Saturday, June 30, 2018

TTT #17 Both/And is Generally Better and More Nearly True than Either/Or

As narrated in my 6/20 blog article, D. Elton Trueblood’s book Philosophy of Religion (1957) greatly impacted my life and thinking. Particularly, I was significantly influenced by the chapter titled “Faith and Reason” as I learned about the Danish philosopher/ theologian Søren Kierkegaard and his “Christian existentialism” and about the French mathematician/physicist/philosopher Blaise Pascal as well as about the idea of paradox as a serious philosophical concept.
Embracing Paradox
The use of paradox as a literary device is widely recognized as a legitimate, and often helpful, means of enlarging one’s perspective and consideration of complex issues. In the English speaking world, however, it was not until the 1950s that paradox became the subject of serious theological consideration.
Of course, the idea of paradox as a way to comprehend reality goes back far earlier than to the last century or to the centuries in which Kierkegaard and Pascal lived.
The concept of yin and yang, for example, is an ancient Chinese concept. Taken together, yin and yang describe how polar or seemingly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent. So, according to that perspective, reality is not just unitary (one) but neither is it dual. It is, as is sometimes expressed in East Asia, “not-two.”   
Truth is often found in the combination or unity of opposites. That is the philosophical or theological idea behind the concept of paradox and the reason I assert that in most cases both/and is better than and more nearly true than either/or.
In the 1960s I became so interested in the concept of paradox that I ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on The Meaning of Paradox.
Paradox is, I believe, a key concept that helps us grasp the truth about reality. Accordingly, both/and thinking is almost always better than either/or thinking.
Affirming Coincidentia Oppositorum
Recently I came across a significant statement by Charles Simeon (1759-1836), who emphasized that “truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme, but in both extremes.”
That idea can be traced back at least to Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth century. He wrote about coincidentia oppositorum (the “coincidence of the opposites”).” This means that in many cases Truth is not on one side or the other—or even in the middle between the opposites. The truth is in both extremes held simultaneously.
This seems to have been the position of Kierkegaard, who referred to Jesus Christ as the Absolute Paradox. By that he meant that Jesus is not only wholly God and wholly human but also wholly unexpected and wholly incomprehensible to normal rational thought.
The nature of Jesus Christ is just one of many Christian doctrines that have a paradoxical nature, at least the way that I and many others understand the matter.
Seeing the Limits of Both/And Thinking
While generally, or in most instances, both/and thinking is better than either/or, that is not always true. It is especially not true when it comes to ultimate commitments.
For example, Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24, NRSV). Here is a clear case of either/or being correct; both/and doesn’t work.
So, this section turns out to be an illustration of the point of the chapter. Rather than say we should always use both/and thinking or always use either/or thinking, it is far better to realize that both “both/and” and “either/or” thinking should be used at times and that neither can nor should be used exclusively.

[Click here to read the 17th chapter in Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now, my unpublished book manuscript.]

Monday, June 25, 2018

Ironies of American History

It has been two weeks now since the historic meeting between DJT and Kim Jong-un in Singapore. You likely heard/saw much about that at the time. What can we say now about that meeting, which is surely one of the ironies of American history? (“Irony” as used here means “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects.")
The Irony of American History
The noted theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (about whom I wrote in a June 2017 article) gave two lectures at Westminster College in Missouri in May 1949. Those talks became the basis of his book The Irony of American History (1952).
Rather than try to summarize Niebuhr’s book here (which cannot be done briefly), let me just refer to “What You Can Learn from Reinhold Niebuhr,” a review article that appeared in the March 26, 2009, issue of The New York Review of Books.
This article is about two events that have happened since Niebuhr’s book was published. It is, however, partly about two countries that have embraced Communism, the focus of Niebuhr’s reflections.
Nixon’s Visit to China
Richard Nixon, the only POTUS to resign, is primarily known for two things: the Watergate affair that led to his resignation and his visit to China leading to the normalizing of relations between the U.S. and that country.
Nixon’s strategic visit to China was twenty years after Niebuhr’s book was published, but that visit is surely one of the ironies of American history. Nixon was chosen to run as Eisenhower’s Vice-President partly because of his strong anti-Communism stance.
Nixon, though, became the first U.S. President to visit the People’s Republic of China, and that visit ended 25 years of no diplomatic ties between the two counties.
For several reasons, Nixon can be seen as one of the worst Presidents in U. S. history. But his visit to China was a highly important strategic and diplomatic achievement—and part of the irony is that if Humphrey had been elected in 1968, he likely would not have been able to pull off that feat.
It is also ironic that that successful political action occurred just four months before the Watergate break-in, which, of course, led to Nixon’s resignation.
The Trump-Kim Meeting
So, what about the historic meeting of the current POTUS and Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea?
One ironic aspect of that June 11/12 meeting comes from the saber-rattling rhetoric and derogatory language used by both leaders against each other just a few months earlier.
Trump publicly called Kim “Little Rocket Man” and in private with his aides referred to Kim as “a crazy guy.” Kim, in turn, has called Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” At the Singapore Summit, however, Trump and Kim appeared to be bosom buddies. 
As was widely reported, Trump “gushed with praise” of the North Korean dictator. But that was not highly regarded by some Americans, including David A. Graham who wrote a June 12 article for The Atlantic titled “Trump’s Effusive, Unsettling Flattery of Kim Jong Un”.
But others lauded DJT. On June 14, Deroy Murdock wrote in the National Review (here), “President Trump’s extraordinary Tuesday-morning Singapore summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was an encounter that eluded every American president from Eisenhower to Obama.”
Who’d have thought that the President who last year threatened “fire and fury” and early this year bragged to Kim, “My nuclear button is bigger than yours,” would be the one to meet with the Supreme Leader of North Korea and come away claiming that there is no longer any threat of nuclear confrontation?
Ironic indeed!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

