Thursday, October 4, 2018

Superior Hiking Trail Southern Terminus

This isn’t exactly about religion, but I’ll include some Ursula Goodenough quotes to add that flavor to it. Mostly, I’ll be talking about the first 14 miles on the southern end of the Superior Hiking Trail. The first 5 are new within the last few years and then they connect in Jay Cooke State Park where existing trails are now designated as SHT. Much reconstruction has been done since the 2012 flooding. Old guide books will need to be rewritten, but the signage is up and the parking well marked now, so get out there. We live near this park, so we used two cars to make our hikes one way. We split it into two days, but kept a pace of 2 miles per hour, so it could be done in one.

We started at the northeast corner of Jay Cooke State Park and worked back to the Wisconsin border, so I’ll be taking it in that order. The Grand Portage Trail can be done as a loop in this section. It’s part of a much larger historic route used by Natives, then by Voyageurs to get between Lake Superior waters and the Mississippi. Stop at the Visitor Center for your parking sticker or whatever else you’ll need, then head east. On 210 on the park maps, it’s trail point 25. Look for the well marked big lot, skip the little pull offs. From there, walk back to the road, across the embankment and look for the signs. We wanted to take the actual SHT, but you could take the other part of this loop and end up in the same place. Apparently that is also a more challenging hike.

It gets beautiful right away, and you see the river along this section. It’s down river from all the rapids, just calm and peaceful. Cross the highway and start heading up hill. It gets a bit more challenging but it is well maintained. You get the sense of being well out into the wilderness even though you are not far from Duluth. There is a parking lot to the north that locals use to access this and the other loops in this area, so you might see a trail runner and possibly horses, but you won’t likely find the family campers from the State Park. You will hook in to Oak Trail, probably without noticing, but watch for Gill Creek Trail, it is a connector between loops.

"And so I once again revert to my covenant with Mystery, and respond to the emergence of Life not with a search for its Design or Purpose but instead with outrageous celebration that it occurred at all. I take the concept of miracle and use it not as a manifestation of divine intervention but as the astonishing property of emergence. Life does generate something-more-from-nothing-but, over and over again, and each emergence, even though fully explainable by chemistry, is nonetheless miraculous."

Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature 

Remnants flooding in Gill Creek
You’ll get to give back some the elevation you gained as you get through the creek valley and then you get to gain it again. The creek is a raging river in spring time so watch the weather reports, even into June. We went in late August and I would say it was dicey for pumping drinking water. There is a small bridge, but I doubt it is much use in the spring. When you come up from there, you’ll meet up with the Triangle Trail and start to feel like you are in a State Park. From there, you connect for a short time to the paved Willard Munger Trail, then Greely Creek Trail which will take you by the power station dam and finally White Pine Trail. White Pine is nothing spectacular, but it takes you right to the campground. According to my GPS tracker, everything up to here was 6.2 miles.

Yep, we could text from the Park.
The camp sites at Jay Cooke are excellent. Sometimes you have quite a bit of trees between you and your neighbors. It’s all pit toilets, but when the buildings are open in the daytime, they are flush. There is a fire handle type water spigot always available near the Visitor Center. They are working on a shower building, which will probably make the place more popular for campers. It’s already one of the most visited parks in the state.

"Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe. The gasp can terrify or the gasp can emancipate. As I allow myself to experience cosmic and quantum Mystery, I join the saints and the visionaries in their experience of what they called the Divine,..."
Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature. 

Heading out from the park’s main attraction, cross the swinging bridge headed south and take your first left. The official trail for the SHT is the River Trail where you get eye to eye with some of the big rocks that form the rapids. This is a rocky trail, so it’s not groomed in winter and it’s underwater in spring. You’ll get back up on the Silver Creek Trail pretty quick and get the views from higher up. It’s wide and smooth, made for skiing in both directions. It connects to the Lost Lake Trail and the Bear Chase Trails, where the difficulty factor slowly increases. Park maps show where Lost Lake Trail crosses a stream coming off the St Louis River. It’s the best water source besides the river itself and, well, the plumbing, and has this awesome bridge.

There is a park map at intersection 40, but it’s for winter and the trail you want is not a winter trail so it is in gray. It might not be mowed as well and you’ll feel like you are leaving the park, but that’s the one you want. You’ll come to a sharp corner on the southern end of it and there will be a SHT arrow pointing up a hill back into the narrow single path trail like most of the SHT. This is an excellent section of the trail, with great vistas across a wide valley, great for fall colors. If you do this hike coming from Highway 23, it is about 3 and a half miles to this point. There is a scenic overlook about 3 miles from the highway. You’ll gain over 400 feet of elevation over those miles (going south) and have to pay for them with some trips down to creek beds. 

When you’re through all that, you’ll pop out onto Highway 23. Look to the south for Wild Valley Rd. When you are driving to this trail head you probably won’t see the tiny SHT signs, but the road has a sign for it. It turns into a minimum maintenance road, again, no SHT signs, at least not when I was there. The parking however does have the familiar trail head. As you can see, it’s a half mile from the highway and 5.9 miles to the park visitor center. The road continues on to hunting land, so wear your orange in season if you're going that direction. The 1.9 miles to Wisconsin is a nice rolling hike, with more creek bed valleys (usually dry). It’s a young forest with a few old trees, which is something you don’t see much of on the SHT.

The campsite is great. There is one tent site that is as nice as a State park and a few others if more people join you. There is a nice view down a steep drop off of a stream and no way to get down to it. Get back on the trail and hike a short hike towards Wisconsin to get to it. It’s big enough to deserve a bridge and was a couple feet deep in August, so pretty reliable. It’s a perfect place to begin your exploration of the entire Superior Hiking Trail.

Life, we can now say, is getting something to happen against the odds and remembering how to do it. The something that happens is biochemistry and biophysics, the odds are beat by intricate concatenations of shape fits and shape changes, and the memory is encoded in genes and their promoters. We read the notes, we hear the emergent chords and harmonies, and we marvel at the emergent musical experience.
Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature.

 Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation, conveyed this concept to an assembly at the United Nations:

I do not see a delegation for the four-footed. I see no seat for the eagles. We forget and we consider ourselves superior, but we are after all a mere part of the Creation. And we must continue to understand where we are. And we stand between the mountain and the ant, somewhere and there only, as part and parcel of the Creation. It is our responsibility, since we have been given the minds to take care of these things.

Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Index to blogs about skepticism

These entries are almost all non-religious. When you leave a believe system, you have to rebuild a foundation for how you figure what is true. The same problems keep coming up, like we can't be 100% certain and that there are many experts that need to be sorted out but we don't have the expertise to challenge all of them.

I've argued with Libertarians as a way to try to understand them, with gun advocates to try to find a peaceful solution and with my liberal friends who often use the same flawed logic that they accuse conservatives of using.

I put what I think are the best in bold. They are in reverse chronological order, but only a few mention something topical.

Complexities of fighting for peace
Wrote this one to a young person who linked to this rapper who was saying everything needs to be torn because it’s so messed up

I link to this one whenever someone tries to tell me that we can’t really know anything

Would letting starving children die solve the hunger problem?
This is my ongoing challenge, to speak to the problems and to acknowledge the beauty and genius we meet every day
Reconciling personal and social responsibility
Another GMO, how anti-GMO news uses inflammatory language (about the so-called Monsanto Act)
A little more geared toward woo, but I think I made a decent point here about how Aquinas actually forwarded the conversation, while Chopra takes us backward

Wednesday, August 29, 2018


Someone recently asked about the problem of in/out groups and how we treat not just our neighbors, but the rest of the world. We've never had this many people on the planet and the questions of how we live together are getting more pressing. 

