Blogging Religiously

From a New York point of view


Archive for July, 2009

Reconciliation on same-sex marriage? Well…07.31.09

Can the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy come up with something like a compromise position on same-sex marriage?

He’s tried, in a new paper called Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Freedom.

Gaddy, the head of the Interfaith Alliance, says: “My purpose in writing this paper is as simple as the subject of the paper is complex. I want to find a way for people with contradictory beliefs, religions, values and opinions to live together without violating the basic nature of our democracy.  I am motivated by confidence in the power of religion to affect reconciliation, and I am also a patriot who embodies the unwavering commitment to freedom and justice integral to the American experience.”

Here’s the thing, though: Gaddy supports same-sex marriage.

Having given his paper a quick once-over, I can’t help thinking that those who support same-sex marriage will like his reasoning.

Those who don’t will find it lacking.

In his paper, Gaddy writes:

*****

Regardless of what happens next in Iowa or in any other state, I remain committed to dialogue about and efforts to find support for two fundamental convictions related to the assurance of equality in law and independence for religion: all citizens should have equal access to civil marriage and to the benefits of marriage provided for citizens in this government. Couples who desire religious marriage can seek a house of worship in which to receive that blessing. But, as is the case now, no house of worship would be legally obligated to provide marriage for a couple whom it does not want to bless. All houses of worship should be free to advocate for, defend and perpetuate the view of marriage that is consistent with their religious traditions and convictions.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in "Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Freedom", Civil marriage, Interfaith Alliance, Reconciliation, Religious marriage, Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, same-sex marriagewith No Comments →

Unitarians need support, too07.31.09

It can’t be easy being a Unitarian Universalist.

As I go about my reporting, Unitarianism is often cited as the example of what other faiths don’t want to be or become.

If we’re not careful, we’ll be no different than the Unitarians.

When he says that, doesn’t he know he sounds like a Unitarian.

Stuff like that.

It’s true that Unitarians have no creed. They don’t have to believe (or not believe) anything. Instead, they are dedicated to the search for meaning. And they are very happy to look for wisdom in other faith traditions.

Of course, for many other traditions, this approach is the relativism that they disdain.

It makes sense that Unitarians can use some support now and then from fellow Unitarians. But there aren’t many around. Only 220,000 or so in this country.

That’s why a Croton fellow decided to arrange a European exchange program for Unitarian teens from the burbs. European Unitarians have even fewer brothers and sisters to confide in.

I talked to some Unitarian teens the other day about what they believe and why they’re visiting Europe (apart from the obvious reasons). I’ll write about what they told me in tomorrow’s FaithBeat column.

By the way, there are plenty of Unitarian jokes, too.

How ‘bout this one: When an airplane was about to crash and the flight attendant asked a UU minister on board to pray, what did the minister say?

“Let us all join hands for silent meditation.”

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Disrespect, Europe, relativism, Small numbers, Teen exchange program, Unitarian jokes, Unitarian Universalismwith No Comments →

Army chaplains training to prevent soldier suicide07.31.09

Army chaplains are on the front lines of preventing suicide in the military.

A solid feature from the United Methodist News Service explains that the Army has tried this year to improve its suicide-prevention efforts. And yet, there have been 88 reported active-duty suicides in the Army since January.

Chaplains receive specialized training and are “gatekeepers for the prevention programs,” said Chaplain Lt. Col. Scott Weichl, behavioral health program manager at the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.

“Many, many folks come and talk to us,” Weichl, a United Methodist chaplain, tells the UMNS. “We are not judgmental, and many who have had serious difficulties just need someone to talk to. We try to discern, to triage who needs to see someone with special training and skills.”

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Carleton Birch of the Office of the Chief of Chaplains said that many soldiers, like civilians, are reluctant to seek help. Chaplains are now trained to refer soliders to a host of specialists, he said.

“I’ve had a lot of experience over the years with soldiers with suicidal thoughts and feelings,” Birch says. “Not a single one has said ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ to professional help at the end of our sessions.”

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Army, Chaplains, Lt. Col. Carleton Birch, Lt. Col. Scott Weichl, Suicide, Suicide prevention, United Methodist News Servicewith 1 Comment →

It’s Christmas at Guideposts07.30.09

I got a laugh from Editor-in-Chief Edward Grinnan’s “editor’s note” in the most recent Guideposts magazine.

Guideposts, the “inspirational” Christian publishing company started by Norman Vincent Peale, is headquartered in Carmel.

Grinnan writes: “If it’s August, it’s Christmas. Because of editorial lead times, this is when we start working on our December issue (we usually kick off the production month with a plate of Christmas cookies in the conference room). This year our editorial plate is particularly full. In addition to the usual December issue, we’re putting together a separate holiday edition of Guideposts called The Joys of Christmas 2009, which will be a compendium of your favorite Christmas pieces, plus more of the warm and inspiring stories of the season you’ll love to read and share.”

