John Calvin and the American Experiment in Democracy


United Church of Cloverdale

Sermon: The Theology of Liberation

Amos 2: 6-8

07/04/10

Greg Bentall

Before there was a Thomas Jefferson, before there was a Jean-Jacques Rousseau, before there was a John Locke, there was John Calvin.  John Calvin, the progenitor of the Reformed Tradition, of which we are a part, first propounded the modern notion of freedom and democracy that has been an ever growing force in western culture since the Sixteenth Century.  Although Calvin was a pastor and theologian, his writings did much to shape the modern world, and by the term “Modern World,” I mean everything since the year 1500.

Calvin opposed tyranny in all of its forms, whether it was the ecclesiastical tyranny of the popes and bishops, or the civil tyranny of the kings and feudal lords.  The Reformed Tradition, true to its Calvinist roots, has always been a political institution.  We are concerned with social justice, the ordering of society, the restraint upon tyranny, the recognition of divine dignity which is the birthright of every human being regardless of her or his worldly condition.

The birth of our nation was deeply and profoundly rooted in Calvinism.  Calvinism was brought to our shores by:

  • English Puritans
  • Scottish Presbyterians
  • Dutch and German Reformed
  • French Huguenots.

The Declaration of Independence was the annunciation that the thirteen united STATES OF AMERICA could no longer live under British tyranny.  This document was a bold expression of pure Calvinism, and a guiding force to shape the great American experiment is democracy for centuries to come, both at home and throughout the world.

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But the democracy being created was not for all.  At least not back in the Eighteenth Century when these glorious words were written.  These “self-evident” truths applied only to land-owning, white males.  The sexism in this glorious document was quite intentional.  “All MEN are created equal.”   Women were excluded from the political process.  Also excluded were slaves and Native Americans.  These were considered to be less than human, and therefore were not considered to be endowed with “inalienable rights.”  In the counting of population, for example, a slave was counted as three-fifths of a man.

But these high and noble words have grown beyond their original meaning.  Having once articulated these lofty sentiments our nation has been propelled to extend their meaning.

  • The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment broadened the understanding of citizenship, to include freed saves, Native Americans, and people of foreign birth.  It also established the doctrine of Equal Protection Under Law, a principle that we continue to struggle to implement.
  • The Fifteenth Amendment gave the right to vote to all males, regardless of race or color.  It specifically extended the right to vote to former slaves.
  • The Nineteenth Amendment gave WOMEN the right to vote.
  • The Twenty-Fourth Amendment ended the poll taxes that had previously prevented many poor, especially minorities, from voting.
  • The Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowered the voting age to 18.  [Eve of Destruction:  “You are old enough to kill, but not for voting.  You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’.” 
  • The proposed Twenty-Eighth Amendment, the Equal Rights Amendment, has only been ratified by 35 states, and it requires ratification by 38 states to become part of the constitution.  Congress passed the ERA in 1972.  Because of the time delay the ratification process may be voided, even it this amendment were to be approved by three more states.  There are many who believe that the Equal Rights Amendment is actually unnecessary, as the issues addressed in it were already settled by the Fourteenth Amendment under the “Equal protection” clause.

One of the great realities of life is that we EVOLVE towards what we ENVISION.  Even if our view of democracy in the Eighteenth Century was less than adequate, the mere fact that we embraced democracy in PRINCIPLE has meant that we have been driven to an ever deepening understanding.  Where we focus is where we end up going.

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The forces of democratization, launched by John Calvin centuries ago, continue to impact the world and its people.  Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest has been instrumental in developing Liberation Theology.  Although Gutierrez is a Catholic, his theology includes much of Calvin’s teachings, particularly about the dignity of all people.

Liberation Theology aims to lify the poor and downtrodden out of their lives of poverty, misery and oppression.  It teaches that each person has value as a child of God, regardless of her or his worldly condition.  It teaches that all people should have access to the necessities of life, and to participation in the political process.  It tries to form community among all peoples and nations, all races and tribes, and all economic strata of every society.  It speaks to the yearnings of the poor and oppressed wherever they might find themselves.

