Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Secularism’

Christians Should Shut Up, Calm Down, and Listen

In American Society, Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Government on March 2, 2014 at 12:49 am

Before you get too wound up, you should probably have a look at James 1:1-21, paying particular attention to verse 19. While my headline addresses Christians in general, I’m thinking mostly about that vitriolic group of Americans known as the Tea Party. Of course the groups are not one and the same, but I don’t think anyone can argue that the vast majority of Tea Partiers would self-identify as Christians. So if you’re not the angry, White, American Republican variety of Christian, please forgive my generalization; headlines can only be so long, you know.

James’ letter was probably written around 46-48 AD, a couple of years before the Council of Jerusalem put Gentile believers on equal footing with their Jewish Christian brothers. Hence, it is addressed to “the twelve tribes scattered across the nations”, referring to the Jewish communities that existed in almost every city across the ancient world. These communities often practiced a form of Hellenistic Judaism, meaning that they combined their Jewish religious traditions with elements of Greek culture. As they were open to new ideas and philosophies, they were among the earliest adherents to the new faith of Christianity. Because most of the New Testament was originally written in koine Greek, instead of Aramaic, some historians think the early Christian church may have been composed almost exclusively of Hellenistic Jews; the fact that many Old Testament quotations in the letters of the disciples appear to come from the Septuagint strengthens this argument.

James tells believers to be happy when they are facing trials, as these will serve to perfect their faith. In an earlier post dealing with Paul’s discussion of persecutions in Thessaloniki, it wasn’t clear what he might have been referring too. However, there would have been lots of friction between Aramaic-speaking, traditional Jewish believers and Greek-speaking, Hellenistic Jews at the time of James’ writing. The recipients of his letter would have been subject to the disdain of their own Jewish brethren, perhaps ostracized from the synagogue for their belief in this person called Jesus. It is probably this religious persecution that he refers to.

According to James, God will give wisdom to anyone who asks for it, as long as they really, really believe when they ask. If you doubt – forget about it. God will give you nothing. Over the years, I have seen so many Christians beat themselves up over this verse. What they ask God for seems reasonable enough – the wisdom needed to sort out their marriage or their children, or direction in a financial decision – but they receive nothing. When their marriage or finances fall apart, they tell themselves (or are helpfully reminded by more successful Christians) that they just simply don’t have enough faith in God. Many of the largest evangelical churches across the US preach this kind of doctrine. The church leadership, enriched by the tithes of the faithful, tell the less fortunate among the flock that they need only the tiniest bit of faith, and they too can be rich and successful. If you are struggling in life, it’s your own fault for not being able to muster up enough faith. It has nothing to do with the fact that the economic system is rigged against you or that you were never able to complete college. No, your life is a mess because Jesus thinks you don’t believe in him enough.

It’s ironic that most of the TV preachers are telling us that we should all be rich; James doesn’t have many nice things to say about the wealthy. This is one of the major inconsistencies evident between a literal reading of the Bible and modern American Christianity. Americans all want to be rich – who doesn’t? – while Jesus, James, Peter, and other New Testament writers see wealth as a detriment to the Christian life. In fact, the wealthy are viewed as oppressors, not ‘job creators’, not as men of great faith. A great deal of rhetorical acrobatics is required to twist these teachings into something that supports our acquisitive, materialistic American lifestyle.

In fact, James thinks it is the poor who should be proud, as their lives are not focused on the material. At God’s table, the rich won’t get the best seat – if they are invited at all. In most American churches, the wealthiest members hold the coveted positions of leadership. In God’s kingdom, Tom Perkins certainly wouldn’t get a million more votes than you or I.

Phidippides

Two metaphors in verses 12 and 18 show how skillfully the writer weaves together ideas from both Jewish and Hellenistic worldviews. He compares the Christian life to an endurance race, something that can be won with perseverance. Marathons, the glory of victory, laurel crowns – these are Greek ideas that are not found in Old Testament writings. Christians today talk about “running the race”, “fighting the good fight”, and “wearing the whole armor of God”, little realizing that these ideas are all drawn from Greek legends, not Jewish or Christian ones. James was likely reminding his readers of Pheidippides, using that story as a source of inspiration for living the Christian life. Note that in Merson’s rendering above, the hero has truly laid aside every weight to run the race.

