Payap University in Chiang Mai Thailand is holding its 43rd commencement service Saturday evening, November 21, 2020. The commencement service will serve the purposes of all commencement events, but this year there are significant differences. Payap is still observing necessary pandemic precautions and government policies. So, there will be a reduction in the number of participants. Graduates will be seated with wider space between chairs than previously (see the picture from the dress rehearsal). Family will be limited to one per graduate inside the commencement arena, but other family and friends will be allowed outside on the grounds. Faculty will not be in the procession or seated in the arena, only some senior administrators and representatives of the Board of Trustees will be participating. The service will be broadcast live via the Internet and on FM radio. This year’s graduating class is composed of 701 graduates from the 29 departments of Payap’s 6 faculties and 3 colleges.
This is the second graduation service of the week for Payap. Following tradition, the McGilvary College of Divinity held a service Wednesday evening to conclude its 131st year. Seminary students are expected to quickly enter Christian service careers as they leave McGilvary. The graduation service is essentially a dedication service in which graduates are given symbols of ministry. Services of ordination are entirely separate. Seminary graduates will be awarded diplomas in the Payap commencement again this year although plans are underway for the McGilvary College of Divinity to become a separate degree-granting institution on its own as soon as arrangements are completed.
At this time last year Payap University was facing the most serious financial crisis of its history with costs far outstripping income and enrollments falling. A number of extraordinary measures were considered, including selling some of the university’s excess land, agreements with the government of China to receive up to 300 students, developing plans with private and government enterprises, and consolidation of programs to centralize the use of buildings. The COVID-19 emergency ended any thought of expanding our outreach at this time to include students from China and the epidemic stalled sales of land as the Thai economy began to fall. At the same time, enrollment in Payap’s Thai and International programs rose as some students found it expedient to stay in the country rather than trying to go overseas as they had considered doing. The sense at the present is that Payap has stabilized. (Previous blog essays have discussed this: www.kendobson.asia/blog/mcgilvary-college and www.kendobson.asia/blog/amnuay-tapingkae ).
The university is now able to reorient itself toward a post-COVID future. 2021 will be better.
Theology is done by theologians, and only a few of them are professional at it. It is the result of something that happens to them. What makes this happening “theology” is how it causes “connections.”
Stephen Bevans explains that one set of connections is a theologian’s experience of the past and present. In the past is a sacred story transmitted by traditions which has become meaningful to the theologian. The theologian also has to experience the present as connected meaningfully to the past. Bevans says there are at least 4 contexts (aspects of the present): (1) human experience such as a health crisis or presidential election, (2) one’s social location as a person of a certain gender or age, (3) one’s cultural identity as a Black American or Thai Buddhist, (4) and change that is going on in one’s context – globalization, collapse of civilization.
Theology is also affected by both external and internal factors. (A) External factors that impact theology include the consensus that all cultures are good and are valid sources for theology. (B) Factors within Christian theology that impact how theology is done these days are acceptance to the implications that God is incarnate always and everywhere, that God can choose to transform whatever God chooses into a sacramental object or event that mediates God’s saving presence, that God’s “revelation” is not conceptual but God’s very self in society and history, that theologies must be in dialogue with each other, and finally that theology must be in dialogue with the particular.
Theology can be judged as legitimate, despite being based on experiences in contexts that are always unique. Four standards apply: (1) inner consistency, all the conclusions work together, (2) theology (including Buddhist and Muslim theology – all of them) must be in the language of worship, (3) the theology should lead to the practice of justice, peace and holiness, (4) a theology should be open to correction by the wider faith community and at the same time (5) have the power to enrich theologies espoused by others in the faith community and beyond.
Stephen Bevans’s best-known concept is his models of contextual theology.
There is one Truth and happiness comes from knowing it.
The central concern of theology done following this model is to preserve the original tradition when it is transferred into a new context. Divine revelation is propositional and prioritizes what it identifies as the supra-cultural Gospel, or revelation that is unchanging from culture to culture. Therefore the supra-cultural Gospel may be separated from culture and the Gospel may be inculturated in a host culture without being influenced by that culture.
…we are concerned with translating the meaning of doctrines into another cultural context – and that translation might make those doctrines look and sound quite different from their original formulations. Nevertheless … there is “something” that must be “put into” other terms. There is always something from the outside that must be made to fit inside; there is always something “given” that must be “received.” [Bevans, pp. 32-33]
Note: This is a conservative and defensive model even though it intends to change others while remaining true and unchanged.
If you listen carefully you can hear God speaking, saying the same things in every culture.
Divine revelation and culture are inherently related. “God reveals Godself in every culture and thus the revelation of God impregnates every culture” [McLean, p. 35]. Theology, done according to the anthropological model, “seeks to preserve the tradition by mining it for new developments and expressions that come out of a particular context and can enrich the entire church” [Bevans, Contextual Theology, paragraph 10].
This does not mean that the gospel cannot challenge a culture, but such a challenge is always viewed with suspicion that the challenge is not coming from God but from a tendency of one culture to impose values on another. [Bevans, p. 48]
Note: a challenge to culture is suspicious, because the one making the challenge may be assuming cultural superiority and therefore domination.
God is in the midst, wherever life is going on, and most discernable as one becomes most involved with where life is most challenged.
This model includes the insights that come from the practice of faithful living. Action leads to reflection which leads to plans for more action. Theology flows from an identification of divine revelation with the active presence of God in history.
God manifests God’s presence not only, or not even primarily, in the fabric of culture, but also and perhaps principally in the fabric of history. [Bevans, p. 63]
Consequently it prioritizes theological action over theological reflection. The central insight of the praxis model is “…theology is done not simply by providing relevant expressions of Christian faith but also by commitment to Christian action” [Bevans, p. 65].
Note: Theological validity (i.e. truth) is constantly assessed and subject to challenge, but so is the cultural context.
