Tuesday, December 29, 2009

When Compromise Is Not Good

In spite of what I wrote in my previous posting, I do not like compromise. That is one reason I am glad to have spent my life as a teacher/preacher rather than as a politician—although, certainly, compromising on some things was sometimes necessary in church conferences (business meetings) and faculty meetings.

In politics, as most of us realize, compromise is often necessary. And compromise is not always bad. At times it is even necessary and, thus, good. But there are times when compromise is not good.

Compromise is good when it is choosing a lesser evil for the public good. That is the logic behind the Niebuhrian/Obaman justification for war in some cases (although I still question whether that is a good compromise in most cases), and that was the logic behind many Senators voting for a less than ideal health care reform bill last week.

Compromise is bad, though, when it means giving up one’s ideals for one’s own personal benefit. Thus, compromising in order to reap financial benefits or even to gain the praise of others is not good. We should stick to our ideals even though that may mean forfeiting personal rewards that would come with compromise.

Art Gish’s The New Left and Christian Radicalism (1970) was one of the most important books I read in the 1970s. The Christian radicalism that Gish, a Church of the Brethren minister, wrote about is the type preached and practiced by the sixteenth-century Swiss Brethren (Anabaptists) and their descendants.

Gish claims that refusal to compromise was a part of the radicality of the Anabaptists. That is why they could persist in practicing believer’s baptism even when it was illegal to do so (as it was in Zurich after 1526). And that is why they could be consistent pacifists, when all around people were arguing that war is sometimes necessary.

The Swiss Anabaptists were true to their ideals. For that reason, some became martyrs, such as Felix Manz who was executed by being drowned in the Limmat River in central Zurich in January 1527. If push came to shove, I don’t know whether I would have the intestinal fortitude to hold fast to my ideals and beliefs rather than to compromise in order to save my life, but I have nothing but admiration for those who refuse to compromise because of their ideals.

Compromise may be necessary in politics, but doesn’t a strong religious faith mean holding firmly to one’s ideals without compromise?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Realism Triumphs Again

Well, it looks as if health care reform is going to pass. As you know, the Senate version was approved early on December 24, and one way or another the Senate and House versions will likely be harmonized, maybe even in time for the President’s signature before his State of the Union address late next month.

This is not an ideal health care bill. For the Republicans, of course, every health care bill is fatally flawed and to be strenuously opposed. Many Democrats, included the President, it seems, wanted things included in the health care bill that are not there. Many compromises were made, but such compromises had to be made in order to get the necessary votes to pass the bill.

The current issue of The Economist opines, “Every time someone tells you to ‘be realistic’ they are asking you to compromise your ideals” (pp. 38, 40). That is probably true. But the President and many senators had to be realistic and compromise their ideals to some degree in order to get a health care bill passed.

We have to realize that “politics is the art of compromise.” (I have been unable to find a source for that adage.) Also, “politics is the art of the possible” (Otto von Bismarck). As I wrote earlier, in spite of his fine Nobel Lecture, President Obama’s deployment of troops to Afghanistan showed the triumph of realism over idealism. And now with the health care bill, we see realism triumphing again.

While the health care bill leaves a lot to be desired, it is not a bad bill. Although it still leaves out millions, this reform will extend coverage to more than 30,000,000 Americans who don't have it now. This is no small matter, for that number represents nearly 10% of the nation’s population.

The health care reform bill is one example of democratic socialism at work. It is democratic in that it will be enacted by Congress, the democratically elected leaders of the nation. It is socialistic in that the government guarantees health care for at least most of the citizens of the nation.

The health care reform bill is socialistic in the same way that Social Security and Medicare are socialistic. There are problems, mostly financial, with both of those programs. But would any except the wealthiest among us want to do away with Social Security and Medicare? (I challenge those of you who might be opposed to the health care bill because it is socialistic to voluntarily forfeit your Medicare coverage.)

I would like to have had an “ideal” health care reform bill. But I am glad that realism triumphed over idealism, for in this case something is far better than nothing.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Was the Song Wrong?

In this last blog posting before Christmas, I take this means to wish each of you a very Merry Christmas!

In his comments after my previous posting, Chris Thompson emphasized Jesus as the Prince of Peace. I like that emphasis, and my greatest desire is that the people of the world will come to know Jesus and to know him truly as the Prince of Peace.

The birth of Jesus was accompanied with prophecies of peace. The familiar words the angels sang proclaim, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14, NRSV). With that as my text, more than fifty years ago one of my first Christmas sermons was titled “Was the Song Wrong?”

There was no peace on earth then, and there certainly is not today. I felt then, and still feel, somewhat like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote the following words during the Civil War:
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."
But Longfellow went on to write then, and I want to go on to affirm now:
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."
We may want to cry out like the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord, how long do we have to wait for peace?” And if we listen carefully, we may hear the Lord saying that if we want peace, we have to join with others who have the same longing and work for peace. We must recognize that peace, like war, must be waged. (According to the Baptist Peacemakers of North America at this URL address, this is one of twelve things every Christian should know about peace.)

And as we work for peace, let me share two of my favorite peace quotes:
"If you want peace, work for justice." (Pope Paul VI)
"There is no way to peace, peace is the way." (A. J. Muste)

The song was not wrong. It pointed to the way on which we should walk and the struggle in which we should engage.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Is Giving Alms Enough?

This is my follow-up to the posting about “The Amazing Booths” (Dec. 8). As I indicated then, I have the highest admiration for William and Catherine Booth and for the work of the Salvation Army, which they founded. I also have deep appreciation for local organizations, such as Harvesters, Love INC, and In As Much Ministry, and for those who volunteer to work with and who support those worthwhile groups.

But the question I raise is this: is giving alms (food, clothing, and other necessary items) enough? On the one hand, at the beginning the Booths and those who worked with them thought giving physical assistance was not enough, for they also expected those who received material help to receive spiritual help as well.

“Soup, Soap, and Salvation” was a slogan long associated with the Salvation Army. But now the Salvation Army, as well as the other organizations I mentioned, seem to place little emphasis on salvation, in the sense traditionally understood by evangelical Christians.

The main question that I have about groups that conduct praiseworthy charitable activities, though, is this: should they work more on the cause of poverty and physical needs instead of just focusing on the current needs of the persons they minister to?

Certainly, people need help now, and in no way do I want to belittle the assistance given the needy by organizations like the ones listed above. But the causes of poverty need to be addressed seriously also. But how can that be done effectively? Here we face strongly opposing ideas.

Hélder Câmara (1909-99) was a Brazilian priest who became an archbishop. You probably have heard his oft-quoted words: ““When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor were hungry, they called me a communist.”

Other South American priests who espouse “liberation theology,” a theology seeking to find ways to free people from extreme poverty and oppression, are, in fact, Marxists to a degree. They, of course, do not accept Marxist ideology or atheism, but they understand history largely as class struggle. And they believe that systemic changes must be made for the sake of the poor. The liberation theology they developed stresses God’s “preferential option for the poor.”

Liberation theology, both the South American version and the Africa-American version in the U.S., is sometimes criticized as fostering violence. I in no way condone violence, but I am far more opposed to the violence done against the poor of South America or against the African-Americans in this country than I am of the violence committed by desperate people. And it is unquestionable, I think, that there is systemic violence. That is why the system needs to be changed.

