We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Check the Facts

If you're as confused by all of the claims & counter claims as I am about raising the debt ceiling, you might want to consult a very helpful posting at FactCheck.org enttled, "Debt Limit Debate Round-Up."  Turns out that a number of the things being said are just plain not true.  I know you are shocked, but it seems to be so.  Fact check it out.

The Spirit Goes for a Swim

Palestinian women at the beach in Israel
The New York Times recently posted an article, reposted by the Herald Tribune, entitled, "Where Politics Are Complex, Simple Joys at the Beach," which reports on a modest social protest movement in Israel. A group of Israeli women have been secretly taking Palestinian women from the southern part of the West Bank for trips to the beach. For security reasons, the Israeli government has banned Palestinians from leaving their West Bank enclave for such jaunts.  These illegal excursions began out of the friendship between an Israeli woman, Ilana Hammerman, and a Palestinian teenager, Aya, who wanted to get out of her West Bank village home and see the world outside. Ilana smuggled Aya and two cousins into Israel and took them to Tel Aviv where they eventually ended up at the beach. It was an amazing experience for the young Palestinian women, documented by Hammerman in a long articled posted by Haaretz.com and appropriately titled, "If there is a heaven."

A woman's movement, called "Civil Disobedience," has risen from that initial clandestine visit, and its purpose is to smuggle Palestinian women into Israel so that they can spend a day at the beach.  Civil Disobedience has begun to publish advertisements about what its members are doing, and their efforts have garnered some support, especially in academic circles (here), and the group even has its own Hebrew language website (here).

It seems a small, almost trivial thing, for a group of Israeli women to take some Palestinian women into Israel so they can spend a day at the beach—trivial in the face of an ongoing Arab-Jewish conflict that has repeatedly plunged the Middle East into armed conflict and continues to infect it with violence, prejudice, and hatred.  But, this is how the Spirit works.  It inspires friendships across the things that divide us.  It infects us with the courage to disobey unjust laws.  It encourages us to bring joy into troubled lives and provide moments of freedom to those who aren't free.  It transforms a Mediterranean beach into a temporary piece of the Kingdom of God, removing that beach from the jurisdiction of a state police apparatus and delivering it into the hands of women who have never been to the beach before.  The Spirit quietly works on our hearts to such ends as these.  Amen.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

In Defense of Hobbits

A Family of Hobbits by Avi Katz
A Wall Street Journal editorial entitled, "The GOP's Reality Test," makes a disparaging reference to the tea party faction of the Republican Party as "hobbits." The editorial accuses the tea partiers of living in another reality where they believe they can defeat the Democrats by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, "and the tea-party Hobbits could return to Middle Earth having defeated Mordor."  Sen. John McCain (R - Az) picked up on the hobbit reference and branded the tea party opponents to raising the debt ceiling as "tea party hobbits" (here).

It is unnecessary, unjust, unkind, and just plain unfair to drag hobbits into what's going on in D.C. these days.  They are, after all, an unassuming, down to earth, and circumspect race given to simple harmless pleasures.  They know when to work, and they know when to eat.  Even wizards take delight in the endless complexities masked by their simple natures.  Indeed, it was two members of this admirable race, Frodo Baggins & Sam Gamgee, who completed the impossible quest to destroy the Ring of Power (with some help from Gollum) and save Middle Earth.

So, go ahead and have your squabbles and spats up there on the Hill, but for the sake of justice and kindness leave off with dragging the good name of a good and simple folk through the mud.  Is nothing sacred?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Wash Your Hands

An article in the Huffington Post worth our notice is entitled, "Super Bacteria? Fighting Resistance Could Be Trickier Than Thought." Based on recent medical research (here), it basically says that bacterial resistance to antibiotics is even more effective than researchers had previously thought. Successful resistance to antibiotics produces stronger little critters and is good for bacterial growth. That isn't good for us, however.

The best thing we can do? Be disciplined in our personal hygiene, and especially wash our hands regularly. A word to the wise. For some further details see (here).  And check out, "Hand washing: Do's and don'ts," posted by the Mayo Clinic.

When Faith Becomes Ideology

Earlier, we followed the brief controversy Rep. Todd Akin, Republican of Missouri, sparked when he claimed that liberals hate God and want to replace God with big government. While there was a momentary furor esp. among the liberal bloggers and some progressive clergy in Missouri, the budding controversy has quietly gone away. I had thought there wouldn't be much more to write about the Senate candidate, but in the midst of the battle going on in Washington over the raising the debt ceiling, Akin has unfortunately provided further fodder for comment.

He opposes the compromise bill on the raising of the debt ceiling Speaker John Boehner tried to get through the House of Representatives, evidently because it is just that—a compromise. Speaking before a local Republican group back home, Akin accused President Obama of being "a flaming socialist" while the Republican caucus is "pretty conservative." And he is convinced that the debt ceiling is not that big of a deal. The government might slow down somewhat, but it won't collapse. He also referred to the economic stimulus package originally passed while President Bush was in office as "trash."  He may be right about raising the debt ceiling, but leading national and international economists disagree with him.  They think it is a big deal.

Akin is an ideological true believer, and as we saw in those previous posts his ideological base is an ultra conservative brand of Christian faith.  He, in fact, is a seminary graduate so that he cannot be accused of being ignorant of his faith.  And that is the point.  In his heart of hearts, Akin believes that liberals like the President and his Democratic "colleagues" in Congress are against God.  Being theologically trained, he knows that rebellion against God is the very essence of sin, so they are sinful.  They are necessarily evil or, at the very least, evil-ish.  For him to compromise with Democrats and liberals is not a matter just of politics but also of faith.  He can't do it.  It would be a betrayal of everything he holds sacred.

This is what happens when faith becomes ideological.  Instead of opening the heart, it closes one's ears.  Instead of promoting a compassion that is other-oriented, it gives birth to a self-involved, stubborn refusal to see the good in the other especially if that other is "a flaming socialist."  When faith becomes ideology, it is no longer faith.  It is idolatry, which is putting something crafted by the human mind in place of God.

For a similar (if less theological) & more detailed analysis, see Richard L. Fricker, "The Christian Right's Rigid Politics."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ban the Burqa - Or Not

The Islamic full-body dress for women including the face, the burqa, has sparked one of Europe's hottest social debates.  Belgium and France have banned them and the British are now engaged in their own debate over taking similar legal steps against the burqa.  What makes the debate so intense and difficult is that there are reasonable arguments both for and against permitting burqas to be worn in public.  Women's rights activists in particular find themselves on both sides, often ambivalently so.  On the one hand, what right does the state have to dictate women's dress as long as nudity is not involved?  On the other hand, the burqa is clearly imposed on women and whatever individual women say they feel about it the burqa violates women's rights to full equality with men.  There are also cultural issues involved.  Again, on the one hand, Muslims in Europe are a minority group that  should have its rights protected, including the right to distinctive dress.  On the other hand, minority groups must conform to the generally accepted values of the larger society, especially immigrant minorities, and the burqa is widely unacceptable dress in Europe according to those norms.  Those who oppose the burqas often cite security concerns and that it is a wedge for militant Islam.  Those who oppose banning the burqas say the security issues are minimal to non-existent.

