Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Bible and the “Laws” of Physics

There are many narratives in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament, which demand a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of a twenty-first century person. Educated persons would admit that certain narratives reflect physical impossibilities, and hence they clash with the way things usually work in the world.  For example, in the cycle of stories about the acts of Elisha in Second Kings (chapters 2-13) one finds, among other stories of the same sort, the story of an iron axe head that floated after falling into the Jordan River (6:1-7). Elisha, described as "the man of God," reputedly caused the axe head to rise to the surface by tossing a stick into the water. The claim in the narrative that the axe head floated violates the buoyancy principle of Archimedes of Syracuse (third century BCE) that states: an object will float if it is equal to or less than the amount of water it displaces (that is why aircraft carriers float). The weight of an iron axe head is not equal to or less than the weight of the water it displaces and hence it will not float. And common sense tells us that a stick tossed into the water would have no influence on what is essentially a law of physics.1 In order to think that the narrative describes something that actually happened, readers must suspend disbelief.

Another narrative requiring a suspension of disbelief is the tradition of Joshua causing the sun to stand still in the sky to allow the Israelites to slay all their enemies, the Amorites, at Gibeon (Josh 10:6-14).

And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stayed in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since (Josh 10:13-14, RSV).

The belief that the sun rises in the east, moves across the sky, and sets in the west, is an ancient superstition, shared by the biblical writers.2 This belief was proven incorrect only in the sixteenth century CE.3 Until that time it was believed that the sun and the planets circled the earth, which held a position in the center of the solar system. In other words they believed that the earth did not move, but today it is common knowledge that the earth moves in an elliptical movement around the sun.

The New Testament also has narratives defying reason, logic, and explanation as an actual historical event. For example, Jesus is represented as feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fish; the account appears in all four canonical gospels (Mark 6:32-44; Matt 14:13-21; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15). In the narrative everyone eats their fill and twelve baskets of food fragments are left over. The story depicts two logical impossibilities. While five loaves and two fish can each be divided into amounts tiny enough to pass out to five thousand people, it is physically impossible that every person would be satiated from eating the tiny amount that they would have received (Mark 6:42; Matt 14:20; Luke 9:17; John 6:12) or that there would be twelve baskets full of fragments left over after the feeding (Mark 6:43; Matt 14:20; Luke 9:17; 6:13).4

Narratives like these, which require a suspension of disbelief by most of us, are nevertheless accepted as a normal part of reality by the deeply pious; they have a high degree of confidence in the Bible and simply dismiss the idea that the event could not have happened by asserting: the Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it—as if the story about how we came by the Bible5 has no impact on the relative value of its ideas. Others offer a slightly more sophisticated theory to explain away some of the problems: God is in control of the universe; therefore God can do whatever God chooses in the universe. This latter statement disregards how the universe is thought to work in secular society; those who live by this statement are simply changing "reality" to correspond to their religious faith. A third way of handling problems  in biblical narratives requiring a suspension of disbelief rejects the "laws" of physics by arguing the universe is not a closed system but rather an open system. Hence in the view of those who believe in miracles physical "laws" are only general rules that are sometimes suspended leaving open the possibility that miracles can occur.

Was Archimedes wrong and Jesus really did walk on the water?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, "Archimedes' Principle": https://www.britannica.com/science/Archimedes-principle

2For example, Gen 15:12; Exod 17:12; Jdg 14:18; 2 Chron 18:34; Matt 5:45; Mark 16:2; Eph 4:26.

3George Abell, Exploration of the Universe, 34-53.

4Compare similar stories about Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kgs 17: 8-16 (the jar of meal and the cruse of oil) and 2 Kgs 4:1-7 (the jar of oil). Each story contrasts limited amounts at the beginning and the abundant residue at the end exceeding that with which the story began.

5The Bible is a product of modern biblical scholarship. See the two brief descriptions of the science of textual criticism, which is basic to all critical approaches to the Bible: Fuller, "Text Criticism, OT," NIDB, 531-34; Holmes, "Text Criticism, NT" NIDB, 529-31.

27 comments:

  1. Hi Charlie,

    One way to look at the "suspending disbelief" passages is to consider that they represent a mimetic (imitation) writing dynamic. Dennis McDonald in his Mythologizing Jesus (2015) suggests that the authors of the gospels are finding a way to make Jesus competitive with the gods of Greco-Roman mythology, depicting him as not only breaking the laws of nature but doing so, contrary to the gods, with compassion.

