Counting the cost, climate change, and carbon fees (Part 1 of 2)

Record breaking global temperatures for 2015 as reported by NASA. Source: http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-noaa-analyses-reveal-record-shattering-global-warm-temperatures-in-2015

Record breaking global temperatures for 2015 as reported by NASA. Source: http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-noaa-analyses-reveal-record-shattering-global-warm-temperatures-in-2015

In this 2-part post, I’ll give some background and reflection on one of Jesus’ parables and in the next post I’ll tie it in to the topic of climate change.

Jesus told a parable about counting the cost:

A king is thinking about going to war with another country. You better bet the king will send some scouts or spies to figure out how big the other army is. Do his forces even have a chance? If not, the costs are far too high and he’d be foolish to wage war.

A builder wants to build a tower. A competent builder would sit down and figure out how much it costs to build the tower, and only build it if he can afford it. Otherwise, the builder will run out of money, the tower will only be partially built, and people will see it and laugh.

Counting the cost is simply good common sense. It helps you make good decisions.

Without counting the cost you might honestly not know how to choose between 2 options. If you’re already leaning toward the bad option and you don’t count the cost, you’ll probably pick the wrong choice!

Being a follower of Jesus back during his day wasn’t easy. He had an alternative view of how human relations should work, one based on love, forgiveness, and justice. He used an analogy of a godly kingdom founded on these values, one that was blasphemous to the actual kingdoms of his day because those kingdoms were founded (partly? mostly?) on power and oppression. Even more, kings justified their power and authority by claiming it was from God. As a result, they couldn’t stomach any competing kingdom or authority within their own kingdom. Jesus’ view of a godly kingdom was also blasphemous to those who insisted that religious rules were more important than love, or who coveted their religious leadership mainly because of the power it gave them over others.

The movement Jesus started was difficult, and dangerous. Friends might stop being your friend. Family might disown you. Religious or state authorities might kill or imprison you.

But there were also perks: a new way of life, a deep sense of peace and purpose, and forging bonds of friendship and new family deeper than blood.

Today, Christianity is generally an accepted part of our culture. It’s often associated with privilege, respect, or power. I personally believe that institutional Christianity has forgotten, ignores, or explains away many of the deepest, most profound, and most difficult of Jesus’ teachings, especially those on power, violence, justice, and self-giving love.

But getting back to Jesus’ time and the original context of the parable, counting the costs of discipleship.  Being aware of the costs – acknowledging and facing them – was actually better than ignoring them. By counting the cost in advance, a potential follower of Jesus could decide if the path was really worth it. When or if suffering came later on they would be ready and could accept it.

Stay tuned for next time, when I apply this to our current challenge of climate change and weaning ourselves from fossil fuels.

The Man of Steel and the Man of Love

Note: I wrote this in early fall and tried to submit it to the Huffington Post, but to no avail. 

If the flag wasn't enough, the 7-11 behind Superman really makes this patriotic!

If the flag wasn’t enough, the 7-11 behind Superman really makes this patriotic!

This summer’s movie, The Man of Steel, deeply and beautifully focused on Clark Kent’s (Superman’s) struggles and moral development. Christian pastors were invited to free advance screenings and were provided with sermon notes titled “Jesus as the First Superhero”. Was Jesus like an American superhero? Did he endorse violence as a way to fight evil and bring about righteousness?

The Man of Steel and Jesus, the Man of Love, are not the same. Instead of Superman, Jonathan Kent (Clark or Superman’s father) was actually the Jesus figure, and Superman’s task was to deeply learn and embody his father’s spirit.

Accordingly, the Christian Church is like Superman not because it’s the hero that saved the day but because its most fundamental task is to deeply learn, imbibe, and embody Jesus’ spirit. The Superman of this movie did a much better job of it than the Christian Church as a whole.

