Friday, December 28, 2007

Thought for the Day

My friends, we have to meet the challenge of these obnoxious TV commercials HEAD ON, HEAD ON, HEAD ON . . . . .

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Weep for Sister Benazir

Weep, O World, O tragic world, for Sister Benazir. Weep, all you who long for a little more justice, a little democracy, a little better prospect for the masses who yearn for a more decent life.

In a nation where most options range from bad to worse, she was a glimmer of light, a beacon of hope -- limited though it may have been. Maybe she was corrupt, as they say, but still she was the best that Pakistan had for the near future. Now she is gone.

Why, O why, dear Sister Benazir, did you have to stand up in that car to wave once more, when the bullet-proof car might have saved you? Maybe they would have killed you anyway somehow, someplace, some way, but at least you could have lived one more day to wage the fight.

Dear Sister Benazir, today you join all the other martyrs who tried to shine a light in the darkness and hate symbolized by Chairman Mao's dictum that "power comes out of the barrel of a gun." You are with Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Anwar Sadat, who joined Yitzhak Rabin in saying, "Enough, enough of blood and tears!" All together in a great cloud of witnesses with all whose efforts over the centuries to improve the lot of humankind cost them their lives, they will welcome you, Sister Benazir, to watch what we will do with their sacrifice.

Today, then, let us weep for Sister Benazir and for the better days she might have brought to that troubled complex land. But tomorrow, somebody else has to light a candle in the darkness that might light other lights that might light others until . . . . . .

And in despair I bowed my heart;
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to all."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth God sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, goodwill to all."
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

O Sister Benazir, O Sister Benazir . . . . For her and all who like her long for a better day, we must keep the hope alive, but today we weep for Sister Benazir.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Open Letter to Our Children

Dear Offspring,

My Spouse and I had been considering whether we wanted to get gifts individually or choose something as a family for both. After some days of pondering, the more bold, daring, and audacious member of the duet exclaimed giddily, "Why don't we throw caution to the wind and go ahead and get an HD TV and not wait for the Zenith to go POOF, so we can enjoy it before senility and affliction get any worse?" The more cautious, frugal, slow-moving one after thinking it over seriously for about a second and half shouted out with glee, "Capital notion! I'm free to go shopping now, right after I go pee." (Identities of the aforementioned characters will be disclosed upon written request.)

Armed with our shopping bible -- Consumer Reports -- we set out. Bottom line: We will soon (January 8 installation of new HD hardware) be in possession of a Panasonic TH-42PZ77U plasma set with new programming from Direct TV including HD channels.

Tickets for viewing will be available for family members at a discount. Popcorn will be on sale at typical movie prices. Butter is extra. Discounts will not be available for Super Bowl Sunday. Other restrictions may apply.

The original idea had been that when the Zenith went BOING, we would consider HD. But despite the fact that the more impatient member of the zany pair has been beating the Zenith in the face repeatedly over the last few months with a baseball bat, the thing keeps right on playing, so it looked like no HD in our lifetime until -- begin over at the first sentence --

Your Wild and Crazy Parental Units

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Are there any Christians?

A prophet of our age, Will Campbell, once said, "Baptists are the hope of the world, if we could only find some." My claim is that Christians are the hope of the world, if we could only find some.

For purposes of discussion, let me begin this way. If we were really Christians in the New Testament sense, most of us would give 50% or more of our income to help those who are worse off than we are. This is a simple implication and a modest, even weak, interpretation of the commandment to love your neighbor equally with yourself, not even to mention Matthew 5: 38 ff. To put it another way to get things going, Christians need to justify why they spend more on themselves than the median family income in this country, which by world standards makes us quite affluent. Radical Christianity would insist that we cannot have two coats as long as anybody in the world has none.

Peter Singer in a provocative essay pointed out that if we had the chance to save a child's life right before us, we would do so even at considerable sacrifice to ourselves. But he rightly noted the fact every time we spend a few dollars for something we don't absolutely need, a child dies who might have been saved had that money been given to, say, Oxfam. There is no way to escape the logic of that.

In another place I argued that the radical ethic of the New Testament was incompatible with civilization, i. e., the assignment of responsibilities with rules and expectations in a continuing society. Total self-giving love that demands nothing from the other is irreconcilable with assigned roles, duties, division of labor, accountability, and so on. The unqualified demands of sacrificial love require their implementation in the moment without regard for future consequences for self or others. Orderly life could not go on if no one ever insisted that others play their part, share the load, live by the rules of civilized society, and carry out their obligations. I concluded that the compromises necessary to have a continuing, organized society were not wrong but that we make the compromises long before and far more extensively than we need to for the sake of civilization.(1)

What, then is the value of an ethic of absolute ideals demanding perfection in this ambiguous, complex civilized world?. Reinhold Niebuhr and Alfred North Whitehead are my guides. Whitehead said that the impractical ideals of the first century are a standard by which to measure the shortcomings of society. "So long as the Galilean images are but the dreams of an unrealized world, so long they must spread the infection of an uneasy spirit" (Adventures of Ideas). A morally serious person of faith cannot read take equal love of neighbor seriously and be at ease with any social status quo.

Reinhold Niebuhr made the same point. Agape, Christian love, is an "impossible possibility" that is relevant in all situations as both judge of every present achievement and guide to further moral advance

OK, the objections: You want to make us feel guilty all the time. No, I am suggesting that our unrealized ideals are a spur and guide to action not a guilt-inducing mechanism.

You don't appear to know about salvation by grace through faith, not by works. O yes I do; it is our only hope. But I also know about "cheap grace" (Bonhoeffer), and that that "right strawy epistle" (Luther), James, says that faith without works is dead. Nobody has ever worked out the relation between grace and law, faith and works in a satisfactory way that is descriptive of everybody, not Protestants, not Catholics, not Luther, not Calvin, not Wesley, not Reinhold Niebuhr.(2) They, however, along with the New Testament all teach that genuine faith expresses itself in good works.

I prefer a pragmatic, experiential approach. Those who are burdened by guilt at their lack of moral perfection need to hear the liberating word of grace. Those who are at ease in Zion need to hear the demand to do better and to reread Matthew 25 where Jesus teaches a doctrine of salvation by works that warns our failure to meet the neighbor's need will get us cast into the eternal flame. My observation is that the population of those at ease in Zion far, far outnumbers the guilt-ridden.

So why am I getting into all this? Here is why: The typical operational assumption among us is that being a Christian means living a respectable life by middle-class standards, being an active, faithful church member, giving generously to church and charities, and doing a usually modest (sometimes zero) amount of good works on a volunteer basis. That is the definition of a cultural Christian. Is it a definition of a New Testament Christian? I don't think so. For my reasoning, see the first two paragraphs.
(1) Complicating all this is the fact that we don't expect the end of the world very shortly (or live as if we do, even if we say we expect it) as Jesus and early New Testament Christians generally did. Even fundamentalists have life insurance policies and have savings plans for retirement.

(2) For one things the usual assumption is that you are either saved or lost; you either have faith or you don't (although this note is muted in modern liberals), whereas actual experience is too multifarious and variegated to fit a strict either-or logic. Both faith and works come in all sizes, varieties, strengths, and patterns.

Presentism and Selfishness

I will begin with a big audacious claim and weasel out of it as refutations require. Most of the major problems in this world can be traced to two sources: presentism and selfishness. Presentism is the preference for immediate satisfactions over future ones. Selfishness is the preference for our own satisfactions over those of others.

Where to begin? We cannot deal effectively with global warming because the benefits of not doing so are enjoyed now, while planetary catastrophe will be experienced later. The same holds for other environmental problems. We cannot move quickly enough toward energy independence because it would be costly now, and the good results would come later. We should have been taking steps like adding a substantial tax to gasoline at least as far back as the Carter era. President Carter advocated a strong future-oriented energy policy but was thwarted.

