Friday, September 23, 2016

Why write about this nonsense? Do something else!

Politics, economics, theology, and a little nonsense.  Yesterday a friend asked me if they weren't all the same thing, and in a sense they are.  They are so deeply interrelated that it would be hard to pull them apart.  Moreover, he said, they are the at the root of all the hyper polarizing talk these days.  Why don't you write about something else?  A good question.  Maybe I should write about calming, spiritual things and avoid all this controversy.  On the other hand there are enough others who do it, and do it well.  I'll leave it up to them.  I'll stick with my subjects for the time being because I think they are important.  Also, it's where I have spent most of my professional life.

Let's take politics for instance.  We live in community.  There isn't any other way to live, and the process of deciding how we are going to live in community is politics.  That's it.  Simple as that.  However polarizing and uncomfortable politics may become, we can't avoid it as the only way there is to make decisions about how to live together.  From the smallest most remote Amazon tribe, to the most populous autocratically ruled nation, politics is how we make decisions about the way to live together.  Our American form of it is messy, inefficient, and unpredictable, but it does a better job than most in seeking participation from every citizen.  Contrary to popular opinion around my town, American politics is not intended to impose the will of the majority of the people on the nation.  It seeks to understand the complicated interplay of the many wills of the people, and through multiple systems of representative democracy hammer out workable policies that are good for the whole even as they benefit some interests more than others.  For the process to work as well as it can, eligible voters need to be conversant on the issues and candidates, and legislators need to be able to intelligently negotiate in good faith.  That's always problematic, all the more so these days, which means that our systems of representative democracy do not work as well as possible, but they muddle through one way or the other

Even those who try to opt out, can't.  We live about five driving hours from the parts of northern Idaho that have become favored of off the grid residents, survivalists who eschew society, distrust government, and are certain that when the apocalyptic war comes, they will continue to live as they do now while the rest of us perish.  Their properties are stockpiled with equipment produced by others working in community.  They have little objection to driving their community made pickups on community financed and maintained roads to get to and from their land, which they own according to community laws.  They are protected in their lifestyle by rights and privileges extended to them through community constitutions.  The point is that even the most independent minded of us has no choice but to live in community and benefit from community, and that means politics.

The decisions made about how it all works are what politics is made of.  What drives political decision making is the question of what is good for the community, and that requires some inquiry of what good means.  What is good, what is not good, what's is the difference, how do various goods and not goods get balanced against each other?  How does one balance decisions that may be good for some but harmful to others?  Is it even possible to make a decision that is good for everyone and harmful to none?  Philosophy grapples with questions such as these, and so does Christian theology.  Our theology converses respectfully with all that philosophy can offer, but in the end it seeks to know how the revelation of God's will, as we understand it through the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, may be leading us into and through today's political issues.  Lest that sound presumptuous, we can't avoid it because God has had a lot to say about politics.  Taken together, Hebrew and Christian scripture is an extended treatise on the economy of the polis with God making suggestions in some places and commandments in others.  Moreover, what God has to say is always in the direction of having life in abundance, as persons and in community.  We cannot dismiss that without dismissing the entirety of what we assert to be the holy scriptures through which God has revealed God's self to us, and through which God has opened doors to hear and see anew what we had not seen or heard before.  Theology cannot be separated from politics because theology has little to offer other than guidance about how to live in community.  Even our own disagreements about what God has revealed and how it should be translated into human behavior is a form of politics.

So what about economics?  Modern economics is the study of how goods and services are exchanged within the community, and between communities.  Someone called it the dismal science, Carlyle I guess.  If it's a science at all, it's a social science rather than a hard science, no matter how much it depends on complicated mathematics.  Its math never seems to hold much water for long anyway, and it's laws are fungible in the extreme.  At its heart it is a form of political science.  Communities make decisions about how goods and services are to be exchanged.  It's supposed to make the rules governing the exchange of goods and services knowable and rational.  In the aggregate, they do a decent job of it most of the time.  But depending on circumstances, individuals within communities make buying and selling decisions inside or outside the rules, rationally or irrationally, in chaotic ways.  Gobs of money are bet, won, and lost on how well patterns of buying and selling behaviors can be predicted when lumped together, even if individual behavior may or may not be predictable.  It's called market research.  Dismal indeed.  Into the mess, theology inserts questions of right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust.  Christian theology boldly asserts that God has had something to say about economics, and that economic political decision making in and between communities needs to be informed by what God has said if justice and life in abundance are to be had.

