Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Two Christianities?

Can differences of degree become so great that they become differences of kind? I recall that issue being discussed long ago when I was in graduate school. But what about it? For example, can different expressions of Christianity become so great that they actually become different in kind, producing two Christianities?

The Christianity of Fundamentalism/Conservative Evangelicalism

In 1923 the eminent conservative Presbyterian scholar J. Graham Machen published a book titled Christianity and Liberalism. Among other things, Machen (1881~1937) asserts in that book that it is “perfectly clear that liberalism is not Christianity” (p. 160)—and it was theological liberalism he was writing about.

(For a succinct summary of Machen and his position, see my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, pp. 25~27.)

Machen’s rejection of liberalism was nearly 100 years ago, but that same mentality is still around. In the 1920s, the attack on liberalism was regarding Christian doctrines. Now, however, progressive Christians are more likely to be castigated because of their position on social issues such as abortion and/or gay rights.

Within the last week or ten days, I have seen on Facebook scathing attacks by conservative evangelicals on one of my most esteemed Thinking Friends and also on President Carter. Both were attacked because of their position on abortion and LGBT rights.

This is the Christianity that is being espoused by many of DJT’s supporters, and their tendency to think “we are right, they are wrong” often morphs into the position of “we are (true) Christians and they are not.”

The Christianity of Progressives/Liberals

There are other Christians, however, who are as critical of fundamentalists/conservative evangelicals as the latter are of progressive/liberals.

One good example of the progressive rejection of conservatism is that of Chris Kratzer as seen in his book about which I wrote (here) on December 10.

Even though he was once a part of it, Kratzer’s stringent criticism of conservative evangelicalism is so strong, it is hard to see how the expression of Christianity he now embraces is a form of the same Christianity.

Much of the “liberal” criticism/rejection of conservative evangelicalism is because of the latter’s support of DJT. This is seen, for example, in the writings of blogger John Pavlovitz; click here to see his Dec. 5 article “Is Christianity Helpful Anymore?”

Even more explicit is William Saletan in his Nov. 25 article in Slate: “Trump’s Christian Apologists are Unchristian.” (According to Merriam-Webster, unchristian can mean “not of the Christian faith” or “contrary to the Christian spirit or character.” I am not sure which Saletan, who is Jewish, meant; maybe both.)

In reading some of the diatribes against the very large percentage of white evangelical Protestants who support DJT, and seeing some of the demeaning memes and derogatory statements about such people, it is hard not to conclude that there are, indeed, two quite different Christianities now.

Can There Be a Radiant Christian Center?

The last subsection of my book The Limits of Liberalism is titled “Recommending the Radiant Center.” There I call for a radiant center “composed of both progressive evangelicals and conservative liberals”—and I still think such a center is highly desirable and deserves the best efforts of all serious Christians, regardless of their theological beliefs or stance on social issues.

But since that book was published in 2010, I have become much less hopeful that such a center will become reality—at least in my lifetime. Rather than any noticeable movement toward a radiant center, the apparent movement has been mostly toward greater polarization.

Thus, it seems that differences in degree have become a difference in kind with the result that now, sadly, it is only too accurate to speak of two Christianities.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Introducing a Buddhist Priest and His Temple

