Saturday, January 20, 2018

TTT #2  The Better We Know God, the Broader and Deeper Will Be Our Understanding of the Universe and Everything in It

Ten days ago I posted the first of 30 articles of my not-yet-published book titled “Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now” (abbreviated as TTT). This article presents the gist of the second chapter, which is closely related to the first chapter but does not require prior reading of that opening chapter.
An Important Question
Many people seem to think that embracing a religious faith narrows one’s understanding of the world. Some people have even jettisoned religion because they wanted a broader worldview. Such people have viewed belief in God as a straitjacket that limits thought about the world in which we live. But are such views well founded?
It cannot be denied that some types of religion do limit exploration of, and acceptance of, a more comprehensive view of the universe than that has traditionally been held. There has long been, for example,  an anti-intellectual bias among some Christians. Such a position, though, is clearly a perversion of what Christianity is, or at least should be.
The Answer of the Early Scientists
Many people have held the widespread perception that “warfare” between science and religion has persisted through the centuries. But investigation into the true nature of the situation reveals that most of the early scientists in the Western world were people of deep faith in God.
As most of you know well, Nicholas Copernicus initiated a massive change in how people understand the nature of the universe. The Polish-born Copernicus (1473-1543) was a first-class astronomer, but he was also a Catholic cleric and an ardent believer in God.
The striking painting below is titled “Astronomer Copernicus: Conversation with God.” It is an 1873 work of the prominent Polish painter Jan Matejko.  
Is Theology the “Queen of the Sciences”?
There was a time, long ago, when theology was widely considered to be the “queen of the sciences.” It was so called because if God is the creator and sustainer of the entire universe from the beginning to the present and on into the vast future, there is nothing that is not related to God.
So theology, the study of God, must include everything since everything is related to God.
Because of various misunderstandings of God – mostly because of parochial views that failed to grasp the greatness of God  and because of a growing secularization which grew partly as a reaction against the narrowness into which religion had fallen, theology gradually lost its place as the “queen of the sciences.”
Now theology is even seen by many in the academic world as an unwanted stepchild.
Nevertheless, the attempt to know God includes the desire to know everything related to God – and as we have seen, the physical sciences were developed as a means not just to understand the universe better but also as a means to know God better. Thus, the study of God includes the theology of science and the theology of nature.
Rightly understood, the idea of theology as the “queen” of our human quest for understanding the universe is a claim worth taking seriously.
God and the Basic Virtues
In both Western and Eastern societies, truth, beauty, and goodness have long been understood as basic virtues. If we accept the “true thing” explicated in the first chapter, then we can consider the likelihood that God is the basis for all truth, beauty, and goodness.
So, it seems clear that the better we know God, the broader and deeper will be our understanding of the universe and everything in it.

[To read the five-page chapter of TTT #2, please click on this link.]

