Sunday, December 13, 2020

"Who do you say that I am?" -- The Gospel of Mark

This is pre-written as a second post of the day. There was also an earlier one posted around noon. 

I have had discussions with people who believe that the Gospel of Mark portrays a simply human Jesus. I am not quite sure where that perception comes from. The Gospel of Mark starts by introducing John the Baptist and his mission. John the Baptist is important enough to have a prophecy about him. His job is to "Prepare the way of the LORD," where that last word is in all-caps here in keeping with the typographical conventions of some translations because, in the original language, the original word was the unique name of God, considered too sacred to speak. John the Baptist says he's not even worthy to be a servant to who is coming next, which the author uses as a transition to introduce Jesus. 

Here is a sketch of early passages in the Gospel of Mark, and their bearing on Jesus' identity: 

Mark 1:2-11: already summarized above; there are details that different groups claim as supporting their own views
Mark 1:22: Jesus teaches as one who has authority, contrasted with the religious leaders of the day. 
Mark 1:25-28: Jesus has authority even over unclean spirits
Mark 1:1:29-34: Jesus has the authority to heal illnesses
Mark 1:35-39: Jesus came to preach/announce/proclaim (depending on your translation)
Mark 1:40-45: Jesus has the power to heal leprosy
Mark 2:1-12: Jesus claims authority to forgive sins, leading directly to a confrontation with religious leaders who accuse Jesus of claiming authority that belongs to God alone. He heals a paralyzed man as demonstration of his authority. In this scene the healing is almost a side-note compared to questions about his authority. 
Mark 2:13-17: Jesus and Levi: following immediately on his claim to have authority to forgive sins, he says "It is not the healthy who have need for a doctor but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners." 
Mark 2:18-22: Jesus answers a question about fasting by saying his presence is equivalent to a wedding celebration where it is inappropriate to fast. 
Mark 2:23-28: Jesus' comments about the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. 
... And we're only on chapter 2. As the text is so familiar, I won't make a complete catalog so much as sum up: 

The action in Mark is largely driven by the question of Jesus' identity and Jesus' authority, with lines between Jesus and God becoming at least blurred, to the outrage of the religious leaders. But in Mark, there is no visible sign of an interest in the Trinity as such. So far there is only that blurred line, without any clear resolution to how that could be. 

The value of primary sources -- and of hearing both sides -- applied to the current political mess

My next entry in the Trinity series is scheduled to post at 10pm tonight. This post is more about current events, which I'll occasionally write about when it seems warranted or simply decent to do that. 

Anyone who is familiar with this blog will know that I have a strong, long-standing preference for primary sources. Why should I get information from a middleman if I can get information from the same place that they got it? I can skip the delay and the filter/bias risks that comes with a middleman. When I use secondary sources, it's typically for the purpose of identifying primary sources.

Likewise, anyone familiar with this blog will know that I have a strong, long-standing distrust of commercial news outlets, and not only because of their role as middleman. Is there any major commercial news outlet that has never promoted possibly-doubtful stories or hidden possibly-important stories by editorial choice? Beyond that, it often comes with a certain amount of emotional manipulation, or cultivating biases that will perpetuate themselves once established. My ideal news outlet would make a point to avoid biases, not cultivate them.

For those on the right, consider: How much have you heard about Trump's tax returns on any Team(R) news outlets? How about any potential financial complications about things he's done while in office? For those on the left, consider: Remember in October when all the Team(D) outlets were saying that the Biden family was not involved in any shady business deals, and in fact the whole story was Russian disinformation? Recently, since the election, there's been a quick reversal to acknowledge that at least one is in fact under federal investigation for shady business deals and has been for a long time. There are some news outlets that prey on their viewers' distrust of the other side to avoid accountability for what looks like intentional dishonesty with a political motive. For stories like these, I usually take a Schrodinger's-cat view unless I have a way to get to the underlying information (or unless one side reverses its story so that now everyone is in much closer agreement). What people believe generally falls under "The first to present his case seems right, until another comes forward with questions." The first person that someone hears is generally the side that treats them with respect rather than contempt. We are so polarized that we tend to miss that step where we hear the other side of the story. And I think it's not always intentional on the part of news consumers; it takes some serious intention to get the other side, and the result is often less clarity (if more empathy). 

With the current question about "Was there large-scale election fraud in 2020?" I made a firm decision basically from Day 1 that I would not to take the word of any news outlet, all resolutely partisan as they are. Instead I have studied charts and tracked what underlying data that I could; as time went by I read some court filings where claims are backed by sworn affidavits, and (more recently, as they become available) I have read hundreds of pages of affidavits as my primary sources. I've listened to some video statements of witnesses with direct knowledge. And as an IT professional, I have also spent some time analyzing the election results data that is publicly available for download, focusing on some specific cases where the data is more readily available and the nature of the claim is easier to fact-check.

So among the literally hundreds of pages of affidavits that I've read so far, some are more relevant than others. For the lower-impact ones, I want my time back. (I am not doubting that the person is making a true report, but not all the complaints are at the same level of relevance. The stack of affidavits could benefit from some culling.) For others, I found them an excellent sleep aid regardless of the hour when they were read. But to my surprise, among them I found a series of affidavits that were specific, well-documented, and on a scale that would clearly have affected the outcome in the affected states. For those affidavits that are well-documented, verifiable, and on a significant scale, I think it is a disservice to the public to bury the affidavits rather than respond to them. I think the general position has been that acknowledging the complaints and responding to them would leave a cloud over the election. After reading the statements (good and bad alike), I find that there are several where I believe that failing to respond will leave a cloud over the election, where the claims are so well-documented that they should be easily verifiable (or falsifiable). If they can be refuted, it would definitely be a public service to do so. If no response is made to specific, well-documented claims of that scale, it will inevitably leave doubt. 

The reader may notice that I have described the claims as "well-documented" and left aside the question of whether any given claim is "credible" because that is a subjective measure. All of the large-scale claims -- and there are several different ones -- are disturbing (subjectively). It would be tempting to dismiss them if they weren't well-documented.

Where does that leave me? Back to my touchstone: "The first to present his case seems right, until another comes forward with questions." I'm aware that the hundreds of pages of affidavits tell only one side of the story and so it is still possible that there might be answers, even if we have not yet heard them. Ethically, I see a procedural obligation to get those answers. It disturbs me that well-documented, sworn affidavits are getting the brush-off rather than a proper response. That reinforces certain groups in their perception that they will not be given a fair hearing, or accorded due process and equal protection. For the record, I believe the perception of equal protection is ultimately the problem that lost Hillary the election 4 years ago: her "deplorables" speech was hostile and callous toward a rather large group of American citizens and left many people reeling, firmly of the belief that they would not be accorded equal protection under the law if she were in charge. Four years later Hillary is not on the political stage much but her legacy lives on: many in the DNC have added "deplorables" to their talking points, and there was an uneasy amount of politically-motivated violence against "deplorables" even before the election. According to some public figures who are heavily involved in the lawsuits, one of the witnesses who came forward was physically attacked, seriously injured, and had to be hospitalized as a result; I don't have the primary source for that specific claim so I put it in the "Schrodinger" stack in my mind. That is not a situation that inspires confidence in the system. To restore my own confidence in the elections, I want to see answers to the well-documented affidavits that are of a scale that they would affect the outcome of the states in question. To restore my confidence in equal protection, I would need to see far deeper changes than those.

To end on a lighter note, I'd like to leave you with my thoughts as they stood before the election, my private assessment of the likelihood of fraud as I saw it at the time. My premise focuses on Antifa and its involvement in the coordinated riots in many of our large cities this year, which left me in no doubt that there was widespread coordination among anti-Trump groups who were willing to break the law. My thoughts ran: "If they can find hundreds of people willing to attack other human beings, if they can find thousands of people willing to destroy property, how many do you think would be willing to stuff a ballot box? There's probably a wait list." 

My basic position is: Check the facts. Hear the facts. Address the well-documented claims regardless of who is bringing them. Too many people have lost faith in the integrity of the elections, and mocking or ignoring well-documented affidavits actively makes the situation worse. Seriously, wherever there is an honest answer, it would be a public service to provide it. 

Sunday, December 06, 2020

"Why did David call him 'Lord'?"

One of the big questions surrounding the life of Jesus is, roughly, "What just happened?" We understand that whatever just happened is large, out-of-the-ordinary. We understand that the answers will affect our view of God, of morality, of whether life after death is a pipe dream or if it's real. We understand that it will take us awhile to wrap our minds around what has happened. And we start with: Who exactly is this Jesus? It's a question that Jesus himself raised with his disciples. 

Some of the questions we have about the nature of Christ have fairly clear answers in Scripture. For example, consider the question "Did Jesus believe that the Messiah was simply a human descendant of David?" For the answer, many Christians are content to find their answer in Jesus own challenge to that thought in his own day: "Why did David call him 'Lord'?" That conversation is recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 22:43-45, Mark 12:36-37, Luke 20:42-44), indicating that all the writers of the synoptic gospels considered it to be both accurate and important. 

