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


Monday, April 30, 2012

The Decline of the "New Atheism"?

Atheist Richard Dawkins with comedian Ariane Sherine
In an opinion posting entitled, "The Future is Not Looking so 'Bright' for Atheism," theologian Alistar McGrath argues that the so-called "new atheism" is largely a bust when it comes to numbers of adherents.  The actual number of new atheists, whether in Britain or here in the U.S., was never large to start with and is on the decline.  He seems to feel that it was more of a media phenomenon than anything else, and the media has grown weary of it. McGrath observes, "But now its freshness has worn off. Its breezy slogans now seem stale and weary. Soundbites that once sparkled are now dull through endless repetition. Its routine denunciations of religion are becoming more than a little tiresome."  In the course of his commentary, McGrath cites a much longer critical analysis of the new atheism entitled, "Believe It or Not," by David B. Hart, which was posted in 2010.  Branching a little further afield, my good friend Philip Hughes notes (here) that so far as Australia is concerned there is no evidence that the new atheism has had any measurable impact on people's thinking about God in spite of the fact that belief in God has long been on the decline in Australia.

To the extent that the so-called "new atheism" is in decline, that is not a bad thing.  Their discourse has been so largely angry, dismissive, and superficial that they are hard to take seriously, and as I've mentioned more than once in Rom Phra Khun the new atheists in many ways are a mirror image of their arch-enemy, religious fundamentalism.  This is not to dismiss the growing importance of "non-theism" as a faith choice.  It is also not to dismiss the importance of finding ways to engage in thoughtful, mutually beneficial  dialogue with those who do not consider themselves theists.  It is to say that it is a waste of time to try to dialogue with fundamentalists be they of the theistic or the atheistic varieties.  We should be thankful, I suppose, that atheistic fundamentalism is but a weak caricature of the far more potent and dangerous religious fundamentalism.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Magnificent the Morning Was

 Magnificent
The morning was, a memorable pomp,
More glorious than I ever had beheld.
The sea was laughing at a distance; all
The solid mountains were as bright as clouds,
Grain-tinctured, drench'd in empyrean light;
And in the meadows and the lower grounds,
Was all the sweetness of a common dawn--
Dews, vapours, and the melody of birds,
And labourers going forth into the fields.
Ah! Need I say, dear friend, that to the brim
My heart was full? I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me: bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be--else sinning greatly--
A dedicated spirit. On I walked
In blessedness, which even yet remains.

William Wordsworth
Source: Dancing With Joy edited by Roger Housden

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Just an Accident

The community of Lowville, NY, has been rocked recently by the apparent drowning of a well-liked custodian from the local school—apparent because his body has not been recovered, which makes the boating accident doubly tragic.  The custodian was out fishing with another custodian on Lake Ontario, and their boat capsized in storm waters just one hundred yards or so from shore.  One man lived, one has apparently died.  Inevitably, in a generally conservative, fairly religious community like Lowville, the thought comes "naturally" that God was somehow involved.  One can find passages from the Bible that would support such an assertion.

As a pastor, I have to wrestle with the question of why these things happen more frequently than I like.  My faith in God in Christ simply does not allow me to accept the assertion that this accident was God's will.  In the Book of Genesis, God became angry with rebellious humanity and wrecked havoc on the world with a flood (Genesis 7-9), and at the end of the story of that flood God promised never to do such a thing again.  God promised never to destroy us by way of cataclysmic events, which I take to be large or small—the whole planet or two guys out fishing.  In a modern world view, what this means is that our divinely constructed universe is not dominated by a whimsical, distant, and emotionally distrubed god who wills some to suffer, others to prosper.

It was just an accident.  Accidents can be caused by any number of factors, often more than just one.  Sometimes, they are fatal.  More usually, we are thankful that we escaped with no or little consequences.  Some accidents become stories that we tell time and again—about the time this happened & that almost happened & how lucky we were.  It was just an accident.