Perfectly reasonable people find themselves on both sides of the divide.  Feminist Mona Eltahawy has written an emotional op-ed piece for the New York Times arguing against the burqa as a Muslim woman.  Liberated young woman, Nesrine Malik, argues with equal vigor (here) for the burqa as a Muslim woman.

The burqa has not become a national issue in the U.S.—yet—but we have our own hot button issues that are debatable because there are reasonable arguments on both sides.  Abortion is such an issue, pitting the rights of the unborn against the rights of women.  The legal establishment of English, pitting the linguistic rights of minorities against the need for a common public language is another such issue.  People become passionate advocates on these issues just because there is a gray area.  And we have to make decisions.  Either abortion is legal or it isn't.  Either we establish one language is the language of legal public discourse or we don't.  Either we ban the burqa or we don't.  Yes, there is wiggle room for some compromise, but at the end of the day we either do or don't.

Two quick thoughts: first, it would seem spiritually reasonable that it is at precisely these points of intense disagreement that people of faith would demonstrate compassion and understanding towards those who differ on hard issues, including other people of faith.  Second, in the real world it doesn't work that way.  Some of the worst, most acrimonious fights over hard issues are fought between true believers on both sides of issues such as the role of women in the church, the way we read the Bible, evolution, and homosexuality.  People of faith should be better than average at dealing with controversial issues, but it turns out that all too often we are no better or even worse at doing so—with serious consequences for society and for the faith.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Religion & Brand Loyalty Revisited

In  a posting entitled, "religion and brand loyalty," Rabbi David Gottlieb reflects on the findings of recent research into the relationship of brand loyalty to religion, as reported in the paper, "Brands: the opiate of the nonreligious masses?"  written by a research team headed by Prof. Ron Shachar.  The research team found that loyalty to name brands functions like religion for nonreligious people.  Where the religious express their self-worth religiously, the nonreligious express that worth through loyalty to name brands such as MacIntosh computers or Ford motor vehicles.  When shopping, religious folks are more likely to purchase generic store brands where the nonreligious go for the name brand.  Brand loyalty, it seems, is a substitute "religion" for the nonreligious, which functions in the same way as religion does for the religious.

These research findings complement other research that points to the value of religion for well-being and the fact that religion is an important part of virtually every human culture ever known to exist.  Religion speaks to a deep-felt need in the human race, which has to be expressed even when religion itself is eschewed (or ignored).  It seems as though the human race comes with a built-in propensity for faith, that is for trust in an external "higher power" of some sort.  We normally use religion to express this propensity, but the rise of secularity encourages the nonreligious to express it in other ways.  Commentators have long observed how our national political conventions are eerily similar to camp revival meetings.  In a recent essay entitled, "Finding the Sacred in the Secular,"  Heather Wax reports on sociological research that found that in a sample of 275 scientists some two-thirds of the sample "have a spirituality" and that 22% of atheist scientists in the sample consider themselves spiritual.

The scientific evidence is mounting that we need some kind of faith, or spirituality if you prefer that term.  The itch that faith scratches does not prove that God exists.  It does do a couple of other things, however.  First, it allows us to say that believing in and putting our ultimate trust in God is a reasonable, logical inference from the scientific data accumulated thus far.  Those who see theism as merely blind ignorance are not paying attention to the data.  This is not to say that believing in and putting our trust in God is the only logical conclusion to be drawn from the data, just that it is not illogical to do so.  Second,  the evidence also forces on us the question of why human nature is spiritual.  Why do we need to have faith in something larger, outside of ourselves?  Our Christian response is that we are created with the need for faith by a Creator who is creating us to be something more than we are and for ends that we do not comprehend.  Can we prove this is the case?  Scientifically, no, of course not.  Yet, on the basis of our experience and understanding, we do believe that our need for faith reflects the One who created us.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Good Government Story

The U. S. government is under attack by a band of elected officials in Congress who apparently want to bring "big government" to its knees for purely ideological reasons.  Big government is bad government, so their reasoning goes.  They are not in touch with reality, which is common for radical ideologues of whatever persuasion.  Witness a recent news article posted on the New York Times website.  Entitled, "Government Can’t Help? Tell That to the South Bronx," the article recounts the successful urban renewal efforts of the City of New York, about as big a city government as one would want, in the Bronx.  Decades in the making, the story of the renewal of the Bronx illustrates how big government can use big bucks with big results, good results.  For another take on the rise of the "New Bronx," see Jonathan J. Levin's, "A Look at the South Bronx."

Bottom Line:  the issue is not the size of government but rather its effectiveness.

How Not to Run a Church

The Crystal Cathedral
Commenting on a news posting on the website of the The Orange County Register concerning the ouster of the Rev. Robert Schuller as pastor of the Crystal Cathedral (here), Kathi Jaworski, writing in The Nonprofit Quartery (here) succinctly summarized lessons to be learned from Schuller's fall from grace.  She writes,
There’s good reason why best practices for nonprofits include independent, active Boards who guide the vision, provide skilled financial oversight, and avoid conflicts of interest. There’s a reason why good succession planning should involve both leadership from both the board and the departing chief executive. While it may be an extreme example, the downward spiral of Crystal Cathedral Ministries is a cautionary lesson for the field.
Churches should not be run as empires.  Leadership in the church is about listening, sharing authority, and serving.  Best practices demand not only an empowered church board but also an eager desire on the part of pastors and boards to empower others.  Those best practices also require pastors and boards to intentionally challenge and, if necessary, remove from authority those who habitually abuse power for their own ends.  Failures to adhere to best spiritual and organizational practices can and all too frequently do have devastating consequences for churches.  All it takes is for one influential voices, lay or clergy, to abuse authority or, as too often happens, to fail to exercise wise authority, and a church can go into steep decline.  More than vision or even innovation, church leaders today need to engage in best spiritual and organizational practices if the churches they save are to remain vital, effective communities of the faithful.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Detroit: Worth a Look

The Christian Science Monitor recently posted an article entitled, "Retooling the Motor City: Can Detroit save itself?" as the latest in a series of such articles about Detroit. They document the possibilities (and hope) for turning around what is arguably America's worst urban disaster area. The articles are worth a look. What is doesn't have to stay the way it is. Amen.

Darwin, Texas, & Textbooks

According to a news posting on the Dallas Morning News website entitled, "New science e-books approved by state education board," the Texas Board of Education avoided a confrontation over materials for teaching biology in the state's schools.  Texas could not afford to buy new biology textbooks this year, and the board decided instead to publish a list of recommended supplementary online materials.  It looked like the the list might include some items promoting intelligent design (ID) theory, which is widely seen as a "front" for conservative Christian creationism doctrines.  According to the news posting, a number of "social conservatives" sit on the board, including its chairperson, and there was a real possibility that there would be a fight over the supplementary list as a result.  In the end, no ID texts were included, and the potential skirmish never materialized.

