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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Another dog for Romney

Hello!  My name is Jake!  I live in the little house with the big fence around it, about a rabbit's run from the river with the waterfall.  (My masters can't hear the waterfall from here, but I can a little, when the wind comes from the mountains.)  We also have lots of fruit trees, a grape vine, vegetables, and strawberries, which I never touch, unless my masters first pick them, then throw them at my feet under the kitchen table.  Then everything is delicious, except the lettuce.

I live with four masters: Chief Running Master, Medium Master, Little Master, and the Woman.  (Little Master is not so little, anymore, but that's what I call him, and I haven't thought of a new name, yet.)

All the humans have been talking about "pole ticks" (the doctor gave me a shot for that, I think) and the "lekshun" lately, and asking about the dog's perspective.  Some say a Pubcan named Romney put his dog on the roof of his car and drove him to Canda.  At first I thought I hope he wins and takes me, next time -- Running Master leaves me at home when he drives to Canda, and never lets me ride on the roof.  Others say a Dumb Cat named Obama ate dog on some island across the Wavy Water.  He was just a pup, so I forgive him for that.  But I hear all about the two candits on TV, while Running Master is cooking dinner, and would like to offer my opinion, since I guess its important to you.  I always listen carefully to what humans say, so I hope you listen to my views, this time. 

I would like to endorse Mitt Romney for prezdent, three paws up.

That's how many reasons I have.  Here they are. 
Middle Master "needling" me, and pretending to be mean. 
He doesn't mean it. 

(1) We need more smelly water.  Medium Master is gone during the week, now, and only comes home on weekends.  They say he is at some place called U Dub.  He always comes home in the new car, with Running Master or the Woman driving.  They help the car drink smelly water to make it run.  (I don't know why cars like smelly water, it hurts my nose.)  And since I came to Running Master's house, four snows ago, the numbers by those big cans where they get the smelly water to put in the car's mouth have gotten bigger and bigger.  I'm thinking, "Where is all the smelly water going?  Has Obama's big airplane drunk it all?"  Or maybe people have to dig for it, like I dig for bones I've buried, and he doesn't let people dig, like Running Master sometimes doesn't let me dig. 

Anyway, if there isn't enough smelly water, I'm afraid Middle Master won't be able to come home on the weekend.  He is mean to me a lot -- pretends to eat my food, wrestles with me -- but I really like it, even though I growl.  And maybe if Romney is prezdent, smelly water will get cheaper, and I'll get to drive all the way to Canda, and the Woman can buy more dog treats. 

(2) The Deaf Sit is too big.  Humans are hard to understand when they talk about pole ticks.  When I heard them talking about the Deaf Sit, at first I thought that was a kind of silent hand signal they give you and they want you to sit down, and give you a treat, or at least pat you on the head.  Because Running Master shakes his fist when he says that word.  So every time I heard the word, even without a fist shaking, I would sit down.  I sat a lot of times, but never got a treat. 

So I watched more carefully, and listened (we dogs are good at listening, just not at understanding) and finally figured it out. 

The Deaf Sit means Merika owes other people sixteen trillyun dollars.  I think Merika is like a really big town, all those places they show on TV, with lots of people and dogs, and even some cats.  I don't know what trillyun means, but I think it's like a 50 pound sack of dog food. So that all our dogfood really belongs to someone else, and they might come and take it away some day.  And then when the humans buy another bag of dog food, they would come and take THAT away -- again and again.  Think how you would growl, and want to bite someone. 

And each family, Running Master said (not to me, but I listened), owes as much money as our whole house is worth, including the fence and the trees and the squirrels that run along the fence and the big trees where the raccoons used to hide.  So strange big men with clubs could come some day and kick us out of our house, and we wouldn't even get to growl at them.  We would have to go and live under the bridge, and take baths in the river, even when it's cold.  And everyone would be like that in all of Merka,and I don't think we have enough bridges for everyone to sleep under.   

Maybe that's why they call it a Deaf Sit.  Because you have to just sit under the bridge, when they take your house away, and they don't even let you growl. 

Romney wants to make the Deaf Sit smaller.  I don't know how he'll do that, but I think we need to try. 

It's like scratching on the gate. You never know, sometimes it opens when you scratch on it with your paw.  You need to try.   

(3) Leaders should bring the whole pack home.  We five are a little pack.  We eat dinner at the same time (them on chairs, me under the table, cause I can't sit in a chair), and sleep in the same house.  When strangers come to the gate, I bark, and the humans decide if the strangers are safe or not.  When we go hiking, we go out and come back together.  Running Master opens the back of the car, and I jump in, and sometimes Middle Master and Little Master talk to me, and sometimes I sleep because I'm tired from climbing mountains, and waiting for them to catch up. 

Merika is a really big pack, I think.  I hear on TV that there are other packs -- Turkey (I'd like to chase that one), Greece (lick lick lick!), Germany (that's where some of my ancestors come from). 

So what's my point?  I'm getting to it. 

Just before Middle Master went to U Dub, some terrists came to the gate of a Merkan house somewhere, and tried to kill everybody.  The people who lived there didn't have a dog, so the humans had to fight the terrists by themselves. 
Some other members of the Merkan pack wanted to help.  They are like good hiking buddies, they always bring members of their pack home.  But Obama said they couldn't.  Or one of Obama's friends said they couldn't, I'm not sure.  He wanted to pretend like there was no fight. Anyway, the fight went on for a long time -- as long as hiking all day in the mountains, and swimming too, and chasing a few squirrels.  They had plenty of time to bring more of our pack and beat up the terrists, shoot guns and start lawn mowers to scare them away, or maybe use light sabers like on TV.  Obama keeps saying he told his pack to help, but then he won't tell us what really happened, or why they didn't.  So the terrists killed the humans in our pack, and Obama did nothing to stop it.  Then he kept saying how he'd done everything he could, and how everything he did was right, but he wouldn't say why nobody went to help the Merkans. 

We dogs don't like this.  We are loyal to our packs.

So I think we need a new pack leader, and make the leader we have now go sit in the dog house.  

(4) Finally, of course (I thought of another), I would never vote for a Dumb Cat. .

