Archive | August, 2021

The Christian Gospel in Our Situation

31 Aug

I’m beginning a new series of blogs. This may be a preview of a new book of theology. I’m especially interested in your comments. This installment is long, over 900 words.

Gospel and Situation 


I turned recently to the book that started me in the study of theology in the 1950s, volume 1 of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology. One of Tillich’s major points is that the Christian Gospel takes on meaning as a response to the deep questions posed by our culture. He interprets the early centuries as asking the question of mortality, perishing, to which the Church responded by proclaiming Christ as the “medicine of immortality.” The medieval period asked questions of guilt, to which the Gospel was preached as justification of guilty persons by grace through faith. Tillich perceived the twentieth century as seeking answers to alienation, and so he framed the response in therms of the new being in Christ that overcomes alienation with reconciliation.

The Gospel takes the shape that meets culture’s questioning. Joseph Sittler made a similar point when he said the Gospel plays a melody, but always within the counterpoint of its cultural setting. Counterpoints change, and even though the Gospel does not change, its import depends on the counterpoint in which it is played.

I have been asking myself, what are the deep questions raised by culture today? What Gospel shape responds to our culture?

Tillich probed to the deepest layers of culture to discern its questions. Culture takes many forms, but what underlies its shape and its questioning?

A powerful sense of uneasiness pervades our present cultural situation. By uneasiness I mean a lack of fit between us and our world—an uneasiness in face of uncertainty and apprehensiveness as to our place in the natural and social worlds in which we find ourselves.

We could speak of a situation of the absurd—the absurdity of existing at this time, in the apprehension caused by feeling our lack of fit. This is real cognitive dissonance for us as  persons in the world. We don’t mesh with our world.

Take a look at some cultural manifestations of unease/lack of fit.

II. I’ll at ease in the natural world

The natural environment. We seek a just and sustainable

relationship with nature. But that requires a fit between us and nature, a synchrony between human culture and the natural systems that form our environment. However, that synchrony is missing, and that is the cause of an underlying apprehensivess, because we know deep down that nature does not tolerate non synchrony. We know “nature bats last,” just as we know that despite our best efforts, we cannot escape from natural processes—planetary warming being the most prominent today.

Over the course of their long existence, humans have tried mightily to escape from the rigors of natural processes, or at least to bend them in our favor. At her most recent time at bat, nature has dealt us climate change—a stunning event that shows us how small and vulnerable we are, even as it places demands upon us to act in ways that can ameliorate certain aspects of its impact. Our cities, our agriculture, and our accustomed ways of living are a poor fit with nature.

Human history is filled our optimism that nature can be tamed, handled in ways to make it friendly. Dissonance has revealed itself, and with it has come a multi-layered human response. At one end of the spectrum is denial of nature and refusal to act in new ways. But the spectrum also includes half-way gestures that take nature into account, in clearly inadequate measures. Some individuals and communities are taking drastic actions to achieve a synchrony with nature. Planners are devising responses to climate catastrophes. Running through all of these responses is a faint hope that a future generation can achieve synchrony. And a lurking fear that catastrophe is inevitable.

Our behavior toward nature is frequently and rightly characterized in terms of arrogance and recklessness. But these are expressions of something deeper—a sense of being overwhelmed and out of joint over against nature. We frequently speak of warfare between us and nature; we proclaim victories and sometimes defeats. Medicine is often depicted as part of the battle, and our victories are wildly cheered. Nature is portrayed as the Other, resulting in traditions of separating humans from nature, rather than recognizing that we are part of nature and have evolved as animals within the continuum of natural evolution.

Medical research and practice bring a particular focus to our dissonant relationship to nature. Medicine constitutes one of most massive collective enterprises in history. It’s an enterprise dedicated to countering the natural processes of evolution. Genetic intervention, surgical procedures, transplants and implants, pharmaceuticals, and behavior modifying  are the strategies of contemporary medicine—to  cure disease or alleviate its progress, to deal with accidental injury, and to counter the processes of aging. 

