About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."

2017/02/15

Black Spiritual Roots

Faith is a special divine gift which is passed on by human mediators and tradents. In that respect I owe my faith to my stubborn Central-Eeuropean Calvinist ancestors who preserved and handed it over through the dark times of contra-reformation (1620-1781). But that was centuries before I was born! More personally and more intimately I owe my faith to the African-American spirituals. I grew up in the Czech Republic under the Communist totalitarian regime. In the midst of stifling censorship, crippling political control and impotent atheistic ideology I grew up with blues and spirituals on my lips and deep in my heart: Swing low, sweet chariot...  Go down, Moses... The Gospel train is coming... Go with Me to That Land... My generation of Protestants found in this Black music an authentic expression of life and faith. We might be white as white Europeans can go, but our souls resonated deeply with the black spirituals. We might sing those spirituals in Czech translations but we internalized the Exodus story (and other formative biblical stories) through the prism of struggle for elemental human dignity and civil rights. I hadn’t met a black person before I was 20, yet through music, I was brought up, to a large extent, in the spirit of black faith, its defiance, resistance and hope. Please join me this Sunday as we learn from and celebrate our black spiritual roots.

2017/02/09

Demons

The New Testament, and more specifically the Synoptical Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke), often describe physical or mental illnesses as a demon possession and the acts of healing are portrayed as exorcisms, expelling those demons from the afflicted persons. I always considered this to be a peculiar example of the antiquated biblical worldview.
    Of course, I knew that theologians and anthropologists ascribed it to the folksy origins of early Christianity, while some speculated about distant Babylonian and even Iranian religious influences. No matter how it was explained, it remained to me a clearly dated and somehow embarrassing aspect of the foundational texts of my faith.
    But then, many years after I finished seminary, my beloved professor of the New Testament offered me a new perspective and rehabilitated in my eyes those biblical demons in one sentence, one question; “Aren’t those demons the ancient attempt to disassociate the ill from their illnesses?” The afflicted person behind the illness is still the same, it is the demon, which makes him or her behave differently, strangely or even dangerously.
    When you think about it, this epistemological separation of the persons and their afflictions actually offers helpful and more importantly a hopeful way of understanding illness. In reality it is what modern medicine does all the time while distinguishing between a patient and a virus, bacteria, trauma, foreign substances, stress or extreme circumstances. And modern medical treatment also proceeds by eliminating or at least mitigating these negative external factors (virus, bacteria, stress....) in order to help the patient.
    Biblical demonology and modern medicine in fact share the same underlying insight and approach. As we celebrate the birthday of Charles Darwin, come this Sunday to celebrate the healing powers of modern exorcists - doctors and geneticists.


Refugees Welcome!

On Tuesday, February 7th, in the evening we finally welcomed the Khoja family, Syrian Kurdish refugees originally from Aleppo. It was a great joy after a seriously turbulent period and many thanks belong to all members of our Refugees Task Force (specifically Nancy Muirhead and David Mammen), our partner congregations (Church of Advent Hope, All Souls and B’nay Jeshurun). In the final stages special thanks belong to lawyers and many partner organizations (CWS, ACLU, UNHCR). The anxiety and joy of the Khoja’s arrival are nicely captured in these articles by major media listed here in the diachronic order.

The Guardian 
The New York Times

Our Church can be truly proud for living up our faith with determination and integrity. Now the real work of helping the Khojas to adjust to their new home starts in earnest. At the same time we will continue with even stronger determination to advocate for the welcome of refugees and against any anti-immigrant prejudices as we are obliged by the divine Law, Jesus’ Spirit of welcome and our Reformed history.

2017/02/02

Non-Zero-Sum

Is selfishness or altruism the strongest underlying principle of the world? 
    Years ago, while I was serving a church in Prague I dedicated one of my study leaves to reading about the evolutionary game theory. At that time it was becoming very popular among economists, political scientists, psychologists and biologists. To this time the game theory led to as many as eleven Nobel Prizes.
    The Evolutionary Game Theory began with biologists and ethologists being puzzled by the ritualized combat behavior - why are animals fighting over limited resources according to clear and restraining rules? As a pastor and theologian, I was even more interested in the subsequent conundrum of the origins of altruism - why are animals willing to offer sacrifices for the benefit of others?
    Ritualized combat and especially the altruism did not make sense according to the classical Darwinian and early neo-Darwinian theories. These early models were based on the rules of the zero-sum games. The zero-sum game is a classical cut-throat capitalist situation; the gain of the one is always the loss for the other. (If I get it, you lose it, if you get it, I lose it.)
    But then, evolutionary game theorists observed and described, studied and modeled what they started to call non-zero-sum games. Those are situations when individuals can choose to cooperate and in the end both can gain. Rigorous mathematical and computer modeling on large and long samples of events confirmed observations of the ethologists, psychologists and economists.
    In the broader scale, the world operates according to the rules of non-zero-sum games. People can still choose selfishly or altruistically, but the rules are those of non-zero-sum games. Some isolated situations might perhaps look like zero-sum games (strongly favoring selfishness), but even those, when played over and over and among same players of larger groups eventually and inevitably turn into non-zero-sum games (enabling and often encouraging cooperation and altruism).
    Guess, why am I writing this just now in our political and social situation? Those who live their lives according to selfish rules live sad, lonely, unloved even despised lives and eventually they are destined to lose. Come this Sunday to celebrate the world which deep down is essentially built on the altruistic rules. Come to rejoice in the world where everyone can benefit, if we choose to cooperate, come to celebrate the Creator, who has never been stingy.

