Saturday, 7 February 2009

Men of Faith

It says a lot about the priorities of British journalism - and the nature of British society - that coverage of Tony Blair's appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington last thursday presented it as the former PM's latest victory over Gordon Brown. Tony Blair, now recreated as a kind of global faith czar, got to shake hands with the Big O, kiss Michelle (is that allowed?), and give a speech before a rapt audience of his American groupies, while Gordon is engaged in an unseemly scrap with Nicolas Sarkozy over who gets to go to Washington first. Of course, if history is any guide, by the time Gordon gets over there the gilt will have worn off the Obama gingerbread - just as the British economy nosedived almost the day after he took over at Number Ten. Obama called his guest "my good friend Tony Blair". They've met, what, twice?

Certainly, it would be hard to imagine a British version of the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event in which politicians and media-friendly preachers meet together in front of a vast audience to invoke the aid of the Almighty and confer legitimacy on each other. House of Commons daily prayers it is not. The history behind it is telling. As President Obama informed us last Thursday, the event had its origins in Seattle during the Great Depression, when prayer was all many people had left - but it was under Eisenhower that the Prayer Breakfast came to be associated with the president and became a national occasion.

In other words, the National Prayer Breakfast is largely the achievement (or the fault) of Dr Billy Graham, Ike's spiritual adviser and a man whose influence on the Godward trajectory of modern American politics is incalculable. Eisenhower, incidentally, was the only president to be baptised while in office; in a wider sense, it could be said that his friendship with Graham led to the office itself being baptised. For any president today not to attend the Prayer Breakfast would be unthinkable, whether they come, like Bill Clinton, to seek public absolution for his sins or, like George W Bush, to cement his own credentials with the Religious Right.

Blair is politely referred to on the White House website as having given "the keynote address", though I suspect most of those present were rather more interested in what Obama had to say. I know I was.

Both men spoke of the importance of transcending divisions, of people of faith working for the greater good. Both invoked the Golden Rule, which Obama called the "one law that binds all great religions together". Blair told the familiar story of Rabbi Hillel who, challenged to recite the Torah standing on one leg, recited the formula "that which is hateful to you, do it not unto your neighbour. That is the Torah. Everything else is commentary". Both namechecked not just Judaism and Islam but Hinduism and Buddhism as well. For both, the central truth shared by all religions was more important than the differences in doctrine.

Blair said, "Each is different. Yet at a certain point each is in communion with the other."

Obama said, "Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times."

Sentiments like this are in one sense inevitable for politicians (and ex-politicians) presiding over countries, and relating to a wider world, in which plurality of religion is now well-established. It also reflects the sense that both men have of themselves as uniters and bridge-builders (a sense which, in Blair's case, would seem to have survived the divisive effect his policies and personality actually had in practice). Beyond the surface agreement, however, the two speeches had a strikingly different emphasis. As might be expected, Obama's was far more interesting, intellectually coherent and also better-written. Blair's on the other hand, was implicitly much more religious.

Blair began by saying something about his role as Middle East envoy. It was, he said, a "blessing" to spend so much time in the Holy Land - that benighted and accursed scrap of land cruelly romanticised by the eye of faith. "Rich in conflict, it is also sublime in history" was how Tony described it. Rich in conflict??? It was then on to one of his favourite themes, how religion was

Under attack from without and from within. From within, it is corroded by extremists who use their faith as a means of excluding the other...From without, religious faith is assailed by an increasingly aggressive secularism, which derides faith as contrary to reason and defines faith by conflict.

Am I the only person who finds that particular piece of triangulation - Bin Laden on one extreme, Richard Dawkins on the other, with nice, moderate religious people in the sensible middle - rather hard to take?

"For billions of people," Blair exaggerated, "faith motivates, galvanises, compels and inspires, not to exclude but to embrace; not to provoke conflict but to try to do good." As usual, he invoked globalisation, which "pushes us together". The "global village is upon us":

Into it steps religious faith. If faith becomes the property of extremists, it will originate discord. But if, by contrast, different faiths can reach out to and have knowledge of one another, then instead of being reactionary, religious faith can be a force for progress.

