Monday, December 16, 2013

Defining God Down, So He Can Be Denied

Revised, with apologies, December 17th, 2013.

The Experience of God by Eastern Orthodox theologian and philosopher David Bentley Hart is a critique of both the faulty logic of modern atheists and of the easy targets provided them by simplistic understandings and explanations of God by people of faith. 

To whet your appetite for Hart’s books, he, in speaking of those on both sides of the God-No God debate, argues that, “none of them is talking about God in any coherent sense at all.”  He goes on to write, “…my chief purpose is not to advise atheists on what I think they should believe; I want merely to make sure that they have a clear concept of what it is they claim not to believe.”

Hart bemoans the rise of ideological extremism, fundamentalism, not only in religion but in politics, economics, etc., and argues that "the new atheism is often just the confessional rote of materialist fundamentalism..."  He identifies "...young earth creationists who believe that the two contradictory cosmogonic myths of the early chapters of Genesis are actually a single documentary account of an event that occurred a little over six millennia ago...' as "opponents against which (the new atheism) is well matched."  Hart identifies such Biblical fundamentalism as a phenomenon of the last century or so and makes the case that it is in no way a return to the faith of the early church.

I suppose we are easily tempted by the first Genesis creation story (Genesis 1) in which God says, “Let us make man in our image,”  to imagine the inverse, God in our image, a sort of super human who creates just by speaking and who would act and rule and judge just as we would if we were perfect and had all that power.  The Genesis writers seem to have done that in the second Genesis creation story (Genesis 2), saying that God created man by taking something available, some dust from the ground, and making something else, a man, out of it, or taking a rib from a man and making a woman from it. That would be crafting or manufacturing, not creating. 

This is not to marginalize the beautiful inspired Genesis creation stories that teach essential spiritual truths, primarily that God created and that what He created was good.  Thanks to the divine gifts of self awareness, curiosity, intelligence and technology, we know a lot more than the writers of Genesis about the incredibly complex and ongoing creation processes God put in place.  We can even replicate some of those processes.  We have some evidence about how species change over time and some theories about the origin of species, but we still don’t have a clue about where all this matter and energy and life and reason come from, about how God created out of nothing.  As Hart writes, "The world is unable to provide any account of its own actuality, and yet there it is all the same."     

Hart never mentions Jesus or the incarnation.  Writing about the God that can be found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other major mono-theistic faiths he says, “I want to distinguish…between, on the one hand, metaphysical or philosophical descriptions of God, and, on the other, dogmatic or confessional descriptions, and then to confine myself to the former.”  Of course he is a confessing Christian, but writes, “It may be that one faith is truer than any other, or contains that ultimate truth to which all faiths aspire in their various ways; but that still would hardly reduce all other religions to mere falsehood.”  Hart explains up front that his book “forthrightly and unhesitatingly describes a God who is the infinite fullness of being, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, from who all things come and upon whom all things depend for every moment of their existence, without whom nothing at all could exist.”  It sounds like St Luke, writing more concisely in Acts 17:28 – “For in him we live, and move, and have our being;”

And this from Hart on atheism:  “I acknowledge up front that I do not regard true philosophical atheism as an intellectually valid or even cogent position.”  He sees it as a “fundamentally irrational view of reality, which can be sustained only by a tragic absence of curiosity or a fervently resolute will to believe the absurd,” that, “must be regarded as a superstition, often nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptual limitations.”  Could we believers sometimes be guilty of that same wish?

I’m not going to spoil the reading with any more quotes.  Hopefully this has whetted some appetites for a challenging read.  You can get it on your Kindle for $11.99.  And, meanwhile Christians, as Christmas approaches, can give thanks for Immanuel, God with us.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Major Topics in Catholic Christianity

Just in case anybody was wondering what it is all about...
(Click on the chart for better readability.)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Commitment to Social Spending: More Than a Tithe

Sometimes it helps to provide some historical context for currently observed phenomena.  The chart below shows total federal, state, and local social benefit spending, as a percent of GDP, for the United States since 1960, the 25th anniversary of Social Security and five years before Medicare and Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" which featured "Guns and Butter" on its menu.  That philosophy was responsible for the major increase in social spending between 1965 and 1975.

