Peace is a hard-sell these days.
Throughout history, wars have been, in one way or another, battles over land. Napoleon wanted Europe. Hitler wanted Russia (and everything between Germany and Moscow) with western Europe for starters. Spain took as much of the Americs as it could. Settlers from Europe claimed a “Manifest Destiny” to annihilate anyone who tried to block the take-over of all the land between Boston and Seattle. The British treated Australia and New Zealand as if they were vacant islands.
But wars need stories.
Ah, there’s the rub.
Two rubs, actually: (1) who are “the we and the they,” and (2) “when was the ‘Once upon a time’?”
Take the Hamas-Israel War, for example. Where did this war begin? One narrative has it that peace was shattered when Hamas viciously attacked settlements across the Gaza border. Now Israel is trying to obliterate Hamas. News media are vying to attach blame for what’s going on, and the stories are about violence, its perpetrators and victims. Peace hasn’t got a chance.
The longer story, of course, is about land. Nobody can sort that story out to the satisfaction of any two contestants. There are two reasons for that. The most obvious reason is that there is no agreement about where the story begins.
The Levant has been divided and redivided into states and countries, kingdoms and provinces, continuously, since before recorded history. What any particular spot was a part of, depends on when (exactly what particular time) is being talked about. Borders were arbitrary, generally determined by whoever had the prevailing military presence at the time.
The Israeli government under Netanyahu now in 2023 wants the story of Israel to begin with Abraham, Moses, and David. God gave the land to the Jewish people and these heroes took it. The legitimacy of Modern Israel continues with the pogroms and Holocaust leading to the establishment of Zionist Israel by the United Nations in 1948.
This narrative has never been accepted by Muslim “Arabs”. Their story begins with other heroes and features the contest between the Byzantine Empire along with Crusaders against Caliphs who claimed divine authority. That authority was interrupted by the settlement of World War I when Great Britain took control of the part of Syria they called Palestine.
The second reason the story of the land can’t be sorted out satisfactorily is because the “we and they” are manipulated by the narrators.
Hamas, the pro-Israel story says, is the criminal element who perpetrated the atrocity on October 7. Hamas is a military organization embedded (literally) in Gaza. It is unfortunate, the story continues, that Hamas has infiltrated Gaza so thoroughly that, in order to eradicate Hamas and prevent its resurrection, all of Gaza must be bombed and invaded. Hamas must be wiped out once and for all. The distinction between militants and non-militant Palestinians cannot be kept clear because Hamas has mixed in with all the people and buildings. It’s sad that children also are killed. Hamas uses civilians as shields, including hostages from other countries who happened to get caught on October 7. Israel is defending itself. Any narrative that questions that is antisemitic.
There is another sort of narrative, nevertheless, that holds out for clarification about who Israel is. “Netanyahu is an authoritarian militarist and we, too, are Jews who disagree with what his right-wing radicals are doing. We are the majority, in fact.”
As to particular battle plans and objectives, there can only be debate while those with weapons do their thing.
That brings me to my analysis of why peace in this tragic event is not yet forthcoming. Beneath the surface issue of to whom the land of Palestine belongs (what are its boundaries and what power its government has) is the issue of IDENTITY. Eventually, the war will end and negotiation will begin – or vice-versa. But identity is non-negotiable.
Every war of our time was a war to contest identity.
That is what every war was about and why it was not settled by the battles over land. But identities are not clarified or established by arbitration or violence. War is always the wrong strategy. Negotiating a change of identity is also fruitless.
Peacemaking is successful when it leads to the resolution of conflict by accepting the right to prosper of people with diverse identities. Melting must be part of the process. The thing to be done is not to melt cultures into one dominant cultural identity (which is the American myth), but to melt the notion that a single cultural identity should dominate.
Payap University, in which I am an administrative adviser, has peace as a priority. We have a peace lab, a peace doctoral degree, a peace park, and a long tradition of peace advocacy. Yet, I am told we are paralyzed in this instance. This Hamas-Israel War is a conflict that resists dialogue. No matter what one says, it is wrong. The opposite of every essential truth about this war is also true. So, nothing is true that matters. There is no prospect of good coming from opening up conversation about the Hamas-Israel War. We will only open the floodgate of anger and hate if we say anything. (In this regard this is like every polarized discussion these days. There is no fair neutrality and no middle ground). Those angry retorts will be about who is to blame for this whole mess. The role of peacebuilders, however, is never to fix blame, nor is it ever to cover it over.
Upon reflection I think if we are true to our principles as a peacebuilding institution, we need to try to frame a discussion, no matter the danger.
I repeat: THE ISSUE IS IDENTITY.
If we can refocus on identity as the driving force behind most violent conflicts, rather than land (or economic power), peacebuilding can be re-tooled as a viable strategy.
Identity is compound. One’s identity includes segments that are unique and individual. No two personalities are identical. However, community is necessary and inevitable for all of us except rare hermits and a few sociopaths. Community building requires acquiescence to a shared identity.