This is the nub of his argument: religious faith is for Blair the one vital wellspring of positive action - faith equals good, and religious believers of all stripes therefore have (or ought to have) more in common with each other than with non-believers. He does not "decry the work of humanists", but nevertheless claims that "there are limits to humanism and beyond those limits God and only God can work". It's not entirely clear what he thinks those limits are, though it seems to have something to do with humility. He talks of "that humbling of man's vanity" that "faith alone can bestow".

I suspect the opposite is the case: what Blair is describing is not the limitations of humanism but the limitations of religion. Religion says, "dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return" or, as the Delphic Oracle actually meant to say (the phrase γνωθι σεαυτόν is usually misinterpreted) "Know that you are a miserable sniffling worm". Humanism says, anything is possible. Religion says, "don't play God". Humanism says, "take responsibility".

His acknowledgement of the work done by humanists, though real - they "can often shame the avowedly religious" - is rather grudging. He assumes - otherwise the notion of shaming the believers makes no sense - that the "avowedly religious" ought to be better human beings than the avowedly non-religious. He speaks as though that is a common sense utterance. But why? Why should having a supernatural belief make it expected of you that you will behave better than people who don't, when so much of the evidence suggests otherwise?

Richard Dawkins, for my money, never spoke a truer word than when he said that "for good people to do evil things, you need religion".

Blair's religiosity has become increasingly apparent since he left office. Here he gives the impression of having been let off the leash - and some of his aperçus are really quite striking. "We can perform acts of mercy," he says, "but only God can lend them dignity." Does he really mean this? Does he even have a clue about what the sentence means? Is a willingness to forgive, to pardon, to be compassionate "undignified" if not blessed by a supernatural Daddy figure? This is beyond bollocks, it's actually meaningless.

Similarly this:

I believe restoring religious faith to its rightful place, as the guide to our world and its future, is itself of the essence. The 21st Century will be poorer in spirit, meaner in ambition, less disciplined in conscience, if it is not under the guardianship of faith in God.

Truly a theocratic crackpot. Thank God (if that isn't contradictory) he's out of the way. We're better off with a one-eyed Scottish idiot.

It is with considerable relief, then, that I turn to that fountainhead of rationality, Mr Barack Hussein Obama.

Unlike Blair, whose attitude to the details of religious doctrine is best described as one of impatience ("ritual or doctrine or the finer points of theology"), Obama is prepared to acknowledge that it is in the essence of religions that they are not the same:

There is no doubt that the very nature of faith means that some of our beliefs will never be the same. We read from different texts. We follow different edicts. We subscribe to different accounts of how we came to be here and where we’re going next – and some subscribe to no faith at all.


But no matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate. There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know."

... the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule – the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.

Yet again Obama acknowledges the existence and dignity of non-believers. There's nothing in his speech about the limits of humanism. Unlike Blair, he does not appear to believe that goodness comes from belief in God - rather, it is a human universal, God-given perhaps, that can be shared by believers and non-believers alike. As his own background demonstrates:

I was not raised in a particularly religious household. I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, grandparents who were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was skeptical of organized religion, even as she was the kindest, most spiritual person I’ve ever known. She was the one who taught me as a child to love, and to understand, and to do unto others as I would want done.

My speculation here is that, unlike Tony Blair, Barack Obama does not believe in Original Sin. Taking Obama at his word to be a Christian, the remarkable thing is that he does not reject, as many converts do, the disbelief of his youth or family. Quite the reverse. He found Good before he found God.

Obama also announced his plans for the Office of Faith Based Initiatives and Neighborhood Partnerships. Here, too, he managed to balance praise for religious organisations with an acknowledgement of purely secular philanthropy and social action:

The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another – or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state. This work is important, because whether it’s a secular group advising families facing foreclosure or faith-based groups providing job-training to those who need work, few are closer to what’s happening on our streets and in our neighborhoods than these organizations.

His Office of Faith-based Initiatives ought, to follow his logic, be renamed the Office of Faith and Non-Faith based Initiatives.

