Author Archive: gregbentall

The surefire formula for economic recovery


divided world

There is a simple and guaranteed way to grow the economy in such a way that it truly lifts all boats, providing increased wealth for rich and poor alike.

1) Increase the size and purchasing power of the middle class: Our economy 70% driven by consumer spending. As the middle class sees an increase in purchasing power they end up buying new tires, refrigerators, and clothing. They are more apt to go out to dinner, a movie, or to take a vacation. This puts more money in circulation and creates increased economic activity. Henry Ford knew that he needed to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars that they build.

2) Expand the size of the working class: This means more people with money to spend. This comes from an increase in minimum wage, making food stamps more available. The economic impact of an extra dollar in food stamps issued creates an additional $1.50 in economic activity. By contrast, an extra dollar spent on giving tax breaks to the already wealthy generates only $0.30 in increased economic activity.

3) Spend money on infrastructure projects: In the 1950’s President Eisenhower brought the concept of the German autobahns to America. This boom in construction spending and infrastructure enhancement launched a tremendous growth spurt that lasted for decades. Imaging where we would be without our Interstate highway system. Now our roads, bridges, levies, public buildings, harbors and airports are becoming more and more outdated and run down. Countries like South Korea are way ahead of us in such measures as high speed Internet, ship building facilities, and much more. Can we really afford to become a third-rate economic power?

4) Invest in basic research. The Large Hadron Collider in Europe is the “moon shot” of the 21st Century. Why did we not do this? The reason is simply that Congress refused to provide the funding. The US lead space race in the 1960’s lead to the birth of the computer-cell phone-GPS-Internet culture that has transformed our world. This technological revolution is perhaps even more profound in human history than the creation of writing or the invention of the printing press.

5) Educate our people: One of the great advances of the US was our free public education system. Now we are cutting funds for education at all levels, and strangling college students with unbearable debt loads. It is tragic that we now have more prisons than colleges. Education is not an extravagance but an investment in our nation’s future. What is education except our investment in our human capital? Education is more than just schools and colleges. It is also early childhood education, adult classes, PBS and NPR, libraries, and museums. It is observatories and planetariums (or planetaria for Latin scholars). It is symphonies and ballet companies and live theater. Education is a life-long endeavor without bounds.

Confessions of a former church-goer


Troubled Church

I have become disillusioned with the Church. The right-wing churches preach ignorance, bigotry, hatred, and fanaticism. Each right-wing sect seems to have its own version of religious supremacy, claiming that God belongs to them alone. The progressive churches seem not to oppose the religious bigotry of the right-wing churches. Perhaps they are too worried about being “nice.”

Why is the progressive voice so silent? The progressive churches seem to have lost their message. They seem to have nothing worth preaching. I long for a progressive voice in the church that offers a faith worth living. I long for a progressive voice to match the great work of Rick Warren and his concept of a “Purpose Driven Life.”

But I cannot find anything close. That is why I have decided to take a sabbatical from church attendance, but not from religious commitment or spiritual discipline.

To my progressive colleagues in ministry I would ask, “What do you have that is worth preaching? How can you lead your congregation to a faith worth living? How do we share God’s love and the joy of the gospel with the world (Pope Francis’ Gaudete Evangelium)?” If I just want to spend an hour getting entertained and feeling good I can stay home and watch Animal Planet.

I have attended church religiously from since I was a small child until I hit age 61. During that time I attended church on average at least 50 times per year. In 1977 I became an ordained minister (I still am), and served the church as a pastor and then sixteen years as a regional church administrator handling finances across multi-state regions of a major denomination. I say this to support what I am about to say regarding church finances.

Most congregations are struggling financially just to keep the doors open. Please do not confuse the local congregations with the televangelists or the mega-churches that are mostly show businesses with salaries and expenses to match.

Average church members give something like 2% of their income to support their churches. Let us not quibble with statistics. Some members do much better and others not as well.

It is becoming harder and harder for congregations to survive. Membership and attendance has been falling since the 1950’s. There is no longer a vast army of stay-at-home-moms who can volunteer their time to run numerous church programs. Expenses keep rising for all purposes: utilities, maintenance, insurance, background checks to keep the children safe, computer systems and more. I would hate to see a church choir sing from photocopied sheet music violating copyright protection, or to see pirated software on the church computers. The two biggest costs of church operation are salaries and occupancy costs, leaving little for supplies and programming. Mission beyond the local congregation gets squeezed even more. This means that the churches have something like 2% of their budgets to feed the hungry, advocate for justice, empower the poor, and proclaim God’s love beyond their walls.

Now let us do the math. Suppose a family has an income of $60,000 per year. And, suppose it gives 2% or $1,200 to its church. The church then gives 2% of that amount, or $24 dollars per family for mission beyond its walls.

