On the Same Team… I Guess

Years ago, I worked as a mechanical design engineer for Litton, a defense contractor. Our division dealt with navigational systems— compasses, radars, integrated bridge systems, fin stabilizers, inertial navigation, and so forth, for warships, submarines, and the like.

It felt good. I worked, mostly on navigational radar. I enjoyed the work.

One day, our company was bought out by Northrop-Grumman. Not a bad thing. A big and fairly stable company. Hopefully that would provide us with a good stable employment and pay (apparently, for many it didn’t… but I left for mission work well before all of that).

To celebrate our acquisition, Northrop-Grumman came to our plant, set up a big tent and held a party. At that party, they gave their multimedia welcome presentation. Much of it involved explosions and missiles firing off.

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That’s when it hit me (figuratively speaking). We are still in the defense contractor sector, but we have transitioned from the side that supported safety, and solid operations in the military to the side that blows up stuff. That was a bit sad, actually, for me. Of course, like other defense contractors, Northrop-Grumman works on a lot of different pieces of equipment… not just things that “go boom.” But it was the first time I worked for a contractor that appeared to revel in that aspect of the defense biz.

Don’t get me wrong. I am neither a pacifist or ignorant. I was in the Navy, and I served, during General Quarters, as the gun director officer, meaning that I sighted for, and sometimes fired, the 5 inch-54 gun on our ship. I also know that warship don’t just navigate through the water, but they “make war” and “project power” as need for national defense (and offense).  But I was still a bit comfortable with this side of the Defense sector.

But that is true in other aspects of life as well. As an Evangelical Christian, I am often uncomfortable with some of the opinions, noise, whining, politicking, theologizing, gossiping, polemicizing, and general tomfoolery that one often hears from Evangelicals on TV, in pulpits, and on social media.

But I have to remember that all families have members who are a bit embarrassing. It may have felt a bit uncomfortable to work for a company that acts like it likes to shoot and blow things up… but that is part of the military defense business. It is necessary.

Maybe in Evangelical Christianity, we need people whose passion is greater than their thoughtful reasoning. Maybe we need people who are loud and abrasive. Maybe we need people who embrace politics with gusto regardless of whether they truly understand the issues and the ethics involved.

Maybe.

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Asking Better Questions

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A friend of mine stopped by my office to ask a question. It was not really a new question, but one he had asked before.

“Why would God have allowed the Holocaust?”

He is more of a spiritual seeker than a believer in any one particular religion… but I believe that his status as a seeker is legitimate.

I responded with the most scholarly answer I could muster, “I don’t know.”

His reply was, “You have a doctorate in theology. Of course you know the answer.”

That gave me pause for a moment. I suppose it would be correct to say that I have an answer that satisfies me. I am sure my answer would not satisfy everyone. Perhaps it would only satisfy me. After all, if God is Loving beyond we can understand and Powerful beyond we can understand, it could be seen as contradictory that He permits such acts of unspeakable evil as the Holocaust.

Of course, the Holocaust is just one of the more easily identifiable acts of indescribable, unspeakable evil. It is so evil that some groups still deny that it happened despite seemingly irrefutable testimonies, documents, and physical evidence. Such denial of this and similar atrocities is not generally to protect God, but to protect ourselves. After all, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami may be an “Act of God” but the Holocaust was clearly an “Act of Man,” against Man.

For me, the answer is embedded in the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father which art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

Those lines say a lot, to me at least.

  1.  While God may be everywhere, God is in Heaven in a way that is not (yet) true with regards to the Earth.
  2. God’s Kingdom (or His reign/rulership) does not exist (fully) on Earth.
  3. God’s will is fully done in Heaven, but not (yet) on Earth.

If God’s will is not fully done on earth, we should not necessarily argue that evil things that happen must be God’s will (except to the extent that He did not prevent it). But then “Whose will is now being done on Earth?” Satan? It does not seem to be… not fully at least. Man? Perhaps more so, but Man’s will is divided… driven by competing passions, and general selfishness. In other words, to a large extent, the world we live in like a giant automobile with 7 billion selfish people all trying to steer it their own way.  Chaos… an insane asylum where the keys have been given over to the inmates.

This is not my total explanation of the Holocaust. I might also add:

  • The present age as “under renovation” towards a point when God has reconciled everything to His will. Surgery may heal, but it often cuts deep and painfully before things are set right.
  • God expresses His love presently less by leveraging His sovereignty towards control, but towards suffering with us.

Anyway, without going any further or deeper, this satisfies me… for now. But what is satisfying to me, is likely to be completely unsatisfying to another.