Thank you for listening to me. 

Your faithful servant,

Jake. 




Monday, October 29, 2012

Coexist? A pox on both bumperstickers!

No doubt you've seen this one, perhaps on the back bumper of a Chechnyan get-away car in Boston:



Or perhaps this version, which explains (in at least one case, wrongly) the symbols:


In America, where every thesis is soon confronted with its antithesis, we now have this as well:


All are fairly clear expressions of common theological positions.  The first two affirm the alleged equality of the world's "great religions," a sentiment typical of the Pluralist school of theology.  Many of John Hick's books read as if they were written to justify this bumpersticker, and even tend to emphasize the same "major religions."  (Pluralists seldom mention "folk" religions like that of the Aztecs, for example.)  Lining up these symbols in a row, even without the "emergent message," implies that they are comparable.  To some, that means all religions are equally evil: the Boston Mararthon terrorists may have been fanatical Muslims, but they could just as well have been members of the Religions Right, reactionary Hindutva members in India, or maybe those Buddhists in Burma who have been torching the homes of Muslims they feel have overstayed their welcome by a generation or two.

By contrast, the third sticker baldly challenges pluralism, expressing what is usually called Exclusivism. 

Of course, one expects simplicity from bumper-stickers, but I think these ones actually hit the nail on the head.  Both models of world religion really are that simple, and that simplistic.  Neither offers an adequate understanding of how religions relate to one another.  My goal in this post is to explain what's wrong with these two starkly contrasting views, and offer an alternative. 


I. Coexist? 

John Hick
The first error of the pluralist bumper sticker lies in its failure of ambition.  Coexist?  You mean, like oysters and cabbages?  Asteroids in space?  Lovers who go their separate ways, she to Venus in the Prius, him to Mars in the SUV? 

The unstated premise seems to be that all religions are perpetually at war, and that the planet is likely to wind up a smoking nuclear cauldron, if we don't somehow reign in all these wild-eyed fanatics.  So mere existence without any attempt to anihilate competitors, is by itself a big improvement.  Even though communism was arguably the most successful religion of the 20th Century, there is no hammer or sickle here.  But e=MC2 reminds us which ideology did have its paws on the nuclear trigger a few years ago, with a record of murder that gave its threats more credibility than Slim Pickens waving a cowboy hat.  

Are religions really always at war?  Of course not.  Sects compete for believers, true, just as grocery stores compete for customers.  Given enough power, churches, ideologically-driven political parties, and corporations or mercantilist states are apt to take competition to the level of bombs and bayonetts.  But controlled and civil competition between advocates of different belief systems is I think a healthy state of affairs, a "marketplace of ideas" that allows the spiritual consumer to "shop" for the best arguments, the warmest fellowship, holiness and kindness among one's leaders and fellow worshippers, worthy goals in life, even the best music or a big parking lot, if that's what you care about.  And that is the prevailing state of affairs in the world today: in most of Europe and the Americas, in Africa south of the Sahara, in India, Thailand, Japan and even China, for the most part, preachers offer their wares peacefully, and those on the street pass by or go inside, as the Spirit -- some spirit -- may lead them. 

There are modern religions that seem at war with the world, especially Nazism, Marxism-Leninism, and the religion of the Marathon bombers, in order of virulence.  One couldn't paste the Coexist bumper-sticker to the rear of one's car in some modern societies.  Pacifist sentiments by default only influence societies that don't much need them, and most need to remain vigilant against enemy threats.  I just finished reading Escape From North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad.  Author Melanie Kirkpatrick makes it clear that South Korea's Sunshine Policy towards North Korea was not only naive, but resulted in the enslavement and even deaths of many North Koreans.

Or should we read COEXIST as a protest against proselytism?  Should we all just keep our beliefs to ourselves, and refrain from preaching?

But what is a bumpersticker, if not a short sermon? 

And who is its audience, if not the automotive world? 

This, again, accurately reflects theology.  Pluralism contradicts itself, by practicing what it preaches against -- preaching.  It spreads its belief around, that we should stop spreading our beliefs around.  One suspects that the assumption here is that when everyone ELSE shuts up, pluralism will gain a monopoly, and conflict will end and the seas stop rising as  New Millennia dawns.  Thus, western pluralism generally reduces to what Catholic philosopher Gavin D'Costa calls "enlightenment exclusivism."  He contrasted that form of exclusivism critically with the (in his view) more open-minded exclusivism of the Dalai Lama's Tibetan Buddhism and some forms of Hinduism, still more with his own "trinitarian" Catholic beliefs.  A must always exclude non-A, even if A calls itself pluralism.

In other words again, pluralism is yet another of the great "Unity" religions, which never unify, because they turn out just as sectarian and divisive as those they seek to reform, and sometimes more so: Sikhism, Bahai, the Unification Church (Moonies), Yi Guandao, Cao Dai, the New Atheism. 

Or perhaps for some, the message of COEXIST is simply, "Let's be nice to people of other religions?  Everone try to get along, please?"

In which case, I have no objection, of course.  Though of course, "getting along" must mean calling out the Boston cops with stun guns to bust the Islamic terrorists who hijacked the "COEXIST" getaway car.  Also, I prefer Jesus' way of putting it: "Love your neighbor as yourself."  In justice, though, some who affix this slogan to the backs of their cars mean mainly to encourage more kindliness, and perhaps are personally kind to people who disagree with them.  (Though my experience with Unitarians has not been such as to cause me to take this for granted.) 


II. Don't Coexist!

The third bumpersticker seems to encourage an exclusivist mentality:


At face value, the sentiment expressed here seems rather ghastly: don't live side-by-side with neighbors who disagree with you!  What should we do, then, launch a war of extermination? 

I'm sure that's not what is meant, and the verse at the bottom is eschatological: when the Roll is called up Yonder, Mohammed and Buddha won't be there.  Those other, presumably false, religions will die out, as "every knee shall bow" and all come to recognize the supremacy of Jesus and the truth of the Gospel. 

There are different forms of exclusivism.  As mentioned above, in the strict sense, every rational worldview cannot but exclude the full truth of worldviews that differ from it.  In that sense, every religion or ideology is exclusive. 