Monday, January 15, 2018

American Empire, 1898-2018

We all know who POTUS #45 is, but do you know who was #25? That would be William McKinley, who was born 175 years ago this month—and who became President 121 years ago, in March 1897.
Learning about McKinley
June and I have the good fortune of living only about 12 miles from the Truman Presidential Library and fairly often are able to hear talks given there by guest lecturers. Such was the case last fall when were able to hear author Robert Merry talk about his new book President McKinley, Architect of the American Century.
Perhaps like many of you, I have never known (or cared?) much about McKinley, except that he was the third President to be assassinated in office (all within the space of 36 years!).
Even five years ago when I posted a blog article titled “Remember the Maine,” I didn’t mention the President when that event took place 120 years ago on February 15, 1898.
Merry titled the Introduction to his book, “The Mystery of William McKinley,” and it is somewhat mysterious that McKinley has not been more highly regarded—especially if, as Merry thinks, he can rightly be considered to be the “architect of the American century.”
Achievements of McKinley
While there are certainly other aspects of McKinley’s presidency that are noteworthy, none are more significant that the expansion of American power during his time in office. In fact, the events of 1898 initiated the beginning of what some call the American Empire.
The Spanish-American War began in April 1898 and ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed on December 10 of that year. Merry summarizes the benefits received: “The president [McKinley] got all he wanted: the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, Spain out of Cuba and the Caribbean, with no debt assumed by the United States” (p. 340).
It was also in July 1898 that the U.S. annexed the Republic of Hawaii, which had formerly been known as the Sandwich Islands.
McKinley was serving “Uncle Sam” new territory for his enjoyment, as is expressed by the following cartoon by Boz in the May 28, 1898, issue of the Boston Globe newspaper. (The cartoonist could see which way the winds were blowing.)  
By the end of 1898 it looked as if the U.S. had, indeed, become an empire, which Merry recognized by titling his 21st chapter “Empire.”
Questioning McKinley’s Achievements
There was strong opposition, however, to what seemed to be the surge of American imperialism under McKinley. On June 15, 1898, the Anti-Imperialist League was formed especially to fight U.S. annexation of the Philippines. It included among its members such notables as Andrew Carnegie, Mrk Twain, and William James. 
It was in that context that James, the eminent American philosopher and Harvard professor, exclaimed, “God damn the U.S. for its vile conduct in the Philippine Isles” (cited in Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p. 307).
(With reference to his much-criticized remarks back in 2008, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor, said he was quoting James. See my brief article about that here.)
The U.S. relinquished its sovereignty over the Philippines in 1946. Then in 1959 statehood was given to Hawaii, even though it is not in North America.
Guam and Puerto Rico still remain U.S. territories and their inhabitants are citizens of the U.S.—although they seem to be treated as “second-class” citizens as the insufficient response to last year’s hurricane destruction of Puerto Rico has shown.

In recent decades the American “Empire” has been seen primarily in its global leadership and international influence, positions now being considerably weakened because of the words and actions of #45.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now

During this year of 2018, I will be doing something different with many of my blog posts. For 30 out of the 72 scheduled articles for the year, I plan to post articles based on my as-yet-unpublished book that has the title you see above.
In the preface of the book, which you can read here, I tell how the idea for the book came from Gordon Livingston’s 2004 bestselling book Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now.
There are 30 short chapters in the book, so 30 times this year I plan to summarize a chapter in 600 words, or less, and then provide a link so that those who have the time and interest can read the entire chapter.
Please give attention now to the main points from the first of the “thirty true things” (which I will occasionally abbreviate as TTT).
#1  God is Greater Than We Think, or Even Can Think
I don’t fully understand God. And unless you are greatly different from everyone else, you don’t fully understand God either. But that is all right, for as someone wisely said many, many years ago, “A comprehended god is no god.” (That statement may go back as far as John Chrysostom, c.349-407, but it is often attributed to Gerhard Tersteegen, 1697-1769, a German Pietist.)     
One of the reasons why God is greater than we think or even can think is related to the assertion that God is the Creator, maker of heaven and earth. If God is really the Creator, the cause or source of all that is, for that reason alone we are not able to comprehend the greatness of God. Since we cannot even begin to grasp the size and nature of the physical universe, how could we possibly grasp the “size” and nature of God, the creator of all that is?
If God is really the creator of all, then every person must be related to God in some way, and there surely must be some awareness of God by all the peoples of the world. John Hick (b. 1928) has been one of the most prominent and prolific religious philosophers / theologians during my lifetime, and he is the author of a book titled God Has Many Names (1980).
A recognition of the fact that God has many names helps free us from one of the main problems of many religious people, Christians included: the problem of tribalism, the belief that one’s own “tribe” is inherently superior to all others.
So, why is this “true thing” important?
First, it is important because it allows us to embrace a view of God large enough that there will be nothing we can learn about the physical universe that will conflict with our belief in God.
Further, when we truly understand that God is greater than we think, or even can think, we can then more easily affirm the idea that God is the God of all people, regardless of how they perceive God or even regardless of whether or not they acknowledge God.
So, even though Livingston was probably right in saying that most people get “too soon old, too late smart,” and even though it may be rather late in life for some of us, let’s try to be smart enough now to comprehend that God is, indeed, greater than we think, or even can think.

