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A New Thread in the Tapestry of My Life: Serving People in the Age of COVID-19


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

It is interesting to think about life, what has transpired, and what might have been if only…

Like anyone I wonder about all of the “what ifs” and “might have been” parts of my life. Of course there are many, going back to things that I could not control, such as the choices that my parents made regarding their lives, career, family, and home. Then there are my own choices, choices that I made, some for better, and some maybe for worse. Then there were the choices of men and women in my life and career that impacted my life and the decisions that I made, again for better or worse.

Some of my dreams, and nightmares too, involve those decisions, particularly the ones that I could not control; but then there were those decisions, particularly regarding my military career choices, that come back to haunt my dreams. Those can be troubling; the things that I volunteered to do and the costs of those to Judy as a result of those decisions. Many of those decisions, particularly my decisions to volunteer for certain deployments and operations have come at a great cost to both of us, the struggle with the effects of PTSD even ten years after my return from Iraq is still very real.

But then I am reminded that none of us have a crystal ball that allows us to see what the result of our decisions will be; none of us are God, or some other omniscient being. We make our decisions based on what we know, and what we think might be the outcome of our decisions.

If only my knees hadn’t been too badly injured and slow to recover I would have been out of the Navy, probably teaching history (now online) at the college level while relegating my calling as a priest to the background. But after that I  couldn’t retire, but due to a administrative error in calculating my statutory retirement date as I expected in April. I am now scheduled to retire in August, but with Coronavirus there is even uncertainty about that, and frankly I couldn’t care less, because I would rather serve and be in the thick of the fight than sitting on my ass or doing something that provides for me and Judy, but does not help in the time of crisis.

Between last spring when I first put in my voluntary retirement  paperwork working in the most miserable tour of all my time in the military, and doubting my call as a Priest, something miraculous happened. The screwed up knees and administrative mistakes ended up renewing my call and ministry among people I would never have expected to be serving. But even with that I never expected that I would still be serving on active duty at the age of 60, providing needed and valued ministry to people of all faiths, including atheists, in the midst of the novel Coronavirus 19 pandemic that is infecting some of them, or infecting and killing their family members, friends, or others that they know. Of course I take all of the guidance seriously to protect those I serve as well as Judy and me, but a new thread has been woven into the tapestry of my life. I felt the renewed call not long after I arrived, but this has solidified it.

I love the television series Star Trek the Next Generation. One of my favorite episodes is called Tapestry. In the episode Captain Picard is killed. He is then met by the being known as Q, played by John De Lancie for a do-over, a second chance to reverse a choice that he made as a young officer.

On Q’s promise that his choice will not alter history Picard takes the chance and he ends up regretting it. In his second chance to avoid the incident that allowed him to be killed he alienates himself from his friends, and turns him in to a different person, unwilling to take chances and doomed to insignificance. When he returns to his new present he finds himself alive but a different person. Instead of a starship captain is a nondescript lieutenant junior grade doing a job that he hates as an assistant astrophysics officer.

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Distraught Picard complains to Q:

Picard: You having a good laugh now, Q? Does it amuse you to think of me living out the rest of my life as a dreary man in a tedious job?

Q: I gave you something most mortals never experience: a second chance at life. And now all you can do is complain?

Picard: I can’t live out my days as that person. That man is bereft of passion… and imagination! That is not who I am!

Q: Au contraire. He’s the person you wanted to be: one who was less arrogant and undisciplined in his youth, one who was less like me… The Jean-Luc Picard you wanted to be, the one who did not fight the Nausicaan, had quite a different career from the one you remember. That Picard never had a brush with death, never came face to face with his own mortality, never realized how fragile life is or how important each moment must be. So his life never came into focus. He drifted through much of his career, with no plan or agenda, going from one assignment to the next, never seizing the opportunities that presented themselves. He never led the away team on Milika III to save the Ambassador; or take charge of the Stargazer’s bridge when its captain was killed. And no one ever offered him a command. He learned to play it safe – and he never, ever, got noticed by anyone.