So I write mostly about politics, economics, and theology.  Ridiculous isn't it?  What right do I have to write on subjects in which I am not a certified scholar?  Sheer nonsense, that's what it is, and so now and then I throw some in just for the fun of it.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Art and History in the Southwest

This article is a little off the usual track, and continues my experiment in trying a little travel writing.  Enjoy.

Sometime in the spring The Week magazine had a piece about the Denver Art Museum featuring the works of five women who were leaders in abstract expressionism during the ‘40s and ‘50s.  My wife is an artist; would she like to go?  Of course, but it’s too extravagant to go to Denver just to see an art exhibit, so we made it bigger by adding stops in Santa Fe and Taos.  Now it made sense.  Two important galleries in Santa Fe, plus lunch with an old friend and his new spouse.  Galleries and several museums in Taos.  On to Denver for the first time ever exhibit of amazing women whose art was often ignored in favor of more famous men.  Throw in two wonderful days with one of our daughters, a museum dedicated to Clyfford Still (one of the men),  fifteen sculptures from the Walker on loan to the Denver Botanic Garden, some great hotels, even better food, and it was a hit.  See, if you spread extravagance out it seems less so. So who were the women?  Sonia Getchtoff, Judith Godwin, Mary Abbott, Helen Frankenthaler, Deborah Remington.  Never heard of them?  Look them up.  As for me, when it comes to art, I am the accidental tourist.  My wife is the artist and student of art.  I drive the car and carry the luggage.  So let’s go back to Taos to talk history.

I’m as amateur a historian as amateur can get, but I’m fascinated by it, so let me depart from art and say something about our time with Ilona Spruce, the director of tourism for the Taos Pueblo.  We had arranged for a half day tour guided by Angelisa Espinoza to include the Taos Pueblo and Millicent Rogers Museum, with a quick side trip to the Rio Grande Gorge just for the fun of it.  I suppose there are tourists who ignore the Pueblo, or treat it as just another roadside attraction.  What a shame.  They’re missing something as great as the art, and more important to understanding who and what America is.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark, it has been occupied for a thousand years or more as it is today.  Members of tribe who choose to live there, sans running water or electricity, do so not because they have to, or for the benefit of tourists, but because they want to continue in the traditional ways, preserving them for future generations.

The tribe owns several hundred thousand acres of surrounding land as well as the bulk of Taos Mountain, so the majority of members live in much the same fashion as other rural Americans in the Southwest.  They are not on a reservation. This is their ancestral land over which they have never ceded sovereignty or ownership.  Visitors are normally guided from the village center through the Pueblo where they can observe the methods of everyday life, and occasionally see dancing or other ceremonial festivities.  However, the day we were there the community was celebrating a funeral, and the grounds were closed to the public.  Our consolation was to spend almost two hours with Ms. Spruce, who talked story with us.  She rehearsed the history of the Taos Pueblo, the enormous extent of their pre-contact farms, their early contacts with Europeans, the contending claims of the tribe, Spanish, and Americans as the region struggled to find its identity in the modern world, and all from the point of view of the Taos Indians.

It's a story not told in ordinary history books, at least not the ones I had in school.  Churchill is reported to have said that that history is written by the victors, and so it has been for millennia.  The Pilgrims defined Thanksgiving.  The American Revolution is a tale told by rebelling colonists.  The wining of the West is the story of heroic westward expansion of European settlement.  It condemns atrocities committed by Indians while ignoring the genocidal duplicity used to conquer them.  And so it was both refreshing and enlightening to hear the story of the Taos Pueblo as told by an articulate historian, without polemics, without apologies, without accusations.  It was the story of her people as told by her people.