If you listen you can hear God telling you new things that God has revealed to these others.
The synthetic model draws these three models together. “Christian doctrine has developed in a dialogical, synthetic way as various circumstances in history and in the church’s life call for clearer articulation of Christian faith.” [Bevans, Contextual Theology, paragraph 12]. Every culture has elements that are unique to it and elements that are held in common with other cultures or contexts and so intercultural dialogue is beneficial. This model sees value in being respectful of other cultures where divine revelation may contribute to an understanding of God.
In terms of theology, it will be recognized that it is not enough to extol one’s own culture as the only place where God can speak to a particular cultural subject. One can also hear God speaking in other cultures. Attention to one’s own culture can perhaps discover values in other cultures that these cultures have never noticed before, and attention to others … can transform and enrich one’s own culture and worldview. [Bevans, p. 83]
Note: Cultural superiority prevents valuable new insight as well as the opportunity to effectively communicate.
God wants to change you.
This model recognizes the importance of religious experience: divine revelation may only be “known” as it is experienced. It is primarily interested in the process of inculturation that occurs as an individual experiences God. “…theology happens as a person struggles more adequately and authentically to articulate and appropriate the ongoing relationship with the divine” [Bevans, p. 99].
Emphasis in this model is not so much on the content that is produced, but on the process of theologizing itself. When one theologizes as an authentic cultural subject on the one hand and as an authentic person of faith on the other, what will be produced will inevitably be a theology that is rooted both in a particular context and in Christian tradition. The transcendental model proceeds by a method of sympathy and antipathy. One listens to or reads a particular theological expression and it may trigger an appreciation of aspects in one’s own context that can contribute to genuine theologizing. [Bevans, Contextual Theology, paragraph 13]
Note: One acquires theological insight through concentration on the subject at hand. The change to be sought is one’s own insight.
God wants you to be a change agent.
More recently, Bevans has added a sixth model for doing theology. Context is taken with utmost seriousness and also with the greatest suspicion. Theology must confront context with the truth of the gospel, calling it to be transformed by the life-giving power of God’s grace and mercy. This is the prophetic tradition in Christian scripture, adopted by the likes of St. Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther King, Jr. [See Bevans, Contextual Theology, paragraph 14].
Note: Dire circumstances call for bold responses. An adequate theology instructs what must be said. Contextual awareness tells one how to transform those words into powerful symbols to bring about change.
1. The first portion of this essay is based on an article entitled “Contextual Theology” which Stephen B. Bevans wrote for The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, which is forthcoming.
2. The second portion of this essay is based on references to Bevans’s book now in its 7th printing, Models of Contextual Theology, Faith and Cultures, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books 1992, in Patricia McLean’s 2002 thesis Thai Protestant Christianity, for the University of Edinburgh.
In 1959, at the height of American self-confidence after the decline of status of Old World countries, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. described what he saw as “Our Ten Contributions to Civilization.” Using Schlesinger’s list to begin with, what can be observed about the health of American civilization in 2020?
1. THE RIGHT OF REVOLUTION
Schlesinger listed the success of the American Revolution as the final proof of the principle that people can free themselves from regimes with which they wholeheartedly disagree. Such regimes are NOT established by God, but by people. The American Revolution was the first of the great colonial insurrections. The right to revolt was one of America's contributions to modern civilization.
It must be admitted that Southern States attempted to exercise this right in 1860 and were successfully opposed. Apparently the right is not inherent, but must be asserted through power.
2. THE PRINCIPLE OF FEDERALISM
The principle, Schlesinger explains, is that of a partnership of self-governing commonwealths with an overall government capable of protecting and promoting their joint concerns. Prior to that, states were independent, without a workable network, much less a functioning partnership. Mother countries also protected her chicks without paying much attention to their concerns, and certainly not in a partnership. America agreed to a better way and showed it could work. This encouraged a whole new way of making countries and alliances.
America has long since traded federalism for nationalism, and subjected the 50 “commonwealths” to such reduced authorities that states cannot even set up their own banks (the Bank of North Dakota may be the only exception) or control their borders -- even when those borders are with other “self-governing commonwealths”.
3. THE CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED
The USA rejected monarchy, nobility, and a hereditary legislative chamber in favor of government of, by, and for the people, from top to bottom. Schlesinger observed, “The underlying philosophy was not that the common man was all-wise but only that he can govern himself better than anyone else can do it for him.” [In 1959 inclusive language was not yet a major issue.]
Surely we can agree that this concept has morphed into something the founders never expected and even Schlesinger seemed not to have anticipated. There is no agreement about what has happened to government, but it is not what Schlesinger described (1) if the people are not as important as are sponsors, contributors and lobbyists, (2) if politicians can gain invulnerability to majority will, and (3) if policies cannot be presented from the grassroots with any hope for consideration. If democracy no longer exists in America this great contribution to civilization is lost to us.
4. THE STATUS OF WOMEN
Schlesinger looks back into history and reports that one of the things that impressed visitors and immigrants was how women were safe, compared to other places in the world. In the very beginning women were to be “protected, respected, supported, and petted.” He argues that due to being better off to begin with women in America began earlier than elsewhere to strive for equality. That had not come by 1959, but the organized feminist movement was one of the contributions to civilization worth noting. Schlesinger was proud of the way America has been in the lead.
It is our tardiness that is unforgiveable. There is much to do. In fact, the USA no longer has an irrefutable lead in the area of women’s status, nor in efforts to improve the situation. By this measure of civilization there is no room for pride.
5. THE MELTING POT
It is the scale, the thoroughness, and the rapidity with which new populations are absorbed into America that sets us apart, Schlesinger gloats, “and the fact it was done by peaceful absorption.” No civilization before has done this as well as have we. He then goes to considerable lengths to account for one of the glaring exceptions.