It is a fascinating exchange and one that when I wonder about the choices that I have made that I think about; because when all is said and done, my life, like all of ours is a tapestry. On reflection Picard tells Counselor Troi, “There are many parts of my youth that I’m not proud of. There were… loose threads – untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I… pulled on one of those threads – it’d unravel the tapestry of my life.”

I think that I can agree with that. All the things in my life, the good things and the bad, as well as the paths not taken have all been a part of the tapestry of my life. I would not be who I am without them; and that I cannot comprehend. I would rather be the flawed me that is me, than the perfect me that never existed. Thus, all of those threads of my tapestry are in a sense, precious and even holy.

I’ll keep all of them, but of all I will remember this thread, as well as my combat tours, and life and death in ICUs and ERs the most. Suddenly at the age of 60 life has begun again. As the late great Sid Caesar once said:

“A great NOW will be a great WAS! A bad NOW will always be a bad WAS, and all you can hope for is a Great GONNA BE!”

As old as I am and as long as I have served, my future is yet to be written, and the tapestry of my life continues, even as new threads are woven into it. Every experience in my life has helped make me the person that I am. A friend of mine from my high school years sent me an email after I explained the experiences behind my writings, and noted “maybe all of that prepared you for such a time as this.” It was an affirmation by someone who doesn’t always share my political, social, or interpretation of the Christian faith that I am doing what I need to be, in such a time as this.

Value the tapestry of your life, and always find something good to life for and work towards.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under christian life, Coronavirus, faith, life, Military, ministry, philosophy, star trek, Tour in Iraq, US Navy

COVID-19: Living with its Reality While Being Brave and Caring While Acknowledging our Fears

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

T.S. Elliot penned these words: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” 

The sad fact is that Drs. Birx and Fauci have been quietly trying to brace the President and many of us for reality. Despite all the falsehoods and false hopes that emanated from the mouth of the President  between January and the beginning of March they, like them or not, soldiered on when many would have quit. All the President’s  denials, delays, disinformation, claims of fake news, bragging about his success, attacking  political opponents, and demonizing real news agencies, and reporters by name did not keep them from pushing back. I am not sure, but I suspect that Vice President Pence began to trust them helped push the President into accepting reality that the numbers that will die in the United States are far beyond anything that he ever would admit. Today they admitted that 100,000 to 240,000 could die, and that with successful mitigation. The same models predict a million and a half to two and a half million deaths without “successful” mitigation efforts. Who knows what April will bring, but I don’t think most American leaders or their followers are willing to deal with the hard truth that lay before us.

What our states are now beginning to do may be too little and to late to prevent an even higher death toll. Truthfully, based on the deadliness COVID-19 has demonstrated in our country where a lot more people in the 20-50 year old bracket are falling victim than was expect, I think, though I desperately  want to be wrong, and a quarter of a million is a low estimate based on the historical tendency for Americans to not obey the rules, trust science, or the government.

The terrible thing is that now the President would consider a death toll of 100,000 a “victory.” Had the President and  administration prepared for the virus when they were warned, we would have had a chance at minimizing the death toll, like South Korea.

But here we are facing one of the most catastrophic moments in the history of our country. We have to pull together, work together, and fight this together. Political, ideological, and religious animosity has to be chucked over the rails of this ship called America if we are not to sink. As one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence said, “we either hang together or we hang separately.”

Sadly, I have the feeling that many Americans will not believe until they, their family members, and friends start dying. As C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed:

“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”

That my friends is the reality that we face. No matter our religion, lack thereof, or ideology may be, we are all human. Unless we are true narcissistic sociopaths, the deaths of friends and loved ones strike the very core of our innate human finiteness. They remind us that we too are mortal, and part of a community. I have friends across the religious and political spectrum, even people who disagree with me vehemently on various matters. But the death of any of them would involve grief that I cannot explain.