I've written several times about the major shift in direction for the US economy in the mid 1970's (Search for 1974), and one likely effect of that can be seen in this chart, growth in social spending slowing dramatically in 1975.  In 2000, after President Clinton and the conservative congress of his time had collaborated in the 1990's to end "welfare as we know it," total social benefits as a percent of GDP was at 1975 levels.  There was an increase in the early 2000's, maybe due to the Medicare Drug Plan, and then a rise above 14% with the social spending done in response to the 2008 real estate crash.

So, here we are, facing an uncertain economic future, a poverty level essentially the same as fifty years ago when the "War on Poverty" was launched, a national debt of $17T, greater than our current annual GDP, and still borrowing about a third of everything the government spends.  The current approach just doesn't seem to be working very well.  We have institutionalized poverty, and our economic future is looking pretty dim.

Here is my suggestion: Lets pin total social benefit spending at 10% of GDP, about average for the 1970's, 1980's, and 1990's.  That's a tithe, and, combined with all the voluntary giving of time and money by our generous citizens, should keep poverty in control.  And, if we stop committing social benefits to folks who really don't need them, people like me for example, there will be plenty to help the truly helpless even while cutting Social Security and Medicare tax rates on the productive young people who will spend or invest the money elsewhere.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Catechism of the Catholic Church

I first read this 688 page document, paying particular attention to the scripture references, while I was a student at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary eight or ten years ago.  It is great educational and devotional reading for any Christian, Catholic or not, if taken in fifteen or twenty page bite size pieces at a time.  Of course Protestants will find some things they disagree with, but it will be a fairly small percentage of the whole, and those sections can just be ignored or skipped.

I read it again maybe three years ago before being received into the Catholic Church.  It seems to me that life long Catholics have amazingly little interest in this 1994 publication targeted at the American Catholic Church, but for individuals coming from other faith traditions, it is invaluable.  Below is a very abbreviated outline I prepared for introduction of the major contents of the book to persons interested in becoming Catholic or even to Catholics who are not familiar with it.  Click on it for a more readable view.

Monday, July 8, 2013

In One Thing Only

Listening to yesterday's Gospel reading from Luke 10 about Jesus sending the Seventy out and instructing them to "rejoice in one thing only," I was reminded that it was the text for the one and only prepared sermon I ever delivered.  Near the end of my three years of Lutheran seminary, I took Professor Tom Ridenour's Preaching course, not because I ever intended to do any preaching, but because Lutheran preaching is really based on careful and systematic analysis of scripture, with appropriate attention to context and key words, seeking understanding of what the text meant to those who wrote and first heard it and applying that to current situations.  Lutherans are among those who also face the additional troublesome discipline of following the lectionary which forces the preaching pastor to systematically work through most of Holy Scripture during a three year cycle...and then do it all over again.

Dr. Ridenour gave us several texts from which to choose for our soon to be videotaped sermon to the rest of the class.  After the taping, we each met with him, one on one, to review the video and hear his appraisal of our sermons and delivery of same.  I was probably the only student in the class not preparing for a lifetime of such preaching.

Anyway, for whatever it is worth, here are the text and my sermon.  I'm not going to reveal Dr. Ridenour's appraisal of it, but I did get credit for the course.

Rejoice in One Thing Only
Darryl K. Williams – April 19, 2004

A Reading from Luke’s Gospel (10:1-20):
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.  Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.  Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!'  And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.  Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.  Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you;  cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.'  But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.'   "Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me."  The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!"  He said to them, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.  See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.  Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."
If you would like to spend a couple of hours reading a good story of life changing significance, curl up with Luke and Acts and read them all the way through.  These books were written by one person and comprise more than 25% of the New Testament.  We talk about Paul so much that it would be easy to get the idea that he wrote most of the New Testament, but he is in second place.  Luke and Acts together are unique in presenting, from the viewpoint of one writer, the life and ministry of Jesus AND the early years of the Church He established and of which we are members today.  The Gospel reading today describes one of the early mileposts in formation of the Church: The sending out of the seventy. 