“Our most tragic failure has involved our Negro citizens,” he wrote in 1959 as the US Civil Rights Movement was just beginning to make progress. After admitting, “…this ill-used race has been a standing reproach to our professions of democracy,” Schlesinger asserts, “Nevertheless, even these injured people have not been unwilling Americans … they have only been unwilling to be halfway Americans or second-class citizens.”
For a while, in the intervening years since Schlesinger wrote, he might also have observed that “civil rights and human rights” have also been one of America’s contributions to civilization, if not in principle, then at least in scale and breadth. Many groups joined the march toward better treatment, equal rights, and fair justice. They included Native Americans, migrant workers (especially Mexicans), and now in the forefront are LGBTIQA+ groups.
The question before us is, “Are we still contributing to civilization in this regard?” What is the USA’s voting record in world forums on human rights? How do we treat people coming to escape inhumane conditions where they were born? Are we moving backward from our previous advocacy of greater human rights? What have our recent elections told the world about us in this regard?
6. FREEDOM OF WORSHIP
“Religion by choice was the natural counterpoint of government by consent, and, contrary to Old World belief, the separation of church and state did not in fact weaken either but strengthened both.” So, separation of church and state was one of the US’s contributions to civilization.
How are we doing here in 2020? Is there a strong consensus that religion by choice is everybody’s right in America? So far, that is the principle we talk about. But when we are talking about other things we tend to be forgetful. Anti-Semitism has not been snuffed out, but is on the rise again as part of the rise in American Supremacism. Since 9/11, 2001, anti-Islamism has taken top spot in what Americans are against in terms of religion in America. Christian leaders have been included in White House inner circles if they are advocates for “Christian America.” We are moving away from separation of church and state.
7. THE PUBLIC SCHOOL
Schlesinger proudly insists, “Probably America has conferred no greater boon on mankind [than government supported public education], for popular education is the seedbed of virtually all other human aspirations.” In the Old World education was held to be a privately financed undertaking for the upper classes, the rank and file supposedly having little need for any….” The implication is that “the rank and file” is to be kept from aspiring to be otherwise. To keep the rank and file in place, simply limit what they get from being educated.
These days two movements are in effect: one is to reintroduce the principle of private education, and the second is to assure that it costs so much that the rank and file are prevented from getting it or are saddled with such debt if they do that they must take rank and file work to pay off the debt. Meanwhile, the goals of education have been modified downward as well, away from developing people with vision to producing workers. America’s educational standing in the world has dropped dramatically.
8. VOLUNTARY GIVING
In 1959 Schlesinger could still laud American philanthropy after a century as the world leader in voluntary giving to schools, churches, foreign missions, colleges, hospitals, charities and other projects for human betterment. He credits this spirit as the motive behind such gigantic programs as the Red Cross, CARE, and the Marshal Plan, which provided funds from the government coffers. This has “no parallel in history,” Schlesinger raves.
These, however, are the very things that have become targets. Any mention of foreign aid which transformed European nations from adversaries to partners after World War II is met with outrage that American tax dollars are being spent on others rather than people at home. Whole political campaigns are waged against philanthropy abroad. At the same time churches, colleges and hospitals have become self-supporting or have closed.
By technology, Schlesinger means the development of industries. American inventions transformed life for Americans as well as for people everywhere.
I think he would be appalled at what has happened to technology. On the one hand, it has continued to make marvelous advances, none more dramatic than in the field of communication technology. But, as with medical technology, the trend has been away from spreading the benefits to the ends of the world to making as much profit as possible before something better is invented or the patent expires. On the other hand, the centers of technology have migrated away from the USA. It is no secret that even in areas of aerospace and computers new cutting edges are being developed, especially in Asia. Most astounding of all, is how the sciences that lie behind all these technological developments have been devalued, disempowered, and denounced in the USA.
And that brings us to capitalism.
10. EVOLUTIONARY PROGRESS
“One of our proudest achievements has been the creation of a system of controlled capitalism that yields the highest living standards on earth and has made possible a society as nearly classless as man has ever known,” Schlesinger exclaimed. This happened by trial and error, an “evolutionary” process. There was a time, Schlesinger admits, that “unprincipled businessmen had first to be brought to heel by government restraints and the growing power of organized labor before they came to learn that they must serve the general good in pursuing their selfish interests.” He goes on to say that the US has taken on the characteristics of a welfare state, but it is “the legitimate object of government to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all, or cannot do so well, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities.” Schlesinger contrasts this trial and effort struggle for balance in economy to the dogmatic plans of the USSR and China, as well as to the free hand given to banks and magnates in other industrialized nations. This “controlled capitalism” we have developed is “one of our proudest achievements.”
So, how are we doing with our system of controlled capitalism? Arguably, this is our most troubled area. There is no scale by which the USA now ranks as having the highest living standard. This year, 2020, the USA ranked 15th in quality of living by US News and World Report. All our systems are plummeting. Furthermore, if evolutionary progress is still imaginable, we are in a downward dip in terms of being nearly classless and in bringing unprincipled business to heel by government restraints. We have a rapidly growing group of homeless people, and the US now ranks 2nd in the industrialized world behind France with 177 homeless per 100,000 population. Those who have jobs are finding many things worse than their parents, including income versus cost of living, ability to afford or access health care, loss of retirement security, and reduction of leisure time and funds. Indeed, it is attacks on the “welfare state” that are leading the erosion and destruction of support networks and humanitarian aid systems.
Either “evolutionary progress” is in a disastrous downturn, or this is another contribution to world civilization that America has abandoned.
[Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s article “Our Ten Contributions to Civilization” appeared in the March 1959 issue of The Atlantic]
The most famous ghost story in Thailand is the tale of Mae Naak Pra Khanong แม่นากพระโขนง. This horror story is said to refer to an incident in the time of King Rama IV who reigned in Siam from 1851 to 1868. The story is that Mrs. Naak died in childbirth while her husband Mak was away at war. But when he returned he found her there with her child. Neighbors were killed who tried to warn Mak that his wife and child were ghosts. Mak accidentally learned the truth and managed to flee. Mae Naak chased him until she was subdued by a priest who was an exorcist who encased her in a bone fragment of her forehead which he kept in his sash. It is said that this is now property of the Thai royal family. In 1899 Anek Nawikamul, a Thai historian, investigated and wrote an account to set the record straight. Nevertheless, for decades one of the most popular personages in Thai culture was Nang Naak whose selfless devotion surpasses even her death. To this day women seeking easy childbirth make offerings at a shrine in the Suan Luang District of Bangkok [see (above) the picture of her shrine in Wat Mahabut near the Pra Khanong Canal]. More than 20 films and TV versions, as well as one opera, have been made of this romantic ghost story.
The story of Mae Naak Pra Khanong has everything that Thai people love. It is a lurid ghost story; Nae Naak murders her neighbors in a vain effort to prevent them from exposing her real nature as a ghost. It is a tender love story about the supernatural lengths romantic love might go. It is about people who really lived – and, importantly, died. On top of that, the story has royal connections having been retold by no less than Prince Damrong, a son of King Mongkut (Rama IV), whereby the relic possibly came into the possession of the Palace. Just as significantly, the story’s satisfactory ending involves Mak taking refuge in a Buddhist temple, and a Buddhist priest capturing the ghost and (in one version) pacifying her by promising her reunion with her husband. Aside from the story, traditions have developed that encourage continued veneration of Mae Naak Pra Khanong as a granter of petitions.
There are countless ghosts on the loose and in literature, but Mae Naak beats them all.
NOTE OF THANKS This blog essay is our 427th as we conclude our 8th year online with weekly essays from northern Thailand. November 1 begins our 9th year.
“Woke is a political term originating in the United States referring to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice,” our amazing online reference resource, Wikipedia, informs us. “It derives from the African-American Vernacular English expression ‘stay woke’, whose grammatical aspect refers to a continuing awareness of these issues.”
I’m guessing a few million of us became aware of the word “woke” during the events following the murder of George Floyd when protests arose and expanded from anger about that single injustice, to that sort of injustice, to what police do, to the danger of white supremacy, to the racism of some national heroes (Columbus, Churchill, Woodrow Wilson, Gen. Paton, Robert E. Lee … and Edward Colston – you’d know who he was if you were a woke Londoner). The protests were a “Woke Movement”.
The question that quickly follows when one is woke is what to do about it. And that sometimes leads to our second jargon of the year Cancel Culture.
“Cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.” Thanks for that definition, Pop Culture Dictionary.
Before this year I would have associated the term with, say, a TV show being cancelled when the ratings dropped. Then came the ruckus about J.K Rowling, the author whose books I have read and written about more than any other in the last 20 years. Timorously, a group of alarmed celebrities (including Piers Morgan of the BBC’s “Good Morning Britain”) have tried to help us understand that cancel culture attacks can become exaggerated, as when a group of Vegans intruded into a British steak restaurant and interrupted everybody. They were out-shouted by a spontaneous group of diners chanting “Red Meat, Red Meat!”
As I understand it, social media (and by that many observers mean TWITTER) have raised the stakes. For some targets, such as Rowling with her millions of pounds in the bank, being smeared and vilified online and having her popularity dimmed is more of an inconvenience than a danger. But for people of lesser means, just being accused of not being a strong enough supporter of a cause can result in the end of a job or being physically attacked.
Stay woke, cancel culture, and virtue signaling, which are moral issues, have a sinister potential to turn into a purity spiral, which is a competition.
Nathan Taylor, a gay guy who loves knitting started a hashtag aimed at promoting diversity in knitting. What happened was what Gavin Haynes in a BBC documentary called a “purity spiral” in which the online “discussion” intensified into moral outrage. Haynes insists that “the spiral often concerns morality, it is not about morality. It’s about purity — a very different concept. Morality doesn’t need to exist with reference to anything other than itself. Purity, on the other hand, is an inherently relative value — the game is always one of purer-than-thou.” What happens is that people who are involved feel the need to defend their purity as more pure than other’s. They list examples. The knitting group began talking about the books they were reading to prove they were pure of the racism the knitters were being accused of. The books were found to be racist by other knitters. Knitting businesses began to become targets. But those accused could also benefit by agreeing with the thought leaders. Saying, “We just sell yarn!” could lead to death-threats. But agreeing that “We knitters have been deeply remiss in our failure to acknowledge the pain we have inflicted on struggling Black and indigenous people of colour,” [a paraphrase of a comment by a Scottish knitter quoted by Haynes] might get one by until rants began that “just feeling sorry is the very essence of white privilege.” When Nathan Taylor tried to calm things down the attacks intensified so much that he had a nervous breakdown.
Purity spirals can have those outcomes. They happen when a purity spiral turns mindless and destructive. But purity spirals contain their own demise in the way they form. Pressure to be purer and purer leads to posturing and defensiveness that are unsustainable. Timur Kuran, Professor of Economics and Political Science at Duke University, calls this ‘preference falsification’. His theory relates to things like the fall of the Soviet Union, where almost no one saw the end coming, because they hadn’t realized that an entire population was falsifying their experience to each other. That’s what happens when one tries to win in a purity spiral. Eventually the effort simply becomes too much.
Before that happens it can get very ugly.
Persistence is the word that most characterizes the protest movement in Thailand. Events of the last couple of days have made the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Those who read carefully may know more than I do, here where my access to news is limited by the self-censorship of the media and my distrust of them. However, for friends and family who have been wondering, here is my brief interpretation of what is going on.
Beginning with the military-controlled government’s liquidation of the main political party opposing them, students began protests to call for constitutional reform to restore democracy and to call for the Prime Minister to step down. That call expanded to include reform of the provisions in the constitution relating to the monarchy and release of people charged with undermining the monarchy or the government. But movements evolve.
