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, November 30, 2012

In That Region (Again)

"Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ..." (G. Flinck)
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8 NRSV)

In the last posting in this series on reading the Christmas stories from a progressive Christian perspective, I introduced the idea of levels of biblical interpretation, based on Kugel's book, How to Read the Bible (Free Press, 2007).  To his three levels, I added a fourth, which is a combination of discovering the original intent of biblical texts but not being too wedded to that intent.

Take for example, the fact that this story of the shepherds and angels starts with the shepherds.  It then introduces the heavenly agent in the story, the angels.  The beginning point, however, is earthly rather than heavenly.  Is there a hint here, or can we make a hint out of this story's beginning point?

Christian theology, very broadly speaking, can take one of two orientations, earthly or heavenly.  An earthly orientation begins with the human condition and works from that condition to God. Volume I of an earthly systematic theology is "Creation," and the author of such a theology doesn't consider the Creator until later on.  A heavenly-oriented theology starts off with God and the concept of the Trinity and only later looks at the place of humanity in the divine scheme of things.

So, to ask again, is the fact that the story of the shepherds & angels starts with the shepherds rather than the angels a hint? Does it suggest that the earthly approach is preferable?  Could be—if we want it to be.  When we consider that the Gospel of Luke begins with earthy stories about conceptions, pregnancies, and births and that the whole of the gospel focuses on earthly issues and events—well, maybe the proper starting point for our theological reflections is the human condition.  In fact, the Incarnation doesn't make much sense unless we begin with the earthly situation that requires heavenly intervention.  In theology, the starting point is no small matter.  Where one begins in Volume I shapes everything else.

But that's not my main point here.  My main point is that we can gain insights from this story that have little to do with the original intent of the author of the Gospel of Luke—in so far as we can even guess at that original intent.  In Kugel's schema, level one is the original intent of the biblical author (or storyteller); level two is ancient reinterpretations of the texts; and, level three is modern scholarly reconstructions of original intent.  In level four, we keep in mind the scholarly reconstructions, remembering that often the scholars are guessing, but still read the text for contemporary meanings.  In our day and age, the fact that the story of the shepherds & angels starts with the shepherds opens up a concern with the social sciences and the physical sciences including esp. biology.  It points us to the human conditions that God addresses in Christ, including poverty, injustice, ignorance, immorality, and oppression—the conditions under which commoners lived in the first century.  This has little to do with the original intent of the author.  It is a modern reading, which seeks to be faithful to the story now and here.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

In That Region

"Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ..." (G. Flinck)
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8 NRSV)

James L. Kugel in his book, How to Read the Bible (Free Press, 2007) describes three levels of biblical interpretation: (1) the original intent of the biblical contents; (2) the reinterpretation of that intent in ancient times, which came to be accepted as the "real meaning" of the Bible; and (3) modern scholarly attempts to get past #2 back to #1.

There is a fourth level, which in some ways is a return to level two in light of the contributions of level three.  In level four, we are most concerned to re-read scripture in light of the world we live in now while not ignoring the general findings of the scholars who reside in level three.  Level four readers often reject level two readings as being irrelevant and unpersuasive and seek to replace level two's "old-time religion" with interpretations more fitting to the early 21st century.

Reading at level four, then, our beginning point in the story of the shepherds encounter with God in their fields one night seems obvious.  The story opens with a group of working stiffs, probably relatively poor, who are working the night shift watching sheep.  Apparently, they actually lived in the fields, which may or may not suggest some kind of permanent residence.  The obvious point is that the first public announcement of the coming of the messiah is made to rural working class commoners who were actually at work at the time.  The point isn't subtle.  The very first proclamation of the Good News was not published in the Jerusalem Gazette nor did it make the 6:00 news.  It was announced away from the public eye and to an unassuming group of poorer folks.

As obvious as this initial point is, it warrants our attention because it sets the stage not just for the rest of the story but also for the whole Gospel of Luke.  The Incarnation took place in the real world.  It took place in the midst of the working poor who were literally the 99% in their day.  Impossibly long hours.  Smelly sheep.  Dangerous working conditions.  Lives that were short, hard, and sometimes brutal.  Jews living in Roman occupied territory where oppression touched every life.  This is where our story of the shepherds and angels opens and where the first proclamation of the good news of Christ took place—in the real world.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What to Do With the Christmas Stories?

"Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ..." (G. Flinck)
For those of us of a more progressive persuasion, the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke can be a bit of a problem.  The general consensus among mainline scholars is that the stories didn't actually happen.  They are "just" stories that serve to introduce their respective gospels.  These scholars don't explain where the stories came from or why the early church perpetuated them as fact when at least some of them had to know they weren't.  The origins of the stories, that is, is unknown and perplexing.  And Sunday morning, in worship, is no place to deal with these sorts of issues.

So, what do do with the Christmas stories on Sunday morning?  It is really, really hard to avoid them, obviously.  But here's the thing, they are actually richly textured and deeply meaningful stories in and of themselves.  There is good reason why they have become the most beloved parts of scripture in popular thinking. That being the case, on Sunday mornings in Advent the preacher's task is to "unpack" the meaning of the stories as introductions to the whole of each gospel.  Individual preachers may or may not want to mention scholarly qualms over the historical truth of the events described, but the preacher's task is to dig into the meat of the stories themselves.  Such a tactic leaves the preacher open to the criticism of the religious skeptics" "You are just pulling the wool over your parishioners' eyes—as usual—and playing footloose with the concept of truth."  It also leaves the preacher open to the criticism of the literalists: "YOU DON'T REALLY BELIEVE IN JESUS AT ALL!"