With regard to societal change, the extremes seem to be conservative capitalism seeking to maintain the status quo on the one hand and Marxism/Communism seeking structural change by violent revolution on the other. As usual, I want a position between the extremes, and perhaps that position is best found in some form of democratic socialism, which I probably will write more about later.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Realism Triumphs Over Idealism

About the same time I was making my last posting (on Dec. 10), President Obama was giving his Nobel Lecture in Oslo. “A Just and Lasting Peace” was the title of the President’s 36-minute speech as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, and I assume all of you have heard all or at least part of that talk.
In responding to an e-mail from one of my “thinking friends,” I said that I thought the speech “showed the triumph of realism over idealism, which is probably the necessary position for any President to take.” When I told June what I said, she disagreed; she thought the President still holds good balance between realism and idealism.
I agree that the talk itself showed idealism as well as realism, and maybe a good balance between the two. But the speech came on the heels of the President’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. It was because of that decision that I maintain that realism has triumphed over idealism.
The President’s “lecture” was given partly to justify his decision to deploy more troops to combat terrorism, with the goal of creating a just and lasting peace. But can war ever do that? Since the time of “the Great War” (WWI), which was to be “the war to end wars,” every war this country has been engaged in, with perhaps the exception of the war against Iraq, has been for the express purpose of creating “a just and lasting peace.”
As a pacifist, I do not believe war can or will lead to peace. As a Christian pacifist, I do not believe war is consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ. In this regard, I think the Swiss Anabaptists had it right. They maintained that Christians should not be magistrates, for that inevitably demands compromises. One such compromise springs from the necessity of replacing idealism with realism.
As several commentators have pointed out, President Obama’s speech seemed to reflect the influence of theologian/ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). In the late 1930s Niebuhr rejected pacifism and propounded “Christian realism.” He became one of the main Christian ethicists to urge the U.S. to become involved in the war against Hitler in Europe. Mennonite theologian/ethicist John Howard Yoder (1927-97) was a strong and vocal critic of Niebuhr. But politicians have almost unanimously agreed with Niebuhr, which perhaps they inevitably must.
When there was question about his ability to serve as Commander in Chief, Jimmy Carter made reference to his agreement with Niebuhr’s views. When he was still a candidate for President, Barack Obama referred to Niebuhr as his “favorite philosopher.” Niebuhr probably had more influence on national politicians in the twentieth century than any other theologian, and his influence continues to be seen in President Obama's talks and actions.
So, as Niebuhr was a strong advocate of realism, there is ample theological/ethical support for realism triumphing over idealism in the combination of the words and actions of President Obama. But the question still remains, will that, in fact, bring about a just and lasting peace? I hope so, but I am afraid not.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Celebrating Human Rights Day

Today is Human Rights Day, a yearly observance in commemoration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948. The Guinness Book of Records says that the UDHR is the world’s “most translated document.”

The Baptist World Alliance (BWA) for more than twenty years now has encouraged Baptist congregations around the world to observe Human Rights Day (HRD) on the Sunday closest to Dec. 10. (I wish Second Baptist Church where I am a member would do so.) On its website the BWA makes available HRD resources, such as “A Prayer of Commitment for Human Rights Day” written by a Brazilian Baptist. That prayer ends with these words:

“As followers of Jesus Christ, we pledge to be agents of life who actively oppose the powers of death manifest in situations of urban and rural violence, war, genocide, and human trafficking, abuses against women and children, economic and sexual exploitation, racial discrimination and religious intolerance. We commit to so respond to your presence in our lives that our cowardice may be turned into boldness, our egotism into solidarity, our fear into hope, and our weakness into strength. With your help, we will courageously serve as agents of your kingdom of freedom, justice, love and peace. In this, may your grace and mercy always attend our efforts. We pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen!”

This is a fine prayer. But as with other materials on the BWA website and in most other places, it does not say anything about gay rights. But the Amnesty International USA website states clearly that it “believes that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, should be able to enjoy the full range of human rights, without exception.” They go on to say, “However, every day, across the globe, sexual orientation or gender identity leads to abuse in the form of discrimination, violence, imprisonment, torture, or even execution.”

I pray that at this time of recognizing human rights more and more people, and especially Christians, will come to realize that gay and lesbian people generally fail to enjoy “the full range of human rights” and to support efforts to extend those rights to LGBT people across the world as well as to others.

Just this week a broad range of Christian leaders in this country denounced the terribly harsh anti-gay bill now being considered by the Parliament of Uganda. I am thankful for that, but I wish they would also speak out for the human rights of gays and lesbians in this country as well. (Lee Judge in this morning’s Kansas City Star has a good cartoon about that, which you should be able to see by clicking here.) Full human rights should be available for everyone, everywhere.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Amazing Booths

William and Catherine Mumford Booth were amazing people. Three years ago I read the impressive biography William and Catherine: The Life and Legacy of the Booths: Founders of the Salvation Army (2003) by New Zealand author Trevor Yaxley, and I have been a big fan of the Booths ever since.

In my last posting I made mention of the Salvation Army. William and Catherine started what became the Salvation Army in 1865. The original name was the East London Christian Mission, and the name was changed in 1878 to what it is now.

It was largely out of appreciation for and in honor of William and Catherine Booth that I volunteered for the first time ever to ring Salvation Army bells in December 2006, and I have now done that each year since.

William and Catherine were both born in 1829, so they were children at the time Chares Dickens wrote The Adventures of Oliver Twist (1837-39) and teenagers when Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) was published. They knew first-hand about the squalid conditions of the many poor people in England during the aftermath of the industrial revolution as depicted by Dickens.

The Booths were also becoming adults at the time Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto (1848), combating what they saw as the exploitation of the working class by the bourgeoisie, the social class characterized by their ownership of capital and the control of culture.

William and Catherine responded in Christian love to the poor of their day, helping meet the physical needs of many while continuing to preach the message of spiritual salvation. Although I greatly admire and appreciate all they did, there is one point of criticism: they seemingly did little to seek to change the causes of so much suffering by the poor. This is a theme which I plan to write more about soon.

But let me close this posting by praising what the amazing Booths did. They founded an organization that has for years now been the largest non-governmental provider of social services in the world. Although its activity has been secularized in many ways, their UK website still states its mission, consistent with the original vision of the Booths, in these words:

“The Salvation Army, an international movement, is an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church.

“Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.”

That, in my opinion, is a fine mission statement. But is it broad enough?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Where God Left His Shoes

It is a tough movie. I’m speaking of Where God Left His Shoes, a 2007 indie (independent) movie directed by Italian-American Salvatore Stabile. The title comes from an old Italian saying. Stabile has told how his father often used that phrase: “When I was a kid, we moved into this apartment, and I remember him looking all around the place and saying, ‘Well, it’s not where God left his shoes, but it’ll do.’"

Friday evening, June and I watched the DVD, which was released last month, with daughter Kathy and granddaughter Katrina. We all thought it was a tough movie, for it shows well the plight of a homeless family in New York City in December. And they are homeless in spite of being “good” people wanting to work and trying hard.

This is a meaningful film to see during the Advent season. The Advent theme this week has been hope, and the poster for the movie emphasizes the words, “Hope is the Greatest Gift of All.” And as one reviewer wrote, the hope portrayed in the movie is neither sentimental nor sappy. The official website for the movie sums it up well: “Where God Left His Shoes is the story of a family that refuses to break apart during the darkest time of their lives and discovers that they will survive as long as they have each other.”

The movie makes a brief reference to help received from the Salvation Army. That was gratifying as June and I had just rung the bell by a SA red kettle an hour each yesterday. The headline for an editorial in this morning’s Kansas City Star is “Donations at red kettles add up to aid needy in KC.” This year, the editorial says, Salvation Army officials hope bell ringers will bring in $1,600,000 to help people in the Kansas City community. It goes on to state:

“Everything helps. The Salvation Army in the last year has seen a 30 percent increase in people requesting help for food, clothing, shelter and utility assistance.”

June and I were glad we could do a little to help the Salvation Army yesterday. But as I wrote in my previous blog, because we did something does not mean we have done all we should.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

So What Should We Do?

My friend Easel Roberts sent significant comments about my last posting. (If you haven't read them yet, I hope you will do so now.) He wrote, in part, ". . . the response I have to Cone's book and speech as well as this blog is 'and therefore, I should do what?' In my opinion, without an 'and therefore we should . . .' we are only irritating old wounds which does nobody any good."

I think Easel's "complaint" is a legitimate one, and one that calls for serious thought. Let me share what I am thinking at this point, and what I write below is directed not just to him but to all of us.

So, what should we do? For starters let me suggest the following:

(1) We should ask ourselves if our knowledge of past events, especially those related to the oppression or mistreatment of other people, is accurate and adequate. Most of us, I'm afraid, are lacking on both counts; that is, we have been taught and have long accepted ideas that are often only half-truths, and we have usually had a less than adequate understanding of past events (such as the extent of the suffering caused by slavery or by the conquest of Native Americans). Seeking to gain a more nearly accurate and adequate understanding of the past is an important first step.

