A Religious Liberal Blog

This site hopefully can provide some vehicle by which I can comment, complain, and once in a while praise the state of religion in this country and around the world from a liberal protestant perspective.

Monday, May 28, 2007


Rowan Williams has decided to to not invite Gene Robinson to the Lambeth gathering next year. I've argued that openness to the other, from all sides is required to live together.

I still believe that. But what happens when one side is convinced your the devil and has no desire to live with you? You can't force reconciliation. And now to attend Lambeth the Episcopal Church is asked to participate in a system designed to exclude gay and lesbians.

So that by attending Lambeth, the US church validates an unjust structure. If they don't go, does that mean the end of conversation? And has conversation ever once happened in the last number of years? And is Lambeth the instrument where something like that can happen?

If Lambeth is not the place to have these conversations what context works? One that doesn't exclude people from the table. One where people who genuinely believe that something of God is to be found in the other can talk. And what if no such venue exists?

Perhaps a fast is required. A fast from Lambeth, from bishop pronouncements, from political powerplays, and church lawsuits, and a fast from begging to be included. Rather we just go about being the church, pray, and wait on a movement of God that opens hearts.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

No Comment

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Ending the War

Today the congress and in particular the Democrats failed to pass war funding that restored accountability and began the process of ending this war. In that they failed to represent the majority of Americans.

But one should acknowledge that presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich, and Ron Paul all voted against this bill. And John Edwards has been organizing folks to oppose this legislation. His site on this issue is worth checking.

Edwards also spoke at the Council of Foreign Relations saying "As president, I will close Guantanamo Bay, restore habeas corpus, and ban torture. Measures like these will help America once again achieve its historic moral stature". Will other candidates commit to this?


I figured with the focus on Reinhold Niebuhr, it would be good to quote his brother, H. Richard who raises an unsettling idea:
A dark prospect opens before us as we reflect on the meaning of Jesus' question "When the Son of man comes will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8) He may have meant, "Will he find belief or trust in God" But he may have also meant, "Will he find any faithfulness among men?"

The experiences of the 20th century have brought into view the abyss of faithlessness into which men can fall. We see this possibility that human history will come to its end neither in a brotherhood of man nor in universal death under the blows of natural or man made catastrophe:

But in the gangrenous corruption of a social life in which every promise, contract, treat and "word of honor" is given and accepted in deception and distrust. If men no longer have faith in each other, can they exist as men?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The torture party

At a recent Republican presidential debate a number of the candidates embraced indefinite detentions and the use of torture, to much applause and support of the audience.

In conversations I've had with conservatives, including some family members, the belief in torture and opposition to any requirements concerning the treatment and handling of prisoners abroad seems to be a given, perhaps something that defines support for Bush.

Maybe the impetus behind such a view was expressed earlier, from the School of the Americas to our own prison system in the US. But I can't help but think that Bush's embrace of torture, hasn't somehow coarsened the American people, made us less good.

There is no scandal in this country of having 19,000 Iraqis in prison, most without cause. Or that Romney received applause when he called for doubling Gitmo. This war, like many, have caused us to embrace the unconscionable.

I'm not sure what it will take to turn things around. But I am convinced that any candidate who does not articulate opposition to torture, due process, following the Geneva convention, and the limits of presidential power is not fit to the hold the presidency.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Niebuhr Last Post

This link has an interesting article in how many liberal journalists and commentators have been dismayed at the emotional urgency and language of liberal bloggers and groups such as moveon.org

In one of the more unsettling passages of Moral Man Immoral Society, Niebuhr argues that the emotional, the non rational, the dramatic over simplification, and potent symbols are needed for people to become involved in any struggle. It's something that liberals had lost in the last few decades and in some measure are regaining.

This becomes a source of worry for a number of commentators. And Niebuhr recognizes in the last chapter of that book the limits of that mode. But it has also provided a way for people to be involved in the political process. There is a way in which the rational, as practiced by some, can be a means to prevent democratic participation.

We're left with Walter Lippman's vision of a society where experts are running the show, but not one of a democracy that solicits vigorous participation by a broad range of people. In that, Niebuhr's insight strikes me as important for democratic theory, even though it seems missing from today's discourse.

But cautionary Niebuhr seem relevant as ever. When the left had no power under Bush there was a kind of despair that corresponded with arrogance that the right experienced. Both were rooted in the belief that achieving the mechanisms of power could result in the vision they hoped for and the lack of power was the ultimate thwarting of it.

