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October 2017

Islam & Reformation

You often hear that Islam needs something like western Christianities Reformation.  This good article from The Atlantic disagrees.  It reminds us that the 16th century Ottoman Empire was more religiously tolerant than most of the European Christian states.  And its analysis is that the current state of the Muslim world is closer to that of post-Reformation Europe, when there has been great division leading to sectarian violence.  The article argues that what Islam needs is a John Locke or a Moses Mendelssohn, not a Martin Luther, its own version of the Enlightenment.

Here is the closing paragraph:

If the Protestant Reformation teaches us anything, it is that the road from religious fracturing to religious tolerance is long and winding. The Muslim world is somewhere on that road at the moment, and more twists and turns probably await us in the decades to come. In the meantime, it would be a mistake to look at the darkest forces within the current crisis of Islam and to arrive at pessimistic conclusions about its supposedly immutable essence.


I read last week that the BJP is now campaigning against the Taj Mahal.  That its image has been removed from various places and that they don't think it should be the cultural symbol of the nation.

Here is a good discussion of the intellectual origins of fundamentalist Hinduism. 

Hauerwas: Protestants Won. Now what?

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has an interesting take on Reformation 500 in the Washington Post.  Protestants won.  The RCC has reformed itself to address Luther's critiques. Now what?

That the Reformation has been a success, however, has put Protestantism in a crisis. Winning is dangerous — what do you do next? Do you return to Mother Church? It seems not: Instead, Protestantism has become an end in itself, even though it’s hard to explain from a Protestant point of view why it should exist. The result is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share. It’s a dismaying circumstance.

This is an enjoyably provocative essay, but what's missing is an exploration of the ongoing nature of the Reformation, something stressed by most of the traditions.  So though the 16th century issues may have been largely resolved, the Protestant spirit and style opened us up to further developments.  That the RCC may have caught up to the 16th century in the mid-20th doesn't address the 500 years of further development on the part of Protestants.

Entertaining Doubt

Entertaining Doubt

Matthew 11:2-5

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

29 October 2017



    "Our identity as the United Church of Christ lies in our doubt of the adequacy of any human containers of the Word of God. We doubt that the depths of God's Revelation in Jesus Christ have been fully explored." In her insightful book The Evolution of a UCC Style, church historian Randi Jones Walker gives this explanation of the essential identity of our denomination. We have no common theology, no shared worship style, no unique structure. Instead, we are the people who for the last few centuries have been willing to entertain critical questions about our belief and practice.

    How did this come to be? And how is this our heritage from the Reformation?

    For it is a surprising heritage. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrich Zwingli, and others of the early Reformers weren't promoting doubt. They believed they had found the truth and were defending their concept of the truth against their theological and ecclesiastical opponents. They even fought with each other.

    And what was an intellectual disagreement ended up with a century of European bloodshed and violence that lingered across the centuries as Christians of various stripes warred with one another and against Jews and Muslims and nonbelievers in defense of right doctrine.

    This is why worldwide religious bodies chose to call this 500th anniversary of the Reformation a "commemoration" and not a "celebration." While we do have much to honor from our religious heritage, we also have those things for which we must lament, confess, and repent. Which is why this 500th anniversary has been ecumenical and interfaith. Here in Omaha today the community-wide worship service will be held in a Roman Catholic church.

    Protestants and Catholics have spent decades in dialogue and conversation in an effort to find agreement and compromise so that we can restore the unity of God's church.


    We in the United Church of Christ are unique in that our predecessor bodies draw from all the various strains of the Protestant Reformation. We have connections to Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. To the Radical Reformers and the English Reformers and even the early Unitarians. Which makes us a diverse, and often difficult, group of people.

    And one whose defining and surprising Reformation inheritance is the entertainment of doubt.

    When Luther challenged the authority of the church and state and defended his scholarly reading of the Bible, his challenge had consequences even he did fully foresee. By raising doubts about church doctrine, he opened the door for further questions, further criticism, further doubts about authority.

    And over the centuries that attitude developed into its own liberal style, which took particular root in Colonial America where our traditions were nurtured.

    In 1749 Lemuel Briant preached at West Church in Boston and the sermon caused controversy within our Congregational ancestors. Briant's role in history is magnified by the fact that he was the pastor of John Adams, our second President and one of the intellectuals who helped to develop American democracy.

    In that 1749 sermon, Briant defended the divine right of private judgment, what would be called the "liberty of Conscience." Traditionalists believed in upholding right doctrine, while a new wave of Congregational ministers were defending conscience. Both claimed scripture and the theological tradition in their defense.

    If we believe, as Protestant long have, that the Reformation is an ongoing event, that the church is always reformed and always reforming, then these 18th century American developments are the ongoing work of God begun with Luther's protests.