The Austin Statesman noted in its posting (here) on the Board of Education's decision that a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Kelly Allen, was among those speaking against including the ID material on the supplemental list. It quotes her as saying, "I don't want my children's public school teachers to teach faith and God in a science classroom. True religion can handle truth in all its forms. Evolution is solid science."

Whatever our personal beliefs about evolution, Pastor Allen is correct in saying that evolution is solid science.  ID, on the other hand, has failed to establish itself as a viable scientific alternative for the study of biology. It is theology disguised as science, and as such it has no place in courses teaching the science of biology. If allowed in science classrooms, the teaching of ID not only introduces extraneous subject matters, but it also offers teachers of a certain theological persuasion the opportunity to evangelize their students with their religious beliefs.  Pastor Allen is also correct in her statement that religion can "handle truth in all its forms."  Religious faith at its best is a search for and a commitment to truth.  Not only can it "handle" scientific truths, it can embrace them.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Freedom From Notions

When I read any scripture, Christian or Buddhist, I always keep in mind that whatever Jesus or the Buddha said was to a particular person or group on a particular occasion.  I try to understand deeply the context in which they spoke in order to really understand their meaning.  What they said may be less important than how they said it.  When we understand this we are close to Jesus or the Buddha.  But if we analyze their words to find the deepest meaning without understanding the relationships between the speaker and his listeners, we may miss the point.  Theologians sometimes forget this.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Good News About Hot Weather

The Windmills of Lewis County, NY
Alarmist warnings about impending doom make news—just ask Harold Camping—so, it's good to see hopeful news about the future once in awhile.

The Christian Science Monitor news article entitled, "Why America's power grid is weathering the heat wave," is just such news.  Aside from the fact that our once and probably future recession has reduced demand for energy, two factors have allowed the energy companies to meet the high energy demands of the 2011 Heat Wave.  First, efficiency measures are making a difference and will make an even greater difference in the future.  Second, something called "demand-response," is playing an increasingly large role in meeting energy demands.  Computer technology allows for rapidly adjusting specific energy use levels at times of unusually high demand.  Bottom line: we're getting better and smarter about how we use energy, and it's making a difference.  And that's good news.

Making It In Today's Religious Market

UUA Logo
In June, the Religion News Service posted a news item about the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) entitled, "Can a creedless religion make it another 50 years?"  The UUA recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its 1961 merger of Unitarians and Universalists into a single denomination dedicated to pluralism, social justice, and doctrinal openness.  Now, according to the article, some UUA leaders are beginning to wonder if they have gone too far in rejecting any talk about God and beliefs.  While promoting progressive causes, UUA congregations evidently habitually avoid discussing doctrines in order to avoid imposing one set of beliefs or another on their congregants, who are very much a mixed bag of people with many different backgrounds and ideas of their own.

Like many other denominations, the UUA is showing signs of statistical decline, which raises questions for the future.  The decline seems modest by Presbyterian Church (USA) standards.  According to the article, the UUA's 2011 statistics record a loss of membership of less than 1% and that the UUA has only shown such losses for the last three years.   The PC(USA) runs 2-4% losses annually and has been declining statistically for decades.  Still, the question of renewal is being discussed, esp. in terms of finding ways to state what the UUA does believe.  There is a feeling that it has been so open as to have lost a sense of commitment necessary to growing into the future.  At the same time, UUA leaders see an opportunity in the millions of Americans dropping away from organized religion, feeling that the UUA could and should be a home for them.

Among the questions facing the UUA according to one of its leading voices are, "What do we believe? Whom do we serve? To whom or what are we responsible? Those are the questions with which every viable religious movement must wrestle,"

They are good questions, but one wonders whether wrestling with them or even finding acceptable answers to them will make much of a difference in the UUA's statistical decline, assuming that decline continues.  Mainline denominations with many more members and resources have devoted time and talent to restating their creeds, restructuring their structures, and redefining their mission pretty much to no avail.  As noted in an earlier RPK posting (here), the Southern Baptist Convention has also begun to experience statistical decline and has similarly begun to seek ways to address it.  On can hardly accuse the SBC of a lack of clarity in its doctrines or its sense of mission.  Yet, decline has set it.

Something deeper is going on, a shift in American spirituality.  The literature trying to define and deal with this shift is huge.  But the decline continues.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Scientific Power & Spiritual Power

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.

Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love

Wither Theology Then?

The Milky Way
In a news posting entitled, "Complex life better than 1-in-100 chance," reporter Stuart Gary reports on recent research, which in a nutshell indicates that "up to 1.2 per cent of stars in our galaxy could have planets with complex life."  The Wikipedia article on our galaxy (here) indicates that there are between 200 and 400 billion stars in the Milky Way, which means a whole lot of possibilities for complex life.  An online abstract of the research paper itself is available (here) and the full report is also available in an online version (here).

This means that there's the possibility of complex life existing on planets orbiting at least 2 billion-plus stars, maybe twice that many.  It is impossible to believe that there is no life out there.  It is just as impossible to think that life on some of those planets has not evolved in directions similar to life on Earth.  And the chances that there is intelligent life out there seems seriously great as well.

We cannot even begin to imagine the potential impact all of this will have on our understanding of God.  Simply coming into contact with another human culture influences our theologies even if we try to deny the influence.  How, then, will an alien culture (assuming that an alien intelligence will have something akin to culture) affect our understanding of our universe, ourselves, and our faith?  Assuming that we will find ways to communicate with alien races, how will our conceptions of God and of reality translate?  Will potential alien dialogue partners even share our set of senses?  Will they share anything with human rationality?  And how will all of this influence our conception of a personal God known to us through the person of Christ?

While it doesn't make sense to do a lot of useless speculating when we haven't found life anywhere in our solar system let alone the galaxy, it does make sense to begin to think of our theology in cosmic rather than merely global terms.  If God is truly Lord Creator of All That Is, we had better be ready to change our thinking about God in ways we can't conceive of now—which means paying continuing attention to the findings of science as we wrestle an ancient faith into radically new times.  What an exciting challenge!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Peaceful Heart

To work for peace, you must have a peaceful heart.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ

Having Faith in the Resurrection

It is widely understood that Christ's resurrection is central to the Christian faith.  Stated somewhat starkly, the general idea is that if you don't believe in the resurrection you aren't a Christian.  Like most bald, simple statements this one is filled with difficulties beginning with the meaning of "resurrection" itself.  As numerous scholars point out, there were no witnesses to the resurrection only witnesses to its aftermath when Jesus suddenly started appearing to his disciples.  When the disciples reported that Jesus was risen, what did they mean by "risen"?  The gospels insist that there was a bodily resurrection, but they were written some two generations after the resurrection.  Paul said he saw the risen Lord just like the other apostles, but he saw Jesus only in a vision.  So,  was there an actual bodily resurrection or was the resurrection perhaps more of a mass vision of some kind?

