Friday, October 20, 2017

What Belongs to Caesar?

Since July 1, Thinking Friend Cindy Molini has been pastor of the United Christian and Presbyterian Church in Lawson, Mo., which is about 25 miles northeast of where I live in Liberty. In response to her kind invitation, I have the privilege of preaching in her absence this Sunday (Oct. 22). 
A Trick Question for Jesus 
As I never did as a pastor but have often done over the past 10-12 years, I chose my text for Sunday’s sermon from the lectionary, deciding to use Matthew 22:15-22, the Gospel reading. In response to a trick question, that passage contains Jesus’ well-known words: 
Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. (CEB)
Those who were seeking to trap Jesus in order to silence him and his movement asked him: “Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Doesn’t this mean that the strict Jewish people wanted to follow the Torah much the same way that strict Muslims want to follow Sharīʿah?)
Answering either in the affirmative or in the negative would ignite explosive opposition. The Jews would have strongly disapproved of Jesus sanctioning the payment of the Roman taxes; the Romans would have condemned non-payment of those taxes.
So, Jesus asked for a coin that was used for paying the taxes, noted the image (Greek: eikon) on the coin, and then made the oft-quoted statement about rendering to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to God. 
A Tricky Situation for Pacifists 
Last night (Oct. 19) the symposium titled “Remembering Muted Voices: A Symposium on Resistance and Conscientious Objection in WWI” opened at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. (You can learn more about that event here.)
One feature at this symposium is the premier of traveling exhibit “Voices of Conscience: Peace Witness in the Great War,” developed by Kauffman Museum, affiliated with Bethel College in Kansas. 
(That exhibit will be at Rainbow Mennonite Church from Oct. 24-29; if you are or will be in the Kansas City area during that time, you are cordially invited to go see it.)
What do pacifists do when their country goes to war and able-bodied young men are expected to fight for their country? It is a tricky situation, one with no solution without censure. 
Some follow the expectations, or demands, of their country and become soldiers—often to the disappointment of or embarrassment to their pacifist families and/or churches. 
Others follow the teaching of their church—the historic “peace churches” are the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) that began in the 1740s and the descendants of the Swiss Anabaptists (mainly the Mennonite Church and the Church of the Brethren) dating back to 1525—and refuse military service.
The latter are the “conscientious objectors,” many of whom suffered greatly—some to death--during World War I, although most were treated with more civility in World War II and afterward.
So, What Belongs to Caesar? 
While they may not all articulate it in this way, most of those who are, or who support, conscientious objectors are also inclined to support the government (“Caesar”) by paying taxes, although some few are war-tax opponents. Nevertheless, most believe that human beings are created in the “image” of God and thus belong exclusively to God, not to Caesar.
Those who belong to God must follow the teachings of Jesus, which contain no sanction to kill. Since they believe that all people bear the image of God, there can be no justification for killing other people—even in war. 
Caesar may legitimately claim our coins, but never our allegiance and obedience to God in whose image we are made.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

In Praise of Pascal

Many years ago I made a list of the top ten modern (since 1500) theologians and/or philosophers by whom my thinking had been most influenced. The first name on that chronological list was, and remains, Blaise Pascal. That French genius, who died 355 years ago in 1662, was a man whose ideas are certainly praiseworthy still.
Pascal’s Precocity 
There is no question that Pascal (b. 1623) was a precocious child. He reputedly discovered for himself the first 32 of Euclid’s propositions while still a boy, and as a teenager he invented the first calculating machine.
In his twenties, Pascal confirmed the existence of the vacuum and instigated the development of calculus. His expertise as a physicist is such that “pascal” became the name for “a unit of pressure in the meter-kilogram-second system equivalent to one newton per square meter.”
Later, “Pascal” became the name for “a structured computer programming language developed from Algol and designed to process both numerical and textual data.”
There is no question that Pascal from an early age excelled as a mathematician, physicist, and inventor. However, it is because of his deep religious experience and then because of his keen thinking as a Christian philosopher that I find him most worthy of praise.
Pascal’s Profundity 
Pascal’s great contribution as a Christian thinker came after a profound religious experience in November 1654, when he was 31 years old. At that time he wrote, and then carried with him until the time of his death, the following testimony of that mystic experience:
"God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob," not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ. . . .
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
Following that “night of fire,” Pascal abandoned his pursuit of science until just before his death and decided to write a book for the vindication of the Christian faith. But, alas, he died at the young age of 39 before the book was published and even before his copious notes were organized.   

