The cross is not a defiant denunciation of death and death’s agents, but a complete immersion into the fullness of its agony. Before the cross was empty God hung on it displaying the human condition and the consequences of human competition. Naked on the cross, God is radically exposed as one who is completely and passionately in love with those who suffer, as well as those who inflict suffering and those who are desperate to elude suffering. Victory is a paradox, after all. Easter is done, as all death’s conquests are overturned, by one who embraces the grief and enfolds the pain along with victims as they suffer.
Deborah said she has “very devout Christian friends who do not want to take part in a Buddhist wedding.” I am tempted to rant, “If they refuse to even try to understand what’s going on in key events in Thailand how can they stand to be here in this country?”
Many conservative Christians “stand to be here” because they feel they can isolate themselves from sinister spiritual and religious elements. Faith in Christ offers divine protection, as well. Some are here to help convert people to Christianity and “get them saved.” But they refuse to bother to try to find out what Buddhist activities really are.
To be a Buddhist ceremony, as opposed to a Thai traditional one, the event must (a) have a Buddhist clergy person presiding, (b) include chanting of Buddhist scripture, (c) OR involve physical connection with an image of the Lord Buddha. That “physical connection” can be assumed if the event is inside a temple, if the connection is symbolized through a cord tied to a Buddha image, or by pouring water if the image is being paraded or bathed.
None of this happens in a Thai traditional wedding.
Aside from the fact that Thai traditional weddings are not Buddhist religious ceremonies because they lack Buddhist religious content or context, there is widespread acceptance of the notion that all Thai traditional events are also Buddhist because “Buddhism is indivisible and indistinguishable from everything that is authentically Thai.”
Where does one draw the line? Obviously there is a line somewhere. Thai food is part of Thai cultural identity. Not even vegetarianism in behalf of spiritual well-being is forbidden by Christians. Unlike several other religions, Thai Christians do not have strict food laws. Thai textiles tailored into traditional Thai costumes are no problem for most Christians (Mennonites and Roman Catholic clergy being prominent exceptions). Can Thai Christians serve in the Thai military or civil service, knowing that there will be occasions when everybody will be venerating royalty and even showing piety at religious shrines? For a lot of Christians military service is unavoidable and some choose military and civil service.
That brings us to holidays. In Thailand they are of two types: strictly religious holidays (including the three major Buddhist ones, Makha Bucha, Visaka Bucha, and Asalaha Bucha; but it is sometimes overlooked that the two Christian holidays and Muslim holy days are not only permitted by law and common consent, but Christians and Muslims are expected to treat those days as special according to their customs). The other type of Thai holiday is not mainly religious, Songkran and Loy Kratong being the most popular along with certain royal anniversaries. These holidays have Buddhist religious activities attached to them. Is floating a “kratong” on a waterway religious? Most Thai Christians have worked this out in a way that satisfies them. The same thing applies to “anointing with scented water” during the Songkran festival. The line between what should and should not be done is ultimately a personal decision.
Not all religious events in Thailand that Christians must decide about are Buddhist, as a matter of fact. Installation of a shrine at a construction site is a Brahmin-Hindu ritual. Christians might not attend. Other ceremonies venerate “spirits of nature” or propitiate “ghosts.” They are not Buddhist, but they are incorporated into Thai traditions.
Back to the notion, “If it’s really Thai it’s also Buddhist.” To be a real Thai person one must be Buddhist.
This is unacceptable for several reasons, but mainly because it excludes non-Buddhists from being real Thai people. Thai Christians confront this every day. Some handle it by minimizing the amount of differences they must acknowledge. They blend in as much as they can. Another approach made by some Christians is to fight against the idea that “if it’s Thai it’s Buddhist” by conducting Christian rituals to mark Thai traditions such as the King’s birthday. Fortunately, the previous King and Queen were consistent and successful in insisting that every Thai citizen is equally and authentically Thai, no matter their ethnicity or religion.
That is why it is perplexing that there are still Christians who don’t get what’s at stake when they refuse to even try to understand and participate when anything importantly Thai is going on. It becomes painful and personal when the event is related to key life events such as funerals and weddings. But being uninformed is one thing and being unwilling to be informed is a higher level of obstinacy.
There is an attempt that I became aware of this morning, by those who want to see a middle-ground, maybe through non-alignment with either the USA or Russia, to explain that both sides are wrong. One analyst from India explained that Putin is wrong for invading Ukraine, but Western nations lied to Russia at the end of the Cold War, promising to dissolve NATO and then not doing it. That would have explained how Putin and his colleagues always expect treachery from USA and the West and how they justify calling for NATO to back off. But the history doesn’t corroborate that interpretation. Time to look again.
FACTS ABOUT UKRAINE
1. Ukraine as an ethnic and political entity is older than Russia. In the 10th and 11th centuries Kievan Rus’, with Kiev at the center, was the largest and most powerful state in Europe. The Mongol invasion completely destroyed Kiev in 1240.
