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Archive for September, 2010

While process theology has a technical language all its own.   It is  a language worth learning because of its applicability to every day circumstances.  For example, an otherwise well mannered boy on the verge of becoming a teenager has an afternoon meltdown when his parents ask him if he has completed his chores.  Not only has he not completed his chores, he is ranting about how little freedom he has and how suspicious his parents are of him.  In order to communicate all these things, he employs a sarcastic tone and tears.  How could this otherwise discouraging and seemingly futile situation be understood as a hopeful one?    With the help of process theology.  First a brief definition of terms:

  1. Enjoyment, in process thought, describes the process of realizing that each individual is one among many and that individuals arise uniquely out of the many.  Enjoyment is not so much associated with pleasure as it is with a sense of becoming in the world.
  2. Intensity is dependant upon complexity where a variety of contrasting things are brought together into a moment or experience.
  3. Harmony is characterized by individuals or circumstances that do not clash strongly with our previous experiences or understandings.
  4. Creative self determination is the process by which individuals participate in creating themselves out the material that has been given to it in the past. 

So, on the verge of adulthood, a young man, in order to enjoy himself more fully, challenges the harmony of his household.  He constructs some intensity through tears and sarcasm in order to say to the world “hey, I am not just along for the ride!  I do not want to just be told!  I want to participate in the creation that God started.”   In short, he uses the afternoon to practice taking part in his own creative process.   After the catharsis, he comes to his parents and apologizes and delivers the evening’s harmony.

 All of this might be a great frustration to his parents, if it were not so thrilling to be reminded that no child is born just once.

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This book, Razing Hell:  Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about God’s Wrath and Judgment, will be reviewed Tuesday evenings in October 2010  from 6:00 – 7:00 at the First Presbyterian Church of Osawatomie.  Check out thoughts here first!   Residents of Osawatomie come join us as we reconsider what it means to please God and God as a punisher.  Who knows?  It might help us with our own anger issues and frustrations!

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In chapter 14 of The Spirit Level:  Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger the authors imagine a society that moves beyond any dysfunction set in motion by inequality.  They imagine a more equal society that seems possible because of discoveries in the areas of interpersonal human relationships, bonobos and chimps as well as brain research.  A summary of those discoveries  is provided here:

1.   The Ultimatum Game

“The ultimatum game is an economic experiment in which volunteers are randomly paired and remain anonymous to one another.  A known sum of money is given to the ‘proposer’ who then divides it as he or she pleases with the ‘responder’.  All the responders do is merely accept or reject the offer.  If rejected, neighter partner gets anything, but if it is accepted, they each keep the shares of money offered.  They play the game only once, so there i sno point in rejecting a small offer to try to force the proposer to be more generous next time – they know there isn’t going to be a next time.  in this situation, self-interested responders should accept any offer, however derisory, and self-interested proposers should offer the smallest positive amount, just enought to ensure that a responder accepts it.

Although experiments show that this is exactly how chimpanzees behave, it is not what happens among human beings.  In practice the average offer made by people in developed societies is usually between 43 and 48 per cent, with 50 per cent as the most common offer.  At direct cost to ourselves, we come close to sharing equally even when people we never meet and will never interact with again. 

Responders tend to reject offers below about 20 per cent.  Rejected offers are money which the responder chooses to lose in order to punish the proposer and prevent them from benefiting from making a  mean offer.  The human desire to punish even at some personal cost has been called ‘altruistic punishment’, and it plays an important role in reinforcing co-operative behavior and preventing people from freeloading . …  The egalitarian preferences people reveal in the ultimatum game seem to fly in the face of the actual inequalities in our societies.” (199-200)

2.  Bonobos and Chimpanzees

“Around six or seven million years ago the branch of evolutionary tree from which we have emerged split from that which led to two different species of ape:  chimpanzees and bonobos.  Genetically we are equally closely related to both of them, yet there are striking differences in their social behavior and they illustrate sharply constrasting ways of solving the Hobbesian problem of the potential for conflict over scarce resources” (200-201).  Chimpanzees are known for agression and dominance.  Bonobos are known for love making and equality.  The authors take special care to note that the section of DNA responsible for social, sexual and parenting behavior differs in bonobos and chimps.  Human beings have that section of DNA in common with the bonobo. 

3.  Mirror Neurons

These are another example of the way that human beings are deeply social beings.  “When we watch someone doing something, mirror neurons in our brains fire as if to produce the same actions.” (210)  In other words the individual observing as brain function as if they themselves were doing the action.   The brain is hardwired for empathy. 

If the authors are correct and the US is struggling from dysfunctions brought on by inequality, there is a niche for the church to lead a response.   Since Jesus’ life and ministry the heart of the church is a social experiment for individuals to understand their preciousness and worth in the eyes of God. Imagine the church becoming a Jesus-like investigator into the issues of equality in  local communities….you couldn’t drive redevelopment away! 

 

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Chapters 11 and 12 of the Spirit level conclude part II which focuses on the costs of inequality.   Not surprisingly the authors argue a  a correlation between imprisonment and inequality.  Their research extends from the prisons themselves to the public opinion about prisons.  

1.  Criminologists, Blumstein and Beck have examined the growth of US prison populations.  Only 12 percent of the growth in state prisoners between 1980 and 1996 could be put down to increases in criminal offending…The other 88 percent of increased imprisonment was due to the increasing likelihood that convicted criminals were sent to prison rather than being given non-custodial sentences.  (147)

2.  More unequal states are likely to retain the death penalty.

3.  Prisoner treatment is more human in countries with greater equality.  In the Netherlands, a grouop of lawyers, criminologists and psychiatrists came together to influence the prison system and were committed that offenders must be treated as fellow human beings who are capable of responding to insights and treatments.  (151).  The communal and optimistic prisons of Japan are compared to the supermax prisons of the US where criminals are put in isolation, “which has been condemned by the United Nations Committee on Torture.” (152)

4.  Imprisonment in unequal countries was often driven by a “growing fear of crime and a loss of confidence in the criminal justice system which made the general public more favorable toward harsh criminal justice policies.” (156)

When in Matthew 25:31-46, God’s people are lauded for their attention to the hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick and imprisoned, sure the church has a responsibility to not just visit but to consider how the prison population accumulates and how we participate in the public attitude about prisoners, punishment,sentencing and a return to society.  Wilkinson and Pickett give us clues for our work and ministry. 

In Chapter 12, the authors argue that income inequality tends to yeild societies with restricted social mobility.  Interesting facts include:

1.  Between 1950 and 1980 – social mobility declined rapidly as income differences widened dramatically. 

2.  Education, often understood as primary means to social mobility, was allocated for more generously (97.8%) out of public funds in more equal countries.  In more unequal countries like the United States, the allocation was closer to (68.2%).

3. Since the 1970s inequality has increased in the USA.  Geographical segregation of the rich and poor has also been on the rise.   Paul Jargowsky cites the US Census data showing that the concentration of poverty increased between 1970-1990.  

How do unequal societies , characterized by geographic segregation of classes and lower social mobility reinforce these trends?  The authors cite the “downward social prejudice” whereby working class people “view their failures to get on in the world as a result of their own inadequacies, resulting in feelings of hostility, resentment and shame.” (165).  In this way, snobbery is cited as a method for restraining people’s opportunity and well-being.   The ripple effect of this may have profound impact upon a society. 

As these downward prejudices increase, individuals who live on the lower rungs of the social ladder displace their aggression to individuals who are yet of even lower status.  “When people react to a provocation from someone with higher status by redictring their aggression to someone of lower status psychologists label it displaced aggression(166).   In the animal kingdoms, displaced aggression is known as the bicycling reaction.  “…the image being conjured up is of someone on a racing bicycle, bowing to their superiors, while kicking down on those beneath.” (168). 

As we pastors study the stories of healing within the New Testament gospels, many of us are aware of that in the ancient world the individual’s human body was symbolic of the larger social body.  Pickett and Wilkerson provide us an application of this theory in their research.  Citing research in the areas of heart disease, low birth weight and schizophrenia, the authors suggest that  intense preoccupation with dominance and social rigidity in unequal socieites may take a great toll on physical health of individuals who choose to strive against  the pressure in order to have greater social mobility.  “…the psychological effects of stigma are sometimes strong enough to override the health benefits of material advantage…”(169). 

Surely the church as an institution known for its class distinctions must reconcile itself to God by diminishing our own culture of inequality (whispers about flip flops and shorts as sanctuary attire) in order to provide a healthier environment in which our parishioners can receive and respond to God’s call upon their lives.

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The United States Government has made it clear that the extreme intent of Rev. Terry Jones and his Florida congregation, Dove World Outreach Center in Gainsville,  to burn the Qur’an could ignite extremist reaction overseas and put American troops in harm’s way.  What is most fascinating about this media focus is not that someone wants to do something sensational.    Sensationalism seems to be a common method of gaining attention amid all the information options today.  What is fascinating is to speculate around the edges of the Florida frenzy.  If one congregation has the power to aggravate  a matter of global concern with a rather trivial and defensive response, could it not also be possible that  congregations with a measure of creativity and critical thinking could contribute to guiding a mature attitude and response to a global concern?   Maturity of faith can provide an alternative to the depraved understanding of creation (i.e. we can destroy to a sort of ex-nihilo sort of place and start over) that keeps us competing and reacting to one another as exampled by Jones and his congregation.

Process theology  offers an understanding of creation that challenges congregations to see and receive the world as it is.   We cannot argue that the world sometimes presents in a chaotic and disorganized way, but that does not mean that God is not at work in it… that God is not luring our life and faith forward using that chaos and disorder.  Calling upon God’s wisdom and insight, local congregations can draw the chaotic and trivial toward something more intense and enriching.  Far from trying to annihilate competitors, congregations should be, in part, think tanks for the world’s most incongruent realities and find practical ways to a make a response.   The question of how world religions are to understand one another has too long been an academic pursuit.  It is now chaotic and depraved enough that it needs to be a pursuit of faith’s front line.   If local congregations spent some time thinking about the intersections of world religions and how to provide an intelligent, meaningful and practical response for their people we may have to agitate some of our assumptions and defenses but we would not be aggravating the tenuous world situation.    True collaboration with God does not allow for coercion and easy catharsis.

Process theology understands that Jesus is the exemplar of non-coercive power.  Equally, process theology understands that as Jesus drew together the contrasts of his life experience (temple-household / nature-culture/ law-relationship), so his message became ultimate in its persuasion.    Attending to contrasts local congregations can be the locations for individuals to transition from previous understandings and practices toward the understandings and practices that God calls us through the chaotic clues of this world and all the people in it.  Now there is some heat worth producing and enduring.

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