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

Friday, August 31, 2012


Unsustainability has a great way of stimulating creativity.

Brian McLaren
Speaking to the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA)
Quoted (here)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Fire, Science, & Spirituality

"Dr. Karl" Kruszelnicki, a well-known Australian commentator on things scientific, opens a recent posting on the origins of our use of fire (here) by writing, "Our human society could not exist without fire — and yet we often forget its positive impacts. While fire can be destructive, it also has a spiritual aspect, and it's an absolutely essential part of our modern world." (italics added)  Dr. Karl doesn't follow up on the comment about the spiritual aspect of fire, but simply mentioning it suggests an important point.  In the real world, things are not one thing.  They often are not quite what they appear to be.  They have multiple meanings, implications, aspects, and purposes.  Real things often don't fit our categories very well.

Fire is a wonderful example.  Dangerous.  Deadly, Painful. Useful.  Necessary.  Warming. Life-saving.  Chemical.  Destructive and Creative.  Spiritual.   Fires destroy homes and take lives, but they also provide quiet evening moments of dancing beauty.  No camping experience is complete without evenings spent silently watching the flames of a well-constructed, friendly campfire.  There is indeed a spirituality to such moments, a spirituality symbolized by the burning bush of Exodus.  Historically, many Reformed traditions have featured the burning bush on their logos (see here), including the current symbol of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  The United Methodist Church also features a flame on its logo.  Since ancient times, we Christians have associated the Holy Spirit and spirituality with the tongues of flame that rested over Jesus' followers at Pentecost.

Fire, thus, embodies and symbolizes the truth that "reality" is richly textured with levels of meaning and experience.  It provides moments for meditation, for coming to rest in a quiet place.  Fire symbolizes for us our deepest religious experiences.  And, there are times when the Spirit burns in the hearts of people—burns so deeply that western New York is still known as "the burned over district."   In the real world, things are not one thing.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Moving On

The 220th meeting of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA), met in Pittsburgh from June 30th through July 7th, 2010.  Reflecting on the results of the GA (here), Presbyterian reporter Leslie Scanlon summarizes it deliberations as being notable mostly for what they did not decide.  It was, in a sense, a "do-nothing" G.A.  It did not decide to redefine marriage.  It did not make major structural changes.  It did not take bold stands on social justice issues.  It feels as though it voted repeatedly for the status-quo.

Three thoughts:  first, G.A. meets too often.  It is a blessing that it no longer meets yearly (a change that took place in 2004), but once every two years is still too often.  Every time G.A. meets, all of the scabs of our denominational wounds get ripped off, every controversy is put back on the front burner, and more tremors of unease ripple their way through the churches.  The future of the denomination does not lie in the G.A. anyway, so why keep doing this to ourselves?  Second, it is now only a matter of time until yet another significant number of more conservative churches leave.  The next trigger will be when PC(USA) decides, as it surely will, to redefine marriage as being between two individuals rather than between a man and a woman.  That decision will inevitably cost us many (hundreds of?) congregations.  There is no sense worrying about it.  Again, the future of our churches (the ones that stay) will not be materially affected by those that leave.  Third, what matters is the renewal of local church life.  The higher echelons of the denomination don't seem to have much to contribute to that renewal, and (as has been said here before) we need to focus our energies and attention on the task of renewal and put aside worry over denominational structures, which have become a political football field for demonstrating our lack of love for each other across ideologies.  We need to move on.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

True Spirituality

True spirituality is not a leisure-time activity, a diversion from life.  It is essentially subversive, and the test of its genuineness is practical.
Kenneth Leech
True Prayer: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality,
page 79

Monday, August 27, 2012

Remembering Neil Armstrong

The day we set foot on the moon is one of those times when we remember where we were and what we were doing. (I was a camp counsellor at Camp Whitman, Geneva Presbytery, NY). We listened with a sense of awe to Neil Armstrong's famous line as he steeped onto the surface of the Moon, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Armstrong died on August 25th, 2012, at the age of 82. The Washington Post has a long news posting remembering him (here), and interested readers can watch a video clip of his famous first step on the moon (here).

The moonwalk that Armstrong shared with fellow astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, brought to a happy close the otherwise conflicted, violent, and divisive decade of the Sixties.  And, perhaps, it marked an important step forward in our race's evolution from a planetary species to an interplanetary one.  That depends, of course, on whether we recapture the dream for the frontiers of space that motivated Armstrong and Aldrin's generation.  Still, we remember the dream, the NASA dream team of thousands that took us to the moon, and the daring accomplishment of the first human beings to walk there.  And we remember the Mission Commander of the Apollo 11 flight that took us to the moon, Neil Armstrong. No matter how far we go in the centuries to come, no one will ever be first again.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry
Source: The Peace of Wild Things
From: inward/outward

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Worship We Seek

First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, NY
While Christian worship attendance continues to decline decade by decade in the U.S., the percentage of Christian Americans who attend megachurches continues to increase.  (A megachurch is defined as a church that has a worship attendance of 2,000+ on an average Sunday morning).  Today, more than half of all worshippers attend worship in megachurches.  Recent research conducted by a team of University of Washington researchers reports (here) that the nature, style, and especially emotional content of megachurch worship are the primary reasons for the growing popularity of megachurch worship.