    In Jesus' feeding of the 5000 and 4000, for example, he sees a mimetic representation in Mark of the feast of Nestor (Odyssey 3:1-67) and the feast of Menelaus (Odyssey 4:1-7)[pgs. 27-32]. He does this for 24 stories/situations found in the gospels, some more persuasive than others.


    For McDonald, mimesis has the following components: likelihood of accessibility to the previous text, can mimesis be found in the work of other ancient authors, how dense is the mimetic activity (# of parallels), is the order similar in both texts, is a distinctive trait common to both sources, how did the author attempt to emulate/rival his predecessor, and, practically, what parallels appear in the writings of the early (1000 CE)Byzantine poets.

    It would seem to me, that if mimesis is a viable category, then it's a small step from accepting a resurrection after death to performing miracles that rival the Greco-Roman gods before death.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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    1. Hi Gene,
      Dennis' book (The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark) is a brilliant study of mimesis in Graeco-Roman antiquity. His argument is that Mark has in part given a mimetic rendering of stories in the Illiad and the Odyssey by Homer. I reviewed the book in an SBL seminar. My major criticism (which Dennis rejected) was that there was no way to disprove his thesis and declared myself a "wanna be" believer.
      But let's say Dennis was right. What do we do with these stories then? If Mark imitated Homer in certain stories does that get the evangelist off the hook by suggesting that s/he really didn't believe that Jesus did those things? Mark was just trying to improve Jesus' appeal to a Graeco-Roman audience so he could compete with their Gods. Could we then say that Mark was deceiving the public by his subterfuge and that it would be wrong for that reason to believe him. I would be more prone to think that Mark was imitating OT wonder stories. If it was not for Dennis' book, is there any other evidence that Mark had read Homer?
      I think that mimesis is a viable category but the essence of a good imitator is that you never know that s/he is imitating. And we are still stuck with the clash between such stories and the "laws" of physics.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Hi Charlie,

      One could reason that Mark did not think of the mimesis as "deceiving the public," whether it be using Homer or OT wonder stories. He perhaps thought of the matter as a literary expression of the truth that Jesus power was consistent in life and death: if Jesus could break the law of death by God's raising him up from the dead to the benefit of others, he was certainly capable of breaking these other natural laws for the benefit of others. Mark perhaps thinks of this as a tool of persuasion in the Christian mission. In other words, now that the risen Jesus is here and in charge, it's perfectly ok to let him influence the earthly Jesus story.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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    3. Hi Gene,
      For those of us who live our lives in a shared conventional view of reality, Mark's view of what is real is idiosyncratic, calling upon us to confess what we know to not be so. In a conventional view of reality when an axe head falls into a river we don't look for a Man of God to recover it; we use a rake to search for it.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  2. I doubt that anyone really believed it possible ordinarily for an axe head to float. Normally, they "knew better." Stories of Moses had him in control of the water, as did stories of Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Jesus and their control of water, as Elisha could even heal h20. They had the "spirit" of their god in the midst of an area that relied on water. Makes for great propaganda, since those who heard or read of it realized that, though improbable, it was a sign of the power of God, not a physics lesson. The same is true for the other "signs" of a god toward those who had "good favor."

    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.

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    1. Hi Dennis,
      I would not have said "improbable" as you do (line 6 from the top); I would have said "impossible." These kinds of events that we are discussing are exceptions to the way things happen in a contemporary conventional (i.e., ordinary) view of reality (one that everyone regardless of religious faith can affirm). Apparently enough people in OT times were credulous of such things happening so that the propaganda of the biblical writers worked, as well as Mark's propaganda working, to judge by the eventual conversion of the ancient world to Christianity. Today we still have people pushing the idea of living by exceptions to an ordinary view of reality where when axe heads sink in a body of water we take off shoes and socks and wade out to find it.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Improbable in their world. I'm sure some believed it was possible.
      Dennis Dean Carpenter
      Dahlonega, Ga.

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  3. Hi Charlie,

    After some more reflection on the matter I'm thinking that where to "draw the line of disbelief" or "the line of distrust," if you will,can be adifficult matter.

    Let's take the dynamic of "trust" which can be found multiple times in Mark's gospel. Beginning with chapter 1, trust is pictured as central to matters such as healing and danger: The leper says, If you want to you can make me clean, four trusting people bring a paralytic before Jesus, disciples in the lake storm were admonished because of their lack of trust, the synagogue official was told to just have trust regarding his ill daughter, a bleeding woman was told that her trust had cured her, in a second lake episode the disciples were assured that there was no need to be afraid, a distraught father is told that all things are possible forone who trusts, Jesus' followers are described as little ones who trust Jesus, a blind man is told that his trust has cured him, we hear that trust can move mountains and that trust ensures the answering of prayer requests, a widow is commended for her trust in giving her entire livelihood to the temple.

