Tag Archives: Religion

The Infallibility of the President

The timing is dead-on perfect. Why wait any longer? With the Russian meddling investigation promising prosecutions and turmoil, with controversy yet swirling because of the Trump administration’s decision to split up migrant families at the border, and with the country’s collective blood pressure rising to dangerous levels from toxic overexposure to political pundit vitriol concerning the president – it is time. (Perhaps Americans will instead, in throwback fashion, watch good ol’ boring baseball on TV to reduce blood pressure levels. Suffering from insomnia? Just boot up some MLB on the DVR and you’ll be drooling on your pillow within ten minutes, guaranteed.)

jalbm.t.clown.4

Back on point: Let the nation take the next regressive step from its status as a once-upon-a-time democracy endowed with the separation of governing powers, and bestow a right upon President Trump which he would wield oh-so flawlessly: The Power of Infallibility.

Economist Paul Krugman, who leans so far left he can’t but walk in circles (so I’ve been told), beat me to the punch more than a year ago with his article “America’s Epidemic of Infallibility” but he didn’t give much historical backdrop. Keep reading – it’s your lucky day.

The Roman Catholic Church made the “Infallibility of the Pope” official church dogma in 1870. The doctrine doesn’t imply that the pope is perfect or without sin, but that when speaking “in office” – as the authoritative voice of church teaching, with the backing of the college of bishops – he’s spot on, every time. Fast forward to Pope John Paul II in 1994. He seemed to say “infallibly” that women would never be ordained as priests in the Roman Catholic Church. An American Catholic bishop at that time opined that the pope’s statement, of course, in no way diminished the equality or dignity of women. Hmmm . . .  more than twenty years later, the all-male college of bishops is still hashing out the “infallibility” of JP II’s decree. Ahem.

Back on historical point: 1870 was also the year of Italian reunification – political resurgence and nationalism brought an end to the pope’s temporal rule of the Papal States. Pope Pius IX, as political power slid through his hands like dry sand, cloistered himself behind church walls in Rome and became the self-proclaimed “prisoner of the Vatican” where he remained until his death in 1878. A separation between church and state, non-existent for much of Catholic Church history, took hold.

The late nineteenth century was also the age of Darwin, Mendel, and Pasteur. Science was ascendant. Religion’s reign as the sole source and arbiter of “knowledge” – the meaning of the word “science” – was coming to an end. The church, in its attempt to maintain hegemony, reacted to the challenge of science by claiming to have its own incontrovertible facts. “Infallibility of the Pope” for Catholics, and a few decades later, “The Fundamentals” for Protestants (the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus), were institutional attempts at restoring lost place and power. True believers, id est base supporters, were told these salvos would counter modernity and all of its accompanying evils.

It’s in this same spirit that I propose infallibility for the president, so he can shore up power beyond his base (30-35 percent of voters) as modernity continues its barrage upon American greatness. “President Trump”? “King Donald” or “Pope Donaldo” carries much more gravitas and either would be the necessary remedy to make American white great again – like it used to be, before Obama became president, the guy who wasn’t even born here (that’s what Thee Donald said).

In today’s America, why should gays be able to marry and order wedding cakes from whomever they please? Why should slacker youngsters and old geezer hippies be able to smoke weed with impunity? Why should blacks and Hispanics expect fair treatment from law enforcement? And why should immigrants and asylum seekers, coming to the country of immigrants, expect even a hearing? This is why we need a real ruler (like Trump said of Kim Jong-un), as if an infallible king, to whom people will actually listen, at attention! – or else!!! Oh, yeah . . . when praising the dictator, Thee Donald said that he was being sarcastic. Thank God for sarcasm. It helps us laugh and cope with incompetency, injustice, and other inadequacies.

The president who wants be so much more has showed us, by his own vitriol, the real enemies of the people: immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Central Americans, Syrian refugees, journalists, Democrats, the FBI, judges who don’t rule as he wishes, and women – not all women, of course, but some of them. At the same time, he’s made us see the good side of dictators and racists. Putin and the protestors at Charlottesville – who knew they were getting a bad deal? Now we know better . . .

