Archive for March, 2011

Is there a Hell?

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

I’m not the first person to ask this question, but I think it is part of a larger interesting discussion going on right now in modern Christianity.

Here’s what we know from the Bible, and in particular the New Testament.

God is infinite unconditional Love.

Man is spiritual, made in God’s image and likeness.

Life is eternal.

If we strive to follow Jesus teachings in our time on earth, we will have an opportunity to join him in a life after death where there is no more pain, sickness, or sorrow.

If we choose to follow some other path, there is still a life after death, but it is similar to the life lived by those who have publically turned their back on God and refuse to accept His love.  This life has been described as tormented, tortured, burning, etc.  The Bible uses the word Hell.

Hopefully we are all on the same page at least this far.

From a Biblical perspective I’m not sure that we can go much further, because anything beyond this point is speculation based on how you view what we can glean from the Bible.

Given that caveat, I’ll share my view of what makes sense to me.

I don’t believe that an all-knowing God who is the source of all love (not just loving) would create someone who ultimately would be consigned to an eternity of pain and torment from which there is no escape.

I also know that there are many who don’t see any contradiction between an eternity in Hell and a loving God.

I do.

My sense of the relationship between God and man is that God so loved us that He gave us the ability to choose whether or not we want to accept His love.  Those who pass from this life to the next having accepted God’s love, are capable of experiencing God’s full embrace – a life where love is all there is.  For those people, life will be about just learning to love more.  Since God is infinite, that is the work of eternity.

Those who have rejected God’s love may experience something very different.   They will know, as they have always known, that God’s love is there, but they won’t be able to accept it after death because they had rejected it in their lives.  They won’t be able to accept it because they created barriers in this life to keep God out and those barriers won’t magically vanish just because they no longer have a body.  It will take at least as much effort to take those barriers down as it took to put them up in the first place.

What they will feel instead is a huge empty void of nothingness which they themselves created.  They will now have to confront and overcome all of the obstacles that they put between themselves and God, all the while knowing that the pain they are experiencing is self-inflicted.   The journey for these people is also about learning to love more, but depending on their starting point, the effort could be quite hellish.

So then we get back to the fundamental question.  Is there a Hell?  I believe that we all create our own Hell and our own Heaven based on our willingness to accept and fully embrace God’s love.

Hypocrite

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

“For what is the hope of the hypocrite, though he hath gained, when God taketh away his soul?” Job 27: 9

Job is an interesting story.  Job perseveres in the face of terrible trials and refused to lose his faith in God.  He makes this particular comment about hypocrites who may appear to be profiting from their deceptions, but God ultimately will hold everyone accountable for their acts.

It’s appropriate on St. Patrick ’s Day to talk about Rep Peter King who is a hypocrite.

He recently opened hearings condemning Muslims for terrorism and raising the specter of domestic terrorist acts at the hands of radicalize Muslims.  He first picked up this banner several years ago in his public opposition to plans to build a mosque near ground zero in Manhattan.  He has now expanded this to a national focus on all Muslim activities in this country with quotes like, “Unfortunately, we have too many mosques in this country”, “85% of American Muslim community leaders are an enemy living among us”, and “The fact is while the overwhelming majority of Muslims are outstanding people, on the other hand 100% of the Islamic terrorists are Muslims and that is our main enemy today.”

Mr. King is following the well worn script that folks like Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn used in the 50’s to rise from obscurity to power.  Their target was communists.

Xenophobia works in this country, whether it is Mexicans, Japanese, Germans, Italians, Irish, or Africans.  There has always been a racist streak in this country that unscrupulous politicians periodically use to promote their own ambitions.

What is interesting about this particular effort is that Mr. King earlier in his political career was a staunch public supporter of the IRA.

When recently confronted with this seeming contraction between his support of the IRA and his criticism of radical Muslims, Mr. King refused to admit that the IRA was a terrorist organization.  They were in his eyes freedom fighters against an oppressive British regime.

As The New York Times reported, King told a Long Island rally in 1982, “We must pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry.” As for the civilian toll of the I.R.A.’s terror campaign, King shrugged his shoulders and said, “If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the I.R.A. for it.”

So how does King justify the 1800 deaths attributable to the IRA as somehow different from the 3000 deaths caused by Al Qaeda on 9/11?

King says, “the I.R.A. never attacked the United States. And my loyalty is to the United States.”

To his credit, King was instrumental in helping promote the peace agreements which ultimately ended the uprising in Northern Ireland.  Unfortunately he hasn’t seemed to learn much from that experience and appears determined to paint Muslims with a different brush than he used for his Irish relatives.

Walk the Jesus Talk

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

So what did Jesus REALLY say and how are today’s followers doing in following that philosophy.

The comparisons here are drawn from a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Pubic life.

You can pick and choose from Bible quotes, but most all Bible scholars agree on the following fundamental points.  So let’s start first with hopefully the facts that we can all agree on.

Jesus preached mercy and forgiveness.  He encouraged us to be loving, peaceful, and non-violent.  He said that the rich would have to work hardest to get into heaven.  In fact he advised the wealthy to give freely to the poor first before coming to follow him.

