The Association of Christian Universities and Colleges in Asia (ACUCA) will hold its annual conference this week. Payap University in Chiang Mai is host. About 100 presidents, rectors and provosts and their representatives are expected from Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, India, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. I am looking forward to meeting a few of the leaders I once served briefly as ACUCA General Secretary. The theme is the intersection of higher education, culture and religion. It is being conducted, coincidentally, in the context of the elaborate last days of preparation for the cremation of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, which is the most extravagant Thai cultural event of this century (so far).
I expect the ACUCA conference to stay safely away from consideration of cultural challenges to freedom of expression, cultural experimentation by marginal ethnicities, and academic defiance. We do not anticipate the secret police to send observers to record our speakers, as they did at a conference a few weeks ago conducted at a university on the other side of the city. We would be shocked if any of our speakers were arrested, as was an eminent scholar earlier this week for remarks he made in a conference 2 years ago that invited academics to be willing to investigate and question the veracity of a legend from 500 years ago about a battle between two kings on elephants. I do not find any mention in the conference program of how wary Christians must be in Indonesia where any hint of criticism of the dominant culture can be interpreted as a blasphemous insult to Islam. Even in South Korea certain topics are taboo.
Harassment by cultural “police” is not out of the question even for a polite academic conference like the one we are planning. One of the keynote presentations is about how the Christian Communications Institute (CCI) of Payap University adapts Thai folk drama to convey Christian moral messages. CCI’s innovation being show-cased at the conference is how ลิเก (Thai folk melodrama) has been used for 30 years to re-narrate the story of the Prodigal Son. CCI has presented this model at international conferences, world evangelistic assemblies, and on tours throughout Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. Uniform applause has not always been the response, however. After the first trip to the USA in the early 1980s, an incensed Thai observer in the USA wrote to the Thai Royal Palace that this Christian group was distorting and misrepresenting beloved Thai cultural heritage. Because the charge had been sent to the Palace, it had to be investigated. Dr. Amnuay Tapingkae, president of Payap University, and members of the CCI staff hurried to Bangkok where a Princess, known for her love of traditional culture, presided at a meeting and declared that folk drama was an art that traditionally incorporated local and contemporary references, and the forms used by the CCI were neither insulting nor distorted.
One never knows when culture and religion will erupt into controversy and confrontation. In best cases, those eruptions can be converted into occasions for dialogue. That is what higher education is supposed to do well. But in times of conflict and threat, people may clamor for protection. These days, students may be intolerant of challenges and try to demand that their universities surround them with safety. The boundary between intellectual stimulation and intimidation may seem to disappear.
When higher education is hijacked for use as a cultural tool, it ceases to be, in any sense, “higher”. It has lost its purpose and no longer performs its basic service of holding culture accountable to core values and principles. “Culture” may be abstract, but its advocates have faces and names, and often have offices, ministries, functionaries, lawyers and connections with enforcement power. These people can be held accountable.
The topic of the ACUCA conference this coming weekend is not as far from the current battlefronts as the conference brochure may imply. If there is to be a third world war, it will begin by building walls between cultures and daring anyone to assault the walls. Cultural protectionism begins by ramping up fear and hate. University administrators may not want political issues to intrude on the smooth production of effective members of the labor pool, but if higher education refuses to hold culture accountable, who will?
Spectacular events are something that every religion tries to have from time to time. Pramote and I got up early on Friday to participate in one near our home. The early hour was one reason for asking, “Why are we doing this?”
Several villages combined efforts to hold a merit-making event to mark the end of the Buddhist rainy season retreat. Buddhist Lent ended on the day of the full moon this week. During the retreat people made a special effort to observe the Buddhist precepts, and some spent a day and night or two each week at the temple learning chants, listening to sermons and instruction, and practicing somewhat austere disciplines. Monks are required to stay in their monasteries unless they get permission to leave for some particular purpose. Life centers on the temple-monastery. The traditional reason is that the Lord Buddha had compassion on village folks who had planted rice at the beginning of the rainy season, and so he instructed his disciples to refrain from traipsing around over the rice fields trampling on the seedlings. But when the rainy season ends, the monks can be out and about again.