As I prepare my income tax return for 2014, I take stock of my annual giving. My wife and I gave a large amount given to our county’s food pantry network, Redwood Empire Food Bank. There was another large gift to Heifer International, a wonderful organization that combats global poverty through self-development programs. There was a large gift given to Planned Parenthood. This was done to support women’s health programs and family planning options. The right-wing of the church and the Republican Party have been waging war on women and families and their right to make their own reproductive choices. There was also a gift to our town’s transitional housing program, the Wallace House.

So, for this year and most of last year, our “church” contributions went directly to the poor and downtrodden. Not 2% of 2%, but more like 5% of 100% given directly to those in need. And, I believe that God is happy with us for this effort.

Celebrity Status and Human Worth


Cosmologist and Science Educator

Cosmologist and Science Educator

America has a very weird way of lifting up the most absurd celebrities.  Justin Bieber was just busted for street racing while drunk and on drugs.  Bieber is also facing felony vandalism charges for an earlier episode where he vandalized a neighbor’s house.

Dennis Rodman just got back from North Korea where he practically gave a lap dance to his “best buddy” Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Un is the most deranged and oppressive tyrant on the planet. Rodman refused to do anything to encourage North Korea to release of Kenneth Bae.  Rodman said that he was in North Korea to play basketball, not to dabble in politics.  In a CNN interview Rodman even seemed to accuse Bae of crimes against North Korea, and implied that North Korea was justified in holding him.  But research in to Bae’s alleged crime would seem to suggest that Bae’s only crime was to carry a Bible.

We are fascinated by the rich, the famous, the outlandish, and the miscreants.  We track their movement in and out of jail and rehab with intense interest.  Prince Harry can party naked in Las Vegas or dress up in a Nazi SS uniform.  His great-grandfather King George VI, who lead the British fight against the Nazis, must have spun in his grave.

What is wrong with these people and what is wrong with us for being their cult followers?

Let us select and follow celebrities who live lives worth living.  Let us celebrate scientist like Neil deGrasse Tyson who are extending our scientific knowledge.  Tyson is also teaching the masses to appreciate the wonders of the universe.  Let us celebrate people like Jane Goodall for connecting us with nature and working to save endangered species, or Al Gore, who is and trying to save the planet from environmental destruction.  Let us celebrate thoughtful commentators like Bill Moyers or Fareed  Zakaria whose profound insights give us a window on the world and what is happening around us.  Let us celebrate novelists like Jean Auel, who helped illumine our human prehistory through her Clan of the Cave Bear series. Through this series Auel  helps us to understand what it is to be human.

Let us celebrate those who feed the hungry, make great medical advances, those who seek to create sustainable economic systems that can sustain us all into the future, those who work with disaster victims and refugees.

Let us celebrate those who work for peace, for the end of tyranny, violence and oppression.  For those who will work for tolerance in a world full of racial, ethnic, economic and cultural divides.  Let us celebrate those who work to end violence against women, and all the oppression and dehumanization of women because of their gender.

It does not matter what your career or walk of life.  There are actors and rock stars that are great humanitarians, and others that are totally self-absorbed.  Some spend their wealth and celebrity in serving the downtrodden, while the others spend their time in endless hedonism and debauchery without a care in the world.

It does not matter whether you are rich or poor.  It is no great honor to be rich.  Many people became rich through disreputable means.  They do not deserve our honor.  Others became rich by doing great things, inventing new industries, addressing great needs, and making our world a better place to live in many ways.

Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall

Donald Trump may be a billionaire but he is not worth a damn.  The Donald has often been accused of racism.  His political rants , such as his ongoing  “birther” campaign against Obama long after the issue had been settled, make him the laughing-stock of all thinking people.  He is clearly in the game for his own power, wealth and ego.

Author of "Clan of the Cave Bear" series

Author of “Clan of the Cave Bear” series

But others, such as Bill Gates have become world-class philanthropists, using not only their great wealth, but also their global vision, business savvy, and management skills to improve the world.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working to eradicate polio, fight the AIDS epidemic, and to create a viable economic system in West Africa, one of the poorest regions of the earth.

The measure of life is not in our acquisitions, whether our treasure be in the form of wealth, power, or fame.  The measure of life is not in our acquisitions but in our contributions.

The Litmus Test for Public Office


EVOLUTION

The litmus test for public office should include one simple concept, namely the belief in evolution.  We live in an age where the denial of scientific fact is rampant.  We live in an age when Republicans do not seem to believe in science at all.  They do not believe in evolution, global warming, stem cell research, or birth control.  The Bush 43 White House was known for its bad science.  It took climate studies and had them “spun” by oil industry lobbyists.  It opposed stem cell research and the distribution of condoms in Africa to quell the AIDS epidemic.

It does not matter if a candidate is running for a local school board or for President of the United States.  We cannot afford to have ignorant, backward people in either position.  Evolution is a matter of scientific fact.  It cannot be voted on in a school board meeting or a state legislature.  Just as we do not vote as to whether the earth revolves around the sun or vice versa, evolution is not dependent upon public opinion or any sort of vote.

Science is radically skeptical and self-correcting.  If a scientist proposes a false hypothesis, other scientists will review it and either support it, refute it, or offer an alternative explanation.  The test of scientific understanding is in the laboratory and not in the political arena.

