Monthly Archives: April 2015

Can Science Replace Religion?

New Atheism – led by scientists Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and others – is deeply critical of religious teaching and practice. Harris says in support of his book The Moral Landscape (Free Press, 2011), “Religious ideas about good and evil tend to focus on how to achieve well-being in the next life, and this makes them terrible guides to securing it in this one.” He and others posit science as a better way to determine worthy human morals and values.

Harris is right to criticize religious understandings that place oversized emphases on an afterlife at the expense of present day concerns – consider the 9/11 terrorists and the supposed promise of virgins awaiting them in paradise, a tragic blend of hate and misogyny inspiring them to act in this world. Harris is also right to look to science to determine better ways for humans to know, think, and interact – making the world a better place now and in the future.

But, before we get too excited about its promoted versatility: science will never solve all of our problems. The human family yet needs good religion. Getting rid of religion, as advocated by Harris and Dawkins, would be akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Additionally, it increases the risk of making science something it is not – a religion.

Consider, for example, forgiveness. Science can teach us about the benefits of forgiveness, but it can’t teach us how to put it into practice. That’s what religion does. Furthermore, religion and science working together help define and categorize different types of forgiveness, a mutual enhancement that makes the world a better place. People who practice forgiveness tend to have lower blood pressure, live with less stress and anxiety, and understand thou shalt not kill as a good guide to navigate relationships with other human beings in this present world. Forgiveness incorporated rejects the option of vengeance. All of these are enhancements to the health and well-being of the whole human family.

The word religion, from the Latin religio, means to fasten, bind, or reconnect. There is no question that religions are human constructions, and consequently not perfect. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, forgiveness is central to their religious understandings for life in this world. Forgiveness – ritualistically part of all three systems – reconnects adherents with the Divine and binds adherents to one another in this life. Human beings created religions, in part, to help forge community ties. Forgiveness enhances and binds those relational ties, from birth to death.

The story of Joseph, son of Jacob, is shared by the three monotheistic religions. Dreamer of stars and moons, Joseph, the younger offspring and favorite of his father, is sold into slavery by his jealous and envious older brothers. Only later, when the brothers and their families are suffering from hunger and famine, do they unknowingly face their long lost brother Joseph. They are in a most desperate situation, physically and emotionally. Joseph, now powerful and holding in his hands the fate of his brothers and “their little ones,” has the option to choose vengeance upon his brothers for having sold him into slavery so many years earlier. He instead chooses forgiveness – and family reunion.

Of course, religion has been misused through the ages. It has caused great and painful suffering, even to our present day. But it has also taught humans to love one another, to accept one another, and to forgive one another. Religion, like anything else worthy of human attention and endeavor, needs to be continually reformed in order to be better. The old story of Joseph and his brothers has the unique ability to instruct and reform the current and future human family; forgiveness is an essential element for the very survival of humanity.

British writer Bryan Appleyard critiques thinkers who endow science with the ability to give a “final and full account of the world.” Harris and Dawkins have legitimate critiques of religion and some of its practices, but ultimately they advocate science as the one and only true way – essentially, a new religion. This type of thinking is categorically fundamentalist – a type of thinking that usually is not beneficial to the health and well-being of the human family. Atheism is a belief system just as much as any religion can be. True wisdom understands the world to be a big place, large enough for the scientific theories that explain the essence of stars and moons and large enough for the religious systems that bind us together as people who practice virtues like forgiveness.

 

These blog posts are representative of my work in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. The book is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

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“Just a Little Bit More” Gets Airborne

bish and jim

Bishop Mike Rinehart and Jim Sorensen*

An unexpected thing happened last May on a plane bound for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A group of ten adults was travelling to the historic East African country to work with the organization Water to Thrive. W2T is a faith-based non-profit dedicated to fighting one part of the global water crisis by bringing clean, safe well-water to those who need it in rural Africa. Jim Sorensen, a former missionary in Ethiopia and a W2T board member, went on the trip to serve as an experienced guide for the group. Mike Rinehart, bishop of the Gulf Coast Synod (ELCA), was a first-time participant wanting to learn more about W2T’s work in order to inspire greater support for W2T’s mission upon his return to the Houston area.

Mr. Sorensen and the good bishop were seated near each other on the Boeing 777, and as they settled in for the fifteen hour trip, both reached in their carry-on bags and produced – did you guess? – brand new copies of Just a Little Bit More. They exchanged glances of surprise; this was more than mere coincidence. They had independently received a copy of the new book, and unbeknownst one to the other, had the same reading plan for the long flight over the Atlantic and the mid-section of the African continent. In just its second week of publication, JaLBM was making its way to Africa with two travelers committed to fighting the debilitating effects of lingering poverty.