What the difference between the two men comes down to, I think, is this: for Blair, humanists can be good people despite their lack of faith, whereas for Obama, humanism is a faith. For Blair, the category of "faith" is coterminous with the major religions of the world, the believers in which have (or ought to have) more in common with each other than with the godless non-believers, well-intentioned though some of those clearly are. For Obama, a "person of faith" is someone working for the good of mankind, whether or not that person adheres to a God-based belief system. Carried to its proper conclusion, such a train of though is capable of rescuing the very notion of faith. Put simply, an Obama Faith Foundation would have room in it for non-believers. Blair's doesn't.

So: a serving US president and a former British prime minister both make speeches at an occasion, and it's the British politician who ends up sounding like the preacher. Truly the world turned upside down.


WeepingCross said...

Mr Obama's statements are breathtakingly refreshing, aren't they? What a relief from the clotted, incoherent nonsense that so dreadfully often passes for discourse about this area. Not that what you say would have been any surprise to the medieval Thomists, though, with their distinction between the Natural and the Theological Virtues and the doctrine of prevenient grace. And I look forward to seeing whether all of your readers are comfortable with being told that humanism is a faith ...

Wasp_Box said...

WC, my dear chap,

The idea of faith in humanity sits well with me. With leaders of merit we still may have a chance.

Mr Blair is, of course, a liar. I'm not talking about the obvious lies (WMD, Kelly etc.). He lied about his faith. He did not have the balls to tell us that he was a high order god-botherer because he knew that he would be marked as a twit. Peter, I believe, denied Jeebus thrice. Our Tone seems at least as culpable and seems to have forgotten about camels and needle eyes.

valdemar squelch said...

Good post, depressing subject matter, esp. Blair's puke-inducing vanity and shallowness, and the fact that America now has a leader so vastly superior to anyone on offer to us.

Is humanism a faith? Perhaps ideology would be a better term, but it has a Continental ring about it.

The Heresiarch said...

It seems to me quite clear that humanism is a faith - it's what distinguishes it from atheism, which is merely disbelief in a Supreme being. It is not, however, a religion. The distinction between faith and religion has become worryingly blurred in recent times. Writing a few days ago on Friendly Atheist, Ron Gold suggested that the term "faith-based" (which sounds rather friendlier than "religion-based") can be traced to the early days of the Bush administration - which also brought us other euphemisms such as "extraordinary rendition". Over here, if you call something a "faith school" it becomes somewhat harder to object to than if you call it a "religious school".

Richard T said...

For someone with Mr Blair's record to prate on about faith in government is quite nauseating. Tartuffe comes to mind.

valdemar squelch said...

H, is a faith the same as an ideology? Similar? Very different? And if humanism is a faith, why can't that American head teacher on Tyneside legally set up a humanist school? As I recall, he was told 'you'd never get that past the bishops in the Lords', or words to that effect.

Olive said...

There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know

Obama's not read much of the old testament, then.

Armageddon Thru To You said...

Armageddon Thru To You

If you've been wondering why it seems like the world around us is unraveling, it's because the last days as foretold in the bible are now upon us. Just as it was 2000 years ago, many were unable to discern the signs of Jesus Christ's first coming (Mat 16:3), as will many concerning his second coming, which will occur very soon. Yes many have proclaimed a similar sentiment many times in the past, but their errors have no bearing on today other than to lull you into spiritual apathy, and that too was prophesied to occur in the last days.

If you're not a believer in Jesus Christ because you're an atheist, consider that the underlying impetus for your disbelief is most likely borne of pride and here's why:

When we die, if you as an atheist were right, then there is no upside or downside for anyone regarding the afterlife. We will all simply cease to exist

However if we Christians were right about our belief in the afterlife, then we will be given eternal life and you as an atheist will receive eternal damnation

Given the choices, the position held by an atheist is a fools bet any way you look at it because the atheist has everything to lose and nothing to gain. It is tantamount to accepting a “heads I win, tails you lose” coin toss proposition from someone. And that someone by the way is Satan (see Ephesians 6:12).