(2) We should examine ourselves to see if we harbor any attitudes or engage in any activities that exacerbate the problem(s). Nothing is gained by feeling guilty--unless we are, indeed, guilty. And again, most of us, I'm afraid, have held and perhaps still hold attitudes and have engaged in and perhaps still engage in activities for which we need to repent. If we have honestly repented, or if, which is probably unlikely, we have not committed any sins for which we need to repent, there is no need to feel guilty and we can just brush aside whatever blame we might hear.

(3) We should consider what we can do to help alleviate the pain of those who are still suffering because of the sins of the past--if not our sins, the sins of our forefathers, in many cases. We, obviously, cannot all do the same thing, and there is no way I can say what any of you should do. In this, as in other cases, we all have to work out our own salvation "with fear and trembling" (see Philippians 2:12).

Concerning this third point, let me suggest two important things to remember: (i) We may not be able to do much, but we can do something; and (ii) because we are doing something, that does not mean we are doing all we should do.

Monday, November 30, 2009

What About the First Thanksgiving Day?

Much of what most of us learned as children about the first Thanksgiving Day in what became the United States was wrong. And it seems that some of what some children are being taught today is also wrong.

It was true, of course, that a day of thanksgiving was held in November 1621 by the surviving band of "Pilgrims" and others who had come to the "New World" the previous year. But some argue that the first Thanksgiving was actually celebrated in St. Augustine, Florida, on September 8, 1565. And others say that the First Nations (I like the Canadian term better than Indians or even Native Americans) observed harvest festivals and times of thanksgiving long before Europeans came to this part of the world.

Then, many seem to think that most of the people who came across the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower did so because of their desire for religious freedom. Actually, fewer than half of those on the Mayflower were religious "pilgrims," as William Bradford called them; the others came for economic or other reasons. And even the Pilgrims had religious freedom in the Netherlands before they left there, so it seems that their main reason for making the dangerous voyage was not for religious freedom as such.

And then there are the Native Americans. The assistance and generosity of the Indians to the Plymouth settlers have generally been recognized, and those like Squanto, a Patuxet, have been highly regarded. But what has not usually been taught is that Squanto, along with many others, had been captured as slaves. Squanto was able to help the Plymouth colony partly because he learned English in the Old World where he had been taken as a slave.

Further, little recognition has been given to the fact that a large percentage of the Native Americans in "New England" had already died before 1621 from diseases (mostly smallpox) brought by the Europeans who had come in the previous decade. When the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620, all the Patuxet living in the area had already died from such illnesses.

To counter the numerous Thanksgiving Day myths, errors, and half-truths that have usually been taught in the schools, some have developed alternative curriculum materials. But, unfortunately, the ones I found on the Internet also seem, unfortunately, to contain errors and misleading statements. Combating errors with errors is not helpful. In this case, as in all others, we need to seek to learn and to live by the truth. And that is hard to do.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Universal and the Particular

Last week I finished the first draft of the second five-page chapter for my next book Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things Every Christian Needs to Know Now. (In spite of suggestions that the title, and even the content, be changed, I am sticking with the original plan, at least for the time being.)

The second chapter is "The Better We Know God, the Broader and Deeper will be Our Understanding of the Universe and Everything in It," and it follows "#1 God is Greater Than We Think, or Even Can Think." At this point I am calling the third chapter "God is Fully Revealed in Jesus, but the Christ is not Limited to Jesus." This topic is related to the difficult subject of the relationship of the particular to the universal.

Christianity has long had to wrestle with what is called "the scandal of particularity," and many have spurned Christianity because of what was considered an unacceptable particularity. Part of the appeal of some New Age religion, which in many ways is a recycling of "old age" religious beliefs of India, is its universality or all-inclusiveness. Although they total less than ten pages, the first two chapters of my new book is about the greatness of God, which is another way of speaking about the universality or all-inclusiveness of God.

But how is God to be known? The first chapter of John deals with that matter. As you know, John 1 begins by talking about the Word, expressed in Greek as logos. That term has the same basic meaning as the tao (or dao) in the religious tradition of China and dharma in the religious tradition of India. And Philo, the Jewish philosopher who was a contemporary of Jesus, linked the Torah with logos.

Thus logos, the Word, is a fundamental concept of the ancient religious traditions of the world. But in a way not seen in China or India and in a way rejected by most of the Jewish people of Jesus' day, the Gospel of John goes on to declare that "the Word became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:14). That is the stupendous claim of Christianity that sets it apart from other religious faiths. The universal was revealed in the particular, in a single Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth.

But along with this particularity--but not in place of it--there also needs to be a recognition of the universality of God's revelation. It is for that reason I am writing that God is fully revealed in Jesus, but the Christ is not limited to Jesus. I will need to explain more what I am thinking about that in a future posting.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Let's Learn instead of Being Defensive

It is hard not to be defensive. When one's ideas or, even more, when one's personhood is being attacked or criticized it is hard not to be defensive. But being defensive rarely produces positive results, and it often keeps us from learning valuable lessons.

June and I have been married for more than fifty-two years, and like most married couples we have had our disagreements from time to time. Because of those tensions, we have read and discussed several books about marital relationships. One of the most helpful books we have read is Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by You? (1983; second edition, 2002) by a married couple, Dr. Jordan Paul and Dr. Margaret Paul.

One of the most helpful suggestions in the Pauls' book, and one of the hardest to put into practice, is that of substituting exploration for defensiveness. Whether between marriage partners or between other persons with whom we engage in serious interaction, they suggest that when criticisms are made, the person being criticized should seek to use that as a means of exploring what lay behind the criticism and what could be learned from it rather than seeking to defend himself or herself from the criticism being leveled.

Let's relate this matter to my posting on November 13. I have heard considerable defensiveness with regard to what Dr. Cone has written in the past and to what he said publicly at William Jewell College last week. No doubt some, or perhaps even much, of what the "defenders," of whom to some degree I have to include myself, have said is correct.

But rather than being defensive, our most natural reaction to harsh criticism, is it possible for us to use Dr. Cone's sharp words to explore more about the pain that he and generations of African-Americans have experienced? And is it possible to examine ourselves to see whether we are not still doing less than we might to help relieve some of that pain?

Whenever I hear criticism, as a spouse, as a white person, or in some other role, I want more and more to use such criticism as a springboard for exploration and learning instead of reacting defensively. Do you need to make the same resolve?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Is Jesus Lord?

Chris Thompson raised a very significant issue in his comments about my posting on Nov. 6. Even though those comments were based on a misunderstanding of what I intended to say, they are of great importance, nonetheless. When I wrote that Jesus must be lord of all if he is to be Lord at all, I was thinking about the Lordship of Jesus for one who professes faith in Jesus. Chris took it as a reference to the universal Lordship of Christ, a different topic, but one which is also quite important.

In thinking about the Lordship of Jesus, we need to realize that for the early Christians the choice they had to make was whether to acknowledge Caesar as lord or to confess Jesus as Lord. That was a serious political decision. Thus, confessing Jesus as Lord is never just a personal matter. But it is an significant personal decision, too.

Citing "Tink" Tinker, the Native American theologian whose book American Indian Liberation I have just purchased and started to read, Chris questions whether "lordship" is an appropriate concept for contemporary Christians and asserts that any attempt to seek to force that lordship on others is certainly not appropriate. I wholeheartedly agree with the latter point, but is lordship a completely outmoded concept? (It is interesting that Dr. Cone didn't seem to think so when he wrote God of the Oppressed.)

Paul Tillich, the noted twentieth century theologian, referred to faith as one's "ultimate concern." If that be true, as I think it probably is, we can go on to say that our ultimate concern is that to which we give our primary allegiance. Thus, the object of our ultimate concern is our "lord," even though we might want to use some other term.

Today it is rarely an earthly Caesar that calls for people's allegiance, at least in most of the so-called industrialized nations. Today's "Caesars" are mostly "isms" -- such as hedonism, materialism, nationalism, or even rationalism. These sorts of things are the object of many people's ultimate concerns. Thus, they are the powers that lord it over people's daily lives.

