Archive for February, 2014

Was Thomas Merton a determinist?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Last November, some of you may recall, I wrote about my involvement in a “Reformed” Baptist church in Bardstown and the questions it raised for me about some tenets of Calvinist theology, particularly predestination and determinism.

As I understand it, predestination is the belief that God, before the beginning of the world, chose some for salvation and others for damnation. Determinism is the related idea that God has determined everything that will ever happen.

As someone who came to faith late in life through mainline Protestant traditions, I was taught that God invites everyone into a saving relationship with him, and it’s up to us to accept or reject his call. I also believe God creates men and angels with free will, that evil is a result of wrong choices, and that in the fullness of time, evil will be defeated, God will renew the earth, and righteousness will reign forever.

Finally, I’ve believed natural disasters occurred because God chose to create a world in which he does not micromanage everything, but allows it to operate according to natural laws, although he sometimes intervenes.

Those beliefs are consistent with Arminianism, which differs from Calvinism on those fundamental questions.

At the time that I wrote “We See Through a Glass, Darkly,” I was reading defenses of Calvinist doctrine others shared with me, as well as a book by two Asbury Theological Seminary professors, Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, “Why I Am Not a Calvinist.”

It seemed to me Dongell and Walls had the better argument, based on Scripture, tradition and reason, the three criteria we Anglicans have used for centuries to verify beliefs. I mentioned to some Calvinist acquaintances that I would also like to read a companion volume, “Why I Am Not an Arminian,” by Robert Peterson and Michael Williams, both of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Last week, I found a copy of it in a secondhand bookstore and have added it to my reading list.

Also while I was pondering these questions, I read “The Seven Storey Mountain” by Thomas Merton, about his coming to faith and becoming a Trappist at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County.

I thought Catholics believed in free will, although I knew some teachings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas were similar to Calvinism. I was surprised, therefore, when I got to the end of the book and read Merton’s words describing his apparent belief that God had led him irresistibly on the path from youthful hedonism to the cloistered life, as God had led Merton’s fellow monks on their journeys.

Here is what Merton wrote: “Before we were born, God knew us. He knew some of us would rebel against His love and His mercy, and that others would love Him from the moment they could love anything, and never change that love. He knew there would be joy in heaven among the angels of His house for the conversion of some of us, and He knew that He would bring us all here to Gethsemani together, one day, for His own purpose, for the praise of His love.”

Imagine, a man who devoted most of his life to prayer, saying that his prayers, his own will, did not lead him to become a monk, but that he was led by an Author, who had written him into the script before his birth.

If there’s anything I’ve learned about faith in recent months, it’s that it’s important to keep an open mind.

——

In another column last fall, I told of how I had met Anna Burd and Lambert Boone on one of my day hikes at Gethsemani, and Lambert had recalled his boyhood encounters with Merton. Recently, I received a letter from one of their cousins, Ed Cecil of Owensboro, who also said he knew Merton. As a boy, he said, he would catch goldfish in the monks’ ponds and take them back to the Boones’ farm.

“Father Louis, Thomas Merton, would come by and talk to us while we fished. We were a little nervous at first, because we knew we weren’t supposed to talk to the monks,” he wrote, but he was friendly and the children became familiar with him.

“People are a little skeptical when I tell them I knew Thomas Merton growing up, but when I tell them how I knew him, they come around,” he concluded.

Remembering an old-school newspaperman

Saturday, January 18, 2014

William S. Blakeman, one of the last of a special breed of newspapermen, was someone I had known most of my life.

My first memory of him was when he led my grade school class on a tour of The Winchester Sun’s printing plant and offices in the 1960s. I remember being fascinated by the Associated Press tape with holes punched in it that told stories from around the globe.

As a teenager, I was an avid reader of the Sun and an aspiring reporter, and I almost always read Bill’s columns.

When I graduated from Eastern Kentucky University with a journalism degree in 1983, I hoped my first job would be with my hometown daily, but it would be 30 years later before Bill offered me a job. I turned him down because I was comfortable where I was. But when my company bought the Sun two years later, I was named managing editor, and Bill stayed on as a part-time editorial writer and copy editor.

