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, January 30, 2013

Rushing On - But Where Are We Going?

Teleportation as imagined on "Star Trek"
Anyone who pays attention is aware that science is rushing forward with new discoveries leading to new applications on a variety of fronts.  A recent article on ABC Science, entitled, "Making teleportation 'fuel-efficient'," is but another witness to that fact.  Apparently, teleportation—"the transfer of matter from one point to another without traversing the physical space between them" (Wikipedia)—is not just a theoretical possibility.  It is also a technological possibility, meaning that scientists are now convinced that we can devise ways to transfer matter from one point to another without moving it through the space between those two points.  If I understand the article correctly, this is now theoretically possible at the quantum level, and that fact has important technological applications toward the construction of  "quantum computers."  Quantum computers are the next step in computing, one that will allow computations many magnitudes greater than today's computers can perform.  Apparently, most of the applications of quantum computing haven't even been discovered yet.  That is, we're headed somewhere, but we don't know where that where is or where we will be when we get "there," wherever "there" is.

We really, really need to think about these things in church—even in worship—and not in the luddite fashion of resistance and fear.  We dare not hide behind our theologies because science and its technologies are rapidly leaving our ancient truths in the dust.  Or, better, seem to be doing so.  Religious faith at its best, perceives a deeper plane or a more central aspect to life, which is not physical yet has physical manifestations.  That deeper plane is the world of the spirit and the Spirit.  Spirit is a life-giving, animating, inspired "presence" in that which has life.  The Spirit is the life-giving, animating, inspired "Presence" that impels cosmic evolution forward.  The Spirit has gifted us with love, faith, kindness, compassion, insight and wisdom, patience, and even self-control.  These are not tangible, physical properties, but they are real realities that we sense and experience with an almost physical clarity.

But is science and its technologies taking us in the direction of spirit and the Spirit—or not?  If not, should it?  What is the ultimate purpose of science and its technologies?  Will science one day achieve a breakthrough to that deeper plane, one that brings it into the presence of spirit and the Spirit?  Or is it a hinderance to the human quest for deeper meaning and wisdom?  These are among the most pressing theological questions of our day.  We need to reflect on them more deeply in local worshipping communities—in worship as well as in local study groups.  Ultimately, the right uses of science, the spiritual uses of science will depend on our collective spiritual will to seek the Spirit.  I'm not suggesting that science become somehow more religious but that it become more spiritual.  It is our calling as people of faith to encourage it in that direction.  Amen.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Wrestling with Scripture

If the Bible is a collection of human documents infused with the possibility of the Spirit but still speaking out of the human condition, it can seldom be taken at face value.  We have to discern the Word in the words.  Take, for example, II Corinthians 6:14 to 7:1, which reads in the Good News (a.k.a. Today's English Version) translation:
14 Do not try to work together as equals with unbelievers, for it cannot be done. How can right and wrong be partners? How can light and darkness live together? 15 How can Christ and the Devil agree? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 How can God's temple come to terms with pagan idols? For we are the temple of the living God! As God himself has said,

“I will make my home with my people
and live among them;
I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.”
17 And so the Lord says,
“You must leave them
and separate yourselves from them.
Have nothing to do with what is unclean,
and I will accept you.
18 I will be your father,
and you shall be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.”

7:1 All these promises are made to us, my dear friends. So then, let us purify ourselves from everything that makes body or soul unclean, and let us be completely holy by living in awe of God.
The passage advocates a radical dualism, an absolute separation of the sheep from the goats.  The Message translation (here) avoids using the words "unbeliever" and "believer," but translates "unbelievers" in verse 14 as "those who reject God" and 15 as those who "mistrust". That is, the passage enjoins those who accept and trust God (i.e. have faith) to separate themselves radically from those who reject and mistrust God (i.e. have no faith).

This may have been good advice to new Christians in the second century.  It is not good advice to mainline Christians in the 21st century.  Our spiritual struggle is, at least in important part, with dualism, absolutism, prejudice, and ideologies of exclusion.  Our calling is to love our neighbors of other faiths, persuasions, cultures, orientations, ethnicities, and beliefs as best we can—to build bridges rather than walls.  This passage seems to demand that we tear down the bridges and reinforce the walls.  What to do?

First, we would do well to acknowledge that the Spirit speaks through scripture to each generation in the language of that generation.  Separation may well have been as much good news to early generations of Christians as it is bad news for us today.  Second, however, we should consider how this passage speaks to us today.  It is a warning that there are ways of thinking and behaving that are incompatible with faith and that there are people who think and behave in those incompatible ways.  That is true enough.  But, should we refuse to work with them and separate ourselves from them?  It depends on who "they" are and what we mean by "separation".