She joined us later for another hour at the Millicent Rogers museum, taking us through displays that helped fill in details through art and artifacts, and saying more about the 20th century Americans who founded its famous art community.  They sustained themselves in the early days through paintings commissioned by the Santa Fe Railroad depicting Pueblo life as part of its advertising campaign to entice tourists.  Art and tourism helped save the Pueblo and its way of life.  It also endangered the Pueblo and its way of life.  They had survived battles with and between the Spanish and the Americans, but would they survive 20th century tourism?  They appear to have done a masterful job of maintaining a difficult balance.  Our time with Ms. Spruce would not have happened had the Pueblo not been closed, and we are grateful for it.  It was an extraordinary treasure.  Is there more?  Of course there is.  Look it up for yourself.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Rich Man, Poor Man

Rich man, poor man.  You know them.  Rich can mean a lot of things, and so can poor.  There's a story told about a homeless man who slept in doorways, enduring a life of debilitating illness, eating whatever scraps were thrown his way.  It was easy to ignore him, maybe not see him at all.  It was also easy to dismiss him with disgust as someone who was just a lazy bum unwilling to work, satisfied to live off handouts.  Anyway, as the story goes, a wealthy man who, never had much time or regard for the homeless man, died on the same day that the homeless guy died.  Self satisfied arrogance and contempt for others led the wealthy man to an uncomfortably hot place where he thirsted for relief.  To his surprise he could see the homeless guy enjoying comfort and peace in another place not far off, so he asked that the guy be sent down to bring him a cup of water.  It wasn't to be.  The homeless guy was no servant to be ordered about.  Loved by God, he was finally getting the rest denied to him in life.  The rich man would just have to endure as best he could with plenty of time to think about what it means when God says that loving one another is the most important thing in life.  What does loving one another mean to you?  Does it have anything to do with how you act toward others?  Does it have anything to do with how you treat the homeless, the sick, the hungry?  Is there such a thing as the deserving poor, and the undeserving poor?  What do you think?  I know what Jesus thought.  He told the story.  What do you think?

A recent piece going around Facebook compares those who receive food stamps to wild animals in national parks where signs warn against feeding them lest they become dependent on handouts.  The message is clear, if it wasn't for handouts, those people would have to work harder to earn more to eat better.  If you want to stop dependency, stop feeding them.  If someone can't earn enough to afford adequate food and shelter on minimum wage, they should get a better job.  If they lack needed education and skills, well, whose fault is that?  Their own of course, or maybe their parents.  You can't breed good out of bad.  Good trees and good fruit, bad trees and bad fruit, and all that.  It's in the bible.  Dependency of the indolent is what's ruining this country!  Ebenezer Scrooge said it best, "Are there no prisons..., no workhouses?"  Workhouses, we used to have them, and county poorhouses too.  Why not bring them back?  The poor and hungry could be fed and sheltered, and they could work off their debt by raising crops and livestock, and doing odd jobs around town.  Dignity in work and all that.  Those who refuse the collective largess might die of this or that more readily for it, but whose fault would that be?  They had a choice and chose poorly.  Painfully tragic as that may seem, it would be through no fault of ours.  Indeed, we would suffer the unpleasant cost of carcass disposal.  The best we could do for them is to pray for their unregenerate souls.  Amen?

More than usual, we are in a time when the airwaves and daily conversation are filled with hard,  judgmental, just plain nasty talk about whether our country is in as good a place as it should be.  Opinions are all over the place with little concern for truth.  If you are among those who claim to be Christian, there are some truths that stand above all others, and they must claim authority greater than any other.  You shall love the Lord your God.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang everything else in scripture.  You shall love one another as Christ has loved you.  That's the new commandment.  Commandments, not suggestions.  From God, not from television, radio, the newspaper, or coffee conversation.

So what happened to the rich man in the end?  Here's what I think.  When he finally figured it out, and honestly confessed what he now knew to be the truth, he was invited to cross over and join the homeless man as a brother.  Not that he finally accepted the poor man as a brother, but that he finally was willing to be accepted by the homeless man as a brother.  What do you think?

