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Many of us are misusing a German martyr: 10-19-18

In the last few decades, German pastor, theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer has gone from largely unknown outside of certain Christian religious circles to a widely known hero among all kinds of people who don't agree with each other about much.

Battle-for-bonhoefferIndeed, Bonhoeffer today is being drafted into opposing armies -- mostly political and social in nature. Each interest group is finding something in this man's remarkable life to like and, thus, to claim they know how he would react today to (the list is long) the war on terror, abortion, the war in Iraq and nearly ever aspect of the culture wars.

Stephen R. Haynes, a professor of religious studies at Rhodes College, unpacks this troubling story in his fascinating new book, The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump.

His descriptions of how Bonhoeffer -- murdered by the Nazis at the end of the World War II on charges of plotting to murder Hitler -- is being used and misused is worth the price of the book. But the clinching bonus is his 13-page postscript. There Haynes describes his roots in Christian evangelicalism, his movement away from it and his persuasive arguments for why 81 percent of white Christian evangelicals in the U.S. lost their moral compass when they voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

In effect, Haynes turns state's evidence against evangelicals in a scorching -- and accurate -- denunciation. Written in the form of a letter to evangelicals, the postscript makes several points that they should, by now, recognize as true, including that "there is nothing remotely 'Christian' about Donald Trump."

As I say, the postscript is worth reading even if you read nothing else in the book, but the main part of the book provides the important context for that postscript.

For instance, Haynes concludes that "the battle for Bonhoeffer is far from over. . .For one thing, it has become clear to me that looking to Bonhoeffer for guidance and inspiration has been a fairly consistent feature of our public discourse since 9/11. It is hardly surprising that so many Americans are drawn to Bonhoeffer in the twenty-first century, for he exemplifies a remarkable continuity between thought and behavior, a rare combination of academic depth and pastoral concern, a striking transition from pacifism to violent resistance and a martyr's faithful acceptance of death."

Haynes is a careful scholar, so when he provides a devastating critique of a recent popular biography of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas, it's well worth your attention, especially if you've already read the Metaxas book and have concluded that Bonhoeffer acted and thought a lot like Metaxas himself. Haynes says the Metaxas book suffers from the author's "inexperience" and that "there is much evidence that his biography of Bonhoeffer is driven by a conscious and multifaceted agenda."

In other words, Metaxas is one of many people who have latched onto Bonhoeffer and his inspirational life so as to make the martyr an ally in this or that cause. Which, Haynes concludes, makes "the distorted picture of Bonhoeffer rendered in Eric Metaxas's biography. . .irresponsible and dangerous."

No doubt there still are many people of faith who have never heard of Bonhoeffer and his fatal effort to stop Hitler and Hitler's efforts to destroy European Jewry. But Haynes has written a cautionary tale that should give all of us pause before we use Bonhoeffer -- or, for that matter, any historical figure -- to prove our political point today.

Anyone whose words can be used to justify a specific war and, at the same time, to condemn that specific war must be quoted and appealed to with great caution. That's who Bonhoeffer has become. It clouds his true place in history and misuses his legend. Haynes is right to warn us about that.

(Just as an aside, here is a column I wrote about Bonhoeffer a few years ago for The National Catholic Reporter.)

* * *


South Sudan has been embroiled in a civil war since 2013. Religious leaders there now are asking congregants to engage in prayer for peace and to avoid doing things political leaders ask of them if those things run counter to their religious beliefs, this RNS report says. And speaking of South Sudan, if you missed my friend Melinda Henneberger's terrific report from there recently in The Kansas City Star, you may read it here.

What a new effort to find life elsewhere means: 10-18-18


Human beings are built for relationship. It's one of the primary tenets of religion. We are born hungry not just for a closeness with our parents and other family members but also for a vertical relationship with our creator.

It's why we are explorers. We seek out new communities, new civilizations, new relationships in new places.

So it's no surprise -- or shouldn't be -- that when our technology allows it, we explore parts of the cosmos to which no Earth dweller has yet been. We ask ourselves the old question of whether we're alone in the universe. It somehow seems arrogant to imagine that we are, and yet so far we have no evidence for life elsewhere.

However, in recent years astronomers, using increasingly powerful tools, have been discovering lots of planets that could -- at least conceivably -- be home to some kind of life forms.

And just the other day, astronomers announced that they are "taking the search for habitable planets and observation of first epoch galaxies to the next level."

