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Sunday, December 30, 2012

College makes (another) atheist.


It seems like everywhere I go lately, I've been confronted with evidence of gross anti-Christian bias in public high school and colleges.  I've run into professors who mock Christian students publicly (but don't want to be challenged by other scholars), or assume that their job is to deprogram the children under their command.  I've run into grade school textbooks that brainwash 12 or 15 year olds to think of Mohammed as a true prophet of God, and Jesus as an iffy historical also-ran. 

The pot is beginning to bubble.  I don't much mind when people attack me.  But when they go after the kids, my skin starts turning green. 

A few days ago, a young new contributor to the Skeptic Ink Network community introduced himself.  His name is Peter Ferguson, and he is a doctoral candidate at the National University Galway, where he established the Atheist Humanist Society.  (Side note: In naming your anti-God organization, please don't place two words side by side that both end in -ist, then add an "s" after the final "st" -- making unpleasant hissing for tongue and ears.)

Anyway, Peter posted his autobiography, and I noticed a familiar pattern. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Give an atheist a holiday hug!

I used to post occasionally on P.Z. Myers' popular site, Pharungula, for some reason, and still receive updates on new posts from the Free Thought Blogs community. 

What a downer, right after Christmas, and just before New Years!  Do these people ever need some good cheer! 

Here are five of the topics posted on this morning:

Perspectives: Dai village


This village was just a few miles from the Vietnamese border inside China. Getting there involved buses up and down spectacular mountains, whose lower slopes were covered with banana trees or rice terraces, and winding through villages of several different minorities.  The people in this village belonged to a minority within a minority, a non-Buddhist subgroup of the Dai.  (The Dai are closely related to Thais, especially northern Thais. Some of them used a strange old written language with hundreds of letters, that I tried to learn.)  You might round a corner in this village and find a little water mill, or a girl with a flower in her hair.  Hot water ran out of the ground and into a large bathing pool just around the corner.  I'm afraid to think how this little bit of Shang La has changed since. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Why Secular Humanists should celebrate Christmas!

It's Christmas morning.  They were forecasting snow for higher elevations, maybe even a little for us poor in Christmas spirit in the lower elevations, but so far only wind has shown up.  Everyone else is still in bed, the stockings set out.  The Christmas Eve party at my sister's was not short of good food, and I enjoyed the game and the walk through the neighborhood to see Christmas lights -- let's be frank, though, it wasn't the same without Dad.  And my brother is home, recovering from surgery on his knee after tackling a minor perp on the Seattle subway a few weeks ago, and waiting to begin his new job as under-sheriff of a small county police department along the Columbia River.  (Where he polices the salmon very well, too.)

The twelve days of Christmas have run out: time for this series to finish, as well. 

The truth is, it's pretty easy to get most people belonging to the first three religious groups -- Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims -- to admit that it makes sense to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  Secular Humanists are sometimes, to use the seasonal expression, a harder nut to crack.  But let's give it a whirl. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Is Christmas Ahistorical? Jonathan Pearce compares apples and oranges.

A British skeptic and writer who blogs in SIN (Skeptic Ink Network, not the motley crowd of vices, hopefully), made one of those daft comparisons this morning that helps focus and clarify thinking about history:

So let us look at the claims of the (only two) Gospels which actually mention the birth of Jesus. Which is itself a problem, worse than if only two biographies of Abraham Lincoln actually mentioned his assassination!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Loftus: Marshall hates science! (Well do you, punk?)

Every age, said Jacques Ellul in his important work Propaganda, creates its own myths, to which propagandists must always appeal, or no one will listen to them.  "Democracy" and "Socialism" were among the myths Ellul named, but in his time and ours "Science" is no doubt the most celebrated such myth. 

"Aha!"  I hear a reader saying.  "Marshall is finally showing his true colors!  He called science a 'myth!'  He's trying to drag it down to the level of faith!  This proves he has  a low view of science!  Under the facade he's just another science-denying faith-addict!"

Thanks for dropping by, John.  I'll hear you out, and explain where you -- and most Gnus -- go wrong about science, reason, and faith -- again.  (And where you go wrong in "reading" my book, as philosopher Victor Reppert was quick to recognize). 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why Plantinga's EAAN Fails (I think).

Last Sunday, the Seattle Seahawks beat the Arizona Cardinals 58-0.  Isn't a rout by your team a grand and marvelous thing?  I called my younger brother up, and we agreed Dad, a dedicated Seahawks fan, would have really enjoyed that game. 

Something seems to have somehow been programmed into our brains that delights in crushing, easy victories.  The New Atheists have a dozen sure-fire, slam-dunk arguments against Christianity that they regularly use, and John Loftus is inventing new ones every month or so.  When I was a boy, I thought Noah's Ark had been found on Mount Ararat.  Wouldn't that be wonderful if it had been?  See!  There's the elephant's stall!  What's an elephant doing at 15,000 feet? 

Slam dunk!  Christianity is utter foolishness.  The Bible is proven beyond all doubt.

