A lesson about dithering squirrels

squirrel-deadOn the way home from the art studio this Sunday morning, I slowed the car to allow a squirrel in the street to make a decision about which way to go. You know the story. The squirrel turned one way, then the other. Suddenly it scampered to the curve.

But you can’t always see the results of those frantic decisions until you’re another forty feet down the street. We all tend to glance back hoping the squirrel did not get crushed under a car tire. That’s when guilt grips us if we have a conscience. A life wasted, it seems, by random activities in the universe.

Except random activities are the rule of the day. They happen every second for all of eternity. As far as your mind can travel, there are squirrels of one kind or another making choices all the way from the subatomic level up the expanding travels of a galaxy through time itself.

That is evolution in progress. Squirrels are either getting run over or living to face yet another day. The squirrels left dead on the street often get run over again and again. Their bodies are either eaten by scavengers, consumed by worms and bacteria or simply crushed into the asphalt as a grease spot that no one notices.

Predestination

Now there used to be a theory or two in theology that said God controlled every one of these activities. Everything in the universe was made to order. God worked like a fast order chef or a control freak head waiter at a busy restaurant. That was predestination.

squirrel-on-the-roadBut that makes God out to be a pretty bad character, the dispenser of evil as well as goodness. Which makes for thorny questions when it comes to the personal fate of members of the human race, who are so preoccupied with their own destinies they can hardly comprehend their real place in the universe.

That’s also what makes it so difficult for some people to imagine that the human race emerged from the same soup as the rest of life on earth. Never mind that the soup runs through our veins is blood that mimics ocean water in its salinity, or that we share 3/4 of our genetic makeup with just about every other living thing on earth.

Never mind. That’s too much alignment for squirrels that prefer to dither over less relevant facts. Like whether Mary was a Virgin, or that John the Baptist was lefthanded. And so on.

Dither yonder

When it comes to certain types of decision-making, human beings are as dumb as squirrels and make just as many bad choices. Hundreds of thousands of people die each day due to the simple arithmetic involved in bad decisions at the wrong time. Add in the selective pressures of war and famine and natural disasters, all of which are largely avoidable with a little cooperation, and human beings don’t look so smart even in the context of predestination.

But when you look through all this dithering through the cool eye of evolution, it’s all entirely predictable. 99% of all living things that have ever existed in the earth’s history are now extinct. The age of dinosaurs lasted millions of years but ultimately most of them died off through unforgiving circumstances. God didn’t stop that from happening. Not at all. The birds that evolved from dinosaurs or actually are dinosaurs made out okay. But many of them are at risk these days as well, sucked into the Black Hole of the Anthropogenic Age where the gravity of human activity sucks things into non-existence never to be seen or heard again.

Endangered species 

These days, hundreds of species of animals, plants, insects and other life forms are threatened by a new wave of extinctions. This is indeed the Anthropogenic age, when extinctions and climate change and other earthly devastations once-credited to God are now exacted with the same casual precision as a squirrel burying a nut in the wasted Garden of Eden.

Just in the last 100 years, species of birds such as the Passenger Pigeon that once numbered in the billions have been erased from history. Extinct. No more exist. All dead. Nuts buried by squirrels too busy market hunting to care about the eventual outcome. No one stopped to tell them they were nut for shooting so many birds.

The same thing almost happened to the American bison, which now exists mostly in carefully tended herds that number a fraction of populations that once roamed the Great Plains. Just as painful are the losses of flora and fauna we can’t see.

The once great tallgrass prairie is reduced to 1/10th of one percent of its former range.

These were all actions caused by human beings. Thus they represent an engagement in the process of evolution. People who deny this fact typically rely on their own Origin of Species based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. The only explanation they can offer about the extinction of species is a reputed Great Flood that covered the entire earth. Ostensibly the fellow named Noah gathered enough living and breeding sets of life forms on the Ark to repopulation the entire world.

tx-blind-salamander-picture-1To accomplish this feat would have required, of course, a blind salamander from the caves of Texas to crawl across the entire western European continent, swim thousands of miles across a saltwater ocean, climb onto the dry land of the Eastern Seaboard and swim all the way to what is now the State of Texas, crawl across hundreds of miles of parched landscape to where a small population of said blind salamanders still lives and breeds to this day.

The absurdity is not assuaged by the claim that “all things are possible with God.” The examples of impossible migrations are so vast and so daunting that the tale of Noah’s Ark quickly falls into the category of metaphor.

The part of the story that does apply is that human beings do apparently bear some responsibility for the welfare and stewardship of animals, plants and other species on this earth. The entire earth is an ark, if you will. And human beings are doing a really crappy job of playing Noah, wiping out hundreds of species of life forms every year.

The Flood story strongly suggests that God is not afraid of extinction. That fact is borne out by what we know about patterns of extinction through the sciences of paleontology, biology and the theory of evolution.

To explain God’s relationship to these harsh events, one merely has to acknowledge the presence of free will in the universe. The squirrel on the road makes a choice when a car approaches. It runs back and forth and either gets nailed by a tire or escapes. There is nothing sentimental about this process. It is free will at work.

IMG_0492Human beings thus are subject to choices made by free will as well. These choices fuel or place in the process of evolution. We make good choices, we live. When we make bad choices, sometimes we die. This is true on both an individual and collective basis. Evolution takes place largely in incremental fashion, but it can also roll out in wholesale destruction if human beings fearfully agree to respond to life’s circumstances like a herd of squirrels.

We don’t see squirrel migrations every day, but it happens now and then when population or environmental pressures drive squirrels to migratory madness. Let us consider a documented tale from the early 19th century: “Here is how, In 1811, Charles Joseph Labrobe wrote in The Rambler in North America of a vast squirrel migration that autumn in Ohio: “A countless multitude of squirrels, obeying some great and universal impulse, which none can know but the Spirit that gave them being, left their reckless and gambolling life, and their ancient places of retreat in the north, and were seen pressing forward by tens of thousands in a deep and sober phalanx to the South …”

At times human beings are subject to the same sort of social madness. Then the human race behaves like a huge pack of squirrels or lemmings rushing off a cliff. Normally, squirrels in their home environment are typically cautious and predictable. They use the same paths to get from tree to tree.

But when forced out in the open, or faced with confusing situations such as an oncoming car, squirrels equivocate, turning back and forth in desperate reaction to a world outside their evolutionary understanding.

When faced with the unknown, human beings act no differently than squirrels on a high way. This is true among individuals and group populations. Human culture is squirrelly, and fear can turn otherwise rational people into fearful sheep.

And while squirrels are supposedly a much lower species than apes, there are people who consider the idea that human beings descended from earlier forms of primates a real insult. But when it comes to the sometimes squirrelly thinking and behavior of entire nations, to be considered on par with an ape would be a good thing.

squirrel-on-road.jpgThe human race is experiencing a “squirrel on the highway” moment when it comes to dealing with climate change. The back and forth between those who accept the evidence and those who deny its verity is causing the human race to dither and change direction on the subject. Meanwhile, the Big Wheels are Turning and heading our way. If the human race does not figure out how to slow down the rate of climate change, we really will get run over. Coastlines will flood. Hurricanes will increase their destruction. The human race will be forced to evolve in a hurry to deal with climactic extremes that will produce highly unpredictable weather.

Some people consider that bunk. They cover their heads with their squirrel tales or insist that the Great Squirrel in the Sky is the only Keeper of Climate Change. But that only amounts to ignoring the roar of the engine around the curve and the threat of the fat tires about to crush the collectives spines of a million squirrels dithering back and forth on the highway.