The only way to explain the attitude held by an atheist is pride, pure and simple. The intellectually dishonest and/or tortured reasoning used by atheists to try and disprove the existence of God is nothing more than attempts to posture themselves as superior (a symptom of pride). And as anyone who has read their bible knows, this is precisely the character flaw that befell Lucifer, God's formerly most high angel. (Isaiah 14:12-15). Is it any wonder then why the bible is so replete with references to pride as the cause of mankind's downfall?

Pride permeates our lives and burdens us in ways that most of us seldom recognize. Ironically, pride is the one thing that can blind someone to things even the unsighted can see. And sadly pride will blind many with an otherwise good heart, to accepting the offer of eternal salvation that Christ bought and paid for with his life.

In any event, if you're an atheist, I wish you only the best for every day of the rest of your life because for you, this life is as close to heaven as you'll ever get, but for believers in Christ, this life is as close to hell as we'll ever get.

If you're not a believer and follower of Jesus Christ because you are of another faith, please take the time to very carefully compare your faith to Christianity and ask yourself, why is the bible the only religious book with both hundreds of proven prophecies already fulfilled as well as those being fulfilled today? No other religion can claim anything remotely close to this fact. Many Christians who are serious students of bible prophecy are already aware of the role and significance of bible prophecy in foretelling end time events. God gave us prophecy as evidence of his divine holiness to know the begining from the end (Isa 46:10). God also believed prophecy to be so important that to those willing to read the most prophetic book in the bible, the Book of Revelation, he promised a special blessing (see Rev 1:3), and this is the only book in the bible that God gives its reader a special blessing for reading. Something to think about.

Don't risk losing Christ's offer of eternal life by not accepting him as your savior and by thinking that the bible is nothing more than a compilation of unrelated and scattered stories about people who lived 2,000 plus years ago. If you take the time to study (not just read) the bible, you will literally be shocked to learn things you would have never imagined would be revealed in it. Did you know that like parables, God also uses particular months and days in the Jewish calendar, Jewish Feasts and customs, solar and lunar phases, celestial alignments, gematria (Hebrew numerology) early bible events and more as patterns and models to foretell future events?

Consider the following interesting facts about the bible that testify to its God-inspired authorship:

Did you know that in Gen 12:2, God said he would bless Israel?. How else can you explain the grossly disproportionate level of success achieved by Jewish people as a tiny minority in the world, especially after all they have gone through? And how can you explain the success achieved by the tiny nation of Israel, surrounded by enemies outnumbering them 100 to 1 and yet still they remain victorious in all their wars?

Did you know that as evidence to indicate that Israel is the epicenter of the world from God's point of view is the fact that languages to the west of Israel are written and read from left to right as if pointing to Israel, and languages from countries to the east of Israel are written and read from right to left, again as though pointing to Israel. Just a coincidence, you say? I think not.

Did you know that the six days of creation and seventh day of rest in Genesis is a model for the six thousand years of this age (ending very soon), that is to be followed by a 1,000 year millennial reign by Christ (see 2 Peter 3:8)? Adam was born sometime prior to 4000 B.C., therefore our 6000 years are almost up.

Did you kow that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is hidden in the meaning of the Hebrew names listed in the genealogy of the book of Genesis (Research it online)? To deny this was God-inspired, one has to instead believe that a group of Jewish rabbis conspired to hide the Christian Gospel right inside a genealogy of their venerated Torah, which is not a very plausible explanation.

Did you know that solar eclipses, which the bible describes as the sun being black as sackcloth, and lunar eclipses, which the bible refers to as blood red moons, have prophetic meaning? Research it online. God showed Adam (and us) his plan for man's redemption through the use of celestial alignments. (research Mazzaroth online)

Did you know that much of the symbolism in the book of revelation refers to planetary alignments that will occur when certain events occur as prophesied? These planetary alignments also explained the birth of Christ, just search out The Bethlehem Star movie on the Internet.

