Monday, April 14, 2008

True Dialogue

In our diverse and multi-cultural society, how does a Muslim carry on a dialogue with a Jew? Or a Republican with a Democrat? Or a Pro-Lifer with a Pro-Abortionist?

There are ways for people, who have profound disagreements and even conflicts, to engage in civil and polite discussion. This is much more like to preserve peace than angry confrontations and name-calling.

How do we engage in civil dialogue?

First, whatever your personal opinion, remember that there are such things as right and wrong interpretations of historical texts, political texts, or biblical texts. A text - a piece of writing - can't have any random meaning. There is a set of meanings it can have, and a set of meanings it can't have. There are actual historical facts to which texts do or do not correspond, and true and false propositions, true and false statements, about the relationship between the story and reality. Consequently, we become upset with someone we suspect of lying, intentionally trying to obscure the facts, unduly disrupting the conversation, or doing anything that seems contrary to the spirit of truth-telling.

Second, remember that there are things called objective moral truths. We might disagree about what they are, or we might not even know what they are, but they are there. In our dialogues, we are not just courteous; we try to be responsible and fair in our interpretations of what the other is saying. We don't deliberately mis-understand or twist the other's words to make the opposing viewpoint seem stupid or illogical. We do not abide anyone who fails to respect the intentions of another. It is not permissible to treat anyone in the circle as anything less than an autonomous end-in-himself. We must attribute the best possible meaning and intentions to our opponent's words. Only this way, only by means of moral standards, is a dialogue possible.

Third, our efforts at conversation should begin with introductions, work slowly into the subtly submerged tensions between us, eventually get around to stating our disagreements, and then build toward a resolution in which we could agree on some matters, and agree to disagree about others. In this way, we can forge a consensus, even a community. It is an aesthetic idea; an artistic whole of different voices blended together. We want people to air their differences, but we do not permit disruption for disruption's sake. Radical intrusions serve, somehow, the ends of the group, the good of the whole. We orchestrate seemingly random sounds into the melody pursued by the rest.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama is a religious leader for most of the world's Buddhists; he is also a political symbol. Coming from Tibet, the center of world Buddhism, his very presence reminds people of the harsh manner in which the Chinese army took over Tibet, and, under the leadership of Maoist Chinese Communism, brutally attempted - and still attempts today - to enforce atheism on that country's population.

How is the Dalai Lama received in the United States, when he comes to visit? He is enthusiastically welcomed by Republicans and Conservative Christian groups, because he embodies the issue of religious freedom: these groups believe that the Tibetan Buddhists should be allowed to engage in their faith, just as the U.S. Constitution gives Americans the right to "free exercise" of their religions. Presidents like Bush and Reagan have warmly greeted him in the White House. Churches of various types have invited him as a guest speaker.

Make no mistake, there are important differences between Christians and Buddhists, and the two belief systems will never agree on spiritual questions about what happens to the human soul after death; but they also see that they have some things in common, and can speak together in a friendly and peaceful manner.

Democrats and liberals, however, are not so eager to welcome the Dalai Lama to the United States. These political groups fear that, if we show hospitality to the Dalai Lama, we might irritate the Chinese government, which still wants to enforce atheism on Tibet, and does not want Tibet or its Buddhists to have any political freedom. So you won't see them on TV, smiling and shaking hands with the Dalai Lama.

Is it not ironic, that the Christians, who speak most firmly against the religious beliefs of the Dalai Lama, are the ones who show him the most hospitality and friendship? It is truly an amazing form of tolerance, to be friends with the person whose beliefs you oppose.

Further irony is found in the lack of warmth from the Democrats and liberals; one would expect them to embrace anyone who publicly proclaims a belief system which is opposed to Christianity.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Federal Courts Say “Merry Christmas!”

School districts may not ban teachers and students from saying “Merry Christmas.” The Supreme Court has stated that teachers and students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” [Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969) (holding that the wearing of armbands by students to show disapproval of Vietnam hostilities was constitutionally protected speech).]

Under the direction of President Clinton, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley issued guidelines concerning religious discussion of students, which stated, “Students therefore have the same right to engage in . . . religious discussion during the school day as they do to engage in other comparable activity.” [U.S. Dept. of Educ., Religious Expression in Public Schools, Archived Information, Guidelines, available at (last modified Jan. 26, 2000).]

Teachers also have the right to greet students with the words “Merry Christmas,” in spite of their role as agents of the state. In order to violate the Establishment Clause, a teacher would have to use her authority to promote religion to impressionable youth. [School Dist. of Abington v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).] Saying a simple greeting that people commonly use in December does not rise to a state endorsement of religion.

