Thursday, May 31, 2012

Memorial Day

This Memorial Day, these remarks delivered by Navy chaplain, Rabbi R.B. Gittlesohn, on March 14 1945 at the U.S. Marine Corps, 5th Division’s cemetery on Iwo Jima remind me of the cost and value of freedom.

This is perhaps the grimmest, and surely the holiest, task we have faced since D-Day. Before us lie the bodies of comrades and friends. Men, who until yesterday or last week, laughed with us, trained with us, men who were on the same ships with us, and went over the sides with us as we prepared to hit the beaches on this island, men who fought with us and feared with us.

Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the man who could have discovered the cure for cancer. Under one of these Christian Crosses, or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may rest now a man who was destined to be a great prophet ... to find the way, perhaps, for all to live in plenty. Now they lie here silently in this sacred soil, and we gather to consecrate this earth in their memory.

To speak in memory of such men as these is not easy. Of them, too, can it be said with utter truth: "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. It can never forget what they did here." These men have done their job well. They have paid the ghastly price of freedom. If that freedom be once again lost, as it was after the last war, the unforgivable blame will be our, not theirs. So it is we, the living, who are here to be dedicated and consecrated.

We dedicate ourselves, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in this war. Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion, because they themselves or their fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officer and men, Blacks and Whites, Protestants and Catholics and Jews, together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color.

Any man among us, the living, who fails to understand that, will thereby betray those who lie here dead. To this, then, as our solemn, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: To the right of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, of White and Black men alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price.

To one thing more do we consecrate ourselves in memory of those who sleep beneath these crosses and stars. This war, with all its frightful heartache and suffering, is but the beginning of our generation's struggle for democracy. When the last battle has been won, there will those at home, as there were last time, who will want us to turn our backs in selfish isolation on the rest of organized humanity, and thus to sabotage the very peace for which we fight. We promise to you who lie here: We will not do that!

When the last shot has been fired, there will still be those whose eyes are turned backward, not forward, who will be satisfied with those wide extremes of poverty and wealth in which the seeds of another war can be sown. We promise you, our departed comrades: This, too, we will not permit. This war has been fought by the common man! We promise, by all that is sacred and holy, that your sons, the sons of miners and millers, the sons of farmers and workers, will inherit from your death the right to a living that is decent and secure.

Thus do we memorialize those who, having ceased living with us, now live within us. Thus do we consecrate ourselves, the living, to carry on the struggle they began. Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren. Too much pain and heartache have fertilized the earth on which we stand. We here solemnly swear: This shall not be in vain! Out of this, and from the suffering and sorrow of those we mourn, this will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere. Amen.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ethical principles of economics

Christian ethicist Larry Rasmussen in his book, Earth Community, Earth Ethics (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996, p. 145) outlines five principles for sustainable economics:

1.    Ecological sustainability – the earth and its resources are not endlessly renewable. Economics must seek to provide for people in a manner and at a level that is sustainable for future generations.

2.    Sufficiency of sustenance – the economic system should provide a minimum level of sustenance for all people. Requiring working age adults to contribute labor as individually able in order to obtain this sustenance is reasonable and consistent with practices recorded in the Bible.

3.    Community through work – people are not merely individuals but also members of a community. Neither individualism nor communalism alone adequately describes the human condition. Ethical economic structures recognize and incorporate this dualism. The common good is as vital as individual flourishing; one is impossible without the other.

4.    Participation by all – an ethical economic structure excludes nobody.

5.    Respect for diversity – economic structures will vary among cultures, climes, and historical periods.

These principles seem cogent and cohere well with my understanding of what Jesus taught. These principles also allow great latitude in choosing and adapting economic structures. The current debates in Europe and the United States over responses to various economic problems (e.g., high levels of national debt in some European countries, underwater mortgages in the U.S., the right balance of austerity and stimulus measures to prevent both inflation and deflation) would benefit if framed by these principles.

Christianity does not have the answer to economic questions. Christianity can profitably (pun intended!) contribute to people answering economic questions ethically. Too much contemporary rhetoric emphasizes only personal gain and ignores the common good.

Another prominent theologian, Sallie McFague, has written:

An ecological economic Christology can be summarized by the phrase ‘God with us.’ … An ecological economic Christology means that God is with us – we are dealing with the power and love of the universe; it means that God is with us – on our side, desiring justice and health and fulfillment for us; it means that God is with us – all of us, all people and all other life-forms, but especially those who do not have justice, health and fulfillment. (Life Abundant (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), p. 157)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Pentecost and the Holy Spirit

Each year, exactly seven weeks after Easter, the Church celebrates Pentecost, the annual remembrance of God's gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. The word Pentecost originally had nothing to do with this gift; Pentecost was a Jewish agricultural festival also known as the Feast of Weeks. The most memorable Pentecost happened to coincide with the gift of the Holy Spirit described in Acts 2:1-13.

In Christian theology, the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinitarian godhead, alongside the Father and the Son. Orthodox Christian doctrine teaches that the three persons are distinct, co-equal, co-eternal, and one. That doctrine is incomprehensible apart from a Greek philosophical framework that few moderns find useful.

