Tuesday, October 17, 2017

On the Benefits of "Thoughts and Prayers"

After major tragedies, the same thing happens: People say they are sending “thoughts and prayers.”

In the last few months, thoughts and prayers have been sent about hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Houston and Florida; to Edmonton following that city’s terrorist attack; and, of course, to Las Vegas following the deadly shooting.

Today, most people seem to send their thoughts and prayers by social media. But they also are shared by politicians.

Research by Ben Rowen in Atlantic shows that since 1995 there were 4,139 instances in which a congressperson expressed thoughts and prayers in the Senate or House.

As Rowen points out, “given that the House has averaged 138 days in session a year and the Senate 162 since 2001, this equates to close to one ‘thoughts and prayers’ entered into the record per workday on the Hill.”

In Canada, a search of Hansard going back to 1994 shows that “thoughts and prayers” were shared only 540 times in Parliament, mostly by Conservatives.

The practice has also produced a backlash—don’t just pray, do something! That’s how Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy saw it after the Las Vegas shootings.

To his colleagues who sent thoughts and prayers, but who refuse to try to check the proliferation of guns in that country, he tweeted: “Your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers. None of this ends unless we do something to stop it.”

Most would agree that prayer without action is meaningless. But does that mean that sending thoughts and prayers, in themselves, is a bad thing?

I don’t know what it means to send thoughts. There are some who believe that energy can travel across space to positively impact other people. But this seems to be a minority view.

As for prayer, lots of people say they do that—an Angus Reid survey from a year ago found that 86 percent of Canadians pray at least once a month or more.

Fifty-nine percent of the time they pray to ask God for help; 35 percent of the time they pray for God to help others.

And what about the effect of those prayers? The same study found that 44 percent of Canadians said their prayers are answered “sometimes.” Twenty-four percent said they were answered “often,’ and 11 percent said “always.”

But not all the effects of prayer are for others. It turns out praying also benefits the one who is doing it. Eighty-sex percent of Canadians said praying added something to their own lives.

In his book The Psychology of Prayer: A Scientific Approach, Kevin Ladd, a former pastor and associate professor of psychology at Indiana University, confirms this. For him, a major function of prayer “is the key role it plays in helping people cope with the problems encountered in social living.”

Prayer, he says, is significant for helping people deal with things like relationships, illness and death. Pausing to pray also has a calming effect, generates a sense of peace, and reduces stress.

“That prayer helps one better cope and adjust to life’s challenges has become increasingly evident over time,” he states.

Today we seem to be awash in tragedy and misery—natural disasters, refugee flight, famine, mass shootings. It is easy to be overwhelmed and feel powerless to do anything to help. We want to help, but what can we do?

At times like that, prayer might be the only thing, for those who are suffering and also for our own peace of mind.

Of course, we shouldn’t only send thoughts and prayers—we should also donate money, give blood, volunteer, make a casserole for a neighbour in distress or do anything else that might make a practical difference in the lives of those who are suffering.

A final word from Ladd about why people pray.

Prayer, he writes, “is a paradoxical spiritual practice that does not guarantee predictably discernible efficacy at every turn. It’s not a cosmic vending machine. So why do people pray? Because they have faith that it is the right thing for them to do.”

And to that I can only say: “Amen.”

From the Oct. 14 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

When it Comes to Religion, Nones Might Not Always Be Nones—They Might be Maybes

Growing up in southern Ontario, my NFL team was the Buffalo Bills. When I moved to Manitoba, I cheered for the Minnesota Vikings. When I lived in Dallas, Texas, I rooted for the Cowboys.

It was the same for the CFL. Living close to Toronto as a kid, I cheered for the Argos. After moving to Winnipeg, I became a Bombers fan. In the NHL, it was first the Leafs, followed by the Jets.

My sports allegiances, in other words, weren’t fixed—they were fluid. Who I cheered for depended on when I was asked and where I lived.

What’s true for sports might also be true for religious affiliation, according to Michael Hout, a professor of sociology at New York University.