By 1670, though, Pascal’s thoughts were published, without much organization, under the name Pensées—and the book is still published in various translations and editions, including more than one on Kindle. 
While some of Blaise’s thoughts may seem a little blasé, many are quite profound. Of particular import are these contentions:
The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing: . . . (423)
It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason. (424)
(Pascal’s quoted words are all from A.J. Krailsheimer’s 1966 translation of Pensées.) 
Pascal’s Paradoxicality  

It is particularly Pascal’s dual emphasis on opposites that I have found most helpful. For example, concerning reason: 
If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous. (273)
Pascal’s paradoxical view of human nature is of great significance. “Man is only a reed, but he is a thinking reed.” (200)
He repeatedly wrote about both the wretchedness and the greatness of humans.
Pascal also averred, “There are only two kinds of men: the righteous who think they are sinners and the sinners who think they are righteous.” (562)
Wikipedia interestingly, and correctly, summarizes Pascal’s paradoxicality in these words: “In the Pensées, Pascal surveys several philosophical paradoxes: infinity and nothing, faith and reason, soul and matter, death and life, meaning and vanity—seemingly arriving at no definitive conclusions besides humility, ignorance, and grace.”
Many of Pascal’s “thoughts” are praiseworthy and unquestionably worth thinking about—perhaps especially in the present day.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Deplorable Persistence of Racism

In spite of having an article ready to post this morning, I felt compelled to write this piece yesterday, the day after VP Pence’s theatrical protest of the protesters at Sunday’s NFL game in Indianapolis. 
Trump’s/Pence’s Protest 
As has been in the news so much, too much, in the past weeks, the President has made some players in the National Football League (NFL) the target of repeated criticism. It all started back on Sept. 22 when DJT spoke at a rally in Alabama for Senate primary candidate Luther Strange. 
At a loss for appropriate words, as is often the case, at that rally DJT publicly called some NFL players SOBs. That was his depiction of those who have knelt rather than standing and saluting the flag during the singing of the national anthem.
From the next day on, DJT has persistently tweeted criticism of the protesting players, NFL owners, and the NFL in general for permitting such protests. 
DJT approved (or ordered?) Pence’s “political stunt,” as some have characterized it, of walking out of the stadium when (according to this article) on Oct. 8 for “the second week in a row, the 49ers had more than 20 players kneeling during the national anthem with their hands over their hearts.” 
(It has been reported that the cost of the Veep’s trip to Indianapolis for his brief appearance at the game cost us U.S. taxpayers around $200,000.) 
The NFL Player’s Protest
At most of you know, the protest of the NFL players was initiated last year by Colin Kaepernick, the then quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. During his team’s last preseason games, Kaepernick sat and later kneeled during the singing of the national anthem. 
Actually, Nate Boyer, a U.S. Army veteran convinced Colin Kaepernick to kneel, rather than sit, while protesting police brutality during the national anthem, and Kaepernick has clearly said that he has “great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country.”
In a post-game interview on Aug. 26 last year, however, Kaepernick said,
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
The protest against racism of mostly black NFL players has greatly escalated this year after the President’s public remarks and persistent tweets.
Racism’s Persistence
Not only are DJT’s tweets persistent, the prevalence of racism seems to be quite persistent also.
Last Sunday when I was checking Yahoo! Sports online to see how the Colts-49ers game turned out, I began to read comment after comment in support of Trump/Pence and in criticism of the protesting NFL players.
Sadly, there were dozens of comments dissing the protesters before I saw one that mentioned the point of the ongoing protest of the black players: the persistence of racism.
I couldn’t help but wonder if many of those who wrote were not in the batch of “deplorables” that Hillary so famously/infamously mentioned last year. For example, here are a couple of the racist comments I happened to see:
“Blacks destroy their neighborhoods, why not their workplace?”
“No more NFL games for me. I'll just go skiing instead. There aren't any black skiers or blacks within 199 miles of a ski area.”
The nation continues to face real and perplexing problems. Kneeling during the national anthem isn’t one of those problems. Racism is. When are DJT and the VP going to deal seriously with that problem?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Why Study the Bible?

