A Guideline for Religious Freedom

The Attorney General’s announcement earlier this week that the Justice Department would start a “Religious Liberty Task Force” has caused a bit of consternation, especially among people who fear that the US is heading toward some sort of theocracy or “dominionist” regime. The DoJ’s task force appears to be an internal exercise, but fear has a way of making things seem bigger and more threatening than perhaps they really are.

Beyond the bounds of the government, and on the day-to-day scale of dealing with people who may not share our beliefs, we don’t need a task force. We may need a better understanding that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” means no law with respect to establishing a state religion, and that “no law … prohibiting the free exercise thereof” means no law prohibiting people from practicing their religion according to its doctrines and dictates. But when it comes to “free exercise,” some broad guidelines might help the rest of us when it comes to exercising our religious liberty responsibly. That is, it might help if we had some reference by which to determine whether our religious freedom — i.e., our religious practice and the obligations we have taken on with respect to honoring and serving God — is infringing on the rights (or the freedoms) of others.

I find a useful guideline for religious freedom in what Paul the Apostle wrote to the church in Galatia about the “fruit of the Spirit.” Paul listed nine things and claimed, “against these there is no law”

  • Love
  • Joy
  • Peace
  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Goodness
  • Faithfulness
  • Gentleness
  • Self-Control

It’s quite a lovely list, and a friend of mine once declared that each of those characteristics builds upon the other, starting with Self-Control. That is, without Self-Control we are unable (or at least unlikely) to exhibit much in the way of Gentleness; until we learn how to be gentle with others and with ourselves deep Faithfulness may elude us; without faith we may be “good enough” to get by, but consistent and unconditional Goodness will be beyond our reach; and so forth. But that’s not what I mean by a guideline for religious liberty.


(Image: Stained Glass, Christ Church Cathedral, High Street, Dublin; by Andreas F. Borchert, on Wikimedia Commons. Full description: “Right stained glass rose window in the east wall of the passage to the Synod Hall [now Dublinia], depicting in its centre the Lord as Good Shepherd along with the Fruit of the Spirit, namely Love [inscription in centre], Joy & Peace [top inscription], and in clockwise direction: Longsuffering, Faith, Gentleness, Goodness, Meekness, Temperance in reference to Galatians 5:22-23….”)

Because the First Amendment prevents our government from establishing a state religion and from prohibiting citizens from freely exercising their religion, I would approach it as follows: As long as your “free exercise” of your religious faith is demonstrated in the love you show to others, the joy you share, the peacefulness with which you live your life, how patient you are when people vex you, the kindness you show to those around you, the good that you do, the faithfulness you practice, how gently you treat others, and the self-control you exhibit, then by all means enjoy your religious freedom. Against those things, there is no law.

But: If you are unloving, if you cause despair, if you are unruly, impatient, unkind, evil, unfaithful, cruel, or undisciplined — and in practicing your religious freedom you bring harm where you should bring healing — then your religious freedom may (and possibly should) be limited.

No doubt some may bristle at my proposing a Christian scripture as a guideline for general religious liberty. (Some people bristle at anything Christian.) If anyone knows of a comparable passage of scripture from some other religious tradition that encapsulates how faith may be put into practice for the most benefit and least harm, I would certainly consider it. Barring that, I will be content to do my best to live up to what was taught the Galatians.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Writing that Crosses the Spiritual Divide

(Cross-posted, with some light edits, from my 12 June 2018 guest post on the Speculative Faith blog.)

The conventional wisdom is that authors shouldn’t read reviews of our own work.

If the reviews are good, they can inflate already outsized egos, and if the reviews are bad, well — egos don’t always just deflate. A hot-air-balloon-sized ego, pierced by a bad review, might slowly settle into a mass of hard-to-wrangle canvas, but a smaller, more fragile ego might burst into shreds that are impossible to reassemble.