There are two levels to explore this; how I approach my local tribe and on the world stage. My bumper sticker answers; I would never refuse someone a meal or shelter if they came to me in need and I could provide it. For the big picture, I believe anything I do to benefit the billions of people who have so much less than me, benefits me. I’m from the land of Paul Wellstone, where we all do better if we all do better.

Granted, there is a lot of devil in the details. That one word “could” in the part where “if I could provide” leaves a lot of wiggle room. I don’t have a sign on my door that welcomes everyone and I don’t bring home a homeless person every night. If I did that, I would exhaust my resources and I no longer COULD provide. That’s the hypothetical situation that gets presented by people who don’t think these things through, when I say we should open borders or just NOT build a wall. I can’t save the world, I need the rest of the world to help me with that.

So, let’s look at the hypothetical. Let’s say we are somewhere that doesn’t have grocery stores or homeless shelters or other excess resources that we can spread around. I have friends who are growing their own food and live off the grid or are otherwise prepared for a day when there is no grid. They do this out of a sense of love for the planet and with an eye toward a communal lifestyle. I’ve also heard a few of them talk about what they would do if they were surviving while most of the people, the unprepared people, were not. A few of them have said they would defend their homes, violently if necessary.

I would not do that. Partly because I just don’t want to prepare for that. I don’t want to buy weapons and learn to use them or even consider combative types of self defense. I’d lose against almost anyone except the feeblest. But let’s same I’m just part of a group and I could just cook the food for the warriors. I still wouldn’t do it. If I did that, I’d no longer be the person I am now. I would in essence die. I would rather die a death of starvation while trying to feed and house as many people as I could, than live a life that depended on the deaths of others, deaths that I caused.

I realize as an American, I’m already living that life. My safety and security depends on a vast military supported by my taxes. That is not the same as the kind of direct action discussed above. As a citizen in a modern nation, actually for any nation or kingdom going back thousands of years, we have all benefitted from acts of violence. If we were not the beneficiaries, we wouldn’t be here. The refugee depends on the country that lets them in and defends its borders from the place they escaped. The conquered ones benefit from the peace treaty that prevented their complete annihilation. We are all born into a world with these acts in our history and most of us don’t have the power to stop it.

So what do we do in a world where the lines of good and evil are not always clear?

First, to the person who asks me why I don’t take that immigrant from Nicaragua into my home, I say, we all do that every day. As a modern democracy, we’ve decided to pay for housing for criminals. It’s called a prison. Almost half of our taxes go to take care of men and women in the military all over the world. We take of children that we’ve never met because we know something could happen to us, and that could be our kid. This is just basic altruism on a scale of millions. When we understand a need for the world, we work together to satisfy it. Obviously we don’t all agree on how to do that. That’s a conversation about democracy that is beyond my scope here. The point is we muddle through.

But what of my statement that I’d rather die than stand by while others die. Why am I not out there right now doing everything I can to save every one of those people that my military is threatening, or the kids closer to home who are hurting because of the oppressive environment and sub-par schools. I’m not going to defend my every action or list my community involvement, that’s a losing game. What matters is we aren’t all starving. This is not a post apocalyptic landscape we are living in. Truth is the things that have been important to me for most of my life have improved. There is less pollution, less hunger and more education.

Also true, I could do more. If I had better leadership skills, I could get more people doing the things I’ve done and more kids would be fed and maybe even more men would understand that it benefits them to have educated daughters. I know I’ve made some difference in the world. I’ll leave judgments up to some other power. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a theory I have. We talk about the “1%” and how they make all these higher ideas difficult to implement. We also sometimes recognize that it’s our participation in their system that benefits them. My theory is, if the people in the 50-99% range would focus more on the lower 50%, the 1% wouldn’t know what to do.

Put it this way; I’ve never known anyone to discuss helping someone who is chronically hungry by supplying them with a new flavor of potato chips or the latest variation of fizzy water. We don’t throw a banquet and invite someone who is struggling with addiction. For that matter, we don’t pick up someone living on the street and enroll them in college. Instead, we start a garden on an abandoned neighborhood lot, we hold a seminar about how to apply for and keep a job, we say hello to someone we see sitting on a corner. These are low cost measures that contribute to the same economy that the 1% say they are responsible for.

That economy depends on the participation of everyone across the entire income spectrum. What we have right now is a few people who are secure enough that they think they can experiment with how much poverty and starvation and all the problems that come with it the system can stand. They don’t care about any tribe as far as I can tell. Most of the world does not think this way and never has. History has not turned out well when there is this much wealth disparity. It is not tolerated. The question before us is can we make the correction peacefully?

Wednesday, August 22, 2018


When attempting to understand someone who holds an opposing opinion to your own, a useful exercise can be to attempt to make their argument. This can lead to more discussion with understanding and less arguing. Here, I attempt this with the immigration debate in the US. I focus on illegal immigration, but that crosses over to the general question of how we regulate all immigration.  I did my best to remain neutral about what the laws currently are. I had a little more difficulty in finding data to support the conclusion that immigrants are the cause of broad social ills. In the end, I think this is a question of who we want to be as a nation and as citizens of the planet.

A nation of laws

Laws regarding immigration to the United States have been a heated political issue for as long as there have been any laws about it at all. Immigration Acts date back to the Reconstruction era, but that’s too much to cover in one blog post. Ellis Island opened in 1892 and its storied history is engrained in our culture. The World Wars led to increasing trepidation of foreigners entering the country and to the Immigration Act of 1917, which imposed quotas. Despite quotas being abolished by the Hart-Cellar act of 1965, restricting the number of immigrants continues to be central to the debate.

Fundamental to the discussion is that we are a nation of laws. There should be no debate about that. Ideas about open borders are up for discussion, but until we design and implement laws that can promote that idea and maintain a safe and civil society, we need to operate within the laws we have. There are other aspects of this discussion that are sometimes brought up but are not covered by laws. We don’t have a law that requires anyone to speak a certain language. We don’t have laws that require patriotic statements or participation in patriotic rituals. We have a law that says you are free to practice religion however you want. There is no test for how much you love America. There is a civics test for immigrants that many natural born citizens would find challenging.

A law that is central to the current debate is how a non-citizen gets into the country. To cross the border, you must use a designated US immigration border inspection point or port of entry. To do otherwise is a misdemeanor offense. Repeated attempts can carry stiffer penalties. A misdemeanor is not a crime that automatically results in deportation. The classification “misdemeanor” includes hunting on a wildlife refuge, assault, using counterfeit money, desecration of the flag, parading without a permit, and possession of illegal drugs. These can result in jail time, but often don’t.  The consequences of crossing the border can also vary. There are also a wide variety of visas and permits that allow people to work, study and live here for limited times. When those expire, technically, they are in violation of the law if they don’t return to their home country.

 A little more complicated is the law regarding requests for asylum. If you aren’t already in the country legally and you try to make the case that you fear going back to your home country, it can come down to the judgment of one Customs and Border Protection officer and you could be refused entry, or you could be detained. These actions are discretionary under the law and recent Presidents have varied widely in their policies regarding who they detain, why, and for how long.

We are a nation of laws, and that includes due process under that law and it extends to non-citizens. A young citizen of the US accused of assault would most likely be allowed to continue their education and their work while they awaited trial. They are more likely to receive counseling and do community service rather than jail time. A person who crosses the border because they fear for their life would most likely not be able to find any legal help or be given time to prepare their case and get a fair hearing. That is how the law currently works.

The scenario I referred to above applies mainly to our southern border, a border that can be accessed via foot and is not far from countries where we know violence is occurring. Those in countries farther away can register as refugees. They will then go through background checks, extensive interviews and even biological screening involving multiple law enforcement, intelligence and security agencies. This can take up to 2 years. Only a few of these are referred for resettlement.

