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The Unspoken Morality

Viet Thanh Nguyen came to the United States in 1975 as a refugee from Vietnam. He was interviewed last night by Christiane Amanpour on PBS. They discussed the current policy of the United States to separate children from their parents if they enter the US “illegally”. After playing a clip of Attorney General Jeff Sessions defending the policy – even in the wake of revelations that the US government has lost track of about 1,500 such children who were separated from their parents.

Mr. Nguyen commented that separating children from their parents is “inhumane and immoral. So it’s a moral question that I don’t think we should lose sight of. And I think too many people in this country have lost sight of that as they stick to this rhetoric of legality.” That’s precisely the missing point, I thought to myself: No one is talking about the morality of the policy! And that is very much the problem with much of what transpires today in political debates.

Nguyen went on to discuss the visibility of American involvement in Vietnam and how that prompted a responsibility to take in refugees after that war. But, Nguyen pointed out, American involvement in the conditions south of the border that created some of the economic and political reasons for refugees coming north has mostly gone unnoticed, invisible to most Americans. So many Americans feel they have no obligation to these refugees, and so it’s “easier to behave toward them in inhumane and callous fashion.”

White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, spoke out against immigrants and refugees who he feels will not assimilate to US society because of their low education and rural background. But as Nguyen went on to comment, his own mother was precisely the kind of person Kelly describes – born poor in a rural area, who had 6th-grade education! Yet, she was a heroic woman who worked hard and produced children who went on to Harvard. John Kelly’s own grandparents were Italian and Irish working-class labourers. And that has been the history of immigration in this country. Every wave of new immigrants has been greeted initially with suspicion and prejudice until after a generation or two.

The “boat people” who left Vietnam as refugees were in hindsight considered the “good” immigrants. Should the current refugees from the south be considered not “good”? Nguyen reminded Amanpour that the “oceanic refugees” (his substitute label for the “boat people”) had a 50% survival rate. And only 36% of the American people wanted to accept these refugees – even then! So perhaps not much has changed after all. People feared that the “boat people” would bring all sorts of problems and contamination to this country. But 40 years later, most Americans have forgotten the coming of the “boat people.” Even many Vietnamese themselves now oppose accepting new immigrants and refugees! With a smile on his face, Nguyen vouches for the fact that many of the Vietnamese refugees that he grew up with in California were pretty bad refugees, doing things like welfare cheating and scams and “much, much worse”! But they overcame. His point is not that immigrants or refugees are perfect, but given the opportunity they tend to succeed.

We all have a story; we’re all storytellers, Nguyen reminded me and other viewers of his interview; though most of us will never win a Pulitzer Prize like Nguyen did. But when Donald Trump says “Make America Great Again” he is telling a story in four words that is very seductive and powerful to many people, and they repeat that story, over dinner and in other settings. So those who believe in a story about an inclusive America, a welcoming America, an America that is about all kinds of people – it’s important to tell this other story, and make America love again! On that note, Mr. Nguyen ended his brief but illuminating interview with Christiane Amanpour.

I’m an immigrant myself – and not once, but twice! I emigrated to Canada in 1963, at the age of 10. And I became an immigrant to the US in 1983. After studying theology in New York (1980-83), I was offered a job by the Greek community in Astoria, New York, in 1983 to teach Chemistry and Physics at the St. Demetrios High School. I subsequently got married and that sealed my decision to stay in the United States. My experiences with immigration in both Canada and the US have been completely positive. I never experienced prejudice or suspicion in either country.

I received undergraduate and post-graduate education at Canada’s top three universities: McGill in Montréal, University of Toronto, and University of British Columbia in Vancouver. My two brothers had very little proclivity for academic work and preferred to have a good time. But both eventually settled to work for their own and for the family’s improvement. There were, to be sure, members of my extended clan who engaged in petty welfare fraud and took advantage of Canada’s very generous health and social support programs in ways that didn’t sit well with me. And there were one or two cousins who jumped ship in Halifax and entered the country illegally. But they became law-abiding productive members of Canadian society and eventually moved to the United States where they became successful businessmen. So certainly we were not all perfect immigrants, and I can relate a bit to what Mr. Nguyen was sharing about his own life among other refugees in California.