The idea of the Holy Spirit has Old Testament roots, e.g., the prophets receive the Spirit of the Lord. However, in the New Testament all Christians receive the Spirit, which Jesus, in the gospel of John, describes as an advocate who will guide Christians into all truth. The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2 and 12 about the gifts of the Spirit, among which he includes faith, wisdom, the power to heal, and the power to prophesy. Christians have debated whether the catalogue of gifts is exhaustive or suggestive. In either case, the purpose of all of the gifts is to aid the community that is the church.

In the early twentieth century, a renewal movement swept across the United States that emphasized the gifts of the Spirit. Out of this movement emerged the modern Pentecostal Churches. In the 1950s, this movement spread to mainline denominations, beginning with the Episcopal Church. Known as the charismatic renewal movement from the Greek charism (i.e., grace or gift), this movement has largely disappeared.

Symbols of the Holy Spirit are often red, evocative of the tongues of fire the book of Acts describes as visible over the heads of the Christians who spoke in foreign languages they did not understand on the first Pentecost. Another symbol of the Spirit is a dove, which the gospel of Luke records descended upon Jesus at his baptism by John (Luke 3:22).

How can contemporary Christians make sense out of the idea of the Holy Spirit?

First, the Holy Spirit emphasizes God's presence in this world. God is not only transcendent (though not necessarily supernatural) but also immanent. In other words, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit affirms that the light of God’s presence, love, and actions are visible in the world. In an image that I find helpful, the first Christian missionaries to China re-conceptualized the Holy Spirit as the Cool Wind, “a more sensuous, evocative image for that which is invisible but felt.” (Thomas Moore and Ray Riegert, The Lost Sutras of Jesus: Unlocking the Ancient Wisdom of the Xian Monks)

Second, the Holy Spirit is often unseen because people hesitate to discern God's light, afraid that they may point to an idol instead of the living God. Jesuit Anthony de Mello in Awareness (p. 26) recounts the story of several people stranded aboard a raft that the Amazon has swept several miles out to sea. These people were dying of thirst, ignorant that the mighty Amazon’s waters remain potable several miles out to sea. The sheer volume of the fresh water pouring into the ocean prevents the stream from becoming immediately salty.

Third, Christians regularly affirm that they have received the Holy Spirit in Holy Baptism, even as Jesus did. Unction – anointing with oil – symbolizes God's gift of the Spirit to the newly baptized person. Consequently, the gift of the Holy Spirit is actually a relational gift, emphasizing the continuing permanent bond that unites a person with God. Held in God's love, the Christian can live boldly, hopeful of God's guidance and trusting in God's forgiveness. The gift of the Spirit makes life abundant possible today.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


What counts as success in life? That is, what is the measure of a successful life?

Success is a life well lived, a life that has enabled the person to flourish as much as circumstances permit. The last clause of the previous sentence – as much as circumstances permit – is essential. A person born into a famine-ravaged area of Africa will necessarily live a radically different life than a person born with affluent European parents. A person born to a crack addict mother is far more likely to have damaged genes than a person born to a healthy mother is; the former is also more likely to have few advantages individually and socially during her/his early formative years. In other words, external parameters over which a person had no control dramatically influence options for flourishing.

Human flourishing is not synonymous with gene propagation, i.e., having children. First, earth’s human population has neared or exceeded the maximum population of humans that the earth ability can sustainably carry. Consequently, promoting gene propagation – population growth – is not in the best interest of the planet or of humans. Second, not all humans have the resources or ability to parent well. A child born to such parents may actually diminish rather than enhance parental flourishing. This is not, however, a call for social or genetic engineering. Humans do not have sufficient wisdom to know which set of genes reared in what environment will contribute the most to future human flourishing.

Nor is human flourishing synonymous with material success. The size of a person’s dwelling, the number of dwellings a person owns, the type/number of vehicles owned, the size of financial holdings, or simply the quantity of stuff that a person possesses (filling garages, house, and rented storage facilities) seems to correlate with a meaningful measure of flourishing. I’ve known and ministered to too many unhappy affluent people to equate flourishing with material success.

Human flourishing, at a minimum, entails becoming as fully human, fully alive, as situationally as possible. This entails:

·         Maximizing self-awareness or self-transcendence, enabling self-understanding and differentiation from what is not the self

·         Developing one’s linguistic capacity, the capacity for cognitive thought and communication with others, both of which depend upon manipulating symbols

·         Enjoying one’s aesthetic sense by identifying and cherishing beauty in self, others, and the world as a means to add pleasure, value, and new insights

·         Engaging in creative acts to introduce novelty and innovation, seeking to enrich life qualitatively (aesthetically, pleasure, ease, material comfort, etc.) or quantitatively (longevity or gene propagation)

·         Becoming progressively autonomous, exercising increasing control over one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors

·         Loving and being loved, to experience more of life through relationships.

Recently, I read Anthony de Mello’s Awareness, a posthumous collection of this well-known twentieth century spiritual writer’s material presented at retreats he conducted. De Mello emphasized that achievement, appreciation, and applause are not genuine sources of human success. Instead, he argued that humans should seek awareness or enlightenment, the latter term perhaps indicative of his roots and the context of much of his ministry having been in India.

De Mello also highlighted the existential loneliness of each human being, at times implicitly devaluing the importance of relationships. This may reflect his formation as a Jesuit Roman Catholic priest. Most (all?) humans seem to have an innate yearning for relationships with other humans. If those relationships prove less than satisfactory, then a human may invest that relational drive in pets or even an organization. But flourishing seems to invariably connote relationships, i.e., loving and being loved.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Hope and optimism

Optimistic people achieve greater success in life. People learn more from good news than bad news. People also tend to think that bad events are unlikely to happen to them. For example, what couple approaches marriage expecting that they will become one of the two out of five couples who will divorce? Even divorce lawyers, who should know better, tend to share that optimism.

