Friday, May 30, 2008

Arabs think Israeli PM Olmert is a fool

But not because he's Jewish, Zionist or anything like that. It's because Olmert is only a little corrupt. Israeli-Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh writes in the Jeruslaem Post of some of the reactions across the Arab world to the intensifying pressures on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign because of corruption charges.

Among other things, Olmert is accused of accepting $150,000 in bribes from an American over a 14-year period, which Mr. Toameh said evoked this response from foreign Arabs.
"They say he received something like $3,000 a year," said Abu Atab from Morocco inaccurately. "This shows that Olmert is a decent man. This is a small sum that any Arab government official would receive on a daily basis as a bribe. Our leaders steal millions of dollars and no one dares to hold them accountable."

Touching on the same issue, a reader from Algeria posted this comment: "In the Arab world, our leaders don't accept less than $1 million in bribes; the money must be deposited in secret bank accounts in Switzerland. Olmert is a fool if he took only a small sum."

Another comment, this time from Ahmed in Jordan, also referred to the alleged amount: "Only a few thousand dollars? What a fool! This is what an Egyptian minister gets in a day or what a Saudi CEO gets in 45 minutes, or a Kuwaiti government official in five minutes. This is what the physician of the emir of Qatar gets every 30 seconds."
However, there was strong praise for Israel from Arabs who admitted they hated the Jewish state and all it stands for, except this:
A Saudi national named Abdel Karim urged his Arab brethren to stop criticizing Israel and learn something about its democracy. "Before we curse Israel, we must learn from the democratic and judicial system in Israel, where no one is above the law," he wrote.

Khaled, another Saudi national, chimed in: "Although we are talking about Israel, which I have always hated very much, there is still no one above the law there."

Mahmoud al-Bakili of Yemen posted the following response on one of the Web sites: "We want this kind of accountability and transparency in the Arab and Islamic world."

And there was this comment from an Arab who described himself as a Syrian Voice: "Despite my strong hatred for the Zionist regime, I have a lot of admiration and respect for this entity because there is no one above the law. In the Arab world, laws are broken every day and no one seems to care."
One Arab reader offered some advice to Olmert:
One Arab commentator who identified himself as Jasser Abdel Hamid advised Olmert to seek citizenship of one of the Arab countries. "Why don't you seek Arab citizenship?" he asked sarcastically. "There you can take as much money as you want. Even if they discover the theft, they will erect a statue for you in a public square."
Finally, Rashid Bohairi in Kuwait asked a very good question: "What about the millions of dollars that Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority stole? How come the Palestinian people are still hungry?"

Well, yes. Even the Palestinian Authority admitted that Yasir Arafat stole them blind, but then its post-Arafat leaders went right on doing the same thing.

BTW, along with 11 others in my group, I met and talked with journalist Toameh in Israel last October.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Environmentalist Religion Explained

Freeman Dyson:
There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. [From, "The Question of Global Warming."]
Freeman Dyson is one of the most highly-regarded physicists in the world. Wikipedia introduces its entry on him thus
Freeman John Dyson FRS (born December 15, 1923) is an English-born American theoretical physicist and mathematician, famous for his work in quantum mechanics, solid-state physics, and nuclear engineering. He is a lifelong opponent of nationalism and a proponent of nuclear disarmament and international cooperation. Dyson is a member of the Board of Sponsors of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
A true intellectual heavyweight, his essay in the New York Review of Books this month is a very important analysis that I urge you to read in full. Dyson is not the first to point out that environmentalism has morphed into an actual religion in its own right. Michael Crichton and J.R. Dunn have written highly insightful essays about how environmentalism is a religion in its own right. See “Environmentalism as Religion” by Crichton and Dunn’s piece, “A Necessary Apocalypse," in which he shows how global-warming environmentalism is not merely a religion, it is an apocalyptic religion. Its deity is Mother Earth (Gaia), for whom human beings are mortal enemies. NBC’s Matt Lauer inadvertently gave away Gaiaism’s central article of faith thus:
Earth’s intricate web of ecosystems thrived for millions of years as natural paradises, until we came along, paved paradise, and put up a parking lot. Our assault on nature is killing off the very things we depend on for our own lives … The stark reality is that there are simply too many of us, and we consume way too much, especially here at home.
My second son was required to take ecology his junior year in high school; he related to me that the curriculum basically said there was nothing wrong with earth that the disappearance of humanity wouldn’t cure. Jonah Goldberg wrote recently of the "Church of Green."
"At its core, environmentalism is a kind of nature worship. It’s a holistic ideology, shot through with religious sentiment. ...

