Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Sex, gender, and binary thinking

Lately, I have started questioning the facile way many of us think about reality. I soon discovered that many concepts that I thought I understood were much more complex than I had previously assumed  I asked myself why, and was led to investigate binary thinking. While this is not the sole reason for my confusion, it certainly contributes to the problem. I want to share some preliminary thoughts with you. I admit that I do not have all the answers, but I do have many questions. Please join me in my quest.

How many sexes are there? Two, you reply, with great authority. After all, didn't God make people (as well as most animals) "male and female"? The great Abrahamic religions agree on this, but that doesn't mean that the issue is therefore settled. If it were only that simple!

What about people who don't fit neatly into the two categories of male or female? For them new terms are needed."Intersex" is a term that has been developed to cover a variety of conditions in which someone is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn't fit these two categories.

For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or someone may be born with anomalous genitals. Someone else may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of their cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY. Other chromosomal variations are also possible. These make sex a complex matter.

Which variations of sexual anatomy count as intersex? In practice, different people have different answers to that question. That’s not surprising, because intersex isn’t a natural category but a socially constructed one.that reflects real biological variations. These categories are simplified into male, female, and sometimes intersex, in order to simplify social interactions..

Humans, usually doctors, decide how a person with various chromosomal variations or hormonal anomalies should be categorized. I don't want to get too technical, since I don't understand all of it myself, but I do want to demonstrate the complexity involved. Male and female are the two simple categories that we have traditionally used to describe sex.

The situation gets even more complex, however, when the term "gender" is added. This was originally only a grammatical term, but it is now often used as a synonym for sex. In feminist theory, this term was adopted  in order to distinguish between biological sex and the social construct of gender. This distinction has been widely adopted in the social sciences. Sometimes a further distinction is made between psychological and social gender.

Someone has explained succinctly that sex as what a person has between their legs and gender is how they identify themselves. As you may have noticed, both sex and gender are social constructs. As such, they are culturally shaped. It is dangerous, therefore, to impose the views prevalent in any culture and make them normative for all.

One reason why Christians often do this is because we tend to engage in binary thinking in which our own views are given normative status. We must be careful not to elevate even those views of sexuality that prevailed in differing biblical periods.. Male and female is one example of this.

The Bible is not a scientific textbook. Even though male and female are what we traditionally define in terms of sex and gender, intersex, for example, id not dealt with with. Yet intersex must have occurred in biblical times as well. To dismiss it simply as sinful, does not deal with the chromosomal and hormonal aspects. These cannot be dismissed as either sinful or the results of sin.

To widen the net even further, the issues that LGBT people raise cannot be dismissed in that way either. To label all of them as sinful does not address the issues that they raise, issue such as the nature of love. Are LGBT people engaging in sinful acts simply because they love each other?

Is such love permitted as long as they remain celibate, as some Christians argue?  What makes the love of  homosexuals sinful? Is the act of sexual intercourse the problem? Yet sex between heterosexual people can also be sinful. Are we not guilty of binary thinking when we limit sexual intercourse to heterosexuals?

Binary thinking can be defined as a system of thought that predominantly considers things in an "either/or", "right or wrong", "black or white" way, ignoring any subtleties or consideration of  any other alternatives. In philosophy, this is known as a "bifurcation fallacy.".

Binary thinking can be distinguished from binary opposition which deals with concepts that cannot exist together at the same time. Some examples are a light switch is either on or off; in a sports match, a team either wins or loses;;water is either hot or cold;;something in relation to something else can be left or right, up or down or in or out; it is basic to the digital world which consists of ones and zeroes.

Binary opposition is fundamental to the ideas of later twentieth century by thinkers like Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. This theory is called structuralism. It maintains that all the elements of human culture can only be understood in relation to one another and how they function within a larger system.

I would prefer not to discuss binary opposition and structuralism at this point, binary; thinking is already too intimidating, even though the idea itself is not difficult to understand. We are so used to binary thinking that we are unable to grasp that alternatives exist. Why not consider an alternative?

Some examples of binary opposition

Plato utilized the principle of divisio. This principle is basic to the binary thinking that has prevailed since then. How can binary thinking be overcome? Quantum physics suggests at the very least that we consider possible alternatives to the prevailing binary thought.

Some of what quantum theory predicts and states is almost like something out of science fiction. Matter can essentially be in an infinite number of places at any given time; it is possible that there are many worlds or a multiverse; things disappear and reappear somewhere else; you cannot simultaneously know the exact position and momentum of an object, although some physicists are now questioning this claim, which if they are right would simplify quantum physics.

Even quantum entanglement, where it’s possible for two quantum particles to link together effectively making them part of the same entity or entangled. Even if these particles are separated, a change in one is ultimately and instantly reflected in it’s counterpart. 

Einstein found it difficult to accept what he referred to it as spooky action at a distance. In fact, he could not tolerate it and deemed tit the result of erroneous thinking.. Many of us find that equally difficult, but it should cause us to question the priority of binary thought.

Quantum theory is already leading to the development of quantum computers. In contrast with a classical computer which has a memory made of bits where each bit represents a one or a zero (binary code), a quantum computer will operate on what is called "qubits." A single qubit can represent a one, a zero, or, crucially, any quantum superposition of these; moreover, a pair of qubits can be in any quantum superposition of 4 states, and three qubits in any superposition of 8 and so on. 

This progression is geometric. As a result, a quantum computer will essentially be able to crack any algorithm, solve mathematical problems much more quickly and ultimately operate millions of times faster than conventional computers.

Quantum physics says that particles can behave like waves, and vice versa. Researchers have now shown that this 'wave-particle duality' is simply the quantum uncertainty principle in disguise.

Even if quantum physics turns out to be closer to the classic model of reality, the idea that reality is not as simple as it seems, the nature of quantum computers forces us to question binary thinking, so that male or female, black or white, one or zero are not the only possibilities. This can be liberating.

Then, perhaps, we need not get upset by transsexuals using the facilities that they prefer. Then we might not get hung up about nudity at a Pride parade or accepting LGBT people as full members of our churches and even allow clergy to officiate at weddings. 