In the past, criticism of the monarchy as an institution and any members of the royal family was against the law, the rationale being that Thai culture rests on three pillars: the state, religion, and the monarch. The previous King was held in high esteem. Criticism of him was quite unpopular. But as of 4 years ago his son has become King. He has not cared for popularity. The protest movement about 6 months ago began the previously unheard of practice of calling for the King to return funds to public control which he had taken over. The movement took the form of large gatherings of students and young adults on a frequent basis, often in symbolic locations. Thai ex-pats began to draw attention to an additional list of grievances including the fact that the King and Queen spent most of their time in Germany without appointing a regent to act when the King is not in the country.
Until this weekend the government has permitted the students to gather and say pretty much whatever they wanted. But the King and Queen have now returned, not just for a brief holiday, but for 7 weeks or longer. They have resumed public activities such as audiences and presiding at university commencement services. The government (meaning the central part that includes the Prime Minister as well as senior military leaders) would like very much for the young people to “go back home and attend to your business.” To underline this demand, twenty or so “leaders” of the student movement were arrested. But the demonstrations have continued.
Crisis times came and passed without violence. Police have kept royalist counter-demonstrators separated.
But it appears that now the government has decided to “up the ante” to use a gamblers’ term. Following an incident yesterday where the Queen’s motorcade was obstructed when it drove unexpectedly onto a street blocked by a group of demonstrators, last night police in riot gear put up road blocks and sprayed the crowd with a high pressure water cannon using water mixed with blue dye and a caustic substance (called tear gas by one source). A “Severe State of Emergency” was declared restricting public gatherings to no more than 5 persons. In defiance, thousands of students gathered Saturday at five locations in Bangkok, and other locations around the country including a packed crowd at Chiang Mai University.
October is a deeply symbolic month. It is the month two previous student movements for democratic reform were put down by the military, killing hundreds (perhaps thousands). Once again it is the young adult generation that is persisting in challenging the powerful elite to include the people. “It’s our money!” the protesters shouted at the royal motorcade. The young people have changed the words of the national pledge, too. It used to be a pledge to uphold “the nation, religion, and King.” Yesterday they were shouting, “Nation, religion, people!”
Here’s a little exercise to see if your vision is 2020.
Insert first pic
1. Make 4 dots at random.
2. Connect the dots with 4 uninterrupted lines.
Insert second pic
3. Find the middle point on each line.
4. Connect the points.
Insert third pic
5. This will always provide a parallelogram.
Does this theorem have any application? I do not know of any, but I do not work with geometry or physics any more than I have to. Nevertheless, I do not think this odd fact should be discounted quickly. I would not be surprised if Pythagoras or Paracelsus has considered this phenomenon. It’s the sort of thing that might have popped into Einstein’s head to open an avenue of thought about space, time, and gravity. Somebody COULD decide that this example of random irregularity resolving into regularity has profound significance.
So far I have only gotten far enough to feel that thinking about this is a relief from almost everything else that 2020 has brought so far.
As the USA gets close to the national election on November 3 the rhetoric has tended to get hot. One Trump supporter appealed for reducing the name calling. He objected to being called a “nationalist” which was equivalent to “supremacist” or “racist”.
He said, “Perhaps people vote for Trump, blacks and hispanics included, that believe: late term abortion is wrong, a strong economy is good, critical race theory is racist and teaches children to hate America, BLM is a radical, Marxist terrorist organization, antifa is more than an idea - they murder burn and loot.”
I’d like to reply to him. I think we can be reasonable.
Let’s agree that some voters are issue oriented. Let’s identify their issues as (1) late-term abortion, (2) economic growth, (3) racism that teaches children to hate America, (4) Black Lives Matter is a radical Marxist terrorist organization, (5) Antifa advocates murder, burning and looting. Let’s even lay aside the notion that those who most fervently hold these concerns are nationalists. These concerns are exaggerated out of proportion to reality. But we can even postpone that debate although that is at the heart of this.
What cannot be so easily ignored is the result of these concerns. The issues lead to actions. The action being supported to address some or all of these is the matter being contended in this US election. What those voters advocate amounts to this: In order to prevent late-term abortions all abortions are to be prevented. In order to permit economic growth almost no limits should be imposed on industries. In order to promote patriotism narratives concerning past humanitarian errors and slavery must be toned down. In order to keep America secure radical black as well as anti-Fascist movements must be seen as organizations and suppressed. As the danger of these things is exaggerated so are the actions in response to them.
Since America is not a pure democracy in which every issue is decided by a referendum, but is a republic where representatives meet to do that, the election is our main recourse. We can ask the candidates what they believe about these issues, and consider how their answers line up with our understanding of justice and sustainable progress. But then we need to ponder how trustworthy the candidates are and whether we believe they will take action when elected that stays consistent with what they say they will do. Our power as citizens is limited. We can do almost nothing but consider the character of the people standing for election and then vote.
I think I will retire from my fourth career now. This career I call, “Trying to make the world a better place through writing.” My previous careers have been ordained pastoral ministry, seminary teaching, and higher education administration. As I was doing each of these careers I thought, “This is what I am all about.” The goal has always been trying to make the world a better place through doing what the career involved. They were overlapping in many ways. I was a pastoral minister while being a seminary teacher, and I was a writer while being a full-time pastor.
Writing has been my default hobby since I was a teenager. In fact, my second salaried position was the summer I was 17 when I was a cub-reporter for the Jacksonville Journal-Courier. My first salaried position at $20 a week, was as caddy-master and golf shop attendant at the Jacksonville Country Club, from which I learned mostly that community leaders are not at their best when they’re playing golf and that I was not born to be a golfer.