[To read the five-page first chapter of TTT, please click on this link.]

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Beginning of “Spiritual Warfare”

Tomorrow (Jan. 6) is “Epiphany” on the liturgical Christian church calendar. Among other things, it is a celebration of the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. That “Visit of the Wise Men” is told in Matthew 2:1~12. Matthew continues with “The Escape to Egypt” (2:13~15) and then with “The Massacre of the Infants” (2:16~18).
The “War” against Christ
In recent years there has been much talk, especially by the Christian Right, about the “war on Christmas.” But Matthew’s Gospel tells about the war on the Christ-child.
Properly understood, the attempt of Herod to destroy Jesus was the beginning of “spiritual warfare” seeking to destroy the one born to be the Savior of the world. Or to use different words, this was the beginning of the attempt by the “principalities and powers” to destroy the Christ.     
"The Flight to Egypt" (c. 1650) by B. Murillo
“Principalities and powers” are often interpreted as being “invisible” forces of evil that war against people of faith. But those words most likely refer to concrete, visible forces—such as King Herod.
The spiritual warfare that began soon after the Magi returned to their homes “by another road” was not just nebulous activities by unseen powers. No, it was the slaughter or massacre of the baby boys that was intended to include Jesus.
Stringfellow’s Explanation
In my Nov. 15 blog article, I briefly introduced William Stringfellow and his book An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (1973). A major theme of that impressive book is the author’s elucidation of the meaning of “principalities and powers.”
According to Stringfellow’s deep understanding of the Bible, the “principalities and powers” are not some esoteric spiritual forces of evil in a nonvisible realm. Rather, they are “all authorities, corporations, institutions, traditions, processes, structures, bureaucracies, ideologies, systems” and the like (p. 27).
Such principalities and powers inevitably reside in those, such as Herod, who have abundant possessions, power, and prestige – and, according to Stringfellow, they “are legion in species, number, variety, and name” (p. 77).
“Thus,” he avers, “the Pentagon or the Ford Motor Company or Harvard University or the Olympics or the Methodist Church or the Teamsters Union are all principalities” – as are capitalism, humanism, science and scientism, white supremacy, patriotism etc., etc. (p. 78)
Stringfellow even suggests that we should “perceive the President as a victim and captive of the principalities and powers (p. 142). (This was written when Nixon was in the White House but is certainly applicable to the current occupant as well.)
The Victory of Christ
The New Testament later testifies to the victory of Christ over the principalities and powers by his resurrection. That important emphasis is found in 1 Corinthians 15, which prognosticates “the end, when Christ hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he brings every form of rule, every authority [principality] and power to an end” (v. 24, CEB).
The eventual victory of Christ, however, began on the cross. As Brian Zahnd elucidates in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (2017), “Jesus was killed by the principalities and powers” (p. 100)—embodied in the religious and political leaders who colluded to put Jesus to death: Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate.
BZ goes on to state, “Paul says the cross heaps shame on the rulers and authorities that preside over structural sin. ‘In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities [principalities]. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross’” (pp. 106-7, citing Colossians 2:15, NLT).
The struggle against principalities and powers continues. In this new year let’s deliberately and definitely choose to be on the side of Christ, who will finally win through sacrificial love and unconquerable truth.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Happy New Year of the Dog!