So we are faced with the choice: whether to confess Jesus as Lord and to live by his teachings and values or whether to live in allegiance to some other lord, such as one or more of the prevailing isms of our society. To confess Jesus as Lord has political, economic, familial, recreational, and other ramifications. And it is in this regard that I affirm again, if Jesus is to be Lord at all, he must be Lord of all.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Why Listen to Dr. Cone?

James Cone is an extremist. But that is probably OK. As has often been said, some people have to go too far [to an extreme] to get other people to go far enough. And most of us middle-class white people in America have not gone far enough toward working for a just and equitable society for all people.

Dr. James Cone (b. 1938), professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York since 1970, gave two public talks at William Jewell College last week, and I was happy to be among those who heard those talks--although they were not particularly easy to listen to. He continues to be harsh in his criticism of American whites. One to one, though, he was very friendly and cordial, and you get some indication of his warmth in the picture.

In preparation for Dr. Cone's coming, I read much of his book "God of the Oppressed," first published in 1975 and re-issued in 1997 with an important preface but with few changes in the original book. In Milton Horne's "Bible study" class at Second Baptist Church we discussed Dr. Cone's book for five weeks before his coming. It is a tough book. In spite of considerable talk now about the importance of building bridges rather than driving wedges, bridge building was not was what Dr. Cone was about, especially in 1975.

Since Dr. Cone's voice is so strident, we comfortable, middle-class white people naturally ask, "Why listen to Dr. Cone?" There are some good reasons: (1) Most African-Americans in this country are descendants of people who were grossly oppressed by the insidious institution of slavery. While that doesn't excuse aberrant behavior in the present, the woeful effects of past oppression must be recognized. Listening to Dr. Cone helps us grasp some of how that oppression continues to maim many in that tradition.

(2) Many of us white people, in spite of our attitudes toward African Americans now, are descendants of those who were slaveholders. Littleon Seat was my first grandfather to live in Missouri. His father, Hartwell, was a slaveholder. Two years before Littleton was born in Virginia in 1788, two of his older brothers were killed by a young slave. (I have always wished there was some way to get more information about that incident.) When the Hartwell Seat family moved to Tennessee, they brought slaves with them. (Years ago I saw Seats Chapel, a black church building in central Tennessee that was probably formed by former slaves of Hartwell, my grandfather.) Thus, listening to Dr. Cone helps me to come to the painful realization that I have come from a family of oppressors. I, and others like me, should use that realization not as a cause for feeling guilt, but as a spur to greater efforts in working for racial justice.

(3) As I wrote before, by necessity we all are either on the side of the oppressor or on the side of the oppressed. Listening to Dr. Cone helps to clarify the chasm between the two racial groups and challenges us all to choose to be in solidarity with the oppressed.

P.S. After posting this, I received an e-mail from a Korean friend who shared the following picture taken of Dr. Cone in Tokyo in 1978 or 1979.

Monday, November 9, 2009

In Praise of Eboo

Dr. Eboo Patel is an impressive young man. (I say young, for he was born in 1975 and that makes him seem quite young to me.)

Eboo is the Founder and Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). He is also a member of the President's White House Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and last month he was named by U.S. News and World Report as one of the twenty-three "Best Leaders" in the United States.

Tomorrow, November 10, Eboo will be the speaker at the Festival of Faiths gathering in Kansas City. I very much would like to attend that meeting and hear him speak. Unfortunately, that is the same night Dr. James Cone speaks in Gano Chapel on the campus of William Jewell College, and I feel a greater need to attend that lecture. (Dr. Cone's talks at 7:30 Tuesday evening and 10:15 on Wednesday morning are open to the public, and I would encourage those in the area to attend, if possible.)

I am especially appreciative of Eboo's work because of what I read in his book, Acts of Faith (2007), the book we will be discussing at the Vital Conversations meeting this week: Wednesday, Nov. 11, at Antioch Library. (Those living in the North Kansas City area are heartily invited to attend this meeting.)

In his book, Eboo tells about April Kunze, an evangelical Christian, becoming IFYC's first full-time staff member. In the hiring process, he said to her, "We can both believe our religions are true, we can even privately hope the other converts, and we can work together in this organization to serve others. In that way, we, an Evangelical Christian and a devoted Muslim, can model what we say this organization is about: people from very different faith backgrounds finding common purpose in helping others" (p. 163).

That is the kind of pluralism Eboo propounds, and that is the kind of "pluralism" I applaud. Even though he calls his position pluralism, I think it is more an attitude of accepting and respecting plurality. As I have written before, I am generally opposed to any ism, so I am wary of talk about pluralism. But I think that understanding, respecting, and working with people of other religious traditions or expressions of faith is very important.

Thus, I praise Eboo for the significant interfaith work he is doing. He is an excellent example how one can be a dedicated believer of a particular faith tradition and also respectful of other traditions. And his call for working with people of other religious beliefs for the betterment of society is one I pray will be heard and heeded by more and more people.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Radical Discipleship

One of the most significant books I have read in the last forty years is Kierkegaard and Radical Discipleship (1968) by Church of the Brethren scholar Vernard Eller. There is bad news and good news about that book: the bad news is that it has long been out of print. The good news is that it is available online, available at this link.

Eller (1927-2007) was a prolific writer, and many of his works are available online (clicking on his name produces a list of those writings). He was a faithful minister in the Church of the Brethren, and he was also a big fan of Kierkegaard. He even named his second son Enten Eller, which as I indicated in my previous posting was the name of Kierkegaard's Danish book known in English as Either/Or.

It is not the second on my list, but one of the "thirty true things" that I plan to write about--in spite of the naysayers--is, "Jesus must be Lord of all, or he is not Lord at all." That is, to be sure, an assertion that has been around for a long time, but I don’t get the impression many Christians think in those terms much any more.

In fact, I get the impression that some Christians now think that we need a much broader view of the world than is possible through Christianity or through Christ. Talk about the lordship of Jesus is for them, it seems, an outmoded idea that we need to move beyond. But I strongly disagree that commitment to the lordship of Jesus is an "ensmalling" act; rightly understood, it is an enlarging one.

For example, in my previous posting I wrote about my intention to be on the side of the oppressed rather than on the side of the oppressor. That has strong implications for how I treat and what I do for and/or with African Americans, Native Americans, women, gays and lesbians, etc. My desire to be on the side of the oppressed, though, is not in spite of my being a follower of Jesus Christ; it is precisely because I have confessed Jesus as Lord that I must seek to be on the side of the oppressed.

Further, as I have written previously, I firmly believe we should treat all people with justice and respect. And also in this regard, that is not a position I hold resolutely in spite of being a Christian but one I hold because I have committed my life to the lordship of Jesus.

The radical discipleship that Kierkegaard espoused and that Eller wrote about so well doesn’t narrow our interests or restrict our actions. On the contrary, being a radical disciple of Jesus expands our interests and challenges us to act boldly, especially for the benefit of all who in any way fit in the catch-all category of “the poor and oppressed.”

Monday, November 2, 2009


In his comments on my October 26 posting, DHJ (whom I still do not know who is for sure) made reference to Kierkegaard and either/or thinking. I immediately took notice of that comment both because of my interest in Kierkegaard stretching back nearly fifty years and also because of my generally being an advocate of both/and thinking.

Kierkegaard's first book was titled (in Danish) Enten -- Eller (1843), translated into English as Either/Or. But that book is not about either/or thinking; rather, it is about living either the aesthetic/ethical life or the religious life.
The choice one is forced to make in that regard is related to Jesus' words, "‘No one can serve two masters; . . . You cannot serve God and wealth" (NRSV). Jesus was stating the necessity of an either/or choice, and that, I think, was the same sort of thing Kierkegaard was doing.
It is interesting that Kierkegaard, who wrote Either/Or, is the philosopher/theologian who most widely used the concept, and the word, paradox in his serious writings. I know he used that word a lot, for my doctoral dissertation was "The Meaning of Paradox: A Study of the Use of the Word 'Paradox' in Contemporary Theological and Philosophical Writings with Special Reference to Søren Kierkegaard."
Paradox is very much about both/and thinking, and in general I heartily espouse that kind of thinking over either/or thinking, as was DHJ in his comments.
There are situations, though, in which both/and is not a possibility. We must choose either/or. Where we stand on issues of aggression, oppression, discrimination, and the like are of the latter type. It has been said that one is either on the side of the oppressor or the side of the oppressed. That is most probably true. Some fences can't be straddled.
By what he wrote in his comments on my blog postings and said in our discussion at lunch last week, Chris Thompson seemed to think I was "aiding and abetting" (not his words) the oppressors in my second and third postings about Columbus. That was not my intention. If that seemed to be what I was saying, I apologize.
I want always to be on the side of the oppressed and not on the side of the oppressor. In many ways, though, I probably am on the side of the oppressor just by being a white American male. But that is the way I was born, not a choice I made.
I did choose, though, to be a follower of Jesus, and as such I want to live, and I try to live as much as possible, in solidarity with those who are oppressed, including the Native Americans who have been grossly mistreated in multifarious ways since the time of Columbus. 