So now the latest COVID-19 casualty report. Worldwide there are 858,669 cases, 42,151 deaths, and 178,099 recovered. The get the death rate we do not uses the total infections. John’s Hopkins uses the total number infected, but since that number is always changing it is unreliable. Instead you have to use the total cases completed by either death or recovery, as the denominator. You divide the number of deaths by the number of completed cases. That rate is now 19% worldwide. In the United States there are now 188,530 total cases, 3,889 deaths and  7,251 people who have recovered, a 35% death rate. Of course as the minor infections recover the rate will most likely go down, to between 5 and 10%, not the 1-3% that some estimated just weeks ago. This is a killer virus, much worse than any flu. I’m not a scientist, but a historian. The great Spanish Influenza of 1918-19 killed over 600,000 Americans, and based on the latest estimates nearly 50 million deaths worldwide, and the populations, especially those living in major metropolitan cities, were far less than they are today.

John Barry, author of The Great Influenza: the Story of the Greatest Pandemic in History  wrote:

“overstate to make a point—warned, civilization could have disappeared within a few more weeks. So the final lesson of 1918, a simple one yet one most difficult to execute, is that those who occupy positions of authority must lessen the panic that can alienate all within a society. Society cannot function if it is every man for himself. By definition, civilization cannot survive that. Those in authority must retain  the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first, and best. A leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart.”

The lesson is that truth even in the face of unimaginable disaster and loss of life, must be told. The same is true with how to mitigate the threat. Fear is a natural response, and anyone involved in a war, which this is, is not unreasonable, especially when there is no vaccine, should demonstrate a measure of reasonable fear. General George Patton wrote words that should be absorbed by everyone facing this virus today:

“If we take the generally accepted definition of bravery as a quality which knows no fear, I have never seen a brave man. All men are frightened. The more intelligent they are, the more they are frightened.”

That means that we can be frightened, yet brave. We must continue to life life and care for others even as we use social distancing and other prevention measures.

As Captain Jean Luc Picard in Star Trek the Next Generation said: “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…”

Our leaders regardless if the are political, scientific, media, military, religious, or medical leaders must tell the truth, and then do the hard things in order to survive without becoming the dystopia of a world like the Mad Max films, novels like 1984, or so many examples from history and fiction.

We need leaders who tell the truth, and we need to act, despite our fears to defeat this threat. As Winston Churchill said in Britain’s darkest hour, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” our leaders regardless of party or ideology have to stop offering meaningless but comforting words, and tell the truth. If they don’t we will experience worse than we could imagine. As the English comedian Rowan Atkinson uttered in the BBC comedy series, Black Adder: “a fate worse than a fate worse than death.”

100,000 to 2400,000 preventable deaths is not a victory, it is a needless sacrifice of human life. Each of the dead is more than a number or name, they are human beings who leave behind parents, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, grandchildren, friends, and coworkers. Each death leaves a hole in the heart of someone who loved and cared for them, that cannot be filled by empty words.

Until tomorrow, and with hope for the future. Please be careful out there,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

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Filed under Coronavirus, Diseases Epidemics and Pandemics, ethics, faith, film, healthcare, History, laws and legislation, leadership, News and current events, Political Commentary, Religion

Intellectual, Political, and Theological Integrity in the Time of the Iowa Caucuses, the State of the Union, and Ideological Conformity

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a quick note for today as it will be an eventful week; the Iowa Caucuses on Monday, the State of the Union Address on Tuesday, and the acquittal without an actual trial with witnesses or new evidence on Wednesday, or Thursday at the lastest.

Since the first will be disputed because of irregularities, hacking, and political manipulation in the caucuses which will sow discord in the Democratic Party; the second, the State of the Union which will be President Trump’s preludes to his acquittal by the Senate; and the last a charade which will destroy the checks and balances intended by our Founders, and solidify an authoritarian government, led by the Executive Branch regardless of who is President or which party they represent. The guardrails that secured our republic and its Constitution have been damaged beyond repair. Humanity, the one constant in recorded history will see to that.

So what I am going to to do, at least until I retire from the military is post articles that the discerning reader will understand are due to prudence over propaganda, and enlightening people by sometimes indirect means that to bludgeon my way through issues. This is because while I am a liberal, progressive, or whatever label you want to put on me I am a historian and a realist.

