Monday, January 12, 2009
"His rise is remarkable in its own right. It's the kind of thing that can happen only in America. But he's never run a city. He's never run a state. He's never run a business. He's never run a military unit. He's never had to lead people in crisis. He is the least experienced candidate for president of the United States in at least the last 100 years. Not a personal attack, a statement of fact. Barack Obama has never led anything, nothing, nada."
Most people thought that Obama's lack of experience would be his greatest weakness as a candidate. And in any other country it probably would have been. In my country, the General Elections are only a few months away and the two front runners are 75 and 77 years old!
But the American people chose Obama over a host of more experienced Democrats in the primary, and over the distinguished veteran senator John McCain in the general election, because Obama turned his inexperience from a weakness into strength by framing the election as a contest of "The Past Versus the Future."
"It is time for a new generation of leadership, because the old politics just won't do. I am running for President-right now-because I have met Americans all across this country who cannot afford to wait another day for change. That is why the real choice in this campaign is not between regions or religions or genders. It's not about rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus white. It is about the past versus the future. ... Because there is a moment in the life of every generation, if it is to make its mark on history, when its spirit has to come through, when it must choose the future over the past, when it must make its own change from the bottom up."
"Change" is a theme that resonates deeply with the American people. But only because Americans share several key assumptions: that change is possible, that the future can be different than the past; that change is good, and the future can be better than the past; that our stars do not shape our destiny, and people are free to shape their own destiny by their actions in the present. This optimism, this faith in progress, is what Obama-following the Bible-calls "hope." Although Americans take it for granted, the philosoph of optimism and the virtue of hope are nowhere as strong as in America. They traveled from the West to the rest of the world as a part of "modernity," which is now disintegrating into cynical "postmodernity."
Day after day, ancient people saw the sun rise and set. Year after year, they saw spring followed by summer, autumn, winter, and spring again. From these and many other observable cycles in nature, they concluded that time itself and the cosmos itself were endless cycles. Human beings, societies, and the world itself are born, grow, decline, die, and are reborn. The metaphor of Great Wheel is found in nearly every ancient culture. Things must always return to the way they were, so no real and permanent progress is possible. Fate has already determined the direction of history, and there's nothing anyone can do to change it. So there is no metaphysical ground for hope: striving to improve the human condition is pointless. The author of Ecclesiastes summed up the wisdom born of human experience in the famous phrase, "There is nothing new under the sun."
The Greek and Roman religion of Stoicism taught that each of us is like a dog tied behind a moving wagon. You have no say in where fate is taking you; to be wise is to resign yourself to it, rather than struggle in vain against it. Human existence is essentially one of suffering. The only thing you can do about it is to detach yourself from the things of this world and occupy yourself with the world beyond.
Indian thought is very similar. The Buddha's First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. There is no point in trying to fight suffering. The best that you can do is to meditate and seek a psychological nirvana - the bliss within, in an altered state of consciousness. All of this thinking leads to resignation, for we are locked into a cosmic cycle. Societies with such outlooks do not produce leaders with vision.
The Jews, however, had a very different experience of God that shattered the traditional ancient worldview. They were slaves in Egypt, and they cried out to God because of their misery. He sent Moses to deliver them. They were unarmed, but God rescued them from Pharaohs mighty army. They saw God part the Red Sea, bring water out of a solid rock, feed them in the wilderness for forty years. God, they realized, was not bound by nature. "I will be who I will be," God said to Moses. He was not bound by time. God was free and wanted his children to be like him - free. The covenant, the law, the promised land-these were new and permanent. The Wheel of Time would not carry the Israelites back to bondage.
Thus the Jewish Scriptures - the Bible - became the first source of the idea that time is not cyclical but linear. It had a definite beginning, it will have a definite end, and every time in between is unique. This makes possible the idea of history. God created a world that is good, and although it has been corrupted, it will be redeemed. Suffering is not an essential part of existence. We were created to live in Eden - which means bliss - not in slums. "If any man be in Christ he is a new creation." "God is making all things new." One day we will live in a "new heavens and a new earth." Christian Humanists such as Petrarch, Salutati, Valla and della Mirandola first articulated these biblical ideas in the 15th and 16th centuries. Their writings planted the philosophical seeds of "modern" Western optimism.
