Wednesday, July 27, 2005


Letters July 05

"BabyBrother" writes: "What is God? Is God a who? God exists, just read the Bible, is a circular argument. Anyone who takes the entire book literally hasn't done their homework. I think, therefore I am, makes as much sense.I fail to see anything intelligent in either statement. "

He raises profound questions.

We do not believe in God because of empty, circular arguments from authority. Neither do we feel God can be encompassed or understood completely by humans.

Whenever God appears as a character in a story, as in the Bible, at best we glimpse fragments of divinity. Fragments, being less than whole, are in a sense false. We do not know, cannot answer with any precision, the questions raised by BabyBrother.

We choose to believe in God because we need God, we need faith. Hope springs from faith; life without hope is hardly worth living. Indeed, hope keeps people alive who, by rights, should be dead. Life without faith is like living in a cave or a dark cell; life with hope is life embraced, lived in the open sun and air.

It is difficult to imagine that God needs us to believe in Him, or that He needs us to worship Him, or that He needs anything from us. But we see the difference believing and worshiping makes in our own lives, and we choose to believe.

There is, of course, much more to theology than the above; but this is just one man's short response to the question of who and what is God.

P.S. - Thanks for the kind words, Minerva21.

Saturday, July 23, 2005


Engagement or Tolerance?

Pluralism receives significant attention as a pre-eminent value in today's multicultural, multi-ethnic societies. But what does it mean for a society to embrace pluralism as a value; mere tolerance of immigrants or engagement with the exiles in our midst?

This question must arise in London as they ponder the meaning of the subway bombings. But the question pertains to any of the great cities of the world with a significant population of immigrants.

Of course, something else to ponder - home grown suicide bombers are almost always young men, and not just any young men, but adherents to Islam. So the problem is, how do we engage them? Can they be engaged?

We tolerate the alien in our midst, we welcome limited numbers of immigrants, but we ignore them at our peril. Passive tolerance, the historic pattern of pluralism, allows the breeding of all-consuming, soul destroying hatred. The foreigners who sojourn in our cities but cannot assimilate will not suffer indifference forever. If we fail to reach out, fail to engage, fail to pay attention, they will strike at us. If they are not loved or at least accepted, then they will be hated and feared.

Three of the first group of London bombers traveled to Pakistan for religious instruction. We speculate that the commitment to being used as terror weapons occurred there, in the land where Osama bin Laden eludes capture.

If engagement with these angry young men is to happen, it must happen before they become weapons. We must reach them and school them in the essentials needed to live together peacefully in the small, increasingly crowded cities.

The following essentials admit to ready agreement, at least in theory: mutual respect; value of diversity; open mindedness; trust in the fair market of ideas; seeking common ground; democratic government.

But what if the exiles in our midst do not subscribe to the essentials of a civil society? What if they believe, they know their religion teaches them democratic ideals subvert the rule of God? What if their response to civil society is fear and loathing? How can we reach them?

Once they've gone off to Pakistan, we can't reach them. It's too late. We must instill these values earlier, much earlier.

Obviously, a program of public education of schoolchildren would reach most of these people early as possible. Private education, while not prohibited, must be required to adhere to certain minimum standards vital to getting the message across. Classes in history and civics are generally required of any recognized educational institution. These curricula need emphasis and added scrutiny.

Private education in religious schools must be tolerated, but to receive recognition as educational institutions, these private schools must succeed at transmitting those values essential to the continuity of civil society. Recognition must be a pre-requisite for the students to receive any type of public support, as is done with Social Security benefits today. Admission to higher education must require graduation from a recognized institution.

The difficulties we face perplex even the most subtle minds. The transmission of values lends itself to abuse - which values, whose notions of good and evil should be taught?

The founder of Western Philosophy, Socrates, was condemned to death by the polity for "corrupting the youth." The problem remains part of the human condition. But technology confers new powers on those corrupted youths - the power to bring a city of ten million people to a halt.

We can engage young minds if we open ourselves to being engaged. We, as a culture, must learn their language, their hopes and dreams and aspirations. We welcome what we can into the fabric of our own society; but we spit out what cannot be accepted. To learn, we humbly accept the fact of our ignorance, but we do not tolerate the indefinite continuation of that ignorance.

