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Eternal beasts (or ‘Is this cat in heaven?’ part 2)

18 Apr

"The Peaceable Kingdom," by Edward Hicks (c. 1834)

I like to think that one of the gifts in the age to come will be enjoying lap time with my cat and maybe the company of other animals, but Sister Mary Martha will have none of that. No way, no how, the blogging sister says. (Motto: “Life is tough. Nuns are tougher.”) But even she acknowledges that many Christians think otherwise, and so they do. A recent article in Christianity Today, which I mentioned in my last post, offered a range of opinions.

Jewish thought is just as ambiguous. (Look here and here, for examples.) Jewish commentators hint at a possible dividing line: The Aristotelian-leaning rabbis, such as the great medieval scholar Maimonides, are less inclined to see a place in heaven for animals. But the more mystically inclined, such as those who follow Kabbalah, think animals will be in heaven, in part because their rabbis taught that souls transmigrated—that human souls not ready for heaven enter the bodies of animals (ideally kosher ones, of course). But that’s another issue.

Muslims, on the other hand, generally agree that the Koran teaches animals will be in paradise, part of the enjoyment God promises to his faithful ones. The Islamic concept of “Jannah,” or paradise, differs dramatically from the Christian, but I’m struck by the reasoning here. Animals, Muslims say, do what they were created to do by God, and so they “submit” to him–an important word, since that’s what the word “Islam” means. From that perspective, it makes that sense that God would admit them to paradise. That is, if I’m interpreting this teaching correctly, Muslims say God allows animals into heaven, rather than excludes them, precisely because they don’t have the choices we do, and he will be merciful.

I don’t know if we’ll reunite with pets and other animals in heaven. I hope so: they would fit with the joy.

I know, I know: there are all kinds of logical objections. If animals go to heaven, for instance, will we have to put up with mosquitoes and cockroaches for eternity? (C.S. Lewis helpfully pointed out in the Problem of Pain that “if the worst came to worst, a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined.”)

Maybe the bigger question here is why I—why we—are so taken by this question. Why does this matter? Perhaps the way we think about animals offers clues to how we think about the creation and even the creator. I want my old cat in heaven because he was worth something, part of God’s good creation, and I like to think that God is generous even to cats and dogs, not to mention lambs and wolves who can enjoy a peaceful meal together.

I imagine heaven would give animals the same essential gift we Homo sapiens hope for: to live fully as intended. Dear departed Stache will get to live out his perfected “catness,” whatever that means, much as I look forward to fully live out my perfected “humanness.”

One last thought: If we embrace the idea of a God who cares for his creatures even into eternity, shouldn’t we care about them as well in the here and now?

In Egypt: So many questions, so few answers — and so little time

10 Feb

I was working on a post that would ask a couple of questions that I haven’t seen addressed much, if at all, about the likely outcome of the drive for democracy in Egypt. Several commentators fear that Egypt 2011 will become another Iran 1979, which started out as a democratic movement but then metastasized into a hard-line theocracy.

I was wondering if (a) will it make a difference that Iran is mostly Shi’ite while Egypt, by far, is predominantly Sunni, and (b) will it make a difference that, compared to Iran, Egypt has been much more cosmopolitan, with closer ties to other nations (including the West), more tourism and more accessibility to international travel. Some friends who lived in Egypt for five years in the late 1990s think those cultural (and economic) differences are deeply rooted enough to keep a  post-Mubarak Egypt from becoming another Iran, even with Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in the mix.

I had some ideas about this, but today’s (Thursday’s) remarkable and disturbing events shelved them for now. I don’t have a clue where to begin. Today has raised other, more immediate questions, including urgent ones about the military: what will the army do?  Answers may start emerging tomorrow — or even by the time I publish this. Despite Mubarak’s best efforts to slow down the train, it’s still moving fast.

Even so, if you have ideas or good answers for either of those questions above, please share them in the comments section.

Postscript, Friday, Feb. 11: President Mubarak has stepped down and the Egyptian military council is reportedly taking over.

Coincidentally, on this date in 1979, the Iranian revolution won control of that country when prime minister went into hiding, effectively ceding power to Ayatollah Khomeini, who had returned to Iran from exile 10 days earlier.

The Top 10: Religion news in 2009

3 Jan

President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last June, when he declared his desire to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” was the biggest religion story of the year, according to a survey of the Religion Newswriters Association.