Post script: I'm fully aware of the cons used by the poor to gain a few bucks, and have heard every one of them.  Sometimes the most right thing to do is offer simple friendship and respect

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Gossip, Rumors, and the Internet

Probably like your town, ours has a local news website with a Facebook link.  Anyone can post to it, provided they obey a few simple rules against profanity and personal attacks.  It has expanded the reach and impact of the old word of mouth gossip circuits.  To give it due credit, it is very efficient at getting out the word about events and issues.  But it is rife with speculation, unverified and unverifiable assertions, and rhetorical questions that not so subtly challenge the integrity of community policies and decision makers.  In other words, it's a lightning fast rumor mill.

Rumors and gossip.  They are a yoked team, powerful and unrestrained.  St. James understood that even in his day, which was a few years before mine, when he observed that, "If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies.  Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.  So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.  For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species,  but no one can tame the tongue-a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.   From the same mouth come blessing and cursing." (From the Letter of James, chapter 3)

Rumors are weird creatures.  Back in high school, that Pandora's box of rumors, I wondered how they got started and how fast they could get around.  So I tried my own social experiment.  I don't remember the details, but I said something to a friend in confidence.  It was made up on the spot, a salacious "fact" about a famous entertainer of the day.  "Did you know that xxx was xxx, I heard it, it's true."  It took only a few hours for it to come back to me in exaggerated form.  That was over fifty years ago.  I was smugly stunned, and the lesson has remained with me ever since.  Consider what we have now.

Our community website with its Facebook link is an asset, and I wouldn't want it to go away.  But as a news source, which it claims to be, it lacks any pretension to journalistic objectivity or editorial oversight.  Our much maligned local paper, with its reputation for slipshod reporting and difficulty with spelling, actually does a fairly good job of rooting out the facts and reporting them with editorial discretion.  Reporting on the local news website, on the other hand, is the product of interested citizens offering their observations and opinions, as they would over a backyard fence or in a coffee group, which is not bad, but it broadcasts unrefined, seldom checked information to an entire electronic audience rather than to a few friends.  What used to take a few hours to make it around town is now accomplished in seconds.  Thankfully, it tends to be reasonably innocent in what gets published.  Egregious errors are often corrected by comments from others, but not before unreflective opinions and counter opinions have been posted.  The point is that the speed with which information and misinformation is distributed to a huge audience is as fast as clicking send.  So is the potential for causing harm.

If local websites like ours tend to be self correcting, which I think they are, what can be said about mass media sites claiming to be news sources but engaged in deliberate manipulation of information to promote a particular political agenda?  They trade in rumor, unverified and unverifiable "facts," and genuine data contorted to make it fit.  It's plain old propaganda right out of 1938.  Some try to shrug it off by dismissing them as mere venues for entertainment, or by claiming that one so called news source is offset by another so called news source.  That's begging the question.  To be blunt, they are in the business of rumor mongering.  They have no self correcting mechanism.  They have sowed disrespect for journalism while influencing a great many people who are disinterested in verifying what has been said.  What they do reaches entire populations in seconds, and there is no taking it back once it's out there.

No one will turn back the calendar to a time of more reliable news sources.  There never was such a time.  It's just that slower, more localized news sources, including the backyard fence, were easier to check, and influenced fewer people.  It would be refreshing to witness real journalists standing up for the value of reporting that has a higher standard of objectivity and accuracy.  One can hope.  In the meantime, adhering to the words of Peggy Noonan, we need to practice the habit of trust but verify, or as Hillary Clinton rephrased it, distrust and verify.  I guess both are appropriate.  I have no doubt that readers of these articles already do that.  I have little expectation that it will become common practice.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Cotton Mather, Me, and Education

Cotton Mather has never been one of my historical heroes.  He was one of the characters who appeared to take delight in the Salem witch trials while doing what he could to preserve restrictive Puritan discipline that had begun to fade from popular favor.  Nevertheless, I've been reading excerpts from his works that have reminded me about how poorly educated I am.  He peppered his texts with long passages in Greek and Latin, while indicating that he had read every classical text available to him, as well as the works of most philosophers and theologians contemporary to his time.  It could be that he was making an extra effort to convince Europeans that a Puritan rube from the colonies should be taken seriously as an educated intellectual of their equal.  He may have been a pompous ass, but he was a well educated one.