And some squirrels don’t even care. Safely ensconced in their Wealthy Squirrel Hideaways with plenty of nuts to gnaw, they could not give a rat’s ass if a few millions other squirrels get turned into Global Road Kill. It’s none of their concern. There are the I’ve Got Mine Squirrels that actually take pride in the act of driving the trucks that run over other squirrels. And for some, that is considered a great sport.

But it’s true. When global warming kicks in an temperatures rise across great expanses of continents such as Africa and South America and North America, mass migrations of people will take place in regions where intense heat and desertification takes over.

And still there will be dithering by the rich and powerful, and fearful meandering by those trapped in the horrific cycle of heat and drought and flooding. The Bible fails

Even The Holy Bible fails misterably in providing hope or solutions to this apparent dilemma of a worldwide threat to human existence. After all, God ostensibly enabled the Great Flood that called Noah into action. If we can believe the text, then it was true that all the people of the earth, other than a select few, were wiped out.

God also brought Hail and Brimstone down on Sodom and Gomorrah in rash treatment for the excesses of those cities and their inhospitality to strangers, especially angels.

angelsAnd let us not forget that God even allowed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. That scattered his ostensibly Chosen People like a band of squirrels, out into an inhospitable world where they got run over and enslaved in many cases. But a few eventually banded together and returned to their home turf, where they reside to this day in a form a bit evolved from the original. Because that’s how evolution works, you see.

The entire process of survival is always a bit squirrelly for all involved. Squirrels able to anticipate and adjust their behavior while crossing the Road of Existence most often survive. But among human beings, there is also a moral responsibility to share those instincts for survival, and even hold paws with those more likely to dither or get crushed. That’s the role of government and of scripture, to enact the decisive course of humanity.

Because whether you view it through the eyes of scripture or the cold lens of an evolutionary viewpoint, it never pays to be a dithering squirrel.

 

 

The April Fool’s joke that really has to end, because it’s no longer funny

masks-happy-sad-copy

Today is April 1st, otherwise known as April Fool’s Day. And while driving around to appointments, I flipped my radio station to an AM station.AM 560 is the Chicago version of Fox News on conservative crack. The host was talking about John Kasich, a candidate for the Republican nominee for President, and going on about how little Kasich actually knows about the Muslim religion. “But even if he doesn’t know a thing, I’ll still vote for him over any Democrat and four more years of downward spiral and Hillary Clinton making nominees for the Supreme Court.”

And I thought, “He can’t be serious. This is like an April Fool’s joke. Exactly where is this supposed “downward spiral” he’s talking about? Employment is down to 5%. In March the economy added 215,000 new jobs. Gasoline is down around $2.00 per gallon. America’s energy future is more secure than it has been in two decades. Yes,

Yes, the health-care “industry” is in flux due to competitive issues between insurers and providers. Republicans blame Obamacare, but that’s a joke too. Rates on insurance premiums rose 12% per year under all eight years of the Bush regime. If anything, the American healthcare scene now resembles the Hockey Stick model of global warming made famous several years ago by Al Gore. Healthcare is overheating not because of Obamacare, but due to the accelerating demands for wide profit margins from three distinct sources; insurance companies, healthcare providers and the pharmaceutical giants who keep jacking prices for everyday drugs and refuse to allow the government any negotiation powers to keep costs under control.

The joke of the claim that Obamacare caused these problems is that healthcare was pointing toward an overheated dynamic long before Obamacare came along. The plain fact is that Republicans ignored these issues all eight years of control under Bush. That’s not a product of insight or even prudence. But it is evidence of denial, and possibly corruption of purpose wrought by political paybacks and campaign support to buy off politicians from doing their job of regulating an overheated industry. Conservatives proceeded on the canon that healthcare economics if left alone would take care of themselves. Or God would step in. And what an April Fools joke that has turned out to be.

Because that’s what conservatives do best. Deny facts. They deny global climate change, and the theory of evolution, and any sort of metaphorical interpretation of the Bible (despite Jesus’ own use of metaphor in his teachings) in order to deny any sort of progressive viewpoint that leads to reformation. That’s true with environmental management, sustainable health care, or cultural equality. The conservative worldview is a pathetic, anachronistic joke.

And for the last eight years Republicans have been complaining that President Barack Obama is ruining the country. Or out to ruin the country. Or thinking about ruining the country. And all the while, the country has been on the rebound from the devastating effects of eight years of Republican “leadership” (denial by force) that spawned two costly wars, allowed terrorists to kill more than 3000 people on American soil, fostered torture, proved its inability to govern or be prepared for national emergencies during Hurricane Katrina, and crashed the economy through tax cuts and an overheated financial and mortgage industry that was “enjoying” a regulatory environment that was far too lax.

Yet the supporters of all that furious mess created by Bush and his conservative henchmen still insist that it is Barack Obama that has “ruined” the country.

So I came to a conclusion today. Modern conservatism nothing more than a protracted April Fool’s prank that has gone on too long. The Republican Party long ago lost sight of what the word “conservative” stands for at all. And let’s be honest: that’s what happens when a prank that really harms someone goes on too long. Then it becomes too difficult to admit you were the perpetrator. Admitting even one shred of responsibility exposes the massive involvement. So Republicans have behaved like a bunch of guilty frat boys who killed the School Mascot Goat by stuffing its front end with too many beers and its back end with too many sexual innuendos. Now they rally around the original concept of Reaganism (the School Mascot) and laugh off the consequences. They seem to have no shame and embarrassment at the pain and transfer of wealth their joke has wrought. “Can’t you take a joke?” they all seem to be saying. “And it’s your fault actually. You’re the one who let us near the goat in the first place.”

At this point it’s quite clear the joke is actually on them. Conservatives are freaking out because the King of April Fool’s is their leading candidate for the Republican nomination. The joke got out of hand quite quickly during this presidential campaign. The man with the orange face and a massive combover should have been an obvious warning that the Republican movement has become a joke. At one point their leading candidate stood up to say, “I could shoot people in the street and people would still keep voting for me.”

Or something like that. He does not truly care what he says. This April Fool does not even appear to believe anything he says. He only talks to generate controversy, then accuse the media of his own foibles. He is a massively painful prank foisted on conservatives, who wondered early on if he was indeed a serious candidate at all, or just a funny prank played by future President Hillary Clinton to destroy the Republican Party.

In any case, it is working. Those other serious jokesters Ted Cruz and John Kasich are the only prankster left on the campaign trail with the orange clown winning the prank race for the nomination. To prove the point this is all a ruse, Cruz even quoted lines from a movie about a liberal president as a means to defend the honor of his own wife, who was accused of being ugly and potentially a slut by the orange candidate whose only goal is to trump the truth with false rumors and underhanded practical jokes.

This is the April Fool’s joke that has to end. The Republican “platform”, cobbled together as it is by from disparate purposes in social, fiscal, political and religious conservatives, is the biggest joke ever perpetrated in the modern era. The four factions cannot possibly be reconciled if a person puts an inch of thought into it. True Christianity theology simply does not abide with laissez-faire capitalism. And social conservatives seeking to control the cultural dialogue are in direct opposition to political conservatives who want less government.

The entire conservative movement is a farce. A practical joke concerned only with power and control of the cultural narrative. And if people continue to support this farce, the joke is on them. April Fools, everyone. Are you one of them?

 

Who is really keeping us safe?

“If you’re not a liberal at twenty, you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative by the time you are forty, you have no brain.” –Winston Churchill

Winston ChurchillYears ago I read a massive two-volume biography of Winston Churchill. It was with great disappointment that I learned that the author of those first two books had died. The third would have covered the period including World War II, and that would have been fascinating to study the actions and philosophies of the man that ushered Great Britain through the war.

