Wednesday, August 20, 2014

WHY DO WE DO STUPID STUFF?

According to Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and likely presidential candidate, "Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle."  We may agree with her assessment, yet as we look around at the nations of the world, it would seem that paying attention to this prohibition should be a necessity for good government and that it is too often ignored.
 
Why do people in authority do stupid stuff?  This question has often come to my mind as I watch the daily news programs.  It seems that quite often those who should be leaders in their nations and communities fail to exercise anything that resembles good leadership.  I'm not thinking especially of immoral acts, but of acts and behaviors that appear to be contrary to the best interests, not only of those led, but of those very leaders.

Hosni Mubarak is deposed as dictator in Egypt; rather than giving ear to the complaints of his people, he attempted to violently suppress all protest, which ultimately resulted in his overthrow.  Even when it was apparent that his methods of suppression weren't working, he continued on the same course.  Mohammed Morsi was then elected as Prime Minister of Egypt in a fair election and when protests arose, he followed the same methods of oppression as his predecessor.  And he too suffered the same fate.  Now we have a third leader in Egypt who seems to be following the same course.

We could name more middle eastern dictators and wannabe dictators, who continue to follow non-workable government policies which get them thrown out of office or killed, or even worse, destroy their nations:  Assad in Syria, Maliki in Iraq.

But we don't need to go halfway around the world to witness these strange behaviors.  The actions of the police in Ferguson, Missouri come to mind.  Attempts to quell legitimate protest with militarized force only lead to more and more violence.

Don't these guys ever learn?  Don't they watch the news?  Can't they see that their methods don't work?  That they are counter-productive?

The above examples all demonstrate that force is not only ineffective but actually contrary to the best interests of all parties.  The use of force, however, is only one way in which those in leadership can act contrary even to their own best interests.

Having been involved in church "politics" for many years, as both a pastor and a layman, I can verify that this behavior is as often the rule as the exception.  I've also seen it among engineers and educators.

Browsing through the sale rack at the Half Price Bookstore, I came across a copy of The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman.  I am always delighted to find a book I haven't read but have wanted to for years.  Though the book is 30 years old it was still in great shape and at three dollars  I felt I couldn't afford to pass it up.  The book deals with the very question that had bothered me and it is a fascinating read.

Tuchman's first chapter sets the stage for the whole book.  She is concerned about "misgovernment" which she sees as being "of four kinds, often in combination ... :  1) tyranny or oppression ...; 2) excessive ambition ...; 3) incompetence or decadence ... and finally 4) folly or perversity" (page 5).  She tells us, "This book is concerned with the last, in a specific manifestation; that is the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved."  "To qualify as folly" she continues, a policy "must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time."  Also "a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. ... a third criterion" she says, "must be that the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler."

She cites examples from many different periods of history, but for purposes of her book homes in on just four, which make up the major sections of the book:
·       "Prototype:  The Trojans Take the Wooden Horse Within Their Walls"
·       "The Renaissance Popes Provoke the Protestant Secession 1470-1530"
·       "The British Lose America"
·       "America Betrays Herself in Vietnam"

The book is full of historical details which are usually ignored by many.  After all, I've been taught the Reformation from the view of the Reformers and the American Revolution from the American point of view without much consideration of what brought these on, from the "losers'" point of view.

But what fascinates is her comments and observations on the folly as demonstrated in the details.  She shows the various aspects of folly.  As I read I kept my iridescent yellow pen handy for every mention of the word "folly."

What we observe on our evening news then, is nothing new.  The pursuit by governments and lesser leaders of policies contrary to the interests of both governors and governed has been going on since the dawn of history; some of the earliest being Rehoboam's loss of 10 tribes and the reduction of the nation of Israel as well as the Trojan horse.

In the Epilogue Tuchman concludes, "If pursuing disadvantage after the disadvantage has become obvious is irrational, then rejection of reason is the prime characteristic of folly" (page 380).  She does not offer much hope of change but sees a need for an educated electorate "that will recognize and reward integrity of character and ... reject the ersatz" (page 387).

Tuchman does not write as a Christian but more as a pragmatist.  She does address matters, such as greed and the lust for power, but less from a moral position than a pragmatic one.  And yet as a Christian I find myself agreeing with her.  The moral position is often the practical one.  Greed, self-aggrandizement, the failure to consider what is best for one's neighbor; refusal to face the truth about one's actions -- these could all be recognized as sin.  And of course sin is ultimately self-destructive.

The Bible is full of stories similar to those found in this book.  In fact, the history of the nation of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament in a continual repetition of the book's themes:  actions taken for which there were better alternatives; refusal to heed warnings -- in most cases the prophets.  And these actions ultimately brought down the nation.