In an article published in March titled Religious Ambivalence, Liminality, and the Increase of No Religious Preference in theUnited States, 2006-2014, in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Hout suggests that religious preferences are also not as fixed as some might think.

This is especially true for the growing number of people who identify as nones, people who, when asked in surveys if they identify with a religious group, check the box that says “none.”

With about 20 percent of Americans saying they have no religious affiliation, and about 24 percent of people in Canada saying the same thing, their growing numbers suggest that religion in both countries is in serious trouble.

But Hout says we may be drawing the wrong conclusions from the data.  

Most surveys that ask about religious affiliation, he says, are binary in nature—people are asked if they are in or out at one particular moment in time.

But after checking longitudinal results from the U.S. General Social Survey, which checked religious affiliation three times over a period of six years, Hout discovered that religious affiliation is not an immutable thing.

While some of the respondents were consistently in the nones camp at each point, others changed their minds and identified with a faith group.

Hout’s conclusion? Although it’s true that Americans are identifying less and less with organizated religion, these results show that nones are “not consistently nonreligious.”

Based on his research, Hout concludes that 70 percent of Americans are consistently religious, ten percent are consistently non-religious, and 20 percent are in-between.

He calls these people “liminals,” taken from the Latin word limin, which means threshold. They are literally on the fence between affiliating or not affiliating with religious groups—they could go either way.

The story of the past 25 years is that of a move away from organized religion, he acknowledges, “but focusing on the net change misses substantial flux that moves both toward and away from organized religion.”

What about Canada? Studies in this country also show that many of the non-affiliated continue to be open to religious belief—they believe in God and pray.

They are what University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby calls the “ambivalent middle,” people who could go either way when it comes to identifying with religious groups.

Like in the U.S., many of these people “haven’t slammed the door on possible religious involvement,” Bibby told me a few years ago.  

While not everyone who is a none is interested in being part of a faith group, “it does mean significant numbers of Canadians haven’t said a final goodbye to religion,” he stated.

A question that might come to mind, then, is: If some liminal people might be willing to identify with religious groups, what might attract them—and what might keep them away?

According to an Angus Reid study, 42 percent of Canadians who are ambivalent about religion say they would be open to greater involvement with religious groups if it met their personal needs.

As for what pushes them away, a study in the U.S. found that about half of nones mentioned the gulf between science and what their faith groups teach as a reason for leaving.

Other reasons included a dislike for the hierarchical nature of some religious groups, and the way some groups view LGBTQ people. The latter was especially true for younger liminals.

If that’s the case, maybe nones aren’t the only ones on the fence; religious groups may have some decisions to make, too.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The End of Sola Scriptura?

On October 31, Protestants around the world will mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. That was when, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

Luther’s actions resulted in what has been called the five great solas of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura (Bible alone); Sola Fide (faith alone); Sola Gratia (grace alone); Solus Christus (Christ alone): and Soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone).

Of the five, Sola Scriptura is the one causing the most problems today says Dave Schmelzer, director of the Blue Ocean Faith, a network of 11 evangelical churches in the U.S.

Schmelzer, who lives in California, was once a self-described atheist before becoming a Christian, getting a seminary degree and planting a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For Schmelzer, Sola Scriptura was a powerful way to address the problems in the church of Luther’s day.

“The problem he was trying to solve was who had the authority to say what God’s will was,” he says.  

Luther solved one problem, but created a new one. Since his action coincided with the invention of the printing press, many people could now read the Bible and interpret it for themselves; no need to rely on a Pope.

But all those new readers ended up interpreting it differently—what was the clear meaning of a passage to one wasn’t so clear to others.This led to division and discord, and to over 9,000 Protestant denominations today.

It also led to heated battles in some churches over the centuries about issues such as slavery, divorce, inter-racial marriage, dancing, music, use of alcohol, whether women can be leaders and others.

In all these cases, people could easily find verses that supported their views, whether that was to keep slaves, excommunicate people who got divorced, not use musical instruments in worship, or keep women out of positions of leadership.

But, as we know with these issues, new insight and revelations came along and suddenly what was certain in the Bible wasn't so certain anymore.

