Pascal and Descartes

In the past few days I have read the works of two important philosophers: Blaise Pascal and Rene Descartes. Both lived in France during the 1600s; in fact, they knew each other. Both excelled in science and mathematics as well as philosophy. But Pascal is probably the last writer of the Reformation, while Descartes is definitely the first of the modern philosophers.

Blaise Pascal was part of a movement in France which was called Jansenism. Remaining within the Roman Catholic Church, Jansenists drew their teachings from the Bible and from the writings of Augustine of Hippo. Their enemies (which included the Jesuits) accused them of being Calvinists rather than faithful Catholics. Pascal never completed his most important book, the Pensees (Thoughts or Meditations). It remained in outline form, with many sections fleshed out; because it was written on scraps of paper, even the order of the material is questionable. But it is clear that Pascal was seeking to convince a skeptical reader of the existence and importance of God. In one section, often called “Pascal’s wager,” the philosopher suggests that it is better to believe in God and be wrong—in which case there are no dire consequences—than to refuse to believe in God and be wrong—in which case the consequences are enormous and catastrophic. I suspect the wager, as such, is intended as a joke, since Pascal knew that Christian faith is far more serious than a gamble. Throughout his work, Pascal demonstrates a deep, sincere faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whom he distinguishes from the God of the philosophers.

Rene Descartes also wrote Meditations, although his works were finished and published in the form he intended. Descartes begins by suggesting that everything he had learned might be wrong. What he had been taught and what he had perceived with his senses might both be faulty. He resolved to doubt everything; then he would see what truth he could deduce in the midst of his doubt. He pointed out that he must exist, since he was thinking. (“Cogito ergo sum,” or, “I think, therefore I am”). But something other than Pascal must exist, since he received input or stimulus from outside of his mind. Both he and those other existing things must have a cause, and Descartes reasoned that the First Cause is God. He then pondered the nature of a God who creates, determining that such a God must be benevolent rather than devious or malicious. From that Descartes concluded that he could trust his senses as well as his reasoning and could use science to study the world around him.

(It should be noted that the movie Matrix pictures the alternate possibility—that people think, but that no benevolent God is responsible for creating the world in which they exist. Therefore, it is possible, even likely, that the world in which they truly exist is entirely unlike the world they perceive.)

Pascal, like most Christians before him, began with God and with revealed knowledge, using philosophy and reason to build a system of thought that included science but left all things in God’s hands. Descartes, like most modern philosophers since his time, began with himself and worked his way to knowledge of God and of the world.

I found no mention of Pascal in Descartes’ book, but Pascal mentions Descartes. He was unimpressed by Descartes’ approach, concerned that the God Descartes would find by starting with himself would not be the true God. This has remained a problem for modern philosophy ever since. In the 1600s, Descartes said, “Question everything.” In the 1800s, Soren Kierkegaard responded, “Why?” J.