Environmentalism’s most renewable resources are fear, guilt, and moral bullying. Its worldview casts man as a sinful creature who, through the pursuit of forbidden knowledge, abandoned our Edenic past. John Muir, who laid the philosophical foundations of modern environmentalism, described humans as “selfish, conceited creatures.” Salvation comes from shedding our sins, rejecting our addictions (to oil, consumerism, etc.) and demonstrating an all-encompassing love of Mother Earth. Quoth Al Gore: “The climate crisis is not a political issue; it is a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity.”

I heard Gore on NPR recently. He was asked about evangelical pastor Joseph Hagee’s absurd comment that Hurricane Katrina was God’s wrath for New Orleans’s sexual depravity. Naturally, Gore chuckled at such backwardness. But then the Nobel laureate went on to blame Katrina on man’s energy sinfulness. It struck me that the two men are not so different.
As Crichton pointed out, "environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths." Let me elucidate.

There are other religions than Judaism and Christianity, of course, but modern environmentalism was born in the West, whose cultural heritage and common languages are steeped through and through in Christian tradition, which was itself a daughter of Judaism.

The common themes of both scriptural Judaism and Christianity deal with deity, the natural world (existing first in a purity state), a corruption of the purity state (Augustine: "fall from grace,"), redemption and liberation/salvation. Then follows paradise. A prominent, though not universal, strain in both Judaism and Christianity is a looming apocalypse that in potential or in fact destroys enormous swaths of humanity.

Modern environmentalism has all these elements, with an emphasis on apocalypticism. I'll examine these religious elements in turn.

Deity: That would be the earth itself. "Mother Earth" is a term tossed about among the religion's adherents, thus personalizing what is really only a gazillion-ton hunk of rock. Personalization of the planet is necessary to deify it. Adherents often call this new deity, “Gaia,” the name of an ancient Greek earth goddess. The Gaia hypothesis was first proposed by NASA scientist James Lovelock, who introduced it thus:

What is the hypothesis of Gaia ? Stated simply, the idea is that we may have discovered a living being bigger, more ancient, and more complex than anything from our wildest dreams. That being, called Gaia, is the Earth.
The most important tenet of Gaiaism is that the earth is itself alive and is a being in its own right.

Creation: Environmentalism offerns no real theory of how the earth came to be, it focuses on the biosphere. In that manner it does echo the Jewish Scriptures, once removed. The Scriptures do inquire how the earth came to be, but not how God came to be. But since Gaia is god(dess), she simply is in the same way God simply is.

As for the appearance of life, environmentalism drops the Bible's creation stories and substitutes evolution. Now, I am not arguing here against the theory of evolution. I am simply pointing out that evolution theory is environmentalism's explanation of life on earth and its diversity. The earth's biodiversity is extremely important for environmentalism, since evolution-driven biodiversity undergirds the apocalypticism of religious environmentalism. The apocalypse of "climate change" is predicted to destroy the evolutionary niches of various species. They won't be able to adapt.

The Purity State: Take your pick:

  • Gaia before the appearance of human beings or,
  • Gaia after we showed up, but before we invented civilization. (The anti-civilization theme is present in the Hebrew Scriptures, too.) This aspect romanticizes pre-civilizational peoples, often portraying them as gentle souls "living in harmony" with nature and imagining that they worshiped the earth, too, which in fact some did. (However, this notion is rebutted by contemporary researchers.)
The Corruption of (or Fall from) Purity: This is easily defined. It was the invention of the internal-combustion engine and the use of fossil fuels that followed. Burning coal also. More broadly, though, the Fall is consumerism and international industry, especially chemical industries.