2. For the next 700 years Ukraine was under various powers and ended with territory divided between Russia and Poland.
3. The present state of Ukraine was created by the Bolsheviks in 1918. In 1917 they had included it in their treaty with Austria-Germany to end participation in World War I after they had taken over Russia and ended the Czarist regime. The next year they tried to break that treaty but lost the battle. The failure of the Bolsheviks’ revolt against that agreement led to the Central Powers re-imposing terms which created Ukraine as a separate state.
4. Under Stalin, by 1928 Ukraine was completely absorbed into the Soviet Union.
5. When the Nazis invaded Russia, Ukraine was also a major objective. The Soviet Army liberated Ukraine in its drive against the Nazis. When the Soviet Army defeated Germany, Stalin solidified the USSR to include Poland and most of Eastern Europe including Ukraine.
6. On August 24, 1991 the Ukrainian parliament adopted an Act of Independence, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. For the next 30 years Ukraine has moved toward alignment with Western Europe, toward greater democracy and toward free-market economic development.
7. In 2014 the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea was taken over by “unmarked forces” that included local Russian partisans. Crimea was then incorporated into Russia.
8. On February 24 of this year Russia invaded Ukraine and after a week of making little progress they seem to have begun mass destruction reminiscent of the devastation they inflicted on Chechnya in 2000 as Putin came to power, turning the capitol city, Grozny, into what the UN called “the most destroyed city on earth.”
9. The first tragedy this current invasion has caused is the “greatest refugee crisis in Europe” since the Second World War as more than a million and a half people (half of them children) have fled Ukraine to escape the bombing and destruction.
10. The President of Ukraine has pleaded for NATO to send help.
FACTS ABOUT NATO
1. As Stalin moved toward taking over Eastern Europe after World War II, the USA and 11 other nations in North America and Europe agreed to a North Atlantic Treaty and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed to defend against any aggression by the Soviets against any member state.
2. The USSR formed the Warsaw Pact in response.
3. A major issue arose about the reunification of Germany. Negotiations were complex and there was no agreement about whether or not a reunified Germany would include NATO operations in the former Soviet part of Germany. After reunification Germany continued in NATO. A number of former Soviet bloc nations joined, including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. Russia has not liked this expansion.
4. NATO has reiterated its principle that it does not wish to escalate the war, and none of its member states have been attacked by Russia. Member states, however, are free to act on their own, and many have sent military supplies to Ukraine and made extensive humanitarian responses.
FICTIONS ABOUT NATO
“As the Soviet Union was coming apart President GHW Bush promised President Gorbachev that if the Warsaw Pact was dissolved NATO would also be dissolved.”
No such agreement ever became official, but a number of mutual troop reduction and arms control agreements were made and most were carried out. The most important was the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) which was expanded to include decisions about Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The treaty was signed in Paris on November 19, 1990 by 16 NATO states (USA, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, UK, and Belgium) and 6 Warsaw Treaty states (Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union). This CFE Treaty was challenged by Russian President Putin at the Vienna Conference on June 11-15, 2007 and then abolished by Russia in 2015.
“NATO is a threat to Russia, and is continuing to diminish Russia.”
Russian nationalists, including Putin, are determined to (a) re-establish its protective wall of buffer territories, (b) and re-build Russian influence. As nations next to Russia seek to join NATO these goals are being threatened, but not Russian sovereignty. Russian grandeur has been diminished, not by NATO but by the failure of authoritarianism in Russia to prove effective, and thereby to attract allies. Instead, many new nations aspire to join NATO, now including Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
FICTIONS ABOUT UKRAINE
“Ukraine is part of Russia.” Only in the fantasy of leaders of the former USSR is Ukraine not a free and sovereign nation state. Ethnicity and shared culture are not the issue. The will of the Ukrainian people to be free and independent has been demonstrated and solidified as Russian troops invaded Ukraine beginning on February 24, 2022.
“Ukraine is ruled by a Neo-Nazi clique.” There is a neo-Nazi faction in Ukraine, but it has been able to garner only 2% of the votes and no seats in Parliament. The present leadership, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the head, are not Nazis in any form.
“The people of Ukraine want to return to Russia.” Evidence of that is the “insurgency of people in the Donbas region against Ukrainian tyranny”. Indeed, in Putin’s pre-invasion rhetoric he repeatedly voiced support for these “beleaguered people.” It was assumed that Putin was getting ready to send troops to try to take over this small area on the eastern side of Ukraine. But then Russian troops surrounded Ukraine on three sides and invaded from all directions. In the event, the people of Donbas also seem to be fighting against the Russian invasion they were presumed to be in favor of.
“Ukraine will welcome Russian liberators.” This is what the Russian troops expected. It was what happened in Crimea. But Ukraine has resisted the invasion.
Thailand voted with 141 other nations on Wednesday to reprimand Russia for invading Ukraine and demanded that Moscow withdraw its forces. Thailand’s vote was uncertain until the green light appeared on the big board in the UN General Assembly. In light of the Thai government’s declaration of “neutrality” in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, and the Foreign Minister’s public statement yesterday that Thailand will be cautious, a vote to abstain would not have been surprising. 35 nations, including China and India, abstained. Actually, every ASEAN nation except Vietnam voted for the UN motion in support of Ukraine.