Supposedly, I also am a well educated man, at least in my own mind.  But, I have only the most rudimentary knowledge of Latin and Greek, and none whatsoever in Hebrew.  It's a good thing I've got enough dictionaries to help me through when I have to dig into a word or phrase.  Moreover, while I have cursory knowledge about many of the ancient classics of the Western world, and have read some of them in their English translations, I cannot compete with the bibliography Mather referenced with what appeared to be intimately familiarity.  Have we lost something important?

In my defense, and possibly yours, what constitutes a thorough education has changed.  Mather was a product of colonial 17th century Puritan New England.  Not many were well educated, but the few who were, were well grounded in English, Latin, Greek, and enough French to get by.  Their texts were the classics of Greece and Rome.  Filling in the gaps were the latest writings of reformer theologians, and a few heretic philosophers just to keep an eye on them.  With relatively few adaptions to include an expanded geography and a bit of science, a good university education in the earliest decades of the 20th century was not very different from his.  Then things speeded up.  Rapid application of new technologies to everyday life pushed education in new directions.  The push became an explosion following WWII.  Two world wide wars; the dawn of the "Atomic Age"; antibiotics; prosperity for the masses; fast, inexpensive travel to anywhere; popularization of psychology; global commerce;  the advent of computing; it changed everything.  My education, basic as it is, included a far broader range of subjects and experiences encompassing the entire earth and its many cultures and traditions.  Some smattering of familiarity extends from subatomic particles to the dark matter of the universes, and everything in between.  Education has been overhauled and redefined in my lifetime, with the old classics assuming a minor role.

For Mather, Europeans, especially the English, were the sole arbiters of all that was true and right.  Ancient Greeks and Romans, Calvinist reformation theologians, and the bible; that's what one needed to know and it was enough.  As for the New World, the New England wilderness was a free, open, unpopulated land that God had prepared for Protestant settlement.  The natives were recognized as present in it the same way deer and elk were present – a wild species to be moved out of the way of settlement, and utilized until utility gave way to disposal for the sake of convenience.  Freedom for him was freedom to worship as Puritans in a theocratic society that prohibited any other form of worship or polity.  The nascent democracy that he treasured, and we celebrate, existed only to facilitate right organization and discipline of a religiously orthodox society.  In other words, as big as the New World was, his writings describe a small, tightly circumscribed world protected by sturdy ideological walls.  We live In a much larger world, and while we have an abundance of ideological walls erected to protect our preferred world views, they are quickly assaulted by others, and often crumble almost as quickly as they can be built.

Education appropriate for our larger world requires disciplines foreign to Mather: psychology, sociology, economics, political science, and organization and management theory, math in all of its complex forms.  Like others, I've been exposed to a lay person's understanding of relativity, subatomic physics, chaos and game theory.  Thanks to the Internet I can log into news about any part of the world, and do at least superficial research on any subject.  As a well educated man of my time, the extent of what I can claim to know is much broader than anything Mather could imagine.  Yet I cannot claim as deep a knowledge in any one of them as Mather could in his.  My friend Bill Hess, recently deceased, would have loved a visit with him.  Bill was a classicist familiar with all the ancient languages, and well read in the classical literature of Greece, Rome, and Europe.  But Bill was flummoxed by the modern world and unhappy with rapid technological developments.  He felt that modern education has lost something important.  It has become adept at knowing the present, but it has lost an understanding of from whence it came, and thus is ill prepared for the future, so Bill believed.  What do you think?

It isn't slowing down.  For our youngest grandchildren, a thorough education does not include but begins with computer science; something for them as basic as the alphabet and counting to 100.  Last Christmas we played a trivia game with a group of of very intelligent college students, each attending a top college, and each studying at advanced levels in difficult subject areas.  The trivia game was heavy with questions about history, geography, and the cultures of the world.  They didn't stand a chance.  We routed them.  I'm not sure it was a good thing.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Thoughts on Victimless Crimes

Note:  Attorney friends will no doubt consider this basic Law 101, but here goes anyway.

