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

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On That Day

Human life is complex.  It involves a good number of living, moving pieces.  When all of these pieces are working well together, we are healthy in all of the dimensions of life.  Because we are complex, we can picture health in a variety of ways, but one helpful way is to focus on the relationship between feeling and thinking.  We are created to feel, and when we are healthy our emotional life is runs deep.  We are also created to think, and when we are healthy our cognitive life runs deep.

When God breathed Spirit into us and set us on the course of evolution, God built into us the potential to feel and to think.  In the real world, we all too often fail to balance the two, but the direction we're headed in suggests that One Day, if we remain true to the path we are on, we will learn that balance.  We will learn to feel with our minds and think with our hearts.  In fact, it may be better not to speak of "balance" at all because balance implies a scale while the direction of evolution is taking us toward a deep unity between feeling and thinking that, paradoxically, also maintains the separate integrity of each while blurring the boundaries between them into insignificance.  We will learn to think with our heart and feel with our mind.

On That Day, the ongoing battle among Protestants between those who lead with their hearts and those who lead with their heads will finally come to an end—not in a truce, but in a profound marriage of mind and heart.  On That Day, our churches will read the deepest theologies with enthusiasm and worship with thoughtful joy.  We will learn passionate patience.  Our hearts will sing in harmonious silence.  We will mock neither the revivalist nor the scholar nor will we honor one at the expense of the other.  Indeed, On That Day, our scholars will lead the revival and our revivalists will call us to sit down and think.  On That Day, we will celebrate the end of absolutes and the demise of relativism and live in thoughtful-joyful worship of the One God who is Beyond all and Present in all.  On That Day.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


The Associated Press reports (here) that a poll it conducted recently indicates that white racism directed toward African Americans and toward Hispanics, as well, has ticked upward in the last four years since President Obama took office.  The AP observes specifically concerning African Americans that,
In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell.
These figures and the whole AP news posting are worrisome.  If it is true that racism and racial prejudice are always wrong and always threaten the nation's well-being—if that is true, then the election of the president has taken us slightly backwards in a very scary direction.  As many of us have felt, much of the motivation behind the tea party movement, the birther movement, and perhaps even congressional intransigence  is racially charged.  The increasingly deep divide among Americans is likewise racial, at least in part.  Looking forward, it is likely that all of this is going to get worse before it gets better.  We are on the cusp of a radical social change as the white percentage of the population continues to dwindle.  Evidently, it is possible that in this coming election the Hispanic vote will already determine who will win the presidency.  A Pew poll (here) taken less than three weeks ago found Hispanic voters breaking for Obama at a 3 to 1 rate.  By 2016 and 2020, the influence of Hispanic voters will grow still more, and with a rising crop of Hispanic politicians it is only a matter of time until we elect our first Hispanic president.

It is hard to believe that the demographic shifts taking place in our nation will be peaceful.  How much overt physical violence will be involved is hard to say, but it is also hard to believe that we aren't in for a period of racially charged political, social, and maybe even economic conflict that will sorely test our political institutions and greatly influence the entire future of the nation.  Little did our colonial ancestors realize the heritage they were leaving us when they decided to import the institution of African slavery into the colonies.  It is God's Law: when we practice injustice we reap the devastating consequences of injustice.  Racism destroys.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Against Hype

Brady Boyd is the senior pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  A recent news posting on The Christian Post website (here) features some of the content of a book that Boyd has recently published and is worth considering here.  Speaking as the pastor of a megachurch, he takes other megachurch pastors to task for being both hyper-active and the producers of mega amounts of hype.  In their tweets, for example, these pastors frequently claim that everything their church is doing is fantastic, exciting, and you better not miss it stuff.  Boyd sees a larger pattern here in which these pastors are conditioning their parishioners to be consumers of religion, to expect something in return for the time they invest in worship.  He is quoted as saying,"It would be easy to blame church congregations for the madness that has consumed our gatherings these days, except that from what I see from their pastors, we're conditioning them to behave this way. We hype and promote and position and tweet and inadvertently create pews full of consumers instead of devoted worshipers of God,"  These pastors are building their churches on the foundation of the latest marketing strategies, he claims, instead of true worship of God.  In the meantime, they are constantly on the go, something their churches encourage and applaud.

Boyd feels that churches need a different approach to pastoral ministry.  They need pastors who slow down, take time to read and reflect, spend time with their family, engage in contemplative exercises, and ground their ministries in scripture and providing spiritual guidance for the folks they serve.

In many ways, Boyd could just as well have been speaking about most mainline churches, large and small, when he complains of the consumer mentality many (most?) worshippers bring to church on Sunday morning.  We can't blame pastors alone, however, for creating this mentality.  It is the nature of our society, too.  The whole country is in a hurry, wants instant gratification, and values hyperactivity over contemplative quietude.  Our urban centers are worse about this than are folks in the countryside, but few of us escape it entirely.  Now, what to do about it is not quite as clear.  In a hyperactive culture, the church is going to be hyperactive too.  Most pastors are going to value going fast and doing things over slowing down and engaging in quiet time reflection, contemplation, and spiritual growth.  That being said, there is a place for Boyd's message and for working with congregations to be less focused in the busy-ness of church.