I will be bold when I need to be, but it may be through the lives and words of others, people who living or dead I support and admire. Sometimes it will be my own words, but sadly, my words and wisdom often pale to those who have often paid with their lives for their opposition to the status quo. Truthfully, being a former conservative who now is a bit further to the left than the center left., but certainly not an extremist in any way. My pragmatism and study of history prevents that, as does my Oath of Office to the Constitution which rises beyond political party or religious denomination’s beliefs.

That might confuse true believers and ideologues regardless of their place on the political and ideological chasm. Thus my posts will reflect my position on the political and theological left, without    compromise, but while doing my best to maintain intellectual, theological, political, and historical integrity. So you can expect more articles from history, with appropriate political or theological commentary thrown in as needed. Likewise, though I am a Democrat I will try to refrain from intra-Party fratricide because of the broader issues at hand. The political fight among Democrats must not become a Democratic version of the Trump Cult where one candidate is not to be criticized or their lives, records, and actions submitted to scrutiny. I refuse to exchange one version of tyranny for another.

I will now quote from one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek the Next Generation called The Drumhead uttered by Jean Luc Picard:

“We think we’ve come so far. Torture of heretics, burning of witches it’s all ancient history. Then – before you can blink an eye – suddenly it threatens to start all over again.”

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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“Don’t Be Silly, Space Shuttles Don’t Explode” Challenger at 34 Years


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is still so hard to believe that thirty-four years ago we were stunned to see the Space Shuttle Challenger blow up shortly after launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

I don’t know about you, but it shocked the hell out of me. I am a child of the 1960s and 1970s when the United States was setting the pace on the exploration of space. Manned missions to the moon had become commonplace, the Space Shuttle Program appeared to be a jumping off point for further exploration. Space stations that would be able to conduct scientific research and maybe even serve as launching and logistics centers for the exploration of Mars and beyond.

Back when I was a kid and young adult the space program captivated us, and coupled with the hope presented in Star Trek, where human beings of all races and nationalities would work with alien races who had similar values explored the far reaches of the galaxy, anything seemed possible. Then, in one moment, the dream imploded as the Challenger exploded. Truthfully, it hasn’t been the same since.

That afternoon I was still at work as the Commanding Officer of the 557th Medical Company, (Ambulance). It was about 20 minutes till six and I was completing paperwork from an Article 15 proceeding, and looking over our end of the month Unit Status Report (USR) drafts.

It was about that time that my Charge Of Quarters, Specialist Lisa Dailey came charging into my office. She cried out “Lieutenant Dundas, the Space Shuttle just blew up!” I looked up from my paperwork and said, “Don’t be silly, space shuttles don’t blow up.” Such was my faith in technology and the dreams of the space program and Star Trek in my mind.

She couldn’t believe my response, because she had just seen it in real time. That was not long after the Armed Forces Network or AFN started broadcasting CNN and other U.S. based news programs in real time. CNN just happened to be televising the launch of Challenger. Specialist Dailey, who I still remain in contact with said “no sir, I just saw it, it’s on TV right now.”

With that I got up and went with her to the television where I stood transfixed as I watched the endless replays of the event. It was so unbelievable. Never before had a U.S. space mission failed to at last get into space, and it was a body blow to the space program. The shuttle program continued, but it wasn’t the same. There were many more successful missions, many in support of the International Space Station, but they became routine and many people didn’t follow them. Truthfully, I was like many people, I didn’t pay much attention to them after the Space Shuttle program regained steam and achieved success after success.