Or, as Schmelzer says, “the Bible clearly supported slavery, until it didn’t.”

Changes like these is why Sola Scriptura is “showing cracks,” he says.

But it’s not just how some Christians have tended to view the Bible as an instruction manual, a verse-by-verse prescription for how to live, believe and behave—and who to accept or reject—that concerns him.

The bigger issue for him is that seeing the Bible this way is “a poor substitute for actually knowing God.”

The Bible, he notes, “can’t actually give life . . . for all its amazingness, [it] is just a book, after all, not God.”

Schmelzer notes that Jesus viewed the religious leaders of the day—those who quoted the scriptures against him—among his opponents.

But if Schmelzer is right, what will replace the Bible as the final authority for those who hold the Sola Scriptura view?

His answer is another of the Reformation’s great solas: Solus Jesus, or Christ alone.

And why does he think that’s a better way?

He offers a few reasons: It proclaims that Jesus is alive and eager to speak to believers today; it accepts there are other ways Jesus can speak to his followers; and it takes the pressure off Christians from having to figure out who to include and who to exclude from the church, based on this verse or that.

Schmelzer doesn’t want to throw out the Bible. It’s still important. But for him it’s just one of the ways God speaks—and it isn’t the bottom line.

“Combined with hearing from Jesus by way of the Holy Spirit, and with the rich transparent relationships with other people following Jesus, it sounds like we’ll be on a good road” with this approach, he says.

I asked Schmelzer if he is getting any pushback for his views.

“Some call me a heretic, and see this as a very threatening thing,” he says. But others, he says, find it liberating.

Today the big battle in many churches is whether LGBTQ Christians can be welcomed into the community of the faithful. I asked Schmelzer if letting go ofSola Scriptura would be a help in dealing with this issue.

For him, the answer is yes; if Sola Scriptura is no longer holds, then Christians don’t have to worry about verses that exclude people, like those that oppose homosexuality. They can listen to a new voice from God about being open and inclusive.

Or, as Schmelzer says, “treating LBGTQ persons differently from anyone else” is “not something Jesus would do.”

Dave Schmelzer articulates his approach to this, and other questions about faith and society, in his new book Blue Ocean Faith: The Vibrant Connection to Jesus that Opens up Insanely Great Possibilities in a Secularizing World.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Can Robots Love God and be Saved? Questions about Artificial Intelligence and Religion

Truck drivers, accountants, barbers, taxi drivers, roofers, bricklayers, umpires, journalists, even surgeons—these are all occupations threatened by the rise of robots and artificial intelligence.

Fortunately for clergy, all of the websites that calculate the risk of losing your job to a robot show that priests and ministers are safe, with some putting the risk at zero and others at less than one percent.  

Unless you live in Japan, that is. A company in that country has unveiled a robot that chants traditional Buddhist funeral prayers.

Some may say that nothing beats a human priest at the end of a life, but you can’t beat the price: A live chanter charges 240,000 yen, but the robot only costs 50,000 yen.

That may sound strange to some, but what if you could ask Siri on your iPhone to pray for you? Would God hear it? Does God hear prayers spoken by any intelligent being, robot or phone, or just prayers uttered by humans?

These are the kinds of questions being asked these days by people interested in the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI) and religion.https://ssl.gstatic.com/ui/v1/icons/mail/images/cleardot.gif

One of those exploring this subject is Jonathan Merritt. Earlier this year he wrote an article in Atlantic titled “Is AI a Threat to Christianity?” In it he suggested that the rise of AI raises some “fundamental questions” for adherents of that religion.

One of those questions is what happens if robots develop the ability to make ethical decisions—something that only humans are—currently—able to do.

He notes that we already have driverless cars that make decisions based on traffic around them: slow down, move left, stop. But what if those cars could also make moral decisions?

This is something Google is working on. In the future, cars may be able to decide what to do if a child runs in front of a driverless car with four passengers. Should it swerve and risk the lives of those in the vehicle or hit the child—one life instead of four?

And what if the robots become fully sentient, rational agents—beings with emotions, consciousness, and self-awareness?