In his wide-ranging address, Obama said that the U.S. and Islam “overlap and share common principles … of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings,” focusing those themes on seven specific issues. The president quoted the Qur’an, the Bible and the Talmud as he held out the prospect of a relationship “based on mutual interest and mutual respect (and) based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.”

The speech was well received by local Muslims, according to Taneem Aziz, leader of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee.

“On the whole, it was a very positive speech,” Aziz recalled this week. “The general perception of the U.S. (by most Muslim countries) was negative, and I think the president was trying to improve that. I think it’s a good step.”

It was significant that the president delivered the speech at a highly regarded university in a historic Muslim capital, he said.

“Using the greeting of ‘Assalamu Alaykum’ (Peace be unto you) was a nice touch,” Aziz added. ”I liked the way he said would like to deal with issues and conflicts in the world today.”

But how Obama’s words will ultimately translate into policy is not yet clear, and so members of the Muslim community also feel wary, particularly about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which the president addressed at length.

“(Obama’s) bias towards Israel was very evident,” according to Aziz. “On the one hand he said, ‘Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.’ And then he went onto speak about the Israelis and the elevated status they had with the U.S.”

So Aziz doubts that the U.S. can act as an honest broker in the Middle East, “and that is what is needed.” On the other hand, American Muslims understand “that if he does not toe the Israeli line, he may stand to lose the next election.”

Here is the complete list of the year’s Top 10 Religion Stories, as selected by active members of Religion Newswriters Association:

1. President Obama pledges a new beginning in Muslim-U.S. relations and reaches out to the world’s Muslims during a major speech at Cairo University.

2. Health-care reform, the No. 1 political topic for most of the year, involves faith-based groups appealing strongly for action to help “the least of these,” and others, such as the Roman Catholic bishops, for restrictions on abortion funding.

3. Because Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused gunman in the Fort Hood massacre, was considered a devout Muslim, the role of that faith in terrorism again comes under review.

4. Dr. Carl Tiller of Wichita, Kan., regarded as the country’s leading abortion provider, is gunned down in his Lutheran church.

5. Mormons in California come under attack from some supporters of gay rights because of their lobbying efforts in the November 2008 election on behalf of Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage. Later in the year, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire approve gay marriage, but it is overturned by voters in Maine.

6. Obama receives an honorary degree and gives the commencement speech at Notre Dame after fierce debates at the Roman Catholic university over Obama’s views on abortion.

7. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America votes to ordain gay and lesbian clergy living in a committed monogamous relationship, prompting a number of conservative churches to move toward forming a new denomination.

8. The recession forces cutbacks at a variety of faith-related organizations.

9. The Episcopal Church Triennial Convention votes to end a moratorium on installing gay bishops, ignoring a request from the archbishop of Canterbury not to do so. In December the Los Angeles diocese chooses a lesbian, Mary Glasspool, as assistant bishop.

10. Obama’s presidential inauguration includes a controversial invocation by Rick Warren and a controversial benediction by Joseph Lowery, as well as a pre-ceremony prayer by Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 26 Dec 2009.

Are we fighting a just war? I’m just asking.

8 Dec

President Obama’s speech on Tuesday, which laid out his plans for Afghanistan, Pakistan and al Qaeda, left me feeling conflicted, uncertain, even a little queasy. Apparently I’m not alone.

There’s only marginal agreement among Americans about the military buildup, with 51 percent supporting Obama’s plan, according to a USA Today-Gallup survey taken the day after his speech. But almost all of us are fretful. By an almost three-to-one margin (73 percent to 26 percent), Americans said they are worried that the costs of the war will make it more difficult to deal with problems close to home. That is besides the normal anxiety that comes with any major conflict.

In making his case, Obama declared that “in the midst of these storms … our cause is just,” echoing words from last year’s campaign, when he said that destroying al Qaeda is “a cause that could not be more just.” (Anyone who is surprised that Obama is focusing on Afghanistan hasn’t been paying attention.)

“Just” is a significant word when talking about war, hearkening to a way of thinking that dates back to the Romans and found its most enduring expression through Christianity. When we talk about a “just war,” we’re talking ethics and theology.

There’s irony here, since Jesus told his followers to pray for their enemies and “turn the other cheek” when insulted. For the first three centuries after he walked the earth, most Christian teachers steered followers away from military service.

But this pacifist position softened as the Christian faith gained respectability in the Roman Empire, especially after it was legalized in the early 300s and made the official state religion in 380.