In Annie Hall, Woody Allen is standing in the line for a movie by Marshall McCluhan, and gets into an argument with a Columbia professor who is also in line.  Just then, McCluhan himself wanders by, and jumps in on Allen's side, telling the prof, "You know nothing about my work!"  Allen turns to the camera and says, "Don't you wish life was like that?" 


Alvin Plantinga
Greater minds than mine seem to succomb to this desire.  Take, for example, a "slam dunk" argument against naturalism, put forward first by C. S. Lewis, then by Alvin Plantinga, in more detail.  I'm one of Lewis' biggest fans.  And there is no doubt that Plantinga is a great thinker, with a perspective on faith quite different from that of Lewis.  If the two agree on anything, how likely that what they agree on is wrong?

Yet I think what Plantinga calls the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism is, in fact, mistaken. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A review and an interview

Last Wednesday, Tom Gilson, one of the editors of True Reason, posted a review of our new book Faith Seeking Understanding at his popular "Thinking Christian" blog. 

Today, one of the contributors to the book, the Canadian philosopher Randal Rauser (a philosophizing machine) posted an interview of the book's editor -- myself -- along with his own thoughts about the book.

That's all I have to report. 

So this post is little short, isn't it?  I was thinking of adding something off-the-wall about Heroditus and Plato, but maybe I'll save that for later.  I hope you'll follow the links and enjoy the stories. 

Happy 12/12/12.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Into the Jungle with Don Richardson

The following is an excerpt from Chapter Eight of Faith Seeking Understanding: "A Conversation with Don Richardson."  Those who have read Don's Peace Child may find this part of the interview especially interesting; there's lots more in the full interview.  There's still time to get the book by Christmas!  Order from us, and we'll gift-wrap it and mail to to your friend. 
 
 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Perspective: fantasy pond


The pool made of Christmas lights at Bellevue Botanical Garden.  This is just part of a marvelous display -- pulsing jellyfish, grapes the size and suculence of those the spys brought back from Canaan, a spider in a web, dragonflies, flowing streams, even a Christmas tree! -- that fills the park.  This is the first year we've gone to see the display.  John took this picture, very patiently waiting for the crowds to get out of the way, and to get the right angle. Fortunately they were selling hot chocolate to our backs.  Not visible: delicate dragon flies, giant frogs with rounded limbs.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Why Buddhists Should Celebrate Christmas!

The second of a planned five or six . . . Click here for "Why Hindus Should Celebrate Christmas," and for why I am writing this series -- if that needs explanation!


(12) Chinese Buddhists never wanted to stop eating pork in the first place.  The movie Mulan ("pork, beef, chicken") gets that right.  At the very least, think of Christmas as a good excuse for a ham dinner!

(11) When I lived in Hong Kong's New Territories in 1984, I remember watching a family that dwelled in a hovel on the coast, snapping plastic Christmas ornaments together.  Nowadays, Costco is full of toys made in China.  For the past few decades, countries that are largely Buddhist have made a mint on Christmas.  
White Horse Temple outside of Luoyang, the first
"official" Buddhist temple in China.  The temple was named
for the white horse that brought Buddhist sutras to Emperor
Ming after he was told in a dream to send his servants
west to fetch them.  Some Christian missionaries suggest
the servants fetched the wrong scriptures. 
(10) Japanese like to think of Christmas as a romantic holiday, and also like Christmas cake, which I believe is an English tradition.  This is fitting.  Christmas is a love story between our Creator and the human race.  And since it's Jesus' birthday, and since Japanese cakes taste so good -- they use whipped cream, not frosting, and add lots of fresh fruits -- what better than a birthday cake for the Lover of our Souls? 
By the Song Dynasty Zen painter, Mu Qi; the atmosophere
is that of the southern Song capital, Hangzhou, where
he renovated a monastery.
(9) Buddhism has usually adapted to other cultures well, even to the point of syncretism, which is why the Buddhist artistic tradition is so rich: the esoteric blue tones of the Tang Dynasty, mandalas representing the Buddhist cosmos in vividly colored detail, the misty suggestiveness of Song landscapes inspired by Zen, gaudy jataka tales splashed on banners hanging down from Theraveda temples.  Rejecting the art of Christmas would be un-Buddhist.

(8) Indian Buddhists lost God, and were trying to recover him.  That is the meaning of certain parts of the Lotus Sutra, in which a single bodhisattva becomes an omnipotent, all-knowing being that surpasses all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas.  Indian philosophy had become too navel-gazing and introverted, and left India thirsty for a God outside themselves.  But as John Farquhar writes:

“The religious experience of India throughout the centuries has consistently demanded a personal God: that is the lesson of the whole history of the great sects, and of Buddhism and Jainism as well . . . The whole history of Hinduism thus proves that man cannot live without a personal God.”
(7) The Dalai Lama's mother thinks several of her most famous son's siblings were killed by ghosts.  Perhaps instead they died of diseases of infancy.  Theists invented modern science, and followers of Jesus created European science.  Because of that science, Buddhist mothers do not have to worry as much about their children dying in the cradle -- a concern Mother Mary had, too, if for different reasons.

