Skip to content

Can a Theology Conference Have Practical Effects?

February 23, 2017

Yes, theologians can be more action-oriented people than you may think! Especially ones that would gather at a place like Claremont….

Claremont School of Theology, that is.  Intertwined with Claremont grad school, and especially its program in “Philosophy of Religion and Theology.”

In some important ways, the “New Frontiers in Theology” conference I was lucky enough to attend last week-end was a follow-up to “Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization” of June, 2015 (see here and here).  That was a much larger conference, at neighboring Pomona College, of around 2000 people and was strongly oriented toward action.  It was attended and led by people from many academic fields and streams of activism, oriented around how to save both the planet and quality of life along the way.

Theology, once the “queen of the sciences”, is no longer thought of as impacting science, business or other “practical” things.  But it does! And many of the theologians and philosophers gathered last week-end at Claremont want to take that further.  The single topic that reflected the most urgency was climate change.

The man pictured, Alfred North Whitehead, was on the forefront of bringing together science and theology.  That is, helping re-join the two after a couple centuries in which they had drifted apart and science had claimed the larger influence over most of civilization.  And this was not an “ecological” civilization.  Whitehead was a master mathematician-turned-philosopher with a passion to show how relativity theory and quantum mechanics gave us insights into the nature of reality… God included within that reality (yet existing beyond it, in some sense).

In just that last sentence, you get some picture of why Whitehead, primarily in the 1920s and 30s, began a way of understanding all-that-is (reality) which is important for science, for theology (and religions), and for everything else. His work and that following him by “process” philosophers and theologians is really a new paradigm.  “Paradigm” has become a cliche but its meaning of a way of perceiving and interpreting our inner and outer worlds fits here better than about anywhere else.  Process thought has all along been highly concerned with ecology and the natural environment, as Whitehead so well demonstrated the interconnected nature of everything. He was “on it” a good while before the more well-known physicists and various “New Age” thinkers that may spring to your mind.

So the urgency of climate change…. Why would that emerge at a gathering of mostly theologians (me managing to crash the party)? For one, the legacy of Whitehead in process thinking means that some in philosophy and theology, teaching in our universities and seminaries, follow and highly respect science. They see no separation between these and other disciplines but look for the points of commonality and overlap.  And their ecological interests mean they have been following what many consider the most pressing of science subjects: climate change.

At least one of the presenters, Philip Clayton, has devoted much of his career to the interface of science and theology.  Not surprising he would be one who would most emotively express the urgency of turning current trends around… and very promptly! He has well-informed company in believing a president like Trump may not himself make a critical difference in 4 years.  However, a lack of aggressive action to slow the mechanisms of warming would not likely give us as many as 8 years before an irreversible cycle sets in.  We must continue to act, to press right now! Needless to say, for this and several other theological and ethical reasons, Trump had no fans in the group.

I confess we did not get, at the conference, to the point of creating further strategies regarding climate or social justice issues.  However, many present are activists in various ways or are connected to others in the midst of practical action as well as ongoing research and teaching to raise awareness and further action.  One such organizing structure goes back to the ecology conference of 2015 mentioned above.  It is a sizable network of local and other efforts, centered mainly in Los Angeles:  If you live in or near LA (or want to see what’s happening there), be sure to visit the “Pando Hubs” section. The website is loaded with many, many resources and links for learning and action.

If you are involved in either conceptual (theology, etc.) or “earthy” projects having to do with sustainability and ecology, combating climate change, etc., please share.



Trump Reveals Sad State of our Knowledge of Psychology

February 11, 2017

Character matters. Emotional maturity matters. Especially in a person who runs a country!! I could go on with a number of widely accepted ideas which were discounted in our 2016 presidential election.

Discounted so much that we got a president who I think even his supporters would not describe as having strong moral character.  Nor emotional maturity. Nor a number of other personality traits we say we value for high elected leaders.  I won’t go into the reasons why people in the states that mattered gave him enough votes to win.  (Not even an electoral plurality nationwide, let alone a majority, so at least that serves as an affirmation of the often-seen “wisdom of the crowd” over smaller subsets. In this case, the totality of our voters.)

In practical terms, it matters little that Trump was not chosen by even a plurality. He did become president.  And thus we are served a costly, costly lesson. We have already gotten demonstrations of things that were repeatedly pointed out as warnings before the Republican nomination process concluded and before the general election.   People were either not paying attention or not listening… no doubt a mixture of both.

