Archive for the ‘Christianity’ category

The Misuse of Tolerance: How Learning to Disagree Will Bring Us Together

August 11, 2011

“Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.” — G.K. Chesterton

“In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.” — Dalai Lama

As a Westerner living in a Middle East country, every day is an adventure in what we call “tolerance” back in the US.

Living in a culture so vastly different than Western culture brings a new perspective on “tolerance”– I’ve been going over this in my mind recently. What follows are my mental ramblings on the subject., an organization that helps promote tolerance in education, writes on its site: “In its Declaration on the Principles of Tolerance, UNESCO offers a definition of tolerance that most closely matches our philosophical use of the word: ‘Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. Tolerance is harmony in difference.’”

These definitions reveal what I have come to believe about American culture: we are terrified to disagree with each other and we are convinced that disagreement will lead to division, hatred and violence. Indeed, I have close friends and family with whom I am terrified to talk about religion and politics for fear of some big blow-up or disagreement.

It seems in an effort to stop ugly disagreements and self-righteousness we’ve developed this idea of tolerance. At its bare-bones, the idea of tolerance is great: don’t be so ethnocentric or self-centered that you judge others as less than you. But we have twisted this great idea into its own ethnocentric judgmental criterion.

It is to the point in the U.S. that if you condemn an idea, you are accused of being intolerant and self-righteous (especially if the idea is seen as a progressive one).  The idea of tolerance, how it is practiced now, seems to devalue and condemn whoever it deems intolerant. How are we ever to learn from each other if we cannot talk about ideas without condemning each other as awful people? We need to learn how to disagree and still value each other.

In our misuse of “tolerance” (of which I am also guilty), we have defined it very poorly and applied it in ways in which it cancels itself out.

Poorly Defined

The definition given above is logically inconsistent. It states that “Tolerance is harmony in difference.” But just before it states that, “tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation” of differences. If I respect, accept and appreciate the ideas and practices that make you different from me, then we are no longer different because I have now accepted your ideas and practices.

For example, say I am convinced that female circumcision is inherently wrong and oppressive no matter the context. You believe that female circumcision is okay within the cultural context in which it is practiced. Can I respect, accept and appreciate your view that female circumcision is a good form “of expression” and a good way “of being human”? I cannot “accept” your view, that’s why my view is different. I think my view is correct, that is why I cannot “respect” your view–I think it is wrong because I believe it is inhumane. And if I think it is wrong and oppressive, I cannot “appreciate” your view.

These definitions of tolerance fail us miserably when we scratch just below the surface–beyond superficial things like cultural dress and celebrations.

Here we run into the same problem I mentioned in my blog about the idea that all religions are the same. If we either a) only focus on the areas where we are the same, or b) accept and respect every idea for the sake of harmony, we end up with a false harmony–a harmony based on both parties not being allowed to be fully themselves. They are outwardly stunted, pruned and trimmed to avoid conflict. But the real differences are still there, lurking below the surface, and they are never brought into dialogue, never talked about, never allowed to emerge. We can never fully know and understand each other when we fear having real differences and fear expressing them.

Poorly Implemented

Unfortunately, tolerance is itself an ideal that not every culture holds. In other words, tolerance teaches me to accept and appreciate “the rich diversity of our world’s cultures” when many of those cultures do not teach tolerance. Tolerance unwittingly becomes another form of ethnocentrism by saying “Our cultural way (tolerance) is best. Intolerance is not acceptable.” By promoting a worldview that accepts all cultures, it becomes intolerant of worldviews that do not accept all cultures.

Take, for example, the cultural parts of America that say “God hates gays.” Can someone who promotes tolerance (like myself) “accept” and “appreciate” that cultural view? I cannot. Or, can they accept and appreciate the culture of Saudi Arabia that restricts women from stepping outside the home without a male relative? Those cultures are not tolerant so tolerance by definition cannot accept and appreciate them.

Tolerance, as a concept, tries to decrease a judgmental, self-righteousness that ends up hurting and dividing people. But because it has become a philosophy itself, I have seen people who pride themselves on being tolerant say the most vicious and self-righteous things about those they deem intolerant (I’m guilty of this myself). The quality of people we call intolerant (like those who say God hates gays)– nonacceptance and self-righteousness– is mimicked by we who say we are tolerant, because we do not accept anything but tolerance and are sure we are right. Certainly, we can see the irony in that.

So what do we do?

I suggest we redefine the idea to specifically mean acceptance and respect of other people as fellow human beings with equal value no matter what. In other words, I do not have to respect your actions or your ideas but I respect you as a person no matter your actions or ideas.

