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Four theological and ethical musings on the current political campaign

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Here are four brief musings about the current political campaigns.First, honesty – truth telling – is the sine qua non for intelligible public discourse. Without honesty, discourse becomes mere prattling. Of course, thoughtful people change their thinking and opinions over time. Honest people acknowledge these changes.Dishonesty (i.e., lying) entails intentional deception. The intentionality may have its roots in the speaker not wanting to speak the truth, e.g., a spy lies to hide the spy’s espionage. Alternatively, the intentionality may have its roots in the speaker being too lazy to obtain facts, preferring to rely on preexisting biases.Honesty admits mistakes. Honesty in public discourse is also sufficiently broad to include misspeaking in the “heat of the moment.” Honesty similarly allows some degree of exaggeration to emphasize a point or message, without the exaggeration becoming an outright lie. In both cases, the intent to deceive is arguably absent.Honesty is lacking in many…

Sing to the Lord a new song

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Honolulu is in the midst of its second lockdown / stay at home order. The mayor and state governor gradually lifted the first order when the number of new cases reported per day hovered near zero. They imposed the second order when the number of new cases reported daily spiked to 300 and remained in that range.In the interim between the two orders people were still directed to practice social distancing, wear masks, and wash or sanitize their hands frequently. Restaurants had to have at least six feet between tables, gatherings of more than ten people were prohibited, etc. Unfortunately, people wearied of loving their neighbors.After six months of pandemic driven restrictions on heretofore normal patterns of social interaction, I occasionally note that the failure of people in movies or on TV to practice those protocols feels odd to me, as though life has somehow become disjointed. Then I remind myself that what I’m watching was filmed pre-pandemic.These experiences have prompted two …

Black Lives Matter: Ending systemic racism

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Is prayer efficacious?

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My friend who inquired about God also had questions about prayer.Discussions of prayer often founder from a lack of definitional clarity. “Prayer” denotes intentional efforts to interact with God, God imagined in terms of light, energy, ultimate reality, etc. (cf. the recent Ethical Musings’ post, Musings about God). Prayer, therefore, may take the form of meditation, contemplation, oral statements or thoughts (e.g., the Lord's Prayer or extemporaneous words), and actions meant to express love for God or others (e.g., participating in rituals such as Holy Communion, feeding the hungry, and embracing the hurting). All of these varied activities may afford opportunity to increase one’s awareness of God's abiding presence.Prayer can be efficacious in three ways.Frist, prayer touches the person praying. Prayer may turn the attention of the one praying toward God, thereby potentially increasing the person’s openness to correctly sensing God's nudging or luring. The openness may…

Musings about God

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Painting of God in the  Sistine Chapel at the Vatican An Ethical Musings’ reader has asked me to elucidate my understanding / definition of God. She cited a statement in a recent Ethical Musings post as an example of how I understand or define God: “God (the energy, light, love, etc., which permeates all existence).” In her email she also quoted another cleric’s definition of God as “Ultimate Reality,” a phrasing that I sometimes use.She finds those definitions overly vague. She’s also troubled by frequently hearing sermons that suggest God is someone who "loves us", "cares", etc. She wonders how energy, light, or ultimate reality can "love" or "care"? She’s also concerned that characterizing God's actions as loving or caring anthropomorphize God, i.e., attribute human traits or characteristics to God, perhaps most infamously imagining God as a big old man perched on a cloud.Answering her questions requires disentangling several theological is…

Covid-19 battle fatigue

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The diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disease (PTSD) in the military began with pre-twentieth century militaries executing soldiers who suffered from PTSD as deserters. In World War I, the terminology gradually shifted to “shell shock.” In World War II, Sir Charles Moran, Winston Churchill’s military physician proposed individuals had a supply of courage that, once exhausted, left a soldier psychologically incapacitated. By the end of WWII, the U.S. Army concluded:The army’s experience with psychoneurosis during the war had led it to two sobering conclusions. The first was that even the most psychologically healthy men would almost inevitably break down after long-term exposure to the horrors of modern battle. An investigation by the army’s surgeon general’s office in 1945 concluded that six months of continuous fighting was the maximum that even the “sturdiest and most stable soldier” could endure without breaking. That is, the process of psychological breakdown was actually a norma…

Seeking beauty in hard times

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A friend, Ray Woo, took this photo from his apartment in the Honolulu building in which we both live. The view is of the Pacific at sunset the night before hurricane Douglas was forecast to strike Oahu. Thankfully, Douglas turned north and veered into open ocean. The beauty of the sunset, however, is striking.Had Douglas struck Oahu, the sunset’s beauty would in no way diminish or justify the harm the winds and rain would have caused. The Bible encourages people to seek the good that may come out of bad things. Yet the Bible never suggests or implies that the good in any way justifies the bad from which the good emerged.Similarly, suggesting that Covid-19 represents God's judgement on certain people, beliefs, or practices shows incredible hubris and terribly distorts who God is. God, in all of the world’s major religious traditions, is good and loving. God never wills bad things for creation nor increases the bad that exists. Metaphysical answers to the perennial question of “Why?…

Physical distancing

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Ujamaa tree of lifeThe “Tree of Life” or “Ujamma” a Makonde term, is carved directly from the ebony wood tree in Tanzania. The outer, original tree bark is sometimes left intact to highlight the work. In general, the tree displays how a typical African village survives by working with nature and by each man supporting one another. The figures: animals, men, women, children, huts, and trees are carved with great detail and vary from tree to tree. The work is exceptional despite the fact that ebony wood is exceedingly dense and very, very hard to carve. Certain trees exhibit a variance in color from light to dark wood which is very attractive. With the ebony tree the further you go from the center core the lighter the wood becomes. These sculptures vary in height from 1 foot to over 6 feet tall. (Photo compliments of Kathleen Norris; text accessed July 18, 2020 at http://www.tanzanianfineart.com/shop/african-carvings-tree-of-life-wide/)The Ujamaa tree of life vividly depicts our human i…

