Gun Stupidity

This essay is not intended to address the problem of gun violence. It has to do with one particular strain of thought regarding gun violence.

I’m usually quite tolerant of thinking that differs from my own, of different religious doctrines, political opinions, aesthetic tastes, etc. But there is one conclusion that is just so batshit wrong that it can only be called “stupid.” It’s not a question of ignorance; it’s stupid. If the word “stupid” should apply to any concept, idea, conclusion, assumption or any other thought process in human history it should apply to this. If you would look up “stupid” in my dictionary next to it would be “We would be safer from gun violence if more us carried guns.” That’s stupid.

It’s stupid because it’s an idea that some people have landed upon after doing one, and only one, mental step. And a small step at that. To wit: If the victims of the various mass shootings had been armed with guns themselves, they would have been able to protect themselves.

Now if you are a person of little or no imagination, this makes sense. Because if you are a person of little or no imagination you stop thinking when you reach a conclusion that you like, that makes you feel good. And this conclusion makes gun-lovers feel good.

But to stop thinking after one thought because it makes one feel good is stupid, especially since the very next thought that should arise calls into sharp question the one that precedes it. Now before I tell you the next thought, let me take a calming breath and say a little more about why the conclusion that an armed citizenry is a safer citizenry is stupid. It’s not stupid because it is a thought; it’s stupid because it is a conclusion.

So in the imagined scene in this thinking is that when someone appears with a gun with the intention of harming others, if someone else with a gun is there, that person will be able to shoot the first person. The next thought, the one right next to it in most thinking people’s imagination, the one that renders that conclusion stupid is this: But that assumes that malicious gunmen are not going to change their behavior from that of the past. And that’s the stupid part; that’s the part that leads to it being a conclusion instead of just a passing thought.

Here’s the thought that should follow the conclusion, empties it of its credibility. People, including people intent on violent mayhem, will change their behavior in different circumstances. Is that too difficult to grasp? Let me expand.

A gunman walks into a classroom and calmly and with a deliberate pace shoots a number of persons in the classroom. His actions are partially determined by the assumption that no one in the classroom is armed. That’s a reasonable assumption. If the citizenry is as widely armed as some people think is necessary for safety, his assumptions are going to be different and his behavior will be different. He will not walk slowly and act deliberately. The circumstances are different. He will throw a grenade; he will drive a vehicle into a crowd; he will set off a fire bomb. In other words, the person intent on visiting violence upon others if he knows the others have protected themselves against guns will probably(?) increase his means of violence.

So advocates of arming the rest of the citizenry with the idea that this is going to stop mass killings—giving no consideration to the number of suicides and accidental shootings—You want to give that just a little more thought?

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Self-Control and Gun Violence

The number of gun deaths, suicides and homicides in particular, are not going to be much reduced soon in this country. It is important to understand why so that those of us who wish this to change are not distracted or despaired by ineffective efforts.

The number, availability and use of guns is a cultural phenomenon. As a culture we value guns. This is not new nor localized. It has been part of the American mythos since the dime novels of mid-19th cent and is not limited to those who own guns. Guns are understood as tied with individual liberty and independence, personally and politically. And perhaps more importantly, with the protection and salvation of the vulnerable and innocent.

The portrayal of the gun-wielding, West-winning, community-saving cowboy of the late 1800s is with us still. He is the loner, the outsider, the unattached one who uses gun violence to save/protect the vulnerable of the community. Matt Dillon, Shane, the Clint Eastwood characters, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, et al. These heroes from the history of the West morphed into the heroes of our present urban wildernesses–Magnum, Rockford, Mannix, Kojak and into our future as per Robo Cop and others. (I have to apologize for my ignorance of more contemporaneous portrayals. I’m not the TV watcher I used to be.)

These values are not limited to our understanding of what it means to be an American Individual, but with our national identity as well. From our war of independence through our saving of the world from fascism in WWII, we see our nation as the hero with the gun. It is no aberration that presidential candidate Ben Carson, an advocate of a citizenry made safe through universally armed self-defense, would see the D-day invasion of Normandy as a paradigm of personal courage. In other words, we should live with one another like we are at war.