When he refers to his fellow believers as “a kind of firstfruits”, James is alluding to a type of agricultural offering that had existed in both Greek and Jewish cultures for centuries. He appears to be changing the significance of the offering – instead of humans giving the first part of their harvest to a temple, James seems to be saying that the first group of believers are offered to God as the first of many more believers to come. Modern churches, however, prefer the ancient meaning – every religion in every culture has rituals that are meant to sustain – and often enrich – the priesthood.

While partisans from all parts of the political spectrum are guilty of lowering the quality of the debate in our country, I offer this next verse as Biblical instruction to the Tea Party in particular. James says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” If a godless, reprobate secularist won’t listen and spouts off all the time, at least he isn’t breaking his own moral code – you, Mr. Tea Partier, are. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the anger of the Tea Party that is driving the greater part of the rancor and real ugliness in our politics today. I didn’t think George Bush was very bright, but I didn’t call him a subhuman mongrel. I wish evangelicals didn’t always vote Republican, but I certainly don’t hope they burn in hell when they do.

We can’t solve any of the many serious problems our nation faces as long as we think and act this way. We have to respect each other – talk to one another – to get things done. So, Mr. Tea Partier, it’s not just me who thinks you need to shut up, calm down, and listen every once and a while. No, your friend James – Jesus’ brother – thinks so too.

The road to getting our country back in shape is likely to be a long one – we need to put our energy into running that race.

If it’s ok with you, I’ll be keeping my clothes on.

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Is Secularism Dystopian?

In American Enlightenment, American Society, Current events on February 21, 2014 at 12:03 am

I commented a couple of days ago on four recent news stories that, taken together, I felt illustrated a disturbing trend in American society – our ignorance may be becoming more dangerous. I thought that there was little controversial subject matter in what I wrote – I did call creationism a lie, and perhaps that was harsh. I know that Christians believe it is true, and when they tell it to their children, they do not think they are misleading anyone. I once believed in the Bible narrative myself, and spent a lot of years trying to come up with theories that would reconcile my belief with the available evidence, until the weight of the latter finally crushed the frail construction of the former. This change in ideology took many years to occur – I was a fundamentalist at 20, an apologist at 25, a non-creationist Christian at 30, a ‘spiritual but not religious’ person at 35, and consider myself to be an agnostic with a nostalgia for religion today.

I did not really think that I was saying anything that even most Christians would not be able to agree with, but apparently I was wrong. Marcos Ortega, writing on his blog Word of Life described my post in what I thought were rather harsh terms. If you didn’t read my post Dumb, Dumber, and Dangerouser, take a few minutes to read it, then look at his response. Note the Orwellian artwork on the page.

I can only guess as to what Mr. Ortega’s definition of secularism is. He seems to equate it with atheism, nihilism, socialism, and communism, erroneously thinks it appeared for the first time during the French Revolution, and feels that it is the cause of most of the ills and atrocities that have plagued society since that time. From the George Holyoke quote that appears on every page of my site, he selects only the words that he feels are damning, ignoring the part about how secularism “does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently….” Since secularism is interested in knowledge that “conduces to the welfare of this life,” it cannot by definition seek to enslave or terrorize.

Secularism is a worldview, but it is not a dogma. It does not start from a preconceived set of ideas handed down by a deity or enlightened leader. Secularism ever cries out for evidence – material, not spiritual. (If this is what Mr. Ortega means by materialism, then with that I must agree). If you say something is true, I want to see the evidence. The New Testament casts the disciple Thomas in a negative light – he is the hero of the secularist. If I am expected to believe outrageous claims, I want to see extraordinary evidence – let me thrust my hand into the wounds.

Anyway, we’ve had a rather lengthy conversation over the last couple of days in the comment section of his site – I don’t want my readers to miss out. I became aware that he had written about my post only because of a ‘ping’ back to my site, so I felt obligated to respond:

Thanks for reading my post. I am honored to see that you dedicated an entire post to responding to my humble observations. I will respond in kind to yours more fully in the next day or two – I always prefer to mull criticisms over for a bit before responding. 