Suppose we seek to understand this passage in a non-dualistic, pluralistic way.  "They," then, become those who behave unjustly, oppressively, and with prejudice against others.  "They," may well be taken as those who fail to display the fruits of the Spirit described in Galatians 5:22-23.  speaking honestly, we are all complicit in that failure.  "They," we must finally admit are us (thank you Pogo).  It is fair to say that we are being called by the Spirit in our age to separate ourselves from behaviors rather than people, attitudes rather than neighbors, and ideologies of separation rather than people who think differently.  Verse 7:1, then, makes a whole lot of sense for our time.  Acknowledging that we cannot be pure, we are still being called by the Spirit to purify ourselves as best we can of such things as dualism, absolutism, prejudice, and dogmas of separation—among other things such as fear and hatred.  This is a life long calling and task.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

If Only

Because of what Christ has done for everyone, we are careful not to assume that people are nothing more than what our eyes and ears tell us about them. In the past we made that mistake with Christ, but we now know a lot more of him than our eyes or ears alone could detect. Whenever anyone unites themselves to Christ, something new is created. What that person was becomes a thing of the past; they get a whole new start in life! This is all God’s doing! God wants to be at peace with us, and so sent Christ to bring about reconciliation. Now God is sending us to continue this same work of reconciliation. To put it another way, what God was doing in and through Christ, was rebuilding the trust and love that are supposed to flow in both directions between the world and God. To achieve that, God agreed not to hold against us anything we had done in the past. This, then, is the extraordinary message of reconciliation which we are now given the job of sharing. We are a bit like a negotiation team who is authorised to issue the appeal on God’s behalf. We represent Christ in the world, and so on his behalf we beg you to hear this message and accept the generous peace deal that God is offering. The way of reconciliation is on the table before you: you’d be mad to turn your backs on it! Even though Christ had never been sucked into sin like us, God lumped him in with us, so as to make it possible to lump us in with him. United with him, we can become examples of all that God considers to be right and true.
II Corinthians 5:16-21 (Laughing Bird Paraphrase)

These verses are one of those places in the New Testament that articulate what Christian faith is about with particular clarity.  It reminds us that faith in Christ teaches us to see things in a new way.  That faith opens a hidden depth in life for us.  It is creative, and the thing faith creates is us.  It is about reconciliation and peacemaking, about love and trust.  Faith connects the dots between the One Who Is Beyond, the Spirit That Is Present, and us.  It inspires us to share those connections with our neighbors.  Amen.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Party of Christian America

The trend is deeply troubling and bodes ill for the future of the republic.  In Republican controlled states, we see a trend that attempts to effectively limit voting by minorities, gerrymander districts to maximize the vote of non-minorities, and now to manipulate the electoral vote to reduce the chances a Democrat can be elected by the new Democratic coalition of minorities and women.  All of this is being done quite openly and with one goal in mind: preserve, protect, and expand the power of the right wing of the Republican Party in the face of a fundamental demographic shift taking place in the U.S.

Within roughly 30 years, give or take, the U.S. will be a "majority minority" nation where "people of color" along with Hispanic Americans will comprise the majority of the nation.  The 2012 election has already demonstrated the growing political clout of the emerging minority majority, and it will only grow.  The U.S. Census Bureau observes (here) that, "The U.S. is projected to become a majority-minority nation for the first time in 2043. While the non-Hispanic white population will remain the largest single group, no group will make up a majority." It states that, "All in all, minorities, now 37 percent of the U.S. population, are projected to comprise 57 percent of the population in 2060. (Minorities consist of all but the single-race, non-Hispanic white population.) The total minority population would more than double, from 116.2 million to 241.3 million over the period."  White Americans will lose their status as the majority race in America but remain the largest single minority.  We will also be much less of a Christian nation than now.

In a nation where race still matters, this is scary stuff for a powerful segment of white society.  In effect, that fear has taken over the Republican Party, defining those who do not share in it as RINOs.  We could well rename this new, radical party of the right the "Christian America Party," although not all of its adherents are religious.

It seems inevitable that we are headed for a rocky ride over the next few decades as we collectively navigate the rapids of demographic change in a nation where demographic change matters.  It is to be hoped that our democratic institutions and sensibilities will weather the storms of this change and that we will find our way beyond the Christian America Party's desperate grab for permanent power.

As things stand now, it may succeed in stealing elections, but in the long run it is sealing its own fate.  Generations of Latinos, Asian Americans, and other ethnic-racial minorities will continue to learn what the overwhelming majority of black voters learned two generations ago, namely to vote Democratic as a matter of heritage and habit.  Unless CAP is able to totally corrupt our democratic system, the majority will win out, and the Democratic Party will come to dominant our political landscape in a way neither party does today.  This is not something that any of us should desire.  We desperately need a vigorous but reasonable conservative voice in American politics.  CAP is not that voice.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Learning to Listen With the Heart

Learning to listen with the heart moves us from the role of observers and enables us to become participants with the Creator in a world full of grace and possibility. 

Elizabeth Canham 
Source: Heart Whispers 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Will They Listen?