Living in this country makes it hard to understand the poverty that passes for normal in much of the world.  I had some interesting discussions with the poor of many lands during my travels.  I was once asked by some church people in Mexico if poor people in the United States had cars and owned refrigerators.  I told them that this was mostly true.  They were shocked and amazed, for to them, owning a car and a refrigerator would make them wealthy.

Once I toured the garbage dump in Mexico City.  Many families and their children, literally hundreds of people, lived in the dump, and survived by scavenging materials to be sold for recycling.  The parents and children would walk barefoot on mountains of broken glass and rusted cans to find salvageable materials for sale.  Shelters consisted of tin and cardboard shacks, or even lean-tos, erected on top of the garbage heaps.  There were no schools, no sanitation, no clean water, and no medical care available.  And the worst part of this deplorable situation was that there was a long waiting list of families who were waiting to GET IN to the dump, because it offered them the prospect of a BETTER life.

I have worshiped with members of Christian Base Communities.  Such groups often meet in people’s houses to study the scriptures and pray.  In  Christian Base Communities it is required that each meeting end in some action item that will improve the lives of the people attending.  This might be planning a community garden, or finding a way to tutor the children, or providing for one of their members who are even more destitute than the rest.

These people learn from the scriptures, and from their prayers and meditations, that they are Children of God, and worthy of respect.

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When I was in college, preparing to enroll in seminary, I studied German and Greek.  German has long been the language of choice for all budding theological students.  German has been the language of theology for the past five hundred years.  Or, perhaps a better way to say this is that German has been the language of EUROCENTRIC theology for the past five hundred years.  But the Eurocentric model has become old and stale.  New voices from the Third World are now changing the axis and focus of Christianity.  If I were preparing for the ministry today I would study SPANISH instead of German.  This would be to read the emerging works of people like Gutierrez, who have brought freshness and urgency to theological studies that has been lacking in the old Eurocentric model.

The old, Eurocentric establishment, and especially the Catholic Church, is deeply fearful of the new liberation.  In 1984 and 1986 the Vatican issued edicts condemning the Liberation Theology movement as being Marxist in orientation, and therefore dangerous to the established order.  We need to remember that the previous pope, John Paul II, was a person who fought communism in his homeland of Poland.

But the Liberation Theology movement is anything but Marxist.  It is religious and not atheistic.  It stands for human dignity and freedom, and not political subjugation.  And when the movement advocates for such economic necessities as land reform and workers rights, it is grounded in prophetic Christianity and not Marxist ideology.

The irony for the Roman Catholic Church is that there are vastly more Catholics in Latin America as there are in Europe.  The three largest Catholic nations on Earth are:

  • Brazil
  • Mexico
  • Philippines

But is will be a long time before we find a Latin American pope, or any significant Catholic leadership from Latin America.  The old order will be slow to change, and resistant to the end of Eurocentrism.

But the winds of freedom and democracy are still blowing.  And this spirit cannot be held back.  In Christian Base Communities I found people who had discovered their worth as Children of God, and who had come to understand that they were worthy of full participation in the human community.  And once this message got loose, there was no way to stop its spread.

The Cosmos and the Logos of God


United Church of Cloverdale

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Work of God’s Fingers

Psalm 8:1-9

Greg Bentall

When I was a small boy I loved to sleep out under the stars.  I could spend hours just watching the night sky.  There were stars and planets, satellites and meteors, nebulae and galaxies.  But the sky was more than just a collection of bright lights against a dark background.  To me, the sky was alive.  As I lay in my lawn chair looking up, I would wonder who was looking back at me.  I would probe with my mind, looking for life in the heavens above, and glorifying God’s most extraordinary creation.