However I do believe you read hostility to Christianity into my narrative where none exists. I commented on 4 news stories, only one of which referred to a person who identified as Christian, and I did not hold him up as representative of the mainstream, other than to say his literal understanding of the scriptures directly caused his death. 

I don’t think a ‘Tarzan-esque’ rendering of my overall theme would be “secularists smart, Christians stupid” but rather something like this: 

Americans not know science good
Corporations help you be stupid
Extreme religion maybe kill you
Rich want be your master

I’m not sure how you got to the French Revolution from there, but I assure you there’s nothing dystopian about understanding the world, avoiding the lethal side of religion, and fighting against corporate oppression. Surely you would agree?

Mr. Ortega responded:

Dear Don (can I call you Don?): 

While you ponder your answer, let me respond to your comments. I have been reading your posts for the past couple of years, that is until the “Great Firewall hiatus” of the past year, and I must say that I find them very interesting. However, I do read hostility against Christianity in your latest blogpost when you talk about “creationism being a lie” (which is generic), your Darwinian belief in the inferiority of snake handlers or their followers (which is somewhat racist as well) and faith healers’ perceived dishonesty as being a proof of God’s lack of interest at best, or non-existence at worst. As I mentioned in my post, it seems that in 2005 Americans at 25% not knowing that the earth revolves around the sun fared much better than their Europeans counterparts at 44%. This is even more telling when we take into account the fact that most of Europe has had a secularized school system for more than a century, are more “advanced” than us, and yet they fared worse (go figure). I think that you read this matter to your own advantage, because, as we know, the church held as dogma the myth of geocentrism, so in a way, you were implying what you say you were not saying (i.e. that Christianity is a hotbed of ignorance). I would also add that if religion has a lethal side (from which most of us steer away), so do secularism and materialism, which brought me to my historical recount of its ongoing lethality, beginning (yes!) with the French Revolution, the spiritual monster child of enlightenment and the root of most (not all) evils of the 19th and 20th centuries. Finally, I do agree with you about corporations being the root cause of America’s downfall, but their worship goes more towards the Golden calf and Mammon, than Jesus, who was poor and never hid it. Thank you for responding.

Really I thought that his first set of criticisms would take days to respond to in full. But while I was still composing a few key points, I find that he thinks my comments were racist as well. He does agree that corporate America is contributing the downfall of the nation, but does not see Christian ideology as a contributing factor. He re-states his idea that the French Revolution marks the beginning of secularist thinking – I’m a bit rusty on my French history, but since there were schools unaffiliated with the church in Padua and Bologna in the 1500s, I’m thinking he’s at least 300 years off the mark. And to attribute the cause of any war or revolution to one or two causes is to rely on the most facile line of logic.

Singer Sargent Hercules

My reply:

Hi Marcos – sure, let’s talk on a first name basis.

I am still working on my response to your initial criticisms, and I see I have already generated a few more! I marvel that you find so much of what I say upsetting, as it does seem straight-forward to me. I am as Heracles to your Hydra – I cannot address one issue before another is opened up on another front. Is there no Iolaus among your readers who might come to my aid?

I would like to come to some agreement on one argument before starting another. In your original post, you described my view as dystopian – a charge I think unfair. I thought it was clear that my ideal America would include adults who can understand the most basic scientific principles, corporations that do not make profits from our ignorance and fear (I would add our illness), and Christians who do not take the Bible so literally that it actually kills them. If I followed my gut, I would add that people like Tom Perkins should be tried for sedition – but my head knows that’s going too far.

Do you want Americans to be stupid? Are you in support of Christians handling snakes? Do you agree with Tom Perkins? I would have thought that the Christian and the secularist could come to agreement on these issues. Why steer the debate towards a hot button issue like abortion when nothing in my post was remotely related?

