Joho the Blog » religion

March 2, 2016

Keep prayers out of public school

I received an email from Rep. Vern Buchanan (Republican from Florida) asking:

The Supreme Court has ruled that opening public high school sporting events with a prayer is unconstitutional. Do you support this decision?

Rep. Buchanan's form

I said yes. In fact, I called his office to tell him why. Had I not been compressing a message for one of his aides, here’s what I would have said:

I grew up in the school district where parents brought the suit, Engel v. Vitale, that resulted in the 1962 Supreme Court decision. I was twelve. I remember the cross-burning down the street from us when the results were announced.

The school had adopted what it considered to be a non-denominational prayer. There is no such thing. Even if there were, how one prays varies in different religions. Jews don’t kneel, clasp their hands, and bow. In fact, Jews don’t pray together in public places as part of their usual ritual. (Exception: Part of the Yom Kippur service entails kneeling.)

Not to mention that I’m an agnostic atheist, so I don’t pray. I remember availing myself of the option to sit quietly while the rest of the class said the prayer. Why would anyone think that that’s an acceptable option to give a kid? My school was half Christian and half Jewish, and it was a very tolerant place, so I didn’t feel ostracized. But I was lucky. “Starting a class with prayer tells a kid what’s normal.”Starting a class with prayer, and understanding that this is a school policy, tells a kid what’s normal. If you don’t pray, or don’t pray that way, how could a child not draw the conclusion that she or he is not a full-fledged member of the class?

I’ll be happy to reconsider these views when I hear about the first public school where the kids are mainly or entirely Christian that mandates starting the day by saying a “non-denominational” prayer that refers to G-d as “Allah,” and that requires the children to kneel while facing Mecca. Then maybe I’ll believe that the push for school prayer isn’t based on Christian assumptions.

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September 11, 2015

The absence of pennies breeds pennies

I’ve said it before and it’s still the case: I would pay a penny not to carry a penny.

So why don’t I stop my whining and just get rid of my pennies as they come in?

My answer is: Why the hell would I want to stop whining?

My second answer is: Pennies have the peculiar and perhaps unique property of breeding more of them when your supply of them drops below four.

Go to any real-world commercial space that is not in Canada with no pennies in your pocket, and what happens if the bill is not evenly divisible by five? You exit with pennies miraculously in your pocket.

Go with one penny in your pocket and there’s a 20% chance you’ll leave with at least one and possibly four.[1] The odds when you have more than one penny in your pocket have yet to be calculated, but Leibniz proved that with four pennies in your pocket, there’s no chance that you’ll get more than that in return and there’s even a 10% chance your pocket total will drop to the blessed Zero Pennies state so sought after by followers of the Tao.

But what the Tao forgot was that with no pennies in your pocket, that nothingness stands an 80% chance of producing pennies at your next transaction. So you’re 80% screwed no matter what.

TL;DR: Nature abhors a vacuum of pennies. Why? Because Nature is really annoying.


[1] Here’s my math. If you have a penny in your pocket and the bill is $x.01 or $x.02, you exit with fewer or an equal number of pennies. If the charge is $x.03 or $x.04, you’ll get back more than one penny. There are twenty opportunities in every dollar for an .03 or a .04. So, it’s 20%. Right?.

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October 24, 2014

[clickbait] Copyright is sodomy

A year ago, Harold Feld posted one of the most powerful ways of framing our excessive zeal for copyright that I have ever read. I was welling up even before he brought Aaron Swartz into the context.

Harold’s post is within a standard Jewish genre: the d’var Torah, an explanation of a point in the portion of the Torah being read that week. As is expected of the genre, he draws upon a long, self-reflective history of interpretation. I urge you to read it because of the light it sheds on our culture of copyright, but it’s also worth noticing the form of the discussion.