When we talk about believing in the resurrection, questions like these can become huge obstacles because we are focused on a historical event and whether or not it really, actually happened.  By and large, about all we can really say for sure regarding the resurrection is that Something Happened, otherwise we can't make sense of subsequent events.  But what that "something" was is all but impossible to determine.  Or, rather, we determine what we think happened based on our own theological perspective not on the meager historical data as such.

The historical and theological issues of the resurrection are important, but maybe not that important for our daily Christian walk.  The more important issue for our faith is whether or not we put our trust in the Risen Lord, trusting that his resurrection is real in a deeper sense.  If we put our faith (trust) in the message of the resurrection, we are convinced that tyranny, religiosity, power politics, cynicism, and fear do not have the last word.  Death is not lord.  If we have faith in the Risen Lord, we are able to see the pattern of his life in our own lives.  Darkness does not lead to defeat but to resurrection, which is defeat transformed into hope, possibility, and new purpose.

At the end of the day, the most important thing is to remember always that faith is not belief, it is trust.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Place of Stillness

The one journey that ultimately matters is the journey into the place of stillness deep within one's self. To reach that place is to be at home; to fail to reach it is to be forever restless. At the place of 'central silence,' one's own life and spirit are united with the life and Spirit of God. There the fire of God's presence is experienced. The soul is immersed in love. The divine birth happens. We hear at last the living Word. 

N. Gordon Cosby, Foreword to Search for Silence by Elizabeth O'Connor
First posted on Inward/Outward

Tea Party Syndrome

A couple of weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune website posted a news article entitled, "Some Catholics seek to counter Galileo." The article describes a small group of Catholics in the Chicago area that believes science is wrong when it teaches that Earth revolves around the Sun because, they claim, certain passages from the Bible "prove" that it is the other way around. They promote, that is, a "geocentric" view of the universe based on a few cherry-picked Bible verses. Other news outlets picked up the article including a Florida news site, The Ledger, which prompted a letter from one of its readers headlined, "Geocentrism Among Ideas That Don't Deserve Attention." The letter raises the question of why did The Ledger would give attention to such a story, esp. when just the day before it had published news about the space shuttle Discovery's final trip into space, which event shows how untenable geocentrism is anyway.

It's a good question especially in light of the huge political battle going on in Washington regarding raising the debt ceiling.  Everybody knows that it has to be raised, but the radical right wing Tea Party faction in the House of Representatives is attempting to take the political process captive to achieve its ends virtually at gun point.  Polls cited in the Wikipedia article, "Tea Party movement," indicate that only about 15% of Americans actually identify with the movement, yet it has gained a voice in our national political life powerful enough to drive us to the brink of defaulting on our national debt.  We seem to be giving massive amounts of attention these days to the fringes including the outlandish views of a few residents of Chicago.

Being new to this blogging thing, I'm still trying to figure out what it is that deserves your attention attention and mine.  Rather than lament the fact that our attention is more and more fixed on extreme (and extremely loud) voices, it seems increasingly important that in this tiny, tiny corner of the Web I work on something more constructive.  As I continue to reflect on the relationship of science and faith, for example, it is time to leave the biblical literalists and the so-called new atheists to their battles and to think more constructively about how scientific thought and findings can shape contemporary theology and Christian practice.  I'm not exactly sure what that means, but what I am increasingly sure is that it is time to walk out of the hot sun of other people's battles and rest for awhile in the "shade of grace" (rom phra khun).

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

American Views of the Bible

In a posting entitled, "In U.S., 3 in 10 Say They Take the Bible Literally," Gallup reports its latest findings concerning American views of the Bible. According to those findings, just 30% of Americans agreed that "the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally." Nearly half (49%) agreed that "the Bible is the inspired word of God but that it should not be taken literally." And another 17% agreed that "the Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man." That is, less than 1/3rd of Americans believe that the Bible is the literal Word of God while just about 1/2 see it as inspired but not to be read literally.  These figures have held relatively steady over the last decade although those who believe in a literal Bible has declined since the 1980s.

According to Gallup, church goers, Protestants, people with less education, conservatives, and Republicans are more likely to believe that the Bible is the literal Word of God.  Those who rarely attend church, have a postgraduate education, and indicate no religious preference are more likely to see the Bible as a human book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts.

One of the most interesting bits of data in the Gallup posting is that nearly half (45%) of those who considered themselves "conservative" agreed with the idea that the Bible does not have to be read literally while 14% of those who self-identified themselves as "liberal" also agreed to the statement that the Bible is to be read literally.  This suggests that in the real world of how people actually think about things more mixing and matching goes on than one might expect in the white heat of the American culture wars.  Our labels for people's thinking don't always work that well.  That's a good thing.

The other thing that seems to be happening is that a large number of American Protestants including many evangelical Protestants are learning how to adapt their thinking about the Bible to the intellectual currents of our time.  Before the rise of science and its approach to critical thinking, the whole question of the fallibility or infallibility of the Bible was not an issue of importance.  All that we have learned about the Bible through the use of critical historical study, however, challenges the traditional understanding of how the Bible has evolved over time down to the present.  The result is that we are rethinking our view of Scripture in ways that make more sense today.  From ancient times, Christian thinkers have repeatedly drawn from the main intellectual currents of their day in seeking to understand the nature of our faith.  We are continuing to do that today, and it isn't just the thinkers who are learning to think about faith in contemporary terms.  Many others of us are doing so as well.  And that, too, is a good thing.

The "Truthiness of Religion" (IV)

(Continued from "The 'Truthiness of Religion' (III)" below).

Shaun McGonigal's 2009 essay, "Truthiness of religion," also brings into focus for us the nature of religious thinking.  In what may be the key sentence in the essay, he writes, "Our creative powers which provide us with the transcendent, sublime emotions, and inspiring ideas are a great tool for the creative process, but not for attaining truth.  If we want to know what is real, we need to be critical, meticulous, and scientific."  The clear implication throughout his essay is that religious thinking fails the test of being critical, meticulous, and scientific.  Religious ideas do not help us to see reality because they are products of our minds, and thus while they may have their uses they cannot lead us to truth.

Let us put religion aside for a moment and turn to historiography, the study of the past.  In the past, a rather serious debate has raged over historiography's scientific bona fides.  In some ways, it is similar to the methods used by the hard sciences, but in other important ways it is not.  Where a physicist, ultimately, can't select her facts a historian very definitely can—and must.  Historians study something that, by definition, does not exist and cannot be recovered as it originally existed in the past.  All any historian can ever do is to select from a basket of facts, many of which are disputed, and do her best to paint a picture (caricature?) of what he thinks actually happened.  It is a slippery business at best.  The historian's own prejudices and perspectives get all tangled up with whatever bits of data from the past happen to have survived down to the present.  History is a craft more than a science.  And, therefore, by McGonigle's test, it does not lead to truth.

That doesn't work very well.  Historians, in actual fact, have a good deal to teach us about the reality of the past so long as we remember that what they teach us always provisional.  The truly great historians develop an instinct, a "sixth sense" for the truth embedded in the left overs of the past.  They practice a craft, an art.  And their work has a good deal to do with truth.

