Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Wide Gate of Torture

In Matthew's version of the "Sermon on the Mount," Jesus presents the following admonition:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that lead to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
Matt. 7:13-14 (NRSV).

This is pretty much the same thing that H.L. Mencken said 1,900 years later, which is that "There is always an easy solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong."

A recent article in the New Yorker talks about the growing acceptance of the use of torture in both the government and popular culture. The Bush administration is on record as claiming that the standards of human decency contained in the "common Article III" of the Geneva conventions do not apply to terrorism suspects in U.S. custody and, although the administration rejects the word "torture," they admit to "harsh measures" such as "waterboarding," which is universally recognized as a form of torture.

In popular culture, the use of torture as a plot device on television has exploded in the last few years, particularly on the Fox network show "24," where hardly a week goes by without the use of physical coercion or threats of physical coercion.

And the appeal of torture is obvious: It's simple and it's easy. Never mind the morality, or legality, or even the effectiveness of it; it's a simple solution to what is otherwise a complex problem. When we are threatened, all we need to do is threaten back. When they hurt us, we hurt them back. If we think someone knows something that we want to know, we hurt them until they tell us what we want to hear.

Of course, every suspect we abuse learns to hate us and becomes a terrorist for life. And the stories of torture and abuse become recruiting tools for the bands of terrorists who want to kill us. And our allies are becoming increasing disgusted by our behavior and have started to indict our agents (in Italy this week, for example, and perhaps soon also in Germany).

Yes, torture is simple. The gate is wide and the road is easy, and it leads to our destruction, not our life.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Religion v. Science

(Today is "Evolution Sunday," and the 198th birthday of Charles Darwin, and so I wanted to republish my commentary on creationism, evolution, religion, and science, which I originally posted on 10/2/2005 on my "Thoughts" web page.)

I made up my mind years ago about the "conflict" between evolution and what is sometimes called "creationism," and in the process I developed a new way of looking at religion and science and the differences between them. I always expected that someday I would hear or read of someone who had reached the same conclusion, but I never have so I guess it’s time to explain my view and the reasons for it.

What appears to be a conflict between religion and science can be resolved quite easily once you understand that there is no conflict. There is no conflict between religion and science because they answer two completely different kinds of questions. As long as they can’t both answer the same question, they can’t be in conflict.

Science can really only address the question of "how." How were stars formed? How can we predict the movement of the planets? How are diseases transmitted? How do birds fly? And so forth. Science investigates and explains the chemical, mechanical, electromagnetic, atomic, and other processes by which things happen.

Religion can really only address the question of "why," which is a very different question because it goes to the meaning or purpose of the way things are and the things that happen.

Unfortunately, scientists sometimes think that by explaining how something happens, they have explained why it happens, which is where a lot of the confusion and conflict comes from.

To illustrate, consider the "debate" between "creationism" (or another other religious view of the origins of mankind) and evolution. A Darwinist might think that he (or she) has explained "why" man evolved by explaining that a process of genetic mutations and natural selection resulted in the evolution of modern man. But why did the process of natural selection lead to mankind and not some other kind of creature? The Darwinist might reply that natural selection occurs because some animals are better suited to their environment than others. But why was there an environment that lead to the evolution of man and not some other kind of creature? The Darwinist might reply that the climate on earth a million years ago was favorable to the evolution of man. But why was there a climate a million years ago that was favorable to the evolution of man?

I hope you can see where this is going. Every "answer" can be countered with another "why" and, just as a parent eventually tires of answering the repeated "why" of a three-year-old, eventually the Darwinist will have to say either "That’s just the way it was" or "Because I say so." And neither of those is really an answer.

Many scientists will dismiss what I’ve just said with the explanation that they simply don’t have all the answers yet. But that simply means that they don’t yet understand the problem, because it is becoming increasingly clear that science will never know "all the answers." Every new discovery brings more questions and so, the more scientists learn, the more they find how little they’ve learned.

Even more importantly, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are some things that are simply unknowable. For example, one of the fundamental principles of quantum physics is that you can’t know the energy (or speed) of a subatomic particle at the same time that you know it’s location. The more precisely you know a particle’s location, the less you know about it’s energy, and vice versa. This is known as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and it’s not something you can solve with better equipment of more sophisticated experiments. It’s a fundamental limitation on what is knowable.

Because there is this unavoidable level of uncertainty, the interaction of atomic particles is often completely unpredictable, and this was a shock to scientists. The classical, Newtownian view of the universe was that it was predictable, almost like a giant machine. If you knew where something was, where it was going, and how fast, you could predict where it would be in the future. If you knew where everything was and where everything was going, you could (in theory) figure out the future of everything. In quantum physics, that predictability fell apart and suddenly the future was very random.

Even the brilliant Albert Einstein tried to reject this aspect of quantum theory, stating that "God does not roll dice." What he (and others) overlook is that our inability to predict the future does not mean that God is "rolling dice." The fact that it looks random to us does not mean that it looks random to God (or even that it is random).