So, then, God is not involved at all?  That is not what I mean.  I believe as a matter of faith that God is present in healing, in knitting the wounds of grief, and in the ways in which people come together in the face of death and hurt.  God is not present in our world as a stern, judgmental parent-figure who sits on the rim of the universe pulling strings to punish us for supposed sins.  That is a childish, if widely held view of God.  God is Present in our lives as Spirit, a healing, mending, creative presence that brings good out of chaos.  The Spirit is the silver lining we affirm to be found in every storm cloud.  God does not execute our loved ones.  God is the One who is present in our tears, sharing in the pain, and working quietly to bring our hearts ease.  I don't know why things are this way, but I do believe that embedded in it all is a larger purpose that is evolving us away from chaos and toward Eden and that in that larger purpose we find healing.  Amen.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Thinking Beyond Thinking

"What inclines even me to believe in Christ's Resurrection? ... If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like another man ... but if I am to be REALLY saved - what I need is certainty - not wisdom, dreams or speculation - and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were, with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. Perhaps we can say: only love can believe in the Resurrection. Or: it is love that believes the Resurrection ... what combats doubt is, as it were, redemption ... so this can come about only if you no longer rest your weight on the earth but suspend yourself from heaven. Then everything will be different and it will be 'no wonder' if you can do things you cannot do now."

Ludwig Wittgenstein

However many times I've read this passage, it's meaning seems to slip by me in one direction or the other.  I share it with you here, however, because it suggests something that I am coming to accept more and more: rational thought is not the only nor even the best measure of faith.  Meaning, purpose, and faith are constructed by the heart as much as by the mind.  The human spirit's thirst for more, deeper, and truer can't be satisfied by reasonable discourse alone—nor do "the facts" no matter how solid bring it profound rest.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Gospel of Mark's Sources Revisited

A new posting in the Mark series at Rom Phra Khun Bible.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Evolution and Providence

The windmills of Lewis County, NY
Evolution does not fall within God's providence.  Providence, rather, falls within the movement of galactic evolution in the universe and biological evolution on Earth.  That is, we experience God's care for us in the context of evolution, which is why so many of us can connect, for example, so deeply with a dog or a cat or another member of another species to the point that their presence in our lives improves our mental and even physical health.  That is why one of the places where most of us are most apt to feel the presence of God's Spirit is not in worship on Sunday but on the trail on a Saturday—or in the presence of a magnificent sunset or sunrise, or in the quick, cool touch of a dancing breeze. Galactic and biological evolution are the ways God creates, and they are the ways God creates us.  They do not fall within God's providence.  They are, instead, the context through which God channels divine care and compassion.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Forming the Jesus Circle II (Mark 4:1-34)

A new posting in the Mark series at Rom Phra Khun Bible.  This posting continues the argument that Jesus intended to found a new religious movement with his disciples as its first agents.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Is it True that "Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism"??

Below is the abstract for a research article entitled, "Low-Effort Thought Promotes Political Conservatism," published online 16 March 2012 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Scott Eidelman, Christian S. Crandall, Jeffrey A. Goodman and John C. Blanchar.  If this research becomes more widely known, it is sure to spark controversy and rebuttal (for example [here]).

"Abstract
"The authors test the hypothesis that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism. In Study 1, alcohol intoxication was measured among bar patrons; as blood alcohol level increased, so did political conservatism (controlling for sex, education, and political identification). In Study 2, participants under cognitive load reported more conservative attitudes than their no-load counterparts. In Study 3, time pressure increased participants’ endorsement of conservative terms. In Study 4, participants considering political terms in a cursory manner endorsed conservative terms more than those asked to cogitate; an indicator of effortful thought (recognition memory) partially mediated the relationship between processing effort and conservatism. Together these data suggest that political conservatism may be a process consequence of low-effort thought; when effortful, deliberate thought is disengaged, endorsement of conservative ideology increases."

This research raises some questions, and I have to confess that I'm more than a little skeptical about its conclusions.  Is it "conservatism" per se that low effort thinkers gravitate to or, rather, what the majority of people take to be truisms that they jump for?  In a center-right country like the U.S., the superficial, low-effort answers ("Poor people are lazy.") would thus tend to be conservative but in a center-left country it would seem reasonable to expect that pat liberal talking points ("The state has a duty to insure its citizens against personal misfortune.") would be the quick, low-effort answers.  Furthermore, it could well be that the participants in the study tended to be conservative anyway and so went to apparently superficially conservative responses when the situation demanded such.  Would an identifiably liberal test group have tended to go with low-effort, superficially liberal responses in similar test circumstances?  Finally, the conclusion that "low-effort thought promotes political conservatism" does seem too pat and convenient for those of us who prefer progressive thinking.  I remain skeptical about the conclusions of this research.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Testing Every Call

