Thursday, August 30, 2018

TTT #23 What We Do Is More Important than What We Believe

This new article is largely related to Christians and Christian theology—but not exclusively. In recent decades some Buddhist thinkers, such as the venerable Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, have emphasized “engaged Buddhism,” which is closely connected to the movement in Christian theology referenced here.
Emphasis on Orthodoxy
Orthodoxy is a word that has had a long and checkered history in the story of the Christian faith. While the idea of orthodoxy was not completely absent even in New Testament times, the emphasis on the importance of orthodoxy was not prevalent in Christianity until the fourth century.
The first Ecumenical Councils of the church, beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325, composed creeds which were intended to separate orthodoxy from heresy. More precisely, religious and political leaders sought to remove those deemed to be heretics from the orthodox within the Church.
Until about sixty years ago, the emphasis on orthodoxy was largely unchallenged in Christianity, although, to be sure, some small, “splinter” groups placed more emphasis on correct action than on correct belief.
For the church as a whole, however, the creeds were the focal point of correctness, and all who entered the Christian faith and sought to maintain good standing in that faith were expected to agree with the creeds.
Nevertheless, Christians, and all people, need to recognize that what they do is more important than what they believe.
The Contribution of Liberation Theology
That which is known as liberation theology has its strong supporters as well as severe critics. There are variations in all movements and schools of thought; some are more excessive in their emphases than others. That is true for liberation theology, too, of course.
Assuredly, there have been some statements made and some actions performed in the name of liberation theology that clearly have to be labeled as extreme. But there is much that is good and important in liberation theology.
Three distinct liberation theology movements began in the early 1970s. For many, though, liberation theology refers primarily to a theological movement whose roots go back to the late 1960s in South America.
Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez became the clear leader of that theological movement with his book A Theology of Liberation (1973), based on his theological proposals of 1968. 
Gutiérrez defines liberation theology as “a critical reflection on Christian praxis in light of the word of God.” He goes on to assert that “a principal task of ‘reflection on praxis in the light of faith’ will be to strengthen the necessary and fruitful links between orthopraxis and orthodoxy.”
Emphasis on Orthopraxy
But what is all this talk about praxis and orthopraxis? Praxis simply means action or practice, but it often has the connotation of being the practical application of a theory.
For religious people, praxis refers to the idea of putting faith into action. For Christians, it is particularly related to the idea that “faith without works is dead,” as found in the book of James. 
Orthopraxy, then, simply refers to right action. This concept stands over against orthodoxy, which means right belief. Gutiérrez says that the purpose of orthopraxis is to recognize “the importance of concrete behavior, of deeds, of action, of praxis in the Christian life.”
Given the wretched economic conditions of the masses of people in South America, the liberation theology developed in that continent spoke much about liberation from poverty, and “the preferential option for the poor” became a widely used, and often misunderstand, slogan. 
For all forms of liberation theology, though, action (praxis) is considered more important than words. That is the important point I am making here: what we do is more important than what we believe.

[Much more on this important topic can be found in the 23rd chapter of Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT), which can be accessed here.]

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Encountering the Enigmatic Simone Weil