In Acts 2:34-36, we have a record of Peter employing that same line of reasoning and the same quote to demonstrate: "Therefore, let all Israel know: God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ." That seems to be a clear demonstration that Jesus is considered to be above us -- and that Peter attributed Jesus' status to God. It is fairly easy to read that quote from Peter as saying that Jesus is important over all the world, that he is in authority over us, and is the Christ. It is fairly difficult to read that quote from Peter and assume that he thought Jesus was either God or part of a triune God. To complicate matters, I can see how those words -- spoken by David, quoted by Jesus, cited by Peter -- are a direct claim not only to Jesus' special status with regard to God, but also at least a hint of his existence long before the human Jesus was born. Whatever is going on, it's not simple. 

The next direction of this series is to review the New Testament writings that are generally argued both for and against the different understandings of Jesus, whether orthodox or unorthodox. I'll skip the book of Revelation, where I find the symbolic elements too prominent for any argument from it to be logically conclusive. At any rate I am not aware of anyone taking an indispensable proof for their position from Revelation. 

To be continued

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Question of Christ's Relation to God: Sample writings from the 100's AD

There is a question that keeps recurring in Christian thought: "Is Jesus subordinate to God?" Since the question of whether a human is subordinate to God is, at face value, absurd, sometimes the related question is asked instead, "Is the Word of God subordinate to God?" This is considered an equivalent question by those who believe that Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. The second framing of the question may come closer to the point, since the intended question tends to be less about Jesus' humanity and more about the eternal nature of God and of the Word of God.

Here we look at some examples of how the early church came to understand the Word of God in relation to God, focusing on some writers from the 100's AD: 

And His Son, who alone is properly called Son, the Word, who also was with Him and was begotten before the works, when at first He created and arranged all things by Him, is called Christ, in reference to His being anointed and God’s ordering all things through Him (Justin Martyr, died around 165 AD)
But this Offspring, which was truly brought forth from the Father, was with the Father before all the creatures, and the Father communed with Him; even as the Scripture by Solomon has made clear, that He whom Solomon calls Wisdom, was begotten as a Beginning before all His creatures and as Offspring by God, who has also declared this same thing in the revelation made by Joshua the son of Nave (Nun) (again Justin Martyr, died around 165 AD)

But the Son of God is the Logos of the Father, in idea and in operation; for after the pattern of Him and by Him were all things made, the Father and the Son being one. And, the Son being in the Father and the Father in the Son, in oneness and power of spirit, the understanding and reason (νοῦς καὶ λόγος) of the Father is the Son of God. But if, in your surpassing intelligence, it occurs to you to inquire what is meant by the Son, I will state briefly that He is the first product of the Father, not as having been brought into existence (for from the beginning, God, who is the eternal mind [νοῦς], had the Logos in Himself, being from eternity instinct with Logos [λογικός]); but inasmuch as He came forth to be the idea and energizing power of all material things. (Athenagoras of Athens, died around 190 AD)

In these examples, the idea that the Son is the Word of God is taken fairly literally, in context of some different philosophical and theological ideas about the Logos (λόγος). I have not seen any areas of tension between these writings and the Bible, though as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes there are some areas of tension between these writings and later orthodoxy. 

To be continued ...

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Word of God (Logos) in the ancient church

The "Logos", or Word of God, is an ancient concept that has been used in Christian circles since the days when the New Testament was being written, particularly in the writings attributed to John. The Catholic Encyclopedia's article on the Logos helpfully traces some of its origins before that use so that we have some context for what the word may have meant at that time. 

The same article also traces what the early Christian church understood about that in reference to Jesus. The thinkers and theologians of the church grappled with it for centuries. The Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges frankly that there were "subordinationist tendencies found in certain Ante-Nicene writers." That is, many of them saw the Logos -- and consequently Jesus -- as subordinate to the Father. 

The article also notes an interesting contrast between theology in the early church and now. The Christian thought of that day, and now, affirms that the Word was not created but generated (begotten) of God. However, the Catholic encyclopedia views the early church's theology as "less satisfactory as regards the eternity of this generation and its necessity; in fact, they represent the Word as uttered by the Father when the Father wished to create and in view of this creation." 

I have spent some hours over the last few weeks reading up on this, and I find the research going more slowly than I could wish. Still, as any regular reader here knows, I'd rather be thorough than fast. The questions of interest to me are: What were the arguments on each side of that question, and how did we arrive at our current understanding? 

To be continued

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Hegelian dialectic can explain why the U.S. is stuck in a rut

U.S. politics has seemed stuck at the same impasses for the longest time. The different approaches have tended to go back and forth like a pendulum depending on the latest election. Each side is generally convinced that the reason their solution hasn't worked yet is because it keeps getting reversed every time the other side is in charge. 

Maybe. But maybe the country generally goes back and forth between the major parties because each solution, by itself, is incomplete. Consider this possibility: What if Hegel was correct about the development of ideas: First there's an idea or "thesis"; then there's the counter-argument, rebuttal, the other side of the pros-and-cons list, however you want to view that: "antithesis." In politics, the opposing sides seem to be in that kind of relationship. That tension between thesis and antithesis remains stuck until the two sets of ideas interact, their proponents talk to each other, listen to each other, understand each other, and find ways that they can rebuild their views to combine into a new solution: "synthesis." 

If that diagnosis is correct, then going back and forth between two parties that try to dominate each other will never reach a better solution. And either solution by itself -- each ignoring its antithesis -- will never become that next-level solution. It will fossilize in its opposition to the ideas that could have improved it, declaring enmity toward the thing it would most benefit from understanding. But both sides are avoiding that next step -- synthesis -- because that's the step where each side has to treat the other views with serious and respectful consideration. Both sides' views have to become part of the new solution, both sets of ideas are a necessary part of the solution as they come together -- and lose the identity that has, at least in U.S. politics, consisted of devaluing the other side. 

If Hegel was right, then we're stuck in solving our problems until we treat each other with respect, and at least consider the possibility that the other side has an important missing piece of our own puzzle. 

Sunday, November 08, 2020

The Son: "Begotten, not made"

When we discuss the Son of God, begotten of God the Father, it is easy for our thoughts to drift to Jesus' birth without human father from the Virgin Mary . But when theologians speak of the Trinity and of the Son being "begotten" of God, they are not speaking of any event in this world or in human history. They refer to the Word of God which existed not only before Jesus' human conception, but before this world was formed. 

When we turn our attention to questions about the Trinity before the world was formed, we find ourselves without direct information either from God or from human witnesses: we are at a disadvantage for solid facts. I would like to review some of the previous thought on the matter, and will quote a section of the online Catholic Encyclopedia (article about the Holy Spirit which considers the bigger picture) : 

The Son is, in the language of Scripture, the image of the Invisible God, His Word, His uncreated wisdom. God contemplates Himself and knows Himself from all eternity, and, knowing Himself, He forms within Himself a substantial idea of Himself, and this substantial thought is His Word. Now every act of knowledge is accomplished by the production in the intellect of a representation of the object known; from this head, then the process offers a certain analogy with generation, which is the production by a living being of a being partaking of the same nature; and the analogy is only so much the more striking when there is question of this act of Divine knowledge, the eternal term of which is a substantial being, consubstantial within the knowing subject. [Note: they credit Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo for the development of thought to that point.]

In the Bible, does "image of God" mean God's self-image? I'm not convinced of that, but for the most part their argument is independent of whether that was an appropriate application of the text. So let's watch the line of thought that is being developed. 

Their starting point is that God has a self-image. That's something we can understand. For example, would King Solomon's self-image have been something like "I desire wisdom" at one point? Did King David's self-image include "I'm a musician"? So we can understand self-image. Does God have a self-image? If we grant that God has intellect and wisdom, if we grant that God is sentient, then it follows that God has a self-image, even they haven't yet demonstrated that's the answer to the question on the table. As for God having a self-image, there are some interesting side-questions there. Does God have infinite capability to decide his own character? Is that a meaningful question for God? And I expect that God's self-reflection is faithful and true to his character. 

I'll also grant that we tend to understand things by producing a model, map, or other image of the object in our minds, though sometimes we also use words or various symbols as tools for understanding. For the sake of evaluating the argument we'll suppose that God's mind did something similar on self-reflection: that God is capable of self-understanding and some sort of self-image. But is God's self-reflection distinct from God who does the reflecting? Does that reflection have existence in a meaningful sense? Is it independent? Is it equal? While I am fully persuaded that the Word of God is eternal, it leaves more to discuss on the questions of whether this Word of God or Image of God is meaningfully distinct from God before the act of creation, before anything existed besides God. 

