A conservative evangelical grapples with the cause of homosexuality

If you are not familiar with Albert Mohler, he is an extremely influential figure in the evangelical world, particularly among those who are theologically conservative.

He is the articulate and strong-willed president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Dallas. Mohler doesn’t mince words.

That’s why a recent “column”:http://www.albertmohler.com/blog_read.php?id=891 he wrote about the possibility that homosexuality has a genetic cause has created a real stir in the evangelical world. He put it this way:

“1. There is, as of now, no incontrovertible or widely accepted proof that any biological basis for sexual orientation exists.

2. Nevertheless, the direction of the research points in this direction. Research into the sexual orientation of sheep and other animals, as well as human studies, points to some level of biological causation for sexual orientation in at least some individuals.

3. Given the consequences of the Fall and the effects of human sin, we should not be surprised that such a causation or link is found. After all, the human genetic structure, along with every other aspect of creation, shows the pernicious effects of the Fall and of God’s judgment.”

Mohler also held out hope that if homosexuality is biological, it can somehow be reversed — perhaps with a hormone patch on a mother’s abdomen.

Not surprisingly, Mohler has taken a lot of heat. Some evangelicals don’t like that he even acknowledged the possibility that homosexuality is more than a psychological disorder. Gay rights groups are offended by his suggestion that homosexuality needs to be stopped in utero.

The U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference wrestled with similar issues in a report passed last fall, “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care.”

The “report”:http://www.usccb.org/bishops/ stated: “There is currently no scientific consensus on the cause of the homosexual inclination.” It urged concerted outreach and ministry to homosexuals, while maintaining that homosexual acts are immoral and “objectively sinful.”

On Friday, Mohler used his “blog”:http://www.albertmohler.com/blog.php to comment about the reaction to his thinking. It makes for interesting reading. He writes first to evangelicals and then to homosexuals.

To evangelicals, he writes:

“Those who commit homosexual acts, whoever they are and whatever their biological profile, are absolutely responsible for their sin. Regardless of any actual or hypothetical orientation, those who commit same-sex acts are responsible for the choice to commit the sinful act.”

To homosexuals, he writes:

“From a biblical perspective, it makes no sense to say that homosexuality is normative supposedly because God ‘makes’ people that way. God does not allow any of us to escape his righteous judgment on our sin, whatever the biological, environmental, social, or historical factors that we may claim as explanatory factors.”

Hard-wired to believe

So much to read, so little time.

I finally got around to the NYT Magazine “cover story”:http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/04/magazine/04evolution.t.html?pagewanted=1&ei=5090&en=43cfb46824423cea&ex=1330664400 from two weeks ago: “Why We Believe.”

If you missed it, it was a long survey of academic-types who hold that we are wired to have faith in a power greater than ourselves. Faith can be pinned on evolution — whether faith itself was an adaption over time or the accidental byproduct of some other adaption.

The article’s author, Robin Marantz Henig, explained that evolutionary biologists will look at any common human trait — including a belief in an invisible deity — in pretty much the same way:

“When a trait is universal, evolutionary biologists look for a genetic explanation and wonder how that gene or genes might enhance survival or reproductive success. In many ways, it’s an exercise in post-hoc hypothesizing: what would have been the advantage, when the human species first evolved, for an individual who happened to have a mutation that led to, say, a smaller jaw, a bigger forehead, a better thumb? How about certain behavioral traits, like a tendency for risk-taking or for kindness?”

The article then went on to share different ideas by evolutionary folks with competing books.

The problem with the piece, from my vantage point, is that it focused entirely on scholars who already believe that faith is biological and, as a result, look for ways to explain how it happened. There was little space given (I don’t recall any, but it was a long piece) to scientists who think the whole thing is phooey.

I’m guessing there are many evolutionary scientists who would say that the ideas put forth in the article are simplistic and real reaches.

At one point, the article states:

“Whatever the specifics, certain beliefs can be found in all religions. Those that prevail, according to the byproduct theorists, are those that fit most comfortably with our mental architecture. Psychologists have shown, for instance, that people attend to, and remember, things that are unfamiliar and strange, but not so strange as to be impossible to assimilate. Ideas about God or other supernatural agents tend to fit these criteria. They are what Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist and psychologist, called “minimally counterintuitiveâ€?: weird enough to get your attention and lodge in your memory but not so weird that you reject them altogether. A tree that talks is minimally counterintuitive, and you might believe it as a supernatural agent. A tree that talks and flies and time-travels is maximally counterintuitive, and you are more likely to reject it.”

Can this kind of “idea” possibly be used to help explain why millions of people — from very different cultures, with different levels of education — believe in God or some greater power?

It’s all because God is weird enough to stick in our memory, but not weird enough to be rejected?