When looking at a single instance and making assumptions about the innocence of the people involved, it’s easy to find flaws in the system. But there are larger issues, and policies need to be designed to protect everyone, not skewed toward a particular group. To determine if that is what is happening, we need to open up the conversation to questions of how immigrants affect our economy including our crime rates. Are they in fact, “taking our jobs”?

Who is coming to the US?

Estimates of immigrants living in the US illegally are somewhere around 12 million. That’s about 3.5% of the total population. 12 million is also the number of people who arrived through Ellis Island. When it closed in 1954, our population was half what it is now. That brings us back a couple generations. According to the US census, 3/4 of the population today identifies as at least a 3rd generation immigrant. I don’t see much argument about the fact that everyone descended from immigrants (except the native population that can trace its history back thousands of years). The current immigration debate tends to be more centered on demographics such as the few percentage points shift toward more 1st and 2nd generation immigrants that has occurred since 1998. 

This shift is a reversal of the trend of the last half of the 20th century but similar to the trend of the first half. One difference is where the immigrants of those few generations ago came from versus those from the current generation; Europe as opposed to Latin America and Asia. These are all factors that contribute to the perception of the current generation of immigrants, legal or otherwise. It would be difficult to sort out the contributions of millions of people and trace the impact of immigration from 100 years ago and compare it to recent immigration. I can however address current talking points. There is ample anecdotal evidence of crime committed by people born in Latin American countries and acts of terrorism committed by Middle Eastern immigrants. There are stories of high crime and high unemployment in some areas and stories of 1st generation immigrants working as laborers as well as owning businesses and even fighting and dying in the US military. There are stories of young Spanish speaking people having babies and dropping out of school.

What I can’t find is data that says crime rates or teenage birth rates or drug abuse occur at higher rates in immigrant populations than they do in the population as a whole. Even acts of terrorism, that is, someone killing or plotting to kill people they don’t know, are committed by legal citizens of European descent. Nor can I correlate unemployment rates to the rise in illegal immigrant population. The current rate is lower compared to before that population began rising in the 1970’s and it has fluctuated while that rise has occurred.

Controlling the southern border

Some data can support actions. The rise in border crossings on the southern border from a quarter million in 1970 to over 1 million per year during most of the 80’s and 90’s was a problem for people living along that border. A sparsely populated region can’t respond to a situation of that magnitude with its normal level of law enforcement. Serious efforts to secure the southern border began under Bill Clinton and continued with the Secure Fence Act of 2006, signed by George W Bush and voted for by then Senators Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Apprehensions at the border have since returned to 1970 levels.

Meanwhile the population of Mexican-born people now in the US has steadily risen from under 1 million to over 12 million. It might be that tightening the border has led to this, since it is now harder to cross back and forth. Whereas before, people came and worked temporarily, now they stay rather than risk another crossing. Also noteworthy is that annual immigration from Mexico has declined sharply since 2005, long before talk of extensive additions to border security. The policies enacted since then may be reacting to problems that no longer exist or that could be dealt with in new ways.

Economic policies

There is no question that millions of people work in the US without proper documentation. There are also gangs that consist largely of foreign born members. There are high profile cases of people living here legally who have participated in horrific crimes in the name of their religion or ideologies that are mostly foreign to our way of life. The connection I can’t make is to how additional restrictions of immigration would alter the overall data. The elimination of a class of people to reduce problem behaviors means also eliminating workers, entrepreneurs, military personnel and others who contribute to the economy. I would need to see how those contributions can be sorted out from the problems. Is their country of origin a cause, or are crimes rates the same in all groups and better correlated to age or economic status?

There is more than anecdotal evidence that immigrants use the social services provided by our government. It is a separate debate, but many of these services began around the same time we began restricting immigration. As states it, since we have been running at a deficit, “essentially everyone receives more in public expenditures than they pay in taxes”. So, questions about socialism aside, are immigrants causing these deficits? Do they take more than they contribute? This is a complicated question. I can’t make a case that they are a cause, but I would need more understanding of economics to make the case against it.

What is an American?

Putting all the dry data about economics aside, a key issue for many is the question of just what this country “is”, what is our essence, who are we? I’ll avoid mining our history for quotes from founding fathers because support for our Christian roots can be found just as easily as quotes about keeping government and religion separate. There is more to this than our 1st amendment and even if I provided case law that supports the separation, there are still those who feel those laws should be changed. The complicated nature of our identity as a nation of immigrants and one that desires purity can be found in our Declaration of Independence, where it is stated that King George,

“has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

This appears to be a response to the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that said although the colonists had participated in defeating the French, who fought along with natives, they could not expand their boundaries into the territory they had won, across the Appalachian Mountains. This could be seen as just one of the ways we wanted to be free from British rule, but the language is unmistakable, we felt we were superior and had a right to that territory. To be clear, when I say “we”, I’m referring to a group of white male land owners from a long time ago. We can’t know the pulse of the entire population at the time. We are not beholden to every thought of the men that signed that Declaration. It is however one of our most important founding documents and something we should fully understand and come to terms with.


We are a nation of laws, and currently our laws restrict immigration to a degree that many more people want to become citizens than are becoming citizens. Since we export food and have experienced unprecedented economic growth over the last century, I see no reason to believe we are at any kind of a limit to capacity. It seems rather we need more people willing to come to places that are experiencing growth and are in need of people ready to contribute.

We are a nation of laws and those laws include traditions of restricting others from crossing our borders and of welcoming others. Our Constitution is designed to allow for change because our founders knew they could not anticipate the changes that have occurred in the last 250 years. I think the best question to ask ourselves is, who do we want to be?

Friday, August 3, 2018

Jesus didn't say that

A response to a response, from the Counter Apologist.

There are few ways to go with this. CA’s original statements stands well on its. Also, in any current form of religions I know, there is no preferable universalism that I know of. My problem with Randal is, he doesn’t go far enough with interpreting hell out of Christianity. I think that can be done, although it strips Christianity down to its Jewish roots, even into some type of Reformed Judaism, so it probably is not a popular route. My problem with the Counter Apologist is the use of assuming beliefs by the gospel writers when it’s convenient while claiming we don’t know what they meant most of the time. I think this hinders the very reforms we want to see in religion.

Starting with the reforms; I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the arc of the Biblical narrative is that history has a goal, that there is some inherent reason for our existence, and it’s something good, and we need to discover our part in making it happen. This is the MLK thesis on justice and even if you take the atheist view of meaning created by the individual, it is compatible with a goal oriented form of utilitarianism as a theory for morality. To have this discussion across cultures, we need to be reasonable and accept that neither modern philosophers nor the Bible have a clear sense of what “justice” and “good” are. Modern philosophy accepts that, practically as a premise. The Bible has its moments, like Job arguing with God, but for the most part modern day practitioners of Abrahamic religion believe a supernatural force is the source of “good” and don’t care if they can’t prove it with scripture.

The above point is somewhat proven in the way Randal backtracks on his own religion when confronted with a rather straightforward problem like eternal or long lasting punishment. So let’s look at how CA supports the argument.

If atheists want to make the point that the Christian version of hell is wrong, I don’t think they need to stray deep into what the Bible says hell is. The Bible is not clear on that, that’s clear. Atheists don’t need to quote Jesus to prove Jesus was saying something. This degrades their own arguments since they begin with the understanding that the gospels are a poor reflection of any actual Jesus. This is the consensus of scholars, including religious scholars, but it seems to get forgotten when atheists start looking for proof texts. We are always quoting unknown authors and worse we might be quoting many authors in the course of just one passage.

For example, “torments” and “flame” in Luke 16 might be an allegory of justice for the rich man who neglected to care for the poor man at his gate. The thrust of the parable up to that point is about upending the power structure, and rewarding goodness for goodness sake instead of rewarding the powerful just because they do their rituals. This passage looks like a Greek version of hell getting tacked on to an earlier tale. Whether that was for better marketing of the book or because that belief was creeping into Jewish culture is debatable and barely relevant to a debate on the reality of hell.

