PART II: THAT SETTLES THAT!

(CONTINUED FROM PART I)

Since one’s beliefs drive one’s behavior, we need to be certain that important decisions affecting, for example, the issue of embryonic stem cell research, are not based on the biblical commandment that one shall not commit murder. Far-fetched? Not at all, especially when one learns that former President George W. Bush referred to such research as the taking of human life, saying as he vetoed a measure lifting his restrictions on human embryonic stem cell experiments: “Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical,” He called the United States “a nation founded on the principle that all human life is sacred.” Now, I cannot get inside the mind of our forty-third president, but I suspect that he has based that comment on his understanding of the Bible and not upon scientific evidence.

After all, this is the man who told a Texas evangelist: “I feel like God wants me to run for president. I can’t explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen… I know it won’t be easy on me or my family, but God wants me to do it.”

This is the man, mind you, who told Nabil Shaath, Palestinian foreign minister at the time: “I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’ And I did. And now, again, I feel God’s words coming to me, ‘Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East.’ And, by God, I’m gonna do it.”

Such statements worry me. And they should worry you as well.

And then there is Willard Mitt Romney who almost became President of the United States. On Meet the Press recently, Romney said: “But I think marriage should be defined in the way that it has been defined for several thousand years . . .” implying, of course, marriage as defined by the Bible.

Such statements worry me. And they should worry you as well.

And as for getting married biblically, you can do that in all kinds of imaginative ways – take two wives and someone else’s sex slave as the patriarch Abraham did, or three hundred sex slaves as King Solomon did (not to mention the seven hundred wives), or your brother’s widow in addition to your own wife. And remember, if your sex slave runs away because you are cruel to the person, the Bible (in the New Testament book of Philemon) says that other people have the duty to return the slave to you, which basically imposes the duty of trafficking slaves back to sadistic sex maniacs who exploit them. But if the owner is nice and a good Christian, he might consider letting the sex slave go. But he does not have to. Of course, Saint Paul solves the whole problem in 1 Corinthians 7:8 when he writes: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do.” So contrary to Romney’s notion that the Bible authorizes only a single kind of marriage, (of which it approves) actually it much prefers believers to die out in a single generation. And if all the biblical literalists would just obey 1 Corinthians 7:8, instead of holding up some imaginary ideal of biblical marriage for everyone, the whole problem would be over with in just a generation. Then the rest of us could have some peace and quiet and make rational policy on social issues.

Alfred Jules Ayer, the British philosopher who is best known for logical positivism, makes the point that statements have scientific meaning only if they are verifiable. Therefore, statements such as “God exists” or “human life has purpose” or “abortion is evil” are unverifiable statements and scientifically meaningless, although hotly debated, because they cannot be tested.

Again, the famous British writer W. Somerset Maugham, an avowed agnostic, and best remembered for his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage, writes this in The Summing Up: “Experience has shown that the prevalence of a belief, no matter for how long it has been held, is no guarantee of its truth. It appears, then, that none of the arguments for the existence of God is valid. But, of course, you do not disprove his existence because you cannot prove it. Awe remains, man’s sense of helplessness, and his desire to attain harmony with himself and the world at large . . . There is no reason why you should not believe so long as you are aware that your belief lacks proof.”

Ah, yes, but there is the rub. If one is unable to distinguish between a fact and an opinion, and if one believes that one knows the “truth” and that all the answers to the current problems of civilization can be found, as the Rev. Dr. Alfred Starratt said in a 1979 interview, “embalmed in printer’s ink between the covers of a book” (i.e. the Bible), then you will not be inclined to seek any other knowledge that might conflict with your preconceived beliefs.

“God said it. I believe it. That settles it.

In an article that appeared in the Baltimore Sun, noted psychiatrist, Gordon Livingston, wrote these words: “The human quality required for the progress of any civilization is curiosity. This desire to formulate and to try to answer important questions about our world is the fundamental driving force behind all scientific inquiry. It is the nature of religious dogmatism to close the doors to discovery.”

Ask Copernicus or Galileo about that! If one is required by one’s faith to believe that the world is nine thousand years old, was created by God in six days, and is the center of the universe, there is no evidence, geological or otherwise, that will cause such a believer to change his mind. This is the difference between a scientific theory, which can be disproved, and a religious belief, which cannot.

We seem not to have learned this. We are still expected to listen to the rantings of those who believe that the State should be in the killing business, of those who would confer personhood on a microscopic collection of cells, of those who would deny us the benefits of stem cell research, and of those who believe that good works are insufficient credentials to enjoy life everlasting.

Do you know that at one time if one lived in the state of Connecticut, one could not buy any form of contraceptives? One had to cross the state line and go into the state of New York for such a purchase. And, why? Because the state legislature was influenced by very vocal and powerful Roman Catholics, whose official dogma was and still is that there can be no “unnatural” form of birth control because the Bible directs humankind to “be fruitful and to multiply.” This directive, of course, can also be interpreted to prohibit abortion.

On February 22, 2006, the state legislature of South Dakota made such an interpretation and passed a bill banning all medical abortions except those necessary to save the mother’s life. Governor Michael Rounds (who happens to be a Roman Catholic) signed the bill on March 6 and the ban was to have taken effect on July 1, 2006, but never did because of a court challenge. A referendum for a potential repeal of H.B. 1215 was placed on the ballot for the November 2006 statewide election due to a successful petition. On May 30, over 38,000 signatures were filed, more than twice the 17,000 required to qualify. The law was ultimately repealed by voters on November 7, 2006, the day of Rounds’ re-election.