But then, some seventeen years later on February 1st 2003 I was sitting drinking coffee in the Wardroom Of the USS HUE CITY, waiting for the arrival of General Peter Pace, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Veteran of the Battle Of Hue City. General Pace was our guest speaker at the annual,Battle Of Hue City Memorial. He was remembered fondly by the Marines who served with him at Hue City as their Lieutenant. As I waited the wardroom Television was tuned to CNN which was covering the re-entry of the Space Shuttle Columbia. As I watched the coverage Columbia broke up on re-entry over Texas and Louisiana. General Pace was delayed in his arrival due to an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, but he did arrived. However, for the seconded time in my life I witnessed the destruction of a Space Shuttle, but by then I would never again make the comment “Don’t be silly, Space Shuttles don’t explode.”

Honestly, I want to live to see the day when human beings land of Mars, and to really dream when humanity achieves the capacity for faster than light space travel, or as it is called in Star Trek, “Warp Speed.” I would love to live to see first contact with a friendly Alien race like the Vulcans of Star Trek. I still dream, but I know that there are risks, and that in such undertakings that lives will be lost, that there will be tragedies, but that is the price of human progress.

As the entity called Q told Jean Luc Picard in the Star Trek Next Generation episode Q Who:

“If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here! It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross…but it’s not for the timid.”

I remember and mourn those lost aboard Challenger and Columbia, but I pray that their sacrifice in the name of humanity will not be forgotten, nor their quest abandoned.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“What We Leave Behind is Not as Important as How We Lived: Reflecting on My 2019

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

T. S. Elliott wrote:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.”

It is the eve of New Year’s Eve and I have been reflecting on the year past and thinking about the future, and trying to put the past year into words. The good thing is that I write a decent amount about my experiences as they occur on this site, so in addition to it being a wealth of historical, biographical, religious, and political thinking, it also serves as kind of a public diary.

The past year has been full of difficulties, surprises, sometimes good and sometimes not so good. But for the most part we are ending the year on a high note. Judy is now pretty much recovered from both of her knee replacement surgeries as well as hernia surgery which was necessary due to the hysterectomy associated with endometrial cancer surgery in 2015. My knees as well as sleep disorders and PTSD continue to be problematic.

The knee issue kept me from retiring as planned on September 1st of this year. I had a failed surgery on the meniscus of my left knee, and failed cortisone, platelet rich plasma, and gel injections in my right knee. My pain level was a constant 7 to 10 on the pain scale. Eventually my physical therapy doctor referred me to aquatic physical therapy, and my former Executive Officer at the Camp LeJeune Naval Hospital got me an appointment with the Orthopedic department head at the Naval Medical Center who ordered new MRIs, determined that I was not a candidate for knee replacement therapy and proscribed a new series of gel injections done by a different provider. Normally it takes a couple of weeks before one experiences pain relief, I certain did not experience that the first time. However, I experienced almost immediate relief following the first set of injections. The pain levels went down, the aquatic physical therapy helped and soon I no longer needed crutches or a cane to assist me walking, and I lost 28 pounds between June and October. I continue to get the gel injection treatments, and my pain level seldom goes beyond a 4 or 5, most of the time it is under three. I should get another series beginning in February, but again I digress…

With my knees so screwed up and my retirement request being voluntary, the Navy moved the date to what they had calculated to be my statuary retirement date based on years of commissioned service to April 1st 2020, and then when it came time to issue my retirement orders they realized they had made a mistake and counted four months of active National Guard enlisted service as part of the 28 years commissioned service, so they pushed my retirement date to August 1st 2020. That was unexpected, and involved a lot of consternation and work, to move all of my books and memorabilia to my home and storage space and create a room for my library, all while trying to transfer, which on short notice is complicated enough.

On another subject, we were once again able to make our pilgrimage to Germany, in September and October, see old friends and decompress for a while. Judy was able to visit another five or six towns from where her family emigrated, first to Russia and then to the United States. As usual I made pilgrimages to various Holocaust and German resistance movements. However, I was most happy to get Judy to those places. Hopefully we can do more this year, but I digress…

The change in my retirement dates led to some consternation and stress as the local command and region tried to figure out what to do with my as my relief was already in place and I was excess, but it turned out well. So they worked out a deal for me to serve at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, since the shipyard has not had a chaplain since 2009. The chapels , a historic building is condemned due to serious structural issues, black mold, asbestos, and a major termite infestation. I don’t have an assistant, a budget, and I work out of the administration department offices. But the command welcomed me with open arms and the ministry there plays to my strengths, getting out with people and being there for them, regardless of their status as active duty, Navy civilian employees, or contractors.

