Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Fundamental Difference

President Obama certainly stirred up an interesting conversation about religion and faith at this week's National Prayer Breakfast. I think its an important discussion to have - given the way that the separation of church and state has been called into question over these last few years.

Some of the controversy has focused on his remarks about the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery in the United States and Jim Crow. But those who challenge what he said are merely trying to whitewash (literally) history. The fact that some Christians used their faith to justify horrible deeds is simply a matter of fact.

In declaring President Obama "not a Christian in any meaningful way," Erick Erickson gets to the fundamental difference that ignites the controversy. He quotes this part of the President's remarks.
I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt -- not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth...

And so, as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion -- any religion -- for their own nihilistic ends.
I was immediately struck by Erickson's response:
Christ said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me." (John 14:6) Christ himself is truth. When we possess Christ, we possess truth.
What stood out to me is his use of the word "possess." It not only implies a kind of ownership (similar to Sen. Rand Paul's suggestion that parents own their children), it also suggests that - as human beings - we can thoroughly know (and posses) the mind and heart of the Son of God. One has to wonder what folks like Erickson do with Paul's warning against this kind of hubris in I Corinthians 13: 11-12.
When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.
It is when acts of dominance, intolerance and - ultimately - violence are fed by that kind of hubris that President Obama was warning us about.

Over the years, Barack Obama has expressed the same sentiments several times. For example, back in 2004 Cathleen Falsani interviewed him about his faith. At the time, he said this:
I retain from my childhood and my experiences growing up, a suspicion of dogma. And I’m not somebody who is always comfortable with language that implies I’ve got a monopoly on the truth, or that my faith is automatically transferable to others.

I’m a big believer in tolerance. I think that religion at it’s best comes with a big dose of doubt. I’m suspicious of too much certainty in the pursuit of understanding just because I think people are limited in their understanding.

I think that, particularly as somebody who’s now in the public realm and is a student of what brings people together and what drives them apart, there’s an enormous amount of damage done around the world in the name of religion and certainty.
And in his commencement address at Notre Dame in 2009 (a speech I have suggested is one of the most important of his presidency), he talked about it this way.
And in this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you’ve been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. In other words, stand as a lighthouse.

But remember, too, that you can be a crossroads. Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It’s the belief in things not seen...

And this doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works and charity and kindness and service that moves hearts and minds.
What it all comes down to is a question of humility over the temptation of hubris and certainty. I doubt that its a coincidence that Paul's warning against the latter came at the end of one of his most powerful statements about the supremacy of love (charity) over faith and hope. As President Obama said, that is what "moves hearts and minds."


  1. As one who helps seek justice advocacy for those 'wrong sort of Christians' the RW detests as traitors, I welcomed the President's comments as a breath of fresh air. Christian fundamentalism cum extremism needs challenge since it is they who cherry pick and justify a bizarre set of heretical notions about what Jesus is all about. Jesus with a Gun is merely the start. Believing that you're in possession of the one true faith is dangerous in ANY set of people. Christian extremism is killing people today; Bush, a 'born again' Dominionist, admitted he was invading Iraq to cause the Fall of Babylon to bring about the End Times. That has gone too little remarked by our media who fear upsetting the extremists more than they love the facts. Faux Christians lie behind contemporary violence from murder of abortion providers to Tim McVeigh. Thank you, Mr. President, for having the decency to call out our own history. If we do not claim it and reject it as a philosophy and its violence as a strategy, we're no different from the Muslim extremists doing the same. It's a little late in history for religious wars, but they certainly are upon us within and without our borders.

    1. "Christian extremism is killing people today"

      Feel free to list current examples of anyone killing in the Name of Christianity.

      "Bush, a 'born again' Dominionist, admitted he was invading Iraq to cause the Fall of Babylon to bring about the End Times".

      Link please, from a reliable source. I'll even take the NYT's.

      "Faux Christians lie behind contemporary violence from murder of abortion providers to Tim McVeigh".

      - "In McVeigh's 2002 biography American Terrorist, he stated that he did not believe in Hell and that science is his religion. In June 2001, a day before the execution, McVeigh wrote a letter to the Buffalo News identifying himself as agnostic".

      In addition, McVeigh frequently stated his reasons for the Oklahoma City bombing was in retaliation for government actions in Waco and Ruby Ridge. He also spoke out against the war in against Iraq, which by all accounts should make him a compatriot of the left. The left of course, is against all military action unless a democrat is in office.

    2. I must add I find it odd that you mention the murder of abortion providers yet say nothing of the millions of children killed by the same.

    3. Because the Bible tells me so...the fetus is not considered equal to a human being anywhere in the Bible. Murder of real people is forbidden by the Ten Commandments. Abortion is not even mentioned except as an intervention in an adulterous relationship in a positive, proactive way. If you need me to do your research on Bush and his motivations, you're NOT paying attention. McVeigh had the phone number of his ally at the Christian Identity compound on him and expressed strong extremist Christian views - as did his sister - for years before the bombing. Seriously take up the responsibility for our own faith's extremism in lynchings, slavery, etc. - recent actions as well as past actions require accountability before we point fingers at anyone else. Extremism - ISIS, Army of God, anyone - is simply unacceptable as a part of humanity and heretical within the faith, period.

    4. Anonymous - I deleted your subsequent comment because it was filled with racist lies about Muslims.

      I will not respond to you any further and if you continue to spread racism in these comments, they will continue to be deleted.

  2. Churchlady, I was so hoping you'd ignore this person. Now he thinks he has someone to argue with about things and will start trolling the comments section here. Please stop engaging in pointless arguments about things like abortion. No one ever changes their mind on this issue.

    1. Tien - once replied, that's done. But it is important to affirm that Christians are not all on his/her side.