For decades now I realize that everything in the world is black or white and that the concept of truth is not as simple as I thought it was at one time, More recently, I have been forced to struggle with the concepts of male and female and I discovered that even that it is not always easy to distinguish them.I suspect that others may  have had similar struggles. If not, maybe it is time to dismiss the simplicity off binary thought and open ourselves up to alternative ways of thinking.

I hope you are ready to go for a ride of discovery with me. I will appreciate your thoughtful contributions. The journey will not be easy, but at the end we may discover a way out of many of the problems that we are currently struggling with or at least make it possible for them to be understood better.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Lament for America

This is an open letter to American Christians in which I lament what is happening there in both the foreboding spirit and the poetic form of the Book of Lamentations. But there is also a note of hope. God has not deserted America, but he must be very disappointed at what is happening there. Americans, however, seem to have forgotten God, if their present behavior is any indication. Yet, as Lam. 3:22-23 reminds us, God's compassion never ends; it is renewed every day again.

Dear God, what is happening to America?
What motivated all this violence?
People everywhere are scratching their heads in wonder.
Why are Americans so intent on killing each other? 
Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas are a few recent examples.
Police shoot blacks because of the color of their skin color
or poor men simply trying to eke out an existence.
Killings were broadcast live around the world on social media. 
A black man then shot police officers because they are white.
But why do police draw their weapons when approaching a car?
It's not done where I live nor in most parts of the world.
And why does a black man go hunting for police officers?
Not to trivialize black lives, but all lives matter!

Are these the first shots of a new civil war,
a war rooted in racism and being waged 
by black and white and black and blue?
Now the blue have been militarized the battle is even bloodier.
America is one of the violent countries in the world.
Why all the guns that make such shootings possible?
More than one for every man, woman, and child in the country.
Who runs the country when it comes to guns? The NRA?
Is the current interpretation of the Second Amendment correct
or has the US Supreme Court has misconstrued its intention?
Did the Court originally intend to permit every citizen to carry guns
wherever and whenever they want 
or only for a militia to protect the country?
If you feel unsafe, why do you resort to guns?
Is "In Guns We Trust" the new motto of your country?
Many of you call yourself Christians, 
but you don't behave like Christ believers.
How can you kill people who are also made in the image of God?
How can you say you love everyone, 
and then point a gun at your neighbor
who may be white, brown, black, Muslim, or whatever.
What difference should race, ethnicity and religion make?
Your love is short-circuited and limited to those who look like you.

This behavior is capitalized on by unprincipled politicians, 
people like Donald Trump. How can you support him? 
Do you realize the hatred and division he fosters?
Is Trump a Christian? He knows nothing about the Bible.
He is a narcissistic, philandering, misogynistic loudmouth
who has aspirations to the presidency and may yet achieve his goal.
For the sake of your country, please don't vote for him!
The man is not worthy of the highest office in the land.
But he understands one thing well: America is an unequal society.
Many of his supporters are white males who feel powerless.
Trump promises to change that and make America great again.
Unfortunately, Trump is hardly a poor, powerless male.
Instead, he peddles a vision of an exclusionary country --
a country where Mexicans and Muslims are not welcome.
He has sowed fear and earned the endorsement of the NRA.
Is this the person you want to run your country?

If you want a country that is truly great again, 
there are at least three things you ought to do: 
1. Pray that Trump does not get the nomination,   
and if not, don't vote for him in November.
2. Pray for an end to the systemic racism that pits 
black against white and black against blue.
3. Practice unconditional love of your neighbors,   
irrespective of race, ethnicity, or religion. 
Then and only then will some of it's major problems be solved 
and Americans be able to live in peace again.

There is hope for America because God has not deserted her.
But God requires one very important thing from Americans:
To trust in him, and to live accordingly.
That is a tall order, but it is not impossible.
What it asks of every Christian, and all who believes in God:
To live as God demands, starting with these three things.
Is this too much to ask of all believers in America?
Remember, God's compassion never ends; 
it is renewed every day again.
God bless America!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

My Family Tree

We all have ancestors, but we don't always know who they were, where they lived, and what they did. During much of  the 70 plus years that I have been alive, I knew only a handful of people from my grandparent's generation and a few from my parent's, especially those who had immigrated to Canada.And I did know some of my many first cousins, but there are many more whom I have never met, although their names are recorded on my family tree. I often asked myself: where did my family originate, and who were all these ancestors?

My paternal grandparents were very prolific, so that is where I began my search. A few years ago I had received a Helleman family tree from someone bearing that name, but who was not a member of the many branches of this family that he had discovered. He had also learned that not all these different branches were related either, as far as he was able to determine.

Recently, I decided to start my own investigation. Although I have not yet discovered any connection between these major branches bearing the Helleman name, I was quickly  surprised to learn of how many relatives I have on both my father's and mother's sides. For reasons of privacy, I will refrain as much as possible from mentioning names. As someone once wrote, "Some family trees have beautiful leaves, and some have just a bunch of nuts. Remember, it is the nuts that make the tree worth shaking."

One problem with family trees is that they grow larger and larger. In the first month alone, my tree acquired more than 600 members. Not all are direct ancestors, but there are more ancestors than I had anticipated. My tree also has a descendants portion which is growing as well.


Nearly all my mother's descendants, with spouses, after her funeral (2014)

On my father's side, I have traced this clan as far back as Gerrit Helleman, who was born in Germany in 1728. On my mother's side, the earliest ancestor I discovered died in 1609. His son, who was born in 1600,  was the first to bear her maiden name, Wildschut. Other surnames, of course, also appeared and more are being revealed every day.

The problem with going back that far on my mother's side is that by the 12th generation from me, which is the earliest I have found thus far, there are more than 4000 other people in that generation from whom I am also descended, even if I assume that some of them may have entered my tree at several points. If I could trace all their descendants, this is no longer a tree, it is a forest where many of us can discover that we are related.