Still, walking somewhere between the secular skeptics and the religious fundamentalists is the best path to take in cases like this.  It isn't, maybe, the most comfortable one, but the skeptics would have us throw the baby out with the bath water while fundamentalists refuse to bathe the baby.  In the history of Christian theology, seeking the middle way (via media) has a long, honorable tradition, and the best way to honor that tradition today is to walk a middle path between the skeptics and the fundamentalists, especially at Christmastime.

How does this actually work?  How do we walk the middle ground and present tell the Christmas story as truthfully and meaningfully as we can?  In a series of postings to follow, I'm going to work at answering just that question.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Let's Get A Divorce

One of Rom Phra Khun's regular readers dropped me an email recently alerting me to an editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune entitled, "A red-state, blue-state divorce plan."  It's all tongue-in-cheek good fun  (well, maybe not all in good fun, but mostly).  It is also, admittedly, one-sided, but there seems to be a lot of that going around these days, and maybe the message within the message is that we really do need to find a way to get along better than we are now.  You might want to "check it out."

Monday, November 26, 2012

Kingdom & Christ

Jesus teaching about the Kingdom
There are those among the Jesus scholars who claim that, "Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom; the early church proclaimed Jesus."  The early church, that is, transformed Jesus' teachings in such a way as to change the very content of those teachings.  In doing so, they laid the historical groundwork for modern-day Christianity, which is almost all about Jesus and not very much at all about the Kingdom.  The Kingdom Jesus preached was a future time of justice when Jewish society would be stood on its head.  The wealthy would be left standing on the outside while the poor, lame, ill, and amoral majority would in inherit the Kingdom.

What we've done, so the case goes, is to change Jesus' prophetic message of social justice into a salvation religion with Jesus as the saviour and social justice a secondary concern, if that.

Maybe so, and if so the very last verse of the book of the Acts, verse 28:31, might provide a hint as to how the change from a Kingdom-oriented socio-religious movement to a Christ-centered salvation religion took place.  As Acts closes, Paul has reached Rome and initiated his work there while technically under house arrest awaiting trail before Caesar. Acts 28:30 (The Message) states that, "For two years Paul lived in a place he rented for himself, and there he welcomed all who came to see him." Then, verse 31 wraps things up with this summary: "He preached about the Kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ, speaking with all boldness and freedom."  Now, it doesn't matter whether or not this verse accurately sums up Paul's teachings in Rome.  The point is that by the time Acts was written, some time latter in the first century, some followers of Jesus were both preaching the Kingdom and teaching about Jesus.  For them, the two most likely were seen to be inseparable.  They believed Jesus' teachings about the Kingdom, which they had heard from him; and it was only natural for them to develop a dual focus: the Kingdom and the messiah who taught about it.

It makes a good deal of sense, spiritually and theologically, that at least one large branch of the early church would achieve this dual focus of Kingdom and Christ and pass it down to posterity so that it became the dominant branch.  The trick has always been to maintain the two in balance.  If we lean toward the Kingdom, we end up with a social salvation movement that is in danger of losing its spiritual moorings in the one living example we have of the Kingdom, Jesus and the sense that God is With Us in the quest for the Kingdom.  If we lean toward Jesus, the tendency of Christianity generally, we lose the powerful message of the Kingdom of God and replace it with a "safe" message about getting into heaven by believing in Jesus.  Jesus was both prophet and saviour, and it seems that we do best when we maintain the Kingdom and the Christ in balance.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Coping With Loss

The people in the desert
Sometimes, it feels like all we ever talk about in the mainline ecumenical churches is decline, esp. in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  The literature on the subject is massive and continues to grow even as our churches continue to shrink.  No one can explain precisely why the decline continues—or why it has been so massive in Europe and so much more restrained and relatively slow here in the U.S.  This is not to say that there is not life in our churches.  There is.  One feels it in the singing and in creative worship services and in the many ways churches serve their communities.  And there are churches filled not only with life but also with younger families, young people, and children running around the way they used to run around in all of our churches.  Some churches are like that, but they are far fewer now than they were sixty years ago—and there are increasingly fewer of them with each passing decade.

A recent Presbyterian leadership conference, reported (here), took for its title, "Leading With Vision Through Loss," which combines the reality of our current situation (loss) with a proposed "way out" (vision).  The question is a vision of what?  The point was made in the course of the conference that many churches and their leaders have a vision of return, that is they want to go back across the Red Sea to the 1950s.  They don't really see any other way out and generally resist "transformational change," whatever that might mean.  The thing that stands out here is that decline is an experience in loss, which is attended with grief and a desire to not lose a dying loved "one," in this case the church the way it was back when.  One of the speakers at the conference summarized the point by saying, "We want to grow, but we don't want to change."  The point was also made that this resistance to change is not so much a rejection of new things as it is a resistance to giving up old things, that is change would be OK if we didn't have to give up what we have now.  Perhaps, then, we would be better served by focusing on what we need to lose instead of why we don't want to change.