Democratic principles – the aforementioned separation of powers, due process of law, equality – are so overrated. Bullying is the only real way to get things done, punctuated by extended campaign rallies long after the final tally of the election.

Pardon power? Immunity? These two are mere beginner steps for Thee Donald. Let’s allow him to take it to the next level – infallibility.

Presidential infallibility could help the country achieve even greater heights of excellent greatness. I can almost see Mitch McConnell coming into the oval office, with a promise of Senate approval, offering to make him the Great American Dictator. It would simply be the next logical step beyond infallibility: “Okay, I’ll take you up on that,” the make-white-great-again One would respond to the miter-bee senator, “but only if it’s for life, and then I’ll want it passed on to Don Jr.”

Advertisements

Comments Off on The Infallibility of the President

Filed under Commentary

Can Science Replace Religion?

New Atheism – led by scientists Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and others – is deeply critical of religious teaching and practice. Harris says in support of his book The Moral Landscape (Free Press, 2011), “Religious ideas about good and evil tend to focus on how to achieve well-being in the next life, and this makes them terrible guides to securing it in this one.” He and others posit science as a better way to determine worthy human morals and values.

Harris is right to criticize religious understandings that place oversized emphases on an afterlife at the expense of present day concerns – consider the 9/11 terrorists and the supposed promise of virgins awaiting them in paradise, a tragic blend of hate and misogyny inspiring them to act in this world. Harris is also right to look to science to determine better ways for humans to know, think, and interact – making the world a better place now and in the future.

But, before we get too excited about its promoted versatility: science will never solve all of our problems. The human family yet needs good religion. Getting rid of religion, as advocated by Harris and Dawkins, would be akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Additionally, it increases the risk of making science something it is not – a religion.

Consider, for example, forgiveness. Science can teach us about the benefits of forgiveness, but it can’t teach us how to put it into practice. That’s what religion does. Furthermore, religion and science working together help define and categorize different types of forgiveness, a mutual enhancement that makes the world a better place. People who practice forgiveness tend to have lower blood pressure, live with less stress and anxiety, and understand thou shalt not kill as a good guide to navigate relationships with other human beings in this present world. Forgiveness incorporated rejects the option of vengeance. All of these are enhancements to the health and well-being of the whole human family.

The word religion, from the Latin religio, means to fasten, bind, or reconnect. There is no question that religions are human constructions, and consequently not perfect. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, forgiveness is central to their religious understandings for life in this world. Forgiveness – ritualistically part of all three systems – reconnects adherents with the Divine and binds adherents to one another in this life. Human beings created religions, in part, to help forge community ties. Forgiveness enhances and binds those relational ties, from birth to death.

The story of Joseph, son of Jacob, is shared by the three monotheistic religions. Dreamer of stars and moons, Joseph, the younger offspring and favorite of his father, is sold into slavery by his jealous and envious older brothers. Only later, when the brothers and their families are suffering from hunger and famine, do they unknowingly face their long lost brother Joseph. They are in a most desperate situation, physically and emotionally. Joseph, now powerful and holding in his hands the fate of his brothers and “their little ones,” has the option to choose vengeance upon his brothers for having sold him into slavery so many years earlier. He instead chooses forgiveness – and family reunion.

Of course, religion has been misused through the ages. It has caused great and painful suffering, even to our present day. But it has also taught humans to love one another, to accept one another, and to forgive one another. Religion, like anything else worthy of human attention and endeavor, needs to be continually reformed in order to be better. The old story of Joseph and his brothers has the unique ability to instruct and reform the current and future human family; forgiveness is an essential element for the very survival of humanity.

British writer Bryan Appleyard critiques thinkers who endow science with the ability to give a “final and full account of the world.” Harris and Dawkins have legitimate critiques of religion and some of its practices, but ultimately they advocate science as the one and only true way – essentially, a new religion. This type of thinking is categorically fundamentalist – a type of thinking that usually is not beneficial to the health and well-being of the human family. Atheism is a belief system just as much as any religion can be. True wisdom understands the world to be a big place, large enough for the scientific theories that explain the essence of stars and moons and large enough for the religious systems that bind us together as people who practice virtues like forgiveness.