Another example of unknowability is chaos theory. One of the initial discoveries of chaos theory was that sufficiently large and complicated systems (such as, say, the weather, or life on earth) are inherently unpredictable because very small events can have very large consequences over time. The classic example is that it is theoretically possible for the flutter of the wings of a single butterfly to change the atmosphere in such a way that a month or more later a tornado that was going to form, doesn’t (or vice versa).

If small events affect large events in ways that are unpredictable, and the smallest (i.e., molecular) events are inherently unpredictable, what does that tell us about how well scientists can predict the future? Over the short term, and for most of the things we can see, scientists can tell us the rules and can predict what will happen fairly accurately. But over longer periods of time (say thousands of years) and for smaller objects (say the genetic material in cells) things start to get very unpredictable, and there is often no good scientific explanation for why one thing happens and not another.

Now let’s look at the religious point of view. Ignoring the Bible (I’ll get back to that later), a belief that God created man in His image does not require any particular method of creation. If God had a choice of two or three different ways of creating man, who are we to criticize His choice?

So let’s assume that God had a choice between snapping His fingers and having mankind appear instanteously, out of thin air, or having mankind appear slowly, first in the form of protoplasm, then single-celled organisms, then multi-celled organisms, then fish, then reptiles, then mammals, then hominids, and finally homo sapiens (mankind). Do we really care which method God chose?

As far as the Bible is concerned, it contains some very interesting and profound thoughts of some very wise people, but those same people also didn’t understand the chemistry of fire and so the chances of them guessing right on questions of genetics can summed up as "small."

Another problem with the Bible is that there are actually two different creation stories in the book of Genesis. The more familiar story is the one that starts at Chapter 1, verse 1, and describes the creation of the universe in seven days, with God creating "humankind in his image, .. male and female he created them" on the sixth day. Gen. 1:26-27. The other creation story appears in Gen. 2:4-25. In this second version, the earth and the heavens are made in one day, and God created a man out of the dust of the ground, and then created a woman from one of his ribs.

Can anyone really claim that the Bible is "right" when it can’t even tell the same story twice without changing it?

Where does that leave us? Science is interesting, and it’s valuable. It provides better ways of living and interesting toys. So I want scientists to continue to tinker. But scientists are not much more than plumbers or electricians installing new appliances and fixing the shorts and leaks in the universe that God built. As useful as they can be, they can’t tell us why we’re here. They can tell us how we got here, but not why we’re here. When we want to ask questions like "why," we need to talk to God and listen for that still, small voice.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Why I'm Quaker

Gregg Koskela has written his "Top Ten Reasons I'm a Quaker" and his reasons are similar to mine, but not identical, so I thought I'd write down the reasons I became Quaker, and why I enjoy being Quaker.

As you'll see, I came up with six reasons, not ten, which seemed like a good enough number to me. And you'll also see some connections between the reasons. That's okay with me also.

In no particular order:

Universalism - I have always been disturbed by the notion that some people will be "saved" by God (whatever that might mean) and others damned, and that the key to salvation/damnation is the right religion, or the right baptism, or the right lifestyle. It was therefore a relief to join a group that is very spiritual, with strong feelings of their own, who nevertheless believe that there is "something of God" in everyone, and do not claim any exclusivity to divine inspiration or salvation.

Continuing Revelation - I have also been very puzzled for most of my life by the notion that God spoke to ancient Hebrews, and spoke to Jesus and the apostles, but suddenly decided to draw a line across the page at the end of John's Revelation and has been mum for the almost 2,000 years since then. So it was, once again, a relief to find a group that believed that continuing direct revelation from God was not only possible, but should be considered normal and not necessarily symptomatic of a serial killer.

I also like the idea that there is a body of religious thought to which I can contribute. A by-product of the belief in continuing revelation is the accumulation of a Quaker literature which is not the product of professional theologians but of "ordinary" Quakers who have been inspired to write down their thoughts about God, Jesus, scripture, and Quaker faith and practices. Because the most important qualification is inspiration from God, and in the Quaker view of the world all are equally qualified, the Quaker "theology" that exists is extremely egalitarian and accepts contributions from all.

Walking the Walk - One of the truly wonderful things to me about Quakers is that they not only "talk the talk" about their relationship to God, but that they also "walk the walk" in trying to put their beliefs about God, and the teachings of Jesus, into their day-to-day lives. The clearest example of this are the Quaker "Testimonies," which are not "testimonies" in words but testimonies in how we live our lives. (I.e., "Let your life speak.") Another example is the strong social and political activism of Quakers, who have a political impact that is very much disproportionate to their actual numbers.

