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

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Sermon on Homosexuality & the Bible

One of the supposed truisms bandied about by Christian opponents of homosexuality is that, "The Bible clearly teaches against homosexuality."  In truth, one has to cherry pick a handful of doubtful passages to make that claim.  The Rev. Amy Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Washington, D.C. recently preached an excellent sermon on the misuse of the Bible to attack homosexuality, which can be found online (here).  She concludes,
"So. What I’ve just recounted here is the total biblical witness on the topic of homosexuality. With careful study it’s clear that these six passages either address cultural and historical situations that differ from our own or their translation and meaning are ambiguous at best. The bottom line is this: we do scripture a disservice when we use it to address issues it was not written to address. And I would even go so far as to say that we use the Bible irresponsibly when we ask it for answers to questions about sexual orientation or loving same-sex relationships. The Bible does not address this topic at all, other than to hold up for us God’s high standard of radical love expected from all people."
And she goes on to affirm that, "As people of faith, when we tackle a hard issue like this one, we want to be very careful to look closely and prayerfully at the scriptural witness. And we also want to be careful that we don’t use scripture to defend a position we hold because it’s a position we’ve always been taught."  It is a helpful, worthwhile sermon.  Check it out.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Another Government is Good Note

One of the minor themes I've been pursuing in RPK is that government is a necessary and generally good thing (see the first posting on this subject here).  The response of local, state, and federal government agencies—up to and including the once mightily despised FEMA—to Hurricane cum Tropical Storm Irene affords an opportunity to beat the government is good drum again.  According to a CNN news report (here), "...authorities at all levels of government are winning praise for their handling of Hurricane Irene." Those who "hate bureaucracy" and think of it as being only riddled with waste and fraud really need to step back and think again. In the last week, tens of millions of Americans have benefitted from government in a time of crisis when only government could do all the things necessary to cope with a major natural disaster. Churches couldn't have coped. Big business wouldn't have coped. There are many things that only government can do in the name of the people, and some folks in Washington are throwing the baby out with the bathwater in their ideological drive to cripple government by cutting spending. End of rant.

In the Shadow of the Burqa

Bell County High School football
Just a month ago, I posted an article (here) on the European fight over the Islamic dress for women, the burqa.  In that posting, I made a couple of points.  First, both sides in the battle are sincere, reasonable, and make good points.  Second, people of faith should be better than others at working through issues like this.  We should be more patient, loving, and willing to listen.  But most of the time we aren't.

In actual fact, we constantly live under the shadow of the burqa here in the U.S.  A recent news article on Kentucky.com (here) reports on events in Bell County where by long-standing tradition, a minister led the crowd in prayer before high school football games.  Bell County, Kentucky, is Bible belt country, and no one seemed to mind.  Praying before the game was an expression of local beliefs and culture.  Apparently, however, one or two families objected and eventually an outside group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, became involved.  According to its website, the FFRF is an advocacy agency for "nontheistic" concerns that has engaged in many courts cases with the goal of ending "state/church entanglements."

The FFRF has a point, which is that our government is secular, a choice made for us by our founding fathers.  They had seen the ills of state supported religion first hand and did not want it for their children's nation.  In America, at least, governmental agencies have no business promoting religion.  That's a good point.  Another good point is that apparently the large majority of folks in Bell County think of themselves as people of faith.  It is perfectly acceptable to ask a minister to pray before football games.  Those who don't want to pray don't have to—just wait a moment & it'll be over.  No harm, no foul.  It is, furthermore, an outside agency that promotes a religious agenda, so-called "nontheism," that has threatened the school district with a lawsuit if the practice of praying before football games continues.  The point is that in this regard not praying is also a religious choice.

It is, you see, complicated.  The games are public events staged by a local government agency, the public high school.  By law, the school can't promote religion.  Granted.  But, it would seem that the choice to pray or not to pray is a religious choice and not praying promotes a religious position as much as praying does.  In the end, the FFRF apparently stands on more solid legal ground, and we have to accept that fact.  We probably should do so graciously and gracefully.  Still, it seems like a culturally intrusive thing and not entirely fair to the good folks of Bell County.  Living in the shadow of the burqa is complicated.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The New Kinda–Kinda Not Atheists

They loudly, sometimes angrily, and frequently call themselves the "new atheists," and their voices have become a persistent buzz in the public media.  They insist that they do not believe in God, which they habitually spell with a small "g", or any other divine beings.  Yet, from time to time, one hears from them a whisper of something else—in, for example, a PBS interview with one of the gurus of new atheism, Richard Dawkins (here).  In that interview he was asked, "Why do you think that in an age of science so many people, even in the West, and particularly in America, continue to believe in religion?"  Dawkins responded:
"I don't understand why so many people who are sophisticated in science go on believing in God. I wish I did. You'd have to ask them. I know that in some cases what they mean by God is very different from what the ordinary people that they talk to think they mean by God. There are physicists who are deeply awed, as I am, by the majesty of the universe, by the mystery of origins -- the origins of the laws of physics, the fundamental constants of physics, and who are moved by this to say there is something so mysterious that it is almost like God, and maybe use the metaphor of God. God is in the equations. God is in the fundamental constants. And that's fine. I mean, that's just redefinition of that which we find mysterious at the basis of the universe."
Other new atheist authors occasionally avow feelings of awe and mystery in the face of nature and the universe.  They tip toe up to the edge of admitting that there is a "something" out there that is the source of this mystery that lies "at the base of the universe."  Were it not for the way "ordinary people" think about God, Dawkins might even be willing to say that he thinks that there is a something that we might use the word God to describe.  But, in the face of what he considers to be the superstitious beliefs of "ordinary people," he refrains because he doesn't want to associate his views of this mysterious basis of the universe with their unacceptable beliefs. When, furthermore, we read the new atheist literature, what we find is that the "God" they reject is the narrowly constructed God of fundamentalism and biblical literalism.  They heap scorn on this little God who is narrow-minded, violent, judgmental, and damns otherwise innocent unbelievers to eternal hell-fire.  This "God" inspires injustice and prejudice as well as out and out violence in "his" believers who among other things reject the findings of science when they don't accord with their superstitions.  That's fine.  Lots of committed people of faith agree with their assessment of narrow-minded theisms.

So, when they aren't carefully distancing themselves from superstitious forms of theism, do at least some of the new atheists think it possible there is a God, a "something" that lies "at the basis of the universe"?  Yes, some of them apparently do.  Do they thus believe in God?  It all depends on what one means by "believe" and "God."  If God is a mystery at the base of the universe and belief means intellectual agreement to a proposition, then, apparently, "yes" again.  Some of them do "believe" in "God".  They are almost but not quite atheists.  If by "believe," however, we mean trust in God, then "no" they are not theists but atheists.  So, it looks as though they are kinda—kinda not atheists.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Marks of a Saint

Traditionally, the two marks of the saint are joy and penitence: joy because one knows that one is not God, and yet with God all things are possible. The saint knows that perfection rests in divinity and not in the ability of the believer to negotiate reality so that one "comes off best." The saint knows that he or she is not God, and yet knows how easily one can forget this simple fact. The saint knows about darknesses and shadows that cloud judgment.