The UN General Assembly special session and the 141 to 5 vote is a sign of how seriously the world is taking the Russian invasion of its neighbor. Europe feels threatened. The European Commission (Parliament) voted on Wednesday to work toward granting Ukraine “candidate status” to join the European Union. Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, gave an emotional speech to the Parliament asking for proof from Europe “that you will not let us go … that you are with us.”
Neither of these votes, historic as they are, will cause Russia to pause in its attacks across Ukraine. The military advance continues, and bombs, rockets and artillery barrages are slowly but steadily moving toward the center of the country. It’s taking time; Ukraine is a bit over 600,000 square kilometers (Thailand is 500,000+ sq. km.). Ukraine has a formidable military capacity, but Russia’s is much larger and includes nuclear weapons which Russian President Putin put on “heightened alert” 3 days ago. Ukraine will fight alone, with USA and EU supplying funds and material support including weapons. Nevertheless, Russia seems determined and able to take over Ukraine.
Holding onto it is another matter. The world has learned in the last 7 days since the invasion began that the Ukrainian people are stalwart. They will not easily yield as Putin expected them to do. Quite the contrary, the invasion has solidified the nation. Even if Russia takes over the country it will clearly not be taking over the people. Resistance will erode Russia’s ability to control what they acquire by force. Indeed, back in Russia the Russian people consider the Ukrainians to be kinfolk and are never going to swallow the idea that they are aliens to be conquered. As it becomes clear to them that this aggression is against the people of Ukraine and not just against the government and military, Russians will grow chilly about what Putin is doing. His standing as president will weaken. The question is only how fast this will happen and how far it will go.
For Europe the first fact about what’s going on is that one nation (Russia) has unilaterally invaded another (Ukraine). The issue is national sovereignty, the right of a nation to exist and decide on its own alliances and policies. That is what has alarmed and united Europe. The post-Cold War peace has been shattered. Finland may now join NATO – an action Russia has vowed to prevent. Germany has sent weapons to Ukraine – an action not done to forces in combat in 70 years. Poland has reopened its borders to half a million refugees from Ukraine – as have all the other countries surrounding Ukraine to which refugees, now more than a million in number, have fled. For Europe, the threat of the loss of natural gas and oil from Russia is less frightening than the prospect of what Russia will do next if it succeeds in Ukraine.
For Thailand and many other countries the first fact about what’s going on is the destabilization of the world economic systems. Thailand is concerned about trade and tourism above all. Russia’s military poses no threat to Thailand. Loss of commerce is just short of terrifying.
China and India, however, are not as concerned about that as they are about what’s happening to Russia. They want Russia to be a viable balance of power with USA as they try to develop their own growth and influence. It is alarming to them that what Russia is doing is counter-productive: it is unifying the world against Russia and reducing Russia’s potency. In stark terms, most of Asia would like to have this war quickly over so everybody can get back to trying to survive COVID and make money. The humanitarian and geo-political implications of the war in Ukraine are not being ignored here in Asia, but overwhelming opinion is in favor of limiting this to what is going on between Ukraine and Russia and letting the West fight it out.
Thailand wants to hope that Russian tourists and expats will keep on bringing money into Pattaya and beyond, but the Russian Ruble has lost 30% of its value this week and due to what’s going on about Ukraine Thailand’s export growth is now predicted to be 0% for the second quarter of this year. Thailand’s economic condition is serious. The fact that the West and USA have chosen to battle Russia with economic sanctions is inconvenient.
First COVID and now this.
CRITIQUE OF A COURSE PROPOSAL
Eve Parker in the United Kingdom has proposed a new discipline to be included in theological education. Her proposal appeared in the journal of the World Council of Churches:
Eve Parker, “World Christianity as a critique of Whiteness in Theological Education” in The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 74, Number 1, January 2022.
Parker’s argument is that theologies are divided illegitimately into “theology” and “contextual theology.” Normal theology has privilege based on its white imperial supremacist male origin, while theology created by others is marginalized and disadvantaged. “Theology” (without an adjective to modify it) is by people like Barth, Bultmann, and Kung. But theology composed by outsiders has to be justified by the context and comes with a classifier, such as “Feminist Theology,” “Min Jung Theology,” or some subservient branch that is not quite theology at all such as “Cherokee Spirituality.” However, Christianity is shifting south and away from the middle class into the lower class. World Christianity is a reality which ought to impel a “deconstruction of such dominant ways of knowing in theological thought” (p. 49). The solution to this blindness to the new reality of Christianity, and to the facts about how Christianity in the hands of white supremacists suppressed indigenous and native thoughts, Parker submits, is to add a discipline, “World Christianity,” to theological curricula in the UK. This would expose students to voices and experiences they are being prevented from knowing.