It’s not that guns make sense or don’t make sense. It’s that on a deep, unexamined, uncontested level, they feel good. They feel good to own and use, especially in response to fear, to a sense of powerlessness, to a sense of moral imperative. The predominant belief is that guns are good.

The good news is in that word “predominant,” because that belief is neither universal nor permanent. It is changing. But what is important for those of us who want that change to continue is to understand that it will be tectonic in its timing until it reaches a tipping point. It will happen. We, as a nation, will get to a point in our culture where guns will be viewed negatively, handguns and assault rifles in particular. Legislation will happen. Safety will increase. Lives will be saved.

What to do? What’s practical? In the 21st century cultural change happens via digital media; it’s Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. So share, retweet, repost the statistics, the anecdotes, the memes, the quotes, the url’s. Do it over and over. Trust the unseen effect. Above all, don’t despair. Faith moves mountains.

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Correct Change

I never have correct change. Usually, I don’t have any change in my pockets, at least not for long. It’s not because I have holes in my pockets. It’s because…well, here’s the story.
Some years ago—I’m not sure when exactly. It must have been before 1998, because we were living in the little postwar prefab; now we live in the prewar lannon stone—I went with my wife and her father on a walk downtown. My wife and her father are brisk walkers. I have often joked that they walk “like someone who has just committed a crime.” It was no surprise that they outpaced me.
I walked along, as is my habit, with my hands in my pockets. For some reason I wanted my pockets empty, so I took the change in my pocket, a quarter and a dime, and dropped them on the sidewalk. I assumed I would pick them up again on the way back. We did whatever it was we intended to do, and I left my wife and father-in-law and returned home before them. I completely forgot about the coins on the sidewalk.
Now my father-in-law was not a poor man. Though he had grown up in the Great Depression and had known hard times as a child, he was a successful electrical engineer, working both in the States and abroad. In other words, he did not struggle to pay his bills. Indeed, he was able to be generous.
When he returned with my wife from downtown, he walked in the front door with a big smile and said, “I found thirty-five cents on the sidewalk!” I don’t remember what I said, but I made no claim on the money.
Later I reflected that there was nothing I could have purchased, no experience I could have provided, nothing I could have done with that quarter and dime, including just giving it to him, that would have brought my father-in-law as much joy as finding it on the sidewalk. And that made me happy.
So that’s why I never have change. I drop coins on the sidewalk, put them on store shelves, throw them into parking lots. Maybe someone will find them, maybe someone will have a little joy added to their day, but this is certain: I am a bit happier considering the possibility.
And there is an unforeseen consequence: a spiritual lightening of the heart accompanies the lightening of the pocket. Letting go of the change in my pocket loosens my grip on the rest of my possessions. I have, in a very small way, acted my way into a different way of thinking, feeling.

That’s been correct change.

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The Cold Hard Fact of American Racism

The shooting of Michael Brown and the decision of the grand jury not to indict officer Darren Wilson are like icebergs—large, multifaceted, mesmerizing, distracting. They draw our attention, temporarily compel us to change course, but finally, no matter how large they loom in our vision, melt away. They are not the problem. Even though the much greater part of their mass is invisible, they are not the problem.

The problem is the glacier of racism from which they emerge A glacier whose movement is often unseen, yet which is inexorably violent in its effect.

The glacier of racism calves events that grab our attention for the length of a news cycle, perhaps longer, but its greatest effect for young black men is not being shot by police officers. Its greatest effect is the incarceration of black men at a rate sinfully, immorally disproportionate to the rate crime of their neighborhoods, crushing their prospects of economic and social success, and eviscerating their families and communities. And it robs their children of the optimistic hope their white counterparts carry into adulthood. It is a glacier whose weight and movement is manifest in a thousand ways in millions of lives—far more than I know and can write of. But we all live and die here. Together.

Though Michael Brown’s parents know a grief no parents should, theirs is not the only sadness. What is also sad is how accustomed so many of us have become to our glaciated, misshaped land.