My family emigrated from Greece for economic reasons. We fled poverty to come to a country that offered opportunities to get ahead, to receive quality education, and live a mostly comfortable, but not luxurious, life. We were not political or war refugees.

Like Nguyen, I also am deeply saddened when I see fellow Greeks speak against immigrants today and support inhumane treatment of refugees and undocumented immigrants. How easily many of us forget where we came from, and why we came. When I see people who benefitted from the generosity of the United States – and even engaged in welfare fraud! – now promote anti-immigrant vitriol, it makes me angry. And I wonder whether such people have ever known the love of God in a personal way. People hear talk about the love of God in church gatherings, in Liturgy; they pay lip service to this love of God when it works to their own benefit. But they cannot see how this loving God might also be loving toward others not like us. And how this loving God may just be telling us to love others who are not like us.

I don’t know what religion Viet Thanh Nguyen subscribes to, if any. Did he become a Christian after his emigration to the United States? Is he a Buddhist, or an atheist? I don’t know. But hearing him raise the moral question today in the interview with Amanpour really hit the nail on the head. When “legality” takes precedence over morality, it is a very troubling matter for conscientious Christians. This is a moral question! And it disturbs me when I see millions of allegedly “evangelical” (that is, gospel-believing) Christians promote hatred toward people who are seeking a chance at a better life.

One of the greatest theologians the United States has produced was Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). In 1932 he published what became his most famous book, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, in which he claimed that that people are more likely to sin as members of groups than as individuals. This was a very controversial idea at the time, though the imminent rise of Nazi fascism quickly put a stamp of reality on the book’s thesis. And unfortunately, what is happening today in many countries, including or especially our own, is clear proof of the group dynamics of much immoral and hateful attitudes. People who are pleasant, supportive and welcoming in their inter-personal behaviors can quickly become something else when immersing themselves in “fake news” or when they are surrounded by cheering true believers at political rallies.

The Judeo-Christian scriptures are clear; the behaviour and teachings of Jesus are clear! Perhaps I will give voice to some of the scriptures in a later post, but for now this present post has grown long enough. My point has been to raise the moral question. Though Nguyen and I have partly and necessarily addressed the present political situation, the attitudes that ignore the moral question extend beyond partisan politics and religion. Nguyen’s point that we are all storytellers is the challenge that hit me personally. What story am I writing in this moment of world history? What is the story we are all creating as a country, as a planetary culture? For how long will refugees and immigrants continue to be a moral problem?

Hannibal Hamlin, 15th Vice President of the United States

P.S. As I finished this post and prepared to publish it, a new episode in the PBS series American Experience came on. The title of the episode: “The Chinese Exclusion Act” – about an 1882 law aimed against Chinese coming to the United States. Worth searching on-demand or online. There were voices of dissent, but not enough to prevent Congress passing the law. Standout among the dissenters was Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, who twenty years earlier had been Abraham Lincoln’s first vice-president, and was now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On the floor of the Senate he denounced the Chinese Exclusion Actt: “I’m opposed to this. It violates fundamental American principles…I leave my vote, the last legacy to my children, that they may esteem it the brightest act of my life.” “This is a person with enormous moral authority,” the program narrator added. That is what we need today, persons with enormous moral authority.


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Stephen Hawking is now one with the Universe

No scientist since Albert Einstein has captured the public imagination and spotlight like Stephen Hawking. Diagnosed with ALS at the age of 21, doctors gave him two more years of life; he defied all odds and lived another 55 years, during which he transformed our understanding of the universe. He is now one with the universe that he roamed and explored with his mind.

 

It was close to midnight last night. I was working on some Bible Study notes with the TV playing in the background, on a so-called “news channel” that talked on and on about Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump and other such non-entities, when suddenly Brian Williams interrupted his own unimportance to announce that Stephen Hawking had died. I immediately went to my favourite source for news, The Guardian newspaper of London, and already there was a front page story on their website. It is well worth reading.

I referred to Stephen Hawking last Sunday in my sermon, which I also posted here. I referred to his search for a “theory of everything” with the hope that he and his fellow physicists will indeed discover such a theory. It will have to be other physicists who will continue the search. As a follower of Jesus Christ – I’m trying to avoid over-using the term “Christian” as it has become so defamed and trite in contemporary American society – I find the Cross at the heart of the universe. There is a spiritual heart to the universe that goes beyond the theories of physicists. Hawking, like Einstein before him, never achieved the dream of finding the “theory of everything”, but he is now one with that “everything”, and I bet he now sees the “cross” that is at the heart of everything.