Medicine has been enormously successful, and yet at every step it, too, walks the edge of fear and unease. The testimony of medicine is clear: Unless humans accept their situation as victims of natural selection, if they seek a different role, massive strategies must be employed to “fix” them; synchrony must be re-defined. Since the “natural” synchrony of humans with evolutionary nature is not acceptable, we attempt to fashion a new synchrony.  The price we pay is an ongoing dissonance between us and our world.

This blend of successful redefinition and painful dissonance is nowhere more visible than in the process of aging and communities of elderly persons. Life expectancy has been extended successfully, but the care and maintenance of the elderly pose problems. How is care of the elderly to be financed? What the elderly living for? Are the elderly taking resources from other important areas? The life of many elderly is marked by deep unease.

(a) Phil Hefner. 8/30/2021

Alexa and the Pirates

30 Aug

This a fun piece I wrote for the monthly magazine published by residents at Montgomery Place, where Ai live.

Alexa and the Pirates

What creature goes “99 clump, 99 clump, 99 clump”? Answer, “a centipede with a peg leg.” But what comes to mind when you hear “peg leg”? A pirate, of course! Because pirates have peg legs, right?

The other night, I talked to Alexa, the artificial intelligence unit who lives in my smart TV. She gave me half a dozen tips on how to talk like a pirate. I had no idea that Alexa knows more about pirates than I do!  I was also a little disappointed, because I think Alexa could devote herself to more useful and uplifting pursuits. But Alexa always tries to please, and when I asked the question, she worked very hard to please me.

How much do you know about pirates? You better get ready for pirates, because September 19 is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Where did such a strange day come from? If you Google it, You will discover that in 1995 two young men who had too much time on their hands and too little ambition to do bigger things, are responsible. You’ll also discover that the greatest pirate of all time was a Chinese woman Ching Shih. At the beginning of the 19th century she commanded a fleet of thousands of ships, marauding the South China Sea.

Alexa told me that pirate-talk includes sprinkling your conversation with the exclamation, “aaar.” “Shiver me timber’s” is always good and addressing  friends as “matey”; call people you don’t like “scurvy dogs.” When you greet someone, say “Ahoy!” and when you’re surprised or caught off-guard, yell, “Avast!”

What’s the point? Well, back in the 1990s, some young men liked to strike a macho pose. Macho was good (maybe it still is?). When you have a peg leg, macho comes easy—you just “clump” in a swaggering way. Nothing impresses a girl like a clumping peg leg. And then swig from a bottle of rum with a parrot on your shoulder. What could be more macho!

The possibilities are enormous. But what I want to know is how Alexa came to know all this—and why? I would prefer that she stay clear of macho young men pirates.

Perhaps, like me, she enjoys screwball comedies—you know like Lucille Ball or Cary Grant. Talking like a pirate is like putting yourself in a screwball comedy and I can think of no other reason I would write a wacky article like this one.

Some evenings, after a long day, participating in a screwball comedy would be fun. Maybe Alexa feels the same way.

I think I’ll ask her.

(c) Phil Hefner 8/30/2021

Beset by gods

30 Aug

 Beset by gods

Their idols are silver and gold,

    made by human hands.

Those who make them will be like them,

    and so will all who trust in them—Psalm 115

Coin was her god, 

she became like a coin.

Everything depreciated 

so everything appreciated

and then it makes a profit.

Work was his god;

he became like his work.

His soul was absorbed, 

he was declared irreplaceable

before he was expendable.

Admiring cheers made him Adonis—

ah! his running and jumping 

his catching and throwing

and hitting the ball with such skill—

until his fickle body betrayed him.

And there’s the god

of buying, exhorting us:

“Spend for the common good,

‘til you become consumer kings 

and queens—making others rich!”

America—the greatest god of all?

Its myths, its legendary heroes.

its sacred castes—invoking the real God

to sanctify its sins—enlisting us

to march in its parades.

We are beset by gods,

each one out to win us.

It’s our souls they’re after,

to suck the marrow of our bones, 

to drink away our lives like Draculas.

It’s healing we seek,

the wholeness of our parts,

when we give all we have.

The gods take it all 

gladly—not caring 

that we’ve emptied ourselves.

We’ve given ourselves away

on unsatiated altars—

to divinities who devour

the gifts and the givers alike.

(c) Phil Hefner 8/29/2001.