Showing posts from June, 2016

Jesus and the BREXIT

Since Great Britain voted last week to exit the European Union (BREXIT, as it is popularly known), I've pondered what Jesus might have to say about the vote if he were still among us as an itinerant rabbi. My thoughts have coalesced around two themes. First, I think Jesus would have great concern for the people whose anger, feelings of exclusion from both economic progress and political power, and sense of being overwhelmed by uncontrollable tidal waves of immigrants motivated them to vote against remaining in the European Union. Voters with some subset (or even all) of those feelings are not unique to the United Kingdom. In the United Sates, for example, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders apparently garnered a majority of their support from voters with similar feelings. The unprecedented numbers of immigrants across Europe and in the US are irreversibly altering community landscapes. Illustratively, some people are discomfited when they hear pedestrians, customers, business empl

The new face of Christianity

From the mid-fourth century until the sixteenth century, Baptism defined the Christian faith. An individual's religious and civic identities were indistinguishable. Everyone who resided in a geographic area belonged to the same faith, that is, the same branch of Christianity. This ended with the Protestant Reformation's emphasis on doctrine. The meaning of the word faith shifted from denoting the community's religion to denoting belief in a set of theological ideas. Anglican's version of this approach to faith is the "Articles of Religion," found on pp. 867-876 of the Book of Common Prayer in a section devoted to historical documents. Christianity is now experiencing another sea change. Pastor and author Brian McLaren has identified three aspects of this change. First, Christians are jettisoning the image of God as judge and embracing an image of God as the renewing Spirit who works for the common good. Second, growing numbers of Christians define faith no

The spirituality of summer

Summers invite me to inhabit a different type of spirituality in four important ways. First, summers invite a fuller engagement with nature. I live in a major city by choice, enjoying its urban vibe and pedestrian lifestyle. Spending time in nature, however, has remained an integral aspect of my life and spirituality since my childhood in Maine. I appreciate natural theology, resonating deeply nature's capacity to reveal much about God. My education and reading have identified some of natural theology's limits, but I still find nature an important spiritual and theological resource. With age, Maine's rugged beauty, cold weather, and snow are less inviting. Consequently, one of the aspects of living in Hawaii that I most enjoy is the year-round summer-like weather. Warm sunshine watered by an occasional light mist encourages me to spend lots of time outdoors and to leave windows open. My apartment has expansive views of the Pacific Ocean, palm lined sandy beaches, v

Thoughts on initiation into the Christian community

Toward the end of his biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, Christoph Wolff tells a wonderful anecdote about Mozart's first encounter with Bach's music. Thirty-nine years after Bach's death, at age thirty-three, Mozart visited the St. Thomas School in Leipzig and listened to a performance of one of Bach's motets. After a few measures, Mozart sat up, startled; at the close of the performance, he cried out, "This is music one can learn from!" [1] Many people attend worship hoping to learn about God, or, more commonly, to hear a word from God. In that respect, these persons resemble Elijah in the cave on Horeb, the mount of God. Elijah, in spite of defeating the prophets of Baal, was overwhelmed with despair and convinced that the whole world was against him. So he fled to the cave where he expected that he would die. Instead, Elijah had a powerful experience of God speaking to him that transformed his life and provided generations with a paradigm to understand

Mass murder in Orlando

The recent mass murder at a gay nightclub in Orlando has prompted four musings. First, the shooters in both the Orlando and the San Bernardino attacks apparently fully complied with Federal firearms laws when the attackers purchased the weapons used in those attacks. This is not an argument against background checks and other requirements. Instead, this observation points to the inadequacy of present laws to keep people safe. Second, the shooter in Orlando, like the shooters in San Bernardino, appears to have had no links to any terror group, domestic or foreign. As I have previously argued in Ethical Musings, considering all mass murder as terrorism unhelpfully conflates two different types of crime. Tightening immigration policies would not have prevented the Orlando attack. Third, the ultimate path to a safer society consists of promoting respect for the dignity and worth of all persons. Laws that encourage divisiveness (e.g., laws in North Carolina about who can use which pu

An unfinished story

This morning's gospel reading is a dramatic story that invites its hearers and readers to participate. [1] We can imagine ourselves in the audience watching a play or as one of the dinner guests. However, most hearers identify, consciously or unconsciously, with either the Pharisee, who occupies a position near the apex of social acceptability, or the prostitute, who was among the least socially acceptable. Three elements of the plot deserve our attention. First, Jesus welcomed both the Pharisee and the prostitute. Pharisees were Jews who strictly interpreted the Torah's 613 commandments. Moreover, the Pharisees "fenced" those commandments, that is, they imposed additional restrictions on their behavior to avoid unintentionally failing to observe part of the law. These additional restrictions eventually became the oral Torah, the Halacha. Illustratively, the Torah instructed Jews not to work on the Sabbath. The Halacha enumerated the actions that were and were not

Belief required

Occasionally I will meet a person assiduously devoted to the scientific method of positing a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis' veracity, and then modifying the hypothesis as warranted before initiating a new round of testing. More than one such individual has maintained that s/he seeks to live strictly on the basis of fact, assiduously striving to eradicate all unsupported beliefs from her/his life. Claims that a person can navigate life's major decisions without beliefs seem fatuous to me. For example, should one marry? If so, whom should one choose as her/his spouse? Although social scientists are beginning to accumulate some data about the attributes of what will make for a healthy, happy marriage, the research is far from adequate for preparing anyone to analyze possible life partners and then to decide who will make the best spouse. A person necessarily plunges into the deep, uncertain waters of marriage hopeful but with no guarantee of success. Similarly, what

Learning to discern God at work in our lives

An Irish folktale recounts the story of a poor widow who sold her soul to the Devil for the money to raise her children. With the money the devil gave her, the widow educated her children. The eldest son became a priest. The second son became a doctor. And the daughter became a lawyer. Many years passed, and the Devil returned to collect the old widow’s soul. The priest pleaded for his mother’s life, and the Devil granted her one more year. When the Devil returned the next year, the doctor pleaded for his mother’s life, and the Devil granted her one more year. The following year, when the Devil returned, the lawyer asked that their mother be allowed to live until the candle by her bedside burned away. The Devil readily agreed. Then the lawyer walked over, blew out the candle, and pocketed it. Since the candle would never burn away, the Devil never got the mother's soul. [1] Although separated by a thousand years and living in rather different cultures, the widow of Zarephath abo

Responding to a reader's question about free will

An Ethical Musings' reader sent me this link ( ) to an article in The Atlantic. The article's author argues that humans do not have free will. He then asked for my opinion on the article. In response, I provided the reflections below. First, reductionist anthropologies, in my estimation, fail to explain the novelty humans repeatedly introduce. Inventions, advances in science and other disciplines, and much more do require hard work but appear to be more than chance outcomes generated by brain activity that, if we had sufficient knowledge, could be completely explained in terms of chemistry, physics, etc. Second, brain activity apparently precedes conscious thought, according to research and as the article argues. However, that research does not seem to exclude the possibility that the potential to introduce novelty into the world results from emergent properties of the brain.