That question -- "Is it meaningfully distinct?" -- becomes clearer after creation exists, and particularly after people exist. At that point there is someone besides God, and so communication becomes part of the picture. If we continue to grant that we generally understand what is outside us by producing a model or image in our minds, then our human understanding of God depends on how (or if) we form an image of God. An image of God is the source of all idolatry -- and the source of a relationship that is not blind. Christianity is tightly attached to this idea: there is such a thing as a true image of God. 

To be continued

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Laying the ground for the best of the next four years

As expected, the presidential race is not yet called. I could live with either major ticket winning far more easily than I can live with the dishonesty and hatred that have come to pervade the political scene. If we want the next four years to be ones that we can enjoy, it matters far less who is in the white house and far more how we treat each other, and whether we accept hatred and rage in public discourse. If we want a time when we can heal and grow and recover and prosper then I would encourage us all: Insist on civility, honesty, and kindness. And find out what the other side actually thinks. To be clear: I am not talking about what our own media outlets or politicians say the other side thinks; that tends to be a distorted caricature (if not worse). Find out what your side is saying about the other that they consider to be ludicrous, outrageous, or demonstrably false. What would it take to delegitimize hatred, dishonesty, and violence? That is our calling regardless of the outcome of the election. If we want a good next four years, it is no longer up to any administration that might be elected. It will take enough of the public to choose honesty and kindness -- not timidly but publicly, to stand firm against those who do not. 

Sunday, November 01, 2020

The full armor of God: Does the choice of arms choose our side?

Note: I'd meant to get this post written on Wednesday but I have not quite cleared enough of my schedule to go back to posting twice a week. Because I am prioritizing getting this post published before the election, it means that the next post on the Trinity series will not be out today. 

Finally, brothers and sisters, be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might. Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the tricks of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world, against the spiritual forces of evil on high. 

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness. Prepare your feet, lacing up with the good news of peace. Above all, take the shield of faith with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. Watch with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.

Eph 6:10-20

Everywhere I go, every conversation I hear, people are struggling to maintain normalcy -- and having as much trouble with the powder-keg political environment as with the pandemic. The verbal battle is constant, dividing families and friends. Verbal battles have a way of escalating; the nation finds itself bracing for a fight that most of us don't want. In a few corners of the internet there may be people who are preparing more than words; many stores are prepared for violence on the night of the election. One of the conventional safety-valves of democracy has to some extent failed already: much of the "free press" prefers their point-of-view over the big picture, and so lost any ability to unite us. Information has become brokered and gated, and important stories can disappear. Recently it feels like we passed Orwell, and have no reference point for where we are now. 

When we have no confidence that our institutions are equal to their job, then individuals feel compelled to step forward. When facts are in dispute, when the ability to unify is lost, what remains is that we act in accordance with a moral compass. With that end, I'd like to discuss some points of the moral compass that Paul passed along in his letter to the Ephesians: 

  • Be strong in the Lord. We act from a position of spiritual strength: we do not act in fear, anger, or hatred. 
  • We do not fight against flesh and blood. Demonizing or disparaging another human being is picking the wrong target. We can destroy people or property or reputations and count a victory when in fact nothing was gained, and much was lost. 
  • Our strength and our tools are truth, righteousness, the good news of peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit of God, the Word of God, prayer, and perseverance. The popular tools of contempt, sarcasm, and malice are out-of-bounds. 

In short, the tools that God's people use in a fight are ones that are upright, and do not injure flesh and blood, which are not our targets. Paul does not suggest anywhere that our tools include mockery, sarcasm, disdain, contempt, half-truths, power-plays, false accusations, or spin: these are not tools of the good fight, not weapons of the follower of Christ. Those are guerrilla-warfare tactics that too often damage innocents along the way, like throwing poison gas in the public square. 

If we use Christ's tools then we can strengthen Christ's kingdom. If we use dishonesty or disdain, we do not use Christ's tools but the enemy's. The tools we use in this fight will show which side we are really on. By "side" I don't mean Team Left and Team Right, both of which are human sides filled (for the most part) with people who are doing the best they can with the information they have. If we want to fight against principalities and powers of darkness, we use the armory of God, with truth and righteousness leading the list. If we use the weapons supplied by the principalities and powers of darkness, then rest assured we are fighting for them. The idea that we can use evil tactics for a good cause is one of the tricks of the devil that we are to resist. Make no mistake: we are fighting for the side who has supplied us with arms. As we head into this next week, may we honor God with our choice of how to stand firm. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Why the Holy Spirit was not a Driving Force for the Doctrine of Trinity

If the early Christian church had believed Jesus to be simply human, they would not have developed a doctrine of the Trinity. If we ask, "Why did the Christians come to understand God so differently?", the answer revolves around Jesus. That is to say: the conversation in the early church started with Jesus and how they understood Jesus. 

There was a separate conversation about the Holy Spirit, and that conversation took place slightly later in church history. By the time that conversation came into focus for the Christian community, there had already been centuries of conversation about how to understand Jesus. There seems to have been an expectation by that point in time: whatever had been decided about Jesus, the same logic should apply to thinking about the Holy Spirit. They brought parallel reasoning to the question of how to understand the Holy Spirit, and eventually reached the doctrine of the Trinity as it is known today. As with any summary, that is simplified; the relevant point is that the Christian experience of the Holy Spirit did not demand the same conversation. The church's experience of the Holy Spirit did not demand any changes to the idea of One God. 

To make my point clearer, think for a moment about the Holy Spirit. For those who take guidance from the Bible, the Spirit is clearly non-human, clearly uncreated, clearly based solely in God. In church history I have not seen any serious Christian disputes about the eternal divine nature of the Holy Spirit. So why didn't the church's experience with the Holy Spirit drive the conversation about the Trinity? And consider that for centuries Judaism had lived comfortably with awareness of the Holy Spirit without questioning the oneness of God. 

The answer seems to lie here: Many viewed the Holy Spirit as something like an extension of God, and not as fully distinct from God. While that question does not arise with Jesus, it is an important question in our understanding of the Holy Spirit. 

(Part of a series, to be continued.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Think on these things

Whatever is lovely, excellent, or praiseworthy, think on these things ... 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Trinity: Why did Christians develop such a different understanding of God?

All of Jesus' original apostles were Jewish. Of the documents in the New Testament, only two (Luke and Acts) were known to be written by a Gentile. To the best of our knowledge, the rest of the New Testament was written by people who were life-long Jews, who continued to see themselves as Jews while understanding Jesus as the Messiah. In the Second Temple era there were different Jewish groups with different opinions on various points of law and texts, but none of those mainstream groups disputed monotheism: There is only one God, and God is one. 

From that background, why not keep to the most obvious solution: That Jesus is simply human, and so the Jewish understanding of God remains unchanged? It's important to any following discussion that we take the first step seriously and make the first point clear: Why is there a need for any discussion at all? The whole question could have been a non-starter; possibly the most natural view of that topic would have been as a non-starter; so why did something else happen? 

Or to come from the other direction, we can look at the alternatives to the Trinity that have been considered. Over the centuries, Christians wrestled with other options such as: Maybe Jesus was fully divine and his humanity was merely an appearance; or maybe Jesus was adopted by God; or maybe Jesus was the one through whom all things were made as the first of God's creations. Still in our times we see alternatives like: Maybe Jesus was an angel, or maybe Jesus is a god but not the God of this world, or maybe God is one and Jesus is one way that God appears to us. (These are my fumbling attempts to summarize the views of Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Oneness Pentecostals; if anyone can suggest a clearer way to word those, or finds a more accurate way to summarize, those suggestions would be welcome.) 

Why take a quick survey of the alternatives? To show that even the Christians who have not agreed with the doctrine of the Trinity generally don't say that Jesus is simply human. Even among feuding sects who hesitate to recognize each other as belonging to the same religion, there's an unintended consensus on that one point: There's more going on with Jesus than "simply human". 

If we were to make a decision tree of how people understand him, the first point might be, "Is Jesus simply human?" At that point, not only the prevalent Christian theologies but most of the alternative Christian theologies join together in the same answer: No. 

For this blog, most of the readers are familiar with the reasons why the answer is generally: No. In the New Testament, the early records of Jesus introduce him with John the Baptist fulfilling prophecies about preparing the way for the LORD -- texts that in the original language use the Divine Name. Even in the shortest, possibly least-theological gospel in the New Testament, that of Mark, we find his opponents challenging him over whether he is laying claim to God's authority: "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" And even in that early document we find words attributed to Jesus in which he questions their understanding of the promised Messiah: "Why does David call him Lord?" 

The alternative gospels -- the ones outside the New Testament -- do not present us with a merely human Jesus either. Consider the Coptic Gospel of Thomas: "Jesus said, 'I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.'" (Saying #77)

These few texts are not presented in order to prove any point, but as a sample of the reasons why someone might look at the documents and think: Jesus' followers didn't think he was simply human; and unless they were inventing what he said then Jesus didn't consider himself simply human either. That lies at the heart of why Christians developed a different understanding of God, and to some extent still wrestle with it today: How exactly do we understand the information that we have, being faithful to the facts as we know them? 

