Brandon's Creek


We followed the signs down the narrow, walled country lanes to the wide spot in the road where we parked and got out.  Across from us was a field of sheep, with Mount Brandon rising into the clouds behind.  In front of us was the Atlantic Ocean through a rocky break in the land.  We had arrived at the spot where Brandon's Creek flowed through pastures and into a small bay before the crashing of the Atlantic waves.  Goats were grazing on the steep cliffs above the creek.  We sat on a stacked stone wall and listened to the creek and the surf and the wind.

"Can you imagine setting off in a tiny boat from this spot, looking out on that ocean?"  "No," Mom replied.

For this is the spot where in the sixth century St. Brendan the Navigator set sail on his seven year voyage that, according to legend, took him to North America and back.  Over the following days I often thought of this moment on the edge of land and ocean and the sense of mission that would drive someone to risk everything. 

My trip to Ireland was rich with holy moments and revelations, of these I hope to write in the coming days.

One revelation was that I have never felt less like a foreigner in a foreign land.  I felt very at home.  I may be more Irish than I realized.  Some of this is my gift for gab and my sense of humour.  The Irish are among the friendliest people I've ever encountered.  Moments after greeting someone you could be in the full swing of conversation, way beyond surface pleasantries.  Politics came up a lot.

One of my favourite moments came in a shop in Killarney, County Kerry.  The clerk asked where we were from.  Oklahoma, my sister said.  "You get bad winters there," she said.  I responded, "Not too bad, but I live in Nebraska where they are significantly more."  The clerk said, "But you're used to that, right?  Being 'significantly more'?"  Ouch, sassy.

A strange aspect of the travel is hearing the dark sides of Irish history, the colonization and attempts by the British to ethnically cleanse the island of its native population, particularly the many reminders of the famine.  Mom wanted to visit the Cobh Heritage Center which narrates the story of Irish emigration.  While the center celebrates the strength of the emigrants and their lasting impact upon the development of other nations like the US, Canada, and Australia, I left the exhibit with a sense of grief and horror.  Underlying all the joy, the beauty, the music, and the friendliness is this dark history.

And so I work to understand what I experienced and learned from this vacation, so let's tell the story, beginning with my arrival in Dublin at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, October 12 when my cabbie said, "Not much to do this early."

Philosophy and the Highest Good

I've been teaching from Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy this semester.  On Tuesday we'll complete the book by discussing its final chapter on "The Value of Philosophy."  I remember when I first read this chapter, I didn't care much for it, particularly in comparison to Whitehead's discussions of the role and value of philosophy.  But now I deeply enjoy it and highly regard it.  This chapter is one sign of why Russell was the rare winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for philosophical prose.

So, here is the final chapter of the book:

Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

Some recent pieces on the election and more

I've not been keeping up with my blogging the last few weeks as I've been otherwise quite busy, but here two recent pieces which I found noteworthy.  

Conservative economist Robert Samuelson's declaration that Trump's trade policies would lead to a worldwide recession.

Peter Beinart's article in the Atlantic contrasting Trump with the traditional GOP candidates who emphasize moral citizenship and personal sacrifice.  Trump seems to abdicate personal responsibility.

Maybe the long-term damage of the 9/11 sue the Saudis bill is that the U. S. Congress caved to conspiracy theorists and thereby undermined the pursuit of truth, reason, and order. 

And an article raising the question why Obama doesn't do more to counter Russia.  I have no sense of what we should do about Russia, but I am glad that Obama seems to be rejecting getting drawn into a 21st century Great Game, which contributed to the collapse of the British Empire when they played with Russia in the 19th century.

Farce Territory

Charles Krauthammer had been one of the many conservative columnists who opposed Donald Trump.  In recent weeks it appeared that he was warming to Trump, though the debate seems to have ended that. The latest column from him is a devastating attack on Trump, stating "We're now in farce territory."  Here is the choice paragraph:

After 15 months, the suspension of disbelief has become so ubiquitous that we hardly notice anymore. We are operating in an alternate universe where the geometry is non-Euclidean, facts don’t matter, history and logic have disappeared.