Pet peeves and pleasantries

  • I’ve been hunting for something clever to say about Hurricane Dorian, something that would connect it to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Perhaps something along the lines of realizing that the storm is remaining unchanged even as pictures of it grow larger. But so far, I’ve not been able to top the local newspaper, which printed a photograph of two people boarding up their home in Puerto Rico with the headline, “Dorian Blues.”
  • For decades, radio DJs have talked over the instrumental introductions of songs. As I age, I find the practice increasingly annoying. With some songs it doesn’t matter, but the opening chords of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” should never be eclipsed. Likewise for Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose.” And the opening guitar chords to “Shallow” from the recent movie “A Star is Born” set the mood for the song and should be heard without interruption.
  • One reason this practice of talking during the instrumental introduction annoys me is that the afternoon DJ on our local station seems to think she does it well. She doesn’t. At times she keeps on prattling into the opening words of the song. And she often neglects to restore the volume of the music after she has turned it down to hear herself talk. I could turn up the volume, but then I have to hurry to turn it down again before the song ends and her voice blares again from the speakers.
  • Another reason I’m annoyed by the talking DJ is that I only listen to the radio in my car. At work I don’t listen to music; at home if I want music I choose a CD. Now, many other things rattle my equilibrium when I am driving. Some drivers swerve from lane to lane going ten miles above the speed limit; others drift to the edge of the lane while driving ten miles under the speed limit—they are texting while they drive, which is why they drift; their drifting makes it difficult to pass them safely. Ergo, since I’m already annoyed behind the wheel, the DJ is only going to increase my discomfort.
  • Then there’s the issue of turning right at a red light. All too often I’ve had a driver try to squeeze in front of me when that driver was facing a red light and I had a green light. On the other hand, this happened again yesterday, twice: I was trying to turn right on a red light, but every time I inched forward to look for traffic, the car in the left turn lane also inched forward. That driver had nothing to gain from the adjustment, but it was to my disadvantage.
  • If you are a bad driver, please do not advertise your church or your beliefs with a sticker on the back of your car. If you are breaking the law or generally being rude and discourteous, the last thing you want to do is associate your community of faith with your behavior.
  • On a lighter note, one of my students of history made an interesting observation last night. On Tuesday we discussed the Harappan civilization of ancient India: they reached a high level of civilization many centuries ago, with amazing architecture, indoor plumbing, and a written language that no one alive today knows how to read. Afterward, their civilization collapsed, and no one is sure what happened to their descendants. Then, last night, we covered the Olmec and Maya peoples of the western hemisphere. Again, their architecture and use of running water and many other characteristics are astounding for the ancient world. Yet the Olmec abandoned their cities without a trace, and the Maya also walked away from their dwellings (though the Maya writings are being translated, and there are people living today who are descended from the Maya). My student noted that the common threads in these civilizations are their use of plumbing and the collapse of their civilizations; she thought there might be a connection. I told her to write a paper on the subject; it might make her famous.
  • It is worth nothing that one of the theories about the fall of the Roman Empire is related to plumbing. The Romans used lead pipes to bring water into their homes. Lead poisoning is thought to have weakened them to the point that they were overcome by invaders. It’s not a popular theory—many other causes are also given for the fall of Rome—but it’s interesting, all the same. J.

Remembering Woodstock

I was vaguely aware that some rock concert was happening fifty years ago. At the time I was young and I didn’t follow rock music. I knew what hippies were—I saw a carload of them one afternoon that summer. But the term Woodstock was not very meaningful to me while it was happening.

A little more than ten years after (Yes, I did that on purpose.), the college I was attending showed the Woodstock documentary on a Friday night. My friends and I attended, and we were won over to the Woodstock spirit. In fact, that same fall we dressed as hippies for the Homecoming bed races and won the top prize for our costumes (and second prize in the actual race). I went out and bought the three-disc concert album and came to know most of the songs by heart. When it was available, I bought the documentary on VHS. When I wore out the tapes from repeated viewing, I replaced them with the DVD set (which included Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and some other singers and groups that were omitted—at their own request—from the original movie). So of course I have watched the movie again this week, joined by my teenaged daughter, who has her own appreciation for hippies and Sixties culture. In fact, having watched Woodstock earlier in the week, we followed that last night by watching Hair, a movie made in 1979 that included the songs from the Sixties musical of the same name.

Observing and appreciating the culture does not include approval of all its mistakes. I still believe in marriage and faithfulness, in respect for authority, and in private property. I shower every day, and I just got a haircut this week. I have no illusions about the Age of Aquarius (and, by the way, most experts in the field say we are still in the Age of Pisces). But most of my favorite rock songs are from the Sixties. The Beatles were the best rock band ever, and Abbey Road is the best rock album ever recorded. I still ache when I think about the 1969 Chicago Cubs, how they stumbled out of first place as summer drew to a close, being overtaken by the Miracle Mets. (And this year’s version of the Cubs seem destined for the same disappointing results.)

I wouldn’t want to be seven years old again. But the summer I turned seven was full of amazing happenings that are worth remembering and celebrating. J.