In a posting entitled, "God Calling," Outlook editor, Jack Haberer, throws some chilly water on our Presbyterian penchant for terming things we want to do "calls" from God.  He is correct.  We do tend to use the term "calling" too much, especially when clergy are contemplating a "call" to a new church.  Haberer argues that by calling every whim and inclination a call from God, we tend to shut down critical thinking.  There is the Presbyterian church, for example, where a group of lay leaders felt "called" some years ago to engage in an aggressive revivalistic, renewal campaign in spite of the reservations of other members and the pastor.  For their trouble, the revivalists only found that they could not bully their congregation into renewal.  They blamed the church, of course, and most of the key revivalists left it for greener pastures.  In retrospect, it is hard to term their efforts a call from God.  Whether it remains a pattern today or not, I'm not sure, but when I was a young pastor it impressed me how often God called my colleagues in ministry to larger, more prestigious churches with bigger salaries and how seldom God called them to smaller, less lucrative, and more needy churches.

That being said, it remains true that the Spirit does prompt our hearts and inspire our thinking.  The thing is that we need to remain critical of our own ability to listen to these promptings and receive inspiration.  Every call must be critically evaluated by the biblical standard of Galatians 5:22-23 and similar passages, which give a clear set of measures for the fruit of the Spirit.  In what ways is this calling we feel loving, peaceful and peacemaking, and so on?  And we must acknowledge how easy it is to confuse our personal desires with the promptings of the Spirit.  Our human tendency is to play god, and we have to remind ourselves periodically that this is so.  A true call should humble us.  It's service to others should be clear.  In a true call there should always be a tinge of doubtfulness about just how real the call is.  And as a matter of practice we should never trust any person who is secure in or sure of their calling.  Such a person is likely to be fooling themselves and just as likely to make a mess of things one way or the other.

There is one other important factor, however, that puts in question everything Haberer wrote in his posting and that I've written here.  That is, the Spirit has the uncanny ability to extract good from human arrogance and foolishness.  It is possible, for example, for the Spirit to transform what was not a true call into one.  So, we should never overestimate ourselves nor underestimate the Spirit.  It is true that bad things happen to good people.  It is also true that good things happen in bad situations.  I'm not saying it is OK for church folks to go charging off doing whatever they feel like doing because the Spirit will make it all better.  I am saying that when we arrogantly go charging off doing whatever we feel like doing the Spirit can still extract some good from it somewhere—almost certainly, however, not the good we expected to happen.

In sum, certainty of our calling is not the measure of a true call from God.  The evidence of the fruit of the Spirit is that measure.  Amen.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hit It Where You Can

"You can't control where you hit the ball; you just go up there and try to hit it hard somewhere."
Josh Willingham,
Outfielder, Minnesota Twins

Forming the Jesus Circle (Mark 4:1-34)

A new posting in the Mark series at Rom Phra Khun Bible.  The series continues to look at the formation of the earliest church as described in the Gospel of Mark.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Failure to Communicate

President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act
The Obama Administration is generally criticized for failing to communicate adequately to the American public the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare."  For that reason, supposedly, the public largely disapproves of it.  Perhaps.  Perhaps the administration has failed to publicize the good points of the act sufficiently, but this thesis about why so many reject the new healthcare law forgets an important fact about communication.  Effective communication requires listening as much as it does speaking, and the public is notably short on listening skills.  It is a fundamental weakness of not just our political culture that the public does not listen well.  That's why politicians have learned that they can best communicate their message in brief, blaring sound bites that turn complex issues into distorted caricatures of themselves.  My personal sense is that, whatever the failings of the administration, a large segment of the American public was not, is not, and will not be willing to listen.  They don't know how and are not inclined to learn how.

There is a crying need in our nation today for dialogue, for the spiritual discipline of listening humbly and speaking quietly—for sharing—with others who likely do not share our attitudes and perspectives.  And the ones who most need to learn the spiritual discipline of dialogue are the those who consider themselves the most religious.  As a rule in today's political culture, the more overtly religious a person is the less likely it is that she or he can listen.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Asking the More Important Question

Books by Robert Wright
H. Allen Orr's review of The Evolution of God by Robert Wright is headlined, "Can Science Explain Religion?"  That title poses an interesting and important question, which can easily be answered.  "Yes," science can explain religion.  Religion is a human cognitive, social, and cultural phenomenon and as such is open to scientific study and explanation—or, rather, explanations.  For those of us who practice a theistic religion, the more important question is whether or not science can explain God.  By "God," I do not mean our human conceptions of the divine, which of course can also be studied and explained.  By "God," I mean God.  While science can explain what we believe about God, can it explain God as God?