Back in 1939 Winston Churchill referred to “the action of Russia” as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” That same description is apt for Simone Weil, a 30-year-old French woman who was living in Paris at that time.
Who Was Simone Weil?
Born in 1909 to secular Jewish parents, Simone Weil died 75 years ago (on Aug. 24, 1943) at the age of 34. Often described as a philosopher, mystic, and political activist, it is fitting to take some time to think about the life and work of this enigmatic person.  
Weil (pronounced “vey”) was a brilliant child and received a good education. At the age of 22 she finished her formal education, having majored in philosophy, and began her short teaching career.
The next year, 1932, she engaged in a demonstration for unemployed workers—and was transferred to another teaching position by school authorities. After teaching in three different schools in three years, in 1935 she took a leave of absence in order to work in factories.
Severe migraine headaches made it necessary for her to quit both manual work and teaching. In 1938 and the years following she had mystical experiences of God, but she was never baptized.
After living in the U.S. for a few months in 1942, Weil went to England to work with the Free French organization there. In April the next year she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and then died in August, partly (or largely) because of refusing to eat.  
What Did Simone Weil Emphasize?
From among many and varied matters Weil emphasized in her life and writings, let's consider briefly only the following three:
1) Attention
In preparing to write this article, I read Love in the Void (2018), a book of selected writings by Weil. In that book’s first paragraph by Weil, she asserts that “prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.”
Early this week, June and I watched “An Encounter with Simone Weil,” an intriguing 2001 documentary by Julia Haslett. Early in the film are these striking statements by Weil:
Attention is the purest and rarest form of generosity.
Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention.
2) Identification
From childhood Simone had an exceedingly strong sense of identification or empathy / solidarity with others. Even as a five-year-old she refused to eat sugar because French soldiers fighting in WWI had none.
In her lectures on philosophy in 1933-34, she declared: “Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.”
Thus, as Laurie Gagne, the editor of Love in the Void, wrote, “Because of her great love for the oppressed, Simone Weil spent a good part of her life trying to comprehend their suffering, usually by attempting to share it in one way or another.” That is why she chose to work some in factories.
3) Affliction
“The Love of God and Affliction” is the last chapter of Love in the Void. Here Weil talks about the significance of affliction, which is extreme suffering that is both physical and psychological.
Affliction is of great importance to Weil because by it she came to understand the love of God seen in and through the passion of Christ. Affliction led her to experience God’s love deeplyand then to share that love.
In her introduction to Love in the Void, editor Gagne wrote that even though the attending physician declared Weil’s death a suicide because she refused to eat adequately, “we can say she died of an excess of love.”
Robert Coles, Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage (1987)
Stephen Plant, Simone Weil: A Brief Introduction (2007)
Eric O. Springsted, Simone Weil & the Suffering of Love (1986)

Monday, August 20, 2018

TTT #22 Jesus Expects His Followers to be Peacemakers

The 22nd chapter of Thirty True Things . . . (TTT) was not one of the chapters planned for that book. But in the process of writing the previous chapter, linked to in my Aug. 10 blog article, I became aware of how closely related are the ideas of simple living and peacemaking.
Simple Living and Peacemaking
In looking back at exemplary Christians through the centuries, most of those most interested in simple living were also interested in peacemaking, and many of those most interested in peacemaking were also interested in simple living.
In that connection, through the years I have also become increasingly cognizant of how there seems to be a significant economic factor behind most major historical events, including, and especially, wars. In spite of all the high-sounding rhetoric, wars are almost always fought for economic reasons, at least in part.
In his State of the Union message in January 2002, President George W. Bush referred to three countries as “the axis of evil.” Those three countries were Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. The next year war was launched against Iraq, and there have been repeated rumblings about a future war against Iran.
While the government of North Korea has often been renounced, until briefly in 2017 there had been little talk of going to war against that country. What is the difference? It is hard to deny that the abundance of oil in the Middle East and the scarcity of oil in North Korea was likely the major reason Iran and Iraq were targeted and North Korea was not.
If population pressures, the need for natural resources, the desire for markets are all factors lying behind most wars (a generalization that, admittedly, some historians would disagree with), it is not hard to understand that an emphasis on simple living is closely related to peacemaking.  
Peacemaking as Love in Action
One of Martin Luther King’s notable books contains fifteen sermons published under the title Strength to Love (1963). Two sermons appearing early in the book are “Love in Action” and “Love Your Enemies,” and then the final sermon is “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.”
Those sermons sum up well what everyone needs to realize about love, which is at the core of the Christian faith.
Christian pacifists, such as Francis of Assisi and the Anabaptists, do not base their peacemaking activities upon the optimistic belief that people are basically good and that peace can result from that goodness if people just tap into it and talk to each other in a rational manner.
No, Christian pacifism is primarily based on Jesus’ teachings about love.
Christian pacifism does not necessarily “work” in every case. You might say it didn’t “work” for Jesus. It didn’t work for numerous Christian martyrs through the centuries, people who out of obedience to Christ were willing to shed their own blood rather than to be engaged in killing other people.
And so to the present time, many of those who take Jesus’ teaching seriously refuse to support war, for they do not see how it would be possible to love their enemies if they were also seeking to kill them through warfare.
People like Dorothy Day, MLK, John Dear, and many others during my lifetime have made it quite clear that peacemaking is hard, dangerous work. And most of the people who want to be “good” Christians fall far short of the example that people like them have set.
But in a world where Christianity has often become entwined with war and warlike activities, people such as Day, King, and Dear challenge us to realize that Jesus expects his followers to be peacemakers.
[The entire chapter 22 of Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT) can be accessed here.]