Did you know that the references in Eze 39:4-17 and Rev 19:17-21 in the battle of Gog/Magog and Armageddon respectively, in which birds of prey will eat the flesh of the dead in battle from two enormous wars is based on fact? The largest bird migration in the world consisting of bilions of birds (34 species of raptors and various carrion birds) from several continents converge and fly over Israel every spring and fall. Coincidence? I think not.

Did you know that Hebrew numerology, also known as Gematria, and the numbers with biblical and prophetic significance are hidden in the Star of David? Google the video called "Seal of Jesus Christ"

Did you know that the seven Churches mentioned at the beginning of the Book of Revelation describe the seven stages the Church will go through?

There are literally hundreds of hidden messages in the bible like these that testify to the fact that the bible was God inspired, and statistically speaking, are all exponentially beyond the likelihood of any coincidence. You can find them yourselves if you only take the time to look into it. Remember Proverbs 25:2 "It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings".

And finally, if you are Catholic, or one who subscribes to the emergent Church or seeker-friendly Church movement, please compare the doctrine taught, advocated or accepted by your Church, with the actual bible, notwithstanding some new-age version of the bible. And remember that although the bible is often referred to as the living bible, the word "living" was never intended to imply in any way that the bible "evolves" over time to meet, or be consistent with, the standards of man. It's just the opposite.

Well, am I getting through to you? If not, the answer might be explained in the response given by Jesus Christ in his Olivet discourse when he was asked by his disciples why he spoke the way he did (in parables, etc.) in the book of Matthew 13:10-16. What Jesus said could have easily been paraphrased more clearly as "so that the damned won't get it". Why did Christ respond the way he did when asked why he spoke this way? Is there something about pride (the bible says there is) that closes one's heart to seeing or hearing the messages supernaturally hidden in bible parables, models, typologies, and similes, etc.? That should give you something to think about, but don't take too long. Time is now very short.

If it sometimes seems like there are powers at work behind the powers we know, remember what it says in Ephesians 6:12 "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." If you study the bible, it will become clearer.

And by the way, if you are a scoffer, this too was prophesied to occur in the last days. See 2 Peter 3:3.

Thank you and God Bless you! (at)

WeepingCross said...

I think of 'faith' as involving an action, or position, based on a belief that what seemed to be true in the past will continue to be true even if current conditions don't provide much positive evidence. So it makes sense to talk of politicians 'having faith' in the capitalist economy even though it's not working spectactularly well at the moment, and they are probably right to do so. That makes it different from both an 'ideology' and a 'religion', which is a specific sort of ideology. I know Christianity has referred to itself in the past as 'The Faith' (I believe we talked about this on a previous occasion), but it seems an unhelpful extension of what's essentially a description of an action. So I think it's perfectly sensible to talk of 'humanist faith' (that is, the belief that human beings can improve things through their efforts because there have been instances in history when they have indeed done so), but not 'the humanist faith'. Does this make sense?

apashiol said...

There is an acceptable sense of faith for me as in good faith. Acting in an honourable and honest way. Without wishing to deceive. There is evidence that humans are capable of trying to choose the best if given the opportunity.
If initiatives are based on this kind of faith that's fine by me.
Sometimes that is the best we can hope for.
It doesn't require invoking any spirits.

To Armageddon Thru To You

Try making yourself a nice hot cup of cocoa and having a lie down.
If these delusions persist, you might ask your doctor to prescribe you something a little stronger.

The Heresiarch said...

Olive: your point about the Old Testament had occurred to me also.

On the faith, ideology, religion question I think I agree with Father W, that a religion is a special sort of ideology. Other ideologies include communism, socialism, libertarianism, etc. Humanism sometimes amounts to an ideology, but it's a much less organised one than communism.

As for Valdemar's example of the humanist school not qualifying as a "faith school", that is because the government equates faith with religion. As I hinted above, I suspect this is a deliberate euphemism designed to deflect criticism. The word "religion" suggests indoctrination; faith sounds much friendlier. We all believe in something, have some sort of faith. Who could possibly object to "faith". But if you're going to call you local church primary a "faith school", you should equally be prepared to call Al Qaeda "faith-based terrorists".