Wednesday, April 30, 2014

US Military To Recognize Humanism

The US Army announced recently that it would formally recognize humanism as a religious preference if soldiers elect to self-identify as humanists.   For some time a US military member, Major Bradley, has been seeking to have his religious self-identification recognized as Humanist, and his request has been supported by the American Civil Liberties Union.  While some might use the term humanist and atheist interchangeably, Major Bradley is clear that while he does not believe in a god, the term atheist is an insufficient description of his beliefs.

 The Religion News Service explains the significance of this decision by the military:  In practical terms, the change means that humanists could face fewer hurdles in trying to organize within the ranks; military brass would have better information to aid in planning a deceased soldier’s funeral; and it could lay the groundwork for eventually adding humanist chaplains."

While there are advocates of humanist chaplains in the US military, I would not expect to see them anytime soon, but I do know of at least one advocacy group, the Forum on Military Chaplaincy, that supports the move.  The recognition of humanism by the Army probably means that we will see a humanist chaplain at some pony.

Religious Studies scholar Elizabeth Drescher has some interesting thoughts on why this move is significant.

For the record, there are no humanist chaplains in the Canadian Forces, and I am not aware of whether the CF allows members to self-identify this way.   At least one other NATO militaries (the Dutch, I believe), have humanist chaplains.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

Doubting And Believing: A Sermon For The Second Sunday Of Easter

 It’s very rare these days that I get to preach.   I think the last time was the Sunday after Christmas 2013.   This Sunday I was in the happy position of having my work done for the semester and was able to give my priest a Sunday off after Holy Week, a gift that every busy preacher and parish priest welcomes.   I wasn’t intending to preach on Thomas from John 20.  In fact, I was hoping to avoid him.  However, Tom muscled his way into my sermon, which I think was better for it, though this can’t hold a candle to the sermon preached today by a dear friend of mine as he bid farewell to his parish after sixteen years.   Go with God, Gene.   MP+

Texts for the Second Sunday of Easter (Yr A):    Acts 2: 141, 22-33, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31

Preached at St. Columba’s Anglican Church, Waterloo, Ontario

It seems that movies with religious and biblical themes are back in style.  Last month there was a big-budget film about Noah’s ark, which I saw and didn’t quite understand.   Another film that came out recently was about a little boy who comes back from the dead   This film, called Heaven Is For Real, is based on the bestselling book from a few years back by a Christian pastor whose four-year old son survived a near-death medical experience.   When the boy wakes up, he describes how he went to heaven, met family members who had died, and sat in God’s lap.  I haven’t seen this fil, but it got me to thinking.   I started wondering, what if someone told me that they had been to heaven while their body was on the operating table.  How would I react?   Would I be reassured?   Would I be encouraged to persist in my own life of faith?  Would I be a better Christian?  Or, would I be polite but unconvinced?   After all, such a story could be explained any number of ways.   I could react sceptically.  I could be, well, I could be like Thomas.



Oh, poor Thomas.  He has such a bad rap, doesn’t he?   In no bible that I know of is he called Doubting Thomas.     In John’s gospel he’s simply “Thomas”, or sometimes “Thomas called the Twin” (John 21.2).   The poor guy got that name “Doubting Thomas” got added a long time later, and he’s carried that burden for centuries.  How would I like that for a moniker, to have all my church friends calling me “Doubting Mike?”    I blame preachers for this.   How many of you have heard a sermon on this story where you were told “Don’t be like Thomas.  Don’t be a doubter”?   The preacher would usually go on to say that good Christians should believe in the risen Jesus without needing or demanding proof.  This line of thought can be encouraged from Jesus’ words “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20.29).   It’s tempting to explain this verse as if Jesus is saying that believers, that is, people who can get by on faith alone without wanting proof or certainty, are superior, more “blessed” than are people who have doubts.    The problem with this explanation, I think, is that it asks more of us than we can give.    My own faith life is also a doubt life.    There are times when I just can’t get to a place of serene, untroubled, unquestioning belief.   One of my favourite characters in the gospels is the father in Mark who brings his sick son to Jesus.  When Jesus tells him that “All things can be done for the one who believes” (Mk 9:23), the man replies, helplessly and honestly, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24).   Some of you, I suspect, also feel that way from time to time, wanting God to remove the burden of doubt so that you can believe more easily.    What I want to suggest, however, is that the story of Thomas can be read another way, not as a lesson about “Belief Good / Doubt Bad”, but rather as an invitation to relationship with a Jesus who is willing to meet us where we are and start from there.