I like walking about the shipyard and visiting people where they work. I go to where they take their smoke breaks, their office or other work spaces, and let them know that I am there for them. I did a holiday greeting letter and got a huge response of people wanting me to visit, as well as people wanting to talk. I think I will start doing a “thought of the day” to send out as well as a monthly letter on topics that could encompass secular and religious holidays.

I am happier at work than I have been for over two and a half years, and people can tell the difference. So I expect to end my Navy and military career on a high note. I have been up, and down, and now I’m not just trying, but I have that feeling again, I feel renewed. Though the year did not go the way that I planned or imagined, I have been blessed.

The coming year will have its own stressors as I get ready to retire, process my VA claim, get through all of the Navy wickets I need to check off, then arrange my retirement ceremony and prepare for life as a civilian, which includes preparing our townhome to sell or rent so we can get a one floor ranch style house. There are some employment possibilities that may make the transition fairly smooth. So you can pray for me on that.

There are other challenges that we face, which I shall not mention here but we do  appreciate your thoughts, kind words, encouragement and prayers. For those who read this blog regularly, thank you, because many of my articles do take some time to read and are quite serious in nature.

But I leave you with this final thought.

In the movie Star Trek: Generations, Captain Jean Luc Picard tells Commander William Riker:

“Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. But I rather believe than time is a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment because they’ll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important how we lived. After all, Number One, we’re only mortal.” 

So as I close out the old year I wish you all the best, although I’m only mortal, and that’s probably a good thing.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Freedom of Religion and the Yuck Factor: American Religious Theocrats

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The distinguished British Mathematician and Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote:

“Religion carries two sorts of people in two entirely opposite directions: the mild and gentle people it carries towards mercy and justice; the persecuting people it carries into fiendish sadistic cruelty…” 

I fully agree with him based on my knowledge of human history and behavior. I strongly support religious freedom, so long as it is not abused by people to harm others. I get sick of religious liberty hyperbole when it is used by theocrats of all religious stripes. I am kind of like James Spader’s character, Alan Shore in Boston Legal; but then, maybe there is a valid reason that my seminary classmates at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary asked me why I wasn’t in law school. They did not mean it as a compliment.

During one episode dealing with a case regarding religious liberties Spader’s character (Whose God is it Anyway, Season Three Episode 5) said:

“I don’t know about you but I’m getting a little tired of the religious freedom thing. When did religion get such a good name anyway. Be it the Crusades, the reformation genocides, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, mass slaughters in the name of Allah, the obligatory reciprocal retributions. Hundreds of millions have died in religious conflicts. Hitler did his business in the name of his creator. Religious extremism, it’s our greatest threat today, a holy jihad. If we’re not ready to strip religion of its sacred cow status, how about we at least scale back on the Constitutional dogma exalting it as all get out….

Everyone should get to believe in his God, pray to his God, worship his God of course. But to impose him on others, to victimize others in his name?  The founding fathers set out to prevent persecution, not license it…

At a certain point we have to say “enough with this freedom of religion crap. Yuck, yuck, yuck. I know, I’ll get letters….” 

At this time though I am doing my best to fight budget cuts that could harm the rights of Navy and Marine Corps personnel of their rights to practice their religion in base chapels, cuts that will harm the religious rights of the most vulnerable service members and their families. I don’t have to agree with their religion, politics or theology, but I follow the Constitution, and legal precedent, not my own opinions on faith.

Let me explain.

Those who follow my writings know how much I struggle with faith and doubt on a daily basis. I believe, but as the man told Jesus when he asked Jesus to heal his child “I believe, help my unbelief.” I no longer believe in the “absolute truths” that I once believed. Of course to some this makes me a heretic or worse. That being said, I have faith in a God I cannot see. I have faith in a God who clothes himself in human weakness and allows himself to be killed as a state criminal.