Nevertheless, some of us are drawn to reviews like moths to flame. If we’re lucky, the flame is a gentle candle and we just get singed if we get too close. If we’re unlucky, it’s a napalm-spewing flamethrower and we get terribly burned.

Sometimes we just get confused, as I was at two contrasting reviews of my novel, Walking on the Sea of Clouds. First, an Amazon reviewer gave the novel three stars and noted that it was a “good story” with strong character development but was “a bit bible-preachy [sic] for [their] tastes in hard science fiction.” Then the first issue of the Lorehaven online magazine included a brief, positive review that warned those seeking discernment that the story “only briefly referenced Christianity.”

Same story. Bible-preachy. Only briefly referenced Christianity.

I think this illustrates the fact that every reader brings their own experiences, attitudes, and expectations to the stories they read. Orson Scott Card told us in his writing workshop that whatever we’ve written is not the story, because the real story is in the reader’s head — and what’s in your head when you read a story is different from what’s in another person’s head when they read the same story. You might agree on some points, but you’ll disagree on others, and that’s okay.

In the case of my novel, someone who was not used to reading about believers and faith in the context of hard science fiction was put off by it. I have no way to know whether that person is a believer who was just surprised or a nonbeliever who was repulsed, and that really doesn’t matter. Their reading of the text is just as valid as anyone else’s — including the Lorehaven reviewer who might have been looking for more overt Christian themes. Was that person disappointed not to find them, or just surprised? I have no way of knowing, and again it hardly matters because however they read the story was the right way, for them.

Same story. Different readers. Different results.

It reminds me of what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, about the message of the cross seeming foolish to the lost, but representing the very power of God to those of us who believe (1 Corinthians 1:18). Same message. Different audience. Vastly different results.

Even within the body of believers, though, we can differ in our interpretations of Scripture. How much more should we expect to differ in reading science fiction and fantasy stories?


My friend Keith Phillips (Colonel, USAF, Retired), with whom I served in the 4th Space Operations Squadron, showing off his copy of Walking on the Sea of Clouds.

What does it take to cross the spiritual divide effectively in a literary or artistic work? Is it foolish even to try? I hope not, because in this age of growing doubt and disbelief I believe that Christian ideals, values, and themes still have a place in literature and art, whether science fiction, fantasy, or more mundane creations. And not just Christian principles, but Christian characters belong in fantastical stories — even in technology-heavy hard science fiction — just as surely as Christian people belong in every profession.

Unfortunately, sometimes the Christian characters in these stories end up being caricatures more than characters, reflecting the authors’ preconceptions rather than being portrayed as individuals, as people. I’ve found this to be true in stories by believers and nonbelievers alike, and it was something I tried to avoid.

That is, I tried to cross the spiritual divide by including Christian characters where they’re not always found — and by representing them as individual people with their own virtues and flaws, and even with different attitudes toward and expressions of faith. Some talk about it, some hide it, some deny it. Some ignore it, some sneer at it, some question it. That seemed realistic to me, and above all I tried to make the story seem realistic.

And maybe those two contrasting reviews — too much Bible to some people, not that much to others — show that I struck the right balance after all.

If you’ve read the story, I’d love to know what you think! And if you haven’t read the story, then now you know a little more of what you might find in it.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

When Church is Less Like Home and More Like ‘a Home’

(Another sermonette, of sorts.)

We call it a “church home,” but sometimes it’s … not.

At least, not home like a family home: a somewhat secure and comfortable family place where we spend a portion of our time, sometimes relaxing and eating and pursuing interests that captivate us and other times doing housework and chores and routine maintenance. Not a home that is a central gathering place or a base of operations for the time when we’re not at school or the office or the gym or wherever.

No: too often it seems more like a “home,” a rest home, an assisted living facility where the good church people hang out with the good church people and do good-church-person things. At these rest-home churches, we don’t often look beyond the church walls to see what we can do to make the world a better place. (Stained-glass windows are hard to see through.)

We’re shut-ins, and too often we shut out the world.