Unfortunately, our optimism bias may prompt us to take ill-advised risks and to make poor choices. Becoming aware of one’s optimism bias can improve results, enabling penguins to soar like eagles.

Those are just a few of the important conclusions that Tali Sharot outlines in this video in which she summarizes some of her research at the University of London.

Her research intrigues me for two reasons. First, her research suggests ways in which people can improve their quality of life through understanding, cultivating, and appropriately compensating their optimism bias.

Second, her research helps to explain why hope is such an important theological concept. People who believe that God is active in the cosmos have more reason to expect good things in the future. This belief is no prophylactic that protects a person from bad things. Bad things do happen to good people. Jesus, whom many believe was without sin, died a horrible death. However, God never abandons anyone and God’s continuing involvement in the cosmos assures us that eventually death, suffering, and tears will end.

So, prepare for the worst but expect the best.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Jesus and government

Does Jesus favor small government? That provocative question headlined a recent NPR report (

I very much doubt that Jesus gave any thought to the preferred size or role of government, a conclusion diametrically opposed to the thoughts of some liberals and conservatives. Government to Jesus must have meant, at least in part, Roman domination and exploitation, which was his personal experience.

Jesus was for people and God. Government is not an ultimate reality but a means to an end. When government contributes to the general welfare then government is good, e.g., providing a secure social safety net that eliminates hunger, thirst, illiteracy, and bondage while ensuring access to healthcare and shelter and protecting human dignity, worth and rights. When government enables elites to exploit the vulnerable, deprives people of basic goods and rights, or otherwise fails to nurture healthy community then government is bad.

Attempting to argue that Jesus is pro-small or pro-big government misses that point. Furthermore, such claims also presume that Jesus has the answer to all life’s problems, something that is patently not true. The Jesus path offers basic principles; applying those principles to specific contexts requires adapting to specific cultures and historical realities.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Fresh thoughts about Ascension

Christian teachings about Jesus’ ascension are uncomfortably problematic.

First, the image of a king ascending to heaven, residing there as a god worshipped by his former subjects, is not unique to Christianity. Romans believed that Romulus (a boy and only later mythologized as a wolf), who with his brother Remus founded Rome, ascended at death to heaven and became the popular god Quirinus. Other ancient figures alleged to have ascended to heaven include Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament, Hercules, Empedocles, and Alexander the Great. Was Jesus’ ascension historical fact or simply a well-intentioned attempt by Jesus’ first disciples to frame his story in language and metaphors widely known and understood in the first century? If the latter, the story has become a dated and generally misunderstood attempt to describe the intimacy with God that the disciples experienced in their relationship with Jesus.

Second, the image of Jesus ascending to heaven from Palestine, which several hundred years ago was a favorite subject of artists, today often evokes the continuing conflict between religion and science. The pervasive imagery, if taken literally, presupposes a flat earth, flat not because of globalization but because of a wrong view of the solar system. Thinking that heaven connotes a physical place – necessary if one believes in a physical resurrection - poses the additional difficulty of identifying that place’s locale, presumably somewhere in this physical cosmos.

Third, understanding the imagery subtly suggests that earth is at the center of creation, something ancient mapmakers who placed Jerusalem at the center of creation recognized. Nothing in the Bible requires this view; contemporary astronomers convincingly marshal evidence to the contrary. Earth is far from the cosmos’ center; humans are not necessarily the apogee of creation.

Fourth, spiritualizing the image of Jesus ascending to heaven, while avoiding the previous two problems, may imply that heaven is better than earth or that the future is preferable to the present. Yet God created heaven and earth. Valuing heaven more highly than earth requires considerable hubris: who are humans to assess God's handiwork? Admittedly, individual humans may reasonably prefer heaven to earth (e.g., the Apostle Paul, frequently persecuted for his beliefs and practices) or earth to heaven (e.g., people who believe that death is the end of existence). If, however, as the Church has long taught, God determines the number of a person’s days, then being where God wants one to be – earth or heaven – is best for that person at that moment.

Fifth, the New Testament repeatedly states that God is at work reconciling all creation to God's self. Unfortunately, widespread emphasis on heaven as the locus of life after death not only devalues the earth but also causes the Church and Christians largely to ignore the importance of caring for all creation. God calls humans to join God in the work of reconciling all creation (and not just fellow humans!) to God.

Finally, the New Testament and orthodox Christian theology incorporate a commonly unacknowledged contradiction. On the one hand, Jesus says that he must leave the disciples but promises the gift of the Spirit to his disciples as a guide and advocate in his absence. The Nicene Creed affirms Jesus’ absence – he sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven – and the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. On the other hand, much of the Church believes that Jesus is present in the Eucharist: this is my body; this is my blood. Whether understood in terms of transubstantiation, real presence, or spiritual presence, this affirmation is a prima facie contradiction of the premise that Jesus is now present in heaven rather than on earth. Furthermore, Christians for almost two millennia, notably including the Apostle Paul, claim to have encountered the risen Jesus on earth in spite of Jesus having ascended from earth into heaven.