Theology is not that different.  As Christians, our central focus is on the person of Christ.  There are historical questions about him that we have to wrestle with, including what he actually taught and did as well as the nature of the gospels as historical documents.  These questions are only a beginning.  We must also critically and meticulously study what his words and actions—and those of the earliest generations of Christians—mean for us in our own context.  When Jesus taught that love of God and love of neighbor constitute the greatest commandments of the Law, we are constrained to discover what he meant in his time and what his words mean in our time.  We must think critically and meticulously.  Buddhism knows a great deal about all of this.  Buddhist thinkers tell us that they do not put their trust in faith or beliefs but rather in a critical, reflective method for discovering the truth about the self and about reality.  The truth is that "self" does not exist, that wants and desires are illusions that only create suffering.

Religious faith thus necessarily has its own standards of critical thinking.  In some ways, they parallel those of science.  In other ways, they are unique to their own faith.  For Christians, Christ lies at the heart of that critical thinking.  He is the measure by which we measure other truths.  Amen.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The "Truthiness of Religion" (III)

(Continued from "The 'Truthiness of Religion' (II)" below).

Why, then, do we as people of faith put our trust in revelation as well as empirical investigation?  Why do we reject Shaun McGonigal's argument in his 2009 posting, "Truthiness of religion," that only physical reality is real and that only science gives us the truth about that reality?

At the end of the day, we can only say that it makes sense for us to do so.  There are a number of reasons this is so.  We find the biblical witness persuasive especially in its account of Christ.  We have transcendental, spiritual experiences that open new realities for us.   Even suffering at times leads us to deeper spiritual insights as we discover that we can put our trust in God.  We find the shared life of the church significant in our lives and a witness in itself to larger truths.  We look at the natural world, and it just does not make sense to us that it could all happen of itself.  There is Something behind it all.  We see that the human race has a virtually universal capacity for religion.  If there's nothing to religion why has it been such an integral part of the human experience going as far back in history as we know?  Sociological research tells us that religious people tend to be happier than the non-religious.  How could that be if there is nothing at all behind faith?  Science itself points in the direction of God—for us at least.  How else can we account for the fact that the universe is evolving and life on our planet is evolving in directions of higher complexity and greater intelligence?  What about the anthropic principle, which suggests that the fundamental physical constants of the universe are uniquely geared to allowing life to exist on Earth?  And then there is the whole emerging field of quantum mechanics, which demonstrates that the universe is much different, much more dynamic than scientists realized until fairly recently.  There is more to reality than meets the eye.  We find truth in an inspired piece of music, in an insightful sermon, and in shared moments with another; and we realize that none of these things can be explained by science.  It simply makes sense to us that there is Something going on in the universe and in our lives that is much greater than the supposedly cold hard factuality of reality as discovered by science.  We believe there is more to a sunset than chemistry and physics, and that something more has to do with truth.

We understand that we can't prove we are right in all of this.  The whole point of faith is that it is faith, which is trust.  Where McGonigal puts his trust solely in the existence of physical realities, we put ours in meta-physical realities as well.  And just as McGonigal cannot prove that the physical world is all that is real so we cannot prove that the metaphysical realities we perceive are in fact true.  At the end of the day we cannot answer radical skepticism, which asserts that our senses (and our sensibilities) are not trustworthy.  All forms of human knowing, including science, ultimately rest on faith in something.  For the reasons briefly outlined above, we place our faith in meta-physical as well as physical realities, which for us as Christians means that Christ makes a whole lot of sense to us; he puts everything else into perspective.  In him we see ultimate truth.  In him we see God.  Amen.

Todd Akin Update

Something good seems to be coming out of the controversy caused by Rep. Todd Akin's (R - Mo) comment that liberals hate God.  (See my last posting on the Akin controversy [here]).  According to an editorial posting entitled, "Liberalism rooted in faith, celebrating diversity," by the Rev. Kevin Cameron, a resident of Rep. Akin's district, Rep. Akin is planning to meet privately with a group of clergy concerning that remark. Cameron writes,
"I am confident that people labeled conservative and liberal share many of the same core values. The question, then, is not about how much we differ and what we should call one another, but about how we can move calmly into potentially difficult conversations rather than being stuck on the things that separate us.
"I am delighted and encouraged to be part of the group of interfaith clergy who have been meeting, emailing, planning ahead so that when we do sit down with Mr. Akin, we choose our words wisely and faithfully. We do not want to offend, ostracize or disregard. We know what that can feel like. We do not want to draw more lines in the sand but want to draw the circle wide."
The posting is dated yesterday, Friday, July 15th.  Given all of the rhetoric that's gone before, this is an unlooked for development.  May it lead to better understanding.  Amen.

Fifty - or Just Forty-Nine??

ND state (or territorial ?) flag
Anyone who does proofreading will appreciate this one.

A resident of North Dakota has identified a flaw in the state's constitution, which he believes calls into question North Dakota's statehood.  One word has been omitted at what he believes is a key juncture.  For six years he has been on a one-man mission to get the flaw fixed, and he has finally gotten the matter on the ballot for the November 2012 election.  The state legislature has already ratified the change.  The story has been a minor sensation on line, esp. because MSNBC picked it up (here).  For a slightly more detailed local article see the news posting on The Jamestown Sun website (here).

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The "Truthiness of Religion" (II)

(Continued from "The 'Truthiness of Religion' (I)" below).

Shaun McGonigal entitled his 2009 posting on the relationship of religion to the truth, "Truthiness of religion" with good reason.  From his perspective, religion very much fits the definition of "truthiness," which is "a 'truth' that a person claims to know intuitively 'from the gut' without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts." (source).  For that is exactly what the so-called "truths" of religion derive from: beliefs built out of "a general psychological disposition" toward the sensation of transcendence, which is nothing more than a personal experience.  He identifies religion with a larger class of creative states of mind that includes a sense of beauty and such artistic endeavors as poetry.

McGonigal then distinguishes between two states of mind, the first this creative one and the second a critical or analytical state of mind.  Only the second state leads to truth.  He appreciates creativity but insists that it does not lead us to truth.  Truth, what is real, can be discovered (not created) only by the employment of meticulous empirical methods that severely tests ideas in order to prove them wrong if possible.  Creative powers can only tangentially contribute to this process, if at all, but "once we have the idea we must switch to using our learned critical skills to test the idea.  We cannot just dream and create answers to real world problems, we have to criticize them."