For the first time in a long time, on Sept. 24 I attended a Sunday School class in a Southern Baptist church. That experience was the springboard for the question posed above.
Questioning Bible Study
June and I spent the last weekend in September in southwest Missouri. On Sunday morning we attended a very lively Baptist church in a rural area several miles south of Springfield. 
The study material used for the class we attended was the “Explore the Bible” quarterly produced by LifeWay, the publishing company known from 1891 to 1998 as the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board.
Exodus and Leviticus are being explored during this fall quarter; the Sept. 24 lesson was on Exodus 14:13-28. In the class we attended, the King James Version was the translation used, although LifeWay also offers two other translations.
By the end of the class, attended by 12-15 older adults, I began to wonder about the purpose of it all. There was almost no attempt, either by the teacher or the quarterly, to make the class any more than a study of the events found in the Bible passage.
After returning home, I was able to buy a digital copy of that Sunday School quarterly online. Here are a couple of statements in it indicating what readers might learn from study of Ex. 14:13-28. (i) “God delivers His people, providing a way of escape.” (ii) “Believers demonstrate faith in God by obediently following His directions.”
Bible Study Questions
In listening to the Sunday School teacher, who was quite articulate in his lecture about the Bible passage, there were several questions that I would like to have raised. I did not have any chance to do that—and it probably would not have been appropriate to have done so as a visitor.
Here are some of my questions: If the Church is God’s people today, will God provide us a way of escape from our “enemies” similar to that provided to the Israelites whom Moses led to and through the Red Sea?
Since God did not tell the Israelites to build up armed forces and fight against the Egyptians militarily, why do so many U.S. Christians seem to think they should be supporters of massive armed forces now?
Then, what are God’s directions to believers today? Is God directing Christians in the U.S. to support the current President? My guess is that probably 80% or so of the people in the church I attended on Sept 24 voted for and continue to support DJT, even though (or because?) he threatens to unleash “fire and fury” upon North Korea and to “totally destroy” that country. Is that God’s will?
So, why study the Bible to learn about the past without considering or discussing what lessons there might be for the present?
Of course it is much easier, and far less controversial, for a teacher or a quarterly to deal with information about the past than to struggle with present-day implications of the Bible passage being studied.
Purpose of Bible Study
There is, certainly, some value in studying the Bible for understanding its content in historical context. Shouldn’t the primary purpose of a Sunday School class, though, be seeking to understand the meaning and challenge of the Bible for us in our context today?
But who is willing to engage in the hard work of that kind of Bible study? And to what extent would our interpretation be shaped by our political views rather than the latter being shaped by the Bible?
Still, we surely need to study/explore the Bible with the intent of finding it a lamp to our feet and a light to our paths.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Hochstetler Massacre