The universe is an extraordinary place.  It is the work of God’s hands.  It is magnificent beyond our wildest imagination, and a testimony to the greatness of our God.

John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed Tradition, believed that one way of knowing God was to study God’s creation.  Calvin found divine logos in all of nature.  The logos is the word of god.  It is God’s fingerprints to be found in every nook and cranny of the universe.  The logos represents God’s order, God’s laws, God’s pattern laid down for the universe.

John Calvin gave the theological underpinning to all of modern science.  Calvin set the stage for Galileo and all that has followed.

Our planet earth was designed to support life.  It is our habitat that we were given to nourish us in every way, to live together in communities and to develop cultures.  But the greatest miracle of all is our ability to know God our creator.

According to today’s lesson, God has made us a little lower than the gods, and crowned us with glory and honor.  The word used to describe the human condition is elohim, which translates as gods or spiritual beings.  Elohim is a plural noun in Hebrew. It is used often in the scriptures to refer to God, meaning Yahweh.

Thus, our position in the universe is only a little lower than the creator.  And being close to Yahweh, we are able to be in dialogue with God.  God has given us dominion over creation, and put all things under our feet.  We are stewards of creation, and co-creators with God.

The world is more amazing than we can even imagine.  It is a beautiful blue marble full of life.  It is our home and our habitation.  And there is life everywhere.

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When I was in high school, I was taught that all life on earth is solar powered.  Plant use sunlight to produce food through photosynthesis.  Herbivorous animals eat the plants, and carnivorous animals eat the herbivores.

But now we know of life forms that are not solar powered.  There are many life forms that live in the ocean depths, such as tube worms.  They live in depths of the sea where no light can penetrate, under enormous pressure and extreme heat.  They live beside volcanic vents in the ocean bottom.  They live by chemosynthesis, or the production of food from the chemicals spewed out by the volcanic vents.

There are living organisms in the geysers and paint pots of Yellowstone Park.  These organisms can survive in boiling water full of caustic minerals.  There are organisms that live in rocks, deep underground where the sun never shines, digesting rock for food.

There are microorganisms that live in ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic.  And, when the ice sheets break off into the ocean, they provide nutrients that are the bottom of the food chain, supporting many species.

There are life forms that can survive the hottest deserts, the coldest frozen ice sheets, the most intense radiation, and the most extreme environments imaginable.  It is now believed that there are even life forms in magma, the melted rock that forms volcanoes.

And as we continue to find new forms of life on earth, we are better equipped to find life beyond the earth.

Mars almost certainly had life at one point.  I say this because a meteorite of Martian origin was found in the Antarctic.  When this Martian space rock was cut open there appeared to be fossilized, primitive life forms.  The scientific community has not officially embraced this development as “proof” of past life on Mars.

We may even find life living on Mars now.  We cannot expect to find much more than a few bacteria, or perhaps some lichen on a rock.  But finding even the smallest and insignificant life-forms on Mars would be perhaps the greatest discovery in human history.

But there are other bodies in our solar system that have a much greater chance of harboring life, and perhaps much more complicated life forms.  In searching for extraterrestrial life, the guiding rubric is to “Follow the water.”  And there are several bodies in our solar system that are believed to have even more liquid water than does the earth.

Jupiter Moons:

  • Europa:  2.9 times earth’s water and ice
  • Callisto: 27 times earth’s water and ice
  • Ganymede: 36 times earth’s water and ice

Saturn Moons:

  • Titan: 29 times earth’s water and ice and a significant atmosphere

Tidal forces on these moons provide enough heat to create oceans of liquid water.  Europa is covered with an ice cap, similar to the Arctic Ocean on earth.  But below that ice cap there is an ocean of liquid water.  One day we will land on Europa.  We will then release a heated probe that will melt its way through the ice and into that liquid ocean.  On moons such as these we may discover animals as sophisticated and intelligent as squids on earth.

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But looking beyond our solar system there is a virtual certainty that we will discover other life forms.

