Morning Prayer - Harvard - 3/9/04

Psalm 15 - New Revised Standard Version

1 O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?
2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth
from their heart;
3 who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
4 in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the
LORD; who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
5 who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against
the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved.

In little over an hour, I will be over in the Science Center lecturing about the science of Electricity and Magnetism. Electricity and Magnetism is simple. Religion is complicated. Religion inspires art and inquisition, music and war. These are sweeping cultural and historical issues too big for a busy nerd like me. But I agreed to give this service to force myself to think carefully about some of the smaller religion-related issues that have really disturbed me in the last few years. There are obvious threats like the rise of terrorism by allegedly religious groups. But I have also been very upset by the increasing power and visibility of so-called religious conservatives in the US. Let me give just two examples - creationism and intolerance.

Creationism is not going away. This was brought home to me very personally when my bright and sweet thirteen year old niece in El Paso, Texas was essentially hounded out of her school by a creationist teacher who felt that it was OK to humiliate students objecting to her teaching of "intelligent design" rather than evolution. Creationists today are emboldened by an administration that uses religion to advance a conservative political agenda (and ignores scientific research when it is inconvenient). Creationists are funded by well-organized conservative think-tanks like the Discovery Institute. We are somewhat sheltered from this in Massachusetts. But in Texas, creationism, along with other similar nonsense, is alive and well.

The other recent event I wanted to mention is the installation of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. As an Episcopalian, I was proud that our church was able to deal with this openly and honestly, but I was dismayed by the reaction from conservative elements in the church around the world. The rector of my own parish gave a sermon suggesting that Robinson should resign to preserve church unity.

What is going on here? Why do I care? And what do I propose to do about it? I am not quite sure of the answers to any of these questions. But let me try one at a time.

First what is going on here? Must there be a connection between religion and conservatism? Maybe there is an evolutionary argument. Maybe a great religion needs more to survive and grow than charismatic prophets and an inspiring creed. Perhaps a really successful religion must adopt the same two basic rules that have been used by really successful demagogues since the invention of language. Oversimplify the message. And unify your own group by demonizing those who do not belong. Notice that psalm 15, which sounds so gentle and reasonable at a first reading, requires us to "despise the wicked" without being any too clear about just who is "wicked."

Why do I care? It's personal. Partly, as a scientist, I think that religion is important. The false dichotomy between religion and science set up by silliness like creationism devalues both, but it devalues religion more. Using religion as a smokescreen for intolerance bothers me even more for many reasons.

What can I do? We need, I think, a militant reasonableness. I believe that the dark side of religion grows in part because reasonable people are silent. The black and white world-view of the zealot may be superficially appealing, but if we speak, we can make the case for religion in all its marvelous complexity and contradiction. We will often feel the urge to compromise, to soften the strident voices of extremists, but we must resist it, and raise our own voices with the real truth, difficult and complicated though it is.

In a few moments, we will close with the hymn "Once to Every Man and Nation." I chose this hymn mostly because I don't get to sing it much since it was removed from the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal. My favorite line in this is "They must upward still and onward Who would keep abreast of truth." In science, it is crucial to keep abreast of truth because science is always growing from what we know outward into the unknown. New truth does not replace the old, but encompasses it. Religious truth is different. Often we must decide whether a doctrine expresses a core value of the faith, or is simply a historical accident that must be discarded.

Anyway, after I chose this hymn, I tried to find out a bit about it and discovered a fantastic web of coincidences and contradictions, not unlike what I see in religion itself. Its stirring martial quality makes it a favorite of many in the religious right, but it comes from an antiwar poem by abolitionist James Russel Lowell that supplied the name for the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. There is a verse missing in the Harvard Hymnal that begins
"Then to side with truth is noble,
When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit,
And 'tis prosperous to be just;"
- a reminder perhaps that Harvard was very interested in the bottom line long before our present economist President moved into Elmwood, the house where Lowell was born and died. The connections go on and on.

Let us close with a very brief prayer.

Help us, God, to embrace the full complexity of your creation. Give us faith and doubt in such measure that we may grow to a true understanding of your world and help spread your divine uncertainty to all your people.


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