Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Shakertown Pledge

Thirty True Things Every Christian Needs to Know Now is the title of the manuscript for a new book that I mailed to a publisher just yesterday. There are thirty five-page chapters proposed for the book, and #21 is “Too Little Is Almost Always Better Than Too Much.”

In that chapter I write about the “simple living movement” of the 1960s and 1970s—and also refer to Christy Edwards, my pastor’s wife,who preached at Second Baptist Church earlier this year and cited the words that were already in my manuscript, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

In the chapter mentioned, I make reference to the Shakertown Pledge, which was finalized thirty-eight years ago today, on April 30, 1973, at the site of a restored Shaker village near Harrodsburg, Kentucky. (The Shakers, as most of you may know, were members of a religious sect similar to the Quakers; it was most active between 1750 and 1850.)

The Pledge itself was drafted as a response to the unequal distribution of global wealth and resources, and called for group action by Christians to rectify the problem. Here is the Shakertown Pledge in its entirety:
Recognizing that Earth and the fullness thereof is a gift from our gracious God, and that we are called to cherish, nurture, and provide loving stewardship for Earth's resources, and recognizing that life itself is a gift, and a call to responsibility, joy, and celebration, I make the following declarations:

1. I declare myself a world citizen.

2. I commit myself to lead an ecologically sound life.

3. I commit myself to lead a life of creative simplicity and to share my personal wealth with the world’s poor.

4. I commit myself to join with others in the reshaping of institutions in order to bring about a more just global society in which all people have full access to the needed resources for their physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth.

5. I commit myself to occupational accountability, and so doing I will seek to avoid the creation of products which cause harm to others.

6. I affirm the gift of my body and commit myself to its proper nourishment and physical wellbeing.

7. I commit myself to examine continually my relations with others and to attempt to relate honestly, morally, and lovingly to those around me.

8. I commit myself to personal renewal through prayer, meditation, and study.

9. I commit myself to responsible participation in a community of faith.
I encourage all of you who read this to consider carefully the content of the Shakertown Pledge. Further, I invite you to not just think about it but to go on and make the pledge. I first became aware of the Pledge when I read No More Plastic Jesus: Global Justice and Christian Lifestyle (1977) in the late ’70s, making the pledge then and renewing it a few days ago. 

Making the Shakertown Pledge now may not have a great influence upon the world in the years ahead, but it will have some influence. And it will also make a difference, a positive difference, in the lives of all of us who make, and live up to, the commitments contained in the pledge. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Is the Resurrection Passé?

Yesterday was Easter Sunday, and I hope you have been energized by the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the pivotal point of the Christian faith. Recently, though, I have begun to wonder if the Resurrection doesn’t seem passé to many Christians now.

In the previous posting I agreed with the Pope’s assertion that Christianity “stands or falls with the truth of the testimony that Christ is risen from the dead.” And I have just asserted that the Resurrection is “the pivotal point of the Christian faith.” But is the Resurrection something that contemporary Christians can, and do, affirm wholeheartedly, or is such an idea the result of wish-fulfillment?

(N.B. – What I mean, and what the Pope means, by the resurrection of Jesus is not the resuscitation of a corpse. Thus, there is a qualitative difference between the resurrection of Jesus and, say, the resuscitation of Lazarus.)

Is the whole idea of resurrection just a traditional Christian belief that present-day, scientifically-oriented people can’t really affirm in any literal sense? Were the Easter services yesterday primarily just a nod to that powerful tradition of the past? For contemporary people, is Easter meaningful only if the Gospel accounts are demythologized, psychologized, or secularized?

I myself have done the latter to some extent, in the past and as recently as last week: I called the column I write weekly for my hometown newspaper, “The Resurrection Principle.” That article was mainly non-religious: I wrote about seeing the resurrection principle at work in the world of nature during the spring and in the hearts of people who live by hope rather than despair.

The resurrection principle recognizes that life overcomes death, love overcomes hate and indifference, hope overcomes despair, and joy overcomes sorrow. There is, I believe, such a principle at work in the world. But can there be a resurrection principle at work in the world even if Jesus Christ was not resurrected? Or is the resurrection principle an indication of, and a pointer to, the Resurrection?

Regardless of what happened on the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion, the effects of the resurrection principle in our lives today are of great importance. Still, if nothing factual or objective happened on that first Easter morning, are our affirmations of life, love, hope, and joy just fanciful fabrications?

One Thinking Friend made this comment on the previous posting: “What I find fascinating is Christianity’s insistence that what one believes in one’s head about metaphysical realities is all important.” But if we take the Gospel accounts at all seriously, what the first Christians affirmed about the Resurrection was not primarily a metaphysical belief. They reported the actual experience of encountering the resurrected Christ.