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Reflections upon Turning Eighty

Today is my 80th birthday, so rather than writing about theological / ethical / political matters as I often do, this article is mostly personal. Although I had nearly finished "Temptations upon Turning Eighty," the article I originally planned for today, I decided to scrap it and to focus instead on gratitude rather than on temptations. 
Theologian Diana Butler Bass’s new (2018) book is titled Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. Although I have not yet read it all, I think Bass's book is basically correct, so I begin these reflections by expressing my gratitude for the following:
(1) I am thankful for good health. Except for a small pill I take each morning for high blood pressure and another small pill I take each evening for cholesterol, I seem to have no other health problems that are not kept under control with diet and exercise. (That is why I am not yielding to the temptations to quit jogging or just to eat whatever I want.)
Also, I am grateful for good genes as well as for good health: my father was quite healthy until four days before he died at age 92.
(2) I am thankful for a good wife and a good family. As many of you know, June and I married in May 1957, the same month we graduated from Southwest Baptist College ( a junior college then, a university now). I was still 18 and June was 19.
Then on this day, August 15, the next year, our son precious Keith was born. Today we are celebrating, together, his 60th birthday along with my 80th birthday.
After Keith, we had three more children, and now we also have seven grandchildren. I am most thankful for the good wife and mother June has been all these years and also grateful for the fine people our children and grandchildren are—and are becoming.
(3) I am thankful for my calling and for my career in Japan. As most of you know, June and I spent 38 years as missionaries to Japan, and I served for 36 years as a full-time professor and administrator at Seinan Gakuin (University) and the last 24 of those years also as a part-time pastor.
Our years in Japan were quite difficult in some ways, but very rewarding in most ways. I am deeply grateful for our calling to that field of service and for the challenges of seeking to fulfill that calling.
When I wrote about June’s 80th birthday last year (here), I said that “she has basically lived a life without regrets.” I can mostly say the same about myself—but still, there are some regrets.
I have absolutely no regrets about getting married so young and starting our family so soon. (If I had the choice, I would certainly do the same thing again.) But I do regret that through the years I was not a better husband and a better father. There are many ways I could have—and should have—done better.
Also, as implied above, I have absolutely no regret about living and serving in Japan for 38 years. (Once more, if I had the choice, here also I would do the same thing again.) But I do regret that I was not able to be a more effective teacher, a more effective pastor, and a more effective administrator.
Gratitude Tops Regret
Still, there is no use of harboring any regrets for the past, which cannot be changed--or in worrying about the future. So I am determined to live in the present, today and in all the days ahead, with gratitude, bearing in mind these wise words:
By Ann Voscamp

Friday, August 10, 2018

TTT #21 Too Little Is Almost Always Better than Too Much

For some reason, the 21st chapter of Thirty True Things . . . (TTT), which can be accessed here, seems a bit dated—but it shouldn’t. True, it refers quite a lot to ideas, books, and movements of the 1970s, but the problems being confronted then are still problems now, so I have no hesitation in linking this article to Chapter 21 of TTT.
What is the Problem?
My children probably didn’t appreciate me mentioning it so much, but from time to time I would say to them, “Too little is almost always better than too much.” That saying was not in harmony with the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, in which we were living then—or are living now.
In the United States, as in most of the “developed world,” the winds of capitalism have blown over the land so strongly that, fanned by the ubiquitous commercials on television, radio, and newspapers, the desire of most people is for more and more material things.
Generally, people don’t like to think about or use the word greed, especially in referring to themselves, but upon careful analysis it is hard not to think that that word is applicable to much of the consumerism rampant in capitalist societies.
Of course, greed means the excessive desire to acquire more and more, especially more material possessions, than what one needs. But the question is always about what is enough and what is, truly, excessive.
Compared to the vast majority of the people in the world, most of us middle-class people in North America, Europe, and Japan possess much more than we really need.
And considering the sizeable portion of the world’s population who live in poverty, the middle class, to say nothing of the upper class, definitely have excessive possessions. (Of course, many of those middle-class people, especially in this country, have excessive debts as well.)
So it was thinking about the problem of economic imbalance in the world, about matters of justice and equality, that led me to say to my children that too little is almost always better than too much.
What seems like too little is usually enough; too much is usually wasteful and/or extravagant.
Responding to the Problem
In the 1970s there was considerable talk among some people about “simple living.” John V. Taylor, a prominent British missionary and theologian, published in 1975 a thoughtful book called Enough Is Enough.
Back then, “Live simply so that others may simply live” was a popular slogan in some circles. The idea behind that statement, of course, is that those who voluntarily choose to live simply will have more resources to share with those who don’t have enough to live on. 
The simple living movement has been seen more recently: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Simple Living was published in 2000.
Caring for the poor has a long history in the Christian church. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church makes the RCC’s position clear: the Church’s love for the poor “is a part of her constant tradition.”
The same Catechism clearly declares, “Love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use.” It then cites the stinging words of Archbishop John Chrysostom (c.349~407): “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life.”
Over-consumption is one of the ways in the contemporary world that the rich steal from the poor. That is the reason one of the things important for everyone to know now is that, especially when it comes to middle-class peoples’ stance toward material things, too little is almost always better than too much.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