The Jews believed that God had promised, one day, to deliver them from their enemies and from the sinfulness of their own hearts. They believed that this deliverance would come through a leader anointed by God, a Messiah. The prophet Isaiah says, "In faithfulness he [the Messiah] will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the nations will put their hope." This belief, that the future will be better than the past or the present, is the source of the idea of "hope"-the idea that Obama made the centerpiece of his message. And the belief that an inspired leader will bring justice to the earth may be what lies behind the secularized Messianism of some of Obama's followers. Obama jokingly remarked, "Contrary to the rumors you have heard, I was not born in a manger." Obviously, he meant, "I am not the Messiah."
Jesus, who really was born in a manger and did call himself the Messiah, claimed that he was ushering in the Kingdom of God on earth. "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." This kingdom was something radically new, a radical change from the kingdoms of the world, a kingdom of justice and peace. The kingdom of God begins when people submit themselves to the Word of God. As such, it has begun, and it will not be fully realized until Jesus comes again to reclaim God's authority over his creation.
This worldview made the United States the most optimistic nation on earth. It was settled by people who believed that their special mandate was to live as citizens of God's kingdom in the New World. The hope for a better tomorrow was written into the cultural DNA of America. This is why Obama could say,
"There's a story I want to share that takes place before Moses passed the mantle of leadership on to Joshua. It comes from Deuteronomy 30 when Moses talks to his followers about the challenges they'll find when they reach the Promised Land without him. ... Moses says: What I am commanding you is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven. Nor is it beyond the sea. No, the word is very near. It is on your lips and in your heart. It's an idea that's often forgotten or dismissed in cynical times. It's that we all have it within our power to make this a better world. Because we all have the capacity to do justice and show mercy; to treat others with dignity and respect; and to rise above what divides us and come together to meet those challenges we can't meet alone."
Ironically, "hope" is in America's past. Obama acknowledged in the preceding quotation that America is now living through "cynical times." Pessimism is replacing optimism, because America is following tragic footsteps of Europe. In the 19th century, Europe secularized its Christian humanism and began the age of ideologies. Secular humanists believed that man was capable of creating utopia without God. This false confidence led to ideologies such as Fascism, Nazism, Communism and the two World Wars. The Humanist hope went up in "mushroom clouds" over Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Humanists finally realized that man was not as good as they had thought.
At an intellectual level, pessimism replaced optimism until the 1980s when the emergence of the "New Age" - the first optimistic movement to be born in the West since the Second World War. The "New Age" did not put its hope in man. Its hope rested in UFOs, extraterrestrials, spirit-guides, meditation, Tantric or Gnostic sex, altered states of consciousness, or the constellation of Aquarius. It didn't take long for the New Age to become old, producing the cynicism and despair that Obama referred to.
Although secular despair has overtaken the West's biblical optimism, the fact is that hope is still written into the cultural DNA of the West. Obama won because he was able to tap into it. Listen to the opening words of the speech in which he announced his candidacy:
"In my heart I know you didn't come here just for me, you came here because you believe in what this country can be. In the face of war, you believe there can be peace. In the face of despair, you believe there can be hope. In the face of a politics that's shut you out, that's told you to settle, that's divided us for too long, you believe we can be one people, reaching for what's possible, building that more perfect union."
Many Americans are seeing Obama as their savior. But the twentieth century has taught us that when man tries to become the Messiah, he becomes as a monster--as did Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin and Stalin. Obama can resurrect hope only if he turns America back to the cultural source of its hope: the Bible.
Hillary Clinton and John McCain are both American aristocrats-white, wealthy, well positioned, and well-connected. Clinton is the wife of a former president and McCain is the husband of a corporate executive. Both of them are multi-millionaires, members of the ruling elite, "Washington insiders." Both of them are older, more experienced, and more distinguished than Obama. Why do you think Americans elected a little known younger black man from a middle-class background?
