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Technology can either help us or be an existential threat

At the core of healthy religion is a fundamental concern for what makes us human.

Coming-waveIt is not a simple question, though people often come up with simplistic answers. But the struggle to understand who we are and who we are meant to be has no easy answers.

That said, it's hard to imagine being truly human without including some mention of our basic self-awareness, our intellectual abilities to perceive and even change the world around us and our freedom to make rational choices about how, where and even whether we will live.

It is not irrational hyperbole to suggest that if we cannot figure out how to guide, control and contain the technologies of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering -- and use them only for good purposes -- our essential humanity may be challenged.

That's the point of Mustafa Suleyman's new book, The Coming Wave: Technology, Power and the 21st Century's Greatest Dilemma.

The author, co-founder of DeepMind (now Google DeepMind) and Inflection AI, has written not a hysterical book that cries "Wolf" on every other page but, rather, a careful, thoughtful, challenging book that should give pause to us all, particularly people of faith who understand that if we lose what it means to be human we lose our way entirely. In effect, we would dehumanize ourselves.

"The coming wave," he writes, "is defined by two core technologies: artificial intelligence (A.I.) and synthetic biology. Together they will usher in a new dawn for humanity, creating wealth and surplus unlike anything ever seen. And yet their rapid proliferation also threatens to empower a diverse array of bad actors to unleash disruption, instability and even catastrophe on an unimaginable scale."

In many ways, Suleyman is picking up on and advancing ethical and moral concerns that I began writing about at least two decades ago (here and here are more recent examples) with the appearance of genetic engineering and the mapping of the human genome. Among those concerns is who owns the genome and who has control over how it's used. Similar questions need to be asked about A.I. -- before it gets used in what can only be called evil ways.

Suleyman has at least some skinny hope that humanity will avoid catastrophe as the uses of A.I. grow. But he says that the "core dilemma" is that "sooner or later, a powerful generation of technology leads humanity toward either catastrophic or dystopian outcomes. I believe this is the great meta-problem of the twenty-first century."

A.I. and synthetic biology, he writes, are simply the next in a series of huge waves -- starting, perhaps, with farming -- that one by one created the world we know today, and at an accelerating pace.

"In the space of around a hundred years," he writes, "successive waves took humanity from an era of candles and horse carts to one of power stations and space stations. . .In the coming decades, a new wave of technology will force us to confront the most foundational questions our species has ever faced. . .

"For most of history, the challenge of technology lay in creating and unleashing its power. That has now flipped: the challenge of technology today is about containing its unleashed power, ensuring it continues to serve us and our planet. That challenge is about to decisively escalate."

The reassuring thing is that Suleyman (and I hope many others in the A.I. world) understands that our humanity is at stake in this coming wave: "Technology is central to how the future will unfold -- that's undoubtedly true -- but technology is not the point of the future or what's really at stake. We are."

The service that institutional religion and less-structured spiritual movements can do for humanity now is to awaken followers to what's happening and to continue to insist on remembering what it means to be human. If we lose or compromise that, there's no future worth living.

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WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT 'O HOLY NIGHT'

One of my favorite Christmas hymns is "O Holy Night." As this article from America magazine reports, the hymn originally was written in French but later translated into English to make it less didactic and more inspiring to those working against slavery in the U.S.

"However," the America piece says, 'O Holy Night' is a hymn before it is a political anthem — its primary focus is not abolition, but the Incarnation. Its epic heights are designed to make us revel in the glory of God; from there, we will be transformed." And, being transformed, we will want to work to transform evil social systems into redemptive systems.

As someone who has been to Bethlehem twice, I am at least a little bit able to put this beautiful hymn in some kind of historical context, though until reading the America article I wasn't aware of its deep connections to American abolitionists.

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P.S.: In this piece published several days ago, my friend from India, Markandey Katju, says some people see Hamas as a terrorist group and some see it as a freedom fighter. I wish he had said directly which one he thinks is right. I think the former, though for sure the Palestinian people need freedom fighters.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Why, yes, today is the 27th anniversary of the ceremony that marked Marcia's and my marriage in the chapel of Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City. Thanks for remembering.


Is being super rich a sign of God's great favor?

Over the long history of religion, people of faith often have been divided about great wealth and the obligations, if any, of those who possess it.

As-Gods-Among-MenSome Bible verses are well known even to people who don't own or read a Bible. Such as I Timothy 6:10: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains."

And part of Matthew 6:24 says it plainly: "You cannot serve God and wealth."

Jeremiah 9:23 offers this caution: "Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom; do not let the mighty boast in their might; do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth."

The Qur'an, too, has lots to say about money and how to spend it. Verse 262 of chapter 2, for instance, says: "(As for) those who spend their property in the way of God, then do not follow up what they have spent with reproach or injury, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and they shall have no fear nor shall they grieve."

The question across history is how people are to think about wealth and the people who hold it. And that's the very question that Guido Alfani, professor of economic history at Bocconi University in Milan, takes up in his engaging new book, As Gods Among Men: A History of the Rich in the West. Its publication date is Dec. 5, but it can be ordered now.

Quite wisely, Alfani spends a good deal of time focusing on what religion and its various leaders and thinkers have had to say about wealth over the centuries. My hope is that readers will want to ponder anew what their own faith traditions today have to say about this subject, given the many economic inequities in the world and the systems that create both poverty and wealth. In fact, a good companion book to Alfani's would be Matthew Desmond's recent book, Poverty, by America, which I wrote about a few months ago here.