In all of this, one senses an opportunity for every church—an opportunity to cut loose and discover a new way of being the church in the time and place given us.  Even those churches that are going great guns now are sooner or later going to lose the pastor or the lay leaders who are keeping it going.  The rising tide of secularity is a threat to every church (least so in the South, most so here in the Northeast) that one day has to be faced.  My personal sense is that the Spirit's message embedded in all of this is that fellowships of committed Christians only need to discover the courage to cut loose, walk away from the 1950s, and find renewed life in less doing and more praying, fewer activities and more fellowship, less do and more talk (that is dialogue with each other).  The vast majority of churches aren't going to do this, but there are movements afoot (e.g. Fresh Expressions in Britain, the Emerging Church here) that suggest the wave of the future.   God has already shoved us across the Red Sea, but the great majority of us are now camped on that far bank wanting to go back rather than forward—forward is desert, back is the wealth of Egypt.  Forward is hard, back is impossible.  Beyond the desert, however, is promise.

What will the next 50 years hold?  Whatever the future is, the church in 2062 surely will not look at all like the church of 1962.  We're going to have to cope with a lot of loss, but across the desert is promise.  Some will make it.  Amen.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Less Hungry World

On the surface, we seem to stumble from global crisis to catastrophe, and—as I've observed here before—it does feel like the world is descending into chaos.  The news media largely communicates this doomsday impression, partly because plenty of "bad stuff" does happen every day and week and partly because bad news sells.  In truth, however, things are not all doom and gloom and, in some ways, definitely getting better.  The world is less violent than it used to be esp. in terms of international conflicts.  It turns out that the world is also better fed than we realize.  While we see images of extreme poverty and hunger in the media, a Christian Science Monitor news posting entitled, "Confounding expectations, global hunger is down," reports that, "Despite sustained drought across some of the world’s bread baskets, despite the widespread impact of global warming and a destabilizing rise in global food prices – and despite continuing population growth – hunger has decreased over the past two decades."  It has decreased by about 6.5% from 19% of the world's population in the 1990s to 12.5% today.  There are a number of reasons for this decline, including more innovative ways of carrying out international development by focusing on women as food producers and initiating many smaller projects that are conceived, led, and carried out by local people.  The article points out, however, that while there is hope that the decline in hunger will continue, there are still hundreds of millions of people who are hungry and not all of the trend lines are rosy.  Still, we are living in a perceptibly less hungry world than we were twenty years ago, and that is a very good thing.  Amen.

Another Blog

Although my "day job" (or, "calling" if you like) is to be a pastor, I still dabble in the study of Thai church history, which used to be my calling & day job. The focus of my dabbling is my personal website, herbswanson.com. For over a year now, I've been working at revising and upgrading the website, which has involved getting rid of some things and adding others. Today, I've adapted the blog that I used for Bible commentary (for awhile) to link with the website. This new blog, "A Resources Blog," will contain notes and comments on resources that I come across, especially online.  It is largely intended for researchers and others who have an interest in the history of Thai Christianity, but if you like you can wander over and take a look at either the website or the blog—or both.  Enjoy.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

You are a special and much loved people, hand picked by God. To mark you out as God’s people, you have a uniform to wear. It consists of generosity, humility, tolerance and a passionate concern for others, all of which must be worn without any pretentiousness. The thing you do have to wear it with is love. Without love, you won’t even be able to keep the rest of it on - it would all look totally out of place.

Christ has called you to be a cohesive body, permeated and held together by his peace. I’ll give you some instructions here for life in the body, but if you let the peace of Christ shape the way you live, you’ll find it comes naturally. Hang in there with each other. No doubt there will be times when you will rub each other up the wrong way, but be forgiving. The Lord had no hesitation forgiving you, so follow his lead and forgive each other. Cultivate a mindset of gratitude. Provide rich soil in your hearts into which the word of Christ can sink deep strong roots. Don’t keep good advice to yourself. Share what you have learned and guide one another in the ways of wisdom. Then you’ll all have plenty to be grateful about. Let your gratitude overflow in the songs you sing together - whatever the style, offer them as spirited gifts to God. At all times, whatever you are up to, see to it that the things you say and do are all things that Christ would be proud to be associated with. Let everything you do for Christ be a way of communicating your thanks to God, for it is God who has given you life.

Colossians 3: 12-17 (Laughing Bird Paraphrase)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hearing Other Voices

The reelection of President Obama and the general electoral success of the Democratic Party has, as most of us know, sent shock waves through American conservatism, which apparently was convinced that its big wins in 2010 were the beginning of a trend rather than just one more oscillation in current American voting patterns.  Lots of things are happening on the Right, some hopeful, some troubling.  One of the hopeful things is that some conservative evangelical Christians are thinking more critically about the way they relate to the rest of us.  In what almost amounts to a confession of sin, for example, Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, is calling on evangelicals (here) to approach those who are not evangelical more moderately and with more humility.  Evangelicals, he argues, should stop looking on their neighbors of other persuasions through the lens of hot button issues such as abortion and homosexuality.  He is particularly disturbed at the rising tide of gay marriage and suggests that evangelicals have contributed to the decline in "traditional" marriage by their intransigent behaviors.