Regular readers of RPK might have noticed that I've been thinking thoughts like this for some time now.  See, for example, my recent posting entitled, "Finding a Balance."  The church, historically, has sometimes lived as a counter-culture, and I think it is time that it become so again in modern, hyperventilating, ruining our environment,  buy-buy-buy consumer society.   Amen.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Monolatry & Monotheism

It is one of those distinctions worth thinking about, the one between monotheism and monolatry.  James L. Kugel points out in his book How to Read the Bible (p. 243) that monotheism means that there is just one God.  Monolatry means that there are many gods, but we worship just one.  According to the Old Testament, the Hebrews practiced monolatry not monotheism.  They "believed" that there are many gods, but they worshipped only Yahweh (a.k.a. Elohim and other names).  In the early 21st century, is it not possible to accept the fact of many religions, most of which are good and as real to their faithful as ours is to us?  Is it not possible to respect the faiths of others and not consign them to hellfire (whatever we think the Bible says)?  Is it not possible for us today to practice a modern version of monolatry rather than monotheism?  Or, maybe, the better way of saying that is to meld the two terms and advocate the practice of a monolatrous monotheism, by which I mean that we acknowledge that there is just one God but also acknowledge that there are many paths toward God and ways to worship God.

I am not a Buddhist, but I see much good in Buddhism.  In its description of the Dharma, I sense the presence of the God we Christians worship as the One God.  My experience of Buddhists is that their religious discipline and philosophy can craft (some of) them into very good people, just as Christian faith and beliefs can craft (some of) us into good people.  My respect for another faith doesn't mean I worship God, trust Christ, and struggle to hear the Spirit less.  Indeed, exposure to Buddhism has enriched my faith—helped me to get a still better focus on my faith.  So, monolatrous monotheism.  You heard it here first.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Good News for Turtles

Loggerhead Sea Turtle
Source: National Geographic Website
We hear a lot these days about the loss of biodiversity, which is an ongoing planet wide crisis.  (One we never hear about in presidential debates).  With the news also that global warming is heating of the planet more rapidly than predicted, it can feel doomy and gloomy to be a citizen of Planet Earth.  But, good things are happening, too.  One little example; loggerhead sea turtles and other species of sea turtles are making a comeback in Florida.  Loggerheads are an endangered species, but according to a news posting in the Tampa Bay Times (here), naturalists have counted more loggerhead nests in Florida than at any time since 1998, when the number of nests began to decline significantly.  There has been a resurgence since 2007, and 2012 has been the best year yet.  Improved conservation measures may have something to do with this good news, although state game officials are not sure how much.  So, anyway, we can take a little comfort in the parts of our natural environment that seem less threatened than does the global environment collecitvely.  Amen.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

God as god

Richard Mourdock (R-IN)
Just about the only people in America today who make worse theologians than left-wingish neo-atheists so-called are right-wing tea party politicians making pronouncements on abortion issues.  We had the latest example delivered to us this past Tuesday evening (10/23/12) in the comments (here) of  Richard Mourdock, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Indiana.  Commenting on the question of abortion in cases of rape, Mr. Mourdock stated that, "Life is a gift from God," and even in the case of rape life "is something that God intended to happen."  In a comment the next day, Mourdock refused to walk back his remarks, being quoted (here) as saying,""I spoke from my heart. And speaking from my heart, speaking from the deepest level of my faith, I would not apologize. I would be less than faithful if I said anything other than life is precious, I believe it's a gift from God,"

Now, to be fair, Mr. Mourdock did try to walk back some of this.  Even as he doubled down on his belief that human life is a gift from God, he did retract his comments about God causing rape. He is quoted as saying (here), "“I don’t think God wants rape. I don’t think he wants that at all because rape is evil,”  A serious problem for Mr. Mourdock is that he did, in fact, say that God causes rapes in order to give us the gift of life.  Given his theology, his original statement is the more logical one.  Now, he is stuck with the incredibly difficult problem of explaining how his all-powerful but supposedly loving God created a world in which this god gives us the gift of life through rape.  Let's be clear here.  He is not arguing that life is precious in its own right and thus abortions are always wrong.  He claims that abortions are wrong because life is a gift from God, which in effect makes it a sin always, in every circumstance to abort a fetus.  More to the point even, God wills all human life.  Therefore, because rape leads to life, it is within the providence and will of God.  It is only logical, then, that God causes rapes for the sake of life.