"What makes the rich today similar to those of the past?" Alfani asks -- and then tries to answer, noting that much thinking about all of this has "been shaped by the Christian religion."

For instance, he notes that "in the medieval Christian tradition, well represented by the thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, the very accumulation of wealth was considered to be sinful. This led the rich to be scorned and, at the same time, generated in them a constant worry about the afterlife."

Other eras have taken different approaches, including some that have glorified wealth and seen it as a sign of God's favor. For example, Alfani writes, "In early modern times, the Protestant Reformation, and especially its Calvinist component, only gave some extra lustre to the rich, insofar as it hinted that material success might reflect on being destined to salvation."

Indeed, John Calvin, father of the Reformed Tradition (read Presbyterian) had a doctrine about predestination, Alfani writes, that "led believers to seek material success as a sort of proof that they belonged to the elect (those destined for heaven)."

A radically twisted version of such thinking today is found wherever the so-called Prosperity Gospel is preached. That sickening recasting of the good news of Jesus insists that God wants each of us to have wealth, health and healing on demand, and if you don't have them you are somehow at fault for not having enough faith.

Also in our modern era, we are often awash in stories about the superrich and the ways they use their wealth for good or ill. That, in turn, has led people to pay considerable to their own economic status and needs, leading to accounts such as this story about many why people with a net worth of at least $1 million don't think they're rich.

Alfani's book is a more scholarly approach to the question of great wealth than it is a self-help book or a polemic denouncing the wealthy. But it's a helpful addition to the literature that can move all of us -- whether people of faith or not -- to give deeper thought to whether we own money or money owns us. Religions of many sorts would call the latter condition idolatry, the very sin outlined in the first of the Ten Commandments.

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IS THIS AN OPENING FOR A PERMANENT PEACE?

It certainly is good news that the pause in the Hamas-Israel war has allowed the release of some hostages in return for some prisoners. The long-term question, however, is whether this slight break in hostilities can become an opening toward a more permanent solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is a subset of the Arab-Israeli conflict. That slim possibility will require more enlightened, creative and persistent leadership than what appears to be present now on either side. Hope is a frail bird, as this photo I took in Jerusalem in 2012 shows. That's the dove of peace looking for a place finally to land.

Jerusalem-dove

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column posted Sunday morning here. It's about how widespread Buddhism is in Kansas City.


The 'Social Gospel,' which never went away, is back

The Britannica's definition of the "Social Gospel" begins this way: "Social Gospel, religious social reform movement prominent in the United States from about 1870 to 1920. Advocates of the movement interpreted the kingdom of God as requiring social as well as individual salvation and sought the betterment of industrialized society through application of the biblical principles of charity and justice."

Social-Gospel-DefinedRight above that on the Britannica page, however, is a link to this CNN article with this headline: "There’s another Christian movement that’s changing our politics. It has nothing to do with whiteness or nationalism"

That article makes a persuasive case that a modern adaptation of the Social Gospel is back with an unexpected force and that one place it's made a recent difference is in the negotiations between the United Auto Workers and the Big Three car manufacturers, in which the U.A.W. won significant benefits for its members -- benefits that non-union carmakers now are beginning to offer to their workers, at least in part.

Many theologians would agree that the roots of the Social Gospel go all the way back not just to Jesus but to the Torah he learned as a child. In response to those Jewish roots, Jesus urged his followers to pay attention not just to where they might spend eternity but to their home here on Earth and to the many unjust systems that oppressed most citizens of that backwater land in the Roman Empire.

A passage from the New Testament book of Matthew, in the 25th chapter, has become a key marker of this updated Social Gospel, especially the section in which Jesus says to his followers that "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." And, sort of dumbfounded, those followers ask when any of that happened. His answer has become guidance for today: "(T)ruly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me."

Many Christian congregations, including my own, have adopted that idea from Matthew 25 as a way to focus on building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism, eradicating systemic poverty and paying attention to other goals such as environmental stewardship. Here, in fact, is the Matthew 25 resource page for the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Such a focus differs from some branches of Christianity that seem to focus almost exclusively on personal salvation. I heard a preacher recently on a Christian radio station say that the most important question for any person in the world to ask is whether he or she is going to heaven. That approach differs from the kind of Christianity described in the Rev. Dr. Mike Graves' new book, Jesus' Vision for Your One Wild and Precious Life, in which he argues that Jesus came to teach us how to live instead of coming just to die.

"(W)hile it's plain and obvious that we aren't born just to die," Graves writes, "a lot of people, think Jesus was, that dying was his purpose in life, making Christianity all about death and the next life. Not me. I don't for a moment think Jesus came just to die. I believe he came to live, and for the way he lived, he was put to death."

Indeed, Christians are called to live fully and generously, the way Jesus did, and not to be so focused on heaven that they're no earthly good, as my late friend the Rev. Bob Meneilly used to say.

As the CNN piece to which I've linked you says, "The Social Gospel was a Christian movement that emerged in late 19th-century America as a response to the obscene levels of inequality in a rapidly industrializing country. Its adherents took on the exploitation of workers and unethical business practices of robber barons like oil magnate John D. Rockefeller. . ."

