Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Is Puritanism immoral?

The Puritan movement had a reputation for rigidly, scrupulously upright morality -- that is, for strict and unwavering adherence to certain rules. The Puritan life was full of a certain kind of conscientious, deliberate discipline. The dress code from old artwork seems simple and plain to the point of austerity. Many forms of enjoyment were seen as too worldly. And lately I have found myself wondering if this bleak and rigid society was among the most immoral of all forms of godliness.

To be sure, the pendulum has swung too far the other direction these days. Rudeness and lewdness are commonplace. "Irreverent" is used as a compliment. Mockery and cynicism are seen as humorous, though the laughs are joyless. Patience, courtesy, and all kinds of decency are portrayed as old-fashioned. It is easy to recognize the excesses around us as immoral. That makes us just that much more susceptible to thinking of morality in Puritan terms.

But what is the basis for morality? What is the basis for thinking about right and wrong? If we start with a set of laws like the Ten Commandments, then the Puritans make sense. But what if the true foundation is much more basic than that? What if the foundation of morality is when God looked at creation and declared that it was good? What if a love of the good is the foundation of morality? What if the two greatest commandments -- love of God and love of neighbor -- are meant to remind us of that? In that light, the rigid, joyless austerity of Puritanism is an insult to the goodness of all that is. If morality is not, in its most basic form, strict and unwavering adherence to rules but rather a thankful celebration of goodness, then a joyless and loveless approach to life is an affront to goodness.

Unswerving rules have a rightful place: they keep us from trampling on the good. In our eagerness to enjoy a thing, they keep us from destroying it or ourselves. But the rules were never the point; they were always a means to preserve what is good so that it could be enjoyed.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Christ's Humility (2)

Please pardon the light posting schedule lately. Mom was in the hospital (it worked out fine though it gave us a scare at the time) and I lost a day of work. I have been scrambling to catch up at work. I hope to have caught up soon.
Christ, who poured himself out, made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant ...
What have I ever set aside so that I could help someone else, reach someone else? Can I even imagine setting aside my abilities or achievements? Don't I hang on to the things that make me feel special -- that is, the things that separate me -- precisely because they separate me? What backwards kind of enjoyment is that, to enjoy the things that separate me from others?

How opposite Christ. How much he was willing to set aside. He gave up those things that put him above all else, when he truly was above all else, unlike us. He set aside the things that made him above us, and took up those things that made him lowly like us.

When we meet him in the gospel, he seems joyful. Humility rejoices in all good things. Christ in his humility is essentially generous and warm-hearted.

Pride rejoices primarily in praise. It's greedy, never having its fill, and discontent with what it has. How opposite, opposite is Christ, who was discontent with what he had when he was above us and separate from us, and who was glad to set aside all things to rejoin us.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Christ's Humility (1)

Pride hoards all recognition for itself. In contrast to us and our human ways of thinking, Jesus did not demand recognition or acknowledgment. He even asked that some of his miracles be kept quiet. This was nothing unusual for him, to heal someone in private and ask for no recognition. In his dealings with the officials at his trial, he did not demand an acknowledgment of his accomplishments. He did not become peevish when his achievements went unnoticed by his enemies. He was truly here for us, and had no secret agenda or secondary agenda for his own aggrandizement. The only praise he delighted in was his Father's, the only glory he would accept was from Him.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

He is risen!

He spoke of the resurrection of Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. (Acts 2:31-32)
He is risen indeed. Praise GOD.

Additional celebrations spotted in the blogroll:

He is risen
He is risen
He is risen
He is risen
He is risen
He is risen
He is risen
He is risen
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Ancient Jewish Lectionary: Passover, Resurrection, and the Ultimate Liberation

It was many years ago now in long message-board talks with a zealous and adamantly anti-Christian Jew that I first became aware of some interesting things about the Jewish lectionary. From references I have since found in the Talmud, I expect that the lectionary cycle with its selected readings was already taking shape before Jesus' birth.

I suspect the Spirit of God had a hand in the choice of readings. The prescribed readings included:
for haftarah on Passover the passage of the ‘dry bones’ (Megilah 31a)
If the disciples, any of of them, had gone to worship when Jesus was in the tomb, they would have heard from the appointed reading:
The hand of the LORD came upon me. He took me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the valley. It was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many of them spread over the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, "O mortal, can these bones live again?" I replied, O Lord GOD, only You know. And He said to me, "Prophesy over these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! Thus said the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live again." (Ezekiel 37:1-5, JPS)
The JPS study notes on this section helpfully add the reasons why this section was selected for the Passover reading in the ancient Jewish lectionaries:
mostly likely because the restoration envisaged here is interpreted as a second, liberating Passover-like experience or because the rabbinic tradition that the second, ultimate liberation would transpire on Passover.
If the disciples or Jesus' family had gone to worship when he was in the tomb, that is likely what they would have heard, and why they would have heard it.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Why believe the gospels?

