Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Reflections upon Turning Eighty

Today is my 80th birthday, so rather than writing about theological / ethical / political matters as I often do, this article is mostly personal. Although I had nearly finished "Temptations upon Turning Eighty," the article I originally planned for today, I decided to scrap it and to focus instead on gratitude rather than on temptations. 
Theologian Diana Butler Bass’s new (2018) book is titled Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. Although I have not yet read it all, I think Bass's book is basically correct, so I begin these reflections by expressing my gratitude for the following:
(1) I am thankful for good health. Except for a small pill I take each morning for high blood pressure and another small pill I take each evening for cholesterol, I seem to have no other health problems that are not kept under control with diet and exercise. (That is why I am not yielding to the temptations to quit jogging or just to eat whatever I want.)
Also, I am grateful for good genes as well as for good health: my father was quite healthy until four days before he died at age 92.
(2) I am thankful for a good wife and a good family. As many of you know, June and I married in May 1957, the same month we graduated from Southwest Baptist College ( a junior college then, a university now). I was still 18 and June was 19.
Then on this day, August 15, the next year, our son precious Keith was born. Today we are celebrating, together, his 60th birthday along with my 80th birthday.
After Keith, we had three more children, and now we also have seven grandchildren. I am most thankful for the good wife and mother June has been all these years and also grateful for the fine people our children and grandchildren are—and are becoming.
(3) I am thankful for my calling and for my career in Japan. As most of you know, June and I spent 38 years as missionaries to Japan, and I served for 36 years as a full-time professor and administrator at Seinan Gakuin (University) and the last 24 of those years also as a part-time pastor.
Our years in Japan were quite difficult in some ways, but very rewarding in most ways. I am deeply grateful for our calling to that field of service and for the challenges of seeking to fulfill that calling.
When I wrote about June’s 80th birthday last year (here), I said that “she has basically lived a life without regrets.” I can mostly say the same about myself—but still, there are some regrets.
I have absolutely no regrets about getting married so young and starting our family so soon. (If I had the choice, I would certainly do the same thing again.) But I do regret that through the years I was not a better husband and a better father. There are many ways I could have—and should have—done better.
Also, as implied above, I have absolutely no regret about living and serving in Japan for 38 years. (Once more, if I had the choice, here also I would do the same thing again.) But I do regret that I was not able to be a more effective teacher, a more effective pastor, and a more effective administrator.
Gratitude Tops Regret
Still, there is no use of harboring any regrets for the past, which cannot be changed--or in worrying about the future. So I am determined to live in the present, today and in all the days ahead, with gratitude, bearing in mind these wise words:
By Ann Voscamp

