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Archive for the ‘Rethinking Religion’ Category

We’re Mad as Hell – But That’s Not Enough


by: James Vrettos on September 15th, 2015 | Comments Off

An intriguing, thoroughly readable, and timely new book has just been published by the Kairos Center/Poverty Initiative, containing a collection of the recent writings of Willie Baptist, their Scholar-in-Residence and Coordinator of Poverty Scholarship and Leadership Development.

Those unfamiliar with neither the center nor the initiative should know that the mission of Kairos: Center for Religion, Rights and Social Justice housed at Union Theological Seminary in New York is to contribute to transformative movements for social change that can draw on the power of both religious and human rights. The cornerstone program of the center is the Poverty Initiative whose mission is to raise up generations of religious and community leaders dedicated to building a social movement to end poverty, led by the poor.

And Willy Baptist certainly fits the bill for the center and this book – a formerly homeless father of three who came out of the Watts uprisings and the Black Student Movement, he has 50 years of experience educating and organizing among the poor and dispossessed, including working as a lead organizer with the United Steelworkers, the National Union of the Homeless, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights campaign, as well as many other networks.


Gulf Countries – Do Not Disturb!


by: Lubna Qureshi on September 15th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

Painting of Syrian boy Alan Kurdi washed up on shore

Credit: Flickr / robertsharp

The horrific image of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body is considered a wakeup call for humanity. Alan, his 5-year-old brother, and their mother were among at least a dozen who drowned crossing the Aegean Sea to reach Greece from Bodrum, Turkey. Though the crossing from Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos is only two miles long, the suffering associated with death on these waters is immeasurable. The Kurdi children and their mother are among thousands who have drowned in an attempt to flee Syria, according to a UN report, yet only a few make headlines.

Countless Syrians, among other refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq, have fled their war torn homes in hopes of rebuilding their lives abroad, mainly in Europe and other western countries. Alan’s unfortunate death shook the world and pressured some European countries, namely Germany, Austria, and Sweden, to open their doors to the refugees. Germany went so far as to suspend the Dublin Regulation, which requires EU countries to examine an asylum seeker’s claim in the country in which he or she first arrived. With widespread support from its citizens, Germany alone is expected to admit 800,000 refugees this year. Moreover, The European Union and its member states have mobilized a sizable amount of financial aid while Kuwait and Qatar are among the top donors from the Gulf countries providing aid to refugees.


Thank God I’m an Agnostic


by: Ron Hirschbein on September 8th, 2015 | 5 Comments »

“A woman comes up and she says to me: ‘I’m Jewish. I’m not going to accept Jesus as my savior. Am I going to hell?’ . . . Jesus said, ‘No one comes to the Father but by me . . . I am the way.’ I’m betting my life that He was telling the truth. Now see what I did? I took it off of me, and making me the authority.”

- Pastor Rick Warren

There’s hell to pay if you’re not just like the fundamentalists – be they theists or anti-theists. It’s either hell in the life to come, or apocalypse now – no doubt about it in the fundamentalists’ doubt-free world. They’re dangerous and influential. Warren delivered the invocation at Obama’s 2008 inauguration. The president provided a forum and legitimacy to a zealot who damned Jews – and most everyone else – to hell. Would Obama have invited a jihadist condoning eternal torment of Jews and other nonbelievers? Warren’s gospel resonates: He sold 30 million copies of his Purpose Driven Life.

The gospel, according to militant atheist Christopher Hitchens, resonates with a different clientele: His God is Not Great (an obvious slap at Islam) is also a bestseller. (Full disclosure: I’m envious; these book sales surpass mine.) Hitchens’ intemperate hatred of religion – especially Islam – won friends and influenced people in intellectual and policymaking circles. Post-9/11, he broke with former Leftist allies, and joined his newfound friend Paul Wolfowitz in championing the Iraq War – hell in the here and now.