Since it is apparent to me that my efforts to make the world a better place through writing are dwindling in effectiveness, I’ll close out this career before people start hinting even more loudly that I should. For my own peace of mind, and for the record, I want to list the accomplishments of this fourth career. These are easier to list than accomplishments in the first three careers. I count it as an accomplishment when I have written something, finished it, and stopped working on it. I admit that it is generally agreed that one should only count things that get published as writing successes. But it’s a blurry line. I was never established on the “noteworthy published author” side of it. I produced a lot, it turns out. Making this list (see below) has helped me feel better about what I’ve accomplished.
I gave it all I had during my fourth career which began long before the other careers ended and continued until now, a decade after I formally retired from the other careers. My output includes several thousand pages divided into book-length writings, essays and articles.
Worship as Celebration of Life (in Thai), 1974, Suriyaban, Bangkok. This was translated into Thai and published as a textbook by the Fund for Theological Education. It was used for more than 20 years by theological seminaries in Thailand.
The Pastoral Call (Lectures in Thai at Payap University, 1986, printed in English in the USA, 1989). This was a formal lectureship sponsored by the McGilvary Faculty of Divinity of Payap University to mark the end of my teaching at the seminary. The lectures were reformatted in print for use in the USA.
Acharn: Pastoral Counseling in Thailand (Doctor of Ministry thesis, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey) 1987. There was hope that this would be followed by a new approach to teaching pastoral counseling based on the research findings about what makes counseling successful in Thailand, but that project was not enthusiastically received as the seminaries downgraded their basic professional courses. A microfilm version is preserved and available through the archives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
History of the First Presbyterian Church of Alton, Illinois, published as a limited edition of about 200 copies for subscribers by the First Presbyterian Church, Alton, Illinois, 1991. This was written to refresh the memory of members of that church about their history, and also to express appreciation for contributions made to rebuilding the sanctuary after a fire in 1988.
The Lives of Christ, published by First Presbyterian Church, Alton 1992. This is a collection of studies of the Gospels. It was printed for those who participated in an adult class. The conclusion was that a synthesized, unified biography of Jesus is not possible, nor was that the aim of the Gospel writers.
Ten Stories: A Storyteller’s Guide to the Book of Genesis, First Presbyterian Church, Alton, Illinois, 1993. The stories of Genesis are all “gospel stories.” Any other reading of them is a misreading.
Emerald Valley Chronicles, published by the author, 1994. I believe that between 1981 and 1985 our work in village churches with seminary students on weekends was transformative. It helped the students mature and helped the churches meet challenges and accomplish their mission. The book is an anthology of factual accounts about those students and their episodes. I submitted the manuscript to all the denominational publishing houses that had anything to do with Protestant work in Thailand but was told that “nobody is interested in missionary stories anymore.”
English for Professional Nurses, a textbook for nurses’ workshops, Christian University, Nakhon Pathom, 2003. This book was used for more than 20 workshops. It was only available to those who enrolled in the workshops.
English Camp is Easy, a handbook of activities and plans, prepared for the Thailand TESOL Conference in 2004. As a result of conducting several English Camps at schools in central Thailand, this handbook was then provided for participants at the annual national conference for English teachers in Thailand.
Progress Toward Mutual Recognition Through Educational Benchmarking and Quality Assurance, (Reflections on and analysis of a conference on Mutual Recognition: Educational Benchmarking and Quality Assurance at Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand, November 16-19, 2004) with Janjira Wongkhomthong, Christian University of Thailand, presented to the Board of Directors of the International Association of University Presidents, meeting in Bangkok in 2005. The “proceedings” of the conference was printed, and then a synopsis was published a year later.
A Bright Future: The Christian University of Thailand Model for Teaching English at the University Level in Thailand, Nakhon Pathom: Christian University of Thailand, 2006. This book-length series of articles describes how to design an English language proficiency program for a university in Thailand. ISBN 974-627-1334
Lands of the Yip: Book One, Velia; Book Two, Exporia; and Book Three, Vitalia, Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2011. This is a set of 4 fantasy novels for young adult readers. In each novel a couple of ex-pat kids in Northern Thailand and their expanding group of friends are brought into parallel lands to help sort out catastrophes and to have adventures while coming of age.
Spiritual Wellness: the Basis of Holistic Peace, volume 1 Wellness and volume 2 Dysfunction, Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2011. Growth is the main feature of spiritual wellness. When growth stops decay begins with spiritual stagnation followed by profound terror and finally corruption. This collection of 75 essays has gone through three editions. I am sure the concept is sound, but I have not found a way to make it therapeutically useful. One publishing company agreed to publish the book and provide it on demand if I would pay them $11,000.
Ban Den Friends: Gay Experiences in Thailand, Out in Thailand publications, 2012, serialized 2013-2015 in Out in Thailand magazine. The book is an anthology of 67 anecdotes based on true-life experiences of LGBTK people in Thailand I have known. Two international publishing houses considered and rejected it because it was not built around a central character, but was modeled on Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 novel Winesburg, Ohio.
Kiddy Lit: Stories to Grow On, 2013. This book is a retelling and analysis of 25 of the best-known stories for children in cultures that use English as their primary language. As with Bruno Bettelheim’s ground-breaking book, The Uses of Enchantment, the stories all have messages to help pre-adolescents negotiate their basic fears and issues. I submitted the manuscript to a couple of experts in the field but received no encouragement to seek a publisher. A local publishing house also refused to consider the book because it has no local (Thai) connection.
Enchanted Astorwold, self-published in 2016 and reformatted for online publication with help and illustrations by my son Andrew Dobson in 2019. The book is one of a very large number of fan-fiction anthologies based on the Harry Potter novels and movies. As with most of these works, this one introduces people of the next generation after the battle of Hogwarts.
Varieties of Faith: The Thai Case, Payap University, 2016. The book is a set of illustrated essays on 4 Thai faith domains, namely, formal religion, spiritual self-development, supernaturalism, and venerations of saints and semi-divine people. It is available as an e-book upon request, but was never intended to be commercially published.