One New Humanity

One New Humanity

Ephesians 2:13-22

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

2 October 2016



    According to the prominent scholar N. T. Wright the meaning of this passage is essential to understand the will and work of God, for this passage in Ephesians informs us that God, through Jesus, is reconciling the divisions that have separated Jews and Gentiles, that the church is supposed to be a place where these racial, cultural, national, even religious divisions are broken down so that healing, reconciliation, and unity might result. By forming this new global community, the church, an entity that breaks down boundaries and brings people of all types together, God is declaring the defeat of the powers-that-be who attempt to divide and exclude us from one another through fear and violence. This new community, the church, is an alternative politics, representing how human society ought to be organized. The alternative politics which the church embodies and advocates for is essential to the salvation of humanity. Thus our salvation can only be fully achieved when we are God's agents of reconciliation, breaking down racial, religious, national, and cultural boundaries, uniting all people together in one common, new humanity.

    It's really as simple as that.


    And yet fear and uncertainty of the stranger abound in this age of terror and mass murder. And these fears and anxieties are dangerous. These fears open us up to be seduced by the temptation to support a politics of division instead of the church's politics of forgiveness and reconciliation. Fear of refugees and immigrants, hatred of Muslims, the refusal to hear the cries of racial injustice from our black sisters and brothers are all signs of the sinfulness Paul is preaching against in the letter to the Ephesians. They are contrary to God's will and work. They are antithetical to the mission of the Christian church. The church must bear witness to the wider world by living as a people of forgiveness, of compassion, of welcome, of trust.


    The Russian theologian Sergius Bulgakov wrote that "the destiny of everyone is connected with the destiny of all; everyone is responsible for all," which is why he rejected all notions of individual salvation. Either all humanity together is saved or all humanity together is lost. If we think we can be reconciled to God without doing the very difficult work of becoming reconciled to all humanity, then we are sorely mistaken.


    And there is no better day to remind us of these Gospel truths then World Communion Sunday, when we celebrate our connections with all humanity through space and time in the Body of Christ.

    The Orthodox churches have long understood communion, the Eucharist, as not simply some ritual of worship which arose within the early Christian churches, but communion as the event with constitutes the very being of the church. The Greek theologian John Zizioulas even goes so far as to say that communion gives us our fundamental insight into the nature of reality—that existence must be conceived as an act of communion. Our personhood is a relational personhood. We cannot be ourselves except in a relation of communion with others. This is true even of God. Zizioulas wrote, "The being of God is relational being: without the concept of communion it would not be possible to speak of the being of God."

    Communion reveals to us the nature of reality and calls us to live in agreement with reality. Sin is the attempt to live contrary to reality, to break the bonds that unite us with God and with one another.

    In 1982 various expressions of the Christian faith—Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Evangelical—settled many of their centuries-old disputes by agreeing to the document Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, an excerpt of which was read a moment ago. This agreement itself is an embodiment of the idea of communion, an attempt to break down barriers, be reconciled, and find unity.

The document expresses the varied and rich meanings one should draw from the Christian teaching of the Eucharist. On this World Communion Sunday, we draw our attention to the places in which the document speaks about our global relationships. And so it states,


All kinds of injustice, racism, separation and lack of freedom are radically challenged when we share in the body and blood of Christ. Through the eucharist the all-renewing grace of God penetrates and restores human personality and dignity.


    The document makes clear that while reconciliation is an act of the Holy Spirit, we in the church are the embodiment of the Spirit's power, responsible for carrying out God's work. It proclaims:


As participants in the eucharist, therefore, we prove inconsistent if we are not actively participating in this ongoing restoration of the world's situation and the human condition.


