Thursday, May 30, 2019

Serene Calvinism?

To put it mildly, I am not a big fan of Calvinism. It came as a surprise, then, when I learned that a noted contemporary theologian and progressive seminary administrator is a great admirer of John Calvin’s theology. That theologian is Serene Jones, president since 2008 of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.
The Five Points of Calvinism
Long ago I was taught, and then through the years I taught, that the five main emphases of Calvinism can conveniently be summarized by the five letters of “tulip.” That is, Calvinism is primarily about theological beliefs that stress
Total depravity
Unconditional election
Limited atonement
Irresistible grace
Perseverance of the saints
Growing up as a Southern Baptist, I heard some about the T and a lot about the P of TULIP, but little of the middle three terms--and while in seminary, I came to reject the traditional Baptist idea about the fifth term, which was usually expressed as “once saved, always saved.”
Actually, these “five points of Calvinism” were summarized after Calvin’s death in 1564 (at the age of 54) at the Synod of Dort (1618–19), convened by the Dutch Reformed Church to settle a divisive controversy initiated by the rise of Arminianism.
The latter theology, named for Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (1560~1609), particularly opposed the Calvinist emphasis on predestination (unconditional election). More than a century later Arminianism was endorsed by John Wesley and has through the centuries since been the underlying theology of Methodism/Wesleyanism.
Serene’s Calvinism
About ten weeks ago, Serene Jones’s new book Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World was published. It is a very honest book, a mixture of memoir and theological reflection, that describes how the author has wrestled theologically with various personal issues. 
In the Introduction, Jones serenely states: “John Calvin is the one who exerts the most influence on my own theology.” Then she begins Chapter 1 with a brief quote from Calvin.
In the second chapter, Jones tells how in 1994 she was given her grandmother’s copy of the 1559 edition of Calvin’s major work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. But by then, she wrote, she had “already read my newer two-volume version from cover to cover at least half a dozen times” (p. 23).
(I don’t know what version Jones read, but the 1960 version published in The Library of Christian Classics is 1,800 pages long!)
Serene(‘s) Theology
It turns out that the only one of the five points of Calvinism that Jones writes much about is the T of TULIP. Yes, there is a lot about grace from beginning to end--and the last word in the book is, literally, “grace.” But she really does not present it as something irresistible.
She does write a lot about original sin, though, about what Calvinism has long termed “total depravity.” That means that “sin is extensive, persistent, systemic, and collective” and that people are kidding themselves if they think they can get through life “without being tainted by it” (p. 259).
That understanding of sin helped her through the traumas of abuse by her grandfather, repeated verbal abuse by her bi-polar mother, and grief because of a painful divorce.
When I completed the reading of her new book, it seemed clear that now, in spite of the above-mentioned traumas and other trying experiences, Jones has developed a theology which makes it possible for her literally to be a serene (=calm, peaceful) advocate of Calvin’s theology.
On the last day of July, Jones will celebrate her 60th birthday. I wish her well on that special day and pray that she will have many more productive, and serene, years ahead.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Problem with Fundamentalism