This is the occasion for another kind of merit-making. Once again the monks will be making the rounds collecting food. The reason for monks doing this is to make it easier for the laity to earn merit by donating food without having to travel to the temples. The picture of monks getting rice ladled into a pot held in a sling carried on the monk’s shoulder is an icon of Buddhism and a summary of many aspects of faith. People kneel (if they are able) to receive a blessing after making their donation. Kneeling is a sign of reverence to what the monk stands for. The monk is the most immediate link between one’s daily existence and the sacred goal of enlightenment and release into an ego-less state free of suffering, toward which one is (hopefully) moving. Monks facilitate the person’s devotion to the Lord Buddha by enabling this pious act. One of the final exchanges in any morning service is for the laity to ask the monks for permission to present them a meal. Unlike many chants that precede it, this chant is in vernacular Thai. But the simplest form of this offering is at one’s front gate or on a city walkway.
There are several more spectacular ways of doing this. Our event at Wat Doi Saphan-u on Friday morning was designed to give people a chance to multiply merit by placing offerings in the pots (i.e. in the bahtr ) of 99 monks. This mass offering was called Tham Bun Tak Bahtr Tee Wo Rohana (ทำบุญตักบาทรเทโวโรหฌะ).
According to the math by which merit is calculated, the amount of merit increases in proportion to the effort needed to do the act. 99 is a very auspicious number, and the intention to do something 99 times is approximately 99 times better than doing it once. It did not decrease the merit when only 89 monks actually came. The effort had already been made to provide offerings for 99 monks. Intention counts.
The offerings were food items placed in the monks’ bowls, but we had been instructed to bring “dry” food which would last and which could be distributed or converted into cash. Each monk collected a large sack-full of items such as packs of noodles, packets of rice, boxes of milk, bottles of water and the occasional bunch of bananas. The monks made merit by relinquishing this abundance for the use of the poor and disadvantaged, or for the greater good of the community at large. Everybody made merit, even, presumably, photographers.
The setting was impressive, at the foot of the hundred steps leading up to colossal images of the Lord Buddha facing in the 4 cardinal directions. That setting might have played a small role in attracting a crowd for this annual event. But the event was all about making merit. Without merit-making it is hard to imagine what would hold northern Thai Buddhism together and enable a hand-full of little villages to produce such a spectacle.
Note: This is the second essay in a series that will extend through 2018 on “Temple Secrets” about little known aspects or events in Northern Thai village temples. The introductory essay is “Alive”. www.kendobson.asia/blog/alive The next essay in this series will be in November.
Benjamin Zawacki explains in Foreign Policy, September 29 2017, that Thai Prime Minister Prayuth’s trip to Washington and to the White House on October 3 is just a side show. China has taken the center ring:
“Prayuth’s decree [to proceed] on the high-speed rail [plan proposed by China] not only set a precedent but revealed more subtle Chinese influence. The “China model” of authoritarian capitalism has all but replaced democracy in Thailand, as well as eroded “U.S. values” of human rights and the rule of law. A prohibition on political gatherings remains in place nearly 41 months after the coup, and elections are routinely dismissed as untimely. Military justice has expanded, and a close watch is kept over the press. Yet few Thais seem to notice or care, as the Chinese ideal of government has been embraced across all parties, factions, and political interest groups for more than a decade.”
I think Zawacki’s memory is too short. It all ended with Vietnam. As soon as the US abandoned Saigon in April 1975, Thai Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj lost no time getting up to Beijing (July 1, 1975). It was not yet clear that “Red China” no longer had designs on Thailand as a Chinese colony, but the short-lived mostly-democratic government of PM Kukrit saw that the USA was not to be counted on in the near future to fight another war in mainland South East Asia. Thailand, in other words, was on its own with only ASEAN to back it up, for what that was worth without US ships, planes and weapons.
US military support for Thailand did not end immediately, although the emphasis in Thailand dramatically shifted from military to domestic issues between 1975 and 1990. During that time (I think, not coincidentally) many ethnic Chinese-Thai families changed to Thai language surnames and Chinese-Thai elite were incorporated into the inner circle of leadership of the country. They played an important part in helping Thailand grew to become one of the “Asian economic tigers” with annual double digit expansion of its gross national product and interest rates, and an astounding shift from agriculture to industry along with an equally amazing expansion of the middle class.
For a while trade between Thailand and the USA continued to be dominant, although many were perplexed when strong US brands disappeared from the marketplace, including all US types of automobiles. The rise of Japanese trade that replaced US products essentially screened the rise of Chinese commerce, soon to be followed by Chinese banking built on the need to secure financing for gigantic Chinese projects such as large military hardware (submarines), transportation hardware (high speed railroads) and infrastructure (trans-Asian highways).