Inherent in this view is that all people have equal intrinsic value that is not dependent on the views they hold or the things they do. The value of a human does not ebb or flow with their actions.

Further, we must recognize this idea as one that not everyone holds. So those who do not think all people have equal value should not be denigrated or thought of as less–we can fight their idea, but they are also equally valuable as people.

Secondly- and this is a must- we need to practice arguing and disagreeing fairly without it damaging the relationship. A good friend of mine, who grew up in the Middle East, came to the U.S.A. for college. For the first time she was introduced to the theological discussion around the God of the Old Testament seeming so angry and the God of the New Testament seeming so loving. She was baffled because she never saw that discrepancy, though she knew The Bible well. She didn’t see an inconsistency between anger and love–in her culture, expressions of anger do not rule out close relationship and love. In fact, love sometimes is the impetus for anger.

Lack of argument is not harmony. In the white US culture especially, we often think arguments are bad and we avoid really knowing each other for sake of this fake peace. I think we need to learn to argue fairly and be okay with disagreements. If we really try to value the other person we can battle over the ideas and practices–and maybe even understand each other better in the end.

Another definition of ‘tolerance’ puts it this way: “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own.” (

Might I suggest a slight tweaking of that definition? “Tolerance is a fair, objective and permissive attitude toward other humans whose opinions and practices differ from one’s own.”

If we want a false harmony and a philosophy that continues to breed self-righteousness from all sides, by all means, let us continue defining and practicing tolerance as we have.

I’d rather have true dialogue and mutual respect as people, though it may cause arguments–at least it breeds understanding and brings us together.


Christmas, Violence and God

December 30, 2010

Yesterday, December 29th, the Orthodox Christian calendar marks the commemoration of the Holy Innocents.

According to the biblical account, Herod ordered all the male children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem to be slaughtered, because he had heard from the Magi that a king was born there and he wanted to eliminate any threats to his throne.

According to Church tradition, 14,000 infants were massacred.

After a Christmas season of singing “Joy to the World!” this day is a stark reminder that God’s Incarnation into this world results in a violence the evil of which is hard to imagine.

The historic Christmas was not all sugar plums and figgy pudding.

This commemoration of these precious infants seems pertinent in this day and age when violence and God are often married together to ligitimize the actions of groups and governments as they terrorize and destroy innocent people.

The difference with this story, however, is that God comes to the earth not with drone missles, suicide bombers, preemptive strikes or 737’s.

He comes as a baby, helpless and homeless. He who holds the universe in His hand, was wrapped in swaddling clothes.

That His coming is accompanied by the violence of Herod is evidence that the world (read: our hearts) thinks of power differently than does God –that it will seek to seize that power however it can in its frantic existential anxiety.

The darkness prefers darkness.

It makes sense to me that when true peace and love are brought into a place that is not used to it, it causes violent reactions. Like a red hot iron rod dipped into a bucket of cold water. Until the water heats, it reacts violently to the superheated metal.

Let us remember those slain 2,000 years ago and those slain even today and ask God to heat us up and rid our hearts of violence.

Imagine By John Lennon

October 9, 2010

As the 70th birthday of John Lennon has just passed us many people are remembering him and his music.

To be sure, his musical legacy is without comparison. I listen to and thoroughly enjoy The Beatles often– I prefer their later more psychedelic stuff.

His extremely popular post-Beatles solo song Imagine is cherished not so much for its musical simplicity (which is beautiful), but for the ethic and value its lyrics espouse.

The words of the song express a desire for a world with no divisions, where the whole world lives in peace. Which is a wonderful thing to imagine indeed. And an even more wonderful thing to work towards.

He seems, however, to misunderstand his own philosophy. He advocates peace and oneness but suggests that one way to help achieve that is to get rid of religion. The song promotes a secular humanist perspective of the problem and the solution to that problem. What Lennon seemed to fail to recognize was that secular humanism is a religion, too.

In essence, the song is saying believe like me and we will live in peace. Which is the same thing many religious people say which creates divisions. In offering a solution to the world’s problems, the song Imagine unwittingly creates the very thing it decries.

Of course a song cannot answer all the questions and cover all the details of a philosophy it promotes. However, what is surprising to me is number of people who adore these lyrics without questioning their own underlying assumptions. Many of these assumptions are truths indeed, but if one just assumes that it is true without thinking about why it is true one is building a house without looking at the foundation.

For example: Underlying assumption: Peace is Good

We must ask: Why is this true? Most everyone instinctively believes that peace is good. But what philosophical foundation do you have for that? Someone could argue since survival of the fittest is what helps us progress that peace would actually work against the evolution and progress of our species and is therefore bad. If you don’t agree with their argument, do you know why you don’t?