Alan Jones
Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality (1985)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Latest iPad use

It's a new age, that's for sure.  Yet another application for iPad comes from pro football where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have thrown out their ring binder, paper laden playbooks and replaced them with iPads.  And, suddenly they can do all sorts of things like insert video clips and do links from one play to another one in another part of the "book". This from a posting (here) at Yardbarker.com.  I'm going to bet the Buccaneers have started a trend that will "revolutionize" sports game planning (and make Apple Corp. still more money).  Whatever saves trees has to be good. Right?

Imagining a More Peaceful World

Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana, has gained some attention in the national media with its recent decision to play "America the Beautiful" at sporting events in place of the "Star Spangled Banner."  Goshen is a small liberal arts college with a commitment to peace-making.  The home page of its website (here) states, "We're passionate about making peace. If you believe in care of the earth and care of one another, if you put your faith and God before anything else, this is the college for you. We're for people who want to serve the world with joy in the name of peace."

The playing of the national anthem at sports events evidently became a major issue at Goshen, which has a Mennonite pacifist heritage.  Important enough to dedicate a separate web page (here) to the issue on its website.  A statement by the college board (here) explaining why it voted to cease playing the national anthem reflects an intense debate between those for and against, one that seems to have pitted mostly Mennonite students against non-Mennonites.  According to that statement, the supporters of the natioanl anthem believed that, "...playing the anthem does not displace higher allegiances, including an understanding of Jesus, the ultimate peacemaker, loving all people of the world. Playing the anthem also honors our country and improves community relations by welcoming and respecting the views of non-Mennonite students." Those opposed felt that, "...the College was sacrificing its peace focus and unique Mennonite identity and that allegiance should be to Christ rather than to country (and to all people rather than one nation/country). They also objected to the lyrics or said it was important to follow the College’s history and tradition and it was important to retain a position of non-conformity to the dominant culture or media influence."  The board concluded that the national anthem had become seriously divisive, and their solution was to seek a replacement.

In a statement dated August 19, 2011 (here), President James E. Brenneman explained his choice of "America the Beautiful" as the song the school would play before sports events. It fits with the school's sporting tradition, honors America, reflects the school's values, and respects the views of the various factions on campus.

This is another case, like the one over the use of American Indian names for sports teams (see here) where the decision made is not as important as the debate it inspired.  People with good intentions and a serious commitment to their faith can see this issue differently, which makes it sad that the issue was apparently so divisive.  Both sides were imagining a more peaceful America and world and how best to express their images of peace in song.  That's a worthy undertaking.  The debate was a worthy undertaking and a credit to Goshen and its student body.  We are fortunate to have places where such debates take place.  Amen.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Libya Smiles Again

"The smile has returned to Libya."

Anwar Youssaf Migarluf,
Rebel Brigade Comander
Quoted in: Tracey Shelton, "First brigade of Benghazi rebels arrive in Tripoli" (here)

Simple Wisdom from Steve

Retiring Apple CEO, Steve Jobs
Yesterday's big news was that Steve Jobs is resigning as CEO of Apple Corporation, America's largest and most profitable corporation.  The news led to a momentary drop in the value of Apple stock, and the media was al atwitter over "what comes next."  In any event, Jobs has been impressively successful at Apple, and in a 1998 interview (here) with Business Week correspondent, Amy Reinhardt, not long after he returned to become Apple's CEO, Jobs explained his strategy for success: simplicity.  He said,
"We've filled out our senior management team. We've got a good team now, and we're firing on all cylinders. And as the strategy becomes clearer to more of the people in the company, it really makes things much easier. The organization is clean and simple to understand, and very accountable. Everything just got simpler. That's been one of my mantras -- focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains."
Those are good words to consider in most human institutions and organizations, including churches.  Keep it simple—or, at least, as uncomplicated as you can.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

If Only

Budapest McDonald's
Hungary has come up with a novel way of addressing its own debt crisis, a tax on junk food.  According to a recent news posting on globalpost.com (here), " Hungary is set to impose the world's most comprehensive junk-food tax, which the government hopes will improve eating habits while helping to rebalance its healthcare budget."  The junk food tax passed Hungary's parliament in July and will go into effect on Sept. 1st.  The expected revenue will pretty much pay for the medical care deficits the Hungarian government incurs, and is intended to encourage Hungarians to change their eating habits.  In a letter of congratulations (here), the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) outlined the European struggle against obesity and related diseases, such as diabetes, which account for 86% of deaths in the European region.  The letter stated that, "cardio-vascular diseases, which are partly diet-related, cost the EU economy in excess of €192 billion a year."  That's over US$130 billion.  The letter concludes, "EPHA wishes you every success in the implementation of this initiative and hopes that this will lead other countries in Europe to take positive action to tackle this issue."

Back in June, we looked at some of the issues concerning junk food and its advertising in a posting describing how megacorporations like McDonald's target children and young people in their junk food advertising (here).  It's good to see some nations taking the issue seriously enough to treat junk food as the public health hazard that it is.  If only there could be more.  Amen.

Evolution & the Bible

In 1969, the General Assembly of the former Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) approved a statement on the relationship of the theory of evolution to the Bible.  Apparently, it remains the only formal statement by one of the predecessor general assemblies of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and, as such, is the only formal statement we have of the denomination's stand on evolution.  It's not a long statement, and I've included the whole text below.  The link to the online source is (here).


Neither Scripture, our Confession of Faith, nor our Catechisms, teach the Creation of man by the direct and immediate acts of God so as to exclude the possibility of evolution as a scientific theory. Scripture states that "out of the ground" the Lord God formed every beast, Genesis 2:19, and "of the dust of the ground" the Lord God formed man, Genesis 2:7. Genesis 1 teaches that according to the Word of God there came into being Light, Firmament (called Heaven), the Earth and the Seas. Then, God said: "Let the waters bring forth" and "Let the earth bring forth." After the creation of Light, the Firmament and the Earth, after the Earth and the Waters brought forth plant, aquatic and animal life, then God said: "Let us make man." This man, Adam, meaning both a man and man, is by nature both individual and corporate. The name Adam is simply a generic term for man brought forth from the Earth. Genesis 1 describes Creation as taking place in six days; however, it is not necessary to understand the Genesis account as a scientific description of Creation. Our Confession of Faith says:

"It pleased God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom and goodness, in the beginning, to create or make of nothing the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good.

After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls . . ." (Chapter IV).

The Larger Catechism answers the question "How did God create man?" as follows: "After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female; formed the body of man of the dust of the ground, and the woman of the rib of man; endued them with living, reasonable, and immortal souls; made them after his own image . . ."(Q. 17)

It may be that the Westminster Divines understood the "six days" as well as such phrases as "of the dust of the ground" and "the rib of man" in a literal sense; but, as they were merely using the words of Scripture with no intention to argue the theory of evolution (of which they had never heard), we are free to interpret their words in a different sense, just as we now do the words of Scripture. Nowhere is the process by which God made, created or formed man set out in scientific terms. A description of this process in its physical aspects is a matter of natural science. The Bible is not a book of science. As John Calvin said, commenting on Genesis: "To my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere." (Genesis Commentary — on Chap. 1, verse 6).

