Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for the ‘Religion and Society’ Category

Thessalonians Revisited

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on February 5, 2014 at 11:58 am

My main goal this year is to blog the entire New Testament. At 260 chapters, that’s less than a chapter a day. (By the way, did you know that the entire Bible can be read aloud in about 70 hours? Yet so many Christians have never bothered to read or listen to most of it. How many have watched every episode of Friends – a feat that would require roughly 90 hours?) A chapter a day is still a pretty tall order, since I am often distracted by other readings – today I bought a copy of Deer Hunting with Jesus and I can hardly put it down. (No joking, I’ll be posting on it soon.) Nevertheless, let’s aim for a year, and be happy if it takes no more than two.

We were last looking at Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. Pretty much everyone agrees that Paul wrote the first one in the 50s AD, but opinion is split on whether he wrote the second one shortly thereafter or if someone using his name wrote it around 40 years later. For our purposes, it really doesn’t matter – what is most important is to look at how Americans read it today, and how it influences our society and the political debate. Let’s look at the positive first.

Thessaloniki

My favorite verse in the letter in 1 Thessalonians 5:15, “…always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” I can’t think of another Bible verse that would do more good for American society if it were whole-heartedly followed – nor of one that is so blatantly anti-capitalist. Paul is basically saying to consider others when you decide to do something, and make sure whatever you are doing is good for everyone else. Imagine how much better our society would be if we constrained our actions in this way. No one would cut you off in traffic. Your neighbor wouldn’t walk his dog in your front yard. A stock price wouldn’t rise when a company sacked a few thousand workers, because this wouldn’t be good for society as a whole.

Adam Smith assures us that the beauty of capitalism is that everyone can work towards their own self-interest, without giving too much thought to what effect it might have on everyone else. The invisible hand will somehow make this work out for society in general.

In my personal economic experience, it has been more of an invisible backhand, Stanley Kowalski in a wife beater undershirt. Perhaps for the 1%, this hand is more satisfying, more like an invisible hand job from an expensive escort. In any event, someone is wrong, as there is an obvious contradiction here. Either the Apostle Paul got this one wrong, or Mr. Smith did.

Is it possible that you can’t believe in capitalism and the writings of the apostles at the same time? It’s no problem if you’re intellectually lazy – you’ve never read the tenets of either. But if you sincerely want the government to run according to Biblical principles, you might have to say goodbye to Wall Street. We’ll find this sort of anti-capitalist sentiment even more prevalent when we start looking at the words of Jesus himself.

Paul also encourages all Christians to live moral lives – nothing wrong here, except that in modern American society, this is obviously more easily said than done. It seems every few years an influential pastor or preacher gets caught with his pants down. It shouldn’t be funny, but getting caught with the organist is always going to get a few laughs.

If I think of his admonishment in only general terms, this would definitely be positive. Who wouldn’t agree that we should all do our best to be moral? However, in real terms, which is to say political / legislative ones, this is something that is really tearing America apart. Who gets to decide what constitutes morality? The Catholics? The Mormons? Me? You? And – a question nearly as old as the Constitution itself – can morality even be legislated? While that question might appear to be rhetorical, the obvious answer is – no, it can’t. Ken Cuccinelli would disagree, but I think this is mostly because he’s pissed off about having a last name that sounds a lot like Italian for vagina.

Other problematic ideas in Thessalonians that we’ve already discussed include:

In short, there are many ideas in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians that could hurt us as a nation, and only one (largely ignored ) that would make America better. In my opinion, the worst thing Thessalonians does is lay the groundwork for a Christian ideology that isn’t interested in improving American society. If Jesus is coming back in my lifetime – what me worry?

Some Christians would say that these ideas are off the mark – that few Christians espouse these them. I disagree. It is the fact that these ideas have basis in the scripture that make them so dangerous. It’s not like the so-called fringe are pulling these ideas out of thin air – they can point to chapter and verse.

As long as a huge group of Americans think they’ll be meeting a magic man in the sky before their grandchildren graduate high school, it will be very difficult to make some of the tough decisions that our country needs to make – the outcomes of which will decide if we prosper or decline in the coming years.