Voters were warned about, or saw and heard directly, many disturbing behaviors of Donald Trump. While psychologists and psychiatrists generally, for professional ethical reasons, withheld their well-informed analysis, other credible researchers didn’t.  They told us that his life history, publicly available (not speculative depth psychology), fit the description of character disorder “to a T”.  More specifically, narcissistic personality disorder.  And the sociopathic aspect of it was also regularly on public display, along with the extreme self-reference and orientation.

Now the driving forces of this kind of “disorder” (apropos title) go way beyond merely irritating habits or quirky ways of saying things.  And of this a great many Americans seemed to be ignorant. Some may have been generally aware but willing to take a major gamble out of one kind of misconception or another (such as how “horrible” and dangerous Hillary Clinton was or how much Trump could do in creating jobs).  Rather than detail what can be expected from a person with a long-sustained personality disorder, I’ll suggest readers do some quick research.

I’ll merely highlight what pop-level psychology notes as one negative aspect of an insecure ego (or core sense of self): being hyper-sensitive and, in this case, aggressively hyper-reactive to any kind of threat or slight.  It doesn’t take a psychologist to figure out that this kind of trait is a serious, serious problem in a person trying to lead a massive and highly complex government in an even more complex world.

The fact that people had and did not heed more than ample warnings both in the man’s own words and behaviors and from many who worked with or around him, or who researched and spoke about his history is disturbing!  There are numerous reasons they didn’t pay heed – again, I realize.  I focus here on just one: a dismal level of knowledge and respect for even the basics of our culture’s rich, deep knowledge of human personality and its healthy or unhealthy expressions.  And other aspects of human and societal “inner workings”.  We can also pretty precisely analyze just how a demagogue and con artist is able to manipulate people.  But enough targeted people are not “savvy” and don’t care to be.

I will make a single plea.  It is to fellow writers and leaders in churches of all kinds, or in other positions from which to educate about psychological forces and factors – parents certainly included! If your own knowledge of psychology is weak, shore it up.  Then start sharing what you’re learning.  If it is strong or you can call on teachers for whom it is, and you lead a church or education in a church, set up classes such as these:

  • Human development with view to spiritual development (see below)
  • Psychology as applied to political alignments (always at least partially religious) and to social activism 
  • William James’ concept of “religion of the healthy-minded”
  • The nature and results of religious conversion (including its failures)
  • Psychology of religion (including social psychology and sociology)

For my slant on healthy spiritual development, summarizing the work of several key researchers and theorists, you can view my Kindle ebook, “Spiritual Growth: Live the Questions, Love the Journey” here. Or read it free if on Kindle Unlimited.

Additional educational options are nearly endless… We’ve needed this all along, but the need is all the more obvious now. Let’s get on with it!

Was Jesus Born to Die?

December 31, 2016

It is the emphatic belief of many of us “progressive”, “apostate”, “heretical” (etc.) Jesus-followers that Jesus’ birth was important.  For “peace on earth”. For “goodwill to all”.  For many other valuable things.

But not for him to die.  Not “vicariously” in our place.  Not to appease the wrath of God.  (Jesus, where not apparently distorted by the Gospel writers, didn’t see God as wrathful.)

Yes, our views are less traditional or orthodox.  (Is that an automatic ding? Or automatic plus? Shouldn’t be, either way.) Formerly traditional believer, Dr. Benjamin Corey, puts the point that Jesus was born to show us how to live, and not in order to die “in our place” very well.  Better than I can. I strongly encourage you to read his short, provocative piece here, and perhaps engage in the lively discussion.

Christian Thinking in a Time of High Emotion

November 30, 2016

Do you think Christians, from progressive to conservative, should actively fight hate/fear with love/peace? Do they (or we) have an important role in discernment and preparedness to do so, at the least?

Christians certainly are not the only people who can and should actively counter hate and fear.  But I think most would agree that Christians have spiritual, ethical and other reasons to do so particularly.

More specifically, I’d like to suggest we (I’m a progressive Christian myself) use our venues and time spent on classes, Bible studies, etc., to include one particular kind of study and preparation, among others, for action right now.

That would be a look at and discussion of Christians’ discernment (or lack of it) and resistance to the lead-up to Nazism and Hitler’s chancellor appointment in 1933 and the subsequent years to 1945, but especially the 5 years from ’33 to ’38/’39 when his designs became crystal clear and his mechanisms were set in place.