If the Confession of Faith, or the Catechisms, appear in some manner to support the position of the General Assemblies of 1886, 1888, 1889 and 1924 this is not because of Scripture itself but rather because Scripture was interpreted with 17th Century perspectives and presuppositions.

Some form of evolutionary theory is accepted by the majority of modern scientists. The Darwin Centennial celebration, composed of fifty outstanding experts on the various phases of evolutionary theory, expressed the meaning of evolution as follows: "Evolution is definable in general terms as a one-way irreversible process in time, which during its course generates novelty, diversity, and higher levels of organization. It operates in all sectors of the phenomenal universe, but has been most fully described and analyzed in the biological sector." (Evolution After Darwin, edited by Sol Tax, University of Chicago Press, containing the University of Chicago Centennial papers and discussion, 1959)

Our responsibility as Christians is to deal seriously with the theories and findings of all scientific endeavors, evolution included, and to enter into open dialogue with responsible persons involved in scientific tasks about the achievement, failures and limits of their activities and of ours. The truth or falsity of the theory of evolution is not the question at issue and certainly not a question which lies within the competence of the Permanent Theological Committee. The real and only issue is whether there exists clear incompatibility between evolution and the Biblical doctrine of Creation. Unless it is clearly necessary to uphold a basic Biblical doctrine, the Church is not called upon and should carefully refrain from either affirming or denying the theory of evolution. We conclude that the true relation between the evolutionary theory and the Bible is that of non-contradiction and that the position stated by the General Assemblies of 1886, 1888, 1889 and 1924 was in error and no longer represents the mind of our Church.

We re-affirm our belief in the uniqueness of man as a creature whom God has made in His own image.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Basically our lives are, to a large extent, spent in avoiding confrontation with ourselves. And then you can begin to make sense of the enormous amount of our culture's daily activities, which attempt to distract us from ourselves, from deep reflection, from deep thinking, from existential confrontation. There's a wonderful phrase by the philosopher Kierkegaard, "tranquilization by the trivial." I think our culture has mastered this better than any culture in history, simply because we have the wealth and means to do so.

Roy Walsh

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

When Science Was Young

It is almost impossible for us now to imagine what it was like when science first began to discover a universe unlike anything anyone had conceived of previously.  The telescope, in particular, opened our eyes to an immensity and an unguessed at order that simply could not have been conceived of before the birth of science.  What did it mean for people to know that the Earth is a globe that circles the sun along with other globes and that the stars are all other suns that might have globes of their own?  How did it affect them to learn that the Earth moves—that it is not stationary?

Writing in 1686, the French author Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle pretended to engage in a discussion with an educated woman of his time concerning the new findings in astronomy.  He had her observe, "...you are making the universe so unbounded that I feel lost in it; I don't know where I am, not what I'm about. "  Fontenelle replied,
"For my part...I think it very pleasing.  Were the sky only a blue arch to which the stars were fixed, the universe would seem narrow and confined; there would not be room to breathe: now that we attribute an infinitely greater extent and depth to this blue firmament, by dividing it into thousands of vortices [solar systems], I seem to be more at liberty; to live in a freer air; and nature appears with astonishingly increased magnificence.  Creation is boundless in treasures; lavish in endowments.  How grand the idea of this immense number of vortices, the middle of each occupied by a sun, encompassed with planets which turn around him!" (Bernard de Fontenelle, Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds.  Translated by Elizabeth Cunning, London, 1803, pages 111-112). [A copy of this book is available on line (here).]
One of the greatest theological challenges that faces us today, as it has since the beginnings of science, is to understand what the immensity of the universe means for our understanding of and relationship to God.  It is understandable but ultimately sad that so many Christians have refused to join Fontennelle in the boundless universe where one can breathe and experience the freedom of a holy awe in the presence of God's handiwork.  The rejection of the findings of geology, astronomy, and biology does our faith no credit.  Embracing the reality of God's boundless creation does.  Amen.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Amish Evangelicalism: "Leaving Amish Paradise"

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) religious series, Compass, has just aired an hour long program on the Amish of Lancaster, PA, entitled, "Leaving Amish Paradise," which tells the story of two families that have left the Amish community to join an evangelical church that evangelizes the Amish (here).  The families were excommunicated by their Amish community.  While the program provides insights into the Amish way of life and thinking, it projects a somewhat negative tone about them—in part because it depends on former Amish for information about the Amish.  Since we have an Amish community here in Lewis County, programs such as this help us to better understand them as our neighbors.  Happy viewing!

P.S. The show is also on YouTube - just search for the title,"Leaving Amish Paradise."

Thoughts on Compromise

The recent debate, or as the president calls it, the recent debacle over raising the debt ceiling brought into sharp relief the importance of compromise in government.  It's an issue that is important for church life as well.  The failure to compromise can have serious consequences in the life of a congregation.  And we should hasten to add that "giving in" rather than standing up on an issue is as much a failure to compromise as is an unwillingness to give and take on that issue.  Compromise can only take place when two individuals or parties openly, honestly discuss their differences over an issue requiring a decision.  The goal of compromise is to reach the best possible decision taking into account their contending concerns.

The Dallas News blog, TEXAS FAITH, recently posted a helpful compilation of thoughts on compromise by Dallas area faith leaders.  It's worth taking a look at (here) and includes, for example, this thought from the Rev. Joe Clifford, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Dallas, who writes,
"Compromise is not antithetical to conviction. It reflects a conviction that values getting things done. It reflects the value of humility that recognizes one might not be right about everything. It reflects a conviction that the world is an exceedingly complex place filled with myriad shades of grey that require us to negotiate the challenges life brings through a healthy combination of conviction and compromise.
"Washington doesn't need more conviction right now. We need leaders who recognize the complexities of these realities who have a healthy dose of humility and value getting things done. Such leaders know what it means to compromise."
The difficulties Congress has today in making meaningful compromises are, sadly, not a coincidence.  Congress is an only slightly distorted mirror image of the voters who elected them.  When the electorate shows a definite inclination to elect hard liners on both sides of the isle, it must live with the fact that in politics, "What you elect is what you get."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

HeRD #109: Power of the Past

Back in the day, when I worked as a research historian for the Church of Christ in Thailand, I used what was then the brand spanking new technology of the Web to send out almost daily research emails. I called them "HeRD," which stands for "Herb's Research Diary." The following note was sent out on January 4, 1996.  I keep it now on my personal website (here).

HeRD #109 - Power of the Past

It is often difficult for those of us living in the present to appreciate the vast diversity of the past. Early church history provides an example. Protestants have long looked at the early church as being a unified entity. We have engaged in a centuries' long struggle to "return" to the golden age of the early church. Koester in his History and Literature of Early Christianity, however, reminds us that such an understanding of the early church is entirely incorrect. In describing the rapid expansion of the early church, he writes, "However fragmentary the total picture may be, it is nevertheless obvious that the mission and expansion of Christianity in the first years and decades after the death of Jesus was a phenomenon that utterly lacked unity. On the contrary, great variety resulted from these early missions." (p. 94).