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Not About Domestic Violence

I was going to write an essay about violence—and some of those thoughts will probably appear here eventually—in order to offer some context for the public discussion about domestic violence specifically and the Ray Rice incident in particular. But as I approached this task I worried about whether the conversation was already over, whether on Facebook, in the news, at the coffee shop, in the locker rooms and on Comedy Central we had all moved on to other things. So rather than an essay on violence offering context for domestic violence, an essay on conversations and context seems more appropriate.

Our public conversations are nearly meaningless. Why? Because they are often no more than an exchange of tweets and shot-from-the-hip opinions. Knee-jerk reactions that are little more than emotive, seldom informative, never transformative of either individual or society. A death, four deaths, a dozen deaths, a thousand deaths burst into our awareness via the media. Those who get paid to respond do so quickly and (because they are paid to be so) evocatively. Then we and others respond to them. Then we tweet and talk among ourselves until the next news cycle. The bodies are buried, and we move on. We take away from the event a word, the name of a place or a person—Dahmer, Columbine, Trayvon, and most recently, Ferguson, but the labels fade.

What saddens me is that the conversation always curses us with false hope and thus false contentment. “Oh! We’re going to talk about it. Now things will be different.” But the intent of the conversation is not what it seems, not conversion, not change. The intent of the conversation is emotional release, reducing our anxiety and allowing us to continue with whatever it was we were doing before we were interrupted.

Remember the movie “Up” and the way the dogs were distracted by seeing a squirrel? If you don’t there’s a brief clip here: That’s us. Squirrel.

So how do we move beyond this cartoon canine consciousness? With great difficulty.

Look, what underlies the behavior is that we enjoy being entertained. And the news, even when it is tragic, is entertaining—as long as it’s someone else’s tragedy. Black people will be talking about Michael Brown’s shooting for a long time. White people, not so much. Women will be talking about Ray Rice’s behavior for a long time. Men, not so much.

The solution is to move from conversation to relationship, from “talking about” to “being with,” and that begins with a conscious shift in perception. It means we stop reinforcing our present perceptions and opinions, and choose to see, “them” as “us,” the other as self. It means for me to see that it was one of us that was shot in Ferguson. It means for me to see that it was one of us who was knocked unconscious in an elevator. And even to see that it was one of us who shot, one of us who hit.

This is neither new nor easy. It is not entertaining. But as I have been told and have seen glimpses of, it is worth it.

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Twain on Obama’s election (from “History As It Might Have Been”)

             Mr. Twain asked if there were any more questions from the attending audience. A young woman stood up and asked him if he had been surprised that the country had elected a black man as president of the United States.
He frowned and said, “No, I was not surprised that it had happened. I had expected since the end of the war and the death of Mr. Lincoln that an American of African heritage would eventually be our president. I was surprised that it took so terribly long…though I was disappointed it was not someone from Missourah”
           The woman went on to ask if he thought the criticism of the President was based in racial prejudice. The old man struck a match, and when he had relit the cigar to his satisfaction, sighed and said, “Every president including this one deserves, even needs, vigorous criticism from all quarters. And a good deal of it may have merit. But much of it the present vitriol illumines the sad truth that the darkest continent on this earth in need of exploration is the human soul.”
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Twain on Lying (from “History As It Might Have Been”)

After the lecture Mr. Twain said he would entertain a few questions from the audience. A young man toward the back of the theater stood and said, “Mr. Twain, you have made a good living from telling tall tales. That is, you have been paid to be liar.”

“Well, just a minute, son. I have made a living by being an entertaining provocateur, this is true. But I have not been paid to be a liar. I have been paid to be entertaining. I reject the label of ‘liar’ by virtue of the fact that I have let the audience in on the game. But what was your question?”