Clark was different, so he was bullied as a young child. His x-ray vision and super hearing led to panic attacks and he’d run out of class desperately searching for peace from his overwhelming senses. He seemed weak, especially because Jonathan taught him never to fight back. As Clark got older, Jonathan emphasized that how he responded to the hatred, fear, and arrogance of others was his choice and would determine what kind of a man he would grow up to be.

Jonathan was real with Clark about the difficulties of nonviolence. He wanted the bullies to get what was coming to them but knew this was a dangerous path for anyone and especially for Clark. When those with overwhelming power retaliate, it only creates more fear, mistrust, and alienation. Clark would never gain the trust and admiration of humanity this way.

Jesus’ disciples also struggled with issues of violence, retributive justice, and power. They (and their culture) expected the Messiah to be a king who would inflict vengeance upon Israel’s enemies. They wanted Jesus to zap people who failed to show them hospitality and to defend Jesus with the sword. Peter couldn’t bear to have his feet washed by Jesus because he so strongly thought only servants should wash their master’s feet and not vice versa. Jesus rebuked the disciples each time.

Jesus represented a different relationship to power, violence, and status; he likened his way to a narrow gate that few enter but leads to life. The gate that leads to destruction (violence, control, and power over others) is a wide gate that many enter (Matt. 7:13-14).

In the movie, Jonathan risked his life to help others during a tornado. He knew it was dangerous but felt the risk of Clark revealing his powers was too great. Jonathan saved the people but died in the process, teaching Clark what love looks like and that true strength comes from within.

Jesus also seemed to think that his best hope of getting through to the disciples – of showing them once and for all who he was and what he stood for – was to accept his death at the hands of the religious and political authorities. His death would shock them out of their old ways of thinking, making room for a new Spirit to thrive within them. For a few centuries Christianity held on to the spirit of Jesus, represented a radically different way of life based on love, and refused to take part in violence.

Although there’s been a push to equate Jesus and Superman, the movie provides a much stronger case for Jonathan as Jesus, with Superman being similar to Christianity because they share the fundamental task of becoming like Jonathan or Jesus.

Nonviolence and kicking some alien butt
Kryptonians – people from Clark’s planet – arrived at Earth and wanted vengeance on Clark for the past actions of his parents. They broke their promise to spare humanity if Clark turned himself over. Clark, now Superman, fought back and killed the Kryptonian leader with his own hands.

To create the violent plot and justify the massive destruction caused by Superman (his fighting leveled several towns), the Kryptonians had to be portrayed as purely evil, possessing no conscience, and having technology that could quickly and easily wipe out the human race. It reminds me of how war is often framed and justified in public debate…

Superman was nonviolent toward humanity and turned to violence only as a last resort against genocidal invading aliens: a far-fetched occurrence. What would the world be like if Christianity was committed to justice and righteousness based on nonviolence?

Superman’s real strength was reflected in his refusal to retaliate against the arrogance and evil inside humanity. He had imbibed his father’s vision to be a beacon of hope and light. Without this, he could never win the hearts and minds of the whole human race.

Nonviolence and its foundation, radical love, at first make us weak but invite us into the knowledge and experience of a power that gives us strength, passion, purpose, and hope even in the midst of suffering.

Moral training and spiritual practices fuel and nourish us. Deep reflection and contemplation of the life, teaching, and spirit of Jesus is one such practice. Gandhi studied the New Testament daily and was further transformed by Jesus’ love, spirituality, and power despite (or because of?) his rejection of dogmatic Christianity.

Jesus told a parable of two sons that should challenge the traditional dogma of salvation for Christians alone. A father told his two sons to work in his vineyard. The first said yes, but didn’t do it. The second said no, but changed his mind and worked. Jesus used this parable to point out that the religious leaders – those who said the right things and acted righteous – were actually far less righteous than the tax collectors and prostitutes they considered outcasts (Matt. 21:28-32). Gandhi was like the second son because he rejected Christian doctrine but imbibed and lived out the radical love of Jesus.

