Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Why Water Buffalo Theology?

One of the most intriguing books I read in the mid-1970s was Waterbuffalo Theology by Koyama Kosuke. In 1999 the 25th anniversary edition (revised & expanded) was published as Water Buffalo Theology. But what kind of theology is that?! 
First edition cover

Who was Koyama?
Koyama Kosuke was a Japanese theologian who was born 90 years ago today, on December 10, 1929. He was less than two months younger than C.S. Song, the Asian theologian I wrote about in October (see here), but unlike Song, who is still living, Koyama (and that is the family name) died in 2009 before his 80th birthday.
Koyama studied in the U.S. from 1952 until he finished his Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1959. During those years he met and married Lois Rozendaal, a Dutch-American woman. 
For most of the next decade (1960~68) he served as a pastor and teacher in Thailand, being sent there as a missionary by the United Church of Christ in Japan.
Following several years (1968~74) serving in Singapore and then in New Zealand (1974~79), in 1980 Koyama became a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Upon his retirement in 1996 he became the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Professor Emeritus of World Christianity.
Why Did Koyama Write about Water Buffalos?
Koyama gained attention in the theological world after his seminal book Waterbuffalo Theology was published in 1974. But why did he write about water buffalos?
Because his first field of service after completing his Ph.D. was as a pastor in northern Thailand, Koyama recognized the need for communicating with the people in his congregation, many of whom were farmers who used water buffalos in their daily work. 
Thai farmer plowing with a water buffalo
In my 1/22/2010 blog article I wrote about the importance of contextual theology. Koyama’s development of contextualized theology in Thailand was one of the main examples I used in the theology courses I taught in the late 1970s, and afterward.
According to an article written soon after Koyama’s death in 2009 (see here), Donald Shriver, president emeritus of Union Seminary, said that Waterbuffalo Theology was “one of the first books truly to do theology out of the setting of Asian villages.”
In the same article, a historian for the Church of Christ in Thailand called Koyama’s book “one of the classic works of contemporary Asian theology.”
The article concludes with Shriver telling how someone at Union noticed that Waterbuffalo theology had landed on the discard pile outside the library. Apparently, a librarian had concluded that the prestigious school had no program for teaching theology to water buffalos.
But since Koyama was joining the faculty there, his book “was quickly and quietly returned to the shelves.”
What Can We Learn from Water Buffalo Theology?
After locating in New York, Koyama didn’t write about water buffalos anymore. He was in a different context, and his writing reflected that new setting.
Koyama’s second most important book is probably Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai: A Critique of Idols, which was published in 1985. His “context” then was the world threatened by nuclear war. He explained,
I have written this book with a keen awareness of the global peril of nuclear war. Wars are waged ‘in the name of God,’ that is, with ‘theological’ justification. Such justification is idolatry” (p. x).
The background “context” was the destruction of warring Japan in 1945. Koyama became a baptized Christian in 1942; three years later he saw Tokyo “become wilderness by the constant bombings.” And then, of course, there were the catastrophic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
If Koyama were still writing today, perhaps he would applaud an article that appeared last week on the Rolling Stone website: “False Idol—Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump.”
That long article, which I recommend you taking the time to read (here), helps us understand the political context that challenges theologians, and all of us, today.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Darwin, Pro and Con