New Year’s greetings in Japan are generally never given before January 1, so again this year I am posting this on the morning of December 31 here in the U.S. but after the New Year has already begun in Japan.
The Year of the Dog
In the countries of East Asia, including Japan, 2018 is the Year of the Dog. There is a 12-year cycle in the Asian zodiac, each named after an animal. Today ends the Year of the Rooster.
The Chinese (or lunar) New Year, which is celebrated not only in China but also in other Asian countries with strong Chinese influence, doesn’t begin until February 16 this year.
If you were born in 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, or 1982, you were born in the Year of the Dog and the new year is a special one for you—or would be if you lived in East Asia—for it will be your ataridoshi, your “lucky year,” since it is the year of the same zodiac animal in which you were born.
According to Japanese folklore, those born in the Year of the Dog have many fine qualities of human nature. They have a sense of duty and loyalty, they are extremely honest, and they always do their best in their relationship with other people.
Or according to a Chinese website,
People born in the Year of the Dog are usually independent, sincere, loyal and decisive according to Chinese zodiac analysis. They are not afraid of difficulties in daily life. These shining characteristics make them have harmonious relationship with people around.
Two of my children were born in the Year of the Dog, so I basically agree with the above. In many ways Keith and Karen are similar in their personalities, so that has caused June and me to place some credence in the Japanese/Chinese zodiac.
But then there is Donald Trump, who was also born in the Year of the Dog. What are we to make of that??
A Plea for Dogged Determination
One of my hopes for the year of the Year of the Dog is that Robert Mueller and his special counsel will, and will be allowed to, thoroughly pursue all the facts surrounding the Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election and the relationship of DJT and his family/associates both before and following the election.
The blog article I posted a year ago today was titled “Happy New Year of Resistance,” and while I haven’t done much myself in actual activism, I have supported the efforts of those who have actively resisted much of the craziness of the current Administration.
Now, however, I am troubled by the strong resistance being mounted against Mueller and his team. In a Dec. 22 op-ed piece, Kenneth Starr (remember him) wrote about the deafening “drumbeat of criticism” against Mueller.
New York Times interview with DJT on Dec. 28 was somewhat encouraging in this regard. Still, fears that the Mueller investigation might be unjustly ended prematurely may not be unfounded.
Mr. Mueller, hang in there with dogged determination!
Happy New Year to All
So, I send special greetings to all of you who were born in the year of the Dog, and I hope you will enjoy your special year.
I am also taking this means to wish all of you a Happy New Year, and I pray for your health and happiness throughout 2018.

Further, I pray that during the Year of the Dog Robert Mueller will have the determination, and the freedom, to find and to publicize the facts about Russia’s intrusion into U.S. politics and about DJT’s (illegitimate?) connection with Russia.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

A Big “Christmas” Hoax

Mid-day on December 20, DJT tweeted, “We are delivering HISTORIC TAX RELIEF for the American people!” That was followed by a GIF showing a present opening with the words “Tax Cuts for Christmas!” bursting out of a box. This, I contend, is all a big “Christmas” hoax.
An Early Celebration
DJT and the Republicans in Congress celebrated “Christmas” five days early, after passing the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” Then on Dec. 22, DJT signed the massive bill into law.
The vote on the tax reform bill was 51-48 in the Senate—all the Republicans against all the Democrats. In the House, the vote was 224 to 201 with all the Yes votes being by Republicans and the No votes being by all the Democrats and 12 Republicans.
How in the world could there be 249 Congresspeople opposed to what is touted as a wonderful Christmas gift to the USAmerican people? And why do most polls show that more Americans oppose the newly enacted bill than approve of it?
Yes, the “tax cuts for Christmas” were celebrated by DJT and the GOP days before Christmas this year. But one wonders how much celebration there will be by most USAmericans by next Christmas or in the years following.
Who Celebrates?
It is evident that there are reasons for some to celebrate this new tax bill. Corporations are jubilant over the reduction of their tax rate from 35% to 21%, a huge drop—although many corporations already pay around 21%, or far less (see this report).
The wealthiest people in the land also celebrate the passing of the tax bill for several reasons. “Final Tax Bill Includes Huge Estate Tax Win For The Rich” is the title of a Dec. 21 article on
Among other super-rich people in the country, DJT and the Trump family are, no doubt, celebrating their personal gain as well as their political gain from this bill. “Trump stands to save millions under new tax measure, experts say,” is a recent article in the Washington Post worth noting.
Last Wednesday DJT said, ““I promised the American people a big, beautiful tax cut for Christmas. With final passage of this legislation, that is exactly what they are getting.” Well, that’s at least true for Donald, Jr., Ivanka, and others of the Trump clan. They certainly have reason to celebrate. But many do not.
Who Won’t Celebrate?
There are many serious problems with the newly-passed tax bill, including (1) most likely a large increase in the national debt, (2) an increase in taxes for the poorest 1/3 of U.S. taxpayers, and (3) a large decrease in the number of people who have health insurance and a large increase in the cost for many who do have insurance.
While the numbers for the final bill are likely slightly different, the CBO Report of Nov. 26 indicated that the Senate version of the bill would show an increase in taxes for people (units) with income of less than $30,000—more than 1/3 of the taxpaying units.
By contrast, those with incomes of more than $100,000 –fewer than1/4 of filers—would get tax reductions of from 10.6% to 27.5%.
Those figures are for 2019. They get much worse for the poor and much better for the wealthy by 2025. (Here is the link to the PBS NewsHour article consulted.) 
So, yes, the new tax bill seems to be a “hoax” as a Christmas present, especially for the poor. But the wealthy will fare well, as is cleverly depicted by this cartoon by Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist Jack Ohman:  