Redemption: There is no savior per se in environmentalism. We have to save ourselves. Environmentalism relies on cultic leaders to guide the masses and give enlightenment to them. Like the Law of Moses, their commandments are to be obeyed from faith rather than inquiry: recycle, drive less, eat organics, drive hybrids, etc.

Paradise: Sorry, environmentalism offers not. There is no longing for "life more abundant," since abundancy is exactly what environmentalism uses for original sin. Instead of paradise, environmentalism promotes stasis. Folks my age and maybe a little younger can remember when the Environmental Apocaplypse was not global warming but global cooling. So let us suppose two things: first that global warming really is occurring and human attention to it can reverse it, and second, that we do reverse it. Are we then to agree that a cooler earth really is in our best interests? Why? I’ve always kind of suspected that underlying much of environmentalism is a desire for the impossible: stasis.

Moreover, environmental stasis can be accomplished only by human austerity. Environmentalism's New Jerusalem is not prosperity, but decline, presented as a return to humanity's purity state: the simple life arranged around a village-type lifestyle where everything is within walking distance of everything else. Who else but George Monbiot to explain
Everything we thought was good turns out also to be bad. It is an act of kindness to travel to your cousin's wedding. Now it is also an act of cruelty. It is a good thing to light the streets at night. Climate change tells us it kills more people than it saves. We are killing people by the most innocent means: turning on the lights, taking a bath, driving to work, going on holiday. Climate change demands a reversal of our moral compass, for which we are plainly unprepared.
Apocalypticism: Like religious apocalypticism, environmental apocalypticism - in fact, the whole movement - is predicated on the imminent, substantial destruction of the natural world and its inhabitants. This from no less a personage than United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who just five months ago said that "humanity faces oblivion if it fails to confront global warming." Oblivion, he said. Rising seas, expanding droughts, melting sea ice, increased desertification, scorched crops, mass human suffering and death - all inhabit the same enviro-religious space as Revelation's horsemen of the apocalypse.

Important in Jewish and Christian apocalypticism was the concept of "children of light" versus the "children of darkness." The children of darkness were those who rebelled against God, who turned away from righteousness and embodied evil. Children of light were those who apprehended the truth of God and cleaved toward spiritual purity. This notion has been adopted wholesale by environmentalism. Dyson again: 

Scientists and economists can agree with Buddhist monks and Christian activists that ruthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The worldwide community of environmentalists—most of whom are not scientists—holds the moral high ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future.
Catch that? This is a clear delineation of the realm of light and of darkness, and whom inhabits each. "The worldwide community of environmentalists ... holds the moral high ground," and thus are the children of light. Who are the children of darkness? They are the "evil" ones who conduct or permit the "ruthless destruction of natural habitats." Dyson continues,
Unfortunately, some members of the environmental movement have also adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet. ... Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment.
(Italics added.) "Enemy of the environment" = child of darkness. (Dyson does not himself promote such a belief, but certainly it is out there.)

Another tenet of religious apocalypticism is that things will get worse before they get better. And so it is with environmentalist apocalypticism. No matter what we do now, greenhouse gases, and therefore climate change, will intensify until at least mid-century, and only then might be abated.

Still skeptical that environmentalism is a religion in its own right? In The Beast in the Garden, David Baron tells of a young man named Scott Lancaster, 18, who was killed and eaten by a mountain lion.

Scott’s friends and family consoled themselves that his death, sad and untimely though it was, had somehow been kind of fitting for him. As James Valdez put it, "He was a real outdoorsy guy."

"It felt natural," said Abby Heller. "It felt like it was part of nature, and part of the way the cycle happens. It seemed kind of pure."
It was "natural," part of the pure cycle of life for a young man to suffer a gruesome, horrifying, massively painful death by means of the "red in tooth and claw" of one of Gaia's creatures. And so the case that environmentalism is a religion in its own right is hereby closed.