Speaking of violence and Christianity

Yesterday I gave a forty-five minute presentation to a few dozen people about violence and Christianity. My talk was part three of a four-part series, held on Thursday mornings, which the organizer called “Strange Bedfellows: Religion and Violence.” The first speaker was a retired rabbi, representing Judaism, and the second speaker was a Muslim. The organizer plans to speak at the fourth session next week, wrapping up the series.

It only struck me after the presentation what an honor it was to be the sole voice speaking for Christianity to this particular group. I would have been a lot more nervous if I had thought about that before I spoke. Many people in the audience had heard me speak before, but more as a teacher about history or about religion, not as an apologist for Christianity. I attended the two previous sessions so I would know what had been said about violence and Judaism and about violence and Islam.

I began by displaying the words, “NO JESUS = NO PEACE; KNOW JESUS = KNOW PEACE.” I said that Christianity presents itself to the world as a religion of peace, from the benediction of Numbers 6 (“The Lord bless you and keep you… and give you peace.”) to the messianic title “Prince of Peace,” to the song sung by angels when Jesus was born (“Glory be to God on high, and on earth, peace…”) and Paul’s favorite greeting in his epistles (“Grace and peace to you…”). My next slide showed the words of Matthew 10:34: Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” From there I went on to talk about the Christian life as living on a battlefield—not a Manichaean battlefield in which God rules heaven, Satan rules hell, and they fight as equals on earth, but a war of rebellion in which Satan and his allies resist God even though they are doomed to lose. I spoke of the three enemies—not flesh and blood, but spiritual forces—faced by Christians; namely, the devil, the world, and our flesh. I included death as a fourth enemy, and I explained the Christian belief that Jesus came into the world to fight and defeat these enemies.

Next, I quoted Jesus’ parable of the strong man (Matthew 12:29). Satan is strong, but Jesus is stronger: he breaks into Satan’s house, binds Satan, and robs Satan of his possessions; namely, sinners. I pointed out that we are all sinners; I gave the example of shouting an insult at another driver on the highway, which Jesus considers equal to murder. Having shouted such an insult, I made myself property of the devil rather than a child of God. But Jesus came, not to destroy me but to rescue me. He came, not to destroy the sin-polluted world, but to rescue and remake the world.

My next point was that forgiven sinners become saints. They are called to imitate Jesus, helping those who need help and forgiving those who sin against them. But, being like Jesus, saints will be persecuted like Jesus. I cited several examples, from Roman persecution of the Church to recent events in Nigeria and Sri Lanka. Christians are victims of violence and will be until the Last Day. The devil and the world target Christians for persecution.

But the big question that I was expected to answer was this: what happens when Christians are violent towards others? I approached that question with this saying: “CHRISTIANS AREN’T PERFECT; JUST FORGIVEN.” I acknowledged that Christians can be guilty of violence. I described Luther’s vitriolic words about Jews, saying that Luther was wrong to write such things, that he had fallen victim to the flesh (as all Christians do), and that the good things he wrote should not be discounted because of the bad things he wrote.

From there I went on to talk about witchhunts, the Crusades, pogroms, and forced conversions. Each of them, I insisted, was sinful behavior by Christians for which they needed Christ’s forgiveness. I followed that with a more detailed description of the Spanish Inquisition, which was the effort of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to ensure that every citizen of the nation they ruled was a genuine Christian. Jews and Muslims were given a choice: convert to Christianity or leave Spain. The Inquisition attempted to ensure that those who did not leave had sincerely converted. Of course the Inquisition hunted down other groups of people, including Protestants, sexual deviants, and even common criminals. But it was a branch of the government that dealt with crime and that treated certain religious groups as criminal.

This introduced the idea that every Christian has a dual citizenship: loyalty to the kingdom of God and also loyalty to a nation on earth. I am a citizen of the United States and also a citizen of God’s kingdom. Quoting Jesus’ words, “Render unto Caesar… and render unto God…” I also mentioned Augustine’s two cities, Luther’s two swords, and the American concept of “separation of church and state.” In each case, a dual loyalty is seen. But both are loyalty to God. The state enforces the law, protecting citizens and punishing criminals. The church shares the gospel, offering forgiveness to sinners. The church does not punish sinners; the state does not forgive criminals.

