Monday, May 30, 2011

Hawking on Heaven

Stephen Hawking (b. 1942), the British physicist and cosmologist, is one of the best-known academic celebrities on earth. He may also be one of the most brilliant scientists on the planet.
As you have probably heard, Hawking recently made the news by saying, in an exclusive interview with the Guardian on May 15, that “There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story.”
I have not read, and likely could not understand, Hawking’s technical books, such as his Information Loss in Black Holes (2005). But I have read, and led a discussion on (with the teachers at Seinan Gakuin High School), Hawking’s popular book A Brief History of Time (1988), a bestseller that has sold more than ten million copies.
In his most recent book The Grand Design (2010, coauthored with Leonard Mlodinow), Hawking argues that invoking God is not necessary to explain the origins of the universe, and that the Big Bang is a consequence of the laws of physics alone. In response to criticism, Hawking has said, “One can’t prove that God doesn't exist, but science makes God unnecessary.” So, not unsurprisingly, Hawking says he does not believe in God.
Having rejected God, Hawking now clearly denies the reality of Heaven. (I capitalize Heaven, for I am using the word in reference to a “place” and not just as a metaphorical concept.) In his interview with the Guardian, he commented, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
Since he does not believe in Heaven, Hawking “emphasizes the need to fulfil our potential on Earth by making good use of our lives,” according to the Guardian.
Back in March, I wrote about “Bell on Hell” (link here). Now, what can we say about Hawking on Heaven? And what should we think and do if Hawking should be right (even though I don’t think he is)?
We have to appreciate Hawking’s bravery in following what he thinks to be true rather than what would be more comforting. And shouldn’t we also appreciate his emphasis on making good use of our lives now? We have heard of people “so heavenly minded they were of no earthly good.” But shouldn’t those who are followers of Jesus love God and love our neighbors for their sake, and now, whether there is a Heaven or not?
And on this Memorial Day, people who visit the graves of their loved ones don’t do so because they are specifically thinking of them being in Heaven. At the cemetery we usually think of our loved ones’ life on earth, giving thanks for their lives and legacy. And that we can, and should, do whether there is a Heaven or not.
While Heaven is not nearly as important to me as it long was, I do believe in Heaven. And I think it is a “crying shame” that Hawking doesn’t, that he doesn’t have anything to look forward to after the death of his brilliant computer-brain other than the leaving of a significant intellectual legacy.
But I don’t know that I would, or should, live any differently even if Hawking should be right in his views about Heaven.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Swords into Plowshares

World Sunday for Peace was this past Sunday, May 22. Did your church observe it? Neither did mine. But it wouldn’t have been a bad idea.
The World Sunday for Peace was part of the World Council of Churches' International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) which ends today, May 25, in Kingston, Jamaica. The IEPC marks the culmination of the WCC’s “Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches Seeking Reconciliation.”
Among other places, about a month ago the World Sunday for Peace was announced on “Swords into Plowshares,” the blog of the Peacemaking Program and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations of the General Assembly Mission Council of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
As is found on numerous other websites the Presbyterian blog gives this prayer that congregations, communities, and individuals were encouraged to use on the World Sunday for Peace. The first part of that prayer goes like this:
God of peace and possibility, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier: We approach you to ask once again for your mercy, forgiveness and a fresh start. We ask you to help us give peace a chance, in this world. We want to give peace a chance, yet we have already missed so many opportunities. We have sabotaged so many initiatives; instead of overcoming evil with good, we have stood by while good was overpowered. Forgive us, Lord. Dona nobis pacem: Give us peace, we pray.
The words “swords into plowshares” come from the Old Testament, as most of you know well. They are found both in Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3.
You also likely know about the “Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares” statue on the east side of the U.N. Headquarters in New York City. That remarkable sculpture was done in 1957 by Evgeniy Vuchetich (1908-74), a Soviet sculptor.
Just recently I saw another remarkable work of art portraying the same idea. This is the “Plowshare Sculpture” done by Arlie J. Regier (b. 1931) and presented to Clay County (MO) in 1990. Even though I have lived in Liberty for several years now, I just happened to see this sculpture (pictured below) for the first time last month, and was quite impressed by it.
Of course, modern battles are not fought with spears, and not many people now even know what a plowshare is. Still the message should be clear to all: weapons of war badly need to be converted into purveyors of peace. That was what lay behind the slogan “atoms for peace,” and it was not a bad idea. But it is a very difficult idea to implement, as the damaged nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan, so sadly remind us.
There are a number of peace activist groups who use plowshares (or ploughshares) in their name. One such group is “Project Ploughshares,” which was established in 1976 as an agency of The Canadian Council of Churches “to give practical expression to the fulfilment of God’s call to bear witness to peace, reconciliation, and non-violence and to contribute to the building of a national and international order that will serve the goals of peace with justice, freedom, and security for all.”
That sounds like a good “mandate” to me, and I pray that it increasingly becomes the conscious goal of each of us as individuals, of our communities of faith, and even of the countries in which we life.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Is Tomorrow (May 21) Judgment Day?