Even a decade ago American evangelicalism was riding the crest of a wave of popularity and enthusiasm, but recent trends have not treated the movement well.  Its juggernaut denominations are no longer growing as they once did.  The megachurch phenomenon has proven to be a two-edged sword with even its most ardent supporters now reflecting on its limitations.  And it has become increasingly clear that the collective decision to become a de facto wing of the Republican Party has harmed evangelicalism more than helped it.

So, we are hearing other evangelical voices.  These voices are more conciliatory, less dogmatic.  One wonders if the time is coming when at least some evangelicals and ecumenicals will find common ground for increased dialogue and even cooperation.  The evangelical-ecumenical split affects us all in our local communities.  Could there be some healing take place?  Will those of us on the left bank even be willing to engage in such a thing?  Is all of this just a momentary blip caused by the shock of a lost election, the effects of which will soon go away?  Perhaps little will come of this new opening, but perhaps the Spirit can quietly make more of it than we otherwise will.  That's a prayer.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Coming to Christ Gently

"Christianity," as an identifiable separate religion, doesn't actually have a birthday in spite of the fact that we usually celebrate Pentecost as the birthday of the church.  In fact, the Spirit-filled followers of Jesus remained an identifiable sect of Judaism for many decades.  Most of the them were Jewish, and one powerful wing of the "Way," as it was called, believed that only Jews could be his followers.  Over time, however, the rest of Judaism found the Way less and less acceptable while more and more of Jesus' followers weren't Jewish; and eventually the Way became a separate religion, Christianity.  This took time.  It is not correct, for example, to call the Apostle Paul a Christian.  Christianity as an identifiable religion didn't exist yet, and it is clear from the New Testament that Paul considered himself to be a practicing Jew who believed that Jesus was the messiah (Christ).  The point here is that the church evolved from being a Jewish religious group with peculiar (but still Jewish) beliefs about Jesus of Nazareth into an identifiably separate religion with Jewish roots.  It took time for us to go through this process of separation.

Conversely, the 19th century western Protestant missionary movement preached a message that called on people of other faiths and cultures to convert to Christianity and become, virtually, a part of the western church.  Converts were expected to reject their previous religion and join churches that were like western churches.  They sang western hymns translated into the local language.  They sat on pews.  Nothing in the church was borrowed from their former faith.  Unlike the early church, which only gradually separated itself from Judaism, convert churches formed by the Protestant missionary movement were expected to make a swift and clean break with their past, and they were ex that there had been anything good in that past.  In many nations, the consequence was that most people refused to make such a break even if they were otherwise attracted to faith in Jesus.  Leaving their former religion so abruptly created tensions with neighbors and other family members, and it meant giving up much in life that was comforting and familiar.

In the past, Protestant missionaries simply insisted that a hard break had to be made, many still do.  But, in various parts of the world there is a movement of sorts to create churches that do not make a hard and fast break with their original faith and its culture.  Although not stated as such, the goal is to replicate more nearly the experience of the early church by making a gradual separation from one's previous faith and to dispense with hard and fast boundaries between religions that have to be crossed in a single leap.  The Hindu religious movement,Yeshu Satsang, is one such attempt to come to Christ more gently, less abruptly, and with less conflict.  In a posting entitled, "Following Jesus Yet Still Hindu or Sikh? Mission Leaders Weigh In on New Communities," reporter Michelle A. Vu describes how Yeshu Satsang communities have emerged as a way for Hindu and Sikh followers of Jesus to remain fully Hindu or Sikh as they explore and develop their faith in Christ.  They worship in ways that make sense within their own culture.  They've adapted the sacraments to fit that culture.  They sing songs that are Hindu and Sikh, and the members of Yeshu Satsang "churches" will sometimes insist that they are not Christians (i.e. members of a foreign religion) but remain Hindu or Sikh.  It's just that they follow Jesus.

That's worth thinking about—being a follower of Jesus but not a Christian.  That's what Paul was.  Peter and the other disciples all died before there was a Christian religion.  They followed Jesus while remaining devout, practicing Jews.  One of the things that seems to be happening in our increasingly secular society is that small groups of followers of Jesus are reinventing the church in ways that make more sense in the 21st century than do traditional churches.  Maybe something we should be aiming for is to be more Christ-like and less Christian.  Worth a thought.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Don't Drink the Stuff, Guys

A recent news posting on WebMD entitled, "Soda May Worsen Knee Osteoarthritis in Men," warns that researchers have recently found a possible link between soft drinks and steoarthritis in men.  This link has nothing to do with the fact that soft drinks are fattening, and being overweight puts more pressure on the joints.  When one of the researchers was asked what men should do about soft drinks, his advice was to not drink the stuff—esp. because there is some research evidence linking soft  drinks to heart disease.  The beverage industry, of course, rejects these latest research findings, but it has no more credibility than did the tobacco industry when it denied the link between smoking and cancer.

Regular readers will forgive me for my periodic postings attacking the consumption of soft drinks and junk food, but they are a health menace and enemies of the public.  They are addictive substances that we abuse regularly and massively.  So, what should we do?  Stop drinking and eating the stuff.  Amen.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Is Evolution "Guided"?