September 19, 1757, was a terrible, terrible day for the Jacob Hochstetler family in Northkill, Pennsylvania. A new trilogy of historical novels brilliantly tells the story of the massacre that occurred then and the long-lasting repercussions of that tragedy.
The Facts
As the roadside marker indicates, the first Amish-Mennonite congregation in the U.S. was established by 1740 near Northkill Creek in Berks County, Pennsylvania, about 75 miles northwest of Philadelphia. (For some inexplicable reason the date seems to be off by ten days.)
The home of Jacob Hochstetler and his family in Northkill was attacked by a band of Delaware and Shawnee Indians on the night of Sept. 19, 1757. It was an unspeakable tragedy for the family. Jacob's wife, whose name is not known, and two of the children were killed; Jacob and two sons, Joseph and Christian, were taken as captives.
Several months later, Jacob was able to escape from the Indian settlement and to return home. Joseph was 15 when captured and while completely resistant to his captors at first, he gradually assimilated into the Indian community and was reluctant to return to his Amish home when he had the chance to do that several years later.
Christian was captured when he was 11. He had the hardest time going back home when freed and becoming a member of the Amish community again.  
Plaque at the original Hochstetler homestead.
The Trilogy
Ervin Stutzman is the author the “Return to Northkill” trilogy, consisting of Jacob’s Choice (2014), Joseph’s Dilemma (2015), and Christian’s Hope (2016). They are engaging historical novels by an author who comes from the Amish tradition.
On the first Sunday I attended Rainbow Mennonite Church in 2011, I met Clif Hostetler and he has been a good friend (and soon became a Thinking Friend) ever since. Jacob Hochstetler was Clif’s 5th great-grandfather. (The original German name was shortened by many of Jacob’s descendants.)
(Clif loaned me Stutzman’s books, and I enjoyed reading all three of them between April 2016 and January of this year.)
Author Stutzman (b. 1953) was born into an Amish home in Iowa and was baptized in an Amish community in Kansas. He later joined a Mennonite church. Stutzman, who earned a Ph.D. at Temple University, has been the executive director of Mennonite Church USA since 2010—and he is also a descendant of Jacob Hochstetler.
The Lessons
There is room to mention briefly only two of several “lessons” that can be learned from the Hochstetler massacre and its repercussions.
(1) The choice referred to in the first book of the trilogy is primarily about whether Jacob and his sons would use firearms to shoot the attacking Indians. The sons thought they should. Jacob’s choice was to remain true to the Anabaptist teaching of nonviolence. 
In Stutzman’s novel, Jacob tells God in prayer before the attack, 
This farm belongs to you. My family belongs to you. And if people come to take them from me, I will not take up arms against them. I will be faithful to you as my Savior and Lord. You alone are my defense (p. 72). 
Clearly, that choice resulted in the tragic slaughter of Jacob’s wife and two of his children. Many would say it was a foolish choice. But if he had killed some of the Indians then, it is quite likely that a later raid would have resulted in him and all his children being killed.
(2) The Indian way of life is attractively narrated. Far from picturing the Native Americans as “savages,” Stutzman portrays Indian culture in an appealing way that fosters harmony rather than animosity. These books promote deeper understanding of, and harmony with, others (“the other”) as well as nonviolence.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Plantinga's Prestigious Prize

Alvin Plantinga is not a well-known name among the broader public, but his is one of the best known and most respected names among contemporary Christian philosophers. Yesterday (Sept. 24) he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize at The Field Museum in Chicago.
Who Is Plantinga?
Alvin Plantinga is an American philosopher whose main work is in the philosophy of religion and epistemology. He served as president of the Society of Christian Philosophers from 1983 to 1986.
The son of first-generation immigrants from the Netherlands, Plantinga was born in 1932. He graduated from Calvin College, where his father was then teaching, and then after completing his Ph.D. at Yale University, his teaching career was mostly at Calvin College and the University of Notre Dame.
Plantinga’s most influential books are God and Other Minds (1967), and a trilogy of books on epistemology, culminating in Warranted Christian Belief (2000). The later was revised for a wider audience and published as Knowledge and Christian Belief in 2016.
Also, Alvin Plantinga is the title of a book published in 2007 by Cambridge University in their “Contemporary Philosophy in Focus” series. 
Meeting Plantinga
The Society of Christian Philosophers organized a conference on the campus of Peking University in the fall of 1994. I was able to fly from Fukuoka, Japan, to Beijing (about a 4½ hour flight) and attend that stimulating meeting.
There were several top Christian philosophers from the U.S. there, but it was Plantinga whom I most wanted to hear—and I was not disappointed in what I heard at the meetings and in the personal chat I had with him while walking across the spacious campus of Peking University, the premier university in China.
That academic meeting, which fruitfully focused on dialogue between the Christian philosophers from the U.S. and the Chinese philosophers who taught at Peking University and were atheists, was led by Plantinga. I was impressed by his brilliant mind, his respect for the Chinese scholars, and his deep and reasoned Christian faith.
Plantinga’s Prize
John Templeton was a financial investment whiz and a philanthropist. According to the Templeton Prize website (see here), Templeton (1912-2008) “started his Wall Street career in 1938 and went on to create some of the world's largest and most successful international investment funds.”
After becoming a wealthy man, in 1972 Templeton “established the world's largest annual award given to an individual, the Templeton Prize, which honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”
The first Templeton Prize was awarded to Mother Teresa, and a wide variety of religious practitioners and academics have received the prestigious, and lucrative, prize in the succeeding years. (This year Plantinga received $1,400,000 as the recipient of the Templeton Prize.)
Some “liberals” have been critical of some choices for the Templeton Prize, such as Billy Graham in 1982 and especially Charles Colson in 1993 and Bill Bright in 1996. But most recipients have not been conservative Christians; for example, the Prize was awarded to the Dalai Lama in 2012 and to Desmond Tutu in 2013.
(For those of you who have the time and interest, I recommend opening the Templeton Prize website, here, and following the links to the various articles and videos found there.)