 

These blog posts are representative of my work in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. The book is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

2 Comments

Filed under Commentary

The Hungry Ghost

Third article in a series . . .

The great religious systems of the world – and many regional indigenous strains – weave a harmonious montage against greed and materialism. This blog post is the third in a series highlighting religious unity against the type of values seen in the dominant religion of the land: the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. These posts are adapted from the book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available online and in your local bookstore. Ask for it!

Sikkim - Land of Discovery

The Hungry Ghost

 

The hungry ghost forages for desired consumables – its pinhole mouth and pencil thin neck feebly servicing its oversized paunch and ravenous appetite. Yes, it might get its hands on something to consume, but the consumable is immediately belched out as fire, smoke, and ash. Satisfaction continually distances itself, and the hungry ghost bewilderingly looks for more. Not fully alive, present moment surroundings mean nothing to the ghost – attainment of the next (supposed) fix trumps all other considerations. Constant craving from within dominates; the striving for more and more that satisfies less and less cycles onward ad infinitum.

One of the six realms or mind states within Buddhist understanding, the hungry ghost aptly depicts greed, addiction, and compulsive behavior in metaphoric brilliance. We might also contemplate the meaning of the ghost as we consider the embattled American economic landscape.

Most all agree that the economy is not as good as it used to be. What might be the solution? Ample opinions abound: cut taxes, invest in green energy, eliminate burdensome regulations, renew an emphasis on job training, raise the minimum wage, “drill, baby, drill”, and so forth. All these and others are, perhaps, worthy of consideration. Yet a common assumption behind all these proposed solutions lurks unawares: greater and greater economic growth. More and more growth is assumed without question – as if the limits that are part and parcel of the universe don’t apply when the issue at hand is the economy and our standard of living. Good golly, it would be nice for the incredible economic expansion of the last 200 years or so to continue ratcheting through the stratosphere . . . but available energy supply, increasingly complex pollution, and a burgeoning world population make for a system that can’t go on unquestionably as it has before.

“Just a little bit more” beckons – but when does enough get to be enough? Our credit card payment schedules, predicated on future income, in turn predicated on further economic growth, may well outlast us into the future: credit card debt as our touchstone to immortality. Economic growth has its limits, but debt does not. Buddhism teaches contentment with what one possesses today; contentment and gratitude for things like food, clothing, shelter, community, and purpose in living. Striving for much more? Beware of the ghost . . .

 

Click here for second article in series and here for first article in series. (This series of articles was originally posted in March 2014.)

 

 Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is available on Amazon as a paperback and ebook, and on iTunes and Nook as an ebook. Published 2014 by Blue Ocotillo Publishing, Austin, TX.

6 Comments

Filed under Commentary

Seeking Common Good and Kingdom Connection

I picked up the first printing (three boxes totaling 100 copies) of Just a Little Bit More from my local printer on the first Friday in May – the day before our synod assembly meeting in Austin. That next day, with more than 400 pastors and lay leaders gathered for the meeting, I sold about thirty-five copies of JaLBM. Some of my colleagues knew of the book and anticipated me finally having it in hand and ready for distribution; by this point it had been a three-year project in the making. For all my preparation, there was one thing I hadn’t readied: a go-to phrase when inscribing the book. And, no, I had neither thought to bring a Sharpie . . .

The next day, a number of my congregants at St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Austin were kind enough to purchase the long-awaited tome. To close out the first week of JaLBM’s availability, good friends Paul and Marsha Collinson-Streng hosted a book signing party inviting and gathering other good friends. I sold those first 100 copies that very first week. Still at this early point in the process, I had no go-to inscription. I inscribed those first copies with appropriate words of gratitude and support, tailoring individual remarks as needed.

A go-to inscription is especially useful when an author is signing multiple books in rapid fashion. T. Carlos Anderson is a unique pen name, but any confusion at a large scale book signing event between the small-time, first-time author of JaLBM and a mega-selling author like Malcolm Gladwell won’t be happening any time soon. All the same, a sui generis inscription, besides being efficient and giving the impression of situational mastery, adds an additional touch of character to one’s work.