Jesus also told a parable in which he is the vine and the disciples are the branches drawing life and energy from him. He warns them that if they aren’t truly attached to the vine they “cannot bear fruit” and “cannot do anything” (John 15) – essentially that they would make a mess of the world, as Christianity has often done.

We can still embrace the worldview of a cosmic battle of good versus evil so prevalent in human cultures and religions, but we have to fight in a way that’s pure and increases the goodness in the world. Nonviolence is good, life-giving, and with discipline and creativity it’s practical. In this way, we can all see Jesus as a savior of the world.

Engineers With Appetites!


giant-hamburger-585x443

You’ve gotta love pictures of giant food like this, or maybe it’s just a guy thing – I don’t know!  This Thursday I’ll be the keynote speaker (vigorous applause) for an event called Engineers With Appetites, a fancy-shmancy fundraiser dinner for my school’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB) club.  I relish (!) the opportunity to practice my speaking skills, gush about how awesome the EWB undergrads are (I truly am impressed by their passion for service and their joyfulness), and also offer the challenge to never let their appetites diminish…..their appetite for alleviating poverty and for justice, that is.  I want to see scientists and engineers extend a systems thinking approach beyond engineering into the complicated world we live in.

I love that the theme of the event is already focused around the word appetite – such a basic, fundamental, joyful, and even primitive word that can stand for anything we crave or are passionate about in addition to the food we need to survive.  I especially enjoy making parallels with Jesus’ words about hungering for righteousness and thirsting for justice.  The official invitation contains the quote “Quench your appetite to change the world”, so this fits right in.  This type of language is a way to talk about something in a very accessible, human way that touches something everyone knows, but it doesn’t require any religiosity!  Interesting that Jesus mostly used very practical, down-to-earth parables and stories that anyone in his day could directly relate to.  (Many of them also upset common prejudices and biases).  So I don’t have to mention Jesus or quote the bible at all.  This makes it more accessible and eliminates any baggage a more religious approach could bring. The message behind Jesus’ words are beautiful, universal, and good – and that’s the most important part.  Who cares if it’s in the Bible, the Koran, or if it’s just some guy named Ethan talking about a vigorous appetite for justice as long as it’s true and good and beautiful.

Here’s what the invitation looks like, and I’ll post my speech and let you know how it goes.  It’s been a crazy week so I’ve gotten behind…didn’t post on Easter (felt an obligation there for sure!) and haven’t done my next planned post.  But whatever.  I figure I’m a little crazy for trying to write a book, find a publisher, etc. while doing my Ph.D.  But I will just chug along and do what I can when I can.  No need to stress myself out about an imaginary blogging deadline, although I hope people will eventually demand more from me when I’m being slow!

So I hope this post whets your appetite for a little more!  I’m excited to be speaking about something I’m passionate about.  What an honor!

2013 EWA Invitation

 

 

Learning from our “enemies”

This is an article I wrote that was just published in The Mennonite magazine, about the need for Mennonites – and Christians in general – to engage and be open to the messages of the New Atheists.

Writing for different audiences is an interesting process for me.  This article is specifically written for a religious audience and so my language reflects that.  Even though I don’t believe in any literal sort of God or a personified God, I still find the concept of God and all the good things it can represent to be useful, powerful, and inspiring.  So I hope you enjoy the article, and I think it’s a good example of the kind of approach I take when trying to gently nudge religious people to question their tradition and doctrines a bit more.  After this I will resume the “M&M” series I previously started, wrapping up with the third “M” about Mennonites (aka Anabaptists) since I do mention them a lot!

new-atheists-2

Over the last ten years there has been a resurgence of atheist critique of Christianity and religion in general spurred by the “New Atheists.” This refers especially to four prominent and bestselling authors: Sam Harris (End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great), and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon).

I first heard about them in 2007 when I picked up Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation. It’s a strong critique of American Christianity that highlights its inconsistencies and moral shortcomings.  I was impressed and moved by his obvious passion for ethics, morals, and his willingness to engage the scriptures and topics of spirituality.