Additional precedents confirmed by Supreme Court rulings: The Constitution protects all speech, including religious speech in public schools; the first amendment protects religious speech; the first amendment’s establishment clause does not require school officials to suppress seasonal religious expression; school officials may call a school break “Christmas” vacation; public school officials; public schools may have students sing religious Christmas carols; public schools may close on religious holidays, such as Christmas and Good Friday; publicly acknowledging Christmas does not require public officials to recognize all religious holidays; free speech includes the right to say “Merry Christmas!”; Students may study the religious origins of Christmas and read the biblical accounts of the birth of Christ in public schools; public schools may exhibit religious symbols; students have a constitutional right to be exempt from activities with a religious content; the constitution protects religious speech; students have a constitutional right to express their faith and religious ideas in a public school; students have the right to distribute religious materials such as Christmas cards containing Bible verses in public schools; students have the right to express religious viewpoints in schools assignments, reading materials, and clothing.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Rest In Peace?

In the war-torn country of Sudan, even when you're dead, you're still in trouble!

In the on-going genocidal civil war in that region, the Islamic army, in its attempt to exterminate all traces of the Christian faith, has appropriate the graveyards in which Christians are buried, and is using them as used car lots. The cemeteries in which Muslim are buried are protected by those same armies. So if you want a good deal on a two-year-old Chevy, simply follow the herse after the funeral!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Kierkegaard: a Comedian?

Soren Kierkegaard is generally considered to be the first existentialist, and the father of existentialism. Professor C. Stephen Evans (from Yale) offers these comments about him:

Kierkegaard ... wants to claim that there is an essential connection between humor and religious life ... Kierkegaard holds that the highest and deepest kind of humor is rooted in a life-view which is recognizably religious, and that all humor is at bottom made possible by those very features of human life which make the religious life possible.

Kierkegaard was a Lutheran pastor who lived in Denmark, and did most of his writing in the 1840's. Evans continues:

To understand Kierkegaard's claims here one must try to understand the place of humor in his theory of the stages or spheres of existence ... there are three stages or spheres of existence. The aesthetic life is the natural or immediate kind of life in which everyone begins, where one simply attempts to satisfy one's natural desires or urges. The aesthete lives for the moment. The ethical life is the life in which one grasps the significance of the eternal and by ethical resolve attempts to transcend one's natural desires and create a unified life. The religious life is the life in which one recognizes the impossibility of actualizing the eternal through positive action and instead one attempts to grasp it through repentance and suffering.

In short, the third stage is the stage in which you figure out that the second stage is impossible! The options here for irony and humor should be self-evident. As Evans phrases it:

Irony constitutes the boundary between the aesthetic and the ethical, while humor constitutes the boundary between the ethical and the religious.

Because a sense of ethical outrage, even if hidden, motivates irony, it carries one from the aesthetic phase to the ethical phase; when one finally realizes the absurdity of being, on the one hand, obliged to always act ethically, and being, on the other hand, incapable of always acting ethically, it is then humor which allows one to transcend the ethical phase and enter the religious phase. It is in this absurdity and humor that Kierkegaard's Lutheranism shows itself. Professor Evans puts it this way:

... forgiveness which is offered freely ... makes it possible for the earnest individual to smile at the contradiction between his life and the ideal he sees in Christ.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Cultural Understandings and Mis-Understandings

The history of interactions between Muslims and the other cultures of the world is one of painful conflicts. In some cases, these conflicts have been based on accurate mutual perceptions: when Islam looks at other world cultures and accuses them of lowering their moral standards, Islam is correct. When Islam has made the assessment that the Judeo-Christian religious tradition is incompatible with the core teachings of Islam, because Islam rejects the concept of a God who loves and forgives unconditionally, Islam is correct in that assessment.

Sometimes conflicts are based on actual disagreements, such as the two listed above. Muslims are correct that other world cultures have lowered their moral standards: when one considers alcohol abuse, other forms of drug abuse, tobacco use, premarital sex, and other forms of inappropriate sexual activity, it is clear that there is a moral gap between Islam and the rest of the world. Muslims are correct when they judge that other religions are incompatible with their own: the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that humans cannot merit or earn God's favor or forgiveness, but rather that He gives it freely and unconditional to those who do not deserve it; a Muslim cannot accept that view of God.

But sometimes conflicts are based, not on real differences, but on perceived differences. Mis-perceptions can create the impression of disagreements, even when there are none. Four examples: Muslims sometimes perceive Christians as polytheists, because of the concept of the Trinity; but in fact, Christians are as monotheistic as Muslims, and core of the concept of the Trinity is monotheistic. Muslims sometimes perceive that there cannot be a father-son relationship between God the Father and God the Son; yet in the Qur'an and other Muslim writings, paternal and filial language is used to describe Allah's spiritual fatherhood. Muslims sometimes perceive the execution of Jesus as unbelievable; but the historical record of Roman rule in the province of Judea makes such an execution entirely in keeping with the rule of Roman governor like Pilate. Muslims sometimes perceive the written records of non-Islamic cultures as unreliable; but the historical records of the ancient world are verifiable and have shown themselves to be at least as accurate as Islamic histories.

There are enough real differences between Islam and the rest of the world to create problems; the situation is complicated by fictional differences as well.