The portrait shown here is my great-grandmother, one of my mother's grandmothers. I met her a few times when I was very young. I'll explain in just a moment what she has to do with the question of whether to believe the gospels.

The usual approaches, when it comes to the gospels, tend towards the more polarized views. Some hold a view that roughly claims the gospels were dictated by the Father, received by the Indwelling Holy Spirit in the various authors, written word-for-word as inspired, and are therefore inerrant. The opposing view is roughly that the signs of editing in the documents, and the presence of supernatural elements, means that they are largely untrustworthy about what happened: that they are legendary, products of pious imagination that do not correspond to reality.

On both sides, I'm not comfortable with the assumptions. I don't buy the assumption that the authors of the gospels considered themselves to be writing something word-for-word as received spiritually channeled direct from heaven; they seemed to think they were writing down things that the people who knew Jesus had said about him, or in the case of the Gospel of John, what they claimed to have seen themselves. I don't buy the assumption that editing equals tampering; some of my own longer posts on this blog show telltale signs of editing, and it's simply because I didn't write them all in one sitting. I also don't buy the assumption that supernatural always automatically must be legendary, though it has to be considered among the possibilities. The origin of legend is that it is passed along by people far removed from the source; the stories take on a life of their own in the hands of people who don't know the facts.

The earliest of the gospels, going by current consensus, was the Gospel of Mark. I've given my reasons before why I think it was written before the fall of Jerusalem -- that is, within 40 years of the events recorded. Some people would put it a few years later: say, 45 years after the events recorded. To compare that to today, as we are in the year 2009, that would be like writing now about the 1960's. I don't really remember the 1960's personally, but I've heard about key events from people who remember them. My mother can still tell me about hearing MLK's "I Have A Dream" speech, broadcast the day it was first given. She can still tell me what she was doing and where she was when she heard that JFK had been shot. Other people who remember the 1960's remember the moon landing or the Cuban missile crisis. And for such important events as these, a number of facts are remembered with crystal clarity even many years after the events, etched on the memories of those who lived them.

The latest of the gospels, going by current consensus and also by ancient records, was the Gospel of John. The usual date assigned to it is somewhere in the 90's A.D. Interestingly, the ancient records mention that John lived into the reign of the emperor Trajan, who took the throne in 98 A.D. I've mentioned before how the ancient records dating back to the 100's A.D. account for the appendix to the Gospel of John, and how in light of that I do not consider the editing there to be tampering at all. But what about writing sometime in the 90's A.D about events of the year 30 A.D.? That may be roughly 60 or 65 years. To compare that to today, as we are in the year 2009, that would be like writing now about 1944 -- about World War II. I have heard from both my parents what they remembered of World War II, though their memories are limited. When my grandparents were alive, I heard some of their stories about World War II. To the end of his days my grandfather could still tell me where he was, and what he was doing, when he heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. The "day that will live in infamy" was in 1941; this year we will mark the 68th anniversary of it. There are people around -- people who are old by now -- who still remember that day. The Gospel of John was written when the authors were old, at about the same distance from the life of Jesus as we are from the events of World War II.

I have heard many stories about my great-grandmother, the one in the picture. Some of them date back to the 1910's, about how she met my great-grandfather; those stories are at a longer distance in time from her life than any of the canonical gospels are from the life of Jesus. I have heard stories of her son my grandfather's escapades in college, from the 1930's. I have heard stories of my grandmother, her daughter-in-law, from the 1930's. These stories are over 70 years old now, a distance in time from then to now that is probably longer than from any of the canonical gospels are from the life of Jesus, though possibly comparable to the Gospel of John at its later possible dates. And as for the stories I've heard about the 1960's -- comparable in distance to the Gospel of Mark from the life of Jesus -- I have heard the same events from so many different people it would never occur to me to doubt their reality even if they had never made it into the history books.