Enjoy my writing? Make sure to ‘like’ americansecularist on Facebook to get posts as soon as they’re published.

Also, check out my newest blog – nevercomingback – for tales from my travels abroad.

Still Secular, After All These Years

In American Society, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on February 4, 2014 at 10:44 am

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Welcome to the re-launch of American Secularist. I had intended to really focus on writing when I moved to Beijing – then found when I arrived that wordpress blogs are for some reason blocked here in China. After many months of unsuccessfully trying to get around the Great Firewall, I’ve finally figured a way in – at least for now. I hope you’ll forgive the long hiatus and join me in the fray.

It has been so long since I’ve posted, I think a bit of review may be in order – why did I start this blog to begin with?

It all started when I arrived back in the US around Christmas 2009 after a decade of living abroad. It seemed the tone of our political disagreements had taken a turn for the worse in my absence. I had, after all, been in Bangkok when the 9-11 attacks occurred, and had not been back home for longer than a fortnight since. I had made the decision to come back and work in the US back in the spring of ’09, not knowing at the time that I would be arriving at the onset of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Living abroad had certainly made me more liberal / progressive as far as my politics were concerned. Living in China, I saw first-hand how massive government projects could put a country ahead of its peers in a hurry. Asian nations were busy building schools, railroads, and airports, and finding ways to pull their poorest out of need. I wanted my country, ‘the greatest country in the world’, to stop resting on its laurels and do the same thing.

While I admit I had become more open-minded, it seemed my countrymen had moved in the opposite direction. I had witnessed the progress that positive government action could achieve, yet everyone around me seemed to think that such actions were tantamount to ‘socialism’. Perhaps more worrying, many seemed to voice the opinion that ‘bringing the nation back to God’ was the only way to put America on its feet again. This was a curious conclusion to me, as Russia and China (two predominately atheistic countries) as well as India (perhaps the most pantheistic country) were all seeing economic blue skies, no thanks to Jesus. I worried that we were looking at things the wrong way.

Many suggested that I needed to ‘get into the Word’, read the Bible with an open mind and see what God had to say. I thought this was an excellent suggestion. I had read the entire Bible from cover to cover once in my youth, and the New Testament twice more as a young adult. Nevertheless, I had lost my confidence in Christianity over the years. It had sort of become like MS DOS 3.1 to me – brilliant at the time, but it didn’t enable me to cope with more sophisticated problems that I faced as an adult. I found that the old algorithms just didn’t work with the modern realities of life. Was it time to give the old-time religion another go?

That’s where this blog comes in. I decided that I would once again read the New Testament, and comment on it, chapter by chapter. My purpose was to look at it once again with fresh eyes – not from the point of view of the cynic or atheist, but not from the ‘inerrancy of the scripture’ viewpoint either. As someone who has fond memories of both church camp and comparative religion class, I feel I can give a balanced reading.

My main purpose, however, is to specifically look at where American Christianity and American politics and policy intersect, and whether the influence of the former is positive on the latter. In other words, I’m not trying to find out if the Bible is ‘true’ or ‘relevant’. What I am mostly concerned with is looking at how American Christians interpret the scriptures, and whether that interpretation helps or hurts American society. Basically, there are so many people who think that the answer to our ills as a nation would be a ‘Jesus infusion’ that I think it is fair to look at what such an event might entail. And what better place to look for answers than in the Bible itself.

Work, family responsibilities, and the cares of life in general have pulled me off-track, but as the claims of one group become ever bolder – and louder – all of us need to take a closer look at what they are saying; we cannot just smile and nod absentmindedly if we truly care for the future of our country.

I’ll be posting two or three times a week – I hope you’ll join in the conversation.

Enjoy my writing? Make sure to ‘like’ americansecularist on Facebook to get posts as soon as they’re published.

Also, check out my newest blog – nevercomingback – for tales from my travels abroad.

Ghost in the Machine

In Nostalgia for God, Religion and Society on April 14, 2013 at 12:24 pm

There are ghosts in my dish washing machine.

I was reading earlier this evening an essay about the evolution of religious thought. An evolutionary approach to religion posits that our systems of belief have changed over time as our brains and societies have developed. It is closely tied to the psychological approach, which holds that religious beliefs stem from psychological needs – such as the need to understand how our world works or what happens to us after death. Both theories see religion as a construct of the human mind.