“When it is acceptable to lie then? Is it morally acceptable to lie if it is entertaining? Can I tell my parents a lie as long as we laugh? What about the Bible calling the Devil the ‘father of lies’? What if–

“Hold up there!” said Mr. Twain, raising his hand. “You’re piling too much wood on the small flame of my intellect. Let me get a little oxygen, and I will try to bring some light to the issue.” He then took a cigar from a breast pocket and his pen knife from another and furrowed his brow has he nipped the end to prepare it for smoking. Looking up he said, “When a man considers the consequence of a lie, that is, when he weighs the risk of being caught at it against the possibility of gain, he has stepped away from being honest. And if he continues in this vein he has moved on; he is a mathematician, a calculator, a planner. And if he likes his conclusion he has become a liar.”

The young man, still standing, asked, “How can he be a liar if chooses not to tell the lie? And how can he decide whether to tell the lie or not? What’s the calculus?”

Mr. Twain pulled a match from his vest and spent some moments lighting his cigar. When it was lit to his satisfaction, he said, “A man may sit down at a poker table and pick up the cards dealt him and looking at them decide to fold and walk away. But he can’t tell anyone he never gambled. He became a gambler when he sat down at that table. A liar becomes a liar when he begins to calculate using an untruth to his advantage even if he leaves his cards on the table.”

“Well, am I a liar then for asking these questions?” asked the young man, with some heat.

“Well, son, you know your own heart better than I do,” he answered. “But I would caution members of the audience against loaning you money.”

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I am not Trayvon Martin and probably neither are you.

The sympathy (not empathy) and outrage (not action) of many persons of my class and race in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin and acquittal of George Zimmerman is somewhat irksome to me. And it provides me with an opportunity to be self-righteous in feeling but perhaps helpful in writing. One young black man is killed by one non-black young man who is then not found guilty of a crime and a wailing and wringing of hands abounds in the media and social network world.

Here’s another reality. Young black men are killed by guns held by other young black men far, far too often in a nation that claims to be just and among people of faiths who claim to be compassionate. This reality happens invisibly or nearly so. Certainly, it pales to near-invisibility in the bright light of responses to the Martin-Zimmerman incident.

Where is the outrage over the daily deaths and systematic injustice visited upon family after family of color and poverty? Where is the outrage over the murder of young men and women who threatened no one, whose deaths engendered no frustration over “stand you ground” laws? Where is the lament over the number of young black men who spend time incarcerated by a system that disfavors persons of color and poverty in a nation that has the highest rate of incarceration of its citizen than anywhere else in the world!

Let us be sad at the death of Trayvon but let some of us be rigorous in judgment of ourselves, our passivity and participation. The system that led to his death was not the Florida criminal justice system and “SYG” laws. That’s where it ended. This death, like far too many before it and far to many that will follow, was the product of the systemic racism of America that makes it hard for families of poverty and color to hold together, that manifests itself in harmful and lethal violence that has become the norm, that pushes children to arm themselves against one another.

This is not my life. The lives of 17 year-old urban black men like Trayvon Martin are so far from my life to post anything even hinting of identification is…whatever is beyond hypocrisy. My life, my self, is much closer to the racist fear of George Zimmerman. Let those who truly suffer this system’s sin hold signs that say “We are all Trayvon!”, but let us who are far and fearfully removed from their lives whisper to ourselves, “We are all George Zimmerman.”

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A Christ-like Nation Rather Than a Christian One (1)

The founders of our nation varied in doctrine but they shared passionately in the religiopolitical commitment that the new nation should be a land of religious tolerance.  From Washington’s condemnation of “Pope Night” (albeit for practical purposes2) in 1775 to the ratification of the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1791 and the of Treaty of Tripoli (with its famous paragraph in the English translation3) the leaders of the nation’s early life sought to establish a clearly defined tolerance with regard to persons of various faiths and of no faith.

In the foolish battle over which version of Christianity held sway over the hearts and minds of those who fought for the establishment of a new nation and who wrote its defining documents we have lost sight of their common commitment not to a Christian nation (They would abhor such a concept.)  but to a “Christ-like” politic.