(Part of a series)

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Reviewing the Trinity: Authority, Proof Texts, and Ways Forward

I have a long-standing interest in the tracing the origins of the teachings of the church. The Trinity has an interesting place among Christian doctrines: it is never directly taught in Scripture; there are Scriptures that seem to support it and others that seem to contradict it. It has been the subject of much debate, and conversation is fenced off carefully: the wrong answer may find you excommunicated from many churches. Despite the problems with the doctrine, I'm not aware of a better explanation for how God is described in the sayings of Jesus and the writings of the apostles. This post will not propose to resolve that, but to size up the "authority" approach and the familiar proof-text pool for avenues to move the conversation forward. 

The "authority" approach does not seem capable of resolving the matter fully. By the "authority" approach, I mean the situation where the church cites its authority to resolve disputes over its own teachings and declares the question resolved, or claims the Spirit's guidance. That creates pockets of acceptance wherever that particular source of authority is respected or that particular claim of guidance is believed. Outside of that scope, the claim is only as respected as the reasoning that supports it; the teaching must prove its legitimacy. That brings us back to the original sayings of Jesus and the writings of the apostles, and how we understand those. 

Beyond the most obvious point -- that the Trinity is not taught directly -- several other points catch my attention about the texts brought to support the different views: 

  • The gospels of Mark and Luke are cited less often, despite their interest in Jesus' identity
  • Only a few passages in Matthew are cited, again though there is interest in Jesus' identity
  • The Gospel of John has some of the more directly applicable comments for both sides of the debate. When both sides rely on the same document, it raises questions about whether we may have misunderstood the document. 
  • There is also an item that isn't directly addressed very often: Even in passages that are quoted as proof of the Trinity, when the word "God" occurs it generally refers to the Father specifically. 

The doctrine of the Trinity seems to have a specific job: to safeguard our insistence that God is one, and to reconcile that with the divinity of Christ. That is: rather than the idea being developed directly for its own sake and on its own basis, it seems to have been developed indirectly to serve a function of supporting other teachings. 

In the centuries since the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, the teachers of the church have often read the Bible while focusing on academic points that touch on this doctrine, rather than focusing on the original point. For example, how often can we discuss the blessing "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" without focusing on Christ's grace, or God's love, or the Spirit's fellowship? In some ways, drawing the different verses into the controversy has been a disservice to their original message. 

Since the doctrine of the Trinity seems to have been developed indirectly, and since a return to the original sources seems the most productive approach, I hope to spend some time in the coming weeks looking at what the Scriptures say about the identity of Christ, and how we understand that in light of the oneness of God. 

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Is it possible to speak the truth without love?

 I have found myself wondering lately whether it is possible to speak the truth without love. Up until recently I would have said "Yes, but it will sound like a noisy gong or clanging cymbal;" it brings discredit on the word 'truth' to use it as a tool of hatred. I've seen it done so often. The phrase "brutal honesty" generally claims the right to use truth as a tool of brutality. 

But recently I have given more attention to how deeply distorted our thoughts become under the influence of hatred and its gateway emotions such as anger and fear. Is any person rightly the subject of pure hatred? Is there a human being without any redeeming qualities? Is there anyone who is completely without decency? I have not met them; they show up commonly in stories meant to entertain: stories meant to frighten children. 

If no person is honestly seen as an object of hatred, then no discussion of the person that comes from a place of hatred is a fully honest one. The hatred distorts the one thing most important to the conversation about another human being: their humanity. So I am considering the possibility that when the Bible tells us to "speak the truth with love," that it may not be possible to speak the truth without it. 

Cutting-room floor: It doesn't fit neatly into my main point so it's here as a post-script. I'm having trouble seeing if there's any difference between "telling half the truth" and "telling a half-truth" (which is a euphemism for lying). And yet how many places these days do we hear only half the truth? 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you

"Bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you" -- Jesus

If ever a nation was in need of prayer, that is our nation today. 

Lord, may we work together with gentleness

And rebuild respect

May we recall your compassion for us

And consider your love for our neighbor

May we put down our zeal to find fault in others

Grant us a Sabbath rest from our own anger

May we see that every fault that can be found

Is nothing but what is common to humankind

And can be found in friend and enemy alike. 

May I extend to those who hate me the same grace that I would to a friend. 

May I bless those who curse me

May I pray for those who persecute me

May I greet those who would turn their backs

If someone aims arrogant words against me

May I win them over without words

May I encourage the timid

And walk the path of faithfulness

May justice and peace be reacquainted

May truth be spoken with love

May those who sow discord find us slow to believe evil of others

May we doubt the evil that we have come to believe

As the evil one is the father of lies

May we forget our enmity and remember our neighbor

May we turn away from the ranks of the Accuser

And weaken the forces of evil by deserting our hatred

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Why I am religious, not just spiritual

For many years now, the elite tiers in our culture have frowned upon religion -- specifically on Christian religion; we generally give a pass to anyone else. There is a peer pressure to talk about "meditation" rather than "prayer": though religious people may do both, spiritual people are far more likely to meditate. There is a certain peer pressure, a certain gateway-to-acceptance, to identify as "spiritual, not religious." And the opposition to "organized religion" is so well-established that there are long-standing jokes about "Don't worry about us; we're not that organized" -- long-established jokes meant to deflect the long-established hostile environment. In light of that, I wanted to state why I am religious, not just spiritual. 

For Christians it will come as no surprise that spirituality is part of our faith: that spirituality is the heart of our faith. Some of the best-loved Bible passages are spiritual, such as the ancient Psalmist's cry "Create in me a clean heart, O God," or St Paul's reminders that build on Jesus' teachings: that the law is fulfilled by love. 

Yet spirituality alone, without the framework of faith, tends to be wishy-washy. If it can be anything that I want it to be, then it is limited by myself -- and limited to myself. This ultra-subjectivity means that there are no grounded intellectual discussions to be had with someone who shares the same reality, no firm basis for the growth of understanding, no consensus to be formed. My spirituality can guide me, and your spirituality can guide you; but it doesn't generally lead us to organize for the common good.

And it is that shared belief with its result of organizing for the common good that are among the strong suits of religion. Yes: I'm aware of the long line of people eager to bring a catalog of times when religious people have made bad calls. In a healthy religious system, the bad actors are called out by other religious people based on those shared values and shared rules of life. The moral absolutes of the faith empower even the lowest person to take on a corrupt person who has gained power: the standard outranks the person. A good religion makes the bad actors in its ranks accountable to a higher authority, and so puts a stop to them. It is true that bad people exist, and that bad people will abuse whatever kind of power is handy, whether it's religious or political or economic or educational or any other kind they can find. The fact that bad people use power in bad ways is not, rightly, a call to become disorganized but a call to check ourselves and clean house.

The different values and particulars of each religion have led down different paths, so I will speak here to Christianity, while other faiths can ably speak to their own experience. 

Christianity has from its foundation worked kindness toward our neighbors as part of our faith. In the first years when Jesus led Christianity with his own physical presence, he helped peoples' physical needs by healing the sick and feeding the hungry. He met peoples' needs of acceptance by his presence and his practice of hospitality. He met peoples' spiritual needs by teaching, building up their understanding and faith, their compassion and their hope, their sense of connection to their neighbors. He taught as one who has authority.

Still in the early years of the faith when the New Testament was being written, the early Christians were already organizing to get food to widows and to the poor, and organizing to get disaster relief to famine-stricken areas. We know this because the New Testament mentions some of the efforts there. The organization of religious efforts is a blessing to those who receive the generosity and kindness that are the intent of the organization. Down the centuries, churches have fed countless poor, hungry, and bereaved people in their time of need. Churches have organized to create and sustain hospitals and schools, charitable organizations and disaster relief funds. Down to this day, I have seen churches take the lead in disaster relief. A few years ago after hurricane Harvey, I was grateful to receive some free meals dropped off just-in-time by church groups, as I worked at a clothing distribution center, or helped with a cleanup crew in a flooded home. The people of Christ have been there for me, just as I hope I have been there for others.

Jesus left a clear call to those who follow him, a clear picture of how he judges our actions as good: 

"I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me. ... Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me."

I am grateful for the organization of religion so that we can do greater things to help our neighbors. I am grateful for the fellowship of my brothers and sisters in the faith. I am grateful for the shared music and art that enrich our lives. I am grateful for the intellectual heritage of so many great thinkers. I am grateful for the spiritual heritage of so many saints. And I am grateful for Jesus' authority -- which I recall him citing on these occasions: the authority to cleanse the Temple (that is, to purify religion to what it should be), and the authority to forgive sins.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

To everything there is a season: A time for peace?

