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.
Dame Edna Everage may have died this past weekend, possibly not. Several news outlets posted that THREE people died at once, the sophisticate Dame Edna, the crass Sir Les Patterson, and the humorist Barry Humphries who created and impersonated the other two hilariously since 1955.
Barry Humphries of Melbourne (in one persona or another) was Australia’s most famous entertainer. He was a clown, a satirist, a comedian. He was brilliant, gifted, and funny. He was especially famous as Dame Edna Everage, who was far above “average.” She was an Australian housewife turned gigastar, by her own reckoning. Between the three of them, Melbourne became the comedy capital of the world. So, as these things happen, the Melbourne Comedy Festival was begun 4 decades ago with Barry as the prime mover.
Barry died on April 22 in a Sydney hospital, of complications following hip-replacement surgery. News of his hospitalization brought a consoling phone call from HM King Charles III, and his death elicited comments from world leaders, many of whom had survived being on the sharp end of Dame Edna’s wit. His death sent news commentators scrambling to find clips of Barry, Edna, and Les.
Humor has evolved since Barry first took to the stage to make people laugh at stereotypes of themselves and their celebrities. Throughout his career political correctness has been expanded, and it was always precisely “correctness” that Barry lampooned. He pushed the boundaries. He exploded prudishness, especially as the lecherous Sir Les. Some of the clips of his attitudes toward women cannot be aired these days. Barry got away with it – as long as it was Sir Les or Dame Edna who were being outrageous.
That tolerance, however, did not extend to Barry as himself. About 5 years ago, Barry apparently got fed up with the way cultural divisions were being fortified. Speaking for himself, he voiced his opinions that gender-affirmation surgery is “self-mutilation” and that labelling being transgender is “a fashion.” Yes, he is a conservative, he admitted. SO WHAT?
The Melbourne Comedy Festival people promptly “cancelled” their most famous person, removed his name from their main “Barry Award,” and denounced his opinions. To top it off the festival was going on at the very time of his death, and they did nothing to mark the occasion. Aussie news stations made this slight a top story. The rebuke hit where it hurts, and today (April 25) the Melbourne International Comedy Festival organizers denied “cancelling” Barry and now say they will plan a “fitting tribute.”
The question of how to respond, arises at times like this, when a person’s lifelong-legacy to arts, culture or science is questioned because of a political position they have taken. Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Charlie Chaplin, and JK Rowling are just a few of the humorists who preceded Barry Humphries into threats of cancellation or worse.
At times like this, when accomplishments are so massive, it is cultural power that gets challenged. The mountain they have constructed is not seriously eroded by the storm that breaks out when their unpopular idea flashes and a deafening thunderclap drowns out all balanced thought for a moment.
We are waiting to see “what next”. How will British royalty respond (they loved Barry, but it’s coronation time). What will the Oz government do (a state funeral, one news station asked)?
Will Dame Edna continue to entertain us and our children? I think she lives on in cyberspace.
I wholeheartedly disagree with Barry that being “out” as transgender is just “a fashion” that will fade. But I’m less sure cancel-culture is as enduring. Voltaire [ Candide ], Swift [ Gulliver ], and Wilde have convinced me that Barry is right:
Political bitterness and social arrogance can be laughed away.
But the initial cost to the humorist is often serious.
THE MOB ON GOOD FRIDAY
What would you and I have been doing in the crowd in front of Pilate’s balcony on Good Friday morning? Mobs don’t tolerate non-participants and dissent.
Matthew 27:20 …the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. (22) “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” (23) “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” (24) When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” (25) All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
There are four “actors” in this scene of the drama: the perpetrators, the mob, the official, and the victim.
What motivated them to behave as they did on that terrible Friday morning?
The chief priests and elders, Matthew says, were instigators of the action; they were convinced that the Jesus movement was dangerous to the social order by promoting a charismatic outsider as a new leader, and that the movement disrupted the holy order of God and God’s people by elevating a mortal human being to be called Messiah. They were enraged and disgusted by this.