There was no sense of the limitations, either of the vision or the ability to enact it, that mark such things. The failure of the Iraq war seems to be a testimony to this. There was also no sense that there are forces or even inertias, perhaps even the divine, that are larger than the wills and desires of individuals.

But how does one hold together the emotional, the non rational, and the energetic drive that compels people into social action and the limitations and sober assessment that Niebuhr presents to us as a caution against any social project? I think that's the tension we're left with in his work.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Niebuhr Part 3

Does Niebuhr believe that God is personal? His method is to use the resources of the western religious tradition to affect a kind of self image about us and our world. And his God language gets used for that end.

To speak of God as transcendent is not to make a claim about an entity that exists outside of space and time as it is to juxtaposition it with the actual, the finite, the creaturely. To assert that we are judged by God is not that there is an old man with a score card but rather recognizing that all our works are as rags before the infinite.

God is a sort of an ideal perspective, that since we never have or maybe can only get a glimpse of, acts as a relativizer of us and our beliefs, commitments, and projects. In that God performs the function as an ideal but does that make God a personal being?

Yes, according to Niebuhr for God is personal and is required for his project. People will only respond religiously to a God who is personal. Because it is only between persons that personal commitments and loyalties can be made. But that only answers what may be necessary for us to respond to God. It doesn't describe what God is.

Niebuhr presents an anthropology, in making sense of the resources that exist in the tradition to solve human problems. In this, Niebuhr, shares a method that most liberal protestants use. But then, John Calvin uses this in his catechism, Instruction in Faith.

Calvin starts that work with the human in the world, our sense of it, and the way that our mis estimation of ourselves and the world presents us with a problem. This is a shift that starts with the world. This is what separates Niebuhr from many theologians, and why I am apt to go with him.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

One Comment

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Niebuhr Part 2

I find Niebuhr's language of drives interesting. In more unreflective moments, it's easy to think of good and bad impulses. To think that while we are a mix, we could isolate the good ones and bring them to the fore and to put a lid on the more destructive drives.

For Niebuhr, you cannot disentangle impulses. Rather the same impulse that makes us mark our world by subordinating others can also be the one that provides for service to the wider world. Both are expressions of our need to have a self, to have significance, etc. To go after one, could inadvertently affect the other.

Often what we identify as a good impulse, say a higher loyalty than my own immediate needs and relations, can be utilized for the services of a still limited and destructive loyalty. Patriotism is an example of this. Those motivated by a genuine desire for a higher good can produce tremendous harms against others.

Niebuhr's discussion of religious resources is interesting in this regard. A person with a high sense of morals can look at this world, with it's partial ends and compromised methods and divorce themselves from that world. But that removes the person from any responsible engagement with the world as it is.

For Niebuhr you cannot find a single solution, a single slogan that could be used to identify the problem or solve it. "The world needs more religion", or "people need to be more loving", or "we need more democracy", etc. fail because they can as easily inadvertently exasperate the problem as much as aid it.

Niebuhr's method, is one in which the resources we use to solve problems or identify them, are themselves implicated with the problem. So you have to negotiate a tolerable mean that finds the balance between what good an impulse, idea, practice can bring without it being used in a way which subverts that very good.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Niebuhr Part One

I've been reading Reinhold Niebuhr for an independent reading course. Below are some preliminary impressions. Also there will be subsequent posts with further thoughts on his work.

Gordon Kaufman argues that theology has two tasks: to relativize us and to humanize us. I take that to be Niebuhr's project. These two tasks are connected up because much of the injustices that are committed against others occur when one claims more than we can claim, whether that is power, or knowledge, etc.

If religion can instill a sense of humility by highlighting our limits, of our own partialities, and the way our own interests can make us not aware of a wider set of needs, interests, considerations, then we will be less likely to act roughshod over others.

Religion can do this in two respects: by widening our sense of who we are responsible for. And it can present to us ideals, which are sufficiently high that anything that we actually have created, believe, or act out of is reduced to little in light of this ideal.

In terms of strategies, I get the impression that H.Richard Niebuhr focused much of his energies with the first one, with his language of radical monotheism. Reinhold Niebuhr the latter, especially with his discussion of the impossible ideal and his attacks on the pretensions that the most well meaning of us may have.

But I wonder if Reinhold Niebuhr provides a sufficient basis for constructing an alternative vision of a better world? He is able to poke holes at the limited visions of his day and by extension ours. But what vision does he have that could move folks? I suspect you would want the visionaries and the cautionary word of a Niebuhr in the mix.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

May Holidays

Mother's Day was not invented by Hallmark for greeting card purposes but to challenge the effects of war on our society. Here's the original 1870 Mother's Day proclamation by Julia Ward Howe.