The Crusades are an example of the Church trying to do the job of the state; the Spanish Inquisition is an example of the state trying to do the job of the Church. Much of the violence for which Christians are blamed (and of which some Christians were guilty) results from crossing the line between Church and state. I reminded the group that the Muslim speaker had said that violence is a political problem, not a religious problem (even when committed in the name of religion) and I said that I agree. I indicated that Christians need to honor, respect, and obey their leaders, whoever those leaders are. I named President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, and President Donald Trump as men who represent God’s authority by their office and deserve the respect of all American Christians.

I then spoke briefly about the Theory of Just War, one of the special interests of the series’ organizer. A government has an obligation to protect its citizens from attacks coming from other nations or groups of people. But some reasons for starting a war are just and others are unjust; some methods of waging war are just and others are unjust.

My final topic was Christian apocalyptic hope. I mentioned Armageddon, which the book of Revelation describes as the devil gathering all the sinners of the world to oppose Jesus Christ. When Christ appears, though, there is no violence. No bombs are dropped. No guns are fired. Jesus simply wins. In fact, he has already won, suffering violence on the cross and reversing death Easter morning. His picture of the new creation is not a military picture: it is the picture of a wedding reception. This new creation, I said, is marked by peace: peace with God, peace with one another, and peace with all creation.

The audience was very quiet during my presentation. I wasn’t sure whether the silence was rapt attention or smoldering hostility. But their questions were friendly, their applause was warm, and those who spoke with me afterward said I had done a good job. I cannot say that my words converted anyone to Christianity or even whether they enriched anyone’s faith. But, for forty-five minutes, I represented Christ and his Church in an official setting. I am grateful to have had that opportunity. J.

 

Apollo 11

How are you celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11?

I have my CD player/alarm set to wake me up tomorrow at 6:30 with Frank Sinatra singing “Fly Me to the Moon.” I wasn’t sure until this afternoon that I owned that recording—I bought a Frank Sinatra CD years ago for “My Kind of Town” and I haven’t played any other tracks from it. But tomorrow will start with the right song for the day.

When I get dressed for work (Yes, I have to work tomorrow.), I will put on a crisp white shirt, black slacks, and a black tie. Instead of my usual one ballpoint pen I will put several pens in my pocket. If I cannot dress like an astronaut to celebrate, at least I can dress like an engineer from Mission Control, and that’s good enough for me.

I will fly the American flag outside my house tomorrow. We fly the flag on sad days like Memorial Day and September 11, so it feels good to fly the flag on the anniversary of a great and joyful American accomplishment.

When I am at work, if slow times come when no one needs my attention—and Saturdays frequently have such slow times—I will be reading First on the Moon, which is a book that Little, Brown rushed to publish a few months after the Apollo 11 mission. The writers probably spent time with the astronauts, flight crew, and the families of the astronauts before and after the mission, interviewing them. They may have even been with the families during the mission—they give detailed descriptions of what the wives were wearing and how they reacted to events during the mission. I’m pretty sure my parents got this book from the Book of the Month Club back in 1970.

CNN has made a documentary movie about Apollo 11 that they are showing again tomorrow night. They showed it a few days ago, and my family and I watched it and were recording it. But thunderstorms came through the neighborhood, and we lost the satellite signal near the end of the broadcast. So we will definitely try to record the movie again, and we might even watch it tomorrow night.

Are you planning on celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11? J.

Memorial Day–remembering the Vietnam War–part four

In 1972, Nixon traveled to China and to the Soviet Union, meeting with the leaders of both countries. His popularity grew at home. Meanwhile, a bruising primary campaign resulted in the Democratic nomination of George McGovern for President, probably the weakest candidate the Democrats could have named. Part of North Vietnam’s strategy for victory depended upon American distaste for the war. Anti-war demonstrations in American cities made it appear that the United States government might bow to pressure from the people and withdraw from the conflict. With Nixon’s reelection increasingly probable, North Vietnam dropped that strategy and entered serious negotiations with Kissinger in Paris. As the election neared, Kissinger hinted that peace was at hand. But after the election, the negotiators from North Vietnam backpedaled on some of the concessions they had promised. Nixon renewed bombing attacks and mining on North Vietnam—which he had reduced while the negotiations seemed successful. North Vietnam returned to the bargaining table, and in January 1973 papers were signed that officially ended the war, released American prisoners of war held in North Vietnam, brought all the American troops home, and guaranteed the survival of South Vietnam.