Today followers of the Social Gospel continue to be interested in those issues but also in such matters as racial equity, gender justice, environmental repair and others. They tend to recognize that in addition to individual sin there is corporate, social or communal sin that creates whole systems that work against Jesus' teaching about the need for love of God, love of self and love of others.

In fact, a renewal and adaptation of the old Social Gospel movement is in no way turning against or away from the teachings of Jesus, I would say, but is, rather, an effort to make them active and life-giving in today's circumstances.

As the CNN piece notes, "The Social Gospel movement is making a comeback. Some may argue it never left."

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THE UNNECESSARY UMC SCHISM GROWS DEEPER

The United Methodist Church continues its unraveling in a schism over how to interpret the Bible on LGBTQ+ issues. The latest churches to disaffiliate from that Mainline Protestant denomination are from Georgia, as this Guardian piece reports. "So far," the report says, "7,286 of about 30,000 United Methodist congregations – many in the U.S. south and midwest – have received approval to disaffiliate from the denomination since 2019, according to an unofficial tally by the United Methodist News Service." It's all sad and unnecessary. My long essay about how to interpret the Bible on this issue is here. But here's a pretty good general rule for all religions: If a religion teaches that some people are to be treated as second-class citizens and barred from full participation in that tradition, you can be sure that religion is getting it wrong.

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P.S.: I was grieved to learn of the recent death of Art Simon, founder of Bread for the World (and brother of the late Illinois senator, Paul Simon). Art and I shared a friendship with a long-incarcerated man in Missouri and, because of that connection, developed an email friendship over several years. Art was a Lutheran pastor with a heart for the needy. We could use several million more Art Simons. Sigh.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Over the years the subject of the relationship between science and religion has come up on this blog. In response, my childhood friend from India, Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court, has asked me to give you his take on that subject. It's a take with which I disagree, but it's not unusual that we old friends don't agree on everything. In fact, that makes life more interesting. If you want more from Markandey, here is his recent description of Christianity and why, as an atheist, he rejects it. If you want to respond to his words, you may email him at [email protected].


Why are these Christians happy about the Hamas-Israel war?

Since the beginning of human history, war and related violence have raged across the globe. Wikipedia's long list of current wars or lesser conflicts bears witness to the apparent inability of humanity to solve disagreements peacefully.

End-of-the-worldEven worse, what I sometimes call bonkers theology can and does play a role in stirring up, approving of or even continuing military violence. As this insightful analysis from The Nation points out, there are some Christians who are thrilled about the Hamas-Israel war because they believe it's another sign of the approach of the Second Coming of Christ and, well, the end of the world as we know it.

This should be no surprise, especially to anyone familiar with the evacuation theology represented by the hot-selling "Left Behind" series of books published in the 1990s and early 2000s.

That and related theologies are rooted in a literalistic reading of the Bible and one result is a religious idea known as Dispensationalism.

As the article in The Nation notes, "(F)or many in the American evangelical world, the news out of Gaza is a crucial foretaste of redemption — the prelude to the final battle for earthly power, to be followed by Armageddon and the Rapture."

(The so-called Rapture is at the root of the Left Behind series and is based on another literalistic misreading of certain passages of scripture. The book to read is The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, by Barbara R. Rossing. I mentioned that book in this blog post. All this is a reminder that anyone who reads the Bible should understand how metaphor, myth and allegory are different from literal history.)

To quote The Nation piece again, "Believers in the literal interpretation of 'endtimes' prophecy see the fortunes of Israel as a key harbinger of the Final Judgment and the elevation of fallen human history into the realm of the divine. . .The best-known promoter of this worldview is Texas-based Pentecostal televangelist John Hagee, the founder of the advocacy group Christians United for Israel (CUFI). Hagee is a longtime fixture in the endtimes media complex, claiming that the march of time is rapidly aligning with the events foretold in Revelation and other prophetic books of the Bible."

Why do these Christians display such public support for Israel? The answer has almost nothing to do with providing a homeland for the world's Jewish people, as The Nation article makes clear: "In the dispensationalist schemes of Hagee and other endtimes preachers, Jews are a means to an end — the efficient cause of the final conflagration, but not autonomous spiritual agents in their own right." In other words, only when Israel controls the Temple Mount in Jerusalem -- and perhaps all or most of the land they believe was promised by God to the people of Israel -- can the Second Coming of Christ occur.

And what happens then? In dispensationalist accounts, all the Jewish people either convert to Christianity or are condemned to hell, according to this theology. Nice, huh?

And guess who The Nation piece describes as "one very influential spiritual ally" of these current dispensationalists: "Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu." In a way, that sort of makes sense in that they use their support for Israel to recruit people to their vision of the end times while Netanyahu uses them to justify his policies. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

By the way, much of this kind of prophetic theology is based on how one reads the book of Revelation, the puzzling last chapter in the New Testament. Almost from the beginning of Christianity, some readers of Revelation have been expecting the Second Coming or the end of history any day now because that's what they believe they read in that book. And one thing about the date setters is that they have been consistent: They've always been wrong.

And yet they keep finding gullible people who believe them. Imagine that.

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IS HE THE 'THEOLOGIAN OF THE HOUSE'?

The new speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, R-La., says the American "culture is so dark and depraved that it almost seems irredeemable.” And he wonders whether God is going to "allow our nation to enter a time of judgment for our collective sins." In some ways, it feels to lots of people that we may be experiencing something like such a judgment because of the foolish decisions voters have made in past elections -- and may make in the future -- to choose leaders who seem so certain they know how God would respond to our culture.

