Why Tolerate Religion? (Veritas Forum)

11 Sep
September 11, 2014

For those who happen to be in Chicago, the University of Chicago philosophy and law professor Brian Leiter and I will be doing a Veritas Forum  on the question “Why Tolerate Religion?” at Northwestern’s law school at 6pm Central/7pm Eastern tonight.  For those who aren’t in the neighborhood, the Forum will be livestreamed here.  We’ll be discussing the question whether religion should continue to be given special protection in American law.  Brian is much more skeptical of the special treatment for religion than I am, so it should be an interesting conversation.

Meaninglessness and the Accidental Uzi Shooting

01 Sep
September 1, 2014

The poet Gregory Orr had an arresting article in the New York Times yesterday about the young New Jersey girl who lost control of a submachine gun and killed her gun instructor.  When Orr was twelve, he accidentally shot and killed his brother while they were hunting.  I took a poetry workshop with Orr at the University of Virginia nearly thirty years ago.  He never mentioned the accident, but it and the familial estrangement that followed is everywhere in his poetry.  I have carried some of the poems around in my mind ever since, including “Child’s Song,” which concludes: “Even I,/who am not wanted, was once/borne up through deep waters/by the invisible arms of desire.”

Orr does not try to explain horrible events like these.  He insists that they cannot be explained.  “In my experience,” Orr writes, “people in a family are often willing to take on responsibility and guilt rather than admit something even scarier: that accidents happen; that even the most ordinary among us live in a world of risk and randomness that we don’t control.”

I think Orr is profoundly right about this.  In the chapter of True Paradox on suffering, I talk about and endorse my late friend Bill Stuntz’s belief that, contrary to what many Christians well-meaningly suggest, horrible suffering often is, in a very real sense, meaningless.  God does not intend it.  Rather, he allows it and promises to redeem it.  As Bill was dying of colon cancer, he often thought and wrote about the story of Joseph in the Old Testament.  Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, and ended up as a result in Egypt, where he rose to prominence and was later in a position to save his family from starvation.  Commenting on Joseph’s statement to his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good,” Bill wrote in an essay on his own suffering: “That doesn’t mean that slavery and unjust imprisonment are good; rather the point is that they produced good, and the good they produced was larger than the wickedness that was visited upon Joseph.”

The twentieth century mystic Simon Weil said something similar.  She insisted that the joy in our lives cannot remove the effects of suffering, but it can sometimes transform them.  This of course is the central promise of Christianity, that because of Jesus’s own suffering, “each one of us” (as Bill put it in the same essay) “has the opportunity to share in death’s defeat.”

A Poet for Business People?

30 Aug
August 30, 2014

Dennis O’Driscoll was one of the rare poets who wrote interestingly about the business world, and actually knew something about it.  I had never heard of him before I read his recent book “Dear Life.”  Here is a review of the book, which sadly is his last.

A New York Times Testimonial

12 Aug
August 12, 2014

A fascinating essay in the New York Times on Sunday by a woman who lost her Christian faith before moving to New York begins with a lovely description of what it’s like to plunge into the ocean for the first time each summer, and describes the experience as the “best way I know to belong again, body and soul, to some part of the planet, not just the city, not just the job.”

The essay reads remarkably like what Christians call a “testimony”—a story about how a person’s life has changed as a result of adopting a particular set of beliefs about how the world works.  Christian testimonies generally focus on how repenting and embracing Jesus has reconciled them to God and transformed their life.

One of the perhaps counterintuitive arguments I make in True Paradox (not yet out—but due out early next month) is that testimonies—or testimonials—are important evidence of whether a set of beliefs is true.  Not decisive, but important.  If a set of beliefs helps a person to better navigate the world, this is evidence that the beliefs could be true.  Similarly, if adherents to a set of beliefs cannot point to testimonials, this is evidence the beliefs are not true.

The New York Times essay is an example of an increasing tendency for atheists to produce their own testimonials.  Many, like this one, emphasize the joy the writer gets from realizing she is part of something much larger than herself, such as the web of nature.   One question I always have with this kind of testimonial is whether it is sustainable, given that there is so much brokenness and horror in the world.  What resources does a set of beliefs like this one provide for dealing with the ugliness of the world?

But the increasing prevalence of atheist testimonials is, in my view, evidence of a recognition that if our understanding of the world is true, it will make sense emotionally as well as intellectually.  It will help us to navigate both the big things in life and the little ones.

Christianity has a long history of testimonials from those who have been lifted up from darkness.  Who were once blind, as John Newton put it in “Amazing Grace,”but now see.  It will be interesting to see if comparable atheist testimonials emerge in the coming years.


Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis

11 Aug
August 11, 2014

Unlike Detroit, municipalities in Puerto Rico currently cannot file for bankruptcy.  Here is a little op-ed on the question whether Congress should amend the bankruptcy laws to permit Puerto Rico’s municipalities, and perhaps Puerto Rico itself and states like Illinois, to file for bankruptcy.

The Future of the Dollar

11 Aug
August 11, 2014

Here is a little column on the question whether the dollar will continue to be the world’s de facto reserve currency, despite the a series of recent events that have called the dollar’s preeminence into question.

American Pies

25 Jul
July 25, 2014

Many years ago, my wife and I stumbled across a memorable article called “The Great American Pie Expedition” in the New Yorker.  The article, which recounted the author’s road trip searching out cafes, bakeries and restaurants that made great pies, inspired us to take sometimes lengthy side trips hoping to share in the fruit of her discoveries.  In Uniontown, Pennsylvania the owners of a small diner told us: yes, they remembered the author, a “divorced lady” who stopped by several times.  In Oseo, Wisconsin, the pies helped us endure the constant crying of our then-11 month old, who turned out to have his first ear infection.

I’d trade even the very best of them for the pies at Greenwich Village Café & Bakery in Greenwich (pronounced “Green-witch”), New York, which my wife happened upon during our month-long stay in a one bedroom apartment in a converted barn thirty miles east of Saratoga.  The raspberry pie is tops in my book, the blueberry a close second.  We’ve had an excellent peach pie, and there are blackberry, banana cream, cranberry walnut and twenty others as well.  My favorite word in “The Great American Pie Expedition” is “bilious,” which is how I too feel after weeks of wonderful pies.  But for those who have world enough and time, and happen to be in this neighborhood, I’d recommend trying every pie Greenwich Village Café & Bakery has to offer.

pie picture

Tonight’s dessert: single serving strawberry-rhubarb


The Gordon College Controversy

18 Jul
July 18, 2014

Gordon College has been swept up into a controversy over a forthcoming executive order that will forbid the government from contracting with organizations that discriminate on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.  Frictions between sexual orientation and religious freedom are emerging as the key test of American pluralism in the coming years.  Media coverage in the Boston area the past two weeks has not been encouraging, but there are hints that a more reasonable tone is emerging.  After reports that Gordon’s accreditation will be under review this Fall, for instance, the accreditation agency has now clarified that there is absolutely no risk to Gordon’s accreditation.  I wrote a little column about the controversy here.

Got Religion?

07 Jul
July 7, 2014

Naomi Riley has a fascinating and eye-opening new book called Got Religion? How Churches, Mosques and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back about strategies the major American religions are using to draw in millennials.  A little review I wrote of the book is here.

Hobby Lobby

01 Jul
July 1, 2014

As everyone who reads this post is no doubt aware, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that religiously oriented for-profit corporations have religious freedom rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  As a matter of statutory interpretation, the Court’s conclusion that some for-profit corporations have religious freedom rights strikes me as fairly clearly right, as I argued in this op-ed about Hobby Lobby a few months ago.  (The Court seems likely to reach the same conclusion as a matter of constitutional law if the question whether for-profit corporations can be covered by the Free Exercise Clause arises in the future).  RFRA applies to “persons,” a term that nearly always includes corporations, not just natural persons, in legal contexts.  And no one doubts that many (non-profit) corporations are covered by RFRA.  After all, most churches are technically corporations.

The panic about the possibility that giant corporations will now start demanding exemptions for numerous laws seems wildly exaggerated.  The majority limited its holding to closely held corporations like the two corporations in Hobby Lobby, leaving open the question whether a publicly held corporation could qualify.  I think the logic of the majority’s opinion would extend to a religiously oriented public corporation, as Justice Ginsburg points out in her dissenting opinion, but I suspect that very few large corporations could demonstrate that they are religiously oriented.

In the next wave of cases, a lot will turn on courts’ application of RFRA: how they interpret the questions whether a law imposes a substantial burden on religious freedom (yes in Hobby Lobby, due to the stiff fines if the companies failed to provide the coverage); whether the government has a compelling interest in applying the challenged regulation (the majority assumed it did in Hobby Lobby); and whether the government has used the least restrictive means of achieving its objective (no, because the government could have simply paid for the four drugs in question itself, or offered the same accommodation its offered to religious nonprofits).

One interesting question is whether Hobby Lobby has implications for other areas involving the rights of corporations.  I think it does.  In this op-ed posted this morning, I speculate about possible implications for future campaign finance cases.

I’ll probably have more to say about Hobby Lobby soon …