It took me the better part of three years to write and publish Just a Little Bit More. As a matter of fact, I picked up the first one hundred copies fresh off the digital presses of my printer in Austin (Ultimate Imaging) on Friday, May 2, 2014. The Southwestern Texas Synod Assembly (ELCA) convened in Austin the very next day, and Bishop Ray Tiemann was kind enough to announce to the gathered group that my awaited book was available. A number of colleagues and assembly attendees purchased copies. The next weekend the Gulf Coast Synod would gather in Baton Rouge for their assembly meeting. Good friend and Lutheran Foundation of the Southwest rep David Johnson attended the assembly and delivered a promised copy of JaLBM to Bishop Rinehart. Mike promised me he’d give JaLBM a read and tell others about the book through his website. That same weekend back in Austin, good friends Paul and Marsha Collinson-Streng hosted a book signing party. A number of other good friends came to share in the festivities; we ate, drank, visited, and listened to a reading. Pastor Lynnae Sorensen was at the party; she had originally purchased a copy at the Austin synod assembly meeting, but wanted one more “for my dad who is travelling to Ethiopia on Sunday.”

Jim Sorensen finished reading JaLBM before the group got back to the States – less than two weeks. Jim says that JaLBM is “a great book; like a lesson on what creates poverty, and how we end up perpetuating poverty! A must-read for all Christians who care.”

Bishop Mike put up a review of JaLBM last August on his blog. “Just a Little Bit More engages in a critique of the god of mammon, lamenting that the concept of the common good, so central to American history, has fallen out of favor. T. Carlos Anderson believes liberty and egalitarianism need not fight with one another. They can coexist in such a way that all can have enough.”

Both Jim and Bishop Mike get gold stars – as do a few hundred others – for reading the smaller font first edition of JaLBM. With a larger font, the second edition of JaLBM came out in October 2014 coinciding with the release of the ebook version. Close to 750 copies of JaLBM have been sold and distributed in its first year of availability. A big thanks goes out to people like Jim and Bishop Mike who have given their support to the book and its author! The purpose of the book’s publication and dissemination is to spur conversation and action that uplifts the common good in our midst, and in places throughout the world, like Africa.

The summary version/study guide of JaLBM is now available. At fifty pages with probing discussion questions at the end of each eight chapters, it’s the perfect accompaniment to the full length version to facilitate conversation and exchange in group study settings. Seeking common good and kingdom connection is the JaLBM motto, as seen in the good work of a great organization like W2T!

 

*Picture of Mike and Jim taken at 2015 Lutheran Legislative Event in Austin.

ELCA stands for Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a national church organization of 4 million people and 10,000 community congregations.

Please visit the Water To Thrive website to learn more about the organization and how you can participate in its work.

 

Click here to purchase Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Paperback, $14.95. The summary version is available for $7.95. You will be redirected to the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

Click here if you prefer to purchase full length paperback from Amazon. Ebook available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

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Monday Matters Book Club Studies “Just a Little Bit More”

The Monday Matters book club, based at Triumphant Love Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas, has been gathering for discussion and shared insight more than twenty years. The group originally met in the house of Ted and Velma Ziehe; the first book studied was Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, its debut conveniently coinciding with the group’s formation in 1994. The initial group, consisting of Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists, liked Borg’s depth of critical scholarship within a faith perspective. Borg’s journey from a naïve, unquestioning faith to one of maturity and authenticity was a positive struggle shared by many in the group. The group decided to keep meeting. The lure of Velma’s cookies and the conversation promised by the study of other good books guaranteed the group’s viability for many more years.

Five years ago, the group started to meet at Triumphant Love. Engineers, pastors, teachers, nurses, and entrepreneurs comprise the group. While neither diverse ethnically nor socioeconomically, the group colors the political map blue, red, and purple. It’s good for Democrats, Republicans and independents to be in conversation with one another in a religious setting: all are reminded that theology is to inform politics, and not the other way around. We might not see eye to eye politically, but we can be in conversation with one another on how best to love and serve our neighbor in God’s name – together.

monday matters

Monday Matters book club – Triumphant Love Lutheran, Austin, TX

Thanks to Norb Firnhaber and Leroy Haverlah who suggested that the group study Just a Little Bit More. Group convener Doug Nelson graciously told me more about the group and helped distribute copies of JaLBM. I introduced JaLBM themes to the group on February 16 – including the dominant religion in America as represented by the Caddy Man (you need to get to know him if you don’t already) – and they took it from there. They convened five sessions to discuss chapters one through eight and invited me back for a closing session on April 6. It was good to meet new folks and see others that I already knew – Ralph and Ellie Erchinger, Dorothy Kraemer, Jim and Kris Carlson – and to be in meaningful conversation with them. Doug Nelson says JaLBM brought out “the most vibrant discussions” the group has had for some time.