Curious about where Mormons stand?

Because of Mitt Romney’s candidacy for the Republican nomination for president, a lot of non-Mormons are asking what Mormons believe.

Many newspapers have been tacking the question, for example, of where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands on abortion.

Coincidentally or not, Signature Books, a publisher of “Western and Mormon Americana,” has just released “Statements of the LDS First Presidency” — a volume of LDS positions on numerous issues.

The book is not an official LDS publication, but brings together official statements from the church. The authors are Salt Lake City-based LDS scholars Gary James Bergera and Dale C. LeCheminant.

Read more at the publisher’s “website.”:http://www.signaturebooks.com/firstpresidency.htm

A list of topics under “A,” for example, looks like this:

Aaronic Priesthood
Adam and Eve
American Indians
Ancient of Days
artificial insemination

Big changes coming to Catholic schools

I first wrote a year ago about the Archdiocese of New York preparing to reorganize its schools so that groups of parishes might be responsible for each school.

Catholic New York, the newspaper of the archdiocese, made it official a few months later.

Cardinal Egan solidified things this week, sending a letter to all the pastors of the archdiocese stating that the program — a “network of interparochial schools,” as he called it — is moving forward.

Egan wrote:

“Each Catholic Interparochial Educational Community will be a geographic district that is comprised of both parishes and schools. Some of the parishes will have schools and others will not. In our new interparochial model, each pastor in a Catholic Interparochial Educational Community will share responsibility for the viability of the schools that are in that particular Community and participates as well in their governance.

“The Catholic Interparochial Educational Community model has already been successfully implemented in other dioceses and archdioceses throughout the nation. The concepts of interparochial schools and shared responsibility and governance have proven most effective in responding to challenges such as changing demographics and other current needs.”

It’s a big change, but a necessary one.

Too many schools have been losing enrollment and losing money, putting pressure on their home parishes. Under the new system, groups of parishes — including those without schools — will have to take responsibility for Catholic education in their regions.

Egan’s letter says that it will take three years to implement the system. The first three model “communities” are in the process of being formed. There will be additions in the fall.

I hope to speak with Dr. Catherine Hickey, the secretary for education and superintendent of schools, early next week about the changes.

Egan wrote:

“Be assured of my heartfelt gratitude for your support of our Catholic school system, which is one of the largest and finest in the country. In the end, it will be our ability to work together, with the guidance of the Lord, that will make our efforts to secure a strong future for Catholic education here in the Archdiocese of New York a success.”

Hofstra to offer interfaith prize

Promoters of interfaith dialogue, step right up…

Hofstra University has announced that it will award, next year, the first “Guru Nanak Interfaith Prize.”:http://www.hofstra.edu/Academics/Colleges/HCLAS/rel/nanak/

It’s a $50,000 biannual prize that will go to someone or an organization that inspires religious dialogue. The prize is named for Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion.

It was established with the financial support of Sardarni Kuljit Kaur Bindra and Sardar Ishar Singh Bindra, Sikh philanthropists from Bronxville. In 2000, the Bindra family endowed the Sardarni Kuljit Kaur Bindra Chair in Sikh Studies at Hofstra.

Some big names have joined the Guru Nanak Interfaith Prize Honorary Committee, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Protestant scholar Martin Marty and Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee. Other members are I.K. Gujral, former prime minister of India, and our own Sen. Chuck Schumer.

Hofstra President Stuart Rabinowitz wrote:

“Award recipients will have demonstrated extraordinary leadership, courage, and a capacity for inspiring in others a willingness to embrace the vulnerability that is the key to true religious dialogue.”

Nominations, due by July 1 of this year, may be submitted “here.”:http://www.hofstra.edu/Academics/Colleges/HCLAS/rel/nanak/nanek_award.html

Another magazine for young Jews

It’s already been six years since Heeb magazine hit the stands, drawing a predictable mix of laughter and outrage.

Heeb — aimed at young Jews with an irreverent streak — appears to be going strong. Its “website”:http://www.heebmagazine.com/ offers a feature called Heeb Hookups, a kvetching board and merchandise called heebraica. There’s also a selection of references to Heeb in other periodicals that’s headlined: “Proof that we control the media.”

Good stuff.

Now there’s a new magazine aimed at young Jews called Guilt and Pleasure (not offensive, but intriguing).

The “website”:http://www.guiltandpleasure.com/index.html offers this:

“G&P is based on the belief that a good argument – especially on issues of community and identity in America – has become too rare a thing. We hope our magazine and the DIY Salon guide on this web site will be used as raw material for good, old-fashioned conversation – be it around the dinner table or in a public forum – the kind of full-blooded exchanges that form the backbone of our network.”

The current issue, number 4, deals with “the Israel debate,” namely why young Jews feel less connected to Israel than their parents and grandparents.

