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In the Loop

| 11.7.05
'In the Loop', by Brian Plante

I never thought I'd be someone's 'fan boy,' but it is quickly starting to look that way when it comes to Brian Plante's short SF. Realizing that this issue of Analog contained one of his stories made me look forward to it even more than usual, and my anticipation was not in vain.

I liked this story even better than Lavender in Love and Dibs, because he dealt sensibly with an issue near and dear to my heart --virtual reality and virtual afterlife.

The premise is this: In the future when those who can afford it die, their brains get scanned into a computer program where they get to live out the rest of their days (until someone stops paying the bill) in a simulated virtual reality where everything is better than reality. The only problem is that people being who they are, they get stuck in ruts or "loops."

Enter our protagonist, Dave (an ironic echo of 2001: a Space Odyssey?) whose job it is to enter virtual reality and interact with the 'spooks' in order to break them out of their ruts. For Dave it starts out as a short term job to pay the bills, but after awhile it begins to raise serious questions for both Dave and the reader about the nature of reality and the 'loops' that even flesh and blood humans get themselves into.

Keep them coming, Brian Plante!

PUBLISHER: Analog Science Fiction and Fact (Astounding); Dell Publishers; ISSN: 10592113 (July/August, 2005)

The Tomten and the Fox

| 6.4.05
The Tomten and the Fox, by Astrid Lindgren

I suppose everyone who has kids (or has been a kid) has read Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking books. Much less well-known is Lindgren's adaptation of Karl-Erik Forsslund's poem, "The Tomten and the Fox." I found it to be a charming rendition of an old Scandinavian folktale featuring a wise and kindly gnome who protects the family farm from a chicken-hungry fox.

Harald Wiberg's watercolor illustrations bring the magical moonlit evening to life, lending a certain serenity to the story even as the ravenous fox creeps ever closer to the chicken coop. The gnome's solution to the dilemma teaches children alternatives to violent conflict resolution even as it makes them aware that not everyone will always act fairly, honestly, and in accordance with adult rules. Still, the fox is not drawn as a purely evil character. Lindgren hints at the broader issues that surround want and hunger, suggesting complex motivations for anti-social behavior.

In the end, The Tomten and the Fox can be seen not only as a children's story, but as an allegory on sharing and social justice.

PUBLISHER: Coward-McCann, Inc. 1966. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 65-25501

Passion for Peace

| 15.2.05
Passion for Peace: The Social Essays, by Thomas Merton

This collection of essays, edited by William H. Shannon, show the evolution of Merton's anti-war, pacifist stance as it evolved in the wake of the Vietnam War in the 1960s. As Shannon writes in the introduction, ". . .most of the articles that follow have been previously published, but in books that are now out of print. This book contains the substance of Seeds of Destruction, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 1964, and most of the articles compiled by Gordon Zahn in The Non-Violent Alternative, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 1980." (pp. 6-7)

Merton's stance against war and violence is rooted in self-awareness. "[E]very form of oversimplification tends to make decisions ultimately meaningless. We must try to accept ourselves. . . not only as perfectly good or perfectly bad, but in our mysterious, unaccountable mixture of good and evil. We have to stand by the modicum of good that is in us without exaggerating it." (p. 16). The root of evil is not to be projected onto the other as a prelude to war, but instead, "If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed --but hate these things in yourself, not in another," (p. 19)

According to Merton, "just war theory" or "natural law" or any other number of theological constructs need to be re-interpreted in the light of the Sermon on the Mount. Instead, what for Merton is central often gets relegated to the margins, seen as an impossible ideal, or exaggeration, or hyperbole for effect. When pacifist Christians argue for the application of the Sermon on the Mount to social systems, they need to justify this choice, and also deal with the many passages in the Old Testament that seem to sanction war as a God-ordained activity. While Merton laments, "[i]t is tragic that the nonviolent resistance to evil which is of the very essence of the New Testament morality has come to be regarded as a specialty reserved for beatniks and eccentric cultists," (p. 23) he also needs to provide more argument to support what seems counter-intuitive.