In such discussion Bonhoeffer is prominent, of course. His life and work do present fertile story-lines and theological issues, etc. And he tends to be admired and even somewhat read across most of the denominational spectrum and range of theologies. But I’d hope it goes broader than just him, to especially include some of the following:

  1. Karl Barth (Swiss/German-connected) and his role in the important…
  2. Barmen Declaration, and other…
  3. Early warnings about the danger of what discerning people (chief among them, Barth) were seeing –
  4. The ways in which Hitler manipulated the German Lutheran church as a necessary part of his plans and how he also…
  5. Manipulated Catholics to keep them out of his way  

(The above just as a starting sample.)

Granted, this will be a stretching exercise!   To plunge into people like Barth, Bonhoeffer, Heidegger (philosopher well known to these theological contemporaries and who did not resist the Nazi regime), Pastor Niemöller and others in a theological as well as social/political way requires some thinking … Evangelicals used to pursue this some, particularly with Barth, along with some studying Bonhoeffer.  Many of the open, exploring types among them have departed.

Some years ago, Barth was hard to ignore given his broad prominence. However, he was and is not easy to pigeon-hole theologically. (He offered supportive things for traditionalists and broke from much of the liberalism under which he was educated, but operated in a different kind of “space”). To study Barth and the other Neo-orthodox folks of both Europe and America is to gain vital stimulation toward both careful/deep thought and application of that thought and spirituality to everyday concerns.

Not the least of these is civil government and advocacy for the “commonwealth” of God on all levels of life.  Many years ago, I led a class in an Asian (and fairly conservative) congregation of the United Methodist Church on Barth’s thought and the Barmen Declaration. It proved to be of real interest and provoked good discussions.  The topic is even more pertinent and of value today!

A few related thoughts to wrap up:

A famous adage attributed to Barth: “Do theology with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other” [or the Internet, now].

For what it’s worth (a lot), we no longer have any religious thought leaders of the likes of the Neo-orthodox (American version) Reinhold Niebuhr, a sort of “public theologian”. He and others used to publish commonly in newspapers and were widely read and influential. Niebuhr also published widely-read books, such as the classic “Moral Man and Immoral Society” (a highly recommended read despite its age… not nearly as “liberal” as the title may sound today).  Incidentally, hardly the flaming socialist (etc.) that his detractors have made him out to be, President Obama apparently cites Niebuhr as his favorite theologian.  I see this showing in the kinds of positions he’s taken, with the carefulness of thought and foresight (seldom recognized) that he has displayed. I do think another 2-5 years or so will begin to recast Obama, as a Christian as well as a national leader, as much more wise and accomplished [yes, as a leader] than even many liberals see him as.  And those who voted for him and then for Trump will gain some clarity on what they’ve misread in both men.

Christians, Conservative or Progressive – THINK!

November 25, 2016

Why write an article about something as abstract as thinking? Not the stuff of grabbing attention, right?

Yes, and that’s the point!

We’ve become more and more “victims” of attention-grabbers.  Like Facebook. And Twitter. Instagram. Cable or internet TV, anyone?

So in even writing about thinking, I feel compelled (perhaps wrongly) to write in short sentences and leave lots of “white space”.  Sure, a few scholarly types might read a more pedantic-style article, but most people wouldn’t – the very people who most need to think deeper.

So I’ll try to make a few succinct points without lots of detail or references. Then you can think about them…. And hopefully will!

Issue one: Thought vs. emotion

Emotion trumps thought most of the time – as to decisions, as to opinions. It’s always been that way, I presume.  But I’m as sure (as my emotions will let me be) that thinking used to occupy more of our brain “space” than it does now.  Also that exercising and training our brains does make a positive difference.  

Issue two (related): What occupies our brain “bandwidth”? (You probably guessed it.)

Prior to radio, newspapers and town criers (or gossips) were the news media.  The better newspapers and magazines were a major stimulus for thought. If you wanted entertainment, you went to church or perhaps a live concert or living room sing-along.  Sunday or evening events.  On workdays (every day for a great many, who had farms)?… You had your thoughts.  Or conversation with co-workers, often on issues of substance. Things that took some pondering. 

Radio was still more mind-activating than the next phase: TV.  The emergence of television may mark the turning point in the demise of thinking.  Are we more informed? Perhaps.  But not more thoughtfully engaged.

Internet: generally more of the same.  Tons of information, for which I’m grateful! But it now includes “fake news”, unthoughtfully taken as real by many.  Not to mention the torrent of emotion-spewing interaction on blogs, certain news sites, Facebook, etc.