Gen. Powell
"I think the Republican Party right now is having an identity problem. And I’m still a Republican. I’m a Republican who grew up along with George Bush XLI. I grew up with Ronald Reagan, Cap Weinberger, Frank Carlucci, that Republican Party, the Republican Party of Dick Lugar and John Tower. But in recent years, there’s been a significant shift to the right and we have seen what that shift has produced, two losing presidential campaigns. I think what the Republican Party needs to do now is take a very hard look at itself and understand that the country has changed. The country is changing demographically. And if the Republican Party does not change along with that demographic, they’re going to be in trouble. And so, when we see that in one more generation, the minorities of America, African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans will be the majority of the country, you can’t go around saying we don’t want to have a solid immigration policy. We’re going to dismiss the 47 percent. We are going to make it hard for these minorities to vote as they did in the last election. What did that produce? The court struck most of that down and most importantly, it caused people to turn out and stand in line because these Republicans were trying to keep us from voting. There’s also a dark-- a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the Party. What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is they still sort of look down on minorities. How can I evidence that? When I see a former governor say that the president is shuckin’ and jivin’, that’s a racial era slave term. When I see another former governor after the president’s first debate where he didn’t do very well, says that the president was lazy. He didn’t say he was slow, he was tired, he didn’t do well, he said he was lazy. Now, it may not mean anything to most Americans but to those of us who are African-Americans, the second word is shiftless and then there’s a third word that goes along with it.  Birther, the whole Birther Movement. Why do senior Republican leaders tolerate this kind of discussion within the Party? I think the Party has to take a look at itself. It has to take a look at its responsibilities for health care. It has to take a look at immigration. It has to take a look at those less fortunate than us. The Party has gathered unto itself a reputation that it is the party of the rich. It is the party of lower taxes. But there are a lot of people who are lower down the food chain, the economic chain, who are also paying lots of taxes relative to their income and they need help. We need more education work being done in this country. We need a solid immigration policy. We have to look at climate change. There are a lot of things that the American people are expecting and the Republican Party, as they get ready for the next election, really has to focus on some of these issues and not ignore them. Everybody wants to talk about who’s going to be the candidate. You better think first about what’s the party they’re actually going to represent. If it’s just going to represent the far right-wing of the political spectrum, I think the Party is in difficulty. I’m a moderate but I’m still a Republican, that’s how I was raised. And until I voted for Mister Obama twice, I had voted for seven straight Republican presidents."

General Colin Powell, former Secretary of State
January 13, 2013

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Shadow of Slavery

Yesterday, January 21, 2013, President Obama delivered his second inaugural address to a crowd estimated at roughly one million souls.  Only time will tell whether or not it will become one of the better remembered inaugural addresses, but whether it stands the test of time or not it is a well-thought out testimony to enduring themes in our nation's life.  It is an articulate meditation on liberal values and a deft summary of the President's vision for the country and of his agenda for his second term.  It is worthy of our reflection and response—worthy of some quiet time reading and meditating.

Different ears will hear different things in the speech.  For me three words leapt from the text: equality, dignity, and change.  I could not but feel that the institution of chattel slavery cast its long, sad shadow across the speech and the day.  We are not shut of slavery nor of the racism that sustained it for more than two hundred brutal, bloody years.  The struggle for civil rights and economic justice suffuse nearly every paragraph of the President's speech, and undergirding them are three things that freedom-starved slaves longed for: equality, dignity, and change.  Racists of every generation including our own resist these same values, or rather reserve them for "their kind" and "their people."  The loathing that Mr. Obama has had to suffer through is a measure of the lingering voice of the slave holders who still, still, still cannot abide the freedom granted their former slaves by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  The echoes of Dr. King in his address is the lingering voice of the descendants of slaves who themselves were still not free.  In the last fifty years, we have come a long way, but the President is correct.  No achievement is final, no victory is forever, and our journey is not complete so long as people of color, women, and gays have not achieved full equality and dignity.  Until that day, we must continue to seek change.

Most of us have been intensely disappointed by the politics practiced on Capitol Hill and in many of our state capitals since the election of President Obama in 2008.  It is painful to watch one of our two major parties, a pillar of our democracy, taken hostage by absolutist ideologues.  It has been sad to witness the President's honest attempts to enter into dialogue and cooperation slapped away in a manner that dripped with disdain and disrespect.  Birtherism is a stain on our national conscience, a reminder that equality and dignity are still being contested in our time.  We really do need to change.

That being said, it is also remarkable that we re-elected a "person of color" to a second term of office in spite of the obstacles thrown in his way by those who calculated that they could bring him down by practicing the "politics of 'no'."  It is remarkable that a descendant of slaves stood before us yesterday and called on us to continue the journey.  Slavery still casts its long shadow across our nation, but it is a shadow.  And, as I think about it, perhaps in our generation we are more blessed than harmed by that shadow because it has forced us to see that equality is something that we must grant not just to light-skinned straight men.  Mr. Obama began his address by recalling the Declaration of Independence's bold proclamation that, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."  They are also the unalienable rights of women, gays, Muslim Americans, and immigrants from Latin America.  They are also the rights of children who suffer abuse and families that struggle to make ends meet.  Equality.  Dignity.  Change.