Yet even with Churchill, his strong points as a war leader turned out to be challenges of a sort in the political realm. He was initially defeated for the role of Prime Minister after the war, yet returned to that role again before suffering physical and mental decline that may have resulted from strokes and heart issues.

A wealth of protectors

While obviously a man to admire, Winston Churchill’s determination that conservatism was the ultimate form of philosophical sophistication may have been formed more from his upbringing in a wealthy English family than his own evolution as a military man and spokesman. He was great at both those things, but there is an abiding factor to how these were developed and sustained that made it possible for Churchill to think like a conservative at all.

That factor was the presence and alliance of both the United States and the Soviet Union in World War II. Without that partnership, Great Britain would have been sunk under the pressures of Germany to take over much of Europe.

It was the liberal support of America’s Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt and the hard right determination of Joseph Stalin that fought back Germany’s considerable will to conquer and subjugate. That enabled Churchill to essentially occupy an important middle ground from which he could flexibly consider and pursue his necessary options. That is conservative in the good sense of the word, in being considerate.

Modern times

Fast forward to the current world perspective in which we live. America’s President Barack Obama has behaved as a noted centrist on the world stage. And like Churchill, there have been wins and losses, risks and seeming triumphs associated with that centrist position. Obama has been the considerate if quietly brusque leader, not prone to launch off new wars, yet capable of effecting deadly drone strikes that many people protest as cruel and miscalculated.

Such are the risks of all world leaders. The apparently noble fight of America, Britain and the Soviets against the Germans, Italians and Japanese Axis was full of death and destruction. And while Germany clearly committed war crimes, the rest of the fighters were not a group of innocents. America ultimately dropped a massive nuclear weapon on Japan’s big cities, killing thousands of civilians in the process.

During the leadup to that event, America engaged in some rather heinous efforts to protect itself, ushering many of its own citizens of Japanese descent into camps. The object at the time was to “keep us safe” from perceived threats because Japan itself was such a threat.

Fear and strange decisions

Fear drives all kind of strange decisions in this world. And while some of our fears are very real, the collective anxiety of a culture can often be extremely misguided.

Such is the case wth current concerns over America’s possible acceptance of Syrian refugees. While France opens its borders willingly to Syrian refugees even on the heels of the terrorist attacks on its own soil, America’s arch-conservative population wants to ban them from entry into the country. All of this is based on the idea that terrorists will somehow disguise themselves as refugees and come to this country to kill Americans.

Raging debates

Having engaged in considerable political debate with a number of anxious conservatives on social media, a few simple things have emerged in the argument. 1) They don’t trust Obama or the government 2) They don’t trust the government or Obama 3) They really don’t trust either Obama or the government. That’s the substance of their arguments.

In the process of defending those arguments they also engage in considerable name-calling while simultaneously denying that the Bush administration or any conservative before him had anything to do with creating the terrorist problem in the Middle East. We all know that started with the Reagan administration, was fostered by the Bush relationships with the Saudis, and carried on with the patsy treatment of the bin Laden family right through the 9/11 terrorist attacks when our first priority was flying remnants of that family out of the United States when all other flights were suddenly banned. Conservatives also created the Saddam Hussein we overthrew, and set up the Shah of Iran that led to that country being so pissed off at the Western World.

Yet somehow it’s all Obama’s fault that we have problems in the Middle East.

Brotherly love 

Of course, Jeb Bush, the equally inept brother of George W. Bush, is now running for President of the United States. And like any conservative worth his radical salt he has publicly claimed that his brother “kept us safe.”

So for the sake of analysis, we should examine what he might mean by that statement. The expectations of conservatives about what “keeps us safe” clearly breaks down into categories that were demonstrated by the Bush administration’s actions in the Middle East. And we’ll get to those in a minute.

But first we must admit there was little resistance by the Democratic Left to any of Bush’s policies overseas. That was a sick and sad chapter in our political history as well. Either by choice or by fear, the Left stood down under considerable pressure from conservative dominance of all three branches of government. That included the power of the Presidency, a willing Congress and Senate and even the Supreme Court that handed Bush surveillance powers that broke every rule in the Constitution about personal privacy.

So Bush and Cheney were given free license to engage in a series of cynical acts of aggression designed, in their minds, to “keep us safe” from terrorism. These included:

  1. Bomb first, ask no questions later. When faced with threats, conservatives love to bomb things because it makes them feel as if they are taking action against that threat. Of course, civilian casualties resulting from those bombings inflamed hatred for the United States as innocents perished. But that’s the apparent price of thoughtless war. “Collateral damage” they call it. The ultimate euphemism of course. Conservatives bomb, and then move on without a second thought about what the real effects of such bombings could be in terms of perception among enemies or friends.
  2. Torture is acceptable. Arguments in favor of torturing Iraqis and potential terrorist focused on the fact that such tactics were necessary to extract information that could “keep America safe.” That connection between information and actionable intelligence really never happened in any substantial way. And yet the apparent thought that our supposed enemies were being tortured made a certain segment of our society feel happy because we were “doing something” about terrorism. Never mind that many of the people we tortured and even killed through torture and mistreatment were in fact completely innocent.
  3. Spying on your own people is desirable. How ironic it is that the political force in America that claims to hate government most and wants to reduce its influence in our lives should choose to open a surveillance program that brought government into the very conversations we all hold over our telephones and cell phones. It seems a common phenomenon that the things conservatives most hate in others they ultimately become themselves. It happens on the social front when people who claim to stand for family values turn out to be serial wife cheaters or sexual predators. This repression haunts the conservative party like a ghost of unvirtuous fact.
  4. Always blame the other side. For all these insane actions and remorseless activities, conservatives have developed denial of responsibility for the evil outcomes into a very fine art. The virtual memo that says “never admit you were wrong” has been hard-wired into the consciousness of political, military and civilian conservatives. In fact, it is perhaps the greatest social conspiracy ever contrived as a political strategy. Its level of secrecy is protected by a devotion to denial and an entire lack of accountability. It is thus quite  breathtaking in its scope and effect on civil discourse. Its main mouthpiece, of course, is Fox News, whose claims of being “fair and balanced” as a “news organization” are the absolute expression of the virtue of lying with a smile on your face and putting tits above the fold as a distraction of the very audience you intend to recruit.

There’s a reason for all this aggression, repression and secession going on within the conservative cult in America. Only when a conservative breaks completely free of the party entirely, which means they can never go back, do we hear an ounce of truth and admission about what really goes on behind the scenes. The recent inadvertent confession of a certain Congressman on the real reasons for the Benghazi investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are just one such example of politically motivated use of government to harangue and discredit anyone that dares resist the conservative cartel in America.

It goes back a ways

John_F_KennedyResistance to this secret society of Conservatism with a Capital A (and its apparent arm, the CIA) is what got President Kennedy killed back in the 1960s. So the phenomena of killing threats to the cabal is not new.Kennedy was no saint, that’s for sure. But what he also represented as a political liberalism that some perceived as a threat to the security of America. But again, the considerations shown by John F. Kennedy in negotiations with the Soviets in the Cuba Missile Crisis are likely what prevented nuclear war. In other words, his small “c” conservatism kept us safe, just like Winston Churchill’s small “c” conservatism helped guide the Allies through World War II. It is this conservatism to which I believe Winston Churchill is referring in the quote above this column.

But it keeps happening that large “C” Conservatism is trying to kill its perceived enemies. And true to form, the conservative cabal went after Bill Clinton over engagement in a harmless blow job. The ensuing scandal turned into a political spectacle that distracted from Clinton’s ability to do his job, and keep us safe.