Earlier this year, the blog Open Parachute posted an article entitled, "Theological mental gymnastics over evolution," which criticizes theists who believe that God actively guides evolution for "throwing the baby out" with the bath water.  The author is a self-proclaimed non-theist who is concerned to protect the practice of science from theistic intrusions.  In the article, he says that he doesn't have a problem with those believers who think that God somehow initiated the evolutionary process and then leaves it alone so that it carries on unguided.  The author, however, does not approve of those theists who believe that God guides evolution.  He insists that evolution is an unguided process.  The Open Parachute posting echoes the sentiments of the biologist, Jerry A. Coyne, who has written (here), "...I vehemently oppose those evolutionists and accommodationists who won’t affirm that evolution is unguided and purposeless (in the sense of not being directed by a higher intelligence or teleological force). For to the best of our knowledge evolution, like all natural processes, is purposeless and unguided."

The short answer to these sentiments that theists often rush to is that they are nothing more or less than the opinions of individuals who do not know that evolution is purposeless and unguided.  Science, the argument goes, is not competent to judge such things.  In fact, by its very nature it is purposely blind to meta-physical realities.  When atheists assert the absence of God, they enter the realm of theology and make theological claims, and they can no more prove scientifically their anti-doctrines than we can prove our doctrines.

As far as it goes, our critique of their critique is correct.  As far as it goes.  But our atheistic friends raise a question that we should not dodge by jumping to our own counter-critique.  They are correct in observing that evolution is, as best we can tell, a random process that does not seem to be guided or to have purpose.  We should also pay attention to the danger of too easily imposing a theistic overlay onto natural processes, such as evolution.  Science is a valuable tool for obtaining knowledge, and we have to respect its integrity as such.

Still, theists approach such questions relying on another set of "data," which is not scientific but compelling.  For Christians, Jesus of Nazareth is the key data point, or perhaps it is better to say that the Incarnation is that key data point.  Religious experiences, which have a biological component and so are a part of the "real" world of science, comprises a second data point, one we Christians share with people of other faiths (and, apparently, some who claim no faith).  The almost mystical connection that we have with the natural world (and something we feel with particular clarity here in Lewis County) provides a third data point, perhaps linked to the second.  And, then, the ongoing process of creation is itself still another data point.  That a universe friendly to life on Earth even exists defies odds so incredible that on the face of it belief in an unguided and purposeless natural world seems more outlandish than belief that it the universe is in some way guided and built out of some purpose.  The speculation of some atheists that there is an infinite number of universes (so, of course, at least one must have life) only makes the whole thing even more incredible—an infinite reality that has no purpose?  The belief that evolution is purposeless and unguided is just a belief and one that has nothing to do with science as a set of disciplines devoted to study of the natural world.  Evolution, indeed, actually seems to be headed in a direction, one in which non-life leapt into life and non-intelligence became intelligence and, quite possibly, we are standing on the verge of another leap from biological intelligence to cyber-intelligence.  Over the course of evolution things are getting more complex.  To no end?  That could be, but given our other data points we Christians think that there is guided purpose to it all.  Evolution seems to have direction because it does have direction, within that direction there lies purpose, and Beyond that purpose there lies guidance.

But, what kind of purpose?  How is evolution "guided"?  We need to walk beyond some of our traditional thinking and answers because our non-theist friends are correct when they state that evolution does work randomly and does not appear to be guided.  They are correct that we can understand a great deal about the biology of evolution without recourse to metaphysical "speculations."  How can evolution be both guided and not, both purposeful and not?  Those are the questions we must face.  (Actually, we have long faced them in such questions as the relationship between divine sovereignty and human free will).

Thursday, November 15, 2012


A couple of years back, the blog Findings posted a brief article on the word "ideolatry" (here).  Now, neither dictionary.com nor wiktionary recognize"ideolatry" as a word (nor does this blog's spell check), so Finding's posting may be fanciful, but if so it still makes an important point.  In its analysis of "ideolatry" in relationship to idolatry and ideology, the posting concludes that ideolatry means that, "We give service to ideas, and they become our reasonable worship."  Ideolatry occurs when we turn an idea, doctrine, or ideology into something so sacrosanct that we virtually treat it as an object of veneration and worship.  If it isn't a "real" word, it should be.  Bibliolatry, one of the chief forms of Christian false worship, for example, is a close kin to and perhaps even a child of ideolatry.  We are seeing the full  power of ideolatry in the wake of the 2012 elections as so many of the losers twist in the winds of denial, unable to see their ideological idols for what they are.  (The political winners, of course, always stand in danger of transforming their own ideologies into idols and maybe some of them already are).