Perhaps, just perhaps, lurking within the shadow of slavery is the Spirit working, working, working for the Kingdom.  Our faith encourages us to believe it is so.  Amen.


Monday, January 21, 2013

Remembering Stan Musial

There was a time when the St. Louis Cardinals were located the furthest west of any major league baseball team and many young boys in places like Omaha were almost naturally Cardinals fans.  And even those who weren't Cardinals fans were fans of Stan Musial.  Among my prized boyhood possessions was a signed picture of Musial.  Those were simpler times, I guess, when our heroes came equipped less often with clay feet.  It was also a time when baseball was everything, and Stan Musial was one of the best there was—in his personal life as well as in his accomplishments on the field.  The news that Stan died on January 19th "of natural causes" at the age of 92 thus brings back memories of the boys we were and a baseball era that in retrospect seems golden.  They are good memories.

One wonders what kinds of memories our grandchildren are storing up these days.  They multitask on their electronic devices, and maybe the world is a better place.  It is hard to tell.  We had to climb under our desks in practice air raids, a singularly futile exercise in the face of the threat of atomic devastation.  Now, schools run drills on what to do if a gunman invades the building.  Then, there were all the social ills we have today, but they were better hidden and less discussed—things like child abuse, rape, and crime.  Then we had McCarthyism (not that we boys ever noticed) and now there's the tea party.  And while it is a truism to complain that then baseball was a game and now it is "just" a business and stands under the shadow of the NFL, there is some truth to the truism.  Those were the days when kids were thin, and we spent our hours outdoors.  Obesity wasn't a word we ever heard of.  But, it is a mixed bag, and in some ways the world is better today than it was then.  The one major difference, I think, is that global warming, the greatest danger facing us all, was another thing no one ever heard of or worried about.  It was before Rachael Carson wrote Silent Spring (1962) and changed our perception of the world around us forever.

Who knows if the world of our grandchildren is better than ours was.  It is certainly different.  Still, it was not such a bad thing, growing up in the "Age of Musial."  As I say, his death brings back a flood of memories.  Good ones.  Amen.

Hail to the Chief - Sung

An article on the CNN website entitled, "Why 'Hail to the Chief' remains unsung," notes that the tune "Hail to the Chief" actually has lyrics although they are rarely sung.  Working on the principle that we can find almost anything on Youtube, I went and looked—and sure enough, there is a sung version of "Hail to the Chief."  In honor of President Obama's second inauguration, here it is.  Enjoy.



The Lyrics are:

Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all.
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfillment of a great, noble call.
Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,
This you will do, that's our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!

God bless the USA!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Chaos, Idolatry, & Sports

Armstrong confessing to Oprah Winfrey
Source: CNN
Disgraced professional cyclist, Lance Armstrong, is everywhere in the media right now.  His story is a classic rags to riches to disgrace story of a sports icon tarnished beyond recognition.  Not since Tiger Wood's fall from grace has the media had this much fun, clucking and wagging their collective heads—"for shame, for shame."  There are a couple of theological points, at least, to be made of it all.  They have to do with idolatry and chaos.

Chaos is the theological condition of anti-creation or un-creation.  It is that state where God's creative power is absent.  In our lives chaos manifests itself by "sin," but that old-fashioned word is so loaded with baggage that it is hard to use it seriously or even correctly.  Anyone trapped in addiction is living, to one degree or another, in chaos.  Lance Armstrong has been living in chaos, which in his case is composed of cheating, lying, bullying, and self-denial.  He admits as much himself (here).  His disgrace, the media attention, and the skepticism that has widely greeted his confession of sin are all integral elements of the chaotic storm blowing through his life.  The fallout, which has adversely affected so many lives and continues to do so is one of the surest effects of a life trapped in chaos.  There is almost always "collateral damage."

This is where the theological concept of idolatry comes in.  It is a concept that seems especially applicable to the world of sports.  Past Rom Phra Khun postings include reflections on the self-destroying worship of sports success by a South African swimmer, Cameron van der Burgh,who cheated his way to an Olympic gold medal (here) and the awful, hurtful events at Penn State (here).  Idolatry is intimately related to chaos.  It is a face of chaos, a consequence of chaos, and an immensely destructive (un-creative) cause of chaos. Idolatry is that state when we invest worship and trust in anything mundane before and above God.  In sports, success is the god of choice, the prefered spiritual poison of athletes who devote long hours of training often at serious personal sacrifice to be successful—the love of winning, of accolades, and sometimes of financial gain.  When one is willing to do almost anything to be successful, winning has become god.  And chaos ensues.