This is helpful.  It gets at what seems to be the fundamental difference between people of Christian faith and self-identified "new atheists" such as McGonigal.  (I should be clear here that by "people of Christian faith" I mean those of us who are not biblical literalists. Literalists tend to think about faith in absolutist terms generally parallel to the new atheists).  McGonigal believes that physical reality is reality.  Anything pertaining to the emotions or the a-rational is not real, not true.  Only physical realities can be true.  As Christian theists, we believe, instead, that creativity, inspiration, and our feelings are important sources of truth.  We worship God as one who is essentially (as best we can understand these things)—who is essentially creative, the Creator.  We put our ultimate trust in the love of God we see in Christ.  We believe that justice is a real thing.  We learn important truths in our service of others.  Prayer has the power to change us.  Worship has the power to move us.  Reality, that is, is not defined only by the cold, hard facts of science—which are proving to be not so cold and hard, but surprisingly pliable especially in the quantum world of the infinitely small.

Why would we choose to be theists?  Why do we put our trust in things that seem so intangible and that we cannot prove by a critical empirical method?  Let me save the answer to these questions for the next posting.  For this one, it is sufficient for us to realize that we believe in a much more textured and, frankly, a richer reality than does our friend Shaun.  While we understand the limitations of creativity, inspiration, the arts, and religious faith, we still put our ultimate trust in the God we are convinced is revealed to us in these things.  Amen.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Seeing the Coming World

Bionic Glasses
British researchers are developing a pair of "bionic" glasses that will allow those with certain kinds of near-blindness to see better.  The glasses are still in the developmental stage, and the news posting in the Telegraph (here) doesn't indicate when they will be available to the public.  When they do become available  they are evidently going to allow some blind folks to navigate their world without a seeing eye dog—at a fraction of the cost of a dog.

In itself, this is a great development and will improve the quality of life for millions of people.  More largely, it is but one more tiny step toward the fundamental changes in health care that are coming in the next few decades.  We are already far healthier today (those of us who can afford to be) than ever before, and medical science is chipping away with exponentially increasing effectiveness at disabilities that have been with us since forever.

The "Truthiness of Religion" (I)

In December 2009, Shaun McGonigal, a self-styled new atheist, posted a thought-provoking essay entitled, "Truthiness of religion," on his personal blog (here) and in the on line edition of the Philadelphia Examiner (here).  In the essay, McGonigal explains why he is an atheist, which is because so far as he can see religious thinking is not about truth.  He states, "Our creative powers which provide us with the transcendent experiences, sublime emotions, and inspiring ideas are a great tool for the creative process, but not for attaining truth.  If we want to know what is real, we need to be critical, meticulous, and scientific."   He acknowledges that people have religious experiences, which he styles as being the "sensation of transcendence" and even avows having such feelings himself.  But they are just sensations.  We don't actually transcend ourselves.  He also denies that artistic creativity, such as in poetry, leads to truth.  McGonigal, by the same token considers religious revelations as being nothing more than the imaginings of our minds.  Truth, he believes, can only be attained by the careful critical application of the scientific method.  The word "critical" is, well, critical to his view of obtaining the truth.  Truths are provisional and must be tested and criticized, which is precisely where religious thinking fails to meet the test.  He, in sum, has no problem with religion as sentiments and feelings—just so long as it does not claim to have anything to do with the truth.  He writes, "Allowing ourselves to be swallowed up by stories birthed in the ecstatic moments of artistic creativity and then to claim it to be true is not clear thinking.  We need to train ourselves to be better thinkers and to accept criticism or to get used to feeling disrespected."  He closes with the thought that, "The truth, as the Vorlons  say, points to itself.  It does not need us to create it."

McGonigal's essay is worth a pause in spite of his penchant for zingers and a bit of a smart-alec attitude witnessed by his use of the word "truthiness," a word coined by the comedian Stephen Colbert meaning, " a 'truth' that a person claims to know intuitively 'from the gut' without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts."  Then there's his closing citation of scifi superior beings, "the Vorlons," for his description of truth as self-authenticating.  Funny.  Well, not really.  It is but another indication that McGonigal shares the new atheists' typical thinly disguised disdain for theists.
Stephen Colbert, Oct. 17, 2005

Even so, he gives us pause to reflect, which I would like to do in this post and those that follow.  The goal here is not to answer McGonigal, which is the first point I would like to make.  When it comes to matters of faith, his mind is clearly made up.  He not only doesn't see the point of it but he also sees in faith something for which he has no use or sympathy.  In his world, the world would be best done with religion in all of its various forms.

For those of use who seek to bring science and faith into a mutually beneficial dialogue, McGonigal is a closed book, and we need to accept that fact.  He is as closed to us as are our sisters and brothers in Christ who profess biblical literalism.  In actual fact, we do not stand on middle ground between the new atheists and biblical literalists; we stand in a different place.  The reason they are so angry at each other is because they are fighting over common territory, which they both agree is "the truth."  They both think about truth in absolute terms.  The new atheists believe that there is only one truth, which is the truth of science.  For them science is an absolutely dependable method for discovering the truth.  The literalists posit their absolute truth in the "facts" of their faith.  There is no room for dialogue with either group.  We best leave them to their war.

That does not mean, however, that we cannot learn from them.  McGonigal's essay, in this case, offers us important insights into what it is we seek when we bring science and faith into what is for us a fruitful and exciting dialogue.  More on that in what follows.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Book Review Notice

There is a new book review on Rom Phra Khun Reviews.  The book reviewed is Belief in God in an Age of Science by John Polkinghorne.

Hear, Hear

In a posting on his personal website entitled, "Straining Gnats.  Swallowing Camels,"  Mark Batterson calls on Christians to exercise greater forbearance of each other.  He mentions the fact that some churches object to a particular translation of the Bible because it uses inclusive language as being as example of how we strain at gnats while swallowing camels (Matthew 23:24).  And he concludes his brief posting by writing,
I’ve always subscribed to something Rupertus Meldenius said: “In the essentials, unity. In the non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”
Obviously, it’s hard to know where to draw the line between essential and non-essentials. But let’s not major in minors. Let’s not strain gnats and swallow camels. If we converted all of our sideways energy into synergy (which is another word for unity), we’d see another Great Awakening. If we stopped fighting with each other and started fighting our true enemy, we’d see a revival that would rival history’s greatest revivals.  [emphasis is in the original]
 What makes these sentiments doubly important is that Mark Batterson comes squarely out of the evangelical wing of the church and is pastor of the National Community Church, Washington, D.C., which is affiliated with the Assemblies of God and the Willow Creek Association.  More and more, we are hearing increasingly inclusive statements such as this one from prominent leaders of the evangelical community, which perhaps portends a time when we can dampen the fires of longstanding theological warfare between left and right.  Defining "the essentials," of course, does remain a sticky, contentious issue, but if those from the evangelical and ecumenical wings each reach toward the other with a heart that reflects Batterson's sentiments that time of (at least somewhat) less feuding might just come.  Amen.

P.S.  Evidently, the statement, "In the essentials, unity. In the non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity," does come from Meldenius—and not from St. Augustine as many believe.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Speaking of God

In the course of amending its constitution, the United Church of Christ (UCC) has recently changed a reference to God in the constitution from "God as heavenly Father," to "the triune God."  The draft of this change as shown in the on line version of the amended text, which you can find here (see lines 82-83), unfortunately shows the words God "as heavenly Father" highlighted in red with a glaring strike through.  Certain more conservative UCC groups jumped on the change as being a rejection of God the Father.  One website announced the impending wording change with the blaring headline, "UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST SET TO REJECT GOD THE FATHER."  A few other non-UCC websites picked up the story, one with its own sensationalist headline that reads, "'God the Father' banished by mainline denomination."

