Friday, February 26, 2010

Witnesses of Truth

“Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” is a question that those who give testimony in court must affirm with an oath. But what does such an oath mean now that there are more and more people who think that there is no Truth, just various subjective or relative truths?
As I have written in previous postings (Oct. 22 and Oct. 26), I firmly believe there is absolute Truth. But I have previously, and do again here, reject the charge that I am an absolutist. And I readily acknowledge that there have been massive errors made by those who thought their apprehension of Truth gave them the license to force that view on others.
Thus, I think there is significant wisdom in the statement, “Believe those who seek the truth; doubt those who find it” (André Gide, 1869-1951, French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1947).
 I also was impressed with the prayer that was used recently in a chapel service at William Jewell College:
From the cowardice that dares not face new truth,
From the laziness that is contented with half truth,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Good Lord, deliver me.
(These words, said to be a “prayer from Kenya,” are found in George Appleton, ed., The Oxford Book of Prayer, 1985, p. 115.)
Further, I like this prayer by Pope John XXIII (April 11, 1963; emphasis added).
May God banish from our hearts whatever might endanger peace.
May God transform us into witnesses of truth, justice, and love.
May God enkindle our wills so that we may overcome the barriers that divide, cherish the bonds of mutual charity, understand others, and pardon those who have done us wrong.
May all peoples of the earth become as brothers and sisters, and may the most longed-for peace blossom forth and reign among us always.
I like Pope John’s prayer, partly because it illustrates how being a witness of Truth does not make one a warrior or an arrogant bigot, although, certainly, there have been warriors and bigots who were so perhaps because they believed in absolute Truth.
If we take seriously the claim that Jesus is “the truth” (John 14:6), as I do, we must also take with equal seriousness Jesus' command that his followers practice love for one another. In that same chapter, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (v. 15), and then in the next chapter he says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (15:12).
Being a witness of Truth means seeking to practice love and to work for justice for all people. Ideas of truth which have led to warfare, injustice, intolerance, imperialism, exploitation, and the like are not the Truth as revealed by Jesus, the Prince of peace and the Lord of love.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Religion, Faith, and Spirituality

Recently, along with others in Milton Horne’s “Bible study” class at Second Baptist Church, I have been reading The World’s Religions: Worldviews and Contemporary Issues (second ed., 2005) by William A. Young. It is a fine book, but I don’t like Young’s definition of religion: “Religion is human transformation in response to perceived ultimacy” (p. 4). It seems to me that transformation is the aim or purpose of religion, not what it is.

Although it is no longer in print, I think the definition by Frederick J. Streng in his Understanding Religious Life (third ed., 1985) is better: “Religion is a means to ultimate transformation.” Streng goes on to explain: “An ultimate transformation is a fundamental change from being caught up in the troubles of common existence (sin, ignorance) to living in such a way that one can cope at the deepest level with those troubles” (p. 2).

In keeping with this view, religion can be described as what we humans do in order to achieve something. But that is one of the main reasons I have long sought to make a distinction between religion and faith. Religion is basically human efforts or attempts to gain something (salvation, peace of mind, harmony with the universe, etc.). Faith, by contrast, is response to God’s grace.

As we all know, many people now make a distinction between religion and spirituality, usually largely dismissing the former and embracing the latter. In general, that distinction is good and important. Spirituality is our basic attitude toward reality in the light of our awareness of God (the Ultimate, the Absolute, the Eternal, Mystery, the Great Spirit, or whatever term we want to use for that which transcends the physical world) and our actions on the basis of that attitude.

Religion is primarily a means toward an end. Faith, or spirituality, is more an end in itself. That is true of real worship also. Of course, worship can be engaged for the purpose of trying to get something from God, a means to an end. But true worship is focused on God and is basically praising God with no intention of getting something in the process. Whatever benefits we do receive are by-products, not direct effects from effort expended.

I have just finished speed-reading Faith and Belief (1979) by Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916-2000), who was for several years director of Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions. In this scholarly work, Smith clearly points out the difference between faith and religion as well as between faith and belief, contending that faith is prior to, and superior to, both. I may write more about Smith’s ideas later, but here let me cite a very short paragraph in Smith’s book, a statement I like very much.

“Faith is a saying ‘Yes’” to truth” (p. 163).

