For shame

Andrew Sullivan points to a deeply troubling poll result: 54 percent of Americans who attend church more often say that torturing suspected terrorists is acceptable, compared to 42 percent of those who “seldom or never” go to services. Have these people even read the Gospel? Even heard it preached? In the most literal sense, this is a damning discovery about American Christians.

Crucified agape

Tradition tells us to choose between respect for persons and participation in the movement of history; Jesus refuses because the movement of history is personal. Between the absolute agape which lets itself be crucified, and effectiveness (which it is assumed will usually need to be violent), the resurrection forbids us to choose, for in the light of resurrection crucified agape is not folly (as it seems to the Hellenizers to be) and weakness (as the Judaizers believe) but the wisdom and power of God (I Cor. 1:22-25).

John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972)

Photo by jby.

Why Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate”

Larry Hurtado discusses why the Roman government crucified Jesus (politics), as well as what Pilate’s motives and the implications behind his chosen method of execution mean for Christianity.

Crucifixion was commonly regarded as not only frighteningly painful but also the most shameful of deaths. Essentially, it was reserved for those who were perceived as raising their hands against Roman rule or those who in some other way seemed to challenge the social order—for example, slaves who attacked their masters, and insurrectionists, such as the many Jews crucified by Roman Gen. Vespasian in the Jewish rebellion of 66-72.

In which a pun fights evil

Via the Daily Dish: Flier distributed at a counter protest against Westboro Baptist Church, the congregation that has built a theology around the hateful, un-Christian catchphrase “God hates fags.”

Photo by froboy.

(A more readable, freely copy-able, version is provided here.) Given that Jesus makes no reference whatsoever to homosexuality, there is in fact a stronger case to be made that God hates figs, in a purely dueling proof-text kind of way. (I’ll see your Pauline epistle and raise you two Gospels!) It’s fully in the spirit of Westboro’s abuse of scripture that the flier pulls text from two different accounts of Jesus rebuking the fig tree.

See also: God hates shrimp.

Why liberal Christians should fight Creationism

Slacktivist Fred Clark bounces off that depressing, depressing poll result on American’s acceptance of the historical fact of evolution in a series of posts that beautifully encapsulate the liberal Christian frustration with YEC‘s and what he quite correctly characterizes as the relatively recent, highly non-conservative Biblical “literalist” movement. First, there’s exasperation at the sheer perversity of it:

It’s hard to know what that means, exactly, to “believe in” or “not believe in” evolution. It’s like not believing in Missouri, or not believing in thermal conduction. Those two examples are a bit different from one another, but they both get at aspects of what this odd sort of disbelief entails.

“Not believing in Missouri” doesn’t affect the Show-Me State one way or another. To say that you don’t “believe in” Missouri is really to say that you deny it exists — that its existence is a fact you refuse to accept. …

On the other hand, if someone tells you that they “don’t believe in” thermal conduction, it’s likely that they’re not so much saying they deny its existence as that they don’t understand what you mean when you say “thermal conduction.” For all their supposed disbelief, after all, they still avoid sitting on metal park benches in the winter. [Italics sic.]

Then, there’s vexation that people who subscribe to such nonsense claim to do it in defense of the value of Scripture:

[Literalism’s children, YECism and “Left Behind”-style apocalypticism] are new and radically innovative ideas introduced or adopted by people who had set out, initially, to uphold “the authority of the scriptures” (to use one of their favorite phrases). That this effort to defend the Bible’s “traditional” meaning has resulted in their introducing replacement meanings that override and disregard its traditional meaning is bitterly ironic, but this irony is lost on them.

And, finally, there’s anger over the very real consequences of literalism for faith:

House-of-cards fundamentalism allows for no distinctions between babies and bathwater, between the central tenets of the faith and the adiophora and error. So once one part of this belief system begins to collapse — as it inevitably will since young-earth creationism is disprovable — then it all has to go. …

The second reason that creationism or “creation science” is a pet-peeve of mine is that I spent many years working on behalf of the Evangelical Environmental Network to try to persuade evangelicals that “creation care” was not just permissible, but a responsibility. This is made much more difficult when the audience you are addressing — as was sometimes, but not always, the case — regards the first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis as a “literal” journalistic account and only as a literal journalistic account. [Italics sic.]