These are international scientists working together in a team to see if they can provide a definite "yes" or "no" to the question of whether life on Earth is unique.

The physical-scientific requirements for human life to exist are quite narrow. Earth turns out to be a rare combination of circumstances -- water, atmosphere, climate -- that allows us not just to live but to thrive. Frankly, I'd feel a little odd if it could be shown that no life exists anywhere but here in the vast -- and expanding -- cosmos.

But if there is life elsewhere, we will have to figure out how the stories that form the basis of religious faith on Earth might apply to that life. Have we created exclusivist religions that make no room for life beyond Earth? Or is our theology deep and wide enough to allow God to have children elsewhere?

If this team of scientists now working to kick up the effort to find habitable planets succeeds, we may have to answer such questions. So now's the time to think them through. Get started. I'll wait for you.

* * *


Russia journeyed from Christian Orthodoxy to atheism under the Communists. But now it's re-embracing Orthodoxy. This "Religion & Politics" piece describes a new book that explores this remarkable change. As the story notes, "In 1991, just after the collapse of the USSR, about two-thirds of Russians claimed no religious affiliation. Today, 71 percent of Russians identify as Orthodox." It would be wise to be cautious about this. It's pretty clear to a lot of observers that the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church today are in bed with the country's autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin. If Putin is promoting the church -- and he is -- you can bet his interest is pretty far from theological, just as President Donald Trump's interest in having the support of white Christian evangelicals in the U.S. isn't really about religion and its interests. So let's bide our time and see where Orthodoxy in Russia is 10 or 20 years from now. That will tell the story more clearly.

What praying for a president can teach us: 10-17-18


AUSTIN, Texas -- Just three days into the new year of 1963, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote a short letter to evangelist Billy Graham. It contained a plea: "Pray for me, too. I cannot fulfill this trust unless God grant me wisdom to see what is right and courage to do it."

That letter is on display here at the LBJ Library and Museum, which tells the bifurcated story of Johnson's remarkable presidency. I call it remarkable both for how it started -- with John F. Kennedy's assassination -- and for how it achieved some terrific domestic successes even while it dissolved in a mix of lies and of young lives unwisely spent on a war the U.S. never should have fought.

LBJ-1I suppose Graham prayed for Johnson, both as vice president and president. And I don't doubt Johnson's sincerity in seeking prayer.

But all of that calls into question the role God plays -- or chooses not to play, perhaps -- in the internal politics and external geopolitical moves any nation makes.

I raised this question here recently because journalist Bob Woodward raised it in his new book, Fear, about the Trump White House. But it's a question that did not begin with the 2016 election and won't end when he elect our next president.

The LBJ Library and Museum here presents an overall favorable picture of Johnson, though it doesn't shy away from his failures. It describes the difference the War on Poverty made as part of what LBJ called the nation's effort to create "The Great Society." And it takes special note of how this product of the South signed important civil rights legislation, which in turn caused voters across Dixie to abandon the Democratic Party in favor of the Republicans, who at that point had little use for civil rights laws or even, in many cases in the South, for racial integration. White supremacists ruled the South then, though there were signs that they were beginning to lose their power.

It would be easy to fall into nostalgia for what false memory might consider a simpler time when the U.S. was led by strong leaders who knew the importance of principled compromise. But warm feelings about an administration that was not honest with the American people about a disastrous war seem out of place. The nation was wounded profoundly by that and, later, by Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal, Ronald Reagan's Iran Contra scandal, Bill Clinton's Monica Lewinsky scandal, George W. Bush's #FakeNews declaration that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction so the U.S. must invade and, now, by the presidency being held by a vain, incompetent man whose own attorney has described him as an effing liar.

I have no idea whether Billy Graham's prayers for LBJ changed anything. Nor do I know whether prayers for President Trump by Andrew Brunson, the American pastor newly freed by Turkey after almost two years in detention, will change anything.

But I do know that just thinking about prayer, thinking about God, or what some people call a "higher power," can remind us that it helps to have an eternal perspective about things. It helps to remember what the great world religions teach, which is that we are part of a much larger story and that we are, in the end, embraced by the impulse behind creation, which is love.

So thanks to the LBJ Library and Museum for preserving and displaying that simple note to Billy Graham. It has reminded me that we survived the Johnson administration and, if we continue to care and pay attention, we may be able to survive any president, even this one.