Evolution is as real as gravity.  It has survived 150 years of scientific scrutiny.  Everything in the universe evolves.  Stars, planets and even galaxies are born, evolve, and eventually die.  Even the very atoms of our bodies were created in super nova explosions of dying stars. Planets are created and some become habitable for life.  Live evolves from the most simple single cell live forms into greater and greater complexity as time goes on.  From our one known example it appears to take about 4.5 billion years for a planet to spawn a civilization.

Saying that we do not fully understand evolution is no excuse to reject it, because the same thing could be said about gravity.  Even after Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, there is still much about gravity that we do not understand.  And yet we know that it is real.

The rejection of evolution is possible only through the most willful ignorance.  That is not a quality that we need in our elected leaders.  If a candidate is ignorant about evolution, then we could rightfully expect that they are ignorant about a host of other subjects as well, from history to economics to human behavior.

The rejection of evolution is rooted in the preference for ancient religious mythology over scientific fact.  I say that not as some sort of atheist or radical secularist, but as a confessing Christian and a pastor.

The biblical world view was of a flat surface covered by a dome, like a dinner plate covered by a large, inverted salad bowl.  The dome was called the “firmament.” Those who reject evolution on religious grounds ought logically to affirm the “flat earth” theory deny that the earth is round.

Galileo proclaimed that the earth revolved around the sun.  His views were attacked by the church as “unchristian” for the next 350 years.  We can be pretty sure that Galileo was right.  We use Galileo’s architecture of the solar system to send space probes to Jupiter, Saturn and beyond.

Stem cell research promises an extraordinary advance in human health and quality of life.  It ought not to be stymied by narrow-minded religious bigotry.  Imagine a time when the paralyzed walk again through spinal regeneration and the blind see through newly regrown eyes and optic nerves.  Diseased hearts, kidneys and livers will be regenerated by stem cell injections.

We are currently discovering that the LGBT community is a threat to the established order.  Nor are they a singularly heinous class of sinners as many so-called Christians would have us believe.  Rather, they are simply diverse groups of people wanting to live out their lives according to their created sexuality.  Gay bashing is neither a Christian virtue nor a family value.  It is not an expression of religious devotion but rather a persecution of those who are different.

Global warming is real.  It is affirmed by over 95% of scientists working on climate issues.  The ice in the Arctic, Antarctic, Greenland and the Tibetan plateau is melting at an ever-increasing rate. The long-sought Northwest Passage is now open for navigation. I expect that within my life time it will be possible to take a cruise ship to the North Pole.

We are in the midst of the worst extinction event in 65 million years.  Global weather patterns are getting progressively more disturbed and destructive.  We are seeing catastrophic hurricanes, floods, droughts and fires on a planetary scale.  How long before our food supply dwindles or fresh water becomes more valuable than oil?

We need leadership that has a 21st Century worldview.  We need leadership that is well-educated and enlightened, and at home in the modern world. We need leadership that is fluent in science and can understand and respect what science is telling us.  We need leadership that is grounded in scientific fact, knowledge, logic and critical thinking.

 

Eco-Touring in Costa Rica


Taken from our hotel patio
Taken from our hotel patio

Eco-Touring Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a dream vacation for any eco-tourist.  This is a great place to connect with nature.  You will see the natural world in all of its glory from the volcanoes to the rain forest canopy to the seashores.  The tropical forests are lush and teeming with wildlife.

Travelling around

My wife and I just completed a ten-day odyssey through this land of wonders.  During this trek we were driven some 1000 kilometers (600 miles) through the countryside on our ground transfers and tours.  You would have to be crazy to drive in Costa Rica due to the roughness of the roads and the utter lack of traffic regulations.  Driving is best left to the local professionals who know the terrain.

Most of the roads we travelled had no yellow lines down the middle.  But where present they were merely decorative.  For example, a left turn signal is given to a trailing vehicle on a road with a double-yellow line to indicate that it is safe to pass!  We were driven down highways, back roads, and even no roads at all.  We saw farms and fields and small towns and rural crossroads.

It was interesting to see all the agriculture and the native vegetation.  We saw sugar cane, coffee and rice plantations, pineapple farms, melon farms, and orchards of many varieties.  We toured a coffee processing plant and learned way more about producing coffee than we had expected. We saw rubber trees, coconut palms, date palms, plantain trees, and pineapple plants. There were lush and aromatic tropical flowers everywhere.

There were wild rivers full of exotic inhabitants.  On a river tour we saw crocodiles, iguanas, howler monkeys and white-faced monkeys, bats, and even the lizard that walks on water, Basiliscus Basiliscus or the “Jesus Christ lizard”.  Costa Rica has some 500,000 species of animals including some 600 resident bird species plus migrants from all over the continent.

Bird thief.  Can anyone tell me the species?
Bird thief. Can anyone tell me the species?

At one of our hotels, there was a bird family that would hang out at the open air restaurant and steal sugar packets and other goodies off of the table.  They would first graciously pose for pictures and then demand payment in kind.