In our media-driven world, event the media is sucked into the chaos.  Its purveyors become endlessly fixated with failure stories, "rewarding" the disgraced athlete of the moment with still more of its attention and with momentary fame.  We like failure stories, obviously, and that too is part of the chaos that swirls around our stubborn inclination to worship those things that are not worthy of worship.  At the end of the day, we are not constructed to put our faith in mundane things but in The One That Is Beyond And Present—that is Creator, Savior, & Spirit.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Wonders on the Web

" Red-Throated Loon , Common Loon, Arctic Loon, 1906-1909,"
Louis Agassiz Fuertes
Our kids and grandkids have at their fingertips a wealth of knowledge beyond anything we could have imagined at their age (assuming we were born before or around 1980).  At the tender ages of three & four, they lay belly down on the floor or the couch kicking their legs at one end and punching "buttons" on an iPad at the other end, exploring the marvelous world of the Web.

They have access, for example, to the world of wildlife sounds contained in the audio and visual collection of the Macauley Library, Cornell University, which goes back to 1929.  The original focus of the collection was on bird sounds and behavior, but it now contains a much larger range of North American wildlife.  If you have five or ten minutes, it is fun to explore the sounds, photographs, and video clips contained in the archive.  Listen, for example, to the "state bird" of the North Country, the loon, (here).

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Do Not Be Like Children

Do not be like children in your thinking, my friends; be children so far as evil is concerned, but be grown up in your thinking.


Apostle Paul
I Corinthians 14:20 (TEV)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Impossible to Believe

In flipping through the channels one evening this past week, I landed briefly on a TV show about the Universe that included a sequence that alternated between shots of a beach and of the stars.  The commentator made the point that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all of the beaches of Earth.  It has become a commonplace truism that we cannot imagine the greatness of the Universe nor can we really comprehend out utter smallness in it.

That being said, it is impossible to believe that Earth is the only planet on which life lives.  It is impossible to believe that we are the only intelligent species in all of that Great Expanse.  So great is the size of the Universe that we may never meet another intelligent species, but it wouldn't be wise to be on it.  And it is impossible to believe that the God of traditional thinking is real or could be the creator of the Universe.  The God of the Bible is inevitably too tiny because "he" is only as large as the imagination of ancient peoples who lived in a tiny, tiny Earth-centered little bitty universe hardly larger than Earth itself.  The Creator God of the Bible is a God of immense but imaginable power while the Creator God of the Universe necessarily stands outside of time, space, and all imagining.

A crucial task of theology today is to catch up with our modern knowledge of the reality of the Universe.  Astronomy and quantum physics are key sources of revelation about the nature of God the Beyond.  Biology, meanwhile, provides insights into the evolutionary ways of God the Beyond that bring us back to the Presence of God in our teeny tiny little lives.  In light of all of this, we have to recalibrate our understanding of the person of Christ and the meaning of Incarnation.  What exciting times we live in!  and scary.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Conservative Dilemmas

In a thoughtful, critical piece, entitled, "Creating a Conservative Counterculture: Harder Than It Sounds," Alex Wainer not only laments the "fact" that liberals dominate American popular culture but also observes that conservatives are going to find it very difficult to take back culture, evidently because they lack the creative passion of liberals and they are too blatantly political in expressing their creativity.  Wainter writes, "Maybe conservatives, instead of trying to score political points, might try aiming higher, creating real art that touches people in their souls."  The article concludes with this advice to American conservatives, "So tell your stories, lots of them, in various media, but tell them because you love stories that express what you believe is true and real."

As I read this piece, I felt mixed emotions welling up in my liberal-ish heart of hearts.  On the one hand, it was good to read an article from the Right devoid of demonizing the Left (and, yes, we demonize the Right, too) and to gain a little bit of insight into the soul searching of one American conservative.  The failure to defeat President Obama last November has evidently had a profound effect on many thinking conservatives, which can only be seen as a good thing.

However, I was also painfully aware of two fundamental dilemmas facing American conservatives.  The first has to do with the reality of 21st century society and culture.  Ever accelerating change is built into the very fabric of society today, put there by science and technology.  The very definition of being conservative is resistance to change, especially rapid change, and the doubt that change is a good thing.  An article by Russell Kirk, cited by Wainer, elucidating, "Ten Conservative Principles,"makes it clear that the core of the conservative approach to life is to limit and restrain change.  That's a problem in a world where change keeps coming faster and faster and still faster.  We stand on the verge of still greater changes in the next few decades, and there doesn't appear to be any force on Earth to halt our plunge onward.

The second dilemma facing conservatives is that they are anti-homosexual.  They stand on the wrong side of the moral divide between justice and injustice.  In the past, conservatives have upheld slavery, institutional racism, the marginalization of women, and most recently have done all "they" can to thwart the full and fair social inclusion of those who do not share their sexual orientation.  This is not true, of course, of all conservatives.  There are, after all, Log Cabin Republicans.  Yet, as seen in Wainer's own article, there is a link between conservatism and the suppression of homosexuals—a link that is unjust.  It is also rapidly falling into disfavor, as conservatives themselves painfully realize  (see the Christian Post article, "Survey: Fewer Americans Believe Homosexuality Is a Sin; Nation's View 'Evolving' With Obama's?").