Ultimately, I agree with most of John Lennon’s vision in the song Imagine. Except it is my religion that teaches me those truths. If you strip that from me, as the song suggests, I can think of no foundation that builds the house he envisions.

The dream, then, evaporates and gets no farther than what it was when it started– imagination.

Islamaphobia: A Mosque at Ground Zero

August 19, 2010

Should a mosque be built near Ground Zero in New York city?

Answers to this question vary, opinions vary and emotionally it seems like a charged issue for many Americans.

Those in favor, like President Obama, cite American religious freedom guaranteed by law. They also note that “Muslim” terrorists are a small minority and most Muslims are peace-loving people who oppose such acts of violence. Our war is not against Islam, they say, it is against terrorists.

But those opposed to the mosque in New York say that Muslims will see it as a trophy of victory for 9-11 in their conquest to take over the world. They often believe that Islam is intrinsically violent and facist and that America is a Christian nation. They make no distinction between the political and religious aspects of the issue, seeing those aspects as combined and united. Or they say they believe in the religious freedom, legally, to build it, but feel the people who want to build it should not.

It is not unlike a question the small community in Walkersville, Maryland faced a few years back– do they allow a Muslim group to build a convention center in their town? A local pastor did not want the Muslim group in the town, citing our country’s constitution and Christian values and heritage. Islam is unAmerican, was his point.

Here’s how I think through three of the points from those opposed. (Disclaimer: I say all of the following as an American and as a Christian).

1) Is Islam intrinsically violent? Opinions differ. Most Muslims would answer that question with a resounding, “No!” Also, it could be claimed that the America government is intrinsically violent– and history might make it hard to argue against such a claim.

2) Is Islam intrinsically unAmerican? True, Islam by nature is designed to be a state religion. So an Islamic government could not hold the ideal of separation of church and state in the same way that the American government has so far. But those opposed to the mosque on the grounds that “America is a Christian nation” obviously do not believe in separation of church and state in the same way the American government has so far either.

To say Islam is unAmerican is apparently ignorant of the fact that many American citizens are Muslim and they, with clear consciences, pledge allegiance to the same Republic, serve in the same military and vote in the same elections as do all other Americans.

America is changing socially. It is becoming less white and less Christian. American no longer means “white” and “Christian.” If some are so upset by this that they will fight a war to keep it from happening, then I would suggest that maybe they are more attached to their race or narrow view of America than to their Christian faith and ethics.

3) Do Muslims want to take over the world? Some do. Some don’t. But they might think, after the invasion of Iraq, that evangelical Christians like George W. Bush want to take over the world. Would the same people who oppose the building of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York also oppose the building of an evagelical Christian church in Baghdad? Both can be taken as a slap in the face to a traumatized nation. Not to mention that some Americans want American democracy to take over the world and use that stance to justify unjustifiably violent acts.

The effect 9/11 has had on peace-loving Muslims is great (the majority of Muslims are peace-loving). They are ashamed that people calling themselves “Muslims” would do such a horrific thing. Many of them tell me of the fear, hurt and anger they feel when judged and shunned in the West just because they are a Muslim. They are scared and upset by what seems to be a growing Islamaphobia in Europe and America. Many won’t travel to America for fear of what might happen to them.

What many don’t understand is the great amount of fear in America after 9-11. They see America as the sole superpower in the world with nothing to fear. It often doesn’t cross their minds just how scared the average American is after 9-11. Yes, a superpower can still be traumatized.

And the average American doesn’t understand the difference between Sunni, Shi’ite, Sufi, Wahabi or Ahmadiyya (or know that some do not consider the others true Muslims)– traumatized thinking equates Muslim with terrorist, period.

Fear seems to be the key issue here, on both sides.

But acting out of fear promotes continued fear and encourages continued ignorance.

The remedy to most fear is education, relation and the will not to act on fear. Let us Americans educate ourselves on Islam, share our lives with more Muslim neighbors and have the willpower, as hard as it is sometimes, not to take action motivated by fear.

Modern Religious Questions, Part III: For God So Loved the World that He Sent a Book?

August 12, 2010

Does the historical and textual reliability of the Bible really matter? Does Christianity stand or fall on a rational evaluation of its Scripture?

This is a great question and one that is answered differently by different people and different denominations.

Protestant Christianity traditionally holds the Bible as their only authority in matters of faith and the church. This is a doctrine developed by the Martin Luther himself, called Sola Scriptura.

To raise the Bible to such a level as supreme authority in the Church makes two things happen. One, it places all the burden of Christianity on the Bible. And, two, makes the Bible an object of faith itself.