Congress will not take steps now to deal with Medicare financing that will sooner or later confront us because politicians are focused on getting reelected in the nearer future. Bush pushed through massive tax cuts assisting mainly the rich, especially the obscenely rich, resulting in huge national deficits whose consequences will have to be faced later. A tragic, unnecessary war has been financed by deficit spending because lowering taxes has become a religion for the Republicans, and responsible fiscal policy in the here and now is bad for electoral politics. The enemy is us, not just our politicians, because they know we want our goodies now with as little cost to us as possible and that we are not easily persuaded by futuristic logic.

We have a housing mortgage crisis because people wanted a larger house that small beginning interest payments a few years ago would allow, and banks promoted bad loans out of greed for bigger immediate profits. When the larger payments became due, homeowners defaulted, and the banks had to foreclose, hurting everybody. Now we are in a credit crunch because in the past present interests took precedence over ignored future outcomes.

We are funding our national spending spree with loans from nations like China and Dubai. No one knows what the future results will be. Individuals are getting more and more behind on credit card payments because of past and present purchases. Devotion to presentism shuns frugality and responsible spending. In 2005 we had a negative savings rate. From the Associated Press:

"Consumers depleted their savings to finance the purchases of cars and other big-ticket items. ... The Commerce Department reported Monday that the savings rate fell into negative territory at minus 0.5 percent, meaning that Americans not only spent all of their after-tax income last year but had to dip into previous savings or increase borrowing.The savings rate has been negative for an entire year only twice before — in 1932 and 1933."

Christopher Jencks beautifully points out how difficult immigration reform is because of what I am calling presentism:

"Many employers would accept more stringent penalties for hiring illegal immigrants in the future if that were the only way to legalize their current workers, and many immigrant groups would do the same. On the other side, many conservative activists might accept legalization of today's illegal immigrants if that were the only way to ensure a crackdown on hiring illegal immigrants in the future. In principle, therefore, a deal should be possible. But this deal turns out to have a fatal flaw. Legalization can be implemented within a few years, while penalties for hiring illegal immigrants have to be enforced indefinitely. That means employers get what they want right away, while opponents of illegal immigration have to wait.
"The Immigration Charade," The New York Review of Books (September 27, 2007)

We could go on. Much that is not accounted for by presentism can be attributed to selfishness. They overlap but cannot be reduced to each other. Presentism is selfishness in the moment for ourselves and others disregarding the future. Selfishness is preference for ourselves disregarding the neighbor in the present and the future. Selfishness in theological terms is sin; presentism adds disregard of wisdom to sin.

Selfishness is such a staple of moral theology that it needs no illustration. Just observe any issue that arises and see how the parties (individuals or groups) line up, taking positions that benefit them, interpreting or ignoring the facts to suit their interests.

Protestant ethic with your emphasis on frugality, self-restraint, discipline, and responsibility -- where are you when we need you?

So what is the cure? If you are a preacher, you might start with Romans 1:27ff. and take it from there. Secularists can point out the consequences of selfishness and the folly of presentism, quoting the old biblical and cultural adage that we reap what we sow. Obviously the gospel in both its religious and secular forms calls for repentance (change of mind) and reformation of character with the appropriate deeds (fruits meet for repentance Matthew 3:8 KJV) that follow. Rates of expected success for prophets or secular reformers: small. The pleasures of presentism and selfishness are too seductive to be resisted.

Here endeth the lesson. Remember: hell is truth seen too late (Thomas Hobbes).

Christmas Memories

Christmas is about anticipation and realization. For people my age, however, Christmas becomes more and more about memories. For me one image in particular stands out.

Christmas was big with my former wife, who passed away twenty years ago last October. Eloise would trudge all over Rochester in the treacherous snow and ice to find what the children wanted and would always try to have at least one surprise for them. We added at least one new ornament every year to the collection, which therefore grew larger each season making the tree brighter and more colorful.

The rule in our house was that the children could not come downstairs until 7 AM on Christmas morning. So Paul, Nancy, and Melissa would huddle at the top of the stairs clock in hand waiting as the minutes ticked away like hours. At the appointed time on the dot, they would hurry down the stairs and into the living room to look at the pile of gaily-wrapped presents. under the bright and glorious tree in all its splendor . The parents were still sleepy and tired from having been up until 2 or 3 AM getting everything ready. "Some assembly required" will suggest why. My limited mechanical abilities and obscurely-written instructions frequently tested my usual restraint against the use of profanity. But somehow it all got done, and here we were all together at the magic moment when wondrous anticipation turned into joyful realization.

The children are all grown up now and into middle-age with their own families far away from 2961 Elmwood Avenue. They are wonderful human beings and a joy to Gloria and me along with her own adult offspring and our grandchildren.

But deep in a treasured corner of my heart at this season of the year they are all little again standing in the door to the living room in the glow of the bright colorful shining tree reflecting in their beautiful eyes the joy and wonder of Christmas.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Breaking News

Word has just been received from the headquarters of Jesus that he wants to answer the question, "What would Jesus do?"

The spokesperson, who had an angelic countenance and was of indeterminate gender, said, " This is what Jesus would do. He would tell everyone to quit asking and answering this stupid question."

The messenger added that anyone who wants to know why asking and answering the question is stupid, should consult Ken Cauthen.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Et tu, Tutu?

Bishop Desmond Tutu was in a meeting with some other Bishops. The doorbell rang, and three Messengers appeared at the door at once. An Aide answered and asked, "To whom do these messages go?"
First Messenger: "One to Tutu."
Second Messenger: "Two to Tutu."
Third Messenger: "Two to Tutu too."

Saturday, December 15, 2007

My How Times Have not Changed

News Item
The Fresno Bee

Delegates at the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin voted Saturday in Fresno to withdraw from the U.S. Episcopal Church. Delegates said they voted to break away from the church because it allows the blessing of same-sex unions, the ordination of gay bishops and the ordination of women.

Another news item in The Cauthen Herald attracted less attention but is equally noteworthy:

Last Saturday the Neanderthal Province of the National Progressive Church of America voted to separate itself from the larger body because it has departed from the historic faith and has taken positions in violation of biblical teachings.

They listed three specific complaints: 1, The National Progressive Church has stated that we are not obligated to obey Deuteronomy 21:18-21, which requires that persistently disobedient sons be stoned to death.

2. The NPC has taken an abolitionist position, saying that although numerous passages in the Bible support slavery, we believe that slavery is contrary to standards of Christian ethics.

3. The NPC has taken action to support the right of women to vote.

The Neanderthal Province, located in California, indicated that it intends to join the Paleolithic Church of Nomadia and attach itself to Bishop Anakro Nism of the Paleolithic Church. The letter of separation said that while it highly valued the unity of the church, it can no longer be a part of a group, claiming to be Christian, that is in such deep violation of biblically rooted traditions that have prevailed for centuries. Loyalty to historic beliefs dictates this serious action, they maintained. The modernism now so prevalent in the Progressive Church cannot be tolerated, they concluded.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Always Be Thankful

This morning I was barely on time for my doctor's appointment. I dashed in the building and scurried effortless up the stairs. As I hurried to the top, I passed a man walking with a cane as if every step were a painful struggle. As I drew near, he said to me about my speedy ascent, "God, I wish I could do that!" As I walked on, I said, "I wish you could too."

This simple little event reminded me that no matter how bad things are with us, there is somebody who is even worse off.

I was reminded of Brother George Russell when he was called on to pray at Friendship Baptist Church in rural Georgia when I was a child during the 1930's. Brother George would get down on his knees and address the Creator in the formal language of the King James Bible as follows: "Almighty God, we thank Thee that things are as well with us as they are."

Brilliant! This statement of gratitude fits all contingencies no matter how good or how bad. To wit, "O Lord, you know that the boll weevils destroyed the cotton, the drought ruined the corn, and Aunt Susie is real bad off sick, but we thank Thee that things are as well with us as they are."
O Lord, you know that the cotton crop is bountiful this year and prices are up, the corn crop will overflow the barn, and Aunt Susie got well and is fit as a fiddle, so we thank Thee that things are as well with us as they are."

As we get older and more frail, we will all see somebody who will prompt us to say, "God, I wish I could do that." But still we can thank God that "things are as well with us as they are."