In that statement I think Smith means Truth. Religion is a search for Truth; faith is accepting, responding to, committing our lives to Truth. Spirituality, then, is how we live and act on the basis of that commitment.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The World in 2100

June and I are delighted to announce the birth of Natalie June Seat on February 16. Natalie is the daughter of Ken and Mina Takazaki Seat and our seventh, and probably last, grandchild. We are very happy to welcome this new member into the Seat family and into the world.

There is a strong possibility that little Natalie will live to see the year 2100—and that is also possible for her big sister, Naomi, who was born in 2004. After all, Natalie had three great-grandparents to live past 90, and her only living great-grandparent will likely live that long. And what with medical advances and all, we should be able to expect children born in 2010 to live longer than people born in the 1910s. Or should we?

I have no doubt that the earth will still be here in 2100, but what about the human race? Will there be a U.S. presidential election that year? Will the Summer Olympics be held? Will there be as much resemblance between 2100 and 2000 as there was between 2000 and 1900?

While there is not, at present, a strong threat of a nuclear war, such as was the underlying fear of so many people a half century ago, there are other ominous signs that make me uneasy about human society in 2100. I guess my three main concerns are the possibility of massive changes on earth due to global warming, the likelihood of enormous problems due to the depletion of water resources in much of the world, and the constant increase in the population of the world.

When I was born in 1938, the world population was under 2.3 billion. This year there will likely be exactly three times that number of persons on earth. Even though the growth rate has slowed greatly, the population of the world may reach nine billion several years before 2050, and who knows what it will be by 2100.

Population growth is one of several reasons why the world’s supply of clean, fresh water is steadily decreasing. Water demand already exceeds supply in many parts of the world . In my lifetime, let alone in Natalie’s, we may see major warfare over water. And who can say what dire effects of global warming may be seen in the coming thirty, sixty, or ninety years.

All I know is that there are great problems that all people of good will need to be concerned about and working diligently to solve. I want to keep doing what I can to work for a just and sustainable society, for the sake of Natalie and my other grandchildren and as well as for the sake of all the children of the world.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Questioning the Olympics

I am writing this while waiting for, and then while watching some of, the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. While I was jogging earlier today I was thinking about the games starting today and began pondering some of the questions I have had about the Olympics for quite some time.
As a (rather moderate) sports fan, I certainly enjoy watching the tremendous skill(s) of the Olympic athletes, and the close competition make for a lot of interesting TV viewing. But there are lingering questions.
Although many, including my wife, disagree, it seems to me the Olympics fosters nationalism, and like most “isms,” that is not something needed in the world today. Of course, the Berlin Olympics of 1936 are infamous for strengthening the Nazi movement in Germany. By allowing only members of the Aryan race to compete for Germany, Hitler promoted his ideological belief of racial supremacy. That promotion was helped by the German athletes winning the most gold medals and the most total medals, by far.
A second is concern is the amount of time and resources that goes in to producing an Olympic medal winner. For the individual athlete, there is often such a concentration on the practicing of skills needed to exceed that it is difficult for them to develop a well-rounded life. Perhaps has been/is especially true in countries like the former Soviet Union and China where winning medals was/is often used for nationalistic propaganda.
As for the expenses involved, I recently read where a U.S. Olympic swimmer spent at least $100,000 a year preparing for the last summer Olympics. That is, no doubt, an extreme, but there are certainly great costs involved in training to be an Olympic athlete. And that is one of the reasons most medals are won by athletes from the most affluent countries in the world—or by athletes subsidized by public funds.
And then there is the problem of all countries, regardless of size or wealth, competing in the same contests. This seems to be unfair to the smaller and poorer countries. In interscholastic athletic competition, there are leagues largely based on the size of the schools. High schools with 200 students don’t compete with high schools of 2,000 students, and small colleges, like William Jewell here in Liberty with 1,000 students, don’t compete with the large state universities, like Missouri U. with 24,000 students. But in the Olympics, every country competes in the same contests. So, again, no wonder, most medals are won by the bigger countries.
For many other problems and issues, many particularly related to the current Olympic Games in Vancouver, see "Why We Resist the 2010 Winter Olympic" at http://no2010.com/node/18