A somewhat simplified version of the theory goes like this – the least developed religious ideas are basically different versions of belief in magic, fetishism, dream interpretation, and the like. Next comes animism, where the belief in souls or spirits prevail – appeasement of the spirits of departed ancestors or those who have some influence over nature. Spirits that are venerated for more than a few generations may become so powerful in the minds of believers that they morph into deities and demigods, and the next phase – polytheism – is  achieved. After this comes monism – the belief that there are several gods but you choose to worship only the one you think is best – and finally the short step from there is taken to monotheism. Some would insist that this evolution is still continuing today, and would ‘complete’ the process by appending deism, agnosticism, and atheism to this list.

Religious evolution doesn’t take place neatly even within a single culture, as some accept new ideas and others prefer to stick to the old ways. Even when a religion is considered to have evolved to a certain level, it often retains elements of the ‘lower’ form of belief – monotheists may venerate a relic in much the same way a primitive person believes in a fetish, polytheists might still pay soothsayers to perform magical incantations.

And agnostics may cling to ghosts, even when they know better.

My most prized possessions are a set of coffee mugs my mother gave me on our last Christmas together. In general, I have a lot of rules about drinking. There are certain drinks for certain times of the day or year, and they must be served in the proper glass or cup to be fully enjoyed – heavy cut crystal for scotch, chilled Imperial pints for ales, small snifters for cognac, etc. For coffee, the right mug is critical. Too big and not only does the coffee cool before you can finish, you look like you’re at clown school while drinking it. Too small and you can’t stir in your cream without sloshing some over the edge. The mug must have sufficient heft, thick enough to keep from scalding your hands.

ghost

In years of visits to my parents’ house, my mother had observed me drinking my coffee out of exactly the same set of mugs every time, going so far as to pull one out of the dishwasher and wash it by hand if none were clean. She commented more than once that the coffee would be just as good out of one of her other cups; I let her know that she was mistaken. Her last Christmas, I think knowing deep down inside that the cancer would not let her see another, she gave as gifts to friends and family many of her personal possessions – jewelry, photographs, figurines. She gave me the coffee mugs.

Every morning since her passing, I wake up, start the coffee, pull one of those mugs from the cupboard, and sit for a moment or two with my mom.  I don’t actually talk with her – or talk at all really. I’m just aware of her presence, somehow the cup in my hand bringing her closer for a moment or two. I think about what she might have to say about what’s happening in my life, or if the weather outside would suit her.

I know this is absurd. I know that we are material only, and that what we call the soul is a manifestation of the physical brain, nothing more. There is no spirit that continues to live – not on any alternative plane of existence, heaven, Elysium, nirvana – nor in our own. We know that when part of the brain is damaged, that part of the person we once knew can disappear; why do we think that when the entire brain shuts down, that person would continue to exist elsewhere? Dishes can last forever – the people who fill them by their labor and love do not.

But there are ghosts in the machine, old patterns of thinking wired into the hardware of our brain in more ancient times, ideas we know to be false but are still attractive. And so we preach against prejudice but are careful to move to neighborhoods with ‘good’ schools. We eschew organized religion but fall prey to gurus. We knock on wood, cross our fingers, pray.

Sometimes, the more ‘primitive’ religion has better ideas than the modern one. For example, most animistic cultures do not venerate an ancestor spirit for more than a predetermined number of generations; once everyone with any direct memory of the ancestor has died, the spirit of that ancestor is considered to be permanently gone. This means you can’t make up untrue accounts of what your object of worship supposedly said or did – because someone else would remember and call you out. You might recite words of wisdom that had been handed down from generation to generation – but you don’t worship the person who said them. Imagine what a better place the world would be, how much nonsense we could avoid if we didn’t have such misplaced veneration for people who supposedly said and did certain things hundreds of years ago.

But ghosts are strong, and the struggle to rid ourselves of their influence continues. We hear the forgotten hymn and are moved by it. We miss the form, the ritual.

We whisper to a coffee cup in those dark and quiet moments before the dawn.

 

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