The second dilemma is the one most easily addressed.  There is nothing that says that a conservative philosophy has to be anti-homosexual.  Truth is, many good conservative folks are not (or are less so), often because someone they love  does not share their sexual orientation.  The first dilemma is the harder issue.  The great majority of Americans of all political persuasions embrace the scientific and technological changes inundating our modern world.  We live in a world dominated by the reality of change, and we know that the pace of change is accelerating exponentially.  What does it mean to be a "conservative" in an age when rapid, systemic change waits on no one?


Saturday, January 12, 2013

When the word is not the Word

I Corinthians 11:2-16 is one of the passages some churches and denominations cite to justify discrimination against women.  It reads,
2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. 3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. 4 Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. 7 For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. 8 Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God. [NRSV for three other translations see (here)]
 Most of us find this passage "uncomfortable," to say the least.  We also find it difficult to accept the premise that it is the Word of God because it is so at odds with the example of Christ generally and the way he related to women in particular.  So what do we do with it?  It doesn't seem wise to just ignore it, because that cedes this portion of scripture to those who will use it to unjust ends.  It also doesn't seem wise to dismiss it out of hand, because then we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to discern the relationship between the words of scripture and the Word of God, Christ.

What Paul wanted his readers to understand was what he took to be the proper relationship of men and women as symbolized by what they should or should not wear on their heads.  Men have power over women and, therefore, men should not cover their heads and women should.  It is important to note the sources of his argument.  First, it was clearly his own personal opinion.  Second, it was evidently one of the traditions Paul handed on to the Corinthian church (11:2).  Third, his views on gender relations were to him self-evident, and Paul called on his readers to observe that fact for themselves (11:13).  Finally, he argued that his views on the relationships of men and women were natural (11:14).  Paul does not cite scripture (the Old Testament) nor does he claim that he received these teachings "from the Lord," something he does claim for his views on the Lord's Supper (I Cor. 11:23ff).  In sum, Paul's views on gender relations were to him personal, traditional, self-evident, and common sense.

The passage does contain a theological principle, which seems quite at odds with the rest of what he wrote.  He wrote, "Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God." (11:11-12)  When speaking theologically, Paul emphasized not the differences between the sexes but their unity.  He emphasized their equality, each dependent on the other, rather than the authority of men over women.  He noted that they both come from God.  This is where we discern the Word contained in the words.  We can hardly blame Paul for his first century attitudes and prejudices, and we shouldn't be surprised or disturbed by the fact that they show up in his correspondence.  At the same time, we are not constrained by his cultural conditioning.  Our culture is discovering a very different set of attitudes and practices, ones that are closer to the person of Christ, who is for us the Word.

The Bible is authoritative in matters of faith for most Christians, but it does not trump Christ.  He is the Word in the words. This is why we must read the Bible critically—to discern the Word in the words.  Amen.

(For an earlier stab at some of these same ideas, see "Answering Dr. Mohler").

Friday, January 11, 2013

Dialogue, Listening, & Politics Revisited

"Political Dialogue"
Anderzej Dudzinski
Immediately after the election back in November, I argued the thesis (here) that in order for our politics to improve politicians need to learn the art of dialogue.  I defined dialogue as an exercise in listening before speaking in order to understand the partner.  It is based on humility and mutual respect, and its goal is the making of peace. The question I posed for Congress was whether or not "it can discover a politics of dialogue."

Now, I understand that this sounds na├»ve given the reality of early 21st century American politics, especially on Capitol Hill, but I don't think it is.  John Ward has recently written an article entitled, "Republican Party Path Back From 2012 Election Requires Shift In Culture, Not Just Tactics," which puts forward the thesis that the reason the Obama team proved so effective in the last election was because it cultivated the art of listening.  He contrasts this approach to politics with the Romney campaign, which talked at the public without any attempt to listen to it.  Ward concludes, "In the end, the Obama crew wedded astute listening to a magnificent ground game built on technology and data, completely outclassing the Romney campaign by increasing turnout, particularly among minorities and youth, in key swing states."

In other words, the Obama folks practiced the politics of dialogue.  They listened before they spoke.  The cynical come back, of course, is that they listened only so they could be more persuasive in their presentations.  That, undoubtedly, is true.  On the other hand, those who cultivate listening skills cannot go unaffected by what they hear.  Listening, if it really is listening, is an other-oriented skill that will not leave the practitioner unchanged.  Or, to put that more positively, those who practice listening will be changed by what they hear, and what they say will be affected by what they hear.  That is dialogue, or at least the beginnings of dialogue.

The point to be made here is that dialogue is a spiritual discipline.  When we practice dialogue rather than debate or discuss issues, we bring ourselves just a little closer to being what God is creating us to be.  From a strictly Christian theological perspective, it may be said that dialogue is a Spirit-infested exercise in peacemaking.  It is inspired human listening and speaking—even when practiced for political gain.  There is such a thing as good politics, and dialogical listening is the foundation on which that politics rests.  Amen.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Best Diets

The U.S. News & World Report publishes an annual rating of diet plans.  This year's lists of the best overall diets and the best in several categories is (here).  Also, interested readers should take note of the accompanying article entitled, "Why We're So Fat: What's Behind the Latest Obesity Rates."  It is a good one.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

England & Wales Down Again

According to a recent news posting from the Presbyterian News Service (here), the number of self-professed Christians has dropped in England and Wales dropped between 2001 and 2011 by over four million individuals.  At the same time, the number of people who consider themselves to be atheists rose by over eight million.  Britain's 2011 national census shows that there are 33 million Christians and 14.1 million atheists in England and Wales.