When I was in high school, we were told that every person on earth could have his or her own star.  But this was wildly inaccurate.  In truth there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, each one with hundreds of billions of stars.  This means that everyone now living on earth, along with everyone who has ever lived, or ever will live, could be given her or his own galaxy, each with hundreds of billions of stars.

Space is vast beyond all comprehension.  The closest star to the sun is Proxima Centauri.  Light from that star takes over four years to reach the earth.  If we were to travel to that star, it would take us 80,000 years at space shuttle speeds.

With that much real estate in the universe it is a virtual certainty that there is extraterrestrial life.  There may also be intelligent life that is technologically advanced.  Functionally, we would define an intelligent, technological society as one that has radio telescopes.  Through such radio telescopes it might be possible to send and receive signals, although it might take decades, centuries or even longer for these messages to pass between worlds at the speed of light.

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We live in a time when the latest scientific discoveries are accessible to us all.  Anyone who would characterize television as a vast wasteland does not watch the channels that I watch.  There are some exceptional TV channels that provide windows into all of science.  These channels include:

  • The Science Channel
  • The History Channel
  • National Geographic
  • PBS

The Internet also provides an awesome window on science and nature.  Everything imaginable can be found with ease on the Internet.  For example, did you know that LICHEN, which I mentioned earlier, is a symbiotic organism made up of a FUNGUS and photosynthetic partner that can be either a green algae or a cyanobacterium?

Or did you know that in 1977, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), received a radio transmission that was believed to be of intelligent origin?  Unfortunately this signal was never heard again.

I found both of these bits of trivia with just a few minutes search on the Internet.

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The universe is an amazing place.  God’s fingerprints are everywhere.  And now we have access to know everything that is happening in the scientific realms.  When we study nature and science we are studying the creator, and learning his ways.  We were made a little lower than God, and we were created to know God and to explore and understand God’s creation.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

Greg

Corporate Greed as Sin


SERMON: The Tragedy of Sin

United Church of Cloverdale

2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Greg Bentall

The explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20 could be expected.  It was clearly NOT an accident, but a DISASTER waiting to happen.  According to the dictionary, an accident is:

  • Any event that happens unexpectedly, without a deliberate plan or cause.

Police no longer talk about car “ACCIDENTS.”  They are now called COLLISIONS.  The logic here is that accidents are things that happen unexpectedly, and are hence unavoidable.  If a drunk driver causes a collision it is no accident, but rather a predictable tragedy.

Imagine a collision where one driver stops on a green light, and then gets rear-ended by the driver of the second car:  The driver of the second car might protest:  “But I had no chance to stop!  The car in front of me stopped on a green light and I ran into him!”

But the truth is that all automobile collisions could be avoided if only we took action FIVE SECONDS before the collision occurred.  Perhaps the driver in this instance might have been paying closer attention to the traffic and road conditions.  Then, maybe that driver would have seen the dog that darted into the intersection.  Or perhaps, the driver could have slowed down by five or ten miles per hour, giving that driver time to stop, even when the driver in front stopped suddenly at a green light.

At the Deepwater Horizon there were warning signs days ahead that went unnoticed.  The first sign was that the seal on the blowout preventer had blown days ahead, and bits and pieces were appearing on the surface.

It also turns out that the blowout preventer, the so-called “fail-safe” device, was itself DEFECTIVE and inoperable.  Dead batteries on control panels meant that the device could not operate.  There were also leaky hydraulic systems that prevented the control valves from closing.

Hours before the explosion there were numerous signs of the impending failure, but these all went unheeded in the tragically careless push to keep production levels high.  According to reports from the survivors, there was a big argument between the TransOcean drilling chief and a manager from BP.  The drilling chief wanted to stop drilling because of safety concerns.  The BP manager forced the drilling to continue.  This was twelve hours before the explosion.

The issue for BP was simple.  The drilling was already over budget and five weeks behind schedule.  Finishing the well was the top priority, and it seems, the ONLY concern.