Of course, we could go clear back to the Garden of Eden, to Eve's and Adam's partaking of the forbidden fruit, which got the ball rolling.  We've been following their precedent every since.

How often have we -- have I -- taken actions that were not only sinful but destructive, not only to me but to those I am responsible for?  Forgive me Lord and help me to heed your warnings.

Friday, July 18, 2014

DO ATHEISTS EXIST?

I enjoy reading of the latest scientific discoveries, though I am amused at how often great, thorough studies are made, only to arrive at conclusions that many people already know or at least suspect:  sunshine is addictive; broccoli is good for you; domestic cats kill small animals, etc.  I am especially amused when scientific discoveries arrive at biblical conclusions or at least come close.

So I was intrigued when I came across an article in The Week magazine (7/18/14, page 10) entitled, "Are humans hardwired for faith?"  This article referred me to a longer article published in Science 2.0 by Nuri Vittachi with the even more intriguing title, "Scientists discover that atheists might not exist, and that's not a joke".

I have long suspected that what this title asserted was actually so, even though there have been many who would disagree.

This article begins by stating, "While militant atheists like Richard Dawkins may be convinced God doesn't exist, God, if he is around, may be amused to find that atheists might not exist." And it goes on to tell us, "Cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged."

While Vittachi concedes that "this idea may seem outlandish," he explains that what we believe is not something we decide on our own, but lies somewhere in our "much deeper levels of consciousness."  He asserts that scientists claim "we are born believers ... pattern seekers from birth, with a belief in karma, or cosmic justice, as our default setting."

Vittachi continues by presenting evidence involving "invisible friends" - some person or persons with whom we all hold internal conversations -  whether these are divine beings, spouses, near relatives or whatever.

He relates how in social science studies, even those who claim to be atheist or agnostic, claim belief in some higher power.  Though he comes up with some attempts at evolutionary explanations we are still left with huge percentages of humankind who have some sense of purpose in the universe - even those who claim no religious affiliation.  He speaks of "the notion" of "an invisible moralistic presence" which motivates "religious folk."

One interesting argument he gives is that from literature.  There seems to be a "manifestation of cosmic justice in fictional narratives - books, movies and games."  We're told that "in almost all fictional worlds, God exists" - no matter what the "beliefs" of the authors.  "In children's stories ... the good guys win, the bad guys lose."  The same goes for most adult stories.

It would appear then that rather than to seek an explanation for belief in God as many professing atheists demand, we need to answer the question "where does atheism fit in?"

The article continues with much the same argument with similar data and concludes "...it might be wise for religious folks to refrain from teasing atheist friends who accidentally say something about their souls.  And it might be equally smart for the more militant of today's atheists to stop teasing religious people at all.
          We might all be a little more spiritual than we think."

As I implied earlier, these conclusions come close to, and even verify the biblical assertion that everyone is religious in some way or another, or at least has religious predispositions.

Qoheleth, the author of the biblical book whose title is usually given as Ecclesiastes, is probably the one biblical writer whom we'd be tempted to label as cynical (he's not).  He writes from the perspective of one who lives "under the sun" and seems to be searching for meaning in life.  He feels that God has laid this "task" on him.  Qoheleth is not setting about this task on the basis of some written or spoken command, but apparently because of an inner subjective urge.

"It is an evil task which God has given to the sons of men to be tasked with" (1:13).

"He has made everything beautiful in its time.  Also He has placed eternity in their heart, without which man will not find out the work which God has worked from beginning until end" (3:11).

Qoheleth doesn't claim that he attained a knowledge of God and His ways from divine revelation.  He rather tells his readers of what he has "seen," as well as this inner urge and desire "placed in (his) heart."  And he is not alone.  He claims that God has laid this "task" on "the sons of men."  This appears to be a claim that the whole human race has this inner Godward urge placed upon them.

If we fast forward about a thousand years we find the Apostle Paul making similar assertions.  He tells the readers of his letter to the Romans.

"... that which can be known of God is evident among them (i.e. humankind), for God made it evident to them" (Romans 1:19).

Though Paul was primarily speaking of the evidence for God in nature ("the things He has made" - verse 20), the word translated "among" (Greek - en) could also be translated "within" and may imply the conscience.  He is certainly speaking of what Vittachi would refer to as an inner sense of "cosmic justice," (or even "karma"?) in his following argument:

"For whenever gentiles (pagans, non-Jews), those who don't have the Law, by nature do the things of the Law, these who don't have the Law are a law to themselves, such ones as give evidence of the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience testifying together and their reasonings alternately accusing or excusing them" (2:14, 15).