(6) The boddhisattva Di Zang (Ksitigarbha) is beloved for trying to save hungry ghosts and beings that are in hell.  Jesus is said to have preached to those in hell.  Maybe, as C. S. Lewis suggests in his wonderful novel, The Great Divorce, some listened and repented.  That would be something to celebrate. 
Buddha, a disciple, and (I think) a bodhisattva, at Longmen
Shiku, outside Luoyang. Marigolds at Buddha's feet indicate
the scale of these magnificant carvings.  Buddha's
size reflect an hierarchical politics that Buddhism
has seldom challenged, but that needed challenging. 
(5) Buddha was no politician, though some schools of Buddhism have involved themselves intensely in politics.  Esoteric Buddhists have sometimes promised to bring political salvation.  Indeed, the monk Bu Kong claimed to save the Tang Dynasty from a huge Tibetan hoard by his incantations.  The Lei Zang temple of the esoteric True Buddha sect, which I studied for my MA, displayed slogans carrying conventional wishes in Chinese for the peace and prosperity of the nation -- whether referring to the United States, or Taiwan, I don't know. 

Many Buddhist countries have become more democratic and prosperous because of the news of Jesus Christ, including Taiwan, Korea, and Thailand, so far.  That's something great to celebrate. 

(4) Women were not oppressed in Buddhist countries as terribly as in traditional Hindu or Muslim countries, but it was generally assumed that they needed to be reincarnated as a man to gain enlightenment.  Buddhism seemed to set little obstacle in front of the oppressive practice of footbinding, that caught on during the Song Dynasty, when Buddhism was highly influential.  Unlike most Buddhist monks, Jesus had female disciples, whom he showed every sign of respecting, and who could gain salvation as quickly as the men.

Indeed, while the birth of Jesus may not have involved sex, Christmas celebrates motherhood, which usually does involve sex.  Buddha called his son "Obstacle," which does not seem very kind.  The Gospel shows that salvation can come through a woman, and through a baby.  Buddhists have often felt more attracted to the family than Buddhist philosophy encouraged them to be: Joseph, Mary, and the babe, "wrapped in swadling clothes, laying in the manger," show how the divine can liberate us to be more human. 

(3) The Dalai Lama has advized Buddhists to copy the good works he has witnessed Christians doing in India.  The work of Christian missionaries inspired a creative reinterpretation of Buddhist compassion that has served as a blessing to both Buddhists and non-Buddhists.  (Especially through organizations like the CiJi Foundation, which used to deliver rice, for instance, to a Christian drug rehab center I often visited in Taiwan.)  Competition in good works can be a very good thing, especially when it is carried out in that spirit. 

(2) The great Chinese scholar Hu Shi criticized Buddhism for deprecating the life of human beings, even to the point of celebrating monks who burnt themselves to death.  He believed that the slow influence of Buddhism in China, from the Tang and then increasingly in the Song and later, undermined traditional Chinese humanism.  I am not sure the story is that simple: the earliest historical Chinese dynasty, the Shang, practiced widespread human sacrifice. 

Christ is fully human, and Christmas celebrates the humanity of God.  Yet Christ also offers hope beyond the grave, which accounts for Buddhism's popularity in East Asia.  If Jesus really has found a way to be both more human and to hope to transcend humanity some day, that is a hope eminently worth celebrating. 

(1) Mahayana Buddhists love stories about a god or goddess who dies to redeem humanity. The most popular deity in China, also probably Korea and Japan, is the goddess Guan Yin (Kannon), of whom the Lotus Sutra wrote:

“Suppose you are thrown into a large pit of fire
By someone who has an intention of killing you
If you think of the power of (Guan Yin)
The pit of fire will change into a pond of water.

Suppose you are in a ship drifting on a great ocean
Where dragons, fish and devils are rampant
If you think of the power of (Guan Yin)
The ship will not be sunk by the waves . . .

 Suppose you are sentenced to death,
And the sword is drawn to behead you.
If you think of the power of (Guan Yin)
The sword will suddenly break asunder.”
 
The gospels describe Jesus doing similiar acts of mercy and salvation, but rather than in a mythological style like the tales of Guan Yin, in the style of Greek biography, with many indications of historical truthfulness, detail, and honest reporting.  Supposing God really did come in human form to save sinners?  Does not Mahayana Buddhism prepare us for that eventuality?  In that case, would that not be most worth celebrating of all?
 
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

And -- thank God -- East Asia, too.

Next: Why Muslims should celebrate Christmas!

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Oxygen Causes Cancer!

This prophetic little piece is from my high school newspaper, the Chinook. I wrote it shortly before or after turning 18.  (The date scribbled on the page is May 2, which is after my birthday, but I think it was published as part of the paper's April Fool's Edition, before my birthday.)  It not only anticipates later trends in government-sanctioned paranoia; it also anticipates the role nutritionists now recognize oxidizing agents actually DO play in causing cancer.  "Buckley" is a small town in Washington, which hosts an institution for the mentally disabled; it's similarity to the name of a town in California with intellectual pretensions is not coincidental, and perhaps marks the author of this piece as developing his present immaturity at an unusually early age. 