And speaking of Johnson, you might want to read this Good Faith Media piece about why, despite what Johnson claims, he doesn't really hold a biblical worldview.

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THE BOOK CORNER AG-cover

Amazing Grace: A Cultural History of the Beloved Hymn, by James Walvin. As the author, an emeritus history professor at the University of York, notes, in the last 50 or so years, this old hymn has experienced a remarkable revival. Today it's heard in many places on many occasions, including at a funeral service where it was sung solo (to start) by Barack Obama when he was president. Why the return to former slave ship captain John Newton's four-verse song? Walvin attempts to explain in this engaging -- if somewhat repetitious -- new book.

Perhaps it won't shock you to discover that the reasons for its renewed popularity include the reality that it has been a big money-maker for music publishers, musicians and others. That may not detract from its religious message but in some sense it ties it back to Newton's connections with the slave trade in the 1700s.

As Walvin writes, "For more than fifty years 'Amazing Grace' has been absorbed into a variety of important business interests, most notably perhaps in the massive business of funerals and of remembering the dead. . .'Amazing Grace' has become an anthem for the dead as much as a uniting sound for the living."

So if this hymn thrills you (I personally give it about half a thrill most times I hear it), you may be interested in this book's account of the sinful roots of its history and why it has returned to remarkable popularity today.


War -- and much else -- is producing a morally injured population

I have been reading the Rev. Dr. Mike Graves' new book, Jesus' Vision for Your One Wild and Precious Life. (Which I may write about in one of my upcoming Flatland columns.)

HPRC_Moral_injury_symptoms_032221And as the Hamas-Israel and Russian-Ukraine wars continue to rage, I was struck by Mike's mention of a term I've heard several times before but to which I've paid little attention: Moral injury.

"Much has been written about moral injury in the last decade or so," Mike writes, "but not enough has been done about it." Exactly.

Just what is moral injury? I gave you a link above to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' description of moral injury and you can read a lot about it there. But let me quote some of that for now.

"In traumatic or unusually stressful circumstances, people may perpetrate, fail to prevent or witness events that contradict deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. When someone does something that goes against their beliefs this is often referred to as an act of commission and when they fail to do something in line with their beliefs that is often referred to as an act of omission. Individuals may also experience betrayal from leadership, others in positions of power or peers that can result in adverse outcomes. Moral injury is the distressing psychological, behavioral, social and sometimes spiritual aftermath of exposure to such events. A moral injury can occur in response to acting or witnessing behaviors that go against an individual's values and moral beliefs.

"In order for moral injury to occur, the individual must feel like a transgression occurred and that they or someone else crossed a line with respect to their moral beliefs. Guilt, shame, disgust and anger are some of the hallmark reactions of moral injury. Guilt involves feeling distress and remorse regarding the morally injurious event (e.g., "I did something bad."). Shame is when the belief about the event generalizes to the whole self (e.g., "I am bad because of what I did.") Disgust may occur as a response to memories of an act of perpetration, and anger may occur in response to a loss or feeling betrayed. Another hallmark reaction to moral injury is an inability to self-forgive, and consequently engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors (e.g., feeling link you don't deserve to succeed at work or relationships).

"Moral injury also typically has an impact on an individual's spirituality. For example, an individual with moral injury may have difficulty understanding how one's beliefs and relationship with a Higher Power can be true given the horrific event the person experienced, leading to uncertainty about previously held spiritual beliefs."

Moral injury is happening every single day now in Israel, Gaza, Ukraine and Russia -- and certainly isn't limited to those fraught locations. But while we're focusing on those two conflicts, let's not limit our accounting just to physical casualty numbers and the numbers of dollars (or whatever currency) being spent to wage war. Those are important numbers but they don't count the morally injured and the enormous cost of healing people afflicted with such injuries.

In some earlier wars, before the term moral injury was widely used, people talked of shell shock and of post-traumatic stress disorder. Those terms almost certainly were previous ways of saying moral injury or at least they pointed to reactions that included moral injury.

The so-called walking wounded quite often display no physical symptoms, such as a lost limb. But they need help, and our healthcare systems should be set up to recognize that mental ailments need to be treated just as carefully and aggressively as physical ailments.

(The graphic shown above came from here.)

As we dedicate ourselves to a more peaceful world, our success would mean fewer victims of moral injury. And that's a goal worthy of all of our efforts.

Speaking of moral injury here is an article from a journal of the American Association of Medical Colleges that focuses on moral injuries experienced by physicians. Among other interesting things, it reports that "a 2020 study of U.S. health care workers found that 45% felt betrayed by leaders at their institutions."

Moral injury also happens when we fail to live up to our own moral standards. An excellent current account of such a failing is found in the new book Enough by Cassidy Hutchinson, former top aide to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. In it, she describes how she first let herself testify untruthfully to the Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol.

She was guided in that terrible decision by lawyers from Trump World, who were trying to protect the former president. Eventually, she found that she couldn't live with herself if she didn't do her civic duty to tell what she really knew about that catastrophic day by describing what happened in and around the White House then. She chose truth over moral injury. As she writes of her thinking as she decides to testify truthfully, "I know the impact I could have, a White House staffer with extensive access testifying in an open hearing to what amounted to, at a minimum, President Trump's shocking dereliction of duty. I know it will expose how much he was prepared to hurt the country to assuage his own wounded pride. I know it will reveal him as a reckless, dangerous man. I see that plainly now. January 6 was a dark day -- traumatizing -- a genuine threat to the health of the world's greatest democracy."