The result of this arrogance has been the worst man-made ecological disaster in history:

  • Eleven workers were killed.
  • We can expect hundreds of billions of dollars in economic destruction across the Gulf region, as this spill has crippled the seafood industry and tourism.  This economic disruption may last for decades.
  • We may be looking at the destruction of all life forms in much of the Gulf of Mexico.  This destruction of the whole ecosystem may take decades to repair, if it can be repaired at all.

The Gulf Coast contains some 40% of our nation’s wetlands.  Wetlands are the nurseries of the planet.  Without them many species cannot survive.  Also, wetlands are an important barrier against hurricanes.  Wetlands work like giant sponges, soaking up wind and rain and tidal surges caused by hurricanes.  Without these wetlands hurricanes will become far more destructive than they are now.

This is the TRAGEDY OF SIN.

Sin is:

  • Corporate managers blinded by greed without concern for effects.
  • The reckless disregard for safety of the workers.
  • The reckless disregard for the environment.
  • And, the reckless disregard for all of those living in the Gulf Coast.

Sin is placing an insatiable demand for profits and timelines ahead of safety, ecological responsibility, and the well being of the residence of the Gulf Coast.  Wherever sin rules, bad things happen, and we end up paying a terrible price.

Sin is not about breaking God’s laws.  Sin is about breaking ourselves AGAINST God’s laws.  When we break the laws of God we can expect to have a catastrophic outcome.  The TRAGEDY OF SIN in the Gulf of Mexico is now our worst nightmare.

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Our scripture lesson for this morning is about the great moral lapse of King David.  The story of David and Bathsheba shows what happens when SIN reigns.  It is a tragic story right out of a “soap opera.”

David looks out from his castle and spots a beautiful woman bathing on her roof top.  David is instantly seized with lust for her.  He sends his servants to inquire of her, and he discovers that she is the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who is presently off fighting against the Ammonites with David’s army.  David then has Bathsheba brought to the castle where he lies with her, and she becomes pregnant.

David then summons Uriah the Hittite to come and report to him.  While Uriah is in Jerusalem, David encourages him to go and be with his wife.  But Uriah is a man of honor, and the Code of Honor of that day did not allow for any form of conjugal visits during a time of battle.  And so, Uriah refused to go home to his wife.

Actually, that sounds like a wonderful rule for all wars.  Such a rule might cause all battles to be over in a matter of weeks or months, instead of years or decades!

So Uriah returned to the front without seeing his wife.  And Uriah also carried David’s order to Commander JOAB that Uriah was to be killed.  This does not seem fair, does it?

Joab did as David had ordered.  He arranged to have Uriah the Hittite killed in battle.  This was done to prevent King David from being embarrassed by his act of adultery.

David now thinks that all is well until he is confronted by the prophet Nathan.  Prophets are women and men who speak God’s Truth.  Speaking truth to power is the essence of the prophetic witness.  Nathan uncovers David’s tragic sin.  David, now finally realizing the evil that he has done, tries to do repentance before the God.

But things seem to work much differently these days, especially in the political arena.  Instead of David’s confession and repentance, we normally expect a quick fix by a SPIN DOCTOR.  If King David were around today I am sure that his spin doctors would have taken care of everything.

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Palace of King David

Jerusalem

The King is deeply saddened by the loss of Uriah the Hittite.  Uriah was David’s dearest friend and closest confidant.  And even though Uriah was foreign born, he served his King and Country as well any native son.  He died a hero’s death fighting against the Ammorites.  

The King had recently recalled Uriah to Jerusalem for a consultation.  And while Uriah was in Jerusalem, he went home to see his wife, even though such visits are against a soldiers Code of Honor.  THIS EXPLAINS THE BABY. [Note:  Thankfully, this is before the days of DNA testing!]  But please do not hold this Uriah.  He was a wonderful man even though he BROKE the soldier’s code of honor.  

