Jun 22, 2006

How Many Episcopalians Does it Take to Change A Light Bulb?

Ten. One to change the light bulb and 9 to discuss how much better the old one was.

I'm old enough to remember the angst caused by revisions to the Book of Common Prayer in 1979, as well as the pitched battles over the decision to ordain women. I've always thought the Episcopal Church did an admirable job of straddling the line between forward, social momentum and regressive bickering.

Once again Anglicans are roiling with the changes that would allow them to keep pace with modernity. The recent appointment of a woman, the Right Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, to the post of Presiding Bishop of the US is the latest daring move for a Church internally at odds with its notorious tolerance. From Salon:

Jefferts Schori, a former oceanographer, was considered a long shot for the position by most church experts: Although she's a fairly mainstream liberal, her gender made it unlikely that the church would choose to be stirred up at a moment when it seemed to require smoothing over and calming down.

The Episcopal Church -- the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, with 77 million members -- had already outraged conservatives three years ago by electing the openly gay Right Rev. Gene Robinson to head the Diocese of New Hampshire. Conservative African Anglicans joined with reactionary American Episcopalians, threatening to pull out of the Communion entirely if the enfranchisement of gay Christians was not stopped. There were name-calling, backstabbing, breakaway parishes, fights over property and thundering sermons about "abomination" and deviance. "The battle is about the authority of Scripture," proclaimed conservative American Bishop Robert Duncan. "It's about the basics of Christian faith ... The issues have to do with sexuality and morality, but at the very heart of it is whether Scripture can be trusted."

The eponymous blogger at That's Not Christian offers this oh-so-gentle reminder to those who would cling to ideas of Biblical inerrancy in their battle against the legitimization of gay lifestyles.

The Old Testament contains several verses written by men who opposed homosexuality (and biblical literalists believe that every word written by these men was inspired by God)–but not in terms of restricting gay marriage or gay bishops or gay soldiers or gay whatnot. The only Old Testament prescription for handling gay people is "stoning unto death".

And there are several other groups of people, including adulterers and rebellious children, that Old Testament writers advised stoning unto death. In "Biblical days", stoning was the capital punishment of choice, though there were several lesser-known methods of punishment for the authorites to use as desired, such as "poisoning the womb" of women...

That last is actually a method of abortion, which underscores as well anything the level of hypocrisy called for by rigid fundamentalism.

I spent a good deal of my youth in a very moderate Episcopal Church. The Assistant Priest, who was charged with the responsibility of shaping our adolescent minds, was a bit of a lefty and had done a stint as a touring folk singer. He began one youth group meeting by telling us what he'd learned his first day of seminary. He snatched a Bible from the shelf and dropped it on the floor. He pointed at it and announced, "The Bible did not arrive that way." The holy scripture, he taught us, had many authors, and, while inspired by God, was flawed and internally contradictory. Not even the begats are consistent, he told us, with some listings skipping entire generations. "The thing that makes me nervous about fundamentalists," he used to say, "Is that I've never met people who were so sure that they were right and everybody else was wrong."

My opinions of the American Episcopal Church are largely shaped by the progressive attitudes I encountered in formative years spent under its tutelage. So it is painful to watch them lurch and limp into the future; alternating brave innovations with craven reversals.

This Friday PBS will air a new series, "Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason," exploring the role of religion in a modern, culturally diverse world. Says Moyers:

The chaotic events of the world have fueled a yearning for certainty, and fundamentalism is nothing if not certain -- it offers propositions that can be affixed as bumper stickers; it gives people sound bites to which they can assent. It's a life jacket in a stormy sea, solid ground in the earthquake of life.

Furthermore, if you believe a sacred text is literally the word of God, you don't need any other proof. And you don't want to waste time with people who disagree with you. You know God's mind -- who are they to stand in your way? Around the world, fundamentalism is waging war against the imagination -- against creativity, freedom (freedom of the mind, above all), and against the tolerance that is necessary if people of different beliefs are to live together.

It is the challenge of all humanity to juggle contradictions and the Episcopal Church has proved itself to be skilled at doing so. If history is any guide they will continue along the bumpy path of growth and change; seeking a contemplative and mature faith over a reactionary one.

Jun 2, 2006

New Studies: Hurricane Intensity Rising

Two new studies released earlier this week conclude that hurricane intensity is increasing with increases in global temperature. In an earlier post I noted a study from the Georgia Institute of Technology that saw a correlation between rising water temperatures and stronger, more damaging hurricanes. Early this week both Purdue University and Pennsylvania State University studies reached similar conclusions. This New York Times article emphasizes the hotly debated nature of these studies. They cannot be read as conclusive, but certainly as very interesting and concerning.

The Purdue scientists found that their results matched earlier work by Kerry A. Emanuel, a hurricane expert at M.I.T. Dr. Emanuel has argued that global warming, specifically the warming of the tropical oceans, is already increasing the power expended by hurricanes.

The approach used by the Purdue researchers, concentrating on what is called reanalysis data, has never been tried for this purpose before, Dr. Huber said in an interview, adding, "We were surprised that it did as well as it did."

In a statement accompanying the release of the study, Dr. Huber said the results were important because the overall measure of cyclone activity, whether through more intense storms or more frequent storms, had doubled with a one-quarter-degree increase in average global temperature.

In the other new study, Dr. Emanuel and Michael E. Mann, a meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University, compared records of global sea surface temperatures with those of the tropical Atlantic and said the recent strengthening of hurricanes was attributable largely to the rise in ocean surface temperature.