Hawking was to all intents and purposes an atheist, and he cared nothing for what the Evangelical thought police would say about him. He roamed the universe with his brilliant mind and enabled us to roam with him. That was one of his greatest gifts to us: he opened our imagination to the infinite reaches of the cosmos. One famous Christian rebel of the 1960s coined the phrase, “Your God is Too Small.” Indeed, the Christian god had become too small for Stephen Hawking to believe in. Just think of the meanness and narrow-mindedness of the Evangelical god; or the Orthodox god whom we call upon to bless our ethnicities. Can I blame Stephen Hawking for rejecting what most “Christians” call “God”? I believe that now that he is one with the universe he finds there a God more worthy of his belief. The cross of Jesus Christ is an invitation to lay aside all our pre-conceptions of God and to throw off the mental shackles of religiosity.

Hawking had a beautiful mind. He stated what his own goal and purpose in life was: “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” His children quote him as saying, “It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.” Amen to that. He probed the universe with his intellectual powers, and beyond all the intricate mathematics that he worked with his brain he found love at the core of the universe’s meaning and purpose. That is the love that moves the stars. At the very end of the Divine Comedy, in Canto 33 of Paradiso, Dante wrote:

ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle

sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,

l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle. (Par. 33.143-45)

but my desire and will were moved already—

like a wheel revolving uniformly—by

the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Dante, writing his massive 3-part “poem” 700 years ago, saw the unity in diversity that exists in the universe, a unity manifested and sustained by God. The universe is our home, and love is at the heart of the universe, the reason why the universe exists. Hawking saw that as he reflected on his own loved ones. God sees Love at the heart of the universe as He contemplates His Son and the Cross of His Son. There is mystery upon mystery… and beauty.

“Hawking was driven to Wagner, but not the bottle, when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963 at the age of 21.” Nicely stated by the Guardian article. I love Richard Wagner’s operas more than any other music or any other intellectual pursuits, and it warms my heart to know that Hawking was a fellow Wagnerian. But the same man who loved Wagner also became a pop-culture star, appearing in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, where he appeared in a holodeck poker game with Einstein and Isaac Newton, and several episodes of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, where he enjoyed hilarious interactions with Sheldon Cooper and his nerd friends. He even appeared in animated form on The Simpsons. YouTube has a great compilation video of Hawking’s appearances in these shows. He lived according to his own motto: “Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.”

Stephen Hawking with the cast of The Big Bang Theory

The Guardian website has a great collection of pictures to illustrate the life of Stephen Hawking: here.

And the official obituary in The Guardian today was written by a fellow great physicist, Roger Penrose: “Mind over matter

I conclude my own homage to Stephen Hawking with some of his memorable quotes:

  • “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus”.
  • “People who boast about their IQ are losers.”
  • “I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.”
  • “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”
  • “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

Hawking lost his ability to speak and had to communicate through computerised voice synthesis. In an age such as ours where fewer and fewer people bother to communicate with coherent thought and sentences, Hawking was a master communicator, able to express the deepest mysteries of the universe in ways that even children could understand. At a time when talk has become cheap or is being replaced by social media and trivial texts and tweets and when people don’t talk but shout at each other from inside their political and religious bubbles, Hawking’s advice is more needed than ever:

  • “For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”

Rest in the Love that moves the stars, Stephen Hawking!


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An Ash Wednesday of Sin and Horror

Among the most poignant scenes from yesterday’s carnage in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School yesterday were grieving and anxious parents with ashes on their forehead. Yesterday, of course, was Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent for Roman Catholics and Episcopalians. This is how the website bibleinfo.com summarizes the meaning of Ash Wednesday: Roman Catholic churches of the Latin Rite use this service to prepare church members to better appreciate the death and resurrection of Christ through self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Ashes from the burned palms of the preceding year’s Palm Sunday are blessed. With these ashes, the priest marks a cross on the foreheads of worshipers, saying, “Remember, man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19 KJV). Besides showing sorrow for their sins, those who honor Ash Wednesday add an additional meaning; the need to prepare for a holy death.

