Thursday, September 30, 2010

Capital Punishment

Recently, I've seen a rash of news articles considering capital punishment. The idea of capital punishment is absolutely abhorrent to me, no matter what the crime. The thought of purposely killing another human being strapped to a table makes me physically ill. It has become so awful that I must force myself not to read any of the article articles concerning an execution.

I am aware scores of people would emphatically disagree with my feelings. Those people on death row have committed horrific crimes, almost always murder. The loved ones of the victims will never be able to fully recover from their loss and I cannot blame them for desiring revenge on these criminals. And I have no objection to life sentences for murders.

Despite this, I cannot support capital punishment. To me, it is the equivalent of another murder. It fixes nothing. It cannot bring the victim(s) back to life. It cannot heal the pain their death caused. All it does is create more people who have lost a loved ones, for, no matter how evil their actions are, murderers still have families and friends, and their deaths will also cause great pain.

What is worse is the absolute indifference from the justice system. In Texas, several death row inmates have been denied permission to introduce new DNA evidence that could exonerate them. Their lives are viewed as worthless and no one cares enough to even absolutely determine their guilt. It is sickening that these criminals lives are seen as so expendable. They become nothing more than a statistic.

From a practical view, in the United States it costs more to execute a criminal than to leave them in prison for the rest of their lives. It is also an unfair penalty, with minorities predisposed to be sentenced to death than caucasians for similar crimes. A multitude of studies have demonstrated that the existence of a death penalty does not deter crime. Yet none of these rational reasons have a substantial influence on my own opinion. The strongest instinct inside me tells me that executing a human being is deeply and profoundly wrong.

Most would presumably question my intense feelings for murders and I doubt my opinion is widely held. How can I feel sick over people who have committed heinous crimes and never contributed positively to society in any way? They ask "where is your sympathy for the victim?". Or "what about justice?"

Well, my sympathy for the victim is just as strong. But I cannot, and will not, eradicate my sympathy and compassion for the murderers. The Bible itself tells us to love our enemies. As a society, we should do everything we can to help these people. A majority of them  have been neglected or abused as children. This by no means excuses their crimes. But it does mean that we should be aware of the factors that can put individuals on the path toward a life of crime.

As for justice, I think that life in prison serves the place of justice. They will be punished for their entire lives. Execution is not necessary for justice to be accomplished, nor will it reverse the agony the criminal has produced. Only God has that ability.

I deeply believe in the infinite worth in every single person, no matter how terrible their crimes. I have always felt this way, but my feelings have intensified the past year. I believe in a God who is love. If God loves every person equally, how can I be justified in feeling that the taking of a life by execution is justice? How do I know that, if given the chance, these people might change? Shouldn't they be given that chance? 

The Religious Ignorance of Americans

The Pew Religious Quiz has been making headlines today. To be honest, I did not find the results surprising. When debating with Christians about theology, I have been utterly shocked at the lack of knowledge of their own tradition. I can at least understand being ignorant of other religions. While sad, I do not necessarily expect people to be experts in ideas they have never been exposed to. But how can you be so ignorant of your own beliefs? Frankly, it's pathetic. How do you expect people to take your beliefs seriously when you yourself don't understand them?

The worst part for me was when I was looking at some of the details of the study. The first chart breaks down how different religious groups did on particular kinds of questions. Protestants as a whole got 6.5 out of 12 questions on The Bible and Christianity. Wow. Barely over 50% competence on subjects their entire life is supposed to revolve around.

A short quiz with 15 questions was also included. I got all 15 right. Taking it made me even more incredulous of the results because I found it incredibly easy. That level of ignorance in a country so diverse as the United States is scary.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Omni-Characteristics of God (Part 2: Omnipresence)

This will be my second post in a five part series discussing the common characteristics of God and how I see them in light of my universalism. The five parts are:
  1. Omnibenevolence (God is all-loving)
  2. Omnipresence (God is present everywhere in space and time)
  3. Omniscience (God is all-knowing, past, present, and future)
  4. Omnipotence (God is all-powerful)
  5. The Problem of Evil (The question of why, if God has the above 4 characteristics, evil exists in the universe)
For my second post in this series, I continue with God's omnipresence. The word omnipresence comes from the Latin words "omnis" (all), and "praesentia" (presence), and it's literal meaning is pretty self-explanatory. Basically, it means God is everywhere. While simple enough to define, I feel the implications of God's omnipresence are deep and complex.

Personally, I believe in the concept of panentheism. Panentheism contains two aspects of God: transcendence and immanence, both of which form part of His omnipresence.

God's Transcendence-

To say God is transcendent is to say that He exists outside the physical world, away from time and space. This is the picture of God most religious people seem to have (even if they do say things like "God is with you!"). They imagine God as a distant entity, observing us, and judging us, from far away and only rarely interjecting into the world. Its almost as if God's transcendence is viewed a superlative human being with supernatural powers and a rather nasty temper.