There is reason to be alarmed that Roe v. Wade, the landmark case decided by the United States Supreme Court on the issue of abortion in 1973, is in grave jeopardy.

In his book, The Sins of Scripture, retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong writes: “The only place where the traditional sexual teaching of the church fuels emotion today is on the issue of abortion, which I regard as nothing more than the last gasp of the birth control battle. Abortion would be minimal today if sex education and birth control were available to all of our citizens. But, of course, conservative Roman Catholic and Protestant churches would never allow that . . . Unfortunately, that effort is periodically impeded by American politicians who seek the conservative religious vote by prohibiting funding of any family-planning clinic where abortion or abortion counseling might be available.”

“God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

Columnist Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe wrote in 2006 these words concerning Plan B, the so-called Morning After Pill: “First, a cowed and politicized FDA told the manufacturer to reapply, restricting the pills to 16 and over. Then, more than a year later, one acting FDA commissioner upped the age to 17. Now the newest acting FDA commissioner, Andrew von Eschenbach, has pushed the age up to 18.” While I suppose we all should be grateful that he did not push the age to menopause, why exactly did the would-be commissioner pick eighteen? Was there some new data? Was there a new study, perhaps? The most that any senator could find out from him at his confirmation hearings was pretty cryptic: “I believe 18 is appropriate.” Of that statement, Goodman writes: “With that, von Eschenbach won the title of ‘The Believer’ to match his friend and president, ‘The Decider.’”

This bureaucrat believes that age eighteen is “appropriate?” How can he believe that? There are still about 750,000 teenagers below the age of eighteen who become pregnant every year. About seventy percent of all Americans have sex by age eighteen. I find it ludicrous that Dr. von Eschenbach, who was eventually confirmed as Commissioner of the FDA by the Senate on December 7, 2006 and currently serves on the Board of Directors of BioTime, a biotechnology company, never told us why eighteen is so appropriate. A blanket age restriction is never appropriate. Is this just another example of a religious belief driving national policy? Just asking. . .

So, what can we learn from all this? Perhaps just two things.

First of all, we can learn that the Bible should not be used as the basis for making decisions on issues that have national and global implications and to justify despicable behavior. Gandhi once said: “The most heinous and the most cruel crimes of which history has record have been committed under the cover of religion or equally noble motives.”

And secondly, we can learn that we should recognize that one’s religion is a very personal matter and that each of us has the right to believe what seems right for each of us. This attitude should encourage us to respect the viewpoints of others who may think differently from us.

I believe that the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katherine Jefferts Schori, said it best when asked if she believed that Jesus is the only way to get to heaven. She replied: “We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could act in no other way is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.”
I most heartily agree with that viewpoint. One version of respectful Christian prayer for members of other religions is expressed in a fraction anthem at the Holy Eucharist used at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, (as well as other places) drawn from an unknown source:
“We break this bread and drink this cup for those who journey with us,
for those who travel the way of the Hindus,
for those who follow the path of Buddha,
for our sisters and brothers of Islam,
for Native peoples,
for the Jewish people from whom we come,
for all those who walk the way of faith,
for the earth we have wasted, for those who have no bread
and for ourselves in our brokenness.”

Well, I do wonder what the person with his bumper sticker theology thinks about any of this! By his standards, my beliefs as a Christian are questionable. If he goes by the criteria propounded in the creed by Athanasius, a fourth-century Bishop of Alexandria, I am clearly suspect. In part, that creed states: “Whoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly . . . This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.”

I have not lived my life by the Athanasian Creed. I have lived it by my own creed. The basic difference between my personal credo and that of Athanasius is that while Athanasius held that beliefs are a prerequisite to being a Christian, I believe that deeds are far more important. As I have grown older, (and hopefully, wiser) I have become less a believer in creeds, doctrines and dogmas and more of trying to be a follower of the first century Galilean Jew known as Jesus. For me, at least, what should I do as a Christian is a far more important question than what should I believe.

In the book, The Power of Myth, based on a six-part PBS television series hosted by Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell asserts what he believes is the highest religious teaching. Campbell states: “I think of compassion as the fundamental religious experience and, unless that is there, you have nothing.”

When I was chaplain in a hospital, I visited all patients in the hospital regardless of their religious preference, which included those having none at all. On more than one occasion, a patient would look at me with fearful eyes and confess: “Oh, Father, I haven’t been to church in thirty-five years.” And I would respond, “I don’t remember asking you when you last attended church. Now that we have that issue out of the way, how may I help you through your stay here in this hospital?” On more than one occasion, I accompanied a patient to the Operating Room, especially if that person had no family or friends to give him support. I would like to believe that my response was what Joseph Campbell had in mind when he spoke of “compassion as the fundamental religious experience.”

I believe that Jesus of Nazareth demonstrated that quality and after a lifetime of studying his life, and after separating what I consider to be the wheat from the chaff, I have tried to confront every situation that I have encountered by doing what I believe is consistent with what Jesus would have done. I certainly do not say this in any prideful or boastful way, but I am satisfied to let my record speak for itself and to humbly say with Gandhi, “my life is my message.”

And so to that dear soul with his succinct nine-word bumper sticker theology, I sincerely hope that settles that!

********
(In coming posts, I will have more to say about the Bible as the “Word of God” as well as whether this nation was founded on Christian principles. Stay tuned.)

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