Friday, August 10, 2018

TTT #21 Too Little Is Almost Always Better than Too Much

For some reason, the 21st chapter of Thirty True Things . . . (TTT), which can be accessed here, seems a bit dated—but it shouldn’t. True, it refers quite a lot to ideas, books, and movements of the 1970s, but the problems being confronted then are still problems now, so I have no hesitation in linking this article to Chapter 21 of TTT.
What is the Problem?
My children probably didn’t appreciate me mentioning it so much, but from time to time I would say to them, “Too little is almost always better than too much.” That saying was not in harmony with the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, in which we were living then—or are living now.
In the United States, as in most of the “developed world,” the winds of capitalism have blown over the land so strongly that, fanned by the ubiquitous commercials on television, radio, and newspapers, the desire of most people is for more and more material things.
Generally, people don’t like to think about or use the word greed, especially in referring to themselves, but upon careful analysis it is hard not to think that that word is applicable to much of the consumerism rampant in capitalist societies.
Of course, greed means the excessive desire to acquire more and more, especially more material possessions, than what one needs. But the question is always about what is enough and what is, truly, excessive.
Compared to the vast majority of the people in the world, most of us middle-class people in North America, Europe, and Japan possess much more than we really need.
And considering the sizeable portion of the world’s population who live in poverty, the middle class, to say nothing of the upper class, definitely have excessive possessions. (Of course, many of those middle-class people, especially in this country, have excessive debts as well.)
So it was thinking about the problem of economic imbalance in the world, about matters of justice and equality, that led me to say to my children that too little is almost always better than too much.
What seems like too little is usually enough; too much is usually wasteful and/or extravagant.
Responding to the Problem
In the 1970s there was considerable talk among some people about “simple living.” John V. Taylor, a prominent British missionary and theologian, published in 1975 a thoughtful book called Enough Is Enough.
Back then, “Live simply so that others may simply live” was a popular slogan in some circles. The idea behind that statement, of course, is that those who voluntarily choose to live simply will have more resources to share with those who don’t have enough to live on. 
The simple living movement has been seen more recently: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Simple Living was published in 2000.
Caring for the poor has a long history in the Christian church. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church makes the RCC’s position clear: the Church’s love for the poor “is a part of her constant tradition.”
The same Catechism clearly declares, “Love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use.” It then cites the stinging words of Archbishop John Chrysostom (c.349~407): “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life.”
Over-consumption is one of the ways in the contemporary world that the rich steal from the poor. That is the reason one of the things important for everyone to know now is that, especially when it comes to middle-class peoples’ stance toward material things, too little is almost always better than too much.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

A Truth Decay Crisis

“Trump Doesn’t Give a Tweet about the Truth” was a title I thought about using for this article—but while it is partly about DJT, this article is more broadly about the crisis of truth-knowing and truth-telling in contemporary society.
Warnings about Truth Decay
Douglas Groothuis, an evangelical Christian, authored a book titled Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (2000). Hearing of that book soon after it was published, I thought it was a clever title and that it dealt with important issues.
Not surprisingly, The Social Construction of Reality (1966), the book I wrote about in my 7/25 blog article, is cited in Groothuis’s book. Among other things, postmodernism affirms that reality/truth is socially constructed—and Groothuis (b. 1957) sees that as a problem.
“Truth decay” is not just a concern of conservative Christian theologians, however. Increasingly it is becoming a serious concern in society at large, particularly in the world of politics.
Early this year, RAND Corporation produced a 324-page report under the titled “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life.”
To this point I haven’t read but just a bit of the RAND report, but my impression is that it is an important study about a real crisis.
Warning about the Death of Truth
I have read the new book by long-time New York Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani. Her book, released last month, is titled The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump
Early in her book, Kakutani (b. 1955) writes that DJT “lies so prolifically and with such velocity that The Washington Post calculated that he’d made 2,140 false or misleading claims during his first year in office” (p.13).
(Update: According to an Aug. 1 Washington Post article, as of July 31 DJT had publicly made 4,229 false or misleading claims.)
In her concluding chapter, Kakutani suggests that “Donald Trump is as much a symptom of the times as he is a dangerous catalyst” (p. 152).
Indeed, before the end of her Introduction, she calls attention to academics in the 1960s who were “promoting the gospel of post-modernism, which argued that there are no universal truths” (p. 18).
While she does not mention Berger and Luckmann, Kakutani decries “the post-Trump cultural landscape, where truth increasingly seems to be in the eye of the beholder, facts are fungible and socially constructed” (p. 43).
But the prevarication so prevalent in present-day society is a problem that cannot be explained simply as something produced by the theories of social construction and postmodernism.
While there are positive (and true!) aspects of social constructionism and postmodernism, there is nothing commendable about the willful telling of untruths for political purposes and/or personal gain.
Heeding the Warnings
Last week I also read Preaching Truth in the Age of Alternative Facts (2018), a slim book (only 89 pages) by William Brosend, an Episcopal priest and seminary professor. (I recommend that fine book especially to any of you preachers who may read this.)
One of Brosend’s main points is that truth is not primarily what people believe or say but is found in how they live. Thus, he emphasizes, truth “may best be proclaimed as righteousness (dikaiosunē)” (p. 5).
In other words, which Brosend does not use, truth is something we do or practice (see John 3:21) by working for (social) justice. (The Greek word dikaiosunē means both righteousness and justice.)
Consequently, one of many negative results of truth decay is the maintenance, or increase, of social injustice.
So, yes, it seems that DJT—and many of those who support him—abets truth decay by not caring a tweet about either truth or justice.