I often tell people that a degree in Theology does not make one know more answers, but rather it helps one to formulate better questions— and identify less worthy questions.

“Why would God have allowed the Holocaust?” is a very good question. I complimented my friend with this question. I wish more Christians were willing to ask the hard questions regarding God, rather than pumping out bumper sticker theology like “God is good all the time, and all the time God is good.”

But there are even better questions out there.

 A better question than “Why would God have allowed the Holocaust?” might be “What does the Holocaust (occurring in 20th century “civilized” culture) reveal about ourselves?”

While the first question may lead one to doubt that there is a loving and powerful God out there, the answer to the second question points, I believe, to the conclusion that we truly NEED such a God to exist.

 

 

 

 

Churchianity

I am a believer in the church… both as a tangible community of faith and as an invisible entity, an arguably mystical organism of all believers, immersed in one spirit and one water. However, the very act of believing in the church suggests there are things that I strongly believe the church is not. There are things that the church is not, things it  can’t be, things it should not be. With that in mind, here are a few challenging quotes on the church and the Christian faith.
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The church works best not as a power center, rather as a countercultural community – in the world but not of it – that shows others how to live the most fulfilled and meaningful life on earth. In modern society that means rejecting the false gods of independence, success, and pleasure and replacing them with love for God and neighbor.
     -Philip Yancey, Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News?
In general, the churches, visited by me often on weekdays… bore for me the same relation to God that billboards did to Coca-Cola; they promoted thirst without quenching it.
                      -John Updike, A Month of Sundays

Mission work does not arise from any arrogance in the Christian Church; mission is its cause and its life. The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission, there is no Church; and where there is neither Church nor mission, there is no faith.             -Emil Brunner, The Word and the World

Let us now examine the religion of the Priest, whose language is, ‘Look to me; to me, in some of my formulas, to me in some of my developments,’ if I may use a favourite expression, ‘and be ye saved.’ In one of these he bids you to look to the Church; she, he alleges, is the directress to heaven, the sure way to eternal joy. ‘Hear the Church,’ he cries, and be happy

Such religion is Churchianity; it is not Christianity. Christianity means the religion where Christ is all; Churchianity, the religion where the Church is all. But what is this Church? let me ask. It is the company of believers, if it be the true Church; the company of the baptized, if it be the visible Church, made up of good and bad, of tares and wheat. But the whole Bible tells us that a church without Christ is a body without a head; a robe, without the Divine wearer; the richly-chased cup, but without the wine.

I cannot see that there is any more chance of being saved by a Church, than there is of being saved by a College, or by a Royal Exchange. There is no more connexion in the way of merit between the one and salvation, than there is between the other and salvation.                             -John Cumming, in sermon spoken in 1850

The greatest danger to Christianity is, I contend, not heresies, not heterodoxies, not atheists, not profane secularism – no, but the kind of orthodoxy which is cordial drivel, mediocrity served up sweet. There is nothing that so insidiously displaces the majestic as cordiality.              -Soren Kierkegaard, Provocations

Of Abba and Igorot Cowboys

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This last Friday, my wife and I began the 6.5 hour trip from Baguio City (a city built by Americans during their occupation of the Philippines) to Laoag, the “center” of the Ilocano language and culture. On the way, we had a pitstop near Vigan, one of the best preserved Spanish colonial cities.

Along the way, our bus driver was playing song after song of hits by (the Swedish group) Abba, and I was mulling a book that I brought with me on contextualization of theology to the Philippine culture.

One of the writers (it was a compendium of articles) stated that the Philippines is losing its culture. It must reclaim its true culture. But I see two problems with this.

Problem 1.  The amazing diversity of culture. Often common Filipino cultural values are emphasized in school rather than cultural diversity, a bit akin to the “melting pot” model of American culture that was taught when I was in school. Baguio City is very different than… well, pretty much anywhere else in the world, including the Philippines. Much of the characteristics of the Filipino people does not really apply here. And why should it? As a young city (just over 100 years old) it missed the Spanish colonial period. It is a blending of cultures today with a large population of “lowland” Filipinos mixed with the highland tribal peoples. It also has a large minority Muslim population (from the Southern part of Mindanao seeking economic opportunity). It still has a fair number of Americans who have been around since the construction of the city. More recently has been a large influx of Koreans. Along with other smaller populations, these groups have put their own stamp on the culture here. The sub-culture is unique in Baguio, and children often struggle in school as they have courses in Philippine language and culture that don’t really resonate with the culture they know.