My picture of God's transcendence is quite different. I see it as the ineffable part of God, the part that is vast consciousness we are too microscopic to comprehend in any way. It is God who is Mystery. It is the God which created the universe, with its billions of galaxies, trillions of stars and planets, and who could count every single subatomic particle He used to build it all. It is the God who designed the laws His universe is founded on, allowing everything from the Big Bang, to nuclear fusion in the core of a star, to the unique density curve of water, and the evolution of single-cells to human beings.

God's Immanence:

To say that God is immanent is to say that He completely permeates the physical universe and exists within the space and time of this universe. As I noted above, I feel this quality of God is often ignored, even if a belief in it is professed. For me, it is easy to understand this seeming paradox. During the most challenging moments of our life, God's presence can seem extraordinarily remote, almost like He is indifferent to our sufferings. At the same time, the idea that you are not important enough for God's attention is common. I cannot tell you how many times thoughts like "Out of the almost 7 billion people on Earth can God actually give a damn about me?" have crossed my mind, and I greatly doubt I am alone.

However, once self-doubt has been put away, God's immanence is more clearly seen. If God's transcendence is His Mystery, than God's immanence is His Love. It is God's immanence that allows Him to enjoy and even grow a personal relationship with each being in His creation. In His immanence, God becomes a parent and a friend, allowing us to relate to Him, instead of being overwhelmed by the vast mystery of His transcendence.

God IS with us always, even those times when we cannot perceive His presence. Even better, God is not following us around with a clipboard, taking notes and docking points every time we screw up. He is here to support us, guide us, and love us, no matter our past crimes.

Yet God's omnipresence does not end with God being with us. God is also within us. Although the most common belief about human creation is that of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing), I believe in creatio ex deo (creation out of God). We are literally children of God, and our souls were created from God Himself. We can never be separated from God because we are made from God.

God's omnipresence encompasses His transcendence, His immanence, and His creation of us from Himself. Since omnipresence brings together aspects of God which almost seem contrary, I believe it is hardest to understand. Despite this challenge, I find great comfort as it allows us to be in awe of God's mystery, experience His Love, and know the Source from which we came and to which we will eventually return.

    Thursday, September 23, 2010

    God's Injustice

    One of the most common criticisms of universalism is that it is unjust. The lack of a form of eternal punishment, whether conscious torment or complete annihilation, means that universalists are focusing only on God's love and mercy and totally excluding His judgment.

    This criticism can be narrowed down into two schools of thought:

    First are those who equate "no eternal hell" with "no punishment". This is a simple misunderstanding. Punishment is important. Any decent parent punishes their children, and since God is the perfect parent, His punishment would be perfect. Its purpose is for correction and reconciliation, not torment.

    Second are those who believe you cannot have justice without eternal punishment. They see anything other than nonbelievers and unrepentant sinners in hell as injustice. In my opinion, this approach is completely irrational and does a huge disservice to God.

    In The Republic, the philosopher Plato, using the voice of his mentor, Socrates, creates a dialogue around the question "What is justice?" With Socrates as a guide, the characters in The Republic outline the perfect city-state modeled with justice as the centerpiece. This dialogue is eye-opening in that is proves not only that justice is difficult to define, but that it is almost impossible to create a perfectly just world.

    One of my favorite quotes from The Republic is "The highest reach of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not." (Book II). I believe this perfectly describes the god of eternal punishment. This god commits acts of unspeakable horror, all in the name of justice. Logically, it makes no sense. Finite crimes committed in a finite period of time, no matter how terrible, do not deserve infinite punishment. 

    Almost every human today considers Adolf Hitler to be the face of evil. Yet Hitler's systematic torture and murder of 7 million people is nothing, absolutely NOTHING, compared to what this god does. The current lifetime of the universe (almost 14 billion years) is infinitesimal to the amount of time this god will torture sinners and unbelievers.

    But that is not even the worst part. The worst part is that all of this is supposedly done out of love, from a god who is love.

    As I mentioned earlier, through The Republic, Plato does a wonderful job of showing you how difficult it is to define justice, and I in no way claim I know what justice is in every circumstance. Only God knows. But, I do know what love is. I know how it feels and I know how it acts. The Bible itself knows:

    Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 4-8)

    I know that God is Love, and no God who is Love could ever abandon and torture one of His children eternally, with absolutely no hope of redemption. No good human would do such a thing to their enemies, let alone anyone they truly loved. Is God worse than us? The mere thought is horrific!

    Love NEVER fails, and because God is Love, God NEVER fails. Losing even one of His children forever is failure. Not only would it be torture for the lost soul, but it would be torture to God Himself. Think about the person you love most. Could you ever be happy knowing they are being forever tortured? So how could God be happy knowing one of His children is lost eternally? Heaven cannot exist if even one soul is missing.