So how do the Evangelicals and Fundamentalist Christians fare on this survey.  They are the ones who claim to go to church every Sunday, read the Bible regularly, listen to Christian music, and put Jesus at the center of their daily lives.

On mercy and forgiveness, they are the most supportive of the death penalty, harsh prison sentences rather than rehabilitation, and torture of our enemies.

How about peaceful lives?  They are the most supportive of gun ownership and aggressive use of military force to advance our international interests.

What about the distribution of wealth?  They are the most supportive of an unregulated business environment and least supportive of institutional help for the poor.  They are most opposed to anything that smacks of “socialism”, even though Jesus preached a gospel of the rich being responsible for the welfare of the poor.

So how do these most devout Christians resolve this seeming dichotomy between their political views and the teachings of the person that they claim to worship?

I can provide some historical background.

At the end of WWI, the Fundamentalist Evangelical movement sprang up in populist response to the intellectual influence of the Social Gospel.  These conservative Christians claimed that liberal churches had lost their way under the influence of foreign ideas from German Rationalism, to Soviet Communism, and of course Darwinism.  In the 1950’s the movement gained some steam as it piggybacked on anti-communist paranoia.  The civil rights movement of the 60’a created a perfect storm for liberal white southern churches.  Whether it is was the knee jerk backlash to liberalism or the social turmoil caused by federally imposed desegregation, soon there wasn’t a liberal white church left south of the Mason Dixon line.  The remaining conservative southern white churches felt their whole way of life was under attack.  It’s not surprising that their Christianity morphed into a patriotic southern nationalist movement that stood firm against the integrated 50’s, the free love 60’s, and anti-war 70’s.

In the process, charity became confused with subversive collectivism.  The moral justification of Johnson’s Great Society was rejected by these churches.  They saw it as an unjust imposition of federal power, immoral social engineering, and a stalking horse for integration.  The Viet Nam debacle and Watergate only re-enforced the view that liberals viewed patriotism as unfashionable.  Even though Carter was a southern evangelical, his inability to free the Iran hostages confirmed the view that liberalism was a much bigger sin than being “unchurched”.  Reagan was the best example of that.  He embodied all that was good and true for fundamentalist Christians because he confronted liberalism, unionism, and communism.  They projected their religious beliefs onto him, even though he had little in common with them as a twice married Hollywood movie star with little interest in religion.   Under Reagan, the gospel of prosperity subtly replaced the gospel of self-denial.  The peaceful and meek Jesus was replaced by an angry Jesus who rewarded the righteous and punished the socially liberal.  This proved a particularly winning formula for a new breed of mega-church pastors.  When the Terminator gained “most favored Jesus” status, all pastors had to do was pick out a different target for righteous wrath each week.  The pulpit messages became simpler.  The congregations grew more politically polarized.  Church coffers filled and Republican candidates starting talking about social values and their personal relationship with God.

Religion in this country became a Rorschach Test.  People were able to pick and chose what they liked from their religious traditions and ignore the rest.  Rather than change their lives to follow Jesus, they were able to change their view of what Jesus would do to suit the sort of lives that they wanted to live.  They felt no cognitive dissonance with the kind, peace-loving, socialist Jesus of the Bible because that’s not the Jesus they worshiped.  They simply rejected those descriptions of Jesus as part of a pervasive liberal conspiracy to undermine the conservative political movement.  Instead their view of Jesus came from the vast echo chamber that grew up around fundamentalism and conservatism.

There are some mega church pastors who have been taking a stand in an effort to re-introduce the Biblical Jesus to their congregations.  These New Evangelicals feel that fundamentalism has lost track of the heart of Christianity.  Rick Warren of Purpose Driven Life is a great example.  He said, “”I deeply believe that if we as evangelicals remain silent and do not speak up in defense of the poor, we lose our credibility and our right to witness about God’s love for the world,”.   Rob Bell is another who has written “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” where he suggests that the Biblical Jesus didn’t consign non-Christians to hell.

The backlash from Christian Conservatives has been harsh.  These new prophets of the Biblical Jesus have been called everything from false teachers to servants of the devil, but that’s not surprising.  Jesus teaching was difficult for the religious establishment to accept during his time too because it required his followers to change their lives.  Some were willing to do that, and others, particularly those who had great wealth or great political power were not.

Christian Conservatives have every right to live their lives in whatever way they choose.  They can support corporate greed, militarism, the death penalty, and gun violence while opposing food stamps, welfare, early childhood education, and healthcare for the poor.  They can also justify those political positions as fiscally prudent or socially responsible.  They can talk about the value or personal responsibility, the wisdom of the marketplace, and the folly of big government.  In this country they can embrace all of the aspects of political conservatism without fear of reprisal.

Where they mislead themselves and the rest of the country, however, is when they call themselves Christian.

One God?

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Some readers of this blog have asked where the Christian component is in the political commentary that I’ve been writting about lately. 

My only defense is that there has been a lot going on politically that merited comment.  But I haven’t stopped thinging about religious issues, so here is the first of a couple of posts on the subject.