That being said I see many of my fellow Christians, not to mention those of other faiths who attempt to use their interpretation of what they believe are absolute truths and attempt to impose them on others. Using their houses of worship they indoctrinate believers into believing the “truth” including the judgment on non-believers.

I remember going through classes in my previous denomination which were entitled “The Government of God” and utilized Robert Bork’s book Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline as its primary text. Obviously the class had little to do with faith, but was a tool by which we were indoctrinated to believe the political-religious ideology of our church leaders. There were several more texts, which basically echoed Bork’s thought, but they were taught in a manner is if they were as important as the often contradictory Biblical tests or the writings of the church Fathers, the great saints, scholastics or Protestant Reformers. It was an exercise in political indoctrination based on religious ideology. At the time I had no idea that what the church leaders were appealing to was nothing more than a variation on Christian Dominionism. I will not mention it’s name because most of those who taught this are not alive to defend themselves, and one, though I disagreed with his theology, I knew that he really did love people.

However, such ideology is incredibly dangerous, even when it is taught by well meaning people, because when people in power take it to heart and act upon it, all pretense of fairness, justice and integrity is lost. Those who are simply different are persecuted, those who do not tow a particular party or religious line are suspect, and the innocent are presumed guilty. It has happened throughout human history in every corner of the world, and it still goes on today.

I ended up rejecting that view of faith and life after coming home from Iraq, and for voicing my disagreement on a number of issues was asked to leave that denomination in 2010.

I believe again, but my doubts are real. But even more I have a belief in justice, and I believe that that justice itself cannot be built on absolutes. As Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) noted in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode Justice: 

“I don’t know how to communicate this, or even if it is possible. But the question of justice has concerned me greatly of late. And I say to any creature who may be listening, there can be no justice so long as laws are absolute. Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions.”

I have found that as Picard said, “that life itself is an exercise in exceptions.”  We all make them, and the Bible and the history of the church is full of them. So I have a hard time with those who claim an absolute certitude in beliefs that are built on faith and treat them as fact, despite the fact that they are not provable. Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted the problem well when he talked of this problem and described the dilemma of so many believers:

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them”

Even so believers of all faiths wrap themselves in the certitude of their faith. They espouse doctrines that at best are humanity’s best attempts to describe a God that is infinitely bigger and more complex than they believe. The contest then becomes not about God himself, but the manner that the human being who interprets God espouses as incontrovertible doctrine. Eric Hoffer wrote:

“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

That certitude and the belief that we absolutely know the mind of a God who claims that we cannot know is the height of arrogance and it ensures that when we speak in terms of absolutes that we do not understand God, nor do we believe in justice, because as Captain Picard so wisely noted “life itself is an exercise in exceptions.” Even the most devout of believers make exceptions, simply because they are human and can’t avoid it, unless they are sociopaths.

Henri Nouwen wrote something very profound that all who claim to know God’s absolute will or truth need to consider. Nouwen wrote: “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.”

The fact is that no one can be competent in God, and that those who claim to are either hopelessly deluded b their ignorance, or worse, are evil men masquerading as good. Those who pro port to know absolutes and want to use the Bible or any other religious text as some sort of rule book that they alone can interpret need to ask themselves this question, posed by Commander Riker to Captain Picard when he talked about absolutes and life: “When has justice ever been as simple as a rulebook?” 

Sadly too many people, Christians, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, and others apply their own misconceptions and prejudices to their scriptures and use them as a weapon of temporal and divine judgement on all who they oppose. However, as history, life and even our scriptures testify, that none of us can absolutely claim to know the absolutes of God. As Captain Picard noted “life itself is an exercise in exceptions.” 

Thus our human justice, as feeble as it often is must take this into account: It takes true wisdom to know when and how to make these exceptions, wisdom based on reason, grace and mercy. Justice, is to apply the law in fairness and equity, knowing that even our best attempts can be misguided and if based on emotion, hatred, racism or vengeance all clothed in the language of righteousness can be more evil than any evil it is supposed to correct.