The Really Deep Questions

I spent my career dealing with fundamental questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why are things the way they are and not some other way? What is the meaning of life? Do we really have free will? Is there a God? Etc.

But in my old age I have come to see that there are questions even more ultimate than these? Some examples of the superultimate:

1. Why do people of all ages throw snowballs at each other?

2. Will anybody in the package industry involving plastic ever get into heaven?

3. Not that I would ever notice such a thing, but Fox News and MSNBC News seem to be in a contest to see which can expose within legal limits more of the female leg on their shows, leaving CNN far behind? But why?

4. Why when I am late for church do I get nearly all red lights and when I leave early, I get mostly green lights?

5. What is it that we don't drive on the driveway or park on the parkway but drive on the parkway and park on the driveway?

6.Why do antidepressants that make you feel good reduce your sexual ability, which makes you feel bad?

7. Reliable reports indicate that three Republicans have been admitted to heaven since the McKinley era. How can this be if God is infinitely wise?

8. Why is there an inverse relationship between what we like to eat and what we ought to eat?

9. Why is that many scientists (and TV journalists) feel they can speak authoritatively about religion, faith, and theology (and routinely confuse the three) in total ignorance of their ignorance about the topics?

10. Why is it that conductors of symphony orchestras always look like they are in a state of perpetual orgasm?

11. How can someone or something show up missing?

12. If you want to make it cooler, do you turn the air conditioning up or down?

13. What is the difference between an enhanced sponsor acknowledgement on PBS and a commerical on for-profit tevevision?

14. Is it possible that anyone claiming to like -- I mean really like -- the taste of a martini can be telling the truth?

15. Will people who leave their grocery carts in the parking lot instead of the designated places have any chance at all of getting into heaven?

16. Will anybody who has more than 15 of these questions have any readers or friends left?

16. Are people who say per se necessarily weird per se?

Friday, December 07, 2007

God and Noah talk about rain and a boat

Here's how the conversation between God and Noah might have gone:

G: Hi ya, Noah, how are things down there?
N: Pretty good, I guess, but my rheumatism has been acting up, like there might be some rain on the way. How are things up there?
G: Mostly OK, but Eve has been acting out, running around with nothing on but a fig leaf offering all the men a piece of, uh, uh, fruit. And Adam is still feeling guilty about infecting all his descendants. As Augustine will put it, everybody was seminally present in him, you know, and as soon as they reach the age of accountability start sinning like crazy.
N: Who the hell is Augustine?
G: O, I forgot, he comes later. Never mind. But now back to your rheumatism and the rain. That's what I want to talk to you about. It's gonna rain, a lot and for a long time. .
N: Yeah?
G: Yeah, I'm gonna drown the whole human race. I mean you never saw such rain before, plus I'm turning on the fountains of the deep and the windows of heaven will open
N: Good God Amighty, why?
G: Watch your tongue there, old man. I'm' mad, real mad. The whole race is wicked, terrible -- all but you and your family.
N: Well, gee, thanks, Big Guy, but how will we escape the flood?
G: You are going to build a boat, a big boat, a very big boat.
N: Why so big, I can put my whole family on a mid-sized raft?
G: Yeah, I know, but you have to take a pair of every animal -- a boy and a girl -- on the boat with you to preserve the species.
N: Now, you're talking crazy. Two elephants, two rhinoseri, and a pair of hippopotami would take up a lot of room, I mean a lot of room. Besides we'd have to have skunks -- can you imagine the smell? Think how high the ceiling would have to be for the giraffes? And they would all have to have food. Worst of all, there would be a lot of, of uh -- mess. Who the hell is gonna clean up all that ..........
G: You are, Noah, you and your kids.
N: I can't build a boat that big, and I won't even try. This is nuts.
God: Well, Noah, my righteous remnant patriarch, have you considered the alternative, remember there's gonna be a lot of water, a whole lot of water.
N: Well, you have a point there.
G: Well, are you gonna build it?
N: I'm thinking it over.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

God tells Abraham to stick a knife in Isaac

The preceding blog reminded me that I have had other attacks of craziness and zany impious humor regarding certain biblical stories. I think the story is awful and morally irredeemable. Here is my rewrite:

God: Hi Abraham, this is God. Howya' doin' today?

Abraham: Hello, I'm doing very well. What do you want this time? You're not going to ask me to move again, are you?

God: Not at all. This time I have something else in mind.

Abraham: Yeah, what?

God: I want you to sacrifice your son Isaac, whom you love, as a burnt offering.

Abraham: Would you mind repeating that. There must be some interference between earth and heaven, you know, with all the cell phones these days. It sounded like you said you wanted me to sacrifice my son Isaac. I know you wouldn't do that. Ha, ha!

God: No, Abe, you heard me right.

Abraham: You've got to be kidding, right? That's a good one - a God perfect in love, mercy, and compassion asking a father to kill his son, to stick a knife through his heart and set him aflame, on some silly stone altar.

God: No, I am not kidding. That's really what I want you to do. It's a test.

Abraham: Some test! You know I'd do a lot for you. After all because you asked me to, I left a good home to come to this God-forsaken place . Oops, sorry! Let me rephrase that. What if I flunk this test?

God: I'd really rather not get into that. Well, are you going to do it or not?

Abraham: I'm thinking it over.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Mary Tells Joseph About the Angel

I have always wondered about the conversation Mary and Joseph had when she told him about being pregnant. Use your own imagination, but it might have gone something like this:

M: Honey, I have something to tell you.
J: OK, dear.
M: Be patient with me, dear, but I have some news that may surprise you.
J: Yeah.
M: Yeah, well, you see, I mean, well, there was this angel.
J: Angel?
M. The one that told me I was pregnant.
M:By the Holy Spirit.
J: The Holy Spirit?
M: Well, I know that comes as a shock since we have never, uh, ..... uh. . . .
J: Done it? I am WELL aware of that, so how can you be in a family way?
M: I told you -- by the Holy Spirit.
J:Come on, sweetie, this is serious. Don't joke with me. It's not April Fools Day. Let's start over. What are you really trying to tell me.
M:That I'm pregnant by the Holy Spirit. That's what the angel told me.
J: There you go again. You know and I know that girls don't get pregnant unless they .. they do it with somebody -- a guy. Uh, Oh. O my goodness, you have been messing around with that Abraham who lives on the other side of the village. I've seen the way he looks at you and how you look back. I'll push his nose out the back of his head . . . .
M: No, No, it's not that it at all. It's all about what the angel said.
J: The angel. The ANGEL. The angel told you that the Holy Spirit knocked you up, and you didn't even know when it happened?
M: That's right. I swear, . . . I mean, I solemnly affirm.
J: Let me get this straight. Even though you and I have never ...... done it .. and you haven't been messing around with any other guy, but you're pregnant, and the Holy Spirit did it, and you are still a virgin, and this angel told you all this!
M: You do believe me, don't you?
J: I'm thinking it over.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Dishonesty of Preaching

I recently heard a sermon based on the story of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25. The emphasis was on the imperative to meet the needs of our neighbors -- all eloquently stated. But I noted that nothing was said about the consequences of not doing so, you know the part about the non-loving being cast into the eternal fire, i. e., verses 41 and 46. The ethical mandate was there, but the eschatology was absent, totally ignored, whereas in the story itself, ethics and eschatology are inseparably joined. Is this dishonesty?

Liberal Christians generally do not believe in an everlasting hell for the wicked. It would not be fitting for a nice God, and the liberal God in nice middle-class congregations must above all be nice. Lots of commendation and exhortation but hardly any judgment, and seldom any wrath at all.

Conservatives quote Leviticus 20:13 condemning male homosexuality but ignore the rest of the passage that says both men shall be put to death. They also ignore other passages in which practices are condemned that are commonplace today among all citizens and believers, e. g. , wearing garments combining two types of material. Is this dishonesty?

Conservatives and liberals alike are equal opportunity practitioners of avoiding in Scripture what is unpalatable.