* * *


And speaking of presidents and religion, are you aware of how much campaigns now are collecting data on your religious connections and using them to influence your vote? If not, this RNS story will get you up to speed on that. As the story notes, "Powerful data-mining tools allow today’s campaigns to connect religious voters with their political viewpoints and to micro-target ads to fit their particular brand of faith." Of course, that's happening. Who could be surprised?

Ground control to Major Tom: 'Stay there': 10-16-18

About the time I headed to Texas last week, a United Nations organization, the International Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.), issued a report full of scary warnings about the state of the environment and where we're headed.

Earth-skullHere's a story about it from The New Yorker by Carolyn Kormann. Using that story, I want to return to this report today.

It focuses on a goal of limiting the rise in the average global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), and Kormann's story notes that the report "tells a nightmarish tale — one much worse than any of those in the I.P.C.C.’s previous reports — surveying the climate-change impacts we’re already experiencing with one degree of warming, and the severity of the impacts to come once we surpass 1.5 degrees of warming.

"Ten million more people would be exposed to permanent inundation, and several hundred million more to 'climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty.' Malaria and dengue fever will be more widespread, and crops like maize, rice, and wheat will have smaller and smaller yields — particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America. Security and economic growth will be that much more imperiled.

"'Robust scientific literature now shows that there are significant differences between 1.5 and 2 degrees,' Adelle Thomas, a geographer from the Bahamas and also one of the report’s lead authors, told me. 'The scientific consensus is really strong. It’s not just a political slogan: "1.5 to stay alive." It’s true.'”

Kormann adds this: "The report marks the start of the I.P.C.C.’s latest assessment cycle, the sixth since the organization was formed by the U.N. Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization, in 1988. Its importance is hard to overstate. The thirty-three-page summary for policymakers — which is based on more than six thousand cited studies, and written by ninety-one authors from forty different countries — is a collective scream sieved through the stern, strained language of bureaucratese. Unique ecosystems will vanish and species will go extinct by the thousands. With two degrees of warming, three times as many insects (eighteen per cent), and twice as many plants (sixteen per cent) and vertebrates (eight per cent), will lose their geographic range, when compared with warming of 1.5 degrees."

In plain language, Earth is facing a disaster that children alive today will experience and pay for in ways hard to imagine fully.

One of the saddest realities about all of this to me is that all the great religions teach environmental protection and stewardship. Yes, certain passages of the Bible, say, can be and have been used to promote "dominion," which often has meant radical, non-sustainable exploitation of the planet. But that kind of theology has been denounced and trounced countless times by saner voices.

And yet the exploitation of the planet continues.

Worse, our environmental ethic often is focused far too much on what one person can do (turn out lights, recycle newspapers) and far too little on the systemic issues that wound the planet (unregulated industrialization, mineral extraction in unsustainable ways).

This problem will not be solved by individuals recycling soda cans. But it won't be solved unless individual people of faith from across the globe make a major commitment to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Unless it's already too late for that. And wouldn't that be an inconvenient truth?

(The image you see here today came from here.)

* * *


There's sad news today for the many fans of the Rev. Eugene Peterson, whose paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, became a wildly popular book. Peterson has entered hospice care. An e-mail from his son explained that his father's health issues became quite serious recently. If you've never read Peterson, do yourself that favor. In addition to The Message, I recommend Earth and Altar.

Finding faith news while I'm gone: 10-15-18

AUSTIN, Texas -- I've been here over the weekend to visit family and friends. Regular blogging will resume tomorrow.

NewspapersBut for today, I'm going to give you a couple of sites you can turn to for some news and analysis about matters of faith.

The first is Religion News Service. This excellent group of journalists provides coverage of lots of religious matters. It's a good place to keep up. You can even support RNS with a donation.

Another good source of news and analysis in the world of faith is the Pew Research Center. Lots of studies worth reading can be found there, too.

While I'm gone I also invite you to explore the various essays I have here on the blog under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. And, of course, if you've missed any postings over the last 13-plus years I've been writing this blog, now's your time to go to the archives section on the right side of this page and catch up. (There may be a test.)

Also, as many of you know, if you friend me on Facebook, each day's blog will show up in your newsfeed. Or you can look for the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page and look there for how to sign up to receive each day's post by e-mail.

See you back here tomorrow, inshallah.