First, if all the faith rests only on exactly what the Bible says then if the Bible can be proved as unreliable on any point the whole house comes crumbling down. Two, if all my faith’s authority is in the Bible, I have to believe in the Bible (i.e. have faith in it). The problem with this is that in Christianity our faith is in Christ, not the Bible. We hold that the Bible testifies accurately to Christ, but our faith is in Him not the book.

This is one category where, in my opinion, Christianity differs from Islam. Islam is, by nature, a religion based on a book– the Qur’an. Indeed, Muslims consider the miracle of Islam to be the Qur’an– to them it is God’s full revelation to humankind.

From a Christian point of view, we hold the Bible to be God’s inspired word. But, Christianity is not based on a book– it is based on a Person. From a Christian point of view, the Bible is not God’s revelation of Himself to humankind; Jesus is God’s revelation of Himself (God loves the world by sending Himself, not a book) — we believe that God desires intimate communion with humankind, not just submission to His will. Knowing God is not through understanding words (though words help); it is from intimate connection with Him through Christ.

The Bible was produced by the Church for the Church — and therefore we believe it is infallible. Though the Christian faith is based on seeing the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as true historical events, questions of historicity of the Bible sometimes miss the point. The point of the Bible is the spiritual health and truth of the Christian and the Church. It is not primarily a history, biology, or journalism textbook.

In the previous two posts I’ve tried to show that it is not so simple just to dismiss the Bible as unreliable from a textual and historical point of view. It is more reliable than many people think. Also, we must remember that Christ is known and experienced in the Church and in individuals and has been for thousands of years. The New Testament flowed out of the Church and her knowledge and experience. It is, therefore, only properly understood within the context in which it was created.

My thanks goes out to those who are not interested in religious topics– the themes of my writing vary widely, even though the last three have been a series on the Bible. Thanks for your patience and please keep reading!

Modern Religious Questions, Part II: Oral Transmission

July 13, 2010

Another point that some bring up is the case of oral transmission: can the Bible really be “reliable” (see definition of reliable from previous post) if it’s contents were originally passed orally before being written down?

First we’ll look at specific details of oral transmission and the Bible. Second, we’ll look at the level of reliability of oral transmission.

First, let’s look at how some of the books of the Bible came to be written down. What do we know about that? Where they all passed orally before being written down?

Many of the books of the Bible (and/or the details contained therein) were most likely passed from person to person and generation to generation via oral transmission. Scholars believe this to be especially true of most of the Old Testament. The basic contents of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were probably passed orally at first, but were written down in some form very early after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. The dates of when Mark (the earliest of the Gospels) was first written down are around AD 50-65. And, many scholars believe that Mark, Matthew and Luke are all based off an earlier written document that they call the Q document that is not available to us. That is to say, the contents of the Gospel accounts were written down very close in time to the actual events they record and in the midst of those who lived through those events.

Further, some of the Bible wasn’t originally passed orally at all. Paul’s letters (the earliest of the New Testament writings and the bulk of the New Testament) were first in written form (as letters). So, the existence of and the length of time of oral transmission is different depending on which part of the Bible you are talking about.

The Old Testament details are harder to crack, of course. It is interesting to note, however, that with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1940’s scholars found a copy of the book of Isaiah that was 900 years older than the previous copies we had. And they compared the two copies and found few differences–over 900 years!

Second, it is a little simplistic to dismiss oral transmission out of hand as unreliable or less reliable than written transmission. Here’s why.

The common example used for “proof” that oral transmission is unreliable is the story circle game. The game goes like this: Many people sit in a circle. The first person whispers something into the second person’s ear. Then the second person transmits the information to the third person in the same way, and so on, until the information comes all the way back to the first person. And when it comes back it is almost always a grossly adulterated form of the original statement.

This example is, unfortunately, not good proof of the unreliability of an ancient culture’s transmitted oral traditions. People from oral cultures typically had what we would consider today to be amazing memory capacity for information received aurally. For this reason, Plato himself believed that writing and literacy would destroy memory. Stories were told in ways specifically designed to help you remember them. You would have a well trained memory if you were expected to remember things that you could not write down or read.

If you were a child raised in a culture that transmitted stories orally you would hear the same stories told hundreds or thousands of times, word for word in the exact same way before you were an adult and started telling the story yourself. How well do you know the words to your favorite song? Or the pledge of allegiance? You cannot use a literate, written culture’s ability to retell something after one telling (as in the story circle game) to judge the accuracy of oral stories coming from an oral culture. It’s a bad analogy.

