution.


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I Want to Be Left Behind

Aug27

by: Brenda Peterson on August 27th, 2015 | 11 Comments »

Since the best-selling Left Behind series, the religious right in the US has been obsessed with Israel. Their support is not because they revere the Jewish traditions; in this Christian Zionist Armageddon belief, Israel is simply the setting for the longed-for Rapture – an evacuation plan that saves only Christians. All other religions are left to endure the Tribulations.

For decades this belief has dominated our international foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. Even today it is the subtext for much of the pro-Israel “blind support” as Rabbi Michael Lerner writes about in his recent letter: “There are an estimated 30 million Christian Zionists, and they play an important role in shaping the dynamics of the Republican Party and the Christian Right.”

Here’s an excerpt from the recent memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, by author Brenda Peterson, which describes the darkly comic, but deeply troubling world view that comes from this Rapture-bound belief still shaping our Middle East policies.


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What Religion Tells Us About the Place of Wilderness in American Environmentalism

Jul23

by: Dr. Mark Stoll on July 23rd, 2015 | 2 Comments »

Muir woods.

Muir woods. Credit: CreativeCommons / Aftab Uzzaman.

Wilderness has long been regarded as a cause near the heart of American environmentalism. Typical histories trace rising appreciation for wild nature that runs through Henry David Thoreau and John Muir on up to present passionate defenders of wilderness. This is such solidly received wisdom that hardly anyone, from environmental activist to academic historian, really questions it.

I discovered a rather different story during research for my book, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism. I investigated the religious backgrounds of major figures in the history of environmentalism. Intriguingly, for over a century they overwhelmingly were raised in just two denominations, even though adult beliefs varied considerably.

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The Emerging Truth about Junipero Serra and the California Missions

Jul10

by: Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox on July 10th, 2015 | 4 Comments »

A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California's Indians by the Spanish Missions written by Elias Castillo.A Review of A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions by Elias Castillo

Craven Street Books, 2015

Reading this book set my third chakra racing while my sense of moral outrage boiled over. Yet it is presented in subdued and sober terms, with fact after fact and story after story, building a sure case against the canonizing of Franciscan Friar Junipero Serra. The author, Elias Castillo, a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, tells the truth of the fabled and now postcard-like missions of California, a truth that has often been hidden away in libraries containing correspondence and comments from the days of the mission founding while a myth of benign relationships with the native peoples has been promulgated instead.

In this book Father Junipero Serra, called by some the “Father of California,” is exposed in damning detail as the father of a system, the mission system, that systematically destroyed the culture of the indigenous peoples of California, who had lived at peace with the earth and more or less at peace with themselves over millennia until the Spanish arrived. With Castillo’s new research in hand, it makes all the more scandalous the current effort, supported by two Opus Dei archbishops and the Knights of Columbus, to canonize this sadistic person who is a poster boy for colonization and racism. Why, why, why is Pope Francis going ahead with this canonization? Who profits from it?

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Pope Francis’s Encyclical and the Coming of Age of Creation Spirituality

Jul6

by: Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox on July 6th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

 

Aerial shot of melting glaciers.

Credit: CreativeCommons / Doc Searls.

Pope Francis’s recent encyclical boasts a title borrowed from the famous poem to Brother Sun and Sister Moon by his namesake, Francis of Assisi. “Laudato si’”, which translates as “Praise Be to You”, carries a message and a spirit that echoes much of the soul of St. Francis. Humans around the world are eager for some moral voices to stand up and be counted, so beset are we by multinational corporations and their lobbyists and their media moguls who, like secular popes, declare infallibly each day what is and is not news while they pad their corporate pockets with dark money raised by an avalanche of consumer goodies most of which feed the world unnecessary goodies. Surely this is one reason the Dalai Lama has the following he does. And it is the reason Pope Francis is being heard by more and more people around the world and why, borrowing from his idol, Pope John XXIII, he addressed this encyclical on climate change and ecology to all persons of the world, Christian or not, believers or not.

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