It would be ludicrous to suggest (as I have seen commentators write) that Thailand is unaware of what it is doing when it accepts Chinese “help” and loans to build these vast structures, perhaps including a canal across the isthmus and much else. As Zawacki observes, it is a convenient bonus for the military coup leaders that the gradual shift from a close US-Thai alliance to a Thai-Chinese partnership removes the most pressing need for Thailand to defend its political and human rights policies as somehow in line with “US values.” It must be a relief for the present Thai government to be able to talk to Chinese counterparts without having to drape the conversations with these issues.
However, Zawacki is again short-sighted to infer that it is possible that “few Thais seem to notice or care, as the Chinese ideal of government has been embraced across all parties, factions, and political interest groups….” What he calls the “Chinese ideal” has been the Thai norm for decades, and probably for centuries. But, it has NOT been embraced across ALL political interest groups. A salient characteristic of the Chinese ideal, however, is to suppress dissent so it doesn’t show.
What will become obvious to careful Thai observers and analysts when PM Prayuth visits with President Trump on October 3 is that now the USA has not only lost military influence and economic clout, but the current US administration has no moral authority, either.
In fact, the only reason to stop at the White House at all is to see what can be traded for some show of a Thai middle finger in the air toward North Korea.
October 2017 will be remembered by everybody over the age of 5 in Thailand for as long as they live. There has never been a solemn spectacle to compare with events planned for the cremation of HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX. Here’s what can be expected:
1. The month will grow increasingly solemn. Already, TV programs are being changed and soap-opera dramas are being postponed. TV programs will feature accounts of the life and work of the late King. Public entertainment and parties are going to disappear. Wearing black, long sleeves and full-length trousers and skirts will become important again. From October 13 to 30 appearing in public in any other color will cause offence.
2. October 13 is the first anniversary of the death of HM King Bhumibol. It will be solemnly observed. Expect government offices to be closed, although it has not yet been declared a holiday. Hereafter, October 13 will be a national significant day in the same way October 23 commemorates the death of King Chulalongkorn, Rama V.
3. Since Monday October 23 is already a government holiday, and since the funeral events for King Bhumibhol are scheduled for October 25-28, expect schools and government offices to be closed from October 21-29. Bars and entertainment venues will be closed much of this time. Alcohol will not be legally sold or consumed in public.
4. During the month of October there will be rehearsals, practices and preliminary ceremonies that will result in street closings and interruption of normal activities in Bangkok. It will probably be impractical to try to get to the Grand Palace from now on. Visitation of the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall to pay respects to the late King will be discontinued as of September 30 unless public pressure prevails. Throughout the country black and white decorations will be restored and models of the cremation structure will be erected in every provincial capital. Tens of thousands of smaller shrines are already under construction.
5. The main cremation and funeral events will be on October 26 beginning early in the morning until midnight. Crowds will be immense in the palace area. The best viewing will be in front of your television. The funeral proper will begin with a stately (very, very slow) procession from the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall in the Grand Palace to the Sanam Luang Royal Plaza cremation site, beginning at 1 p.m. Although this is only a few hundred yards, about 2 city blocks, it will involve scores of civilian and military units, including cavalry and a unit of elephants. Large, spectacular chariots will carry the funeral urn and the traditional priest reciting stanzas continually. World leaders and ambassadors, national leaders and high ranking royalty will be assigned to pavilions in the Sanam Luang area. However, members of the late King’s family will walk in the parade which will conclude with 3 counter-clockwise circumambulations of the crematorium structure, which contains more than a hundred sculptures and towers. Then the urn will be installed with elaborate ceremony. Special guests will be allowed to pay final respects by passing through the crematory tower one group at a time. Around the country in hundreds of locations people will likewise place cremation flowers at shrines in solidarity with those in Bangkok. The late King’s body and the innermost cask containing it will be cremated in an electric crematorium in the interior of the facility, but a large amount of smoke will be generated at the same time to symbolize the event which will begin at midnight. The great Mount Meru building will not be burned. Throughout the night there will be performances of Khon masked dance drama scenes, scenes from royal puppet stories, and musical performances reserved for such occasions.