King David LOVED Uriah so much, that upon Uriah’s death, the King took Uriah’s widow and child to live in the castle, and to be a part of the King’s own family. 

But David did not do the “Spin Doctor” thing.  He sinned badly with a tragic outcome.  Both Uriah the Hittite and his child died as a result of David’s Sin.  But he did listen to the voice of God through the Prophet Nathan and he repented for his Sin.

The walk of faith requires an upright life.  The walk of faith demands an internal moral compass that acts in restraint, and seeks to live in a way that avoids the TRAGEDY OF SIN.

  • If only David had stopped to think before he had Uriah murdered so that he could steal his wife
  • If only the BP manager who ordered that the drilling continued could have paused to consider the tragic loss of human live, and the ecological and economic catastrophe that he was creating by his impatience.
  • If only corporations such as PG&E would stop funding BOGUS and SELF-SERVING propositions such as Proposition 16.  This proposition was designed to prevent municipalities from managing their own electrical power, as is done very successfully in HEALDSBURG.  Instead, this proposition was labeled and argued as the VOTERS RIGHT TO CHOOSE proposition, and PG&E spend millions of dollars to wage a campaign based on self-serving lies and distortions.

The upright life is based upon the simplest of notions.  It does not mean to follow endless rules and regulations imposed upon us.

  • It means to “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”
  • It means to “Love one another as love comes from God.”
  • It means to “Love the Lord our God and our neighbors as ourselves.”
  • It means to “Do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.”
  • It means to care for all creation, and to be a careful steward of our world and all of its resources.  For this is the only world that we have for ourselves and our children’s children.

Whatever science fiction fantasy that we might harbor regarding moving on to another planet, this planet is all that we have.  And when we destroy it we destroy our own habitat and our own future.

This is the TRAGEDY OF SIN.

Trustworthy


TRUSTWORTHY

One of the most important lessons that I have tried to teach my teenage son is that I want him to grow up to be the kind of man upon which people can depend. If he has promised to mow someone’s yard, or fix a computer, or help out at the community theater, then he is expected to carry out that task properly and on time, and with no excuses.  This is the essence of trust.

Personal Integrity

Being trustworthy is a complex attribute with many parts.  The core of which is personal integrity. In mathematics, an “integer” is a number that is whole or uncut.  Integrity means a singularity of purpose, as opposed to working out of ulterior motives (divided allegiances or purposes).

In his early political career, Harry Truman ran Jackson County Missouri (Kansas City area) for many years.  It was a time of Pendergast political machine.  Truman had many opportunities to take advantage of his position of authority for personal benefit, but that was not in his character.  When Truman was elected to the United States Senate, he needed to borrow money just to get himself to Washington.  He could never violate the public trust for his personal gain.

Confidentiality

Closely related to personal integrity is the need for confidentiality.  Information is shared through appropriate channels based on a need-to-know.  I can think of a hairdresser in town that knows everything that goes on.  Telling her anything is like publishing it in the local newspaper. But, if she were a true professional she would understand that her customers’ private chats were never meant for public distribution.  And of course, this situation would be much worse if this hairdresser worked in a field such as banking, medicine, or the law, where any such breach of confidentiality would be unconscionable.

Fulfilling Commitments

To be trustworthy means to be committed to producing the required results.  Excuses are never helpful.  There are no problems, only challenges.  Obstacles are there to be overcome.  If one method does not work then try another until the required results are achieved.  Finishing tasks on time is accomplished by effective time management.  If you are stuck on one project, move on to something else.  One excellent habit is to get used to working ahead on any project where progress is possible at this moment.

Attention to Details

Doing a good job requires doing the full job, giving attention to every detail.  At the start of any project it is necessary to visualize all that this task entails, and to make certain that all of the details are successfully managed.  I learned this in the restaurant business.  If a restaurant had great food, but ran out of napkins, that would be a serious problem.  The best organizations practice what is known as Continuous Quality Improvement.  Every transaction is reviewed in order to discern what went well and what items could be improved upon. 