For Christians today, too, what is significant is not an intellectual belief but a personal experience of Jesus Christ. So the Resurrection is not passé and the resurrection principle is not just the result of wish-fulfillment. On this day after Easter, all of us can truly celebrate life, love, hope, and joy because of presence of the resurrected Christ.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Pope on the Resurrection

Pope Benedict XVI is not my favorite Pope; that would have to be John XXIII. And next month I plan to write about Leo XIII, whose 1891 encyclical I evaluate highly. But I have just finished Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, his new book which was published March 10, and I was quite favorably impressed with it.

On this Wednesday before Easter, let me share some of the Pope’s statements about the Resurrection, which I found very close to my own theological position (and also close to the position of the noted New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, whom he does not cite).

Near the beginning of “Jesus’ Resurrection from the Dead,” the ninth chapter, the Pope asserts, “The Christian faith stands or falls with the truth of the testimony that Christ is risen from the dead” (p. 241). And on the following page: “Only if Jesus is risen has anything really new occurred that changes the world and the situation of mankind.”

The Pope cites New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann on page 246. I write more (and more critically) about him in my book The Limits of Liberalism (see especially pp. 194-5). In his book The Resurrection of Christ (2004) Lüdemann dismisses the “vain resort of accepting the resurrection of Jesus as a historical fact” and then goes on to assert that “we can no longer be Christians even if we wanted to be, for Jesus did not rise from the dead” (p. 202).

In response to what he quoted Lüdemann as saying, Benedict writes, “Naturally there can be no contradiction of clear scientific data.” But, “The Resurrection accounts certainly speak of something outside our world of experience. They speak of something new, something unprecedented—a new dimension of reality that is revealed. . . . Does that contradict science?”

The Pope continues, “Can there not be something unexpected, something unimaginable, something new? If there really is a God, is he not able to create a new dimension of human existence, a new dimension of reality altogether?” (pp. 246-7).

In the last section of the ninth chapter, Benedict says that the resurrection is “a historical event that nevertheless bursts open the dimensions of history and transcends it” (p. 273). He also says that the Resurrection can be regarded “as something akin to a radical ‘evolutionary leap,’ in which a new dimension of life emerges, a new dimension of human existence.

“Indeed, matter itself is remolded into a new type of reality. The man Jesus, complete with his body, now belongs totally to the sphere of the divine and eternal” (p. 274). So, the Resurrection “is not the same kind of historical event as the birth or crucifixion of Jesus. It is something new, a new type of event.

“Yet at the same time it must be understood that the Resurrection does not simply stand outside or above history” (p. 275).

This is essentially what I believe about the Resurrection, and what I have taught and preached for many years. So while not a big fan of Benedict XVI, I find myself in agreement him about the Resurrection. What about you?

Friday, April 15, 2011

In Favor of Raising Taxes

This may well be my most unpopular posting yet, for I am writing in favor of higher income taxes.

This coming Monday is the deadline for filing federal income tax returns this year—three days later than usual because of a Washington, D.C., holiday on April 15. Those of you who are due a refund likely filed your tax return some time ago. Others, like me, probably waited until near the deadline to file, for payment of taxes due must accompany their return. And even though retired, I had to pay a considerable amount of tax this week.

So why would I be writing in favor of raising taxes?

As we all know, there is a very serious budget deficit in this country. There are many Congresspersons, especially those supported by the Tea Party movement, who are determined to reduce the deficit by reducing the budget. But here is the problem: in their effort to reduce the budget they are suggesting cutting off funds for some very important programs.

We all agree that wasteful or duplicate programs, and there certainly are some of those, need to be eradicated. But such cuts would make only a small dent in the deficit, so other cuts are necessary. (Some of us would like to see significant reductions in military spending, but that is not likely to happen.)

Unfortunately, many of the cuts now being proposed would negatively impact needy people here in the U.S. as well as in others parts of the world. On April 1, a group in D.C. fasted and protested to oppose "the proposed budget cuts that would eliminate $7.6 billion from domestic programs that impact low-income women and children. Other cuts,” they said, “would potentially eliminate feeding programs for 18 million of the poorest and hungriest around the world.”

Instead of cutting programs for the poor, the tax cuts for the wealthiest two percent of Americans should surely be eliminated. The extension of those cuts this past December was a big mistake. Why in the world should billionaires be given tax cuts and then programs to help the poor be eliminated because of the lack of funds?

Further, profitable corporations should be required to pay taxes. As you have probably heard, General Electric had billions of dollars of profits in 2010 but paid no income taxes at all. The same was true for Exxon Mobil, Bank of America, and many other large and wealthy corporations in the country.

After the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans are eliminated and large corporations are required to pay taxes, if there is still need for further revenue to reduce the deficit, as there likely will be, then taxes should be increased for all of us except for those who have minimal incomes.