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Does the Old Testament Prophesy the Birth of Jesus?

Forty-five years ago on December 23, 1972, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the eminent Polish-born American rabbi, passed away at the age of 65. He was one of the leading Jewish theologians/philosophers of the 20th century.
Heschel’s Brilliant Book
Although he was the author of several books, the most notable was The Prophets, published in 1962. That was when I was a financially poor seminary student. But along with Here I Stand, R. Bainton’s book on Luther, Heschel’s book was one of the very few non-textbooks that I bought. I thought then that it was a brilliant book—and I still do.
Recently I looked to see how Heschel interpreted the Old Testament prophecies of the birth of Jesus. I was quite surprised that in the 16-page “Index of Subjects and Names” there are only two brief references to Jesus—and one of those is in a footnote—and nothing listed for Messiah.
Christians, of course, see numerous Old Testament passages as prophecies of Jesus. (This website lists “353 Prophecies Fulfilled in Jesus Christ.”) But Heschel apparently didn’t think a single one of those were prophecies about Jesus. 
Heschel’s Passion for Justice
According to Heschel, one of the main characteristics of the Old Testament prophets was their passion for social justice. In the opening paragraphs of the first chapter of his book, he cites Amos 8:4-6 as an illustration of the prophets’ condemnation of injustice. Then his 11th chapter is titled simply “Justice.”
Heschel identified with the OT prophets in many ways. In the 1960s, he marched for justice with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his daughter says that he was “close friends” with Christian justice-seekers such as Daniel and Philip Berrigan as well as with William Sloan Coffin when he was the Protestant chaplain at Yale.
Sadly, though, it seems that not only did Heschel not see the birth of Jesus as having been prophesied in the Old Testament, he apparently did not even consider Jesus a Jewish prophet—although Jesus self-identified with the words of the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of his public ministry (see Luke 4:16-21).
In his book How God Became King, N.T. Wright emphasizes that the “fulfillment of Israel’s story” is “in the story of the Messiah” (p. 112). That clearly seems to have been Jesus’ understanding, and it certainly was the early church’s understanding of Jesus. But that was not something Heschel could accept or affirm.
Heschel’s Fate?
In his book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, which I introduced (here) earlier this year, Brian Zahnd tells about sitting with his dying father, who could no longer communicate with him. On one occasion in that situation, BZ said he was reading Heschel’s book The Prophets—which I found most interesting.
BZ makes only positive statements about Heschel—such as, “Everything I’ve ever read from Heschel has shown him to be a thoroughly God-saturated soul.”
As he was leaving the hospital that particular night in 2009, though, this question “erupted from some fundamentalist outpost” in his brain: “Is Abraham Joshua Heschel in hell?” BZ concluded that such an idea was “irredeemably ludicrous” (pp. 118-120).
Because of his worldview/faith, Rabbi Heschel could not accept the core beliefs of his Christian friends—or of others who are followers of Jesus Christ, such as BZ or me. But even though he could not acknowledge Christ or the prophecies about him, we can accept/affirm him as one who truly believed in “the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 3:1).
In this Christmas season, may we all nurture a passion for justice such as Rabbi Heschel—and especially such as Jesus Christ—embraced.