Competence

It is impossible to accomplish any job that you are incapable of doing.  What is required to gain competence is training and experience.  Learning is a life-long endeavor.  But in the short run, it is also necessary to know your limits, and to request help when necessary.  Being competent means knowing what is within your capabilities.  There is nothing wrong with telling a customer that you do not know how to help, but that you will find someone who can.  We work together, help each other and train each other.

Global Warming and the Slippery Slope


When it comes to global warming, are we already too late?  It is clear that global warming is not only real, but is accelerating.  As the polar ice caps melt the earth loses some of its reflectivity.  Blue oceans and brown rocks will absorb far more heat than the reflective ice caps.  But even more frightening is that as the planet warms more methane will be released.  There is methane frozen in the tundra, and methane ice as the bottom of the oceans.  Methane is a vastly more powerful greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide.

The question for us is whether we have reached a tipping point.  Is the runaway global warming already too far progressed to stop?  It is like the story of a man who jumped off of the Empire State Building.  On his way down he saw people at the window on the 43rd. floor and shouted to them, “So far so good!”

I do not believe that anyone knows whether we have reached the tipping point or not.  But the point is that if we are not taking steps now to prevent further global warming, it may very soon be too late.  If you are canoeing in unknown waters and hear the sound of a waterfall, you may want to paddle hard in the opposite direction.

John Calvin and the Twenty-First Century


John Calvin and the Reformed Tradition 

 The Reformed Tradition

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is one of the family of churches that trace their heritage back to John Calvin.  John Calvin published his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion in Geneva, Switzerland in 1534.  Calvin was a contemporary of Martin Luther, and shared many beliefs with him.  But while Luther founded What the Germans would come to call the “Evangelical” movement, Calvin took a slightly different path, and founded what is called the “Reformed Tradition.”  Churches in the Reformed Tradition include the Scottish Presbyterians, English Puritans who later split into Presbyterians and Congregationalists, Dutch and German Reformed Churches, and French Huguenots.

John Calvin

John Calvin was a great light of the Sixteenth Century.  The Sixteenth Century was arguably the greatest century in human history.  It was the age of Reformation.  It marked the end of the dark ages in Europe.  It also marks the birth of the Age of Discovery, and the final flourish of the Renaissance.

Calvin’s Theology

In Calvin’s day, the authority of the church sprang from fifteen hundred years of church tradition and the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Calvin’s theological work was based on a rediscovery of the Bible, and the development of modern theology and biblical studies.  In an age when the typical Roman Catholic priest would be illiterate, Calvin taught himself Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew, so that he could study afresh the scriptures of the Old and the New Testament in their original languages.  He put his fresh ideas to the test as a pastor in Geneva, Switzerland, where he lead a community of faith that became the fountainhead of the Reformed Tradition.

Calvinism speaks eloquently to 21st Century Christians.  Modern followers of Calvin are not antiquarians, but pioneers.  Calvin’s issues from the 16th Century are not necessarily those of the 21st Century.  Calvin is important to us not so much for what he believed, but rather for the way he taught us to think about the scriptures and the journey of faith.  The Church is not a museum of ancient doctrines, from Calvin, or anyone else for that matter.  Rather, the Church is a base camp on the journey of faith.

The motto of the Reformed Tradition is,

Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda

which translates as,

The Church, having been reformed, always being reformed

But Calvin did not confine his interests to the religious realms.  He, like Leonardo da Vinci was a “Renaissance Man”, with broad interests.   From this pivotal century in history, Calvin truly became the father of the modern (post 1500) world.

SOLA SCRIPTURA Calvin vs. Luther

One of the amazing theological concepts lifted from this study is that Calvin, even though he was a great biblical scholar, never limited his efforts to understand God to the Bible alone!  Calvin always used every faculty and insight that he could discover in order to know and follow the creator.  He never had his nose “buried in the Bible,” oblivious to the world around him. He could never engage in any form of biblical “proof-texting.”  Revelation to Calvin included science, nature, logic, and the study of human behavior, all of which are part of the created order.