Yesterday was indeed a day of huge sin and a horrible encounter with death. So many young lives, full of promise and energy, cut down by the bullets of one angry, hate-filled youth! The images of parents with ashes on their foreheads were a blunt reminder that we are very much a human race that is still sunk in sin, despite the salvation and grace that God poured upon us through the death and resurrection of his Son. Lent is the time in which we prepare to confront the death and resurrection of Christ every year. But Christ told us last Sunday that he is in every one of the least of his brothers and sisters, and what we do to the least of his brothers and sisters we do unto him. It was Christ who was murdered yesterday in those 17 lives. Not just a liturgical commemoration of his death this time; but an actual, dark reminder that we live in a death-culture society. Yes, I’m sorry if that strikes some of you as an exaggeration or unnecessarily pessimistic, but there is no other word for it that I can think of. We are a death-culture society!

Death has become a constant in our society: Gun deaths, terrorist deaths, drug-induced deaths, poverty-driven deaths, refugee deaths, unborn deaths, environmental death and deaths…and the death of morality, of civic responsibility, of communication, of accountable political leadership…Need I go on? Flags at half mast. Have you noticed how many times flags are at half mast every year? Yes, half mast. It doesn’t cost anything to fly flags at half mast. A sign of national humility? Perhaps. But the arrogance comes right back up a few days later. And the forgetfulness. We shrug our shoulders and move on – until the next round of bullets at a school or at a concert or a party or a troubled home. Nothing changes, except the statistics which become more brutal every year. Second Amendment they say. I can assure you that the Founding Fathers of this nation never envisaged a future such as ours or weapons such as ours in the hands of teenagers and people with mental problems.

Talk about gun deaths in this country and you’ll be criticised for now getting “political”. “Political” – a nice label people resort to when they don’t want to confront reality. I weep with those parents with ashes – and the many others without ashes – in Parkland, Florida. I wish the Orthodox Church had an Ash Wednesday to start Lent. Every year, it’s becoming more and more clear that there are forces that aim to foreshorten human life and to return us to dust and ashes prematurely. Let’s make this Lent a time not for self-improvement and weight loss, but a time for reaching out to this death culture to transform it in any small way we can. Make this Lent a time to reach out to anyone who is troubled, to someone who is alone and needs the human touch, a kind word, a positive vision of life. Although I’m pessimistic about the death culture around us, I’m very optimistic about our power to transform it. Let’s make this Lent a time of resurrection power in the midst of sin and death.

Agape and Shalom to you today.


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Our Totalitarian Lives

I stand in awe of Karl Barth (1886-1968), generally acknowledged as the greatest theologian of the 20th century and one of the greatest of all time. My awe is not simply at his theological depth and understanding of Scripture; I’m awed at the sheer quantity of what he wrote and published. His greatest contribution to Christian theology is undoubtedly his magnum opus, Church Dogmatics, a multi-volume work of over 9,000 pages (in its original German). When I consider this huge work and the countless other books and papers that he contributed to a deeper understanding of our Christian faith, I cannot help but think how meagre our own efforts are. Today, with all the tools that technology has given us to make research and publication so easy, what theologian produces one-tenth or one-hundredth of what Barth produced with only a typewriter and printed books at his disposal? As I said, I stand or sit in awe of Barth – and other men like him of bygone eras who produced books for the ages instead of idiot tweets that our own era will be known for.

The recently published book, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, contains precisely what its title signifies, transcripts of various public “conversations” in which Barth participated and in which he answered questions posed to him by a variety of people – not just professional scholars and clergy, but also journalists and even prisoners! Barth was very fond of visiting prisons and having group conversations with prisoners. When he toured the United States in 1962, he insisted on visiting some major prisons, including San Quentin in California. The greatest theologian of the century was no aloof elitist.