That’s not universally true, of course (but so little is). Some churches function fairly effectively as temporary refuges, where believers can refresh themselves before going back out into work and life and service. Some churches, though, appear to be permanent refuges, strongholds against the world, as if Christ had said “take yourselves out of the world” instead of telling us to be “in the world, but not of it.”


Stained-glass windows can be beautiful, but they’re not easy to see through. (Image: The “Space Window” at the National Cathedral. NASA photo.)

In a similar vein, we may call it a church “family,” but sometimes it’s not. Many churches do have a family atmosphere in which believers support one another and help one another through crises — even if it is dysfunctional at times, it’s still a caring family that does the best it can. Sometimes, in some respects, it can be better than a real family; sometimes it can be far worse.

But we don’t often mean a family like real relations in a household, in which — if we do it right — we encourage one another to grow and reach for the dreams that drive us, in which we learn right and wrong and discover our talents in order to make our way out in the world. As a church, nurturing young believers into mature believers — making disciples — we don’t always do so with the intention of preparing them to serve and live out their faith outside the church, in the real world. Often our attention is turned inward, as if serving the church and the church family is the single most Holy-Spirit-approved way of glorifying God.

But Christ didn’t tell his Disciples to stay in Jerusalem and serve only each other. And Christ doesn’t tell us to stay in the church and serve only each other.

Lord, forgive me when I prefer to stay safe in the cloister instead of walking with you in the wider world.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

A Daily Baptism?

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

On this Easter Monday, it seems appropriate to recall one of the seminal events in the development of Protestant Christianity: on this date in 1521 Martin Luther appeared at the Diet of Worms — an assembly (“diet”) convened in Worms, Germany, from 28 January to 26 May 1521 by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V — to answer the charge of heresy.

On the 17th, Luther was presented with a list of his own writings and asked if he would recant of the heresies they contained. He asked for time to consider how to respond to the charges, and was granted a day to think it over. On the 18th, he spoke. He differentiated between the various works, left open the question of recanting if he could be shown his error, and apologized for the harsh tone of some of the works, but in the end Luther said,

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

What does that have to do with baptism? Nothing in itself, but it does illustrate the confidence Luther had in his Scriptural interpretations. And that leads us to something he wrote about baptism ….

St Patrick’s Cathedral
Interesting fish-eye view of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, founded near a well where Saint Patrick is supposed to have baptized converts. (Image: “St Patrick’s Cathedral,” by Jennifer Boyer, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

In a treatise on infant baptism, Luther presented an idea I find very interesting. He wrote that baptism

… is nothing else than putting to death the old Adam, and after that the resurrection of the new man, both of which must take place in us all our lives, so that a truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, once begun and ever to be continued.

I don’t think Luther’s point is that we need to be baptized anew every day (though most of us benefit from bathing regularly). Baptism is a living metaphor, and not one we actually need to go through again and again. It seems to me that what Luther calls a “daily baptism” is the daily personal exercise in living out the faith. In other words, following Christ involves living every day in light of the two central facets of our faith: that Christ died, and that our “old man” died with him; and that he rose again, and thereby we also have new life. Baptism is the experience that represents those facets of the faith.

It is a remarkable thing to consider. But it’s not as easy to do as it is to consider, or even to write about.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Holding On

If I Had Been an Apostle on that terrible Holy Saturday,

… would I have gone into hiding? Yes, I would.
… would I have sunk into despair? Yes, I would.
… would I have wondered if it all had been for naught? Yes, I would.

Because I am fickle and uninspired and weak. Because all I had dreamed of and hoped for had been crushed. Because I would have known, with the surety that I knew the sun would rise, that I was bound for the same fate.

Despair
Sometimes all we can do is hold on. (Image: “Despair,” by Lloyd Morgan, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

And yet, when the next day dawned for the Apostles, all was not as they feared it would be. The world was the same, but their lives were radically changed. They held on long enough to see the new dawn, and sometimes — when we are hiding, in despair, and wondering if what we’ve done is for naught — all we can do is hold on, as well.

