Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Still Fed Up with Fundamentalism's View of the Bible

This article is based on the fifth chapter of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism (2007), which I am currently updating (and slightly revising) for re-publication at the end of the year. Beliefs about the Bible were central to the rise of fundamentalism 100 years ago and its “resurgence” that began 40 years ago.  
The Basic Problem: Inerrancy
Fundamentalists, now generally known as conservative evangelicals, have strongly emphasized the necessity of an inerrant Bible. Perhaps more than anything else, belief in Biblical inerrancy is the defining doctrine for fundamentalists.
Writing in The Fundamentalist Phenomenon (1981), Jerry Falwell declared: “A Fundamentalist is one who believes the Bible to be verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore inerrant and absolutely infallible” (pp. 119-120).
In the ninth chapter of Inerrancy (1980), Paul D. Feinberg presents this definition:
Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences (p. 294).
There are several problems with this definition, though. Is it possible to know all the facts? And how do we know when the Bible as a whole, or when any individual passage, is “properly interpreted”? And do we really expect the Bible to be infallible about specific matters in the social, physical, and life sciences?
Three Related Problems
1) The Problem of Interpretation
Here, especially, is the problem of conservative evangelicals’ insistence on interpreting the Bible literally.
W.A. Criswell was one of the most prominent Southern Baptist pastors in the 20th century. He has been called “the patriarch of the ‘conservative resurgence’ among Southern Baptists.” Perhaps his best-known book is Why I Preach That the Bible is Literally True (1969).
In the third chapter of that book, Criswell (1909~2002) emphasizes that the Bible “is the Word of God, not merely contains it.” Then on the basis of 2 Timothy 3:16, Criswell asserts: “On the original parchment every sentence, word, line, mark, point, pen stroke, jot, and tittle were put there by inspiration of God.”
What does it mean, though, to say that the Bible is literally true? And how can one determine what is literally true and what is not? For example, what about the snake talking to Eve in the Garden of Eden? Did that literally happen? If so, how was it that a snake could talk? And what language was used?
2) The Problem of Selective Reading
To give just one example here, these days we hear a lot, especially from conservative evangelicals, about maintaining traditional marriage. But the biggest names of the Old Testament were polygamists—Abraham, Jacob, and David. Moreover, adultery was punishable by death.
The point, of course, is that “following the Bible” in maintaining “traditional marriage,” means following only selected parts of the Bible. There is no question but that even the staunchest fundamentalists are selective in the Bible passages they interpret as literally binding on Christians today.
3) The Problem of Changing Beliefs
If the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and Christians are supposed to believe in a literal interpretation of that Word, how can there be changes in what Christians say the Bible teaches?
In issue after issue, though, there have been changes, some of them quite dramatic. In the final part of Chapter Five, I write about changes in beliefs about the physical sciences, slavery, and even the proper dress for women.
So, while maintaining a high opinion of the Bible’s significance, I am fed up with fundamentalism’s view of the Bible for the reasons given above, among others.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Is Religion a Good Thing?