TTT #16 Unexamined Faith is Not Worth Having

This article is based on the 16th chapter of Thirty True Things . . . (TTT), the first chapter in the second half of the book. The first half is mostly about theological “true things.” The remainder of the book is about more personal, “close-to-home” issues.
My Personal Experience
In May of 1957, I graduated from junior college and transferred that fall to William Jewell College. One of my courses that first semester was Philosophy of Religion and the textbook was the newly published Philosophy of Religion by the Quaker scholar D. Elton Trueblood.
In the first chapter of his book, Trueblood (1900-94) declares, “Unexamined faith is not worth having” (p. 14). My professor, for good reason, emphasized that statement repeatedly, and I gradually came to realize that it was, indeed, not only an important statement to think about but also something that I badly needed to do. 
That autumn was an uncomfortable time for me. Seeking to examine my faith resulted in a trying period of doubt, reflection, and examination—but that was an extremely valuable experience.
As a result of that process, I came to embrace what seemed then, and still seems to me now, an examined faith very much worth having. Of course, at various times through the decades since then, it has been necessary to re-examine various aspects of my faith.
How Could Faith be Not Worth Having?
If faith is always good, as asserted in my 6/10 article (and in Chapter 15 of TTT), how could faith ever be not worth having?
Well, faith is always good—but it is not always stable. Sometimes it is weak, easily shaken, and even so fragile that it is broken by adversity. In that sense alone it is not worth having: if faith cannot withstand challenges, both those from within and from without, how can it be of great value?
Faith in God is, truly, always good, but people often have insufficient or an erroneous understanding of God. Failing to have an adequate understanding of God can produce a flawed faith.
Moreover, there are many challenges to faith hurled at believers by aggressive atheist or anti-theistic writers. Far more than at the time that Trueblood wrote about unexamined faith not being worth having, in recent years there have been several popular, widely-read authors who have strenuously attacked faith in God and touted an unabashed atheism.
These “New Atheists” represent a belief system that actively opposes faith in God. If a person of unexamined faith is confronted by people such as those militant atheists, that faith may not be strong enough to withstand the attack.
That is part of what I mean by emphasizing that unexamined faith is not worth having.
How Does One Examine One’s Faith?
The process of examining one’s faith is not easy, though. Philosophical and theological thinking rather than the empirical or scientific method must be used. Serious reflecting, analyzing, studying, and, yes, praying must be a part of that process.
In addition, being a part of a community of faith is also invaluable for that important endeavor.
Those who come to realize that unexamined faith is not worth having need to realize that in addition to their personal efforts they must make to examine their faith by study, thought, and prayer they also need also to be a part of a supportive faith community.
That community may or may not be a part of “organized religion,” but robust faith often doesn’t last long for people who proclaim to be “spiritual but not religious.”
[The 16th chapter of Thirty True Things . . . (TTT) can be accessed by clicking on this link.]