The Catholic Church's internal turmoil: 10-13/14-18

The seemingly irreparable divisions in the American body politic are disheartening. Principled compromise, which used to be how legislative and judicial bodies moved forward, has been labeled treasonous and jettisoned by lots of True Believers.

Pope-francisWhat may be even more disheartening, though perhaps no more surprising, is the radical rift now increasingly evident in the Catholic Church and especially within the Vatican itself.

As this piece in The New Republic reports, the critics of Pope Francis (pictured here) are growing bolder and more public. It's unclear how this will end, but I don't see how it can do anything but further damage the church, already scarred because of the scandal of sexually abusive priests and the bishops who tried to cover up that scandal.

"Francis has been fighting off critics practically since the day he was elected in 2013," TNR notes. That's true, although initially there was great joy over his election by much of the church. In fact, it was the deep interest that even non-Catholics took in this intriguing man that moved my pastor, Dr. Paul T. Rock, and me to write our book, Francis: Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

Pope-coverWhere are the Francis critics coming from? Again, TNR:

"Much of this resistance comes from the United States. Although 63 percent of American Catholics support the pope, according to a recent CNN poll, conservative clergy and wealthy Catholic donors remain among his fiercest critics. Their most common line of attack focuses on Francis’s supposed support for gay priests."

So once again parts of the church are tearing themselves apart over issues of human sexuality. In my view, this is a self-inflicted wound that grows out of a long and serious misreading of the Bible. I've just linked you to a longish essay I've written about what, if anything, the Bible really says about homosexuality. The quick answer is almost nothing, given that the biblical authors did not understand same-sex relationships in anything like the way we're beginning to understand them today.

The TNR piece notes that "The conservatives attempting to blame gay priests for sexual scandals appear to have two main objectives. First, they hope to purge the church of its gay clergy. And second, they want Francis out. Because he has softened the church’s stance on LGBT issues, his opponents can accuse him of sheltering gay priests and, in their minds, saddle him with responsibility for the sexual abuse crisis, despite the fact that it began long before he was elected pope."

I have no idea how all of this will turn out, but at the moment it appears that this fight is doing the church no good and much harm. Pope Francis has himself made some missteps in all of this and that hasn't helped. But until the church comes to reject its foolish opposition to the reality of homosexuality, it will continue down this path of self-wounding.

And that's not good for the world, which needs a strong and healthy Catholic Church.

* * *

P.S.: AUSTIN, Texas -- I'm here on a short trip to visit family and friends. While I'm gone I won't be adding the usual second item to the blog. Things should get back to normal Tuesday, ishallah

When to forgive? When not to? 10-12-18

Now that the confirmation vote on Brett Kavanaugh to be a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court is most of a week behind us, I'm going to return to a question raised by the sexual misconduct allegations brought against him.

Schlitz-glassHow are we to think about or even judge moral failures -- whether large or small -- that someone may have committed decades ago? That's the question a philosopher asks in this piece posted on "The Conversation."

Andrew Khoury, who teaches philosophy at Arizona State University, writes this:

"As a philosopher, I believe this ethical conundrum involves two issues: one, the question of moral responsibility for an action at the time it occurred. And two, moral responsibility in the present time, for actions of the past. Most philosophers seem to think that the two cannot be separated. In other words, moral responsibility for an action, once committed, is set in stone.

"I argue that there are reasons to think that moral responsibility can actually change over time – but only under certain conditions. . .

"What I argue is that when confronted with the issue of moral responsibility for actions long since passed, we need to not only consider the nature of the past transgression but also how far and how deeply the individual has changed."

That seemed to be part of the issue in Kavanaugh's case. By most accounts he had kept a clean record after college and had become a faithful family man, though even there one could find some questioning voices.

The great religions, of course, have much to say about repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. All three are not only desirable but possible. As the Apostle Paul wrote, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. No one, in effect, is righteous.

But that simply names the problem. The solution, if there is one, has to do with a desire to come clean about what we've done (or left undone), to promise to do our best to act differently in the future and to make peace with those we've injured.

Sometimes, of course, it's impossible to right the wrong we have done. A small, perhaps even trivial, example: One evening when I was in college, I went to a bar that was known to serve beer to underage students, which described me at the time. If you had a quarter (this was long ago) and were tall enough to place it on the bar, you could get a beer. Not only did I drink some beer that evening, but I walked out of the bar -- the now-gone I.V. (for Italian Village, as I recall) on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia -- with a Schlitz glass hidden in an inside trench coat pocket. My guess, from observation at the time, is that the I.V. lost at least a dozen or more such glasses in that way each night, though I don't use that as an excuse for my action.