christopher hitchens speaks for crowd

Credit: Wikimedia

Attacking Warren knocks down a straw man – at least for readers of this blog. I suspect readers find intellectual anti-theists such as Hitchens (and his cohorts such as Dawkins and Harris) more engaging. But let’s briefly give the devil’s enemy his due. Warren denies personal responsibility (“It took it off me”) for condemning those unlike him to hell – the most sadistic invention of the human imagination. Shouldn’t Christians (like the rest of us) take responsibility for their words? The pastor’s moral holiday echoes a familiar refrain: “I’m not responsible for killing those civilians; God made me do it.” What would he say about an earthly father who throws his child into a blast furnace for whatever reason? Warren wouldn’t be to blame, of course; “It took it off me.” No condemnation? Why worship – rather than condemn – a heavenly Father who tortures most of His creation for all eternity? And the pastor should take care about that bet: Perhaps God has a special circle in hell for those who treat Him like a Vegas wager. Like all fundamentalists, Warren has too many answers and too few questions. If only Warren and his unforgiving, sadistic God had a more Christian attitude!


God and Man in Toronto


by: Ed Simon on September 1st, 2015 | 1 Comment »

In Scottish poet James Robertson’s brilliant 2008 novel The Testament of Gideon Mack, the reader is confronted by the titular character: a Presbyterian minister and seemingly devoted “son of the manse” who discovers that he can “be a Christian without involving Christ very much.” Gideon Mack’s ministerial career seems to hum along under his dutiful and thorough skill, and his flock seemingly doesn’t pick up that the good reverend is secretly an atheist. Echoing Robertson’s fellow countryman, James Hogg in the 1824 gothic masterpiece The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the good Rev. Mack finds his faith (or perhaps lack thereof) challenged not when he meets God, but rather when he is confronted by a distinguished and cosmopolitan Satan. The problem is that Satan is just as much at a loss as to where God is as Rev. Mack.

book cover of "The Testament of Gideon Mack"

Credit: Wikimedia

Hogg’s earlier novel, which seems so influential to Robertson’s post-modern pastiche, in part functioned as a parody of the rigid Calvinism of the Scottish Presbyterian Church in the nineteenth-century. This is demonstrated particularly by the stern belief in double-predestination, and also by the potential ethical lapses that could be encouraged by a misinterpretation of the potential dangerous doctrine of being a “justified sinner” (with the adjective’s ambiguity triggering all of the novel’s gothic horrors). If Hogg’s novel is a dark satire on the ways in which extreme faith can be twisted to justify atrocity, Robertson’s novel looks at the strange cynicism of a society in which faith is seemingly absent. Or is it? After all, Gideon Mack may seem to be a hypocrite – an atheist who knows that the Devil is real. But, is this any contradiction? Why can an atheist not wear the collar of the ministry?

I reflect on these paired readings because the United Church of Canada is about to start proceedings against the Rev. Gretta Vosper – a minister at the suburban Toronto West Hill United Church, where she has made her non-belief in God known since 2001 and where she has popularly become known as the “atheist minister.” Unlike Gideon Mack, Rev Vosper makes no secret of her apparent apostasy, telling the Canadian Press wire service that “I don’t believe in the god called God,” and further elaborating to the March Toronto Star that she didn’t think Jesus was the son of God. Now the general assembly of the UC Church, which is both the largest Protestant denomination in Canada and one known for its relatively liberal views (though apparently with a limit to that), is convening an assembly to judge if she is true to her ordination vows which affirm a belief in the Trinity. It’s the first time that this body has ever asked one of their ministers to do this.

Rev. Vosper is obviously not Giordano Bruno, and the United Church of Canada isn’t the Roman Inquisition. Further, I would be remiss to lecture an organization which represents a denomination, of which I am not a member, in how they should define ordination requirements – especially when that something is as basic seeming as a belief in God. And yet, I would like not just the United Church of Canada but indeed all people concerned and interested in theological expression and exploration to consider the possibility that an “atheist minister” need not be a contradiction at all. Too often our discussions on faith and theology are simply too shallow and restrictive – atheism is regarded as the absence of faith, but that’s what indifference is. An atheist ontology is by definition passionately concerned with the metaphysical status of a deity. It simply arrives at a different conclusion than the mainstream of Abrahamic understanding. The issue has been muddied by the arrival of the so-called “New Atheists,” who on one hand allowed previously closeted atheists to proudly declare their non-belief in God (admittedly through the most bellicose of rhetoric and often justified with an appalling ignorance of western philosophy and culture), but who also ironically restricted severely the many meanings of the word “atheist.” It’s the great ironic fallacy of the “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet and the late Christopher Hitchens, that their writing has done more to diminish the philosophical variety around the word “atheist” than writers before.