What I think is important here is to recognize the opening Randal gives us. Christian scholars are quick to say things like Hellenism had crept into and corrupted Judaism at the time the gospels were being written, but they are slow to say exactly how. Christian scholars probably won’t lead those discussions because they suspect or fear they will result in less believers. This is exactly why atheists should be pushing in that direction.  Two passages from Revelation were included in CA’s list. Maybe Randal is open to eliminating Revelations from the canon. It has been debated since it was first proposed and is not in some Bibles. If it is an inaccurate depiction of hell that is incompatible with 1st century teaching, then let’s settle that and then move on to the next misinterpretation, redaction or mistranslation.

This might sound daunting, but I don’t think every line of scripture will need to be addressed before Christian culture begins to change. This approach to the Bible has been happening for a long time and has altered many denominations and led to reforms like women and gays being accepted. Atheists would do well to understand it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Light at the end of the tunnel

I'm getting very near the end of the 3 year Lectionary cycle at 

When I started, I didn't want to start in Christmas or Easter, because I thought they would take more research. I started in the first week of "Proper" time in year C, which was about May 2016. As it turns out, the summer time readings are much more interesting than those classics most people are familiar with. You know, the coming of the baby Jesus and the whole thing with the tomb.

The downside is, I just missed a really interesting entry from the book of Nehemiah. It's the only entry for that book. The book firmly sets the stage in the time after people are released from exile in Babylon. There is no ambiguity about the historical context. Then Ezra starts preaching. As he does he explains the meaning of text and clears up what might be seen as contradictions.

This is time in history when the ancient scriptures were being assembled and sometimes redacted and here is a story that essentially tells you they are doing that. How we got from there to people to believing that the Bible is the exact word of God that anyone can read and get the same message, I can't explain. It took centuries to screw it up that bad. The opposite is true, that is, you can read it and it tells you that is a collection of writings written by men attempting to convey a variety of meanings throughout time.

Basically the theme of my Lectionary helper in one chapter of scripture.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

How to argue on the Internet

I’m thinking of making a sarcastic website about how to argue on facebook and other internet sites. Sarcastic, in that it would teach you how to do all the bad arguing I see people doing. Here is a good example. In arguments about gun control, someone inevitably brings up the problem that “you don’t know what AR stands for”. This is actually a non-issue with regards to sensible gun legislation and it doesn’t  illuminate just what an assault weapon is.  Worse though, it’s just wrong.

How to argue about gun control: 

Lesson #1: Present some facts that have nothing to do with gun control. Hopefully no one will notice how irrelevant they are.

Someone I don’t know added this link, with no other comment, to a thread on gun control. It’s just a non-argument to begin with, but the point of doing it is lots of people think it is an argument. It’s a timeline that starts in 1989, when they began producing AR-15’s for the consumer market. This is should be immediately suspicious, since it says “for the consumer market”, telling you there was a different reason the weapons were first manufactured.

As it turns out, the term “assault rifle” is a direct translation of the first such rifle created by the Germans during WWII for military purposes, the Sturmgewehr. This is easy to look up once you know that name, but more trouble than most people will go to if you are just searching for “history of the term assault rifle” or something like that. This anonymous poster was trying to take advantage of people not having a lot of free time.

Lesson #2: Exclude actual history and facts that might hurt your argument.

I don’t doubt that the post was made to educate me that the term “assault” is a liberal invention, intended to make the guns sound worse than they are. The introduction tells you what AR does not stand for, but says nothing about where the term “assault” came from.  If you read the comments below the time line, you’ll see many people believe it was an invention of liberals to serve the anti-gun agenda. What’s unfortunate for them is, comments are open to anyone. What’s unfortunate for intelligent sensible people is, you have to wade through a lot of garbage to find the factual comments.

Lesson #3: Be technically correct. Sometimes called partially correct.

People who say an AR-15 is not an assault rifle are partially correct. It’s like saying a Canon copier is not a Xerox copier, or Puffs is not Kleenex, or an instant photo is not a Polaroid. But when something gets invented, the brand name sometimes becomes what we call it. There is no technical definition for what an assault rifle is, so they can never really lose this argument. No matter how you try to define it, you are never correct, technically. This was one of the problems with enforcing the assault weapons ban. They created a legal definition, but laws can be skirted on technicalities.

Normally, we frown on this. From Perry Mason to Law and Order, the prosecutors are always lamenting people who get off on a technicality. I’m sure the makers of the ban were hoping that people would want to comply with this law and would work to improve on it so safe and legal gun owners who had no intention of killing anyone could have the guns they want, and easy to use death machines would stay out of the hands of criminals and disaffected youths. That’s not how it turned out, and the law expired.

Instead of having these bad arguments that lead to nothing, we could be discussing the practical issues and how we can create a safer world by examining the features associated with this type of weaponry and gun ownership in general and, as with anything dangerous, like dynamite or cars or pseudoephedrine, we could make regulations that we could all live with. Such as:

Large, detachable magazines
Automatic and semi-automatic fire
Proper storage and trigger locks
Caliber, range  and velocity of the bullets as well as the design that causes them to tumble.
Background checks
Loopholes to background checks such as private sales
Education about gun safety
Counseling and services for people who are thinking about misusing weapons

Lesson #4: Now that you have made definitions meaningless, use your own.

What definitely was a deliberate creation of a marketing term is MSR, Modern Sporting Rifle. I know a few hunters and none of them use an AR or AK or anything like it for sport. It takes away the sport of carefully siting and killing a deer or other large animal and would leave you with no meat for small game. I’ve heard they are good for coyotes, but who hunts those? The firearms industry first adopted the term “assault” as a new and exciting sounding product line, but with mass shootings making the news, decided to change that. See 2009 on the timeline.

By careful use of the above lessons, one can take something that their side of the argument is doing; making up terms that provide an emotional appeal, and make it sound like the other side is doing it. Congratulations, you’re ready to join the exciting world of arguing on the internet.

Friday, May 11, 2018

String Asymmetry

I’ve had one blog about TV, and that was Star Trek. The Big Bang Theory is a show about some sci-fi nerds who also happen to know a lot about actual science. But really, it’s a show about relationships and they tied it all together brilliantly in the season 11 finale with Sheldon and Amy’s wedding.

It takes a few scenes for it to be laid out. It starts with, well, it starts with years of developing the characters, but if you don’t know them, I think it still works. It starts with Sheldon attempting to tie his bow tie perfectly. His fiancĂ©, Amy asks what he’s doing. She says maybe it’s not supposed to be perfect. Maybe it’s supposed to be a little uneven. No one can ever tell Sheldon he’s not doing something right, but he seems to relent a little this time.

Later he is getting dressed for the wedding with his best man and they have their moment, then Sheldon’s mother comes in and asks for privacy. They talk about his late father and the subject of the uneven tie comes up again. His mother waxes philosophic about how sometimes it’s the imperfect things that happen that cause a moment to be perfect. Sheldon notes that Amy said something similar, then gets that look on his face he sometimes does, the far off look towards a corner of the room that is focused somewhere further off into a distant galaxy. He says, “I gotta go.” His mother is left standing there alone, a perfect demonstration of something imperfect happening, and she says out loud to no one, “like that.”

Where he goes is to his bride’s dressing room. She is standing alone in her gown looking at a mirror. His first reaction is to be stunned by her beauty. This is unusual for Sheldon. Normally if he has something important on his mind, other people don’t matter. He does do what he normally does when he rambles and stumbles and goes on tangents as he explains why he’s there. Amy is one of the few people who can pull him back into focus and when she does he explains that the bow tie discussion has led him to a breakthrough in his ideas on String Theory. Instead of super-symmetry, it could be super-A-symmetry. The two begin writing out equations on the mirror, using lipstick. In an abnormal moment for Sheldon, he does not mention that he wants credit for this discovery. He says they will publish it together.