It's true that voters were fed up with the Republican Party because of the war in Iraq, the economic crisis, and so on. They wanted change. But in other cultures, that would have favored Hillary Clinton.
Choosing a leader based solely on one's ability is not universal. Aristocratic cultures may want competent servants, but when it comes to choosing a leader, they prefer someone with class. In those cultures, the right to rule comes from birth or wealth. In my culture it came only from birth. You could not become a priest, a ruler or a businessman in traditional India if you had not acquired enough karma in previous lives to be born into the right family. The idea of earning merit is unique to societies shaped by the Bible.
But where does the Bible teach meritocracy?
The model case is 1 Samuel 16. In this story, God sends the prophet to the home of Jesse in Bethlehem to anoint one of his eight sons to replace Saul as king of Israel. Now, Samuel is very impressed by the eldest brother. He's tall and handsome, and as the firstborn in that society he's the leader. But God tells Samuel to anoint David, the youngest brother, whom Jesse hasn't even invited to meet the prophet! God says, "The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."
If you keep reading, David shows his extraordinary courage, initiative, leadership, skills at war, public relations, communications, poetry, music, and most importantly his deep devotion to God and reverence for God's word. It's these qualities--not his birth or wealth or social status--that make David God's choice, and make him Israel's greatest king.
David's attitude to God's word is the decisive issue. Samuel says to Saul, "Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king." The skeptics may doubt that Samuel's words were God's word, but Saul had no such excuse. He knew from firsthand experience that Samuel was a seer and spoke the word of God (see 1 Samuel 9:15 - 11:15). Saul's rejection of the word of God started him down the path to become a pagan totalitarian dictator, as I will explain another time.
David's greatest descendant Jesus said, "This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples (John 15:8). Only God can look at a person's heart directly, but a person's actions are the most reliable indication available to others. Jesus explained this further in his parables, such as the parable of the stewards and the talents (a "talent" is a weight measure of gold or silver). In this story the "good and faithful" steward turns his five talents into ten. The master says, "Well done! ... I shall put you in charge of ten cities" (Luke 19:17). Thus the steward earns his position of leadership by proving his merit--his diligence and competence.
In modern times, the notion of meritocracy began with Martin Luther's writings about the "priesthood of all believers." As Luther - still a Roman Catholic monk - was translating the New Testament he began to realize that the word of God taught that the work of a housewife or a shoemaker was as sacred as the profession of a priest. The Bible commands, "whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). Just as you would not make a poor quality shoe for a king, you would not do poor quality work to glorify God. Merit means high quality work.
Following Luther, Christian leaders began studying the Bible's teaching on "calling" and "work." Christian groups such as the Puritans, Quakers, and Mennonites disciplined themselves to do all their work for the glory of God.
These, then are the ingredients of meritocracy: the idea that character, not class, is what counts in a leader; and the idea that a person shows his character through his skill and hard work in his calling, since all work is done "unto the Lord."
In America, meritocracy begins with the Puritans, Quakers and the Mennonites. The colonists chose John Winthrop, who was not a nobleman, to be the first governor of New England because of his character and abilities. A class-conscious country like England would not have done this. He was chosen because the Bible shaped the Puritans' values. They demonstrated what sociologist Max Weber called the "Protestant ethic," which is also called the "Protestant work ethic" or "Puritan work ethic." It would yield unprecedented economic fruit, enabling America to become a meritocracy and surpass other nations in economics, education, science, technology, sports, government and military.
One of the things that made Obama's victory possible is that America has traditionally preferred merit over class. But now that America is turning away from the Bible, recent elections show that a new kind of superficiality is beginning to replace meritocracy: one that prefers glamour and charisma to character and competence.
During the presidential campaign, Obama's outward appearance to the majority of Americans was that of competence and integrity. But only the Lord can look at his heart. Let us pray that he will turn out to be what he appeared.