Our cabin in Arenal
Our cabin in Arenal

We spent three nights in an elegant cabin in the mountains.  Our cabin had a glass wall facing the Arenal Volcano.  We could watch the clouds perform their fan dance across the peak.  We never tired of watching the graceful movements of the clouds.  One afternoon we had a cloudburst that was a passionate display of the powers of nature at their finest.  The next morning the clouds graciously parted and allowed us to take pictures of the volcano erupting.

While in Arenal we took a zip line tour of the jungle canopy.  We travelled some 8 kilometers (5 miles) on the cables, with the longest segment being about 800 meters long (one-half mile). Did I mention that my wife and I are in our sixties and have never done zip lines before? We got to see a tarantula up close and personal.

Our accommodations were posh, with all of the amenities that one would expect at a nice resort.

The People 

The people of Costa Rica are known for their warmth and kindness.  They are gentle and giving souls who will do anything to help a friend or even a stranger.  Everyone in the tourist industry that we met went out of their way to make sure that our trip was a great success.  Everyone speaks English, even in the most remote areas, and most speak it at least well enough for simple conversations.  You can expect that anyone in the tourist industry will speak English very well. But even so, I took great joy in practicing my fractured Spanish, and the people were happy to help me improve.

The people of Costa Rica all seem to be healthy and strong.  This seems to stem from their connection to nature, their cheerful disposition, the rigors of their daily lives and the excellent diet that they enjoy.  Infant mortality is low and the life expectancy is 78 years.  Even the people in their sixties or beyond seem attractive, healthy, slender and strong. It would seem to be a great place to spend one’s golden years.

The per capita GDP is $12,157.  By comparison the per capita GDP of Mexico is $16,588.  Everyone in Costa Rica has access to a good education and medical care.  But the people seem happy and prosperous beyond the statistical data.  The roads are seemingly full of late-model SUV’s of Toyota and Hyundai persuasions.

The Food

The food in Costa Rica is truly outstanding, and is reason enough to make the trip.  Rice and black beans is a staple which is called “casado” (marriage).  Breakfast is often a combination of casado and fresh fruits.

Coffee and chocolate are two of the spectacular foods of Costa Rica.  The rich volcanic soils grow some of the best coffees in the world.  Pineapples and coffee are the two largest export crops.

Fresh pineapple in Costa Rica is a memorable experience.  A slice of fresh pineapple can bring on tears of joy at the sheer wonder of the cool sweetness.

All of the chickens are free range, as are the cattle, pigs and goats.  There are no factory farms or feed lots. There are also abundant resources of fresh-caught fish and seafood.  The diet is based on plant products with these protein sources as flavoring, and not the main source of nutrition.

As a vegan I had wondered how hard it would be to stick with a vegan diet while traveling through Costa Rica.  I found, much to my relief, that a vegan diet is no problem in Costa Rica.  Everywhere we went had vegan options.  There were times where I requested menu items prepared without cheese.

In Costa Rica, food is local.  Many people engage in subsistence or village agriculture, living substantially off of the grid and making due by their own resources.

Some of the best food that we ate came from little roadside diners and dives, places where the locals ate.  On one of our tours we ate under a shed roof at a combination farm and farm museum in the middle of nowhere.  We had a truly outstanding meal while the farm animals contemplated where our next meals were coming from, and the naughty white-faced monkeys in the treetops pelted us with mangos.

The Weather

We traveled in late May.  May is the start of the rainy season.  Since we were somewhat off-season we found the hotels and restaurants uncrowded and the rates low.  We did get some afternoon cloudbursts, but that is just part of being in a rain forest.  Also, for an eco-tourist this is an opportunity to see how a rainforest nurtures its abundant flora and fauna.

Tour Planning

We were especially pleased with our travel company, Costa Rica Vacations, which helped us plan this trip and executed the plan flawlessly.  This was not a bus trip with fifty strangers, but a customized package suited to our exact requirements.  Your desired trip may look altogether different than ours.  That is the beauty of dealing with Costa Rican Vacations.  You can plan your own dream vacation and trust that it will be an experience that you will never forget.

Special thanks to :

Jeremy Clyce
Travel Consultant

jeremyclyce@goduesouth.com
1-800-606-1860
Costa Rican Vacations

Jeremy helped to design our trip and did everything possible to make it the experience of a lifetime.  I would highly recommend him for any of your Costa Rican travel needs.  Jeremy is an American Ex-pat, and part of a large and growing American ex-pat community in Costa Rica.

A String Theory Vision: Chapter 2


String Theory

The Spirituality of String Theory

 

String Theory or its close cousin M-theory, with their ten or eleven dimensions, is a universe beyond our comprehension.  Cosmologists are still struggling with its workings and what it means for our existence.  The origin of String Theory was in trying to describe what happened before the Big Bang. Cosmology and theology are drawing ever closer together as both sides seek to answer such basic theological-cosmological questions as:

  • Where did we come from?
  • Where are we going?
  • Are there other worlds like ours?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?