Rev Gosper is not a “New Atheist.” In writings like With or Without God she seems to embody the most radical and fascinating aspects of atheism as embodied by figures such as Friedrich Nietzsche. The so-called “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” who represent the “New Atheism” to so many people, simply don’t like religion – theirs is a bourgeois, suburban, elitist prejudice against something integral to western civilization. It should not be confused with or reduced to atheism in general, or in all its great variety. Nietzsche may have declared the “death of God,” but he also knew what was significant about religion, and he took it seriously. Rev. Vosper is in this category, this particular tradition, which, contrary to the idea that this is a view against theology, is really just a theology in itself.

In fact, this sort of theology, which focuses on the silence of God to the point of his non-existence, has a venerable tradition. While apophatic and via negativa expressions about divinity, which were important to many medieval mystics both Catholic and Orthodox, aren’t atheistic per se, they certainly don’t reflect the positivism of fundamentalist religion today. Nietzsche’s pronouncement was central to a mid-twentieth century theological movement called “Death of God” theology, about which thinkers like Thomas J.J. Altizer, Gabriel Vahanian, Richard Rubenstein, and more recently John Caputo and Peter Rollins wrote. In their works there is a vital, impassioned, committed approach to understanding faith and religion, and their “atheism” more clearly matches the mystical visions of figures like Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagete, Meister Eckhart- the anonymous medieval author of The Cloud of Unknowing- William Blake, and Nietzsche. Today this movement is mostly famous for the Time Magazine “Is God Dead?” cover from 1966, which remains the bestselling edition of that periodical. It was also heavily featured in a scene from Roman Polanski’s film Rosemary’s Baby. This movement was of course never within the mainstream of American seminaries, even during its hey-day, but it never really disappeared either. I do not know whether Rev. Vosper would align herself with this movement, but, like a good minister, she seems to take the most complicated theological ideas of the movement and to simplify them so that her congregation can understand. She tells the Huffington Post “It’s mythology. We build a faith tradition upon it which shifted to find belief more important than how we lived.”

The great twentieth-century Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich said “God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him.” This is strictly speaking an ontology which could be considered a type of atheism, yet to confuse it with the simply anti-religion pronouncements of the “New Atheists” is a mistake; to assume the same about Rev. Gosper would be the same. “Death of God” theology offers a vibrant, mystical, passionate, counter-intuitive, paradoxical approach to faith and religion right at the moment when it seems that the ghost-in-the-machine that is western spirituality is being exorcised. Thinkers such as the prominent Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek have popularized “atheist Christianity” in the academic world, but Rev. Vosper takes these ideas to the pew. While I do not argue that the UCC has no right to defrock her, I would ask them to consider the full multiplicity and variety that an engaged religious practice might take – even if it seems extreme. It is possible to both be and not be an atheist, as Gideon Mack, the unbeliever who met the Devil, knew.

Ed Simon is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in Salon, Quartz, The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

I Want to Be Left Behind


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.


D’var Torah on Parashat Re’eh for Rosh Chodesh Elul


by: Rabbi Michael Zimmerman on August 22nd, 2015 | 1 Comment »

picture of opened torah

Credit: Flickr / Lawrie Cate

Today (August 15th) is the New Moon ushering in the month of Elul. According to the Maharal of Prague, “All the month of Elul, before eating and sleeping, a person should look into one’s soul and search one’s deeds, that one may make confession.” [1]

There are numerous practices and customs for the month of Elul, all of which are intended to promote the seeking and granting of forgiveness and the powerful process of teshuvah, (“repentance”). These practices all recognize that none of us have utilized our full potentials, acted from our full sense of decency and responsibility, kept our hearts open to our full capacity for compassion. In other words, we’ve missed the mark. It’s no coincidence that cheit, the Hebrew word for sin, and hamartia, the Greek word referring to the character flaw leading to tragedy, both originated as terms in archery for “missing the mark.” Looking into our own souls, what we find isn’t evil; it’s more like sleeping on the job or losing control or letting our emotions get in the way of our conscience and common sense for one regrettable split second.