Comment threads on some blogs/websites are indeed thoughtful interactions, conducted civilly.  I know because I participate in them, and learn a lot on occasion.  But I’d guess such involvement is a nearly miniscule percentage of the populace. Not enough to help the cause of more and better observation, analysis and overall thinking.  It’s natural and not necessarily against good thinking to mostly read or listen to/watch what tends to line up with our own beliefs.  But have you tried finding such places where there opposing viewpoints and good analysis is also represented? Where respectful interaction gives some deeper point-and-counter-point to aid our thinking process? 

Issue three: Understanding our own thought processes. “Know thyself”!  An ancient and often quoted adage.  But do we pursue it? And do we apply it to an understanding of our actual style of thought, not just general personality? We now have copious information readily available about what influences our beliefs and the processes by which we form them. It matters… are we paying attention to that body of knowledge? 

Do we think about thinking? Both thinking in general and, particularly and most importantly, our own unique tendencies and patterns? We all tend to think we don’t fit the mold of “most people”… our personal thinking is superior. (This is the oft-cited “self-serving bias” we only moderate by carefully watching for it.) 

We are more “right” based on what? (Hint: it isn’t just intellectual stars who feel superior here, though they often don’t deserve to either, being unable to spot the inconsistencies in their own thinking or other “errors” of thought.) I know we can’t always explain where and how intuition kicks in and may serve us well.  But most of the time, only if we can explain in some detail how and why our position on something is better than others’, and how we arrived at it, do we have any business thinking that it is.  

Note: Has this post been in any way educational or interesting to you? If I get such feedback, I will plan to continue this subject with further points… It’s “near and dear to my heart” (and mind), and there is a lot more I’d love to get into.  Please “like” the post or leave a quick comment to help me out.  Thanks!

Interfaith Thanksgiving – More than Just a Concept

November 23, 2016


Wow… I wish I could get across the feel of the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service I attended last night.  It was a broadly interfaith service truly focused on giving thanks.  I don’t think there is anything else even close in our community (Escondido, CA) which gathers people from widely divergent groups and beliefs – religiously and politically – and has them come together in heartfelt celebration.  (I doubt many cities have something so special and well-attended, but hope they do.)

Everyone seemed to appreciate the common ground of blessings received and their giver thanked, however differently the giver may have been perceived.

With the election so recent, you could tell that it was also on the minds of both speakers and audience.  And this is a community about equally divided on a partisan basis, and with lots of immigrants of every “status”.

But no one referred to the election directly.  No gloating. No “what should have been” or anything else.

Just gratitude in general.

Secondarily, it was a celebration that diverse people of faith in our region (and our city particularly) have worked effectively together to serve “the least among us”, particularly the homeless.  You may have heard their numbers are, if anything, increasing in Southern California.  However, North County (San Diego) has a success rate almost double that of the surrounding county and most regions to our north (Orange Co., LA, etc.).  Here, we’re re-housing a lot of homeless people, getting them back to work and overall stability, feeding and providing shelter for those still homeless, etc.  

Please bear with a little explanation, toward a point:

That success is largely because of the work of our Interfaith Community Services non-profit organization.  It covers North County with hubs in Escondido and Carlsbad/Oceanside.  The core of church support, and the community via churches, seems to come from our city.

The Escondido Faith Leaders’ Council, which organizes the community Thanksgiving services, overlaps with the key supporters of Interfaith Community Services.  I’ve recently gotten involved myself (many lay people are involved, not just ministers).  It’s been great to see how active and “cutting-edge” our local efforts are.  They increasingly train and integrate faith leaders in community efforts, along with directly serving veterans, the homeless, and otherwise needy people in broader and deeper ways than ever.  And that on top of good service steadily growing for 37 years!

This background info I’ve shared because it explains a lot of the incredibly positive dynamic in such a well-attended and celebratory service (I’d estimate at least 300-350 people, and that with almost none of the many local Evangelical church people present).  A service like last night’s is not the “real game”, anyway… what I’ve briefly covered is! 

But celebrations are important, as are joint expressions of our gratitude.  They are also part of what fuels the daily work of service and enhances cooperation further.

A final point of importance to me and perhaps others who support interfaith efforts: Here was a demonstration, as directly celebrated by at least one speaker, that working together leads to mutual understanding and respect.  It enables communities to transcend theological and political differences, at least in certain settings.  It helps create larger vision.  It helps us realize that further work together is also possible, because we do share important common ground.  