One of the most fascinating conversations in this collection is one that took place on June 24th, 1962, with Protestant book dealers, in the Alpine village of Flims in his native Switzerland. One of the questions posed to him was as follows: “What possibilities do you see for the existence of the church in a totalitarian state?” Certainly an important question to ask at that time, when Europe was divided between a totalitarian East and a democratic West, but also an important question to ask in any modern era; very much including our own. Barth’s answer was long. A few quotes are worth sharing:

“Totalitarian” – that somehow refers to something whole, comprehensive. And when one says “totalitarian state,” one apparently means a state that demands something in its entirety from humans….that they place themselves without reservation at the disposal of its teaching and its will and its purposes. The total state is a state that says, “You shall love me with your whole heart, with your whole mind, from the entirety of your soul, and from the entirety of your strength” (and here Barth is clearly alluding to God’s command in Deuteronomy 6:5 as being demanded by the state). And there we have the mystery: the total state, even when it poses as being atheistic, is a state that arises in the shape of a deity and wills to have from humans that which only God can will to have from humans. That is the imposing thing about such a totalitarian state: it is, so to say, a caricature of God. Even when it wishes to be atheistic, it somehow has to represent God in a distorted form on earth….a curious contradiction: the godless atheistic state that presents itself, reveals itself, and represents itself as divine.

Is it clear to all of us that not only the Communist state and also not only the Hitler state, but rather every state has something of the totalitarian state in it, that every state, even the finest and freest and most democratic, thus resembles a large cat, which has fine paws to be sure, but whose paw has claws stuck in it somewhere? And the claws in the cat’s paw – that is the totalitarian element in every state: and one can never be entirely certain just when that totalitarianism will appear. As I say, in every state!

After giving a couple recent examples in Swiss history, he goes on to some startling statements which should give us pause to reflect on our own habits.

You know, that’s how it is with the totalitarian spirit: it doesn’t begin with the state. Human society, if you will, is totalitarian as such. Society around us automatically demands certain things from us. It doesn’t make much noise, as long as one goes along with it. But when one doesn’t go along, when one swims against the stream, things get nasty….What “they” believe and think and do – this “they” governs “in the air” (reference to Ephesians 2:2 and Paul’s teaching about powers and principalities in Ephesians 6:12). Without police! No one lands in prison. But everyone has to do and has to approve what “they” do and approve….Because society is always based on this “they”, there is also occasionally a totalitarian state, and then its claws become more or less apparent….

Now, you see, something much larger stands behind the totalitarian society and then the totalitarian state. I would say it is a totalitarian world. Yes, what the Bible calls “the world” is a being full of totalitarian demands. When the apostle Paul spoke of it, he spoke of those powers and authorities that rule. He named them “thrones, principalities” and so on. And that is not mythology. That is the truest reality. (Further passages in Paul that explain what Barth is referring to: Romans 8:38, 1 Corinthians 15:24, Ephesians 1:21, Ephesians 3:10, Colossians 1:16, Colossians 2:15)

You can guess what this is leading to: Barth’s itemization of some of the social constructs that define our lives: fashion, media, sports, money. He even makes a humorous reference to his experience in the United States in the previous months:

Or take something else, what we now call “traffic”. Take a look at our streets with all these cars! I have just had this experience in America….four cars next to each other in one direction and four in the other direction! And nonstop, day and night. You ask yourself, what’s going on here? What are they all rushing to? Yes, they must rush. Things are in a hurry, yes, in a hurry. And so they hurry along. And then to realize that cars like this are rushing and racing all over the world! We wouldn’t have it any other way. No, we wouldn’t have it any other way. It must be so. But when something must be so, then it is something totalitarian. Modern people have mostly become car people, and to be sure, not in the sense that they govern cars, but rather that cars govern them.

So now it should be evident to you that we live within an entire spiderweb of such powers and authorities, and you have before you what I call the totalitarian world.

If I were present in an audience listening to this methodical exposure of the totalitarian instinct I would have become breathless. How true Barth’s words ring, and even more today than 55 years ago. Because how much further we have traveled down the road of totalitarianism!

What would Barth say about today’s digital world, and especially social media and the power they hold upon a growing majority of the “world”? Hardly a day goes by that we are not reminded of the power social media exerts in our lives, even defining how many of us receive our news, influencing even elections in democracies such as ours. How free are we, truly? The things Barth used as examples of society’s totalitarian instinct are still with us – fashion, money, media, sports – but now we have an even more powerful force in the prevalence of social media. His image of “traffic” and cars applies even more to the digital world that now controls so much of our lives. The Guardian newspaper included a devastating article on New Year’s Day: Take it from the insiders: Silicon Valley is eating your soul.