Images concerning the past are themselves powerful historical factors. These images frequently have little to do with what actually happened in that past, yet they profoundly influence later behavior. The Protestant attempts to recapture a mythical unified early church is one important example. How we understand the past matters---it matters a great deal.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Good News for British Animals—and American

The otters are back in England
Two recent articles posted on the Guardian website (here) and (here), report the resurgence of wildlife in Great Britain, highlighting the return of otters to every county in England.  Some species, including five birds of prey, had become entirely extinct in Britain while others were on the verge of extinction, such as the water vole.  The otters are being seen in rivers, including the Thames, where they had not lived for centuries.  Although the increases in some of these species are still slow and fragile and many other species of living things are being lost permanently to Britain, this rebirth of life on the island signals a real success in environmental protection and the reclamation of habitats.  Researchers say that it also is evidence of the greatly improved water quality in rivers that had once been declared biologically dead.

Paul Schneider makes the same point for the Adirondacks of northern New York in his book, The Adirondacks: A History of America's First Wilderness (Henry Holt & Company, 1997).  Noting the surprise we might express at finding the huge, semi-wild Adirondack Park so close to the urban centers of the American East Coast, he writes, "Add the knowledge that only a century ago most contemporary popular reports said the park was largely hunted out, trapped out, fished out, and logged-over, and the shock of finding such a large and relatively healthy serving of wild land in the Adirondacks transmutes almost to wonderment.  This is not the direction we are used to hearing the environment take." (p. 10)

In an age where globally the environment is under ongoing and horrific attack on so many fronts, cases like Britain's environmental successes and those in northern New York are heartening.  And perhaps they can be an example for other nations, including especially those that show little commitment to preserving our global nest for future generations.  That's a prayer.  Amen.

Friday, August 19, 2011

TV Will be the Death of Us

Current research in Australia supports and broadens the findings of previous research that watching TV is dangerous. The abstract of the Australian team's report states (here), "TV viewing time may be associated with a loss of life that is comparable to other major chronic disease risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity."  The report estimates that the average Australian woman loses about 1.5 years of life and the average man about 1.8 years through watching TV.  The lead researcher, Dr. Lennert Veerman, is quoted in a recent article in the science news section of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) website  as saying (here),  "If our estimates are correct, then TV viewing is in the same league as smoking and obesity."  While physical exercise is in and of itself beneficial, he also claims that increased exercise doesn't offset the ill effects of watching TV as other research has shown even those who exercise regularly are, according the the ABC article, "still at increased risk of premature death if they also watched high amounts of television."

The report's abstract and the ABC article don't clearly explain why TV watching is so harmful, but evidently the issue is one of sitting for long periods of time as well as physical inactivity.  We're physically built to stand a lot and move a lot, and when we don't there are negative consequences.  One wonders if a quiet hour spent in reading has the same affect.  What about the time people spend in meditation and prayer?  The ABC article also states that much more research needs to be done before all of this is better understood.  In the meantime, less TV is better—as is more time exercising.

On Being a Minnesota Gopher Football Fan

Being a Gopher football fan isn't easy. It's something you explain away, like you have to explain befriending a serial killer or why you own 100 cats. Otherwise people look at you as if you're goofy, something I wasn't accustomed to. Ask a guy wearing a Gopher shirt about the football team and he's more likely to say "I'm a Gopher Hockey fan" or "Someone gave me this shirt," then look at your shoes and slink away.

Jon Johnston

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Further Evidence of an Evangelical Shift

Bill Hybels, Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church
There is perhaps no better measure of the state of American Christianity than the evangelical churches, which grew spectacularly beginning in the 1960s and have fundamentally changed the religious landscape in the U.S.  As I've reported before, there seems to be something of a shift going on among evangelicals. Their numbers are no longer growing rapidly. More of them seem to be nominal rather than enthusiastic in their faith. And they are demonstrating changes in their attitudes, ones that have led to a good deal of criticism from more traditional evangelical commentators.  Now comes further evidence from one of evangelicalism's most prominent megachurches,  Willow Creek Community Church, located in a suburb of Chicago.

Earlier this month, the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Shultz, backed out of a speaking engagement at Willow Creek under pressure from the LGBT community, which considers Willow Creek "anti-gay."  The specific criticism was that Willow Creek is associated with Exodus International, a ministry aimed at converting gays to a straight life style.  It turns out, however, that Willow Creek had quietly severed its association with Exodus International some time previously.  When Pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek addressed the issue (here), he stated in no uncertain terms, "Willow Creek is not anti-gay...It is not anti-anybody."  In his statement, Hybels walked a fine line because, on the one hand, he believes that marriage is between a man and a woman and that, biblically speaking, everyone else has to lead a celibate life.  On the other hand, Willow Creek seems to follow a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which in effect acknowledges that everyone who comes in the door is imperfect.  Hybels stated that the church honors the journeys of every person who attends worship at Willow Creek.

This is not, I think, Hybels merely talking out of both sides of his mouth.  Rather, it is a thoughtful, even prayerful attempt to balance his understanding of the Bible with an openness to those who are not like him.  He is trying to stay true to the Bible and practice Christian love.  It is not an easy line for evangelicals to walk sometimes, and in this case his attempt at a balanced approach has left him open to criticism from both the LGBT community and other evangelicals.  Members of the one are unhappy because he still discriminates against gays by defining marriage as being between a woman and a man, and the other is critical because he doesn't follow a hardline on homosexuality.  He is tolerant and thus "unbiblical."

The point here is not who is right, who is wrong but rather to see in these events the way in which one of the most influential evangelical pastors in the U.S. has shifted away from hardcore evangelical thinking to views that are more balanced and that leave open the possibility of dialogue and understanding.  Hybels struggle for balance is not classical my-way-or-the-highway evangelicalism, and it is important to recognize that fact.  It is further evidence that elements of the evangelical movement are shifting toward moderation.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Closer to God

We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Fighting Fire with Faith

Arkansas bus ad that has caused quite a stir
In the spring, a coalition of "nontheistic" groups in Arkansas tried to rent advertising space on buses run by the Central Arkansas Transit System (CATA) for ads that read "Good without God?  Millions Are."  The ads were to run during a Memorial Day weekend arts and music festival in Little Rock.  CATA and its advertising agency were willing to rent the space, but they wanted a large deposit and then insurance because they feared vandals might attack the atheist ads.  The United Coalition of Reason, the national parent organization of the state group, took CATA and the ad agency to court for violating their group's constitutional right to free speech; and Reuters reports (here) that a federal judge has ruled in their favor. The local group must post a $15,000 bond again possible vandalism, but it cannot be prevented from renting ad space, which is its First Amendment right under the Constitution.  And that's that.

Well, not exactly, in its report on this story (here), the online conservative website, Christian Post, added that Christian churches and groups in Arkansas intend to counter the ads by running their own bus ads. The Russian Orthodox Church, for example, has rented space on CATA buses to run an ad that reads, "There IS a God, BELIEVE. Don't worry and enjoy your life."  The Christian Post article also quotes a local Little Rock Christian leader as saying, "Any bus that has these ads running across them will be picketed...We are planning to create a newsletter and start gathering our resources to fight ads that create chaos in our society. These ads have nothing to do with free speech. It has to do with corruption and pure evil. We will stand tall for our Lord and fight against this decision."  These comments are troubling, to say the least.