In liberal churches I have attended miracle stories are read or told as if they are to be taken literally. Seldom are any qualifications offered. The same is often true of the creation story, the second coming of Jesus, and other staples of orthodoxy when I know the pastors have a different point of view than the one that seems to be offered without question.

The Christmas season is upon us. The wondrous birth stories in Matthew and Luke will be read. Pageants will reproduce the ancient drama. Will anyone suggest how improbable it is that these startling events occurred just exactly like they are reported -- a pregnant virgin visited by an angel, wise men from afar led by a star -- unerringly-- right to the very stable where the baby was born (what a GPS that was!), a choir of angels in the heavens addressing some shepherds, and the like. Will any hint be given anywhere that these are imaginative stories, beautiful and powerful, but not literally true in detail?

Of course, everybody ignores Matthew 10:8 in the institution dedicated to continuing the ministry of the Apostles. Or do you know of some churches with a ministry of raising the dead (excluding Oral Roberts).

Students in schools like the one at which I taught are given the modern critical tools for dealing with the Bible in historical terms that highlight the humanity and cultural relativity of all these magnificent texts. Non-literal versions of the creation, incarnation, last judgment, the return of Jesus, etc. are offered in books by contemporary scholars and theologians. Students learn to speak of myth and symbol that deepen and enrich a mere literal rendering of the Bible and the creeds. But what happens to all this apparatus when they become pastors, teachers, and preachers in churches?

In my youth when there was much more freedom in the Southern Baptist Convention, I heard biblical scholars who wrote material for Sunday School classes talk about how it got watered down by the editors in Nashville, who removed any hint of the historical-critical approach to Scripture that was then being taught the seminaries of the denomination. The result was a harmless pablum absent of any of the wisdom of modern scholarship that forever left children and adults alike locked in a naive reading of the Bible. Preachers trained in these institutions left all their sophisticated learning behind as they became obsessed with larger churches, larger budgets, and having the largest number of baptisms in the association, if not in the state. Must not rock the boat, you know.

I could go on with endless examples, but the implications are clear -- at least to me. It seems like dishonesty to me but maybe I am missing something.

In the latter years of my tenure as a seminary teacher, I pestered everyone with the this teaser: "Is it possible to use the Bible with integrity?" My answer was that it was possible but the actual occurrence was so rare that it was a miracle worthy of note. I find no reason to change my mind.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Curious Logic That Makes Sense

I am opposed to encouraging teenagers to use seat belts. They will just drive faster and with reckless abandon knowing they are safer wearing seat belts. Therefore, we should risk having them get injured for life or killed rather than insisting they wear seat belts.

That is the kind of reasoning used by conservatives who are opposed to teaching teenagers about contraception. It will just encourage them to have sex, they say. So it is better to risk having them get pregnant than to make contraception available.

What is wrong here?

What is wrong is a perverse sense of values and the failure to see the wisdom of a curious form of logic.

So what should we do? My message to teenagers and everybody else is this: Don't drive too fast or take chances on the road, but if you do at least wear a seat belt because it might save your life. I will take the chance that using a seat belt might lead to complacency. Saving a life is where the priority ought to be.

Likewise, I would say to male and female teenagers: Don't have sex until you are mature enough to understand fully what you are doing and its dangers, but if you do at least least protect yourself from an unwanted pregnancy. I will take the chance that knowing how to prevent pregnancy and having the means to do so might encourage more sex. An unwanted pregnancy is worse than promiscuous sex.

Why don't conservatives agree with this point? I don't know for sure, but I suspect it is because they have a kind of emotional aversion or psychic revulsion at the thought of premarital sex. This is more than a conviction that such behavior is wrong. I suggest this as a result of examining my own inner feelings from years past. Were not something like this at work, the subject would be more open to a dispassionate study of the facts. The evidence is that comprehensive sex education does not lead to earlier or more sex in young people.

In any case, I insist on the cogency of sentences that have this curious form: Don't _________but if you do, _____________________.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Open Letter to Christopher Hitchens

In the Washington Post, Hitchens wanted to hear a response to the following:

Name a moral statement or action, uttered or performed by a religious person, that could not have been uttered or performed by an unbeliever.
Below is my response to him:

I don't doubt that unbelievers can make moral statements that match in excellence any moral statement made by a believer. But what is the point?

Can believers make statements that are morally bad or do morally bad things? Yes. Can non-believers make statements and do things that are morally bad? Yes.

My morality is based on a religious foundation, but I would not argue that one can have excellent moral beliefs or live a life of virtue only on the basis of religion.

I judge moral beliefs and actions on their own merit not by what their philosophical or religious basis is.

All moral beliefs rest on some set of assumptions, but good morality does not necessarily require reference to God, but it may.

I am a religious person but seldom find myself included in your objections to religion. I don't believe much of what you condemn. I am a liberal Baptist Protestant theologian, just for the record. A survey of your latest book contained no reference to any modern Christian theologian I read in seminary or ever put on any of my reading lists for courses I taught for forty years, although I found a few references to Popes and to Protestant fundamentalists.

Do you condemn all religion or just bad religion? If the latter, I am on your side and have argued against bad religion for half a century. If the former, you and I have a difference.

Kenneth Cauthen

Making Hillary Acceptable

It appears more likely every day that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination. My candidate John Edwards looks hopeless at this point. Many say he lost the day it was announced that Elizabeth's cancer had returned. (Wouldn't any decent man drop out and take care of his wife, and what about that expensive haircut and enormous mansion he built -- never mind that his policies would benefit the middle class and the poor far more than anything offered by his rivals?) Obama has reached his peak, and the magic is gone, despite Oprah. The others apparently might as well quit now, although there is great talent among them.

I don't like Hillary for reasons earlier blogs have spelled out, but it looks like she is our candidate for 08. I will vote for her without enthusiasm and hope she is elected, since any of the Republican alternatives would be disastrous. Let Hillary, Bill, and all the smart people around her figure out how to win. Once she is elected we need to torment her unmercifully in an attempt to move her left on economic and other domestic issues like health care. Her wing of the party is too beholden to business and wealth. She needs to be moderate on social and cultural issues -- not my preference but a political necessity to get and keep power. Nearly everybody with much power is beholden to the Jewish lobby, so I see no hope for the kind of radical dealing with Israel that is necessary to get justice for the Palestinians. She will be better on foreign policy than Bush-- heck, Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun would be better -- but she was wrong on Iraq from the start and has changed only enough to get in tune with public opinion, never yet having apologized for her bad judgment..

John Edwards would be better for labor, the middle class, and the poor, but you have to get power before you can exercise it. He won't get the power of the President, unless I am badly mistaken.

We can only hope that the Republicans cannot capitalize sufficiently on the widespread hostility toward Hillary -- those persistent negatives -- to sink her hopes in the general election.

Maybe we can get strong enough Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress to push a liberal agenda on domestic issues. That is the best hope I see at the moment.

Please somebody cheer me up!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Dismal Political Scene

It is hard to find something to cheer about on the political front. The dreary argument about Iraq goes on with much talk and little, if any, progress toward a unified peaceful country. The Democrats have waged a futile campaign to bring the troops home soon. Presumably, they are beleaguered by their left-wing, anti-war faction, to which I belong, who cannot come to terms with the fact that the party does not have enough votes to bring about a quick and defensible end to the war.

Obstinate President Bush is persisting in his policies and will follow the advice of General Petraeus to bring the troops back to pre-surge levels by next summer -- an outcome dictated by military necessity regardless of policy preferences. All this means is that we have to wait for Bush to leave before a drastic change of policy is possible -- assuming the Democrats win the presidency and enough congressional seats to bring it about. (See my blog of January 26, 2007 )

Meanwhile, urgent domestic issues like health care go without serious attention, not to mention the longer term crises of Social Security, Medicare, global warming, reducing our dependence on oil and finding alternative energy source, and the like. Democratic Congressional leadership is far from inspiring and, judging by results, not at all impressive.