"There is one winner, only one winner in war. The winner is war itself. Not truth, not justice, not liberty, not morality. These are the vanquished. War wins, reducing them to complete submission. He makes truth serve violence and falsehood. . .Though moralists may intend and endeavor to lay down rules for war, in the end war lays down rules for them." (p. 28) As war after war occurs, and war becomes more total and more ruthless, as the tactics taken by "our side" are increasingly justified as necessary to counter the ruthless fighting of our enemies, Merton sees Christian values of peace as rapidly and steadily eroding.

There is a bit of elitism in Merton's writing. The laity are often referred to as being "confused" by the mass media and other sources. One gets the impression that Merton views the laity, and the public in general as sheep that are incapable of thinking for themselves.

This is somewhat mitigated in one of Merton's most interesting essays, "Danish Non-violent Resistance to Hitler." Here Merton outlines the amazing way in which the Danish resisted German attempts to exterminate the Jews in their country during World War Two by consistently and steadfastly, from the King on down to ordinary people, refusing to co-operate with the SS on moral grounds. (pp 150-153.) One can't help but wonder why such exceptions to Nazi oppression in Europe are not more widely known, and proposed as counterbalances to the meta narrative that says World War Two was a "just and necessary war."

While I commend Merton's forward thinking, encouraging Christians to think about the eventual consequences of moving down the slippery slope from countenancing certain wartime activities in "defense" to using these methods preemptively themselves, he seems somewhat naive. "Ambiguity, hesitation and compromise are no longer permissible. War must be abolished. A world government must be established. We have still time to do something about it, but the time is rapidly running out." (p. 47) Certainly this statement is made in the context of a cold war between two superpowers, with a monolithic mass media mediating the national conversation in the United States. To such a monolithic problem, maybe the monolithic solution of world government seemed justified. In today's context of decentralized sources of information (the Internet and hundreds of cable channels) and an amorphous war against multi-national terrorists, the faith in big institutions seems more naive.

Still, many of his observations remain timely. In speaking of the Communists, Merton writes, "We have no right to abandon the Christian moral values on which our society was built and adopt the moral opportunism and irresponsibility of atheistic materialism. If we live and act like atheists we will turn our world into a living hell, and that is precisely what we are doing --for the Russians are not the only men in the world who are Godless!" (p. 52) It's hard not to see both parallels and irony as a materialistic west, led by the United States, now fights militant Islamists like Al-Qaeda, often using methods that meet with objection on both pacifist, and civil libertarian grounds.

"Let us remember this formula: in the madness of modern war, when every crime is justified, the nation is always right, power is always right, the military is always right. To question those who wield power, to differ from them in any way, is to confess oneself subversive, rebellious, traitorous." (p. 55)

I was chilled at how much the names change, but the dynamic stays the same when reflecting on war and peace issues.

PUBLISHER: The Crossroad Publishing Company. New York. 1995. (originally written between 1961-1968); ISBN: 0-8245-1494-7.

The Heart of Christianity

| 18.1.05
The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, by Marcus J. Borg

While some of Borg's other books (especially The God We Never Knew) draw upon the author's personal experience and others (Jesus: A New Vision, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and Reading the Bible Again for the First Time) are more scholarly, this book seems best categorized as the culmination of a lifetime of work --less scholarly, more personal, but overall a "summing up" of the ideas Borg has wrestled with and tried to put forward regarding the "new way of seeing Christianity" that has emerged within mainline denominations in the last 100 years.

I've always enjoyed Borg's writing style, which is extremely readable. Beyond that, I think the most powerful idea he puts forward is not historical Jesus scholarship, or even a good popularization of modern biblical scholarship, but instead what I'll call "a re-imagining and reconstruction of the Christian tradition from the ground up." In other words, Borg can take the essential elements and ideas of the Christian tradition: the Bible, God, Jesus, and use them and imagine them in ways that revitalize their meaning and keep them relevant to the modern world.

Much of my pet peeve with popular notions of "liberal Christianity" is that it seems to throw away so much of the tradition, especially problems with biblical interpretation. Borg, on the other hand, falls back to the tradition and seeks to integrate it in a new way. He gets beyond the conservative/liberal dichotomy and instead describes how an "emerging" view of the church compares and contrasts to an "earlier" view of seeing Christianity. Neither view can claim to be "the" view; both are attempts to best "make sense" of the Christian tradition in light of the issues and questions raised by the world in which we live.