The Declaration of Independence begins with the line: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." But Jefferson was wrong about one thing: Human equality is not "self-evident." Inequality is self-evident.
My ancestors were not dumb, but for them, inequality was obvious. They explained it with the ideas of karma and reincarnation, and they institutionalized it in caste and sex discrimination. Souls are born unequal-into different castes and sexes-because of their good or bad karma in previous lives. To be religious meant to respect these differences. An upper caste person would be polluted if he touched a lower caste person, excommunicated if he ate with one, and maybe killed if he married one.
People like Jefferson did think that belief in equality could be grounded in the Enlightenment philosophy of universal "reason" and "common sense." But what is called common sense differs in every culture. For instance, nearly all societies think that it is common sense that women are inferior to men. When Jefferson and Thomas Paine talked about "Common Sense" they were drawing upon a peculiar attempt of the Scottish Enlightenment to find an epistemology that could be a secular basis for ideas revealed in the Bible. The radical biblical idea of human equality had so deeply penetrated American culture that it appeared self-evident to the founders.
Of course, most Americans atheists will tell you that they believe in human equality too. But that's only because the Bible wrote that notion into America's cultural DNA. If atheists were writing the Declaration of Independence, they would have to write something like, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all human beings have evolved equal, and are endowed by natural selection with certain unalienable rights..." But that would be absurd. There is no observable way in which all human beings are equal. Natural selection has never created political and social equality; if it did, we wouldn't need cultural revolutions and civil rights movements to bring it about. No, equality is a moral and theological idea that evolutionism can't support because evolution is a theory created to explain inequality in nature.
The Bible wrote the principle of human equality into the American soul by its insistence that all human beings, male and female, are made in God's image. We're all descended from one set of parents, Adam and Eve, and therefore are brothers and sisters. So no race or group is inherently superior or inferior to any other. We're all equal because we're all sinners, and yet because God loves us all equally. So we're all equally valuable in the eyes of the most important Valuer. We're all bound by, and protected by, the same moral law that originates from the same God. No one - not even the king - is exempt. This is the basis for political equality.
Jesus challenged the racism of his own culture by showing equal concern for the social outcasts--lepers, prostitutes, women, Samaritans, Greeks, Romans... He taught, "Love your neighbor as yourself," and expanded the scope of "neighbor" to include everyone. He told his followers to make disciples from "every nation," for every race had an equal right to the kingdom of God.
Later, some of Jesus' Jewish followers-called the Judaizers-tried to inject racial issues back into the early church, but the apostle Paul fought against it. He argued, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
In the 1500s, the German reformer Martin Luther discovered the truth of human equality in the New Testament doctrine of "the priesthood of all believers." The job of a housewife or a shoemaker was as sacred as the job of a priest. As the new vernacular translations and the printing press technology spread the Bible throughout Europe, this idea came with it. In the hands of public figures such as William Wilberforce, it led to the abolition of the slave trade. In America, it led to a civil war over the issue of slavery, then to women's liberation and racial civil rights movements.
Because Americans believe that everyone is already morally equal, they believe that everyone should be politically and socially equal. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin ran for office because women have not yet experienced themselves as politically equal to men. Barack Obama ran for office because black people have not yet experienced themselves as politically equal to white people. And the majority of white people in this country voted for him because they, too, shared this moral vision. This is the latest climax of a long, Bible-inspired movement for human rights.
Obama has chosen to put his hand on Lincoln's Bible to take his oath. This is especially fitting, because it was Lincoln's Bible that gave Lincoln the moral strength to preserve the union and free the slaves.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Monday, January 5, 2009
Welcome to my blog. I'll be posting regularly about my many areas of research. My current project is called "Must the Sun Set on the West?" It's about how the Bible is the source of the freedom and prosperity that Europe and America have experienced in modern times. I delivered a series of lectures on this at the University of Minnesota, which you can download from my website, and a book version will be published sometime in 2009. You can also check out my YouTube channel, where I have a series of videos making the case that Barack Obama owes his election to the Bible.