The book of Ecclesiastes has a well-known and timeless poem:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to harvest;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

 (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

I am having trouble reading the times right now. The atmosphere in the U.S. is tense, strained, distrustful. There is a near-expectation that the November election will bring orchestrated riots across the nation, much as it did four years ago. While there may be a certain amount of poor sportsmanship (to say the least) in rioting over election results, that's not at all enough to explain what happened. For the most part I chalked up the 2016 election riots -- or I should say, the susceptibility of many otherwise decent people to join the riots -- to the extreme levels of fear and hatred that had been carefully built by political rhetoric during and after the campaign cycle, both on the part of the politicians and their allies in like-minded media outlets.

Where do extremists come from, if not from extreme levels of hatred and fear? 

We, all of us as human beings, have a blind spot. We assume that not only are our thoughts and feelings justified (never mistaken or manipulated), but also that their scale is justified (never out-of-proportion). Back in the real world though, extreme rhetoric is a prime cause in moving people to be extremely angry, extremely hateful, extremely fearful, and to do extreme things. All the while, the new-minted extremists are fully convinced that they have a justified and proportionate response. A person's response is generally proportionate to something, but to what? In these cases, it has been proportionate to their fear or anger or hatred. But is their fear or anger or hatred proportionate to what is happening?

Imagine that you could measure anger. Maybe 1 point on the angry scale would be a proportionate reaction to an aggressive driver who cuts you off in traffic. Maybe 10 points on the angry scale would be a proportionate reaction to a drunk driver who endangered you and your loved ones. Here's the thing: if we're angry at a 10 point level, we start with the assumption that the other person did something 10-point bad. We don't consider "What if they did something 1-point bad and someone else exaggerated it or portrayed it in the worst possible light?" Or "What if it didn't actually happen as reported at all, or if someone is keeping certain facts out of the picture to make a good story better?" It is a natural human bias that the information we already know is the information that matters to us; there are people who abuse that trust. But we're so invested in believing our own reasonableness -- so invested in justifying our feelings and reactions -- that we easily recruit ourselves to defend the integrity of people who withheld vital information, in an effort to prove we can trust ourselves.

We're human: We do not have full knowledge, and information is brokered through notoriously unreliable channels. There are people in a position to manipulate us every time information is passed along. Basically every media outlet on the market is known to keep certain facts out of the picture, to filter information to suit the confirmation-bias of their party. We even find ourselves in the unfortunate situation where a reliable slant creates brand loyalty. It follows that, regardless of our preferred media outlet, our reactions are probably out of proportion to what they would be if we knew all the facts. If we consume mass media, we will quickly encounter areas where people are actively trying to manipulate us, starting with the emotions. The more volatile emotions can act like a hallucinogen: for example, fear distorts both our perceptions and our thinking. So does anger or hatred. Eventually the bias can get to the point where the contempt or fear persists and is the automatic reaction to the targeted person or view.

To mass-create extremists requires the willing participation of mass media outlets, the willing consumption of bias, and the willing justification of an extreme reaction. It also requires a willing disinterest in whether another point of view may have legitimate concerns. Each of those points is an opportunity to turn back the tide on the mass-creation of extremists. It takes discernment and (in these times) some amount of patience and courage. We can try to broaden our sources of information to find the information that is being filtered out. We can actively wonder what piece of the picture we are missing; the additional information may support views we haven't considered yet. We can entertain some skepticism about our own emotions after consuming political media, much as we might after watching a scary movie. We can think twice about justifying extreme reactions. And we can hold the media outlets accountable when they withhold or distort information, or manipulate volatile emotions. 

With the state of information today, I find it helpful to work from the premise that any politicized story is uncorroborated until seeing if the other side has possession of facts that are not being reported through the first outlet. Assuming that any political story is uncorroborated leads to a certain "Schrodinger's Cat" view of the news: any given story may or may not be true. I find myself with a whole zoo full of Schrodinger's cats. I will bet that it is more accurate than some of the certainties on the market.

I hope it is still a time for peace. But as anyone who watches the international scene knows, peace doesn't just happen. It takes willingness. That willingness is eroded by hatred and suspicion and fear. I'd encourage anyone who loves peace to tune out voices that promote hatred, suspicion, and fear. 

A time for peace -- I pray it's not too late.
(Slightly altered version of the lyrics to Turn, Turn, Turn -- based on Ecclesiastes)

Sunday, September 06, 2020

In honor of JRR Tolkien, Professor of Ancient Beauties

This last week marked the anniversary of Professor Tolkien's passing. This graphic is done as a memorial tribute.

 The origins of Smaug, (c) 2020, original done in Inkscape

Tolkien understood something about the act of creation. His creations breathed life back to him as well. Incidentally, please don't over-estimate my artistic skills; the dragon is very closely based on some old drawings by Tolkien himself.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Different Denominations from a Different Angle

Among Christians, our divisions have caused problems. Tonight I am going to mention another angle that I sometimes use to view the problem. This does not look directly yet at questions of faithfulness to God and spiritual vitality, of charity and blessing, of love of God or neighbor. Those are key questions -- in many ways more so than these. Yet I think these other questions deserve a moment since they are so much a part of lived experience, so long as we have the perspective that these are, after all, side-effects of deeper issues. 

Some groups are fragmented to the point that they cannot provide a connection to the joy of life, much less effective cultural leadership. They struggle to provide their people with meaning and guidance. Regardless of a group's persistence, there are other ways to discern if a group is self-sustaining and mature. Here are some criteria that help me gauge a group's viability: 

Standing on its own two feet

A viable group has its own identity: it can explain its own views without the need to oppose others. A viable group seeks to add value to the world and enrich peoples' lives as a servant of God's blessings. A splinter group expresses itself in terms of finding fault with their opponent without seeing a need to present a fully-formed alternative. A splinter group exists to be another's nemesis, and expresses its reason for existing in terms of finding fault, or of being a living critique rather than an independent voice. 

Love of life

A religious group, by its nature, produces a culture. A thriving culture will produce worthy art as a natural expression of love of life. We can see or hear how well a culture is doing by its art, by paying attention to things such as paintings, literature, music, and architecture. A group that produces no art, produces intentionally low-quality works, or produces only what promotes itself or attacks its opponents -- that is a sign of a group that lacks the joy of life that is part of Christianity's legitimate heritage. 

Community and Fellowship

Love of life will also express itself in practices that bring people together, whether through songs or holidays, commemorations or celebrations. An enduring group puts a priority on building connections between people, and on maintaining harmonious relationships. It is a healthy sign when the group teaches people to live well in relationship with others. A less healthy sign is pursuing the outside appearance of harmony by hiding problems, or addressing problems without gentleness and respect. 

Wisdom and scholarship

A mature culture seeks wisdom and pursues it, values it and treasures it. Here it is useful to distinguish between wisdom and its imitations such as quarreling or intellectual sparring. 

Government and leadership

A religious group forms a culture; the most fully-developed faiths have led nations and have given birth to civilizations. Peaceful growth in a flourishing culture requires both stability and meaningful justice. Does the current religious climate produce equitable laws that guide the nation and endure across generations? Does the group have the maturity of thought and character to produce capable leaders? Many of the newer religious denominations have never led a nation, and lack the experience that would bring more breadth and depth to their views. 

There are other criteria that I have also considered, though in our current environment those are seen as on the border between politics and religion. So these are a simplified set of criteria that are on my mind, and I will admit that if a religious group does not meet a certain threshold then I do not see it as fully viable. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Was God sending a subtle message with the location of an event?

Of the events recorded in the Bible, sometimes it looks like God coordinated the time or place of events to reinforce his message. Our lectionary reading for today seems to be one of those times.

When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"

And they said, "Some say John the Baptist. Others say Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"

Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah. (Matthew 16:13-20)

This was a teaching moment where Jesus was leading his disciples to the next stage of understanding him. He had chosen his moment; did he also have any particular reason for the place? Our pastor today shared pictures from the ancient site of Caesarea Philippi: particularly, pictures of the headwaters of the Jordan river.

It turns out that Caesarea Philippi was near at least one major source of the Jordan river. The Jordan is where Jesus' cousin John baptized the people, and later had also baptized Jesus. And so Jesus chooses the headwaters of the Jordan river when the disciples are ready for the next step. As Jesus' identity is recognized by the disciples, the water flowing from that spot is baptized in Jesus' identity and carries the healing and forgiveness that only come from him. It leads to an understanding of baptism as rooted in Christ's identity: the cleansing waters that restore us flow from Christ, more than from a particular earthly spot. He is the true origin of the baptismal waters.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The spiritual foundation of the Ten Commandments

"I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." (Exodus 20:2)

Depending on which tradition you follow, that is either the prologue to the Ten Commandments or the first commandment itself. For present purposes, either way it is the foundation on which the others rest. What does that say about God's intentions and the law's purpose? 