We cannot educate youth in Pakistan or Sudan to the ways of a civil society. But we can do so for our own children, even the exiles and aliens in our midst. And we must.

Friday, July 15, 2005


Holy Text

"Words are holy" writes Bill Tammeus in a recent column.

Every writer thinks about words. Every writer wants maximum impact from his words. But are words really "holy?"

Most people would agree that at least some words are. Disagreement abounds, however, as to which texts to accept as scripture - and which to reject.

But Tammeus does not mean "words are holy" in this way. He means it "metaphorically."

"I am the word" said Jesus. "In the beginning was the word..." Says John. Tammeus points to the Christian scripture and what it says about words.

Of course, "Jesus" is a word, a name; but also so much more than that. When He says he is "the word" He also speaks metaphorically. We cannot reduce him to merely "the word."

Words are themselves metaphors. They stand in place of things and ideas. Any thinking child knows that.

But all too often, adults make the mistake of taking the word for the thing.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him." John 1:1-3.

If we take the Bible literally, what are we to make of this? We cannot reduce God to mere words.

As writer Stephen Mitchell says, "Whenever God is presented as a character, that presentation is partial, and therefore false. Ultimately, God is not a character in a story. God is the whole story."

Words matter. Words, inadequate symbols poorly representing concepts, remain the prime tool of understanding. To express oneself clearly requires understanding. Through understanding, we can push back the frontiers of ignorance.

These words, written today, feel like solopistic soliloquies. But even if no one should stumble across them and go "Huh!" the rewards justify the effort.

p.s. -- Bill Tammeus will speak at St Paul's United Methodist Church in Lenexa, KS, at a date to be announced. (Postponed). He writes a weekly faith column for the Kansas City Star.

Friday, July 08, 2005


The Opposite of Dialog

Osama spoke to us in London. He spoke the ancient, familiar language of hate, death and destruction.

He wants no dialog with us, no conversation, no discourse. In his mind and the minds of his followers, they know enough about us. They understand us well enough.

He speaks the language of arrogant, angry self-righteousness, of piety and rigid adherence to a narrow, simple-minded view of his faith. A language we hear too often in our own country.

The Hebrew Bible, what we used to call the "Old Testament," contains stories of the slaughter of innocents. Stories in which our spiritual ancestors killed every man, woman, child and animal in a village. But even in ancient times, they had the law of Moses, "Thou shalt not murder."

Jesus taught that we should love one another as we love ourselves. We Christians (as least some of us) struggle with the morals of war. But even those who believe in just war reject the killing of innocents as a violation of moral law. This has been our understanding for over a thousand years.

Surely our faith is strong enough, the truth is powerful enough, to prosper in the face of challenges. Surely we are smart enough to grow even as we seek more knowledge, better understanding, and a more sophisticated philosophy.

A narrow, restricted, and unexamined faith leads to dividing the world into saints (people like us) and sinners (people we disagree with). Viewing the world in these black and white terms leads quickly to self-righteousness. What we too often fail to understand that angry, self-righteous contempt for others leads to the path of hatred. Leads to the path of violence. Leads to Osama's path.

Thursday, July 07, 2005


Letter to Kansas Legislators

I returned from vacation to find the state of Kansas public education worse than ever. Below is the text of an e-mail I sent to several legislators. Oddly enough, at least 12 of them had turned off their e-mail. I have since received several sketchy e-mails from many of them, assuring me they voted for funding and omitting any references to the Constitutional amendment they attempted to pass.

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen:

The failure of the legislature to adequately fund public schools can only be interpreted as an attack on our system of public education.

The legislature should not need to be reminded that public schools, but not private schools, serve the democratic ideals of this nation. The great leaders of our past knew that a public system would provide for an educated citizenry, which they regarded as essential to the proper functioning of a democracy. A public system also helps to knit together people of many different backgrounds into one culture, one way of life, the American way.

The failure of the legislature to fund schools as provided by the state constitution slaps the faces of our founding fathers. Moreover, it feeds the paranoia of people who believe the Republican party is bent on dismantling all government services not related to defense. But worst of all, it hurts the children.

Those same children will be the doctors and nurses who will care for the current members of the legislature in their old age. You may think they will be glad of an extended summer vacation. But when they are grown, and realize the true costs of your mistakes, they might resent your inability to resolve this crises. They may wonder why you sacrificed the future for short term political gain.

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