Merritt quotes Kevin Kelly, author of The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, who says that then there will be “a spiritual dimension to what we’re making.”

“If you create other things that think for themselves, a serious theological disruption will occur,” says Kelly, an active Christian.

“If humans were to create free-willed beings, absolutely every single aspect of traditional theology would be challenged and have to be reinterpreted in some capacity.”

Would this include the Christian idea of salvation? If artificially intelligent machines can think and make decisions, could they also establish a relationship with God?

Christopher Benek, a Presbyterian pastor in Fort Lauderdale, Florida who describes himself as a “techno-theologian,” thinks they could.

“I don’t see Christ’s redemption limited to human beings,” said Benek in an interview in Gizmodo.

“It’s redemption of all of creation, even AI. If AI is autonomous, then we should encourage it to participate in Christ’s redemptive purposes in the world.”

Christians aren’t the only ones asking these questions. So are some Jews.

In an article titled Are you ready for robot prayer quorums?” Adam Soclof asks if a self-aware robot that could hold a conversation, would it qualify to be counted for a minyan, a quorum of ten men (in some synagogues, also women) required for traditional Jewish public worship?

He quotes Rabbi Mark Goldfeder, a fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, who thinks they could.

“When something looks human, and acts human, to the point that I think it might be human, then halachah [the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the written and oral Torah] might consider the threshold to have been crossed.”

Goldfelder doesn’t think we are anywhere near that point now. But it’s coming. “I do think that Jewish thinkers should start tossing around the questions, because we’re probably 30, not 100, years away.”

Kelly feels the same way. What would happen if a free-willed, thinking AI machine says: “I want to believe in God”?

At that point, he states, “we should have a response.”

Sunday, September 10, 2017

White, Straight, Male Christians (Like Me) Need to Stand Up Against Hate

Organizer Shahina Siddiqui at the Winnipeg Rally Against Hate.

As a white, straight, Christian male, I have never experienced persecution, discrimination or exclusion because of my race, sexuality, beliefs or gender.

I don’t know what it is like to feel overlooked or underpaid, or worry about sexual harassment, like many women do.

I don’t worry about how I might be viewed or treated for what I wear or believe, or be lumped in with those who commit acts of terrorism because they claim to be part of the same faith.  

I don’t fear violence or discrimination because of who I choose to love and marry, like my LGBTQ friends.

And I don’t have to worry about whether or not my religion is acceptable. Canadian society is set up to accommodate my beliefs, even giving me Christmas and Good Friday off.

You could say that I am a lucky man, born into the right place, person and privileges.

So when something like Charlottesville happens, and the copy-cat anti-immigration rallies here in Canada, they alarm and concern me. But they don’t affect me personally.

I am not the target of their discrimination and hate.

If I want to know what it feels like to be fearful for my safety, or that of my family, I need to ask those they are rallying or marching against.  

And so I reached out to a couple of Jewish friends.

While Islamophobia is a constant and pressing concern, and should never be taken lightly, the chants of marchers in Charlottesville—“Jews will not replace us” and the Nazi-inspired “blood and soil”—still echo in my mind.

How do my friends feel about the current situation? And do they feel safe in Winnipeg? I asked  Rabbi Alan Green of Shaarey Zedek and Belle Jarniewski, President of the Manitoba Multifaith Council.

“For the last 20 years or so, Winnipeg has been a model of peaceful co-existence,” says Green of how different faith and ethnic groups have got along.

“In that context, I don't think there is anywhere on earth safer to be Jewish than Winnipeg, and I think most Winnipeg Jews would agree with me.”

That said, the anti-Semitic graffiti and alt-right marches “certainly are a concern,” he says.

But, he adds, “if enough people demonstrate visible opposition to what for now is a fringe phenomenon, I believe the white supremacists can be stopped dead in their tracks.”

Green especially welcomes statements from non-Jewish groups that condemn anti-Semitism—like the one issued by the Anglican Diocese of Rupert’s Land and the Manitoba and Northwestern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church following the events in Charlottesville. But he wonders why more local faith groups haven’t done the same.