The question was how Jesus’ instructions to his followers applied in a wider society. Christ taught peace, the reasoning goes, but people and nations – sinners all – must still deal with the world as it is. Part of that challenge is to determine what conditions must be met for a war to be justifiable, even while recognizing that war is a result of sin.

Augustine, a North African bishop and considered one of the church’s greatest teachers, framed a “just war” doctrine through his writings in the fourth and fifth centuries, as the collapsing Roman Empire was coming under siege from northern European “barbarians.” His teaching has formed the basis for most Christian thinking about war ever since.

In its current Catechism, the Roman Catholic Church summarizes just-war doctrine, saying that, “at one and the same time,

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

President Barack Obama greets cadets after speaking about the war in Afghanistan at West Point on Dec. 1.

Those who govern, “those who have responsibility for the common good,” are burdened with evaluating “these conditions for moral legitimacy,” the catechism says. In other words, war must be declared by legitimate authorities.

This being theology, of course, the answers aren’t as simple as this list suggests. Libraries are full of books that tease out various interpretations.

So does the war against al Qaeda via Afghanistan qualify as a just war? I’m no theologian and even less of a military expert, but a few answers seem clear.

It’s obvious that al Qaeda inflicted “lasting, grave and certain” damage on the U.S. and other places. (But how lasting?) Also, while success is never guaranteed – Vietnam is a harsh reminder – there seems to be “serious prospects” of success. The government has indeed approved the use of force. (An interesting footnote: Americans have not engaged in an officially declared war since 1945.)

When we beyond these few certainties, however, the answers grow murky.

For now, maybe it’s enough to make sure we ask ourselves questions like these – ethical and theological questions – if only to remind ourselves of what is at stake, even more than economics, politics or national security. As we should know by now and as Augustine and other theologians knew a long time ago, we don’t risk only the lives of soldiers when we go to war. We risk our souls.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 5 Dec 2009.

The URI tries on its Bible Belt

12 Sep

coexistPat Griggs of Johnson City, a self-described activist, traces her “call” to a quarter century of interfaith involvement.

In the early 1980s, she helped organize people of different faiths to protest nuclear arms. On the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, she sat in a school parking lot to make sure the children of Muslim friends made it to class without incident.

So joining the effort to re-launch a local chapter of the United Religions Initiative? No question.

The URI is a worldwide network designed to encourage cooperation among people of different faiths, whether Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Wiccan or agnostic. The ultimate goal is world peace, based on the idea that before the world can find harmony, the religions of the world must learn to live together.

URI was born in 2000, the brainchild of Bill Swing, the Episcopal bishop of California, who dreamed of an organization that would serve as a kind of United Nations for religions. Today, URI claims more than one million people from 120 faith traditions are involved in more than 320 local self-governing organizations, or “cooperation circles,” in 60 nations. The U.S. and Canada comprise 44 circles, including the one in Johnson City, the only circle in Tennessee.

The local “CC” was formed in 2000, but small membership limited its efforts mainly to hosting an interfaith dinner each Thanksgiving.

Last spring, however, the Rev. Jacqueline Luck, who moved to the area in 2007 as the new minister of the Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, gathered the few CC members for lunch, and they decided the time was right for a new start.

With Luck acting as coordinator, a dozen people from at least five faith traditions gathered at the Johnson City public library on Aug. 31 to gauge interest in interfaith cooperation and discuss what a revitalized CC might do.

“There was a lot of energy in developing a circle,” Luck said in a phone conversation this week. “The roots are already planted. We just need to nurture it a little bit.”

Since CCs are self-governing, there is not one model. Some emphasize environmental issues; others focus on educating about religions; still others work to help poor people. Whatever shape the local group takes, Luck thinks it can make a big impact.

“I think the main thing is learning to work together,” she said. “Anything to help with this community, to work on local issues that cut across faith boundaries. That’s why I think it’s a natural to do justice work. In this area, caring for the earth is a strong possibility too. It’s trying to love our neighbor in one way or another. That’s common ground too.”

URI logoThese goals sound praiseworthy, but the URI has been the object of criticism from its start. Various religious groups, including the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches and several evangelical Christian bodies, keep the URI at arm’s length. (For examples, go here and here.)

They suspect that the URI is promoting a philosophy that artificially erases distinctions between faiths or dilutes doctrine to a hodge-podge of vague spiritual clichés. Many Christians, for example, find it hard to reconcile the URI’s goals with Scriptures that teach Jesus is “the only name under heaven by which we might be saved.” They point out that the URI’s charter is written with such broad strokes that it never even uses the word “god.”