Who was born on February 12, 1809? Yes, Abraham Lincoln was born on that day—and so was Charles Darwin. Lincoln is 15th on the list of “The 25 Most Influential People of All Time” (see here). Darwin is #9 on that same list, largely because of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, his revolutionary book published 160 years ago, on November 24, 1859.
Darwin’s Discoveries
Born about 175 miles northwest of London, from 1825 to 1831 Darwin studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and then went to the University of Cambridge to study for an ordinary degree, the usual preliminary for theological training.
Rather than becoming a medical doctor or a clergyman, though, Darwin became a natural scientist, and his voyage on HMS Beagle (1831~36) established him as an eminent geologist.
Based on his meticulous scientific research, by the end of that decade he had mostly constructed his theory of evolution, although his seminal book on that was not published until 20 years later.
On the Origin of Species led to a revolution in the way human beings thought about the world and themselves. As a 1999 essay in the Scientific American says, “Almost every component in modern man’s belief system is somehow affected by Darwinian principles.” 
Darwin’s Detractors
From the beginning until the present, however, Darwin has had his distractors. In the years following the publishing of his groundbreaking book, there were scientists who did not agree with his assertions.
By the 1870s, though, the scientific community and most of the educated public had accepted evolution as a fact.
The main detractors have been Christians whose belief in a literally interpreted Bible caused them to oppose evolution of the natural world, including humans. One of the contemporary evangelical Christian leaders of this opposition to Darwin was Phillip E. Johnson (b. 1940), who died last month.
Darwin on Trial (1991) was Johnson’s influential book widely read and cited by conservative Christians.
Darwin’s Defense
Since I am not a scientist, I have no way to authenticate Darwin’s scientific assertions. As a student of Christian theology and philosophy, I can (and will) offer a limited defense of Darwin.
I suppose there was a time when I did not accept Darwin’s theory of evolution as being correct—but even though I grew up in a conservative Baptist church, I don’t remember that ever being a live issue.
I also don’t know when it was that I first accepted evolution as being “true,” but by the time I had finished my seminary and graduate school courses/seminars under Dr. Eric C. Rust, my major professor, I no longer had any qualms about affirming the truth of evolution.
Because of Dr. Rust, who was a trained scientist as well as a theologian, I accepted a both/and position with regards to science and religion rather than an either/or position. That meant accepting both evolution and divine creation—and a rejecting both Darwinism and creationism.
The importance of that position became abundantly apparent when I began teaching Christian Studies to non-Christian students in Japan. Almost without exception, the students had been taught evolution in high school and believed it to be scientifically true.
Of the (literally) thousands of non-Christian students I taught, if presented the choice between science (evolution) or Christianity based on a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation stories, 99% or so would most likely have quickly chosen science.
I was happy to be able to emphasize that such a choice is not necessary. It was only in my last years in Japan that I was able to augment my assertions with the writings of Catholic theologian John Haught of Georgetown University.
Haught’s books God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (2000) and Deeper Than Darwin (2003) are highly significant books for theologically evaluating evolution. I highly recommend them.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Sand Creek Massacre, a National Disgrace

Earlier this month I wrote about sometimes feeling embarrassed to identify a Christian. But I am embarrassed not only because of things some Christian leaders as and do in the present but also because of what some have done in the past. The Sand Creek Massacre is one sad example.  
Established in April 2007
The Bare Facts
There are background events that I don’t have the space to elucidate here, but here are the bare facts of the Sand Creek Massacre, which occurred 155 years ago yesterday, on November 29, 1864.
The Third Colorado Cavalry commanded by Colonel John Chivington attacked a settlement of Cheyenne/Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek, about 175 miles southeast of Denver. At Chivington’s insistence, they murdered around 200 Native Americans, most of them women and children.
Prior to the massacre, Chivington reportedly said, “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! ... I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians. ... Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”
This was all done with the approval of Colorado Governor John Evans, who was also the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Colorado.
The Embarrassing Facts
John Milton Chivington was born in 1821 into an Ohio farm family. In 1844 he was ordained as a Methodist minister, serving in that capacity in Illinois, Missouri, and then assisting in a Methodist missionary expedition to the Wyandot Indians in Kansas in 1853. (The church I now attend is in Wyandotte County.)
Gov. Evans was also a Methodist. He had joined with other Methodists in 1850 to found Northwestern University in Illinois. Then two years after becoming governor of Colorado in 1862, he and Chivington founded Colorado Seminary, which later became the University of Denver.
The Sand Creek Massacre has, indeed, been an embarrassment for the United Methodist Church, and five years ago they sought repentance for that national disgrace (see here).
There were two Cavalrymen with the Third Regiment, Silas Soule and Joseph Cramer, who refused to join in the massacre and testified against Chivington—and Soule was shot in the back and killed in April 1865 because of his testimony against Chivington.
It is also embarrassing to us Christians that in contrast to Evans and Chivington, Soule was described as a “healthy skeptic” rather than a religious believer.
Repenting of the Facts
This past Sunday Sarah Neher, the Director of Faith Formation and Youth Ministries at Rainbow Mennonite Church, preached on “Deconstructing Thanksgiving.” It was a bold, fitting sermon for the Sunday before the national holiday and for the last week of National American Indian Heritage Month (here is a link to more about that).
Sarah said in her sermon,
This simple narrative [of the traditional Thanksgiving] sets the story like a fairytale. Casting Colonization as beneficial for everyone and that it was relatively peaceful. When in reality over the centuries since Europeans invaded Indigenous land, Natives have experienced genocide, the theft of their lands, and the attempted extinction of their culture.
Yes, the Sand Creek Massacre was simply the continuation of the “whites’” treatment of Native Americans from the beginning—starting with the Pequot War of 1636~38 and the Mystic Massacre of May 1637.
It was the continuation of words about “the merciless Indian Savages” included in the Declaration of Independence of 1776.
Perhaps rather than observing the day after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday,” those of us in the dominant culture should rather observe the days following Thanksgiving as Repentance Weekend for the way our ancestors treated the Native Americans.
That treatment has, indeed, been a national disgrace.
For Further Information
Here is the link to an article about the 21st annual Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run/Walk, currently in progress.
“Who is the Savage” is an excellent 14-minute video about Black Kettle, the “peace chief” head of the Sand Creek Native Americans in 1864.
And here is the link to a Rocky Mountain PBS documentary on the Sand Creek Massacre.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Transcending Fundamentalism