    Where is the straight rigid rational line that can be drawn between trust and outcome in these life-pictures in the same manner as one can be drawn between an axe head and water buoyancy? That line is not there. In the following scenario, should I have suspended trust because I didn't have a scientific vision of the trust line?

    Several years ago I had multiple bypass heart surgery. Within five minutes of meeting the surgeon I knew that he trusted himself and cared for me, and that I trusted him to do the job. I further trusted the statisticians that vouched for a 98% success rate for the planned procedure. This would be similar to the ancients meeting Jesus, experiencing his trust in himself and care for them, and trusting the testimony of others in his past successes. Of course, the statisticians and here-say fall into unimportance if the procedure is needed no matter what.

    I have no idea how much the positive outcome of my surgery should be attributed to trust, but I'm sure that some of the positive outcome was due to the trust of many, including myself. The laws governing my trust, it would seem, are not any less important to me than those which control an axe head in water or how far a few loaves and fishes can be stretched for a meal.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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    1. Good Morning Gene,
      May I gather that the surgery and your rehab were successful and that must have been a great relief.

      I am not sure what you are suggesting that I should trust from the examples of trust you offer from Mark. Are you suggesting I should trust Jesus or Mark or the Bible or ??? in the matter of floating axe heads?

      The example from your life (surgery) reflects an instance of your trust that brought happy results. The surgeon appeared to you to be self confident (that is he trusted himself to perform the surgery successfully) and you developed from his self-confidence and professionalism an instant trust in him and his abilities to do the surgery--not to mention your were assured a 98% success rate.

      If, however, the surgeon had a patch over one eye and only one hand and did not present himself well, it is a better than even chance you would have consulted another surgeon.
      From my perspective axe heads are like heart surgeons with an eye patch and one hand. It is a better than even chance they will not float no matter how much I trust they will.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Hi Charlie,

      I think all I'm trying to do is call attention to the reality that scriptural insights have their own value apart from the rules which determine whether or not axe heads float.

      Perhaps, if you chose to trust Jesus, or Mark, or the Bible, it would not be for the same reasons or dynamic that you trust an axe head not to float.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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    3. Aha! Point taken. And you are correct in my view. Discerning readers know to ignore the crass violations of our common view of reality. But alas not all are discerning readers. That is to say not all suspend disbelief when reading of the floating axe heads and are taken in reading the story literally.
      There are other values offered to readers of the Bible, if one knows how to read it, as you point out.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  4. Charlie, I like how you put the word "laws" of physics in quotation marks.

    "In the west we inherit the idea of law as something being passed down by God, and it has even passed down into science where we discuss 'laws of nature.' You don't get the idea of law until you move to a culture where order is based on the idea of obedience. Code law is a tyrannical method of law by imposition. Common law is evolved by discussion of particular cases rather than referring all the time to abstract principles put down in words.

    Nature isn't looked upon as something which is an orderly system because it is obeying a commandment. Nature is a constantly fluctuating pattern- there are no laws of nature. There are simply observed regularities in the way things behave." Alan Watts

    Scientists take those observed regularities as a way to predict future outcomes. This is not always successful. All of my grandparents died at the age of 76 except one... the one who outlived all of them was the one who smoked a pack of cigarettes a day and lived to be 84. He knew the risk he was taking and he beat the odds. He was one of the most unhealthy people I've ever met. The laws of nature certainly didn't apply to him. His axe-head floated, in a manner of speaking. My husband's cousin is in her late fifties and has had cancer for over twenty years now- we joke that she'll probably outlive all of us. Can these things be explained? How does one beat the odds and flout the laws of nature? Why does someone who lives a healthy lifestyle not live as long as a chain smoker? Thank you as always, Elizabeth

    PS: The 84 year old grandfather was the one who loved that poet I told you about, Robert Service... He also loved Omar Kayam and the Rubyiat.

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    1. Hi Elizabeth,
      Thanks for weighing in with your well-thought out comment.
      Your observation by Alan Watts I concur with. But I cannot answer your questions at the end. There are just too many variables to be able to predict the future even when you have scientific data at your finger tips.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  5. Re: the Bible and the Laws of Physics

    Charlie,

    I found your Jan. 17 discussion about the Bible and the "Laws of Physics" demonstrate an effective understanding of some of basic principles in which our universe operates. I felt a need to call attention to the apparent lack of understanding of these same Laws of Physics by both Elizabeth (Jan.25) and her quoted philosopher, Alan Watts.