The show has science advisers who helped them come up with the super-asymmetry idea. They checked, and as mentioned in the show, no one has published something like this yet. The brilliance of the moment to me is that string theory is an attempt to find equations that unify all of our knowledge of the universe, to find symmetry in everything. Sheldon has believed he could do this since he was a little boy. He makes rules for everything, including relationships, and stresses the importance of sticking to them. The show has traced a long slow realization on his part that people don’t always function as a set of rules. To demonstrate that he is really finally getting this he is taking these lessons for life from his wife and his mother and applying them to his lifelong goal of understanding how the universe works through mathematical formulas. He is seeing the language of love in the language of the universe.

The equations of course are a metaphor. They are not suggesting that you can write a formula for the meaning of life. The science advisers make sure that the math that appears on the show is accurate in some sense, but accuracy is not the point. They know people will freeze the frames and scrutinize them. Sometimes they put math jokes on the white boards. I wouldn’t know. The metaphor is the search for meaning. Sheldon’s very Christian mother thinks she knows the answers and that it’s cute that her son is so smart. She also sees all the problems that it has caused for him. Sheldon sees nothing but problems coming out of his caricatured Texan family. The others on the show have their own approaches and philosophies that all get their time and place. What we saw at the wedding was that all of them are reaching for the same thing, and together, sometimes finding it.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Cold November

Yes, I know it's April and just warming up after a long winter. The title of this post is the title of a movie. Click here for the website. You'll need to keep an eye for screenings, but it will eventually be available for $4.99. Here's my brief review and synopsis. It's advertised as a movie where a young girl gets her first deer, so there are no spoilers.

Got to see this for a one night only showing. And they had the writer/director on Skype for questions. He’s a Minnesotan and used Minnesotan actors to portray stories that grew out his own experience. His hunting skills were passed down from women, which is a bit unusual, so the movie is a mother, grandmother and a couple sisters, one husband, with a third dead sister appearing in a dream sequence. The main character is the 12 year old and her coming of age experience of getting her first deer. Guns obviously appear in the movie, but when the heirloom gun is given to her, there is no ominous music or foreshadowing of trouble.

The tensions of the movie are family issues; a teenage daughter lost, apparently a car accident, although details are not given; the mother needs to work, but the missing men in these lives are not discussed or explained. The 12 year old is dealing with becoming an adult, so you get cute scenes like she says “shit” and the mother says, hey, “you said shit”, so the daughter says, “and so did you”. These are conversations you get to have at the hunting shack. More poignant, we hear about the difficult days when grandma had to poach deer to feed the family. Another story that stays at the shack.

But these aren’t hidden evil, these are normal things that you just aren’t normally talked about in polite company, but you do when you are with family for days in a row, supporting each other in the day to day mundane rituals, and the more significant ritual of getting meat from the land. I asked the director if he was thinking about gun legislation when he made the movie and he said he didn’t want to make an “issue” movie. To him, the appearance of guns and the handling of guns is normal. He talked about how this is something he has to explain when he shows the movie in Los Angeles.

He is going to continue making movies along these lines, about Northern Minnesota culture. I would love to be in a room full of people who have never even been “up north” for a weekend and see their reactions.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Beauty In the Art of Being Human

Everyone's Agnostic podcast

Cass Midgley often does great in depth research with his podcasts. In this episode, something called the theodicy of divine silence comes up. He explains what that is at the beginning of the podcast and in the text, but I want to add how it relates to secular versions of worldviews. These include people who believe organic farming is better, that our election systems are rigged, that the CIA is in charge of our government, that aliens are working with that secret government, that the earth is flat or any other number of ideologies that have some basis, some facts that can be demonstrated, but have become belief systems to many.

This podcast is about religion and questioning its precepts and tends to focus on the more extreme, evangelical end of the spectrum, but the psychology of belief is the same no matter where you look. Just as evangelicals point to Billy Graham in the White House and cathedrals as evidence they are right, people point to Whole Foods Grocery and the popularity of documentaries as proof they are on the right side. It gets nearly impossible to have a conversation when it becomes tribal. When you can’t point out that chemicals are used in organic farming without being considered a shill for a corporation, discourse has broken down.

Cass comes from a strong religious background, so he sees how this occurred in that environment. My background began with the counter culture and coming together as community to create something we couldn’t do alone and a little Taoist spirituality. The language however, is exactly the same. I heard “you have to believe it to see it” and “fake it ‘til you make it” from people in sandals communing with the trees. The more subtle version would be something like, “well, I just see things differently” or “you can’t look at this from an intellectual point of view”. Whatever way, it is putting blame for not seeing something on to the seer. It’s not a matter of missing evidence. It’s a matter of accepting something a priori.

For those who are open to it, it creates guilt and distrust of self. Once that is created, the readymade answer is there to fix it, the welcoming tribe is there, ready to embrace you with more reassurances, week after week, YouTube after YouTube, bad science after bad science. In the podcast, they discuss ways of deconstructing the narratives that people have. Personally, I would be happy just getting to a point where people would agree with me on ground rules for conversation.

I do want people to see the reality that I think is real, but I don’t think I have a lock on what that is. If I had not questioned my own assumptions from 20 years ago, I wouldn’t see things that I do now. That leaves the possibility that 20 years from now, I will see things differently. Knowing that, all of us should be interested in finding methods and tools for figuring out if we got it right or not. All of these belief systems, dogmatic or not, say they are seeking truth, desiring truth. I’m not convinced of that if they can’t first demonstrate their methods are sound.

I know these podcasts are longer than many of you care for, so here are some highlights.

Cass does his intro, which is also mostly in the description provided. They discuss Ryan’s history for a bit and then after a half hour or so get into how he talked to people on the street as part of his gospel mission. He explains how he would get people to answer questions about things they had done wrong in their life. This is how he would “give you the disease” then offer you the cure. At 34 minutes, he talks about once getting punched in the face for doing this. The story is interesting because it leads to him being proud of being a martyr for that happening. Cass points out that this is a helpless situation that the church is in, because if they get feedback about doing something wrong, or have used logic poorly, it becomes a blessing, that they are “persecuted for my namesake” (referring to Jesus). The world is lost, so you can’t get your truth from there, they say. It’s a very difficult line to engage.

Cass then does a little demonstration of using guided imagination to do a little of this “prophesying”. The theodicy of silence comes up after that, around 40 minutes. The text in the description of the podcast goes into more detail. Ryan uses the analogy of saying that God is like a radio, that you have to tune into. If you aren’t, it’s your fault. Cass’s experience is that he was told he had to be humble for God to show himself.

About 45:30 Cass looks at this idea of looking for the truth. He says he believes Ryan’s intentions were pure. He asks if this pursuit took him “past Jesus”. Ryan agrees. He doesn’t like it when people say he walked away from faith, he went “through it”. If you are searching for a perfect or even just superior being or spirit, you shouldn’t be afraid of where you look or what you might find. That knowledge, supernatural or not, should be findable. Any flaws in the knowledge should be explainable.

Cass and Ryan agree that the pursuit can lead you past the human traditions that led to the pursuit in the first place. Bible study supports this, as Moses found YHWH and David challenged Saul and Amos spoke against the king and Jesus spoke against the Pharisees. Ryan talks about the evolution of Christianity, from something more static to something that is allowed to grow wild and see where it takes you. Ryan covers his own journey from the narrow theology he had to thinking it was either that or nothing. He moved on to seeing there are many variations of Christianity then to the possibility of there being something else that is a better expression of his feelings on the cosmology of the world and what it is to be a human being.