In our days we hear a lot of prejudice against religious commandments and following them, with sneers about "blind obedience" or "mindless rule-following", usually complete with God's character being defamed as violent or selfish. Here we see that loyalty to God has a completely different origin. He has already established his benevolence, has already worked to free his people, has already shown his compassion toward them. The Lord is not their oppressor but their liberator. As they stand at Sinai, what he has asked them to do before then has led to freedom and blessing. 

The spiritual foundation of keeping God's commandments is his love and compassion for us, the trust that these laws do not bring chains but blessings. He has shown his faithfulness across the generations that separate them from their centuries-gone ancestors who first trusted him, and he will see their descendants through the centuries to come. 

Sunday, August 09, 2020

COVID as a window to a pre-modern world, and what they valued

In some ways, the COVID world makes the pre-industrial world more relatable. There is more insecurity now than before. Scarcity is something that is far more relatable after seeing months of shortages and empty shelves at poorly-stocked grocers. It is now more heartfelt to be grateful for simply having food, as the steady supply that I took for granted last year now seems a luxury. Even now, with supplies much improved over a few months ago, the stores still lack things that I used to take for granted.

And yet most of human history has been lived with uncertainty about these things. Every vaccine on our vaccination list was probably once an epidemic or an otherwise feared disease. And life went on. Instead of life being defined by possessions or security, it was defined by heart and soul, family, beauty, and a host of spiritual things that were held to be of greater value than food. Having had more experience of scarcity now, I begin to appreciate their point more deeply. I found this to be moving:

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
who gains understanding

For wisdom is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold

She [wisdom] is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare to her.

Long life is in her right hand;
in her left are riches and honor. 

Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peaceful. 

She is a tree of life to those who embrace her,
those who lay hold of her will be blessed.  ... 

When you lie down you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. 

Have no fear of sudden disaster
or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked.

(Proverbs 3:13-18; 24-25)

In comparison, I think our pop culture is not even a parody of what it should be. 

Wisdom and kindness can give our lives a kind of value that a well-stocked pantry cannot: one with honor. The return-on-investment of wisdom is quality of life, depth of life, beauty of life, even (often enough) length of life. It sweetens sleep as it does waking life, deepens friendships, makes the rough places smooth. It is life-giving. Wisdom is the world's foundation; anything built without it will not last, and anything without it will not continue -- and will not be a blessing, and will not give life, and cannot attain to peace. When the rubble of our current mess is cleared away -- however deep the rubble may be -- it will take wisdom to lay the foundation again, and a respect for what is solid and upright and true.


Sunday, August 02, 2020

How to love our neighbors during COVID?

This may seem basic -- and yet I see reason to believe it would still be good to think about. It's easy to lose focus. So as the lockdown continues into another month I've been searching for ways, either as individuals or in community, to love our neighbors during COVID.

  • Take care of our own health and theirs: Do not endanger a life. Here, love of our neighbor legitimately requires love of self as well. Someone who is infected will almost inevitably put others at risk. 
  • Do not judge: This virus is new. We're navigating in uncharted waters. None of us will make the right call 100% of the time; neither will my neighbor. 
  • Kindness and patience: I can skip a chance to be angry at someone. We all have extra struggles now. 
  • Listening and staying connected: I can make a phone call, send a message, have a quick video chat. When we're isolated there are all kinds of problems, and fewer solutions. Left alone, it's easy to slide into self-doubt or low spirits. It's easier to fall into fear or anger. The act of connecting to another person can re-set our minds. 
  • Visit the sick: This can be done on-line or by phone or by a card; no one needs to risk personal health in order to visit the sick. 
  • Feed the hungry: The lock-down has been economically devastating for millions of families. Now more than ever, there's a chance to feed the hungry. 

I'd be glad to hear of other things that haven't made the list yet.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Group identity badges

Jewish culture may have adopted some of their more puzzling laws (for example. not wearing mixed linen-and-wool clothing) based on an attempt to distinguish themselves from neighboring tribes. Choosing to wear distinctive clothing is fairly harmless, as cultural boundaries go. That requirement was a small part of a bigger picture, and even that requirement was presented as part of a moral code. In that context, how many people would come to wonder if the differences enhanced their own moral status, and how does that work out in the cultural mind, as time goes by? By the time of Jesus, Jewish prayers seem to have included thanking God for being born a Jew. By the around end of the first century -- with challenges to Jewish identity from Jewish monotheism going global under the banner of Jesus -- some Jews wanted to distinguish Judaism-without-Jesus from Judaism-with-Jesus, and added to their daily prayers a call for God to curse heretics (by which they meant followers of Jesus), calling on G-d for their destruction and damnation. And while the worship leader would be excused a verbal stumble at any point in the prayer, they came to insist that the prayer against heretics be said properly and without stumbling -- lest they find that their leader was in fact one of the heretics. So in some times and places it became a job requirement to use a prayer for cursing and/or verbal abuse. To be clear, my point is not that particular prayer so much as that particular mind-set. Christians are not immune to that kind of thinking, with some denominations requiring that their ministerial candidates must identify certain symbolic enemies of the faith (e.g. the anti-Christ) with either the teaching or leadership of another Christian group.

A boundary marker's purpose is to recognize a division or separation. In their most innocent form it's simply functional, something like a property line that keeps each side's place safe from the other. But not all markers are so friendly. They can institutionalize more than a boundary; they can institutionalize a sense of superiority or grievance, or they can be used to teach hatred. They can draw a line between "good people" and "bad people" -- or whether someone is eligible for a job -- by whether they are willing to participate in a hate-marker. In some groups, it is expected that someone should participate in standard verbal-abuse formulas of another group, or their own identity is suspect: their own acceptance or rejection is on the line.

The same thing happens outside of religious circles, too. Ever notice how former child stars so commonly do a nude photo-shoot or nude role before they have access to adult acting jobs? There seems to be a quiet job expectation that the actor should take an action that rejects ethical limits to sexuality and nudity. Hollywood somehow doesn't get called to account for its pedophilia problem, which seems closely related to the expectation that a former child star should join in violating the ethical norms meant to protect them. Participating in bashing others -- or in bashing certain social norms -- is sometimes a passport-stamp not only to certain social circles, but to the better jobs.

Every group has its boundary. The question on my mind today is: How many boundaries are maintained at someone else's expense?

Sunday, July 19, 2020

George Floyd - Things that need saying

I know politics isn't my usual topic, but I've had these things on my mind, and wanted to say them now that we've all had a moment to think. 

To some extent, the U.S. is still grappling with the murderous actions of a police officer who killed an unarmed man back in May. Many people have already said worthwhile things; I'll limit myself to a few points where I might add to the conversation by reinforcing points that haven't gained as much traction as they merit.

Good cop, bad cop

One of the more disturbing things that came to light is that it was no surprise that this particular officer (now ex-officer) was a bad actor. He had a long list of complaints against him. If he hadn't had a badge, I wonder whether he might have already been behind bars. The fact that he was still on the streets with a badge is disturbing. Because the officer was a known problem, it does in fact mean that the surrounding institutions (police leadership, possibly also police union leadership) share responsibility for what happened. (I'm not convinced that the police chief actually belongs in the cell next to ex-officer Chauvin -- but given that Chauvin was a repeat offender, the chief should at least answer to the public for how that happened, and what is being done to make sure that never happens again.) I do not want to hear the politicians or even the police chief give a hand-wringing speech -- though I do want to hear them take responsibility for fixing the problem. I want to see the police departments and leaders make a policy change that will get known troublemakers off the streets. I also need to hear the police unions say that, while of course they need to protect cops from malicious revenge-complaints, that they have also become willing to acknowledge there are bad actors and see them taken off the streets. I would also like to see an immediate review of repeat-offender cops so that they can be pulled off the streets now.

Protests and riots

After George Floyd's death, the outrage was more than understandable, it was right. Giving voice to that outrage was a simple act of decency, respect for the dead, and protest against injustice. In the places where there were peaceful public protests, they gave a visible form to the unanimous American sentiment that we will not tolerate this. It may be true that the number of unarmed people dying in police custody is down, that the trend is downward and has been for some years; it's still too high. As a nation, we insist on the day when the number of unarmed people who die from being arrested is zero.

And yet the protests were marred by riots. I can hear it now, "Don't call them riots, call them peaceful protests!" Nope; when there's a death toll, it's a riot. When there are even a series of violent injuries or deliberate arson I will say right back, "Don't call them peaceful protests, call them riots." When people are bringing backpacks full of concrete rubble so that they can attack police, or are pre-placing pallets of bricks for ready weapons, they are not even spontaneous outbursts of frustration, but intended and planned attacks. Too many people were killed; that doesn't happen in a peaceful protest. Neither is this the first time in recent years that political riots have killed people, have multiplied the death toll and, with blood on their own hands, undermine their own cause.