    Eternal hell also fixes nothing. Will a woman who has been raped feel better knowing her rapist is in hell? Or a father who has lost his only child? Maybe for awhile. But does the eternal torture of the rapist and murderer do anything to heal the woman and the father? Not a thing. It might satisfy their desire for revenge, but it serves no redeeming purpose. Their pain and anger need to be healed by reconciliation and forgiveness. Since rape and murder are acts so damaging to the victims, it is doubtful this can occur during this lifetime. But if they are ever to occur, the perpetrators themselves must also be healed and redeemed, and an eternal hell precludes this from happening.

    Justice and love are not exclusionary. On the contrary, they can exist in harmony. I believe God will eventually create justice for every singe being in the universe. But eternal hell is neither just nor loving, and it is definitely not of God. 

    Sunday, September 19, 2010

    Children and Religion

    Earlier today, I had a discussion with a good friend of mine from school. Although she grew up in Louisiana, which (according to wikipedia) has the 2nd highest rate of church attendance in the United States, her family was not religious, and she currently considers herself to be an atheist. Our discussion centered around children raised in religious homes. She feels quite strongly that children should not be exposed to religion until they are old enough to logically and rationally consider religious beliefs for themselves.

    I must admit, part of me agrees with her. Young children are impressionable. They are taught to listen to authority figures, including their parents, teachers, and religious leaders in the community. When growing up in a strict fundamentalist denomination or sect (the religion of the denomination or sect is irrelevant, although in the US, fundamentalist Christianity is the most common), questioning is taken as a sign of weakness or a lack of faith. "The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it" is a common example I constantly see on bumper stickers.

    Is it safe to expose children to such rigid thought when they do not yet have the metal capacity to make their own decisions? Especially when such thought sometimes promotes hated of other groups (nonbelievers, homosexuals, etc.) or denies scientific realities? For me, these question have an easy answer: yes. I feel it is a disservice to these children. Because these religious ideas, and the command not to question these religious ideas, are programmed in at such a young age, they are not likely to be examined rationally even as an adult. Even worse are the children who, for some reason, do not fit into their religious community. Rejection at a young age is extraordinarily damaging and I personally find a person who puts their unyielding religious beliefs before their own family disgusting.

    I call my blog "The Scientific Universalist" and fundamentalism violates both aspects of that stated belief. I believe in inclusion and I reject a literalistic interpretation of religious scripture written thousands of years ago. I believe in evolution. I believe in the Big Bang. I believe the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. And I believe every person has the right to examine these scientific findings and form their own opinion on them without feeling trapped by the fundamentalist beliefs they were raised in.

    At the same time, fundamentalism makes up a minority of religious belief. A majority teaches love and respect, even if there is disagreement. Using religion, children can learn to be compassionate for those less fortunate and forgive those who harm them. Programs run by churches keep at-risk children off the street or allow children to help their community. Although all of these things can be accomplished without religion (since religion does not have a monopoly on morality and good deeds), it is no less valuable to society than secular programs of the same nature.

    As long as children are encouraged to question and change their faith, and even explore opposing ideas, I believe religion can become a positive influence in their young lives. The same is true of any kind of belief system, such as political beliefs. Children should not automatically be assigned the beliefs of their parents. Allowing them to discover their own beliefs will teach them to think critically about the world and themselves and make them into better adults.

    Friday, September 17, 2010

    The Omni-Characteristics of God (Part 1: Omnibenevolence)

    This will be my first post in a five part series discussing the common characteristics of God and how I see them in light of my universalism. The five parts are:
    1. Omnibenevolence (God is all-loving)
    2. Omnipresence (God is present everywhere in space and time)
    3. Omniscience (God is all-knowing, past, present, and future)
    4. Omnipotence (God is all-powerful)
    5. The Problem of Evil (The question of why, if God has the above 4 characteristics, evil exists in the universe)
     I begin with God's omnibenevolence, which, for me, is His most important characteristic. The word omnibenevolent comes from three Latin words: omnis (meaning "all"), bene (good/well), and volo (want).

    Basically, to say that God is omnibenevolent is to say that He is perfectly good, totally merciful, and all-loving. But how exactly do we define these three pieces of omnibenevolence and what do they mean for our relationship with God?

    Perfectly Good:

    To be perfectly good means to have no trace of evil. To be sinless. God is never jealous or selfish. He never acts out of anger. Everything God does he does for the benefit of His creation. It is God himself who decided what is good and what a person must do to be good. First, it was the 10 Commandments. Later, Jesus shortened this to "love God and your neighbor". For an individual to be good, he or she must follow God's example. Being good is what brings us closer to God.