I still have that glass today. It's pictured here. I keep it on an shelf -- in sight -- in my home office to remind me of my responsibility to be honest. The I.V. is long closed and torn down, so I cannot return it today to its rightful owners.

But I think it's doing good duty where it is.

Should I carry the burden of that crime more than 50 years later? Well, no, but neither should I forget it and imagine it never happened. I have forgiven myself for the theft and asked for divine pardon, too.

But swiping a beer glass from a college bar strikes me as in a quite different category from committing sexual abuse or other violent crimes. And we shouldn't miss this present opportunity to think deeply and clearly about the issues involved in such actions -- no matter when they happened.

* * *

AUSTIN, Texas -- I'm here for a few days visiting family and friends. And while I'm gone I won't be adding the usual second item to the blog. Things should return to normal here on Tuesday, inshallah.

Is God running American politics? 10-11-18

In Bob Woodward's revealing new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, there's not a lot of talk about matters related to religion and faith.

Puppet-masterBut there is one passage that describes a conversation between now-resigned presidential adviser Steve Bannon and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and it contains a view of God that strikes me as a fault line between those who hold that view and the rest of the country.

Here's the way Woodward tells the story:

"Bannon turned to what was perhaps the fondest memory of their political lives -- when Trump had won the presidency on November 9. Victory was as sweet as it got.

"'Is there any doubt in your mind on the 9th, when it was called, that it was the hand?' Bannon asked, dipping into a shared religious belief system. 'That divine providence that worked through Trump to win this?'

"'No,' Sessions said.

"'You mean that?'

"Sessions said he did.

"'It was the hand of God, right? You and I were there. We know there's no other way it could've happened than the hand of God.'


So in this kind of theology, God directly intervenes in American politics -- and in who-knows-what else. And God not only directly intervenes in a presidential race, but God works to deny the wishes of a majority of the voters by using the Electoral College to pick Trump over Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote. In effect, God rebukes human freedom and choice.

Clearly Bannon and Sessions believe in such a God. Clearly they think such a God agrees with them that Trump should be president.

But this view of God raises the disturbing possibility that God may not be intervening in other matters you'd think would be important to the sovereign of the cosmos. For instance, why didn't God intervene to prevent the deaths of 20 people in a limousine crash near Albany, N.Y., this week? Was God taking a day off? Did not God love those people? Or did they die because God was punishing each of them for something?

The old theodicy question of why there's evil and suffering in the world is made even more difficult to answer if God is the kind of God described in the Bannon-Sessions conversation. And, of course, we know that no matter what view you hold of God, the theodicy question is really hard to answer -- so much so that no one has found a fully satisfying answer to it.

The other thing a Bannon-Sessions view of God seems to do is to remove or at least limit human freedom. If God was determined to make Trump president, it means that no matter what American voters did, God would fix the results. Humans, in this view, become mere marionettes on a string attached to God's puppet-master hand -- the very hand Bannon mentioned.

Theology matters. If God made Trump president, wouldn't the people who work in his administration now also conclude that whatever they are doing to advance the Trump agenda equals doing the will of God?

And isn't that, ultimately, how some people make decisions to fly airplanes into skyscrapers and to bomb abortion clinics?

* * *


Speaking of religion and politics, leaders of two predominantly black Christian denominations announced this week that they weren't going to be led by either white liberals or white conservatives but would chart their own course. Good. Before you can be a partner with others you need to know who you are and whose you are. That seems to be what's happening here.

Can the term 'evangelism' be resurrected? 10-10-18

In Christianity, the word evangelism has become deeply entangled with a branch of the faith that purposely calls itself evangelical. In turn, in our increasingly post-Christian American society, the term evangelical often carries with it the ideas of rigidity, of intolerance, of misogyny, of anti-LGBTQ feelings, of judgmentalism and on and on.