In the end, she concludes this: "The country needs to see someone from the Trump administration put the country's interests before politics and self." Her own initial failure to do that is what led to her moral injury.

Finally today, as we think about moral injury, I am linking you to this stark opinion column by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, director of Indiana University’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. Rosenfeld argues persuasively that the brutal Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas was rooted in a twisted, fundamentalist version of Islam -- (as was the murderous violence of 9/11).

"Whatever its other aims on that day (Oct. 7)," he writes, "Hamas was looking to win a 'Victory for Allah.' Fueled by religiously inspired hatred of Jews, they will keep at it unless and until they are decisively defeated. That must include defeating their ideology, which is shared by others in the region and well beyond. It will be a task for the generations."

It's one more example of what happens when the worst, most assured forms of fundamentalism take over the thinking of people of faith. The outcome is almost inevitably catastrophic. So the global battle for the soul of Islam continues, and if there is to be peace in the Middle East, the radical Islamists, who represent nothing close to a majority of Muslims, must lose that battle.

(And speaking battles for the soul of a religion, see my next blog post this weekend for a description of why certain fundamentalist Christians are actually thrilled about the Hamas-Israel war. They think it will lead to the Second Coming of Christ. All of that is rooted in a literalistic reading [well, misreading] of scripture, especially the strange New Testament book of Revelation.)

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POPE FRANCIS HAS HEARD ENOUGH FROM HIM

Even -- and maybe especially -- in a hierarchical church -- there must be standards of behavior that leaders should not cross. Clearly there are such standards in Catholicism, as proven by the recent action by Pope Francis to remove a schismatic bishop in Texas, Joseph E. Strickland. As Mark Silk's RNS opinion column about this concludes, "Francis effectively had no choice but to remove from office a man evidently determined to become an ecclesiastical martyr." Hard to argue with that.

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P.S.: You can get an email notice each time my blog publishes (almost always on Wednesdays and Saturdays) simply by clicking here and signing up for that.


A clearer picture of the Bible's fascinating origins

As much as I would like to do so, I simply cannot read every book about religion and ethics that comes off the printing presses, which is why now and then I write here about books I haven't read but wish I could (and actually might read some day).

Why-Bible-BeganSo today I want you to know about a new book called Why the Bible Began: An Alternative History of Scripture and its Origins, by Jacob L. Wright, a professor of Hebrew Bible at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. (By the way, he also has a degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.)

I am able to tell you a little about the book because Yonat Shimron, a national reporter and senior editor of Religion News Service, did this interview with the author.

Shimron notes that Wright concludes that "successive expulsions and exiles — first the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, the Persians and later the Greeks and Romans — forced the ancient scribes to forge from their defeats a new identity as a people."

And that identity is reflected throughout the Hebrew Bible.

Wright's answer to Shimron's question about sources he used is especially interesting:

"There are two very different groups of sources. First, we have the biblical texts. We don’t have the originals, so we have to build on scholarship and a lot of comparative evidence to get at how it may have emerged. It’s a hypothetical kind of reconstruction.

"The second body of evidence, in stark contrast, (was) discovered through modern archaeological excavations and deciphered by people who study languages. These discoveries have led to massive breakthroughs in our understanding of the ancient world."

But even more relevant for how to read the Bible today -- both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament -- is Wright's description of the stories in the Bible as stories, not necessarily historical evidence:

"I show that on the basis of our archaeological finds, the biblical story has to be appreciated as story, not as history — even if that story contains many historical elements.

"If we look at the biblical depiction of Israel’s emergence in Canaan, it departs in fundamental ways from what we now know about the facts on the ground. I drive home for the reader how far history and story diverge, and how much that divergence helps us appreciate the aims of the scribes who collected the broken shards of their diverse pasts and constructed from them a new narrative, one that empowered a defeated community to confront their collective trauma and pave a way to a new future of what I call 'peoplehood.'"

In many ways, Wright's conclusions are another strong argument against biblical literalism or "inerrancy." Biblical literalists believe every word of the Bible is literally true and that the book contains no errors of any kind, historical or otherwise. It's a foolish position that is really a house of cards in that it all collapses when a reader discovers even a single inconsistency or historical error in the text -- and there are plenty of both.

Well, you can read the whole interview for yourself, but I'll finish with this question from Shimron and Wright's response:

"How did Yahweh emerge?"

"The name for the God of the Bible is Yahweh, and what’s really important to know is that at the beginning there were multiple Yahwehs. The biblical project is about proclaiming that all these Yahwehs are actually one and the same. This proclamation was a part of a grand effort to bring the nation together around one transcendent being. The objective was to remove the monarchy and palace from the picture, and to give a defeated and divided nation a point of unity that transcends any political institution."

The Bible is at once simple and complex, history and story, God's word and humanity's word. If you oversimplify it, the Bible turns to dust or it turns into what it was never meant to be, and that is a complete guide to every difficult question facing humanity in every circumstance.

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A K.C. SEMINARY PLANS FOR CHANGES

Central Baptist Theological Seminary, an American (not Southern) Baptist school, is working on a new look and location for itself. It used to be in Kansas City, Kansas, but moved to suburban Shawnee several years ago. Now it's looking for a campus location, and Craig S. Doty, senior director of brand advancement and alumni engagement, says in an email that the school plans to "relocate to a smaller location, likely in Johnson County."