Me, I’m an elderly U.S. citizen, married to a Thai fellow, living immersed in his extended family and situated in a rural Northern Thai village. I am an academically inclined, officially employed university administrative specialist and a former cleric. I am self-identified that way. Peace, for me, comes because people in the extended family and village tend to agree with this. The Thai Immigration Police are interested in only some of those boxes, and they agree with my identity. Our gay group agrees as well. Parts of the church do not – and this has been problematic.
Societies and nations function on similar principles of agreement, respect, and mutuality. Trouble starts when one segment decides “your identity is wrong.” Sometimes the sense is “our identity is superior to yours.” This becomes the theme in the narrative that justifies whatever amount of strife (i.e. diminution of peace) is to be fomented.
There is another pitfall in using identity rather than territory as a defining marker.
In the 1970s identity politics became a thing. Identity politics is politics based on a particular identity such as race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, social background, and social class. Identity politics is a mode of organizing based on the idea that some social groups are oppressed. The target groups are vulnerable to cultural imperialism, violence, exploitation, marginalization, or powerlessness. Identity politics recommends that narratives which negatively describe and stigmatize groups be rejected, and that a political struggle be undertaken to bring about inclusion rather than exclusion, to foster positive regard and actually to dissolve the political significance of ontology.
Notice that identity politics sharpens differences and foments struggle without being careful about the strategy of the struggle (terror, violence, or ethnic cleansing might all be put on the table eventually). Furthermore, identity politics is reactive – it is the oppressor who starts the shouting and calls the shots.
We need to relearn how we know who we are.
On the whole, if identity is recognized as the core matter, in which the subject has the right to decide and outsiders who are not affected have no role, then what is to be done to enhance peace becomes not only clearer but more attainable. Possibility is dawning at that point.
Bring on the peacemakers.
Before any reorientation of perceptions like this can begin, of course, war must be given up. War is unsustainable. It is exhausting of all the emotional and material resources necessary to wage it. It is like a Ponzi scheme: it requires the recruitment of new participants to continue.
When the Hamas-Israel war ends the real work can begin. It will take a monumental effort to separate identity from geography. It always does. That is why it is so rarely done.
We instinctively think of location as essential to our identity. “I am American, an Illinois boy, an expat in Thailand.” It’s hard to imagine being divested of a defined place on earth. That’s what makes being an “international kid” so disorienting, and what makes ethnophobes and rednecks so aggravating.
The Hamas-Israel War, as with all wars, seems to be about atrocities, behind which are competing claims to land. At an even more basic level this violation of peace is about failure to respect identities. Community building is successful when hospitality triumphs.
GHOSTS AND MEMORIES LINGER
Ying, our oldest cat died yesterday. She had been with Pramote and me for 15 years, ever since she came across our south wall bringing her four kittens in her mouth one at a time. Some years ago, she moved inside with us and gradually lost interest in going out very often. As we do in old age, she got set in her ways. Every morning at 6 she went out and came back to lie in the sun as soon as it was up. Then she retired to her place in the shadow on the left end of the sofa. She ate fish at 5.30 in the evening but “Seafood” cat pellets were her main diet.
We buried her last night after a month of declining health. She died quietly at 8.38 p.m. Since we can be so precise about the time, obviously we were with her. As she grew stiff, we buried her. There was finality about it.
So, it surprised me today to find myself glancing at the end of the sofa. I noticed the condition of the cat food dish. I automatically thought about whether she was in or out before locking the door to go to the store this noon. Each time, something stirred in my scalp as I realized what I had done. I have a strange unsettled sense that she is dead and gone, but I haven’t adjusted to it.
I am deeply not superstitious. My interpretation of today’s lapses in thought are that these are MENTAL REFLEXES. They are habits of the mind. I am not surprised the cat is not curled up at the end of the sofa as she is supposed to be in a complete and happy world. I am surprised I automatically glanced into the shadow before thinking about it. It’s not all that different from knowing my dad would fix our dripping faucet if he were here – but he died 40 years ago. Faucet-Dad: it’s a mental reflex. Sofa-cat.
Possibly these reflex actions are emotional. They are grief-driven. If I think about Ying [as I am doing right now] it springs to mind that it’s exactly 6.30 p.m., the last time she turned over yesterday evening … if I think about it, I am not surprised she is not over there on the floor under the daybed where she spent the last 5 hours of her life. It’s when I’m not thinking about, as I happen to notice it’s 6.30 and glance toward the daybed, that it surprises me she is not there, and I get a tingle in my scalp and stinging in my eye. I miss her. She was here more than anyone as I sat in my chair to read and write. She never went far. Of all our cats, she alone never wandered. Oh yes, what I am experiencing is the reality of her absence. Call it GRIEF.