Someone suggested to me that this bumpersticker may mean no more than that:

A religion at minimum consists of a conjunction of propositions. If a conjunct of a conjunction is false, then the whole conjunction is false (although the other conjuncts might still be true). This is just basic logic.

By that argument, I would have to say, "the Republican party platform is false," because I disagree with SOME planks in that platform, even if I voted straight "R" on my ballot last fall. I don't think anyone seeing that bumpersticker is going to read it as meaning, "There is, among the many propositions conjoined in Zen Buddhism, at least one that is in error." Nor do I think that's what the person who created it was thinking.  It will be read, as it was no doubt intended, as a blanket dismissal of non-Christian religions. 

You may dismiss other religions in one of at least three ways, corresponding to Jesus' claim: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No man comes to the Father but by me."

First, you can embrace ethical exclusivism.  This would be the idea that all other religions either teach nothing but evil, or that their net effect is always evil, perhaps because they deceive people about the truth. This is the point of Christopher Hitchen's god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  All religions (but Hitchen's own, which he did not call a religion) are irredemably given over to harming the planet and the wild creatures and humans (especially women) who seek bread upon it. 

But of course, even what we Christians think of as pagan religion doesn't really poison everything.  I challenge anyone to take a course in the history of Chinese art, and tell me after you're done that China would be an unambiguously more glorious or ethical civilization without "pagan" influence upon it. 

Pluralists often close their eyes to the terrible evils that are not just committed in the name of religion, but also to the fact that the deepest premises of many religions encourage great evil.  One cannot say Aztecs cut out the hearts of their victims "in the name of" Aztec religion. Human sacrifice WAS their religion, or at least a very central part of it. 

Exclusivists commit the opposite mistake.  They take off John Hick's rose-colored glasses, and put on Karl Marx' dark shades, blinding themselves to the great beauty and good that religions (even non-Christian religions) also often encourage. 

It may seem more plausible to say the net effect of non-Christian religions is evil, because those religions distract people from the truth of the Gospel. 

But do they?  Justin Martyr referred to the various schools of Greek philosophy as "tutors to Christ," and for many (including him, and also one could argue St. Augustine), that is how they served.  The Apostle Paul seemed to cite Stoic philosophy, and also quirky local religious cults (the altar to the "unknown god"), when he preached in Athens.  Such examples could be multiplied down through Christian history. 

Even if other religions did mainly compete with Christianity, would it really be fair to look at, say, the call for ethical justice in Judaism, the cry to worship God in Islam, or the call for compassion in Buddhism, and say only Christianity is good, and all other religions are mainly evil?  And then of course they will ask, "What about your inquisitions?  What about Europe's religious wars?   Why did you let priests get away with abusing children?" 

So ethical exclusivism is unfair, at best.  I argue that Jesus Christ has served as the heart and soul of ethical revolution that has changed the world greatly for the better.  But if Jesus himself pointed to a kind Samaritan to explain what he meant when he sai "Love your neighbor as yourself!," who are we to ignore the moral good in other traditions? 

A second option is ontological exclusivism, the idea that Christianity alone is true.  That is expressed in one form by my critic quoted above.  If the conjunction of propositions of which a religion in part consists is false, in fact if any one of those propositions is false, then the religion as a whole must be untrue, he says.  Since Christianity conflicts with every other religion on at least one point, Christianity cannot be true, at the same time any other religion is also deemed wholly true. 

Gavin D'Costa
In essence, this is also Gavin D'Costa's view.  He admits that there is much truth in other traditions, but calls himself an "exclusivist," anyway, since the total Christian (or Catholic) package excludes the total Buddhist or Muslim package.  But I don't see that the term "exclusivism" really makes much sense, here.  In practive, D'Costa is quite sensitive to truth in other traditions, quite unlike this bumpersticker.  I do not think such weak critique of other religions -- "There is, at least, one proposition in modern Judaim or Buddhism that Christians are bound to reject" -- was what its creator had in mind. 

A stronger form of ontological exclusivism is that other religions are wholly false.  But how ignorant does a person have to be to think that?  Forced to think through the implications of this claim, even so obdurant a fundamentalist as Karl Marx or Richard Dawkins might demur.  (Let alone wiser "exclusivists" like Karl Barth, Helmut Kraemer, or certainly Costa.)  Anyway, Jesus said he came to "Fulfill, not abolish" the Law and Prophets that were the heart of Jewish religion.  That rules out strong ontological exclusivism for Christians. One non-Christian religion, for us, is quite true, and the Gospel is based on that premise. 

Finally, one may also hold to soteriological exclusivism, often expressed by interpretting this verse as meaning, "No one will go to heaven (home of the Father) unless they first believe in Jesus."

Ironically, the controversial pastor Rob Bell interprets the verse quoted in this sticker to mean just the opposite: apparently some day, everyone will come to God through Jesus. Bell could also be called an exlusivist, in the eyes of some pluralists, because while he seems to think people of other religions will eventually be saved, it is through Jesus alone that they will get there. So what is excluded, in his view, is not people from heaven, but false religions as the means of salvation.

I would, indeed, argue that the Christian Gospel has transformed the world for the better in a unique way.  But did it do so exclusively?  Or have we had allies at times?  Islam challenged human sacrifice.  Buddhists created hospitals and preserved ancient trees.  Reformist brands of Hinduism, often influenced by the life of Jesus, have challenged caste and abuse of women in India.  Secular humanists staff many worthy human rights organizations. 

If Jesus could praise a semi-pagan Samaritan who helped someone in need, while "ethical Jewish leaders" passed by on the other side, we as Christians should, I think, be careful about excluding people of other faiths from the redemptive work God is accomplishing in this world.  His ways are higher than ours.  Let us not presume to dictate to Him.