Why am I running this?  Aside from the fact that I haven't outrun that bad sense of humor yet, and a fit of nostalgia, I may also be stalling for  time.  I don't want to think anymore, today, and the subject I want to blog on next may require some fresh thoughts.  -- DM


Buckley, WA -- Scientists have discovered a substance in the atmosphere which they have linked to cancer.  This substance, known as oxygen, is labeled extremely hazardous by the Food and Drug Administration. 

The FDA has decided on a law requiring oxygen to be screened in all populated areas, except Los Angeles and West Seattle High School, neither of which have atmosopheres containing significant amounts of oxygen

"In the beginning, I see some difficulty in enforcing the law," said a police spokesman.  "Some people have the habit of breathing deeply engrained in them."

"However, once people realize how dangerous oxygen is, they will accept and obey the new law, just as they have the 55-mile speed limit."

The five-year government-funded study by Buckley scientists yielded an astonishing fact.  Researchers discovered that everyone inhaling oxygen in the ancient civilization of Rome died.

One test with female aardvarks showed that 0.00000000013% of all 'varks injested with three megatons of oxygen every ten minutes for 53 years developed some signs of malignancy in the left pinky toenail.  In the group of aardvarks not allowed oxygen, very, very, very few died of cancer. 

Other Buckley research icludes a study financed by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare on the question, "Where do baby storks come from?"

Another test is on the feasibility of screening tap water of the impurity H20, which when combined with a long life can cause cancer.  Scientists hope that by 1984 tap water will be at least 89% chlorine and only 11% H20. 

Monday, December 03, 2012

Why Hindus should celebrate Christmas!

One of America's most cherished traditions is the holiday bash.  By that I mean, every December, secularists and traditionalists bash one another over Christmas -- or "the holidays" as the secularists call the season, for some odd reason.  (Since the idea of a holy day itself would seem anathema to atheists.)  This year, for instance, Lincoln Chaffee, governor of Rhode Island, made a point of lighting a "holiday tree" at the State House.  Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly raked him over the coals for this. 

One irony of this dispute to me, is that in the parts of Asia where I have lived, and where there are still relatively few Christians, no one seems to feel much angst about forthrightly celebrating Christmas.  In Chinese it's called "Holiday of the Holy Birth." Whose birth is being celebrating is no secret at all, since the approximate date since that birth is printed at the top of every newspaper.  In practical England, where churches have largely emptied out, not even Ebenezzar Scrooge seems to complain about the word "Christmas," still less the period of merriment it signals.  Signs appear outside every restaurant a month or two in advance, inviting citizens to hold their Christmas feasts at those establishments -- what's to be offended by, when the king is the official head of the Church of Lukewarm Anglicans? 

But in the United States, where Christmas has been an official federal holiday since the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, all this has somehow become very controversial. 

Why is that?  Why should we celebrate the birth of a Jewish preacher who was born over 2000 years ago in the Roman Empire?  Shouldn't we celebrate the winter solstice, or Hannakah (a minor Jewish holiday, in a country where Jews are a small minority), or Kwanzaa, whatever that is supposed to be? 

I don't want to pick a fight with Rhode Island.  But not only because of tradition, but for the best of secular reasons, I think everyone should join us Christians in celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. 

Last week I took my boys to see a wonderful film called The Life of Pi.  In that film, the main character's father notes with disapproval how his son is trying to be a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian, all once.  He tells Pi, "Why not adopt three more religions, and make every day a holiday?" 

On some important respects, Christmas already gives us to celebrate every day -- and not just us Christians. 

So let's start with the Hindus, and count reasons why Hindus should celebrate Christmas.  Last year, I blogged the 12 Books of Christmas.  This year, I already named ten times as many books explaining the difference Jesus' birth has made to humanity as a whole.  (That doesn't mean I'll post 1200 next year!)  This year, I'll also give twelve reasons why each of the world's great non-Christian religious groups should come carolling with us, and even Lincoln Chaffee should tag along, too.

12 Reasons Hindus Should Celebrate Christmas

(12)  India needs a quiet holiday after Devali. 

(11) Commonwealth solidarity. 

(10) India does, after all, contain tens of millions of Christians, who contribute a great deal to India, not least in medicine and education. 

(9) Many of India's greatest reformers were deeply influenced by Jesus: Ram Mohan Roy, William Carey, Keshab Chandra Sen, Pandita Ramabai, Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Teresa. 

(8) Jesus reconciles the importance the Vedas and Indian tradition place on sacrifice, with Gandhi's feeling that the sacrifice of innocent animals (and human beings) is immoral.  We don't sacrifice animals anymore, not because the Rig Veda was totally wrong, but because it was more right than it knew -- God is the sacrifice! 

(7) As Ed Vivwanathan explains in his Hindu primer, Am I a Hindu?, even from a Hindu perspective, one can easily believe that Jesus truly did take much of the karma of (at least his close) disciples upon himself.  What a relief that must be! 

(6) Lower castes should celebrate the birth of Jesus, because their lot in life has improved greatly (by and large, there are exceptions) since the news of Jesus arrived in India, and inspired reform. 