    Totally Merciful:

    Saying God is totally merciful means that God is always willing to forgive sin. As a universalist, I take it a step further. I believe God always forgives sin. God does "not [count] men's sins against them" (2 Corinthians 5:19). God has already forgiven your sins, even the ones you have not repented or even committed. This does NOT mean repentance is not important. It is vital. Yet God's forgiving grace covers you no matter what. Mercy, as opposed to strict justice, allows us to learn compassion for others, again helping us become closer to God.

    Last, and most complexly, God's omnibenevolence means God is all-loving. God's love extends over all His creation. It is infinite. There is no way to exhaust God's love. God loves every human equally, the worst no less than the best. This love cannot be earned, it is freely given by God; it is unconditional, and does not require that the love be returned. Nothing you do will make God want to love you less or stop loving you.

    Yet love is a complicated word. What do we mean by love? How does God love?

    There are several different types of love, including:
    • Parental love: The love a parent has for a child. Often considered the closet humans can get to unconditional love.
    • Philos love:  The love between good friends with no sexual feelings.
    • Romantic love: Love between individuals which does involve sexual feelings.
    The love often used to describe God however, is called agape. In my opinion, it is a combination between parental love and philos love. God loves us unconditionally like a parent. He is our creator and sustainer, and we are His children. It is why many address Him as "Father". Yet I do not feel parental love completely represent the love of God. He is also our friend. A parent's job is to nurture, protect, and discipline, and God does these things. Yet it is in friends that we confide in. God is our confidant. He knows our every thought. He discerns our motive for every action, good and bad. He understands us far better than we understand ourselves.

    For any human to know us the way God knows us, to know every fleeting thought crossing our mind, would be terrible. How many of us entertain thoughts we do not truly mean or thoughts we would never act on?

    However, it is different with God. His unconditional love and his absolute understanding means we should not feel anxious or embarrassed that he knows us so intimately. It means we can share our hopes, dreams, fears, and problems without anxiety over being judged negatively.

    It is omnibenevolence which make God our God. It is how he creates a personal relationship with all individuals in his creation. It is why we worship Him, pray to Him. It allows Him not to be just our parent, but friend, confidant, and partner. Most importantly, it is why we trust Him and have confidence that, no matter our suffering, God is with us and will never leave us.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010

    Negative Reactions Towards Universalism

    One more time, I wish to expand my recent writings on intolerance of religious beliefs. Specifically, how intolerance is directed at universalism.

    The examples of intolerance mentioned in my last two posts were committed by a minority of believers in the religious community. But, at the risk of sounding like I have a persecution complex, I feel the dislike of universalism is more widespread (although definitely less vigorous and violent).

    Christianity in the United States is extremely diverse, with thousands of different denominations. The more liberal denominations often have adherents willing to except the validity of other religions (i.e., you do not necessarily have to be a Christian to get into heaven), yet even they usually reject universalism. Why is this?

    One theory is that universalism is perceived as "not fair". Universalism is often interpreted to mean "no punishment for the wicked". Yes, there is the "death then glory" school of universalism, with Hosea Ballou being the most well known advocate of this position. However, a majority of universalists I have encountered do not interpret universalism this way. They believe in some form of punishment for unrepentant sins, usually a type of purgatory (and the many forms that could take), using corrective punishment for rehabilitation.

    Another theory is that universalism is a threat to the familiar. When someone is raised in a particular religious tradition, it frequently becomes part of their identity and the basis of their security. They believe their path is the correct path, and all other paths lead to destruction. Universalism shuns this idea, allowing (depending on the precise type of universalism) several to almost infinite paths to salvation. Recognizing multiple options inevitably takes away power and control from the traditional churches and threatens their monopoly on the truth. Since humans find comfort in being convinced their beliefs are the "true" ones, a system claiming otherwise would easily attract derision.

    The final, and most disturbing, theory on universalism's threat is that there are religious believers who despise, whether secretly or openly, people with opposing religious beliefs and who feel no regret at the thought of them suffering in hell. According to some Christian theologians:

    •  "The blessed in the heavenly realm will watch the torments of the damned so that their beatitude will please them all the more." (Thomas Aquinas)
    • "At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness…". (Tertullian)
    • "The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardor of the love and gratitude of the saints of heaven." (Jonathan Edwards)
    While few today would be willing to say this in such bold terms as the three men above, the sentiment remains. They feel nonbelievers deserve eternal hellfire and plan to enjoy the sufferings of those not lucky enough to be saved as an added bonus of their own redemption.

    Universalism, even when framed within conservative Christianity, is a radical idea. The Catholic Church even considers it heresy. When fear of hell is used to control people's religious beliefs, radical ideas are painted as a threat to their salvation. Who can blame them? If they truly believe that becoming a universalist gives you an express ticket to hell, you cannot blame them for their dislike. On the other hand, with those who delight in everlasting hell (but only for others, of course),  universalism becomes not a threat to their salvation, but to their eternal happiness.