Wherever you are, whatever you may be going through … hold on.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Doing Good, ‘Slowly, Gently, Little by Little’

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Four years ago today, Pope Francis was elected to serve as the 266th Pope. So far he has proven to be one of the most popular and inspirational people to hold that sacred post.

Just a few weeks after ascending to the Papacy, Pope Francis said at Mass:

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! “Father, the atheists?” Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. “But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!” But do good: we will meet one another there.

do good
Sound advice, here. (Image: “do good,” by potential past, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I love all of that, from the principle that the redeeming work of Christ was sufficient to redeem everyone — even those who don’t accept it — to the point that we can make the world better and more peaceful the more we (as Scripture says) persist in doing good.

I hope this week that we all make the most of any opportunities we have to do good! And as always I wish you and yours the very best.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Monday Morning Insight: 230 Years of Religious Freedom

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

On this date in 1786, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted the “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” into law. Thomas Jefferson had drafted the statute in 1777, and it was first introduced in the assembly in 1779. Jefferson considered the statute so important that he asked for it to be included as one of three accomplishments listed on his tombstone, along with the Declaration of Independence and founding the University of Virginia.

I love the way it begins:

Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free

Indeed, and God wants us to use our minds well! There’s a reason the prophet Isaiah says, “Come, let us reason together.”

Religious Freedom
Detail on a monument to Thomas Jefferson in Louisville, Kentucky. (Image: “Religious Freedom,” by Don Sniegowski, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

The statute declares that punishments or burdens enacted to try to influence people’s thinking

tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do

“Hypocrisy and meanness.” Lord knows that often we cannot help but be hypocritical, but I pray God will forgive us if we persist in it and if our religious practice is either unkind or shabby.

As someone who believes that science and faith agree more than they disagree, I find this clause amusing:

… our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry

And given the unfortunate antagonism we face from time to time, no matter which side of whatever divide we find ourselves upon, this part is encouraging:

And finally, … Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, … she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict

Unless we disarm Truth by restricting “her natural weapons, free argument and debate.” Let’s try not to do that, shall we?

And, finally, the act declared that

… all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and … the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

Religious freedom: It’s a marvelous thing. I hope you have opportunity to practice yours this week.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Monday Morning Insight: Proclaiming National Thanksgiving

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

 

On this date in 1789, President George Washington — based on a resolution passed in the Congress — proclaimed that Thursday, 26 November 1789, would be set aside for the people of the nation to unite in devotion to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” The proclamation began with a statement that seems quite bold today, especially for a public official:

… it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.

Congress had recommended “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.” Washington’s proclamation enjoined the people to offer “sincere and humble thanks” to God for several things, including:

  • “His providence in the course and conclusion of” the Revolutionary War,
  • “the great degree of tranquillity [sic], union, and plenty” they enjoyed,
  • “their civil and religious liberty,” and
  • “all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.”

Gratitude changes the way we look at the world

(Image: “Gratitude changes the way we look at the world,” by BK, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

President Washington also encouraged the people to beseech “the great Lord and Ruler of Nations” to forgive “our national and other trangressions [sic],” and, in particular,

to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed.

It seems a shame that we have let our government get so out of control, and that we seem unable to place people in positions of trust who are wise and just, who respect the Constitution, and who are able to “discreetly and faithfully” execute the nation’s laws. Perhaps if we used Thanksgiving for giving thanks, and for reflecting on our freedom and what it takes to maintain it, we might have less trouble in that regard.

___
P.S. The full proclamation is available here.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Monday Morning Insight: God and Mathematics

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

 

Today is British physicist Paul Dirac’s birthday (8 August 1902 – 20 October 1984). Dirac shared the 1933 Nobel Prize with Erwin Schrodinger, and is known as one of the founders of quantum physics.