Hayashi Kakujō is the chief priest of the widely known Nanzōin Temple on the outskirts of Fukuoka City, Japan. I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with Hayashi-jūshoku (Hayashi is the family name, jūshoku is the Japanese word for high priest) during the years I lived in Fukuoka and am happy to be able to introduce him to you here.
Nanzōin and the Priest Hayashi
One of the best-known Buddhist temples in southwest Japan is Nanzōin, which is about a 30-minute drive east from Seinan Gakuin University (where I long taught). Nanzōin is the most-visited temple of the Shingon (True Word) Buddhist “denomination” in Kyushu.
Hayashi Kakujō was born in 1953 when his father was the chief priest at Nanzōin, and he became the chief priest there in 1980. I met him for the first time not long after that. In addition to talking with him at Nanzōin, he also sometimes attended the interreligious dialogue group I met with regularly.
Hayashi-jūshoku is an intelligent, well-educated man who was a beneficial member of interfaith discussions. He also has considerable knowledge of and appreciation for Christianity, choosing to send one (or more) of his children to a Catholic school an hour away from their home.
There is a waterfall on the grounds of Nanzōin, and standing under it as a spiritual discipline is commonly practiced there. Hayashi-jūshoku did that every New Year’s Day in years past—and still does as far as I know.
(One time, when it was much warmer than on January 1, I tried standing under the waterfall—but the rush of cold water took my breath away and I had to immediately step out; I found out later that you are supposed to hold your breath when stepping under the waterfall.)
The Sleeping Buddha of Nanzōin
In 1995 Nanzoin completed the construction of what is said to be the largest bronze reclining Buddha statue in the world. It is about 45 yards long (think almost half a football field), 12 yards tall, and weighs some 300 tons, almost as heavy as a jumbo jet airplane.
One time Hayashi-jūshoku took June and me to see it not only from the outside but on the inside as well. It is an impressive statue! 
The month following the completion of the reclining Buddha statue, Hayashi-jūshoku won a lottery jackpot for what was then worth about $1,500,000—and ten days later he won another lottery for almost $65,000!
The mass media picked up on that and presented it as a Buddhist form of the “prosperity gospel”—and following that good fortune, Hayashi-jūshoku seems to have received hundreds of requests to speak at public meetings.
The True Word Buddhism of Nanzōin
The best-known form of Buddhism from Japan is, of course, Zen—although it is far from the most popular form in Japan. Shingon (True Word) Buddhism, more popular in Japan, is also known as Esoteric Buddhism and is closely related to Tibetan Buddhism.
Shingon was brought to Japan by the Japanese monk Kūkai in 806 after spending two years studying it in China.
Last fall I wrote a review of the book Jesus and Kukai: A World of Non-Duality (2018) for the journal Missiology: An International Review. Since few of you will see that review when it is published, I have posted it on my supplementary blogsite (see here).
Jesus and Kukai was authored by Peter Baekelmans (b. 1960), a Belgian Catholic missionary and an initiated practitioner of Shingon.
While the book is not without its faults, it gives a wealth of information about Shingon, and as I say in the review, I wish I had had it to read during the years I had direct contact with Hayashi-jūshoku.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Where's the Compassion?

As I post this first blog article of the new year, the U.S. government remains partially shut down. The issue at stake, as you know, is the funding for the wall the President insists is necessary for U.S. security.
The President’s Position
On Dec. 27, DJT tweeted that “we desperately need Border Security and a Wall on the Southern Border. Need to stop Drugs, Human Trafficking, Gang Members & Criminals from coming into our Country.”
There are at least two major problems with that tweet, which embodies the position DJT has expressed in various ways and in various places.
On the one hand, he has implied—or said fairly directly—that opposition to his plans to build a wall is, as a fact checker wrote (here), “tantamount to not wanting any border security at all.” That is patently not the case.
The main problem is the flimsy factual support for the claim that a wall would significantly reduce the problems the President enumerated. There is, certainly, a need to stop the problems Trump listed in his 12/27 tweet, but he has given no evidence that a wall would decisively decrease the number of unsavory immigrants entering the U.S.  
The Democrats’ Position
In 1914, the inimitable American poet Robert Frost wrote “Mending Wall,” a poem that begins, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” That widely analyzed poem is about two neighbors, one a progressive who questions the need for a wall and the other a traditionalist who repeats the words, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
The current political wrangling in Washington is about far more, and something far more complex, than a rock wall between two neighbors in rural New England. Yet, it is quite clear that the Democratic leaders of the Senate and the House do not love the President’s insistence on building a wall.
Sen. Schumer and Rep. Pelosi do not, of course, want criminal elements to come into the U.S. freely, in spite of what DJT has said. They are clear, however, in their opinion that border security would be best achieved by measures other than a multi-billion-dollar wall.
Which Position is More Compassionate?
In addition to, and directly related to, the issue of “the wall,” is the whole complex matter of responding to the desperate people, including many parents with young children, from Central American countries seeking asylum in the U.S. 
One of 2018’s unforgettable images: Maria Meza and her twin daughters sprint from tear gas lobbed
at the border wall between the U.S and Mexico in Tijuana, Nov. 25, 2018. Reuters/Kim Kyung Hoon
A major purpose of DJT’s proposed wall is to keep many of those distressed people out of the U.S.
Perhaps I missed it, but I haven’t seen anything in the news media about the President or his Republican supporters making any statements indicating any concern for such desperate people.
Where’s the compassion that would seem normal for people of goodwill?
What distresses me more than the apparent lack of compassion by political leaders is the support they are receiving by mostly conservative Christians.
Almost daily I see Facebook friends, including some of my cousins, who strongly support the President and his plans for a wall on the southern border.
Especially to them I post this question again: Where’s the compassion?
I encourage such Christians to read (here) “What child is this? A Christmas reflection” by Marv Knox, a venerable Baptist journalist. Knox writes graphically about his visit last month with “survivors of the infamous Central American caravan.”
In July of last year, Julie Pennington-Russell, pastor of the First Baptist Church in D.C., wrote a blog article titled “Welcoming the Stranger.” She quotes the Pew Research Center’s report indicating that the demographic least supportive of welcoming refugees is white evangelical Christians.
Sad! (as you know who has often said).
Where’s the compassion?