First, the issue does have to do with free speech, and the "nontheist" group in Arkansas has a right to equal access to advertising with other social and religious groups.  Second, picketing and making a fuss only calls further attention to the ads while making these "Christian groups" appear small-minded and unwilling to honor the marketplace of ideas that is an important part of our national life.  Third, and especially troubling, is this leader's assertion that the ads are chaotic, corrupt, and "pure evil."  These sentiments are so over the top that we have to assume that something else is going on here.  The deeper issue is that many Christian groups are having trouble adjusting to the increasingly pluralistic nature of American society.  Tolerance of view points not their own comes very hard for they are convinced that they have a corner on the truth market.  Finally, this leader's statement that "we" are going to "stand tall for our Lord and fight" has nothing to do with Jesus' teachings as described in the gospels.  Jesus enjoined his disciples to turn the other check and walk the second mile.  As Christians, we are not supposed to fight fire with fire—but to fight it with faith, which is a very different thing.

A Marscape

The photo below was taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, which was launched in 2003 and, beyond all expectations, continues to send incredible photographs of Mars right down to the present.  This is a shot of the west rim of Endeavor Crater, evidently not of the crater itself.

Courtesy of   NASA

It's an amazing view, and it is equally amazing that we can send a complex piece of equipment so far and have it work so well that it can take a photograph like this.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Cosmic Theology 101

In an article entitled, "Are we all extraterrestrials? Scientists discover traces of DNA in space," the Christian Science Monitor recently reported on the findings of a team of scientists studying meteorites (abstract here; full paper here).  The team looked at a dozen meteorites and found that they contained genetic materials necessary to life, including some that have never been seen before by scientists and did not originate on Earth.  Over the years scientists have found other chemicals that contribute to life in other meteorites, and there is a growing sense that perhaps life on Earth did not originate here but, rather, was seeded by meteorites delivering the necessary components for life.

In other words, the literal creation story in Genesis 1-2 may be eventually rendered even more unscientific than we previously thought.  Life, or at least the building blocks of life, did not even originate on Earth but rather were delivered here by meteorites, which further suggests that the universe harbors the potential for life and apparently randomly delivers the elements of that potential here and there, to this planet and that one indiscriminately.  In a July posting (here), we considered the theological implications of the findings of a team of astronomers that the conditions for complex life probably exist on millions of planets.  What happens to our Earth-bound theologies when and if we come across any form of alien life, let alone intelligent life?

But we don't have to wait for the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe to realize that we need to develop "cosmic theologies" that put our faith in its largest and truest context, the universe itself.  It is likely that we still don't understand what it means to claim that God created the universe.  There are going to be more surprises, ones that render any quibbles with Darwin not only petty but also obsolete, and we need to get ahead of the game as best we can and begin to prepare ourselves for new discoveries that will challenge our thinking in ways we can't even begin to imagine.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Burma's Endless Civil War

Karen National Flag
The ethnic Karen insurgency in Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar) is billed as the longest ongoing war in the world.  It has lasted now for over 60 years, and there is no end in sight.  It has been my privilege to work with Karen Christians in Thailand, some of who have contacts with the Karen in Burma; some have relatives there.  They speak of the suffering and the sadness of their people across the border and of those in the large refugee camps along the border.

The story is told very capably in a 25 minute Al Jazeera video (here), which I would recommend for your viewing.

A Supreme Spirit Moment

Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus, 1956
The events of December 1st, 1955, have become an iconic moment in American history.  That was the day that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, because she was "colored" and sitting in a seat reserved for whites when the bus was full.  As she later told the story, Parks wasn't physically tired.  She was morally and spiritually tired of an abusive racist society that forced black Americans to the back of every bus, every line, and every opportunity.  Parks was already active in the civil rights movement and had been thinking about her situation and that of other black Americans for some time. The moment of her passive resistance may have been spontaneous, but it had been building for some time.  It didn't "just" happen.

For the most part, the Holy Spirit works deep within us in ways that we aren't even aware of.  The Spirit is at work prompting our hearts to new and better life.  It just so happened that on the December day Rosa Parks listened to her heart and by a simple refusal to budge changed the course of history.  It should not surprise us that she was an active, faithful Christian, who belonged to African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches in Alabama and Michigan.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ideology, Idolatry, & the Politics of 2012

As a pastor, I generally avoid politics.  People of serious faith have different politics, and it is not a pastor's place to "advise" parishioners on which party or candidate they should support.  There are, however, limits to non-involvement and, sadly, I have to draw that line at the presidential candidacy of Rep. Michelle Bachman (R - Minn) because of the way she herself overtly and frequently combines her highly ideological religious beliefs with her politics.  Most politicians who have a serious faith, whether it be President Obama or candidate Mitt Romney, witness to their faith by the way they "play" politics.  Bachman does more and in doing so distorts the Christian faith in ways that could have serious negative impacts for our nation and for the faith if she were ever to become president.

But, rather than beat this drum myself, I recommend that RPK readers take a look at Alisa Harris' thoughtful editorial entitled, "My Take: I could have become Michele Bachmann."  Harris grew up in Bachman's ideological milieu, exposes its weaknesses, and describes at least one way to move beyond Bachman's ideological idolatry to a place that is more faithful to the actual biblical message.

Fighting Over a Name

Fighting Sioux Logo
For years a controversy has raged over the name the University of North Dakota (UND) uses for its sports teams, the Fighting Sioux.  Those opposed to the name feel that it is racist and demeaning to Indians; those who support it believe that it is harmless and, if anything, honors Indian history.  The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) stepped into the debate in 2005 demanding that UND, along with other schools using Indian names and mascots, change its name.  Eventually, the NCAA agreed to let UND keep the name if the two major Sioux tribes gave their permission: one did, one didn't.  Now, according to the latest reports (here), a final appeal to the NCAA by school and North Dakota state officials to keep the name has failed.  UND either changes the name or faces sanctions by the NCAA and increasing sports isolation from other universities as some schools refuse to compete with UND because of the Fighting Sioux name.  For a compilation of news articles on the Fighting Sioux controversy see (here), and for the most recent editorial about it on GrandForksHerald.com see (here).

In a better world, the name Fighting Sioux would not be a big deal—indeed, it probably wouldn't be any kind of a deal at all.  But, we don't live in that better world.  In our real world, European colonists and their American descendants all but destroyed Indian life in the violent conquest of our continent, which conquest has included large doses of racism and social oppression against Indians.  In the process, our entertainment industry long presented Indians as stereotypical savages and, until recently, celebrated the "taming" of the West and its uncivilized inhabitants.  So, there is reason to question the use of Indian names and images in sports.  Do these names perpetuate exploitation?  Are they demeaning?  Or, is all of this merely another exercise in political correctness?

We need to be honest here and see that these questions can be answered in different ways and that the whole matter is not black and white.  A decade ago, commentator Steve Sailer recounted (here) how one California high school, which called its teams the Apaches, reached out to the Apaches and built good relations based on the name.  Some who had opposed the use of their tribal name changed their minds as a result.  What is most important about the controversy surrounding the use of Indian names and mascots in sports is the controversy itself.  It encourages us to be more self-conscious in our attitudes towards Indians and the injustices they continue to suffer.  The debate over names is a small step forward in our search for a just, equitable society and thus a good thing.  In this case it is also important that it was the Sioux tribal councils that made the final decision.  The controversy has thus returned a modicum of control over their ethnic and cultural identity to the Indians themselves.

