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Greco-Roman Religions and the New Testament

April 7, 2017

This brief article offers some interesting and important facts about the religious environment of the Roman territories, outside of Israel, in which Christianity saw most of its early growth.

Reading Acts

Greco-Roman Religions might be considered “the competition” of early Christianity, but this is not a fair description of how religions functioned in the first century.

A Guardian lares

First, in the first century, religion was rarely a choice. A person owed worship to a god because of a civic or family obligation or because the god is associated with a trade. A person living in the Roman world would not even think in terms of “converting” from one god to another, since gods had various functions; motivations were purely practical.  If one was going to sea, one appeased sea gods. In fact, the idea of choosing to worship a particular god was the attraction of the mystery cult. One might become a worshiper of Mithras by choice, although obligated to also worship other gods.

“The family cult was also the natural point of departure for the veneration of the dead…

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My Theology Lets me Imagine a Nation of California – Part 1

April 4, 2017

Let me be clear right off: This 2-post series is mostly whimsical.  I’m going to indulge my imaginative side. But I’ll interweave some fascinating California (my home state) events with important thinking from a spiritual perspective.  Since I have more new readers recently, first, my spiritual “location”:

I’m a somewhat begrudging “member” of institutional Christianity… of a very progressive sort (having been more traditional/conservative about 45 of my 67 years).  I almost identify more with the “spiritual but not religious” sentiment.  But I know well the positive power of the Christian tradition and of faith communities so I am involved in one.  It is part of the United Church of Christ (Congregational… a progressive branch of a line of churches going way back to the independence-minded folks of America’s founding, who’d departed from the Anglican fellowship and sought “congregational” governance rather than a church hierarchy).

Now, as to a “Nation of California”, with Brexit underway, why not Calexit? Yes, that’s already a term… I’m not inventing it!  A good number of Californians are serious about seeing if California can become its own nation.  I clearly am biased, but just on the merits of being a potentially good nation and neighbor to the remaining 49 states of America and the rest of the world, I think we can and perhaps should imagine prospects and explore the idea. (Not that I’m actually for it, at least at this point, nor do I think Californians are likely to be! But the way things have been lately, that could change.)

A couple more facts: There indeed is a fully legal and peaceful effort to place a referendum on the 2018 California state-wide ballot.  Supporters hope that could lead to actual steps to secede from the US and become a separate nation.  Needing under 600,000 signatures to get on the ballot, out of over 18 million voters, this is feasible. It appears even likely. And polling shows roughly 32 percent support for at least the concept of Calexit. Of course polling this far removed means very little.

Also, support for a referendum on the ballot is far from the same as support for even an attempt at secession.  I will note that the uncertainties and complexities of a possible split are massive.  For example, there is lack of clarity on the constitutionality of the move, as far as I know.  But, in a sad and disturbing US political environment, let’s play a little with the idea.  I’d suggest it can be a potentially helpful “thought experiment”.  And provide some entertaining diversion when the more real-and-present dangers get us down.  And I’ll have some fun introducing non-Californians, and those who’ve not been so lucky as to spend some time here, to my state.

In the second part, I will go more into the Calexit-related issues of spirituality and theological thinking that sync up with the teachings of Jesus and the example of the earliest Christians. But for now, a little more California braggin’ (recall “California dreamin'”) for those not familiar with our great state. The notion of a nation here makes some sense.  We’re certainly large enough: almost 800 miles long by 250 miles wide, with a Pacific coastline of well over that 800 miles.

Our geography includes almost everything seen worldwide from vast flat agricultural valleys (especially the Central and Imperial Valleys) to the snow-clad, very steep Sierra Nevada mountain range… the picture above is Half Dome, from a fall visit of mine to the deservedly-famous Yosemite National Park).

We also have a lot of desert of varying terrain and great beauty.



Then we have thick forests including famous coastal Redwoods (some over 300 feet tall) and inland Sequoias even more massive though slightly less tall. My own Southern California area allows an energetic person to surf in the Pacific, ski in the San Bernardino or San Jacinto Mountains (below)…


… and ride on Ocotillo or Glamis sand dunes in the same day… potentially with no wet suit and no jacket.  I no longer pursue such recreation, but am more than satisfied with incredible hiking, just a couple miles from my door (below), or further afield.


20170326_112434Does outdoor recreation get any better than this (plus much more)?

It’s going to be boring to switch to economics and such for California, so I’ll just say this: At roughly the economic ranking (if we were a nation) of sixth in the world, I think we’d have more than viability… maybe some real influence.  As to our political stance, we are decidedly liberal – about an 18 percentage point edge of registered Democrats to Republicans, with a large independent (or “decline to state” on registration) bunch of voters. We consistently lead the US in high standards for carbon emissions and clean air and water. We also have a highly inventive and techy streak (Silicon Valley), certainly a world leader in that regard.

So one can begin to see that many Californians could get excited by the idea that we might be better off on our own as a nation.  If one were to approach the prospect from a wholistic and spiritual more than a strictly political stance (though the two are inevitably mixed), how might the thinking go? More on that in the next post.

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!