Tribalism and Jesus' parable of the sower

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Tribal conflicts characterize contemporary American life. People identify by gender or gender orientation, ethnicity or race, economic strata, by political preference or orientation, and so forth. They then reject or treat as second-rate people from other tribes.Tribal identification and conflict are not new. The Bible's oldest portions are full of tribal conflicts. For example:·Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, competed in a conflict that continues today in the enmity between some Jews and some Muslims[1]·Abraham’s grandsons and Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau, about whom we heard in this morning’s reading from Genesis, two tribes first identified with Israel and Edom,[2] later identified with the conflict between urban and rural, a conflict that continues today[3]·The conflict between the ten northern and two southern tribes of nation of Israel that began when Solomon died, a conflict that first manifested itself in wars between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, then morphed i…

Facemasks

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Facemasks are becoming ubiquitous as people try to avoid catching Covid-19. As anyone who has worn a facemask quickly discovers, the mask traps many of the moist aerosol particles exhaled with every breath. Wearing a non-medical mask may do little to protect the wearer, but offers some measure of protection to persons around the wearer. The more people who wear masks, the more mask wearing is an example of reciprocal altruism in action: I act, not knowing who I may help, trusting others, usually persons unknown to me, to protect me by wearing a mask.Facemasks do hide much of a person’s face, unavoidably diminishing non-verbal communication.Facemasks also seem to diminish whatever propensity people may have to greet verbally persons they pass or see. It is as if wearing a mask creates not only a degree of anonymity but also a barrier that discourages saying hello and other incidental, verbal communication with strangers. This barrier probably represents a lack of trust, a wariness, tow…

Allowing the ordinary to become extraordinary

In her Pulitzer prize winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard wrote about moments of arresting beauty. She remarked to an interviewer, “Consider the lilies of the field” is the only commandment she never broke. “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can do is try to be there . . . so that creation need not play to an empty house.”[1]

However, Dillard also observed and recorded surprising pain. One memorable moment was watching “a small green frog floating on the surface of a pond until suddenly it transmogrifies before her, its skull collapsing inward ‘like a kicked tent,’ its body ‘shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football.’” A giant water beetle had villainously punctured the frog’s belly, poisoned the frog and then sucked out its innards.[2]

Even when we spend time in nature’s theater, discerning the sacred in nature, post-Darwin, is no simple task. Evolution’s dependence on the survival of the fittest has permanently …

Leadership in a time of crises

Current U.S. crises – the Covid-19 pandemic, endemic racism, burgeoning economic inequality, a looming recession (or even a depression) and a president who appears to prefer tyranny instead of democracy – offer a once in a generation for change. We need leaders who envision what might be rather than attempting to preserve the badly broken and immoral what is.Distress in the U.S. is palpable, caused by 100,000 plus deaths, the murder of unarmed black men and imprisonment of almost 20% of black men under 30 years of age, a 1% whose wealth exceeds the combined wealth of the bottom 80%, unemployment at about 20% and growing, and a president who prefers dictators to democratically elected leaders, militarism to lawful protest, and loyalty to himself over truth and a free press.The current distress offers a unique opportunity for systemic, adaptive change. A national healthcare system would cost less while more effectively prioritizing well-being than does the current broken, exclusionary h…

In praise of simplicity

A tourist stops at the home of the great Rabbi. Since the Rabbi has such a world-renowned reputation the visitor expects to see a great home filled with valuable treasures.; However, he is shocked when he sees a bare home with almost nothing in it. “Where are your possessions?” he asks in astonishment.

The Rabbi responds, “Where are yours?”

“What kind of question is that?” the tourist responded. “I’m a visitor here.”

“I am too,” the Rabbi replied.

Long before Marie Kondo, nineteenth century designer and supporter of the arts and crafts movement William Morris advocated, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”[1] Or, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity."

Stay at home orders in response to the Covid-19 pandemic have prompted many people to act on advice. Some are sorting through their possessions, looking at items unused and perhaps unseen f…

Science, morality and the pandemic

Right now, science and the humanities should be in lock step: science producing vaccines, with the humanities stocking leaders and citizens with the capacities of resilience, care and collaboration until they come. But, instead, the humanities are in crisis at the exact moment history is revealing how vital moral formation really is.David Brooks, “If We Had a Real Leader,” New York Times, May 28, 2020

Living daily with suspicion

Response to the Covid-19 pandemic has promoted a culture of suspicion. Who or what might transmit the virus to me? Do I have the virus? Who is the person behind the face mask? What is their facial expression in this moment?

Requiring masks have highlighted a couple of ironies. First, in most locations, patrons do not have to wear a mask when in a bank. Authorities fear that masks may confuse bank personnel about who is and is not a bank robber. Second, in countries like France, that prohibit individuals from wearing facial coverings for religious reasons (primarily niqabs by Muslim women), authorities now struggle with whether to mandate face coverings as a means of preventing Covid-19 from spreading. The prevalence of face masks, including my wearing one, has given me a personal understanding of the pros and cons of wearing a niqab, and I have found no advantage apart from health concerns for wearing a face mask.

Twentieth century liberation theologians introduced a hermeneutic of s…