Science as it is today can't.  That is clear.  But, let's not be so quick to rush to the simple-minded usual response that, "Well, of course, God is beyond human understanding.  We can't ever understand God."  Perhaps, but there is some indication that contemporary science is drifting into realms of the spirit and the Spirit.  Purely material explanations of reality don't work very well.  It is entirely possible that the "science" of our grandchildren or their grandchildren (the ones who are going to live long, long lives) learns how to describe Something godlike that takes us in the direction of an understanding of deeper spiritual realities.  It will surely still require faith to make the final leap from Something to God, but if God is the creator of all that is we can only assume that scientific evidence of God will be available to future science once it develops the empirical and research tools to study the divine.

And I suspect that when that day comes, one of the things future scientists discover is that we humans are indeed created to live in faith, grow in faithfulness, and co-create the peaceable Kingdom of God with our Creator.  Amen.

P.S.  There is a distinction between describing something scientifically and explaining it.  Science describes many things that it cannot explain, and perhaps God will prove inexplicable to science even in the long run.  Much depends on what science becomes in the future.  Right now, furthermore, it is hard to imagine what ways of knowing might supersede science, but if the human race continues to progress in its pursuit of knowledge and truth then there will inevitably be new post-scientific ways of knowing in the future.  In any event, my gut tells me that we are headed toward deeper cognitive realms that will take us closer to understanding the Something that lies before, beyond, and within reality as we know it today.  Will that deeper understanding lead to an explanation of God?  I don't know.  No one does.  God is not now knowable scientifically by science as we know it today, and there is no way for us to guess what a future way of knowing is going to know or even define what it means "to know."  But I still suspect that when that future way of knowing comes, one of the things future knowers of reality will discover is that we humans are indeed created to live in faith, grow in faithfulness, and co-create the peaceable Kingdom of God with our Creator.  And again, Amen.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Parable of the Seed (Mark 4:26-29)

A new posting in the Mark series at Rom Phra Khun Bible.  I want to continue to encourage regular readers (and irregulars too!) to follow the Mark series.  One of the things we in the Protestant mainline (a.k.a. oldline) must do if we are to regain a sense of being a faith movement is to figure out how the Bible fits into the equation of a contemporary faith.  One important element in that task is discovering the historiographical nature of the gospels, which is what these postings at Rom Phra Khun Bible seek to do.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Revivalism & the Way We Elect Presidents

2008 National Democratic Convention
In a posting replete with partisan rancor, entitled, "With 'hope and change,' Obama misled America," the chair of the National Republican Committee observes that presidential candidate Obama fooled the electorate into thinking that he is a moderate when in fact he is a flaming liberal. In the process, he has failed to keep his promises and has turned into an ugly partisan politician. Talk about the pot complaining about the soot on the kettle! Supporters of the president have another set of talking points in defense of the president, and most of the time it is impossible to tell that Republican and Democratic partisans are even talking about the same man.

That being said, there is apparently a measurable decline in enthusiasm for President Obama, which is hardly surprising given the revivalistic style of electioneering expected of all presidential candidates. The only viable path to election is to create an unrealistic, emotion-charged atmosphere of enthusiasm promising a level of change no president can actually achieve in office. Once elected, reality sets in, and it is a battle-scarred incumbent who must come back to seek reelection. President Obama, in fact, has kept many of his promises including winding down the Iraq War. In other cases, circumstances have frustrated his attempts to keep promises, some of which proved unrealistic to begin with. If we step away from the atmosphere of hateful political rhetoric of our day, we have seen him make mistakes at points, do exactly the right thing at others, and grow into the office. The same could be said for both Bush presidencies and for most others.  The thing is that we can disagree with a president's policies without demonizing the president and engaging in the politics of polarization in the process.