Black lives matter because all lives matter

From what I know at this point it looks clear to me that the cop belongs behind bars, and there's no telling whether his actions were racially motivated but they may have been, and that does add an extra layer of sickness to the events of that day. It is clear that many people perceive it as racially motivated. As a statement of fact, "Black lives matter" is true and it looks to me as though its truth is universally accepted, in that I have never heard anyone say that black lives do not matter. Still, there are legitimate reasons that I have heard people cite for distancing themselves from that particular way of phrasing things. Besides being a moral fact, unfortunately the phrase "Black Lives Matter" is also the name of a political organization that seems to have professional anarchists on speed-dial. Some peaceful people hesitate to use that phrase in order not to endorse an organization generally seen keeping close company with a terrorist/anarchist group, and that has a noticeable amount of blood on their hands over the years. Also, because there are a variety of races in this world, singling out one race that matters can send the wrong message, and eventually will send the wrong message. Considering the number of killings during the riots or in their wake, it has become increasingly necessary to affirm that all lives matter. Consider the recent report of the murder of a young woman for saying "All lives matter," or several people who are known to have lost their jobs for saying what is also a statement of fact, "All lives matter" -- which includes blacks along with all the other races as equals. Your life matters, my life matters, and nobody's safety or job should be in jeopardy for saying that their own life matters. There are people who are quick to shout down people for saying that their own life matters, who work to silence them, who falsely accuse them -- who even cite the alleged dog-whistle, the perennial excuse to justify doubling down on an unfounded accusation rather than issuing an apology, when looking into the facts turns up a complete lack of evidence for the original accusation. We live in a country where people have been retaliated against for saying that their own life matters. That is dangerous ground. Think twice.

Too broad a brush

The death of George Floyd has made it abundantly clear that there are bad cops out there. And yet I would bet that there are more good cops, and that it is unfair to judge them based on the bad ones in the group. In the same way, when it comes to group judgment, I would bet that most males are not sexual predators. We can think of other examples of group prejudice; but it's odd which ones are considered wrong and which ones are accepted. The court of public opinion has a long track record of over-generalizing, of going to all-or-nothing thinking, of making group accusations and assigning collective guilt.

While we're on the topic of painting with too broad a brush, I have reason to believe that most white people aren't racists. Yet there have been some very vocal white people saying that all white people are racists. I have no idea what's inside these peoples' heads, but I suspect that not only are they badly wrong, but I think they are actively doing harm. If I were a member of the black community, what would be more useful to me: hearing a white person send the message "Really we're all racists", or hearing the message "Really we're all horrified by what that cop did. That guy is going down. We're not standing for that, and we're with you"?

To wrap it up

As I said at the start, much has been said, and I haven't covered all that could be said. But for today I have gone on long enough, and want to close with my main point:

Really we're all horrified by what that cop did. That guy is going down. We're not standing for that, and we're with you.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Persecutor, Rescuer, Victim - Do the roles fit into redemption?

It's over fifty years ago now that Stephen Karpman described the drama triangle now often named after him as the Karpman drama triangle. He describes how in conflict there are generally three identifiable roles: persecutor, rescuer, and victim. In his psychological/drama analysis, some interesting things come to light: not only is there is a payoff for each role, there can also be a marked difference between which role people claim for themselves and how they are perceived by others. And people often change roles over time. For example, someone may psychologically embrace the role of victim which confers a status of innocence at the cost of giving away any power or agency. To gain heroic status, someone may understandably embrace the role of rescuer -- at the cost (or benefit) of painting someone else as the villain and implying someone else is helpless. And many persecutors see themselves as either victims or rescuers, either justifying or not noticing when they cross the line to being violent, controlling, or unreasonable themselves.

I find myself wondering today how those roles fit into the picture of redemption, or whether they fit at all. We'll start with an innocent role: the role of victim. To clarify, that's not the same as someone who has been harmed. We've all had the common human experience of being hurt; whether we continue as a victim is a different question. The dramatic role of victim requires a certain perpetual powerlessness and involves sticking to a certain limited script of responses. For someone defined by hurt or motivated by anger, forgiveness can mean losing identity or motivation -- or losing the default assumption of innocence that is part of the victim role. With redemption, the picture changes. There is justice tempered with mercy. Hurts are healed. There are no more victims, only those who have been redeemed and restored.

What about a rescuer? Clearly there can be legitimate instances of helping other people. Even so, the legitimacy of the starting point doesn't protect against the temptations along the way. This person generally pictures themselves as doing righteous work -- and may come to depend on the recognition and status that comes with the role. They may also grow their self-worth at the expense of the belief that someone else cannot get along without their help. They may enable the cycle to continue. On the darker side, rescuers may enjoy the opportunity to call other people the villains, and (like victims) may find their identity and self-worth caught up portraying someone else as irredeemable, and themselves as better-than. The angrier and more self-righteous the rescuer becomes, the higher the risk that they cross over that paradoxical line where history's most dangerous villains have seen themselves as champions of a good cause. For those who have not yet crossed that line, though, how do they relate to redemption? Of course the rescuers will be glad to see the hurts healed. But there is a temptation among rescuers to be merciless, even ruthless; that way lies no small danger to ourselves. Those who are on a quest for peace and justice will be glad to see justice -- and even be glad to see it tempered with mercy.

But when vindictiveness becomes a virtue, the victim or rescuer has lost themselves and has emerged as a persecutor. They may have started out in another role with innocence or good-will. But the longer the focus on hatred, the longer the hardening of heart, the longer the dehumanization of the opposition -- the longer the good-will becomes limited to certain people, the more the original innocence is lost and the original good-will becomes stained. Redemption is most powerful when it redeems even the evil, and makes them innocent again. And yet it rolls off of those who insist they are innocent already. Here is a danger in the "good cause" that hardens the heart and provokes to mercilessness. Still there is always hope for redemption. Forgiveness is always an open door. For the cruel and arrogant, it starts with humility. Contrite repentance will renew their fellowship with God and others. God will lift up the humble.

Whatever our starting point, whatever our current place on the drama triangle, there isn't a single place in the drama without its temptations. "Watch and pray", as they say; "watch and pray."

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Communicating the Nature of God

Every now and then I have asked my readers' patience with my side pursuits, such as poetry or humor; this time it is art.

The Bible contains many beautiful images, and describes many beautiful things. One that I find particularly striking is the image of the lamp and stand from the ancient tabernacle:

"Make a lampstand out of pure gold and hammer it out, base and shaft, its flower-like cups, buds and blossoms shall be of one piece with it. Six branches are to extend from the side of the lampstand -- three on one side and three on the other." (Exodus 25:31-32)

If you continue reading the description of the original, you will see that this drawing is much simplified and takes some artistic license to "complete" the image with the simplifications; the original design is well beyond my current skill. Still the basic idea -- a tree of gold with flowers of fire -- has enchanted me and captivated me for many years now, and I am pleased to have a first draft.

I have noticed how often the Bible associates holiness with beauty, with an incarnated touch of numinous beauty that communicates the splendor of God. It is my hope that any place where God's beauty is shown and God's name is invoked becomes an outpost of holiness in this world. They say that there are mysteries of God which cannot be put into words. In which case, we can only convey them through things that are not words. Beauty can communicate the presence of God better than so much talk.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Breaking the silence

I dislike politics. It is so polarized that entering into that particular arena can leave us dehumanized. And yet whether I want to enter or not, there I am. Recently I reached out to a friend that I hadn't heard from since the COVID lockdown began. At first she was glad to hear from me. But then during a second conversation she set a litmus-test for my politics, demanding a yes-or-no answer to a question that, for me, is not all-or-nothing. I answered honestly; she ended the call and has cut off all contact. Such is the destructive, dehumanizing power of polarized politics. There is too much hatred, too much unthinking rage, too much willingness to believe the worst of people. For me, entering a conversation on politics has the feeling of walking into a baited trap. And yet if I'm going to lose friends over it, I would rather pull off the bandage and have it done. The topic I bring tonight isn't the same one I discussed with my friend -- and yet in the same way it is a litmus test in some peoples' minds.

My early experience of polarized politics consisted of my very-liberal mother's contempt for all things conservative, which early in life I adopted by default. The first time I remember re-evaluating was when I heard some conservatives defend a pro-life stance. You see, my brother and I were unwanted children, back from a time now long-gone when there were laws to protect unwanted children. Later my mother volunteered at Planned Parenthood, underscoring what she told us in so many words: Sometimes she wished we had never been born. So when I met conservatives who affirmed that I had a right to exist, a right to breathe the same air as other people and not be ashamed of my own existence, that I wasn't an inexcusable burden for simply being alive -- well, those were new thoughts to me. I took a second look at the default assumption that "unwanted children don't count". When I considered another view, "unwanted children are just as human as wanted children", considered that the lack of a mother's love didn't mean I was less worthy of love than the wanted children, I could breathe better. I know that taking a pro-life stand paints a target on myself; politics is not a game that is played nicely, but is generally played as a blood-sport these days. And yet I affirm that I have a right to exist, and that my brother had a right to exist.