Worship in America's largest churches is generally informal, emotional, satisfying, joyful, well-led, well-done, and technologically competent.  The message promotes a superficial theology, conventional moral standards, and a positive outlook on life.  According to the research, people come away from worship services at megachurches feeling that their spiritual needs had been met, again especially on an emotional level.  The researchers observe that there is a drug-like quality to megachurch worship, but it is a "good drug."  They also note that the megachurches have huge resources for conducting worship, which give them a significant advantage over smaller congregations.

It is not quite true, however, that smaller congregations cannot compete.  Lowville, NY, does not have a megachurch, but there is today a church group that is apparently growing rapidly, attracting younger families, and offers a worship experience something like the megachurch experience.  It has dynamic, attractive worship leadership, sings energetic songs, and seems to capture something of the drug-like quality of megachurch worship.  Thus, the megachurch experience is within the grasp of some smaller congregations as well—indeed, all megachurches started out as small churches.

The flip side is this.  Such churches tend to be anti-gay, anti-abortion, and conservative.  They may be strong on conventional morals, but that does not mean that they are strong on justice.  And while a growing number of church goers prefer them, the numbers of church growers are dwindling.  Growing numbers of Americans reject them and all other forms of worship as well.

The challenge that haunts smaller, less conservative churches is to discover forms of worship that are less superficial, more thought-filled, and also emotionally satisfying.  The drug-like quality of mega-worship is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, and it obviously is attractive to a growing percentage of the declining church population.  One does wonder, however, how much it has to do (or fails to have to do) with Christ.  All of us who worship him have to keep in his own words as quoted in Matthew, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'" (Matthew 7:21-23, NRSV)

What some of us are looking for is worship that is emotionally satisfying, joyful, theologically insightful & challenging, inspirational, and built on a deeper appreciation of social justice.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Passionate Scholarship

Passion is an important ingredient in good scholarship. It motivates the scholar and keeps her burning the midnight oil. It inspires new thoughts, new perspectives. Passion should not be equated with self-interested scholarship that is politically or theologically biased for a self-serving cause. Scholarly passion is about caring, dedication, and investing all that one has in "getting it right" as best one can. Scholars must, of course, be aware of their passion and try to keep it focused on the goal of telling the story or interpreting the data fairly, but a scholar without passion is a tasteless non-entity.

Herb Swanson
Review of Edward W. Said. Orientalism. 1978 (here)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Todd Is At It Again

RPK's "old friend," Rep. Todd Akin (R - MO) is at it again.  Just a year ago, he stirred up controversy over his assertion that liberals hate God and want to replace God with big government (see here).  Although Akin gave a half-hearted apology, he refused to meet with liberal clergy from his own district and successfully waited the whole thing out.  In fact, we can suspect that his stand against the liberals actually gave him further credit with his own base and didn't hurt in the least in his successful bid to become the GOP candidate for the U. S. Senate in this year's election.

Akin is at it again, as most readers know.  His use of the term "legitimate rape" and stated belief that women who are "legitimately raped" seldom become pregnant has set off a fire storm, primarily on the left but even from members of his own party.  There were widespread calls from within the Republican Party for his resignation, while Democrats have been keeping their fingers crossed in hopes that he would refuse.  And Akin has.  He issued an apology, and has avowed that he intends to fight on.  We can assume that he thinks that he can wait this one out too.  The dust will settle.  The media will go on to something else.  MSNBC commentators will find something else to rant about.  And he can resume his potent challenge for the senate seat in Missouri.

Let's face it.  He may be right.  But, somethings are different his time.  In the short run, he has given the Democrats an opportunity to force Romney off message yet again.  Every day, every week that they can divert him from his attacks on President Obama's fiscal record is a good day, a good week for the Democrats.  He has also managed to reignite the "Republicans are anti-women" theme, which seemed to have gone quiet. And he has drawn attention to the Republican Party's radical anti-abortion stance, which seeks to criminalize abortions for virtually every case—including rape and incest.  Vice Presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, is among those suddenly thrown on the defensive.  This is not, we can be sure, the lead-up to their national convention that the Republican leadership planned for.  It is not the way they wanted to go into the fall campaign, which begins in just days now.  And Rep. Akin's refusal to resign has been a gift from heaven for the Democrats, who can continue to bring this sore subject up, time and again.  In the long run, it may not matter—but, it adds to the sense that the Republicans don't have their house in order and are doing everything they can to blow the coming presidential election.  We'll see.

The point here, however, is a different one.  Mr. Akin, it turns out, is a committed fundamentalist Christian and even has theological training.  The reason he steps on these land mines is partly because he is a true believer who feels an obligation to speak the truth as he sees it.  He honestly believes that liberals including even liberal Christians hate God.  He honestly believes that there are "illegitimate" rapes and that few women suffer serious consequences from being raped—or, he did.  Maybe he has actually learned differently from his gaffe.  Like many of the tea party right, he is engaged in a spiritual war against the enemies of God, which include his political opponents.  One wonders when the large majority of Americans will realize that the the threat of radicalism does not come from the left these days—certainly not from a pragmatic President who has upset the liberal wing of his party on more than one occasion.  It is the radical right that is the real threat to our democracy today, and Rep. Akin is a prime example of that threat.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Plunge Into Deep Waters

Discipleship is not limited to what you can understand--it must transcend all comprehension. Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own understanding.... Bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. In this way Abraham went forth from his father, not knowing where he was going. You cannot find it in yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were a blind man. Not the work which you choose, not the suffering you devise, but the road which is contrary to all that you choose or contrive or desire--that is the road you must take.