Even my ancestor who came from Germany is one of only 128 ancestors in hids generation, again assuming that none of them appear more than once in my tree. His descendants now number in the hundreds. My paternal grandfather, who is my namesake, alone left about 100 direct descendants when he died. If I think too much about these ancestors, I am much like the man that Henry S.S. Cooper talked about: "A man who thinks too much about his ancestors is like a potato -- the best part of him is underground."

Yet it is remarkable how much I have been able to discover about these long deceased ancestors, including information about date and place of birth, date and place of marriage, spouse, children, date and place of death, and even burial site. In some cases the information is complete; in others, it is sparse and even non-existent, and is often labelled "Unknown." What is also noteworthy is how many children died in infancy and are listed as dead or their names live on in siblings who were born later.

Model family tree

There is nothing morbid about building family trees. Last year I discovered the truth of what someone has written, "Genealogy is collecting dead relatives and sometimes a live cousin!"  when I found a cousin in the Netherlands, one of many; her grandfather and mine were brothers. Since then, we have been in contact with each other on Facebook. No doubt there will be more such discoveries.

By building this tree, I have been able to establish contact with many other families when we discover connections, in some cases, going back many generations. This is wonderful, as some unknown person once said, "Families are like fudge… mostly sweet with a few nuts."  These nuts, by the way, are not crazy people, but rather the exceptional ones who make the entire investigation worthwhile.

So far, I have enjoyed my search, although I have not yet found the gems, as I would prefer to call them, that pop up in other family trees. I have yet to find aristocrats in mine, much less royalty. My ancestors were humble farmers or tradespeople. Not a single one had such pretensions, as far as I have been able to ascertain, unlike in the TV ad which shows a woman holding a portrait of her cousin, George Washington.

My ancestors were born, lived, and died, often in the same communities, in Friesland or in other parts of the Netherlands. By now their descendants have multiplied and can be found in many parts of the world. Because of this multiplication, the odds are that the further back all of us would go, we would discover that we are all related and share common ancestors.

The Family Tree of Jesus Christ

In the Bible, ancestry is important as well. There are many genealogies in the Bible. Some of them relate to Jesus Christ, whose ancestry is traced back as far as Adam, who in turn is described as the son of God. These family trees are often stylized and serve a theological rather than a historical purpose.

I consider myself a hobbyist genealogist, in the sense that I am only concerned with my own genealogy and that of my wife, Her family has its own family tree which can be traced back to the 14th century. Although it follows the paternal Elgersma line, her mother also appears in it, since her parents were distant cousins. Such marriages were not uncommon in many communities in the Netherlands. What is unusual in her family was the use of the surname from a very early period in history.

In Friesland, where all of Wendy's ancestors and half of mine lived, the use of patronymics was very common. This involves using the father's first name as the middle name of the children. This is useful in helping to  determine who the father was, but since many names were common in families, confusion is still possible. On my father' side, there was the practice of repeating the same first names in every generation. Dirk and Gerrit alternate many times, which can also be confusing.

Family names are simultaneously one of the most important pieces of genealogical information, and a source of significant confusion for researchers such as myself. Mistakes are inevitable, especially in earlier generations when records were poorly kept. Memories are often faulty and the possibility of transcriptional errors also contributes to the errors. I know that I have made such errors myself, not all of which can be blamed on my sources.

A family tree with a specific purpose

Purposely, I am not including details of my family tree. The current practice is to avoid information concerning living persons as much as possible in order to protect their privacy. In this blog, my interest is to present my family tree as an example. Genealogy has become a popular hobby for many people today. There are countless ads by companies that will assist people in this research. 

The Mormons are in the forefront of such research because of their practice of baptism for the dead. For this reason, they have assembled the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, which houses over 2 million microfiche and microfilms of genealogically relevant material, These are also available for on-site research at over 4500 Family History Centers worldwide.

My project has just begun. In the last month, I have been able to compile more than 800 names in almost 200 families. This tree is growing by the day. Much work remains to be done. Any suggestions will be much appreciated.  I currently have more than 50 members who can access my family tree. 

If you would also like to do so, please send me your name and explain the reason why I should let you join. You should list any contributions you can make to my search. If you suspect that you are somehow related to me, you are especially invited to apply and enlarge this family tree.

For those who might be interested, here is some data from another source of the descendants of Gerrit Helleman who was born in Germany in 1728. I do not have similar data from other families to whom I am related. There are other branches of the Helleman family that are not (yet) connected with this one.