The problem with adopting a dualistic worldview – good v evil, God v Satan – is that everything must now be viewed through that lens. Therefore, anyone who isn’t saying pretty much what you are saying must be your enemy. This is what I feel is the fundamental problem (pun intended) with our politics in America today. If you feel your opinions were spoken to you by God, then it would follow that my opinion must come from the Devil – unless I ‘agree’ to see things your way. One of the over-riding themes of my blog is that democracies cannot function this way.

I think American Christians have developed an almost Pavlovian response to the word ‘secular’, automatically seeing it as threatening, an idea that needs to be quashed – all the more so if it actually starts making any sense. I feel your description of my ideas as dystopian fall into this category – I don’t see it as a fair description of what I said. The word seems to conjure up a lot of other scenarios in your mind – none of which I or any other secularists I know are in support of.

I think the charge is particularly hypocritical because of the future foreseen by most American Christians. Do you believe in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 as the inspired word of God? Then are you joyously awaiting the day Jesus will destroy somewhere around 5 billion people so that he can set up his kingdom here? (My post on this topic). I do not know for a fact what your opinion is about this scripture, so I won’t put words in your mouth. But if this is part of your ‘end times’ theology, I think you should be very careful describing the ideas as others as dystopian.

As to today’s comments, I do wish you would be more careful with the term racism. I feel you owe me an apology on this count, as there was nothing racist in my words. Our species has but one natural advantage over many other species in the animal kingdom – our intelligence. Any species that doesn’t have – or refuses to use – such an advantage when encountering another more dangerous species, will, over time, find itself at a numerical disadvantage. This will happen irrespective of race. Because as humans we have many bad ideas that do not bear directly upon our chances of survival, unlike animals, our bad decisions tend to carry from one generation to another. Saying that this is in anyway racist is, in my opinion, so extremely hyperbolic as to be wholly inaccurate. I did not say that Coots died because he was a Christian or because he was an Appalachian; I think my words were more along the lines of ‘gross misunderstanding of the scripture’. Again, I thought most Christians would agree.

I am a son of Appalachia; my parents grew up in Harlan County Kentucky, which borders Bell County where Coots’ church is located. My first wife was from Middlesboro. I have both dear friends and relatives who still live there. I mentioned his death not because I view him as an inferior creature – but because I am saddened that a faulty ideology has robbed this man’s family of someone they dearly love. If he was ignorant, he was willfully so – every American town has dozens if not hundreds of churches to choose from.

I did not mention the fact that Europeans did more poorly than Americans on the aforementioned science quiz because I am guilty of not reading below the first paragraph. I saw the same headline in dozens of news outlets, none of which referred to that particular statistic, and I assumed that was the gist of the story. Why did none of the headlines read differently? I chose a headline and linked to it in my post – and I see that further down it does include the statistic you mention. I will read more closely in the future before linking. I did say that any society beyond the penis gourd stage should be ashamed of such numbers – and that goes for the Europeans as well.

I still maintain that three out of the four stories I commented on had little if anything to do with Christians. When I said that ‘creationism is a lie’, I said it in the context of what Bill Nye’s goal is – I think everyone knows he was at the Creation Museum in Kentucky last week for a debate. This shows no hostility to Christianity per se, as many Christians – in fact many mainstream denominations – do not believe the world was created six thousand years ago. I suppose you might say these people are not really Christians – I don’t know. Again, I will not put words in your mouth. There are many other systems of belief that also believe the world is created – Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, etc, so my comments cannot really be said to be anti-Christian as they could be said to cast doubt on any and all creation stories.

While I enjoy our back and forth on this page, I find that even in such a long response, I cannot respond to all of the inaccuracies and red herrings your comments contain. I feel it is not I who is painting the other side with a broad brush. I wrote a post about 4 news stories that should sadden every American. I wonder if there would be less umbrage on your part if the word ‘secularist’ did not appear in my title.

I like many of Mr. Ortega’s posts. He is usually thoughtful. He is well-educated – got his degree at Stendhal. He did offer the ‘I apologize if I offended” kind of apology that we commonly accept these days – I guess I’m old school in preferring the ‘I stand corrected’ variety, but yes, Marcos, I was a little offended at the racist comment, but I do accept your apology. I honestly believe you meant no harm.