Another problem for Mourdock is that the American public is seldom interested in nuances and explanations that go beyond a sound-bite or two.  He said that rapes are the will of God, and now all of his attempts to nuance that statement will do him little or no good.  Politicians, especially right-wing ones, should just stay away from theology.  It is a field given to nuance.

The fundamental problem Mr. Mourdock, however, is a widely held conception of God as an individual person with person-like characteristics.  If we view God as a discrete personality, then God necessarily gets caught up in very human situations and, inevitably, comes out looking human too.  In defining God as a person, we have long trivialized God and brought the divine down to our level.  (My nuance here is that we can experience God personally, pray to God personally, and establish a deep personal relationship with God—just as many of us experience a particular place personally and love that place personally).  We turn God the Beyond into a little, human-like god, which we can then manipulate to fit our theological and political prejudices.  We make this little god complicit in our failings.  We stick this little god in the middle of our ideological battles, and even if Mr. Mourdock attempts to free this god from creating life through rape, this little god is complicit in rape.  This little god demands an end to most forms of contraception.  On the other hand, this little god makes no demands for the protection of the natural environment.  It stands aside at the massive injustices of poverty and is happy to fund the world's mightiest military and, evidently, ride its tanks into battle against his jihadist enemies.

One of the greatest challenges we face, theologically speaking, is to discover and develop an understanding of God that recognizes God as both incredibly, vastly Beyond and yet, inexplicably but deeply Present in the Universe, on this planet, and in our lives.  When we worship a tiny little human-like god, we turn God into an idol of our own making, a god as small as we are who uses rape to give us the "gift of life."

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Which Season Is It - Really?

Looking down N. State St., Lowville, NY (1911)
Yesterday's posting explored the question of faith boundaries from the perspective of Southeast Asia's historical experience with European colonialism and its need for precise geographical demarcations of territory (i.e. boundaries).  The point was that religions and faiths also have boundaries, which can be loosely constructed or narrowly drawn.

So,  last week, I was walking up N. State St. in Lowville and felt a definite winter chill in the air.  The sky had that steely overcast grayish aspect associated with winter.  It was a winter sky.  The cold was colder, whatever the thermometer claimed the temperature was.  The morning warned that "real" winter is coming.  Then, a couple of days later, I walked up the same street again in what felt like very late summer or early onset fall.  The air was warmer.  I was in shirt sleeves.  Not a hint of winter, but a lingering memory of summer instead.  Within 72 hours, late fall with a promise of winter "regressed" to early fall with a memory of the summer.  Now, according to the calendar it is fall, but the calendar is a human invention for setting limits on time.  In the real world, the first hints of fall this year came in early September and, we can be sure, will linger into November.  Winter usually comes before the calendar says it is "winter".  The seasons are real, but the boundaries between them are porous, uncertain, and ever shifting.  And if you go 30 miles in any direction they are also liable to be slightly different.  A few snow flakes have already fallen in the North Country, although none in Lowville.

When we look around at the created world, it is much more like the seasons than the calendar.  It operates with only loose boundaries.  So, if God is indeed the creator of our natural, evolving, always shifting world of porous and uncertain boundaries, what does that say about God?  The second hand on a clock sweeps steadily around the circle, but we do not experience time that way—sometimes it drags, sometimes it passes quickly, and for children it seems slow while to those in their 80s it rushes onward.  What does this say about the way God created us?  Nature, we're told abhors a vacuum.  Apparently, it also isn't keen on sharply drawn boundaries of any sort.  And, theologically speaking, that is worth a thought.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Boundaries, Asian, European, & Religious

Thongchai Winichakul's book, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (1997), has become something of a classic in Tha and Southeast Asia studies. In brief, Tongchai (we always refer to people by their first name in Thailand) examines the ways in which traditional Thai concepts of national space were transformed by European colonialism. Thailand (or Siam, then) was the only nation in Southeast Asia to escape direct colonization, but by 1900 it had British or French colonies on its borders in all four directions.

Here's the thing: before the Europeans showed up, Southeast Asian nations had very loose, ill-defined boundaries. At the center, there was one central power, but as one travelled outward that power slowly diminished and was increasingly shared by rulers of the outer provinces—then shared even more with the princes of the tributary states. Eventually one travelled out of one nation's power sphere and entered, gradually, that of another nation—again going through tributary states, outer provinces and inner provinces until one reached the center of power. These spheres of power waxed and waned, grew and diminished. The far tributary states were often tributary to two powers at once.

By European standards all of this was a chaotic mess. When the British conquered Burma, thus, they wanted to know exactly and precisely what they had conquered. Down to the foot and inch. And they went to great trouble to survey "the" border between Burma and Siam. The Thai political leadership had to learn this European concept of boundaries and space in order to survive it—and they did.