(5) As Robert Woodberry points out, the influence of biblically-based missions -- Protestant in particular -- is largely responsible for a vibrant print culture, widespread education, and the growth of democracy in India, as elsewhere.  (Some of it due to the direct actions of reformist Protestant missionaries, and some due to the competition those actions inspired to good works from Hindus and Muslims.)  Vishal Mangalwadi tells the story of the remarkable variety of scientific, educational, linguistic, and reform achievements Carey and his colleagues accomplished, in several of his books.   

(4) Tribes in eastern India have a lot to celebrate on Christmas Day.  Penniless and illiterate headhunters early in the 20th Century, some tribes are now better educated than lowland Indians, because of the influence of the Christian message.  (In some cases, with barely a missionary to bring it -- the story of one tribe is told in a fascinating film with a title like "Beyond the Next Mountain," about the amazing life of Rochunga Pudaite, and what happened to the Hmar people.)

(3) Hinduism might well have been almost entirely swallowed by Islam by this time, had British imperialists not provided a counter-weight.  The early imperialists, however, were ruthless, until evangelical reformers began to force England to treat its Indian subjects with respect and with their well-being in mind. 

(2) Indian women should sing especially exhuberant carols to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  His influence brought about a higher status for women in India: ending the burning of widows, combatting forced prostitution and sacrifice of infants, introducing medicines that prolong life, starting schools for girls.  (For a general over-view, start here.  There is a lot more to be done, however.) 

(1) Jesus, J. N. Farquhar argued in a book by that title, is the "Crown of Hinduism," who not only challenges evil and reforms corrupt institutions, but also fulfills many of the deepest truths embraced over the centuries by Indian tradition.  Jesus makes sense of the blood sacrifice of the Rig Veda, in which God sacrifices himself for the salvation of the world, as Banarjea pointed out in the 19th Century.  He shows that God is compassionate, the best of Buddhist morality.  He puts loving worship at the heart of devotion, like the bhakti schools.  He shows how God can be incarnated among us, an avatar, a sadguru who really does "lead us out of the darkness, into the light." 

Next: "Why Buddhists Should Celebrate Christmas!" 

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Miriam Adeney: Jesus and World Religions

Chapter Five of Faith Seeking Understanding is by Dr. Miriam Adeney, a well-known anthropologist and missiologist who teaches at Seattle Pacific University.  (I have taught in one of her classes.)  Miriam is the author of many book about world Christianity, including Daughters of Islam and Kingdom Without Borders: The Untold Story of Global Christianity, which I am presently reading.  She also teaches writing, and is herself -- as you will devine, shortly -- a wonderful writer.  This excerpt is from the first chapter in Part II of Faith Seeking Understanding, "Christ and Culture," which features four of the most fascinating writers I know on this intriguing topic.  I was delighted when Miriam agreed to share her thoughts on Christianity and world religions, and even more delighted when I first read her piece -- personal in tone, simple in style, informed by more than just book-learning, orthodox, yet warm and generous in its approach to non-Christian faiths


Buddhism:  Pain

Life hurts. I have suffered my share. Beyond personal losses, I am troubled by global hunger, HIV/AIDS, deaths in childbirth, and the abuse and denial of opportunities suffered by millions. On my mind now are Iranian Christians in prison. One pastor’s wife has just agonized through her fourth miscarriage while penned up in a cell. Sometimes the pain of the world seems too much to bear.   

Buddhism offers a way forward. If I can see that suffering is pervasive, if I can recognize that it is exacerbated by my own desires, and if I can learn to quench my desire, then peace will come.  In a nutshell, this sums up the first three “Noble Truths.”    My Thai friend Chaiyun Ukosakul, who became a Christian as an adult, summarizes what he was taught: “When I am angry, a tiger grows in my heart. But when I am enlightened, the tiger dies.”

Buddhism invites me to let things go. I must not cling to things, or relationships, or truths. I must hold everything in an open hand. It is all passing away anyway.  When I was in Indonesia a few years ago, I climbed up a huge stone structure called Borobodor.  Built more than a thousand years ago, this monument is as large as a city block. On the lower levels, the stone carvings were intricate, elaborate, lyrical, mellifluous retellings of episodes from the life of the Buddha. As I rose higher, I saw that the carving became sparer, until at the top the decoration was minimal. The closed domed pinnacle is said to contain emptiness. And that is the destination I seek, according to Buddhism. That is my goal as I shuffle off unnecessary desires.  When I no longer drag baggage around, how much lighter I will feel. 

Kukrit Pramoj, former Prime Minister of Thailand and also a famous novelist, once wrote a short Buddhist reflection on the gospel.[1] The main character in Pramoj’s story was a blind man named Bartimaus. Every day Bartimaus made his way to the outdoor market, tapping along with his walking stick. There he sat down. Vendors greeted him, and dropped a little food in his bowl. Birds sang. Children laughed. A woman named Ruth befriended him, and over time they fell in love.

Then Bartimaus heard that Jesus was coming through town, and that Jesus could heal the blind. “Have mercy on me, and heal my eyes!” Bartimaus called out.  