    Both mistake the complexity & variability of our natural world as evidence the fixed Laws of Physics in which our natural world operates are unpredictable and irregular. An example of this is to consider the difficulty of the relatively easy prediction of the path of the iron axe head having been thrown in the water as to the extreme difficulty in predicting what the weather might be in the near future. Both events operate within the same fixed Laws of Physics but operate under tremendously different environments.
































    Further, it appears Elizabeth mistakenly interpreted the varying life length of family members some of who smoked cigarettes and some that did not as being evidence of this interpretation of irregularity or unpredictability of the Laws of Physics. Again the variability is in the different human bodies rather than the Laws of Physics. No two human bodies are identical nor exist in identical environments.

    I hope this increases the understanding of the fixed nature of the Laws of Physics.

    Jim

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  6. Gene and Charlie, if you don't mind I do have a carry-over question from the previous blog with regard to cults. What exactly constitutes a "cult" in your estimation? Do you have a definition? If not, that's ok.

    I do agree with Jim that the variability is in the human body rather than the "laws" of physics... I also see the variability involved in predicting weather patterns in the near and distant future as well, which is why I am skeptical of these wild and fantastical doomsday scenarios put out by so-called "climate change" experts.

    Thank you again! Elizabeth

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    1. Hi Elizabeth,
      In many ways what is described as being a cult lies in the eye of the beholder. The basic definition is "a system of beliefs and rituals." It is also described as "a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious." It is also defined as "a small circle of persons united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure."
      These are of course objective descriptions.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Hi Elizabeth,

      For me personally, Charlie's dictionary definitions are far too benign. As I said in so many words in a previous post, I think that a cult consists of followers so needy that they are brainwashed into a certain extremely narrow understanding of reality by a severely personality disordered leader who demands total allegiance and perhaps even suicide. This makes them a danger to humanity. When I was younger the group in Waco, Texas, and the Jim Jones followers would fit this definition.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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    3. Good morning Gene,
      I was struck by the fact that with the exception of a few things your description of cult in the second sentence might well fit many of our accepted larger Christian religious institutions. For example: "needy followers"; "brainwashed"; "narrow understanding of reality"; "personality disordered teacher who demands allegiance." The exceptions are cast in pejorative words like "extremely"; "severely";"total";"perhaps even suicide" (which would not fit the Branch Davidians, I don't think).

      I am not really sure what you have in mind when you say "brainwashed." In what way is that different from "instruction" like Sunday school and catechism? My impression is that people who enter what is thought of as a cult enter it willingly.
      Those who are forcibly taken from a cult for "rehabilitation" into the general society, however, I understand are subjected to rigorous methods to dispel the teachings of the "cult." Is that kind of thing what you mean by "brainwashed"?
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    4. I do tend to identify more with Gene's characterization of cults than Charlies... I have attended churches in my earlier years that felt like a cult to me, but I didn't know why. And it did feel like "brainwashing," so I do know what Gene meant by that. When Charlie asked what is the difference between brainwashing and receiving instruction from Sunday school and catechism- I would say it is this: I think it is a form of brainwashing to instruct your Sunday school students to believe that the power of their prayers can literally "make an axe head float." If they just pray hard enough and believe enough and have enough faith. To me, that is brainwashing and it feels cultish in my view. However, we as parishioners were free to come and go, and were not in any way forced to join their inner circle.

      I guess there are varying degrees of cults, and I agree with Gene completely- they are very much determined by the personality disordered leader. (of course none of those leaders think themselves as having a disordered personality whatsoever.) Elizabeth

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  7. Hi Charlie,

    I have to admit to being somewhat perplexed about why this subject matter seems to have become so complicated.

    The key to the cult is the leader - followers are expected to accept his/her directives without question and to remove themselves from affiliation with the institutions and associations of the mainstream culture. This doesn't mean that people don't enter the cult willingly.

    I'm not sure why you suggest that "many of our accepted larger Christian religious institutions" would be defined primarily by folks who are "needy, brainwashed, narrow in understanding of reality, with personality disordered leaders." What institutions might be described that way?