Putting aside the critics for a moment, the change in the UCC constitution raises an important theological issue that mainline churches have been wrestling with for some fifty years.  How do we speak about the First Person of the Trinity?  Traditionally, of course, "he" is God the "Father."  In the wake of the feminist movement and the continuing almost tectonic shift in the place of women in American society, however, it has become more problematic to continue to chain the First Person of the Trinity to human male images.  There is a justice issue here as well as a fundamental issue concerning how we image God.  It can be argued that imaging the First Person as male is or borders on being idolatrous, that is treating God as if "he" was created in the image of a human male.  The biblical doctrine is, of course, that all of us male and female are images of God and not God images of half of us, the traditionally socially dominant half at that.

Now, we can come down on different sides of the question of how we image and speak of the First Person of the Trinity especially because referring to "the [genderless] First Person of the Trinity" is rather awkward.  The image of God as father, furthermore, captures important facts about God and has biblical precedence.  At the same time, imaging The First Person as either gender traps us into actually thinking of God as a person in the way we are persons.  Indeed, even using the word "person" in English to describe the three aspects or faces of God is itself problematic.  My point is that the UCC has good reason to change its constitutional reference to God, and those who disagree have good reasons for opposing the change.  We could do without the demonizing rhetoric, that's all.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Space, Science, & Spirituality

View of Earth from the ISS
According to Madhu Thangavelu's CNN posting entitled, "My Take: Space travel is a spiritual experience," virtually all of those who travel in space have a spiritual experience, which he defines as a profound sense of awe at the majesty of space and of the Earth as seen from space.  Indeed, the whole experience of space travel including the thrill-fear of take off leaves those who experience it changed.  He believes that it is the desire for this experience that will motivate space tourism, which for most will amount to a pilgrimage.  In concluding the posting, he writes,
Most crew of space missions come back changed forever. Astronauts do not see national boundaries, they do not see warring nations, and they rarely notice the ravages of humanity and industry on the face of the planet.
All they see is a stunningly vibrant planet, lots of rich blue-aquamarine ocean, virgin white snowtops on chains of mountain ranges and puffs of cloud cover as the continents whizz by below them in absolute silence. No one is asking them for country of origin or standing in line for visa verification.
They see the whole world as one giant, harmonious living entity. They are immersed in warm and caring embrace; a feeling of oneness with nature is inescapable. From orbit, the idea of a common humanity becomes reality.
If that’s not a spiritual awakening, what is?
Brad Sim's Blog contains a posting entitled, "An exhortation to study the spiritual experience of astronauts," which provides more details on the spiritual experiences individual astronauts have had in space and notes that this whole phenomenon of space spirituality remains little studied or understood. The posting quotes Frank Borman as saying, "I had an enormous feeling that there had to be a power greater than any of us—that there was a God, that there was indeed a beginning." It seems to be a fiarly typical statement.

Is it possible that God has been designing us for life in space from the dawn of evolution?  Will future generations of space travelers continue to have life changing spiritual experiences?  Or, will the whole thing become so commonplace that the spiritual impact of space travel will be but a passing phase?  For the time being, what does seem clear is that science, technology, and spirituality have converged at the point of space travel.  Many science fiction writers have imagined a religionless future once spacefaring humanity "matures," but the reality may be just the opposite.  The transition form life on Earth to life in space may in fact take us one step closer to becoming what God is creating us to be—and one step closer to God.  Maybe not, but maybe so.

Monday, July 11, 2011

America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2011

The Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics has recently issued a report on the state of America's children entitled, America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2011.  RPK readers who work with children or are interested in the state of childhood in the U.S. today will find the report, which contains tons of statistical data, interesting and helpful.

See the CNN news posting on the report (here).
See the online version of the report (here).
Download the full report as a pdf (here).

Saying it Slightly Differently

"The Prayer at Valley Forge"
by Arnold Friberg
Presidential contender Rep. Michele Bachmann (R - MN) recently visited Iowa and spoke on a Sunday morning at the independent megachurch, Point of Grace Church in the Des Moines suburb of Waukee.  According to the Des Moines Register news posting reporting the event, Bachmann did not deliver a typical stump speech but, rather, shared a message of hope appropriate to Sunday morning worship.  At one point, commenting on a painting hanging in the church of George Washington at prayer during the hard winter at Valley Forge, she stated:
“We too are at a crucial time today. And I think it is for us to remember, that if we do as Chronicles tells us, if we humble ourselves, and pray and confess our sins, and turn away from our wicked ways, and ask an almighty God to come and protect us and fight the battle for us, we know from his word, his promise is sure. He will come. He will heal our land. And we will have a new day.”
Bachmann's statement rings with some of the greatest themes of the Christian faith: humility, reliance on prayer, repentance, faith, divine healing, and salvation.  Those of us coming from a very different theological perspective still say, "amen," to the whole of the paragraph—and, yet,  maybe we wouldn't put it quite the way she does.  Instead, we might say:
"We too are at a crucial time today when we do well to remember the things Chronicles tells us.  These are times that require us to humbly see good in those with whom we disagree.  They are times for prayer, confession, and seeking to walk the path Christ walked.  In these times, we will do well to pray that God's presence gives us wisdom us, reconciliation with our enemies, and teaches us peace.  In Christ, we trust that God's Spirit is working for healing in our nation calling us to a new day."
As disciples of the Prince of Peace, we would like to see a little less emphasis on battle and perhaps just a slightly less triumphalist tone—maybe less reliance on the God who is on-my-side and a little more faith in God who calls us to work for the good of others.

One wonders, could we sit down with Rep. Bachmann and come up with a common paragraph?  It would be an interesting, possibly fruitful exercise.  In any event, we trust that she would be able to say, "amen" to this paragraph as we do to hers, even if she put it slightly differently.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Thailand Spring?

My wife, Runee, and I are often asked about events in Thailand, which seem to be too often troublesome.  We are thankful for the concern.  For RPK readers who might also be interested, the July 7th op-ed posting by Thitinan Pongsudhirak entitled, "A Thai Spring?" provides important insights into Thailand's current political situation after its recent elections.

How Can This Be?

As noted in an earlier RPK posting (here), some of our very best neighbors here in Lewis County are Amish.  They add a great deal to the quality of our lives and detract from that quality in no ways that most of us can discern.  So, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Amish immigrants don't always receive the welcome they have here.  Such is the case, evidently, in Schuyler County, Missouri, according to a news feature by Phillip O'Connor entitled, "Curiousity, criticism follow Amish in Midwest migration to Missouri."  Soon after the first Amish settled in the county, rumors began to circulate that they "hated government, didn't pay taxes, and wouldn't fight in a war."  They are not, that is, loyal and patriotic Americans.  There were other uglier rumors as well.  Others continue down to the present to criticize the way the Amish raise their children, supposedly make women work too hard, and refuse to use electricity.

