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

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Paradoxical Meeting of Wisdom and Power

In an earlier posting, entitled "The Element of Surprise," I observed how the birth stories in the Gospel of Matthew begins in chapter one with a series of surprises including, for example, Mary's surprising pregnancy and Joseph's surprising willingness to stick with her in the face of the inevitable scandal.  By the opening of chapter two (verses 1-6), surprise has morphed into paradox.  These verses introduce, of course, the story of the wise men of Sunday school pageant fame.

What the pageants miss is the deeper drama of the wisdom of the East seeking the royal power of the Jews and finding that power in an infant, one born to an otherwise inconsequential couple who were not even legally married.  Wisdom found the king, but the king was a kid.  Now, there was no question that this infant was indeed the messiah, the savior king of the Jews.  The star confirmed it.  His residence in Bethlehem just as "it has been written by the prophet" also confirmed it.  And in wisdom's discovery of power in an infant lies the central theological paradox and insight of the Christian faith, which is that God does not come to us in a Solomon, a figure of obvious power and supposed wisdom, but in a child of no particular significance otherwise.

Now, in a formal theological sense, we already know all of this, but there is always a tendency among Christians to forget the scandal and the paradox involved.  We have traditionally tended to prefer the "birth narrative" of John 1:1-18, which clothes Jesus, the Word (often seen as a veiled reference to Sophia, wisdom), in the majesty of creation.  And the story of wisdom seeking power in an infant has been consigned to a more sentimental, Christmas-y purpose, one that carefully never reads on as far is the massacre of the children in Matthew 2:16-18.  The paradox of the baby messiah, however, looms over the whole of the Gospel of Matthew, and in that paradox we see the shadow of the cross and the promise of resurrection.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Small & the Large of It All

In a recent interview translated into English and published under the title, "A Big Heart Open to God," Pope Francis I reflected on what it means for a Jesuit priest to become the Bishop of Rome.  Asked how his Jesuit background helps him as pope, Pope Francis replied,
Discernment...discernment is one of the things that worked inside St. Ignatius. For him it is an instrument of struggle in order to know the Lord and follow him more closely. I was always struck by a saying that describes the vision of Ignatius: non coerceri a maximo, sed contineri a minimo divinum est (“not to be limited by the greatest and yet to be contained in the tiniest—this is the divine”). I thought a lot about this phrase in connection with the issue of different roles in the government of the church, about becoming the superior of somebody else: it is important not to be restricted by a larger space, and it is important to be able to stay in restricted spaces. This virtue of the large and small is magnanimity. Thanks to magnanimity, we can always look at the horizon from the position where we are. That means being able to do the little things of every day with a big heart open to God and to others. That means being able to appreciate the small things inside large horizons, those of the kingdom of God.
 Our tendency is to think of God in terms of largeness, as that which exceeds the boundaries of the universe and of reality as we understand it.  God's power, knowledge, and presence are thus virtually limitless.  Pope Francis' reflections remind us that there is another dimension to God, what we might almost call the quantum side of the divine.  God is small as well as large, close as well as distant, within as well as Beyond.

God resides in a touch, a song, and a flower.  God also resides in a spat, a disagreement, and an off day when nothing seems to go like it should.  And somehow the largeness of God and God's smallness, God's distance and intimacy, are both Present in the touch, the song, the flower, and the depressing moments of life.  Somehow.  The large is swallowed up in the small and the small magnified by the large.  Discernment of the way in which God resides in the small and large opens us to the possibility of becoming magnanimous, that is to live on a deeper spiritual plane beyond meanness, pettiness, and anxiety.  It means seeing God's closeness in such a way as to be drawn closer to God.  It does not mean gaining control of the divine or seeing "the true nature" of the divine.  It means being drawn in a direction beyond being in control and understanding.  What is small is magnified and made sacred.  What is large and inherently sacred is personalized and remerges in the world of the mundane, and we are "able to appreciate the small things inside large horizons, those of the kingdom of God."

Saturday, September 21, 2013

FDR's Long Shadow

In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the American people to the welfare state as he sought to bring the nation out of the Great Depression.  The counter-intuitive economic principle was that we solve depressions at the national level by spending more not less.  The counter-intuitive social principle was that poverty is not a personal moral issue but, rather, a national moral issue.  The poor, as a class, are not poor because they are lazy (laziness being a quality we find in people of all classes).  The poor are poor because of a lack of opportunity and freedom.  FDR built his New Deal out of forces already at work in American society, but it was he who wove them into the welfare state.