    Communion, therefore, leads to mission. We don't simply engage in a solemn and meaningful ritual that nourishes us. Communion does do that, but it then leads us out into the world. Pope John Paul II declared that we should never forget that communion "is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world."

    Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry makes clear this connection to mission.


As it is entirely the gift of God, the eucharist brings into the present age a new reality which transforms Christians into the image of Christ and therefore makes them his effective witnesses. The eucharist is precious food for missionaries, bread and wine for pilgrims on their apostolic journey. The eucharistic community is nourished and strengthened for confessing by word and action the Lord Jesus Christ who gave his life for the salvation of the world. As it becomes one people, sharing the meal of the one Lord, the eucharistic assembly must be concerned for gathering also those who are at present beyond its visible limits, because Christ invited to his feast all for whom he died. Insofar as Christians cannot unite in full fellowship around the same table to eat the same loaf and drink from the same cup, their missionary witness is weakened at both the individual and the corporate levels.


    We have a responsibility to be missionaries to the world, breaking down barriers, inviting all people to share our common humanity, and communion is the meal that nourishes us in this endeavor. If we fail to live in communion with everyone, then our witness for God is diminished. Which is one of the many reasons that we must try ever so diligently to listen to one another and to maintain relationship with one another, especially when we disagree.


    And so in this age of terror and mass murder, of bitter partisan divisions, of difficulty listening and hearing one another, we might be wondering who we are.

    Our membership in the church, the Body of Christ, allows us to answer that question with confidence. We are God's agents of reconciliation, breaking down racial, religious, national, and cultural boundaries, uniting all people together in one common, new humanity.

The Silk Roads

The Silk Roads: A New History of the WorldThe Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have mixed feelings about this book. The early chapters were missing well-told stories and left me thinking the author wasn't a very good writer. However, later chapters do have some well-told stories. Also, the eras I wanted to know most about I thought were rather hurriedly covered in order for the author to move more quickly to the last two centuries and the point he wants to make at how the Near East and Central Asia have returned to their historical role as the center of the world.

His discussions of how politics in this region affected everything from the British tax system leading to the American Revolution to being essential for understanding how World War I began were quite revealing. And he makes a powerful case in the final chapter for the growing wealth and re-emergence of Central Asia in the 21st century.

The author also presents this book as an alternative, and better, way of looking at World History by narrating the role that what he calls the center of the world has played since ancient times instead of the usual narrative of the collapse of Rome leading to a focus on Western Europe, which he argues remained marginal to what was going on in the world until relatively recently.

Missing, for me, were more rich and exotic stories of the Medieval and Early Modern era along the Silk Roads. China remains tangential to the history, surprisingly, with there still being more focus on Europe than I expected given the over-arching thesis. Also, Gandhi never appears and Indian Independence, which would seem to me to be a significant story in this history, especially given the focus on India in earlier chapters, received short shrift as the mid-twentieth century chapters focused on the US and USSR competing for Iranian and Iraqi oil.

I'll need to read another history to learn more about Samarkand or the Mughal Empire or the rich history of the Caucasus.

View all my reviews

The Permanent Way

The Permanent Way


Welcome to Mystery

Welcome to Mystery

Psalm 8

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

25 September 2016

    I grew up in a religious tradition that did not value science, except on the rare occasion when it was felt that science in some way confirmed a tenant of conservative biblical interpretation.

    But I was a child and adolescent fascinated by science, and I benefited from an excellent high school chemistry and physics teacher, Ken Harvey. Like most kids, I thought I knew more than I actually did. Harvey was one of those people who revealed a wider world to me. When I'd state an opinion, he might offer a different way of looking at the topic. My many hours in conversation with Harvey both inside and outside the classroom opened my mind to new possibilities. He was one of the most influential persons in my life.

    As I entered college I had compartmentalized my intellect—religion was in one compartment and science in another—I couldn't see how to make them fit together, but I didn't want to cast either one aside.