The content: In the Jewish tradition, Sodom’s sin wasn’t sexual but rather an excessive possessiveness leading to a fanatical unwillingness to share. Harold cites from a collection of traditional commentary, The Ethics of Our Fathers:

“There are four types of moral character. One who says: ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.’ This is an average person. Some say it is the Way of Sodom. The one who says: ‘what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine,’ is ignorant of the world. ‘What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours’ is the righteous. ‘What is mine is mine and what is yours is mine’ is the wicked.”

In a PowerPoint, it’d be a 2×2 chart. Harold’s point will be that the ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.’ of the average person becomes wicked when enforced without compassion or flexibility. Harold evokes the traditional Jewish examples of Sodom’s wickedness and compares them to what’s become our dominant “average” assumptions about how copyright ought to work.

I am purposefully not explaining any further. Read Harold’s piece.

The form: I find the space of explanation within which this d’var Torah — and most others that I’ve heard — operates to be fascinating. At the heart of Harold’s essay is a text accepted by believers as having been given by God, yet the explanation is accomplished by reference to a history of human interpretations that disagree with one another, with guidance by a set of values (e.g., sharing is good) that persevere in a community thanks to that community’s insistent adherence to its tradition. The result is that an agnostic atheist like me (I’m only pretty sure there is no God) can find truth and wisdom in the interpretation of a text I take as being ungrounded in a divine act.

But forget all that. Read Harold’s post, bubbelah.

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April 6, 2012

Google Exodus: Passover told in social media

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March 18, 2012

Love thy neighbor by disrespecting his faith

My monthly column at Kmworld is about how the digital network has changed the basics of curation….

Here’s a sentence from the first paragraph of a long email solicitation I received today:

Truth Unlocked: Keys to Reaching Your Muslim Neighbor (www.truthunlocked.org) is a project that we feel God inspired us to create to help Christians to reach out to, form relationships with and simply love, Muslims here in North America.

Cool, I thought! Christians reaching out to Muslims in acceptance and love.

It took me until the end to come to the full realization what this is about:

Reaching out to the lost needs to be at the very top of our priority list as Evangelical Christians and we know that we need good tools in place to be able to Evangelize well.

Oh.

 


I believe I got onto this group’s mailing list because I am on the Christian Alerts mailing list to stop Barack Hussein Obama from replacing the Christian American justice system with Sharia Law. It’s true!

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March 16, 2011

Episcopalian Rector prohibited from adopting Muslim rituals for Lent

According to an article at St. Louis Today by Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Steve Lawlor, a part-time rector at an Episcopal church took up elements of Islamic ritual for Lent.

On Wednesday, the first day of Lent, he began performing salah five times a day, by facing east, toward Mecca, and praying to Allah. He also started studying the Quran and following Islamic dietary restrictions by abstaining from alcohol, pork and fish. During Holy Week, he planned to fast from dawn to sunset as Muslims do during Ramadan.

He avoided rituals that would have conflicted with church doctrine; for example, he skipped the prayers declaring Mohammed to be G-d’s prophet.

Steve did this as a way of understanding Islam, especially in the light of the McCarthyite hearings being held by Rep. Peter King.

But, Bishop George Wayne Smith considered it to be a forsaking of his Christianity, and to be play-acting. The Bishop forbade Steve from continuing, saying:

“I believe what he’s trying to accomplish or says he’s trying to accomplish, which is to deepen his understanding of Islam, is admirable,” he continued. “But you dishonor another faith by pretending to take it on. You build bridges by building relationships with neighbors who are Muslim.”

Not an unreasonable statement, nor an islamophobic one (although we could have done without the “or says he’s trying to accomplish” statement of distrust). But, it’s a false disjunction. You can build bridges both ways. More important, what Steve was doing was not quite pretending. Rather, it was enacting the rituals and finding in them similarities of meaning. I can understand the Bishop’s discomfort with this. For example, as I understand it, Jews are forbidden from kneeling while praying, and thus could not perform the five daily prayers the Muslim way, for ritual has meaning. That’s why performing — enacting — another religion’s rituals can help in understanding that religion. Performing another religion’s rituals thus is subject to contradictory objections: (a) The performance of empty gestures is mere play-acting and thus disrespectful. Or, (b) the performance of ritual is never mere play-acting because ritual always carries inner meaning, so performing the rituals of another religion is transgressive of one’s own religion.