    Either way, this intolerance arises from the teaching of an eternal hell. It uses fear to force people into unquestioning compliance, can twist minds into sickening glee at the sufferings of others, and drives away those seekers whose heart cannot mesh their desire for a loving God with His supposedly eternal and fiery torture chamber. It is a doctrine which, in my opinion, has done more damage to both God and religion than any other.

    Religious Reading List

    Here is a reading list of the religious books I have enjoyed over the past couple of years, organized by category. In the near future, I plan to start reviewing some of the individual books in depth.

    Universalism Books:
    • Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? (Hans Urs von Balthasar)
    • Destined for Salvation (Kalen Fristad)
    •  If God is Love (Philip Gulley and James Mulholland)
    • If Grace is True (Philip Gulley and James Mulholland)
    • Furious Pursuit: Why God Will Never Let You Go (Tim King and Frank Martin)
    • Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God (Dennis, Shelia, and Matthew Linn)
    • The Gospel of Inclusion: Reaching Beyond Religious Fundamentalism to the True Love of God and Self (Rev. Carlton Pearson)
    • God Is Not a Christian, Nor a Jew, Muslim, Hindu...: God Dwells with Us, in Us, Around Us, as Us (Rev. Carlton Pearson)
    • Spiritual Terrorism: Spiritual Abuse from the Womb to the Tomb (Boyd Purcell)
    • The Inescapable Love of God (Thomas Talbott)
    • The Golden Thread: God's Promise of Universal Salvation (Ken Vincent)
    Science and Religion: 
    • The Language of God: A Scientist Present Evidence of Belief (Francis Collins)
    • Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (Kenneth Miller)  
    • The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (Dalai Lama) 
    General Religion:
    • City of God (St. Augustine)
    • Confessions (St. Augustine)
    •  The God We Never Knew (Marcus Borg)
    • The Varieties of Religious Experience (William James)
    • The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins)
    • Letter to a Christian Nation (Sam Harris)
    If anyone has any recommendations of other religious books (no matter what type), I'd be happy to hear them. I'm up for reading pretty much anything.

    Wednesday, September 15, 2010

    Accidental Ads

    I apologize to anyone who visited the site of the past couple days who ended up seeing a ton of ads on the sidebar and below the posts. I was modifying my layout and somehow accidentally ended up with several of them on my page, but for some reason, I couldn't see them myself. They should all be removed now.

    Religious Intolerance

    I would like to expand some of the ideas I addressed in my last post. In the United States, especially this time of the year, intolerance of Muslims is the most visible form of religious discrimination, but it is not alone.

    One thing I love about the United States is its diversity. We are surely a melting pot, and I think we are blessed to live in a country so heterogeneous.

    A few months after his election, President Obama said:

    "One of the great strengths of the United States is ... we have a very large Christian population --we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values."

    The sentiment expressed in the quote is noble but, sadly, I am not always sure it is true. There are a multitude people in the US who presume the country "belongs" only to them and that those other groups whose ideas and beliefs are not aligned with their own are "un-American". How often during the 2008 elections did we see a politician claim he or she represented "real Americans"? Since when are people living in New York or California not "real Americans"? 

    During my life, I have witnessed frequent act of intolerance, but the most vivid was the religious intolerance. It goes far beyond mere disagreement. People become threatened by followers of other religions. They apply sinister motives to the presence of these people (e.g., "All Muslims are terrorists and want to destroy America", or "Atheist are kicking God out of schools so they can indoctrinate our children"). This creates the dichotomy of 'us versus them', which I believe leads to this absolutely absurd idea that there is a "real America" and a "fake America".

    To be honest, I do not understand this attitude. Why are people so threatened by difference? How does somebody praying to Allah in a mosque or another giving a public reading of The Origin of Species harm you, your family, or this country? Why do some believers feel the need to force others to conform to their moral standards?

    All major religions have a version of the Golden Rule: treat others the way you wish to be treated. Yet a minority (but a vocal minority) of religious people act as if that rule comes with a starred footnote saying: "*NOTE-only applies to those others who look, sound, and act just like you".

    The goal of religion should be to unite, not to divide. Our common belief in a higher power should demonstrate to us how similar we actually are, even if our beliefs about this higher power can be contradictory at times. God did not make us as cookie-cutter models. That would be boring. How could we learn to be good people if we could not learn to tolerate and, eventually, understand, those who are different from us? In the real world, people who expect everyone to conform to their wants are considered selfish and spoiled. Why does this not carry over to religion?