Is it wrong to have the normalizing influence of a common education for Philippine culture? Not necessarily, although I would like to see more respect for Filipino diversity. But when it comes to theology, it is possible that a common Philippine theology would fail to connect with Batanes, Bontoc, Baguio, Bulacan, Boracay, and Basilan.

Problem 2.  The second problem to me is more serious. It is the presumption that there is some inherently Philippine culture that is lost, or is being lost. One does not really lose culture. A locality is like a swimming pool full of people, and culture is like the water they are immersed in. Culture does not come and go (in a manner more like how the term “culture” was used in the 1800s). Jollibee, SM, jeepneys, and “Eat Bulaga!” are as much Philippine culture as bayanihan and tinikling.mira1

Culture is always changing, for better AND for worse. But what is of more concern is whether Filipinos are losing their connect with their heritage (“pamana”).

Cultural heritage provides a stabilizing, and even transforming, force within a culture. Culture is pushed and pulled by (A) social needs within its geographic context, (B) cultural heritage, and (C) intercultural mixing and interaction. One could see these as three atractors in a complex dance (made even more complex because each of these attractors are dynamic to some extent.

Consider the Case of many of the Cordillerans (people of the “tribal groups” of the Cordilleran mountain range here in the lands surrounding Baguio City). When I first got here in 2004, the people seemed to dislike the term “Igorot.” It was a term used for people of the Cordilleras by outsiders and it was considered pejorative by many. Some would use the term “Torogi” (“Igorot” spelled backwards) as a way of finding affirmation. However, in more recent years, I have seen more and more people here choose to embrace the term. Many vehicles will have a bumper sticker on the back that simply says “IGOROTAK” (“I am an Igorot”).

The culture here has been challenged to integrate itself:

  • Cultural Heritage. In the last few years there seems like there is a greater affirmation of Cordilleran cultures. It seems like in Baguio there are more native dances, clothing, and arts than there were. Many Christians here are now trying to connect their faith with their ancestral practices. This has not been without controversy, but the very desire shows the potential power of cultural heritage to not only preserve, but to transform.
  • Intercultural Influences. In the last few decades has been the growth of what is sometimes called the Igorot Cowboy culture. In the Highlands here, country music (originally an American phenomenon) has taken hold. Included in this are country music bars, country music videoke, locally produced country music (in a variety of languages), and Western (as in American cowboy) clothes. One man who automatically comes to mind was (maybe still is) the barangay captain of a mountain community. Whenever I saw him he was dressed in cowboy boots, blue jeans, a big big belt buckle, and a blue suede cowboy hat. I have to say he was able to make it work for him. I have come across some other Filipinos who look derisively on this local behavior. However, every culture is affected by other cultures. Sometimes it may seem like a plague, but sometimes it is a welcome addition. This Country-Western culture seems to resonate with the people here in the mountains than the culture in the lowlands. Cultures do embrace what is foreign and make it their own. Pizza is now welcomed as part of American culture well beyond its role in Italian culture.
  • Societal Demands in Geographic Context. Many Cordillerans are drifting to the cities due to economic needs that are seen to go beyond what the mountain villages can provide. This has adversely affected the extended families, and has decimated many such villages. On the other hand, better roads and the cool weather of the mountains has been bringing in more people from the cities, as well as foreigners. This increased income provides more local moneys, and has helped revive some of the local art-forms such as woodcarving. Of course, more outsiders also brings outside problems as well.

Conclusion

So what does this all mean? Not exactly sure. But a local theology needs to do more than simply look wistfully back on the cultural heritage(s) of the Philippines. In the New Testament, Abba is the term that Jesus used to describe God the Father. A radically new idea. However, Abba was also the term that the native Visayans (who met Magellan in the 1520s) used to describe the top god of their pantheon, powerful and unapproachable. And Abba is a music group played on a bus that goes back and forth between Baguio and Laoag.

A local theology should embrace God’s revelation, local cultural heritage, and the culture that is (not simply the culture that was, or the culture one wishes it to be).

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Enculturation of Faith

Ecological model

The power of culture is the power of habit. How does this develop? Parents and other members of a community influence the next generation. One version of Bronfenbrenner’s
Human Ecological Model is shown above. The innermost circle is a child. The outermost circle can be thought of as the overall societal structure, institutions and culture the child
resides in. The greatest influences, however, are those associated with the  circle (microsystem) closest to the child.