The agreements contained numerous restrictions upon action by North Vietnam against South Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos. Reprisals by American military force against any violation of these restrictions was guaranteed. However, despite Nixon’s overwhelming reelection in November 1972, the American Congress had grown more Democratic, with many newly-elected Democrats in Congress outspoken opponents of the war. Congress passed legislation to limit the ability of a President to wage war. It also voted to allow no funding for additional military action in Indochina. North Vietnam tested the treaty, violating some of its minor terms, and saw no American response. Weakened by the Watergate scandal, Nixon was unable to keep the American promises made in the treaty. After Nixon resigned, Ford was equally unable to enforce the treaty. North Vietnam patiently strengthened its military forces and waited for an opportunity to strike. In the spring of 1975 they struck. Ford again begged Congress for funds to defend South Vietnam, and again Congress denied his request. North Vietnamese troops and equipment poured across the border and seized all of South Vietnam. Many refugees escaped South Vietnam and were resettled in the United States. Many more (600,000) died trying to escape. Still more were imprisoned, tortured, and “reeducated” or killed by the Communists. With help from North Vietnam, communists overthrew the governments of Cambodia and Laos. In Cambodia alone more than two million citizens were killed by their new leaders.

The United States won the Vietnam War. The conditions established in the treaties signed in January 1973 were consistent with the goals that brought our troops into South Vietnam. Refusal to enforce the treaty changed victory into defeat. As Nixon would later say, “We won the war, but we lost the peace.”

More than fifty thousand Americans (58,220) lost their lives fighting in Vietnam. Many more returned home with significant health problems caused by the war. More than $50 billion was spent to contain communism in southeast Asia. The 93rd United States Congress wasted all that loss when they denied funds to enforce the treaty. The Vietnam War is widely seen today as a blot on the pages of American history—a war fought at the wrong time in the wrong place for the wrong reasons. Careful analysis of the facts—particularly Communist treatment of conquered people in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos—shows that we were fighting what was evil and seeking to preserve what was good. We owe a debt of gratitude to the soldiers who fell in Vietnam. We should remember them this week as heroes, not as failures. J.

Memorial Day–remembering the Vietnam War–part three

President Johnson chose not to run for reelection in 1968. Several candidates entered the race, including former Vice-President Richard Nixon, the eventual winner of the election. Some of the Democratic candidates emphasized that they would pull American troops out of Vietnam as quickly as possible. When a reporter asked Nixon about his plans involving the war, he assured the reporter that he also wanted to bring Americans home from Vietnam. Somehow this statement turned into a rumor that candidate Nixon had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. He never said he had a “secret plan,” only that he wanted to end the war. What he wanted, though, was “peace with honor”—not a surrender to the Communists, but an assurance that South Vietnam would survive as a free country.

There are rumors, believed by some historians, that the Nixon campaign interfered with President Johnson’s attempts to end the Vietnam War in 1968. This rumors center around Anna Chenault, a supporter of Nixon who also knew General Nguyen Van Thieu, who had replaced Diem in the government of South Vietnam. Chenault had some minor contact with members of Nixon’s campaign. She also communicated with Thieu, apparently assuring him that he would get a better deal from President Nixon than from Johnson; that he should refuse any deal to end the war before the end of 1968. The latter may have been the opinion of Chenault, and she may have expressed that opinion to Thieu, but this was by no means a message from the candidate or from any official in his campaign.

At any rate President Johnson did try to influence the American election by manipulating the war. Five days before the election, he declared a halt to American bombing of North Vietnam. Johnson did this unilaterally, without any corresponding concessions from North Vietnam. His tactic may have shifted some votes to Humphrey, but it did not win the election for Humphrey. Nor did it contribute to ending the war.