    Personally, I suspect this conflict comes about because of the exclusivity in religion. If you believe only you and those with identical beliefs are saved, then the rest of humanity becomes expendable. Yes, they might say "God still loves them" but they still "know" they are dammed, and therefore, not actually equal in the eyes of God. If you agree with their premise of exclusivity, is actually a fairly logical conclusion.

    The difference for me is not just disagreement with this premise, but outright disgust. My universalism tells me that God loves every single individual on this planet absolutely unconditionally. There are no favorites. There are no special groups. There are no expendables. All people are the children of God, no exceptions. So treating anyone of them poorly is identical to treating my own brother badly. 

    The past 100 years has seen great progress in human tolerance. Racism and sexism are slowly fading in much of the world. Even homosexuality is becoming more and more accepted. When will religious differences stop inciting wars or tearing apart families? When will religion stop being one of the last barriers against a united humanity?

    Tuesday, September 14, 2010

    9/11 and the Hatred of Muslims

    One of the saddest aspects of the anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks is the renewal of anti-Islamic rhetoric. The news, instead of being dominated by remembrances of the victims of this tragedy, are saturated with stories of groups or individuals who loathe Islam and paint the entire religion and all its over one billion adherents as terrorists.

    Unfortunately, this year's sad anniversary occurs as the controversy over the Muslim community center set to be built near ground zero escalates. Ironically, those protesting the community center often portray themselves as "patriots". Yet they are not upholding American ideals. The 1st Amendment of the Bill of Rights states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". In the United States of America, every individual has the right to practice his or her religion in any location and in any manner as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others.

    Many of those opposed to the community center also shout about "sensitivity". Sensitivity to what? Muslim Americans died in the World Trade Center that day, along with their fellow Christian citizens. Since when has freedom of religion come with the caveat of "sensitivity"? Should Christian churches not be allowed near the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial because Timothy McVeigh was a Christian?

    An even worse idea I have heard put forward by some of these protesters is that mosques should not be allowed in the United States because Christian churches are not allowed in Saudi Arabia. So what? We are not Saudi Arabia. We are not a theocracy. Frankly I find this argument not only disgusting, but childish. It is nothing more than the adult equivalent of "He does it, so why can't I?" Any mature person should be content that those people and belief systems different from their own deserve the same rights.

    Another tragedy comes from Flordia and the Rev. Terry Jones, who threatened to burn a copy of the Qur'an. At the last moment, he decided not to go through with this hateful demonstration. But the damage is done. Two people have died in riots protesting his actions. No political statement made in hate is worth someone's life.

    Islam is not perfect. Neither is Christianity. Or Buddhism. Or Judaism. All religions can, and have, been used for evil purposes. It does not mean that the religion itself is evil or that its believers do not deserve the same rights and protections. The actions of a few misguided radicals does NOT define Islam and we should not let it define our reaction to Muslims exercising their freedom of religion.

    Favorite Bible Quotes

    A list of my seven favorite quotes from the Bible. These choices are from longer passages to tiny snippets, but all of them I find either thought provoking or comforting. They are not listed in particular order, although the last one is my absolute favorite. All quotes come from the New International Edition.
    • God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. (...) There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:16-19)
    • "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: (...) "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." The second is this: "Love your neighbor as yourself." There is no commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:29-31)
    • The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalms 34:18)
    • Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:8)
    • Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said: "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone- while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?" (Job 38:1-7)
    • "Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD. (Isaiah 1:17-18)
    • "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:3-4)

    Monday, September 13, 2010

    Jupiter Bright in the Sky

    For anyone interested in astronomy, Jupiter will be extremely bright throughout the month of September. Actually, it is at the brightest magnitude that can be seen from Earth. It rises in the east around sunset, so best viewing would be a couple hours later. Brighter than any other star, it is easily visible to the naked eye. Even a small telescope will have enough power to show you Jupiter's reddish-orange equatorial bands and it's four largest moons (Europa, Callisto, Ganymede, and Io) as small points of light close to the planet.

    *Note: To tell the difference between a planet and a star, look closely at the light. Starlight twinkles, but the light from a planet does not.

    Defining My Universalism

    Like any theological concept, the idea of universalism will have varying meanings for different people. In my last post, I discussed how I do not see universalism through the lens of Christianity, despite the commonality of that view. In this post, I will attempt to put forth in more detail exactly what I mean when I state "I am a universalist". The best way I perceive to do this is with a list of what I do believe, what I do not believe, and what I am unsure of.

    1. I believe God is absolutely unconditional love and that this love extends to all people indiscriminately, regardless of their beliefs or actions.

    2. I believe that, because God is love, God will not allow any of his creation to be lost forever. In the end, all people will be saved.

    3. I do NOT believe this means a person is allowed to do whatever he/she pleases and still "get into heaven". I do believe there are consequences for our negative actions, especially those which we do not repent. Universalism is NOT an excuse to sin. It should be an excuse to become a better person when you realize that all people are truly equal in the eyes of God.