A pre-Christmas statement by Facebook claimed that although “passive” use of social media could harm users, “actively interacting with people” online was linked not just to “improvements in wellbeing”, but to “joy”. “In short,” the Guardian article states, “if Facebook does your head in, the solution is apparently not to switch off, but more Facebook.” So if you’re not happy, it’s because you’re not using Facebook enough! Don’t be a light user of Facebook and social media, immerse yourself, find happiness online with Facebook!

The former Facebook president Sean Parker warned in November that its platform “literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” God indeed only knows – or we will know when it will be too late, after we have created a few generations of robots ready to be assimilated into a Big Brother corporate totalitarian state such as those depicted in movies of dystopian futures. Another former Facebook executive was quoted to say: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth … So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion.” But he still loves the company! So must we all, despite what it’s doing to our brains and our social interactions. One Stanford University lecturer and tech consultant pontificates with statements like this: “For new behaviours to really take hold, they must occur often.” But even this devotee came to realize the truth of what he was promoting and eventually installed a device in his home that cut off the internet at a set time every day. Nice that the elite can have such digital solutions to digital sickness. Most people are not so lucky. Even Steve Jobs, inventor of the iPad, was quoted in 2010 to say that his children do not use the iPad. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home,” he said in an interview. Again, the elite have options that the majority of the people who will become drones in a dystopian future do not. I’m not exaggerating.

The scariest part of all this and the reason why I want to relate it to the biblical teachings about powers and principalities is that the owners of these companies – Facebook, Google, etc. – do not have control over what their digital platforms are doing. It’s all done by bots – pieces of software that perform automated tasks – and other such digital entities which follow their own rules and probably create or will create their own realities. Tristan Harris recently told Wired magazine: “Right now, 2 billion people’s minds are already jacked in to this automated system, and it’s steering people’s thoughts toward either personalised paid advertising or misinformation or conspiracy theories. And it’s all automated; the owners of the system can’t possibly monitor everything that’s going on, and they can’t control it.” The same Tristan Harris asserted: “Religions and governments don’t have that much influence over people’s daily thoughts.” I don’t care about governments – I don’t trust them – but I do care about religion, especially my religion. So in a sequel to what I write here I want to look at Barth’s answer to the question originally posed to him: “What possibilities do you see for the existence of the church in a totalitarian state?” Can the Christian church have any resistance to the multiple threats of totalitarianism?


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The Logos of Advent

 

Advent is a time of rich liturgical and popular traditions in the western churches, especially in the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches. But it is a much undeveloped liturgical time in the eastern churches, where it is primarily observed as a fasting season, probably thanks to the disproportionate influence of monastics in the evolution of the Orthodox tradition. Our loss, I guess one can say. In fact, the Orthodox liturgical tradition has only one hymn that could be accurately called an Advent hymn – and it is the Kontakion we sing in the season before Christmas:

Ἡ Παρθένος σήμερον, τὸν προαιώνιον Λόγον, ἐν Σπηλαίῳ ἔρχεται, ἀποτεκεῖν ἀπορρήτως. Χόρευε ἡ οἰκουμένη ἀκουτισθεῖσα, δόξασον μετὰ Ἀγγέλων καὶ τῶν Ποιμένων, βουληθέντα ἐποφθῆναι, παιδίον νέον, τὸν πρὸ αἰώνων Θεόν.

Today the Virgin comes to the manger to give birth in a mystery to him who is the eternal Word. Hear this and rejoice all the earth and glorify with the angels and the shepherds; for the pre-eternal God now comes to us as a new child.

It is a beautiful hymn, expressing not only the anticipated joy but also the profound theology of the Logos, the Word. It comes from the opening 18 verses of the Gospel of John:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων· καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει, καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν….Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας….θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε· μονογενὴς υἱός [θεὸς] ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it….And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us, full of grace and truth; and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father….No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son [God], who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

Notice the textual variation in the last sentence, indicated by the square brackets? The majority of manuscripts have μονογενὴς υἱός, the only-begotten Son. But two of the earliest papyrus manuscripts that we possess (from around 200 AD), 𝔓66 and 𝔓75, and some other early manuscripts read θεός instead of υἱός. Scholars now speculate that θεός was replaced by υἱός in later manuscripts to bring John’s statement more in line with standard trinitarian language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But it is very likely that John did indeed write θεός to wrap up this majestic opening of his gospel, in which he unveils the Logos in his full divine and cosmic glory.