What has happened is that we have appropriated the American revivalistic tradition, grounded in religious zeal and fervor, for the conduct national political campaigns. Where nineteenth-century revivalists appealed to the hearts of their congregations while excoriating the devil, politicians now appeal to the emotions of their followers while demonizing their opponents. Whatever its uses religiously, revivalism is not a healthy model for deciding who should be president, and it is bound to lead to disappointment and a disillusioned electorate.  It is also one of the sources of the poisonous political environment we are struggling with today by which candidates cannot concede the goodness of their opponents or their own limitations.  They instead must play this game in which one side is virtuous and the other evil.  It is not a coincidence that some of those who overtly draw on religion as their motive power as politicians are also among the most able demonizers of their opponents, witness former candidates Santorum and Bachmann and almost candidate Palin.

It's been said before and will be said again: there has to be a better way.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Stilled

I must learn
the calligraphy
of egret stance,
poised on a word
that lies beneath
the weaving current,
steady, still. 


   Nancy Compton Williams
Source: Christianity and Literature

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Friday, April 13, 2012

Mixed Message

You see the photo on the left?  I found it on a Presbyterian church website, which is neither here nor there except to explain where it originated.    On that website it illustrates an announcement concerning a small-group study opportunity being offered by the church during Lent.  Now,  viewed with American eyes it is a creative poster that combines the symbols of our traditional faith (the Bible) and our busy, helter-skelter modern day life (the shoes) with Jesus' call to follow him.

But, viewed from a Southeast Asian perspective this artful poster is an awful eyesore.  It combines images of what is holy (the Bible) and what is profane (the shoes) in a culturally offensive way.  The Bible represents what is high, holy, and respected.  It is associated bodily with the head, which is the highest part of the body physically and symbolically.  Shoes are associated with the feet, which are the lowest, dirtiest, and most objectionable part of the body physically and symbolically.

In Thailand, for example,  books in general are held in high regard and one never ever places a book of any kind, let alone a holy one, next to shoes.  I remember once having to gently remind a fellow Westerner to take his shoes off of a set of published materials where he placed them after having taken his shoes off to sit on a mat and share in a traditional northern Thai meal.  He blushed, as he should have.  The picture to the left is much worse than that.  it juxtaposes two dirty, probably smelly common shoes with the Bible.  "Follow Me"??  The intended message, you see, is totally lost.  Indeed, it is hard to convey just how offensive the picture is and how much it obscures that message.

There is not one thing wrong in our American context with the poster.  My point is nothing more than to remember that in matters of faith there are differing perspectives, ones that are linked to culture as well as religious heritage.  In our increasingly multicultural world, we need to stay sensitive to the fact that our way of seeing things is not the only way.  Other eyes, trained in other ways see things differently than we.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Making the Hidden Known (Mark 4:21-22)

A new posting in the Mark series at Rom Phra Khun Bible.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

It Used to be Enough

Now what do I do?
In 1972, it was thought to be enough when a Presbyterian pastor preached and led worship with reasonable facility, had a modicum of organizational & management skills, devoted several hours a week to calling on parishioners, and was basically a friendly person who represented  his or her church in the community and in the "higher judicatories" of the denomination.  Generally, all a pastor had to do to be reasonably successful was to do worship as it had always been done, do weddings and funerals "by the book," and carry out the usual duties of pastoral ministry.  In the early 1970s, however, there were already troubling signs and tremors that there was more to pastoral ministry than this.  And as it became increasingly and alarmingly evident that there was something more to pastoral ministry in the late 20th century, most pastors, churches, and agencies of the church buried their heads in the sands of what used to be enough.  Yes, a new literature on "church renewal" emerged, a major publishing industry of "how I did it" books written by pastors who claimed they had turned "their church" around.  The rest of us quickly discovered that their remedies generally didn't work in "our" churches.  Meanwhile, Presbyterian seminaries continued to teach the curriculum they had always taught and continued to be staffed mostly by those who came up through the ranks of academia rather than local church ministry.

Now, forty years later, it is most definitely not enough to have mastered the fundamentals of pastoral ministry including preaching & worship, pastoral care & counseling, church administration, Christian education, and acquiring a friendly personality.  It is not enough to be a spiritual person or even to have gained the wisdom of years of life experience.  In addition to all of these still necessary skills and qualities, Presbyterian pastors have to be adept at leading congregations in an era that by its very nature is inimical to traditional mainline churches.  They have to be skillful at initiating change and working through the conflict and trauma churches facing change often experience.  This means being able to think outside of the proverbial box, but it means still more than that.  One has to be able to address issues of church decline and institutional drift in ways that will prove most effective in the particular church that the pastor is serving.

Being a mainline Presbyterian pastor in 2012 is daunting.