I say “Christ-like” rather than “Christian” because Jesus Christ’s approach to those with whom he differed was one of tolerance, acceptance even embrace, even, especially when it was contrary to the dominant culture.  AndHis call was not to political change but to a spiritual transformation, a change of heart.  As those who follow Christ in loving “the other” faithful Christians know how difficult this can be.  It is truly a struggle,4   but this is exactly the task to which we American Christians are called, to change our hearts.

To do so not only to be Jesus disciples in faith but that we might also be the citizens Jesus would have us be, that is, tolerant, accepting, embracing.  Our role as citizens ought to reflect our faith as Christians.  This does not mean an adherence to one doctrine or another, one set of tenets instead of another.  It means looking at the importance we place on those characteristics we use to judge one another and reducing their importance until our common citizenship can be seen clearly.  It means discerning and disempowering our fear and judgment of those who are different in irrelevant ways.

Ironically enough, it is our fellow Islamic citizens, the very persons so many of us seem to be fearing in the present, who have the perfect concept for this struggle—jihad.  This is not a simple concept.  Among its understandings is the one most commonly held by non-Muslims that of “holy war.”  But though this may be its most common understanding, it is not its primary understanding.  Its primary understanding is the internal struggle to be faithful.  That is exactly what American Christians are called to—to struggle with the fears and prejudices within that keep us from being faithful in our citizenship.  It not a “battle for the heart of America”; it is a battle of our hearts as Americans.

We are not called to create a Christian nation or to recreate it from some misconceived past.  We are called to create a Christ-like nation, a nation as embracing, as accepting, as offering of hospitality as was Jesus of Nazareth.  That will not spring from arguments won from one end of the political spectrum or the other.  It will not spring from correct doctrine or political correctness.  It will not be born in code or commandment.  It will spring forth from hearts transformed.  It will spring from a  victorious battle/struggle/jihad carried on within ourselves.

It will manifest itself in relationships that are perhaps discomforting, perhaps difficult, but faithful to the example of Christ and the vision of our founders.  It will be expressed in policies, codified in laws that establish a political hospitality sorely needed within our boarders and beyond.

————————-   Notes   ————————–

1In recent years conservative Christians have taken the public stage calling for a return to the faith of “our founding Fathers.”   Almost without exception the Christianity they discover is a reflection of their own, finding in the volumes of spoken and written words those paragraphs, sentences or phrases that resonate with their own beliefs.  The ultimate intent seems to a divine sanctioning of their political philosophy.

And inevitably, the battle for right understanding of these authorities has been enjoined from the other end of the spectrum with liberal Christians pointing to the same forbearers but lifting up those paragraphs, sentences or phrases that resonate with their beliefs.  Though I side with the latter group, neither of them addresses what I see as the most pressing concern for American Christians.

2“As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America:
“At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.”

3As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

4 The Apostle Paul probably said it best for Christians in his letter to the Romans 7:15 “15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

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EEL 7 Christian Education: The Springboard of the Dive of Faith (or a millstone about the neck)