6. On October 27 the royal children, led by HM King Rama X and his sisters will ceremoniously gather relics (bones) from the cremation to take back to the Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall. They will be interred, as previously announced, in two temples later. There will be other religious and merit-making ceremonies concluding on October 29. Life will return to normal after that and people will no longer be expected to wear black. The Mount Meru cremation structure including all its sculptures will be open to the public from November 1 to 30. After that it will be dismantled.
As soon as the funeral ceremonies are over, events should quickly begin leading up to the coronation of HM King Maha Vaijiralongkorn, Rama X soon after his Father’s birthday anniversary on December 5 which is being retained as national Father’s Day. I have heard that the coronation is tentatively planned for December 12.
In November newly printed Thai money will appear in circulation with the new King’s image in place of his father’s.
All these are predictions based on announcements from the palace and on past royal funerals, none of which was for a reigning sovereign; so the way things actually work out may be more elaborate.
Additional actions to be expected include a large pardon of prisoners and reduction of sentences by royal decree. Medals, awards and royal elevations will be granted to hundreds of prominent people. There will also be memorial tokens and official souvenirs for almost everybody. In the past the palace distributed grandfather clocks to hundreds of institutions with royal connections. I have not heard what is in store this time.
Finally, within the next year or two there will be the erection of a statue of Rama IX somewhere in the city of Bangkok, where memorial services will be held each October 13. The best known statues are for King Taksin the Great in Thonburi, the equestrian statue of King Chulalongkorn in the Royal Plaza in front of the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, and the statue of King Vajiravudh, Rama VI at the front gate of Lumpini Park.
This week, we held our breath while Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about Myanmar’s response to criticism of its apparent efforts to allow ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people from Rakhine State on the west coast of Myanmar, just below Bangladesh. Hopes for a break-through were dashed when Aung San Suu Kyi denied knowing why the Rohingya were fleeing.
“I am aware of the fact that the world’s attention is focused on the situation in the Rakhine State. And, as I said at the General Assembly last year, as a responsible member of the community of nations, Myanmar does not fear international scrutiny, and we are committed to a sustainable solution that would lead to peace, stability and development for all communities within that state…. Since the 5th of September, there have been no armed clashes, and there have been no clearance operations. Nevertheless, we are concerned to hear that numbers of Muslims are fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. We want to find out why this exodus is happening.”
For many months, as the Rohingya crisis has deepened and atrocities have gotten international attention, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has been called upon to exercise her influence with the Myanmar government to end the violence and ethnic cleansing of Rakhine State that has led to more than half a million refugees fleeing in every direction, especially into Bangladesh. It has been astonishing and frustrating that Aung San Suu Kyi has not done anything, and in fact has denied evidence that there were villages burned with people of all ages trapped inside, murders and rapes committed by government troops, and human rights violations. She was apparently instrumental in blocking free international investigations by such delegations as the UN team led by Kofi Annan, although she lifted quotes from that report in her speech last week. Her refusal to intervene has led to an on-line campaign to have her Nobel Prize revoked, which cannot happen because there is no precedent or mechanism for it.
On September 21 Michael Jerryson of Youngstown State University reflected on Aung San Suu Kyi’s disappointing speech in an article in “Religious Dispatches”. Jerryson says that there is an identifiable dynamic in operation here that he has seen before.
He mentions the case of another renowned Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel, whose poignant memoir, Night, about his personal experiences in Nazi concentration camps is one of the most influential books of the 20th century. Wiesel was a human rights campaigner whose passionate advocacy had one blind spot. As Jerryson witnessed, when Wiesel was challenged by university students to talk about Israeli action against Palestinians in the summer of 2014 in which 2000 + Palestinians were killed of whom ¾ were civilians, Wiesel reversed the terminology to insist that it was Israel who were the sufferers. This was a point he made in full page ads in national and international newspapers at the time, despite declaring in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1986, “Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.” He prefaced those remarks by famously saying: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” But the Palestinian issue is a “battle of civilization versus barbarism” he said in the newspaper ad.
Jerryson raises the question of how two champions of human rights could be so blind to violations in their own countries. He refers to a 2008 book, Violence, by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
“Violence, Žižek states, takes three forms--subjective (crime, terror), objective (racism, hate-speech, discrimination), and systemic (the catastrophic effects of economic and political systems)--and often one form of violence blunts our ability to see the others, raising complicated questions.” (Quote from “Goodreads” website).