Powell-3That's a problem for the branches of the faith that don't identify as evangelical because they, too, are obliged to engage in evangelism, which means sharing with others the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And that, of course, raises the question of what we mean by good news, which is what the word gospel means. This is way too broad a conclusion, but in some ways the good news among evangelical Christians means that believing in Jesus will save you from going to hell, while in non-evangelical branches the good news has more to do with the idea that God loves you and everyone else and that you can live a life of love, mercy, justice and compassion today, without waiting for the by-and-by of whatever heaven turns out to be.

So this past weekend, the Rev. Charlene Han Powell (pictured here), an associate pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, came to my congregation in Kansas City to talk about how to rescue the idea of evangelism and how to engage in evangelism today in a way that is welcoming, respectful and well-received.

The very idea of evangelism is difficult in a time when our nation is so divided and tribal: Republican-Democrat, rich-poor, black-white, straight-gay, urban-rural, male-female, religious-secular, Kavanaugh-Ford and on and on. These fault-lines are affecting the church and how it goes about its work, which includes inviting others to be part of that work.

In such a divided time, the question to ask, Powell insisted, is this: "What could possibly be good news to a person in need?" In other words, before Christians offer a prepared, snap, four-point answer about how best to live and who Jesus is, it's important to find out the needs of the people to whom we are speaking. Beyond that, she said, "When the gospel isn't good news for everyone, it isn't the gospel."

The problem for many Mainline Protestant churches, Powell said, is that "in our effort not to be evangelical, we've stopped talking about Jesus." One way to fix that, she suggested, is that when congregations do various ministries of social justice, they should name their work as being Christian "so that people will know that Christianity doesn't just look one way." Unless we tell people what is motivating us, she said, we can't expect people to know.

So telling people what moves us to care about the poor, the homeless, the hungry and others in need is what evangelism really is, she suggested.

I like her approach. It means being clear about who God is for us but it also means paying close attention to what breaks God's heart. For what breaks God's heart must surely break ours. And people should know why we work to repair the broken hearts of others.

* * *


By now anyone paying even half attention knows that in the 2016 presidential race, about 80 percent white Christian evangelicals in the U.S. voted for Donald Trump for president. Lots of those folks still are in his camp. And there's a campaign on to keep them on the Republican side in the upcoming midterm elections. But, as this NPR story makes clear, it's also true that people who identify as progressive or liberal people of faith also are being targeted by politicians to get out and vote. I worry that faith communities may get further co-opted by political parties to focus largely on political goals and not on spiritual truths. And yet who was more political than Jesus? One of the main reasons the Romans executed him was because of the claim that "Jesus is Lord," a direct challenge to Caesar. But the politics of religious people always should be grounded in religious principles and values and not in the hunger for power. Power corrupts. And political power in the hands of deeply religious people may be especially dangerous.

Einstein's million-dollar anti-religion letter: 10-9-18

The scientific genius Albert Einstein (pictured here) grew up as a devout Jew. As this Chicago Tribune story notes, "he wrote songs in praise of God, which he belted out as he walked to and from his high school."

Albert-einsteinBut later in his teenage years he mostly abandoned his religious tradition because he came to think that he'd been conned into believing lies, especially about how the world works.

In 1954, as the Tribune story notes, Einstein wrote a letter to a Jewish philosopher and made this assertion: "The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. "

That letter now is on the auction block and is expected to bring $1 million or more when it's sold in December.

It's interesting that although Einstein was quite critical of the kind of religious beliefs he was taught as a child, he never became as aggressive about his atheism as some well-known so-called "New Atheists" (Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others) have been in our time. As the Tribune story notes:

"Whatever his views on religion, he maintained a deep respect for what he called 'religious geniuses,' and believed that religion was necessary to guide people between right and wrong.

"'Science can only ascertain what is, not what should be,' as he put it."

As I noted here in yesterday's blog post, the primary question science cannot answer is the one about the purpose of life. That's a question for religion and philosophy. Einstein got that.

But the 1954 letter does raise the question for people of faith of how to respond to criticism of religion. Shooting back is almost certainly not the right approach. Rather, it helps to understand how the person offering the criticism came to his or her conclusion and to begin the conversation there.

It's also useful to understand that someone rightly recognized as a genius in one field may not be anywhere close to an expert in another field. So if I want a Jewish take on a matter of faith I'm much smarter to go to someone like Abraham Joshua Heschel rather than to Albert Einstein.

* * *


A surgeon with great interfaith sensibilities in South Sudan has won a United Nations award. He's a model for the kind of people the world desperately needs today. Good for him. And good for the U.N. for recognizing him.