Parker’s section about the devadasis is the most astonishing and convincing part of her article. She describes her research among a group of prostitutes who declare knowledge of Jesus as they also have allegiance to the goddess Yellamma. “Many of the women I encountered had converted to Christianity and yet sustained their belief and worship in local village goddesses. …The religious hybridity of the Dalit initiates a religious identity, shaped by the dedicated women’s experience of both the goddess and Christ, where they hold beliefs simultaneously in both and allow both Christ and the goddess to structure their meaning of life” (52). Parker concludes, “… contemplating God in the brothels of the devadasis in South India challenges dominant structures of knowledge production. This is because knowledge instead stems from indecent spaces inclusive of the sexual and religious narratives of the oppressed.” (p. 56)
It is hard to imagine a starker and more convincing example of how alternative theological knowledge is available outside the borders Christianity has erected. Those walls, so old, so strong, and so stoutly defended, may or may not have been built for the sole purpose of protecting Christian imperial enterprises, but they did do that. Colonialist and settler theology discounted non-white races and their knowledge a priori. The church (both Protestant and Catholic) operated on and still upholds the principle that cultures must be wiped out so that Christian culture and civilization can replace them. It is breathtaking to realize how much has been lost and how many have been annihilated in order to promote and protect a non-inclusive, narrow point of view and one that is illegitimately misogynistic, racist, and supremacist. The church has much to answer for. Parker believes that if we bring in narratives from those diverse sources two things will happen: those who listen will gain appreciation for the faith and validity of people whose stories are being told, and the sordid history of Christian expansion will be exposed and confronted.
Parker’s solution is to tinker with the theological curricula of training institutions in the United Kingdom. Her proposal is to add a new discipline called World Christianity. It’s high time, she says, because Christianity has shifted from north to south and has found a new center outside the elite and middle classes. Oppressed and struggling people have become the demographic majority of Christianity. It’s time to stop training the new generation of leaders to be chaplains to white Christians sheltering away from the tectonic shift and gathering storm. The new generation is departing the church in droves and refusing to have anything to do with it. The ship is sinking, but there are other ships in the fleet sailing in new directions.
This new discipline in theological seminaries is a place to start, and something that is doable. So, let it be done. It would be helpful to have Parker explain what the content of that new discipline of World Christianity would be. Curriculum designers need to have that spelled out. What is the scope and who decides what to include and what to exclude? Are there to be limits? How does one get at the narratives from oppressed minorities? Who is going to do the sifting and make the decisions?
It appears that Parker’s proposal is to replace the prevailing mega-narrative about church history with an anthology of stories that describe personal experiences, and to include micro-narratives from Christians around the world, especially those who have been oppressed and struggling. The proposal, if this is accurate, is stunningly post-modernistic. It would, then, have both the benefits and disadvantages of post-modern anti-structuralism, which is bent on eradicating that which (i.e. institutions which) control us and return control to the hands of the smallest social units. The outcome of this could be fragmentation of the church. The result is impossible to know for sure. In principle, from a post-modernist perspective, it would be a good thing to have multiple Christianities. But the history of post-modernism does not encourage optimism. It may be that human nature is basically violent and survivalist. Tribalism takes over when empires collapse. “Me first” is but a step away from “Only Me.”
On the other hand, Christian theology, unencumbered by ecclesial imperialism, espouses compassion and justice, self-abnegation when there is prevailing need, and reliance on sacred sources of strength and endurance. There is no sign that Christian communities outside the white borders are lacking in higher moral standards and are theologically deficient. Actually, as Parker makes clear, we have not listened to voices from most of those communities to know anything about them.
Knowledge production is a key concept for Parker. If the prostitutes of the goddess worshipped by the Dalit have knowledge of Jesus, there is hope for us who are in the Christian gay and queer diaspora. We have often been evicted or at least shunned. We have felt relegated to oblivion as far as our stories and voices are concerned. Any LGBT person in most churches who “comes out” is told to keep quiet or leave.
Yes, there are individual congregations and some whole denominations who are trying to be inclusive. Yes, they are growing in number. Perhaps this substantiates Parker’s proposal. The way these denominations have developed openness to our LGBTQIA presence and are trying to value our contributions of perspective and experience, is by fracturing. When enough of the recalcitrant, obstinate opposition has departed, those who are left are receptive. In short, neo-tribalism is where oppressed people have the best chance to find hospitality and freedom, at least to be going on with.
I cannot imagine how it would work, however, to have our Gay theological perspective included in a course or even a set of courses that attempts to include enough obscure voices to represent the whole scope of World Christianity. There are too many of us. Parker’s proposal, of course, is to expose the emerging generation of Christian leaders to a few examples of theological knowledge from outside the camp so they get the idea that theology is now on a different trajectory. Once they get out of their rut they will go on to discover the amazing variety of valid religious experiences and their commitment will veer into a new direction. This will eventually, possibly, maybe put the church onto a new track. But that will leave their discovery of any particular theological perspective, such as our Gay Theologies, up to chance.