President Nixon acted on three fronts to try to end the war. First, he established secret negotiations in Paris between American officials—primarily National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger—and North Vietnamese negotiators. For three years the talks remained stalled, as North Vietnam insisted that the United States withdraw all its troops from South Vietnam and also assist in the overthrow of Thieu’s government. Only in the second half of 1972, when it became apparent to the North Vietnamese that Nixon would be reelected, did they offer serious negotiations to end the war.

Second, Nixon embarked on a program he called “Vietnamization.” He announced that American forces would train the army of South Vietnam to defend its own land, adding that the number of Americans fighting in South Vietnam would be steadily reduced. Over the next four years, Nixon kept his promise, bringing home soldiers by the thousands without replacing them with new American troops. By January 1, 1972, the number of Americans fighting in South Vietnam had been reduced by 400,000. Yet the remaining American fighters, assisting the strengthened South Vietnamese army, were able to withstand a strong invasion out of North Vietnam.

Nixon’s third strategy to end the war was to attack the enemy where the enemy was strongest rather than waiting for the enemy to enter South Vietnam. He resumed bombing military targets in North Vietnam. He ordered attacks on North Vietnamese positions in Cambodia and Laos. Political critics of Nixon have claimed that he expanded the war by involving neutral countries, but the North Vietnamese were already present in force in those countries. By attacking those positions, Nixon was able to prevent attacks upon South Vietnam, saving lives and moving toward victory against the enemy. Nixon also authorized planting mines in the waters near Hanoi, North Vietnam’s capital. These mines deterred shipments of military supplies into North Vietnam.

To be continued… J.

Memorial Day–remembering the Vietnam War–part two

Japan surrendered to the United States in 1945, and French forces returned to take control of Indochina. Unlike the British Empire, the French at first had no inclination to grant independence to their colonies. As a result, the forces Ho Chi Minh commanded against the Japanese remained together to fight the French. Many other groups in Indochina also resisted the French—most of these groups were not, like Ho’s group, Communists. For about a decade the French struggled to maintain control over Indochina, but they eventually relented. Not wanting to grant independence, they had done no work to prepare the native people for self-government and leadership. With American guidance, Indochina was divided into three countries according to culture: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Vietnam was further divided into two countries. As the Yalta agreement had resulted in two Germanies—East Germany, which was communist, and West Germany, which was not—and also two Koreas—North Korea, which was communist, and South Korea, which was not—a similar divide was suggested for Vietnam. North Vietnam would be ruled by Ho and the Communists; South Vietnam would be governed by a group that was not Communist.

Vietnamese people were given sixty days to relocate. Ninety thousand left South Vietnam to join Ho and the Communists in the north. One million (out of a total population of thirteen million) left the north for the south. Others tried to move south before the deadline but were deterred by Communist forces. Ho followed the example of Joseph Stalin in dealing with political opposition—anyone who disagreed with him was arrested and imprisoned. Many of his opponents were killed; the rest were “re-educated” into Communism, often through torture.

South Vietnam therefore began its existence with a refugee resettlement crisis. Ngo Dinh Diem was the first leader of the South Vietnamese government. He aimed to provide a stable democracy, but under current conditions it was not possible to grant all the freedoms that Americans take for granted. Diem’s leadership managed to quell disturbances from several non-Communist groups that opposed his government, but he did not succeed in maintaining a government free from corruption and brutality. Meanwhile, by the end of the 1950s, North Vietnam had quietly entered southern Laos and established a series of travel routes known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Using these roads, North Vietnam was able to smuggle four thousand fighters and copious supplies to continue undermining the stability of South Vietnam.