I would (or at least could, with appropriate reference to Matthew 16:18) argue that the church was born in the fifth chapter of Luke when Jesus said to Peter, in the presence of James, and John, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." That gives us a pretty strong clue about what the church is supposed to be doing.  Peter James and John left everything and followed Jesus.  Jesus took them around the countryside preaching and teaching and healing, and he gathered other disciples who also walked with him and listened to Him and learned from Him as he proclaimed the good news. The church was planted and sprouting like bean sprouts coming forth from fresh moist soil in the warmth of spring sunshine.  People were being caught. 

Jesus was always looking for more people who would leave everything and follow him.  He had high standards, and he did not make it easy for those who were interested.   He didn’t just say, “Come on in.  We will work out the details later.”  In the ninth chapter, the original three have grown to twelve, and we find him sending out the twelve to proclaim the Gospel and to heal.  They apparently stirred up a lot of interest in Jesus because just after that we find Jesus and the twelve surrounded by several thousand who have followed them and are hungry.  Jesus feeds them, and then he makes one of his sobering announcements:  He was going to be rejected and killed and raised on the third day.  I guess most people heard the parts about rejection and killing but that the part about being raised went right over their heads.   Then he said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me." 

That should bring in the recruits in a hurry.  Follow you where Jesus?  To rejection and death? 

Well, Jesus, I do want to do that, but I have some things I need to do live a little.  I need to bury my father…and I need to say some goodbyes…and put my affairs in order.  You’ll find these objections in chapter 9. 

And Jesus says, "OK, but those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it."  And by the way, I can’t guarantee a place to lay your head at night, and you are going to have to put me ahead of your friends and family.

Tough words….High standards.

But still Jesus ends up with seventy who are willing to go.  And that is where we find ourselves in today’s scripture from Luke 10…on the crest of a growing wave which is the church. 

We may read a bit enviously about these seventy.  They knew Jesus…in the flesh…sat at his feet…learned directly from Him…from Jesus himself.  And Jesus gave them power.   He gave them power and authority to cast out demons and to heal the sick.   Man, would I like to have that kind of power and authority…to cast out demons and to cure people of their illnesses.  Man, I’d be going from hospital to hospital just curing people right and left.  I’d cure them and bring them to church.  I’d say, “You are cured.  Come to Ebenezer (My church home at the time).”  All the doctors would be out of business.  There wouldn't be any need for all these new heart centers that are being built.  I’d be in the newspapers and have a book deal and….    Oops.  Sorry.  I guess I lost control there for a minute.  Maybe I am having just a little trouble with that part about denying myself.

Maybe some of the seventy went a bit off the deep end also.  They came back thrilled and rejoicing, telling Jesus of their experiences…that even the demons had submitted to them.  And Jesus has to give them a little admonition about what they should rejoice over.  They should rejoice over one thing only: THE FACT THAT THEIR NAMES ARE WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF LIFE.  There was no lack of follow-up on the part of Jesus, their leader, teacher, coach, organizer, source of authority, spiritual advisor, and….saviour.

Jesus gives some pretty detailed instructions in this Gospel reading.  I wonder if those instructions have any practical meaning for those of us in the church today.   OK, sure, I know it’s a different world.  People don’t walk around in the dust in sandals and carry bags of money and stay in the homes of strangers and cast out demons and cure people anymore.  We have sidewalks and cars and credit cards and Motel Six’s and managed care to take care of all those things.  And of course everybody already knows about Jesus and they have all made their decisions.  It’s up to them, and they have made their choices. 

But surely we can learn something from the instructions Jesus gave?  There must be some general principles there.  If we read and listen carefully we might conclude that we are all called and sent out…not just the pastors.  Isn’t that what Jesus’ whole ministry was about…calling people and challenging them and teaching them and sending them out?  For Jesus it was not just the twelve, and for us, it is not just the pastors. 

We might also conclude from the instructions that Jesus gave that we should pray for help…Jesus says, “Ask the Lord for help…”  right there is verse 2.

If we dig deeply into Jesus' words and look for principles rather than specifics, we might conclude that we should have a sense of urgency and not waste time…that we should be satisfied with little and refuse to be burdened down by material goods…that our focus should be on others….that we should not get discouraged…that we should deliver a consistent and simple message.  All these ideas are contained in the charge of Jesus to the seventy.