Judgment Day  May 21 was the emblazoned message on the billboard I saw the other day driving down I-70. Such pronouncements have appeared on billboards and elsewhere across the country for several months now.
Harold Camping (b. 1921), president of Family Radio, is the main one who has caused the stir (in some circles) about May 21 being Judgment Day. According to his interpretation of the Bible, the Rapture will also start tomorrow, which will be the beginning of five months of tribulation that will culminate with the End of the World on October 21.
Here is my prediction: Judgment Day (and the Rapture) will not be tomorrow (May 21). By Sunday morning (May 22) I guess we will know which prediction was correct.
Camping is just the latest in a long line of Christians who have (foolishly) set dates for the end times on the basis of “biblical prophecy.” Obviously, those who have predicted the end for past dates have all been wrong. And I am predicting that will be the case with Camping’s 5/21/11 prediction also.
There are others who talk about this being the end times, but don’t set a date. Still, they think the end is definitely near. One such person is Joel C. Rosenberg (b. 1967), who is a bestselling author of six novels about terrorism and how it relates to Bible prophecy. One of those books, The Ezekiel Option, was the 2006 Christian Book Award winner for fiction.
Recently I was talking with an intelligent Christian who was reading Rosenberg’s latest book, The Twelfth Imam (Oct. 2010). She had been impressed with how a number of Rosenberg’s predictions have come true, and she seemed to think that he was probably right in saying we are now living in the end times. She mentioned that his predictions were based partly on Ezekiel.
“He probably referred to Gog and Magog,” I said, not having read any of Rosenberg’s books or his website. She said, “Yes, I had never heard of that before!” But, as I told her, I heard revival preachers talking about Gog and Magog in the 1950s. They declared that the prophecy in Ezekiel 38-39 was a clear reference to Russia (the Soviet Union). Thus, it was quite certain, they proclaimed, that the end of the world was at hand.
But, alas, the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union broke up, and here it is nearly sixty years later and the end has not yet come. So Gog and Magog had to be reinterpreted, just as they have been for more than two millennia. Some early Christians thought “Gog from the country of Magog” surely referred to someone in the Roman Empire. They were wrong. Next, and for a long time, Magog was identified with the Goths. That and subsequent identifications also proved to be erroneous.
Here’s the advice I gave to the Christian woman I was talking with about Rosenberg: whenever you hear someone prophesying the imminent end of the world on the basis of Bible prophecy, assume they are wrong. They all have been up until now, and there is no good reason to think that current prophecies will be any more accurate.
So, go ahead and make your weekend plans. Judgment Day is not going to be tomorrow, and we Christians have more important things to do than to become entangled in spurious prophecies.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

In Praise of Pope Leo and Labor Unions

One hundred and twenty years ago, on May 15, 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued the momentous encyclical Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”).

Leo XIII, who had been the pope for twenty-five years when he died in 1903, began his 1891 encyclical (formal statement sent to the bishops) by talking about the problem of “the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses.”

While opposing socialism and affirming the right of private property, Pope Leo also recognized the right of workers to unite in labor unions. The latter was a significant new emphasis and one reason there have been special activities commemorating the 120th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. One such activity was held earlier this month at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., a university founded in 1887 with the approval of Pope Leo.

Even though issued 120 years ago, Pope Leo’s encyclical speaks directly to matters facing the nation at the present time. As you know, back in February there was a clash between the public-sector unions and Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin. In a highly politicized confrontation, the labor unions were demonized by one side and strongly supported by the other.

As you might guess, Rush Limbaugh was stanchly on the side of Gov. Walker and strongly against the position of the union leaders. But it was laughable to hear Limbaugh criticize the “greedy” union members of Wisconsin (and other states) when he has reportedly signed (in 2008) an eight-year contract for $400,000,000! How can anyone who makes $137,000 a day (!) have the gall to call to people greedy who make far, far less than that a year?!

Doubtlessly there have been excesses in some of the demands and practices of labor unions through the years. But many of the things that we take for granted now were due largely to the efforts of the labor unions and their work since 1891, things like the forty-hour work week, child labor laws, unemployment benefits, factory safety laws, and the like.

It is widely recognized that labor unions tend to support the Democratic Party, so Democrats are charging that Gov. Walker and others are opposing the unions primarily to lessen financial contributions to Democratic candidates. Conversely, the Republicans are charging that the Democrats, and the President, are supporting the unions mainly in order to reap financial rewards for upcoming political campaigns.

But labor unions are not primarily about politics; they are about the welfare of workers. Thanks to those labor unions—and their support in Pope Leo’s 1891 encyclical—the workers of the nation are far better off, and far less exploited, than they would be otherwise. In the U.S. and other industrialized countries of the world “the enormous fortunes of some few individuals” still exists. But, thankfully, partly due to the labor unions, it is no longer necessary to speak of “the utter poverty of the masses.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Enslaved to the System

What was the primary cause of the Civil War? Most Northerners, among whom I self-identify, would say that the War Between the States was fought mainly because of slavery and the desire to abolish such a sinful system.