Friday, June 15, 2018

A Tangled Mercy at Mother Emanuel Church

Three years ago on June 17, a white terrorist shot and killed nine African-Americans in the Emanuel African Episcopal Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That tragic event is linked to the early history of that church in an engaging 2017 novel titled A Tangled Mercy.
The Early History of “Mother Emanuel”
Between 1815 and 1818, Hampstead Church was founded in Charleston, South Carolina. Later its name was changed to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and it became the largest African-American church south of Baltimore. Through the years it has been affectionately called Mother Emanuel Church.
Denmark Vesey, who in 1822 was the primary leader of the thwarted slave revolt in Charleston, was one of the church’s founders. Vesey and more than 30 others were executed by hanging on July 2 that year. Soon afterward the church building was burned down.
Mother Emanuel Church was not able to rebuild until after the Civil War. The plans for the new building constructed then were drawn by architect Robert Vesey, Denmark Vesey’s son.
After an earthquake demolished that structure in 1886, the current building, which seats some 2,500 people, was completed in 1892.  
Worship at Mother Emanuel Church on June 21, 2015
The 2015 Shooting at Mother Emanuel
On the evening of June 17, 2015, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof went to Mother Emanuel Church and joined a dozen other people in Bible study and prayer.
When the small group began to pray about 9 p.m., Roof pulled a gun from a fanny pack and began shooting those around him. He fatally wounded nine people, including Clementa C. Pinckney, the pastor who was also a state senator.
Roof was soon apprehended. He confessed that he committed the atrocity at Mother Emanuel Church in the hope of igniting a race war. Before the shooting, a website showed him posing with emblems associated with white supremacy and with photos of the Confederate battle flag.
As was widely reported, not long after that tragic shooting the South Carolina General Assembly voted to remove the Confederate flag from the State Capitol grounds.
Early last year Roof was sentenced to death. He is now waiting on death row in a federal prison in Indiana. 
There has, for good reason, been fear of Islamist terrorists in the U.S. since 9/11/01. But between 2001 and 2015, more Americans were killed by homegrown right-wing extremists than by Islamist terrorists.
Even though it may be the worst act of domestic terrorism since 2001, Roof’s is just one many terrorist acts committed by white supremacists in the U.S. in recent years.
A Tangled Mercy  
Thanks to Jason Edwards, my friend and former pastor, I heard about A Tangled Mercy, a new novel by Joy Jordan-Lake, a friend of Jason’s since his seminary days at Baylor. Soon after learning about Joy’s book, I began reading it and found it to be quite intriguing. 
In alternating chapters, she told the story of events in Charleston in 1822 and in 2015, skillfully weaving the stories together.
Part of the 1822 story was about one of “the amazing Grimké sisters,” as I called them in a 2016 blog article (see here), and about Denmark Vesey (whom I also introduced in that article).
The chapters about 2015, of course, lead to the shooting in Mother Emanuel Church.
If you are looking for a good novel to read this summer, I recommend ATangled Mercy. (I chose it as the best of the 23 novels I read last year.)
One of my favorite quotes in the book is near the end: “A life worth living is one of compassion. And a life of compassion will include many tears” (p. 425).

Sunday, June 10, 2018

TTT #15 Faith and Religion are Not the Same, and Faith Is Far More Important

In recent years there has been a growing number of people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” Although the 15th chapter of Thirty True Things . . . “ (TTT) does not address that issue directly, it is closely related. In this article (and chapter) I contend that it is much more important for people to have faith (be “spiritual”) than to practice religion.
Religion Divides, Faith Unites
Rev. Alex McGilvey, Manitoba, Canada
In the first part of Chapter 15 of TTT, I contend that there doesn’t have to be a split between faith and religion. That is because, ideally, religion is an expression of faith and nourishes the faith of the believer and encourages faith in non-believers. 
We live, however, in a world where much is far from ideal. And, unfortunately, quite often religion is quite different from, and quite inferior to, faith. Moreover, religion tends to be divisive. Religions often have “competed” with each other for adherents.
In an effort to overcome the tension among the religions, for decades some have encouraged, and practiced, interreligious dialogue. While certainly there is still a place for such dialogue among people of the various religious traditions, a more helpful movement is that of interfaith activities.
Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary indicates that the term interfaith dates back to 1932. But the common use of that term is considerably more recent. Still, it has become a widely used term; there is now even a website with the URL address www.interfaith.org.
Part of the reason for the shift in terminology from interreligious to interfaith is due to the fact that religion tends to divide, but faith can, and often does, unite people.
On this basis, chapter 15 deals with the following matters in distinguishing the major differences between religion and faith.
►Religion as “Unfaith”
There is broad agreement that the most influential Protestant theologian of the 20th century was Karl Barth, the Swiss scholar who died 50 years ago in 1968. (I wrote a blog article, see here, about him on the 44th anniversary of his death.)
One of Barth’s seminal emphases was that religion is fundamentally “unfaith” because, in his analysis, it is the result of the efforts humans expend in seeking their own salvation.
To Barth, and many others who share his ideas, God cannot found by humans searching for God. God can be experienced only through God’s self-manifestation, which is the main meaning of the theological term “revelation.”
Faith, then, is not striving, but responding. Faith is not searching, but receiving. Faith is simply the grateful acceptance of God’s abundant grace.
►Religion Can Be Evil
Charles Kimball, an ordained Baptist minister, authored a book published under the title When Religion Becomes Evil (2002). He doesn’t think that religion as such is bad, but he analyzes how religion in all religious traditions is susceptible to at least five basic corruptions leading to a variety of evils.
Kimball goes on to stress, and I agree, that “only authentic faith can prevent such evils” (back cover).
►Faith is Always Good