But seeking common ground, say URI supporters, is not the same as asking believers to abandon their own faith.

“The URI is a bridge-building organization, encouraging mutual respect among all faiths, with domination by none,” according to Sandy Westin, technology and communications coordinator for the URI in North America. “It in no way encourages homogenization of religious belief, but rather encourages respect for the sacred wisdom of each religion, spiritual expression and indigenous tradition.” The URI charter, Westin pointed out, encourages members to deepen their roots in their own traditions.

“We’re trying to learn to communicate with each other, trust each other and work together toward this ideal of hoping all religions can exist together,” Luck said. “I’d like us to be visible in the community as an example of what’s possible, to be standard bearers for harmony among religious people.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 12 Sept 2009.

American Ramadan

22 Aug

happy ramadanThe discipline of Ramadan is daunting: While the sun is up each day during Islam’s holiest month, Muslims will fast from food and water and sex and be extra careful about what they say and hear. It’s a time to purify the body, an avenue for purifying the soul.

It sounds stringent enough in a place with a temperate climate, like East Tennessee. But consider that most Muslims live in southern Asia, Indonesia and Africa, and that the lunar calendar nudges Ramadan into high summer every few years. Long days of triple-digit temperatures and not even a sip of water – it sounds like a recipe for misery.

On the contrary, Muslims say, Ramadan is the most wonderful time of the year.

I sat down with six members of the Muslim community at their masjid, or mosque, on Antioch Road this week, to talk about the holiday, which celebrates the revealing of the Koran, which Muslims regard as God’s word, to the prophet Muhammad.

Ramadan, the ninth month in the Arabic calendar, begins this weekend, the moment when the slightest sliver of the new crescent moon becomes visible. It will conclude at the end of the four-week lunar cycle, marked by Eid-al-Fitr, the feast of the breaking of the fast.

The group was full of anticipation. Although most of them have lived in the U.S. for decades and are American citizens, they recalled memories from their homelands.

“You feel different, and there is a liveliness during Ramadan,” said Ahmed Atyia, a pharmacist originally from Egypt. “Fasting is good for your body, to cleanse it and give it a rest. You feel sad after the month ends.”

It is a month not only to change habits, said Taneem Aziz, an engineer and the Muslim Community’s president, but also a month of extra blessing. The effect of good deeds is literally multiplied 10 times, the Koran says.

“All the senses are focused on worship,” said Aziz, who was born in Bangladesh. “With the discipline, it is God making it easy for us to feel good and celebrate.”

People are friendlier and try to be more patient during the month. Crime goes down. Homes open up to family, friends and strangers like no other time of the year.

“The community is one of the reasons we are excited,” said Aziz’s daughter, Imani, a 19-year-old student at East Tennessee State University and the only American-born Muslim in this conversation. “Every night, we worship together.”

Life slows down during the day in Muslim countries. Families rise long before dawn to eat together. People who go to work feel unhurried, but many businesses just shut down. The normal daily prayers continue, perhaps with greater attention and attendance at the mosques.

But when prayers are finished at sundown, communities spring to life in a different way. The Koran commands Muslims to break the fast as soon as they can each night, and they do it with gusto.

Food comes out from almost every house, spread on tables lining the streets or served under colorful, open-air tents. Festive tin lanterns with colored glass glow in windows. As people pass by, whether or not they are strangers or Muslims, they are likely to be invited to stop for food – and conversations and games and songs and prayers and extended readings from the Koran. The nightly celebrations can last almost until the early morning meal begins the daily round again.

“It’s like having Christmas for a month,” Natalia Suit, a Christian friend who lived in Cairo, told me later. “Ramadan really is the best time of the year there.”

The holiday, of course, takes on a different cast in the U.S., where Muslims are a minority in the same way Christians are a minority in Pakistan or Egypt. No one expressed any resentment or regret. They accept the differences.

“We don’t feel conflicted, living in America,” said Yusuf Gangat, a pharmacist originally from Pakistan. “The purpose is to worship God in everything. It’s a very easy life, once you accept it.”

Besides, they agreed, the times are changing, and non-Muslim Americans are growing more aware of Ramadan. They notice in ways both small and significant, from seeing their holidays printed on calendars to having employers provide time off.

Imani Aziz was smiling broadly during the entire conversation. She simply enjoyed thinking about the month to come, she explained.

“I’m just excited it’s almost here,” she said.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 22 Aug 2009.

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