Makes you want to take out a sweater.

Grinnan signs off with a “Merry Christmas!”

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Christmas in August, Christmas issue, Edward Grinnan, Guidepostswith 1 Comment →

Graymoor friars re-elect Puglisi as leader07.30.09

The Franciscan Friars of the Atonement have re-elected Father James Puglisi to a second term as minister general. The boss.

Puglisi has been based in Rome since 1973, serving at the Centro Pro Unione, the friars’ ecumenical research center there. He’s been director since 1991.

He was first elected as minister general in 2004, becoming the first friar to oversee the community’s worldwide ministries from outside New York state. The friars are, of course, based on Graymoor mountain in Garrison.

Since one of the friars’ main objectives is to promote Christian unity, it made sense to have a leader who focuses on this most difficult, but important, subject all the time.

Puglisi, 62, is from Amsterdam, N.Y., northwest of Albany.

The friars have been planning a major renovation of their Graymoor headquarters—including a new residence for the friars, who live in old dormitories that were not meant for long-term living.

But planning has slowed because of the economy.

Anyway, here is Puglisi (in the middle) and his General Counsel (left to right): Brother Kevin Goss, Father Elias D. Mallon, Father Timothy MacDonald,  and Father Paul Ojibway.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Centro Pro Unione, Christian unity, Ecumenism, Father James Puglisi, Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, Graymoorwith No Comments →

Christian talk on the recession07.30.09

The current issue of The Christian Century is focused on the recession.

The cover headline reads: “Theological Dividends: Lessons of the economic downturn”

I have an article about how churches in good, old Westchester County have tried to respond to the needs of suburbanites.

My story is not on the Christian Century website, so you can’t read it unless you’re an old-fashioned subscriber. We miss subscribers in the print world.

But you can read the thoughts of the Rev. Michael Lindvall, pastor of the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, who writes about the different ways people try to come to terms with the financial mess. Some blame others. Some focus on being victimized.

But Lindvall puts the onus on human sin. He writes:

*****

Calvin saw that human brokenness is no simple matter of doing some things that are wrong while doing others that are altogether right. Rather, even our noblest, wisest and most selfless acts are tinged with the sin that permeates even our virtues. Niebuhr reminded us that sin is not simply a reality within individual persons or a matter of autonomous choices; it is systemic. Sin is built into our finest institutions. It is endemic in our highest culture. It is hidden in our wisest strategic plans and plagues well-intended governments and noble reform movements. Sin confounds complex financial derivatives and the rescue plans designed to clean up their mess. No one, not one, is righteous.

*****

You can also read the musings of four other Christian scholars. One of them, Deirdre McCloskey, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago and has written a theological defense of capitalism, wrote this:

*****

Innovation has been better than any exercise of the usual Christian charity. Indeed, from the point of view of a theology of creativity, it has been Christian charity. Give what you will to the poor of the world, economic creativity since 1800 has given ten times more. Simple charity is good for your soul. But if you wish actually to help the poor, you should let markets and innovation work, because they are what have transformed the lives of the poor. Look at China or India, freed from Mao’s communism or the License Raj. The world economy has sharply slowed this year. But it will return next year to raising the incomes of the poorest faster than at any time in history.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Christian responses, Deirdre McCloskey, Economic downturn, Gary Stern, recession, Rev. Michael Lindvall, The Christian Centurywith No Comments →

A case against God07.29.09

Okay, so I wrote my FaithBeat column Saturday about Dr. Francis Collins, the decorated scientist who is President Obama’s choice to head the National Institutes of Health and is an outspoken believer in God as designer of the universe.

I noted on Monday an op-ed in the NYTimes by non-believer Sam Harris that questioned Collins’ fitness for the role based on his religious beliefs.

Just so happens, I got a private email from a scientist on the faculty of an Ivy League university who thinks that Collins’ case for God is a poor one and that there is no room for a personal God in the universe, based on what we know through science.

I asked this writer if LoHud could use his email as a letter to the editor, but he declined. Put it this way: He fears that believers may not respond graciously.

So I asked if I could post his thoughts right here without identifying him. He said sure.

So, in the interest of providing an alternative view (to Collins’ beliefs, as expressed in my column), here’s what the scientist wrote:

*****

I understand the basis for perspectives on religion offered in your column: your own beliefs. However, there are two aspects of Francis Collins’s beliefs (“Geneticist strikes balance and embraces science,” July 25, 2009) worth noting. The first, as you mention, is that Collins is an anomaly. Most scientists are atheists – for reasons that are a lot more interesting than the fact of their majority status – and an even greater proportion of the best scientists (e.g., Nobel laureates). The second is that there is a huge difference between acknowledging the possibility of phenomena beyond our present comprehension (e.g., Richard Dawkins’s stance) and accepting the God of contemporary religion. By the latter, I mean the God that not only willed the Universe into existence in the manner suggested by Collins, but the one who cares about you and me as individuals, and about our every action and challenge. That latter God is surely a human invention. Why do I think so?