But there is more than mere religiousity at work in religious environmentalism. H.L. Mencken observed, "The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule it." And that is the true foundation of environmentalism today: the desire of its gurus to regulate the way others live. Monbiot again:

We can deal with climate change only with the help of governments, restraining the exertions of our natural liberties.
Dyson wrote that, "Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion." I demur. Environmentalism has not replaced socialism at all. Instead, the old-line socialists, faced with decades of the failure of political socialism, have jumped on the environmentalist bandwagon to keep socialism alive. Environmentalism has become a much better vehicle to achieve a rigid regulation of people's lives than political socialism ever was. After all, the fate of the entire planet is at stake! Environmentalism has already led some British members of Parliament to propose that the government regulate almost every aspect of buying and selling by private individuals. If this is not socialism, it is a distinction without a difference. 

(A correspondent of mine observed that environmentalist religion is attractive to people who define who they are by their habits and patterns of consumption and spending. The rituals of environmentalism -- recycling, using low-wattage lights and all the rest -- are the way they buy indulgences to offset their sins of conspicuous consumption, which they do not in fact lessen. They've just found a way to feel less guilty.) 

At bottom, modern environmentalism has discarded scientific rigor to embrace something not much different than Leninism, the desire to control the major components of the way individuals live. From there it is a short step for environmentalism to Leninism's successor: Stalinism, the desire to control every aspect of the way we live. That's our future, minus the gulags. We hope.

This seems an apt time to quote the old liberals' bumper sticker: "If you're not outraged, you are not paying attention."

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Read and read again

I still think that Christopher Hitchens' 2006 Memorial Day essay is one of the finest I have ever read. Read the whole thing.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

How to stop doing what you think you ought to do . . .

... and do what you want to do.

It is easy for us to forget that the church is supposed to be a supernatural institution. The New Testament teaches repeatedly that churches are to be inspired and led by the Holy Spirit. And it was to remind the church in Corinth, Greece, of that fact that concerned Paul for a good part of his first letter to them.

1 Corinthians 12:1, 4-11:

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. ... Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth offers guidance, advice and correction of theological errors. One thin he emphasized was how the members of a church, though many, comprise only one body of believers. He put it this way:
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body ... and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
So since then we of the church call ourselves the body of Christ – I say this all the time. Like our individual bodies, we may think of the church as a living organism. As a church we breathe both ordinary air of the atmosphere and the spirit of the Lord.

Here are a couple of illustrations of how the church is made up of individual members comprising one body.

Geese fly in V-formation as they migrate. Research revealed that this formation is very aerodynamically efficient for them. Each goose except the lead goose is aided by the turbulent air ahead that is created by flapping wings, just as NASCAR drivers try to “draft” cars ahead of them.

As a whole, the V-formation is a lot like the swept wing of a jet plane. In formation, the geese can fly nonstop a distance two-thirds greater than one goose can fly alone. Common direction and purpose makes for easier trips, less fatigue and faster arrivals.

The lead goose has the toughest job. That’s why the lead changes every so often. That made me think of the Methodist practice of no one occupying any office permanently. It’s a good idea not to have permanent occupiers of church offices.
For geese, the greater body is a formation, and they are all members of one formation.

In New York city the renowned Orpheus Chamber Orchestra does not use a conductor. The orchestra developed a process called, naturally enough, the Orpheus Process, “built on individual responsibility, shared leadership and workplace democracy."

The orchestra achieves excellence through team building and collaboration. For concerts, “an elected committee of musicians selects a concertmaster and each instrumental section chooses a representative.” This core group determines how to play and interpret the music and the structure for rehearsals. Then the whole orchestra begins to rehearse. This method provides leadership and ensures that every member has a stake in the outcome of each performance. Businesses, colleges, non-profit and public-sector organizations have adapted this model.

Their body is the orchestra. The Orpheus process works because each member is both individually and collectively responsible. Everyone participates. No one shirks.
John Wesley wrote, “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit - Divers streams, but all from one fountain.” The essential character of the church can rightly spring only from one source: the Spirit of the Holy God, the grace of Jesus Christ. And Paul adds, the gifts of God to the members of the church by which the church is empowered to be the body of Christ. We “are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

So far so good, but then Paul starts talking about God’s appointment of apostles, prophets, teachers, gifts of healing and other things. And this teaching often throws people for a loop. There’s a saying I heard once, “God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called.” That’s where spiritual gifts come in. They are how God qualifies Christ’s disciples to flower as members of the Christ’s body, the church.