Most of those instructions are all about logistics, but what about that consistent and simple message?  Just exactly what was the message he gave them to deliver?  He told them to say only two things, one in verse 5 and one in verse 9.  The first is “PEACE TO THIS HOUSE.”  The second is, “THE KINGDOM OF GOD HAS COME NEAR YOU.” 

PEACE is an important theme to the writer of Luke and Acts and remains so in our worship today. 

In the story of the birth of Jesus, the Heavenly Host proclaims, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth PEACE among those whom he favors!"   We will sing the same phrase in a few minutes in our hymn of praise. 

When Jesus is taken to the temple for circumcision, he is presented to Simeon who took him in his arms and praised God, saying, "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in PEACE, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,  a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."  He probably didn't use the same tune we are going to use for these same words in a few minutes after we share in the body and blood of Jesus. 

Throughout the Gospel, Jesus tells those he has healed to "Go In Peace."  We will hear that same charge at the end of our worship.  And after his death and resurrection, Jesus stands among a group of His followers and says, "PEACE be with you."  And we will say that to each other today as we prepare for Holy Communion.

The meaning of peace in the New Testament is much broader and deeper than harmony among people and absence from war.   According to the prophets, it would be an essential element of the messianic Kingdom…that Kingdom of God which Jesus says has come near.  The word the prophets used was Shalom.  In Christian thought, shalom or peace is nearly synonymous with the salvation that comes from Jesus.  If you listen carefully, you can hear that deep meaning in all those phrases we use in worship.  When we pass the peace during worship, we are not saying, “It’s so good to see you.  Have a nice day.”  We are saying that we are all recipients of the peace that comes from God through Jesus Christ…that we are recipients of His free gift of salvation…that we are experiencing and sharing that gift together…that the Kingdom of God has come near…and that we too, just like the seventy, have only one thing in which to rejoice…that our names are written in the Book of Life. 

Thanks be to God who gives us the strength, as we share together in the body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ, to continually deny more and more of ourselves and to follow Him more closely.  

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Sargent Shriver, "A Good Man"

I just finished reading A Good Man, Mark K. Shriver's highly personal biography of his dad, Sargent Shriver.  Probably few people under the age of forty have heard of Mr. Shriver, but a few essential facts are well documented in Wikipedia, and there is no need for me to try to reword them.

Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr.; November 9, 1915—January 18, 2011) was an American statesman and activist. As the husband of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, he was part of the Kennedy family, serving in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Shriver was the driving force behind the creation of the Peace Corps, founded the Job Corps, Head Start and other programs as the "architect" of Johnson's "War on Poverty" and served as the United States Ambassador to France. During the 1972 U.S. presidential election, he was George McGovern's running mate as the Democratic Party's nominee for U.S. Vice President, replacing Thomas Eagleton who had resigned from the ticket.  (

He was also heavily involved in his wife's founding and operation of The Special Olympics.

The Wikipedia article goes on to say that Shriver was a devout Catholic, attended daily mass, and always carried a rosary.  His son's biography focuses on that central theme of his life, his faith.  Mark sees his father as a person who focused his entire being on loving and serving God and his fellow man with great enthusiasm and without reservation, a strict follower of the two greatest commandments, a man who always lived in the moment, looking forward with excitement to meeting God in the life to come, and worrying not at all about mistakes of the past or challenges of the future.  He took these words of Jesus seriously:
Matthew 6:33-34  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today. 
Politically, I would be the opposite of Mr. Shriver.  But, my conclusion based on his son's understanding of his life is that if we all loved and served as he did, motivated as he was, all those labels that divide us, conservative and liberal, rich middle class and poor, gay and straight, White, African American, and Hispanic, Democrat, Republican, and Libertarian, would fade into insignificance.  We could be conservative without being A Conservative, liberal without being A Liberal, etc.  Our identities would have nothing to do with race or sex or fiscal leanings.  We would each claim only this identity: "Child and Lover of God."