In the greater scheme of things, the God of modern religion makes no sense. Please consider our context. We inhabit one small rocky planet in a galaxy composed of 100 billion stars, and in a Universe of 100 billion galaxies. Our molecular biology links us with confidence to all other life on Earth, going back at least 3.9 billion years. We’re not unique, therefore, just temporarily successful. Our very existence as a species for only 150,000 years or so depends on a huge array of contingent events over 13.7 billion years to the beginning of the Universe. Had any detail been different, there would be no you or me. (One example: The most recent mass extinction, the one that killed the dinosaurs and permitted the radiation of mammals, depended on an asteroid intersecting the Earth’s orbit within a single seven minute span. Had the asteroid been a few minutes late or early, the Earth as we know it today would be utterly different.) Conclusion: We are entirely the product of chance, not design. We’re alone, as individuals and as a species. And like all species that have gone before, our ultimate fate is extinction. The good news is that we have a life, and we can choose to do something useful with it.

That some scientists (e.g., Collins) can be aware of the above and still struggle to incorporate some concept of God into their lives is a measure not of the correctness of the God of religion, but of our innate human need for religion and of the efficiency with which religion is transmitted from one generation to another in early childhood. Scientists are after all human. So it comes as no surprise that some find it hard to escape a normal human impulse.

*****

He added in a final note to me:

*****

All of the facts are readily verifiable, though there is a plus or minus on all of the numbers …. with no bearing whatsoever on the conclusions that flow from them: 1) It is absurd (OK, not plausible) to imagine that the Universe was in some sense created for us. We are simply irrelevant at that scale, and at best, temporary residents of the Earth. 2) The beauty of nature – and it’s fabulous – relates not to design, but to the incredible array of evolutionary, chemical and physical steps needed to arrive at the present, and to the complex interactions and feedbacks that are inherent in all natural systems. I am glad that Francis Collins enjoys waterfalls. So do I.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in A case against God, Francis Collins, National Institutes of Health, President Obama, Sam Harris, Science vs. religionwith No Comments →

Jewish community now grappling with money-laundering headlines07.29.09

Days after the news broke of the Syrian Jewish community’s alleged involvement in the New Jersey Corruption Sweep to end New Jersey Corruption Sweeps (for now), Jewish voices are addressing the ugliness of it all.

On Aish.com, an Orthodox site, Rabbi Yitz Greenman writes about the power of greed. He writes, in part:

*****

We live in America and the law of the land states that one is innocent until proven guilty. Let us not assume guilt. But, if in the unfortunate event that the news turns out to be true and some of these people are proven guilty, many will ask: How can this be?

Not to sound callous, jaded, crude or insensitive, but the answer to me is that such a situation is not so difficult to imagine. It’s all a function of greed and jealousy. In fact, maybe we should ask the question differently: How come it’s such a rarity? Why doesn’t this happen more often?

We live in a very materialistic society, comprised of have and have-nots. No matter what a person has in our day and age, it is literally impossible for someone to “have it all.” Coupled with the most dazzling ads that Madison Avenue inundates us with daily, everyone is trained from early childhood to see themselves as “have-nots.” I don’t have this, that and the other thing. This creates an environment of lack and dependency on things.

*****

The Rabbinical  Council of America, which represents Orthodox rabbis, released this statement today:

*****

The Rabbinical Council of America expresses its deep dismay over the recent charges brought by the United States Attorney General against numerous individuals, including several prominent rabbis. We are appalled at the allegations which, if true, violate the letter and the spirit of Jewish law, decency, good citizenship, and the norms of our great society.

Jewish Law has always emphasized the importance of observing and respecting the laws of the land. They are essential for our shared wellbeing. No individual stands above the law. If a citizen violates the law then he must be subject to the penalties imposed by the legal system of our great country. Nonetheless, we must all keep in mind that those accused are entitled to a presumption of innocence and due process.

Members of the Syrian Orthodox Community have been particularly affected by these allegations, and the stereotypes that have arisen as a result in recent days.The RCA wishes to extend its support to the Syrian Jewish community and its rabbis. They are an honorable, pious, and charitable community, led by many distinguished rabbis. The alleged misdeeds of the few should not be used against the innocent many. We join with our brethren in the Syrian community and with our fellow Jews in praying that the community find the strength to weather this storm, and that they restore themselves to function as the great community they have always been.

