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

Sunday, May 25, 2014

No Way Out But Democracy

Ongoing events in Thailand point to one incontrovertible fact concerning modern societies around the world: the best way, often the only way, to achieve a measure of social peace and justice in any given nation is through a democratic political process.  This is proving to be true in the nations of northern Africa and western Asia, however painful the process itself is.  In the United States, the influence of tea party movement is apparently receding because it is losing its power at the ballot box.  However one might view the tea party's agenda, it has been important in getting past its influence to give that movement all of the voice it could muster in the public arena.  Whenever a military takeover silences popular voices, it only postpones the democratic resolution of political divisions; winners at the ballot box must be allowed to rule, so long as the rights of the losers to keep talking and keep trying to turn things in their direction is protected.

It has become commonplace to quote Winston Churchill's famous observation in 1947 that,"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."  The fact that his epigram is commonplace, however, does not make it wrong.  Democracy is a sloppy way to do things.  It is always open to manipulation and corruption.  The return of big-money politics in the U.S. is but one example of how apparently fragile the process can be at times.  Even so, it remains the one way we have to ensure long-term political and social stability however chaotic it can seem at times.  Whether it was Abraham Lincoln or someone else who first voiced the thought, it does remain true that politicians can fool us all some times and fool some of us all the time, but they are hard-pressed to fool all of us all the time.

Each time the military intervenes in Thailand, the nation is denied the chance to work out its differences in the only way that will ultimately resolve them—open public debate leading to free and fair democratic elections.  Here is one more epigram: you can't win if you aren't willing to lose.  As in all competitive sports, so in politics losing is in fact an important part of winning.  Losing is a teacher.  It is a test.  It is a foundation, usually indispensable, to eventually coming out on top.  Until the yellow shirts in Thailand learn this lesson, they cannot win however often they are able to frustrate the will of the majority.  Winning by forcing the other team off the playing field is not winning.  Amen.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Meanings of Biblical Authority

In a Religious News Service (NRS) posting entitled, "Conservative United Methodists say split over sexuality is ‘irreconcilable’," the author makes passing reference to the fact that one of the issues being debated between among Methodists is "the authority of Scripture."  The fundamental issue, of course, is the place of the LGBT community in the denomination, but the nature and message of the Bible is certainly intimately involved.  That is not incorrect, but we need to be precise in the nature of the debate.  Mainline progressives will generally acknowledge that the Bible is authoritative, but they also will insist that the issue is that the Bible can be read in a variety of ways from a variety of perspectives.

Thus, for progressives the fact that a wing of the church reads certain passages in the Bible as supporting the idea that homosexuality in all of its forms is a sin does not bind us to read them in that same way.  Read in historical context, they are open to interpretation, and we choose not to interpret them in a way that contradicts the God in Christ revealed otherwise in scripture.  The point is that the one side generally holds that there is only one way to interpret the Bible while the other believes that the Bible is open to a variety of interpretations.  It is for both, however, authoritative.  As seems to be almost invariably the case, both sides in this sad, sad debate can utter the same words while meaning very different things by them.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Historically Reliable?

As reported in the Washington Post (here) and elsewhere online, Mr. Steve Green has developed a high school course for the study of the Bible, which will be tested next school year at a high school in Oklahoma.  In an editorial entitled, "Is the Hobby Lobby Bible elective objective?" commentator Stephen Prothero raises two objections to the curriculum.  First, he argues, it betrays a Christian bias; it is not secular and objective.  Second, in various, subtle ways the authors uncritically promote the idea that the Bible provides reliable historical data.  He particularly points to a summary box in the text that reads, “We can conclude that the Bible, especially when viewed alongside other historical information, is a reliable historical source.”

Understanding the point Prothero is making, still one can argue that the assertion in the summary box is a correct one if properly understood.  The condition that the Bible is a reliable historical source when viewed along other historical information is crucial depending on how we understand the meaning of "other historical information."  If it includes the mountains of research and commentary devoted to the Bible by reputable biblical scholars then I would have to agree that the Bible, read critically, is indeed a reliable historical sources.  This does not mean that every event asserted in its text happened as described in its pages.  It does mean that the text of the Bible opens important doors for our understanding of the past.  It beautifully describes an ancient cosmology.  It hints at the emergence of monotheism from polytheism.  It describes among other things political developments in Western Asia over many centuries.  It provides insights into the person of Jesus and of Paul as well as data useful for understanding the emergence of the Jesus Movement in the first century AD (or CE, take your pick).