Without going into the subject of where has Slavoj Žižek been all of my life (he has been writing many books that I only heard about this very day, fighting neoliberalism, and becoming famous in a way that will make him popular if the populace begins to care about tedious, brilliant writing), I’d like to imagine why one form of violence blinds us to others. It must have to do with rage, an inner explosion of such intensity that we are rendered senseless, ineffective and terrified. It is an axiom that anger is caused by fear of loss. Behind the anger is fear.
Slavoj Žižek writes extensively, repetitively (according to comments online), and humorously about how subjective violence blinds us to systemic violence. Why are we willing to put up with the “catastrophic effects of economic and political systems”? His answer is that we are traumatized by or fixated on more immediate perceived threats. Jerryson reverses the matter, suggesting that ASSK and Wiesel have become immersed in “something” to such an extent that they fail to see the trees for the forest.
I do not think we need to look far to see what the “something” is. Burma/Myanmar and Israel are both imperiled, enmeshed in circumstances from which there are no ways to extricate themselves without somehow “starting over”. Now, that is a prospect of such magnitude as to be unthinkable. Instead, all focus must be narrowed to reality. Israel’s reality is defense against persistent aggression. All reality is filtered through that lens. Myanmar’s reality is a political-military establishment so firmly entrenched that every fiber of the national fabric is infiltrated and all extraneous strands (mostly ethnic groups) must either be incorporated or eradicated. ASSK’s contribution has been toward repairing the fabric, which is an undertaking so fragile even the slightest faltering can unravel it all.
If this analysis is on target, we should find the same blindness in other circumstances where a nation is so entangled it can only be left to its own devices or disintegrated back to fundamental elements to start over. Being left to deal with things, almost always means that the world sits idly by while a people-group is devastated. Starting over almost always means that anarchy and revolution foment violence so that all survivors become victims.
Ever since the Second World War, the option most often taken has been to let a nation handle its internal circumstances and turmoil. This has resulted in immense atrocities and often refugees, but also the occasional Velvet Revolution which was peaceful. When word of the atrocities got out the world gasped and shrieked, and probably did little or nothing. That is what happened in the ethnic cleansing as Yugoslavia broke apart, in Ruanda, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. The refugees became the world’s concern, slowly being sifted wherever they could land. It appears that events after the end of the Soviet Union have created a new scenario in which selected types of subjective violence are targeted for intervention, especially by military giants. Russia has a tendency to do this exceeded only by the USA. Other states are beginning to copy these examples, as is Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
So now we are hearing of three options: permitting a nation to cleanse itself however it chooses, rescuing the refugees who manage to flee the violence or letting them perish, and decisive outside intervention with unpredictable consequences. The option we will prefer will be the one with the violence we fear less. Meanwhile we will be blind to violence being inflicted on others.
Are images of the Lord Buddha alive? Does anything live inside a solid chedi ?
These are the sorts of questions I was instructed not to ask when I arrived in Chiang Mai 52 years ago. My predecessor missionaries had dismissed the whole area of inquiry as superstition, and dispensed with the Buddhism as another religion. Certain Buddhist stories and doctrines could perhaps be usefully studied, but study of the occult would lead to no good conclusions. Contemporary people are not eager to enter into long conversations about these matters either, because such topics are relegated to margins so remote as to be irrelevant. Even local village Buddhists would look askance at my question, “Is that Buddha image alive?” I would get a variety of responses all amounting to, “No.”
But it is a topic I wish to investigate a bit further because I have had a few experiences that make me wonder how firm the conviction is that there is nothing about those items in Buddhist temples beyond their symbolic or metaphorical aspects. This is a topic I have not yet thoroughly studied. This short essay should be treated as nothing more than an announcement of my intention to be talking to people and writing further about it.
Here is my starting point: an individual may be considered “alive” if it manifests the characteristics of a living being. A being is alive, my biology teachers insisted, if it performs these 7 functions:
In biology, whether life is present is determined based on the following seven criteria:
1.It can sustain its structure and condition.
2.Its structure is highly organized.
3.It can assimilate and utilize nutrients as needed.
4.It can grow into a full-sized being.
5.It can adapt to its environment.
6.It can respond to stimuli.
7.It can reproduce itself.
Perhaps I will begin by simply asking such questions as, “When the Buddha image has his eyes opened, what can he see?” “What function does the ‘heart’ of the Buddha perform after it is installed in the image?” “How do relics of the Lord Buddha reproduce?” “What happens when the heart of the pagoda is removed for its annual parade through the village?” “Does it ever go alone?” “How does the city pillar protect the city?”