So, how would you respond to the question posed as the title of this article? Perhaps some of you would quickly answer in the affirmative and a few of you would likely answer in the negative. However, maybe many of you, like me, would want to respond, “It depends.” Or, in keeping with my 6/15 posting, perhaps we would want to say, “Yes and No.” 
The Affirmative Position
Most religious people, no doubt, are convinced that their religion is a good thing. Obviously, people would not choose to identify with a religion if they thought that, overall, it was not a good thing. But other religions have often been seen as definitely not so good.
Thus, in the past there have been plenty of people who basically thought, “My religion is good, but other religions are bad”—and that idea has been particularly strong in Christianity, and more particularly in conservative Protestantism.
In the name of religious tolerance, though, there are now many who emphasize that all religions are basically the same—and that they are all basically good, for they all teach things like the Golden Rule, for example.
Since now for many “progressive” people little is more intolerable than intolerance, exclusive views of religion have largely been rejected and replaced with the universal acceptance (for the most part) of all religions as true (at least for the adherents of those religions) and good.
But tolerance should never become a barrier to critical thinking.
The Negative Position
There is a growing number of people, especially in the Western world, who think that religion is, definitely, not good. But that has been a common idea in some places in the world, like Japan for example, for quite some time.
My first realization about religion perhaps not being good came from listening to my students in Japan, where I began teaching at Seinan Gakuin University (SGU) in 1968. Most of my students had a negative attitude toward religion partly because in high school history classes they had learned undesirable things about Christianity, such as the Crusades.
Moreover, most of them had been brought up by parents who remembered how the Shinto religion was used by Japanese militarists to spur the nation toward aggressive military action in China and then later at Pearl Harbor.
Warlike activity was done in the name of Emperor Hirohito, who was considered by most Japanese in the 1930s and early 1940s as the earthly manifestation of the Shinto gods.
The vast majority of my students in the required Christian Studies classes I taught were not just negative toward Christianity, they were negative to all religions.
After a year or so at SGU, “Is Religion a Good Thing?” was the title (in Japanese) of the first article I wrote for a faculty and staff publication.
My conclusion was, “Not necessarily.”
The Both/And Position
In one of his numerous potent statements, Pascal declared, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction” (Pensées, Trotter trans., #894).
That certainly seems to be true when thinking of the 12th and 13th century Crusaders, the Japanese militarist leaders of the 1930s and ’40s, or the radical Islamists of the 21st century.
But isn’t the opposite also true? People never do good so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction. Just the Christian examples here are legion: Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Kagawa Toyohiko, M.L. King Jr., etc. etc.
These latter individuals, though, perhaps could be more correctly described as spiritual rather than religious. In the end, it is faith rather than religion, spirituality more than religiosity, that is good.
Thus, it is faith and spirituality rather than religion that needs to be accentuated.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Importance of "And"

Last month I posted articles directly related to new books by the noted authors / theologians Richard Rohr and Serene Jones. Each in their own way emphasized the importance of the word/term “and.”  
Rohr’s Emphasis on “And”
For many years now, and in many ways, the Franciscan friar Richard Rohr has emphasized the importance of “and.”
In 1986 Rohr founded the Center for Action and Contemplation. Concerning that name, he has said repeatedly that the most important word in the Center’s name is “and.”
In his new book, about which I wrote last month (here), as well in his book The Naked Now (2009), which I have just finished reading, Rohr writes about the importance of “and” by explaining the deep significance of paradox, nonduality, and “third eye” thinking.
In The Naked Now, Rohr has a lucid section in the 20th chapter titled “The Value of Paradox” (pp. 144~9). He writes,
Because paradox undermines dual thinking at its very root, the dualistic mind immediately attacks paradox as weak thinking or confusion, separate from hard logic. The modern phenomenon of fundamentalism shows an almost complete incapacity to deal with paradox (p. 144).
Rohr goes on then to assert, “The history of spirituality tells us that we must learn to accept paradoxes or we will never love anything or see it correctly” (ibid.)
“Dual thinking” sees things as either/or--so that is the reason Rohr emphasizes nonduality. 
At the very end of The Naked Now, Rohr makes 26 short statements about what he calls “The Shining Word ‘And.’” (You can also read those statements at this link.)
Jones’s Emphasis on “And”
While not as direct as Rohr, in her book Call It Grace, Serene Jones makes repeated emphasis on “and” by linking seemingly opposing concepts. Her book is divided into four “stations” (rather than parts), and the title of each is two (or three) words connected by “and.”
Jones emphasizes “Sin and Grace,” “Destiny and Freedom,” “Hatred and Forgiveness,” as well as “Redeeming Life and Death.” In addition, like both Luther and Calvin, she writes in the last chapter of her book, “We are saints and sinners, flawed and graced, the extremes always mingling in us” (p. 295, bolding added.)
Jones, a Protestant, like Rohr, a Catholic, adeptly recognizes and emphasizes the importance of “and.”
My Emphasis on “And”
As some of you know, my doctoral dissertation, completed more than 50 years ago, was titled “The Meaning of Paradox.” It was because of my early recognition of the importance of “both/and” thinking that I chose that topic--and this has been a key to my theological (and other) thought through the years.
Some of you also know that the 17th chapter of my recently published book Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now is titled “Both/And Is Generally Better and More Nearly True than Either/Or.” (That chapter was written before I read Rohr enough to cite him in the chapter.)
There is so much we could understand more correctly--and so much mistaken thinking and action we could avoid--if we just learned to appreciate the importance of “and.”
In a more “popular” book, Jen Pollock Michel has just published Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of “And” in an Either-Or World. A review of Michel’s book appears in the June 2019 issue of Christianity Today.
The reviewer concludes: “Surprised by Paradox asks us to reject an either-or approach to certain irreducible mysteries of Christian faith, assuming instead a posture of humility and wonder as we contemplate the fathomless riches of God and his grace.”