So when speaking of the oral transmission and the Bible it is important to remember, firstly, that the Bible is made up of all kinds of different books that came into being in many different ways: some were most probably originally orally passed before being written down, some were not. Those that were spent different amounts of time being orally passed before being written down. And secondly, understanding how oral cultures operated and shaped the memory ability of their people keep us from drawing silly analogies from parlor games that are ignorant of those ancient cultures.

My third and final post on this topic will be a quick look at if we should even care if the Bible is, historically speaking, reliable or not. The answer might surprise you. Join me for Modern Religions Questions, Part III: For God So Loved the World that He Sent a Book?

Modern Religious Questions, Part I: The Bible as Unreliable

July 7, 2010

Another phrase I hear uttered often by people in casual conversation is “The Bible is unreliable, really. I mean, who knows how many times it has been changed and altered?”

The issue is, of course, much more complicated than this simplified statement. Scholars vary widely on their views in this matter. What irks me about the above statement is that it is usually made by someone who has never researched the Bible or its history.

The following is meant as a quick, very simple review to help people educate themselves and understand better the issues around the reliability of the text of the New Testament. My hope is that it helps the reader get pertinent information quickly and easily and gives you a thirst to study more, if you so desire.

Let’s start with a definition of “reliable.” As with most ancient documents, we do not have the original manuscript of any of the books of the New Testament. But we have copies. “Reliability” is the word used to describe, as far as we can tell, how accurate the copies that we have are to the original which no longer exists. Do the copies differ from the original? If so, can we tell how much they are altered and in which places they are altered?

To get an idea of how this plays out, lets look at what we have in way of New Testament copies.

1) Firstly, the extant copies we have are a) old, b) myriad and c) from various countries.

a) One indication of the reliability of the copy of a document is how close in time it was written down compared to when the original was penned. We have extant copies of the New Testament written within 25-75 years of when the original was to believed to have been written down. By historians standards this is an amazingly small gap for an ancient document. The ancient document that comes closest to the New Testament in this category is Homer’s The Iliad: the earliest copy we have was written 500 years after the original was penned.

b) We have myriad copies. The New Testament was written in Greek. We have more than 5,300 extant ancient copies in Greek– if you add Latin Vulgate copies and other early versions we have more than 24,000 extant manuscript copies of parts of the New Testament. Again, Homer’s The Iliad is closest in this category–number of copies: 643.

The obvious advantage to this is that we can compare them. And guess what– they differ slightly in certain places. In other words, we know the parts of the text of the New Testament that are in question, that vary in the texts. We know what parts are not as reliable as others. No one claims that the Bible does not have alterations– the truth is, however, we know with good accuracy what those alterations are/were.

The parts that vary are small in number. In other words, all the copies are almost exactly the same. Of the 20,000 lines in the New Testament, about 40 lines (400 words) are in question. And most all the questions are minor variations (spelling mistakes, word order mistakes). It is estimated that about 1/1000 of the New Testament has substantial textual variation. And those variations do not challenge any major Christian doctrine.

Moreover, most Bibles do not hide the differences — in fact, they highlight them. Footnotes will indicate where the different manuscripts varied and what the variations are.

c) The numerous copies come from different regions. This verifies that over distances manuscripts were not changed much. Many regions had little contact with other regions so their copies would have been their own for quite some time. If one region had a copy of The Gospel of Luke, for example, and other region far away from the first region also had a copy of Luke, comparing them will give you a good idea of the common Luke document from which the regional copies were made. And as mentioned above, the numerous copies from numerous regions vary from each other very little.

2) Secondly, we have gads of non-biblical writings, written at the same time or very soon after the New Testament was written, that quote the New Testament– and quote it a lot! So many, in fact, that if we didn’t have ancient copies of the New Testament, we could reconstruct almost the entire New Testament just from ancient quotes from other writers.

So, there is a very simplified review of some of the basic issues around “reliability” specifically of the New Testament. Note: This in no way proves or disproves the New Testament as “historically accurate.” That is a different matter. All we’re talking about here is knowing about the text and it’s consistencies and inconsistencies.


For those readers who are critical thinkers, you’ve probably already thought, “Yeah, but this information doesn’t take into account that before the originals were even written down these stories were probably orally transmitted. So the real corruption of the story occurred in the oral telling!” Good thinking! But again, it is a little more complex than that and I’ll tackle that in the next post– Modern Religious Questions, Part II: Oral Transmission.



Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Volume I by Josh McDowell


The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, by N.T. Wright & Marcus Borg. Not specifically about the reliability of the New Testament but a great presentation by two world-renowned New Testament scholars who differ in their interpretation of Jesus.