I suppose it will be up to you, the reader to determine if Mr. Ortega’s criticisms are warranted or not. I am pessimistic, as I expect his readers will take his side, and my readers mine. I would like to think there would be a common ground, where everyone would more or less agree that, yes, we as Americans really need to put down the cheese-crust pizza and try to focus a bit more.

But I fear that a dualistic worldview may not allow it.

Have an opinion? Please post in the discussion section. Your views are important to me!

Still Secular, After All These Years

In American Society, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on February 4, 2014 at 10:44 am

Image

Welcome to the re-launch of American Secularist. I had intended to really focus on writing when I moved to Beijing – then found when I arrived that wordpress blogs are for some reason blocked here in China. After many months of unsuccessfully trying to get around the Great Firewall, I’ve finally figured a way in – at least for now. I hope you’ll forgive the long hiatus and join me in the fray.

It has been so long since I’ve posted, I think a bit of review may be in order – why did I start this blog to begin with?

It all started when I arrived back in the US around Christmas 2009 after a decade of living abroad. It seemed the tone of our political disagreements had taken a turn for the worse in my absence. I had, after all, been in Bangkok when the 9-11 attacks occurred, and had not been back home for longer than a fortnight since. I had made the decision to come back and work in the US back in the spring of ’09, not knowing at the time that I would be arriving at the onset of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Living abroad had certainly made me more liberal / progressive as far as my politics were concerned. Living in China, I saw first-hand how massive government projects could put a country ahead of its peers in a hurry. Asian nations were busy building schools, railroads, and airports, and finding ways to pull their poorest out of need. I wanted my country, ‘the greatest country in the world’, to stop resting on its laurels and do the same thing.

While I admit I had become more open-minded, it seemed my countrymen had moved in the opposite direction. I had witnessed the progress that positive government action could achieve, yet everyone around me seemed to think that such actions were tantamount to ‘socialism’. Perhaps more worrying, many seemed to voice the opinion that ‘bringing the nation back to God’ was the only way to put America on its feet again. This was a curious conclusion to me, as Russia and China (two predominately atheistic countries) as well as India (perhaps the most pantheistic country) were all seeing economic blue skies, no thanks to Jesus. I worried that we were looking at things the wrong way.

Many suggested that I needed to ‘get into the Word’, read the Bible with an open mind and see what God had to say. I thought this was an excellent suggestion. I had read the entire Bible from cover to cover once in my youth, and the New Testament twice more as a young adult. Nevertheless, I had lost my confidence in Christianity over the years. It had sort of become like MS DOS 3.1 to me – brilliant at the time, but it didn’t enable me to cope with more sophisticated problems that I faced as an adult. I found that the old algorithms just didn’t work with the modern realities of life. Was it time to give the old-time religion another go?

That’s where this blog comes in. I decided that I would once again read the New Testament, and comment on it, chapter by chapter. My purpose was to look at it once again with fresh eyes – not from the point of view of the cynic or atheist, but not from the ‘inerrancy of the scripture’ viewpoint either. As someone who has fond memories of both church camp and comparative religion class, I feel I can give a balanced reading.

My main purpose, however, is to specifically look at where American Christianity and American politics and policy intersect, and whether the influence of the former is positive on the latter. In other words, I’m not trying to find out if the Bible is ‘true’ or ‘relevant’. What I am mostly concerned with is looking at how American Christians interpret the scriptures, and whether that interpretation helps or hurts American society. Basically, there are so many people who think that the answer to our ills as a nation would be a ‘Jesus infusion’ that I think it is fair to look at what such an event might entail. And what better place to look for answers than in the Bible itself.

Work, family responsibilities, and the cares of life in general have pulled me off-track, but as the claims of one group become ever bolder – and louder – all of us need to take a closer look at what they are saying; we cannot just smile and nod absentmindedly if we truly care for the future of our country.

I’ll be posting two or three times a week – I hope you’ll join in the conversation.

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Also, check out my newest blog – nevercomingback – for tales from my travels abroad.