So what can Christians meaningfully say about Jesus’ ascension?

First, Ascension reminds us to understand our theology metaphorically, to hold even the most cherished concepts gingerly, tentatively. Contradiction becomes paradox when we recognize that neither claim is ultimately true, that both claims at best represent partial truths, and that the claims’ incompatibility points to a mysterious otherness into which we can live but which we can never adequately articulate or describe. Like the early Christians, we do well to frame our experience of God in the language and metaphors of our time and culture, always cognizant that these are earthen vessels. After all, these earthen vessels are all that we have.

Second, struggling with Ascension’s problems offers a helpful antidote to our proclivities for hubris and anthropocentricity. Thinking about Ascension can remind us that although God created humans and crowned us with glory and honor, God's love has a breadth and depth that encompasses all life and the whole cosmos. Ascension, rightly understood, emphasizes God's reliance upon us as co-redeemers rather than passive participants of creation’s renewal. Jesus is not here; we are; therefore, God relies upon us to act.

Third and finally, Jesus’ ascension is a sign of hope. God remains involved with the cosmos. Whether conceived in terms of the activity of the Son or the Holy Spirit – thankfully, this post is about Ascension and not the Trinity so I, in good conscience, ignore that issue – God’s activity continues. God's reliance upon us to act is not an abdication of God's responsibility but an invitation to partner with God. We do not have to understand how that occurs, correctly identify which person of the Trinity acts, or even accurately discern what God is doing. We can know that our work of reconciliation will ultimately prevail because God works with us. This hope is Ascension’s real message.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


Jeffrey Toobin in his book on the U.S. Supreme Court, The Nine, (New York: Doubleday, 2007) wrote

“Edwin Meese III, Reagan’s attorney general in his second term, provided a framework for the emerging conservative critique of the Warren and Burger era when he called for a ‘jurisprudence of original intention.’ Or, as the leading ‘originalist,’ Robert Bork put it, ‘The framers’ intentions with respect to freedoms are the sole legitimate premise from which constitutional analysis may proceed.’ According to Bork, the meaning of the words did not evolve over time. This was an unprecedented view of the Constitution in modern times. Even before the Warren Court, most justices thought that the words of the Constitution were to be interpreted in light of a variety of factors, beyond just the intentions of the framers. As the originalists’ greatest adversary, William Brennan, observed in 1985, ‘the genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs.’” (p. 15)

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in his history of the Court, Active Liberty, observed that there is no way of knowing exactly what the framers meant by phrases such as due process of law or freedom of speech.

These comments provide helpful parallels with and insights for the task of biblical interpretation. First, as with the Constitution, nobody can know what the biblical authors intended by a particular word or phrase. The unknown identity of the authors and uncertain date of composition for much of the text compounds this difficulty. Seeking the original meaning (the phase biblical scholars prefer to original intent) may help shed light on the history of interpretation but cannot provide answers or a definitive meaning of the text.

Second, the context in which we read scripture has changed even more dramatically than the context in which we read the Constitution. For example, Article II of the Constitution employs the masculine pronoun in references to the President. This is not a generic use of the masculine. Only property owning, white males could vote. The framers did not intend a woman or a black man to ever be President. Thankfully, our thinking on this point has changed and we have moved beyond the original intent of the framers, changes codified in the 19th and 15th amendments. Since completion of the biblical text, globalization, space travel, the internet, nuclear power, reliance on the scientific method and a host of other factors have changed, making life in the twenty-first century radically different than life two thousand years ago.

The tenacity with which some Christians cling to the notion that women are second-class humans whom God intended to be subordinate to men reflects the utter inanity of attempting to apply original meaning (whatever that was) to the present day.

Third, interpreters of the U.S. Constitution look for principles. Finding principles, beyond vague generalities (e.g., love God and others), in the scriptures is of little assistance to interpreters because the challenge is how to apply those principles in particular situations. Most biblical interpreters agree that respect for life is a basic scriptural principle. However, that principle, in view of our ecological crisis and relatively newfound awareness of the mutual interdependence of all life, should apply not only to humans but also to all forms of life, including the earth in toto.

Hence, it is in struggling with the text in conversation with both the community of scholars and its history of interpretation that scripture can become a window through which the ineffable light of God can shine to illumine our path to love and life abundant.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Claiming our peace dividend

After the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War, the United States reaped a “peace dividend,” reducing defense spending. Following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, defense budgets have again soared. The nation funded both wars primarily through deficit spending, with Congress passing special appropriations to pay for the wars in addition to the regular defense budget.

The current fiscal crisis gives Americans another important opportunity to insist on reaping a “peace dividend” by cutting unnecessary defense expenditures. For peace activists, the fiscal crisis presents a unique opportunity to lobby for defense reductions. Money not spent on defense prevents, adapting a biblical metaphor, plows from being forged into swords.

Even individuals who believe that a strong defense is essential for avoiding war or for preventing the tyranny of evil (e.g., Stalinism or Nazism) can in good conscience advocate steep reductions in today’s massive defense budgets. Two categories of reductions are possible.