Monday, July 30, 2018

TTT #20 Some Things Have to be Believed in Order to be Seen

This article, based on the 20th chapter of Thirty True Things . . . (TTT), is closely related to my previous article posted five days ago. But this article starts with reference to a delightful fictional story rather than the thought of a noted sociologist.
The Secret of the “Little Prince”
One of my favorite books is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, and one of my favorite quotes is this one from that delightful little book: the fox says to the Little Prince, 
It is in this vein that I suggest that some things have to be believed in order to be seen.
That affirmation has sometimes been hard for this Missouri boy to affirm. Missouri is the “Show-Me State,” and we Missourians like to have visual proof of something before we believe it.
The desire for proof is not a bad one. Such a desire keeps us from being gullible, and that is good. Even though it is fairly common, gullibility is not a good thing.
Michael Moore, the social critic who is well-liked by some and maligned by others, once said, “There’s a gullible side to the American people. They can be easily misled. Religion is the best device used to mislead them.”
It is never good, though, to be misled by religion—or by anything else. Seeking proof or sufficient evidence before believing something, thus, is usually a very good thing. But that is not always possible.
In fact, it is not possible for the most foundational aspects of our existence. As the fox wisely said, “Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
The Insight of Pascal
Let’s move now from a charming book by a French writer to the ideas of another, more famous, Frenchman, Blaise Pascal, about whom I wrote a whole article last October (see here).
Pascal believed that true religion must be the free choice of the human heart and will. Thus, he suggests that God wishes “to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart and hidden from those who shun him with all their heart.”
Consequently, God “has qualified our knowledge of him by giving signs which can be seen by those who seek him and not by those who do not.” On the basis of that understanding, Pascal makes this frequently quoted aphorism:
There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.
If God and the things of God were so plainly visible that there was no question about their existence, humans would have no freedom except to believe. But if God were completely hidden and unknowable, then no one could believe.
Naturally, most atheists object to Pascal’s statement—and to faith in general. They use the words blind faith to criticize the believer’s position. But it has been suggested that blind is a rude word that people who do not have faith stick on to the faith of those who have it.
Of course, theology, which is “faith seeking understanding,” is an important discipline that endeavors to counter blind faith. As Kierkegaard recognized, faith may begin as a leap, for it obviously is not based on sight from the outset.
Nevertheless, rigorous thinking, critical analysis, and careful investigation (i.e., deliberate theological activities) are certainly incumbent upon any serious person of faith.
But all of that does not change the fact that some things have to be believed in order to be seen.

[This article is from the first and last sections of Chapter 20 in TTT. Click here to access the entire chapter.]

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

There Really Are "Alternative Facts"