God’s grace is given to us that we may be saved. Spiritual gifts are given us that we may help save others. That is what a church is for. We are to live as disciples of Jesus Christ and lead others to become disciples. By grace we are disciples, by God’s gifts we lead others to discipleship.

Spiritual gifts are abilities that God gives his people by the Spirit to enable them fully to be his disciples. Cathy and I attended a weekend workshop in 1989 where we discerned our spiritual gifts. It turned out to be our first step in the journey that led us to be called by God into the ministry. So for us, discovering our spiritual gifts was literally life changing.

Paul mentions apostles, prophets and teachers, among other gifts. An apostle is one who has the spiritual power to adhere to the personality of Christ in such a way as to wield spiritual authority and oversight of groups in other places to extend the Gospel to new people, places and circumstances.

Prophets are those who have the spiritual power to make contemporary connections between biblical truths and God’s will for today’s living, and to manifest or reveal God’s word for Christian living in this time and place.

Teachers are those who have been gifted with the ability to discern, analyze and deliver spiritual and biblical truths in such a way that others hear and learn the clear calling of God to righteous living.

Paul also discussed speaking in tongues, which is what the Corinthians focused on too strongly. Tongues, or praise language, is the ability to praise God with utterances not familiar as a known language, and with such a joy-filled intimacy with Christ that the church’s faith is strengthened.

There are at least 32 spiritual gifts identified in the Bible, so a full discussion of gifts can’t be done in one sermon. Discovering one’s spiritual gifts is one of the most liberating experiences a Christian can have. It sets you free from doing what you think you “ought” to do to doing what you want to do. Martin Luther said, “Love God and do what you want.” Using the gifts is the way to do so.

Churches that ignore the gifts may survive, but they will never thrive as God intends unless they study and use the gifts. For members to devote themselves to discovering their gifts makes the usual worries churches have almost irrelevant. Churches worry about things like money, whether they are too small or too big, who will teach Sunday school, who will serve on various committees – all kinds of peripheral junk like that. Churches whose members know and use their gifts still have to deal with such issues, but they do so far more easily and without worry.

John Wesley began his conferences with a simple question: "How may we best improve the time of this Conference?" The answer: "While we are conversing, let us have an especial care to set God always before us." Wesley's vision for the people called Methodists was "to reform the nation, and to spread scriptural holiness across the land."

By remaining focused on this fundamental Christian duty, we will avoid what Methodist minister and seminary professor David Lowes Watson called,
... a common mistake in the life and work of the church. ... We join the church as a community of those who receive new life in Christ, by grace through faith, and who seek to grow in that grace as faithful disciples. But all too often we find ourselves distracted by a range of activities that focus on the life of the congregation rather than the commandment of Christ to be his witnesses in the world. Instead of growing as disciples, we find ourselves enveloped by church programs...
The danger is that we start and continue programs that serve our own interests first, rather than the work of Christ.

How is the Holy Spirit leading us? There is more than one way to discern it: Bible study, prayer, worship, devotional. But the key way is to study and discern the spiritual gifts God gives each believer.

Do you want to know what God wants you personally to do? Then study the spiritual gifts and discover the ones God has gifted to you. It is so simple as that.

In spiritually thriving churches, many ministries and programs come and go as the Spirit leads the spiritual formation and re-formation of the church. One of the warning signs that a church suffers from what Samuel Chadwick called human management rather than God-government is that programs and ministries are done this year simply because they were done last year, and the year before that and the year before that, and so on.

We will never thrive with top-down leadership, where the pastor and committees decide what the ministries of the church will be, then nominate and elect members to carry them out. We will thrive with ministries that emerge from Spirit-led disciples who are mostly self-organizing.

When churches lose contact with the Spirit, they become church factories, where newcomers are evaluated on how they help the church continue to do what it has always done. Spirit-led churches don’t do that. We understand our enduring goal to be to help people grow into Spirit-led builders of transformed homes and communities. We know that the church is not a fortress for the saved, but a base of operations from which scriptural holiness may grow across the community.

How is that done? The prophet Zechariah explained, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”

See also:

Chapter 12 of 1st Corinthians (click here)

The UMC's own web site devoted to the gifts (click here),'s web page on the gifts (click here)