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Wonderful Concept of Kintsugi

For whatever reason, during the many years I lived in Japan, I never learned much, if anything, about kintsugi. But in the last few weeks I have seen references to kintsugi in recent English-language books/articles, and I have read part of Candice Kumai’s delightful book Kintsugi Wellness: The Japanese Art of Nourishing Mind, Body, and Spirit (2018).
So, What is Kintsugi?
Kumai, who was born in California to a Japanese mother and Polish-American father, calls kintsugi “the Japanese art of golden repair.” It is literally the repairing of broken dishes by joining the broken pieces with lacquer and dusting them with gold powder.
(Kintsugi, 金継ぎis pronounced like keen-tsu-gee [as gee in geek without the k].)
“The Japanese believe the golden cracks make the pieces even more precious and valuable,” writes Kumai--and you can see from the picture below an example of a broken tea bowl repaired by kintsugi
For those of you who might want to try your hand at repairing a broken piece of china or something, you can purchase a “Kintsugi repair kit” at Amazon.com for a tad over US$100 (see here).
What is Metaphorical Kintsugi?
As might be expected, many people have seen a metaphorical meaning in kintsugi. Indeed, on page four of her book, Kumai states that kintsugi can be “a metaphor for your life.” It “teaches you that your broken places make you stronger and better than ever before.”
The website of a British organization called “The School of Life” has a short article on kintsugi. They say that the kintsugi process symbolizes “a reconciliation with the flaws and accidents of time.” Their article ends,
In an age that worships youth, perfection and the new, the art of kintsugi retains a particular wisdom--as applicable to our own lives as it is to a broken tea cup. The care and love expended on the shattered pots should lend us the confidence to respect what is damaged and scarred, vulnerable and imperfect--starting with ourselves and those around us.
(I had not previously heard of The School of Life, but, interestingly, it was founded in 2008 by Alain de Botton, who is the author of Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, 2012--and the book to be discussed this Wednesday at Vital Conversations, the local study group June and I are members of.)
Kintsugi and the Wounded Healer
Religious people also, of course, have found the concept of kintsugi beneficial. For example, Christy Bonner, a Christian counselor, posted an article in April under the title “Kintsugi: The Way of the Wounded Healer.”
Many of you are probably familiar with Henri Nouwen’s idea of the “wounded healer,” explained in his 1972 book published under that title. As far as I know, Nouwen (1932~96) made no reference to kintsugi, but no doubt there have been many, like Bonner, who see the close connection between his writing about the wounded healer and metaphorical kintsugi.
Toward the end of her article, Bonner writes, “I am a wounded healer, I am a cracked bowl put back together with a gold lacquer. I am strong at my broken places. My scars are beautiful. And yours are too."
And then there is Jim Contopulos’s article “Kintsugi—Beautiful Brokenness” (July 2013). He writes, “Kintsugi is a beautiful and accurate metaphor for our lives, and for the life, in the worlds of Henri Nouwen, of the ‘wounded Healer’ as well as for those who would follow Him.”
Contopulos calls on his readers to strive to see the kintsugi beauty in the brokenness of others—and in ourselves. He closes his article, and I close, with these words: “Kintsugi, Lord. Kintsugi.”

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Did Franklin Graham Avert a Civil War?