The police drama Columbo was very popular in the 1970s. Unlike other police dramas, it showed the crime and the perpetrator at the beginning of each episode. So we the viewers knew whodunnit before Columbo, brilliantly played by Peter Falk, came on to the scene, with his usual battered coat.

That’s something like what John did in the opening of his gospel: he told us up front who he is going to reveal to us. The Advent Kontakion does something similar. It tells us up front, it’s the Logos who is coming into the world. It is the human manifestation of the Logos that Christmas is all about. It is not Santa, it is not just my personal Lord and Saviour. It is the Word of God – the reason for all creation, the reason why we have life, the reason why there is light in the world, even if sometimes the darkness seems to prevail. But “the darkness has not overcome it,” John tells us.

John’s use of the Logos locates his understanding of Jesus in the Hebrew scriptures, the dabar yhwh; but also in the Greek philosophical tradition of the Logos going all the way back to Heraclitus (535-475 BC). Thus, Logos helped John combine Hebrew and Greek insights into the origin, purpose and cosmic scale of our existence! Look at the map below, compiled by astronomers, showing our neighbourhood of the universe. Click it once and click it again to expand it and fill your computer screen. How can you look at the scale and movements of the galaxies and not believe that there is Logos behind the magnificent complexity and marvel of the universe?

Currents of galaxies (white spheres) are drawn by gravity toward galaxy cluster and even more massive cosmic pileups like the “Great Attractor.” Red and yellow show zones of attraction; dark blue shows the voids that galaxies flow away from. (Credit: Courtois, Tully, et al.) (Click to enlarge)

This cosmological map helps me understand Jesus better than any icon does. I see the cosmic scale of God’s creative and redemptive purposes. And I am in there too, in that section called the Milky Way; and I am part of the big picture. We are part of the big picture! Don’t reduce Jesus to be your little saviour. His is an ecumenical, cosmic birth. The οἰκουμένη rejoices and dances with the angels and the shepherds – because a new child is born, the pre-eternal God.

We have a hard time conceiving infinity. Think about pi, π. (See excellent Wikipedia article.) π is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. It is usually represented as 3.14; but in actual fact, π can be expanded to an infinite number of decimal places. It just goes on and on as we increase the precision of calculation:

π = 3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399375105820974944592……

How far do you go in contemplating infinity, eternity? And what lies beyond infinity, beyond eternity? The mind stops; we can’t conceive the inconceivable. So in our hymnography we don’t even use words like “eternal” to speak of God the Word: he is “pre-eternal” – before and beyond eternity!

Christmas is the profound mystery of the pre-eternal God crashing into our universe, into what he created. We are his, the entire οἰκουμένη is his, all creation is his. “Lord save your people and bless your inheritance,” we sing in one of our most popular hymns. The earth is his inheritance. It belongs to him, and he comes into his inheritance. He comes into his own, even though his own more often reject him than welcome him. We reject him when we reject his work, his inheritance, our place in the cosmos. We reject him when we misuse his inheritance, when we treat it as our own possession. What happened 2,000 years ago is like the opening of a Columbo episode. It told us everything we need to know about the story of Jesus down through the ages. It all played out there – and it has played out in identical ways for 20 more centuries. Let us not be among those who reject him. Let us be among those who welcome him – not just as an excuse for mindless shopping. Let us welcome him as the source of truth, life and love. The Word is God…and the Word became flesh.


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We are not neutrinos!

 

On a recent trip to Germany we visited friends in the city Karlsruhe, a typical German city of medium size. I did not know at the time – but found out just days ago – that Karlsruhe is the site of a very important experiment in physics: the Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino Experiment, Katrin for short. Its purpose is to find the mass of the neutrino – the most insignificant entity in the universe. Insignificant because for a long time it was believed to have no mass, but scientists now know that it has an extremely tiny mass. What is significant about neutrinos is that they are present everywhere. Every second, right now, billions of neutrinos pass through your body! Uncountable numbers have been left over from the Big Bang birth of the cosmos 13.8 billion years ago. There are more neutrinos in the universe than any other kind of particle, but because they do not interact with any type of matter, they are hard to detect and measure. Because they are present everywhere in huge numbers, their mass could determine the future of the universe. Will it continue to expand for ever, to all eternity, until it dies a cold death? Or will it stop expanding and perhaps even contract and collapse again?