Now, my point: all of this has a great deal to do with the liberal-conservative split in contemporary American Christianity.  When it comes to people of other faiths and religions, progressive Christians usually feel more comfortable with the traditional Southeast Asian view of boundaries. They will "borrow" Buddhist meditation, find meaning in Islamic theology, and happily integrate the latest scientific findings into their faith and theology.  Conservative Christians more often than not feel more comfortable with the European conception of boundaries when it comes to religion.  There is a desire to designate clearly what is "Christian" and what is not.  Where nationality is hard to determine in the older view, in the one imported by the Europeans everyone had a nationality that could be clearly determined.  In the same way, evangelical Christians usually care a great deal about who is saved (i.e. lives in the territory of Christ) and who is not.

It would be fascinating to know why we have these differences.

P.S.  There must be something about October.  Just a year ago, I posted another posting that draws on Tongchai's, Siam Mapped (here).

Monday, October 22, 2012


If you look long-term at how do people in the McLaughlin Group do, they get half their predictions right and half of them wrong because they are basically entertainers.  People criticize this show [the Daily Show], maybe, and say that , oh, it is entertainment masquerading as news, but a lot of news is really entertainment masquerading as news.

Nate Silver,
on the Daily Show, October 17, 2012
Speaking on the observation that political punditry is no better than a coin toss

Postscript:  In Thai (and Sanskrit), the word bundit refers to a scholar or someone with learning who knows what they are talking about.  In American English the cognate term pundit refers to someone who pretends to be a bundit—but isn't.

We Are Addicted

The food industry has learned how to produce addictive foods that are unhealthy but otherwise rewarding to eat.  That industry reaps huge rewards from our addiction to their foods.  If you feel that this is a little "extreme," check out an ABC Science posting entitled, "Fast food's tasty tricks keep you eating." It is well worth the read. Amen.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Christians in Chiang Mai Aren't So Bad

Old "First Church," Chiang Mai
More than a year ago, blogger John Quinn, reported on his observations of Western missionaries living in northern Thailand in a posting entitled, "Christians in Chiang Mai."  Quinn is a Brit, and many of the missionaries are Americans.  He is an avowed atheist with a seriously jaundiced view of organized religion, and the missionaries, of course, are quite the opposite.  Quinn readily admits that when he moved to Chiang Mai 11 years previously he brought with him a prejudice against missionaries in particular and Christianity generally.  He writes that, "However, after living here for over 11 years and meeting many of them personally, my opinions have mellowed quite dramatically."

In a long posting, Quinn summarizes the history of Christian missions in northern Thailand (most of his facts are correct) and then shares with his readers the views of two missionaries that he knows personally.  Quinn then observes that while there are some negative aspects to the Western missionary presence in northern Thailand, on the whole he is impressed with the missionaries' good works and good hearts.  He closes his posting by thanking the two missionaries who shared their views with him and writes, "Thank you Gary and Gordon for being so open with your responses. People such as you have turned a fairly cynical person into a far more tolerant human being. The positive energy you bring into this world is impressive and long may it continue."

A couple of thoughts.  First, it is held among many who reject organized religion and religious beliefs that religion is an evil thing in and of itself.  They complain that it causes most of the wars we humans fight and is otherwise oppressive and intolerant.  Religion is bad.  For those of us who live "in here" this whole notion of the evil nature of religion is simplistic.  No one doubts that it has its ugly side.  But as a pastor, I see the better side nearly every day, the one Quinn points to in his posting.  Second, it is good to see that on occasion we can balance our differences in thinking and believing with mutual respect for the good in the Other.

And a third thought.  Some of the missionaries Quinn has come in contact with have evidently been engaged in faith-sharing with him.  They have "evangelized" him with their positive vibes and good works as well as their willingness to respond respectfully to his questions.  There are kind, respectful ways to share one's faith, and the outcome doesn't have to be in a baptism.  It can simply be in a little better understanding between people.  In our sadly divided world, such faith sharing offers one important contribution to healing the wounds of our differences.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Thrown Back Onto God

Joy and peace come into our lives then, when we mind more about God than we do about ourselves, when we realize what the things that matter really are. The Spirit clears up our problems about what we want or ought to be at, simplifies us and throw us back again and again on the deep and peaceful action of God. 

 Evelyn Underhill,
Source: The Soul's Delight: Selected Writings of Evelyn Underhill

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Seeking A Balance

Source: New York Times
We have to wonder just how well we are served as a nation by the "atmospherics" and tone of the presidential and vice-presidential debates taking place at the moment.  Featuring the picture on the left of this posting, the New York Times website carried the headline,"Rivals Bring Bare Fists to Rematch," to describe the second presidential debate, which took place on Tuesday evening, October 16th.

On the one hand, it may well be that these debates test the mettle of the candidates in an important way.  They have to think under pressure.  They have to demonstrate resolve.  They have to employ the rhetorical skills that are a modern-day requirement of the presidency.  They have to show that they know what they are talking about—or, at least, sound like they know what they're talking about.