I take the gospels in the same way: not as channeled from God nor as so far removed from the sources to be legendary. I take it as what people remembered, as best they could, either directly themselves -- as per the claims of the Gospel of John -- or as they had heard from people who knew directly, as in the case of the Gospel of Mark. Some people would like to argue "inspiration" for the gospels; but that could mean all kinds of things. How I take it is that the gospels were written by people who were, historically, in a position to know what they were talking about, and to talk to people who still remembered. I know that doesn't make me an "inerrantist" in the traditional sense of the word. But it does mean this: that I take the events recorded in the gospels as being just as real as the things I have heard from people I know about things of comparable distances in the past.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Christian Reconciliation: What is the first step?

The Bible records the leaders of the Christian church pleading with the people avoid factions, discord, and strife. At some point, the ethics of the church changed. At some point, it became acceptable to mock and ridicule people in other camps. At some point, sin became acceptable as long as it was against the right people. At some point, the way we deal with people who disagree with us was no longer viewed as a choice between "sin or righteousness", but "winning or losing".

About our current situation, I have more questions than answers. Of course nobody wants to the right side to lose. But when one side misrepresents the other and displays an unapologetic meanness, can their status as "the right side" be anything except a technicality? Is the paper-righteousness of the correct theology more important than following Christ? Is misrepresenting the other side's views recognized as dishonest? Is impugning the other side's motives seen as slanderous? Is a strutting peacock attitude recognized as arrogant? Is humility still a virtue? St Paul has been proved right many times: when we speak without love, we are a meaningless and annoying noise which no one wants to hear.

I think the first step to Christian reconciliation is to recognize once again that the way we speak to each other is a choice between sin and righteousness. Humility is a virtue. Misrepresenting the other side is dishonest. And the one who understands all mysteries but has not love is nothing. At some point, we have to take that step. And at some point, the leaders have to take up that call to the people again.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Innovative School Program Gaining Recognition

A ground-breaking approach to science education has made startling gains among inner-city students, traditionally one of the lowest-performing groups.

The program was launched by a high school chemistry teacher who made a startling discovery. “We found that our assumptions about our students were entirely incorrect. Rather than being unmotivated and uninterested, our students were actually very interested in chemistry! We found that many were doing research projects after school. Some had even built pharmaceutical laboratories in their homes. Our excitement was considerable to have such talented and motivated students.”

Looking for ways to tap into this large, self-motivated student body, the staff designed a curriculum using real-life examples that were familiar to the students. “Back when our curriculum examples used fuel and oxygen, our students struggled to understand the concept of limiting reagents. Now, with our examples of cough syrup and other common home-laboratory items, student interest has skyrocketed. Classroom attendance has doubled. Performance on standardized tests is among the best in the state – and that is a distinction that few inner-city educational systems can claim.”

Another staff member added, “Quite a few of our students do advanced independent research. They have discovered on their own what we have long been trying to teach: that the scientific fields are very profitable and make a commendable career choice.” When asked about the potential for this program, he mentioned that the economics teacher and government teacher had also seen potential for increasing student interest by tapping into popular urban extra-curricular activities for real-life examples. "It's all about making education applicable."

The innovative program is being considered for several awards and for state funding and has been developed by the district as Advanced Pharmaceutical Research 1 (APR-1).

Security Outsourcing Program To Save Billions

Note: This post, like my other special post for today, was drafted well before last year's presidential election and is not a comment on any specific administration, past or present. The issues are perennial ...
The White House, seeking cost-cutting measures in the midst of the current economic crisis and projected budget shortfalls, has looked to the business world for effective methods of combating the expected revenue shortage.

"Outsourcing seems to be one of the most cost-effective measures available," an administrative spokesperson said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The administration is dedicated to reducing our expenses and our outlay. Defense is very labor-intensive, particularly suitable for outsourcing."

The administration accepted several sealed bids for the Department of Defense contract. "It is nonsense to assume we would entrust our country's security to the lowest bidder. We did nothing of the sort. As a matter of fact, the lowest bidder for the U.S. border defense contract was Pakistan. But we had some uncertainty about the training program, wasn't entirely ISO-9001 certified. We've accepted the bid from China instead."

The spokesman quickly put down doubts about whether the Chinese army would make our land more secure. "We will not tolerate racism. The Chinese have an excellent military apparatus; honestly it's probably superior to ours. Why wouldn't we want them defending our borders? We want the best!" Several hundred thousand troops were expected to arrive in stages over the next few months. "It's quite a bargain. I believe they're sending even more troops than our contract called for. You always get an excellent value when trading with China."

If this program is the resounding success that the administration expects, it will consider outsourcing other departments. "Homeland Security has been particularly expensive, as has Internal Revenue. We're looking for more cost-effective options," the administration maintained. "Look for further programs to follow this first initiative: Allies Providing Resources 1 (APR-1)."