Napat and Nan got married the other day. It was a grand affair that involved a lot of participants. That was part of the idea, to give people in their lives the honor and fun of being included. The other part of the design of the day was to project a vision, a dream, for the future. Weddings ought to do that. Weddings should reflect the aspirations and identities of the couple.
This wedding was a fusion of traditions. [See pictures A – F]
The day began with a Chinese-Lanna procession of the groom and his kinfolk to the bride’s family who are ethnic Chinese. The bride and groom were dressed in red Chinese costumes. There was a ceremony of the couple offering tea to the parents.
In the afternoon the costumes were “tie and tails” for the groom and a white gown and long lace veil for the bride that took four pages and bride’s maids to handle. Music and ceremony vied for attention for the next two hours. The musicians were former teachers, little children, and musical colleagues of the groom. The bride is a medical doctor whose co-workers were very busy with COVID, but some came as they could. The couple exchanged vows and rings in the traditional way, and then were serenaded (there’s no other word for what came next). One of the enthusiastic performers on a violin was the groom. Equally exuberant was the announcer who seemed intent on getting the bride and groom to break out of their last shreds of solemnity.
Then the festivities moved to an outer courtyard where musicians entertained everyone while they nibbled on snacks, took pictures with the couple, and collected bags of the vegetables that had been decorating the platform. This was the bride’s idea, reflecting her commitment to utility over extravagance.
21st century Thai wedding traditions have changed in several important ways. The ceremony has become increasingly optional; if and when there is a ceremony are left up to the couple. Almost all couples have begun life together tentatively, and then there is acceptance that the friendship has become a relationship, which gradually includes both of the couple’s families. A traditional Thai wedding consists almost entirely of these two families formally agreeing and blessing the couple, signified by tying cords around the couple’s wrists while intoning good wishes. If the families could afford it there was a party, as lavish as possible.
Recently, these receptions/parties have become diverse. They often have a theme. They project aspects of the couple’s life and fantasies. They involve participation and performance. If the event is “themed,” those who attend are told about the theme so they know what to wear. Some of the actors have definite costumes and scripts or opportunities to do something expressing the theme.
The theme for Nan and Napat’s wedding, according to one lady, was “Royal.” Women were invited to wear hats and men to have suits appropriate for a European royal wedding. The royal theme incorporated a Christian service (with four clergy involved who had been friends of the family for decades). The theme was also music, incorporating performances mostly by younger friends.
Exactly 3 years ago Mew and Saw had the most elaborate themed wedding Pramote and I ever attended. [See pictures G – M] It began with an afternoon of Northern Thai and Burmese traditions. There was a procession, a “kong sabat” drum dance, a shaman dancer, and blessing of the couple by all the guests. Costumes were supposed to be ethnic as it was presumed the elite dressed a hundred years ago. The party was at night the next day and it was a circus theme with clowns, acrobats, magicians, side shows, and all. Producing themed events was what the groom’s family did for a living. They did their utmost for this one.
I started out as a clergy officiating at weddings about 800 weddings ago (averaging 50 every year I was a pastor in the USA). At that time only one form of wedding service was available. Only the names of the bride and groom changed, although music varied.
Cathedral-like weddings with hotel or resort receptions are not out of style but there are more choices of themes recently. I predict that themed weddings will become the preference for those who want their wedding day to be extraordinary.
Weddings and funerals are two occasions when customs most clearly differ between ethnic groups, even in this age of cultural melding and overlap. Why are themed weddings coming into vogue here in Thailand? Here are my speculations:
· They make the event unique. The couple and their families are establishing a mark on society.
· They communicate particular ideas. The couple is highlighting their main concerns.
· They infringe on elite territory. Weddings that used to be reserved for special echelons (royalty, military, aristocracy, etc.) can be imitated. This is post-modern democratization in action. In Thailand the middle class is rising.
· They are fun. Themed weddings are much more “play” than traditional ones.
This essay about themed weddings completes my ruminations about weddings.
Previous blog essays have elaborated on weddings. See:
Essays about costumes include:
Elder Tan of Mae Tang, North of Chiang Mai, was a popular preacher of the old school. He was also a self-proclaimed expert on Buddhist mythology. He had specialized in applying many of the Buddhist myths to Christian evangelism. In particular, he believed that the myth of Araya Maetrai is a prophecy of the coming of Christ, rather than of the coming of another Buddha 5000 years after Gautama. Tan recalled all sorts of details about this to support his contention that Christianity is not a foreign religion, because Christianity was actually foretold by the Lord Buddha himself.
As far as I know, Uncle Tan is the only evangelist who espoused this view. I wonder what might have happened if his idea had taken hold. I woke up at about four one recent morning thinking that Christianity in Thailand has never established itself as having roots in sacred time, as Tan’s message would have done. As long as Christianity is a late-comer without roots in the mythic past it is an intruder.