Did your church, or a church in your neighborhood, observe a “special day of prayer” for President Trump this past Sunday? Mine didn’t, but some churches did--and Franklin Graham, who proposed the idea, thought that such a day was possibly necessary to avert a new civil war in the U.S.
Graham’s Proposal
On May 30, Graham posted the following on the BillyGraham.org website: “Along with 300+ Christian leaders, I am asking followers of Christ across our nation to set aside Sunday, June 2, as a special day of prayer for the President, Donald J. Trump” (bolding in original).  
Prior to that, on May 26 Graham posted this on his Facebook timeline:
President Trump’s enemies continue to try everything to destroy him, his family, and the presidency. In the history of our country, no president has been attacked as he has. I believe the only hope for him, and this nation, is God.
Many prominent conservative evangelicals soon signed on and indicated their full support for Graham’s proposal. Some of the most recognizable names of those supporters are James Dobson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Mike Huckabee, Robert Jeffress, Richard Land, Tony Perkins, and Ralph Reed--all noted leaders of the Christian Right in this country.
Graham’s Fear
According to a May 31 article in the Christian Post (see here), “Trump’s enemies will hurt America, could spark civil war if impeached.” Thus, prayer is necessary to protect the President from his enemies who seek his impeachment. Graham explains,
If the president was brought down for whatever reason, it could lead to a civil war. There are millions of people out there that voted for President Trump that are behind him that are angry and they are mad. We are just living in a very dangerous territory and we need God’s help [sic for entire paragraph, bolding added].
Graham went on to say that the President needs to be encouraged.
It is discouraging when you wake up every day and it doesn't matter if you do something good or not. They only report the bad. That gets discouraging. I pray that the president will be encouraged knowing that there are millions of people praying for him.”
So, is Graham saying maybe that if DJT gets enough encouragement he will say and do things that would squelch the talk about impeachment? Is that how prayer might keep the country from descending into a civil war?
Is Civil War Possible?
Franklin Graham is not the first public figure in recent years to post the threat of civil war. As I wrote about briefly in the second part of my May 25 blog posting, back in 2005 Charles Colson wrote about “The New Civil War” (in the Feb. issue of Christianity Today).
Colson was worried about the “deepening of hostilities between ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states” as witnessed in the 2004 presidential election. And, arguably, things got even worse after the election of Obama in 2008 and then after the election of Trump in 2016.
But a (literal) civil war? I can’t imagine how that would be even faintly possible at the present time. How would the two sides mobilize? Where would they fight, and how?
It seems to me that Graham was just using inflated rhetoric to drum up support for the President.
If anything, mobilizing churches to pray that the president be protected from his enemies--such as the Democratic members of Congress who want to impeach him--is exacerbating the polarization in the country rather than lessening the tensions.
Nevertheless, praying for the President is a good thing--and I thought David Platt did a good job of that on Sunday morning. (Check that out here.)

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Serene Calvinism?

To put it mildly, I am not a big fan of Calvinism. It came as a surprise, then, when I learned that a noted contemporary theologian and progressive seminary administrator is a great admirer of John Calvin’s theology. That theologian is Serene Jones, president since 2008 of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.
The Five Points of Calvinism
Long ago I was taught, and then through the years I taught, that the five main emphases of Calvinism can conveniently be summarized by the five letters of “tulip.” That is, Calvinism is primarily about theological beliefs that stress
Total depravity
Unconditional election
Limited atonement
Irresistible grace
Perseverance of the saints
Growing up as a Southern Baptist, I heard some about the T and a lot about the P of TULIP, but little of the middle three terms--and while in seminary, I came to reject the traditional Baptist idea about the fifth term, which was usually expressed as “once saved, always saved.”
Actually, these “five points of Calvinism” were summarized after Calvin’s death in 1564 (at the age of 54) at the Synod of Dort (1618–19), convened by the Dutch Reformed Church to settle a divisive controversy initiated by the rise of Arminianism.
The latter theology, named for Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (1560~1609), particularly opposed the Calvinist emphasis on predestination (unconditional election). More than a century later Arminianism was endorsed by John Wesley and has through the centuries since been the underlying theology of Methodism/Wesleyanism.
Serene’s Calvinism
About ten weeks ago, Serene Jones’s new book Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World was published. It is a very honest book, a mixture of memoir and theological reflection, that describes how the author has wrestled theologically with various personal issues. 
In the Introduction, Jones serenely states: “John Calvin is the one who exerts the most influence on my own theology.” Then she begins Chapter 1 with a brief quote from Calvin.
In the second chapter, Jones tells how in 1994 she was given her grandmother’s copy of the 1559 edition of Calvin’s major work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. But by then, she wrote, she had “already read my newer two-volume version from cover to cover at least half a dozen times” (p. 23).
(I don’t know what version Jones read, but the 1960 version published in The Library of Christian Classics is 1,800 pages long!)
Serene(‘s) Theology
It turns out that the only one of the five points of Calvinism that Jones writes much about is the T of TULIP. Yes, there is a lot about grace from beginning to end--and the last word in the book is, literally, “grace.” But she really does not present it as something irresistible.
She does write a lot about original sin, though, about what Calvinism has long termed “total depravity.” That means that “sin is extensive, persistent, systemic, and collective” and that people are kidding themselves if they think they can get through life “without being tainted by it” (p. 259).
That understanding of sin helped her through the traumas of abuse by her grandfather, repeated verbal abuse by her bi-polar mother, and grief because of a painful divorce.
When I completed the reading of her new book, it seemed clear that now, in spite of the above-mentioned traumas and other trying experiences, Jones has developed a theology which makes it possible for her literally to be a serene (=calm, peaceful) advocate of Calvin’s theology.
On the last day of July, Jones will celebrate her 60th birthday. I wish her well on that special day and pray that she will have many more productive, and serene, years ahead.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Problem with Fundamentalism