Martin Luther
Source: quoted in The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Center of Gravity

World Christianity
In a seminal paper entitled, "From Christendom to World Christianity: Missions and the Demographic Transformation of the Church," Prof. Andrew Walls points out that the history of the church has been marked by a series of major demographic shifts. We began in the eastern Mediterranean. Then we moved west and north to Europe. Then we expand that base to include North America, Australia, and New Zealand. Now, we are moving again, this time to the south. A recent news article, "United Methodist Church Continues to Decline in America, but Gains in Africa," provides further evidence that the shift is in full swing.  The title says it all.  While the UMC lost another 72,000 members in 2011, Methodist churches in Africa continue to grow at the pace of over 200,000 mew members per year.  I have noted before that there are now more Anglicans in Nigeria than in the United Kingdom (source).  Walls point is that it has been the western missionary movement that laid the groundwork for this shift.  My point here is that we are left behind to deal with the back end of the shift, the declining and aging end.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Idolatry, or the Art of Turning Gold into Tin

Cameron van der Burgh
Last month, I reflected in two postings (here and here) on the value of the theological concept of idolatry as a real-world analytical tool.  Reports out of the 2012 Olympics provide, sadly, further insights into the power of idolatry in modern life.  In a perceptive article aptly titled, "Shades of Gray on Way to Podium," New York Times reporter, Karen Crouse, points out that various degrees of cheating and manipulating the rules is widespread in Olympic competition.  The badminton players who were disqualified for purposely trying to throw their games were evidently only the tip of the iceberg, according to Crouse. South African gold-medal swimmer, Cameron van der Burgh, who cheated in his pursuit of the gold medal in the 100 meter breaststroke, provided one of the most powerful examples.  The Sydney Morning Herald reported (here) that van der Burgh admitted to using an illegal stroke during the gold medal heat in order to win.  It quoted him as saying, ‘‘If you’re not doing it [cheating], you’re falling behind. It’s not obviously - shall we say - the moral thing to do, but I’m not willing to sacrifice my personal performance and four years of hard work for someone that is willing to do it and get away with it,’’  He was, obviously, willing to sacrifice his moral standards—and in the process break the Olympic oath to follow and respect the rules of the game taken by a representative of the athletes at the opening of the games.

That being said van der Burgh deserves credit as well.  Crouse quotes American swimmer,Brendan Hansen, who finished third behind van der Burgh as saying, “I give him credit for actually having the guts to come out and say something and be honest because maybe that’s what it’s going to take for the organizations running swimming to use the technology at their disposal to enforce the rules.”  There is evidently some risk that van der Burgh could lose his medal because he spoke out.  Hansen himself stated that he did not cheat even though he knew it would cost him the gold medal. He told reporters, “I wasn’t raised to cheat. It’s not something I practice.”

The Olympic gold medal is a potential idol, awaiting the worship of those who seek it.  Crouse treated it as such, worshipped it, and the inevitable result was his worship of the idol cheapened him.  He does not deserve what he won, and he clearly knows it.  Whatever pride or satisfaction he might take in it is tainted.  Hansen, on the other hand, can take pride not only in his bronze medal, but also in the fact that he overcame not only other competitors to achieve it.  He also overcame temptation.  His bronze medal is golden.  Van der Burgh's gold medal is worth less than tin.  His honesty does deserve credit, but his gold is still worth much less than Hansens' bronze.

That is what false worship of human-made idols does to us.  Idolatry cheapens us and taints us.  There is only one "object" worthy of our worship, God.  We approach God and engage in worship only as we are able to put away our own agendas.  That is hard to do, damnably hard.  Fortunately, we aren't called to be perfect at it.  We are called to keep trying.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Prayer for the PC(USA)

However, I come away with an ache in my belly — knowing that we have not yet captured the spirit of unity in diversity that marks healthy families. We don’t yet know how to disagree graciously. We need to cultivate more of the wonderfully prayerful, open part of our life together and diminish the difficult, contentious part. Is that too much to hope?

Jack Haberer, "A Wonderfully Difficult GA"
Editorial on the 2012 PC(USA) General Assembly
The Presbyterian Outlook

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Sweet Transitions

Leonard Sweet offers (here) the following list of "24 Transitions for moving into the 21st Century." The list offers alternative ways of "doing church" or "being the church." Enjoy.
1. From Critique & Pick-apart to Celebrate & Pick-up -- From Critical Thinking to Creative Thinking
2. From Pyramid to Pancake; From Ladder to Web -- From Cog & Wheel Machine to Organic Garden
3. From Representation to Participation
4. From "Here-I-Stand" Churchianity (Maintenance) to "There-We-Go" Christianity (Mission);
5. From Eye to Ear -- From Structure to Rhythm -- From Seeing to Hearing
6. From Printed Page to Screen -- From Consecutive to Concurrent -- From Linear to Field
7. From Control to Out-of-Control -- From Program to Manifestation
8. From Authority Structures to Relational Structures
9. From "Does it Make Sense" to "Was it a Good Experience?"
10. From Excellence to Authenticity -- From Performance to Realness
11. From Theology of Giving to Theology of Receiving
12. From Hi-Fi Stereo to Surround-Sound Spirituality
13. From Planning to Preparedness
14. From Politics to (Bio-)Economics to Culture Clash
15. From Church Growth to Church Health
16. From Standing Committees to Moving Teams -- From Independence to Interdependence
17. From Denominations to Tribes
18. From Mass to Demassed Structures (eg. From Congregational to Cellular)
19. From Illustration to Animation
20. From Think Big and Simple to Think Small and Complex
21. From Boundary-Living to Frontier/Border Living
22. From Christendom Culture to Pre-Christian Mission Fields
23. From Pastoral Care to Ministry Development
24. From "Re" words to "De" words