Furthermore, it’s a few days before Halloween. This is Thailand where ghosts are not a joking matter. Or say rather, it’s only jokes about them that are humorous. Other stories are heard more seriously. So, the third possibility is that her residue is lingering just beyond those space-time spots in the house. Here in Chiang Mai, of all places, I should not entirely rule out GHOSTS. We have a spirit shrine where Pramote dutifully puts a few goodies each morning and lights three candles one night a month.
Do cats have ghosts?
The Pope says our pets go to heaven. Angels are in heaven … when they are not carrying out duties here on earth. Heavenly beings come and go. Follow the logic, along the yellow brick road … over the rainbow bridge.
Ying lingered before she died, but she still lingers. She struggled to live those last several days. In many ways she succeeded. “We are never really dead as long as we are remembered.” After a death we covet cliches. Here’s another one: “Souls are reincarnated to live on and accrue merit.” I do not expect to identify her feline spirit transformed into another living being, but I know Ying accrued merit by the immense good she did for Pramote and me.
So on this day after Ying died, my failure to fully accept what I full-well know, can be accounted for as MENTAL REFLEX, unresolved GRIEF, or LINGERING SPIRIT.
It occurs to me this is how most of us process the death of a significant other. Those others swirl in the “just-beyond”, never out of mind. Just out of sight.
NOTE to readers of this blog:
My intrepid web-manager and I acquired this blog domain eleven years ago on Halloween 2012. Each Halloween I have composed a ghost story or reference to one. This will be the last, I think. I have said all I need to say and have begun to lapse into repetition. I do appreciate the encouragement I have received over these 12 years.
I will linger for a while, elsewhere.
SEPARATING REALMS OF DISCOURSE
Galactic Gods is an Oxymoron, Here’s Why
The Dalai Lama said, in a quote posted on Facebook on October 11, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”
That is also true for Christians, hard as it has often been to swallow. It took a long struggle for Christian authorities to accept the discovery that the earth is not the center of the universe, that the planet is composed of elements, that human beings evolved, and that other religions contain truths of value.
We have now come to another discovery that must be taken into account.
If the universe (that is if EVERYTHING) is composed of atoms, which are made up of infinitesimal vibrating strings of energy, as physics has theorized and as various diverse branches of astronomy and mathematics over the past three decades have tended to confirm, it changes everything about the way we do theology. We theologians have to back off and start over. It’s time to re-strategize.
This new job we have is not about eliminating superstition, devaluing myth, or doing away with religion as we come to terms with the purely physical origins of the universe. Nor, on the other hand, is it about defending religion or defeating atheism.
WHAT WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT
A realm of discourse is what goes on in a discussion that is contained or implied by agreed-upon parameters. For example, scientific discourse, philosophical discourse, civil law discourse, literary discourse, and theological discourse, to name a few. Each discussion may have a particular style; it may be argumentative, ironic or satirical, descriptive, or any of various other styles. In the third place, the discussion has a context that includes specified participants, background of previous efforts, and agreement about logic, objectives and outcomes.
So, when astro-physicists talk about borons, quarks, and leptons there is no need to talk about gods. That does not mean that the scientists reject the idea of God, but that God is irrelevant in that scientific realm of discourse.
The reason God or divinities of all kinds are irrelevant is due also to the discourse that is valid about God. God’s meaningful roles are instigation (e.g. Creation, determination (e.g. Judgment) and intervention (e.g. salvation). Since astro-physical discourse has no roles identified as an absolute beginning – even the “Big Bang” cannot be proven to be the only occurrence or even the only “singularity” – there is no role for a creator of all the 11 dimensions of things (of which we can conceptualize only 3).
To jump from that understanding of reality, as many do, to conclude that there is no valid “god” is wrong. That conclusion or any mention of God in discussion of astrophysics, is a confusion of realms of discourse. It is confusing to insinuate “God” into a discourse about how atoms and galaxies originate and operate. It is illogical to deduce that ALL talk about gods is absurd since talk about gods is not relevant in every and all realms of discourse. No more is it illogical to refrain from talking about the Andromeda Galaxy when telling the story of the Garden of Eden.
Talk about God is valid in certain, but not all, realms of discourse.
Theology is also necessary. The human race cannot do without theology and religion. As a physician commented, religion is “in our DNA.” Wipe it out and it will re-emerge.
If God is not the creator of any physical THING because all things are composed of vibrating sub-atomic energy without beginning or ending, does that mean God is not the Creator? What about, “When God began to create … everything was chaotic (tohu wabohu)” (Genesis 1:1 ff)?
That brings us back to the appropriate realm of discourse.
In some sense other than as the astro-physical “originator or organizer,” God is creative. But what other sense is there? To answer that we need to begin by inquiring about what we know and what limitations we have. In all humility, those limitations are severe. As collective observers of the universe, we have actually observed less than 5% or our own galaxy, which is but one of billions of galaxies. As theological pundits, we have to admit that the very idea of God is beyond our reckoning; all we know is what we can conclude from God’s interventions in our lives. Any god we can “comprehend” (i.e. fully understand) is a personification of ourself.