    These 18th century American reformers laid out their doctrine for how we Christians should engage our reasoning in order to live moral, faithful lives. The historian Amy Kittelstrom summarizes them.


The first rule was for Christians to acknowledge that they are not yet in possession of truth. Call it humility, call it partiality, call it fallibility, it is objectively true from a Reformation Christian perspective that no one can claim to possess the whole truth any more than they can claim to be free of sin. Therefore all must continue to seek more truth.


    In the 21st century many liberal Christians ignore the doctrine of sin, without realizing that liberal Christianity was born of the doctrine of sin. Because we are flawed, biased, sinful creatures, we can never possess the full truth and must always hold our beliefs with humility and skepticism and respect those who disagree with us.

    From this traditional theological understanding, the American Reformers developed two more rules to help us in our pursuit of truth. The second rule was that "critical thinking [is] necessary to discern between doctrines." Kittelstrom describes this rule: "Truth-seekers must be open-minded, honest, and sincere. They resist appeals to authority, tradition, or superstition, thinking for themselves and being both candid about what they think and willing to consider all claims."

    She explains that for our religious ancestors, critical thinking was not only a right of the human conscious, but a religious obligation. We were failing in our Christian life if we didn't engage the world with our reason.

    The third rule was to "consider the effect of a doctrine as indicative of its degree of validity." This idea would come to full philosophical flower in the 19th century in pragmatic philosophy when William James would contend that the truth of an idea could be established by if it worked.

For those early Americans this was a test of religious doctrines. If a doctrine harmed people or society, particularly if it sapped our moral agency, then the doctrine should be rejected. The good and the right is what would elevate us and lead to better lives.

These three rules characterized the liberal style, as our 18th century ancestors were the first people to use this word to describe themselves. And these ideas, rooted in the theology of the Reformation but given new flower in North America, had a lasting impact.

John Adams, according to historian Kittelstrom, "believed that the truth could be known in full to no human being, and that humility and open-mindedness as well as sincerity and candor were therefore fundamental characteristics of piety." And he carried these religious doctrines into the founding of the nation.


What developed in America, then, was a working out of some of the ideas of the Protestant Reformation to define a new style that entertained doubt. According to Kittelstrom, "once one becomes a liberal of any type, one becomes a critic, actively scrutinizing every possible article of belief or value 'objectively,' with an impartial eye and a mind buoyed by the reference point of perfect divine truth."

This is not the legacy that Martin Luther intended when he posted the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. But this is how that legacy has developed here, in the United States, in the United Church of Christ.

Our right, but also our sacred duty and faithful obligation, is to think clearly, openly, critically, for there is yet more light and truth to be revealed to us by our Stillspeaking God.

My Uncle Napoleon

My Uncle NapoleonMy Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzad
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A young man falls in love with his cousin in the midst of family turmoil in this hilarious story set in 1940's Tehran.

At times the family arguments dragged out but other times they were quite hilarious. This story was turned into a popular Iranian television series before the Revolution, and it almost reads like a script, there is so much dialogue. I can imagine it was quite entertaining.

Only near the end did I feel like the novel fully flowered in both comedy and pathos.

View all my reviews

The Politics of Fear & Anger

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum delivered this year's Jefferson Lecture in the humanities on the topics of anger and fear in our politics.  A clear statement of her topic:

One of the trickiest problems in politics is to persist in a determined search for solutions, without letting fear deflect us onto the track of anger’s errors.

Democratic work is not easy, as it involves the transformation of our anger and controlling our fear.

Making a future of justice and well-being is hard. It requires self-examination, personal risk, searching critical arguments, and uncertain initiatives to make common cause with opponents—in a spirit of hope and what we could call rational faith. It’s a difficult goal, but it is that goal that I am recommending, for both individuals and institutions.

And, of course, she thinks philosophy makes a vital contribution to that effort:

Philosophy does not compel, or threaten, or mock. It doesn’t make bare assertions, but, instead, sets up a structure of thought in which a conclusion follows from premises the listener is free to dispute. In that way it invites dialogue, and respects the listener. Unlike the over-confident politicians that Socrates questioned (Euthyphro, Critias, Meletus), the philosophical speaker is humble and exposed: his or her position is transparent and thus vulnerable to criticism. 

Warning from Kansas

A Republican Kansas State Senator writes a warning to Congress as it works on tax reform about the devastating mistakes Kansas made in service to ideology.

I never anticipated entering public service. I was content raising my family, participating in the PTA and operating my business. However, I saw the impact that bad tax policy was having on the state. I felt the results of growing class sizes and shrinking programs in the schools my children attended. I witnessed a gradual erosion of the quality of life that makes Kansas such a great place to live.