Friday, August 17, 2012

Logic Is In the Eye of the Beholder

In my days as a church historian in Thailand, I started an online bibliography of English-language materials on Christianity in Thailand (here), and over the summer I've been adding entries as time permits.  In the process, I came across a brief article entitled, "Friendly exclusivism and aggressive inclusivism," which provides a fascinating window into the chasm between these two ways of thinking.  The basic point of the article is that Christian exclusivists are generally friendly even kindly in their views while inclusivists are not.  In the course of his argument, the author writes,
In the West inclusive thinking is becoming ever more popular, and exclusive thinking is less and less acceptable. The main reason is the slow disappearance of logical thinking. When two statements are contradictory, one or none can be true. But they cannot both be true. Let’s say I claim ‘there is a wall over there’. Somebody responds ‘don’t be so fundamentalist, I have the right to the opinion there is no wall-actually, wall’s don’t exist’. I’ll happily grant the right to that opinion. But I’ll only start to consider this person as a serious participant conversation when he walks through the for him non-existent wall.
The author has already explained that Christianity is an exclusive religion, which means there are right beliefs and wrong beliefs; Buddhism is an inclusive one, which means that it can see incompatible beliefs as being parallel to each other.  In the quoted paragraph, our exclusivist friend makes it clear that a Christian faith based on the exclusive claims of Christ is logical and serious.  Inclusive thinking is illogical, lacks seriousness, and  apparently can even insist on something as silly as believing a wall that clearly does exist doesn't exist.

The example of the wall is an unfortunate choice, because those who do not accept an exclusive gospel also do not reject physical realities, such as walls.  In fact, we are far more likely to accept such physical realities as evolution and an age of roughly 14 billion years for the universe.  Our exclusivist friend is more likely to reject evolution and think that the universe is only a few thousand years old.  The example, however, also indicates how illogical inclusive thinking is to our friend.  It is so illogical to him that he apparently honestly thinks that inclusive thinkers are able to believe patently silly things.  They are not just illogical, then.  They also have a loose grip on reality.

Our friend is not being perverse.  He is not being stubborn.  He is not ignorant or foolish.  He lives in a different universe, one in which black-and-white, I'm-right-you-are-wrong thinking on matters of faith makes perfect sense.  It has a millennia old heritage and the backing of passage after passage in scripture.  The rest of his brief article also makes it clear that he feels under attack by those who see things inclusively.

In fact, the wall is there, the universe evolves and is tens of billions of years old, and exclusivists are not kindly lovers of humanity any more than those who see things more inclusively.  We look at reality differently, and it is apparently impossible to bridge the chasm between our two ways of thinking.  For what it is worth and as one who struggles to be inclusive, open, and accepting, however, from an inclusive perspective it is not unusual of exclusive thinkers to think that those who disagree with them are illogical, prone to accepting silly ways of thinking, lack seriousness, have a loose grip on reality, and are aggressive.  Exclusivists must, by the necessity of their own logic, reject the possibility of dialogue across the chasm.  For them, compromise is an ugly word.  And, although they do not see or feel it, their way of thinking is frequently intolerant and aggressive—at times prone to forcing its beliefs on others because it is right and those who disagree are wrong.  As a rule, it can also be disdainful of and disrespectful toward any thinking not its own.  As I say, the chasm between these two ways of thinking is so deep, so wide that it appears unbridgeable.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Prayer to Begin the Day

Lord, help me to live today with anticipation.  Give me eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to receive the blessings salted throughout it.  Focus my attention on listening, caring, helping, and loving.  Give me patience with myself so that I might be patient with each person I meet today.  Take the sting out of my thoughts so that the peace in me might be peace for them.  You promise life, Lord, and that is what I ask—but just for today.  In Jesus name, Amen.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Studying Spirituality

Yesterday's posting (here) quoted the definition of "spirituality in a research paper entitled, "Spirituality as an Essential Determinant for the Good Life, its Importance Relative to Self-Determinant Psychological Needs," by Dr. Dirk van Dierendonck, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Rotterdam School of Management,  I argued that his definition is so broad and vague that it does not provide him with the kind of definition needed to carry out an empirical study of spirituality.  Science requires a degree of precision that his definition of spirituality lacks.

Indeed, in his study of the relationship of spirituality to the good life, Dr. van Dierendonck did not define spirituality for those who filled out his questionnaire.  It was whatever they thought it was, which meant that in effect he did not study spirituality so much as the popular usage of the word "spirituality".  His informants associated the word with a good life, which is hardly surprising in a nation that still deeply values religion.

The question here is whether or not one can meaningfully treat human spirituality empirically.  I have my doubts.  In trying to do so, it seems that social scientists are likely to end up with something that is like studying a northern lake on an August morning at sunrise.  Science is able to describe many facets of the lake and its environment and still totally fail to capture even remotely the stillness, the quiet, the beauty, and the spiritual quality of sitting on the edge of that lake drinking a morning cup of coffee or sitting on it in a canoe that glides across the still water at daybreak.  Scientists can describe the mist that clings to the lake in terms of chemical and physical processes and still say nothing that really matters about the mist.  If science fails to capture the spiritual quality of a lake, how can it capture that same quality in human life itself?  I don't think it can.  It isn't equipped to do so.  