I have seen no evidence that the Iraqi government can bring about an effective, peaceful reconciliation among warring factions to ensure a stable, peaceful, democratic rule. Whether we stay or leave, it is difficult to find grounds of hope for anything desirable in the near term, and the long term is shrouded in mystery. It looks like a long-term de facto segregation of Iraqis into geographical subdivisions of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds is the best hope for any kind of tolerable peace, assuming some acceptable arrangement can be worked out regarding oil revenues. Too few love more Iraq more than they love their own ethnic-sectarian group to hope for a unified country that is workable and free from violence. Haddam Hussein was awful, but he did rule in maybe the only way it can be a unified country-- by coercion, brutality, and terror. Reports after World War I when Iraq was being formed predicted what has actually occurred.

The presidential campaign trudges dismally on with no excitement and nothing but the prospect of more of the same until the 2008 election. Candidates behind Clinton in the polls vainly search for some way -- any little gimmick or minor point of criticism -- to stop her steady march toward the nomination, barring some unforeseen developments. I find no excitement in any of them any more, and I pay little attention to the daily flow of news about the whole dull process. If Hillary wins, I will vote for her but without enthusiasm.The Republicans have nothing to offer but the same dreadful old stuff, whether we focus on domestic or foreign affairs. We can only hope their numbers will be so reduced by the next election that enough sensible Democrats and moderate Republicans can do some serious work on our most pressing problems.

The religious scene is about equally dismal, but that is a topic for another time.

Help! Does anyone know any reason to be hopeful.

Should Prostitution be Decriminalized: A New Look

About a decade ago I put an essay on my web site that advocated the decriminalizing of prostitution and treating it as a public health problem. The goal primarily would be to assist women, especially young ones, to find a better way of life. Force, violence, and sex trafficking of all kinds would still be prohibited and punished severely.


I just learned that in 1999 Sweden, which long before had legalized prostitution, became convinced that this was not working. A new approach was tried in which it is illegal to buy sexual services but legal to sell them -- regardless of gender. The assumption is that prostitution is primarily a form of violence against women. Men become the offenders liable to prosecution, and women are regarded as victims who need to be helped.

Some evaluation are quite positive. See:

Some Swedish sex workers have protested vigorously that this hurts them and is discriminatory. Gone are the "good and kind" men. Present customers are more likely to be violent, refuse to use condoms, and generally made sex work less desirable. Scaring male customers away has put downward pressure on prices, etc. See:
See also:

I have not done enough research to form an opinion, but this novel approach is intriguing and deserves investigation. I am reconsidering my own previous view.

I think one original proposition I offered a decade ago still holds. There is no good solution to the problem of prostitution, only bad and worse. Perhaps Aquinas had a point when he wrote that prostitution is a necessary evil needed for the same reason that we need sewers.

Well, I actually I do have in mind something, but I have not found a way to implement it. The most nearly perfect answer would be that every time a man paid for sexual services with money, one testicle would disappear immediately while angels in heaven cheered. I propose this only for lusty, irresponsible males who only want easy sex without emotional entanglements. Lonely, shy men lacking social skills need assistance in finding healthy relationships with the opposite sex, which might or might not involve sex.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Time for a Massive Revolt Against Perpetual Compaigning

I am already tired of this election cycle. I am sick of perpetual campaigning. I do not listen to the debates and do not intend to. From news reports, on which the preceding blog was based, they do not seem to be producing much of significance. The Democrats behind Hillary are looking anything they might throw at her to block her way -- with notable failure so far. I don't really care what the Republicans do.

The main point, however, is that the whole process is insane. Starting the next campaign the day after each election is unnecessary, absurd, crazy. We have not even mentioned the amount of money that is being wasted. The only people who benefit are the 24 hour news networks that need something -- anything -- to fill the hours to help reduce the hourly repetition of the same old thing plus endless inane commentary. We can only hope that people will become so disgusted that they will rise up in wrath and demand that an end be put to it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

YouTube Debates -- Same Old Thing?

What is the difference between having a "real person" on an amateur video ask a candidate about Iraq, gay marriage, and health care, etc. rather than a journalist? To hear all the self-congratulation going on today, especially on CNN, a great deal. But it seemed to me we essentially got the same old questions to the same old candidates standing behind the same old podium stands giving the same old answers.

It hardly seemed like the rebirth of the old town hall meeting in which grass roots democracy flourished with citizens in the same room interacting in person with their leaders.. Note that only a tiny number of American citizens submitted entries, and they were screened by a panel, and a few were chosen to go on the air. In the end journalists chose the questions. By the time all this processing took place, a great deal of selectivity had diluted the spontaneous immediacy supposedly displayed here. This is hardly the pure democracy touted in all the hype.

Yes, it was different, but did it make a difference? Were great new insights displayed in the questions and the answers? Were hitherto unknown facets of character and personality brought to light so that we have a deeper understanding of who they are and what kind of leaders they might make? Not that I could tell to any appreciable degree. To think otherwise is to exalt format at the expense of content, to assume with Marshall McCluhan that "the medium is the message." To test my big yawn at the excitement at CNN, let us ask if this events changed anything. Did one candidate win large numbers to his/her cause? Were new issues addressed in a fresh way that produced greater understanding about who the candidates are and what they stand for and how they would govern? Show me the evidence.

The only value I could see was that possibly this novel approach to a debate got more people to participate and to listen in -- perhaps among the young. Maybe we will find out whether this occurred and whether any lasting results flow from it.

The main problem is that these debates should not be occurring this far in advance in any format. There are too many of them to get very far on any issue with any of them. No gimmick will resolve the difficulties of having a debate among eight people half a year before any actual voting takes place.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

No Profit from Matters of Life and Death

Capitalism is great for creating wealth. It harnesses a powerful motivator -- private self-interest -- to run its engines. Even Marx was effusive in his praise of the capacity of capitalism to produce goods and services in enormous quantities. The great drawback, of course, is the massive inequalities it creates and that are perpetuated by the money and power of the big winners. Unfortunately, we -- unlike European countries -- never developed a sustainable socialist tradition capable of winning national elections.

In general, I prefer to let the market system work (with appropriate regulation, which we now lack, to protect the health, safety, and welfare of citizens) to distribute income and wealth as long as it is done fairly, i. e., without special advantages that law can correct. We can use the tax system to produce funds for public purposes and put a steep rate on those who have enormous salaries and amass great wealth. Let the corporations decide much to pay their CEOs, e. g. We will just tax the obscenely high results at high rates.

But there are two areas that should be removed from the private profit-making arena: health care and national defense. These are literally matters of life and death. Expanding Medicare to cover everybody, e. g., will take care of the health insurance problem, and perhaps independent non-profit enterprises can be established to build weapons and produce the new drugs that scientific advances make possible. Economists can tell us how to do it and get the job done efficiently.

Health care and national defense are too important to national life to allow private interests to be in charge. Remember President's Eisenhower's warning about the dangers inherent in the expansion of the power of the "military-industrial complex?" Perhaps we should now speak of the "military-industrial-university-medical complex." Let people make money on other things, but the nation needs to make sure that the lust for money-making does not corrupt the enterprises that defend us from diseases that produce sickness and death and from the hostile people at home and abroad. I would suggest that it is not good policy to give people a reason to love wars and the the rumors of wars when the possibility of making a lot of money out of it is involved.

On the defense industries see:

See the case for nationalizing the defense industry:

John Kenneth Galbraith made a similar proposal in 1969 in an article in The New York Times entitled, “The Big Defense Firms Are Really Public Firms and Should be Nationalized.”

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Senate Democrats: Determined Idealists or Cynical Politicians?

Tonight the Senate will remain in session all night in the latest effort of Democrats to bring about an end to the Iraq war. Three motives may be in play:

1. They are determined idealists who are sincerely doing their best to end this tragic war.

2. They are realistic, smart politicians who are thinking not so much about Iraq now as about the elections in 2008. By trying to embarrass the Republicans who continue to support the President, they are acting in the long run interest of the country since more Democrats in Congress would be a good thing.

3. They are blatant cynics who know all these efforts will fail since the President is determined to stay in Iraq until whatever objective prevails at the time is achieved regardless of Congressional action or public opinion, so they might as well get as much political advantage out of the situation as they can.