The obvious thing is that large swatches of the American public still cannot or will not think counter-intuitively concerning economics and social classes.  They still believe that in hard economic times the nation must behave "rationally," that is pull in its belt just as any sane family would.  And they still believe that the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor.  Even among the poor, many simply do not accept the fundamental premises on which the welfare state is built.  It does not help matters that the welfare state is also a bureaucratic state and has inevitably introduced new forces of greed, injustice, waste, and just plain stupidity into our lives.  The thing is even in  its bureaucratic guise, it has also managed (until recently) to lift millions of people out of poverty and give them new lives and hope.  It has also employed many of those who have lived in poverty, thereby becoming a direct means of providing jobs for lower income folks.  Bureaucracy, like most things human, cuts both ways.  So does welfare.

Republicans and Democrats represent two sides to the ongoing debate over the welfare state and the bureaucratic state.  Both believe in the fundamental, central American value of personal freedom.  In a manner that is itself counter-intuitive each rightly presses its own "agenda" forward.  One seeks to maintain and even expand the welfare state so that all may be free.  The other seeks to limit and even reduce the welfare state so that all may be free.

The Tea Party introduces a note of discord.  It wants to kill the welfare state.  It has transformed "common sense" (cut spending in hard times & the poor deserve their poverty) into hard and fast ideology.  Tea Partiers want to end the debate and take us back to the golden summer of 1929.  However it all plays out, it is impossible to believe that we will go back.  FDR's shadow is too long.  So long as we remain a democracy, we will keep working at the task of balancing personal freedoms with social justice.  We will keep working on (as Democrats) and wrestling with (as Republicans) the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society.  Only when we cease to be a democracy will that fundamental debate of American society come to an end.

To the extent that the Tea Party seeks to bring the Great American Debate to an end, it is an anti-democratic force for repression.  That is not surprising.  As we listen to its voices what we hear is anger, fear, and a profound ignorance of how society actually works.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Living Consciously (Has Its Price)

The inward/outward quotation for today is taken, under the heading "Living Consciously," from Howard Thurman (The Inward Journey).  It says, "The hunger deepens and becomes more and more insistent for ridding ourselves of the tremendous burden of pretensions. We long for relationships in which it is no longer needful for us to pretend anything. The clue to the answer is in the awakening within us of the sense of living our lives consciously in God’s presence."  As is the wont with aphorisms, it contains wisdom and captures a truth.

Without denying that truth, we should also acknowledge that we carry the burden of our pretensions because they are often a source of personal safety as well as burdensome.  It is extremely difficult to face up to our own inadequacies, and there are times in life when they can all but overwhelm us.  One has to go about reducing one's pretensions wisely and gently.  It also has to be acknowledged that there are people with whom it is difficult to live honestly.  Honesty invites still more abuse of one sort or another.  To live without pretensions not only requires gentle wisdom, but it also demands of us courage.

This is not to say that Thurman is wrong.  He isn't.  It is to say that in the real world living "consciously in God's presence" is not a bed of roses.  Indeed, for the vast majority of us it is a goal, a challenge, a hope, and a dream that will never be fully realized.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

AOG & The Spirit

In the midst of the general statistical decline of much of the Christian church in the United States, the Assemblies of God (AoG) stands out as a notable exception.  Its statistics for 2012 (here) show continued solid growth across the board, a fact that has been widely noted in the religious press as well as in the media generally (see here).  The obvious question is, "Why?"  A number of answers are offered in the various news articles including such things as a flexibility when it comes to adapting to local culture, remaining true to its core conservative values, skillful use of social media and modern communication technologies, a focus on minorities and acceptance of women's leadership at all levels of the church, and other factors that may contribute to growth but don't really explain it.

In that light, the observations of one knowledgable commentator, Steve Strang, in a posting entitled, "Pentecostal Fire Still Driving Assemblies of God Growth" are helpful.  He writes, "The baptism of the Holy Spirit and the belief that the power of the Spirit is for today caused the Assemblies of God to start in 1914—only eight years after the Pentecostal revival broke out at Azusa Street in Los Angeles. From talking to leaders, experiencing the services and my firsthand knowledge, I believe this Pentecostal fire is still important and fueling the growth."  Strang elaborates, "Sure, there are many problems with the Assemblies, including how to cope with worldliness that inevitably creeps into the church as well as a drift toward liberalism, modernism, complacency and denominational bureaucratic lethargy. But there is still a desire and a fervor for that Pentecostal power and a desire to reach the world that seems to embody what is happening in the Assemblies of God in 2013."  I added the emphasis.