But, I still think scientists should try.  If they make an honest effort at studying spirituality, they will have to develop tools and approaches appropriate to that study, which could well lead them in the direction of modifying the way science works.  As it stands, science is rooted in the study of physical realities.  It's success is remarkable.  Physical reality is, however, only a piece of reality, and science today is not equipped to deal with meta-physical realities.  It can describe the physical realities of the lake and fail to describe the meta-physical realities that even the most hard-headed scientist is likely to feel in the still quiet of the morning.  Thus, for example, science will only be able to begin to study the spiritual discipline of prayer when scientists stop trying to prove or disprove that "it works" and understand its role as a discipline and part of a way of life.  Until science learns how to studying the meta-physical reality of the lake, it is not equipped to deal with the whole of reality, which is meta-physical as well as physical.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Defining Spirituality

In the "old days," we talked mostly about faith. Today, in many circles it has become the fashion to speak of spirituality, a broader term that is (at least apparently) more inclusive of those who have religious-like experiences of an ultimate that is not a personal God. Tillich in Dynamics of Faith pointed out that one can have a religious-like faith in almost anything, but normally we associate faith with God.

So, what is "spirituality"? In a research paper entitled, "Spirituality as an Essential Determinant for the Good Life, its Importance Relative to Self-Determinant Psychological Needs," Dr. Dirk van Dierendonck, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Rotterdam School of Management, defines spirituality in this way,
Spirituality is usually associated with living by your inner truth to produce positive attitudes and relationships in your life (Hawley 1993). Definitions of spirituality deal with the ultimate goal in life, the experience of a transcendent dimension that gives meaning to existence, and the capacity to experience the sacred (Giacalone and Jurkiewicz 2003). Spirituality is associated with a focus on the essence of life, creativeness, spirit, mystical experiences, and new age beliefs (Zinnbauer et al. 1997; Mitroff and Denton 1999). Spirituality signifies the inner attitude of living life directly related to the sacred. This definition is directly related to what Pargament (2002, p. 169) calls the essence of spirituality, that is ‘‘the process through which people discover, conserve and rediscover the sacred.’’688 D. van Dierendonck
Spirituality, that is, is a way of living, an experience, and a process.  Those are three very different things and when taken together are very broad and inclusive of virtually all of life.  Drinking (as in alcohol) can be a way of living, an experience, and a process, but we don't usually associate it with spirituality—quite the opposite.  Engaging in a profession or being an enthusiastic supporter of a sports team involve ways of living, experiences, and processes.  So the question is, spirituality is a way of living, an experience, and a process involving what?

Van Dierendonck's list of "whats" is long and just about as broad.  Spirituality involves inner truth, positive attitudes, relationships, ultimate goals, the transcendent, meaning, the sacred, the essence of life, creativeness, spirit, mystical experiences, and new age beliefs.  On reflection, that is about as clear as mud.  What precisely does "inner truth" mean?  Are there inner and outer truths?  What distinguishes them?  Or, again, what are "ultimate goals"?  How do they differ from other kinds of goals?  What makes them ultimate?  What, indeed, do we mean here by "ultimate"?  The "essence of life" is particularly nebulous.  Does life have an "essence"?  What might it be?  The concept of "spirit" is complex and involves another set of questions.  What spirituality is about, thus, is unclear, profoundly so.

The upshot of it all is that those who intend to study spirituality empirically face a daunting task beginning with all of the difficulties involved in simply defining the concept of spirituality in a way that is both inclusive of human spiritual experience and precise enough to actually describe something that is not simply another name for "the good life."  Just deciding the relationship of spirituality to the religious concept of "the sacred" is going to be difficult and involve deciding whether or not spirituality has to do with the divine or not.  Is there a non-theistic or secular spirituality?  If so, what is it and what links it to concepts of "the spirit"?

Studying spirituality is not like studying religion or belief systems or ritual practices.  Religions are institutions.  Belief systems are forms of ideology.  Ritual practices involve human behavior.  These things can be defined concretely and studied empirically.  Spirituality is something different, and my point for this posting is that van Dierendonck's attempts to define it leave him with nothing that can actually be defined with the precision a scientific approach requires.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Worth a Thought

An Al Jazeera news posting entitled, "The cost of Olympic gold," raises the issue of the financial investment involved in winning an Olympics medal, which can be tens of millions of dollars for just one medal.  Only the competitors of nations willing to invest a good deal of wealth in Olympic gold can afford to become top ranked athletes.  It is worth a look and a thought.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Quality of a True Politician

P. M. Yingluck Shinawatra
An AP article (here) marking Yingluck Shinawatra's completion of her first year as Thailand's prime minister, notes that it is a surprise to many that she survived a year in Thailand's fractured, volatile political climate.  Although there have been some rough patches, PM Yingluck, displays a number of political skills that have made her a reasonably effective national leader and a good politician. Most important among those skills? One leader of the Red Shirt popular faction, Korkaew Pikulthong, is quoted as saying that she has matured as a leader and that, "She is very responsive to problems of the people and is very keen to solve them, and that's the quality of a true politician."