Friday, February 12, 2010

My Cousin’s Apology

Carolyn and Lowell Houts are fine people, and I am proud to say they are my cousins. (Their mother was my father’s oldest sister.) Carolyn (b. 1942) is returning to the States this year, retiring after thirty-four years of faithful service as a Southern Baptist missionary to Ghana. Lowell (b. 1945) is an ordained minister who for several years now has been a counselor affiliated with the Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center in Iowa.
Last month Lowell visited his sister in Ghana for the first time. Carolyn recently sent us an e-mail sharing some about Lowell’s visit and telling about a “special incident” at Cape Coast Castle. The castle was built for other purposes, but it came to be used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. You probably remember that President and Mrs. Obama and their girls visited there last year.
Carolyn wrote that a young man named Eric was their guide at the castle, and then she tells about a very moving experience:
At the end of the tour, Lowell said that one reason he wanted to go to that castle was to apologize that our forebears had slaves. He said that an ancestor had [two young sons] whom a teenaged slave killed.* Then the slave was killed.”
Carolyn goes on to relate how Lowell “asked Eric if he would accept his apology that our forebears had been a part of the triangle of slavery. Eric extended his hand to shake Lowell’s and then they embraced. It was a powerful moment. Eric mentioned that his boss was watching us so we walked over to where two men stood. Eric told a summary of the story Lowell had told and the man also shook hands with Lowell. His boss, Mr. Blankson, had been the guide when Pres. Obama had visited Cape Coast Castle in July. He has written a book about the castle so was there to sell his book and he autographed a copy for Lowell.”
I am proud of my cousin, and I appreciate his apology on behalf of the Seat family.
*Hartwell and Rebecca (Stokes) Seat were married in 1775 and lived in Virginia. Their first two sons were Henry (b. 1777) and Miles (b. 1781). According to family records, they were killed in 1786 by the teenaged slave Lowell referred to. Two years later, the Houts siblings’ and my grandfather Littleton was born. In 1844 he was the first Seat to move to Worth County, MO, where our parents grew up and where Lowell lives now. There is no record of the Seats who came to Missouri having slaves, but we do know that Hartwell Seat continued to own slaves after he and his family moved from Virginia to Davidson County, TN, in the early 1800s. (I wrote some about these matters in my posting on Nov. 13.)



Here is a picture of the Cape Coast Castle.

Monday, February 8, 2010

More about Newbigin

The posting on Feb. 1 was “In Praise of Lesslie Newbigin,” but there is much more I would like to share about this British missionary who spent nearly forty years in India. At this time I will just share two or three quotes about Newbigin’s ideas on secularization and social change in India.
In Honest Religion for Secular Man (1966), Newbigin writes about how Indian society has changed, largely for the better, through the process of secularization. He gives these examples: “the abolition of untouchability, of the dowry system, of temple prostitution, the spread of education and medical service, and so on” (p. 17). And he contends that secularization, which must be clearly distinguished from secularism, has roots in the Judeo-Christian faith.
Along with Harvey Cox (The Secular City, 1965), Newbigin sees secularization as being rooted in what both he and Cox refers to as the desacralizing or desacralization of nature. “The freedom to make revolutionary changes . . . came along with liberation from bondage to the sacral powers presiding over the natural world” (p. 33). The Old Testament clearly presents a worldview based on history rather than on nature, and that worldview is partly responsible for the rise of secularization.
In two previous postings I wrote about the difference between cyclical and linear worldviews. Similarly, in Honest Religion Newbigin says that in India the traditional religious view is a “cyclical, non-historic, way of thinking” that seeks an escape from history. Such views are challenged by “the idea of God’s acts in fulfillment of his purpose—in other words, by a linear way of thinking about the world of change” (p. 50).
In direct connection with that assertion, Newbigin wrote in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989), “For centuries Orthodox Hindus believed that the miserable condition of the outcastes or untouchable communities was the result of the sins of their previous birth [karma] and that it was therefore part of the cosmic order not to be interfered with. By common consent the preaching of missionaries among these communities was one of the major factors, if not the decisive factor, in bringing about the change of view which has led to legislation . . . to give them justice” (pp. 158-9).
It is widely known, of course, that many of the social changes in twentieth century India were because of the work of Gandhi, a man for whom I have long held great admiration. It also has to be recognized that Gandhi was, and remained, a Hindu. But there is ample reason to believe that most of what he accomplished in terms of social justice for the people of India was in spite of his Hindu faith rather than because of it.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Belong, Behave, Believe?