First, the United States should drastically cut its bloated defense bureaucracy. For example, during World War II, the Navy commissioned 1,000 ships per year and had 1,000 employees in the purchasing department. Today, the Navy commissions nine ships a year with 24,000 employees in the department. Technologically advanced twenty-first century ships have a complexity that inevitably imposes a larger administrative burden. However, if ships take 3 years to procure (unlike most of their WWII counterparts built in a single year) having 800 employees spend three years on each ship commissioned seems excessive. Similar bureaucracies support (hinder might arguably be the more accurate term) procurement of all military hardware and supplies. I encountered this problem first hand in staffing procurement of religious supplies while working for the Navy Chief of Chaplains in the early 1990s, all of which are very low cost items in the world of Pentagon procurement. Individually, I found government employees to be mostly dedicated, diligent, and hardworking. Collectively, the system is dysfunctional, taking years of labor and time to reach even simple and obvious decisions. No competitive business that managed its procurement the way the military does could survive.

The potential savings achieved by eliminating waste and inefficiency from the $700 billion defense budget is huge, probably in the 10% to 15% range. Yet entrenched bureaucracies do not easily give ground. Advocates of the status quo and of a stronger defense have already begun to lobby loudly and strongly against reducing defense expenditures. Peace advocates can work with advocates of responsible federal spending to balance the pro-defense lobby. Reducing defense spending by reducing bureaucratic bloat and inefficiency does not jeopardize national security.

Second, the United States has a political-military-industrial complex (first publicly identified by President Eisenhower) that pushes procurement of costly, unnecessary defense capabilities and equipment. This began post WWII and has continued since. For example, the U.S. has the most advanced warplanes in the world. Yet, the Defense Department, Congress, and the aerospace industry are all aggressively promoting procurement of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a radar avoiding jet, projected to cost $400 billion for 2,400 planes over the next two decades.

Similarly, the U.S. could:

·         Reduce the number of ballistic missile submarines (what potential enemy nation should their missiles target?);

·         Expedite implementation of previously negotiated reductions in the number of deployed and stockpiled nuclear weapons (again, what threat do these weapons deter?);

·         Replace costly conventional forces with less costly forces better suited to fight insurgencies, terrorists, and the other asymmetric conflicts that the U.S. faces today (what’s the likelihood of another major ground war?);

·         Explore fairer, less costly compensation packages for military personnel (e.g., although the military is physically demanding, people today live longer and are healthier, so is a 30-year retirement plan more reasonable than a 20-year plan?).

Realistically, the U.S. is the world’s only superpower. Its only potential competitor for superpower status is China. China, in spite of impressive economic gains, has myriad internal problems (e.g., the poverty of a majority of its people and their growing demands for genuine democratic reforms) that impose uncertain but real constraints on its military expenditures. China also appears more likely to conquer the U.S. by owning our debt, perhaps even purchasing many of our assets outright, than by initiating World War Three. Building economic ties that bind China’s future well-being to renewed U.S. prosperity seems more likely to lead to peace than does entering into another arms race.

The real and immediate military threat that the United States faces is from non-state actors. These actors call for a more rapid, flexible, and non-nuclear response, e.g., the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden and some unmanned drone strikes that have killed other terrorists. As I have repeatedly argued, the United States should use a less costly, less violent, law enforcement model to shape its counterterrorism response (e.g., Ethical Musings: Terrorism and building peace and Ethical Musings: Osama bin Laden's death and peacemaking).

Former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld initiated a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) that relied on technology to give the U.S. a decisive victory in warfighting. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan proved Rumsfeld and the RMA wrong. Initial victory, famously celebrated by President Bush proclaiming aboard the USS LINCOLN that “major combat operations in Iraq are over,” quickly gave way to years of ongoing insurrection and armed resistance. The U.S. had prepared for, and fought, the wrong type of war. Unfortunately, seven years later we continue spending on the RMA.

Defense contractors locate facilities (i.e., jobs) in the majority of congressional districts and donate generously to political campaigns. Members of Congress want to cut spending, but only in other members’ districts. Military procurement officials know that their career success is linked to the continued funding of the programs they oversee. In short, nobody in the political-military-industrial complex has a significant incentive to cut unneeded systems. The few individuals who courageously dissent find themselves voted out of office if a politician, their position made redundant if employed by industry, or their career dead ended if a defense department employee.

Trimming the waste in defense spending will actually enhance defense capability rather than limit it by making the Defense Department more nimble in responding to emergent requirements. Furthermore, the less the nation spends on defense, the less urgency some decision makers may feel to respond militarily to world events. Finally, money not spent on defense becomes available for other government purposes (or retained by taxpayers)

Saturday, May 12, 2012


A contemplative spirituality is a reflective spirituality, that is, a spirituality that emphasizes spending time thinking about one’s life, others, the cosmos, and ultimate reality. Contemplation connotes the active engagement of the mental faculty and is thus distinctive from meditation, which will be the subject of a future post.

One prerequisite for contemplation is regularly setting aside time for intentional reflection. Some Christians find the liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent with their traditional emphasis on self-examination especially appropriate for such reflection. Other people engage in a continuing program of contemplation.

The starting point for contemplation may be a program of spiritual exercises (e.g., those of Ignatius of Loyola, which the Jesuits still use, and in which the individual proceeds through a series of exercises imagining he/she is in Jesus’ presence, in conversation with Jesus, or enacting Jesus’ parables, progressively becoming more like Jesus). Alternatively, a walk in nature, another experience, a piece of art, music, or a written passage may provide the starting point for contemplation. Each individual is well advised to find the starting point that she/he finds most conducive for beginning a period of contemplation.