Yet, between these poles of negativity there can be respectful intent, the possibility of genuinely furthering one’s understanding, and make a statement of shared humanity in the face of the shameful fear-mongering of Rep. King and his followers.


Two references, of very different sorts. First, there’s Stephen Colbert’s bit about giving up Christianity for Lent. Second, Islamicate mentions (in the post where I found the link to the “Muslim for Lent” story) that s/he has spent the past six weeks in an Episocpal seminary. Fascinating.

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January 29, 2011

Religions of the Mideast

I know everyone except me has this down cold, but here’s a handy map of the religions of the Middle East, provided by Columbia University.

map of religions of the mideast

Click on the image to see the full map

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March 23, 2009

Arguing for the sake of Heaven

Disagreement is, in its nature, like the creation of the world.
For the creation of the world came about in essence by way of open space,
without which all would have been endless divinity,
and there would have been no place for the creation of the world.
Therefore, God withdrew light to the margins,
and the open space was formed,
and in that space God created the world,
through acts of speech.
And so it is, too, with disagreement—
for if all the sages were of one mind
there would be no place for the creation of the world.
It is only by way of the disagreement between them,
and their dividing one from another,
each one drawing to a particular side,
that open space comes into being between them—
which, in its nature, is like the withdrawing of primordial divine light to the margins—
in the midst of which creation can take place, through acts of speech.

—Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772–1810)
Jonah Steinberg, translator

This is a text a lecture (now postponed) by Nehemia Polen was going to discuss at a class in Newton, MA.

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November 26, 2008

Thanking whom?

Thanksgiving is far and away my favorite national holiday. Family, food, gratitude…what’s not to like?

Just as the meal is slightly more complicated for those of us who don’t eat meat, the holiday is a little more gnarly for those who don’t believe in G-d. We agnostics and atheists have all of the believers’ joy in what we have, as well as the simultaneous sad remembering of those who do not, but we don’t have anyone to thank. That’s a loss; religion as I’ve seen it practiced — my wife is an Orthodox Jew — sanctifies the everyday, which leads us to care ever more for the world we’ve been given and our companions in it.

I don’t have that sense of sanctity because I lack the sense of a Sanctifier. I am left believing that while the Renaissance distinction between Fortuna and Virtus is useful in some instances, in the final accounting when you’re stripped down to bare wood, even your virtues are accidents. If you hadn’t been born to those particular parents, in that particular time and place, with a body that can do this but not that, with the set of experiences that happened to form you, you wouldn’t have the virtues you claim as your own. It’s all Fortuna. I happened to have won the lottery: I have a healthy family, work I love, water, and a roof. I have no One to thank, but that does not make me less appreciative of what is spread on my table and aware that it could be overturned tomorrow.

I’m fine with that, especially since without Anyone to thank for singling me out for a happy life, I also don’t have Anyone to blame for leaving so many behind. That’s a more gnarly question than how to make a good vegetarian stuffing.

Happy Thanksgiving to us all.

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September 24, 2008

Who was saved in Sodom and Gomorrah?

My wife just blew my mind. I thought I knew the basics of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. I’ve always cottoned to it because you have to like a religion in which people get to argue with their god. But I thought it was obvious that Abraham was arguing to save the innocent.

Nope. My wife, who is a scholar about these things (although she denies it), says that on the contrary, the traditional Jewish commentators take it for granted that G-d will save the innocent. And, indeed, He brings Lot out, even though Lot is only semi-innocent. In fact, Abraham is arguing that the presence of the innocent ought to save the guilty.

Why would having ten righteous people in a city be reason enough to save the guilty, given that either way, the innocent were going to be saved? That’s where the Jewish discussion of this passage begins. And maybe it’s where everyone’s discussion begins. But not me. I had it quite backwards.

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