Here’s a passage of his that stood out to me as very reasonable and inviting of dialogue:

“It is important to realize that the distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and spiritual experiences from our conversation about the world; it is a matter of our being honest about what we can reasonably conclude on their basis. There are good reasons to believe that people like Jesus and the Buddha weren’t talking nonsense when they spoke about our capacity as human beings to transform our lives in rare and beautiful ways. But any genuine exploration of ethics or the contemplative life demands the same standards of reasonableness and self-criticism that animate all intellectual discourse.” (Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

I’ve personally experienced the frustration of arguments that rely purely on dogma or a particular teaching lacking any apparent understanding or context, so I empathize with Harris and also desire a straightforward conversation about religion, its strengths, and its flaws.

In other parts of his book, Harris quoted and interpreted some of Jesus’ words as support for the violence of the Old Testament, something that went against my own understanding of Jesus, the scriptures, and Anabaptist understandings of the gospel.  From this, I saw the possibility for an exchange between atheists and religious people in which each could learn from the other and recognize validity in the other’s viewpoints.

As I read more of the New Atheists, I had to recognize that some of their points were correct. I was inclined to learn from them and engage their ideas instead of just fight or oppose them.

Isn’t this what Jesus did? He intentionally spent time with people different from himself, both the religious leaders and those considered outcasts or heathens by traditional religion (like atheists today).

Anabaptists emphasize loving one’s enemies, and one good way to do this is to deeply understand them and be open to the possibility that they bring something important to the table. Many atheists have good, noble motivations even though some can be angry or inflammatory.

And it goes the other way, too: Harris has certainly gotten his fair share of angry and unloving responses from Christians. We need to be honest and admit there’s a lot to be angry about when it comes to the violence, hypocrisy, judgment, and worldliness of religion.

Anabaptists are used to having minority views that challenge the status quo of the Christian majority. As a result, perhaps it can be a bit easier for us to engage in dialog with atheists.

It’s important to show outsiders that there are people within religion who care about the practical effects of their beliefs and are able to critically and rationally analyze those beliefs. Atheists are doing a good job critiquing religion, and unless religious people step up and synthesize their critiques then nothing will move forward.

The spirit blows where it will and we often see it blowing free from human rules and sin that creep into religious institutions. Certainly the spirit is active in many of the atheists who critique religion for the right reasons, and it’s interesting to think of God using atheists to correct and edify Christians.

The late Christopher Hitchens was sometimes known as one of the angrier voices of the New Atheists, but he could also write very beautifully about the bible and praise those who have sought reform from within Christianity.

In his article When the King Saved God, Hitchens expressed praise and respect for the reformers and scholars who created the King James Bible, the first bible in the English language. It was a monumental development as it let the masses finally read the bible in their own language. Previously all services and bibles were in Latin, keeping the powers of the church and interpretation in the hands of the clergy.

Perhaps surprisingly, Hitchens (as well as other atheists like Dawkins) support the teaching of the bible in public schools because they want people to read and think critically about the bible and not merely be told what it means in church.

In the article, Hitchens also gave some examples of how translating between languages can inherently involve interpretation; a specific translation could have a big impact on meaning. One of these was the Greek word ecclesia, which best translated means an independent church body, or one that can make its own rules and interpretations.  This translation was favored by some in the King James commission as opposed to an interpretation of “The Church,” a single or at least highly centralized authoritative body that hands down and enforces its rules.

The latter won out, but Anabaptists have a history of the decentralized approach, following their own consciences, and searching the bible for its teachings and application in daily life and culture.

Most strikingly, at his father’s funeral, Hitchens chose to use what he called a “non-sermonizing” verse from Paul in the New Testament: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

He was struck by the beauty and universality of this verse, as well as the critical thinking implied by it. He felt that there have been Christians including Paul who think seriously about what is truly good and bad, beautiful and virtuous, and base their approach on that.