Limitations I presently have and assume to be real include: (a) birth and death; we exist for a time. (b) Life is biological; we are animals, so we have zoological functions and conditions. (c) We are cognizant beings; we can compile sensations into aggregations of significance to us. (d) There is much that is unknown; we have scarcely any solid knowledge about the future and only partial retention of past experiences.
These limitations would render us incapacitated if it were not for some profound order that puts “the odds temporarily in our favor.” We do awaken from sleep time after time. We do succeed sometimes, somehow, to bring our desires to fulfillment. We have emotional reactions that compound the impact of experiences. We have connections to other people, beings, and aspects of our environment that help us survive. These limitations suggest we should be humble.
Humility is strangely difficult for gurus and theologians. Theologians usually become defensive. We know our job is to dispute. What else can we do but build strong arguments against contrary arguments? That is precisely how disputation works.
We need, however, to take care. We should be willing to select the right battles.
If the universe and everything in it is energy in harmonic movement, theology needs to give up on ontology.
Ontology is the study of existence, and it is also the study of how we determine if things exist or not, as well as the classification of existence. It attempts to take things that are abstract and establish that they are, in fact, real. Therefore, having discovered that physical reality is energy without beginning or ending, ontology is not concerned with how, when, or why creation occurred, but only about the nature of that which exists. Theology is focused on other matters.
The function of theology is to rationalize concepts within a religion. So, what is a religion and what does it do? That is a philosophical question. Philosophy of religion is an on-going discussion. It is, I am arguing, at an intersection. For centuries, religions have contented for sovereignty over every human endeavor. Theology was “Queen of the sciences.” Priests were the ultimate authorities who invested lesser authorities with their crowns and kingdoms (at least that was the way it was supposed to be, they said). Simultaneously, without ever willingly admitting it, religions have also submitted to circumstances. Sovereign control over human enterprise is actually illusory. Greek religion yielded to Romanization and then Christianization. Each big shift claimed to be new and valid, while actually retaining a great deal of its cultural heredity.
Religion is inseparable from culture, and visa versa. What makes a religion valid is that it works as a cultural glue and unifying concept. When it stops doing that it lapses into irrelevance and obsolescence. Theology, then, is constantly reinterpreting the core understanding of a “culture-religion” to make it resonate within the prevailing circumstances.
I submit that every functional religion has four components:
A CORE NARRATIVE, a story that everyone identifies as true about a divine-human encounter.
RITUAL that symbolically re-enacts that encounter.
DOCTRINE, also usually called theology, that clarifies truth in contemporary terms and therefore defines correct behavior.
COMMUNITY, a body of people who agree to be associated in a social system that has a system of beliefs.
This implies why there can legitimately be several Buddhisms, for example. Few will argue about this, It is generally accepted that Theravada Buddhism is different from Mahayana Buddhism. Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are different, still. It’s not a big step to suggest that there are also regional differences, as between Buddhism in Bangkok and Buddhism in Rangoon.
The New York Times reported on October 6 that 8-year-old A. Altannar has been identified by monks in Mongolia to be the tenth reincarnation of the Bogd, one of the three most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism and the spiritual leader of Mongolia. This event is celebrated by Tibetan Buddhists, probably objected to by the People’s Republic of China authorities, considered inconsistent with the best Buddhist theology by Buddhists in Sri Lanka, and noted passively by Buddhists in Taiwan and Vietnam. Yet, all Buddhists are Buddhist, despite their differences.
Christians also have communities as well as larger collective units. It is, in fact, a struggle to keep Christianity from fragmenting as other religions have done. But essential identity is maintained as long as all the communities affirm the basic narrative, retain mutually recognized rituals to recapitulate the divine-human encounter that is described in the core narrative, and refrain from insisting that divergent theological interpretations of these things are totally irreconcilable.
Theology is third-level disputation. For example, “Jesus preached,” is first-level. First level discussion tells what the narrative says Jesus said. “What this preaching by Jesus means,” is second level. Second level comments interpret what Jesus’ sayings meant to his audience and to us. “The way to ascertain that meaning,” is third level. It is about how we interpret, our strategy, our filters and methods for arriving at understanding.
The third level of questions might contain the inquiry, “Is it legitimate to use a papyrus from the Vatican archives to help us get insight about what Jesus said and did?” what, then, about a scripture supposedly about Jesus found in a Tibetan monastery library? What about golden tablets revealed to a prophet in New York State in 1827?
It is third-level argumentation when we decide to include or exclude ontology in our theological formulation about how to interpret Genesis 1 and John 1. If the idea is to leave ontology out of it and have nothing to do with how the universe came into being, what does “creation by God” mean? It cannot be ignored if we are to retain the Bible as an authoritative resource, indeed, as the central testimony on which our Theology is founded.
What is the role of Christian theology if it is not to talk about how God does it all?