Do you have a similar story from your community? We’d love to hear and celebrate with you!

A Fundamental Thinking Error of Trump and his Supporters

November 13, 2016

Even many of Trumps’ supporters are quick to admit his serious flaws in a number of areas. But if they’d been well attuned to this one, they might not have been so ready to jump on board.

What I refer to is about competition… about his way of thinking about wealth production and prosperity. Perhaps his strongest appeal to voters who otherwise would have rejected him was promise after promise of more and better jobs… making their lives better through a more competitive America. 

Remember all the talk about winning? (We never win now because all our trade representatives are “stupid”.) How we, under him, would be winning so much we’d get bored with it? According to Trump, currently China and other nations are winning at our expense. They’re taking advantage of us.  He proposes to fix all that by tearing up current trade agreements and renegotiating them (coercively, as the more powerful party can do). With us winning this time! The man thrives on the game of competition and is not hesitant to crush opponents in almost any way possible.  His personal track record proves it… with both his competitors and people who’ve done work for him… check it out if you haven’t.

So what is the “thinking error”? (It could also be called a posture toward life, etc.) That a person or a nation can truly prosper by prevailing over and dominating both opponents and those who are partners or helpers as well.  Let’s face it, this often works in a limited way, for a limited time.  So it has for Mr. Trump in his businesses.

Some of his ventures, of course, have failed.  (Besides his bankruptcies, he has, for example, sponsored large failed housing developments that left many prospective buyers with substantial losses of down payments and such. Well known is the ongoing Trump University fraud lawsuit that he may well settle out of court, as he has others.)  I could build my point further but this is sufficient to show the limits of the use of overly-competitive, exploitive practices.  And I won’t even go into the human costs involved.

Let me come back to the seriousness of this error, this lack of fair play, let alone empathy and compassion.  I understand many of his supporters have felt overlooked and unheard as they have lost jobs and financial stability over many years now.  So a lot of them have merely placed hope in his ability to help “right their ship” along with America’s, given they see it as sinking, or at least taking on water, rapidly.  They haven’t thought through the ethical and practical side of how he may go about trying to do this.  

It appears to me that their grave error, following his logic and personal track record, is seeing and caring about only one side of the “bargaining table” (or trade exchange arrangement, etc.). They naively and unethically believe that we, already the richest nation in the world by far, should use our advantaged position to gain even further advantage and continue to support exploitive practices in other places or directly exploit our weaker trading partners.

Mexico is one example of who could well be further squeezed.  They already have paid a proportionally higher price in lost jobs through NAFTA than we have in the US, assuming we have had a net loss….  I hear differing evaluations of that.

Perhaps one of the reasons Trump is again (as of Nov. 13, when I write) talking about rapidly beefed up border enforcement (whether wall, wall/fence, or what) is this: He knows that when he is able, with congressional support, to turn the screws on Mexico and they suffer financially, the currently very low or neutral net immigration rate from there will spike unless we can effectively stop people at the border.  He exploits fears of crime, rape, and taking of Americans’ jobs by immigrants here illegally… almost all of which is blown way out of proportion or is factually just wrong.  Sure those things happen, but violent or other serious crime by non-permissioned immigrants actually happens at low, not high, rates.  They’re probably lower than that of the general population, though I’ve not heard of studies statistically confirming hard numbers on this.

To summarize the key point: Trade can only harmoniously be conducted and maintained long-term when both (or all) parties benefit to similar degrees.  Though they may not be conscious of it, Trump has many people overlooking the fact that his proposals and his own history indicate that he intends to dominate others in international trade… to care first and foremost about winning… about “making America great again”.

I’ve listened to him a fair amount and I don’t recall ever hearing him talk about concern for the welfare of our trading partners.  I imagine he has at times.  But clearly it is a minor sub-point and not a significant part of his agenda.  It’s not primarily a win-win mentality he has and promotes to the rest of us, but a “win regardless” of consequences for others involved.  And yes, it could be at least initially effective, on our end.  But it is not the way I want to have America conduct our international relations, nor treat those who’ve fled here for a variety of reasons.  They’re often here for mere survival, not for life comforts.

I don’t believe any possible increase in jobs or our gross national product (GNP) will be long maintained under his style of trade and his principles of dealing with others.  Whether or not we like “globalization”, we, as Americans, benefit if our partners and the rest of the world benefits.  Like it or not, we are all interconnected.  (I happen to celebrate it!)