Does it matter if we are doing it the sake of law and order, or for love of country, or to defend the faith; if at the heart of it what we call justice, or moral absolutes is nothing more than the implementation of an agenda to crush the powerless under our heel and promote even more injustice? If we lean toward the view that we are implementing the absolute law and will of God then we had better be sure, as Nouwen so well noted we can be competent in many things, but we cannot, as much as we deceive ourselves, be competent in God.

But we see it all too often, religious people and others misusing faith to condemn those they do not understand or with whom they disagree. As Patrick Stewart playing Captain Jean Luc Picard noted in the Start Trek Next Generation episode The Drumhead:

“We think we’ve come so far. Torture of heretics, burning of witches it’s all ancient history. Then – before you can blink an eye – suddenly it threatens to start all over again.”

Believe me, American religious theocrats, who have the ear of President Trump are using those rights to persecute and restrict the liberties of fellow citizens. That I cannot abide, because last year I was on the receiving end of it. I try not to go there because it brings up so many unpleasant memories, but I was reminded of them as I wrote this post. I will not revisit them as I wrote about them last July after I had been exonerated of the false charges.

But I will not stop fighting for the religious liberties of all, including the rights of non-believers. I admire the work of Mikey Weinstein and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Despite how they are characterized by many Christian theocrats, they supported me when I was under attack and well over 90% of their clients are Christians.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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To Boldly Go…. Binge Watching Star Trek the Next Generation from the Beginning and Wondering About Possibilities not of This Earth

Friends Of Padre Steve’s World,

I have always been what some would call a Trekkie. Ever since I was a young child watching Star Trek the Original Series I have been fascinated with space, other universes, galaxies, and other life that must exist beyond earth. As a Christian and theologian I have to admit that the possibilities of a non earthnocentric order fascinate me. Christians, especially pastors, and theologians love to talk about the attributes of God: his omniscience, his power, his omnipresence, ad infinitum, but instead of contemplating the unknown potentials of a universe that we know little about, our puny minds remained focused only on earth and ways in which to destroy it in order to ensure the Apocalypse arrives, I cannot do that.

While obviously as a Christian I have to live fully in this world, and in doing so bear witness of Jesus the Christ, fight for equality and human rights, and do my best to bear witness of the truth, that human beings can be among the most noble as well as debased beings that have ever existed. There are certainly examples in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures to support both extremes, and theologians who those who support the total depravity of humanity, or an exalted view of humankind.

But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer so succinctly noted:

“Man no longer lives in the beginning–he has lost the beginning. Now he finds he is in the middle, knowing neither the end nor the beginning, and yet knowing that he is in the middle, coming from the beginning and going towards the end. He sees that his life is determined by these two facets, of which he knows only that he does not know them” 

The fact is, that we human beings are stuck in that uncomfortable middle, and to admit that is a step on the road to freedom. That is what I find so fascinating about Star Trek the Next Generation, it confronts human nature with the added dimension of the possibility, if we don’t destroy ourselves first, that we will meet others from other solar systems and galaxies.

In the finale of Star Trek the Next Generation, the being known as Q discusses that question with Captain Picard:

Capt. Picard: I sincerely hope that this is the last time that I find myself here.

Q: You just don’t get it, do you, Jean-Luc? The trial never ends. We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons. And for one brief moment, you did.

Capt. Picard: When I realized the paradox.

Q: Exactly. For that one fraction of a second, you were open to options you had never considered. That*is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.

I really do believe that being open to options that we never considered is both a part of the Christian life, as well as humanity in general.

I certainly don’t have the answers, but I am am open to answers that lie beyond my realm of sight and thought. There are times that I think that I was born 300 years too late for the Enlightenment and probably at least 300 years too soon for the world of Star Trek, I am caught in that uncomfortable middle that Bonhoeffer spoke of, but in the middle of the middle.

But for now I have 171 more episodes of Star Trek the Next Generation to go, then on to Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek Voyager. 

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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