If you have a group at church, synagogue, or temple that appreciates meaningful discussion on the important social and economic issues of the day – without falling into well-worn blue and red ruts – take on a study of JaLBM. The book challenges readers with a perspective that cuts against the grain of today’s accepted conventional wisdom of money as highest good. As Peter Steinke says in the book’s foreword, JaLBM benefits its readers by showing “how we have shaped the system we are a part of and what can lead to a new way of doing economics that embraces the common good.”

The summary version of JaLBM with study guide questions is now available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website. The study guide version summarizes JaLBM‘s eight chapters and poses questions for discussion at the end of each chapter. Whether reading the full length book or the summary version, all present in a group setting can enter into meaningful discussion and conversation, just like the Monday Matters group at Triumphant Love did for seven sessions.

For those groups in Austin and its vicinity, I am available for presentations to lead JaLBM discussions on the topics of egalitarianism, social mobility, economic democracy, and common good – all from a faith perspective. I’m confident the discussions will be worthwhile and influential.

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“Anderson’s book is an extensive chronicling of the people, movements, and streams of thought that have led us on the quest to want just a little bit more. In the role of a theologically aware social critic, he reminds me of Niebuhr. He is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, but has listened carefully to many other voices and thus speaks a reasonable, balanced, and authoritative public word. Anderson shows us the way back toward a commitment to egalitarianism that has become lost over the last century.”
Dr. Phil Ruge-Jones, Professor of Theology and Philosophy, Texas Lutheran University

 

Just a Little Bit More is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook. JaLBM Summary Version and Study Guide is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

 

 

 

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Deja Vu – Say It Ain’t True – Another Subprime Loan Debacle Emerging

Who can forget the 2007-08 economic swoon brought on, in great part, by greed and over-extension in the subprime housing loan industry? File the following under the We Haven’t Learned a Blame Thing from Recent History category: it looks like the same exact thing is happening in the subprime auto loan industry.

You might have heard that 2014 was a good year for the US auto industry – its best year since 2006. Lower gasoline prices have certainly helped sales, but the industry push to get people with poor credit into cars is the main driver. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). You’ve heard, haven’t you? No credit, bad credit, any credit – you won’t be turned away!

bad creditOne-fourth of all car loans – new and used – now go to folks with poor credit ratings, double the rate since 2010. The duration of loans is at an all-time high mark of 5.5 years, with 7 and 8 year loans now available. Really? Eight years? Some people will be doling out payments on a car they will no longer possess or that will no longer run. On top of this, wages of most of those taking subprime car loans are flat. And on top of that, Wall Street has been securitizing these loans at record levels in the last two years. Predictably on cue, the delinquency rate on subprime loans is rising as the auto repossession rate soars. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

There is nothing wrong with people who have poor credit getting into houses and cars. Credit is a powerful tool for social and economic mobility. All who have “made it” have been the recipients of blessed financial credit many times over. (No one can justly claim to be “self-made” – to do so is to play the part of Pinocchio.) There are people who rightfully deserve a poor credit rating, reflective of bad decision making. But there are many who have poor credit ratings due to uncontrollable and difficult life circumstances. Sometimes people need a helping hand. Having a house to live in can be a significant stabilizing factor in the life of a family – much more so than having to move from apartment to apartment chasing affordable rent payments. Having a car for transportation is a near-necessity in much of the American job market.

There is something wrong with large banks – no longer enjoying the hyper-growth and ill profits from the pre-2008 housing market – looking for similar type gains from the subprime car loan market of today. During the housing market fiasco, lenders encouraged loan applicants to fudge their stated income upward in order to facilitate closings. Concerns abound that the same type of lax administration is fueling the subprime car loan boom.

The underpaid American lower economic classes need transportation to go to work, buy groceries, and take their kids to the doctor. Easy targets for the subprime loan industry, they are vulnerable to being pushed into overpriced vehicles via loans that are predatory. Ah, the new American way for lenders: make big bucks by stuffing folks from low-income communities into cars they can only afford by being put on the hook with insupportable debt.*

In a society of rampant consumerism – what’s not to like? People who need cars get cars and lenders and investors rake in cash. Forgive my decidedly old-fashioned sentiments: Is there anyone in the lending community with a conscience yet intact?

Wells-Fargo, one of the principal subprime car loan leaders, is showing such signs of moral sense. As of March 1, Wells-Fargo is capping its subprime loans to a ten percent ceiling of all its car loans. This is significant; Wells-Fargo is announcing to its banking competitors that it has learned something from the 2007-08 swoon. Whether or not its competitors follow Wells-Fargo’s lead remains to be seen.

Fortunately, the subprime auto loan industry is only one-fiftieth the size of the pre-2008 subprime housing market. All the same, let’s hope a hard-earned lesson from the 2007-08 economic swoon is not forgotten: the uninhibited pursuit of wealth and gain oftentimes is a moral hazard that damages societal common good.

 

This blog post is representative of my work in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. The book is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

*Bruce Cockburn, They Call It Democracy (1986).

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