Calvin on the Natural Sciences

Calvin believed that humanity could understand the creator by studying creation.  This was a radical notion at the time.  Before Calvin, the world was seen as a spooky and unknowable place.  Life was at the mercy of chaotic events and unseen forces, such as diseases and storms, none of which could be understood.  Hence, pre-Reformation cathedrals often had gargoyles to protect the buildings and their occupants from evil spirits.

Calvin found divine order throughout the universe.  To know that ordering of the universe was to know God.  In this respect, Calvin gave the theological underpinnings for all of modern science.

The first great test of Calvin’s understanding of nature occurred when Galileo confirmed the hypothesis espoused by Nicolas Copernicus that the world revolved around the sun! and not vice-versa.  The Roman Catholic Church branded Galileo a heretic and subjected him to house arrest.  Galileo was officially forgiven for his “heresy” some 350 years later!  Calvinists, however, understood that Galileo had discovered one of the divine mysteries of the creation, and thereby brought us closer to knowing the almighty Creator.

In 1859 Charles Darwin made his breakthrough discoveries that lead to the Theory of Evolution 1) .  Since that time, backward thinking people in the church have condemned him for his discovery.  Modern day Calvinist have embraced Darwinism and found therein another demonstration of the divine order of creation.

1)  Note:  When scientist use the word “Theory,” they do not mean some “guess” as to how the universe works.  Rather, “Theory” means an established system or construct.  Evolution is not a “guess” but a natural law.  It has survived over 140 years of scientific scrutiny.  Evolution is as real as gravity.  There are many things we still do not understand about gravity, even after Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.  But no one would argue against its existence.

SOCIAL SCIENCES  Political science and Economics 

Calvin on Democracy and Politics

For Calvin, the reformation was as much political as it was religious.  Calvin refused to be dominated by tyrants, whether they be secular or religious.  He opposed domination by kings, lords, and knights just as vociferously as he opposed domination by popes, bishops and priests.  Calvin founded his church on radically democratic foundations.  He wrote that the will of God is best discerned by people living together in community, studying God’s word and living out the Gospel together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  It is only is such a community of faith that divine truths could be discerned and tested.

Calvin wrote his great works on democracy, both civil and ecclesiastical, centuries before John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, or Thomas Jefferson.  The American form of government was a civil expression of Calvinism, brought to this country by English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians.  The Constitution of the United States is a grand expression of pure Calvinism.

Calvin on the Market Place

Calvin was fascinated by business and economics.  He studied the market place and learned its laws.  To Calvin, economic laws, such as the “time value of money,” or the “law of supply and demand” are simply part of the created order!  He felt that economic laws were as solid and real as was the law of gravity!

He began with a study of “usury”, or the notion that lending money at interest was a sin.  He differentiated lending money at interest for investment purposes from the truly usurious practice of lending money at interest to someone who was starving and needed food.  He came to understand that money really does have a “time value”, and that interest charged is simply an expression of that concept.

Calvin for the Twenty-First Century

It is exactly such issues that make Calvin an excellent guide for the Twenty-First Century as well as the Sixteenth Century.  In dealing with even troublesome issues, true Calvinists will open themselves up to all forms of secular knowledge, the natural sciences, social sciences, wisdom and intellect, as well as the scriptures, in seeking to understand God’s will as expressed in God’s creation.

For the Calvinist, the walk of faith is a pursuit of wisdom and understanding.  We study the scriptures, but also avail ourselves of all forms of secular exploration.  We study the universe and the human community as God’s creation.  In knowing the creation we come to know the creator. We never claim to have captured the truth, but are continuously seeking new revelations.  We use all of our faculties and intellect in the pursuit of Truth.

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