In an interview with ABC before the election last year , below, Khun Yingluck spoke of her goals for the nation and articulated a political philosophy that is built on reconciliation and governing for the whole nation.  It is worth remembering that she has no prior political experience and has widely been seen as her exiled brother's "cat's paw".  If you have six minutes, the clip is worth listening to, especially in our own supercharged political environment in the U.S.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Iraq Today

Flag of Iraq
War has consequences.  Violence breeds violence.  Injustice destroys it victims and warps its perpetrators.  These are human truths that are spiritual at their heart but have devastating consequences for every aspect of human life.  Although our government tried to make the Iraq War as "easy" as it could for the nation, we know that the U.S. continues to pay a heavy price for its part in that war—in lost lives, in harmed lives, and socially and economically.  The people of Iraq continue to pay, however, a price far beyond what we have paid.  A two part television series entitled, "Iraq: After the Americans," shown on Al Jazeera television makes that case.  War has consequences.

Ya'll Come

Lowville, NY, proudly sponsors an annual "Cream Cheese Festival," once listed (here) as the third "strangest" summer festival in the U. S.  A member of First Presbyterian Church, Lowville, has called my attention to a nice testimony to the festival, Lowville, and FPC.  It is at Toddhobin.com (here).  Check it out!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Welcome to a Smaller Earth & a Larger Universe

Artist's conception of the Curiosity rover. (AFP / Getty Images)
Even in the midst of the Olympics, it was hard to miss the blare of media headlines (here) that reported the August 6th landing of the latest Mars rover, Curiosity, on Mars.  The main goal of the Curiosity project is to discover evidence of life on the red planet, and it is noteworthy that NASA invested some $2.5 billion in the project.  That is a lot of money to spend on discovering life on Mars!  It suggests that finding life or evidence that there once was life on Mars is significant scientifically.  It would literally open new worlds for the study of biology and further reduce the place of Planet Earth in the universe.  Right now, as far as we know, Earth is the only place where there is life in the known Universe.  Life on Mars would take away that distinction.

Early photo of its surrroundings from Curiousity
The discovery of life on Mars would be a big deal theologically as well.  If it turns out, as seems all but certain, that life has and does exist in other places in the Universe, we will once again need to expand our view of God's creation and role in creation.  We will have to consider the possibility that humanity is in and of itself but an accident of universal evolution, not central to God's plan for the universe.  It is possible that we are only a microscopically tiny part of something going on in the Universe.  That is God is still greater than our grandest imaginings and God's plan dwarfs us into true insignificance.  Once we establish, if we can, that life existed elsewhere in our solar system, then it is virtually certain that complex life and intelligent life is also found elsewhere, probably in a dizzying complexity that will challenge human understanding.

God would be still greater, we would be yet smaller.  And it would be clearer still that our theologies, all of them, are but incredibly inadequate, immeasurably humble attempts to grasp the Ungraspable.  Those who continue to try to build their theologies on certainties and absolutes rather than humility in the face of God's wonderfully not-at-all-absolute reality will find themselves even more isolated from the real universe science is discovering.  It is wiser and truer to God's creation to build our theologies on the solid rock of humility and spirituality.  Our faith as Christians would then be that as apparently insignificant as we are God has not left us without witnesses, Christ being that witness for those us who put our trust in him.  Amen.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Chicken Genesis

Source: Wikipedia, "Chicken"
Where did the humble chicken come from "in the beginning"?  Science has held for some time now that chickens were probably first domesticated in Southeast Asia more than 5,000 years ago.  That's a long time!  But, then, there are a lot of chickens in the world today, as many as 24 billion according to the Wikipedia entry, "Chicken".  An international team of researchers has recently published a study entitled, "Investigating the Global Dispersal of Chickens in Prehistory Using Ancient Mitochondrial DNA Signatures," which seeks to clarify the spread of domestic chickens from Southeast Asia to the rest of the world by studying DNA samples from 48 "archeological chickens" (i.e. long dead ones).  The team's findings are very preliminary and mostly open doors for further study.  In any event, their study concludes that chickens: (1) were introduced into the Pacific at least twice in ancient times; (2) may have first been introduced into South America from Polynesia (not Europe!); (3) may have originated in Thailand as has been widely theorized, but the evidence is not clear and it may be difficult to ever determine the precise place of the first domestication of chickens; and (4) there seems to have been only one original center for the domestication of today's chickens.  (For a quick summary of the research see [here]).

Chickens are about as common a thing as there is in our world today, but we don't even know where they came from for sure and probably never will.  Does it matter?  Well, maybe not in the larger scheme of things, but then again if we want to understand how our world came to be as it is today the development and spread of such a common and useful life form may well contribute to our understanding of more significant things.

It is amazing how little we know about the world around us.  In an age when knowledge is growing exponentially, it can seem like we know a lot.  But, we really don't.  We're still just beginning to explore the wonderful reality around us.  Humility in large doses is our only due.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What is Now?

Sometimes say softly to yourself: "Now...now. What is happening to me now? This is now. What is coming into me now? This moment?" Then suddenly you begin to see the world as you had not seen it before, to hear people's voices and not only what they are saying but what they are trying to say and you sense the whole truth about them. And you sense existence, not piecemeal--not this object and that--but as a translucent whole.