In his view, many Christian doctrines are not true to this, and I would point out that many were formed for political reasons supporting control, violence, and empire building. As Jesus-centered Anabaptists we should be able to ask if some parts of Christian doctrinal formation were carried out against Jesus’ command and example not to rule with power and coercion, but to lead by humble service and example.

Since some prominent atheists are willing to learn from and even be inspired by elements of Chrristianity, should we not be open to learning more about their insights, wisdom, concern for justice, and the beauty they find in life, the universe, and in their fellow human beings?

To be sure we’re not missing out on how the spirit is moving today, we need to be in touch with and understand our “enemies,” getting past rhetoric or argument by engaging in serious self-reflection and by listening to their finer points and critiques.

So perhaps you have a friend who’s an atheist. You could ask them what they really think about Christianity and why. What good do they see and what troubles them about it? Make a special effort to understand an outside viewpoint and a fresh perspective. Or, pick up one of the books by the New Atheists from the library and give it a shot.

Ultimately, we want to be informed about current thought on religion because many people rightfully have beef against it. It’s better to be engaged in the process of understanding, growing, and transformation this can bring rather than be passive bystanders oblivious to the possibility of prophetic voices coming from outside of Christianity.

Hello world!

Welcome to my blog!  This is my first post, the traditional “Hello, World!” message.  I hope to be saying hello to people all over the world through this website and the discussions it will foster, taking a “big picture” perspective on topics of religion, science, and spirituality.

I chose the banner at the top of this site because it reflects different perspectives that I bring and hold together in tension – ones that are not often brought forward in public discourse about science and religion.  I recognize something valuable in atheism and its critique of religion, as well as Jesus, Buddha, and interspiritual approaches.  Forward progress will be made as topics such as these are synthesized and integrated.

I am critical of much of religion but see its potential for spirituality and know that its strong mark on culture, art, and daily life cannot simply be erased.  The trick is to keep the baby while throwing out the bathwater.  The transformation will seem like a destruction for those within it who cling to rules, dogma, and the comfort of the status quo.  Others are ready to push religion forward, to deal responsibly with its flaws and to ask the questions we are afraid or at least hesitant to ask.

Prometheus is the center of the site’s banner – a very interesting and multi-faceted figure.  He is known for bringing fire to the earth when the gods withheld it out of fear that humans could come to rival them.  Prometheus is also a symbol of the danger and recklessness of humankind when tempted by power and the urge to shape the world to our every whim.  He represents an adversarial attitude toward God or the gods, one in which the gods are remarkably petty like we can be.

prometheus_cut

Although I recognize the validity of critiques about God and religion – even religion as an opiate of the people – I understand and experience someone like Jesus as instead bringing fire to the earth through peoples’ hearts – a passion, joy, spontaneity, and joyfully rebellious nature.  Christianity usually stifles this as well as his questioning, critiquing nature and his emphasis on God as spirit that cannot be contained, controlled, or limited to one practice or idea.  I admire and respect those like Leo Tolstoy, Gandhi, Bede Griffiths, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and Martin Luther King, Jr. who have come to similar understandings of Jesus and spirituality that cross the boundaries of religion and led them to simultaneously challenge and broaden religion.

So much of religion hinges on what we make God out to be.  Do we think of God as vengeful, jealous, and irrational as we often are, or accept it when we’re told this by our religion or scriptures?  Or does God represent the very best of what humanity can be, something and some spirit that we can always aspire to, recognize, and access within ourselves?

Check out other parts of my website detailing more about my background, perspective, and a couple of other interests.  I welcome your comments and questions as we delve into the strengths and weaknesses of religion, atheist critiques and voices, interspirituality, contemplation, and science.  It’s time to move beyond a narrow, divisive view and practice of religion and to recognize the spiritual truths and practices at the core of many world religions and secular philosophies.  With these, we can move forward beyond religion to a spirituality and science that are aligned.