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Statistical State of the Nation

For a fascinating statistical portrait of American politics in November 2012, see CNN's exit polls data (here), gathered from 26,565 respondents.  The data not only describes who voted for whom but also the views of the respondents on a variety of current political topics.  For example, 26% of the respondents agreed that they are white born again Christians, 74% disagreed.  Some 21% agreed that they support the tea party movement while 30% disagreed.  The same data is available for each state.  In New York, thus, only 8% of the respondents agreed that they are white born again Christians, and only 16% agreed that they support the tea party while 39% disagreed.  The data reveals the relative balance between liberal, moderates, and conservatives, income distributions, and so forth through a truck load of categories.  It's worth a look.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Theology & American Politics Today - a postscript

In the previous two postings, I've argued that a powerful wing of the Republican Party today is mired in ideological idolatry, which necessarily blinds them to the realities of early 21st century American politics.  Idolatry in all of its forms is self-defeating.  Theologically, it stands under divine judgment, which is here understood to mean that its failure is planted in the very nature of who we are as human beings.  Gravity causes things to drop.  Idolatry causes people and movements to fail.  To the extent that the Republican Party remains trapped in an ultra-right ideology, to just that extent it will inevitably dwindle into irrelevance.  False gods always bite the hands that worship them.

Writing for CNN, commentator Will Marshall has just written an article entitled, "The GOP's real problem is ideology."  Marshall points out the unmistakable consequences of putting ideology before reality, which ended with the Republicans' failure to capitalize on an economic environment in which they "could not lose" and lost.  Rendered majestically tone deaf by their ideology, they went out of their way to alienate African Americans, Latinos, and many women.  Marshall concludes, "A conservative governing philosophy centered on exploiting white voters' sense of cultural dispossession is a formula for political marginalization, if not demographic suicide. Any honest post-mortem of the 2012 election should lead Republican strategists to this inescapable conclusion: It's the ideology, stupid."

If, however, we visit the right wing websites, we hear very little of this kind of reflection.  There, the commentary is more largely (but by no means entirely) marked by finger pointing, denial, animosity directed at President Obama, and a protective insistence that "conservative principles" were not at fault in Republican losses (see here for one example).  A lot of the blame is falling on Governor Romney.  The word "scapegoat" comes to mind.

In sum, the theological doctrines of judgment and idolatry are important analytical tools that provide important insights into the real world of American politics.  One wishes it was otherwise.  But it isn't.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Theology & American Politics Today (ii)

Picking up from the last posting, the focus of much of the political commentary since last Tuesday has been on the Republican Party.  How will it respond to its losses, which were serious and totally unexpected by party leaders, pundits, and faithful?  There is the hope that it will learn its lesson and shift back to the center at least enough so that it can advocate a less abrasive and radical conservatism.  There is the fear that it can't and that we will continue to be plagued by asymmetrical politics.  Stated theologically, there is the hope that the party will learn the lessons of idolatry and will move away from the hardline ideology in which is has been mired for some years now.  The statement, "This is not your grandparents' Republican Party," reflects the reality of how far to the hard right the party has fallen. The predominant portion worships uncritically at the feet of Conservatism.  The religious fundamentalism of the Evangelical Right gives this idolatry a religious fervor, one of the key marks of idolatry being the worship of a false idol.  The racial fear of people of color, the Other so potently symbolized by President Obama, is an idol in itself and powerfully contributes to the Idol of Conservatism worshipped by the dominant wing of today's Republican Party.

Much of the Republican Party appears to live in a bubble because it does live in a bubble.  Its faithful live in an alternative reality where their hard right version of conservatism fed by religious fundamentalism and white racism is god-like, and the god their religious wing preaches is a piece of their idolatry.  The Republican Party was not like this in the past.  The Democratic Party, for all of its obvious flaws, is not like this today, although the possibility that it could be is always with us.  Inside the bubble of right wing idolatry, the president is an anti-christ figure.  He is not the legitimate president.  He is a Muslim born in Kenya.  He is a socialist who doesn't understand how the "real" America works.  He is incompetent and lazy (meaning, of course, he is a person of color).  His followers are ignoramuses or only interested in living off the government "teat"—"they" just want "stuff" (meaning, of course, they too are people of color).  Thus, the 2012 election's results are mind-boggling to the idolatrous hardcore Right that is so powerful in the Republican Party.  Its faithful are fervently convinced that the real America of their forefathers is dying.

Idolatry is always insidious and always carries its own judgment.  The political ideology that infects a powerful wing of the Republican Party cannot be sustained in the long run.  As a form of idolatry, it is self-defeating and self-destructive.  The thing that is not comforting is that idols fall hard and in the process cause significant collateral damage.  What could happen is that the hard right wing of the Republican Party will refuse to budge politically or practice compromise, and the demographic realities of 21st century America will inexorably squeeze it into a smaller and smaller space until eventually it will become irrelevant.  But the process will take time.  Each election cycle the Republican Party as it is today will shrivel a little more.  As some have already observed, Virginia, Florida, Nevada, Colorado, and Ohio will become solid blue states.  The new swing states will be places like Texas, Arizona, and Georgia.  The electoral college math suggests that it will become harder and harder for a Republican to win the presidency.  The Congress will eventually become lopsided with Democrats.  And the real debate in American politics will be between liberal and conservative blue dog Democrats with a rump Republican Party sometimes allying itself with the blue dogs.

