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

Saturday, December 20, 2014

God's Ways

Sometimes we do dumb things, sometimes they are done to us.  Sometimes we are insenitive, sometimes we are collatoral damage of insensitivity.  Things are said that should not be said or left unsaid when they should be said.  Some things we get over in a day or two, others linger interminably.  Things happen to us that can leave deep scars, and we do things that can leave others deeply hurt.

There is usually no good way out of the situations we get ourselves into.  At least, it seems that way.  In hindsight, however, sometimes the dumb things we do and are done to us turn out to have had something more than a silver lining.  They had unintended good consequences, if we have the wit to see them.  And sometimes a prayer uttered in hurt or embarrassment or confusion is answered, and the clinging fog of life clears for a time.  Things weren't what they seemed to be.  And on occasion we have the wisdom to do or say something that brings healing into the dumb situations we find ourselves trapped within.

Without being naive about it, there are paths through the Valley of the Shadow, the Valley of the Fog.  The wrongs we do and the ones done to us—there are healing ways through them.  Unintended consequences themselves have unintended consequences, which don't exactly make things easier but do eventually bring us out of the fog into the light of day.  Embedded even in our worst are other ways, what those of us who hold a theist's faith might call God's Ways.  Our prayer is, "Lord, help me to find one of your  Ways."  Amen.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Wondering About the Facts

In our world, something is not real if it is not factual—not true if it doesn't accord with the facts.  This is so obvious that it is just plain common sense, beyond any the need to question.  We believe in facts.  They are our portal into reality.

Fair enough.  Fair enough, that is, until one starts to think about the meaning of the word, "fact."  The Free Dictionary definition of "fact" seems to be both representative of and somewhat more precise than other online definitions; and what it boils down to is that a fact is a fact because it states or describes something that is real.  It is a fact because it really happened.  It is factual because it really is the case.  It is a fact because it describes a piece of what is really real. By that same token, a scientific fact is "an observation that has been confirmed repeatedly and is accepted as true (although its truth is never final)" and, more simply, "facts learned by observing."

We normally consider facts to be transparent.  We can see through them to subsequent facts leading to the confirmation of hypotheses.  We are less often aware of factuality as a mindset, a set of values, and a prejudice.  How we define reality determines our conception of factuality, and there is no value-free, neutral, unprejudiced definition of reality, not even in the sciences.  Equally important is what we define as unreal.  In science, divine causation is considered to be not real scientifically, and the Holy Spirit  considered outside the realm of scientific reality.

Our definitions of reality by which we determine factuality are all human definitions based on what we think is real.  When theists absolutize their definitions, we are justly criticized for doing so.  Scientists often escapes criticism for absolutizing their definitions because they supposedly have a handle on what is really, really real.  The trouble is, of course, that they don't.  All human definitions of reality are limited ones, incomplete and open to criticism—all of them.  Facts are ultimately human creations.  Vast numbers of what people take to be "facts" do not in fact accord with actual realities.  Scientific "facts" turn out not to be factual.

The point is a simple one: we put too much trust in factuality.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Jerry Kill as Big Ten Coach of the Year?

Minnesota Gophers head football coach, Jerry Kill, has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year.  Those of us who are Gopher's fans are quite happy with his selection.  It seems warranted.  Some folks in Ohio, however, are not happy.  Urban Meyer, head coach at Ohio State, seems to them a much worthier choice.  Their case has two points.  First, in spite of Ohio State's continued football success over the last twenty years (one losing season, numerous ten win seasons), no head coach has won the coach of the year award.  It is incredible to them that this should be the case.

Second, OSU's record this year is in every sense superior to Minnesota's.  OSU won their head to head clash in Minneapolis.  OSU has defeated several highly considered opponents including Michigan State.  The Buckeyes regularly recruit at a higher level than Minnesota.  Meyer has had to contend with a number of serious problems including losing one of the best quarterbacks in the country for the season.  (It turned out that the replacement QB is arguably even better).  In every regard, these arguments are compelling.

Yet, there is a compelling argument for Kill as well.  Looking at the Gopher's record over the twenty years tells the story: one ten win season, few winning seasons—in short a marked lack of success and prominence most of the time esp. when compared to Ohio State.  That is, Urban Meyer's unarguable success continues the long-standing success of OSU football.  Kill's putting together back-to-back eight win seasons in Minnesota, on the other hand, stands in marked contrast to the team's past when that has happened only once.  Indeed, going back to 1960, Minnesota has had eight-win seasons only seven times including the two under Coach Kill.  Going back just to 1994, OSU has had 17 eight-win seasons or better.

Meyer's accomplishments represent an admirable continuation of the OSU winning tradition built on a superior football culture.  Not every coach can come into a winning situation and keep it going.  Kill's seemingly more modest accomplishments in Minnesota, on the other hand, stand in marked contrast to what has gone before.  He inherited a mess, and he has thus far turned things around in a remarkable fashion.

The question is, in sum, what is the measure of coaching success that would lead to being named coach of the year in the Big Ten?  Is it superior success continuing a tradition of superior success?  Is it measurably improved success turning around a tradition of mediocrity?  Honestly, a case could be made in either direction, but making that choice requires deciding on the measure of coaching success.  The judges this year chose the return of Minnesota to relevance in the Big Ten after two generations largely of irrelevance their standard for 2014.  Gopher fans are glad they did.  We're still not used to winning things like this.

Monday, December 1, 2014

It's the Culture, Stupid

While many mainline churches are healthy, most are not.  They are in decline.  They share in a culture of decline that is marked not only by statistical decline but also by avoiding talking about their decline.  In a strange sort of way, they are acquiescing to their own decline and eventual demise.  Pastors play a large contributing role in all of this, but it is the churches themselves that play the major role.

Hold that thought.  When recently asked (here) why he has been so successful in turning around the football program at the University of Minnesota, head coach Jerry Kill answered, "I guess the No. 1 thing is the culture, trying to get everybody on the same page...That was difficult. It always is, by the way, when you take a new job.”  Football success wasn't possible without a change in culture.  That change didn't guarantee that the Golden Gophers would suddenly become a relevant program, but without the change in culture there was also no possibility that it would becoming a winning team.  One key cultural change Kill identified, for example, was improving the players' grades.

Returning to the church, it is clear that declining local mainline churches require a change in culture.  It is, unfortunately, far more difficult to sell that need to congregations than it is to young football players who want to win football games.  Churches are prone to actively resist such change.  They are frequently committed to the proposition that they can overcome decline by continuing to do what they are doing, but only better.  There is a reason.  Change might accelerate decline.  Better the devil you know than the one you don't.

Nonetheless, it is all about changing the culture of decline.  The problem with all of the how-to manuals and books and audio cassettes and websites dedicated to that change is that culture is a profoundly local thing, even the culture of decline.  What works in one place may well not work at all in another.  The one constant is the need to change the local church's culture of decline.  And one crucial place to begin is to talk about it.  Not talking means not changing.  Changing a church's culture also requires finding leverage points, which are easier to change and will promote changes in other places—such as introducing a small group ministry into the church.

In any event, it is all about the culture.