“There is a fearful part of me that interprets the silence of so many others as the same indifference that made the acceptance of Nazism by millions of people possible in the 1930s,” he says.

For Jarniewski, what she’s seeing around her now is also “a repetition of history.”

In the 1930s, she says, “Hitler was spouting that kind of thing. Nobody believed him, or took it seriously, nobody thought he would follow through. Similarly, with Trump when he was running for office, nobody thought he would really believe follow through on all things saying. But he really is.”

She has learned “that when someone says hateful things, we better believe it. History has shown us it is true.”

She notes that the local Jewish community is always on guard, especially for the high holidays. That’s when her synagogue hires off-duty police officers are hired to provide security.

As for life as a Jew in Winnipeg, she personally isn’t frightened.

“But there are worrisome signs, like anti-Semitic graffiti, and when an Eritrean family is threatened by a neighbor,” she says.

“What is good to know is that the majority of Winnipeggers oppose this kind of hate.”

Winnipeggers who are concerned about the rising levels of hate and animosity towards Muslims, Jews and others were able to show their support for an open, welcoming and caring community on September 9 at the Winnipeg Diversity Rally Against Hate.

Everyone was welcome at the rally, including white, straight, Christians like me.

Maybe especially Christians like me.

From the Sept. 9 Winnipeg Free Press.

Monday, September 4, 2017

35th Anniversary of If You Love This Planet

Al Gore’s new climate change documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, opened this summer.

The documentary, a follow-up to his 2006 effort titled An Inconvenient Truth, updates and details the danger facing the planet today from rising seas, warming temperatures and extreme weather.

Yet despite the urgency Gore expresses in both documentaries, he doesn’t seem to be sparking much in the way of mass public concern or outcry.

That wasn’t the case 35 years ago, when another documentary about the threat of global extinction was released.

Called If You Love This Planet and produced by Canada’s National Film Board, the 26-minute documentary featured Australian pediatrician and anti-war activist Dr. Helen Caldicott giving a lecture to university students about the dangers of nuclear war.

Appearing as it did during a height of cold war tension, Caldicott’s plain and passionate presentation caught the attention of a public genuinely fearful for the future of the planet.

“We are all children of the atomic age,” she stated in the documentary, which was interspersed with footage of atomic explosions and gruesome images of the burns and other injuries suffered by victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Nuclear war, she stated, would be an “extermination.” People would be killed by the explosion, and also by buildings collapsing on them, burns, suffocation and by flying glass and debris.

Survivors of the blasts would have to deal with disease, plagues and epidemics, along with lack of food and clean water.

A month after the explosions, she said, 90 percent of Americans, Canadians, Europeans and Russians would be dead.

The expressions on the faces of students in her audience said it all: Shock, worry, sadness, concern.

If You Love This Planet got an unexpected boost from the U.S. Department of Justice, which declared it "foreign political propaganda" and suppressed it in that country.

In 1983, when it won an Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject, producer Terre Nash thanked the Reagan administration for the publicity generated by efforts to ban the film.

Here in Canada, the CBC initially decided against showing the documentary, claiming it lacked balance. But it broadcast it after it won the Oscar.

If You Love This Planet had a huge effect on the peace movement in North America and Europe—and in Winnipeg. As many as 20,000 people participated in peace marches in the city in the early 1980s.

It also helped create and galvanize action by religious groups as people of faith came together to call for an end to nuclear proliferation.

Caldicott herself was invited to speak to the sixth assembly of the World Council of Churches assembly in Vancouver in 1983. “Nuclear war is the single most urgent problem facing the human family today,” she told the assembly.

The documentary led to the creation in 1984 of Project Peacemakers, the well-known inter-church Winnipeg peace organization.

Project Peacemakers closed in 2016, but for 32 years it was a key voice for peace and justice in the city.

Today the threat of nuclear war is on the back burner, despite recent sabre rattling between Donald Trump and North Korea. Now it’s climate change that is seen as the major threat.

But unlike with Caldicott 35 years ago, the issue doesn’t seem to be generating the same mass public response.