    4. I am unsure of how exactly sin in punished. I have heard of many options, including a temporary hell of corrective punishment (like a purgatory) or reincarnation (where important life lessons are repeated until properly learned). While I lean toward the former explanation, I have not yet formed a final decision.

    5. I do believe that, whatever form punishment may take, God does out of love and concern, not anger.

    6. I do believe there are many paths to God and to being a good person, and that a belief in God (theism) is NOT necessary to be a good person.

    7. I do NOT believe that all paths lead to God, nor that all paths are equal. Every major religion has (in my opinion) valid paths to God. But every major religion also has paths that I consider lead away from God. Any belief system can lead to God, but when twisted for selfish personal gain, it will quickly lead the follower down a destructive path away from God.

    These 7 statements sum up my universalism and my belief about God. Obviously it is not perfect. There is a certain degree of uncertainty (especially in point 4) that I hope to write on in more detail with a later post. Until then, I hope this explanation will at least assist you in understanding more precisely what I mean when I say "I believe in universalism".

    Sunday, September 12, 2010

    Universalism and Christianity: My Perspective

    I grew up in a Christian family. I have attended many Christian churches (although most considered themselves Southern Baptist). I celebrate Christian holidays. It is the religious tradition I am most knowledgeable about and the tradition I am closest too. I knew little about any other tradition until high school, and it was not until I was in college that I extensively studied another religious tradition.

    Despite this, Christianity is the religion I feel the most isolated from. I know that many universalists practice this belief through the eyes of Christianity, believing that all people will be saved through Jesus Christ. While I take no issue with this, I do not. My early experiences with Christianity were extraordinarily negative. It was in a Christian church I was taught to hate myself and to fear God. Even with my conversion to universalism, those ideas still haunt me at times. I am not free of the damage that has been done.

    But it is not only past events influencing this feeling of isolation. Almost everyday I see Christians who claim they love everyone isolate and condemn those whom they feel do not fit into their tiny little box of what they believe constitutes a "good person". Two of my best friends are homosexual. Neither of them would ever hurt another person, yet they are told what they do is evil. One of them is about to marry her partner of 3 years and she is told that her love is sinful. I have seen Muslim and Buddhist friends threatened with damnation because they do not follow Jesus Christ. I have seen how much this hurts them. Because of this, Christianity continues to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

    However, I am not blinded by hate. I know this view of Christianity is not fair. I know most Christians are not so hateful and work tirelessly to practice the love that they preach. I know there are Christian churches which are inclusive and accepting of all people.

    I also know this view is not fair to Jesus. Although I have not decided for myself exactly what he was (whether Son of God, a prophet inspired by God, or just a normal human), I do believe his ideas are immensely valuable to humanity as a whole, as well as individuals, regardless of the religious tradition they follow. It is because of this that I do not equate Jesus with Christianity since Christianity does not, and cannot, claim monopoly over him. Muslims consider him a prophet and people from every walk of life have been inspired by his teachings, including myself.

    Even with this knowledge, however, I cannot bring myself back to Christianity, even a Christianity framed with universalist ideals. I still have much bitterness and anger towards Christianity that I must work through. How long this will take is anyone's guess. I might not ever be able to return to the tradition of my childhood. Even if I am able to work through the negativity Christianity has left me with, that is no guarantee I will want to return. Forgiving does not mean forgetting. I also have my personality working against me. I am an independent person, and prefer to study and worship God on my own terms. I am not criticizing those who prefer to do those things in a community setting. I just feel differently.

    Overall, I do believe Christianity is a positive force in the world. But until I can heal from the wounds inflicted on me from one sect of Christianity, I do not feel comfortable claiming myself to be a Christian in any way.

    My Journey

    From early childhood, religion presented a problem for me. I grew up in a religious family, and my identity as a Christian was just assumed.It was never a conscious choice made on my part, it just was.

    My grandfather had taught me to read even before I entered kindergarten, and I devoured numerous books. It was around this time my interest in science became apparent. At first it was biology. I loved reading about animals, especially reptiles. Later, I transitioned into astronomy after learning about the constellations at summer camp.

    Around the same time I began to attend Sunday school, where I was taught many Bible stories. Even at a young age, I noticed inconsistencies between what I was taught in school and read in books to what I was told the Bible said. I remember asking my mother how cave men fit into the story of Adam and Eve. Since she had grown up in the Catholic Church, with its more accepting attitude towards science, she explained to me how the Bible stories were not necessarily meant to be taken literally, but were stories told thousands of years ago to help people make sense of the world. This made sense to me, and for a time everything was fine.