This leads to a great summary from Ryan in the 50th minute. They use the analogy of gardening then he says, “There is something compelling about it, about religion in general, why different cultures throughout all human history keep finding ways to reach beyond themselves. That’s interesting to me, even if what they are reaching for doesn’t exist. There’s something inviting and warm and comforting to me about the reaching itself.” (umms and other connecting words were removed from this quote)

They talk about mental illness and it leads to the path to free thinking. It’s no less interesting than the rest of the podcast. It starts to wrap up around 1:03. Cass talks about someone who went back after becoming an unbeliever and read the Psalms and saw them as a search for meaning. Unfortunately he doesn’t remember who it was. I find this type of appreciation for different viewpoints so rare. We are a very large species, spread out over the world, yet we have so much in common. As Cass says, “there’s a beauty in the art of what it means to be human.” Ryan adds a little to that about interpreting the Bible from a humanist perspective.

Cass always ends with questions about his guest’s hobbies and for this episode, plays some music.

Ryan’s blog

Monday, March 12, 2018

Trust is earned

History of the last 100 years. Who are the baby boomers?

1918 – WWI. A horrific experience following a massive build of arms due to the industrialization of the world. It brought family monarchies and isolated tribes all into one giant playing field. They now saw how small actions on one side of the world affected others  far away. And the President was a racist.

1928 – Things were looking pretty good. People were partying. A technological boom was occurring. If you don’t know why 1929 was famous, look it up.

1938 – Hitler and Mussolini are in power. People saw it coming but did little.

1948 – Hitler was defeated. Soldiers had to find their own way home, many died in that journey. Parts of Europe were flattened. The Mideast was carved up by the 3 superpowers. China was having a civil war that would end with Mao. Baby boomers were just being born, not yet affecting anything except causing people to buy washing machines and convenience foods. 

1958 – Starvation was rampant throughout Central America, India and Africa but technological solutions were solving many of the problems. America invested in its veterans, had brought electricity to rural areas, grew its suburbs, but argued about what to do about communism. Baby Boomer children were shown images of their cities being obliterated by nuclear explosions.

1968 – Moon landing, Robert Kennedy shot, MLK shot, riots in major cities, corruption exposed in politics. The baby boomers were starting to get a voice since the universities were well funded and well attended. They supported civil rights, they protested war, they wanted workers to be treated fairly, unions were strengthened.

1978 – After being shot at and arrested, the baby boomers retreated and tried more traditional ways of influencing policies. Meanwhile evangelicals in America and other traditions were also discovering political power. Some baby boomers had helped end the Vietnam war, so now they were divided:Veterans who thought they should have bombed more and those who had avoided the draft or who were talking about how they were given orders to fight an unjust war. The superpower’s dominance was also in retreat.  Secret operations were getting exposed, colonies were getting independence, or they were fighting back in low level wars.

1988 – Reagan (not a baby boomer) is fighting new secret wars while also turning us from the largest loaner nation to the largest debtor nation mostly through the buildup of nuclear weapons. Many Baby Boomers return to protesting, along with a new younger generation. Starvation is seen as a world problem, but some of the solutions are just causing more problems. All over the world leaders point to other nations as the cause of problems, old tribal differences turn into modern wars in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central America and elsewhere.

1998 – The first baby boomer President reduces the deficit, wants abortion to be “safe and legal”, tried to reform health care and started SCHIP, signed a gun control bill, loosened restrictions on gays in the military. He also signed the Defense of Marriage Act and reduced the number of legal immigrants allowed into the country. He also used cruise missiles in the Mid-East in his fight against terrorism. He modernizes the military, but spending is still high.

2008 – This year saw the near collapse of the world’s financial system as a Republican President and divided Congress had weakened banking regulations. Bankers had abused their lending power and gambled with one of the foundations of the system, home ownership by private citizens. Youth again took a leadership position in protesting these massive organizations and the people who once marched with MLK and against Vietnam are now in positions of power to help them. Another baby boomer President comes to power this year and again has to right the economy, reduce the deficit and bring the long awaited and desperately needed reforms to health care.

2018 –  Millenials now equal to Baby Boomers as a share of the electorate.

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes of the 1960’s was when young people said “don’t trust anyone over 30”. I was still too young to even know what they meant, but it took me a long time to understand the contribution of the generations before me. The ones who fought fascism and built the schools that I attended. We can’t afford that long learning curve this time. Boomers have the traditionally strong voting block of older people and we might be seeing a long needed increase in the youth vote. Let’s work together.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Work for Peace

This is a continuation from last week.

Quitting religion for me was somewhat like quitting smoking, I did it several times. I probably could have gone on having positive moments with that community and just accumulating the good memories, but I kept thinking something about it wasn’t good for me. I could have focused on observing people going to church around me and then acting in the world in positive ways. In a slightly different world, that could have been enough to allay the doubts and just dismiss them as the normal human condition of not knowing the answers to the ultimate questions.

Church is very good at handling these doubts. They love to bring the lost sheep back into the fold. They have a wide of variety of books and techniques to deal with loss and pain. Not quite as well advertised, they are also willing to cut you loose if you don’t respond the way you are supposed to. I’ve heard more than a few stories of kids getting kicked out of Sunday School for asking too many questions. Adults need to figure it out for themselves and for some it can be quite painful. Some people leave behind their whole system of community support when they leave a church.

I was lucky. I was able to observe all of this safely and find an alternate community just by asking around. It took effort and time, but it was something I could afford to do. Some people are isolated and only have one version of religion presented to them. You can be isolated even in a densely populated urban environment, especially when you are young and still need the support of the people who raised you.

If you find yourself in that situation, the only advice I have is that of Charles Eastman’s father. Eastman, also known as Ohiyesa, was a Lakota, born in 1858 when the US government was forcing his tribe to relinquish their ancestral knowledge. His father, who had almost been killed as part of the largest mass hanging in US history, told him to not fight it, to learn as much as he could about the ways of the people who had conquered them. Eastman became a doctor and wrote about Sioux ethnohistory and even got invited to the White House as a sort of ambassador to the tribes.

Anyway, that wasn’t my experience, but in 2009, a book came out, 50 Voices of Disbelief. It told stories of people who had experienced that isolation and indoctrination. Many of them had gut wrenching experiences making the transition from their isolated worlds to the real one. Those stories really hit me and were difficult to not think about. I’ve since talked to many people who were raised in what we might consider a normal Middle American fashion that included religion and didn’t find the transition quite so hard.  They were given resources like a college education and understood they had choices, even if those choices caused a little disappointment with their parents.

I think we dismiss these stories a little too easy. There is a spectrum. There are certainly abusive churches out there and I don’t have a problem focusing on them, but I have heard the same fundamentalist half-truths and apologetics in the most liberal of churches. In one of my Bible study classes, back when I was still Christian, someone came to class having just read an article about the Leviticus 21 passage about slavery. She was concerned that the Bible clearly supported slavery. The pastor smoothed it over by talking about how slavery then was more like indentured servitude from a few centuries ago. We didn’t open the Bible and examine the verses in question or address the problem at all. She didn’t even get a chance to talk about them, so at the time I didn’t know the verse I just linked. I just filed the concern in the back of my head as a minor problem. Years later I had to have Matt Dillahunty, an atheist podcaster, shove those verses in my face before I understood my mis-education. 

I’m sure that pastor was just repeating what he’d been told. He probably avoided looking at those passages and that is exactly what he wanted us to. Any similar or more direct questions I have asked of religious people of all calibers since have been met with similar dismissal or, my favorite, “that’s not our church”. The story of the pastor above is someone I care about very much. I have other stories of churches that I have and still consider wonderful communities that are doing great things. That’s how I tell these stories. The entire point of the stories is that they are doing great things, and, and, they can’t reconcile that with the fundamental founding documents of their organization. But it doesn’t matter how well I paint those communities, when I tell the part about the slavery apologetics, or the kid who had to be excused from Sunday School, the response is, “that’s not our church”.