Can Thomas really be blamed for not believing in the resurrection at first?    In his defence, he wasn’t with the other disciples when they first saw the risen Jesus (Jn 20:24).    It’s true , he doesn’t believe the others when they tell him that “We have seen the Lord”, but he’s not the only doubter.  In Luke’s version of the resurrection story, the disciples don’t believe the women when they tell of the empty tomb and the two mysterious men in “dazzling white clothes”.  The disciples in Luke call the women’s story “an idle tale” and Peter has to go see for himself (Lk 24:5-12).  So in and of itself, the reaction of doubt and wanting proof seems entirely normal.  We can’t just single out Thomas for feeling this way.   And then I got to wondering, what went on in Thomas’ head before Jesus returned?  He had a while to think about it, a full week.  Did Thomas feel envious of his fellow disciples because they had seen Jesus and he hadn’t?   Did he wonder if Jesus had judged him?   Perhaps he wasn’t good enough to see the risen Jesus?   Off course, John doesn’t tell us what Thomas was thinking, but we can imagine what we might have thought had we been in his place.   Doubt, after all, isn’t just a lack of belief in God’s existence.  Doubt can also be self-doubt, a sense that we aren’t worthy of the love or affection of God.  Thomas, like the other disciples, knew that he had made promises to Jesus, even said once that he was willing to die with Jesus (Jn 11:16), and then abandoned him.  Perhaps Thomas’ greatest doubt was in doubting that he could be forgiven.


What happens instead is not condemnation or guilt.  Jesus doesn’t say to Thomas “Hey, I missed you last week, where were you?” or “So, you heard about me but you didn’t believe it?”.   Instead Jesus comes to Thomas, accepts that he doubts, and invites him to believe.  One commentator notes that when he responds by saying “My Lord and My God”. Thomas says more about Jesus and who he is than does anyone else in the Gospels.   So in fact it’s Thomas who gets it theologically, who understands who Jesus really is, but he also gets it in a very concrete, very relational way.   It’s not like one of us accepting the truth of something that seems abstract and hard to understand, like saying “Now I believe in particle physics” or “I accept that there could be life on other planets”.   The words “My Lord and My God” show us Thomas getting a bunch of specific things at once:  he understands that Jesus is real, he’s who he says is, Lord and God, and that he’s come back from the dead.   Thomas may not understand these things fully.  He probably doesn’t understand how Jesus came back from the dead, or what it all means for him and everyone else, but in a very real, very solid way, he believes.  So what about us?


There’s an old Christmas carol, In Dulci Jubilo, that has the refrain, “Oh that we were there, Oh that we were there”.    It’s tempting to think this about the Thomas story, to wish we too could stand there with Thomas before the risen Christ, with all our doubts and failings, to hear that we are loved and forgiven, and to say all the things we wish we could say to him, but really, don’t we get that chance here?   John’s gospel tells us that Jesus comes to Thomas and the disciples “A week later” (Jn 20:26).  Doesn’t Jesus come here week by week?  Don’t we find Jesus in our fellowship, in our prayers, in our worship and sacrament, and in the sense of the Holy Spirit inspires and leads us?  Here, as in all other churches where Jesus is worshipped, we gather, with all our doubts and all our shortcomings.  Here we gather with the church, in all of its flaws, to learn that the Easter story isn’t over yet.  God hasn’t finished with us yet.   Like the disciples, we are called to go into the world and “forgive the sins of any” (Jn 20:23).  As many commentators note, in John’s gospel the word “sin” means unbelief”.    Which means that we who are disciples, all called to lead others from unbelief to belief.   Belief doesn’t mean “fanaticism”, or a total state of commitment, free from doubt.   Rather, I would say, belief is the sense that while we don’t understand everything about God, we understand that we can know him through his Son, that Jesus is there for us, Our Lord and Our God.   

We who call Jesus Our Lord and Our God are called to show this relationship to others who might want it.  We don’t have to be doubt free, but we have to live a belief that matters, in our lives, in our families, in our church.   We can’t bring others to touch the wounds of Jesus, but we can bring others to see that Jesus has touched the wounds in our lives.  We can show others how Jesus has inspired our commitment to God’s kingdom of love and justice.  Going back to my original thoughts about films and religion, I think that if someone told me about their vision of heaven, I suspect that I would be sceptical.  After all, the Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about heaven, except that it’s a good place.  However, the Bible does have a lot to say about Jesus, and if someone told me about Jesus, and if I could see that Jesus made a difference in that person’t life, I think I would be curious.  I would want to know more.   So, If we can show Jesus to the world by who he is in our lives and in our church life, it will do more good than any ten Hollywood films.  It’s not that we can show anyone that “Heaven is for real”, but we can show people that “Jesus is for real” and that he is risen.  For the Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Ann Hornaday on Noah and On Being a Christian Film Critic

Noah says “Watch This Film!"

I posted something here recently on the Noah movie.   Despite what I said in that post about not going to see the film, I did see it last week, and am currently working on a paper about it for my grad course on secularism.  I’m still not sure what to think of the film, but I was impressed by this review by The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday.

Here’s the executive summary of her review - not sure I agree 100%, but I think it’s fair.

"Like interpreters through the millennia, Aronofsky has taken Noah’s journey sincerely to heart, processed it through his own singular visual and moral imagination and come up with a narrative that feels deeply personal, broadly mythical and cannily commercial all at the same time. That feels just about right for “Noah,” which ultimately invites viewers to form their own meanings, whether they’re about sacrifice and obedience, stewardship and service or the enduring entertainment value of an epic ad­ven­ture that, thousands of years on, still manages to astonish."

I discovered Hornaday via a recent essay she wrote for WaPo about being a Christian film critic.  It’s a thoughtful essay, particularly about what makes a good (and bad) religious film.

Hopefully I’m not biased by learning that Ms. Hornaday is, like me, an Anglican, and that a work day for her might include doing Oscar interviews and then taking home communion to a shut-in parishioner.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Military Picture Of The Week

This picture was taken on Saturday, September 11, 2011, near Kandahar, Afghanistan by the German journalist and photographer, Anja Niedringhaus, who was killed recently while covering the election in Afghanistan.  The caption for this photo reads “An Afghan boy on a donkey reacts as Canadian soldiers with the 1st RCR Battle Group, The Royal Canadian Regiment, patrol in Salavat, southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan.

A retrospective of Anja Niedringhaus’ Afghanistan photographs was recently posted on the Atlantic Magazine website here.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Violence Inseparable From Pity: George Packer On The New War Fiction

What’s going on under that hat?

It seems for now that the face of the returning veteran, as far as the media is concerned, is the late Fort Hood shooter Ivan Lopez,  Yesterday on the Foreign Policy website, Gordon Lubbold noted that the media were connecting the wrong dots about Lopez.  " It remains unclear what caused Lopez to do what he did. But his four-month tour in Iraq - in 2011, clearly not the darkest days there, and at a time when few Americans were even seeing combat - was not enough to draw the conclusion that Lopez' mental illness was combat-related.”   This tragic episode may have more to do with the largely civilian trope of the disgruntled employee’s workplace shooting spree and suicide than it does with a soldier processing the experience of combat.   Since Lopez took his own life, we will never know for sure.

The story about Lopez broke last week just as I was digesting a very fine essay by George Packer in The New Yorker magazine on the emerging literature of war, as told by veterans, in the 21st century.   Readers of this highly intermittent blog will know that this is a subject I’ve been interested in for a while.  I’ve reviewed several books, some by veterans, on their experience of the Iraq war as told through the lens of literature and fiction.  Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, which I reviewed here in September 2012.  

Packer is much better equipped as a critic to comment on this latest generation of war writing than I am.  His essay launches from an important critical touchstone, Paul Fussell’s influential study The Great War and Modern Memory, but notes the many differences between the young soldier writers of the trenches and the ones who came home in the last decade.  Here’s an excerpt.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fully meet Fussell’s description of the ironic: they were worse than expected. Both began with hubris and false victories, turned into prolonged stalemates, and finally deserved the bitter name of defeat. The shorthand for Iraq, from “Mission Accomplished” to Falluja, Abu Ghraib, civil war, the surge, U.S. withdrawal, and the ongoing sectarian killing, is a story of exploded illusions. The first wave of literature by American combatants in these long, inconclusive wars has begun to appear—poems, memoirs, short stories, novels. Their concerns are the same as in all war writing: bravery and fear, the thin line between survival and brutality, the maddening unknowability of the enemy, tenderness, brotherhood, alienation from a former self, the ghosts of the past, the misfit of home.

But Iraq was also different from other American wars. (So far, almost all the new war literature comes from Iraq, perhaps because there weren’t many troops in Afghanistan until 2009, and the minimum lag time between deployment and publication seems to be around five years.) Without a draft, without the slightest sacrifice asked of a disengaged public, Iraq put more mental distance between soldiers and civilians than any war of its duration that I can think of. The war in Iraq, like the one in Vietnam, wasn’t popular; but the troops, at least nominally, were—wildly so. (Just watch the crowd at a sports event if someone in uniform is asked to stand and be acknowledged.) Both sides of the relationship, if they were being honest, felt its essential falseness. A tiny number of volunteers went off to fight, often two or three times, in a war and a country that seemed incomprehensible. They returned to heroes’ welcomes and a flickering curiosity. Because hardly anyone back home really wanted to know, the combatant’s status turned into a mark of otherness, a blessing and a curse. The title of David Finkel’s recent book about the struggles of soldiers returned from Iraq, “Thank You for Your Service,” captures all the bad faith of a civilian population that views itself as undeserving, and the equivocal position of celebrated warriors who don’t much feel like saying, “You’re welcome.”

Packer mentions a number of other writers that I wasn’t aware of until now, so for that reason alone his article is wroth reading.  As a chaplain, I am grateful to Packer for telling me about Iraq veteran Phil Klay’s book of short stories, particularly “A Prayer In The Furnace” which tells of a chaplain trying, and largely failing, to preach to a group of Marines.  "The story can end only in irony: the chaplain alludes to Christ’s Passion, and Rodriguez spits in the grass. Some of the men will remain alone for years, perhaps their whole lives. But some will begin to recognize their own suffering in the stories of others. That’s what literature does."

The story of Ivan Lopez may have nothing to do with PTSD, but the way his story is being reported may say more about our trying to understand this handful of veterans in misunderstood wars, the disempowered 1% who served, than it ever will with him.  As one of Klay’s characters puts it after returning home from Iraq and meeting a girl who misunderstands him, “I don’t have PTSD, but I guess her thinking that I did is part of the weird pedestal vets are on now."

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


Blog Archive