The main spectrometer of Katrin on its way to Karlsruhe in 2006. The project is set to get under way in June 2018.

You might think that the fate of the universe countless billions or even trillions of years in the future is hardly something for us to be concerned about. How about the fate of your grandchildren or great-grandchildren a hundred years from now? Is that something you might want to be concerned about? Although the current administration in Washington does not believe in global warming and human-caused climate change, the White House did release last Friday an exhaustive scientific report put together by 13 federal agencies that says humans are the dominant cause of the global temperature rise that has created the warmest period in the history of civilization. The report says that there is “no convincing alternative explanation” that anything other than humans — the cars we drive, the power plants we operate, the forests we destroy — are to blame.

Will it change people’s minds about climate change? Will it change the position of the current administration, which allowed the release of this report?

Change of mind is a hard thing for humans. And that is why in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) we hear Abraham say to the rich man: ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.’

It is hard for humans to change our minds. It will be interesting to see what impact – if any – this newest report will have on public opinion and the politics of Washington.

The rich man did not change his ways, though he saw Lazarus every day at his doorstep. So also his brothers will not change their ways even if someone should rise from the dead. The human heart can be very hard, implacable.

Do we go through life like neutrinos, not interacting with what’s around us? Do we go through life like the rich man today, not caring for those who need our compassion? Do we go through life not caring how our lifestyles might be ruining the environment and the future life of our children and grandchildren? Those are good questions to ponder on today.

May the Lord preserve us from hard-heartedness. May the Lord continue to work on us, to give us soft hearts, compassionate hearts. We are not neutrinos!


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Searching for a Human

 

Άνθρωπον ζητώ (“I seek a human being.”) Diogenes, the great 4th century BC philosopher, spoke those words as he walked around with a lamp in broad daylight.

Statue of Diogenes with his lamp

Diogenes the Cynic, he is often called, one of the founders of Cynic philosophy – but don’t confuse Cynic philosophy with the cheap cynicism most of us engage in. Diogenes claimed that all the artificial growths of society were incompatible with happiness and that morality required a return to the simplicity of nature. “Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods.” Diogenes is credited with the first known use of the word “cosmopolitan”. When he was asked where he came from, he replied, “I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites)”. This was a radical claim in a world where a man’s identity was intimately tied to his citizenship of a particular city-state. He became notorious for carrying a lamp, looking to find a real human being. An exile and an outcast, a man with no social identity, Diogenes made a mark on his contemporaries. (Most of the above information taken from Wikipedia.)

Today also, one can do the Diogenes stunt and go around looking for a human being – as we increasingly lose our humanity. More and more scientists and social thinkers are losing hope in the human race and are talking about artificial intelligence, when humans will evolve into some higher form of existence. Higher? I doubt it – more homogenized uniformity appears to be the fate of the human race, if current predictions and trends continue.

Jesus came looking for a human being. And he found human beings in unexpected places – as in today’s Gospel reading. But the villagers could not stomach what Jesus did and asked him to leave.

Πάντα χρήματα ήν ομού. Είτα ο νούς ελθών αυτά διεκόσμησε (Anaxagoras, 5th century BC). “In the beginning all things were indistinguishable. Then came mind and arranged them.” διακοσμέω – a beautiful verb, meaning to arrange, organize; better yet, to adorn in various ways. Even in modern Greek, we speak of διακόσμησης – what an interior decorator does. In Genesis, God spoke and created order from the initial cosmic mass/chaos. In Greek philosophy, the mind of man created the order and brought out the beauty of creation in its manifold forms; that is the message of the verb διεκόσμησε.

The mind of man can decorate the world, see it in its manifold beauties and give names to its variety – as even Genesis tells us. Today, the human mind seems to have grown weary of itself and of the world. We prefer to narrow the world down to fewer and fewer elements. 75% of all insects have already disappeared according to one recent study. 75% – that’s catastrophe in the making! And not only are we destroying animal and insect life on the planet, we are eradicating the variety of plant life. There are very few original forests left in Maine. One of the most famous books Thoreau wrote, Maine Woods, could not be written today.

The human mind yearns for homogeneity, uniformity; the opposite of what the mind does in Anaxagoras’ profound statement. We seem to have grown tired of creativity and original thinking. Jesus comes today, like Diogenes, looking for a human being.