Or, perhaps, the Republican Party can shake the party loose from its idolatry, and we can return to true, fruitful two party politics.  This could well happen.  Certainly, right now there is a sense that the Republicans could loosen up their doctrine of "new no taxes" and could accept some kind of meaningful immigration reform measure.  Some powerful Republicans, at least, heard the message that the public is tired of all the fighting and wants a Washington that works effectively and cooperatively.  This second scenario is preferable, but given where the party is today not certain.  Idols fall hard.  Their faithful will not, cannot live outside the bubble.  They cannot compromise their principles.  They honestly believe that their  political opponents are inherently evil.  And the realities of 21st century America will eventually bring their god crashing down, but it will take time and there will be a good deal of damage done to the very fabric of our nation.

The matter hangs in the balance.  Idols are powerful, and a wing of the Republican Party will not learn the lessons of defeat.  They will continue to live inside the bubble, and their intransigence threatens the whole party with decline and eventual irrelevance on the national scene.  There is another wing, however, that can live outside of the bubble and learn the hard lessons of last Tuesday.  The key is compromise and humility.  Real-world politics requires compromise and a pinch of humility.  If the Republican Party can shake itself free of doctrinaire politics ("no new taxes" politics), it can reverse the otherwise inevitable demographic decline that threatens it today—if.  But, we should never forget that idols fall hard.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Theology & American Politics Today (i)

As the pundits and politicians assess the aftermath of last Tuesday's elections, the pieces of analysis that they will miss are theological.  They wouldn't be interested or impressed even if they had an inkling that such an analysis exists.  Still,  it is worth our time here to engage in a little theological reflection and prognostication regarding our nation's current situation and future prospects.

In doing so, a couple of theological principles are relevant.  The first is divine judgment.  From the perspective of evolutionary theology, God's judgment is built into the very fabric of what it means to be human.  One might even liken it, spiritually, to gravity.  It is what it is and cannot be challenged let alone abrogated.  Divine judgment dictates that actions have consequences that reflect the action itself.  Thus good actions breed good consequences and evil actions are their own "reward."  At the micro level, this law is very messy and involves a lot of "collateral damage" because others suffer for the wrongs we do, just as others benefit from the good we do.  The second theological principle at work is idolatry, which is closely allied with divine judgment.  Idolatry is the worship of anything that is not worthy of worship.  In our day and age, false ideologies are one of the most common forms of idolatry.  Idolatry is powerful, insidious, and ultimately destructive of the idolater, but again with "collateral damage" as others are adversely affected by the passion and failed actions of those engaged in false worship.  Addictions can be considered forms of idolatry, the false worship of pleasure.

 Judgement and idolatry are two key doctrines of the Christian faith.  They are also important tools for the analysis of the current state of American politics and the nation.  Let me save the hows, whys, and therefores for a second posting, probably tomorrow.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Nate Frustrates the Pundits

"I think I get a lot of grief because I frustrate narratives that are told by pundits and journalists that don't have a lot of grounding in objective reality,"

Nate Silver, Pollster of Polls
In an Interview with Charlie Rose (here),  October 30, 2012

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Politics of Dialogue

"Political Dialogue"
Anderzej Dudzinski
In the wake of Tuesday's election, the initial signs of what's coming next in Washington are mixed and uncertain.  The raise a couple of important questions.  Will the liberals headed to or headed back to D.C. learn a modicum of moderation and not over-interpret their "mandate," which doesn't seem to be a mandate to be liberal fundamentalists?  Will esp. the tea party radicals learn the true art of politics, namely compromise for the sake of the common good?  There are some sound bites coming out of House Republicans that suggest that "seeking common ground" is now possible.  There are others that seem to be saying, "We won, too, which means our mandate to resist compromise in all forms has been reaffirmed by our constituents."

In religious circles, there is n important spiritual discipline called "dialogue."  Dialogue is an exercise in listening before speaking that seeks deeper understanding of the dialogue partner's faith.  It is a spiritual exercise in peacemaking.  Dialogue requires humility and respect.  It also requires a critical mind and heart, which listen critically to one's own words as well the words of the partner.  Dialogue is the true opposite of debate.  Dialogue is thus not a search for common ground per se.  It is only a search for deeper understanding that balances self-interest with other-interest where debate is a clash of two opposing self-interests.  In debate, one listens to discover the weaknesses of one's opponent.  In dialogue, one listens to discover oneself in the spirituality of another.  In dialogue, we are always the student first and maybe a modest teacher later—maybe.  Dialogue is not give and take; it is give and receive.

That being said, the crucial question for the Congress of the United States from this day forward is whether or not it can discover a politics of dialogue.  Can it, at least, move slightly in that direction?  Can esp. the tea party fundamentalists discover the essential dialogical truths of politics that the common good trumps ideological purity and that compromise is a good thing when practiced with integrity and a concern for that common good?  Those are dialogical values.  They are also good politics.  Good politics requires some degree of humility and a modicum of willingness to listen, really seriously listen to the way one's political opponent loves America and wants to serve the nation.  Modest liberals, moderates, and conservatives come equipped with dialogical attitudes—or, at least, there is a decent chance they come so equipped.  Fundamentalists of all stripes do not.  In the Congress today, the scale is tipped heavily toward right-wing fundamentalists who worship at the feet of ideological purity.  In their purity, they show open disdain for the practice of good politics and and their opponents.  The gridlock in Washington will be broken only to the extent that these fundamentalists learn at least a little of the spiritual discipline of dialogue.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Not Anymore

It’s not a traditional America anymore.

