Sunday, May 27, 2007

Canterbury and New Hampshire

This cyber-forum began its life in concern about the inclusion of GLBT persons in the life of the church. In recent weeks the discussion here has been ranging widely, which I much appreciate, since my concern is that we are a space where a voice may be heard about many aspects of an interpretation of the faith which is progressive and able to communicate with the real world in which we live. We who live at this end of the Christian spectrum are generally not well represented in the media, and our ideas need to be heard.

However, a news item of the past week forces me to return to our starting point. We heard that the Archbishop of Canterbury had invited the Bishops of the Anglican Communion to Lambeth in 2008, but had not invited Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

The clergy associated with Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal have sent a letter to Archbishop Rowan Williams. This morning (Sunday), many of the lay members and worshippers at the Cathedral signed another similar letter which will soon be on its way.

Here is the text of the clergy letter:

The Most Rev’d and Rt. Hon. Rowan Williams
Archbishop of Canterbury

Your Grace,

It was with dismay and outrage that we received the news of your refusal to invite Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire to the Lambeth Conference as a participant on an equal footing with his brother and sister bishops of the Communion.

While disappointed at your refusal, we cannot say that we were surprised, as this action represents what seems to us further evidence of a grave lack of leadership in our Communion at a time when its commitment to the liberating and restorative gospel of Jesus Christ is obscured.

Over 400 persons were present at a Eucharist celebrated in our cathedral last July 27 when Bishop Robinson preached. This celebration brought together a congregation comprising the diversity of the Anglican theological spectrum. In this context, Bishop Robinson exercised a truly apostolic ministry of unity and hope. It is beyond credulity to imagine that a bishop of such integrity and humility could be excluded from the councils of the Anglican Communion.

Yours truly,

The Clericus of the Archdeaconry of Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal

God and Religion

I agree with both Nathalie and Beth that it is possible and desirable to keep discussion about God apart from discussion about religion. I am currently reading “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins and I find he moves from one to the other somewhat carelessly. But while Nathalie and Beth want to talk about God without talking about religion, I think it is also possible to talk about religion without talking about God. After all Buddhists manage to do it, so why shouldn’t we?

I do this for two reasons. First, as the Dean of a Cathedral, religion is my profession. Secondly, the arguments against belief in God advanced by Dawkins and other have been around a long time. But in many cases, Christian theology has not taken them seriously. Belief in God is, I believe, still possible within the world view offered by the sciences of evolution, geophysics and quantum mechanics, but the nature of that belief, and the understanding of God within that world view must be very different from the theology espoused by most believers today. The number of people who are sufficiently cognizant with both theology and modern sciences to undertake the task of thinking and talking about God with intellectual honesty and rigor is very small, and I am not among them. So, mostly, I restrict myself to talking about religion.

I see religion in this way: religion in general, and the Christian religion in particular is one part of the much larger flow of the human cultural tradition down through the ages. Its boundaries have always been fluid, and particularly over the past half millennium, many of the questions which once belonged in the religious stream of the tradition have been spun off into other streams, including science, philosophy and literature. But the central concerns of the religious tradition have always been ultimate questions of the meaning of life and death, of the purpose of life, and of right and wrong, justice and injustice, hope and fear. I have to agree with those who point to religion as a source of violence, war, oppression and injustice. But the stream of religious tradition is not a single flow. Even within the more specifically Christian stream there are enormous differences of approach to key questions which dance together down the ages. In God and Empire, Jesus against Rome, Then and Now, John Dominic Crossan builds on his earlier work in showing how violence and non-violence exist side by side in the Biblical texts, the foundation of the Christian tradition and how they continue to exist in the contemporary exponents of the tradition. Like Crossan, I want to opt for an interpretation of Christianity which is non-violent, inclusive, peace making and open to plurality and diversity. All this I find in the scriptural record and in the development of the tradition across the ages.