Read the book.  It is inspirational.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Burdens of Wealth and Covetousness

The meaning of "wealthy” has changed significantly over the centuries.  In Biblical times, Abraham was declared wealthy because of his “flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female servants, camels and donkeys.”  His son, Isaac, “had possessions of flocks and herds, and a great household, so that the Philistines envied him.”  Isaac’s son, Jacob, “grew exceedingly rich, and had large flocks, and male and female slaves, and camels and donkeys."  Job had “seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants.”  Well, I’ll take some silver and gold, but you can have the rest of it.  Having such wealth sounds like a lot of worry and work and responsibility to me, trying to make sure all those servants are faithfully shepherding and feeding and watering and protecting all those sheep.  I have enough trouble just keeping my one house in good shape.

Economic conditions seem to have been different in New Testament times with Roman currency established as the medium of exchange, buying and selling of goods commonplace, and existence of solid middle and upper-middle classes.  We have the example of the “rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus,” and provided a tomb for short-term occupancy by Jesus.  And there was “Lydia, a worshiper of God…from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth,” who, after being baptized, opened her home to Paul and Timothy.  It must have been a spacious home. There was Zacchaeus, who was “a chief tax collector and was rich,” but not rich like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been.  After all, he had climbed into a tree to see Jesus, having no servants to lift him up.  Wealth is relative.  I’m guessing that with the Roman Empire at its peak and with zealous tax collectors such as Zacchaeus at work throughout, most of the real wealth at that time belonged to the empire and to the emperor and his buddies.

We know enough about those centuries between the end of the Roman Empire and the invention of the printing press to know that the chances for economic prosperity were slim.  There was a vast divide between the wealthy landholders and those who were allowed, under feudalism, to eke out a meager sustenance working that land for the primary benefit of the landowners.

In the 21st century, most of the wealth of the wealthiest consists of no more than records, sometimes just digital information, that show “ownership” of so many shares of various companies or mutual funds or certain numbers of bonds, the values of which fluctuate daily for strange and mysterious reasons.  There are some wealthy landowners, such as Ted Turner who owns two million acres, but for most truly wealthy people, multi-millionaires, the tangible things they own, land, houses, cars, horses, etc., make up a negligible portion of their holdings and the much bigger portion consists only of those ownership records.  Values of such holdings are intangible and subjective and can change in the blink of an eye as everyone who owned Lehman Brothers bonds in the fall of 2008 or who bought Apple stock six months ago can attest.  And, if the records of ownership were to disappear or the rules governing ownership were to change significantly, as under Chavez in Venezuela, the ownership could be lost.  Our system, as it has evolved, is very fragile and faces threats as serious as and far more mysterious than the Biblical moths and rust and thieves.

But one thing about wealth has remained true over the centuries: Most of the wealth is and always has been held by a small percentage of the population, at least partly because only a small percentage of the population is both capable of and seriously interested in building and preserving wealth and bearing the associated burdens.  Hard work, disciplined planning, and delayed gratification often lose out to excessive credit card debt, irrational consumption, and advertiser incited envy, all of which bring burdens of their own, neither more nor less problematic than the burdens of wealth.  Those of us who suffer from such may heed the warning to, “Go the ant, you lazybones.  Consider its ways and be wise,” or the commandment to “not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Sometimes envy, or covetousness, may be incited by talk of spreading wealth around.  For those burdened with credit card debt as a result of having been tempted by persuasive advertising to consume irrationally, or even for those feeling sympathy for ones so suffering, the idea of spreading some wealth around may seem very enticing.  Just force Warren Buffett to sell some of his shares in Berkshire Hathaway and send that money to Washington, DC, for redistribution.  With his or her share, the recipient of new funds can upgrade to an iPhone 10, buy a new battery powered car, paint his or her house, or invest in Berkshire Hathaway.  Chances are slim that the choice will be door number three and even less, door number four.  The house will continue to deteriorate and somebody else will have to buy those shares Mr. Buffett sells.  So, the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. 

Even with all these problems, we can take comfort that wealth or lack thereof is not important in the long run because “one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions," because “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all,” and because we should “not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases.  For when they die they will carry nothing away; their wealth will not go down after them.”  We can just hope that the wealthy will invest wisely in job creating businesses and industries for the benefit of the willing and able and will give wisely to help those who can’t help themselves.

Note: The quotes above are all from the Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version.  And, yes, I am well aware of the many Biblical warnings to the rich, not the least of which is that phrase, "go down after them," in the last quote above.