One has to read the text critically, consult other sources, and immerse oneself in the relevant scholarly literature.  And one has to be circumspect in claiming what information is available through careful readings of the text.  Still, given these conditions, the Bible is a reliable historical source—recognizing that some biblical texts are more reliable than others.

Before I returned to pastoral ministry, I devoted 16 years to the study of church history in Thailand.  I have spent a good deal of time with Protestant missionary sources.  There are scholars who refuse to use those sources for the study of Thai history generally "because they are biased."  My response is, "Yes, of course, they are biased.  But they also contain a wealth of information on subjects other than Protestantism in Thailand if one read them critically and knowledgeably."  The bias is generally clear, indeed so obviously apparent that it is not that difficult to sift it out just as if one were panning for gold.

By the same token the biblical texts are important sources for the study of the ancient world.  Yes, the authors of the curriculum mean something different by the phrase "reliable historical source," but they are still right that it is reliable—even if for the wrong reason.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Bliss Point & Worship

As far back as the post-World War II years, food researchers have experimented with what is now called the "bliss point." Stated simply, the bliss point is that point where a consumer is most happy with a product.  In the food industry, it is the point at which a particular food item is most desirable in terms of taste—assuming cost is not an issue.  For an insightful, fascinating, if trouble article on the concept of the bliss point and its relationship to junk food, see the New York Times article by Michael Moss entitled, "The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food."

The consequence of mountains of data accumulated in the study of the bliss point of a wide variety of foods is that the food industry has learned how much salt, sugar, and fat in combination with each other to inject into foods to make them attractive to consumers.  Look no further for a primary cause of the obesity epidemic sweeping the nation.  We're human.  We like salt, sugar, and fat.  So we eat foods that optimize these ingredients, the key word being "optimize".  Too much of them in a given food is as undesirable as too little.

I suspect that we could very easily apply the concept of the bliss point (which turns out to be a range rather an a single point) to Christian worship.  A key pillar of the megachurch movement is the lively, upbeat tempo of megachurch worship, which often is conducted by virtually professional musicians, choreographers, and planners.  People are less and less willing to go to worship just because it is worship.  They seek stimulation.  They want a certain level of entertainment, although we never use the word with worship.  They want a return on their investment in time and effort.  Most churchgoers these days consume worship, and if that truly is the case then the concept of a liturgical bliss point is one worth considering.

On the one hand, apply the concept of a bliss point to worship sounds theologically crude, wrong somehow.  Worship should not be about entertainment.  Seeking to discover its "bliss point" feels sacrilegious, irreverent, or whatever other word we might apply.  On the other hand, if we are going to reach audiences in a consumer oriented capitalist culture we had better consider what it is that attracts them.  The answer in the food industry is, "Bliss attracts them."  What then about worship?  Is bliss also what worshippers are seeking on a Sunday morning?  It seems very likely that the answer is, "Yes."

Thursday, May 8, 2014

More Opportunities, More Distractions

It has become commonplace to observe that life today, even in a small town like Lowville, NY, is different in various ways from the way it was even two or three decades ago.  It is faster paced, more connected to the "outside" world, and brimming with opportunities and distractions.  We are constantly on the move, and the direction of society at large seems to be toward multitasking, a society where being engaged, engaged, and engaged is what is most highly valued.  One can almost feel the internal pressures that come as a part of modern living.

All of this is having a major negative impact on the place that people allow faith to have in their lives.  Faith, at heart, is about slowing down, listening, and to an extent disengaging.  It offers and invites us to live in a different reality from that of our hurry up, engaged, multi-tasking, do, do, do world.  We sit hunched over life, but faith calls on us to loosen up and to even get up and gently walk away for a bit from the hurry and get-it-done lifestyle we live.

Our interconnected world offers us more opportunities to discover such things as meditation, but we are so distracted by "reality" that we feel we don't take the time for those things.  More opportunities, but less time.  The paradox in it all is that giving a bit of our lives over to the things of faith actually does not rob us of time but allows us to live a little less frenetically, which means that we have more quality time not less.

The challenge we face in the early 21st century, then, is to "take time to be holy."  That challenge is an age-old one, but today it is filled with greater opportunities than ever yet frustrated by more distractions than ever.  We live, in sum, in a tense and distracted age, which age keeps us from embracing the spiritual opportunities more available to us than ever.