I want to begin with where I began as a Christian learner and then move to where I am now and then end with a proposal for this fall.
Margret Mitchell, Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School in speaking of models of learning in the study of religion compares two venues of production—the factory and the workshop. I won’t say more about her remarks except to say that she dismisses the idea of religious education having as its goal to produce an assembly line product. And she elevates the idea of religious education as providing a broad set of skills for examining the subject.
The model of Christian education with which I grew up was very much the “factory assembly line” approach. This was especially true during my confirmation instruction—three years of three hours a week, Saturday mornings. The central focus of this enterprise was learning/memorizing the questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism ( This 16th century document consisting of 129 questions and answers was considered to be a summation of Lutheran and Reformed orthodoxy, right doctrine, the Truth. There was no mention by our pastor of any other catechism or any context for our beliefs. Indeed, I remember more than a few disparaging remarks about Christians of other denominations, particularly Roman Catholics. Fortunately, my best friend was Catholic so such religious bigotry found little purchase on my heart/mind.
Here were the questions to be asked and the answers to be given. And after learning these and being examined before the congregation, one was then qualified, perhaps even worthy, of becoming part of the congregation and of receiving Communion as such. I cannot tell you, DR, how contrary to the teachings and life of Jesus I find this to be. For a number of reasons.
First is it the reduction of faith—which is a relationship of fidelity and affection between the believer and the Divine—to the holding of a limited number of tenets, beliefs.
Second is the error to assume that right belief (in the sense of intellectual tenets) somehow makes one worthy of being part of the church, the community of followers of Jesus, the One who welcomed sinners, children, outcasts, religious zealots, all. Jesus reached out, invited others to community; my home church and its pastor erected a barrier. And a meaningless one at that. This reduction of the relationship of faith to an intellectual accomplishment of sorts creates a stumbling block for those of limited intelligence but who may well be “great of heart.” Who could possibly think this is in accord with Christ?
Third, this exercise tends to truncate the growth of understanding of Christianity, its Scripture, its history, its variety, etc. Though not essential, an increase in knowledge often leads to an increase in tolerance, understanding, acceptance—Christ-like attributes—in addition the necessary virtue of humility, born of an understanding that one does not have THE truth and that others who hold different beliefs/opinions are not only in error but not in a right relationship with God. Ignorance is a fertile ground for bigotry.
Fourth, memorization and regurgitation ill-prepares one to live in a religiously pluralistic society unless one is willing to wear intellectual blinders.
So what form should Christian education take?
I believe it should prepare the Christian to be a lifelong learner, not just a lifelong believer. It’s first purpose is to inform.
It should give to the Christian an understanding of his/her context—the context of his/her own life, the context of the history of Christianity, the context of world religions and world history, the context of the present cultural/social milieu. In other words, the person of faith as a learner needs to first understand where he/she is, the source of some of his/her assumptions, beliefs, myths, etc. And the intellectual influences operative in his/her life. This can be as simple as a brief overview of Church history, a survey of world religions, a look at contemporary Christianity and an examination of one’s own “faith journey.”
These contexts also provide opportunities for conveying some of the basic information about Christianity, in general and in particulars regarding denominations and the local church.
It should give the Christian the tools for continued learning. First and foremost in this regard is helping the Christian understand that knowledge is not a threat to belief.1 It has been my experience—lo, these many years—that the more I know about some aspect of my faith, the more I appreciate it, admire it and receive from it. It should provide the tools for further study—information about commentaries, dictionaries, video and internet resources, etc.
And most importantly, it should provide for the Christian an encouragement, an enthusiasm for learning at whatever level and to whatever degree he/she chooses.
Having said all of this, Christian education needs to be put in perspective with regard to Christian practice. As I wrote in my opening paragraphs, defining Christianity primarily as an enterprise of the mind reduces it, limits it, to less—I believe far less-than either Jesus or Jesus’ Jewish ancestors ever understood a life of faith to be.

That one’s practice is enhanced, enabled and encouraged by learning is nearly universal in disciplines. Musical theory helps performance; knowing the rules of the game helps playing; understanding the mechanics helps operate the machine, etc. But learning is not necessary for practice.
Learning also enhances relationships—which is finally what Christianity is. Knowing something about human development, psychology, emotional dynamics, etc. helps us in relationships with everyone from family to stranger. Knowing how children develop helps us as parents. Knowing the issues for aging adults helps us as caretakers of parents. I’d even toss in the necessary of knowledge for being a pet owner or raiser of livestock.
It’s these two ends—the enhancement of practice and relationship (with God and neighbor) that Christian education serve as a means not as an end in itself. Every aspect of teaching in the church should be considered and evaluated in light of these two closely intertwined concerns—one penultimate and one ultimate. In other words, Does this learning lead to greater faithfulness in the Christian life of love of God and neighbor. If it does not do so clearly and directly, then its implementation and/or continuance really needs to be questioned.

1 The anti-intellectualism that pervades much of Christianity, especially toward the conservative end of the spectrum is one of the tragic legacies of early 20th century Fundamentalism and the (unnecessary) conflict between Creationism based on a literal reading of Scripture and the data-based theories of Science.


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