III.  What is the Alternative? 

So where are we left, when both sides in the Battle of the Bumperstickers fall on their swords?  How do we think about religion, when Chechnyan terrrorists make their getaway in a car with a "COEXIST" bumpersticker on the back?  What alternative can we fall back upon? 
GKC: Kind to little girls, but not one
to tolerate pink.
Quite a few theologians argue for some compromise model, often labeled "inclusivist."  But as G. K. Chesterton warned, "pink is not a color!"  He meant that Christian theology does not "settle for a happy medium" that simply melts extremes down.  Instead, it seeks to embrace the insights of both extremes at once, even to intensify them or bring them to consummation or "fulfillment."

Over the past six years, I've been developing an alternative model of religions that I call Fulfillment Theology.  I don't claim to be wholly original: I argue that FT is the most biblical model, consistent with the gospels and Paul's approach to the Greeks in Athens and elsewhere.  Many of the greatest missionaries and Christian thinkers down through the ages have applied such a model to other religious traditions.  Four of the chapters of our new book, Faith Seeking Understanding, show how this is done in relation to the "primitive" beliefs of the Sawi people in Papua New Guinea (Don Richardson), India (Ivan Satyavrata), and China (Yuan Zhiming), along with a wonderful overview of Christian and world religions in general, by anthropologist Miriam Adeney. 

It's a wonderful book, and at the end of a long post, I don't mind saying, "Please read our new book, to better understand the most biblical and empirically-satisfying alternative to the duel of the bumper-stickers!" 

I'm also hoping to see my academic argument for Fulfillment Theology in print soon.   

But I think as Christians, we ought to be able to look evil in the face, as we have seen the past few days (editing this in April 2013). trace it accurately to its roots, and call it by name.  We ought also be able to recognize grace wherever the Holy Spirit allows it to alight, and trace its implications for our lives.  That is the challenge: to see with both eyes, clearly, gain depth of vision by seeing in stereo, and to deny the truth of neither. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Loftus: Damned if you don't, too! (faith, again)

One gets whiplash, trying to follow anti-Christian arguments some days. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Perspectives: Echo Ranch Bible Camp


Here's a picture I took more than 30 years ago.  You're looking at Lynn Canal forty-five miles north of Juneau, Alaska.  This is a glacial fjord that runs about a hundred miles north to Haines, then Skagway, where roads connect into the Yukon.  (Skagway was the starting point for the dogsled trail during the Gold Rush.)  Here Lynn Canal broadens out into a body of water called Berners Bay: the view further to the right is even more spectacular, with mountains rising abruptly from the water just a few miles away.  The objects in the foreground are two canoes, set on wooden stands, no doubt to keep them out of the extreme tides: one of the staff got his four wheel-drive truck stuck in the sand right here, filled it up with salt water, and then had to get the truck flushed out in the river. 

One can drive to a point about three miles to the south, after which there are no more roads.  I'm standing on the beach belonging to Echo Ranch Bible Camp, where I spent two summers as a boy, with my Mom cooking for the campers, and then another several years later, as a young counselor.  The camp hugs the sandy lower end of a two mile long valley.  In July, one could find big, delicious wild strawberries among the grasses and beautiful flowers at my feet here.  This is one of my favorite places in the world.  You can often see whales spouting in the water here, catch salmon from the beach, and halibat and crab further out, competing with the seals. 

Mom cooked, while Dad was building houses over the often-rainy summers back in Juneau.  He'd come out to see us over the weekend.  Dad moved to Alaska several months before us -- long, tedious months for us, as well as for him. 

Tomorrow is his memorial service.  The sun has set again, and again it will be a long wait.  But I think we also caught glimpses of glory in those last days. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

What Gospel of Thomas? Most-hated review.

Can we have a drum roll, Mystro . . . . .

And after months of tortured suspense, a torment that would try the spirits in Dante's Inferno, here it is -- the Number One most-disfavored review I have yet posted on Amazon, out of some four hundred total. 

Notice that the total number of "BOOOO!" votes here is not nearly as great as for some other books, like American Fascists, the runner-up.  But the intensity of rejection that makes this review the winner: only eight people found my review "helpful," while 51 found it "unhelpful." 

The funny thing is, I gave the book three stars.  Clearly, I felt ambivalent about this book, even if other readers felt certain about my ambivalence. 

Maybe they're on to something.  This review is not so long, so after it's complete, perhaps I should do a little soul-searching -- mine and theirs.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Gnu Unicorn misses the point. (On faith.)

An atheist named Mike, who calls himself A-Unicornist, has taken some time recently to blog through our e- (and soon paper) book, True Reason, even though he calls it "terrible."  So let me take time to decontruct his critique of my second chapter, even though I didn't find that critique so hot, either.  After all, if atheists who define themselves as people who don't collect stamps or don't believe in unicorns, still expend hundreds of man-hours justifying themselves for not doing what they implicitly claim needs no justification, the least I can do is spend an hour or so rebutting a very bad argument by a gentleman who really does exist. 

At least I think he does.  Of course, I take Mike's existence on faith, in the Christian sense (the sense I am going to explain yet again, below), as I take most things that are real on faith. 

Faith is the subject of True Reason.  The main questions it attempts to answer are, what do Christians mean by the word "faith?"  Is Christian faith reasonable?  Is it even meant to be reasonable? 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Why Women Especially Should Accept Christianity

Monday, Harry McCall wrote a piece at Debunking Christianity entitled "Why Women Especially Should Reject Christianity." 
Tribal Village in N Thailand
meets a missionary: what impact
did Christianity have on
women? 
Why, in McCall's view, should women reject Christianity?  Is it because Roman society taught the Double Standard, that the pater familia had a Zeus-given right to sleep around (like Zeus), while his bride would be in big trouble for doing the same, and Christianity challenged that double standard? 

Should women reject Christianity because Greeks and Romans usually tossed second daughters outside to die, and Christians called that a sin?

Or should women turn their backs on the Gospel because Christians allowed girls to mature a few years longer before getting married, unlike pagan Romans?  Of course every 12 year old girl is fully mature and ready to assume the responsibilities of marriage. 

Rodney Stark mentioned these and other such facts in The Rise of Christianity, which he wrote before he became a Christian, as reasons why most early Christians were, in fact, women themselves.  In addition, the early Church took care of widows.  It nursed the sick.  It discouraged dangerous abortions, which often killed the women who underwent them on the command of their men-folk. 