Gerrit Helleman
Catharina Margrita Vreese
9 generations, 160 members
1755 - 2008
Given Names
Aafina, Aafje, Aart, Adriaan, Adriana, Adrianus, Amber, Anna, Anneke, Annie, Antje, Arnold, Atze, Barbara, Berent, Bouke, Brenda, Caroline, Catharina, Christina, Cornelia, Cornelis, Daniel, Derk, Diewertje, Dirk, Donald, Eduard, Eleonora, Elisabeth, Emma, Engelbertus, Engelina, Erwin, Esther, Eveline, Evert, Evertje, Folkert, Francina, Francine, Frank, Fred, Frederieke, Frederik, Frits, Geert, Geertje, Geertrui, Geertruid, Gerardus, Gerrit, Gert, Gertrud, Gijsbertus, Hans-Dirk, Harmanna, Harmien, Harry, Hendrica, Hendrik, Hendrika, Hendrikje, Hendrikus, Hendrina, Henk, Henri, Henrick, Henrietta, Henriette, Hermannus, Hilda, Hugh, Iet, Ineke, Jacob, Jacoba, Jacobus, Jan, Jannetje, Jansje, Jeanette, Joanna, Joany, Johan, Johanna, Johannes, John, Joseph, Josephine, Jozina, Kim, Kornelis, Lambert, Lambertus, Lana, Leendert, Leon, Leonora, Lianne, Liesje, Lucas, Lucienne, Luuk, Machteld, Marc, Margaretha, Margrieta, Margrita, Mari, Maria, Marianne, Marinus, Maritje, Marjan, Marjolein, Mary, Meintina, Monique, Nathalie, Niesje, Patricia, Paul, Peter, Renata, Renate, Renee, Richard, Rick, Rob, Robert, Robin, Roelf, Ronald, Rudolf, Sanne, Siem, Simeon, Simon, Sofie, Theresia, Tjitske, Tom, Trijntje, Wendy, Wilhelmina, Willem, Willemtje, Wouter
In-law Names
Akerboom, Albert, Asselen, Beek, Berghuis, Boendermaker, Bos, Burger, Buytelaar, Chevalier, De Boer, De Fouw, Dell, De Putter, De Vrieze, Dirksen, Elfering, Gravesteyn, Hagg, Heijstek, Huetink, Hulleman, Hulsebos, IJzerman, Korenhof, Kranenburg, Langelaar, Lemmen, Lunenberg, Maring, Messchaert, Moek, Nouwen, Pas, Rense, Ronnenberg, Schaffers, Senechal, Slot, Sluerink, Stam, Teerink, Van der Kleij, Van der Kooy, Van der Pols, Van Dijk, Van Donkelaar, Van Egmond, Van Ekeren, Van Enk, Van Geest, Van Loon, Van Veen, Van Wezel, Veenman, Verdel, Verleur, Vervoorn, Vreese, Wiegerink, Wildschut, Zijlstra
Alblasserdam, Almere, Alphen a/d Rijn, Amersfoort, Amsterdam, Arnhem, Assen, Axel, Bad Kreuznach, Balikpapan, Bergen op Zoom, Brandwijk, Bussum, Calcutta, Canada, Delft, Den Haag, Den Helder, Davonport, Deventer, Dordrecht, Drachten, Dronten, Edam, Ede, Geldermalsen, Groede, Groningen, Haarlem, Heemstede, Hellevoetsluis, Hilversum, Hoorn, IJsselmuiden, Kampen, Lemelerveld, Lisse, Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Makassar, Mannheim, Naaldwijk, Naarden, Nieuwegein, Nieuw-Lekkerland, Nunspeet, Pernis, Pladju, Rotterdam, Sliedrecht, Sneek, Soest, Surabaja, Tasmania, Ter Aar, Utrecht, Vlaardingen, Voorburg, Wageningen, Wormerveer, Zaandam, Zutphen, Zwolle

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Golden Age Fallacy

Blogging is difficult. It is easy to find topics to write about but not so easy to do the necessary reflection that turns the topic into something more meaningful than a news item. I am not a journalist, but a blogger, a word that rhymes with plodder. Blogging takes much time and effort., at least for me. It does not spring out of my mind overnight, although some of my best thoughts originate then or grow there. This is just my way of indicating the process is more arduous than it may seem. So, if I do not write as regularly as you and I might like, be patient with me. It takes a while. The best is yet to come!

What do the "Leave" voters in the recent Brexit vote, the supporters of Donald Trump in the US, the troops of Daesh (aka. ISIS or ISIL), the Russians who adore Putin, and not to forget those in many churches all over the world who oppose same-sex relationships, all have in common? Among other things, they are victims of the Golden Age Fallacy.

This is the belief that things were better in the past,.in a Golden Age. It is a fallacy because we make an invalid inference, in this case from what ought to was. Another form of this fallacy is called the Primitivist Fallacy in which an invalid inference is made from was to ought. This sometimes involve a return to nature, as in the thought of Jacques Rousseau. The result is the same: the focus is exclusively on the past.

This fallacy is committed by conservatives of all kinds who conclude that, since the past was better than the present and since we live in an age of decadence and decline, we should try to turn the clock back to a golden age. or at least retain as much of that age as possible. Such an age never existed, in spite of the many eras that go by that name.

Remember when you were a child and the world wasn’t so complicated and messed up as it is today? Many of us have had this fantasy, We have a deep-felt nostalgia for a long-lost, idyllic past when life was simpler and we did not have to deal all the problems we face today. Discontent with the present causes many to look back for concrete examples of better times. But the argument for this involves a fallacy since we confuse what was with what ought to be.

This is wrong on at least two levels. First, that simpler or better past never existed. Each age has its own problems and difficulties, Second, even if such a simpler past had existed, we can never go back to it. One cannot enter the same river twice, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it.

The idea of a Golden Age first appears in the Greek poet Hesiod, who identified five ages, the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Heroic Age, and the Iron Age. The Roman poet Ovid simplified these age to four, each age being worse than the one that went before, The Golden Age was the best. Because of this constant decline, by definition, one is never in a Golden Age. The Bible uses this image of decline in Daniel 2.

Every country has had its own Golden Age. Sometimes, this has been called the "Good old days,"a term that is tinged with more than a bit of nostalgia, so much so that it becomes a fallacy. It is important to distinguish between a fallacy and legitimate comparisons with the past. Not every positive appraisal of the past is wrong, because the world really has changed and not always for the better. It's just that the past too has always been complex and uneven, and no period or people have ever had a monopoly on virtue.

We all have  selective memories. We tend to remember only what we want to remember. That is why the memories of our childhood are so often distorted. Our memories are also limited in scope; our time frame is so short that we are unable to get the right perspective. We need the divine perspective if we are to see everything correctly. Only God does so, since for him the past, present, and future are the same.

Terry Pratchett, the British fantasy/science fiction writer and humorist/satirist, wrote this delightful piece in 199 in which he spoofs the limited perspective that all mortals have. His Discworld, of which this is a part, may have influenced the author of the Harry Potter series. Discworld is a fantasy that is no more real than any Golden Age one, nevertheless, there are lessons that  we can learn here. Also, it adds a note of whimsy to this otherwise serious topic,