As Paul presents it here, the conscience is not merely a moral sense, a sense of right and wrong, but a sense of moral responsibility in the sight of a divine being.  And Paul seems to assume this sense to be true of all human beings.

The Bible, which asserts the existence of God from the first verse (the third word in Hebrew), nowhere assumes the existence of atheists as we would define them, although it mentions those who deny God's existence by their behavior.

"The fool says in his heart, there is no God" (Psalm 14:1; 53:1; also see 10:4).

This is not, however, an intellectual denial of God's existence, but a moral denial.  It is an indictment of those who behave as though they think God has no moral authority over them.  They are "fools" not because of their intellectual denial, but because of their behavior.

So what should we conclude?  Perhaps we should go back to what Blaise Pascal, the 17th century philosopher said in his Pensees:  " ... there was once in man a true happiness ... there now remain(s) to him only the mark and empty trace, ... the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself."

All have some knowledge of God.  But as Paul says, it is our responsibility to recognize Him - to "glorify Him and give thanks" (Romans 1:21).  Sad to say we don't do this.

Also see:  WHAT HAPPENED?
                 MAYBE WE'RE ALL FUNDAMENTALISTS

                 
 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

WHY SHOULD I PRAY?

Uni and I recently returned from a week's road trip of over 1,500 miles.  I had been called on to preach at Grace Chapel in El Paso, Texas.  That's a long ways from Edmond, Oklahoma, so we decided to stop and visit friends along the way and just enjoy the trip.  But still, that involved somewhere around 24 hours alone together in the car.

I suppose to many people - even happily married people - this sounds like it would be a tremendous bore.  But riding side-by-side is to us a great way to carry on a conversation.  Though there are large blocks of time spent in silence or listening to music and short naps (for me when I'm not driving) we probably spend most of our time talking.  This is a tradition that goes back over 60 years to when we were high school kids, dating.

What do we talk about?  Anything and everything that comes to mind.  Much of what we say has been said before, but there's usually something new that comes up:  an old memory, a shared experience, an insight into a problem.  We never run out of things to talk about.

We didn't spend much time online while we were gone, so upon returning home we needed to check out e-mails, facebook and a few blogs.  On my friend Canadian Atheist's blog I found a new post with the rather uncreative title "Prayer Shows a Lack of Confidence in God". Though I confess that I often ignore or just skim many of my friend's posts, this one got my interest.  It was brief and spoke of a subject about which I'm concerned and about which I had assumed he would be unconcerned.

The thesis of the post is pretty well summed up in its title and in the first few sentences.  "Supposedly, God is all-powerful, can do anything, His will is always done and He has a master plan.  That's all fine and good. So why bother praying or worshiping such a being, even if you do believe it exists?"

At first I was amused by this bit of hubris and was tempted to dash off a few sarcastic comments, but restrained myself.  After a more careful reading along with the comments, I was actually saddened.  Saddened because someone who claims that he doesn't believe in God should be so dogmatic about how believers should behave (even though I recognize that the article was an attempt at satire).  The comments were varied, ranging from amens from the choir to attempts to explain from a believer's viewpoint.

Actually the question my friend attempts to address is an old one which thinkers - theologians and philosophers - have spilled much sweat and ink wrestling with for millennia, though none have given as simplistic a solution as my friend.  It's expressed in some form or other in the Psalms and the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job.  Even Paul Simon tells us that "God only knows, God makes His plan, the information's unavailable to the mortal man."
 
If God is sovereign, if everything is in some way part of His master plan, why pray?  Why not "sit back, relax and enjoy the extra time spent not praying doing something productive, such as spending it with your family or helping to make the world around you a better place."

I've attempted to deal with this question before.  I've been asked it many times and have even asked it myself more than once.  One of my attempts at answering it can be found on my post HOW SHOULD I PRAY?  I'll not go over those thoughts again here, but here are some further thoughts.

As I related earlier, Uni and I have been conversing for over 60 years.  We know the intimate details of each others' lives, thoughts and memories, many of which we've shared.  We don't usually converse to inform or persuade.  We converse because we love each other, because we're the best of friends and that's what friends do.  As we converse our minds become more and more in tune.

Isn't that also why we carry on conversations with God?  To become more and more intimate and to bring our minds in tune with His.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

SARAH OBEYED ABRAHAM, CALLING HIM LORD

In my previous post I spoke of the obligation that the Apostle Peter laid on us husbands - to treat our wives as we would "a weaker vessel" (1 Peter 3:7).  I mentioned that this phrase has caused much debate by members of both sexes.  What I didn't mention was that the preceding passage - the one that speaks of wives' obligations - has also been a cause of controversy.
 