Does McCall think Roman women were too dumb to realize the terrible harm Christianity was doing them, despite these apparent advantages? 

Or does McCall think women should reject Christianity because missionaries challenged the practice of burning girls on funeral pyres in India, throwing out babies in Nigeria, or foot-binding in China?  Is the problem that Christian missionaries introduced womens' education that has benefited BILLIONS of women around the world?  Too much homework, maybe? 

Did McCall argue that the many girls I met in Asia whom missionaries had saved from prostitution, were thereby deprived of a fulfilling vocation?  That they might miss their pimps and customers? 

Or did he claim that men in our society who follow the Bible's commands to marry one woman, not cheat, love her self-sacrificially, and treat her with respect, do women more harm than, say, a Teddy Kennedy or a Jacques Rousseau? 

No, such questions somehow entirely escaped the range of McCall's curiosity. 

When I reminded the gang at DC of my series of articles on "How Jesus Liberates Women" (Part I, Part II (my story), Part III (sociological overview), Part IV (history), Part V (Jesus and women in the Gospels), and Part VI ("Lamest Rebuttals Award")), written in response to John Loftus' earlier empty fulminations on this subject, quite a few came over to read the articles.  But they simply blew all such historical and sociological facts off.  No one made any substantive attempt to refute my points, here or there.  Yet I show how the lives of billions of women have been palpably improved by the life, example, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. 

But Harry did have an argument.  It was a biblical argument.  Like many fundamentalist-minded Gnus, McCall thinks cherry-picking Scripture for proof-texts provides a more persuasive argument than the lives of billions of people that have been blessed by the teachings of Jesus.  (Loftus says McCall's article has already become the second-most-read article in the history of Deconstructing Christianity!) 

Harry wanted to talk about the Bible.  But even there, he ignored EVERY verse in the four gospels.  Instead, he focused exclusively on a few Pauline, or allegedly Pauline, verses in I Corinthians and I Timothy. 

Because, of course, the heart of Christianity is I Timothy, not anything Jesus Christ might happen to say or do.  

Skeptics have written hundreds of attempted rebuttals of my "Jesus Liberates Women" series in various forums.  Few of the responses so far have been even mildly substantive. Harry's myopic proof-texting, his seemingly total disinterest in history, and his shameless cherry-picking, have so far proven par for the course, and in fact, more substantive than some.   

But, you might ask, what about those verses?  They are in the Bible, aren't they?  Don't they prove that God has it in for women?  Don't Christians hold the Bible to be the Sacred Word of God?  Didn't those verses have any influence on Christian history? 

I am loath to fight the battle on those terms for several reasons:

(1) Skeptics so far have shown remarkable reluctance to deal fairly and honestly with the history of liberation I and others have detailed.  Why should we follow them into their Cavern of Navel-Gazing and Cherry-Picking, and ignore all the real live women who have been so palpably blessed by Jesus' life? 

(2) Since the effect, as I show from UN surveys, is that the highest status of women correlates strongly to societies where the Gospel has been influential, one should look for a cause to THAT effect, not to imaginary ones.  If one out of ten rivers is full of fish, the others nine sterile, it is more reasonable to ask why that one river has fish, not why it doesn't have even more of them.  Our primary question must be, what is it in the Bible that can explain the effect that is visible -- a higher status of women -- rather than imaginary effects? 

(3) Jesus, not Paul or pseudo-Paul, is the center of Christianity.

(4) In Part V of my series, I examined every single passage in the gospels that deals in some way with the status of women.  McCall not only ignores the gospels completely, he baldly cherry-picks Paul, too.  He ignores the fact that Paul did, actually, have female colleagues, whom he praised.  He ignores such passages as "In Christ, there is neither male nor female."  He ignores all attempts to contextualize even the passages he does attend to. 

This is not honest exegesis, nor does it deserve to be treated with respect. 

(5) Anyway, NT scholars have debated these verses extensively.  Like Paul, I am by inclination a pioneer: I hate to repeat other peoples' arguments.  Given the wealth of empirical data from history, and from the gospels, these few, relatively obscure passages just don't interest me enough to go through old diggings in search of a new nugget or two.  (Though I welcome references by readers to good arguments about Paul's views of women.  I don't find the argument interesting enough to follow much myself, since I am not under durress to do so, but others may find them profitable.) 

Let skeptics come to grips with the larger facts I cite in the "How the Gospel Liberates Women" series, first.  Let them earn the right to wax geeky on I Timothy, by showing that they are honest enough to deal fairly with the primary facts of Jesus' life and influence on the world, and on women.  Then we can discuss smaller issues, as how to reconcile Paul's different moods. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Goodbye, Dad, for now.

At our elder son's high school graduation this June.  (His
name is also John; that is not a coincidence.)
John Quincy Marshall (1932-2012) went to be with the Lord last night, at home in bed, surrounded by a few of those who love him. 

Dad's last days were not easy.  The pain had been under control medically (thanks, Big Drugs).  He seemed to feel little hunger, though he had eaten almost nothing for a month.  (A few bites, some of which he regretted, a little grape juice.  One of the last things it seems he ate was a tiny piece of the 50-pound king salmon my brother Steve recently caught by his home on the Columbia River.  He said, "That smells really good.") 

I spent Tuesday night and Wednesday morning at their home, helping in the middle of the night when needed.  Dad was seldom fully conscious, and seldom fully unconscious.  He felt increasingly nauseous.  Not everything he said could be understood: he lacked the strength to speak clearly, and he may have seen a few things that weren't there, though it was hard to tell for sure.  (He mentioned Paris to me, I don't know why.  "You mean in France?"  "Yes.")  He repeatedly told Mom, "I want to go home."  He told me Steve had been offered a job near his home (he commutes on a weekly basis to patrol Seattle's subway for King County, now), and it turned out this was true.  He also said, "This is the worst I've felt in all my life."  I said, "You're a tough man, Dad."  He answered, "I don't feel tough."  But he also thanked me for what little I could do to help. 

Other people filtered into the house, and I left to give them time, and keep the crowd to a minimum. 