But...really...are we looking for a president who is skilled in interrupting, finger pointing, and other rude behaviors of a kind that we did our best to discipline out of our children?  Do we want a president who is praised or criticized not so much for the points he makes as the demeanor or lack of demeanor with which he makes them?  Is it in our national best interest to elect the candidate most skillful at gotcha politics?  Both candidates are men of private faith.  At various times, they have given testimony to the importance of their faith to the way they govern as well as the way they live.  The president is a mainline Protestant.  Mr. Romney is a Mormon.  Where do our churches. mainline or Mormon, teach a gospel that encourages the kind of behaviors we see in these debates?  Where does it teach one to be dismissive of the moderator and condescending to the other candidate?  Now, I'm sure that both men are indeed men of faith.  I hope it at least bothers them that they both have to behave in ways that simply do not reflect the best teachings of their churches.  It should bother the rest of us, Protestants or Mormons.

Romney won the first debate because he projected more of a tough-guy attitude than did the president.  The president won this second one, if in a less dominating performance, because he "brought his A game" to the arena.  So, are we electing a president or a gladiator-in-chief?  The media wants the latter, of course, because gladiatorial spectacles make news, which is good for the bottom line.  Apparently, the public also takes some delight in these battles.  I don't think we should.  To the extent that we do enjoy of this kind of debate, we fail to reflect our better natures.  It is possible to envision 90 minutes of dialogue and reflection in which the two candidates outline their own goals and policies and engage in a deeper, more civil discussion of their differences without the alpha male antics.  That, at least, is the direction our faiths encourage us to explore.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Finding a Balance

"Be Still & Know that I Am God"
Photo:  Xanetia, Creative Commons
In the last Rom Phra Khun posting, I raised the question of how mainline churches might find a better spiritual balance.  For many, the problem is that we so emphasize being active, doing things, and accomplishing tasks (a multitude of tasks) that a balance has been lost.  Faith is not only about doing and accomplishing, even when the Kingdom of God is the goal of our doing and achieving.  Faith is also about listening quietly, praying gently, meditating with no goal other than to be still.  Faith is about singing for the joy of it, reading for the meaning of it, and reshaping life so that time is not a thing we fill with being busy—even the busy-ness of the Kingdom.

One of my treasured little possession from the long-ago past is a little plaque, not even the size of my hand, which reads, "Take time to be holy."  The psalmist enjoins us to be still so that we can know God (Psalm 46:10).  It is difficult for the average active Presbyterian church member to simply be still.  There's a million things to do.

I am personally convinced that one of the things we need to do in Presbyterian churches is to regain our spiritual balance, which means slowing down, maybe even doing less, or at least programming quiet into all of the activity—making non-activity an activity.  In that day, opening a committee meeting with two minutes of silence will be greeted with thanks and relief rather than impatience.  In that day, members will spend more time sharing their faith with each other and less on the business of the church.  In that day, we will balance our impatient quest for the Kingdom with a patient appreciation for the way it is already here.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Plank in Our Mainline Eye

Mary & Martha (Luke 10:38-42)
In Dynamics of Faith, theologian Paul Tillich argues that faith in an ultimate of one sort or another is a universal characteristic of the human race and that we are always prone to turn our ultimates into idols.  Thus, in some religions there are physical images, such as statues or pictures, which are meant to symbolize the ultimate but over time become themselves the ultimate.  Faith becomes idolatry.  All faith of every kind, every religion and secular faiths (such as humanism), are prone to idolatry.  One of the most common forms of Protestant idolatry is bibliolatry, the transformation of the Bible into an object of veneration and worship in place of God.

When our faith becomes idolatrous, it eventually leads to disappointment, disillusionment, and a dead spirituality.  It fails to nourish.  It no longer brings healing and well-being.  Tillich experienced how fearful the dangers of idolatry can become as he witnessed the rise of the false faith of nationalism embodied in European fascism.

Tillich's analysis is spot-on and very helpful—especially if we want to see the speck in someone else's eye.  Thus, from over here in the mainline we can see with painful clarity the way many evangelicals really do turn the Bible into an idol, one that forces them into denying the very nature of reality as discovered by science.  Other churches, also mostly evangelical, turn numerical growth into a god, the god of evangelism.  The Catholics tend to transform their hierarchy into a god—that's one reason we broke off from the Catholic Church in the first place.

What is more difficult for us to see is the plank(s) in our own mainline eye.  Historically, Presbyterian churches in the U.S. have been profoundly concerned to reform human society, and we have engaged in all manner of reform movements along with other mainline folks.  One of the most curious was the 19th century movement to "keep the Sabbath holy" by preventing the delivery of mail on Sundays.  We Presbyterians were deeply involved in that one.  The point here is that our search of a more righteous society, for the Kingdom of God on Earth if you will, has become a false faith for Presbyterian churches right down to the present.  The pursuit of social righteousness has become the goal for the great majority of us.  Ask us what it means to believe, and we will quickly answer that it means to do good to others.  We believe in the Golden Rule, and it has become an idol for us.  We are driven, thus, to be busy with the work of the Kingdom—endless meetings, programs, projects, and a multitude of tasks and activities.  We have lost spiritual balance and lost sight of the Christ who commended the "idle" Mary and, by implication, criticized the always busy Martha (Luke 10:38-42).