Enculturation is the “natural” taking on of a first culture by children. Acculturation is the mostly intentional taking on of a new culture by (especially) adults. As you might guess, enculturation is easier. Enculturation of faith, likewise, is easier than acculturation of faith

A child is influenced and educated to conform to established norms within the culture through:
• Active teaching
• Modeling (passive teaching)
• Rewarding and punishing

Modeling is probably the most effective, especially by those in the circles closes to the child. I don’t suppose this should shock anyone. But it certain points out the problem of simply “letting the church teach our children about God.”

But if one looks at the diagram above, another point becomes obvious– it is the family, primarily, that acts as the transmitter, and filter, of the broader culture. As such, the family has great power in ensuring that the child effectively acclimates to the surrounding culture, while still ensuring that the worst aspects of the culture are not enculturated.

Christian Parents may seek to be Separatists or Isolationists, ensuring that the child is raised in a “godly” way, in a sheltered enclave in opposition to surrounding culture. The problem here is that God works through culture, and has always done so. Developing a child that cannot effectively function in the culture is harmful to the child and harmful in his or her calling to be salt and light in the world.

Christian Parents may, on the other hand, ignore there role of filtering culture. The parents are negligent, or simply transmit the surrounding culture to the child without godly guidance. That is to renounce their role as Christian parents.

The goal is for Christian Parents to Integrate local culture with Christian faith and teachings.

Children will see it, hear it, and absorb it– that is, if they truly see it and hear it, and experience it in the family.

 

 

 

 

A Happy Tiny Surprise

Got a package in the mail today. I had ordered a few copies of my book to be shipped over to the Philippines. It arrived today. I put in the order in almost exactly 1 month ago. They printed it off and it arrived today. 100_0850

That may or may not impress you, but it did me. The original arrival date was February 20 and it beat that by close to 2 weeks. And the February 20 delivery date would be unrealistically fast. More typically, that date would have the box in a customs storage sitting for a long wait. Then it would go up here to Baguio… arrive at the Post Office where it would sit for a maybe a week or two and then they would send me a little notice to stop by and pick it up.

But not this time. Since I am teaching cultural anthropology this term, it is nice to have a few paper copies in hand. I have given electronic copies to my students… but there is something nice about paper… sometimes.

As a Protest

I was listening to a podcast of an interview with Jurgen Moltmann at “Homebrewed Christianity” (Click HERE if you want to hear it).

Trip Fuller asked, “How do you maintain hope in the face of despair…?”

Moltmann responded, “As a protest.”

I like that.224

  1.  We see a world immersed in various evils, pains and sufferings.
  2. We see well-entrenched structures driven by and empowered by human ambition and selfishness that  seem likely to perpetuate these plagues into the foreseeable future.
  3. We are able to imagine a situation where humans are able to live and interact in harmony with others, with creation, and with God.
  4. We cling to that imagined potential situation, and call that clinging “hope.”

The first three statements appear to be pretty self-evident. The first two simply state the way things pretty much are. The third statement describes how most of us think. Most of us are able to imagine something different than the way things are.

But the leap from statement 3 to statement 4 is huge. To go from something we imagine and then embrace it as relevant and meaningful in our present situation is not at all an obvious response. I can imagine that not all clouds are made up of microdroplets of water, but that some are made of cotton candy. That imagination can go further and I can value that imagined world and decide that it is preferable to the world we are now in. However, to embrace that vision and act on it would be strange and foolish.

For that imagined future to justify a hope worth clinging to, it must have at least two things (and maybe more):

  • Justification of the hope to be realized.
  • The hope is worthy of, and worth, the sacrifice it places on the person.

For me, the loving sacrifice of Christ, and His victory over death, demonstrate the benevolence of God and the firstfruits of the satisfaction of hope.

This sort of hope is active, not passive. It stands up to the culture and its flawed structures and lives according to this hope as a continuing act of countercultural protest.

This hope then is not only active in protest, but is also creative. After all, a positive protest seeks to act out the transformative change it envisions.

It has been said that “Necessity is the mother of invention,” but few things are all that necessary.  Alfred North Whitehead argued that the basis of invention is science, and science is almost wholly the outgrowth of pleasurable intellectual curiosity.However, Whitehead lived at the height of scientism/positivism. Few inventions have any direct roots in the scientific method… except as a creative act to create a test, or  a creative act to benefit from a natural discovery.

It might, however, be argued that “Protest is the mother of invention.” The scuba aqualung (developed by Jacques Yves Cousteau and Émile Gagnan) was not really a necessity; neither was it science. It was a protest against the natural constraints of the human body underwater.

True Christian faith should give us an active hope, which should, in turn, lead us to a creative protest aiming to create what we desire (regardless of whether we actually have the capability to turn hope into reality).