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Archive for the ‘Rethinking Religion’ Category



Stephen Colbert is America’s Holy Fool

Oct4

by: Ed Simon on October 4th, 2015 | Comments Off

In the semiotician Umberto Eco’s unlikely 1980 best-seller The Name of the Rose a medieval Franciscan monk investigating a series of murders at an Italian monastery discovers that the victims have been targeted by the abbot for reading a forbidden book – the only copy of an apocryphal work on comedy by Aristotle. The abbot reasons that if such a distinguished thinker whose work is the very basis for scholasticism was known to have argued that comedy was the equal of drama, then the power of religious authorities such as himself would be questioned, for humor can be used as a tool for not just challenging hierarchy, but for enduring one’s own life without the teachings of hierarchy as well.

William of Baskerville, the fourteenth-century protagonist of Eco’s novel, does not agree with the abbot. He believes that simply because Christ is not depicted as laughing in the gospels does not mean that he didn’t in life. For Baskerville humor and spirituality are inseparable, it is precisely the radical, upending, disruptive nature of joyful comedy that allows for evil and sin to be resisted. It’s worth considering what exactly the relationship is between Christianity and comedy, especially since the popular stereotype (among the secular, but sometimes among the pious as well) sees these two categories as somehow being antithetical. And yet a great tradition exists within Christianity of being a “fool for Christ.”

Stephen Colbert in Iraq

Credit: Creative Commons

Stephen Colbert, formerly of the brilliant Colbert Report which satirically skewered right-wing blowhards like Bill O’Reilly and now David Letterman’s replacement on The Late Show is a devout Roman Catholic. He has made no secret of his faith (in fact the comedian once taught catechism class), but for some viewers confused about how to separate Colbert from his performance the intensity of the host’s religion can seem disorienting. And yet Colbert himself sees absolutely no conflict between his humor and his faith. In an interview with Colbert posted on September 9th, Father Thomas Rosica of the Canadian based and Vatican-affiliated Salt and Light Television asked what one question would be that he would ask Pope Francis. The performer replied “I would ask him about being a fool for Christ… to be a fool for Christ is to love, because we are made, we are here to dig our brief moment in time.” A “fool for Christ” – it’s a seemingly counter-intuitive concept, but one that is threaded throughout orthodoxy.

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Justice for Mohammad Akhlaq

Oct2

by: Sunita Viswanath on October 2nd, 2015 | 1 Comment »

On this auspicious day – Gandhi Jayanti (Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday) and International Day of Non-Violence – my colleagues and I at Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus are heartbroken to read the news that a Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched and murdered by a Hindu mob in Northern India because it was rumored that he killed and cow and consumed the meat. News reports claim that a mob of Hindus wielding bricks, batons, and swords came to the man’s house to hunt him down, beat him to death and severely injure his son and mother.


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Rosh Hashana, 2015

Sep26

by: JVP Rabbinic Council on September 26th, 2015 | 3 Comments »

Almost four years ago, the Rabbis of Jewish Voice for Peace called on President Obama to resist the call to go to war with Iran and choose instead a peaceful resolution. We said: “As Jewish leaders, we believe that the path of wisdom towards achieving peace and stability in the region is through dialog and engagement and not through acts of war.” Today, along with rest of the world, we congratulate President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for bringing us the Iran nuclear deal. We believe that peace, not war, serves best the people of the United States, Iran, Israel and all the people of the region.

In the coming days, in synagogues and homes across the country, Jews welcome Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Jews greet each other with the blessing: “may you be inscribed in the Book of Life.” This year we extend our blessings to the 35,000 Jews in Iran, the millions of Iranians, our fellow Jews in Israel and the American people for whom this peace treaty offers the best hope for being inscribed in the Book of Life.

President Obama has given us hope this Rosh Hashana. Hope that international conflict can be resolved through diplomacy; hope that engaging in the highest self-interest of other nations can serve our own national self-interest; hope that peace, not war, be our first choice, not the choice of last resort; hope that Iranians can live and thrive in peace; hope that the Middle East can be a region of peace; hope that we can live in a world with less, not more, nuclear arms.


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Rosholushion

Sep17

by: Shari Motro on September 17th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

Rosholushion (ˌro-shə-ˈlü-shən) n. 1. Rosh Hashanah resolution 2. a resolution arising out of a restorative justice-type process that includes an intention to make amends, to forgive and be forgiven.

Why a new word? To distinguish it from the seemingly similar but actually quite different New Year’s resolution.

New Year’s Eve – fireworks, champagne, the requisite kiss or awkward lack of one – might be fun or it might be underwhelming, but the central idea is joy. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the ten days in between are a different animal.

As Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer at the service I tune into put it, instead of dancing, Jews usher in the New Year by swimming in a river of tears. Yes, Rosh Hashanah includes celebration too, but from the start it weaves the sweet with the bitter. On the first day of the holiday, we read about a jealous wife who, after the miracle of her own late conception and childbirth, demands that another mother and son be banished to the desert, something that would result in their near certain death. On the second day, we read about a father who nearly kills his beloved son, even marshalling him to carry the wood for the altar on which he is to be slaughtered and burned.

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Repentance & Reparations by Kate Poole

Sep16

by: Arif Qazi on September 16th, 2015 | Comments Off

With the High Holidays here. Kate Poole has published a new comic commenting on some of our concerns today regarding wealth, race and consumerism. Explore more of Kate’s work here.

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

Sep15

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.


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Gulf Countries – Do Not Disturb!

Sep15

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.


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Thank God I’m an Agnostic

Sep8

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!

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God and Man in Toronto

Sep1

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

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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