Roger Bennett, published of G&P, said this in a statement:

“When Israel was formed, Mainstream American Jewish institutions were born to make the case for Israel and to fight anti-Semitism. In contrast, young Jews today are searching for identity, spirituality, meaning and roots. Unlike their grandparents, they can live wherever they want, marry whomever they wish, and are most certainly less interested in traditional institutional membership. ‘Jewish’ is just one part of their multi-faceted American identity, and unless there is room for them to have a free and open debate about their relationship to the Jewish State, Israel is in danger of becoming irrelevant to a large number of young Jews.�

Scholar who promotes spiritual study gets the big money

Every year I wonder what the winner of the Templeton Prize For Progress Toward Research in Discoveries about Spiritual Realities will do with the $1.5 million that comes with it. Do scholars buy sportscars?

This year’s winner, announced yesterday, is Charles Taylor, 75, a Canadian philosopher on the faculty of Northwestern University. For his whole professional life, he has promoted the idea that studies in the humanities and social sciences should acknowledge the role of spirituality.

He told the LA Times that it is impossible to grasp what makes people and societies “tick� without considering the secular and the spiritual.

“People must be able to think in both languages, in both levels — not just with one half of their brain,â€? he said.

The winners of the Templeton are usually academics who teach and write without public attention. A professor of mathematical sciences won last year.

The “Templeton Foundation”:http://www.templeton.org/ began awarding the prize in 1973 to encourage the study of spirituality. John Templeton, its president, made a fortune in mutual funds before turning his attention to philanthropy, particularly causes that promote religious and spiritual understanding.

The foundation also funds the annual Templeton Award for the national Religion Reporter of the Year, which I happened to win last year. The prize, in case you’re curious, was $3,500.

Read the Chicago Tribune’s coverage “here.”:http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0703150149mar15,1,6246566.story?ctrack=1&cset=true

You gotta have heart

There’s got to be a better way to place a curse on someone.

My colleagues Will David and Nicole Neroulias are “reporting”:http://www.lohud.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070314/UPDATE/703140398 today that vandals left candles, a pumpkin, a plastic rooster and an animal heart —an animal heart — among vandalized headstones at St. John’s Cemetery in Yonkers last night.

Police are trying to determine if vandals seen leaving the scene were performing a ritual. What else could they have been doing? Sitting down to dinner? “Pass the plastic rooster, please.”

Nicole somehow found a pagan expert — a pagan expert who grew up in, ahem, Yonkers — who said that the vandals may have been trying to place a curse on someone.

“It’s definitely not an official ritual,” said John J. Coughlin, editor of the NYC Pagan Resource Guide.

Two questions: Do pagans really need a resource guide? Doesn’t it seem strange that the editor of a pagan resource guide uses his middle initial?

The ‘facts’ on the stem cell debate

The Legionaries of Christ, an international Catholic order with a significant presence in Westchester, operates a Thornwood-based think tank called The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person.

The executive director of the institute, the Rev. Thomas Berg, co-authors a column in the Wall Street Journal today about the stem cell debate. The co-author is Robert P. George, an academic at Princeton and one of the leading conservative Catholic thinkers in the country (George is sought out by conservative Christians of all stripes, including presidential contenders).

Most Catholic observers I talk to refer to the Legion of Christ as a particularly conservative order, but most Legionaries, I think, would say that they are “orthodox” and that’s all.

Regardless, in their column, Berg and George cite six “facts” about the stem cell debate as a starting point for discussion.

Their facts are:

– There is no “ban” on human embryonic stem cell research in the United States.

– We are a long way away from therapies derived from embryonic stem cells.

– The human embryo has at least some degree of special moral status.

– There are non-controversial alternatives worth exploring.

– Concerns about embryo destruction are not only religious.

– While the search for cures is an important motive behind ESC research, it is clearly not the only motive.

To read more about each statement, go to the “column.”:http://online.wsj.com/article/SB117384191108736444.html

Will proponents of embryonic stem cell research agree that all six “facts” are indeed facts? Probably not. But that’s the nature of the debate…

Another ‘first’ for Congress

Congress got its first Muslim this year. And now its first official, on-the-record atheist.

The Secular Coalition for America, representing eight atheist and humanist groups, ran an ad in yesterday’s “Washington Post”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/13/AR2007031300750.html identifying Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., as the highest elected “non-theistâ€? in the land.

In a statement, Stark confirmed “I am a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being.�

Stark is in his 18th term representing San Francisco’s East Bay, which will lead, no doubt, to a lot of jokes about all those godless liberals on the coasts.

Have there been no other non-believers in Congress through American history? Unlikely. But they kept it to themselves.

Maybe others will now follow Stark by coming out of the closet of unbelief. Nah.