Friday, October 30, 2009

Thirty True Things

On November 1, I plan to start in earnest on writing my next book. Even though I still have much to do to get The Limits of Liberalism published, I am eager to start on this new project.

At this point I am calling the new book "Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things Every Christian Needs to Know Now." The title, and the idea for the book, comes from a bestseller titled Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now (2004) by Dr. Gordon Livingston, an American psychiatrist. (Can I get by with using a title so similar?)

This new book is designed to be more “popular” than my first two books; that is, I will be writing it for a more general public. I am planning to write a chapter of about five pages for each of the “thirty true things” with no footnotes (although I may have a few end notes and suggestions for further reading).

At this point, the first chapter will be called “God is greater than we think, or even can think.” Perhaps drawing some from J. B. Phillips’ Your God is Too Small (1952), I want to emphasize that most people’s idea of God is, indeed, too limited. For several reasons, it is important that we work on developing a broader, deeper, and fuller concept of the nature of God and God’s relationship to us humans and to the entire universe.

I wonder if you have any ideas about this topic that you could share with me. In what ways do you think people’s ideas about God are too small? Do you agree that God is greater than we think, or even can think? If so, what is one of the main reasons for that?

I don’t know how much I will be able to give credit those who respond to these questions or make other suggestions about this subject, but I will not use any ideas others suggest without some acknowledgment.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Does Might Make Truth?

“The truth is what the jury will believe.” That was the statement made by a federal judge that Keith heard as a young lawyer and cited in his comments made after my previous posting. That statement embraces a serious problem that is related to the question about what is true.

Most people are familiar with the idea that might makes right, an idea especially associated with Machiavelli, a contemporary of Columbus—and, perhaps, implemented to a certain degree by Columbus. But that is a highly problematic idea, and closely related to the judge said. If the truth is what the jury will believe, those lawyers with the mightest arguments and with the greatest wealth of experience—and often the greatest wealth—are able to determine what is “true.” Thus, might makes "truth" as well as right. But even if that is often so, is it right?

“The truth is what the jury will believe” may be correct in its consequences, but do we really want to affirm that concept of truth? Think about an innocent person charged with a serious crime. A powerful prosecuting attorney may get the jury to believe the man to be guilty, resulting in the man being sentenced to a long prison term. But what is true? The decision of the jury might be “true” in its consequence. But surely we want the truth that corresponds to reality to be found and followed, not just the “truth” of a jury persuaded by a powerful attorney.

In spite of cynical judges, the legal system in this country is based on the idea of truth as something that corresponds to reality. Words ascribed to Jesus are incised into the wall of the U.S. Supreme Court Building: “The truth shall make you free.” For the innocent man falsely sentenced, it is objective truth, not the “truth” of a falsely persuaded jury, that is liberating.

The writers of the Declaration of Independence asserted, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Their understanding of those “truths” was seriously limited. “All men” must include women, African-Americans, Native Americans, Muslims, “illegal” aliens, etc. But the assertion about the basic equality (that is, the inherent worth) of all people is a basic truth, even though it may not always be self-evident. That is, the belief that all people are to be treated justly, as well as lovingly and respectfully, is true whether the jury believes it or not.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What Is True?

I have been trying to think what it means when someone says, "It may not be true for you, but it is true for me." That, to me, has seemed to be an illogical statement, for I have accepted what is called "the correspondence theory of truth" to be universally true.

The correspondence theory of truth holds that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to external reality, whether is accurately describes (that is, corresponds with) what is real. In all situations, something is true if it corresponds to reality; it is false if it does not. There is no third possibility. Given that theory of truth, to say that something is true for me but not true for you is nonsense.

But people use words in different ways, and that evidently is case for the word true. From what I gather, some seem to use true to refer to ideas that they believe and are willing to live by. Since other people have other ideas they are willing to live by, those ideas are true to them. To that way of thinking, there seems to be no real problem if those ideas are contradictory. Obviously, that position is quite different from and contrary to the correspondence theory of truth--as well as different from the dictionary definitions of true.

My recent postings have been about Columbus, who clearly thought it true that the earth is round. So he was willing to set sail for the unknown West. The spherical nature of the earth was true for him in that he acted on what he believed. Those who thought it was not true that the earth is round would have nothing to do with the voyage. Even some on board Columbus' ships began to think it was not true and wanted to turn back. So, in a sense the spherical nature of the earth was true for Columbus, but not true for others.

But with the correspondence theory of truth, it is obvious that only one "belief," that of Columbus, was true. Those who thought that the earth was flat were in error. No postmodern or relativistic maneuvering can change that situation. Only Columbus' view corresponds to reality. Those who held to a flat earth view were wrong. Columbus' belief did not make the earth spherical, and the "flat-earthers'" ideas didn't change the fact that the earth is round. Relativism just doesn't work in some situations.

Of course, we don't have as much sure knowledge about many things as we do about the shape of the earth. It is not clear in a multitude of situations what does correspond to reality and what does not. But that lack of knowledge doesn't make it any more logical to say about anything, or about all things, "it may not be true for you, but it is true for me." Complete relativism is a logical contradiction in this way, and in others. That is why I believe that logical thinking cannot accept metaphysical relativism.

I certainly admit that there are problems with absolutism, as I have previously acknowledged. But the answer to absolutism is not relativism. I want to uphold a position that corresponds to reality and that is not self-contradictory. In spite of those who reject assertions about Truth (absolutes), I maintain that logical thinking demands such a position.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wide Open Spaces?

Keith's question (see the end of the previous posting) is worth considering: "is it imaginable that North America should have remained lightly populated by native Americans while much of the rest of the world was overwhelmed?" What about the wide open spaces of this country in 1500?

My friend and fellow church member Chris Thompson, an ardent advocate of Native American rights and founder of Project Warm Embrace, posted passionate comments in response to what I wrote and Keith's comments. He questioned the accuracy of "lightly populated." According to the Smithsonian's Handbook of North American Indians, though, the population in 1500 of what became North America was under two million. Some think it was probably much larger; one Native American advocate estimates it around six million.

Even with the larger number, that was still a very small population for an area that now supports more than three hundred million people. But how many people could be supported if everyone still lived according to the lifestyle of the Native Americans? (I am indebted to Keith for causing me to think about this several years ago.)

Perhaps it was legitimate for Europeans to come to the wide open spaces of the New World. (Do some people have the "ownership" of land in perpetuity just because of where they were born?) Perhaps it was necessary for the survival of the human race (and I don't mean just Europeans) for new lands to be found and developed for swelling populations. (Most migrations, as well as perhaps most wars, have been due primarily to population pressures.)

So while I cannot completely censure the migration of Europeans to what became North America, I do deplore the villainous treatment of the native people here. The Europeans may have had the right to come and even to settle in these wide open spaces, but they did not have the right to steal the land from the people living on it. And certainly they did not have the right to kill at will the people who lived here.

There were some, thankfully, who did seek to deal fairly and kindly with the Native Americas. One such person is Roger Williams (1603-83), one of my heroes. Although a pastor, he was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, partly because of his insistence that the "Indians" should be compensated for their land. English colonization, Williams argued, was "a sin of unjust usurpation upon others' possessions." Christian kings somehow believed that they were invested with the right, by virtue of their Christianity, "to take and give away the Lands and Countries of other men." Williams thought that was nonsense, absurdity! (See Edwin S. Gaustad, Roger Williams: Prophet of Liberty [2001], p. 17.)