The subject of victimless crimes came up the other day.  I said there were no such things.  Curiously, sometimes the criminals are the victims.  What I mean is that society has often passed laws that make certain behaviors a crime, but repeal those laws when times change.  The victims in such cases are those who had been labeled as criminals but are no longer.  Society is seldom honest enough to admit that it was wrong to have once made a criminal out of someone, but now recognizes that they are no longer, nor should they ever have been.

Obvious examples are old laws that criminalized homosexual acts, and even some acts between legally married heterosexuals.  They are obvious only because anything to do with sex always titillates our imaginations.  We prefer to pay scant attention to others, including the entire barrage of Jim Crow laws that maintained segregation, and not only in the South.  The covenant attached to the original deed to my house in Walla Walla prohibited  its sale to blacks.  The Pacific Northwest was home to several 19th century laws restricting or prohibiting Asian immigrants from ownership or employment.  I’m sure you can add others.  The point is that societies throughout history, and in every part of the world, have criminalized behaviors  that were inconsistent with the social norms of those in power, or disadvantageous to their economic and political status.  The victims of those crimes were the criminals.  

I have a young friend who rises up in righteous indignation over such injustices, but it isn’t as simple as he would like.  What makes something a crime?  The law, of course, makes something a crime, but where did the law come from?  Laws are stitched together to protect the pattern of society, and each society has a different pattern.  There are some things we can almost agree on.  After that it gets fuzzy.  Acts that cause unjustifiable harm to persons and property are criminal: theft, assault, and murder come to mind.  It seems clear enough, but what level of taking something, assaulting somebody, or killing another is unjustifiable?  Are there some acts too insignificant to be counted?  Are there some acts perpetrated by those in power that are deemed justifiable when the same acts committed by someone without power are deemed criminal?  What makes the difference?  How much deviance from the norm is tolerable?  Western democracies tend to tolerate a wide range of behaviors before they reach the level of crime, and even then there is flexibility about when and how to exercise enforcement.  Our tolerance makes things messy, but we cant give it up without losing our freedoms.

More complicated yet are crimes against society, which, as far as I can tell, is the attempt by societies to preserve a set of social or cultural values by criminalizing deviant behavior.  It has little to do with danger to persons or property.  It’s swampy territory because social and cultural values are always changing.  Moreover, I’m not so sure it’s the values that are being protected.  It’s the institution that has been created in the name of values.  I’ve been rereading an anthology of early New England Puritan writings, and their harsh punishment of behavior that challenged the theological orthodoxy upon which their societies were built was clearly an attempt to fend off that which they believed would undermine the whole endeavor.  Ann Hutchinson had the temerity to be educated, teach other women, and challenge obscure aspects of Calvinist doctrine as understood by separatist Puritans.  For that she was a criminal.  Core moral and social values can be more important to people than the safety of property or the dignity of persons.  The viciousness with which people will act to protect them knows few boundaries, especially when position, privilege, and power may be threatened.  Where  does justice lie in that swamp?  It’’s there, but our ability to discover it with confidence leaves much to be desired. 

I’m not so certain that the Puritans were protecting core moral values as much as they were protecting an institution they had adorned with moral values.  They used the moral values as an excuse for defending the institution.  They would never have admitted to that, nor do we when we make criminals out of those who challenge our institutions that we decorate with our moral values.  An example: for a long time we relied on laws to protect the integrity of marriage.  The thing is, we were not much interested in the integrity of the the relationship, or the well being of the persons in it, only in the institution itself as defined by law.  Behavior within the context of a legal marriage such as assault and rape were not crimes as long as they were kept inside the house.  What was so important about the institution as institution?  In part it was a social structure that established and maintained the power of one person, the husband, over the powerlessness of the other person, the wife.  The governing authorities, almost all men, wanted to keep it that way.

Well, Ann Hutchinson has a statue honoring her in the nation’s Capitol, and we are slowly making criminals out of the domestic assaulters, rather than protecting their position of power.  So there we are.  There are no victimless crimes.  Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we don’t.  In either case, whenever we pass a law making something a crime, it recognize victims, or it creates them.  I find libertarian politics to be naively superficial, but it does have one point.  We should be cautious about criminalizing behavior, especially social behavior, because we don’t have a reliable track record on which to build.  Behaviors that cause physical and emotional harm to people and their property, without prejudice, are the rightful subjects of criminal law.  Behaviors that challenge the social fabric without presenting an obvious threat to the safety of persons and property need to be examined very carefully before any action is taken.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Vocabulary - How hard it is

What follows is a follow up to my previous post about the mean old God vs. the loving new God.  If you haven’t already, you might want to read that first before taking this on.