Brenda Ueland
Source: If You Want to Write

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Differences Between Living & Dying Churches

 On his website (WinGreen.org), Dr. Win Green, pastor of the Baughman Memorial United Methodist Church in New Cumberland, PA, describes the differences between living and dying churches (here). It is maybe a bit simplistic, but if so he is still not far off base. According to Dr. Green, "Dying churches focus on growing their membership, while living churches focus on sharing their faith.  Dying churches work at running their church, while living churches work at making disciples.  Dying churches are people led, while living churches are Spirit led.  Dying churches drive to mission projects, while living churches are mission driven.  Dying churches fix things, while living churches create things."

Monday, August 6, 2012

Totem Poles & Missionaries: A Tale with no Ending

A few postings back, I reported on the sad destruction of a local Lewis County historical monument by a right-wing sect group.  The monument was to an early 19th century church located in the long abandoned community of Stow Square, NY, which was just up the road from the present town of Lowville.  The monument was in the shape of an obelisk, which this sect found offensive because thousands of years ago and thousands of miles from Lewis County the ancient Egyptians used obelisks as sacred pillars.

This kind of narrow, zealous, and unloving thinking has a long, "rich" history.  Another and much more important manifestation was the destruction of Pacific coast totem poles by 19th century missionaries who assumed without any study that the totem poles are elements of a false religion.  They amount to devil worship.  A website dedicated to totem poles, totempole.net, addresses this belief, writing (here),
Totem poles were never objects of worship; the association with "idol worship" was an idea from local Christian missionaries. The same assumption was made by certain early European explorers, but later explorers such as Jean-François de La Pérouse noted that: totem poles were never treated reverently; they seemed only occasionally to generate allusions or illustrate stories; and were usually left to rot in place when people abandoned a village.
Still, the missionaries tried to stamp out not only the use of totem poles but also the cultures that produced them.  And, evidently, they nearly succeeding.  Fortunately, however, according to an Al Jazeera report (see the video clip below), the art of making totem poles is experiencing a rebirth.

This revival of an ancient art is important from an artistic perspective and from a cultural one.  I know from personal experience with tribal folks in Southeast Asia that indigenous cultures give deep meaning to those who share in a local culture.  They find their identity in their language, cuisine, art, folkways, and beliefs. At the same time, exposure to the their culture enriches the lives of others.   All of this is one manifestation of God's creation of our world and us.  We are created to live in culture,  and the more of it, the greater diversity of it, the better.  Amen.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Once Upon a Time, a Long Time Ago

Bill Bergen (1878-1943)
Chasing down something else entirely, I recently came across an article on the NY Times website entitled, "Bill Bergen’s Awesome Record of Baseball Futility," which begins with the wonderful sentences, "Today’s lesson, gleaned from baseball history, is that if you are going to be bad at something, be spectacularly bad. And if you are spectacularly bad enough, people might be talking about you 100 years after you retire."  It turns out that Bergen, who played baseball from 1901 to 1911, was a good defensive catcher who simply could not hit the ball.  He hit just .139, the worst batting average in the history of major league baseball.  Bergen was able to stay in the majors, according to the article because capable catchers were at a premium in an era when stealing bases and bunting were the main way to score runs.  But, if one were to write a history of the greatest catchers of all time, Bill Bergen's name would not appear.  And, obviously, he wouldn't show up on the list of the best hitters in the history of the game.

His claim to fame rests entirely on how wonderfully awful he was as a hitter.  I'm not really sure that the lesson of his life is that "if you are going to be bad at something, be spectacularly bad."  And it doesn't make the least bit of difference to Bill or anybody who knew him personally that he is still being talked about, they all being dead and long gone.  If there has to be a lesson, more likely it is that our strengths can be used to outweigh or at least to balance our weaknesses.  A person of limited abilities thus can still get into the big leagues, make a contribution, and be remembered not only as the worst hitter of all times but also as one very good catcher.  He could only be "spectacularly bad" if he was also actually quite good.

But why ruin the fun of history with lessons?  It may be a useless fact that a hundred year's ago winning ball games depended on the "finer arts" of base running and bunting, but it is just fun to know that it was so—once upon a time, a long time ago.  And fun to know that a Bill Bergen graced our world with his presence.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Tiny Step in the Right Direction

The City of New York is considering banning the sale of soft drinks (soda) in amounts over 16 ounces by vendors under the jurisdiction of the city health department.  The Christian Science Monitor reports (here) that a crowd of supporters and opponents of the proposal packed a recent public hearing on it.  The point remains, of course, that soft drinks are a major health hazard and a primary contributor to the obesity epidemic in the U.S,, especially among children and young people.  On the other hand, research conducted by New York University indicates (here) that the specific New York City proposal will have little if any impact on the actual number of calories consumers consume—and could actually result in an increase in caloric intake if consumers react by drinking more smaller cups either in protest or because they're not satisfied with one 16 oz. serving.  Opponents, of course, are complaining about government interference, but then given the stake the soft drink industry has in contributing to obesity their particular opposition rings hollow.  It is the battle against smoking all over again, and this time the stakes are just as high or higher.

So, why proceed if the benefit to public health will be marginal at best?  The reason is that tiny steps like these are just a beginning, and we have to start somewhere.  In some ways, the debate over measures like this may be as important as the number of calories involved.  It really is a case of cigarettes again, and just as in that case so here there will be denial, anger, and huge push back from a major industry that benefits immensely from the sale of a product dangerous to the public good.  The fight has to be fought.  Amen.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Varieties of Evangelicalism

Evangelicalism is not a single, monolithic thing, which is part of the reason it can be so hard to define.  In the U.S., we generally think of it as being a conservative religious movement with strong tendencies toward biblical literalism, fundamentalism, uncritical patriotism, and right wing social values.  But even here there are many different expressions of evangelicalism, and once we leave the U.S. the picture is even more complicated.  A recent news posting on the Christian Monitor website, "In a France suspicious of religion, evangelicalism's message strikes a chord," provides a case in point.