In other areas of New York as well, the Amish have fallen foul of local codes and people object to horse manure on their streets and roads.  Sometimes, according to one survey of the Amish in New York (here), these differences have ended up in court.  It is the most conservative Amish groups that often have these problems.  Still, the Amish living in the Lowville area are reputed to be one of the more conservative groups, and there still is little complaint if any about them.

It's hard to believe, in fact, that anyone could object to the Amish in the ways described above.  While it is true that some Amish are somewhat stand-offish and many are apparently shy, others are easy to chat with and happy to sit and talk a spell.  And, frankly, they contribute to the cultural richness and diversity of places that are otherwise a bit monochrome when it comes to such things.  Sure, the rest of us have to meet them half-way or even a little more on some things, but there's far more good than harm that comes of it.  The practice of kindness is its own reward especially with neighbors such as the Amish who themselves provoke little else but kindness.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


Flag of South Sudan via Wikipedia
The world welcomes South Sudan as its newest member into the family of nations and the 193rd recognized by the United Nations.  Independence comes after a decade's long struggle on the part of the people of southern Sudan against what was felt to be an oppressive Sudanese regime.  We pray that independence for this troubled region will lead to better times for its people.  Amen.

For some of the details, see the Christian Science Monitor news posting (here).

A Sad P.S.

There's a sad postscript to the Akin versus liberals affair. According to a recent posting (here), Akin has added a political attack specialist to his campaign staff. This "gentleman" played a role in the "swift boat" attacks on John Kerry in 2004 and the attempt to hang the supposed radical, Bill Ayers, around President Obama's neck in 2008. This move sends clear signals about Akin's liberals hate God comment.  He meant it, isn't sorry for it other than the negative publicity it has gotten him, and intends to deal with that negative publicity by going on the attack.  This kind of scorched earth politics does our nation a huge disservice, and it is troubling that a man who professes a saving faith in Christ employs it.

Another Todd Akin Follow Up

In three RPK postings a few days back, I reported on the comment made by Rep. Todd Akin (R - MO) that liberals hate God and want to replace God with big government (see here, here, and here).  After refusing to apologize for the remark, he did make a limp apology.  And now he seems to be applying a strategy of not speaking about the incident, surely assuming that it will just go away if he doesn't add fuel to the fire. However, the story does continue to bounce around the Web a bit mostly on either Missouri websites or on liberal ones such as the Huffington Post (see here, for example).  Just yesterday, July 8th, Victoria Seigel posted a helpful list (here) of the various news outlets that have commented on the story.

In this light, Peter Wehner's posting, "Liberalism, Religion and the Enlightenment," is a notable contribution that goes beyond the right wing outrage sparking left wing outrage tone that has characterized most of the responses to Akin's inflammatory comment. Wehner is a self-styled conservative and agrees that liberalism generally is skeptical of religion and has even taken on an anti-religious tone at times. His analysis, however, is measured, seeks to be balanced, and refrains from the rhetoric of ideological outrage. He concludes the piece by writing,
As a general matter, liberals and conservatives view religion in the public square in very different ways, with many liberals alarmed at the prospect and many conservatives encouraged by it. Both sides have some historical justification for their views. But conservatives, in the here and now, have, I think, the much stronger case. The quickest way to undermine it is to make claims that are too sweeping and therefore false, the product of rage rather than reason. Which brings me full circle to Representative Akin’s comments, which didn’t do him, his cause, or his country any good.
This is what we need much more of in our public discourse: responsible, reasoned, and respectful commentary that can see why others think the way they do without necessarily agreeing with them.  Would that such comments were the norm rather than the exception.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Bible, History, & Software

One of the first discoveries made by scholars employing modern critical techniques to the study of the Bible is that many of the books in the Bible have more than one author even when traditional assigns just one author to them.  A recent Associated Press article by Matti Friedman entitled, "Bible's authors distinguished by language software," reports on the exploratory research of a team of Israeli scholars applying a computer recognition program to identify different authors of the Old Testament.  The purpose of the project was primarily to experiment with the software, but the researchers claim to have duplicated much of the findings of Old Testament scholars concerning the multiple authorship of books of the Old Testament.  Basically, what the paper (here) presented by the research team shows is that the team is developing a method for analyzing biblical authorship that might prove significant in the future, sooner or later.

If, as seems likely, this team's approach or some other yet to be developed does prove successful in analyzing biblical authorship, it will be but one more step in expanding our understanding of the Bible as a set of historical documents.  We may well, for example, gain a still clearer picture of which of the so-called Pauline epistles Paul actually wrote.  Such insights help us to put the books of the Bible into their historical contexts, which contributes to our understanding of the spirituality of the authors and the development of their understanding of God's presence with them.  The better we can understand the development of the Bible the better we can understand how the ancient Hebrews and the first generations of Christians experienced the Presence of God—and the better we can understand God ourselves.

 However we express it in our different ways, we are convinced that God is Present in the development of the Bible just as God is Present in the unfolding of history itself.  It is crucial to our theology of the incarnation that we see the Bible as a historical document that was written by different authors at different times and, therefore, developed over time.   Working on this "stuff," trying to understand it, is a central task of our faith.  It's also a lot of fun to reflect on and try to figure out.  Amen.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

In Pursuit of Justice

The United Nation's agency for women, UN Women, has released a major study on the place of women in the world entitled, "Progress of the World's Women: In Pursuit of Justice." You can see the Executive Summary (here) and a news posting from the Guardian (here).  The Executive Summary highlights ten actions nations around the world can take to improve the lives of women and give them full and equal justice.  The report itself documents both the progress that has been made in global women's rights and the ways in which that progress has fallen short of full equality.  Check it out.

Mr. Rogers

The Rev. Fred Rogers
It was Leo Durocher who famously claimed, "Nice guys finish last."  But not always.  The Huffington Post recently posted an article entitled, "The Presence of God in Fred Rogers' Life and Work," by Eliot Daley, a colleague of the Rev. Fred Rogers (1928-2003).  Rogers was, of course, the creator and the host of "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood," the popular younger children's program that first aired in 1968.  Rogers was a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and an ordained Presbyterian minister who used the show to convey God's love and grace to his young audience.  Daley writes,
As for the agenda of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, it was deeply resonant with the agenda God offers us as co-creators of our life and world, and with the comfort of being held in good hands. First and always was the affirmation of unconditional love: “I like you just the way you are” is what every child heard from Fred every single day. That’s a message any of us would welcome hearing ourselves.
Rogers didn't talk about God or use the show as a tool for overt evangelism, but he did obviously use it as a channel for divine grace in an effective and interesting way.  "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" is, thus, Christian "edutainment" as its best and provides one model for sharing grace and peace with our neighbors.  We might call it a channel for the work of the Spirit.  And Fred Rogers was one genuinely nice guy who finished first.