Last Sunday, Christy Scarborough Edwards preached at Second Baptist Church, and I agree with many others that it was a good sermon well delivered. We are blessed to have her in our church, along with her husband Jason, our pastor.
Christy preached on the story of the woman at the well as recorded in the fourth chapter of John, and the title of her sermon was “You Belong.” She said rather than the traditional evangelical emphasis on “believe, behave, belong,” we should reverse that order and emphasize “belong, behave, believe.” (The latter is the emphasis of many “emergent churches,” such as Jacob’s Well, one of the most vibrant churches in the Kansas City area; The Christian Century published an article about about that church and that idea in 2006, and here is a link to that article.)
On the Internet I found a blog posting by a young pastor in Memphis who wrote how he prefers the idea of “belong, believe, behave” to “behave, believe, belong,” and I am inclined to think that the emphasis on belief before behavior is important. But I fully agree with this pastor, and with Christy, that correct behavior should not be a prerequisite to belonging.
Still, I am not satisfied with a tripartite division. I would like to suggest that perhaps the best position for a local church would be emphasis on (1) belonging to the community of love, (2) believing the Gospel of and about Jesus Christ, (3) belonging to the community of faith, and (4) behaving increasingly in a way that brings glory to God and the church, which would also be in a way that is healthiest for the individual and his or her relationships.
The church should be both a community of love and a community of faith, and it is important to recognize that belonging to the latter is different from belonging to the former.
We need to take seriously Christy’s point and the book she introduced, The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again (2000). George G. Hunter III, the author, emphasizes that evangelism is now about “helping people to belong so that they can believe” (p. 43). That is a good emphasis. 
As Christy said, we should be willing to say to everyone, “You belong.” And we should be able to say to all with whom we come in contact, “If you wish to join with us, we will accept you as you are into this community of love.”
But then let’s help all who do come to belong to our community of love to move on to commit themselves to Christ in order to belong to the community of faith. 

Monday, February 1, 2010

In Praise of Lesslie Newbigin

In the Jan. 8 posting on this blog, I made reference to the prevalent worldview of India. I do not know a lot about India, and, unfortunately, nothing from first-hand knowledge; I have long had the desire to go to India, but have not yet (and may never have) the opportunity to do so. But I have read rather extensively about India and the religions of India, and through the years I have been an appreciative reader of one who spent nearly four decades in India.
Lesslie Newbigin was born in northern England on December 8, 1909, so this past December there was some recognition in the media about the centennial observance of his birth. After completing his education at Cambridge University, he was ordained by the Church of Scotland in 1936 and sent as a missionary to Madras, now Chennai, the fifth largest city in India. In 1947 he became one of the first bishops in the newly formed Church of South India.
After serving a few years as the Executive Secretary of the International Missionary Council, Newbigin went back to India and continued to serve there until his retirement in 1974. But after returning to Great Britain, he continued an active life of teaching and writing. An article about him in the January 2010 issue of Christianity Today is titled, “The Missionary Who Wouldn’t Retire.” He had years of meaningful ministry back in England before his death in 1998.
I am particularly fond of Newbigin because of his book Honest Religion for Secular Man (1966), which I read during my first year in Japan, in late 1966 or early 1967. Since then I have profited from other books written by Newbigin, particularly The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989), which I have just finished for the second time.
In my Jan. 22 posting, I wrote about contextual theology. That is the subject of the twelfth chapter of Newbigin’s 1989 book, in which he writes, “True contextualization accords to the gospel its rightful primacy, its power to penetrate every culture and to speak within each culture, in its own speech and symbol, the word which is both No and Yes, both judgment and grace” (p. 152).
And then last fall, there was some discussion on this blog about religious pluralism. In that regard, I am in full agreement with Newbigin who contends that “we must reject the ideology of pluralism. We must reject the invitation to live in a society where everything is subjective and relative, a society which has abandoned the belief that truth can be known and has settled for a purely subjective view of truth” (p. 244 of the same book).
I have a list of the ten philosophers/theologians I have been most influenced by and most appreciative of. Newbigin is on that list, so I am happy to share this posting with you, in praise of Lesslie Newbigin.




Here is a 1996 picture of Newbigin: