The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Wednesday, May 9, 2018
Current Affairs ... Politics ... Religion ...

I finally got around to reading the fascinating article in the April 2018 Atlantic Monthly on the strange and seemingly paradoxical alliance that has evolved between Donald Trump (in his role over the past few years as national politician and President), and the evangelical Christian community. The article is by Michael Gerson, a Christian evangelist who worked for President George W. Bush. Gerson knows something about Republican politics, and also about evangelism — he was raised in an evangelical family in St. Louis, and graduated from Wheaton College, a place with a strong evangelical Protestant heritage.

Gerson is not the first person to point out the paradoxes involved with the strong support that evangelical Christians have given to Donald Trump over his recent political career. To put it mildly, Trump has not shown much concern throughout his life for the Bible. And yet, despite divorces and salacious words and alleged misconduct, despite the many who have had unsatisfactory business dealings with him, despite all those who claimed to be the victim of ruthless exploitation on Trump’s part, despite the fact that Donald Trump has lived his life by the mandate of eye-for-an-eye and has seldom turned the other cheek or granted Christ-like forgiveness — despite all of that, evangelicals see Mr. Trump as a champion of what they stand for.

How did modern American evangelism arrive at this? Gerson goes back to the early 1800s and traces how evangelism has responded to the challenges of slavery, the Civil War, Darwin and Evolution, industrialization and growing secularism over the past two centuries. Evangelicals have a strong tradition of political involvement, and in that respect, their latching on to a strong political figure like Trump is not all that surprising. And yet — one wonders with Gerson how current Christian evangelists can support a man who seems so immune to the ultimate message that they are trying to spread. Sure, when Trump entered his new career as GOP candidate back in 2016, he had to spend a lot of time in the heartland, and thus had to quickly learn Holy-speak  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:05 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, April 12, 2018
Religion ... Society ... Spirituality ... Technology ...

I want to talk today about a young Roman Catholic priest from Minnesota who seems to be getting more and more attention amidst the faithful for his social media skills. His name is Father Mike Schmitz, and his videos and use of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram are quite impressive. He appears to be one of the first, if not THE first, Catholic spokesperson to make truly effective use of “the new media”, even though it’s been around now for more than a decade. I think that Father Mike is someone to watch, if you at all interested in the American Roman Catholic Church; I get the feeling that he is a rising star, someone you will be hearing a lot more about.

During the 1930’s, Father Charles Coughlin became know as “the radio priest” and got a national following for his commentaries during the Great Depression and World War 2 (especially considering his often fiery political views, such as his support of Huey Long and his opposition to US involvement in the War). After the War, the Trappist Monk Thomas Merton used the increasingly popular paperback book medium to gain fame through his conservative pro-Church writings. His 1948 autobiography Seven Storey Mountain was said to have inspired thousands of young people to a Catholic clerical vocation. Then in the 1950s, Bishop Fulton Sheehan became the “television priest”, supporting Catholic doctrine with a popular TV show. Then came Mother Angelica and her pioneering use of cable TV in the early 1980’s, with the formation of the EWTN network. The Internet and its social media infrastructure has been awaiting a charismatic Catholic spokesperson to come along and defend the magisterium on YouTube and Facebook, and it looks like Father Mike is the guy. You can check him and his thoughts out at his Ascension Ministries website channel, his page on the University of Duluth Newman Center site, on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

This guy has a HUGE footprint on the Internet !!

Father Mike has a LOT of videos out, over 100; I have watched about 10 or 11 of them so far. Each lasts about 6 or 7 minutes, and each roughly follows the format of a priest’s sermon at mass. For the most part, Father Mike  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:26 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, December 23, 2017
Art & Entertainment ... Religion ...

I’m at a point in life where I have almost nothing to do with television anymore. That’s quite a journey for a kid whose life revolved around the 7:30 – 10 PM TV prime time period 7 nights a week. I don’t remember spending a whole lot of time on homework in those days, because I had to get in my TV! Obviously I wasn’t the best of students (until the last 2 years of high school, when TV started losing some of its charm). About the only time I see any TV these days is when I’m visiting my brother on Friday nights. We go out to dinner, and then we hang out at his house for a while, usually with the TV on. But most of the time, nothing much of interest is on, it’s just sort of a background noise generator.

However, a few months ago, we decided to explore an interesting looking program icon for an HBO series entitled “The Young Pope”. The little blurb that popped up from the icon indicated that this was a fictional story about an American being elected Pope by the Roman Catholic Church. Given that my brother is still a fairly devout practicing Catholic and given that I am still a God-centric spiritualist who takes Jesus and his heritage (both Christian and Jewish) very seriously, we both gave the TV a lot more attention than usual on Friday nights.

Neither of us had done any research on The Young Pope, so we really didn’t know what to expect. Being an HBO show that was produced and released within the past year or so, we did not expect TYP to be another “Going My Way” (a sentimental 1944 movie about a Catholic priest played by Bing Crosby, with a follow up 1962 TV series with Gene Kelly). Actually though we were both probably hoping for something like  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:31 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, December 9, 2017
History ... Personal Reflections ... Religion ...

It’s just about time for the Winter Solstice. From now thru Dec. 12, the sun sets at 4:28 pm in my neck of the woods. The darkest day of the year is still two weeks away (Dec. 21), due to the fact that sunset and sunrise cycles are naturally out of synch. I.e., we reach the earliest sunset time this week, but the latest sunrise time doesn’t happen until the first week of January. Still, it’s the sunset time that affects me most, in terms of mood. These are the “darkest days” for me, the days that weigh most heavily upon the soul.

In keeping with that mood, let me quote a passage from Dag Hammarskjold, the former UN Secretary General from the 1950’s and early 1960s’s. Mr. Hammarskjold was a public figure, but he also had a deep spiritual life. So I am taking an entity from his book “Markings“, a collection of entries from of his own spiritual journal. Here is his entry for Oct. 12, 1958:

Day slowly bleeds to death
Through the wound made
When the sharp horizon’s edge
Ripped through the sky
Into its now empty veins
Seeps the darkness.
The corpse stiffens,
Embraced by the chill of night.

Over the dead one are lit
Some silent stars.

Ah yes, the silent stars twinkling throughout the long, cold night. Tiny sparks of hope in the long, vast, undefeatable blackness. It hurts all the more as I grow older. In the context of winter darkness and the fading light of the body (recall Dylan Thomas raging against the dying of the light), one can appreciate Christmas from a very different perspective in their later years. The usual childhood and young adult response to the holiday is the joy of getting and giving gifts, a time of gathering and celebration. But for an aging man at the start of winter,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:34 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, September 2, 2017
Religion ... Spirituality ... Zen ...

Many years ago, in a personal search for contemplative sanctity following a romantic break-up, I took up the study of Thomas Merton. Merton was a Trappist monk and author whose spiritual works became popular in the late 1940s, and remained a big part of the Roman Catholic book scene through the 50’s and 60’s. Merton’s life, and the many changes that both he and his thoughts and writings went through over the course of his life (which was ironically cut short at the age of 53 due to an accidental electrocution while attending a conference in Thailand), is a story in itself.

Merton began his adulthood as a well-educated “man of the world”, but then attempted to retreat from that world by immersing himself in the realm of Catholic monastic sanctity (he selected the Trappist tradition just because it seemed the most removed from erudite modernity). But ultimately he found his way back into the cosmopolitan intellectual scene, while remaining a full-fledged Trappist and Catholic priest (and also attempting to take on the life of a hermit!). When you become a Merton enthusiast (as I did) and really drill down into the details of his life, you can see that Merton needed to break a fair number of rules and guidelines in his tradition, and even his Church, in order to pull all of this off. When he died, he left the Trappists, the Church, and the world in general with a lot; but in order to do it, he also made a lot of compromises to his many commitments.

In the last decade of his life, Merton became increasingly interested in the Buddhist tradition, especially Zen Buddhism. His main contact and correspondent from the Zen world was the renowned Japanese Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki (although Merton had also communicated with Thich Nhat Hanh). Merton himself was a very capable scholar, and within a few years he felt himself qualified to write articles and books on Zen. His most famous work is “Zen and the Birds of Appetite” from 1968, although there is also a 1967 Merton book called “Mystics and Zen Masters” (I have read both books). In a nutshell, Merton was  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:21 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, May 22, 2017
Religion ... Zen ...

I’ve been involved with a Zen sangha for seven years now, and so I’ve pretty much seen the “lay of the land” of Buddhism, at least the modern American version of Buddhism. Buddhism says a lot of good and interesting things about life, the universe and everything. But there are some good things that it does not say. One of those things is the value of humility. For whatever reason, I have not read or hear much about the virtue of humility from the various Zen and Buddhist teachers I’ve run across. Humility doesn’t seem to get mentioned in the Buddha’s various “lists”, e.g. the three refuges, the four noble truths, the five faculties / strengths, the eight-fold path, the ten essential precepts, etc.

Even among the thirty seven “Practices of Bodhisattvas”, only one, #31, might relate to humility — “the practice of all the bodhisattvas is to scrutinize oneself continually and to rid oneself of faults whenever they appear”. Even this isn’t exactly very humble — it assumes that we can rid ourselves of our faults with a bit of Buddhist-style self-reflection. Yes, if you do some Googling, you can find articles on the role of humility within Buddhism. You can even find a blog post with the same title that I’m using here, sans the question mark — where the writer claims that Zen is a humble tradition because one of its “koan” stories admits that Zen is not really needed (in the sense that “we seek what we already have”). Given that there are allegedly about 1,700 koans, one line about “selling water by the river” does not a trend make.

There are also the various Buddhist rituals that seem to reflect personal humility, such as the frequent bowing that we Zen-folk do when trying to imitate our Japanese predecessors. But there is also some Japanese hubris that has filtered its way into modern Zen centers (including my own), such as the perceived need by teachers to be condescending and sometimes even rude with their students. Some groups even maintain the old Japanese tradition of having a priest walk with a stick  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:16 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, May 6, 2017
History ... Religion ...

My middle-age years were a time when I had become interested in various topics and personalities having to do with science, history, society and religious spirituality. Once I picked up such an interest, I would usually dig in by buying and (eventually) reading a handful of books, and maybe one or two Great Course audio/video lectures from the Teaching Company. When the Internet became widely available in the last few years of the 20th Century, I supplemented my research with web-site searches. I even occasionally found someone else who is also interested in the subject and exchange notes on it.

But after a few years, I usually moved on from a particular subject and took up another topic. One of the topics that I explored for awhile in the late 1990’s regarded James the “brother of Jesus”. I had previously become interested in the “Historical Jesus” movement of the early 1990’s, and had soaked up a fair amount of information on what the scholars knew or were speculating about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, along with the social, cultural and historical background of his home turf, i.e. ancient Palestine in the early Roman Empire. One of the major aims of historical Jesus research is to come up with a portrait of Jesus that is not inspired by any particular religious viewpoint, but instead “lets the chips fall where they may” by using standard historical and sociological research techniques.

(Unfortunately, too much of what was presented to the public as “historical” research on Jesus in the 1990s and 2000s was in fact driven by anti-religious motivation; there was an apparent desire to prove that Jesus had not only failed to perform miracles or rise from the dead, but that his teachings and motivations were not primarily religious or spiritual but were more philosophical or political. These views were hardly any more objective than the standard religious interpretations of Jesus. John Dominic Crossan was a notable  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:50 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, April 15, 2017
Photo ... Religion ... Spirituality ...

Although I haven’t been a practicing Catholic for many years now, and even though I disagree with the core belief of the Roman Church that

Jesus is the Son of God, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who became one of us to free us from sin and to bring us the fullness of God’s revelation . . . Jesus Christ is the Messiah, God’s anointed One, the Savior of the world . . .

there is still one Catholic ritual that I like to participate in. And that takes place once a year on Holy Thursday, the evening of the Thursday before Easter. To commemorate the Last Supper and the vigil of Jesus as he awaited the fatal kiss from Judas and the Temple Guards of the Sanhedrin, some of the local Catholic parishes keep their churches open late so that the faithful can sit in silence. My brother, a practicing Catholic, visits four or five local churches between 9 and 11 PM every Holy Thursday, and so I tag along.

Hey, I still believe in God (pretty much the same kind of God that Jesus believed in), but at this point in my life, sitting in silence each week with a Zen sangha works better for me. And even if I don’t worship Jesus as the Messiah and Savior, I still find him to be a hugely compelling figure who should be taken very seriously. Most of the time, I take Jesus seriously by reading and learning as much as I can about his life and times. Over the past 15 years I’ve digested a lot of books, articles and programs from the “historical Jesus” movement in academia; my “Lenten project” for this year was an audio course by The Teaching Company entitled “Jesus and His Jewish Influences” by Prof. Jodi Magness, an archaeologist with extensive field experience in Israel.

But once a year it’s nice to actually participate in a Jesus-focused ritual with others, and there’s nothing that the good Catholics that I sit in silence with on Holy Thursday do or say that I would disagree with. We would certainly disagree regarding the ultimate implications of what happened on that Passover evening of two millennia ago in Jerusalem, but we all accept  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:15 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, November 19, 2016
Art & Entertainment ... Religion ...

I haven’t been posting much lately because of some personal stuff, including various on-going discussions with several thoughtful people regarding the surprise election victory earlier this month of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. I’ll no doubt have a lot to say about that before long, but for now, I’m going to avoid the amateur punditry and leave it to the professionals. Albeit, I think that every concerned American citizen ultimately has to become their own pundit and take a position on the major issues of the day.

But right now, I’m going to ponder a new rock song that I’ve been hearing lately on the local hard rock radio station (WDHA-FM). It’s called “Prayers for the Damned” by Sixx AM, from their recently released album “Prayers for the Damned”. Sixx AM did a bit of a double-play with regard to naming there, although not quite a triple play like Bad Company’s Bad Company, from the album Bad Company. Political footnote — “Prayers for the Damned” might not be a bad theme right now for those who dread the idea of a Trump Presidency!

Nonetheless, for those of you who still follow hard rock, Sixx AM is a side-project band formed in 2007 by Nikki Sixx, the former base guitarist and songwriter for Motley Crue. Ah yes, “the Crue”. Now there was a rough-edged band, all about all the excesses and depravity of the rock-n-roll scene back when rock was still the king of the music scene. They were kind-of a Neanderthal version of Kiss. Sixx provided or contributed to some of the Crue’s more memorable tunes, including “Girls Girls Girls”,”Doctor Feelgood”, “Wild Side”, and “Slice of Your Pie”.

Like a fair number of rock stars, Nikki Sixx got hooked on heroin but somehow kept going via raw ego, youthful energy, and luck. But now Motley Crue is gone and Sixx is 58 years old, and rock life from the “big-hair” 1980’s just doesn’t work anymore. A lot of old rockers clean up, slow down, fade away from the public eye, do some occasional music projects mostly for fun, maybe write a book or buy a winery, and make an occasional appearance before a small audience of aging people who remember a band from its glory years. Well, give Sixx credit — his current work is still  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:26 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Religion ... Society ... Spirituality ... Technology ...

I recently posted a blog about an article that I came across via Real Clear Science regarding whether the human race could become extinct in the foreseeable future. Now I want to ponder another recent article from Real Clear Science regarding extinction. This time the question is whether religion is on the way to becoming extinct, courtesy of the wonders of modern science. The article was written by RCS editor Ross Pomeroy, a zoologist and biologist. OK, with those credentials, you can assume that Pomeroy knows a thing or two about extinction, and about the wonders of science. But is he right that science will inevitably become humankind’s new religion? To me, this smacks of “scientism“, which I have already expressed my reservations about.

Pomeroy claims that science will become the new “faith of humankind”. He notes the writings of Sir James George Frazer, who said that religion, science, and magic are similar conceptions, providing a framework for how the world works and guiding our actions. Frazer said that humanity moved through an Age of Magic before entering an Age of Religion. So, Pomeroy asks, “is an Age of Science finally taking hold?” At the end of his article, he concludes that

One of science’s primary aims is to seek out knowledge that will hopefully better our world and the lives of all who live on it . . . so not only does science dispel religious belief, it also serves as an effective substitute for it.

Given that Pomeroy is a scientist himself, we expect that he will provide empirical evidence to support his claim. And indeed, he does offer some interesting statistics  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:44 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
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