My guess is that all three are present to some extent. Option 1 is naive and futile. Option 3 abandons morality. The second, while it has its own shortcomings, is the only one that comes anywhere close to the combination of idealism, realism, and pragmatism that is needed in these perilous times. There really is not a thoroughly good policy option for the Democrats given their slim majorities and the fact that the President has the final say given the impotence of the Congress to act with sufficient power to overcome Presidential vetoes. I have argued repeatedly that there is no good policy for Iraq at the moment. That is the larger truth. Senate overnighters cannot escape this fact.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Are You as Outraged as I Am?

"A couple of weeks ago, Warren Buffett pointed out that he pays an average federal income tax rate of 17.7 percent, while his receptionist pays about 30 percent." Paul Krugman, The New York Times, July 13, 2007.

What we need are tens and tens of millions of voters to say, as Howard Beale said in Network (1976), "I'm mad as hell, and I am not going to take this anymore." Enough enraged voters expressing their disgust at the polls could put an end to this.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Warning to All Southerners

If you are in Rochester, NY, do not order a hot dog in a restaurant or at a concession stand unless:

1. You want it split open and grilled.

2. Grilled until it has a thick carcinogenic coat of disgusting black crust.

If you can tolerate this and order one anyway, you may be asked to specify whether you want "red" or "white."

Don't be surprised if the item is called a "hot" on the menu.

Play it safe. Order a hamburger.

Be forewarned. I can take no responsibility if you disregard my efforts to protect you from this disastrous ruining of an otherwise wonderful American treat. Eat your hot dogs at home. They may give you a heart attack, but at least you won't get cancer from the abominable Rochester version.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Gender Neutral Interactive Poem: Fill in the Blanks

Breathes there a soul with a libido so dead who has not looked at _____________
and wistfully said,
"Blessed is the one who shares ______'s bed"?

Please note: Each participant is allowed only three entries.

Now read Matthew 5:28 as applying to both sexes regarding both the luster and the lustee.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Was Bertrand Russell Right?

In Why I Am Not a Christian Bertrand Russell said that Jesus was morally deficient because he believed in the everlasting torture of the wicked. I think he is right (See Matthew 25:31-46). The burning of sinners in an eternal fire is not consistent with the idea of God as loving, merciful, and compassionate.

Medieval theologians countered the objection that an infinite punishment for finite sins was unjust with the notion that the sin was against an infinite value (God), and therefore it was just.

Most of us find that defense singularly unconvincing. But it is amusing to watch how easily modern liberals, who reject the notion of an everlasting hell as contrary to the character of the nice, kind God they believe in, combine this idea with their affirmation that Jesus is the supreme moral authority.

However, all the churches I know also totally ignore Matthew 10:8 in which Jesus sends out the Apostles and commissions them to cast out demons and raise the dead. Most churches claim their task is to continue the ministry of the Apostles to preach the Gospel and do deeds of love and mercy. Yet I know of no church that has a ministry of raising the dead. Only a few even pretend to be able to cast out demons.

I conclude from all this that all Christians selectively obey Jesus in practice while claiming in theory to obey in all matters -- or at least that they ought to. You can check this out by looking at how Christians find ways of avoiding the hard sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48). When all else fails, you can always ignore completely.

If Hitchens Is Right, Then I Must Not Be Religious

Bertrand Russell famously wrote Why I am Not a Christian. If memory serves me correctly, it was G. K. Chesterton who responded, "If a Christian is what Bertrand Russell says it is, I am not a Christian either." In any case, that came to mind while I was cheat reading Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great in Barnes & Noble the other day. What he condemns in religion is not what I espouse.

I checked the index and found not one reference to any 20th century theologian or philosopher of religion I ever read and who instructed me on what it is to be a modern Christian. I did find a few brief references to a couple of Roman Catholic Popes and to the Protestant fundamentalists Jerry Falwell, Charles Stanley and Pat Robertson!

Critics of religion typically ignore the cultural context in which religion occurs, seeming to have some ahistorical notion of something they call "religion," and it is always bad. This ignores the fact that religious belief is always particular and occurs in some cultural context, so that what is bad may be in fact as much, if not primarily, a cultural thing and not necessarily a religious phenomenon. Also, they give not much attention to the good that may come out of religion, e. g., opposition to slavery and works of charity and mercy like feeding the hungry and healing the sick. Somehow these things are not part of this abstracted essence of "religion."

They seem to believe that if religion were universally abandoned, the world would be better off.

I suggest that such is not the case. Apparently tthe critics assume that all these non-religious souls would be scientifically enlightened people with high morals, i. e., like the authors of these anti-religious tirades. It would be equally fallacious to assume that all would be well if everybody were the kind of Christian I am.

Efforts to attribute the world's ills to some one cause, private property, e. g. (Marxism), the rectification of which would lead to certain progress, have never been successful.

So, go ahead, Mr. Hitchens, condemn what you call "religion," but, pardon me, if I am equally insistent that whatever you are talking about, it doesn't include me.

More Unsolicited Advice for John Edwards

June 26, 2007
Dear Mr. Edwards,

I like your anti-poverty theme, but I fear that your use of the "two Americas" theme may not be wise.

It is too easy a target for Republicans.

It is not precise. There are many Americans, many gradations in the class structure. There is a middle, where multitudes of Americans think they are. It will be regarded too populist, opens you to effective criticism.

I urge you to go light on that theme. I urge you to consider my earlier suggestion that strengthening families be the centerpiece of your strategy.

Around that you can stress the anti-poverty theme but at the same time help a great many Americans to identify with your aims -- health care, help for working mothers with child care, parental leave, increase in EITC, and so on through a long list.

I want to see you elected, but hope you won't seem so left-wing in order to get the nomination that you ruin your chances of winning the general election.

I am a native of Georgia, a graduate of Mercer University and taught of 40 years at the theological seminary where Martin Luther King graduated and where Walter Rauschenbusch, the father of the social gospel taught. I stand in that idealistic tradition tempered by the political realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.

When idealists enter politics they must become hard-nosed, tough-minded realists and pragmatists. That is what I hope for you.

For more unwanted advice, see my blog for Saturday, November 11, 2006. in the archives at

Best wishes,

Ken Cauthen

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Father's Day 2007

My Dad was born 100 years ago today. He was the kindest, gentlest, most compassionate man I ever knew. Nobody ever loved a son more than he loved me. My only ambition was to be as good a father to my children as he was to me. He left me on May, 1, 1995 a few weeks short of his 88th birthday. I think of him often, and I will never forget him. So on on his birthday and on Father's Day, I shed a few tears as I look as his picture on the wall in my study and remember with gratitude how fortunate I was to have to have this good man as my Father.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Old Keys and Cosmic Laws

When you have been living in a house five years or longer, you have them -- a collection of old keys you can no longer identify. They hang on hooks out of sight here and there or have been put in drawers, trays, or little boxes. You didn't identify them when you put them away because you knew what they were, and now you have forgotten. So periodically you try to satisfy your curiosity. You try them in in all the locks you suspect, but few fit. Here a major temperamental divide arises: the bold and daring throw them away and risk needing one that is gone -- which they will once they get rid of them. The timid and cautious put them back in the fear they may need them, but they never do, thus the pile grows.

Eventually they will have to be dealt with by your children after you die, prompting exasperated comments like, "What the hell are these keys for, and why didn't they dispose of them or at least identify them."

It's a comic law. You throw them away and need them within a month, or you keep them and never need them. Don't fight it.

