We had so much fun a few years ago with our first annual interfaith smackdown, that we invited Rev. Daniel Meeter of Old First Reformed Church and Rabbi Andy Bachman of Beth Elohim Synagogue in Park Slope to chew over the issues of the day facing the “faith-based” community. On the eve of their religions’ holiest periods, Meeter and Bachman checked in with our atheist editor, Gersh Kuntzman.
Andy Bachman: First of all, why do you insist on calling this a “smackdown”? What Socialist, liberal, non-believing psychological fantasy are you working through here?
Gersh Kuntzman: Just that one, I guess.
Daniel Meeter: This is why I love Gersh. He calls us instead of going to a therapist.
GK: Settle down. Now, I don’t mean to gloat, but you religious types were in the news last week when Fox News commentator Glenn Beck urged Christians to avoid churches that practice “social justice,” claiming that “social justice” was just a buzzword for Communism. So are you guys a bunch of Communists?
DM: That whole thing was ridiculous. Perhaps people who already side with Glenn Beck will listen to that, but it makes no sense. The 10 Commandments are social justice! Aren’t the conservatives always trying to get the 10 Commandments in school?
AB: And lest we forget, the God of the Torah asks us to be his partner in creation and making the world more just and righteous, loving and peaceful. The voice of God in the New Testament asks Christians to emulate Jesus and be a loving, caring partner with God and make the world more just. I have no idea what Glenn Beck is talking about. It’s literally gibberish. He’s the angriest Mormon I’ve ever heard of.
GK: It’s certainly common for some religious to try to involve themselves in politics. As you saw last week, a conservative-majority school agency board in Texas voted to ensure that textbooks question evolution and play up Republican politics. How come you guys don’t get into that?
AB: The fight in Texas is less about religion and more about how the conservative perspective will be taught. They want to correct the historical view of the course of American history for students. The right is fighting for the hegemony of its voice in the teaching of history. But evolution is settled as a religious issue for people in our faith community because we believe in the doctrine of progressive revelation. You can believe in God and Evolution.
DM: I agree with progressive revelation, but I do take a little exception with Andy -— there is a religious element to the re-writing of textbooks. These people find a secular democracy scary. For whatever reason, there is a human motive to try to make the secular religious, They want to make America a church, to make faith a requirement in the political sphere.
GK: Let’s get back to evolution for a second. Are you both saying that God did not create man? Isn’t that, like, page one in your good book?
DM: God gives us freedom. It’s like this metaphor: When Beethoven wrote the Third Symphony, he did not create the music. He wrote the music, but orchestra played it. Creation is not as simplistic as “God created man.” I don’t see a problem with creation and Evolution.
GK: But what was created?
AB: The sages use an analogy that God is like an architect who wrote a plan. The life force becomes, if you will, the contractor who executes the plan. God did not have to, as it is depicted in Genesis, use a divine hand and create Man out of earth. The problem with the whole thing is that neither of us believes in an anthropomorphic God of the universe. I see God in the process of instigating the process of all life. If somewhere in that chain, humanity evolves and it becomes the pinnacle of creation, that is the intent unfolding. I believe that! That’s a faith statement.
DM: Look at it this way: If that asteroid had not hit the earth and the dinosaurs had not gone extinct, the animal with the face of God would have had scales and a tail.
GK: So God sent the asteroid?
AB: That presumes that God is sitting in a chair with an iPad.
GK: God has an iPad?! He always gets the best toys.
DM: God doesn’t manipulate. God gives the wisdom and the freedom for all creatures, from atoms to scientists.
GK: So where does intolerance come from?
DM: It comes from fear. Many people fear that God will not come through for us. Or they fear that God won’t protect us. They fear someone who is dirty or someone who makes them feel dirty. Even squirrels have fear. You can’t get rid of it. You have to deal with fear. The question is how we deal with it. Do you project it or do you work your way through it?
GK: But God does not protect us.
DM: He doesn’t protect us from being humans. He does not go around protecting us from having bodies. We don’t see God as a constant interventionist. A lot of people want that from their gods, like Zeus of old.
AB: An analogy that I like is watching parents at the tot lot in Prospect Park. At 6-18 months, a parent is stooped over every step so the child doesn’t hurt himself. And at a certain point, the child says, whether in gibberish or English, “Leave me alone.” A mature adult understands that the ultimate test of the covenant relationship with God is that we have to take control at some point. God could not stop 9-11 or the Holocaust. Humans treat each other in an abominably poor way. People say, “Where was God?”
GK: Where was God?
AB: It’s the wrong question. God is waiting for us to be responsible with the freedom He gives us. It’s like the child. We want our independence.
GK: So what are the big topics in the pulpit right now?
DM: it’s Lent and Easter. We’re talking about repentance.
GK: Why bother? No, seriously, why repent anything?
DM: To build honesty and self-awareness, for starters. The more you repent, the closer you get to the truth about yourself and the truth about the universe and the freer you are to do the right thing.
AB: In my shul, the two large issues are the economy and the state of the country. People talk a lot about how much seems to be broken, especially the relationship between leadership and action. They ask, “Have the institutions of government lost their way?”
GK: What do you say?
AB: I liken faith in our constitutional democracy to our covenantal relationship with God. American democracy is a covenant between the government and the people — and it has its own Torah: the Constitution. So I talk a lot about renewing that covenant.
GK: You religious people — always using God as a metaphor for democracy.
AB: The second big topic right now is Israel. This last Shabbat, many members of my congregation said they were completely mystified and saddened by the way Netanyahu treated Biden and, by extension, President Obama. My congregation loves Israel. They want to support Israel, but they could not believe these amateurs. Where is Rabin, or Aba Eban, true leaders?
DM: Another topic I hear a lot about is how can we be Christians in America with dignity and self-respect? Christianity has taken a twist that embarrasses a lot of us. The Fundamentalist twist. The Glenn Beck thing. The Texas school book thing. People want to be strong Christians, but the model of strong Christian right now is an aggressive, antagonist model that is trying to re-establish a Christian America. We want to be Christians who contribute to a secular democracy. We don’t want to be Sarah Palin.
GK: Thank God (if you will).