There are several mythic strains that support the belief that Buddhism is the legitimate religion for the people of this land. The prevailing myth here in the north is that the Lord Buddha traveled throughout the land in sacred time. He rested here and there, leaving some physical evidence, a hair around which people built a sacred mound and kept venerating the Buddha in that place, or a footprint imprinted in rock. In this way the land has been appropriated as part of sacred space. Most importantly, the Lord Buddha met giants who ruled these northern hills and converted them [the picture above of Chiang Dao Cave entrance is one place this is said to have happened].
I believe that some such mythic legitimacy must be established for every religion for it to become one that firmly belongs where it is found. There must be an unshakeable faith that the religion, as it is now, has legitimacy as the descendant or successor to cosmic ancestry as mediated by sacred intermediaries.
Christianity claimed the northern part of Europe by latching onto the myth of Ragnarok. That myth told of an epic battle in which the old Nordic gods died. At their death missionaries of the heir came with the news of the spread of the new faith. They entered lands vacated by the old gods. “The risen Christ is come,” they announced.
Christianity prefers the idea of death and resurrection to that of improvement. Even conversion must involve a form of death and resurrection. When it comes to cultures, the old must be eradicated, as the missionaries did to the Aztecs and Incas.
On the other hand, once in a while the idea of “prophecy fulfilled” overwhelms the preference for violent overthrow. Baptist missionaries in Burma found that the ethnic people in the north had an old expectation of a white prophet flying in on the wind with a golden book of life. The missionaries were white, their ships seemed to fit the story, and the Bibles they carried were trimmed with gold and told of “eternal life.”
In North America, however, the myths of the indigenous peoples did not comport with the supremacist views of the colonists from Europe. The native ideas of a great prevailing Spirit with a generous nurturing Mother were too much like heathen pantheism. The savage tribes needed to be purged. What’s more, they were in the way of a divine imperative, the “Manifest Destiny” of the new nation to expand from sea to shining sea. The mythic notion that empowered the colonists was their belief that wherever they went the place of their dwelling was ipso facto sacred. The land became sacred by sacred people being there.
Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), took this “sense of destiny” a step further by telling how God’s people had been present on North American soil long before 1492, through the immigration of lost tribes of Israel after the destruction of Israel by the Babylonians. A myth like this is powerful if it takes root deeply enough.
In Japan that has not happened. The mythic past has not been extended to include Christianity as its present-day evolution. The scattering of Christians across Japan has been insufficient to tip the balance and revolutionize the myth. For several decades it has looked like that was about to take place in Korea, but now the failure of Christianity to find its mythic roots in the heart of Korea may be undermining the shift. In the Philippines Christianity patiently absorbed ethnic culture without trying to wipe it out ( I think that’s what happened).
Buddhism in the USA has yet to penetrate into the mythic layer of faith beyond small ethnic immigrant communities which are to some extent in the process of becoming integrated. When Buddhism moves beyond its “native lands” it tends to be sustained as a philosophical set of concepts.
In Thailand, Indonesia, Japan and India Christianity remains as enclaves making no claim to be the dominant religion of culture or state, much less the national religion. It exists as “one of God’s colonies” in an alien environment. Without mythic roots embedded in the sacred past, aside from the vague assertion that God created the whole world, Christianity is still under development. It is on the way toward enculturation in a millennium or so, or perhaps heading for eradication in those places where the dominant religion becomes militant.
What makes us tick? That’s a question from my childhood. My considered answer after some 80 years is that four functions drive us. They are:
physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual
This is not universally accepted. Materialists insist there is only one function, the physical (that is, chemical, physical, and electric). Many other post-Enlightenment theories say we are physical and mental. After Freud, some reluctantly add emotional. In earlier times everything was subsumed under the spiritual heading. I think all 4 are valid but rather than argue philosophically, I will discuss how we function holistically.
In order to demonstrate the reality of a function the first step is to agree that it makes things happen all by itself, without anything else contributing. Are there physical functions that do not need anything mental, emotional or spiritual to make them happen? Of course there are. Heartbeat and digestion, to mention two, are involuntary and go on even when one is comatose.
Mental functions include thinking. Creative inspiration, high IQs, and out-of-body experiences are mental. They are remarkable, but the fact that they are not caused by any of the other three functions proves (to me) that they are discrete.
Emotional functions are usually described as feelings. The list is long. Anger, satisfaction, affection, suspicion and sadness are but five of them. These emotions often involve thought, but they are prior to mental thoughts and independent of them at the beginning. Emotions behave in irrational ways, and they are as often caused by as they are the causes of physical responses. The validity of an emotional-quotient (EQ) is gaining attention.
Spiritual functions cannot be described separate from mental actions. It takes mental activity to comprehend whatever is going on with us that is spiritual. Nevertheless, as with wind, we may not see it but we perceive its effects. Spiritual experiences have results. Those include insight not derived from thinking but from what is gained when thinking has reached its end. Spiritual functions form a capsule or frame within when we live and move and have our being.
These single functions are not all that move us. Usually they are combined. For example, a physical-mental impulse is probably the most common motivator in everyday living. Hunger and pain are two mental activities that have physical triggers. Most of the time we are moved by multiple forces.