We worked together for a few months, and he was helpful in showing me the ropes and making sure I didn’t hang myself. He and I had different ideas about the direction of the newspaper and different directives we were charged with executing, but I liked and respected him and benefited from his experience.

Bill had been editor of the Sun for more than 40 years before I returned home to manage the paper’s newsroom.

After he retired, I found a faded newspaper clipping in the closet of my office, which had been his. It was a poem called “The Indispensable Man.” He kept it there to remind himself to be humble, but I’m glad he left it for me, because I needed the reminder more than he did.

There may be no “indispensable man,” but Bill came close. For four decades, he was the conscience of Clark County, and he was actively involved in the community as a deacon for his church, a founding board member of the Bluegrass Heritage Museum, and a member of the Winchester Kiwanis Club.

He sponsored me as a Kiwanian, and we volunteered together at pancake breakfasts and other fundraisers.

I came to know Bill by working with him at the Sun and through the club. He was a stickler for details and consistency, and led by example. He taught that “just good enough” just isn’t good enough, and that you treat people fairly by treating them the same. He had more nervous energy than any septuagenarian I’ve ever known. Even when he was fighting the cancer that would take his life, he almost never missed a club meeting, but it was sad to see him haggard when he had been so full of life.

Bill was especially kind to me. When I lost my job through downsizing, he told me, “I’m sorry,” and I knew he meant it. He followed with interest my job search and was pleased when I landed a plum assignment with the AP covering the 2012 state legislative session and four months later, when I landed a job with The Kentucky Standard.

Bill and I were working the phones together at a Kiwanis auction that terrible night in March 2012 when I got a call from my AP editor in Louisville telling me West Liberty had been demolished by a tornado, and I needed to get there quickly. As I was leaving, Bill warned me to “be careful.” I wonder how many times he said that to reporters.

It was with a heavy heart that I learned that Bill had passed away. On Wednesday, I attended his funeral and was happy the preacher had us laughing about his wry humor. He would have liked that.

Bill Blakeman was a good, Christian man, and I would like to think I’m a better man for having known him.

Enough said.

‘Mainstream media’ the most trustworthy

Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 10:34 am

Journalists are not objective.

Since the rise of talk radio 20 years ago, critics of what they’ve derisively labeled the “mainstream media” have challenged those of us in it — reporters and editors for newspapers, public radio and the old television network newscasts —to admit it, and so I’ll oblige them.

Reporters aren’t objective because we’re people, and people aren’t objective. Each of us has prejudices and experiences that color how we see the world around us, the same as any teacher, farmer or factory worker has. We all bring our own baggage.

Those of us trained in the craft of reporting and editing the news, however, are taught to be aware of our predispositions and take care that we are not blinded by our opaque views. We also strive — to use the motto of Fox News — to be “fair and balanced.” But that doesn’t mean we give equal weight to truth and travesty.

If CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow had given equal time to the Nazis on the eve of World War II, his listeners would have thought him unfair — and probably unbalanced.

Similarly, no thinking person would have considered David Halberstam of The New York Times a credible witness if he had treated the Ku Klux Klan with the same consideration as the Freedom Riders during the civil rights struggle 50 years ago.

It’s the method of journalism that is objective, not the messengers. As with the scientific method, you look at the evidence and where it leads, then try to solve the puzzle; you don’t try to find scraps of evidence to piece together into a collage that reflects your preconceived notions.

That’s the difference between the mainstream media (which I prefer to call the real news media) and the alternative media of talk radio blather, cut-and-paste blogs and propaganda sites such as Alex Jones’ InfoWars or Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo.

Tom Rosentiel and Bill Kovach, in their superb primer, “The Elements of Journalism,” make the argument that the idea of journalistic objectivity has changed and is now misunderstood. Originally, it didn’t mean reporters were free of bias. “Quite the contrary … .Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information — a transparent approach to evidence — precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work,” they wrote.

Essential to journalism, they said, is a “discipline of verification” that includes the following principles:

• Never add anything that was not there.

• Never deceive the audience.

• Be transparent about your methods and motives.

• Rely on your own original reporting.