But here's the thing: it also means that the Holy Spirit is emerging from the cocoon of the church of "we've always done it this way" in new forms and with new power.  New ministries are growing out of churches that have shut their doors, and committed members of churches are discovering new depths of spirituality in other churches.  Our attention as pastors and as churches is being drawn to ways we can nurture new life—sometimes in the transformation of existing congregations, sometimes in the birth of new churches and ministries.  The bad news is that a whole lot of pastors, lay leaders, and churches don't want to be "born from above" in the ways we're being compelled to by the realities of our times.  The Good News is that growing numbers do seek to be born from above and ready (sometimes even eager) to move beyond what used to be enough.  Amen!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Those Who Refused (Mark 4:10-12)

A new posting in the Mark series at Rom Phra Khun Bible, this one looking again at the very beginnings of the earliest church.

Monday, April 9, 2012

God as an Agent in History

The graph on the left comes from a news posting on the Christianity Today website entitled, "Polling Evangelicals: God Causes Disasters, U.S. Should Help Victims," which was posted at the end of March.  It shows that the majority of American Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, and Catholics believe that God controls everything that happens in the world.  In the case of evangelicals, over 80% agree.  This, even though the belief has no biblical basis and makes little sense.

From Genesis through to Revelation, the problem posed in scripture is God's troubled relationship with a free humanity, which persists in abusing its freedom and God's creation.  Far from controlling everything, the biblical God is portrayed as a sovereign in search of a kingdom.  The Christian understanding of sin (rebellion against God) makes no sense if God controls "everything that happens in the world."

Indeed, from a philosophical and logical point of view, what would be the point of creation if God controls everything that happens?  If that were so, God is necessarily the perpetrator of every suffering, injustice, and evil that ever has been or ever will be.  If God controls everything, then every action we take is justified because it is caused by God.  Now, some more subtle believers in this doctrine will say that God has given humanity free will, but God is still in control.  God sets boundaries on free will and can withdraw free will at any time, and "he" who can withdraw a thing controls that thing.  This subtlety gets us nowhere.  It still leaves God being responsible for every action of every human being.  In this scenario, free will is still contingent on divine consent, which is the free will of a dog on a leash not an eagle soaring in the wind.

In scripture, by way of contrast, God created humanity with the possibility of unbounded freedom, and humanity broke free from its leash to claim that freedom—at the price of the loss of Eden.  And in our own experience as a race, we know that we are more than just our genetic coding.  We are more than just our cultural heritage.  We know that individually and together we have the power to construct our own social and cultural realities.  Evolution is a process that is both free and constrained at the same time—constrained by a set of unbending principles and processes that define the rules by which we play the evolutionary game.  Life as we know it is thus free and constrained all at the same time, but constraint by the boundaries of our created nature is different from being controlled by God.  God, to draw on a sports analogy, created the playing field and the rules by which the game is played, but God does not determine who wins and loses.  We are free to play the game for ourselves.  The problem addressed in scripture is this: we don't play fair.  We are free, and God is not in control.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

From Herb’s Desk

What follows is my pastoral letter to the good folks of First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, which I would also like to share with the readers of Rom Phra Khun. Blessings. Herb

Skeptics doubt that there ever was a bodily resurrection of Jesus, mostly because such things “just don’t happen.” Easter, for them, is a sham and a scam. In the church, we see things differently. We express confidence in Easter for several reasons. First, we have four eyewitness accounts all confirming “something happened” and that Jesus’ disciples saw him risen from the dead. The followers of Jesus insisted they had seen him. The skeptics remain, of course, skeptical. Maybe the disciples made up the whole thing or, maybe, they experience some kind of mass psychosis. OK, but then there’s a second point that makes us pause. After Jesus’ death, it is clear that the disciples were discouraged and hopeless. Yet, within weeks they were boldly proclaiming the risen Lord and convincing others that Jesus was risen. Something happened, that’s for sure. And, whatever it was, it was not simply a mass psychotic episode (itself highly unlikely) because residents of the small city of Jerusalem joined up. They, too, became convinced that Something Happened.

The third reason we are confident in the Resurrection is that Christians in every generation have felt its power in their own lives. It gives hope to those trapped in hopeless situations. It heals those in need of healing. Generations of Christians have felt the power of the Spirit in their own lives, giving them richer lives. Generations of Christians have given themselves in service to others, sharing the hope and healing of the Cross with the world. The power for good of the Christian movement for two thousand years is witness to the power of the Resurrection and confirmation that indeed Something Happened after Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, dead and buried.