And why is that? One reason is that climate change, unlike nuclear war in the 1980s, doesn’t seem like an imminent danger.

Back then, we really did worry that the world could end soon. Today, however, climate change is seen by many as a problem in the future, perhaps many decades or even further away.

Looking back, it’s hard to say whether all those marches, protests and letters to politicians made any real difference. But it certainly made those of us who did the marching and protesting and writing feel better; we were doing something.

And for that, we have Helen Caldicott to thank. Through her passion for nuclear disarmament, she convinced many millions of us that “if you love this planet . . . you will realize that you are going to have to change the priorities of your life.”

From the Sept. 2 Winnipeg Free Press. If You Love This Planet can be viewed on YouTube.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Panhandling: To Give or Not To Give?

In late August Winnipeg Free Press editor Carl DeGurse wrote about the growing phenomenon of traffic light panhandling in Winnipeg. It reminded me of a column I wrote a number of years ago about my own experiences—and challenges—with beggars.

Anyone who works downtown in Winnipeg, or likely any major North American city, encounters panhandlers every day.

I’ve been asked for money so many times over the years I’ve become inured to the requests.

On a typical summer's day, I can be asked for money three of four times during a several-block walk.

I rarely, if ever, give them spare change. I comfort my conscience by reminding myself that I donate regularly to Siloam Mission, which offers meals, beds and other services to those who are down and out.

I’m sure there are some genuinely needy people out there. But being constantly asked for money has a deadening effect on the heart and spirit.

It’s just so much easier to look away or shake your head and say no.

British journalist Tony Parsons felt the same way. Writing in Arena Magazine way back in 1991 about the many beggars he saw panhandling every day, he wrote that begging “degrades the spirit. It dehumanizes you as well as them; it brutalizes us all.

“You learn to walk past these people, you have to, and it makes it easier to turn away from the truly needy . . . [they] harden your heart, put calluses on your soul. They make every cry for help seem like junk mail.”

I can empathize, even if guiltily so.

For people of faith, like me, a panhandler poses a unique problem.

All religions encourage their adherents to be charitable and to give to those in need. But they also teach the value of work and personal responsibility. What to do?

Perhaps we should give to everyone in need, and let God worry about how it is used. It’s not our money, after all—all of our resources belong to God.

But surely God also wants us to give wisely. Giving it to someone who may use it to feed a destructive addiction would not be a good investment.

Or maybe we can see panhandling as the 21st century equivalent of the Old Testament practice of gleaning.

Since not many of us are farmers today, perhaps the change in our pockets can be compared to those sheaves of old that were to be left for the poor.

It’s not only individuals that struggle with the question of whether to give to beggars; churches do, too.

Clergy receive many calls from individuals with the most incredible stories of hardship and need. They sometimes respond, usually after checking the veracity of the story.

Other times, they know they are being scammed because other clergy have tipped them off.

In some parts of Winnipeg, churches share the names of people who go church to church, exhausting the goodwill of congregations, in order to prevent them from taking advantage of other groups.

Former pastor Harry Lehotsky was well-known for his tireless efforts to help Winnipeg's poor. But even he admitted to being worn out by the constant requests for money.

Said Lehotsky: “I’ve heard countless stories and requests for cash over the years. Some requests are sufficiently creative to be turned into screenplays. After the first few minutes, however, it becomes evident that the engaging pitch is purely the creation of a desperate imagination or a powerful addiction.”

For Lehotsky, “the most difficult requests are when you don't know if the person is asking from need or sloth, from addiction or hunger, for their family or their dealer. I can usually offer an educated and experienced guess as to the legitimacy of a request. In the end, I have to balance the limits of my own resources with the trust I have in the request and the relationship I have—or can have—with the person who's asking.”

Of course, people who panhandle do so for a variety of reasons. Not all of them are asking for money to feed their addictions. But whether or not people should give to panhandlers is an eternal question that has no easy answers.

Lehotsky may offer the best advice. Over time, he became “more careful giving money to the people who are hurting themselves with my generosity. That way I'll have some left to help those who are helping themselves—with just a little assistance from a stranger.”