Borg is liberal in the sense that he is firmly committed to modern methods of biblical scholarship. He was a member of the infamous Jesus Seminar back in the 1990s, whose main interpretive framework was to go through the synoptic gospels and categorize sections according to their likely historicity. On the other hand, he seems more conservative when he emphasizes the crucial role the Bible has played in the Christian tradition. Borg sees both elements as crucial to his emerging vision of Christianity. "Despite their differences, the two paradigms share central convictions in common. The emerging paradigm, as I describe it, strongly affirms the reality of God, the centrality of the Bible, the centrality of Jesus, the importance of a relationship with God as known in Jesus, and our need (and the world's need) for transformation. To state the obvious, all of these matter to the earlier paradigm as well . . . both emphasize a relationship vision of the Christian life." (p. 17)

Because Borg believes that the earlier paradigm overemphasizes faith as the assent to propositions, he spends much time examining other views of faith found in the Christian tradition, including faith as radical trust, faith as seeing things in a different way, and faith as being faithful (as to one's spouse). Returning to the important role faith as belief plays, however, Borg lists the following affirmations of the emerging view of Christianity:

  • Being Christian means affirming the reality of God
  • for Christians, "Jesus [is] the decisive disclosure of God and what a life full of God looks like."
  • Christian faith means affirming the centrality of the Bible (pp. 37-38)

For Borg, love (not belief) is the central idea behind faith. Not only does this sidestep the literal/factual conundrum, but it pierces to the heart of the matter --To love God is to believe in God. "The Christian life is as simple and as challenging as this: to love God, and to love that which God loves." (p. 41)

Borg's view of the Bible is historical, metaphorical and sacramental. Emphasizing sacramental as one of the "big three" ways the emerging view of Christianity sees the Bible is a further development from what Borg wrote in Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. In Reading the Bible Again Borg promoted an "historical-metaphorical" approach over and against a "literal-factual" approach. While he did mention the Bible as a "sacrament of the sacred," the Bible as sacrament theme gets further elaboration in The Heart of Christianity

Borg seems to be moving more toward the "center" than in his previous works regarding the role of the Bible. I'm not sure if the change in tone is an attempt to be more pastoral or if it represents a significant shift in his thinking. "The Bible is thus both sacred scripture and a human product. It is important to affirm both. To use stereotypical labels, both conservatives and liberals within the church have been reluctant to do so. Conservative Christians resist affirming that the Bible is a human product, fearing that doing so means it will lose its status as divine authority and divine revelation. Liberal Christians are somewhat wary of affirming that the Bible is sacred scripture, fearing that doing so opens the door to notions of infallibility, literalism, and absolutizing." (p. 48) By saying "believe whatever you want about whether the story happened this way; but now let's talk about what the story means," (p. 57) Borg emphasizes the metaphorical meaning of the text over the literal meaning, and argues that conservatives and liberals both use metaphor. He sees this as a possible bridge between these competing and contentious views.

On God, Borg promotes panentheism over supernatural theism as a better way to make sense of how God operates in relationship to our world and us. Much of this is repeat material from The God We Never Knew, but Borg adds an emphasis, asserting that panentheism is found in the Bible, in the tradition, and can be traced back farther than the term itself, which only dates back about two centuries.

Borg sidesteps the issue of divine intervention, claiming that the language of "intervention" implies an absent God outside the world who sweeps in, and opens up a can of worms regarding why God would intervene in some cases and not others. Instead Borg still affirms that intercessory prayer can have an affect, but doesn't claim to know to much about what that effect actually is. (p. 67) He briefly discusses impersonal, personal, and transpersonal images of God. Borg does not believe God is personal, although he feels that the natural way we relate to God is ultimately personal. My own view is that we relate to God in a personal way because we are persons, not because God is a person. While God transcends mere personhood, maybe people can only adequately imagine God as personal, hence its popularity in devotion.