I do not mean to investigate these mysteries in order to expose their fallacies, but in order to discover why belief in them is so powerful and persistent.
Sorry, friends, there is no such thing as inerrant scripture. If you are counting on a perfect Bible, it isn’t to be found. All we have are best guesses about what the Bible says.
This could come as a blow to those who are convinced that every word of the Holy Bible is inspired by God and accurate. Even if a reader is not persuaded that the Bible is literally the day-to-day account of how God made the world and the step-by-step description of how it will end, it is hard to know what to believe if THE BOOK doesn’t tell us. Christianity is a “religion of the book” in a way many world religions are not. The book is where we start to decide every issue of theology and to evaluate every tradition.
It seems that each generation has to acquire basic intellectual tools for itself. One set of tools is a system for deriving Christian truth. Since the beginning of Christianity as a church (that is, as a coherent organization) the starting point has been scripture. Step one, “What does the bible say?” Step two, “How do we decide what it means?” Step three, “What then is necessary for belief and practice?”
In my day, seminary education tended to call those steps exegesis, hermeneutics, and systematic theology. As a practical matter our exegetical studies were limited to elementary courses in Biblical Greek and Hebrew, moving quickly to a few exercises in evaluating texts and translation. We learned that nowhere were there manuscripts actually written by Matthew or Moses, no songs by David or Solomon, and Jesus probably could not write at all. What we had were various editions of manuscripts copied from previous ones with some differences, one from another. But never mind, they BASICALLY agreed, and detectives had been working on finding out what were the most likely versions. Our Greek and Hebrew Bibles had immense footnotes to keep track of the important little differences between the old manuscript found in the Vatican Library and the older one found in the monastery in the Sinai Desert, for example. We held our breath for new twists coming out of the Dead Sea Scrolls at that time, and were relieved to find our versions being confirmed. We heard why the Gospel of Thomas was not in the Bible, but the books of First and Second Maccabees could be appreciated anyway. In effect, our exegesis course was about gaining confidence that we could rely on newer translations to have done a better job than older ones because the hard-working translation committees had access to recently discovered documents and they had the benefit of a vast amount of careful studies of the tricky bits.
However, if the very idea of scholarly research is being doubted, as it seems to be these days, then another way of deriving Christian truth will be employed.
Cue the preachers.
One thing that anti-intellectual preachers have in common, in addition to disdain for the intellectual elite, is a short-cut to the truth. There is no need for tedious study of ancient texts because the Bible we have is just fine. There is no need for contorted discussions of what the Bible means because it means what it says.
Ah, we have arrived back at the beginning where the question is, “What does the Bible say?” This generation, much in need of tools to debate how we can do anything in the face of such arrogant stupidity, can be thankful for help from Bart Ehrman of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Misquoting Jesus: the story behind who changed the Bible and why. Ehrman, Bart D. 2005. Harper Collins.
This NY Times bestseller accomplishes what the author sets out to do. He presents a history of biblical exegesis that any non-scholar can understand, and he argues against biblical literalism on the basis that there is no fixed text and there never has been. His historical review is limited in such a way as to maintain the focus and avoid extraneous argument. He describes the exacting science of textual comparison. He selects various texts to show how some of the thousands of text differences may have happened. Most of them are trivial but some have had a profound impact on theology and history. Ehrman is not shy about mentioning how some of our most precious beliefs are founded on scripture that has been adjusted to enhance those points. Suspicious Biblical verses about the doctrines of the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and the subordination of women are discussed. He concludes with observations about how interpretations are unavoidable. The Bible does not say anything that cannot be interpreted in various ways. But if you want to understand the Bible you have to understand how it came to us as stories, poems, legends, sermons that were never meant to be taken literally, word for word. Ehrman confesses that this is a lot easier when one realizes that we do not have a set of words that came directly from the mouth of God.
I am completely in awe of Bart Ehrman. He wrote his entire history and defense of the science of exegetics without ever once yielding to the temptation to mention the term. His writing is very much for people like my sister who never spent a day in seminary or college, but know as much about how the Bible functions in life as any of us and wonder what went wrong recently.
What went wrong is that a way was invented of extruding what the Bible says without going to the trouble of questioning whether or not the Bible says it.
Essay 5: Overlapping Realms of Faith in America
Spirituality has to do with how individuals integrate the experiences and components of life in order to live effectively and optimize a sense of meaningfulness and fulfillment.