Dying to Know


by: Libbie Katsev on August 18th, 2015 | Comments Off

In grainy black and white, Timothy Leary tells Congress about an LSD trip. It involves being eaten by a snake and exploding. (To be fair, Congress asked.) The footage is a little shocking, but not surprising: I expected humor from Dying to Know, a documentary about Timothy Leary and Ram Dass. I don’t think I was alone in this, given how ready the audience (which seemed to be mostly Leary-enthusiasts) was to laugh and shout when the film described more extreme experiences with narcotics. But Dying to Know also goes beyond shock to be at times genuinely surprising. In footage from that same testimony before Congress, Leary advocates that drugs be regulated, and says that we have a serious drug abuse problem in America. Leary of “turn on, tune in, and drop out” certainly comes through in Dying to Know, but so does Leary the psychologist, the Leary who believed deeply in understanding and expanding the mind, and who also saw the danger posed by reckless drug usage.

Dying to Know is divided into four segments, based on four different stages of existence: “Birth, Life, Death, and Soul,” and with a fifth segment, “Here After” tacked onto the end. Director Gay Dillingham tells the stories of Dass and Leary in parallel – or, almost parallel. Their lives converge at a major turning point – their infamous drug tests at Harvard (and later in the Millbrook mansion), and diverge again, as Leary sticks with a neuroscience and psychology-based perspective and runs into increasing political trouble, while Dass (then Richard Alpert) goes abroad and takes up his old quest for knowing, this time with a new religious perspective.

dying to know posterUltimately, Dying to Know comes across as more of a film about Leary, with Dass used both as a counterpoint and a means to access Leary’s thoughts, both personal and intellectual. This may have originated from the initial conceit of the film – Dillingham said in a post-film Q&A that she decided to make a movie after she learned that Leary was dying, and later decided to bring Dass into the project. Through interviews, old footage and photos, and conversations between Dass and Leary toward the end of the latter’s life, Dying to Know creates a surprisingly complex portrait of a figure whose image has in recent decades been turned into something of a caricature. I, at least, often found it difficult to dissociate Leary’s and Dass’s stories from the cultural context into which they’ve already been fixed – especially when, after being fired (or quitting, there’s a little ambiguity there) for including an undergrad in the tests, Leary and Dass set up shop in a New York mansion, live communally, continue the tests, and themselves do a lot of drugs. And Dying to Know certainly doesn’t try to downplay the more recreational aspects of Leary’s and Dass’s quest. But as it turns out, the questions they grapple with are universal, and allowed me to see their search as something with significance beyond its effects on the ’60s counterculture. In the process, it also presents some serious thought about how we live, and – Dying to Know suggests, at least as important – how we die.


Firebombing of Palestinian Homes & Murder of Palestinian Child, plus Murder at Gay Pride Demo


by: Tikkun on August 7th, 2015 | Comments Off

Editor’s Note:

Faced with the horrendous crimes of an ultra-orthodox Jew stabbing participants in a gay pride demonstration in Israel, and the firebombing of Palestinian homes and resulting burning to death of an 18 month old Palestinian baby while others in the family are in critical condition and may not survive, many Israelis and American Jews denounced these horrendous acts. Netanyahu and his government ordered a few Israeli settlers arrested in “administrative detention,” the polite word to describe the practice which till now has been used against thousands of Palestinian civilians–arrest without formal charges, often held in detention for months or more without trial, and in the case of Palestinians often tortured. The Israeli settlers arrested did not face what most Palestinians “suspected” of terrorist acts usually suffer: the homes of the family of the suspect are immediately blown up by the occupying Israeli Army in the West Bank. That no such punishment was immediately meted out to the Israeli settler suspects was not surprising, but just another manifestation of the racist treatment Palestinians in the Occupied territory face (though of course we don’t support this tactic against settlers or Palestinians). As many Israeli human rights and peace advocates point out, the firebombing of Palestinian homes is just one of many variants of violence visited upon Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank, the goal being to make life so difficult that Palestinians will eventually be “ethnically cleansed” and Israel can make the West Bank a fully Jewish-majority part of Israel. I should hasten to add that most West Bank settlers do not participate in acts of violence, though they overwhelmingly vote for extremist right-wing political parties whose policies are racist and whose goals are not fundamentally dissimilar to those of their violent West Bank settler neighbors.