Political correctness in both society generally and the church in particular is a mixed bag at best, but in this case it is important and helpful.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Work of the Spirit & Fuel Consumption

A recent Christian Science Monitor news posting (here) reports that the Obama Administration has for the first time introduced efficiency fuel consumption goals for big trucks.  Instead of sparking the usual political fights, this move is supported by the trucking industry and by environmentalists.  The new standards will reduce oil consumption in the U.S. to a measurable degree—with the result of less pollution as well.

It is worth the thought that these developments have a spiritual side to them.  They represent the work of the Holy Spirit, which prompts of our hearts to create a more just, peaceful, and green future.  Traditionally, of course, we have seen the Holy Spirit at work when people convert to Christ, when they pray and have mystical experiences, or when they stand boldly for their faith.  We don't generally think of something as mundane as fuel emission standards as having anything to do with the work of the Spirit.  But, in our consumption mad world it seems spiritually logical to see God at work in something that reduces consumption and promises to at least slow our destruction of the environment.  Why, in any event, should we limit our understanding of the Spirit to overtly religious events?  If God be God, then we would expect God's Spirit to be at work creating God's future, God's kingdom if you will.  It thus makes spiritual good sense to see the Spirit at work in this case.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Which God?

Every person becomes the image of the God they adore.

Thomas Merton
No Man Is an Island (1955)
August 8, 2011

The Problem with Physics

Following up on the "God & Reality" series that finished with some thoughts on our Christian use of science as a resource for theological reflection (here), Tony Rothman's editorial, "The problem with physics," offers a bit more fodder for reflection.  While modern physics has shown itself to be a powerful tool for understanding reality, according to Rothman physicists still understand much less than they sometimes seem to think they understand.  He observes, "Unfortunately, many of my colleagues — particularly those who write textbooks — present physics as a towering, seamless basilica, ignoring the gaps in our hodge-podge of skewed models. In fact, what is presented as a shimmering cathedral often more closely resembles a hastily erected shanty-town."  He goes on to give examples of how physicists are still unable to explain even basic physical realities, and Rothman concludes, "One can hardly challenge the predictive success of modern physics, but one should remember that one is describing nature, and not always understanding it."

We need to remember Rothman's point.  Physics in particular and science generally are very human ventures and nothing more than that.  Science is not god-like in its powers of explanation.  And, hard as it may be to believe, it is not the final step in the human road to understanding the universe.  Something will eventually replace it—something that will seem as magical to scientific peoples as our technological toys are to pre-scientific peoples.  As people of faith, meanwhile, we are called to surf the waves of the sciences playing with ways they can help us better understand God—but I've made that point already.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Redemption of Christopher Columbus

Orson Scott Card's fascinating science fiction book, Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus (1996), is the story of how a team of scientists living in a future when the Earth can no longer sustain human civilization decide to erase their hurtful past by creating an alternate history.  The team identifies the discovery of the Americas by Columbus as the axial moment when their own past went sour, and it sends three of its members back into the past to prevent Columbus from returning to Spain and to build up the Indian cultures of the Caribbean so that they are the equal of Europe.  These three also recreate their Caribbean empire in ways that are more just and less violent than would otherwise have been the case.

Pastwatch is not only a speculative novel proposing an alternate history.  It is also a work of theology proposing a different kind of Christianity.  As Card makes clear, the Christianity Spain brought to the Americas was entirely able to preach a gentle Christ while visiting the horrors of exploitation, slavery, and violent racialism on the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere.  Card's Pastwatch team consciously seeks to create a different kind of Christianity, one that integrates local religious ideas into an adapted Christian faith that actually reflects the teachings of Christ.  Card cleverly works his theology into the story so that it does not seem preachy or churchy while successfully driving home the point that our modern American society is built on the huge injustice Europeans visited on indigenous peoples.  It also drives home the point that the Europeans used a sordid form of Christianity as one weapon in their violent arsenal.  Card's theological message is that things didn't have to be the way they were had so-called Christian societies actually practiced Christ's teachings with other peoples and faiths.

And that is food for thought.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

God & Reality: Science as a Resource

Following on  the previous post, "God & Reality (V)":

From its earliest days, Christians of various persuasions have persistently adapted their theologies, forms, and pious expressions to their surrounding cultures.  They have happily and successfully imported all sorts of things, such as Christmas trees and folk tunes, transforming them into "normal" everyday parts of their faith.  In our age, science is a central, essential element in modern culture and intellectual reflection.  Our task is to do with science what we have done with countless philosophies and cultural systems before it, which is to unashamedly and enthusiastically take from it whatever we can to better understand God's ongoing creation, the work of Christ, and the presence of the Spirit in our time.  Science isn't our enemy.  It is nothing more or less than a goldmine of insights, information, and ideas that we can use to best advantage as we see fit.

To use science to best advantage, however, we must give it due respect just as any workman respects her tools.  We must refrain from taking some stray idea and running with it heedless of the larger body of scientific theory.  Those who will be most helpful are individuals trained in both science and theology, such as John Polkinghorne as one example.  Those of us who aren't trained in science can poke around at the edges (which is what I've been doing here), but so much of science is so technical that we will not be able to see the deeper implications of science for theology.  On the other hand and as I've written before several times, scientists who play at theology without at least some theological training only hurt themselves—the so-called new atheists being the most blatant and abusive examples.

Our ultimate goal is to discover a deeper, more meaningful personal faith for ourselves—one that is grounded in both the traditions of the church and the modern world around us.  In general, Christian faiths have been largely incarnational faiths, which means that they see God in the real world around them.  Incarnational faiths begin with Christ, who was a real person, and with the Holy Spirit, who we take to be involved in real lives in our real world.  Ours is more of a worldly religion than not, more grounded in daily life than not.  This is especially true of Protestant faiths, which generally have rejected monasticism and for the most part ignored contemplation and meditation, emphasizing instead engagement with the world through service and evangelism.  For my part, I am convinced that our incarnational heritage inspires us to engage science in a positive, hopeful, and inquisitive way—seeking understanding, seeking truths.

Science is not our enemy.  It is not our friend.  It is just the latest in a long line of opportunities to think about God in Christ in new, culturally relevant ways.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

God & Reality (V)

Following on the previous post, "God & Reality (IV)":

Most of us think of God in a mixture of Greek philosophical and Hebrew biblical terms.  The Greek God of philosophy is absolute, all-powerful, all-knowing, and changeless, eternal—distant and impersonal.  The Hebrew God of the Bible is close, personal, changeable, and doesn't always know everything.  These two views of God are, strictly speaking, at odds with each other, but most of us believe in both of them and combine them in ways that may not be logical but that are meaningful to us.  The way I've been putting it here is that God is at once Beyond and Present.

In previous postings (here and here), we have played with the possibilities quantum physics offers for our thinking about God.  The discovery of the tiny tiny world of quantum mechanics with its wacky ways does, in particular, offers an analogy that helps us understand how God might actually be both Beyond and Present, impersonal and personal, changeless and changing, all-knowing and not always in the loop all at the same time.  Put another way, God can both stand outside of time and space as "pure being" and participate in the evolution of the universe as "pure becoming."