Ultimately, Borg sees the issue of God's character as decisive in our formulation of what it means to be a Christian. "What's at stake in the question of God's character is our image of the Christian life. Is Christianity about requirements? Here's what you must do to be saved. Or is Christianity about relationship and transformation? Here's the path: follow it. Both involve imperatives, but one is a threat, the other an invitation." (pp. 77-78)

As he did in earlier books, Borg makes a clear distinction between what he calls the "Pre-Easter and Post-Easter Jesus." Making the distinction, Borg argues, allows us to see what a remarkable man Jesus was; if we don't make the distinction Jesus' humanity becomes subsumed in his divinity and Jesus becomes merely some kind of God-puppet or superhero. To hold the two images as distinct and perhaps even in some degree of tension with each other, a fuller and more illuminating picture develops. Repeating compactly much of what he elaborates on in "Jesus: A New Vision," Borg sees the pre-Easter Jesus as a Jewish mystic, healer, wisdom teacher, social prophet, and movement initiator. (pp 89-91). For Borg the pre-Easter Jesus is the Jesus of history. The post-Easter Jesus is the Christ of faith, or more specifically, the experience of the risen Christ shared by the disciples, St. Paul, the early church, and people today.

Borg wants to reclaim the language of "born again" from the fundamentalists. For Borg, being "born again" is not the assent to propositions about the nature of Jesus, the atonement or the resurrection. It is a transformation of the whole person. Jesus' whole life, teachings, death and resurrection are a metaphor for the transformation that can occur in each Christian. "It means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being, dying to an old identity and being born to a new identity--a way of being and an identity centered in the sacred, in Spirit, in Christ, in God." (p. 107)

Why do we need to be born again? According to Borg, it's because "we come from God, and ...when we are very young, we still remember this, still know this. But the process of growing up, of learning about this world, is a process of increasingly forgetting the one from whom we came and in whom we live. The birth and intensification of self-consciousness, of self-awareness, involves a separation from God." (p. 114) "The image of following 'the way' is common in Judaism, and 'the way' involves a new heart, a new self centered in God. One of the meanings of the word 'Islam' is 'surrender': to surrender one's life to God by radically centering in God. And Muhammad is reported to have said, 'Die before you die.' Die spiritually before you die physically, die metaphorically (and really) before you die literally." (p. 119)

For Borg the Kingdom of God is political. It is about procedural justice. Being Christian is two pronged. The personal aspect is the "born again" transformation. Transformation also belongs to the political realm, however, as the kingdom of God is at once all around us, and a vision of the future to be brought about in the present.

When I was growing up, God's justice and God's mercy were often contrasted, with all of us strongly preferring God's mercy, but fearing God's justice (judgment.) Borg believes setting up the opposites like this mutes the Bible's passion for political and social justice. Borg maintains that the opposite of God's mercy is not God's justice, but instead human injustice. This takes the emphasis off God as judge and puts it on human accountability for our actions. God is seen as the model of right behavior, right thinking, and action. (p 127)

Lord, savior, and other New Testament titles for Jesus were titles that were applied to Caesar. Thus Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. The political aspect of the gospels calls us to call into question our own allegiances. Is Jesus our commander and chief, or the president? As Jesus reminds us, we cannot serve two masters. Borg insightfully notes that Jesus is the only founder of a major religious tradition who was executed by the established political authority. I think this says volumes about Borg's vision of emerging Christianity being one that can call into question the authorities in the name of God and social/political justice.

"Open hearts" and "thin places" sum up much of what Borg is driving at when he describes spiritually of the emerging view of Christianity. I thought Borg's description of the "closed heart" was especially striking: "The birth and development of self-awareness involves an increasing sense of being a separated self. We live within this separated self, as if the self is enclosed in a dome, a transparent shell: the world is "out there" and I am "in here." Like an invisible shield, the dome is a boundary separating the self from the world. It can become hard and rigid. It closes us off from the world, and we live centered in ourselves. The same process of growing up that creates the need to be born again creates the need for our hearts to be opened. To mix metaphors, the reason we need to be born again is because we have closed hearts." (p. 153) I was gratified that in Borg's discussion of self-awareness and the development of the self he referenced Thomas Keating's Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel, which I have recently read.