Treatment of the Native Americans in the manner of Roger Williams is the way things might have played out in a more nearly perfect world.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Re-Thinking Columbus

Keith Seat, my son who is a full-time mediator and arbitrator in the D.C. area, raised some important issues in his comments posted under my October 12 posting. He wrote, "I wonder about the extent to which moral judgment is meaningful for other eras when the circumstances were so different and our understanding of the facts limited." That is an important matter to consider.

One looks in vain for any examples of toleration of other religions or cultures in the fifteenth century. King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, under whose patronage Columbus undertook his voyage, began the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. A historian who died in 1492 estimated that the Inquisition had burned at the stake 2,000 people by 1490. Columbus, as we all are, was a person of his time, and the fifteenth century was not a time of celebrating diversity.

Keith also wrote, "No one is pure--certainly native Americans and African tribes were routinely warring against each other as well." I think that is important to realize also; violence was not used just by the Europeans. Those who in the present day tend to idealize native Americans sometimes seem to overlook how they were often involved in intertribal wars for survival--or the enhancement of their own tribe at the expense of other tribes.

What we know as the Caribbean today got its name from the Caribs, a far more warlike people than the Tainos that Columbus found on the island of Hispaniola. According to one source, "During their numerous battles against the dwindling Arawak [Taino] population, they [the Caribs] massacred the men and kept as many of their women as possible." The Caribs were also cannibals, and another source says if the Taino had not been destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors, they likely would have been eaten by the Caribs.

Finally, Keith wrote, "I find it an interesting mind experiment to wonder how we would have wanted to see things play out in a perfect world--is it imaginable that North America should have remained lightly populated by native Americans while much of the rest of the world was overwhelmed?" That is a question well worth pondering, and I want to respond to it in a subsequent posting.

I welcome your comments in response to Keith's last question, as well as positive comments, should there be any, about Columbus as we re-think the ramifications of his coming to the "new world."

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Discovery of Columbus

As today is Columbus Day, think with me for a couple of minutes about the discovery of Columbus. Usually, the emphasis is upon what Columbus discovered, but let’s think about the aboriginal people's discovery of Columbus on their land.
In 1493, Columbus established the first permanent European settlement in what came to be known as the West Indies on an island he called La Isla Española, a name translated into English as Hispaniola. But as Bob Corbett of Webster University points out, “Columbus did not discover a lost or unknown land. There was a flourishing civilization of native Americans” already there. Those “Indians” discovered Columbus and the other Spaniards invading their land. 
Hispaniola was inhabited by as many as 500,000 aboriginal Tainos in 1493. (Some estimate a much greater population.) According to Corbett, by 1507 the number of Tainos had shrunk to around 60,000 and by 1531 the number was down to 600. The discovery of Columbus was bad news for the native Americans.
In my previous blog article I wrote about Hispanics. That term that comes from Hispania, the name given by the Romans to the whole of the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain, Portugal, etc.). Then Hispaniola, as mentioned, was the name given to the island now occupied by the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
As we honor the Hispanics in this country, as we should, perhaps we need even more to honor and to affirm the personhood of all the indigenous peoples of Central and Latin America who were exploited and mistreated in many ways by the Europeans (Hispanics) who colonized the many countries in the Americas where Spanish (or Portuguese) is now spoken.
Spanish (or Portuguese) is spoken in the Latin American countries due to colonialization. Thus, as we work against the mistreatment of Hispanics in American society, we realize that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries their ancestors mistreated the aboriginal peoples in what is now Central and South America—just as most of us are descendants of Europeans who mistreated the aboriginal peoples of what is now North America.
Except for the Native Americans and the descendants of those who were once slaves, most of the people in all of the Americas today are descendants of people with blood on their hands. And it all began with the discovery of Columbus.
For those of us who are Christians, Columbus’ “missionary” zeal is one of the saddest aspects of his discovery. According to what he wrote, spreading Christianity was one the main motives for his voyages to the “new world.” But what we see in him, as in too much of the missionary activity through the centuries, is the corruption of Christianity by power and greed. Christianity can never be wedded to political or economic interests without being corrupted.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Honoring Hispanics

Even though it seems quite under-publicized, this is Hispanic Heritage Month (HHM). Unlike most special months, HHM starts on September 15 and goes to October 15. In 1968 Congress authorized President Johnson to proclaim National Hispanic Heritage Week, and the observance was expanded in 1988 to a month long celebration.

June and I are members of Vital Conversations, a monthly book discussion group that we enjoy. The group meets from 1:00 to 2:30 on the second Wednesday afternoon of each month, and next week Geraldo Rivera's His Panic: Why Americans Fear Hispanics in the U.S. (2008) is one of the books we will be discussing.

I have never seen Geraldo on TV, and somehow I had negative ideas from what I had heard about him. I checked out his book and began reading it with some reluctance, but I have found it to be highly interesting and informative. He describes well the considerable anti-Hispanic racism extant in this country.

In his book, Geraldo deals, of course, with the problem of Hispanic immigrants--both legal and illegal. It was refreshing, after hearing so much negative rhetoric about "illegals," to read of the many contributions Hispanic immigrants have made and are making to the U.S.

Geraldo's thirteenth chapter is "Immigrants and the Church," which is largely about what is called the New Sanctuary Movement which began in March 2006 when Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony called on American Catholics to defy attempts to criminalize illegal immigrants and those who help them.

Earlier, in December 2005, Cardinal Mahony wrote a letter to President Bush condemning an attempt to require churches and public services to verify the status of parishioners and only serve those legally in the U.S. In that letter, Cardinal Mahony wrote, "Our golden rule has always been to serve people in need--not to verify beforehand their immigration status."

It is becoming clearer to me that those of us who seek to follow Christ should not only support universal health care but immigration reform as well.

In another vein, during this final week of HHM, I will be cheering for Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, and the other Hispanics who play for the St. Louis Cardinals, the baseball team I have followed for the past sixty years.

Monday, October 5, 2009

All Knowledge Is Personal Knowledge

The "thinking friend" who made comments about my posting on what happens after death charges that I am actually a relativist in my thinking. He is partly right when it comes epistemology, but I still maintain there are absolute truths. And I find his statement "all faiths are true for those particular adherents at a particular moment in history" to be highly questionable. Maybe the problem is how the term true is used, but I cannot agree that truth depends on subjective belief rather than upon the nature of objective reality.

I still have not read Mark Heim's writing on this subject, but it seems completely unlikely that "our religious life/beliefs can create the afterlife we find following death." How could that possible be? Belief in a heaven with streets of gold creates such a place? I cannot see how that could possibly be true.

But if there absolute Truth, as I affirm, how do we know such truth? Well, we don't know it absolutely. So here there is a lot of commonality between my protagonist and me. Our beliefs, and even our assertions, about what is true are relative, related to context, and not subject to proof. All knowledge is personal knowledge.

The latter statement comes from the seminal work of the Hungarian scientist/philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891-1976). His Gifford Lectures given at the University of Aberdeen in 1951-52 were later published as Personal Knowledge (1958). In the 1960s I spent many, many hours reading that difficult book and preparing a seminar paper on it. Later, I wrote essay about Polanyi that was published as one chapter in Science, Faith, and Revelation (1979), edited by Bob E. Patterson. I wrote that chapter during the year we lived in Liberty in 1976-77. I was teaching part-time at William Jewell that year, and remember well working on it in my provisional faculty office on the sub-floor of the library.

Polanyi states that the purpose of his book was "to achieve a frame of mind in which I may hold firmly to what I believe to be true, even though I know that it might conceivably be false" (Personal Knowledge, p. 214). That is an important frame of mind, I believe. But that does not mean falling into complete subjectivism or relativism. Polanyi also writes, convincingly, about the "intellectual passion" (also called the "heuristic passion") for finding truth and the "persuasive passion" by which one seeks to convince others of the truth discovered.

As I am always seeking a valid position between polar extremes, through the years I have found Polanyi's position a viable one, standing between objectivism and subjectivism as well as between absolutism and relativism.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Limits of Liberty

My forthcoming book is The Limits of Liberalism, and I am happy to say that I have finished the manuscript except for some editing of the final chapters. But in this posting I am writing about the limits of liberty.