Let’s say we are faced with a social challenge: a neighbor is causing us trouble. Our frustration (emotion) pushes us to try to figure out (mental) what to do. As we grapple with how to deal with the neighbor we realize our options are of two types, essentially: action against the neighbor or managing to resolve our own emotional turmoil. Our spiritual character might well be the part of the mix that sorts it out for us.
In real life almost all of our conscious “doing and being” involve all four functions. Each of them contributes to the incessant chain of problem-wrestling and solving that goes on in our heads as well as a result of habit and trained responses. In short, we tick automatically. Almost everything we do doesn’t take a lot of doing. We just do it. That leaves us better off to concentrate on the thing foremost at the moment.
That brings us to activities that are interruptive or outstanding. Sometimes they take over. In almost all of these occurrences one of the four functions dominates, but only for an instant. Vomiting, orgasm, and sneezing are spasms. Even though they are involuntary muscular contractions, they occur in a context. A lot of thinking is going on, emotions are peaking, physical responses are only partly under control. For an instant the spasms are all that matter and cannot be diverted, but even as they are going on the context is being manipulated by all of our four functions sorting, searching, and seizing options about what to do now. This unified confluence involves elemental DISCERNMENT.
As we grow in maturity, we grow in discernment.
What we learn to discern is how all of our functions are working together all the time and how they are refined as we grow so our best interests are met with the least necessary effort.
Normally, we go along from one planned or spontaneous activity to another. We decide to sweep the sidewalk or call a relative. Then the cat wants out. We get back to filling out a report and decide we’d be better after a cup of tea. Each of those actions is composed of countless micro-actions. Overall, they contribute to a makro-action, a pattern of activities that constitute a part of who we are right now and in this time of life. Makro-actions are developed and transformed as we go along.
Life, however, is random. It makes victims of us, but maturity helps us keep on moving, hopefully, moving toward less urgency.
A nephew, this week, switched from married life back to being single. A lot of actions were involved in this major change of direction. Some of them were primarily emotional. Now, he will need to discern how the disruption has produced fragments to be composed into a new plan for life and find a new-normal.
That’s how life works. Tick, tick, tick, tick.
REMINISENCE ABOUT REENTRY
The idea I had in going to Thailand in 1965 when the invitation came, was to gain experience that would help me understand more about what the church was doing in the world. My plan was to gain valuable experiences of the church at work. By that time I had been the religion editor for the Jacksonville Journal Courier, chaplain’s assistant in locked wards in the Jacksonville State Hospital, student pastor in the Arenzville Presbyterian Church, assistant to the director of the Department of Camps of the Presbytery of Chicago and more. Overseas mission would fill in a gap because, “How could a pastor be completely ready to serve without knowing what the church is doing in its foreign missions?” (It was a naïve question. Most pastors cared very little about foreign missions. That was going to impact the United Presbyterian Church (USA) heavily in less than a decade.)
Succinctly, my plan was to immerse myself in Thailand for what the UPC called a “short term” and then return to the USA to get on with being a Presbyterian minister – after an additional year and a half at St. Andrews in Scotland to get a PhD in ‘applied theology,” for which I was accepted.
I had not counted on Thailand being life-changing. The ways that happened included: discovering an affinity for Thailand and its people (including, surprisingly, the language), the proximity of the Vietnam War to Thailand and the imminent threat we felt from Communist totalitarianism, the realization that NOW was the time to get married, and the change of regulations in UK higher education that suddenly raised the cost of the PhD out of reach.
The second half of my 4 years as a teacher in the Thailand Theological Seminary was characterized by challenges and accomplishment. As a missionary I developed a multi-media center (with Gerry Dyck), served as the first co-pastor of the Chiangmai Community Church (with John Butt), wrote a textbook entitled Worship as Celebration of Life (which was translated into Thai by Francis Seely and his Thai Textbook Project team), and I was the first American teacher in the brand new school for Buddhist priests and novices in Wat Prasingh.
Then it came to an end.
Whoops! New plan.
Needing something to do while finding a job I signed up for a Master of Sacred Theology (STM) back at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. The place had changed unbelievably in the 4 years I had been away. It was “the Age of Aquarius” post-Woodstock. We arrived just after the Puerto Rican gang, the Junior Latin Counts, had given up their “take over” of the seminary as their headquarters to try to stop the gentrification of Lincoln Park neighborhood. Chicago was radicalized after the riots at the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And the turning point of the anti-war movement was a dominant part of everything.
I was more disoriented than I had ever been.
I have rarely felt as much a misfit as I did that year back in Chicago. The only things that made it bearable were related to Thailand, not to Chicago – up to then “my town, town that I loved.” During that year I provided editorial help to Kamol Aryapratheep as she worked toward becoming the first Thai theologian with a Doctor of Theology degree. I collected creative projects from my years in Thailand, including liturgies, stories, and text for a cantata to be my STM project. I learned how to work with a film lab to edit a Thai version of “The Loving Father” (based on the Prodigal Son parable), which I had scripted and directed, shot on 16mm film by Leonard Crane at National Council of Churches expense. I had my first academic article published in the South East Asia Journal of Theology.