Having looked at the appeal of fundamentalism last month, this article takes a look at the other side of the issue. This is the fifth posting this year of an article based on my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, which I am updating and planning to re-publish by the end of the year.
The Problem of Arrogance
In a book written more than 40 years ago, Oxford University professor James Barr wrote that one main characteristic of fundamentalism is “an assurance that those who do not share their religious viewpoint are not really ‘true Christians’ at all.”
For some Christians to be so sure that their beliefs are so certainly true that “Christians” who hold differing views are not Christians at all surely smacks of arrogance.
One of many manifestations of such arrogance is seen in the proclivity of some fundamentalists to insist on homeschooling their children.
The author of a chapter in the book The Fundamentals of Extremism (2003) charges that the textbooks used in some fundamentalist schools “promote sectarianism, religious intolerance, anti-intellectualism, disdain for critical thinking and science, and conservative political extremism.”
The result of that sort of arrogant activity has been called “intellectual abuse.” Indeed, it can be argued that all arrogant efforts of indoctrination are, or at least border on, intellectual abuse. 
The Problem of Intolerance
Intolerance has also long been regarded as one of the hallmarks of fundamentalism—although many fundamentalists have looked upon intolerance with favor and have assumed that designation as a mark of honor.
Of course, it can be effectively argued that there are some things that are intolerable and that it is dangerous for a society to tolerate everything rather than to take action against those things that are truly intolerable.
But, in fact, people disagree about what can and cannot be tolerated. For example, gay marriage and abortion are two clear examples and issues around which the culture wars have raged for decades now.
While there are not a lot of examples of Christian fundamentalism leading to violence, it has at times—and we may well see more examples of intolerance resulting in violence in the years ahead.
Back in 2005, Charles Colson wrote about “The New Civil War” (in the Feb. issue of Christianity Today). He wasn’t necessarily talking about a civil war that includes actual physical violence. Neither was Michael Brown when last week he posted “The Coming Civil War Over Abortion.”
I don’t refer to Brown’s article in my book, but it is written from the standpoint of conservative evangelicals (fundamentalists) and claims that if violence erupts over the abortion issue it will be caused by those on the left, those who a part of “the extreme pro-abortion movement.”
Brown’s last paragraph begins, “A civil war is certain. The only thing to be determined is how bloody it will be.”
The Problem of Obscurantism
Although not a widely used word today, obscurantism can be defined as opposition to the spread of knowledge. It is much the same as anti-intellectualism.
During the early years of Christian fundamentalism in this country, the president of The Science League of America wrote in The War on Modern Science (1927), “The forces of obscurantism in the United States are in open revolt!”
The resurgence of fundamentalism after 1980 also shows many of the same anti-intellectualism signs of early fundamentalism. Just one example is the change of the name and focus of “pastoral counseling” courses at my alma mater, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Since the Bible is considered sufficient, those courses are now called “biblical counseling.”
The specific problems of fundamentalism, analyzed in the following chapters of my book, all smack of arrogance, intolerance, and/or obscurantism.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Do Preachers Promise Too Much?

In the last few years, Fred Heeren has become a good friend of mine, although we don’t spend a lot of time together. When we do have time to talk, though--as we did during lunch after church on April 28--we always have interesting, meaningful talks. This article was sparked by a comment Fred made during that 4/28 lunchtime chat.
Introducing Fred
Fred grew up in and initially embraced the theology of conservative evangelical churches--just as I did. Perhaps he was in that camp for a little longer than I was, but he and I have both grown into a much broader understanding of God and of what it means to be a Christian in the contemporary world.
Fred is especially interested in the relationship between belief in God and science. On his website, he introduces himself as a science journalist. He is currently working hard on another book about science and religion. The revised edition of his Show Me God: What the Message from Space Is Telling Us About God was published in 2004.
Fred is the president of Day Star Ministries (see here), whose first purpose is “Breaking down barriers — especially those that keep un-churched people and the gospel message apart.”
That clear concern for Christian apologetics is one reason Fred and I have enjoyed having deep discussions, for that has been a life-long concern of mine.
Quoting Fred
As we were talking on April 28, Fred said, “You know, I think sometimes we promise too much.”
When I wrote him an email asking about that comment, Fred responded, “Seems to me there’s a great gap between what most preachers (and Sunday School teachers) lead us to expect and what the Christian life actually entails. Some of my friends became atheists when their prayers seemed ineffective.”
Fred’s statement is an accurate one, I think.  
The main promise is of eternal life, of course--and that is surely a legitimate promise. But what about the promise of “health and wealth” in the world now? What about the “name it and claim it” emphasis of some churches, which has spawned the growth of “prosperity gospel” churches in this country and especially in Africa and South America?

Sharing Fred’s Concerns 
Promising health, wealth, and happiness is, quite surely, one reason for the flourishing of many conservative evangelical and/or Pentecostal churches. But those promises have also caused many people to leave not just those churches but Christianity altogether.
It is easy to measure the attendance or membership of large, thriving churches. It is not so easy to ascertain the number of people who have ceased attending and who have no connection to those churches even though their names may still be on the church membership rolls.
Fred is the main leader of a “Meetup” group known as “Provocateurs and Peacemakers.” The vast majority of those who attend their regular meetings are now agnostics or atheists. Many of them, though, grew up attending church services and hearing sermons regularly.
Many of them, also, likely felt a problem when heartfelt prayers were not answered. Some were likely told they didn’t have enough faith. For various reasons they experienced doubt and disillusionment--and then departure from the church.
In this connection, I recommend reading “If you’re sad about Rachel Held Evans (and other un-answered prayers),” a recent article by Mike Morrell (and found here).
Mike quotes a friend, who wrote after Rachel’s death: “. . . whatever faith I had left in prayer is gone. She had so many people praying for her. What’s the f#$%ing [sic] point?”
Mike’s friend, as well as many of Fred’s friends, likely heard preachers, and other Christians, who promised too much.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Universal Christ

