Richard Ostling

Circumcision: When, how, who, what, why? And what about secular laws?

Circumcision: When, how, who, what, why? And what about secular laws?

JOHN ASKS:

When did circumcision start and how was God involved? How did its use evolve to today’s practice?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

In the Jewish faith, ritual circumcision of males (bris) to remove the foreskin of the penis has been a requirement ever since God designated it as a “sign of the covenant” with Abraham (Genesis 17:10-14). So God has been “involved” for some 4,000 years now.

Anthropologists tell us that circumcision was practiced long before Abraham, across the globe from pharaonic Egypt to aboriginal Australia. It was often a tribal “rite of passage” at puberty, and not the Bible’s sign of commitment to God performed on eight-day-old newborns. The “why” of circumcision prior to biblical times is uncertain. Macmillan’s “Encyclopedia of Religion” says contemporary experts dismiss the theories that it originated to mark captives, attract women, enhance sexual pleasure, aid hygiene, test bravery, or symbolize submission to elders or the cutting of bonds with mothers.

Jewish surgery and ceremonial are commonly the work of a specialist known as a mohel. The operation is traditionally required for adult converts as well as infants born in the faith. Though liberal Reform Judaism dropped that mandate in 1893, some of its rabbis continue the tradition. Note that any male born of a Jewish mother is deemed a Jew, even if he is not circumcised.

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'Special pleaders,' church-state issues and the new Republican shape of the U.S. Congress

'Special pleaders,' church-state issues and the new Republican shape of the U.S. Congress

Good stories lurk in ideology-driven magazines and web sites on the religion beat, perhaps more so than with other fields.

For example, there’s often useful fare blended with the partisanship of Church & State, monthly house organ of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. This lobby and litigator closely monitors those it assails as “far-right religious conservatives,” provides some useful information and is always happy to brief reporters on its side of an issue.

Consider, for example, the cover story in Church & State’s current issue, “New Congress, New Challenges,” by assistant communications director Simon Brown. Republicans rode to victory on “fundamentalist support,” he says, so “2015 could be a cataclysmic year for church-state separation.” 

Stripped of the tendentious rhetoric and alarmism, Brown assembles some good tips.  As he observes, during the next two years the Republican-run Congress may revive hot-button religion bills that previously died in committee or passed  the G.O.P House but not the Democratic Senate. They would:

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Why doesn’t the Bible mention dinosaurs? (Plus, the Religion Guy visits 'Crossroads')

Why doesn’t the Bible mention dinosaurs? (Plus, the Religion Guy visits 'Crossroads')

EDITOR'S NOTE: Check out Richard Ostling's first "Crossroads" podcast, focusing on coverage of Islam and violence. Listen in right here, or subscribe to the podcasts at iTunes.

TOM SAYS:

I am confused when the Bible talks about God creating the world in seven days but there is no evidence of humans living with dinosaurs.

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This problem arises if “creationism” controls Bible interpretation. That term has come to identify those Protestants whose strictly literal reading of the Bible’s Book of Genesis requires a “young earth.” That is, if God created the cosmos and all species 10,000 years ago at most, then humanity and dinosaurs must have lived at the same time.

“Creationism” is a common but simplistic, misleading label because multitudes who worship God as the creator of all nature also accept standard geology’s vastly longer time frame, based on radiometric and other dating techniques of the past two centuries. By this reckoning, dinosaurs first inhabited Earth some 230 million years ago and became extinct 65.5 million years ago, eons before humanity appeared. The most recent report last November said a dinosaur find in southwestern Alberta, Canada, may be 80 million years old.

“Old earth creationists” believe scientists’ long chronology readily fits with faithfulness to the Bible’s account of origins, but criticize Darwin’s theory of evolution. A third camp of self-identified Bible believers embraces both an old earth and “theistic evolution,” seeing Darwin’s scenario as God’s method of forming species while opposing contentions that evolution was random and without purpose or a Creator.

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Where will various religions stand in the same-sex marriage church-state showdown?

Where will various religions stand in the same-sex marriage church-state showdown?

The U.S. Supreme Court’s April hearing and June ruling on same-sex marriage will be historic for the nation’s religions as well as for partisan politics, law, and society. There’s sharp division in this case among faith groups, and sometimes within them, so reporters will want to carefully monitor the inflow of religious and moral arguments as “friend of the court” briefs are filed in coming weeks.

The court defines two issues: Does the Constitution’s “equal protection” clause require that all states issue same-sex marriage licenses? Does the same clause require that a state recognize all marriages lawfully licensed by other states?

An implicit issue: whether judges or state legislatures and voters have power over contested social policies.

Religious proponents of marriage change are confident of Supreme Court victory and likely to file briefs. They include liberal Jews, Unitarian Universalists, and the Metropolitan Community Churches (whose primary ministry is with gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered), along with organizations of atheists and humanists.  Defending traditional marriage  are the the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, evangelical and conservative Protestants, some African-American Protestants, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormon”), Orthodox Judaism and Islam.

But what about the so-called “Mainline” Protestants who’ve lately been shifting -- especially at the level of pulpits and church boards -- in favor of gay couples?

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How can this seeker manage to find the 'right church' in this day and age?

How can this seeker manage to find the 'right church' in this day and age?

KEVIN ASKS:

I have been struggling for some time now searching for the right church for myself and family. . . . Please help me sort my understanding of truth and find a place to congregate and worship. I feel as though I have been absent too long.

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This request characterizes the church-shopping by many would-be returnees and is worth some attention. Kevin says family members share his ideas as discussed below. The Religion Guy e-mailed for further information but Kevin didn’t respond, so the following combines his original posting with some guesswork.