The testimonies have become a comfort to me, because I find that they give me an excuse to do (or not do) the things I wanted to do (or not do) anyway. So, when I want to avoid a party or other frivolous event, when I want to get rid of some stuff I no longer have any use for, or when I want to buy clothes that are practical and comfortable (and even inexpensive) but not necessarily stylish, I can cite the Quaker testimony of simplicity as my justification. When I want to express myself in a non-tactful way, I fall back on the testimony of integrity. When I look in the bushes for cans and bottles, it's not because I'm obsessive-compulsive but because of the testimony of stewardship for the earth and its resources. The testimonies therefore provide me with a (relatively) guilt-free lifestyle I can enjoy.

Decision-Making - I still enjoy Quaker decision-making, as time-consuming and frustrating as it can be, because I have found that the need for unity, and the resulting need to listen to and take into account the thoughts of all of the members, produces better and more positive decisions than can be produced by a mere majority.

Listening - Because of both the decision-making process and the belief that there is something of God in each of us, Quakers seem to spend more time truly listening to each other than any group I have ever experienced. And when I say "listening" I don't mean being quiet while the other person talks but truly concentrating on what the other person is saying in order to understand the other person's point of view. To me, it is a very loving act to listen to another person's point of view, and so I see the ability of Quakers to listen to each other as a continuing expression of love for each other.

Silence - And I enjoy the silence. Even the brief silences that begin and end most gatherings of Quakers outside of meeting for worship (e.g., committee meetings) are a welcome pause in the day to gather my thoughts and give thanks for where I am, what I'm doing, and how I'm feeling. In a world where multi-tasking is becoming the norm, some periods of no-tasking are very welcome.

Friday, February 2, 2007

The Parable of the Dutiful Son

(In a previous message, I referred to my thoughts about the parable of the prodigal son. This is my commentary on that parable, which I originally posted on 10/19/2003 on my "Thoughts" web page.)

What I call the "Parable of the Dutiful Son" is what most other people call the "Parable of the Prodigal Son" found in Luke 15:11-32.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son can be summed up as follows: A man has two sons. The younger son takes his inheritance and leaves home, proceeds to waste his money in an immoral and irresponsible life, and ends up coming home penniless and humble, hoping to work as a servant for his father, but his father greets him with joy and prepares a great feast in his honor, to the displeasure of the older son who remained behind. The younger son represents the sinner, the older son represents the faithful, and the father represents God. The moral of the story is that God always loves us no matter how we have sinned, and those of us who don't sin just have to learn to live with it.

The Parable of the Dutiful Son is more complicated. The facts are the same but the focus of the parable is on the older son who stays behind and why he is resentful.

When the younger son returns and the older son discovers the celebration going on, he becomes angry and refuses to go in. The father comes to plead with him, and the son states that he has been working like a slave for his father, and has never disobeyed him, and yet the father has never given him "even a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends." (15:29.) The father begins his reply by saying, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." (15:31.)

This seems terribly unfair. And the father's response, that "we had to celebrate" because the younger son "was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found" doesn't really seem explain the unfairness of squandering a fatted calf on behalf of a wastrel and denying the hard-working son even a young goat.

But did the father ever deny his older son a young goat "to celebrate with my friends"? The older son doesn't actually claim that the father ever denied him anything. What angers the older son is that the father never gave him the goat. And the father replies by saying that "all that is mine is yours," which is a round-about way of the father saying that he couldn't actually give the older son anything, because everything already belonged to the older son (i.e., you can't give something to someone that they already have). If the older son never had a young goat to share with his friends, it was because he never asked for one (or just never took one).

And the father described in the parable does not seem like the sort of father who would work his son like a slave. So if the older son worked like a slave, it was his decision to do so, and not his father's.

Taking these observations one step further, I believe that the older son was waiting for his father to die. The older son was dutiful and served his father, but he had more or less put his own life on hold until his father died and he came into his own inheritance. Only after his father died would he begin to live and enjoy himself. Until then, he would be the dutiful son and work like a slave.

So the parable actually does address the "unfairness" of the father's actions, and shows that what seems to be unfair only seems that way because of the actions and decisions of the older son, and not the father. It was the older son who decided to work like a slave, and not the father. It was the older son who decided never to take a young goat to celebrate with his friends, and not the father. It was the older son who decided to live a boring, unhappy life, and not the father. And the father loved both his sons, and the fact that the older son had decided to make his own life unhappy was not going to stop the father from celebrating the return of the younger son.

So the parable is not just reassurance to the sinners in us that our Father still loves us, but also a wake-up call to the slaves in us that our Father also loves us and that everything our Father has is already ours. It is up to us to enjoy our lives, and to enjoy the world and the gifts that God has given to us.

God's gifts and grace are unlimited and are available to all. If we begrudge God's grace to anyone, it is probably because we have begrudged God's grace to ourselves. If we enjoy our lives and the grace and gifts our Father has given to us, we will not be angry or jealous when our Father celebrates the return of one of our brothers, but we will be able to celebrate with our Father and share our gifts with our returning brother.