For us at Tikkun, all this has left us stunned, saddened, repenting for these horrific crimes on the part of our people, and all the more determined to insist on the need to end the Occupation and create an economically and politically viable Palestinian state, while purging our own peple of the hatred and racism that too many Israelis and their American Jewish allies have been willing to ignore, apologize for, or deny. On the other hand, the attack on homosexuals, equally outrageous and horrendous, does not flow from the policies of the State of Israel, which have been friendly to gays and lesbians in the past decade, but rather from the homophobic perspective of the ultra-orthodox community. Until those attitudes are purged from the orthodox world, gays and lesbians will face oppressive treatment in those communities. As I argued in my book Jewish Renewal, the anti-gay texts in the Torah can be reinterpreted in the same spirit that led the rabbis to redefine all the commands for animal sacrifices to be understood as really commands to pray (avodah zeh hu teffillah). Where there is a communal will there is a Hallakhic way, so just as Jewish religious law has evolved on many other issues, so it can follow the rulings of Conservative Movement in Judaism and make changes in their understanding of Torah on this issue–if the will to stamp out homophobia prevails, as it should.

Below we publish some responses to these events. We will be repenting for these acts at our High Holiday services at Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in Berkeley (click here for more information) and we urge you if you are Jewish to speak to your local rabbis and ask them to explicitly include these issues in the list of “sins” being articulated during the “Al Cheyt” prayers for the High Holidays. The list of “sins” we’ve developed will be online at www.tikkun.org within the next week, plenty of time to approach local synagogues to ask them to include these in their services. If there is no synagogue in your area willing to do that, you are invited to come to Berkeley, Ca. to pray with me! Of course, non-Jews are also welcome to register for and attend these services (and we will be focusing also on the destructive realities of American racism, the growing insensitivity to the needs of the poor and the homeless, and the environmental crisis–issues that are not just for Jews to repent but for everyone!). Please do read the articles below.


Pro-Choice for Christ


by: Reina Gattuso on August 3rd, 2015 | 2 Comments »

“When I introduce myself, I tell people I’m a sexologist and a minister. The most likely response is that people laugh,” says Reverend Debra Haffner. “They see those terms as oxymorons, kind of like ‘jumbo shrimp.’”

Haffner, the jumbo shrimp in question, is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. She is also the co-founder and president of the Religious Institute, a multi-faith organization that advocates for sexual health and education – including abortion and contraception access – in religious communities and beyond.

In a political landscape that seems destined to pit bibles against birth control for as long as the culture wars shall persist (see: Hobby Lobby), the Religious Institute is just one of numerous organizations advocating for contraceptive access, abortion rights, and LGBT rights motivated by – and not despite – Christian faith.

Considering where most Americans stand, this makes sense.

protesters hold signs to advocate for reproductive rights

Credit: Flickr / Dave Fayram

According to most major polls, a slim majority of American adults support abortion rights: 51 percent of American adults think that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 43 percent think it should be illegal in all or most cases.

Yet some research suggests that Americans’ thinking on abortion is more complicated than this simple binary – and that more people than previously thought support the right to choose. Only a small minority of the public believes abortion should never be legal, and large majorities think that if a woman gets an abortion, the experience should be supportive, comfortable, and non-judgmental.

Americans’ stances on abortion are more complicated than the political rhetoric may lead us to believe. Our understanding of religion and reproductive rights should follow suit.

The majority of Americans are religious. Over 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, while 22.8 percent don’t identify with any particular religion at all. And despite the growth of these so-called “nones,” over 90 percent of Americans still believe in God.


Against The Tide: The River Of Discrimination Flowing Against People With Disabilities


by: Hannah Finnie on August 3rd, 2015 | Comments Off

Credit: CreativeCommons / Catherine Oakley.

There is a constant flow of discrimination against people with disabilities. That river is tucked away, far from most Americans’ consciences. Maybe when there’s a p.r.-heavy milestone, like the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act happening later this month, people
pay attention. The rest of the time, Dara Baldwin tells me, people tend to forget.

Baldwin has been working professionally in the field of disability rights since 2009, but her advocacy work began when she was much younger, growing up with family members who had disabilities. Her maternal grandmother had rheumatoid arthritis, and used a wheelchair from age twenty two onward. Seeing the challenges her grandmother faced, Baldwin decided to dedicate her career to advocating for disability rights. Now, she works as a public policy analyst at the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), finding legislative solutions to the kinds of problems her grandmother faced on a daily basis.