June (my wife) has long been involved with a parent education program marketed as Active Parenting, and one of their parenting principles is "freedom within limits," a significant slogan. (That is also the title of the third chapter of J. Melvin Woody's book Freedom's Embrace.) A proper emphasis on freedom or liberty always includes a concomitant emphasis on responsibility.

In my posting on September 23, I mentioned listening some to “talk radio.” Mark Levin is one of the commentators I hear for a few minutes each week on my way home from Rockhurst University where I teach on Thursday evenings. Levin is the author of Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto, which has been on the bestseller lists since it publication in March of this year.

The liberty Levin writes and speaks (loudly and abrasively) about is partly freedom from what he thinks is excessive taxation. The first section of his “conservative manifesto” is about taxation—and his first appeal is for the elimination of the progressive income tax. Then under “7. Entitlements,” he admonishes: “Fight all efforts to nationalize the health-care system.”

Because of our responsibility to support the public good, we are not free not to pay taxes, including some taxes that we have problems with. For example, we are not free not to pay taxes to support war—a serious problem for those of us who are pacifists, and even for many who are not pacifists but who oppose(d) the war in Vietnam and Iraq. (I admire those who have had the courage to practice war tax resistance, but I have not been able to do that myself.)

People are not free not to pay school taxes, even though they do not have, and maybe have never had, children using the public schools. Those taxes are justified, rightfully, as being for the public good.

Here in Liberty (I like the name of this town!) where I live, people are not at liberty not to pay a library tax as part of their property tax, even though they may never set foot inside it. Again, it is for the good of the community.

If we Americans are taxed to support libraries, schools, and even wars that we oppose, why can the critics say that some taxation to help provide universal health care is a form of tyranny and a violation of liberty? Is it not for the public good that everyone in our country has access to health care? And for us Christians, isn’t helping the needy a part of our responsibility? We may not necessarily be our brother’s keeper, but we are our neighbor’s neighbor. And Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

What Happens After Death?

Death is one of the most persistent problems faced by us human beings--and by the religions of the world. Of central concern is what happens to individuals when they die.

There are many ways the central questions of what happens after death can be answered. Three such possibilities are: (1) "Eternal life" in full fellowship with God and other people--a belief that in Christianity is tied to the concept of resurrection, however that might be understood. (2) Reincarnation--the "transmigration" of the soul after death into another form of existence, human or otherwise. (3) Complete cessation of existence--except for the memories that linger in the minds of family, friends, and acquaintances.

It is obvious, I think, that all three of these possibilities can't possibly be true. It is possible that all three are wrong and that the truth of what happens after death is something distinctly different from all three. If someone adopts any one of the three possibilities given above, though, logically that means the rejection of the other two.

I bring this topic up in order to make a point about relativism or religious pluralism. As I indicated in my posting on September 5, when there are conflicting truth claims (as there often are), one possible response is to say that both (or all) are (somehow) true and there is no need to choose between them. This kind of thinking is usually linked to the idea of relativism, the concept that truth depends on the social location and philosophical perspective of any given person.

But does relativism work for a concrete question, such as about what happens after death? Could it possibly be true that if a Christian believes in conscious, personal life after death that will be what he or she will experience whereas if Buddhists believes in reincarnation, that is what they will experience? That seems highly unlikely. While perceptions of reality may, and do, vary greatly, reality is not shaped by perceptions.

Some may say that we don't know what happens after death, so we shouldn't make any strong statements about the subject and just let everyone believe what they will. Of course it is true that we don't know with absolute certainty, and of course people should be free to believe whatever they think is right.

But what is the basis of the Christian belief in eternal life? And what are the consequences of such a belief in comparison with the other two mentioned? Don't the basis and the consequences make the Christian view worth witnessing to and commending to other people, regardless of what position they might hold?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What About Universal Health Care?

In my post on September 14, I made reference to the problem of universal health care, which is so much in the news nowadays. In response, I received the following comments (among others).

One Thinking Friend (TF) wrote (in an e-mail): "I do not think bringing politics into the equation is beneficial. It is too corrupting of both Spiritual and Religion."

MPH said in his posted comments, "It's clear that our society needs health care reform, but not just any health care reform will do. Who could question that caring for the poor is of paramount import, recognized intuitively by even the most callous in our society; and, explicitly stated in the words of Jesus as preserved by the Evangelists. But how to do it so that it is broadly effective and just is a matter demanding great contemplation."

Another TF sent me an e-mail in which he wrote, in part: "A very bright Libertarian friend of mine distinguishes between voluntary philanthropy (as, for example, when I am moved for the need of the hungry, and give to Bread for the World) and coerced philanthropy (as in government programs to care for the needy). In the latter case, we generously give away a little of our money. We also coerce others to pay taxes to support the philanthropic need. He concludes that the two types of philanthropy are not the same, even though they both involve needy people and the transfer of money from the haves to the have-nots. His other conclusion: 'Feel free to give away your own money to the needy. Don't feel free to give away my money to help the needy (or, for that matter, most other government programs).'"

In response to the above, let me just make some brief comments: (1) I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state--but not in the separation of faith and politics (as Jim Wallis often says). I believe our Christian faith should be reflected in the public policies we support (or do not support) and the politicians we vote for--and that our support of public policy or politicians should always be based upon our faith.

(2) It seems to me that there are many who do not think in terms of helping the poor in our society. ("The poor need to get to work and take care of themselves.") That is the impression I get from listening to "talk radio" (on a very limited basis; I can't take much of it at a time), and that is the impression I got from watching some of the "March on Washington" sponsored by the Tea Party Movement. (Look at their website and see if you can find any concern for the poor and uninsured people in our society.) I agree that not just any plan is OK--but this is an issue that has been pending for more than forty years now, and something needs to be done sooner rather than later.

(3) Many Libertarian groups seem to be supporters of the Tea Party movement, and my TF's "very bright" friend possibly is a supporter of that movement. I am a big supporter of liberty, especially when it comes to freedom of religion or freedom of conscience. But I am not convinced that not paying taxes for the public good is a matter of liberty as much as it is a matter of selfishness. Private philanthropy--or the work of churches and other religious institutions--will never be sufficient to take care of all the needs in society. Shouldn't a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" do all it can to provide health care for those who do not have it and cannot afford it?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Why Reject Absolutism?

I received some strong comments regarding my posting about relativism, so I feel the need to address that issue further--but from the opposite side. What I wrote on September 11 stands. But in addition to my rejecting relativism, I need to make it clear that I also reject absolutism.

In my book "Fed Up with Fundamentalism" (FUF) I spoke out rather strongly about absolutism--and those words stand, too. "Arrogance and Certainty" is a section in "The Problem with Fundamentalism," the fourth chapter in FUF. I wrote (and still believe): "If people are absolutely certain that they are correct in their most basic beliefs and that those who disagree with them are completely wrong, these people are usually seen as being arrogant as well as intolerant" (p. 89). Some who read what I wrote in "Why Reject Relativism?" may have concluded that I am arrogant and intolerant.

But I also said this in FUF: "Just as most, if not all, fundamentalists do, I affirm the concept of absolute truth, and I firmly believe that Jesus is 'the truth' and 'the way' to Absolute Truth, which is found in the triune God. But this must be recognized as a belief to be affirmed, elucidated, and witnessed to, not as a 'fact' that makes it possible for me to be 'judge and jury' for all opposing viewpoints" (p. 91).

In other words--and perhaps I should have said this more clearly in FUF--I reject absolutism as well as relativism. (In fact, I reject most "isms" and basically agree with whomever said that all isms are contrary to the Gospel.) I condemn all of the atrocities, such as against indigenous people, that have been done by those who were absolutists--although I think that those atrocities were committed primarily because of power, greed, and selfishness rather than because of some philosophical (or theological) position.

Still, absolutism can be used to justify aggression and oppression of others--and people with power have done so through the centuries. But I do not and will not condone violence, including any suppression or violation of religious freedom, and I resolutely reject any type of absolutism that fosters violence, oppresses people, or denies the religious freedom of individuals or groups.