    In college I encountered the historical-critical method of reading the bible and the rich diversity of theological interpretation. I abandoned the biblical literalism of my childhood and embraced a more open and inclusive faith.

    At the same time I began to study more in-depth the scientific advances of the twentieth century, particularly the developments around quantum mechanics, which seemed to open the door for more connections between science and religion.

    Somewhere along the way I read the book God and the New Physics by the physicist Paul Davies. In the introduction to that book, Davies makes the startling claim that "science offers a surer path to God than religion."

    I ended up reading most of the books Davies had written to that point. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on his concept of God, a concept derived not from theology but from the discoveries of physicists.

    Our culture has a mistaken notion that science and religion are in conflict with one another. There are of course those extreme religious fundamentalists who denounce many scientific conclusions, all the while benefiting from technological advances, of course. And there are the reductive materialist atheists who denounce all religion and with it all sense of mystery and awe.

    But most of us lie somewhere in the middle between these extremes. There are atheistic scientists who believe that science evokes wonder and awe, something akin to spirituality. And there have always been people of religious faith who have embraced scientific advances as revealing God's truths.

    In fact, a good reading of the history of science will reveal all the ways in which modern science was given birth by deeply religious people, like Sir Isaac Newton. What so often appear as conflicts between science and religion were often conflicts between competing value systems or new paradigms with religious people actually lining up on both sides of the conflict.

    In our day we seem to be living through another era in which scientific conclusions are dismissed by a wide segment of our society, and sometimes for religious reasons. I find it strange that in 2016 highlighting the continuities between science and spirituality remains a unique endeavor.

    Last year David Nichols came to me and said, "We need to be having more conversations about the connections between science and spirituality." As he and I talked he expressed more of what he meant. For him science reveals mysteries and wonders and for him exploring those mysteries is a spiritual experience.

    At the time the UCC's pastoral letter on religion and science was released—the letter an excerpt of which Barb read a moment ago--the Rev. Dr. John Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, was interviewed. Listen to this excerpt from the interview:

Science ultimately welcomes more mystery—not less—into the life of faith, Thomas believes. . . . the sight of seeing dividing cells through the aid of a microscope "encourages singing, not arguments" . . .


The outcome of scientific inquiry, therefore, is "a greater sacramental understanding of our life together," Thomas says.

    Thomas then asks an interesting question, "Isn't it exciting that God wants God's creatures to be curious creatures, exploring and imagining?" John Thomas, by the way, will be preaching here next month for Katie Miller's installation service.

    God wants us to be curious, to explore, to imagine. I believe this very sentiment is expressed by the psalmist. We humans are humble creatures, a fragile bit of matter, yet this lump of clay has the most amazing brain. We can reason and imagine, dream and create, make and fashion. This is the divine glory within us.

    Last year I stood in awe of our species as we watched the New Horizons probe beam back to us pictures of Pluto. Here were mountain ranges and icy plains revealed in stunning photographs—beauty that might have laid unrevealed through all eternity. Yet, our brains could design a satellite that traveled 3 billion miles away and take pictures and send them back to us. I've never been so in awe of what it means to be a human and to have our brains. Crowned with glory and honor, indeed.

    But that moment of revelation also inspired a greater sense of wonder. What all else exists in our cosmos unrevealed to us? We have so many more worlds to explore and millions, billions even that we will likely never reach in the entire history of species and our planet. And that, for me, is a mystery of deep spiritual import. For while God has lavished such honor and glory upon us in our obscure little corner of the cosmos, what other wonders has God created?

    The UCC's pastoral letter on science says, "God yearns for us to understand nature more fully and to love it more deeply. God speaks in many ways and through many voices. Today, one of God's many provocative voices is science. We listen and respond, grateful that our theology is enriched by new ideas."

    Let us listen to God speaking to us today. Let us be a people who embrace truth, open to new ideas, welcoming the mysteries.