How can we talk about God without transgressing into talk about creation of the physical universe? The way is simply to revert to the understanding that the type of discourse Christian theology uses (and that every religion uses) is METAPHORICAL. We need to go back to a positive regard for the value, authenticity, and utility of symbolic language. Even as late as the time Jewish and Christian scriptures were composed and first written, the prophets, scribes and teachers knew they were not writing about things that were literally true; the things they said were often true in some other way.
Paul says we are crucified in Christ and no longer live apart from Him. This cannot mean that we are physically crucified, dead, and alive. In fact, we know what Paul said is metaphorical. All Scripture, and everything in it, is about God. The Bible is a testament to our miniscule perception and frequent misconceptions and fallibility. The biblical writers were never hesitant to describe human frailty and limitations. Most human mistakes, however, are ascribed to people’s tendency to claim to be authorities about God, who is infinite and far beyond mortal comprehension.
At this point the argument I am undertaking is that (1) religious narratives are always metaphorical; (2) valid theologizing reinterprets these metaphors differently in differing cultural contexts.
Obviously, then, no one theological system is valid for everybody. The question is whether or not a theological construction is valid for the cultural community that espouses it.
What is required of a valid theology?
A VALID THEOLOGY MUST DO THE FOLLOWING:
a. Work to produce community cohesion
b. Provide a framework for moral behavior for members of the community
c. Be understandable in light of other truth systems (philosophies) held by the community.
d. Explain that human wisdom has need for mystery, paradox, and transcendence
e. Utilize the religious central narrative
What is required of a valid narrative? All religions’ central narratives have certain characteristics:
a. A liminal character (a hero or sometimes a family) is the basic actor whose life and teaching connect the present to the primordial past. E.g., Buddha, Jesus Christ, Krishna, Zoroaster, etc.
b. Certain key events of the character’s life are ritualized. E.g. Birth, transition into self-awareness, death.
c. The present in which we live is the latest link in an unbroken chain of significant events that must be understood to go back to the origin of sacred time.
Coherent conversation on a topic is contained within an agreed upon realm of discourse. Religious discourse is conducted within a cultural context. Theology is the product of a philosophical process which explicates a chosen religious narrative for a particular community. It is metaphorically true and effective as an aspect of that community’s religion.
· The more universal a statement is meant to be the less it conforms to a specific narrative.
· It is illogical, disrespectful, and destructive to impose theological conclusions from one belief system onto another belief system.
· Belief systems are organic, whereas theological systems are synthetic (they are constructed to be coherent and without irregularities).
· Faith or belief systems evolve as the culture does.
Our crisis is not merely semantic.
We are ensnared in these times in a futile conflation of ideas. If these mistakes were all academic it would be less urgent to try to distinguish how we have gone wrong. But we are immersed in what amounts to ideological wars. On the surface they seem to be political, or economic, or perhaps ethnic. Or all three. But thousands are dying in Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, Somalia, and other places. 9-11 events and holocausts are ongoing. They are not merely unnecessary, they are horrific tragedies.
The failure to differentiate between realms of discourse has the potential to destroy us. Refusal to think clearly is contributing to the extinction event that is unfolding.
The Rev. Sanan Wutti told me today that Christians are circulating a video that claims that God is angry and responsible for a lightning strike that destroyed the First Congregational Church of Spencer Massachusetts 48 hours after the church celebrated Pride Month. God has declared same-sex relationships to be abominable, not something of which to be proud. The core cause of the destruction, the video claims, is that the pastor asserted that the Bible was written by human beings. God would not put up with that.
The video commentator ranted "...mere moments after the pastor rejects the divine origins of the Bible one can't help but see a higher power at work ... a fiery sword cutting through the sky and reducing it [the church, not the pastor] to smoldering ruins." The commentary continues, "It is indeed a shock to see a shepherd of the flock casting doubt upon the Divine Word that he's been tasked to teach." Then it is asserted, "Our faith stands firm on the incontrovertible truth that the Bible is not the product of mortal minds but a DIVINE TRANSCRIPT inspired by God himself."
The video goes on to insist that the words of the Bible are validated by clay texts from 28 centuries ago.
The question is whether God does that sort of thing.
The short answer is that some parts of the worldwide Church believe God is provoked to rage, uses lightning as one of "his" destructive tools (as Zeus-Jupiter also did), and that literal interpretations of the Bible are the way to discern the cause for such events. Volcanos, tsunamis, hurricanes, plagues and even pagan hordes are also at God's disposal.
Another part of the Church selects different themes from the Bible to contend that God's nature is loving. God does not send devastation onto the innocent and the guilty indiscriminately, as happens in natural tragedies. God's provision is not always in the form of prevention of disaster. Indeed, "tragedy" and "retribution" are separate realms of discourse. It is nonsense to overlap moral discourse with talk about phenomena of nature.
So, one possibility is to agree to disagree, and let it go.