Perhaps the most theological question raised by cosmology today is:

Is there a design for the universe, or is it simply the result of random chances raised to the billion-billion-billion-billionth power in some cosmic roll of the dice?

There are scientists of all stripes on both sides of this divide.  Both sides can make elegant and impassioned arguments to support their positions.

The old paradigm of science vs. religion basically required that you had to choose one side or the other.  Either you could check the weather forecast or pray for rain.  Either you could believe that everything happens by the uncaring forces of random chance.  Or, you could believe in divine providence.

In the old “normal-space” view of the universe, we were bound by the three dimensions of space plus one of time.  We lived in a series of boxes divided by walls, floors and ceilings representing height, width and depth.  Anything that did not fit into such three-dimensional boxes was simply not part of the normal-space universe and could be ignored.

But the three dimensions of normal-space could never capture all that was happening. For example, Chinese acupuncture seems to have no medical connection to our physiology.  Perhaps a better way of stating that is that western medicine cannot make that connection.  And yet acupuncture seems to be providing health, strength and vitality to its adherents.  The skeptic could say that any benefit derived from acupuncture could be purely delusional, caused by wishful thinking or caused by the placebo effect.  But let’s not be hasty.

Acupuncture involves the flow of a special energy called “qi “, which travels along meridians of the body. But these supposed meridians appear on any western anatomy charts.  The literal translation of qi is wind, breath or gas but is often translated as life force.  The equivalent word in New Testament Greek is pneuma, which means air or breath but is usually translated as spirit.

Visualizing String Theory requires the ability to think in paradox, where two seemingly contradictory ideas can be held together with a sense of deeper harmony.  Paradoxical thinking requires a more expansive view of the universe than does our ordinary normal-space existence with its notion of certainty.  Perhaps there is some efficacy to acupuncture, even if western medicine cannot understand it.  This is neither to support nor deny acupuncture, but only to suggest that there is more going on in the universe than we can comprehend with our limited, normal-space thinking.

Perhaps the extra dimensions in String Theory give us the space to allow for dimensions of existence that we have previously thought of as magical, mystical, spiritual or religious.  And, here is a radical thought.  Perhaps String Theory not only allows for the mystical, but perhaps even requires it.

Energy conduits enter our homes to provide radio signals, electricity, clean water, natural gas, telephone service, Internet access, and a host of other connections to the outside world.  These special conduits or channels enormously affect the normal-space boxes in which we live, and provide a host of special powers that would have been seen as miraculous even a few hundred years ago.  This analogy may help us to explore the extra dimensions of String Theory.  Perhaps one of the String Theory extra dimensions is a channel for qi, a force that we cannot access until we understand it.

As a Christian, and more specifically a Calvinist, I have always found the universe to be a sacred place filled with divine logos.  “Logo” is Greek for “word” in standard New Testament usage.  But it means more than just the spoken word.  It also means order, pattern, or design. When we speak of divine logos, we are speaking about the divine order that pervades all things. It covers the birth of the universe, the mating habits of tsetse flies, the DNA molecule, the Van Allen radiation belts, the formation of the planets, and the life cycles of stars.

To perceive the divine logos in all things is to live in a spiritual dimension.  And now, String Theory may allow such a metaphysical statement to be incorporated into an expanded view of the universe. Perhaps there is actually in the physical universe a place beyond normal-space where spirit dwells.

A well regulated society


 

 

constitution_thumb_295_dark_gray_bgThe Preamble to the Constitution of the United States decrees that one role of government is to insure domestic tranquility. That stated purpose demands a well-regulated society.  For it is only in a well-regulated society that we can secure a state of domestic tranquility.

Libertarian and Tea-Publicans stress absolute freedom or the ability to act without government intervention.  But when you look closer at what they are demanding it seems more like anarchy.  If everyone is totally free to carry on as they choose there can be no domestic tranquility, no civil order, no peace or security for any of our citizens.

Deregulation of commerce is tantamount to giving the zoo keys to the predators.  Corporations would be free to pillage plunder, loot, and pollute.  The face of deregulation can be best seen in West, Texas, where an explosion in a fertilizer factory took the lives of fifteen people and destroyed fifty homes.  Regulations are necessary to insure public safety, worker safety, environmental protection, and a host of other protections required by a well-regulated society.

Because of inadequate regulation in West, Texas, people died needlessly.  There will be an increase in human suffering and misery beyond all accounting.  Under deregulation the rich get richer and more unrestrained while the rest of us are forced to suffer the consequence.

Over regulation can stifle business enterprises, personal freedoms and initiative.  But under regulation can cause endless human misery.  The question is not whether to regulate or not.  The question is how to achieve an optimal level of regulations that will provide security for all without stifling personal initiative.