When I got ready to leave, I went into Dad's bedroom and said goodbye, and "I love you."  He raised his hand to say goodbye.  But people were outside the bedroom talking, and I couldn't leave right away.  I went back into his room.  He grasped my hand with surprising strength.  I said, "God be with you, Dad."  He said clearly, forcefully, "The Lord be with you." 

I left with that blessing ringing in my ears, as it will for a long time, I think. 

Dad died that evening about 7:40, with my brother Peter attending him, just a few minutes after we had prayed over dinner back home for a peaceful outcome. 

I will share a poem below, that will tell you what you need to know about Dad.  But first, a few superficial facts:

Dad served in the Army during the Korean War, in what is now Eritrea, and was then part of Ethiopia.  He long displayed the head of a gazelle from Africa that he and his friends got hunting, on the wall.  Though he didn't go hunting often, he treasured his two years in Africa, and often spoke of those hunting trips.  (Along with his later moose hunting trip near Yakutat, when we lived in Alaska.)

Dad built houses and, occasionally, apartments.  He specialized in building new homes on steep slopes, surrounded by trees, which he tried to save.  During the economic downturn in Seattle after the Vietnam War ended, we moved to Alaska for five years, where there were plenty of slopes and trees, but also lots of cold rain and mosquitoes.  We enjoyed the slopes; Dad endured the rain and the snow, when it came, working outside in a cold-weather parka.  (Construction is most difficult when it is raining, winding, and snowing just above freezing, which it often is in Juneau, then again with a bitter cold wind well below zero, as it sometimes was in Skagway). 

Dad was a Presbyterian elder and one of those Calvinists who actually reads Calvin.  He loved gardening, even just a week ago picking over the tomatoes I brought in from his last garden, and putting some on the window sill, though he couldn't eat them.  He was a Seahawks fan, the kind who watches to the end even when they were behind by three touchdowns.  (Though he might have missed last week's come-from-behind victory over New England -- he saw the first part of the game.) He  was a Republican and strong Mitt Romney supporter.  I even remember a Richard Nixon bumper sticker on the wall of the basement bedroom we three boys shared, growing up, by the window. 

Much of what I am, comes from Dad: my love of the mountains, of gardening, of sports, my political interests. 

I'm not a Calvinist, but I also treasure our Presbyterian heritage, a sane, book-loving, politically-involved, historically-informed subculture.  Dad and Mom met at Westside Presbyterian in West Seattle, left that church for a while, then spent the last twenty years or so at it again, deeply involved in many ways.  West Side is what they call in the evangelical community a "missions-minded church," which in practice means they have lots of interesting people from around the world come in and go out.  (Maybe that also helps explain me.)  One of the pastors, Ron Rice, builds wheelchairs for polio victims in Nigeria, for instance, and also helps develop Christian Ed curriculum for parts of that country.  The great mission physicians, Dr. Paul and Margaret Brand, "retired" to a third or fourth life of service at West Side, as did Don and Martha Wilson from Thailand: these were among my parents' close friends. 

But so are a lot of other people, including many who had no claim to fame at all.   

Thus we come to my poem. 

I cheated, as you'll see.  Someone else wrote the first draft:

Even though I read classical Chinese or programming languages for Microsoft editor, but have no love, I am noisy as a Heavy Medal Thrash band, or a jackhammer on 35th. Even if can forecast an El Nino winter, and have faith to put a Republican in the White House or pay off the National Debt, without love, I am nothing. Even if I pay for AIDS drugs in Mozambique, preach to New Atheists on the Internet, or chain myself to Old Growth Douglas fir to save it from being murdered by Big Timber, but lack love, it does me no good at all.

Love puts up with lawyers from Family Court, without losing its temper. Love does not shout guests down at the Thanksgiving dinner table. You find love with a cheerful face and a "Good morning" on the couch in the living room at 6 AM, with an open Bible. Love picks people up at the airport. It does not count apple pie slices or put greedy guests on its Enemies List. Love refurbishes boats, cleans out houses, fixes leaks, builds garages. It loves the truth. It bares tough news without wallowing in self-pity, even by affecting a phony Stoicism. Love holds to faith without giving up, hopes under dire circumstances, -- even when the Mariners lose their star right fielder, or a Little League team loses its tenth straight game 16 to 1 – and does not lose hope during losing streaks in real life, either.

Love never fails. As for MA and PhD degrees, they are just piles of paper. As for bank accounts, they drain like leaky pipes before you call the apartment manager. As for languages, they will lose out to Google translator. As for books, Kindle is conquering the world, unfortunately. For our research is fragmentary, and our grasp on empirical data uncertain and incomplete. But when the real manifests itself, the psyche-enhancing memorabilia we cling to scatter like "epistles of straw" in the wind.

When I was a child, Captain Kirk was my hero. When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the childish need to be grownup. I still enjoy Star Trek, but have found better heroes. Now, we see what really matters indistinctly, like trying to shave without glasses. Then we will see face to face. Now we know in part, and most of what we think we know needs to be fact-checked. But then we shall understand as we are now understood.

Just three things stay with us, in the end: faith, hope, and love, no more than these. But the greatest of these is love.

Though hope is pretty awesome, too.

Thanks, Dad, for helping us see the things that count.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Humility of Paul Brand

Pastor Paul
I continue introducing our new book, Faith Seeking Understanding, with a brief passage from Chapter Two, "The Contagious Humility of Paul Brand," by the Reverend Paul Smith.  Pastor Paul is Senior Pastor of Westside Presbyterian Church in Seattle, where Paul and Margaret Brand "co-labored" for many years.  That is where I had the opportunity to get to know the Brands a little -- my parents knew them better -- and love and respect them, like most others at Westside.  Pastor Paul is the author of several books himself, and is a skilful and insightful communicator. 

Dr. Brand probably wasn't
wearing a red tie, that day.
            Our first encounter with Dr. Paul Brand at Westside came on a summer day in 1986.  Vacation Bible School was going on, and there was plenty of distraction.  My secretary looked up from her work to see a slightly rumpled older couple standing politely in front of her.  “We’re Paul and Margaret Brand,” Paul said, “and we wonder if you can help us.”  The names did not register and her first thought was, “Oh my, I suppose this dear couple needs a handout.”  It was our church, however, that was about to receive a “handout,” one which has enriched us immeasurably.