The federal deficit must be reduced and the budget needs to be balanced, but not on the backs of the poor. If it takes a tax increase to maintain the government programs that provide vital assistance to needy people in the nation, especially children and the elderly living in poverty, then so be it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Saddest Chapter in U.S. History

The Civil War is surely the saddest chapter in U.S. history up to this point, and Tuesday marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of that horrible war. It was on April 12, 1861, that the Confederates in South Carolina fired on the Union’s Fort Sumter, and the bloody Civil War began.

Certainly in 1917-18 American involvement in the Great War, as World War I was first called, was a terribly sad time for the U.S. as the country suffered more than 116,000 military deaths. And then World War II, beginning soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and not ending until the summer of 1945, was much more tragic with nearly 417,000 soldiers killed.

Partly because it happened entirely on American soil, the terrorist attacks of 9-11-01 also etched another sad chapter in U.S. history. The number of 9-11 casualties, though, was only a very small fraction of those in the two world wars.

The Civil War was such an overwhelming tragedy because not only was it on American soil, it was Americans fighting Americans. There may have been “only” around 213,000 battle deaths in the War Between the States, but the total number of deaths directly related to the war was probably at least 618,000 and may well have been more.

Missouri, my home state and where I live now, was a border state, and there were more Civil War battles fought here than in any other state except for Virginia and Tennessee. Not surprisingly, both Union and Confederate sympathizers and supporters lived in all parts of the state, including the north.

Some of the Seat family in Worth County, the northwest Missouri county where I was born, were on the side of the Confederates, much to my chagrin. Robert E. Lee Seat, born in 1866, was a first cousin of William Seat, my great-grandfather. Lee’s name surely says something about the political sympathies of his parents.

William’s father, Franklin, fled to Nebraska during the Civil War because his views in support of the Confederacy were so unpopular. Franklin later returned to Worth County, but his brother Jasper and his family, who also left Missouri during the Civil War, never returned. Although Franklin and Jasper were both born in Missouri, their grandfather had been a slave-owner in Virginia and then in Tennessee, so they apparently remained true to their Southern roots.

At the present time there are people in the country with marked political differences, holding strident positions on various social issues. We sometimes we hear about the “culture wars” going on within this country now. At times even members of the same family are on opposite sides, just as was the case during the Civil War.

The rhetoric of the culture wars gets quite heated at times, but at least the disagreements seldom lead to physical violence. I am thankful that the nation seems to have made at least some moral progress since the Civil War, which was surely the saddest chapter in U.S. history.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Bleakness of "Radical Theology"

Richard Grigg was recently a guest lecturer at William Jewell College (WJC). Although I heard only one of his two lectures, I found it quite engaging and thought-provoking.

Grigg (b. 1955), who has an M.Div. degree from Drew University and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, has been teaching in the Religious Studies Program at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut since 1985. He is the author of several books, the most recent being Beyond the God Delusion: How Radical Theology Harmonizes Science and Religion (2008).

Grigg’s lectures at WJC were quite closely related to his latest book, in which he rejects traditional theism in the first chapter. He writes about the God of traditional theism as being “the God who can answer prayer, guide history, and provide eternal life” (p. 37). In place of theism, Grigg forwards “radical theology” in his second chapter. That leads to the next chapter,  "Beyond Theism: A Scientifically Informed Pantheism.” That kind of pantheism is what Grigg presents as his radical theology.

I was impressed by Grigg’s humility and candor. No one could accuse him of holding to a position that was the result of some kind of wish fulfillment. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but think that the theology he presented was very bleak. And I had the feeling that Grigg himself was sad because now he finds himself unable to maintain the theistic faith that he, most likely, embraced in the past.

In his lecture, Grigg compared the “big claims” of traditional theism with the little claims of his radical theology. In all five areas considered, it seemed clear that the claims of theism were much more attractive. But because of his scientific worldview, he was unable to affirm that theistic position, as he probably once did.

My previous post was about the rejection of an eternal hell. Grigg not only rejects that concept but also the idea of an eternal heaven. He declared that there can be no eternal life apart from God. For a scientifically informed pantheism, though, there is no room for the idea of a personal life in heaven after death. For humans and all other forms of life, death is simply a part of the natural cycle and has to be accepted as such. There is just no place for a concept of eternal life (seen as conscious existence) in the scientific worldview.

At the close of his lecture, Grigg recommended serious consideration of Anselm’s well-known words about “faith seeking understanding.” And he ended by encouraging his listeners to “believe boldly,” and then adding, “Make sure you plumb your faith with your intellect.”

I have long been an advocate of faith seeking understanding. That stance has been a basic part of my intellectual endeavors for decades. But I am also fond of another phrase used by Anselm, credo ut intelligam (I believe so that I may understand).

There is a problem with appeals to autonomous human reason. Our intellects are shaped by our basic beliefs, our presuppositions. So do we plumb claims about God with our intellect shaped by belief in the scientific world view, or do we plumb the claims of science by belief in the Creator God?