    Just before my 5th birthday, my family moved to Oklahoma when my step-dad received a job offer. Almost immediately, we began attending a church which was much more conservative, both in its politics and its theology. Since it was also a small church, Sunday school was not offered, only a nursery for children under 7, so I attended regular sermons with my parents for the first time. It was at this time religion, and specifically Christianity, became a destructive force in my life.

    Although not a fire and brimstone preacher, the pastor at my church often talked about hell. He made it clear that those who did not accept Jesus Christ as their savior would suffer eternally in ways that could not even be imagined. But, more frequently, he talked about what he called "false" Christians: those who believed they were saved, but because they did not live a life free of sin and measure up to the perfection of God, were actually damned by the judgment of a vengeful and wrathful god.

    Being a rather sensitive child, I took these messages to heart. Although most people would not have described me as a bad child (I got good grades, usually did my chores, never got in serious trouble, etc.) I began to fear that I was somehow one of these "false" Christians, and that I was destined for hell.

    For many years, I went through a vicious cycle of determination to be a good Christian and destructive failure whenever I felt I had done something to anger the god I was taught about every Sunday. Adding to this was an unhappy home life. My biological father had abandoned my mother during her pregnancy with me when she refused an abortion. Afraid of being a single mother, she quickly married my step-dad. Because of this, my step-dad's family, with the exception of my grandfather, never truly accepted me. When my little sister was born, my step-dad's attitude toward me turned cold. I was no longer necessary. Stuck in a series of dead-end jobs, he took his anger out on me, both emotionally and physically. With the deaths of my grandfather and all my mother's family occurring before the age of 10, I was left in a family that did not want me. I felt exceptionally alone.

    Often, I thought these tragic events were a punishment from God because I was such a bad person. Eventually, I lost all hope. During my teenage years, I ignored God. I felt he hated me, considered me worthless, and was going to send me to hell no matter what I did. Why bother trying to please God when he wanted nothing to do with me? I became depressed. I would purposely injure myself. I even attempted suicide twice.

    My life began to improve in high school. I had a wonderful group of friends. Although I never shared my religious struggles with them, they discovered my depression, self-injury, and the marks my step-dad left on me and made sure I received proper help. Because there was not enough evidence, my step-dad has never been punished for his abuse of me, but the investigation alone scared him enough to stop him from physically harming me.

    With this help, I began to recover from my childhood. Religion was no longer important to me. I dedicated my life to science and felt that God was not necessary for that life. I began to call myself an agnostic. Yet, I was never able to move into atheism. As much as I desired to not believe in God, I could not. He was always in the back of my mind. Part of me knew he was there.

    The problem was, along with God, was overwhelming fear. The thought of God still terrified me because it brought with it the certainty of my damnation to an everlasting hell filled with indescribable torments. It was a thought that made me physically ill.

    Yet, once I left home for college, and despite my immersion into the scientific community, I longed for more. I felt that my life was missing something, and although I loathed admitting it to myself, deep down I realized this longing had something to do with God. But I did not know how to get past my terror. The metaphors of "God as a loving Father" were useless for me. "Loving" and "father", in my experience, did not belong in the same sentence. And "God is Love" was equally pointless, because an entity whose very nature was love could not have created an eternal hell and actually send the people he supposedly loved there.I had a vague idea of the God I wanted, but I had seen nothing to show me He was real. I felt very isolated and alone.

    Eventually, the desire for answers was stronger than my fear. So, I did what I had always done: I began to read. I combed online for people who felt the way I felt. And I was utterly shocked when I actually found them. Lots of them. I discovered entire websites devoted to the idea of universalism. I read stories of people who had the same disillusion with Christianity and terror of God as I. I found arguments for why an everlasting hell is not consistent with God's loving character nor is it even Biblical. I saw how believers of universalism reconciled their belief in God with their hatred of conditional love and damnation.

    Yet belief still eluded me. My fear was as strong as ever. What if I was wrong? What if this was a trick? How could I be sure?

    This inner conflict came to a head one sleepless night. I was angry and I was scared. I wanted God. But I did not know how to trust Him. How could I? After everything that had happened to me? How could I ever overcome my fear? I spent several hours that night, crying softly and silently, feeling scared and alone. But suddenly, everything changed. I was surrounded by a feeling I knew to be the Love of God. I felt Him inside myself, almost too much to bear, but not painful. Words cannot describe it. I knew at that instant to God loved me more than I could possibly comprehend. He loved me and He was sorry for the terrible things that had happened to me. I cannot tell you how long this lasted. I just remember finally falling asleep immersed in the Love of God, the fear I had struggled with for so many years wiped away like it was nothing.

    Since then, I have become a dedicated universalist. I believe that God is Love and this means that God will save every single person in the end. I still have many questions, and readily admit there are many things I still do not understand, and might not ever understand, but I know in my heart that the God I have found through universalism is real and I have nothing to fear from Him.