Jesus did.

Suddenly Bartimaus tranquil routine was shattered. He saw the sewage and the flies, the vendors’ faces lined with weariness and resentment, the children dressed in rags, their skin pocked with sores. Ruth had been through a terrible fire, he knew. Now he saw the gross burn that oozed where her face should have been, and could not stand to look at her.

Later he saw Jesus crucified. Then he fell to his knees and cried, “Oh God, give me back my blindness!”

This is a Buddhist response to the gospel, according to the Kukrit Pramoj. At bottom, life is ugly. It is like a muddy pond. We can’t do much about the mud. But we can aim to shoot up from the bottom like water lilies and lie clean on the top.

That appeals to me. If there were no God, or if God had not reached out to us, I might be a Buddhist. The faith offers a way to live with some degree of peace in a painful world.

But the amazing news is that there is a God, and he has cared so strongly for us that he chose to walk with dusty feet right to the painful bloody cross, where he died and later rose in power for us.

This is not tranquility. This is passion. Desire. Love. And it is what makes my own love possible. I cannot manufacture love on my own. But I can receive it, and pass it on.

Deep in my heart I sense that I am not just a candle flame, or a drop of water, or a temporary psychophysical event, which are common Buddhist metaphors for human beings. Nor do those images describe the people around me. We have lasting value.  Jesus told a story to make that point. In this parable, a shepherd rounded up ninety-nine sheep. Just one sheep was missing. Yet the shepherd went out into the dark and the cold to search for the one who was lost. That one sheep mattered. Jesus made it clear that every one of us counts. Each person is important.

I think also of a Japanese haiku poet named Issa. Although he had several children, they died, one after another. When the neighbors came to comfort him, they offered a bit of Buddhist philosophy: “After all,” they said to Issa, “this is a world of dew.”

What did they mean?  Dew appears on the grass in the morning,  then disappears. Our children arrive, and later they may disappear. None of this should upset us. That’s life.

But when Issa was alone, he wrote a poem:

The world of dew
Is a world of dew
And yet!  And yet! . . .

**********************************************************************
 
Faith Seeking Understanding makes a great Christmas gift, for students, missionaries, pastors, or non-Christian friends.  The four sections of the book -- "Tutors," "Christ in Culture," "Christ in History," and "Christ in Science and Philosophy" -- join some of the most thoughtful Christians in the world today, to share their experiences of seeking truth in and through sincere Christian faith.  I like to explain the theme of the book by paraphrasing Martin Luther: "Love God, and think boldly!"

Unfortunately there are almost only two ways to get this book by Christmas.  You can order the book directly from William Carey Library.  Or you can drop a check in the mail for $16 (including postage, add $10 for any of my other books as well!) to Kuai Mu Press / PO Box 403 / Fall City, WA 98024, and I will do my best to get it to you with time to spare -- or wrap it and send it directly to a friend (in the US, that is)!  (I should add a third way -- Dr. Adeney's husband, Michael Adeney, is also selling the book through his Harvest - Logos bookstore, which is one of the best sources I know for missions-related books.  The book should become more widely available in early 2013.) 


[1] 1.Kukrit Pramoj, “The Hell Which Heaven Forgot,” Practical Anthropology, May-June, 1966.
 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

PZ Myers, Guru of Hate

Can this angel get off the ground? Or
out of the gutter?
 
Introduction: Some time ago, I challenged biologist PZ Myers to a debate over the impact Christianity has had on women.  I meant that challenge sincerely: I would not issue such a challenge to someone I couldn't (at the time) have seen myself on a stage with, however unlikely it might be that he or she would accept.  I also make hypothetical travel plans to Minnesota, thinking about what else I might do along the way.  (I've always wanted to see if I could find more of the dinosaur fossils I brought back from eastern Montana on my last visit 30 years ago, for instance.) 

I later came to think that it would probably be wrong to debate Myers. I have come to see PZ as a bad person, a character who serves much the function of a Rajneesh or a Mao in Gnu society, who should be exposed, and probably not treated with the respect sharing a public forum (were PZ bold enough to do that sort of thing) would imply.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Grand Inquisitor & Me

I finally get to check this number off my bucket-list: getting citing as an authority midway between Tomas de Torquemada and Richard Carrier.

Moderation in all things, that's my motto. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

G. K. Chesterton's Everlasting Man: "One of the best books of the 20th Century"

Mature wisdom touches
childlike wonder in
The Everlasting Man.
"One of the Best Books of the Twentieth Century"

1 1/8th Top Review (233+ / 5-)

*****

This is a book that everyone ought to read two or three times at least. It is a crime that such nonsense as Conversations With God, or better but still relatively shallow introductions to comparative religion like Religions of Man, seem to be better known. Here you will find a description of Christianity and its relation to other faiths strong and fine as aged wine. I don't know of anyone who writes with this much class in the modern world. Having ordered the book for our college library, I tried not to mark it too much, but found myself putting ink dots on paragraph after paragraph of material I wanted to quote. He rambles a bit, but I think there is more wisdom, humor, and insight in a single page of this book than in whole volumes that are better known in our days. Imagine if, after reading David Barry and laughing your head off, you wanted to go out and kiss a blade of grass or be amazed by the water running in the river instead of (say) looking up at the sky to make sure there aren't any mackerel about to fall on you. G.K.Chesterton makes his readers laugh themselves sane. And sanity is a rare and wonderful thing in the modern world.