At that time, Clinton wanted to take action against bin Laden and potential terrorists in the Middle East, but was discouraged from doing so because it would appear he was attempting to “wag the dog” and escape accusations and impeachment over his extramarital affair. We seriously need to ask what would have kept us more safe in that scenario, the Starr Report or actually paying attention to real threats to our security. Capital A Conservatives clearly chose the former over the latter. America has paid the price ever since for this selfish, politically motivated debacle.

Fear, loathing and power

Paul Ryan

New House Speaker Paul Ryan

So you see, the goal of conservatism is never really to keep us safe. It is to gain and keep power, and that is all. Conservatives use fear to accomplish that mission all the time. That is why the call to war is so strong among them. War creates a deep tide fear in the populace, accentuated by methods such as “terror alerts” that the Bush administration turned on and off as needed to sway political will and push the perception of power in their direction. These are all tricks to get people to fall in line. Authoritarian thinkers on both the proactive and responsive side love these methods because it gives them a sense of control in otherwise chaotic circumstances. Of course it is all a ruse, but that does not matter.

FlagWaiverIndeed, Conservatives with a capital “C” want Americans to behave like Pavlov’s dogs in response to the call for war and acceptance of violence as status quo. They wave flags as patriots in fear until the very meaning of the flag is all worn out. Our flag has come to represent a national attitude of fear and a worn out ideology as a result.

Witness the marketing methods of the NRA, which flouts fear about race and crime as reasons to arm American on claims that more guns will “keep us safe.” Again, these are lies of massive proportions. More Americans have died from gun violence on American soil that all the soldiers ever killed in foreign wars. This is not “keeping us safe.”

Money kills

 

In the end, the sad thing about all this fear and terror and power is that it is all about money. Conservatives simply love money and all that it gives them. That’s why so many conservative whine about high tax rates and complain about giving their dollars through any social programs that might help the poor or elderly. This is the brand of conservatism that has evolved in America; selfishness as a life philosophy. It stands in direct opposition to the Christian call for charity and even giving away all you have to serve God and Christ. But modern conservatives (oxymoron intended) ignore all that real Christian stuff. That part is old-fashioned to them.

And we must return to the fact that top level Conservatives have always liked war because it enriches them. Former Vice President Dick Cheney used the Iraq War to increase the value of companies like Halliburton in which he has long held financial interests. The snarling visage of the man who almost singlehandedly leveraged America’s fortunes into his own while ruining our reputation overseas is like the Ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge, who without ever having gone through the happy change that made him into an advocate for the Christmas Spirit acts instead like the Grinch Who Stole America.

No Churchill

dick-cheneyCheney was no Churchill, let’s all agree on that. He seems to have envisioned himself that way, but where he falls short is in the ability to recognize the advantage of being a smart conservative with a small “c.” That is one who knows that conservatism actually involves consideration. Cheney appears to have none of that capacity, and as a result his version of “keeping us safe” turned the Middle East into a morass of angry terrorist hornets hoping to break free and sting the invader of their nest.

So let’s stop pretending that stirring up the hornet’s nest in the Middle East with bombings, torture and boots on the ground is a conservative strategy at all. It is not a conservative strategy, and it does not keep us safe.

And as for hornet’s back home, we’ve already got a system in place to detect their angry buzz. Typically they can’t keep quiet. Not if we open our eyes and ears and pay attention. And let’s not ignore those clear warnings this time, as Bush did back when he and Cheney were plotting to take over the entire Middle East to steal the oil and get some archly conservative kicks. That was stupid. And we’re getting stung as a result.

Ken Ham the Creationist versus Bill Nye the Science Guy proved a lot about how wrong Ken Ham has the Bible

By Christopher Cudworth

Bill Nye listens carefully as Ken Ham makes the claim that the Bible is a better source of fact than material science

Bill Nye listens carefully as Ken Ham makes the claim that the Bible is a better source of fact than material science

It appeared from watching the “debate” between creationist Ken Ham and scientist Bill Nye that Ham wanted desperately to prove science wrong about everything.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the conclusion of the so-called debate. Ham never mustered the ability to answer simple questions that would have proved creationism has any sort of relationship with science. His entire contention rested on the contention that the Bible must be understood “naturally” in order to understand the world. That is, the parts in the Bible Ken Ham judges to be crucial to a literal interpretation of scripture must be abided to the letter. The other parts, such as the “poetry” of Psalms, according to Ham, actually have no real bearing on the role of the Bible as science. Wow. That’s a whopper.

Yet that is the biblical foundation of Ken Ham’s creationist worldview. It begins with a denial of a significant portion of the Bible’s verity. Creationism literally starts with the assertion that not all the Bible can be trusted as fact.

And that’s just the starting point of a confused, frustrating and inaccurate worldview. Ken Ham seems to misunderstand and completely disregard the nature of what Christians call the New Testament. In fact he makes very few references to Jesus in any of his assertions about creation.

He certainly never mentions the methods by which Jesus himself taught by using organic metaphors. In simpler terms, Jesus used symbols from nature to illustrate spiritual principles. That way everyday people could comprehend what he was trying to teach about the nature of God.

But Ken Ham can’t seem to grasp or embrace that style of teaching, about nature, or about science. He prefers instead the literal view of scripture. His motive appears to be focused on leaving no room for interpretation. He is a zealot about that.

Of course that is the very same legalistic approach used by the Pharisees, leaders of the faith in Jesus’ day. He branded them a “brood of vipers” in clear reference to the Genesis depiction of Satan as a serpent.

You don’t have to take that reference literally to get the message. Jesus would not have liked Ken Ham. Jesus would have knocked the Creation Museum to the ground because it is a crass attempt to control the faith and belief of people through legalistic force and deception.

So the truth speaks for itself. Ken Ham is at odds with Jesus Christ, God’s only Son. Ken Ham considers Jesus’ method of teaching with metaphors inferior to his own brand of truth based on narrow interpretations of a book written 2000 years ago, conveyed originally as oral tradition and translated multiple times.

The simpler, more clear understanding that Jesus gave to all those who would listen is not good enough for Ken Ham. Jesus would gladly have accepted the findings of science.

Jesus said God is nature, and nature is God. All things worthy of consideration can be discerned through that simple statement. Anything else is fiction, or worse, a lie about the Word of God. And God is never happy about that.

On why we should all read about faith and what it means to the world

Lutheran School of Theology Chicago

Lutheran School of Theology Chicago

By Christopher Cudworth

Sitting in the admissions office of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago felt right.

A little more than two years ago a young man that had served as our church Youth Pastor had invited me to visit the school. “I think you’d like it,” he told me.

Our conversations as he prepared to leave his position at the church and begin studies to become a Lutheran pastor had centered on ministry to high school students, yet over coffee one morning the topics widened. I explained the process of writing my book, “The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age,” and how it changed the way I viewed writing about, and reading about, faith in the world.

The experience of trying to get an agent for the book had taught me a few things. The theme was the same with every contact. “You’re not a minister. You’re not a college professor. What credibility do you have to write such a book?”

Credibility is important. It gives people a foundation upon which to trust what you write. The process of earning credibility can also challenge the manner in which you arrive at your conclusions.

Regarding Masters

The message stuck with me. Despite the fact that I had spent 7 years researching and refining the book, it was true. I was not technically qualified to write it. Not in the eyes of those who make such decisions anyway.

It’s not enough that your friends call you “courageous” for taking on biblical literalism as a worldview. You must vet your viewpoints in the theological world before tearing away the dogmatic garments of the modern day Pharisees who stand in opposition to so much practical truth.