We are committed as rabbinic leaders for ourselves and our communities to serve as positive role models for all of our fellow Americans. We pledge to do our best in the days ahead so that the entire Jewish community can continue to be a model for all of our fellow Americans as law-abiding and ethically responsible citizens, striving to live in accordance with the highest religious and civic standards of justice and morality.

*****

And the Jewish Week has extensive coverage of the whole affair, including anger in the Orthodox community at the Jewish informant whose cooperation was key to authorities bringing down the alleged money-laundering scheme.

Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network and an Orthodox Jew, writes a column in which he offers harsh criticisms of some within his own community: “Is it possible that there is something in the Orthodox community in general and the haredi community in particular that creates fertile ground for this type of fraud? I’ve too often witnessed, here and in Israel, a perverse notion that we few who feel bound by the laws of God are free to flout the laws of man. That the seriousness with which we hold halacha (Jewish law) forces us to view state law as trite, flawed — unimportant at best, a nuisance at worst.”

Harsh.

And Jewish Week boss Gary Rosenblatt writes about what the news means for relations within the Jewish world. He says, in part:

*****

Many Orthodox Jews refuse to acknowledge that their less observant brethren can be serious about their religious and spiritual lives, and see them more as a threat to continuity than as sharing the path to a Jewish future. Better not to associate with them, some rabbis say, for fear of appearing to legitimize their beliefs. And there is a distinct element of schadenfreude among Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox Jews on reading of financial and sexual abuses within the haredi community, a sense of satisfaction in seeing those alleged holier-than-thou Jews brought low, shown to be as flawed as the rest of us.

But there is plenty of guilt to go around, and the front-page photos of bearded rabbis being led away in handcuffs represents a chillul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name, for us all.

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Corruption sweep, Gary Rosenblatt, Mark Charendoff, Money-laudering sweep, New Jersey, Orthodox Judaism, Rabbi Yitz Greenman, Rabbinical Council of America, Syrian-Jewish community, The Jewish Weekwith No Comments →

Still asking, ‘Why?’07.28.09

In the end, I did speak to a few clergy from the area where the horrific accident happened on the Taconic.

When I called Rev. Paul Egensteiner, pastor of Emanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Pleasantville, I had no idea that he had been at the scene, serving as a fire department chaplain.

He was reluctant to talk about it, but took his best shot during what must have been a very difficult day for him.

He told me that he prayed over each of the victims at the scene.

As I wrote on LoHud.com, he told me: “Being there, there is just no way to make sense of it. You can’t. It was an accident. If the question becomes ‘How could God let this happen,’ I say ‘It happened.’ I prayed with each of the victims. I felt God’s presence with them. That was never a question for me.”

I was also able to reach Rabbi Mark Sameth of Pleasantville Community Synagogue, who told me that “Tragedy is no time for theology.”

He said: “One needn’t – I would go so far as to say, shouldn’t – look for meaning in horrific and violent death. This is when we need to reach out and to comfort, to be, so to speak, God’s presence in the world.”

I also got this comment on my blog from a Rev. Patt Kauffman, who I don’t know but apparently served locally at some point:

“I have been asked also how this could happen; is it God’s will that these lives be taken so tragically?  I confess a God that always loves, and that never desires ill for creation. When I was serving a congregation in Yorktown Heights, I remember the confusing, entrances and exits, the winding and narrow roadway, and the traffic that travelled much too fast that is the Taconic.  In my short tenure, I saw many close calls, and cars off the roadway.  This was an accident bound to happen.

“Our task as people of faith is to assure the survivors of God’s love and mercy, even as they (and we) struggle with the horror and the doubt.  Healing will come, through the work of a loving and caring community of skilled professionals, thoughtful and insightful clergy, and family and friends, all of whom God can and does work.”

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in 3-car accident, 8 dead, Rabbi Mark Sameth, Rev. Patt Kauffman, Rev. Paul Egensteiner, Taconic State Parkway, Theodicy, Where was God?, Why?with 2 Comments →

Why?07.27.09

Everyone around here this morning is talking about the same thing: yesterday’s mind-blowing, horrific, three-car accident on the Taconic that took eight lives, including of four children.

Everyone is stunned by the details, how a woman got on the Taconic in the wrong direction and drove more than a mile—with cars passing her, honking their horns—before she plowed into another vehicle.

Based on what was just said at a police press conference, the woman may well have been ill.

Other than digesting the details, what is there to say?

Why?

We all say why?

An editor asked me a bit ago if I should talk to clergy about how something like this could happen.

I don’t know. What could they say?

Posted by: Gary Stern - Posted in Eight dead, Meaning, Taconic State Parkway, Three-car accident, Wrong waywith 1 Comment →

Search