Contemplation requires time but does not need to be open-ended, e.g., a person may set aside ten to sixty minutes of quiet, uninterrupted time in a quiet environment. Some people like to bookend their contemplation by beginning and ending with a verbal prayer, spoken or silent, extemporaneous or written (such as the Collect for Guidance on p. 100 and Collects # 57 and 58 on p. 832 of the Book of Common Prayer).

At the end of the period of contemplation, time spent journaling or discussing the experience with a spiritual director may help to clarify thoughts and to identify directions for future sessions of contemplative prayer.

Of course, the temptation to identify certain experiences as experiences of God occurs frequently during contemplation. God is other and not reducible to words. Richard Holloway, the former Archbishop of the Scottish Episcopal Church, uses this story to illustrate the point:

I love the story about the composer who played his latest composition for a friend. When he finished there was a brief silence; then, uneasily, his friend asked: ‘What does it mean?’ The composer looked at him, said nothing, turned back to the piano – and played it again.

The story points up two important matters. The first is the way we tend to privilege words in the sphere of meaning, something the composer challenged by refusing to translate one form of expression - music, into another - language. [Follow the link for Holloway’s complete essay, “The Absence of God”]

Instead, the goal of contemplative prayer is much more limited: to discern the Spirit at work within one’s mental processes, both cognitive and affective. God lures (rather than coerces) people to move toward the light. Responding to God's luring may be accidental, perhaps even unintended. Contemplative prayer presumes that responding to God's luring may also be intentional, as one discerns the direction in which God is beckoning, inciting, or enticing one to move.

In a world full of busyness, unrelenting demands, and incessant electronic assaults, finding time for contemplation may be difficult; the time spend in contemplation may become in itself a gift from God as one’s appreciation for that which makes life precious (this includes life, love, beauty, knowledge, and perhaps more experienced in self, others, the world, and God) increases. Life abundant consists neither in the duration of life nor the quantity of one’s possessions or relationships but in the depth of one’s genuine existence. Contemplation is valuable because it offers many a path that leads to the depths.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Knowing God

Several Ethical Musings posts have addressed the question of what humans can know about God (e.g., Ethical Musings: Naturalism, atheism, and post-theism, Ethical Musings: The Tao and God, and Ethical Musings: In search of a deeper reality). I conclude that God is ultimately ineffable, i.e., unknowable by finite humans who necessarily rely on finite human language or who use abstract nouns such as God that lack a meaningful referent.

Instead of attempting to describe God's nature, we should seek to describe what God might have done in the world. The world’s major religions are unanimous in affirming the goodness of ultimate reality. Thus, when we observe life emerging from death, love, beauty, or other markers of goodness we perhaps concurrently discern a consequence or effect of God's presence in the world.

Is the ultimate (God) a cause, small or little, of that goodness?

Answering that question with anything but I don’t know requires a leap of faith. If God is truly the ineffable other, then nobody can prove that the correct answer is a positive or a negative reply.

The question pushes us to the mystery that underlies existence. Did the cosmos have a creator who remains actively involved with the cosmos?

Efforts to comprehend the resurrection of the Christ are similarly futile. Instead, the human knowledge of Christ's resurrection depends upon making a leap of faith that God caused the good consequences of whatever happened on the first Easter. Can one discern beauty, love, joy, or new life because of the celebration of the Christ's resurrection? If so, did God cause, at least in part, those good things to happen? (For another post on the resurrection, cf. Ethical Musings: Resurrection)

The old song, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love,” is equally true of God: “They’ll know God by what God does.” Indeed, that is the only way to know God.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Church does not exist to support the clergy

Is supporting their clergy the raison d’ĂȘtre that congregations exist?

In 2010, half of the 6,794 congregations in The Episcopal Church (TEC) had an average Sunday attendance (ASA) of 65 or fewer people; 58% of TEC congregations had fewer than 200 active, baptized members and only 15% have more than 500 active, baptized members. Nevertheless, TEC congregations generally want to have the services of a full-time, paid clergyperson.

(C. Kirk Hadaway, “Episcopal Congregations Overview: Findings from the 2008 Faith Communities Today Survey,” March 2009, available at

Having served small (ASA under 20) and large (ASA over 500) congregations, I find it impossible to imagine that small congregations (e.g., those with an ASA under 150 or fewer than 350 active baptized members) require the services of a full-time paid cleric.

The smallest congregation that I have served was a Royal Navy (RN) Church in London, England. Ministering to my active parishioners left me ample time to minister to the spiritual needs of my 2000 plus military parishioners and their families not active in the Church, to manage some local RN social service programs, and to design, obtain funding for, and oversee construction of, a new multi-purpose facility (church, pub, and theater). That experience confirmed the jaundiced suspicion with which I have long viewed the need for small congregations to have full-time paid clergy.

The bald truth is that small congregations spend a hugely disproportionate, even scandalous, percentage of their resources, especially financial resources, on clergy compensation. If the cleric receives a not very generous annual stipend of $50,000, healthcare insurance costing $12,000 and payments into the pension fund of $11,160, then the cleric’s total package costs the congregation $73,160. That represents 25 donors, each giving $2926 per year, or 50 donors, each giving $1463. To put those numbers in context, the average pledge in TEC today is approximately $1500. Thus, the 12% of congregations with an ASA of 25 or less who have full-time paid clergy either have exceptionally generous contributors or pay their bills from an endowment.