“Seeking Common Good and Kingdom Connection.” Sometime in June, when I was distributing the second round of 100 books, the tie-in between common good and God’s kingdom* came to me. I immediately googled the phrase and discovered only one other theological commentator using it. A researcher and blogger for the Acton Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, calls for societal common good construction via just laws and conscientious moral choices from individuals. Yes, of course, I fully support such thinking and try to live accordingly. There are a few libertarian ideas I like (less reliance on military interventionism in foreign lands, as one), but the uncritical approbation of the “free market” as the arbiter of all things good and just is simply unacceptable. Such a faith fails to take human nature’s degraded tendencies seriously. In Just a Little Bit More, I name the uncritical acceptance of the free market an ideology and label it a bad religion.

We’ve now been living with and under thirty-five years of the elevation of fiscal policy over social policy in the United States. Consequently, we’ve become a market society where market values and considerations trump other ones. The pendulum does swing back and forth; the long-running New Deal era culminating in LBJ’s War on Poverty exemplified the pendulum’s opposite arc, the welfare society. Is there a better balance to be found between the extremes? Here’s a crucial question: Which do we value more – human rights or property rights? A far-reaching common good, yes, includes the contributions of a wide-ranging and robust market system, but not at the expense of its very participants. Eric Fromm rightly critiqued consumerist society years ago: “We must put an end to the present situation where a healthy economy is possible only at the price of unhealthy human beings.”

Jesus claimed that the Divine Realm is in our midst. When and where the gifts of love, cooperation, reconciliation, and compassion are shared – individually and collectively – the Divine presence is more pronounced, and less ambiguous. The common good is uplifted as well. The connection between God’s kingdom and common good is mostly tenuous – but I think we can say it does occur, especially when the needs of humans come before the needs of capital. Yes, the “free market” has fed, clothed, sheltered, and employed millions, mitigating the effects of poverty for many of these; its veracity and utility are indisputable. But the exaltation of property rights above human rights oftentimes leads to the co-opting of market forces by greed and duplicity, life being defined by one’s possessions (the goods life), and abuses and injustices brought about by the myopic pursuit of profit.

The common good is set up by just laws, aided by works of individual and collective charity, and enhanced by positive market forces. Crucially, however, the common good must also be protected from negative market forces (and human destructiveness). The market is not entirely self-regulating. To trust that the market is entirely self-regulating is to endow it with divine-like status. “Seeking Market and Kingdom Connection”? I won’t deny that it’s possible, but I won’t be using such an inscription anytime soon for my book. I already have a much better one.

 

 

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website and through ACTA Publications, Chicago, IL.

* Kingdom, of course , is a word fraught with links to male domination. Empire, as an alternative, doesn’t work for me as it is fraught with allusions to worldly kingdoms and ambitions – Babylon, Rome, etc. I like divine realm best of them all, and use it interchangeably with kingdom.

1 Comment

Filed under Commentary

Religious Syncretism and “Purity”

I travelled in Latin America as a college student, returning to the States smitten by its history and culture – repeated listens to Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer my panacea of choice. A few years later while in seminary, I consequently made plans to do my internship in Peru. (Since my seminary was in Minnesota, there was a good chance I would have served internship in North Dakota. Enough said?)*

peru 001

Cuzco, Peru, el siglo pasado – last century (1983 to be exact). And, yes – look closely – that is a WXRT “Chicago’s finest rock” t-shirt.

Part of my preparation for a two year internship in Peru included studying aspects of religious syncretism – the fusion of belief and practice systems – in Latin America. The most accessible example for North Americans is La Virgin de Guadalupe, a blending of Catholicism’s Virgin Mary and the mother-god of the Nahautl, Tonantzin. With her combination of features both European and indigenous, La Virgin is the representative first Mexican; her cult is both religious and cultural. There’s a danger, however, in labeling other systems overtly syncretistic: one can easily forgot that one’s own system is also syncretistic. Not all alleged purity is relative, but much of it is.