Monday, December 31, 2018

The World in 2019

The Economist is a premier magazine which has been published continuously for 175 years now. Each year in December it publishes an issue about the coming year. (Interestingly, their very first issue was released in 1843 just three months before Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which was also published in London.) This article uses the same title as the new year issue of The Economist.
Happy New Year of the Wild Boar!
As in past years, I begin with reference to the Japanese (and Chinese) zodiac. Following the ancient 12-year cycle, this is the year of the inoshishi in Japan. In English this New Year in East Asia is often called the Year of the Pig, but there is a difference between a buta (a domestic pig) and an inoshishi (wild boar) so I prefer to call it the Year of the Wild Boar.  
In spite of largely negative connotations of “pig” in this country, those born in the Year of the Wild Boar, such as my grandson Carl who turns 12 in 2019, are said to be happy, easygoing, honest, trusting, and brave.
Politics in 2019
The biggest political question in 2019 is the fate of the U.S. President. There seems to be a strong possibility that he will be impeached. However, unless there are irrefutable “crimes and misdemeanors” documented by the Mueller report, he probably will not be removed from office by the Republican-majority Senate.
For quite some time I have thought it quite likely that DJT would resign sometime in 2019. But the credible comment has been made by several that his being in the White House is quite likely the only thing that will keep him from being sent to “the big house” (prison).
Regardless, 2019 promises to be another year of political turmoil. The Economist predicts that the year ahead “is going to be a destructive one in American politics.” That may well be their prediction for the new year most likely to come true.
The Economy in 2019
One of the repeated “predictions” The Economist mentions for 2019 is a financial recession, especially in the U.S.—but a U.S. recession would, of course, have a negative effect on most of the world’s countries.
The editor’s first point in his lead article titled “The World in 2019” is that the economic wind in America is changing and “by the end of the year it could be heading into a recession.” And his second point ends with him saying that “the good times for USA Inc won’t last.”
Sadly, I’m afraid that prediction may also come true.
And in Japan . . .
A new “era” will begin with the enthronement of a new emperor in 2019. I remember well January 8, 1989, when the current era (named Heisei, meaning “achieving peace”) began on the day after the death of Emperor Hirohito.
The year of 2019 by the “Western calendar” will be Heisei 31—and the last year of the current era. Emperor Akihito has announced his abdication of the Chrysanthemum Throne on April 30, and a new era, the name of which is not yet known publicly, will begin on May 1.
Personally . . .
I don’t have any plans for 2019 that involve being away from home, where I am content to be—sleeping in my own bed every night and taking 10-minute naps through the day as needed.
But among other things, I do plan to keep on reading at least a book a week, learning (a day when something new is not learned is a day wasted), thinking, and writing blog articles to share with you, my dear Thinking Friends.
Happy New Year to each of you!

