The Future of Smoke Stacks

 

Beijing Smoke Stack

 

Beijing is a polluted city. Not even the spin-doctors deny that the air here is bad. On a windy day you can taste it. But upon my arrival it still came as a surprise to see a huge ten-storey industrial smoke stack right across the street from my apartment on the campus of Renmin (the People’s) University. Encased in scaffolding, workers have been banging and jack hammering on it every day. The project’s location struck me as particularly offensive—way too close to this residential university, an inappropriate site in an already-dense urban environment. And then eight weeks on I made a surprising discovery. The smoke stack is not going up; it’s actually coming down! It’s another sign that China is making a serious effort to go “green.”

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Quanxi and the Image of God

China

 

Yesterday I had the unusual privilege of attending a business management conference in Shanghai. It was sponsored by the Euro-China Centre for Leadership and Responsibility (ECCLAR), and its purpose was to explore the “Practical Wisdom for Management” present in the Chinese classical traditions—especially Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. A speaker said something that got me thinking about a conversation I had years ago with one of my young (at the time) daughters about the pros and cons of killing a dog. I should probably explain.

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The Canary in the Gulf of Mexico

China Recycling

 

At the moment the world is fixated on the video-cam of oil spewing up out of the earth to defile the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone is hoping and praying that a technical solution will be found to stabilize this environmental holocaust. Should this occur in the near future, we will breathe a collective sigh of relief. Inevitably there will be resolutions to tighten up oil drilling safety standards and improve emergency response strategies, but perhaps the greater tragedy will be if in a few weeks or months we resume our same dangerous and unsustainable way of life. If this disaster proves to be of sufficient magnitude that it will not be possible thereafter to revert to business as usual, the tragedy itself may end up a “severe mercy.” We may look back on it as the moment when “the canary died in the coal mine.” It may be our chance to break out of something that is otherwise going to kill us all.

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Please, Help Me!

 Taoism

One of the near-universal functions of religion is to solicit help from the Higher Power to meet our needs. The main function of prayer, it seems, is petition—asking, begging, making promises and cutting deals, in order (we hope) to get stuff. I saw this dynamic alive and well at the White Cloud Taoist Temple I visited in a slightly scruffier part of Beijing. People kept arriving with gifts of fruit and flowers for the various deities (idols), and lighting incense sticks before kneeling before the images to ask for favors. It got me wondering how the prayers that Christians tend to ask are really much different.

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Religion as Therapy in China

Lama Temple Beijing

 

I have been in Beijing, China for about three weeks now as a visiting scholar at Renmin (the People’s) University, founded by Chairman Mao, and at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. I am comfortably housed in the Foreign Expert Building on the University campus, and get to bike around the leafy campus alongside many of future leaders of the Communist Party and of China itself. Without denying the real differences between West and East, it’s surprising how much is the same, even in the sphere of religion.

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The Rest of the Story

This past week the Los Angeles Times ran a brief obituary of the distinguished English scholar Antony Flew (1923-2010). Flew was a high-profile academic philosopher noted, even among impressive peers, as an exceptional intellect. After service in the Royal Air Force during World War II, he studied at Oxford and there participated in weekly meetings originally organized by C. S. Lewis. The author or co-author of more than thirty books, he is best known for his rigorously logical arguments against the existence of God.

However, this champion of atheism began to waver in his convictions later in life. The possibility that the planet’s delicate ecosystem might be the product of mere chance seemed increasingly improbable to him, and in the end, and without any intellectual slippage, he had crossed over to the other side of the divide over God.

His brief obituary also mentioned that he was the son of a Methodist minister, and as a teenager had abandoned belief in God after wrestling with the problem of evil. Flew’s father died years before his son saw the light, and never lived to see the unlikely turnaround in his brilliant sons’ heart and mind. It’s a reminder that everyone is on a lifelong journey, and it’s never over ’til it’s over. Sometimes waiting fathers and mothers, and other loved ones, may even dare, like Abraham and Moses and a host of other saints, to die in hope. We may not always get to see the rest of the story.

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“Big Mac” and Compunction

In a televised interview this past week Mark McGuire (Big Mac), one of major league baseball’s greatest home run hitters ever, admitted something he’s never been willing to admit before, even during a United States congressional hearing. He finally conceded that during the time he was setting all his hitting records as a St. Louis Cardinals he was also using steroids—a substance banned by the league and dangerous to any user’s long-term health. Yet his “confession” felt deeply unsatisfying to most people who watched it; the missing ingredient was compunction.

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Is the War in Afghanistan a Just War?

Last week a friend phoned me to describe a bumper sticker she had noticed on a car in the parking lot of a local mall. Playing off a familiar query, it posed this question: “What would Jesus bomb?” It’s a disturbing question because few of us can imagine the Jesus who blessed little children, and chose for himself to absorb violence rather than dish it out, would ever give a thumbs-up to fully armed commandos in camouflage. But it’s also in some ways an irritating question, because it does not seem to acknowledge the complexities of living in a fallen world.

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A Russian View of Sexuality

Last week we set off for a brief vacation up at Yosemite in California’s Sierra mountain range. On the way up, in the wickedly hot central valley around Fresno, we stopped into a Borders bookstore for some light reading material, and I came across what looked like an interesting collection of short stories. Even better, the volume was on sale that day. But I wasn’t prepared for what it contained.

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Navy SEALs and the Taliban

My newest son-in-law, who is military, gave me a book to read for Father’s Day. It’s a best-selling novel entitled Lone Survivor (2007). Given the circumstances I decided to read it right through. Turns out it is the dramatic story of a covert Navy SEAL operation into the mountains of Afghanistan, via a nighttime helicopter drop, to take out a particularly dangerous Taliban leader. More to the point, it’s the story of how the whole thing went horribly bad. The narrative is provided by Marcus Luttrell, the only survivor—his survival itself something of a miracle. There’s a moral to the story.

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