Biblical literalism is bad theology, and that’s bad for the Church. If the Church is the expression of Jesus’ example and teaching in the world (Christ’s body, you might say), then Biblical literalism is literally preventing the expression of Jesus in the world.

Edit, 19 Feb: fixed broken link to that depressing, depressing poll result.

Darwin’s 200th: What evolution can teach Christianity
Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and 150 years since he published his groundbreaking book, The Origin of Species. The Origin provided the first widely-accepted explanation for the evolution of life on Earth, and, although Darwin was wrong on some points (if only he had known about genes!), a century and a half of scientific work has shown that he was right about more.

That century and a half has not diffused the perception, especially in the United States and other highly religious countries, that acceptance of a scientific account for the history of life is antithetical to religion. As a Darwinian and a Christian, this is a topic with which I struggle, and about which I’ve written a great deal here. Although I’m not sure that science can coexist with a real belief in the supernatural, I do hold that science is both compatible with the moral questions at the heart of religion and essential to answering them.

Photo by rmcnicholas.

For Darwin’s 200th, then, I’d like to briefly present three examples of evolutionary insights that complement the Christian moral perspective. I focus on Christianity here (and elsewhere in this blog) not because I think it has an exclusive hold on the truth, but because it is the tradition in which I was raised, and the one that shapes my own moral perspective. I think the following points are easily applicable to just about any other moral system, religious or non.

Our evolutionary past shapes us today.

Christianity (and, indeed, most other religions) starts from the fundamental problem of human behavior: We do things that we know are hurtful to those around us, often because we enjoy doing them. As the apostle wrote, “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19)

The Christian tradition calls this original sin; the evolutionary perspective points to its origin in the remnants of past adaptations. We have two bones in each forearm because we evolved from ancestors with those two bones in their pectoral fins [$-a]; we may be hostile to outsiders because that parochialism helped early humans to form closer-knit societies [$-a]. Far from giving us an excuse to do whatever we feel like, these results can help us figure out how to overcome evolved behaviors that hurt others.

Christ calls us to transcend our past.

Just as it shapes our hurtful impulses, our evolutionary past has a hand in the better angels of our nature. We may care for our children and close relatives, for instance, in part because they carry many of our genes – so helping them helps our own evolutionary fitness [$-a]. Similarly, the need to live peacefully with our immediate neighbors may have shaped deep emotional aversions to murder [PDF].

In the Sermon on the Mount, though, Jesus lays out a moral model that calls us beyond what comes naturally:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder,’ … But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” (Matt. 5:21-2)


“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? (Matt. 5:43-6)

Evolutionary thinking can help us realize Christ’s call.

When we understand the deep causes of hurtful behavior, we can figure out better how to overcome them. To pick just one example: Jesus proposes a moral solution to the problem of hostility to strangers mentioned above in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) when he redefines the concept of “neighbor” to mean something bigger than “people of the same race/religion.” But how do we overcome deep-seated biases against people who don’t look like us? One new study suggests hacking the mental habits that create those biases in the first place, by making the effort to become familiar with people of other races – Caucasian volunteers trained to better differentiate between African American faces showed reduced evidence of bias against African Americans.

Like the Christian moral model, the evolutionary perspective understands that humans are imperfect – but suggests ways we can do better. This is why it pains me to hear other Christians dismiss evolutionary science out of hand (apart from my nerdy compulsions to correct factual error): Understanding evolution can help us in our ongoing struggle to live together, if only we’re open to the data science provides. The current advances in our understanding of human behavior are only possible because today’s researchers stand on the shoulders of a giant: Charles Darwin.