This is the eleventh and last blog posting this year related to my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism. I am working to get the updated and (slightly) revised edition published before the end of the year—and am hoping many of you will obtain a copy for yourself or give as a present to someone you care about (or both!).
The Necessity of Transcending Fundamentalism
Some Christians who have grown increasingly dissatisfied with fundamentalism have given up on Christianity altogether. I find that quite sad—and also unnecessary.
There are many other Christians, though, who are quite unhappy with fundamentalism, much like I am, but who have sought and found an expression of the Christian faith that seems decidedly superior to that manifested by fundamentalism and is worthy of wholehearted allegiance.
The latter is what I have been advocating in this book, and this final chapter emphasizes the necessity of transcending fundamentalism and finding a form of faith that fully honors God, is loyal to the Lord Jesus, and is invigorated by the Holy Spirit.
Rising above fundamentalism is important for Christian believers: much of the current rejection of Christianity by those raised as Christians is because of their negative reaction toward fundamentalism.  
Transcending fundamentalism is also important for Christians in their relationship with people who are not Christians. Earlier this month (see here) Pope Francis declared, “We must beware of fundamentalist groups . . . . Fundamentalism is a plague.”
Partly for creating a more peaceful society, it is necessary for Christians, as well as people in other religions, to go beyond fundamentalism.  
Help for Transcending Fundamentalism
There are numerous books, and organizations, seeking to help people who are or have been in fundamentalist churches to leave the clutches of such detrimental ways of thinking.
Through the years there have even been several different Fundamentalist(s) Anonymous groups, treating fundamentalism as a kind of addiction that people need to be freed from.
Unfortunately, many of those books and organizations were largely encouraging people to leave Christianity altogether—and certainly many have done that.
But there are also many books, such as Fed Up . . ., and new church organizations that have shown ways to reject fundamentalism and still remain in the Christian faith. Indeed, the 18th chapter of my newest book, Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT), is “One Doesn’t Have To Be A Fundamentalist To Be A Good Christian.”
That, I firmly believe, is manifestly true. And in fact, it might even be true that Christians need to transcend fundamentalism in order to be a good Christian.
The Limits of Liberalism
Speaking of (TTT), the 19th chapter of that book is “One Doesn’t Have To Be A Liberal To Reject Fundamentalism.” I reiterate that important point here.  
While many conservative evangelicals, as present-day fundamentalists are generally called now, tend to label my theological position as liberal, many true liberals likely would see me as fairly conservative from their point of view.
Indeed, soon after completing the first edition of Fed Up . . . I started working on the companion volume: The Limits of Liberalism: A Historical, Theological, and Personal Appraisal of Christian Liberalism (2010). Beginning in January, I am planning to begin updating and slightly revising that book also to re-publish by the end of 2020.
As I say at the end of the last paragraph of Fed Up . . .,
There is a valid form of the Christian faith that steers between the dangers of fundamentalism on the right and the dangers of liberalism on the left. It is that expression of the faith that I urge my Christian readers to join me in seeking, finding, and following as we try to be true to Christ.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Thinking about Bohemians

The word Bohemian has two distinctly different meanings. The two parts of this blog posting are about the word used in those disparate ways. Originally, Bohemian referred to a resident of Bohemia, now a region of the Czech Republic. For the last two centuries, though, Bohemian has often been used to denote “a socially unconventional person, especially one who is involved in the arts.”
The Bohemians in “La Bohème
Most of you, I assume, are familiar with “Babette’s Feast,” the short story by Karen Blixen and the 1987 Danish film by the same name. Recently, I have called my daughter Karen Babette, for she, too, was lavish in her birthday gift to me.
This past weekend, Karen made a special trip to Kansas City for the main purpose of taking me to see a performance of Puccini’s opera “La Bohème” at the magnificent Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. We thoroughly enjoyed it.  
Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts (opened 2011)