A wealth of data suggests that we are headed in the same general direction, if more slowly.  At the same time, news out of Britain indicates that there are clear bright spots in the midst of the gloom of decline.  Anglican Cathedral churches, as I noted last year (here), are growing in numbers and vitality.  The Fresh Expressions movement, again especially among Anglican churches, seeks to respond to decline with new ways of "doing church" and is doing so with some success.  In any event, what is happening in England and Wales is what is happening across much of Europe.  The old-time European concept of Christendom by which the church and the nation were intimately intertwined has become a thing of the past.  Churches have to find their own way in a world that is more disinterested in than hostile to its "quaint" lingering presence.  The challenge, of course, is to become un-quaint.  In truth, that is our challenge here in the U.S. as well.

What this means, however, is not that the church become more relevant.  It means that the Christian faith needs to be seen as a viable life-option in a secular age.  It is discovering Christ again and sharing that discovery, not saving the church, that is the key to the future.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Reading Scripture Faithfully

I Corinthians 6:9-11 reads in the NRSV, "[9] Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, [10] thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. [11] And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God."  Today's English Version (TEV) translates "sodomites" as "homosexual perverts."  In his recent translation of the New Testament, The Kingdom New Testament (2011), N.T. Wright translates "sodomites" as "practicing homosexuals of whichever sort."

The Message paraphrase, however, removes homosexuality from the equation entirely by translating the heart of the passage as meaning, "Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom."  In doing so, it does a very important thing by virtually removing homosexuality, which is a particular sexual orientation, from a list of otherwise clearly criminal and/or immoral behaviors.  Homosexual "behaviors," when practiced under the same code of behavior expected of heterosexual people, does no harm to others, and it is the only item on Paul's list of sins of which that is true—assuming we understand "idolaters" as being people who worship false gods (such as wealth, fame) that are hurtful to themselves and others.  In a just and loving world, "sodomites" do not belong on this list—nor to be named with that offensive name.

Scripture is authoritative for the majority of those of us who call ourselves "Christians," but that does not mean that it is absolutely authoritative.  It is a human book—inspired but still human.  It is best treated as we treat all beneficial human authority, with a good measure of respect but also critically because we know that any authority can be abused.  The authority of Scripture is regularly and sadly abused by those who use it to force their own agendas and prejudices on the rest of us.  It is for this reason that The Message is in this case the most faithful reading of Paul's words—faithful, that is, to the model of Christ and the core teachings of scripture, which can be found as clearly stated as any one place in the Bible in Galatians 5:22-23.

In the NRSV, Galatians 5:22-23 reads, "By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things."  I would humbly urge that in this light, there is no law against homosexuality any more or less than there is against heterosexuality.  Amen.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Forgetting the Past

We can forget the past, but the past, most assuredly, will not forget us.

Eric Foner,
Who Owns History? (New York: Hill & Wang, 2002), 108.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Wisdom, Folly, & Science

There is in some parts of the church today a war on modern learning in any form that does not fit a narrow, hard right worldview.  Those engaged in this battle often cite a number of biblical passages to justify their battle. There is, for example, Paul's statement in I Corinthians 3:18-19: "Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, 'He catches the wise in their craftiness.'" (NRSV)  On the face of it and reading these two verses out of context, it seems to be reasonable to argue that any form of modern learning, particularly science, is but human foolishness.

Read in context, a very different picture emerges.  In I Corinthians 3, Paul addressed the factionalism that had emerged in the Christian community in Corinth.  He was deeply concerned about the Corinthians because they were fighting over which teacher was most authoritative, Paul,  Apollos, Peter, or even Jesus (see I Cor. 1:11-12).  The wisdom of the world that Paul repeatedly attacked in I Corinthians was this desire to cling to a human teacher.  It was behaving the way the larger world behaves by allowing factions to creep into the life of the church.  It was vesting ultimate authority in fallible human leaders.  Paul wrote, "So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God." (3:21-23)

The human"wisdom" that concerned Paul was what we might call common sense, the everyday values by which we live almost unconsciously.  In his day, it only made sense to the Corinthian Christians to choose one authoritative teacher so they could know what to believe and how to behave.  His point was that in Christ they already had the wisdom they required, which wisdom came from God and not one of their teachers—including Paul himself (see 4:8-13).  In other words, in our life of faith we should not put our ultimate trust in any teacher or prophet, and we should not allow ourselves to fight over them.  In God's eyes, not one of them is wise.  It is folly to become angry and arrogant over the teachings of one teacher versus another.  That is the way the world behaves.  What Paul really expected of the Corinthians was that they would not politicize their life of faith together as we humans are so prone to do.  They had Christ.  What more could they need?