The Church does not exist to provide full-time employment for the clergy. The Church’s mission, broadly conceived by H. Richard Niebuhr, is the increase of the love of God and neighbor. As the author of I Timothy remarked, clergy, like all laborers, are rightly paid for their labor. However, clergy, like any laborer, should not expect full-time compensation for performing what are actually part-time duties.

Congregations and clergy share responsibility for this ugly form of clericalism. Few priests (or bishops or seminary faculty members!) question the prevailing ministry model with its strong presumption of at least one full-time paid cleric for every congregation. Their silence makes them complicit in sustaining a model that diverts resources from bringing new life to maintenance of the dying.

Similarly, few congregants vigorously, persistently, and effectively question congregational decision makers (bishop, clergy, vestry, bishop’s committee, wardens) whether the grossly skewed expenditure of funds on clergy compensation reflects the most prudential use of monies received as offerings to God. Our culture has a strongly normative belief that having a full-time, paid cleric on staff and owning a building are minimum essential hallmarks for a Christian congregation. In other words, this is not a problem unique to TEC.

Yet half of all Americans have incomes near or below the poverty level. Hunger in America is on the increase. And the plight of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world makes most of the poor in the U.S. seem wealthy. The percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians has declined from 86% in 1990 to 76% in 2009; during that same period, the percentage who identify as “no religious preference” has doubled. Is clergy compensation the best, the most prudential use of the gifts that God's people give?

If the Church does not exist to support the clergy, what can we do?

First, TEC and its clergy can establish a fuller, healthier mutual accountability for clergy and congregations. A relative handful of clergy who serve small congregations devote much of their time to managing mission endeavors the congregation sponsors. A smaller handful spend their time effectively growing the congregation (It’s true! TEC does have some small congregations that are growing numerically). Most underemployed clergy, however, lack the opportunity or skills for either of the foregoing. They, or perhaps their successor, should become bi-vocational, serve multiple congregations, or combine part-time in the small congregation with another part-time clergy position (e.g., chaplaincy, staff for an ecumenical group, diocesan staff, or assisting in a larger congregation). Regular and rigorously honest mutual ministry reviews that discuss how the clergy use their time represent an excellent opportunity to move toward institutionalizing a fuller, healthier accountability.

Second, TEC needs to make seminary education more affordable, so that graduates leave without debt. Consolidating our eleven seminaries is one possibility for achieving this (cf. A word on our seminaries: Consolidate!). Well-intentioned initiatives to provide clergy for small congregations that lower educational requirements risk creating an under-qualified, ill-equipped, second-rate set of clergy for small congregations. Leading a small congregation requires considerable expertise and as comprehensive a skill set as needed to lead a very large congregation. God's people deserve the best. TEC has no shortage of people who hear a call to ordination. Making seminary affordable represents a significant step toward solving TEC’s problem of a mal-distributed clergy, i.e., too many clergy need full-time salaries that too few congregations can, or should, pay.

Third, we can change our thinking about Church. The older form of clericalism identified ministry as the work of the clergy, isolated them on pedestals, and invested them with the responsibility of managing the Church (i.e., made them holy authority figures) is thankfully dying, a casualty of healthy changes in the last 50 years. The new form of clericalism tacitly presumes that the Church exists for the clergy, providing them full-time compensation in exchange for being a person of faith, saying the prayers others are too busy or too doubtful to say, and maintaining the Church. Sometimes the cleric literally maintains the building, arriving early to adjust the thermostat and to make coffee, and then leaving late, taking out the trash, and locking the doors after the last person has left. More often, the cleric is the lynchpin for ensuring the congregation’s organizational functionality.

Neither model of clericalism is faithful to the mutual ministry of all God's people. The four orders of ministry identify functional and not spiritual distinctions. Clergy bring certain gifts and authority to their ministry within a congregation, but those gifts and that authority (e.g., preaching and consecrating sacraments) are no better than the gifts and authority that lay people bring; indeed, without the gifts and authority of the laity, the Church reverts to the worst of the old form of clericalism.

If The Episcopal Church is to once again thrive as a vibrant, fully alive branch of the larger Church, then TEC congregations must cease existing to support their clergy and instead discover new patterns of mutual ministry to reach a world that is literally and spiritually hungry. The clergy’s raison d’ĂȘtre is to support the Church, not the other way around.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Metaethics - part 2

My preferred metaethical starting point is to gather data about human, and more broadly animal, behavior. Frans de Waal is a leading primate biologist who teaches at Emory University. In the embedded video, he presents the concept of reciprocal altruism that he observed in his primate studies.

Reciprocal altruism is congruent with the Golden Rule, a basic ethical principle taught by all of the world’s major religions. That congruence is unsurprising. If there is a god who created the cosmos (and I do believe that this creator exists), then this god would have concern for all humans, seek to be in relationship with all, and try to communicate the same guidance for flourishing to all.

Alternatively, reciprocal altruism does not presume or require God's existence. The path to flourishing is discoverable by observing life and understanding how other species, closely related to ours, have flourished.

In any case, reciprocal altruism is objective without claiming to be the ultimate truth, i.e., in time humans may develop even better understandings of behavior and the path to flourishing/happiness.