The original opera premiered in 1896 and the first American performance took place the next year. It has become one of the most popular operas of all time.
Earlier this year, a website describing the ten most popular operas said this about “La Bohème”:
Puccini’s masterpiece perfectly captures the pleasures, pains, and sheer over-the-top hugeness of love in the first flush of youth. The story is so simple, it’s almost a joke: the Parisian poet Rodolfo falls for the quiet seamstress Mimi, and then she gets ill and dies. But around that framework Puccini creates arias (solos) and duets of ravishing beauty.
The opera’s name is simply the French word for Bohemia (or Bohemian). Early in the 19th century the Romani people (called Gypsies in the past) in western Europe were thought to be from Bohemia and inaccurately given that name.
The opera begins with four “Bohemian” men (in the second sense of the word) in their shabby garret in Paris on Christmas Eve in 1830 or so—and it ends after more than two hours of beautifully sung arias in the same place with the sad death of Mimi.
Jan Hus, a Real Bohemian
In thinking about the 19th (or 20th) century “Bohemians,” I couldn’t help but think of one of my “heroes” of church history, Jan Hus (aka John Huss), the Bohemian reformer who was burnt at the stake in 1415.
Long before the Reformation led by Martin Luther in the first third of the 16th century, the “Bohemian Reformation” began in the last third of the 14th century. Hus is the best-known representative of that Reformation. 
Born around 1369, Hus became a prominent preacher and educator in Prague. He became the leader of those who deplored what they considered the current corruption of the Church and emphasized that Christ rather than the pope was the head of the Church. That led to his martyrdom.
As he was perishing in the flames, Hus, whose name means “goose,” reportedly declared to his executioners, "You are now going to burn a goose, but in a century you will have a swan which you can neither roast nor boil."
It was 102 years later that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door as the start of the Protestant Reformation in Germany.
The Unitas Fratrum or Unity of the Brethren Church was founded in 1457 by Bohemian followers of Hus who were greatly disappointed by the wars that followed Hus’s martyrdom.
About two hundred fifty years later some of those followers in Moravia, which borders Bohemia, migrated to Saxony and found refuge in Nicholas von Zinzendorf’s Herrnhut, and there the Moravian Church was born in 1727.
I greatly enjoyed the “Bohemians” singing on the opera stage, but even more I remain grateful to the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus and those who carried on his legacy.

Friday, November 15, 2019

A Remarkable Man, a Remarkable Church: Howard Thurman and Fellowship Church

Howard Thurman was a remarkable man and 75 years ago he founded a remarkable church. This article is about him, the church he founded, and a remarkable co-pastor of that church today.  

The Remarkable Howard Thurman
Howard Washington Thurman was born in Florida 120 years ago this month, on November 18, 1899 (although some sources say he was born in 1900) and died in 1981. Ordained as a Baptist minister in 1925, he has been characterized as “a spiritual genius who mentored MLK, Jr., and carried Gandhi’s teaching to America.”
Thurman was a part of a Student Christian Movement-sponsored four-person “Pilgrimage of Friendship” to South Asia in 1935-36That experience, including personal conversations with Gandhi, influenced Thurman greatly—and later reverberated throughout the civil rights movement in the U.S.
In 1953, Thurman became the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University (BU), the first African American to hold such a position at a majority-white university. At that time, MLK, Jr., was a graduate student at BU.
According to BU’s alumni magazine (see here), “King not only attended sermons [at Marsh Chapel] but also turned to Thurman as his mentor and spiritual advisor. Among the lessons that inspired him most were Thurman’s accounts of a visit to Mohandas Gandhi in India years earlier.”
So much more needs to be said about Thurman, but for additional information I highly recommend the superlative February 2019 PBS documentary “Backs to the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story.”
The Remarkable “Fellowship Church”
In the fall of 1943, Alfred G. Fisk, a Presbyterian clergyman, had the vision of starting a church that would welcome people of all races and creeds. Thurman, who had served as Dean of the Howard University Chapel since 1932, was asked to recommend a young black minister who might be interested in helping start such a church.
Thurman decided to volunteer himself and requested a year’s leave of absence from Howard beginning July 1, 1944. Thus, Thurman was the main one responsible for starting a new church in San Francisco with a remarkable name: The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. For short, it is often just called Fellowship Church.
On October 8 of that year, Fellowship Church held its first public meeting—and last month it celebrated its 75th Jubilee Anniversary.
Fellowship Church was unmistakably based on the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Along with that basic affirmation, though, the second of the three-paragraph “commitment” agreed to by Fellowship Church members says,
I desire to share in the spiritual growth and ethical awareness of men and women of varied national, cultural, racial, and credal heritage united in a religious fellowship.
In 1959, Thurman wrote a book titled Footprints of a Dream: The Story of The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples (reissued 2009). I finished reading it last week, and it was a fascinating read.
The Remarkable Current Co-pastor of Fellowship Church
Since 1994, Dr. Dorsey O. Blake has been co-pastor of Fellowship Church. (Currently, the other co-pastor is a white woman.) This past June, I had the opportunity of hearing/meeting Dr. Blake, for he was the speaker at the local Juneteenth banquet.   