My point isthat those who would use I Corinthians 3:18-19 and other comparable biblical passages to attack modern learning because it does not support their narrow interpretations of the Bible actually engage in precisely the behaviors Paul criticized in I Corinthians.  It is their right to reject science, but verses such as these give them no biblical warrant to do so.  And when they seek to divide churches and politicize denominations because of their adherence to a particular ideological line they do what Paul cautions us not to do.  They make their beliefs ultimate in place of Christ.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Paul & Jesus

The foundations of Western civilization, from our assumptions about reality to our societal and personal ethics, rest upon the heavenly visions and apparitions of a single man -- the apostle Paul. We are all cultural heirs of Paul.  In contrast, Jesus as a historical figure -- that is, a Jewish Messiah of his own time who sought to see the kingdom of God established on earth -- has been largely lost to our culture.

James D. Tabor,

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Listening to Atheists

If it is true now, it will only be more the case in the future that people of religious faith are going to have to find ways to speak kindly and intelligently, indeed faithfully, with people of non-religious faiths.  They are already our children and grandchildren, and they will be an important voice in the future.  I'm not speaking here about the militant, fundamentalist so called "new atheists," who are as objectionable as religious fundamentalists—indeed, in a weird way are religious fundamentalists.  There are many, many others who do not practice religion who are who are willing to "live and let live" and even see the value of religious faith, just as many, many Christians see the value in the non-theistic religious faith of Buddhists.  It is time that we begin to think about how we relate and dialogue with folks of non-religious faiths, individuals who share many of our values and are committed to living a moral life that often includes a desire to serve others.

To this end, I would call readers' attention to a posting by Chris Stedman, Assistant Humanist Chaplain, at Harvard University, entitled, "In Wake of Newtown Shooting, Why Blame Atheists?"  Stedman objects to the right-wing Christian literalists and fundamentalists who blame "godless atheism" for the Newtown tragedy and calls for a deeper understanding between people of differing faiths, religious and non-religious.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Just Maybe

Tubby Smith, U of M Mens Basketball Coach

I thought, patient readers, that I would let last weekend go without any Minnesota sports comments, but the opportunities for joy remain few enough that I just can't do so.  It all started last Thursday with a bittersweet loss by the Gophers' football team to Texas Tech, 34-31, in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.  Bitter, because the Gophers could just as well have won that game but let it get away from them; sweet because they played toe-to-toe with a team widely expected to beat them easily.  On Saturday, the Vikings defeated their rival-of-rivals, the Packers in a game that almost no one thought they would win and, thereby, got themselves into the NFL playoffs.  In the complicated math of the NFL, the Vikings victory also prevented the Chicago Bears, almost the rival-of-all-rivals, from making it into the playoffs—sweet.

The icing on the cake was the Gophers' mens basketball team.  On Sunday and playing at home, the 9th ranked Gophers defeated Michigan State 76-63 in a game that they could just as easily have lost and in year's past would have lost.  AP reporter,  Jon Krawcynski, in an article entitled, "NO. 9 MINNESOTA TOPS NO. 18 MICHIGAN ST 76-63," concludes, "Maybe this is a different team after all."  That is, maybe this Gophers' team will compete at a high level for an entire season and this March find its way deep into the NCAA playoffs.  Maybe.

No theology today.  Just the warm after glow of a nice New Year's gift from the gods of sports.  Happy New Year!  Herb

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Lest We Forget

National attention has shifted back to the ongoing antics on Capitol Hill, the realities of our inability to regulate guns in a sensible way (as we regulate motor vehicles) are becoming clear again, and the Sandy Hook tragedy is already last year's news.  As horrified as we were, life has returned to normal.  Yet, for the people of Newtown, CT, life really will never be normal again—or, rather, the "new normal" will for decades to come be lived in the shadows of December 14th, 2012.

While those of us who aren't from Newtown can never grasp most of what that means, we can at least get some sense of it from the contents of the website of the Newtown Bee.  On this New Year's Day morning, it contains articles on the almost overwhelming support the rest of the nation has shown for the community—and articles on fraudulent schemes to take advantage of the town's suffering.  There are sad items on the availability of counseling services for those who need them.  There are painful articles on the negative psychological and even economic impact the physical presence of the media has had on the community.  Unfortunately, the Bee doesn't date its articles, so it is hard to tell how things are evolving there, but even so it presents a telling chronicle not only of what has happened but also of the "new normal" that will be Newtwon, CT, for years to come.  The Danbury News Times supplements the contents of of Newtown's paper, and for this morning stories from the tragedy also dominate its website.  The lead story is entitled, "12-14-12: The day Newtown will never forget."

It is to be hoped that the rest of us won't forget either.  Amen.

Prayer for America

Come on people! God has told us what is good.
  We know what the LORD wants from us:
  To make sure everybody gets a fair go;
  To be passionate about caring for others;
  And to stay on track with God without getting full of ourselves.

Micah 6:8