Again, these are concepts that separate the conventional news media from most alternative media. Talk show hosts deceive their audiences by distorting facts, taking quotes out of context and making stuff up. They usually won’t come right out and say that they have partisan motives, and they usually don’t rely on their own reporting. They get their information from us grunts in the trenches — newspaper reporters, wire service statehouse correspondents and network television videographers. Then they use that information without attribution, put their own contrarian twist on it, and turn around and bite the hands that feed them by telling audiences that they can’t trust the mainstream media.

Well, I’ve got news for you. These days, the mainstream media are about the only news sources you can trust.

———

A reporter who exemplifies that spirit of verification and independence is Roger Alford, the state Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Frankfort, who was my supervisor during my brief stint as a part-time legislative reporter in 2012.

Roger is a conservative with libertarian leanings, but you wouldn’t know it unless you know him well, because it doesn’t show in his work. He always treated lawmakers, candidates and others with fairness and respect, but he was dogged in getting the story and getting it right. It was good to have him as a mentor, however briefly.

One thing some don’t know about Roger is that he is also a Baptist preacher. At the end of the year, he retired from journalism after 30 years in the profession and accepted a job with the Kentucky Baptist Convention in Louisville as its communications director. It seems to me a perfect blending of his two vocations. I wish him well in his new endeavor.

Changing parties should be easier

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The beginning of the new year is when we think about making changes, but if you’re thinking about changing your political affiliation, think again. You’re too late.

It’s hard to believe, but the cut-off for changing your party registration for the 2014 primary elections was last year, on Dec. 31, and the Nelson County Clerk’s Office was closed for New Year’s Eve.

I didn’t read anything about it until that day. The press release from Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’ office was dated Dec. 17, but who’s thinking about politics or elections a few days before Christmas?

Maybe it’s to the advantage of the majority party’s leaders that we don’t think about it. After all, the Democratic Party has a nearly two-to-one advantage in registration in Kentucky, and it’s higher than that in Nelson County. But nearly seven in 10 recent new voters have registered as Republicans, and I suspect this isn’t the only county where that’s happening.

Nationally, the number of people who consider themselves independents (that is, people who choose not to identify with a political party) make up 44 percent of us, according to a Dec. 5-8, 2013, Gallup poll. That figure dwarfs the number who call themselves Democrats (30 percent) as well as those who identify as Republicans (24 percent).

And the number of self-proclaimed independents is almost evenly split when they’re asked which way they tend to lean in voting: 42 percent considered themselves Republican “leaners,” and 44 percent tend to lean more toward the GOP.

Party loyalty isn’t what it used to be, and partisan state officials shouldn’t effectively exclude people from choosing which primary they want to vote in by having the registration deadline so far ahead of the election that almost no one is yet paying any attention.

It’s also wrong to have the voters’ party affiliation deadline occur before they even know who’s going to be on the ballot. Candidates have until Jan. 28 to file for election and can decide then whether they will run as Republicans or Democrats.

State Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, said in an email this week that it should be the same for voters; they should have until Jan. 28 to make that decision prior to the May 20 primaries. I would like to see it be a few days later, on Jan. 31, so voters know who the candidates are and can choose a primary based on that knowledge. Or just simplify it and make it April 21, the same day as the regular registration deadline for voting in the May 20 primary.

At least 10 states allow voters to wait until they go to the polls to decide which primary to vote in. I don’t like that idea. It negates the reasons for having parties and creates opportunity for mischief.

If that were the case, I could envision, for example, thousands of Democrats crossing over to vote for Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Republican U.S. Senate primary because they believed he would be easier for their candidate, Alison Lundergan Grimes, to beat in the general election in November. If Ashley Judd had entered the Senate race as most of us expected, I could see thousands of Republicans crossing over to vote for her because they thought she would be easier to defeat in the fall.

Having the cut-off a few days before the primary also isn’t a good idea, for the same reason.

But having the registration deadline 30 to 90 days out, as almost all other states do, seems about right to me.

No other state makes its voters choose their party affiliation as early as Kentucky does. Connecticut comes closest by having the registration deadline three months before the primary. Kentucky’s is more than four and half months prior to the election. That is unacceptable, and someone should write a bill for this year’s regular session of the Kentucky General Assembly to change it.

Hindering popular participation in democracy and maintaining rigid partisan structures aren’t areas in which Kentucky should want to be first in the nation.

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