Dr. George F. Spagna, Jr., a physicist, plays with some of these same ideas in a 2007 paper entitled, "Toward a quantum theology" (2007).  According to Spagna, in that wacky quantum world physical reality only begins to exist when there is an observer.  This fact of quantum mechanics suggests that the universe at large also requires an observer in order to exist.  If that is true, then who is this observer if not God?  He writes, "...it is God’s presence and participation in every event that makes God both the Ultimate Observer and the omnipresent, continuous Creator."  He continues, "Unlike Augustine’s transcendent God who stands outside of time, this God is immanent and intimate.  As the universe of events unfolds, this God 'calls' it into becoming at each point of spacetime."

This is the God of the Bible, creatively involved in the universe and our lives.  It is not the timeless God of the Greeks and much of post-biblical Christian theology.  Yet, logically God must also stand outside of time in order to create it, so the timeless Greek God is necessary, too.  God is both.  That's the point.  Stay tuned one last time.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Complacent Evangelicals

While many so-called mainline churches remain healthy and engaged in vital ministries, the center of Christian gravity in the U.S. has definitely shifted toward the evangelical churches.  They are where the growth and the enthusiasm have been for several decades.  But, as we've noted before, there seems to be a fundamental shift taking place among American evangelicals.  The optimism and enthusiasm appears to be dwindling.  Early in July, we noted that a recent survey of international evangelical leaders showed a serious contrast between the almost heady optimism of third-world evangelicals and the much less rosy hope of those from the U.S. (here)  We've also seen that the Southern Baptists are beginning to show the statistics of decline that have plagued ecumenical denominations for many decades now (here).

Still further evidence of this shift among American evangelicals comes from research done by the Barna Research Group as reported in a posting on the Christian Post website entitled, "Study: Born-Again Christians Have Become Complacent." According to Barna, self-identified evangelicals are attending worship less often, and more of them have stopped attending worship entirely.  They spend less time reading the Bible.  They take less part in church activities.  The article quotes George Barna as saying, "In the past decade, even the proportion of born-again adults who say their faith is vitally important to them has dipped substantially."  Although the article suggests some causes, the reasons for this decline are not immediately clear.

Organized religion seems to be in general decline throughout the Western world including here in the U.S.  The growing signs of evangelical decline only signals how difficult the current cultural climate is for all of us.  At the same time, we should not overstate the decline.  There is still an immense amount of life in American churches and denominations, which are not going away any time soon.  It's just that the indicators are trending downward and the downhill slope seems to be  getting steeper.  It seems unlikely that America's churches will decline as severely as those in some parts of Europe.  It may even be that eventually we will go through another round of American revivalism, one of the hallmarks of Christianity in our nation.  Still, for the time being the downhill slope is getting steeper.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Idolatry & Ideology Follow Up

Idolatry seems like such an old-fashioned, time-worn concept, but it is coming back into vogue as a useful tool for theological analysis.  And it is beginning to be a thread in posts on this blog.  Recently, one of my other threads—the one that was following Rep. Todd Akin from Missouri—ended with the observation that faith tends to devolve into ideology, which is our modern form of biblical idolatry.  Recently, I came across an article by Chuck Colson, as conservative an evangelical as you could want, entitled, "Ideology and the Budget Deal," which makes much the same point although he doesn't use the word idolatry.  In that article, Colson briefly analyzes the recent debt ceiling brouhaha, and concludes,
What this debate has demonstrated is that America is deadlocked in a titanic ideological struggle. The danger is that without responsible leadership, deadlocked societies can descend quickly into chaos. And chaos can easily lead to tyranny.
As you have heard me say many times, and it bears repeating again and again, ideology is a man-made formulation: It is the enemy of true conservatism, which is governed by revealed truth and the wisdom of those who have gone before us. And it is certainly an enemy of the Gospel which rests on revealed propositional truth.
Colson's description of ideology as a dangerous product of the human mind is spot on.  The political gamesmanship during the debt ceiling debate showcased the dangers of ideology in a way that few Americans missed.  Maybe, we'll be a little more careful about the kind of people we elect to Congress next time around.  If we elect rigid ideologues, such as Rep. Akin, to public office, what we reap are the consequences, which are starkly those of  a contemporary form of idolatry that transforms faith into ideology.  By the way, I would add to Colson's comments that ideologies are also the enemies of true liberalism.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Bridging the "God Gulf"

Nicholas Kristof has written a commendable op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled, "Evangelicals Without Blowhards," that distinguishes some evangelical leaders who give the evangelical movement a bad name from many other evangelicals who live out their faith in caring,  loving ways.  It is important to understand the goodness that he sees in evangelicals, Kristof concludes, "Because religious people and secular people alike do fantastic work on humanitarian issues — but they often don’t work together because of mutual suspicions. If we could bridge this “God gulf,” we would make far more progress on the world’s ills. And that would be, well, a godsend."  You might want to take a look at the whole essay.  And I would also recommend a thoughtful evangelical reply by Adam Jeske (here).

God & Reality (IV)

Following on the previous post, "God & Reality (III)":

Christian theology has traditionally understood God in two basic ways.  First, God is the creator of the universe and thus must logically stand outside of the universe.  God "was" before there was a "was-ness" that was.  God is timeless or, more than that, beyond any conception of time including timelessness, which still implies some connection to time since timelessness is the absence of time.  Actually, that last statement is debatable,  but it shows the problem we have understanding something that stands outside of reality and created reality.  We use words like "eternal," "all-powerful," and "all-knowing," but all they do is point to our complete ignorance of that which is utterly and ultimately Beyond.

Second, however, we Christians insist that this Beyond that we call God is intimately involved in reality, first, because creation continues.  God is continuing to create new realities; second, because Jesus who is God With Us truly was a man like us, and, third, because by the grace of God we experience God in our personal lives and sense the flow of the Holy Spirit around us.  God is Present as well as Beyond.

How can this be?  Well, we don't know.  But, science gives us a metaphor that helps to understand that in the universe as God is creating it such a thing is apparently possible, or at least not as illogical as it might seem.  In the quantum world of the immensely tiny, reality is very different from that up here in our macro world.  Tiny "bits" of reality are waves unless observed when they become particles, they can be in two places at once, and they can be somewhere before they were ever there.  Ya, weird.  Physicists don't really understand it very much, and they are desperate to connect quantum mechanics with the physics of the macro world but so far haven't been able to do so.