Dirac was a rather famous atheist — his colleague Wolfgang Pauli was said to have remarked, “Our friend Dirac, too, has a religion, and its guiding principle is ‘God does not exist and Dirac is His prophet'” — but later in life he wrote a quite eloquent statement about God and the mathematical relations that describe our universe. In a piece in the May 1963 issue of Scientific American entitled “The Evolution of the Physicist’s Picture of Nature,” he wrote (emphasis added):

It seems to be one of the fundamental features of nature that fundamental physical laws are described in terms of a mathematical theory of great beauty and power, needing quite a high standard of mathematics for one to understand it. You may wonder: Why is nature constructed along these lines? One can only answer that our present knowledge seems to show that nature is so constructed. We simply have to accept it. One could perhaps describe the situation by saying that God is a mathematician of a very high order, and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe. Our feeble attempts at mathematics enable us to understand a bit of the universe, and as we proceed to develop higher and higher mathematics we can hope to understand the universe better.

Later still, Dirac was quoted as having said simply, “God used beautiful mathematics in creating the world.”

Are we to conclude that Dirac, who in 1927 said, “If we are honest — and scientists have to be — we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination,” found God in later life? Did something in the nature of quantum mechanics point him toward the divine?

The Beauty of Mathematics

The language of mathematics … it’s more than a little Greek. (Image: “The Beauty of Mathematics” by Peter Rosbjerg, from Flickr under Creative Commons.)

 

It would seem not. Instead of coming to believe in the existence of God, Dirac accepted the possibility of God’s existence, and even the necessity of God in certain circumstances:

I would like … to set up this connexion between the existence of a god and the physical laws: if physical laws are such that to start off life involves an excessively small chance, so that it will not be reasonable to suppose that life would have started just by blind chance, then there must be a god, and such a god would probably be showing his influence in the quantum jumps which are taking place later on. On the other hand, if life can start very easily and does not need any divine influence, then I will say that there is no god.

That’s an interesting idea, though I wonder (a bit playfully, perhaps) if the physical laws of our universe are such that to produce a Paul Dirac (or a you, or a me) involves “an excessively small chance.” There have been, after all, only one of each of us in all the universe.

Even as powerful a mind as Dirac’s could not solve all the equations of the universe, and I certainly can’t. So I am content to let God be God and handle the beautiful and mysterious mathematics of creation.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Blogging the New CD: L is for a Lake of Beer

Seventh in a series of blog posts about the songs on my new CD, Distorted Vision.

This post will work best if you can read it in an Irish accent … though an English, Scottish, or Aussie accent would work fine as well.

We should probably answer the obvious question: what happened to letters G through K? In this blog series I went straight down the line from A is for Anti-Candidate to F is for a Faded Coat, so why did we jump all the way to L?

I’ll tell you why. First, because the album only has 11 songs on it, so it was unreasonable to think that I might use all 26 letters of the alphabet. Second, while I could have used “G” this time and said it was for a “Great Lake of Beer,” since that’s more of the song’s title, I elected not to.

Sue me.

This song is actually based on a prayer attributed to St. Brigid of Ireland, who lived around A.D. 453-523. You can find several versions of her prayer online, some annotating it as a tenth century prayer, but of course if she really wrote it then it would be a fifth or sixth century prayer. This version starts as follows:

I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.
I’d love the heavenly
Host to be tippling there
For all eternity.


St. Brigid of Kildare, rendered in stained glass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Macon, GA (1903). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I took St. Brigid’s prayer, added some words here and there to render it in four rhyming stanzas, and also added this chorus:

I’ll raise my glass in highest honor
Of the man who turned the water into wine
For he taught us how to live a little better
And I’d like to drink with him for all of time

“A Great Lake of Beer (for the King of Kings)”

And because it’s an Irishwoman’s prayer (based, some sources say, on her vision of heaven as having a great lake of beer), I tried to write my best approximation of an Irish tune around it. The only way for you to decide if I was successful, of course, is to listen to it.

I hope you like it!

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather