Friday, July 17, 2009

“The Evolution of God”

"For I am the LORD, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.” (Malachi 3:6)

God does not change; God does not evolve. Yes? Maybe not, writes Robert Wright in his new book, “The Evolution of God.” Maybe God does change and, surely, people’s understanding of the concept of God changes. We can’t know with certainty, but Wright sees a trend in the history of the Abrahamic God: the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, toward heightened moral imagination: our ability to imagine ourselves from another person’s point of view, to be empathetic. Wright calls this a “non-zero-sum relationship.” The more expansive your moral imagination, the more you lend your support to the other’s cause. He writes: “(This) can be self-serving (and besides, it’s part of the implicit deal through which they support your cause).” In other words, one hand washes the other. He detects a pattern of the change of the Abrahamic religions: “The tendency to find tolerance in one’s religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum” (or I win; you lose, rather than, we both win.) In reviewing the histories of Abrahamic religions, he senses a trend toward more non-zero-sum relationships and counsels that for the sake of the planet, we should be conscious of any evidence of this trend and to work to enhance it. He also rather gingerly proposes that these trends might be taken as evidence of the guiding God of Abraham.
He doesn’t mention Jürgen Moltmann, but such a trend seems in line with Moltmann’s idea of God calling us into the future, a future containing many changes. Moltmann, writes about God not up there but out in front calling us into the future. Moltmann understands Christian faith as essentially hope for the future of human beings and for this world as promised by the God of exodus and by God’s resurrection of the crucified Jesus. Thus, an attitude of expectancy underlies all of faith. An active doctrine of hope gives hope for an alternative (my italics) future to the oppressed and suffering of our present time (adapted from The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology []).
I recommend “The Evolution of God” as a very helpful introduction to the history of Abrahamic religion and as a source of ideas about how they might play a useful role in making the world a better place.

Monday, July 13, 2009

“Charles and Emma”

Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgewood Darwin built a close and happy 43-year-long marriage despite serious religious differences. Deborah Heiligman discusses their marriage and family life in her new (2009) Young Adult book, “Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith.” In Heiligman’s telling, Emma was very traditional, if not fundamentalistic, in her Christian beliefs, believing literally in heaven and hell. Her belief was particularly strong because her sister Fanny, with whom she was very close, died early in Emma’s adult life leaving her bereft. Believing that she would be with Fanny again in heaven, gave Emma great comfort, and, conversely and anxiety producing, she also believed that if a person did not believe in eternal life, that person was doomed to hell forever.
Although Charles was baptized in the Church of England, the Darwin family had long been part of the church’s free-thinking, nonconformist, Unitarian wing. However, when Darwin went up to Cambridge in 1827, he did not doubt the literal truth of the Bible and was planning to become an Anglican clergyman. He received his BA in April, 1831, and in December of that year, he sailed as the naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle. Although at the beginning of the voyage, his religious views were quite orthodox and literal, during the voyage, he began to develop his ideas on biological evolution and started to think that species could change, thus undermining his literal belief that all life was created at one time in the form of fixed species.
When in 1836, he returned from the voyage, he began to think about marriage, and in true Darwinian logical fashion, wrote two columns on a paper: Marry? And Not Marry? He decided on marriage, and soon he was courting Emma, his first cousin, whom he had known all his life. In 1839, he and Emma married, but not before his discussing with her his now unorthodox religious views. In this, he went against his father’s advice, who had counseled concealment of his views from Emma for the sake martial concord. These open discussions between them were, however, important in making their marriage strong and happy in spite of the many trials and miseries they encountered.
Perhaps chief among their personal sorrows was the death, in 1851, of their beloved child Annie who among their children was particularly close to both of them. Her death was particularly cruel for Charles and dealt the final blow for him of a traditional conception of Christianity, which at the time of Annie’s death was being shaped by his reading of Francis Newman’s book, “Phases of Faith or Passages from the History of My Creed.” Throughout his life Charles read widely in religion, and although Newman, like Darwin, did not believe in the literal truth of the Bible, he did believe in heaven and for him the way to heaven was by accepting the teachings of Jesus. Newman wrote that Christianity taught that people deserve punishment for offending God, and he concluded that in Christian belief, “the fretfulness of a child is an infinite evil!” Newman continued, “I was aghast that I could have believed it.” Charles in reading this thought of his brave Annie, pleasant during the day and crying herself to sleep at night. How could he adhere to a religion that saw a child’s fretfulness as evil? It was Annie’s illness and death that more than anything else turned Charles away from the orthodox Christianity of his day and, not incidentally, the religion of his wife. However, or perhaps because of their religious differences, their marriage bond grew stronger as they coped with this tragedy and the deaths of their other children, all of whom they loved dearly and indulged in a very un-Victorian way. Throughout their lives, particularly during times of tragedy, Charles and Emma continued to discuss their differing views. Furthermore, Emma was always Charles first editor, even though, because of her conservative religious views, she had serious reservations about natural selection, which Charles put forth as the basis for the evolution of life into many ever-changing species. This idea is the basis of “The Origin of Species,” Charles’s landmark book, and during the course of its development, Emma worked closely with him to improve his arguments.
Throughout her life, the hope of heaven remained the principal way that she coped with life’s disappointments, primarily the early and seemingly inopportune deaths of those she loved most dearly, including her sister Fanny and her children who died in her lifetime. Charles came to take a more stoic, agonistic view of life’s blows. Interestingly after Charles died and Emma grew old, her anxieties about the afterlife seemed to fade. Perhaps she found at least a portion of “The Peace that Passes Understanding.”

Friday, July 3, 2009

“Next Fall” and “The Tempermentals”

This past Sunday, we saw two very interesting gay plays: “Next Fall” ( and “The Temperamentals” (, as part of my 75th birthday celebration. I wouldn’t, as a rule, see two plays in one day, but this was the only time we had, so we did it.
“Next Fall” describes what happens when a gay man is in a serious auto accident in Manhattan and his family from the hinterland descends on the hospital without knowing he is gay and meeting his lover for the first time. The gay man is a born-again evangelical and his boyfriend is your typical wiseacre atheist New Yorker who keeps trying in flashbacks to get his boyfriend to explain and defend his beliefs. The Evangelical is cowardly for not coming out to his family long ago, and the New Yorker is irritating for his continual badgering, but they clearly love each other. The gay man dies and the play ends without the audience knowing if the family ever got it that their son was gay. The play is a good commentary on the cost of being in the closet.
The play in the evening, “The Temperamentals” was about the cost of being out of the closet. The main characters are Harry Hay and his lover Rudi Gernreich, the fashion designer, who in Los Angeles in the 1950s started the Mattachine Society, one of the first, if not the first, Gay liberation organizations in America. At a time when even being suspected of being gay was a cause for arrest, they proclaimed that homosexuality was not a perversion, a sickness, or a crime. Hay and the Mattachines organized one of the first trials of a gay man, who entrapped by the police in a sexual encounter, pleaded not guilty. Usually, gay men in such sting operations pleaded guilty and avoided the publicity of a trial. The man was found not guilty because the jury was hung, but interestingly, there was a conspiracy of silence with no reports of the trial or its outcome in the press. As a result of this silence, Hay founded the “The Mattachine Review,” a magazine, to publicize the trial and to provide other news of interest to the “Temperamentals,” which was Hay’s name for homosexuals. It was probably the first publication of its type in the U.S. The play is a little talky, but consistently interesting and clearly shows how brave it was to be out in the ‘50s. Also, for us the day demonstrated why New York is so essential to America. Only in New York would two plays like this find audiences, and both were sold out. “Next Fall” closes on July 11th and “The Temperamentals” on August 23rd. Go see them for yourself.