2017/01/26

Bridge of Hope

This iconic ancient bridge is called Stari Most (in translation - Old Bridge) and it gave a name to the city which grew around it. The city is called Mostar - Bridgetown in English. The bridge was built by an Ottoman (Turkish) architect in the XVI century. Its 70 feet tall single arch spans the gorge of the river Neretva in Herzegovina. Years ago, as a teenager, I walked across this bridge when my family visited what was then Yugoslavia for lovely Adriatic holidays. I still vividly remember Mostar and its bridge; I was in Europe, but the smells, the sounds, the sights offered me the magic of the Orient.
    Unfortunately here I must correct myself. I crossed that bridge, but it was not the bridge which you see on this picture. Just few years after our visit, xenophobic, islamophobic madness broke up in Yugoslavia. Weak, opportunistic, vile politicians woke narrowminded nationalism, utilized some old pseudo-Christian prejudices against Islam and instigated a civil war accompanied with horrific genocide. One of the side casualties of this war was also this historic architectural marvel. It was shelled and fell down to the river.
    Thankfully, that was not the end of the story. People around the world learned about some of the worst atrocities, diplomats got involved, NATO finally intervened and stopped the ugly fratricide. Instigators were ousted, captured, jailed, prosecuted and sentenced at the international criminal court. Eventually international organizations such as World Bank, European Union, Aga Khan Trust (Muslim Cultural Organization), UNESCO (United Nations’ Education and Culture Arm) together rebuilt the bridge as a powerful symbol of inclusivity and hope. We all must stand against rude and brute politicians who want to divide people, nations, religions, races .... Come this Sunday to celebrate the promise and hope of bridge building.

2017/01/19

Magic and Moral Code

Forget voodoo dolls if you wish - the proper Biblical and Ancient Near East curses were written on bowls and then ceremoniously smashed. That might be the reason we have in the Bible so many allusions to the wicked being broken, smashed or crashed into pieces. Blessings on the other hand were bestowed with the laying of hands and more important blessings were sealed with ceremonial feasts.
    In the formal religious setting, blessings and curses were collected into lists and became one of the sources of the religious moral code. The Hebrew Bible contains substantial lists of curses and blessings for instance in Deuteronomy 27-28. Jesus (or an early church) also composed such lists of blessings and curses. They are called Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew 5 and Blessings and Woes in the Gospel of Luke 6. They tell us what is under Jesus’ blessing and what is being cursed.
    If we extrapolate Jesus’ blessings and curses into our current idioms it could be quite a surprising reading! Blessed are the poor and those who advocate for them, the downtrodden and those who help them, those who are passionate about social justice, those who strive for civil rights and those who do not act with violence. Cursed, on the other hand, are the selfish plutocrats, the gluttons of power, the vainglorious “celebrities” and the arrogant bullies.
    Don’t Jesus’ blessings and curses outline a quite clear and coherent divine moral code? What would you prefer: to be cursed or blessed by Jesus? Smashed to pieces by God or entertained at God’s table? 

2017/01/11

Prudent Simplicity

Be cautious like a snake and innocent as a dove, my father quoted to me Matthew 10:16b as I went into the ministry, shortly before I departed for seminary. Soon, I gained my share of the first-hand experiences with the totalitarian secret police and their techniques of interrogation, threats and blackmail.
    This biblical verse came to me quite naturally when I was preparing our November 9th post-election vigil. And I thought of it again while planning the service of ordination and installation of the church officers this Sunday. Those trustees, elders and deacons will lead us in uncertain, turbulent and probably quite dark times.
    I researched the biblical passage in the original Greek; I also looked it up in different translations. I referenced several commentaries and checked the linguistic and theological dictionaries. I also came across a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. exactly on the same passage. It was titled "A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart". Thus I discovered a different MLK than I had known before from media and from school. This was not a courageous justice fighter and rousing public orator but rather a caring pastor thoughtfully equipping the faithful of his church in the ongoing struggles for justice.
    I cannot slavishly repeat that sermon this Sunday; it would not be true to the spirit of MLK. In the almost 60 years since it was delivered, the world has changed (the struggle for justice is not over, but it has shifted) and our biblical and theological understanding has also changed (deepened). But that sermon remains a powerful inspiration and encouragement pointing us in the right direction, to the roots of our faith. There, in the Bible and in our faith in God, is the reliable source of courage and strength to resist prejudice and hatred and for the fearless struggle for justice.