Multiple Choice Health Quiz

If a man who has been taking one of the ED drugs has an erection that lasts more than four hours, he should:

A. Go to the emergency room immediately.

B. Call his doctor the next morning at at the latest.

C. Ignore it, unless he has an appointment to see the Pope or Queen Elizabeth.

D. Call all the loose women in the neighborhood and schedule appointments.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Objectivity and the Bible

I have read a lot of debates in recent years in which two biblical scholars on opposite sides of the gay love question squared off on what the Bible had to say about the matter. If I knew the general moral and theological outlook of the opponents, I could nearly always predict in advance the outcome of these objective inquiries. Liberals generally come out saying that what the Bible really rejects is sexual abuse and exploitation and not monogamous, faithful relationships between two gay men or two lesbians. Conservatives are sure that what those passages in the New Testament condemn is the same sort of thing we mean by homosexual sex in our time. The Old Testament, of course, raises other issues, but the outcome really hangs on what is done with those verses in Romans and Corinthians.

I suggest no dishonesty, no tricks. Somehow the objective exegesis always produced results that agree with the personal opinion of the interpreter. That's just the way it turns out. Am I right?

Objectivity functions within a general framework consisting of the total set of assumptions the exegete brings to the task of biblical inquiry. That is the human condition. Nietzsche said, "There are no facts, only opinions." Well, I wouldn't go that far, but the philosopher had a point.

Monday, June 11, 2007

A Strategy for John Edwards

I spent some time yesterday with The New York Times Magazine issue on economics, especially the piece on John Edwards, my candidate for President in 2008. He wants to fight poverty. The conclusion was that he has the personal passion , some good policies that will work, but he hasn't found a strategy to make it a winnable issue. I am a moralist who writes books on ethic, but I agree that appeals to conscience won't work very well here.

My suggestion is that he make his appeal to strengthening families, especially middle and lower-income families. This is a theme that can capture the imagination of large numbers of people because they have a personal interest in strengthening their families and need help.

He can organize a variety of proposals around this central focus, many of them designed to promote the incomes of average and low-income workers whose wages have been mainly stagnant in recent years, with some exceptions. For further elaboration of this, see my contribution dated Saturday, November 11, 2006.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Basic Errors in Theology

Theology can go wrong is lots of ways, but two approaches in particular need to be avoided. The first is to claim that "At last we've got it." The second is to maintain that "We've always had it." The first is typical of liberal theologies -- the tendency to seek change in the light of new historical circumstances. The second is characteristic of conservative and orthodox theologies -- those that think universal truth is located somewhere in the past, so that out task is to reproduce it today in an appropriate form.

Illustrations abound. The Protestant Reformers played "At last we've got it" by recovering the biblical message they thought was obscured in Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. In the 20th century Walter Rauschenbusch played the game with his claim that the social gospel was the old gospel of Jesus recovered for the first time since the early centuries. Neo-orthodoxy (Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr assumed it, although his brother and my teacher H. Richard recognized that a new generation would arise to point out the errors of the current emphases, as they pointed out the errors of social gospel and others liberalisms. Later on liberation theologies (Latin American, black, feminist, Native American, womanist, gay and lesbian, e.g.) claimed to have newly discovered that that the Gospel is a word of this-worldly emancipation for the poor and oppressed, so that at last they have recovered the true Gospel of Scripture).

"We always had it" was the battle cry of 20th century Protestant fundamentalist perspectives that insisted on some fundamentals that must be in all theologies and neglected at the cost of losing eternal Gospel truth. Orthodoxies of all sorts (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, e. g.,) guard a body of divinely certified body of truth that they have have always possessed they must would guard against all revisionisms.

The point could be elaborated indefinitely, but let it be said that it is dangerous to play either game. Humility is called for on all sides unless some new absolutisms emerge (At last we've got it.) or some old one persist (We always had it.) Holding on to what is good in the past must be balanced by the need to be open to new insights and fresh adjustments to changing cultural settings.

Theologies are human creations, and it is idolatrous to absolutize any of them or to sanctify them by claiming divine authority for what they alone possess. We have this treasure in earthen vessels, and we must be ever vigilant about losing the distinction by committing the idolatry of claiming that our own mud pots are identical with the treasure itself and not merely carriers of some version of it. We can do this by our enthusiasm for something new that has at last got it or something old that has always had it.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Our National Foolishness about Gas Prices

Gas prices are not too high. They are too low. To get perspective, we have just now reached the real price of gas (inflation adjusted) that we had back in 1981 at its historical high point. People have been focused on the price at the pump and have forgotten how that relates to total income now and in the past. High gas prices throughout recent decades would have long ago been integrated into personal spending, and the economy as a whole would have been fine.

We should have put a big tax on gas 25 or 30 years ago, and we would not be in the mess we are in now. That money could have financed health care for all and provided other benefits for the poor and the general welfare, encouraged mass transit, and financed the search for alternative fuels, and on and on.

Low gas prices have encouraged big, powerful, cars with low MPG, has made the government and the auto industry complacent about increasing fuel efficiency and the quest for alternative energy sources, has polluted the environment, increased global warming, built a commuting society dependent on long drives and congested highways, and increased our dependence on hostile or repressive governments like Saudi Arabia.

The problem with democracy -- ours anyway -- is that it does not deal well with the future. Our citizens are too focused on immediate gratification and self-interest. They respond best to the problems of the present that affect them personally. To ask them to take future generations into account is a tough assignment. This presentism is eagerly aided and abetted by politicians running for office whose time span is limited by the next election. We respond best to big issues in times of crisis when the signs of coming disasters cannot be avoided.

My own senior Senator Chuck Schumer is once more beating the drums against the high profits of oil companies, but he has no solutions that can be translated into legislation that will work and hence sounds demagogic.

The following graph shows that oil companies are not chief among sinners but have profit margins only slightly above the industry average.
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

"By percentage of total revenue, banking is consistently the most profitable industry in America, followed closely by the drug industry."
Washington Post , October 28, 2005.

This is not at to deny that oil companies, like other large corporations, seek to employ strategies that increase their profits. I am no defender of big business but a severe critic. But let us analyze by the facts and not by the gut. Oil companies make huge profits in dollar terms, but they are huge companies. Profit margin is a better indicator.

By now -- had we acted wisely in the past -- we would have cars that get 100 MPH and alternative fuels that would be easing our way beyond the carbon age.

The question is when things get bad enough to force us to act to avoid imminent disaster, whether we will have enough time and sufficient resources to avert global climate catastrophes, and international conflict and chaos as all the big polluters --like us, China, and India -- continue to evade their responsibility and engage in futile blame games.

Of course, given our past foolishness, the poor who are dependent on gas to get to work are suffering and need relief. I have no sympathy for the affluent and their huge SUV's who surround me and block my fuel-efficient Prius every time I park in public places. I get my revenge when they take their GGG's (Gargantuan Gas Guzzlers) to the gas station and cry, while I laugh all the way to the bank in my Prius -- 44 or more MPG in the city.

And, yes, I am an anti-establishment, green, tree-hugging, politically radical elitist. But I also worry about the future of my grandchildren and the poor everywhere now and their grandchildren.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Memorial Day: Conflicting Moods

Memorial Day uneasily juxtaposes two conflicting moods. For many it is a time of travel, entertainment, vacation, tasting the outdoor life, and generally having fun. Yet is is a somber occasion for all reflective Americans as we remember those who have lost their lives in all the many wars of the past and present. In 2007 outrage is the only appropriate sentiment. It would have been fitting to have hundreds of thousands of people in cities and towns across the nation expressing their intense anger at the tragic catastrophe in Iraq. The heartbreaking story of a young woman prostrate at her fiance's grave in deep, inconsolable grief epitomizes the situation -- the needless loss of life in a war so unjustified and so badly managed that no way out exists that will not produce more death, destruction, and mangled bodies in an atmosphere of terror.

Yet we seem strangely complacent in the face of this horror. Perhaps sit is because the burden of loss is directly experienced by the few families immediately affected by the shattered bodies and minds and the increasing number of dead soldiers returned to their sorrowing loved one. Meanwhile, the rest of us go on with our lives essentially untouched. There is something badly wrong with a picture in which the human costs of war are not shared by us all. That only compounds the awful debacle of the Iraq mess.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Sorry State of Public Discourse

No good solution exists for Iraq, illegal immigration through Mexico, and abortion. Good means benefiting nearly everyone and hurting few or none, serving mostly worthwhile purposes and having few or no negatives. We have to search for the least bad policy or the best of available, workable ones. Yet who in public life clamoring for our votes is saying this? Many proposals are out there, but their sponsors see only the good in them and either don't know or don't say out loud what counts against it.