Bill O’Reilly, quoted by Politico (here)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

In Defense of the "Third World"

Long voting lines in Columbus, OH.  The commentary (here) says,
"I expect to see long lines like this in third-world countries..."
Voting in the state of Florida is a mess.  Long lines, waits of upwards of 8 or 9 hours.  Polling places that suddenly lock the doors and then just as suddenly reopen them.  Charges of voter suppression.  Threats of intimidation by "poll watchers.  It's a mess.  But, I object when commentators and even voters complain with comments such as a Florida voter made when she said (here), “This is America, not a third-world country. They should have been ready." I object to comments like that of a former governor of New Jersey who said (here) on national television yesterday, "I’ve led delegations around the world to watch voting and this is the kind of thing you expect in a third-world country, not in the United States of America."

For one thing the whole concept of "Third World" simply doesn't apply any more.  This is not the 1950s.  Ours is no longer a bipolar planet living under the daily threat of nuclear holocaust.   In those days, we sat here in North America and easily divided the world into "Developed," Communist, and "Under- Developed" clusters of nations.  It was a conceited and self-congratulatory world view then.  Now, the world is simply not like that any more.  For another thing, "third world" countries in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific are perfectly able to run national elections without the mess we see in Florida and one or two other states.  On more than one occasion, I went with my wife to watch as she voted in national elections in the community of Ban Dok Daeng, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand.  It was exactly and precisely like voting in Lowville, New York, USA.  Yes, there is the buying and selling of votes in Thailand.  Yes, that is a scandal.  But, my point is that on election day, the people of this used-to-be "third world" nation run perfectly decent elections.

In fact, well they might complain when things don't go so well one day in the future, "This is Thailand, not some American state."  Or, one of their retired politicians might claim, "I've seen how they vote in the United States of America, and this is what you would expect of some American state, not Thailand."  The point is, when we mess up the way we are in Florida and elsewhere, it would be wise to do without unnecessary comparisons to others who a large percentage of the time enough aren't even guilty of messing things up the way we are.  To bend a famous quotation a little, "I have seen the third world, and it are us."

On a happier note, we should take comfort in the efforts being made in New Jersey and New York to see that folks adversely impacted by Superstorm Sandy have the opportunity to vote.  Indeed, we should be proud of those who stand in line for hours on end to vote.  Good for them!  And it is worth remembering that tens and tens of millions of Americans will vote today without hassle or delay and their votes will be properly counted without question.  It will be just like Ban Dok Daeng.  Amen.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Our Possible Impact

The majority of us lead quiet, unheralded lives as we pass through this world. There will most likely be no ticker-tape parades for us, no monuments created in our honor. But that does not lessen our possible impact, for there are scores of people waiting for someone just like us to come along; people who will appreciate our compassion, our unique talents. Someone who will live a happier life merely because we took the time to share what we had to give. Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have a potential to turn a life around. It's overwhelming to consider the continuous opportunities there are to make our love felt.

Leo Buscaglia

Saturday, November 3, 2012

How Our System Actually Works

Source: Wikimedia
We're a federal government; we're not a national government.  Disasters are local.  Through state constitutions, the governors are the primary incident commanders for the entire state response in support of that.  And the role of the federal government is to support the states when the disaster exceeds their capabilities.  And when it's this bad, we work as one team. But we are in support of the governors, as they are in support of the local officials.  It's a federal system of government.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, quoted (here)
In response to the idea that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should be abolished & its tasks "returned" to the states

Friday, November 2, 2012

Evolution & Dr. Luke

When Dr. Luke wrote the Book of the Acts, neither he nor anyone else had an inkling of the advances in the biological sciences that we are making today.  Darwin lay far, far in the future.  Luke's world view was what anybody's would be in the first century.  One cannot prooftext anything he wrote to prove that evolution "fits" with the Bible.  For the sake of the integrity of scripture, we have to be very clear on this point.  The Book of the Acts was not written to prove our 21st century understanding of the universe.

Still, it is interesting to note that Luke's description of God in Acts 17:22-28 can be read quite comfortably from an evolutionary perspective (a "Darwinian" perspective, if you like).  That description begins with an affirmation that God is creator of heaven and earth, that is the universe and all that is in it, including Planet Earth.  God the Creator is the source of life.  Verse 26 avows that, "From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live." (NRSV)  It is not even a stretch to read into this statement that God did these things by means of biological evolution, creating in us the potential to inhabit the planet and the potential for human cultural as well as genetic diversity—so that some adapt themselves to the extremes of the frozen North while others find habitation in tropical jungles.  These verses also affirm the ultimate goal of humanity as being the search for God.  The trajectory of evolution has taken us from non-being to being, non-life to life, non-intelligence to intelligence, and it is not hard to believe that each evolutionary leap is taking us in the direction of the divine.  We are created to reach out for God.  It is also not difficult to think of God as the Beyond One that is also intimately Present in the vast flow of evolution, particularly human evolution. It makes perfect sense to say, then, as verse 28 does, "For 'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we too are his offspring.'"  Amen.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

$3 Worth of God

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please. 

 Wilbur Rees
Source: Leadership, Vol. 4, No. 1