There have been three economic collapses in the U.S. in the past few decades, each costing trillions of dollars to the 99% while increasing the wealth of the financial elite.  The first was the collapse of the savings and loan industry under President Reagan.  This was due directly to the Reagan doctrine of deregulation. The second was the collapse of the financial markets in 2001 caused by the virtual abandonment of financial regulatory efforts by the Security and Exchange Commission.  The third was the collapse of the mortgage industry in 2008 caused by deregulation of the mortgage industry.  Many in Wall Street made hundreds of millions from shady deals and outrageous greed while trillions of dollars of our wealth were destroyed.

We need a semblance of order.  We need a level playing field where the rights of all are treated with dignity and respect.  Does anyone really want to see a society where tobacco companies could pass out free cigarettes to school children, or where grocery stores are allowed to sell tainted food?  Does anyone want to return to the “snake oil” medicines of the frontier days?  Does anyone want to live in a nation where consumer fraud is rampant, or where unsafe products abound?  Does anyone want to live in filthy air caused by unregulated emissions or to drink water full of carcinogens discharged from chemical plants?

True freedom is not the ability to act without restraint.  Rather, true freedom is protection from the potential damage caused by other people acting without restraint.  I would not want my neighbors to drive drunk or stoned, to operate an auto salvage operation in their driveway, or to hold wild, noisy, out-of-control parties in the wee hours of the morning.

True freedom is the ability to live in a well-regulated society where there is safety, security, justice and domestic tranquility for all.

A String Theory Vision: Chapter 1


String Theory

Try to envision a universe with nine spatial dimensions and one dimension of time.  Such is the emerging view of our universe according to String Theory.  Or, if you prefer the closely related M-theory, you will have to live with a universe of ten spatial dimensions and one of time.

I used to lie awake nights pondering where the extra dimensions were to be found.  I would concentrate on a corner of the room, where two walls and the ceiling met, and try to envision a fourth spatial dimension.  Our whole world view of normal space is constricted to three spatial dimensions, length, width and height.  Trying to envision anything beyond those is very difficult.

But the extra spatial dimensions are not like the familiar width, length and height.  Rather, they seem to be curled up inside of ordinary space as the image above suggests.  They are closer to us than our own skin, and yet the open up to the very edges of our universe and perhaps beyond.

To envision String Theory, we must leave behind our normal concepts of space.  Normal space that is bound by boxes demarcated by width, length and height.  String Theory does not involve a fourth or fifth box dimension, but something much more exciting.

Think of the extra dimensions not as spaces but as channels or conduits.  Our houses are not just boxes stacked together.  What makes our houses actually work are the conduits that supply us with water, electricity, heating and cooling, and connectivity.  When we flip a light switch, we expect the light to come on.  We do not need to know the location of the electrical wiring, and so we do not even think about it.

Of course one could argue that these conduits are simply small boxes hidden within the big boxes of the house, and that would be technically correct.  An electrical cable actually does have dimensions, and does occupy specific spaces within the walls, ceilings and floors of the house.  But there are no dimensions to a Wi-Fi signal.  There is no wiring schematic to show where the WI-Fi signal runs. It seems not to exist in ordinary space.  Because Wi-Fi is totally disembodied, it makes an even better analogy for extra dimensions.

MESSAGING

For most of human history, if you wanted to send a message a long distance, you would have to entrust it to a human (or string of humans), who would bodily carry the letter to its destination.  A human being, moving under her or his own power, can cover something like 32 kilometers (20 miles) per day, and that assumes the most optimal terrain an weather conditions.  At the end of the War of 1812, hostilities continued for more than sixty days after  the war had officially ended because of the difficulties in spreading word of the wars ending to remote frontier regions.

Radio communications were as much a part of the universe back then as they are now.  The problem was that the combatant in 1812 lacked the understanding of radio as well as any technological infrastructure to exploit it.

Today is a much different world.  It is now possible for a person in Nome, Alaska to play a chess game with someone from Pretoria, South Africa, and to conclude that game real-time within in five or ten minutes.  In the old days it would have taken many years of postal chess, where one move at a time would have been mailed from one participant to another, with each move requiring weeks or even months to arrive at its destination.  We have achieved on this planet a state of simultaneity.  And what I mean by that is that whatever happens at any place on the planet is now knows instantly across the whole planet, or at least in those places that have the technological infrastructure to tap into the planetary communications grid.

But once we leave the confines of this planet, that state of simultaneity vanishes.  On earth, light speed communication counts as instantaneous, as radio waves can circle our planet seven-and-one-half times in one second.  As we reach out into space, even a signal to Mars can take up to forty-five minutes.  There is no need for a message to Curiosity telling it to, “Look out for that rock!” because by the time the message gets there, the rock will be just a distant memory.

Captain Kirk could always call Star Fleet Headquarters on “sub-space” communications links.

Now back to String Theory.  What if some of these extra dimensions could provide us with simultaneity throughout the universe? This unfamiliar concept would totally change our society, not to mention our conception of the universe.

Think of two stars that are 10,000 light years apart.  Now let us assume that  both have civilizations and that both of these civilizations construct radio telescopes at the same time.  Can we call this a simultaneous event?  I think not because these two civilizations are not aware of each other’s presence.  It also works to say that they are not aware of each other’s presents. Because of the messaging time, neither could be aware of the other’s existence for at least 10,000 years.  A signal followed by a response would take at least 20,000 years.  After such a long time interval one or both of those civilizations could have died out, or have been pushed back into the Stone Age.