Having looked at the appeal of fundamentalism last month, this article takes a look at the other side of the issue. This is the fifth posting this year of an article based on my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, which I am updating and planning to re-publish by the end of the year.
The Problem of Arrogance
In a book written more than 40 years ago, Oxford University professor James Barr wrote that one main characteristic of fundamentalism is “an assurance that those who do not share their religious viewpoint are not really ‘true Christians’ at all.”
For some Christians to be so sure that their beliefs are so certainly true that “Christians” who hold differing views are not Christians at all surely smacks of arrogance.
One of many manifestations of such arrogance is seen in the proclivity of some fundamentalists to insist on homeschooling their children.
The author of a chapter in the book The Fundamentals of Extremism (2003) charges that the textbooks used in some fundamentalist schools “promote sectarianism, religious intolerance, anti-intellectualism, disdain for critical thinking and science, and conservative political extremism.”
The result of that sort of arrogant activity has been called “intellectual abuse.” Indeed, it can be argued that all arrogant efforts of indoctrination are, or at least border on, intellectual abuse. 
The Problem of Intolerance
Intolerance has also long been regarded as one of the hallmarks of fundamentalism—although many fundamentalists have looked upon intolerance with favor and have assumed that designation as a mark of honor.
Of course, it can be effectively argued that there are some things that are intolerable and that it is dangerous for a society to tolerate everything rather than to take action against those things that are truly intolerable.
But, in fact, people disagree about what can and cannot be tolerated. For example, gay marriage and abortion are two clear examples and issues around which the culture wars have raged for decades now.
While there are not a lot of examples of Christian fundamentalism leading to violence, it has at times—and we may well see more examples of intolerance resulting in violence in the years ahead.
Back in 2005, Charles Colson wrote about “The New Civil War” (in the Feb. issue of Christianity Today). He wasn’t necessarily talking about a civil war that includes actual physical violence. Neither was Michael Brown when last week he posted “The Coming Civil War Over Abortion.”
I don’t refer to Brown’s article in my book, but it is written from the standpoint of conservative evangelicals (fundamentalists) and claims that if violence erupts over the abortion issue it will be caused by those on the left, those who a part of “the extreme pro-abortion movement.”
Brown’s last paragraph begins, “A civil war is certain. The only thing to be determined is how bloody it will be.”
The Problem of Obscurantism
Although not a widely used word today, obscurantism can be defined as opposition to the spread of knowledge. It is much the same as anti-intellectualism.
During the early years of Christian fundamentalism in this country, the president of The Science League of America wrote in The War on Modern Science (1927), “The forces of obscurantism in the United States are in open revolt!”
The resurgence of fundamentalism after 1980 also shows many of the same anti-intellectualism signs of early fundamentalism. Just one example is the change of the name and focus of “pastoral counseling” courses at my alma mater, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Since the Bible is considered sufficient, those courses are now called “biblical counseling.”
The specific problems of fundamentalism, analyzed in the following chapters of my book, all smack of arrogance, intolerance, and/or obscurantism.