Sanan and I are concerned with that course. It is counter-productive, first of all, to tacitly agree that it is without consequences to have part of the Church deciding unilaterally they alone know the truth. That should not go unchallenged. Christianity is harmed by proposing God as an adversary, cruel judge, and angry dispenser of death. Christ's challenge for his disciples to follow his example and expand God's loving kingdom is not fulfilled that way.
Grace is the central truth about God's response to human moral depravity. It does not matter how that depravity is described, the Gospel message is that God's love erases that. Salvation is unconditional. That is not to say that actions do not have consequences. Of course they do. But the effect of an action is related to the cause. If one uses a sword, one is liable to die by the sword. But it is nonsense to say that a lightning strike is the result of a verbalized doubt that every phrase of Holy Writ is a direct transcription of dictation from God. There are several ways scripture can be holy, but stubborn ignorance about scripture's meaning is not one of them.
What we have here these days is a failure of Christians to think about theology. Sloth is rampant in the church, particularly when it comes to theological reflection. That is a moral failure, too, and has consequences.
A real disaster is fomented when people attribute "indisputable truth" to an interpretation that provokes them to applaud when a tragedy falls, and then seems to permit them to extend that onto a whole population whom they have deemed undesirable. War starts that way. They never end well.
The other day a friend said that he knows “some very intelligent people who are mentally trapped in beliefs that they were born into and now they have been turned into trappers of others into their religious myths.”
The question is, “Is escape from entrapment possible?” I think escape is possible, but it takes courage.
All of us are enculturated as an aspect of being incorporated into a society. Societies essentially exist to provide unity, which functions as protection. Individuals could not survive against sabretooth tigers or bring down mammoths. Social unity worked, and still works. Today’s dangers are viruses and the like, as well as the built-in proclivity for violent reactions to threats – real or imaginary.
We are born into a cultural environment which is a matrix that includes a predominant belief system, language (or small group of languages, jargons and dialects), modes of social interaction including taboos, and preferences for a rather narrow range of life essentials (such as food, clothing, and shelter).
Religion is cultural. Religions exist to provide connectivity and relief from the terrifying-unpredictable specter of the mysterious unknown and from the ravages of inevitable death.
Whether we are trapped into a religion by being born into one or by entering one that entraps us, is a matter of complex opportunities and felt needs to conform or to escape. Conformity is easier and tends to come first. Escape takes courage, which usually comes from internal pressure that overrides what one perceives as the benefits of conformity. One asks, “What is this cultural aspect we are confronting? Is it a barrier or a bridge?”
As it pertains to religion, the boundaries serve either to identify those who are defenders (nurturers, etc.) and those who are fighters who battle reactively or proactively, or to identify those who cannot be included, are not yet included, and are to be inducted, and how to relate to those who are “others”, depending on circumstances.
Along with the need for protection that is available through the trade-offs we make to remain within a social-cultural entity, is the effect of experiences we have accumulated. We are besieged and bewildered by some experiences and enraptured or confirmed by others.
On the whole, in the long term, for us individually and as parts of the world and the universe, the arc is toward connectivity. Reality is expanding toward inclusivity. The trend is to eliminate that which divides and specifies. That which is encapsulated is increasingly isolated, undernourished, and disintegrating. Defensiveness is a strategy of doom … in the long run. Any society withers that refuses to stay curious, empathetic, and courageous.
We individuals who become aware we are in a stagnant-besieged society are never able to stay neutral. Awareness is powerful. Neutrality is not an option. We may drift a while until new experiences create a new circumstantial environment, or we acquire energy from wherever we can get it to escape the stifling, moribund society we can no longer tolerate.
Not a few of us interpret our movement out of familiar society into strange, new territory as an eviction or expulsion. This is a mistake. It discounts our own agency. More accurately we have acted. We have disregarded prohibitions against questioning the myth of stability and normality our society has constructed.
Once we are outside, we discover either that the barriers were illusory and we are in fact still included in society that actually accommodates our sort of innovation and adventure (and so we have just left a subculture), or we discover that there is a society into which we have moved that is more diverse and equitable.
All we know of God is a collection of experiences that indicate mystery, compiled from ages past, consigned to metaphors, and corroborated by consensus of a particular community.
Insisting this concept is complete is not only arrogant and absurd, it is heretical and blasphemous. Any god that is totally comprehensible is a projection of human insecurity imagined to be ultimate and important. Fragments of reality are all we – any of us and all of us together – can perceive.
When curiosity is contravened by an arbitrary eclipse of further enlightenment, erosion of wisdom and onset of decay has begun.
Humility is the antidote to the poisonous effects of finality. “Conclusive religiosity” is an oxymoron.
Beyond the darkness of shut minds is luminous truth beyond imagining by any individual, group, or generation.
THERE ARE HEIGHTS OF UNDERSTANDING STILL TO BE ASCENDED.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), an American Protestant Denomination of the Christian Church, made news this week by taking steps to formally exclude females from any and all leadership positions. This follows an 8 to 1 decision by the nearly 10,000 delegates in their annual assembly in New Orleans to reject fellowship with several of its churches for having women as pastors or assistant pastors, including the famous mega-church, the Saddleback Church.
Most of the comments on social media about this regressive move by the SBC have been about the radical Christian nationalism that is "ruining" Christianity in the USA, or about how this supposedly "biblical" stand by the SBC ignores the prominent role women had in the very first Christian groups, including the original apostles and Paul's own converts.
I would like to reflect on a wider picture of women in religious leadership around the world.
In 2007, Sai Maa was granted the title of Jagadguru ("Guru of the World"), the first woman to receive this title in the 2,700 years of Vishnuswami lineage. So we can surmise that women are at a disadvantage when it comes to formal recognition and also that times are changing. On the other hand, there are famous female guru's of a lower rank, including Anandmurti Gurumaa, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, Karunamayi Ma, and Mata Amritanandamayi. Hindu scholars point out that there is NO barrier; both men and women cannot become gurus until they have passed beyond the stage of spiritual development where being male or female matters.
Sikhs are proud to have removed barriers to women in all roles. It is significant that several women are remembered as warriors and martyrs in the great battles with the Muguls in the 1700s. It would be hard to establish women's equality in Sikhism if they had not participated in the wars that are a central focus of Sikh identity. No woman, however, has ever been the top leader (guru). Men still dominate.
In Buddhism there are prominent women, but hardly any full-fledged monks and none at all in the upper eschelons of leadership. The arguments against women monks are two: (1) that women monks lapsed and only the Buddha can reinstate ordination of women; (2) that women cannot attain enlightenment, but through reincarnation can be reborn as men, so there is no no actual inequality of opportunity.
Islam has had a few national POLITICAL leaders, most prominently, Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto. However, the right for women to lead prayer services is overwhelmingly tightly held by men. The following are salient points: (1) Women were leaders in the early days. (2) Women can and should lead prayers in women-only mosques. (3) Women cannot lead prayers in mosques where there are any men. (4) Many countries in the West (including Turkey) have had women imams, especially after the turn of the 21st century.
Jewish groups (namely (for our purposes) Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed branches) have 3 responses to women as rabbis and cantors. Orthodox are not open to women in those roles. Conservatives are cautiously opening up. Reformed advocate equality.
Chinese traditional religions (largely Confucianism and Taoism, which are not mutually exclusive) make up 5 to 6% of the world's population. Women in Chinese traditional religions are also relegated to family roles, and in those roles are dominated by fathers and husbands.
Christians are the largest world religion, by far. For the most part (by percentages) women are prevented from leadership as priests and bishops. There are, of course female religious orders and women in limited numbers in other leadership positions. Protestants are divided on this, as well as on many other issues.
This brings us back to some general observations.
1. Almost all religions have female deities or divine mother-figures.
2. All the world religions honor and/or venerate some women as saints, scholars, and spiritual elite.
3. Cultural circumstances make a lot of difference as to how likely women are to become clergy.
4. The long arc of religious history has seen religions in which women were the dominant leaders diminish or disappear, while patriarchal religions have emerged in their place; it is too soon to see if the recent resurgence of equality movements will replace the millennia-long insistence that women are "unique" or "complementary."
The Southern Baptists, seem to be merely articulating what most religions practice, discrimination. The irony is, that women are the largest and most active participants in all the world's religions.
PARADOX – ESSAY 2
All we have is the present. The past is gone and we can do nothing with it. The future is before us, but it never arrives. This understanding of time confronts us with a paradox.
Time is divided into past, present, and future. The past once existed, but doesn’t exist anymore. The future doesn’t yet exist. And the present is just a concept which is so fleeting it is gone the instant it appears. It is merely a dividing line between two non-existent realities.
Aristotle proposed this paradox but did not expound upon it or explain it.
Now, thanks to Popper, Einstein, and Schrödinger (among others including Hawking), we have come to realize that not only is time a paradoxical illusion, so is matter.
Atoms are the building blocks of elements. And what are atoms? They are electronic charges, components of energy. A solid rock is made up of chemical elements, which are made up of positive and negative charges of energy (for the most part). Energy, potency, force, potentiality is all that is.
A star is a seething mass of energy in constant transformation. It is a coagulation of remnants of former stars, so intensive that it burns with heat so powerful the potential elements (iron, uranium, calcium, hydrogen, and all the rest) never solidify unless, perchance, they are hurled away from the inferno far enough to form planets, asteroids, and clouds of dust.
Aside from the fact that all matter is energy in combinations, and that it is in spectrums without precise boundaries, is the fact that all we know of what’s going on in any entity is historic. What we see in the sun happened several minutes ago, the time it took for the light to get to earth. And what we see of a distant galaxy may have happened a million light years ago. The present is unknowable. Knowledge is after the fact.
What about space? How real is it? What do we know about it?