The crowd was in a frenzy. The volume and rhythm of their shouts riveted them. They were no longer individuals, willing to or even capable of independent expression. But, as with all mobs, they were divided; one part of them took on the agitators’ rage and felt righteous about targeting an enemy. Another part of the crowd was unconvinced of the right or wrong of what was going on but were afraid of being targeted. So, they participated and their shouting “Crucify him!” amplified the chant, even though they lacked conviction. Both parts of the mob “were selling their souls, and didn’t have the amount of integrity they have in other areas of their lives.” They were all ascending into tribal violence.
Pilate was the emperor’s official in the seat of authority. He controlled the military, which he could have used to break up the crowd, with predictable casualties and subsequent unpredictable chaos. Overall, his options were (1) to prevent the mob from assembling (it was too late for that), (2) to persuade them to be reasonable (he tried asking them “Why?”), (3) to divert their fixation from one target to another (Jesus Barabbas or Jesus the Messiah?), (4) or to give in to them and diffuse the critical situation with one victim rather than many.
Jesus was the victim. Jesus was to be the scapegoat whose death was a lesser evil (in the face of a dangerous mob riot), sacrificed for the greater good. Throughout his interrogation by Pilate he was mostly silent. Pilate was amazed that he offered no defense. There was nothing worthwhile for the victim to say.
This is a paradigm of how mob action happens.
Regretfully, witch-hunts, lynchings, riots, inquisitions, and wholesale genocides are not all things of the past. Sometimes they still even disrupt the functioning of national governments or lead to war. We can be swept up in them. “We can all be caught up in a social process that causes us to lose sight of the truth.”
[Credit to Megan Phelps-Roper of The Free Press for the March 31, 2023 YouTube discussion “Why Do We Hunt Witches?” for the lens through which I have viewed this Good Friday mob action.]
Chiang Mai's air quality is the worst of the 100 cities of the world. Today, Friday, March 31 the smog is so bad I cannot see trees just at the other side of our orchard. At last, this has the attention of our Prime Minister. But he has, shall we give him the benefit of the doubt, been misinformed.
"People are not cooperating in reducing the burning of fields," the PM said in a March 30 article in The Nation. "Satellite images show ... thousands of hotspot fires as farmers clear their fields. My friend, Peay Tananone posted an even more dramatic image (attached to this essay) showing Laem Mountain in Nakhon Nayok as it was ablaze yesterday. However, later paragraphs of the newspaper article got down to facts. "Images from the Suomi satellite showed 2,870 hotspots burning across Thailand on Wednesday." Of these, 2,559 were in forests, "and 100 in agricultural areas."
So really, less than 3.5% of the fires were caused by farmers burning fields. 100 out of almost 3,000.
It is wrong to blame agricultural fires for Chiang Mai's terrible air quality. The PM is correct, no doubt, that "people are not cooperating...." Virtually all these fires are set by people. But it is not true that farmers "are not cooperating in reducing the burning of fields." The vast majority of farmers have been cooperating. The amount of voluntary cooperation is astounding. Nowhere around here are fields being burned.
Every year, voices from Bangkok scapegoat farmers. Don't insult us by saying this is not politically motivated.
The solution, of course, is another matter. 96% of Wednesday's fires were not being included in the PM's list of measures being undertaken by the government to reduce burning and improve air quality. Something needs to be done and it is not high enough on the government's list for the PM to mention it.
The general view is that those who set the fires do expect some sort of financial benefit. That is the incentive. So, there are two options: to reduce the incentive by imposing severe penalties, or to provide a greater incentive to do something else. Behavioral change must be incentivized.
Fifty years ago opium production was a great moneymaker for some hard-pressed people. It seemed impossible to change their way of making a living. But alternative crops have succeeded where police and military suppression hardly made a dent.
This kind of intervention can be done again. Solutions are not impossible.
We, the survivors who are struggling to breathe, are growing desperate.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.