The sun was near the horizon. The shortest-lived creatures on the Disc were mayflies, which barely make it through twenty-four hours. Two of the oldest zigzagged aimlessly over the waters of a trout stream, discussing history with some younger members of the evening hatching.
"You don't get the kind of sun now that you used to get," one of them said.
"You're right there. We had proper sun in the good old hours. It were all yellow. None of this red stuff.
"It were higher too."
"It was. You're right."
"And nymphs and larvae showed you a bit of respect."
"They did. They did," said the other mayfly vehemently.
"I reckon, if mayflies these hours behaved a bit better, we’d still be having proper sun."
The younger mayflies listened politely.
"I remember," said one of the oldest mayflies, "when all this was fields, as far as you could see."
The younger mayflies looked around.
"It’s still fields," one of them ventured, after a polite interval.
"I remember when it was better fields," said the old mayfly sharply.
"Yeah," said his colleague. "And there was a cow."
"That’s right! You’re right! I remember that cow! Stood right over there for, oh, forty, fifty minutes. It was brown, as I recall."
"You don’t get cows like that these hours." …
"What were we doing before we were talking about the sun?"
"Zigzagging aimlessly over the water," said one of the young flies. This was a fair bet in any case.
"No, before that."
"Er … you were telling us about the Great Trout."
"Ah. Yes. Right. The Trout. Well, you see, if you’ve been a good mayfly, zigzagging up and down properly—"
"—taking heed of your elders and betters—"
"—then eventually the Great Trout—"
"Yes?" said one of the younger mayflies.
There was no reply.
"The Great Trout what?" said another mayfly, nervously.
They looked down at a series of expanding concentric rings on the water.
"The holy sign!" said a mayfly. "I remember being told about that! A Great Circle in the water! Thus shall be the sign of the Great Trout!"


                                          The  Golden Age (fresco by Pietro da Cortona)

The Golden Age Fallacy has also been called the Nostalgic Fallacy  By whatever name it is known, it is wrong. In Russia, even today, there is a nostalgia for strong leaders, people like Stalin. This explains Putin's popularity at home, especially among elderly Russians but also among te young. This nostalgia lies deep in the Russian psyche.

Donald Trump has capitalized on a similar nostalgia with his campaign slogan to "Make America Great Again." Unfortunately, he does not specify when precisely America was great; he simply assumes it was. This is part and parcel of American exceptionalism. The US is the greatest and most powerful nation in the world. And, if it is not at the moment, it should be.

Trump uses the fear of some specified threats to the US and its people to bolster his fallacious argument. He has been successful thus far in his campaign. Whether it will bring him all the way to the White House or not remains to be seen. I hope not! His success will come at the expense of countless Muslims, Mexicans, and whoever else he can tar and feather before November. because they supposedly pose a threat.

The leaders of the Brexit vote were equally evasive in their campaign to have the United Kingdom leave Europe. What country did they have in mind with their demand to take our country back. Fifty years ago or five hundred? Are they nostalgic about post-WWII Britain, the Victorian era, or the Elizabethan? Or are they afraid, as the US is, about uncontrolled immigration?

What about Daesh? They too are looking to the past, to the re-establishment of the Caliphate that marked an era when Islamic nations were powerful and Muslims the intellectual leaders of their age. Their retrospective ideology has managed to captivate thousands of young men and women, many of whom know little about Islam but are, nevertheless, willing to sacrifice their lives for this cause.

What about Christians who are opposed to same-sex relationships because they regard such relationships as evil and sinful? In churches everywhere they too look back at a time when such relationships were largely unknown and, if mentioned, were quickly dismissed. LGBT was unheard of.

The beliefs of many Christians were not questioned in those not-so-long-ago eras that were marked by theological and moral certainties. This was true until recently in many churches all over the world. Some churches in Africa and Asia are still unwilling to tolerate what they regard as unbiblical behavior.

These are all rational people who know that older is not necessarily better, but many are taken in by this fallacy and seem no longer able to reason with any degree of reliability. Whatever else may be motivating them, this fallacy in all its variations and under diverse names plays a role.

The supposed simplicity of the past with its many certainties is attractive to people all over the globe, coming from every nation, every religion. and every philosophy. They tend to be conservative in the sense that they prefer the traditional over the new. They are fearful of change, regarding change as a threat to the established order that they have inherited from previous generations.

Change is not necessarily bad. While change for the sake of change can be wrong, the inability or even reluctance to change is not healthy, especially if change is necessary. We must not idolize the past, since not everything in the past was necessarily good. Nor should we idolize the future by wanting to change everything. That too is a fallacy, one that we must studiously avoid.

Yet change is inevitable, Let us not resort to fallacies in order to hide these changes nor to supposed certainties, hallowed by age, to interdict those who advocate change. Churches are notorious for this. In a previous century they defended slavery as biblical. The apartheid regime in South Africa did the same to perpetuate their hideous ideology.

Only recently did my own denomination allow divorced people to be members of the church in good standing. But this privilege is not yet accorded to same-sex couple who are married. In all these instances, the Bible was touted as the reason why change should not be permitted. Only reluctantly, did change come about. In some cases, it still has not happened, I belong to an older generation, but I recognize the need for change, I am not afraid of the future and thus I am willing to let go of the past.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Tragedy of Orlando

By now we are all familiar with the tragedy at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where fifty people died and an equal number of people were injured, many of them seriously. This nightclub was a sanctuary for gay people, a place where they felt safe. That security was shattered in the wee hours of the night. As I am writing this, it appears that some of the injured may not survive and the total of the dead may increase. The perpetrator was among the dead. This was the deadliest mass shooting ever in the US.

The tragedy extends far beyond the victims, who were predominantly gay males . It also includes their families. In fact, the circle of those who are affected by this tragic event extends to everyone in the LGBTQ community, They are among the groups that are affected more than others.

This tragedy has exposed many fault lines in US society. These fault lines are so deep that they can hardly be bridged any more. Some examples are: racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and gun control. None of them show any signs of improving; quite to the contrary, in fact.

The polarization that characterizes US society has intensified even further as a result of the Orlando killings. Donald Trump has contributed to  that polarization in the comments he made immediately afterwards. Fortunately, both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have dome what they could to mitigate the damage that Trump has caused. Both have called for greater control of the purchase of guns by those who have been radicalized, but this call is falling on deaf ears.

Trump called for preventing all Muslims from coming to the US. By doing this he was feeding the Islamophobia that has rocketed him to be the presumptive candidate of the Republican party for the presidency. Trump sows fear and he reaps violence. No wonder the NRA supports him. The fear that such killings generate leads inevitably to an increase in gun sales. The Orlando shootings are no exception.