If we consider God as existing at a third level (beyond the physical quantum and macro levels), which is metaphysical and ultimate reality, it is possible and likely that God's reality functions in ways that seem illogical in a way analogous to the weird world of quantum physics.  God can be both beyond time and yet experience time.  God can be both utterly not present and yet intimately present in our levels of reality.  God can stand outside of the universe of change and yet also change with the universe.  God can be both the impersonal Dharma of Buddhism and the personal God of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  God is both the vague sense of awe felt by many who disavow the existence of God and the deeply felt personal saviour of many who know God is.  God both Is and is Becoming.  Stay tuned.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Belief & Faith Revisited

In what amounted almost to an aside, a few days ago I described how I found a book on the history of doubt shelved in the atheism section of a  major bookstore in New Haven, Connecticut (here).  Not long after, I came across a posting entitled, "How abandoning belief rocked my world," by John Ptacek, which is about the value of doubt for discovering the limits of belief. He begins the posting by writing,
What I believe isn’t important. The fact that I can put order to my thoughts, sort them into opinions and fan them into beliefs is hardly impressive. In fact, such thinking is unavoidable. It’s what our highly evolved human brains do. They compare and contrast and judge in an endless attempt to make sense of the world around us. Believing is as automatic as walking or talking or sneezing, and about as noteworthy.
Pracek goes on to describe how he attempted to use a variety of beliefs to rise above his "animal nature," and claims that the rest of humanity is engaged in the same desperate attempt to save themselves with beliefs.  Eventually, he realized that clinging to his belief systems actually kept him from asking truly difficult questions such as, "If a clash of beliefs can be found at the root of all the violence in the world, then shouldn’t we question their validity – not the validity of any particular belief, but belief itself?"  Having then discarded all of his beliefs, he felt a sense of liberation, and he concludes,
However sacred or profound, a belief is nothing more than a thought, and thought is never the thing it describes. It can only hint at the wonders it attempts to touch. Sermons about love garble love’s ineffable beauty. Speeches about unity clank after the first syllable. Courting belief is a prescription for a virtual, not a virtuous life.
Ptacek, working from another angle, is getting at something similar to what I was working on in my recent posting,  "When Faith Becomes Ideology."  Beliefs are something we must always keep an eye on because we have a nasty inclination to transform them into idols, that is human-made "things" that we give our reverence to in place of God.  Buddhist thinkers, such as Thich Nhat Han, regularly warn about the dangers of beliefs.  They insist that Buddhism is not a way of believing but a way of practicing that leads to liberation from suffering and self.  Beliefs are a hinderance to that practice.  The Judeo-Christian tradition is also painfully aware of the dangers of ideological idolatry.  As best we can, we subordinate our beliefs to our faith, putting our trust in God in Christ rather than trusting what we believe about God in Christ.  It's an admittedly difficult distinction but one we must wrestle with continually, and doubt plays an important role in helping us find a balance between what we believe and who we trust.

Those well-meaning preachers and churches that condemn doubt do our faith a disservice.  Doubt is important and when exercised reasonably is an important aid to faith.  Amen.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

God & Reality (III)

Following on the previous post, "God & Reality (II)":

In the second installment of this series on "God & Reality," we left agnostics and atheists to their own counsels, and now we do the same with those who reject science in the name of faith,  particularly biblical literalists.  The literature arguing for a close relationship between science and religion is huge, and there is no need to try to add to it now.  Instead, what I'm working on here is how the findings of science can help us better understand God, the One who created the realities studied by science.

One of the most important things we're learning from science about reality is that it is in constant flux.  Nothing stands still.  Nothing is permanent.  The only absolute seems to be that there are no absolutes.  This is just as true in the realm of religion as it is for anything else.  Our theologies are constantly changing, evolving.  The Bible continues to change today as scholars discover new ancient texts or figure out meanings that we didn't understand before.  Just as our bodies are seething colonies of ever-shifting cells and microbes so our religions shift and change.  Everything is in flux.  Nothing stands still.  Even the ground we stand on is constantly shifting on tectonic plates, which are in constant motion.

God, we can only conclude, created a universe in flux where change is the norm.  Change is reality.  According to the Bible, God's plan for humanity also changes—or, perhaps better, God's strategy for achieving the divine plan changes.  God created humanity sinless, but that didn't work out.  Eventually, God "called" a Semitic tribe whose patriarch was Abraham to be God's people.  But that didn't work out as they became trapped in slavery in Egypt.  Then God "called" Moses to free the Hebrews and gave them a promised land.  But that didn't work out.  And on it went through Christ to the creation—ongoing creation—of the church.  Everything changes.  Even God's plans change.

The Book of Nature reveals, then, that at the very least God participates in and has a clear affinity for change.  As Christians, we see God's participation in a changing world most clearly in Jesus of Nazareth, a man who also had a seething colony of cells and microbes for a body just like the rest of us.  He was born, grew up, and lived "on the road" during his public ministry, as if to affirm a divine affinity for flux.  As Christians, we sense God's participation in a changing world through the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit, which is constantly prodding and calling us to change, which is what the word "repentance" means after all, a change of heart.

Does all of this say something about the nature of God, at least as best we can understand God?  Stay tuned.

Fundamentalism & the Bible: Worth A Look

For one helpful explanation of why it is not a good idea to read the Bible in a word-for-word literal way, see Randal Rauser, "How fundamentalists undermine the authority of scripture." It is worth a look.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

God & Reality (II)

Following on the previous post, "God & Reality (I):

Leaving agnostics and atheists to go their separate ways, people of faith are bound to find the analysis in the previous post dissatisfying.  We believe that God is real and engaged with reality as we know it.  Different religions describe the nature of God and of God's relationship to the world in different ways, but the consensus is that in one form or another we can know God.  While Buddhism, for example, is often thought of as a non-theistic religion, some Buddhist thinkers acknowledge that the Dharma can be thought of as "God," just so long as God is not conceived of as being a person.

We Christians base our affirmation of the reality of God primarily on experiences with the divine.  The central experience is with Jesus, which is both historical and contemporary.  Some 2,000 years ago, the founders of our faith had a mind-blowing, life-changing experience with Jesus that we are still trying to wrap our heads around.  Later generations have shared in that experience in their own lives.  Building on the Bible, we affirm that at the very core of it all, we experience God as love.  Christians in different ages, cultures, traditions, sects, and denominations have understood the love of God in different ways, given different interpretations and emphases to that love, but we share across the boundaries of our many Christianities the common sense that God is love, and we experience that love in Christ.

This brings us to a third way of talking about God.  We can speak of God in the abstract as "ultimate being."  We can affirm the living Lord as "love".  And we understand God as creator of all of reality.  The Old Testament affirms from the get-go that God in the beginning created the heavens and the earth.  In the evolution of their faith, the Hebrew people learned that their God was not a tribal god whose throne was in the temple in Jerusalem.  God's throne, instead, stood at the peak of the created universe, heaven, and the whole of the world was God's footstool.  In the tiny universe of the ancient world, this was as universal a view of God as was possible.  It took our understanding of God to a new level.  It transformed God's "kingship" and "kingdom" into something Beyond any human conception of God—even concepts such as "Lord" of the Universe.

God as the creator who encompasses all of reality takes us back to the neutral, abstract idea that God is ultimate reality but with one crucial difference.  We do not know what the relationship of ultimate reality is to mundane reality.  When we claim that God created the universe, we also necessarily claim that we can know certain things about God through the study of the universe, God's creation.  The universe reflects and therefore reveals something of the nature of God.  The abstract notion of God as ultimate reality becomes more concrete and comprehensible in some degree to us whose senses and perceptions are tied to the physical world.

The universe itself reveals God.  It is one of the "two books" of revelation, the Bible and Nature.  The discovery of the Book of Nature, which goes back to the early decades of the invention of science, was an important moment in the evolution of Christian theological thinking.  Rooted in the biblical view of God as creator, it continues to provide a key interface between faith and science.  It reminds us that many early scientists were looking for God in their scientific pursuits and that we should continue their journey today.  Stay tuned.