Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Two Christianities?

Can differences of degree become so great that they become differences of kind? I recall that issue being discussed long ago when I was in graduate school. But what about it? For example, can different expressions of Christianity become so great that they actually become different in kind, producing two Christianities?

The Christianity of Fundamentalism/Conservative Evangelicalism

In 1923 the eminent conservative Presbyterian scholar J. Graham Machen published a book titled Christianity and Liberalism. Among other things, Machen (1881~1937) asserts in that book that it is “perfectly clear that liberalism is not Christianity” (p. 160)—and it was theological liberalism he was writing about.

(For a succinct summary of Machen and his position, see my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, pp. 25~27.)

Machen’s rejection of liberalism was nearly 100 years ago, but that same mentality is still around. In the 1920s, the attack on liberalism was regarding Christian doctrines. Now, however, progressive Christians are more likely to be castigated because of their position on social issues such as abortion and/or gay rights.

Within the last week or ten days, I have seen on Facebook scathing attacks by conservative evangelicals on one of my most esteemed Thinking Friends and also on President Carter. Both were attacked because of their position on abortion and LGBT rights.

This is the Christianity that is being espoused by many of DJT’s supporters, and their tendency to think “we are right, they are wrong” often morphs into the position of “we are (true) Christians and they are not.”


The Christianity of Progressives/Liberals


There are other Christians, however, who are as critical of fundamentalists/conservative evangelicals as the latter are of progressive/liberals.

One good example of the progressive rejection of conservatism is that of Chris Kratzer as seen in his book about which I wrote (here) on December 10.

Even though he was once a part of it, Kratzer’s stringent criticism of conservative evangelicalism is so strong, it is hard to see how the expression of Christianity he now embraces is a form of the same Christianity.

Much of the “liberal” criticism/rejection of conservative evangelicalism is because of the latter’s support of DJT. This is seen, for example, in the writings of blogger John Pavlovitz; click here to see his Dec. 5 article “Is Christianity Helpful Anymore?”

Even more explicit is William Saletan in his Nov. 25 article in Slate: “Trump’s Christian Apologists are Unchristian.” (According to Merriam-Webster, unchristian can mean “not of the Christian faith” or “contrary to the Christian spirit or character.” I am not sure which Saletan, who is Jewish, meant; maybe both.)

In reading some of the diatribes against the very large percentage of white evangelical Protestants who support DJT, and seeing some of the demeaning memes and derogatory statements about such people, it is hard not to conclude that there are, indeed, two quite different Christianities now.

Can There Be a Radiant Christian Center?


The last subsection of my book The Limits of Liberalism is titled “Recommending the Radiant Center.” There I call for a radiant center “composed of both progressive evangelicals and conservative liberals”—and I still think such a center is highly desirable and deserves the best efforts of all serious Christians, regardless of their theological beliefs or stance on social issues.

But since that book was published in 2010, I have become much less hopeful that such a center will become reality—at least in my lifetime. Rather than any noticeable movement toward a radiant center, the apparent movement has been mostly toward greater polarization.

Thus, it seems that differences in degree have become a difference in kind with the result that now, sadly, it is only too accurate to speak of two Christianities.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Introducing a Buddhist Priest and His Temple