Simple truths and basic contradictions

Yet it’s a simple fact really. Biblical literalists stand in opposition to the teaching methods of Jesus Christ, who consistently used organic metaphors to convey spiritual truths through parables designed to bring the common mind to faith in God. Ignoring that principle is basically a slap in the face to Jesus. It’s like telling him, “You don’t know what you’re doing. Don’t you know that God’s Word must be taking literally or it has no meaning at all?”

While classic, the old ways of thinking may not be sufficient for a new world. Nor have they ever been.

While classic, the old ways of thinking may not be sufficient for a new world. Nor have they ever been.

Actually the community of believers who take the Bible literally never actually get close to discussing the teaching methods of Jesus. They’re stuck way back in Genesis and a literal 7 days, an Adam and Eve that were transmogrified from the dust of the Earth and a Serpent or Snake who tricks Eve and then Adam into disobeying God’s warning not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Of course we all know the story. Adam and Eve fall for the Serpent’s logic, thereby causing the Fall of Man.

Bad Beginnings? 

Original Sin is the pet concept that emerges from that creation story. But that quick-take worldview ignores a key aspect of the tale. What we miss by taking the story literally is the Serpent’s methodology in tricking Adam and Eve. In a crafty use of the first brand of scripture known to Man, the Serpent engages Eve in legalistic use of God’s own words to undermine her trust in God. Here is how the ploy works:

Christianity is not entirely clear on what the "serpent" really is, or looks like. So how can we take such a creation story literally?

Christianity is not entirely clear on what the “serpent” really is, or looks like. So how can we take such a creation story literally?

The Serpent’s Deception
3but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.'” 4The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! 5“For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”…

How very similar is this exchange to the passage in Matthew 15 in which Jesus engages the Pharisees over the issue of turning the Word of God into a legalistic trap:

1Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” 3Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?

The comparison between literalism and legalism is given a direct connection to the Serpent in the Book of Genesis in Matthew 23:33, “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”

It is a sad fact that today’s adherents to biblical literalism are playing the same game that Pharisees played with Jesus so long ago. Yet the pain and misdirection caused by today’s brand of scriptural literalism is just as potent as that depicted in Genesis with deception by the serpent, and just as power-mongering as the Pharisees of the New Testament.

And that is the point from my motivation to attend a school of theology emanates. I believe the most important thing in the world right now is to counter biblical literalism and all its awful consequences. Literal interpretation of the Bible is being used to persecute gays, to resist legitimate science, to argue against the theory of evolution and to undermine political and ethical justice on a broad spectrum of issues.

Reason and Reasons
It’s not about a mid-career change for me, or anything prosaic as that. It’s about finding ways to make the world a better place. Martin Luther changed the world by pointing out the very simple fact that we are saved first and foremost by grace. The new reformation should finish the job of removing all barriers from our acceptance of grace.

Yet we also need to define what it means to exist within and attend to the Kingdom of God. How we understand the nature of that “kingdom” is crucial to our stewardship of creation. The dangerously ironic consequence of a worldview founded on biblical literalism is the attitude that nature and all of creation is essentially a disposable tool of God, one that has no purpose other than our own somewhat greedy sustenance and no other significance than as a temporal stage between Creation and Armageddon.

Challenges

We can do better than old ships and sails of theology. And we should.

We can do better than old ships and sails of theology. And we should.

We need to challenge this fatalistic worldview at its very roots. That begins with the misinterpretation of Genesis as a literal document. Yet it also extends to our regard of scripture as a wholly inerrant document. It simply isn’t, that way. Any faith dependent on that premise is brittle, frail and sad, thus requiring a defensive posture to sustain.

The book of Romans 1:20 contains a telling point of scripture, one that reveals the idea of organic fundamentalism, the key understanding that nature itself, and our metaphorical understanding of it, holds keys to our comprehension of God and all that we read in scripture:

Romans20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made,  so that people are without excuse.

Nowhere in this passage, or any other in the Bible for that matter, does it say that we must take a literal approach to conceptions of God. In fact as demonstrated by Jesus himself, we are to do the opposite.

Recall that literalism and legalism produced the approach that one could earn the way into heaven through God works doled out by the church and vetted by leaders who earned earthly power through the system set up by the brand of Pharisees leading the Catholic church at the time.

Then along came Martin Luther, who saw through the giant ruse of literalism and legalism, and who launched a Reformation that transformed the faith, made it new again. We can view this passage in a fresh light in contradiction to the brand of literalism now vexing the world.

Nature and eternity are foundations of the Bible

There is more to the theological landscape than meets the eye. Creativity, not just creation, is part of scripture. Click for larger view.

Ephesians 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works,  so that no one can boast.

For there are many who “boast” that their literalistic view of the bible constitutes the “works” of real Christianity. Yet we also know that God’s invisible qualities are visible in Nature, and through the Word, and that there is no excuse for ignoring these greater, most important facets of faith realized.

And that is why the pursuit of truth is so important to me, and why sitting in the office of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago felt so very good, and so very real. Because each Reformation has to start somewhere. We all play a part in the heart of faith.

How preteens evolve into thinking human beings

photoAt some early age it entered my head that perhaps everyone around me was in on a secret. That I was the only one that thought as I do, and that even my parents were putting me on, big time.

I worried that I was not a “normal” person.

It happened again to some extent when I was 13 years old. That’s the age when your interests begin to collide with the world, and that’s a dual problem because your interests when you are in middle school tend to be really intense, sometimes nerdy and ridiculously easy to ridicule.

My interests happened to be all over the board, from art to nature, but one avocation got me in trouble with my friends who all seemed to think birdwatching was stupid, silly and less than manly. They made up bird names with obscene roots and laughed when I told them I’d identified a certain species of importance to me.

Resilience

To my everlasting credit, I never let the teasing stop me from pursuing any of my interests, even at the vulnerable age of 13. Now the same people who used to ridicule will call with a “bird question” when something unexpected shows up at their feeder, or they see a bald eagle along the river. The enthusiasm they now show for such things is a much-delayed apology for the abuse long ago.

As an adult I was asked to teach Sunday School for the middle schoolers because no one else wanted to take on the task. I liked it. Working with a series of teacher-partners over a 12-year period, it was fascinating to see the variability in maturity and self-awareness among preteens.

Sleepy minds

Many Sunday mornings they’d arrive sullen and bored, aching to get back to their sleepy beds where the rest of the world could not reach them. But reach them I did.

The church absentmindedly neglected to shove some curriculum my way for years and years. The parents did not complain about my teaching so everyone must have thought it was working out okay.

Little did they know that Sunday School was a perfect place to get those preteens thinking about what matters in life beyond the Bible. Sure, we always talked about scripture in a roundabout way. I’d always have an idea to discuss and would bring them around to the topic by asking what they’d done during the week and even how they felt about it. They deserved that attention. The minds of preteens seem to be largely ignored by this world, as if they have nothing of value to say about it. But the world would be wrong about that. It always has.

The example of Jesus

You may recall that it was a preteen Jesus (about age 12) who stayed behind at a temple when he was supposed to be following his parents back home after a visit to the city. This is what transpired:

46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”[a] 50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

Echoes of Christ

In many ways that scene was replayed among the preteens who entered the middle school Sunday School class. They had ideas. They wanted answers. They asked questions and to the best of my ability I answered their questions or encouraged them to find answers, and at all costs.

That church did not preach tolerance for science, yet several of my former students went on to become chemical engineers and biologists and other occupations whose educational processes effectively denied what that simpleton religious worldview maintained.

Rational faith

You may ask why I remained a member so long (25 years) and I can answer that my rational faith survived outside of that venue, but was sustained by the fellowship that came through membership. I am now a member of a church that respects rational thought and yet embraces full discipleship as a matter of practice. In other words, a church that actually teaches what the Bible says to do. Instead of denial like the Pharisees and legalistic practices, my current church loves this world with all its heart, as an expression of creation, but not as an exclusive Creation that cannot be understood or appreciated by the human mind.