Omar Mateen was apparently a deranged individual who had planned his killing spree for a long time. The rifle he used in the shooting was not an AR-15, as was earlier claimed, but a Sig Sauer MCX rifle that he had legally purchased. He was a US citizen of Afghan descent. Afghanistan isa country well known for its homophobia.

No one knows for certain why Mateen attacked the Pulse club, but homophobia is indeed a strong candidate. His father stated that the shootings were not about his son’s religion, but that his son became very angry after seeing two men kissing in Miami months ago. He clearly blames the killings on homophobia. Thee are numerous reports that Mateen had been seen many times at the Pulse. He may have been casing the place, but many who saw him allege that he himself was gay.

There are other factors as well. Mateen called 911 just before the shooting and said he had pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS issued a statement calling Mateen an "Islamic state fighter," But this does not mean that he was part of ISIS. He seems to have had little knowledge of the many jihadist groups.

There are mixed reports about the level of his religiosity. Some suggest he preferred working out to studying religion. He certainly was not the first terrorist to cite Islam as justification for his actions while apparently being somewhat confused about the religion.

Trump capitalized on the alleged ISIS connection by calling for an intensifying the struggle against "radical Islam." He berated Obama and Clinton for their unwillingness to use that term. Trump later upped the ante by calling Obama a "Negro" and a "half-breed." Now Trump has added racism to the already volatile Islamophobia.

The Pulse Nightclub shootings can be blamed on a sad combination of homophobia on the part of Mateen and his self-proclaimed connection to ISIS, which is what Trump and others have capitalized on. The IRA again has benefited from Americans from both major parties who are deeply divided on how to respond to these latest killings. Guns can bridge over fear and provide a semblance of courage, but they are not the solution.

Christians too are divided. Some have identified with the LGBTQ community that seemed to be Mateen's target, They have participated in vigils commemorating the Orlando massacre in many cities all over the world. But others prefer to ignore the LGBTQ connection, except by using it to justify their dismissal of that community as evil and sinful, one that does not deserve a place in Christian churches.

The latter response is often characterized as typical of Trump supporters and of those who are opposed to gun control. Yet here are also many Christians who do not fit into either category, They are uncertain how to respond to these issues.

One one the hand, they want to respond in love and reject the voices that trumpet fear and put their trust in guns, and also acknowledge LGBTQ people; on the other hand, they are afraid to openly side with that community because those who oppose LGBTQ control the levers of power im many churches and have declared it evil and sinful.

That is where my own denomination finds itself at the moment. I doubt that other denominations differ greatly since similar issues are now being debated in their assemblies as well. In view of this division, how should Christians respond?

I suggest that Christians must begin by mourning those who lost their lives in Orlando, and include all those as well who are pained by the rejection they experience at the hands of fellow believers. When LGBTQ people are being murdered why can Christians not stand with them in their time of need and, indeed, identify with the entire LGBTQ community?

You may have heard this statement: "First they came ..."  This is part of a provocative poem written by Pastor Martin Niemöller about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis' rise to power and the subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group. One of the many versions reads as follows:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
LGBTQ needs people, whether Christian or not, to stand with them against those who want to rid the world of them, just as the Nazis did with Jews, gypsies and others who were deemed subhuman. Trump represents that type of reprehensible thinking.

However, when you support the LGBTQ community, don't qualify it in any way, by suggesting that you accept them but you cannot accept same-sex marriage. Love -- true or agapic love -- must be unconditional. Such love leaves no room for qualifications. You cannot say to your spouse or your children: "I love you, but . . ."

As Christians, we must weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. The problem we are facing isn’t a gun problem or a security problem. It’s a hate problem, a problem born of sin. The problem is that there are human beings out there that hate other human beings so much, that they kill them. That was Mateen's problem. He himself was killed in the aftermath.

That was also the problem of Dellen Millard and Mark Smich, who together planned to steal a truck and kill the owner. They happened to select Tim Bosma, a 32-year old husband, and father. A court has just found them guilty and sentenced them to a minimum of 25 years in prison. 

God loves and cherishes life because he is the creator of life. He created all of us in his image. He loves all of us. He loves us with an unconditional love. We too must love with an unconditional love.

Jesus wept and so must as well. We must weep for all those who are suffering in our world today. To love everyone in the whole world is impossible, of course. But we must love our neighbor, also our LGBTQ neighbor.

Even those who disagree with how LGBTQ people live are called to love them unconditionally. Such love should force them to change their opinion about such people, otherwise their love would false and they would not really love their neighbor. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The faith of Muhammad Ali

I have taken another short leave from blogging. Occasionally, I have still posted something, but for the most part I refrained from regular postings -- a sort of fasting. This has nothing with Ramadan, which has just started, but it is motivated by the many other demands on my time at this time of year as well as a desire to recharge my spiritual batteries. I hope to return to more frequent postings after a short intermission.

Muhammad Ali needs no further introduction. The media have been filled with articles about him. The day he died, TV and radio reports of his demise were almost non-stop. While not unexpected, his death, nevertheless, came as a shock. "The Greatest" was gone. "The Louisville Lip" had been silenced forever. This icon of many worlds had disappeared for good.

Many people will remember him for his boxing prowess. He has been rated variously as either the number one or two heavyweight boxer of all time. Others will cite his role in the civil rights movement. But for me, his faith has always piqued my interest.

Ali was born Cassius Marcelius Clay Jr. in 1942. His father was a Methodist who permitted his mother to raise him as a Baptist. At the age of twenty, he first came into contact with the Nation of Islam, although he was not admitted as a member immediately. When he was, it was publicized and he was renamed Muhammad Ali. He retained that name the rest of his life.

He remained a Muslim for the rest for the rest of his life as well. His new faith became important for him, much more important that his earlier faith was. That has much to do with the Nation of Islam and its beliefs. For Ali, Christianity was the religion of white people. His new new faith expressed that he was Black. "Cassius Clay is my slave name," he announced.