The impact of stronger storms is already taking a toll on the environment and damaging sensitive ecosystems. After last year's deluge of hurricanes the entire gulf region of the United States experienced multiplicative damage. As per the Baltimore Sun:

Throughout the Gulf Coast region from Texas to Florida, barrier islands have been battered by wind and waves, leaving many fragmented and submerged.

The Chandeleur Islands off Louisiana's coast were stripped clean by Katrina, submerging much of the 40-mile-long, uninhabited chain and leaving the mainland more vulnerable in the coming hurricane season.

"It takes a long time for these dunes to re-establish naturally, so the next storm that comes along will have an easier job overtopping the islands and flooding inland areas," said oceanographer Abby Sallenger of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Louisiana had been losing coastal wetlands at a rate of about 25 square miles a year, scientists say. It is estimated that Katrina caused a loss of 118 square miles of wetland marshes.

"What potentially could happen if you take away the barrier islands, the wetlands could even disappear faster," Sallenger said. "The marsh itself will just disintegrate, and it supports an incredibly rich ecosystem."

Another recent study shows that New Orleans is simply not ready for another major hurricane and the impact could be devastating. But Florida's ecosystem is also hanging in the balance.

"These hurricanes are just taking big chunks of our landscape," Doyle said.

"It could eventually be the threshold that tips the bucket and leads freshwater systems to become brackish ... and the whole system kind of collapses. We now have this game board set with certain things in place, and in combination with more frequent hurricanes it can aggravate the situation in terms of sustainability in our social, agricultural and natural systems."

In Florida, where the Everglades has become a managed network of canals and levees, scientists face the daunting task of controlling more water from frequent storms to keep developed areas from flooding and to cleanse agricultural runoff of fertilizers and pesticides before it reaches surrounding wetlands.

Jun 1, 2006

"Religion is Hard Work"

I relate strongly to Karen Armstrong. No, I was never a nun, but my life has followed a similar path of spiritual exploration, disillusionment, and discovery. In the introduction to his interview with Armstrong, Salon's Steve Paulson describes her appeal thusly:

Armstrong now calls herself a "freelance monotheist." It's easy to understand her appeal in today's world of spiritual seekers. As an ex-nun, she resonates with people who've fallen out with organized religion. Armstrong has little patience for literal readings of the Bible, but argues that sacred texts yield profound insights if we read them as myth and poetry. She's especially drawn to the mystical tradition, which -- in her view -- has often been distorted by institutionalized religion.

The interview is quite compelling and well worth watching the ad to read. I've excerpted some of the highlights.

In her recent book, "The Great Transformation," Armstrong writes about the religions that emerged during the "Axial Age," a phrase coined by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers. This is the era when many great sages appeared, including the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah and the mystics of the Upanishads. -- Salon

On the meaning of religion:

Religion is a search for transcendence. But transcendence isn't necessarily sited in an external god, which can be a very unspiritual, unreligious concept. The sages were all extremely concerned with transcendence, with going beyond the self and discovering a realm, a reality, that could not be defined in words.

On God as a personal concept:

No, but the great theologians in Judaism, Christianity and Islam say you begin with the idea of a god who is personal. But God transcends personality as God transcends every other human characteristic, such as gender. If we get stuck there, this is very immature. Very often people hear about God at about the same time as they're learning about Santa Claus. And their ideas about Santa Claus mature and change in time, but their idea of God remains infantile.

On whether the non-religious can be moral:

They can. I fully endorse that. I don't think you need to believe in an external god to obey the Golden Rule. In the Axial Age, when people started to concentrate too much on what they're transcending to -- that is, God -- and neglected what they're transcending from -- their greed, pompous egotism, cruelty -- then they lost the plot, religiously. That's why God is a difficult religious concept. I think God is often used by religious people to give egotism a sacred seal of divine approval, rather than to take you beyond the ego.

On mythos and logos:

Yes. In the pre-modern world, there were two ways of arriving at truth. Plato, for example, called them mythos and logos. Myth and reason or science. We've always needed both of them. It was very important in the pre-modern world to realize these two things, myth and science, were complementary. One didn't cancel the other out.

On violence in the Quran:

I would say there are more passages in the Bible than the Quran that are dedicated to violence. I think what all religious people ought to do is to look at their own sacred traditions. Not just point a finger at somebody else's, but our own. Christians should look long and hard at the Book of Revelation. And they should look at those passages in the Pentateuch that speak of the destruction of the enemy.

On fundamentalism as a reaction to institutionalized secularism:

Yes, because fundamentalism has developed in every single one of the major traditions as a response to secularism that has been dismissive or even cruel, and has attempted to wipe out religion.

On the practice of relgion:

Religion is hard work. It's an art form. It's a way of finding meaning, like art, like painting, like poetry, in a world that is violent and cruel and often seems meaningless. And art is hard work. You don't just dash off a painting. It takes years of study. I think we expect religious knowledge to be instant. But religious knowledge comes incrementally and slowly. And religion is like any other activity. It's like cooking or sex or science. You have good art, sex and science, and bad art, sex and science. It's not easy to do it well.

On creation myths and the book of Genesis:

Well, it's not a literal account because it's put right next door to another account in Chapter 2, which completely contradicts it. Then there are other creation stories in the Bible that show Yahweh like a Middle Eastern god killing a sea monster to create the world. Cosmogony in the ancient world was not an account of the physical origins of life. Cosmogony was usually used therapeutically. When people were sick or in times of vulnerability, they would read a cosmogony in order to get an influx of the divine, to tap into those extraordinary energies that had created something out of nothing.