By the summer of 1963, the military leaders in South Vietnam had decided to establish a coup to take power away from Diem. President Kennedy reluctantly agreed that Diem had to go, although he hoped for a peaceful transfer of power. Instead, Diem and his brother were killed during the military takeover. Three weeks later, Kennedy himself was assassinated, leaving American involvement in South Vietnam in the hands of Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson and his advisors (many of them continuing from the Kennedy White House) recognized the need to support South Vietnam militarily to ensure its survival. Congress at first enthusiastically gave Johnson full permission to send troops to help quell disturbances in South Vietnam. Regrettably, the American plan was to wage a limited war, only engaging the enemy within South Vietnam, trying to distinguish loyal citizens from rebels and insurgents. Trained troops and military supplies continued to enter South Vietnam from the north by way of Laos and Cambodia. Over the next four years, Johnson sent more and more Americans to fight in South Vietnam, until half a million Americans were there by the end of 1968.

Meanwhile, the war was becoming increasingly unpopular in the United States. President Johnson was not able to explain to the country why our soldiers were fighting in Vietnam. The purpose of the Cold war was to contain communism. Experts in the United States government feared that if all of Vietnam became Communist, Laos and Cambodia would do the same, followed by Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, perhaps even India. (This was called the “domino theory.”) Some historians say that if South Vietnam lost to the communists in the 1960s, that scenario might have occurred in the 1970s. As it is, diplomacy and foreign aid helped keep most of those countries out of the communist sphere, with the loss of only Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

To be continued… J.

Memorial Day–remembering the Vietnam War–part one

During Memorial Day weekend, Americans take time to remember the men and women of our armed forces who lost their lives on battlefields defending our security and our freedom. Originally established to remember the casualties of the Civil War—both Union and Confederate—the holiday has expanded to remember our losses in all wars, including the World Wars, the Cold War battles in Korea, Vietnam, and other places, and the battles of the ongoing War on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

I teach history, and I have noticed that accounts of the Vietnam War in college textbooks and other sources are often incomplete, faulty, and biased. Media coverage of the war while it was being fought had the same faults, with the result that those who write history today often rely on unreliable material for their information. Whenever we reach the Vietnam War in my college history classes, I give a brief lecture on the war, its causes and its results. My lecture differs significantly from what students read in their textbooks; I encourage them to do more research on their own before they make up their minds what to believe about Vietnam.

When European nations were colonizing the rest of the world, the French government decided to claim territory in southeast Asia. The land was called Indochina because it is roughly halfway between India and China when traveling by boat. Like other colonial powers, the French claimed the land so they could harvest its raw materials (including the labor of its inhabitants) and control harbors for trading posts and military bases. Earlier, parts of Indochina had belonged to the Chinese Empire, and Chinese culture had a large influence on the people of Indochina, although they were not Chinese.

The French continued to hold Indochina during the First World War. They continued to draw on the land for supplies, and they also conscripted the people of Indochina as support personnel for French troops. When the United States entered the war, President Woodrow Wilson stated fourteen goals of our government for the world following the end of the war. The goals included self-determination—the right of people everywhere to choose their own government—and independence for Europe’s colonies. But no such freedom was given to colonies in Asia and Africa after the war.

During the Second World War Japan claimed the French colony of Indochina after France had been invaded by Germany. The people of Indochina resisted the Japanese Empire. One of the leaders of their resistance was Ho Chi Minh. He had been trained in the Soviet Union as a revolutionary, and he used his training to resist the Japanese. Meanwhile, President Franklin Roosevelt met with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill at Yalta to discuss how the world would be governed after the defeat of Germany and Japan. One of the agreements these three leaders made was that European colonies would be granted independence some time after the war ended.

To be continued… J.

Athanasius and the hand of Arsenius

In the fourth century a man lived in Alexandria, in Egypt, whose name was Athanasius. He was a leader in the Church, eventually becoming bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius defended the Christian faith from heretics who wanted to change the Church’s teachings. However, his leadership was controversial, and four times he was expelled from Alexandria by decree of the Emperor.

Alexander was bishop in Alexandria before Athanasius. At that time, a presbyter in the same city, a man named Arius, reasoned his way to a new understanding of God. Arius concluded that only God the Father is eternal and almighty; he taught that the Father created God the Son and then created everything else that exists through the Son. “There was a time,” Arius taught, “when the Son did not exist.” This teaching was condemned by Alexander, but Arius persuaded many Christians to believe his teaching, which led to contention in the Christian Church.