Syncretism has been a part of Christianity’s development and that of all major religious systems since their very beginnings. These systems could not have achieved worldwide status without being syncretistic. The church’s ability to adapt, thriving or surviving, in situations diverse such as the Roman empire (with emperor Constantine’s approval of the religion in 314) and communist Soviet Union (with its proposed eradication of organized religion), shows its vitality. Not all religious syncretism is bad; it is oftentimes necessary in order that an intended message be contextualized. Too much syncretism, however, can render the original message altered beyond recognition. Danger of another type ensues when religious leaders demand purity in belief and practice from adherents, acting as if their “true understanding” of the system is devoid of syncretism (and its supposed evils).

As the church in 21st century America continues on its downward trend, it has a great opportunity to differentiate itself from the dominant materialist-consumerist societal creed that has infected some of its quarters in the last thirty-five years. Money is a necessity, but Jesus turning over the money changers’ tables in the temple shows money’s supposed primacy as concocted. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy economy, but Jesus’s parable in Luke 12 of the rich fool who, thinking he was entirely “self-made,” considered all his gains for himself and no one else, is a blatant indictment of those who trust in the Market above all other things.

It’s a fine line between material blessings appreciated and properly utilized and those same objects venerated and pursued as life’s ultimate goal. Part of the church’s job in this society is to remind and teach: where you place your treasure, there you will also find your heart. There’s some purity in that understanding that shines like gold for numerous societies and cultures, past and present.

 

*No offense intended against the great state of North Dakota and its inhabitants! Peru was a much better option for internship – for me. And who knows? Maybe it was good for North Dakota that I didn’t make it there for internship . . .

 

Check out my book that covers this and similar themes. Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

1 Comment

Filed under Commentary

Remembering Ambrose of Milan

The great religious systems of the world – and many regional indigenous strains – weave a harmonious montage in their admonitions against greed and materialism. This blog post is the first in a series highlighting religious unity against the type of values seen in the dominant religion of the land: the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. These posts are adapted from the book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available in May 2014.

Ambrose served the populace in good manner as the governor of Milan, by appointment of the Roman emperor. When the bishop of Milan died in 373 CE, popular acclaim demanded Ambrose take the seat of bishop . . . except Ambrose had no interest in the ecclesial appointment. He even tried – unsuccessfully – to escape Milan to avoid the appointment. He quickly acceded however, and was baptized, ordained, and consecrated as bishop in a whirlwind eight-day process. A rare moment in church history: quick movement.

Ambrose wasn’t perfect (like Martin Luther later, he was involved with indiscretions against Jews) but he was adept at speaking truth to power. A riot in Thessalonica (modern day Greece) led to the death of the appointed Roman governor in that city. Emperor Theodosius, incensed at this outburst of disorder, ordered swift retaliation – even though Ambrose counseled the emperor toward patience and investigation. The bishop’s advice went ignored; retaliation came with the massacre of 7,000 Thessalonians. Later on, when Theodosius travelled to Milan, he attempted to enter church to celebrate mass. Ambrose stopped the emperor at the door and confronted him: no communion for the emperor until he repented of his sin. Remember, these were the days before widespread understanding of democratic sharing of power; Ambrose’s position was most vulnerable. Ambrose stood his ground, communion was withheld, and the emperor eventually repented. Theodosius later decreed a thirty-day wait period before executions were carried out in sentences of death.

Ambrose had an innate sense that clergy were called not only to confront abusive power, but to seek justice in support of the weak against the strong. From his Duties of the Clergy: “God has ordered all things to be produced, so that there should be food in common for all, and that the earth should be a common possession for all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for a few” (italics mine). Rush Limbaugh, modern-day free market fundamentalist and bard of inequality, recently described the teachings of Pope Francis as “pure Marxism.” Sorry, Rush – Ambrose pre-dates Marx significantly and Pope Francis is simply propounding the historic social doctrine of the church. Ambrose helped to formulate it more than 1600 years ago: the church feeds the hungry and seeks to influence those whose decisions affect the greater common good.

Remembering Ambrose of Milan – who died Easter Sunday, April 4, 397 – teacher, preacher, composer of hymns, who stood for social justice in the face of inequality.

2 Comments

Filed under Commentary