The thing is that Something keeps on Happening. Easter thus is not just the celebration of a 2000 year-old miracle. It is an experience that we celebrate at First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, every Sunday morning of the year. Blessings in this Easter Season! Herb

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Happy Birthday, RPK

Today marks one year of Rom Phra Khun postings.  Time flies.  In some ways, I've come full circle.  In the beginning, RPK started out giving a good deal of attention to the question of the relationship of science to religion, and you may have noticed that recent postings have gone back to that focus.  There has been a shift, however, from the debate about the science-religion relationship to spending more time exploring the value of science for faith and theological reflection.  I didn't share it with you here then, but fairly early on last year I ran into one of the so-called "new atheists" who turned out to be a cyber-bully.  What looked like it might be a dialogue turned quickly sour.  But it was a good experience in one way, because it taught me rather forcefully that debating about the relationship between science and religion is pretty much a waste of time.  We in the church have much to learn from science, and it is time to get on with the learning and leave the debate to the biblical and scientist literalists (who prove the idea that extremes tend to converge).  In any event, now that I have moved the Mark series over to Rom Phra Khun Bible my attention here has returned in part at least to the vital theological task of learning from modern learning.

Of course, my progressive political orientation leaks out now and again.  Readers get enough of that elsewhere, and I am trying to keep it to a minimum here.  Sometimes, however, I just can't help myself!  And issues concerning church renewal have obviously been another theme this year.  Many of the pastors who have a blog use their blog to augment their own pastoral ministry.  I have to confess, especially to parishioners who may read RPK from time to time, that I haven't done that.  RPK is an opportunity to go back in a sense to my previous life as a research historian who enjoys playing with ideas and trolling for interesting thoughts.  Still, I trust that things I chew on here will be of benefit to the church I serve as well as to other readers.  RPK has averaged about a thousand visits a month, which is tiny by Web standards but feels comfortable to a small-town preacher who is content with being just that.  So, here we go into year two!

Peace, Herb

Go to Church or Else!

This image, which I came across at Briantrapp.com, is just too good to pass up.  According to Trapp, t is located on I-65 near Montgomery, Alabama.  Sometimes a picture is worth even more  than a thousand words.

Trapped in Paradox (Mark 4:10-12)

A new posting in the Mark series at Rom Phra Khun Bible, which wrestles with the meaning of incarnation, that is how God became a man and had to contend with the paradoxical nature of human life.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Book of Nature & Science

Jonathan Haidt
My review of Tippett's book, Einstein's God, at Rom Phra Khun Reviews describes that book as a journey into new territory in the relationship of science and faith.  It leaves behind the acrimonious debates now raging between groups of atheists and fundamentalists as it experiments with new ways to think about the Spirit and the human spirit.  In that new territory, theists and those who don't consider themselves theists find that some of their thoughts and words are beginning to converge in ways that transcend labels.  It is scientists, including self-styled atheist scientists, who are leading the way in the discovery of this new realm beyond the culture wars and self-righteous dualistic thinking.

A guest posting at CNN by psychologist and self-described atheist Dr. Jonathan Haidt gives further witness to this movement. His posting is entitled, "Why we love to lose ourselves in religion," and it describes the role of organized religion in encouraging us to have transcendent experiences.  Haidt has dedicated his life to studying morality, which led him to  the further study of such experiences.  In the course of his research, he had found that religions are particularly adept at encouraging their adherents to have experiences of the transcendent, whether it be through meditation, worship, or times of inter-personal interaction.  He believes that religion is a part of our evolutionary heritage and writes, "Whether or not you believe in God, religions accomplish something miraculous: They turn large numbers of people who are not kin into a group that is able to work together, trust each other, and help each other. They are living embodiments of e pluribus unum (From many, one)."

It is not clear what Haidt means when he calls himself an "atheist," but often atheists scientists reject traditional ways of thinking about a supreme being.  Some identify "God" with what they consider to be objectionable beliefs about God while others reject the idea of any kind of ultimate being entirely.  For those of us who happily wear the label "theist," the findings of researchers such as Haidt only add to our sense that there is Something going on in the universe that is ultimate and real.  There is a Presence that is both infinitely Beyond and intimately Present and that Haid's research reveals something of the reality of that Presence.  It is, of course, a "leap of faith" for us to then equate our own faith tradition with that Presence and to use our word, God, for it.

