Thursday, October 23

Obama on His Faith

Not bad. He's no theologian, but it's not bad.
My father, who returned to Kenya when I was just two, was born Muslim but as an adult became an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was probably one of the most spiritual and kindest people I've ever known, but grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself. As a consequence, so did I.

It wasn't until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma.

I was working with churches, and the Christians who I worked with recognized themselves in me. They saw that I knew their Book and that I shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me that remained removed, detached, that I was an observer in their midst.

And in time, I came to realize that something was missing as well -- that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.

And if it weren't for the particular attributes of the historically black church, I may have accepted this fate. But as the months passed in Chicago, I found myself drawn - not just to work with the church, but to be in the church.

For one thing, I believed and still believe in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change, a power made real by some of the leaders here today. Because of its past, the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and cloth the naked and challenge powers and principalities. And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope.

And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship -- the grounding of faith in struggle -- that the church offered me a second insight, one that I think is important to emphasize today.

Faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts.

You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away - because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey.

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.


And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles.

This brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

Wednesday, October 22

Bias & The Election

I make a point of avoiding politics more or less and I make a stronger point of knowing about our personal biases. Project Implicit is one of the great tools for doing that. It simply measures what feeling, positive or negative, you automatically assign to a person or idea. Possible scores are "slight," "moderate," "strong," or "no preference". What's remarkable is that it completely bypasses what you actually think about the issue. I.e, you might think you're not racist at all but it reveals accurately your subconscious. I recommend this to anyone with ten minutes to spare. It just might change your life.

They recently added a test to score feelings about Obama and McCain combined with race which I took. I scored "no preference" for black and white preference and a slight preference for Obama. I'm surprised by both results. Several years ago I took a test exclusively for race and scored "moderate preference" for whites over blacks so I'm surprised to have changed so far in so little time. I'm sure it was accurate the first time because I took it two or three times trying to get a improve my score and failing and other people have the same experiences. I'm chaulking my improvement up to several things:
  1. Consciously trying to associate blacks with positivity
  2. Searching and realizing that they images I'm surrounded with are anti-black and pro-white without justification
  3. Living in Chicago versus Greenville
  4. Working at a job with more blacks than whites
  5. Supporting a candidate who is black and partly doing so because he's black
Having taken the race test earlier and done a lot of soul searching regarding it, I'm aware that I am racist against blacks. Or perhaps, now, that I was racist, though I'm reluctant to congratulate myself just yet. For every person you know you form an opinion of them with various dimensions always including a general positive-negative dimension. Don't take this too literally; it's not really so bizarre but I can't think of a more realistic way to phrase the idea. I supposed that subconsciously my bias was bringing every black person I knew down a notch on that dimension and this disturbed me intensely. So I started to consciously and manually move people on that scale up a notch; sometimes this was as blatant as saying to myself, "So and so is probably a little better than I'm give credit for." Jesus would might do this for every person, but I'm going one step at a time.

With most people, this is a brief and tiny process if even conscious but for political candidates up for election every moment with them is constantly re-evaluating my opinion of them. For Obama, I might have twenty reasons to like him and race is one. Well, technically two because I think being non-white is a tangible asset to the office in regards to foreign opinion and the hope to every colored citizen that the Oval Office is not a glass ceiling. I do this, in fact, for McCain too because I'm fairly sure, though with no test, that I harbor a bias against Republicans because of the people I'm around. In fact, he gets two points because it's likely a much stronger bias than race.

I was a little surprised to have only a slight preference toward Obama and not a moderate preference. I simply cannot vote for McCain in good conscience and that, to me, says more than a slight preference.

Tuesday, October 21

MPAA Ratings

I'm quite disappointed to see my blog only earned a PG rating. Clearly, poor algorithms. What good is writing if I can't be controversial?

OnePlusYou Quizzes and Widgets

It reminds me of Mia Vie En Rose, a fantastic film about a transgender seven year old. It was rated R for language, a grand total of two swear words! The trans people I watched it with agreed it could only be because of the issues it raises.

Monday, October 20

Jonathan Baker-Johnson

O search engines: Why can't you find me? Maybe this will help.

Update: I had realized that googling my legal name hardly reflects anything about me because I never use that name online. This post is already the first hit now. If only I used Wordpress, I would never have had the problem. Googling ephilei is more effective anyway.

Saturday, October 4

Orthodox Theology and My Theology

Things I agree with and like about Orthodox that are not present in much or all of Protestantism. Interestingly, with the exception of Mary's virginity, I believed all these things before realizing that the Orthodox believed them. I'm not including anything on worship because I want to limit this to just theology. Worship is much less uniform in Protestantism anyway.

  • Rejection of the penal substitution theory of the Atonement. I'm still in the process of understanding their view of the Atonement and I love everything I've encountered so far.
  • Their understanding of symbols as something that is real (or as communicating the real so to speak) versus something only metaphorical.
  • Transubstantiation. The the Eucharist is the Christ's blood and body. Goes back to symbols.
  • Baptism as sacrament and remission of sin. Going back to symbols again.
  • Fasting.
  • Perpetual virginity of Mary.
  • Salvation comes through both faith and actions.
  • Openness to salvation outside the Church.
  • Authority of tradition.
  • Understanding of original sin.
  • Theosis.
  • Rejection of the perseverance of the saints, total depravity (depending on how you understand it), unconditional election, and irresistible grace
  • Salvation as process. No point of conversion or justification.
  • Near ignorance of justification.

Then there are a couple beliefs I don't affirm, but I recognize I may change my stance in the future.
  • Understanding of the afterlife. That heaven is a place we (may) go to immediately when we die.
  • The intercession of the saints and Mary. Simply because of the above aspect. If it turns out the saints are conscious now, I would request their prayers.
  • The canon. I am leaning heavily Orthodox on this at the moment.
And a few things I disagree with and I expect to always disagree with.
  • Their authority of tradition. Yes, I both like and dislike this.
  • The degree of the Church's authority.
  • Gender complementarianism. Yields rejection of female ordination and same-sex marriage. It doesn't demand but does imply a negative stand on transgenderism.
You'll notice I'm far closer to Orthodox thought that Protestant, even if I don't change any more of my beliefs. If I compared Orthodoxy with Roman Catholicism I'd have a similar imbalance.