One thing was clear by May 1970: my place in the church was as a pastor. It was not possible to return to Thailand because the UPC budget for overseas fraternal workers (missionaries) was running in the red. I needed an entry-position in the USA to get started. My decade of “gaining experience” was over. It was time to settle down. But nothing I had done was convincing enough to pastoral search committees that I could handle the job as a pastor. All my experiences, ironically, had made me “overqualified,” said key committee members in Decatur IL, Basking Ridge NJ, Lancaster PA, State College PA, and a half dozen other churches where I was invited to be interviewed.
Then, in the first week of May, 1970, just days before graduation and eviction from seminary housing, Jim Bigley and the committee of the United Presbyterian Church of Maple Heights, Ohio, agreed to take a chance on me.
That was the answer we needed … and not a moment too soon.
REMINISCENCE ABOUT A NUDGE INTO A NEW DIRECTION
During our last year and a half in the ministry program at McCormick Theological Seminary, 1963-5, Lyle, Jim and I spent a lot of time considering our career options. In those days choices spread before us: pastoral ministry, missionary service, urban-industrial ministry, theological education, church music, Christian education, and many more. The three of us had honed our concern in the direction of the inner-city. Inner-cities were places of commerce surrounded by residential decay into which were crowded immigrants, migrants, and vagrants.
By our third and final year at McCormick we knew a lot about the inner-city since McCormick was right on the fringe of one. Our seminary also specialized in preparing people to minister in the inner-city. One entire department of the seminary offered a Master’s degree in “Church and Community”. Of all the Presbyterian seminaries, McCormick was the place to go to train for that challenging field. The other seminary was non-denominational Union Theological Seminary in New York City, connected to Columbia University.
There were three primary forms of inner-city ministry. Most prominently were established churches which had been there when the residential ring was prosperous. Successful churches had welcomed or been established for immigrant groups. Chicago was famous for its Polish, Italian, and Lithuanian neighborhoods into which then migrated Mexicans, Puerto Rican, and African-American residents. The second form of inner-city ministry was centered on “neighborhood houses” modeled after Jane Addams’s famous Hull House. The newest form was just gaining notice, and we three were noticing that. Its model was the East Harlem Protestant Parish (EHPP) in New York City.
EHPP was one of a number of combined community-living and social-justice experiments being undertaken in the Post-World-War-II era between 1950 and 1980. EHPP was established in 1948 (and dissolved officially in 1977). The first three ministers were 3 graduates of Union Theological Seminary. They began with a storefront church and lived in urban housing in the neighborhood, as close and accessible to the people as they could get. Funding for the parish came from 7 supporting denominations, the National Council of Churches, and Union Theological Seminary. The key concepts, and what set the parish apart from other inner-city ministry, was (1) COMMUNITY worship as the core of daily living, (2) COMMUNITY empowerment through improvement of community organizations for leadership development, (3) and COMMUNITY activism including (a) robust opposition to real estate exploitation, (b) reaction to police brutality and corruption, (c) response to the horrible education provided by inner-city schools, (d) and opposition to narcotic trafficking (brought by organized crime syndicates with local participation) and, at the same time, action to get addiction treated medically rather than as a crime.
We three classmates had a plan. We would get ourselves into position through an entry-level post-seminary experience of three or four years, and then we would don the gray clergy costume of the EHPP and move into one of Chicago’s blighted neighborhoods. Our target was 1969 to set up a “prep-school” as our first project. One has to start with something that was needed. All the neighborhoods had churches, but the schools were failures – turning out failures as graduates who were not educated, not energized, and not equipped to do much of anything with their lives except inhabit the dangerous and decayed environment from which they would find it impossible to move. As we gathered for tea in my dorm room we grew enthusiastic as we were aware of the way the three of us, from our diverse backgrounds, complemented each other. The prep-school would be a boarding school. It would be inclusive and unstinting. We’d expect excellence. We would exude confidence, even though we had a very realistic idea about the challenges.
But by 1969 that was no longer a plan we could build on. 1965 to 1969 saw war come full-blown to Vietnam, assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. – bringing the end of idealism and the rise of urban violence. The church was losing ground as a force for urban activism, and “community” was becoming impossible in the soon-to-be demolished housing projects. Our Chicago Inner-city Prep School dream faded. Each of the three of us had also been nudged into new directions of ministry.
Still I wonder, as one does at a stage of life such as this, from this distance of 50 years, if our hours of tea and talk were entirely vain. The resonance of that enthusiasm has never entirely disappeared, and its vibrations have shaken almost every enterprise I’ve undertaken since. I was sad in 1969 to get back to McCormick and the inner-city was not to be my venue. The plan we toasted with tea faded, but the impulse to stay close to the ground where people are has not faded.
[The picture accompanying this reminiscence gives a clue as to the endurance of the idealism as I bounced from one plan of ministry to another, rarely getting far from street level.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.