Two related data points recently caught my eye.

Our telescopes discovered that there are may be millions of planets where life as we know it is possible.

And.

A recent report suggests that a NASA scientist found the remains of fossilized bacteria in a meteor.

The meteor research has been widely criticized, but both items bring up an interesting question.

What happens when we finally find out that there is life on another planet?

I think it likely that we are not alone in the universe.  It just doesn’t make sense from a purely statistical point of view.  But we as a civilization haven’t thought about it much.  How will it affect our view of ourselves as made in the image and likeness of our maker?

When we do find “alien” life, it could trigger disruptions akin to what happened to the Catholic Church when they finally had to admit that the universe didn’t revolve around the earth.

Let’s take just a couple of issues.

Evolution
When we discover that there is life on another planet, how does that square with the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible which says that God created the world in six days?  It becomes impossible to support the claims against evolution once we find that life evolved on another planet at a different time and even more challenging could have been the source of life getting started on this one.

Fundamentalist Christianity
Fundamentalists believe that if you aren’t a Christian, you are going to hell.  That’s tough enough to deal with when we are talking about children who pass on with no knowledge of Christianity, but what about whole worlds that have no way to have ever been exposed to the concept of Christianity?  Are they all going to hell?  Could that really be the plan for a loving God?

Alien Gods
If you think about how Christians responded to the discovery of primitive civilizations around the world, it is not too much of a stretch to envision alien civilizations motivated by the same thing, but in this case, we are the primitives.

Alien Bible
Christians already have problems with the other non-Christian religious traditions that exist in this world.  How are we going to react when we finally contact alien civilizations and learn of their spiritual traditions?

Dominion
There is this concept of the human race being endowed by God to dominate and subdue the earth.  So through our deliberate or inadvertent activities, various species have gone extinct.  Do we also have dominion on other planets?  How can we avoid affecting life on other planets through even the simple act of exploring them?  Think about how smallpox, for example, decimated the Native American population.  How do we think alien civilizations who will likely be more advanced than us, will treat this problem when and if they choose to make contact with us?

My sense is that if you really look at Jesus teachings, they transcend time and place.  They may not be fully understood or practiced by all those who call themselves Christian, but they are reflected in the traditions of all great religions.  So I suspect that any alien civilization that is able to find us will likely reflect the same basic philosophy even though they may have arrived at it through a different path.

Their evaluation of our civilization will likely depend in part on how well we have learned to practice the philosophies that we preach. 

Next up, Walking the Jesus Talk.

Who Moved My Cheese?

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

If there was any question in your mind, a recent Forbes article pretty much laid out the issues in Wisconsin.

This is NOT about salaries.

The Wisconsin public service unions have already agreed to wage concessions. 

It is also NOT about budget shortfalls. 

Wisconsin’s current budget is balanced.

It is partly about pension obligations.

ALL of the money going into the union pension plans comes from the salaries of those participating in the pension program.  There is NO taxpayer money currently funding any pension payments to retired union workers. 

The problem is that the State of Wisconsin decided like a lot of other states that it wanted to be in the insurance business and they weren’t very good at it.  Now hard times have hit the state and they aren’t sure that they will have the money required to fund pension obligations at some point in the future. 

That’s not the fault of the union.  They have certainly kept their part of the bargain.  They paid in their money and the state promised to use that money to fund their retirement.  The terms and conditions are clear.  It’s all in the contract between the state and the union.

Rather than figure some honorable way to keep the state’s obligations to their public sector workers, the new Governor has manufactured a crisis in an attempt to break the union, void their contracts, and strip public workers of the right to organize and bargain as a group in the future. 

But that wasn’t enough.  The right wing media has jumped on the bandwagon and has been demonizing union members as greedy, lazy, and incompetent.

This is particularly interesting in the context of the last two years of Republican championing of bailouts and tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.  I haven’t done the math, but I suspect that the amount of money that we are spending on those tax cuts could easily fund the pension shortfalls that states like Wisconsin are projecting.

This isn’t even the most disturbing thing that the new governor has proposed.  Besides slashing budgets and handing out huge tax breaks to corporations, he has a new rule on his desk which would require a supermajority (2/3 vote) to increase taxes.  This raises hubris to dangerous level.  He is so convinced that he is right that he is willing to sacrifice the basic democratic process of majority rule in order to protect legislation he was able to enact during a brief period where he has the votes to do it. 

Why would he even suggest something like unless he was fearful of being turned out of office?

This is how demogogs operate, not elected officials.  They get elected in a wave of discontent and then dismantle the process by which they and their policies can be voted out.

Can you imagine the uproar if Obama even suggested a similar rule regarding changes to his healthcare legislation?

Current polls show strong support for the public sector workers position even though there wasn’t much support for unions in general.  I predict that that Governor Walker will fail and as will similar attempts in other states.  We will see a resurgence of organized labor to make sure that the working man’s story gets out there.  This may spell the beginning of the end for the tea party too.  They are going to find themselves more and more out of step with mainstream America and will find increased organized opposition to their radical conservative agenda.