Many of you are familiar with the name Richard Rohr, the Franciscan friar who was born in Kansas in 1943 and who has long lived in New Mexico. A few of you may even remember “Listening to Richard Rohr” (pun intended), my 2015 article about him. This article is about his highly significant new book.
Rohr’s Potent Book
The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe was issued on March 5 in hardback & paperback, and on Kindle. According to this National Catholic Reporter article, that potent book debuted at No. 12 on the New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction.
As indicated in my previous blog article, I spent 30-minutes (or more) every day for a couple of weeks carefully reading Rohr’s book, and I found it to be of great profundity.
Perhaps because I have been reading Rohr’s daily meditations for the last few years, I found the first part of the book more helpful than the latter chapters, which were mostly ideas that he had previously explored in his meditations.
Rohr begins his book with a fairly long quote from Caryll Houselander (1901~54), an English mystic whom I had not heard of before. Reflecting on her words, Rohr refers to “the Christ Mystery” as “the indwelling of the Divine Presence in everyone and everything since the beginning of time” (p. 1).
That is the basis for his thought-provoking exposition of the meaning and significance of the universal Christ.  
Rohr’s Main Point
More than anything else, Rohr emphasizes Incarnation on a far broader scale than most of us have ever seriously considered. Incarnation begins with Creation, he says, and thus we live in a “sacramental universe.”
Rohr’s viewpoint is one of thoroughgoing panentheism. He is clear about that point: “I am really a panentheist (God lies within all things, but also transcends them), exactly like both Jesus and Paul” (p. 43).
Thus, God is seen as present throughout and within the whole world. Rohr starts his fourth chapter with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s words, which I have long liked:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God
“Christ Is Not Jesus’s Last Name” is the title of Rohr’s first chapter, which I found to be the most challenging of the book. There he states clearly that “the first incarnation was the moment described in Genesis 1” (p. 12).
He goes on to say that “‘Christ’ is a word for the Primordial Template (‘Logos’) through whom ‘all things came into being, and not one thing had its being except through him’ (John 1:3)” (p. 13).
It was that “Template” (“Logos”) that became flesh in Jesus. So, Rohr clearly affirms both the particularity of Jesus of Nazareth and the universality of Christ.
This is all closely related to what I wrote about in the third chapter of my new book Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now, although I wrote it before having the benefit of Rohr’s lucid book.
The title of that chapter is “God Is Fully Revealed in Jesus, But the Christ is Not Limited to Jesus.” Rohr makes that point more emphatically than I was able to do there.
Rohr’s Key Emphasis
There is so much more that needs to be said about Rohr’s thought-provoking book, but the following words summarize a key emphasis found in it:
A mature Christian sees Christ in everything and everyone else. That is a definition that will never fail you, always demand more of you, and give you no reason to fight, exclude, or reject anyone (p. 33).
We Christians need to think long and hard about those words—and about Rohr’s entire book.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Suggestions about Reading