That’s what I taught all those years, and what it taught me in return was that the middle school, preteen mind appreciates honesty and respect. If you don’t give pat answers, it doesn’t feel like you’re patting them on the head, telling them to go away and quit thinking. For themselves.

Leadership 

One year I had as students three young women that each vied for the title of Valedictorian at their respective high schools. Keeping them engaged was not that difficult, but keeping the rest of the class in pace with their challenging minds was interesting at times.

Yet it happened. The other kids knew and appreciated true leadership and intellect when they saw it. The girls in return were not disrespectful of their peers. Even those who were brought to the church by bus from underprivileged families participated in the discussions. I often thought about how much those women brought to the table, and the fact that women were not allowed to assume positions of full leadership at that church. It bothered me. So I ignored that example and let them be leaders.

It was proof to me that the Kingdom of God, if that’s what you call it, can embrace the rich in mind and the poor in spirit alike. The principle benefit was, in the end, an open regard for the preteen mind that perhaps they would never have experienced if shielded from the concepts we discussed in biblical context. Those were evolution as well as salvation. I told them there was no reason why the Bible and science could not be reconciled. I told them Jesus was the original naturalist. He used organic symbols in his parables to convey spiritual principles. Later I wrote a book and continue a blog about that subject and more.

Other subjects

We talked about fame and deception, hope and depression. We talked about their lives and encouraged them to keep the confidence of others. Basic human respect was at play at all times.

And we talked about Jesus. Not the Jesus of the Sunday School curriculum that sails around the landscape working miracles. We talked about the Jesus who cried and prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, abandoned by his friends. We considered what that meant to be alone, to feel alone.

Then we talked about what it meant to be normal in this world. To have fears and feelings that you poorly understood. To be worried about what others thought about you and about how adults don’t have all the answers. Those were just some of the things discussed with those preteens. They just wanted to know what it meant to be normal, and what it meant if you chose to depart from those norms on your own.

Jesus was a helluva an example on what it meant to go your own way. It has costs, but sometimes its worth it. Not being normal, that is.

Are abortion opponents blaming government for their own failures?

A Word Cloud formed from a National Review email on abortion legislation. Click to view large.

For 25 years our family held membership in a conservative branch of the Lutheran Church. My wife was raised in a family that had been longtime members of that denomination, so we continued our membership in a church of that background near our hometown.

We got married and the baptized our children at that church. The pastor was a wise, theologically astute man who once delivered a sermon titled “Jesus: The ultimate liberal, do-gooder and bleeding heart.” We loved that man for his spirited advocacy for the true heart of scripture. The congregation built around his ministry was full of compassionate people with concern for others and a truly generous worldview. We are still friends and socialize with many of those families, but we left the church more than a year ago to attend a church that better fits our mainstream evangelical Lutheran theology.

Back when the beloved pastor who married us retired to become pastor emeritus, the church went through a series of fitful adjustments to the interim leadership brought in by the synod. The result was that the ideology and theology delivered from the pulpit became increasingly conservative and rigid. Through it all my wife and I kept asking ourselves, and others, does it have to be like this? But we hung in there. For years. And years. Because we loved the people who attended the church. Served on the Board. Sang in the choir. Confirmed our two bright kids and set them off in life.

We had 6 different pastors during that period. The one who finally settled in for a series of years is a good man who ministers to everyone in the best way he can. But he is most definitely a died-in-the-wool product of the very conservative synod where he attended seminary.

For example:

  • This synod does not accrue leadership rights to women in the church. Women cannot serve communion or be elders.
  • The synod passes down opinions on social subjects such as evolution (they believe it’s false) homosexuality (a sin, no questions asked) and abortion.

Recently I was asked to return to our former church to help lead the Praise Service as two of the lay-leaders were out of town. I gladly accepted and rehearsed with the singers and band, and everything came off well. Someone even complimented my singing, which really surprised me. I know my limitations.

It was also Sanctity of Life Sunday, and I knew what that meant: A predictably intense lecture on the immoral consequences of abortion.

The service began with a video provided by Tony Perkins, here shown in a linked video challenging President Barack Obama on conception issues. Perkins is the same fellow who says that environmentalism can be directly linked to abortion as a conspiratorial attempt to control human population He views all these activities as signs that the Second Coming is imminent, and that worrying about the earth is frivolous compared to worrying about your soul. Perkins is a modern day zealot with a lot of axes to grind. His pre-service video was a testament to modern production values and a black-and-white position on abortion that Pro-Lifers love to embrace.

Following the video, the sermon called for church members to vote for politicians who support so-called “Pro-Life” issues and candidates. The service clearly skirted laws governing churches and politics. Basically the entire service from end to end was one long political ad.

The pastor concluded his sermon saying that he recognizes there are other issues of importance challenging America, including a $16 Trillion debt, a struggling economy and other issues. But he stood firm with his statement that abortion remains the most important of all political issues because it is a “matter of life and death.” And that, in a nutshell, is how so many conservatives become one-issue voters.

Pushing women aside to get to their wombs

The so-called Pro-Life argument seems to see no problem shoving women aside to accomplish one goal, and that is to ban abortions of all types.

The official Republican Platform is essentially unforgiving toward any form of abortion, even in pregnancies caused by rape or incest. Pro-Life advocates like Todd Akin have gone on record making absurd defenses of conceptions caused by rape and other unwanted pregnancies, insisting that women have natural defenses against pregnancies resulting from rape. No medical science has ever determined such capabilities. Yet the determined zealots of the anti-abortion lobby seem to feel no compunction in making up such miraculous tales to justify their ideology.

And as a result, the entire manner in which conservatives continue to pursue banning abortion turns out to be a miscarriage of faith, politics and common sense. Here’s why.

The reason why abortions must be and are now legal

The reason why abortions are legal is to provide safe access to medically-performed abortions to all women who may need that service. The right to determine the need for an abortion remains the province of a woman and her doctor. Anyone who believes in the limits of the power of government should agree that personal medical decisions of all kinds should be made by the individual, and the individual alone. Injecting various forms of moral codes, especially from the various religions in America, does not promise any sort of clear resolution. To choose one religion’s moral code over another is a clear case of establishment of state religion, which is clearly banned by the United States Constitution. It is remarkable therefore that the Republican party that claims to represent the rights of liberty for individual decision-making should choose to swing so far to the left on the abortion issue.

Relative to the law, however, the Pro-Life movement claims that millions of women are getting “abortions of convenience,” thereby flaunting the purpose a law designed to protect women from unsafe and medically unsupervised abortions, a practice that prior to the Roe vs. Wade case put many a woman’s health at risk.

But we certainly cannot count on the fact that banning abortion will prevent women from seeking them. That’s why the government acted to legalize abortions, to prevent harm to women.

Pro-Life proponents make the specious and notably non-conservative claim that government is actually responsible for the number of abortions now taking place in America. Conservatives love to claim on one hand that government is an ineffective method of managing culture and society, yet at the same time they blame government for its effectiveness in encouraging women to have abortions of choice.

Which is it? Is our government really responsible for the number of abortions in America, or has someone else abdicated their moral duties and turned around to blame government for their own failures? 

Let us consider an idea. How are Pro-Life conservatives doing at the job of convincing women not to get abortions? Pretty miserable, it seems. An estimated 22 million women now choose to get abortions each year. If the Pro-Life message is truly compelling and favored by God, it is evident that those who claim to represent the urgency of that message have to do a better job of reaching women.

Is Planned Parenthood more Pro-Life than the Catholic Church? 