But, as I wrote before, I reject relativism also—and that rejection is partly because of the logical contradiction of any declaration that relativism is true. I agree with Dr. Braaten, who wrote in an e-mail, "I like the statement, 'There are no absolutes, and that is absolutely true.'" On a deeper level, I reject relativism partly because of its link to religious pluralism, which tends to oppose and criticize Christian missionary work overseas--and I will no doubt write about that matter before long.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Less Religious and More Spiritual?

“Am I becoming less religious and more spiritual?” That question, one of ten in the “spiritual audit” devised by Fred Smith ("Leadership Journal," Winter 1998), has been posed the last two weeks to those of us who attend the Wednesday evening adult studies at Second Baptist Church. The question implies, of course, that we should be more spiritual and less religious.

How we think about that question naturally depends upon the way we define religious and spiritual. But, as those you who know me might guess, I think most of us probably need to become both more religious and more spiritual. But maybe some people even need to become less spiritual and more religious. Again, it depends on definitions.

I have often had critical things to say about religion—and there is much done in the name of religion that needs to be criticized. But if we look at the words of James 1:27, we find that pure religion means, among other things, “to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (NRSV), that is, to care for those who are the neediest and most vulnerable in the world around us.

It is easy to criticize religion at its worst—but that is “contaminated” religion, not the pure religion James talks about. On the other hand, being spiritual can be, and often is, very individualistic—the inner delight of fellowship with God (or the Ultimate or the Absolute, for those who do not wish to use religious terms). Even that spirituality can, and surely does at times, lead to concern and care for others. But it can also be skewed into an inner ecstasy that remains quite private.

Those who have pure religion, in the sense defined by James, engage in, or at least support and encourage, action for the well-being of needy people. What would that mean in our society today? Among other things, wouldn’t it surely mean supporting health-care coverage for the 45,000,000 Americans who currently do not have it—and maybe even some concern for the desperate “aliens” who come to this country illegally?

It seems to me that those who oppose universal health-care and fear that some “illegal aliens” might possibly get some free medical help—including the Congressman who shouted “You lie!” when the President was addressing this most serious situation--are in need of some serious soul-searching, especially if they consider themselves spiritual and/or religious.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Why Reject Relativism?

In my previous posting I said some negative things about relativism, and now I am writing more about why I think relativism is objectionable and should be rejected.

First, a definition of the term: Relativism is the idea that there is no absolute truth and that, consequently, all truth is relative to the culture or the religion to which a person or group belongs. I take this as more of metaphysical statement than an epistemological one; that is, it refers primarily to the nature of reality not to the way one knows what is real. That distinction is important, because I do not think that one can be absolutely sure he or she knows the absolute truth--and I will be addressing that problem in a latter posting.

There certainly is relativity apparent in the way reality is understood. The way any of us view the world is largely dependent upon the culture or the religion to which we belong, that is, upon the community, large or small, which has formed the "plausibility structure" which informs our judgments.

But while affirming epistemological relativity, I reject the idea of pluralism that renounces the making of value judgments among different cultural or religious views because since all are relative all are (potentially) of equal validity. According to metaphysical relativism, there is no absolute Truth that people or groups just understand to varying degrees or in diverse ways.

Relativism is a growing phenomenon in the contemporary world. It is a central tenet of the postmodern worldview. But is it compatible with Christianity--at least Christianity as it has been generally understood and believed for the last two thousand years? I think not.

"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," it has been said (by Terullian, who died around 220 A.D.). But if through the centuries Christians had embraced relativism, there would have been no (or at least very few) martyrs. People don't willingly die for relative truths. If they had been relativists, Stephen, Peter (if the legend about his crucifixion is basically true), Polycarp, and a multitude of other Christians through the centuries would not have become martyrs--and Christianity would likely not have survived. If Luther and the other Reformers of the sixteenth century had been relativists, there would have been no Protestant Reformation.

Of course, some might say that Christians were martyred because of the absolutism of those who killed them--and that is, no doubt, partially true. But the absolutism of the Roman Empire--or the Roman Catholic Church--was opposed by those who believed that they had apprehended the Truth and who were willing to die, if necessary, for the sake of that Truth. That’s something no thoroughgoing relativist would likely do.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

What About Conflicting Truth Claims?

The question about conflicting truth claims was raised by the reader of this blog who has commented most often. It is an important issue, and one that merits careful attention.

There are three main ways that individuals or groups can respond to conflicting truth claims: (1) With criticism, rejection, and attacks upon truth claims that conflict with one's own. (2) With a "live-and-let-live" attitude that basically accepts truth claims different from one's own as more or less equally valid, and (3) With dialogue in which the nature of the conflicting claims is clarified and serious attention is given to the differences being discussed.

The first of these three approaches was the most common in the past, but it is an approach that should be rejected, as it has often led to animosity and to bloodshed. I reject any action in the name of truth that leads to violence.

The second approach is becoming more and more common, and certainly it is good for fostering peaceful relations with other people. But I have serious questions about and problems with the relativism and pluralism it spawns. (This is such a timely and important issue that I want to deal with it further in a later posting on this blog.)

The third, I believe, is by far the best position. It does not reject other truth claims to the extent of causing harm, but neither does it accept them without question. Except for cases where conflicting truth claims are clearly injurious to others, there is an openness to listen and even to learn from those espousing opposing views. For a Christian believer, this is especially true with regard to the faithful adherents of the main religious traditions of the world.

As I wrote in my comments posted on August 31, "dialogue is only possible where there are different viewpoints shared freely." Dialogue involves talking about differences more than about similarities. Careful analysis of those differences may show that some of them are superficial and can be harmonized. But other differences may well turn out to be substantial and unable of being disposed of easily.

John Hick, one of the examples of Christian liberalism that I introduce in my forthcoming book "The Limits of Liberalism," has a chapter called "The Conflicting Truth Claims of Different Religions" in his Philosophy of Religion (third edition, 1983). Hick concludes his chapter with these words: ". . . the great religious traditions of the world represent different human perceptions of and response to the same infinite divine Reality" (p. 121).

Hick's conclusion is no doubt true in many ways. But it does not answer all the questions. There are contradictory and conflicting claims that remain. As most of us know well, there are some remarkable conflicting truth claims between, say, fundamentalist and liberal Christians. So there are, naturally, often even greater conflicts between Christians and those in other faith traditions and especially between Christian believers and those who are atheists and/or complete secularists.

For the Christian thinker, to lash out against conflicting views with belligerence is not acceptable. But, neither, is a relativistic acceptance of conflicting or contradictory views. The hard work of dialogue and the continual search for, and witness to, the Truth is our obligatory task.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Southern Baptist Creed?

In 2004 my wife and I were forced to resign as missionaries with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) because we would not--could not in good conscience--sign that we would work "in accordance with and not contrary to" The Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M), 2000.

Our problem was not just with the content of the revised BF&M, we objected to it being used like a creed. As I wrote earlier, I have never been much of a supporter of creeds, especially when they are used for forcing conformity and getting rid of deviants. But that certainly seemed like the way the BF&M was being used. SBC employees either had to agree with it or resign, retire, or be terminated.

So, refusing to sign, we became Southern Baptist heretics--although, to my knowledge, that term was never used. It did mean, though, that we were unilaterally placed on retirement status, lost a year's salary, and also lost no telling how many invitations to preach in Southern Baptist churches back in Missouri and elsewhere.

So even though I wrote about creeds and heresy in my previous posts, creeds should not be used as the BF&M was--as a weapon to force conformity (or duplicity, as some signed the necessary statement in order to continue their missionary work while not agreeing with the revised content of the BF&M). Nor, as I suggested in the previous posting, should heretics be punished (although our "punishment" was certainly light compared to that of many considered heretics throughout the history of the church).

Actually, the use of the BF&M as a creed was worse than using the historical creeds as statements of orthodoxy. The addition of the words "the office of pastor is limited to men" was the main (but not the only) objection we had to the revised and amended BF&M. Unlike the creeds, though, which can be interpreted on different levels (such as the Ascension, which does not have to be affirmed as literal or physical), there is no interpretation possible for the statement denying the possibility of women in ministry.

So, even though the Southern Baptist Convention was my church home for sixty years, now that is is operating with a creed, I am glad to no longer be a part of that organization. (But, still, I feel some sadness, too, as it was my denominational home for so long.)