They might even have some evidence. They might say they learned from the pulpit that the book of Timothy was not really written by Paul and the anti-feminist stuff in there does not apply. They might just consider it obvious that slavery is bad and not understand why they even need to address it. If I point out that good Christians of the not too distant past supported slavery and patriarchy they still say it’s not them, that it’s in the past. When I point to Christians today not accepting homosexuality, they are at a bit of a loss for words.

What’s missing in these aborted attempts at a conversation is that these changes in morality were not guided by or sourced from any religious authority. It may have been Christians who led the abolitionist movement but they had to draw on secular philosophy and modern data to make their case. If people claim “their church” is modern and open to new data, it is data that is coming from outside the teachings of 1st century Judaism. For that matter, the gospels include the teachings from people outside of 1st century Judaism. This is the one of the paradoxes of modern religion. To be modern you acknowledge that change has happened throughout the history of the church, but when I try to get one religious person to address a particular needed change today, suddenly they don’t act so modern.

People who try to tell me that their church is different and wouldn’t act the way I describe people in my experience are, most likely, not asking the questions I asked or reading the books I’ve read or accumulating the doubts like I did. To remain in a church, or possibly any organization, you have to allow for some parts of it that you don’t like. It’s a matter of degree of how much is tolerable and explainable. For example, I have on occasion considered leaving my country due to some of its policies and actions, but overall, I like it here and prefer to follow the advice of Carl Schurz, an immigrant who fought in the civil war. In 1872 he said, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

There is no particular wrong that caused me to leave church. It was the inability of it to address what was wrong. Religion is uniquely designed to avoid change. It holds up the ideal at the highest levels of decision making that if you sit quietly in a darkened room with your eyes closed and just ask for answers, they will come to you. Change comes through claims of revelation and requires that you connect your revelation to an earlier figure in the tradition, an earlier figure that might not have even existed. This is the opposite of using reason and evidence and observation and worse, the opposite of listening to the voices of those around you.

Being frustrated with an organization you are member of, or your country or your family or anything in between is not that unusual. We all settle on family having done the best they could, well, most of us, I realize some families are really messed up. We accept that we get something for the taxes we pay and we hope that next time we’ll have better candidates to vote for. No matter what, we look for underlying principles of fairness and some sort of logical progression from biological needs of love and support up to the day to day fulfillment of those desires. The Bible fails at that. Sure, Jesus said to “love thy neighbor as thyself”, but a lot of traditions said that before. And that was his second commandment, the first was to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all they soul and with all they mind.” That part is not very well explained and has some serious problems.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Seeking Caring Community

I laid out the highlights of my not religious journey a few weeks ago, and it got me thinking about details along the way.

Some people have specific events that made them quit religion, but I’m not one of those. If anything, there were a few things I can remember that kept me hoping that I could get continued value from that community. One of those was meeting Rabbi Michael Lerner. He had written some books on applying his Jewish traditions to liberal politics and for a few years had been an advisor to the Clintons who were Methodists, just like me. Ideas like the Jubilee year where debts are forgiven or the Sabbath where you unplug all your electronic devices for a weekend. This was before smart phones. A lot a people talk about this as a good idea now.
A community formed around these and other ideas and that work continues. It’s good stuff, but the Biblical connections were not that direct. His work is a good response to fundamentalism. It shows you can go to church or synagogue or mosque and be inspired to work for justice and peace and equality. But if you’re looking to make a case that the Biblical narrative leans more to the left, I didn’t find that there.

For more detailed Bible study that does look for modern messages in the text, there was the Jesus Seminar. This group of authors was active the 1990’s. Dominic Crossan is still writing and speaking. Marcus Borg died recently. Robert Price has since become atheist, but he still studies the Bible. In the first book I read from that group, they put the gospels side by side and showed how they are irreconcilable. I have since come to see these things like this more cynically. They are things you can learn, but really not apply. It’s an anti-fundamentalist statement, but doesn’t tell you much about what the gospel authors were trying to say.

They are a way a church can show it is progressive and opening up to new scholarship, but they don’t integrate the study into the full mission. I read that book as part of an adult study class. That’s where this kind of study usually ends up, relegated to the basement with a small group. They are a spoon full of progressivism for those who are asking for it, but they are still feeding the same old buckets of liturgy every Sunday.

So, that’s my cynical view, but I have to admit that some of this education included the political messages of the narratives. These are stories of an oppressed people under the rule of a conquering empire that had co-opted their religious leaders by sharing some of their riches with them in exchange for keeping the populous in line. That’s a universal story that repeats itself throughout history up to this day. What the Bible offers are stories about how they dealt with it.

For example, when Jesus says, “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”. He doesn’t mean, pay your taxes and shut up. Before he says that, he gets a Pharisee to pull a Roman coin out of his pocket. That coin has Caesar’s face on it, and he is considered a god. This is idle worship, and without saying it directly, Jesus just pointed out how the leaders of his religion are corrupted. We do this today by calling out Joel Osteen for not helping people during Hurricane Harvey.

So going down to the basement was one way to find deeper discussion about interpreting scripture, the other direction is up the leadership chain. There are a variety of seminars available to help potential leaders grow, and although you are again meeting in smaller groups, at least there is a sense this is the direction of the national organization, not just some pastor who found a book he liked. One of those classes I attended talked about something called the “Rule of Christ”. If you Google that you will get a ton of hits about Christ being the ruler of the kingdom. That’s not the one I mean.

The one I’m talking about is found in Matthew 18:15-20. It’s about how you handle a member of your group who is not on board with the mission. You speak to him privately then bring in more people if more understanding of the situation is needed. Then if needed go to whatever decision making body you have. If the situation still can’t be worked out, it may be the person has to go.  Now, there’s some danger of this being used to enforce “group think”, so 5 verses isn’t enough to cover that, but it’s a good start. It’s better than letting rumors fly or of letting one disruptive person poison every meeting.

That kind of study was going well for a few years then I thought it would be a great idea to become a lay speaker. A lay speaker can fill in for a pastor on Sunday and usually has some other leadership duties. I went to an all day event where we talked about what it was about and what the United Methodist Church was up to. One of their programs was called “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”. Sounds pretty self descriptive, and from the diverse group of people attending the class, it seemed like openness was the direction we were all headed. The church that was hosting the event had an entire set displaying the idea with doors and banners.

Then one of the speakers gets up and a few minutes into his talk, picks up one of the brochures for that “open” program and says, “we don’t need to worry about open doors, we need to get back to the miracles in the Old Testament.” A little later at lunch, he floated this idea again, asking rhetorically, “what would happen if we all got up in front of our churches and started saying that miracles were real.” No one said a word, probably a pretty common response to someone saying something like that. He tried answering it himself, saying it would cause miracles to happen or something.

I wrote the district Bishop about it and received no response. I talked to a couple pastors and got sympathy, but not much else. One of the other leaders at the event said she wasn’t happy about it either, but there wasn’t much she could do. What I saw was, the church leaders believe they need to keep as much of the old ways as possible even as they try to move forward. This is obviously about keeping butts in pews but it is also simply a lack of vision.

There are people like me who want to be part of an organization that is serving those who want to work for a better world. We can, if we want, find groups that address specific topics and volunteer our time doing something we consider worthwhile. It’s harder to find a place that addresses our need for community, our need for places where we celebrate our accomplishments and counsel each other on our failures, where we discuss the foundations of our values. You can see the numbers by looking at the declining church going population. There are polls showing many of those people left because the church is not open to new ideas. But churches are not good at addressing that population. They are experts at welcoming the fallen back into the fold, but when someone is going through serious doubts, they are almost silent.