The whole passage goes like this:
          "Likewise wives submitting to your own husbands, that if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word, through the conduct of their wives, as they observe your pure conduct in fear  Don't just make yourselves beautiful outwardly - doing your hair, wearing gold jewelry or pretty clothes.  But let your beauty be the hidden person of the heart, in the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God's sight" (1 Peter 3:1-4).
          "For this is the way the holy women who hoped in God in past times used to make themselves beautiful - by submitting to their own husbands - as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose children you've become, by doing good and not getting scared by any fright" (3:5, 6).
 
Most of this exhortation is pretty straightforward and fits in with Peter's theme.  His readers are addressed as "strangers and pilgrims."  All through this little letter they are exhorted to, "Keep your conduct beautiful among the pagans" (2:12).  This involves an attitude of submission in all human relationships  In the present context - wives to husbands.
 
But it's verse 6 that causes us problems - that reference to Sarah and Abraham:  She "obeyed" him, "calling him lord."  While many have problems with submission, it is clearly a concept used throughout the New Testament.  But obey, call him lord?  Nowhere else in the New Testament are women told to do this.
 
We don't like that word.  To submit is hard enough - to place oneself under the authority of another.  That's also an instruction for all of us - male and female (Ephesians 5:21).  But "obey"?  Children are told to obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1).  Slaves are told to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5).  There are, of course, many other situations where obedience is necessary.  But isn't the husband/wife relationship egalitarian?
 
And she called him lord?
 
Interestingly, many women still promise to "love, honor and obey" in  traditional wedding vows.  Kate Middleton did so in her vows to Prince Andrew.  I believe that Uni did when she said her vows to me (of course that was a loong time ago).
 
In fact, this verse has caused a bit of laughter in our marriage.  Sometimes when we have a dispute and Uni sees that I am intransigent, she'll say (sarcastically I assume), "Yes, My Lord!" or refer to herself as "your obedient servant."  Usually this helps us both to cool down.  It seems we don't really take this passage very seriously.
 
So - what do we do with this passage?  How should we understand it and how should we apply it?  Well, the first thing we should notice is that Peter is not giving this as a command or even as advice.  He is holding Sarah and Abraham as illustrations of the wife's submission.

I believe it would be a good idea to go back to the story of Abraham and Sarah in the Book of Genesis.  Where do we find Sarah "obeying" Abraham?  While I can't find the word "obey" in the Genesis story, we do find Sarah obeying Abraham in his bizarre scheme to lie to Pharaoh (Genesis 12:1-13) and to Abimelech the Philistine king (20:1, 2).  Not exactly exemplary behavior!  We also read where Abraham obeyed Sarah (he "listened to the voice of Sarah") when she urged him to have sex with the maid!  (By the way, the same words are used of Adam in 3:17).

But there's only one place where Sarah calls Abraham "lord":
          "And He (the LORD) said, 'I will surely return to you at this time next year, and see - Sarah your wife will have a son."  And Sarah heard this at the tent entrance behind him.  Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in days, Sarah had ceased the way of women.  And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, 'Now that I am old, will I have my pleasure?  [This probably refers to becoming a mother, although the Good News Bible paraphrases it, "Now that I am old and worn out, can I still enjoy sex?"]  And my lord is old too!"  (Genesis 18:10-12)
          "And the LORD said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh saying shall I really bear a child when I'm so old?  Is anything too marvelous for the LORD?  I will return to you at this time next year and Sarah will have a son!''  (18:13, 14).
          "Sarah denied saying, 'I did not laugh!' because she was afraid.   But He said, 'No!  You did too laugh!'"  (18:15)  

This is not exactly a picture of the sweet submissive wife that a casual reading of Peter's letter might seem to imply.  In fact, the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis is a story of a man and a woman in a stormy relationship as many of the marriage stories in the Bible are.  These are real people, with real personalities that frequently had  real conflicts.

So why on earth would the Apostle Peter use Sarah as an example?  Surely the author of a segment of inspired Scripture must have known that the references he gave would have brought a smirk to the faces of any biblically literate readers.

Is it possible that Peter saw the irony here?  I believe he was doing just that.  Peter was a married man (the first Pope?!!).  And if the traditional dating of this letter at about 63 A.D. is correct, then he had been married for over 30 years.  In the Gospels (ca. 30 A.D.) we find that he had a mother-in-law (Mark 1:30).  Paul mentions that Peter (Cephas) had a wife who accompanied him on his missionary travels (1 Corinthians 9:5; 56 A.D.).  So Peter would undoubtedly have known what married life was like.  Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Peter had chuckled over the Abraham and Sarah stories and related them to their own stories as Uni and I do ours.  And perhaps he mentioned Sarah's "obedience" to bring a little comic relief to his readers.  Sometimes we just take ourselves too seriously.