France is one of the most aggressively secular states in the world.  Religion is widely looked on with varying degrees of indifference, suspicion, and even open hostility.  In this hostile environment, however, French evangelicalism is quietly growing in numbers along the fringes of French society.  Figures in the posting suggest that today there are about 600,000 evangelical Protestants in France.  In a nation of nearly 66 million according to Wikipedia (here), that is an unimpressive figure, but the important thing is that the numbers have been growing steadily, and some experts consider it the fastest growing religion in France today.

The article cites a variety of reasons for this growth: evangelical churches are informal and warm hearted.  Minority groups find them appealing.  In hard economic times, they provide a refuge for some people.  Furthermore, France is changing socially into a less hierarchical society,  and evangelicalism fits this change.  At the same time French-style evangelicalism is self-consciously not like American evangelicalism.  It is more liberal, ecumenical, and European in its approach.

There is a larger point here, which is that in many settings evangelical Protestantism is proving itself more adaptable and spiritually attractive than the historic Protestant churches.  Its churches take faith more seriously.  They also seem to find more joy in their faith.  Evangelicals are often more willing to share their faith and better able to do so.  In sum, one direction declining mainline churches would do well to explore (and some are exploring) is discovering and adapting a more warm hearted, joyful, and spiritually articulate evangelicalism to the life of our congregations.  We would do well to become more joyfully serious in our faith.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

One World: Real & True

There is a real world.  It is physical, sensible, and real.  It is billions of years in the making, evolves, and has depths and heights deeper and higher than the unaided eye can see or the unaided mind can grasp.  Our knowledge of the real world also evolves.

There is a true world.  It is meta-physical, sensible, and true.  It has been Present for the billions of years of the real world, and it may also be evolving.  We don't know.  It has depths and heights deeper and higher than the undisciplined heart can perceive.  Our knowledge of the true world grows over time.

The real world and the true world are separately one world together, but there are those who choose to live only in one or the other.  For them, the previous sentence is nonsense, because it speaks of two worlds being one world but still  refers to this single entity as being two.  Yet, some of those who want to live in one of the two single worlds are very comfortable with the tiniest bits of reality being either and both energy and/or particles.  At the edges of their real world, language begins to get tangled up with apparent contradictions.  And for others, they are convinced that one man was/is both a single human person and God the beyondest of all Beyonds.  And, again, at the edges of their true world language gets tangled up in apparent contradictions.  It really shouldn't be that hard to see the real world and the true world, two worlds real & true, as one world, true & real.

The real world is the world of Science.  The true world is the world of Faith.  One day, we will see them for what they are, human ways of grappling with the truly real universe and its really true source of becoming, which is its Creator.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The ABC Science of Faith

As I've noted before here before, I find the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website, ABC Science to be a fascinating and useful portal into the world of science.  It is also a theological playground that helps us keep one foot planted firmly in the "real world" of science as we keep our other foot rooted in the "true world" of faith.   A recent morning's set of postings on ABC Science is instructive.  The lead posting was entitled, "Keeping a journal key to shedding kilos," and makes the point based on research that keeping a food journal is crucial to losing weight.  Weight loss is, to a degree, not just a physical or psychological issue but a spiritual one as well.  Another posting is entitled, "Scientists trace Alzheimer's slow, deadly path," and documents medical researcher's attempts to see Alzheimer's  in a global way from the time of onset to the end.  It turns out that the onset comes long before the first symptoms appear.  Pastors, I can tell you, have a stake in this kind of research because we are called to minister to persons and families plagued with this inhumane disease.

Then, there's article entitled, "M-Theory and the Higgs boson," which is the hardest to understand by far for those of us who aren't trained physicists.  The author, Dr. Henryk Frystack, briefly summarizes the significance of the recent discovery of the "Higg's boson," a sub-microscopic form of energy, that has the potential to significantly improve our understanding of fundamental realities.  The more we understand the more mysterious the universe becomes, and for those of us who are convinced that a Creator lies within it all, it becomes still more miraculous and sacred—not less.

Perhaps the most important posting of all, however, from a theological perspective is the opinion piece written by Heinrich Rohre, "The misconduct of science?"  Rohre reminds his readers that science has its own culture, which can be corrupted, abused, and even hamper best scientific practices.  He writes of this very human enterprise, "Scientists must follow a path that is not scientifically predefined, and that requires decisions at every step. Whether they are right or wrong becomes clear in retrospect, which is why errors are unavoidable (though they should not be left uncorrected for long)." He also states that, "Science means constantly walking a tightrope between blind faith and curiosity; between expertise and creativity; between bias and openness; between experience and epiphany; between ambition and passion; and between arrogance and conviction — in short, between an old today and a new tomorrow."  That is to say, there is a good deal to science that is not scientific, and the boundaries between science and a religious-like faith are not always very clear.

Science doesn't merely discover new facts about reality.  It also helps to create reality.  The reality scientists discover is God-given.  The realities they create aren't.  They are very human.  It is crucial for people of faith to remain open to, in dialogue with, and sometimes critical of the realities science creates.  At the same time, it is important to stay current with the ones they discover.