Dr. Blake was born in 1946, and before he was a year old his father became pastor of First Baptist Church here in Liberty, a predominantly African American church from its beginning until the present. His first six years in school were at the segregated Garrison School in Liberty, established for Black students in 1877.
Fellowship Church in San Francisco, literally seeking to be a place of fellowship for all peoples, continues to thrive under the leadership of a remarkable man whose early life was spent as a Baptist PK (preacher’s kid) in the small town of Liberty, Missouri.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Embarrassed to be a Christian?

Even though 4½ years ago I posted a blog article (see here) titled “An Embarrassed Christian,” once again I am speaking to this same issue with new illustrations. Now, even more than in 2015, I must admit being embarrassed to be a Christian—at least some of the time.  
Embarrassed to be a Christian
There are many reasons why I, among many others, find myself embarrassed to be a Christian today. A bulk of that embarrassment currently comes from the widely publicized support of DJT by conservative evangelical Christians.
This matter has become an oft mentioned matter in mainstream media—and as impeachment talk intensifies, so, it seems, does the rhetoric of highly publicized Trump supporters who blatantly wear the Christian label.
On October 29, evangelical leaders met privately and prayed with DJT in the White House. Robert Jeffress, who is pastor of the historic First [Southern] Baptist Church in Dallas, was one of those leaders at that White House meeting.
Three days later on Fox Business, Jeffress said, “Evangelicals understand that the effort to impeach President Trump is really an effort to impeach our own deeply-held faith values, and we’re not going to allow that to happen.”
(For more about this, see the Nov. 1 TV interview here and also this Nov. 4 article  titled “Pro-Trump preachers on message against impeachment probe.”)
On October 31, the White House confirmed that Paula White would join the White House staff to advise President Trump's Faith and Opportunity Initiative. (So now we have White in the White House?)
White, who delivered the invocation at DJT’s inauguration in 2017, is a flamboyant, controversial, "prosperity gospel" televangelist based in Florida. She is often identified as President Trump’s “personal pastor.” White, of course, was at the Oct. 29 White House gathering, standing closest to DJT as they prayed.
(For more about White, see this NowThis video, which is a collage of disturbing things she has recently said.)
When included in the same religion as Christian leaders such as Jeffress and White, I am embarrassed to be a Christian—and they are just two of many examples that might be given.
Not Embarrassed to be a Christian
However, I am not embarrassed to be a Christian when, for example, I read Jim Wallis’s new book Christ in Crisis, based on the “Reclaiming Jesus” statement of 2018.
Wallis is critical of both the Republican and Democratic parties, and “Politically Homeless” is a subsection of the seventh chapter. Throughout his book, he is highly critical of President Trump. But it is quite clear that in his criticism of DJT, Wallis writes as he does not because he is a Democrat but because he is a Christian.
In a recent NYTimes article about Paula White, Wallis is quoted as saying that he is repeatedly asked “how can these Christians support Donald Trump when so much that he says and does is literally antithetical to the person and teachings of Jesus?”
Wallis’s response is found in his new book. The answer to “bad” Christianity is more faithful allegiance to Jesus Christ. A statement of what that allegiance means is found in the “Reclaiming Jesus” document drafted during the Lenten season of 2018, and Wallis’s book is largely based on that statement. (Here is the link to that important document.)
So, am I embarrassed to be a Christian? Yes and no.
I am embarrassed to be a Christian when lumped in with people mentioned in the first part of this article. But I am certainly not embarrassed to be a Christian when identified with people like Jim Wallis and the Christian leaders who signed—and the many Christians who agree with—the “Reclaiming Jesus” document.