The family is obviously Protestant in sensibility, and one point greatly helps the process of elimination. Though Kevin has “strayed” from a Baptist boyhood he still believes children who “don’t understand both good and evil” should not be baptized, and that the ceremony is “a symbol only, as a public display of your choice to accept salvation.” So he needs a baptistic kind of church, whether or not it carries a “Baptist” label.

Further narrowing the field, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches mostly agree with Kevin about baptism but they’re out because, though he thinks speaking in tongues is “possible,” he dislikes “the way it is displayed today.” He didn’t mention any interest in African-American solidarity and culture so we’ll assume the National Baptist denominations wouldn’t be his preference.

Now, not this: The posting didn’t say whether he cares about a church’s “worship style,” socio-political involvements, or policy on U.S. Protestants’ troublesome gay issue.

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Big question in the background: What is terrorism’s long-term impact on world Islam?

Big question in the background: What is terrorism’s long-term impact on world Islam?

The news media are understandably consumed with Muslim terrorists’ deadly attacks on a satirical weekly’s office and a Jewish grocery in Paris. Europeans are soul-searching over national security, anti-Semitism, and outrage against Muslims, with no evident enthusiasm for restoring any Christian vitality. Tough coverage logistics meant there was scant notice that in the same week Boko Haram destroyed a town in Nigeria and slaughtered hundreds, even as many as 2,000, inhabitants.  

There’s the usual journalistic confusion here over how to characterize the religious aspect. Just before these latest atrocities,  the journal First Things published an article on “Challenging Radical Islam” that’s must reading for reporters. Author John Azumah, a Christian expert on Islam at Columbia Theological Seminary, carefully balances the ideological complexities. Contra the left, he says “key aspects of the ideology of radical violent Muslim groups are indeed rooted in Islamic texts and history.” Yet he criticizes the right, contending that in principle Islam or the Koran or the Prophet Muhammad aren’t the real problem.
            
Azumah notes that “Muslim leaders around the world have repeatedly and publicly denounced” al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and Islamic State (ISIS). The Religion Guy addressed this last September 27 in “Who speaks for Islam in a time of terrorism?”

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Attention editors: Concerning a seriously neglected church-state drama in the District of Columbia

Attention editors: Concerning a seriously neglected church-state drama in the District of Columbia

An important church-state story in the nation’s capital has largely been ignored in the news media except for an op-ed and online articles from the conservative Catholics at the Cardinal Newman Society.

On Dec. 2, the District of Columbia Council unanimously amended the city's Human Rights Act in order to end exemptions that aided religions opposed to same-sex relationships.

That's big news. Then on Dec. 17 the  Council unanimously amended that same act to forbid discrimination against employees’ “reproductive health decisions” to choose abortion, sterilization and contraception.

The D.C. votes create conscience-clause problems -- especially for those associated with Washington’s Catholic school system and for the Catholic University of America. The university’s unique status turns this from a mere local fuss into a nationally significant challenge to the institution of the Catholic Church.

Why is that?

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Looking ahead: From 'Cuomo Catholicism' to questions about Jeb Bush

Looking ahead: From 'Cuomo Catholicism' to questions about Jeb Bush

It's time for reporters to start preparing themselves for a new “religious issue” if, as expected, Jeb Bush runs for U.S. president.

Bush, a former Episcopalian who converted to wife Columba’s church in 1995, could become the first Roman Catholic to win the Republican nomination. In fact, his party has only chosen two Catholics for vice president and neither won that office (William Miller and Paul Ryan).
By contrast, the Democrats have named three for president (Al Smith, the sole Catholic president John F. Kennedy, and John Kerry) and four for vice president (Edmund Muskie, Sargent Shriver, Geraldine Ferraro, and the only one to serve, incumbent Joseph Biden).

Conservative writer Ira Stoll is right on top of things, pondering on Dec. 29 over at the libertarian reason.com site how Bush would handle the “Catholic question." 

For example, a 2013 Bush speech quoted in The Miami Herald said his views on immigration reflect “what my church teaches me.” That puts him to the left of the GOP field on the issue, and such remarks may trouble citizens who agree with President John F. Kennedy’s wariness toward any religious influences in public policy.

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Turn, turn, turn: What is Buddhism’s appeal for contemporary Americans?

Turn, turn, turn: What is Buddhism’s appeal for contemporary Americans?

DANIEL ASKS:

What aspects attract the many religious Americans that convert to Buddhism?

THE RELIGION GUY RESPONDS:

Before discussing what “attracts” let’s consider how “many” Americans have adopted this venerable faith. The over-all U.S. context is a deep divide between native-born converts (presumably Daniel’s interest) and Asian immigrants, also American Buddhists but not new “converts.” Richard Hughes Seager of Hamilton College calls this split “the most prominent feature of American Buddhism” during recent decades.

Due to the 1965 liberalization of U.S. immigration law, Asian-Americans dominate U.S. Buddhism.

As with Islam, it’s hard to pin down the numbers. The religion has no U.S. umbrella organization to represent its myriad branches and issue headcounts. The American Religious Identity Survey in 2001 sampled 50,000 Americans and projected there were 1.1 million adult Buddhists, and later added children for an estimated 1.5 million. The “World Christian Encyclopedia” (second edition, 2001) listed 2.45 million U.S. Buddhists including children but didn’t count “new religions” like Japan’s Soka Gakkai that others consider Buddhist. Experts have said Asian-American immigrants are something like three-fourths of U.S. Buddhists, and by outdated guesses there may be as few as 100,000 non-immigrant converts or as many as 800,000.

What aspects attract?

Meditation is certainly the key.

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