            Paul and Margaret had just retired and were moving into a small cottage on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound about a mile from our church.  It became my privilege to become their pastor – Paul’s for the next 17 years until his death.  In all honesty, however, I must say that I could never quite pull off the mental gymnastics necessary to convince myself of the charade.  What I know is that he became an enormous encouragement, support, mentor, and role model for me.  In her biography, Ten Fingers for God, Dorothy Clarke Wilson describes how Paul felt about his retirement after such a sterling career.  Biological growth may come to an early climax, but, he pointed out, “there is another dimension of life (call it wisdom?) that involves the integration of knowledge and history and experience and can come only later in life.”  If any of us thought Paul’s energy was spent and he might have little left to give, we need not have feared.  He firmly believed that all his life to date had been preparing him for this final phase of activity known as retirement, and “that may well be the most creative and productive of all.”   This was certainly true for us, as he and Margaret contributed immeasurably to our lives.  When my own “retirement” comes, I hope I shall remember this compelling outlook on the whole of life, one of countless lessons learned from Paul . . .

            My most fundamental and abiding observation about Paul Brand was his genuine humility, and that his true greatness lay in that humility.  Saint Augustine said “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues.  Hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist, there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”  Paul Brand accomplished many remarkable things in his lifetime.  A good number of these are well-known to readers of the best-selling books he wrote with Philip Yancey.  The story of how Brand discovered that the source of tissue damage for leprosy patients lay in shallow nerve damage which destroyed the protective pain response is well-known, and changed medical treatment and revolutionized the way we view pain.  Medical experts worldwide praise his pioneering hand surgery techniques.  He has been regularly consulted by the World Health Organization.  His lucid and informative writing has inspired Christians and drawn the admiration of scientists and those who simply enjoy a good story.  All these extraordinary accomplishments are magnified in the eyes of those who have met and worked with Dr. Brand by his sincere humility.  But like Saint Augustine, I would go even further and say that it is not so surprising that he has done all this and remained humble.  Rather – and I say this for the benefit of every potential servant of Jesus Christ – I believe his humility is the compelling force that lies behind those accomplishments.
With all due respect, Mrs. Gump:
forget chocolates, this is what life is
really like. 


Order Faith Seeking Understanding from William Carey Library, and get a head start on your Christmas shopping! Or order from us, and I'll sign the book and give you a special deal on any other of my books you'd like to purchase.  I don't normally make this guarantee about my books -- not everyone fits the interest of every reader -- but in this case I can say with a clean conscience to almost everyone: you will not regret obtaining and reading Faith Seeking Understanding.   

 



Sunday, October 14, 2012

Jerry Coyne's critique of Behe, revisited


Has it been five years, already, since Michael Behe's The Edge of Evolution came out?  Someone quoted a more recent article by Jerry Coyne yesterday about how science and religion are fundamentally at odds.  I happen to be reading a soon-to-be published manuscript right now, kindly sent me by an eminent historian of science, showing how Christianity (and Greek theism, before that) actually encouraged the birth and growth of science.  So even if Behe's book is no longer new, this general topic seems perennial. 

Coyne is cited as writing:

It is in our personal and professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. After all, we want our grants funded by the government, and our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism. Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict. But their main evidence--the existence of religious scientists--is wearing thin as scientists grow ever more vociferous about their lack of faith. Now Darwin Year is upon us, and we can expect more books like those by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works.

This is like the lawyer of a gold-digging bimbo married to a software billionaire claiming that it is in his "personal and professional interest" to reconcile the happy couple.  Right, Jerry.  Having interacted (briefly) with you on your blog (motto: "Free of religious badthink for 1004 days!"), I have a different idea of where your heart is, and what your motivations are, and harmonizing science and religion, or treating religious believers as anything better than pond scum, don't seem to be high on your priority list.  Nor is my experience unique.

Anyway, this reminds me of Coyne's review of Michael Behe's The Edge of Evolution, also in The New Republic.  I thought I'd reproduce my review of his review (originally posted to begin a thread on Amazon) here, so we can keep it real about motives.  The scientific issues are also interesting, I think. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Perspective: "Driftwood" on Hualien beach.


You may have heard that a good time to walk along the beach is after a good storm.  You never know what bauble, what serpantine piece of driftwood, what glass balls from Japanese fishing boats, what letter in a bottle from a long-lost lover, you might come across. 

Case in point: here is half of a Turkish freighter that I found washed up on the east coast of Taiwan twenty-some years ago, just outside the Hua Lien harbor, after Sarah Typhoon struck the coast. 

It's an amazing coast.  Just beyond a narrow belt of farmland growing papayas, peanuts, and sugar cane, rises a wall of mountain, covered with bamboo that waves even in breezes.  Those mountains go up, up, up, to some 13,000 feet, a few ridges from the coast.  (There are no comparable mountains in the larger coastal provinces of China, or even in central China.  In fact, the largest mountain in Taiwan used to be the largest mountain in "Japan" -- back in the day.)  Storms driven up from the Phillipines strike the coastal wall and unleash torrents, which are funneled down from the mountains through the narrow Tairoko gorge.  This gorge truly is gorgeous, sculpted marble surrounded by emerald hills.  (Walk carefully in the hills, though: there are lots of snakes!) 

The storm was pretty amazing, too.  As I recall, it dumped over 50 inches of rain along the coast a little further north.  I weathered it out in Taipei, which like Los Angeles is in a basin, protected by mountains on most sides.  (This didn't prevent a later typhoon from flooding the suburbs, resulting in over a hundred deaths across the island.) 

I was told this ship had arrived from the Pacific Northwest with a load of timber.  The other half of the ship was about a hundred yards behind it, out to sea.  Two sailors lost their lives, as I recall a missionary who had tried to help the survivors told me.   