Details about some of this -- and other changes -- can be found here. Over the years, the Central staff has done a lot of great work in many areas and has had some terrific people on staff as it has weathered the changes in seminary education being felt all over the country and all over the theological map. Central has been a leader in online education.

If you're interested in the current state and look of seminary education in the U.S. now, you can find a pretty good picture of it in this article from GraphsAboutReligion.com. It's a complicated picture.

(When Central's previous president, Molly T. Marshall, resigned abruptly in 2020, I wrote about it in a secondary blog item here. She is now president of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.)

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Brueggemann-bookP.S.: Speaking of the Bible, as I was in the lead section here today, I want you to know about a just-published book about renowned theologian and scholar Walter Brueggemann. It's Walter Brueggemann's Prophetic Imagination: A Theological Biography, by Conrad L. Kanagy. "This book," Kanagy writes, "is a look into Walter's inner life with God, searching for the answer to what of divinity has produced and sustained the quality and quantity of Walter's work." Brueggemann has been an important interpreter of the Hebrew Bible from a Christian perspective for decades, and this book will help you understand how and why.

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Another P.S.: One more way that my friend from childhood, Markandey Katju, former justice on India's Supreme Court, differs from me is that he describes himself as a Hindu atheist and has little tolerance for religion. In one of his recent columns (you can read it here) he says that "all religions are superstitions and unscientific, and obstruct critical thinking." And yet we converse amiably and respect each other. How about if we all try that? (If you wish to argue with Markandey about his column, you can email him at [email protected].


The opportunities that death gives us to rethink what matters

Yesterday, my late father -- another Bill Tammeus, though his real first name was Wilber and mine's William -- would have turned 114 years old. I still miss him, of course, though he died almost 32 years ago. His kid brother, however, is still with us. And, inshallah, will turn 102 in late March.

WHTammeus-50sHaving just passed All Saints Day a week ago, I've been continuing now to ponder the brevity of life and, in the words of an author whose book I recently reviewed here, have been trying to make sure that the way I live my finite life is "worthy of my finitude."

I think Dad accomplished that, though he was not, shall we say, bent toward philosophical or religious dialogue, even though he was a man of faith as a Presbyterian elder (as am I).

He grew up on a farm in central Illinois -- the farm that today is still the home address of his brother and sister-in-law, my Uncle Lawrence and Aunt Velma. Recently, however, they moved to a nearby nursing home as they recuperate from some health issues. And it's unclear to me whether they'll ever get back to the farm. Sigh.

My father saw astonishing changes in his life, which began with his birth in an old house (later moved) on the family farm that his grandparents, German immigrants, had purchased in the early 1880s. Here's how he once described it to me in an oral history I did with him:

"Well, things were quite primitive, really, in those days. The grass grew tall in the yard and the door yard flowerbeds had lots of tall weeds in them and the garden never seemed very well cared for. My Dad just couldn't be bothered and Mother couldn't hack it, raising all four of us kids. She really had nothing very much to work with. She did most of her own canning, picked her own vegetables and fruits and went about it as best she could."

After high school, he managed to be admitted to the University of Illinois College of Agriculture and -- after taking off a few years in the middle of that to earn money punching cattle in Nebraska -- got his degree and began his career as an extension agent, or farm advisor.

It was, he thought (and I agree), important work during and after the Great Depression to help feed the nation even as the U.S. industrialized and fewer and fewer family farms operated. But when he had an opportunity to move with Mom and, by then, four children to India in the 1950s to help that country become food self-sufficient, he took it and we lived there for two years.

For Dad, making sure that what he was doing was worth his finitude always seemed to mean a nice combination of enjoying the work he was paid to do and making sure that work was benefitting people who needed help. After returning from India, he became an agent with an investment firm now called Ameriprise, and he helped many of his farmer friends in our area of northern Illinois learn how to make safe and wise use of whatever money they had so they, too,  could enjoy their work and feed people in need.

In all of this, he was supported, encouraged (sometimes aggressively) and loved by my mother, whose life also began on an Illinois farm and who also found ways to enjoy her work and to respond to a religious motivation to lift up the downtrodden.

WDT-WHT-Tammy-1958So I began life with good models for making sure that my life was worthy of my finitude, but, of course, I'm not the only one who gets to say whether, at least so far, I've managed to accomplish that. (By the way, the picture at right shows Dad and me and our collie Tammy in our back yard when I was about 15 or so -- and apparently half-starved to death.)

But because death is not optional, it's never too late to do an audit of one's life to make sure that we're not frittering it away with mindless consumerism or soul-killing entertainment or simple inattention. (That doesn't mean we don't need recreation, especially the kind that is re-creative and it doesn't mean we don't need time just to be -- as opposed to just doing.)

I think that in some ways, birthdays and All Saints days and such commemorations exist as a chance to measure whether our lives matter. If, after such an examination, you aren't sure whether you've wasted a bunch of your time in life, you can be pretty sure that you almost certainly have. But just know that you don't need to do that anymore. Starting today.