The thing is, the more the scientists dig into reality in its various manifestations, the more they are drawn back to the role of religion in life and to using language that is almost theological.  They are drawn to spiritual realities that keep pointing to a deeper and greater Spirit, which the theistic religions have long known as the Holy Spirit.  We can't deny that we do make a leap of faith from the findings of science to our theological inheritance as Christians, but the more we learn about the "real" world the more sense our leap makes.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Very Beginning of the Beginning (Mark 4:10-12)

A new posting in the Mark series at Rom Phra Khun Bible.  This one speculates that the roots of the earliest church can be found in Jesus' failure to communicate his teachings to the public at large.  It's worth a look.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Eight-Bit Church

FPC, Lowville, from Google Maps
Google Maps recently introduced a feature that turns maps and photos into 8-bit images.  On the left is the image of First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, taken from the Google Map's street view looking up North State Street from just below the church building.  Those who know the view recognize it, but this image is unlike any other they would have seen of one of the most photographed buildings in Lewis County, New York.

The image is a metaphor, a powerful one.  It is not clear where it will lead or what it will look like, but if churches like FPC, Lowville, are going to have a meaningful presence in the rest of the 21st century, they need to become virtual, 8-bit churches living in a digital universe.  Every generation of the followers of Christ is called upon to reinvent the Christian faith and the church, but not since ancient times has that task been so challenging, so daunting, and so potentially exciting.

The thing is not that many churches, as a percentage of the whole, seem to be taking on the challenge or even thinking about it.  Most continue to do things mostly as they have done them for many decades.  When I was searching for a new congregation a couple of years ago, one search committee that I interviewed with was most concerned about whether or not I would wear robes in the pulpit and why I don't use the lectionary.  It was a typical mainline church, that is declining in attendance, giving, and vitality—and clearly not a church prepared to live in the digital age.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Always Inviting Us

If we always rush, achieve, grasp, or fill the hours with mindless busy-ness, how shall we hear the still small voice of our loving Creator who is always inviting us to fullness of life?

Elizabeth Canham
Source: Heart Whispers

Mean-spirited Messiah (Mark 4:10-12)

A new posting in the Mark series at Rom Phra Khun Bible.

Monday, April 2, 2012

To Regulate or Not: That is Not the Question

The regulation of behavior has become one of the hottest issues in the culture wars.  Many conservatives, including esp. those on the right end of the scale, fear the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) because they believe that it expands the areas of life that the Federal Government can regulate.  The issue is the role of government in getting us to do things we know we should, such as eat healthfully and behave in ways that are safe.  It is a matter of balance, finding the line between what government should and should not regulate.  Gun control.  Light bulbs.  There is a dozen issues where regulation of behavior is the issue at hand.  Where do we draw the line?

One of the most important and possibly most contentious points of friction could eventually have to do with sugar.  If not a drug, it is certainly an addictive substance that is widely abused with devastating consequences for society—at least as bad as smoking. A February posting on WebMD entitled, "Americans Sweet on Sugar: Time to Regulate?" describes the case for treating sugar in the same way we treat tobacco and alcohol. The case against "unnatural" sugar consumption (i.e. sugar that is added to a food, not naturally occuring sugar such as in fruit) is a solid one. Two possible types of regulation are described: (1) tax sugar; and (2) prevent children up to a certain age from consuming  sugar additives. It is worth remembering that we control other substances partly by taxation, and we already require infants and children to sit in car seats when in an automobile.

There is only one way to decide on which side of the regulation line sugar falls, and that unfortunately is by way of the political process.  I say "unfortunately" because as a health issue the whole thing is an open and shut case.  Refined, "unnatural" sugar is a social menace and its consumption should be controlled.  Still, there was a time when Sunday morning worship was regulated.  The populace was expected to attend worship and attend it in a government approved house of worship.  In England, for example, there was a time when citizens were to attend worship in a Church of England church and by law forbidden from holding their own "free" services.  Conservatives rightly raise the question of what behaviors should be regulated and by whom. We should note, however, that while culture conservatives are adamantly opposed to some forms of regulation, they are in favor strongly of other kinds of regulation, such as outlawing abortion.  The question is not then whether or not we should regulate.  The issue is one of where we draw the line and what falls on which side of the line.