This article was prompted by the death of Peter Berger a year ago. Berger was not only a world-renowned sociologist but also a notable lay Lutheran theologian. He is best known for The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966), which he co-authored with Thomas Luckmann.
A Bit about Berger
Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1929, Berger immigrated with his family to the U.S. when he was 17. Although he attended a Lutheran seminary, he ended up becoming a sociologist rather than a minister. 
In 1981 Berger began teaching at Boston University and was the founding director of BU’s Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs from 1985 until his retirement in 2009.
An early and vocal opponent of the “God is dead” movement in the 1960s, Berger was much appreciated by evangelical Christians, as is attested to in this Christianity Today article posted two days after his death on June 27, 2017.
A Bit about Plausibility Structures
According to Berger (and Luckmann), knowledge—and people’s conceptions/beliefs of what reality is—is socially constructed.
There is an objective and a subjective aspect to reality, and the society in which one lives, one’s culture or subculture, by necessity interprets/constructs objective reality subjectively. That interpretation/construction forms one’s plausibility structure.
Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989)
“Plausible” is an adjective that means “seeming reasonable or probable.” Synonyms include such terms as “believable,” “credible,” “logical,” and “rational.” 
All interpretations of reality are not equally plausible, of course. There is, for example, pronounced differences between what is considered plausible by the dominant “white” culture in the U.S. and by the traditional culture of American Indians.
And more and more there seem to be pronounced differences in the plausibility structures of devoted Democrats and fervent Republicans in this country.
Because of the distinctly different plausibility structures, there really are “alternative facts,”—for “facts” are only what the society one belongs to agrees upon as being real or true.
Why Is This Important?
Consider a couple of examples.
Most Christians believe that God created the world and that at least some of the miracles as reported in the Bible, especially the Resurrection, are true. For those of us who grew up in the church and with belief in the message of the Bible, Creation and Resurrection are “facts” (although even among Christians now those facts are not interpreted in exactly the same way).
But for those with a completely “scientific worldview,” that is, with a belief system that only accepts that which can be proved by the scientific method, the creation of the universe by God and miracles cannot be factually true. Their plausibility structure rules out all “supranatural” causes.
Or, consider the matters of abortion and homosexual activity. If one’s plausibility structure holds it to be factually true that all abortion is murder of preborn humans and all homosexual activity as an abomination and a sin against God, then there must necessarily be ongoing opposition to abortion and such practices as same-sex marriage.
Consequently, those with that plausibility structure see Christians who are pro-choice (= pro-abortion in their understanding) and/or who affirm LGBT rights as having defective faith and perhaps as not being real Christians.
Moreover, with that worldview, there is no way one could vote for a political candidate who is pro-choice and/or who favors same-sex marriage. Such is just not plausible. (This matter is well described in this 7/21 Washington Post article.)

This article just scratches the surface of an extremely important topic, but perhaps it is becoming clear why it can truly be said that because of diversely different plausibility structures, there really are alternative facts.

Friday, July 20, 2018

TTT #19 One Doesn’t Have to be a Liberal to Reject Fundamentalism

In my 7/10 blog article (and Chapter 18 of Thirty True Things . . .), I asserted that one doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist in order to be a good Christian. I am convinced that that is the case. But does opposing fundamentalism make one a liberal? Not necessarily, and that is the main point of this article (and Chapter 19 of TTT).
It Is Not Necessary To Go from One Extreme to the Other
My distaste for Christian fundamentalism is so strong that, as most of know, I wrote an entire book published under the title Fed Up with Fundamentalism (2007). Consequently, some people have assumed that I must be a liberal. One of my Facebook friends once referred to me as a “proud liberal.”
But does opposing fundamentalism make one a liberal? No, one doesn’t have to be/become a liberal to reject fundamentalism.
Coincidentally, the very week I was working on the first draft of the 19th chapter of TTT, I received the first shipment of my second book, The Limits of Liberalism (2010). In that book I call for finding a position between the extremes of staunch fundamentalism and thoroughgoing liberalism.
The Difficulty of Finding the Middle Position
In The Limits of Liberalism I wrote about how in ancient Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis were the names of two sea monsters situated on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy.
Those fearful monsters, representing a hazardous whirlpool and a dangerous reef, were located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to sailors who sought to pass between them: avoiding Charybdis usually meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa. 
I certainly agree with those who seek to escape the “monster” called fundamentalism, as evidenced by the content of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism. Still, I see the danger of fleeing the “monster” on the right only to be gobbled up by liberalism, the “monster” on the left.
Unfortunately, some have been so intent on escaping Charybdis (fundamentalism) that they have sailed straight into the jaws of Scylla (liberalism).
Seeking the Radiant Center
While working on The Limits of Liberalism, I came across a delightful book by Adam Hamilton. He is the dynamic pastor of Church of the Resurrection, a Methodist megachurch here in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area. The book is titled Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White (2008).
While I largely agree with the centrist position Hamilton takes on most issues, I decided I did not like to talk about that position as being gray, for generally gray is not a very appealing color. So I went on to suggest that perhaps we can seek a position “between the extremes” of black and white, one that is a brilliant blue, a gorgeous green, or a rousing red.
Even though I like Hamilton’s position and found his calling for a “radical center” appealing, I decided to call my vision for the desired middle position the radiant center.
The radiant center is the gathering/rallying place for those who reject fundamentalism as well as for those who recognize the limits of liberalism.
It is the between-the-extremes place for all who realize that one doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist to be a good Christian as well as for all who recognize that one doesn’t have to be a liberal to reject fundamentalism.