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Can You Hear the Christmas Bells?

Five days ago I posted a blog article about Charles Dickens’s famous novella “A Christmas Carol.” This article is about a powerful Christmas poem Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote twenty years later, in 1863.
Longfellow (1807~82) was unquestionably one of the most famous American poets of the 19th century. When I was in elementary school, I read some of his poems—which I assume is true for many of you. I am thinking particularly of “The Village Blacksmith” (1842) and “Paul Revere’s Ride” (1860).
Although I probably didn’t first read it until later, one of my favorite Longfellow poems is “A Psalm of Life” (1839). If you haven’t read that powerful poem recently, I encourage you to take a couple of minutes to click here and read it.
For those of you who like good novels, I highly recommend Jennifer Chiaverini’s delightful Christmas Bells (2015), which in alternating chapters toggles between the historical story of Longfellow in the 1860s and a contemporary fictional story set in Boston and featuring a children’s choir practicing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” 
As you perhaps know, in the summer of 1861 Longfellow's beloved wife Fanny died of burns after her dress caught on fire. Then at the end of November 1863, his oldest son, Charley, was seriously wounded as a Union soldier. Still grieving greatly over Fanny’s untimely death, Longfellow was greatly shaken by news of his beloved son’s life-threatening injury.
According to the novel, just before Christmas 1863 as he worried about Charley’s survival, Longfellow felt Fanny's inspirational presence and penned the words to "Christmas Bells."
Before my final comments, I am sharing the full text of that impressive poem. I certainly hope you will read these words, slowly and thoughtfully. Or if you would prefer to listen to them sung, here is the link to Karen Carpenter singing some of the verses.
I heard the bells on Christmas Day / Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet / The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come, / The belfries of all ChristendomHad rolled along / The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way, / The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, / A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth / The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound / The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent / The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn / The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head; / “There is no peace on earth," I said;
“For hate is strong, / And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:/ “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, / The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
On Christmas Day in 1960, my sermon was titled “Was the Song Wrong?” (That was also the title of my first Christmas blog article, posted in Dec. 2009.)
The time of peace on earth, as sung by the angels and recorded in Luke 2:14, has certainly not come as yet, but those words remain as our hope for the future and our challenge for the present.
May each of us do what we can in the year ahead to bring peace on earth!

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Singing the Praises of “A Christmas Carol”

For 175 years now, Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol has delighted, and inspired, people throughout the English-speaking world. Six years ago, which was 200 years after Dickens’s birth in 1812, I posted a blog article titled “A Dickens of a Good Story” (see here) and I encourage you to read it (again) as well as this new article.  
“The Man Who Invented Christmas”
Les Standiford, an American author/novelist, has written a book titled The Man Who Invented Christmas (2008). It is about how A Christmas Carol rescued Dickens’s career and led to a reinvigorated celebration of Christmas in England and the U.S.
Last month I read Standiford’s delightful book, and then June and I enjoyed watching the 2017 movie by the same name, even though the movie is quite different from the book.
Dickens started writing his short Christmas novel on October 13, 1843, and it was published on December 19. Earlier that year, Dickens had gone up from London and spent some time in Manchester, observing the plight of the poor in that industrial city.
It was at that very time that Friedrich Engels was studying the lives of the factory employees in Manchester. In The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), Engels described the heart of that city as a place of “filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness.”
First edition cover
Because of his own boyhood days as a child laborer with his father in a debtor’s prison, as well as from his visits to Manchester and the seedy sections of London, Dickens knew well about the problem of poverty—and the gap between the well-heeled (such as Scrooge) and the struggling poor (such as Bob Cratchit and his family).  
As is widely known, A Christmas Carol is about the redemption of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge as the three ghosts he encounters on Christmas Eve help transform him into a man of generosity and goodwill.
Dickens’s delightful story is credited with removing the lingering stigma of Christmas celebrations from 17th century Puritanism and making Christmas a time for family enjoyment and communal generosity.
Altering the Future
In Dickens’s story, Scrooge asks the third ghost, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”
And then, understandingly, Scrooge declares, “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”
When he awakens after the departure of the third ghost, the regenerated Scrooge proclaims that “the shadows of the things that would have been, may be dispelled. They will be. I know they will!” (p. 80).
And so it was in the story.
And so it can be for us, if we are as willing as Scrooge to change our ways—and here I am thinking more about society in general and not only individuals.
As is widely known, but also downplayed by certain political leaders, climate scientists have issued dire warnings about the “shadows of things that Will be” unless significant changes are made.
An October headline in The Guardian cries out, “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN.”
These are shadows of things to come—but as Scrooge recognized, “if courses be departed from,” things will change.
Just as Tiny Tim didn’t have to die because Scrooge became a benefactor of the Cratchit family, the looming global warming catastrophe can be averted by the human family changing its current course.