Which public voice is saying, 'Taking everything into account, by and large, generally speaking, this is the best available practical option. Even though it is not very good, it is the best we can do under the circumstances." Yet this is closer to the truth than all the confident claims that exaggerate the benefits and underplay the downside of whatever policy is being advocated.

Will people not hear or accept the notion that some problems are complex, ambiguous, and difficult, that only proximate solutions are available that try to achieve as much good and avoid as much that is bad that is possible under the circumstances? I don't know. Apparently our leaders think they won't, or they themselves don't know any better and are simply ignorant, naive, or purely opportunistic, i. e., look for the greatest political gain that they can milk out of the situation.

I have written in other blogs on this site of the particulars of Iraq, illegal immigration from out southern border, and abortion. Here let me say that each of these requires an "emergency" answer," i. e., a response to a dire situation that arises because something has gone wrong. Something went wrong in Iraq when we invaded and before, but now that we are in the tragic, catastrophic mess, we have to do the best we can. That probably means violence, chaos, and disorder if we leave, and more needless, futile loss of lives, perhaps a protracted civil war, if we stay. The only solution to the illegal entry of immigrants through Mexico is to make living conditions decent in their own countries so they can stay home and prosper instead of risking their lives to work for meager wages under exploitative conditions here employed by people who want an endless supply of cheap labor who will not complain about harsh working conditions due to their desperation. The only solution to the abortion issue is to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

Meanwhile, we live with the simplicities and shallowness that mark our public conversations because nobody wants to present the hard choices, ambiguities, and complexities inherent in problems. And isn't this because so many people want unambiguous certainties from their leaders? Or do they? And would they hear the hard truth if their leaders would talk straight to them instead of seeking advantages when their opponents dare to mention how difficult, complicated, and ambiguous choices really are when reality is confronted without blinking?

How do we account for the shortcomings in our democracy? We have shallow minds thinking in shallow ways about complex issues in a setting where honest conviction is mixed with the desire to get, keep, and expand political power in the struggle of competing self-interests -- the portions of integrity, conviction, and expediency varying from little to much in our lawmakers.

Besides that is the power of money and lobbies representing large or rich constituencies that distort the process in favor of the politically powerful driven by the self interest of corporations and highly organized groups like the National Rifle Association, the Religious Right.

I think the Founders envisioned or at least hoped for the presence of the best minds in the country who would take office devoted to the good of the Republic and not partisan goals of the rich and powerful. If you had that kind of person with that kind of character and devotion to the common welfare, then compromise would be the best we could get. The compromises we get are usually poor because the negotiating positions we start are so shallow and dictated by the interests of pressure groups.

Friday, May 18, 2007

It Matters How You Say It

My local paper occasionally has an opinion piece by Cal Thomas, who once was a vice-president of the Moral Majority. When I read him, I do so to get my adrenalin going for the day, since I usually find that his ideas range from the noxious to the nauseous. A recent contribution illustrates how something is said itself may distort the meaning and reality of what is being described. He notes the outrage of religious conservative at "liberal intrusions into their sacred traditions" since the 1960's, offering the outlawing of state-sponsored prayer in public school and the legalization of abortion as examples. One might rephrase this thought by speaking of conservative anxiety and hostility arising out of cultural nostalgia for the values, laws, customs, and mores of the the 1950's that were changing in law and practice.
He also opines that long ago most liberal theologians had baptized the earthly agenda of the Democratic Party instead of preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven. That too could be said another way. I would urge, for example, that liberals were in favor of racial justice, the equal rights of women, gays, and lesbians in law and practice, the freedom of women to choose an abortion, more economic opportunities and equality for the poor, and the like and found that the Democratic Party offered the best available-- though not perfect -- practical instrument for advancing these goals.
The language we use to express our values provides an opportunity to insert our biases in ways that introduce distortions of the factual reality into our social philosophy under the guise of merely stating our moral and political convictions. The applies to all parties in the conversation -- conservatives, liberals, and others alike. This is just another example of how original sin distorts the truth and deceives the innocent.
So let the reader be aware of what they are reading and writers of what they are writing.

Learning from Paris Hilton

Paris Hilton's mother, on the occasion of her daughter's imminent time behind bars, said that perhaps young people who look up to Paris could learn something from this. One thing they could learn is not to look up to Paris Hilton!

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Limerick for Today

There was a girl named Petula,
Who detested a boy named Shula.
He invited her to bed.
She said."Drop Dead."
But relented when he offered her moola.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

More on Facts, History, and Faith

In response to my piece on facts and faith (March 6, 2007) a friend and friendly critic sent me this response. I thought it raised pertinent issues and required a clarification and some emendations from me

Regarding your entry on the bones of Jesus: I've been a
conversation with my dean at the University of Chicago about the question of whether a factual or empirical claim can ever modify a theological claim. (We started on this when he wrote a paper on theology and intelligent design.) He takes what I see as a Tillichian position and argues "no." I take the other position and argue that I am representing the Chicago tradition of empirical and modernist theology. I see you much closer to my side than his, but I'm not sure you're with me and the early Chicago boys (they all were, as you know, guys). If I understand you correctly, you would say "yes, facts make a difference, but only in forcing one to reconstruct the theological claim so as not to be influenced by the factual claim." I want to argue that some empirical facts and the theories that account for those facts have the consequence of shaping doctrine. I think you would take that position, too, with regard to evolutionary theory, but I'm not completely sure. Shailer Mathews was slippery on such issues, but G. B. Smith wasn't, contending that what we come to know about both history and nature count in making theological claims.

So, in the case of the bones of Jesus, if there were ever real documentable evidence that these were his, there would be both positive and negative consequences: positive in the sense of confirming his earthly existence and, possibly, whether death came from crucifixion; negative, regarding any theological claim about the physical resurrection and what that would entail for related doctrines.

I'd appreciate your clarification of your own position, along with any criticism of mine.

Larry Greenfield


You are quite right in noticing my ambiguity, obscurity, and probable error. I was thinking specifically of doctrines like physical resurrection of Jesus, virgin birth, evolution, second coming of Jesus, etc. With regard to these I think my analysis is roughly right.

But as an empirical theologian in the Chicago School tradition, I would say that obviously the experienced facts of nature and history are the materials from which one develops a notion of the divine, values, etc. I would say as a modernist that the highest and best (Wieman) of the biblical tradition are contingently but not necessarily dependent on the facts recounted by the Bible, including the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We came to have some values that were generated in this history, and they are useful in the continuing analysis of experience. But it is conceivable that a God of unbounded love (Ogden) could have been discovered in other histories by non-biblical persons reflecting upon life, their total body of knowledge (accepted beliefs), and their own experience. In the final analysis the test of any religious claim in our experience. So I accept the highest and best of the Christian tradition (as I understand it) but not because it is in the Bible or comes down in tradition but because it validates itself in our own lives and experience (as shaped, of course, by our own upbringing in this culture and assimilated religious beliefs. It is the what (content) of religious belief that finally counts, not its wherefrom (source), content that is tested, revised, and abandoned by continuing reflection upon experience.

Am I a Christian? By my standards, yes. Many others have ruled me out long ago anyway, but I have convinced some fundamentalists by telling them that I accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal Savior and was baptized at age 8 in Ethridge Mill pond, that I am a sinner saved by grace -- all true.

I guess my conclusion is that while facts or events can generate, alter, revise, undermine, and renew specific doctrines, religious truth is not dependent on any particular fact or set of facts or events in nature and history but is dependent on some ensemble facts and events that can sustain their interpretation. Whether this is a Christian view, I will not judge but am somewhat uninterested in the answer.

So within the limited framework I was originally assuming, my first analysis generally holds, but in a larger content, it is misleading. Remember I said that at this level the questions become as intellectually demanding as string theory.

Your response and corrections, suggestions, etc. would be appreciated.