Vocabulary.  We can express ourselves only with the vocabulary we have.  To put it another way, we cannot say something using words we don’t know.  In like manner, we cannot ask others to express themselves in words they don’t know or with meanings they don’t have.  You would think it’s obvious, but, in theology as in life, one of the biggest mistakes we make is to put our vocabulary into the mouths of others who have never heard the words, nor have words of their own that approximate our meaning. 

Many years ago in seminary, a group of us spent hours debating what Paul’s letter to Philemon had to say about slavery.  We tried hard to make Paul say something that complemented our understanding of slavery, particularly as we knew about it in American history.   We even imagined that he did, but it was not so.  We could not force a 20th century American vocabulary into Paul’s mouth.  It’s a small example, but it’s related to the subject of my previous article about the mean Old Testament God vs. the loving New Testament God.  How is it that the loving God we know through Jesus Christ can be the same cruel vindictive God we read about in the Old Testament?

The question we have to ask ourselves is, What vocabulary did the ancient Israelites have to talk about and understand God?  How did that vocabulary change as the centuries unfolded?  It’s important because how can God reveal God’s self to a people except through the vocabulary they already possess?  What, in any given era, did they know about the characteristics of gods?  There were plenty of gods to provide examples.  What words and meanings were available to them to begin expressing knowledge about a new god, JHWH?  What we know for certain is that the nature of God as revealed in Jesus was not known to them, although the progressive unveiling of God’s self revelation throughout scripture always moves in that direction, introducing new meanings into old words and bringing new words into play one small step at a time.

We don’t say anything in the usual Sunday school curricula about the dynamic development of revelation of who God is, or about who we are as God’s people, and precious little about it in most adult Christian education programs.  Many of us still use Luther’s small catechism, or its cognate, to teach teens preparing for confirmation.  Five hundred year old German ideas about God may have enduring value, but how well do they communicate with contemporary American experience?   It leaves faithful, life long Christians trying to force 21st century meanings onto words our English bibles use to tell the stories of peoples who lived thousands of years ago in cultures far different from our own.  It’s unfair to those ancient ancestors.  It’s unfair to today’s faithful trying to understand who God is.  It creates an impossible roadblock to inquiring minds of non Christians who may want to know more about us.

It’s a problem.  Not only do we have to begin teaching adults about scripture using the vocabulary they already have, we also have to help them understand that those living two, three, or four thousand years ago had a different vocabulary with different meanings from our own.  Then begins the slow task of introducing them to a new vocabulary that can lead to a deeper understanding.  I’m surprised at how hard that is to do.  I used to teach a weekly class at the local rescue mission where few of the participants had graduated from high school.  They were eager to learn, but I had to start by using words they knew well, introducing new vocabulary with care, and struggling to find ways to express myself in words they were accustomed to using, all without being condescending.

I’ve often made the mistake of assuming that my well educated parishioners did not need the same care, forgetting that their religious education stopped in the sixth grade, or sometimes earlier.  College educated people using grade school words and meanings to talk about God!  Good Grief!  Moreover, more educated folks appear to be quicker to assume that the ancients had and used the same vocabulary we do to understand God.  Not so many years ago, it came as a surprise to those in my parish bible study group that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not Jews practicing the Jewish religion as it was known to Jesus.  They were honestly unaware of the developments that took place over the course of the scriptural record, but believed that words used to understand God and humanity in the oldest stories were the same as words used in the most recent stories.  Even among clergy colleagues there is a tendency to impute early 21st century ethics and morality into the words used to describe how faith was understood in biblical times.  When it doesn’t fit, they are a little too quick to condemn those ancients for their failure to have the morals and ethics of a modern liberal Christian.  How impatient we are!  I wonder if our descendants will be as unfair to us as they wonder at our ignorance about what is so obvious to them.