Hayashi Kakujō is the chief priest of the widely known Nanzōin Temple on the outskirts of Fukuoka City, Japan. I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with Hayashi-jūshoku (Hayashi is the family name, jūshoku is the Japanese word for high priest) during the years I lived in Fukuoka and am happy to be able to introduce him to you here.
Nanzōin and the Priest Hayashi
One of the best-known Buddhist temples in southwest Japan is Nanzōin, which is about a 30-minute drive east from Seinan Gakuin University (where I long taught). Nanzōin is the most-visited temple of the Shingon (True Word) Buddhist “denomination” in Kyushu.
Hayashi Kakujō was born in 1953 when his father was the chief priest at Nanzōin, and he became the chief priest there in 1980. I met him for the first time not long after that. In addition to talking with him at Nanzōin, he also sometimes attended the interreligious dialogue group I met with regularly.
Hayashi-jūshoku is an intelligent, well-educated man who was a beneficial member of interfaith discussions. He also has considerable knowledge of and appreciation for Christianity, choosing to send one (or more) of his children to a Catholic school an hour away from their home.
There is a waterfall on the grounds of Nanzōin, and standing under it as a spiritual discipline is commonly practiced there. Hayashi-jūshoku did that every New Year’s Day in years past—and still does as far as I know.
(One time, when it was much warmer than on January 1, I tried standing under the waterfall—but the rush of cold water took my breath away and I had to immediately step out; I found out later that you are supposed to hold your breath when stepping under the waterfall.)
The Sleeping Buddha of Nanzōin
In 1995 Nanzoin completed the construction of what is said to be the largest bronze reclining Buddha statue in the world. It is about 45 yards long (think almost half a football field), 12 yards tall, and weighs some 300 tons, almost as heavy as a jumbo jet airplane.
One time Hayashi-jūshoku took June and me to see it not only from the outside but on the inside as well. It is an impressive statue! 
The month following the completion of the reclining Buddha statue, Hayashi-jūshoku won a lottery jackpot for what was then worth about $1,500,000—and ten days later he won another lottery for almost $65,000!
The mass media picked up on that and presented it as a Buddhist form of the “prosperity gospel”—and following that good fortune, Hayashi-jūshoku seems to have received hundreds of requests to speak at public meetings.
The True Word Buddhism of Nanzōin
The best-known form of Buddhism from Japan is, of course, Zen—although it is far from the most popular form in Japan. Shingon (True Word) Buddhism, more popular in Japan, is also known as Esoteric Buddhism and is closely related to Tibetan Buddhism.
Shingon was brought to Japan by the Japanese monk Kūkai in 806 after spending two years studying it in China.
Last fall I wrote a review of the book Jesus and Kukai: A World of Non-Duality (2018) for the journal Missiology: An International Review. Since few of you will see that review when it is published, I have posted it on my supplementary blogsite (see here).
Jesus and Kukai was authored by Peter Baekelmans (b. 1960), a Belgian Catholic missionary and an initiated practitioner of Shingon.
While the book is not without its faults, it gives a wealth of information about Shingon, and as I say in the review, I wish I had had it to read during the years I had direct contact with Hayashi-jūshoku.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Where's the Compassion?

As I post this first blog article of the new year, the U.S. government remains partially shut down. The issue at stake, as you know, is the funding for the wall the President insists is necessary for U.S. security.
The President’s Position
On Dec. 27, DJT tweeted that “we desperately need Border Security and a Wall on the Southern Border. Need to stop Drugs, Human Trafficking, Gang Members & Criminals from coming into our Country.”
There are at least two major problems with that tweet, which embodies the position DJT has expressed in various ways and in various places.
On the one hand, he has implied—or said fairly directly—that opposition to his plans to build a wall is, as a fact checker wrote (here), “tantamount to not wanting any border security at all.” That is patently not the case.
The main problem is the flimsy factual support for the claim that a wall would significantly reduce the problems the President enumerated. There is, certainly, a need to stop the problems Trump listed in his 12/27 tweet, but he has given no evidence that a wall would decisively decrease the number of unsavory immigrants entering the U.S.  
The Democrats’ Position
In 1914, the inimitable American poet Robert Frost wrote “Mending Wall,” a poem that begins, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” That widely analyzed poem is about two neighbors, one a progressive who questions the need for a wall and the other a traditionalist who repeats the words, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
The current political wrangling in Washington is about far more, and something far more complex, than a rock wall between two neighbors in rural New England. Yet, it is quite clear that the Democratic leaders of the Senate and the House do not love the President’s insistence on building a wall.
Sen. Schumer and Rep. Pelosi do not, of course, want criminal elements to come into the U.S. freely, in spite of what DJT has said. They are clear, however, in their opinion that border security would be best achieved by measures other than a multi-billion-dollar wall.
Which Position is More Compassionate?
In addition to, and directly related to, the issue of “the wall,” is the whole complex matter of responding to the desperate people, including many parents with young children, from Central American countries seeking asylum in the U.S. 
One of 2018’s unforgettable images: Maria Meza and her twin daughters sprint from tear gas lobbed
at the border wall between the U.S and Mexico in Tijuana, Nov. 25, 2018. Reuters/Kim Kyung Hoon
A major purpose of DJT’s proposed wall is to keep many of those distressed people out of the U.S.
Perhaps I missed it, but I haven’t seen anything in the news media about the President or his Republican supporters making any statements indicating any concern for such desperate people.
Where’s the compassion that would seem normal for people of goodwill?
What distresses me more than the apparent lack of compassion by political leaders is the support they are receiving by mostly conservative Christians.
Almost daily I see Facebook friends, including some of my cousins, who strongly support the President and his plans for a wall on the southern border.
Especially to them I post this question again: Where’s the compassion?
I encourage such Christians to read (here) “What child is this? A Christmas reflection” by Marv Knox, a venerable Baptist journalist. Knox writes graphically about his visit last month with “survivors of the infamous Central American caravan.”
In July of last year, Julie Pennington-Russell, pastor of the First Baptist Church in D.C., wrote a blog article titled “Welcoming the Stranger.” She quotes the Pew Research Center’s report indicating that the demographic least supportive of welcoming refugees is white evangelical Christians.
Sad! (as you know who has often said).
Where’s the compassion?