I am grateful to Alvin Plantinga for the significant contributions he has made to critical thinking as a Christian philosopher. His being chosen as this year’s recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize accentuates the fact that Christians can, indeed, be deep, cogent thinkers. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Bible is Like a Rorschach Test

Long before I read Brian Zahnd’s new book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God I had made a note to use the above title for a future blog article. Thus, I was surprised when I read this in BZ’s book: “Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test: our interpretation of the text reveals more about ourselves than about God” (p. 14). Quite true!
Literal and Metaphorical Rorschach Tests
Rorschach inkblot #10
The story of the background and development of the Rorschach test is thoroughly told in a book by Damion Searls published earlier this year under the title The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing. (I have only scanned the book, but here is the link to Thinking Friend Clif Hostetler’s review of it.)  
Rorschach created the inkblots test for the purpose of psychological analysis and evaluation. But the popularity of those tests has resulted in their metaphorical use also.
In his book, Searls reports that in 1993 Hillary Clinton said to an Esquire reporter, “I’m a Rorschach test” (p. 263). And then in 2008 Barack Obama said to a New York Times reporter, with a somewhat different meaning, “I am like a Rorschach test” (p. 309).
Truly, as the Rorschach test amply illustrates, people look at the same thing, or same person, and come to widely different conclusions about the nature and significance of those things or persons.
That is true for the Bible also.
The Bible as a Rorschach Test
How people read and interpret the Bible varies greatly. For example, the Bible as seen by fundamentalist Christians is different in multifarious ways from how it is seen by those of us who are not fundamentalists.
The passages of the Bible a person chooses for evaluating current issues tells us a lot about that person. Their use of the Bible is, truly, like a Rorschach test.
For a case in point, consider Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. Last month (here) I quoted Jeffress saying that God has given Pres. Trump the authority to “take out” Kim Jong-un. That dangerous assertion is based on his selection and interpretation of “God’s Word” as found in Romans 13.
Then on Sept. 11, in commenting on the immigration issue and the “Dreamers,” Jeffress told Fox News (see here) that “God is not necessarily an open borders guy.”
According to the Dallas pastor, the Bible teaches that God has established borders and instituted the government to protect its citizens. Thus, he says, those Christians who emphasize compassion based on Gen. 1:27 are telling only one side of the story.
It seems quite clear than when Jeffress looks at the Bible, he sees a book that supports the current President of the U.S. and the bulk of the Republican Party. That doesn’t tell us much about the Bible, but it tells us a lot about Jeffress and the “evangelicals” who agree with him.
The Proper Criterion
In his book mentioned above, Zahnd emphasizes that all of the Bible should be read from the viewpoint of Jesus. That is, the Old Testament, the letters of Paul, and all other parts of the Bible must be interpreted in light of the life and teachings of Jesus.
Baptists used to have it right: the 1963 version of the Baptist Faith and Message clearly and importantly stated: “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
Thus, when Jesus is the basis for interpreting the Bible, we find a perspective considerably different from that of Pastor Jeffress.
What does your interpretation of the Bible say about you?