As it turns out, the people who are helping women avoid unwanted pregnancies include organizations such as Planned Parenthood, who work closely with women across America to protect and manage their reproductive health. Planned Parenthood provides important services like birth control so that women are not put in a position of conceiving children they are not ready to have. That is a common sense approach to preventing unwanted pregnancies.

Yet this practical solution to cut down the number of abortions in America is notably resisted by conservative politicians and organizations such as the Catholic Church, who claim that birth control itself is immoral and against the teachings of the Bible.

It is telling that a reported 97% of Catholic women ignore the directives of their own church. So it appears the so-called moral authority of the Catholic church is a patristic anachronism to which women members really don’t pay attention.

And they shouldn’t. With the ready availability of functional, effective birth control that can easily prevent unwanted pregnancies, there is absolutely no moral justification for telling men and women they can’t use it. The even more disgusting alliance with conservative Republicans who have demonized women for wanting access to birth control is evidence of mysogyny, a literal hatred and fear of women and their bodies that is being legislated into the laws of America by people who ostensibly should know better.

What Would Jesus Do tell us to do about abortion?

The Christ of the Bible never relied on governmental authorities to do the work of his ministry and of God. He would find the prospect of blaming the government for the number of abortions in America an absurd idea.

Jesus called on his followers to use love and their own keen energies and talents to reach people in need of help and salvation. If today’s so-called conservatives came to Jesus with their complaints about law and the actions of government with relation to abortion, he would chastise them for failing to see the real source of the problem.

One can almost hear Jesus asking these modern-day Pharisees: “Is the government your God?”

“No!” the conservative politicians and religious believers would cry. “We answer only to God above!”

“Then serve your God, and go to the people in need. Reach the women of the world before they face the hard choices they are making. That is what God wants you to do.”

“But what of the law?” conservatives might answer. “If we have the law on our side, our job will be much easier!”

“What of the law, indeed?” Jesus would ask. “Are you not trying to use the law to make up for your own failures? Is that what God would have you do? Blaming government for your own failures is no path to heaven. Changing hearts rather than changing laws is your true calling.”

The Gift and Responsibility of Teaching

Nature and eternity are foundations of the Bible

Human perspectives on nature are defined principally through science and religion.

Vacation Bible School is a tradition of Christian churches across America. The week dedicated to bringing youth to church for fellowship, learning and fun is a rite of summer. Organizers put hundreds of hours into implementing curriculum material, which has become its own industry, issued with high-tech video productions now providing thematic support to vacation bible schools.

Yet the basic act of teaching and interacting with children has not changed in thousands of years. Anyone who has participated in teaching Sunday School or Vacation Bible School knows this. For thousands of teachers the responsibility of helping children learn about faith is genuine, and also a gift.

For to teach is to learn. There is no question about that. Reviewing scriptural lessons to convey the meaning to children leads one into a place of innocent wonder at the very heart of God’s word. No matter how strong your own faith may be, or how much doubt you might personally experience through a faith journey, the moment you are called to participate in teaching about God is a humbling and enlightening enterprise.

It is an enterprise, teaching about God. Or teaching about anything for that matter. The growing notion that teachers in the secular school system (and that is as it should be…) are somehow overpaid is absurd and damaging to our country. No teacher is overpaid. Even bad teachers are part of the overall mission of helping people learn, so let us help them improve or find a different role. Good teachers are a critical component of civil society. Great teachers are a treasure. There are many of them. The fact that our country is disabusing itself of the value of education is the primary sign that we are a nation with challenges at the heart of our central values. Those are liberty, freedom, justice, equality and the right to learn.

It is not the teaching of Christian values in our public schools that will save our country. Our forefathers wisely separated church from state in the Constitutional call for freedom of (and from) religion. The public school tradition reflects and respects that separation. In fact it is the invasion of highly infectious religious thought that is dumbing down America’s schools, killing respect for real science and teaching of evolution, censoring great and compelling literature in some cases, and thwarting the encouragement of intellectualism all the way up to higher education, where American initiative is formed and forged into productivity. All this is being done under the guise of protecting so-called “conservative values.” What we are experiencing is something else entirely, a regression in civic and social liberty as a result of regressive (and aggressive) attitudes now defining public discourse. To put it simply, we are going backwards against the stream of liberal thought that invented and defined progress in America. Conservative religion is partly responsible for these reverses in progress. It has been used over the years to support slavery, deny rights to women, defend racism and prevent teaching of well-proven science in public schools. Now it has infected politics like a virus as well, all while waving the flag and claiming to represent America itself. Its time we taught our youth something entirely different through our churches. It’s time to promote the liberal heart of Jesus Christ and show that he was never threatened by science or any other type of truly academic enterprise. The very notion is absurd. Jesus was a great teacher. But let’s start following His example by putting faith where it belongs.

The teaching of faith, especially in traditions like Vacation Bible School, is where learning about God belongs. Not in public schools.

Teachers of faith can then teach with conviction. We can hope they also teach with wisdom. It is time for churches everywhere to examine and challenge each other to do just that. For too long Christian thought has been left to wallow in a pit of non-contention. Where is the vigorous debate between churches over what scripture really means? Are we afraid of each other in Christ? Do we leave it to chance that a few blowhards have it right, and that their bloviations have earned them the right to dominate the image and message of Christian thought in society?

That’s wrong. It certainly isn’t the tradition given to us by Jesus Christ, who publicly challenged teachers of the law the look at faith in God in a clear and different light. His testimony ripped through traditions wielded like a fortress against bible-era society. Jesus had no patience for the “brood of vipers” dominating others with threats of punishment and damnation, implemented through extortion and manipulation. Neither should we put up with these brands of supposed faith today.

To say that we are protecting our children from evil when fighting these forces of untruth is the truth, in all instances. The Bible is a living, breathing document. Its stories are built on tremendously powerful metaphors that are still valid today. When these living metaphors are turned into dogmatic, stiff notions of literal interpretation they not only lose the life God imbued them with, they also poison the wells of faith at will.

So let us take a moment and consider what we are teaching our children, and why.

While walking with 30 kids and 8 adult assistants through the woods to talk about the meaning of light and how Jesus used the symbol of light in so many ways, it came to pass that one of the boys in the group raised his hand and asked a question. The context was a discussion of how light filters through the trees in the woods, and how the plumage of birds is highly adapted to the phenomenon of light, even to the point of ultraviolet ranges the human eye cannot see. It was explained that birds do not need to “think” about these things when moving about their daily lives. Nature has provided them with unconscious tools for protective coloration. This is a marvelous evidence of God’s powerful creation. And the boy raised his hand and said, “So we’re talking about evolution, right?”

Yes, we are, I wanted to say. But a part of me held back because even in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, to which our family transferred from a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church after 25 years of membership, there are families that hold the literal creation story dear. Who still teach that the earth is just 6,000 to 10,000 years old. Who insist that ‘created kinds’ are original and unchanged in those years of existence.

I do not believe any of that. In fact last night after teaching Vacation Bible School there was a NOVA production on the PBS station documenting the progression of telescopes, invented by none other than Galileo, who was deemed an enemy of the Roman Catholic church for telling the truth in showing that the earth was not at the center of the universe. In fact we’ve now learned the earth is not at the center of anything. There is no center, except that which we conceive. We are so small and insignificant in the dimensions of space that we hardly matter.