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ANOTHER BOY FINDS A GENERATIVE PATH

Although I never quite thought of my father as my only role model -- we had different approaches to doing life but many of the same core values -- I nevertheless continue to feel his solid, unpretentious presence in my life. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, who writes about Judaism for Religion News Service, says in this column that one of his role models starting in his teen years was a rabbi who died recently, Dannel Schwartz. "For me, the enduring lesson of Dannel Schwartz’s life was the influence that he had on me, and countless other young people," Salkin writes.

Salkin has wished that for others. Then, as he writes, "several years ago, my friend and teacher, Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute, gave a lecture on God at my congregation in West Palm Beach. One of our religious school kids — a very talented, charismatic kid of 14 — came to hear Rabbi Hartman. Rabbi Hartman and this kid made eye contact, and the kid smiled and nodded. 

"I know the drill. The kid fell in love. With Rabbi Hartman and/or with Judaism. After Rabbi Hartman’s lecture, I took that kid aside, and I said to him: 'I want you to remember this evening for the rest of your life. Whatever else happens to you in your life, I want you to remember this evening as the evening when something passed between Rabbi Hartman and your soul. Whatever you want to do with it, that’s up to you. But, it happened.'"

That's the kind of influence-for-good each of us can have on others.

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P.S.: My latest book review for The National Catholic Reporter -- about 52 Masses, by Daniel Markham -- now is online here.


Even America's founders rejected Christian Nationalism

Several times in the past few years I have written about Christian Nationalism, a movement that imagines the U.S. is -- or at least should be -- a Christian theocracy.

BiblesIt goes against the grain not only of Christianity but also of the foundations of the American system of government. And yet it has its deluded supporters, some of whom we saw among the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrectionists.

I want to return to that subject today because of something I just read in Mark A. Noll's remarkable new book, America's Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization: 1794-1911. Noll is a prolific and enlightening scholar whose books are always worth reading.

Noll, an emeritus history professor at the University of Notre Dame, notes early in the book that the Bible figured "prominently in the early American commitment to democratic principles. To be sure, democracy in the modern sense was only just beginning, since the stirring phrases of the Declaration of Independence, such as 'all men are created equal,' applied at the time only to white men with property.

"Yet even that level of political empowerment made for a great change, particularly because it involved the rejection of Christendom, the formal linking of church and state."

Americas-bookWhat happened at the founding of the U.S., Noll writes, was "the patriots' visceral rejection of Britain's church-state regime, which they perceived as a prime source of tyrannical corruption."

And what does Christian Nationalism today seek? Exactly the "formal linking of church and state" that the European invaders who created the United States rejected from the start.

Noll explains all of this further this way: "The new nation's repudiation of Christendom posed even more uncertainties than a religious terrain dominated by internally divided Protestants. The only social order older Americans had ever known simply assumed the formal interweaving of religion and regime, the interweaving Europeans had long taken for granted as God's way of uniting civic order, prosperity and the reverence due his sovereignty. But now in the new nation, governments at all levels moved to guarantee the free exercise of conscience for all beliefs and practices that did not endanger public peace. With only a little hesitation, the American states were abandoning government sponsorship of religion, or at least the coercive establishment of only one Christian denomination as an official state church."

There are many good reasons to reject Christian Nationalism, of course, including the reality that although a majority of Americans today still identify as being some type or other of Christian, the nation is increasingly pluralistic when it comes to religion, especially considering that nearly one-third of adult Americans now identify as religious unaffiliated.

So a nation ruled by a Christian Nationalist government would be or soon become a case of the majority being ruled by the minority. Add to that the vast variety of Christianities practiced in this country and soon you have to decide which of them gets to rule, assuming they can't rule by coalition (not a bad assumption).

Did the Bible play an important role in shaping American life, including its politics? Absolutely, and Noll tells a lot of that story in this new book. But the founders quickly rejected what today we recognize as Christian Nationalism. It was the right choice then and the right choice now.

(Can we connect Christian Nationalism to the idea expressed by the newly elected Speaker of the U.S. House that his election was ordained by God? I think that's a stretch, frankly. Indeed, he recently specifically denied trying to make Christianity the official religion of the U.S. Rather, Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., simply seemed to be misusing this passage in the New Testament book of Romans (13:1): "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God." Some scholars today make a good argument that the Apostle Paul, who wrote this, wasn't praising the brutal Roman rulers but, rather, was advising Christ-following Gentiles who were guests in Jewish worship spaces to be good guests, respectful of the temple authorities. It was those temple authorities, not the Roman civic authorities, to whom Paul was pointing, in other words.

On the other hand, as historian Heather Cox Richardson has reported in one of her recent "Letters from an American," Johnson has "asserted that we do not live in a democracy but in a 'Biblical republic.' He told a Fox News Channel interviewer that to discover his worldview, one simply had to 'go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it. That’s my worldview.'" Apparently one doesn't even have to interpret the Bible when one reads it. Weird.)

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IS PAPAL DIPLOMACY DOING ANY GOOD?

The world has become accustomed to hearing from whoever is pope whenever a war or some similar crisis breaks out somewhere. Pope Francis has stayed in that lane, as this RNS story reports. "Pope Francis and the Vatican," it says, "have opened a new front in diplomacy efforts to address the violence in the Holy Land, with papal diplomats working to promote peace through official and unofficial channels."

I'm always glad to find thoughtful voices advocating and working for peace. My question is whether anyone who is leading the wars in Ukraine or in Gaza/Israel pays much attention to a pope. Does Vatican diplomacy ever make a difference? I don't have a quick and ready answer to that question, but would be interested to hear your ideas about it (I'm at [email protected]). Has anyone read the 2021 book God's Diplomats? Or the 1959 book Vatican Diplomacy?