“Three Types of Theological Education” in South-East Asia Journal of Theology, ca. 1970, Singapore. This was my first professional publication. It was revised and expanded as “Antecedents of Higher Education of Christian Professionals” to be presented at the 2008 United Board Faculty Forum in Indonesia.
“Millennial Challenges to Education” revised for the ASAIHL International Conference, Kota Kina Baru, Malaysia, September, 2003, published in Christian University Journal, Christian University, Nakhon Pathom, 2001. This is a collection of short stories on the theme of higher education.
“Beneficiaries and Benefactors: Who Are the Winners in Thailand’s Income Contingency Loan Scheme?” a presentation at the International Symposium on Student Loan Policy, organized by UNESCO and the Student Loans Fund, March 16, 2006, Bangkok International Trade & Exhibition Centre, Bangkok.
“Theory and Practice: Two Aspects of ESL” Christian University Journal, Christian University of Thailand, Vol. 12, No. 2 (May-August) 2006.
“Anticipating Cognition: Breaking Through from Curiosity to Prescience” a presentation at an international conference on Body and Mind: Science and Spirituality Perspectives, organized by Chulalongkorn University and The Thousand Stars Buddhism and Science Group, December 8, 2006.
“The Unlikeliest Link: Mythic Archetypes as a Means toward Transcultural Theologizing” a presentation at an international conference on Religion and Culture, organized by the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace, Payap University, June 24-30, 2007.
Three essays on being a Buddhist-Christian entitled “The Labels are Falling off the Pickle Jars”, “A Christian Buddhist Option”, and “A Compelling Reason to Chant” published in Thursday-Theology No. 541 and 542, October 2008 by the Crossings Community, www.crossings.org
“Three Red Flags: Why We Should Worry About the Future of Higher Education” presented in the 23rd Inter-University Conference of The Association of Southeast Asian Institutions of Higher Learning at Payap University on September 4, 2009 and published in the ASAIHL-Thailand Journal, Vol. 12, Number 2, September 2009.
“Gender Ambiguity: Thai Village Case Studies” presented October 7, 2009 at the Simpson College Faculty Forum, Indianola, Iowa. The case studies were horizontal studies that tended to demonstrate the Thai preference at the time for maintaining ambiguity about one’s gender. This set of cases has been revised and presented several times since.
“An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of Land” presented at a symposium as part of the celebration of the 35th Anniversary of Payap University on February 16. 2010.
“Creation of a Creation Myth: Steps Towards a Promethean Age” with Arthur Saniotis of the University of Adelaide, accepted for publication in Prajina Vihara Journal of Philosophy and Religion of Assumption University of Thailand in 2011.
“The End of Christian Civilization” 2012 also called “1922” in 2020. This research article is the one I consider my most original and insightful article. The thesis is that prior to World War I there was a consensus that Christian morality was the basis for the advances of Christian civilization as evidenced by the industrial revolution. After the war that consensus evaporated. Four of the greatest works of Modernist literature were published in 1922. They were written by James Joyce, Marcel Proust, TS Eliot, and Sinclair Lewis. They unanimously rejected the concept that Christian Civilization was superior, and even the Church dropped the idea.
“After Baal and Christ” 2013. This series of essays traced the development of the Judeo-Christian idea of God through several distinct phases. The present consensus is that God and Jesus are synonymous and interchangeable terms (thus “after Christ” whom the Church has held to be one person of the Holy Trinity). The key essay was edited as “The Quest.”
“The Quest” published by Thursday Theology, the Crossings Community. Oct. 23, 2013. http://www.crossings.org/thursday
“Dragons: Myth and Cosmic Powers” by Kenneth Dobson and Arthur Saniotis. Prajna Vihara Journal of Philosophy and Religion, Assumption University of Thailand. Vol. 15, No. 1, Jan-June 2014.
“The Future of Institutional Christianity in the Postmodern Era”, April 18, 2014. This essay is an attempt to assess how popular culture, which is overwhelmingly postmodern, will have an impact on institutional Christianity. The project began with a description of postmodernism. I believe the essay was prophetic as it applies to the USA and parts of Anglo-European dispersion (Canada, Australia, New Zealand in particular).
“Vanishing Village Culture” is a series of 18 descriptions of how life is carried on now in villages around our house compared with the past. The essays were published as blogs on “Ken Dobson’s Queer Reminiscences from Thailand” in 2015 and 2016.
“10 Challenges to Christian Higher Education” presented at the ACUCA Management Conference, October 2017. The essay was printed in the proceedings in summary.
“What Makes Thai Buddhism So Strong” was first a PowerPoint “Payap Presents” program on July 4, 2019. Then it was reformatted as an illustrated article to be available online. The analysis of Buddhism’s strength is based on a description of several key events that coalesced participation and were important.
“Social Order, Five Essays” are a discussion of what makes society sustainable. The essays are entitled, “Social Bond”, “Social Contact”, “Social Ethic”, “Social Media” and “Social Context.” The essays were published online in 2019.
BLOG ESSAYS and SHORT MAGAZINE ARTICLES
James Barnes made a valiant attempt to produce a high-class magazine for gay readers in Thailand. He had gifts as a publisher and contacts that got him exclusive interviews with the likes of Hillary Clinton and Anderson Cooper. I provided occasional 800 word articles on a variety of subjects. James also liked Ban Den Friends, which I began with the thought of writing 7 stories for him. The 7 grew to 67 as he encouraged me to write more. His editorial talent was compromised, however, by a combination of health issues and a disability as a financier. His health and finances collapsed in June 2015 and he fled the country.
In addition to major articles for particular occasions and publications, my fourth career has been devoted to a constant output of short works that began as I reflected on my past as an author of an average of two sermons a week when I was a full-time pastor.