A panentheistic view of God will hold that God is everywhere and in everything as well as being "more" than that. Yet people do not experience God or the world this way very often. "Thin places" are those times and places where we do experience God shining through reality. "Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold God, experience the one in whom we live, all around us and within us." (p. 156) One of the primary reasons to go to church and worship is because church/worship can be a thin place. "In liturgical and sacramental forms of worship, the use of sacred words and rituals creates a sense of another world." (p. 157)

Since for Borg Christianity is a "way," practices are central to journeying along the way. Practices are ways of paying attention to God and taking seriously the call to love God with everything we have and in everything we do. The most important practice, according to Borg, is being part of a church. Then he moves on to prayer. While Borg doesn't believe in an interventionist God, he nonetheless does petition and intercessory prayer because not do would be, in his view, an act of hubris and non-compassion. (p. 197) Finally, meditation, contemplation (Thomas Keating style), lectio divina, and other daily disciplines round out the list. "Christian practice is about walking with God, becoming kind, and doing justice. It is not about believing in God and being a good person; it is about how one becomes a good person through the practice of loving God." (p. 205)

Sharing the concern of an earlier vision of Christianity that while God created the world good, something has gone wrong and God seeks to put the world back on the right track, Borg questions whether 'sin' is the best word to describe what has gone wrong. (p. 166) Much hinges on how we see sin; how we define it on its most basic level. Many see sin as disobedience to God's laws. Reinhold Niebuhr saw sin as pride or "hubris" --putting ourselves in the place of God out of the anxiety born of our finititude. Paul Tillich saw sin primarily as "estrangement" of ourselves from God, "centering" in ourselves or in the world rather than in God.

Borg acknowledges these ways of looking at sin as getting at the heart of the problem, yet he questions whether sin has lost its meaning as the most helpful way of framing the issue. He suggests that multiple images might be more helpful, and draws these images out of the biblical tradition. "[W]e are blind, in exile, in bondage; we have closed hearts; we hunger and thirst; we are lost." (p. 168). Borg thinks these images are more helpful because they point the way to specific correctives. Instead of just saying the problem is sin, and the solution is forgiveness, the solution for a closed heart is not forgiveness for having our heart closed, but instead practices to open the heart.

While sin is one aspect of the human problem, Borg feels that it is overemphasized and over individualized, obscuring social ills and systemic evils. Borg calls for a broadening in liturgy away from just sin. "[I]t wasn't individual sins that caused Jesus' death. He wasn't killed because of the impure thoughts of adolescents or our everyday deceptions or our selfishness. The point is not that these don't matter. The point, rather, is that these were not what caused Jesus' death. Rather, Jesus was killed because of what might be called 'social sin,' namely, the domination system of his day. The common individualistic understanding of sin typically domesticates the political passion of the Bible and Jesus." (p. 171)

Likewise, Jesus re-thinks salvation away from the popular notion that is about "going to heaven" after death. Borg writes that belief in the afterlife, while common among writers of the New Testament and possibly a view of Jesus, was not common among the writers of the Hebrew Bible and probably a late development. Yet people have taken God seriously both in the Old Testament and today without believing in an afterlife, the reason being that salvation relates primarily to the here and now and not to a far-off future reward for good behavior. "Eternal life," or "the life of the age to come" is primarily about living now as if the kingdom of God was here now.

In the Bible, salvation is described as "light in our darkness; sight to the blind; enlightenment; liberation for captives; return from exile; the healing of our infirmities; food and drink; resurrection from the land of the dead; being born again; knowing God; becoming 'in Christ;' being made right with God ('justified')." (p. 175) Borg's biggest point here is that salvation, which has been almost exclusively taught as individualist, has an essential corporate aspect to it as well.

The emerging vision of Christianity is a holistic way of re-imaging and re-engaging the Christian tradition in a way that makes sense in light of the world we live in. For many of us this world is post-modern, pluralistic, and increasingly interconnected. Why be a Christian in this age of modernism and pluralism? Why be a Christian if hellfire and one's eternal post-mortem destination doesn't hang in the balance? While the emerging vision of Christianity Borg explains and advocates sees all religions as a human response to the Divine, some may be better suited than others for particular individuals. As a "cultural-linguistic tradition," each religion is distinctly different even as all the enduring religions emphasize the quest for "More" than a strictly materialistic worldview can offer, and bear compassion as their foremost fruit.

Why be Christian? Because for me, and for the author, Christianity is "home." Borg provides a compelling, well thought out vision for a meaningful Christianity that builds upon its tradition in an intelligent, heart-felt way.

PUBLISHER: HarperCollins, New York. 2003. ISBN: 0-06-052676-9

SEE ALSO: The God We Never Knew and Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, by Marcus Borg

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