To begin with what we do not know, we do not know if space is finite or infinite. If it is finite, it must be convoluted like a mobius strip, i.e. self-contained (finite) but without beginning or ending (infinite). If it is infinite; it is infinite in its potential, an infinite becoming from a finite beginning (a singularity, a “big bang”) which, nevertheless, recurs infinitely.
The astrophysicist Michio Kaku thought that “music is the paradigm that eluded Einstein.” In brief, Kaku postulates “all the particles we see are musical notes or a tiny vibrating string.” So, expanding on that, “the universe is a symphony of strings.” Which, if Kaku’s postulation can be verified, could lead to the conclusion that “the mind of God is cosmic music resounding through eleven-dimensional hyperspace.”
Either we know only a metaphor or we know next to nothing.
That raises the question, “How do we know anything?”
Again, the answer is mostly about energy – in this case, electro-chemical systems and processes. We see light waves (vibrating strings) enter our eyes and stimulate receptors which convert the impulses into electricity transmitted by nerves to the brain.
We are conscious, but we don’t know how. We fabricate the consciousness of physical realities (e.g. the idea that I am holding a pen and have a potential for thought as well as unconscious processes such as digestion). But how instincts work is still beyond our comprehension. How and why we do this translation of electro-chemical stimulations into coherent ideas, memories, and aspirations or fears, is a matter of still more mysterious steps.
Fortunately, we do not need to know how or why we process reality. It is enough to operate within the configuration of reality that we have learned, and to anticipate the continuation of patterns we have found trustworthy or that we take for granted without thinking about them. That includes almost all of them.
At any instant we focus on one thing, are subliminally conscious of a few more, and are oblivious of all the others. Our thoughts come one at a time, in astounding rapidity, but one at a time. Instantly, these new stimulations search for connections with memories we have (the past) and plans we are considering (the future). These are sifted into flashing plots which may or may not amount to a story or into a more complete reaction.
Thus we function. How infinitesimal we are! But how consequential, at the same instant.
The universe is full of billions of galaxies and they are moving away from each other at increasing speeds. This defies all the laws of physics. It is impossible, but it is happening. There, in the stars, is a paradox. Without that paradox we are in denial of the truth. Paradox is the beginning of wisdom and also its contradiction.
Science and theology both start with this principle.
What, then, is truth?
Authentic truth begins with embracing the paradox.
Astronomers account for the increasing speed of galaxies by speculating that there must be dark matter and dark energy. That is, it is unknown but it must be there.
Christian theology begins with God who is immortal, invisible, hid from our eyes. But God must exist. There is a mystery about God that is a matter of faith. The TRUTH is manifested in Jesus who is completely divine and also human, which is impossible. But it must be true by some mysterious means. Everything works out if we take the leap of faith and embrace the paradox.
As of today, Friday May 19, Thailand may have a new government in the making. It won't be official until the end of July, but each day the results seem more certain, and this outcome is a surprise.
National elections were held last Sunday. Polls predicted a landslide win for the Pheu Thai party, whose leader was to be Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the niece of former Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra, whose party has won every national election in this century. However, Move Forward, a new party, won 151 parliamentary seats, ten more than Pheu Thai. They quickly declared a coalition what has now included 6 more minority groups. That gives them 310 seats in the 500-seat lower house, a commanding lead.
Today, they announced a joint agreement that Pita Limjaroenrat will be the 30th Prime Minister of Thailand and that they are moving ahead with plans to form a government and reform practices put in place by the present military-controlled government of PM Prayut Chan-ocha. Prayut was humiliated at the polls, winning only 38 seats.
But Prayut still has the military-royalist alliance on his side. They "own" the largest majority in the Senate, the 250-member upper house of Parliament. Thanks to a constitutional maneuver by Prayut, the military has 194 of the seats in the Senate with the rest being chosen (rather than elected) by specified groups -- who are then approved by the military junta.
So, what's to be decided?
First, a national certification board must investigate any accusations of electoral malfiesance. So far, there have been only 47 charges filed (most of which were innocent mistakes), out of 39 million votes cast. So the certification will certainly not be interrupted. The board has until July 15 to report, and then a joint session of both houses of Parliament will meet to choose the PM. The winner must get 376 votes of the 750 MPs voting.
As time goes by, the new government is rapidly gaining popular acceptance that nothing but a military coup d'etat will be able to overcome. So the Senate still has the numbers needed to prevent Pita's coalition from getting 66 senate votes they need. Just today, 10 Senators declared support for Pita.
It remains to be seen what the military will do. But they know the mood of the country is inclined against them.
What might happen?
The coalition will announce a joint memorandum on Monday which will clarify what to expect. Already, Pita has declared that they plan to move forward with reforms that will reduce the political power of the military-royalist alliance, and will give power back to the people. Those people include a new generation of voters who swept Pita into office (at age 42). It will be carefully handled if it is to succeed.
Note: Political scientist Ken Mathis Lohatepanont has written an informative short piece explaining three possible scenarios following this election.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.