Spirituality is concerned with strategies for synthesizing insight, discovering peace, and maximizing life. Spiritual strategies usually involve training in mind control through physical deprivation or exertion, limited sensory input to deepen concentration or sensory overload to open the mind, and/or expanded knowledge and cognitive capacity leading to insight. The long-range goal is a break-through into expanded consciousness.
American spirituality is eclectic and optional. It often incorporates physical exercise or some dietary regimen in the name of being holistic.
- - - - -
Strategies for synthesizing insight, discovering peace, and maximizing life are many and varied. A partial list might include the following:
Obviously, any of these strategies could have multiple objectives. They are only spiritual strategies if they are intended to provide spiritual benefits to the individual undertaking them.
Those benefits might or might not be religious; that is, they might or might not be included in the disciplines, duties and devotional activities of an orthodox religion. Many (but not all) orthodox or organized religions tend to imply they include all “necessary and desirable” spiritual exercises in their programs. Until recently, most Christian church organizations in the USA and elsewhere insisted that their programs of nurture, worship and discipleship were sufficient for one’s abundant life. There might have been diversity about what those programs included, but each religious organization tended to exclude practices not on their program, particularly practices that were identified with groups with which they were opposed or in competition. Yoga, for example, was frowned upon, as was Transcendental Meditation because those things were “un-Christian.” Protestants wanted nothing to do with rosaries or chanting. The spiritual discipline associated with particular costumes or items of clothing were likewise exclusive to particular groups. [Clothing tends to be a matter of group identity rather than spiritual discipline for Christians in America. Conversely, being “dressed in air” is all about spiritual discipline for Jains in India.] Because of the tacit opposition of organized religion, it is only recently that spirituality as an undertaking independent of orthodox religion has attracted a following in the USA.
For the most part, practitioners of spiritual disciplines are conscious of overlapping benefits. Physical exercise is good for health as well as being a means to sharpen focus and attain insight. Being immersed in a particular environment can reduce stress or eliminate distractions in ways that also alter consciousness. Sometimes the benefits are social as well as spiritual; volunteers in food pantries or soup kitchens often testify to the way their own spirits are enhanced by providing services. These might be called “value added” activities. In recent times the list of disciplines and habits has grown that are being undertaken because of their spiritual benefits as well as other benefits, and opposition to those activities has declined. Choice of spiritual development programs is now left up to individuals.
Although spiritual disciplines are matters of personal choice, and the benefits are personal, one of the attractions of many programs of self-improvement is the way they connect people. Participation in bible study groups, as much as classes in Tae Kwan Do, or a chess club, are about being in a group of like-minded people. Meditation on a mountain top might be the ultimate ascetic target, but chanting or singing in a crowded hall is more normal.
Meanwhile, spirituality has replaced orthodox religion for some people. It is often mentioned succinctly as spirituality without religion. At the same time it can be a sub-set of a religion in that the individual assumes inclusion under the umbrella of a religion without being an enrolled member and may think of spiritual exercises as an aspect of religion. It becomes confusing. Some who are practicing spiritual disciplines without having affiliated with a church in any way would be riled to have their Christianity questioned. Others would be equally offended by hearing it was assumed they were Christian because of their circumstances of birth, residency, or ethnicity, and would deny that their spiritual enhancement regimens were part of a religious program.
Spiritual development activities, as an aspect of membership in a religious organization, provide an element of accountability, discipline, and strategy for improvement. Without conscientious spirituality, church membership, for example, lacks transcendent direction and is relegated to a social rationale that tends to be unsustainable inter-generationally.
Church activities may not be religious, even if conducted under the aegis of a religious organization. Church bowling or softball teams, for example, are not apt to be in any sense religious unless a spiritual development facet is consciously incorporated. A church-sponsored emergency response team only has the potential of being a spiritual development activity, until it is focused to include that aspect. On the other hand, not everything a religious organization does needs to be for the purpose of spiritual development. A “coffee hour” after church or a “rummage sale” once a year may have discrete purposes that are quite legitimate.
Jealousy or suspicion should not be allowed to blur the value of a spiritual exercise being undertaken by someone. More than a few pastors have objected to members who strayed into bible study programs or prayer groups that were out of the pastors’ control. People have to assume responsibility for their spirituality. Even so, it is a pastor’s duty to admonish and warn if a spiritual activity is being misrepresented and is essentially something else in this time when spurious, commercial and devious enterprises abound that call themselves spirituality.