Reciprocal altruism is also universal, at least for humans and a number of other animal species. This connectivity emphasizes the interconnectedness of life and the dependence of human flourishing on the well-being of the earth, perhaps ultimately on the well-being of the cosmos.

Finally, reciprocal altruism is not an absolute principle but a heuristic for shaping behavior conducive to flourishing/happiness. That is, in a given moment or instance a selfish act may be more imperative than an act of reciprocal altruism, e.g., a mother putting on her own oxygen mask before putting on her baby’s mask in a depressurized plane is actually in the best interest of both mother and child.

The thematic thread of flourishing/happiness that runs throughout this analysis rests upon a bedrock observation: humans, like other animals, almost always choose life over a death. Exceptions are notable because they are exceptions, e.g., a parent sacrificing his/her life to save a child’s life or a person with a terminal disease, intense suffering, and very little quality of life choosing death instead of more suffering. As with the concept of reciprocal altruism, this theme coheres well with a Creator giving life but does not necessitate that belief.

In sum, right is generally that which promotes the flourishing/happiness of life. Reciprocal altruism describes the broad outlines of what is right, i.e., that which promotes the flourishing/happiness of life. One can derive the rest of ethics – whether virtues such as honesty or courage, how to resolve ethical dilemmas when forced to choose between two goods or two evils, etc. – from those two metaethical principles.

Tangentially, empathy – community, loving relationships – along with an innate desire to preserve life motivates people to engage in reciprocal altruism. This concept figured prominently in the video, but often receives little attention from ethicists. The continuing need to relieve U.S. Navy commanding officers for causes related to personal misconduct suggest the importance of cultivating empathy and of being in healthy, loving relationships and community.

Shifting the metaethical discussion from the realm of revelation makes discourse truly possible without precluding people for whom revelation is definitive from participating. Shifting the metaethical discussion from the supposed realm of pure reason acknowledges that human thinking is contingent upon experience and the thinker’s position within time/history.

Grounding metaethical discourse in observable behavior allows for revision as new data becomes available yet establishes a discourse that, for humans, is both universal and objective in the present.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Metaethics - part 1

A few weeks ago, a reader requested that I write a post on metaethics:

I would be interested in a post on metaethics; how we know what's right and wrong, and whether morality is objective or subjective, relative or universal.

Metaethics deals with, as the questions infer, the broad questions of how one knows right from wrong, the source of ethics, etc.

One set of metaethical answers points to revelation: God (of whatever identity or religion) spoke (through whatever media) and gave these principles or commands. Right consists of adhering to the principles or following the commands; wrong is doing otherwise. Generally, believers perceive these definitions of right and wrong to be objective and universal. Examples of this religious approach to metaethics include Islamic ethics and most Protestant Christian ethics. Jewish ethics also belong to this approach, with the caveat that only a handful of basic principles apply to all humanity; the rest of the principles or commands are only to Jews, though God may have given other principles or commands to other people.

Religious ethics are obviously problematic. First, not everybody believes in God; people who do believe in God frequently claim to believe in different gods. Second, revelation, no matter how vociferously or persuasively believers argue, is not objective, i.e., revelation is not susceptible to scientific proof. Third, not all religious ethics make universal claims, thus offering confusion rather than help to non-believers.

Another set of metaethical answers relies upon philosophical analysis. Famously, Immanuel Kant articulated the categorical imperative, which he believed he had identified relying only upon human reason and that is the only universal ethical principle. The categorical imperative (one of Kant’s three formulations of it is do only that which you would want everyone to do if in the same situation) bears a striking resemblance to the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do to you). The resemblance is not surprising. Kant was reared in a pietistic German Lutheran family. Is the resemblance correlative or causative?

More problematically, other philosophers have reached different metaethical conclusions. Some philosophers believe metaethics a dead end, hopelessly futile endeavor. Others have crafter very different metaethical principles. Perhaps best known and most directly challenging to Kant’s categorical imperative are the several versions of utilitarianism. In general, utilitarianism argues that right consists of doing that which will bring the most good or happiness to the greatest number of people.

Utilitarianism has a number of significant problems. First, who defines what the good is or happiness is? Second, how does one measure good/happiness and bad/unhappiness to make the utilitarian calculus? Third, utilitarianism can result in the majority exploiting the minority. For example, people without red hair might decide that global utility would be maximized by enslaving red haired people and having them do all of the unpleasant labor. Most utilitarian metaethical approaches seek to avoid this type of problem by defining good or happiness in such a way as to include universal human well-being. More recently, utilitarian metaethicists have further broadened the definitions to include the flourishing of all life. However, the definitions seem to compromise the utilitarian project of constructing a metaethical system solely based on calculating maximum utility.

Yet another metaethical approach begins by asking what constitutes the good life, i.e., identifying the characteristics essential for flourishing/happiness. Secular philosophers like Aristotle adopted this approach, as have Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas. My next post will develop this approach – known as virtue ethics – more fully.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Climate change and agriculture

As the video will clearly show, agriculture is the primary cause of climate change. The world’s population continues to grow; people have to eat to survive. What is the answer? Jonathan Foley, a renowned scientist, offers one suggestion.

In addition to appreciating the potential answers in Foley’s proposal, I appreciate that his analysis results from a careful analysis of the data and leads to constructive ideas. Too much public discourse, lacking one or both of those attributes, contributes little to human flourishing.