But from the time of the War until the present many Southerners have disagreed. They would be more likely to say that the South launched the Civil War, which started 150 years ago last month, in order to protect their way of life and to preserve the rights of the Southern states.

And the Southerners may be right. It seems that freeing the slaves was not uppermost even in Lincoln’s mind at the beginning of the War. Preserving the Union was. Two years before becoming President he uttered the well-known words, citing Matthew 12:25, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.”

Slavery was certainly a pivotal issue, but preserving the Union seems to have been Lincoln’s major concern. During the second year of the War, though, Lincoln did decide that freeing the slaves was the right thing to do, and long before the War ended, on January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

But what about the argument of the Southerners; why do I say they may be right? I think it is clear that their major concern was, in fact, preserving their way of life. But the problem is, their way of life depended on slavery. The affluent lifestyle of the landowners was made possible only by their slaves.

Yet in another sense the Southerners were wrong: the war was about slavery. They, as well as most Northerners, were enslaved to the system, the system of capitalism. And in the South capitalism depended on the continuation of slavery.

Capitalism is a great system for those who have capital. It is not so great for those who have nothing to sell but their labor. And it was an extremely bad system for those who were slaves of the capitalists, which is what all slave-owners were.

So it can be argued that the central issue of the Civil War was largely an economic one. The Southerners did not particularly hold animosity toward their slaves. True, some slave-owners did mistreat their slaves just as some farmers mistreated their horses. But most didn’t.

The Southerners didn’t favor slavery because of their dislike of those dark-skinned people who worked for them in the cotton fields and elsewhere. They supported slavery almost entirely for economic interests, although there were other personal benefits that accompanied having slaves in the household.

Those who had the biggest financial stake in preserving slavery tended to be the biggest supporters of the Civil War, and most of those who fought against slavery were largely those who had few, if any, direct economic ties to the system of slavery.

And now in the 21st century, perhaps most of us in this country, and especially the politicians in charge of the legislative and executives branches of the government, seem to be largely enslaved to the corporations, the bastion of capitalism, just as the Southerners were enslaved to the system of slavery in the middle of the 19th century. 

When and how will emancipation come this time?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

“Just War,” “Humanitarian War,” or Just War?

"Bin Laden Dead" was the two-inch headline at the top of The Kansas City Star, which I saw early Monday morning. (Since I get up quite early, I also go to bed early, so I had not heard the news when it broke late Sunday evening.)

Reading more of the newspaper and then watching some television reports about the killing of bin Laden, it was evident that there was considerable rejoicing over his death. And certainly that is understandable, since he was the mastermind of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01.

A little later on Monday morning, I saw that Thinking Friend Tyler Tankersley had posted “Proverbs 24:17” on Facebook Sunday evening. Also fairly early on Monday morning Dr. David Gushee, writing for The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, quoted the same verse in a perceptive posting about the killing of bin Laden. (The link to that article is here.)

Shortly after reading Dr. Gushee’s article I received an e-mail from Thinking Friend David Nelson, who wrote: “This is a day for sobering reflection as we hear of the death of Osama bin Laden. The celebrating in the streets feels wrong for me. It is a day to ponder how we can make this a safer and better world for all our sisters and brothers.”

From early in the Middle Ages, Christian theologians and ethicists have affirmed the possibility of what is called just war. When certain conditions are met, war is considered to be just or right. Most Americans believe that all the wars the U.S. has fought have been just wars, although there are many who question that about the war on Iraq.

The “war on terror” has certainly been considered a just war by most Americans. Writing for the 10/29/01 issue of The Nation, Richard Falk (b. 1930; professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University) said, “The war in Afghanistan against apocalyptic terrorism qualifies in my understanding as the first truly just war since World War II.”

Just over a decade ago (at the time of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999) a new term was introduced for military activity: humanitarian war. That term is now being used by some people to refer to what is currently taking place in Libya. And I am in sympathy with the efforts to protect the rebels in Libya from what appeared to be sure slaughter by the forces of Muammar Gaddafi, who has been the tyrannical ruler of that north African country since 1969.

Nevertheless, back in 2001 the December issue of The Progressive, Howard Zinn (1922-2010) raised these questions about whether the war on terror was just:
How can a war be truly just when it involves the daily killing of civilians, when it causes hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to leave their homes to escape the bombs, when it may not find those who planned the September 11 attacks, and when it will multiply the ranks of people who are angry enough at this country to become terrorists themselves?
If he were still alive, my guess is that the inimitable Zinn would raise similar questions about the “humanitarian war” now being waged in Libya by NATO, which includes the U.S., of course.

While I am glad bin Laden is no longer alive in order to plan more terrorist attacks, and while I will be glad when Gaddafi is no longer able to carry on his reign of terror in Libya, still, I think we have to be careful about our terminology and the justification of violence.

The terms “just war” and “humanitarian war” may sound quite acceptable, but maybe both of those forms of military action end up being just war. And we must not forget that, as General Sherman said, “War is hell.”