He explained: "I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me." These comments are a selfie of the man he had become after his conversion: a confident and cocky black man whose new religion accurately expressed him.

The Nation Of Islam (aka Black Muslims) has had a stormy past. Founded by Wallace D. Fard Muhammad in 1930, it has included Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Warith Deen Mohammed, and Louis Farrakhan, among its leaders. The Nation of Islam was founded to "teach the downtrodden and defenseless Black people a thorough Knowledge of God and of themselves, and to put them on the road to Self-Independence with a superior culture and higher civilization than they had previously experienced."

From the beginning, the Nation of Islam was a political movement that preached black supremacy. Elijah Muhammad called for the establishment of a separate nation for black Americans and the adoption of a religion based on the worship of Allah and on the belief that blacks were his chosen people. Whites, and even some blacks, however, viewed it as a black separatist "hate religion" with a propensity toward violence.

Ali used his influential voice to speak on behalf of the Nation of Islam. In a press conference he articulated his opposition to the Vietnam War: "My enemy is the white people, not the Vietcong." In relation to integration, he stated: "We who follow the teachings of Elijah Muhammad don't want to be forced to integrate. Integration is wrong. We don't want to live with the white man; that's all." And about inter-racial marriage, he said: "No intelligent black man or black woman in his or her right black mind wants white boys and white girls coming to their homes to marry their black sons and daughters."

By the mid-seventies, there was a movement to transition the Nation of Islam to mainstream Sunni Islam. Ali himself converted to Sunni Islam in 1975 and later to Sufism, leaving behind some of the stranger doctrines of the Nation of Islam, such as the Moon once being a part of the Earth, and the Earth is over 76 trillion years old.

Pointing to Islam, Ali declared himself a conscientious objector. He stated: "War is against the teachings of the Qur'an. I'm not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger [Elijah Muhammad]. We don't take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers." He famously stated: "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong." He elaborated: "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?"

Ali's example inspired countless black Americans and many other Americans. Recalling Ali's anti-war position, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said: "I remember the teachers at my high school didn't like Ali because he was so anti-establishment and he kind of thumbed his nose at authority and got away with it. The fact that he was proud to be a black man and that he had so much talent ... made some people think that he was dangerous. But for those very reasons I enjoyed him."

Ali also inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been reluctant to address the Vietnam War for fear of alienating the Johnson Administration and its support of the civil rights agenda. Now, King began to voice his own opposition to the war for the first time.

Civil rights figures came to believe that Ali had an energizing effect on the freedom movement as a whole. Al Sharpton spoke of his bravery at a time when there was still widespread support for the Vietnam War:
For the heavyweight champion of the world, who had achieved the highest level of athletic celebrity, to put all of that on the line – the money, the ability to get endorsements – to sacrifice all of that for a cause, gave a whole sense of legitimacy to the movement and the causes with young people that nothing else could have done. Even those who were assassinated, certainly lost their lives, but they didn't voluntarily do that. He knew he was going to jail and did it anyway. That's another level of leadership and sacrifice.

Ali being Ali, he may well have adopted his antiwar stance without converting to Islam, but Islam did help to shape his thinking about war and to make him even more resolved to use his fame to promote the cause of black Americans and to resistance to white domination.

In 1966, when Ali refused to be conscripted into the US military, he cited his religious beliefs and his opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. He was eventually arrested, found guilty of draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing titles. The US Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971. His actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation.

In spite of his prowess in the boxing ring and his struggle on behalf of the civil rights movement, there was one battle he did not win. Ali was unable to defeat the Parkinson's disease, first diagnosed in 1984, that eventually contributed to his death on June 3, 2016. 

Ali's faith continued to shine forth in the many decades since his conversion when he fought not only racism but also Islamophobia. Both racism but also Islamophobia are alive and doing well today, if Donald Trump is an accurate indicator. Therefore the struggle against both is not over yet. Ali's personal struggle is over, but his legacy of fighting them will remain. Ali, RIP.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Dancing with the Trinity

A little change from my normal political diet. This time, I want to  try to explain the Trinity and dance with God as I am doing so, since dancing lies at the heart of the Trinity.

As I have written frequently, Christians, Jews, and Muslims have much in common. They are all children of Abraham.Unfortunately, there is also much that divides them. Two major doctrines, in particular, separate Christians from the other two Abrahamic faiths. One is the two natures of Christ. According to Christians, Christ is not only fully human but he is also fully divine. In contrast, Jews and Muslims claim that Christ is only human. Muslims admit that he is a special prophet, but he is not divine. 

The other major doctrine is the Trinity. I want to examine this doctrine briefly in order to help clarify it a little and to promote better understanding between these faiths. This is not intended as a theological treatise but merely as a post in this blog. Nevertheless. I do hope to elucidate this distinctively Christian doctrine a tiny bit. This post is inspired  by Trinity Sunday, which is the first Sunday after Pentecost. This is the only Sunday in the church calendar that celebrates a doctrine. In 2016, it happens to fall on May 22.

How should this doctrine be understood? The traditional teaching is: the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. But the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit, the Son is not the Father or the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. There are three Persons, but only one God. There are not three Gods, but only one God. The divine math is simple, although confusing: 1+1+1=1.

It's no wonder that so many of the early church councils were called to formulate a correct understanding of the Trinity. In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity seems to be almost incomprehensible, so that it seems possible merely to confess it, but hardly to celebrate it. The doctrine of the Trinity seems much too dry, too confusing, and too distant to celebrate. Thus, the Trinity is ignored even by many Christians. That is sad, since they are unable to describe this doctrine to others, especially Jews and Muslims for whom the divine math is especially difficult to understand.

In my teaching for many years, I have often tried to explain this doctrine to those who claim that Christians worship three Gods. "How can one God be three Persons?" they ask. This doctrine is not explicitly spelled out in the Bible. In fact, the word Trinity is not found there at all. The term was the invention of an African theologian named Tertullian. The early Christians arrived at this doctrine when they applied their God-given reason to the revelation which they had received in faith.