This concludes the series of essays on “Overlapping Realms of Faith in America.” The series includes:
www.kendobson.asia/blog/american-civil-religion (essay 2)
www.kendobson.asia/blog/a-religion (essay 3) and
Pramote and I have learned a few things about draining a swamp.
1.Do not put the snakes in charge of it.
2.The water level outside must be lower than it is in the swamp.
3.Draining the swamp will impact the lives of frogs, crabs and little critters.
4.Ducks and cranes never planned to stay long.
5.The swamp will refill if the water source isn’t blocked.
6.Not everything is a swamp that’s called a swamp.
One Friday morning earlier this month there was a ceremony to bless a bridge that crosses an irrigation canal 2 meters wide in the middle of rice fields along the border between our village and the next. The bridge is on a lane so small that it does not show up on Google maps at street level. My estimate is that there may be an average of 5 motorcycles a day cross the bridge. The bridge cost 255,000 baht (which is about the cost of a 4-room house around here) and it replaces a bridge that was too narrow, the project said, although it was wider than the lane that crossed it. The bridge was number 8 of 10 being built over that canal in our sub-district.
About a hundred people from our two villages attended, of which a third were in civil service uniforms. At the auspicious hour of 9:39 a.m.the ceremony began, as virtually all do, with a layman leading chanting everybody knew by heart. Then a chapter of 5 priests from the temples in our 2 villages chanted stanzas for about twenty minutes. Finally, the Chief District Officer (Nai Ampuhr) presided as an official in charge of the construction read a report about the rationale, in vague generalities, and costs, in precise numbers. The Nai Ampuhr cut a ribbon, crossed the bridge in 4 paces and struck a gong, apparently because it was carried way out there for him to do that. Final blessings were chanted, water poured, and priests invited to have a meal. 11 officials presented traditional buckets of gifts to the priests and the ceremony ended. It was time for pictures and noodles.
I was amazed at the ceremony.
What was the event all about? Why did it attract such attention? Both villages took up substantial free-will offerings even though the project was funded by the government. Work crews volunteered to put up tents for the audience and take them down. People came as if the bridge blessing was an important occasion.
I believe there were 3 motives.
First, the ceremony was meritorious. It was a merit-making opportunity. The call for donations, the day before, had invited people to “make merit.” The money given would be used not only for the lunches and monk’s baskets, but also for the communities’ charitable funds.
Second, the occasion was about community-building rather than socializing. When folks arrived they sat in chairs and didn’t move around much. There wasn’t much to see and waiting for things to start was all there was to do. Very few came out of curiosity since everyone knew just about what to expect. The whole thing from setting-up to taking everything down was a community undertaking.
Third, the village and district officials were on display. There can never be too many opportunities for politicians to appear before their grateful constituencies. The bridge dedication was a salubrious chance for them to take credit for being beneficial, which is a topic I have heard doubted from time to time.
At the same time, two factors were missing or hidden that might have to do with the size of the affair.
First, there was no reference made to veneration or placating supernatural entities. Rivers, literally “mothers of water,” are nurturing, divine forces. Rivers must never be encroached upon without paying respect, but this was a canal. The canal itself involved a gouge across the land, dug decades ago after proper rites at that time. No offerings to the eternal Lord of the Land were in evidence. So this had nothing to do with quelling concerns for the well-being of those who cross the bridge. As far as the supernatural realm was concerned we could have done without the ceremony.
What were resounding in their absence were the sub-district governor and council from our neighboring village. A recent edict by the central government has declared that any sub-district with residents below a certain number must merge with a neighboring sub-district. Not long ago the governor of our neighboring sub-district retired and was not replaced. Instead, the village heads elected one of their own as kamnan to preside at their meetings. Now what? Our two sub-districts are to be merged, we hear. That means that in order to remain in office in the new sub-district our sub-district governor and council representatives on this side of the canal will have to stand for election in mid-term after having gone to great trouble (and expense) not long ago. I may be overly suspicious but I cannot dismiss the thought that the large size of the blessing ceremony for our tiny bridge has to do with some maneuver to fend off this mid-term election, or at least to get as much construction as possible finished and to their credit while the funds are still under control of those who were counting on the opportunities such projects provide. Otherwise, why spend all that money getting elected?
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.