Civilization on earth has only been around for 10,000 years.  Civilization refers to the creation of walled cities, the development of agriculture, and the creation of writing and mathematics.  The earth has had radio telescopes for only 100 years, and really good ones for about 50 years.  While radio has been around since the late 19th Century, there was not much in the way of outbound radio messaging that could be intercepted in other star systems until World War II. Thus, our messages have been streaming out for only about sixty years to star systems in a sphere with a 60 light year radius.  The Milky Way Galaxy has a radius of some 60,000 light years.

Now, let us suppose that String Theory allows for one or more of the extra dimensions to function as a channel or conduit through which connectivity is possible.  Imagine if these two civilizations could sit down for a friendly game of chess in real time.

Somehow logic demands that there be universal simultaneity.  We have just not discovered the technology to understand and exploit that technology.  String Theory gives us at least the possibility of knowing what is happening on Proxima Centauri right now, without the need to wait 4.2 years to receive the message via light waves.

Our First and Second Amendment Rights


Bill_of_Rights_Pg1of1_AC

 

Restraint of our First and Second Amendment Rights

First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Even though we have freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, here are some of the restrictions on our First Amendment rights.  None of the rights given to American citizens under the Bill or Rights are absolute or unrestrained. Here are some of the things that we are not permitted to do.

FREEDOM OF RELIGION

  • Engage in ritual human sacrifice (virgin or otherwise)
  • Stone anyone to death for sinning
  • Engage in any hate crimes based on the victims religious background or beliefs
  • Discriminate against anyone based upon their religious background or beliefs
  • Force anyone to convert to your religious preferences
  • Wage any sort of holy war against those whose beliefs differ from your own.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH

  • Lie under oath
  • File a false police report or give false information to police
  • Commit fraud or extortion
  • Claim immunity from libel or slander
  • Yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater
  • Engage in false advertising or false labeling
  • Make bomb threats
  • Threaten the life or safety of any individual for any reason

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

  • Start or Join in a riot
  • Join any criminal conspiracy
  • Join any organization intent upon the destruction of the government

Now, let us think about how this notion applies to the Second Amendment.

Second Amendment: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. 

Can anyone seriously argue that the right to bear arms does not come with similar restrictions?

THE PROGRESSIVE CHURCH DILEMMA


Troubled Church

Progressive churches are in a dilemma, caught between fundamentalism on the one side and secularization on the other side.  While progressives have dismissed any interpretation of the Bible that is based upon fundamentalism, it can be very hard to decipher what that post-fundamentalist message actually is.

THE MESSAGE

Recently I attended a United Methodist Church (UMC) that had an energetic outreach ministry to drug addicts, homeless people, and a host of others who were in various ways the outcasts of society.  I went to worship because I had heard good things if this incredible ministry.  But the “worship” service had little sense of worship.  In her sermon she made only the most offhanded mention of the scriptures that had been read earlier.  The worship seemed more like a 12-Step meeting or perhaps a self-help lecture from a non-credit adult education program at a high school or community college.  There was no sense of Christian teachings or concepts.  But the biggest void was in the utter lack of transcendence.

Recently I was speaking with a United Church of Christ (UCC) pastor, who said with obvious exaggeration to make his point, that in the UCC it was impossible to speak of Jesus anymore because half of the UCC Pastors are Unitarians and the other half are Buddhist.  The UCC has as its motto that “God is still speaking,”  meaning that there are yet fresh insights emerging from the scriptures on such topics as global climate change and lesbian, gay, bi and transgender (LGBT) issues.

The UCC has been unabashedly progressive for many years.  The conservatives have long ago left that denomination leaving a Church where progressive ideas are the mainstay.

My own home denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) has a rather different problem.  While the bulk of that church is progressive, there remains a stubborn rear-guard of fundamentalists who would rather stay and fight then retreat to their own more conservative grouping.  Sometimes I wish that the fundamentalists would have been tossed out way back in the 1930’s when this conflict first heated up the church.  For the last 80+ years the PCUSA has been locked in a tedious and ruinous battle between conservative and progressive camps.  This battle has kept the church from moving forward and has usually generated more heat than light.

But there has been one positive effect of this ongoing battle. Progressives in the PCUSA are forced to turn to the scriptures and our faith traditions in battling the fundamentalists.  In the PCUSA it is not sufficient to pursue a modernist agenda, such as women’s rights, LGBT, global climate change, etc. without appealing to the scriptures and our faith positions.  Thus, global climate change must be addresses as a defense of God’s creation.  LGBT issues must be addressed as a call for justice, acceptance, mercy, and hospitality towards those who are different from us.

  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • What does God require of us but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God?
  • What God has called clean let no one call unclean.
  • Judge not that you be not judged.