In the story of salvation, creation is usually attributed to the Father, redemption to the Son and sanctification to the Spirit. Although they are distinct as persons, neither the Father nor the Son nor the Spirit ever exists in separation or acts in isolation from the other two persons of the Godhead. But the inner relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- in such a way that each of them is fully and equally God, yet there are not three Gods but only one -- is incomprehensible to the human mind. It is, and always will be, a mystery, not in the sense of a “who-done-it?", but rather something which finite minds are incapable of understanding.

The story is told of the great philosopher and theologian Augustine of Hippo, who wanted to understand the Trinity and be able to explain it logically. One day as he was walking along the sea shore and reflecting on this, he suddenly saw a little child all alone on the shore. The child made a hole in the sand, ran to the sea with a little cup, filled her cup, came and poured it into the hole. Back and forth she went to the sea, filled her cup and came and poured it into the hole. Augustine went up to her and asked, "Little child, what are doing?" and she replied, "I am trying to empty the sea into this hole." "How do you think," Augustine asked her, "that you can empty this immense sea into this tiny hole and with this tiny cup?" To which she replied, "And you, how do you suppose that with this your small head you can comprehend the immensity of God?" With that the child disappeared.

Perhaps it would be easier for Christians if God had revealed his triune nature more clearly in the Scriptures. Yet God has provided clues about himself from the very beginning. The Genesis account does not say, “Let me make humankind in my own image,”but “let us make humankind in our own image according to our likeness.” From the beginning, he is the God who exists in community. The triune nature of God assures us that he is the Creator, the Word, and the Spirit  and that all are involved in creation. God creates communally. There are many other clues as well.

Why did God reveal the mystery regarding his very nature in this way? The importance of this doctrine lies in this: we are made in the image of God; and therefore, the better we understand God the better we can understand ourselves. What does the doctrine of the Trinity tell us about the kind of God we worship and what does it say about the kind of people we should be? Here I have two points to make.

First, God does not exist as an isolated individual but in community, in relationship with many others. In other words, God is not a loner or a recluse. For Christians, it means living in relationships as well and shunning every form of individualism.  The Trinity shows us that three is community, three is love at its best. Two is not enough. A marriage is not a family. It is only two people who are living together. Not until a child comes along does it become a family; then it becomes a community, just as the Trinity is a community.

Secondly, human beings become fully human only when they are in a relationship with others and, although they may not realize it, with God. In that way, life becomes trinitarian. The doctrine of the Trinity challenges us to adopt an I-and-God-and-neighbor principle. Christians are commanded to live in a relationship of love with God and other people. Then, and only then, can we truly express our humanity. God intended human beings to live in community, as is clear from the Genesis story, when God created a helper for Adam and they both had a relationship with God -- a relationship that mirrored the relationship that exists within the Trinity.

The interrelationship between Father, Son, and Spirit has been expressed by Christian scholars using the term “perichoresis.” That’s a Greek word that can be translated as "dancing around." I like the implications of God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, engaged in a divine dance, interacting with one another, expressing their love for one another, and complementing the work each has to do. Each Person of the Trinity is engaged in a loving dance that includes all the work of all the others.

Salvation itself -- being made right with God -- proceeds from the Father who is incarnate in the Son; all this disseminated through the work of the Spirit. God’s work involves more than taking individuals to heaven when they die. God’s work is to restore his kingdom on this earth, so that all of God’s creation can know his shalom -- the peace that says all things are as God has intended them to be. God sent Jesus to bring the shalom of God to the entire creation. Today God sends Christians out into the world. Whatever work they have to do in this world, they do it from the standpoint of the triune God who has created, redeemed, and enabled them.

Don't think about the Trinity as just a doctrine, but rather as three Persons who love each other and who also love us. As followers of Jesus, the Son, we are loved by the Father, and inspired to love by the Spirit. All three persons of the Godhead are at work in our lives, in the life of the Church, and in the life of the world. As we live in new awareness of God in all God’s expressions as Father, Son, and Spirit, our spiritual lives will deepen, our vision of God’s kingdom will expand, and the work that God has chosen for us will take on a new vitality and urgency.

This image of the relational dance of God is wide enough to include us and all created things. Non-relational images of God do not allow such room, but the loving dance of Father, Son, and Spirit offers us and all creation the divine space in which to live into the fullness of our identity as children of God. The shared love of the Trinity inspires us to love all created reality. Thus we must be concerned for the environment. Climate change is real, and as humans we must accept responsibility for it.

There is a beautiful artistic depiction of the welcome that God gives into the life of the Trinity in a Russian Orthodox icon originating from the 15th century: Rublev's icon of the Holy Trinity. It depicts the story of Abraham welcoming the three visitors who represent God. The three figures in the icon are shown as angels seated at an altar table. They have identical faces, but their postures and clothing differ as though we are looking at the same figure shown in three different ways.

The way in which the figures relate to one another makes this icon so compelling. The Father looks to the Son gesturing toward this Word made flesh, Christ gazes back at the Father but points to the Spirit, and the Spirit opens up the circle to receive the viewer. Between the Spirit and the Father in the Trinity icon is an open space at the table in which the viewer is brought to sit in communion with the Godhead. Here we see an image of God’s relational circle into which we are welcomed: the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit, and the Spirit welcomes us to the table. It is a lush image of how God relates to himself and to us.

This triune God, who made himself known in the Scriptures, invites us to this relational dance. It might be a lot easier for everyone if we had a God who was a bit easier to peg down, but that is not the case. Instead we have a triune God who is difficult to explain. He reveals himself not in the minutia of doctrine but in community, in bread and wine, and in water. It is especially in the waters of baptism that we can swim in the crazy, beautiful promises of the triune God who welcomes us into the swirling dance of his love that led to Christ's sacrifice on the cross for the sake of the world.

Perhaps the Trinity is not such a dry, dusty doctrine after all, but one that bathes us with the love of God. The loving Trinity models community and inspires people to love those who are all around them, whether nearby or faraway. May that drive Christians to love Jews, Muslims, and those of other faiths or no faith at all. If this explanation has helped everyone to understand the Trinity a little better, then that is a bonus.