Chesterton's archeology and contemporary references are a bit dated, of course. But even there, what goes around often comes around. Chesterton leads off with a story about Grant Allen, author of a piece of heresy of that time called Evolution of the Idea of God.  More recently Karen Armstrong wrote a book with an almost identical title and thesis, History of God, and was greeted in the press as a bold thinker. (Note: Robert Wright's subsequent The Evolution of God would continue the theme, also to be found in rather different forms in Dawkins, Pascal Boyer, and Daniel Dennett.)  Chesterton kindly and elegantly refuted her error, and those of other modern skeptics, decades before they were born. Admirers of Bishop Spong in particular should read this book. Chesterton was not a scholar of comparative religions, of course, and he may have oversimplified a few things, but I think got the big things in true proportion better than anyone.  The plan of the book is simple. In the first half, Chesterton describes man, particularly in his religious aspect. In particular, he explains four universal elements of human religion: mythology, philosophy, demonism, and an awareness of God that one finds in almost every culture around the world. The tendency in the modern world is to ignore the last two elements when they occur outside of Western culture. But I have found in my own studies of Asian cultures and religions that Chesterton's description of human religion fit the facts extremely well.  The second half of the book is about Jesus and the movement he founded. I like what he says about Jesus best, and wish he had spent more time on that and proportionally less on European culture. A few of his racial or cultural assumptions do not come across well in our age. It is worth remembering how the face of Christianity has changed over the hundred years since this book was published. Then Christianity was almost exclusively a Western religion, while now two thirds of the believers in the world live in Africa, Latin American and Asia.
If you are interested in a more detailed discussion of some of the points Chesterton brings up, I suggest Don Richardson's Eternity in Their Hearts, another of the most overlooked works of the 20th Century. I have also just written a book called Jesus and the Religions of Man, that covers in more detail some of the same territory.

Note: I first posted this review in June of 2000; it remains among the highlighted reviews on Amazon.  I've added a few updates, here. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

How Christ Liberates Humanity: 133 proof texts.

Twice in the last few days I ran into some version of Christopher Hitchen's aphorism, "Religion Poisons Everything," and responded with incredulity.  Of all the historical claims out there, it seems to me this is among the easiest to disprove. (Not even counting the almost-literal sense in which, for instance, religion has not yet frozen the liquid iron whose circulation creates the Earth's magnetic field, or cause any stars to explode or any comets to leave their orbits.)

Limiting ourselves to human history, I am tempted to respond by appealing to all the wonderful things Taoism or Confucianism have done for East Asia -- to catch the fanatics off-guard, and try to shock them out of the little worlds of prim skepticism in which they imprison themselves.  It is painful to think how arid the history of Chinese art would be without the fantastic bronzes of ancient Chinese graves, with which aristocrats set themselves up for the next life, the bold colors of esoteric Buddhist mandalas, the misty, myterious landscapes of Zen painters, or Chinese rock gardens, suffused with Taoist readings of the natural landscape. 

But the title of this blog is Christ the Tao.  And I do think Jesus Christ is the source of near-universal  liberation, that has overthrown oppression and made the world a dramatically tonier address in our little galaxy. 

Let's begin with the second and more substantial of these two challenges, from the Bengali atheist, Taslima Nasreen, who also quotes PZ Myers, and my initial "shoot-from-the-hip" reply.  After that, in answer to follow-up queeries, including the question of whether I've actually read any history books, and my purported errors might not be explained as simple ignorance, I'll offer a list of 130 texts, mostly books, which show how the Gospel has changed the world.

My hope is reading some of these books will put even atheists in a cheerful mood to celebrate the birth of Jesus, Christmas being just around the corner. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"Marx, the Mob, and Missions"

One section in our new book, Faith Seeking Understanding, that would make a great movie, is Chapter Four: "Marx, the Mob, and Missions," by Bill Prevette.  The title gives you just a glimpse of Bill's amazing story.  The sets are worthy of a Bond flick: gangsters in the Caribbean, the Pacific Crest Trail, fishing in Alaska, a coup in Cambodia, with flash-backs to an orphanage in North Carolina.  This is, after all, an Assembly of God missionary we're talking about. 

So it is hard to decide which section to excerpt.  Iny-Meeny-Miny-Mo.  Buy the book, and read Bill's whole story, plus Plantinga, Rausal, Yancey, Stark, Adeney, Richardson (a movie has already been made of his life) and others besides. 