The question is, how do we regain our balance?  In and of itself, working for the Kingdom is a good thing so long as it does not become the thing.  How do we de-sacralize our constant doing?  That is the question.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Welcome Morning

"Welcome Morning"
There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry "hello there, Anne"
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.

The Joy that isn't shared, I've heard,
dies young.

Source: Anne Sexton in Dancing With Joy edited by Roger Housden

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Lynx Link

The Minnesota Lynx are in the WNBA finals for the second year in a row.  In a news posting entitled, "Lynx give WNBA a chance to thrive," sports reporter Joan Niesen explains why this is a big deal for more than just sports fans in Minnesota. If you enjoy sports or have a concern about the place of women in American society today, it is worth a read.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Discovering Jesus

The various views of Christ in the Early Church
All four of the gospels are records of the early church's discovery of who Jesus was.  Mark in particular, raised time and again the question of who was Jesus until Peter finally confessed him to be the messiah (Mark 8:27-29).  Most scholars believe that Mark was the first of the gospels and that John was the last.  Mark was written roughly a generation after Jesus, and John was probably written still another generation later.  By the time of John, it had become increasingly clear to at least one wing of the church that Jesus was something much more than "just" the messiah.

Thus, John 1:1 proclaims that Jesus is the Word, the One who is With God and is God.  And John 1:14 voices one of the earliest statements of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation: "And the Word became flesh, and live among us.  We gazed upon his glory, glory like that of the father's only son, full of grace and truth." (Wright, The Kingdom New Testament).  Jesus of Nazareth was also the Son of God the Father—the only son.  John 5:19 further explaines that, "Whatever the father does, the son does too, and in the same way."

The thing is, however, that in the Gospel of John Jesus is not co-equal with the Father.  Jesus is subordinate to the Father.  In John 5:20 (following 5:19 cited above), we read that "The father loves the son...and shows him all the things that he's doing."  That is, the Father teaches the Son, knows things the Son does not know.  Further along, in 5:30, we find that Jesus says he can't do anything on his own authority.  He wasn't carrying out his own wishes, "but the wishes of the one who sent me."  This is not trinitarian thinking.  In the doctrine of the Trinity, the three persons are in all respects co-equal. Each is fully God and, in fact, are a unity.  In John, Jesus is not co-equal to the Father.  The Father has greater authority than the Son and determines what it is that the Son is to do.

Clearly, the understanding of the person of Christ evolved over time, and in the process Jesus was understood in different ways by different communities within the early church and in different ways over time.  The so-called Johannine community's view of Jesus was evolving into a "high christology," that is a view that maintained the divinity of Jesus, but it had not yet reached the zenith attained later in the doctrine of the Trinity.

There's a simple point here, namely, that the church's views of Jesus of Nazareth are always many.  Simply translating Jesus into languages such as Thai changes the perception of him by those who speak that language.  Phra Jesu, the Jesus of the Thai language, is a still higher divine being, a heavenly king and patron.  The Jesus of America is actually a kindly democratic fellow, who loves all equally and never said a discouraging word.  It is unfortunate that our differing views of Jesus tend to create walls between his followers instead of being seen as opportunities for dialogue.  If Jesus was/is even remotely close to being who the vast majority of Christians claim he was/is, no one theology can contain all that there is to understand about him.  Or, so it would seem.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Einstein & God

Page one of Einstein's "God Letter"
One of the great debates between at least some theists and the more militant atheists is the one about Albert Einstein's belief or lack of belief in God.  The theists say that he "really did" believe.  The atheists deny that he did.  According to a news posting one the Washington Post website entitled, "Einstein letter discussing God to be auctioned on eBay with $3 million starting price," a key piece of evidence in the debate is as the headline says going up for auction.  It is a letter written by Einstein to Eric B. Gutkind in German and dated January 3, 1954.

The key paragraphs in the letter, translated into English by Joan Stambaugh, read,
... The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them.

 In general I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a man and an internal one as a Jew. As a man you claim, so to speak, a dispensation from causality otherwise accepted, as a Jew the priviliege of monotheism. But a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as our wonderful Spinoza recognized with all incision, probably as the first one. And the animistic interpretations of the religions of nature are in principle not annulled by monopolisation. With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception, but our moral efforts are not furthered by them. On the contrary.

Now that I have quite openly stated our differences in intellectual convictions it is still clear to me that we are quite close to each other in essential things, ie in our evalutations of human behaviour. What separates us are only intellectual 'props' and `rationalisation' in Freud's language. Therefore I think that we would understand each other quite well if we talked about concrete things.