There is an argument sometimes made in support of abortion, that any woman who does not want her child will do a bad job raising the child. That certainly matches my own experience. The attitude that she didn't want us so we didn't count -- that attitude didn't go away when we were born. There was an amount of neglect that should have seen us placed in foster homes -- if the family hadn't been so good at keeping secrets, if the system weren't so practiced at turning a blind eye. Every now and then I'd see a news segment where some neglected children were found and rescued and all kinds of people would cluck disapprovingly how those people should never have had children. But my focus was the rescue to a foster home; I would find myself quietly squashing the forbidden-yet-familiar thought, "Where's a news crew when you need one?" There was abuse serious enough that it contributed to my brother's diagnosis of PTSD, which in turn contributed to his untimely death year-before-last.

So I would like to take one step back and look behind the argument that "a woman who does not want her child will do a bad job raising that child." Underneath that argument is a basic acceptance of the attitude of not wanting your own child. There's an implied acceptance of neglect of unwanted children; perhaps even an expectation of it. The potential tragedies of abuse and neglect are framed as the natural result of the unwanted child's existence, instead of as the natural result of the attitude of not wanting the child. I would like to challenge that attitude, and challenge its acceptance. The most basic of all social contracts is that parents love and care for their children. The most basic moral touchstone, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," forbids us to harm the innocent and helpless; it would awaken our sense of compassion for our own child, and our sense of justice as people who have reached child-bearing age to care for the life of the next generation. 

To be clear, I am not writing out of any expectation that I'll have covered all the ground on this topic; there are dozens of contributing conversations, and they have hardly been touched here. Or out of any expectation that I'll have made anyone reconsider their own "side" (the fact that we're divided, and there are "sides", is its own problem). I hope that some people become aware of how arguments for abortion can sound to those of us who were unwanted, as the arguments affirm our parent(s) in claiming that, as unwanted children, we have no right to exist. In my experience, that attitude hardly stops when we're born. And that's part of the argument for abortion: the parent's attitude will cause them to at least neglect their child. And so it does; can we stop accepting the attitude then?

It is readily accepted in so many areas of life that we are responsible for our attitudes, and that changing our attitudes makes a world of difference. The only change I am advocating is a change in attitude. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you: Want your child. Even -- maybe especially -- if they have already been born.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

A Sabbath Rest

I once read a Jewish author who claimed that the best hope for the restoration of the world came from the Sabbath. If we allow "Sabbath" as a stand-in for the peace of God, it would definitely be a step in the right direction. There is so much exhaustion in the world; I include frustration as a type of exhaustion. People are tired of hatred, injustice, oppression, finger-pointing, fear-mongering, racism, scapegoating, riots, and so many other things. Tired.

At times like that, Sabbath brings relief and renewal. It is a time for beauty, for blessing, for holiness. (Is a lack of holiness one of the hallmarks of false morality? Something to ponder another day.)

The Sabbath carries with it a message: that the world is good. That pausing enables us to see it, to appreciate it. And without renewing ourselves, we cannot renew the world.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

"Empty promises" and paradise lost

Today for the first time since the pandemic started, our congregation baptized a new member. As is traditional at one point the pastor asked (paraphrasing), "Do you reject the devil and all his works and empty promises?" While the history behind that question would probably fascinate me, I found myself thinking about how many empty promises I have heard in my life. Car salesmen and politicians have a reputation for them. And I still remember an old joke about Satan not attacking lawyers out of professional courtesy, though lawyers have more of a reputation for simple dishonesty than for promising anything.

The first time that the devil makes an appearance in Scripture, it's in the Genesis account as the serpent. Again, regardless of your own personal approach to Genesis' "page one" problem, it's interesting to watch the action unfold: the serpent tells a half-truth that is fully misleading. As a result of being misled, in a very short time the people are living with shame and fear and enmity and suspicion. Those bad things happened before God imposed any consequences; the fallout to that point was all from natural consequences. The man hid, and was afraid, and was ashamed all before he saw God. And when asked to explain, the blame-fest began. It's traditional to chalk up "paradise lost" to God's actions, but they had already lost paradise. It had stopped being paradise -- a garden planted by God himself where all was in harmony with God -- and had started being a piece of territory. Honestly, they had been destined to leave the garden anyway ("Be fruitful and multiply; Fill the earth and rule over it"). They hadn't been destined to fear and shame and suspicion and enmity. They were no longer in harmony with God. That was the paradise lost.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Too soon to move on

Once again I will take a pass on posting about my more typical topics. I will observe respectful silence this weekend. I had considered a post on the topic, "Does the death penalty have a positive value?" in consideration of the former policeman being charged in the death of George Floyd. But I am not convinced that I have enough clarity on the topic, and thought it best to take a pass, at least for now.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

It starts with one cop

There are times when a pre-planned post would be inappropriate in light of current events. This is one of those times. I'm speaking of the unnecessary death of George Floyd, where information as it is now known looks damning for the police officer who, from what we know, looks culpable. I hedge my words in acknowledgment that all my information is incomplete and not directly acquired. That much said, if the facts as we know them now stand the test of time, I believe that in a healthy society that police officer would see time in prison. Not just on administrative leave, not just losing his job, but with a felony conviction. In general I believe that a deterrent to evil and violence is necessary and that is the intended role of the police. The officer in question does not look like part of the solution, he looks like part of the problem. Police are welcome and helpful if they pursue justice for all people and protect people from all those who would harm them, including those wearing a badge. When the police come after a cop who kills a man unnecessarily, then the police will regain their street cred. This cop doing time will send a message to other cops that there's a line. This cop doing time will set a precedent that we don't tolerate our police acting that way. This cop facing justice will give reason to believe that the cops are there to stop all perpetrators, not just the convenient ones. The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. The journey to clean up the police will start with one cop. Let it be this one.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Toward a Theology of Beauty (Aesthetics) in Worship

When I read the descriptions of the ancient Jewish tabernacle, then the descriptions of the later Temple, I have a growing realization of the sensuality of our worship tradition. It is full sights: the fine embroidery in rich colors, the woodwork, the gold inlay, the careful shapes and proportions. It is full of scents: incense, and paneling of sweet-scented wood. It has a feel: water for washing. It has tastes: even then, bread and wine. This is a faith which embraces the world and recognizes its goodness. More than that, it takes the elements of the world and displays them as gems to reveal the creator's goodness. It patterns the earth's elements to reflect a transcendent heaven.

I've always been particularly struck by the description of the lamp stand: gold in the shape of an almond tree or branch, with almond flowers. When lit, I imagine that it looked like a tree of gold with flowers of flame. That is a sight that could have mesmerized, could have coaxed even the hardest soul to believe that there is good in the world, undeniably right before their eyes.

This beauty is not for judging; it is not merely for admiring. Worship is a participation, a self-inclusion in celebrating the eternal beauty. We recognize the presence of God in the beauty of the world.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Tautology and Logical Necessity

It's been awhile since I did a post that was on the topic of logic and philosophy as such. Recently an on-line conversation reminded me that I have fonder view of tautology than many people. (If you know what tautology is but don't care, you might rather skip this post. If you're willing to follow along for the ride, it helps to muster some interest in logical proofs and how they work.)

Tautology is something that is self-referencing, and so basically true by definition. Consider the sentence "An apple is an apple" or the more generalized and over-used "It is what it is." A tautology is something so self-referencing that it couldn't possibly be false. You can fault it for being dull or obvious, but not for being false.

Tying in another thread: There is an argument for the existence of God that starts by arguing whether God is necessary or contingent. That argument itself isn't the point here; it's used as a touchstone to bring up the distinction about whether a thing is necessarily true or just happens to be true (but might have been otherwise). So I mean necessarily true in a more technical sense that "It's necessary for it to be true", like the fact that A equals A, or "It is what it is." Those things are necessarily true; they couldn't be anything else. (Still awake?)

Anything that is necessarily true is, ultimately, a tautology. That is: if we have our definitions right, if someone wants to prove that a thing is necessarily true, then they must prove that their point is inherent in the nature of the things being discussed: that once all the variables are reduced, what is left is a tautology. If a thing cannot be reduced to a tautology -- if it doesn't rest on the definitions of the things and the nature of the topic -- then it is not necessarily true. It may happen to be true but that's contingent or circumstantial. So even the most complex thing that can be proven to be true must rest on the nature of the reality beneath it. Anything else is chance.

Tautology has an evil twin, the circular argument. We can tell them apart: while tautology argues that A = A, the circular argument asserts that A = B and proves it by the assertion that B = A; each is used to prove the other. When a circular argument is reduced, there's nothing left. When a tautology is reduced, you still have what you started with, but maybe it's better understood.