Mainline congregations can and do grow.  The churches of other evangelical denominations can and do grow.  The difference is that the AoG continues to sustain its growth across the denomination, internationally as well as nationally.  Out here in the mainline world, we have to acknowledge the Pentecostal connection to the Spirit continues to have a life-changing, trends-defying power.  The heart of the matter is not doctrinal nor is it driven by trendy strategies.  At the heart of the matter lies the Spirit.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Weighing In On Syria

There really are times when the collective voices of our news media do our nation less service than we deserve—or, perhaps, speak too much for us rather than to us.  Over the last few weeks, we have watched President Obama wrestle with the painfully difficult issues surrounding the civil war in Syria and the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.  He is faced with a chess board on which the pieces are in constant motion, the rules uncertain, and some pieces hidden from view.  The media (and many politicians always on the lookout for political advantage) want bold decisive decisions today and immediate solutions immediately implemented.  They blame the uncertainty and chaos on the president.  They see him as weak and vacillating.

In response, the president has refused to make a decision that is not ready to be made.  He has involved the whole nation in the decision-making process.  He has eschewed cowboy diplomacy and action for the sake of action.  He has been wise enough to wait on events even while there has been a clamor for hasty, white horse & shining armor action.  His "performance" has perhaps not always been as spot-on as it could be, but in the midst of all of the angst  some wiser voices are pointing out that the president is accomplishing important things.  He has dialed back, at least slightly, the presidential tendency to make these hard decisions for us rather than with us.  He has created space for the unexpected, which actually may lead to a resolution of the chemical weapons issue without American military action.  He has been listening to public opinion with respect even though he disagrees with it.

We may may not see things the way President Obama does, and the course of events may not work out as he (or we) want; but he deserves our respect.  He is a man of peace who feels constrained to act against his instincts for peace but is unwilling to stray far from those instincts.  Those who demand that he give back his Nobel Peace Prize are simply not paying balanced attention.  He deserves it now more than ever.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Element of Surprise

It's a funny thing about the Bible and local congregations.  Much of it is totally opaque to the average church goer, and this includes passages that are so familiar that worshippers more or less "shut down" while they are being read or preached upon.  The Christmas stories ("birth narratives" in scholar-speak) are just such passages.  This includes Matthew 1:18-25, which is the story of how Joseph decided to stick with Mary even though she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit.  It's a familiar story, which after countless Advent re-readings is just not listened to by the congregation.

It is ironic, then, that this unsurprising, familiar passage is actually filled with surprises.  For ancient audiences, that may well have been one of the key components of the story.  As the story goes, Mary was mysteriously pregnant (surprise!), and Joseph decided to handle this unhappy surprise judiciously.  But, then an angel shows up in a dream (surprise!) and tells him to go ahead and marry Mary.  The angel also reveals something of the nature of the child.  So, Joseph's marital plans change again and he ends up being married (surprise!) when he thought that he'd lost his prospective bride to an unwanted premarital pregnancy.  Surprise, surprise, and surprise.  Interestingly, the theme of surprise is carried on in the next story in Matthew (Matthew 2:1-12) when the three gentlemen "from the east" appeared suddenly in Jerusalem seeking the newly born Messiah (surprise!).  It is clear that King Herod and the people of Jerusalem were hugely surprised by their appearance and inquiries.

One point we can take away from the prominent role of surprise in the opening chapters of Matthew is that faith and spirituality are not really about certainty and getting control of one's life.  In the Spirit, there is always an element of the unexpected.  Matthew's readers, thus, are warned that if they buy into the Jesus Movement they can expect the unexpected to happen to them.  They can expect to be surprised by the Spirit.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

On Defining Religion

In a recent opinion piece entitled, "The spiritual scientist," Dr. Paul Willis states that the purpose of religion is to explain what is otherwise unexplained. He states, "This basic level of spirituality is also the basis of science except that science does not invoke unseen entities when it tries to explain the universe that we hold in awe. Science is a unique method of exploring our spiritual lust for an understanding of how the world works." Science is "fundamentally different in its operations and constructs, but it does share a common seed bed of spiritual wonder."