Because of my own history, I stand within the tradition of religion, but, with this interpretation, I can look out and dialogue with other parts of the human cultural tradition. I can meet with people of other faiths. I can consult with anthropologists, sociologists, and even stretch my mind to try to understand what scientists are saying. I can try to find in what ways this tradition can contribute to the future of society and humanity. All this I can do without spending too much time agonizing over the idea of God, except when that idea is abused by those who wish to oppress and dehumanize others.

Maybe actually it was something like this that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had in mind when he spoke of religionless Christianity. Unfortunately Bonheoffer did not live long enough to fill out his idea. If I am right about this, then perhaps what I am looking for is religionless religion. Anyway, let me know what you think.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Theists and A-theists Take off the Gloves

From the 2004 publication of The End of Faith by Sam Harris, through last year's book by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, right down to today, we're seeing a host of books tackling both sides of the God question. Latest and perhaps most snarky (or so I hear) is the attack on religion by Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything. In the Books section of this week's New Yorker Anthony Gottleib has written an article, Atheists with Attitude, about these recent books -- but even more about the history of atheism and its most notable proponents.

Why all these books right now? Gottlieb writes:

The felling of the World Trade Center in New York, on September 11, 2001, brought its share of religion. Two populist preachers, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, called it divine punishment (though both quickly withdrew their remarks), and not only the bereaved prayed for help. But September 11th and its aftershocks in Bali, Madrid, London, and elsewhere are more notable for causing an outbreak of militant atheism, at least on bookshelves. The terrorist attacks were carried out in the name of Islam, and they have been taken, by a string of best-selling books, to illustrate the fatal dangers of all religious faith.

One of the most interesting aspects of Gottlieb's article is what he says about historical disasters and their influence on thinkers of those times. One of its considerably less successful aspects, it seems to me, is the way he jumps back and forth between rejection of belief in God - atheism - and rejection of religious institutions. It's an expression of a genuinely thorny theological problem when someone cannot believe in God because he or she has difficulty accepting both belief in God, and the presence of random and undeserved suffering in the world. But making the same decision because human beings do - and have always done - terrible things in the name of their religions is not, I would suggest, the same thing at all.

Perhaps someone reading here might summarize the recent discussion about atheism that took place during the recent "Faith and Reason" course at the Centre for Lay Education at the Montreal Diocesan Theological College. I wonder, also, how readers feel about this whole question of atheism in recent popular books and articles. Does it concern you? Do you feel personally involved when someone attacks "belief"? In your life, have you felt that people made assumptions about you because of your faith? Have you ever tried to defend your faith to an avowed atheist - or have you (as I have!) ever called yourself an atheist?

--Beth Adams

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Pope Benedict in Brazil

Pope Benedict is in Latin America, exhorting Catholics there, as in Europe, to return to an earlier sense of faith and morality. His visit has also encouraged a good deal of theological speculation about the decline -- or is it viability? -- of liberation theology, a movement he tried hard to discredit and destroy when he was Cardinal Ratzinger. This speculation has led to some good articles, such as this one from The Economist, about the future shape of faith and religion in Latin America, where American-grown Pentecostalism is on the rise and has spurred a counter-growth in the Catholic charismatic movement. Today, in an important speech at the start of 19 days of meetings with Latin American cardinals and bishops on the future of Catholicism in their region, the pope again denounced Capitalism and Marxism, saying that religion must stay out of politics, while still working for justice.

Perhaps the topic of the pope might help to open up some discussion on this blog. In Quebec, because of the strong French Catholic culture, many Anglicans have more than a passing interest in what the pope says and does: a number of Quebec Anglicans have come from the Roman Catholic church themselves, and many of those who have not are coming from an Anglo-Catholic background or are interested in Catholic Church politics generally. For others - both former Catholics and not - the pope is, or has become, irrelevant.

So, readers, how do you feel? Have you been following the recent coverage of Pope Benedict's trip, and the major articles about his theology that have appeared recently? How do you feel about the pope in general? As an Anglican, do you see the internal struggles and official positions of the Roman Catholic Church as relevant to your life, and to our church, or not? And why? (It would be interesting to hear from Anglicans both inside and outside Quebec on this topic - so please don't be shy, let's hear some comments below!

--Beth Adams