As Tiny Tim exclaims, “God Bless Us, Every One!”—and may God help us, every one, to alter the environmental future by making necessary changes in the new year.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

A Critical Thinking Jewell

For more than 60 years now I have had an affectionate relationship with Jewell. No, this Jewell is not a woman; rather it is how William Jewell College (in Liberty, Mo.) is often referred to.
The Campus of Achievement
William Jewell College was founded in 1849 and named for the Columbia, Mo., medical doctor who was a major donor of the needed funds for building a college on top of a large hill in the small town of Liberty.
June and I graduated from Jewell 110 years after its founding, transferring there after graduating from junior college and getting married in May 1957. In time, all of our four children would also graduate from Jewell.
Through the years I had the opportunity of teaching some courses at Jewell when on missionary furlough from Japan and after retirement.
While the college motto was, and remains, Deo Fisus Labora (Trust in God and Work), Jewell was long touted as the Campus of Achievement, and for 75 years selected graduates have been awarded citations at Achievement Day ceremonies each year.
(I was the probably undeserving recipient of one of the Citation for Achievement awards in 1982.)
The Critical Thinking College
While William Jewell College will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Celebration of Achievement from Feb. 27 to March 1, 2019, a new registered trademark, “The Critical Thinking College,” is now regularly used. 
I have mixed feelings about Jewell’s new slogan. It’s not that I am against critical thinking. Far from it. But I am not sure it is distinctive enough. Colleges and universities all over the country seek to foster critical thinking, as they should.
But if Jewell can actually achieve nurturing a high percentage of her students to become critical thinkers, that would be an achievement of major importance.
What is Critical Thinking?
Recently I read Steven Schuster’s 2018 bookThe Critical Thinker. The first chapter of that helpful book is “What is Critical Thinking?” In response to this basic question, Schuster writes,
Critical thinking occurs when we ask ourselves (and others) questions like “How do you know that?” or “How did you reach that conclusion?” or “What evidence supports this theory?” or “Are there any other possible explanations or alternatives that haven’t been considered yet?”  
Critical thinkers rarely follow a gut feeling. [What does this say about DJT?] They use logic and reasoning to reach their conclusions, rather than letting themselves be guided by their emotions (p. 11).
Back when I was a student at Jewell, there was no use of the term “critical thinking.” But I am confident I learned much about thinking critically then, especially in the Philosophy of Religion class, about which I have written previously (see here).
Further, I am happy to say that my four children are, by and large, critical thinkers. That is not solely because they are Jewell graduates, but the education they got there surely helped them hone the important skills of critical thinking.
Wednesday evening, we attended a meeting at which Dr. Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, who has been the president of Jewell since 2016, spoke about the college as it is now and as she hopes it will become in the near future.
“The Critical Thinking College” has been a primary emphasis of Dr. MacLeod Walls, and that emphasis, among others, is being credited with the recovery of the college from several years of some decline.
The picture below is one I took of June with Dr. MacLeod Walls on Wednesday evening. We are happy to be supporters of Jewell, her president, and the emphasis on critical thinking as the college celebrates its 170th anniversary next year.