When the Emperor Constantine heard of this trouble, he called for a meeting of Christian leaders to study the Bible and resolve the issue. More than 250 bishops attended (the traditional number is 318, but other numbers are also published), along with other church leaders. Athanasius was at the time the leading deacon from Alexandria, and he was one of the chief speakers at the meeting. After being exhorted by the Emperor to come to an agreement, and after praying and studying the Bible, the meeting produced a statement that described Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” All but two bishops in attendance agreed with this statement, and many Christians still speak these words today when they gather to worship and to learn about God.

When Alexander died, Athanasius was named bishop in Alexandria. But Arius still had many supporters who hated Athanasius. They went to the Emperor, complaining that Athanasius had collected a high tax in Egypt and had given the money to a man plotting to overthrow and replace Constantine as Emperor. Constantine commanded Athanasius to appear before him and questioned him about the charge, but Athanasius was able to prove his innocence. This only angered his enemies further, and they accused Athanasius of other severe crimes. This time Constantine called for a church council; but Athanasius, hearing that the council would be held in Caesarea—where he had many enemies, including the bishop—refused to attend. His enemies used this to persuade Constantine that Athanasius must be guilty of some crime, and so the Emperor called for another council, this time in Tyre, and Athanasius was directly commanded to be present.

In Tyre the enemies of Athanasius presented a woman who claimed that Athanasius had lodged at her house and had raped her. When he arrived, Athanasius entered the meeting accompanied by a friend named Timotheus. When Athanasius was called upon to reply to the charge, he remained silent and Timotheus spoke. He said to the woman, “Have I, O woman, ever conversed with you, or have I entered your house?” She pointed her finger at Timotheus and screamed, “It was you who robbed me of my virginity; it was you who stripped me of my chastity.” Athanasius and Timotheus revealed their rule, and Athanasius was thus vindicated.

The two men wanted to question the woman further to learn who had paid or persuaded her to accuse Athanasius. Before they could do so, however, another charge was raised against Athanasius. His enemies said that he had murdered a bishop named Arsenius, removed his hand, and used it to work magic spells. These opponents had earlier persuaded Arsenius to go into hiding. They even had a box with a mummified hand which they claimed to have taken from Athanasius. Arsenius remained hidden for a while as the rumor was spread about his magical hand, so many people had heard this rumor before the hearing in Tyre. But by this time Arsenius had gotten bored with hiding, had left his hiding place, and had been found and recognized by friends of Athanasius. They therefore spoke up during the council, asking if anyone was present who would recognize Arsenius. Several people said they could, and Arsenius was produced. To add to the suspense, Arsenius was wearing a robe with long sleeves that concealed his hands. Athanasius asked him to show his hands, and Arsenius slowly showed the group first one hand and then the other. Athanasius then asked if Arsenius had a third hand which Athanasius could have stolen from him; the answer, of course, was no.

Even after all this, the enemies of Athanasius further accused him of threatening to cut off the grain shipment from Egypt to Rome. At this charge, Constantine ruled that Athanasius had to be exiled from Alexandria and take up residence in Treves, a city now called Trier, in Germany. This Athanasius did. After Constantine had died (about two years after the sentence exiling Athanasius), his son Constantinus recalled Athanasius, revealing that his father had exiled him, not as punishment, but as protection from his enemies. Athanasius returned to Alexandria, to the great joy of most of the Christians there. But on three more occasions he was exiled by decree of the Emperor. The final occasion, the order was not merely exile, but execution; this order was given by Julian the Apostate. Athanasius found a boat and began traveling by river away from the city. The officer appointed to execute the bishop followed in another boat. Somehow one of the friends of Athanasius got to him and warned him that he was being chased. Athanasius turned his boat around and began to head back toward the city. He approached the boat of the officer, who called to him, asking, “How far off is Athanasius?” “Not far,” the bishop answered. The officer continued the pursuit, and Athanasius returned to the city, where he hid safely until Julian died in battle against the Persians.

Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria for forty-five years, including the seventeen years that he was exiled from the city. He died peacefully in bed in his own home, roughly seventy-five years old. His feast day is observed May 2. J.