After a section in which I introduce Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s ideas about the difference between faith and religion, the closing section avers that “faith is always good.” Of course, that assertion is based on the way I have defined faith in the chapter.

To the extent that faith is response to God (by whatever name God may be known or Ultimate Reality encountered), that response will of necessity be a good thing.

If faith, in actuality, is being/living in a loving relationship with God as the result of direct encounter with God, how could that be anything but good?


[The 15th chapter of Thirty True Things . . . (TTT), which amplifies what is presented in this article, can be found by clicking on this link.]

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

A White Politician, a Hispanic Activist, and a Distraught Palestinian Walk into the Ambassador Hotel

For of all sad words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
(John Greenleaf Whittier, 1856)
I couldn’t help but think of these well-known words when reflecting on the tragic events that happened in the first hour of June 5, 1968.
The White Politician
Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy won the Democratic presidential primary in California on June 4, 1968. Late that night he walked into the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to join many of his enthusiastic supporters for a vivacious victory celebration.
Just after midnight, Kennedy decided to call it a night. Hemmed in by the crowd, he followed the maître d'hôtel through the kitchen/pantry area of the hotel in order to exit by a back door.
RFK never made it out of the hotel on his own, for as he passed through the back kitchen area he was shot several times at close range. Rushed to the Good Samaritan Hospital (about ten minutes away), he died less than 26 hours later.
There is good reason to think that had he not been killed, RFK would have garnered the Democratic nomination for President in 1968.
In the November election, Richard Nixon just barely won the popular vote—and there is also good reason to think that he well may have lost the election if RFK had been his opponent.
“Of all sad words of tongue and pen . . . .”   
The Hispanic Activist
Dolores Huerta had enthusiastically welcomed Kennedy to California in March 1968. Although long overshadowed by Cesar Chavez, she and Chavez were the co-founders of the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 and was/is an indefatigable civil rights activist.
In an interview posted (here) just last month, Huerta (b. 1930) vividly recalled the day RFK joined thousands of farmworkers in Central California to celebrate the end of Chavez's fast for nonviolence.
Huerta happily walked into the Ambassador Hotel after the close of the California primary, and then stood on the podium with RFK as he gave his acceptance speech on that fateful night of June 4/5.
Huerta (on left) with RFK on 6/4/68
(If you haven’t seen the recent PBS documentary on Huerta, available for viewing here, I highly recommend it.)  
The Distraught Palestinian
Sirhan Sirhan was born (in 1944) in Jerusalem into an Arab Palestinian Christian family with Jordanian citizenship. When he was 12, his family emigrated to the U.S., moving to California after a brief time in New York.
On the night of June 4, 1968, Sirhan also walked into the Ambassador Hotel—but with a far different purpose than Kennedy’s or Huerta’s.
According to a reviewer of Mel Ayton’s book The Forgotten Terrorist (2007), “Sirhan Sirhan was not just a crazed 24-year-old Jordanian immigrant. He was in fact a radicalized Palestinian refugee with a clear political motive to attack the U.S. and its political institutions.”  
As a New York Senator, Kennedy had a large Jewish constituency. With the June 1967 Six-Day War fresh in the headlines, to Sirhan and many other Palestinians, Kennedy's unfortunate pledge to arm Israel seemed to be a declaration of war against the Palestinian people.
Sirhan was soon arrested and the following year was sentenced to death for assassinating Kennedy. With the change in California laws of capital punishment, in 1972 his sentence was changed to life imprisonment.
Surprisingly, a May 26 article in the Washington Post (here) is titled “Who killed Bobby Kennedy? His son RFK Jr. doesn’t believe it was Sirhan Sirhan.”
Regardless, the assassination of RFK is said to be the first major incident of political violence in the U.S. stemming from the Arab–Israeli conflict.
Again, sad words about what could have been so very different.