With friendly thanks and best wishes. Yours, A. Einstein.
We aren't going to end the debate over Einstein's beliefs here in this usually quiet corner of the Web, but this letter is worth one or two observations.  First, Einstein's concern was with a word, "God," which he took to be a symbol for a set of regrettable human superstitions.  Whether or not he thought that there is a  metaphysical Something beyond the physical world is not addressed.  Nor does this relatively brief set of reflections allow for the fact that the word "God" can be used in ways that do not reflect theistic "superstitions," be they Jewish, Christian, or of any other religious tradition.  Second, he rejects religion in the same way he rejects religious notions of God.  He is particularly critical, as a Jew, of Jewish "superstitions" about being the so-called chosen people.

My oft-repeated general rule is that scientists make poor theologians.  Because of their disdain for religion, they are usually as ignorant of theology as they are knowledgeable of their particular field of science.  They generally take the most superficial, popular understanding of God,  reject that view (as many of us who are theists also do), and in the process fail to come to grips with the fascinating possibilities of the best theologies.  They do with God what Einstein did with the Bible in this letter.  He dismissed the Bible as being a book of fables and pointedly rejected any readings of the Bible that might find more in it than mere fables.  He rejected any interpretation that claimed the Bible was anything more than childish, primitive legends.  Because it is the Bible, that is, he refused to entertain the possibility that the study of the Bible as literature might reveal deeper subtleties than his own uninformed reading of it suggested to him.  On this subject, his mind was closed.  And I'm not talking here about trying to convince him that the Bible really is inspired and that there really is a God.  Simply treating the Bible as literature might offer insights to something more than superstition, but Einstein rejected that possibility entirely.  And, in fact, the close study of the Bible as a literary document does reveal that contains much more than a mere set of silly legends.  Apart from any belief in inspiration, it is in and of itself a fascinating collection of ancient literature.

Einstein was a brilliant scientist.  He was a lousy theologian.  From the tone of this letter, I suspect that he probably was more inclined to atheism than not.  If so, he also seems to have shared the inclination of that subset of atheists who habitually cast things like "God," Bible, and religion in the worst possible light.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Girl Kneeling in Front of a Cradle
Vincent Van Gogh
A child in the cradle, if you watch it at leisure, has the infinite in its eyes.

Vincent Van Gogh,
Quoted in  Don Postema, Space for God (1997), p.  31

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Virtually a Hobby

Since September of last year, I have been working, as time & energy permitted, at redoing my personal website, herbswanson.com.  My skills at this sort of thing are rudimentary at best, but with the help and encouragement of my new website host, Mr. Brad Zehr, owner of zehr.net, I have pretty much completed the task.  I should explain that the original host, Khun Tanawut Buayen, did an outstanding job a decade ago in designing the website, and I've carried over a lot of what he did into the revamped website.  The problem was that the website was aging, while I had moved away from Thailand and found it difficult to maintain regular contact.  I was also not able to work directly on the website—or, at least, never figured out how to do so.  For six long years, I generally neglected it, and what I've been undoing is the neglect.  I am, in any event, very thankful for Khun Tanawut's help and his kind patience with a virtual novice.

With the assistance of Brad, I can now work directly on the website and make changes and corrections myself instead of working through someone else.  It has been a long haul, but I feel that I've been able to correct a lot of the problems that had crept in over the years.  Documents are easier to navigate and simpler in style.  Errors that I couldn't correct directly are getting corrected (altho, inevitably, I've created some new ones).

The website contains a large sample of my research in Thailand, including both my M.A. thesis and doctoral dissertation.  It also contains an extensive bibliography of resources for the study of Christianity in Thailand, which I add to from time to time.  There is a good deal of other material, mostly by me but also from others, on the website.  I have to admit that by the standards of the Web it is a humble site, getting maybe only 40-50 visitors a day, most of whom are quickly in and quickly out.  But, occasionally, I hear from a user and take some comfort in the fact that those who need such a tool find it very useful.

Truth is herbswanson.com has become a hobby.  Who woulda thunk?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Alleged 4th century fragment referring to Jesus' wife
In recent weeks, a fragment of an alleged fourth century document containing a reference to Jesus' wife has set the media all atwitter.  The Google search I just carried out on "Jesus wife" received "about 275,000,000 results," which is a lot of hits.  The case for the document and its possible implications is set out in a paper by Harvard Divinity School professor, Dr. Karen L. King, and is entitled, "“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’”A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus."  There have been so many doubts raised about the authenticity of the fragment, however, that it is not at all clear that it is genuine.  King herself says that the fragment doesn't really prove that Jesus had a wife, only that  some fourth century believed that he did.