When I tell stories like this, I often hear the response, “that’s not my church. We’re not like that.” I’ll address that next time.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Humanize Me

Two former pastors talk about how to reach understandings with people who are different from us.

If you are unfamiliar with Bart or uninterested in his whole story, you can skip to about minute 15 for the part I’m highlighting here. The movie he is talking about is about him and his dad and their religious differences. Bart left his dad’s ministry work and became an atheist. He was a Humanist Chaplain at USC up until recently and is interviewing Ryan Bell who just took over that job. Ryan is also a former pastor. 

The story Bart wants to tell is how people seeing the movie were not so interested in the reasons for choosing or not choosing religion, rather they enjoyed how a father and son worked to understand each other and discussed their shared values. He maps this on to the work they both do with young people.

In the secular groups they work with, people with different foundations come together and they aren’t interested in taking away their foundations, instead they want to know how that foundation generates their values. He lists three layers; the values, then the worldviews that generates them, then the reasons you adopt that worldview. The lowest of these is the reasons. It’s the least interesting and we often aren’t aware of why we believe what we believe, yet we spend a lot of time there.

Ryan points out it’s interesting to explore the reasons if you have the time and interest in philosophy and psychology, but that’s not essential to living a good a life. “You don’t need a master’s degree in philosophy to be a good person, thankfully, otherwise we’d all be a bunch of jerks.”

For many people, beliefs and identity are wrapped up, hard to separate.If you question why they believe something, they react as if you are attacking them, as if you are attacking who they see themselves as. This comes up when a value comes up, like how we treat children or should teens have sex or who should own what kind of gun.If instead of asking how they came to hold that opinion or why they hold it, ask, “how does your belief generate your value?” Like, what does Christianity make you want to do? Or, how does belief in some principle inform your political decisions? People can talk about that. They want to say how their beliefs function, not their validity or some logical explanation for them.
As Ryan says, we want people to explain their reasons when we are critical of their beliefs or actions. But when someone criticizes us, we find it hard to separate the reasons from our identity.
It may not be satisfying to hear their story, and by definition, not logical, but it’s more likely you will find common ground with the values. When we meet someone we don’t know much about we find more success if we don’t go looking for foundational differences. We talk about kids and grand-kids and how we want to see them grow up healthy with an honest view of the world and to be able to explore choices and to apply their talents to maintaining and improving an open society so they can pass it along to another generation. You will eventually bump into those differences and some people can’t get past them, but this approach Bart and Ryan discussed seems more likely to lead to continued relationships with a wider range of people.

Ryan sums it up by thinking about his goal for life, how he will look back and judge himself. His goal isn’t to get people to have his same philosophical underpinnings. He’s not going to judge his accomplishments based on getting 87 people to adopt his beliefs. But he will think about the lives he’s touched and how that expanded into the world. He hopes his being alive will make some small improvement on the overall well-being of others.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

My not religious journey

I haven’t done a “spiritual journey” post in a long time, not since I was a church-goer, so it’s about time.

My early years are not that significant, other than to point out that I was not indoctrinated into any particular tradition. My mother left a very religious family when she married my father and my father’s family was more about business than church. My Dad’s brother did get involved with church after he had kids, so most of my church going and church family experiences happened when we visited relatives. I grew up in Mid-West America, so obviously I know about church, but more as an observer.

It was when I was 33 and bought a house that I really started to think about community and church was a natural extension of that. I had some Unitarian and Buddhist friends and a nice young pastor knocked on my door one day and gave me a video tape about the book of Luke. I eventually found a liberal United Methodist church populated by people who had grown up in the 60’s and who were now involved in their inner city neighborhood. We talked about and acted on the social justice aspects of the New Testament.

That was great, until I moved to a small town and found it a lot harder to find that type of community. There were a few people like that but you have to mix with a lot of other personalities if you want to have any kind of social life when there are so few people. This is really more typical of how churches work. Sermons have to appeal to range of politics and personalities. It was happening in my church in the city, but I just didn’t notice it as much since I was in the majority. Now it was very clear, they preach to what the people want to hear.

The church I found was so small, there was no children’s program, until one day a couple kids showed up, and something came over me and I volunteered to be the Sunday School teacher. It turned out to be quite a challenge to find a curriculum that wasn’t all about preparing little souls for the afterlife. 10 year old boys are also the best for asking the tough questions of why they need to go to church. This led me to the internet where I thought I might find some good arguments for the existence of God but instead I found these YouTubes of what began as a cable call-in TV show in Austin TX, The Austin Atheist experience. In my attempt to formulate an argument to call in, I talked myself out of belief.

There were other things going on. I was considering becoming a lay speaker and I found that the education they wanted me to have for that was very different than what those old hippies at the inner city church were talking about. I was also discovering liberal former Bishops like John Shebly Spong and reading their books. And there was this movie Zeitgeist. It had a strange logic against religion that I couldn’t quite refute, so I had to develop my own ability to research and think critically to decide if it was valid or not. In that process, I realized that movie was wrong, but the Christian narrative was also seriously flawed. All my bad reasoning dominoes fell.

So now I found myself in an almost alien world. I needed to figure out how it got that way and where I fit in. I had always lived a little less than a straight and narrow existence, but now I’d let go of the moral system I’d been living with for 17 years. I knew science and the philosophical enlightenment had led to the democratic system I lived in but I knew that system had some major problems. Studying the history of how those things came about has turned out to be much more valuable than reading the Bible and listening to sermons.

Also interesting though is how the two worlds of science and religion have evolved together. I never had the simple anti-evolution thinking of the fundamentalist, but when I started hanging out with atheists, I wasn’t too comfortable with the simplistic notions that Christianity was a barrier to science either. Questions like, why do people still believe in supernatural powers, are much more interesting than simple answers like, religion is all about power. Narrow minded thinking does not require religion. I felt that instead of shutting ourselves off from each other, we need to be asking how to promote open dialog and encourage the generation of new ideas.

So that brings me up to where we are now. I’ve learned from people like Bart Ehrmann that the seminaries are teaching the accurate history of the Bible; that it was written by men, often for political reasons, and it was compiled by fairly random decisions made by just a few people. Also, it is full of misinterpretations, some by accident and some deliberately inserted centuries after the original texts; in other words outright forgeries. Meanwhile, at those seminaries, they are teaching how to preach as if the ancient narratives are still true. There are some updated variations, but basically the same ideas.

You can find some of this out you go to the mid-week adult Bible studies but most of it I’ve learned from non-believers or Jewish if scholars or retired theologians. The sad thing, and believers and non-believers are both missing out on this; the real stories are much more interesting. The Bible is a rare collection of historical documents written by the slaves instead of the masters. How they dealt with being conquered and oppressed as well as their own internal struggles provides us with insight into us.

That pastors aren’t preaching this is all pretty well known if you just pull the curtain back slightly. Pastors I’ve known have tried to keep me at their church by agreeing with me and handing me books but then telling me that the rest of the church was not ready for it. What the rest of the church thinks is a lot harder to tell. They can’t have an opinion on what they don’t know, and I can’t make them read and listen to everything I do. It’s hard enough to get them to read along with the Lectionary on Sunday morning. You can find people who left their parent’s church for a more modern alternative, but they still enjoy the same hymns about the blood of Christ.

Still, I believe a lot of people sitting in pews are closer to what you would call a humanist than they are to being a Christian. They are there because they want to spend at least a couple hours a week talking about something that matters, something that might contribute to a better world. Most of them aren’t keeping track of the questions they have like I did and pursuing them when they can, rather they are having their doubts then just letting them go. Some will probably have the experience that Ryan Bell describes, of trying to fit his modern view of the world into the box he had created for God, until the box had expanded so much that he realized it was his whole view of the world and he didn’t need to call it God anymore.

Meanwhile, I’ll be looking for ways to bring the history and insights to light and hopefully keep some of them moving in that direction.