[Here is the link to the entire Chapter 19 of TTT, which amplifies and gives examples related to this brief blog article.]

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Nice Isn’t Enough

Brett Kavanaugh seems like a nice guy. That is the impression I got Monday evening listening to DJT’s flowery introduction of his new nominee for the Supreme Court and from Judge Kavanaugh’s own remarks.  
BK, as he is already being called, seems to be a good family man and the kind of neighbor you would like to have. A family friend wrote in the Washington Post (here) that “Kavanaugh the carpool dad is one great guy.” Probably so.
Kavanaugh is also a civic-minded citizen and active Christian. He has tutored children at a D.C. elementary school, volunteered for charity groups, and is a regular participant in services at his Catholic church in Chevy Chase, Md., where he lives.
Being a nice guy, though, is not adequate reason for supporting Senate approval for his sitting on the high court. Please consider the following matters of serious concern.
(1) BK’s Position on Presidential Power
Perhaps the biggest problem with DJT’s pick of Kavanaugh is that, as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in a press conference on Tuesday, the President “chose the candidate who he thought would best protect him from the Mueller investigation.”
While there may be some exaggerated statements regarding BK’s likely protection of DJT against indictment while in office (see this Fact Checker article), there is adequate reason to think that Schumer’s statement is basically correct.
It is also questionable whether any new nomination of a Supreme Court justice should be considered by the Senate as long as the President is under investigation with aspects of that investigation possibly being brought before the high court at some point.
(2) BK’s Position on Health Care and Women’s Reproductive Rights
In a statement following Kavanaugh’s nomination, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) declared, “He's demonstrated a hostility to the Affordable Care Act that the Trump administration is continually working to undermine.” (Remember, the ACA is a law passed by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court to this point.)
At the same press conference mentioned above, Senator Schumer also said that Kavanaugh's selection would put healthcare protections in the ACA, such as protections for people with preexisting conditions, “at grave, grave risk.”
In addition, as the official blog of the Democratic Party says, “a vote for Kavanaugh would be a vote to . . .  deny women their constitutional right to make their own health care decisions.”
(3) BK’s Position on Church and State
On July 10, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU), an organization I have supported for decades, publically declared that Kavanaugh is “the wrong choice for the Supreme Court.” That was because of their perception that BK was not committed to the concept of separation of church and state. They wrote (here),
The separation of church and state is the linchpin of religious freedom. We can’t afford to have a Supreme Court that would undermine it. By nominating Kavanaugh to the court, Trump threatens the vision of religious freedom for which Americans United has fought over the last 70 years. That’s why Americans United must oppose him.
On the same day, AU issued a five-page report (see here) on BK’s record and stated that he is a “threat to church-state separation and religious freedom.” 
For these, and other, reasons I insist that Brett Kavanaugh being a nice guy is by no means reason enough to support his appointment to the Supreme Court.
Many of you who live in States with one or both Senators possibly inclined to vote to approve Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court may likely want to contact those Senators and express your reservations about his suitability.
His being nice isn’t enough reason for approving him for the SCOTUS!