This is certainly the biggest piece of driftwood I've ever found.  Though not, I have to admit, the most beautiful.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Behe: The Edge of Evolution (1.5th most popular review)

Mathematical purists may object.  But my list of "top ten" most popular Amazon reviews will actually include more than ten items, as will my list of ten least popular reviews.  "What are they teaching them in school, these days?"

And so as suspense grows, numbers shrink, and I resort to fractions to keep readers from knowing not only what the top book will be, but even how long before we reach it.  Think of our dilemma like that of an astronaut approaching the "event horizon" of a black hole, and never able to quite reach it.  But in this case, rest assurred, we will some day arrive, the number of books in the world being limitted, as St. John implicitly recognized. 

Anyway, I skip over the book that actually received the next greatest number of votes -- Elaine Pagel's Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of John, with 176 votes, for at least three reasons: (1) I maxed out on scathing in my last review: I would like to retain the illusion, at least, of being basically a nice guy. (Pagels earns a somewhat more favorable review, overall, but I come down pretty hard on her in places). (2)  There really should be a limit to how many items a "top ten" list contains. (3) Two frequent visitors here, Crude and Rudy, have been talking about Michael Behe on random threads about Lao Zi and Chris Hedges.  That conversation seems to have fizzled amicably, but we probably should maintain a dedicated thread here, if ever they or anyone else decides to take it up, again. 


Michael Behe, The Edge of Evolution 196 + /  61 - 

(****) "Read it with an Open Mind"


Just as a massive star bends light, so emotion warps thought when we approach the question of origins. An eminent professor who takes the wrong position on this subject can lose tenure. A less eminent researcher may lose his job. Depite his forty-some peer-reviewed articles and a tenured faculty position, and the careful, measured tone in which he writes, Michael Behe will be called an "ID-iot," his honesty disputed, and anyone who agrees with him dismissed as an ignorant, red-neck hick who can barely muster the cognitive powers of a good high school student.

In such an environment (and if you doubt my appraisal, read some of the reviews on Amazon), it takes conscious intent to ignore manipulative appeals to the "argument from sociology" and attend to substance.

For the record, Behe is not an "ID-iot." He is a sharp and thoughtful biologist who doesn't think evolution can work on its own. In this book he argues for common descent, but also argues that naturalistic evolution is limitted. He thinks the mechanisms proffered for powering the massive creativity and innovation in nature could not come from mutations alone.

His primary tool for advancing this argument is the evolution of the malaria bug, and of human immune defenses against it, over the past several thousand years. Behe shows that while microbes can and do evolve resistances to medicine, they generally do so by breaking down in some way, as does the human body. Touching briefly on the evolution of e coli and HIV, then on other critters, he makes the case that bugs that evolve rapidly, and within enormous biological communities, mark the limits to naturalistic evolution. The mathematical arguments he brings in to explain and support his more theoretical argument against the power of mutations, which some reviewers take issue with, are not his main line of persuasion, nor, I admit, do they seem fully persuasive as developed here.

This book is not about Irreducible Complexity (IC). Behe defends the concept, and his examples of it, briefly, but that is not the main line of discussion, critics to the contrary. He's offered a lengthier defense of IC elsewhere. (While I've read some of his Dover testimony, and some of the summary given in a critic's book, and agree he could have done better at some points, I think carefully considered written articles provide a better forum for ideas than courtroom drama. As someone who has been known to stutter himself in interviews, I'm not inclined to judge a person's intelligence or argument on how well he holds up against hours of verbal examination by a well-prepared and clever attorney. In Debating Design, he seems to me to do well vs. Kenneth Miller and his famous Type III Secretory System.) But here Behe comes at the question from below, rather from above, looking at the known history of recent evolution among well-studied microorganisms. The book is, therefore, a good compliment to Darwin's Black Box.

Read it, and the discussion that will follow (both sides), and make up your own mind. Don't let the raw emotions so in evidence sway you. Behe is right or he is wrong, but he is not a fool. For me, the primary issue remains the frequency and character of beneficial and creative mutations. Looking into the question a bit myself recently, I found a pattern very like what Behe describes. Ironically, it seems to me the best argument against the position Behe stakes out here that I have seen so far is theological. Why would God create the malaria bug? I asked him that question in an interview: as a scientist, he seemed uncomfortable answering such questions, but they are as relevant as the science. I am still not satisfied that anyone really has the history of life pegged.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Chris Hedges: Why does my flesh creep? (1.5th most hated review)

We now come to my really-and-truly second least-popular Amazon review of all time.  My last review came in at Number Two on the scorecard, but that is only because I couldn't confine myself to just ten hated reviews. 

The author is New York Times journalist, Harvard Divinity School graduate, and all-around shmuck, Chris Hedges.  Sorry, I shouldn't say that latter -- he may be a very nice fellow, when he's not writing this book.  (I don't think I can endure reading any of his other books, to see how they compare.)  But here we go, the review speaks for itself, and also explains why Hedge's fans seem to hate it: 

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Lao Zi: closet atheist, or God-fearing Republican?

In Return of the King, J. R.R. Tolkien tells how the future king, Aragorn, challenges long-fallen warrior ghosts who live in caves under a mountain to regain the honor they lost when they deserted Gondor in its long ago hour of need, by now going to battle against the armies of Mordor.  They follow his lead, and save the city of Minas Tirish from orcs, trolls, and assorted other misguided humanoids. 

That, in essence, is what religious disputants always do: recruit the ancient dead to fight present battles.  Thus Stoics made Socrates their hero and example of how a person should live.  Zhuang Zi cited "Confucius" to prove the wisdom of Taoist philosophy.  Jesus said he came "not to abolish, but to fulfill" the Jewish Law and Prophets. 

New Atheists similiarly try to "preserve religious capital" (as sociologist Rodney Stark puts it) by appealing to great figures of the past in their contest with the hosts issuing out of Mordor-of-the-Bible-Belt.  This can be done in two ways: by claiming that past villains, like Adolf Hitler, were really closet Christians (thus getting evil ghosts in effect to fight on the right side this time), or by recruiting past heroes like Thomas Jefferson to buckle up those one supposes they would still dislike today. 

One hero some Gnus would love to recruit against religion, is the ancient Chinese sage, Lao Zi.