    Brainwashing is distinguished from other forms of learning by not allowing for dissent within oneself or the acceptance of different perspectives in others. The only appropriate response is cultural isolation and passing along the leader's perspective to offspring.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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    1. Good Morning Gene,
      In describing a group as "a cult," you appear, it seems to me, to think cults are a different sort of thing from other religious groups. On the other hand, I think that the differences between cults and churches is a matter of degree. A cult is a religious group with a strong leader who has views that don't agree with other religious groups. It is "out of the mainstream" (probably because of its small size and what the mainstream churches think of as odd teaching). Nevertheless it does exactly the same kinds of things that mainstream churches do: instructs its members, has worship services and Bible studies, has a definite belief system (some parts of which are shared by the mainstream churches!). The leader expects that his/her views will be followed by the members of the group, as any pastor, or priest would expect. The cultic group does not like to lose members, as is the situation with mainstream churches. Mainstream churches do not tolerate disagreement on certain main points of theological teaching. People who get too far outside the theological teaching of the group can be "churched" (that is kicked out, shunned, or forbidden from participating in what the church may conceive as mediating the grace of God--in Baptist and catholic churches it would be denial of participation in the Lord's supper or the Eucharist).
      As to what churches do these kind of things pick one from the phonebook.
      Cordially,
      Charlie
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Hi Charlie,

      If I may offer one more reply. You hit the nail on the head with a great clarification: you're right, I do think that cults are a different sort of thing from other religious groups, and it's not a matter of a continuum.

      In the 70's I was a pastor in the United Methodist church. My experience was that most of the members never even opened the Book of Discipline and most of the attendees intermarried with members of other denominations and faiths who were even further removed from whatever United Methodism is. I even married a Jew and Christian in the church after the families agreed that the name of Jesus would not be used in the service.

      I was an active member in the local ministeriums, both UM and ecumenical. I never felt like I wasn't an integral part of the group. I've known Baptist pastors and RC priests and it never occurred to me to use cult in relation to their beliefs or activities. They were not personality disordered leaders micromanaging the lives of their followers and removing them from mainstream culture.

      One can find statements such as the following coming from the General Conference of the UM Church: "Especially critical for Christians...has been the struggle to recognize the horror of the Holocaust as the catastrophic culmination of a long history of anti-Jewish attitudes and actions in which Christians, and sometimes the church itself, have been deeply implicated." (Quoted in LeDonne and Behrendt, Sacred Dissonance, 2017, 120). This is not the kind of self-insight pronouncement made by cult leaders.

      Perhaps others have denominational experiences to share!

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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    3. Charlie, I've never heard you refer to religious groups in general as a type of cult.... But I have to say, I do see the parallels. Especially your and Gene's characterization of brainwashing. Both of you point out that neither a cult or a mainstream church (take your pick) tolerates dissent or disagreement on certain main points of theological teaching. That is very true. How is it that you have not been kicked out for your "heretical" points of view? (Virgin birth, resurrection, Original sin, etc) You say that you have attended the same church for 30 years... What keeps you going there, despite the brainwashing? Is it a liberal church? Elizabeth
      PS: The definition of a cult that I was given by my pastor was very specific and said only if the leader of the cult takes the place of God, is it a real cult. (And of course, in his mind, this included the Catholic church)

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    4. Hi Elizabeth,
      I play a very limited to a non-existent role in the church (Southern Baptist)where we have been members for 38 years, although we were never stalwarts of the church. I was gone too often for that. Currently my bible study group tolerates my views which in class I usually limit to questions on the biblical text we are studying or by asking questions of those who put views on the table with which I might disagree and occasionally I can contribute with a comment about what is currently going on in the field of biblical studies. I am not there to convince them of anything. In fact I learn something new every Sunday that I participate.
      Thanks for asking.
      Charlie

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  8. Gene, rather than micromanaging the lives and beliefs of your congregation... Was the focus of your ministry more about community service and outreach? It sounds like as a minister you were not bothered by dissent or disagreement. That's very rare.

    Elizabeth

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  9. Hi Elizabeth,

    Thank you for the kind words. Methodism does have a strong community service and outreach component, and I participated in interracial programs, ecumenical programs, and a 24-hour counseling service hotline, but I would say that my primary interest was to stimulate life changing insight through a challenging presentation of the scriptures at Sunday morning worship. It was very hard for me to decide if Jesus did or said this or that, being twenty years before the Jesus Seminar published their scholars' voting results. Up to that point all we had was the competing opinions of individual great minds! What do I think about dissent and disagreement - it's healthy when the proponents respect and value each other.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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  10. Yes it certainly is healthy when the proponents respect and value each other- I couldn't agree more. If I had attended a church like yours, Gene, I would probably have had a much better experience. The most uplifting teachers are those who help you develop your own unique perspective about spiritual teachings- rather than imposing their own perspective upon the student. It definitely sounds like you were among the former and not the latter!

    I really am impressed with both you and Charlie, and I strongly suspect that each of you is an asset and a benefit to the church you currently attend. It's nice to hear that even Charlie learns something new every Sunday he participates- that's really saying something. Many thanks! Elizabeth

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