PASSION AND COMMITMENT

For some reason it is hard to hold people with progressive ideas together.  What can the progressive churches do to hold congregations together in a progressive witness as opposed to spinning off into secularism?  The more conservative churches seem to benefit from an unquenchable fervor that seems rare in the progressive churches.  How can we progressives fix that?

One thing that keeps us from passionate participation is that the progressive agenda is quite broad.  Progressives are free thinkers, not group thinkers.  For example, one of my progressive colleagues that I deeply respect has come out strongly against the Keystone Pipeline.  While I would agree with her on 90% of what she believes in, there are still points of disagreement.  I understand her concerns that the pipeline may lead to more global warming.  Also, a large part of Alberta Canada will need to be strip mined to get at the tar sands.

But on the other hand I want to say that America needs to end its dependence on foreign oil. And, we need to stop buying oil from terrorists. If this Canadian oil is not burned in the US it is likely to be burned in China or some other place with environmental regulations that are much weaker than we have in place.

Our alternative energy sources are not yet in place.  Recently we have seen the virtual implosion of the ethanol industry due to droughts and high corn prices.  We have found that ethanol is a very inefficient way of producing energy, and it also depletes a portion of our food supply in a world filled with famine and drought.

I believe that reasonable people can disagree about the best course of action.  But how can we build a congregation or a denomination if we are about everyone doing his or her own thing in his or her own way?

What can we do as a church that will get people genuinely excited?  To some progressives, being the church means opening a food pantry in the community and sending a medical mission to Guatemala.  And surely both are important forms of Christian service.  But the Church must also be more than just another social service agency.

But food pantries and medical missions can also be a way of building relationships of dependency.  They can create a dichotomy of US vs. THEM.  Instead we need to do mission in a way that builds communities out of diversity.  That is a tough issue.  The takeaway from a medical mission to Guatemala should be in the building of transcultural bridges, and not just in giving vaccines to an indigent people.  In short, these efforts need to be transcendent, lifting us out of ourselves and creating new families and communities not bound by culture, nationality, language or economic circumstances.

POST CHRISTIAN ERA

“The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) in 2008 determined that only 9% of Americans said religion was the most important think in their life, compared with 45% who said family was paramount in their life, and 17% who said that money and career was paramount”

(Wikipedia Article:  Religion in the United States)

It is not surprising that many today find religion to be irrelevant.  The fundamentalists want to drag us back to the 18th Century (pre-Darwin) and the Romans want to drag us back to the 15th Century (the time of absolute world domination by the Bishop of Rome).  Even fundamentalists need to eventually admit that dinosaurs were real, and that the Garden of Eden was just a story.  Many have yet to learn how to take the Bible seriously without having to take it literally.

Neither Billy Graham nor the Pope nor Rick Santorum will ever persuade people to stop having sex, no matter how hard they might try.  And, they will use contraception.  This applies to married and single, young and old, gay, straight and bisexual.  So we might as well get used to it.  No amount of moralizing will ever overwhelm a most basic human drive which is necessary for the continuance of the human species.

In my own small town of nearly 9,000 people, there are only two churches that could be labeled as progressive.  There is a UCC congregation with an average attendance of about 30.  The pastor there refuses to preach.  He will say that he used to be a Baptist fundamentalist, but that he got over it. But he seems unable to describe the subsequent chapters of his faith journey.

There is also an Episcopal congregation with less than 10 people in worship.  There is also a Southern Baptist Church, a Roman Catholic Church, a Seventh Day Adventist Church, and a conservative Lutheran Church (not ELCA).  There is an unbranded Pentecostal church that seems to be like an Assembly of God congregation.  There is another Pentecostal church and another fundamentalist Baptist church.  There is also a Mormon outlet, but I will not count this as a Christian church.

So, in a town of nearly 9,000 people there are perhaps 40 people worshiping in progressive Christian congregations.  I am guessing that in total of all the other churches combined represent perhaps 500 worshippers.

But then again, this is California.  And here if a person wants an intense spiritual experience, he or she is more likely to select a nude hot-tub encounter weekend over a Christian retreat.

THE FUTURE

If the progressive wing of the Christian Church is to survive it must find its message.  But more than that, a church is not just a message, it is an avenue to the divine.  Worship must connect the human soul to the divine or else it is nothing but a self-help class. If people only want advice they can sleep in on Sunday mornings and listen to Dr. Phil or read Ann Landers.

We cannot rely upon an affinity of interests to keep a church together.  Rather, the impetus must come from our connection to the divine.  If we ever lose that we can no longer be a church.

It must take its roots in the Judeo-Christian scriptures and our faith traditions.  That is where we must find our commonality.  Otherwise we simply break up arguing over the Keystone Pipeline or other worldly matters.  We must find our roots.  We must find our passion.  We must be as diligent about our prayer and Bible study as any fundamentalist.  We must be as passionate about sharing our message as any evangelical.  Our ministries of compassion must connect us viscerally to those whom we seek to serve.  And in all things we must find Jesus in our midst, and know that it is through him that all things are made possible.