Leaving aside the authenticity (or lack thereof) of the fragment, a couple of thoughts come to mind.  First, all of the media attention given to it gives further proof to how enamored American society is with Jesus of Nazareth.  He remains an iconic figure and a newsworthy one.  Second, it would apparently be a big deal if it could somehow be proven that Jesus did actually have a wife.  Certainly, the Catholic Church would find such an eventually awkward as the whole emphasis on priestly sexual abstinence would be called into question.  More largely, it would force all of us to rethink the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ.  That's not a bad thing.  Suppose Jesus did have a wife.  Would that not confirm the depth of God's presence in human history through Christ?  It would certainly have an impact on our gender politics, especially in the church, if it turned out that Jesus was married.  Thus, just the bare possibility that this fragment opens the door to the possibility that Jesus might have had a wife is highly newsworthy.

Daniel Burke and David Gibson, however, remind us (here) to be very cautious about all of this.  They raise the question, "But how many overhyped archaeological discoveries have proven less than world-changing under careful examination?"  They cite other examples of the uncovering  of supposedly ancient documents or artifacts that grabbed media attention for a moment but proved either insignificant in the long run and/or to be forgeries.

Still, it might be interesting to preach one or more sermons on the subject of, "What if Jesus had a wife."  There is no evidence that he did, but it is fun to speculate on what kind of husband (and father?) Jesus might have made.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Third Level

From: 2001: A Space Odyssey
At its core, religion embodies a "sense" that there is "something" Beyond the world of our five physical senses.  It is Beyond our cognitive functions, Beyond thought.  This "thing" that is Beyond, however, can be detected by the human mind and heart.  Individuals and groups can feel its Presence.  The Beyond can be experienced as Presence.  This sense of a Beyond that is still Present is so real that we are able to construct quite elaborate systems of thought (many of which are "theological," that is about a deity that is presumed to be the Beyond that is Present) to explain a supernatural phenomenon that, in fact, we can't quite grasp.  There is a mystery to the Beyond that is Present.  Even the most hardened "new atheists" acknowledge that this "sense" of "something" exists and some, at least, associate it with the Universe itself.

I have avoided using the word, "God," to describe this Beyond that is Present, because theism is only one system of thought that seeks to explain the "sense" that "something" is "out there" but also very much "right here."  Animism is another.  The Buddhist understanding of the Dharma is another.

The more social scientists dig into the human mind, the more it becomes clear that this sense of something that is Beyond and yet Present is planted deep within us.  A New York Times article entitled, "Is 'Do Unto Others' Written in Our Genes?" offers further insights into how deeply rooted are these religious-like perceptions of the Beyond that is Present.  The article reports on the work of Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia.  Haidt's research into human morality suggests that our human moral faculties are divided into two parts.  One part he calls, "moral intuition," which evolved in our evolutionary ancestors long before we developed the ability to speak.  The second aspect of human morality is "moral judgment," which developed as we learned to speak.  He believes that both moral intuition and judgment are linked to the fact that we are social animals and aid us in protecting both individual and group well-being.  He has also found that religion has been the primary carrier of both aspects of morality and that without religion humanity could not have evolved beyond the stage of being small bands of hunter-gatherers.

That is, apparently, since the time we became homo sapiens we have linked our conscious and unconscious sense of morality to that other sense of the Beyond that is Present—not as a matter of intuition but of instinct.  Beyond all of the theological systems and the philosophies lies this intriguing insight that seems to be emerging from scientific research that we are constructed for religion—that is that the third level of perception, the spiritual level, is planted so deeply within us that it is as much a part of being human as is our DNA.  (The first level is sense perception and the second is cognition).

None of this proves that there is a "God," in the sense of that word as we Christians use it.  None of this proves that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God.  It doesn't prove the Trinity.  What it does do is add weight to the likelihood that our widely shared faith in a Beyond that is Present points to a reality that is as real as the one we perceive physically.  It points to the possibility that Something Out There built our "God-sense" (for want of a better term) into us.  Evolution has direction, and it just may be that the Beyond that is Present is the source of that direction—and the destination.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Bad Policy

One of the worst errors of theology and popular religion is to make statements which intentionally or unintentionally contradict the structure of reality.

Paul Tillich
Dynamics of Faith (HarperOne, pp. 39-40)

Monday, October 1, 2012

Christ as Artist

I cannot help thinking that you may well be surprised to see how little I like the Bible, although I have often tried to study it a little. There is only that kernel, Christ, who seems superior to me from an artistic point of view, at any rate rather different from Greek, Indian, Egyptian, Persian antiquity, though they were so far advanced. But Christ, I repeat, is more of an artist than the artists; he works in the living spirit and the living flesh, he makes men instead of statues. And then…I feel only too well that I am an ox - being a painter - I, who admire the bull, the eagle, Man, with a veneration that will prevent me from being ambitious.

Vincent van Gogh to Emile Bernard,
24 June 1888
From: van Gogh's Letters