Allowing Dr. Willis his views on religion, I would still argue that there are other less restrictive and monochromatic ways of looking at the phenomenon of religion.  To begin with, the very concept itself means many things to many different people who are adherents of a large array of particular religions.  For some, the heart of religion is found in meditation and concepts of non-self.  For others, the heart of religion is in a moral code.  For still others, it is a personal relationship with the divine.  And for still others, the heart of their religious experience is embedded in a community of co-religionists.  In all of this variety, religion has differing functions and purposes.  To say, as Dr. Willis does that the purpose of all religion is, "explanations of the unexplained," without any modifications of the statement denies the reality of religion as a richly textured, multi-faceted human phenomenon lived and practiced by billions of people.  There is much more to religion than explaining things that are otherwise unexplained.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Faith Ask

When faith no longer frees people to ask hard questions, it becomes inhuman and dangerous.  Unquestioning faith soon slips into ideology, superstition, fanaticism, self-indulgence, and idolatry.  Faith seeks understanding passionately and relentlessly, or it languishes and eventually dies.

Daniel  L. Migliore
Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (2nd ed., 2004)
Page 6

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Summer Reading (iii)

Nathaniel Philbrick's, Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U. S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 (Penguin Books, 2003) tells the story of the United States Exploring Expedition or Ex.Ex., which sent a small American naval fleet into the Pacific to discover and chart the islands and shores of that ocean.  More than anything else, however, the book is about the leadership of the expedition's commander, Lt. Charles Wilkes, and the reaction of his officers and men to his leadership.  The book itself is a good read, well-written and well-researched.  History buffs will enjoy it.

Philbrick's account of the Ex. Ex. does give one pause to reflect on effective leadership styles.  Under Wilkes' leadership the expedition achieved a remarkable number of accomplishments under the most difficult of situations.  Wilkes' men, on the other hand, despised him.  He was a martinet who seemed to take delight in humiliating subordinates.  He chose favorites, always less competent men.  He was rash and absolutely insensitive to the feelings of others.  He made enemies that he didn't need to make, and he was by all accounts his own worst enemy.  It seems that the main reason that the Ex. Ex. is an obscure event in history even though it was a greater and more epic achievement than the Lewis & Clark Expedition was the antipathy Wilkes' naval and political superiors had for him.  Philbrick makes the point, however, that Wilkes' leadership was effective during the voyage of discovery and in the years after the voyage when Wilkes published its findings.  His stubborn determination to succeed and gain glory brought him a measure of the success, if not the glory.  He made bad decisions, but he still achieved his goals in spite of them.  He bludgeoned his way to those goals.  There was, of course, a high price for this style of leadership, which both he and his men had to pay.

Effective church leaders cannot exercise Wilkes' style of leadership, at least not for long.  One can hardly call it a Christ-like model, which is our fundamental benchmark in the church.  Still, Sea of Glory is a reminder that pastors and other church leaders are called to exercise effective leadership, which is something different from comfortable or "nice" leadership.  Discipline remains an issue in church life however much we tend to ignore it today.  Christ himself was not the nice guy leader popularly imagined in the pews.  Effectiveness in the church sometimes requires directness and even some bluntness, but of course a church leader has to be especially discerning and wise in exercising that kind of leadership.  Wilkes tended to confuse his own needs, wants, and fears with the larger goals of his expedition, a "luxury" we do not have in the church.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

What Say?

The Huffington Post has a posting entitled, "The Most Efficient Health Care Systems in the World," which makes the point that of 46 nations surveyed the United States ranked 45th in "life expectancy (weighted 60%), relative per capita cost of health care (30%); and absolute per capita cost of health care (10%)."  The posting cites a Bloomberg table (here) as its source, and what is particularly noteworthy to me as a former resident of Thailand is that Thailand is ranked 22nd among the nations surveyed in the effectiveness of its health care system.  Thailand ranks 1st in terms of the absolute cost of health care per person ($202/person compared to $8,608/person in the U.S.) and third in health-care cost as a percentage of GDP per capita (3.7% of GDP compared to 17.2% for the U.S., by far the highest percentage of the countries surveyed).

Thailand is a great place to live, but it is not noted for governmental efficiency.  It has a national government that many here would consider to be the very essence of "big government."  Corruption remains a serious problem.  Still, in the past the Thai government has taken steps to see that all of its citizens receive affordable health care, perhaps not always of top quality but still available.  Those efforts have apparently paid off, and it should give Americans pause.  Our health care system is incredibly expensive and hard to access for lower income folks, which facts have negative repercussions for all of us.  If Thailand and numerous other countries around the world can figure this out, why can't we?