Yet that is why God is so important to our conception of ourselves. To be forcefully alone in the cosmic truth of space, time and eternity is too much for the human mind to bear. But God is there. We do see evidence of metaphysical beauty in the design of the universe. Scientists do not need that notion to conduct their trade, nor should they be assigned to accommodate theology in exploring the tenets of cosmology. We must strengthen our faith on the backs of what they find, not the other way around. The Bible can help us do that, you know. Its metaphorical elasticity is not some grand mistake. Forcing it into a position of an anchor of resistance is no way to make it relevant or help us move forward in faith in the future. Great scientists also know this. A great many may also dismiss it. That is not their problem, or ours. Truth is real no matter where we find it. Reconciling great truths in faith is the purest mission of them all.

We have Jesus, the great teacher who used organic metaphors to teach spiritual concepts as our leader and our guide as human knowledge expands. So why should we be afraid? That is the heart of literalistic faith: fear that faith will be proven wrong somehow.

But we have no fear. We should not be fearful in teaching our youth the strength of faith or the brilliance of science. They go together. Great scientists from Einstein to Darwin recognized these virtues. Admittedly all have struggled with the issue in one way or another. That struggle is how God designed the universe. It is there in the changing of species and in the development of the human mind and culture. It is random material processes at work and the patent reality of free will. What a glorious God we have that leaves us choice in the matter, to believe or not to believe. Our destinies are wrapped in that simple question, and that is the responsibility of teachers to convey every time we look into the eyes of a child.

They are not stupid creatures, children. They are us; eager and vital and curious and malleable. When we fill their minds with truth, reconciled and challenging, then they are truly alive. That is the gift and responsibility of teaching. Jesus knew that well.

Scheherazade in the land of the evil riddle: Combatting patriarchal authority

Tales of 1001 Arabian nightsScheherazade and the Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights is a story of a young queen betrothed to a bloodthirsty king, the Sultan Schahriar, who has killed all his previous wives for their supposed faithlessness. To save herself, Scheherazade invents stories so compelling the murderous Sultan is tricked into sparing her life. In resisting the murderous Sultan, Scheherazade exemplifies the value of a resolute spirit in dealing with tyranny. She also provides an example of feminine resourcefulness in the face of patriarchal authority. Her determination in the face of adversity encourages us to consider our own sense of purpose in a sometimes cruel and contrary world. The tales she uses to dissuade the Sultan inspire us to consider creativity as a solution to our own problems.

Symbolic stories such as Scheherazade help us explore concepts of good and evil without actually having to put ourselves at risk. One of the unique aspects of being human is the ability to learn lessons from rhetorical examples. That is the value of literature, the arts, our history, and religions. But if by choice we limit the meaning of stories to a literal interpretation of the events they describe, their significance may be diminished. Without tools of metaphor, the story of Scheherazade conveys little more than a woman affecting a change of heart in a stubborn man. What lessons can be drawn from such dry fare? Justice and inspiration deserve better role models.

Beyond the literal viewpoint, a host of worthwhile questions await: Do we want to be like the Sultan–full of wrath, suspicion and dogmatic anger? Or should we strive to be more like Scheherazade who is a brave and creative soul in refusing to submit to injustice. In the end, Scheherazade saves her own life even as she saves the Sultan from himself. Eventually she is able to conquer both their fears.

And if the idea of conquering fear and saving souls sounds familiar, perhaps we should consider the notion that universal truths come to us from many sources. The story of Scheherazade and the “Tales of 1001 Arabians Nights” may not be found in the Bible, but we can still learn valuable lessons about human nature from its rhetorical example.

Certainly no one source of knowledge or tradition, even the Bible, holds all the answers. It may be difficult for some people to imagine, but the kingdom of God might actually benefit from a belief system that does not require denial of key forms of practical knowledge to sustain the faith. One could argue that people who develop their faith in concert with reason have the most faith of all.  They have the courage to face down questions about life along with fears about the world and still choose to seek a spiritual relationship with God.

Like a snake underwater: How the conservative alliance has led to flawed public policy

Conservative policies are often not what they seem

Snake Under Water

The goals of political conservatism are all noble ideals; keeping the powers of government in check, protecting citizens from excessive taxation, maintaining moral certitude as a principle of government, and encouraging free trade and commerce.  And at a values level, conservatism prides itself on support of tradition, liberty and love of God and country.

Despite its reputation as a staid element of society, conservatism has at times been quite progressive in pursuing its goals, especially as it set about using media outlets to communicate what it brands conservative ideals from the 1980s to the present. Conservatism’s doctrinal approach to seeking power, influencing culture and leading government has attracted many followers thanks to the aggressively proactive approach.

If you are looking for a single factor in the success of conservatism with the American public, convictions are the political capital of conservatism. Any discussion of politics, social policy or human welfare must contain a healthy dose of “convictions” to be taken seriously by the alliance of political, fiscal, social and religious conservatives.

People with strong convictions tend to love clarity. But the desire for absolute moral clarity among conservatives can lead to intolerance for other viewpoints and even cultural prejudice. Ironically, this may be one of the principle points on which conservatism runs afoul of the true message of the Bible. It is difficult for people to have compassion and tolerance for others if they are blinded by a discriminatory fixation on the competing interests of material, political and personal priorities. The apparently missing component of doctrinal conservatism as it relates to Christian beliefs is compassion.

There have been attempts by the conservative alliance to manufacture empathy for its political cause through invention of terms such as “compassionate conservatism.” But there is little room for compassion in a political movement bent on doctrinal dominance. The fact that the term “compassionate conservatism” even needed to be invented is evidence of the moral contradiction—one might even call it hypocrisy—at the heart of the conservative alliance of fiscal, social, political and religious conservatives.

By definition, hypocrisy means, “a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not.” and, more specifically; “the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion.” Hypocrisy is a strong accusation to make toward any belief system, but the alliance of fiscal, social, political and religious conservatives fits the description in at least one critical sense. Conservatism as a social movement still struggles in its ability to reconcile the market-driven demands of its fiscally conservative constituents with the call to charity and compassion inherent to religious faith and the liberal agenda of Jesus Christ. Specious terms such as “trickle-down economics” celebrate the supposed beneficence of the free market. But truly they only show how cynical some elements of the conservative alliance can be toward those in need. If the most that conservatives can manage to share is the grudging spoils of the rich, then greed remains in control and the collective ideology of conservatism stands in opposition to the liberal agenda of Jesus Christ.

Real contradictions enter the picture when conservatism seeks to justify the doctrine of free market conservatism with the liberal agenda of Jesus Christ. In Mark 10:12, we find the story of a rich young man who wants to know what he can do to reach the kingdom of heaven:

“As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered.  “No one is good––except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

“Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

“At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Granted, this passage may be steeped in hyperbole. But this and a good number of other passages (John 2:12-17, Luke 12:22-34, Luke 12:16-23, Matthew 27:3) leave little doubt that pursuit of personal wealth and social advantage are not the top priorities of Jesus Christ.  As Mark 10 suggests, a ministry in the name of Jesus calls for a selfless disregard for wealth as opposed to the “winner-take-all” focus of unbridled capitalism.

If the Bible is to be trusted as a tool for social justice and democracy, then those who borrow its authority must keep in mind the liberal standard at its core. That predicates treating people as equal souls, avoiding discrimination and exploitation and promoting the virtue of charity through actions as well as words. Jesus emphatically calls us to reach out to others with resources that we might normally keep for ourselves. The liberal agenda of Jesus Christ always puts the needs of others first. Otherwise its message is captive to motives that have little to do with the ways of God.

Some Christians, frustrated by their inability to promulgate their version of faith in the free market of ideas have decided that politics may be the means to force society to accept their doctrine. The problem with this approach is that a contradictory theology never leads to good public policy,and that is at least one of the reasons by the United States Constitution guarantees freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion.

The conservative alliance has led to flawed public policy because of the contradictions and hypocrisies at the heart of its own doctrine.