This article was first conceived upon receiving an email from a Thinking Friend in rural northwest Missouri--a man who lives less than five miles from where I grew up. Even though he is now retired, Tom wrote about the problem that many of us have, the problem of not being able to read all that we want to read.
Reading Problems
For most of us, the first reading problem is simply that there is too much to read. In addition to all the books and periodicals that beckoned for reading in past years, now we have the constant inflow of stuff to read on the Internet, including the incessant flow of Tweets and Facebook postings as well as “breaking news.”
So, the sheer volume of what we need to read and want to read is definitely a problem.
There is also a quality problem: so much is available on the Internet there is a tendency for more and more of us to neglect reading books and journal articles that have been carefully researched and written with the intention of being carefully read and digested.
Thus, we are faced with the problem of having/taking the time to read substantial books/articles rather than just the ubiquitous here today, gone tomorrow, writings.
Reading Selectively
Through the years I have certainly experienced the problem of having too much to read and too little time to read everything I both needed to read and wanted to read. However, I have two suggestions in this regard.
Particularly at the time when I was in the most demanding job of my life--both in terms of time and responsibilities--I purposely decided to spend the first thirty minutes of my workday every day reading important books and reading them carefully and thoughtfully.
That wasn’t much, but it was something--and something that added up to many significant books read each year. Of course, there was a lot of other reading I did every day--work related reports, letters, requests, etc., as well as academic articles.
Even in retirement I have continued the practice of carefully reading meaningful books for at least thirty minutes every morning. I have just finished Richard Rohr’s book The Universal Christ. (I am planning for my next blog article to be about it.) And now I am reading Serene Jones’s new book Call It Grace.
The other suggestion is one that many of you know and practice already: learn to read selectively. Everything doesn’t have to be read in detail. Thus, there are some books that, of necessity, I read only in part, and some I speed read--and it is all right to read some books that way. (Of course, care must be taken not to misunderstand or jump to conclusions.)
Reading Well
Although I have only as yet read three of its twelve chapters, I highly recommend Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well: Find the Good Life through Great Books (2018)--and I especially recommend the Introduction, subtitled “Read Well, Live Well.”
(I was first motivated to read Prior’s book after reading the enticing article about it in the Plough; you can read that article and see the attention-grabbing illustrations accompanying it by clicking on this link.)
Prior, an English professor, emphasizes, “Read books you enjoy, develop your ability to enjoy challenging reading, read deeply and slowly, and increase your enjoyment of a book by writing words of your own in it” (p. 18).
Those words apply specifically to books such as I referred to in my first suggestion above.
I close with the following words from Prior’s 2012 work, Booked (2012), p. 64. 

Sunday, May 5, 2019

In Appreciation of Dvořák

Although I am usually not willing to spend the time and especially the money to attend live performances, I am very fond of classical music. Previously, I have posted blog articles about Beethoven and Rimsky-Korsakov, and I have long wanted to write something about Bach. But this article is about Antonín Leopold Dvořák, the greatest of all Czech composers.
Dvořák’s “New World Symphony”
“From the New World,” also known as the “New World Symphony” or more technically as “Symphony No. 9 in E minor” (Op.95) has long been on my personal list of “top ten” classical music compositions. I was moved by it again as I listened to it while working on this article.
Although Dvořák was born and died in the Kingdom of Bohemia (which became the core part of Czechoslovakia in 1918), from 1892 to 1895 he was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. It was during that time that he composed the captivating New World Symphony.
For a rural Czech boy, the United States was, indeed, a new world. And Dvořák seems to have set out at once to learn from his new environment. He composed his Symphony No. 9 in the first half of 1893, and he related that he was influenced and inspired by Native American music and Black spirituals when he composed that stirring symphony. 
Some of you may remember (I didn’t) that Astronaut Neil Armstrong took a tape recording of the “New World Symphony” along during the Apollo 11 mission, the first moon landing, in 1969.
Dvořák’s Old World
Born in 1841 in a humble country village, Dvořák referred to himself as “just an ordinary Czech musician.” Both his father and grandfather were butchers, but he was sent to a music school in Prague when he was 16. There he studied violin and viola.
In the 1870s, his musical compositions elicited the attention of Johannes Brahms, who was only eight years his senior but already a noted composer. That acclaim led to public recognition for his compositions inspired by the folk music of his native land.
Book One of “Slavonic Dances” (Op.46) was published in 1878. It became highly popular--and has remained so to the present.
In the following years, before going to the U.S., Dvořák composed some of his greatest pieces--works that I like almost as much as “New World Symphony”: Symphony No. 7 (Op.70 in 1885), Symphony No. 8 (Op.88 in 1890), and the Carnival Overture (Op.92 in 1891).
Dvořák’s Transcendent World
The three compositions just mentioned are exuberant pieces manifesting Dvořák’s joy of life. But he was also a man who knew sorrow and deep sadness. At such times he found solace in his Catholic faith and composed works expressive of that faith in God who, while immanent in this world, transcends the world.
In 1877 he wrote “Stabat Mater” (“Sorrowful Mother Is Standing”), a prayer about Jesus’ mother Mary by his cross.
In a short period of time, Dvořák and his wife had lost three small/infant children. But despite the personal tragedy he had experienced, he refused to allow despair to overwhelm him. Rather than resignation or hopelessness, in that masterpiece, Dvořák’s listeners look through a veil of tears and see faith in life.
Dvořák often attributed his musical talents as being “a gift from God.” Upon the completion of one of his settings of the Catholic Mass, he proclaimed, “Do not wonder that I am so religious. An artist who is not could not produce anything like this.”
A few years after returning to Prague, Dvořák died at age 62. He was buried 115 years ago today, on May 5, 1904.