And John Edwards, to honor veterans during Memorial Day, has a new site to end the war. There's various resources, including the top 10 things one can do to bring our troops home. It's seems fitting that for spring we have holidays that can encourage us to consider the ways that make for life.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Considering Obama

A while back I wrote a piece on John Edwards expressing tentative support, especially with his focus on poverty and a more promising foreign policy vision. Over time such support has been strengthened.

But Barack Obama also interests me, in terms of his early and consistent opposition to the war, his unique life story, and his ability to connect a certain set of politics into an overall vision that could be in a position to move people to action.

And to be able to craft that vision into the religious sensibilities of most Americans while being respectful of the first amendment and a supporter of the religious diversity, which is our nation's strength not its weakness is it self an amazing act for a democratic candidate.

But this has been an important caveat that keeps me with Edwards. It's identified by an author that links up Reinhold Niebuhr and Obama's run for the presidency. It's about the specific policy proposals and whether Obama is comfortable with such things. As the author notes:

"At a certain point, he will have to demand something from people who are disinclined to give up much of anything for the commonweal. (John Edwards has run a far more honest and substantive campaign, in this regard.)

Whether that means taxing the wealthy to pay for health care or instituting mandatory national service for young Americans, Obama will have to demonstrate his seriousness (political and moral) by moving from biography to proposals that don't go down as easily as his eloquent rhetoric."

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Tori's New Album

Tori Amos' new album is out, American Doll Posse. I was a worried with the gothic cover that she might be tempted to depart from the piano. The piano is as prominent as ever, but her lyric topics are wider.

She even broaches politics and she keeps on exploring new ways of presenting the songs, so that every album gives you something new and surprising. It's good to see some of the artists I had grown to love in the early 90s are still making interesting music.

I've been working on a progressive Christian radio show, so I have an interest in finding a wider range of music that can touch on social justice, and an open faith. There have been a number of folks who have recommended artists and albums and that's been a bonus in doing the show. Thanks all.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Afterlife

I'm on an e-mail list that every week presents a religious question to the group. Everyone then proceeds to e-mail their responses to one person who posts all the answers anonymously.

This is my response to the most recent question: Is there an afterlife? It's a bit short with catchphrases included but that's the general format of how this e-mail list works.

I do believe in life after death. What I doubt is whether it is possible that individual consciousness can continue after death. There is nothing I know about biology that suggests it can.

But our actions have life and meaning after our death. Our impacts on the world last after us. If not directly in the lives of others, than in the life of God. If the past gets carried into the future and leaves a permanent mark on the cosmos, then the story of that cosmos will always include our time span and what we made out of it.

I also believe in life before death. I believe that the central aim of the religious life is made in the time we have here. If we focus on this life the afterlife will take care of itself. If we focus on the afterlife we may lose what we have in this world. It reminds me of the saying of Jesus, those who seek to save their life will lose it.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

My Absence

I wanted to apologize for the long absence. I've enjoyed posting on the blog for what will be my fourth year. But I've also been facing writer's funk lately as I'm working to find out what direction my life will take this fall. I'm looking for jobs around the country and trying to figure what role I could play in terms of ministry.

Doing this and juggling several roles I have now has not been conducive to blogging. But I still like the avenue this site provides and I enjoy reading the thoughtful writings of others. I've also been working on thoughts about campus ministry and the future of liberal religion. I'm hoping that this site can be a place to work out such thoughts as well as be the home of a good rant now and again.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


What does it mean to use pro-life language when the subject of violence against clinics, even the murder of doctors is a present reality today? One condoned by many on the right today?

"Those few abortionists were shot, or, depending on your point of view, had a procedure with a rifle performed on them. I'm not justifying it, but I do understand how it happened." Ann Coulter The fact that this statement didn't raise the public ire is alarming.

And then there's Wiley Drake. He was awarded the post of second vice president of the Southern Baptist convention. In the past he defended the actions Jim Kopp, a man who killed a doctor who performed abortions and is believed to have killed four other doctors as well.

Yes, a head official in the largest protestant church in the US has defended an assassin. That's worth sitting with. What does that say about that church or the church in general? And our supreme court has ruled that a woman's health is irrelevant when it comes to abortion.

It seems to me that the mainline protestant church cannot sit by the sidelines anymore. We can't just pass a pro-choice resolution and send some money to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and think our job has been done.

Rather the church needs to be fully engaged with this issue. It should be treated as key as any other justice concern. Even from liberal churches, there is not much national what less local church engagement with an issue that can mean the life and death of women. That needs to change.