A Truth Decay Crisis

“Trump Doesn’t Give a Tweet about the Truth” was a title I thought about using for this article—but while it is partly about DJT, this article is more broadly about the crisis of truth-knowing and truth-telling in contemporary society.
Warnings about Truth Decay
Douglas Groothuis, an evangelical Christian, authored a book titled Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (2000). Hearing of that book soon after it was published, I thought it was a clever title and that it dealt with important issues.
Not surprisingly, The Social Construction of Reality (1966), the book I wrote about in my 7/25 blog article, is cited in Groothuis’s book. Among other things, postmodernism affirms that reality/truth is socially constructed—and Groothuis (b. 1957) sees that as a problem.
“Truth decay” is not just a concern of conservative Christian theologians, however. Increasingly it is becoming a serious concern in society at large, particularly in the world of politics.
Early this year, RAND Corporation produced a 324-page report under the titled “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life.”
To this point I haven’t read but just a bit of the RAND report, but my impression is that it is an important study about a real crisis.
Warning about the Death of Truth
I have read the new book by long-time New York Times chief book critic Michiko Kakutani. Her book, released last month, is titled The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump
Early in her book, Kakutani (b. 1955) writes that DJT “lies so prolifically and with such velocity that The Washington Post calculated that he’d made 2,140 false or misleading claims during his first year in office” (p.13).
(Update: According to an Aug. 1 Washington Post article, as of July 31 DJT had publicly made 4,229 false or misleading claims.)
In her concluding chapter, Kakutani suggests that “Donald Trump is as much a symptom of the times as he is a dangerous catalyst” (p. 152).
Indeed, before the end of her Introduction, she calls attention to academics in the 1960s who were “promoting the gospel of post-modernism, which argued that there are no universal truths” (p. 18).
While she does not mention Berger and Luckmann, Kakutani decries “the post-Trump cultural landscape, where truth increasingly seems to be in the eye of the beholder, facts are fungible and socially constructed” (p. 43).
But the prevarication so prevalent in present-day society is a problem that cannot be explained simply as something produced by the theories of social construction and postmodernism.
While there are positive (and true!) aspects of social constructionism and postmodernism, there is nothing commendable about the willful telling of untruths for political purposes and/or personal gain.
Heeding the Warnings
Last week I also read Preaching Truth in the Age of Alternative Facts (2018), a slim book (only 89 pages) by William Brosend, an Episcopal priest and seminary professor. (I recommend that fine book especially to any of you preachers who may read this.)
One of Brosend’s main points is that truth is not primarily what people believe or say but is found in how they live. Thus, he emphasizes, truth “may best be proclaimed as righteousness (dikaiosunē)” (p. 5).
In other words, which Brosend does not use, truth is something we do or practice (see John 3:21) by working for (social) justice. (The Greek word dikaiosunē means both righteousness and justice.)
Consequently, one of many negative results of truth decay is the maintenance, or increase, of social injustice.
So, yes, it seems that DJT—and many of those who support him—abets truth decay by not caring a tweet about either truth or justice.