Bill and Ky Prevette
Ancient mariners often labeled the margins of their known world by writing on maps, “Here there be monsters!”  I began sailing Dragonfly toward my own far edges (and monsters) when I began offering charters around the Caribbean.  St. Martin provided a good base for operations, as it was a playground for the rich and famous from Europe and the East Coast of the United States.  I made connections with unethically wealthy people and learned how to set up “front businesses” for laundering money.  I flew in and out of Miami and offered to move any commodity or product for a price.  I thought I had hit the “big time.”  Lyrics from one of my favorite Jimmy Buffett songs sum up this phase of my life fairly accurately: “I made enough money to buy Miami, but I pissed it away so fast.”  The more I consumed, the greater became my addiction to hedonism and power. 

In the summer of 1982, I helped sail a classic Sparkman and Stephens yacht, let us call her Mystic, from the Caribbean to Martha’s Vineyard. The yacht was due for a major overhaul at a shipyard there and it’s owner, “Vinny,who treasured it greatly, flew to Europe and left me in charge.

As you might imagine, the logistics of lifting a twenty-ton yacht out of the water are complex and expensive. On this occasion we had a disaster, the marine railway malfunctioned and the lifting equipment failed. To our horror, the shipyard owner and I watched Mystic plunge from the shipping cradle into Vineyard Haven Harbor.  She sank to a depth of fifteen feet; her magnificent interior, electronics, engine, and period furnishings fully saturated and altogether ruined by the salt water.

On receiving news of this calamity, “Vinny” immediately flew to the scene and was murderous with rage; no financial settlement would be quench his Italian temper. I felt as if I had become a character in Good Fellas or The Sopranos.  It became clear this situation was unraveling and someone was going to be seriously hurt.  It dawned on my cocaine-saturated brain that if I continued in this lifestyle, I was likely to end up either with a bullet behind the ear or spending the rest of life looking over my shoulder . . .

Desperately wracking my brain for solutions, I remembered the words of a mature and sober friend: “Bill, with your willingness to work hard, you can build a good career and make plenty of money legitimately.  You don’t need to bend the rules to be successful” . . . I called Bob from Vineyard Haven, told him of my fears and asked his advice.  His answer was quick and to the point. “Get yourself on the first plane you can!  I think you know where this is headed.  For God’s sake, use your head – come here and we will talk.”  This time I listened . . .

I flew to Seattle, where Bob welcomed me into his home.  He offered me honest employment remodeling one his factory warehouses.  He told me I would be working alongside a concrete contractor.  Since the opportunity gave me “safe, mundane” space to sort out my next move, I gratefully took the job.  

Occasionally during these stressful months, I called Ky.  She had been chasing her own monsters, living in a New Age community in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, experimenting with mental telepathy and psychic massage. Ky had always been drawn to spiritual encounters; but as far as I was concerned, all religion and spirituality, no matter what the source, was a sham. On our last call, she said she had “found Jesus.”

I scoffed and ridiculed her. “Sure, everybody finds Jesus – just check out your local jail – but what difference does it make to any of them?” I ended the call in anger.  In my experience, Christians were hypocritical, deceived simpletons who wouldn’t think for themselves. But despite my ridicule, Ky began to pray that I too would have a reckoning with the Living God.

Shortly after arriving in Seattle, a letter came from Ky.  She had sent it to Martha’s Vineyard, the last known address she had for me, and it had been forwarded. I was surprised to hear from her and opening the letter brought additional consternation as it was written in a language that sounded strange to my ears:

“Praise God, Hallelujah! How are you, Bill?  We were in church tonight and our pastor gave a word of knowledge.  He said, ‘someone is praying for a man named Bill and he is going to come to know Christ through a man named Bob.’ I was so excited to hear this because several of us are praying for you regularly.  I don’t know what is going on with you, but I believe that our friend Bob is going to have an influence on your life for Christ.  Are you planning a trip to see Bob in Seattle? . . . ”

What bizarre code was this? I knew Ky was involved in something she described as a “Bible-believing, Pentecostal church.”  Weren’t these the people who handle snakes and speak in strange tongues?  The letter made no sense.  Ky was in Marin County, California; neither of us had seen Bob in years or spoken of him in our intermittent phone conversations.  The letter was dated the day before Mystic sank . . . How did Ky know I was going to Seattle before I did? And what in the world was a ‘word of knowledge’? . . .  I surmised that Ky’s psychic practices were bearing fruit.


Postscript: Faith Seeking Understanding is a unique new book featuring insights from such Christian thinkers as Phillip Yancey, the eminent sociologist Rodney Stark, philospher Alvin Plantinga, Oxford historian of science Allan Chapman, anthropologist Miriam Adeney, quantum physicist Don Page, and many other thoughtful people. It's a great Christmas gift for all kinds of people, including pastors, students, missionaries, and non-Christians who want an intellectually-rewarding yet low-key, noncombatative approach to Christianity.  The book will not be available on Amazon until early 2013.  You can order the book either from William Carey Library, or from us.

If you order from us, the price is $13, plus $3 shipping. We are also offering a special deal this Christmas: just add $10 and no extra shipping, for any of my other books, or a total of $58 + $3 shipping, for all six. This is a great package for students, pastors, or church libraries.

Our mailing address is Kuai Mu Press / PO BOX 403 / Fall City, WA 98024