Beginning on Halloween in 2012 a colleague and I purchased a web-domain which I called “Ken Dobson’s Queer Ruminations from Thailand.” I have averaged an essay a week for a total of some 430 blogs. We will continue the blog for at least another year.
CAREER ENDS – HOBBY CONTINUES
I am calling this the end of my 4th career as a writer. As with the other three careers I am on call but expect the phone to rarely ring. It is best to know what stage one’s in.
I think, as a whole, I was a preacher in a time that preaching was still a high-profile, effective way to make an impact. I was helpful to move the two universities I served as administrator forward. As a pastor I was valuable to a substantial number of people going through crises and transitions. Those roles have been handed over to a younger generation, and in several instances relinquished by them to a still younger generation.
This is the era of social media and short attention spans. My talent for long essays of cultural and philosophical reflection is in short demand. I will still write. It just won’t be “what I’m all about” anymore. I’m trying to figure out how to do memes and photo essays.
THERE IS NO VERIFIABLE CASE FOR LIFE AFTER DEATH
I was disgusted this week to read that a conservative Christian theology teacher in the USA had posted online, “I morn for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A Jew called by HIS name who did not receive her KING. She is in ETERNAL torment. ‘Rest in peace’ she will not be doing. … This is a hard core fact. There is NO other way to enter heaven but by Jesus Christ.” She went on, “…she will burn in hell for the sin of rejecting Jesus.”
I was shocked into reconsidering two questions: (1) what has happened to Christian theology? (2) Is it respectful to admit that Justice Ginsburg’s physical life has ended?
Every religion insists there is life after death. Sometimes the argument is based on testimony from those who have experienced “near death.” A previous generation was fascinated with the new science of parapsychology about messages from beyond. Before the Age of Enlightenment the declarations of Christian theologians and of authorities on the Bible were sufficient. Something about us is still alive after we die – that is the nearly universal testimony of the most profound thinkers in history and of the wisdom keepers of every ethnic community ever studied.
So, it is with considerable care that I propose one of several arguments that when we die we stay dead forever. The purpose of this is to consider its potential effect on theology and religion because I contend that it need not be the ultimate purpose of religion to prove we are immortal.
If CONSCIOUSNESS IS AN ELECTRO-CHEMICAL PROCESS consciousness ends when our electro-chemical processes end. That is, consciousness has no independent existence.
All contemporary world religions postulate that something goes on after a person dies. This “thing” is usually called a soul. Twentieth century theologians began to identify “soul” with mind or personality. Many contemporary religions invest this soul with a capacity to continue after death. Based on Persian concepts, theistic religions describe realms of existence after death as heaven and hell. In those places the deceased are conscious of their past actions and understand their present states are a result of those deeds. Popular Buddhist faith perpetuates vivid concepts of hell. Popular Christian faith has largely consigned those ideas to antiquity in favor of the notion of an ongoing consciousness and ability to be reunited with predecessors in an afterlife.
These results would be impossible if all consciousness is thought, all thought is a function of brains, and brains function through electro-chemical synapses. It is now believed that those electro-chemical sparks continue for about ten minutes after a brain ceases to receive necessary oxygen through refreshed blood supply. First, stimulation ceases from sensory sources (sight, sound, touch, etc.). But then all thought ends, even (as in deep dreams) that which is independent of the senses. That is the end for a person.
If this materialistic view of human life and consciousness is true, religious views of life-after-death are false.
If there were SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE FOR LIFE AFTER DEATH, that would, of course, settle the matter in favor of “going on.” After all, “The human race as a whole has refused to believe that when the brain ceases to function the mind ceases to exist.”
On the whole, the argument for life after death has been along the lines “we so much want it to be so that it must be so.” Emerson declared, “The blazing evidence of immortality is our dissatisfaction with any other solution.”
My first encounter with this discussion was about 60 years ago when I obtained a copy of You Will Survive After Death, by Dr. Sherwood Eddy. He was probably the most internationally distinguished person in my home town at the time. He had completed an illustrious career with the Student Volunteer Movement and the YMCA, first in South India and then throughout South Asia, the Middle East and Russia. After he retired he lived right up the street from our house. Toward the end of his life he compiled his scientific research about life after death. He was clear that he meant it literally.
“When I speak of life beyond death, I mean the survival of individual, personal consciousness, with memory of the past and a personality that shall be spiritually recognizable to my friends, past and future.” [p. 3]
Eddy first argued philosophically, “Because of the testimony of science to a rational and trustworthy universe I believe I shall survive physical death.” [p. 5] Then he turned to the “new science” of parapsychology. One by one he summarized the “scientific” findings of scientists in this new field. This, it turns out, was his scientific evidence.
Parapsychology, briefly, was a fad during the early twentieth century based on experiences of mental telepathy, séances involving conversations with those who have died, psychic healing, and teleportation of material objects. This has been labeled a pseudoscience by various scientific societies after 1950, the year Eddy’s book came out.
Many other authors have written about theories explaining why it is scientifically probable that some form of life goes on, sometimes with memory of past lives and sometimes without, as when one “merges with the cosmos” or enters the body of someone just beginning life. The end result is that none of these theories is verifiable, and they are supported largely on the assumption that due to the immense number of galaxies and universes the likelihood is there, somehow. It is tantamount to saying “Nothing is impossible so everything is possible.”
One does not have to believe “nothing goes on.” Believe there is a going on if you want (as I do), or if you have experiences that convince you to believe it. But my point is “It’s not the end of any current faith system if our physical bodies just quit.”
That brings us back to the only scientifically verifiable thing we know for sure: “When we die, our electro-chemical processes stop and the systems in which they operated begin deterioration that nothing can reverse.”
IF THIS IS THE CASE, RELIGIONS NEED TO BE DOING SOMETHING ELSE THAN PRESCRIBING CONDITIONS FOR IMMORTALITY. There’s plenty to do.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.