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P.S.: Recently I wrote this blog entry about several ways in which various religious communities are paying more attention to the mental health needs of people. So it seems appropriate to tell you about a new effort to help young people in metro Kansas City, specifically in the Lee's Summit area, develop in healthy and stable ways.

Pro_deo_logo-1This link will take you to a video and a news release about what's to be called The Wesley Place, which will be part of the Pro Deo Youth Center. The video, which features a couple who donated a large amount of money for The Wesley Place, will tell you about Wesley, their late son.

And here is a July 2023 story by The Kansas City Star that describes the expansion that's coming to Pro Deo, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.


Are you doing something in life 'worthy of your finitude'?

As J. Aaron Simmons was writing a chapter near the end of his new book, Camping with Kierkegaard: Faithfulness as a Way of Life, he got a text message from his wife telling him that an eighth grader at their son's middle school had committed suicide.

Camping-kierkegarrdImmediately Simmons, who is heartbroken by the news, wonders how to "find the words to say to my son because I want him to know that it is ok not to have answers, not to understand, not to think that it all works out in the end. It might not."

He quickly concludes that he must help his boy understand that "death is not something we would be better without. Without the fact of death, of finitude, of aging, of vulnerability, of limitation, we would not be us."

It was another way of emphasizing Simmons' primary point in this engaging -- even kicky -- book, which is that we must commit ourselves to thoughts and actions that are "worthy of our finitude." Otherwise we risk wasting the precious gift of life.

That may not seem like an original insight. And, of course, it isn't. But Simmons -- who teaches philosophy at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and who (surprisingly, at least to me) identifies as a Pentecostal Christian -- draws on some of the great philosophers, including Søren Kierkegaard, to help us understand this old lesson in new ways. Some of that comes through his writing about his love for mountain biking, camping and trout fishing.

When I say I was surprised to find that Simmons is in the Pentecostal Christian tradition, I mean that I didn't quite expect him to include something of a critique of that tradition. But, indeed, he calls out any people of any tradition, including his own, whose "'faith' led them to be so 'holy' that they were unable to get their hands dirty in the messiness of the human condition. . .Religion becomes their sole focus and faith, for them, names a rejection of worldly living. These folks are often recognizable because they always have a critical word on their lips and a judging look in their eye. They take themselves to be so religiously virtuous that they alone know what is right.

"Those people suck."

See what I mean by my earlier word "kicky"? I didn't expect this final phrase. But he's right. (And his description of such people sometimes rings true about me in my Presbyterian tradition. Sigh.)

When Simmons insists that we should engage in matters only "worthy of our finitude," he says that another way of thinking about that is to ask ourselves, "What are you becoming?" In other words, we must remember that what we are doing and thinking is creating the future us.

"The goal," he writes, "is not to have this or to do that in order to make our lives significant, but rather constantly to live toward what we think is worthy of our finitude, our time, our life itself. In this way, we avoid the temptation to be done with living before life is done with us."

So should we, like Simmons, spend a lot of our time fishing, mountain biking, camping, hiking? Well, not necessarily (I certainly don't). But, he writes, "when I read Kierkegaard and the other existential philosophers, I can't help but think that their frequent use of mountain metaphors, their references to rivers, their mentions of hiking, etc., are not simply coincidental but essential aspects of their reflections on lives well lived."

He has discovered that "finitude is both the reason for the human condition's impermanence and also the condition of finding meaning as human beings. But time is not a thing like money, cars and trophies. It is not something that we can show to others as a sign of our significance. It is, instead, the great equalizer."

As a writer myself, the only thing that annoyed me about this book is that Simmons seems to ignore a few basic points of grammar, such as when to use "whom" instead of "who" and when to remember that "none" is singular, so it's ungrammatical to write "none are. . ." instead of "none is. . ."

But those small irritations are not reasons to avoid this book, which can help its readers remember what is important about life and what isn't. (My focus on the rules of grammar may be among the latter.)

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DID THE RECENT CATHOLIC SYNOD HELP?

The recently completed gathering of Catholics at the Vatican -- the Synod on Synodality -- has disappointed many people who wanted the church to adopt such major changes as allowing women to be ordained as deacons and priests. But as this RNS column argues, the purpose of the synod wasn't to tackle all the hot-button issues in Catholicism but, rather, to learn how to listen to one another again. That, surely, is a worthy (but big) goal. But it lacks the sort of boldness found in the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and, thus, seems unlikely to change much. At least in the short run.

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P.S.: As if the world needed more expressions of hatred, this CNN analysis details the recent rise in antisemitism around the globe. Yes, it's certainly in part a reaction to the Hamas-Israel war, but "it is also a reflection of destructive forces tearing at American and western European societies, where stability and democracy are already under pressure." Those challenges take up much of the time on the evening newscasts by the major networks. And political figures around the world contribute to the unrest. It's another reason to be registered to vote and to use your vote for the healers, not the destroyers. Speaking of resurgent antisemitism, law enforcement authorities arrested someone this week suspected of making antisemitic online threats against members of Cornell University's Jewish community. I thought colleges were supposed to educate people. Maybe the suspect never took a history class.

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ANOTHER P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column when it posted Sunday -- about special training of hospital chaplains -- you can find it here. And for free, too.