J.-K. Choi, S. Bowles (2007). The coevolution of parochial altruism and war Science, 318 (5850), 636-40 DOI: 10.1126/science.1144237

K. Foster, T. Wenseleers, F. Ratnieks (2006). Kin selection is the key to altruism Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 21 (2), 57-60 DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2005.11.020

J.D. Greene (2001). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment Science, 293 (5537), 2105-8 DOI: 10.1126/science.1062872

S. Lebrecht, L.J. Pierce, M.J. Tarr, J.W. Tanaka (2009). Perceptual other-race training reduces implicit racial bias PLoS ONE, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004215

T. Lewens. (2007). Darwin. New York: Routledge.

M. Ruse. (2000). Can a Darwinian be a Christian? Cambridge University Press.

N.H. Shubin, E.B. Daeschler, F.A. Jenkins (2006). The pectoral fin of Tiktaalik roseae and the origin of the tetrapod limb Nature, 440 (7085), 764-71 DOI: 10.1038/nature04637

Preaching religious tolerance as the Crusades begin

Harper’s has a fascinating piece on Nicholas of Kues (= Cusa, I think), or Cusanus, a fifteenth-century Roman Catholic cardinal who sought common ground between Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and even Hinduism in the wake of the Ottoman Turks’ conquest of Constantinople, when most of European Christendom was girding for the Crusades. I’d never heard of Cusanus before, but apparently he’s considered a leading theologian of the Renaissance in Continental Europe. And his perspective sounds like it would be invaluable for people of faith in the twenty-first century:

What Cusanus therefore proposes is tolerance. However, it is not the insulting sort of tolerance, which proposes official indifference. Rather it is a tolerance that has its roots in a philosophical commitment to the search for truth and a recognition that human frailties and imperfections will always lead to mistakes. “For it is a condition of the earthly human estate to mistake for truth that which is merely long-adhered-to custom, indeed, even to mistake this for a part of nature,” Cusanus writes (habet autem hoc humana terrena condicio quod longa consuetudo, quæ in naturam transisse accipitur, pro veritate defenditur.)

Evangelism experienced

At the tail end of the Evolution 2008 conference, I bumped into a character from my childhood in conservative Christian country: I got evangelized. I was hanging out with two colleagues from another lab at UI, whom I’ll call V and B – we’d had dinner, and were sitting on a bench in the park around the University of Minnesota alumni center, thinking about going for a beer once the sun set. When up come two fresh-faced undergraduate-looking types, and one of them says he wants to ask us some questions “for his blog.”

I smelled an overly-friendly rat immediately, and I think B did, too, as he’s another Mennonite-turned-biologist. V is a good secular Frenchwoman, and was, I think, less prepared to guess where this was going. The first fellow (he never actually introduced himself – I’ll call him the Talker) started in with a painfully obvious line of Socratic questioning about what we thought would happen to us after we died. He pretended great interest in our responses, then started on a we’re-all-sinners-but-good-news-Jesus-came pitch. Except we didn’t play by the script.

The Talker wanted to define sin (in a pretty traditional move) as basically nothing more than violating the Ten Commandments (“You’ve told lies, right?” he said. “So have I.” This is the whole of his argument for original sin.) I happen to object to that kind of moral reasoning. I said as much, pointing out that Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment that fulfills and transcends the Old Testament law; that it’s extremely dangerous to define morality purely in terms of divine fiat; and it’s clear that Jesus expected his disciples to make actual moral judgments, not follow some list of rules.

B pitched in to ask about the ultimate fates of the victims in the recent Chinese earthquake; V. expressed puzzlement. I pointed out the Talker and his friend, who (upon direct inquiry) admitted to being named Noah, seemed to have recently shaved their sideburns, and asked when they’d last had a ham sandwich. (“That’s Catholics,” said Noah. “No,” I said, “That’s Jews.” But it comes from the Old Testament laws they were setting up as the foundation of their theology.) We scientists quoted Scripture and church history and basic, humane moral logic. The Talker responded by trying to drag the conversation back to his script, until, I guess, it became clear we weren’t going to let him. At which point he claimed a pressing appointment, made sure I knew the address of his blog, and left with his wingman.

On the whole, I’d actually thought it was a pretty friendly not-quite-conversation, and I’d fancied we might have made the two of them think a bit. The Talker’s blog, however, indicates otherwise. It’s astonishing how little you can hear when you don’t want to. And it’s maddening that this fellow thinks that he’s practicing Christianity by accosting strangers in public like this. He couldn’t even get to the Good News because he was so busy trying to ram his theology of sin down our throats.